Côte d'Ivoire Children

Ibrahim Coulibaly, the leader of Invisible Commandos, a militia that helped Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara defeat rival Laurent Gbagbo , was killed in a gun battle on Wednesday .Coulibaly’s ‘Invisible Commando’ insurgents had fought alongside what is now the Ivorian national army to topple Gbagbo, but had been accused of not meeting a deadline to lay down their arms and join the new army.

Ivory Coast

Supporters of Coulibaly had accused Ouattara’s prime minister Guillaume Soro of killing Coulibaly without any provocation.  Coulibaly had a bitter fallout with Soro during the 2002-03 rebellion and since then he had been locked in a bitter and often violent dispute with Soro.

Ibrahim Coulibaly was a very ambitious man. Born in 1964, he started his career as a lowly soldier. His origins in the North , and his basketball talents got him a promotion to the bodyguard unit of Alassane Ouattara when he was the prime minister in the government of Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Ibrahim never looked back . His charisma, boldness, and political dexterity saw him emerge as one of the leading power brokers in Ivory Coast and was involved in numerous coups. However, a series of miscalculations led to a marked decline in his influence and he was forced to lie low during Gbagbo’s regime.

The current conflict gave him a chance to again rise to prominence. He was one of the chief military commanders of the Ouattara forces. His Invisible Commandos, who were reputed to be 5000 strong, played prominent part in military operations against Gbagbo forces in Northern Ivory coast. However, they were often accused of atrocities against civilians.

Coulibaly was increasingly seen as a  liability by the regime due to his violent reputation and aggressive posturing. His death, with or without official acquiescence should come as no surprise.  His death  could  signify the consolidation of power by Ouattara and his removal of potential rivals from the scene. Or more worryingly , it could mark the start of a deadly new phase in Ivory Coast politics where faction fights faction for political supremacy and military leaders considerably weaken and eventually displace Ouattara’s power.

Ivory Coast , long a beacon of stability and prosperity in Africa , certainly does not deserve the second .


#Cartoon - #Yemen wants Ali Abdullah Saleh OUT!  on Twitpic

Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh has decided to leave power and hand over the reins of  government to a transitional government  in exchange for immunity from persecution. It seems that Saleh is now, finally , on his way out . What implications this holds for Yemen ? More mayhem perhaps.

Map picture

Yemen has long been on the brink of being a failed state . It is an impoverished state which imports most of its food from outside. Its suffers from high population growth and a large unemployed youth population . The sources of revenue for the government are dwindling, with oil reserves running out . Yemen could also be the first state in the world to run out of water. Tribal divisions run deep. Add to that prevalence of widespread Khat intoxication , and you have the prefect socio-economic nightmare .

The problems of Yemen don’t end here. The  country has a large population of Zaidi Shias . These have long been engaged in a bitter conflict with Saleh government . The government has long tried to supress their rebellion , with direct Saudi and covert American help, with little effect.

Al-Qaeda has also been active in Yemen and have frequently attacked government forces. The recent parcel bomb attacks on board FedEx and UPS have originated in Yemen .Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula has publicly identified Yemen as the base for their operations in Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the movement for South Yemen , which aims to create a separate State of South Yemen . This movement, centred in Aden , perceives itself to be exploited and marginalised by the northerners and aims to set it right by creating a separate state of South Yemen.`

This country in short is an almost impossible place to govern. The fact that Saleh was able to hang in for 32 years, is a testimony to the amazing political skills the man possessed. He used every trick in the book to keep these political demons under the lid .Saleh has described his 33-year rule and his power plays with the leaders of the country’s many tribes, as a "dance on snake heads."   But now he is gone and there seem to be nobody on the  Yemeni political scene with the skill and the wherewithal to keep these snakes in check.

The current opposition is held together by a common hatred of the regime and is very likely to disintegrate post Saleh. The various competing interests of the Southerners, the Islamists, the Houthis are likely to ensure a weak government in the days to come.  There are already signs of dissent within opposition ranks . Further none of the opposition leaders have a mass following.

This absence of credible leadership post Saleh would enable the separatist movements to further gain steam . Al-Qaeda is probably already watching with glee the prospect of a weak government at the helm. Yemen with its difficult terrain and proximity to Saudi Arabia will be the perfect base for them .

Regimes like that of Saleh  , for all their brutishness and corruption , have brought stability to historically unstable places like Yemen.  Long entrenched , these have been felled like oaks in a storm by the youth revolt . But the world may soon find out that these youth have little experience in running a country, let alone one as complex as Yemen .

