When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast

And why it must do so again

The pirates of Puntland made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful. And they also ran out of luck, when among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another something mysteriously important. And suddenly, the world’s navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to sail to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Even the European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa.”

Now, piracy off Somalia presents both threat to humanitarian relief operations, international security and to international commerce. And both the UN security council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. And as Seth Weinberger writes, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem—in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?). [Security Dilemmas]

The question, though, is how long these navies will stay in the region. While the United States and its allies have the logistics and support infrastructure in the region, other naval forces will have to work out arrangements if they are to maintain forces for an extended period of time.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian navy to the waters off Somalia. Not only does this position disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea.

During the prime mininstership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast. [David D Laitin/LOC]

According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, “it is almost impossible, and prohibitively expensive, for the Indian Navy to send two warships and a tanker, some 2,000 nm from our west coast, and keep them on patrol for 365 days a year in the “safety corridor”. He argues that apart from placing armed “Sea Marshalls” on board commercial ships passing through the region, the Indian navy should partner those of the west and Russia to patrol the region.

The long-term solution, of course, lies on land: extricating Somalia from its civil war, and stabilising the entire Horn of Africa. That’s a tall order. In the meantime, it is necessary to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony has more. Information Dissemination & Eagle1 are two excellent blogs covering maritime security issues. A Chatham House paper by Roger Middleton on the subject.

Another Cold War?

The West risks causing one

In a recent exchange on on this article, Zorawar Daulet Singh (who had covered this theme in the November 2007 issue of Pragati) had this to say:

It was and is not in Russian interest to start a Cold War. But the facts are pretty clear, the conflict in Caucasus was precipitated by the US who egged on the Georgians. The US completely miscalculated the Russian response, assuming it would bark but not bite (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the last 15 years, where Russia was too weak to respond with a credible use of force). But its been increasingly clear over the last two years or so, that the Kremlin has the economic/political/military coherence to respond with multiple instruments on its near abroad. Clearly, the US didnt take any of this seriously, and kept pushing eastwards.

Russia has now demonstrated that US/NATO post-1991 gains in Eastern Europe have reached their territorial limits in terms of new states that can now enter the western alliance, which is why they demonstrated their resolve using Georgia as an example for Russia’s red lines. (For instance, Ukraine could very well be the next battleground.)

But note what Russian President Dimitri Medvedev is saying—Russia does not wish a cold war, but is ready for it if the US wishes to raise the ante. At the same time, Old Europe will need to determine whether rising instability/conflict on their frontiers is more importan than Russian gas.

Bottom line: the Russians didnt start this Cold War, but will respond in kind if US doesn’t back down. Tangentially, US actions might be motivated in part by atleast the ongoing presidential campaign and the prevailing security establishment’s objectives to buttress the probability of a victory for Republican candidate John McCain. (The assumption is a reheating of the Cold War would diminish Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s chances in November).

Russia and NATO’s Afghan supply routes

Time for the West to mend fences with Iran’s neighbours

It’s unclear if US and NATO policy-makers are looking at maps of Afghanistan and its surroundings. How do they think they are going to supply their troops in landlocked Afghanistan? The supply lines through Pakistan are coming under increasing attack by Taliban militants. Bad relations with Iran mean that a route from the Persian Gulf transiting Iran is out of bounds. And now, an escalation in tensions with Russia could mean that yet another route is under threat.

It is unlikely that the US and NATO can afford to lose these supply routes, not least in the face of a resurgent Taliban.

Western strategists should pull out their maps. Even as they prevent relations with Russia from deteriorating any further, they would do well to begin engaging Iran. [See lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement]

Pragati Podcast – August 2008

Debating Afghanistan policy

Should India send troops to Afghanistan?. Listen to the debate in the August 2008 podcast edition of Pragati.

Listen Online (17:30 mins)
[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/pragati/Podcast_5_-_Issue_17_-_August_2008.mp3]

Download MP3 (8 MB)


American pundits show signs of irony deficiency

No realpolitik please, we’re Americans

Many American geopolitical pundits are behaving just like their economic counterparts. If the latter believed that a long period of growth and low inflation meant the demise of the business cycle, the former convinced themselves that the long period of relative peace between the world’s great powers indicated the “end of history”. Then facts intervened.

In today’s Washington Post, Ronald D. Asmus and Richard Holbrooke argue that “this moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path.” Perhaps it was the supposition that was wrong. They go on to argue that the US needs “to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine—most likely the next target in Moscow’s efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony.” They pull off a remarkable feat—they condemn realpolitik and advocate it. Of course, they only condemn realpolitik when it is practised by the Russians.

