March 29, 2014

OBAMA YATRA & THE HOLY LAND: My Opinion just before the visit

Filed under: Uncategorized — sharafs @ 7:12 am


This gesture has many meanings

This gesture has many meanings

The instrumentalism of springs and autumns has taken a toll on US-Saudi relations. When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this month, no amount of briefs and dossiers will be enough to prepare him for the challenges facing him. The Saudis will demonstrate their mistrust and lack of confidence in his leadership. Strong bonds with Israel and architecture of nuclear diplomacy with Iran will weigh heavily on his pep talk. With just two legs, he will have to perform a balancing act between three centres of power in the region. Israel, the most trusted ally and an outpost of US interests in the region; Saudi Arabia, edging to define its dominating role; and an emerging Iran, high on the priority list of the State Department. In the backdrop will be the successive waves of springs become autumns, influx of battle hardy militants in Syria and Iraq, and the growls and grunts of a Russian bear awakening from its hibernation. A globalised and shrunk world, though economically feasible also means that the ripples of localised conflicts travel at lightning speed to all corners complicating politics. In a primordial Arab world, fractures run deeper than technology can fathom.

Though Middle East and West Asia mean the same, the names suggest a gulf of differences between the Arabs, Persians and many religions and ethnicities that inhibit this region. First, the Middle East connotation relates to origin of Abrahamic religions within the Arab ethnicity. This reflects a mind-set of superiority ably demonstrated by oil rich Arab kingdoms, the only bastions of dictatorial rule. Secondly, Western Asia is considered a Eurocentric term disliked by Arabs. It represents an era when countries like Turkey and Persia through trade and proximity were more relevant to British imperialism than the very poor Bedouins yet to benefit from the rich resources of oil. However to Americans sitting across the Atlantic, the Arab world with Israel in centre, extending towards Central Asia was more in proximity and hence the term Middle East. Now they too have awoken to European reality.

Arab-Persian rivalry is deep rooted in history that successive Muslim Caliphates failed to quell. The mutual rivalries crisscross amongst Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions such as Manichaeism, Yezidi, Druze and Yarsan in Arab lands, and Mandeanism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manicheanism, and the Bahá’í Faith in Persian areas. The ethnic groups in the region comprise Arabs, Turks, Persians, Balochs, Lurs, Mandeans, Tats, Jews, Kurds, Somalis, Assyrians, Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Azeris, Maltese, Circassians, Greeks, Turcomans, Shabaks, Yazidis, Mandeans, Georgians, Roma, Gagauz, Mhallami and Samaritans. These diversities and their linkages complicate the sensitivity of the region, spread and coalesce in turmoil to create new dimensions.

The area despite being the centres of civilisations, religions and commerce has remained restive throughout history.  For almost three millennia, the region was ruled by one or two powerful states including, Asian and European based polities that included Assyrian, Babylonians, Achaemenids, Israelites, Seleucids, Parthians, Romans, Sassanid, Byzantines, the Pious, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman Caliphates and Safavids. Post Great War, the stability in the region remained temporary and subject to outside powers filling the vacuum through local allies and changing geographies. The French and British in the past and Americans of recent provide artificial stability to this cradle of religion and civilisations.

Though the post Khomeini revolution isolated Iran, the spring policies also led to instability in Iraq and activation of Shia populations in Arab States. By 2014, Iran emerged from its isolation, militarily stronger and politically more credible. It has also strengthened its linkages with major Shia and ethnic groups in Middle East that irk Saudi Arabia and Gulf States. Its nuclear capability poses a direct threat to Israel. Combined, President Obama’s walk on the razors edge will be testing with unknowns. Aaron David Miller of Woodrow Wilson Centre sums up this dilemma by writing, “Conflicting interests and views concerning Egypt, Syria, Iran and Palestine have created big rifts in the relationship. Unless the President is prepared to alter his approach to these issues, and be more careful about what he says to journalists about supposed Saudi difficulties with accepting ‘change’, the best he can do is contain the damage. Even this won’t be easy.”

