Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Northern Exposure

Will the Arctic be the new Indian Ocean?

Image courtesy The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com)

Image courtesy The Atlantic. Click for a detailed view.

From the indefatigable Pragmatic Euphony comes news that a 100,000 tonne Russian gas tanker—the Baltica—has commenced the first voyage of its kind along the Northern Sea Route or Northeast Passage, from the Russian port of Murmansk to East Asia via the Arctic Sea. The two-week voyage will test the feasibility of this route for large vessels during the two months of the year that it is now navigable. The Baltica, however, still has to be accompanied by three ice-breakers.

If successful—and, more importantly, profitable—the voyage will mark the next small step in an important  development that has been taking place over the past several years, one whose implications have not been fully thought through, least of all in warm, tropical India. Two years ago, satellite imagery revealed that the Arctic Ocean, whose Northwest and Northeast Passages had opened up occasionally during the few summers preceding, could for the first time in modern history be fully circumnavigated, thanks, it would appear, to global warming. Climate scientists, who had regularly predicted that the polar ice cap over the Arctic would melt by 2070, subsequently revised their estimates, with many suggesting it might happen sooner, perhaps as early as 2030.

The retreating ice has serious implications for the quest for resources and—more importantly for such far-flung states as India—for shipping routes. From a commercial lens, the shorter voyage time between several major ports north of the Tropic of Cancer could save shipping companies billions of dollars. The trip across the Arctic from Rotterdam or Hamburg to Yokohama, Busan or Shanghai cuts distances by 25-40 percent over the current preferred route via the Suez and Singapore. This would reduce costs by an estimated 20 percent. An ice cap melt that makes possible a voyage across the North Pole would have even more dramatic results: the distance from Shanghai to Murmansk would drop to 6000 nautical miles—about the same distance by sea to Dubai.

The commercial implications might be matched in the long run by the strategic. Maritime bottlenecks that have gained strategic predominance over the past few centuries—the Suez and Panama canals, the Straits of Gibraltar and Malacca, and the Bab-el-Mandeb—could lose their auras of indispensability. In fact, the Indian Ocean as a whole, whose maritime role has long been paramount, may well become less important for the major economies of the north, including the United States, China, Europe, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Canada.

Some experts—such as Lawson Brigham, writing in Foreign Policy—have been more circumspect about the feasibility and likelihood of large-scale Arctic commerce. Navigation, Brigham notes, would not be possible year-round, even after 2030. The price of ice-breaking might offset the savings that accompany shorter voyages. And insurance costs might also be far higher than for long-standing southern routes (although not if these guys have anything to say about it).

The Indian strategic community is only just getting accustomed to its position at the centre of the Indian Ocean, and is now preparing to take advantage of it strategically and economically. But by the time India gets its act together, might it be too late to make a difference? Naturally, the Indian Ocean—connecting important resource exporters in Southwest Asia and Africa and emerging markets in South, Southeast and East Asia with one another—is not going to become irrelevant overnight, even if the full potential of Arctic navigation is realised. But the movement northwards of shipping and commerce is nevertheless something for India to consider as it seeks to expand its maritime presence.

Afghanistan Reading

08.16.2010 · Posted in Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. Military, Uncategorized

General Petraeus starts pushing back against the July 2011 drawdown.

Two pieces of reading for those following developments in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The more important is General David Petraeus’ first public remarks since taking command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Excerpts from today’s New York Times report by Dexter Filkins:

[T]he general argued against any precipitous withdrawal of forces in July 2011, the date set by President Obama to begin at least a gradual reduction of the 100,000 troops on the ground. General Petraeus said that it was only in the last few weeks that the war plan has been fine-tuned and given the resources that it required. “For the first time,” he said. “we will have what we have been working to put in place for the last year and a half.”

In another in a series of interviews, on “Meet the Press,” General Petraeus even appeared to leave open the possibility that he would recommend against any withdrawal of American forces next summer. “Certainly, yes,” he said when the show’s host, David Gregory, asked him if, depending on how the war was proceeding, he might tell the president that a drawdown should be delayed. “The President and I sat down in the Oval Office, and he expressed very clearly that what he wants from me is my best professional military advice.”


General Petraeus…said he believed that he would be given the time and matériel necessary to prevail here. He expressed that confidence despite the fact that nearly every phase of the war is going badly — and even though some inside the Obama administration have turned against it.

