Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rannie Amiri: Understanding Lebanon's June Elections

Understanding Lebanon's June Elections
By Rannie Amiri, Counter Punch, May 1-3, 2009

“ … it is in the interest of Lebanon and its stability that there is understanding and partnership among Lebanese in running their country's affairs.”

– Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, on Lebanon’s upcoming parliamentary elections

“We will not take part in the government if the [Hezbollah-led] March 8 Alliance wins the elections ... ”

– Parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri

In the Middle East, there are “elections” and there are elections. The majority, when they do occur, invariably fall under the first category. There are a few however, that fall under the second – transparent, legitimate, meaningful contests that have both domestic and regional implications.

One of the most notable took place in January 2006 when Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary polls, giving them the majority in the Palestine National Council and the ability to form a government. Monitored by the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter called them “open, honest, and fair contests.” The reaction they engendered in the U.S., Israel and Egypt – and the subsequent punishment meted out on the electorate – needs little elaboration.

This June, two Middle East countries will be holding elections of consequence a mere five days apart; Lebanon on June 7 and Iran on June 12.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s faceoff against reformist candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi was recently discussed.

Due to the Lebanon’s complex, sectarian-based political framework, understanding the mechanics and dynamics behind its upcoming parliamentary vote is more complicated.

March 8 vs. March 14

In Lebanon today there are two main political coalitions, dubbed March 8 and March 14.

The March 8 Alliance is named after the date of a massive 2005 Beirut rally organized by Hezbollah that expressed opposition to its disarmament, support for Syria, and resistance to Israel. The coalition is primarily comprised of Hezbollah, Nabih Berri’s Amal party, and the secular Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun. Unlike Nasrallah and Berri who are Shia Muslims, Aoun is a Maronite Christian and thus draws support from this and other Christian constituencies.

The March 14 Alliance is also named after the date of a huge 2005 Beirut demonstration, but one decidedly anti-Syrian. It occurred exactly one month after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and heralded the beginning of the “Cedar Revolution.” This ultimately led to the withdrawal of all Syrian troops from Lebanon after 29 years. March 14 is the current Western-backed, ruling coalition and is principally comprised of Sunni, Druze, and Christian parties. It is led Saad Hariri, billionaire son of Rafiq, and his Future Movement forms its largest bloc.

The tension and mutual recriminations between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions dramatically increased after the July 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. This led to an 18-month political standoff whereby the country was left without a president and fears of a return to civil war were reignited.

The longstanding stalemate was finally resolved when representative of both sides met in Qatar in May 2008 and the Doha Accord was reached. In the Accord, the March 8 Alliance’s demand of having veto-power over cabinet decisions was granted. Once this and other obstacles were overcome, consensus nominee Michel Suleiman was quickly elected president.

Parliamentary Arithmetic

Next, it is important to appreciate how Lebanon’s parliament is structured.

The Chamber of Deputies, or National Assembly, is made up of 128 seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims. The seats are further subdivided among the nation’s 18 recognized religious sects (Maronite Christians are allotted 34, Orthodox 14, Sunni 27, Shia 27, etc.). It should be stressed that this apportionment is not based on any recent demographic information; Lebanon’s last census was conducted in 1932 and has not been repeated since.

In the National Assembly, the March 14 Alliance holds 70 seats and March 8, 58.

Considering that most all Shia and Sunni candidates belong to March 8 and March 14 respectively, seats held by these two sects are unlikely to change hands and tip the balance either way.

Instead, the deciding factor in the legislative poll will likely be how the Christian vote splits; to Aoun’s FPM or to Christian parties affiliated with March 14. This similarly holds true for the Druze vote which also has parties in both coalitions, but to a lesser extent.

Analysts believe there will be only about 30 truly contested seats, and March 8 need only win an additional seven to gain the parliamentary majority.

Generals Released

A development which may help them achieve that goal occurred this week. Four generals detained without charge for nearly four years in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination were unconditionally released under orders of the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The Tribunal judge concluded there was no evidence to justify their continued detention, which was based solely on recanted witness testimony, and said the generals were no longer considered suspects.

“Our detention was politically motivated and was exploited for four years by the majority. We were jailed by a political decision but were freed by a court ruling,” said one upon his release.

Lebanese judiciary officials who first ordered their detention are close allies of Saad Hariri, and he may indeed suffer the political consequences as demands for their resignation start to grow.

Time For Change?

Based on an expected narrow margin of victory, no sect, group, party, or alliance will be able to effectively govern Lebanon in isolation. The clear necessity to reach across political and religious lines makes Lebanon unique among Arab countries and is exactly what Hassan Nasrallah, in the opening quote, indicated. Unfortunately, it appears Hariri does not think likewise should March 14 be unable to claim victory.

The possibility of replacing a pro-U.S. government in Lebanon, step-child of the equally pro-American Egypt-Jordan-Saudi nexus, caused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to show up unannounced in Beirut last weekend. Interfering in an election she called for non-interference in, an implicit threat of aid reduction was made should March 8 emerge victorious. Israel is also planning large-scale military exercises on the Lebanese border the week prior to the vote.

Intimidation and threats notwithstanding, Lebanon’s spring elections may serve as yet another example of the dwindling influence of leaders who have unabashedly sided with the U.S. and their policies in the Middle East; whether they be reflexively anti-Iranian, supportive of Israel’s siege and attack on Gaza, or aim to stifle their citizens’ ability to freely express themselves in the media or at the ballot box.

In the latter circumstance, Lebanon is certainly the exception. And on June 7, it has the ability to divorce itself from the U.S.-Israel-Egypt-Jordan-Saudi axis and send a powerful message to the rest of the Arab world: if little Lebanon can do it, so can you.

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.

Also see, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's speech on May 25, 2009 (with English dubbing) discussing these dynamics.

Interview with a RAWA Activist on Afghanistan

Elsa Rassbach interviews Zoya of the Foreign Committee of RAWA
ZNet, May 24, 2009

In June, 2008, the Afghan activist Zoya of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) testified to the Human Rights Commission of the German Parliament (Bundestag) in an effort to persuade the German government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. At that time Elsa Rassbach, a U.S. citizen living in Germany, interviewed Zoya in Berlin.

In light of the approval last week by the U.S. House of Representatives of tens of billions in further financing for the continued war and occupation in Afghanistan, Zoya and Rassbach believe that this interview may be of interest to U.S. citizens.

"Zoya" is a pseudonym. Despite more than seven years of U.S. and NATO occupation and supposed democracy, the members of RAWA must still use pseudonyms to protect their organization, their families, and their work to liberate the women of Afghanistan. As a member of RAWA's Foreign Committee, Zoya has traveled to many countries, including the U.S. and Spain as well as Germany. She received international acclaim with the 2003 publication her dramatic life story: "Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Battle for Freedom," with John Follain and Rita Cristofari.

What led you to decide to work with RAWA?

I'm from the generation of the war crimes in Afghanistan. I was born in 1979, and that was the year of the Soviet invasion. My generation has never enjoyed democracy, freedom, secularism, or peace in Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of the Soviets and the fall of its puppet regime, the darkest part of our history began when fundamentalists took power in 1992. That was the start of the odious part of our history, which continues until this day. Between 1992 and 1996, 80,000 civilians were killed in Kabul under the domination of the Northern Alliance, due to infighting of fundamentalist groups. They turned Kabul into a graveyard, where you could only see tears, fear, destruction, and blood. Then, when the Taliban came into power, they even raped 70 year-olds and four year-olds. The main reason I joined RAWA was the misery and pain of our people.

The U.S. government has always played with the destiny of our poor people and has supported criminals, terrorists and the worst enemies of our people. During the Cold War, the U.S. created, nurtured, funded, and supported these groups against the Soviets. This spread misery and death in Afghanistan over the past three decades.

I was a war orphan; I lost my parents as the result of the war. I studied in RAWA's school, the Watan ("The Homeland") School, in the refugee camp in Pakistan. They had a school for girls and one for boys. I was there through the 6th grade. I became aware of RAWA through the school. I found RAWA to be the most serious, honest, radical, anti-fundamentalist, democratic organization fighting for justice and women's rights. I found it to give a voice to Afghan women who were even not regarded as human beings by fundamentalist gangs. The suffering, destitution and awful plight of my fellow countrywomen persuaded me to continue to fight against the brutal fundamentalists and for women's rights and democracy.

I began with RAWA at age 14. I am now 28 and a member of the Foreign Committee. I'm in my third year of university, studying law.

What is RAWA?