And in another essay in the same newspaper, Robert Kagan (John McCain’s foreign policy advisor) writes that “Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even — though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities — the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives.” It is, of course, understandable that Mr Kagan should use the phrase “return of history” as that’s the title of his recent book. But it is amusing to note that “the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives” in the 21st century should be shocking.

The irony deficiency is bipartisan. The New York Times reports: “Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”” So what is NATO expansion but the Russian calculus in reverse?

But it is Dick Cheney who takes the cake. “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” he told Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, who had launched the war, “and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the US.” Surely, Mr Cheney can’t be thinking that the consequences of answering it will be any less serious?

Update: It’s spreading! The FT catches it now.

Russia’s behaviour in the southern Caucasus is a reversion to spheres of influence and balance of power politics. If Moscow really believes the west is behaving the same way, that is the sort of difference a new strategic partnership with the EU would resolve. This way, it will never get one. In fact, Russia will never get to where it wants to be in the 21st century by behaving like a 19th-century power. [FT]

Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics

And the dubious wisdom of provoking a stronger, aggressive adversary

A military misadventure under the cover of the Olympics did happen. But in South Ossetia (where?), a Russian majority region in Georgia.

Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic has been the site of a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. In the military space, the Georgian armed forces have, on the one hand, have drawn into a close relationship with the United States. Russian troops, on the other hand, have used their presence in South Ossetia (where they are peacekeepers in the conflict between the South Ossetian rebel militia and the Georgian armed forces) to harass Georgia.

Now, Georgians would rightly have a lot to complain about this unhappy state of affairs. But considering he has at most 30,000 troops and political support from the West, what could have caused Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to provoke a war with Russia? The Georgians might have calculated that they would take Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, cut off the tunnel and the sole road link that connects to Russia, under cover of the Olympics before the Russians had a chance to react. There being no airstrips in the region, the Russians would be hard pressed to deploy troops and equipment quickly, buying the Georgians time to secure a favourable diplomatic settlement.

At this time, it looks like the Georgians miscalculated. Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali and the Russians escalated sharply in response. President Saakashvili called for the US to intervene—but other than support at the UN, the United States isn’t going to enter into a military conflict against Russia. In any case, assuming that taking Tskhinvali and shutting off the road would end the matter was foolhardy—for Russia might well have decided (and could yet decide) to open a new front wherever it chose to.

However this conflict might end, two things are clear. First, Russia has made its Vladimir Putin’s “this far and no further” warning to NATO’s expansion more credible. If the United States and the European Union do not try to challenge this position, it is possible that Eurasian balance-of-power will move towards a new stability. This need not imply a new “cold war” as some suggest. Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.

As for South Ossetia, the West can hardly raise any issues of principle should Russia go to the extent of annexing it entirely. Prime Minister Putin has only to cite the recent example of the US and EU position on Kosovo. For surely, if the Kosovars had a case to break away from Serbia, South Ossetians should hardly be blamed for breaking away from Georgia? Shoe, other foot, and all that.

Related Links: A number of good posts on this issue in the blogosphere. Starting from Nikolas Gvosdev who has several posts covering the issue. Robert Farley has two detailed ones (via the Duck of Minerva, where Daniel Nexon offers his take). Richard Gowan contemplates international options at Global Dashboard.

My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power

Why India must strengthen its military presence in Afghanistan

In today’s op-ed in Mint Sushant and I call for India to increase its troop levels in Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of the following appeared in print.

Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint
Image: Malay Karmakar/Mint

Afghanistan exported US$1 billion worth of drugs last year. In contrast, its pomegranate exports amounted to only US$1 million. Poppies or pomegranates, the Afghan farmers who grow them earn around the same amount of money—around US$2000 per hectare every year. If somehow they could be made to grow a lot more pomegranates, and a lot less poppy, Afghanistan, India and the world would be a much better place indeed.

That’s because growing pomegranates and other legitimate cash crops requires water, electricity and most importantly access to foreign markets. Now, much of the international assistance flowing into Afghanistan aims to build and repair dams and connect villages to the electricity network. India, for instance, is financing irrigation projects in Northwest Afghanistan and power projects in Herat and Kabul.
But the one Indian project that could transform Afghanistan’s economic landscape is the just completed 218km road link connecting the town of Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj adjacent to the border with Iran. From there Iranian roads run to the port of Chabahar on the Persian Gulf. This will be Afghanistan’s fastest overland route to the sea. Last year, because they had to be air-flown, only 1000 of the 40,000 metric tonnes of Afghan pomegranates made it to markets in India, Dubai, Singapore and Pakistan. With the new road, Afghan farmers can export a larger fraction of their produce to the rapidly expanding Indian market. The competition from this route will compel Pakistan to review its policy of throttling the Afghan transit trade. In time, the Zaranj-Delaram road can be expanded into a trade and energy corridor that connects landlocked Central Asia to Indian and global markets.

