Pakistan and Iran: Future of Trade Relations

Pakistan and Iran have been strengthening their bilateral relationship over the past year, which has recently translated to trade relations. Trade growth between Pakistan and Iran would lead to significant domestic and regional development for both countries, and could also lead to potential new alliances in different sectors of the economy. However, border tensions between Pakistan and Iran are ever- present, and even more pertinent after the recent kidnapping of numerous Iranian guards at a border point. This border tension may cause a strain on the developing trade conversations, which could lead to the diminishment of the new initiative.

Iran Consul General Reza Nazeri recently spoke on the topic of trade relations to the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, mentioning the two countries’ shared borders and cultural links in his address. Nazeri stated, “Oil, chemical, gas and other sectors of the economy should be focused for mutual trade… Pakistan has a distinguished status in milk production and Iran’s experience in dairy sector can be beneficial in this regard.” He also discussed Iran’s budding construction potential, and how both countries could work together to further this initiative. The joint promotion of tourism could be another venture, due to the prospective future in that sector as well.

Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines, and Agriculture chief Gholamhossein Shafei and Pakistan’s Ambassador to Iran met last Monday to discuss ways that trade can increase between the two countries. Shafei mentioned that the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the Rajaee port in Iran can be included in this bilateral trade development. He stated in his meeting with the Pakistani ambassador, “most trade transactions conducted between Iran and Pakistan are in the form of unofficial trade". If Pakistan re-examines and changes its custom tariffs on Iranian commodities, trade could be easier managed between the two nations. Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran, Rifat Masood stated that Pakistan is also committed to establishing stronger bilateral trade relations, and will work to overcome any hurdles that may be facing this development. Pakistan’s tariffs for Iranian imports are high, which is contributing to less trade between the nations. Iran however also needs to do their part in creating a better environment for trade, as Masood established.

Earlier this week, Pakistan and Iran also agreed to compose a trade committee to address the potential expansion of rail connections for increased trade. Quetta Customs Collector Ashraf Ali and Iranian delegation head Nadir Mir both chaired this meeting, which focused on the two nations’ banking sector as well. The increased trade relations would help the conditions of the Pak- Iran bordering provinces, particularly Balochistan, Sistan, and Baluchestan.

 There has been an immense level of tension present on the border between the two nations for many years, which may serve as a hurdle in regard to increased trade. Most recently, there was a number of Iranian guards who were abducted at the border point of Mirjaveh this past week. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke on the incident, and the Iranian foreign ministry called in the Pakistani envoy in Tehran to discuss the abduction. An Iranian separatist organization called Jaish al- Adl took responsibility for the kidnapping. Qureshi stated that this abduction was the “handiwork of our common enemies unhappy with the existing close, friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran.” He also stated that the two countries usually have a “border of peace and friendship.”

 There has been rising animosity in Iran on this issue, specifically with Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim authorities. They have stated that these militant groups operate from Pakistan, which serves as a ‘safe haven’ for the organizations. In previous cases regarding the border conflict, Iran has threatened to act against militant bases in Pakistan unless there was action taken to resolve the conflict.

 This tension on the border raises concern when considering increased trade between the Iran and Pakistan, as the success of the trade initiative is dependent on stable routes of transportation. The expansion of trade connections can be significantly affected if tensions on the border continue to increase, particularly regarding railroad development and tourism. While both countries are currently willing to furthering their bilateral relationship, Pakistan’s response to this incident can affect the future of this initiative.

Pakistan's Economic Crisis

Pakistan’s Economic Crisis

 For a while now, Pakistan’s economy has been heading down a dangerous yet familiar path that leads to the doors of an IMF bailout. Pakistan’s shaky economy, uncalibrated spending and poor policy frameworks have driven their account deficit to rise to $18 billion in the year 2018. With the Pakistani Rupee (PKR) in free–fall (20 percent in the last year and a current standing value of PKR 131 to the US dollar),without the protection of robust exports and with a budget deficit of more than PKR 2 trillion, there is slim hope of an internally stimulated economic revival.Aggravating the fiscal problem is a circular debt of 2 trillion PKRfurther exacerbated by a trade deficit, which has widened by 15 percent to over PKR 335 billionlast year. It has since reached a record low of PKR 452 billionin June of 2018. 

At the core of Pakistan’s current economic crisis lies a potpourri of factors that have had crippling effects on its ability to contain its rapid economic slide.

Since the beginning of the current fiscal year, Pakistan’s imports have risen to 549.7 billion PKR. While its exports grew by 22 percent to 214.4 billion PKR,its trade deficit during this period  widened considerably. The growing trade deficit can be attributed to a surge in imports, which primarily comprises costly energy resources such as coal and oil to support ongoing power projects. In 2013, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff approved 21 power projects to build Pakistan’s power generation capacity which would primarily be run on imported coal.These projects are estimated to cost approximately $35 billion. Oil prices  have increased dramatically in the past year as well. Oil-using power plants comprise the largest source of electricity in the country. Naturally, the increase in costs of imported oil have consistently added to Pakistan’s trade deficit. 

In comparison to its high value imports, Pakistan’s export basket comprises mainly products such as cotton, cloth, rice and other raw materials. In simple terms, these are sold for significantly less than the costs of energy imports, thereby skewing the trade deficit. Policy makers have also been lax in creating an environment that enables innovation and spurs the growth of high value and diverse industries that are internationally competitive. Doing so could have driven up the value of Pakistan’s exports vis-a-vis its imports and attracted greater foreign investment, which has lagged in recent times due to Pakistan’s fragile security environment and ensuing volatility of the economy. 

CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) has also emerged as a key causal factor in Pakistan’s economic crisis. Recently, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson rejected all claims made by the US that Pakistan’s economic crisis was a result of the financial costs of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. CPEC is essentially a joint venture between the two countries under China’s Belt and Road Initiative that aims to address Pakistan’s energy issues, build its transportation network and support the development of its industries through 22 projects. While 18 of these projects have been funded by direct Chinese investment and the remaining four are on concessional roles, the cost of CPEC is estimated to be a whopping $62 billionwith much of the financing through loans with prohibitively high rates of interest. The calculations clearly show a huge financial burden on the Pakistani government added to its preexisting debt.  Additional to CPEC funding, China also provided 2 billiondollars in bilateral loans to Pakistan at the beginning of this fiscal year and over 3 billiondollars in commercial loans, all of which will have to paid back at some point in time! 

Like many of its ill-conceived micro-economic policies, Pakistan’s recent economic vision appears to have been focused primarily on CPEC’s potential positive impacts while overlooking its short and long term negative consequences, both financially as well as politically. CPEC’s long term implications could be burgeoning loans on Pakistan even after its possible recovery from the economic crisis. It could also cripple the sovereignty of Pakistan’s newly elected government if the government were to become increasingly dependent on Chinese financing and loans. 

Though on the one hand CPEC can be viewed as assisting Pakistan in its developmental needs, the huge financial commitments it has brought with it could be perceived as China exercising a ‘debt trap policy’.It is possible that should the IMF approve of a bail-out package, a large portion of that could somehow go towards repaying Pakistan’s loans from China. Becoming a client or vassal state of China is an argument that many analysts do not discount any more.

It will be a while before Pakistan’s economy is out of the woods. Support from the IMF and other global institutions will not suffice if Pakistan seeks a sustainable and stable economy that is able to compete with vibrant economies in South Asia like those of its neighbor, India, and a resurgent Bangladesh. To do that, Pakistan must address its fiscal crisis; avoid the looming debt trap; spur manufacturing and create an environment for innovation and technology driven industries to thrive. Only then will there be a revival of the industrial sector and the possibility of increased domestic and foreign investment in core sectors. While there is reasonable confidence within Pakistan that  CPEC is a long-term value proposition and that Pakistan will not default on Chinese loans the way Sri Lanka did, the current economic crisis does not inspire much confidence unless critical economic reforms are instituted sooner than later. 

Rafale Controversy Continues to Heat Up

Indian politics are heating up as the elections for the Lok Sabha draw closer and closer. As Congress continues to be behind in the opinion polls, they are trying to find ways to tear support away from the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Rahul Gandhi, the President of Congress, has been focusing on the alleged corruption Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been facing over the Rafale deal. Speaking on Modi last week, Gandhi said in very strong terms that “The Prime Minister of India is corrupt, I want to tell the youth of the nation that he is corrupt”. These words come after a 2012 deal under PM Manmohan Singh for 126 Rafale jets to be manufactured by French Dassault Aviation, was scrapped by Modi for an alternative deal where only 36 jets were to be made by Dassault Aviation and the rest inside India by Reliance Defense Limited.


Modi has faced very harsh criticism from inside and outside India over his handling of the deal. Former French President Francois Hollande criticized Modi saying that Dassault had no say in the deal. After Hollande, Rahul Gandhi was also critical in saying that within an internal Dassault document, it said it was an “imperative and obligatory” condition for Dassault to work with Reliance Defense Limited as a part of the contract.


Gandhi also highlighted the fact that Reliance Defense Limited is owned by Indian billionaires Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani. Modi is known to have friendly relationships with both of the Amabanis, something that Gandhi was sure to point out. “His favorite bhai (brother) is Anil Ambani” Gandhi said this week in Madhya Pradesh, drawing the connections between the handling of the deal and Reliance.


Gandhi has continued to claim that Modi’s scrapping of the original Rafale deal is a clear cut case of corruption by Modi. The Congress allegations on the Rafale deal got another round of attention after the comments by Francois Hollande. Gandhi said last week that “… the former President of France had said that the Indian PM had asked him to give the contract. There is a clear-cut case of corruption against the PM of India,”. Indian media reported that Dassault was forced to work along side Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Defense, and that Dassault had no say in the deal or who they got to work with in making the Rafale jets. Gandhi continued to make strong statements toward the Indian PM, “There is one thing very clear and the people will also understand that the PM of India is corrupt. There will be more information that will come forward from other contracts…in Rafale, there is clear cut corruption by the PM and that should be investigated,”


Answering the claims from Congress and Gandhi, BJP spokesman Sambit Patra claimed that those who are accusing Modi of corruption have also been accused of corruption themselves. “An atmosphere of falsehood is being created in the country and Rahul Gandhi is trying to fulfill his political ambitions through these lies…the people of the country should now decide who they want to believe.” The Modi government has denied the allegations brought up by Congress and has dismissed in wrong dealing in the handling of the deal.


In an attempt to show support, Gandhi said that he will meet with employees of Hindustan Aeronautics in Bangalore, who he believed should of won the Rafale contract. Gandhi said that there is a need to "defend the dignity of India’s defenders”. Gandhi claimed that the deal was snatched away from Hindustan Aeronautics and instead gifted to Reliance. Gandhi reaffirmed his backing of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics and said that they are a “strategic asset and future of India’s aerospace industry”.


While Congress and Gandhi are typically critical of PM Modi, they are amping up their attacks on Modi as elections for the Lok Sabha are coming up in mid-2019. Modi does hold a very large lead over Gandhi as Prime Minister, somewhere between 26% to 43%. However, since Modi has already been in office for four years, Indian’s may be fed up with Modi’s government and may seek for Gandhis’s alternative answers. Congress and Gandhi will be sure to try and capitalize on this controversy and swing votes their way. We will find out soon enough if this current Rafale controversy will effect Modi’s popularity and inevitably his office.

Modi’s Economy: Good for India, Not for Its Citizens

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies have received a significant amount of criticism over the past several years, especially due to the current account deficit that is present in India. However, India seems to be recovering from the initial transitionary blow and is moving towards national economic growth. The IMF World Economic Outlook projected this development, stating that India’s economy will grow at 7.3% in 2018 and 7.4% in 2019, a notable change from 6.7% in 2017. The IMF believes that Modi’s economic policies, such as the National Goods and Service Tax and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, are the source of this change. The increased market liberalization initiatives have also contributed to the economic growth, placing India ahead of China in regards to projected growth for the 2018- 2019 fiscal year.

While Modi’s policies may place India ahead of its competitors on the international playing field, the same cannot be said for the people within its borders. Job creation has slowed significantly over the past several years, due to a “mismatch between skills and ‘good jobs.’” There is a less than 1% improvement in employment growth within the country’s workforce, with one- third of unemployed residents having higher levels of education. India’s youth, particularly the country’s Gen Z, have been extremely critical of the Modi Administration’s policies regarding the creation of jobs. This will significantly impact how new voters, 130 million to be exact, will vote during the 2019 general elections. As explained in a Bloomberg article, “A key issue for this electorate is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to deliver on his promise of creating 10 million jobs a year -- a pledge that won him the hearts of India’s youth in the 2014 election.” While Modi had guaranteed to provide the workforce with more opportunities, his prioritization of international growth rather than domestic development isn’t helping his popularity within India.