RAWA was first established in 1977 by Afghan intellectual women, headed by Meena, to fight for equality of men and women and against male chauvinism that was and is being practiced in our society. Most women were illiterate and took literacy courses and then decided to work with RAWA. Poor, uneducated women such as farmers' widows come to RAWA for help. We encourage them to fight for their rights and get political education.

In 1979 RAWA fought against the Russians and to expose the Russian puppet government through demonstrations, leaflets, and strikes. In 1987, RAWA's leader, Meena, was killed by agents of KHAD (Afghanistan branch of KGB) with direct help of the Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Our demonstrations were attacked, even in Pakistan. We had to live in a clandestine way. From 1992 to the present, we have fought any brand of Islamic fundamentalists, who are the main cause of our miseries and problems.

Now RAWA has hundreds of members as well as a large number of supporters, not only in Afghanistan, but all around the world. Being strongly against the fundamentalist warlords, the Taliban and the puppet government of Hamid Karzai, we still can't work publicly in Afghanistan, and we continue to work semi-underground. In Afghanistan, we don't use the name RAWA for orphanages, literacy programs for women, handicraft centers for widows, or health care centers. The Afghan intelligence agency, which is run by warlords, follows us everywhere and creates problems for our members and supporters. Some of our supporters have been imprisoned and tortured for just having copies of our magazine with them.

The U.S. government has never supported democratic organizations like RAWA. Up until now, we have received not a penny from the U.S. or any other government. At the same time, we have the honor of being supported by the peace-loving people of the U.S. and other Western countries. We have received donations of $5 and even $1000 for orphanages, schools and political work. We are proud to rely on the small donations of our supporters and well wishers in Afghanistan and abroad, which have a huge value for us. We have groups of dedicated supporters in many countries that really work hard to raise awareness and funds for RAWA projects.

What is RAWA's position regarding the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan?

In 2001, the U.S. and its allies occupied Afghanistan under the beautiful slogans of "war on terror," "women's rights," "liberation" and "democracy." But when they installed the brutal and criminal warlords after the fall of the Taliban, everyone knew that Afghanistan had once again become a chessboard for world powers. They have their long-term plans in Afghanistan, and the plight of our people, and especially of women, has been misused to legitimize the foreign military presence in our country.

The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to fulfill its geo-political, economic and regional strategic interests and to transform Afghanistan into a strong military base in the region. In the past seven years, these troops have even further complicated the situation of Afghanistan. Not only have they pumped millions of dollars into the pockets of savage warlords but the Taliban and other terrorist groups are more powerful today. They have turned Afghanistan into the opium capital of the world, and one of the reasons for invading Afghanistan was to get hold of this multi-billion-dollar drug business.

Afghan people have been badly betrayed by the U.S. and NATO in the past few years. Despite billions in of aid, Afghan people are living under awful conditions that are worse than they were under the Taliban medieval rule. Afghanistan still faces a women's rights tragedy, and the everyday hardships of our masses are beyond imagination.

The U.S. and NATO have imposed a corrupt mafia, puppet government on the Afghan people, a government which is mostly comprised of warlords and drug lords. And now efforts are underway to share power with the Taliban and Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The U.S. and NATO are killing thousands of our innocent people, while at the same time their operations have no impact on the Taliban, because as they are not really interested in peace and in stability in Afghanistan. The presence of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups is in fact necessary for the U.S. and NATO in order to have a reason for their permanent presence in Afghanistan. Everyone knows that the U.S., a superpower, together with the biggest military pact in the world, NATO, could it is a matter of days, if not hours, defeat the Taliban and arrest Mullah Omer and Osama. But today they need such enemies to justify keeping their military machine in Afghanistan.

But even the foreign soldiers are the victims of the governments that send them to Afghanistan to be killed for nothing but guarding the benefits of multi-national corporations. These governments not only betray Afghans, but also their own citizens. They put in danger their own soldiers and spend taxpayers' money to push the region and the world towards more war and dangers. Here in Germany, I met a U.S. veteran who had been in Afghanistan. I told him that it would be important to the whole world that he tell his story. He cried and said, "Because of you, I'll go and talk." Many former U.S. veterans have shocking stories about on how they witnessed that in the name of "liberation," these troops have been committing war crimes.

The troops should be withdrawn as soon as possible. This is the first step. They should adopt less bloody alternatives. We don't want their so-called liberation and democracy. If these troops do not withdraw, we are sure that the Afghan people will have no other option but to rise up against them. Our people are already deeply fed up with the situation. The jokes being made in Afghanistan are that the Taliban are getting the most from this situation.

Would you not be afraid of a civil war if the U.S. and NATO withdrew from Afghanistan?

RAWA supports the call for the withdrawal of the U.S. and NATO troops because occupation is not a solution. They are constantly killing civilians, even at a wedding party. Do you think we are not human beings and don't have hearts? What would Americans do if an occupier were killing so many civilians in the U.S.?

We have a good history in Afghanistan of throwing out occupiers, and this is a source of pride. But we have lost pride. Over 40 countries have invaded us. People are frustrated, and they think the first step is to get the invaders out. Some may not agree with the Taliban, but some are paid to fight, and often they are starving; others are brainwashed, for example in the religious schools.

If there is a withdrawal, there will probably be a civil war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, but that would not be any worse than what is going on now. When these troops pull out at least we will then no more be an occupied country. It is the duty of Afghan people to get rid of the internal enemies, but today, our internal enemies are backed and supported by the external enemies that are the U.S. and NATO.

The reason the fundamentalists are powerful is because they are always being supported by the U.S., which has given billions of dollars to the Northern Alliance, money that has gone into the pockets of warlords and drug lords. Today people are crying of hunger, selling their children for $5, but where did the billions go?

What solutions would RAWA propose?

The withdrawal of military troops must be accompanied by other actions by governments, if they really want to help us as they claim. They must stop supporting any terrorist groups, including the Northern Alliance that destroyed Afghanistan before the Taliban came. There should also be sanctions on governments that support the Taliban, like Iran and Pakistan. Warlords should be brought to the International Court for crimes against humanity.

If they really have genuine concern for Afghanistan and want peace and stability in the country, the solution would be to support the democratic-minded organizations and individuals in Afghanistan, but in the past few years, much pressure has been put on such groups to give up. Today the democratic organizations are weak because no one helps them. If they received support, they would grow strong. And the democratic forces need to unite and fight against the fundamentalists.

The message of RAWA to freedom-loving people is to support the democratic organizations of Afghanistan. Freedom, democracy and justice cannot be enforced at gunpoint by a foreign country; they are the values that can be achieved only by our people and democracy-loving forces through a hard, decisive and long struggle. Those who claim to donate these values to the Afghan people through force will only push our country into slavery. It is our responsibility to stand up to fundamentalists and occupations.

Countless Missing in Balochistan

Tensions brew in Balochistan as countless missing
By Qurat ul ain Siddiqui, Dawn, May 25, 2009

"The story of the missing in Balochistan runs parallel to the story of Pakistan government’s war against the Taliban militants. While both the Pakistan government and the US administration tried their best to negotiate with the Taliban, before it all broke down, it remains hard to come to grips with the fact that they did not make any serious efforts in bringing the alienated Baloch to political mainstream, which can not be achieved without tracing the missing Baloch and bringing them to the judicial process, if there are any cases against them."

Also see Addressing Baloch Grievances and Where are the Disappeared?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ethno-Nationalist Parties in Sindh React to IDPs Arrival

Editorial: Reaction to IDPs in Sindh
Daily Times, May 25, 2009

Just as the army was engaged in battle with the Taliban inside Mingora in Swat, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) from the region were facing hostile reaction in Sindh. At the call of the MQM, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz and other “nationalist” forces, the province of Sindh experienced a virtual shutdown on Saturday in response. Outside Karachi, the strike was more or less peaceful, except in Hyderabad where there was heavy firing reported from many localities; a coaster and a car were set ablaze in Tandojam, and an agriculture department jeep was torched in Qasimabad. Scores of JSQM activists were arrested in Khairpur, Nawabshah and Mirpurkhas for forcing shopkeepers to close their shops.

In Karachi, the stronghold of the MQM, matters were different. During a near-total shutdown, a woman was killed when the rioters set a bus on fire while she was still inside. Three people were killed despite increased deployment of both police and Rangers, and young men on motorcycles torched at least 15 vehicles in the city, including several buses, two water tankers and a motorcycle. The reaction from the ANP, which defends the rights of the IDPs to take shelter anywhere in Pakistan, is a threat once again to resign from the Sindh cabinet. As usual, Mr Imran Khan has “slammed” the government’s decision to deny the Swat IDPs entry into Sindh even as the Sindh government denies it has banned entry to them.