“The president didn’t send me over here to seek a graceful exit,” General Petraeus said at his office at NATO headquarters in downtown Kabul. “My marching orders are to do all that is humanly possible to help us achieve our objectives.”


The [July 2011] date was chosen in part to win over critics of the war and to push the Afghan government to reform more quickly. But as critical battles to reclaim parts of the Taliban heartland have faltered, military commanders have begun preparing to ask the White House to keep any withdrawals next year to a minimum.

In the interview with The Times, General Petraeus also suggested that he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen, he said, they are mistaken. [The New York Times]

That’s the good news. In a Q&A with Foreign Affairs, Stephen Biddle—a leading security scholar and adviser to the U.S. military on Afghanistan—presents a more pessimistic vision. While certainly not unreservedly critical of the war in Afghanistan, Biddle’s views of U.S. objectives and priorities in Afghanistan and its region nonetheless give cause for concern. Excerpts from his discussion with Gideon Rose and members of the media:

The December 2010 reassessment window that was so much discussed at the time of the president’s West Point speech is, as far as I can tell, being down pedaled…[I]f by July 2011 Kandahar is a disaster area and Marjah has not turned, I think it’s going to be very hard to sustain public support.


Petraeus was McChrystal’s boss. So the idea that Petraeus would have some radically different idea of how to conduct the war is inconsistent with the idea that he was in a position to give thumbs up or thumbs down on the conduct of the war [previously]…I’d be shocked if there was some major redirection, some transformative moment in the way the war was being waged.


Well, the administration has made two arguments for why [the war in Afghanistan] is worth it: that Afghanistan should not be allowed to become, again, a base for striking the United States, and that Afghanistan not be allowed to become a base for destabilizing its neighbors — especially Pakistan…they’re both reasonable, but the first is not particularly compelling. The second is, I think, the much stronger of the two.


Afghanistan is unique as a base for destabilizing Pakistan. And Pakistan is a unique national security threat to the United States. It is a nuclear-armed state with al Qaeda’s global headquarters on their border. And it has an ongoing, internal war that — by lots of indicators — isn’t going very well for the Pakistani government.


A government collapse and state failure in Pakistan is one of the very few plausible ways in which Osama bin Laden could get his hands on a usable nuclear weapon. And there aren’t a lot of ways for us to affect that prognosis directly.


I don’t think that this is an absolutely transcendent threat to U.S. national security and that we should be willing to pay any price and bear any burden to deal with it. I’ve argued in the past — and I continue to believe — that Afghanistan is close call on the merits because the stakes, while important, are indirect and not unlimited. Obviously the cost of waging this war is high.


[I]f an American administration that could reasonably have waged this war with some prospect of success instead decided to withdraw — if that scenario played out, Pakistan collapsed, and bin Laden got a nuclear weapon and used it on the United States, it would be regarded by generations of historians as the single biggest foreign policy blunder in the history of the nation.


[E]specially with respect to the guy in the Oval Office who has to bear the responsibility for this, I suspect that worst case looms fairly large. But all indications are that the president is pretty ambivalent about this, in part because I suspect he sees the costs and benefits as being closer on the margin than one would, in some ways, like.


The problem here is that the Pakistani government’s and public’s tolerance for substantially more forceful U.S. conduct of counterinsurgency or counterterrorism operations in Pakistan is obviously very limited. If you do it too forcefully, you could end up causing the very thing you’re trying to prevent. We could easily end up with the government there collapsing. That would be a catastrophe…So the notion that the United States could solve the underlying problem by going to war in Pakistan, as opposed to going to war in Afghanistan, is unrealistic.


Well, the U.S. government is working very hard to try and get the Pakistani military, the Pakistani government, and the Pakistani intelligence services to be less tolerant of the terrorist groups within their borders that they have historically been pretty supportive of.

Now, the problem is that, so far, we have been telling the Pakistanis to do something that the Pakistanis themselves don’t believe is in their self-interest. Many of the terrorist groups within Pakistan that we worry about were either set up by, or are the progeny of organizations that were set up by, the Pakistanis as asymmetric warfare devices against India prior to 2001. These then turned against the Pakistani government, in part because the Pakistani government aligned with the hated United States after 2001, when the Bush administration went to Pervez Musharraf and basically said, “Either you side with us against the Taliban or we’re going to get rid of you.”

Musharraf backed down, sided with the United States, and substantially alienated lots of Islamist militant organizations within his own borders. They then turned on the Pakistani civilian government, but the Pakistanis have tended to believe that they can work with them and that they don’t want to completely annihilate them because they still could be potentially useful in dealing with the Indian threat down the road.

