Thursday, February 12, 2015

Putin’s Strategy in Ukraine

[This post may be read along with the author’s earlier post on crisis in the Ukraine]

There is a growing apprehension that if the US and the West fail to stand up to Russia over Ukraine, Europe could descend into a major war.

A former US ambassador to Estonia predicted that Estonia and other Baltic States – all members of the NATO – could be targeted by Russia if Putin is allowed to hold on to Ukraine territory which has been seized by force. Serhii Plokhy wrote in the March of 2014 that if the Russian President’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region succeeded, Russia may seize other parts of Ukraine and beyond like Moldova and the Baltic States which had substantial numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking minorities.

The genesis of the present conflict goes back to the last days of the Soviet Union whose collapse according to Putin was the “greatest geo-strategic catastrophe of the century.” Putin according to Ukrainian media reports had also questioned the legality of Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union in 1991. These two statements of the Russian President should give the West and the US an indication of the enormity of the challenge at hand and to find an amicable solution to the crisis.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the nineties, the West did not have a strategy to partner Russia, (the successor state of the Soviet Republic) but was instead subjected to Washington’s triumphalism and superiority; it was a sort of imposition of victor’s peace. Russian pride was hurt and national interests undermined by the expansion of the North Atlantic Alliance right up to the Russian border. A partnership with Russia would have weaned Russia away from China and an alliance could have been forged to tackle the rampant jihadism in the form of Al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Middle East and elsewhere. This foresight was sadly missing then. Putin’s game plan, today, is a result of that folly.

Lessons not learnt

The Ukraine crisis must not be viewed in isolation. Russia’s increasing insecurity post-1991 as a result of the policies of the West and the US in particular has played a major role in triggering the conflict. The West did not learn from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War either. Georgia under President Mikheil Saakashvili had sought membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) which served as a major stumbling block to Russo-Georgian relations. During the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008, the then US President George W Bush favoured offering Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. However, Germany and France opposed the proposal on the ground that it would provoke Russia. NATO stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance and pledged to review applications for MAP in December 2008. The Russian President Putin stated that an expansion of NATO to Russian borders “would be taken as a direct threat to Russia’s security”. Russia’s policy became aggressive after the Bucharest Summit and it actively planned for an armed conflict with Georgia to thwart the latter’s accession to NATO and to bring about a regime change.

Putin’s Strategy and Objectives

Not only has the 2008 conflict with Georgia given Putin confidence, the annexation of the Crimean region with minimum efforts has emboldened the Russian strongman to go all out in eastern Ukraine. According to Michael Kofman “Moscow has found a winning tactic during its annexation of Crimea, and has made it the overarching strategy for achieving interests in broader Ukraine.” Russia’s use of operational ambiguity to create confusion, mobilizing the populace in support of its objectives, and creating points for plausible disengagement all suggest one thing: Moscow has become far more clever and capable than the West originally gave it credit. Western leaders continue to misjudge the nature of Ukraine, and Russia’s plans for it. That led to the loss of Crimea and may conclude in the loss of other regions of Ukraine.

Putin learnt and understood the shortcomings of the erstwhile Soviet military adventure in Afghanistan. He has chosen not to rely on overt and brute military force, rather opting to use proxies and Russian intelligence operatives and Special Forces under the garb of separatists in Ukraine. Russia is also using its conventional build-up to deter/counter any direct response from Ukrainian forces or the West. The West has been anticipating a Russian conventional thrust through its armoured column, which is very unlikely. The military build-up and the threat of invasion is leverage. Though Moscow may exercise the conventional option should its current tactics fail to achieve its objectives. By avoiding the use of its conventional forces Russia has given itself the option to disengage and deny any involvement, and the ability to spread disinformation about the conflict to sow confusion. In the intervening period, the plausible threat of an all-out invasion has rendered the West helpless.

Moscow is not keen to overstretch its army, at least not unless its current plan suffers an unexpected setback. However, even if Russia does invade, it will be a short-term push to break the Ukrainian military and withdraw, as it did in Georgia in 2008. Russia has sufficient military power to hand a crushing defeat to Ukraine’s military, but not an occupation force suitable for Ukraine. However, Vladimir Putin’s strategy is not aimed at annexing Ukraine in the short term. The strategy is to breakup, depriving Kiev of sovereignty in the east.

One thing is certain that Moscow has a huge stake in Ukraine and considering the upper hand Russia has today it would be impossible to expect Putin to surrender that advantage. According to Kofman, at a minimum, Putin would want Kiev to give political status and autonomy to the separatist-held regions, akin to the relationship between China and Hong Kong.

Ukraine is a lynchpin of Putin's plans for Russia, whether it's reassembling a historical empire or shoring up the Russian economy, Conley says. So whatever happens must support that. Kaplan says Putin can't pull back without gaining assurances that Ukraine will never become part of NATO. Ukraine, he said, needs assurances about its sovereignty and energy security.

