Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraqi Crisis: A Case of Intel Failure

Have the US intelligence agencies failed to assess the situation in Iraq? Is it time for the CIA and other agencies to revert to their traditional role and focus on intelligence collection and analysis?

The ongoing crisis in Iraq seems to have caught US intelligence agencies napping. It seems to be so considering the Obama Administration’s lack of a robust response to the ISIS, which has gone on an uncontrolled rampage through the towns and villages of Iraq.  It is increasingly clear that the intelligence gathering capabilities of the US spy agencies in the Middle East in general have been severely dented after the departure of the US troops from Iraq in December 2011. The spy agencies appear to have been surprised by the sudden move by the ISIS to seize Mosul and other cities. The Senate Intelligence Committee is reviewing data from the past six months to determine the extent of intelligence available to the various agencies and about the possibility of a major offensive.

According to Shane Harris “The speed and ease with which well-armed and highly trained ISIS fighters took over Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, have raised significant doubts about the ability of American intelligence agencies to know when ISIS might strike next, a troubling sign as the Islamist group advances steadily closer to Baghdad. And it harked back to another recent intelligence miscue, in February, when U.S. spy agencies failed to predict the Russian invasion of Crimea. Both events are likely to raise questions about whether the tens of billions of dollars spent every year on monitoring the world's hot spots is paying off -- and what else the spies might be missing.”

“The CIA maintains a presence at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, but the agency has largely stopped running networks of spies inside the country since U.S. forces left Iraq in December 2011, current and former U.S. officials said. That's in part because the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command had actually taken the lead on hunting down Iraq's militants. With the JSOC commandos gone, the intelligence agencies have been forced to try to track groups like ISIS through satellite imagery and communications intercepts -- methods that have proven practically useless because the militants relay messages using human couriers, rather than phone and email conversations, and move around in such small groups that they easily blend into the civilian population.”

One hurdle is that much of the intelligence network the U.S. built up during eight years of fighting in Iraq has been dismantled, including a network of CIA and Pentagon sources and an NSA system that made available the details of every Iraqi insurgent email, text message and phone-location signals in real time, said John "Chris" Inglis, who recently retired as the NSA's top civilian.

Yet according to some US officials, there was some warning. Lt. Gen Mike Flynn of the Defense Intelligence Agency, had informed Congress in February that the ISIL "probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014, as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah, and the group's ability to concurrently maintain multiple safe havens in Syria."

Behind the scenes, intelligence analysts warned about the increasing difficulties Iraq's security forces faced in combating the ISIL, and the political strains that were contributing to Iraq's declining stability, a senior intelligence official said. They reported on the ISIL's efforts to spark uprisings in areas with substantial Sunni populations and how the Iraqi military's failure to counter ISIL gains in Mosul allowed the group to deepen its influence there, the official said.

Few US officials have admitted that the intelligence agencies’ assessment of the ISIS has been devoid of specifics that could have helped the Iraqis know when and where an attack could take place and prepare them to counter it.

Intelligence failure or failure of assessment is not a problem that happened overnight. The decay set in over a period of time post 9/11. The effect of 9/11 on the US Government was to make the CIA and the Pentagon shift primacy away from their traditional functions and towards black ops. At the CIA, this meant less attention being devoted to traditional intelligence gathering and more to targeted killings being conducted from the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre (CTC). At the Pentagon, it resulted in the rapid rise of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As the War on Terror got underway, it became evident—or at least seemed evident to those formulating policy—that traditional lines demarcating military action from intelligence collection were no longer relevant. The entire world became a battlefield, and the US needed to collect intelligence on threats and eliminate them quickly and fluidly, unconstrained by bureaucratic shackles. The CIA, from a traditional intelligence gathering agency evolved into a paramilitary organization. According to Philip Giraldi, a former CIA case officer “I would not say that CIA has been taken over by the military, but I would say that the CIA has become more militarized. A considerable part of the CIA budget is now no longer spying; it’s supporting paramilitaries who work closely with JSOC to kill terrorists, and to run the drone program.”

