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Escalating to De-Escalate: From Balakot to Ain al-Asad

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With tensions between the United States and Iran dramatically escalating just days into the new year, the risks of a new and even more damaging war erupting in the Middle East have once again reached worrying levels. This was sparked by the brazen US drone strike which targeted General Qassem Soliemani – the commanding General of Iran’s Elite Quds forces- just outside Baghdad airport earlier this month. As a result, US-Iran tensions had seemingly skyrocketed overnight in what senior Iranian officials termed as an act of war against their country by the US. These fears were further realized by the Iranian response, which comprised of a late-night fusillade of ballistic missiles launched at two US military bases in Iraq just three days later.

However, with no casualties reported as a result of the Iranian missile strikes and President Trump’s de-escalatory statement following the Iranian response, those same tensions seem to have subsided over the last two weeks at least for the time being. This de-escalation has largely been ascribed to the fact that Iran had deliberately chosen to avoid US casualties by choosing to balance an overt display of its intent and resolve, against its unwillingness to engage further in a protracted and costly conflict with the US.  The argument follows that hence, while on the one hand widespread public sentiment and anger in Iran had demanded a punitive response in the form of clear retaliation against the US, the proportionality of such a response had required careful calibration with regards to its potential for further escalation.Thus, representing one of the most recent examples of how the importance of optics and crafting a domestic narrative remain key within the battle for escalation dominance in this century’s limited wars.

This emphasis on optics and narrative was also evident last year in the South Asian context, where following the Pulwama incident, both India and Pakistan had engaged in a dangerous yet limited exchange to gain escalation dominance over one another. For instance, the Indian cross-border air strikes at Balakot had also been domestically framed as being a punitive response to an attack which – like the strike against General Suleimani – had resulted in an unacceptable loss of military personnel. Hence, the retaliatory airstrikes which targeted a suspected militant haven inside Pakistan were also accompanied by growing national outrage and calls for revenge from India that was further amplified by its domestic media. 

However, just like Iran’s retaliatory strikes against US bases in Iraq, the Indian strikes at Balakot did not result in any casualties despite official claims to the contrary. This was evident in the considerable extent to which the Indian media then and Iranian media earlier this month, had bragged of scores of enemy causalities including damage to key infrastructure. Hence, constructing palatable narratives that remained acceptable enough for domestic consumption while also helping quell the same national outrage these governments had themselves helped amplify. Consequently, questions following the Balakot strikes that were then raised by Pakistan over whether the absence of casualties was intentional or purely accidental stand as similar to the ones being debated currently within the US with regards to Iran. These further boil down to questions over whether it was a lack of capability or instead a deliberate display of precision and intent by these strikes’ perpetrators.

In order to assess this, it is important to note that while both the Indian and Irani strikes bear some similarities in terms of the preceding context within which they were conducted, their differing scopes and execution plans led to two very different outcomes. For one Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles targeting key locations and structures at US military bases, which drawing on the recent damage assessment reports appear to have been deliberately chosen as targets.  While there were a couple of missiles that seemed to have fallen off target and remained unexploded, the vast majority seemed to have hit specific structures according to satellite photographs. In comparison, the air strikes launched by the Indian Air force while representing a clear show of intent, instead failed to offer a credible display of their strike capabilities. Specifically, if the objective was to display the reach and precision of their strike abilities in the form of a forced near miss, the ambiguity surrounding their choice of targets seems to have spectacularly back-fired, if that in fact was the objective. Even worse, if it was simply an accidental miss, then instead of communicating military prowess, the strike simply presented a display of sheer ineptitude in which the battle for escalation dominance was already lost, no matter the media spin.

