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Tag Archives | US

Syriasly?

Despite the Syrian ambassador’s claims, India does not have a horse in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

The Syrian ambassador to India ruffled a few feathers when he commented during an interview with The Indian Express that Indian jihadis were involved in battling al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  Excerpts from the interview follow:

“Indian fighters are waging Islamic jihad, along with fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan and other countries,” the ambassador, who was handpicked by Assad for the India job two years ago, said.

Asked who these Indian fighters were, Abbas said, “They are Islamic people, not Hindus, because Hindus don’t wage Islamic jihad… Why are you surprised?

“There are people in India who support Muslim brotherhood’s ideology… They are very dangerous,” Abbas said.

According to Abbas, the fighters traveled to Turkey from India before entering Syria. “Some of them have been killed, some have been caught alive,” he said, adding, “One of them has been shown on Syrian TV, caught with an Indian passport.” [Indian Express]

The ambassador’s claims appear incredulous considering that there has simply been no historical precedent to suggest that Indian citizens sympathize with pan-Islamist causes to the extent that they would move to foreign countries to participate in conflict. The ambassdor’s statements appear even more incredulous considering that the ongoing civil war in Syria has significantly limited his ability to communicate regularly with the embattled al-Assad regime.  Given this, how exactly did the ambassador ascertain that some combatants involved in the conflict held Indian passports?

Dr. Abbas’ comments have surprised Indian officials who have said that Syria has failed to provide details of these Indian “jihadis” battling the regime in that country.  One “senior official” is reported to have told the Hindustan Times:

Abbas’ statement is most irresponsible and mischievous as we have checked our records and found no Indian national involved in jihad in Syria. We are cross-checking facts before we formally take up the matter with Syrian ambassador… [Hindustan Times]

Once the Syrian ambassador’s statements hit mainstream media, he attempted damage control by claiming that he had been approached by families of persons of “Indian origin” in repatriating citizens and that some of these persons held UK passports.  He then very conveniently chose to blame media propaganda for wrongly characterizing his statements.

Based on publicly-available information, we can deduce that two very separate efforts are underway to seek Indian support for either of the two belligerents in the ongoing  civil war (i.e., the Syrian regime or their rebel antagonists).  The British prime minister, David Cameron, in seeking support for military operations in Syria claimed in his address to the parliament that India was among those countries that pointed the “finger of blame” for the situation in Syria to al-Assad’s regime.  India, rightly, pointed out to the UK that it articulated no such position to the prime minister.

The anonymous “senior official” of the government of India made absolute sense in pointing out that India was investigating the Syrian ambassador’s claims and that it would formally take up the issue with him.  If India’s investigation finds that Dr. Abbas’ statements are without merit, it should publicly disavow his claims.

Let’s be clear: India’s interests in Syria are limited.  We have already abandoned the oil fields in that country that we once had a stake in.  Short of seeing an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria purely on humanitarian grounds, we have no horse in this race.  India should be prepared to work with whoever ultimately emerges as being in charge of affairs in Syria.  We will rebuild relationships if necessary, or forge new ones as warranted.  The U.S. appears to be inching towards some sort of military operation while many of its allies (primarily the UK) have voted against it.  It is not India’s place at this point in time to pick a side in the civil war.

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Big Brother India?

Why the Central Monitoring System (CMS) is not India’s PRISM.

Read almost any article on India’s soon to be implemented Central Monitoring System (CMS), and you’ll see references and attempts to draw parallels between the CMS and the (until recently) secret U.S. surveillance and data-collection program, PRISM.  Some articles have drawn comparisons between the two programs in an attempt to amplify threat perceptions, while other equations, curiously, seem to have been drawn with a sense of national pride.

Except the CMS is not India’s PRISM.  The only similarity between the two programs appears to be the objective — an apparent attempt to implement a program for the legal interception of data.  But that’s where all comparisons should end.  Both programs differ on general approach, operate under very different legal environments, and are dissimilar in terms of checks-and-balances and technical capabilities.

Interestingly, while the Indian government publicly announced its intention to establish a program for the legal interception of citizens’ data, it did not put into place any of the checks-and-balances needed (that we know of, anyway) for such an intrusive program.  Electronic data under the CMS, for example, can be legally intercepted by dozens of government agencies without the knowledge or cooperation of telecommunications and Internet service providers.  Indian citizens know little else about the program, apart from the fact that it apparently exists.

