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Pakistan’s internal dynamics strain subcontinental peace

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times, October 18, 2014

terrorist-pakIndia is a confident and vibrant nation, while Pakistan — created in 194 — remains a country that is adrift and still searching for a national identity. So, the India-Pakistan “peace process” has produced a lot of process over the decades but no peace.

In fact, every time a Pakistani leader moves to build better ties with India, the step is undermined by Pakistan’s politically strong military masterminding a serious cross-border attack or terrorist strike. In recent months, the Pakistani military establishment — which includes the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — has actively sought to undercut Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and derail any prospect of a rapprochement with India.

It is not an accident that this month’s border tensions and artillery duels have followed a power struggle in Pakistan that culminated with Sharif’s wings being clipped and the military reasserting authority in foreign policy.

Sharif has emerged as a diminished figure and the main loser from a crisis triggered by street protests that were tacitly backed by the army and the ISI, the rogue agency that has been accused of seeking to pull down the elected government and of orchestrating the abortive assassination of a senior journalist, Hamid Mir.

The military has allowed Sharif to stay on in power, at least for the time being, but only after politically castrating him. With the military back in the driving seat without staging an overt coup, Pakistan’s democratic transition has again been disrupted.

Such has been Sharif’s weakening that he had little say in last month’s appointment of the new ISI chief, even though the spy agency, theoretically, answers to the prime minister. Indeed, it was the military that announced Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar’s appointment as ISI chief, as if to highlight the true line of authority in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s internal dynamics have a direct bearing on its relations with India.

Sharif and India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, come from the political right and enjoy parliamentary majority. Both are business-oriented and eager to revive flagging economic growth at home. Yet the expectations aroused by Sharif’s presence at Modi’s inauguration five months ago proved false because they failed to factor in the role of a powerful, meddling third party — the Pakistani military, which holds virtual veto power over any fundamental change to the India-Pakistan dynamic.

This party is simply not ready to allow better bilateral relations because peaceful cooperation with India will undermine its extraordinary power and privilege in Pakistan.

Indeed, it was during Sharif’s previous term in office that a major Indian peace initiative — as symbolized by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 1999 bus diplomacy — collapsed spectacularly, with the bus itself getting hijacked allegorically. A war flared over the Pakistani military’s surreptitious encroachment into Indian Ladakh’s Kargil region.

This has served as a cautionary lesson on how the pursuit of peace can lead to war when one side’s military is not answerable to the civilian government.

The Pakistani military, seeking to test the resolve of India’s new government, has again escalated border tensions with India through artillery exchanges. In fact, it sought to test Modi soon after he won the national election.

On the eve of Modi’s inauguration, ISI-backed militants stormed the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat. The Pakistani plan was to take some Indians hostage and execute them one by one, bringing India under siege just as Modi took office. The plan, however, went awry as the consulate’s Indian security guards heroically killed all the attackers.

The U.S. blamed the Herat attack on the same ISI front organization that it held responsible for the highly deadly 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes — Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life in Pakistan mocking America’s $10-million bounty on his head and the U.N.’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list.

The daring attack in Herat, 1,000 kilometers from Pakistan, must have had ISI’s nod. The ISI’s “S” branch — tasked specifically with aiding and abetting acts of terrorism in India and Afghanistan — handles LeT, the Jalaluddin Haqqani network and other terror organizations. This shows the ISI is itself a terrorist entity.

The war by terror is a reminder that the scourge of cross-border terrorism emanates more from Pakistan’s whiskey-sipping generals than its rosary-holding mullahs. The real jihadists are the self-styled secular generals, who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the LeT, the Taliban and other terror groups.

Another reminder is that India-Pakistan relations will be shaped largely by Pakistan’s internal dynamics. Pakistan’s civil society remains too weak to influence the direction of ties with India. In the absence of a structural correction to Pakistan’s historically skewed civil-military power equation, a peace dialogue with India only encourages the Pakistani military to carry out cross-border shootings, ambushes and acts of terror.

With the Pakistani army and intelligence services still using terrorist proxies as an instrument of the country’s foreign policy, India’s dilemma is compounded by its own situation, which is diametrically opposite to that in Pakistan: India continues to shut out its military from the policymaking loop in a way unmatched in any other established democracy. This exclusion also puts pressure on India’s China policy, given that the Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy.

