Sunday, August 30, 2009

Famine in Ethiopia, again.

Paul Rogers of the Independent reports that East Africa is facing a prospect of serious famine again. What he describes is a situation already serious -- serious enough that if it had been in Europe or North America it would be called a "world crisis." Prospects are that it will get worse. [Click on the title above for the source.] RLC

“Millions facing famine in Ethiopia as rains fail: International aid agencies fear that the levels of death and starvation last seen 24 years ago, are set to return to the Horn of Africa.” The Independent, Aug 30, 09.

The spectre of famine has returned to the Horn of Africa nearly a quarter of a century after the world's pop stars gathered to banish it at Live Aid, raising £150m for relief efforts in 1985. Millions of impoverished Ethiopians face the threat of malnutrition and possibly starvation this winter in what is shaping up to be the country's worst food crisis for decades.

Estimates of the number of people who need emergency food aid have risen steadily this year from 4.9 million in January to 5.3 million in May and 6.2 million in June. Another 7.5 million are getting aid in return for work on community projects, as part of the National Productive Safety Net Program for people whose food supplies are chronically insecure, bringing the total being fed to 13.7 million.

Donor countries provided sustenance to 12 million Ethiopians last year, more than half of it through the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). Having passed that total only eight months into this year, and with the main harvest already in doubt, aid agencies fear the worst is still to come. "We're extremely worried," said Howard Taylor, who heads the Department for International Development's office in Ethiopia. DfID has given £54m in aid to the country this year, and Britain has also contributed through the EU. "This is exactly the time when we shouldn't turn away from the people in need," he said.

"Critical water shortages" were reported in some areas by the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs last week with water-borne diseases such as acute diarrhoea spreading as communities resort to drinking from insanitary wells and ponds. Unicef said that the outbreaks are putting extra pressure on its Out-Patient Therapeutic Programme, which provides healthcare in some of the most needy areas.

In Somali, the hardest hit region with a third of the humanitarian caseload and complications caused by a low-intensity insurgency, the mortality rate for infants has risen above two per 10,000 per day according to a regional nutrition survey, which gives newborns roughly a one-third chance of dying before their fifth birthdays. While there is no clear definition, one widely used threshold for famine is four infant deaths per 10,000 per day.

Declaring a famine is a political decision. While it can galvanise public opinion and bring millions into aid programmes, it is widely seen as a political failure. President George Bush challenged his officials to avoid the word, a policy known as "No famine on my watch". Ethiopia's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission is charged with preventing famines of the 1984-85 type, the sort that bring down governments, argued Tufts University academics Sue Lautze and Angela Raven-Roberts in a 2004 paper.

Dismissing the warning signals, Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, said earlier this month that there was no danger of famine this year. And Berhanu Kebede, Ethiopia's ambassador to Britain, said at the weekend: "We are addressing the problem. Food is in the pipeline."

The main practical difference between a food crisis and a famine is whether enough aid arrives to keep the starving alive. So while the scope of the problem can be measured in the number of hungry people, the severity depends on the generosity of those in the rich world. And this year they have been miserly. Despite the promise of G8 leaders at their summit in L'Aquila, Italy, last month to provide $20bn (£12bn) to improve food security in poor countries, contributions have slumped dramatically this year as donor states have shifted priorities to supporting banks and stimulating their own economies. "The international community is not living up to its promise to the World Food Programme," Mr Kebede said.

The WFP had little trouble raising its $6bn budget last year, but in 2009 it has collected less than half of that. Its Ethiopian operation, which had $500m in 2008, is short $127m this year, equivalent to 167,000 tonnes of food. The Famine Early Warning Network forecast this month that the shortfall would reach 300,000 tonnes by December. Rations for the 6.2 million people receiving emergency food aid have, as a result, been slashed by a third from a meagre 15kg of cereals, beans and oil a month to just 10kg. Even if the shortfall were made up today, it would take three months for supplies to be loaded on to ships bound for Djibouti, then transferred to trucks for the arduous overland journey to land-locked Ethiopia.

Aid agencies are worried about the main harvest this autumn, arguing that the time for action is now, not when the food runs out in November – usually the driest month – let alone when starving children with distended bellies capture the attention of the West's television viewing public. Despite its good intentions, Bob Geldof's Live Aid came towards the end of the 1984-85 famine, which killed more than a million people. Since then, Ethiopia's population has doubled to 80 million.

Mr Zenawi's government has set up a strategic food reserve which has at times reached 500,000 tonnes – though it is currently thought to be just 200,000 tonnes – which it uses to speed up delivery. As soon as they get funds, aid agencies can borrow food from this reserve, replacing it with supplies from abroad when they arrive. Although the government could release this food without promises of replenishment, it would soon run out; after covering the WFP's 167,000 tonne shortfall, the stockpile would be barely enough to feed a million people for three months.

The underlying problem for Ethiopia is the erratic behaviour of the country's climate, or rather its regional micro-climates. Moisture-bearing clouds scudding in from the Indian Ocean can pass over the parched eastern lowlands to dump generous amounts of rain on the fertile western highlands. The famine of 1984-85, revealed by BBC reporter Michael Buerk, was actually two separate famines, one in Tigray, in the north, the other in Somali, in the south-east.

