11 May 2014

Bodo violence: Contest for power and territory

May 9, 2014

On May 1 and 2, 2014, the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) were afflicted by ethnic violence when 41 bodies were discovered in Baska and Kokrajhar districts. Non Bodos, including migrant Muslims, who constitute the majority, allege that their failure to vote for the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) candidate Chandan Brahma in the recent Lok Sabha elections resulted in the fatal retaliation. This has been linked to remarks by BPF leader, Pramila Rani Brahma, who had commented on April 30 that the Muslim migrants had not voted for Chandan Brahma.

Muslims have propped up their own independent candidate, Naba Kumar Sarania alias Hira Sarania, a former United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) rebel in Kokrajhar. This seat has always been represented by a Bodo parliamentarian.

The Assam government suspects the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction) to be behind the attacks though the latter has denied any involvement. The state government is thinking of arming Bengali-speaking Muslims in Bodo areas for self-defense.
Changing Demography and Escalating Tensions

The genesis of this strife can be traced back to as early as 1978 when in a Lok Sabha by-election around 45,000 illegal migrants’ names were found on the voter’s list in Mangaldoi, Darrang district. That was a covert move by the Assam state to legalize migrants with voting rights at par with bona fide citizens of India clearly implicating the government, driven by seditious vested interests versus delivering on the constitutionally guaranteed rights of citizens. The failure of elected representatives to protect people’s land from illegal occupation was and is one of the primary reasons for overwhelming insecurity over land holdings.1

The first strike against this revelation was kick started in 1979 resulting in the massive All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) led ‘Assam Agitation’ against illegal Bangladeshi migration from 1979 to 1985. During that agitation, violence against Muslim immigrants continued, with the 1983 Nellie massacre being the worst with over 2000 Muslim migrants massacred in a single day. Districts like Kokrajhar, Dhubri, Bongaigaon, Darrang, etc, had also witnessed violence during the Assam Agitation over illegal migration.

Notwithstanding all previous events in the decade from 2001 to 2011, as per census figures of 2011, there has been a sharp increase in Bengali speaking Muslim population. The four districts of the BTAD have had highest increases of Muslim versus Non-Muslim population growth (See Figure I). With ever escalating social tensions, in October 2008, violence over issues of land encroachments was sparked by the incident of alleged violence meted out to a Bodo youth, Rakesh Swargiary, by Muslim minority youth. The news of this attack spread like wildfire amongst the Bodo community resulting in widespread violence between the two communities.2 The Bodo community was already on the edge after two Bodo youths were killed in Rowta, Udalguri in August 2008 after they had refused to take part in a bandh called by the All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU).


10 May 2014 

Since the fall of the Taliban regime, the Iranian Government has committed considerable resources to the political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan

In a tryst with democracy, war-ravaged Afghanistan’s new presidential election has been marked as the new dawn in the political process of the country. The peaceful democratic transition from one president to another would happen for the first time in its chequered history. The unprecedented turnout of Afghan voters, despite Taliban threat, shows the defiant mood of the people, which was considered an important development in a traditional patriarchal society marred by protracted conflict. In the elections held last month, none of the presidential hopefuls secured 50 per cent votes in the first phase of polling. But the June election between Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai will give direction to the future of Afghan politics.

As in previous elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) conducted a run-off between the first two contenders amid growing clamour of electoral fraud and rigging. The initial trends apparently give former foreign minister and Northern Alliance Tajik leader Dr Abdullah Abdullah a big lead over former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a Pashtun heavyweight with close ties with Washington. This Afghan election is an important event in the timeline of geopolitics as US forces prepare to exit the landlocked nation.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, it has positioned itself as a major regional actor in its neighbourhood. Apart from its influence over Iraq, it is trying to exert its clout over its northern border in Afghanistan. Iranians have wielded enormous influence through Hezbe Wahdat, a Hazarajat ethnic group under the leadership of Ustad Mohaqqeq, who is running for first Vice President with Dr Abdullah. Islamic Republic’s realpolitik has set strategic goals in order to prevent chaos on its border, limiting US hegemony, ensuring peace and stability through empowering nascent democratic institutions and building a platform for projecting influence across the region.

