New Age Islam Edit Bureau
21 February 2018
Challenge for US: Taliban’s Propaganda Has Evolved
By S Mudassir Ali Shah
India Must Impose Punishing Sanctions on the Maldives
By Brahma Chellaney
Mr Modi In Palestine
By Salman Haidar
Canadian Bathos: Justin Trudeau’s Vote-Banks
By C. Raja Mohan
Compiled By New Age Islam Edit Bureau
Challenge For US: Taliban’s Propaganda Has Evolved
Feb 21, 2018
In an uncharacteristic overture, the Afghan Taliban recently offered the Americans dialogue on ending the 17-year-old war, urging US citizens and lawmakers to mount pressure on the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
Amid intensifying bloodshed in much of Afghanistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid held out the proposal in an open letter — a 10-page rebuke of the American military campaign, which began in late 2001.
The dialogue offer comes almost a month after two deadly assaults in Kabul claimed almost 200 civilian lives. Conditions for Afghan security forces and Nato-led troops on the battlefield, meanwhile, are fast deteriorating.
The increasingly lethal impact of the armed conflict on civilians can be best gauged from the fact that more than 10,000 non-combatant Afghans lost their lives or suffered injuries in 2017. At least 3,438 people were killed and 7,015 wounded.
The chilling statistics from the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office, which may not fully highlight the unspeakable human suffering inflicted on the ordinary people, clearly prove the Taliban are still a force to reckon with.
Even if snubbed by Washington and Kabul, the letter is reflective of a gradual evolution in Taliban’s propaganda war and concurrently represents a struggle between moderates and hardliners within the group. It may also resonate with anti-war Americans, who genuinely demand better utilisation of their tax dollars.
Objectively speaking, the invitation should demonstrably influence Washington’s new policy for South Asia. America’s positive response to the call for peace parleys would vindicate its claim of seeking a negotiated end to the war and stabilising the region at large.
But the Trump team ostensibly remains in a combative and rejectionist mood. “The Taliban statement does not show willingness to engage in peace talks. Their horrific attacks in Kabul speak louder than these words,” the state department spokesperson said, rejecting the move as a bluff.
Sticking to its guns, the United States wants the Afghan Taliban to engage with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in discussions on charting a path to peace. However, the insurgent movement is unwilling to talk to a President it views as an American stooge.
While the Taliban brand the unity government as a puppet regime with no authority, US officials appear to be divided on reaching out to the insurgents. For obvious reasons, the divisions spell bad news for the long-suffering Afghans.
Trump is the third successive US President to ramp up the military campaign in Afghanistan. Without learning from the missteps of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he has ruled out communicating directly with the Taliban.
But secretary of state Rex Tillerson has hinted at US willingness for talks with what he calls moderate voices in the Taliban. He has also suggested that reconcilable militants could become part of the Afghan government.
By the same token, deputy secretary of state John Sullivan also hopes communication with the Taliban would happen in due course of time. Nonetheless, he has not explained when conditions would warrant such contacts.
Now is the time for hawks in the Trump administration to see the reality that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and peace talks need to be given a fair chance. Despite spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of troops, the US is nowhere close to achieving its objectives.
Terrorist threats persist, Al Qaeda is regrouping and the illicit drug commerce continues to flourish in the country. And that’s why the US should heed the Taliban’s argument: “If the use of force continues for another 100 years, the outcome will be the same...”
A spike in coalition air strikes notwithstanding, the Taliban control large swathes of the countryside. Undeterred by the heightened bombing blitz, the fighters have effectively foiled Trump’s much-touted strategy to break the stalemate.
Several rounds of fruitless negotiations between Afghan actors have taken place in Pakistan, Dubai, Russia, China and Turkey. But all such attempts have been scuttled by US actions.
Regardless of the frustrating outcome of previous meetings, Afghan spymaster Masoom Stanikzai and national security adviser Mohammed Hanif Atmar are said to be in backdoor negotiations with representatives of the guerrilla outfit.
Intriguingly, however, the High Peace Council is being kept out of the loop. Given lingering dust-ups in the ruling coalition, neither of the two officials has so far bothered taking the peace panel on board. Even then, the door for reconciliation has been left ajar.