Two main rains sustain the people of Ethiopia, the belg in spring and the kiremt, which usually start in July. Both are influenced by variations in sea-surface temperature. The El Niño phenomena in the eastern Pacific usually bring droughts to Ethiopia, and America's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that the current El Niño will strengthen over the next six months. The belg has failed for two years running now, while the kiremt started three weeks late this summer and the amount of rainfall when they did come was below normal. Aid agencies fear that the season could end early, or, equally bad, produce delayed downpours just when farmers need dry weather for the harvest. Even if the kiremt ends on time in October, some crops may not reach maturity because of the late planting.

Ethiopia is overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture, and some 90 per cent of its crops are watered by nature rather than by man-made irrigation systems. During droughts, farmers and nomadic herders tend to sell off their assets to buy food, leaving them with nothing when the next growing season begins. It can take three to five years for pastoral tribes to rebuild their herds.

Although Ethiopia is particularly hard hit, drought has also affected neighbouring countries. Resources in Somali are under additional strain because nomadic tribesmen from Somalia and Kenya have driven unusually large numbers of cattle across the border in search of water and pasture. Estimates of the number of cattle coming into the country range from 95,000 to 200,000.

The spike in global food prices in 2008 exacerbated a worsening situation, hitting the urban poor particularly hard. While they have fallen back this year, the price for grains in the markets of Adis Ababa are still some 50 per cent higher than their average in the four years to 2007.

The Ethiopian government is acutely aware of the danger of famine, not least to itself. Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed a year after the 1973 famine and the Derg military junta led by Lt Col Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown in 1991 after a civil war driven in part by the 1984-85 famine. While most other countries with food shortages allow charities to distribute food, Ethiopia's government insists that the bulk of food aid must pass through its hands.

The irony is that the Zenawi regime has done a reasonable job of boosting food production, achieving self-sufficiency in the late 1990s. One agency described it as the "bread basket" of Africa, harvesting more grain in a good year than South Africa. The government promotes best practices and distributes fertiliser to farmers. It also has an ambitious scheme to relocate 2.2 million people to more fertile areas. But even it can't control the rains.

Many Africans blame climate change for the erratic weather patterns and resulting food shortages. Jean Ping, the chairman of the African Union, said last week in Adis Ababa: "Although Africa is least responsible for global warming, it suffers most from a problem it didn't create."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Abbas Daiyar of Daily Outlook Afghanistan reports that the Uzbeks are behind the attaks in Kunduz

I had missed the report by Abbas Daiyar, reproduced on The Atlantic Community website, that the recent insurgency in Kunduz has been produced by Uzbeks connected to Al Qaeda. The Uzbek involvement in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan war displays the ambiguities of the insurgent movement in the region. The Uzbek insurgents are in a sense created by the repressive practices of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. Any form of dissent in that country is branded as “wahhabi Islamism” and dealt with severely. Karimov cannot bear dissent – displayed brutally by the gunning down of hundreds of people in Andijon in 2005. So only the most extreme can survive. What that means is that whoever opposes Karimov has little place to go but to extremists. And who are the dissidents they can link up with? Al Qaeda of course.

This is not to say that they are "moderate"; only that their agendas include removing Karimov, not a major interest of Al Qaeda, whose sights are actually on the Arab world, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia; nor of the Taliban who are animated as much by their Pushtun perspective as their conservative view of the world. Also, note that these are not the Uzbeks associated with Dostum, who have long seen themselves as part of Afghanistan. The two kinds of Uzbeks have little interest in each other. So far, we hear of no serious attempts to link up with each other.

We have already noted how complex the situation is for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The situation for dissidents in Uzbekistan is analogous in some ways. Daiyar says that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been drawn into the Afghanistan war by the American deal to transport materiel into Afghanistan through the northern route. The result of these developments for the government of Afghanistan and coalition of western nations supporting it, however, is that the opposition continues to be a fragmented body of dissidents who unite when they can but have little common interest in each other's agendas. So there is no single head to be lopped off in this war, but a diverse collectivity of people who for the time being agree to fight the Americans.

Daiyar's report is very helpful and may be revealing one reason for the recently announced enlarged concerns of the American military in Afghanistan. [Click on the title for a link to the Atlantic Community site.]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Taliban: Are they close to folding or not?

The word on the Taliban is contradictory. On one had we hear that things are so bad in Afghanistan that the Americans might even give up; it's adding up to another Vietnam, they say. But then McClatchy news, one of the most independent and creative American news sources around, tells us that the Taliban in Pakistan is on the verge of caving in.
We would like to know: what is it? Is the truth simply that the Americans cannot stick it out -- again? Or is the recent activity of the Taliban a desperate attempt to hold on until the Americans leave? The venture in Afghanistan has hardly been taken seriously by the Americans for several years and now, after only a few months, even the top general is hinting that the war against the Taliban cannot be won.
In the mean time, Saeed Shah says, the Taliban, at least on the Pakistan side, is having a hard time holding out. And of course there is still the problem of Osama Bin Laden: he is still hanging out there somewhere among the Taliban after funding the most massive attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor.
There is a lot of unfinished business out there, much more than the capture and punishment of OBL. I fear that the American government will discover how strategic Afghanistan/ Pakistan is only after they have abandoned a serious attempt to fulfill promises repeatedly made out there. To leave without finishing the tasks at hand will be costly beyond measure to the modern world. These countries -- the Persian Gulf states, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India -- and the regions north of them and south of them (that is, the Indian Ocean) are collectively becoming a key flashpoint for vital world wide interests: they control not only 70% of the world's oil reserves and 70% of the world's gas reserves, and large amounts of uranium and other minerals critical to the 21st Century economy, but also they happen to be the locus of the most active and aggressive anti-American, anti-western militants in the world. I know there are other flash points, but this one has to be one of the most significant. I am dismayed that some of the (otherwise) most sensible and knowledgeable authorities on world affairs would countenance abandoning the Afghanistan/Pakistan war.
Anyway, McClatchy -- again -- gives us another way to think about what is going on out there. Thanks, Saeed Shah and McClatchy, for providing another useful contribution to the picture. [Click on the title above for the source page.]

