Sunday, May 29, 2011

North Korea as a concentration camp

The more we know about North Korea the more it looks like a concentration camp -- the whole country, a place where the government has for years sought to seal its population from all outside influences. It is hard to internalize how abusive the place is.

This is a country whose abuses of its own citizenry awaken images of Nazi "race science." The BBC says that North Korea is testing new chemical weapons on women and children. In fact, the families that fail to have pedigrees of fully obedient citizens for three generations have been used in such "scientific" tests. [See the following site:]
Hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned without charge. It's not because they have committed a crime. It is because their relatives are believed to be critical of the regime and so they are punished.
According to President Kim Jong Il, the bad blood and seed of any dissident must be rooted out down to three generations.
Forced labour and starvation rations ensure that prisoners do not escape. Those who try to are publicly executed.

Kwon Hyok, a former North Korean army intelligence officer, was also chief guard at "Prison Camp no. 22". For the first time on camera, he describes specially-made glass gas chambers used for human experimentation.
Another source on conditions in North Korea is a video that shows several thousand children starving on the streets, ignored and unprotected. [See the following site:]

Also, the PBS News Hour recently aired a clip from a forthcoming film, Kimjungilia, that documents the horrors of life in North Korea. Here are some of the statements about conditions in the country, from that clip.
[W]hen I started forced labor [at the age of nine], I didn't have time for them [pet fish]. I didn't even have time to cry. Every day was so tiring. We worked so hard. I was so cold. You don't care about your pet fish when you're dying.
We never knew when we'd get beaten. There was constant fear.
Another speaker
… in 1994, we were having a very hard time. We would go to the mountains to pick roots. We ate grass from the fields and bark from the trees.
The experience of a young woman:
Narrator: There are an estimated 300,000 prisoners in the camps today. But even outside the camps, life is difficult. There are fears that food shortages could get as bad as they were in the mid-'90s, when Byeon Ok-soon was growing up.
… Byeon Ok-soon lived with her parents, three brothers, and sister in a northern town. The only source of food was the state-run distribution system. By the time she was 17 that system had collapsed.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): One day, I was with my father in the mountains. I got soaked with rain while we were foraging. After we finished I went home. My body started to burn and I fainted.
We had nothing to eat and we certainly couldn't buy medicine. So, they laid me to one side, waiting for me to die. I had typhoid fever and was in a coma.
NARRATOR: Ok-soon woke up from her coma in China. Her brother had carried her on his back across the Tumen River. He left her in the care of an old woman while he looked for work to pay for her medical treatment.
As the oldest brother, it was his duty to care for his parents and siblings. He took his duty very seriously.
BYEON OK-SOON (through translator): After he saved me in China, with our parents back in North Korea, my brother felt very tortured. He would get food and take it back to our parents. He was constantly sneaking back and forth.
When he realized the North Korean authorities were on to him, he decided to give himself up. If you give yourself up, you expect to receive a lighter sentence. That's what he thought. Instead, he was taken and publicly executed.
A former Captain in the military:
PARK MYUNG-HO, escaped North Korea (through translator): The military suffered, too. The state only supplied us with rice and salt. We had to get everything else ourselves.
NARRATOR: Park Myung-ho was a captain in the Korean People's Army. He served for 20 years. His father had also been a soldier.
PARK MYUNG-HO (through translator): These days, many officers desert. Even if you want to work, there are always supplies missing, making it impossible to do the job. But commanders go on issuing orders every day. You have to steal the supplies you need.
If you care at all, it is impossible not to express your frustration. Consequently, many are arrested. That's what drove me to escape. We decided to cross the 38th Parallel by boat. We evaded navy ships twice. Because our boat was small and theirs were big, we could see them first and get away.
Actually, the North Korean ships had no fuel. They couldn't start their engines and were under sail. When I saw all the trees on the mountains, I knew we were in South Korea.
Another man’s escape:
I came up with the idea of escaping. I knew we could get shot or electrocuted. All of a sudden, I was afraid. And then my friend said, "I don't think we can do it." But I couldn't give up. I had to escape. I practically dragged him. And then I slipped in the snow, so he ran ahead of me. When I saw the wired gates, I figured he was squeezing through the electric wires. So, I followed his lead and squeezed through, too. When I got up and looked behind me, I realized I was on the other side of the gates. And then I saw my friend was stuck and didn't move. He was still stuck in the wires. If I hadn't fallen, I would have been the first to squeeze through the electric wire. I would have been the one electrocuted.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Converging layers of hypocrisy in Bahrain's abuse of its own citizenry

In an op-ed piece in Al Jazeera ["The role of the Islamic Republic in Bahrain," 27 May 2011] Hamid Dabashi points out the many layers of hypocrisy that have converged in the treatment of demonstrators in Bahrain. His primary focus is Iran, but in the process of explaining Iran's perfidy he mentions that of several other countries that happen to be hostile to Iran.
"The Sunni royal family in Saudi Arabia," according to Britain's Daily Telegraph, "fears the growing influence of Shiite Iran in the Middle East, and is helping Bahrain's Sunni rulers retain power."
"the [UK] Ministry of Defence has now admitted that members of the Saudi Arabian National Guard sent into Bahrain may have received military training from the British Armed Forces in Saudi Arabia".
In the mean time Bahrain is the home of the US Fifth-Fleet,
"which makes "the great advocate of democracy" turn a blind eye to the murderous regime in Bahrain. . . "
Even though Iran's Shiite clerical regime might seem to support the Shiite demonstrations in Bahrain it is fully aware of the resemblance of those demonstrations to those of its own Shiite citizens it has repeatedly suppressed. The last thing the Iranians want is for those demonstrations to succeed.
The influence of the Islamic Republic in Bahrain is on the ruling regime: teaching it, by example, how viciously to quell a democratic revolt.
Saudi Arabia, Britain, the United States, Iran -- these countries for various and contrary reasons are supporting the Bahrain regime's abuses of its own people:
"The repression," Patrick Cockburn reports, "is across the board. Sometimes the masked security men who raid Shia villages at night also bulldoze Shia mosques and religious meeting places. At least 27 of these have so far been wrecked or destroyed, while anti-Shia and pro-government graffiti is often sprayed on any walls that survive." He further reports, "Nurses and doctors in a health system largely run by Shias have been beaten and arrested for treating protesters. Teachers and students are being detained. Some 1,000 professional people have been sacked and have lost their pensions. The one opposition newspaper has been closed. Bahraini students who joined protests abroad have had their funding withdrawn."
The Bahrain regime has even set about to silence all authentic reporting on what's going on inside the country.
"Bahraini authorities have begun an assault on local journalists working for international news agencies - with arrests, beatings and, apparently in one instance, electric shock."
States, whatever their claims, can be heartless when it comes to protecting their own interests. Even the U.S.; even Britain.

