Friday, August 29, 2014

Terrorism A Diplomatic Asset: Fair Is Foul, Foul Is Fair

Terrorism A Diplomatic Asset: Fair Is Foul, Foul Is Fair
                                                                       Saeed Naqvi

The ISIS threat has been around for months. Why was it not nipped in the bud? Obama’s response in the course of a conversation with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is revealing. “We did not start airstrikes all across Iraq as soon as the ISIS came in because that would have taken the pressure off Nouri al-Maliki”, the then Shia Prime Minister in Baghdad.

In other words Obama’s immediate priority was to get rid of Nouri al-Maliki. According to this logic, a terrorist outfit like the ISIS can, on some occasions, play a useful role. That is why Obama allowed the ISIS to grow in size to frighten the obstinate Prime Minister in Baghdad. Here the President of the United States is giving an example of how terrorism can be placed at the disposal of diplomacy.

Some months ago, when Saudi spy chief Bandar bin Sultan was leaving no stone unturned to affect regime change in Damascus, he turned up at the Kremlin for a hush-hush meeting with President Vladimir Putin. He promised Putin the moon if only Moscow would soft pedal its support for Bashar al Assad – money, gas pipelines, defence deals, the works. Bandar further sweetened the deal with a priceless offer.

Russians were planning the Winter Olympic Games at Sochi in February. Terrorism was a great threat. Bandar indicated by hint and gesture that since Saudis control major “terrorist” outfits in the Caucasus, they would as a favour to Russia, ensure a terror free Olympics at Sochi. Putin’s reply was memorable. Kremlin had been aware for a decade that the Saudis controlled the world’s centers of Islamic terrorism.

How does one know that this most unlikely exchange in the annals of diplomacy did actually take place? Kremlin, which knows how to keep secrets, first placed the record of the conversation under lock and key. But when Saudi excesses in Syria did not stop, the Kremlin leaked the Bandar-Putin exchange to some Lebanese newspapers. Later, Russian diplomats confirmed the story. Could there have been a more brazen demonstration of terrorism as a diplomatic asset?

In the early stages of the insurrection in Syria, US Ambassador to Damascus, Robert Stephen Ford and his French counterpart drove around the country’s major trouble spots – Derra, Homs and Hama. In each city they contacted opposition leaders.

In Damascus some of us exchanged views with a veteran US diplomat and Arabist, Edward Lionel Peck who was privately visiting the country. He was quite as astonished at this new, aggressive style of diplomacy, more akin to special operations.

After returning to the US, Peck wrote on what he described as “a very unsettling subject”. He wrote: “I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in – and now out of Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will. It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here. I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive, and is sliding into plain rampant and offensive arrogance”.

Later that year, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright spoke on US foreign policy at New Delhi’s India International Centre. During Q and A, I cited Peck as an outstanding example of the liberal American conscience. Albright was not impressed. She mounted an effective endorsement of Ford.

The escalating terrorism in Syria, helped by “outside meddling” from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar has morphed into this beast called the ISIS. Ofcourse, Russia, Iran and Iraq dug their heels in for the regime. But does that make them worthy of equal blame?

There is no space left to touch on jihadist militancy let loose in Libya, traversing Mali, uniting with Nigeria’s monstrous Boko Haram.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser considers global terrorism a small price for breeding Islamic Jehad which helped topple Soviet power. The aftermath of that Jehad, however, is still hovering over the heads of the principal actors in Kabul, indeed, in every concerned capital.

Soon after the Taleban were ousted from Kabul, Hamid Karzai was nominated “Interim President” in December 2001. A pulverized “International community” has been stuck with him all these years. The Constitution does not allow him to carry on endlessly. The occupying power organized elections in which one of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah has alleged “industrial scale fraud” and pulled out, leaving Obama and John Kerry with the prospect of turning up at the NATO summit in Wales on September 4, empty handed. Will jaw jaw on Ukraine and the ISIS disguise their embarrassment in Afghanistan?

#          #          #          #

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Difficult Task Of Finding Friends And Foes In West Asia

The Difficult Task Of Finding Friends And Foes In West Asia
                                                                                Saeed Naqvi
It is widely known that New Delhi tilts towards Israel in its dealings with West Asia, particularly since the 1999 Kargil war when the Jewish state provided the ammunition required for India’s field guns. Other mutual interests have since multiplied.