Former CIA Director General Michael Hayden (ret.) had opined in the wake of Petraeus’ resignation that the Agency was presented with the opportunity to return to its operational roots. Hayden, who led the CIA from 2006 to 2009, said that the Agency has been “laser-focused on terrorism” for many years. Consequently, much of its operational output “looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence”, he said. According to CIA’s former Acting Director, John McLaughlin, the most significant challenge for the post-Petraeus CIA “may be the sheer volume of problems that require [good old-fashioned] intelligence input”. For over a decade, argues Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, the CIA’s focus has been to fulfill covert-action tasks in the context of Washington’s so-called “war on terrorism”. But through this process, the Agency “has become too much of a paramilitary organization” and has neglected its primary institutional role, which is to be “the premier producer and analyst of intelligence for policymakers, using both open and clandestine sources”. 

It may be argued that the ISIS being a progeny of the al Qaeda, it would have been anyway under the scanner of the CIA’s War on Terror. However, the ISIS is not alone in the offensive; it has the backing of several Sunni jihadi groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils. The sectarian divide, the Syrian imbroglio and the Iranian influence on Baghdad and al-Maliki’s policies were largely responsible for strengthening and emboldening the ISIS. The ISIS, today, is seen more as an insurgent group fighting for a cause rather than as a terrorist group. Shia Iran on one hand and the Sunni Arab states on the other had turned Iraq into a proxy battleground. Had the CIA and other agencies focused on their traditional role, the Obama Administration would have been better placed to tackle the Iraqi crisis. It is high time that the CIA reverted to its role of intelligence collection and analysis.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Global Flash Point: Iraq

The crisis and the near civil war – like situation in Iraq is fast emerging as another global flash points of 2014 and beyond and this is apparent from the nature of conflict that is unfolding and the kind of brutality that is being perpetrated by the jihadi groups, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. India’s interests are likely to be affected by the turn of events in Iraq and a strategy needs to be in place in the event of a full-blown civil war and collapse of the state.

The government in Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era has been weak and to make matters worse, the Sunni-Shia divide has become more pronounced, though the sectarian angle is denied by the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki’s spokesman. The influence of Iran, a predominantly Shia state over Baghdad has unnerved the Sunni dominated Arab states of the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. The rise of ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or also known as ISIL – Islamic State of Iraq and Levant whose main objective is to establish a Sunni-Islamist state in the region should be viewed in the context of the internal politics as it obtains in Iraq as well as the sectarian divide and mistrust between the Sunnis and Shias. (The final "S" in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word "al-Sham". This can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus but in the context of the global jihad it refers to the Levant).

ISIS was formed in April 2013 and grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It has since been disavowed by al-Qaeda, but become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and is making military gains in Iraq. The group is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi aka Abu Dua and is considered today to be the world's most dangerous terrorist.

The ISIS came to prominence during the takeover of Fallujah in January 2014 and the following month Washington recognised ISIS as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, it has been overtly and covertly been supported by pro-Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. The funding of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, a group which has direct links with the Al Qaeda has given the ISIS more firepower.

On June 10, the ISIS captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. In a few hours, the city's security forces had dropped their weapons and uniforms and fled. Since then, the militants introduced a political charter in Mosul and marched south, seizing additional towns en route to the capital, Baghdad. ISIS gained as much as $425 million in cash, an unspecified quantity of gold bullion, huge amounts of light and heavy weaponry and probably hundreds of new recruits from three main detention centers.

It has descended — and at an alarming pace — from the northwest of the country and is taking town after town, reaching about 60 miles from the capital Baghdad. Such has been the pace of its advancement that by the time the international community took notice and condemned it the ISIS had made great progress.

The ISIS has also taken control of Saddam Hussein’s home town, Tikrit. Earlier they had taken control of Ramadi and Samarra—two important towns. PM Maliki has failed to bring even a semblance of democracy and governance in Iraq and there are groups that see the advance of ISIS as a reply to his misrule. The Mosul takeover has further weakened Baghdad’s influence in the northern regions. This has given the Kurds an advantage in its standoff with the Maliki government.

There were reports that the town of Tal Afar had also fallen to the ISIS. Tal Afar is strategically significant, straddling the main highway from Mosul, the provincial capital, to the Syrian border. However, assuming Tal Afar has indeed fallen to the militants, it does not mean they have a direct link to Syria - the border crossing at Rabia is controlled on the eastern side by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and on the western side by the Popular Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is fiercely hostile to ISIS.

