Commentaries, foreign policy, Great Power Dynamics, international affairs, Strategic Studies, USA and Canada, Writing

The unravelling of Pax Americana

The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.

Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.

The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.

It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.

Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.

For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.

As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.

One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.

What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.

This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.

First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.

Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.

Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.

Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.

Columns/Op-Eds, Politics / Globalisation, Uncategorized

No solace in this quantum of accountability

samir abhi

The original article can be found here



On February 11, the Supreme Court issued notice to the government, seeking its response on making intelligence agencies accountable to Parliament. This question is pertinent and in some ways captures the sentiments expressed by many and best vocalised by two leaders in recent times. Vice-President Hamid Ansari had said in his 2010 speech on this subject “….responsibility to the legislature, and eventually to the electorate, is an essential element of democratic governance to which we are committed by the Constitution.” Thereafter, the Private Members Bill introduced by Manish Tiwari (now Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting), The Intelligence Services (Powers & Regulation) Bill 2011, sought to empower intelligence agencies through a legally mandated charter that included well-thought-out elements of supervision and oversight.

Mr. Tiwari’s effort was supported by a research initiative at the Observer Research Foundation over a period of about two years. Views of and feedback from over 150 experts, politicians, social scientists, mediapersons and security professionals were solicited. The resulting analysis questioned obsolete notions of national security liberally deployed by the security community to protect turfs, prevent change and indeed to defend the indefensible. In this context, four core issues stood out and need early resolution even as the court is appraised of this matter.


Regulatory framework

In modern democracies, intelligence agencies are legally created by and operate under a charter drawn up by the legislature. India’s agencies however bear a chilling resemblance to Haiti’s Tonton Macoute, a voodoo police named after a phantom bogeyman having no charter, rules or limits. In effect it is an extra-constitutional body, prey to individuals and politics and, like such institutions, is totally unaccountable. Setting a charter improves efficiency, focussing resources and minds on what needs to be done. It directs operations on the basis of policy, not individual whim. For example if folklore has it right, if RAW had a charter, it would have legally pre-empted a former Prime Minister’s order to abandon operations in Pakistan. It cost India 30 years worth of accumulated ground assets and priceless reach.

Intelligence ombudsman

Intelligence agencies such as Mossad, CIA and MI6 have reformed their structures to include operation and financial audits which have improved their efficiency. These agencies, prior to reforms, had a history of personal and political abuse. Institutions are based on trust, but there is no incompatibility between trust and verification. The taxpayer needs to know from a competent authority that his rupee is not being misused on ballerinas, champagne and settling personal scores. The state has a responsibility to verify and audit. The reports that these agencies are used to spy on political opponents, blackmail them and purchase parliamentary votes are too regular and too consistent to be ignored. “Watergate” was the most visible example of such abuse. Closer home, leaked telephone conversations (recorded dubiously) and allegations of keeping a tab on political opponents tell us that “Trust me” is simply not an argument — unless the government can prove that these agencies are staffed by people with a special mitochondrial DNA that makes them free of incompetence, inefficiency and corruption. As all details obviously cannot be divulged, an independent intelligence ombudsman with the highest level of security clearance is the optimal answer.

Collective responsibility

A National Intelligence and Security Oversight Committee will address the issue of control. Democracy is about deferring to the wisdom of the many. In our system, the Prime Minister is primus inter pares; all governmental decisions are passed by cabinet committees. The Prime Minister therefore, must not have permanent and exclusive control over such agencies. Far from making the process of intelligence collection tedious, collective control leads to better absorption of intelligence and enables the system to efficiently analyse the same. Interdisciplinary inputs would allow holistic analysis insulating the Prime Minister from tainted or bad intelligence. Inconsistencies may be better detected resulting in moderation and course-correction. Optimally, such a collective must include parliamentary opposition to ensure national consensus and continuity. A recent example of abuse is the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was because powerful individuals hijacked the intelligence apparatuses of the United States and the United Kingdom that intelligence was allowed to be concocted to build a bogus case for war.

Protecting the protectors

There is a case for a National Intelligence Tribunal that protects the public at large but also those serving within such institutions. Extra-constitutional institutions are usually rife with turf wars: a person trapped within such a phantom has no way to protect himself against individual caprices with no system of grievance redressal. Becoming a breeding ground for cronyism and negating merit has an enormous negative impact on professionalism and morale. After all in such a dangerous line of work, personal enmity can translate into a death sentence. A special tribunal will protect both the interests of intelligence employees as well as shield the general public from their excesses.

Deploying the “National security” argument against reform is a fig leaf for defending cronyism, incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption. A proper regulatory mechanism can only strengthen national security, not weaken it. It is time to bring in facts and lessons from global best practices to this debate as it unfolds in the highest court of the land.

(Samir Saran is vice-president and Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is programme coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation.)


Books / Papers, Water / Climate

ORF Report “Re-imagining the Indus”

Please find here the link to our comprehensive report on the “Indus”, the associated treaty, the emergent rhetoric and the reality of people whose lives are inseparable from the river and their traditional and contemporary water management practices.