The 2018 Global Health Index shows that approximately 20% of Indian children under the age of 5 experience under- nutrition, a sharp contrast from the IMF report’s positive indications about India’s growth. The two were published within the same week, showing the large disparity between India’s economic growth and the plight of its vulnerable citizens. Poverty within India is exacerbated by poor structural development, lack of clean water and food, and lack of opportunity for many of its residents. Many people also cannot afford food, within both the rural and urban sectors of the country. Forbes Magazine explained, “…with 41% of rural Indians and 26% of urban Indians reporting inability to afford food in 2017.” The country’s economic growth has not yet benefitted the masses, begging the question of why Modi isn’t addressing these concerns in his economic policies as well.

 If the IMF’s projections are correct, then India will become one of the fastest growing major economies in the 2018- 2019 fiscal year. According to this projection India would overshadow China in economic growth, which is projected to grow 6.6% in 2018 and 6.2% in 2019. This is a significant change, as China had been a leading actor in projection growth over the past few years. The United States tariffs on Chinese imports have contributed significantly to the decrease in their projected growth. While this development portrays the level of growth that is present in within India’s economic sector, the standards that Prime Minister Modi had made for India’s residents are not being met. The Modi Administration has not been able to create a significant number of new jobs for India’s incredibly massive workforce, or provide enough resources or opportunities for individuals to escape the poverty they are suffering from.

The Refugee Problem in Bangladesh

The Rohingya crisis has been a long time coming. Since the 1970s, Myanmar’s government has enacted discriminatory practices towards the Muslim minority group known as the Rohingya. These include discrimination regarding employment, marriage, and most importantly revoking of citizenship status. While many Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar back centuries, successive governments in Myanmar have asserted that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many of the Rohingya lived in Rakhine State, the least developed by far in Myanmar. The poverty rate, 78%, is more than double the national average of 37.5%. In addition, religious tensions between the majority Buddhist population and the Muslim Rohingya have sparked into violence in the past.

In 2017, a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police and military posts. The government declared them a terrorist organization and embarked on a brutal campaign in the Rakhine state to eradicate the group. However, their heavy handed approach includes a wide variety of alleged crimes, including firing on civilians and the widespread torching of Rohingya villages. Many have condemned the acts as no less than ethnic cleansing or genocide.

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh, putting extreme strain on the South Asian nation. Initially, Bangladesh was reluctant to open its borders, but intense international pressure caused Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to relent. Nearly a million Rohingya live in refugee camps on the Bangladesh border. These refugee camps have created massive problems for Bangladesh, and repatriation needs to happen as soon as safely possible.

 Rohingya Refugee Camp  Photo Credit: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Rohingya Refugee Camp

Photo Credit: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

The refugee camps in Bangladesh present a wide range of issues. ARSA has pledged to continue its insurgent campaign, and many are afraid that the camps, on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, will become staging grounds for attacks into Myanmar. They also present an opportunity for the insurgents to recruit more for their cause. Economic issues are important as well. While Bangladesh’s economy grew by 7.1% last year, they are by no means a wealthy country. International humanitarian relief has come in, but it fails to adequately cover the extensive costs of the massive camps. While many Bangladeshis have found jobs catering to the on-the-ground relief efforts, some have complained about the influx of cheap labor and price hikes for basic goods. While no refugee camp should ever be a permanent fixture, the current situation in Bangladesh is unstable and needs to be resolved quickly.

Unfortunately, many believe that a solution is nowhere close to being found. The majority of the Rohingya refugees categorically refuse to return to Myanmar, believing they will be subjected to the same violence that caused them to flee their homes in the first place. The United Nations refugee agency says that any repatriation will be voluntary, which presents significant problems for Bangladesh. The longer the refugees stay, the less likely it is that they will leave.

For this refugee crisis to end, the situation in Myanmar to be resolved, so that the Rohingya can feel secure enough to move back to their homes, although many have been razed to the ground. International pressure on Myanmar has been slow-coming. While the Myanmar authorities signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this past June, which included pledges to invest in reconstruction, reconciliation, and respect for human rights, they have taken little to no action towards that goal. Various UN officials, including Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission into potential acts of genocide in Myanmar, called the situation a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have also taken the step of calling for prosecutions of those responsible for the crisis, breaking with the tradition of non-interference in each other’s affairs. While this is a good first step, ASEAN needs to do more than just join in the international outrage. Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh says that while ASEAN condemning Myanmar’s actions was a positive step, “it’s a little bit too little too late”. The crisis has been occurring for over a year and ASEAN has yet to discuss the situation formally, much less take decisive action.

Clearly, more needs to be done to address this situation. While international humanitarian relief to assist Bangladesh is welcome, it does not solve the underlying issue. A potential next step could be increased pressure on Myanmar from the two major powers in the region. However, this seems very unlikely to occur. China is hesitant to criticize other countries for human rights abuses while they engage in widespread abusive practices towards their Uighur population. India takes quite a negative view towards the Rohingya as well. Just recently, Indian police deported seven Rohingya illegal immigrants who had been imprisoned since 2012. Prime Minister Modi’s government has declared these immigrants to be a national security threat and has asked state governments to identify and deport them. India’s government does not wish for Rohingyas to enter India, which could lead to India increasing the pressure on Myanmar to reach a solution, allowing the nearly a million Rohingya refugees in the region to return home. It is unknown how long Bangladesh can provide for the current levels of refugees in the camps, and should the situation continue to deteriorate, it is a possibility that Rohingya refugees may attempt to enter India, something Modi’s party would not want to happen.    

The Geopolitics of the 2+2 Dialogue

The recent successful conclusion of the 2+2 Dialogue between India and the United States is viewed both, as a natural culmination of a long process to maximize Indo-US cooperation and commonality of interests as also as a step with potential to affect India’s relations with her traditional friends and neighbours.


The 2+2 Dialogue, between India and the US, was finally conducted on 6th Sep 2018, after a few initial hiccups which occurred due to postponement from an earlier date a few weeks prior. It is being considered by many as the natural culmination of a long process to maximize Indo-US cooperation in a world where they see considerable commonality of interests between the two nations. It was the end of the Cold War in 1989 which witnessed the Indo-US relationship shed the baggage of the past which had seen them exist in opposite camps, although without any major clash of strategic interests. It took little time to realize the convergence of interests as the US shifted focus towards Asia and India’s strategic balancing pole of the former Soviet Union melted. China’s inevitable rise was considered a common threat although its manifestation was perceived differently. Both India and the US needed to cooperate in the economic and strategic spheres in pursuance of their interests.

The 30-year relationship since then has not been without its challenges and ups and downs. The relative lukewarm attitude of the first Clinton Administration, the negative effects of the 1998 nuclear tests and lack of US sensitivity towards India’s suffering against Pakistan sponsored terrorism through the Nineties and the early millennium, all contributed towards ensuring that Indo US relations did not proceed beyond the transactional. What placed the relationship on a more even keel and pointed it towards the path of becoming potentially transformational was the understanding of President George Bush. India as a balancing power to China’s potential hegemony has been a core US interest. Its geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean sets it apart in US interests, with no distinct US ally from the Middle East to the Philippines. The Indo US Nuclear Deal set up to legitimize India’s entry into the armed nuclear club and open the path to eventual acceptance of India as a part of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was the real game changer.

The Scope and Strategic Importance of 2+2 Dialogue

Replacing the Strategic Commercial Dialogue, in which India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and Commerce Ministry participated, it is for the first time that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and MEA joined hands to progress a core strategic relationship. More than just their own charters the two ministries with their respective Ministers are actually responsible for the strategic content beyond the literal meaning of the term. With an aim of topping 500 Billion USD trade by 2025 and cooperating in diverse fields the relationship is slated to grow exponentially provided that the geopolitical environment supports such cooperation. 2+2 Dialogue now tops the 50 plus bilateral dialogues that are on between India and the US making it the highest-level dialogue India is indulging with any nation.

The earlier intended instrument of cooperation –the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) - was converted to what was touted as a more India specific agreement called COMCASA or Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. The latter opens up the scope of sharing of various communication codes, links and data which form part of the national communications grid. However, to what extent is India going to share sensitive communication data will remain subject to reciprocity and security of interests. It can hardly be expected that the armed forces will open their communication systems to the fullest. It is expected that whatever happens in this field it will move incrementally and with further development of trust. The agreement is a virtual prerequisite for India to enjoy any benefits of advanced US technology which is sought from the US in terms of weaponry and military equipment that need sensitive encrypted military intelligence and technology; armed drones being a case in point. The ability to conduct joint training which is going to exponentially increase will require that a degree of interoperability exists which such sharing of classified information.

Strategic and defense cooperation with the US always involves the understanding and memorizing of a series of acronyms. COMCASA follows another famous acronym – LEMOA – or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, signed in Aug 2016. This enables reciprocal logistic support exclusively during authorized port visits, joint training, joint exercises, and humanitarian assistance. It could mean servicing of ships of the US Seventh Fleet in some of India’s shipyards.

Equally important is the convergence on the need for greater naval cooperation in the western Indian Ocean region and overall maritime cooperation. This is a natural corollary to the understanding of India’s larger maritime role with the naming of the former Asia Pacific region as the Indo Pacific. The next step to the naming of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) as US Indo Pacific Command is the greater defining of India’s role in the extended region. To this end the agreement to place an Indian Navy officer at the US Naval Central Command at Bahrain will be a positive one, once it materializes; it has been in the making for long. The agreement extends to India the entitlement to license-free exports, re-exports, and transfers under License Exception Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1) while being committed to explore other means to support further expansion in two-way trade in defense items and defense manufacturing supply chain linkages. The joint statement at the end revealed the extent of agreements which involve intelligence sharing, countering transnational terror, the conduct of tri-service exercises and areas in the people to people domain.

There is no doubt that the 2+2 Dialogue has been a major success in the run from the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiated in 2004. The optics involved in the meeting and the media coverage convey much convergence. However, equally there have been major concerns on the looming challenges brought on by some of the perceptions of President Trump which affect India’s strategic interests. While a high-profile event such as the 2+2 Dialogue, in the making for some time, signals a very positive turn in Indo-US relations the immediate and long term challenges need articulation. There are no binaries in an emerging world where there is no set world order and resets take place based on triggers from time to time, even at the behest of personalities. Indo-US relations cannot be isolated from the realities of today’s other strategic domains – Sino-India relations, India-Russia relations, other existing and emerging bilateral and multilateral equations and India’s energy and economic interests.

The Geopolitical Challenges to Effective Indo-US Strategic Partnership

There are five areas of India’s strategic interests/concerns where the effects of the 2+2 Dialogue and progress of the IUSSP will have a major impact. These are discussed below.

Indo-Russia Relationship

It’s important to note that among India’s long standing relationships one of the most affected by the emerging Indo-US Strategic Partnership (IUSSP) is the one between India and Russia. Ever since 1991 when the former Soviet Union imploded the rump Russian state has retained a special relationship with India and never pressured it into avoiding forging of relationships with others. In fact, both countries needed each other; India for the Russian defense industry to which it had far easier access and Russia for the economic value that India brought to the redevelopment of Russia as a nation. Of course, Russia’s special position as a member of the Permanent 5 (P5) of the UN Security Council and an armed nuclear power remained unique, something India could ill afford to lose sight of. India and Russia remain important partners as part of BRICS. However, it is India’s concerns about China and its collusive threats in conjunction with Pakistan which have keep it tense because Russia’s friendship and interests related to China would demand its virtual neutrality and therefore a greater Indian propensity to veer towards the US camp. It is only after 2014-15 and the higher levels of energy in the Indo US relationship that Russia felt constrained to gently nudge India regarding its concerns of being relegated in India’s strategic priorities. On a visit to Moscow in Jul 1015 I observed subtle but reasonably serious hints about India’s emerging special relationship with the US; the Ukraine crisis had brought about a more assertive Russia. It became even more evident when Russia decided to exercise the protection of its strategic interests through intervention in Iraq and Syria.

The subtle messaging to India was through two events; first the Russian decision to sell four Mi-35 helicopters to Pakistan in Jul 2015 and two, the decision to conduct a joint Russo-Pak military exercise in Jul 2016 initially in Gilgit-Baltistan but later in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Russian desire to keep Russo-Pak relations on even keel stems from the fears of Moscow regarding the future of Afghanistan and prevention of a surge of radical Islamist growth in Central Asia.