This for instance is further evident in the different responses generated by both the Indian and Iranian strikes. Whereas the US has chosen quite visibly and publicly to not escalate the situation any further; Pakistan last year felt compelled to not only respond in kind, but to reassert its ability to conventionally deter any provocative incursions into its air-space. Following Pakistan’s own display of a forced near miss via air launched stand-off weapons, the highly publicized downing of an Indian fighter jet, and the unconditional release of its captured pilot; eventually presented a very real and irrefutable advantage in terms of escalation dominance

It is important to understand here that while the above incidents may offer a tantalizing vindication of the very concept of escalation dominance, expected outcomes only appear as clear cut in hindsight. Especially considering the inherent temptation of favoring escalation itself as a means of de-escalation, there exist a whole of host of uncertain variables that not only amplify the inherent risks, but may dramatically alter the situation for the worse. In the recent standoff between the US and Iran, the US drawing on its already established military supremacy did not have todisplay any capability to Iran or anyone else, hence making to de-escalate a lot easier. Especially after already having achieved its objective of taking out General Soleimani. In contrast and as evident in the events following Balakot, Pakistan being on the receiving end of a much larger and better funded adversary would be in any similar situation hard-pressed not to escalate and restore deterrence. This holds a highly dangerous truth considering that the escalation ladder in South Asia is essentially built around the threat of nuclear war. Even more so with competing and vague indications of where the nuclear option lies on said ladder, this alone should technically deter any misplaced sense of adventurism if simple common sense is to prevail in the region. Yet as both incidents have shown, nothing with regard to limited war remains predictable in today’s day age.

Research Associate and Program Coordinator for the China Study & Information Centre (CS & IC) at the Strategic Vision Institute, a non-partisan think tank based out of Islamabad. He can be reached at waqas[at]thesvi.org

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Kickbacks in India’s defence purchases

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Prime minister Narendra Modi of India boasts his government of being corruption- free. But, his claim has become questionable in the light of recent audit of Rafale purchase in France.

India had ordered 36 of these fighter aircraft from France in September 2016. The 7.8 billion government-to-government deal for 36 fighter jets was signed in 2016. The Indian Air Force has already raised its first squadron of the Rafale jets at Ambala and is due to raise the second one at Hasimara in West Bengal.

India expects to receive more than 50 percent of these fighters by April-end. The first batch of five Rafale jets had arrived in India on July 28 and was officially inducted on September 10 by the government.

In a startling disclosure, the French Anti-Corruption Agency, Agence Française Anticorruption

has announced that their inspectors have discovered an unexplained irregularity during their scheduled audit of Dassault. According to details, “the manufacturer of French combat jet Rafale agreed to pay one million euro to a middleman in India just after the signing of the Indo-French contract in 2016, an investigation by the French publication Mediapart has revealed. An amount of 508,925 euro was allegedly paid under “gifts to clients” head in the 2017 accounts of the Dassault group  ( Dassault paid 1 million euro as ‘gift’ to Indian middleman in Rafale deal: French report India Today Apr 5, 2021). Dassault tried to justify “the larger than usual gift” with a proforma invoice from an Indian company called Defsys Solutions. The invoice suggested that Defsys was paid 50 per cent of an order worth 1,017,850 for manufacturing of 50 dummy models of the Rafale jets. Each dummy, according to the AFA report, was quoted at a hefty price of 20,357. The Dassault group failed to provide any documentary evidence to audit about the existence of those models. Also, it could also not explain why the expenditure was listed as a “gift to clients” in their accounts.

Shady background of Defsys

Defsys is one of the subcontractors of Dassault in India. It has been linked with notorious businessman Sushen Gupta. Sushen Gupta. He was arrested and later granted bail for his role in another major defence scam in India, the AgustaWestland VVIP Chopper case.

The Enforcement Directorate charged Sushen Gupta for allegedly devising a money-laundering scheme for the payouts during the purchase of the helicopters.

Rampant corruption in India

Corruption in defence deals is a norm rather than an exception in India. They did not spare even aluminum caskets used to bring back dead bodies from the Kargil heights (“coffin scam”). Investigations into shady deals linger on until the main characters or middleman is dead. Bofors is a case in point.

Why investigation of defence deals since independence recommended

India’s Tehelka Commission of Inquiry headed by Mr. Justice S N Phukan had suggested that a sitting Supreme Court Judge should examine all defence files since independence.

Concerned about rampant corruption in defence purchases allegedly involving Army personnel, he desired that the proposed Supreme Court Judge should by assisted by the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central bureau of Investigation.

He stressed that unless the existing system of defence procurement was made more transparent through corrective measures, defence deals would continue to be murky. He had submitted his report to then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, but to no avail. The Commission had examined 15 defence deals including the AJT, Sukhoi, Barak missiles, T-90 tanks, tank navigation systems, simulators, hand-held thermal. imagers, Karl Gustav rocket and Kandla-Panipat pipeline. The irregularities in the scrutinised defence deals compelled the Commission to suggest de novo scrutiny of all defence purchases since independence.

