Friday, August 26, 2016

With Skates On, Turkey Could Slip Into Syrian Quagmire

With Skates On, Turkey Could Slip Into Syrian Quagmire
                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

Hakan Fidan, Chief of Turkish Intelligence, did not give much credence to warnings by Russian Agencies that a coup to oust President Tayyip Erdogan was in the works. But he shared the information with others on a “need-to-know” basis. In a manner of speaking, he closed the door, a sort of general precaution. He did not send out an alert.

The Russians persisted. A helicopter gunship would target Erdogan at his Mediterranean holiday resort.

Subsequent stories remain unverified – that Erdogan could not land at Istanbul, Germany, Azerbaijan. That is when the Americans gave him refuge at the Incirlik air base which, ironically, happens to be in Turkey. Then Fethullah Gulen surfaced as the master plotter, in cahoots with “some” American Generals.

Obviously the Russians had their ears close to the ground when they picked up the earliest signals of the impending coup. When Erdogan called out the people to thwart the plotters, Tehran was the first capital to openly support the embattled Turkish president. Suddenly, Moscow, Tehran, Hezbullah in Lebanon, Iraq particularly Najaf, because Prime Minister Haider al Abadi in Baghdad is seen as something of an American puppet – all of them had broad smiles on their faces.

With athletic agility, Erdogan turned up at St. Petersburg, apologized for the Russian pilot being shot down over Turkey in November, 2015, and locked Vladimir Putin in a tight embrace.

And, to and behold, Turkish forces are now in Syria, tanks and all. Is the theory of unintended consequences catching up with everybody after the failed coup of July 15? I mention this because I have been witness to another botched up coup which changed the world – The Saur (April) 1978 revolution which brought the Afghan Communist Parties, Khalq and Parcham, to power. This paved the way for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1980. I remember a panic stricken Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Adviser on the Pakistan-Afghan border, discussing strategies.

Let me first explain how it was a “botched” up coup.

Having suffered reverses in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Nicaragua at the hands of local communist movements, the Americans pressured the Shah of Iran’s Savak secret service to oust the Left in Kabul which was getting powerful around President Daoud Khan.

When the coup plan was still in its nascent stages, Mir Akbar Khybar, a trade union leader, affiliated to Parcham, was killed in an intelligence-counter intelligence mixup. The coup plot had leaked. Abdul Qadir and Aslam Watanjar, Communist moles in the Afghan Armed Forces, drove out tanks from Pul e Charkhi. They slaughtered Daoud and his entourage.

The Left, unprepared for power, persuaded Nur Mohammad Taraki of Khalq to take over as Prime Minister. Within two years, the Soviets were in Afghanistan.

The US, Saudis, Pakistan, for their own reasons, got into a scrum. Began the training of Mujahideen in hundreds of Madrasas along the border with Afghanistan. The strategy was to play on Islamic aversion to “Godless” communism. The trick, bolstered by stinger missiles, worked.

After 1981, President Reagan had raised the cost of the Cold War for the Soviet Union everywhere, including Afghanistan. By 1989, the new Secretary General of CPSU, Mikhail Gorbachev, began withdrawing Soviet troops. Then, the Berlin wall fell. By 1991 the Soviet Union had come down like melting ice cream.

Two comparisons with the situation in Turkey and Afghanistan are possible. It was a botched up coup in Afghanistan in 1978 which changed the world. The consequences plague us to this day. Witness the ghastly attack on the American University in Kabul this week. Likewise, the botched up coup in Turkey has brought about strategically new power equations globally as well as regionally.

The other comparison, to which Syrians are subscribing, is plausible: Soviet Union hurtled headlong into Afghanistan and came out irreparably broken. Might Erdogan likewise be leading Turkey inextricably into the Syrian quagmire?

The omens are not good. For the past five years every country in the Syrian theatre – the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan – has been supporting either “moderates” opposed to Bashar al Assad or extremists like Jumat al Nussra in pursuit of the same end. Each side has other gameplans which are played out as subsidiary side shows. These are too many to be listed.

Americans occupied Iraq for a decade, dismantled all its institutions and left in 2011 more or less empty handed. Which is why they had to remove Premier Nouri al Maliki who had dedicated himself exclusively to the expansion of his Shia base. Saudis next door were throwing fits. Americans needed influence in Baghdad. Little wonder Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is their man.

With such experience in Iraq how did the Americans (and their cohorts) imagine that mere cross border terrorism – albeit, lethally armed – would topple Assad? After all the Baathist structure in Syria is the mirror image of the one in Iraq. Assad is a non practicing Alawi just as Saddam Hussain was only a notional Sunni. Except for public rituals, both must be listed as devout atheists.

