Posts by AzmatHassan:

    Electing Afghanistan’s New President

    July 2nd, 2014


    By Azmat Hassan.

    Afghanistan was a monarchy until 1973 when the king’s brother-in-law and first cousin, ousted him in a coup. The latter then proceeded to dissolve the 200-year-old institution of the monarchy and installed himself as president. In 1978, a group of Soviet-trained Afghan army officers deposed him. The next president was allegedly suffocated via a pillow by his successor in 1979, who, in turn, was shot to death in his palace in December 1979 by the Soviet troops, who claimed that they had come to his assistance! It cannot therefore be said that Afghanistan has not had elements of high melodrama regarding who and in what circumstances would occupy the position of head of state. The proverb, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”, is apposite in the case of 20th century Afghanistan.

    Following 9/11, Hamid Karzai, who served for some time as a Deputy Foreign Minister in the post-Soviet withdrawal government, headed by an Afghan resistance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, was elected President of Afghanistan in 2004. In 2009, he contested the presidential election again, which he was allowed to do under the Afghan constitution. This time around, he faced a formidable opponent in his own former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The election was marred by wide-spread allegations of rigging. In the run-off, Abdullah — fearing that Karzai had stacked the deck against him — walked away from the election.

    It is 2014 and it is election time in Afghanistan once again. Karzai cannot be a candidate again under the constitutional provisions. The contest now largely hinges between Abdullah Abdullah and Abdul Ghani, both of whom are well-known in Afghanistan. The former, whose father was a Pashtun (the majority ethnic denomination), and mother was Tajik, served the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as a close confidant of the storied Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Masood. Abdul Ghani has a Ph.D. from Colombia University, who later made his mark as a senior official in the World Bank and also as Finance Minister in the Karzai administration. Rumor has it that Karzai would prefer Ghani to Abdullah as the next president. If this is correct, then Karzai is hardly being neutral as he should be, if he wants to leave behind an open and transparent electoral process in Afghanistan. Granted that this is only the second time Afghanistan is experiencing a democratic electoral process, but unless transparency and accountability through an independent election commission is institutionalized, political instability and turmoil will become worse than it is.

    Allegations of rigging by Abdullah, which had also been made in 2009, have occurred again in the runoff election. Abdullah and his supporters have contended that the head of the election commission, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, was implicated in ballot-stuffing on an industrial scale. A figure of 2 million ballots is being bruited about in Kabul. Obviously under pressure when some incriminating conversations of Amarkhil with others along the above lines surfaced, he has resigned his position “for the sake of the country and for national unity”. According to the New York Times, the tapes which the Abdullah campaign made available to reporters allegedly include the voices of men “chuckling about ‘stuffing the sheep’, which the Abdullah campaign says is code for stuffing ballot boxes”.

    Abdullah had earlier walked away much as he did in 2009, from the entire electoral process. He has now applauded the resignation of Amarkhil. He reportedly said that it offered an opportunity to reengage with the independent election commission. According to media reports, a further encouraging sign that the election may be salvaged after all, and not end up as a fiasco, is that the United Nations (UN), at the request of Karzai and Abdullah, has agreed to involve itself in the counting of ballots. Let’s hope that with the UN’s helping hand the election commission can regain its credibility, conduct a transparent election, and announce the rightful winner.

    A successful outcome of this process is hugely important for beleaguered Afghanistan and its long-suffering people who deserve peace and tranquility free from civil war. A legitimately elected president would be the first step in negotiating a durable peace with the Taliban by involving them in the governmental process. Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly Pakistan — which has been most affected by the civil war in Afghanistan through a spill-over of violent extremism — would be relieved if peace and stability finally comes to Afghanistan.

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    ISIS’ Military Successes in Iraq

    June 18th, 2014


    By Azmat Hassan.

    For a large part of the international community, the militants calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) appear to have emerged from left field to conquer sizeable territory in northern Iraq. ISIS has captured oil rich Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and is reportedly only 100 miles away from Baghdad. The world’s foreign offices and think tanks are scrambling to learn more about this shadowy outfit which, at the head of a few thousand committed fighters, has, for the moment at least, defeated a well-trained Iraqi army.

    ISIS represented a group of Sunni fighters who had opposed the American invasion of Iraq which led to the empowerment of the Shia majority. This was bound to happen since the United States wished to replace Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian one party government by introducing democracy. In the successive elections from mid-2005 until the American withdrawal in 2011, the government consisted mostly of ministers from the majority Shia community.

    This reality of the loss of power and prestige by the Sunni minority which had ruled Iraq since 1932 was felt keenly by some Sunni groups who revolted against the new political dispensation in Iraq. ISIS was one of these groups fighting both the newly reconstituted Iraqi army and their allies, the American troops in Iraq. Following the American troop surge in 2008, the al-Qaeda affiliated group ISIS could not make much headway militarily and was largely marginalized. The onset of the insurgency against the Assad government in Syria in 2011, which has morphed into a civil war, gave the ISIS the opportunity to reinvent itself in northern Syria. ISIS’ move to Syria was looked upon with disfavor by the al-Qaeda leadership which disavowed its relationship with the former.

