Friday, November 27, 2009

Blackwater in Pakistan: Loose End or Larger Strategy?

There are two perspectives here:

First: There is a tug-a-war going on between the White House and the Pentagon. Among others, the elements from the previous administration, still influential in the Pentagon, are pressurizing Mr. Obama to increase war spending and troops for Afghanistan. They are also against normalization of ties between the US and Iran. So they are creating events and situations, without direct authorization from the president, to influence his decisions. In the case of Afghanistan, indirect threats of high ranking officials' resignations appear to have been made if Obama would not comply with their demands. Similarly, there are stories of 'discovering' this or that about Iran's "evil" intentions (like the Alavi Foundation case or Nuclear reactor, etc.) that are meant to create the hysteria for war. The important question and indicator in this perspective is: Would the Obama administration comply?

Cyril Almeida in a recent piece in Dawn (Nov 27, 2009) puts a spin on Jeremy Scahill's story in what appears to be an attempt by Almeida to shift the focus of critical scrutiny to the Pakistani Army. For that Almeida draws attention to Kestral Logistics, a security firm in Pakistan that was named in Scahill's story, as Scahill points out: "Kestral Logistics, a powerful Pakistani firm, which specializes in military logistical support, private security and intelligence consulting. It is staffed with former high-ranking Pakistani army and government officials. While Kestral's main offices are in Pakistan, it also has branches in several other countries." Scahill, however, is not clear about Kestral's direct connections to official military intelligence entities. Perhaps Scahill did want to imply that, but I doubt that straightforward connection.

Kestral and Blackwater (or Xe) could very well have been hired by the US supported current civilian government. In October 2007, when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan, it was reported in the media that 'some' private security firm was taking care of her security. After her assassination a number of stories emerged in the media indicating that Bhutto distrusted Musharraf/Army's intentions.

Another important question to be asked here is that why a half-a-million strong Army with notoriously powerful security agencies would want to hire services of foreign security firms? Why would it let itself be undermined within its own territories? Especially when it is very concerned about foreign attempts to 'neutralize' its nuclear arsenals and is resisting any attempts to put them under foreign monitoring or surveillance? We have seen in the case of Swat that when Army goes seriously after the militant elements, it has been able to tackle them relatively well. Within this context, it's not the militant elements that Army is having trouble tackling with, it's the forces behind them, from neighboring countries and beyond, that make things complicated and that seek to pressurize the Army to comply with certain demands (see below for more on this line).

The point here is not to deny or affirm any connection between the Army and private security firms. Just that it cannot be simply assumed, and within the perspective presented here, it seems less likely. (Even when we are playing in the territory of speculations - supporting one perspective or the other - distinctions could still be made between the more probable from the less probable explanations.)

Second: The other perspective argues that increasing US presence was already part of the larger strategy. Mr. Obama is just locked into his election's anti-war rhetoric and constituency. He cannot come off as straightforwardly willing to increase war adventures in the Afghanistan. Hence the public drama of displaying a tension between the white house and the pentagon before the ultimate decision is announced. Similarly, there are certain targets to be achieved in Pakistan that relate to the military and neutralizing nuclear arsenal. I have written about this earlier. These targets were more clearly defined and pursued toward the end of the Bush administration (resulting in an already unpopular Musharraf's falling-out-of-favor). The Obama administration is continuing on the same strategy. When it comes to larger strategies, the 4- or 8- year term US presidents are only part of the deciding equation. Especially the presidents in their first term are not as powerful as one would think they would be as Commander-in-Chief. In the first perspective, that is why there is a tension between the two poles in Washington and one is able to exert so much influence on the other. In the second perspective, Mr. Obama has already consented to the larger hegemonic ambitions of the empire.

The specific targets in the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan are also supported by the neighboring India and Israel. For Israel and its supporters in Washington (including both Neo-Cons and Liberal-imperialists), both Pakistan and Lebanon are peripheries that need to be ‘neutralized’ or 'kept busy' before or around any attack on Iran, (so as to minimize any severe backlash against US/Israel). Consider also the recent Jundallah bombing, which caused some discord between Iran and Pakistan. Jundallah, according to even US sources, has been funded by the United States.