The impression now being put out is that Erdogan’s primary aim for entering Syria is to prevent Syrian Kurds carving out territory along the Turkish border. That would feed Turkish Kurd party, the PKK’s quest for separation. Erdogan’s purpose last year was different: he was facilitating ISIS’s oil trade across the border. Erdogan’s ownership of a large fraction of ISIS was universally acknowledged. In brief, everybody in the Syrian war was everybody else’s proxy. Erdogan was a major player in this game of surreptitious intent.

Will the terms of endearment now change totally just because Erdogan kissed Putin on both his cheeks in St. Petersburg?

A new pirouette has begun in Syria. Only after the US elections will it become clear who is on the dance floor and who is sinking in a quagmire.

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Key Elections Are Near: Kashmir, Pakistan Can Wait

Key Elections Are Near: Kashmir, Pakistan Can Wait
                                                                              Saeed Naqvi

Kashmir is ablaze and relations with Pakistan are at a low. Consequently, the communal cauldron is on a slow simmer. The gas can always be turned on for it to bubble over. All of this is not without purpose.

Elections to UP, Punjab and Goa state assemblies are due in February 2017, that is, six months from now. The Narendra Modi government will have completed half its term. If hard saffron is to be the chosen line in these elections, softness with Pakistan hardly serves a purpose. “Development” as a platform will be required in 2019 General Elections. What shade of saffron is to be mixed with development, will be improvised in the light of experience after the February state elections.

The Atal Behari Vajpayee led government faced similar choices in July 2001. UP elections then, as now, were due in February, six months away.

Today, ofcourse, Modi-Amit Shah duet will settle on a hard line for the coming state elections. But in July 2001, there were two views in the BJP on the platform for the UP elections. Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister, Jaswant Singh were on the same page – a softer line, approximating to the middle ground which would open the door to a wider electorate. This was one of the reasons they were so enthusiastic about the Agra Summit with President Pervez Musharraf in July 2001. This was anathema to leaders like L.K. Advani. Helped decisively by senior MEA officials, they wrecked the summit.

A hard line for the UP elections became a fait accompli.

Luck favoured the hardliners. Within six weeks of Agra, 9/11 happened. By October 7, 2001, President George Bush had embarked on the world’s most riveting fireworks on live TV – air strikes on Afghanistan. The global war on terror metastasized into global war on Muslim terror. Anti Muslim rhetoric soared. Journalist Geraldo Rivera whipped out a revolver live on Fox News. He would shoot Osama bin Laden if he ever saw him. New standards in journalism were being set.

An irony confronted New Delhi. Since 1989 successive Indian Prime Ministers had complained of “cross border terrorism from Pakistan”. Suddenly Islamabad was Washington’s key partner in the war on global terror. Bush’s Ambassador in New Delhi, Robert Blackwill, explained the incongruity in simple words: “Pakistan is helping the US fight the global war on terror; the cross border terrorism New Delhi complains of is part of an old regional quarrel.”

Only after the December 13, 2001, attack on Indian Parliament and the unprecedented mobilization of the armies on both sides of the border, did the Indian plaint register with the international community. Nevertheless, it remained a piquant situation. America’s frontline partner in the War on Terror was also New Delhi’s principal tormentor with its relentless cross border terrorism. Not for the first time, the US was sailing on two boats at the same time.

BJP hardliners, in search for electoral gain, ended up with something of a mixed bag. Shrill anti Pak rhetoric and anti Muslim atmospherics worldwide because of the global war on terror did not work in UP. Election results came out on February 24-25, 2002. Rajnath Singh, as Chief Minister, had brought down the BJP’s tally from 174 to 88 seats in a House of 403. But Modi’s hard saffron campaign in Gujarat in July 2001, boosted by the post Godhra pogrom, succeeded. He won 127 seats in a House of 182. Clearly, compared to UP, Gujarat is more communalism prone. Witness the 1969 Gujarat riots in which, according to a commission of inquiry, 527 Muslims perished. Hitendra Desai of the Congress was the Chief Minister.

Also, the Modi campaign had the tailwind rising from the Gujarat pogrom of February 2002. Rajnath Singh’s UP campaign predated the riots. Amit Shah must have pondered this deeply when he crafted the 2014 Parliament elections particularly in UP. Deep saffron in the air does not by itself suffice for electoral delivery. Riots too are sometimes required.

So, Amit Shah raised the communal pitch in UP to the levels of post Godhra Gujarat. The Muzaffarnagar riots of August-September 2013 served this purpose. Amit Shah came up trumps. BJP won 73 of the 80 seats in UP.

