Imran Khan is Sitting on a Jihadi Time Bomb, Demanding Evidence Over Pulwama a Mere Excuse

Rather than immediately reassuring India and an increasingly upset international community that Pakistan means business in confronting its terrorist demons, Prime Minister Imran Khan took several days to respond to the Pulwama attack. When he spoke Tuesday, he only repeated the mantra of investigation and the promise of action if India shares “actionable intelligence with Pakistan”.

That the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) should have been enough for Pakistan to act against the outfit. After all, Pakistan condemned the attack and has said over the years that it is part of the international community effort to eliminate terrorism.

The enormous destructive capability of nuclear weapons has often been seen as a deterrent to war. But in the Indian subcontinent, politicians and television personalities routinely invoke the possession of nukes in reckless rhetoric of the type that is now on display in both India and Pakistan following last week’s terrorist suicide bombing in Pulwama.

Promises of investigation and demands for actionable intelligence have become a routine Pakistani response in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, especially against India. They were invoked after the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, and all the attacks in between and subsequently.

Considering that groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and JeM, which has claimed responsibility for the latest tragedy as well as other operations, operate openly and in full view in Pakistan, the calls for investigation and actionable intelligence are nothing more than excuses.

By now most countries of the world recognise the Pakistani pattern of behaviour, which explains the almost-universal demand for action against JeM and its founder, Maulana Masood Azhar.

The assumption on the Pakistani side, probably correct, is that its possession of nuclear weapons limits the likelihood of a kinetic response by India to attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists.

There is outrage and anger in India but the thinking in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is that a defiant Pakistan has dealt with it before and can get through it again. The frequency of such brinkmanship, however, only produces diminishing returns.

It is true that the demand for use of force on the Indian side is increasing but, in the end, New Delhi will act on calculations, not the pronouncements of evening talk-show warmongers.

It is easier to talk about breaking up or punishing Pakistan than to do it or even to think through consequences of every action and reaction.

Although it is based in Pakistan and operates from a massive headquarters in Bahawalpur, JeM managed to use a radicalised young Kashmiri this time to kill Indian troops.

Once the passions of the moment subside, Indians will have to figure out how and why that happened and what needs to be done to deal with such unfortunate circumstances. But India’s Kashmir problem neither justifies nor mitigates Pakistan’s Jihadi problem.

If Imran Khan and his militarist mentors cared to think beyond their hyper-nationalist fervour, they would realise that terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based Jihadi groups and the response of their target countries cannot be calibrated forever.

Around the same time that JeM orchestrated the Pulwama attack against Indian troops, Iran’s government held another Pakistan-based group Jaish al-Adl responsible for attacks in Iran.

One need not be a supporter of Iran’s clerical regime or ignorant of Iran’s own support to extremism and terror elsewhere to point out the danger to Pakistan of a consensus among its neighbours – and the rest of the world – against Pakistan-based Jihadism.

The United States was unequivocal in its condemnation of the Pulwama incident, describing it as a “heinous terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based terrorist group” and calling upon Pakistan “to end immediately the support and safe haven provided to all terrorist groups operating on its soil”.

It is rare for the US and Iran to agree on most things, but they clearly agree that Pakistan serves as a safe haven and base for terrorist groups.

The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and a friend of Pakistan, also designated Jaish-e-Mohammed as a terrorist organisation a couple of years ago, just as the US and India had done earlier.

France is said to be planning to lead the charge for listing of Jaish’s Masood Azhar as a ‘global terrorist’ at the United Nations Security Council and China has not been outspoken in its support for Pakistan after the Pulwama massacre either. Sanctions by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) over failure to limit terrorist financing continue to loom.

But Imran Khan’s government and Pakistan’s military leadership seem unfazed by the coming storm. The hubris in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is based on Pakistan’s nuclear status and the country being ‘the key to the resolution of the Afghan dispute’.

Its railways minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed – sponsor of Jihadi groups himself, who is known by the nickname ‘Sheedi Tulli’ (‘Sheeda the Bell’ in Punjabi), and who also served in General Musharraf’s military regime – invoked the nukes when he threatened that “bells will forever stop ringing in Hindu temples” if India acts against Pakistan.

And Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Zahid Nasrullah, played the Afghan card when he said that peace talks between the United States and Afghan Taliban militants would be affected if India retaliated to the Pulwama bombing.

Beyond the posturing and bombast, Pakistan’s decision-makers must still consider the long-term outcome of their unending Jihad.

The flaws in India’s handling of Jammu and Kashmir notwithstanding, the intermittent terrorist attacks since 1989 have done nothing to improve the lives of Kashmiri Muslims nor have they advanced the resolution of what Pakistan considers to be the Kashmir dispute.

Groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed might be playing nice within Pakistan while carrying out attacks in Indian territory right now, but they do have a track record of attacks on Pakistani soil as well.

Jaish members conducted suicide attacks on Pakistani officials in Islamabad, Karachi, Murree, Taxila and Bahawalpur to protest General Musharraf’s alliance with the US after 9/11. The group was also involved in attacks on Christian churches, Shia mosques, and diplomatic missions inside Pakistan soon after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Those who have allowed Masood Azhar to recruit, organise, and train terrorists even after formally banning Jaish in 2002 might find his anti-India and anti-Hindu zeal useful. But as Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out, “you can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbours. Eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”

If Pakistan is to have a national purpose other than periodically whipping up frenzy against India, a pastime that is unfortunately being imitated in India with increasing frequency, it would act against Jaish and work with India and the international community to prevent future terrorist attacks.

If it does not, its ‘success’ in avoiding serious consequences because of India’s relatively limited choices of retaliatory action will only be a pyrrhic victory. Being viewed as a threat by almost all your neighbours and sitting on the Jihadi time bomb is not a strategy for progress and prosperity. 

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

US Cut and Run Will Do to Afghanistan What Soviet Withdrawal Did in 1989

Thirty years after the Geneva Accords provided a fig leaf for the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Americans are now holding talks with the Taliban for a similar negotiated exit. But just as the withdrawal of Soviet forces did not ensure reconciliation, the departure of the US troops alone will not guarantee peace.

A genuine peace deal would involve a commitment by the Taliban to halt their attacks in return for inclusion in Afghanistan’s political process. The framework agreement between Taliban interlocutors and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, proposes American withdrawal in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists.

Khalilzad is a seasoned negotiator and understands Afghanistan, where he was born, very well. He knows that the Taliban have so far made no significant concession and that their guarantees are unreliable.

But he is constrained by President Donald Trump’s keenness to bring American troops home. Khalilzad seems to be working under a deadline set by Trump otherwise he would have emphasised on a ceasefire and release of hostages while talking to the Taliban before even mentioning US troop withdrawal.

As a real estate man, Trump knows that one cannot get full value of property in a distress sale. He has attempted to reduce the atmosphere of desperation for withdrawal in his State of the Union speech before the US Congress. Trump’s new position is that US troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan only after progress is made in the peace talks.

That might provide some comfort to those, like former ambassador Ryan Crocker, who saw the framework agreement as ‘surrender’ and those, such as former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins, who warned against rushing into a deal with the Taliban.

But Trump tends to change his mind on details even as he sticks to his core belief that the US cannot be ‘the world’s policeman’. He had originally announced a strategy for Afghanistan that involved greater pressure on Pakistan and a signal to the Taliban that the US was willing to stay on in Afghanistan indefinitely.

That strategy probably led to Pakistan supporting Khalilzad’s efforts to talk directly to the Taliban. Pakistani officials helped Khalilzad come face to face with Taliban leaders whose presence in Pakistan had been officially denied for years.

But Trump’s eagerness to withdraw from the Middle East and Afghanistan is well-known and to hardcore Jihadis, it signals American retreat. Jihadis across the world already believe that they are on the verge of forcing the United States out of Afghanistan just as they forced the Soviet Union to withdraw.

A US cut and run will plunge Afghanistan into circumstances no different than the ones that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Pakistan will still want its proxies in control of Kabul and there will be resistance to the return of the Taliban’s harsh rule as well as to any other force too beholden to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

From the Taliban’s perspective, negotiating directly with a US presidential envoy gives them some legitimacy and the prospect of driving a bargain independent of Pakistan. By accepting their assurance on not letting terrorists use Afghan soil, the US special envoy has implicitly forgiven the terrorist acts perpetrated by the Taliban and their Haqqani Network.

Khalilzad has rightly pointed out that “you can’t eat an elephant in one bite,” suggesting that critics do not know everything he has discussed with the Taliban. “The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line,” he tweeted, adding that the situation in Afghanistan was complex and “like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public”.

According to Khalilzad, “there is still work to be done on other vital issues like intra-Afghan dialogue and a complete ceasefire.”

But by announcing the withdrawal as its goal, the Trump administration has already repeated the folly of the Obama administration. When a superpower signals its desperation to get out of a conflict, the negotiation process that follows is inevitably seen as going through the motions of providing diplomatic cover.

Pakistan has facilitated Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban with an eye on the prospect of renewed US economic and military assistance. Pakistan’s friends – such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE – encouraged Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the table, out of concern for Pakistan’s increasing isolation under American pressure.

The Taliban and Pakistan have given assurances on clearing out international terrorists several times since 1996, and their promises have often turned out to be inadequate or outright false.

The fact that promises of Pakistan’s generals did not prevent the country from becoming home to Al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden should make Americans wonder whether the Taliban’s promises would fare any better.

Pakistan could play a positive role in helping the Afghan Peace Process, provided it changes its decades-old objectives in Afghanistan. Islamabad should be prepared to befriend any legitimately elected government in Kabul, instead of trying to impose an Islamist, Pashtun, pro-Pakistan and anti-Indian Afghan regime.

The Taliban, too, would have to change their core ideology and concede space to pluralism. So far, there is no sign that they intend to show tolerance for religious minorities, women, or even non-bearded males if they ever return to power.

The Trump administration must insist on a change in Taliban’s outlook towards other Afghans if there is to be lasting peace in Afghanistan. So far, it has shown little interest in affirming a commitment to the progress and freedom of Afghans, won after expending Afghan and American blood as well as US treasure.

Many Afghans believe that an Afghan settlement based on concessions to the Taliban and Pakistan would only lead to another war between Afghan patriots and Pakistan’s proxies. After all, between 1994 and 2001, Afghans resisted the Taliban without external support and could do so again, if they are forced to do so.

President Ashraf Ghani’s choice as his vice-presidential running mate for the next Afghan elections, Amrullah Saleh, pointed out recently that Afghanistan “was not invented by the West on September 12, 2001 and won’t disappear if and as they wish to leave”.

Americans and Afghans have much to be proud of because of their 17-year partnership. Afghan girls are going to school in ever larger numbers, women are not forced to wear burqas or stay at home, the economy is a lot better than it used to be, and the cities destroyed by decades of conflict have been rebuilt. These achievements should not be destroyed by a hasty US withdrawal.

Trump has often voiced concern over the hefty cost of US engagement in Afghanistan. But much of that cost is the result of the American predilection for spending abroad what they would at home. American contractors and American suppliers, not Afghans, raised the cost and a rationalisation of expenditure would be the solution rather than abandoning the Afghans altogether.

Above all, Americans must work towards a deal that leaves behind a stable and peaceful Afghanistan instead of constantly revealing their anxiety to just leave.

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

Photo Credit: Commons

Pulwama Attack Signals Return of Deadly IED Threat, Suicide Bombing in Kashmir

It is ironical that a day after the National Security Guard (NSG) conducted its national seminar focused on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the very day the Indian Army was discussing sub-conventional operations in an Army-level seminar, both in the National Capital Region, a major car bomb attack killed as many as 40 CRPF personnel travelling in a bus on the Srinagar–Jammu National Highway in Pulwama. Proportion wise this is the biggest terror-related event in Jammu and Kashmir since the Uri attack of 18 September, 2016 and probably one of the worst losses in the 30-year-proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir.

The attack comes in the wake of a festering situation described by some as ‘security stable’ and many others as ‘dynamic – awaiting the next event’. I place myself in the latter category, since for over two years I have feared the return of the IED threat to Kashmir and been writing about it. Even more than that, I have feared the advent of suicide bombing as part of the emerging threats. More on this later but suffice to say for now that suicide bombers have been rife in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan for past many years. This is one domain of sub-conventional violence which had largely eluded Kashmir and all such low intensity conflict theatres in rest of India.