    The above action does not seem to have unduly troubled ISIS’ operations in either Syria or Iraq. It is considered the most ideologically focused group among the other anti-Assad groups such as the Free Syrian Army and even the more extremist al-Nusra Front. ISIS’ success in northern Syria can partly be explained by the relative immunity allowed it by Assad. While he has been assiduous in counter-attacking his other opponents, he has largely allowed ISIS to operate without let or hindrance. ISIS has been able to attract a few thousand committed and hardened young fighters to its cause. This popularity has been achieved despite the condemnation of the other Sunni opposition groups who castigate ISIS for following an extreme version of Sunni Islam. ISIS, in turn, considers the moderate Sunni groups as apostates. ISIS has been able to exploit the natural resources in the territory it has captured in Syria to raise funds, for example, by selling the oil now under its control in eastern Syria.

    ISIS seems to have followed the policy of exploiting the natural resources during its territorial expansion in Iraq. The capture of Mosul also resulted in the bonanza of a big oil refinery in that area which is now under the control of ISIS. It probably also benefits from foreign funds, but at this stage credible information on this subject does not appear to have been circulated in the media. The momentum of the capture of Mosul has been followed by capturing another major city, Tikrit, and reportedly threatening Samarra. One of its spokesmen has already boasted that they have Baghdad in their sights and even beyond have plans to capture Najaf and Karbala, two of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims.

    The next few days will reveal if the Iraqi army can withstand the ISIS blitzkrieg. I would imagine that capturing Baghdad would be a more difficult proposition than Mosul or Tikrit. If the capture of Baghdad does occur, it would represent a major reversal for the US, other western countries, and Turkey. It would also largely erase the border between Syria and Iraq, thereby overturning the Sykes-Picot secret agreement of 1916 whereby Britain and France had divided the Middle Eastern possessions of the Ottoman Empire as war spoils.

    What is becoming clearer with each passing day is that the Middle East has to adjust to and counteract a new insurgent entity which some observers already claim is stronger in motivation and manpower than the pre-9/11 al-Qaeda.

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    Attack on Karachi Airport by Violent Extremists

    June 13th, 2014



    By Azmat Hassan.

    One of the unpleasant byproducts of the so-called War on Terror launched by the Bush Administration in October 2001 following 9/11 to root out al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime supporting it, was its blow-back for neighboring Pakistan. Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Afghan and foreign resistance fighters battling the Soviet troops in Afghanistan had taken sanctuary on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) border. They were fully supported financially and militarily by the US, the West, and many Arab and Islamic countries.

    This rugged and desolate area is almost inaccessible, which makes counter-terrorism operations problematic, to say the least. All these years of incessant warfare has also resulted in the Afghan Taliban brand being replicated by a similar violent extremist movement calling itself the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). The TTP and the Afghan Taliban sometime coordinate their actions although their objectives, in some cases at least, are different. The Afghan Taliban are fighting to end what they call the American occupation of Afghanistan as well as the overthrow of the pro-American Afghan government headed by Hamid Karzai. The TTP’s aim is to overthrow the elected government in Pakistan and replace the current governmental system with their version of Islamic government.

    The adherents of the TTP are mostly recruited from the economically backward regions of southern Punjab where opportunities for gainful employment of young men are scarce. Despite the Pakistan government’s attempts to degrade it for the past decade or so, the TTP has shown remarkable resilience. It has taken advantage of the sanctuary provided by the remoteness of the Af-Pak border as well as the ease with which they can retreat into Afghanistan, thereby avoiding actions against them by the Pakistan army.

    Also worth noting is the fact that in 2009, the TTP was able to overrun the Swat Valley, which emboldened them to move southward toward Pakistan’s capital around 60 miles away. The Pakistan army, realizing the danger, was able to recapture Swat and drive the militants away from this area. The TTP then engaged in attacking army installations including the General Headquarters of the Army, a naval base, and other prominent armed forces installations.

    The attack on the Karachi airport which acts as a hub to Pakistan’s largest city of around 18 million, was the latest example of the TTP’s assault on the Pakistan armed forces. It was also an attempt to portray the impunity with which the TTP could continue to attack major targets in Pakistan. A TTP spokesman has accepted responsibility stating that the action was in revenge for one of their leaders killed by a recent drone strike. An equally plausible reason could be, that the on-off talks initiated by the government headed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the TTP leadership had ground to a halt.