It is perhaps the most comprehensive effort that captures essential narratives and historical evidence from both sides of the border, that is unable to divide the organic and indivisible river basin.

Co-produced with the LUMS, Lahore with the support of the DFID, this research led by ORF scholar Lydia Powell is certain to offer a pragmatic insight on the debate and the way ahead for the two countries and more importantly for the one people of the river Indus.

I had the pleasure of writing one section of this report.

Books / Papers, Water / Climate

Re-imagining the Indus: Mapping Media Reportage in India and Pakistan

Published 2012, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Water shortage has become a subject of intense public debate in the present political narrative on resource management and riparian rights. In an attempt to discern the divergence on core issues and mainstream media reporting, Re-imagining the Indus is a methodological study based on Media Content Analysis of the reporting on water issues related to the Indus, in the leading dailies of both India and Pakistan. This monograph seeks to capture the existing discourse and stimulate policy dialogue on the subject.

In Detail
What is the general discourse on water scarcity and related crises in the Indian and Pakistani media? The study conducted by Samir Saran (ORF) and Hans Rasmussen Theting, scrutinised the media coverage on water on three specific themes – the political discourse, water governance and people, practice and environment.

Titled ‘Reimagining the INDUS: Mapping media reportage in India and Pakistan’, the study found that the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) does not dominate the reportage in Pakistan, indicating a low level of discontentment or critique.

It also found that it is only in the months of winter, when the water flow is low, that inter-country dispute between India and Pakistan, and significant negative sentiment against India, gets attention in Pakistan. But in the Indian media, Pakistan only appears during spring months.

The study, now published in the form of a book, found that agricultural concerns and inter-provincial disputes dominate media reportage in Pakistan while in India media lays greater emphasis on urban water concerns and interventions, including ground water and domestic consumption.

The study also showed that media reports in both the countries, Pakistan more than India, recognise the need for the two countries to cooperate on water issues. From the study, it was also clear that in both India and Pakistan, there is equal emphasis on the aspects of water governance and infrastructure.


Water shortage has become a subject of intense public debate in the present political narrative on resource management and riparian rights. In an attempt to discern the divergence on core issues and mainstream media reporting, Re-imagining the Indus is a methodological study based on Media Content Analysis of the reporting on water issues related to the Indus, in the leading dailies of both India and Pakistan. This monograph seeks to capture the existing discourse and stimulate policy dialogue on the subject.

Read here –

Books, Media, Research, Writing

Re-imagining the Indus: Mapping Media Reportage in India and Pakistan

In the News, Non-Traditional Security

‘Pakistans Defence’ on ORF’s Radical Islam report

by Vladimir Radyuhin
October 2010
Link to original website

The West is using radical Islam as a tool in geopolitical games for dominance, Indian and Russian scholars have said in a unique collaborative project presented in Moscow this week. The project, “Radical Islam”, a 480-page collection of papers prepared by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi, and the Experimental Creative Centre (ECC), Moscow, was unveiled at a press conference in Moscow.

Edited by Sergei Kurginyan, ECC president, and Vikram Sood, vice-president, ORF, Centre for International Studies, it offers a fresh perspective on radicalisation of Islam, placing it in a wider geopolitical and philosophical framework. It examines the roots, the contexts and manifestations of radicalism in Islam, as well as activities of Islamists in South Asia, Central Asia, Iran, the Middle East, Europe and the former Soviet Union. Presenting their joint study, Indian and Russian scholars noted the West’s role in playing the card of radical Islam.

‘A factor since Partition’

“The West has been using religion and religious violence to promote separatism since the partition of India,” said Ambassador M. Rasgotra, President, ORF, Centre for International Relations. “The British were the first to do it in India, then the Americans learnt the trick. They incited jihad in Afghanistan, stirred separatism to break-up the Soviet Union and tried to tear Chechnya from post-Soviet Russia.” Dr. Kurginyan said that Russia still faced the danger of the West trying to re-enact the “Afghan scenario,” when radical Islam was used to provoke instability. He recalled that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had cultivated and financed Islamic radicals in Afghanistan to drag the Soviet Union militarily into civil strife in that country in 1979.

One of the Russian contributions in the book analyses the U.S.’ “deepening alliance with Islamism” along the vast southern “arc of instability” stretching from Northern Africa to the Chinese border. This strategy included the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the arming of the Afghan Mujahideen, the support of Muslim radicals in former Yugoslavia, cultivation of “moderate” Islamists in the Middle East, and finally, “the new alliance with Pakistan” to reintegrate the Taliban into the political mainstream in Afghanistan. The scholars noted the special importance of the Indian and Russian perspectives on Islam as it differed greatly from the Western perspective. “The West tends to look at Islam in black-and-white, while Indian and Russian researchers look at it in [a] multiplicity of identities, discourses and ideas,” Mr. Sanjoy Joshi, ORF said.