In the second perspective, the purpose of Blackwater's covert operations - and that of other similar elements in Pakistan who are working with the security agencies of other countries and have nurtured some of the active terrorist groups in Pakistan - is to create conditions under which Pakistan would be pressurized to give in to the US demands. Instability and chaos also become the pretext for prolonged US presence in the "Af-Pak" region.

This is the political context of the heated debate on 'Sovereignty vs. American-backed democracy' in the current public discourse in Pakistan. The Pakistani Army has capitalized on this moment and has presented itself as the indispensable defender of Pakistan's sovereignty. This is despite the Army's ongoing convoluted relations with terrorist groups (including some elements of the Taliban and other militant sectarian groups: consider the whole discourse of "good" Taliban and "bad" Taliban by military loud speakers in the media). This is also despite the perpetual dependency of the Army on the US for military aid and technology, and the Amry's willingness to work as US mercenaries as long as the latter does not undermine its authority in Pakistan (See the issue of Military and ISI reform through Kerry-Lugar Bill or through the civilian government). The Army is deeply suspicious of the "foreign" agenda of President Zardari and so do a significant number of people in Pakistan. Ironically enough, the same Army that was highly unpopular just over a year and a half ago is now seen by many as the champion of Pakistani people and sovereignty.

How come Zardari is still in power? In addition to the support from the US, part of it could be explained through President Zardari's success in courting support from politicians and power-brokers in the 'marginalized provinces' (vis-a-vis Punjab): Balochistan, Sindh, NWFP, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

How long is his government going to last? The major players are still in the game, the political conditions remain volatile, and so does his government.

Here is The Nation article:

Blackwater's Secret War in Pakistan
By Jeremy Scahill, The Nation, November 23, 2009

Also see,

See the following NY Times blog story on the same: "Pakistan's Taliban issues video denial - 16 Nov 09". There are many strands within the Taliban, some under control of the military and its security agencies, others not and supported by other forces. The Taliban as a collective phenomenon although a major cause of de-stability in Pakistan, but as I have argued before, they are largely pawns (voluntary or otherwise) in the hands of other bigger players in this game. They are largely symptoms of a bigger problem linked to the question of distribution of state power and foreign influence. A narrow, concentrated focus on the 'Taliban' or 'Religious Extremism' in Pakistan in the news media usually serves as distraction from that bigger picture. It's unfortunate that some political commentators in the Pakistani media still choose to focus only on the 'Taliban' and discard the larger, convoluted game as just "conspiracy theory".

Well, it only makes sense to have a "conspiracy theory" for explanation when there in fact are many 'conspiracies' at play in Pakistan! (Yes, pun intended!)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Update on the Northern Areas and Kurram Agency

The lower Kurram areas have long been a hideout for Taliban militants and criminals from other agencies and even from across the volatile border. And that is one major reason why this agency has experienced violence and turmoil in the last few years, which is however often dubbed as "sectarian" in the media.

The road from Thal to Parachinar has been opened. On Sunday, Nov 15, after another year of blockade (following the short-lived opening last year), 25 trucks loaded with food, medicine, and other basic supplies reached Parachinar, the agency capital. The local people, Kurram Militia, and the Government all worked together to make this happen. The government has also promised to set up 7 check posts along the road. 25 trucks, as should be obvious, is not enough for hundreds of thousands of residents of upper Kurram who are barely surviving. The residents of these areas do not have high expectations from the government. They are not asking for aid, just security and open passage so they can get their regular supplies from within Pakistan and wouldn't have to cross the border into Afghanistan. The Afghan route is both very costly and dangerous. I certainly hope that the government and its security apparatus deliver their promise this time.

25 trucks carrying edibles reach Parachinar
Monday, November 16, 2009, The News

PARACHINAR: A convoy of security forces’ vehicles carrying edibles Sunday arrived here as the Parachinar-Sadda-Thall Road reopened after a closure for three years.