Dabashi's point is that the Bahraini regime is no better than that of Iran, as both repress their citizens with impunity.
[T]he Islamic Republic and Bahrain are in fact identical - not just in the majority of their population being Shia but in being ruled by two identically brutal and intolerant dictatorships. The Islamic Republic is frightened out of its wits by the Arab Spring, especially on its own back door, in Bahrain: for the more this Spring blooms and flowers the more it exposes the criminal atrocities of the Islamic Republic over the past thirty years, including, most recently, its own homegrown Green Movement - which one might in fact consider an early blooming of the Arab Spring.
[Click on the title above for a link to the whole piece.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Abuse of Netanyahu's heckler

Below is an excerpt from Moral Low Ground's report on the treatment of a heckler of Israel's Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Compare this with my previous entry on the Syrian state's abuses of its own citizens. There is a difference: at least she wasn't shot; and there are reasonable constraints on the exercise of such abuse in this country. But this is no way to treat a heckler. RLC

Moral Low Ground 24th May 2011

Code Pink Activist Rae Abileah Attacked by AIPAC Thugs During Netanyahu D.C. Speech, then Arrested in Hospital. Rae Abileah, an activist from the anti-war group Code Pink, was assaulted by a group of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) thugs after she interrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of the US Congress in Washington, DC earlier today.
According to The Raw Story, Abileah shouted “STOP ISRAELI WAR CRIMES!” and was then tackled by the AIPAC Zionists. She sustained injuries to her neck and shoulder and was taken to George Washington University Hospital for treatment. While there, she was placed under arrest for bravely standing up to Israeli crimes against humanity.
Abileah said she was “in great pain” but her ordeal was nothing “compared to the pain and suffering that Palestinians go through on a regular basis.”
“I have been to Gaza and the West Bank,” she said. “I have seen Palestinians’ homes bombed and bulldozed, I have talked to mothers whose children have been killed during the invasion of Gaza, I have seen the Jewish-only roads leading to ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank. This kind of occupation cannot continue… I feel obligated to rise up and speak out against these crimes being committed in my name and with my tax dollars.”
Bravo, Ms. Abileah. Couldn’t have said it better myself. And yet she was arrested, not the vile war criminal Netanyahu, who presides over one of the most despicably racist, colonialist states on earth? . . .
[Click on the title above for a link to the original article.]

Syria's betrayal of its own claims to legitimacy

What the regime in Syria has lost in legitimacy is unrecoverable. The reality of that loss can hardly be said more eloquently than in this Al Jazeera report by Hugh Macleod and an unnamed correspondent [probably in Syria]. RLC [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

Secret police are raiding hospitals to round up people who were injured during anti-government protests.
by Hugh Macleod and a special correspondent 24 May 2011

Fawaz al-Haraki had only minutes to live.

As the shots rang out, Abu Haidar and the other protesters ran for cover, grimly familiar with what to do when the mukhabberat (secret police) attacked.

But Fawaz fell, the blood soaking his trousers where the bullet from a Syrian secret policeman had torn into his leg.

It was Friday April 22 in the industrial city of Homs, famous for being the nation's main producer of jokes and cement.

Few are laughing for Homs or its dirty factory these days. Last Friday, 11-year-old Aiham al-Ahmad became the latest among dozens of people killed in Homs since the city rose up in some of the largest numbers yet seen to call for freedom and an end to the Assad family's 41-year-old dictatorship.

As the bullets sparked off the street around them, Abu Haidar and two other protesters hauled 42-year-old Fawaz into a car, desperate to get him to a doctor before his time ran out.

But Fawaz, growing pale under a blanket in the backseat of Abu Haider's car, was already a dead man: Killed not only by a bullet, but by the regime's decision – appearing, increasingly, to be systematic – to prevent injured protestors from receiving medical care.

From the moment he was shot until the moment he was buried in the ground, Fawaz's fate was not in the hands of the doctors, friends and family who wished to save him, but in the hands of secret policemen whose actions ensured that he died, and that as few people knew about it as possible.

Nowhere to go

"They have checkpoints everywhere and we knew they could stop the car at any moment, even if we were acting normally," said Abu Haidar, who has been a consistently reliable source for Al Jazeera's reporting from Homs since the uprising began.

He had good reason to be worried.

On that same Friday, three other cars ferrying wounded protestors from Homs disappeared after approaching a security checkpoint. One of the drivers, Raed Mehran, had been on the phone with Wissam Tarif, director of Insan, a Syrian human rights organisation, hanging up saying he was approaching a checkpoint.

Several weeks later, Tarif received news that four of the men in the cars had died while the others had been imprisoned.

"It is beyond arbitrary detention. It is people being kidnapped. In many cases injured people are being kidnapped and we do not know if any medical attention is provided or not," said Tarif.

In Jabla, on Syria's Mediterranean coast, the injured from an attack on April 24 couldn't even be bundled into a car, pinned down inside the Hamwi Mosque by snipers shooting anyone who moved outside.

"We can't even get to the pharmacy to get medicine because of the snipers on the roofs," said Dr Zakariya al-Akkad. "All I can do is try and stop the bleeding." He couldn't, and 17-year-old Ali Halabi, along with several others, died.

Abu Haidar and his team had managed to avoid the checkpoints, but didn't spot the plain clothes security men pulling up to them in the car behind. The security men opened fire.

. . . "We were driving really fast and trying to keep our heads down. There were bullets all around. We were risking our lives but also the life of Fawaz because when you are injured like that every moment is important," he said.

The car swerved down a back alley to escape the mukhabberat.

"It was complete chaos but we know the neighbourhood much better than the security so we managed to escape with our lives," said Abu Haidar.

Not so for the man they were trying to help: "Because we were forced to make that long journey, Fawaz bled to death."

Al Jazeera has also reported that security forces, including snipers on rooftops, prevented residents from assisting the dead and dying during the siege of Deraa.

Human Rights Watch documented cases of security forces preventing casualties reaching hospital and firing on protesters seeking to help the wounded in Harasta, a town 12km north-east of Damascus, and also in Deraa.

'They entered the hospital'

Even without the secret police attacking their car, Abu Haidar said his options for getting Fawaz to a doctor had already been drastically limited: "We were not willing to take him to the national hospital in Homs because we thought he would be arrested and kidnapped there."

In cases repeated in several different Syrian cities, Al Jazeera has been able to document raids on hospitals by members of the secret police who have snatched injured protestors from their beds and forced them, some on stretchers, into police vehicles where they are driven to what are suspected to be military hospitals.

On April 22, the same day Fawaz died, a young nurse was on duty in the emergency ward of a hospital in Duma, a town 15 km north-east of Damascus, where tens of thousands had been protesting against the regime.

It was her fifth consecutive Friday on call. Before the protests began, the emergency department would receive three or four people per day, usually from car accidents, she said. This Friday, as before, the hospital would admit 30 to 40 emergency cases, almost all of them gunshot wounds to the upper body.

"I was in the hospital between eight and nine in the evening when about 20 security men with Kalashnikovs entered the hospital and asked reception to give them the names of all patients submitted that day," the nurse told Al Jazeera, speaking on the condition that her identity and the name of the hospital not be revealed.