This offensive has been coming for at least two years. After the last American military personnel withdrew from Iraq on December 31, 2011, the then-Islamic State in Iraq began its gradual but determined recovery -- befitting the organization's mantra of baqiya wa tatamadad ("lasting and expanding"). The strategy was meticulously planned and carried out in clear stages.

Principally, in Iraq the ISIS have spent two years breaking senior leaders out of prison and re-establishing a professional command and control structure; expanding operational reach, including into Syria, and exploiting rising Sunni discontent with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, thereby encouraging sectarianism.

ISIS has substantial roots in Mosul, where it has managed to remain a potent force during and after the U.S. troop "surge." This breakaway Al Qaeda affiliate has been raising substantial sums of money in Mosul through an intricate extortion network. This reality, plus Mosul's proximity to ISIS positions in eastern Syria, made the city a natural launching ground for this shock offensive in Iraq, which is ultimately aimed at Baghdad.

Besides the ISIS, there are many other armed Sunni actors involved in what has become, in effect, a Sunni uprising -- groups such as the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al Naqshbandia, Jaish al-Mujahideen, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, Al-Jaish al-Islami fil Iraq and various tribal military councils.

ISIS may be the largest force involved (with about 8,000 fighters in Iraq), but its numbers are in sufficient to take and hold multiple urban centers. It is still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating Sunni population. But this "relationship" is by no means stable and should not be taken for granted.
The militants' prospects are also dependent on the government and its supporters continuing to advance sectarianism -- something that encourages Sunni actors to accept ISIS. 

Unfortunately, this apparent sectarianism has been consolidated in recent days with the Iraqi Prime Minister’s call for a "volunteer army" encouraging the further reconstitution of the Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Jaish al-Mahdi and the Badr Brigades (three Shiite militias active during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which appear to be receiving a new boost in recruitment).

Further the call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's to Iraqis to take up arms against ISIS -- have increased the perception of sectarianism inside and outside Iraq.

Iran's role is crucial. Iran has spent recent years painstakingly trying to consolidate Shiite influence in Iraq under a central authority in Baghdad. Already, the commander of Iran's external Quds Force, Qassem Suleimani, has been in Baghdad, and Iraqi sources have reported 500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel arriving in the capital and, allegedly, 1,500 Basij militiamen (Iranian paramilitary force) in Diyala.

Saudi Arabia has been making all out efforts to thwart the rise of Iran and its influence in Iraq. Syria and Lebanon always make for useful proxy battlegrounds, though a Sunni rebellion has little chance of actually toppling the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus, and Lebanon is too fragmented for any one regional player to claim a decisive advantage. The contest has thus shifted back to Mesopotamia, where Iran cannot afford to see its Shiite gains slip and where Saudi Arabia -- both the government and private citizens -- has maintained strong ties with many of the Sunni tribes in Anbar and Mosul provinces that have facilitated the Sunni uprising. All the same there is no love lost between the Saudis and the ISIS. In fact, the Saudis have branded it a terrorist organization and have even uncovered cells of the group on Saudi soil plotting against the kingdom.

Thus a variety of factors may have been responsible for the current situation in Iraq; but primarily the Sunni-Shia divide and a continuing battle for ‘influence’ fought through proxies between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states of the region have converted Iraq into a war zone and has brought it to the verge of collapse.

Impact on India

India’s immediate concern is the welfare of a sizable number of Indians working in Iraq; according to one estimate, as reported in an Indian daily, about 18,000 Indians are in Iraq. With the fall of Mosul, it has been reported that about 40 construction workers had been abducted by the ISIS. Also there are about 46 nurses from Kerala have also been stranded at Tikrit near Mosul. The nurses are claiming that they are safe and the Indian mission in Iraq is trying to evacuate them to safer places.

India is in the process of sending its former ambassador to Iraq Suresh Reddy to Baghdad to try and establish contact with the abducted Indian workers. Suresh Reddy, who has good contacts in Iraq, is likely to use his local contacts to trace the abducted Indian workers.

