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Pakistan’s Mojo

Counting your chickens before they hatch

Pakistan is awash with renewed optimism in being able to favorably influence political and structural rearrangements in Afghanistan.  Along with “brother countries” Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan was able to both craft a proposition at the Istanbul Summit that called for negotiations and eventual reintegration of the Taliban into Afghanistan’s political foray, and also successfully lobbied to keep India out of the summit itself.  The icing on the cake for Islamabad was the broad endorsement of Pakistan’s plan at the London Conference, the following week.

Pakistan’s self-belief in its own indispensability and leverage over a resolution to the Afghanistan quagmire is mirrored in both official pronouncements from leaders of its armed forces and in its press corps.  At the NATO Commanders’ Conference, COAS Kayani enunciated his country’s need for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, while raising concerns about India’s influence in Afghanistan.  Indeed, a Jang editorial one day before the London Conference called for all preparations to be made for dialog with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s army has also candidly put forth its position to the Obama Administration that India’s role in Afghanistan cannot go beyond development and infrastructural work.  Pakistan has also volunteered to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) to counter what many believe is a role best suited for the Indian Army.  In short, Pakistan apparently successfully executed a prima facie diplomatic coup-de-etat, while India played the proverbial “deer caught in the headlights” on the world stage.

Without a doubt, India’s position on the Taliban has always been untenable.  A blanket rejection of an ambiguous collection of disparate groups seemed convenient and excused our leadership from having to go through the exercise of evaluating the various equations at play in Afghanistan.  Over the course of the years, this stance by India has seen it wholeheartedly back the Karzai regime while not wanting to have anything to do with any Pashtun elements that it suspected of being engaged (at whatever level) with the ISI.  Rightly, India’s over-simplistic, “with us or against us” approach was rejected by the international community at large.

But Pakistan’s own influence in matters relating to Afghanistan has been overstated.  Indeed, going by recent pronouncements, Pakistan is counting its chickens before they are hatched and the mirage of indispensability will unravel sooner than later.  Not being able to dictate the modularities of counter-insurgency operations within its own sovereign territory, it is unlikely that it can wield the magnitude of power it believes it enjoys in relation to India in Afghanistan.

So what must India do? The London Conference has already invalidated India’s over-simplistic approach to the Taliban, so the first course of action is apparent.  India must begin to engage with those Pashtun elements who seek reintegration into the existing political foray in Afghanistan.  In actuality, there isn’t a significant divergence of opinion between the United States and India on the issue.

India’s real apprehensions are centered around the possible reintegration of  Mullah Omar’s group — the so-called Quetta Shurah.  This is entirely consistent with the US’s own position.  India’s apprehensions on al-Qaeda elements and Haqqani network are also shared by the US.  This essentially leaves a rag-tag group of warlords who are all too small anyway to individually impact power dynamics in Afghanistan. India can begin by opening up communication channels with these groups.

India must also work with other important regional powers who share similar apprehensions versus the core Taliban group.  Indeed, the alliance of yore between Iran and India, who share common concerns of the spread of wahabbism in the region, and Russia must be resurrected.  Russia has articulated its clearest position to date on its willingness to “help rebuild” Afghanistan and Iran has shared India’s concerns about the spread of radical Sunni Islam in the wider region.

Over the last nine years, India has very naively bought into the argument that the dramatically altered equation post US’s invasion of Afghanistan was permanent, and that its reliance on “soft power” alone could very safely ensure maximized gains in Afghanistan without having to actually assume an overt presence in Afghanistan.

The situation in Afghanistan today, with Western forces working towards a withdrawal deadline, and Pakistan growing increasingly assertive, demands that India adopt a more proactive role, working in concert with the US and regional powers to ensure that the power equations that eventually shape up are largely in India’s favor. The question is, what is Manmohan Sigh’s government planning to do about it?

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Manmohan's US trip

India must aggressively pursue to protect interests and stake in Afghanistan’s future

Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US coincides with Thanksgiving week and the first anniversary of 26/11.  During the Prime Minister’s visit, the debilitating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be on the agenda.  It is on this issue that some incredibly silly, wantonly naive advice is being shoved the US President’s way.