President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia has been over taken by events. Uncertainty about the ‘oft on oft off’ visit added to the mystery. American suspicions of strong Saudi linkages with terrorists were addressed by Saudis through a series of royal decrees that denounced terrorism on one hand and banned Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Some analysts believe that strong Saudi backing to the military regime in Egypt and banning of Brotherhood did not auger well with USA. It was followed by a series of discreet counter allegations by Saudi Arabia and its propagandist media against the very personality of President Obama and his relatives. As a gesture of trust building, President Obama cancelled his combined meeting with heads of Gulf Cooperation Council that includes Qatar, a country supporting the Brotherhood. Either Saudi Arabia does not understand the limits of its leverage or it is prepared to go to any extent to pursue its interests in the region.

These developments cast doubts on the success of this visit. As written earlier, the purpose of this visit was primarily a redone Palestinian peace plan with Saudi approval in lieu for allowing Saudi Arabia a free hand for regime change in Syria. But events leading to this stuttering visit have complicated the situation. If the US intelligence assessments are correct, then Saudi Arabia has already embarked on limited defiance that could make Obama pliable. These include the high handedness against Brotherhood in Egypt, isolation of Qatar and fresh influx of Al Qaeda aligned militants in Syria.  It appears that diplomacy may be rocky and the meetings marred by anything from implied or direct implications.

But both sides seem unprepared to call the bluff. Policy differences will not result in a cut off. In all probability, the couple will fight over their differences, mutually ignore and agree to meet again. As Miller has commented, “Divorce isn’t an option. Couples therapy is unlikely to work. But mutual dependence will prove its mettle. The relationship will remain troubled but still at least clingingly functional in a region where that may be the new norm in America’s ties with all its Arab (and perhaps even its Israeli) allies.”

Pakistan and its rulers must stay away from the events in the country’s best interests.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson.

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March 27, 2014

My Talk Show on Hague Nuclear Summit

March 22, 2014

THE DEVIL’S TRIANGLE. My OPED on how Pakistan will be sucked into the New Cold War

Filed under: Uncategorized — sharafs @ 7:05 am

Cold War


Russian occupation of Crimea is a catalyst that shall impact the drift of international relations and security in the 21st Century. The unfolding scenario is most likely to eclipse 9/11 and the international military operations that followed in the name of UN sponsored Collective Security, Full Spectrum Dominance and the citizen’s name of One World Civicus. Whereas 9/11 gave a time jump for pursuance of US policies in the world, Crimea is a historic event that rolls back the events in the context of conventional strategic balance. In the post-cold war era, it is the first time that a country rather than non-state actors have challenged provocative US designs.

Some analysts feel that the eastward expansion of NATO into the underbelly of Russia was always a violation of the understanding that existed between Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev of USSR and George Bush Senior of USA. However, it made it possible for USA and Islamic militants sponsored from Middle East and Pakistan to repeatedly tickle the Russian underbelly deep inside Eurasia and irk China. The APEC Arc coordinated with consolidation of the Southern Front was full spectrum strategy of dominance to achieve the results.

As endemic to once too often, it backfired in Crimea. The latest spring in Ukraine led by fascists and dons was too much to absorb. The bulwark approach of the anti-Russian camp precipitated the event with suicidal daring. Russia like a sidewinder hidden in the sands was looking for the right moment to strike. Putin hit back. As commented by Michael Hirsh, “the United States and Russia have both crossed a Rubicon in the Ukraine crisis, and Washington must now confront the likelihood that if the standoff continues, it will dramatically alter relations on a much larger map than Eastern Europe, inviting Russian recalcitrance in crisis zones as far afield as East Asia, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.” A new Cold War has possibly begun. This sums up the paradigm of what I call ‘The Devil’s Triangle’.

Seizing the moment, President Putin of Russia has checkmated the international incursions of a unipolar world. USA has retaliated with the severest post-Cold War sanctions. EU will follow. If events continue to shape the way they are, other areas of the world locked in strategic flux will also heat up and expand the two way contest for power projection. Middle East and AFPAK are most likely to be sucked into this conflict. This will create a very hot triangle where great powers will contest dominance with horrid intensity. Historically, all the three zones that combine to create the triangle have always been subject to conflict, exchange of hands, pliant regimes and bloodshed.