McClatchy Washington Bureau
Posted on Sun, Aug. 23, 2009

Is Pakistan's Taliban movement on the way out?

Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling.

A wave of defections, surrenders, arrests and bloody infighting has severely weakened the movement since its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, was killed Aug. 5 in a U.S. missile strike. The announcement this weekend that Hakimullah Mehsud, a 28-year-old with a reputation as a hothead, would succeed him is likely to further widen the split.

Hakimullah has support from Taliban groups in Orakzai, where he is based, and Bajaur, both parts of the wild Pakistan tribal zone that borders Afghanistan. But the heart of the Pakistani Taliban movement lies in the Waziristan portion of the tribal area, where the warlike Mehsud and Wazir clans live and where a commander named Waliur Rehman is backed as the next chief. Rehman was very close to Baitullah Mehsud.

"There's no way that the Mehsuds and the Wazirs are going to accept Hakimullah as chief. During his lifetime, Baitullah had given every indication that when he's no more, Waliur Rehman is the next guy," said Saifullah Mahsud, an analyst at the FATA Research Centre, an independent think tank in Islamabad. "Waliur Rehman is a cool, calm, calculated guy, a very good listener... That's why the Taliban had liked Baituallah so much, he was a very cool guy, a very calm guy."

Any breakdown in the Pakistan Taliban is likely to have impact on both U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and al Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden, who is believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the focus of his movement from sending fighters into Afghanistan to fight U.S. and NATO forces to launching attacks within his own country. A new head of the Pakistan Taliban could reverse that, once again sending hundreds of fighters into Afghanistan. A weakened Taliban would be less able to provide protection for bin Laden.

Analysts said that the fact that Hakimullah was announced as leader in Orakzai and not in Waziristan was evidence of his weakness, suggesting that he cannot operate in the Taliban's heartland. But this could still herald fresh danger for Pakistan.

"Hakimullah is going to show his leadership by launching more suicide attacks," said Khalid Aziz, chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, an independent consultancy in Peshawar. "The (Pakistan) army has done a good job, it's broken the Taliban's system. It (the Taliban) is already factionalized. These schisms could become wider and they break up into fiefdoms."

Baitullah Mehsud had turned the Pakistan Taliban into a formidable military force in 2007 by joining together 13 disparate groups under an umbrella organization known as Tehreek-i-Taliban. Without his presence, the groups could devolve into disparate actors.

A series of setbacks last week could further debilitate the movement.

Pakistan authorities arrested the Taliban's high-profile spokesman, Maulvi Umer, in the tribal areas, while a key interlocutor between the Taliban and al Qaida, commander Saifullah, was also detained at a house in Islamabad where he was receiving medical treatment.

Separately, 60 Taliban fighters gave themselves up in the Swat valley in Pakistan's northwest. Many Taliban in Waziristan have defected since Baitullah Mehsud's death.

In a further sign of internal discord, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed Sunday that militants had killed Baitullah Mehsud's in-laws, including his father-in-law, on suspicion of giving away his location. The former Taliban leader had been staying at his father-in-law's house in Waziristan when he was killed by a missile fired from a U.S. drone.

The Taliban's vulnerabilities were showing even before Baitullah Mehsud's death.

The Pakistani army's operation against the Swat Taliban, which started in May, did not see other Taliban factions come to their aid, and the threatened response to the military offensive in terrorist attacks across the country was much less ferocious than feared.

Over the last year, and especially over the last few months, tribesmen from areas where the Taliban are present have started their own traditional militias, known as a "lashkar", to battle the extremists themselves.

"There are so many lashkars now operating against them (the Taliban) in different areas. That has changed the equation. It's not possible for the Taliban to confront the lashkars everywhere. The lashkars are really coming up very strongly," said Rahimullah Yousafzai, a veteran Pakistani journalist and expert on the Taliban.

Hakimullah is dreaded even within the Taliban ranks, with a reputation for killing first and asking questions later.

He made his name by attacking convoys of NATO supplies going through Pakistan's famous Khyber Pass on their way to troops in Afghanistan. Sporting a scraggly beard and the long hair that is typical of the Pakistani Taliban style, Hakimullah craves the limelight. In November last year, he invited local journalists to his base in Pakistan's tribal area, where he drove around in an American Humvee that his men had looted from a NATO convoy.

Hakimullah has personally called journalists to claim responsibility for extremist attacks inside Pakistan, including the assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team earlier this year and the bombing of a luxury hotel used by Westerners in north western city of Peshawar.