In addition to the above it is India’s continuing need for Russian military hardware and the comparative ease with which it has access to it which makes Indo-Russia relations even more important. That special leverage for India must not be lost. The S-400 air defense system, five regiments worth of which is being sought by India, is a state-of-the cover art area air defense system; approximate cost of the deal is Rs 39000 crores. Given India’s relative vulnerability to China and Pakistan’s missile forces it is a force multiplier being made available to only Turkey, China and India. Understanding the sensitivity of this deal and its future, even the US has ensured India is excluded from any scope of sanctions which could be imposed under its legislation, Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (adding yet another acronym to the lexicon - CAATSA). The Act, has the potential to adversely affect India’s defense purchases from its traditional partner, Russia, besides putting to test the more than positive turn in Indo-US relations through 2+2 Dialogue. The navigation through the S-400 deal to its finality is not going to be without hiccups and that India needs to be prepared for. With its engagement in hybrid conflict in Ukraine and in mid intensity operations in Syria, Russia has gained much experience in modern war fighting. It is apparently seeking new equations without foreclosing existing ones and is treading a careful path. India is aware of Russia’s strategic sensitivity and has ensured immediate high level engagement post the 2+2 Dialogue, through the visit of its Minister of External Affairs, Smt. Sushma Swaraj.

Sino Indian Relations and the Reset, Post Doklam

China’s attitude towards India remains fixed to the prevention of the rise of an alternative competing power center in Asia. Anything which strengthens India’s hand in dealing with China is considered a negative. The 2+2 Dialogue being a bilateral engagement between India and the US outside the realm of multilateral equations such as the Indo-US-Japan equation or the more sensitive Quadrilateral of Nations (Quad) involving India, US, Japan and Australia, could perhaps be a notch lower in the level of China’s concern. The Joint Statement post the 2+2 Dialogue was non-offensive in content although it made references to oft repeated aspects such as freedom of navigation, India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and joint cooperation in countering global and transnational terror. It looked at enhancing strategic coordination and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region; that is a reference which when used by governments and strategic communities has had strong reaction from China. It is not as if China is hell bent on coercing India or intimidating it to seek war on the borders or the oceans. The Wuhan summit was the beginning of a reset in relationship which has been more conciliatory in approach. A follow up engagement with China may not take place so soon, as it has in the case of Russia but some engagement is bound to happen. This would be part of India’s far more balanced and accommodative strategy which has been evident over autonomy remains intact while greater element of pragmatism in diplomacy has come into being.

Indo-Pak Relations and Effect of 2+2 Dialogue

In relation to Pakistan it is essentially the concern on terrorism and other aspects of extremist violence which Pakistan has effectively used to remain relevant in Afghanistan and continue with its proxy war in Jammu & Kashmir. Significantly, almost as a recognition of the fact that a message was being conveyed to Pakistan, both the US ministers came to New Delhi via interim halts; Mike Pompeo through Islamabad and James Mattis via Kabul. While the Joint Declaration had enough mention of terrorism, extremist violence and ideology the stark reality is that there is little that the US was willing to commit towards further reining of Pakistan and the pursuit of its interests in the region through the use of proxies. Admittedly the US has withheld financial assistance to Pakistan at a time when Pakistan is in dire economic state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s earlier warning regarding the terms and conditions that Pakistan would need to meet for a possible IMF bailout of 9 billion USD, was a sound message. However, with the Financial Action Task Force also specifying that Pakistan has not done enough towards removing the terror funding networks, it is becoming evident that Pakistan’s thick skinned approach is based on assurances of some kind from China. It probably hopes to dilute the effects of Indo-US strategic understanding through pressures on India from China and Russia. This is something India will have to be prepared for through deliberate balancing with full understanding and backing of the US.

India-Iran Relations : Energy and Chahbahar

Among many of its international relationships India’s Iran connection is one of the most important. Strategic equations are rapidly changing in the region. Iran is suddenly closer to and in engagement with the Taliban. The state of Pakistan-Iran relations is on the upswing despite Pakistan being a Sunni majority state and close to Saudi Arabia. With the withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal the US has reiterated that it will sanction any nation involved in commercial activity with Iran. Providing 11 percent of India’s energy needs there is a reported downscaling already taking place in the imports in anticipation of the sanctions coming into effect in Nov 2018. Connected to this is India’s strategic maneuver of developing the Chahbahar port as a strategic link to access Afghanistan, Central Asia and the North-South corridor. Pressure on it to sever commercial ties with Iran will continue to build up. This is an area where India’s strategic autonomy will be under severe test and the gains of the last few years will be at stake. However, it is to be seen how India withstands the US pressure. India must perceive itself and the 2+2 Dialogue as something not strategically beneficial to only itself. It’s a huge mutual benefit as the US cannot hope for a greater hold over the Indian Ocean than without India’s cooperation. Its necessity to pursue its own strategic interests must be respected by the US. It is one area where severe challenges await the IUSSP. Not to be missed is a passing reference some analysts have made towards the emergence of a balancing linkage between China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea. This effectively balances the IUSSP although such a five-point equation lacks any credibility and is merely a figment of imagined commonalities based upon anti US sentiments. India does not fit into the matrix of such competition or clash. The 2+2 Dialogue has been immediately followed by the visit of India’s National Security Advisor to Washington ostensibly to further refine strategy for the challenging times which are immediately ahead. Such detailed engagement with the US has been a rarity but its outcome must clearly outweigh the negatives that the balancing forces are likely to bring against India.

Two outcomes for India will be keenly awaited – the S-400 deal with Russia and the final sanctions against Iran. The latter it is hoped will not finally go through.

The Danger of Flying Helicopters at the Line of Control

Opinion is divided even among experienced veterans about what must be done when an adversary’s helicopter enters the Indian airspace at the Line of Control (LoC) or breaches an agreement with reference to the rules of engagement. A minority says simply shoot the helicopter down and send the occupants to their doom. However, a prudent majority, well-versed in the dynamics of the LoC, has a different opinion.

The context for this essay is the 700-metre intrusion by a civilian helicopter, carrying the so-called Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) prime minister on 30 September 2018, across the LoC in the Gulpur segment of Poonch sector. Sporadic sounds of fire by the Indian Army posts in the area are heard in a video clip that was aired on television that night. There has been fervent discussions on social media about the incident, but no conclusive opinion on how to deal with such an incident, which is not unusual, even if a civilian helicopter near the LoC, and straying, too, has a one-in-a-million chance.

For an informed opinion to be formed on the subject, some facts need to be placed on record. The rules of engagement clearly state that there will be no flying by fixed-wing aircraft within 10 kilometres of the LoC on either side. For rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), the limit is 1 km. It is quite easy to follow such rules when the terrain is plain, with lots of definable landmarks and a boundary between nations clearly demarcated on a map as well as on the ground. Not so when the terrain is mountainous, at a high altitude, and with jagged rocky outcrops and jungle interspersed all over. Sticking to the 1-km rule is nearly impossible because while helipads may fall outside of that distance, the approach to them could involve circuitous flying that could easily breach the rule. For casualty evacuation, too, breach of rule is permitted after appropriately informing the other side.

The primary issue here is the feasibility of mistakes occurring in the recognition of features that supposedly help in understanding the alignment of the LoC. Ideally, a distance of 1.5-2 km should be kept as a leeway to prevent mistakes, but, again, that is not always possible, as already set out on account of operational constraints and the technical necessity of approaches. This is applicable to both sides. The issue could have been easily resolved had there been trust between the two sides. Flying close to the LoC at an appropriate height and for a degree of time provides an excellent visual peep into areas that cannot be seen from the ground. It helps in mapping potential targets for fire assaults and even photographing facilities. However, there is an argument that in today’s environment, whatever can be seen by a close-flying helicopter along the LoC is also visible through satellite technology but with lower resolution.

In an editorial, Pakistani daily Dawn writes: “The line between catastrophe and the tension-ridden norm along the LoC in the disputed Kashmir region has yet again been shown to be unbearably thin.” There is no doubt that in the current condition of a complete breakdown of trust, both sides can ill-afford any military advantage to the other through close visual reconnaissance from the air, the very purpose of the restrictions on flying being just that. The question is whether these rules of engagement can be followed implicitly. A military opinion will always suggest implicit execution and any breach of rule drawing an expected military response by the other. Yet, how does one account for the factors outlined earlier—the high feasibility of breaches on account of constraints of terrain, weather, and human error.

An opinion of reasonable consensus on social media points to discretion being with the troops and commanders on the ground with sound training, situational gaming practices, and effective communication, so that each such breach is taken based on its characteristics. It is clear that the amount of time available for an effective response will always be limited, putting pressure on those who have to take the decision. What, therefore, needs to be included in the rules of engagement is the methodology of indication to a pilot (flares and use of other illuminating devices) that he has strayed. Persistent presence in the area of breach or circling around it would draw a conclusion of unsavoury intent, which would give ground troops the freedom to act unilaterally.

There are case studies from the past that can help in determining a response and laying down self-explanatory instructions to forward troops. An example is the alleged shooting down of a Pakistani helicopter in August 1995 at Siala in the northern Siachen Glacier. Helicopter intrusions occurred every day over a period of time and in the same circuit over a given area. Ideally, this should have been referred to the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) of the Pakistan Army by the Indian DGMO with adequate warning. However, because of the persistence seen from the Pakistani side, an Indian Army air defence detachment deployed at the Glacier fired an Igla missile, causing the helicopter to crash, killing both pilots.

In late 2011, one of our Army aviation helicopters with two pilots, who were on a routine flight from Leh to Kargil, strayed across the LoC deep into PoK; it landed by mistake at a Pakistan Army helipad. However, the response from Pakistan was positive. There was no interrogation of the pilots. A request from our DGMO led to the immediate return of the helicopter and the pilots, and it was considered an excellent goodwill gesture on their part. Between these two responses lies a yawning gap where contingencies can be immeasurable. I can state from personal experience in command of troops that there were many instances when our pilots flying me to certain important posts at the LoC could not but help breach the 1-km rule while landing, although the helipads were well outside that distance. Similarly, there have been instances of breach by Pakistani helicopters.

In the case of the Poonch intrusion by a civilian helicopter, our troops cannot be faulted for having engaged it with small arms before the chopper returned to PoK. That is because of the uniqueness of the event; civilian helicopters are rarely seen at the LoC. I always had the apprehension that there could exist a contingency wherein Pakistan-based terrorists steal or hijack a helicopter and attempt to target an important facility on our side to cause serious triggers in further upsetting India-Pakistan relations. I am sure such perceptions prevail in other minds, too. That is why it is key for the DGMOs of the two sides to get together and resolve such issues.

Even under the circumstances of better and updated rules of engagement, no one should expect black-and-white directions on every contingency. There will be much left to the discretion of forward troops, who need to be fully aware of potential contingencies and the flexibility of response with which they have been empowered. It’s old world thinking to imagine that a soldier on the ground needs “yes” or “no” directions for every situation. The “maybe” is equally a part of the lexicon for use at a location as dynamic as the LoC. Translating that “maybe” effectively in the right direction is what training is all about.

The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

The Problem of Nepal's Foreign Policy

As India and China continue to jockey for influence with various nations in South Asia and South East Asia, Nepal has recently become the latest hotspot in this growing rivalry. While the nation poses no threat to either China or India, its recent wavering and potential tilt towards China would be a powerful signal to many of its neighbors. However, Nepal maintains that it is merely seeking to adhere to its stated policy of nonalignment.

Historically, Nepal has had close ties to India. Beginning with the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1950, both nations agreed to not tolerate “any threat to the security of the other by a foreign aggressor”. Nepal signed onto the treaty in full after China’s invasion of Tibet, which caused Nepal to seek military ties with India as well. While relations between the two countries were not always perfect, over the decades they have formed a close relationship. The border between them is open, meaning citizens of both nations can travel freely between the two states, and Nepalese citizens are granted the same economic and educational opportunities as Indian citizens.

Prime Minister Modi attempted to further improve India-Nepal relations in his first year of office, undertaking the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Nepal in 17 years. In addition, he agreed to extend a credit line of $1 billion for various infrastructure developments, along with significant financial assistance for earthquake reconstruction. Over the next four years, Modi would visit the small nation two more times. Supposedly, the purpose of the last visit in May 2018 was “to reset ties”. If India and Nepal were so close, why was this reset necessary?