It therefore made practical sense that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj restored the balance somewhat when she dwelt at length on traditional ties with the Arab world while opening an India-Arab media conference organized by the MEA and attended by media managers from the Arab world. The media link is a tenuous one because an independent media is not the Arab world’s strongest feature, Al Jazeera’s inexplicable credibility notwithstanding. It is an enigma: an independent channel owned by a Sheikhdom which hosts the US Central Command.

Even during India’s non aligned phase, there were groups and individuals who saw Israel as a model for the wrong reasons. The late M.L. Sondhi, for instance, sketched a grand design in my presence in the conference room of Jerusalem’s King David hotel: two non Muslim countries surrounded by problematic Muslim neighbours. Both also had “problematic” Muslims within.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, it seemed a dream scenario for these “two” countries to clasp the hand of the world’s sole superpower and live happily ever after.

It would be useful for Sushma Swaraj to recall the goings on in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cabinet. L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh had agreed to send Indian troops to govern the Kurdish North of Iraq, exactly the region the Americans have now returned to in military formation. Why was India willing to subserve US occupation of a friendly country? In fact possibly the friendliest country India ever had. In every UN debate Iraq was the only Muslim country that stood with India on Kashmir.

In 2003 there was great faith in the durability of the sole superpower. After Saddam Hussain’s fall, the Indian ambassador to Baghdad was not asked to return to New Delhi. He was asked to mark time in a three star hotel in neighbouring Amman, and wait for Americans to take charge in Baghdad whence he would rush to present his credentials.

The person who read the future right was Vajpayee. On April 9, Saddam Hussain’s statue was pulled down at Baghdad’s Firdous Square by US marines. The global media gave it a different spin. Angry Iraqis had pulled down the statue, the world was told. Vajpayee described the US as an “awesome” power on the move. From Srinagar he called off the eye ball to eye ball confrontation with Pakistan.

I have inserted this piece of history the world knows little about, deliberately at a time when a handful of Arab media representatives are present in New Delhi. The Arab media itself had been pushed beyond the margins during the occupation of Iraq. The show was being largely controlled by BBC and CNN. It is worth mentioning that Doordarshan was the only non western media to have comprehensively covered that piece of history. Sushma Swaraj was the Information and Broadcasting Minister then.

US Vice President Dick Cheyney, even more than Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was keen to declare victory on global TV. Obstructing celebrations was a singular problem. There was no demonstrable public enthusiasm for Saddam’s ouster. The entire choreography of the war had been designed for TV. How could the US declare victory if there were no street celebrations?

The only people willing to celebrate Saddam’s downfall were Shias in the south and east of the country. They could not be magically produced in Baghdad. In any case Shias would be ultra cautious coming out on an American invitation because after Operation Desert Storm in 1992 they had mounted an uprising in the South against Saddam Hussain. They mistakenly thought they had US protection. But Washington looked the other way. Saddam Hussain brutally crushed the uprising.

Cheyney’s men did some quick thinking. After the 1992 uprising, Saddam Hussain had settled rebellious Shias from the south in a ghetto outside Baghdad called Saddam city. These Shias could be commandeered if their leaders, Ayatullah Baqar al Hakeem and Muqtada Sadr could be persuaded. They agreed. That is when Shias came out of their ghetto slapping Saddam Hussain’s photographs with heir sandals. Saddam city was overnight renamed Sadr city by an American edict.

Only after operation Desert Storm did Saddam Hussain place “Allah O Akbar” on the Iraqi flag. His message was simple: the “agnostic” and “atheistic” Baath Sunnis would from now on not be averse to the easier, more emotional, religious mobilization. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is a subsequent creature of this duality. Baathist education with a religious edge. An ability to organize, administer, hold territory, derives from his Baathist training. Macabre actions like James Foley’s beheading and suicide bombing are a specialization of recent Sunni Jehadism. The two can be alternately stoked against the American infidel in Iraq and the Shia exclusivism of Baghdad. Now the US, Baghdad and Iran are laying traps to catch this animal.

#          #          #          #

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Courageous Of Modi To Talk Of Toilets From Red Fort

Courageous Of Modi To Talk Of Toilets From Red Fort
                                                                       Saeed Naqvi 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s courageous elaboration in his maiden Independence Day speech, on the nation’s need to build toilets had in it a touch of Acharya Vinoba Bhave. It also brought back a Devi Lal story.