It is anybody’s guess as to how the Indian government will go about evacuating its citizens who are stranded and secure the release of the abducted workers as, as of date India does not seem to have much influence over the warring factions or the wherewithal to secure a safe passage from the embattled region. It is virtually impossible to conduct an evacuation exercise on a large scale considering the fighting in various parts of Iraq. And secondly, an evacuation of this magnitude will entail the deployment of armed forces in order to ensure safety of her citizens. If India chooses this option, then it needs to consider the possibility of an armed confrontation with the ISIS. Also an evacuation, if planned, will necessitate the deployment of Indian naval and air assets in and around Iraq.

ISIS, which is being suspected to be behind the abduction of 40 Indian workers in Mosul, has global ambitions and aims to create an Islamic World Dominion of which even India would be a part. A recently released world dominion map by the outfit had parts of north-west India, including Gujarat, shown as part of the Islamic state of Khorasan, a caliphate that the outfit aims to achieve. 

There have been inputs of jihadists from India fighting in both Iraq and Syria and some of these would eventually return and would then become the link between the Middle East outfits and the Indian subcontinent. That is a time, sources said, India needs to prepare for.

The offensive carried out by the ISIS and its allies bring back memories of the Taliban seizing Afghanistan which could increase instability in the entire region. Moreover, a crisis-ridden oil rich country in West Asia will adversely impact India’s energy needs and the deep economic ties which India has had with Iraq.

(At the time of writing this post, the Sunni extremists have reportedly taken control of most of Iraq's largest oil refinery, located in Baiji in northern Iraq. The militants have managed to break into the refinery. Now they are in control of the production units, administration building and four watch towers. This is 75 per cent of the refinery," an official speaking from inside the refinery said). 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Israel Bashing - A Favourite Marxist Hobby

A principal South Indian daily The Hindu published an Opinion on 3rd April 2014 titled “The endless calamity in West Asia” by one Vijay Prashad. (

While the author Mr. Prashad, who a self-described Marxist and anti-Zionist, is entitled to his opinion, as a professor, one would have expected him to have had a certain balance in his approach to a very sensitive issue. His vitriolic attack on Israel goes to the extent of stating: If not for the blind support by the United States, Israel would be considered one of the planet’s most undesirable states.  The only inference that can be drawn from this statement is that this so-called opinion is more about Israel-bashing and less about suggesting an amicable and workable solution to the Palestinian question. The author needs to be made aware that Israel maintains diplomatic relations with about 160 countries on this planet, and surely a bulk of these countries do not find Israel to be undesirable. Israel also has relations with Arab/Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania. Iran and its proxy, the Hezbollah and Hamas are the only state and non-state actors who desire the destruction of Israel. There are quite a few ‘undesirable states’ not only in the Indian sub-continent but in the Middle East as well; but Israel is certainly not one of them.

Mr. Prashad also seems to have conveniently forgotten that one of the first states to recognize Israel was the erstwhile Soviet Union, a country which was also India’s closest friend and a major arms supplier.

Israel has a history of providing emergency aid and humanitarian response teams to disasters across the world. For the past 26 years, Israel has sent out 15 aid missions to countries struck by natural disasters. In Haiti, immediately following the devastating 2010 earthquake, Israel was the first country to set up a field hospital. Israel sent over 200 medical doctors and personnel to start treating injured Haitians at the scene. Despite radiation concerns, Israel was one of the first countries to send a medical delegation to Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami disaster. How many of the undesirable states of the Middle East acted in providing emergency aid and humanitarian response teams to areas affected by natural calamities? 

The author places strong emphasis on the criticism expressed by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) on the use of the term “Jewish State”. He writes that in its new report, “Arab Integration: A 21st Century Development Imperative (2014),” the Commission notes, “Israel insists on being recognized by the world and the Arabs as an exclusively Jewish State. It imposes this recognition as a condition for reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. This policy is based on the concept of the religious or ethnic purity of States, which brought to humanity the worst crimes and atrocities of the twentieth century.” What is so abhorrent if Israel insists on being recognized as an exclusively Jewish State? Does the international community have any objection when most of the Muslim states refer to themselves as “Islamic” or “Arab” states? The world does not have a problem with “Organisation of Islamic Countries” or the Arab League where the connotation is either ethnicity or religious. In the circumstances, the people who suffered the most in the last century have a right to insist upon being referred to as Jewish State. 

Furthermore, the Jewishness of Israel does not prevent it from being a vibrant democracy with a parliamentary system and an unwritten constitution. And unlike the radical Islamic states of the Middle East and North Africa, the minorities in the state of Israel have a right to practice their religion. Muslims constitute about 16% of Israel's population.

