Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A bad romance: Pakistan and US


Like all great lovers' tiffs, this one started with frustration. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, decided to make his feelings public.

In a nutshell, he accused Pakistan of state sponsored terrorism, alleging that its Inter-Services Intelligence backs the Haqqani network. The Haqqanis are a fearsome bunch of fighters whose lineage goes back to Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Back then, their leader, Jalaludin Haqqani, was seen as a hero, even sitting in the White House with the then President Ronald Reagan. But it wasn't just the US. The Pakistanis nurtured and encouraged him to go fight in Afghanistan, supplying him with weapons and safe havens.

That was 20 years ago and, like all bad marriages, things left unresolved often explode. And so Pakistan's affair with the Haqqani network has created a split in the US-Pakistani marriage.

The Pakistanis are furious and are on the offensive, at times saying the US is not helping; at other times saying the US is simply blaming Pakistan for its own failings in Afghanistan.

As ever, finding the truth is tricky business. Perhaps more difficult for both parties is figuring out what the real issue is.


That the US needs Pakistan, and vice-versa, is not in dispute. What is, is how you fix this broken relationship. Let us, for example, make certain assumptions that the US holds true:

Firstly, the Pakistani are indeed sponsoring the Haqqani network. Should the Pakistanis stop? On the surface at least it would go a long way to fixing things.

However, Pakistan cannot just publicly say it has stopped supporting the Haqqani network, because then it would have to admit it supported them in the first place.

Secondly, Pakistan needs the Haqqani network. Once the US pulls out of Afghanistan, and it will sooner rather than later, Afghanistan, history has repeatedly shown us, is a cauldron of competing interests and bloodthirsty rivalry. Pakistan needs a dog in that fight. That's what ultimately drives Pakistani support for the Haqqani network.

But with the Haqqani network involved in a bitter and bloody fight with American forces in Afghanistan, the Americans simply want them gone.

So let's take a look at the Pakistani position. Officially it denies any support for the Haqqani network and therefore cannot stop supporting it. It also says the Americans are getting defeated by the group and are looking for someone to blame. The world's most powerful army is effectively being routed by bearded men with light weapons and an unshakeable faith in God.

That simply does not play well in the 'good ole US of A', so there must be someone to blame - the Pakistanis in this case.


Then the Pakistani army steps in. It says by playing up Pakistan's connection with Haqqani, the US is stomping all over the sacrifice Pakistani soldiers have made in the so called war on terror. Thousands of Pakistanis have died and terror attacks are an almost daily occurrence. In short the Pakistanis say they are the victims here, not the aggressor.

So things are at a stalemate. A solution is needed. Pakistan and the US are at loggerheads and at stake is billions of dollars worth of aid for Pakistan, and a decisive victory in Afghanistan for America.

Seasoned diplomats and observers of the US-Pakistan relationship are divided on the subject. A few point to the fact this stalemate may well be the only solution and instead of fighting it, you should embrace it.

One diplomat on the Pakistani side spoke to me candidly but refused to be identified. He said: "Privately a deal should be offered by the US to back away from the Haqqani network, offer us a bigger role in post-occupation Afghanistan to temper the Indian influence. Limit India's role in our neighbour and we won't need any networks, Haqqani or other wise."

But angering India is not on the US agenda. It has a close working relationship with the country and sees its support for the US as key in the wider, global scheme of things. So that option is off the table.

Increasing drone strikes and firepower to go after the Haqqani network is another option. General Petraeus, the new head of the CIA, understands this. That's why many say he is in that job. A military general in charge of an intelligence-gathering organisation can only mean one thing: the CIA is now effectively a military wing in its own right, and one with drone strike capability.

All bets off

But a decade of war and death from the skies has not weakened any of the parties in Afghanistan. So, is there a diplomatic solution? Bring the Taliban and therefore the Haqqanis to the table for talks. It's been mooted and back channels are open, but many Afghans don't want the Taliban anywhere near power so those talks remain tentative and slow moving, shall we say.

Finally, then Pakistan and the US are living in the same house, but not sharing the same bed. What will ultimately split them up is not what happens in Afghanistan. The two countries' fate and that of Afghanistan are far too closely tied to each other.

