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4 March 2017 Editorial

 

4 MARCH 2017

Crossing a bridge

Even in the fraught and volatile framework of India- Pakistan ties, the Permanent Indus Commission mandated to implement the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has met like clockwork, 112 times in 56 years, annually in each country. The commission has experts who look into issues and disputes on the ground over the utilisation of the waters of six rivers of the Indus system. Under the treaty, India has full use of the three “eastern” rivers (Beas, Ravi, Sutlej), while Pakistan has control over the three “western” rivers (Indus, Chenab, Jhelum), although India is given rights to use these partially as well for certain purposes. As a result, there should be little to comment in the normal course when India accepts Pakistan’s invitation to the next round of talks, as it has for the Permanent Indus Commission in Lahore later this month. The move is welcome, as it denotes India’s commitment to the treaty that has stood the test of time and war, and also displays New Delhi’s sincerity on the issue of water sharing, given that the IWT is seen to be a model in dispute management. In September last year, doubts had been raised over India’s commitment after the terrorist attack on an army camp in Uri, killing 19 soldiers. In the days that followed, senior officials announced the suspension of talks until there was an “atmosphere free of terror” after Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a review meeting on the treaty to consider retaliatory measures against Pakistan for the attack, saying, “blood and water cannot go together”. Mr. Modi repeated some of those angry sentiments at public rallies where he said India would not allow even a “drop of water” to go waste into Pakistan. The atmosphere was also charged after the government announced “surgical strikes” had been carried out along the Line of Control and subsequently pulled out from the SAARC summit in Pakistan, leading to fears of a freeze in bilateral ties.

In the event, the government has chosen wisely, with some encouragement from the World Bank and persistence by Pakistan, to step back from much of that rhetoric, and allow IWT commissioners from both countries to meet. The decision follows several other moves between India and Pakistan in the past few weeks indicating a softening of positions on some other issues as well: from a marked reduction in LoC firing, the regular annual exchange of nuclear lists, the release of prisoners by both countries, and India being part of the consensus to elect the Pakistani nominee as the SAARC Secretary- General this week. It would be premature to expect that any of these events, some of which are routine, consolidate a thaw in relations between the two countries. However, they reaffirm the high stakes that are woven into India-Pakistan relations, and the need to keep certain issues such as water-sharing above the politics of the moment.

 

 

Moscow’s shadow

Less than three weeks after the resignation of Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, over failure to disclose contact with Russian officials, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is now staring down the barrel of similar allegations, intensifying a storm that the White House was already struggling to cope with. This week Mr. Sessions faced three distinct, serious questions regarding his conduct in this context. First, did he have an undisclosed meeting with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in September? Second, if he did make such contact with Russian officials, was there not a conflict of interest in the Attorney General overseeing an investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the November 8 presidential elections? Third, did he then perjure himself during his confirmation hearing in the Senate when he appeared to fudge a direct question about contact with Russian officials? The first and second questions have already been answered — investigations by the Washington Post revealed that Mr. Sessions and two senior aides met with Mr. Kislyak in his Senate office on September 8, about a month before the Obama administration accused the Russian government of interfering with the U.S. election process and three months before it ejected 35 Russians diplomats from their U.S. posts and slapped sanctions on Moscow.

Under immense pressure from Democrats on Capitol Hill, on 2 March 2017 Mr. Sessions recused himself from the inquiry into alleged Russian meddling in the election. They must now wait for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice, which Mr. Sessions heads, to get details on the nature of contact that Russian officials had with Mr. Sessions, Mr. Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, White House adviser Jared Kushner. The law enforcement machinery must then determine whether U.S. national security was in any way compromised by those interactions. The third question regarding whether Mr. Sessions lied under oath to Congress about his meetings, a potential felony under U.S. law, may make his continuance in office uncertain. The combined weight of the conversations that he and other Trump team members had with those officials makes Moscow’s fingerprint on American politics hard to ignore. This saga leaves a heavy question hanging over the sovereignty of U.S. foreign policy in the days ahead. President Trump, who’s come to office on an “America First” battle cry, will struggle yet more to counter the allegations of Kremlin’s hand covertly influencing policy. The denouement matters immensely to the outcomes in Syria, the future of the embattled European Union, and across an increasingly multipolar world.

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