The geographical location of the incident was the notorious Pampore-Letapur section of the Srinagar-Jammu highway. It was a vehicle laden with 350 kgs of explosives which detonated after ramming against the CRPF bus transporting CRPF jawans in large numbers as part of a convoy; mostly personnel stuck in transit camps due to the closure of the highway due to heavy snow. Apparently some indiscriminate firing by other terrorists also added to the casualty figures. It won’t take long establishing the facts. Already the name of the suicide bomber is known; Adil Ahmad Dar of Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). The fact that the name is Kashmiri is all the more disturbing. Kashmiri ‘fidayeen’ have been rare but this incident may just spur more towards such a trend.

It is easy to blame this incident on lapse in security and insufficient vigil on the road when the CRPF convoy was due to pass. For the past few months, the Pampore segment of the highway has been relatively incident free compared to 2017 when a series of ambushes on several convoys claimed several lives of soldiers and policemen. In counter-terror operations often a certain domain of activity takes primacy; it could be targetting of policemen on leave or on duty, rocket attacks or standoff firing on posts and attempted entry into security posts by so called ‘fidayeen’ who are prepared to die in the course of their actions.

There are many such terrorist actions and the selected choice always remains in the hands of the terrorists which therefore gives them the initiative. Security forces have the major challenge of predicting these through intelligence-based assessment. Sometimes they are right and many times inaccurate. However, while an emplaced IED can still be discovered by alert security personnel on road opening duties, the threat posed by a car bomb or simply a wired up single suicide bomber is vastly different. Check of every car on the road is never possible nor of all individuals; there are thousands of cars on Kashmir’s roads every day and particularly on this stretch of the National Highway, being closer to Srinagar.

While the media is being critical of the security for movement of convoys it is entirely unfair to blame intelligence agencies or the police. When a trend takes course, such as that of IEDs or car bombs the alert is of a focused kind. Currently there was a threat but not something which could give leads for any substantial intelligence work.

At the same time it is not easy for terrorists or over ground workers (OGWs) to prepare and emplace an IED or fabricate a car bomb if the intelligence is hands on and the area domination is effective. Almost 16 years devoid of any car bombs had diverted attention to other types of threats.

Prediction that this trend could return was made by many experienced hands after analysing the security environment in other affected countries but accuracy and assessment of timing and nature of attack would always be questionable. That is why blame game in such situations is strictly avoidable. Where the blame must be genuinely apportioned is in the non-availability of hardened vehicles for movement of personnel.

A massive effort was undertaken in 2004-07 to harden such buses to minimise damage to personnel in the event of an IED related attack. Obviously replacements have been far and few and budget constraints have probably come in the way. The army, too, remains vulnerable on this count. It's good for the people and the leadership to know that in 2004 an army bus hardened with skirt plates of vintage tanks suffered such a car bomb attack; except for the driver whose cabin was unhardened all others survived with minor injuries. That car, too, was driven by a Kashmiri local just as the one which rammed Badami Bagh's Batwara Gate in 2001.

The likely effect of Thursday's dastardly attack will be of an immediate change in the nature of threats. Obviously one or more ‘IED doctors’ are at work in the terrorist ranks and explosives are not under any form of government control. Movement of VIPs, security convoys and even entry points of important institutions will immediately come under threat entailing much higher density of deployment for physical security. This will take away personnel from domination duties and intelligence-related deployment thus opening up more space for terrorist movement deployment and capability.

There will be an immediate necessity for greater population control measures and curbs on freedom of movement with many more checkpoints leading to more antipathy among the people. The cause is due to the terrorists but the blame will come on the security forces and the vicious cycle will continue exactly as intended by the sponsors of the proxy war in Pakistan. These are the typical travails of a sub conventional conflict and the sponsors know exactly how a failing situation can be retracted for effect by a big ticket event.

With what is happening in Afghanistan and the emerging advantage that is like to accrue to Pakistan in terms of enhanced importance in the eyes of major powers, there is likelihood that its risk taking propensity in Kashmir will increase. Thus the first of the steps that India needs to take is to enhance its diplomatic energy in major capitals and institutions of the world. Public opinion will be coloured by sentiment but it really is the time that the Indian leadership will have to relook at the entire strategy India has thus far played out. India cannot afford to be seen to be helpless but options are extremely limited and therein lies our 30 year old dilemma.

It is also important to ensure that vilification of the ordinary Kashmiri is not done. We already have a seething youth on our hands and alienating just about everyone is not going to be helpful. It calls for statesmanship of the highest order. Will India’s political community rise to the occasion?

Photo Credit: PTI

Needed: A Sustained Pressure Strategy for Pakistan

Pressure has to be applied on Pakistan in a sustained manner at diplomatic, economic and strategic levels.


The latest terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed over 40 jawans of one of India’s paramilitary forces, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), raises the question of how India might best deal with Pakistan’s constant support for such attacks. The suicide attack on the CRPF convoy on the Jammu-Srinagar highway was carried out and claimed by a suicide bomber, Adil Ahmad Dar, of the Pakistan-based and globally recognised terror group, Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pulwama is the biggest terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir since the Uri terror attack in September 2016.

Threatening a military strike on television or tweeting and promising to wipe out every terrorist inside Pakistan may be great as sound bites or social media machismo. It is, however, not a long-term strategy for a country that seeks to be a great power. India needs a sustained pressure strategy for Pakistan, not knee-jerk jingoism.

Every time there is an act of terror inside India, there is a cyclical response. There are voices that demand a military response through another surgical strike or seek to cut off the supply of water as per the Indus Waters Treaty. If elections are due, as happens this year, the Central and state government machinery as well as the intelligence community are attacked for not being able to prevent such an attack from occurring.

There will also be voices demanding that the international community, especially the United States, apply pressure on Pakistan to act against terror groups operating from its soil. Finally, there will be those who ask for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. There has been little change in this phenomenon over the last few decades.

What India needs is a sustained pressure strategy for Pakistan at diplomatic, economic and strategic levels. A strategy that convinces Pakistan’s security establishment that its policy of using jihad as a lever of foreign policy is hurting Pakistan diplomatically, economically and strategically. India’s attempts on all these fronts have been episodic and one-off, with small tactical successes being viewed as strategic victory.

Terrorism is not new to India. India has been the target of terrorism for decades. The key jihadi terror groups that operate inside Kashmir and in other parts of India have roots in and links inside Pakistan. Right since Partition, Pakistan has nurtured a hardline “Kashmir bazor Shamsheer” (Kashmir by the sword) lobby that portrays India as an existential threat to Pakistan—a view also supported by the country’s politically dominant military. Each of the four India-Pakistan wars (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999) was initiated by Pakistan, which tends to maintain an “all or nothing” approach on the Kashmir issue that surfaces soon after periods of dialogue.

Since the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s establishment has consistently supported insurgent and terror groups that have targeted India in the hope that this would help “cut India down to size” and ensure that India is unable to undo Partition. Unable to maintain parity with India on the conventional military front, asymmetrical warfare was viewed by the Pakistani deep state as the cost-friendly and yet potent alternative against a larger neighbour.

In addition to helping groups in Kashmir, the Pakistani military and intelligence have, over the decades, also supported Khalistani outfits and sympathisers, as well as insurgent groups in India’s Northeast.

As the inheritor of a 5,000-year old civilisation, as a status quo oriented power and a democracy, Indian leaders have always believed that the future of India and South Asia would benefit from an integrated subcontinent. Hence, every Indian Prime Minister from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi has sought to make improvement of ties with Pakistan one of their legacies.

Every time a civilian Prime Minster comes to power in Pakistan, hopes are raised not just in India but in countries around the world, that there will finally be peace and the Kashmir dispute will be resolved. Since their separation in 1947, India and Pakistan have held dozens of rounds of talks, including 45 meetings at the head of state or head of government level and signed several agreements.

India’s hope has always been that Pakistani leaders share a similar worldview and that at the end of the day Islamabad and Karachi would also want what Delhi and Mumbai do; better people to people relations, ease of travel and tourism and an economically integrated South Asia. Pakistani civilian prime Ministers may want what their Indian counterparts do. However, Pakistani civilian Premiers who seek to change their country’s foreign and security policy are an endangered species.

India’s response to countering terrorism emanating from Pakistan has been on the one hand to build its intelligence capabilities and military defences and on the other to demand action from Pakistan. India has done a good job over the years in building its intelligence capabilities, but more needs to be done. The first line of defence of any democratic country is always the local police and then the paramilitary forces. Unfortunately, India has not yet invested enough in their training and equipment. Further, India’s abysmally slow acquisitions and purchase process has slowed down its plans for military modernisation.

We must remember that no country can thwart every terror attack. As the Irish Republican Army (IRA) warned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after the failure of their attempt to assassinate her and her Cabinet in the Brighton hotel bombing in 1994, “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, India pursued a policy of periodic dialogue with Pakistan. The hope was that these comprehensive dialogues—that covered everything from Kashmir to Siachen and economy to visa regime—would build a mechanism that would resolve both the larger and smaller issues. Despite periodic terror attacks this dialogue process continued till the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Over time, however, New Delhi felt that Pakistan only sought a dialogue when it was in a weak position, only to reinstate conflict once its hand became stronger. In recent times Delhi has become insistent that if Pakistan seeks to improve relations with India it will need to act against jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and individuals like global terrorists Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar.

India has also sought to secure the support of the international community and especially the countries on the United Nations Security Council like the United States in this endeavour. Unfortunately, not only has the UN been unable to agree upon a global definition of terrorism, but countries like China, India’s neighbour and rival for power in Asia, have been reluctant to apply pressure on Pakistan. For example, China has consistently vetoed any attempt by the UN Security Council’s Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee to designate Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a global terrorist.

India has also sought to use the intergovernmental organisation that seeks to combat global money laundering, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to apply pressure on Pakistan to end financing for terrorist entities. India achieved limited success in 2012, 2013 and 2014, with Pakistan being viewed as a “high risk” country. However, international pressure was never sustained, and Pakistan was able to claim it had made significant progress in building its legal and regulatory framework. This February, India has another chance as Pakistan is already on FATF’s grey list and the European Union has proposed to place Pakistan on the “black list”.

India must bear in mind that the aim of its policies should be the military-intelligence establishment of Pakistan, not the Pakistani people. As a democracy, India supports the democratic rights of all South Asians and in the past India supported Bengalis during the civil war of 1971. While India should fully support the democratic wishes of the Pakistani population, India should refrain from openly championing the breakup of its neighbour. India and Indians believe in an economically integrated and prosperous South Asia and India does not seek to alienate or antagonise the 200 million odd Pakistanis.

Aparna Pande is Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington-DC based Hudson Institute. Her books include Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2011) and From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy (Harper Collins, 2017)

Photo Credit: Reuters

The Global Impact of Afghanistan

As global connectivity increases every passing day, international relations becomes more and more complex. Countries have the ability to affect each other from thousands of miles away. China’s purchases of mining rights in South Africa could affect NATO’s combat abilities, Russian mercenaries are supporting Maduro in Venezuela against regional and US interests. This global connectivity has been especially observed in the recent Afghanistan peace talks, with a wide variety of nations taking interest in the war-torn nation. But the reasons for this interest varies widely country to country. The nation of Afghanistan features in a vast range of international issues and trends, making its future all the more complicated.

First, Russia. The Russians have their own significant history with invasions of Afghanistan, with some claims that the Afghanistan war helped ultimately bring down the Soviet Union. However, recent developments in the Russian official position towards the Afghanistan invasion may shed some light on Putin’s evolving foreign and domestic policy choices. After the failed invasion, the Congress of People’s Deputies in the USSR passed a resolution that condemned the decision to invade Afghanistan, labeling it a costly mistake. However, the Russian Duma is set to approve a resolution that reversing the previous condemnation, instead claiming the invasion was justified by international law and was in accordance of the interests of the USSR.

This resolution is just the most recent example of Putin and his regime attempting to whitewash the history of the Soviet Union. While previously criticisms of the Soviet state, especially Joseph Stalin and his brutal practices, were common, the Kremlin in recent years has taken a much more positive stance towards the Soviet Union’s history. In addition, Putin’s popularity, while still high, has taken a few significant dips lately. Most notably was after the unpopular proposal to raise the retirement age above life expectancy. Putin may fear that domestic opposition will draw parallels between the Afghanistan invasion and the military intervention into Syria. The current Russian economy is struggling and issues such as wage stagnation and employment make funding expensive military excursions unpopular, especially if the people see comparisons to the failure in Afghanistan. To preemptively combat such criticisms, the Kremlin has taken the choice of recasting the Afghanistan war in its nation’s history.