 Prime Minister Modi meets the Nepal Delegation  Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Prime Minister Modi meets the Nepal Delegation

Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Throughout its history, Nepal has been extremely dependent on India. As a landlocked country, vast amounts of its imports travel through India. All of Nepal’s petroleum supplies travel through India. The negatives of this relationship were harshly revealed when Nepal accused India of imposing an undeclared blockade in September of 2015, which sparked an economic and humanitarian crisis in Nepal. While India blamed this blockade on Madhesi protestors in Nepal, many in the country grew to realize just how dependent they were on the whim of the Indian state. A more concerted effort grew in popularity, working to explore ways to reduce the level of influence India had over the mountainous nation. India has also moved very slowly on helping Nepal develop its infrastructure, leaving many to wonder if they would be better served by China in this regard.

Nepal has long had relations with its neighbor to the east as well. Throughout its history, Nepal has occasionally used the prospect of moving closer to China as an avenue to extract better concessions from India. However, with the recent tension between Indian and Nepal over the blockade and failure to advance on the infrastructure projects, Nepal signed a trade treaty with China that contained several significant elements. China agreed to allow Nepal access to its sea ports and to build large infrastructure projects, such as a regional international airport and additional bridges leading into Nepal. In 2017, Nepal signed onto the Belt and Road Initiative, something India has boycotted. This dramatic shift towards China caused the Modi government to take extreme notice, hence the desire to “reset ties”.

India’s quasi-rivalry with China has been well documented and there is a history of tension between the two countries. While relations are less tense they have been in the past, there is a growing sense of competition for influence in the region. Nepal’s orientation would appear to be the most recent instance of this contest. South Asia contains many multilateral institutions, with one of the most important being the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). However, much to India’s distaste, SAARC includes Pakistan as a member and China as an observer, both potential spoilers for any policies India would want to drive forward. Thus, India pressed for the creation of a seemingly redundant organization, The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Importantly, this initiative lacks Pakistan and China as members. On September 10th, BIMSTEC conducted its first-ever joint military exercises. However, Nepal refused to participate in the exercises, claiming that India unilaterally decided to hold joint military exercise, having not mentioned them at the summit earlier that month. Nepal issued a statement aimed squarely at India, announcing that they would not being joining any military alliance and would not deviate from its long-standing policy of nonalignment.

 Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli on a visit to China  Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Nepal Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli on a visit to China

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images News / Getty Images

In a move that surprised many, Nepal then announced it would be participating in the Sagarmatha Friendship-2 joint military exercises with China, to be held a week after the BIMSTEC exercises. Many have taken this as Nepal asserting the independence of its foreign policy, a demonstration of its refusal to blindly follow India’s lead. While Nepal and India still have strong bilateral military ties, with Nepal contributing personnel to India’s armed forces (most notably the Gorkha regiments), many policy experts have called for India to take strong action to address Nepal’s shift towards China.

First and foremost, policy experts suggest that India needs to move quickly on its promises of infrastructure development in Nepal. With China increasing its ‘soft power’ influences throughout the region via its Belt and Road Initiative, it is important that India demonstrate it remains a viable alternative to China. Secondly, it is important that India begins to treat Nepal as more of a viable partner in global affairs, rather than as a protectorate. Arrogance will only serve to push Nepal further into China’s orbit, and signal to other nations that perhaps India is not the best partner to work with in the region. Only through mutual respect and understanding can India’s relationship with Nepal continue to be beneficial to both nations.

While Nepal seeks to maintain its policy of nonalignment, it has become increasing difficult to avoid being caught in the rising tensions of the region. While the nation seeks to diversify its economy and supply routes through its access to Chinese ports, it is still heavily dependent on India. In addition, Nepal should be wary of potential pitfalls regarding its growing relations with China, and should be careful to avoid falling into debt traps through the Belt and Road initiative. It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Modi’s attempts of reconciliation will bear fruit, or if Nepal’s efforts to remain nonaligned manage to continue.

Could We be Seeing Another Collapse of Democracy In the Maldives?

The fragile South Asian democracy of the Maldives is in danger. The current outgoing Maldives president Abdullah Yameen is publicly discrediting the latest democratic elections. Yameen only garnered 41.62% of the votes while his opponent, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, won 58.38% of the vote. Although Yameen conceded the election by a significant margin, he is attempting to discredit the results of the election and the political future of incoming president Solih.


Yameen’s party, the Progressive Party of Maldives, passed a resolution last week that would not accept Solih as the new president of Maldives. With only a little more than a month left in office, Yameen is trying every trick to cling to his power. This resolution claims that Yameen won the September 23rd election with 69.77% of the vote, a number that international observers would reject. Though many in the country have accepted the results, the PPM are challenging the results. After the results came out, Yameen called on the police to raid the election offices of Solih in an effort to strike up concern and terror on the opposition side. Yameen had also ordered tablet computers from China, a country which his administration has been incredibly dependent on, to try and alter the election results. All of these efforts by Yameen are an attempt to scare his opponents and muddy the waters of the election outcome.


Alongside his election response, Yameen is facing another massive scandal. Yameen is said to have received 1.5 million dollars just days prior to the election. The money was received in two statements to a private bank account at the Maldives Islamic Bank. The first installment amounted to $648,508 in hard money on September 5th while the second installment came to $810,635 on September 10th. The bank said that the money was donated by private companies to be used for the 2018 Maldives presidential election. However in the Maldives, candidates are required to set up separate bank accounts for campaign donations and declare the identity of donors to their campaign. This is something Yameen did not do, making it is especially egregious since it was such a massive donation. Some fear that this money is likely to had ended up in the pockets of Yameen and his henchmen.


Yameen has a long track record of corruption and human rights abuses, and these recent scandals could be another item added to this list. In the past, Yameen was a part of a $80 million dollar tourism scandal where government money was diverted to private accounts. Associates within Yameen’s administration supposed delivered money, up to one million dollars, directly to Yameen from the tourism funds.


On top of monetary schemes, Yameen has also jailed dozens of his political opponents in the Maldives. Opposition leader Qasim Ibrahim had to escape the country after Yameen’s government accused Ibrahim of trying to over throw the government. These accusations have recieved strongly criticized from internal and external parties alike, as many have said that the trials for these accusations lacked proper due process. Ibrahim has now returned to the Maldives, due to Solih’s victory.


With about a month left in office, Yameen very well may try something incredibly detrimental to remain in power. The Maldives has a history of political turmoil. In 2011, protestors demanded the resignation of then president Mohamed Nasheed, due to the severe economic condition of the country at that time. Nasheed claimed that he was forced out of office by gunpoint while his political opponent, Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik, claimed that it was a peaceful transition of power. Just within the past decade, it is evident that the Maldives is no stranger to political turmoil between transitions of power; we very well may be seeing another chapter of that turmoil in the next few weeks.


Given his past of corruption allegations, Yameen may try to rally his supporters to reject the election results in an effort to call a state of emergency and overstay his welcome in the president’s office. Yameen has already changed the chief of police and is preparing to replace the Elections Commission. Yameen’s party has not ruled out approaching the country’s supreme court to annul the election results. While a lot of these statements may be speculation, Yameen has done more than enough to raise concern over the future of the Maldives democracy. This is a crucial moment for the Maldives and another round of political turmoil may create a dangerous future precedent of constant political strife around elections.

Ending the Not-So-Futile War in Yemen

The Western media narrative about the ongoing war in Yemen frames it as a “futile” or “disastrous” conflict. After all, Yemen has been prone to tribal and sectarian quarrels for decades, leading to insurgencies and full-blown civil wars. But the historic complexity of Yemen’s politics, and its fraught relationship with Saudi Arabia, should not blind us to Iran’s efforts to establish a bridgehead in the Arabian Peninsula by empowering Yemen’s Houthi militia.

The conflict in Yemen is unlikely to end any time soon unless interested outside powers, especially the United States, play an active role in containing Iran and forcing the Houthis to the negotiating table.

Americans tend to view events in Yemen solely through the prism of that country’s humanitarian crisis and Saudi Arabia’s role in it. But even if the ambition and miscalculations of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) have aggravated the situation, there is more at stake in Yemen than the humanitarian critics of the war acknowledge.

Those stakes begin with the openly acknowledged designs of Iranian strategists, who have voiced their expectation of adding Sana’a to the list of Arab capitals—Beirut, Damascus, and Baghdad—which are in “Iran’s hands and belong to the Iranian Islamic Revolution.” For that reason, Ayatollah Khamenei’s regime supports the Houthis—followers of Hussein al-Houthi, a cleric of the Zaidi sect who fought central authority and was killed in 2004—in Yemen’s civil war.

The Houthi movement comprises well-armed and well-trained fighters, and since 2003 has adopted the slogan: “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” The group officially calls itself Ansar Allah, or supporters of God. Its insistence on seeking power through military means indicates that it is not confident of support, even among Yemen’s Shi‘a population.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, serves as the role model for the Houthis. They have accumulated sophisticated weaponry from Iran and have boldly threatened Saudi Arabia with missile attacks, much as Hezbollah attempted to show strength and harness support by attacking Israeli civilians.

But the threat posed by the Houthis has been eclipsed by denunciations of the Saudi air campaign against them, which is blamed for avoidable civilian casualties. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent certification to Congress that the Saudis and other Arab allies were making greater efforts to protect civilians has not dented that criticism.

Just as Hezbollah’s Iran-backed propaganda machine covers up its violence and terrorism through the outcry about civilian casualties resulting from Israel’s counterterrorist operations, the Houthis and their international supporters have managed to avoid discussion of Yemen’s complex politics and the Houthis’ excesses by focused criticism of the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct of the air war. Legitimate concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi aerial bombardment have led many commentators to ignore both Iran’s role and the unlikely prospect of stability in Yemen if the Houthis—a minority within a sectarian minority—somehow manage to establish their rule over the entire country.

The humanitarian criticism of the Arab coalition’s tactics has also led most observers to ignore that the fight against the Houthis is backed by a UN resolution supporting the restoration of the legitimate government’s control over Yemen. In 2015, UN Security Council Resolution 2216, adopted with 14 affirmative votes to none against, with one abstention from the Russian Federation, demanded that the “Houthis withdraw from all areas seized during the latest conflict, relinquish arms seized from military and security institutions, cease all actions falling exclusively within the authority of the legitimate Government of Yemen, and fully implement previous Council resolutions.”

Since then, the war has been stalemated even though parts of southern Yemen have been wrested from Houthi control. The United Arab Emirates’ forces have borne the brunt of the ground fighting. Their offensive, beginning in June, to dislodge the rebel militia from the port of Hodeida was meant to change the course of the war.

But that offensive was halted in July to enable peace talks. The Houthi representatives, however, refused to join UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva in September, resulting in renewed fighting. Dialogue is surely preferable to war, but serious negotiations require partners who are actually committed to a peaceful solution. And as the UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is discovering, the Houthis do not always show up for meetings. They seem aware of the fact that civil wars are often protracted affairs and that most such conflicts in modern times have ended in the decisive victory of one side.

The Houthi strategy is to fight to victory while undermining the Arab coalition’s resolve through adverse international opinion. They condemn the conduct of the Arab governments that confront them while deploying Iranian-supplied missiles, weaponized drones, and landmines in the pursuit of victory on the battlefield. Such an outcome would not be in the U.S. interest and would only add to the misery of Yemen instead of mitigating it.

With 9/11 a distant memory for most Americans, many forget that Yemen was also a major staging ground for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP.) Just this past August, al-Qaeda’s master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, was killed by an American airstrike. Al-Asiri had plotted several attacks against targets around the world, including the 2009 “underwear bomber” plot to take down a U.S. civilian airliner. Some 2,000 al-Qaeda operatives have been killed in Yemen over the past 17 years.

It would be a pity if Yemen’s internal divisions, which enabled al-Qaeda to set up shop there in the first place, pave the way for its regrouping. Nor would the Middle East become safer if a perennially unstable Yemen controlled by the Houthis became a base for threats to its neighbors with Iran’s support.

Consolidation of control of any part of Yemen by the Houthis would be as destabilizing as the rise of Hezbollah has been in Lebanon. Just as Hezbollah ended up supporting the Assad regime in Syria after surviving Lebanon’s civil war, the Houthis could become the major subversive force in the Gulf region.

For its part, Iran has much to gain by fueling the war in Yemen. Even if the Houthis do not win, Iran secures regional advantage at relatively little cost; its partner in the Gulf, Qatar, defrays some of the expenses. The war keeps Iran’s regional Arab critics preoccupied and offers the prospect of building a new proxy regime in the Arabian Peninsula.