Official sources said 25 trucks of the security forces carrying food, medicines and other necessary items reached Parachinar, the headquarters of Kurram Agency. The arrival of the convoy with food items sent a wave of happiness among the residents as they had been facing severe shortage of edibles and medicines due to blockade of roads by militants.

Kurram Militia Commander Col Tausif Akhtar led the convoy named as ‘Peace Convoy,’ which was accorded a warm welcome by the residents at Balishkhel checkpost. The residents hoped the government would continue supply of foodstuffs and other goods to the agency and take steps for reopening of roads.

Gunship helicopters target Lower Kurram
Dawn, November 22, 2009

PESHAWAR: As forces pound militant hideouts in Kurram Agency, residents flee to safer areas due to the threat of a possible military operation.

According to official sources, gunship helicopters targeted various areas of lower Kurram. It is beleived that the hideouts belong to militants linked to banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. On the other hand, residents of central Kurram have started migrating to safer areas.

Also, in Orakzai agency, militant hideouts in Mishti and Shahokhel areas were desroyed in airstrikes. Sources in the area claim that ongoing military operation in South Waziristan has forced militants to flee to areas of Lower, Central Kurram and Orakzai ageny.

Gilgit-Baltistan: next phase
Editorial, Daily Times, November 17, 2009

The Election Commission (EC) has announced the official results in 19 constituencies for the legislative assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Reflecting closely the unofficial results, the EC awarded 12 seats to the People’s Party while the remaining seats were shared by the other parties. The results for four seats are still awaited. The disturbing aspect of the tail-end of electioneering for the first-ever legislative assembly in the recently designated autonomous region is the squabble between political parties over charges of rigging, pre-poll as well as on the polling day. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was quick to refute the charges of unfair electoral practices a day after the election. The second tier party leadership too has echoed the same views. However, the EC has already ordered re-polling in some parts of Diamer District. The PML-Q and MQM have protested against what they termed as “unfair manipulation of the electoral process by the ruling party to get their candidates elected”. However, the PML-Q leadership struck a positive note by announcing that “the result will be accepted for the sake of ensuring the continuity of the democratic process in the country.” This caveat was somewhat at odds with democratic norms. Citing “strategic national interests”, Chaudhry Shujaat demanded a consensus government in the region. The term “consensus” seems to be the newfound panacea for all political forces with poor showing at the ballot box or those elements who wish to paralyse the incumbent government of a highly polarised society. PML-Q has so far won one seat in the GB election. The demand for a “consensus government” when the PPP appears to have won a comfortable simple majority is tantamount to placing “consensus” over and above the electorate’s mandate.

Sadly, the appearance of democratic tolerance displayed by the top political leadership was less evident at the grassroots level where skirmishes broke out among the activists of various political parties and supporters of candidates. In two separate incidents of violence, PPP activists clashed with the supporters of the PML-N and MQM. Several people were injured and when the police appeared unable to pacify the situation, the local administration imposed Section 144 in Skardu. On a pleasantly surprising note, the local religious leaders of various sects were seen helping the administration towards the restoration of normalcy in the area.

Disagreements regarding the fairness or validity of the electoral process or the results thereof are normal, especially in South Asia. However, our constitutional scheme has laid out a clear procedure and a proper platform to seek redress in such a contingency, namely the EC. It is advisable for the aggrieved political parties to approach the EC with any evidence of electoral malpractices. To demand directly from the government that re-polling be held in certain constituencies where alleged discrepancies have occurred appears more like an exercise in political point scoring than observance of genuine democratic procedures. In this context, the statement of the regional PPP chief seems more in conformity with the ground realities. He has hinted at the possibility of forming a coalition government with the parties that are already part of the government at the centre. *

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Pakistan and the US: A Tug-A-War over the Nuclear Arms

Below see excerpts from Seymour Hersh's latest piece in The New Yorker. There are good insights in this piece just as there are distractions and even misleading content.