Second, China. With the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative making waves from Japan to the United Kingdom, Afghanistan plays a massive role in China’s plans. While nearly all of China’s previous involvement in Afghanistan has been economically focused, recent developments possibly allude to an expansion of China’s presence in the conflict-torn region. China has recently been constructing a secret facility in Tajikistan, a country flooded with Chinese investment. This small outpost, consisting of a few dozen buildings and lookout towers, is just a few miles away from Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor. Significantly, Tajikistan was used by the United States as a gateway into Afghanistan in the early stages of the 2001 invasion. This facility is one of the few examples of China’s increasing spread of ‘hard power’ around the world. While the Belt and Road Initiative has faced some criticisms (allegations that Chinese-constructed ports could house military as well as commercial vehicles), there has not been a significant military component to the investment strategy. China currently only has one official military base outside its borders in Djibouti, but rumors abound of a possible military outpost in Pakistan to oversee its significant investments. China also denies any plans to put military personnel in Afghanistan, but private meetings with Russian researchers tells a different story. The Russians were asked questions that seemed to be the Chinese attempting to gauge where Russia’s red lines were regarding Chinese expansion into Afghanistan and Central Asia. As the United States begins the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, it seems the Chinese are preparing to move in.

Finally, Europe. President Trump and Europe have had a contentious relationship since he took office, with the President often criticizing the European allies in NATO for not contributing enough to the alliance. Trade relations between the US and the EU have also been fractious, as Trump has consistently threated to impose tariffs on a variety of goods and products. However, the cracks in the relationship were dramatically exposed at the annual Munich Security Conference, which Donald Trump did not attend. President Trump’s recent sudden announcements of withdrawal plans from Syria and Afghanistan not only surprised and annoyed the US military, it also caused many European nations to question the strength of America’s commitment to their partnership. If the United States fails to communicate and work together with its NATO allies in Afghanistan, it does not bode well for the future of the alliance.     

'Imran Khan is the Product of the Military's Aversion to a Genuinely Popular Civilian Politician in Power'

Husain Haqqani, former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States and director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington DC based thinktank, has been a critic of Pakistan’s establishment. In a conversation with Aarti Tikoo Singh he talks about Af-Pak region and the current Pakistani government:

The Af-Pak region is at a critical juncture with Pakistan leading peace talks with Taliban in Afghanistan. Can it clinch a peace deal for the region?

Like three of his predecessors, US President Donald Trump is seeking Pakistan’s assistance in bringing Afghanistan’s Taliban to the negotiating table even though the US has reservations about Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. But the history of American negotiations with Taliban, going back to the mid-1990s, shows the chasm between America’s and Taliban’s world views and Pakistan’s regional ambitions.

Pakistan wants to use the US focus on withdrawal from Afghanistan to engage with Washington and to possibly reopen the doors for US economic and military assistance. But if Pakistan gets its bailout first, its interest in helping the Americans diminishes.

Taliban know they cannot get control over Afghanistan until the Americans get out. I doubt they would be satisfied with a minor role in the Afghan government. Their refusal to respect the current Afghan government would be a deal breaker.

If there is to be a settlement this time, it would have to involve verifiable guarantees that Afghan and Pakistani soil will not be used to harbour or train terrorists responsible for attacks around the world. No one knows how those guarantees can be ensured.

How is the Imran Khan government different from its predecessors?

The Imran Khan government is more beholden to Pakistan’s military than any other civilian government in recent years. Khan is the product of the military’s aversion to a genuinely popular civilian politician in power, backed by an electoral mandate, who might alter the country’s overall direction.

What of the army’s control over decision making?

The Pakistan military has stopped even pretending that elected civilians run the country’s affairs. ‘The military and the civilian government are on one page’ is the new mantra in Pakistan. All it means is that the civilian veneer has become thinner than before.

Military men seem to be directing all aspects of policy directly – on India, Afghanistan, jihadi terrorism and relations with China, Saudi Arabia and the US.

Is PM Khan sincere about peace with India?

I cannot speak about sincerity or otherwise of anyone. What I can say is that Imran Khan’s publicly stated views are closest to the views of Pakistan’s anti-West, anti-India, Islamic nationalists than any other civilian prime minister in recent times.

Pakistan’s establishment defines the ability to keep India engaged diplomatically as an accomplishment in itself. I see Imran Khan’s pronouncements as a continuation in that direction. Genuine peace would require shutting down of internationally designated jihadi terrorist groups. We are not seeing that happen.

India remains front and centre in Pakistan’s foreign policy and for the army, ISI and the Khan government. China, Saudi Arabia and UAE are viewed as allies who will help ensure that Pakistan does not collapse and has some economic assistance.

Given that the fundamentals of policy have not changed, it is unlikely that instruments of policy would change any time soon.

PM Khan identified as Pakistan’s closest allies China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. What does it indicate?

As always, Pakistan seeks from its allies what it is unable to do itself, namely build an economy. The men who rule Pakistan refuse to understand that economic performance is often linked to political stability and predictability as well as other things – like higher literacy, quality of education, human capital, openness to new ideas, social trust, ease of travel. Foreign relations are deemed a substitute for sound domestic policies.

Imran Khan is also looking to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China for loans and temporary deposits in the State Bank of Pakistan to stave off a budgetary and foreign exchange crisis. Beyond that there is no great thinking involved.

He’s cancelled a power project of CPEC, citing its financial non-viability. What does it indicate?

For decades, Pakistanis have believed that China was Pakistan’s ‘all-weather friend’. The relationship has been based, since the 1960s, on a shared interest of keeping India in check. More recently, China has been gradually replacing the United States as Pakistan’s principal source of hard currency loans and investment. CPEC has been billed as a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan’s economy without regard to its costs and the potential debt trap for Pakistan.

Renegotiations and cancellations of existing CPEC agreements will annoy the Chinese but seem necessary. But beyond tinkering with CPEC, Pakistan’s leaders need to examine and remedy their perennial governance problems. If they do not, China will discover what the Americans did after many years of assisting Pakistan. No amount of aid or development investment can get Pakistan’s economy off the ground unless the economic fundamentals in Pakistan are addressed.

Bangladesh's Unfinished Revolution

Bangladesh’s most recent election left many observers scratching their heads. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL), while popular, won an unprecedented 3rd consecutive term with a landslide victory so massive – 288 out of 299 seats – that it strains credibility. Many observers, including the New York Times Editorial Board, were left wondering: “Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily?” Indeed, given Sheikh Hasina’s stellar economic and development record, and the fact that the country’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is in shambles, why risk the trouble of such an improbably skewed result?

To understand the AL’s seemingly illogical and counterproductive behavior during this election cycle, one needs to understand the AL’s turbulent assent to power from their perspective: that almost 50 years after the 1971 Liberation War which first swept the AL into power, the principles and ideals for which the party and the mass of the people fought are still not secured. 

Bangladesh won its independence in 1971 under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina’s father. Following a vicious, genocidal war with Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League established the new country on the principles of democracy, secularism, and socialism; and a common national identity based on a syncretic Bengali cultural heritage, rather than Pakistan-style Islamism.

While the self-determination movement had broad popular support in then-East Pakistan, not everyone supported independence. Hundreds of thousands of “Biharis,” Urdu-speaking citizens of what was formerly East Pakistan, were repatriated to Pakistan following the war. Hundreds of thousands more remain in Bangladesh, often referred to as “stranded Pakistanis.” And Islamists, most notably Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), not only opposed independence movement but actively collaborated with Pakistani armed forces, serving as deadly militias who aided in one of the largest genocides of the 20th century.

So in 1975, when Sheikh Mujib was murdered along with almost his entire family, it was perceived not just as a power grab, but as an attempt to reverse Liberation War principles by those who had always opposed them. For many Awami League supporters, this was confirmed when Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP, took power in a 1977 military coup. Lacking a constituency outside the armed forces, Gen. Rahman turned to the one group that lacked a political voice – the country’s Islamist radicals. As dictator, he ordered secularism erased from the constitution, and revived Jamaat-e-Islami which had been banned due to its well-documented collaboration with Pakistani war crimes.

For the Awami League, the BNP-JI alliance is not just a political challenger, but an unholy union between forces opposed to the very principles on which the country was founded: the JI who manned death squads during the Liberation War and the BNP, whose founder removed key principles from the constitution.

When the AL first returned to power in 1996, it did so within the context of Jamaat’s political rehabilitation, 20 years of creeping Islamization, and after some of those who had fought against it in 1971 found themselves in positions of power.  For years, the Awami League watched the rise of those they saw not only as political adversaries, but an existential threat to the vision of Bangladesh for which so many lives had been sacrificed in 1971. They never recognized the legitimacy of these “anti-liberation forces,” but quietly endured what they viewed as the “facts on the ground” after 20 years out of power.

If there was any hope that a normal electoral politics could evolve between the Awami League and the BNP, those hopes were irreparably shattered after the 2001 elections. The Awami League had stepped down as per the country's laws at the end of its term, and BNP was the beneficiary of elections presided by a neutral "caretaker" government. But the hopes of Awami League and most observers for more trust-building gestures from the winning side were soon dashed as BNP and Jamaat unleashed pogroms on Hindu minorities within days of swearing in.

The final blow to hopes of any peaceful co-existence arrived with the 2004 assassination attempt against Sheikh Hasina and much of the AL senior leadership. On August 21st, as then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina held a rally in Dhaka, thirteen grenades were lobbed into the crowd from adjoining rooftops, killing dozens and injuring over 200 people. The BNP’s ensuing egregiously obstructionist behavior during the investigation left little doubt in the mind of the AL and its supporters as to who was behind the attack. To them, this was clearly an attempt to “finish the job of 1975” and made it glaringly clear that cohabitation with the “anti-liberation” forces was suicidal.

The AL vs. BNP rivalry has often condescendingly been referred to by the (arguably sexist) shorthand, “Battling Begums,” implying that it is little more than a petty fight between two women with overinflated egos. It is, in fact, a far more serious conflict. It is, for both sides, an existential struggle between two mutually exclusive visions for Bangladesh; the continuation of a fight that started in 1971 and which has never been fully settled. It is why the controversial Digital Security Act passed last year specifically criminalizes “defamatory” speech related to the 1971 Liberation War.

Perhaps more perplexing than the Awami League's apparent desire to politically and legally decimate political rivals, is the AL’s mistrust of much of civil society and the NGO sector, who would seem like natural allies for a center-left party that prides itself on its support for issues like women’s empowerment, poverty reduction, and religious freedom. This too has roots in existential dread. Both offered enthusiastic support for the military-backed interregnum of 2007-08 and its’ “minus two” strategy that sought to rid the country of both AL & BNP. High profile figures such as Kamal Hossein and Mohammad Yunus are on the record respectively supporting the military government, each using it as an opportunity to explore their own political movements. The AL perceived this not only as a personal betrayal (Kamal Hossain had been a trusted aide of Sheikh Mujib and a Minister in Awami League governments), but particularly galling coming from people who have built their public identities on defending democracy and the rule of law. 

After a decade in power, the Awami League saw an opportunity to deliver a mortal blow to its ideological enemies and ensure that its vision of Bangladesh would be secured. Democratic norms could come later. While the threat of authoritarianism has democracy advocates in Bangladesh and elsewhere concerned, addressing the situation requires understanding current events from the AL’s perspective: that the current conflicts have deep and direct roots in the country's much bloodied history. It would not be a stretch to say that issues that were settled through war in 1971 were effectively re-opened through the grizzly coup of 1975. The country is in many senses still reeling in the long division of those foundational conflicts. No one expects democratic norms to prevail in a condition of civil war. For Bangladesh, thankfully, while there is no civil war of arms, the ideological divisions in the political sphere are as keen and irreconcilable as that found in civil war conditions.

Visons of "1971" and "1975" cannot co-exist, or even compete. One has to win out; and parties within the political space must compete on policies within a foundational value-frame that cannot be challenged again and again. The primacy and legitimacy of the vision of "71" is beyond dispute. For democratic norms to thrive, Bangladesh needs an opposition that will be true in its commitment to the founding principles of the country and not repeatedly try to impose a proto-Pakistani idea for the country so many decades after the Liberation War. For its part, of course, the Awami League needs to roll back harsh laws and excessive heavy-handedness against all protesters and dissenters, even those who do not pose a threat to its or the country's existence. By being more tolerant of critics and activists, the Awami League can only gain in reputation and make it more feasible for an opposition aligned with the founding principles of the country to emerge.