Although this doesn’t justify their continued existence, there is certainly a case for their more orderly phasing out. The sudden demise of these regime might just have left a  vacuum which would be difficult to fill and which ,like all vacuums, would be very destructive to the geopolitical fabric of middle east.

After the bloody killings on “Great Friday “ , the Syrian government has decided to violently nip these protests in the bud. In a heavy handed response reminiscent of Hafez Al-Assad’s brutal crackdown of the Hama uprising in 1982, government forces have entered the city of Dar’a.

Map picture

Though there are no definitive accounts, there are reports of at least 25  deaths. The government forces are reported to be using heavy artillery, light mortars and resorting to indiscriminate firing. The twitter is abuzz with reports of many innocent deaths.

An innocent girl killed in Daraa by the bullet of a government sniper

This is one of the defining moments of this Arab Spring. The revolution which started as a genuine outburst of public resentment against corrupt leaders has started to founder on the ground realities of Middle East realpolitik.

A regime which should have long perished by the weight of its own inefficiencies, is managing to ruthlessly repress popular aspirations and hold onto power by cleverly exploiting tribal dissensions and insecurities. On the other hand, a widely inclusive message which was supposed to be secular and democratic in nature has been hijacked by the fundamentalists painting this as a fight between the heretic and the believer.

In my opinion . Dar’a is fast turning into a battle ground between hardliners of Muslim Brotherhood and the Alawite security establishment. These religious tones of the revolution have crystallized the support of the Army and the otherwise anti-Assad and pro-democracy Alawites towards the Assad regime.

Although the Assad regime has not succeeded in markedly improving the lot of the average Alawi . it is widely perceived as a  safeguard against religious persecution by Sunni Muslims who consider the Alawis as heretics and have historically engaged in vigorous persecution.

The recent outbreak of protests in Dar’a and other towns of the Sunni heartland are widely considered in Syria to be a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy to enforce a Sunni fundamentalist rule in Syria. In view of these events, the army whose officer cadre is largely Alawi has decided to support the regime in what it largely considers as an existential battle for survival.

This heavy handed response by the Alawite army brass has generated even more resentment among the  Sunni populace. There are unconfirmed reports about the refusal of the largely Sunni rank and file to obey orders to fire on coreligionists. Syria, it seems, is moving rapidly down a fast descending spiral of violence and religious acrimony.

This video purportedly shows Syrian soldiers executed for refusing to obey orders

This is deplorable. The Assad regime has done little good for the common Syrian, Alawi or Sunni . It should have gone long ago. But in in the middle east , the regressive politics of tribe, religion , and ethnicity have long propped up the most brutal tyrants even when they have bled their nations dry.

Syria: Ethnic Questions

April 24, 2011

Syria has entered into a tailspin of political chaos. The Assad regime has brutally cracked down on the protests of “ Great Friday “ causing much bloodshed and a lot of resentment among the populace.

This brutal repression has been widely condemned by the world community. But what is missing in the misty eyed analysis of the Syrian revolution is a proper understanding of the sectarian nature of the revolt.

Syrian population is composed of various ethnicities and religions . The Sunni Arabs dominate the population but there are sizeable numbers of Alawites, Druze , Christians and Kurds.

This is a mainly Sunni revolt against the minority Alawites. The revolt has thus far been restricted to mainly Sunni towns and has found little or no resonance in the Alawite , Kurd or Druze areas of the country .

The below map is a map of the old French protectorate of Greater Syria. During those times the boundaries of the various governorates corresponded with ethnicities. The State of Damascus and the State of Aleppo were predominantly Sunni Arab whereas the Druze and the Alawite had their own separate provinces , the State of Jabal ad-Druze and the state of Alawites respectively.

And this is a map showing the location of the protests currently happening of Syria.

map_of_revolustion 15.04.2011

As is plainly visible , that most the blood is spilled in the area of the old provinces of State of Damascus,  the Sunni heartland of the country. This essentially Sunni nature of the revolt is bad tiding for a country like Syria. If the regime falls, there could be widespread jockeying for power between the various ethnic groups which might very quickly descend into strife or worse, civil war.

It would be wrong to see the various uprisings in the Arab world as identical uprisings of the disgruntled youth against corrupt leaders. These revolts had very different meanings in different places. In Syria , it is about a natural correction in a distorted power structure. A correction which is propelled by the vested interests of people who have very different aims than the idealistic youths of the Arab street.



Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad is in trouble. Widespread  protests have engulfed the country and are spreading from city to city. The opposition has called for even bigger protest on Friday . These protesters who are fighting against the draconian regime , swear by their democratic credentials. But reality could be murkier , and  for India and the world , even dangerous.

The current Syrian regime has been reprehensibly tyrannical and guilty of severe human rights violations. But this regime has brought stability and peace to land which has been traditionally wrecked by violent conflict within the various sects and sub sects that inhabit these lands. In fact, present day Syria is a wholly artificial construct created out of colonial necessity .

The current regime ideologically inherits from the Baath party’s Arab socialist political movement and still professes the Baathist ideals of secularism and socialism . Although it exclusively has its power base among the minority Alawites, it also initially had a wide degree of support from the middle class progressive Arabs of Syria who wanted a progressive alternative to Islamic fundamentalism.

Much of that support base has been eroded , largely due to the Assad’s regimes clannish power structure , widespread corruption and most importantly due to its inability to provide the burgeoning young population with a political platform to voice its concerns. However, substantial as this erosion in public approval of Assad regime was ,it could not possibly explain the sudden eruption of such widespread protests . 

And I cannot possibly buy the arguments that these protests are largely spontaneous. That happens only in a democratic utopia. In real world, these protests have to be financed, organized and directed , even if loosely. And in societies like Syria, where there was never a vibrant political sphere , there is no expertise or initiative available with the common citizens to direct such protests.

So what or who could be behind these protests? Certainly not the Iranians who have a deep interest in ensuring the survival of the regime . Certainly not Hezbollah , who is a large recipient of tacit and material aid from the current regime and a staunch supporter of the regime.

And contrary to what the current Syrian government claims , it could not be the Israelis or the US . Israel would prefer to have a deal with a firmly in control Syrian despot than a fractious diplomatic government, And the United States also does not want to further murky the situation in Middle East.

It could be possibly the Lebanese 14th of March movement, but they don’t have the resources . nor the reach to create something of this magnitude.

Than it leaves only one another actor, the Muslim Brotherhood. They have the motive as well as the means to do so. Brutally suppressed by Bashar’s father Hafez-Al Assad, they hate the current regime not only for denying the Brotherhood of its legitimate role in Syrian politics. but also for being hated apostates.

The situation reminds me of the Iranian revolution of 1979. The revolution , started by students and communists, was soon hijacked by the religious right . Brutal suppression by the Shah has paradoxically helped in strengthening the organizational structure of the right wing fundamentalists by enforcing the espirit de corps . Not only that , the elimination of the first and second level leadership by the dreaded SAVAK, indirectly helped in splintering of the movement into tiny autonomous cells. These when activated were very hard to suppress because of their very distributed nature.

Could it be the case in Syria too ? If yes, then it is a frightening scenario. Frightening for me, frightening for India, and indeed frightening for the world.

Demons from Hell

October 30, 2010

The recovery on Friday of explosive packages  ,dispatched from Yemen to synagogues in Chicago  on board FedEx and UPS flights,  served to clearly underscore the growing threat from Yemen. Sadly , without a massive overhaul of the country’s economic, social and political infrastructure, there is little that can be done to prevent Yemen from becoming the next Al-Qaeda command post.

For the price of a few hundred dollars,terrorists were able to set off a broad terrorism scare. Law enforcement agencies in several countries were put on high alert, two global corporations — FedEx and UPS — had to disrupt services and inspect dozens of packages around the world, Canadian fighter jets were mobilized, passengers on board a completely innocent commercial flight were scared out of their wits . Even the president of the United States made a short statement on this.

These terrorists, Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula as they call themselves , have yet again demonstrated their ability to cause disproportionate losses to the western world and to disrupt the western way of life. They are fanatical , motivated, and most importantly they seem to have found the perfect hideaway for themselves: Yemen


Yemen is a terrorist paradise. Its geography is extreme in its ruggedness. It has a long and porous border with Saudi Arabia and an equally porous maritime border with Somalia.Yemen is also desperately poor. Most of its population lives on less than $2 a day. The mainstay of its economy , oil is projected to run out by 2017


More worryingly , Yemen might well be the first country in the world to run out of water. Large scale exploitation of water resources, mainly for the cultivation of Khat , a mildly narcotic chewing substance, has led to a severe shortage. Scientists fear that the country is literally chewing itself to death and might have no water left by 2017.

Wadi Dahr khat plantations

To make it worse , the central government has only a tenuous hold on the country. The Houthi rebellion in the north and the tensions between the various tribes in the south has led to the steady erosion of central authority. President Saleh has till now been able to buy off the tribes with the oil money. With oil running out , these rented loyalties might soon evaporate.