Another analyst imagined three possible outcomes: A slow-simmering war that lasts for many years. A ceasefire that doesn't entirely satisfy Moscow and Kiev but essentially creates a frozen conflict for a long time. Or a political settlement where Russia withdraws forces from Ukraine and Kiev recognizes the separatists, Kofman said.

"That is the best likely outcome but most difficult to achieve politically," Kofman said of the last scenario. Just as Putin would find it difficult to fritter the gains of the conflict, it would be equally impossible for Kiev to grant recognition to the separatists.

Latest: CNN has reported that the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany have reached an agreement after marathon talks lasting nearly seventeen hours in the Belorussian capital of Minsk. A ceasefire is slated to come into force on 15th February and an agreement for both sides to pull back heavy weapons.

If the ceasefire holds -- which is far from certain -- it could bring to an end a 10-month conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives, many of them civilians, and plunged East-West relations to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Though the details of the agreement are not available it is likely to have in place a much broader demilitarized zone to run along the current front lines.

A deal was struck in September 2014 in Minsk which had also called for a withdrawal of heavy weaponry, self-rule in the eastern regions and a 30 km buffer zone along the Russian-Ukraine border. However, the deal disintegrated and fighting erupted. Only time will tell whether the parties to the conflict truly intend to put an end to the fighting on the ground.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Paris Terror Attack

At least 12 people including two police officers were killed and several others seriously injured in a terrorist strike at the Paris office of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on 7th January 2015.

Witnesses told French media agencies that multiple gunmen were involved, and that they were seen armed with AK47s and at least one rocket launcher. According to one eye witness two black-hooded men entered the building with Kalashnikov rifles and started firing. They later escaped in a black car. At the time of writing, the Paris police stated that they had no clue about the identity of the terrorists.

French President Francois Hollande visited the scene in Paris's 11th arrondissement. Paris raised its terror alert to the highest setting in the aftermath of the attack, while the gunmen themselves are still reported to be on the run.

The Charlie Hebdo magazine is most famous internationally for publishing a controversial series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in 2012.

A year earlier, its offices were firebombed after a spoof issue featured a caricature of Mohammed on its cover.

According to Le Monde, a source said that one of the magazine's cartoonists, known as Riss, was injured during the attack.

The radical Islamic State group threatened to attack France minutes before Hebdo tweeted a satirical cartoon of the extremist group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi giving New Year's wishes.

This attack comes a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the European Union it should crack down on "Islamophobia" amid rising anti-Muslim protests instead of trying to teach Turkey lessons about democracy.

Erdogan told Turkey's ambassadors posted abroad in a speech in Ankara that they should pursue an assertive foreign policy to represent strong and self-confident "new Turkey" under his rule.

"Believe me it is regrettable that the EU is trying teach a lesson to Turkey instead of trying to tackle very serious threats it is facing," he said.

Erdogan said racist, discriminatory activities and Islamophobia were on the rise in Europe, complaining that racist organisations won sympathy in some Western societies with "each passing day".

"The Islamophobia -- which we constantly draw attention to and warn of -- represents a serious threat in Europe."

"If the issue is not dealt with seriously today, and if populism takes European politicians captive, the EU and European values will come into question," he said.

His comments came a day after controversial German group PEGIDA rallied thousands of people in Dresden for a demonstration against what it calls the "Islamisation of the Occident". One wonders whether the Turkish President will continue to issue idiotic statements even  after this terror strike.

The liberal immigration policy and affording asylum to people from North Africa and Middle East is now undermining the peace and security of west Europe. The West needs to get tough with terror spawning in their backyards and bar entry to so-called refugees from places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and other trouble spots.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Foiled Terror Bid or A Staged Encounter

An unnecessary controversy has erupted over the interception of a suspect boat by the Indian Coast Guard and its destruction off the coast of Gujarat on New Year’s Eve.

On New Year’s Eve, the Indian Coast Guard, acting on intelligence inputs received from India’s premier technical intelligence agency the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) thwarted what could well have been a terrorist attack on India’s off shore assets like Bombay High or on naval bases on the West coast or on a city in a repeat of 26/11. The Coast Guard intercepted a suspicious looking fishing boat reportedly carrying four persons about 365 kilometres (197.08 nautical miles) off Porbandar Coast. The suspect boat is known to have sailed from Keti Bunder, near Karachi and according to a statement (considered to be vague and giving rise to speculations) released by the Indian Ministry of Defence “was planning some illicit transaction”. According to media reports, the NTRO intercepted a call on 31st December 2014 (according to some reports it was 30th December 2014) originating in Karachi about a Pak fishing boat planning to conduct an illicit business in the Arabian Sea. The NTRO is reported to have been tracking the boat right from the time it left Karachi. The NTRO alerted the Coast Guard about the suspect boat, which in turn dispatched Dornier aircraft to trace the vessel.