But from the U.S. perspective, losing Yemen to Iran permanently would only enlarge the threat Tehran poses to U.S. interests. If one side must win Yemen’s civil war, it would be in America’s interest that it is the legitimate government backed by U.S. allies rather than the Houthis backed by Iran.

Alternatively, the U.S. government could put its weight behind UN peace efforts, provided talks do not serve as cover for the Houthis to keep Yemen’s civil war going for years. Either way, the United States would shorten the war by playing a well-defined role instead of keeping away from the events in Yemen.

Ideally, targeted American support would create circumstances that force the Houthis to reconsider their partnership with Iran and enter into serious negotiations. The worst-case scenario for the Houthis—and the best-case scenario for the United States—would be a decisive end to the ongoing bloodshed that does not leave Iran’s proxies in control of Yemen.

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and The American Interest.

Intractable Positions

The failure of the latest attempt at resuming talks between India and Pakistan reflects the inability of both governments to make an extremely difficult political decision. Pakistan’s leaders remain reluctant to admit that their desire for the intractable Kashmir dispute to be resolved will not be fulfilled any time soon. Meanwhile, India finds it difficult to recognize that it might have to forego its demand for justice in past terror cases as the price for a future commitment to normal, good neighborly relations.

Recent elections in Pakistan reignited discussion of how the country’s new prime minister, former cricketer Imran Khan, would ignore his own past political rhetoric to make a new beginning in relations with India and Afghanistan, as well as the United States. But Khan’s promises of a ‘Naya’ Pakistan are an easier buy for Pakistanis than the rest of the world. Nations tend to proceed cautiously when it comes to countries that have acted in an antagonistic manner or failed to keep promises in the past.

India and Pakistan know that good relations would benefit them both but there are reasons why that knowledge has not translated into a workable strategy for positive engagement. Those reasons have not disappeared just because one of the two countries now has a new prime minister, one with no governance experience and a tendency to over-promise amidst incredible faith in himself.

In his first speech after being elected, Khan spoke about improving relations with India even though he had denigrated similar efforts by his rival, Nawaz Sharif, whom he dubbed as “Modi ka yaar’’ (Modi’s friend) during his election campaign. Elections in Pakistan might be won more easily by painting your opponent as too friendly to India but the burden of office turns all hawks into doves.

Narendra Modi, who has already transformed into a moderate toward Pakistan after four years as India’s prime minister, acknowledged the need to improve relations in his letter of congratulations to Khan. But since Modi has to face the Indian electorate next year, it was important for him to point out that, for India, Pakistan’s support for terrorism remains the critical issue.

Khan then wrote to Modi once again, requesting the two countries resume talks with a meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly session. Khan indicated that Pakistan would be willing to discuss terrorism but he asserted the need to make life easier for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

This was a major concession from the Pakistani side even if it fell short of India’s demand. For once, an ostensibly hawkish Pakistani leader was asking for improvement in the lives of Kashmiris without demanding resolution of the age-old Kashmir dispute.

The contents of Khan’s letter, however, were not released by Islamabad, making Indian officials wonder whether Pakistan’s desire was just to create an illusion of a peace process to break out of international isolation. For India, it is important that negotiations with Pakistan’s leaders be conducted transparently.

Going back to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘unofficial’ promises during the 1972 Simla Summit, Pakistan has a long track record of backing out of informal commitments on grounds that its public opinion does not support them. India now wants Pakistani leaders to build public opinion for a deal simultaneous to negotiating the agreement; A private letter does not serve that purpose.

From the Modi government’s perspective, it did not turn down an offer of talks. It initially accepted what it referred to as ‘talk not dialogue’ on the sidelines of the UNGA, seeing it as an opportunity to at least hear what Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi might have to offer. India only backed off after the inhumane killing of an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) jawan and the kidnapping and killing of Jammu & Kashmir police by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists allegedly linked to Islamabad.

Although both sides are currently raising the temperature for their respective domestic constituencies, it is important to remember the context of India-Pakistan peacemaking as well as periodic jingoism.

Since Partition in 1947, Pakistan’s identity and foreign policy have been framed around India. A religion-based national identity was constructed for Pakistan based on the view of ‘Hindu’ India as the ‘other’ for an ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. This feeling of mistrust toward India and the insecurity about India’s larger size, led Pakistan’s leaders and strategists to argue that India never accepted the creation of Pakistan and seeks to undo Partition.

Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is, thus, driven by a fervent desire to check ‘hegemonic’ India from achieving its nefarious aims in South Asia and beyond. Although there is no evidence that India seeks to reincorporate Pakistan, the fear of India undoing Partition has informed Pakistani decision-making for over seven decades.

In 1971, during the war in East Pakistan that resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, India supported the Bengalis but withdrew its forces as soon as the war ended. Every Indian Prime Minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, has sought to improve relations with Pakistan based on the belief that it will lead to a peaceful neighborhood.

There is consensus in India that a politically stable and economically integrated South Asia is in India’s national interest. Only in recent years has a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment emerged in India, particularly in the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil war and the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, both of which are seen as reflective of a tendency on Pakistan’s part to use peace initiatives as an opportunity to launch attacks.

In the last two decades three successive Indian prime ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi—have attempted to restart and rebuild relations with Pakistan. Although Pakistani civilian leaders have reciprocated Indian initiatives, a hard core of Pakistan’s national security apparatus remains wedded to the idea of India being a permanent enemy.

Civilian leaders who have initiated friendship toward India—Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Ali Zardari—have been repeatedly targeted by their domestic opponents as ‘security risks’ or ‘Indian agents.’ They have also visibly lost influence and power soon after the initiation of a peace process with India.

Throughout the various ups and downs, India’s argument has consistently been that the two countries must build people-to-people ties and economic relations before resolving outstanding issues like Kashmir. In recent years the rise in terrorism—including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—has made it difficult for Indian governments to consider a dialogue with Pakistan without any discussion of terrorism.

If terrorism is front and center for India in any dialogue, it is still Kashmir for Pakistan.

The Kashmir conflict, a legacy of Partition, has been viewed by Pakistan as the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ and every Pakistani leader, and government, has tried to solve the problem; whether through war or negotiations.

Since the Simla Accord of 1972, India sees Kashmir not as an international dispute but a bilateral issue. For Delhi, the Simla Agreement is the framework within which the two countries should discuss any problem areas, especially Kashmir. Pakistan, however, argues that the Simla Accord was a treaty that was imposed after the devastating loss of East Pakistan in the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh.

It is interesting that in 1999, when Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee undertook his ‘bus yatra’ to Lahore, he and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif signed a declaration that reiterated the spirit of the Simla Agreement. But the Kargil war derailed that initiative.

Since then, India and Pakistan have talked intermittently but there has been no consistent peace process. Pakistan refuses to normalize trade relations with India, arguing that normal bilateral ties should only follow progress over Kashmir. As recently as June 2015, Sharif’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz stated that Pakistan would not hold talks with India on “Indian terms” and ruled out any dialogue if the agenda did not include “Kashmir and water issues.”

If Pakistan is really interested in improvement of India-Pakistan relations, it will need to move beyond the ‘Kashmir first’ policy. Pakistan may have to bite the bullet and accept that normalization of relations with India would require that Kashmir is placed on the back burner not just for now but possibly forever.

There are some Pakistanis who understand that reality. Former ambassador Shahid Amin argued in an article that Pakistan need to understand the “Kashmir dispute cannot be solved by military means or through the use of non-state actors.” Ambassador Husain Haqqani has argued in his books and articles for over two decades that improving relations with India is more important for Pakistan than resolving a specific dispute.

But there are no serious takers for such thinking in Pakistan. Things have changed on the Indian side, too, where national pride and anger over terrorism precludes any initiative involving what some refer to as “magnanimity towards Pakistan.”

The December 2015 visit by Prime Minister Modi to Lahore and the images of the two prime ministers walking hand in hand led to hopes of rapprochement in both countries. Unfortunately, the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016 followed by the Uri terror attack later that year ensured that there would be no further talks between India and Pakistan.

The two neighbours are currently at an impasse that cannot be broken unless one or both give up on the issue they define as the principal issue holding the relationship back. Moving forward requires that Pakistan back away from demands relating to Kashmir in return for India no longer insisting on terrorism-related conditions being central to peace talks. At the present moment that seems unlikely.

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and Newsweek.

Kazakhstan: America's Strategic Partner in Central Asia

The Trump administration’s national security strategyunveiled last year emphasized the need to rebalance U.S. alliance relationships in a competitive international environment. In the Indo-Pacific, the United States plans to retain primacy in the maritime domain through alliances with Australia, Japan, and India. On land, the U.S. needs partners in the Eurasian crossroads of Central Asia.


Kazakhstan appears to be one of the first Central Asian countries willing to be a strategic American partner, especially in the economic sphere. If restoration of economic competitiveness is to be the basis for American power, openness to American business in the twenty-first century has become as important as willingness to provide military bases was during the second half of the twentieth. Kazakhstan seems definitely open for American businesses.

 Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev  Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News / Getty Images

Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News / Getty Images

The visit to Washington by Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, last January, highlighted the “close commercial and trade ties” between Kazakhstan and the United States. After his meeting with President Trump, both countries agreed that they must focus on creating employment and accelerating economic growth. President Nazarbayev declared that “these efforts are essential for Kazakhstan to achieve its goal of joining the ranks of the top 30 global economies by 2050.”


As a former republic of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has faced the challenge of opening its economy and society after years of rule from Moscow. It must balance its relations with two giant neighbors, Russia and China, in addition to dealing with other Central Asian states while building Kazakh national identity.


The country’s rising economy has dampened and absorbed criticism over the state of human rights and the absence of political competition. The oil sector remains the main vehicle of economic growth but the non-oil economy is also expanding. Kazakhstan’s growth now involves considerable activity in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, and trade.

 Kazakhstan First Deputy Prime Minister Askar Zhumagaliyev  Photo by Government of Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan First Deputy Prime Minister Askar Zhumagaliyev

Photo by Government of Kazakhstan

U.S.-Kazakh bilateral trade in goods now stands at U.S. $ 1.9 billion and, during President Nazarbayev’s visit a number of agreements, were signed between Kazakh and American companies including Boeing, GE Transportation and Digital, and Chevron. Kazakh companies and the $67-billion strong Kazakh Samruk-Kazyna National Wealth Fund also offered to purchase American products and services to the tune of U.S.$ 2.5 billion.


One of the arrangements --a bilateral civil aviation agreement -- aimed at “encouraging affordable, convenient, and efficient services to air travelers.” Boeing and Kazakh airlines signed deals for U.S. $ 1.3 billion for purchase of Boeing airplanes both Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 787 Dreamliner that would help create 7,100 direct and indirect jobs in the United States.


Kazakhstan stands 36th out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings and has some of the best economic indicators amongst its neighbors. In recent years, the government has undertaken reforms of the regulatory framework, public administration and public sector enterprises.


Further reforms, deemed desirable by the International Financial Institutions, would make the economy stronger. The growth potential of the non-oil economy would then be tapped further and greater emphasis laid on diversifying the economy. 


At a recent conference hosted by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), titled ‘Kazakhstan in a changing Eurasia,’ the country’s First Deputy Prime Minister, Askar Zhumagaliyev, pointed out investment opportunities for American companies in Kazakhstan. He emphasized Kazakhstan’s role as a bridge between Europe and Asia while also being part of the New Silk Road that might emerge from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

According to Mr. Zhumagaliyev, President Nazarbayev’s vision is to digitize the country’s economy by 2022 and put in place e-governance, alongside improvements in human capital and the creation of an innovation ecosystem. Kazakh officials envisage an important role for American companies and institutions as they move to implement their plans.

Already, the United States and Kazakhstan have started working together in the field of agriculture. The U.S. has provided access to technology and helped upgrade Kazakh agricultural practices. This joint collaboration has helped Kazakhstan have abundant food supply that it can export to countries like China and others.


People-to-people relations are also increasing. Over 26,000 Kazakh citizens live in the U.S. and over 5,000 American citizens currently live in Kazakhstan. In 2015, Kazakhstan launched a short-term visa free entry program for American citizens and the U.S. issues 10-year business and tourist visas for Kazakh citizens.


Kazakhstan’s location in Central Asia makes it ideal as a country for facilitating regional trade. The 2005 Central Asia Trade and Investment Facilitation Agreement (TIFA) has become the mechanism to boost regional trade. Kazakhstan has consistently championed trade issues and regularly hosted meetings under the TIFA format.


At the last TIFA meeting in December 2017, Kazakhstan and the United States “agreed to initiate a new regional working group dedicated to the protection of intellectual property rights in support of trade and innovation.”