The PPP federal information minister says the government is simply registering the IDPs before letting them into Sindh, and that takes time at the provincial border posts. The interior minister, Mr Rehman Malik, however, is clearly sticking to a policy of keeping the IDPs from scattering all over Pakistan. He says anyone leaving the NWFP and seeking refuge outside it will not get government aid. But the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, says the IDPs have the right to go anywhere in Pakistan, keeping in mind the Constitution of Pakistan which gives this right to them. Despite this, someone has gone to court in Karachi against anyone opposing the IDPs’ rights in this connection. But the picture is not as black and white as it appears.

Registration of IDPs was shown on TV as it was being done on the Sindh border. It is not an easy process for those who conduct it and for those who are subjected to it. The point made in favour of registration is that government aid will start flowing on this condition. But what if the IDPs say they don’t want any government aid? (This is what some of them actually said.) The other reason, however, is more worrisome, and that is that the government wants to make sure no Taliban terrorists are going in along with them. It is worrisome because one is not sure how the government plans to stop a Taliban onslaught in Karachi by this act of registration. There are already enough Taliban in Karachi to do the job and many of them are caught virtually everyday confessing that they have been “sent” by the Taliban high command to cause havoc in the city.

The reaction from the MQM is well known, but the new “solidarity” with their old foe on the party of the “nationalists” tells us that the fear of another migratory wave in Sindh is being felt despite all the sympathy expressed for the Swat IDPs at the national level. In this situation, the PPP too is likely to be defensive in not wanting to lose Sindhi votes to the nationalists. The riposte from these Sindhi parties is: that they too feel for them but why not settle them in Punjab? We are thus back to the old argument. The refugee will go where he has a community of co-ethnics to look after him. He will go in the direction where there are jobs on offer. And Karachi is a job magnet, not only for Pakistanis, but for the whole of Asia. The biggest irony, however, is that the IDPs are running away from the atrocities of their co-ethnic Taliban; and where they are going there are many co-ethnics who are ready to do the bidding of the Taliban.

But the war we are fighting today must be fought to the end. All the related difficulties can be dealt with, but not the consequences of abandoning it and going back to the status quo ante of gradually yielding ground to terrorism.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Khalilzad Factor

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar says it all in a very polite tone. His sugar-coated tone, however, gets a bit too sweet toward the end of this piece. See the previous post for a few thoughts on the politics of co-opting the Taliban. To add to the list that Bhadrakumar has compiled below, the Zardari-Khalilzad connection may be another of his 'merits' in the eyes of the Obama administration. The credentials and connections also suggest that even without an official position in the Afghan power structure, Khalilzad could still influence politics from behind the scene and might very well remain in the service of the White House.

A Neo-con Yankee in Karzai's court
By M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, May 21, 2009

The neo-conservatives have all but been vanquished. But the Barack Obama administration in the United States is making a solitary exception in the case of Zalmay Khalilzad. He is back on the Washington circuit, repeating an amazing trapeze act which has few parallels in the chronicles of political opportunism.

His life and times have been exciting, on a constant upward graph ever since he migrated from the dusty ancient Silk Road town of Mazar-i-Sharif on the Amu Darya in northern Afghanistan to the United States in search of the American dream.

"Zal" (as he is popularly known) has crossed the American political divide with abandon. Branded as a neo-con who contributed to the New American Century Project under former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld's watch, he was indeed destined to occupy key positions in the US establishment during the George W Bush era, which he did, steadily rising from the position of under secretary in the Pentagon, special envoy to the Iraqi Kurds and Afghans, ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, finally, to cabinet rank as Bush's representative to the United Nations.

Now he is reportedly negotiating his way back to his old hunting ground in Kabul. The New York Times newspaper's ace Washington correspondent has broken the story quoting senior American and Afghan officials that Zal could assume a "powerful, unelected position inside the Afghan government". Such a position, a senior US administration official has been quoted as saying, involves Zal serving as "a prime minister, except not prime minister because he wouldn't be responsible to a parliamentary system".

That's one hell of a cute way of putting a complicated matter in real perspective. Cooper reveals that officials in the Obama administration wouldn't admit they are behind the seamless idea, but apparently Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Af-Pak representative Richard Holbrooke are all seized of it and have been plain decent about it, leaving it to President Hamid Karzai "to decide whether to proceed".

Karzai, apparently, is mulling over what is undeniably a most dicey situation - the Obama administration wants to insert Zal into the Kabul power structure but will not be upfront about it. He must be wondering that it's a bit like what the Chicago mafia would have done to him.

Karzai can make out from a mile that the immaculate conception of Zal's return is all about Obama choreographing a design for bypassing him. Obama has made no bones about his contempt for heads of state living in "bunkers" and refusing to come out. But Obama doesn't want to get rid of Karzai outright for a variety of reasons - because he is unable to do so, because the time is not opportune to do so when the war is almost at a touch-and-go stage, and finally, because Karzai won't easily walk into the sunset.

So, the "smart" thing, which is the hallmark of the Obama administration, is to let Karzai be in his presidential robe, to pamper his vanity while neatly sidestepping him, ignore him gradually and eventually transact all real business of state through Zal. Cooper reports, "A plan that puts Khalilzad near the top of a Karzai government would provide the Obama administration with a strong conduit to push American interests in Afghanistan."

Obama, Clinton and Holbrooke - they must be holding breath and waiting and watching "whether Karzai remains willing to bring Khalilzad aboard". The problem is not only that Zal had a bumpy relationship with Karzai when he served in Kabul as the American viceroy. Times have changed.

The old Karzai is no more the current Karzai. Zal cannot ride roughshod over him and expect him to take it in his stride, as he used to. Today, Karzai truly believes he is the leader of the Afghan people. Therefore, Zal must undergo a veritable metamorphosis himself and evolve into an altogether new butterfly. Karzai would like to be certain that Zal doesn't begin to dictate once he is ensconced in power in Kabul.

Obama, on his part, cannot hold out any assurance to Karzai in this regard, either. It has to be left to Karzai and Zal to work out between then, which they are reportedly doing at the moment in Kabul. Nor can Karzai depend on the Afghan constitution to ensure that Zal will scrupulously function under his supervision.

For, the real catch is that Zal will be an extra-constitutional authority, not accountable to the Afghan constitution or parliament or people or, arguably, even to Karzai himself. Karzai would apprehend that ultimately, Zal is Zal and from the time he hit the ground, he would be sprinting and it would be impossible to match his stamina for outpacing his peer group.

To be sure, Zal will report only to Washington. All the same, Clinton, too, needs to be watchful. To quote Cooper, "While he was working for the Bush administration, Khalilzad often brushed up against other officials, including secretary of state Condoleezza Rice." Now, that's formidable dexterity - to bypass Condi and deal directly with Bush.

The million-dollar question, however, is what the Obama administration is hoping to achieve by inserting Zal into the extraordinary pack of hugely ambitious American high-fliers who are hovering around the Hindu Kush already. As things stand, Holbrooke by himself has a reputation as a "bulldozer".

Then there is the legendary commander with the Roman name, Central Command chief General David Petraeus. At the field level, Petraeus has just put one of his favorites in as the new commander of US forces in Afghanistan so that he has a total grip on what is going on - General Stanley McChrystal. The American media estimate that apart from top-notch soldierly qualities, McChrystal has a knack for maintaining excellent chemistry with politicians.

Taking all factors into account, Karzai cannot be faulted if he draws the right conclusion that the raison d'etre of Zal's insertion into the Kabul power structure is to incrementally eject him out of it. It is all a bit Kafkaesque - the Obama administration expects Karzai to cooperate to commit political suicide.

But Zal's insertion is also about geopolitics. The regional powers will take note the timing of his return to Hindu Kush when the Great Game is accelerating in the Caspian and Central Asia. Zal has it all mapped out in his brain from his Rand Corporation days - oil pipelines, containment of Russia, regime change in Iran.

But Moscow and Tehran won't be the only regional capitals to feel uneasy about the return of the thousand-pound guerilla. Islamabad too will have a vague sense of disquiet. One thing about Zal is that he never tried to hide his contempt and antipathy towards the Pakistanis, when he served in Kabul as ambassador.

Arguably, Zal had a personality problem at that time with president General Pervez Musharraf and that doesn't have to necessarily extend to General Parvez Kiani, the present chief of the army. But then, Zal's problem with Musharraf was about the shenanigans of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Afghanistan, and Kiani was the agency's chief at that time.