For example the "very close" relationship between Mullen and Kayani as suggested in the piece is BS - "very coercive" would be a better choice; it's a game of power and respective interests. Or the indirect suggestion through quoting "a senior Pakistani official" with "close ties to Zardari" and then Zardari himself, that Zardari's administration would be keen on protecting the nuclear assets of Pakistan. One just needs to understand who brought him to power in the first place and with what agenda.

See previous posts on the nuclear issue and the tug-a-war between the main political players: On the larger US strategic interests, here. On President Zardari's role in this game and Army's response, here. On bombs/terrorism and politics surrounding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, here. On the Taliban threat and the larger game, here.

Defending the Arsenal
by Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, November 16, 2009


"Pakistan has been a nuclear power for two decades, and has an estimated eighty to a hundred warheads, scattered in facilities around the country. The success of the latest attacks raised an obvious question: Are the bombs safe?"

"Obama did not say so, but current and former officials said in interviews in Washington and Pakistan that his Administration has been negotiating highly sensitive understandings with the Pakistani military. These would allow specially trained American units to provide added security for the Pakistani arsenal in case of a crisis. At the same time, the Pakistani military would be given money to equip and train Pakistani soldiers and to improve their housing and facilities—goals that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the chief of the Pakistan Army, has long desired. In June, Congress approved a four-hundred-million-dollar request for what the Administration called the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund, providing immediate assistance to the Pakistan Army for equipment, training, and “renovation and construction.”"

"The secrecy surrounding the understandings was important because there is growing antipathy toward America in Pakistan, as well as a history of distrust. Many Pakistanis believe that America’s true goal is not to keep their weapons safe but to diminish or destroy the Pakistani nuclear complex."

"High-level cooperation between Islamabad and Washington on the Pakistani nuclear arsenal began at least eight years ago. Former President Musharraf, when I interviewed him in London recently, acknowledged that his government had held extensive discussions with the Bush Administration after the September 11th attacks, and had given State Department nonproliferation experts insight into the command and control of the Pakistani arsenal and its on-site safety and security procedures. Musharraf also confirmed that Pakistan had constructed a huge tunnel system for the transport and storage of nuclear weaponry. “The tunnels are so deep that a nuclear attack will not touch them,” Musharraf told me, with obvious pride. The tunnels would make it impossible for the American intelligence community—“Big Uncle,” as a Pakistani nuclear-weapons expert called it—to monitor the movements of nuclear components by satellite."

"In an actual crisis, would the Pakistanis give an American team direct access to their arsenal? An adviser to the Pentagon on counterinsurgency said that some analysts suspected that the Pakistani military had taken steps to move elements of the nuclear arsenal “out of the count”—to shift them to a storage facility known only to a very few—as a hedge against mutiny or an American or Indian effort to seize them. “If you thought your American ally was telling your enemy where the weapons were, you’d do the same thing,” the adviser said."

"A former State Department official who worked on nuclear issues with Pakistan after September 11th said that he’d come to understand that the Pakistanis “believe that any information we get from them would be shared with others—perhaps even the Indians. To know the command-and-control processes of their nuclear weapons is one thing. To know where the weapons actually are is another thing.”"

"Tarar, who retired in 1995 and has a son in the Army, believed—as did many Pakistani military men—that the American campaign to draw Pakistan deeper into the war against the Taliban would backfire. “The Americans are trying to rent out their war to us,” he said. If the Obama Administration persists, “there will be an uprising here, and this corrupt government will collapse. Every Pakistani will then be his own nuclear bomb—a suicide bomber,” Tarar said. “The longer the war goes on, the longer it will spill over in the tribal territories, and it will lead to a revolutionary stage. People there will flee to the big cities like Lahore and Islamabad.”"

"A $7.5-billion American aid package, approved by Congress in September, was, to the surprise of many in Washington, controversial in Pakistan, because it contained provisions seen as strengthening Zardari at the expense of the military. Shaheen Sehbai, a senior editor of the newspaper International, said that Zardari’s “problem is that he’s besieged domestically on all sides, and he thinks only the Americans can save him,”..."

