Sunday, September 28, 2008

zardari wants a hug

The bizarre meeting between US vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari this week in New York had the world laughing. The Guardian has a hilarious commentary on it, full of malicious remarks like this one:
Zardari should be heralded as a medical phenomenon and toured across the globe. Who knew the cure for dementia, depression and PTSD was obtaining the post of president of Pakistan?
And, on a little more serious note,
with his flagrant display of sleaze-ball rhetoric, Zardari unwittingly symbolised the turbulent and twisted relationship between the US and its volatile, erstwhile lover Pakistan. One partner actively and shamelessly covets nearness, while the other selfishly exploits these lustful pangs for myopic policy initiatives.
Must read!

Friday, September 26, 2008

dissenting voices on afghanistan

With a parliamentary debate and decision about the extension of the mandate for German troops coming up in October, the situation in Afghanistan and the German role there are being debated in the German public. The CDU-SPD coalition government plans to increase German troops in Afghanistan by 1,000 to 4,500. But a worsening security situation and shock about German soldiers killing Afghan civilians recently have made the mission controversial again. The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine thinks the issue will definitely play a role in the election next year, and it says Chancellor Merkel's CDU is nervous that the SPD might try to attract voters with an anti-war campaign (just as Gerhard Schröder won the 2002 elections by opposing the Iraq war). For the time being, only the Left Party is clearly against the war, with the Greens split on the issue and support of the war in the SPD waning. But even the conservative CDU has its share of dissidents: The party's defence expert Willy Wimmer, a former secretary in the defence ministry, is calling for a unilateral withdrawal of German troops saying, "this is not our war." Wimmer has over the years become very critical of the United States and complains that there is no German foreign policy worth the name on many issues; instead, he claims, Germany tends to blindly follow the US. 
The German media, too, are being criticized. Former ZDF star reporter Ulrich Tilgner quit the public television channel in February after reporting for years from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. In a recent interview with the newspaper Tagesspiegel, he repeats previous criticism of the ZDF, suggesting that it is not critical enough of the German government on Afghanistan. In contrast, he is very positive about his new working environment at Swiss television where there is "more readiness to acknowledge mistakes in Western policies" and "editorial teams tend not to be dominated by colleagues with only limited knowledge, as has become common in Germany." Martin Gerner, a journalist who has been working regularly as a trainer and consultant in Afghanistan since 2004, in an article for the journal message, points out that too many German reporters in Afghanistan are traveling with the German troops, the Bundeswehr, which influences their coverage. He thinks there are many taboos in the German media: There is hardly any reporting about the difficult psychological situation the soldiers face, nor about the parallel worlds foreigners and locals inhabit in Kabul, highlighted by signboards such as "No Afghans in this restaurant".
But Gerner also thinks that withdrawing German troops would be wrong. In a recent commentary, he writes:
A premature withdrawal would leave behind a power vacuum that would be filled by the Taliban, criminals and former warlords. It would be the opposite of the "sustainability" that donor countries like to use as a catch phrase. Sending thousands of reinforcements, as is currently being discussed, would be just as wrong. The Soviet Army didn't manage to get the country under control with 200,000 soldiers. So the 1,000 additional German troops envisaged in Berlin's new Afghanistan mandate don't make much sense. What's needed is a strategy from the West that emphasizes politics over military. It's a fallacy to believe that, under the current circumstances, the military can pave the way for civilian reconstruction in all areas.

Monday, September 22, 2008

automatic journalism

Amidst all the turbulences on the financial markets these days, a funny event some days ago got less attention than it might have deserved: A newspaper article from 2002 titled "United Airlines Files for Bankruptcy" got picked up by Google News, was falsely presented as a new story there, was again picked up by the Bloomberg financial news agency, and this led to a drastic plunge in United Airlines shares. Apparently after a certain stage the selling of shares was also automatic - there are computer programmes for this... About a billion dollars of market value were lost before trading was stopped! Afterwards, a blame game started between the Tribune company which owns the newspaper (the South Florida Sun-Sentinel) and Google. (Of course, Google News functions without any editor, it is a totally automatic search engine.) The New York Times explained:
Tribune said in a statement that its archived bankruptcy article had simply been there online all along. The statement blamed “the inability of Google’s automated search agent ‘Googlebot’ to differentiate between breaking news and frequently viewed stories on the Web sites of its newspapers” for the problem.
For its part, Google said it was unfair to blame it for Tribune’s mistakes, including the failure to date the article properly, and the failure to use one of many simple methods to prevent links to old articles from appearing on a news page or being seen by a search engine.
Sounds quite technical to me... What about letting human beings with a brain come in between all the engines sometimes?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism

A day after another horrible suicide bomb attack, this time at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, I'd like to quote here some of the last words of a book I just finished: "The Last Mughal" by William Dalrymple. It's a remarkable work about the uprising in India, in Delhi 1857 against the British, which failed and in the end brought down the Mughal dynasty. Dalrymple points out that the British (wrongly) branded this revolt as a kind of global Muslim conspiracy, whereas it was in fact an uprising within the British Indian army which was mostly made up of high-caste Hindus. But this idea of the "Muslim conspiracy" and its fallout have, in hindsight, had dramatic implications for Hindu-Muslim relations in South Asia and probably also for the global relationship between the West and the Muslim world. I cannot go into all the details - you have to read the 500 pages yourselves - just one more explanation before the quote: Dalrymple contrasts the narrow-minded British approach with the tolerant ways of the Mughal court and its last emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Today, West and East again face each other uneasily across a divide that many see as religious war. Jihadis again fight what they regard as a defensive action against their Christian enemies, and again innocent women, children and civilians are slaughtered. As before, Western Evangelical politicians are apt to cast their opponents and enemies in the role of 'incarnate fiends' and conflate armed resistance to invasion and occupation with 'pure evil'. Again Western countries, blind to the effect their foreign policies have on the wider world, feel aggrieved to be attacked - as they interpret it - by mindless fanatics. 
Against this bleak dualism, there is much to value in Zafar's peaceful and tolerant attitude to life; and there is also much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughals' pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.
As we have seen in our own time, nothing threatens the liberal and moderate aspect of Islam so much as aggressive Western intrusion and interference in the East, just as nothing so dramatically radicalises the ordinary Muslim and feeds the power of the extremists: the histories of Islamic fundamentalism and Western imperialism have, after all, often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. There are clear lessons here. 

Friday, September 19, 2008

america's ill-advised new pakistan policy

In the US presidential election campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain have indicated they would focus more on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Particularly Barack Obama's criticism of the US war in Iraq which he said had only diverted attention from fighting Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, seems to have put President Bush under pressure to do more on the restive border region, in particular the tribal areas in Pakistan. These so-called FATA, maintains Christina Lamb in the Sunday Times of London, are
now almost entirely controlled by the Pakistani Taliban militias who in turn provide protection to the Afghan Taliban and to Al-Qaeda. The area is fast becoming the principal global launching pad for terrorists.
On the one hand, this has infuriated the US army fighting in Afghanistan, on the other hand Bush seems to be hoping for a "breakthrough" in fighting Al-Qaida, says Christina Lamb:
The growing frustration among US commanders in Afghanistan coincided with whatappears to be a new determination by George W Bush to find Bin Laden before hispresidency ends in January.“I know the hunt is on. They are pulling out all the stops,” said a US defence official. “They want to find Bin Laden before the president leaves office and ensure that Al-Qaeda will not attack the US during the upcoming elections.”
And so, Bush decided to act:
Whether it was because of the worsening security situation, or in the hope of springing “an October surprise” in the form of Bin Laden’s head to boost the election chances of the Republican John McCain, Bush decided it was time to go beyond reconnaissance and tracking. In late July he issued a secret national security presidential directive authorising special forces to carry out ground operations inside Pakistan without its permission.
But the American forces seem to lack the intelligence necessary for successful strikes within Pakistan. The Times article describes a case in early September when US commandos killed children in Pakistan. In fact, some seem to have foreseen that the new "strategy" would not work. As Gareth Porter writes for IPS,
State Department and some Pentagon officials had managed to delay the proposed military escalation in Pakistan for a year by arguing that it would be based on nearly nonexistent intelligence and would only increase support for the Islamic extremists in that country.
The critics could argue that
the previous experience with missile strikes against al Qaeda targets using predator drones and the facts on the ground provided plenty of ammunition to those who opposed the escalation. It showed that the proposed actions would have little or no impact on either the Taliban or al Qaeda in Pakistan, and would bring destabilising political blowback.
But "vested interests" made sure the new policy was implemented, Porter says. Ex-CIA officer Robert Baer, who should know these things, is also highly sceptical about "overhead surveillance" in the tribal areas. Writing for TIME, he argues that
the Bush Administration's decision to step up attacks in Pakistan is fatally reckless, because the cross-border operations' chances of capturing or killing al Qaeda's leadership are slim. American intelligence isn't good enough for precision raids like this. Pakistan's tribal regions are a black hole that even Pakistani operatives can't enter and come back alive.
On top of it, Baer says,
after the New York Times ran an article that U.S. forces were officially given the go-ahead to enter Pakistan without prior Pakistani permission, Pakistan had no choice but to react.
There were even reports that Pakistani soldiers shot earlier this week, forcing US troops to turn back into Afghanistan.