But even such a high-profile figure is something of a mystery. Pakistani intelligence agents and others asserted over the weekend that Hakimullah in fact was dead and that he was being impersonated by a relative.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

An instructive critique of the news media

One of the most troublesome features of the news business is how much carelessness there is in publications purporting to be "news." I wonder if sometimes some of it is outright falsification for polemical reasons. In fact, the outright lies being promoted in the health care debate are frightening because so many people are ready to believe them. And the fundamental news sources -- the basic empirical details checked for accuracy -- seem to be giving way to opinion these days. It's a dangerous process for a society that seeks to be "democratic." We have to have accurate information to form wise opinions and for those whom we elect to be held accountable to the best standards. It would be nice if the world were as we would like it, but since it never is, we must all seek to know it as it is.
Professor C. M. Naim has written a critique of reporters who write in Urdu that I want to share here. We should also take his critique as a warning, for the problems are as real in English as they are in Urdu. We must ensure -- whenever possible insist -- that the news services we patronize remain faithful to the best sources available.

20 Aug 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com
C.M. NAIM on Pakistan’s Conspiracy Theorists a.k.a. Urdu Columnists

Conspiracy theories naturally abound in these columns, with three dependable conspirators: America, India (i.e. Bharat in Urdu; never Hindustan), and Israel. The labels may change and become CIA, RAW, and Mossad, or Nasara (the Christians), Hunud (the Hindus), and Yahud (the Jews), but their axis of evil remains unchanged. The alliteration of the last two—hunud andyahud—makes them a favourite and indivisible pair; they generate an assertion that no one questions in Urdu in Pakistan….

The difference between the Urdu and English sister papers nurtured by the same family of publishers also stood out in stark contrast with reference to the reporting on a fatwa issued by some convention of Sunni ‘Ulema on May 17. According to Jang, the learned men of God had declared that it was haraam to commit suicide bombings, or cut the throats of Muslims. According to The News, however, the Sunni scholars had “termed the suicide attacks and beheadings as haraam.” The sages most likely meant what was said in English, but the Urdu version carried its own slant recklessly and never made it clear that the fatwa covered the necks of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. …

Finally, since I come from India, I must point out that Urdu newspapers in India are in no way better. Their columns and editorials carry similar feats of conspiratorial thinking and convoluted reasoning. And in rhetorical passion they can match any Pakistani columnist. I have written about them in the past, most recently in 2007 in a note concerning the treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen at Hyderabad. -- C.M. Naim

URL of this page:

In A La-La Land

Some of the most popular Urdu Columnists in Pakistan seem to function in a world of their own creation—it challenges rational thinking.


For the past five or six months I’ve been reading fairly regularly the web pages of three Urdu newspapers from Pakistan: Jang, Nawa-i-Waqt and the Express. I glance at the headlines cursorily then immediately turn to the columnists. Most days, each of the three carries a minimum of six columnists. Some of them are big names; they frequently appear on TV shows, get regularly invited to the President’s residence, and travel with the Prime Minister on important trips. These gentlemen never let you forget all that. One or two even give details of the food served on such occasions—there is always plenty of food served, not just a cup of tea, when they visit with any dignitary.

Some of them repeatedly tell us how uniquely they know the “history” of everything—how things actually happened, be it in Pakistan of here and now or any country in the past. They also inform us that had their advice been properly understood or taken, the disaster that followed in many cases could have been avoided. None of the sages has ever made a serious error of judgment. And if one of them ever makes a rare acknowledgment of that nature, it is always as a charge of betrayal on the part of some other party.

Conspiracy theories naturally abound in these columns, with three dependable conspirators: America, India (i.e. Bharat in Urdu; never Hindustan), and Israel. The labels may change and become CIA, RAW, and Mossad, or Nasara (the Christians), Hunud (the Hindus), and Yahud (the Jews), but their axis of evil remains unchanged. The alliteration of the last two—hunud andyahud—makes them a favourite and indivisible pair; they generate an assertion that no one questions in Urdu in Pakistan.

In these columns one discovers that M. A. Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal were never correctly understood by except the particular columnist. They also offer amazing bits of ‘history’—often with a grand flourish. You can be sure to face something remarkable soon if the paragraph begins with the words: “Tarikh gavaah hai” “History is My Witness.” Fairly often a column might appear to have been written, not to communicate some idea or information, but for the sheer joy of writing those pretty words that, for plenty of Urduwalas, make it the “sweetest” language in the world.

Urdu newspapers—or for that matter, the English language ones—do not seem to employ fact checkers or copy editors for their columnists; they seldom carry any correction except of the most minor kind. One, in fact, wonders if their editors read them. One can be quite certain that the English newspaper editors and columnists in Pakistan don’t read them, not even if these Urdu columns appear in a sister publication brought out by their own publisher. In my limited experience of reading the columns in the Daily Times and the News fairly regularly—and inDawn, infrequently—I have not come across any column in English that commented in any fashion on some Urdu column or columnist. But the Urdu columnists are certainly read by a huge number of people, who save them and treat them as gospel truth. Recently one of them published a call for people to send him their saved cuttings of his column so that he could put together a book; in no time he had more than enough.

I must now offer some illustrations. But first I must hasten to add that not all Urdu columnists in Pakistan write in that manner. Quite a few—Hameed Akhtar, Zaheda Hena, Munno Bhai, Tanwir Qaisar Shahid, Asghar Nadeem Sayyad, Abdullah Tariq Suhail, Kishwar Naheed, Rafeeq Dogar, to name my own favourites—consistently write with clarity, sober reasoning, and in a manner that is both eloquent and passionate. As for the others—the majority—meet a few below.

