Thursday, July 10, 2014

Border infrastructure: Time to put rail tracks on track... my take on the Indian government's approach to border rail infrastructure projects...

Here's my short essay on the Indian government's approach to border rail infrastructure projects...

The inauguration of the Udhampur-Katra railway link by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week marked a big boost to India's infrastructure. Even though the completion of this 30 km stretch might appear to be no big deal, there are significant economic and security implications, and equally, what it might imply for the importance of border infrastructure in the Modi administration.

Border infrastructure, especially railways, has not been taken seriously enough in decades. The list of pending projects is long. Unfortunately India does not have the luxury to wait for another decade before many of these projects are completed.

Improved border infrastructure brings several benefits across multiple domains - economic, security and military. But because of the unsettled nature of India's borders, the security implications are clearly the most important.

For the full essay, click here.

The Indian Army's request to construct 14 "strategic" rail links did not particularly figure in the railway budget, presented on July 8. However, the general budget, presented on July 10, has made an allocation of Rs 1,000 crore for improving rail connectivity in the northeast, although this is a tiny fraction of the expenditure involved. While 12 projects (11 in the northeast and 1 in Jammu and Kashmir) are being accorded "national projects" status, which will improve the general connectivity in the northeast, these projects have no particular bearing on the lines identified by the Army. The 14 strategic lines identified by the Army include new railway links in all sectors. The critical ones are in the eastern and northern sectors, specifically the Murkongselek-Pasighat-Tezu-Parasuramkund-Rupai (256 km) line, the Misamari-Tawang (378 km) line, and the North Lakhimpur-Along-Silapathar (248 km) in the northeast and the Pathankot-Leh (400 km), Jammu-Akhnoor-Poonch (223 km), and the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh (430 km) in the northern sector. These would cover a distance of 3,016 km and cost around Rs. 55,831 crore.1

Money is part of the problem, with different departments fighting over who would pay the cost. Inter-departmental committees could not sort it out. There are other reasons also for the slow progress, including the terrain, which has hampered track expansion to the extent that several networks in these regions are still metre gauge. Many of these rail networks have also remained so antiquated with speeds limited to 30 km/h in certain sections.

One of the major challenges in railway construction in India is establishing connectivity across wide rivers. Huge variations in climatic conditions as well as the flow of the rivers in addition to the lack of solid stones and rocks have been a curse on the engineers who have to plan and devise bridges across huge rivers such as the Brahmaputra in Assam. Building a rail link between the south and the north bank of the Brahmaputra has been a herculean task and has consumed several decades. The Bogibeel bridge over the Brahmaputra has taken almost 20 years and is still nowhere near completion, despite being classified a "national project."

In addition to the difficult terrain, construction companies have often had to deal with local terrorists and insurgent groups, who have kidnapped men and burnt down machinery and equipment. These security considerations have dampened the interests among the private sector to go to these regions. Land acquisition and clearances from the Ministry of Environment and Forests have also compounded the challenge. Finding and retention of quality labour have also been challenging.

The slow pace of rail track construction in India is a total contrast to the development across the border. China has already built a 1142 km-long electrified railway line from Golmud (Gormo in Tibetan language) to Lhasa and has plans to extend the line to Shigatze and Yatung, reaching almost the strategic Nathu La pass. They have plans to extend the Golmud-Lhasa (Qinghai Tibet) railway line to Nyingchi, close to its border with India on the Arunachal Pradesh side and further extend it to Dali in Yunnan Province.2

This line, running parallel to Arunachal Pradesh, will help quick mobilisation of the PLA from Kunming, Dali and Kaiyuanand to Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). These lines would also help the PLA troops, the 13 Group Army (Unit 56005), to relocate from Sichuan Province to TAR. This railway line has a capacity to run up to eight trains (one way) per day. This is a significant achievement as it cuts travelling time from Mainland China to Lhasa to two days with a total tonnage capacity of 3,200 tonnes per train.

China is now in the process of building a rail network linking it to Pakistan. From the Chinese perspective, these networks are significant as they become the shortest trading route as well as provide alternate energy supply routes from the Persian Gulf to Xinjiang. While these linkages have a huge economic relevance, their significance in the military and defence areas cannot be overlooked.

Though New Delhi faces many problems in improving its border infrastructure, the biggest problem is the lack of political direction at the highest level. The Modi government should keep in mind the tremendous advantages in establishing railway connectivity in the border areas and not repeat the mistakes of the past. While previous governments also claimed to recognize the importance of border infrastructure, their actions did not match their words and most of these projects remained unimplemented.