What the United States has been trying to do is to persuade the Pakistani government that these are now Frankenstein’s monsters and are a bigger threat than India and that they ought to clean them out. The Pakistanis prefer to hedge their bets. So what we’ve got is an intermediate outcome where Pakistan isn’t as supportive of them as they once were, but neither do they want to completely wipe them out. [Foreign Affairs]

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A Tryst with Duty

08.16.2010 · Posted in India, Uncategorized

Nehru’s speech of August 14, 1947, read today.

It may seem befitting on August 15, the day marking India’s independence, to contemplate the state of the nation more broadly and consider how far it has come and how much farther it has to go. I am in no way capable of adding to the excellent and thought-provoking commentary that inevitably marks the occasion. Being an anniversary, however, it seems worth revisiting past words of wisdom.

Take, for example, Prime Minister Jawharlal Nehru’s famous speech to the Constituent Assembly on the night of August 14, 1947. What might strike the contemporary reader most are not necessarily the best-known lines—those expressing the optimism of a nation on the brink of independence—but rather the passages that exhorted the leadership and people of India to rise to the occasion. Nehru, in hindsight, can legitimately be accused of many things. But his words appear as appropriate today, in an age of newfound prosperity, greater opportunity, and unprecedented interdependence, as when they were first uttered 63 years ago:

The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future ?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this Assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom, we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now. That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the One we shall take today. The service of lndia means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work and work hard to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart.

Jai Hind!

Money for Something

International aid is not a form of charity. Nor is it analogous to welfare payments.

My post last week—on the need for India to offer aid to Pakistan in its time of need—elicited a ferocious debate among readers on the merits of such an action. Instigating a discussion on a contentious issue is always satisfying, but receiving criticism for two polar opposite reasons is doubly so; it suggests a view that is likely to stick as a compromise of sorts. The Indian government, in fact, today announced an offer to Pakistan of $5 million “for provision of relief material” for flood victims, an announcement that has been picked up in the Pakistani press. That is, according to one report at least, more than three times as much as Pakistan’s all-weather friend China, and matches Kuwait, the top donor among Islamic nations.*

One set of readers was aghast at my supposed cynicism in expecting to further Indian interests from the disaster in Pakistan, calling my reasoning “perverse” and “shameless.” “Compassion for the needy is a trait of humans with hearts,” one wrote. Mine was evidently “black to the core.” At the other end of the spectrum were those who opposed giving away resources that could instead be spent on unfortunate victims of violence and disaster at home. For them, my suggestion was “shameful.” Some were even more outraged that the money should go to a country that was so clearly adversarial, and were instead “happy” to “let [Pakistan] suffer”.

The fungibility of resources is a legitimate concern, as I mentioned in my post, but its logic can also be extended to ridiculous lengths. For example, India gives over $75 million each year to international organizations, many of whom provide assistance to Pakistan. By that token, is not India thereby funding terrorism? India also gives aid to Afghanistan, some of which undoubtedly finds its way to Afghans who oppose Indian interests there, but should that fact alone undermine the positive work being done by India in that country?

Some of the concerns voiced ought to have been diluted by the negligible sums involved. The Indian government’s annual budget is $237 billion. A one-time package of $5 million—or even $10 million—is, by comparison, peanuts, and unlikely to take away from the billions being spent to support the poor and disadvantaged within India. Other comments made the mistake of false analogy that, in many cases, accompanies the anthropomorphism of nation-states. Such analogies overlook the reasons for Pakistani acrimony directed towards India since they do not account for the relations between a government and its people, or even make a distinction.

The most compelling criticism offered was that “the help will neither be acknowledged or reciprocated,” and—in a related vein, from another reader—that it would be ineffective as “the average Pakistani will not even know we sent aid.” This has less to do with the aid itself, than the public diplomacy initiatives that accompany it. India’s prior efforts, in 2005, were relatively minor and accompanied by little fanfare. Hopefully this time New Delhi will play its cards better.  Another good insight was that presence on the ground is far more effective than money dispersed from afar. This is very true. But unfortunately, an Indian grassroots presence is not an option.