Hamid Mir writes a regular column in Jang; he writes with passion but is usually quite careful. I was taken aback when I read his column on April 27. He gave it the title “Children, True of Heart.” In it he described a meeting he addressed where school children were present, and where one child stood up and told him something that he had not known before. The child pointed out, Mir wrote, that America was such a sworn enemy of Pakistan that when Pakistan was born in 1947, the United States refused to recognize it for two years. The U.S. did so, according to the child, because it expected Pakistan to collapse and disappear any day. Mr. Mir was so moved by the child’s fervour and knowledge about Pakistan that he decided to write a column and acknowledge his ignorance of the truth that even a child knew. (In fact the U.S.A. recognized Pakistan on August 15, 1947, and opened an embassy the same day; the first American ambassador arrived six months later.)

Dr. A Q Khan of Kahuta fame writes regularly in both Jang and its sister English journal, The News. In his Urdu column on April 29, Dr. Khan claimed that President Obama had no authority of his own, that he was in fact totally controlled by the white men who stood to his right and left in photographs. He then asserted, without naming his sources, that President Obama had once asked that the Ka’ba should be destroyed, for that would put an end to all the conflicts the world was faced with. When I checked the English version I found it contained no mention of the Ka’ba. On inquiry, an editor at The News informed me that it had been deleted because it was based on hearsay. Apparently, hearsay was all right so long it was in Urdu.

Safir Ahmad Siddiqui, not a regular columnist, wrote a piece in Jang on May 17, denouncing any possible attempt on the part of the government to allow transit facilities to India in its trade with Afghanistan. Mr. Siddiqui reminded the readers: "what the Indians did to the Pakistanis POWs after the war of 1971-2 was of such cruel nature that historians forgot what Hitler and Mussolini had done in their prison camps." He then presented an analogy whose logic, not to mention factual accuracy, was mind-boggling. According to him Pakistan should learn something or other from Hitler and Poland. According to Mr. Siddiqui, Hitler wanted back his two lost seaports Alsace and Lorraine from Poland—no, I’m not making it up—and resorted to force only when Poland refused him even transit facilities. Therefore, Mr. Siddiqui concluded, Pakistan should also refuse India any transit facility.

The difference between the Urdu and English sister papers nurtured by the same family of publishers also stood out in stark contrast with reference to the reporting on a fatwa issued by some convention of Sunni ‘Ulema on May 17. According to Jang, the learned men of God had declared that it was haraam to commit suicide bombings, or cut the throats of Muslims. According to The News, however, the Sunni scholars had “termed the suicide attacks and beheadings as haraam.” The sages most likely meant what was said in English, but the Urdu version carried its own slant recklessly and never made it clear that the fatwa covered the necks of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Abdul Qadir Hasan is a top-slot columnist in The Express—despite the name the paper is in Urdu. On May 17, he wrote:

"In 1948, 1965, and 1971, and now again in 2009 we are fighting a fourth war with India. In this war we fight not only India but also its two patrons, USA and Israel. This triad is bent on destroying us. And this war is much more dangerous than the first three wars. In those wars, armies faced and fought armies, but this time it is a clandestine war, in which one side consists of Bharat-trained and armed guerrillas, i.e. Taliban, and facing them on the other side stands the regular soldiers of Pakistan.”

This theme, common to so many columnists, was given its most perfervid interpretation five days later (May 22) by Dr. Ajmal Niazi, who is a top-slot columnist in Nawa-i-Waqt. He entitled his column: ''Pakistan will be the battlefield of the Third World War.” He made three powerful assertions—he did not use the word mubayyana (“alleged”) anywhere. (The word is rarely, if at all, used in Urdu columns.).

Seymour Hersh, Dr. Niazi claimed, had disclosed that Benazir Bhutto was killed at the orders of Vice President Dick Cheney, and by a death squad commanded by Gen. Stanley C Crystal. He further claimed that Z.A. Bhutto, Murtaza Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto were all killed by the Americans. Finally, Dr. Niazi claimed that Benazir Bhutto had given an interview to Al-Jazira on Nov. 2, 2007, in which she had said that Osama bin Laden was already dead, and that he had been killed at the orders of Shaikh Umar Sa'id. But the Americans ordered [whom?] to have the remark deleted, because if bin Laden were already dead they—the Americans—would have had no reason to do what they did in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having thus established to his own and his readers’ satisfaction a chain of reasoning, Dr. Niazi concluded his column with a scary flourish.

“The Western and American media are in an uproar over Pakistan’s nuclear bombs, but they should also listen to me. I’m telling them that if the nuclear weapons of Pakistan were put in any danger the third world war will immediately start. Then both India and Israel will cease to exist. What will the United States do then? The battlefield of ‘World War III’ will be Pakistan.”

Then there are the wonderful “insider’s exclusives” about the great ones. Here is Mr. Majeed Nizami, the chief editor and owner of Nawa-i-Waqt and The Nation, in a letter to his main rival Jang (May 23), explaining a remark he reportedly had made.

“The bomb-exploder prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif had called a meeting of some 60 or 70 journalists and editors to seek their advice before deciding to have the nuclear tests. Many people of I.A. Haqqani’s ilk opposed the idea, and tried to frighten him by warning of America's wrath. He clearly seemed to waver. At that time I was indeed forced to speak to him firmly. ‘Miyan Sahib,’ I said to him, ‘explode the bomb otherwise the nation will explode you. We will explode you.' And Almighty Allah gave him the ability to explode the bomb. But before that could happen President Clinton phoned him five times, offered millions in bribe, and [finally even] threatened him [personally].”

And here is a charming vignette from one of Mr. Mahmud Sham’s columns—I regret my failure to note the date; it was sometime in May—that contained excerpts from his book of interviews.