Since the past 1,500 years Crimea has exchanged hands between Bulgars, Greeks, Scythians, Romans, Goths, Huns, Khazars, Kievan Rus’, the Byzantines, Rome, Kipchaks, the Golden Horde, Ottoman Empire, USSR, Germany, Ukraine, and now, perhaps, the Russian Federation. Dominating the Black sea, Crimea is a melting pot of diverse cultures, conflicting schools of political thought, Eastern, Christian and Ottoman influences. Stability has remained temporary through outside interference. Crimea cannot exist in a vacuum.

Throughout ancient and recent history, Middle East has been a centre of world affairs in strategic, economic, political, cultural, and religious dimensions. It has also remained susceptible to invasions and occupations. Even during the rule of Muslim Caliphates, the area had split into various caliphates reflecting a political exploitation of religion. The Arab-Persian rivalry is historic. American strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan introduced the term Middle East at the time when British and Russian Empires were eyeing Central Asia called the Great Game. He theorised that besides Suez Canal, it was important to control Persian Gulf to prevent Russians advancing to India. For the past century, the British and Americans have controlled this region through pliant despotic regimes and Israel.

It is in the context of this strategic calculus, that Pakistan is proximate to Middle East and not South Asia. Pakistan played its role in the Cold War and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. With Mackinder and Mahan theories regaining currency, Pakistan will be expected to play the role it is assigned once again. Given Pakistan’s political culture, economic woes and linkages with Pentagon, a refusal seems unlikely.

But there are smaller super powers with petro dollars and kingdoms that need Pakistan too. These minions in order to hedge their interests within the Persian-Arab rivalry will operate within the dotted lines and pursue their petty interests within the larger context. Consequently, Pakistan could once again become the focus of international rivalry and cross currents and spill over of a Sunni-Shia conflict.

The flurry of Middle Eastern diplomacy in Pakistan is meaningful and not without reason?  Arab countries under the influence of Saudi Arabia and informal ties with Israel seem to realise that luring Pakistan into their strategic framework could resolve multiple problems and distance USA from its growing entente with Iran. Two events make their argument stronger. First, the rising Russian and Iranian influence in Syria and secondly, the Russian handling of the Crimea situation.

Modelled on the Cold War pattern, Saudi Arabia and its allies are working overtime to create a credible framework they plan to present when President Obama visits Riyadh this month. This plan will be a quid pro quo for a sustainable US sponsored Palestinian peace accord with Israel that would make eastern Jerusalem the new capital of Palestine. Saudi Arabia calculates that a pro Saudi regime in Egypt, friendly Israel-Palestine and stationing of Pakistani forces in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and adjoined areas would boost internal security and deter Iran. In addition, the plan to bring down Asaad’s Regime in Syria could be intensified. Pakistan’s experience of employing non state actors; albeit export of politically franchised terrorism to Syria and other trouble spots will be crucial to this framework.

If achieved, Saudi Arabia would be in a position to clip the Qatari wings and checkmate the growing Iranian (Shia) influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other areas of Middle East. At the same time, the plan will appease US ears having suffered the Crimea indignity. In addition, it would draw away Pakistan from neighbouring Iran and extend Saudi interests in Afghanistan and beyond to Muslim regions in Russia (Muslim Tartars, Chechens etc.).

