Elections 2018: A new hope for Pakistan?


            Pakistan’s democracy has seen a turbulent run-up to the upcoming general elections. Short of a direct coup, the military establishment has tried to do everything it could to subvert Pakistan’s hard-fought democratic process. Despite all its shenanigans, the military establishment has failed to quell support for the popular Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N). If PML-N secures a majority in the upcoming polls, then its victory would symbolize the strengthening of Pakistan’s democracy.


            It is no secret that the military establishment has been trying to target PML-N in the hopes of “engineering” outcomes in the upcoming general elections. The all-mighty military is widely believed to have orchestrated the ouster of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s former premier, through a Supreme Court judgment last year. The SC judgment based its verdict on the findings of a five-member Judicial Investigation Team, which included officers of Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Inclusion of these officers lends credence to the military’s definitive role in Nawaz’s expulsion.  It should be noted here that Nawaz Sharif was deposed not on corruption charges but on a minor technicality, which Supreme Court interpreted as a “misdeclaration” and hence Nawaz losing his status of being “honest” and “truthful” and therefore unfit for office.


            Not only Nawaz’s ouster but also PML-N’s losing its government in Balochistan assembly earlier this year is seen to have military’s involvement. A vote of no confidence against Sanaullah Zehri, Balochistan’s former Chief Minister and a Nawaz loyalist, and the subsequent election of Quddus Bizenjo, someone considered close to the military establishment, were both seen as moves to deny PML-N from electing its chairman and deputy chairman in the Senate polls. The move succeeded. The election of Sadiq Sanjrani, the new Chairman Senate, was considered harmful for Pakistan’s democratic process. Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected newspaper, described the event as “from the coup inside the Balochistan assembly against the PML-N to yesterday’s strange election results in the Senate, the auguries are not good for the democratic project in the country”.


            Military’s suppression of the freedom of speech has also marred the democratic process in the run-up to the upcoming general elections. According to Amnesty International, human rights activists are targeted through organized harassment. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been voicing its concerns over the muzzling of journalists critical of the military establishment for quite some time now.  Geo News, Pakistan’s most watched news channel, was forced off-air earlier this year. Geo had been sympathetic to Nawaz Sharif, which irked the military establishment and led to an unannounced ban on its transmissions. It was only after Geo agreed to stop negative portrayals of the military establishment and the interference of Judiciary in Pakistani politics was Geo “allowed” to come back on air. After bringing down Geo to its knees, the military establishment has started targeting Dawn. The action against Dawn was prompted after it published an interview with Nawaz Sharif in which he hinted at the already established Pakistan’s involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Because of Dawn’s refusal to “bend the knee”, it continues to suffer disruptions in its circulation.


           All this suppression of free media, the military’s involvement in removing Nawaz Sharif and the events since then are akin to pre-poll rigging. Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (PILDAT) termed the pre-poll process as unfair. In PILDAT’s assessment of the process the parameter that received the lowest score is “Perception of Neutrality of Military towards competing political parties and candidates”.  This highly unfair attitude of Pakistan’s military is primarily to ensure that PML-N does not form a majority in the upcoming polls.


            Despite all the military’s “adventures” against it, PML-N has showed resilience. After being forced out of office, Nawaz Sharif went on an explosive political campaign with the slogan “vote ko izzat do” (respect the ballot) while accusing “Khalai Makhlooq” (Alien Beings), a not-so-veiled reference to the military establishment, of removing Pakistan’s elected representatives from office.  His campaign has struck a responsive chord with the people as evidenced by large showings at his public rallies. Meanwhile, Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother, has embarked upon a different narrative. His narrative demands vote on the basis of public service and deliverance of high quality infrastructure. The younger Sharif’s narrative has also significant weight behind it. Several international news media outlets and development organizations have praised Punjab government’s reforms. In its recent report on Pakistan, The Economist Intelligence Unit has glad tidings for the Sharif brothers. It predicts PML-N to form the next government. 



            If the PML-N secures a majority in the upcoming elections, and that’s a big if, then the outcome will be a significant victory for the democratic process in the country. PML-N is contesting the polls on two narratives; Nawaz’s narrative of “vote ko izzat do” and Shahbaz’s narrative of vote on the basis of deliverance. Irrespective of which narrative resonates more with the voters, a victory for PML-N would signify a victory for the de jure in the battle between the de facto versus the de jure. Until now, politicians wanting to come in power have to court the favors of the all-powerful military establishment. If Nawaz’s narrative were to be the one that bags PML-N the majority, then such a victory would not only challenge the army’s hegemony but also give a clear signal to the powers that be of their severely incapacitated ability to “manufacture” electoral results. If Shahbaz’s narrative were to be the one that bags PML-N the majority, then it would mean that election of politicians to constituent assemblies comes from their capacity to deliver rather than treating the military establishment with obsequious deference. Victory of either of these narrative would ring a death knell for the politics of those “electables” who switch sides depending on which party the military favors. Such an exercise would then be in futility.


            The year leading up to the elections has been full of turmoil and there’s more to come as signaled by the recent resolution passed in the Balochistan Assembly to delay the elections. Habib Jalib, a famous revolutionary Pakistani poet in the 20th century, called upon Punjabis to rise against the military establishment’s dominance in his poem “Jaag mere Punjab” (Wake up my Punjab). Since PML-N predominantly attracts voters from Punjab, a PML-N victory in the general elections would mean that Punjabis have finally answered his call.

Testimony of Dr. Aparna Pande

Subcommittee on Asia the Pacific House Committee on Foreign Affairs

May 23, 2018, 2 pm

American grand strategy for Asia and the Pacific, since the end of the Second World War, has centered on creating an Asian diplomatic and security architecture that ensured stability and security in the region. American preeminence ensured a rules-based order, which opposed notions of ideological dominance (such as the rise of communism) or arbitrary assertions of territorial claims and disputes (such as that relating to the status of Taiwan.) The post-World War Asian security structure has rested on American economic and military might, combined with a network of partners and allies across the region.

The economic and military rise of China over the last two decades poses a challenge to American pre-eminence. China is gradually creating a new Asian order with Chinese primacy at its heart. U.S. strategy needs to be one of renewed engagement with its partners and allies across the region --India, Japan and South East Asia-- to construct a configuration that will be able to counter the Chinese march. Currently, China’s economic and military rise faces no structured challenge. Japan’s military role is inhibited by its Constitution while many in Australia and the United States have, for years, assumed China to be a benign power and have invested in an economic relationship favoring their potential challenger.

Among Asian countries, India has consistently viewed China’s expanding influence with suspicion. This is partly a function of historical experience. India had engaged Communist China as an Asian brother from 1949 to 1962, only to become victim of its military aggression over a border dispute. Since 1962, India has noted China’s efforts to build close ties with countries on India’s periphery, thereby trying to possibly encircle it, as well as its efforts to lay the groundwork for military and naval bases throughout the Indian Ocean.

With a population of more than one billion, India is also the country with sufficient manpower to match that of China. Thus, India would have to be central to any security architecture designed to contain China or aimed at ensuring that China does not transform its considerable economic clout into threatening military muscle in the Asia-Pacific.

India’s foreign policy

Indian leaders have always seen their country as one that will play a role on the global stage but primarily in Asia. The belief in India as an Asian leader and an example to Asia has been deeply ingrained in Indian thinking for centuries.

Immediately after independence, however, India’s policy makers while desirous of playing a role on the global stage, chose not to join either of two Cold War blocs adopting instead the policy of nonalignment. For decades India also remained bogged down in India’s immediate vicinity, dealing with security challenges, first from Pakistan and later from China. Slow economic growth also impeded India’s greater role on the world stage and resulted in an inward orientation for more than four decades.

It is only from the 1990s with the end of the Cold War, economic liberalization within and changing global situation that New Delhi started to rebuild relations with countries in Asia especially the Indo-Pacific. In recent years India’s economic growth and military modernization have led to rising ambitions in international politics as well as a new set of more prominent security concerns for New Delhi, namely the deepening presence of China in India’s backyard.

India’s antagonistic relationship with China – its northern neighbor and rival for leadership in Asia- dates back decades but it is the not-so-peaceful rise of China that lies at the core of what is happening today. After building its economic and military potential China has over the decades encroached in a region that India has always considered its sphere of influence: South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

Delhi has long sought to compartmentalize its disputes with all its neighbors, hoping that economic ties and people to people relations will over time build trust that will help resolve any pending border disputes. From the 1990s India and China sought to build people to people ties and economic relations and allow the border issue to remain on the backburner. Today China is one of India’s top economic partners and the two countries do collaborate globally on issues like climate change and in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

While it has worked with some of its immediate smaller South Asian neighbors this policy will not necessarily work with China. China used the last four decades of peace with India to create its economic miracle and modernize its military. India’s economy has, however, not grown consistently at double digits (which is critical) and its military modernization is decades behind what it should be.

India and the Chinese Challenge

Since 1989, China’s annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth rate has averaged almost 10 percent. Over the same period, India’s growth rate averaged half that (5.5 percent during the 1990s and early 2000s and around 7 percent over the last decade). China is an USD 11 trillion economy while India is an USD 2.3 trillion economy. In 2018 China’s military budget of USD 175 billion is significantly larger than India’s military budget of USD 45 billion.

India’s immediate neighborhood of South Asia has always been India’s first line of security but for decades India’s policy was simply to presume that this was India’s sphere of influence and India’s neighbors would accept that ‘Delhi knows best.’ Growing Chinese presence, however, have made Indian leaders aware that managing a sphere of influence is not only a function of telling others what to do but being able to expend resources that deny space to competitors.

Knowing that all of Delhi’s smaller South Asian neighbors bear a latent resentment against Indian predominance in the region –a function of the circumstances under which several countries emerged from a unified India under colonial rule -- Beijing has always used the Indiacard in its relations with these countries. India, on the other hand, has been impeded by its inability to allocate resources comparable to those of China in India’s immediate neighborhood.

While the majority of India’s developmental assistance (over 85 percent) is provided to its immediate neighbors in South Asia, India has never expended enough to compete with China’s assistance programs. Further, India’s ability to deliver projects on time has also been hurt by complacence, bureaucratic negligence, and political indifference.

China’s deep strategic and economic relationship with Pakistan exemplified in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (or CPEC), China’s assistance to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, China’s attempts to create friction between India and Bhutan and finally Chinese actions in Maldives are all seen by India as impinging on India’s sovereignty and security. Indian leaders have always resented the presence of any external power in the region unless that power accepted Indian predominance. Beijing’s refusal to do so has repeatedly irked New Delhi.

China’s rise has forced New Delhi to take a more active stance in containing its rival. Indian analysts have always viewed China’s policy as one of strategic encirclement, often called the string of pearls theory, one designed to give the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) an advantage in a potential conflict, and more leverage in negotiations over disputes.

New Delhi is wary of Chinese bases and ports especially in the Indian Ocean from Hambantota in Sri Lanka to Gwadar and Jiwani in Pakistan on the Persian Gulf, as well as potential bases in the Maldives and in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. New Delhi views the One Belt One Road (OBOR) or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a continuation of China’s planned encirclement of India.

In Pakistan alone, China has financed over USD 46 billion dollars of development projects. Through a combination of readily available low-interest loans, gifts to those in power, as well as generous clearance of unpaid debts, Beijing has thus created a strategic network across large parts of Asia and even Africa and Latin America. In some cases, the huge quantum of lending seems designed to lure nations into a debt trap, leaving them beholden to China for years to come.

China has over the last two decades also deepened its activities in the Indian Ocean by building military bases, securing access to ports and islands and even sent its submarines into a region that India sees as its sphere of influence. Since 2012, Chinese submarines have been sighted on 4 an average of four times every three months in the Indian Ocean region and in 2016 a Chinese submarine called at the Pakistani port of Karachi, just off India’s coast.

India may have been slow initially to respond to Chinese presence but is finally deploying its capabilities and resources. In early May 2018, for the first time since the Second World War, India has decided to station fighter planes in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands with the aim being to strengthen India's hold over the crucial Malacca, Sunda, and Lumbok Straits and the Straits of Ombai Wetar and the eastern Indian Ocean Region.

For some years, Delhi had contemplated leveraging these strategically located island chains as its line of defense against China. Air bases in Car Nicobar and Campbell Bay have also been identified as bases for these fighter planes. The Indian Navy has positioned warships in the region and also built two floating docks to repair and refurbish warships. Delhi also plans to allow tri-service command to the Commander in Chief of Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN) so that he can exercise direct control over all assets and men including those of the Indian Air Force and the Indian Army.

India, ASEAN, and the Indo Pacific

In January 2018 on the eve of India’s Republic Day – when for the first time India hosted the leaders of all ten ASEAN states as chief guests at the event – Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote in an Op-ed “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny.”

India’s historical and civilizational ties with South East Asia date back centuries reflected in centuries of trade ties, spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from the Indian subcontinent and an ancient Indian empire that extended its presence to South East Asia (the Chola Empire). However, it is only from the 1990s that India adopted its ‘Look East’ policy, aimed at building closer economic ties with the region, and only in the last decade that a security dimension has been added to this relationship.

Reflective of this ‘Act East’ policy India’s trade with the region stands at USD 76 billion with India being a member of the proposed RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) free trade agreement. India has also deepened partnerships with South East Asian countries aimed at bolstering their defense capabilities and making them strategically useful partners.

In 2015, India and Singapore signed defense cooperation and strategic partnership agreements. The Indian armed forces helped build the capacity of their Vietnamese counterparts and in February 2017 the two sides held discussions on the sale of Surface-to-Air Akash and supersonic Brahmos missiles. New Delhi has provided over USD 500 million in credit to Vietnam to modernize their armed forces and since 2016 India has trained Vietnamese navy submariners at its naval training school.

The Malacca straits are critical for India, as they are for China, with almost 40 percent of India’s trade passing through these straits. In mid-May 2018, Indonesia and India signed an agreement as part of which Indonesia has given India access to the strategically located island of Sabang, at the northern tip of Sumatra and less than 300 miles from the Malacca Straits. India will invest in the dual-use port and economic zone of Sabang and also build a hospital. Indian naval ships will also visit the port which is deep enough even for submarines.

New Delhi has also boosted relations with the Pacific Islands, again a region with which India shares civilizational ties and a large Indian diaspora. Since 2014, there have been annual conferences of the Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation either in India or in the region itself and New Delhi has offered massive assistance including annual Grant-in-Aid to each of the 14 Pacific countries ranging from USD 125,000 to 200,000. India has also set up a fund for adapting to climate change, capacity building of coastal surveillance systems and technical training and educational fellowships.