Modi’s cautious, measured start has masked his discreet gradualism. Border and other provocations are molding his policy approach, founded on the premise that preventing hostile actions hinges on India’s capacity and political will to impose deterrent costs in response to any aggression. In Modi’s policy of graduated escalation, pressure on the adversary begins at low levels and then progressively increases in response to the target’s continued provocations and aggression.

There was no Indian reprisal to the Herat attack, and India’s response to summertime Pakistani border shootings was circumspect. But, in keeping with the doctrine of graduated escalation, this month’s Pakistani machine-gun fire along the Kashmir frontier brought a heavy response, including retaliation with 81-mm mortars, which have a range of up to five kilometers.

The mortar-for-bullet response showed Modi is different from his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, whose peace-at-any-price approach was founded on the naïve belief that the only alternative to do nothing in response to terror is to go to war. So, whether it was the Mumbai attacks or a border savagery, such as a captured Indian soldier’s beheading, Singh responded by doing nothing.

The real choice was never between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking an all-out war. Indeed, that was a false, immoral choice that undermined the credibility of India’s own nuclear deterrent and emboldened the foe to step up aggression.

The Modi government, by building a range of options, including to neuter Pakistani military’s nuclear blackmail, is indicating that aggression will attract increasing costs. It is clearly signaling that India’s response to the Pakistani military’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts will no longer be survival by a thousand bandages; the response will be punitive so as to bolster deterrence and mend conduct.

Brahma Chellaney is a New Delhi-based geostrategist, author, and professor.

© The Japan Times, 2014.

Doctrine of graduated escalation

Pakistan’s internal dynamics strain peace, blocking better relations with India

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, October 15, 2014

The India-Pakistan “peace process” has produced a lot of process over the decades but no peace. While India is a vibrant, buoyant nation, Pakistan remains a notion in search of a national identity. Yet, given Pakistan’s foundational loathing of India, many among Pakistani strategic elites still pine for India’s unravelling or at least Balkanization.

In this light, the Pakistani military has again escalated border tensions with India. Since the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks it scripted, it has initiated intermittent exchanges of fire along the Line of Control (LoC), including this summer and then in recent days. This month’s artillery exchanges along the LoC were unusual in terms of their ferocity and the sudden eruption in violence, resulting in the highest single-day death toll in over a decade.

In provoking a second series of firing duels along the LoC since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, the Pakistani military establishment — which includes the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — was doing more than using gunfire as cover to allow Pakistan-trained militants to infiltrate into India. It was also testing the resolve of India’s new government while simultaneously undermining Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and derailing any prospect of rapprochement with India.

Every time a Pakistani leader wishes to build better ties with New Delhi, his effort is undermined by the military masterminding a serious cross-border attack or terror strike. Indeed, it was during Sharif’s previous stint in office that a major Indian peace initiative — as symbolized by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy — collapsed spectacularly, with the bus itself getting hijacked allegorically to Kargil, triggering a war. This has served as a cautionary lesson on how the pursuit of peace can lead to war when one side’s military is not answerable to the civilian government.

The Pakistani military actually sought to test Modi soon after he won the national election. On the eve of his inauguration, ISI-backed militants stormed the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s western city of Herat. The Pakistani plan was to take some Indians hostage and bring India under siege just as Modi took office. The plan, however, went awry as Indian security guards at the consulate heroically killed all the attackers.

The U.S. blamed the Herat attack on the same ISI front organization it held responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes — Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT’s leader, Hafiz Saeed, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life mocking America’s $10-million bounty on his head and the U.N.’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list.

The daring attack in Herat, 1,000 kilometres from Pakistan, must have had ISI’s nod. The ISI’s “S” branch — tasked specifically with aiding and abetting acts of terrorism in India and Afghanistan — handles LeT, the Jalaluddin Haqqani network and other terror organizations. This shows the ISI is itself a terrorist entity.

The ISI is searching for new tools and methods to bleed India. In this context, is this fountainhead of transnational terror now using Osama bin Laden’s close associate, Ayman Zawahiri? The aging Zawahri, who U.S. officials say is hiding in Pakistan, announced the formation of an Indian branch of Al Qaeda in a videotaped message released early last month. The 55-minute video, in which Zawahiri threatens terrorist strikes across India, indicates that he is not holed up in some mountain cave but ensconced in a safe house, as bin Laden was.

pakistani-terroristsISI’s war by terror is a reminder that the scourge of cross-border terrorism emanates more from Pakistan’s whisky-sipping generals than its rosary-holding mullahs. The real jihadists are the self-styled secular generals, who have reared the forces of jihad and fathered the LeT, the Taliban and other terror groups. In fact, Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon occurred not under civilian rule but under two military dictators — one (Zia ul-Haq) who nurtured and let loose jihadist forces, and another (Pervez Musharraf) who took his country to the very edge of the precipice.