It is only reasonable to assume that the party will maintain communal temperatures from tepid to torrid until the elections in February. Steps towards harmony in the valley or on the Indo-Pak track will unsettle the political thermostat programmed towards these electoral ends.

If this is the unstated script, the BJP-PDP three legged race will continue. In the meantime Ram Madhav, BJP’s agile point man for Kashmir, will keep whispering soothing mantras in the PDP’s ears. The BJP-PDP alliance will ride the tiger until it devours them.

Whenever the valley flares up, a grand delusion afflicts pundits in New Delhi, that Kashmir can be sorted out by talking to “all sides” in the state. There is an aversion to look at the complex triangular reality. In 1947-48 we trapped ourselves in a triangle. New Delhi-Srinagar, India-Pakistan, Hindu-Muslim are one complex of issues. You cannot touch one line of this triangle without affecting the other two. This formula is cast in stone.

Vajpayee had the stature nationally, and in the Sangh Parivar, to take a holistic view of this triangle. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh picked up the thread until he ran into Pakistani recalcitrance. He and some of his Pakistani interlocutors knew that agreement is possible without any territorial bargain provided the triangle is kept in focus.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Has Trump Lost His Mind Or Is He On Hillary’s Case

Has Trump Lost His Mind Or Is He On Hillary’s Case
                                                                      Saeed Naqvi

The 4 column headline in Times of India screams: “Trump fires fresh salvo, says Obama and Hillary founded ISIS.” Has Donald Trump, the Republican Presidential candidate, lost his mind as the entire US establishment would have us believe? Or are his fingers somewhere in the vicinity of Hillary Clinton’s jugular?

Since I have travelled to all the countries in the region affected by the ISIS, let me check out.

I find myself in the company of journalists and diplomats in the lobby of the Semiramis hotel, Damascus. In the group is a veteran US diplomat and Arabist, Edward Lionel Peck. Like several other Arab countries, he knows Syria like the back of his hand. One evening, the hotel bar is filled with journalists interspersed with silent intelligence agents who, in Arab countries, stand out: expressionless, mechanically counting worry beads. The conversation is about the visit to the disturbed city, Homs, by US ambassador, Robert Stephen Ford and his French counterpart.

When the country is in the grip of an insurgency, is it not intriguing that a US ambassador – a personal favourite of the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton – is travelling to all the trouble spot – Homs, Hama, D’era?

Among the strategic community who have cried “foul” at Trump’s candidature, remember the name of Ambassador John Negroponte, former Deputy Secretary of State. The Robert Stephen Ford variety of diplomacy, which touches the borders of Special Operations, had received high grades from Negroponte when they worked together in the Green Zone, Baghdad. Negroponte described Ford as “one of those very tireless people…..who didn’t mind putting on his flak jacket and helmet and going out of the Green Zone to meet contacts”.

This genius of Ford’s was now being put to use in Syria. This was precisely the time when Secretary of State, Clinton would appear on TV, exhorting President Assad with an imperious wave of the hand “get out of the way”, the Syrian people are coming.

When Ed Peck heard of Ambassador Ford’s activities, he wrote a letter which might echo the feelings of many senior American diplomats: 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. Remember her endorsement of Hillary Clinton at Philadelphia? “We are both from Wellesley college.”

The ISIS threat has been around since 2014. 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 later that year, 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?

Why was Nouri al Maliki such a hate object for the Obama administration? Because he refused to sign the Status of Forces agreement which would allow American troops, on their terms, in Iraq. Were Americans to return empty handed after having spent so much in blood and treasure on the Iraqi expedition? Ofcourse, not.

Paul Bremer, the first US representative in Iraq, had been persuaded to disband Saddam Hussain’s special forces, police, secret service and above all the entire B’ath Party. Several hundred thousand Iraqi Baathist had found refuge in Syria. Let’s not forget that Syria was still a Baathist regime. Over years, these Iraqi Baathist became the central column in the architecture of ISIS. The extremist elements from Saudi Arabia and Turkey providing Al Nusra type violent jihadists, the ones who furnished the suicide bomber part of the contingent. The force charged through Iraq, reaching almost the borders of Baghdad. Ask any Arab Ambassador other than the Saudis, Qataris and Jordanians and they will swear that this strike force was equipped with the latest American vehicles and equipments. This is the version from Najaf too. Has someone leaked this portfolio to Donald Trump? Because what he is saying compromises national security and the American establishment will not let him go scot-free on that one.