Pursuing an outright victory on the battlefield or bulking up US military resources in Afghanistan is going to be an untenable course of action. But Trump seemingly clings to his illogical position of “fight now, talk later”.
Feb 20, 2018
China, the sole defender of the Maldives’ embattled autocrat, Abdulla Yameen, has issued an open threat through a State mouthpiece: If India militarily intervenes in the Maldives, Beijing won’t “sit idly by” but will “take action to stop” it. This essentially is an empty threat because China has no credible capability to sustain a military operation far from its shores. Despite China’s rising naval power, taking on India in its own maritime backyard will be a fool’s errand.
India could call China’s bluff through quick military action that deposes Yameen and installs the jailed Supreme Court chief justice as the interim president to oversee fair elections under United Nations’ supervision. In truth, an Indian intervention is not on the cards, in part because such action would trample on the principles India has long championed.
India has carefully weighed all the factors and resolved not to intervene at present in the vicious politics of the increasingly radicalised Maldives. If the crisis there were to escalate to civil war-like conditions, with street clashes erupting in the capital Malé, where two-fifths of the nation’s total population lives, India could, of course, intervene in the name of “responsibility to protect”, the moral principle Nato invoked to counterproductively overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
India had a narrow window of opportunity to intervene immediately after Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed many, including his elderly half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose dictatorship lasted three decades largely because Indian paratroopers in 1988 salvaged his presidency from coup plotters who seized control of much of Malé. Before Yameen fell out with Gayoom, he actually ran a family dictatorship, with Gayoom’s daughter as his foreign minister.
Beijing’s threat at this stage is not only a Doklam-style psychological warfare against India but, more importantly, also an effort to curry favour with the internationally isolated Yameen. By claiming to shield him from India’s potential action, China wants to expand its strategic footprint in the Maldives, where it has already acquired several of the country’s 1,190 atolls for projects. The Maldives’ first and only democratically-elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted at gunpoint by Gayoom’s pro-Islamist cronies, claims China’s “land grab” has netted 17 islets.
While India has wisely refrained from any precipitous action in response to Yameen’s unbridled lurch toward authoritarianism, it faces a pressing foreign-policy challenge extending beyond the Maldivian crisis. Make no mistake: India’s rapidly eroding influence in its strategic backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking strategy. India’s inaction and missteps have aided China’s aggressive diplomacy, with Chinese clout increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. With Beijing seeking to establish a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives, China is opening an oceanic threat against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong.
On the Maldives, India’s moment of truth came not with the latest emergency proclamation but in February 2012 when Nasheed made desperate phone calls to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pleading for an Indian intervention against the Islamists besieging his office. Nasheed, however, had roiled New Delhi with his overtures to Beijing, including personally inaugurating the newly-established Chinese embassy on the day Singh arrived in Malé for a Saarc summit. India’s refusal to take a long-term strategic view and prevent Nasheed’s overthrow has had important consequences, including empowering the Islamists and ceding more space to China. Just months after Nasheed’s ouster, the Maldives expropriated its main international airport from India’s GMR Infrastructure.
The Maldives has increasingly acted against India’s strategic interests with impunity. Six months ago, it sent New Delhi a chilling message by welcoming three Chinese frigates, which docked in Malé and Girifushi Island, and imparted special training to Maldivian troops. Yameen amended the constitution in 2015 to legalise foreign ownership of land in a way tailored for China, requiring a minimal $1-billion construction project that reclaims at least 70% of the desired land from the ocean. New Delhi’s carrot-only approach also emboldened Yameen more recently to sign a free-trade agreement with China.
India must now start wielding the stick. With other democratic powers, it should impose punishing sanctions. However, the right powers to militarily intervene in the Maldives are the United States and Britain because, unlike India, they have little to lose and democracy promotion is a legitimate foreign-policy plank for them. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean threatens not just India’s security but also the Diego Garcia-centred Anglo-American naval pre-eminence in the region.
Mr Modi in Palestine
February 21, 2018
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Palestine was a reminder of the close ties between India and this neighbour across the Arabian Sea. India and Palestine have been historically close as friends and partners, and over the last several decades there has been a notable development of their relations, ever since they emerged from the colonial thrall at much the same time, to take their place in the comity of nations.