Another reminder is that India-Pakistan relations will be shaped largely by Pakistan’s internal dynamics, especially its civil-military relations. Although it is in India’s interest to help strengthen Pakistani civilian institutions, Pakistan’s civil society remains too weak to influence the direction of ties with India. In the absence of a structural correction to Pakistan’s historically skewed civil-military power equation, a peace dialogue with India only encourages the Pakistani military to carry out cross-border shootings, ambushes and acts of terror.

Modi and Sharif come from the political right and enjoy parliamentary majority. Both are business-oriented and eager to revive flagging economic growth at home. Yet the expectations aroused by Sharif’s presence at Modi’s inauguration proved false because they failed to factor in the role of a powerful, meddling third party — the Pakistani military, which holds virtual veto power over any fundamental change to the India-Pakistan dynamic. This party is simply not ready to allow better bilateral relations because that will undermine its extraordinary power and privilege in Pakistan.

It is not an accident that this month’s border provocations by Pakistani forces followed a power struggle in Pakistan that culminated with Sharif’s wings being clipped and the military reasserting authority in foreign policy. Sharif has emerged as a diminished figure and the main loser from a crisis triggered by street protests that were tacitly backed by the army and the ISI. With the military back in the driving seat without staging an overt coup, Pakistan’s democratic transition has again been disrupted.

Such has been Sharif’s weakening that he not only had little say in the recent appointment of the new ISI chief, but also his government, at the behest of the military, has sought to re-internationalize the Kashmir issue. The intensity of ceasefire violations indeed was designed to help shine an international spotlight on Kashmir and also demonstrate as to who is in charge of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

Modi’s cautious, measured start has masked his discreet gradualism. Border and other provocations are moulding his policy approach, founded on the premise that preventing hostile actions hinges on India’s capacity and political will to impose deterrent costs in response to any aggression. In Modi’s policy of graduated escalation, pressure on the adversary begins at low levels and then progressively increases in response to the target’s continued provocations and aggression.

There was no Indian reprisal to the Herat attack, and India’s response to the summertime border shootings was circumspect. But, in keeping with the doctrine of graduated escalation, this month’s Pakistani machine-gun fire along the LoC brought a heavy response, including retaliation with 81-mm mortars, which have a range of up to five kilometres. Modi wasn’t exaggerating when he said publicly, “Pakistan has been taught a befitting lesson.”

After hundreds of Indian mortars rained across into Pakistan, Modi told an election campaign rally that, “It is the enemy that is screaming,” adding: “The enemy has realized that times have changed and their old habits will not be tolerated.” Indeed, with the goal to make Pakistani forces think twice before firing across the frontier, local commanders of India’s Border Security Force have been permitted to retaliate with proportionately greater force if their troops come under attack. Under Modi’s predecessor, border commanders had been given no clear instructions on how to manage frontier-related provocations yet discouraged from reacting strongly.

The Modi government’s mortar-for-bullet response suggests that India’s policy of appeasement since 2003 is officially over. Indeed, to underscore that times have changed, the Modi government was quick to scrap foreign secretary-level talks in August after the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi defiantly met Kashmiri secessionists. For Islamabad, meeting Pakistan-backed Kashmiri separatists was “business as usual,” but for Modi’s government, such interaction was simply unacceptable.

Modi is showing he is no Vajpayee, whose roller-coaster policy on Pakistan traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, Parliament House and Islamabad, inviting only greater cross-border terrorism. And Modi is clearly no Manmohan Singh, whose peace-at-any-price approach was founded on the naïve belief that the only alternative to do nothing in response to terror is to go to war. So, whether it was the Mumbai attacks or a border savagery, such as a captured Indian soldier’s beheading, Singh responded by doing nothing.

The real choice was never between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking an all-out war. Indeed, that was a false, immoral choice that undermined the credibility of India’s own nuclear deterrent and emboldened the foe to step up aggression.

The Modi government, by building a range of options, including to neuter Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail, is indicating that Pakistani aggression will attract increasing costs. If the ISI is planning new attacks in India, with the intent to fob them off as the work of Al Qaeda’s supposed new India franchise, it can be sure that it will invite an Indian response imposing serious costs on the entire Pakistani security establishment.

