Monday, July 26, 2010

Return of Richard Holbrooke

Return of Richard Holbrooke
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 24.07.2010

The Donors conference this week attended by 60 Foreign Ministers and other leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was, among other things, a demonstration by NATO and US led forces that they have the military muscle to host such a meet in Kabul.

And yet this statement of adequate military control was punctured by rocket attacks on Kabul airport causing Ban Ki Moon and Carl Bildt the Swedish Foreign Minister to divert their aircraft in the direction of Bagram air base for safe landing.

Mazar-e-Sharif, the most peaceful city in Afghanistan, became the scene of gruesome killing of allied officers. This month alone 67 US soldiers have been killed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron had in Washington indicated that his country’s troops may start leaving next year. This cannot be honeyed music to the new Force Commander David Petraeus who, more realistically, would like to retard force withdrawals until some unspecified date.

That President Hamid Karzai promises to be in readiness, with cent per cent Afghan Forces and Police, by 2014 must be taken with dollops of salt. The dignitaries in attendance had written him off as “not even a Mayor of Kabul” until last year.

By what magic has the international community been persuaded to regard him as the ultimate saviour, deliverer or whatever else, remains shrouded in mystery.

At some stage New Delhi too began to shower him with admiration, pleading with the “international community” to stop calling him names. I guess that was when New Delhi saw him as someone potentially at cross purposes with Islamabad, as he was during the Musharraf phase in Islamabad. Now that Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, having earned a three year extension, and his ISI chief Gen. Shuja Pasha, by brilliant public relations, established some sort of a rapport with Karzai, New Delhi should be sunk in deep thought.

Some of these deep thoughts must have been shared with Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy to Af-Pak, who made one of his rare public appearances in New Delhi.

He was, in a manner of speaking, barred from visiting New Delhi because the Indian establishment, in shrill unison, raised hands and all, blocked any institutionalized interest by him in Kashmir. Remember, “Kashmir” was sought to be added to his Af-Pak mandate.

In fact Holbrooke had come to the region with visions of directing not just US’s political but even military interests. All of that was, of course, circumscribed by Secretary of Defence Robert Gates’ assertiveness.

And now that Holbrooke has resumed his travels to New Delhi, there must be an understanding that he will keep his finger on his lips on the “K” word. But for how long?

Clearly the return of Holbrooke is for several reasons. American officials are full of glowing accounts of the “Happy June” when a series of Indian delegations to Washington laid the foundations for a successful Obama visit later this year.

Preparation for a Presidential visit requires direct participation of the White House and the State Department. Hence the need for Holbrooke.

Also, the US President cannot be seen to be partisan between India, a rising economic and military power with a formidable naval reach, and Pakistan, an ally in the crucial Af-Pak region.

So, already some balm has been applied on Indian wounds by Holbrooke equating Lashkar-e-Taiba with Al Qaeda.

Just as the memory fades of the Krishna – Qureshi mishap in Islamabad, the Indo-Pak thread will once again be picked up. New Delhi, however, cannot proceed very far on this track (just watch the sparks during Parliament’s monsoon session) unless Indian public opinion is assured that the January 6, 2004 Islamabad agreement that the “territory of Pakistan” will not be used for terrorism against India is picked up by the Pak establishment as a serious agreement.

Official helplessness in Islamabad at their inability to control “non state” militant actors appears not to be sustainable after the Headley revelations. Or is there something here which is not in the public domain?

The political minefields on the New Delhi – Islamabad – Kabul – Teheran tracks have to be diligently cleared for a successful visit by the US President. Holbrooke cannot be oblivious to this task.

Once New Delhi’s legitimate misgivings on terrorism are removed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will give Indo-Pak talks the sort of acceleration that will enable Islamabad to concentrate on the Pakhtoon areas on both sides.

New Delhi has had traditional relations with Pakhtoons and strategic ones with the non Pakhtoon grouping which goes under the blanket term – Northern Alliance. In the latter, Iranians and Russian’s once played a crucial role. That thread is to be picked up surreptitiously.