"We were afraid of them. They asked us to bring them all the wounded, not those who were just normally ill."

The doctors and nurses were made to escort all 30 injured protesters, some of them carried on stretchers, from their beds to the police vehicles.

"I remember a teenager who was injured in his arm. He was exhausted, but they put him in a car anyway and he was crying from the pain. But I couldn't do anything for him," said the nurse. "They told us they were taking them to the military and police hospitals to treat them under their observation."

On the same day, also in Duma, residents formed a human shield around the gates of the private-run Hamdan Hospital, trying to prevent secret police arresting the 25 injured protesters receiving treatment inside.

"This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by the secret police," said a man who took part in the human shield, which he said broke up after security forces fired on it and then arrested several injured patients.

In two other suburbs of Damascus, Berze and Maadamiyeh, Al Jazeera spoke to local doctors who said they had resorted to treating injured protestors in private homes or make-shift field clinics after relatives reported loved ones going missing from hospitals.

Also on April 22, a 13-year-old boy from Maadamiyeh died from a gunshot wound, said a local doctor, after secret police beat his father as he tried to get his son to hospital in neighbouring Daraya.

On April 23, an eyewitness in Deraa described to Al Jazeera how he saw military and plain-clothes security officers kill five people around the state hospital before breaking in and carrying out the wounded on stretchers.

In Homs itself, a week after Fawaz died, members of a local tribe stood watch around the Al-Barr private hospital to try and protect wounded protestors from police raids.

On May 5, Homs residents again formed a human shield, this time around the main hospital in Bab al-Sebah, while last Friday three people were killed when security forces opened fire on locals trying to protect a hospital in Homs' Al-Waar neighbourhood.

"They prevent patients from being taken to hospital," said a doctor directly involved in treating patients under the custody of the secret police. "It is something horrible. We feel hate towards this security regime."

Treated or tortured?

Injured protestors in the custody of security forces also stand less chance of receiving adequate medical care, according to testimony from doctors speaking to Al Jazeera and human rights researchers.

"When we were treating patients from the protests the mukhaberrat said to us, 'You don't have to take care for these people, you have to care for the injured security men,'" the doctor who treated patients in police custody told Al Jazeera.

"As doctors we have our priorities, but the mukhaberrat don't accept our priorities. It's not like they say, 'We will kill you if you care for the patients,' but the doctors cannot say no to them. They are very afraid."

As Al Jazeera first reported last month, Syrian doctors have come under direct pressure not to treat injured protesters.

Insan, a leading Syrian human rights organisation, documented the case of Hussein Moutaz Issa, 23, who died in police custody after being arrested with a gunshot wound left untreated.

Issa was shot in his right shoulder by security forces while trying to escape door-to-door raids on homes in Madaya, 40 km northwest of Damascus, on April 28. He made it to a neighbour's house where several eyewitnesses, one of them with a medical background, told Insan they managed to stop the bleeding and the wound appeared non-fatal.

But later that night Issa was arrest and died in police custody, his body left at the main regional hospital in Zabadani. According to a doctor from the hospital who spoke to Insan, Issa had bled to death after receiving no medical attention.

"He was left without medical attention and bled to death," said the doctor. "This is homicide. I saw the body myself. This young man was not offered any medical attention."

Even more disturbingly, the body showed marks of torture.

"He was not even left to die in peace," said the doctor. "It seems that after he was captured he was severely beaten."

Issa's death prompted a massive funeral march carrying his body from Zabadani back to Madaya, with thousands of people chanting for the downfall of the regime.
In a graphic and disturbing video from May 19, residents of Deraa display the body of a man said to be 75-year-old Mohammed Hassan Zubi, who was shot in the neck but whose body also bore the scars of severe beating and other torture.

Laid to rest, not in peace

Shot when protesting for freedom, Fawaz Haraki bled to death, like many others, because the actions of Syrian security forces prevented him from receiving the medical attention he needed.

Yet even after his death, the secret police continued to impose their restrictions and repression.

According to Abu Haidar, who delivered the body to them, Fawaz's family were visited by secret police and forced to sign papers stating they would not bury Fawaz in the central Al Kateeb cemetery – now renamed Martyrs' cemetery – but instead on the outskirts of the city, in the Tal Al Nasser cemetery, where the authorities hoped few would gather.

It was a scheme the mukhaberrat was using elsewhere. Just hours after residents of Homs gathered to bury Fawaz, to the south, in the Damascus suburb of Berze, a small group of mourners gathered in the dead of night to bury seven-year-oldIsraa Younes, shot by security forces the day before.

Having snatched bodies from the streets of Berze, the secret police forced families of those shot to sign papers stating their loved ones had been killed by "armed gangs" before they would release the bodies for burial.

Families had also to agree to hold the funeral at night. The same practise took place in Duma, only there the protestors, according to the regime's paperwork, had been killed by "terrorists".
But Fawaz's funeral had the power of numbers. Born aloft by a procession of some 6,000 mourners, Fawaz's body was carried not to the outskirts of the city, but straight to the Martyrs' cemetery in central Homs, an act of defiance at the last, an assertion of rights in death which the regime had so systematically removed from his life, even in its last minutes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sober reflections on Doomsday in the Arctic Ocean

"The doomsday [scenario] would be competitive resource wars. As climate change gets worse, people will be pushed to get more resources to run their air conditioners and so forth. My prediction is that we are still going to be addicted to oil (when the main icecaps melt) and these resources are going to be extracted by the most powerful lot - which would include Russia, the US and China." Paul Wapner

The Doomsday scenario is a pathetic joke – but only up to a point. We can only pity those who believe they can predict the coming of Christ [a strange view for Christians who claim to believe the Bible, given that it clearly says that “no one knows” and “it is not for you to know”], but to scorn the trends for humanity on a finite earth whose resources are limited is equally foolish. The trajectories of many indicators are unpromising: population growth, unremitting demand for fossil fuels, persistent insurgencies demanding more access to the good things of life, the readiness of great powers to fight for control of resource-rich lands, melting icecaps, rising seas. These and other conditions in the contemporary world call for sober assessment of what’s ahead. How is the world to avoid a wholesale meltdown? This is no time to gloat over the folly of those who try to set a date for the end of the world.

Consider for instance the prospect of the opening of the Arctic Sea to international concourse along with access to possibly huge amounts of oil. Shouldn’t that be good news? Well, not as the various interested parties see it. Yesterday, the day that according to Harold Camping was supposed to be Doomsday, Chris Arsenault published in Al Jazeera a report on what the recent WikiLeaks reveal about the foreseeable future for the Arctic. [Click on the title above for a link to the source.]