Modi is clearly signalling that India’s response to the Pakistani strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts will no longer be survival by a thousand bandages, but punitive so as to bolster deterrence and mend conduct. Given that the “do nothing” approach allowed India to be continually gored, prudent gradualism has been a long time coming.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War.)

© The Hindu, 2014.

Qatar’s Jihad

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An internationally syndicated column by Project Syndicate

Qatar may be tiny, but it is having a major impact across the Arab world. By propping up violent jihadists in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond, while supporting the United States in its fight against them, this gas-rich speck of a country – the world’s wealthiest in per capita terms – has transformed itself from a regional gadfly into an international rogue elephant.

imagesUsing its vast resources, and driven by unbridled ambition, Qatar has emerged as a hub for radical Islamist movements. The massive, chandeliered Grand Mosque in Doha – Qatar’s opulent capital – is a rallying point for militants heading to wage jihad in places as diverse as Yemen, Tunisia, and Syria. As a result, Qatar now rivals Saudi Arabia – another Wahhabi state with enormous resource wealth – in exporting Islamist extremism.

But there are important differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar’s Wahhabism is less severe than Saudi Arabia’s; for example, Qatari women are allowed to drive and to travel alone. In Qatar, there is no religious police enforcing morality, even if Qatari clerics openly raise funds for militant causes overseas.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that, whereas Saudi Arabia’s sclerotic leadership pursues reactionary policies rooted in a puritanical understanding of Islam, Qatar’s younger royals have adopted a forward-thinking approach. Qatar is the home of the Al Jazeera satellite television channel and Education City, a district outside of Doha that accommodates schools, universities, and research centers.

Similar inconsistencies are reflected in Qatar’s foreign policy. Indeed, the country’s relationship with the United States directly contradicts its links with radical Islamist movements.

Qatar hosts Al Udeid air base – with its 8,000 American military personnel and 120 aircraft, including supertankers for in-flight refueling – from which the US directs its current airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Camp As-Sayliyah – another facility for which Qatar charges no rent – serves as the US Central Command’s forward headquarters. In July, Qatar agreed to purchase $11 billion worth of US arms.

Moreover, Qatar has used its leverage over the Islamists that it funds to help secure the release of Western hostages. And it hosted secret talks between the US and the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. To facilitate the negotiations, Qatar provided a home, with US support, to the Taliban’s de facto diplomatic mission – and to the five Afghan Taliban leaders released earlier this year from US detention at Guantánamo Bay.

In other words, Qatar is an important US ally, a supplier of weapons and funds to Islamists, and a peace broker all at the same time. Add to that its position as the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas and the holder of one of its largest sovereign-wealth funds, and it becomes clear that Qatar has plenty of room to maneuver – as well as considerable international clout. Germany’s government found that out when it was forced to retract its development minister’s statement that Qatar played a central role in arming and financing the Islamic State.

Qatar’s growing influence has important implications for the balance of power in the Arab World, especially with regard to the country’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia. This competitive dynamic, which surfaced only recently, represents a shift from a long history of working in tandem to export Islamist extremism.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia generously supplied weapons and funds to Sunni extremists in Syria, opening the door for the emergence of the Islamic State. Both have bolstered the Afghan Taliban. And both contributed to Libya’s transformation into a failed state by aiding Islamist militias. During the 2011 NATO campaign to overthrow Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Qatar even deployed ground troops covertly inside Libya.

Today, however, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are on opposite sides. Qatar, along with Turkey, backs grassroots Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in Gaza, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and the Levant. That pits it against Saudi Arabia and countries like the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, whose rulers view such movements as an existential threat, with some, including the House of Saud, investing in propping up autocratic regimes like their own.

In this sense, Qatar’s tack has produced a rare schism within the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members collectively possess nearly half of the world’s oil reserves. The proxy competition among rival monarchies, which led some of them to withdraw their ambassadors from Qatar in March, is intensifying violence and instability throughout the region. For example, the UAE, with Egyptian assistance, secretly carried out airstrikes in August to stop Qatari-aided Islamist militias from gaining control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

Qatar’s leaders are willing to challenge their neighbors for a simple reason: They believe that the grassroots Islamist movements they support – which, in their view, represent majority political aspirations – eventually will win. Anticipating that such groups will increasingly shape Arab politics, displacing strongman regimes, Qatar has set out to empower them.

In doing so, Qatar is destabilizing several countries and threatening the security of secular democracies far beyond the region. For the sake of regional and international security, this elephant must be tamed.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate. 