A Coast Guard vessel CGS Rajrattan was diverted to the area of the suspect boat after it was detected by the Dornier. At the time of interception around midnight of 31st December, the suspect boat was unlit and was not on the usual route adopted by fishing vessels. The suspect boat did not have a name and was approximately 365 kms west-south west of Porbandar. When the Coast Guard vessel warned the boat to stop for further investigation, it tried to escape to the Pakistani side of the maritime boundary by increasing speed. The CGS Rajratan gave chase to the suspect boat for nearly one hour before managing to stop the boat after firing warning shots. The four persons on board the boat finding themselves cornered, hid themselves and set the boat on fire resulting in an explosion. The boat sank in the yearly hours of 1st January 2015 and the persons on board were believed to have been killed in the explosion on the boat.   

Pakistan, as usual, was quick to deny the Indian claim that the fishing boat was of Pakistani origin and it was ferrying terrorists and/or explosives. It raised question marks about the incident and denied that such an incident was of India’s making to tarnish Pakistan’s ‘image’. The Pakistanis were not alone. There were seasoned commentators in India and members of the opposition who questioned the veracity of the government’s claim.

A leading English daily, the Indian Express in its article raised several doubts over the encounter including suggesting the “use of disproportionate force” by the Coast Guard vessel. According to the article, “highly placed government sources” had stated that the intelligence had no link to terrorism and made no reference to any threat to India. The article seemed to suggest that NTRO intercepts pointed to small-time smugglers of liquor and diesel ferrying bootleg cargo from Gwadar to other fishing boats which were to have carried it into Karachi’s Keti Bunder Harbour. The article also raised doubts about the weather over the area at the point where the suspect boat was interdicted.

If a section of the media and certain members of the opposition have been foolish to question the government and the security agencies involved in the operation about the veracity of the incident, then it is pertinent to point out glaring lacunae in respect of the   questions raised. Firstly, what was an unmarked fishing boat with lights put doing 365 kms west south-west off Gujarat coast? Secondly, if the persons on board were petty smugglers ferrying liquor or diesel, why did they try to evade capture and flee? Thirdly why did smugglers blow the boat when cornered? Since when did firing warning shots across the bow aimed at suspected terrorists amount to use of lethal force? It is preposterous to even suggest that the Coast Guard personnel shot and destroyed the boat.

If the boat was engaged smuggling as has been suggested in the Indian Express article, between the port of Gwadar and Karachi, a rational explanation is owed to the readers as to what was the boat doing off Porbandar coast? The location of the purported smuggling route Gwadar-Karachi and the point of interdiction are miles apart. Again the theory that those on board were petty smugglers ferrying diesel to India is laughable because diesel is dearer in Pakistan as compared to India. And if it was drugs, then the contraband could have been dumped in the sea and they could have subjected themselves to search by the Coast Guard.
A question has been raised as to the basis on which a boat was intercepted beyond India’s territorial waters. And whether India had committed a breach of international law in so doing? The incident, indeed had taken place approximately around 197.08 nautical miles of the Indian coast, well within India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under international law (the law of sea) freedom of navigation is guaranteed and no boarding is generally the norm. However in exceptional circumstances, a naval ship may verify the boarded vessel’s right to fly its flag or may check its documents and further examine the suspect vessel if suspicion persists. In this case the suspect boat did not fly any flag and it was only subsequently identified as ‘Qalandar’. Given the tenuous relationship existing between India and Pakistan and sea route having been taken by Pakistan sponsored terrorists to attack Mumbai on 26th November 2008, India was well within its right to have asked the boat to stop for inspection. Also India’s energy resources are located in the proximity of the interdiction point.  

The NTRO-Coast Guard operation can be criticized only on the ground of not having followed the standard operating procedures (SOPs) laid down in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike. In order to avoid a blunder of the scale of 26/11, the Indian Navy was appointed as the nodal agency for coastal security and INS Angre in Mumbai was designated as the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) for the western maritime frontier.

Hotlines to coordinate with various agencies, and state-of-the-art rapid messaging service technology to communicate with ships were installed to thwart any threat in real time. The JOC (West) was to operate under the command Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (FOC-in-C) of the Western Naval Command. Non-adherence to any SOPs, howsoever serious it may be, is a matter to be reviewed by the concerned ministry or the Cabinet Committee on Security. However, that cannot be equated with doubts being raised about the encounter itself.

Pakistan while having vehemently denied any link to the suspect boat, captured two Indian fishing vessels with twelve fishermen within 72 hours of the incident.

India cannot afford to let even  a single suspect vessel slip past as had happened in March 1993 and November 2008.  The bottom line is irrespective of the fact whether the boat carried hooch, drugs, diesel or explosives or terrorists, it deserved to be destroyed and the Coast Guard’s action unless there is cogent evidence to the contrary needs to be defended and commended.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Krittika Biswas Case: An Update

The following is an update on the Krittika Biswas incident which took place in February 2011.