“Dr Fahmida Mirza has vacated her seat for me and taken another chair. Now I'm seated on the chair next to the Daughter of the East, the first Muslim woman Prime Minister in the Muslim World, the Life Chairperson of P.P.P., Honourable Benazir Bhutto. Also present are other senior journalists, TV anchorpersons, newspaper proprietors, and her party's senior leaders. She wants to know if she should take part in the elections... It's a good thing that she is seeking advice from people who are outside her party. Most of us want her to take part in the elections. She is asking each person individually. The tea has come, together with Chaat. She herself enjoys Chaat. Her dupatta keeps slipping, but she never lets it fall. I'm seeing her after many years and so my feelings are intense.”

In this la-la land of column writing in Urdu in Pakistan three names stand out in my view: Irfan Siddiqui, Dr. Aamir Liaquat Husain, and Haroon-al-Rashid. All three are regular columnists forJang. The first two surpass everyone in finding ‘facts’ where facts may not exist; they also write with great verve in an Urdu that has all the flourishes and graces required in a ghazal. The third, Mr Haroon-al-Rashid, is in a class by himself. I cannot put into English his pyrotechnical Urdu and his riffs of free-association. He must be read in the original. But here is one sample each of Mr. Siddiqui’s and Dr. Husain’s insightful writings.

In a column in May—I apologize again for not noting the date—Dr Husain first defended himself against the charges of faking his doctorate degree, then wrote:

“Those who invoke the name of the Qaid-e-Azam should first show they have the samenafs [“lower self” in mystical thought]. He was educated in England, grew up surrounded by Western culture, and started his political life from the platform of a secular party. But when he became the leader of 'those who were his own' he never took removed his cap from his head or took off sherwani; he did not let his nafs rule over him for a moment; he did not use the broom of greed to sweep the yard of his desires (sic). He knew he was the leader of the Muslims, and so he always looked like them among them. He knew how to wear a suit much better than many who wear suits; he knew how to cross his legs and smoke cigars. He had seen such scenes many times in the durbar of the British, but he also understood that millions of people oppressed by the Hindus had whole-heartedly claimed him as their own. And so he gave all his wishes and desires the name of Pakistan, and never looked back to that Muhammad Ali who perhaps had some personal desires too.”

And here is Mr Irfan Siddiqui on a topic that was hot for a couple of days in May. He wrote in his column in Jang (May 23):

“President Zardari was in Washington. A schoolmistress named Hilary Clinton had him and the Clown of Kabul sit on her either side, and then lectured them. In every gathering, every meeting, and every function it was specially arranged that Hamid Karzai should be on the right hand [of the American dignitary] and President Zardari on the left. I do not recall any occasion in the past when an American Secretary of State conducted a meeting of two presidents in such a fashion.”

Finally, since I come from India, I must point out that Urdu newspapers in India are in no way better. Their columns and editorials carry similar feats of conspiratorial thinking and convoluted reasoning. And in rhetorical passion they can match any Pakistani columnist. I have written about them in the past, most recently in 2007 in a note concerning the treatment meted out to Taslima Nasreen at Hyderabad.

C. M. NAIM is Professor Emeritus of Urdu at the University of Chicago. Besides being an acclaimed columnist, he has written extensively on Urdu language and literature and has translated widely from Urdu fiction and poetry.

Source: Outlook newsmagazine, New Delhi,

URL of this page:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Women to be punished for breaking Islamic rules

The AP reports, that a Malaysian woman is to be officially caned for drinking beer under newly established Islamic law. The same article mentions the case of a woman in Sudan who has been sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public.

[Click on the title for the source article in the Guardian.]

Sayano-Shushenskaya: Telltale signs of an aging infrastructure in Russia

The damage at the Russian power plant at the massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant in southern Siberia may have large repercussions inside Russia but it has earned scarcely a note in the American press. It is Russia's largest power plant, providing 10 percent of Siberia's energy needs and a key energy supplier for Siberian metallurgy. When it was built, the Soviets trumpeted it as an achievement of the Communist system. Last Monday a mysterious explosion caused the power plant's turbine room to flood. No one seems to think it was sabotage; officials say that rising pressure in some pipes were the cause. In any case, the current count of the dead is 17 and 57 people are missing.

The event exposes an issue that the Russian administration has had a hard time facing: the old Soviet-built infrastructure is aging. From what I have heard, sometimes the original product suffered from pilfering and hasty, substandard work; I know of one attempt to expose substandard work on a pipeline project finished in the 1970s. In any case, whatever was built by the Soviets – and they took pride in the industrial development projects – is now at least 18 years old and much of it is decades older. This was the point of an article in Izvestia by Sergei Leskov. He says "Equipment and infrastructure are horrendously worn-out and neglected. An urge for modernization and support for high technology are no longer an issue of economic security — they are badly needed for the survival of Russian citizens."

[Click on the title for a link to the latest report.]

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Growing Disrepute of the Health Insurance Industry

I am still alarmed at the behavior of the executives of the health industry in their deliberate and open claim before Congress that they are still prepared to refuse coverage to paying clients whose health costs become large. Who of us is not liable to suffer under such a program? Where would we go to get coverage we could trust? I am also astonished at how willing the insurance industry is to allow if not promote misinformation about what a national health care program would entail.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: The Insurance industry claims the right to cancel coverage when they deem the need in a specific case to be too expensive. Who of us can predict that our medical needs will never become expensive? The statement by three top executives in the health insurance industry told us that that is the case. The following is an excerpt from the report of the Hearing Of The Oversight And Investigations Subcommittee Of The House Energy And Commerce Committee – “Terminations Of Individual Health Policies By Insurance Companies.” The hearing took place on 06/16/2009.