That brings us to the Taliban. Zal is just the right man to handle the brief when the US begins direct talks with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah Omar would recollect that Zal wrote a hard-hitting article in the Washington Post 10 years ago impressing on the Bill Clinton administration to grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Zal's thesis was, "you can deal with the Taliban if you know how to deal with them". Zal argued persuasively in his article that the Taliban were an eminently reasonable lot with which to get acquainted.

By now Karzai would have begun to sense that Zal is being dispatched by the Obama administration to Kabul primarily for dealing with Mullah Omar. As a native Afghan and Pashtun, Zal can be much more effective than any of the experts in Holbrooke's team in dealing with the Taliban.

One great quality about Zal is that he is a highly flexible diplomat. He criss-crossed the ethnic and tribal divides in Iraq with amazing skill. Nothing deterred him when a job had to be done. Obama seems to have decided that Zal could just be the right man Washington needs at this point to bring the Taliban around.

The hard core of the Af-Pak strategy is finally unfolding. The influential Washington columnist David Ignatius couldn't have put it better:

To understand Petraeus' basic approach, try to picture in your mind a horizontal line that charts the level of militancy of insurgent groups. On the left are the hard-core "irreconcilables" who could never be co-opted by the US. But as you move right along the line, the groups become more pliable and join the "reconcilable" camp. What Petraeus did in Iraq was to move groups from one category to the other - transforming hardcore insurgents into members of tribal militias on the US payroll. The remaining fanatics became targets for special forces' "capture or kill" operations, which were overseen in Iraq by McChrystal. It was a "hard-and-soft strategy" - using kinetic firepower to clear an area, and then gentler counter-insurgency tools to hold it and build through economic development.

As Petraeus envisages reconciliation with the Taliban, it will happen village by village, across Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts, rather than in a big sit-down with the group's leader, Mullah Omar ... Petraeus wants to restore tribal authority, as he did in Iraq, and meld it with the power of the central government and a US-trained army.

To be sure, there is no one in Washington today who can match Zal's impeccable credentials, having seen it all in Iraq, and knowing like the palm of his hands the ethos and traditions of the Pashtun tribes. Certainly, he will take his stance to the right of McChrystal. When the tough special forces commander hits the Taliban hard, rubbishes them and makes them "reconcilable", and when the "chameleon insurgents" - as Petraeus calls them contemptuously - begin to peel away, he will pass them on to Zal.

Zal will carefully roll up his sleeves, sit down with them over a cup of green tea, and talk some sense into their dazed minds. And then, he will make a mental note as to the fastness of the color of the "chameleons" facing him and looking at him with their watery eyes, before short-listing them for future assignments. That is, until a job falls vacant for Zal himself - in the presidential palace in Kabul.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Coopting the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Since the last year several reports have indicated a possible policy shift to coopt the old Taliban into the current power structure. The Saudis appear to be at the forefront of this effort along with the British. In the current ethnic-political scenario in Afghanistan, the pressing problem is fair representation of Pashtun voices in the government. The Taliban certainly represent the voice of a segment of Pashtuns, getting even more popular every time an innocent is killed by the US bombing. But for the same reason they cannot afford to be seen as doing negotiations with the US. The Saudis, on the other hand, have a long history of dealing with them. Different from Al-Qaeda, the Taliban are also ideologically and politically closer to the Saudis. The Taliban grievances are mostly local, and they, like the Saudis, see Iran as a formidable neighbor. Supporting the Taliban would be an attempt to bring back the earlier status-quo when, pre-9/11, Iran was surrounded by not-so-friendly neighboring regimes, thereby limiting the so-called "emergence of a Shia crescent". Regardless of where it gets its agenda from, Al-Qaeda, it appears, also wants to contribute to this plot (NYTimes also reported along the same line on April 14, 2009). In Palestine and Lebanon, the Saudi-Israel-US nexus is trying to reverse the ever-increasing popularity of the resistance movements. Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif is said to be part of the efforts to bring the Taliban on the table. Recently in Washington, some circles seem to have flirted with the idea of bringing Sharif back, replacing Asif Zardari. Washington is not very happy with Hamid Karzai either, and reports indicate that a similar, old-school-imperialistic-style change is being considered for Afghanistan (also see here), if only to pressurize the two "Af-Pak" leaders, who originally came to power by US support, but, it seems, are losing their utility in Uncle Sam's eyes.

Going back to the Taliban and Afghanistan, the ethnic political equation is certainly part of the problem, but the Taliban (and for that matter, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and other warlords) are not the only voice of the Pashtuns. They should be added to any peace dialogue but not made as 'The' sole Pashtun voice. That would not help the peace process. One, that would reinforce their power and status quo at the expense of real democratic reforms. Two, other groups would obviously take exception to this treatment. Not only the powerful Afghan warlords - Pashtuns or otherwise - but also the regional powers, who will see this as an extension of the US agenda to shape power dynamics of the region for its strategic interests. What the US needs, if the Obama administration is really sincere, is an exit strategy. Toward that end it should seek support from the regional powers to bring different parties within Afghanistan on the table and negotiate a sustainable peace agreement, so the Afghan state could finally focus on poverty, hunger, insecurity, illiteracy, unemployment, health and other life opportunity related problems.

U.S. Pullout a Condition in Afghan Peace Talks
By Dexter Filkins, NYTimes, May 21, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan — Leaders of the Taliban and other armed groups battling the Afghan government are talking to intermediaries about a potential peace agreement, with initial demands focused on a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops, according to Afghan leaders here and in Pakistan.

The talks, if not the withdrawal proposals, are being supported by the Afghan government. The Obama administration, which has publicly declared its desire to coax “moderate” Taliban fighters away from armed struggle, says it is not involved in the discussions and will not be until the Taliban agree to lay down their arms. But nor is it trying to stop the talks, and Afghan officials believe they have tacit support from the Americans.

The discussions have so far produced no agreements, since the insurgents appear to be insisting that any deal include an American promise to pull out — at the very time that the Obama administration is sending more combat troops to help reverse the deteriorating situation on the battlefield. Indeed, with 20,000 additional troops on the way, American commanders seem determined to inflict greater pain on the Taliban first, to push them into negotiations and extract better terms. And most of the initial demands are nonstarters for the Americans in any case.

Even so, the talks are significant because they suggest how a political settlement may be able to end the eight-year-old war, and how such negotiations may proceed. They also raise the prospect of potentially difficult decisions by President Hamid Karzai and President Obama, who may have to consider making deals with groups like the Taliban that are anathema to many Americans, and other leaders with brutal and bloody pasts. Some of the leaders in the current talks have been involved with Al Qaeda.

While the talks have been under way for months, they have accelerated since Mr. Obama took office and have produced more specific demands, the Afghan intermediaries said.

The Taliban leaders, through their spokesman, and those of other armed groups publicly deny that they are involved in any negotiations. But several Afghans here and in Pakistan say they have been talking directly to the Taliban leadership group headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar, the movement’s secretive founder. The council is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

Discussions have also been held with representatives of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a longtime warlord with a record of extreme brutality, and with Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose guerrilla army is based in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Mr. Haqqani’s group is also known for its ruthlessness and for sending suicide bombers into Afghanistan.

“America cannot win this war, and the Taliban cannot win this war,” Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador and one of the intermediaries, said in an interview. “I have delivered this message to the Taliban.”

The talks under way now appear to be directed not at individual bands of antigovernment insurgents — the strategy suggested by President Obama — but at the leaders of the large movements.

American officials insist they are not participating in any talks. “The U.S. would support such efforts only if Taliban are willing to abandon violence and lay down their arms, and accept Afghanistan’s democratically elected government,” said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman. Still, two of the principal intermediaries, Mr. Zaeef and Daoud Abedi, said they had held extensive discussions with American officials.

A State Department memo described a single meeting with Mr. Abedi, but said it ended abruptly because American officials were not permitted to meet with representatives of Mr. Hekmatyar. There is no independent confirmation of Mr. Zaeef ’s claim to have met with Americans.

Afghan officials said they welcomed the talks. “The government has kept all channels of communication open," said Homayun Hamidzada, a spokesman for Mr. Karzai. “This includes the Taliban and Hekmatyar.”

Mr. Abedi, an Afghan-American businessman from California and a member of Mr. Hekmatyar’s political party, the Islamic Party, said he conducted negotiations in March. Guerrillas loyal to Mr. Hekmatyar are battling the Americans in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. His political party still has a wide following in the country.