Two broad themes on India’s place in the regional security discourse seem to periodically appear, which can be summarized thus.  Firstly,  Pakistan feels threatened by the presence of a larger adversary at its eastern border. The main thorn in Indo-Pak relations is Kashmir. Therefore, solve Kashmir and receive a grateful Pakistan’s full commitment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Second, Pakistan feels “strategically encircled” by India’s presence in Afghanistan.  An increase in Indian involvement would inflame Pakistan’s apprehensions vis-a-vis India. Therefore, in the interest of Pakistan’s sensitivities, an expansion of Indian involvement in Afghanistan must not be encouraged (or must at least be brushed aside).

Both these themes do an excellent job in confusing symptom (the “Kashmir” issue, and “strategic depth”) with root cause (Pakistan’s pathological neuralgia with India).  It is another issue of course that those advocating the “resolve Kashmir” approach haven’t ever come close to articulating how this feat is to be accomplished by Washington.

It is no secret that there is disconnect between the UPA and the Obama administration on the way forward in Afghanistan.  There are two aspects to this disconnect — one, th UPA administration has been blind to US’s plans in the region (and consequences to India’s interests), and two, the Obama Administration has been unable to present a coherent, consistent vision for Afghanistan, mired as it is with internal squabbling.

But Obama, who ran on a canvas promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is under pressure to act, if only to placate his fellow Democrats and voters.  The Obama administration sees greater regional involvement as a solution that would allow for a phased US withdrawal.   Hence Richard Holbrooke’s  recent diplomatic sojourns to China and Russia.

The role that India will play in this “regional approach” will perhaps become more apparent after the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. Rightly, as the preeminent power in the region, India’s involvement is not only “beneficial”, but imperative.

But the status of “regional power” is not achieved through birth-right.  It must be  earned, and if India believes itself to be the preeminent regional power, it must start acting like one. Unquestionably, this involves taking tough decisions not only on what India would “prefer to do” in Afghanistan, but what it must do to safeguard its interests.

Thus far, India has stayed away from overt involvement in shaping the politics in Afghanistan, choosing instead engage in the (noble) pursuits of building schools and roads and training the Afghan police force.  “Soft power”, Shashi Tharoor calls it.  But soft power is credible only as long as someone else is willing and able to do the dirty yard work.

What if that “someone else” leaves? Who will step in?

A power vacuum in Afghanistan with a weak, de-legitimized government in Kabul constantly being undermined by a reinforced and invigorated Taliban and affiliated networks presents a scenario for India where its overall influence in the country will diminish, relative to that of China and Pakistan.

Economic investments in Afghanistan (totaling over $1 billion), development of ties with the country’s civilian polity and strategic importance of Afghanistan to an energy-starved nation, make such a scenario unacceptable to India.

There is simply too much at stake for India not to be meaningfully involved in a regional approach to the Afghanistan problem.  Indeed, India’s contribution to such a regional solution must span across all realms, including security/law enforcement, political reconciliation and delivery of social services.  In this regard, offering a larger Indian contingent to train Afghanistan’s security forces, can be a small, but important first step.

US administrations will always have India doubters, just as they will their  share of Indophiles.  India’s goal within the construct of the “regional approach”  must be to aggressively defend its interests in the country, while playing a meaningful role in addressing the current crisis and defining the future of Afghanistan.

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Battleground Cyberspace: My article in Pragati

In this month’s Pragati, I lay out the state of India’s defense preparedness in the theater of cyberspace and argue for a sustained commitment to the proactive defense of the nation’s information assets, as well for the augmentation of India’s capabilities in conducting offensive IO operations.  Both of these can only be effective when operating under a legislative framework that is attuned to global trends in the proliferation and use of information technology in the conduct of both conventional and unconventional warfare in this Information Age.

DECEMBER 24, 2008.  Barely a month after the 26/11 attacks, a group calling itself “Whackerz Pakistan” hacks into the Indian Eastern Railways website, defacing it with a series of threats against Indian financial institutions and Indian citizens.  Earlier that year, hackers from China attacked the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) website. Despite official denials, at least one website reported that the hackers stole login identities and passwords of several Indian diplomats.

The proliferation of information technology in India, coupled with low levels of security awareness (at personal, corporate and government levels) means that this vulnerability to attacks from hostile national and sub-national entities will only increase.  The rapid adaptation of new technologies in today’s world presents challenges that India, and other nations, will be forced to address.  Due to the nature of cyber warfare and cyber terrorism, no nation can truly be invulnerable to attacks.  Indeed, cyber attacks will continue to be weapons of choice to many, given issues of jurisdiction in bringing offenders to book, relative anonymity of operating over the Internet, and the negligible cost associated with mounting a cyber attack (and indeed, each incremental cyber attack) against a specific adversary.

