Friday, December 28, 2018

Announcing Withdrawals: Trump Is Doing What He Promised At Outset

Announcing Withdrawals: Trump Is Doing What He Promised At Outset
                                                                                        Saeed Naqvi

With the suddenness of revelation, withdrawal from Syria and “drawdown” from Afghanistan have been announced by Donald Trump. In the past such announcements were followed up with a tidy pattern: two steps forward, one step back. But this time debate and hesitation have been foreclosed. Witness the way Defence Secretary James Mattis is being shown the door because he finds himself not on the same page as the President.

Pundits will have difficulty digesting the proposition that President Donald Trump is setting out to do in Syria, Afghanistan, the Mexican border, Russia, what he had promised during the election campaign right upto its closing days in November 2016. He suddenly turned up in Baghdad to signal his disapproval of the mess his predecessors made of that expedition. Some cameos will be forgotten in the rush of news that must be expected.

I have followed Syria closely since August 2011 when I found myself in President Bashar al Assad’s office in Damascus. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, knitted her brows when I pointed out the ease with which US Ambassador, Robert Stephen Ford, along with his French counterpart, were driving around Hama, Homs, Daraa, all centres of agitation, meeting anti Assad insurgents. “Just shows how penetrated we were”, Shaaban said. The past tense is important.

Like colour revolutions elsewhere, the initial ignition was amplified by the global media to mobilize opinion in the region and beyond. An article by James Glanz and John Markoff in the New York Times gave graphic descriptions of the technology designed by the Obama administration to bypass state communication controls, and to deploy ‘shadow’ internet and mobile phone systems that “dissidents can use to undermine repressive governments.” Did I hear someone wail that Russian interfere in other countries?

Against this backdrop let me fast forward to Trump’s interview with Jake Tapper of the CNN just before the elections. “Where do you think have billions of dollars’ worth of arms – and cash – gone in the course of our involvement in Syria? To the extremists, ofcourse: I believe so.”

Trump was right. Obama’s Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, made several humiliating Syria related announcements. His face in the lower mould, Carter announced that the $500 million project to train “rebels” in Syria was discontinued because arms reached groups the US intended to fight.

That the US intelligence agencies were mixed up with militant groups became more or less clear in subsequent leaks. An admission that Obama made to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in August 2015 when the rise of the ISIS was the big story is revealing. Friedman asked Obama why he had not bombed the ISIS when it first reared its head. The interview was given in August 2015. Obama minced no words. “That we did not just start taking a bunch of air strikes all across Iraq as soon as the IS came in was because that would have taken the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki.” ISIS was, in other words, an asset then.

Maliki was in bad odour with the Obama establishment because he refused to sign the Status of Forces Agreement: “that would have involved the surrender of Iraqi sovereignty”. In this stand Maliki had the support of the Shia establishment at Najaf led by Grand Ayatullah Sistani. This stance of Sistani’s placed him on the wrong side of the American media. There is delicious irony in this. The media sang paeans of the high priest in 2005. In fact Friedman had written a column proposing Sistani for the Nobel Prize for the constructive role he played in inviting Iraqi Shias, an overwhelming majority in the country, to help stabilize electoral democracy.

True, a structure for the practice of democracy is in place in Baghdad but the Two River Civilization has been ripped apart and terrorism is endemic. On this too Trump, in his conversation with Tapper, pulls no punches:
“Saddam Hussain and Qaddafi may have been bad men but there was no terrorism in their countries. What we have created is terrorism.”

There have been many false troop withdrawal alarms in the past, even during the Trump years. The Syrian army, aided by the Russians, appeared to be in control, until the next eruption, in Aleppo, Del Azour, Idlib, anywhere. The motivation to keep the pressure up on Assad came principally from Riyadh. But a somewhat lame duck post Khashoggi. Riyadh is winding down in Yemen and probably lacking in spunk vis a vis Syria. A greater credibility therefore attends announcement of troop withdrawal on this occasion.

Trump’s announcement of drawing down troops in Afghanistan has coincided with the appointment of Amrullah Saleh as Minister of Interior. He is a Tajik, former spymaster and close adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Masood and a persistent critic of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan civil war. Let me share with you a flavour of Saleh’s thinking when I met him in Kabul a few years ago.