The Kazakhstan government has supported American South Asia strategy by “guaranteeing continuous logistical support and access to Afghanistan,” and the U.S. government acknowledges Kazakhstan’s “contributions to humanitarian efforts” in Afghanistan. Almaty is also in favor of an “an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process” that would bring stability and security to Afghanistan.


Stability in Afghanistan has become an important priority for the Trump administration as well as for Kazakhstan under President Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan’s policy towards Afghanistan has been one of supporting long-term stability, economic prosperity, and integration of Afghanistan within Central Asia.


To that effect, the Kazakhs have provided “financial contributions to the Afghan security forces” as part of “fair burden sharing,” training of Afghan civilian and security personnel including Afghan women, and support for Afghan transportation infrastructure development projects. Kazakhstan allows the United States to use two of its Caspian Sea ports – Aktau and Kyurk - as transit hubs for shipping non-military material to Afghanistan.


The Kazakhstan government has also provided a $50 million scholarship program for Afghan students to study medical sciences, business management, engineering, and agriculture.


Emerging out of the former Soviet Union, and sharing a long border with Russia, Kazakhstan cannot ignore Russia as a factor in its decision-making. Astana must also weigh China’s concerns in its policy-making. At the same time, Astana has also made it clear that it would not forego the enormous benefits of a close relationship with the United States. That relationship is now progressing.


Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, was Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008-11. His latest book is Reimagining Pakistan.

Modicare is a step in the right direction for India

The elections for the 17th Lok Sabha are slated for April 2019. Modi’s National Democratic Alliance continues to hold a lead over the opposing United Progressive Alliance, but that lead is slipping. NDA maintained a few hundred seat lead over UPA for most of 2017 and 2018, but that lead by the NDA has slipped in recent opinion polls. Hoping to rally support before the elections, Modi and the BJP have unveiled a massive new nationalized healthcare program for India’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Being dubbed ‘Modicare’, this plan will cover 500 million people across India’s most susceptible portions of society. The plan promises to cover 100 million of the poorest Indian families with free treatment. Modicare will be the largest healthcare plan in the world, and with no doubt will be a massive undertaking for the BJP government.


Though this plan may seem like a political ploy, a revised and expanded healthcare plan is more than needed in India. Currently, India only spends 1% of its massive annual 2.3 trillion dollar Gross Domestic Product on healthcare. On a person to person basis, the average Indian only spends $267 a year on healthcare. Compared to $731 per person in China or even $9,403 per person in the United Kingdom, Indian do not spend much on healthcare. Out of pocket expenses account for 67% of total health care spending in India— the 12th highest rate of its kind in the world. India is incredibly behind when it comes to spending on healthcare, another step the nation must take to move from a developing power to global power.


Besides low spending per person, the healthcare system in India faces many more internal problems. Public healthcare infrastructure is very poor in India, as public hospitals are often underfunded and understaffed. Across the nation, India has less than 15,000 state hospitals. Half of the users of healthcare report care of being poor quality, including an absence of a quality facility and long wait times to be seen. Only 1/3 of Indians have any medical insurance— a strikingly low number for a rising world power. For those who can afford it, many Indians opt for private healthcare which is about 55% of its citizens. The high numbers of Indians looking for alternative care expose the gaping holes in the current public healthcare system in India. Modicare aims to fix some of these issues, but its positive impact will only be seen once the plan is fully implemented.  


As many as 55 million Indians were pushed into poverty over the last few years, particularly due to out-of-pocket health care expenses. But with Modicare, most of these expenses will be covered. Modicare promises to provide healthcare coverage at a monetary value of $9,500 to all members of a household for one calendar year. This coverage is desperately needed by millions of Indians who are often left with limited and expensive options to cover their health needs. The beneficiaries of these program will cover those below the poverty line and those working in the informal sector of the economy. Modicare also covers the cost of treatment and hospitalization at the secondary and tertiary levels. The state will pay premiums to private insurers, while those who are a part of the program can seek treatment at any institution that has opted into Modicare. This will provide much broader options for those who previously could afford little to no healthcare.


The government is planning to open 150,000 health and wellness centers across the country, alongside their mission to cover actual medical costs. These centers are more than needed for the rural parts of the country, where Indians often struggle to locate places to receive health care and are out of reach of government programs. There is about $90 million allocated in the budget to build these centers across the country. One of the main goals of Modicare is to provide Indians living in the more rural and remote portions of the country with better access to affordable healthcare.


While these are improvements to healthcare, there have been some fair criticisms of Modicare as well. Modi announced his plan a mere seven to eight months prior to elections, a sign critics say that the NDA seems to care more about votes from those living in poverty than they do about genuinely improving their living standards. Some have also said that the program is already being under funded, with only $300 million being allocated for the first year of the program. The funds for the program will be raised over time however, eventually rising to $1.5 billion per year to cover all costs. Five non-BJP led states have already opted out of the program to continue with their current healthcare models.


While it is very possible that the NDA is using their new program as a way to garner political support prior to an important election, this program is a crucial step in the right direction for India. The public infrastructure for healthcare is incredibly poor in India and needs a massive revamp to fix the current system. Especially since the BJP have promised to work on poverty alleviation, offering free healthcare is a great way to do exactly that. This program will help the poorest in Indian society and will make them not worry nearly as much on healthcare costs. The program will provide a much needed facelift to the current public healthcare system in place, even if the initial phase of the procedure is not perfect. India is a massive and diverse nation, one with many needs and wants, and one program will never be able to cover all of those needs in one shot, However, Modicare is a step in the right direction in regards to the development of Indian healthcare and improving the lives of millions.

Nawaz Sharif’s fate will be determined by the two chiefs of Pakistan

The Islamabad High Court’s decision to suspend the jail sentence of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam provides temporary relief to the popular duo. But given Pakistan’s judicial history and the enduring pattern of the country’s courts acting as a shill or decoy for the all-powerful military establishment, there will probably be many more twists and turns before this case is eventually laid to rest.

Sharif, his daughter, and son-in-law were convicted hastily by an accountability court ahead of July’s general election, with the obvious purpose of influencing the election’s outcome. The case against them pertained to the ownership of four luxury properties in central London that had come to light in the Panama Papers, which revealed owners of offshore companies.

The judge who convicted Sharif made it clear in his judgment that the prosecution had presented no evidence of corruption and also that Sharif’s ownership of the properties in question had not been established. But he still convicted him for failing to explain his connection to the properties.

His daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who could be his political heir, was sentenced to seven years in jail for abetting a crime and one year for not cooperating during investigation while son-in-law Safdar Awan was given a one-year sentence for not cooperating. The convictions barred all three from seeking public office for up to 10 years after release.

It was clear to anyone with a modicum of legal knowledge that the judge who convicted them had written his decision in a manner that left room for an easy appeal. The judge was under pressure to convict but realised that the law was not really on the side of the prosecution.

Sharif and his family members appealed against the conviction and also sought suspension of the sentence pending appeal. Section 426 of Pakistan’s Criminal Procedure Code provides for suspension of sentence and grant of bail if a judgment convicting a person suffers from glaring legal errors.

The Islamabad High Court identified those glaring errors while suspending the sentence pending hearing of the appeal in detail. While the suspension of sentence does not conclusively decide the question of guilt or innocence of convicts, the errors of the conviction judgment have already been determined.

“The prosecution has failed to show the properties belong to Nawaz Sharif. It also failed to prove how Maryam Nawaz was sentenced under the same charge sheet which convicted Nawaz Sharif,” Justice Athar Minallah pointed out while suspending the Sharifs’ sentence.

Given the legal lacuna, it would not be easy for the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to make the conviction stand without introducing additional evidence, which might require a fresh trial.

But the law does not always matter in Pakistan’s judicial process, which has been subject to political whims for quite some time. Prosecutions involving political figures ignore the universal principle of presumption of innocence, and politicians are often asked to prove their innocence instead of the prosecution proving their guilt.

The ubiquitous intelligence services often ‘know’ more than they can prove and generate antipathy towards their target through the media even when the legal case is weak and lacks evidence.

Then there is the inherent weakness of Pakistan’s judiciary. Pakistan’s superior judiciary has, on several occasions, endorsed extra-constitutional military takeovers and sworn allegiance to coup-making generals.

Judicial verdicts given under pressure from the executive branch of the government or the military have sometimes been reversed after changes in regimes, and the country’s courts have in certain cases ignored their own precedents on grounds that an earlier judgment was issued under pressure or in specific circumstances.

Such politicisation of the judiciary has existed for years. Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, who served as Chief Justice in 1993-94, acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision to endorse the execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979 was made under pressure from military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq.

As one of the four judges who upheld Bhutto’s conviction, Shah’s confession years later provided an insight into the mind of otherwise good judges while deciding political matters. He once told a television interviewer that sometimes a judge thinks that staying on the bench enables him to do good in other cases even if he gives in to some demands of a dictator or an all-powerful institution like the military.

Unlike Justice Shah, the current Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar, does not seem to think of a few bad decisions as the price to pay for other, better judgments. Nisar just does not care about legal niceties at all as long as he is acting ‘in the national interest’.

Nisar visits mental health institutions to check on the quality of their wards, kitchen, and medical stores, even though that does not qualify as part of the job description of the Chief Justice in the contemporary era.

He recently raided the hospital room of an undertrial political personality and recovered bottles of alcohol, which remains prohibited in Pakistan. Sindh politicians turned the tables on him by ensuring that the chemical examination report on the contents of the bottles he discovered showed that they contained honey and olive oil instead of whiskey.

The Chief Justice has also started a project to crowdfund building of dams although neither the constitution nor any statute allows him to do so. With a one billion rupee donation from the Pakistan army, representing two days’ salary of all soldiers, the fund has accumulated Pakistan Rupees 3.7 billion until the writing of this article against a target of Pakistan Rupees 1,722 billion needed to construct the Diamer-Basha Dam.

The Supreme Court website, which provides figures for the dam collection, also informs us that 40,662 cases are pending disposal before Pakistan’s apex court while, according to the Law and Justice Commission, more than 1.8 million cases remain undecided at different levels of Pakistan’s judiciary.

Justice Nisar’s lack of interest in providing justice to Pakistani litigants is matched by his ignorance. During a recent court proceeding he made the startling comment that NAB should be tasked with bringing this writer back to Pakistan because “NAB had agreements with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) pertaining to the return of suspects”.

Anyone who has read even a high school-level book or article on the UN knows that UNSC has nothing to do with the extradition of individuals disliked by Chief Justices of member countries.

Given this state of Pakistan’s superior judiciary, which initiated the case against Sharif by disqualifying him from the office of prime minister before trial, problems await Sharif even after the Islamabad High Court’s decision in his favour.

Judges are usually expected to think in terms of finer points of law but in Pakistan, the soldierly way of ignoring constitutional and legal technicalities ‘in the national interest’ now afflicts the judiciary as well.

Sharif’s fate, therefore, will be determined by whether the two chiefs – the Chief Justice and the Chief of Army Staff – can reconcile themselves to having him back in the political arena or not.

On the other hand, both chiefs will retire, one in December and the other next year, while Sharif’s political support base will endure. At some point, another Chief Justice and another Army chief will have to deal with that harsh reality.

This article is reprinted here with the permission of the author and The Print.

Nepal's New Criminal Codes and Their Repercussions

Nepal has been under scrutiny for the past few weeks, regarding the new civil and criminal codes that have been established in the country. While these laws pertain to all Nepalese citizens, there are significantly higher restrictions on the public sphere of society. Freedom of the press specifically was affected by the new codes, making it increasingly difficult for journalists to freely report do their jobs. The new restrictions have greatly angered the international community, and have led to questions about the status of the country’s democracy.


The new civil and criminal codes are provisions of the new Nepalese constitution, which was adopted in 2015. They outline the rights and restrictions that are present within the country, and how violations of these codes will be treated. The criminal codes specifically are very restrictive, and are angering national and international press forums alike. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) stated in their official press release, “Nepal’s new Criminal Codes Act 2018 curtails freedom of expression and the press. Some provisions of the Act, especially Sections 293 to 308 relating to privacy and defamation, are restrictive to the press freedom and criminalize expression.” The codes say that Nepalese authorities can hold suspects for over 30 days, while they investigate the alleged crimes.