K. Anis Ahmed is the publisher of Dhaka Tribune and a co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. His op-eds and articles have been published in Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, Guardian Observer and Newsweek, among other places.

Has Bangladesh Put Its Foot Down?

Bangladesh has closed its southeastern border with Myanmar amidst the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis, sparking concern for the individuals at risk within the latter country. The Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis began in August of 2017, and has been called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing" by the United Nations. The violence began in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, and initially targeted the Rohingya Muslim people of the Rakhine state. Since the initial violence began, there have been over 700,000 people that have fled the country into Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen addressed the recent border development last week, stating that the country does not have the capacity to host the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing into Bangladesh. Momen stated that while initially the refugees of the ongoing conflict were Muslim, there are now also Hindu and Buddhist individuals leaving the country as the conflict between the Rakhine army and the Myanmar army continues. Special UN envoy on Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener and special UNCHR envoy Angelina Jolie visited Bangladesh last week as well, specifically Cox’s Bazar, where a significant number of refugees are residing. The Times of India reported, “Momen said he told the UN envoy that Bangladesh was upset seeing that instead of mounting pressures, some big countries still kept ‘all kinds of bilateral relations including trade with Myanmar.’”

Foreign Minister Momen visited India from February 6th to February 9th as part of his maiden overseas visit after the December elections in Bangladesh. He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with the intent to discuss a solution to the Rohingya crisis, especially because it has the potential to affect regional stability tremendously. Momen has been pushing the creation of a “safe zone” in the Rakhine state that could be monitored by neighboring countries such as India and China to ensure the protection of the Rohingya population. Momen stated on Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, “If she had not given them shelter, it would have become the gravest and worst genocide of the century since WWII.” This call to international action comes with the closing of Bangladesh’s southeastern border, which has affected the influx of refugees into the country.

The paramilitary Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) force has sent units to surveil the country’s border points with Myanmar, to prevent any more individuals from entering Bangladesh. The only legal movement for refugees is taking place on the Ukhia and Teknaf border points. This force has most recently stopped about twenty-two Rohingya Muslims from leaving the refugee camps and entering into Malaysia on Monday. There were ten children, eleven women, and a man that were caught, and they had paid about $1,200 each to smugglers for their journey. Last Friday, February 8th, the border guards came across and stopped about thirty Rohingya Muslim individuals from crossing into Malaysia, a Muslim majority country that many refugees are attempting to reach. Since November, there have been at least four incidences where the border guards have caught parties trying to reach Malaysia. This movement has sparked a lot of concern for the individuals trying to reach the country illegally, as traffickers can easily take advantage of the current dire conditions. The creation of a safe zone in the Rakhine State could lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of individuals to Myanmar, and could be a potential solution to the various human rights violations currently occurring due to the crisis.

India-U.S. Ties Should be Shaped as Partnership of the Century

India is making Indians and many around the world believe that it can be a great power. Nothing wrong in that. However, a lot needs to done…India’s economic and military potential and its strategic geographic location make it a perfect security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Its relations with United States should be shaped as the “partnership of the century”, which should be “friction-free” and mutually beneficial. These are some frank thoughts made by Dr. Aparna Pande, Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia in Hudson Institute, a top think tank in Washington DC. She spoke to Maneesh Pandey of ITV Network for The Sunday Guardian on a whole range of issues—Indo-US relations to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s global diplomacy to Pakistan and cross-border terrorism. She firmly believes that India should not start the dialogue until Pakistan acts against terrorists and terrorism and keep a watch on Afghanistan post the US withdrawal. Excerpts:

Q: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy, foreign trips and selling India abroad are much talked about in media and political circles. In terms of foreign policy initiatives, how do you rate his tenure and his branding of India overseas? Is he the best so far among his predecessors—Jawaharlal Nehru, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh?

A: On becoming Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi took to foreign policy with a passion that, in my opinion, has not been seen since the time of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Modi foreign policy doctrine has elements of both continuity and change with his predecessors. What we have seen for the last four and a half years is the Modi’s world view, which is underpinned by an intrinsic link between economic growth and projection of power abroad.

PM Modi travelled the world and deepened relationships with key countries in Asia, Europe, the Americas and the Middle East with the hope that it would translate into more economic investment. However, harnessing both the Indian and global corporate sectors to spur economic growth requires as much attention, if not more, being paid to the domestic economy as PM Modi has given to foreign policy. That, unfortunately, has not yet happened.

Q: Today, India is at all political and strategic foras worldwide staking its claim to be a strong nation in the current global dynamics. Has India arrived at that “Super-League” status or is there still a long way to go?

A: A majority of Indians, and many others around the globe, believe in the promise of India being a future great power. However, talk alone will not be enough.

India’s economy needs to grow at 8-10% annually for the next decade or more in order for the country to be able to pull its people out of poverty, have enough money to spend on military modernization and also on human capital (especially education and health), and on building infrastructure. In order to achieve high rates of economic growth India needs to undertake second generation of economic reforms that have yet to take place.

India also needs to invest more in education, skill development, provision of healthcare, and basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation. Infrastructure development is critical as is strengthening of India’s existing democratic institutions. Finally, at a time when China’s military modernization is almost complete, India needs to modernize its military and ensure it has the resources and capabilities to be a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region before it can move into the global power league.

Q: Can PM Modi accomplish that if he gets a second term?

A: Prime Minister Modi understands that he has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help India achieve its promise. He and his team know what needs to be done. If he returns for a second term, one hopes that he will go after economic reforms with the same passion as he has dedicated to foreign policy.

Q: You firmly believe in strong Indo-American ties. Where and on what counts the two largest democracies are missing each other? Is that gap political, economic or in strategic affairs area?

A: India and the United States have the opportunity to make their relationship the defining partnership of this century. The two countries have a lot in common, political, social, economic and strategic. They are both multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracies. The two have a similar vision for the future security architecture for the Indo Pacific and share some similar threats (terrorism and the rise of China).

However, their different geographical locations mean that the two countries will differ on what they perceive as immediate and long-term national interests. So, for India, what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan or in the Middle East/West Asia is of more importance than what happens in South China Sea.

While the two countries are more integrated today economically yet India’s desire for economic self-sufficiency through the Make in India programme will create frictions at a time when the United States is moving towards protectionism.

Q: Do you think that strong relations and a constructive engagement between India and America are good for Asia and the Asia-Pacific region?

A: Relations between India and the United States will continue to grow in the coming years on the strategic and economic fronts. American grand strategy since the end of the Cold War rested on a network of allies across Asia and Europe that helped ensure American pre-eminence. The rise of China and its desire to replace the American liberal international order with Chinese hegemony means that countries in the region—like India, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN countries—understand the need for engagement and collaboration.

India’s economic and military potential and its geographic location mean that India can play the role of a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. Partnerships with the United States and its allies like Japan will also help India build its economic and military potential in order to be able to play this role.

Q: Have some significant steps been taken to strengthen Indo-US relations during the Trump-Modi era? Has the Trump-Modi era been a decisive one in Indo-US diplomacy?

A: India-US relations have improved significantly in the strategic and defense arena during the Trump-Modi era. India is a Major Defense Partner of the United States. It has signed three of four enabling/foundational agreements, and the United States is one of the top three suppliers of military equipment to India. The US renamed its Pacific Command (Pacom) to IndoPacom in order to emphasise India’s centrality and importance. The two countries held their first ministerial level 2-plus-2 meeting last year when Secretaries of State and Defense, Mike Pompeo and James Mattis visited India. India forms a key part of the latest American National Security Strategy (NSS) and in the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy.

Q: Coming to Pakistan, cross-border terrorism is India’s biggest concern. Dialogue or strong action? What should India do?

A: India should stick to the policy that Delhi would only restart the comprehensive dialogue with Islamabad once Pakistan acts against terrorists and terror groups that attack inside India.

Pakistan’s foreign policy is dictated by the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, which continues to view India as an existential threat and to deploy jihad as a lever of foreign policy. Until and unless the establishment changes its views on India, no Pakistani civilian government will be able to implement any policies that will really improve ties with India.

The Kartarpur corridor was not a grand bargain or offer from Pakistan; it should be viewed for what it is—a corridor connecting Sikh pilgrims in Indian Punjab with their holy sites in Pakistani Punjab. If Prime Minister Imran Khan and his advisers really seek to improve relations with India and would like India to restart the dialogue process they must first act against global terrorists like Hafiz Saeed and groups like Lashkar e Tayyaba (LeT).

Until that time, any reopening of dialogue with Pakistan will only alleviate pressure on the Pakistani military, which will give them some breathing space, but not give anything to India in return.

Q: Another interesting dynamics: Pakistan leaning on Saudi Arabia and over relying on China. Result: Its ties with the US are currently cold and on a discordant note. Will the US get tougher on Pakistan? What does this all spell for the region—Asia and South Asia?

A: Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and China date back decades. Pakistan has always viewed Saudi Arabia as its ideological ally of last resort: a friendly Muslim Arab brother who will support Pakistan and bail it out whenever Pakistan is in trouble. Close ties with Saudi Arabia help Pakistan believe it has the Muslim ummahon its side, and provide psychological strength in numbers. Saudi Arabia’s oil rich coffers have been an added attraction for a country that has always needed economic assistance (Pakistan).

China too has been an ally since the 1950s. The relationship started as an economic one that became strategic over the decades. The key turn came with China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through which China has invested money in building Pakistan’s infrastructure in the hope that this would help stabilise Pakistan and provide China with access to the Persian Gulf as well as another opportunity to encircle India.

Pakistan-US ties have been on a downward slope for some years now, both because of their diverging interests and because of closer India-US ties. The Trump administration’s South Asia strategy consisted of applying pressure on Pakistan in the hope that this would convince Pakistan to change its policies and act against terrorists.

One will never know if this policy of pressure would have succeeded, because the American desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan means that Pakistan is back in the game. In return for helping restart the Afghan peace process, Pakistan hopes to receive economic assistance and aid, if not from the United States, then at least from its allies and international institutions.

Q: In this scenario what should India be doing?

A: India should continue its policy of close ties with the United States and allies like Japan, South Korea, ASEAN countries, as well as countries in the Gulf. India has close relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and India must continue to build those relationships.

Regarding Afghanistan, India seeks a stable, peaceful Afghanistan that is not ruled by the Taliban. India must continue providing assistance and support to the Afghan government, but also prepare for a future that may resemble the 1990s.

If the United States goes ahead with military withdrawal in both Syria and Afghanistan, this will have an impact on Indian interests in both the Middle East and South Asia. India therefore needs to be prepared for what to do if that happens by making sure it builds on relationships with key players in the region.

Finally, the rise of China will continue and China’s growing presence—economic and military—both in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region. India needs to do a better job integrating economically and strategically with its immediate neighbours and in the Indian Ocean Region.

Q: Are the 2019 general elections of any interest to American think-tanks and academia here? Who are they seeing as top contender?

A: India’s 2019 general elections are of interest to American academics, think tank community and American businesses. Which party comes to power, whether it is a coalition government or one party and what will be their economic policy are the key concerns of India-watchers.

I am not sure what others are thinking, but I am one of those who believes that this will not be a wave election, but an issue based one.

Photo Credit: IANS

Don't Trust the Taliban's Promises

n his State of the Union address, President Donald Trump tied the withdrawal of U.S. troops to a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. For a famously mercurial president, that may be no guarantee. But if the United States goes ahead with this course, negotiations should focus on fashioning a peace deal that can last instead of seeking a fig leaf to justify U.S. withdrawal.

At present, the framework agreement looks all too much like the negotiated exit of the Soviet Union three decades ago under the cover of the 1988 Geneva Accords. The Soviet withdrawal brought no peace or reconciliation to Afghanistan, and unless backed up with serious precautionary measures, neither will the U.S. exit.

The desire of Trump and his supporters to not act as “the world’s policeman” is understandable. But they fail to realize that the United States cannot be a global leader unless it has a global role—even if that is more as umpire than policeman. Trump’s trumpeted withdrawal from the Middle East and Afghanistan is not compatible with his talk of winning.

U.S. priorities in talks with the Afghan Taliban should be to seek a cease-fire, the release of Western hostages held by the Taliban, and an accommodation between the insurgents and the lawful Afghan government. Pakistani-created safe havens for the Afghan Taliban also need to be eliminated—a measure that can only be achieved through a hard conversation with Islamabad.