"Pakistan’s fears about the United States co√∂perating with India are not irrational. Last year, Congress approved a controversial agreement that enabled India to purchase nuclear fuel and technology from the United States without joining the Non-Proliferation Treaty, making India the only non-signatory to the N.P.T. permitted to do so. Concern about the Pakistani arsenal has since led to greater co√∂peration between the United States and India in missile defense; the training of the Indian Air Force to use bunker-busting bombs; and “the collection of intelligence on the Pakistani nuclear arsenal,” according to the consultant to the intelligence community. (The Pentagon declined to comment.)"

"In an interview the next afternoon, an Indian official who has dealt diplomatically with Pakistan for years said, “Pakistan is in trouble, and it’s worrisome to us because an unstable Pakistan is the worst thing we can have.”" [I think this has some validity. India would prefer a neutralized Pakistan than a dismembered one, and 'controlled chaos' in Pakistan than 'total chaos' to achieve its strategic interests because the latter option would inevitably cause instability in India.]

"At another point, Musharraf, dressed casually in slacks and a sports shirt, said that he had been troubled by the American-controlled Predator drone attacks on targets inside Pakistan, which began in 2005. “I said to the Americans, ‘Give us the Predators.’ It was refused. I told the Americans, ‘Then just say publicly that you’re giving them to us. You keep on firing them but put Pakistan Air Force markings on them.’ That, too, was denied.”"

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

'US out of Afghanistan NOW' - Malalai Joya

In her recent two interviews with CNN, the courageous and articulate, Malalai Joya once again demanded that the occupation forces leave Afghanistan immediately. The above clip is from CNN-international.

Eric Garris on the Antiwar blog notes how she received different treatments on CNN-US and CNN-International. In the former she was cut off after her assertion that the US is an occupation force, whereas on the latter she was received respectfully. Under the international law the US and NATO are occupying force in Afghanistan. It's as plain as that.

Malalai Joya and the Tale of 2 CNNs

My thoughts on the American presence in the region and possible solutions, see here

In May 2007, Malalai Joya, who is an elected member of the Afghanistan parliament, was suspended for “insulting fellow members of parliament” in an interview.

In her famous December 2003 speech at the Afghan Loya Jirga which was convened to ratify the constitution, Joya publicly denounced the warlords and war criminals sitting in that gathering:

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

'Ex-servicemen belonging to Tablighi Jamaat meet in Raiwind'

The tension of orientations discussed in the below story is not new. It's not surprising either that in the face of highly volatile conditions within the country and simultaneous overt and covert intrusions by foreign powers, the TJ members are becoming impatient, and they want to exert their voice in politics. We saw a similar shift within Jamaat-e Islami earlier this year when the more overtly pro-Taliban-anti-American elements held sway in the elections and Syed Munawwar Hasan became the new Amir of the party. What's interesting though is the indication in the below story of growing popularity and strength of TJ among the politically influential segments of Pakistan. That is, if the numbers presented below are in fact accurate and that it was not an concerted, alarmist story (to raise the specter of 'Islamists-taking-over-Islamabad') - and just that the journalistic quality of this report was poor.

Revolution, not quite
By Waqar Gillani, The News, Nov 2009


"Ahead of the Tablighi Jamaat's annual congregation in Raiwind near Lahore -- one of the largest congregations of Islamic world attended by at least one and half million Muslims -- there has been a day-long meeting of at least 50 former officers of Pakistan's armed forces in Raiwind to discuss the future agenda of the rapidly-expanding movement.

Though party sympathisers term the meeting as 'routine', insiders claim these retired officers had travelled from across the country to attend this special meeting of "Halqa-e-Khawas" (group of special people) and were well-taken care of and hosted by the Ameer of TJ, Maulana Abdul Wahab. It may be interesting to note that Wahab is no seminary student but an ordinary landlord.

The annual congregation of TJ, which is considered a non-resistant and non-political Islamic revivalist movement, is scheduled from Nov 5-8, 2009.