“The enemy is headquartered in Pakistan and he should be defeated there. For the US, the “expendable” part of the Taleban is in Afghanistan. Why would we ever collaborate with NATO who wish to kill Afghans they consider expendable? NATO has no strategy in the region because it has no policy towards Pakistan. They know they cannot defeat the Afghan Taleban without hitting hard at their bases in Pakistan.”

Much water has flown down the Kabul River since Saleh spoke to me. Trump’s newly appointed special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has also tried to correct the image attached to him, that of being anti Pakistan. During a recent visit to Islamabad, Secretary of State Mike Pampeo, gave Khalilzad a high profile in his delegation. Much was made of the fact that Khalilzad visited Islamabad before New Delhi. Obviously, Khalilzad would like to get rid of the perception that he proposes a higher profile for India in Afghanistan.

Anyone interested in visually observing the success of India’s policy of “diplomacy by default”, a slow tortoise-like movement, should visit Hauz Rani opposite Max hospital where a virtual afghan colony has sprung up, eateries et al, harmoniously merging with the landscape.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

An Oasis Of Peace In A Troubled World

An Oasis Of Peace In A Troubled World
                                                                     Saeed Naqvi

Yellow vests in Paris, Brexit in Britain, Trump in the US, George Soros and Steve Bannon vying for the soul of Europe, Turkey embroiled in the Kurdish enclaves in Syria, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in post Khashoggi free fall, corruption allegations enveloping Netanyahu: In the midst of these global wind storms, cyclones, tornados is the calm centre which I visited last week. It is four hours flight away from New Delhi – indeed most major Indian cities – Qatar or, to be more precise, Doha, the capital, where 80 percent of the population lives.

For this reason, among others, traffic is a nightmare at peak hours. Bumper to bumper, Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs, Land Rovers, Lexus – luxurious means of transport all static exhibits of high end automobiles in Doha’s traffic jams.

This is the price which the 300,000 Qataris, 700,000 Indians and a host of others who make up Qatar’s total population of nearly three million (mostly expatriates from countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Georgia) have agreed to pay. With a little more inconvenience until 2022, the FIFA World Cup promises to shower incalculable windfalls on the country. Its GDP of 167.60 billion makes it the world’s richest country by World Bank calculations. Frenetic activity to build nine air conditioned football stadiums and all the infrastructure, roads, hotels and, to ease the traffic, an elaborate underground metro system are possible only when a country so small is insulated from upheavals endemic in the world all around. It is almost unreal.

In a strife ridden neighbourhood Qatar exceptionalism invites jealousy. The May-June 2017 closing of Saudi land border leads to a catastrophic situation. UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan sever diplomatic relation, shut down the Al Jazeera channel, impose land, sea and air embargo. But the coordinated effort to bring Qatar to its heels boomerangs on the conspirators. With Metternich like diplomatic finesse, the Emir, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani (advised by his father) wove a formidable coalition. Just in case Saudi’s thought of a military adventure, Turkish troops in brigade strength had taken pre emptive positions in Qatar.

The line being enunciated by the strategic community in the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia is straightforward: the Shia-Sunni faultline in the Arab world will subsume the Palestinian issue. This is anathema to the Qatari rulers. A Sheikh with direct access to the palace minced no words: “There are two taboos in Qatar – never speak about intra tribe conflicts and total silence on Shia-Sunni identities. “ In the Emir’s framework, “We are all Qataris – period.” So firmly has this line been pursued that it is impossible to know whether Shias are five or fifteen percent of the population? In a country as rich as Qatar, the top three or four businessmen are Shias.

Broad spread of Wahabism in the GCC countries has been tempered with strands of Sunni belief, a fact which gives Qatar access to activists of the Akhwan ul Muslimeen or the Muslim Brotherhood which holds sway over Hamas in Gaza.

Brothers must be ruing the day they appointed the inept Mohamed Morsi as the President of Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. For that one year of Morsi’s rule, there was a coherent Muslim Brotherhood ring from Egypt, Qatar, Turkey to Hamas.

Hamas meanwhile had support from another formidable axis – Iran, Hezbollah, Syria. The paradox was that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ayatullahs in Iran representing two antithetical interpretations of Islam converged on the Palestinian cause. This was cause for alarm for Tel Aviv as well as Riyadh, the latter because the Brothers, like the Ayatullahs, are opposed to monarchies and wahabism. Little wonder the late King Abdullah turned up in Cairo with $8 billion to help Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stabilize himself after Morsi’s ouster. It was important to remove Egypt, a key link in the Brotherhood chain, for a simple reason. A similar effort to breach the Iran led axis, by bringing about a regime change in Syria, had come a cropper despite persistent efforts since 2011.