In the Indian Ocean region, India has deepened relations with island nations like Seychelles, Maldives and, Mauritius as well as with strategically located countries like Oman and UAE. In January 2018, India and Seychelles signed a 20-year pact whereby India would build an airstrip and a jetty for the Indian navy on Assumption Island. In February 2018 during Mr Modi’s visit to Oman, a country with which India has historic ties dating back to the colonial era, New Delhi and Muscat finalized an agreement through which India gained access to the strategically located port of Duqm, on Oman’s southern coast. India and the UAE conducted their first naval exercise in February 2018.

India’s Emerging Partnerships

India has also sought to build deeper strategic relations with Japan, another like-minded country that seeks a similar security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region and views the rise of China as a challenge.

India and Japan have historical and civilizational ties and Japan is the largest bilateral donor to India. In 2011 the two countries signed a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) and bilateral trade stands at USD 14 billion.

New Delhi understands the need to build infrastructure both within India but also in its immediate neighborhood and the Indian Ocean region. Delhi views Tokyo as a key partner for 6 the development of infrastructure through the Japan and ADB co-sponsored Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure Initiative as an alternative to One Belt One Road (OBOR).

Hence, instead of accepting Chinese investment in the much-needed development of Indian infrastructure, India has preferred Japanese investment. In 2014 Japan offered to invest USD 35 billion in infrastructure projects aimed at building industrial corridors and highways and an additional USD 17 billion bullet train project being announced in 2017.

In April 2018, Japan, United States and India agreed to collaborate on infrastructure projects in South and South East Asia, primarily countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar. India will help with the development of ports, Japan with building industrial parks and the US will focus on building power plants.

India is also deepening its relationship with the United States. For decades the United States was the predominant maritime power in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions. The U.S. built a network of alliances with countries in the region, built the economies and defense establishments of a number of these countries, and ensured it had partners and bases to ensure freedom of navigation and protection of national security interests.

Today China has created a counter model through its One Belt One Road Initiative whereby it initially provides high interest loans with no strings attached to countries across Asia and Africa to help build their infrastructure from highways to ports. Then once the countries are indebted to China, China is able to use the ports as potential bases and ensure the country’s economy is tied to the Chinese economy.

The United States and India

The rise of China means that Washington needs regional powers to buffer its own strength more than it did in the past. As a populous, democratic, market economy, India’s size and values make it a natural partner for the United States.

India’s rapid economic growth, around 7 percent per year for the last few years, makes it a contender for the world’s fastest expanding economy. The average income in India has nearly doubled in the past ten years, and economic modernization promises to bring more jobs and advanced industry.

From being ‘estranged’ democracies during the Cold War, India and the US today are in the words of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: the “two bookends of stability – on either side of the globe - standing for greater security and prosperity for our citizens and people around the world.”

This was, however, not always the case. Despite American support for Indian independence, and a common appreciation for democracy between the two nations, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru opted for nonalignment. While the United States provided economic 7 and developmental aid to India, New Delhi perceived American support to Pakistan as detrimental to Indian interests.

India’s close relations with the Soviet Union was another factor that kept Delhi and Washington estranged. Right from independence India’s leaders sought to build domestic capabilities whether economic, military or even educational. During the Cold War, India welcomed aid from both blocs. The United States developmental aid in the form of PL-480 loans and assistance in the setting up of India’s higher educational institutions was deeply appreciated.

However, American companies were not keen on manufacturing in India whether in the economic or military arena. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, was more willing to help set up coal and steel mills and provide assistance to India’s infant domestic military manufacturing complex.

Further, New Delhi perceived Moscow as an ally in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) especially when it came to issues relating to Pakistan and Kashmir. The United States, on the other hand, was viewed as being more sympathetic to Pakistan.

From being an offshore balancer in South Asia during the Cold war and enabling Pakistan’s desire for parity with India, the United States has in the last two decades seriously championed a strategic partnership with India. Washington has also acknowledged India as the dominant regional and an emerging global power.

From having almost no military relations during the Cold War to India becoming a Major Defense Partner of the United States, the two countries have come a long way. The designation of Major Defense Partner allows India to purchase advanced and sensitive technologies at par with many of America’s closest allies and partners. From USD 20 billion in bilateral trade in the year 2000 the figure stands at USD 115 billion in 2018.

When the United States looks to Asia it no longer sees the peaceful rise of China, instead it sees an economic and military rival that seeks to undermine the international liberal order that the United States helped establish after the Second World War. Washington now seeks like-minded democratic free-market societies as allies and partners in upholding this rules-based order.

The US views India as a counterweight to a rising China. As the world’s largest democracy with a multicultural society and expanding military heft, New Delhi has the potential to balance China’s expansion westward. As the PLA Navy moves into the Indian Ocean and builds a blue water fleet, the United States sees India as a valuable partner in balancing China at sea.

Going Forward

India and the United States agree on the need for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific and, upholding a rule based liberal international order. The January 2015 ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,’ spoke of how the two countries seek “a 8 closer partnership” to promote “peace, prosperity and stability” by boosting regional economic integration, connectivity, and economic development.

India’s growing economic and security relationships and interest in the Indo-Pacific region are aligned with its deepening partnership with the United States. Two years after signing the USIndia Joint Strategic Vision of 2015, India joined the Quad (a strategic grouping of the United States, India, Japan and Australia) and there is talk about making the grouping something more than an annual talk shop. In February 2018 during the visit of French President Emanuel Macron to India, New Delhi and Paris signed an agreement whereby the two countries would open their bases to warships from each other’s navies.

From being ‘estranged’ democracies during the Cold War, India and the US today share, in the words of former Secretary of State Tillerson a “growing strategic convergence.” From having almost no military relations during the Cold War India is today a Major Defense Partner of the United States. The United States increasingly also views India as a potential regional security provider and seeks to build India’s security capacity through commercial and defense cooperation between the two militaries.

Even though the India –US relationship is much deeper and multi-dimensional today than it has ever been there is still a gap in expectations of the other from both sides and the two countries are still in a process of adjusting and adapting.

Despite closer relations with the United States, India is still reluctant to join any formal alliance structure. India is a virtual American ally but is still reluctant to be a formal American ally. India is reluctant to cede power to a collective security mechanism and so is reticent to join any formal military alliance or any grouping that appears like a military alliance.

India has consistently sought freedom from external pressures. While every country seeks this kind of autonomy for India it has been a matter of policy. The colonial experience left an indelible mark on India’s collective personality. More than seven decades after Independence, seeking freedom from external pressures is as much at the core of India’s external relations as it was when India was a colony. During the Cold War the policy was referred to as nonalignment and after the Cold War it is defined as strategic autonomy.

India is a member of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa grouping (BRICS), the Russia, India and, China grouping (RIC), and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) where China is the main investor at the same time. At the same time India is against the One Belt One Road or Belt and Road Initiative (OBOR/BRI), supports Japan’s Quality Infrastructure Initiative, is a member of the Quad and views the United States as a natural ally, reflecting India’s pursuit of maximum options in foreign relations.

India seeks more global engagement at the same time as it retains strategic autonomy. India seeks to be a part of multilateral organizations but prefers bilateral relationships. So, it would 9 prefer bilateral relationships with the US and all its allies and is not in favor of arrangements like the Quad becoming formal military alliances.

Indians believe in the promise of India as an Asian power and future great power. They seek strong economic growth not only to become China’s rival but also for socio-economic development at home. India’s long drawn out military modernization is not only directed towards China but also to ensure the territorial integrity of India from both domestic and external threats.

India wants recognition of its pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region and in South Asia but is reticent to openly confront China. New Delhi understands the threat it faces on the land and sea border from China but there is also a recognition of the limitations of its economic and military capabilities. Further, in a realist Hobbesian sense, India believes it needs to fend for itself when it comes to the China threat and does not believe any country will come to its assistance.

At the end of the day India’s concerns about its immediate neighborhood remain paramount in the threat perception of India’s leaders and strategists. For India, South Asia is more important than South China Sea, so concerns about American willingness to help with respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan may create differences between Washington and Delhi.

India is different from traditional American allies whether in Europe, Latin America or Asia for whom the United States was the key security provider. India would never want that kind of a relationship. Instead India seeks a relationship where Washington does for India what the United States did for China decades ago: the belief that helping build China’s economic, technological and military might would make China a more responsible global player and maybe even a free market democracy.

If the U.S. wants India to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi seeks more economic investment, technological expertise and the sale and manufacture of state of the art defense equipment.

U.S. policy toward India must include the following considerations:

(1) The U.S. must recognize that India’s size and history makes it different from other, smaller American allies in Asia.

(2) Instead of subjecting the India-U.S. relationship to a one-size-fits-all policy towards allies, the United States should consider a special partnership with India, which exempts India from Export Control regulations governing military sales.

(3) U.S. trade policies should also be adjusted to enable the rise of India as a strategic competitor to China.

(4) Attempts to ‘balance’ ties between India and other South Asian states, notably Pakistan, should be abandoned to enhance India’s capacity to confront China.

Any short-term loss in dollars and cents or other, less significant nominal alliances, would be offset by the immense benefit to the United States of having a major, one-billion strong nation standing by its side to ensure that China and its closed system do not emerge dominant in the Asia-Pacific for years to come.


Bastar Battalion

On May 21, 2018, India’s Central Reserve Police Forces (CRPF) inducted battalion 241, also known as the Bastariya Warriors. As its name would indicate, its 534 recruits are adivasis drawn from Bastar in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The battalion is expected to utilize their knowledge of the local terrain, camps, and language to complement the government’s fight against the deadly Naxalite insurgency. Some CRPF officials have hoped this will also improve interactions between the security forces and locals. Activists have argued that the new battalion is simply a rehash of the infamous Salwa Judum militia that caused havoc in the region. While it remains to be seen whether the battalion is a new Salwa Judum or an effective fighting force, the proposal that creating a new special COIN unit will lead to military success is flawed.

The success of the army’s Rashtriya Rifles (RR) in Kashmir and the Andhra Pradesh Greyhounds have inspired various states to create specialized counterinsurgency units. Indeed, creating new specialized units seems to be the standard call for all counterinsurgency woes. The same week that the CRPF Bastariya trainees were completing their training, Home Minister Rajnath Singh called for the creation of a ‘black panther’ unit in Chhattisgarh similar to the Greyhounds. Yet the creation of these special units is by itself insufficient to bring about military triumph. Indeed, it greatly misunderstands why the Greyhounds and the RR were successful.

When the Rashtirya Rifles were implemented in Kashmir, this was after the army had already engaged in counterinsurgency operations. While the fighting was still ongoing, the RR were directly plugged in to a greater network of the army’s COIN operations. Their creation also came after a long history of fighting insurgencies and experimenting with successful methods. However, the success of the RR in India’s COIN campaign in Kashmir remains mixed.

The Greyhound force was a long-term investment in the Andhra Pradesh police that did not pay dividends for 20 years. Its creation was accompanied by a better trained and equipped police force as well as the development of a better intelligence network to fight against the Naxalites. While the Greyhounds did run raids and small team attacks, it was the regular police that held and defended the territory obtained from the insurgents. While the force was a success, this was because it was accompanied by an improvement of the police and a strategy that effectively used the Greyhounds.

All of this shows that the creation of a special unit is not the panacea that some commentators and policymakers seem to believe it is. The creation of a proper counterinsurgency force requires time and investment These forces also require well developed networks of support to achieve military victory. Of course, this should not (as it often does) take away from the necessity of a political strategy, something that is lacking in much of the coverage today. Simply celebrating Naxalite surrenders or casualties does little to solve the causes of the insurgency, or prevent the continued outbreak of violence. After all, the military success of the Greyhounds and Andhra police did not end the Naxalite insurgency, but rather push the insurgency in to Chhattisgarh. Nor have the Rashtriya Rifles been successful in ending the insurgency in Kashmir. A political strategy is needed, and a security strategy that does more than rely on a special unit.


India’s Afghan Game: Strategy and Balance from Central Asia

While India’s race with China for Indian Ocean hegemony continues to escalate, India is taking an alternative approach in Afghanistan in order to attain and maintain its strategic edge in the region. In an interesting yet not unprecedented development, India has agreed to engage in a cooperative measure with its foremost competitor for Asian supremacy. A two-day summit at the end of April between India and China concluded with an agreement to implement joint development measures in Afghanistan, a move for New Delhi that is ultimately a part of a much larger strategy begun several years ago that aims at balancing against its historical enemy in Islamabad and contributing to its quest for regional hegemony.


The Commerce of Aid

The cooperative project in Afghanistan with the Chinese is just the latest undertaking by India following its five year, USD 1 billion ‘New Development Partnership’ (NDP) that was agreed to with the Afghan government in September of 2017. India’s NDP with Afghanistan covers over 100 development initiatives across sectors such as health, education, and institution-building in more than 30 provinces.  This partnership comes in conjunction with an ongoing aid initiative that already includes the creation of new roads and highways, the construction of the Afghan national parliament, and the building of dams such as the completed Salma project and the planned Shahtoot initiative.

India’s investment in Afghanistan goes hand-in-hand with their vision for increased commerce with the Central Asian nation. India’s impact on Afghan economic development is two-fold: it comes via an increase in trade volume as well as in the role of India-funded infrastructure that facilitates and makes such trade possible. India’s ‘Ministry of External Affairs’ noted that bilateral trade between the two nations approached a level near the USD $800 million mark in 2016-17. With both Kabul and New Delhi seemingly adamant about the warming progression of their relationship, trade value is only expected to increase. The most significant boost to Indo-Afghan bilateral trade comes from the viable access to Afghanistan now provided by the Chabahar-Zahedan rail-line via Iran’s Chabahar Port. Development of this port is now in the second phase of substantial joint efforts as per a trilateral agreement between India-Iran-Afghanistan signed in May of 2016. Moreover, the 2017 establishment of a series air freight corridors intended to increase volume of trade has indeed stimulated bilateral commerce. There is the possibility of further advancement provided that the Wagah-Attari route manages to remain open on a regular basis.


Brothers in “Arms”?

India’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan is not limited to development projects and increased trade endeavors. There have been a variety of defense-based partnerships and agreements between the two nations in recent years. Driving this cooperation is a concern held by both nations regarding cross-border terrorism committed by Pakistan-based jihadi groups and Pakistan’s perceived role in facilitating such acts both in India and in Afghanistan. There is also fear over the growing presence of ISIS in South Asia, particularly Afghanistan.