But the framework agreement announced by Trump’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, after initial talks with the Taliban reflected different priorities. It proposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops in return for a Taliban guarantee that Afghan territory would never be used by terrorists. But trusting the Taliban, at this point, would be sheer naiveté; the United States would be offering up an extraordinary concession—withdrawal—in return for a highly unreliable promise.

U.S. withdrawal without conditions being fulfilled would only signal America’s defeat and retreat. Jihadis across the world would celebrate such a deal as the vanquishing of a second global superpower at their hands.

In Afghanistan, the aftermath of a U.S. cut and run would probably be no different than the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The people of Afghanistan will fight to forestall the return of the Taliban’s Islamic emirate. From their perspective, it might be better if the Americans withdraw without a deal that lets the Taliban into Kabul through the back door.

The framework agreement has already come under severe criticism. The veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker described it as tantamount to surrender. James Dobbins, who served as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Barack Obama and was at one point responsible for negotiations with the Taliban, also warned against rushing into an Afghan deal.

Khalilzad dealt with the criticism by suggesting that there were elements of his talks with the Taliban that were just not known to the critics. “The path to peace doesn’t often run in a straight line,” he tweeted, adding that the situation in Afghanistan was complex and “like all sensitive talks, not everything is conducted in public.”

Khalilzad is an experienced and competent diplomat. But like all diplomats, he only executes policy, and the room for him to apply his experience is limited by the preferences of his boss.

The very fact that a U.S. presidential envoy has been negotiating with them has given the Taliban a degree of legitimacy. Accepting their assurance about not letting terrorists use Afghan soil implies that the terrorist acts perpetrated by the Taliban and their Haqqani network—including attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and American civilians—are now forgotten and forgiven.

By announcing withdrawal, the Trump administration repeated the folly of the Obama administration. When a superpower signals its desperation to get out of a conflict, the subsequent negotiations are designed only to provide diplomatic cover.

The Taliban know that, which explains their willingness to make promises they do not intend to keep. They have offered similar assurances in the past.

At talks sponsored by Russia, the Taliban insisted on withdrawal of foreign troops while Afghan politicians called for an interim government.

But Afghanistan has a functioning government, and dismantling the progress made since 2001 makes no sense. The U.S. negotiating position should be to secure the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s political process, not to undo the constitution and the institutions that have evolved over the last 17 years—and which have produced successes including an improved role for women in society and a growing economy.

Most Afghans believe that the reason for the Taliban’s endurance is not popular support or even their battlefront resilience but their support from Pakistan. They fear that an Afghan settlement based on concessions to the Taliban and Pakistan would only lead to another war between Afghan patriots and Pakistan’s proxies. Pakistan promised that it wasn’t sheltering Osama bin Laden, and the promises of its proxies, including the Taliban, are no more reliable.

Amrullah Saleh, current President Ashraf Ghani’s choice as his vice presidential running mate for the upcoming elections in July,pointed outrecently that Afghanistan was not “invented by the West on September 12, 2001 and won’t disappear if and as they wish to leave.”

Saleh is a veteran of the Afghan resistance to Taliban rule before 9/11. He blames Pakistan for Afghanistan’s continued travails while promising to reciprocate any genuine desire for peace in Islamabad. He and many others, including Ghani, are unlikely to accept a deal that leaves the Taliban with the whip hand—and Pakistan in control.

Pakistan could play a positive role in Afghan peace talks provided it changes its ultimate goal—in place since the 1970s—of installing an Islamist, Pashtun, pro-Pakistan, anti-Indian government in Kabul. Pakistan could make friendly overtures to the legitimately elected Afghan government to secure its regional interests, but instead it still relies on proxies such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network.

America can play a critical role in ensuring a lasting peace in Afghanistan. But a hasty withdrawal based on unreliable promises from a terrorist opponent is a recipe for calamity. A stronger peace can be forged among Washington, Kabul, and Islamabad—if every side is willing to wait and deal properly. But if the United States keeps signaling that getting out is more important than peace and stability, the Taliban and others will listen.

Photo Credit: Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

An Indian State of the Union: An Assessment of Recent Economic Developments

On February 5, 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump presented his annual State of the Union address.  Typically an opportunity to tout the nation’s economic achievements and present the administration’s future economic policies, the State of the Union address provides a comprehensive assessment of the government’s aims in moving the country forward. 

Focusing on India, it is appropriate and timely to reflect on the subcontinent’s State of the Union, particularly with regards to the state of the economy.  As the country gears up for elections in April and May, the performance of the Modi government over the past five years has been and will be scrutinized.  Part of Prime Minister Modi’s electoral campaign in 2014 focused on rapid economic growth and creating millions of jobs.  With a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) coalition victory uncertain, has the government fulfilled its promise of improving the economy and the well-being of the Indian people?  Will the achievements of the governing party be sufficient to gain the support of the Indian electorate?

On a macro-economic level, the Indian economy has made significant strides over the past few years.  India has been the fastest-growing major economy in the world, with growth rates averaging at 7 percent.  For 2019, the Indian economy is expected to grow by 7.4 percent, reflecting sustained economic development.  Another promising development is that India is expected to be the second-largest economy in the world in 2030—according to Standard Chartered Bank—surpassing the United States and just behind China.  Currently, India boasts the sixth-largest economy in the world, standing at $2.59 trillion USD (2017), ahead of major advanced Western economies, such as France and Italy.

Speaking to BJP members in January, Prime Minister Modi said, “Earlier, the Indian governments would be in national and international headlines for scams.  Now, the focus has shifted to new schemes.”  He further noted that sanitation coverage in the country had increased from 38 percent to 68 percent during his premiership. 

However, despite these promising expectations and developments, there remain some long-standing challenges that could potentially stunt economic growth and the improvement of living standards. 

Firstly, a scandal involving the suppression of an official report on the national unemployment rate has hit the government.  On January 31, the government was accused of withholding the release of this report, which was expected to be released in December of last year.  It apparently stated that the national unemployment rate reached a 45-year high in 2017. 

If the report is accurate, the 2017 unemployment rate stood at 6.1 percent.  While comparable to the world unemployment rate (5.5 percent, 2017) and much less than that of other developing nations, the unemployment rate still poses challenges to future economic prospects.  It is roughly triple the rate at the onset of Modi’s premiership and, when considering the size of the Indian population, translates to 30 million people who cannot find a job.  For a workforce that increases by millions annually, this is not good news. 

Another policy decision that has tarnished the government’s economic track record was its decision in November 2016 to eliminate most of the country’s cash currency, with the intention of cracking down on the illicit flows of money, particularly from terrorist organizations.  This caused deep uncertainty in India’s currency, the rupee, and temporarily put economic growth at a standstill.  For an economy dependent on cash flows, this decision had profound repercussions.

Furthermore, the benefits of India’s stunning economic growth and its increasing economic linkages with the rest of the world have not reached all levels of society.  Geographically and socioeconomically, the gains of globalization have been unbalanced. 

Regionally, India’s economic development has been concentrated in a few states, such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat.  It has also benefited the Indian metropolises of New Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata.  However, other Indian states and cities have not reaped the benefits of globalization.  Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two northern states neighboring Nepal, have a GDP per capita that are less than $1,000 USD, comparable to Sub-Saharan African countries.  Meanwhile, Maharashtra enjoys a GDP per capita of $4,000 USD.

Socioeconomically, there are increasing income disparities between the rich and the poor.  While India boasts over 170,000 millionaires and more than 100 billionaires,  poverty remains a common feature of life.  Though millions have been raised out of poverty, much remains to be done.  It must be said though that poverty reduction has been substantial: 5 percent of the Indian population is considered to be living under extreme poverty; in the case of Nigeria, it is 44 percent.

With elections just a few months away, the most important issue has been the economy.  Opposition candidates, particularly Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC), have been quick to capitalize on the government’s mixed track record.  Although a Times Now-VMR poll indicated that the Prime Minister remains the most trusted leader in the country, it is less clear that PM Modi and the BJP will be able to secure a victory. 

If the economy is to serve as a litmus test of both Modi’s premiership and the state of the Indian union, it is the electorate who will determine if the past five years have been up to its expectations.  With the Indian economy at a crossroads, its future will determine not only regional developments, but also global economic trends. 

Comparing Crises: Presidency and Power in a Changing World Order

“We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation” - Lee Kuan Yew

Through broad brushstrokes, this article seeks to understand changing East-West political negotiations and geo-political power dynamics through the ongoing Venezuelan crisis in South America and the 2018 “coup” in the South Asian island of Sri Lanka.

 Venezuela became an independent country in 1830 following Spanish colonization from the 16th century. Since the first discoveries of oil were made in the Maracaibo basin, it has been the driving force behind Venezuela's political and economic affairs.

 Venezuela's primary geopolitical challenge is managing its relations with the United States- the regional hegemon. The US is the largest military power in the region, but also the largest consumer market and a key destination for Venezuelan crude oil exports. According to Amy Chua in Political Tribes she explains that white Venezuelans of European descent were an example of a market-dominant minority who were sidelined when Hugo Chavez, a representative of the country’s darker-skinned majority, took power. The former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was seen as a misfit in the Western world order. Chavez built his domestic and foreign policies around the rejection of the hegemonic sphere of influence of the US while reaching out to the rising Asian global power China, and establishing closer links with Russia.

 The Asianisation of Latin America is seen to sway to strong geopolitical influences from China. China is targeting $500b in trade and $250b in investment between 2015-2019. It threatens the once subservient nation to US hegemony since the 19th century Monroe Doctrine.

  In a comparative analysis to the island of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka’s primary geographic challenge is managing geopolitical relations with India -the regional hegemon, who is well aligned with the USA. Just like in Venezuela, the former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa seen as a misfit in the Western world order. Rajapaksa aligned his foreign policy with China, opening the floodgates to Chinese strategic relations, letting China set its geopolitical footprint upon the nation.


 The Sri Lankan polity experienced a constitutional crisis a few months ago. Sources connect the political fiasco to external geopolitical influences in the country. Venezuela was soon to follow in South America, facing a similar fate. This trend could follow to many other nations where the US is slowly losing grip as the sole global super power. Sri Lanka could also revisit this same situation in the coming months and perhaps in the next Presidential election.

 One cannot ignore the geopolitical influences from external powers. Such influence pushed to bring back Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe and remove Rajapaksa out of office after a short stint, as he was seen as the illegitimate Prime Minister by the West. The nation had two Prime Ministers from October 26th, 2018. One accepted by US and the Western allies and another accepted by China.

 In the same way, Venezuela presently faces the geopolitics of external powers. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was declared illegitimate by the US and its Western allies after his second term election in which he gained 67.8% . This win is widely viewed as rigged, while an interim President Juan Guaidó, declared himself as the legitimate leader. Mr. Guaidó argues that, as the president of the National Assembly, an opposition-controlled legislative body, he has the constitutional authority to assume power because Mr. Maduro had taken office illegally. According to Bloomberg Columnist Noah Feldman “the constitutional argument that Maduro isn’t really President is nothing more than a fig leaf for regime change. Even as fig leaves go, it’s particularly wispy and minimal. The U.S. policy is, in practice, to seek regime change in Venezuela. It would be better to say so directly.”

 In the same way, in the island, PM Wickramasinghe accused Rajapaksa calling his appointment unconstitutional and illegitimate. Not having the parliament majority support and the process of appointment by President Sirisena was seen illegitimate.

 Back in Venezuela, President Maduro is supported and accepted by Chinese and the Russian Governments. While the tense situation unfolds, President Maduro is consciously escalating the diplomatic tension. He announced the complete diplomatic shutdown with the US Government giving a 72-hour time period for the US diplomats to leave Venezuela.

 While one President calls for a diplomatic shutdown of the US within the nation, the interim president- President Guaidó has invited the United States to stay. The State Department has said it will not heed the order to leave the country. It accepts the interim President’s request and rejects Maduro’s order.

 At home, in a similar manner, Rajapaksa was rejected by the West with a strong voice from US.. His cabinet was seen illegitimate while appealing to the judiciary to restore democracy. Sri Lanka is today at a crossroads. It is deeply polarized. This divide will further rear its head in the upcoming election.

In Venezuela, the Trump administration pressed its case with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on all countries in the Organization of American States (OAS) to reject Maduro and “align themselves with democracy,” calling the administration “illegitimate and invalid”. Pompeo, in his address to the 35-member OAS said “His (Maduro’s) regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core,”.