    The TTP had continued with its attacks inside Pakistan which has caused increasing anger at this indiscriminate violence taking many innocent lives, among Pakistani society. Since many army casualties running into the thousands over the past few years can be placed at the door of the TTP, the army, which remains an influential actor in Pakistani politics, is putting pressure on Nawaz Sharif to use military means to quell the TTP insurgency. This perhaps explains the recent bombing and strafing of TTP hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

    The attack on the airport by the 10 suicide bombers was in response to the above actions of the Pakistan government. All 10 bombers were surrounded and killed in a few hours by the elite Pakistani commandos. Overall, around 24 persons lost their lives in this latest face-off between the Pakistan government and the TTP. Another interesting feature of this attack was the presence Uzbek fighters among the suicide bombers. The TTP has explained that the recent bombings by the Pakistan army had killed a few Uzbek militants and thus the revenge attack by the TTP included some of them.

    A portion of the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is outside the writ of both governments. With the installation of the next Afghan president, it is of huge importance to both countries to coordinate their counter-terrorism strategies in order to eradicate the menace of violent extremism which constitutes a clear and present danger to the integrity and progress of both countries. This is not an easy task, as terrorist insurgencies take a long time before petering out. If Pakistan and Afghanistan can cast aside their mutual suspicions and fears about each other, they will multiply the chances of achieving success in their counter-terrorist actions against violent extremism. It is crucially important that the bordering regions should not be ceded to extremists of various stripes to use as a sanctuary and a launching pad for their nihilist activities in this region and even beyond.

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    Release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban Custody

    June 13th, 2014



    By azmat Hassan.

    The surprise visit of President Obama to the Bagram military base outside Kabul on May 25 was followed in quick succession by the release by the Taliban of the American soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl on May 31. Observers are wondering whether the proximity of the two events is coincidental or as some think more likely, that the deal for Bergdahl’s release, in return for five Taliban prisoners incarcerated for many years at Guantanamo Bay, was finalized during Obama’s sojourn in Afghanistan. The release of Bergdahl, the only American soldier in Taliban custody, resulted in considerable media attention.

    For some conservative groups in the US, the exchange should not have taken place, as Bergdahl was, according to them, a deserter who had gone over to the enemy. It is too early to be definitive about the murky circumstances surrounding Bergdahl’s capture by the Taliban. Now that he is to return to the United States, he will be extensively debriefed about what happened to him during the five years that he was in Taliban custody.

    A more nuanced and accurate picture of the event is therefore likely to emerge, rather than the speculative comments that are currently circulating in the media. What is clear is that Bergdahl’s release represents, for Obama, closing the chapter on the US war in Afghanistan — the longest war in US history.

    Obama and his spokesmen had emphasized that, under the US military code, every effort has to be made to retrieve an injured soldier or one captured by the enemy. Under this code of conduct, the American war in Afghanistan would not have been finished until Bergdahl had come home. The same feelings had informed US efforts after Vietnam, where strenuous efforts were made over many decades to locate the whereabouts of soldiers who were missing or had died during the conflict. This is an honorable thing to do. I believe other armies also have similar procedures.

    Finally, with regard to whether Bergdahl was a deserter and therefore should not have been retrieved by surrendering five senior Taliban operatives, it is premature to make such claims. When an accurate picture emerges of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Bergdahl from his post in Paktika province and his subsequent capture by the Taliban, appropriate action can be taken under the US military regulations. In the meantime, one can felicitate Bergdahl’s parents who had campaigned vigorously for his return and who must be feeling joyful at reuniting with their only child. Sgt. Bergdahl’s war is over. He now has to be helped to reintegrate into US society.

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    Thoughts on India’s New Prime Minister Narendra Modi

    June 12th, 2014



    Buy Azmat Hassan.

    The fact that a tea-seller’s son who sold cups of tea at a railway station has become India’s Prime Minister with a thumping majority, is indicative of a sea change in Indian politics. Modi, through his triumph, has put paid to the dynastic dominance of the Nehru family, which had ruled India for most of its independent history of 67 years. Modi was an energetic campaigner supported, among others, by big business interests who used modern methods of electioneering to reach a cross-section of the 800 million strong Indian electorate.

    The Indian voting public had become increasingly alienated from and disenchanted with the Congress rule of the duumvirate of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. The latter was the Prime Minister for the past decade but was beholden to the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, for his elevation to this position and therefore had to defer to her. The initial huge economic successes attained by the Indian economy which grew at an amazing 8-9 percent annually, could not be sustained. For the last couple of years, the rate of growth has decreased substantially to around 4.5 percent while inflation has made inroads into the pocket book of the average Indian. The Indian public was tired of corruption scandals and other shenanigans of its political class. Seeing no visible improvement in their economic lot, it has decisively voted for change by empowering Modi and his right-wing, largely Hindu-dominated party, the BJP.