An overarching theme of criticism from both ends was the treatment of Indian development aid either as a form of charity or as some sort of welfare system. It is neither. Charity, depending on your level of cynicism regarding human nature, arises out of altruism, duty, self-satisfaction, pity, social approval, or self-preservation, or some combination thereof.  In any event, it is deeply personal. Aid given by governments cannot be. Being inherently collective, government aid does not give any individual personal satisfaction nor, as a use of public revenue, ought it to. Since government funds are not even a state’s to give on behalf of a charitable cause externally, inter-state philanthropy would amount to an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money. Charity is certainly a virtue, and should be encouraged, but not of a government that is in any way accountable to its people.

At the same time, aid is not a form of welfare, which assumes that a community improves collectively through the redistribution of wealth by a governing entity. The international system lacks an overseer to perform such a service. And the purpose of Indian aid is not to give each citizen of Pakistan the same—or even comparable—benefits as each Indian. That too would amount to irresponsible governance.

Considering development aid for what it is—a means of advancing a country’s interests, be it through improving its image or altering the environment within another country to its benefit—makes one neither sentimental nor conniving. A smart use of aid is, at its core, what people should expect of a government that serves their interests.

*Correction: Saudi Arabia has since pledged a significant sum many times what India has. Other countries are likely to increase their donations over the coming days as well.

Is India a Member of the Anglosphere?

08.13.2010 · Posted in Australia, Indian society, Uncategorized

And if so, how do such conceptions of cultural affinity influence geopolitical relationships?

Australia is in the midst of a spirited lead-up to its federal election on August 21st, with incumbent prime minister Julia Gillard up against the centre-right Liberal Party candidate Tony Abbott. Kevin Rudd, Gillard’s predecessor as both PM and Labor Party leader, received considerable attention for his purported over-accommodation of China (at least before the Rio Tinto scandal and the Copenhagen climate summit), at the expense of relations with countries such as India. Prior to winning the prime ministership in 2007, Rudd promised, among other things, to reverse the decision by the John Howard government to sell uranium to India. Rudd also effectively nixed the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia quadrilateral defense relationship being explored at the time.

It is interesting that the opposition Liberals have now pledged to overturn many of Rudd’s decisions. In a debate with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, Deputy Leader of the Liberals and Shadow Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, vowed to “reinstate the in-principle decision to sell uranium to India and…resume a free trade agreement and greater defence co-operation,” adding “we are natural maritime partners.”

But I was struck by another aspect of the Australian foreign policy debate, over the employment by Abbott of the term “Anglosphere,” which critics have dismissed as “looking to the past,” “silly and sterile,” and “anachronistic.”  The Lowy Institute’s Interpreter, one of the best foreign policy/international affairs blogs around, has featured a great debate on the accuracy and utility of the term (read this, then this). Abbott appears to have used it in the context of Australia’s close relationships with Britain and the United States, but I wonder whether it can be seen in a broader context with regards to relations with India, upon which the Liberals—from Howard through to Abbott and Bishop—have placed considerable emphasis.

India is functionally Anglophone, with English not just the language of the central government and universities, but also formally one of its national languages.* Informally, it is the medium both of nationwide intellectual exchange and, to a lesser degree, business. India also shares some of the other socio-cultural characteristics that unite much of the “Anglosphere,” including a legal system grounded in common law, representative democracy, and religious and ethnic pluralism. Few major countries outside the United States, Britain and the former British dominions check all those boxes.

Evidently, that’s not how Australian commentators see it. In one recent column, for example, Greg Sheridan deplores Abbott’s use of the term in the context of the 2003 invasion of Iraq for overlooking Canada, New Zealand and Ireland, who were all opposed to it, but makes no mention of India. Elsewhere, Sheridan is even more explicit in leaving out India from the mix:

As a cultural description it’s correct, and even geo-strategically it’s
correct – the US, Britain, Australia and Canada are indeed the heart of
the Western alliance. But although Abbott has thoughtful positions on
India and Japan, with whom he wants the most intimate co-operation, the
use of the term Anglosphere can only serve to distance those of our
friends who are not English-speaking. [The Australian]

This is important because it gets to the question of “what kind of power India will be?” or rather “what kind of power will India appear to be?” If Australia, an evidently Anglophone country (some might disagree with that) located in India’s extended neighbourhood, is circumspect about its linguistic and cultural affinity with India, will such scepticism also mark India’s burgeoning ties with Britain and the United States?

Not necessarily. The message may have sunk in faster in London and in Washington than in Canberra, with David Cameron having called for a “new special relationship” with India, and Barack Obama defining the United States and India as “natural allies.” These are not terms that arise simply from an alignment of geopolitical interests, but a recognition also of common values and—to a certain degree—a shared cultural heritage.