Tardy trial

The courts have absolved Rajiv Gandhi of involvement in the BOFORS scam. However, a considerable section of Indian people still believes that ‘Mr. Clean’ was not really so clean. The BJP exploited Rajiv’s acquittal as an election issue. Kuldip Nayyar, in his article “The gun that misfired” (Dawn February 14, 2004) laments, “There was practically no discussion on Bofors-guns kickbacks in the 13th Lok Sabha which has been dissolved for early elections. Once Rajiv Gandhi died the main target – the non-Congress parties lost interest in the scam”.

According to analysts, the mechanisms of public accountability in India have collapsed. Corruption has become a serious socio-political malady as politicians, bureaucracy and Armed Forces act in tandem to receive kickbacks. The anti-corruption cases, filed in courts, drag on for years without any results. To quote a few case: (a) There was no conviction in Bofors-gun case (Rs 64 crore), because of lethargic investigation (the case was filed on January 22, 1990 and charge sheet served on October 22, 1999. Among the accused were Rajiv Gandhi, S K Bhatnagar, W N Chaddha, Octavio, and Ardbo. The key players in the scam died before the court’s decision). (b) No recoveries could be made in the HDW submarine case (Rs 32.5 crore). The CBI later recommended closure of this case. (c) Corruption in recruitment of Armed Forces.

Legal cover for middlemen

Central Vigilance Commissioner P Shankar had alleged (October 2003): “The CVC had submitted its defence deals report on March 31, 2001. Yet a year later, the government has not conducted the mandatory departmental inquiry to fix responsibility”. Shankar explained that the CVC had examined 75 cases apart from specific allegations made by former MP Jayant Malhoutra and Rear Admiral Suhas V Purohit Vittal. Malhoutra’s allegations were about middlemen in defence deals. After his report, the ministry lifted the ban on agents in November 2001 to regularise the middlemen. Purohit, in his petition in the Delhi HC on a promotion case, had alleged unnecessary spare parts were bought from a cartel of suppliers instead of manufacturers, at outrageous prices and at times worth more than the original equipment.

Past cases forgotten to continue business as usual

There were ear-rending shrieks about the Taj-heritage corridor case, Purulia-arms-drop case and stamp-paper cases. Indian Express dated November 11, 2003 reported that the stamp-paper co-accused assistant Sub-Inspector of Police drew a salary of Rs 9,000, but his assets valued over Rs 100 crore. He built six plush hotels during his association for 6 years with the main accused Abdul Karim Telgi. The ASI was arrested on June 13 and charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act. Investigations by the Special Investigating Team (SIT) probing the stamp scam had found that the ASI Kamath accepted Rs 72 lakh from the scam kingpin, Abdul Karim Telgi, on behalf of IGP Sridhar Vagal.

The problem is that the modus operandi of corruption ensures that it is invisible and unaccounted for. There are widespread complaints that the politicians exercise underhand influence on bureaucracy to mint money. For instance, the Chief Vigilance Commissioner complained to Indian Prime Minister (November 8, 2003) that at least “six cabinet ministers, handling key infrastructure ministries, are harassing chiefs of public sector undertakings for ‘personal favours’, and in some cases even for pay-offs”.

For example, one PSU (Public Sector Udertaking) chief is said to have complained that he was asked to get Rs 20 crore delivered to his minister’s party office and when he refused, he was “denied” an extension. Indian Express dated February 19, 2004 reported, under reportage titled “Figuring India” that ‘Rajiv Pratap Rudy is only one in a long line of ministers who have misused the funds and facilities of Public Sector Undertakings”. The newspaper appended the following bird’s-eye view of the funds (available for corruption) at the PSUs command: Rs 3, 24,632 crore total investment in PSUs, Rs 36,432 crore profits, 12,714 crore profits of monopolies in petroleum, Rs 5,613 CRORE profits of monopolies in power Rs 7,612 crore, profits of monopolies in telecom Rs 10,388 crore, Rs 61,000 crore invested in PSUs in 1991-1998, Rs 19,000 crore returns during 1991-1998.”