The meeting, convened under the driving force of this group in Pakistan armed forces, Lt Gen (r) Javed Nasir, former director general Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), was attended by at least 50 former high-rank officers of the military including many generals, brigadiers and admirals and even top police officers etc. Apart from Lt Gen (r) Nasir, there were Lt Gen (r) Agha Masood Hasan, former naval chief Admiral (r) Karamat Rehman Niazi, Lt Gen (r) Aftab Ahmed and others.

The objective of this meeting was to discuss the possibility of politicising its agenda. Many retired army officers were convinced that the TJ now should have a political manifesto. Wahab, the head of TJ, reportedly related the first phase of the party to Prophet Muhammad's time in Mecca where he tolerated all violence and criticism by infidels and patiently focused on preaching Islam. Wahab, who believes that one day the rule of Allah must be set up in the world, however, asked these retired armymen that being the main force of this party, they should start planning about the direction this gathering of millions gathering should take.

Insiders told TNS this kind of resistance and questions are being raised within the Tablighi Jamaat from time to time."

Added on Nov 16, 2009:

It is not clear if the quotes in the below story reflect the official position or consensus of the Tablighi Jamaat leadership. But they do problematize the alarmist calls of 'Islamists with Taliban-like-mindset becoming political who no sooner than later will take over Islamabad'.

Taliban under fire from Pakistani's faithful
Dawn, Nov 15, 2009

"‘The Taliban are enemies of Islam and humanity and advance only an American and Indian agenda -- to destabilise Pakistan,’ said Farhan Hamad Khan, who had come from Dera Ismail Khan, where many other refugees are also living."

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Middle East "peace industry"

See related posts here and here

Can we talk? The Middle East "peace industry"
Faris Giacaman, The Electronic Intifada, August 20, 2009

Upon finding out that I am Palestinian, many people I meet at college in the United States are eager to inform me of various activities that they have participated in that promote "coexistence" and "dialogue" between both sides of the "conflict," no doubt expecting me to give a nod of approval. However, these efforts are harmful and undermine the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel -- the only way of pressuring Israel to cease its violations of Palestinians' rights.

When I was a high school student in Ramallah, one of the better known "people-to-people" initiatives, Seeds of Peace, often visited my school, asking students to join their program. Almost every year, they would send a few of my classmates to a summer camp in the US with a similar group of Israeli students. According to the Seeds of Peace website, at the camp they are taught "to develop empathy, respect, and confidence as well as leadership, communication and negotiation skills -- all critical components that will facilitate peaceful coexistence for the next generation." They paint quite a rosy picture, and most people in college are very surprised to hear that I think such activities are misguided at best, and immoral, at worst. Why on earth would I be against "coexistence," they invariably ask?

During the last few years, there have been growing calls to bring to an end Israel's oppression of the Palestinian people through an international movement of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). One of the commonly-held objections to the boycott is that it is counter-productive, and that "dialogue" and "fostering coexistence" is much more constructive than boycotts.

With the beginning of the Oslo accords in 1993, there has been an entire industry that works toward bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in these "dialogue" groups. The stated purpose of such groups is the creating of understanding between "both sides of the conflict," in order to "build bridges" and "overcome barriers." However, the assumption that such activities will help facilitate peace is not only incorrect, but is actually morally lacking.

The presumption that dialogue is needed in order to achieve peace completely ignores the historical context of the situation in Palestine. It assumes that both sides have committed, more or less, an equal amount of atrocities against one another, and are equally culpable for the wrongs that have been done. It is assumed that not one side is either completely right or completely wrong, but that both sides have legitimate claims that should be addressed, and certain blind spots that must be overcome. Therefore, both sides must listen to the "other" point of view, in order to foster understanding and communication, which would presumably lead to "coexistence" or "reconciliation."

Such an approach is deemed "balanced" or "moderate," as if that is a good thing. However, the reality on the ground is vastly different than the "moderate" view of this so-called "conflict." Even the word "conflict" is misleading, because it implies a dispute between two symmetric parties. The reality is not so; it is not a case of simple misunderstanding or mutual hatred which stands in the way of peace. The context of the situation in Israel/Palestine is that of colonialism, apartheid and racism, a situation in which there is an oppressor and an oppressed, a colonizer and a colonized.