1. RajatPandit, "Key Railway Lines Along Borders Still Off Track," Times of India, February 24, 2014,

2. For details of new lines, see "Qinghai-Tibet railway to Get Six New Lines," China Daily, August 17, 2008,

Iraq's deepening crisis and India's interests, my analysis on the Iraqi crisis following the abduction of 490 Indian nurses in Mosul...

I had published another essay on the Iraq crisis following the abduction of 40 nurses and how it impacted directly India's security in Iraq and beyond. The original Indian reaction was that "the violence there is not targeted at Indian nationals. We are just caught in the cross-fire." Whatever be the rationale, whether we were purposely targeted or caught in between, this new development has changed the dynamics for India.

Thereafter, even as India was concerned about the worsening situation in Iraq, New Delhi could afford to ignore it as an internal Iraqi issue between the Sunnis and Shiites, despite the glaring fact that the atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an off-shoot of Al Qaeda, amounted to "war crimes," as the UN human rights head noted two days ago. But for several reasons, this is no longer the case.
For the full article, click here.

India's interests in Iraq and the region should be seen in the larger context of the seven million Indians working in West Asia, of which nearly 18,000 are in Iraq. Safety and security of this population should dominate the Indian policy. The foreign exchange earned by India through this population is also a significant factor. Therefore, any unrest in the region will have an impact on India.

Two, the fallout of any crisis in West Asia on India's energy security needs to be kept in mind. The current crisis could lead to spiralling global oil prices, but in addition, safe access to energy resources also becomes an important consideration.

Three, even though the current crisis in Iraq is often seen through a Sunni-Shia prism in the local context, the issue has a wider regional consonance. The issue needs to be seen in the context of the Shia-dominated Iran and the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and how they see the current crisis as a reflection of the larger regional dynamics.

Four, the takeover by the ISIS of several Iraqi towns reflects a lack of capacity on the part of the Iraqi government and its security forces to handle the situation. In such a scenario, it is meaningless to assume that India and Iraq have excellent relations and therefore India is not a target. It may well have been that the 40 Indians were caught in between and not necessarily targeted by the ISIS, but the reality is that there is a monster in the country, who is notorious for their extreme brutality. India should consider cooperating with other States to undertake capacity building of the Iraqi security forces in order for these forces to fight terrorists more effectively in the future.

India should also consider coordinating with other major regional or extra-regional powers in determining the next course of action. To arrest the current pace of ISIS advance, there is clearly a need for military action. There has to be a simultaneous pursuit of two approaches: military strikes in the areas captured by the ISIS, and a political approach from the Iraqi government side to bring about some sort of rapprochement between the Sunni, Shia and the Kurd population. After an initial agreement among these communities, these have to be followed by a larger political accommodation wherein the other groups are brought in as part of the mainstream. This is critical because the ISIS gains, to a large extent, have been driven by Sunni bitterness at the current Iraqi political leadership.

Five, India needs to see the ISIS advance as part of the phenomena of global terrorism. India should pursue the fight against terror in a more focused manner to effect impact on the ISIS funding and terror activities.

To tackle India's current hostage crisis, India has to obviously work with the Maliki leadership but New Delhi also has to engage other regional players in bringing out a favourable outcome.

Dangers of the ISIS Push in Iraq... my take on the Iraq situation and what it means for the region and the US...

Last month, I wrote a short essay on the dangers of the ISIS push into Iraq and what could India and others do to bring the situation under control. ISIS' capture of most of the western and northern cities of Iraq was quick and the Iraqi armed forces abandoned their weapons and ran, leaving the ISIS to gain in military terms as well.

There have been debates whether the US should get involved and the debate is wide open. There are arguments on both sides, bringing out the pros and cons. Secretary of State John Kerry in a statement said that the President has every option including airstrikes on the table. It has also been reported that diplomats from both Iran and the US have had discussions regarding possible options in order to arrest the ISIS’ advance. Sections of the US Congress and the retired military officials have underlined the importance for the US to get involved in Iraq in order to bring about a semblance of stability in Iraq. General Paul Eaton, who was responsible for training Iraqi security forces, went to the extent of saying that Iran would be a "natural ally" in the campaign against the ISIS. Characterising the current crisis in Iraq as possibly the worst national security that the US has faced since the 9/11 attacks, Senator Lindsey Graham argued that the US must engage Iran in developing coordinated options in dealing with the situation. However, he made a distinction to say, "I don’t want Iran to dominate Iraq. And that’s where they’re headed. ... Don’t have the Iranians save Baghdad. Let us save Baghdad, so there will be a chance at a second government."