Issues relating to Palestine and Israel need to be put in proper perspective:

Firstly, the creation of Israel is a fait accompli. Israel cannot be undone or de-recognised as a state under international law (for it possesses all the attributes of statehood).

Secondly, so long as radical Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad seek the destruction of Israel, there can be no peace and a Palestinian state can never become a reality.

Thirdly, Israel will not allow creation of an independent Palestine unless and until the international community guarantees the security of Israel and its people.

Israel faces existential threat from Iran and Syria and ongoing threat of terrorism from Iran’s proxy the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza. These issues and the Palestine question are interlinked to the larger question of peace in the Middle East. For Palestine to be a reality, Israel’s right to exist needs to be guaranteed.

Mr. Prashad feels further aggrieved by Indo-Israel friendship and the fact that Israel has become India’s largest arms supplier after Russia. Whether Mr. Prashad likes it or not, Indo-Israel relations existed much prior to the establishment of diplomatic relation between the two countries. Israel-India ties are centred on not just weaponry, but extend to science and technology, space, culture and tourism. Mr. Prashad also points out that there are a number of corruption cases in both Israeli and Indian courts relating to defence deals. It needs to be mentioned that corruption in defence deals is not confined only to arms imports from Israel, but also from other countries. Bofors may be buried but is not forgotten as yet.

Mr. Prashad further states that only the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI (M), whose 2014 election manifesto seeks to “extend full support to the cause of a Palestinian state; sever military and security ties with Israel.” This, with respect may be the stand of a marginalized party and can never be the stand of the country as a whole.

Lastly, Israel will not be a mute spectator to the creation of Palestine, devoid of security guarantees, as India was in 1947, when Pakistan was created only to reap overt and covert conflicts for generations to come.

The endless calamity in West Asia is not one of Israel's making, but is the result of the acts of commission and omission by the British and the Arab states post World War II.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Crimean Standoff

Brief History

Crimea is not new to conflicts. Crimea, a peninsula separating the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, has been at the centre of military and commercial competition throughout history. The Romans set up naval bases there as early as the first century AD, ancient peoples from the Scythians to Byzantine Greeks used it as a base for farming and maritime commerce, and empires clashed over it as a prime Black Sea possession for centuries. Russia took possession in 1783.

In the mid-1800s, Britain and France, backing the feeble Ottoman sultan, fought the Russian empire over Crimea – and more importantly, its importance for control of the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Then, as now, Sevastopol was home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, and the European powers fought furiously to seize it. Although the Crimean War ended in an effective stalemate, its fierce and epic battles left a lasting mark on European memory, including the Battle of Balaklava that inspired Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and, years later, Rudyard Kipling’s The Last of the Light Brigade.
In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula as a gift to Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. At the time, neither he nor anyone else foresaw the Soviet Union’s collapse. But collapse it did, and Crimea stayed within newly independent Ukraine in 1992 as an autonomous region. The Russian fleet, though, settled in the only deep-water port providing access to Western markets, has been an irritant between Moscow and Kiev ever since.

Civil Strife and Intervention

The ongoing crisis in Crimea began with Euromaidan (literally meaning Eurosquare) a wave of ongoing demonstrations, civil unrest and revolution in Ukraine, which began on the night of 21 November 2013 in the Ukrainian capital Kiev with public protests demanding closer European integration. The scope of the protests expanded, with many calls for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government. The events led to the downfall of the government of Yanukovych. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine began in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, when, on 1 March 2014, Russian troops (with no insignia on their uniforms) seized control of most of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, including civil buildings, airports, and military bases. The same day, the Russian legislature approved the use of the Russian military in Ukraine, and Russian officials stated that their military forces in Crimea were not a breach of existing agreements between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian response has so far been muted, with no military action on the part of Ukraine's government, which was formed in Kiev a few days before the intervention. The Russian military intervention has been compared to what Adolf Hitler had done in Sudetenland in the 1930s when he moved his troops into a region of what was Czechoslovakia at that time, with a regional ethnic German majority. The Russian move is also being compared to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Russian Interests and Strategy
Russia’s role in this unfolding crisis flows uniquely from its geography and its history. As Ukraine’s eastern neighbour, Russia shares a strategic border as well as a tortured history together as part of the former Soviet Union. What happens in Ukraine matters mightily to Moscow. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has been extremely wary of the expanding the North Atlantic Alliance. Since its collapse, former satellite states of the Soviet Union, namely, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have joined the NATO. So also, some of the former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also joined the Western Alliance. 