The case filed by Krittika Biswas, an Indian diplomat's daughter, against New York City and others, for wrongful arrest and detention on cyberbullying charges, was settled, according to her attorney Ravi Batra.

The incident occurred when Krittika was a 12th grade student at the John Bowne High School in Flushing, New York.

She was arrested February 8, 2011 after her school alleged that she had sent threatening and obscene e-mails to her calculus teacher Jamie Kim-Ross and Ivan Cohill, her gym teacher.

The real culprit, who was uncovered later, confessed to the crime, but was not criminally charged, the suit noted.

The civil suit sought at least $500,000 and $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages, respectively, as well as the termination of Howard Kwait, principal of the John Bowne High School, and teacher Jamie Kim-Ross, who retired recently.

The main defendants were the City of New York, the New York City Department of Education; Howard Kwait, who is employed by the Department of Education; Kim-Ross, a teacher employed by the DOE; Elayna Konstan, chief executive officer of the DOE Office of School and Youth Development; Margaret Maldonado, a police officer; and Larry Granshaw, another police officer.

Krittika joined the school in the 11th grade in 2009. She had differences with Kim-Ross about how many classes she would miss during a trip she was taking to India after her grandmother's death.

Kim-Ross, her math teacher, received the first threatening e-mail on November 8, 2010, and the second one on December 16. Her parents were called to the school and warned of severe consequence, even though Krittika maintained her innocence.

School officials claimed they traced the e-mail's Internet Protocol address to the apartment building where Krittika lived with her parents. Her proficiency in French added to the suspicion because the French word merde (murder) was used in the e-mail.

Kim-Ross and Cohill received two more threatening e-mails on February 6, 2011, after which the police were called in.

At the assistant principal's office, Granshaw questioned Krittika aggressively and asked her to confess to having sent the e-mails. According to the suit, the officer said that if she refused he would handcuff her and take her to 'jail with prostitutes and people with HIV.'

When Krittika did not confess, Granshaw handcuffed her tightly, so as make it extra painful for her, and continued the interrogation, the suit stated.

The next day, at the intervention of Batra, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown freed her without charges. "Judge Brown, as DA Brown is known, took the rare step to administratively dismiss all criminal charges against Krittika based upon my word -- such that Krittika never had to step into a criminal court and pled 'not guilty,' her file was 'sealed,' and she could legally say that she was never arrested," Batra noted.

Though exonerated by the legal authorities, the school insisted on more disciplinary action, suspending her in consultation with Department of Education authorities. According to the suit, Krittika was sent to a 'reform' school where 'alleged criminals' go for their constitutionally mandated education.

Later, she allegedly met the ostensible culprit who may have been upset because he had earlier been asked to leave a class as he had failed his trigonometry regents exam. But no action was taken against him and the suit noted discriminatory practices against South Asians compared to East Asians.

"Having completely won Krittika's case on the law, I advised, and Krittika agreed, with her diplomatic family's support, that in recognition of the warm relations between India and United States, that a just resolution of this case also needed to be mutually respectful in both tone and timing so as to enhance the bilateral relationship," Batra added.

[Source: 18.9.2014]

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The ISI’s Lankan Connection – An Unfolding Spy - Terror Network

Arun Selvaraj or Selvarajan is no David Coleman Headley. He, however, adopted a modus operandi similar to Headley, namely, setting up of a cover for the purpose of espionage and scouting targets for a possible attack to be carried out by Pak-sponsored terrorists. He and the other Pakistani spies had a mission to lay the groundwork for the ISI to execute an attack like 26/11 in either Chennai or Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore).

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) along with its protégé the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) have either shifted their focus from western India to southern India or have expanded operations in the deep South. This is apparent from the arrests of ISI agents made by the Indian law enforcement agencies in last few months.

In April 2014, the law-enforcement agencies arrested a Sri Lankan national Sakir Husain in Chennai who revealed a Pakistani conspiracy to attack US and Israeli consulates in Chennai with help from two Maldivian nationals. Sakir Hussain, told his interrogators that he had been hired allegedly by an official in Pakistani high commission in Colombo as part of the ISI’s alleged plans to conduct reconnaissance of US consulate in Chennai and Israeli consulate in Bangalore. Hussain was arrested on April 29 in a coordinated operation involving various countries. (See wherein the threat posed from Maldives was highlighted) A month later, his associate Mohammed Sulaiman, another Sri Lankan, was arrested in Malaysia on similar charges.

Husain’s interrogation revealed that the ISI was planning to send two men from Maldives to Chennai and that he had to arrange for their travel documents and hideouts. He was chosen as he was engaged in human trafficking and in forging passports and smuggling fake currency.