Read more about it on Pragati ( PDF; 2.5 MB)

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India and Kazakhstan: Impetus Needed in Relationship

Nursultan Nazarbayev greets Vajpayee in Almaty (2002)

Nursultan Nazarbayev greets Vajpayee in Almaty (2002)

On January 26, New Delhi will host Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the Republic Day celebrations. India and Kazakhstan first established diplomatic relations following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nazarbayev made his first official visit to India in 1992, and in 2002, following his second visit to New Delhi, then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee attended the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Almaty. At that time, Nazarbayev’s efforts in defusing India-Pakistan tension (emanating from the 2001 Parliament attack) were roundly praised. After the defeat of the NDA in the 2004 general elections, contacts between India and Kazakhstan, at the head of state level, have tapered off, until now.

India’s strategy towards Central Asian countries has been no different than its strategy towards African nations, and can be only summarized as “playing catch-up with the Chinese”. In this new “Great Game” of the century, India is consistently assuming the role of “Johnny-come-lately” to China in Central Asia. Indeed, China already has a fairly robust multi-dimensional relationship with Kazakhstan, as it does with other CIS states, on account of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) membership. Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia and shares borders with Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. President Nazarbayev is a Soviet-era leader who maintains fairly rigid control of the state, despite it being a democracy, by letter of law. Weary of China and Russia’s undue influence in the SCO, Kazakhstan has pitched for a full Indian membership in the council. India’s trade with this bludgeoning economy stands at a paltry $128 million (2007), contrasted against China’s $6 billion (2005) economic engagement with this Central Asian republic. This idle wasting of time is a shame, considering Kazakhstan’s phenomenal economic growth since the 2000s, which includes a staggering average GDP (absolute) growth of 9.5% from 2004-2007.

Kazakhstan’s strategic location along the Caspian Sea is hard to overemphasize. The Caspian Sea has the world’s third largest oil reserves, by some estimates, containing 200 billion barrels of oil, and 236 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves. Cognizant of the desperate energy situation in India, Oil and Natural Gas Limited (ONGC) is seeking a 40% share in Kazakhstan’s Satpayev oil exploration sector (with Russia’s blessing) in the Caspian, after getting outbid by China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for the acquisition of the oil company PetroKazakhstan.

However, Nazarbayev’s chief mission in New Delhi will be to ink a deal to export uranium, in the wake of the end of “nuclear apartheid” against India. India’s own uranium reserves stand at about 115,000 tons, most of which is low grade. Kazakhstan is currently the second largest producer of uranium, producing about 12,000 tons (2008); the country is likely to overtake Australia as the single largest producer of uranium by 2011. For India, inking the nuclear deal is a consummation devoutly to be wished. While nuclear energy constitutes only 3% of our total energy production, this figure will likely increase to 25% by 2050, as India seeks to reduce its reliance on “dirty” coal. India has already inked similar deals with Canada and France.

India should also continue to boost cooperation with Kazakhstan on the regional security front. The Kazakhs have expressed a desire to establish a naval fleet to guard its interests in the Caspian. They have looked to India for assistance and we have been happy to oblige, much to the chagrin of Russia. As I will point out in a later article, India’s engagement with Central Asia is going to ruffle feathers in Moscow and put us at odds with Russia; as a country with growing economic and political clout, India must at once expect this to happen, and at the same time not be hindered in our quest to establish new alliances despite the grievances/protests of our old allies.

Yet another important dimension of engagement on security should be partnering on intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism issues. Uyghur warriors, many of whom come from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have been fighting Chinese rule in Xianjing province. Although present on a smaller scale, there is a growing component of Uyghur and Uzbek fighters in Osama bin Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) terror umbrella; that many of these fighters have seen action against Pakistani forces in South Waziristan should be a matter of interest to India.

India’s growing population and economy need sustainable sources of energy — the problem of inadequate power supply is already acute, and will likely get worse if remedial measures aren’t taken and alternative sources aren’t identified posthaste. In doing so however, both India and Kazakhstan need to not neglect other equally important areas of mutual interest. In this regard, our very one-sided, military dominated relationship with Russia should serve a reminder on how not to go about forging new partnerships.

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