The hurried, six hour, notional Kabul conference was a desperate way for 60 plus participants to reassure the world that their collective efforts on Afghanistan might bear fruit.

But the esteemed participants would have to be victims of a grand delusion that they have not left Afghanistan messier than ever.

Does New Delhi really wish to sully itself in the Afghan slush in a hurry, where, mark my word, no Endgame is in sight. It is even more remote after the Kabul theatre. David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy, Medvedev are all New Delhi bound before year end. There is plenty of time to deliberate.

Meanwhile, the Indo-Pak track promises much more provided the US, in preparation for the Obama visit, becomes serious on the elimination of Lashkar-e-Taiba and its affiliates. This too will have to be taken up with other visitors.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Sex Appeal Declines in Indo-Pak Talks

Sex Appeal Declines in Indo-Pak Talks
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 17.07.2010

The day after External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, left for Islamabad front-page headlines in mainstream English language dailies had set their preferred theme:

“Krishna to nail Pak using Headley: In Islamabad Foreign Minister says he will harp on Headley revelation of ISI links to 26/11”. This was the three columns, three-inch deep headline in the Hindustan Times.

The Hindu: “Krishna cites Headley proof”.

Indian Express: “Krishna’s Pakistan talks get a Headley preface”.

Times of India’s page one single column headline omits Headley’s name: “Krishna kicks off peace meet with hard talk”.

Mail Today, the only newspaper to have the visit covered by its Pakistani stringer, places the story on page five with a gentle headline: “Krishna on a voyage of peace in Pakistan”. One assumes the Mail, relying on its stringer, missed out on all the deep insights furnished by the Indian side which find reflection in the headlines, establishing the mood in which the talks must incubate. So, expect plenty of mutual invective in this quest for peace.

The Mail also provides the insight that Home Minister P. Chidambaram, like Banquo’s ghost, lurked in the background, reminding the interlocutors that terror as a theme must supercede all Indo-Pak banter.

Pakistan has so much terror on its hands, both import and export quality, that it can talk on this theme eternally.

Krishna turns out to be India’s first foreign minister in Pakistan at a phase in sub-continental affairs when Indo-Pak relations are not Pakistan’s first priority.

Pakistan is neck deep in Af-Pak, overstretched in the two Waziristans, Quetta, Afghanistan, an inconsistent United States, unsure of its Taleban “assets”, living with danger of the Army’s possible Islamization, internal political instability. Against this backdrop Indo-Pak talks are not the hottest news at the moment.

Little wonder, Pakistan’s principal English language Newspapers do not lead the front pages with Krishna. Dawn has a single column headline: “Peace talks with a hawkish tinge”.

The News mentions Krishna below the fold: “Krishna brings message of peace”. Pakistan’s hawkish Daily Jung, quotes Krishna, “India to resolve all issues with Pakistan”.

When Krishna’s Pak visit will be analyzed by Indian Pundits, Pakistan itself will be riveted on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit on Monday to underpin the strategic dialogue with Pakistan.

Since Clinton will then proceed to Kabul for an International Peace Conference, Pakistani columnists will go to town on “US takes the Pak route to Afghan peace!”

The Indo-Pak track in other words, will proceed but haltingly. In this step by step deliberation lies some hope for New Delhi being able to firm up the January 6, 2004 agreement signed in Islamabad that the “territory of Pakistan” will not be used for terrorism against India.

An unstated, psychological obstruction in Indo-Pak normalcy happens to be, in absentia, the persona of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. It so happens that the most promising phase in Indo-Pak, and New Delhi-Srinagar tracks respectively was during Gen. Musharraf’s watch in Pakistan – 2002 to 2006.

The civilian leadership is averse to giving credit to Musharraf on any count. Since Manmohan Singh’s target is to arrive at the sort of understanding that was reached with Musharraf on, for instance, the LOC becoming “irrelevant”, the edifice has to be reconstructed, brick by brick, with such of the civilian leadership as exists in Islamabad.