On the other hand, although the establishment of PRISM was a much more clandestine affair, the U.S. put into place mechanisms to regulate surveillance and circumscribed Executive authority.  Surveillance without the acquiescence of service providers was made difficult.  Only the U.S. Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence could authorize surveillance through a formal order obtained through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court; service providers were provided the ability to challenge the order to grant access to surveillance in a FISA court.

The legal environment matters too.  Strong privacy and data retention regulation in the U.S. have allowed groups to sue U.S. government agencies involved in PRISM on the grounds that it violated the rights of citizens to “reasonable expectations of privacy.”  Similar laws do not exist in India and it is unclear as to what recourse an Indian citizen would have vs. the Government of India should his or her privacy be unreasonably breached (or personal data disclosed) through electronic surveillance.

But perhaps most importantly, the differences are stark with regard to technical capabilities.  For all intents and purposes, the Internet as we know it today is a culmination of research conducted by the U.S.’s armed forces and educational institutions.  Mechanisms to secure data, in storage and in transit, were also developed by institutions in the U.S.  The AES encryption algorithm (in its various avatars) for instance, is now widely used to encrypt data worldwide.

The AES itself owes its mass acceptance to a detailed assessment and approval by a body of the U.S. government.  Which one? Oh, a tiny little agency known as the NSA.  Indeed, the same NSA in charge of PRISM.  How many countries and agencies would you suppose understand the intricacies and vulnerabilities of the AES algorithm better than the NSA?

India, on the other hand, benefits from no such advantages.  Its public and private institutions are not net-contributors to mass acceptance Internet and telecommunications technologies.  Most services consumed by Internet users in India (e.g., Google, Gmail, Facebook) are not physically based in India and employ encryption technologies that the Indian government cannot breach (at least, not without the active assistance of foreign governments).   Thus, even with the CMS, the Indian government will be at the mercy of foreign service providers to gain access to data published on popular and secure Internet platforms.

The Indian government could, of course, intercept land-based and mobile communication.  Indeed, the recent announcement by Research in Motion (the makers of BlackBerry mobile devices) means that the Indian government will have the ability to intercept voice and data communicated through all non-Corporate BlackBerry devices in India.  These capabilities, will no doubt, be rolled into the CMS.  But the use of open-source mobile operating systems coupled with encryption technology could still frustrate attempts to intercept mobile communication.

Effectively, this means that the Indian government is attempting to build a program whose extensive Executive mandate does not match its limited and imbalanced technical capabilities.  Such a system will, I fear, be inept or worse, vulnerable to misuse.

Ultimately, the Indian government must engage its citizens in a dialog on the need for a system for legal surveillance, and build trust among its citizens.  Ordinary, law-abiding citizens are not the only mass consumers of Internet and telecommunications technologies; terrorists and enemies of the state are too.  You could make a fairly solid argument, particularly given the challenges India continues to face with regard to national security, in favor of a system for legal surveillance.  Unfortunately, the Indian government has chosen silence instead of dialog.  This is no way to assuage the anxieties of citizens in a liberal democracy such as ours.

Read the Takshashila Institution‘s discussion document on the Central Monitoring System where we argue that:

[S]uch an inherently pervasive and intrusive program cannot be deployed in a liberal democracy without an adequate level of trust between the government and its citizens and an appropriate framework of checks-and-balances to ensure that entrusted agencies do not overstep their jurisdiction.

Thus, it is imperative that the Indian government take its citizens into confidence on the necessity for such a program, evolve an appropriate framework of laws, including those pertaining to privacy and data retention, and establish a system of checks-and-balances to ensure against systemic overreach prior to the implementation of the CMS. [Takshashila Institution]

 

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On Pakistan’s Osama bin Laden report

Nolnah’s Razor: Ascribing incompetence to that which can be adequately explained by malice.

The report of the Abbottabad Commission, which was set up to investigate the May 2011 raid by U.S. special forces that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and his couriers, was “obtained” and published online by al-Jazeera today.  News reports tell us that the 337-page report makes “scathing reading.”

It attributes “culpable negligence and incompetence at almost all levels of government” in Pakistan’s apparent inability to identify that bin Laden was living in a villa located less than a mile away from the Kakul military academy for at least five years and its inability to detect the special forces contingent that traveled from Jalalabad, Afghanistan to Abbottabad to execute the mission to kill or capture bin Laden.

There are a few ways to look at the content and timing of the “leaked” report.  First, the report may be scathing in its criticism of government incompetence, but it barely entertains the possibility that official connivance played a role in bin Laden’s ability to evade U.S. pursuit for ten years.  Official denials don’t really mean much under the circumstances.  For years, Pakistani leaders claimed that bin Laden wasn’t in their country.  Gen. Musharraf claimed bin Laden was dead in 2002.