    India, at around 1.3 billion and adding around 17 million souls to the population, is currently the second most populous country after China. Demographers estimate that it will overtake China in a few years’ time to become the most populous country in the world. It is also a bewildering combination of differing religions, castes, conflicting regional and ethnic aspirations, and other serious issues such as insurgencies in central India’s Assam state and Indian-administered Kashmir, which is disputed between neighboring Pakistan and India. It seems that the Indian electorate had given up on Congress to fulfill their economic expectations. Modi has successfully exploited this big chink in the Congress armor by pointing to his record of sustained high economic growth in Gujarat state of which he has been Chief Minister for more than a decade. Not unlike other politicians at the hustings, Modi has made expansive promises to his fellow countrymen; he has vowed to move away from the Congress policies of giving subsidies and handouts to impoverished Indians. Instead, he promises to pull them up by their bootstraps by providing them job opportunities for economic betterment. Milan Vaishnav, an analyst observing Modi’s rise, had stated that while 200 million Indians had been pulled out of poverty in the past couple of decades, millions still remain mired in degrading conditions with not much hope of betterment. “It is these vast multitudes who will be looking up to Modi to lead them, as he has constantly promised, to the Promised Land.”

    The biggest blot on Modi’s performance as Chief Minister of Gujarat was that during the horrific communal riots between Hindus and Muslims, which swept through Gujarat in 2002, he did nothing to stop the killing of the minority Muslim community. An estimated 1000 or more Muslims were killed during this terrible episode. While an Indian court has exonerated Modi of complicity in the 2002 communal carnage, elements in India nonetheless hold him responsible for not acting decisively to avoid the killing spree which occurred. Modi has yet to express his regrets for the communal tragedy in Gujarat.

    Modi’s background, as a committed member of a Hindu nationalist party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), had also painted him as espousing militant Hinduism at the expense of the 170 million strong Muslim community as well as other numerically smaller non-Hindu communities that comprise the multi-religious and multi-cultural fabric of India. It is not surprising that this adherence to Hindutva (India as a land for Hindus only) has made the Indian minorities nervous. While Modi lately has tried to reassure Indians that he will be a prime minister for all Indians without discrimination of caste, color, or creed, it is not clear yet how much this statement has been able to mitigate the fears of the minorities.

    During his election campaign, Modi stood for a muscular nationalism. He contrasted it with what was perceived as the lackluster approach of the Congress government toward China and Pakistan. An important question is that will he continue with this approach or will he move toward defusing tensions with these two neighbors. India has had conflictual relations with both in the past. He got off to a good start by inviting his south Asian neighbors to participate in his inauguration ceremony. All of them reciprocated by attending the ceremony. The Indian media particularly focused on the presence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, the perennial rival of India. Sharif’s gesture and the subsequent 50-minute bilateral meeting between the two, will help to break the ice in the frosty relations currently existing between the two nuclear armed neighbors. It will be a huge achievement if Modi and Nawaz Sharif, both elevated to power with large mandates, can utilize their political strength in ameliorating their political and economic relationship. Both will gain substantially if this occurs.

    Modi and party must now face the challenge of living up to the aspirations of the vast majority of Indians clamoring for a positive change in their condition. This can only be achieved by boosting growth and jobs, no easy task. India will remain subject to caste and identity politics. These will provide a formidable obstacle to Modi’s ambitious plans to transform India into a major economic and political power. One can hope, along with India’s neighbors, as well as other countries, that Modi’s assumption of the Prime Ministership will yield positive dividends in the domestic and foreign policy arenas.

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    Saudi Arabia Versus Iran

    June 12th, 2014



    By Azmat Hassan.

    The media has recently reported an overture by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal to his Iranian counterpart Jawad Zarif to visit Riyadh. While the gesture may represent a tentative thaw in the often frosty relationship between the two energy giants in the Middle East, it certainly implies a modification in Saudi policy toward Iran. The relations between the two countries were more equable when the Pahlavi monarchy ruled Iran.

    But this changed dramatically with the advent of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which ushered in the clerical regime headed by Imam Khomeini. Here you had Shia Iran (Islam’s minority sect) controlling a large oil-rich country with visions of exporting its version of Islam to other Islamic countries. On the other side, you have Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, whose monarchy, the Al-Saud family, espouses an austere and puritanical version of Sunni Islam (the majority sect). An ideological clash was inevitable. In 1987, a group of Iranian pilgrims performing the annual hajj clashed with Saudi security forces. A substantial number of pilgrims were killed and injured. The tragic event embittered relations between the two rivals for domination in the Islamic world. The Saudis, not unexpectedly, supported Arab Iraq versus Shia Iran in the 8-year Iran-Iraq War. The fact that all Arab countries except Syria had lined up behind Saddam who had reportedly initiated the war, furthered the divide between the Arab countries and non-Arab Iran.

    There is hardly any doubt that apart from its strategic location on the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, Iran with a population of 80 million and an annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 1 trillion dollars is more than a match for Saudi Arabia, whose GDP is higher but whose population excluding the 30 percent expatriates living in the kingdom, is around 19 million. Moreover, Iran is quite a bit further ahead educationally and technologically compared to Saudi Arabia. Most observers would agree that Iran is the more powerful country compared to Saudi Arabia poised for regional hegemon status in the Middle East. Theoretically, if a military conflict was to break out between the two, the odds would overwhelmingly favor Iran, regarding who would be the victor.