These are clearly no easy options for the US. However, the US should not look at staying in Iraq for a long haul. The US must go in with a limited military mission to arrest the spread of ISIS, thus aiding the process of bringing stability in Iraq and the region at large.

For the full article, click here.

Even though Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS, was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, the movement appears to have gained a great deal recently after establishing control over much of eastern Syria and now moving at a frightening pace into Iraq. Latest reports talked about the ISIS advancing to the outskirts of Baghdad, barely 45 minutes away from the capital. The UN human rights head Navi Pillay characterized the ISIS’ "apparently systematic series of cold-blooded executions" as near "war crimes."

ISIS is primarily a Sunni radical group that took its birth in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time of the invasion, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the ISIS, an Arab from Jordan, had landed on the outskirts of Baghdad with some weapons, bags full of money and a bold idea of uniting Sunni Muslims of the region through war.1 In a limited span of time, he was able to build a support base among Iraqis and then started a spate of suicide bombings and brutal execution of anyone (predominantly Shiites and Americans) he saw as a hindrance in his pursuit of establishing an Islamic Caliphate. Driven by Zarqawi’s dream of an extremist Sunni commune across the region, the ISIS believes in establishing an Islamic Caliphate across Syria, Iraq and much of the region.

Though it managed to build some local support within Iraq, the level of ISIS brutality caused backlash within the Sunni community, which led to what was called the Anbar Awakening in 2006-2007. With Anbar Awakening in motion, the Sunni tribal leaders stopped their support for Zarqawi and instead gave full backing to the US forces in an effort to wipe out the Zarqawi operatives. ISIS puts al Qaeda to shame when it comes to their extreme way of interpreting Quran and propounding a far more brutal manner of implementing Islamic law. However, the sense of alienation that exists among the Sunnis today is driving the community into the hands of the ISIS yet again. Even the veterans who were part of the Awakening movement are now extending support to the ISIS with the hope that the regime in Baghdad that is "corrupt" and "repressive" is defeated.

A major chunk of ISIS funding appears to have come from wealthy private donors in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are supposedly US allies. It is reported that the ISIS has been able to take advantage of loopholes that exist in the anti-money laundering policies in these countries.2 In the recent years, Kuwait appears to have become the financing hub for many anti-Shiite groups. Despite the US Treasury Department being in the know-how of such developments, there has been very little that has been done to deal with this situation. The US has not been particularly successful in impressing upon the Gulf leaders on this point. Meanwhile, the US has lost its credibility to some extent with President Obama not able to carry through the red line that he had set on the issue of Syrian use of chemical weapons.

Many regional experts and officials claim that the ISIS has been able to take full advantage of the worsening Sunni-Shia relations, having been able to win the support of Sunni tribal leaders. The anger and bitterness among the Sunni population towards the Shiite government in Baghdad is something that has worked in favour of the ISIS. Whether and how long this tactical deal between the ISIS and the Sunni tribes will last is a question, though. The brutality and the future plans of the ISIS may not be palatable to the Sunni tribes in the long term.

There are doubts amongst American analysts about the US role in the current crisis. Daniel Pipes, a prominent US scholar and analyst, was categorical (back in 2006) in saying that the West, including the US "cannot be tasked with resolving Sunni-Shiite differences, an abiding Iraqi problem that only Iraqis themselves can address." While this makes sense as a general sentiment, the situation is significantly different today. However, Pipes’ advice against any intervention by the West may not hold today. He had argued that "This is basically a Middle Eastern problem, and outside powers should aim to protect their own interests, not solve the Middle East’s crises. Tehran, not we, should fight ISIS." While Iran may have a more direct interest in the affairs of Iraq, particularly in the current crisis, the West cannot shun the thousands of foreigners fighting alongside the ISIS. More than 2000 Europeans are reportedly fighting in Syria and at least some are returning to Europe to take up fight against the West. The instance of a Frenchman involved in the shooting at the Brussels Jewish museum in May 2014 is a case in point. The suspect, Mehdi Nemmouche, is believed to have been trained in Syria for over a year and had joined many jihadist terrorist groups there. There are also several Americans fighting alongside the ISIS. A Forbes report highlighting this aspect said, "At least 15 Somali-American men from Minnesota have traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The group not only fights in Syria, but also recently captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul (115 km from the border between Iraq and Syria) and Tikrit (323 km from the border). The group does not recognize international borders and has a presence ranging from Syria’s Mediterranean coast to south of Baghdad."