PLA aborts Modi’s China reset

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 7, 2014

Despite China finally withdrawing its troops from Ladakh’s Chumar area after extracting a concession from India to demolish a key observation post, the tense standoff on the frigid heights of western Himalayas will be remembered as the symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abortive effort to reset India’s relationship with Beijing. After assuming office, Modi went out of his way to befriend China, making a series of overtures.

Modi received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with an important head of state was with President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Brazil. Indeed, Modi postponed his own Japan trip so that he met Xi first in Brazil. Furthermore, Xi was given the honour of being the first G-8 head of state to visit India. Not only that, Modi became the first prime minister to receive a foreign leader outside New Delhi — that too on his own birthday.

ximodisabarmati4So when Xi, wearing a Nehru jacket, toasted the birthday of his host at a private dinner on the bank of River Sabarmati in Gujarat, it highlighted Modi’s charm offensive to build a more cooperative relationship with a country that poses the main strategic challenge to India. Such was Modi’s courtship that Xi quoted him as saying “India and China are two bodies in one spirit”.

But the diplomatic love-fest quickly turned into diplomatic discomfiture as news trickled in that hundreds of Chinese soldiers had intruded into Chumar. While Modi was publicly espousing “inch toward miles” as the motto of India-China cooperation, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was implementing that call through a fresh action on the ground. Even more galling was the fact that this incursion — the worst in troop numbers in many years — came to epitomize Xi’s birthday gift for Modi.

China has used virtually every high-level visit to flex its muscles while talking peace. For example, China conducted its most-powerful nuclear test ever in 1992 during the first-ever state visit of an Indian president. In 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was surrendering India’s Tibet card in Beijing at the altar of diplomatic expediency, a PLA patrol intruded 14 kilometres into Arunachal Pradesh and abducted a 10-member Indian security team.

When Chinese leaders have visited India, their trips have been preceded by or coincided with territorial provocations. It was just before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit that China began claiming Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”. Likewise, prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 trip, Beijing began questioning India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which China occupies. And Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit followed a deep PLA encroachment into Ladakh’s Depsang plateau.

The message that China seeks to deliver through such provocations is that if India does not behave, it seriously risks being taught a 1962-style lesson. Indeed, just as it deceptively accused an ill-prepared India in 1962 of having provoked the Chinese trans-Himalayan invasion, China has used its official media and think-tanks to charge India with intentionally ramping up border tensions during Xi’s visit to exert pressure on China.

Modi thought he could co-opt China as a partner in India’s development and help ease the territorial disputes. But in Chinese strategy, political and economic elements are closely integrated, with hard and soft tactics going hand-in-hand. This was demonstrated by China rattling its sabres while its president was paying a state visit to India.

Even without considering Xi’s “birthday gift” for Modi, his visit was underwhelming in substance. Xi’s $20-billion investment promise is like honey presented on a sharp knife: partaking it will cut India’s interests, including by giving China greater leeway to dump more goods in the Indian market and rake in larger profits. China’s exports to India already are almost 3½ times greater in value than its imports. Yet China’s total investment in India is a trifling $500 million, or only slightly over 1% of its yearly trade surplus with it at present.

Had the trade surplus been in India’s favour on this scale, imagine the kind of pressures China would have brought to bear. Indeed, China has a record of using trade as a political weapon, including against Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. India, by hinging China’s market access on progress in resolving political, territorial and water disputes, can prevent Beijing from fortifying its leverage.

The good news is that Modi is standing up to the pressure from an unyielding and revanchist China, signalling that India will no longer put up with incursions, which escalated significantly over the past seven years under his meek predecessor even as he stayed mum. Modi was so jolted by Xi’s “birthday gift” (the intruding Chinese force numbered 1,000 or more at its peak) that he forthrightly called border peace “an essential foundation” for India-China ties, saying it won’t be possible for the two countries to collaborate meaningfully without peace. Modi knows that China has exposed itself by opening fronts with several neighbours.

The PLA’s growing political clout emboldens its strategy of incremental encroachment through furtive nibbling. The only counter to its aggressive deterrence is offensive defence. But India still clings to defensive defence, deploying border police as its first line of defence against regular PLA troops. The result is that India continues to get blindsided by repeated incursions. It is time for India to reappraise its Himalayan defences, or else its posture of defensive defence will continue to spring nasty surprises.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

© Mint, 2014.