Some of the codes include: Section 293, which condemns listening or recording to conversations without consent, Section 294, which condemns releasing private information without consent, and Section 306, which condemns the use of satire. The ban on satire specifically is very troubling for the country and international community alike, as satire was historically a popular method of protest for Nepalese citizens during the autocratic rule in the country. Times of India further explained, “The four sections on privacy and defamation decree sentences of up to three years in prison and $260 in fines.” These consequences are extreme, especially when the constitution of Nepal allows for the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Journalists are now working in fear, unsure of whether they will be prosecuted for reporting the truth. These codes can also be used to intimidate and silence journalists, which would also hinder their ability to carry out their investigations without fear.


The treatment of journalists will be significantly different in the court of law as well. Ramesh Bistra, general secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, stated, “Now journalists will be first detained and treated like murder suspects even before they are tried or given a chance to clarify.” While the government has responded to the criticisms, they haven’t adequately addressed the changes they will make to the provisions. The Nepalese government has created a committee that will analyze the codes, and will give their recommended changes to the government. This committee has officials from various media rights groups, and they have a little over a month to decide on their recommended modifications. The Nepalese government is not obliged to implement these changes however, and even if they do, it will take years to fully establish the new provisions.


Nepal is not the only country in the region facing criticism for their restrictions on the freedom of the press. Myanmar is making headlines for their recent prosecution of a state media columnist, who will serve seven years for criticizing Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Two Reuters journalists were also recently arrested for reporting on the Rohingya Muslim crisis, which also received a significant amount of condemnation from the international community. Freedom of the press is necessary for journalists to effectively and safely do their jobs, so the recent restrictions are severely affecting their ability to report truthfully. It begs the question, why are the governments of Nepal and Myanmar so intent on limiting freedom of the press?

Pakistan's Cost of Debt

On a financial front, one of the key challenges facing Pakistan is ever-booming circular debt, the payments that the government to various entities in energy value chain ranging from generation companies to fuel suppliers. Over the last decade, the circular debt has ballooned from PKR 200 billion in 2008 to PKR 480 billion in 2013, to an alarming high of PKR 1,155 billion in August of 2018. While bad management of the power sector, leading to theft and bulging line losses, is one contributing factor to this circular debt, the fundamental problem remains financial.

After the fall of the Benazir Bhutto government in 1996, a government that introduced Independent Power Project Policy, addition of new generation capacity stalled (this Dawn editorial explains). This continued till the latter half of first decade of 21st century. This gap of almost 11 years created a huge supply gap leading to massive power cuts. These power cuts were so severe that they led to rioting in country’s industrial centers and small towns. Faced with crisis, starting in 2009 the government started increasing the power generation capacity rapidly. This was further accelerated by the government of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) after it assumed power in 2013 and  as per their claims 10,000 MW of power generation capacity was added in its 5 year tenure. And in this rapid expansion lies the recipe for ballooning circular debt. Power projects in Pakistan usually have a sanctioned life of 25 to 30 years. The government prefers to do these projects on 75/25 Debt to Equity ratio. However, debt maturity for these projects is 10 years. This means the projects’ tariff payment is front-loaded. Now since the country failed to incrementally increase its power generation between 1996 and 2007, rapid expansion of generation capacity impacted the weighted average tariff abruptly because of debt-servicing component of the tariff. Facing this, the government had two choices: first, to pass the increase to consumers and second, to subsidize it for the consumers. The government chose both, at times passing part of the increase to consumers and at times trying to pass it all to the consumers. When the government passed these costs fully to the consumer, it led to an increase in theft and non-payments leading to increase in receivables from consumers, leading to circular debt. When the government chose to subsidize it, it impacted the government’s finances leading to non-payments which resulted in increased circular debt.  So, the policy not to incrementally increase country’s power generation capacity led to a sudden spike in weighted-average tariffs and is at the heart of circular debt crisis.

Secondly, this 10-year debt maturity is not optimal. Utility projects have defined cashflows and when they have a sovereign-guarantee, as is in case of Pakistan (where the government provides a sovereign guarantee on off-take of power generated), it makes it a lucrative proposition to finance it through longer debt maturity. This for an amortized loan decreases debt-component in tariffs, leading to a lowering of overall tariffs in early years. Increasing debt maturity from 10 years to the life of a/the project can decrease non-fuel components of initial years tariffs by 25% to 40%, moving it on to latter years. The reasons this has not been achieved are a lack of domestic financing and an absence of serious effort on part of the government of Pakistan to encourage longer maturity debts. The government on one hand should encourage higher debt maturity and on the other should focus on increasing the debt portion of financing, encouraging higher debt to equity ratio for these projects. The combination of changing debt to equity ratio and extending debt maturity decreases non-fuel component of initial years tariffs by 35% to 50%. This levelling of cash flows can also lead to securitization of the project debt for the life of the project.

The third issue is the cost of debt itself. Pakistan’s cost of borrowing is on the higher side of global borrowing costs. Continuously running a twin deficit (fiscal deficit and current account deficit) has waned the financial market’s trust in Pakistan. For the 2017 issue, Pakistan’s 10-year sovereign Euro-bond spread over US T-bond of same maturity was around 600 b.p. or 6%, while Argentina, marred by serious financial mismanagement, had a premium of 400 b.p. or 4% at around the same time. This higher cost of borrowing is critical because Pakistan raises most of its infrastructure debt in US dollars. Going forward, the country needs to adopt a two-pronged strategy to improve its creditworthiness and to fix its current account deficit so that it could expand domestic debt borrowing for infrastructure projects and other financing needs. Recent talk of renegotiating the China Pakistan Economic Corridor deals and other such measures will be detrimental for country’s already bad creditworthiness. The country needs to embark on a program to improve the current account deficit through policies that encourage exports and foreign direct investment. It will also need to create a conducive environment for private entities to secure foreign financing through international debt markets. This requires breaking the country’s isolation from global financial markets by ensuring that the country leaves money laundering and terror-financing lists such as FATF grey list. Foreign financing to private entities will take the pressure off the government to secure sovereign-backed foreign financing for the current account. The country also needs to expand and democratize domestic debt markets by creating a conducive legal framework and encouraging domestic savings. The ultimate aim should be to create a debt market with ample liquidity and securitization to cater to the borrowing needs of projects and ventures. Short of these measures, the country will keep suffering from higher cost of debt, killing the country’s economic potential.

Indo-Pacific Command: More than a Name Change

On May 31, 2018, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis formally renamed the US Pacific Command (PACOM) to Indo-Pacific Command. This was not a surprising move, as the Trump administration had already been using the new name in official statements. While no substantive changes to US military strategy have occurred because of this change, it symbolizes much more than a simple rebranding. It demonstrates the strong desire by the United States to bring India firmly into their camp. However, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi has other ideas for India’s foreign policy.

US-India Relationship

United States President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi have a very close relationship, at least according to State Department officials. After Prime Minister Modi visited President Trump at the White House in June 2017, they released a joint statement that affirmed the mutual desire to strengthen ties between the two countries. When Trump visited the region in November 2017, he announced that it was now time for an Indo-Pacific strategy, making clear his intentions to bring India into the larger strategic picture. In addition to demonstrating a mutual desire for stronger ties, the new name further demonstrates the United States’ desire for India to take on a larger role in the region.

There are a multitude of reasons why the United States would appreciate India’s involvement in the Pacific Command. The Indo-Pacific region is seen as one of the most volatile regions in the world today, in part due to a series of measures undertaken by China in recent years. China has made claims to vast stretches of the South and East China Seas, including numerous small land masses within them, with virtually all their claims being disputed by one of their maritime neighbors. While India is removed from these disputes, it also has a history of dealing with Chinese expansionism and border disagreements.

By adding India to the Pacific Command region, the Trump administration has indicated that they would like to see India take a larger role in promoting regional stability. With India recently becoming one of the world’s top five largest military spenders and as a growing economic force, the United States hopes that India could provide a significant counter to Chinese expansionism. India’s location along oil shipping routes and its large shared border to China’s east provide it with significant reasons to be seen as a very advantageous ally to have when confronting China, as the United States is doing.

India’s Role

While Modi initially expressed favorable reactions to the United States’ courtship, more recently actions have demonstrated Modi’s desire to maintain India’s historical role as a neutral party in great power disputes. In a move that surprised nearly all in attendance, during his keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Modi expressed a belief that “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”. Despite being a member of the QUAD alliance (along with the US, Japan, and Australia), a group whose purpose many believe is to stand against Chinese territorial expansionism, India’s comments were taken by some as a defense of China’s aggressive approach in the South and East China Seas.

Prime Minister Modi has tried hard to keep India in neutral standing despite some significant obstacles. Perhaps most noteworthy was the military stand-off near the Doklam plateau with China in 2017 over the construction of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, but both sides have taken steps to mend ties and prevent a similar occurrence from happening again. In a meeting between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018, both expressed a willingness to communicate and work together.

Modi has also taken steps that more closely adhere to what the United States would like to see. In a 2015 January statement, India made a transparent reference to China’s actions in the South China Sea, by calling for all parties to resolve maritime disputes through “peaceful means”. India has also participated with joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan and has demonstrated an increased willingness to engage in the region. Modi is also a staunch defender of the smaller nations in the South China Sea and recently took steps to strengthen India’s relationship with nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. 

 Chinese Reaction

China is unlikely to see this renaming of the regional command and the participation of India in naval exercises as a positive development. In fact, many Chinese analysts have taken Defense Secretary Mattis’ comment “the Indo-Pacific has many belts and many roads” at the official announcement ceremony as a dig at China’s One Belt One Road initiative. A state-run newspaper, Global Times, warned India that should it enter a “strategic competition” with China, it would “burn its own fingers”. Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhou, a research fellow at the Institute of War Studies in China, expressed a belief that the Indo-Pacific strategy would not last long.

Perhaps most importantly, China will see this developing relationship as a US-led attempt to encircle China and its economic interests, specifically its oil imports. Nearly 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the India ocean and the Straits of Malacca before reaching the South China Sea, where China can more easily defend them. This has been an element of Chinese military strategy for over a decade. In 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao referred to the Malacca dilemma, and subsequent Chinese military doctrine has demonstrated their desire to address these vulnerabilities, including the creation of new blue-water navy and its expansion of dual-use ports (ports with civilian and military purposes).

In part this explains why the Chinese have taken steps to improving their relationship with India. They do not want a nation with such an advantageous geostrategic position to be aligned against them in their growing competition with the United States. With India publicly demonstrating its desire to further develop relations in the region (with projects such as investing in Indonesian ports), there remains the significant possibility for tensions to reemerge between the two Asian powers.

The Geopolitics of Ports and the Silk Road of the Sea

“The age of the west is at a crossroads, if not at an end” Peter Frankopan


The expertise of a country’s diplomats and the effectiveness of its armed forces are not the only variables determining its rise. Geographical factors must also be considered. Influencing the overall prosperity of a nation are its access to raw materials and trade routes, its climate, and – most critical in informing foreign policy – its strategic location.

In this light, it was no coincidence that the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned the translation of the works of the ancient geographer Strabo. The 'subordination' of Asian countries to Western powers began in 1798 when Napoleon led a 40,000-strong French army into Egypt, ostensibly to protect French trade interests. Shortly afterward, issues concerning trade resulted in Western countries driving a wedge between China and India. Economic interests have similarly followed military interests on several occasions in the arc of history, and history could repeat itself. This time, though, the difference will be an Eastern power as the most significant player in the global arena.

Southern Sri Lanka has become a geopolitical hotbed after the construction of the Hambantota harbour and the recent relocation of the Galle Southern Naval Command next to Hambantota Port. There are more than 700 naval officers engaged in maritime security efforts who are based next to the harbour premises leased by China. The relocated post in Galle will be occupied by the Sri Lankan coast guard to further protect the oceans using its new military hardware. In doing so, scholars have suggested that Sri Lanka should opt for the P-3C Orion naval reconnaissance anti-submarine aircraft instead of Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs). This aircraft enables scanning a larger area and has been proven effective by many other countries. According to the latest statement by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, Sri Lanka should prepare for anti-submarine warfare. 

On a recent visit to the port of Hambantota, the Japanese Defence Minister, Itsunori Onedera, stated, “Despite the lease there was an agreement that the port remains free of military activities.” This statement reflects concerns over the leasing of the facility to China for 99 years. Onedera was the first Japanese defence minister to visit Sri Lanka in a period in which the island finds itself in the spheres of influence of India, the US, and China. Unfortunately, the expectation that Hambantota should remain free of Chinese military activities – as well as the other details of the lease agreement– has received little attention from the general public of Sri Lanka.