Apart from civilisational links, the two states share a border that is more than 936 kilometres long that necessitates the role being played by either entity. Half a million Afghan refugees and about two million migrants and the drug peddling in Iran via Afghanistan also forced it to play a proactive role in the quagmire. In its robust diplomacy, the Iranians are working vigorously to forge a regional alliance to avoid any US bullying tactics, which have a major military presence on Iran’s border since 2001.

From the very beginning, Iranians have been demanding the exit of American forces from Afghanistan and incumbent President Hamid Karzai has already shown his complete repudiation to sign a new security agreement with the United States, which allowed for the continued presence of foreign forces. At the same time, in anticipating the exit of American troops from Afghan soil, the Iranians have been looking further ahead to a post-exit scenario once the American troops leave the country. Iran is poised to emerge as a major political actor when US forces leave the country.

Both the presidential candidates, who were aware of the fact that Afghanistan is still encountering the menace of extremism, have pledged to sign a contentious “strategic partnership” agreement with Obama Administration if they helm power in Kabul. However, through their extensive involvement in the elections, the Afghan people have straightaway rejected the incorporation of extremist Taliban faction into mainstream political process and proved that they will not allow the Taliban to renew its power under any circumstance. But, some other hardline Pashtun leaders, who have close links with Taliban, can pose potential threat to the regime and the systematic exclusionist policy could reignite the scourge of ethnic and political violence in this already fragile nation. Lack of legitimacy that triggers political crisis could pave the way for continued presence of ISAF forces.


10 May 2014

A major challenge before the incumbent government and key election and security institutions of the country is to sustain people’s engagement in the extended democratic process

On April 26, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan announced the preliminary results of the April 5 presidential election, indicating a possible run-off between the two leading contenders — Dr Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The final results, however, are expected to be declared by IEC on May 14 with June 7 as the tentative date for the run-off vote. Meanwhile, as Afghanistan struggles to cope with a huge natural disaster in its north-eastern Badakhshan Province, where thousands of people are believed to have perished in the landslide, the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) in Kabul is racing against time to sift through hundreds of electoral fraud complaints it has received from various parts of the country, including from the presidential candidates. 

According to the election commission, of the total 121 complaints filed by the presidential candidates, 115 were filed by Abdullah, four by Ashraf Ghani, one by Zalmai Rassoul and one by Daoud Sultanzoy. The role of both IEC and IECC, which until a few weeks ago had come in for praise for their stellar role in ensuring a relatively smooth and fair conduct of April 5 elections compared to the 2009 elections, is increasingly coming under criticism as anxiety over the final political outcome of the whole exercise builds up. Whether there will be a run-off or a coalition will be formed to avert the same? Will the transition of power to what is supposed to be the first post-ISAF and post-Karzai government in Kabul is going to be a smooth or messy affair? How stable or fragile would be the next government?

Both Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the two leading contenders, have expressed their scepticism over lack of transparency in the functioning of the two key electoral institutions of the country. All eyes are now on each and every move that Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are making, including the potential role of the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, in the formation of the next government. Interestingly, aware of Karzai’s long-standing influence among country’s various political networks, both Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani have openly expressed their willingness to continue to engage Karzai. 

Veteran versus Newcomer

Though both Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are technocrats by qualification, one an ophthalmologist and another an anthropologist, but they are wide apart in terms of their political profile and experience within the Afghan setting. Abdullah is a veteran political figure with a long past stretching over two decades in the tumultuous politics of the country. Abdullah, a key figure from the former United Front and a close aide of former guerrilla commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who until his assassination led the Afghan resistance against the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime, was also the foreign minister in the Karzai-led interim and transitional governments. On the other hand, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank executive, emerged on the political scene after 2001 when he was appointed as finance minister by President Karzai in his transitional government in 2002 and later took over as chairman of the Afghan transition commission in 2011. However, both Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani were candidates in the August 2009 presidential election as well. Abdullah had secured second position and Ashraf Ghani was on fourth position when final results were declared. 

Pakistan’s Lack of Consensus, Capacity Undercut Efforts against Militants

May 2, 2014 
By Amy Calfas 

Efforts in Pakistan to address the internal threat from insurgents are repeatedly undermined by the absence of a national consensus on who the enemy is and a lack of capacity to implement solutions even where agreement exists, according to Moeed Yusuf, USIP’s director of South Asia programs. 

“The civil-military disconnect and the disjointed policy space seems to hinder every attempt at overcoming the problem,” Yusuf said during a recent panel discussion at the Institute on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in Pakistan and South Asia. “The challenges keep growing, while the state keeps trying to put its house in order.”

The argument forms the basis of a recently published book edited by Yusuf, Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge (Georgetown University Press). The volume presents insights from policy experts on Pakistan’s ability to address violence by Islamist groups. Yusuf discussed the issues and another book, Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in South Asia (USIP Press), on a panel last week with former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, ex-Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy and General John Allen, the former commander of U.S. - and NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.

“The growth of extremism, terrorism and insurgency in Pakistan is one of the most alarming developments in the past 10 years in that particular region,” Allen said. “It could possibly be the most alarming development globally.”

On a regional level, authors of the counterinsurgency book explored non-violent approaches to preventing, mitigating and resolving conflict in four South Asian countries – India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The researchers found little indication of holistic approaches in any of the countries. Yusuf also said that talks between government authorities and insurgents don’t seem to succeed unless a clear winner is apparent.

But the threat in Pakistan remains severe. USIP Vice President for South and Central Asia Andrew Wilder cited findings from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies to illustrate the impact of such violence.

“Militant insurgents and violent sectarian groups carried out a total of 1,717 attacks across Pakistan in 2013,” Wilder said at the April 23 event. The attacks “claimed the lives of 2,451 people and caused injuries to another 5,438.”

In response to this threat, the government of Pakistan released its National Internal Security Policy in February, the first strategy of its kind aimed at consolidating bureaucracies within the country’s national security architecture to more effectively target the extremist threat. Yet the debate over military engagement in the insurgent hub of North Waziristan and elsewhere continues to rage, as does the dispute over whether Pakistan should focus more on the potential threat from its historical adversary India.

“Pakistan lacks a shared national vision as to who threatens the state and society and what state and society should do to address this,” said Lavoy, who served until earlier this year as assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific and now is a partner at the consulting firm Monitor 360. “Each of the state institutions has differentiated and poorly coordinated guidance and laws and regulations that allow it to act.”

The U.S. Military Was No Match for Afghanistan’s Corruption

The Pentagon wasn’t just defeated by the country’s graft—the Pentagon made it worse.

The best troops in the world can't solve Afghanistan's intractable cultural problems.

When President Obama met top NATO officials in Brussels on March 26, he publicly expressed renewed optimism that America’s estimated $120 billion effort to reconstruct Afghanistan will leave behind “a stable and secure country that serves the prosperity and the security of the Afghan people.”

A month earlier, however, a group of senior U.S. military officers rendered a much harsher judgment in private about the legacy of the 12-year U.S.-led intervention. The officers concluded in a report for the Joint Chiefs of Staff that Afghanistan’s ability to serve its citizens’ needs remains directly threatened by a deeply entrenched culture of corruption that not only defied the West’s intervention but grew substantially worse because of it.

The report, written by a division of the Joint Staff assigned to draw lessons for the future, was based on dozens of interviews with government officials and experts—including 11 flag or general military officers—and its judgments were approved by top commanders, according to a spokesman.

Among the conclusions:
  • In retrospect, U.S. military forces were unprepared to deal with a country where private deal-making dominated public policymaking;
  • Early U.S. alliances with Afghan warlords helped solidify a corrupt leadership style and a climate of impunity for those involved;
  • Washington made the problem worse by inundating Afghanistan with more cash than it could absorb in legitimate channels to undertake needed reforms;
  • American military officers and civilian aid workers alike were unprepared to manage Afghan contractors, resulting in what the report said was “the expenditure of millions of dollars with almost no oversight or alignment with other … [U.S. government] efforts.”
Obama heard some of this bad news directly in an exit briefing a year ago from the outgoing head of the multilateral military force in Afghanistan, Marine Corps Gen. John Allen. According to the report, Allen told the president that corruption—not an incompetent military, not an inadequate police force, and not the Taliban’s sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, all long-standing U.S. concerns—currently remains “theexistential, strategic threat to Afghanistan.”

Allen’s assessment was in some ways unsurprising: The Obama administration is considering an accelerated drawdown of forces there—from a peak of 63,500 in 2012 to as few as 5,000 next year—at least partly due to frustration over the country’s kleptocratic political culture. Independent experts, congressional panels, and John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, have all voiced similar criticisms that Washington and its allies have failed to combat what is now generally recognized as that war-torn nation’s most intractable and consequential problem.

Afghanistan Needs the Terps to Stay

May 8, 2014

In the evening after a day of patrols in central Helmand, I would often find myself sitting and talking with my interpreter Mohammad. He was a Pashtun from Kabul who had been working with British forces – to whom I was then assigned – for some time. He was often smiling and always insightful. I enjoyed our conversations, particularly when they turned to his family life and personal aspirations. Mohammad did not want to stay in Afghanistan. He was attracted by the allure of the West. He wanted to move to Europe or the United States and settle there. How would he get out? He knew he stood little chance of getting a visa, so he planned to one day hire a smuggler to get him out of Afghanistan. When I asked about these smugglers, Mohammad smiled and his answers became elusive. I let the matter drop and we moved on to something else.

Many months later, after my Afghan adventure, I was in London visiting a comrade – one of a circle of Brits with whom I became close friends in counterinsurgency’s crucible in Helmand. He asked if I had heard about his interpreter. I hadn’t. He went on to tell me a story both amazing and horrible. His interpreter was a gentle young man, a Pashtun from near Kabul like Mohammad. Let’s call him Hashmatullah. His family had been getting threats in their village outside the capital from the Taliban. The insurgents had heard that Hashmatullah had been working with British forces and demanded that he stop or his family would suffer the consequences. So Hashmatullah returned home from his lucrative, but dangerous job in the south. But this did not satisfy the insurgents. They wanted his blood. After a series of attempts on Hashmatullah’s life, one he survived by hiding down a well in his family’s compound, he knew he had to get out of Afghanistan. But how? His family turned to the smugglers.

After selling a great deal of land, his family paid tens of thousands of dollars to a Hindu Kush coyote to get Hashmatullah out. He was given a ticket on a flight. The proper bribes were paid to customs officials. And after transiting the Gulf, he ended up somewhere in southeastern Europe – perhaps Greece, though he was never sure. The traffickers left him and his fellow refugees in a city park and told them to stay there. Although he spoke near fluent English, as well as his native Pashto and Dari, Hashmatullah had never travelled outside of Afghanistan. He was scared. He couldn’t leave the vicinity of the park for fear that he would miss the rendezvous, although the traffickers did not give him a time or a date. He ended up staying in that park for a month. Hashmatullah lived as homeless refugee, eating out of restaurant trashcans and avoiding the authorities. Eventually the smugglers came back for him, gave him a fake passport, a plane ticket for London, and a ride to the airport.

China Abandons Small-Stick Diplomacy?

The latest scrap between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea saw Chinese naval vessels deployed. 

May 10, 2014

So seagoing forces from Vietnam and China scrapped this week in the Paracel Islands. China’s state-run oil and gas firm CNOOC positioned an oil rig in waters claimed by both Beijing and Hanoi, prompting Vietnam’s leadership to send ships. No shots have been fired, thankfully. Ramming and dousing one another with water cannon have been the tactics of choice. How the contest will unfold remains to be seen.

China has controlled the Paracels for forty years now, since a mixed force of naval units and fishing vessels pummeled a South Vietnamese flotilla in the waning days of the Vietnam War. And, of course, it claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and adjoining seas. It has rebuffed pleas to mediate or adjudicate maritime territorial disputes in the China seas. Hence the visceral reaction the rig elicited in Vietnam.

One curious twist to this week’s turbulence: PLA Navy units were among the mix of vessels tangling in the Paracels. Is Beijing abandoning the small-stick diplomacy that has served it so well in recent years? Maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time China’s leadership has chucked out a promising diplomatic venture (see Offensive, Charm) for mysterious reasons, or missed an opportunity to smooth out relations with Asian neighbors (see Haiyan, Typhoon). Dumb and self-defeating things are part of Beijing’s strategic repertoire.