During a visit to China, Devi Lal, then India’s Agricultural Minister, made a great impression on the Chinese leadership by his knowledge of things agricultural. Even though he had been invited to study Chinese agriculture, his hosts found his observations and queries so insightful that they took him to more and more places so that they too could learn from his asides.

On one field trip, Devi Lal, the tallest Jat from Haryana, towering above his Chinese counterpart in every sense of the term, stood on a piece of high ground, put his hands on his hips, and began to survey a mega farm. The Chinese waited for his pearls of wisdom. Devi Lal leaned over and whispered something in the Indian Ambassador’s ear that made the emissary, an expert mandarin speaker, turn pale, then white as a sheet.

Devi Lal had whispered a simple question. “Kisaan tatti kahan kartay hain?” (Where do the peasants shit?) The Chinese, prolific spitters off the main highways, do, nevertheless, have a sense of delicacy about the theme Devi Lal had touched upon.

In the dictionary of his mind, the ambassador translated “shit” into “nitrogenous waste matter” for which expression he found a suitably ornate word in Mandarin. When he communicated the query to the Chinese Agriculture Minister, he froze and blinked and blinked and shook his head like a sage who had seen light. Devi Lal had spotted the biggest gap in Chinese Agriculture: want of adequate toilet arrangements for peasants.

I have embellished this Devi Lal yarn with a purpose. Middle class squeamishness sometimes obviates scrutiny of basic issues. It was courageous of Narendra Modi to have dwelt on the absence of toilets in the countryside and on the shame of our unclean cities. He touched on numerous other themes. When even our Gods and Goddesses are manufactured in China, it is time someone spoke of reviving Indian manufacture. That is an idea whose revival will take time.

Toilets for rural households and cleanliness in cities is a revolution the Modi government can start tomorrow.

Let us not talk about Gujarat which is probably much better off in this regard than UP and Bihar. Let him begin with the National Capital Region where, by Modi’s own definition, he is still an outsider. Before staleness sets in, let him appoint an official in his own office with a strict mandate: in six months to a year, the official must have in his hand a comprehensive blue print for toilets for Delhi’s villages and the hundreds of thousands of pavement dwellers. Nobody knows where they go for their ablutions. Also, there must be a plan for the removal of garbage dumps.

Let this official be a regular member of the Indian Administrative Service. Try giving him a suitable job description, say, Secretary Toilets. My guess is that he will bolt the service, go back to his village and arrange a hundred havans to get this Rahu out of Ketu in the quickest possible time. If he happens to be a Muslim, Deoband will launch an agitation.

Alright, for national tranquility, let us call him Officer on Special Duty. Let this OSD begin his inquiries by visiting important hotels, hospitals, major multistoreyed blocks and seek out the managements to show him the toilets on the premises. He will discover that those manning these facilities are six inches shorter and a few shades darker than other management cadre on the premises. They are not even on the rolls of these outfits. They cannot be. How can a toilet cleaner be promoted as a lobby manager, for example. How can he even dream to ever become a Food and Beverages manager?

Garbage dumps, thousands of them around the city, cannot be removed for similar reasons. Rag pickers employed to load the garbage trucks have found a market, heaven knows where, for the scrap they pick from the garbage bins parked in these dumps. A chain of interests has developed around each one of these. They have become sources of livelihood.

Outside of India I have seen men and women find privacy behind the sand dunes in, for example, the Sahara desert. The picture cannot be very different in the sandier part of the Thar Desert. Within an hour of daybreak, every particle evaporates in the sharp “shams” or sun.

In Europe, atleast upto the 18th century ablutions were a taboo. Wolfgang Mozart, and his brothers, died young of ailments from lack of washing. In Andalusia, on the other hand, a culture of Hamams and libraries prevailed since the arrival of the “Moors” in the 8th century. In fact one of the charges during the Spanish Inquisition after 1492 was quite extraordinary: “He Bathes”. This history has something to do with the culture of toilet paper introduced by the British in the colonies even where, otherwise, plenty of water was available.

A tropical country needs ablutions for minimal hygiene. It required considerable self belief for Modi to dwell on the theme at such length on such an occasion.

#          #          #          #

Friday, August 8, 2014

Israel and Saudi Arabia In A Jam In Gaza

Israel and Saudi Arabia In A Jam In Gaza
                                                            Saeed Naqvi

US decision for limited strikes to check the ISIS in Iraq and Gaza initiatives in Cairo are obviously linked.