Mind you, even on this brick by brick approach there are curbs since Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has reverted to the pre Musharraf incantation of the Pak army being primarily focused on India.

While New Delhi refocuses its foreign policy options, the track that can be given some acceleration is the one that stretches from New Delhi to Srinagar.

Season of great hope had opened up in Srinagar with a “real” election in October, 2002. The National Conference was defeated and the PDP came to power in coalition with the Congress.

Atal Behari Vajpayee’s talks with the Hurriet, his epoch making visit to Islamabad on Jan 6, 2004, Kashmir Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Vinayak Patankar’s humane approach to Kashmiris, had all created an ambience of peace.

The emergence of the UPA in May, 2004 retarded the process, not because Prime Minister Manmohan Singh applied breaks on it but because all transitions impede continuity. But Manmohan Singh steadied himself and opened Kashmiri bus routes, trans border trade, inching towards the rendering of “borders irrelevant” policy.

Meanwhile, misfortune followed Musharraf in battalions until his ouster.

Arrival of Omar Abdullah in Kashmir promised a “new dawn” which, alas, did not materialize. After dithering, New Delhi has placed Kashmir very unobtrusively under P. Chidambaram. Unfortunately, the cat leapt out of the bag inadvertently. When the Omar cabinet was “going thorough the motions” of discussing lifting of the curfew on Shab-e-meraj, Home Secretary G.K. Pillai announced in New Delhi the decision on national TV! “Bring in Governor’s rule, if you like, but please don’t insult us like this” wailed members of the Kashmir cabinet.

Also, Commissioners of all state Ministries have been “ordered” (by the Centre) to submit progress reports of respective departments by the 9th of each month.

In other words, the state administration is now on a leash without dethroning the young Chief Minister. Slowly, devolution dialogues will follow. In time, progress on the New Delhi – Srinagar track will progress in step with the calibrated peace process with Islamabad. But what kind of Islamabad? The one paralyzed by terrorism and which is having to play its cricket home series against Australia in London at Lords, even as Krishna and Pakistan Foreign Minister Qureshi, well, talk.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Afghanistan: New Delhi Reckless at Slow Speed

Afghanistan: New Delhi Reckless at Slow Speed
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 10.07.2010

Iran, Pakistan, Israel among others, know more or less, their respective preferred outcomes in Afghanistan. I am not so sure about the US; or New Delhi

Israeli vision, though obstructed at Teheran, does take account of Afghanistan where a few contradictions attend it. For example Jerusalem would not mind a resurgent Taleban pestering Shia Iran, its principal target these days, but Talebanism (extremism) in West Asia is its much advertised anxiety.

So, Sunni Islamic militancy plagueing Shia Iran is okay (in whispers, only) but it is intolerable in Israeli’s Arab neighbourhood. Where does Israel place Saudi Arabia in this framework? “Their Bedouin DNA enables them to survive walking on Wahabi egg shells”. Very clever.

Islamabad and Jerusalem are scaring Washington on two distinct counts. Islamabad advises Washington that American reversal in Afghanistan would be catastrophic for US prestige and influence in the region and globally. However, should the US depend on Islamabad’s deep knowledge of the Mujahedeen, Al Qaeda, Taleban and arrive at a settlement with the Taleban Islamabad knows, Afghanistan will be sufficiently tranquillized to enable President Obama to contemplate a second term with a cool head.

Israel would like Washington to be more alert about the other “Ogre”, a nuclearized Iran. Should Iran go nuclear despite sanctions, American admonitions, egged on by Israel and Europe, in that order, the US, already in decline, will have its nose rubbed in the dust before a risen China, resurgent Russia and an Arab World which will charge down to their respective basements and start assembling bombs. The Saudis, (say the Israelis) may go nuclear with Pak help.