India as a more substantial entity has been through a less taxing transition while Palestine has struggled from the start, having been buffeted by events that were largely beyond its control. It is a long and complicated story that is not over yet, but notwithstanding the vicissitude of events, India and Palestine have been able to build a strong association together.
India-Arab ties run deep and have now been revived and strengthened in the far-reaching post-war global reordering which saw them emerge as close partners and associates in NAM ~ which as an organization may be in eclipse today but was a badge of independence in its time, showing refusal, then as now, to be governed by the preoccupations and interests of the powerful countries that sought to dominate the globe.
Relations between India and Palestine were steered in considerable measure by Yasser Arafat, who was frequently in and out of New Delhi where he knew everyone and was welcomed as an old friend and comrade in a shared struggle, which position he was able to achieve despite the weakness of the state structure he represented. Mr Modi was able to pay appropriate respect to the memory of this notable figure who organized his people effectively and projected their needs before the world community.
For India, no less important than conserving and projecting its independent character on the world stage is the preservation of its secular identity. This was particularly relevant to its dealings within its neighbourhood, where maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with the many Islamic countries abutting India was from the start one of the important objectives of Indian policy. These are long-term objectives that have been well enunciated over the years and were once more to be seen when Mr Modi visited Palestine a few days ago. During his visit he made a pitch for further developing the long-established ties between India and Palestine.
Unlike many of the other Arab countries of the region, Palestine has very limited natural resources, having been bypassed by the oil cornucopia from which many others have benefited. It has also suffered from the instability that has afflicted the region as a whole, but notwithstanding the many problems it has had to face Palestine has maintained its position and strengthened its state structure. Visits like that of Mr Modi have a contribution to make in this regard, for they lift the Palestinian profile and emphasize its status as an independent actor on the world stage.
If Palestine has been beset with problems since its emergence, this owes much to the unresolved issues it has faced in its relations with Israel, part of the historic Arab-Israel strife in the Middle East. Differences between them have been punctuated by bouts of military clashes making this one of the most volatile areas of the world. No answer to the core problems has yet been found and there is little sign of improved conditions to encourage hope of an improved outcome in the future.
But some of the regional statesmen have continued with the quest, and have on occasion shown extraordinary courage and persistence in trying to calm things down, and have taken extraordinary risks in pursuit of their mission. Thus the effort has never been abandoned, and though India is not directly involved, it has made a consistent contribution to the cause of regional peace and tranquillity.
Mr Modi’s visit took place at a time of more than ordinary questioning and controversy in the Middle East, owing to an unexpected initiative by the USA. That country is the ever-reliable friend to Israel with which it has developed very close ties over the years. One of the important matters on which Israel has sought US backing and support is the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel, which is an emotional and controversial matter.
For many years the USA resisted the request without rejecting it outright, and the request seemed destined to join the many difficult international issues whose time had not yet come, and perhaps would never come, but that was to reckon without the active intervention of President Trump: where others had hesitated, he plunged ahead, taking the bold decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
This important step was not to be implemented immediately, and even now the arrangements for displacing Tel Aviv as the capital in place of Jerusalem are yet to take final shape. But there has been turmoil in the Arab countries as a result of the US decision, with extensive street demonstrations against the US leader. The fact that little if anything was gained for US policy in the region did not act as any sort of deterrent.
India’s position on this issue was conspicuously at odds with that of USA. In recent times these two countries have drawn closer and have found themselves making common cause on several important matters, but the status of Jerusalem was not one of them. India’s notable show of solidarity with Arab opinion on this issue has served to enhance its good relations with the Arab world and has come as a disappointment to the Israeli leadership.
Apart from the unexpected boost to US-Israel ties as a result of President Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, there were other significant developments involving these parties, including what was described as talks between the USA and Israel to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Like practically every issue in that contested region, the matter of the settlements has a long and disputed past.
The Israeli leader, Mr Netanyahu, said publicly that he had been holding discussions with the USA on the possibility of Israel annexing some Jewish settlements in the West Bank: as was only to be expected, his statement has been condemned in the Arab lands, where details are still awaited of which pieces of territory could be affected, how action could be taken on this sensitive issue.
The broader political questions that came up on the occasion of Mr Modi’s visit captured much of the public attention, but the parties also took advantage of the opportunity to strengthen their cooperation on economic and technical cooperation. India is a reliable and valued partner in these areas and the PM’s visit, the first of its kind to Palestine, gives a good base on which to build for the next phase of the relationship.