Egypt, the largest Sunni country having been neutralized, the idea of digging deep along the Shia-Sunni faultline received a determined push from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Much to his irritation, his cousins in Qatar were, with great suppleness, as comfortable with the Brothers in Hamas as they were with Iranian support for the same cause.

The closer MBS gets to Israeli positions in the region, the more do the Qatar Emirs tap into their generosity towards the battered economy of Gaza. This goes down well even in today’s relatively desensitized Arab Street. Gaza civil servants were saved from abject penury when the Qataris picked up the entire salary bill for last month. More is in the pipeline.

While these gestures are lifesaving ones for Hamas, they are sources of annoyance to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority nurses conspiracy theories. Tel Aviv is aware of these transactions, say Palestinian officials, since most of this cash is transferred from Ben Gurion airport across Israeli territory.

Earlier, US sent $840 million to Hamas annually. But an essential part of Trumpism is to invite regional players to chip in for problems in their neighbourhood. The President’s son-in-law, Jarred Kushner’s recent talk of “Palestinian misery” is designed to invite the oil-rich Sheikhdoms to loosen their purse strings. By harping on this narrative, the Palestinian Authority is, by implication suggesting that Qatari generosity towards Gaza is at Washington and Israel’s bidding. If true, this more or less confirms the thesis popular in Doha and Ankara since the mid-90s: Turkey under Tayyip Erdogan’s three terms pursued a policy of zero conflict with neighbours and major powers. Likewise, Doha maintained excellent relations all around. In fact it was at American behest that Qatar opened an office for the Taleban in Doha as a channel for dialogue.

The genesis of the Saudi-Qatar bitterness is old, cavernous family feuds. But the recent reckless escalation by MBS is a function of his own irritation at the mess he has landed himself in Syria and Yemen. In these circumstances Qatar’s excellent relations with Iran stand in the way of MBS, Netanyahu, Kushner’s promotion of a Shia-Sunni faultline.

Who knows by 2022 when the universe will be riveted on the FIFA world cup, Khashoggi, like Banquo’s ghost, will continue to menace MBS, possibly to the bitter end.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

Can Rahul’s Hinduism Succeed Where Bogus Secularism Failed?

Can Rahul’s Hinduism Succeed Where Bogus Secularism Failed?
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

It will be impossible to resist the temptation of attributing Congress gains in the three northern states to Rahul Gandhi’s demonstrative adoption of Hinduism. In some measure, that is. There are two ways of looking at it. It is a trick which worked. Or it is the enunciation of a line which has to be developed?

So effective has been the BJP’s saffronization of the atmosphere that even Communists shy away from discussing minorities. West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee has decided to build 10 Sun temples. Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav will build a Vishnu temple. There is, ofcourse, the biggest temple of all to be built in Ayodhya. If Rahul places his new found religiosity on a creative track, he can trump the BJP on that count too. Absurd though it may sound, he can, under certain circumstances, bring Muslims around to the idea that the ailing Lucknow cleric Maulana Kalbe Sadiq has been consistently propagating. Even if the Supreme Court verdict goes in their favour, Muslims should, in an act of magnanimity, help build the Rama temple. This cannot be expected of a community which sees itself as an object of hate. But if Rahul’s is an all-inclusive Hinduism where all are equal, well, the terms of endearment can change.

Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, after all, had the Ayodhya temple locks opened, an act which facilitated the temple movement. Rajiv promised “Ram Rajya” while inaugurating the 1989 election from Ayodhya. He allowed the bricklaying ceremony of the Ram Temple on disputed land but asked officials to look the other way. He fell between stools. Gingerly flirting with Hinduism proved counterproductive. Rahul has come out overtly, causing some of us to smirk. How far will it go?

The Congress, as Rahul must know, was implacably opposed to the “Two Nation” theory i.e. Hindus and Muslims constitute two distinct nations. Maulana Azad, President of the Congress from 1939 to 1945, had arrived at an agreement for an undivided India with the Cabinet Mission. He was unequivocal. “Partitioned India will be unadulterated Hindu Raj”.