WikiLeaks: A battle to 'carve up' the Arctic: Resource wars are possible as global warming melts polar ice - opening new areas to oil exploitation, cables indicate.
Chris Arsenault Last Modified: 21 May 2011

Energy experts estimate that the Arctic contains more than one fifth of the world's petroleum [GALLO/GETTY]
It is considered the final frontier for oil and gas exploitation, and secret US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks confirm that nations are battling to "carve up" the Arctic's vast resources.

"The twenty-first century will see a fight for resources," Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying in a 2010 cable. "Russia should not be defeated in this fight."

Along with exposing an estimated 22 per cent of the world's oil, ice melting due to global warming will open new shipping lanes, the arteries of global commerce, which nations are competing to control. And Russia certainly is not the only country eyeing the frozen prize.

Per Stig Moller, then Danish foreign minister, mused in a 2009 cable that "new shipping routes and natural resource discoveries would eventually place the region at the centre of world politics".

Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Denmark, and perhaps even China, have competing claims to the Arctic, a region about the size of Africa, comprising some six per cent of the Earth's surface.

'Resource wars'

"The WikiLeaks cables show us realpolitik in its rarest form," says Paul Wapner, director of the global environmental politics programme at American University in Washington. "Diplomats continue to think of this as a zero sum world. When they see exploitable resources, all things being equal, they are going to approach them through a competitive nation state system."

The cables come to light at a time when academics and activists fear resource scarcity, particularly over dwindling oil and drinking water supplies, could lead to new international conflicts.

Sir David King, the UK government's former chief scientific adviser, called the invasion of Iraq "the first of [this century's] resource wars", warning that "powerful nations will secure resources for their own people at the expense of others".

In 2007, Russia planted its flag 4,000 metres below the Arctic Ocean, in an attempt to claim that its continental shelf, the geological formation by which claims are measured, extends far into the frozen zone.
"Behind Russia's policy are two potential benefits accruing from global warming, the prospect for an [even seasonally] ice-free shipping route from Europe to Asia, and the estimated oil and gas wealth hidden beneath the Arctic sea floor," noted a 2009 cable articulating US beliefs.

Presently, the Russians are far ahead of the US and other Arctic countries to take advantage of what will happen offshore, says Bruce Forbes, a research professor at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Finland. "The cables confirm what we as scientists already know; [global warming means] the Arctic is not just this hinterland, as it is portrayed in the mainstream media."

In its 2010 Quadrennial Defence Review report, the Pentagon stated: "Climate change and energy are two issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment." . . .
[For more, click on the title above.]

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Khalil Nouri's new article: An illustration of strategic change in Eurasian relations

A new article by Khalil Nouri in the HuffingtonPost illustrates how integrated are the issues in Afghanistan and the wider region of Central Asia. Locally the to-and-fro of negotiation is between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the interests of the respective parties actually include China, India, Russia, and of course the United States. Not much will happen without those and other parties engaging in the discussions. Afghanistan and its neighbors, once isolated and marginal to the current of world affairs, now commands a prominent place in world concerns. A civil war that is a surrogate international war; nuclear arsenals in the region; vitally needed reserves of gas, oil, and vital minerals; transport lines and pipelines that must remain open if the great populations centers of the world are to be supplied -- these issues force the interests of the Eurasian powers to converge in Central Asia.

But in a sense there is no "Central Asia" without the wider configuration of nations whose interests now clash in this region as well as a few key places elsewhere. The Indian Ocean, the Gulf, Iran, East Asia, eastern Africa -- these regions are likewise involved in the concerns of Central Asians.

I repeat myself on the pace of world change, but the process seems so awesome, as the emergence of new situations generates a plethora of unforeseeable possibilities. Crucial to this process is the ever-faster pace of technological development. The technologies of communication and transport are enabling social interchanges to trip relays of influence and interest all around the world, at an ever faster pace. New localities take on significances they have never had before, or at least not for a long time. This is the relevance of these developments for Central Asia. What was formerly marginal is now becoming more fully engaged with other places and peoples -- and in certain respects becoming inescapably crucial to whatever happens next.
[For a link to the source of the Nouri article click on the title above.]

A Paradigm Shift on the Chessboard of the Afghan "Great Game"
Khalil Nouri.
HUFFPOST: Posted: 05/17/11 12:29 PM ET

Ever since Pakistan began lobbying against Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai's efforts to build a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him to look to Pakistan instead -- and its Chinese ally -- for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the Afghan economy, it was perceived to be Pakistan calling the shots for a new move on the chessboard of the Great Game.
However, despite how attractive that move may seem to them, it cannot come to fruition when few to even none of the players will consent to an all Afghan initiative; but in actuality, they are keeping the Afghan majority at bay from asserting their desire for such a plan. That said, this Pakistani rush to stack the deck in their favor in Afghanistan will fail due to the fact that there can only be one legitimate way to obtain stability in Afghanistan; through an all Afghan national ratification of a reconciliation process put forth for a genuine endgame to this decades-old grinding war in Afghanistan.
Subsequent to Pakistan's clandestine call in Kabul, the Kremlin announced a three-day official visit by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to Russia at the invitation of President Dmitry Medvedev. This was scheduled ahead of Zardari's trip to Washington, which has already been postponed; and now seems quite unlikely to take place anytime in the near future. Meanwhile, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rasoul was immediately sent to Beijing for a quick rendezvous with his Chinese counterpart. And, thereafter, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was due to arrive in Moscow last Thursday on an official visit.
It seems, by all appearances, that this quartet is attempting to make strides towards an effort to introduce a model initiative initially engineered by Pakistan's craving for a prime leadership status in Afghanistan's forthcoming endgame.
However, in the wake of the May 2 killing of Osama Bin Laden and the Great Game players' interlaced stopovers in Moscow and Beijing, along comes another keen contestant in the game, but a solitary one; the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must nowconsider steps to advance his partnership cajolement with Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
These interwoven trips are all a push for strategic positioning by the aforementioned Great Game playing quartet in a post U.S. troop drawdown environment starting in July 2011 and ending in 2014. It also boils down to acrimoniously preventing a long term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Pakistan, as the frontrunner to this antagonism, seeks to legitimize this notion where all parties have yet to give their endorsements. On the other hand, the underrepresented by majority, inept and weak government of Hamid Karzai who seems to have grown closer to Pakistan over the last year, cannot weather an outcome where all the key players have the decisive upper hand in this Great Game. Therefore, Karzai, whether he likes it or not, will have to abide by any outcome dictated to him by the major players. ....

[For more, click on the title above.]

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stratfor's analysis of the significance of the new "Visegrad Group": worth wondering about

George Friedman of Stratfor has drawn attention to a new pact between several eastern European states, which he takes to be an omen of things to come in Eurasian affairs. It may be one of several signs that the world is no longer what we have imagined. The proliferation of demonstrations in the Arab world; the death of Osama Bin Laden; the rising hostility with Pakistan [that is, the unmasking of the duplicity of its military leaders]; the faltering world economy; and now the formation of a "battle group" among four eastern European countries -- these events seem to indicate tectonic shifts in the configuration of powers in Eurasia. Worth following with some interest at least.