Obama, a serial interventionist

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The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet today it seeks a peace deal with that enemy. And now Obama has declared a new war to get rid of the Islamic State — a war that is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature.

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

ObamaAmerica’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate president, Barack Obama, who helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi, has started a new war in Syria and Iraq even as the U.S. remains embroiled in the Afghanistan war. Obama’s air war in Syria — his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and the one likely to consume his remaining term in office — raises troubling questions about its objectives and his own adherence to the rule of law.

While it has become imperative to contain the Islamic State (IS), a Sunni jihadist army that has imposed a despotic medieval order in the territories under its control, any fight against terrorism can be effectively waged only if it respects international law and reinforces global norms and does not become an instrument to pursue narrow, geopolitical interests. After all, all strains of the cancer of Islamist terrorism — not just the type IS represents — need to be eliminated.

Ever since America launched its “war on terror” in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the scourge of international terrorism, ominously, has spread deeper and wider in the world. Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. Once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt remains “ground zero” for the terrorist threat the world confronts.

Obama was expected to be fundamentally different than Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq left a broken, failing state — an expectation that led the Nobel committee to award him the peace prize soon after he assumed office. Yet, underscoring the disconnect between his words and actions, Obama has been more at ease waging wars — that too in breach of international law — than in waging peace.

Although elected with the support of the left, he has proved to be one of America’s most militarily assertive presidents since World War II, with his readiness to unilaterally use force driven by a penchant to act as judge and executioner.

Obama in Cairo in 2009 sought “a new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”  However, his reliance on U.S. hard power has been underlined by his serial bombing campaigns in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Obama also directed a threefold increase in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, sharply escalated drone attacks in Pakistan, initiated “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism, and authorized the helicopter raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan’s heartland. And now comes the news that this warrior-in-chief, having championed “a nuclear-free world,” has quietly pursued plans for an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most-sophisticated.

In fact, Obama enunciated his rejection of nonviolence and his partiality for use of force in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, saying: “A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man, and the limits of reason.” He has since used the fight against terrorism to make never-ending war, to the delight of the military-industrial complex.

Still, what stopped Obama from seeking United Nations Security Council (UNSC) mandate before initiating a war in Syria against IS militants? The answer is obvious: Obama wants to wage his open-ended war on U.S. terms, like his earlier interventions.

Five repressive Arab autocracies — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain — form the core of his “coalition of the willing” on Syria. In addition, Turkey has overcome initial hesitation and agreed to allow the U.S. military to launch operations against the Islamic State from its territory. Paradoxically, the U.S., Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and the UAE aided IS’s rise, either openly or inadvertently.

This is a coalition of sinners now dressed as knights in shining armor.

Such has been the tepid international response to what the White House admits will be a multiyear military offensive in the Syria-Iraq belt that only five of the 22 Arab states (or, to put it differently, five of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) have joined the coalition. And even though the U.S. is striking a terrorist group, its urge to test new weapons has led to the debut in war of the problem-plagued F-22 stealth fighter.

Obama displayed his disdain for international law by addressing the U.N. after presenting his bombing blitzkrieg in Syria as a fait accompli. In his address, as if to undergird the mismatch between his own words and actions, he condemned what he called Russia’s ethos of “might makes right,” saying “right makes might.” He then told the U.N. climate summit that the U.S. has “reduced our total carbon pollution by more than any other nation on Earth,” yet data released by the U.S. energy department show U.S. carbon emissions — already the world’s highest in per capita terms — are climbing again.

To rationalize unleashing force in Syria by bypassing the U.N., the Obama administration has meretriciously claimed the defense of a third country, Iraq, as a legal ground, thus invoking the doctrine of hot pursuit. Such a precedent could allow the sovereignty of any nation to be violated. It also flouts the UN Charter, which defines self-defense as actions necessary to uphold a country’s territorial integrity and political independence and limits self-defense to exceptional circumstances, such as when a nation is under direct attack.

In reality, the war in Syria is just the latest U.S. action mocking international law. Other such actions in the past 15 years include the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC authority, Gaddafi’s overthrow, the aiding of an insurrection in Syria, CIA renditions of terror suspects, and National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance program. Yet, Obama has escalated a sanctions campaign against Russia in the name of upholding international law.

Indeed, Obama has not sought even U.S. congressional authorization before embroiling his country in yet another war.