Pakistan has also, for years, denied that Mullah Omar was living in Pakistan.  Yet, multiple reports suggest that he is living in Quetta and under the protection of the ISI.  The truth will most likely be revealed once the U.S. and its allies leave Afghanistan in 2014, following which Mullah Omar will emerge triumphantly from parts unknown.

Of course, most people in India are accustomed to hearing how persons of interest to them — Dawood Ibrahim, for example — are most certainly not living in Pakistan.  For those of us on this side of the barbed-wire fence, the incompetence defense stretches credulity.

There are other interesting parts to the report.  On page 337, it concludes (emphasis added):

But finally, no honest assessment of the situation can escape the conclusion that those individuals who wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making bear the primary responsibility for creating the national circumstances and environment in which the May 2, 2011 incident occurred.  It is unnecessary to specifically name them because it is obvious who they are.  It may be politically unrealistic to suggest “punishments” from them.  But as honourable men, they ought to do honourable thing, including submitting a formal apology to the nation for their dereliction of duty.  It will be for the people of Pakistan in the forthcoming elections to pass collective political judgement on them. [al-Jazeera]

The last sentence of the concluding paragraph of the report is curious.  It apportions blame to those who “wielded primary authority and influence in national decision making,” but concludes by saying that it was for the people of Pakistan to pass a collective judgement on them in the elections.  Great, but Pakistanis don’t get to vote for their COAS or DG-ISI.  But they do cast votes on their civilian leadership.  From where this blogger is standing, the blame being apportioned here almost certainly targets Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP, rather than the Pakistani military establishment.

The other items for consideration pertaining to the release of the report are the timing and source of the alleged leak.  The leak occurs at a time when the U.S. is trying to negotiate an honorable exit from Afghanistan with the Pakistan-backed Taliban in Qatar. That the report was leaked by al-Jazeera, a news agency fully owned by the al-Thani family, which, as it happens, also rules Qatar may not be a coincidence.

This “leak” could effectively mean two things.  If the U.S. is sufficiently encouraged by the momentum and direction of the talks, it may be well-disposed towards bailing out the Pakistani military establishment from the embarrassment it has had to endure since 2011.  The discrete leak of a document via a news agency owned by a U.S. ally, which blames incompetence rather than connivance (the lesser of  two evils) while also criticizing a now mostly-irrelevant and ousted political party works well under such circumstances.

If, on the other hand, things aren’t going so well in Doha, the release of a classified report may have been viewed as necessary by some to coax Pakistan into action.  It will, of course, embarrass and anger the Pakistani military establishment.  More importantly, it will also most certainly complicate relations between Pakistan and Qatar.

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No withdrawal syndrome

India still has the ability to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected after 2014.

The U.S., with eyes set on a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, is attempting to engage the Taliban in peace talks in Doha, Qatar.  The talks are being brokered by the military establishment in Pakistan, much to the chagrin of Hamid Karzai.  Indeed, two of the most recent attempts to engage with the Taliban were scuttled because Mr. Karzai took offense to the Taliban claiming it represented the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”  Mr. Karzai apparently read the riot act to folks in DC, which was enough to call off talks between the U.S. and the Taliban, albeit temporarily.

If a preview was needed on what a post-NATO environment might look like in Afghanistan, the world got one on Monday.  The Taliban launched a suicide attack near the presidential palace and the offices of the CIA in Kabul.  But the U.S., for its part, now says it is unsure as to whether it even considers the Taliban to be a terrorist organization.

The irony should not be lost on us that it was the U.S. that was in no mood for negotiation (“Bring ’em on,” he said) when it launched a massive assault on Afghanistan in 2001; twelve years on, it is the Taliban that appears disinterested in working out compromises while the U.S. is engaged in nimble pussyfooting.

With the U.S. and NATO forces leaving in 2014, Hamid Karzai’s regime will be losing its security guarantor.  The Afghan National Army (ANA) is ill-trained and faces attrition and ethnic disunity.  It will be incapable of completely taking over security operations from NATO after 2014.  Therefore, deal or no deal with the U.S., when Mullah Omar and his faithful followers return to Afghanistan, the country will be plunged into yet another bloody and protracted civil war that will most likely leave the Taliban in a position of advantage.  Pakistan’s perfidy is bearing fruit.