What seems evident, in any case, is how rapidly the relations among powers are changing, not only the ability of states to influence the course of affairs but also of non-state insurgent groups. For those of us who would like to plan for the future, it's hard to make sense of the course of affairs. But that makes the attempt all the more crucial. The world won't stop changing: if we think we understand what is going on we probably don't. We are always behind the curve; what we can surmise about our situation is just the best we can do at the moment.

That's why outfits like Stratfor can be a help. Even if their assessments are off the mark they at least help us reflect on a world in flux; they remind us that we cannot suppose that all is as has been. RLC

Visegrad: A New European Military Force is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Visegrad: A New European Military Force May 17, 2011 | 0859 GMT

By George Friedman

With the Palestinians demonstrating and the International Monetary Fund in turmoil, it would seem odd to focus this week on something called the Visegrad Group. But this is not a frivolous choice. What the Visegrad Group decided to do last week will, I think, resonate for years, long after the alleged attempted rape by Dominique Strauss-Kahn is forgotten and long before the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved. The obscurity of the decision to most people outside the region should not be allowed to obscure its importance.

The region is Europe — more precisely, the states that had been dominated by the Soviet Union. The Visegrad Group, or V4, consists of four countries — Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary — and is named after two 14th century meetings held in Visegrad Castle in present-day Hungary of leaders of the medieval kingdoms of Poland, Hungary and Bohemia. The group was reconstituted in 1991 in post-Cold War Europe as the Visegrad Three (at that time, Slovakia and the Czech Republic were one). The goal was to create a regional framework after the fall of Communism. This week the group took an interesting new turn.

On May 12, the Visegrad Group announced the formation of a “battle group” under the command of Poland. The battle group would be in place by 2016 as an independent force and would not be part of NATO command. In addition, starting in 2013, the four countries would begin military exercises together under the auspices of the NATO Response Force.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary focus of all of the Visegrad nations had been membership in the European Union and NATO. Their evaluation of their strategic position was threefold. First, they felt that the Russian threat had declined if not dissipated following the fall of the Soviet Union. Second, they felt that their economic future was with the European Union. Third, they believed that membership in NATO, with strong U.S. involvement, would protect their strategic interests. Of late, their analysis has clearly been shifting.

First, Russia has changed dramatically since the Yeltsin years. It has increased its power in the former Soviet sphere of influence substantially, and in 2008 it carried out an effective campaign against Georgia. Since then it has also extended its influence in other former Soviet states. The Visegrad members’ underlying fear of Russia, built on powerful historical recollection, has become more intense. They are both the front line to the former Soviet Union and the countries that have the least confidence that the Cold War is simply an old memory.

Second, the infatuation with Europe, while not gone, has frayed. The ongoing economic crisis, now focused again on Greece, has raised two questions: whether Europe as an entity is viable and whether the reforms proposed to stabilize Europe represent a solution for them or primarily for the Germans. It is not, by any means, that they have given up the desire to be Europeans, nor that they have completely lost faith in the European Union as an institution and an idea. Nevertheless, it would be unreasonable to expect that these countries would not be uneasy about the direction that Europe was taking. If one wants evidence, look no further than the unease with which Warsaw and Prague are deflecting questions about the eventual date of their entry into the Eurozone. Both are the strongest economies in Central Europe, and neither is enthusiastic about the euro.

Finally, there are severe questions as to whether NATO provides a genuine umbrella of security to the region and its members. The NATO strategic concept, which was drawn up in November 2010, generated substantial concern on two scores. First, there was the question of the degree of American commitment to the region, considering that the document sought to expand the alliance’s role in non-European theaters of operation. For example, the Americans pledged a total of one brigade to the defense of Poland in the event of a conflict, far below what Poland thought necessary to protect the North European Plain. Second, the general weakness of European militaries meant that, willingness aside, the ability of the Europeans to participate in defending the region was questionable. Certainly, events in Libya, where NATO had neither a singular political will nor the military participation of most of its members, had to raise doubts. It was not so much the wisdom of going to war but the inability to create a coherent strategy and deploy adequate resources that raised questions of whether NATO would be any more effective in protecting the Visegrad nations.

There is another consideration. Germany’s commitment to both NATO and the EU has been fraying. The Germans and the French split on the Libya question, with Germany finally conceding politically but unwilling to send forces. Libya might well be remembered less for the fate of Moammar Gadhafi than for the fact that this was the first significant strategic break between Germany and France in decades. German national strategy has been to remain closely aligned with France in order to create European solidarity and to avoid Franco-German tensions that had roiled Europe since 1871. This had been a centerpiece of German foreign policy, and it was suspended, at least temporarily.

The Germans obviously are struggling to shore up the European Union and questioning precisely how far they are prepared to go in doing so. There are strong political forces in Germany questioning the value of the EU to Germany, and with every new wave of financial crises requiring German money, that sentiment becomes stronger. In the meantime, German relations with Russia have become more important to Germany. Apart from German dependence on Russian energy, Germany has investment opportunities in Russia. The relationship with Russia is becoming more attractive to Germany at the same time that the relationship to NATO and the EU has become more problematic.

For all of the Visegrad countries, any sense of a growing German alienation from Europe and of a growing German-Russian economic relationship generates warning bells. Before the Belarusian elections there was hope in Poland that pro-Western elements would defeat the least unreformed regime in the former Soviet Union. This didn’t happen. Moreover, pro-Western elements have done nothing to solidify in Moldova or break the now pro-Russian government in Ukraine. Uncertainty about European institutions and NATO, coupled with uncertainty about Germany’s attention, has caused a strategic reconsideration — not to abandon NATO or the EU, of course, nor to confront the Russians, but to prepare for all eventualities.

It is in this context that the decision to form a Visegradian battle group must be viewed. Such an independent force, a concept generated by the European Union as a European defense plan, has not generated much enthusiasm or been widely implemented. The only truly robust example of an effective battle group is the Nordic Battle Group, but then that is not surprising. The Nordic countries share the same concerns as the Visegrad countries — the future course of Russian power, the cohesiveness of Europe and the commitment of the United States.

In the past, the Visegrad countries would have been loath to undertake anything that felt like a unilateral defense policy. Therefore, the decision to do this is significant in and of itself. It represents a sense of how these countries evaluate the status of NATO, the U.S. attention span, European coherence and Russian power. It is not the battle group itself that is significant but the strategic decision of these powers to form a sub-alliance, if you will, and begin taking responsibility for their own national security. It is not what they expected or wanted to do, but it is significant that they felt compelled to begin moving in this direction.

Just as significant is the willingness of Poland to lead this military formation and to take the lead in the grouping as a whole. Poland is the largest of these countries by far and in the least advantageous geographical position. The Poles are trapped between the Germans and the Russians. Historically, when Germany gets close to Russia, Poland tends to suffer. It is not at that extreme point yet, but the Poles do understand the possibilities. In July, the Poles will be assuming the EU presidency in one of the union’s six-month rotations. The Poles have made clear that one of their main priorities will be Europe’s military power. Obviously, little can happen in Europe in six months, but this clearly indicates where Poland’s focus is.