Is it really so difficult to understand? There will be no military victory over terrorism or the Taliban. Instead, it would be crucial to isolate them politically by forging a broad coalition of moderates and democrats. But with their ill-advised military attacks, the US are only going to alienate Pakistan's army, civilians and politicians. And mind you, Bush is only implementing what Barack Obama had demanded! In a recent interview with Democracy Now, Pakistani writer Tariq Ali warns:
I think this was a big mistake that Senator Obama made. He will regret it, because I don’t think he was briefed on what the situation in Afghanistan is. You know, historically, every time the US occupiers are cornered in a country, they try and blame the neighboring country—the same in Vietnam when they started
bombing Cambodia, saying it was Cambodia’s faults. The threats against Iran, even as we speak, and now the missions in Pakistan, the bombing raids in Pakistan, the killing of civilians in Pakistan, when the real crisis and the real problem is a war and an occupation inside Afghanistan which has gone badly wrong.

Monday, September 15, 2008

a witch-hunt of indian muslims?

Five bombs exploded in the Indian capital Delhi on Saturday. The attackers targeted well-known markets where the well-off middle class citizens go for their weekend shopping and entertainment. No wonder, then, in a way, that the mainstream Indian media put pressure on the government to do more against terrorism. But on the other hand, there's a growing sense that the fear of terrorist attacks is being used to target the Muslim minority in India. Asghar Ali Engineer, a leading Muslim social scientist and activist from Mumbai, writes:

This is alienating the community besides allowing real culprits to escape and it has grave consequence in the sense that bomb explosions continue as real culprits are never nabbed.

As Yogi Sikand writes on the website The South Asian,
it appears that powerful elements within the state apparatus are deeply implicated, along with Hindu terrorist groups, in a witch-hunt of India's Muslim citizens.
Ajit Sahi, a journalist with Tehelka magazine, recently did a three-month investigation into SIMI, the "Students Islamic Movement of India", which has been routinely accused of masterminding terrorist attacks in India. But, writes Sahi:
The government had seven years to bring proof of its claims about SIMI, but it hasn’t yet done so and it appears doubtful it will bring some dramatic proof anytime soon.
Tehelka has published Sahi's findings about the "SIMI fictions" in great detail on their website. There are touching stories about youngsters such as a doctor, who have quite obviously been falsely implicated in terrorism cases, but continue to be stigmatized. But why don't the mainstream media talk about all this? In a recent interview, Ajit Sahi said:
I am just a simple journalist. Doing these investigations into the SIMI affair and exposing the heaps of lies of the police and the state about the blasts and the arrested persons has made me feel purposeful as never before. I am 42 now, and so far I have been chasing money and highly-paid jobs. But now, after going through all this in the course of the investigations I have been doing into charges against innocent Muslims, I have more clarity as to my purpose in life... Every decent journalist should ... investigate the truth. I have to speak out the truth and expose the lies that the government and its agents are so blatantly spreading.
Well said, and not only for India...

Friday, September 12, 2008

web movement for democracy

I find the advocacy website (avaaz means "voice" in Urdu, Hindi and many other languages) one of the most inspiring attempts to use the internet for political activism. They run global campaigns on different issues, have a truly global agenda and a broad range of debate within the community. Interesting reading, for example, their questions and answers with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. The future of global politics?