In cases of colonialism and apartheid, history shows that colonial regimes do not relinquish power without popular struggle and resistance, or direct international pressure. It is a particularly naive view to assume that persuasion and "talking" will convince an oppressive system to give up its power.

The apartheid regime in South Africa, for instance, was ended after years of struggle with the vital aid of an international campaign of sanctions, divestments and boycotts. If one had suggested to the oppressed South Africans living in bantustans to try and understand the other point of view (i.e. the point of view of South African white supremacists), people would have laughed at such a ridiculous notion. Similarly, during the Indian struggle for emancipation from British colonial rule, Mahatma Gandhi would not have been venerated as a fighter for justice had he renounced satyagraha -- "holding firmly to the truth," his term for his nonviolent resistance movement -- and instead advocated for dialogue with the occupying British colonialists in order to understand their side of the story.

Now, it is true that some white South Africans stood in solidarity with the oppressed black South Africans, and participated in the struggle against apartheid. And there were, to be sure, some British dissenters to their government's colonial policies. But those supporters explicitly stood alongside the oppressed with the clear objective of ending oppression, of fighting the injustices perpetrated by their governments and representatives. Any joint gathering of both parties, therefore, can only be morally sound when the citizens of the oppressive state stand in solidarity with the members of the oppressed group, not under the banner of "dialogue" for the purpose of "understanding the other side of the story." Dialogue is only acceptable when done for the purpose of further understanding the plight of the oppressed, not under the framework of having "both sides heard."

It has been argued, however, by the Palestinian proponents of these dialogue groups, that such activities may be used as a tool -- not to promote so-called "understanding," -- but to actually win over Israelis to the Palestinian struggle for justice, by persuading them or "having them recognize our humanity."

However, this assumption is also naive. Unfortunately, most Israelis have fallen victim to the propaganda that the Zionist establishment and its many outlets feed them from a young age. Moreover, it will require a huge, concerted effort to counter this propaganda through persuasion. For example, most Israelis will not be convinced that their government has reached a level of criminality that warrants a call for boycott. Even if they are logically convinced of the brutalities of Israeli oppression, it will most likely not be enough to rouse them into any form of action against it. This has been proven to be true time and again, evident in the abject failure of such dialogue groups to form any comprehensive anti-occupation movement ever since their inception with the Oslo process. In reality, nothing short of sustained pressure -- not persuasion -- will make Israelis realize that Palestinian rights have to be rectified. That is the logic of the BDS movement, which is entirely opposed to the false logic of dialogue.

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that "between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups." A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce "a single peace activist on either side." This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.

The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be "children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population." The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped "promote peace culture and dialogue between participants."

Despite the resounding failure of these dialogue projects, money continues to be invested in them. As Omar Barghouti, one of the founding members of the BDS movement in Palestine, explained in The Electronic Intifada, "there have been so many attempts at dialogue since 1993 ... it became an industry -- we call it the peace industry."

This may be partly attributed to two factors. The dominant factor is the useful role such projects play in public relations. For example, the Seeds of Peace website boosts its legitimacy by featuring an impressive array of endorsements by popular politicians and authorities, such as Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Shimon Peres, George Bush, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, amongst others. The second factor is the need of certain Israeli "leftists" and "liberals" to feel as if they are doing something admirable to "question themselves," while in reality they take no substantive stand against the crimes that their government commits in their name. The politicians and Western governments continue to fund such projects, thereby bolstering their images as supporters of "coexistence," and the "liberal" Israeli participants can exonerate themselves of any guilt by participating in the noble act of "fostering peace." A symbiotic relationship, of sorts.

The lack of results from such initiatives is not surprising, as the stated objectives of dialogue and "coexistence" groups do not include convincing Israelis to help Palestinians gain the respect of their inalienable rights. The minimum requirement of recognizing Israel's inherently oppressive nature is absent in these dialogue groups. Rather, these organizations operate under the dubious assumption that the "conflict" is very complex and multifaceted, where there are "two sides to every story," and each narrative has certain valid claims as well as biases.