China’s geopolitical presence is rapidly expanding under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Starting with ports such as Sittwe, Gwadar, Djibouti, Hambantota, and Dar es Salaam, China is testing a strategy of using its economic influence to advance its security interests, much like Western powers have done in the past. To counter China’s influence through BRI, the 'Quad' (the US, India, Japan, Australia) was formed.

It has been argued that Sri Lanka has benefited from Japan’s hedging strategies in the South Asia region. A tactic that could unfold into a larger strategy was the agreement signed on 12 April 2017 aimed at the 'Deepening and Expansion of Comprehensive Partnership between Japan and Sri Lanka'. The agreement covers three areas: First, Japan is to expand its maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka; second, Japan is to improve Sri Lanka's maritime capability by providing two OPVs in support of the bilateral defence partnership; and third, Sri Lanka is to participate as an observer in the next Japan-India joint exercise between coast guards. New alliances such as with Sri Lanka will further support and cement the core strategy between the US and Japan in the Indo-Pacific.

Djibouti is a former French colony with a small population and scarce natural resources. The country’s GDP remains below US$ 1.8 billion and it has only one significant geopolitical offering: its strategic location. Sitting at the eastern edge of the African continent and the western shore of the Indian Ocean, Djibouti has become a multi-military base and logistics operational hub. Even Japan’s first overseas military base since World War II is found in this strategic location. Within Djibouti, a Chinese logistics base also sits merely eight miles away from Camp Lemonnier. There are 4,000 personnel from the US Combined Joint Task Force stationed in the Horn of Africa. From a realist lens, of the various countries who have leased property for military bases, China has a strategic advantage due to the billions of dollars of financial support it has offered continuously to Djibouti. One example is an infrastructural mega-project in the form of a railway connecting Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Outside powers pledging non-interference to the region and neighboring countries has significant economic and military implications. Other new ports emerging in the region could copy Djibouti’s model in the years to come. Sri Lanka is not unique in this sense. Currently, Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee Port is planned to be jointly developed by India, Japan and Singapore; Hambantota Port is already leased to China, and the adjoining Mattala Airport will be operated by India, all in a bid to counter-balance China’s influence. Merely moving a Sri Lankan naval post next to the plot leased by China for 99 years will not guarantee the ability to secure economic or military interests in the future.

Fluctuations in the frequency, scope, and intensity of diplomatic and military engagements are inherent to a volatile, multipolar world. China’s rise, made possible by its economic advances, is seen by many observers also as a result of it winning every move on the geopolitical chess board. Djibouti was the initial victory in the Indian Ocean and presumably, other small states will give in to this tide.


* Views expressed are the author's own. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a visiting lecturer at the Colombo University and Director General of INSSSL, the national security think tank of Sri Lanka. This article was initially published by the IPCS, New Delhi for Dateline Colombo (

Yameen's Defeat: A Win for the Maldives, India, and the United States

This past Sunday, Maldives opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih defeated President Abdulla Yameen in the country’s presidential election. This Monday, Yameen conceded. This outcome will have a significant impact on the country’s trajectory on a national and international level, as the Maldives was taking an autocratic turn with Yameen’s continued aggression towards criticizers and competitors. The nation is also a key player in the ongoing China- India power struggle, and Yameen’s approval of increased Chinese support and influence over the Indian Ocean was discernible. For these reasons, Solih’s win is a victory for India and the United States as well.  


The Maldives was established as a democracy in 2008, following three decades of authoritarian rule under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Yameen was elected president in 2013, and asserted dominance in this role by arresting his various different political opponents. This included Muhammed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president, and Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, mentioned earlier, who is Yameen’s half- brother. Yameen also forbid public rallies from occurring within the country, and only lifted this ban due to increased pressure from both internal and external sources. Earlier this month, a rally was held for the first time in three years. These restrictive measures exemplify anti-democratic sentiment, with Yameen infringing on citizens’ rights to express their dissent and disapproval with the presidential administration. Solih’s campaign manager, Mariya Ahmed Did, stated, “President Yameen was not given a mandate to trample all over Maldivian democracy and our Constitution, but that is what he has done these past five years.”


The international community will closely watch the transition from Yameen’s administration to Solih’s, as the latter’s campaign throughout the election was centered on democratic reform. However, there is still a significant amount of corruption present within the government, and a fragile judiciary system. While the victorious opposition force is full of anti-Yameen sentiment, there is a strong divide between individuals on what the next steps should be, and whether a fully democratic nation is ideal. Solih received 58% of the popular vote, with an 89% voter turnout.

Yameen’s defeat comes as a triumph for the United States and India specifically, two countries with a vested interest in the fate of the Maldives. Under Yameen’s presidency, Chinese influence increased significantly in the Maldives. The New York Times explained, “China has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the Maldives, which critics, including the political opposition, warn amounts to “debt-trap diplomacy” that weighs down the recipient country with loans in order to secure a naval base as repayment.” As stated, many analysts believe that China will establish a naval base in the Maldives in response to the latter’s inability to repay its loans. This link between China and the Maldives is exactly the opposite of what India desires, as a stronger relationship between the Maldives and China can easily lead to decreased relations with India.


While it is unclear how the China- Maldives relationship will proceed during Solih’s presidency, his election campaign focused on a decreased Chinese presence in Myanmar, which is a good sign for India. Increased Chinese influence on the Indian Ocean nations would lead to an uneven balance of power between China and India, tipping the two nations’ power struggle in China’s favor. Without waiting for the official announcement of Solih’s victory, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs released in a statement, “In keeping with our ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy, we look forward to working closely with the Maldives in further deepening our partnership.”


While the United States also sees Solih’s win as strategically beneficial, it also considers the outcome as a victory for the Maldives’ democratic status. Prior to Solih’s victory, many believed that Yameen would sway the election in his favor, unlawfully rigging a democratic fair election. The U.S. State Department had released a statement earlier this month, stating that the elections “were of critical importance to the Maldives' future." While the United States got the outcome it wanted, the next few years under Solih’s leadership will determine whether the democratic status of the Maldives will improve, and how the country’s presence in the international community will develop.

McCain's Life and Death: An Indian Sailor's Musings

"This was first carried by" on 23 Sep 2018."

McCain’s Life and Death: An Indian Sailor’s Musings

Requiem for a “Sailor Home from Sea”

August this year marked the passing of former Prime Minister Vajpayee in India and Senator John McCain III in the United States. Their backgrounds and their lives were different, and yet their decades of public service mattered very much to their respective countries. They were both given national funerals that had in the background and foreground both, ordinary citizens, military elements and national leaders, current and past. Even amidst contemporary political differences (as would be expected in democracies), there was a multi-partisan (in India) and bi-partisan (in the US) appreciation of their public service and McCain’s military service as well.  These are important virtues that signify the democratic strands that exist in the world ’s largest and the world’s richest democracies. However, this article is not about comparing and contrasting their lives, or about politics. It is more to muse about what John McCain’s journey highlights to an observer at a distance.

John McCain’s six years as a POW in North Vietnam defined him in more ways and much more often than he himself would have liked. He generally was very reticent about those years in which he displayed heroism and yet felt ashamed at the occasional periods where he thought he had not been able to withstand the deprivations.  The churn that the United States and the American people went through changed that country in some ways. Of course, Vietnam’s sacrifices, the price it paid in blood during the political and military struggle to unite itself were much, much greater.

McCain’s father, Admiral John McCain, Jr. had taken over as the CINC of the Pacific Command a few months before his son was shot down during a strike mission over North Vietnam in 1968. He certainly was a prize prisoner because of this connection. The son declined to be released from prison earlier than the sequence of imprisonment and neither did his father step in at all. This reminds us of two similar incidents. In 1965, Flt Lt Nanda Cariappa of the IAF declined any special treatment or early release even when offered as such by the Pakistani dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Nanda was the son of then General KM Cariappa, and along with Ayub Khan was a part of the British Indian Army before partition. One recollection by a Press Information officer of the 1960s era recounts Gen Cariappa’s reply to Ayub Khan: “He is my son no longer. He is the child of his country, a soldier fighting for his motherland like a true patriot. My many thanks for your kind gesture, but I request you to release all or none. Give him no special treatment.”

In World War II, Stalin’s older son Yakov had been a POW of the Nazis when they offered to swap him for Field Marshal Paulus after the German defeat at Stalingrad. Stalin refused. His son died in a German camp, presumably by throwing himself on an electric fence. (Stalin’s other son, Vassily of course led a very privileged, protected and debauched life, rapidly rising to be an air force general of no merit at all.)

The main point suggested here is to emphasise John McCain’s character. For a military man, it is possible to display leadership, honour and “conduct becoming” even as a POW. McCain did that despite his own sense that he caved in at times to torture. This author’s interest in McCain was as a result of an elective at the US Naval War College several years ago. The very popular but hard to enroll elective (especially for an international student) was called “The Philosophy of Moral Obligation”. It was informally called the Stockdale Course and named after VADM James Bond Stockdale who crafted the curriculum with the help of some professors of philosophy when he was president of the College. Quite a few readers may know that he was the ranking POW in one of the larger Hanoi POW camps and was awarded a Medal of Honour after his release for his leadership, moral courage and the stoicism he displayed.

In 1999, a few years before I did the course, Stockdale had stoutly defended John McCain (by then a senator) against charges of cowardice in captivity. He said that there could be periods when even the bravest could buckle under captivity. McCain’s conduct was honourable and the complexities had to be taken into account. One cannot say for sure, but John McCain may have had Stockdale’s supporting words in mind when he defended the opposing Presidential candidate in 2008 against what he thought were unwarranted allegations.

McCain’s passing perhaps reminds us of a few common or at least similar predicaments in our two democracies. Military service is applauded; the armed forces are greatly respected by the citizenry and yet inequities exist. Two inequities that John McCain brought up sometimes and quite unambiguously in an interview on Ms Whoopi Goldberg’s TV show “The View”  were the predominance of the lower- income groups during the draft in the Vietnam war as well as the loopholes in the system which enabled many better-off young men to avoid the draft on flimsy medical grounds. The all-volunteer force (AVF) in the US shows similar class- inequities. In India as well the situation is not very different even while the uniform is similarly respected in towns and villages. Quite a bit has been written about the near- total absence of sons and daughters of political leaders, of civilian bureaucrats as well as economically well-off people signing up to serve. This too is a form of inequity and perhaps there is a price to be paid in ways that may not be too apparent.

That brings us to the other similarity of “military families.” This has been a common societal thread in America and India. Its great positives are the continuation of hallowed tradition of service and selflessness. Perhaps one major negative to consider is the risk of disconnectedness, which, with economic and cultural preferences of de facto “non-military” families, exacerbates the divides. A Society- military gap is not good in any nation and many Americans recognize this.

Of course, McCains were and are a military family. His father and grandfather were both four-star admirals. His father served as a young submarine commander in WW II where his own father was a distinguished naval aviation flag officer and combat commander. Again, the father served alongside his own son in the Vietnam war as we have already seen. John McCain, III’s adopted son from his first marriage was a naval aviator as is his oldest son from his second marriage. Interestingly–and quite unusually from an Indian perspective– his youngest son enlisted in the Marines and served in Iraq. Audiences in India watching the funeral on TV may have seen him in the uniform of an Army sergeant that he currently is in the Army National Guard.

McCain never used these examples of his sons serving to score political points and also because he didn’t want his Marine son or his comrades to be at greater risk if this became known. There is a fine Australian example of  General Peter Cosgrove that this author knows of from the days he was posted at the Indian  High Commission in Canberra and one on whom he formally called on the day after reaching there. He was then the Chief of Defence Force (and a former Army Chief and a Military Cross recipient in Vietnam) with three sons. All three of them were quietly serving in Afghanistan as enlisted soldiers in the Australian Army. This information was again kept from the media for obvious reasons. This is a great example of internal egalitarianism of service in the forces, while quite literally serving in “their Dad’s Army.” By the way, General Cosgrove who has been the Governor General of Australia since 2014 is a graduate of the National Defence College, New Delhi and has written warmly in his autobiography about his year in India attending the course. Military families abound in many continents!

McCain was the quintessential military leader, virtuous in the largest sense but with the occasional wart, or the passing folly and the ability to admit an error of judgment. He carried the same qualities honed while flying for his navy and nation into a prison cell and onto the floors of legislatures as he enriched public life in his country.  His funeral saw his political opponents, his military colleagues, ordinary Americans as well as serving military leadership in full attendance. This was something that could have been seen—but wasn’t– during Field Marshal Manekshaw’s funeral.

Militaries everywhere forge many leaders of his ilk and ever so often. McCain’s life and his death bring this great reality to the fore.

Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande (Retd)