It may have sounded rhetorical in the earlier years but where we have arrived is exactly what Azad had predicted. The Congress Working Committee meeting of June 3, 1947, accepted Mountbatten’s Partition plan. Why was Maulana Azad the only leader to have had serious misgiving? Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, wept. “You have thrown us to the wolves.” Only these two Doubting Thomases? All the others swallowed Partition hook-line-and sinker? With some reluctance, even Mahatma Gandhi accepted Partition. Atleast this is what Azad writes in “India Wins Freedom”.

An endorsement of Mountbatten’s plan to divide India implied that the two nation theory had been accepted. The creation of Pakistan was one step in that direction. Just as the neighbour was called Pakistan could we not have been named Hindustan? In reality, we glided seamlessly from British Raj to Hindu Raj but, ridden by a guilty conscience, hesitated to spell it out. It is this hesitation which created room for the BJP to step in and grow.

If I were a Hindu, I would ask, as the late Vinod Mehta, my friend of 60 years, asked me in his Nizamuddin apartment: “800 years of Muslim rule, 200 years of the British and next door there is now a Muslim state. Against this backdrop, would you grudge me a Hindu state?”

Volumes would have to be written to focus on the nuances embedded in Vinod’s query but for purposes of a quick column this may be the appropriate moment to touch on issues now that the Indian National Congress has, with unprecedented honesty, embraced its Hindu credentials. And, on current showing, the switch has been accepted by the people.

Nehru would have been uncomfortable with “Hindu Raj” for a variety of reasons but the overriding reason for keeping aside “Hindu Raj” was realpolitik: what principle would then be cited to keep Kashmir?

When the founding fathers charted a course of neutrality, tolerance, respect for all religions without priviledging any one of them, they had probably not taken into account the crucial reality: a multi religious, multi ethnic, multi lingual, society frozen for centuries in a caste system, suddenly exposed to notions of democracy, upward mobility egalitarianism would create upheavals. A society inherently unequal was being set on a path of equality. The way ahead had to be unspeakably turbulent.

Add to this the following: the world’s largest minority and third largest Muslim population which had no role in the creation of Pakistan found itself unable to produce that certificate of nationalism which is not available without a compulsive hatred for Pakistan. This hatred, tied with the televised image of Kashmiris as terrorists and Indian Muslim as a potential fifth column is a lethal mix, custom made for a societal wreck, which is what we are today.

How can Rahul calm this cauldron? By deftly upping the ante for the BJP? While the Hindutva brigade is busy changing names of lanes and culverts, should he sail above the BJP? Should he insert in the Congress manifesto “Hindustan” as the official name to replace the ambivalence of “India that is Bharat”?

All of this flounders against the logic that Muslims and other minorities may not be comfortable with the overt Hinduization of a party which has so far pretended to stand on a secular platform. There is an abundance of warped minds who are obstinately attached to labels like secularism without critically examining where this bogus secularism has landed them.

I constantly give the example of a society like Britain. Christianity is the official religion. This fact has not stood in the way of Sadiq Khan being the Mayor of London, Sajid Javed, Home Secretary and Moeen Ali as a regular man of the match and so on. This is not because the Anglo Saxon is inherently secular. This is so because the rule of law prevails resulting in social harmony.

The Sachar Committee report on the socio economic condition of Muslims was bad enough. In 70 years they have been brought down to the lowest rung. Hysterical focus by the electronic media on Pakistan, Kashmir and by inference, Indian Muslims, has fouled up the atmosphere so much as to justify the Washington Post headline “Modi’s India is a living nightmare for Muslims”.

The results from the three northern states will serve as a balm. Let Rahul build upon it.

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Kartarpur: What Went Before It And What Might Follow

Kartarpur: What Went Before It And What Might Follow
                                                                                         Saeed Naqvi

The controversy surrounding Navjot Singh Siddhu’s pilgrimage to Kartarpur Sahib must have amused President Ram Nath Kovind whose visit to Pakistan in August 2003 as part of a 30 member delegation of political leaders and journalists was one of the most high profile visits in the history of exchanges between the two countries. Kovind’s fellow BJP comrade in the delegation was Balbir Punj whose sense of wonder at the warmth and hospitality from the official to the street level was one of the features I remember. Restaurants would offer food gratis, shops would not accept payments from “our guests from India”.

Even though the delegation had been invited by the South Asia Free Media Association, President Pervez Musharraf’s Foreign Minister Khurshid Mohammad Kasuri was the unmentioned behind the scenes.

From the Indian side, the All Party Goodwill delegation was part of Prime Minister Vajpayee’s push towards tranquilizing the Line of Control in Kashmir. That was the period when the two countries moved towards the only feasible arrangement – territorial status quo but movement of people and goods across the line.