February 20, 2018
That domestic politics often trumps the enlightened pursuit of national interest abroad is not news. In most countries, especially democracies, the cultivation of narrowly-based domestic constituencies for electoral reasons has its unfortunate consequences for the conduct of foreign policy.
Delhi’s perennial focus on elections of one kind or another makes its leaders quite sensitive to the domestic political considerations of India’s foreign interlocutors. But Delhi is struggling to make sense of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s political indulgence of Sikh extremists in Canada. To be sure, Sikhs form a third of the Indian community in Canada of roughly 1.2 million or 3 per cent of Canadian population. That only a small section of Sikhs is hostile to Delhi makes Trudeau’s approach truly baffling.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is more than eager to serenade visiting leaders in his home state, Gujarat, did not travel to Ahmedabad to be with Trudeau on Monday. This underlines the new cooling that is enveloping the relationship.
On the face of it, the Canadian PM’s visit is indeed a valuable opportunity to clear the air on Trudeau’s attitude towards Sikh separatism. But it is not apparent at the writing of this column whether he is ready to affirm a strong commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of India and dissociate himself from the Khalistanis. Trudeau’s team has been sending conflicting signals even after he landed in India on Saturday.
Delhi is disappointed that despite its repeated efforts, including at the highest political levels, to flag the question of Sikh separatism in Canada, Ottawa has seemed reluctant to address India’s concerns. Delhi, however, has rightly decided it must stay engaged with Trudeau, who leads one of the world’s top economies and is a member of the Group of Seven advanced nations. But Delhi has good reasons to keep its fingers crossed.
It is entirely possible that Trudeau’s visit, instead of putting aside the Khalistan issue, could end up aggravating the differences with India. Those with longer memories in Delhi worry that Trudeau’s trip could turn out to be the worst diplomatic disaster in India since Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1997.
Although the Queen came to India to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Independence, a series of incidents ruined the visit. As the Queen travelled to Pakistan before arriving in India, the foreign secretary of the Labour government, Robin Cook, told the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that London could help find a “just settlement” of the Kashmir dispute. At a moment when Jammu and Kashmir was on the boil, Delhi was provoked into an outrage.
Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral responded to the British offer to mediate by dismissing the United Kingdom a “third rate power”. When the Queen visited Amritsar to lay a wreath at the memorial for the martyrs of the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre, her husband Prince Philip was quoted as saying the the number of deaths may have been “exaggerated”. A scuffle with the Indian media on the tarmac, as the royal aircraft prepared to take-off at the end of tour, wrapped up the troubled trip.
Two decades later, the Indian media is a much larger and far more challenging entity that can amplify even the smallest of Trudeau’s missteps into a huge political controversy. Whether Trudeau’s visit will help or harm bilateral relations is likely to be decided in Amritsar. Trudeau is scheduled to visit the Harmandir Sahib on Wednesday.
One would have thought that Trudeau’s meeting with Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, would send a clear political signal about Canada’s rejection of Sikh extremism. After all, the Khalistanis have especially targeted Singh. But there have been conflicting signals from Canada on whether Trudeau wants to meet Singh or not. Over the weekend, Canadian media cited officials saying that Trudeau had no plans to meet with the CM. Later reports, and Singh himself have suggested the opposite. It seems that efforts to arrange a meeting between the two are ongoing.
It is indeed tragic that India-Canada relations have become a political hostage to the Khalistan question. What a fall from the exalted tradition of liberal internationalism that once bound Delhi and Ottawa. In the early years of the Cold War, India and Canada sought to create political breathing room for middle powers in a fraught bipolar world.
At the bilateral level, civil nuclear collaboration between the two countries was a shining example of scientific internationalism during the Cold War. India and Canada did fall out when Delhi conducted a nuclear test in 1974, but their bitter arguments were at least about the principles of non-proliferation.
It is a pity that Canada’s vote-bank politics have grounded a relationship that was ready for take-off just before Trudeau’s election. Modi and Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper, had unveiled in 2015 a vision for strategic partnership that was to build on the many shared interests between the two countries. One can only hope that Trudeau and his team have the political will to put the partnership with India back on track and skill to navigate this difficult moment.