In April of 2018, India agreed to provide Afghanistan with a variety of military equipment including tank parts and counter-insurgency (COIN) rocket systems. This agreement comes on the back of the attack helicopters sold to the Afghan Airforce in December 2016, the ongoing training of Afghan security forces at multiple Indian defense institutes and the additional four Mi-35 choppers (the export version of the Mi-24) that India will supply to Kabul. Indian reaffirmed in 2017 the continuation of counterterror cooperation as well as increased support for the Afghan security apparatus. There has also been discussion in the last twelve months regarding the potential for India to send troops into Afghanistan. And, while there is no indication of imminent military action, the fact that a discussion has even taken place regarding troop involvement is a telling sign of the concern held by both countries over the aforementioned terror threat and border security issues, and of the direction in which Indo-Afghan relations currently are heading.


The Afghan Plan and India’s Ambitions for Regional Hegemony?

India’s multipronged approach in Afghanistan serves their strategic interests in several ways. First, it aids in the continual reinforcement of a significant relationship with a nation whose instability comes, in part, from the same primary source as India’s own insecurity: Pakistan and its support for known terror outfits. This creates a common cause for Indo-Afghan cooperation that operates at a collective level and addresses the normative need for both state and regional stability.

Combined with Afghanistan’s increasingly tumultuous relationship with Pakistan, New Delhi’s progressively closer ties with Kabul could afford them a strategic positioning should a large conflict break out with Pakistan in the future. Given Afghanistan’s geostrategic significance, an increased Indian presence there would contribute to its own desire for Pakistani encirclement while working to ensure that they do not succumb the same fate of strategic encirclement in the region themselves.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, India’s relationship with Afghanistan has led to development of Chabahar Port in Iran which not only creates a bypass of Pakistan for goods heading from India to Afghanistan but, as a supply line and operational launch pad, it is also critical to India’s ongoing securitization of the Indian Ocean Region and its desire for supremacy there. In turn, India’s influence and ‘soft power’ in Afghanistan and surrounding regions is bolstered by its newly acquired capability to reach the area with supplies and goods via specialized access to this port.

India’s monumental aid to Afghanistan, the rapidly increasing bilateral trade relationship, and the progressive development of defense and military ties, all work to support India’s grand strategy in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions, and it makes them a significant player in the newly reconstituted ‘Great Game’ currently underway for supremacy in Asia.

Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018: Towards greater federalism or redefining alienation?

The disputed region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) is simmering once again after the Gilgit Baltistan Draft Order, 2018 was approved by the ruling PML-N government.  Almost a decade after the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order of 2009 set up its administrative apparatus - (with a legislative assembly headed by an elected Chief Minister and a more powerful Prime Minister led GB Council), Islamabad recently approved the GB Order 2018, whose provisions have been the focal points behind the discontent. The genesis of the order lies in the launch of CPEC in 2015 and New Delhi’s subsequent criticism citing its passage through the disputed territory, prompting Islamabad to review GB’s governance structure. It was felt that any discontent would be addressed through greater devolutions. In late 2015, a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz was formed to look into GB’s status and suggest reforms, possibly in the direction of a constitutional recognition on par with other provinces, pending the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Some progress was expected this February, when the Prime Minister announced the dissolution of the all-powerful GB Council, transferring its powers to the GB Legislative Assembly.

The fundamental cause stirring the present discontent is that except the Chief Minister, the GB Legislative Assembly was kept out throughout the process of the making of this order by Islamabad, defeating the very purpose for which the assembly was formed a decade ago. Further, some of the controversial provisions are as follows:

 The first anomaly is the altered definition of “citizen” in the 2018 order. While the Article 2 (b) of the 2009 order defined citizen as “a person who has a domicile of Gilgit-Baltistan”, the 2018 order, besides the former criteria, extends its ambit to persons “under the Pakistan citizenship Act (1951)”, which has been interpreted by skeptics as an open invitation for migration from outside the region.

Further, Article 5 states that “obedience to this order and law is the inviolable obligation of every citizen”. The absence of any such provision in the 2009 order probably alludes to some sort of nervousness on part of Islamabad, with a deliberate choice aimed at “disciplining” GB’s residents.

The order also accords overarching powers to the Prime Minister, primarily in the legislative sphere and the power to override any law made by the state’s legislature, as stated in Article 60.  In this aspect, “the order states that Prime Minister shall have the powers to adopt an amendment in the existing laws or any new law in force subject to the legislative competence…” and 62 subjects have been conferred to the PM, enumerated in one of the ending pages of the order document. Additionally, the Prime Minister has the power to levy taxes on GB under Article 65.

Even the provisions for appointing the Chief Judge of the Supreme Appellate Court exclude GB residents from being eligible since Article 75 (7) states either such an appointee is a “retired judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan” or a “retired Chief Justice of a High Court”.

The order also defines the ambit of discussions in the assembly; with Article 57 restricting it from even discussing “matters relating to foreign affairs, defense [and] internal security”, which is highly unlikely given the region’s borders with China, India and Afghanistan.

On the positive side, the legislative powers on minerals, hydropower and tourism, earlier exercised by the Prime Minister led GB Council have been moved to the GB Assembly. According to GB’s Law Minister, “all powers exercised by the four provincial assemblies under Schedule IV of the Constitution of Pakistan had been entrusted to the GB Assembly”.  Also, the new definition of “citizen” has been interpreted by supporters of the order as treating the people of GB on par with Pakistanis. In other words, earlier, the basic rights of GB’s residents were only limited to the region’s territorial boundaries, the present order expanded this protection to entire Pakistan. Given the widespread criticism, the success of the new setup hinges on how these positive aspects would be applied, since executive powers being vested under the Islamabad-based GB Council had been the bone of contention, which has now been reduced to an advisory body now. A five year tax holiday has also been granted to the GB’s residents.

Prime Minister Abbasi visited the region and addressed the assembly on 27th May, promising many things, including a separate civil service for GB, quota in the Central Superior Services of Pakistan, a consolidated fund and a more empowered Chief Secretary, enabling the region to function as a full-fledged province.  If implemented, these measures would go a long way to address the alienation among GB’s residents.  

In the larger picture, while local sentiment at large is not inclined towards separatism, there is resentment against treatment meted out by Islamabad. The arbitrary use of the Anti-Terrorism Act to target peaceful activists (including the widely popular Baba Jan) continues with impunity. Land acquisitions for CPEC projects in GB and the Pakistan army in past couple of years have been met with protests, which are seldom reported by the mainstream media. The region had just emerged from protests last November/December over taxation issue, only to face chaos once again.

Moreover, civil society activists have demanded a share in income from the CPEC, citing Pakistan’s dependence on a disputed territory for directly connecting it with China. For these voices, Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir has also been subject to criticism as Islamabad has failed to address GB’s grievances while at the same time criticizing India’s Kashmir policy. While the order, in theory may not be closer to addressing these grievances, hope rests on whether Islamabad’s promise of the greater power devolution is able to tackle the growing alienation.


Prateek Joshi is a research associate at Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi based public policy institution

Cessation of Operations in J&K: What does it involve and why has the government adopted the policy?

Since it is almost a situation akin to Stop Press when the announcement of Cessation of Operations in J&K came on the eve of Ramazan, I decided to use this column to attempt an explanation of why the Central Government may have accepted the request of the J&K Government for the same. In the interim readers would have picked up analyses from the media. However, I do feel there needs to be a larger understanding of the Kashmir situation dovetailed with the last experience of such cessation of operations to get a truly realistic picture of the situation.

It would be recalled that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had taken the consensus of an all-party meeting (BJP never confirmed its endorsement) to take up this initiative. I am not sure how much the political community really understood the dynamics of what they initially called a ‘ceasefire’. The Army did the right thing by probably explaining to the Centre that the ceasefire was nothing akin to the same term that is used for the Line of Control (LoC). What the Army clarified was that in sub conventional operations activities are not just ground to a halt with the Army taking a break in its barracks. The only concession is that proactive offensive operations against terrorists are ceased provided there is reciprocity. It essentially alludes to cordon and search (CASO) and search and destroy (SADO) missions. The counter infiltration grid and other operations there remain as active as ever, as do area domination, security of installations, road opening and intelligence collection. The concept of operations revolves around the rationale that the situation must not slip from what the Army and other SF have been able to achieve. It should allow the civil authorities to commence the psychological initiatives while providing basic security. Should the entire exercise collapse following some major setback, or an extension is not feasible the units and formations must be able to get back to operations without wasting time.

The Centre’s rationale is not being easily comprehended in the Army or the public. This should be expected. This is classic hybrid warfare on which no pamphlets or set piece publications exist. Surprisingly it is not even being taught in our institutions apart from counter insurgency operations which are a mere subset of hybrid warfare. What does surprise me is the notion and understanding that robust operations will finish terrorism and separatism in J&K. The current run of success in Operation All Out has been excellent from a tactical and perhaps even an operational point of view but needs to be taken to the level of strategic advantage. Despite neutralizing over 300 terrorists in 18 months, if as many have joined through local recruitment obviously something is wrong somewhere. Now that local recruitment appears to have replaced infiltration from PoK as the main multiplier of strength there may be no limit on the number who can join militancy unless something transformational is done in this regard.

The following summary borrowed from another writing of mine may do justice in explaining why the Centre may have opted to support the Chief Minister’s recommendation for cessation of operations:

 • First, domination achieved through Operation All Out must go beyond military achievement and translate into strategic advantage.

• Second, the military space is secured but the social space is in turbulence. This social space needs to be calmed and addressed for which daily triggers from military operations need to be avoided.

• Third, military operations can continue interminably without peace in sight as the focus of ensuring numerical strength of terrorists has shifted from infiltration to local recruitment. More than the number neutralised is being locally recruited. This needs to be addressed through larger engagement with youth.

• Fourth, for all the criticism of the Centre’s ‘robust only’ policy, an opportunity has now been created to spell out counter-narratives to neutralise the dominant separatist narrative that Azadi is attainable.

• Fifth, with Pakistan under severe pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) perhaps this could be an extendable window during which balancing our approach may fetch better response without commensurate negative Pakistani response.

• Sixth, the timing appears symbolically most suitable in sync with Ramazan although the inclusion of Sri Amarnath Yatra period even at the outset should have been considered. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has stated that it will be one step at a time and could extend to the period of the Amarnath Yatra if the response from the anti-national elements is positive.

Readers with a military background are well aware that the soldier’s complaint has always been that the Army succeeds in taking the situation in sub conventional operations to a point of conflict stabilization but thereafter the political leadership falters and takes no initiative. This time a risky initiative has been taken by the political authority. So, there should be no grudge. I find social media full of half-baked ideas on how momentum will be lost because of cessation. If you know your beans the Army must ensure that nothing changes. It has to work harder than even during operations. My experience of the NICO period revealed to me that our professionalism was really at a test and I revel in the lessons it taught me. It’s a different thing that NICO in 2000-01 was far too premature when the counter infiltration was still weak and strength of foreign terrorists (FTs) was at an alltime high. You cannot hope to win over FTs but with local terrorists (LTs) it’s a different game.

Having said all the above I do not have any great hopes from this decision because our psychological and information tools are insufficiently developed. To wait for that development indefinitely may be self-defeating. Balancing the military approach with psychological initiatives is the key. Perhaps another failure this time will yet temper us into understanding this better.


Impact of Iran nuclear deal crisis on Afghanistan


President Donald Trump’s ill-fated decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal has far-reaching implications, beyond Iran-US relations. There are genuine fears over unwanted escalation of military tensions in the Middle East where the US and Saudi Arabia will escalate  their efforts to neutralise Iran’s growing influence. Likewise, Iran could also be tempted to apply more pressure on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies by supplying the Houthis in Yemen with weapons that could pose a greater threat to Riyadh and the Gulf.

Most importantly, the US is likely to face challenges if Tehran decides to increase its support to the Afghan Taliban insurgency. And if Pakistan and Russia also decide to band together in the Iranian-supported disruption, the US presence in Afghanistan would become more complicated.

The Taliban has been historically considered by Tehran as one of Iran’s enemies. During its initial military campaign to take control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban used to target Afghan Shia population due to their religious affiliation. One may recall that Iran had almost declared a war against the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan when 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed by the Taliban in 1998. Iran was also a part of the regional grouping which included India and Russia that had supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

However, with the advent of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in the region, Iran sees the utility of its long-time rival – the Taliban – as a useful partner in countering the ISKP. According to the Afghan officials, Tehran has provided modest levels of support to the Afghan Taliban. Iran is reported to have supplied small arms and training to the Afghan Taliban.Therefore, it is in Tehran’s interest to help the Taliban get a better position in its fight against the ISKP. On its part, the Taliban has also attempted to demonstrate solidarity with the Afghan Shias when the latter have been targeted by the Sunni-ISKP.

Tehran has historical ties with Shias and Hazaras of Afghanistan, which gives Tehran the capacity to act as a ‘spoiler’ in the US-led efforts aimed at ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. Post-nuclear deal withdrawal, Tehran is likely to pursue the policy of denying a victory to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan with more vigour. The possibility of Tehran seeking to strike back against America for pulling out of the nuclear deal by increasing its support to the Taliban has increased manifold.

If Afghanistan becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation, politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban will become even more difficult. Afghanistan may also witness renewed rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has been supportive of Trump’s Afghan policy. It may be noted here that in August 2017, Saudi Arabian diplomat in Kabul, Mishari Al-Harbi, had accused Iran of providing military assistance to the Afghan Taliban, which was vehemently denied by Tehran. Riyadh has assisted the US efforts in dividing the Afghan Taliban between moderate elements seeking a political solution with the Kabul regime and the irreconcilable elements seeking to militarily overthrow the Ashraf Ghani’s government. The Saudi Crown recently held negotiations with the US Defense Secretary on the creation of “safe havens” for the Afghan Taliban seeking to engage in peace talks with the Kabul regime.

The Trump administration cannot be expected to remain a mute spectator of possible Iranian disruption. Regime change in Tehran may be the ultimate aim of Trump, but America’s options of taking any military action against Iran from the Afghan soil are currently constrained due to Pakistan factor. It is a well-known fact despite vowing to pressurise Rawalpindi to crack down on terrorists on Pakistani soil that target Americans in Afghanistan, the Trump administration has not been able to follow through with major punitive measures that it suggested could be in the offing. The US is worried that taking punitive measures could prompt Rawalpindi to strike back by shutting down vital supply lines on its soil used by American military in Afghanistan. Due to the poor state of Washington-Moscow ties, and Russia’s growing cosiness with Pakistan, Islamabad is aware of both its ability to use supply lines as a powerful instrument of leverage as well as the Trump administration’s inability to find alternative supply routes in Central Asia. Therefore, the US would not hastily initiate any military action against Iran from the Afghan soil as Pakistan is not likely to approve of its supply lines being used to target Iran.  