Husain’s name cropped up during an investigation in a Southeast Asian country (possibly Malaysia) which tipped a security agency in India about possible attack on US and Israeli consulates, the sources said.

An immediate surveillance led the investigators to Husain who had been constantly shifting his base in neighbouring Sri Lanka prompting the sleuths to seek cooperation of the island nation, the sources said.

After Husain’s arrival in Chennai, he was picked up and subjected to sustained interrogation during which, the sources claimed, he spoke about a possible terror strike on the two consulates and that his handler was Amir Zubair Siddiqui, Counsellor (Visa) at the Pakistani mission in Colombo.

The sleuths recovered pictures of US and Israeli consulates showing various gates and roads leading to the two premises, the sources said, and claimed that these pictures had been mailed to his alleged handlers in Pakistan and its high commission in Colombo.

Cyber signatures showed that the pictures were downloaded at a computer within the premises of Pakistan high commission at Colombo and the same had been shared with Sri Lankan authorities, the sources claimed.

Arun Selvarajan, a Sri Lankan national and suspected to be a member of the Tamil Tigers was recruited by the ISI’s Amir Zubair Siddiqui, the handler of Husain and was arrested by National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Chennai. Selvarajan’s assignment was to carry out a recce of possible targets in and around Chennai (similar to what Daood Sayed Gilani better known as David Coleman Headley carried out in Mumbai to enable Pakistan to 26/11 attacks) for a possible repeat of Mumbai 26/11 in Chennai. The Times of India reported that Selvarajan had posed as a bartender at a dinner party organized for the Army Officers at the Officers’ Training Academy in Chennai in August 2009. For the party held in 2009, OTA had given the bartending contract to a star hotel in Chennai. NIA officials said Selvarajan tagged along a friend who worked in the star hotel for the officers' party. "He served drinks and managed to take some photographs of senior officers in the academy, using a pen camera. He downloaded these photographs and sent them to his handler called Shaji in Sri Lanka. Shaji worked for the Pakistan high commission in Sri Lanka. He carried out this ‘assignment’ before he set up an event management company called “ICE Events” as a cover for his espionage activities. The modus operandi has been more or less similar to that adopted by David Coleman Headley. While it is not clear when he was recruited, the very fact that he was operating since 2009, proves that he was able to evade scrutiny of the intelligence agencies. Another factor that possibly worked in his favour, like that of Headley, was he was a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu and may not have aroused suspicion.

Selvarajan is also reported to have conducted reconnaissance of Kalapakkam nuclear plant site.

The other ISI spy Thameem Ansari, a native of Thanjavur, was arrested during an IB-Q branch (of Tamil Nadu Police) joint operation while he was on his way to Trichy airport carrying a digital dossier on south Indian defence installations in the third week of September 2012. He was scheduled to catch a flight to Colombo the day he was arrested. Ansari was arrested after six months of surveillance in 2012.

A failed onion trader, Ansari was contacted by Pakistani agent Shaji when he was in Colombo. Pakistani diplomat Siddiqui was suspected to be their handler. 

Ansari was caught with CDs and a pen drive that had data on important military areas and also landing points on the southern coastline. He was carrying a DVD of training paratroopers landing in some desert and also a Signal Corps parade. He was also carrying visuals the Indian Army insignia that army officers wear on their shirts.

An official recalled that he was carrying CDs of extensive footage that he had shot of the Defence Services Staff College at Wellington and other military places.

There were visuals of even the Indian Army insignia that army officers wear on their shirts, which raised suspicion that it was meant to smuggle terrorists into Wellington and other sensitive places dressed like Indian army officers.

Intelligence sources say, there is information that not only is ISI regularly recruiting youth from this troubled region of Sri Lanka for espionage and covert operations against India but even the LeT has set up a base and now wields some sort of influence in the region. "The region has been in some ethnic turmoil of late and Pakistan has been fishing in troubled waters. For its intelligence-collection and covert action operations directed against India, ISI uses four external bases - Kathmandu, Dubai, Bangkok and Colombo. The last one has traditionally been used as a base to collect intelligence about developments in sensitive Indian nuclear and missile establishments, many of which are located in south India, particularly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. But the last few arrests show that these elements could now be used to mount an attack. This is worrying," said a security establishment officer.

In an unrelated development a leading Indian newspaper reported that a partially burnt diary was found by a security guard of Hanging Gardens (a well known garden in South Mumbai) on the evening of 15th September 2014 warning the city police of a repeat of 26/11 attacks to avenge the deaths of the ten Pakistani terrorists. A letter in the diary said that ten jawans (soldiers) from Pakistan would be assisted by five Indians, including three police personnel, in the attack. "The security guard told the police that a man informed him about a diary lying in the garden. When the security guard opened it, he found a two-page letter in Hindi. He suspected something suspicious and informed the police about it. However, the man who had informed the security guard about the diary had by then left," a police officer said.