To justify his serial interventions and interminable war making, Obama has continued to speciously cite the congressional authority Bush secured to specifically go after those that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. But given that linking the Islamic State to the 9/11 attacks would stretch plausibility, especially since Al Qaeda has publicly disavowed Islamic State, his administration started the Syria war by claiming an “imminent” threat to U.S. homeland security from a previously unknown “Al Qaeda affiliate,” Khorasan.

Such is Obama’s war-making itch that a year ago he almost went to war to bomb Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out of office, but now his administration pre-notified Damascus about the start of its airstrikes against the Islamic State so that U.S. bombers did not attract Syrian anti-aircraft fire. The new Iraqi prime minister has revealed that he conveyed Washington’s message to Assad that the strikes were not directed at his regime.

The unpalatable truth that Obama seeks to obscure is that the main Islamic State force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded rebels who were reared to help overthrow Assad. Flush with his success in overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011 — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to effecting regime change in Syria. The CIA, besides training Syrian militants in Jordan and Turkey, funneled weapons and funds to Sunni rebels in Syria from a base it set up in Benghazi at the U.S. consulate, which ironically was overrun on September 11, 2012 by CIA-armed Libyan Islamist militiamen, who killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Obama turned a blind eye as the Islamic State made significant advances from mid-2013 onward — or, as he now puts it euphemistically, his administration “underestimated” the threat from this hydra-headed group. Indeed, it was the “machinations” of the forces now waging war in Syria — the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — that “helped open the door for the terrorist Islamic State group to threaten the region,” as columnist David Ignatius said in the Washington Post. For Washington, Islamic State militants ceased to be “good” terrorists undermining Assad’s rule and Iranian interests in Syria and Iraq after they began threatening U.S. interests and beheaded two American journalists.

If President Ronald Reagan accidentally fathered Al Qaeda, Obama is the Islamic State’s unintended godfather turned self-declared slayer-in-chief. Having earlier tasked the CIA with aiding Syrian rebels to help oust Assad, Obama has now tasked the agency to create a proxy ground force against the Islamic State in Syria by training and arming thousands of more insurgents.

Training and arming non-state combatants flies in the face of international law. The directive also ignores the lessons from past covert interventions.

“We helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” Hillary Clinton candidly told Fox News as secretary of state, saying “we had this brilliant idea we were going to come to Pakistan and create a force of mujahedeen and equip them with Stinger missiles and everything else to go after the Soviets inside Afghanistan.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces in Libya has badly backfired.

The U.S. indeed has also contributed to India’s terrorism problem. After all, large portions of the CIA’s multibillion-dollar military aid for the Afghan rebels in the 1980s were siphoned off by the conduit, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to trigger insurgencies in India’s Kashmir and Punjab. India — and Pakistan — have paid a heavy price for America’s continued cozy ties with the Pakistani military and its ISI spies. Yet, paradoxically, the U.S. has used counterterrorism as a key instrument to build a strategic partnership with India.

Bzv7KFQCcAAGKKcObama pledged in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, Obama now wants bases there for a virtually unlimited period.

The end of the political crisis in Kabul opened the way for the new Afghan government to sign on September 30 the bilateral security agreement that Obama sought as the legal basis to keep U.S. bases, with almost 10,000 American troops. A residual U.S. force, however, will be more vulnerable to Afghan Taliban attacks, thus strengthening Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the “Quetta Shura,” the Taliban leadership ensconced in Pakistan.

As the longest war in its history in Afghanistan attests, the U.S. is better at starting wars than in ending them. In fact, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban, yet it now seeks a peace deal with that enemy. Indeed, the birth of the Afghan Taliban — fathered by the ISI — was midwifed by the CIA in the early 1990s.

What Obama has started as an offensive to get rid of the Islamic State is likely to broaden into something more geopolitical in nature for U.S. interests. The U.S., for example, is interested in mending the damage to its interests from its decade-long Iraq occupation, which made Iran the real winner. Yet the new involvement in Syria could end up as Obama’s Vietnam.

More broadly, America’s longstanding alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs does not augur well for its “war on terror,” which has spawned more militants than it has eliminated. With U.S. support, the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, have been able to ride out the Arab Spring. Paradoxically, the U.S. practice of propping up malleable Islamist rulers in the Middle East not just spurs strong anti-U.S. sentiment, but also fosters grassroots support for more independent and “authentically” Islamist forces.

A rolling, self-sustaining war targeting terrorist enemies that America’s own policies and interventions continue to spawn is not good news even for the U.S., whose military adventures since 2001 have cost $4.4 trillion, making its rich military contractors richer but destabilizing security in several regions.