The militarization of the V4 runs counter to its original intent but is in keeping with the geopolitical trends in the region. Some will say this is over-reading on my part or an overreaction on the part of the V4, but it is neither. For the V4, the battle group is a modest response to emerging patterns in the region, which STRATFOR had outlined in its 2011 Annual Forecast. As for my reading, I regard the new patterns not as a minor diversion from the main pattern but as a definitive break in the patterns of the post-Cold War world. In my view, the post-Cold War world ended in 2008, with the financial crisis and the Russo-Georgian war. We are in a new era, as yet unnamed, and we are seeing the first breaks in the post-Cold War pattern.

I have argued in previous articles and books that there is a divergent interest between the European countries on the periphery of Russia and those farther west, particularly Germany. For the countries on the periphery, there is a perpetual sense of insecurity, generated not only by Russian power compared to their own but also by uncertainty as to whether the rest of Europe would be prepared to defend them in the event of Russian actions. The V4 and the other countries south of them are not as sanguine about Russian intentions as others farther away are. Perhaps they should be, but geopolitical realities drive consciousness and insecurity and distrust defines this region.

I had also argued that an alliance only of the four northernmost countries is insufficient. I used the concept “Intermarium,” which had first been raised after World War I by a Polish leader, Joseph Pilsudski, who understood that Germany and the Soviet Union would not be permanently weak and that Poland and the countries liberated from the Hapsburg Empire would have to be able to defend themselves and not have to rely on France or Britain.

Pilsudski proposed an alliance stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and encompassing the countries to the west of the Carpathians — Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In some formulations, this would include Yugoslavia, Finland and the Baltics. The point was that Poland had to have allies, that no one could predict German and Soviet strength and intentions, and that the French and English were too far away to help. The only help Poland could have would be an alliance of geography — countries with no choice.

It follows from this that the logical evolution here is the extension of the Visegrad coalition. At the May 12 defense ministers’ meeting, there was discussion of inviting Ukraine to join in. Twenty or even 10 years ago, that would have been a viable option. Ukraine had room to maneuver. But the very thing that makes the V4 battle group necessary — Russian power — limits what Ukraine can do. The Russians are prepared to give Ukraine substantial freedom to maneuver, but that does not include a military alliance with the Visegrad countries.

An alliance with Ukraine would provide significant strategic depth. It is unlikely to happen. That means that the alliance must stretch south, to include Romania and Bulgaria. The low-level tension between Hungary and Romania over the status of Hungarians in Romania makes that difficult, but if the Hungarians can live with the Slovaks, they can live with the Romanians. Ultimately, the interesting question is whether Turkey can be persuaded to participate in this, but that is a question far removed from Turkish thinking now. History will have to evolve quite a bit for this to take place. For now, the question is Romania and Bulgaria.

But the decision of the V4 to even propose a battle group commanded by Poles is one of those small events that I think will be regarded as a significant turning point. However we might try to trivialize it and place it in a familiar context, it doesn’t fit. It represents a new level of concern over an evolving reality — the power of Russia, the weakness of Europe and the fragmentation of NATO. This is the last thing the Visegrad countries wanted to do, but they have now done the last thing they wanted to do. That is what is significant.

Events in the Middle East and Europe’s economy are significant and of immediate importance. However, sometimes it is necessary to recognize things that are not significant yet but will be in 10 years. I believe this is one of those events. It is a punctuation mark in European history.

Reprinting or republication of this report on websites is authorized by prominently displaying the following sentence, including the hyperlink to STRATFOR, at the beginning or end of the report.

"Visegrad: A New European Military Force is republished with permission of STRATFOR."

Simply copy and paste this code:Visegrad: A New European Military Force is republished with permission of STRATFOR.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Grenier on the indifference of the Arab world to the death of Bin Laden

In Al Jazeera [May 13, 2011] Robert L. Grenier has commented on the relative indifference of the Arab world to the death of Osama Bin Laden. I have copied below a portion of that statement that aptly describes the issues that have informed some of the public demonstrations in the Middle East. [Click on the title for a link to the whole article.]

From Al Jazeera
The end of one dream and the birth of another: The Arab Spring has empowered Muslims to create new forms of leadership - dictators and mass-murderers "need not apply".

. . .
Osama's resistance was outdated
No matter how steadfast the Sheikh may have seemed in resisting perceived western encroachment, no matter how sincere he may have been in pursuit of his twisted aims, it is difficult to muster great sympathy for a man so utterly misguided, whose takfiri legacy was to inspire the wanton murder of thousands of Muslims by other Muslims in East Africa, in Iraq, and in any number of other places extending from Morocco to Indonesia.
Even in South Asia ... - even there, one cannot find the groundswell of popular emotion one might have found had bin Laden been killed, say, in 2002.

Too much has happened since.
The response of the West to 9/11 and the explosion of regional militancy it has inspired has led, ultimately, to a degree of Muslim-on-Muslim violence heretofore unimaginable, employing the most alien and macabre of methods, in what was already a violent part of the world. Even the demonstrations of the usual suspects, from the Jamaat-e-Islami to Lashkar-e-Taiba, have had a ritual, self-serving quality - and their participants betray the dispirited knowledge that they can hope to generate little resonance in the population at large. Indeed, their public outpourings appear to have more to do with them than they do with genuine devotion to Osama.
It was the fate of bin Laden that, in the end, he would become to most in the Muslim world a sterile symbol of ineffectual resistance, fundamentally rejected by those whom he would presume to represent. There is no greater indictment of the legacy of bin Laden than that his appeal was based upon an overwhelming sense of Muslim weakness. It thus is fitting that he should meet his demise precisely when a new generation is rising up to forge a different path, one based on an overwhelming sense of popular strength.

There is precedent for this. I remember well the feeling in the Arab street in 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and defied the calls of the West and of the international community to withdraw. I saw it from the streets of Algiers, where mass demonstrations built inexorably in size and vigour as momentum increased for a US-led attack on Saddam's Republican Guard. Those who surrounded the US embassy chanting pro-Saddam slogans surely had no illusions about the man: He was a thug and a known mass-murderer of his own people, whose greatest atrocities were yet to come. But then and there, the reality of the man counted for little. What mattered was the image, the symbol of a seemingly powerful Arab leader willing to stand up to the West.
Paper tigers
When, in the end, Saddam was overwhelmingly and ignominiously defeated, and his army revealed to be a paper tiger, one might have expected to see a popular explosion. In fact, we saw nothing of the kind. It is the singular fate of the personally discredited symbol to lose all popular support when his resistance is revealed to be a sham - and has come to an end. In the case of the Iraqi dictator, it was like air escaping from a balloon: As Saddam's legions fled northward in disorder, the headline of a popular newspaper in Algiers said it all: The End of the Dream. In the Arab street, there was a collective shrug, and everyone went back to what they were doing before.
In truth, the promise represented by Saddam Hussein was not a dream, but a nightmare. It should not be the fate of the Muslims to be "liberated" by mass-murderers, whether Saddam or Osama, whose contempt for the core beliefs and aspirations of most of those whom they pretended to lead was palpable.
Instead, and in spite of the many obstacles ahead, one can see in the middle distance a very different sort of liberation, one forged by and for the people themselves, based on models which exist within the Muslim world, and carrying the tangible hope of a future where the leaders are servants to the desires of the people, and not the other way around.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pakistan's nuclear race

I have cried "Wolf!" so many times about Pakistan that it's not worth saying any more. How many times can you say, "This is dangerous!" and still have anyone pay attention?