*Not according to some of our elected representatives (h/t Rajeev).

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U.S. Border Security Bill

The border security bill recently passed in the U.S. Senate is bad news. So is its coverage.

There is not a lot to add to the justifiable outrage being expressed both in India and the United States over the recently-passed border security bill (the most measured response probably coming in this editorial in The Indian Express) other than noting that the legislation—proudly promoted by President Obama’s former Democratic colleagues in the Senate, Chuck Schumer and Claire McCaskill—undermines a lot of what his administration has done over the past few months to increase goodwill towards the United States in India.

Furthermore, it does not take an expert to appreciate the fact that Indian companies, facing higher costs in bringing skilled Indian employees to the United States, will simply be compelled to outsource more jobs back to India. Rather than create more jobs, which incoming service-sector employees have long been doing, the bill, in its short-sightedness, only accelerates the movement of skilled labour away from the United States.

I have been a bit puzzled, however, by some of the media coverage in India. If nothing else, it starkly reveals the paucity of good primary source journalism. For example, every article I could find in the Indian press that names the bill gives it an incorrect number: S. 3271 (see, for example, The Hindu, which usually boasts some of the best reporting). The bill that was passed, however, was S. 3721. It may appear a minor typographical error, but the fact that this mistake is reproduced in multiple news sources suggests an absence of independent verification by members of our media, particularly those working for the slew of online-only news sources.

Secondly, one gets the erroneous impression—compounded by the official response—that Indian companies have been singled out in the actual text of the bill. While they have clearly been targeted, based on statements made by members of Congress and their staffs to the press, they have not specifically been named in the actual legislation. Here’s the relevant text, in full:

Sec. 402. (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act or any other provision of law, during the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on September 30, 2014, the filing fee and fraud prevention and detection fee required to be submitted with an application for admission as a nonimmigrant under section 101(a)(15)(L) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(15)(L)) shall be increased by $2,250 for applicants that employ 50 or more employees in the United States if more than 50 percent of the applicant’s employees are nonimmigrants admitted pursuant to section 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b) of such Act or section 101(a)(15)(L) of such Act.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act or any other provision of law, during the period beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act and ending on September 30, 2014, the filing fee and fraud prevention and detection fee required to be submitted with an application for admission as a nonimmigrant under section 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b)) shall be increased by $2,000 for applicants that employ 50 or more employees in the United States if more than 50 percent of the applicant’s employees are such nonimmigrants or nonimmigrants described in section 101(a)(15)(L) of such Act.

These measures, incidentally, were not present in the text originally passed by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate for approval. The absence of an explicit mention of Indian companies does not make the final law any less objectionable, since they will bear the brunt of the cost, but a clarification should still be made.

Addendum (16/08/2010): The original press release that accompanied the Senate bill can be found on Senator Schumer’s official web site. The release explicitly mentions the four Indian IT corporations that purportedly “exploit” H1B and L visas.

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Afghanistan and Great Power Competition

The United States’ disengagement from Afghanistan will send the wrong signals to both potential allies and adversaries, thereby constraining its ability to shape the international system in its favour.

Thomas Wright of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has an must-read op-ed in the Financial Times that succinctly captures recent developments in the U.S.-China relationship, and the important ramifications these have for the rest of the world, India included. It is worth reproducing a long excerpt.

The Obama administration at first thought the best approach was to co-opt China into the [open, democratic, American-led international] order, since it was believed to share core US interests. To their surprise, the overtures may have served as a catalyst to bring about the very outcome they were intended to prevent. Sensing that the financial crisis had accelerated its own rise, Beijing adopted a more assertive and unilateral foreign policy.

China’s move clarified the administration’s thinking. Its Asia policy, driven by the State Department’s bureau of east asian and pacific affairs, adapted first. In 2010 the US deepened ties to other countries in the region, including Vietnam, Indonesia and South Korea. It is also no longer reluctant to clash with Beijing to protect its interests and values.

This has manifested itself most dramatically on the oceans. In 2009 China began to expand its claim to the South China Sea, a claim hotly contested by its neighbours. In March 2010, Chinese officials referred to it as a “core interest”, language hitherto preserved for its claims to Tibet and Taiwan. Military exercises followed. The US, with the support of other nations in the region, responded with a dramatic diplomatic initiative rallying a regional coalition against China’s position, and in favour of a multilateral solution and a show of naval strength.