Putin’s been cautioning the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization states for at least six years not to impede Russian interests in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet has been based since its founding by Catherine the Great in 1783 after the Ottoman Empire ceded the peninsula.

Putin told a closed NATO summit in Romania in 2008 that the military alliance was threatening Ukraine’s very existence by courting it as a member, according to a secret cable published by Wikileaks. Putin said Ukraine’s borders were “sewn together” after World War II and its claims to Crimea, which belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, are legally dubious, Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time, said in the cable. Russia also strongly opposed US plans for a missile shield in Europe.

According to some experts, Russia’s willingness to intervene and escalate a conflict is a sign of panic at what it sees as a possible loss of influence in Ukraine as a result of the Maidan revolution. Russia probably did not foresee the fall of Yanukovych. Moscow seemed to have outmaneuvered the European Union (EU) by offering Yanukovych a $ 15 billion bail out package as a quid pro quo for not signing an association agreement with the EU. Had the agreement with the EU been signed, it would have meant one another former Soviet republic joining the Western fold.

Mr. Putin has fought bitterly to defend what the Kremlin calls its "sphere of privileged interests" in former Soviet republics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has inserted itself into ethnic conflicts with neighboring states to assert its influence. In 2008 it invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia to defend the breakaway region of South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were subsequently recognised by Moscow as separate states, though effectively protectorates of Russia.

Mr. Putin is taking a much bigger gamble in Ukraine because the loss of influence there could deal a blow to his presidency. Many Russians still struggle to see Ukraine as an independent country, given the bonds of history and religious ties.

Crimea is even closer, having been Russian territory until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed Crimea remained part of newly independent Ukraine, despite its majority of ethnic Russians.

The Budapest Memorandum

Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is an international treaty signed on 5 December 1994 in the Hungarian capital Budapest by Ukraine, the US, Russia and the United Kingdom concerning the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine and its security relationship with the signatory countries. The terms of the memorandum is seen as being violated by Russia's military intervention.

According to the memorandum, Russia, the USA, and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia that they would:

·         Respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders.

·         Refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine.

·         Refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.

·         Seek United Nations Security Council action if nuclear weapons are used against Ukraine.

·         Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Ukraine.

·         Consult with one another if questions arise regarding these commitments.

Russia, by its actions is seen not only to be in breach of international law and the provisions of the UN Charter in general, but also the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum.

Strategic importance of Sevastopol

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow refused to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over the port city of Sevastopol and the surrounding Crimean oblast on the ground that the city (Sevastopol) was never integrated into Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The issue was resolved with the signing of a treaty in 1997 wherein the Russian naval base was allowed to be located in the city on a 20-year renewable lease.
The Crimean port of Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet, is vital to Russia’s naval power in the Mediterranean and beyond. As such the base is of critical importance as Russia seeks to regain some of the global clout that has been dwindling since the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

“In the past five to 10 years, there has been a resurgence in Russian naval operations, particularly in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,” says Lee Willett, a naval analyst at IHS Jane’s, the security consultancy. “Sevastopol has been an important hub to project Russian naval power.”

Under agreements signed with Ukraine in 2010, the Russian military can continue to use Sevastopol until 2042, with an option of extending the lease to 2047.

The base’s significance was highlighted during the 2008 war with Georgia, when the Russian fleet staged blockades in the Black Sea and was used to launch amphibious landings. It has also proved its usefulness to Russia in the Libya crisis, anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and Moscow’s role in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons.

After Syria’s civil war forced Russia to stop using its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus last year, Sevastopol became even more crucial.

Can the US and Europe respond effectively?

The bitter fact is that the US and the West failed to anticipate the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is another indicator of the failure of Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Beyond strong words and economic sanctions which may have little or no bite, there is very little that the Obama Administration can do. President Obama’s warning and telephonic discussions has had very little effect on Russia. On the contrary, Crimea seems to have been subdued without a single shot being fired.