All these factors together with the widespread illiteracy, pervasive gun culture, and proximity to Wahhabi ideological centres,  make Yemen  one of the world’s most conducive environment for global terrorist networks to fester and operate. Yemen also provides the ideal geo-strategic location to these groups. Its location on the Arabian peninsula , provides the Al-Qaeda with a terrific  launching platform to overthrow the hated monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. Its proximity to the lawless regions of Somalia ensures safe haven for terrorist leadership in case of any international operation. Yemen is the ultimate geo-strategic nightmare for the western strategist.

In face of the threats, the response of the world community has at best been amateur. Apart from extending millions of dollars in aid to President Saleh, little has been done.  Much of this aid money had been siphoned off by corrupt government officials. There have been no efforts to invest into upgrading the social and physical infrastructure of the country. Nothing has been done to  diversify the nation’s income sources and stave off the looming financial collapse.

Yemen is on its way to becoming another Afghanistan . Something which the world could ill afford.  The war on terrorism , if it starts on this land, might be not winnable at all. The world needs to end this war, before it starts . Terrorism must be stamped out before it takes root in this society. And to do that, we need to do more than throw dollars and send drones.

On 10th October the Kyrgyz people voted to elect a new parliament.  These elections were  widely hailed to be the fairest in the recent history of Central Asia. It seems that democracy has finally found a foothold in Central Asia. Soon , one by one, the oppressive regimes of Central Asia, led by dynastic rulers would be gone only to be replaced by enlightened democratically elected governments working tirelessly for the betterment of their pathetically poor countries.  Democracy is winning and we , as the world’s biggest democracy, should be delighted.

Eh No .   The time is not ripe for parliamentary democracy in Central Asia and it is in India’s interest to leverage all its influence to ensure that stability and not the spread of democracy remains our top priority.  But before I state my reasons, let us have a look at Kyrgyzstan.

View Larger Map

Although many Indians would not have even heard of the country and would be hard placed to name its capital , Bishkek ,  Kyrgyzstan is of vital strategic importance in Central Asia.  Kyrgyzstan is  a member of Shanghai  Cooperation Organization and figures prominently in both Chinese and Russian geo-strategic plans.   Kyrgyzstan is also home to  large US and Russian military bases. The US military base at Manas,  in Kyrgyzstan is a primary logistics base for USAF to ship supplies into Afghanistan and has become increasingly important in view of the continued attacks on routes through Pakistan.

Kyrgyzstan also sits astride the fertile Ferghana Valley , an explosive tinder box in the heart of Central Asia and a fertile breeding ground for Islamic terrorist which range from there to as far as Xinjiang in the east and Kashmir in the south.  It has been of vital interest for India that Kyrgyzstan, and other central Asian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which control this restive region , are governed by stable and moderate governments which don’t let these fundamentalist organizations take hold .

And that is why , the recent Kyrgyz elections are  bad news. Since the April ouster of Kurmanbek Bakiyev , there has been a continued flux in Kyrgyz politics. And the results of the October election are unlikely to bring stability to the country.

The elections ( background information could be found here )have resulted in a split verdict . According to Kyrgyz law, only those parties which win more than 5% of the total national vote are eligible to enter the parliament. In Sundays election , only 5 parties made the cut .  These parties divided into Nationalist, pro-US and pro-Russian camps would have to cobble up  some sort of coalition .But any such coalition would be fragile and inherently unstable due to their contradictory policies.

These parties have very little common ground between themselves and differ on a host of factors.  Whether it is the question of foreign bases on Kyrgyz territory, the nature of the government, or the direction of foreign policy their country should adopt , they have little in common.  And none of these have got more than 9 % of the public vote, which severely limits their individual legitimacy. But more worryingly , these elections have exposed ethnic divides. In a country with sizeable Russian and Uzbek minorities, and which has suffered from inter-ethnic violence recently, these elections have served to harden ethnic fault lines.

This is bad news . Continued instability(Already, there are allegations of foul play by smaller parties which have forced a recount ) in the country would only embolden the dormant Islamic terrorist organizations there. These organizations, desperately in search of a safe haven , might use this opportunity to establish themselves in Kyrgyzstan. With its wild , mountainous terrain , Kyrgyzstan could provide them with an ideal launching ground . To prevent all this , we must ensure stability above all else, even democracy.