As the authoritative call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel makes plain, any joint Palestinian-Israeli activities -- whether they be film screenings or summer camps -- can only be acceptable when their stated objective is to end, protest, and/or raise awareness of the oppression of the Palestinians.

Any Israeli seeking to interact with Palestinians, with the clear objective of solidarity and helping them to end oppression, will be welcomed with open arms. Caution must be raised, however, when invitations are made to participate in a dialogue between "both sides" of the so-called "conflict." Any call for a "balanced" discourse on this issue -- where the motto "there are two sides to every story" is revered almost religiously -- is intellectually and morally dishonest, and ignores the fact that, when it comes to cases of colonialism, apartheid, and oppression, there is no such thing as "balance." The oppressor society, by and large, will not give up its privileges without pressure. This is why the BDS campaign is such an important instrument of change.

Faris Giacaman is a Palestinian student from the West Bank, attending his second year of college in the United States.

Noam Chomsky on Obama's Middle East Policy

Last week, the Imperial College Political Philosophy Society, in association with Palestine societies at UCL, SOAS, Goldsmiths, LSE, Imperial and Kings, organized a lecture by MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky: Iran, Palestine and the region in the Obama era: the emerging framework. from ICU Political Philosophy Society on Vimeo.

A few points here and there may require further probing but overall this was a very insightful analysis.

Professor Chomsky's point about studying various civil/human rights movements closely is crucial. For example, the political dynamics and dedication level of the US support for Israel are quite different from that for the apartheid South Africa. Would the same tactics that were successful in South Africa work in the case of Palestine-US-Israel? Would the 'advocacy process' follow a similar course in this case, as Chomsky seems to suggest?

A further challenge for our movements (of people of conscience) is to come up with action plans - not just "proposals" as Chomsky rightly points out - involving practical strategies and tactics that are in line with our principles and sound political analysis.


So far the Obama administration has shown no meaningful signs of any major change to the old grand plan of a "new middle east" (as Condy Rice famously stated), other than slight modifications in the tactics. Suspending the expansion of settlements and recognizing the two-state solution that the current administration is asking of Israel were already part of Bush’s “Road Map for Peace”. Neither of them actually enforced these demands on Israel.

Against the Bush administration’s “hard power” however the new secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has put forward the idea of “smart power”, combining diplomacy and “iron fist”. What that probably means for Muslim countries is the ‘Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim’ game. The good Muslims are those compliant to the US-Israeli imperial ambitions. The Bad Muslims are those who resist that and therefore must be disciplined.

The status quo regimes of the Middle East - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan - are presented as the “moderate” Muslims. While those - within the status quo states and from outside - opposing their corruption and the hegemonic ambitions of US-Israel are labeled as the Bad Muslims. And it is demanded from the latter (those resisting) to ‘reform’ and become ‘good Muslims’. After the inauguration, Obama went to the West Bank, not Gaza, and then to Egypt, where he delivered his now popular Cairo speech. Both are telling indicators.

Consider the following two sentences from the end of that speech: “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition.” What?! During the inquisition?! Muslims were slaughtered, forced to convert or exile under the Inquisitorial Regime. Is that what Mr. Obama is suggesting that Muslims do today against the oppression of their own dictatorial regimes and from outside? Perhaps it was a blunder on the part of Obama’s speech writer.

But in practical terms, this is exactly what the current administration is asking of the Palestinian people: Keep suffering. Rhetorical gestures of conciliation-s by the new administration aside, the US and Israel are more or less continuing the same policy of turning Gaza into a virtual prison and dividing the West Bank into small quarantines through the Security Wall, with Israel having effective control over water, communication, and security matters of both areas.

What lies ahead? A further military and political marginalization of legitimate resistance movements in Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. Israel will haggle on the price for ‘peace’ by creating stalemates of one kind or another and thereby finding more time for its expansionist ambitions. Further military actions against those who do not comply, within the occupied territories and outside, are also probable.

On problems with the two-state solution see

Unpublicized Crises: Chomsky on Sri Lanka

Noam Chomsky at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) on 27 October 2009.