Place of Osama bin Laden killing vindicates India

By Dev Nadkarni

The West’s relief at the one news headline that eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was palpable: as leaders expressed jubilation at President Barack Obama’s successful Operation Geronimo, people spontaneously broke into late night celebrations at Ground Zero in New York and outside the White House in Washington DC. The one, single news headline that had eluded the world for more than a decade after 9/11 was finally flashing across the globe.

Indian leaders, however, were less celebratory in their tone about the elimination of bin Laden per se. For them for them it was all about location, location, location – they were more concerned with making the point about where the action had taken place.

Ever since the West’s so called war against terror began in the months after 9/11, India has been at pains to impress upon the United States and the coalition that it has been continually barking up the wrong tree, for nearly a decade, in its efforts to flush out bin Laden and his command centre in Afghanistan.

The crucible and epicenter of terrorism has all along been in Pakistan, it contended, in report after report to US intelligence all along these years – now borne out by Wikileaks revelations. As recently as 2007, Indian intelligence agencies had twice alerted their US counterparts that bin Laden was in the vicinity of Islamabad. Whether that advice went unheeded for tactical reasons or was simply ignored will become clearer in the coming weeks and months, but the fact remains that India knew.

The US instead, for its own perceived strategic reasons named Pakistan a key ally in its war, showered it with billions of dollars of funds and military infrastructure and continued to rely on it for bases to raid supposed hideouts in Afghanistan, while – as it turns out now – the prized quarry was very much in Pakistan and in all probability under the protection of a section of its own intelligence agency.

Indian Minister of Finance Palaniappan Chidambaram said that the fact that the killing took place in Pakistan proved once again that terror networks continue to find sanctuary in Pakistan. Like India, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during his press conference in Kabul, said he felt vindicated that the scene of the killing – at bin Laden’s base – was in Pakistan and not Afghanistan, a fact that he has been crying hoarse for some time.

It is inconceivable that nobody in Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s base in Abbotabad, not too far from the national capital of Islamabad. The compound in which the villa was situated was just a kilometre away from the country’s top military academy in what is recognized as a garrison town swarming with armed forces personnel.

The US authorities have said they knew about the compound since August last year and they surmised that bin Laden had lived at the address for as long as six or seven years. Yet, the Pakistanis would have the world believe that they knew nothing of the occupants of the villa, even though an important al Qaeda operative was apprehended there shortly after the villa was built about eight years ago.

It is impossible to believe that an intelligence set up that masterminded and remotely directed a sophisticated attack like the simultaneous multi-locational Mumbai shoot outs that killed more than 170 people did not know about the world’s most wanted man living under their very nose.

That US intelligence has lost its trust in Pakistani intelligence as an ally is obvious from the fact that Pakistan seems to have known nothing of the top-secret operation and that the main base for the operation itself was across the border in Afghanistan – not in Pakistan.

US leaders have already begun to question the “value” the country and the war against terror are getting out of its annual US$1.5 billion aid to Pakistan and continuing to count it as a “key” ally in the war. The continuation of funding will undoubtedly be questioned in the wake of revelations that have shocked Americans but have not even surprised most Indians.

Even though the toothless Pakistani administration and its law-unto-itself intelligence service has been caught with its pants down and doesn’t know where to look, the US needs to exercise great caution in making course corrections in its Pakistan policy.

The weak Pakistan government continues to exist only because it is propped up by various vested interests, not least of them the US itself, which has seen stability in Pakistan as key to its continuing fight against terrorism in the region. The semblance of political stability in Pakistan is still important – in fact even more than before.

Bin Laden’s six or seven year sanctuary and ultimately his end on Pakistani soil is symbolic of how his ideology and infrastructure has sympathisers in that country. It also confirms long held suspicions that powerful quarters within Pakistan – not least its highly secretive intelligence service – have shielded bin Laden and helped perpetuate the inspiration his ideology provides to the ever growing hordes of young adherents around the region and beyond.

There will be much finger pointing toward Pakistan, which, despite al Qaeda’s highly dispersed and decentralized leadership pattern will continue to remain an inspirational focal point for organisations that draw strength from his ideology – a sort of a spiritual centre because that’s where he lived and breathed his last.

The US has acted decisively to counter that at the very outset by removing his dead body from the site and claiming to bury it at sea before there could be any questions raised or opinions expressed from any quarters of what was to be done with his remains. To bury the body at sea was indeed an astute political decision.

But in the aftermath of the killing, the US will have to be careful with what it does in Pakistan. Any aggressive action to bring bin Laden’s Pakistani protectors and benefactors to book runs the risk of destabilising the present Pakistani government and bringing militant groups closer to the levers of power.