To understand the collective Arab panic over the weekend in Cairo on Gaza ceasefire, an overview is required. Ever since King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia came out of convalescence from Europe in February 2011 to see the first two casualties of the Arab Spring – Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – his heart sank.

Logically, next to fall would be Monarchies and Emirates – Saudi, Jordan, Qatar, Morocco, Bahrain, the GCC in general. “Never!” screamed Abdullah. Dmitry Medvedev in the Kremlin and Amr Moussa in the Arab League provided an enabling provision in Security Council Resolution 1973. First the Europeans – remember British Intelligence men in dark suits arrested in Libya raising a storm in the House of Commons – and then the Americans got involved. Well, Qaddafi’s ouster has led to the current state of affairs in Libya.

Began the destruction of Syria, another efficient secular dictatorship with areas of civility and gracious living. Qatar and Turkey were alongside Saudi Arabia in this project of regime change. A clever psychological moment was chosen to lure Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan into the trap. This is his last term as Prime Minister. In popularity he is already ahead of Kemal Ataturk. Here is his chance to play a pan Arab role by, to begin with, facilitating Assad’s ouster from neighbouring Syria.

Erdogan took off his secular clothes (mandated by the Kemalist constitution), slipped into his Muslim Brotherhood garb and turned up in Tripoli, Cairo joining congregational prayers with such frequency that the Saudis panicked. The idea was to dethrone Assad, not strengthen the Brothers whom Saudis fear more than even the Shias eversince they laid siege to the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979, soon after the Ayatullahs came to power in Iran.

On the Syrian operation, Qatar too was mobilized by the Saudis for two reasons: Riyadh was keen to compose traditional differences with Qatar so that regional monarchies could provide a united front. Secondly, the credibility of Western mainstream media was being questioned. Qatar’s Al Jazeera was therefore required. But as soon as Qatar started talking to the Taleban in Afghanistan and Hamas in Gaza, the Saudis panicked once again. Qatar, with its Muslim Brotherhood affiliation, had to be pushed out of the equation. Al Jazeera’s support was concurrently lost.

The Saudis then bankrolled Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to oust Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and become President.

In the summer of 2014 the line-up in West Asia was as follows:

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Emirates, fiercely opposed to the Brothers. Israel is most comfortable with this grouping, now more than ever. Egypt has coordinated with the Israelis in keeping the Refah crossing closed for Gazans unless Israel winks.

This has inspired Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to float an alliance of the countries listed above. Even in normal times, an Israeli overture towards an Arab regime shows diminishing returns among the population. After the Israeli bombing of Gaza, comprehensively covered on the social media, such an overture would greatly accentuate popular anger against their own regimes.

Should the ceasefire fail and bombing of Gaza resume, regimes whose support Israel seeks may not be able to withstand popular unrest at the plight of Gazans, every detail available on the social media.

Consider the alternative lineup, Hezbullah, Syria, Iraq are all a huge moral support for Hamas. But at the moment they are overdrawn either in Syria or against ISIS in Iraq. Turkey and Qatar, along with their Muslim Brotherhood affiliation, are openly supporting Hamas. Their regional influence has not been overlooked: Secretary of State John Kerry invites them for a meeting in Paris to consider a way out in Gaza.

Either the Gaza ceasefire will breakdown or the Americans will have to prevail on Saudi Arabia and Egypt to accommodate Qatar and Turkey, directly or indirectly in discussing Gaza peace in Cairo.

Qatar meanwhile has set the cat among the pigeons by announcing that Bahrain’s opposition members – which means majority of Shias – can seek Qatari citizenship.

The ISIS, running wild across Syria and Iraq, also has a Muslim Brotherhood link. Two days ago their blackshirt troops moved into the enclave of Arsal in Lebanon, abutting Syria. Immediately the Saudis turned up in Beirut with $ one billion dollars to enable the Lebanese army contain the ISIS.

To placate Qatar, President Obama presses Sisi to release three Al Jazeera journalists in Egyptian prison for having supported the Muslim Brotherhood when Morsi was being ousted.

Meanwhile, ISIS, encouraged by its own successes, begins to uproot some ancient church congregations in the Kurdish part of Iraq.

Enough is enough, says Obama, and orders limited airstrike on ISIS positions. If Americans are bombing one set of Arabs, can their friends, the Israeli, resume bombardment of another set of Arabs?

#          #          #          #