In an interview, Mr. Abedi said he undertook the negotiations — with Mr. Hekmatyar and with the Taliban leaders — at the behest of the State Department, a claim that American officials deny. Mr. Abedi said he met several times with American officials in Washington before and after his trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan. He declined to say which American diplomats he met, saying, “I am a Pashtun, and I swore on my honor that I would not reveal the names of the people I met with, so I cannot.”

Mr. Abedi said he hammered out a common set of demands between the Taliban and Mr. Hekmatyar’s group. The groups agreed to stop fighting if those conditions were met, Mr. Abedi said. The Taliban’s demands seem incompatible with much of Mr. Obama’s strategy, which is to substantially weaken the Taliban through a combination of military force and economic development.

Nor did the deal Mr. Abedi described mention either Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahri, the two senior Qaeda leaders believed to be hiding in Pakistan under the protection of the Taliban or some other armed group.

The first demand was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders, including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide elections would follow after the Western forces left.

As for Mr. Hekmatyar, Mr. Abedi said that he maintained a “direct link” with him, and that he was authorized to negotiate on his behalf. He did not meet with Afghan government officials.

After the agreement between the Taliban and the Islamic Party was reached, Mr. Abedi said, the Taliban leaders added more conditions: an end to the drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and the release of some Taliban prisoners.

Mr. Abedi said that when he returned to the United States with his proposal, he was greeted with enthusiasm by officials at the State Department. But he said they never called him back.

Mr. Hekmatyar earned a reputation as an especially brutal commander in the civil war that engulfed the country in the 1990s, in particular for the relentless bombardment of Kabul between 1994 and 1996 that killed an estimated 40,000 civilians during an attempt to capture the capital.

In 2002, after Mr. Hekmatyar resisted the American invasion, the Americans tried to kill him with a missile fired from a remotely piloted airplane. They missed.

The other main negotiation is led by Mr. Zaeef and Arsallah Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and now a member of the Afghan Parliament.

“We are not talking to low-ranking people — we are talking to the leaders,” Mr. Rahmani said in an interview. Mr. Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan; he served nearly four years in American military prisons, including the one at Guant√°namo Bay, Cuba.

Their plan would be for the guerrillas and the government to reconcile slowly, starting with the least contentious issues. One of the main low-level demands of the opposition leaders is that their names be removed from a so-called blacklist, contained in a resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council, which obliges governments to detain them. More difficult issues would follow.

“Blood begets blood, but talking begets peace,” Mr. Rahmani said.

Mr. Zaeef said the public declarations of Mullah Omar, who usually vows to fight on, are not necessarily to be taken seriously.

“A policy can have many faces,” he said.

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Saudi Shias: Struggling for their Rights

The Saudi Shias are engaged in a struggle for their basic human and civil rights. They confront some of the same dilemmas that Shias in other parts of the world are facing. Those in power like to portray their struggle as a "sectarian conflict" or as an "Iranian provocation" to distract attention from their genuine grievances. At times the "sectarian" skirmishes are also artificially provoked by the security agencies to fan sectarianism. Unfortunately, some news media have also contributed to this mis-reading of the issue by over-emphasizing religious factors (doctrinal or cultural differences) at the expense of political causes (social and political injustice). The conflict, as argued previously, is actually about power and powerlessness.

(Above: NPR reports on Saudi Shias' recent struggles)

Also see, The Shi‘a of Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads By Toby Matthiesen, MERIP, May 6, 2009: Here

Saudi Shiites' One-Word Demand
By Rannie Amiri, Counter Punch, March 27-29

“Our dignity is more valuable than the unity of this land … If we don’t get our dignity, then we will have to consider seceding from this country.”

– Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, Saudi Shia religious leader from Al-Awamiya, currently in hiding after having delivered a speech demanding an end to the oppression of Saudi Shiites.

In 2005, the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued a report entitled “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The Executive Summary recounted that since the establishment of Saudi Arabia in 1932, “… its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement.” It detailed how Shiites, the majority in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province (EP) and accounting for approximately 15-20 percent of the overall population, remained strikingly underrepresented throughout all segments of civil society, including government (in which they essentially have no representation), the public sector, schools, the judiciary, the military and police.

The expression of anti-Shia sentiment in the educational system and limits placed on religious practices were specifically highlighted as problem areas (Shia Islam is not allowed to be taught in schools, only Wahhabism; thus Shiite students must officially identify themselves as ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’ in order to pass exams).

The ICG made several recommendations in their report including:

  • expanding Shiite presence in government institutions
  • lifting remaining restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and practices
  • encouraging tolerance, eliminating anti-Shiism in mosques and schools, and curbing statements that incite anti-Shiite violence

There was relative calm between the Saudi government and the Shia after King Fahd in 1993 made token promises of easing political restrictions in exchange for the community building closer ties with the regime instead of looking abroad for support and assistance.

The ICG warned though that “King Abdullah needs to act resolutely to improve the lot of the two-million strong Shiite community and rein in domestic expressions of anti-Shiite hostility” or it will be “… a quiet that, without further concrete progress, risks exhausting itself.”

And exhausted itself it has.

With little improvement made, and after the recent violent clashes in the holy city of Medina this past February between Shia pilgrims and the Religious Police (who were found filming female pilgrims), that quiet has officially ended.

Although you would not know it by reading or listening to any of the mainstream Arab media outlets, a violent crackdown is underway in the cities of Al-Awamiya and Qatif in the EP.

On March 13, Sheikh Nimr Baqir Al-Nimr, a leading Shiite cleric from Awamiya, said during Friday prayers that unless the systemic discrimination and oppression of Saudi Shiites at the hands of the political and religious establishments ends, they would consider seceding from the Kingdom. In a subsequent internet posting he is reported to have said, “Our dignity is being held, and if it's not let free, we will examine other options, and any legitimate option will be examined. We saw with our own eyes how the dissension forces beat up women [in Medina]. Where's the dignity? Where's the justice?” (Press TV, 22 March 2009).

Saudi Interior Minister Nayyef Ibn Abdul Aziz, visiting the ailing Crown Prince and Defense Minister, Prince Sultan in New York, immediately ordered his arrest.

Since then, events have turned ugly in both Awamiya and Qatif (where most of the pilgrims involved in the Medina skirmish came from). Despite the Arab media blackout, Saudi dissident and opposition websites such as Rasid.com and Moltaqaa.com, as well as the Saudi Information Agency, have reported on the ensuing clampdown in the hunt for Al-Nimr. By report, the cities’ residents have conducted only peaceful protests and vigils.

Multiple arrests have been made, including juveniles and an American citizen, Nuh Abdul-Jabber, 28. Saudi security forces stormed Awamiya again on March 25, cutting off power to the town of 45,000 for the third time in 10 days. The US State Dept., apparently in deference to the monarchy, has yet to comment on these developments.

Not so Amnesty International, who deplored the detention of men and teenagers by the Saudi authorities whom they believe are at grave risk for torture. Held incommunicado, they called for their immediate and unconditional release.

But why should anyone outside the Middle East be concerned about these events?

Awamiya is located just five miles from Ras Tanurah, the world’s largest offshore oil facility and home to Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company (any talk of unrest, yet alone secession, is therefore quickly silenced).

Beyond that, according basic political, socioeconomic, cultural and religious rights to all citizens of Saudi Arabia, free from discrimination and oppression, should be everyone’s concern on a purely humanitarian level. Indeed, while the entire Kingdom was silent during Israel’s attack on Gaza, it was only the people of Al-Qatif—clearly recognizing and identifying with another people subjected to injustice and humiliation—who held demonstrations in support of the besieged Palestinians.

Their demand and those of Shiites in other towns and cities in Saudi Arabia is a most basic and simple one. It is a demand the government can easily grant and one they should hasten to accept. It was written on the signs of those protesting in Awamiya, was encapsulated in a single word in Sheikh Al-Nimr’s speech, and has become the newfound rallying cry of the Shia-minority in Saudi Arabia: Dignity.

Rannie Amiri is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri at yahoo dot com.

On the Afghanistan front of Obama's "Af-Pak"

(Above: Kabul officials critical of US troop increase - AlJazeera, May 19, 2009)

From My Lai to Bala Baluk
Obama Picks Up Where Bush Left Off
By Mike Whitney, Counterpunch, May 15-17, 2009


"On May 4, 2009, 143 civilians were killed in a bombing raid in Bala Baluk, a remote area south of Herat... US military spokesmen denied the news reports [that most, if not all, of them were civilians, including a large number of children] and concocted a wacky story about Taliban militants rampaging through the village hurling grenades into buildings. It was a ridiculous narrative that no one believed. The facts have since been verified by senior government officials, high-ranking members of the Afghan military and representatives of the Red Cross. The United States military killed 143 unarmed villagers and then they tried to cover it up with a lie. None of the victims were fighters. After the bombing, the villagers loaded body parts onto carts and took them to the office of the regional governor who confirmed the deaths. The photos of grief-stricken Afghans burying their dead have been widely circulated on the Internet...