In this case, however, they may be paying Vietnam a backhanded compliment rather than blundering. China likes to behave like Sun Tzu’s Hegemonic King. It likes to overawe its neighbors, keeping them from making common cause against China, and to generally bask in its own awesomeness. But officialdom doubtless remembers past Sino-Vietnamese clashes on land and on the waves. And it remembers that China has occasionally come off the worst against this tough, determined opponent.

The leadership may reckon that it can’t overpower Vietnamese forces with white China Coast Guard hulls alone. Navies fight for disputed objects, whereas coast guards enforce domestic law against non-state lawbreakers. By sending warships, Beijing may be tacitly admitting that Vietnam — unlike the Philippines, whose navy and coast guard are utterly outclassed — is a serious antagonist. Take a bow, Hanoi.

Middle East: Battleground Syria


As the Syrian strife rages into its fourth year, on 01 May 2014, barrel bombs delivered on an outdoor market in Aleppo by Syrian military aircraft killed 33 people. Just a day earlier, on 30 April 2014, a barrel bomb dropped by Syrian Air Force on an elementary school in Aleppo killed 20, including 17 children. A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device (used by the Syrian Air Force during the ongoing civil war) made from a barrel filled with high explosives and other shrapnel (like nails) and/or oil, dropped from a helicopter, detonated, and capable of causing devastating destruction and carnage.


The civil war in Syria, fanned by the Arab Spring, had its roots in the 15 March 2011 protests in the southern Syrian city of Daraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing some civilians, that prompted unrest nationwide demanding President Assad's resignation. Further use of force by the Assad Government only stoked the protestor’s determination and by July 2011, there were thousands protesting in towns and cities across Syria. Out of these protests, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) formed with the aim of bringing down the Assad Regime, the confrontation spawning many battlefields between various rebel and government forces. Damascus, Aleppo and Homs were the cities where maximum fighting took place. The nature of the violence has been dotted with killings and massacres by one side and reprisal attacks by the other side, against each other’s community or location inhabited by the community they represent. The al-Assad government is charged with using chemical weapons in an attack on Syrian civilians that killed hundreds in Aug 2013.

Ethno-Religious Dimensions

The ethno-religious composition of Syria is Arab-Sunni (60 percent), Arab-Alawite (Shia Muslims) (12 percent), Kurd-Sunni (9 percent), Greek Orthodox Christian (9 percent), Assyrian Syriac Christian (4 percent), Arab-Druze (3 percent), Arab-Ismaeli (2 percent), Turkmen-Sunni, Circassian-Sunni, Armenian-Christian and others (1percent). Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Shiite Alawite Sect. Seen very simply, it is a case of the minority ruling a country with majority Sunni population. The Christian denomination and most other Shiite sects of the population are aligned with al Assad, and fear the takeover by any Islamist denomination. Unlike most regimes in Middle East, the Assad disposition is not religiously extreme. The Alawites practice a unique little known form of Islam dating back to the 9th/ 10th century and have been historically isolated from mainstream society and persecuted by the Sunni majority. Their beliefs include permissibility of alcohol, celebration of Christmas and Zoroastrian New Year, thus making them highly suspect in the eyes of Sunnis and more orthodox Shias. The protest against Assad, therefore, does not emanate from protest against religious extremism; it has been against inability of his government to implement reforms, control corruption, dictatorial governance and gag on freedom of expression. The fight between the Government and rebels is, however, not so simplistic. The armed conflict has grown both in complexity and numbers since it started. There are estimated to be 1,000 groups or so with some 100,000 fighters - the spectrum ranging from secular moderates to Islamists/jihadists linked to al-Qaeda. The ideology and tactics of each of these groups have ensured that there is no common umbrella. For instance, the violent and brutal tactics of the Islamists and Jihadists are against the operating principles of the large secular groups. As the rebels remain deeply divided, apart from common standpoint of needing to end Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Assad continues to retain an upper hand.