Such an eventuality will undoubtedly take the war on terror to its eastern most and riskiest front: nuclear armed South Asia. According to media reports fears have already begun to be expressed in Pakistani intelligence circles that the US will now step up its vigilance on Pakistan’s nuclear command centres, now that its faith in Pakistan’s intelligence partnership has been breached.

The US’s worst fear, as is India’s, is Pakistan’s nuclear apparatus falling into militant hands with the complicity of a section of sympathisers among the authorities – not at all an impossibility, going by what was revealed by Operation Geronimo.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, May 2011

When the sun powers you around the world

By Dev Nadkarni

A futuristic, streamlined piece of kit clad in arrays of thousands of deep blue photovoltaic cells is traversing the southern Pacific Ocean this month, on its way to becoming the first ever solar powered vessel to circumnavigate the globe.

Beginning its journey in Monaco on September 27 last year, the Planet Solar Turanor has crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the Panama Canal and half of the Pacific Ocean so far in just over 200 days, calling at ports all along its route that tends to stay as close to the equator as possible. Over the next few weeks, it will make stops in New Caledonia and Brisbane before continuing on its final leg back to Europe.

“It all began as an idea. We knew the technologies for such undertaking such a mission existed. It was a question of putting it all together and making it work,” says Raphael Domjan, the Planet Solar project’s Swiss initiator and the vessel’s co-skipper, speaking to Indian Weekender in the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa recently.

Germany based Swedish renewable energy technologies entrepreneur Immo Stroher bought the idea because he believes “it is possible to achieve commercially realistic earnings over the long term with advanced technologies.” The US$ 22 million Turanor was built in Kiel in Germany from solar technology components and propulsion equipment sourced from all over Europe. “Some of the parts came from all over the world,” Mr Domjan said.

The co-skipper and some of his crew were taking a breather in Tonga last week while the Turanor was undergoing unexpected maintenance work in Bora Bora in French Polynesia. “It’s nothing to do with the solar system,” Mr Domjan assured. “There was an issue with the pitch control of one of the two propellers. A totally mechanical issue, which needed to be tuned to gain better energy efficiencies.”
This was the first time the vessel had hit a hitch after its incident free voyage half way across the globe.

The Swiss-flagged 31-metre wave-piercer twin-hulled carbon fibre catamaran derives its name from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which means “power of the sun”. The vessel isn’t calling on the shores of the country where the famous films were made but the Turanor’s design originated in New Zealand. LOMOcean Design – which also designed the Earthrace/Ady Gil – designed the vessel’s naval architecture, styling and structural engineering.

At an efficiency rate of 22%, the solar cells that power the Turanor’s twin motor propulsion system are the highest rated photovoltaic cells available for purchase in the open market. Some 36,000 of these are spread over a surface area of more than 500 square metres of the vessel.

Under ideal conditions, the Turanor coasts along at 14 knots. “But that is the maximum speed. We have to often run at lower speeds depending on the conditions as well as the intensity of sunlight available,” Mr Domjan said.

With the array of lithium ion batteries on board, the Turanor can sail for up to five nights without direct sunlight. “This period can be stretched if we drop the cruising speed. For example sailing at 5 knots will keep us going for 10 days,” Mr Domjan added.

Purpose built weather and tidal forecasting software that works in tandem with the vessel’s geo-positioning and navigation systems helps predict the intensity of sunshine over the next several days. This helps make course corrections in the route dynamically to achieve the highest degree of energy efficiency, Mr Domjan said.

The boat has stirred great interest wherever it has stopped to showcase its state of art propulsion and navigational technology. “There is a great deal of interest. But this is very much a learning experience,” Mr Domjan said. “So much data is being continuously collected that when we finish the mission and analyse it, we will be able to decide on a future mission and how it needs to be improved over this one.”

As well as governments, there have been inquiries from private individuals in Europe and the United States wishing to add a solar powered yacht to their fleet. “But if it works well, and we can think in terms of a production model, it will benefit people of remote tropical islands the most,” Mr Domjan said.
‘Aka’oula, who heads the Tongan government’s energy sector reform programme agreed. “Spiraling costs of oil are rapidly driving up inter-island transport costs. Any alternative technology that will mitigate the situation is welcome,” he says.

The Tongan government hosted an alternative energy expo in Nuku’alofa to coincide with Turanor’s arrival to focus the Pacific Island Forum members’ attention on alternative energy.

Pacific Island governments were keen on watching the progress of Planet Solar and Turanor’s progress toward developing a production model that would be well suited to their local and regional transportation needs.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, May 2011

Bringing private sector pragmatism in government

By Dev Nadkarni

A few weeks ago an interesting advertisement for employment appeared in the mainstream New Zealand media. The advertiser was the New Zealand Government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the advertisement was for the position of High Commissioner in the Micronesian Pacific Island state of Kiribati.