    Iran has been in the bad books of the United States and the west for its strident political rhetoric, its anti-Zionist diatribes and its nuclear program which is suspected to be a cover for Iran’s efforts to master the manufacture of nuclear weapons. The election of the more pragmatic and pliable Hassan Rouhani as president last June has changed some of these perspectives. Interestingly enough, Saudi Arabia and Israel, who do not have diplomatic relations, are united in their desire to stop Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. Both countries were hopeful that the United States would pay heed to their frequent pleas exhorting it to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations.

    It seems to me that after the less than optimum results achieved by the U.S. in its attempts to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, public opinion would be wary of another military adventure launched by Washington against Tehran. The United States has, so far, opted for diplomatic negotiations with Iran on reaching a negotiated solution regarding its nuclear program. This process is on-going and may take many months before success or failure will be seen. Saudi verbal attacks against Iran have continued in the past few months. Also Saudi irritation at what they consider the U.S. inaction on Iran had become palpable.

    President Obama journeyed to Riyadh to assuage King Abdullah’s concerns concerning Iranian ambitions. I personally doubt if he was very successful in doing this. The Saudi nightmare is that the U.S. will normalize its relations with Iran after a successful negotiation on the nuclear issue, which would inevitably relegate US-Saudi relations to a lower level. If the above surmise is accurate, it would explain Saudi outbursts on the subject. And since these fulminations have not achieved the desired result, the Saudis seemed to have changed tack. The Al-Saud-Zarif parleys when they take place will determine if a modus vivendi between the two rival powers can be achieved.

    Iran also has some potent cards to play against Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries which choose to display animosity toward it. Iran could, for instance, call upon for support its fellow co-religionists in Lebanon, especially the formidable Hizbullah militia, Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite Shia dominated government, the Shia majority in Bahrain, and not to forget the Shia minority in Eastern Saudi Arabia. Ironically, it is that portion of Saudi Arabia which is especially rich in oil resources.

    The invitation to Zarif by the Saudi Foreign minister appears to be a wise move. It would not only reduce tension and misgiving between the two countries, but also give an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to see if Iran could be moved away from supporting Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, and not encouraging Saudi Shias against Riyadh. Just as Southeast Asian countries must willy-nilly adjust to the rise of China, the Arab world also has to recognize Iran as a rising power in the Middle East.

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    U.S. Pivot to Asia

    May 20th, 2014



    By Azmat Hassan.


    The term “Pivot to Asia”, which has almost become a household word, was first used by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in fall 2011. However, global events and the U.S. reaction to them have more or less determined that the so-called pivot currently remains more of an aspiration rather than a reality. It is quite plausible that the U.S., after its setbacks in both Iraq and Afghanistan — countries that remain far from being pacified — make it eager to wash its hands of similar involvement in the greater Middle East.

    That was far from being the only reason for the U.S. to change its focus from a region over which it had diminishing influence. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the Middle East was no longer an area of Cold War contention. The US’ main foreign policy objectives, i.e. maintaining the free flow of oil to the Western bloc and maintaining almost unvarnished support to Israel, had been largely accomplished. The U.S.’ allies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular, with their massive oil reserves had been quite eager and willing to do business with the West. The issue of Israel’s security had also more or less been resolved by the fact that Israel had managed to become the most powerful country militarily and economically in the Middle East. The US and the EU had helped it to achieve this predominance.

    However, the law of unintended consequences, which is not far away from the horizon of international affairs, came back to prevent the U.S. from withdrawing its focus from the region in favor of East Asia. The civil war in Syria worsened in terms of casualties and refugees. Current estimates suggest that over 150,000 Syrians have been killed so far and millions have become refugees. President Assad, far from being weakened, has, thanks to unstinted support from Iran, Russia, and the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah, managed to turn the tables on the disparate groups trying to oust him.

    Last summer, following a chemical weapons attack allegedly launched by Syrian government forces on rebel formations near Damascus, Obama seriously contemplated a military strike. Assad had allegedly crossed a red-line publicly mentioned by Obama. In the event, lack of support from Congress and an exhausted public opinion reeling from the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, forced Obama to change course, when offered the lifeline ironically by President Putin of Russia that Assad would dismantle his chemical weapons.

    Many U.S. politicians feel that Obama should have carried out his resolve, in concert with France of striking at Assad’s infrastructure. This could have, their arguments suggest weakened Assad to the point of being ousted. This was what the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among other countries wanted. Instead, as subsequent events have shown, Obama has largely been reduced, along with other Western countries, to issuing anodyne statements and basically wringing their hands. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have been strengthened while Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the major backers of the rebels, have been weakened. The reported supply of U.S. weapons to the “moderate” rebels is most probably yet another example of “too little, too late”.