This sounds wonderful, and it is. The problem, however, is that its success hinges on two key factors: on Afghanistan’s stability and on the nature of relations between India, Iran and the United States.
Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: Pomegranates, polls and power”

More on India’s military presence in Afghanistan

Over at Broadsword (linkthanks Pragmatic, Rohit), Ajai Shukla makes a curious case against India strengthening its military presence in Afghanistan.

To now throw troops into what will inevitably become a bloody struggle for power risks smudging India’s benevolent image.

Instead, Indian planners should be considering that, perhaps three years along, US and NATO forces may pull out of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai would be history, and Afghanistan itself divided into different zones of control. In that Afghanistan, India’s physical presence may well be reduced to zero. The ITBP would have pulled out; development projects would have shut down; elements politically hostile to India may well control large parts of the country; the embassy and India’s consulates may well have closed shop. This is what happened in 1996; today, only American and European support—fickle, and already wavering—prevents a return to that time.

But despite those threats, and the occasional cross-border foray, western forces in Afghanistan can hardly influence events in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Only the Pakistan army can do that, but remains unwilling to….The army brass in Pakistan—which will eventually have the final word on this—has not yet come round to accepting that the military has little choice but to transform the NWFP from a sanctuary to a battlefield.

Without that realisation in Rawalpindi, a couple of years more of rising casualties in Afghanistan could well trigger a US and NATO pullout.[Broadsword]

Now, one part of Mr Shukla’s argument is reasonable: that it is crucial for India to consider the effect its level of military presence has on the local population. It is difficult to fathom the logic of the rest of his arguments.

Mr Shukla underestimates the US commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. Far from even talking about cutting and running, both presidential candidates have committed to reinforce American military presence in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is upping the ante in the Afghan theatre. If the situation can be cast as a battle of resolves, then a “realisation in Rawalpindi” is more likely than a pullout by the United States.

In this situation, the prospect of India deploying more troops to Afghanistan can change the strategic calculations of the Pakistani brass. As Lieutenant-General (retired) Talat Masood writes, the Pakistani army continues to think that the Taliban can be used as frontline options against US troops along the Durand Line (just as it uses jihadis against the Indian army). But the prospect of Indian troops joining the fray, albeit in Afghan territory, would discourage the Pakistani army from pursuing this course. And even if it doesn’t, it still makes sense for India to prevent Pakistan from repeating its 1996 performance in Afghanistan, one that had severe consequences for India’s national security.

Believing and acting on a pessimistic prognosis might well bring it about. Far from discarding the military option out of pessimism or concern for the erosion of ‘soft power’, it is important to keep it on the table.

Little Games

Connecting the dots in Waziristan, Afghanistan, Islamabad, Davos and London

The United States ‘offers’ to send special forces and military assistance to the Pakistani army fighting the Taliban militia in South Waziristan and other tribal areas. Politicians, pundits and even ordinary people around the world publicly express worries about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into jihadi hands.

Baitullah Mehsud, until recently the anointed leader of the Pakistan Taliban, gives an interview to Al Jazeera, stating that it was the United States that posed a threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, not he.

Around this time, Mullah Omar—he with only one eye—sacks Baitullah Mehsud, for attacking Pakistani forces instead focussing on the US-NATO troops on the Afghanistan side of the border.

General Musharraf is in Europe finding it hard going answering questions about his own role in Pakistan’s political crisis. Around this time, back home in Rawalpindi, General Khalid Kidwai, the most public face of Pakistan’s nuclear command, reassures the media on custodial control. And then, Pakistan announces that it has raised the state of alert over nuclear weapons.

So what’s happening?

Mullah Omar’s public signal—that Afghanistan should be the focus of the Taliban insurgency—indicates that he would rather not have US forces fighting on the Pakistan side of the border, sandwiching the insurgents. It also serves Musharraf’s interests. He can now tell the insistent Americans that their ‘help’ is less necessary now.

Baitullah Mehsud’s statement on the danger to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons sounds identical to what the Gul & Co faction of the military establishment would argue. The message is directed at the Pakistani people, but it is almost certain that the signal is also meant for external parties with an interest in the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Here’s an hypothesis: Musharraf & Co and Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban have found reason to strengthen their long-standing alignment. The threat of US military intervention in Pakistan have compelled them to distance Gul & Co and the Baitullah-led Pashtuns on the Pakistani side. But this not a ‘hard’ split—for Mullah Omar & Co can’t do without help from the Pakistani side. And Baitullah Mehsud & Co can’t do without access to the lucrative drugs smuggling trade centred around Afghanistan.

That leaves us with the announcement about the raised alert levels. Why announce this publicly, at a time when General Kidwai & Co are playing down the risk of losing custodial control? Well, Musharraf probably reckons this kind of news will make European audiences more favourably disposed to his protestations of indispensability.