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Friday, August 5, 2016

Zakir Naik’s Fortunes and Loss Of Saudi Clout

Zakir Naik’s Fortunes and Loss Of Saudi Clout
                                                                        Saeed Naqvi
Zakir Naik, Islamic evangelist with rock star ratings, could be only temporarily in trouble. Come November and he may be able to find apologists in the NDA government.

What has November got to do with the government? Because, like the rest of the world, New Delhi is waiting for the outcome of the US elections. A Hillary Clinton victory will end the nail biting suspense globally, and in Israel and Saudi Arabia there may be celebrations. Naik’s patrons in Saudi Arabia are perhaps low today, but they could bounce back with a Clinton victory.

Islamic Research Centre and The Clinton Foundation have another link: considerable sums for their respective Foundations have come from Saudi Arabia.

Naik has been officially in the business of evangelism since 1991 when IRF was established. That year Manmohan Singh’s New Economic Policies brought New Delhi in line with the US. George Bush Sr. was the President. The Bush family’s extraordinary interests in Saudi Arabia continued during the Clinton years.

An economically “reformed” New Delhi looked at Washington for almost every foreign policy lead. Since the Saudis could do no wrong in US eyes, New Delhi adopted the same public stance towards Riyadh. Zakir Naik preached in the Salafi-Wahabi idiom, favoured by the House of Saud. Little wonder, successive Indian Prime Ministers were advised to look the other way. During days of breathless adoration for the US, particularly when the nuclear deal was being negotiated, what registered in South Block was an unstated message from Washington: tolerate Saudi Arabia and its interests. Zakir Naik had Saudi protection. Therefore, his evangelism was acceptable to India for the past 25 years. Wahabism-Salafism was kosher when, on cue, New Delhi was voting against Iran in Vienna.

Naik has fallen on bad days because the West and their clients like Saudi Arabia have badly bungled in Syria. Jointly and singly they financed and armed all manner of extremist groups. Their search for a “moderate opposition” remained a pipe dream.

The blowback from the Syrian, Libyan (earlier Iraqi and Afghan misadventures) continued to plague the Saudis. Ultimately, to run away from themselves, they leapt into the bubbling Yemen cauldron.

Destroyed countries and civilizations created a migration problem, an Exodus of Biblical proportions, causing Europe to shuffle out of its old coil. Two party political structures, secured a long time ago, began to crumble.

As if all of this were not unsettling enough, the Americans have just come up with an unconvincing Republican nominee for President and a Democratic nominee who is by her own admission “unloved”. Even The Economist, that pillar of the western-liberal establishment has pulled out from the dictionary adjectives of an extreme nature to describe Hillary Clinton: “dishonest”, “untrustworthy”.

In brief, the West has its own crises to worry about. The Saudis had already come down a notch or two when the Iranian nuclear deal was signed. And now, the mess in Europe and the US, has pushed Saudis away from the West’s attention radar.

New Delhi, which keeps a steady gaze on Washington and its changing moods, has shrewdly noticed Riyadh’s fall from grace. Naik can now be taken to task. The change of heart on the evangelist also signals something important: New Delhi now feels secure in the thought that Sufism and mild Hanafi Sunnism most characterize Indian Muslims. Wahabism-Salafism is remote from the wider Islamic practice among India’s Sunnis.

Riyadh maybe down, but it would be premature to count it out. After all, should Hillary Clinton enter the White House, who knows what might she not do for “Israel’s security”. Her email released by Wikileaks confirmed that the Obama administration had deliberately provoked the civil war in Syria as “the best way to help Israel”.

In an earlier email she said: “the best way to help Israel deal with Iran’s growing nuclear capability is to help the people of Syria overthrow the regime of Bashar Assad.”

“Overthrowing Bashar Assad” was the one point theme former Saudi Spy Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan had been instructed by the late King Abdullah to pursue. Typical of Prince Bandar’s theatrical style of diplomacy, he turned up at the Kremlin on a secret mission. He promised Putin a “terror free” Sochi Olympic games if only he could have Assad’s head on a platter. Bandar was sidelined because he could not deliver on Syria.

So long as the Israeli military point of view is part of Western strategic thinking, a regime change in Damascus must re surface as a Washington priority, should Hillary Clinton win.

Such an operation would require co ordination with the Saudis as well. In other words the current nosedive in Saudi saliency maybe quite as dramatically arrested. Zakir Naik’s protectors in Riyadh may yet be able to stiffen their sinews and summon up the blood. Good for Naik. Also Delhi will then have to place Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina’s concerns in the balance. Apparently Naik’s evangelical mesmerism is causing concerns in Dhaka where acts of terror have picked up in frequency, allegedly influenced by his eloquence.

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