    The Israeli-Palestinian talks, despite the persistent mediatory efforts of John Kerry have reached an impasse. While supporters of the two-state solution continue to hope against hope that somehow someday the Israelis and Palestinians can be persuaded to live side-by-side peacefully in two independent states, but events on the ground dictate that this possibility is a receding mirage. Israel has now been in occupation of the territories that were supposed to constitute an independent Palestinian state for nearly half a century. There are no signs that this situation is likely to change anytime soon.

    The Arab Spring which optimists felt would usher in a new period of democracy and respect for the rule of law, has fallen far short of the Arab people’s aspirations and expectations of the international community. The major Arab country, Egypt, whose people had succeeded after valiant efforts and sacrifices in toppling the Mubarak dictatorship, has yet to become a democratic law-abiding country. Instead it has been torn by internal dissension. The Egyptian military is now calling the shots and the former chief of the army, Field Marshal Abdul Fatah al-Sisi is now the favorite to become the next president. Tunisia is arguably the only Arab country which has made the most progress in trying to achieve the ideals and objectives of the Arab Spring. Yemen is facing a serious insurgency with al-Qaeda affiliated elements, which have also, alarmingly from the point of view of the U.S., shown their presence in Algeria, Mali, and elsewhere in North Africa.

    The above scenario means that U.S. interests dictate that it will remain committed to the Middle East. The conditions in the region are such that it just cannot afford to pull up its stakes and move eastward to the more peaceful and economically alluring prospects of East Asia. This is not to say that serious political problems are not bubbling under the surface in that region. The rise of China is one such issue. Chinese leaders have frequently repeated that its intentions toward its neighbors in East Asia are benign and that it is not interested in becoming the regional hegemony.

    This may be correct but it deflects from the fact that China, Japan, the Philippines, and other countries have territorial problems in the East and South China seas with China. If these problems remain unresolved and tensions continue to rise, armed clashes between China and its neighbors cannot be ruled out. This eventuality would pose another fundamental choice on the United States: should it or should it not intervene militarily on behalf of its allies (Japan and the Philippines) against China? Or should it remain neutral despite the provisions of the Japanese peace treaty which enjoins the U.S. to support Japan if it is militarily attacked? These are issues which do not admit of easy solutions. They will continue to be a preoccupation among Washington’s policy makers. The best overall outcome would be for the United States not to fish in the troubled waters but to emphasize to all the East Asian countries, to resolve their disputes peacefully according to the mechanisms available to them under the UN Charter.

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    General Elections in Afghanistan-Possible Portents

    May 20th, 2014



    By Azmat Hassan.

    It seems to be the season for general elections. The one in Afghanistan has just concluded; the one in India will take nine days of polling to conclude, while the legislative elections in Indonesia have also been initiated. This blog will therefore focus on the presidential elections in Afghanistan and what it portends for that country, for its neighbors, and for the U.S.-led coalition coming to the end of an exhausting war with the Taliban elements. Both sides have battled each other for over 12 years without either side having won or lost.

    The first noteworthy and heartening feature of the elections to elect a president in Afghanistan is the fact that it passed off relatively peacefully, notwithstanding Taliban threats to disrupt it. Considering that such an exercise has been conducted only twice before, in 2004 and 2009, both times when Hamid Karzai was elected president, the Afghans can rightly revel in this achievement. Also, unless something really untoward happens, the election will be the precursor of a peaceful transfer of power which is a new phenomenon in modern Afghan history which has had its share of coups and assassinations.

    Among the presidential aspirants the three who would be vying for the ultimate prize are reportedly former World Bank technocrat and finance minister Abdul Ghani; Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister under Karzai; and Zalmay Rassoul, another former foreign minister working for Karzai. It is worth recalling that the 2009 election — which was marred by widespread allegations of fraud — was intended to be decided in a run-off between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. However, the latter withdrew on the grounds that the election process in his view had been irremediably marred by fraud and rigging. It is also worth recalling that the 2009 elections were overseen by the United Nations (UN) representatives in Kabul. Peter Galbraith, the second senior official and a former American ambassador, fell out with his chief Kai Ede from Norway over the conduct of the elections.

    Galbraith felt strongly that the elections had been rigged in favor of the incumbent, Karzai. His superior, Kai Ede, felt differently and did not want to upset the apple cart of the elections. The spat between the two was decided apparently by the UN Secretary General who fired Galbraith from his position. So none of the 2009 drama fortunately informed the current election which was run by the Afghan Election Commission reasonably smoothly. Following a couple of Taliban attacks prior to the election only a few foreign monitors were present. However, this deficiency was reportedly made up by a large number of Afghan monitors who had undergone training over the previous years to supervise an event of this nature.