Meanwhile, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and his Inter Services Intelligence Chief, Gen. Shuja Pasha, have been shuttling between Islamabad and Kabul. Traffic from Kabul is equally frequent. Likewise between Teheran and Kabul.

Time was when Peter Galbraith, supported by President Obama’s special Af-Pak envoy, Richard Holbrook had asked for President Hamid Karzai’s head on a platter alleging election fraud and worse.

Obviously, Galbraith was not aware of intense turf battles in Washington in which the State Department’s line did not prevail. Galbraith was shown the door. Holbrooke ducked into a low profile.

Sufficient attention has not been paid to the fact that the only person from George W. Bush’s team retained by Barak Obama is Defence Secretary Robert Gates. It is he who represents the “American Establishment’s” interests in Af-Pak, Iran and elsewhere.

He is particularly suited to comprehend the region because he was deputy to CIA Chief Willian Casey during the Reagan years when the Mujahideen were being trained and equipped with Stinger Missiles in Afghanistan. Also, he was around during the Iran – Contra affair – transferring Israeli arms to Iran to fight Iraq. The money thus generated was transferred to the Contras to oust the pro Soviet Sandinistas from Nicaragua.

The “high level” contact the US made during that phase was the speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Hojjetulslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later became President for two terms.

American pique at the outcome of recent Iranian elections is largely explained by the defeat of “their candidate”, Rafsanjani in June 2005 and Mir Hussein Mousavi (backed by Rafsanjani) in June 2009, on both occasions bringing President Ahmedinejad to power. That a tamed Rafsanjani still survives in the Expediency Council is because he knows too much.

The puzzle in all of this is this: how can the US take such a tough line on Iran at a time when it needs Iranian co-operation in stabilizing Afghanistan? Is some obscure Washington – Teheran track still functioning?

Ask Jaswant Singh, who was External Affairs Minister in November 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan. “Iranians, more that the Russians, helped oust the Taleban from Kabul.”

Iran has lengthy borders with Afghanistan and Iraq – both flowing over with US troops. Equally strategic is Iran’s border with Balochistan, the most important supply route for US troops in Afghanistan.

Iran’s real quest is for a recognition of its status as regional power: it cites its ancient civilization, 70 million population, second and third largest gas and oil reserves respectively, its strategic location on the gulf, contiguity with South and West Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus. Iran believes its stand on Palestine gives it influence among Arab populations. Moreover it juxtaposes its “Dialogue of Civilizaitons” against Wahabi Puritanism.

All of this causes convulsions in Riyadh and Cairo. In other words a nuclear Iran, or a non nuclear Iran as a regional power, are both anathema to West Asia, Israel and the US. Surely something must give.

In the general pirouette involving Washington, Islamabad, Kabul, Teheran, Riyadh, Jerusalem, where is New Delhi? Well, New Delhi has good relations with each one of these centers except Islamabad and Teheran, the latter disrepaired in Vienna during the Indo-US nuclear deal. Leaders of each one of the countries (except Israel, ofcourse) have visited Kabul several times in recent years. On July 20, UN officials will be once again in Kabul to attend an International Peace Conference.

The last time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Kabul was in 2005.

Who from New Delhi will attend the Kabul Conference? New Delhi, jolted out of its stupor, is now not only picking up the thread with Teheran, but actually redistributing the eggs it had once placed exclusively in the US basket.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Omar's Failure will stick on Rahul Gandhi

Omar's Failure will stick on Rahul Gandhi
Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 03.07.2010

The unfolding tragedy in Kashmir could well be an opportunity for Rahul Gandhi to make an intervention that may bring him, nationally, into positive light.

His friends probably do not know that keeping him focused on UP circumscribes his political turf.

The reason why Rahul Gandhi inserting himself into the proceedings may be useful for Kashmir, and him politically, is because an absence of interest on his part will show him in poor light for a reason most people do not realize. Omar Abdullah being fielded in the J & K arena is being attributed to him and Omar Abdullah is playing a poor knock.

Remember his gyrations on Shopian in 2009 and now his ineffectiveness in Sopor.

Is it politically discreet to flourish the Queen’s Baton on the Dal when the mood in the valley is a lethal mixture of mourning and anger? Also, hiding behind the CRPF’s misdemeanor is not very clever. CRPF may have acted, or reacted, wrongly, but it was so palpable to anyone who visited the valley that anger, indeed rage, was simmering below the surface. The peace was deceptive and I wrote so in this space months ago.

The election results of 2009 gave Congress a signal. The unexpectedly good performance in UP, where Rahul Gandhi had pitched his tents, caused the party to coax a principle from the new situation. Rahul was emerging as the new, youthful, mass leader for the nation. All the young Congress MPs were accommodated in the cabinet.

A roar went up that Rahul too should be given a handsome slot in the cabinet. The Prime Minister and a handful of others may have sincerely considered the cabinet route as the most suitable one for Rahul’s eventual ascension.

There was another group which thought he was, being young, most suitable to rejuvenate the party.

It is a in the nature of power politics, in any society, that centres of power generate around them, in concentric circles, lobbies and coteries.

That New Delhi’s power structure, already bifurcated, was about to have a third power centre in Rahul Gandhi (and this one would be blessed with longevity), would not be in the interest of existing coteries. Not the principals, mind you, only the coteries.

That was one fear which caused some to insist for Rahul Gandhi’s induction in the Union cabinet. He would be on a leash in the cabinet system.

Since he eluded the cabinet “lasso” and set himself up as the third power point to revive the Congress, particularly in UP, it is elementary that there should be some around the other two power points who would not lose sleep if Rahul or anyone from his circle, fails.

Let me link this convoluted argument to Omar Abdullah. After the 2009 election results, it was more or less clear that, in the National Conference – Congress alliance, Farooq Abdullah would be Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He had himself announced it.

By this time the lesson of the UP result had been interpreted by the Youth Brigade as a vote of confidence in the younger generation.

Just as Rajesh Pilot was Farooq’s political “buddy”, so is his son Sachin, Omar’s political support. In this general Youth Wave, Farooq, under all manner of pressure, made way for the son to ascend the gaddi.

Farooq was not God’s gift to governance. Who knows, the son, bright, articulate, good looking, secular, anchored to New Delhi where his children go to school, may turn out to be the leader Kashmir had waited for.

At the outset, he had all the goodwill he required. If he succeeded, the Youth Brigade, identified with Rahul would be vindicated.

Right or wrong, the impression in Srinagr is that Rahul’s support to Omar provides him with a sense of security. “It may have gone to his head”, said a Professor in Kashmir university.

Lack of access annoys journalists and, in an age of burgeoning media, does not help inaccessible “leaders” either. Omar has acquired the image of being inaccessible among Kashmiris.

As it is the valley feels neglected when the state’s administration shifts to Jammu for six months. This sense of neglect is further accentuated when the Chief Minister spends extended weekends in New Delhi with his family.

Mind you, this Sopor violence is not going to dissolve into thin air by some magic. Sopor happens to be the epicenter of Kashmir politics.

And on July I began the Amarnath Yatra which was the focus of the storm in 2009.

Before Sopor and Amarnath amalgamate lethally, for heaven’s sake pick up those reports of the five Working Groups on Jammu and Kashmir formed by the Prime Minister in 2006-07. According to M. Rasgotra, former Foreign Secretary, Head of the Working Group on strengthening Relations Across the Line of Control, “90 per cent of the recommendations can be unilaterally implemented.” The head of one such working group was Hamid Ansari, currently Vice President of India.

Also, please engage Omar in a dialogue on a feasible devolution package.

This is one of the many ways to soften the atmosphere.

The other suggestion is that Omar, young and inexperienced, needs an advisory group. Omar will listen if Rahul, in no official capacity, just as a friend in the same peer group, were to suggest an Advisory Council for Kashmir.

Remember, Omar’s failure will reflect on Rahul and the Youth Surge associated with him.

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