The spat at sea is part of a much larger issue. The perception of America’s relative decline is likely to increase, rather than decrease, the demands on US power. Rising powers will revisit issues that have long been considered settled. Allies will increasingly call upon the US for assistance as they warily eye ascendant neighbours. Middle-tier powers may make a play for greater influence in their regions, with unknown consequences.

President Barack Obama’s actions to maintain the current Pacific order are a step in the right direction, but he still lacks a strategic “roadmap”. His 2010 National Security Strategy, the last major statement of policy, looks out of date after the change of course in Asia. It assumes that emerging powers want to become responsible stakeholders and offers no plan to deal with them if they don’t. The result is incoherence in US strategic thought which will ultimately create a dysfunctional foreign policy.

The Obama administration should continue to engage emerging powers, but it now needs a new strategy of preservation to ensure the current international order can withstand external pressures and function effectively, even if a major power, such as China, decides to undermine it. To do this the US needs to build new geopolitical partnerships and alliances; Indonesia and India are good candidates. It must seek European support for core principles of openness, including freedom of the seas, space and cyberspace, to be upheld even if China and others encroach upon them. It should give more influence to nations willing to take on greater responsibilities in tackling shared problems – including South Korea, and on certain issues Vietnam and Turkey – and pressure those who do not. [The Financial Times]

It should be no surprise that arch-realist Stephen Walt of Harvard agrees with Wright’s conclusion that the United States’ objective should be to “maintain an imbalance of power in its favor,” which in turn must naturally involve building stronger partnerships with India and Indonesia.  But then Walt trips over himself:

It also follows that the more money, men, and political capital the United States expends in places like Afghanistan, the fewer resources it will have available to deal with more serious long-term challenges. And…the fewer resources we will be able to devote to maintaining the foundations of national power and our overall quality of life here at home.

In making this argument, Walt is guilty of at least two errors. First, he assumes that U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan would have relatively minor implications for the balance of power between the United States and China; Afghanistan is not a major power by any stretch of the imagination nor is the United States in direct competition there with China. But anyone with a reasonable grounding in day-to-day policy understands that this will send all the wrong signals to both potential allies and adversaries, and thereby directly hamper the United States’ ability to shape the international system in its favour.

China is likely to be even further empowered and thus more assertive, as it was under the first year of the Obama administration. As my colleague, Andrew Small, notes:  “Many in China believe that the United States is not purely motivated by counterterrorism concerns–if at all—[in Afghanistan] but has instead a geopolitical objective: to exert control over the region’s energy routes and strategic chokepoints and ‘‘encircle’’ China.” Whether or not that really is a primary U.S. objective, a failure gives the unfortunate impression to Beijing of the United States taking its foot off the pedal. Meanwhile, India, one of the aspiring partners under consideration, will feel compelled to align with Iran on Afghanistan and, perhaps more dangerously from an American viewpoint, will remain sceptical of the benefits of a broader strategic partnership with the United States. Finally, the lack of faith in the United States’ ability to advance its interests despite its overwhelming capabilities will directly affect the choices made by medium powers biding their time on the fence. As Wright himself notes in his op-ed, “The perception of America’s relative decline is likely to increase, rather than decrease, the demands on US power.” Withdrawal from Afghanistan only increases the perception of America’s relative decline.

The second problem with Walt’s argument is that it suggests that the United States has only specific, finite resources to expend on national security; thus the United States faces a choice of involving itself in places like Afghanistan or competing with major powers such as China. That may have been true when military power was based solely on a handful of discrete resources—iron ore, fuel, population—but this is no longer the 19th century. Certainly, the ability of the United States to compete with China in shaping the international system is based in large part on the success of its economy, but a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is by no means a prerequisite for its economic rejuvenation, leave alone its ability to contest with China on an equal footing. According to a recent Congressional Research Service study, the Afghanistan war will cost the United States only 0.7% of its GDP this year.  That has, at most, a negligible impact on “the foundations of national power” and on the United States’ ability to deal with “more serious long-term challenges.”

Realists such as Walt may find Afghanistan an unnecessary distraction from the interplay between major states that is bound to have a lasting impact on world history. But there is every reason to believe that such nettlesome regional conflicts are closely intertwined with the fates of great powers, perhaps more so than ever before.

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The Unrepentant Fundamentalist

08.08.2010 · Posted in Afghanistan, Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan

“AfPInd” sounds like it could be Pindi’s brainchild.