    Given the rugged nature of the Afghan topography, it will take some time for all the votes to be counted and for other formalities to be completed. The difficulties of doing this was made clear in photographs showing ballot boxes being dispatched to the remote regions of Afghanistan on the backs of donkeys. Another hopeful augury for Afghanistan’s future is the encouraging participation of Afghan women in the electoral process. According to the statistics compiled so far, around 60 percent of the eligible Afghan voters cast their votes. This is a much larger number compared to the two previous turnouts. Also, quite encouraging was the fact that the Afghan security forces were able to keep the Taliban at bay. It has been reported that the latter could not mount any attacks on election day as a show of strength. I am not sure whether the Taliban backed off as a part of some future strategy as previously they had shown an alarming propensity to attack sensitive installations even in the heart of Kabul. It would be premature to write off the power and influence of the Taliban especially in the South and East of this country of 25 million.

    One definite positive feature of the election from the U.S. point of view is that apparently all the major candidates have expressed support for signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States government. The Obama Administration was deeply frustrated by the inability of Karzai to sign the BSA under which around 10,000 U.S. soldiers would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. Perhaps this number will be supplemented by some coalition soldiers. These troops would advise the Afghan National Army (ANA) and not engage in direct combat. The other important effect if the BSA is signed by the incoming Afghan president would ensure continued foreign aid to Afghanistan. Experts on Afghanistan feel that without this continuing financial and military assistance the Afghan government in Kabul would collapse leading to chaotic conditions in the country.

    Whoever succeeds Karzai as president would be well advised to continue the process of negotiations — which has been an on-and-off affair between Karzai, the Americans, and the Taliban. The Taliban are not just going to fade away. On the contrary, they are likely, as the spring snows melt, to launch a major military offensive to test the mettle of the wobbly ANA. Their strategy will be to decouple the Pashtun elements within the ANA on grounds of ethnic solidarity with the Pashtun Taliban. If this happens, it would considerably weaken the ANA in the sense that the largest ethnic group (the Pashtuns) would no longer be represented in it. Therefore, the ability of the ANA to stand up to the Taliban would be a major question mark in the future unfolding of events. The last thing Afghanistan needs, which has been torn apart by three decades of continuous warfare, is more civil war which can only add to the daily miseries faced by the ordinary Afghan.

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    Municipal Elections in Turkey-Victory for Erdogan’s Party

    May 20th, 2014



    By Azmat Hassan.

    Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled Turkey for the past 12 years which makes him among the longest serving leaders since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. However, his political fortunes had taken a significant downturn last year through his somewhat ham-handed attempts to turn a part of Gezi Park — a historical landmark in Turkey — into a replica of an Ottoman military barracks. Gezi Park is a much beloved space in Istanbul. Vociferous demonstrations against the attempts to change its topography were also interpreted by observers as reflecting mounting opposition to Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. The law enforcement authorities were ordered to be fierce in breaking up the protests which resulted in a few deaths and a large number of injuries to the demonstrators. In the end, Erdogan had to bow to the will of the demonstrators and postpone the project.

    The other major setback suffered by the domineering Prime Minister who may or may not be a victim of hubris after 12 years of incumbency, were the widespread allegations of corruption extending to his family members, ministers and other close associates. Audio recordings of Erdogan talking to his son to cover up alleged financial shenanigans surfaced in the Turkish social media. Erdogan claimed that the recordings had been doctored to besmirch him. He also railed against Fethulla Gülen, a spiritual leader with a large following including in the police and the judiciary. Güllen had been his one-time ally who had become his fierce political opponent, and was reportedly orchestrating a malicious campaign of defamation against him. Gülen lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. He has extensive business interests in Turkey and abroad. If Erdogan is to be believed, it is Güllen’s supporters in the police and judiciary that have mounted a vendetta against him and his party with a view to enmeshing him in alleged cases of financial wrongdoing and thereby seriously eroding his political standing. Time will probably bring out what the factual position is and whether the charges against Erdogan and his allies are true or not. What is true is that in order to safeguard his political position, Erdogan has carried out a wide ranging overhaul of Turkey’s prosecutorial services and judiciary, aimed at weeding out the Gülenists. For his part, Gülen has denied interfering in Turkish politics. The resulting fracas between Erdogan and Gülen has led to political destabilization in a country which has traditionally been polarized between secular and conservative elements.

    It was in this backdrop that the municipal elections in Turkey which have just concluded were widely seen as a confidence vote in Erdogan and his policies. Erdogan himself had depicted the local elections as a referendum on his rule. Partial results on March 30 showed the AK Party with more than 44 percent support overall and ahead in the key contests in the cities of Istanbul and Ankara. There is not much doubt once the final vote has been tallied, to suggest that this represents a significant victory for Erdogan. It would almost certainly restore his political fortunes. It is surmised that Erdogan wishes to contest the Turkish presidency which is a largely symbolic office next year once his term as Prime Minister comes to an end. He could get an impetus for achieving this aspiration on the coattails of the impressive show of popular support which he has received.