The “goodwill” part of the visit was boosted sky high by the sheer presence of Laloo Prasad Yadav in the delegation. It became something of a mobile comedy from the moment Yadav was mobbed as soon as he crossed Wagah. Which other leader would create a traffic jam in the middle of a vegetable market comparing prices of potatoes, onions, radish etcetera on both sides of the border – and with complete authority of the rural economy. With his lilting Bihari speech and folksy humour Yadav monopolized prime time TV across the board and front pages of all newspapers without exception.

The BJP duet coped with the Laloo show in ample humour, but the Congress MP from Karnataka, Margaret Alva was livid. When President Musharraf, fascinated by the Laloo circus, seated him on his right at the banquet, Alva threw a fit. She represented a party with 110 seats, she declared for everyone to hear. “And you have promoted in the seating order the leader of a party with only seven seats in Parliament?” Alva’s tandav caught everyone by surprised. Laloo saved the situation by exchanging seats with her. This dramatic act of humility became a cause celebre. Alva’s tantrum and Laloo’s humility became prime time fare all over again.

The delegation’s visit, a huge public relations success, was followed up in January 2004 by Vajpayee himself. Yashwant Sinha, as Foreign Minister, was able to issue, not an agreement but only a press statement which contained the crucial commitment: “President Musharraf reassured Prime Minister Vajpayee that he will not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner……”

The contents of the press note had to be tentative in nature. The Pakistan bureaucrat, receiving impulses from Army Headquarters, was aware of the gamble involved. General elections were round the corner in India. Pakistan’s hesitations would in retrospect appear to be justified: Vajpayee lost the election.

Having travelled with Vajpayee on most of his foreign trips, including his journeys as Minister for External Affairs (1977-80), one observation is unmistakable. For a leader as thoughtful as him, he was often persuaded by his secretariat to undertake foreign initiatives without a careful study of the pros and cons of the proposed visit that the Indian embassy in the country to be visited may have prepared. Sometimes these assessment were made by outstanding ambassadors. The result of underprepared visits were often disastrous. Sometimes the host country was inadequately prepared for a meaningful dialogue.

Take, for instance, Vajpayee’s much touted bus journey to Lahore in February 1999. It was never a journey to Lahore. I was in that bus. I should know. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Information Minister, Mushahid Hussain received Vajpayee in the no-man’s-land between the two border gates. A helicopter flew the two Prime Ministers to the Government House in Lahore. The Pakistan establishment could not risk driving Vajpayee because of anti-India demonstrations in Lahore organized by the Jamat e Islami. In other words public opinion in Pakistan had not been prepared for a visit which New Delhi was advertising as “historic”.

As a great symbolic gesture of embracing the idea of Pakistan, Vajpayee even visited Minar-e-Pakistan. Jamaat volunteers washed the Minar that afternoon. The official banquet at the Lahore Fort was delayed by hours because demonstrators disrupted the traffic.

There will be great willingness in the present mood in India to blame the disastrous visit on the persistent anti-Indian venom in the Pakistan psyche even at the street level. It would be a flawed conclusion. The moral of the story is that Vajpayee turned up in Lahore with Indian intelligence not having it ears close to the ground on how divided the Pak establishment was on the Lahore visit. The visit was in February; Kargil happened in May. Musharraf, the author of Kargil, later had a change of heart. How else does one explain his fruitless visit to Agra in July 2001? Vajpayee’s visit in 2004 did not set the Ravi on fire because the hosts knew that Indian elections were due in few months. Islamabad did not quite swallow the “Shining India” pitch.

Vajpayee’s visit as External Affairs Minister to China in February 1979 was likewise a casualty of South Block not having heeded words of caution from the embassy in Beijing. When China decided to teach Hanoi “a lesson” and initiated a war without as much as a hint to the Indian External Affairs Minister who happened to be their guest. The next morning the Indian delegation, their faces in the lower mould, caught the passage to Hong Kong and thence to New Delhi.

The Kartarpur Sahib was not by any stretch of the imagination a comparable diplomatic initiative. But it does give clues to a post-election look at possibilities that one or other of the coalitions in New Delhi might be tempted to explore. It makes logical sense that the one party habit of looking at Indo-Pak tension as a useful ploy for vote consolidation would be a matter of the past in the expected era of balancing coalitions.

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