At a time when America faces a pressing need for comprehensive domestic renewal to arrest the erosion in its relative global power, it can ill afford self-debilitating wars. Unfortunately for it, one eternal warrior in the White House was succeeded by another serial interventionist.

The writer is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2014.

America’s Never-Ending War

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It is official: US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Barack Obama is at war again. After toppling Libyan ruler Muammar el-Qaddafi and bombing targets in Somalia and Yemen, Obama has initiated airstrikes in the Syria-Iraq belt, effectively declaring war on the Islamic State – a decision that will involve infringing on the sovereign, if disintegrating, state of Syria. In his zeal to intervene, Obama is again disregarding US and international law by seeking approval from neither the US Congress nor the United Nations Security Council.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, launched America’s so-called “war on terror” to defeat groups that he insisted wanted to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” But Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was so controversial that it fractured the global consensus to fight terror, with the Guantánamo Bay detention center and the rendition and torture of suspects coming to symbolize the war’s excesses.

After Obama took office, he sought to introduce a gentler, subtler tone. Contending in a 2009 interview that “the language we use matters,” he rebranded the war on terror as a “struggle” and a “strategic challenge.” But the rhetorical shift did not translate into a change in strategy, with the Obama administration moving beyond security concerns to use its anti-terrorism activities to advance America’s broader geopolitical interests.

Thus, instead of viewing the elimination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 as the culmination of the anti-terror “struggle” that Bush launched, the Obama administration increased aid to “good” rebels (such as those in Libya), while pursuing “bad” terrorists more vehemently, including through a “targeted killing” program. When it comes to terrorist activity, however, such lines are difficult to draw.

For example, Obama initially placed the Islamic State in the “good” category, as it undermined Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and Iran’s interests in Syria and Iraq. His position changed only after the Islamic State threatened to overrun Iraq’s Kurdish regional capital, Erbil – home to US military, intelligence, diplomatic, and business facilities. Add to that the beheadings of two American journalists, and suddenly Obama’s team was using Bush’s war rhetoric, declaring that the US is at war with the Islamic State “in the same way that we are at war with Al Qaeda and its affiliates all around the globe.”

America’s war on terror now risks becoming a permanent war against an expanding list of enemies – often inadvertently created by its own policies. Just as covert aid to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s contributed to Al Qaeda’s emergence – something that Hillary Clinton acknowledged when she was Obama’s secretary of state – the help that the US and its allies provided to Syrian insurgents after they emerged in 2011 contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.

The US returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to wage an as-yet-unfinished war on the jihadists whom its actions had spawned. Likewise, it is now launching a war in Iraq and Syria against the offspring of Bush’s forced regime change in Baghdad and Obama’s ill-conceived plan to topple Assad.

It is time for the US to recognize that since it launched its war on terror, the scourge has only spread. The Afghanistan-Pakistan belt has remained “ground zero” for transnational terrorism, and once-stable countries like Libya, Iraq, and Syria have emerged as new hubs.

Obama’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, whose top leaders enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan, indicates that he is more interested in confining terrorism to the Middle East than defeating it – even if it means leaving India to bear the brunt of terrorist activity. (In fact, Pakistan’s ongoing war of terror against India also sprang from America’s anti-Soviet operation in Afghanistan – the largest in the CIA’s history – as the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence siphoned off a large share of the billions of dollars in military aid for the Afghan rebels.)

Similarly, Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State seeks merely to limit the reach of a barbaric medieval order. Moments after declaring his intention to “degrade and destroy” the group, Obama responded to a reporter’s request for clarification by stating that his real goal is to turn the Islamic State into a “manageable problem.”

Making matters worse, Obama plans to use the same tactics to fight the Islamic State that led to its emergence: authorizing the CIA, aided by some of the region’s oil sheikhdoms, to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels. It is not difficult to see the risks inherent in flooding the Syrian killing fields with even more and better-armed fighters.

The US may have some of the world’s top think tanks and most highly educated minds. But it consistently ignores the lessons of its past blunders – and so repeats them. US-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilizations only by fueling a clash within a civilization that has fundamentally weakened regional and international security.

An endless war waged on America’s terms against the enemies that it helped to create is unlikely to secure either steady international support or lasting results. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tepid Arab and Turkish response to America’s effort to assemble an international coalition in support of what the Obama administration admits will be a multiyear military offensive against the Islamic State.

The risk that imperial hubris accelerates, rather than stems, Islamist terror is all too real – yet again.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.