Mohsin Hamid, writing in today’s Washington Post, resuscitates that age-old view that Afghanistan requires a “concerted effort to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table” so that they can “end their hydra-headed confrontation over Kashmir.” Why exactly? His argument is frustratingly hard to follow. He brings up scattered bits of data that are somehow supposed to lead his readers to a logical conclusion.

According to Hamid, the WikiLeaks revelations demonstrate the extent of “mutual distrust” between Pakistan and the United States. He quickly jumps to a historical overview of the region. Since 1947, India and Pakistan have “been at each other’s throats” while the U.S. has done nothing but castigate Pakistan for its use of U.S.-supplied weaponry and it nuclear program. “By now, the recurring failure in the Pakistan-U.S. alliance should be obvious: The Pakistani military views it primarily as a means of reducing the threat from India, and the United States does not. But perhaps the United States should.”

Hamid goes on to note that the Pakistani military continued to use “the same tactics” against India in Kashmir as it did against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and that it remains “obsessed with shaping events” in Afghanistan to ensure strategic depth against India. Kashmir, he argues, is the disease, and terrorism is but the symptom. “[T]he Pakistani military uses militant groups to put pressure on India to negotiate, and India uses terrorism as an excuse not to negotiate.” He concludes: ”Ignore Kashmir, as the United States does, and the conflict seems incomprehensible. Include Kashmir in the picture, and it all makes sense.”

The problems with this line of reasoning—insofar as there is one—are numerous. Can we say with any sense of certainty that successful Kashmir negotiations will lead to the destruction of terrorist infrastructure within Pakistan? Second, if this really was the solution to all of the region’s problems, why over the past two years has Pakistan gone back on every commitment that it made previously in back-channel talks with India? Third, would not such negotiations on Kashmir under the watchful eyes of the international community amount to siding with Pakistan against India, effectively justifying the use of terrorism to achieve political goals?

Elsewhere, Hamid is guilty of  convenient side-stepping. There is absolutely no mention of the illicit nature of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program or the history of Pakistani aggression against India, particularly in 1965. Hamid thus promotes the myth of perpetual Pakistani victimhood. The WikiLeaks documents highlight “mutual distrust” in his view, when in fact what they reveal is Pakistani double-dealing. The same moral equivalence made with India is also conveniently applied towards the United States. The question of Pakistani responsibility for the 26/11 attacks is effortlessly swept under the table. Terrorism for India is but an “excuse” to remain hostile towards Pakistan (there’s no discussion of why this might be in India’s interests). And other episodes of international terrorism linked to entities in Pakistan, from 9/11 to the attempted Times Square bombing to Chechnya, are all conveniently left out, since they do not conform to his argument of Kashmir being the root cause of all the region’s ills.

Many of us would like to see Pakistani liberal internationalists desirous of regional peace and stability, such as Hamid, empowered. Unfortunately, arguments such as this make it all the more difficult for us. Hamid may not be shrewd enough to appreciate it, but “AfPInd”—the clunky portmanteau he employs to capture his line of reasoning—sounds as if it could be Rawalpindi’s brainchild. In fact, it is exactly the kind of argument that strengthens those elements within the Pakistani establishment who thrive on perpetual crisis with India.

Send Flood Aid to Pakistan

The benefits of offering humanitarian aid to Pakistan easily outweigh the costs.

They say one should never let a good crisis go to waste. The floods ravaging Pakistan are a humanitarian tragedy of the first order, and not something that any country should wish upon any other. By many accounts, the floods have already killed some 1600 and displaced about 4 million people.

The crisis, which the Pakistani government is struggling to cope with, is but the latest in a long line of opportunities for India to offer humanitarian assistance to its beleaguered neighbour.  The United States has upped its pledge from a relatively meagre $10 million to a slightly more respectable $35 million.  An Indian pledge of $10 million would go a long way towards improving its image in Pakistan and elsewhere, and place the Pakistani leadership in an awkward bind.

Let’s weigh the pros and cons of such an offer by New Delhi. First, the pros:

1. Most obviously, flood aid will help India’s poor reputation in Pakistan, which is—as can be expected—suffering further following unsubstantiated rumors that the flooding has been caused by the release of water by India. We know that all of Pakistan’s ills can be linked somehow back to India, but why not at least try to reverse such claims?

2. India’s image will also improve considerably the world over. India is already joining the ranks of donor nations following its commendable development efforts in Afghanistan, and this will only add to its positive reputation. Plus, it would help reinforce India’s ‘dehyphenation’ with Pakistan.