REP. STUPAK: Let me ask of our CEOs this question, starting with you Mr. Hamm, would you commit today that your company will never rescind another policy unless there was intentional fraud -- fraudulent misrepresentation in the application?
MR. HAMM: I would not commit to that.
REP. STUPAK: How about you Mr. Collins, would you commit to not to rescind any policy unless there is an intentional fraudulent misrepresentation?
MR. COLLINS: No, sir. We follow the state laws and regulations. And we would not stipulate to that. That's not consistent with each states' laws.
REP. STUPAK: How about you, Mr. Sassi, would you commit that your company will never rescind another policy unless there was an intentional fraud, misrepresentation?
MR. SASSI: No, I can't commit to that. The intentional standard is not the law of the land in the majority of states.

Moreover, it turns out that a substantial number of cases of extreme need have been cancelled. And which ones were canceled? Those with the most need for coverage, of course. A July 27, 2009, publication of the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the United States Congress entitled “Insurance Company CEO Cannot Explain His Company’s Own Application Form” states the following:

“As part of a year-long investigation, the Committee examined more than 116,000 pages of documents showing that these companies retroactively terminated, or “rescinded,” nearly 20,000 policies over the past five years based on omissions in applications that the companies identified only after the policyholders became ill. These rescissions resulted in savings to the companies of more than $300 million.
“The documents revealed numerous cases in which the companies rescinded policies for omissions that were based on health conditions completely unknown to the policyholders, unrelated to the illnesses being treated, unintentional, or caused by others, including the insurance companies’ own agents. The insurance applications were often vague, confusing, and filled with medical jargon that most applicants do not understand.”

I don't know where to go with this, how to awaken a wider sense of alarm about it. As one measure I have written my own insurance agent. Admittedly he has nothing to do with health insurance industry -- and I believe he's an honest guy -- but I want to warn him of the eventual consequences, even for him and for the industry in general, of the policies that those executives have defended before Congress. To spread my concern as widely as possible I attach here a copy of my letter to him.

[Click on the title for a link to Galloway's comment.]

Dear ????

You know that my family does essentially all our insurance contracts with you, so I am writing you to express my concern about the insurance industry.

The behavior of the health industry is seriously damaging the respect that we all have had for the industry. As you know, insurance requires trust. What the health insurance industry executives are now doing has seriously undermined my confidence that any insurance program has my interest at heart. To explain my concern I attach a letter I wrote to my health insurer. I also include here a copy of Joe Galloway's recent article about the industry.

Note that the industry is spending 1.4 million dollars a day to make sure that a national health care program is never established. That money comes from the premiums of those whose contracts they hold. In addition, the executives of these companies are exceedingly well paid -- with, again, the premiums of those who have contracts with them, premiums that were meant to ensure health coverage of families for the time when they have health problems.

What alarms me is the recent declaration of the leaders of the industry that they would not cease to cancel contracts of people whose illnesses become too expensive. This was a way of saying that their first commitment was to their Wall Street investors -- not in those who invest in their insurance contracts in order to have coverage when they need it. The executives are prepared to break a contract with those who are paying them premiums in order to satisfy the interests of the large investors who control stock in their companies.

Even though it is well known that the public favors a national insurance system of some sort, the industry -- they have to be the ones behind this -- has allowed the public to believe that a government insurance program would constitute a socialist take over, would foster euthanasia, would take away extant insurance contracts, etc. This is the kind of misinformation that was used against the Medicare Bill. Of course now there is virtually no interest in abandoning Medicare.

My understanding of insurance is that it is meant to be a common pool into which everyone pays so that those who have exigencies can be provided for when critical needs arise. This is not what the industry is now doing: It is now merely an investment tool by which to make money for those who hold stock, and by implication those who hold the most stock in the company. This is a contradiction in the concept of providing protection for the health needs of the public. Is the industry there to provide for the needs of those who pay premiums, or for the interests of those who demand ever higher profits?

I realize you can do little about it, perhaps not much more than I can. But I'm writing to you to encourage you to pass the word up the line that these executives have seriously undermined the appearance of integrity that your industry must have in order to prosper. They are about to make themselves as disreputable as the tobacco company executives. You have a stake in this because your prosperity demands that you successfully reassure your clients that you are watching out for their welfare, not the welfare of the investors in your industry.

The collapse of confidence in your profession may not take place in a day, and in fact there is a good chance that the activities of the health insurance companies will win this time. But as it was for the tobacco industry, confidence and respect will erode. Eventually you and the industry will pay a price. And because you have a small company you might end up paying a very big price -- in the costs of your personal health care and costs of health care for your company.

I invite you to read the recent statement by Galloway and to see the letter I sent to my own health insurance agency.

Best, Bob Canfield

Idealism vs reality in Central Asian transport arrangements

Deirdre Tynan reports on Eurasia Insight that the Central Asian route of supply for the American war project in Afghanistan isn't working as planned. Welcome to the real world of Central Asia. What's most interesting in the article is the statement that the best route of supply is through Iran. Yes, that much has been true all along. Iran is the best route of access into Afghanistan (along with Pakistan) but because the Iranian government (lets not say the Iranians) is so obnoxious. RLC [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

Eurasia Insight:
Deirdre Tynan: 7/23/09

The Northern Distribution Network, an American-assembled logistical pipeline designed to ease and expand the flow of supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan, is off to a lackluster start.