The Afghan government, which has been facing insurmountable challenges from both the Afghan Taliban and ISKP, would also try its best to avoid getting embroiled in another front. With the insurgents and terrorists doing all they can to underscore the growing vulnerabilities of the Afghan state, the Ghani government’s capacity is already under siege. If the Ghani government gives in to American pressure, it would need to prepare itself for Iran’s retaliatory moves. Besides increasing support to the Afghan Taliban, Tehran is likely to resort to all kinds of behaviour which can further destabilise Afghanistan such as stepping up arms supply and training to the Afghan Taliban, sabotaging the process aimed at holding local bodies and parliamentary elections, and by taking sides in and exacerbating local political disputes through proxies across western Afghanistan where it has more influence through the Shia population

The impact of the new US sanctions regime on Iran will also become quite visible on Afghanistan which needs Iran’s continued support for its much-needed infrastructure development. It remains to be seen how India and Afghanistan keep working with energy-rich Iran despite the sanctions regime as Kabul-Delhi-Tehran are making joint efforts to improve energy security and regional connectivity to reach landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia by developing Iran’s Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, which is often seen as India’s geopolitical response to the China-backed Gwadar port project in Pakistan.

In addition to unleashing much turbulence, Trump’s unilateral decision will trigger a regional realignment. Given the implacable antagonism of the Trump administration towards Iran, Tehran would go the extra mile to develop warm ties with Beijing. And if Kabul and Delhi are left with no options but to reduce their economic engagements with Tehran, this is bound to dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the region. Tehran will undeniably reach out to Pakistan, undermining American objectives in Afghanistan.

Pakistan still hasn’t learnt to tolerate politicians who speak the truth on terrorism


Orchestrated noise at home about ‘treason’ over every fact-based statement relating to Pakistan’s Jihadis won’t change the world’s views about Pakistan.

After his disqualification from politics by Pakistan’s Supreme Court over corruption allegations, without trial and ostensibly ‘for life,’ former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is now under attack for speaking out over Pakistan’s failure to act against the terrorists responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

In his interview with a Pakistani newspaper, Sharif had revealed no secret and had said nothing that was not known to most of the world. He had only acknowledged that the Mumbai attackers and their backers were Pakistanis and that Pakistan had dragged its feet in putting the attack’s masterminds on trial.

Sharif’s main point was a valid one. He had said, “You can’t run a country if you have two or three parallel governments. This has to stop. There can only be one government: the constitutional one.” But it was his remarks about terrorism, an issue over which Pakistan’s civilians have often locked horns with the military, which prompted reaction.

“Militant organisations are active,” Sharif said, stating the obvious – something that the media outside Pakistan repeats frequently. “Call them non-state actors,” he continued, “should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?” — a reference to the Mumbai attacks-related trials which are stuck in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” Sharif remarked. “This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it.”

The statement was immediately highlighted by Indian media as a high-level ‘admission’ of Pakistani guilt. The hyper-nationalist Pakistani media then went into overdrive in attacking Sharif. The military’s current favourite, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan demanded that Sharif be tried for ‘treason,’ ignoring his own past statements about extremists posing a threat to Pakistan.

A Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader prominent in track-two diplomacy with India accused Sharif  of ‘advancing the Indian narrative,’ notwithstanding the fact that as ruling party in 2008, it recognised Lashkar-e-Taiba’s role and initiated the trial of the Mumbai attacks’ masterminds that is now stalled.

The national security machinery was not content with letting its media machine attack Sharif. It demanded a meeting of the National Security Council, which met over a newspaper interview as if intelligence had been received about an imminent attack across the border. For the rest of the world, the episode betrayed a disproportionate sense of insecurity. Media controversies seldom rise to the level of a security threat, especially in nuclear-armed countries.

Sharif’s hand-picked successor, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, deftly defused the ‘crisis’ by suggesting that Sharif had been misquoted. Sharif, however, stuck to his guns and wondered aloud what he had said that was worthy of full-fledged media battle.

As if to prove how Pakistan differs from the rest of the world in terms of what its elite deems worthy of debate, there was no similar fuss over former Chief of Army Staff General Mirza Aslam Beg telling a Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) team that ‘political engineering’ had been a normal practice for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) since 1975 – a reference to behind-the-scenes military meddling in politics in periods of ostensible civilian democratic rule.

Beg had been hauled in front of the police officers because of a 2012 Supreme Court decision seeking a proper probe into the alleged distribution of approximately 1.4 billion Pakistani rupees to various politicians, including Sharif, in 1990 ahead of general elections. Then, the military had sought to block the return to power of Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) just as Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) are deemed a security threat now.

In his recorded statement, Beg tried to make a distinction between the army he headed in 1990 and the ISI, which was headed by his subordinate Lt. General Asad Durrani. Beg claimed that the raising of funds for political purposes and distributing them to politicians was entirely Durrani’s domain. He went into some detail of how an ISI operation commander, a Brigadier Hamid Saeed, operated the political slush fund, money for which was obtained partly from businessmen and even banks in addition to Pakistan’s security budget.

For his part, Durrani listed the names of politicians who were aided by the ISI financially and acknowledged that the unspent amount was handed over to the agency’s Director External Intelligence. Ordinary mortals might not understand how political engineering and external intelligence are connected but in the Pakistan military’s unique mindset (explained in detail in my books), they are.

According to this mindset, the army must save Pakistan from popular politicians and thrust others into prominence in their place, before it can fight the country’s enemies who might invade its borders. Such is the fear of foreign subversion through independent thinkers and politicians that the military must subvert the media and the political process itself to thwart others’ subversion.

In any other country, the statements of Beg and Durrani, though not new, would have attracted at least as much if not more attention than Sharif’s remarks about Mumbai. But this is Pakistan. Although neither Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks nor the army’s political engineering are secrets revealed for the first time, it is only the civilians’ conduct that is ever up for judgment or adverse commentary.

The brouhaha over Sharif’s statement regarding Mumbai further exposes the soulless fragility of Pakistan’s system of governance.

In a functioning democracy, elections are held periodically to determine whom the people want to wield executive office and legislative power. But Pakistan’s military-led vice-regal system is not about electing legislators. Its purpose is only to identify intermediaries between the people and a permanent state establishment. In the currently dominant national narrative in Pakistan, it is not such a big deal if the military attempts to engineer whom it prefers as intermediary.

There is no dearth of civilians vying to become the military’s chosen politicians. Sharif was the willing candidate for the ISI’s anointed one in 1988 and 1990 and, according to evidence presented by Beg and Durrani, was a major beneficiary of the ISI’s election largesse at the time. Now, while Sharif is finally questioning the national security establishment, others (notably Imran Khan) have stepped up to take over the mantle of being political frontmen for the generals.

For now there seems no escape from Pakistan’s chequered history. The country’s military-judicial-bureaucratic elite persists with its fear of democracy, which was inherited from Colonial administrators who trained their institutions. After four military coups, several constitutional changes, and military-sponsored reconfigurations of political parties, one would have thought that professional soldiers would realize the inadequacy of their re-engineering efforts.

They still want to change the country’s political landscape by removing undesirable politicians and advancing the careers of civilians considered more pliable by military generals and intelligence colonels.

Pakistan’s political class is undoubtedly short-sighted, often incompetent, and unable to rise above petty interests. But unconstitutional political engineering by the Pakistani establishment is hardly the solution to Pakistan’s problems as events of the last several decades demonstrate.

Nor will orchestrated noise at home about ‘treason’ over every fact-based statement relating to Pakistan’s Jihadis change the world’s views about Pakistan’s unwillingness to act against all terrorists living in and operating from its soil.

This piece was originally published on May 20, 2018 in The Print, and has republished with permission of the author. Read the original article here.

The tragic story of civilian prime ministers in Pakistan


It is often easier to speak truth to power when you are no longer holding a position in the government. However, the frankness with which former Pakistani prime minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has lately been speaking out on issues ailing Pakistan is to be commended. Cynics will rightly point out that it would have been better if Sharif had been as frank when he was PM, not once but three times. However, it is difficult to fault a civilian Pakistani PM as they are by definition an endangered species. As author and diplomat Husain Haqqani writes in his new book Reimagining Pakistan: “In the last seventy years, all elected Pakistani prime ministers have either been assassinated, dismissed or forced to resign by heads of state or the judiciary with military backing, or deposed in coups d’état.”

Sharif is one of the many politicians in Pakistan who had the military’s support when he first came to power. During his first two tenures as PM (1990-93, 1997-99), Sharif attempted to stay within the red lines defined by the Pakistani military establishment. However, his attempts to garner absolute power for himself brought him into conflict with the judiciary and the security establishment.

Like his political rival Benazir Bhutto, Sharif appeared to have understood that what Pakistan needed was more democracy, better relations with its neighbours, and to fight terrorism. Even before he returned to power in 2013, Sharif spoke about the need for better relations with India and Afghanistan. At a speech in 2011, Nawaz Sharif called upon the security establishment to “end your domination of foreign policy if you wish the criticism to end” and stressed the need for Pakistan’s policy towards Afghanistan to be one that is with the Afghan people, not with certain organizations. In an interview before taking over as PM in May 2013, Sharif spoke of the need for “civilian supremacy” and the need for all institutions “to live within the four walls of the constitution”.

During his four years in power, there is evidence that suggests Sharif did seek to implement these policies. He visited Afghanistan within a month of taking over and followed up with trips in subsequent years. Over the next few years, Sharif spoke of the need to eliminate all terrorist sanctuaries and deal with any militant group that destabilized Afghanistan. That Pakistan’s policies remained unchanged and the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and their allies remain as secure in their base inside Pakistan today as they were five years ago, demonstrates, once again, that Pakistan’s foreign policy is defined, framed and executed by the army and Inter-Services Intelligence in Rawalpindi, not the civilians in Islamabad.

In May 2014, when Indian PM Narendra Modi invited all his South Asian counterparts to attend his inauguration, Sharif accepted the invitation, knowing fully well how it would be interpreted by the military-intelligence establishment. The December 2015 visit by Modi to Lahore, and the images of the two PMs walking hand in hand, led to hopes of rapprochement in both countries. Unfortunately, the Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016, followed by the Uri terror attack later that year, ensured that there would be no further talks between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani security establishment continues to view India as an existential threat and thus continues to use jihadis as a lever of foreign policy against India. Any civilian leader attempting to change this policy has no chance of achieving his or her goal or of staying in power.

If Sharif is to be faulted, it is that instead of focusing on issues where he could make a difference in his five years, he invested too much of his time and energy on his obsession with ensuring that former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was punished for the coup of 1999. While in principle one agrees that dictators must get their due, pragmatism demanded that maybe this could have waited for a later date and time.

There is no doubt that the Pakistani army has always protected its own from any attempts at prosecution or punishment. Both generals Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan did not suffer any consequences for their actions and there was no way that the army would allow Musharraf to be prosecuted either. Sharif thus broke too many red lines and paid for doing so. In July 2017, he was ousted from power by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on grounds of corruption. Later, the Supreme Court banned Sharif from holding public office for life.

This is not the first time that a Pakistani civilian PM has been ousted on grounds of corruption and it will not be the last. Why is it that every popular civilian PM has only ever been dismissed on charges of corruption? If they are so incompetent, then their incompetence must be visible in other areas as well. Why has no PM been dismissed for failing to educate Pakistanis, providing jobs and employment to the millions who enter the job market, and fighting terrorism and safeguarding law and order?

The answer lies in the overwhelming power of the military-intelligence establishment and its cohorts, who know that if they allow a discussion on any issue other than corruption, then they will be the ones to feel the heat. As the one wing of state that has dictated Pakistan’s national identity, absorbed all its economic resources and dictated the country’s foreign and security policy, it is the security establishment which has the most to fear from a popular civilian PM who seeks to change the course of Pakistan’s trajectory. That is the unfortunate tragedy of Pakistan.


(This article was originally published on Live Mint on the 17th of May, 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)

Thailand’s Kra Canal project: Prospects and Challenges


After years of being dismissed as a gigantic infrastructure proposition too difficult to build and drawing stiff opposition from countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, Thailand’s Kra phoenix has risen again. In 2015, Chinese and Thai officials are said to have signed the memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the canal project proposed to be built through the Kra Isthmus in Thailand. The recent revival of the idea to construct this US$28 billion project has set off a new wave of alarm bells among countries fearing the dominance of China in the region. The Kra canal is being seen as the Asian equivalent of the Suez Canal or the Panama Canal. The proposed 135 km canal would connect the Gulf of Thailand with the Andaman Sea across Southern Thailand providing an alternative to transit through the Malacca Straits, thereby reducing the distance by 1200 Nautical miles and the sailing time by 48 hours.

The construction of the Kra Isthmus Canal has been a pipedream for the international community for centuries. In 1677, on the insistence of the Thai King Narai, a French engineer Monsieur De Lamar was asked to conduct a survey of the waterway of Songkla to assess the possibility of connecting it to Marid (Burma). However, the idea was abandoned for being impractical. Thereafter, the proposal was advanced several times under King Rama I and King Rama IV but in vain. During King Rama V’s tenure, the possibility of constructing the Kra Canal was surveyed again by a French engineer credited with the construction of Suez Canal. However, the idea was dropped to avoid disappointing the British who had a strong presence in Malacca Strait. The project resurfaced several times during the 20th century but continued to meet the same fate due to fear of disrupting the international political stability, huge costs involved and environmental concerns.

The resurgence of the canal lately is largely a result of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative and the lobbying by the Thai Canal Association. Chinese interest in the Isthmus of Kra goes back to 2005 when it offered to finance the construction of the canal among several other infrastructure projects. In 2013, it was officially integrated into One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative, following which in 2015 there were several articles published in Chinese that discussed the feasibility of building the long imagined canal and deemed it as the “international golden waterway”. China would be one of the biggest beneficiaries if the proposed deep canal capable of transporting world’s biggest oil tankers, container ships and bulk tankers (directly from Thailand port to its final destination overseas bypassing transit through any third country) becomes a reality.

The Kra Canal project envisages two important deliverables – it is seen as a substitute to the Malacca Strait and aims to establish a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The former addresses China’s aspirations of Kra Canal – centred on its desire to get a “controllable link” between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, circumventing the overtly crowded and piracy-prone Malacca Strait largely controlled by the west. The Straits of Malacca is the second most important transhipment chokepoint after Hormuz Strait that sends 12 million barrels of oil to pass

through the former each day.

The idea behind having an alternative shipping route is not only to cut both distance as well shipping time but also to reduce Beijing’s geopolitical vulnerability and overdependence – described by former Chinese President Hu Jintao as China’s Malacca Dilemma – should these straits get congested or blocked the world trade would come to a standstill. The new canal will also bring down the risks for shipping (Malacca Strait faces high risk of shipwrecks and piracy) in addition to easing the traffic-choked Malacca Strait.