Pakistan’s political and military establishments have never learnt the art of state craft to build a nation state. Yet, Pakistani establishment has displayed remarkable cunning to exploit its space in great power rivalry and survive. It is this adaptable learning curve and the instincts to survive therein that shall decide the role Pakistan plays in the devil’s triangle. If it does, it will be an action replay of the follies of the past. The legacy of Bakshoo, the errand boy of dirty work is most likely to survive in the name of pragmatisms and political opportunism.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson. Email and twitter:

March 9, 2014

Nowhere to Counter Terrorism. Pakistan’s flawed policy

Filed under: Uncategorized — sharafs @ 4:45 am
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Seems the events are unfolding fast and quick and Pakistan’s fate in dealing with militancy hangs on what transpires in Saudi Arabia between the House of Saud and President Obama. After Syria, Russians are on the move while Saudis endeavour to fill the gap in Middle East through Syria. Pakistan could just be expected to export militancy


It took just under four weeks for the high drama played by men of inconsequence to reach its drop scene. Both teams were proxies. Neither had any insight, expertise or authority to make the process meaningful. Firing from their hips and quick to capture airwaves, they talked, talked and talked. Primetimes from 7 to 10 PM were booked with chatter and perhaps an illusion that gun totting zealots with jackets are the true saviours of Pakistan.  These negotiations were ill-conceived with no preparation and destined to become a joke. As written earlier, (Surrender, capitulation or failure: Nation 15 February 2014) ‘haste causes waste’, the government realised the futility of its knee jerk policy and chose to change its plan midway, with another idea. The new idea is unclear.

Except the armed forces that have the capacity, methodology and munitions to destroy and hold ground, there is still no complementary policy to win hearts and minds. There are no visible themes and propaganda to bring a confused, ill-informed and fearful public on one page. The parliament itself is a house ideologically divided and fractured. Use of military force is not the sole solution, as excess state sanctioned violence, collateral damage and psychological scars could leave an enduring adverse effect. The government is guilty of forgetting that engagement is not confined to ‘military fire’ but also to the ethics of winning the hearts and minds of people torn by poverty, ideological contradictions, crime and insecurity. If and when the government decides to take out the hideouts of terrorism spread all over the country, this factor will weigh high on the minds of people amongst whom these militants exist.  There are no practical pacification and trust building measures in sight.

The National Security Policy adds insult to injury. It does not reflect seven months of hard work and enlightened thought. It is a hasty first draft ‘everywhere but nowhere’. It lacks a paradigm and therefore unworthy for consideration at any international forum. Even our enemies and not so friendly allies would be laughing at the splendid piece of document put together by the government. Without establishing an environment, linkages and the spectrum of policy making, the policy is a limited attempt at forging a counter terrorism narrative. The draft presented to the parliament gives an impression that the policy would keep evolving as time passes. Borrowing from Stephen Cohen, it reminds of ‘shooting a moving target from a moving platform’ with no stabilisers. The policy makers lack the wherewithal and motivation to spell it precisely and accurately. The drift is visible.

Had the policy been the outcome of a well thought and deliberated effort, the negotiations would never have commenced the way they did. Four random names with no access to the establishment and no experience in crises/conflict management in the past ten years were thrown into the arena with no policy briefs. The substance of their discussions in the media indicated that this supposed vanguard was clueless about the policy that led them.

Secondly, the issue is terrorism and not TTP. The government should have initiated dialogue with all groups involved in militancy through various teams with proven expertise in conflict resolution. It now appears that the government continues to follow the flawed approach by only concentrating on TTP and not the issue at large. After dissolution of the negotiation committee, Maulana Fazal ur Rehman has rightly criticised the government’s narrow minded decision likely to forge unity rather than division amongst militant groups.

Thirdly, why military meant to fight and follow political directions should become an overt part of the negotiation diplomacy. This reflects governmental inadequacy in which generals will be allowed to lead policy; a reflection of the indecision of the government and a desire to remain in a state of drift? Either way, the choices and trade-offs are dangerous. The military though confident of its capability is handicapped by a national synergy and a conflict that majority of Parliament disowns.

Fourthly, the policy suspects the use of biological and chemical weapons by terrorists. Do these groups also have dirty radiological weapons? If this is a smoking gun, where is the fire? Do the government and intelligence agencies have information to this effect and are efforts at hand to confirm this information? If there is information, is it being shared through the foreign office with other countries? Would such an incidence ricochet towards Pakistan’s alleged use of these substances and create a Syria like situation? This is a very serious issue and warrants transparency.

Lastly, if we accept the argument that the current militancy is an off shoot of Arabisation and the Shia-Sunni tussle, then we also need to keep our periscopes focussed on Middle East. As written last week, “given the strong connections with the present government, Saudis could bankroll an intense counter terrorism operation in Pakistan to help subsequently release troops and efforts for the Saudi game in Syria. Alternatively, Pakistan could slow down its operations (particularly Haqqani Group) and leave redressing its vulnerabilities for another day” (The Saudi Shadow: Nation. 1 March 2014 It appears that TTP by announcing a ceasefire has pre-empted in buying time and stalling military operations till after the monsoons. are unlikely to be conducted in May and June due to elections in Afghanistan followed by Ramzan. In the interim militants have the time to recuperate, penetrate Pakistan’s urban areas and regroup. The delay also benefits Arab countries and their proxy sectarian war. They rather have their dissidents rot in Pakistan then return home and create insecurities.

To meet its ends of policy at home and abroad, the federal government is craftily using the media and its political detractors to parry off criticism and cover its tail. The unchecked media debates have created confusion, divisions and controversies in disregard to national security. Dissenting views within PMLN are balanced out by its political opponents.  Anti-war policies of Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf directly assist the federal government in its go slow policy with emphasis on negotiations. However, one fact is clear. There is no ends-mean relationship in the manner in which this conflict is being managed.

The unfolding dynamics in the region cannot be ignored. Elections in Afghanistan will impact on operations in Pakistan. In case USA does not get the strategic agreement of its choice, it may delay its withdrawal. If Saudis manage to sell their Syrian insurgency plan with a large Pakistani imprint to Obama this month, Pakistan’s role could be reassigned. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are angry over Qatari assistance to Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As I write, Bahrain has been rocked by two explosions during protests. Occupation of Crimea (Ukraine) by Russian forces has added a new dynamic to the Syria-Ukraine nexus with the center in AFPAK. KSA has come out more openly in what I assessed in Saudi Shadow a week ago.

Pakistan can ill afford to be a regional minion in exchange for monetary assistance. If Pakistan does not immediately get its priorities right, instability lurks round the corner.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson. Email and twitter:

March 2, 2014



Recent diplomacy between Riyadh and Islamabad reminds me of delinquents daring a hornet’s nest. Iran spared no moment to threaten Pakistan with a military raid while Russia was curt to caution Pakistan about meddling in Syria. How could Pakistan in deep trouble itself and grappling to fight insecurities created through non-state actors even think of once again becoming part of a dangerous game that failed three decades ago?

Pakistan has a historical propensity to nibble its space in big power rivalry, whilst its economic short cuts could make the temptation too lucrative to resist.  But Pakistani policy planners need to realise that in the final analysis, the transition from an Afghan Jihad against godless communism to a liberation struggle of enlightened moderates in Syria is the name of the same game. The policy failed in Afghanistan and Indian Occupied Kashmir. It will fail in Syria but not before unleashing a new genre of non-state actors. As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both’. Pakistan has remained a loser for the past three decades and must resist the forbidden fruit offered by a kingdom fast losing its credibility.

Saudi policy to reshape Middle East after toppling Morsi in Egypt lost its steam in Syria because Putin intervened. However, Saudis feel convinced that success was round the corner had President Obama not blinked. Disillusioned by lack of US support and its thaw with Iran, the kingdom began contemplating its own shadow war. It toyed with the idea to enlist Pakistan to train and arm Syrian rebels on the pattern of Afghan cooperation. However, it was forced to abandon this plan after USA confronted it with incriminating information over terrorism. But old habits die hard. With slight modifications, Saudi Arabia is now advocating a sugar coated alternative laden with same intents. Eager, Saudi Arabia donned a soft face by sacking its terrorism czar and issuing an unprecedented royal decree that condemned terrorism. The effect was immediate. It ended reluctance on part of President Obama to visit Saudi Arabia in March this year when this new idea backed by the French Civil-Military Complex could be endorsed or rejected.