 A few days after this statement three European Union nations Germany, France and Spain were ready to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president if elections were not called within eight days in a threat to Venezuelan regime. The trade sanctions from US will follow and isolation from the Western allies will be unfolding over the next several days.

 The trade sanctions echo the manner in which the EU was ready to withdraw its GSP plus and sanctions to follow in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan military was not involved in the constitutional crisis, the scenario in Venezuela will be different as the military has already taken President Maduro’s side and supports his Presidency.

 Just like Sri Lanka is playing a pivotal role in the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and its close diplomatic and defence relations with Russia, Venezuelan regime from Hugo Chavez to Maduro has invested heavily in China and Russian relations which is a direct threat to the regional hegemon, the USA.

 Venezuela has also been one of the largest markets for Russian arms exports in Latin America and has signed 30 contracts worth $11 billion from 2005 to 2013, according to the Russian news agency Tass. In December, Russia dispatched a small group of aircraft to Venezuela in a show of solidarity with Mr. Maduro’s Government. Two Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers flew more than 6,000 miles in this exercise. Overall it has given Venezuela more than $10 billion in financial assistance in recent years. In exchange, Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, has acquired stakes in Venezuela’s energy sector. Venezuela’s crisis has made it more vulnerable than ever not only due to Russian influence but more towards the Chinese influence which has put U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic interests at risk.

 From Maduro’s last state visit to China requesting for more loans from China, China’s loans to Venezuela have grown to $65 billion. However, the Venezuelan economy has staggered in perhaps the same way as the Sri Lankan economy. In the same way, Sri Lankan leaders have obtained and are seeking more loans from China. These are seen by the West as predatory and debt trap loans.

 A few days ago, Sri Lanka celebrated her 71st year of independence from British colonial rule. Even after 71 years, policy makers have failed to realize promises of economic prosperity. What we have today is a broken down nation with less than 4% growth. Three top ratings agencies Fitch, Standard & Poor’s, and Moody’s Investor Services have downgraded Sri Lanka raising the cost of international borrowing. Fitch has moved Sri Lanka from B+ to B, which leaves it just four notches above default status.

 The nation is turning to China and India for financial support as a balance of payment crisis looms over the debt-strapped island. According to Indrajit Coomaraswamy Governor Central Bank of Sri Lanka, both India and the China are considering plans to scale up their respective offers to $1 billion each. He says , “Sri Lanka’s friends, the two regional giants, have stepped up to support us in this time when we were pushed into a rather difficult corner,”.

 Power transitions from West to East only prove that it is imperative to calculate external geopolitical interference toward Sri Lanka. Lankan leadership needs to include this discussion in political discourse.

 Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. Author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads(2019).The views expressed here are his own.

Should the U.S. Retreat or Stay in Afghanistan?

History has shown us that there is no right way to withdraw from Afghanistan. Invading and occupying is quick and easy, but after failing to reimage the country and suffering a few tactical defeats, they all exit Afghanistan, leaving a huge mess for the Afghans. The British never spent more than three years in Afghanistan; they got out the quickest followed by Soviet Union retreating in less than ten years. Afghanistan is America's longest-running war; eighteen years and counting. President Trump recently hinted that he wants to withdraw half of the US troops from Afghanistan – a move that can potentially embolden the Taliban. US Special Representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, is currently on a mission to bring an end to the conflict and negotiate a withdrawal mechanism.


When the President of the United States – the commander-in-chief of the armed forces – speaks, the troops listen, the allies listen, and above all, the foes listen. Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, described the current peace deal “a surrender” and warned of dire consequences in case of a hasty pull out. This is the wrong way to end the Afghan conflict and the US may be doomed to repeat mistakes of the other Western Powers.


Why should the Taliban come to a negotiation table when they can dictate their terms from a position of strength? Taliban demonstrated their battlefield strength last week by blowing up an entire military training center, just south of the capital Kabul, killing 126 intelligence and security officers. This was the single deadliest attack by the Taliban on government security forces since the conflict started in 1979. Notwithstanding this attack, 2018 became the deadliest year on record for the Afghan civilians and security forces.

Whether half of the troops will be withdrawn is not clear, but if it happens, the country will likely plunge into a bloody civil war and ISIS and the Taliban will be the ultimate winners. Afghanistan has sunk into chaos at least three times in the past 40 years as a result of the withdrawal of foreign troops and support. Mohammad Najibullah’s regime fell less than three years after the Soviets withdrew in 1989.


At present, there are about 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan which are divided into two missions; a counter-terrorism mission which is a kinetic mission to hunt down terrorist groups to include senior Taliban – but also ISIS and Al-Qaeda leaders – and the other mission supports the Afghan Army and police through training and advising. The partial troop withdrawal, presumably, would come out of the training mission and not out of the counter terrorism mission. This would lead to an attenuation of the abilities of the Afghan Army and police which are already struggling on the battlefield.


Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rang the alarm bells as early as January 2018 by saying that if the US withdraws its support – both the military and the financial support for the Afghan Army and police – the Afghans cannot sustain operations for 6 months; hinting at a Taliban take over.


President Trump tried to surge troops in Afghanistan, as his two predecessors did, but it is very clear that the mini surge of 4,000 troops did not work. The US has been doing this exercise for 18 years and there is no real evidence that supporting the feeble Afghan Army and police will defeat the Taliban; it didn't happen when President Obama put a hundred thousand troops and is certainly not going to happen with just 14,000 Americans troops on the ground. On the contrary, Taliban hold sway over the largest chunk of land – nearly 60% – since they were dislodged by a spectacular attack back in 2001.


Top military commanders agree that there is no military solution to the conflict. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ruled out a military solution in March 2018; General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said in November that the Taliban “is not losing right now” and that there is “no military solution” in Afghanistan. Retired General Stanley McChrystal declared last month that he has no answer for Afghanistan but that “we should just continue to muddle along, leaked audio revealed. General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., nominated to lead US CENTCOM told the Senate a month ago that Afghan forces would likely collapse if US forces left. He did not specify when would the Afghan forces be able to fight and win on their own.


Does this imply that the US support is not essential; rather it is making the problem worse in Afghanistan? If that’s the case, then a face-saving retreat is the best option available and US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad is probably working on it right now. However, if the US support is germane and the entire Afghan Army and police will collapse, then the US is going down the same path, where after the occupying power or the funding power withdrew its funding and support, it opened up a real opportunity for numerous groups to descend into chaos. This phenomenon was particularly obvious in early 1990s after the Soviet withdrawal.  Senator Lindsey Graham said last month that withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan would be a “high risk strategy” that could pave “the way toward a second 9/11”. No one wants that to happen!


The best course of action is a gradual, incremental withdrawal, leaving a residual force in Bagram. Spending a few billion dollars a year now would save the US from spending a whole lot more in case Afghanistan is completely taken over by a hostile force and the US has to come back “Terminator Style”. 



Dr. Asim Yousafzai is a Washington DC based geo-science professional and regularly writes on technical and geo-strategic issues. He is the author of the book “Afghanistan: From Cold War to Gold War”. He can be followed @asimusafzai

The Afghanistan Withdrawal Conundrum

After more than 17 years, the United States and its allies are still in Afghanistan. While the reasons for entering were clear, the reasons for staying have become more obscure each passing year. The mission seemingly shifted from targeting Al-Qaeda to nation-building, a task made all the more complicated by the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And now, more than 17 years later (longer than the US involvement in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined), the United States seems to be taking concrete steps to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan.

From the peak of NATO involvement in 2011, with 130,000 soldiers from 50 countries to the current force of 16,000 (14,000 of which are Americans), not much has changed and not much has improved. The long-standing task of NATO involvement was to train the Afghani military, so that it could combat the Taliban threat on its own. However, despite the US-led NATO mission shifting its focus towards this training back in 2014, the Afghan forces have dropped to their lowest strength since their inception. In a recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to the U.S. Congress, it is also stated that an average of 1,742 enemy-initiated attacks occurred per month in 2018, and that the Afghanistan government’s control over the country dropped a few percentage points since July to 53.8%. This is despite President Trump’s deployment of 4,000 additional troops in 2017 and an increased air campaign, with airstrikes at levels not seen since the height of the war. It is clear that a military victory over the Taliban is not going to happen in the near future. The popularity of the war in Afghanistan is at record lows in the United States, and the Afghan military is struggling to defend what they have, much less take back the vast swarths of the country that the Taliban control. In fact, Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., in his confirmation hearing in December of last year, told Congress that he believed the Afghan military would dissolve if not for American support.

With a military victory seemingly out of the question, more and more attention has been drawn to reaching a possible political settlement. However, this presents almost an equally difficult challenge, as a fair number of influential states seem to have a stake in the Afghan peace process. First and foremost, the Taliban. Still maintaining control on almost half the country, the Taliban have managed to resist the best efforts of the US and its allies and continue to pose a significant security threat to the Afghan government. To make matters more difficult, they have refused to enter negotiations with the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, declaring them illegitimate and merely puppets of the Americans. To add to the complexity of the scenario, there are multiple negotiations occurring simultaneously. The United States, with its special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have entered talks with the Taliban in Qatar and the UAE, while the Russian recently held an Afghanistan peace conference in Moscow. The United States and the Afghanistan governments did not attend formally, but the United States did send an observer. Just earlier this week, Russia hosted another round of talks, this time with senior Afghan politicians, including former President Hamid Karzai. Current Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani sees these outside initiatives as undermining the already fragile Afghan state, along with reducing his chances to claim negotiations as a personal victory to boost his reelection chances. 

Questions remain on what exactly would fill the space if and when the United States military pulls out of Afghanistan. Supposedly, a framework between the Taliban and the United States has been agreed to, in which the Taliban have provided guarantees that they will not permit terrorist groups like Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan soil. It is extremely difficult to have faith in these guarantees, and to do so one must believe that the Taliban will behave as rational actors and not provoke the United States into action again by facilitating terrorist attacks. In addition, should the Taliban attempt to bring Afghanistan back to how it was in the 1990s, they will find themselves confronted by an Afghanistan society and generation that has grown up with very different values and outlook on life and society. In fact, three women attended the talks earlier this week, in an attempt to emphasize just how things have changed since the Taliban held power over all of Afghanistan. Many Afghan citizens fear a return to the harsh regime, in which music and sports were banned and women’s rights were heavily restricted.  

While US-Taliban conflict and intra-Afghanistan conflict make this situation already extremely difficult, to make matters worse is the presence of global rivalries in Afghanistan. Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, seeing them as a bulwark against possible Indian influence stemming from their much larger economic and investment potential, something Afghanistan will desperately need moving forward. India also is concerned that while the Taliban may have given assurances to the United States to prevent terrorist attacks on American soil or targets, no such assurances have been given to India. India fears that an extremist government in Afghanistan will further embolden Pakistan to continue its support for extremist groups targeting India, especially the Kashmir region.

With all these competing interests and values fighting over Afghanistan’s future, it seems that talks will continue for the foreseeable future. President Trump was confronted with a rare rebuke from the Senate Republicans on his withdrawal plans for Afghanistan, which would seem to indicate the United States will remain in Afghanistan for quite a while yet.

Imran Khan Will Continue Pakistan's 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back' Approach to Israel

A tweet by Fishel Benkhald‏, a Pakistani Jew, announcing that the country’s ministry of foreign affairs had allowed him to visit Israel on his Pakistani passport, resulted in a fresh round of speculation about Israel-Pakistan ties. But as with earlier rounds of similar rumours, the Pakistani Foreign Office denied that Pakistan was on the verge of changing its policy towards the Jewish state.

Pakistani passports explicitly say that they are not valid for travel to Israel – an avowal of non-recognition and unwillingness to engage that has remained consistent for over 70 years.

Periodic rumours of secret engagement notwithstanding, it is unlikely that the world’s first Sunni Islamic republic will abandon its traditional hostility towards the Jewish State any time soon.

Only a change in the collective position of the Arab-Islamic world, possibly with the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state, might make it possible for Pakistani leaders to normalise relations with Israel.

At the same time, without a demonstrable change in Islamabad’s position on Jihadi terrorism, Israel also might not want to risk its deepening partnership with India. If various terrorist groups promising to ‘punish Israel’ or ‘kill the Jews’ –like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) – operate freely in Pakistan, it would be difficult for Israel to trust promises of friendly engagement.