It is my view that blind promotion of  democracy has been one of the biggest strategic mistakes made by the western world. We must remember that democracy is by itself is not a panacea to all the problems. It is in fact a culmination of the society’s economic, social and educational progress. Top down effects to bring democracy to countries with ill developed social and cultural institutions usually result in disaster.  .  And this is particularly true in Central Asia.

With its artificial boundaries cutting across ethnic lines, desperately poor populations ,  over dependence on natural resources for revenue , Central Asia simply does not have the basic mechanism to ensure the smooth adoption of  democracy .  Decades of Soviet rule , followed by oppressive dictators have left the country bereft of social institutions which are so necessary for the normal functioning of democracy.

It  is simply not the correct time to push for democracy in these countries.  What  is needed now is a strong central authority which brings stability and thus enables investment in the social and economic infrastructure of the countries by foreign powers. This will eventually enable a  shift to more democratic form of government.

This blog as always held that realism , as opposed to misty eyed idealism should be the corner-stone of our foreign policy.  It is in the interest of India and other major powers  to work towards stability in Kyrgyzstan. Democracy can wait for a few more years .

The Iranian Elections

June 18, 2009

 I have always been amazed at how starry eyed idealism has replaced hard nosed realism in our times. Any international event should be analyzed objectively and we should be prepared to accept the fact that sometimes the truth might be what we don’t want to it to be.

There is no revolution going on in Iran. There is not going to be a revolution in the foreseeable future. Ahmadinejad has won. And Mousavi is not going to lead an army of liberalists into Tehran and free the country from the corrupt theocracy. Let us accept it.

 And let us gird our loins to prepare for the inevitable: the rise of Iran as a significant player on the international stage. The Persian resurgence is significantly going to impact Indian strategy and we must ensure that our interests are safeguarded.  

After the decline of the Safavid Empire, this is the first time that the Iranian nation is following an independent and consistent foreign policy. This is also the first time that a strong central government exists in Iran. And contrary to all that we read in the western papers, this government is going to stay. 

Why? Why don’t the people just rise up and throw the corrupt Mullahs out? How can they continue to live in the 21st century in a theocracy? Why do they not get hooked to democracy, the real one as practiced in Washington and London, as they are hooked to twitter, blogging and IPods? 

Because, my friends, this world is infinitely more complex than a continuous black and white struggle between democracy and anti-democracy, western style liberalism and despotism. It is complex. 

Iran is neither Libya nor Iraq nor Afghanistan. It is an ancient culture with a deep sense of its place in the world. Its people are proud. And more than subscribing and confirming to the ideals of the western world, the things that matters most to them are religion, good governance and national honor. 

Iranian Shiaism is actually a part of Iranian identity. It has replaced, and in many cases almost immaculately, Zoroastrianism as the binding force of the Iranian people. The Shia clergy even now commands much respect. And for most part, Iranian population still lives in rural areas. For these people piety and religion virtue are cornerstones of life. They feel threatened by the talk of modernization. Here Ahmadinejad delivers, Mousavi doesn’t. The vast majority of Iranians will make do with the shabby economic growth that the present regime provides but would not accept a modernist Mousavi regime, which howsoever efficient in providing growth, would be seen as lax in Islamic virtue. 

The second most important consideration for Iranians is corruption in governance. Corruption in the Shia clergy and upper echelons of government has become commonplace and most Iranians resent this. On this count too, Ahmadinejad delivers. He has a proven track record of raising corruption issues and is unafraid to even indict some of high ranking mullahs. 

Third, Ahmadinejad is a spokesman for Iranian national security, a tremendously popular stance. By arguing that Iran become a great power and pursue all means by which it can do so, Ahmadinejad has successfully positioned himself as a champion of Iranian pride. Mousavi, on the other hand is seen as more accommodating to western interests. Many Iranians would rather have a president who is willing to fight than one who is willing to compromise. 

What we witness as the huge protests are actually  groups of young, vocal, articulate and most importantly, English speaking, elite of Iranian society. For these people the current regime of Ayatollahs is stifling. Mousavi definitely has their support. But they are definitely not the majority. Being photogenic and the ability to give a quick sound bite in English to some touring journalist doesn’t actually translate into actual political power. The silent God fearing masses of the Iranian countryside are the one whose support is most crucial and it seems Ahmadinejad has that support.

What amazes me is not that Ahmadinejad won, what amazes me is that how the western media ,and some sections of Indian media too,  keep on misreading Iran. They were wrong in 1979 when they were expecting the public to support the reformist Shah and not the theocratic venom spitting Ayatollah’s. They are wrong today also.