The letter read: "You will feel the same pain the way my brother, Ajmal Kasab, was executed. You take care of Mumbai, we challenge you. Remember 26/11 when my brother Kasab and his associates proved to be tough for the Mumbai police. Forget 26/11 and now remember a new date 26/9 (September 26, 2014). First blast at Taj will be followed by strikes at Churchgate, CST, Airport, Dadar, Andheri RTO, Kurla, Tilak Nagar and between Church (probably referring to Churchgate) to Mira Road, anywhere, there could be an attack."

The letter warned of a tehelka (sensation) at Byculla station between 10am-6pm. "If the Maharashtra police is powerful enough, stop it," it said. The letter said Aamir Kasab would win the war on 26/9. Sixteen names, including those of the attackers, have been mentioned. The letter in the end mentioned about hoisting the green flag in Kashmir.

While the letter seems to be a prank, it cannot be taken lightly for the following reasons. Firstly, the last week of September witnesses a very important Hindu festival of Dussehra which commences on 25th of September. Being a festival which is celebrated on a mass scale with crowds thronging Puja Pandals, a terror strike is certain to cause mass casualties and panic.  Secondly, the Maharashtra state elections are scheduled to be held in mid-October and any attack of the 26/11 kind may impact the polls and its outcome. Thirdly, the attack of 26/11 was to have been originally carried out in the month of September of 2008 (according to the late B. Raman on 26th September 2008) but was postponed due to various factors. The security agencies in Mumbai cannot let their guard down in the light of the contents of the letter.

Friday, September 12, 2014

An ‘Obamian’ Strategy to Combat the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. To intervene or not to intervene; to strike or not to strike, be it in Libya or Syria or Iraq is a dilemma which has dogged the Obama Presidency.

Having drawn flak over not outlining any clear strategy yet on how to check the Islamic State's murderous advance, US President Barack Obama finally seems to have a clear “game plan” on ISIS offensive which he disclosed in a speech on 10th September.

Obama held a news conference on 5th September at the conclusion of the NATO Summit in Wales, touching on the crisis in both Ukraine and Iraq. Obama echoed the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, who said that the U.S. was committed to “destroying” the extremist group within three years as he announced a plan for an international coalition to confront the group in the Middle East.

President Barack Obama unequivocally said that the extremist group calling itself the Islamic State must be dismantled, degraded, and "ultimately defeated," days after he earned criticism for saying the goal was to roll back the organization to a point it was “manageable”.
Appearing in an interview on the NBC's “Meet the Press”, Obama told the moderator Chuck Todd that the US has a capability to deal with the serious threat posed by the Islamic State and over a course of months, the US will manage to blunt, degrade and defeat the extremists.

“Over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat 'em,” said Obama.

The broad grand strategy that is being conjured up by the US President is to form an international coalition and regional partnerships to attack the Islamic State in order to degrade and destroy its operations. What the President is indicating is that the US is committed to providing air support, logistics and training to its allies in the region. Period! The US will not take active part in ground combat. 

While agreeing to the fact that the US can't defeat ISIS with air strikes alone, Obama said that it was not possible to "deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East".

"'We've got to have a more sustainable strategy, which means the boots on the ground have to be Iraqi...  and in Syria, the boots on the ground have to be Syrian," said Obama.

“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil,” he said. Obama compared the new initiative to smaller-scale fights the United States has engaged in. “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” he said.

But the scope of the new operation — which will immediately involve expanded airstrikes, additional U.S. personnel in Iraq and new support for moderate Syrian rebels — is likely to overshadow those two efforts. In the 13-minute address, Obama did not give a fixed date for when the operation might end, and his top aides have suggested it might last beyond his time in office.

The US under Obama is embarking on a military campaign bereft of any strategic objectives. The planning too is cumbersome because it involves an international coalition of ten countries as well as the Arab countries of the region whose politico-military objectives may well be different from and in conflict with the US agenda. There is also mutual distrust and infighting amongst the Arab states which is not very encouraging for the anti-IS alliance.

Wars against insurgents are fought and won, if at all, on the ground, not in the air or not from the air. Proof of this is seen in Afghanistan (2001 onwards) Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011). But Obama's forces is likely to comprise, initially at least, of the remnants of Iraqi army troops (who were sent fleeing by ISIS during its spring offensive around Mosul), Kurdish peshmerga, Syrian rebels, Shia militias and, possibly, moderate Sunni tribal groups.  A thousand or more US service personnel who have been deputed to Iraq are involved in facilitating airstrikes and training local forces. An additional 475 personnel are likely to be sent to Iraq which is unlikely to make any qualitative difference on the ground.

Obama’s emerging strategy depends on cooperation and contributions from regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, besides the sustainability of a new government in Iraq.

A serious flaw is getting a motley group of ten nations (the US along with Britain, France, Canada, Germany, Denmark, Poland, Australia, Italy and Turkey) to contribute and cooperate in militarily combating the IS. As to why Obama sought volunteers from the North Atlantic Alliance to form a coalition to fight the IS is anybody’s guess.  It is not clear why he thinks those NATO countries -- with the exception of Turkey -- will spend money and risk lives (and reprisals in the form of terror attacks) to contain the Islamic State. Turkey (which is following Pakistan’s policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds) which is presumably one of the members of this coalition has been accused of turning a blind eye to the IS’ activities along the jihadist highway that feeds the extremist elements in Syria. Jihadis transit Turkey to get into the ranks of ISIS, and the Turks buy millions of dollars worth of diesel fuel that the IS smuggle out.

In its obsession to remove Bashar al- Assad from power, Turkey’s ruling political dispensation did not bother to distinguish between moderate Syrian groups and jihadists like the IS. It was Ankara’s pro-Islamist policies in Syria (and Egypt) that paved the way for this catastrophe.

It remains to be seen how Turkey’s policies will alter the Obama administration’s relationship with Ankara, but the President’s choice of language in recent months has been increasingly accusatory and underlies the West’s sense of frustration. In his August 28 speech, Obama said: “The truth is that we’ve had state actors who at times have thought that the way to advance their interests is, ‘Well, financing some of these groups as proxies is not such a bad strategy.’”

Qatar, though not a partner in the coalition against the IS, is a long-time regional ally of the US and is known to have funded Islamist groups like the Hamas and Al Nusra and has had close links with the Muslim Brotherhood. The German Development Minister, Gerd Muller recently hinted that Qatar may be funding the IS. According to the US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, Qatar has for many years openly financed Hamas, a group that continues to undermine regional stability. Mr. Cohen also stated that press reports indicated that the Qatari government was also supporting groups in Syria. According to Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Qatar is a “frenemy”. On one hand it hosts the biggest US military base in the Middle East at Al Udeid; invests billions of dollars in the US and across the globe in a bid to make itself indispensable and acts as the ‘white knight’ intermediary in hostage negotiations.

Too many pitfalls

The principal problem with this grand strategy is that US is leading a coalition “from behind” – Obama has unequivocally stated that there would be no US boots on the ground; a small number of US troops would be involved in training the forces fighting the IS and the US Air Force would be involved in carrying out strikes in Iraq and Syria. President Obama’s comparisons with Somalia and Yemen are misplaced. No two conflicts can be fought with the same strategy or tactics. The situation in Iraq and Syria threatens to engulf the whole region in a conflict without end. This is not the case with the Al Qaeda in Yemen or al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The “regional partnerships” which the White House is trying to conjure is extremely fragile and ambiguous. For instance, Saudi Arabia has agreed to host and help fund the training program, according to White House officials. Saudi Arabia, while being supportive of the United States, worries that going to war with IS could provoke a backlash among Sunni extremists in its own population. Jordan has agreed to help with providing intelligence. Turkey, as stated above, is likely to be non-committal notwithstanding the fact that the IS holds 49 kidnapped Turkish diplomats as hostage. In June, Sunni militants with ISIS stormed the Turkish Consulate in Mosul, Iraq, kidnapping the consul general and other members of his staff, and their families, including three children.

The Arab League pledged on Sunday to take steps to defeat the Islamic State, although it did not officially agree to back U.S. action against the terrorist organization. Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby asked the 22-member body to set aside regional infighting for possible military action against the Islamic State.

Another problem would be to act against the financiers of IS in the Gulf region. Stemming the flow of money that finances the Islamic State’s operations in Syria and Iraq is one of the top ways Arab countries can make a difference. Apart from Qatar, private individuals in the region provide a substantial amount of funding to the extremist groups. Direct monetary contributions are frequently disguised as charitable donations, and the Islamic State is adept at raising funds from ransoms and smuggling, according to Bloomberg.

Further any campaign against terrorism or insurgency is open-ended. The duration of such conflicts is uncertain; it may well be a war without end, like the one being waged against Al Qaeda or al-Shabaab. According to senior Administration officials, the campaign may take three years to end. If the conflict were to drag on for more than a year, it is debatable whether the coalition and regional partnerships would remain united in its resolve to defeat the IS.

Zvi Bar’el wrote in The Haaretz: “There is no sense even in arguing about the plan’s military benefit, since Obama is not suggesting a solution for the ideological threat that Islamic State poses. Obama is selling tickets to a long, expensive show that has no plot, a show he will be producing only because he received permission from the theater owners.” According to him no foreign force, even a well-equipped one, will be able to replace a strong, determined local power.

One only hopes that this military campaign does not end up degrading the US Presidency and that Obama does not leave behind a troubled legacy for his successor in 2017.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Countering the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. The earlier post focused on possible intelligence shortcomings of the US on Iraq and the unbridled advances made by the Islamic State [known formerly as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)]. By August 2014, there was pressure from groups such as the Kurds on the US Government to intervene military in Iraq to counter the Islamic State.

In response to gains made by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq the United States began to deploy its military to Iraq to defend American assets (and interests) and to advise Iraqi government forces. In August 2014, the U.S. military began an aerial campaign directed against radical Islamists in northern Iraq. In addition to military efforts, the US also mounted a considerable humanitarian mission aimed at assisting ethnic minorities, particularly the Yazidis, in northern Iraq who were and continue to be under the threat of genocide by ISIS.

The consequences of US strikes

One of the most horrific consequences of US military intervention was the execution of a US national who was abducted two years earlier while on an assignment in Syria. This was not the first time that a US national had been taken hostage and executed by terror outfits. Hostages have been executed by radical Islamist groups operating in Lebanon in the eighties. James Foley, an American free lance photo-journalist working for the Global Post was abducted in November 2012 in north-western Syria by militants belonging to the ISIL/ISIS. In August 2014 he was executed by the terrorist outfit in response to the US airstrikes in Iraq.

According to White House sources he was believed to have been abducted by Shabiha militia (a shadowy outfit suspected to have been established by Namir al-Assad and Rifaat al-Asad operating in the Mediterranean region around Latakia, Banias and Tartous), and later reportedly held in a Syrian Arab Air Force intelligence complex in Damascus. It is not clear how or under what circumstances did Foley came under IS captivity. A US Special Forces operation was ordered by President Obama to rescue Foley and other hostages in July 2014 somewhere inside Syria. President Barack Obama ordered the secret operation, the first of its kind by the U.S. inside Syrian territory since the start of the civil war, after the U.S. received intelligence the Americans were being held by the extremist group known as Islamic State in a sparsely populated area inside Syria. The officials said that U.S. forces landed modified, heavily armed Black Hawk helicopters flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which works with both the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL commandos. The regiment is known as the “Night Stalkers.” After landing nearby and approaching the facility by foot, the force came under small-arms fire, to which it responded, the officials said. Several fighters of the Islamic State were killed in the exchange of fire. One member of the special operations forces team was shot and slightly injured, the officials said. However, Foley was not located. A case of inaccurate intelligence on the whereabouts of the hostages, perhaps! The operation was a secret but was revealed after Foley's death.

Foley's continued whereabouts were unknown until August 19, 2014, when ISIS posted a video to YouTube depicting Foley reading a prepared statement urging Americans to stop their support for the U.S. government for its bombing campaign against ISIS targets.

Tackling the Islamic State

The Islamic State or ISIS is a unique outfit; it cannot be termed as an insurgent group in the classical sense considering the kind of brutality that it has unleashed on minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians. At the same time, like insurgents and unlike terrorists, it has come to control large swathes of territory in parts of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is more or less in the mould of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). If that be the case, then countering this group is certainly going to be an uphill task. It took the Sri Lankan forces nearly three decades to wipe out the LTTE.

The use of air power by US and its allies will have limited impact on the capabilities of the Islamic State. Air power may deter IS to mount large-scale military offensives but will have hardly any impact on its ability to carry out suicide bombing, assassinations and hostage-taking. The US will be in a bind if its nationals are taken hostages and their executions are filmed and uploaded on the net. The US will have to come up with an effective counter-terrorism strategy which will deter the IS from targeting nationals belonging to the US and its allies. The US needs to borrow a page from that unconfirmed incident which took place in the mid-eighties in Lebanon when about four diplomats of the erstwhile Soviet Union were abducted by a radical Sunni Muslim outfit, the Islamic Liberation Organisation, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Alpha (or Alfa) Group was dispatched to Beirut in October 1985. By the time Alpha arrived, one of the hostages had already been killed. Through a network of supporting KGB operatives, members of the task-force identified each of the perpetrators involved in the crisis, and once identified, began to take the relatives of these militants as hostages. Following the standard policy of no negotiations with terrorists, some of the hostages taken by Alpha Group were dismembered, and their body parts sent to the militants. The warning was clear: more would follow unless the remaining hostages were released immediately. The message was “Release our people or you will get your people piece by piece”. The show of force worked and for a period of 20 years no Soviet or Russian officials were taken captive.

There is a great deal of apprehension that radicalized Western Muslims have been engaging and continue to engage in terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria as part of the Islamic State and will eventually return home. The fear is misplaced. For if, the West is determined to keep its soil free of Islamic extremists, the only solution is to physically prevent them from returning home. The other option is to neutralize them. And the last option is the Soviet option, the veracity of which incident has been questioned by some.

Softer options of incarceration or rehabilitation, howsoever democratic and fanciful, it may appear, will only give rise to more rabid militant outfits. Physical elimination will ensure that these elements will not be around to re-engage in any kind of terror activities and will have a deterrent effect on other like-minded individuals and groups who nurture such sinister ideas.