The desire for a covert relationship with Israel has been periodically voiced by some Pakistanis, notably those concerned about Pakistan’s global position in relation to India. Ironically, it stems from anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jewish influence over global affairs rather than a genuine recognition of the right of Jews to a national homeland in historic Palestine.

Musharraf’s ‘justified’ outreach

As a military dictator in 2003, General Pervez Musharraf spoke about the need for an open debate in Pakistan about the merits of recognising Israel. Amid worries about India’s “military, economic and intelligence ties” with Tel Aviv, Musharraf wondered aloud, “What is our dispute with Israel?”

Two years later, Musharraf’s foreign minister met his Israeli counterpart in Istanbul. With characteristic bravado, Musharraf claimed that his initiative “enjoyed widespread support.” According to him, “When we are talking to the Israelis and the Israeli foreign minister, or I address the Jewish congress, I am very clear that this is the strategic direction that Pakistan needs to take.”

Some secret contacts between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Israel’s intelligence services followed but the initiative withered soon, and so did Musharraf’s control over power.

To his military colleagues, Musharraf had justified his outreach to Israel as an attempt to prevent Israeli-Indian collusion against Pakistan.

As president and chief of army staff, Musharraf felt he could take risks in external affairs. Even Pakistan’s raucous media and anger-prone religious parties could not accuse an army chief of acting against the country’s ideology or national interest.

Musharraf’s civilian successors could not take such risks. They left the Israel account to the ISI and the military, fearful that any attempt on their part to build upon Musharraf’s initiative would be exploited by the country’s establishment with help from the fanatical crowd.

Imran Khan and the supposed thaw

The selection of Imran Khan as prime minister has reportedly ended the civil-military divide, and the military’s concerns are once again centre-stage. Khan also has the reassurance that the military and intelligence services will take care of any domestic constituency he annoys while trying to end Pakistan’s international isolation.

Soon after Khan took office in 2018, the rumours of a Pakistan-Israel thaw resurfaced. Jack Rosen, an American Jewish personality who had previously hosted Musharraf, broke years of silence on Pakistani affairs by writing an article praising Imran Khan and arguing why Pakistan deserved US support.

Rosen’s critics immediately listed the numerous anti-Semitic and pro-Jihad statements by Khan and other officials of his party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and wondered aloud why Rosen was lobbying for the new Pakistani prime minister.

In the subsequent back and forth, Khan’s previous marriage to Jemima Goldsmith was cited as evidence of his tolerance of Jews. Ironically, Jemima has always insisted that she is a Catholic even though her father Sir James Goldsmith was Jewish by birth. Jemima has herself faced allegations of anti-Semitism, which she strongly denies.

In October last year, the editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s English edition, Ami Scharf, fuelled gossip when he tweeted about a private jet possibly carrying Israeli officials to Islamabad from Tel Aviv. That claim was based on following the plane on one of the several flight path tracking sites and was strongly denied by the Pakistan government as well as Pakistan’s aviation regulators.

Soon after, retired military officers close to Musharraf revived the arguments on Pakistani television channels in favour of recognising Israel as a means of depriving India of exclusive Israeli friendship. A PTI legislator advanced the case in a speech in parliament. But the government officially denied the likelihood of normalisation of ties with Israel vehemently.

Haaretz described “the outraged reaction to the very idea that an Israeli jet could enter Pakistani airspace” as “a prominent indicator” of Pakistan’s hostility towards the Jewish state. It noted that “the government of Pakistan not only categorically dismissed the very idea that an Israeli jet could land in Islamabad (“No Israeli plane can land in Pakistan”), it has claimed that the report itself is a part of the old-new “Zionist-Hindu conspiracy” against Pakistan.

Roots of Pakistan’s antipathy

The belief about Pakistan being the target of conspiracies by enemies of Islam has over the years become an integral part of Pakistan’s national DNA. Tactical suggestions of normalising relations with Israel to drive a wedge between Tel Aviv and Delhi cannot overcome the view that Pakistan is a citadel of Islam and that several non-Muslim powers (Israel and India foremost among them) seek its destruction.

Antipathy towards Israel goes all the way to Pakistan’s founding. In March 1947, Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah told one of the first American diplomats to meet him that “most Indian Muslims felt Americans were against them.” Jinnah cited two reasons for this view: first, he said, “because most Americans seemed opposed to Pakistan,” and second, because the “US government and people backed Jews against Arabs in Palestine.”

Margaret Bourke-White, who covered Pakistan’s birth as a correspondent for Life magazine, observed that soon after independence, “Pakistan was occupied with her own grave internal problems, but she still found time to talk fervently, though vaguely, of sending a liberation army to Palestine to help the Arabs free the Holy Land from the Jews.” She reported calls by religious leaders “advocating that trained ex-servicemen be dispatched” in the “holy cause” of Palestine.

Bourke-White also noticed in early 1948 that Dawn, then the official government newspaper, condemned the “Jewish state” and “urged a united front of Muslim countries in the military as well as the spiritual sense,” with one editorial asserting, “That way lies the salvation of Islam.’’

That was 1947-48, when Pakistan was new and the ‘ideology of Pakistan’ taught at all levels of schooling had not even covered. Now, with Pakistan’s status as an ideological state fully consolidated, pursuit of pragmatic foreign policy initiatives such as normalisation of relations with Israel (and India) has become less likely.

For the foreseeable future, the powers that be in Pakistan will continue their ‘one step forward, one step back’ approach to Israel. Being the pragmatists that they are, Israelis are also unlikely to risk their relationship with India – a lucrative arms market, tourist destination, and reliable counter-terrorism partner –in pursuit of half-hearted recognition by Pakistan.

India's Multiple Options to Deal with Pakistan

The India-Pakistan relationship occupies a large space in the Indian imagination. It is infused with emotion and carries the burden of history. For many Indians, including politicians, it intrudes into India’s communal relations, thereby taking it beyond the classic domain of foreign policy and into the realm of India’s domestic politics. Naturally, this also impinges on the electoral considerations of Indian and Pakistani political parties.

India’s political class, which – unlike Pakistan’s vis-a-vis India – takes the final call on the country’s Pakistan policy and strategy, is conscious of the complexities of managing bilateral ties. The political class has always wanted to establish friendly and cooperative relations with Pakistan, and for this purpose has desired that Islamabad discard its negative orientation toward New Delhi.

Pakistan and terrorism

It would largely agree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark, made during a media interview on January 1, on the deterrent value of India’s September 2016 “surgical strikes.” Modi said, “It would be a big mistake to think that Pakistan’s conduct will improve because of one military action. It will be a while before Pakistan improves its behavior.” There is no consensus among Indian politicians on the manner to make Pakistan “improve” its behavior.

The political class would endorse Modi’s assertion that India’s willingness to engage in a dialogue on all issues with Pakistan is based on a national approach. The only need is for Pakistani cross-border terrorism to stop. Successive governments, including Modi’s, have articulated the same caveat, only to overlook it periodically.

India’s approach to managing its Pakistan relations has been to combat Pakistani terror in a defensive mode, respond to Pakistani firing across the Line of Control and the International Border in Jammu and Kashmir, maintain diplomatic contacts, address humanitarian issues, and pursue rounds of dialogue until a terrorist act makes it necessary to break it.

Modi has been no different from his predecessors in following this matrix despite Pakistan’s grave provocations. He has largely kept the National Security Advisers channel going and was initially warm in responding to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s positive statements.

The question is, are India’s policies so fixed that no government would like to consider others? And if a government were to be open to fresh thinking, what would it examine first? For this it is essential to turn to history.

The Vajpayee doctrine

In an act of great statesmanship, the late prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to the Minar-e-Pakistan monument during his visit to Lahore in February 1999. He inscribed in the visitor’s book, “I have said this before and I say it again: A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt about this.”

Most Pakistanis, certainly the military establishment, did not take these words seriously. That was shown in the Kargil War initiated by the Pakistan Army. Twenty years on it is doubtful if more than handful in Pakistan pay any heed to Vajpayee’s inscription.

The fact is that the Indian political and security classes deeply subscribe to the principle articulated by Vajpayee: that India has a vested interest in Pakistan’s stability. This thought is deeply embedded in Indian thinking even it is seldom articulated. It has grown stronger since Pakistan has acquired nuclear weapons and its society has witnessed increased religiosity. This is one reason that has prevented India from seeking to destabilize Pakistan in response to its continued sponsorship of terrorism since 1990 in this ongoing phase.

Ideological distrust

The view that Indian interests need a stable Pakistan prevails despite the belief, as articulated by Modi, that its establishment will not opt to normalize ties with India any time soon. Indeed, if anything, Indian policymakers believe that Pakistan’s active anti-India stance will continue for the foreseeable future, for it is one of the two pillars that support the country’s ideology, as Husain Haqqani points out in his outstanding book Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State. This ideology is guarded by the Pakistan Army.

A condition precedent to setting out a radically new and aggressive approach toward Pakistan will require an examination of the foundational principle of India’s policy – that the stability of Pakistan is in India’s interest. There is no indication that India’s strategic or political classes will seriously examine this principle, though popular as well as elite patience against Pakistan has worn thin because of terrorism.

There may be advocacy of exploiting some of Pakistan’s numerous fault lines that lie, among other manifestations, in its provincial, ethnic, sectarian and civil-military divides as well as economic stunting, but there is no desire to take concerted steps to use these contradictions to inflict major damage on the country. In this context, it is noteworthy that terrorism is not considered a strategic challenge. It has been reduced to an issue of political management.

A good case, though, can be made that a stable Pakistan is not in India’s interests because of its implacable malignancy and hostility. Hence it would be useful for India to widen and deepen its fault lines. Ironically, this might introduce an element of fresh thinking in Pakistan so that the establishment considers accommodative approaches that seek to entangle India in a web of economic and commercial relationships to blunt its perceived hostility.

All in all though, it is unlikely that Indian policymakers would really probe the validity of the stability premise because that would challenge the ingrained beliefs and reflexes that have prevailed since independence. India’s role in the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971 does not invalidate this assessment.

If Indian policymakers accept the proposition that India has no stake in Pakistan’s stability, an entire range of objectives open up, as do strategic options to achieve them. This would be so notwithstanding Pakistan’s historic policy of shoring up its inherent weakness vis-a-vis India through foreign alliances or partnerships.

Earlier this was witnessed through the US connection; thereafter, through simultaneous US and Chinese patronage; and now the renewed bonding with China, of which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is both a manifestation and a propellant.

The objectives can range from maintaining continuous and comprehensive pressure on Pakistan or an aggressive approach on select sectors such as the economy. It can be more ambitious to foment serious insurgencies to weaken its national fabric. There are instruments such as the water issue that permit the adoption of consistent strategies to promote these objectives.

Exploiting Pakistan’s fault lines

Pakistan is becoming a seriously water-stressed country. This is primarily on account of the mismanagement of its water resources. However, Pakistan sometimes holds India responsible for seeking to disrupt the flow of waters as provided in the Indus Waters Treaty. The country’s extremist groups especially maintain high-pitched propaganda against India on this matter. The fact is that India has been reticent in exercising its full rights under the treaty and it is only now that a determination has been made to do so.

The Indus Waters Treaty is generous to Pakistan. India’s magnanimity was designed to assuage Pakistan’s fears of running dry because of India blocking water, as it was the upper riparian. It was hoped that the treaty would remove a major cause of hostility, but that hope has been belied.

In such a situation, India could opt to look at the treaty afresh, for its own needs of water is growing. At a time when China is showing scant regard for international law when its interests are directed at the South China Sea, India too can give primacy to its interests.

In any case it is unlikely that Pakistan can invoke the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, for it is ruled out in such cases between India and Pakistan, as witnessed in the ICJ decision in the Atlantique case. In 1999, Indian fighter jets shot down a Pakistani surveillance aircraft just as the Kargil War was winding up.

The Kashmir imbroglio

Where does the Jammu and Kashmir issue really figure in India-Pakistan ties? It is an integral part of the national narratives of the two countries: Pakistan feels that its national enterprise is incomplete without the Kashmir Valley; for India, it is an essential component of its secular fabric. It is because this is so that makes its resolution difficult. However, it is not impossible to find a resolution by formalizing the territorial status quo.

Pakistan does not seek to do so because the interests of the army as a body corporate would suffer if the Kashmir issue lost its salience in the nation’s thinking. It has enlisted the religious groups in the Kashmir enterprise. They have imparted an Islamic dimension to it. The army also finds the issue useful to attempt to keep India under pressure by at least tying up a large component of its forces.