The project is going to revitalize Thailand economy which is expected to gain from the SEZ to be established to enhance new industries and infrastructure in the region. It would also make Thailand the centre of gravity for trade between Pacific and Indian Ocean. However, it is still unclear whether Thailand will benefit from the created employment opportunities considering 30,000 Chinese workers will be employed in the construction.

The canal would facilitate increased sea shipments and trade among countries of Southeast Asia like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) while reducing logistics costs for each of them. Another big winner is going to be Sri Lanka by virtue of its geographical position on the sea lanes of northern Indian Ocean, turning it into a new shipping and logistics hub. In case of India, Kra Canal poses as a mixed bag – on one hand it will enhance India’s pivot to East and its ability to project its naval power in the region while on the other hand it will increase China’s presence deeper into its backyard – the Andaman Sea and the eastern Indian Ocean.

Kra Canal may offer several other advantages. By virtue of being a man-made canal using state-of-the-art technology – it is seen as more practical and safer to navigate. Most importantly, the canal passes through only one country and thus, would come under the sovereignty of Thailand alone, avoiding any repercussions for international politics.

Apart from the economic dimension, the planned project has geopolitical ramifications in terms of opposition from countries that derive benefits from the Malacca Strait region and segments within Thailand that fear erosion of its sovereignty. Singapore, enormously dependent on the Straits of Malacca for its port and shipping industries, stands to lose around 30 percent of its shipping traffic given that the straits will be bypassed after the emergence of the new route. The alternative route will also significantly reduce the US Navy’s ability to project its power. Many in Thailand are upset at the idea of the proposed canal separating country’s four southernmost provinces from the rest of the country and that it will undermine its relations with Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia who stand to lose the most from it. Thailand government is yet to give the project a green signal as it does not wish to displease its fellow ASEAN members and the US.

The construction of the canal is also believed to face engineering challenges such as the problems arising out of digging the long granite mountainous ridge (Tenasserim Hills) dominating the Malay Peninsula; the proposed canal would require 1.3 billion cubic yards of

earth to be removed which is three times the excavation required for the Suez Canal and Panama Canal increasing the cost of construction. Moreover, the proposed construction carries likely risks for Thailand’s environment (due to division of the isthmus impacting the flora and fauna of the region) as well as its tourism industry since the canal would run past some of its major tourist areas like Phuket and Krabi. Around forty percent of the public in Thailand expressed concerns regarding the project and its possible consequences for the political stability within the country.

With China continuing to advance its presence across the maritime domain, infrastructure projects such as the Kra Canal will continue to make headlines and influence the security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. However, the challenges pertaining to its construction and the adverse implications thereof continue to cast a shadow on its achievability.





As Modi & Xi re-engage, what’s on China’s mind?

 HT Photo

HT Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting China and will meet President Xi Jinping on April 27-28 in an informal summit at Wuhan. They will again meet in June this year when he travels for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. After the low point to which Sino-Indian relations had sunk in the wake of the Doklam standoff in June-August last year, and repeated Chinese transgressions of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) over the past many years, one could never be certain what China’s approach to “friendship and cooperation” was going to be. The continuous efforts by China to prevent India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its unrelenting determination to prevent Masood Azhar be declared an international terrorist by the UN Security Council would forebode no happy tidings from the coming encounter. Yet China can be the strangest country to deal with. After all, in 1962, after roundly defeating us on the battlefield, it withdrew behind its claimed lines, leaving the so-called disputed territory to be reoccupied by India. There is no reason for an Indian sulk in 2018 as that would be counterproductive, and the Modi government has done well to re-engage.

What can then reasonably be expected from the situation at this juncture of Sino-Indian ties and what will dictate it. China knows that it is destined for big things, the eventual leadership of the world. However, it is in no hurry to reach that stage prematurely. In Chinese philosophy, anything premature is bound to create uncertainty, and the certainty of its rise and ultimate dominance is China’s vision. Thus, the status of Sino-Indian relations needs to be examined from this angle. The perception that China is tempted to go to war with India at a stage when it finds India still militarily weak and unprepared could be inherently flawed. The discussions at the 19th congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) made it amply clear that China retained the wisdom of the ancients and had the patience to await its turn to assume the leadership of the world. The interim is all about China working towards maintaining relationships with major powers that it sees as potential competitors and yet setting the stage for their eclipse at its hands. There is no doubt that India falls within the ambit of that perception, that demands from China strategic patience and just sufficient coercion to retain an upper hand in the bilateral relationship. President Xi Jinping’s new status, with leadership for life, and the statements of the 19th congress made it reasonably clear that he is no longer bound by the limits of tenure to achieve what he perceives he is destined to. The new vision surely cannot begin with conflict.

The $85 billion (and growing) trade between India and China is one of the drivers of China’s need for India — the growth was 18 per cent year on year in 2017, in spite of Doklam and other irritants; and the imbalance remains in China’s favour. In the face of a dwindling economy and with threats of trade wars with the United States, the idea of a lucrative trade relationship going bust may not sound tempting. Yet, for all this, China will still not put curbs on its coercion at the border, specially the disputed areas. That provides the scope to put India in its place and project it as unable to stand up to China’s military power. This has continued for a fairly long time, while cooperation in other domains also remained firm. The extent of this strategy was clear even in 2014 when Xi Jinping sat with Narendra Modi on the banks of the Sabarmati, even as the PLA blatantly carried out a transgression of the LAC in eastern Ladakh. But then Doklam happened, and that upset the carefully crafted strategy. India did not cow down, it held its own militarily and diplomatically, and even more importantly psychologically. China’s attempts at information and psychological warfare to browbeat India did not succeed and India handled its media well enough to neither intimidate nor escalate the conflict. A reset was therefore imminent.

The reset that China seeks is perhaps a marginal tweak of the original policy of simultaneous intimidation and engagement. India’s resistance to BRI and its refusal to show up for the grand BRI conference did not go down well with Beijing. The reset now probably includes an adjustment to bring India into the ambit less the CPEC, which crosses India’s claimed area of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Some alternatives could be in the offing, to include a China-Nepal-India Trilateral Economic Corridor extendable to Bangladesh, a China-Bhutan-India Corridor or a relook at the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-China Corridor (BIMC). The signing of MOUs would be in the offing but the materialisation of these would be contingent upon what China has in store as far as the border is concerned. Putting that in the freezer is unlikely after years of experience in brinkmanship through walk-in operations. Leaving Doklam unavenged may also not be a tempting proposition as ego still dictates China’s self-perception. Analysts have been prophesying that limited coercion at the border accompanied by massive doses of deniable cyberattacks, along with a refurbished information strategy, could be in the offing even as India’s leadership is engaged in talks. That is the Chinese way, with the aim that India will wilt under the combined pressure and yield strategic space. The game being played over the Maldives is another prong of this strategy, a game which does include temporary yielding of space to send positive signals. In the recent past, China displayed this at FATF, where after initial reluctance it agreed upon placing Pakistan on the warning list for its financial terror links. By being willing to engage, India is not wilting but displaying pragmatism. When a nation has neglected its comprehensive national power to meet its threats, some pragmatic compromise is inevitable. Hopefully, over the next decade or so it will pay more attention towards this weakness and acquire a position to resist Chinese coercion, even as the two remain engaged in many other domains of cooperation.

(This article was originally published in The Asian Age on 27th April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read the original here.)

India and China: The Risks of a Reset


When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to Wuhan, China on April 27, many will be waiting with bated breath to see whether there will be a reset in India-China relations. On the Chinese side, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is already setting the tone, promising “a new starting point in the relationship” after a particularly difficult year of high-profile disagreements. Whatever the outcome of the summit, however, Modi should be wary of such rosy promises: As Japan has already learned the hard way, a reset in relations with China at this stage is likely to benefit China far more than its counterparts.

Japan’s experience should be a cautionary tale for India. Tokyo spent decades investing in deepening economic ties with Beijing, hoping that a China that was integrated globally would rise peacefully, enabling the eventual resolution of all pending bilateral issues. China, however, used the space provided to build its economic and military capabilities and cultivate North Korea as a deterrent to Japan. To this day, China refuses to accept any Japanese sphere of influence, and continues to arouse anti-Japanese sentiments in the Chinese media whenever convenient.

India must avoid falling into the same trap. Delhi has long sought to compartmentalize its disputes with all its neighbors, hoping that economic ties and people-to-people relations will over time build trust to help resolve any lingering border disputes. While this policy has worked with some of India’s immediate, smaller South Asian neighbors, history suggests that it is unlikely to succeed with China.

More than two decades after the 1962 war, Sino-Indian relations improved after the 1988 visit of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The two countries sought to build people-to-people ties and economic relations while putting the border issue on the backburner. Today China is one of India’s top economic partners and the two countries do collaborate globally in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and on issues like climate change.

China has used the last four decades of peace with India to create its economic miracle and modernize its military. India’s economy, by contrast, has not grown consistently at double digits, and its military modernization is decades behind what it should be. Meanwhile, the border disputes are no closer to resolution, as last summer’s outbreak of hostilities along the Doklam plateau made clear.

The fundamental problem is simple: India believes it is China’s equal, but China does not believe the same of India. South Block mandarins may believe that a high-level visit will “break the ice” and help resolve key issues. But while Beijing may play along to give Delhi the pretense of a victory, at its core China is pursuing a policy consistent with its decades-long, adversarial strategy in Asia.

From the start, the “peaceful rise” of Communist China has been a function of Beijing’s savvy ability to convince other countries to give up their own areas of influence. China has achieved this by building economic and strategic relationships with the immediate neighbors of its competitors—in India’s case, all of its South Asian neighbors—and then egging the neighbors on to push back against perceived hegemony by the country in question.

Starting from the 1950s, China built a close relationship with Pakistan, an alliance which today has a strong military, nuclear, and economic component. From assistance in the nuclear arena to protection at the United Nations Security Council, China has openly supported Pakistan. In return, Pakistan has become, in the words of scholar and diplomat Husain Haqqani, China’s secondary deterrent against India.

Beijing has consistently encouraged Pakistan’s desire for parity with India, and its pursuit of superpower allies who would provide economic and military assistance to enable its debilitating competition with India. The $53 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the showcase initiative of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a prime example. All the massive infrastructure being built inside Pakistan will provide China with access to the Persian Gulf via the port of Gwadar. Unless Pakistan’s economy grows substantially, the country will only end up further in China’s debt under the project’s massive high-interest loans.

Knowing full well that all of India’s smaller neighbors bear a latent resentment against Indian predominance in the region, Beijing has always used the India card in its relations with these countries. Ever since the 1990s, 60 percent of China’s arms exports have gone to three of India’s immediate neighbors: Pakistan, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

To be fair, Delhi has often hurt its own interests in the region by intervening too deeply in its neighbor’s affairs and ignoring their interests and demands. While the majority of India’s developmental assistance is provided to its immediate neighbors in South Asia, Delhi has never expended enough resources to provide sufficient aid. Further, India’s ability to deliver projects on time has also been hurt by complacency, bureaucratic negligence, and political indifference.

Sri Lanka is another case in point. Sri Lanka’s relationship with China dates back to the 1950s, during the era of Asian bonhomie and non-alignment. The long civil war in Sri Lanka, and India’s sporadic support for Tamil rebels, hurt India’s relations with the country, creating an environment of mistrust which Beijing has subsequently exploited. Defense cooperation between the two countries began in the 1980s, with Chinese support for the Sri Lankan military in its civil war against the terrorist group LTTE (Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam). China has since become the leading provider of arms to Sri Lanka. Beijing pursued closer economic relations with Colombo beginning in the 1990s, and large Chinese investments began flowing after 2003. The relationship has only deepened since the Chinese inked a deal to build the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in 2007.

Bangladesh owes its creation to the 1970 civil war and the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. Delhi’s level of trust with Dhaka is better than with Colombo, but this has varied depending on which government is in power in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is critical to India’s security, especially its northeastern states, but Delhi’s policy has traditionally been one of emphasizing security while ignoring the economic needs and interests of its immediate neighbor.

China supported the government of West Pakistan during the 1971 war, but over the next few decades it built close relations with Bangladesh. China is Bangladesh’s top trading partner, with most of its investment focused on infrastructure, from bridges and highways to power plants.

Most recently, China has set its sights on Nepal, which has long been seen as India’s buffer with Tibet and China. Nepal is also the only Indian neighbor with whom India has an open border policy, which has helped trade and tourism but has also created security challenges. Delhi had strong relations with the Nepalese monarchy for decades, while it supported the nascent democratic movement within the country.

But Nepal’s own identity issues and long civil war, Delhi’s support to the ethnic Madhesis in Nepal, and the perennial fear of Indian economic might overwhelming the smaller landlocked Himalayan state have increasingly led Kathmandu to turn to Beijing for economic assistance. In 2016 a Madhesi-led blockade of the India-Nepal border led Prime Minister K.P. Oli to sign deals with China that allowed Nepal to use Chinese roads and ports. Nepal also supports China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with Oli stating that Nepal would like to remain “neutral” between India and China. Just a few days ago, as part of BRI, China proposed a trans-Himalayan trilateral corridor connecting China, Nepal, and India. New Delhi is wary of any such corridor and will attempt to dissuade Kathmandu from accepting it as well. But the fact remains that China is already the second largest trading partner of Nepal—and the two countries are deepening their military cooperation as well, to India’s consternation.

Modi should not let China’s charm offensive obscure its fundamentally hostile actions. Beijing has mastered the art of using a democracy’s own tools against it. The formula is simple: first, instigate a minor conflict with a country like India (as happened last summer in Doklam); then, display aggression and rattle sabers; then summon traditional and social media platforms to create a major stir—and then, after enough time has elapsed, offer talks or back off, playing the role of the conciliatory peacemaker.

The endgame is to allow that country’s own leaders, media, and business elite to make the argument for why that country should talk to China and avoid conflict. This leads to a semblance of “win-win” cooperation and enhances Chinese prestige, all without forcing China to surrender one inch of its territory or give up on any core interest. Unfortunately, this line of thinking has clearly taken hold of much of India’s leadership in recent months. In December 2017, BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav stated that “China is our important neighbor and we want to strengthen our ties with it” and also remarked that “engaging with China” was “the best available option” for the resolution of the issue of Tibet. Since January 2018, senior BJP leader Subrahmanyam Swamy has stated that instead of “embracing” the United States, India should hold secret talks with China to improve relations.

Modi should beware of this trap. South Asia and the Indian Ocean region were and should always remain India’s core area of influence. Any signs that Delhi is willing to accommodate Beijing’s interests in these regions will only hurt Indian interests.

(This article was originally published in The American Interest on 25 April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read the original article here.)