"Obama chose McChrystal because of his "black ops" pedigree, which suggests that the conflict in Afghanistan is about to take a very ugly turn. According to Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, McChrystal ran the "executive assassination wing" of the military's joint special-operations command. (JSOC) The experts believe that he will breeze through congressional confirmation hearings because many Senators believe that his counterinsurgency theories helped the surge in Iraq to succeed. There's some truth to this, too. But it would be more accurate to say that the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad helped to reduce the violence. That is the truth about the surge; it's a public relations moniker for ethnic cleansing.

McChrystal's appointment suggests that Obama supports the idea that hunter-killer units and targeted assassinations are an acceptable means of achieving US foreign policy objectives. Obama supporters should pay close attention; this is a continuation of the Rumsfeld policy with one slight difference, a more persuasive and charismatic pitchman promoting the policy. Other than that, there's no difference.

Obama knows of McChrystal's involvement in the prisoner abuse scandal at Baghdad's Camp Nama, just as he knows of his role in the cover-up in the friendly-fire death of ex-NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman. None of this matters to Obama. What matters is winning; not principle, ideals, human rights or civilian casualties. Just winning."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

NYTimes: Oman Navigates Between Iran and Arab Nations

Oman Navigates Between Iran and Arab Nations
By Michael Slackman, NYTimes, May 16, 2009

MUSCAT, Oman — As Iran finds itself locked in an escalating cold war-style conflict with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, the quietly influential Sultanate of Oman has accelerated its cooperation with Tehran, nurturing an alliance that helps empower Iran while highlighting the deep divisions among Arab capitals.

Oman, a strategically vital, insistently pragmatic country, has refused overtures of its larger neighbors to pull away from Iran. Instead, it defied Egypt and Saudi Arabia by declining to join them in boycotting a summit meeting in Qatar in January that was held to support Hamas, the Iranian-backed militant group. The Iranian news agency Fars said that Oman and Iran were close to completing a security pact.

The close ties between Iran and Oman, and the reasons behind them, help explain the West’s failure to cripple Iran with trade sanctions, as well as the inability of Iran’s Arab opponents to build a unified opposition to its growing regional influence.

“For us, this is the expression of being realistic,” said Salim al-Mahruqi, a former Omani diplomat who had served in Washington. He now works for the Culture Ministry here in Muscat, the capital city.

“Iran is a big neighbor, and it is there to stay,” he said.

Oman, like Syria and Qatar, sees in Iran an important political and economic ally that is too powerful and too potentially dangerous to ignore, let alone antagonize. Even the United Arab Emirates, which is battling with Iranian leaders over the title to three Persian Gulf islands, has done little to stop billions of dollars in annual trade with Iran.

Rarely in the news, Oman has long been a pivotal behind-the-scenes player in the region. It is an absolute monarchy, led since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has fostered a diplomatic approach that gives his nation the unique status of having close ties to both Iran and the United States.

Oman has at times served as a go-between for the two nations, and it has left open the possibility that the United States could use Omani military bases for staging operations in the region.

Unlike Syria and Qatar, which want larger regional roles, Oman is strictly focused on bolstering its domestic stability. Omanis continue the relationship with Iran because of historic ties, because they know it could easily overrun their nation, if it so chose, and because it has for generations been an important commercial partner.

One visible sign of that cooperation lies far from Muscat, at the tip of an unforgiving peninsula of jagged, rocky mountains in the governate of Musandam. Here, Oman has for years helped Iranian smugglers circumvent international trade sanctions.

Fleets of small, open-topped speedboats cross the Strait of Hormuz daily, making the trip in under an hour. Docked in Oman, they load up with a wide variety of goods, including food, clothing, electronics, pharmaceuticals, air-conditioners, even motorcycles.

“No one has ever tried to stop this smuggling,” said Omran Abdel Kader Abdullah, 18, a local resident who said he joined the family business supplying goods to smugglers when he finished high school. “It’s our living. Every family is involved.”

In fact, the local government coordinates the delivery of goods to the smugglers’ speedboats, distributing pickup and delivery orders each morning to anyone with a small truck. The trade is considered illegal in Iran, because the smugglers avoid paying Iranian duty and taxes. But Oman collects taxes on all the goods.

Pragmatic considerations like those have done little to calm the anxiety of Arab governments that see in Iran a threat to their own regional standing and national interests. As a result, Oman is experiencing strained relations with its Arab neighbors.

While the West is concerned that Iran will develop nuclear weapons in the future, officials in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain complain about what Iran is doing today. Morocco took the most extreme step, severing diplomatic relations with Iran in March.

Egyptian officials recently accused Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon, of sending an agent to Egypt to set up a terrorist cell. Hezbollah acknowledged sending the agent but said it had been trying only to help smuggle weapons into Gaza to aid Hamas in its war with Israel. It denied planning terrorist attacks on Egypt. Egyptians have also charged that Iran has undermined reconciliation between Palestinian factions; tried to instigate an uprising against the Egyptian government; become involved in domestic politics and conflicts in Sudan, Chad and other countries; and tried to spread Shiite Islamic beliefs in Sunni-majority countries. Iran has denied meddling in Arab affairs.

But while Oman is eager to maintain good relations with Cairo, it also sees Egypt as a withered Arab center struggling to reclaim its former glory.

“Unfortunately, what is going on is Egypt is creating an enemy from nothing and undermining the Egyptian role,” said Saif al-Maskery, a former official in Oman’s Foreign Ministry.

Omanis said they did not fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But they are concerned about Iran’s exporting its Islamic revolutionary ideology. And most of all, Iran has a far stronger conventional military force. Oman’s foreign policy reflects religious differences with Saudi Arabia. Many people in Muscat said that they saw the ultraconservative Saudi Arabian approach to Islam as more of a danger to Omani interests, and stability, than Iranian activities in the region.

Oman is a Muslim state, but 75 percent of the population is affiliated with a conservative sect called Ibadism. Over the years Saudi religious figures have tried to spread their more fundamentalist views in Oman. “We don’t allow Saudis to work in our community,” said Said al-Hashmi, manager of research for the State Council, a government advisory body.

There is also the matter of economics. Oman faces a budget deficit this year, in part because of a drop in oil revenues. It has far less oil than many of its Persian Gulf neighbors and wants to diversify its economy.

Exports to Iran provide important revenue. Allowing the smugglers to operate is another example of how Oman’s self-interest is often aligned with Iran’s.

The weathered speedboats line up along three small piers in Musandam every morning, right next to large police boats that patrol the strait. The trip is short, but many captains said it can be perilous because they have to dodge massive oil tankers and avoid Iranian coast guard patrols. “It’s all business,” said Rashed Said, 27, as he delivered 140 boxes loaded with clothing to the pier. “It’s all money.”

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Oman.

Pakistan Conflict - 1.5. Million Internally Displaced

FACTBOX: More than one million displaced in Pakistan
By Robert Birsel, Reuters, May 19, 2009

A Pakistani military offensive against Taliban militants in their Swat valley bastion has forced more than a million people from their homes, the government and the United Nations say.

A failure to respond to one of the most dramatic displacement crises in recent times could generate instability, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said at the weekend as he called for "massive support" from the international community.

Following are some facts about the displaced.

- The number of people displaced by the fighting has risen to more than 1.4 million, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said on Monday.

- They are joining about 555,000 displaced by earlier fighting in the northwest.

- Thousands of people remain in the valley and the head of the government's relief effort said authorities were trying to ensure regular food supplies for them.

- The United Nations says about 48 percent of the displaced are children and the country faces a long-term humanitarian crisis.

- The United Nations said 15 to 20 percent of the displaced who have registered with authorities, or about 250,000 people, are in some 24 camps. The rest are staying with friends, relatives, in rented accommodation or in "spontaneous settlements" that have sprung up.

- The U.N. refugee agency has opened stockpiles of supplies to help the displaced and has also airlifted in 120 tons of supplies including plastic sheets for shelters and mosquito nets.

- The U.N. World Food Program has mobilized its in-country stocks and is feeding 780,000 people.

- The World Health Organization (WHO) has delivered 20 mini-emergency health kits, enough for 120,000 people for one month.

- A WHO spokesman in Geneva said late last week the health situation was not extremely serious but diseases were starting to take hold.