3. There are legitimate fears of terrorist entities, most importantly Lashkar-e-Taiba (under the guise of Jamaat-ud-Dawa), exploiting the situation to win converts by providing shelter, food and medical supplies to flood victims. A stronger, more popular LeT has the potential to directly compromise India’s security. What better way to respond than to beat LeT and like-minded groups at their own game?

4. There is a greater political element here in a purely bilateral context. Indian leaders have consistently spoken of their desire of a Pakistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbours. Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have both professed wanting to see a normalization of relations and the reestablishment of historical commercial and social linkages between the two countries, and have regularly spoken of India’s bona fides. Humanitarian aid offers a distinct way of demonstrating India’s good faith, and puts the Pakistani leadership in a rather awkward bind. Either it refuses the aid on nationalistic grounds, to the detriment of Pakistan’s own people, or it accepts it, and acknowledges that India is not bent on waging perpetual war on Pakistan. Either decision furthers India’s objectives: it exposes a Pakistani leadership bent on manipulating anti-Indianism for its own benefit, or it forces Pakistan’s leaders to accept that India is more high-minded than it makes it out to be.

What are the costs? Two stand out.

1. There is every possibility that this aid will be misused, especially since it is unlikely to be delivered directly to victims by Indian entities. Rumours may be planted of food aid being tainted, while monetary aid may be directed towards any sort of nefarious activity, including arms purchases. But a donation in the range of $10 million will not prove a decisive setback for India, especially since the United States and other international donors are supplying many times that amount, all of which is equally capable of being misused.

2. The second cost is in the domestic political realm. An Indian government that has justifiably been accused of being too forward-leaning in its engagement of Pakistan is likely to be pilloried for this in parliament and in sections of the media. At the same time, flood aid can be defended for being purely humanitarian in nature and for matching stated Indian regional objectives as articulated by both major political parties. In the grand scheme of things, this will also be but an incremental addition to the UPA’s engagement of Islamabad.

Critics might say that this would be $10 million wasted. But whatever the reaction to such a proposal in Pakistan, chances are that it will prove a shrewd investment.

Broken Politics

08.05.2010 · Posted in Indian Politics, U.S. Politics, Uncategorized

Has technology made democratic institutions less effective?

The latest edition of The New Yorker has, as part of its continuing tradition of excellent long-form journalism, a richly insightful article on the U.S. Senate by George Packer (“The Empty Chamber: Just How Broken Is the Senate?“). An excerpt:

In general, when senators give speeches on the floor, their colleagues aren’t around, and the two or three who might be present aren’t listening. They’re joking with aides, or e-mailing Twitter ideas to their press secretaries, or getting their first look at a speech they’re about to give before the eight unmanned cameras that provide a live feed to C-SPAN2. The presiding officer of the Senate—freshmen of the majority party take rotating, hour-long shifts intended to introduce them to the ways of the institution—sits in his chair on the dais, scanning his BlackBerry or reading a Times article about the Senate. Michael Bennet, a freshman Democrat from Colorado, said, “Sit and watch us for seven days—just watch the floor. You know what you’ll see happening? Nothing. When I’m in the chair, I sit there thinking, I wonder what they’re doing in China right now?

The criticism of an ineffective Congress—the cliche of its being broken, Packer points out, has been around since the mid-20th century—sounds similar to that often directed at our own parliament. As does the self-criticism. The frustration evident in Packer’s quotes of veteran senators such as Chris Dodd and Lamar Alexander sound a lot like what Arun Shourie once told me some three years ago about the workings of parliament today. The difference is that, in our case, the problem is inactivity caused by ceaseless walk-outs and disruptions. In both cases, politics is more about posturing than about policy.

The blame, in some part, has to fall on technology, or rather, its misuse. Technology was supposed to make democratic systems stronger and more effective. An MP could be with constituents one day, in discussions with party leaders in Delhi the next, and on a foreign delegation on a third, thanks to the ease and relative inexpensiveness of long-distance travel. Television was similarly supposed to help ensure a more participatory democracy, with every action instantly on view to the general public, anywhere in the country.

And yet, with pervasiveness has come perversity. Packer only recounts what is well-known in Washington, that members of Congress spend as little time as possible in the capital, traveling back to their home districts weekly to raise campaign funds and spend time with their families, most of whom do not live in Washington. Television has turned politics into theater.

The technological clock can’t be turned back, and probably should not, even if it could be. But do these developments signal the inexorable decline in effectiveness of democratic political institutions? I would hope not.

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