“There have been strong words from the US and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”

US officials say they are in discussions now with European officials about Obama and other leaders possibly skipping the Group of Eight economic summit scheduled for June in Sochi, the site of the just-concluded Winter Olympics. Obama’s top advisers gathered at the White House Saturday to discuss other options.

The White House appears to be giving no serious consideration to American military involvement in Ukraine. In his carefully worded statement Friday, Obama avoided saying that a destabilized Ukraine would be a national security concern for the US. Instead, he said only that it was “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.”

In Europe, officials expressed concern about the Russian military escalation, but offered few specific options for stopping or punishing Putin. The European Union, dealing with its own internal problems, has appeared reluctant to fully embrace troubled Ukraine or risk the economic consequences of confronting Russia, one of its largest trading partners.

The US has its own limitations which prevent it from formulating a robust response. Its efforts to punish Russia on Ukraine have been complicated by the White House’s need for Russian cooperation on stopping Syria’s civil war, negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran, and transporting American troops and equipment out of Afghanistan through Russian supply routes.

The crisis may also prove to be a game-changer for President Barack Obama's national security policy, forcing him re-think his foreign policy shift to Asia and to maintain U.S. troop levels in Europe to limit Russia's reach.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow. Because Ukraine does not have full-member status in NATO, the US and Europe have no obligation to come to its defense. And broader international action through the United Nations seems all but impossible, given Russia’s veto power as a member of the Security Council. 

Last summer, Washington threatened Moscow with cancellation of a bilateral summit between Obama and Putin as it pressed Russia to return National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the United States.

When Russia instead granted Snowden temporary asylum, Obama canceled his one-on-one meeting with Putin, but still attended an international meeting in St. Petersburg.

Another reason why economic pressures may not work is because Ukraine depends on Russia for 60 percent of its gas and is the main transit route for OAO Gazprom’s shipments to Europe, where the state-run company has a quarter of the market. Russia had halted gas flows to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 — before Yanukovych’s presidency — amid disputes over prices and volumes, leading to shortages throughout Europe.

According to Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, “President Putin doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks about his foreign policy,” Paul said by phone. “Ukraine is a neighbor country that Russia views as indivisible from itself. Russia is prepared to go to any length to stop Ukraine’s deeper integration with Europe.”  It remains to be seen, of course, if Russia extends its military campaign into Eastern Ukraine with the objective of partitioning the country, whether the West’s response may be different.

Sources: Financial Times, Wikipedia, BBC, The Globe and Mail, CNN

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Operation Blue Star – And The Controversy Continues

There seems to be no end to the controversy surrounding Operation Blue Star. The British government’s twelve page report tabled in the British Parliament clarifying that its role was purely advisory and limited has unfortunately only stoked the fires in India.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague tabled a twelve page report before the Parliament stating that the British Government’s role in the 1984 Operation Blue Star (or for an operation which was never carried out) was purely advisory and limited.

Ever since the disclosure of the two letters dated 6th February 1984 and 23rd February 1984 (see there has been considerable speculation in India about the extent of the role of the British Special Air Service (SAS) in the Golden Temple Operation. Debates featuring opposition politicians, former intelligence and army officers on Indian television news channels have gone on unabated as if the Indian government had committed a heinous crime in seeking advice from a specialized counter-terror unit of a foreign country on the feasibility of carrying out a flushing out operation. Are politicians in India so na├»ve that they consider it preposterous for the government of the day, in its wisdom, to have sought “advisory assistance” from a friendly foreign government in planning a military operation? At least, one leading opposition politician thought so.

Questions relating to this controversy may not have convincing answers, and in any case it may be difficult to find completely satisfactory answers. Also the contemporaneous documents may not reveal the full story, for most of the personae behind Operation Blue Star are no longer alive with the exception of Lt. General K S Brar, who was the General Officer Commanding of 9 Infantry Division. The officer in question has in unequivocal terms stated that there was no foreign involvement in the planning and execution of Operation Blue Star.