- The army, which played a major role in helping survivors of a big earthquake in 2005, is donating part of its rations to the relief effort, enough to feed about 80,000 adults a day.

- The United States has donated $4.9 million for basic supplies such as tents, blankets and cooking kits, while Britain had donated 10 million pounds ($15.19 million). France has promised 12 million euro ($8.8 million).

- Both the United Nations and the government are due to outline the needs and issue appeals for help this week.


Contending with displacements
By Syed Mohammad Ali, Daily Times, May 19, 2009

Those working with the IDPs must realise that displaced people in general need not be treated as hapless victims as such treatment can further compound their sense of dislocation and undermine in-built resilience`

A steady stream of displacement has been unleashed by the military offensive against militants challenging the writ of the state in the Swat valley. This has occurred at a time when the NWFP government was already struggling to manage the displacements from the ongoing FATA conflict.

In fact, this latest wave of displacements is not confined to the Swat valley alone. People have been fleeing from the adjoining districts of Dir and Buner as well in order to escape the escalating violence. As a result, camps that had housed Afghan refugees for three decades have now become home to the multitudes displaced by the fighting in the NWFP itself.

It is important to realise though that the current displacements have not occurred due to an unforeseen natural disaster but instead are the obvious consequence of a premeditated military offensive. Many are thus criticising the relevant authorities for not being responsive enough to have prepared pre-emptive evacuation plans for the areas where military action was impending.

As a result of this lack of planning, civilians caught in the crossfire could not be provided adequate transport facilities to expediently transfer them to the safety of well-organised camps. Already distraught people have had to suffer unnecessary hardships due to haphazard displacement management.

Even the initial estimates of displacements to be caused by the ongoing conflict were grossly inaccurate. It was thought that no more than 100,000 to 200,000 people would leave their homes, but already over a million people have been dislodged, and every day, more people are leaving their homes and fleeing to safer locations.

Many displaced people are not heading to the camps. They are instead opting to be hosted by relatives in local communities spread across various districts. Had this not been the case, the already overstretched camp facilities for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) would have been stretched well beyond capacity. Instead of ignoring displaced people who are not residing in camps however, it is vital that they also be provided support, in the form of food vouchers for instance, to help lessen the burden on their hosts, many of whom are also not affluent people.

The formation of a new Support Group has been announced by the prime minister to contend with the IDP crisis, even though a National Disaster Management Authority had already been established, with UNDP support, after the 2005 earthquake. Despite the money spent on the NDMA, its ability to contend with conflict-evoked displacements was not considered adequate. Instead the Support Group was thus formed, which is to be headed by the former Deputy Chairman of the Emergency Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority.

The Support Group is tasked to work with the NWFP government, along with other senior representatives each from the interior, health, information, foreign affairs, cabinet and finance ministries. How this new entity will coordinate with the varied stakeholders to coordinate their efforts on-ground remains to be seen. What remains evident is the glaring need to better manage the present IDP crisis.

Besides the reported lack of electricity, food and medicines in different camps, stories about the delivery of unnecessary items like blankets amidst the rising temperatures have illustrated this need for more effective management. Numerous NGOs, donors and line departments are working on the ground, and the ability of the Support Group to quickly step in and manage all these different organisations for not only providing initial relief but also addressing the eventual rehabilitation needs of the IDPs will be the main challenge.

Clearly, the provincial government lacks sufficient resources and the initial allocation made by the federal government will also not be enough to provide the IDPs who have managed to flee to safety with a reasonable level of comfort. An international donor conference is planned to secure funds to support the IDPs, right after Pakistan has got done with trying to cajole its ‘friends’ to help overcome the lingering economic woes.

Organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent are trying to access people who were unable to flee the conflict, but the threat of attacks by militants on humanitarian workers makes this task quite a challenge.

It is also vital to realise here that women and children face unique pressures due to the displacement, which merit special attention. The lack of female medical attendants within the camps can unfortunately prevent women from conservative households from accessing available medical services. Camp life can be very difficult for women accustomed to strict segregation from men who are not family members. United Nations agencies have set up canvas walls around clusters of tents to give women more privacy.

Displaced women and children further face increased threats of sexual abuse and other forms of violence. Incidents of already victimised children, especially girls, being sold away after the October 2005 earthquake proved the actual danger of such instances, which provide human smugglers an opportunity to identify more victims. After the Balochistan earthquake however, a lesson had been learnt to lessen this hazard, which led to placing check-posts on major routes leading from the distraught areas to curb human smuggling.

A national conference was organised last year in Islamabad particularly to highlight the impact of displacements on children in view of the NWFP and Balochistan earthquakes, and the flood in Sindh. It would be useful for practitioners and line departments working with the IDPs to take a closer look at these findings and try to create not only makeshift schools, but also safe play areas, and put in place community-led child protection mechanisms within IDP camps themselves to prevent abuse or abduction of children.

Moreover, given the rush and chaos in which displacements initially occurred, a large number of children are also feared to have been lost. While a help line has been put in place in Mardan, and some NGOs have identified separated children and are trying to trace their parents, there is an evident need for a wider inter-camp coordination mechanism to reunite lost children with family members who have landed in other camps.

Furthermore, those working with the IDPs must realise that displaced people in general need not be treated as hapless victims as such treatment can further compound their sense of dislocation and undermine in-built resilience. It is quite possible to involve these people in taking varied responsibilities within the camps, which can in turn lessen the human resource burden of camp management, and facilitate the ultimate objective of rehabilitation.

Once some sort of a grip is taken over the current challenge, and hopefully as more areas are declared safe enough for the displaced to begin returning home, the existing disaster management policies and systems must be carefully revised to better deal with sudden displacements in the future.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tense Conditions in Karachi

On ethnic tensions in Karachi in the context of political developments on the national level, see previous IS posts: here and here

The dynamics of May 12 and the politics of Karachi
By Hussain Dada, The News, May 12, 2009

Steps taken to maintain law and order on May 12
Dawn, May 12, 2009

Karachi getting out of hand?
DailyTimes Editorial, May 12, 2009

All the three secular parties ruling Sindh have fallen apart. The MQM and the ANP have inclined to ethnic politics, the latter only recently showing inclination to represent all the 4 million Karachi Pashtuns floundering without political leadership because the JUI is almost non-existent there and the Deobandi madrassas are under pressure. The Pashtun is also pushed into a corner by the rise of the Barelvi clergy, which is increasingly militant and shows an anti-Pashtun ethnic bias like the MQM. While opposed to the Taliban in the rest of Pakistan, it is not oblivious of the prospect of a grand weaning of the radicalised Pashtun back under the ethnic banner.

The PPP has memories too, which obstruct a fair assessment of the situation. It has clashed with both the ethnic parties in the past and is sceptical of their modus operandi vis-√†-vis the communities they claim to represent. There is no doubt that it has reports from the police about the infiltration of “Taliban-type” Pashtuns into the city. There have been encounters in the Pashtun-dominated areas where such elements have been arrested too. But, based on their perception of the role of the MQM, the Sindh government is not willing to take the kind of action that the MQM wants it to take. Pashtun and Muhajir ethnic gangs are clashing in the night in Karachi, leaving a lot of people dead.

More confusion is going to follow when Imran Khan is finished with Karachi and the Jama’at-e Islami chief Syed Munawwar Hassan turns his attention to the divided city. He and Mr Khan are in unison against the military operation in Swat, saying the army is killing its own people at America’s behest. The two have the capacity to attract Pashtuns, especially on the basis of their pro-Taliban slogan. Mr Hassan, while talking to Jama’at processionists in Lahore the other day, asked them to “make preparations” because an “announcement for jihad may be made during the coming days”. Karachi may therefore become a “suitable” place for this jihad because the ruling triad is in disarray there.

The Muhajir-Sindhi divide has slid into the background and a Muhajir-Pashtun divide has come to the fore, in no small measure helped by the FATA diaspora into Karachi because of the civil war-like conditions there. As the army goes after the Taliban in the Malakand region more Pashtuns will trickle down to Karachi. The instinct of the ANP as an ethnic party is to give them a political safety net, only at the cost of sharpening its contradiction with the MQM whose electoral strength in Karachi is overwhelming — a fact that both ANP and PPP must pay proper heed to.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

US use of White Phosphorus in Afghanistan?

Phosphorus claim after fatal air strikes in Afghanistan
By Jon Boone, The Guardian, May 10, 2009

Afghanistan's leading human rights ­organisation is investigating claims that white phosphorus was used during a deadly battle between US forces and the Taliban last week in which scores of civilians may have died.