“Islam has been [a] part of life both in India and Russia for centuries, whereas the West in those same centuries was the oppressor of Islam,” Mr. Rasgotra said, adding that India and Russia had much to gain from sharing their experiences in handling the problem of radical Islam. “The nature of the problem is the same, even as its manifestations may be different. Your experience is relevant to us and our experience is relevant to you,” he stressed.

Dr. Kurginyan hailed the project on as a “revival of scholarly cooperation” between the two countries. “I’ve never seen such a meeting of minds between researchers from different countries as in this Indo-Russian project.”

“Radical Islam” has been brought out in Russian and its English edition is to be published in India. The editors said the ORF and ECC, planned to undertake further studies of Islam and other issues of mutual interest.

Columns/Op-Eds, Non-Traditional Security, Politics / Globalisation

Column in The Economic Times: When the US dismembered Pakistan, 2009

by Samir Saran
February 27,2009
in: The Economic Times

The formal capitulation of the Pakistani government to the Taliban and the ‘liberation’ of the Swat valley evoked divided responses from within the region and outside. While voices emanating from India are concerned with this dangerous development, the US foreign policy team has predictably hedged its position and has begun testing the ‘Good Taliban-Bad Taliban’ dictum. The division of Pakistan has unfortunately legitimised the rule and role of two institutions in the politics of Pakistan; its religious extremists and its army and can be seen as a consequence of the US engagement with Pakistan post 9/11. To understand this situation and the initial US response, we must deconstruct the ‘war on terror’ policy of the US and analyse one of its key components: the engagement of the US with its ally Gen Pervez Musharraf. This engagement was political as it had the effect of demoralising the democratic presence in Pakistan.

It was also sociological as it redefined the western understanding of Pakistan and altered the space and voice available to the moderates and liberals. This engagement was articulated by the ‘Us vs Them’ foreign policy of the US, a description of the age-old identity discourse between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. The description of the Muslim as the ‘other’ by the west (‘self’) is an area of historical interest. Much of the discussion establishes the act of describing the Muslims, as a means by which the west (and its media) seeks to define, assimilate and control them and is a result of the urge to create the identity of the ‘other’ through its own interpretative prisms.

This process not only fails to comprehend the ‘other’ in their entirety but diminishes their significance in any engagement. This practice is a political tool that has been consistently deployed in the past. The ‘secular wars’ or colonising endeavours of the western world were represented as a ‘solemn duty’, and as a British parliamentarian of yore put it, as a burden of the white man to civilise the east. The boundaries of this orientalist discussion, post 9/11 have been redefined and comprise of two dominant narratives, that of ‘Islamophobia’ on the one hand and the ‘war on terror’ on the other. Islamophobia arises from a lack of understanding and tolerance of the ‘other’. The ‘war on terror’ rhetoric of the US extends the understanding of the ‘other’ to that of ‘evil’ and justifies violence and war as the preferred means of engagement.

In its effort to punish the ‘evildoers’ (al Qaida), the US needed to depend on a Muslim ‘other’. The Pakistan army and Musharraf became its key ally. Their complicity in supporting global terror networks and the fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan were well known. However, strategic compulsions made it necessary to have them on board. The co-option of a Muslim and a dictator – an ‘other’ twice over – was an interesting challenge for the Bush administration. While it required the administration to discount the evil that Musharraf represented, something it has consistently done in its engagement with Muslim despots and royalty, it had to more importantly sell this unholy alliance to its own people, who were reeling under the ferocity of the 9/11 attacks.

Ironically, it was the military credentials of Musharraf that helped the US to achieve this. It was perhaps the only institution in the Islamic state that could be understood by the west from within the “irrational religiosity” the country was imagined to be. The development of the ‘western’ identity for Musharraf involved constructing him as a ‘moderate Muslim’ who shared the aspirations and virtues of the west (‘self’) and thereafter, justifying support for his dictatorial credentials. Co-option was achieved by projecting desirable qualities readily understood as virtues by the US citizens as attributes of Musharraf. Articles in newspapers across the political spectrum constructed the identity of Musharraf as a moderate, secular and progressive leader with zero tolerance for terrorism. Images of Musharraf lovingly playing with his pet dog struck a chord with western audiences.

Alongside this aggrandisement of the dictator, Pakistan, its civil society, their social and religious practices were subject to reductive portrayal by the western media. The description of the political and religious elements of Pakistan society was constructed around terms like corrupt, weak, fanatics, violent and backward. Their protests were irrational and did not deserve considered response. Many times anti-US demonstrations in Pakistan were presented as expressions of religious extremism and barbarism that pervaded the Pakistani society and what the good General was fighting against. The army rule was thus projected as an important component of Pakistan’s stability and Musharraf as the saviour leading his people towards modernity and peace.

By doing so, a dictator with strong extreme Islamist credentials – the stereotypical ‘other’ – was now imagined as the western ‘self’ while his countrymen, including the moderate and liberal citizens, were reduced to an irrationality whose voices and rights could be ignored. This denial of space and voice to the democratic forces allowed the spectacular rise of the Taliban, who now claim to speak for the ‘other’ who do not wear the uniform.