Thankfully, Andrew Bust of Newsweek has said it so well that it has to be interesting. Pakistan's nuclear activity is another terrifying reality -- besides what is known about its duplicitous participation in the activities of the Taliban/Al Qaeda:

At a moment of unprecedented misgiving between Washington and Islamabad, new evidence suggests that Pakistan’s nuclear program is barreling ahead at a furious clip.
Pakistan is aggressively accelerating construction at the Khushab nuclear site, about 140 miles south of Islamabad. The images, analysts say, prove Pakistan will soon have a fourth operational reactor, greatly expanding plutonium production for its nuclear-weapons program.
It’s dangerous because Pakistan is also stockpiling fissile material, or bomb fuel. Since Islamabad can mine uranium on its own territory and has decades of enrichment know-how—beginning with the work of nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan—the potential for production is significant.
[An] official who works on nuclear issues told Newsweek that intelligence estimates suggest Pakistan has already developed enough fissile material to produce more than 100 warheads and manufacture between eight and 20 weapons a year. “There’s no question,” the official says, “it’s the fastest-growing program in the world.”
Nukes, after all, are a valuable political tool, ensuring continued economic aid from the United States and Europe. “Pakistan knows it can outstare” the West, says Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy. “It’s confident the West knows that Pakistan’s collapse is too big a price to pay, so the bailout is there in perpetuity. It’s the one thing we’ve been successful at.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

As many as 850 unarmed Syrians have been gunned down by their own government

The demonstrations of the ordinary people in Syria are awesome, for they have demonstrated exemplary courage and zeal for all the world to see. Their demonstrations have exposed the readiness of the Syrian government to crush its own citizenry. Already its troops haves gunned down more than 850 people in cold blood.

The Syrian regime has rarely exposed the violent and terrifying force by which it enforces the social order. For us as observers it is easy to be seduced by scenes of apparent order and social conviviality among the ordinary Syrians. The hard reality of life there is otherwise, for they know, and have known for generations, how disciplined and inhuman the repressive measures of their government can be. As in every country, a potential for violence shapes the course of every-day life, even if that violent potential is seldom exposed. What deserves our admiration is the readiness of the Syrian people, fully aware of what their government might do to them, to come out on the streets to demand a more responsive administration -- in the face of an army trained to shoot them down without mercy or remorse.

It is hard for us to internalize what is going on. Are the American people ready to pay such a price for the right to assemble freely, to collectively choose their own leaders, and establish more equitable rules of social administration?

Where will this bitter asymmetric struggle lead? In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, people demonstrate in one place only to flee when the army appears, while in the mean time demonstration break out in other places. For these civilians the risks are potentially mortal; for the military they are minimal.

Even so, for the government the stakes are momentous. How momentous is demonstrated in the extreme measures it has taken, murdering its own citizenry without shame. In the words of the ancient prophet:
"Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame ...; they do not even know how to blush." [JER 8:12]

Helpless as the rest of us are, we can only cry out against such cruel and inhuman brutality by a regime that has total power -- and pray that a resolution to such a clash of interests will soon be found.

[For a recent statement of the situation click on the title above.]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Murder in the family of a National Socialist Party leader

What alarms me about the murder of Jeff Hall by his son yesterday has little to do with the world as it is now constituted. The National Socialist Movement appears to be composed of fringe elements that seem unable to cope with a world careering ever faster into a jumble of new social connections and relations. For such people the emerging world defies all hope of maintaining a sense of significance and security like the social world that they suppose was once simpler and more orderly.

The murder exposes a family under stress. Jeff Hall himself had not been coping well with his world, and his son was apparently a casualty of the confusion that Jeff himself reflected. What worries me about such situations is what it reveals about how a society generally under stress might look like.

We all want to find reasons for our problems outside of ourselves; we need explanations for why our world is beyond us – and of course many of our problems are circumstantial, framed by situations outside of ourselves. When societies decay, marked by a collapse of the economy, people are inclined to look for scapegoats. The National Socialist Party of Jeff Hall is driven by the certainty that the races are different in character and ability and that the fundamental sources of social disorder are people who seem different from us. The "other" is threatening.

A line that struck me in the New York times report today was a statement by the head of the party, Jeff Schoep. Speaking to a crowd in New Jersey he said, “The government tells us we’re in recovery. Well yeah, if you’re a fat cat on Wall Street, if you’re some greedy Jew running a bank that got a whole bunch of kickbacks, maybe it is better. But not for us.” Fat cats, Wall Street, bankers, Jews – these "greedy" people are the reason ordinary people can't make it. The National Socialist Party is mouthing the same nonsense of generations past: why does it resonate with anyone today?

Clues exist for why anyone would take extreme measures, and so why some racist notions might resonate. The Guardian says that the domestic situation of this family was fraught with conflict and disorder, creating the “troubled” young man that killed his father.

[He] spent his early years hungry and living in squalor while his parents went through a divorce that included accusations of child abuse from both parties. … The child was removed from his mother Leticia Neal's home as a two-year-old, along with two siblings and two-step siblings. Social workers had reported that the children were often filthy and hungry, left in a house with no electricity or gas with maggots crawling on dishes and curdled milk in the babies' bottles. He was sent to live with his grandmother, because his father was on three three years' probation for drink driving. His father was eventually granted full custody in 2004.
The only relevance of this tragic story for a social scientist is what it intimates about how people behave when their world is a kilter. Jeff Hall and his first wife and his son were dealing with a world out of control, for which they appear to have been poorly equipped. We wonder how many people are similarly frustrated because they live in circumstances beyond their control and beyond their understanding. In such moments it is common for us to seek someone to blame, and thus someone to attack. In this case, for Jeff Hall object of attack was non-whites; for his son it was Jeff himself.

We live in a time when many are anxious about a fragile world economy, the American economy being a key part of it of course. What if the gridlock of congress fails to confront the real situation and the economy really turns down? [I know this might seem like an ugly unlikely scenario to some, but given what we have seen in Washington, what can we honestly look forward to?] In such a case, how would a collapsing economy look like in American society?

We have already seen how readily our political leaders use stressful situations to feed on people’s worst fears. Note how eagerly Donald Trump, wanting to be president, hunts for every possible excuse to define President Barak Obama as “the other.” He has fed the fears of those who claim that Obama is lying about his birth, about his faith, about his true intentions. Obama is the son of a Muslim father, of an African, educated in a Muslim society [4th grade]; he could even be a Black Muslim; he’s a socialist, even a communist. The only community in which such deniable insinuations of “the other” could catch hold is one under stress.

Thankfully, that is not America as it exists today. For the moment, Trump seems only to be pathetic figure: unsatisfied with wealth and fame, he still craves a source of respect. I pray that the kinds of devices he has used, deniable insinuations of race, will never again resonate in American society. And I pray for the Hall family, reeling now from yet another tragedy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Discovering that "history" was myth in the Bangladesh war

Social science research often clashes with popular understandings. We tend to remember the stories that impress us, often for personal reasons. And societies tend to retain stories about the past that fit well with their own images of themselves. Actual events, social realities, are I suppose complex because human beings experience situations differently and remember them selectively. We internalize the significance of events through frames of reference already meaningful to us. And besides the natural tendency of human beings to simplify and gloss events there are always interests involved in what they choose to remember and talk about.
So the world needs serious research, empirically grounded examinations of social conditions and historical events as they can best be established. Sarmila Bose, a Bengali Indian historian, decided to examine in detail what took place during the bitter war of 1971 when Bangladesh [then known as "East Pakistan"] broke away from West Pakistan. Her book, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, consists of the recollections of participants on both sides. She thought she knew the rough outlines of what happened, but the stories that people told her differed acutely from what she had grown up with. She did it as a research project, oblivious to the fire-storm that her book created even before it had appeared.
My aim was to record as much as possible of what seemed to be a much-commented-on but poorly documented conflict - and to humanise it, so that the war could be depicted in terms of the people who were caught up in it, and not just faceless statistics. I hoped that the detailed documentation of what happened at the human level on the ground would help to shed some light on the conflict as a whole.
The principal tool of my study was memories. I read all available memoirs and reminiscences, in both English and Bengali. But I also embarked on extensive fieldwork, finding and talking to people who were present at many particular incidents, whether as participants, victims or eye-witnesses. Crucially, I wanted to hear the stories from multiple sources, including people on different sides of the war, so as to get as balanced and well-rounded a reconstruction as possible.
As soon as I started to do systematic research on the 1971 war, I found that there was a problem with the story which I had grown up believing: from the evidence that emanated from the memories of all sides at the ground level, significant parts of the "dominant narrative" seem not to have been true. Many "facts" had been exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed. Many people in responsible positions had repeated unsupported assertions without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to inform the public. I had thought I would be chronicling the details of the story of 1971 with which I had been brought up, but I found instead that there was a different story to be told.
[Click on the title above for a link to a review.]

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Raymond Davis Affair and the Plot against Osama Bin Laden

My student Fahim has been saying all along that there was something strange about the Raymond Davis affair. No one really believed that the reason he shot the two men following him in Lahore on January 27 was because they were trying to rob him, as he claimed. There were more reasons to ask questions once it became known that the two men were with the ISI, Pakistan's notorious intelligence service. Fahim repeatedly said that there had to be something more to the affair than the public was being told.

If so, we may never know. Whatever the reason, Davis made sure that both of the men were dead -- he shot them in the back as they were fleeing and then went back to put more bullets into one of them who seemed still to be alive.

But now we may have an additional piece of relevant information: for many months the Americans were planning an attack on a location they supposed was Osama Bin Laden's hiding place. The raid on the Bin Laden compound was planned with utmost secrecy. Now that it has been pulled off, with impressive speed and efficiency, we wonder: Could Davis have been protecting information critical to the plot against Osama? Was that why he took such pains to exterminate his ISI pursuers?

We of course will never know. This is pure speculation. Even so, it is hard to deny Fahim's point: Davis was up to something important; his behavior makes little sense unless something else was at stake.

One issue is evidently beyond speculation, as many have noted: Pakistan's military should be embarrassed: They were either incompetent or in cahoots with Bin Laden, one or the other. It's hard not to believe that they were aware of his presence in their midst -- how could they not have been protecting him?

But whatever one might speculate, Fahim seems to have it right: Davis was protecting the critical plot to attack Osama Bin Laden.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Developments worth following recently

China struggling with inflation

Illicit Church in China tries to buck Beijing

Syrian Protests continue despite killings by police

In Yemen protests contiue

women irate in Yemen

Pakistan and US struggle over drones

Fariba Nawa's defense of wearing the Hijab

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The underside of repression: Fear

Roger Cohen today describes the bunker that Muammar Qaddafi had built for himself because he knew – at least feared -- that the day would come when he would have to flee from his own people. So the bunker was made impregnable. Of course it is easy to surmise that that same fear animates the Syrian regime that had not shirked from shooting its own people – even shooting the troops that refuse to do it. Libya, Syria, Bahrain – these regimes, despite affectations of popularity among their citizens, in fact can no longer pretend to rule by popular acclaim. Likewise for the Chinese: All the pretenses of popularity during the Olympic Games have disappeared because they dare long allow public demonstrations of which they have no control – even a church service in Shanghai – for any uncontrolled gathering has the potential of exposing what virtually everyone inside and outside their regimes knows: that they hold power by force; they enforce their position through the exercise of violence or the fear of violence.

Here is part of what Cohen has to say about Qaddafi's hideout:

I descended 55 steps into the labyrinth of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s mind. The glow of cellphones and a feeble flashlight lit a passage into the darkness. A netherworld unfolded — bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, even saunas — linked by tunnels with six-inch-thick metal doors agape at their mouths. No expense had been spared on this lair.

“You see what the rat planned,” said Farage Mohamed, a manager in an oil pipe company, as he led the way to the base of an escape hatch that emerged deep in the gardens of this sprawling former Qaddafi villa in liberated eastern Libya. “It’s like Hitler’s Berlin bunker.”

So Qaddafi always thought this could happen, even 42 years into his rule. He feared someone might slice away the myths — Arab nationalist, African unifier, all-powerful non-president — and leave him, disrobed, a little man in a vast vault with nowhere left to go. In the twisted mind of the despot now derided here as “the man with the big hair,” his own demise was the tousle-coiffed specter that would not go away.

Strange, then, that the United States and Europe never thought this could happen — not to Qaddafi, or Mubarak, or Ben Ali, or any of the other murderous plunderers, some now gone, others slaughtering their own people, here in Libya, or in Syria, or Yemen. Policy was based on the mistaken belief that these leaders would last forever.

They were paranoid about their fates. We were convinced of their permanence.

Of course it was not just a conviction about their inevitability that drove U.S. policy toward these dictators. It was a cynical decision to place counterterrorism and security at the top of the agenda and human rights — in this case Arab rights — at the bottom. It was about Big Oil interests. And, to some degree, it was about the perception of what served the security of America’s closest regional ally, Israel.
[Click on the title above for a link to the original.]