The land routes for the delivery of non-military goods from Europe to Afghanistan via Central Asia provided just over 250 containers between June 5 and July 14. That total is far short of the number originally envisioned by military planners. During a Senate hearing in March, Gen. Duncan McNabb, the head of TRANSCOM, the military's transport wing, predicted that the NDN would transport "hundreds of containers" per day.


In June and July, according to publicly available data, only seven containers a day on average were arriving in Afghanistan via the NDN. A commercial source, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the performance as "ridiculous." Railway experts have also questioned whether the Uzbek rail route, which crosses the Afghan border at Termez-Hairaton, is capable of handling the amount of traffic envisioned by the US military and its allies.

David Brice, an international rail consultant who made recommendations on upgrading the capacity of Hairatan two years ago, said the depot remains under-equipped to deal with a large volume of traffic. "There will certainly be a capacity problem in the Termez-Hairatan section, which two years ago was handling its full capacity of three or four trains daily without the US traffic," Brice said.

... . "The ideal route for this traffic would be deep sea via Bandar Abbas and the new Iranian rail line being built from Sangan to Herat. It’s a massive problem, though, due to the current political tension between the United States and Iran."

... Given the complexities of overland operations, an air-transit deal for arms and military equipment, struck by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in early July, appears to be an important breakthrough. However, America's partners in the region say similar arrangements with the United States have not been negotiated.

Daniyar Mukataev, a spokesman for the Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Communications said, "There are no agreements or talks between Kazakhstan and the United States on the transit of military cargoes through the territory of Kazakhstan. ...

Some regional observers suggest the United States may have underestimated the complexities, both political and logistical, of establishing the NDN. "We have to realize that this network implies crossing of the borders of several states and every transit country is looking out for its own material interests," said Andrei Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow.

....Central Asian leaders publicly express concern about the security threats originating from Afghanistan, but, although they don't say so openly, the NDN is also seen as a lucrative opportunity, Grozin said. "The United States understands that for solving its geopolitical and other problems, it has to pay," he added.

But many experts are asking: is Washington overpaying? Several indicators would seem to suggest that the Pentagon's tendency to throw money at the problem is not producing desired results. Not only is the rail network not delivering as expected, financially speaking it's shaping up as something of a boondoggle.

Russian and Uzbek companies are reorganizing their structures to take maximum advantage of the Pentagon's commercial approach to the NDN. In a move designed to get the network up and running quickly, defense officials eased tender rules to allow for lucrative contracts to be granted with no competitive oversight. That has seemed to stimulate a feeding frenzy among regional transport entities.


Editor's Note: Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Where justice is denied and criminals are safe: Is there such a country?

How would you like to live in a country where:

• A man with a police record of 70 murders has never had a conviction that stuck.
• Where the weakness of the state is matched by the strength of its criminals.
• Where a criminal commands a broad network of friends in and out of government who can be launched against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating the police, so that nearly all of the prosecutions against him collapse.
• Where the founder of a militant group that organized last year’s attacks in Mumbai, India, killing more than 160 people, will soon be released from jail.
• Where police have no forensics tools, so that the burden falls on witnesses, who, without a functioning protection program, routinely refuse to appear.
• Where the country’s intelligence agencies nurture militants as proxy forces who can intimidate the police.
• Where civilian victims, judges or even police officials, dare not buck the untouchable network of support for criminals by the intelligence agencies.
• Where the government spy agency supports a hard-line Sunni group committed to killing Shia of all kinds.
• Where only 3 percent of murder cases end in conviction.
• Where the police ask for money to pursue cases and fulfill illegal orders from higher-ups to make deals with criminals.
• Where an honest police officer spent three months persuading a telephone line repairman to testify as a witness, coaxing a handwriting expert to testify in court, facing the intimidation of his car being sprayed with bullets, only to have the conviction he achieved overturned by the Supreme Court.
• Where militant groups have linked up with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and criminal gangs have international ambitions.

Welcome to Pakistan. The people of that country deserve better.

[Click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Iran's Embarrassing Abuse of Its Own: Mullah Abtahi

Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal today provides “before and after” pictures of Muhammad Ali Abtahi that seem to reveal how much weight Abtahi has lost in prison. Abtahi holds the rank of Khojat ul Islam, second only to the rank of Ayatullah, and was a Vice President of Iran under former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami. Since being out of office Abtahi himself has been a familiar figure, as he blogged about affairs in Iran. As he is well connected his stories of conversations among the religious elite in Iran provide a glimpse of what that secluded world is like.

Owing to his involvement in the demonstrations against the regime he has been detained in an Iranian prison for nearly two months. He is now the poster boy for the regime’s claim that the election on June 12 was not rigged. His statement in court claims that the ring leaders of the opposition had been planning their activities for years Of course the regime’s claim that this is Abtahi’s personal statement is spurious. Who would suppose that after many weeks in prison and a loss of about a fifth of his weight Abtahi would come to this view on his own? Yes, he has lost more than 40 pounds. He is short and weighed at least 200 pounds when he visited us here in St Louis a couple years ago (a guest of Covenant Seminary, during which time he paid a visit to Washington University), so a loss of that much weight in so few days comes to about two or three pounds a day for over 20 days. Whatever they are doing to him includes starvation. Have a look at Fassihi’s photos and his report: