Friday, July 26, 2013

Is American Withdrawal From Afghanistan In 2014 Cast In Stone?

Is American Withdrawal From Afghanistan In 2014 Cast In Stone?

                                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

Is the US really about to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014? There are reasons why I have been a sceptic so far.

On December 22, 2001, at the Bonn conference, convened by the UN, Hamid Karzai was placed at the head of a “provisional government” in Kabul. But after having been President for nine years, the “provisional” leader established his own indispensability: at the Kabul Conference on July 20, 2010, he obtained a mandate to remain President until 2014.

At the time he declared himself President until 2014, the stated policy in Washington was that the US would leave Afghanistan by 2011. But those in the US establishment whose job it was to supervise US withdrawal had started inserting caveats: 2011 was not cast in stone; withdrawal will be dictated by ground realities; the Afghan National Army has to be ready to takeover; only combat troops will be withdrawn. (By the way, is the ANA, earlier tainted by allegations of incompetence and Green-on-blue attack, now a squeaky clean reliable fighting force to warrant early American departure?)

Then, as now, American military leaders were quite straightforward on the centrality of Pakistan to the withdrawal process.

In fact Gen. Stanley McChrystal had expressed exasperation at the success of India’s socio-economic, development work because it distracted Pakistan from its war-on-terror focus. So what should India do? Go out of its way to become unpopular in Afghanistan so that Pakistan can single mindedly dedicate itself to the task of facilitating US withdrawal? This, believe it or not, was the implication of Gen. McChrystal’s lament.

Even after McChrystal was removed and parked in the groves of academe, at Yale, for his deep thought, his successor Gen. Petraus, also found it useful to take a swipe at India’s “cold start” strategy which has been in cold storage for years. This, he thought, would win him friends in Islamabad.

Building roads, hospitals, schools, providing training to Afghan civil servants, accepting students in Indian institutions, providing hospital facilities in New Delhi – all this had added to India’s image in Afghanistan. This, in addition to Bollywood, which has kept Afghans riveted for decades. All of this was of interest to US ambassadors in the region who are answerable to the State Department. But the heavy military presence in Afghanistan continues to have the power to trump normal diplomatic ideas and initiatives in the region. In 2011 the Pentagon’s priority was to enlist Pakistani support for US withdrawal. This, exactly, is the priority now, even as the clamour grows in Washington – withdraw by 2014 end, withdraw by 2014 end.

The interesting detail that should not be overlooked is this: even as Messrs McChrystal and Petraus were talking “withdrawal” in 2011, Karzai had already contrived an extension until 2014. Karzai established his indispensability at a time when the Western media had written him off as “not even the mayor of Kabul” one “whose writ does not run beyond the Presidential palace”.

If there was no consistent American stand on withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2010, why should we be convinced that the 2014 deadline is cast in stone?

Recent one-step-forward and two-steps-back on Afghan policy happened in Qatar where with considerable fanfare the US set up a meeting last month with the Taleban and Karzai’s representatives. The meeting did not take place because the Taleban delegation fluttered the flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Karzai threw a fit in his palace.

Supposing, the Qatar initiative was not botched up and Karzai did set into motion a dialogue with the Taleban, what outcome were the Americans expecting?

Karzai and the Taleban are both Pushtoons, concentrated in the South and South-East with durable links across the border with Pakistan. This would leave Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras out of the power structure which would then be overwhelmingly Pushtoon. Pushtoonistan would not necessarily be an automatic outcome but a Pushtoon entity, equidistant from Kabul and Islamabad, would begin to loom.

This would result in the consolidation of the northern alliance sentiment in the rest of the country.

Pushtoon in Pushto means Afghan. It follows that anyone living within the geographical limits of Afghanistan is an Afghan. Emir Amanullah, greatly influenced by Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, knitted the afghan state by transferring Pushtoon populations to Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara dominated areas. Likewise, other ethnicities were transplanted in Pushtoon areas. This patchwork of nationalities, even on a limited scale, has been something of a deterrent against the state’s breakup. Islands of minorities would become targets in the event of ethnic nationalism coming on top.

However, much of this discussion could well be purely theoretical because there is an almighty standoff among the Pushtoons themselves.

Pushtoon are divided into two principal clans – Durranis and Ghilzais. When the Saur revolution of 1978 brought the Afghan Communist parties, Khalq and Parcham, to power, Afghan history took a turn and not only because President Mohammad Daud was killed. His death made way for Noor Mohammad Taraki as Prime Minister. This meant that for the first time in 200 years, a Durrani yielded power to a Ghilzai. Afghanistan’s communists and Talebans, both, derive from the Ghilzai stream. Having wielded power more or less for the past 36 years, Ghilzais will fight tooth and nail to block the return of a Durrani.

Yes, Karzai happens to be a Populzai which is a Durrani sub clan. But he was imposed as a “provisional” ruler in 2001. He has lasted this long only because of US support which helped him rig the 2009 elections so badly that Peter Galbraith resigned his job in Kabul in a huff.

Recently Americans have talked of the “zero option”. Which means that come what may, they will vacate Afghanistan by 2014 end even if Karzai does not sign a Status of Forces Agreement for US non combatants beyond that date. Can the US really pick up the chips and leave the game? Ofcourse, not. Why then are the Americans allowing him to hold up their departure arrangements by pretending to be angry. I am using the term “pretending” advisedly because Karzai is too much of a creature of the US to be able to luxuriate in long sulks without a tacit understanding with them.

Maj. Gen. Kurt J Stein, Commander of First Theater Sustainment command has in a recent interview to the New York Times cited a major hurdle in Afghan withdrawal: “Getting the Gear Out”.

After 11 year of war, the US has accumulated 600,000 pieces of equipment valued at $28 billion. In the 18 months that remain until December 2014, can the Americans obtain from Pakistan a promise that they will be helped to glide out, across Balochistan without a glitch? Or are we looking at another deadline well beyond 2014? And, remember, getting men and material out is not the only mission unaccomplished.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Modi Will Lose Now To Win Hereafter, In Biblical Style

Modi Will Lose Now To Win Hereafter, In Biblical Style

                                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

When the Monsoon session of Parliament opened in August 2010, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited opposition leaders for dinner. The BJP declined because central agencies were proceeding against Gujarat Home Minister, Amit Shah. This stand by the principal opposition instilled great fear in the ranks of the Treasury Benches. Note how the BJP rallied behind Narendra Modi, the rising star.

Such was the state of funk in the ruling party that the Monsoon session passed without Amit Shah’s name being mentioned even once. For this act of grace, there was repayment in kind. Foreign Policy, Palestine, Economy, Nuclear Liability, forward trading in food grains, Kashmir, even Pakistan – all these issues remained uncontested.

That was then. Last week, there was something of a dejavu. Outlook magazine had a bold cover story: “UPA’s Rs.54,500 crore Gas Rip-off”. That was not all. The three deck headline rested on another line in bold fonts: “And the BJP’s Shocking Silence”.

How “shocking” BJP’s silence is on this and other issues – for instance, the list on which Foreign Direct Investment has been most generously allowed – will become clear in the coming Monsoon session.

Today Modi is not just a rising, but a risen star. If coordination between major parties is the name of the game it would be appropriate to understand the level of coordination for all round benefit. All round benefit means benefit to India Inc (headquartered in Mumbai), Congress, BJP and the Multinationals who have gauged India as a trillion dollar market which could be utilized for global economic recovery, after which we may have time to consider the Indian People too.

It is elementary that Modi is no coalition builder. Since only a coalition, a UPA-III or an NDA-II, are possible after the 2014 General Elections, why is Modi being projected? And what is he being projected as? There is an Urdu expression, “mubham”, or “vague” which does not quite convey the meaning. French drivers have a vivid expression for dusk, “neither wolf nor dog”.

The BJP has not announced Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. He is the chief of the party’s campaign panel, a position earlier held by Pramod Mahajan and Arun Jaitley. And yet, there he goes flying, higher and higher, on the winged horse called the media.

Shikar or hunting is out of fashion in India but the sport offers an interesting insight on current politics. The easiest bird to shoot is the one in flight. Place Modi in that analogy and he makes for an easy target for all the party leaders who threw a ginger fit at his elevation in the Goa conclave. Gaining height prematurely is risky politics.

It is also something of a puzzle, though, that all the leaders who had trooped into L.K. Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence, imploring him not to resign and who established instant contact with RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat to intervene and restore the balance away from Modi, have, one by one, fallen in line with the elevation given to the Gujarat strongman.

Have they fallen in line with the Goa decision because they have realized that Modi is not the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014? A serious candidate for the top job will have to be a coalition builder, one who can deliver NDA-II. This Modi certainly is not.

What is he then? A Mahatma in the making because he is indifferent to power? That would be the implication if he is indifferent to coalitions. A leader of ideological purity, one who calls a spade a spade, who does not obsequiously discard the puppy image when referring to Muslims, whose larger than life posters in Mumbai proudly proclaim him as a “Hindu Nationalist”?

Since 2007, just before the Assembly elections, Modi’s Public Relations has been globally managed by APCO Worldwide which boasts of former US ambassador to New Delhi, Timothy Roemer, as a hands on manager with offices in Mumbai and New Delhi. APCO has an impressive record of servicing dictators like Sani Abacha in Nigeria, for instance.

APCO’s extraordinary projection of Modi could well polarize the national mood and yet augment the UPA’s vote share in the short run. By this logic, UPA-III seems to be the emerging outcome in 2014. Which will be fine for the Corporates and their multinational links provided key enabling legislations are pushed through Parliament by the two parties.

Another reason why Modi’s support team have been able to impose a fait accompli on the BJP is because of an acute fear that Modi and his Sancho Panza will, sooner or later, trip up in the course of investigations under way in Gujarat. Modi’s fall will then be the BJP’s fall too. But if Modi is allowed to fly high on a platform of Hindu nationalism, his being grounded will be blamed on intrigue by the forces of “pseudo secularism”. This pits Modi as an embodiment of an idea shaded in dark saffron, projected in Presidential style, against the secular formations, pale and wan, poised precariously on a rickety Parliamentary platform.

The real battle, then, is not being envisaged for 2014 but more like 2016.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Egypt After The Coup: A Primer On the Aftermath

Egypt After The Coup: A Primer On the Aftermath
                                                                                 Saeed Naqvi

(Q) Saudi Arabia is the first country to congratulate Egypt’s military rulers. They and their GCC followers have already announced $8 billion to the new regime in Cairo. More will follow. Why are the Saudis pleased with Morsi’s ouster?

(A) Saudi King Abdullah was livid when he returned from hospital in Europe in February 2011 and saw allies like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia toppled. Monarchies and Sheikhdoms are uncomfortable with Peoples Power. For them military dictatorships mean stability. Hence Saudi relief.

Also, Saudis hate Muslim Brotherhood which aims to replace Monarchies and dictatorship with popular Islamists regimes.

(Q) But Qatar, the second richest Kingdom in the region, had invested in President Mohammad Morsi and the Brothers. Does the Egyptian coup d├ętat spell the end of the Saudi – Qatari co ordination in the region?

(A) They had come together on Egypt; they are parting on Egypt. Earlier, there were rivalries between the two regimes. They came together to thwart the “Arab Spring” which having consumed Egypt’s Mubarak, began to threaten monarchies in the region – Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Bahrain, GCC, Saud, Qatar.

But they differed on how to proceed, now that the “Spring” had been stalled.

While the Saudis were weighed down by their own internal succession stakes, the Qataris were knitting linkages with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Turkey, Hamas in Gaza. Saudis could not have been happy with Qatar punching above its weight and according hospitality to the Brothers who are anathema to Riyadh.

(Q) But the Americans were with Morsi and the Brothers. During demonstrations leading to Morsi’s ouster, people burnt effigies of Barack Obama and US ambassador Anne Patterson. Are the Saudis and the Americans at cross purposes?

(A) Between American and Saudi diplomatic choreography the “hidden” is often more important than the “apparent”. American effigies being burnt in Cairo by anti Morsi crowds shows the American hand is still in the hand of the Brothers. But Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel talking to coup leader Gen. Abdul Fatah al-Sissi on the phone, points to exactly the opposite. Heads I win, tails you lose. Don’t forget, Americans have lived with Egypt’s army for 50 years. That’s the important equation. So don’t worry, Americans and the Saudis are in bed under the same sheet.

(Q) The army and the Brothers are the two organized formations in Egypt. In an extreme situation which one will the Americans choose?

(A) Obviously the Americans would not like to alienate the most powerful Arab Army. They would like to keep the army together. But they would like to scatter the Brothers, divide them.

They have been caught flat footed, not for the first time in recent past. They placed all their eggs apparently in the Brotherhood basket. They will now pick out their eggs one by one. They are already hedging their bets. Washington has applauded the “roadmap” towards democracy in seven months. They have avoided describing Morsi’s ouster as a coup, so aid can continue to flow to the army.

(Q) What should India do?

(A) Support the enlightened Egyptian. Remember, in the latest round Egyptian civilization, its culture has clashed with political Islam. The army has helped the former. India should strengthen modernist tendencies. Go now where the Americans will go tomorrow. In fact, they’re already there, silly. They have to fly under the radar at the moment because Brothers in Turkey have to be managed.

(Q) But the Saudis are an obscurantist, Wahabi state. Why would they support modernism and democracy in Egypt?

(A) They are not supporting modernism. They are keeping the Muslim Brothers out because they, the Brothers, are a threat. They want the army to stay as a stabilizing force.

(Q) What are the implications of Qatar and Saudi Arabia proceeding on separate paths post the Egyptian coup?

(A) First, consider Al Jazeera TV as a Qatari asset in the Saudi, Western kitty.

When the US occupied Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, Al Jazeera exposed the BBC and CNN propaganda by reporting independently. Its offices in Kabul and Baghdad were bombed by the allies who included Saudi Arabia. Its reputation for independence skyrocketed.

But when the Arab Spring threatened to topple the monarchies, Qataris were persuaded to pool in their Al Jazeera resource to supplement the bruised credibility of the CNN and BBC. Al Jazeera came in handy in the Libyan and Syrian expeditions. Now that the foreign supported civil war in Syria is beginning to sour, the uses of Al Jazeera are also diminishing. In Cairo, Al Jazeera was running for cover, booted out of their offices.

When Al Jazeera was riding high, former US Vice President Al Gore sought to merge his Current TV channel with Al Jazeera which would have a projected viewership of 50 million in the US.

(Q) If the Saudis are now opposed to Qatar. Will they allow Qatar to have such a powerful toehold in the US?

(A) The Saudi-Qatari rivalry should not be taken as a fight to the finish.

Saudi-US relations are almost as secure as US-Israel relations. Recently, Qataris have been playing a regional role, encouraged by the US – in Syria, Turkey, Hamas, Egypt, Libya, even Afghanistan. They may have over reached themselves with Taliban much to Saudi annoyance.

It must not be forgotten, that Qatar is the headquarters of the US operational command in the region – CENTCOM.

Recently, Qatar’s Emir, at the age of 60, handed over power to his son Tamim al Thani who is only 33. It is not a simple transition in the Emir’s palace. The world’s most powerful military command would have to be involved. Who knows the transition in Qatar may bring the Sheikhdom in line with Riyadh where the emergence of a new King is awaited.

Regional realignments do relieve the pressure on Bashar al Assad. These very re alignments mount the pressure on Turkey where Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has burnt his fingers trying to topple Assad in neighbouring Syria. He has nothing to show for his efforts, except an unsettled Turkey.

And, for the conservative Arab regimes, Israel and the West, there is one galling spectacle. While the Arabs are in a mess, the most successful democratic elections have brought President Hassan Rouhani to power in Iran.

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Magical Romance Of Mangoes And The Koel Song

Magical Romance Of Mangoes And The Koel Song
                                                                                  Saeed Naqvi

Around this season every year, friends and relatives, turn up at our house in South Delhi with mangoes wrapped in newspapers, gunny bags, even discarded bed sheets.

There are problem with this ritual. Good mangoes have to be separated from the bad. There are subtleties involved in this separation – over ripe and stale. The seasoned mango carrier takes care not to travel with ripe mangoes. They will get pulpy in passage. The untrained will make just this mistake: arrive with pulp, so smelly as to turn you off mangoes for a few seasons.

It is relatively simple to differentiate good mangoes from bad. What requires expertise of a high order is to establish a hierarchy of flavours from excellent to the barely tolerable within each genere of mangoes: Langra, Chausa, Dussehri, Malihabadi Safeda. And, if you cast your net nationwide, Malda from Bengal and Hemayat and Benishan from Hyderabad – and scores of others.

Our Avadh chauvinism is bruised when we are reminded that the finest langras, the king of mangoes with a tang in its sweetness, comes from areas east of Avadh – Varanasi, for instance. Langra means lame and it is just possible that this most delicious of fruits was grafted or developed by a mango enthusiast who did not have a leg or who limped like Timur who was called Timur the lame and whose cruelty figures in the poetry of Majaz in Lucknow and much more elaborately in Christopher Marlowe’s classic, Tamburlaine.

This year mango trafficking from our catchment area of Avadh has been hectic because there have been many more visitors to see Mother who, at 97, is trying to conquer Esophageal malignancy with radiation therapy.

Last week my sister turned up from our village, Mustafabad, in Rae Bareli, with a ritual bagful of the mandatory mangoes. My mother was pleased. Even though she cannot swallow, she did hold a mango in both her hands, smelt it like a wine expert, and lay back having approved of the quality.

I was a little astonished at what I saw. It was all make belief. At least that is what it seemed to me.

“Where are these mangoes from?” I asked.
“From Mustafabad”
“You mean you bought them in Mustafabad?”
“From our house in Mustafabad.”
This is what I thought was make-belief.

During our early schooldays, which is a long time ago, summer holidays were mango-time in Mustafabad. Our adorable grandfather, Abbajan, who, after graduating from Aligarh, had settled in the ample family house as something of an anchor when all else was lost beginning from his grandfather’s days, slowly, in installments, since 1857.

In anticipation of our arrival, some twenty or thirty cousins from Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Fatehpur, Pratapgarh, Rae Bareli, Kara, Patti, Abbajan would arrange for raw mangoes of varying lineage to be piled up in the four corners of a go down meant for foodgrain. A water proof sheet was placed on each pile which was then plastered with a thick paste of mud and water. This was called “paal”, a method of ripening mangoes.

It required expertise to know which pile would ripen first and which last. This was essential to space out the opening of each “paal” so that a steady supply of mangoes lasted our holidays. The suspense that preceded the opening of each “paal” was nail biting as we sat outside Abbajan’s verandah in small circles around buckets filled with water to cool the mangoes, steaming inside the caked mud which would be cracked open, anytime now, as we waited, counting the seconds. The orgy of mango eating followed Ghalib’s dictum: “they should be sweet and in plenty”.

It is a quaint coincidence that Ambassador of Tajikistan, Saidov Saidbeg was recently in the vicinity of my village which prompted him to write a verse on mango, in Persian.

Abbajan must have had a mystical link with India’s first Prime Minster. No one, not even Abbajan’s peers could address Nehru as anything but “Pandit Nehru”. Abbajan died on the same day as Nehru: May 27, 1964.

By this time the frequency of mango summers in Mustafabad had dwindled to almost nil not the least becuae of a sad realization. Abbajan had kept up an illusion that mangoes for our holidays came from groves in so and so village, all part of the property under his supervision. In fact most groves had been sold particularly after Zamindari abolition in 1955. He would lease trees for our holidays from groves already sold.

That is why the ritual gift of mangoes my sister brought from Mustafabad surprised me. Yes, beyond the pond outside our house, in a small patch of land stretching upto the railway tracks, there was one tree with an exquisite mango called Kalua. But over the years Kalua had withered away and the wood from it had been sold.

So, where did my sister’s gift come from? After all, my mother did feel the mango with some tenderness.

Despite rampaging urbanization, commercialization, dehumanizing pursuit of wealth, the rural countryside retains some of its lyric, its idyllic romance of which the mango is a part.

“Ambua ki daari se boley Koelia”
(the Koel sings from the branch of a mango tree)

This will remain the most popular “bandish” or composition whenever raga Bageshwari is sung. Indian textile, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, will always be adorned by the motif of the mango which, resembling the seed of so many other fruit, symbolizes fertility and regeneration. It was this eternal reality that my mother had seized upon. Right behind the Kalua tree, she had quietly planted a sapling of langra, which has now begun to yield a sufficient crop to enable my sister to turn up with a bagful of langras.

Acres upon acres of wheat and maize make for a bright foreground against which the dark, green mango groves bring the sort of relief that monsoon clouds bring. This is the scene from my village right upto Allahabad which falls outside the cultural boundaries of Avadh but is, nevertheless, good for mangoes.

When Akbar Allahabadi sent a box of choice Langras to Allama Iqbal in Lahore, Iqbal sent him a couplet by way of receipt:
“Asar hai teri aijaz e masihaee ka ae Akbar
Allahaabad se Langra chale Lahore tak pahunche”
(Akbar, this is the miracle of your healing powers – like those of Jesus. Langra – the lame – traveled from Allahabad and has reached Lahore!)

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