For 2018 Summer And Beyond, Positive Narratives Must Dominate Discourse In Jammu And Kashmir



Everyone talks about it, but few are willing to start what will inevitably have to be initiated if India has to achieve success in its mission to mainstream the people of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), especially the indignant people of the Kashmir Valley floor. The floor of the Valley comprises either segments or the whole of all 10 districts and is far more populous than the peripheral higher reaches which have been less afflicted by terror except for forming a part of the infiltration and exfiltration routes. The loyalty and resilience of the Paharis and a majority of the Gujjars through this testing period has been remarkable. That is why it is the Valley floor which, apart from the conduct of counter-terror operations, cannot be left adrift in other spheres; otherwise, some situations will keep returning to haunt us.

Some context setting may prove helpful. Military officials mostly do this to get to the root of the issue and then focus on the fundamentals. Let us, for a moment, imagine that the Valley region is effectively gridlocked and not an alien soul can enter from any direction, nor can, also, any war-making material. Armed violence is wiped out, but Kashmir remains turbulent even without terrorist presence. The highly alienated elements, whether in the majority or not is always debatable, has no connect even with the two other sub-regions: Jammu and Ladakh. It's not the physical connect that we refer to here but the connect of minds and hearts.

A third generation of progressively more alienated people is emerging. This is evident from the reports of participation in voluntary stone-throwing by young school-going girls and boys in their uniforms. This generation does not have the propensity to listen to anyone – not to the politician, nor to the local officials, teachers, or parents. There are no positive role models; the only role models are the “martyrs”, many of them their friends and colleagues from nearby villages.

The local mosque, which, under such circumstances, should be providing institutional solace, mental stability, and counseling, acts instead as the instigator, providing the feed for irrational interpretation of scriptures and justifying acts of violence against those of other faiths and those within Islam who do not adhere to their perception and interpretation of it. The government establishment is not afraid; it’s just hesitant to do anything in the absence of clarity about what needs to be done. Hypothetically, there may be no terrorists around, but you do not need terrorists to do the bidding of those who manage proxy conflicts; that belief is old wine. You just need some 'non-violence' and that term can be defined in a variety of ways, while including stone-throwing within the scope.

From a perception angle, the comparison of the rifle against the stone provides that understanding, something not easy for many observers to comprehend. The frequent indulgence in stone-throwing suddenly moves beyond the paid phenomenon which was the practice for long. The National Investigation Agency’s excellent work put an end to stone-throwing but only temporarily. None can perhaps deny that the current stone-throwing being witnessed also has it’s novelty – it’s no longer mercenary in nature. Money hasn’t played a role in it this time, only passion and alienation are responsible.

We have to factor in Jammu too. Without being empathetic towards Jammu, the goodwill of the people there is likely wearing thin. The Jammu people are patient, but one can’t take them for granted. This was amply proved during the counter-agitation of 2008. The problem is that of historical baggage, perceptions of the state government favouring one region over the other, and very simply just a lack of effort towards a meeting of minds. It’s learnt that the hypothetical scenario may be very close to the truth, with a potential agitation building up in Jammu too.

Given such a scenario, with agitation in parts north and south of Pir Panjal and a complete lack of fear on the streets of Kashmir, for any deterrent law and order machinery, what would be the political and military response?

It’s 2008 but in a worsened state, and it is a situation very close to what Pakistan may have imagined it could achieve. In 2011, arguing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) case in the Unified Command, we painted a near-similar picture for 2016 if the law was lifted from J&K. The situation after the Burhan Wani killing on 8 July 2016 was something along the lines of what we predicted in 2011 with different triggers. Pakistan’s intent is to simply bring to boil the situation in J&K every couple of years; it gives natural traction to the movement with the minimum energy needed by the proxy conflict managers.

These are not unrealistic possibilities. When it becomes difficult to understand how to deal with a new generation with little effort for bringing it back to the rails, we let loose a sequence of action and reaction. The youth of Kashmir are not blameless. Some have opened themselves to ideologically aligning themselves with those that the world is now largely at conflict with. Yet there are many who are not similarly affected and are emerging bolder in their opinion against their brethren, even on social media. It’s such scenarios that good military minds must war-game at different headquarters and examine our response, as also of the proxy conflict managers.

A conclave of police, intelligence, and a few army officers was held under the aegis of the Ministry of Home Affairs some months ago. The Home Minister sat through two days, absorbing much that had to be said. This is exactly the recipe for such situations, and many more of these conclaves must be held. For the managers and those who wish to accomplish azadi as a halfway measure to ultimate integration with Pakistan, there can be no better tool to drive alienation, create turbulence on the streets, and attempt to unnerve us than the rank usage of extremist religious interpretation to motivate the youth.

Ever since the nineties, Pakistan’s strategy has been to promote viciously devious and obscurantist interpretations of Islam by wide-scale use of foreign funding and discreet change of the local clergy. There was never a shortfall of money in the heyday of petrodollars and it suited the ideological orientation of other countries too. This change, it was then assumed, would help Kashmir break its links with secular India and look towards what could be perceived by Pakistan as its natural moorings.

With the defeat of Islamic State in the Middle East and a worldwide effort to prevent its regeneration in the networked or physical state, there are also serious efforts towards diluting the obscurantism which has overtaken the Islamic world. None are more noticeable than those in Saudi Arabia, where Prince Mohammad bin Salman is attempting new narratives to prepare his country for a period 15 years ahead. King Abdullah of Jordan is reviving the iconic Amman Message, the formulation of an agreed communication to the Islamic world by 200 Islamic clerics from all sects. This alludes to condemning extremism, the use of violence and incorrect Quranic interpretations on declaring followers as “takfiri” or apostates if they did not follow a particular strain of Islam. In fact, King Abdullah’s message received impetus with his recent welcome to India and meeting with a large segment of Indian clerics in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With the malicious interpretation of Quranic messages to suit their operational and ideological intent, the proxy conflict managers have thus far dictated the social and ideological narratives in J&K. We haven’t done enough to bring the rest of the Islamic world’s increasing efforts to adopt an inclusive Islam to light in India, and in Kashmir in particular. Recordings of the Vigyan Bhavan ceremony are positive, where King Abdullah and well-known members of the Indian Muslim clergy struck the right chord. India has enough of its moderate narratives espoused by well-known clerics. Those who attended the Vigyan Bhavan event must be requested to lend their voices for the sake of stronger integrity of the nation. They must speak to the Kashmiri youth and their messages must become the dominant ones in the state.

To her credit, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti recently made two outstanding gestures. First, meeting with Kashmiri Pandits and urging them to at least visit the Valley, their home. This must be followed by organised visits by Pandits to Kashmir and programmes for the meeting of minds at different towns in the Valley. The second, relatively unknown action is the frequent meetings with the Save Sharda Committee. It is hoped that she will take this issue to the Prime Minister and evolve a potential proposal for even a symbolic yatra by a few Kashmiri Hindus to the Nilam Valley in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where the Sharda shrine exists. These are all gestures that count and send the right messages. Not for anything else have we been repeatedly requesting the political community of J&K to look at the possibility of constant engagement between segments of people from different vocations across the Pir Panjal. The ‘dialogue of minds’ must be between women, teachers, lawyers, students, businessmen, and professionals for a better understanding to emerge and for a mutual appreciation of societal challenges.

As we enter the summer of 2018, the dominant narratives must be taken from the recommendations discussed here and perhaps many more, which will emerge if we are to defeat the obscurantist ideology which characterises the youth who are volunteering to take to the gun as an alternative to dialogue.

(This article was originally published in Swarajya on the 14th of April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)

New Defence Planning Panel


Stung by the inability to draw any positive strokes to get the complex defence sector into a fast and efficient track, the government is setting up the Defence Planning Committee (DPC). No decision-making power appears to be advocated for the body, which is going to be a permanent institution more on the lines of a high-level official think tank. It is to study challenges, evolve recommendations for procedures and, more importantly, for doctrine and strategy. The committee to be headed by the National Security Adviser (NSA) is likely to have among its members the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), the remaining two Service Chiefs, and the Secretaries for Defence, Foreign Affairs and Finance (Expenditure). The Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CISC) will also be inducted into it. A report also indicates the possible inclusion of the Principal Secretary to the PM. The domains selected to be addressed are evident from the four sub-committees that are proposed to be set up. These are policy and strategy, plans and capability development, defence diplomacy and defence manufacturing. These four domains form the crux of the core areas of concern in the field of defence. On the face of it, any such development which creates the basic means and structure to examine these challenges in an integrated way is welcome.

One of the triggers for the DPC has been the deposition before the Parliamentary Committee on Defence by representatives of the three Services, bringing out how the current Budget allocation is out of sync with the needs of the Services. Two issues in particular are found galling by the Services. First, the inability over the last many years to get even a modicum of approval for the 15-year long-term integrated perspective plan (LTIPP) which spelt out their future planning needs. Second, the near impossibility of having a National Security Strategy (NSS) document approved by the government to provide, among other things, relevant guidance in the allocation of resources and to facilitate optimal support to the Services. What was really missing was a layer between the high-powered Cabinet Committee on Security at the top and the Ministry of Defence at the lower level; a body which could examine the MoD’s evaluations. 


Defining priorities and deciding between the competing proposals of the Services, with adequate inputs from supporting ministries, is likely to aid the acquisition process. It could be argued that earlier the setting up of the National Security Council and the creation of the appointment of the NSA was supposed to overcome the silo-based approach to national security issues. However, the NSA’s role has expanded and the necessity for an exclusive look at military strategy and security is increasing due to complexities. This body will, therefore, hopefully, bridge that necessity. Defence diplomacy has been given its due by the proposed creation of an exclusive subcommittee. The Services have been hankering for their contribution to the domain of diplomacy being aware of the scope they have to offer through training exchanges, liaison activities, resource sharing and military goodwill as a support to other forms of diplomacy.

For years, India has done without the benefit of a National Security Strategy as a guideline for stakeholders who are responsible for the security of the country. Senior bureaucrats involved with security may have been apologetic about it, but insisted that enough understanding existed. What was missed out was the need for continuity of understanding, the necessity for relevant ministries to be on the same page and a review system which would always keep the NSS up to date. Will an NSS document finally emerge? It is not even certain whether this committee will be tasked with the drafting of an NSS, although reports indicate that the entire gamut of national military strategy, strategic defence review, external risk assessment and national defence and security priorities will fall within its ambit. The size of its secretariat and the intellectual support elements needed to sustain such processes will have to be thought through deeply. Will these personnel be from the Services or another bureaucratic cadre is a question up for debate. Will there be some link to academia and the proliferating think tanks to absorb expertise and advice is a moot point.  

If acquisition, defence manufacturing and capability enhancement is to be a major responsibility in terms of advice to the Defence Minister, how are the two major organisations — the DRDO and Ordnance Factories Board — going to be represented here? Or is their role not envisaged at all? Another observation relates to the fact that 80 per cent of the defence spending is consumed by the revenue budget, with the bulk of the expenditure on personnel. Policies related to personnel have not been the strongest area with the MoD; a Cabinet-approved decision on the ‘peel factor’ (lateral absorption) is pending execution for 15 years. Should a committee be devoted towards looking at issues such as right sizing, which is going to increasingly be taking up more time in the future?  

One can visualise that the case for theatre commands, joint operations and cyber war would be examined more closely. Perhaps this is the opportunity to look at the two much-neglected domains in India — information and psychological warfare. There is lack of clarity on the responsibility for the conduct of these.

Are we to assume that defence planning and capability development does not include internal security within its ambit, especially in an era of hybrid war? The Central Armed Police Forces are an adjunct of the Army in war or during internal conflict situations. The major challenge of coordination still remains between the MHA and the MoD; acquisitions being one domain. Perhaps a system of invitation to MHA officials on relevant matters needs to be considered and will probably emerge as analyses are done and execution effected. There will, in all probability, be a need for a few more committees (such as infrastructure development) and an invitation system for experts to be taken on board. 

Lastly, this does not dilute the continuing case for more uniformed presence in the MoD, where advice will be far more effective when examined and acted upon by those experienced in the ways of robust security. Does this effectively seal the case for an ultimate Chief of the Defence Staff? The portents are not very bright. 

(This article was originally published in The Tribune on the 21st of April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)

Should military spending be increased?


Yes, India risks its national security with low allocations to defence spending.

For a developing country that is committed to enhancing the quality of life of its citizens, defence is usually the last thing on the nation’s mind. Yet, no government that is committed to such a cause can ignore the existing physical and psychological security threats. These threats are more than just ordinary in India, a country located in a dangerous neighbourhood and facing both internal and external threats. Comprehensive national security helps a nation attain its aspirations, and robust security is a subset of that. India has a robust military machine. However, the lack of a national security strategy, a national strategic culture and a transformational approach towards its military capability prevent it from obtaining optimum benefit from its defence expenditure.

Resource allotment - 

The defence budget is increasingly looked at as a means to provide incremental resources to other sectors, since procedural delays prevent its optimum and timely expenditure. Does this mean that the resource allotment is sufficient for India’s defence spending and only mismanagement is responsible for the lack of optimisation? Far from it.

In February, the Army transparently deposed before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence and stated two pertinent things: one, 68% of its equipment was in the vintage category, and two, with the new budget allocation of 1.47% of GDP, the sustenance of at least 24 capital projects is in jeopardy. The Army received ₹268.2 billion for modernisation as against its demand for ₹445.7 billion. With the Doklam crisis and the necessity of mobilising the Siliguri-based Corps, along with other priority resources from many other sectors to make up existing deficiencies and optimise the Corps’ capability, the Army expended almost its entire allocation of the transportation budget. In January, it had no money to even hire vehicles. The revenue budget amounts to a little over 80%, leaving little for capital expenditure through which modernisation is to be executed. Drawdown of a manpower-intensive Army that consumes the revenue cannot be done overnight. Thus, even as this drawdown is seriously executed, we cannot allow modernisation to languish.

Military security involves the development of such capability to deter potential adversaries from undertaking inimical activities that may result in forms of adventurism or even proxy interference in a nation’s affairs. The result may never translate into immediate tangible gains. Since understanding of national security at the bureaucratic and decision-making levels remains abysmal, the focus on modernisation has suffered. With huge bureaucratic controls, and a Defence Ministry with no military presence, the comprehension of priorities itself remains suspect. This can only be overcome if decisions are timely and procedures for acquisition are fast-tracked. Also, financial support should be sufficient with systems which do not call for a lapse of financial resources, once allotted. Without higher allocation, the armed forces may be unable to reach even the first level of transformation they seek.

Managing expenditure - 

Management of expenditure also needs a complete revamp. Amid the focus on prevention of potential corruption, the larger picture of timely and optimum capability development has been ignored. Arguably, limited leakages could still be acceptable if timeliness of delivery is achieved even as more efficient procedures are implemented.