The single most important question has been ‘why did the Indian Government seek assistance/advice of the British Military or its intelligence agencies?’  Two Indians who could have definitely given an appropriate and satisfactory response to this question are the late Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her security advisor late Rameshwar Nath Kao. Two factors that may have led the late Mrs. Gandhi to approach the British for assistance, would have been, one, that the bulk of the support for the secessionist Khalistan movement came from the Sikh community in Britain and prominent leaders espousing the cause of Khalistan were based in Britain. Intelligence sharing between foreign countries being normal, Indian and British agencies, one assumes would have kept tabs on the activities of the leaders of the Khalistan movement and two, the SAS has been one of the best counter-terror units in the world. The legendry spy master would also have considered the role played by the SAS in the 1979 operation to flush out radical Muslims who had occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca inspired by the revolution in Iran. Comparisons have been drawn between the siege in the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the occupation of Golden Temple by militants. In the 1979 Mecca siege, personnel belonging to 22nd SAS Regiment who were working for a British Company at the relevant time in Saudi Arabia were called upon to advice in planning the operation to flush out the armed radicals. Though SAS members did not take part in the actual operation, it is believed that French commandos belonging to the Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmeie Nationale (GIGN) took part in the actual raid along with Saudi anti-terror units.

The second question for which no document may provide an easy answer is what happened to the advice given by the British official/s? According to Manoj Joshi, a leading commentator on strategic affairs, the SAS was probably involved in an operation planned much prior to Operation Blue Star which was never carried out.

This operation was planned using the commandos of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), who are army personnel, seconded to the Research & Analysis Wing. Manoj Joshi says that the stories doing the round in the late eighties was that the SFF was ordered to develop a plan for taking out Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in late 1983. The force came up with a plan where its personnel would disguise themselves as Sikhs, penetrate Bhindranwale's durbar at the Guru Nanak Niwas in the Golden Temple complex and whisk him away. 

At the last stage, the commander of the force was summoned by Mrs. Gandhi and asked to brief her on the plan. Her main question was: What are the chances that people will be killed in the operation? The commander said that there was no guarantee that there would be no casualties and as many as a dozen or more people could be killed. At that Mrs. Gandhi balked.

However, Colonel Mahendra Pratap Choudhary, then Commanding Officer of the SFF Group which was a part of Operation Blue Star, said they had no contact with any foreign Special Forces outfit, including SAS. “The only foreign connection to our conduct were the specially designed Kevlar-plated bullet-proof helmets from Israel which were got on the eve of the Operation.”

Was Operation Blue Star based on the advice given by the SAS official/s? "The UK officer’s report back to the UK authorities stated that the main difference between the original Indian plan and his advice was that the original plan was based on obtaining a foothold within the south complex and fighting through in orthodox paramilitary style."

"With a view to reducing casualties, the UK military adviser recommended assaulting all objectives simultaneously, thereby assuring surprise and momentum. The advice given to the Indian authorities identified sufficient helicopters, and the capability to insert troops by helicopter, as critical requirements for this approach."

"The UK advice also focused on command and control arrangements, and night-time co-ordination of paramilitary with Indian Special Group forces."

"It is, of course, possible that Indian planning went through several iterations after the UK military adviser’s visit and report. A quick analysis by current UK military staff confirms that there were significant differences between the actual June operation, and the advice from the UK military officer in February. In particular, the element of surprise was not at the heart of the operation. Nor was simultaneous helicopter insertion of assault forces to dominate critical areas."

The paper on the operation made public by the Indian authorities on June 13, 1984 makes clear that it was a ground assault, preceded by a warning, without a helicopter-borne element, which became a step-by-step clearance supported by armour and light artillery.

According to the British report, “A key UK officer recalls being told in July 1984, by one of the Indian Intelligence Co-ordinator’s senior officials, that after the February visit it had emerged that the Indian Special Group and Army did not have the helicopter capabilities for a simultaneous assault.” 

Lastly there has been a hue and cry about the visit of either intelligence and/or military officials (who also probably did a recce of the Golden Temple Complex) and whether India’s national security was compromised. Much prior to the disclosure made by the British, the late B. Raman on page 96 of his autobiographical account “The Kaoboys of R&AW Down Memory Lane” published in 2007 states: “I was given to understand that at the request of Kao, two officers of the British Security Service (MI-5) visited the Golden Temple as tourists and gave a similar advice to Indira Gandhi – be patient and avoid action or use the police.”  Whether these officials were part of MI-5 or were in reality members of the SAS will never be known. But the fact remains that the British played an advisory role pre-Blue Star.