It is certainly not common for a position of a High Commissioner – perceived in most quarters as a sensitive Government position – to be thrown open for contest among the general public. Such positions are usually the exclusive preserve of a bunch of Government bureaucrats, who have long served in foreign affairs positions.

The reward for such long service is usually the top diplomatic position in a foreign nation, with all the high remuneration, the perquisites and the myriad trappings that come with it. So it certainly is out of character for any Government to open up such a position for contest among the general public.

At first, the impression was that this has been done – particularly in the case of Kiribati – as a last resort, on not finding an official within the system to take charge of this remote, Pacific outpost. One couldn’t find fault with ambitious officials perceiving a posting in isolated Kiribati as not challenging and relatively devoid of the excitement that would come with a posting in Singapore, Paris or Beijing.

But that does not appear to be the case and the idea of throwing open diplomatic positions outside the career diplomatic fraternity seems to be in line with a new line of thought in the ministry. In a speech delivered at the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs last month, Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully elaborated on this new thinking.

His rationale for fresh thinking in the way New Zealand conducts its international affairs is a sea change from the decades old status quo that has only succeeded in bloating both staff numbers and expenses while achieving little incrementally through its diplomatic missions around the world.

In other words, the size and cost of the operation is not only difficult to justify in the midst of present realities, but the present dispensation is also clearly ill equipped to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing global environment.

McCully has recognised that New Zealand now plays in a vastly different world with new emerging economic powers appearing on the horizon. Over the next few years, New Zealand’s government will have no choice but to function in greatly constrained financial circumstances while hoping to step up achievements in geo-political and trade alignments.

The rationalisation of the foreign affairs ministry that he suggests is not the quintessential slash and burn action that politicians resort to in tough financial times but appear to have been the result of considered thought. He suggests taking ideas out of private sector best practice for optimising establishment and operating costs, infrastructure and for recalibrating achievement yardsticks.

The ideas he suggests are all about pragmatism and practicality to effectively meet the challenges of existent financial realities and emerging political ones in the international arena that will have a bearing on the manner in which New Zealand trades in future and who it will trade with.

New Zealand’s long felt comfort of western world alignments are changing because of a number of reasons and new countries emerging out of Asia, Africa and South America present as much of an unknown quantity as an opportunity.

Mr McCully raises the idea of more private participation in New Zealand’s missions abroad and asks why New Zealand expertise spread across the globe should not be harnessed to gain competitive advantages for Kiwi products and services to give the existing diplomatic system a sharper, more business and trade oriented edge.

Some of his suggestions are the stuff that could quite easily tick off entrenched bureaucratic thinking. In that sense, McCully has taken a huge political risk – for as the old adage goes, politicians come and go but bureaucrats go on forever. It needs to be seen in the right perspective, through the prism of pragmatism, not the rose tinted glasses of political populism and keeping bureaucracy happy.

The tone of his suggestions reflects the tough financial times the Government is facing after the triple whammy of the global financial crisis followed by the two Christchurch earthquakes and the Pike River mine disaster. It presages what the Government will be all but forced to do in the budget to be announced on the 20th of this month.

Study reports have already begun to make the rounds that hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved every year by rationalising government ministries, departments and their operations.

At the heart of all this is the concept that is now the flavour of the season almost all over the world: reduce the size of Government, rationlise operations, cut out duplication, share resources and cut costs where possible.

To avoid a decline in service standards because of such moves, the New Zealand minister’s ideas to bring in result oriented, private sector style best practice processes and achievement scales and standards makes supreme sense and is certainly worth a try, even if it rubs entrenched bureaucracy on the wrong side.

It is good to note that according to a new ADB study published in March this year, some Pacific Island Governments are beginning to make some efforts on taking on board such concepts of private sector operations as suggested by the New Zealand minister on board. The best performing state owned enterprises (SOEs) in the region are the ones that operate under competitive market pressures and work with private sector disciplines, the study says.

But the Asian Development Bank study points out that a lot needs to be achieved by the governments in the Pacific Islands in getting their SOEs – enterprises that receive budgetary support from the government such as electricity and other utilities companies – in line with private sector best practice.

The ADB study points out to some examples in Tonga and Samoa in the electricity and telecommunication sectors. But most importantly, the willingness of several island Governments to participate in the study shows their intent toward greater privatisation, which indeed is an encouraging sign for the growth of the Pacific Islands business and industry sector.

Though many of the McCully’s suggestions would sound radical, even heretical, to entrenched bureaucratic thinking, it will be difficult to argue against its need of the hour practicality and its forward looking pragmatism – something Pacific Island Governments would do well to take on board both in their internal operations and their foreign postings around the world. It is important to gain more bang for that huge bit precious foreign exchange outlays for those operations.

First appeared in Islands Business, May 2011