Corruption as proportion of gross Domestic Product

Professor Bibek Debroy and Laveesh Bhandari claim in their book Corruption in India: The DNA and RNA that public officials in India may be cornering as much as ₹921 billion (US$13 billion), or 5 percent of the GDP through corruption.

India 86th most corrupt (Transparency International corruption ranking Jan 29, 2021)

India’s ranking on the Corruption Perception Index– 2020 is 86. The index released annually by Transparency International ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and business people. It uses a scale of zero to 100, where zero signifies the highest level of corruption and 100 is very clean.

All-round corruption

In India, anti-corruption focuses on big ticket graft. But it is petty corruption that hurts common people more. Both need to be weeded out. A former World Bank president Robert Zoellick once said, “Corruption is a cancer that steals from the poor, eats away at governance and moral fibre, and destroys trust.”

According to Transparency International, CPI-2020 shows that corruption is more pervasive in countries least equipped to handle Covid-19 and other crises. “Covid-19 is not just a health and economic crisis. It is a corruption crisis. And one that we are currently failing to manage,” Delia Ferreira Rubio, chair of Transparency International said. “The past year has tested governments like no other in memory, and those with higher levels of corruption have been less able to meet the challenge. But even those at the top of the CPI must urgently address their role in perpetuating corruption,” she added.

Concluding remarks

Click Wikipedia to know that Narendra Modi’s “Net worth” is “₹ 2.85 Crore” (June 2020). This figure defies his humble financial background. He has a penchant for hobnobbing with “crony capitalism”. It appears he is worth a lot more.  Those who make illicit money have a knack to hide it.

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Turkish Expansion of Libya Threatens Wreck NATO

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Despite the fact that the parties to the Libyan crisis are gradually coming to a political solution, the situation continues to become heated both within and around the country. It is mainly influenced by the states involved in the conflict.

At the same time the instability in Libya has a negative impact on international relations, including growing contradictions between strategic partners. In particular Turkey’s military activities raise fears among at least three NATO members – France, Italy and Greece.

Relations between Ankara and its partners in the North Atlantic Alliance are exacerbated due to the actions of the Turkish leadership, which not only delivers weaponry to the former Jamahiriya avoiding the UN embargo, but also conducts geological exploration of the hydrocarbon fields in the eastern Mediterranean sea.

Contradictions between NATO partners have already begun to take the form of hidden clashes. For example, the French frigate “Courbet”, operating as part of the Alliance’s “Sea Guardian” operation aimed to prevent arms smuggling into Libya, approached three Turkish warships and a cargo vessel on June 10 last year. The French military attempted to inspect a civilian ship suspected of illegally carrying weapons to a war-torn country. In response, the Turkish warships illuminated the Courbet by the targeting radar for three times.

After the incident, Paris pulled out of the “Sea Guardian” operation. Moreover, the White House national adviser, Robert O ‘Brian condemned the Turkish military actions and expressed support for France. “NATO allies shouldn’t be turning fire control radars on each other. That’s not good. We are very sympathetic to the French concerns,” he told.

The contradictions between France and Turkey are also evident in the geopolitical sphere. Paris considers the Libyan National Army commander Halifa Khaftar as one of the key figures in resolving the Libyan conflict, while Ankara refuses to recognize him as a significant political force in the country.

In addition, there are growing tensions between Turkey and Italy. Rome as the largest importer of Libyan oil has been long cooperating with Tripoli’s authorities in oil and gas spheres. After throwing its weight behind one of the rival administration, Turkey seeks to revise the status quo in the Libyan hydrocarbon industry by sidelining France’s Total and Italy’s Eni in a bid to gain full access to the natural resources of Libya. Although Turkey urges countries and companies to joint collaboration, no one highly likely will consent to it, considering this suggestion as a “toxic asset.”

Greece, in turn, is annoyed by agreements between Ankara and Tripoli that deprive Athens of its legal right to the sea shelf between Rhodes and Crete. This part of the continental shelf belongs to Greece and Cyprus, but Turkey is trying to contend for its rights to the fields through the memorandum of understanding on maritime zones with the Government of the National Accord, predecessor of the newly formed Government of National Unity. The Turkish side sent warships to the Mediterranean to reinforce the “legitimacy” of its actions, which was negatively perceived by Athens. The situation became heated to such an extent that many experts have not rule out the outbreak of armed confrontation between the allies.