For India, instability in Afghanistan will affect not only its infrastructure and exploration projects in that country, but could also have an impact on India’s domestic security.  Few in India have forgotten the Pakistan-engineered hijacking of IC-814 in 1999 to Kandahar that compelled India to release Maulana Masood Azhar (who later founded the Jaish-e-Mohammed) and Omar Sheikh (now sentenced to death for his role in the killing of Daniel Pearl) in exchange for Indian hostages.

Pakistan has continued to exploit the instability in Afghanistan to engineer attacks against Indian interests in Kabul; the 2008 and 2009 Indian embassy bombings come to mind.  It is very possible, therefore, that there will be a qualitative and quantitative escalation in attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan once the U.S. and its allies leave.

It is to the backdrop of these developments that the newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry began a tour of India and the Middle East.  In India apparently, he was given a frosty reception. Mr. Kerry is said to have addressed a largely empty India Habitat Center on Sunday.  We are told many in New Delhi are upset at the U.S. “abandoning Afghanistan” and negotiating compromises with the Taliban.  New Delhi is “livid” at John Kerry the “opportunist,” one report said.

But surely, the U.S.’s attempts to extricate itself from a messy situation in Afghanistan are the rational actions of a country that deems its exit from the region to be in line with its national interests.  How does one justify India’s apparent anger at the U.S.?  For over a decade, the U.S. has been the dominant guarantor of security in Afghanistan.  Chinese and Indian investment projects in Afghanistan have benefited greatly by the security provided by NATO.  Yet, neither India nor China has contributed significantly to providing security in Afghanistan.

Calls have been made in the past for India to deploy its troops and assist in the effort to secure Afghanistan.  In a 2010 article in Pragati, I made the case for India to provide training and equipment to the ANA in a more meaningful manner.  But apart from training a few army and police officers and supplying helicopters to the ANA, we have largely avoided accepting security-related responsibilities in Afghanistan for fear of exacerbating Pakistan’s pathological insecurities.

Indeed, even Mr. Karzai’s apparent last-ditch attempt to request Indian assistance in securing Afghanistan was dealt with great hesitance in New Delhi.  The free ride is now at an end; the U.S. and its allies are pursuing courses of action that they believe are in line with their national interests; India must do likewise too.

The generals in Rawalpindi are free to believe that they have played the great game with a superpower and that victory now is at hand.  But to draw parallels between the emerging regional environment and that of the 1990s, when Pakistan exerted unchallenged influence over Afghanistan, would be to misread the situation.  First, the U.S.’s exit from Afghanistan will not necessarily translate into Pakistan getting a free hand to do as it pleases in Afghanistan.  The U.S. will still continue to maintain a small, but effective military presence in the region, including a contingent of armed drones.

Second, Pakistan as the source of a potential terror threat to the U.S. homeland will not diminish post 2014.  The U.S. will undoubtedly be aware of this, and as such, is unlikely to wind down capabilities needed to neutralize threats based in Pakistan.  Indeed, recent hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Homeland Security (coupled with similar hearings in the Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2010) on Lashkar-e-Taiba — a Pakistan-supported terrorist group traditionally thought of as being India-focused, but posing no potential threat to the U.S. — points to a recalculation of assumptions on the LeT  in the U.S.

Third, Pakistan’s generals have filled their coffers with money provided as economic aid by the U.S. for over ten years.  But this source of funds will dry up with the U.S.’s departure.  In fact, it is likely that the U.S.’s first-hand experience with Pakistan’s duplicity on terror and nuclear proliferation will invite fresh U.S. sanctions similar to the Pressler Amendment.  Fresh sanctions directed at a country already on economic life-support can be an effective tool in curtailing bad behavior.

And fourth, Pakistan’s towns and cities are facing the consequences of the army’s poor choice of using militants as instruments of foreign policy.  Many have turned their guns on the state and its citizens, while insurgencies rage on in FATA, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.  This doesn’t mean, however, that Pakistan won’t continue to arm terrorist groups focused on India and Afghanistan; but the consequences of a spillover of the conflict from Afghanistan into Pakistan on an overstretched army will not be lost on Rawalpindi either.

Thus, even at this juncture and for all its inaction, India can still ensure that its interests — both in Afghanistan and in India — remain protected.  Old alliances can be renewed and new ones established; covert capabilities and information sharing with the Afghan intelligence apparatus and regional powers can be enhanced.  Closer cooperation with the U.S. amidst a convergence of perceptions on Pakistan could give India new levers with which to manage its relations with its difficult neighbor to the west.  Contrary to popular perception, this game is far from over.

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