Nader Nadery, a senior officer at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the organisation was concerned that the chemical, which can cause severe burns, might have been used in the firefight in Bala Baluk, a district in the western province of Farah.

Dr Mohammad Aref Jalali, the head of an internationally funded burns hospital in Herat, said villagers taken to hospital after the incident had "highly unusual burns" on their hands and feet that he had not seen before. "We cannot be 100% sure what type of chemical it was and we do not have the equipment here to find out. One of the women who came here told us that 22 members of her family were totally burned. She said a bomb distributed white power that caught fire and then set people's clothes alight."

US forces in Afghanistan denied they had used the chemical, and have also said claims that up to 147 civilians were killed were grossly exaggerated.

As with previous such tragedies, both sides have made wildly different claims, with the Taliban seeking to exploit ­popular fury and US officials attempting to limit the damage and blame the Taliban for allegedly using civilians as human shields.But members of the human rights department at the UN mission in Afghanistan have been appalled by witness testimony from people in the village, according to one official in Kabul who talked anonymously to the Guardian.

He said bombs were dropped after militants had quit the battlefield, which appeared to be backed up by the US air force's own daily report, which is published online. "The stories that are emerging are quite frankly horrifying," the official said. "It is quite apparent that the large bulk of casualties were called in after the initial fighting had subsided and both the troops and the Taliban had withdrawn.

"Local villagers went to the mosque to pray for peace. Shortly after evening prayers the air strikes were called in, and they continued for a couple of hours whilst the villagers were frantically calling the local governor to get him to call off the air strikes."

He said that women and children hid inside their homes while their men went on to the roofs with guns. US forces say these men were militants, but the UN official said they were simply villagers and "it is totally normal for them to have guns". Also contested is an incident immediately after the battle when people from the village took piles of corpses to the governor's compound in the provincial capital.

The UN official said their willingness to ignore the Islamic custom of organising burial within 24 hours of death showed the level of anger. A statement by US forces said insurgents forced tribal elders to parade the corpses through neighbouring villages to "incite outrage".

It said that a joint US-Afghan investigation team confirmed that "a number of civilians were killed in the course of the fighting but is unable to determine with certainty which of those causalities were Taliban fighters and which were non-combatants". Last week Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, called for all air strikes in villages to be stopped, a view privately backed by many in the UN. Yesterday Barack Obama's national security adviser, Gen James Jones, ruled out such a change in policy, saying "we can't fight with one hand tied behind our back".

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Refugee Crisis in Pakistan

Another 200,000 have fled Swat fighting, says UNHCR
By Sajid Gondal, Dawn, May 09, 2009

ISLAMABAD: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on Friday that people in large numbers had fled their homes because of widespread clashes between government forces and militants.

The UN agency said in a statement the people were taking advantage of a partial lifting of curfew to move to safe areas.

The UNHCR estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 people had arrived in safe areas of the NWFP over the last few days with another 300,000 on the move or about to move.

Those fleeing the latest escalation of hostilities in Lower Dir, Buner and Swat join another 555,000 had left their homes in Fata and the NWFP since August last year and were registered by the UN agency.

The vast majority of the earlier arrivals, more than 462,000, have been staying in rented accommodation or with families.

It said that another 93,000 were staying in 11 camps supported by the agency, other UN humanitarian agencies, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Refugees flee Pakistani Swat region - NoCommentTV

On a related note - given that Pakistan and Afghanistan are now handled together as one unit, the "Af-Pak", in Barack Obama's war:

Scores dead after US strike in Afghanistan - 06 May 09 - AlJazeera

Friday, May 8, 2009

Democracy Now - Politics of US "Hysteria" over Pakistan

The policy focus on 'making America safer' and the rising talk about state collapse and nuclear weapon getting into the hands of religious extremists have overshadowed the complex dynamics of ground realities and the consequences of war on people who live in that region. I have commented on these dynamics in a previous post. On the multitude of challenges that Pakistan faces today, see here.

Part I

Part II

The Taliban in Pakistan - Questions and Comments

Who are the "Taliban" in Swat?
By Humeira Iqtidar, Open Democracy, April 30, 2009

Quick Comments:

The above piece complicates the simplistic narrative often presented in the mainstream media by highlighting the dimensions of inequalities and injustice. However, as the author also acknowledges, the timing of their (Taliban's) moves cannot be understood by simply pointing to long held grievances.

The role and politics of the 'establishment' need to be factored in to address how within the multitude of factions - who have been violently opposed to each other - we see a somewhat coherent expansion of the "Taliban" outside of the FATA (see NYTimes April 14, 2009 for a recent agreement between some Taliban factions and the Punjab-based militant groups. The connections of the SSP with the security agencies are well known). Along the same line, the role of continuous US bombardment should be taken into account to understand people's sympathy toward those who have supposedly taken up the "cause" of resisting foreign intervention.

'No foreign intervention' - whether from the Pakistani state or Afghan or the US - has been a major priority of many in the Pashtun dominated region of the FATA. It's an issue of honor and sovereignty. Each time an innocent civilian is killed by US drone attacks fuels anger and revenge, and there have been just too many instances of such killings as we know. The Pashtun identity is also a major factor in this equation. All of these factors may explain why "Taliban" are mostly a Pashtun phenomenon, and why - if only in some less significant aspects - the secular, Pashtun-nationalist party, ANP decided to sign the peace-accord (the nizam-e-adal regulations) with the so-called Taliban/Mujahideen recently: To save the same blood from spilling. However, the ANP is probably bidding time for a more opportune moment to show its cards. From what appears, the ANP seems to be moving in the direction of a more pronounced ethnic politics. In the event of a civil strife (khana jangi) in Pakistan, the ethnic solidarities are bound to become more prominent.

Some commentators are comparing the Taliban movement with those in Palestine (Hamas), Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood), and Lebanon (Hezbollah). There are two distinctions however. One, the Taliban is Pakistan cannot be considered a social movement comparable to others. The Talibans do not have a comparable mass support. Their ideological program is not clear either. They have not engaged in any detailed and systematic social reform program, other than making a few regulations in the name of 'nizam-e-adal'. While these reforms may have benefitted the locals, they have also bolstered and expanded Taliban's financial resource. Some factions of these Taliban-s are actively involved in abductions and ransom business. So it would be an exaggeration to think that these Taliban-s have a mass social base and support, and that they are a social movement.

Two, the questions of temporality and efficacy. This is where the question of 'timing' becomes important along with the question of 'somewhat coherent expansion' as stated above. Because these questions point to the role of the establishment and their connection with these Taliban factions (through the security agencies). This issue has been discussed many times in this forum, so I won't rehash that again. But the implication is that although what we are seeing is definitely alarming, it is not totally chaotic. There are larger strategic interests at stake here.

Within this framework, the Army and the US are the actual players in the game. And the militants are mostly pawns - voluntary or otherwise. (In the media, both sides accuse each other of supporting them. The Army also adds India and Israel to that list and claims the three powers want to destabilize Pakistan to the extent that Pakistan's nuclear assets would be considered dangerous and require an outside intervention). Commentators also point to the utility of violence for legitimizing the US presence in the region. The increasing US presence, quite predictably, is alarming the regional powers. The rapid expansion in Taliban-s movement (from Swat to Buner and to Southern Punjab and possibly Karachi) also suggests that the larger players (whoever they are) want to see their desired outcomes very soon.

Whether the Zardari regime is going to last in the next two-three months largely depends on the outcome of the tussle between the two major players. (Are the two seeing Sharif as a compromise?) The contentious issues are Pakistan's nuclear assets, the border concerns, and the Army's desire to remain the most powerful actor in the country and that all resources and decisions from the US should be channeled through them rather than through the civilian government (the latter case, the Army thinks, would undermine their power).

For the past two or so years, the Pakistani newspapers are increasingly citing incidents where individuals would sell their organs or commit suicide because of hunger and poverty. Sugar, wheat, and other basic supplies are getting too expensive to afford even for the middle classes. The foreign reserves are already close to nil. Considering the performance of the civilian government in the last year, the budget is probably not going to make any exceptional improvements. If the downward spiral of political and economic conditions continues, it's going to be a terrible summer for Pakistani people.

ab bue gul na baade saba maangte hain log
woh habs hai ke loo kii dua maangte hain long
- Josh

No more scent of flower or morning breeze that people pray for,
In this suffocating stillness, even a blast of summer’s blazing wind will suffice.

What is that "summer's blazing wind" is precisely the dividing issue for many in Pakistan: should it be the US (through the corrupt government it has been supporting), the Army, or the Taliban-type to rescue Pakistan. How unfortunate that those that are part of the problem are also being seen as its solution.