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Firmly Address Tehran’s Ballistic Behavior

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The recent change in US administrations has spawned a lively debate about the potential path back to a deal with Iran, especially concerning the latter’s troubling nuclear ambitions. Some argue against reviving the 2015 nuclear deal while others counsel for a swift US return to it. But there is a big problem with an undemanding US revival of the deal. Over the past five years, the regime has displayed extremely disturbing behaviors that endanger the region, Europe, the United States, and the broader international community.

Indeed, Iran’s nuclear escalations and its burgeoning ballistic missiles program are major threats. But much more troubling is Iran’s ballistic behavior.

There are four significant hotspots where the Iranian regime is active. This means any return to the Iran deal cannot exclusively address technical nuclear issues. The geopolitics of the entire region have changed. For instance, in Yemen, Houthi militias control a large segment of a sovereign country, and they are armed by the Iranian regime, including missiles. They are at war with the legitimate government of Yemen, and they have had a terrible record of human rights abuses.

In Iraq, Iran has used its militias to establish control over the entire country, with some exceptions. These militias are not only controlling the government, major parts of the economy or the banks, they are engaged in suppressing the population. In the fall of 2019, hundreds of thousands of young Iraqis from all walks of life took to the streets to demand meaningful reforms. But they were met with lethal force. More than 700 Iraqi citizens of all communities have been killed by pro-Iranian militias.

The Iranian regime’s forces in Syria have brought in radical Shia militias from as far as Afghanistan. More than 700,000 people have been killed in that civil war. Five million Syrians have been displaced.

And, last but not least, in Lebanon, Hezbollah is armed and funded by Tehran, and its secretary general does not shy away from publicly announcing his group’s complete allegiance to the Iranian regime.

So, the Iranian regime is effectively involved in the quasi occupation of four Arab countries. All this means that there cannot be a swift return to an “Iran deal” without addressing the regime’s regional ambitions and destructive meddling, which have resulted in instability for Europeans and American interests alike.

Meanwhile both in European capitals and in Washington, there are major interests that echo calls for a quick return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Absent in their inexplicable haste is any consequential consideration to pressing geopolitical demands.

Proponents of the Iran nuclear deal are eager to do business with Iran. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But shouldn’t the cost of that decision be soberly evaluated before rushing back in?

Are there not important destabilizing factors that must be urgently addressed, including the deployment of ballistic missiles in the region, the preponderance of Iranian proxies in strategic hotspots, and persistent deadly attacks against Western allies in the region?

So, what should be done?

Any potential discussions with the Iranian regime must take into consideration the security of the Middle East as a whole.

First, regional security and the regime’s behavior must top the list of potential negotiation topics.

Second, the regime’s ballistic missile program should not proceed under the radar. The Houthi-fired missiles targeting Saudi Arabia and its oil facilities are designed and delivered by Iran. The missiles fired against the US and coalition forces in Iraq are also designed and delivered by Iran. And, Iran has deployed missiles in Syria, which are then aimed at Israel. Similarly, the Lebanese Hezbollah has boasted about having thousands of missiles in its arsenal.

Therefore, as an important step toward stability, the international community must ensure that the proliferation of these missiles is stopped, and they are removed from these countries.

Third, it would only be logical to include countries like Saudi Arabia and other impacted governments in the negotiation process because they bear the brunt of Tehran’s malevolence.

And lastly, international community should begin seriously engaging with the Iranian opposition. For the past three years, hundreds of thousands of Iranian citizens have loudly protested the ruling regime and its policies. There is another image of Iran that the world needs to acknowledge and engage. That’s exactly what the US policy is trying to do in Yemen, for example, by engaging both the Houthis and the legal government at the same time.

When dealing with the multilateral and strategic threats emanating from the Iranian regime, it is only natural to engage with the organized Iranian non-violent resistance, including representatives from the Iran protests and exiled leaders, particularly the very active National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), and to hear their voices during any negotiation with Tehran.

The Iranian regime will be emboldened to continue its egregious behavior if it senses weakness in the international community’s response. By firmly addressing its ballistic behavior, responsible international actors can harness the strategic domestic and international reserves to curtail Tehran’s threats.

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