(This article was originally published in The Hindu on the 20th of April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)

Flanked by adversaries


In strategic discussions these days, everyone’s mind seems to be on China. Rightly so. It was George Fernandes who correctly identified the potential Chinese threat in 1997 and went public with it, too. He met with much criticism but his sabre-rattling shifted the focus of India’s security concerns to somewhere between China and Pakistan. Security concerns and threats are usually discussed behind closed doors and it takes a public statement or a non-Chatham House rules event to create public discourse. In 2009, the then Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, made an innocuous remark in an Army seminar on a ‘two-front’ war, something the Army had been discussing for many years, with its dual task formations always under debate. However, the ‘two front’ remark remains associated with General Kapoor to this day. Now, in the wake of Doklam, as the trigger and seven to eight years of ‘walk in’ attempts to claim lines by Chinese patrols, the threat pattern in India’s strategic discussions, seminars and talks by experts, is again focusing towards China. There are perceptions being expressed that in threat terms Pakistan is only of nuisance value and we must break from the Pakistan centricity of our security policies. The current Army and Air Force Chiefs did, however, speak of a two-and-a-half front war while expressing confidence in being able to handle it; that of course is a separate issue which needs another focused debate. Yet, their remarks did allude to a more balanced look at threats India faces.

It is the notion that there are competing threats and competing borders in India’s security calculus which seriously needs to be laid to rest because it has scope for flawed deductions. To my mind there are four equally important strategic security fronts: first, the northern border or the Himalayan front; second the western border which encompasses different terrains and thereby has scope for diverse type of operations; third is the maritime front from the Straits of Malacca till the Gulf of Aden; and fourth and last is the internal security front, the one dealing with proxy conflict and rebellions. The airspace remains a challenge by itself, as much as the cyber domain and these cannot be classified as fronts because the all-pervading necessity of air power and counter cyber operations can never be denied. 

There is a need to contextualise threats besides identifying their nature. A full spectrum conflict with China remains well away from the scope under discussion. In-depth analyses will reveal that for China the best option remains brinkmanship and psychological warfare. Doklam gave us a taste of it and no doubt there will many more Doklams with a different set of circumstances, with cyber suddenly assuming higher significance; the history of standoffs between India and China after 1967 reveals no taste for shooting matches. Below-threshold operations under the definition of hybrid conflict will test our capability and more than that our mental agility. However, nowhere can one deny the fact that the current visible threats mostly emerge from Pakistan; related to the proxy conflict in J&K, where loss of lives of our soldiers and of misguided citizens is becoming an everyday phenomenon. For Pakistan, or rather the deep state which controls Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, one of the most serious challenges is to perpetuate proxy support, make India bleed and yet keep all this below the threshold of Indian tolerance so that the wrath of Indian response is not felt in the conventional war fighting domain. For Indian security managers keeping track of public response, political acceptance of casualties, allegations of inaction and also planning own operations is a wholesome challenge by itself; in other words, defining our threshold is a constant thing depending on public mood and political implications.

By assuming that Pakistan is hardly a threat and needs to be on the back-burner, or that Kashmir is a sore which has festered for long and ignoring it may help, one can actually forget the entire concept of ‘threshold’. Ignore it at peril because with focus on China and other domains a couple of things would still remain. First, that the threshold Pakistan plays is ambiguous and can be crossed at any time because the parameters which define it can change quite dramatically. Second remains the fact that the feasibility of full spectrum conventional war with Pakistan is always high contingent upon the threshold. Third, assuming that both our primary adversaries do not wish to go to full spectrum war, the chances of events which can act as triggers leading to such a war is far higher in the context of Pakistan than China.

Given the fact that kinetic operations are succeeding in the Kashmir Valley we always need to keep in mind the type of alienation which continues to exist. Lowering priority on J&K in the context of threats would mean the lack of solutions for such issues as mob intervention which is causing civilian casualties almost every other day. The hybrid nature of war here cannot be ignored or its priority can only be lowered with a risk of an even longer perpetuation and that would be playing entirely into Pakistan’s hands.

On balance, India has to learn to live with all the identified threats and continue to address these without consideration to priorities. Living with multiple threats and meeting them all squarely is the hallmark of competent nations.

(This article was originally published in DNA India on the 14th of April 2018, and has been republished here with the permission of the author. Read it here.)

A Giant Step Backward for Mankind

The recently surfaced incidents of rape and sexual violence against an eight-year-old girl in the Jammu district of Kathua and a seventeen-year-old in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh have justifiably sparked outrage across India. Celebrities, politicians and hundreds of thousands of laymen alike have taken to the streets in protest against the systematic patriarchal practices still at large in the world’s largest democracy. Although reminiscent of the 2012 gang rape incident that made headlines and spurned a wave of demands for social change and greater punitive measures, the recent incidents exhibit a subtle yet vital difference: the involvement of high-level politicians and law enforcers in perpetrating and then attempting to hide the crimes.

In Kathua, eight-year-old Asifa was grazing her horses in the forest when she was kidnapped, held captive for nearly a week during which she was repeatedly raped and starved and finally killed. Although her death has been ruled as due to asphyxiation, evidence of sustained sedation and sexual violence have also been corroborated. Due to a haphazard investigation taking place by the local police, some of whom are accused of destroying evidence and obstructing justice themselves, the chief minister ordered a probe by the criminal branch to conduct a detailed study of motive, evidence and culprits. What was found left the country in shock: the kidnapping and subsequent torture of the young girl was an attempt by local authorities – one retired government official and four policemen – to scare her shepherd Muslim community into fleeing the dominantly Hindu district of Kathua. Soon after the probe was announced, right-wing group Hindu Ekta Manch or Hindu Unity Forum organized a rally in protest, defending the culprits and urging the criminal branch “not to arrest anyone.” More shocking still, this rally saw a massive turnout and was spearheaded by two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ministers – Forest Minister Lal Singh and Industries Minister Chandra Prakash Ganga.

The involvement of two top-level ministers of India’s current ruling party in what can only be considered a communally-charged, misogynist protest has brought to light some of India’s deepest patriarchal norms that are still prevalent across all levels of society, from the local community to the political ambit. It also reveals the intersectionality of violence throughout India, motivated by both religious hatred and blatant sexism.  Succumbing to the mounting pressure the BJP has faced since being associated with the rally, both Singh and Ganga have been asked to step down from their positions. However, it has not stopped the thousands of protesters, mainly Hindu nationalists, who maintain that the men are innocent and their arrests are unconstitutional.

In an unnervingly similar series of events, a seventeen-year-old girl in Unnao approached Kuldeep Singh Sengar, an MLA and a member of BJP, to ask for employment and was then raped by him in his residence in June 2017. While filing the complaint with the local policemen, she was not allowed to name her assailant. As this case rose to national prominence, the girl’s father was assaulted by Sengar’s supporters and died in judicial custody earlier this month. Sengar is currently under the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

What is most perplexing perhaps is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reaction, or lack thereof, to these hate crimes. The gruesome nature of the rapes, coupled with the involvement of his own party members, should have incentivized a more meaningful statement from India’s head of state and a staunch supporter of the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao scheme, his own flagship program to improve welfare and education services for young girls in northern India. However, his Twitter account has remained silent on the issue. PM Modi’s first acknowledgement of the crimes was in New Delhi during the inauguration of Dr. Ambedkar’s National Memorial where he stated that “the incidents being discussed since past two days cannot be a part of civilized society” and that “our daughters will get justice.” Many have had mixed reactions to this speech, citing his use of the word ‘incident’ as trivializing the issue at hand and a vague mention of justice with no legal backing as woefully inadequate. Despite addressing the country and the rest of India’s diaspora from London’s Westminster Hall on April 18, PM Modi again brought up the issue but failed to deliver an admirable response to quell the anger he was greeted with. He went on to say that rape should not be politicized and suggested household measures to take included asking our sons their whereabouts and not our daughters.

Thus, the government’s initial reaction, both in terms of building the case against the accused as well as delivering a powerful message on behalf of the leadership, has been subpar and, in general, a step backward for the country. Despite more measures being taken to ensure rapes are reported and fast-tracked in courts, there were 19,675 cases of rapes against minors in 2016 alone, as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted. However, it would not be prudent to trivialize the power of public outrage. In a democracy such as India, public opinions tend to carry sway in bringing out social change through forcing legal reform. Although insufficient on its own, legal reform, if coupled with proper educational reforms and better crime detection and reporting measures, might lead to sustained social change for the generations to come. In an astonishing but optimistic display of India’s democratic power, the penal code was changed last week to introduce the death penalty for rapists of girls under 12 years of age. One can only hope the step taken in the right direction is just a starting point in what should be a critical analysis of our country’s legal code to protect our daughters.


Nepal’s Oli and India’s Modi: Continuity or Change  


Nepal’s new Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s recent visit to India, amidst uncertainty, triggered many debates. But the first question is why and how this government will be significantly different from previous ones given that this is not the first time Oli’s UML party is in the government.  Second, is Oli’s government really committed to economic growth and development of Nepal as it trumpeted? Given several constraints development and economic growth  are likely to falter under the weight of  Oli’s own commitments. Just one or two huge contracts with China will be far too little to fulfill Nepal’s needs. Third, is Oli’s government that powerful and self-sufficient as perceived? The government is asking Western development institutions for help to run its newly federal governance system. Fourth, there are several instances where the UML’s characteristic behavior, especially Oli’s, is failing to convince the Nepalese that  they prioritize party over nation.

The combination of the UML’s behavior and the constraints—both domestic and external – point to continuity; the only change is that Oli has been blatantly defending the Nepali establishment’s position vis-à-vis any external partners, whether India or the European Union, which has elevated his status in many ways. But aside of his lofty speeches, he is unable to deny the reality of power politics, hence the India visit. On India’s part, to be able to make Oli visit India before China, despite the fact that Oli won elections mainly on his stand against India’s heavy-handedness, is a diplomatic success for India – Indian FM Swaraj’s unofficial visit to Nepal to meet Oli clearly paid off, although Oli had some token excuses as he received the Pakistani PM first. 

Regarding the Pakistan PM Abbasi’s visit, the question remains, how substantial the visit was beyond  the talks of SAARC revival vis-à-vis India and how that plays into expectations of his voters that Oli would actively engage China in Nepal. Oli’s foreign minister Gyawali, who is visiting China, said that the Buddhi Gandaki hydroproject contract – one of the major projects of Nepal-China cooperation which the world is keenly watching - is not even on his agenda. This means that India’s main challenge here is again China, not Nepal or Oli, and the emphasis given to Oli seems exaggerated.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that India should discount Oli, and the Indian government is somewhat giving him due importance. Oli is neither ultra-nationalist nor anti-Indian as tagged. Despite several weaknesses like any other leader, Oli has shown maturity in terms of Nepal-India relations. He has hardly engaged in negative rhetoric vis-à-vis India, apart from emphasizing Nepal’s own national interests. Similarly, although Oli is stressing friendship rather than agreements in his diplomacy, his response to India’s diplomatic overtures and India’s announcements of land and water connectivity plans during his recent visit is helping India buy more time to compete with Chinese infrastructure projects. 

All in all, it does not matter much whether it was a sort of “reset” in the relation or not, because in substance there is continuity in both sides. In India neither BJP leaders nor Congress leaders want to give Nepal and its leaders an elevated status and importance due to the domestic electoral implications for them. India’s policy elites and commentators continue to see Nepal through certain traditional biases. For Nepal, its dependence on India continues and, even though China is financially and politically more active than in the past, uncertainty about the depth of this relation continues. Moreover, what relations China and Nepal will have will also depend upon how India-China relations evolve.  Therefore, right now, Nepal is keeping its options open, mirroring India’s policy, of not fully aligning with one actor. So just continuity, no change.

The Tiger, the Dragon and the Race for Indian Ocean Supremacy

 A race between the two largest Asian military powers, India and China, to gain influence and securitize the Indian Ocean over the last several years has quietly gained steam through a series of moves that will undoubtedly define the power-balance in the region for decades to come.

Control over important shipping lanes, proximity to Middle East energy supplies and access to the “last global economic frontier” that is the African continent, all prime the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to be both an economic as well as a militarily strategic commodity. 

The Dragon’s Flight

The significant increase in China’s military and strategic positioning over the last decade and a half have been well documented and publicized, particularly those in the South China Sea (SCS). However, the Asian giant’s penetration into the IOR has flown largely under radar. The last few years have seen China strategically position itself, militarily and non-militarily, around a significant portion of the Indian Ocean perimeter from Myanmar in the east to Kenya in the west. While much of this positioning is tied to China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, the economic and developmental nature of the initiative cloaks the strategically significant impact that this undertaking has and will have.

China’s inroads to Myanmar have been paved by the recent construction of an 800km oil pipeline linking the two nations, by potential Belt Road Initiative (BCI) transportation projects designed to give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, and by the fact that nearly 70% of Myanmar’s arms have been imported from China over the last five years.

In Sri Lanka, state-run Chinese investment companies have subsidized billions of dollars in the development of the ‘Port City’ in the capital of Colombo as well as in the management of the nation’s Hambantota Port which is approximately 10 nautical miles from the main shipping route between Asia and Europe, and for which they just signed a 99 year lease to operate.

The Maldives is a traditional Indian security partner, but in 2017 the Chinese reached an agreement with the Maldivian government to establish a Joint Ocean Observation Station (JOOS) on the Mukunudhoo atoll in the tiny island nation, due east of the Sri Lankan capital. The station will serve as a vantage point on a crucial Indian shipping route. The Chinese also brokered a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Maldivian government around the same time. The establishment of the station, together with China’s previous acquisition of 17 other islands in the same area, has raised concerns among China’s traditional competitors regarding the lack of transparency about the purpose of these acquisitions. Chinese cooperation with the Maldives expanded in early March 2018 when the Chinese sent a combat naval force to the Indian Ocean in what was believed to be a move in support of the pro-Chinese Maldivian president during a declared state-of-emergency.

China’s relations with Pakistan, historically India’s primary security concern, have also warmed of late. As it relates to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a major component of this improving relationship has been the One Belt One Road (OBOR)-based China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project which has instituted the building of thousands of kilometers of roads connecting the two nations as well as the construction of Gwadar port, a direct point of access to the Arabian Sea and, subsequently, the origin point of the majority of the world’s oil trade coming out of the Arabian peninsula and adjacent countries.

Like its Asian “neighbors” in the IOR, many African nations are engaging with Chinese state-owned groups in similar infrastructure and commercial building projects.  In the last year, Tanzania made a deal with subsidiaries of the same Chinese investment company that is heading the Sri Lankan projects. This project in Tanzania will see an improvement and expansion of the country’s main port in Dar es Salaam, and it comes on the heels of a variety of infrastructure projects that Chinese firms have supported and will continue to support.