Saudi Arabia does not wish to lose its position as a hegemon in the region where Iran is fast asserting. The house of Saud will leave spare no effort to sell its win-win proposal with a moderate make-up. The plan seeks to sooths American nerves appeases Israel and checkmates Russo-Iranian influence. With triple objectives of containing Islamic extremism (Al Qaeda and its shadows, a paradigm shift though still led by Salafis), some relief that may come the Palestinian way and collapse of the current Syrian regime (read end of Russo-Iranian Influence), Saudi Arabia feels it can pull it off with the assistance of Pakistan, Jordon and France. The dirtiest role is assigned to Pakistan and Kashmir must get a mention. Pakistan is required to supply weapons, train moderate (read Salafi) militants against Syria, wielding a poor man’s stinger Anza; the Pakistan made surface to air missile. The wish-list also includes renting over 30,000 Pakistani troops to address Saudi internal and external insecurities and pose a structural threat to Iran. The plan reflects Saudi callousness and insensitivity to the security of other countries; where money makes the mare go.

For over a year, Saudi Arabia had become an irritant for most countries involved in the Syrian conflict. It was officially and privately accused of sponsoring terrorism. Though Pakistan never raised the issue, whispers suggested that many militant groups in Pakistan had Saudi and Middle Eastern ideological and monetary support. The DNA is more than visible. To impose caution, USA confronted Saudi Arabia with a highly classified dossier of terrorist activities. Somehow the most incriminating and irrefutable contents got leaked  showing Saudi terrorist foot prints in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and Russia. The dossier is now known to Russia, China and Iran who could embarrass USA and France for supporting Saudi Arabia as sponsor of global terrorism at the UN Security Council. Saudi Arabia immediately embarked on the business of salvage.

Saudi Arabia plans to replace extremist jihadists with a moderate force of Salafi rebels who incrementally bring President Bashar Assad to knees. In contrition for fermenting terrorism, a royal decree condemned Islamic Jihadist with known linkages to Al Qaeda (similar to US objectives of eliminating Al Qaeda). In addition, Saud Arabia disowned thousands of Saudi soldiers it pumped into Syria and Iraq. They have been told that to avoid execution back home, they rather continue their mission till death or disperse to other fighting areas (means Pakistan and Afghanistan). Pakistan’s geographical position will be used to checkmate Iran (Shia) and Russian influence in Afghanistan. To affirm that old habits are dead, Saudi Arabia has sent its terrorism guru Prince Bandar Bin Sultan on forced leave to USA. The new chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s, perfectly fits the American eye.

Fouad al-Ibrahim a reputed Middle East commentator for Al Akhbar presents a chilling assessment shared by many other analysts. “Saudi Arabia had mastered a double game. In public, it expressed a contrived strictness about the participation of Saudis in fighting abroad or collecting donations for al-Qaeda and its old and new subsidiaries. But in secret, money, men, and weapons were flooding the battlefields without any control”. He goes on to write, “observers have gathered overwhelming evidence about the complicity of Saudi political, media, and religious institutions in the emigration of thousands of Saudis… prohibited from traveling abroad, except by special orders of the military leadership”. Some of them will fnd their way into Pakistan.

Saudi planners hope that USA would buy the Saudi idea in bargain for Kerry’s Palestinian proposal that seeks recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in return for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel on its part has made clear that it will adjust its policies according to the larger US plan in the region, while Mahmood Abbas wants Saudi consent before he endorses.  All this will come under discussion when President Obama visits Saudi Arabia in March.

Following the flurry of Saudi diplomacy, Pakistan has revised its position on Syria implying its willingness to be a minion and mercenary in exchange of riyals. Given the strong connections with the present government, Saudis could bankroll an intense counter terrorism operation in Pakistan to help subsequently release troops and efforts for the Saudi game in Syria. Alternatively, Pakistan could slow down its operations (particularly Haqqani Group) and leave redressing its vulnerabilities for another day. In both cases it will directly affect Pakistan’s operations against militancy and invite more foreign interference.  With a fast forming Russian, Chinese and Iranian nexus, Pakistan runs the risk of being regionally isolated and smitten.

Brigadier (Retired) Samson Simon Sharaf is a political economist and a television anchorperson.

Email and twitter:




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