It is doubtful whether a “resolution” of the Kashmir issue would usher in an era of durable peace between the two countries. Pakistan considers India a hegemonic power and wishes to prevent their inherent disparities from playing out. It will do all it can in this direction.

India has a defensive approach in Kashmir. A change would require a fundamental reorientation toward Pakistan, which is unlikely. What is more so is the resumption of the dialogue after the approaching Indian elections and more of the same ups and downs in relations with Pakistan.

Article first appeared in the Asia Times

A Republic Day Sans the Military?

Marching troops, rows of tanks, missiles, ornate tableaux, stunt riders, aerial displays, and formations of horses and camels manoeuvring down Delhi’s expansive Rajpath — every January 26 witnesses a 90-minute flamboyant display of India’s military might and cultural diversity. A perusal of social media will reveal the degree of enthusiasm and admiration citizens have for the armed forces. At places all over the country where I speak about military leadership and its application to other professions, I am extensively asked by people, old and young, about military life, challenges in difficult terrain, our weaponry and equipment, different regiments, arms and services, and what they do. It always ends with a salute by them and a mention about how they feel safe because India’s warriors are ever-ready to protect them.

The message in perpetuity from the armed forces is the symbolic, “Hum hain na (We are there),” conveying their full acceptance to live by the oath they take: always in readiness to make even the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and security of the Indian people. Remove the armed forces from the Republic Day parade and you will have a public dismayed by the decision. One could even assume it a political risk, I dare say.

India is a peaceful country. It covets no one’s territory but equally wishes to create awareness that none can covet its territory and compromise the principles by which its people have chosen to live. Deterrence and dissuasion are essential components of national security which are achieved through projection of capability. The presence of armed forces is symbolic of India’s military power conveyed with elegance and shorn of brazenness. It is the precision marching achieved through months of training, coordinated martial music, colourful uniforms and regimental accoutrements, and skillfully driven and well-maintained vehicles, which attract huge applause from the heart. The roll-past of T-90 tanks, Agni and BrahMos missiles, the Bofors guns, and the fly-past by the Indian Air Force infuse pride. Young and old associate themselves with all servicemen on display, marveling at their discipline, dedication, skill, passion and hard work.

While military equipment can be displayed through static exhibitions in different towns and cities, in schools and colleges, and other government institutions, there is nothing remotely equivalent to the élan which emerges from men in uniform in control of the weapons and equipment they use in war. Removing the military, and for that matter, the police from the parade, would make the event a socio-cultural one, exemplifying the progress of the nation. No doubt, it would be a noble idea for a peace-loving nation, and with much savings to the state. Those with money on their minds and questioning the allegedly large movement of men and material to Delhi each year may remember that thousands of servicemen move every day as part of duty, as does their equipment. The gains in national pride, public confidence and response, as also projection is not quantifiable, but it goes well beyond anything public finance can buy or achieve.

The parade is about achievement as much it is about comprehensive national power. It cannot be just a display of military might. It is conceived as an event exemplifying India’s uniqueness, its richness of culture and the immense progress it has made. The current combination of the military, cultural display through dances from various regions, departmental tableaux, schoolchildren from different parts of India and the NCC, all included in the march down Rajpath with the looming visage of Raisina Hill and its grandiose buildings in the background and India Gate with Amar Jawan Jyoti in front, have a surreal effect that gives this spectacle a grandeur which India’s public must never be robbed of.

Remove the military and police contingents and you would axe the one element that in a single glimpse symbolises Idia’s greatest strength — unity in diversity. With the National War Memorial under completion nearby, the public experience of witnessing the armed forces on display and then visiting the new institutions to be educated about India’s military heritage would be another unique addition to the experience of the fortunate few who witness the spectacle in person.

Article first appeared on FirstPost

Photo Credit: Reuters

Election Commission of India: How it Conducts Elections

The Election Commission of India is a nonpartisan power that conducts the election processes for the country. The Election Commission was formed in 1950 as a constitutional body, a few short years after India gained its independence from Britain. The Election Commission is “entrusted with the task of superintendence, direction, and control of all national and state elections”, as well as the responsibility to prepare and review the electoral roles. Specifically, the Election Commission conducts elections to the Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, and the Vice President and President offices in India.


The Indian Constitution allows for a singular Electoral Commission to administer Parliament and state legislature elections. Outlining the presence of an Election Commission in the Indian Constitution was important to ensure that the entity would have a presence in Indian politics for years to come, as the Commission is vital in protecting the process. The Representation of the People Act, 1950 and the Representation of the People Act, 1951 were passed in their respective years, and they helped the Election Commission by outlining the structure of the election process. The Representation of the People Act, 1950 delineates the number of seats and the parliamentary and assembly constituencies, and the Representation of the People Act, 1951 discusses the provisions on election conduct. While there have been changes to these initial laws, they provide guidelines to ensure that the elections are conducted in a democratic and systematic matter.


The President of India chooses the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners, and the Chief Election Commissioner cannot be stripped of his or her position without the approval of the Supreme Court. This was created as a provision to ensure that the Election Commission would be safeguarded from any government intervention. The Election Commission has also implemented a moral code of conduct, which they administer to ensure that the election process is being conducted in a just manner. The Commission can “suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party for its failure to abide by the model code of conduct or the directions of the EC.” The Election Commission also has the authority to decide election schedules, polling station locations, and counting station locations.


For state level elections, the process is overseen by a chosen Chief Election Officer of the State and a supporting team. At district and constituency levels, the District Election Officers, Electoral Registration Officers and Returning Officers, alongside other junior functionaries, work for the election process. For national level general elections, the Election Commission uses a significant number of resources to successfully carry out the process. This includes about five million police officers and polling staff. The Election Commission supports the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which India has been utilizing for its elections for over a decade.


The Election Commission has recently established the Voter Awareness Forum (VAF) in New Delhi. The Voter Awareness Forum is a way to raise awareness about the election process for the public, and it includes quizzes and discussions. The VAF is an aspect of the Electoral Literacy Club of the Election Commission. Other Chief Electoral Officers and District Election Officers followed suit by launching VAFs in their regions, to raise discussion on importance of voter registration and involvement.

Competition Over Nepal

Located between India and China, Nepal has made its national strategy to maintain ties with both countries. While Nepal traditionally enjoyed a much closer relationship to India, the recent increase in Chinese foreign investment is seen by many in India as an attempt to draw Nepal into the Chinese sphere of influence.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has many analysts in India suspicious, as some believe that it is an attempt by China to encircle India, with heavy investment to nearly every nation surrounding India, from Pakistan to the Maldives. Critics of the Belt and Road Initiative allege that the infrastructure investments and loan deals are a Chinese attempt at debt diplomacy, which is where the Chinese leverage the extreme sums of debt owed to them to extract costly diplomatic, economic, or political concessions. One recent example is the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, who was pressured into signing it, along with 15,000 acres of surrounding land, over to China for 99 years.

Since the conception of the BRI, India has opposed it, warning the recipients of the dangers they’re facing by accepting these Chinese loans. While India has tried to counter the Chinese offers with their own investment, they have been unable to prevent many of the countries from taking Chinese money. While many of these nations historical had close relations with India, their more immediate neighbor compared to China, one of the strongest is the one between India and Nepal. Nepal’s armed forces are integrated into India’s, and India’s borders are open to Nepal in terms of travel, work, and trade.

As Nepal is located high in the Himalayan Mountains, infrastructure and connectivity can be exceptionally difficult. Nepal’s roads, winding along mountain sides, require constant maintenance. Shipping materials into the country and transporting them throughout can be incredibly expensive and reduces Nepal’s ability to undergo massive infrastructure projects.

There has been some controversy over India’s relationship with Nepal in the past. Some critics claim that India abuses its relationship to Nepal to keep it subservient, using economical and logistical barriers to prevent it from diversifying its economic ability. India demonstrated this dominance over Nepal with an economic blockade in 2015, which in turn provoked Nepal to sign a trade and transit treaty with China. Prime Minister Modi also went back a few promises he made to Nepal regarding the resolution of a few outstanding issues. No wonder then that Nepal is seeking alternatives to India.

Nepal has submitted a list of nine projects they wish to receive Chinese investment for; including three road projects, two hydroelectricity projects, and a cross-border railway and transmission line. As mentioned above, Nepal’s roads can be deadly, with over a thousand people dying in just the past five months. Nepal also seeks to boost its internal energy production to reduce its reliance on energy imports, more than half of which comes from India. The best way for Nepal to do this is to develop its hydropower production, and a three-day expo was held this past weekend to attract private and foreign investors to help Nepal utilize its massive potential. Showcasing their products and services at the expo were Indian and Chinese companies, along with various European nations, such as Germany and the UK.

Despite outside critics’ fears of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy, the mood in Nepal has been positive towards increasing ties with China. While China’s noninterference policy has helped create a positive public opinion, it may be the case that India’s actions have pushed Nepal towards China. India has had a long-standing issue with completing past projects on time, causing many to hope that the Chinese project will be finished on time. India also has a perception of interfering in Nepal’s politics and economy, with India’s objections to Nepal’s constitution in 2015 and the economic blockade still fresh in many people’s minds. While it may be unfair to paint all Chinese investment as nefarious, India should remain alert to the possibility of its neighbor accruing dangerous levels of debt to China. However, it is not enough to merely point out and identify flaws and risks, India must offer its own solutions to bring Nepal back to the table.  

The Pakistan-Saudi Arabia-China Partnership

Saudi Arabia has recently announced its decision to fund the creation of a $10 billion oil refinery in Pakistan, a strategic step in association with the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China and Pakistan have established an ongoing relationship as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative led by Chinese president Xi Jinping. This initiative focuses on infrastructure development for Pakistan, specifically focusing on their transportation network, power plants, and industrial zones. Saudi Arabia’s decision to fund the oil refinery in the Gwadar port establishes the country’s commitment to the CPEC. “Saudi Arabia is the first country that we have invited to become a third partner in CPEC. They will be our third strategic economic partner in CPEC, and Saudi Arabia is expected to bring massive direct investments to the project,” Minister Fawad Chaudhry explained.


The China- Pakistan Economic Corridor has led to a significant level of Chinese investment in Pakistan, averaging at about $19 billion in the past five years. This investment has contributed to the creation of about 70,000 more local jobs in Pakistan. China is expected to invest about $62 billion into Pakistan the next fifteen years. The CPEC will provide China with greater access to international markets, especially with the establishment of the Gwadar port. The development of a China- Saudi Arabia- Pakistan partnership has important strategic connotations, especially as China increases its hold over the Asian continent. Saudi Arabia will also benefit from the loans, as now they have an influence over Pakistan’s development in upcoming years.


The investment from China and Saudi Arabia comes at a time when Pakistan is suffering from extreme foreign debt. There is heavy criticism regarding the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the effects that this initiative may have on Pakistan. The country is already dealing with a foreign debt crisis, and the billions of dollars given from China and Saudi Arabia might exacerbate this issue. Countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka have received investment funds from China in the past and have experienced a ‘debt trap’ due to these loans. Malaysia has cancelled numerous China- backed projects in fear of increasing their debt to China itself. Sri Lanka also got caught in a debt trap after receiving loans from China to build the Hambantota port, and had to give China a long-term lease of the port.


Saudi Arabia’s decision to fund the oil refinery development comes at an important time for the CPEC, as it increases the initiative’s legitimacy after the negative attention it has been receiving recently. As explained in Times of India, “…the Saudi decision to establish an oil refinery in Gwadar comes as a booster shot for CPEC and OBOR. It increases the trust perception regarding Chinese projects and makes them appear viable.” Saudi Arabia’s willingness to partner with China and Pakistan in the CPEC gives the initiative more credibility in the international arena.


The billions of dollars in investment may not be enough to save Pakistan from another IMF bailout, which Prime Minister Imran Khan was hoping to avoid. While Pakistan’s finance minister Asad Umar stated on January 12th that Pakistan will not be receiving a bailout package from the IMF, the country is still in communication with the organization. IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice stated on January 17th, “IMF staff are continuing discussions with the Pakistani authorities, with our counterparts, toward reaching an understanding on policy priorities, on reforms to stabilize the economy and lay the foundations for sustainable and inclusive growth.” If Pakistan does end up receiving financial assistance from the IMF, the country will have to take many drastic steps to secure the aid. This includes welfare spending cuts and higher taxes, which will not help the Pakistani government’s standing.

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