In a similar fashion, Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, Kenya, has also been deeply involved in China’s OBOR initiative. The most significant project related to this involvement is the building of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) which includes an excess of three billion dollars in Chinese funding and which will vastly improve the connection between Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and its most viable port in Mombasa. 

East Africa is also the location of the most blatant military-strategic move by the Chinese in the IOR, the establishment of a new military base in Djibouti. This base, China’s first ever beyond the SCS region, also includes a port as well as a free-trade zone. The base provides logistical support for China’s naval fleet, protects its commercial fleet from piracy and other threats in the region, and can harbor as many as 10,000 soldiers at a time.

The Tiger’s Run

India has also done quite a bit of military and strategic maneuvering in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) over the last several years, in keeping with its own rise to the economic and military world stage and its competition with the Chinese in a myriad of different arenas. India’s position within the center of the Indian Ocean provides a natural geostrategic edge in the race for regional control, but that edge is being severely tested by the onslaught of Chinese expansion and development there in recent years. Furthermore, since the early 2000’s Chinese naval ship building capabilities have reached a level of production that far outpaces India. The Chinese have commissioned substantially larger numbers of destroyers, frigates, and nuclear attack submarines, compared to the Indians. Given this turn of events, India has accelerated its efforts to secure its interests in the region through a series of projects and partnerships that sees its presence stretch from Singapore to Oman to the Seychelles.

In 2017, India upgraded their military partnership with Singapore to allow the Indian navy to use Changi Naval Base (CNB) for all logistical purposes anytime they are present in the region including, if necessary, rearmament of its forces. CNB also provides the Indian naval fleet with operational support in the South China Sea (SCS) in addition to the eastern portion of the IOR, and this support will be reciprocal for Singaporean vessels in Indian controlled ports/bases.

India’s recent action in Sri Lanka and its partnership role in the development and the use of Chabahar Port in Iran are both tit-for-tat moves aimed at countering Chinese engagement in those respective areas. In Sri Lanka, a nation with which India has traditionally deep ties, a forty-year agreement was recently reached for India to lease Hambantota airport. This is a move that is primarily being completed as a means of answering China’s developmental lease of the same port and as a direct challenge to what are believed to be China’s non-commercial ambitions in Hambantota.

India’s 2016 trade corridor deal with Afghanistan and Iran for the development and operation of Chabahar Port provides India with a strategic transit path for economic activities that bypasses the need for these countries to go through Pakistan when trading with one another or transporting goods further into Central Asia. More importantly for India, Chabahar’s proximity to the regular oil trade coming out of the Persian Gulf provides geostrategic value for them in the way Gwadar Port does for the Chinese.

India has also been working to solidify its strategic ties with the Sultanate of Oman, in another effort to extend influence to the Gulf. In February 2018, India signed an agreement with Oman that includes an understanding of military cooperation and, more significantly, exclusive military access to the Port of Duqm. Not only does this provide India’s military with significant geostrategic proximity to Persian Gulf shipping lanes, but it also provides them with logistical support for any sort of operation in the northwest IOR, including the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Djibouti, as well as an ease of potential coordination with economic or supply activities in nearby Chabahar.

Perhaps the most significant strategic move that India has made, however, comes with regard to their agreement to invest half a billion dollars and build a military naval installation on Assumption Island in the African nation of Seychelles. Assumption Island, which is among the southern-most points of Seychelles just north of the Comoros and southeast of Dar es Salaam, provides India’s navy with the ability to strategically monitor important shipping routes in the Mozambique Channel.  India notes that this base will allow them to engage in anti-piracy efforts and combat illegal fishing and trafficking, but it will also provide India with a critical launch point for military oversight of Chinese economic and strategic developments in this sub-region of the IOR.

The End Game: Dragon Dominance or Tiger Supremacy?

The race for strategic control of the Indian Ocean Region is undoubtedly underway and is only showing signs of accelerating in the near future. The competition here between the two Asian giants could play out in several different ways as the race continues to grow and evolve through the establishment of new economic developments, building projects and/or strategic military agreements or alliances.

The most immediate (and obvious) strategic concern for India and other Chinese competitors is China’s establishment of their first ‘external’ (i.e. outside of what China considers to be their own sovereign territory) military base in Djibouti. The number of soldiers that this base could reasonably provide, in addition to its logistical potential, makes it a significant launching point from which the Chinese can direct military operations in the western IOR if the need were to arise. As concerning as this Chinese military endeavor is, its overt function allows competitors to prepare and take adequate counter-measures.

Likewise, much of India’s previously discussed movement in the IOR has been transparent to all parties concerned and has been heavily designed to support a naval fleet that Indians hope will allow them to fill the role of regional hegemon in the Indian Ocean. India’s engagement in what are primarily military-supporting endeavors in the IOR clearly demonstrates its intentions there, albeit to the possible detriment of China, Pakistan and other competitors. As such, and as is the case with China’s base in Djibouti, the necessary planning and counter-measures can be taken by China and others as deemed necessary.

The biggest concern that may determine the future of this race lies with the trajectory of strategically ambiguous development and economic endeavors currently being undertaking by both nations, but particularly China. There is uncertainty regarding China’s future plans for several of the investment projects previously mentioned. On the surface many of these Chinese-led initiatives seem fairly benign. However, the lack of transparency surrounding the purpose and function of many of these initiatives raises alarms both for India as well as other nations with a stake in the region despite China’s continual assurances of their peaceful intentions.

There is legitimate concern by several powers, for example, that China may develop their lease of Hambantoda Port into a naval base, given increased Chinese naval activity over the last few years in the region and the historical precedent of China militarizing parcels of land shortly after taking control of them, legally or illegally. Similarly, there have been few details released regarding the Chinese JOOS initiative in the Maldives and what is known about the observatory is that it allegedly parallels one being built in the South China Sea which is designed, at least in part, to serve military applications. The most unsettling move for India, however, may be the potential for a naval base near Gwadar to be built which would provide the Chinese military with direct access to the Arabian Sea and the important shipping lanes there, as well as strategic proximity to the Indian mainland.

Overt Chinese militarization of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is not the only sort of development that has the potential to seriously impact the course of this strategic race. As has been previously touched upon, China’s OBOR initiative has seen it pump billions of dollars of investment into the development of a multitude nations in the IOR and beyond.  Africa alone was promised $60 billion in development funds by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015. One result of this influx of investment and aid has been China’s gradual acquisition of a substantial amount influence and ‘soft’ power with dozens of countries in the IOR. Additionally, China also wields a large amount of control and strategic positioning over a continuous series of ports, shipping lanes, roadways and rail lines that directly connect nearly the entire IOR with various points of the Chinese mainland. This essentially gives China uninhibited operational connectivity throughout the entirety of the IOR that can be used in support of commercial and military endeavors alike and, when coupled with the potential for militarization of initiatives noted above, provides the Chinese with the ability to project force throughout the entire IOR.

India, by contrast, lags significantly behind China at this time in metrics of trade, investment and development projects around the IOR, particularly in Africa. While the Indians have had a developmental presence in Africa for many years and the metrics have shown relatively large improvements since the turn of the millennium, much of the focus over the last twenty years has been in the realm of technical assistance and training and, in any case, is not currently of equal comparison to China’s investment in the continent brought about by the OBOR.

India and China are no strangers to one another when it comes to conflict. In 1962, they engaged in the short but violent Sino-Indian War. More recent decades and years have seen the two nations feud over various territorial claims including Arunachal Pradesh since the 1980s and the Doklam dispute as recent as 2017.The nuclear capable nations continue to be cautiously and acutely aware of one another at all times as their respective economic, military, and strategic movements would seem to indicate, and neither has demonstrated a willingness to “play second fiddle” in the multitude of political and strategic arenas in which they are engaged with one another.

In the short-term, both China and India will continue to fortify their strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean Region via a combination of military means and commercial-economic initiatives. As China’s intentions for military development become clearer, and India’s military initiatives continue to increase, the region could decidedly take on an identity of the classic security dilemma. A prolonged security dilemma, on top of a historically fragile Sino-India relationship, could open the doors to the possibility of more conventional naval engagement between the two nations in the IOR, a land-based confrontation along the vast territorial border that they share, or even the introduction of the use of nuclear capabilities to the equation. The next few years will bring more clarity to the picture developing in the Indian Ocean Region and will be critical in determining whether we see a peaceful competition of two rising powers or catastrophic collision of nations hellbent on regional supremacy.

From a Moment to a Movement



This was a different kind of line, Pashtuns were standing in queue not to receive State alms, but to pitch in for a great cause - for a great movement - to bring peace back to their lands which has eluded them for nearly half a century. There was an octogenarian sobbing in search of his son since 2009, a hapless mother searching for her three sons, and a seven-year-old child searching for his elder brother. All of them were brought together by a sense of belonging, by a sense of loss, and they have all gathered in Peshawar, along with thousands of others, to let the Pakistani State know that enough is enough. This is the first time that the world has come to know about the magnitude of the enforced disappearances along the Durand Line.

His followers and supporters liken the 26-year old war victim to Che Guevara and Bacha Khan as he has provided a platform for the disenfranchised, downtrodden and marginalized communities and nations across Pakistan. Manzoor Pashteen is humble, soft-spoken and non-violent. He is not speaking for the Pashtuns across the Durand Line, but his comrades in Afghanistan are taking to the streets to show solidarity with their tribal brother. The elitist military establishment considers this unity as a direct threat to their monopoly on the War Machines in Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
Major-General Asif Ghafoor, director-general of Inter-Services Public Relations (DGISPR), told reporters in Pakistan, "You have seen that it [the movement] found new angles. The movement began to get the most support from Afghanistan. Different voices started to flow in. I personally met Manzoor Pashteen. He is a wonderful young boy. He came here and then met with the prime minister as well”.

Manzoor Pashteen founded his movement in 2014 in South Waziristan and initially demanded clearing of thousands of landmines laid out by the Pakistan Army and the Taliban to fight each other. The fighting has now subsided, but the deadly mines are killing and maiming innocent civilians daily. Over time, the movement expanded to include the prosecution of Rao Anwar for the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud, the formation of an inquiry into extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns in Karachi and elsewhere, an end to collective punishment and discrimination against locals in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), removal of landmines from South Waziristan, and recovery of missing persons. After Naqeebullah’s death, the movement was renamed Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM; Pashtun Protection Movement). The most recent demands include bringing former dictator Musharraf back to Pakistan to face justice.

The movement is led by Manzoor Pashteen, Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar and Said Alam Mehsud, who have been adversely affected by the three-decade old war in FATA. PTM held its largest gathering in Peshawar on April 08 and was largely attended by war victims. “We want the state to recognize us as equal citizens and grant us everything that goes with that,” Ali Wazir told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It is an understatement to call it the Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns. It is a national uprising,” Said Alam Mehsud told the Peshawar gathering.

Very little has been done to address the Pashtun grievances. At the other end of the spectrum, the War Machines have been unleashed on the young leader. An organized media campaign is out there to discredit Pashteen by creating doubts about his intentions and his non-violent movement. Following the footsteps of the international media coverage of PTM, Pakistani mainstream media has finally taking note of the country-wide protests and they are speaking to Manzoor Pashteen. 

A conscious effort is being made to conflate the issues of FATA merger, and Durand Line with the larger Pashtun Movement which has now spread to Balochistan as well. Criminal cases have been registered against Pashteen and his fellow protesters to deter them from speaking up against the Army brutalities in Swat, Waziristan and Balochistan.

Radical Mullahs have pledged allegiance to ISIS and they roam free. More recently, Khadim Rizvi, an extremist Mullah, held a sit-in protest in the capital Islamabad and all the demands of the Islamist protesters were accepted, including the one where Mullahs will sit on curriculum boards. The few remaining progressive and liberal forces in the country were outraged and dismayed, but there is little they can do. Peaceful Pashtuns, on the other hand, have yet to see a redress to their grievances. Consequently, PTM has decided to hold another protest demonstration in the capital Islamabad as their demands have largely remained unresolved.

Under pressure from the military establishment, the traditional Pashtun nationalist political parties have started to distance themselves from the Pashteen Movement. In the current atmosphere, no one is ready to draw the ire of the powerful military bosses in Rawalpindi. 

Manzoor Pashteen told Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network "My father, wife and mother expect every day to hear the news of my death or disappearance. They are worried for me and sometimes, angry at me." Pashteen wants a better future for Pashtuns in Pakistan "including his one-month-old daughter". "But I know deep down, beneath all the worry, they are proud of me because this is not about me, it is about making this country a better place for us to live in,” he further said. 

Meanwhile, Amnesty International urged Pakistan to resolve hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances. Its Human Rights Council met on March 19 and adopted the Universal Periodic Review outcome on Pakistan saying, “No one has ever been held accountable for an enforced disappearance in Pakistan”.

The Amnesty International Human Rights Council issued a scathing criticism of Pakistani authorities and noted, “The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has more than 700 pending cases from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s State Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has received reports of hundreds more, from across the country. Victims include bloggers, journalists, students, peace activists and other human rights defenders whose work promotes the same values as this Council and is crucial to a free and just society”.

Pakistan has a knack for killing its sane, bright and popular leaders; the list runs long from ZA Bhutto to his daughter Benazir Bhutto and from Bashir Bilour to Mashal Khan. The latest victim in the series was the young aspiring fashion model Naqeebullah Mehsud, whose death has sparked an outrage, the parallels of which have not been seen in recent history. Ironically, the country thrives on brain drain and rewards mediocrity. 

By the same token, Manzoor Pashteen may end up having the same fate. Putting him on a pedestal would be tantamount to presenting him as a trophy to a sniper , a Madrassa-trained suicide bomber or he may end up as another number on the growing list of the missing persons.

Manzoor Pashteen is a genuine voice for peace and his demands are constitutional; suppressing him and his movement would result in more chaos in the region. In principle, the US should lend support to him but that would irk the Pakistani establishment even further. Therefore  it is unlikely that the US will support him in the near future. US also has a policy to provide no support any internal groups in a country unless there is an internal conflict .This is yet another hurdle for US policy makers even if they are sympathetic to the Pashtun cause. The best-case scenario is that some members of Congress may speak out in support of Pashteen in their individual capacity just like they speak out for the Baloch cause. In any case, it is worth exploring for the US policy makers to weigh in on the Pashtun grievances.

Peace in Afghanistan is ultimately related to peace in FATA, the sooner Pakistani and US authorities realize this, the better. It is time for the world to hear what the Pashtuns are saying loud and clear.

 The author is a geo-political analyst based in Washington DC and is the author of the book “Afghanistan-From Cold War to Gold War”.