    Such support is predicated to a large extent on the favorable economic indicators in Turkey during the decade-plus stewardship of the AKP. Turkey in 2014 has come a long way from 2002. It is a much more prosperous and confident nation, notwithstanding the secularist-conservative divide which has been almost endemic in Turkish society. Another great achievement of the Erdogan years has been his success in attenuating the power of the army. The army, since 1923 had become the self-appointed guardian of the Kemalist Revolution [the orientation towards secularism imposed on Turkey by the founder and first president Kemal Attaturk]. Under Erdogan, 60 senior Turkish army officers have been imprisoned for plotting a coup against him. Such an act would have been unthinkable a few years back. Affirming the supremacy of civilian leadership, instead of that of an army junta, would count among Erdogan’s achievements. It appears that his political star is far from faded and most probably there is a political future ahead of him.

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    Crisis in Ukraine

    March 5th, 2014

    By Azmat Hassan.!/fileImage/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/original_300/ukraine-crisis-russia-exercises.jpg

    The Sochi Winter Olympics, a magnificent obsession of the inscrutable Russian President Vladimir Putin ended on a high note for him and his countrymen. However, hardly had the Sochi glow faded that the many months long simmering crisis of governance in Ukraine boiled over. The allegedly kleptocratic Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev pursuing safety in Russia, after being ousted by the Ukrainian Parliament. In the past few weeks, in an extraordinary bout of repression, his police had reportedly killed around 80 protesters and injured hundreds, in a futile attempt to quell a widespread rebellion against his oligarchical rule. The interim government in Kiev pending fresh elections had made the damning charge that Yanukovych and his cronies had siphoned off billions of dollars and stashed them abroad. Dolefully, the new government proclaimed that the Treasury was empty. Ukraine was bankrupt.

    Ukraine became independent in 1991 following the dissolution of the grandiloquently styled “Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics” (USSR). It is a large country of 46 million with an area of more than 230,000 square miles. Included in Ukraine’s territory is the strategically crucial Crimean Peninsula which is home to Russia’s military assets including its Black Sea fleet. In the Peninsula’s population of around 2 million, media reports suggest that the majority are of Russian extraction. Russia also has strong economic linkages in Eastern Ukraine which also contains a large ethnic minority of Russians.

    It was inevitable that the Russian leadership would assess, extremely negatively, the downfall of their ally Yanukovych. It must have particularly rankled Putin that having promised Yanukovych a $15 billion bailout to redress Ukraine’s parlous economic condition, in return for maintaining strong ties with Russia, Yanukovych would not only have quietened the protests of his countrymen, but also very importantly from Moscow’s perspective, kept Ukraine in the sphere of Russian influence. Probably Putin had not fully anticipated that Yanukovych’s brutal repression against the persistent demonstrations calling for his ouster and the establishment of strong links with the European Union (EU), would bring Ukraine — or more accurately, its western part — to the boiling point. The fact that the street had defeated the oligarchy was an unsavory prospect for the authoritarian Putin for whom it could become an unwelcome precedent.

    Given his secretive personality — not unrelated to his KGB past — Putin is putting incremental pressure on the newly anointed interim government in Kiev. He is doing this by infiltrating his troops to “safe guard” Russian bases in Crimea. After the fiasco of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan more than three decades ago, and the attendant humiliation it visited on the then-Soviet Union, the second global super power, a less militarily robust Russia today under Putin is unlikely to try the Afghanistan option in Ukraine.

    The reaction of the United States (US) and the European leaders has so far largely been one of ritual condemnation of Russian moves in Ukraine. Despite its reduced power, Russia is still a nuclear weapon-wielding power, and a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Putin probably knows that neither the US, nor the UN, nor NATO is likely to threaten him with a military response. Yes, there will be diplomatic and economic costs for Russia which it can probably absorb without too much pain. It should be remembered that Russia has vast deposits of oil, gas, and other natural resources which it exploits to maintain its political and economic clout.

    It is important for all the political actors affected by the Ukraine crisis to use diplomatic methods to resolve it. There is no military solution to it. There are simmering tensions between the Russian and non-Russian components of Ukraine’s population mix, which in today’s charged atmosphere could easily escalate to further bloodshed and turmoil in that unfortunate country. The new leadership in Kiev of course requires a show of support, both financial and political, by the western leaders. Also importantly, these leaders should counsel the Ukrainian leadership to make a special effort to include ethnic Russians in the governmental apparatus. This could allay the apprehensions of Putin and others that the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine would be marginalized in the future politics of Ukraine.

    Obama and Putin, and to a lesser extent the main EU leaders, will have to show statesmanship of a high order. It was a good move for Obama to have reached out recently to Putin for an extended exchange of views via telephone. Media reports suggest that Obama in part acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine. Apparently in tandem with this conciliatory statement he also cautioned him not to overreach himself by ordering an outright invasion of Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine. Such a move would be against international law and would not be countenanced by the vast majority of the international community.

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