What about a terror attack on US soil that can be tied back to Pakistan? To a group some in the US say Pakistan sponsors? Then all bets are off. That's the nightmare scenario. So Pakistan-US relations need to be strengthened and forged in steel to stop these two uneasy allies from having to face each other in that scenario.

Publicly it's a war of words right now, but one would hope a backstage deal is being done that will put a stop to this escalation of words. However, as a long-time reporter in the region and of the politics I can tell you the US and Pakistan only have a narrow self interest at heart.

Both sides should be careful for what they wish for, and once again Afghanistan could well be another graveyard of empire.

Nobel Peace Prize may recognize Arab Spring, activists seen as favorites to win accolade

The 2011 Nobel Peace Prize may recognize activists who helped unleash the revolutionary wave that swept through North Africa and the Middle East during the Arab Spring.

Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Internet activist and Google executive, Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement, one of its founders Israa Abdel Fattah, and Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni could therefore be among those in line for the award when it is announced on Oct. 7.

“My strong sense is that this (Nobel) committee and its leader want to reflect the biggest international issues as defined by a wide definition of peace,” said Jan Egeland, a former Norwegian deputy foreign minister.

“Following that logic, it will be the Arab Spring this year. Nothing comes close to that one as a defining moment of our time,” he told Reuters.
A record 241 candidates, of which 53 are organizations, have been nominated for this year’s award, worth 10 million crowns ($1.5 million). The five-strong prize committee will meet for the last time on Sept. 30.

Demonstrations and protests in 2011 involving hundreds of thousands of people have challenged the grip on power of autocratic rulers across the Arab world.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya have been removed from power while opposition movements in Syria and Yemen, among several other countries, are attempting to bring about political change.

Egeland’s view was shared by Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. “The Arab Spring will be very high on the agenda of the committee’s internal deliberations,” he told Reuters.

“What has been very clear from the current committee ... is that they really want to speak to current affairs. There is an eagerness to not only award a prize that has had an impact in the present but also to use the prize to impact the present.”

The committee’s secretary said there were “a few” candidates linked to the Arab Spring among this year’s nominees, but he declined to name them.
Among the known nominees this year are WikiLeaks and its leader Julian Assange, Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, Afghan human rights advocate Sima Samar, the European Union and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Also among the nominees are Cuban dissident Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, Russian rights group Memorial and its founder Svetlana Gannushkina, Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked secret U.S. cables to WikiLeaks, and Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege.

In the two years under Thorbjoern Jagland, an ex-Norwegian prime minister, the Nobel Peace Prize has been given to U.S. President Barack Obama, then less than a year in office, and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a choice that infuriates Beijing to this day.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has yet to make its final decision about this year’s award, its secretary said. “We have one more meeting ... We have a few candidates on the table,” Geir Lundestad told Reuters.

The deadline for nomination was Feb. 1 but members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee can add nominations until the date of their first meeting, which this year fell on Feb. 28.

Egeland suggested the committee may decide to do as it did it in 1997 when the Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams.

“They picked Jody Williams because she was the most charismatic person for one period of that effort,” he said.

“With the Arab Spring, by necessity they would have one or two people that represent ... a democratic peaceful movement. Perhaps one of the youths that created Facebook pages. That could be one way of recognising the importance of social media.”

Were the committee to recognize an Arab Spring activist, it could choose to name Abdel Fattah and the April 6 Youth Movement for its key role in maintaining the direction and non-violent character of the Egyptian uprising, Harpviken said.

Alternatively, he said “Ghonim (was) a central inspiration to the protests on Tahrir Square (and is) a principled non-violence activist and an innovator in the use of social media.”

Were the committee to go for Ben Mhenni, a blogger who was criticizing the Tunisian government long before the start of the uprisings in December 2010, it would be a prize “to independent reporting, in the form of social media, (and) a recognition of the peaceful protests of the Tunisian people,” said Harpviken.

Nominations are secret for at least 50 years unless the person who nominates chooses to reveal his or her choice. Those who can nominate include former Nobel Peace Prize laureates and members of parliaments and governments.

Saudi Woman Driver Sentenced to 10 Lashes


Two Saudi women were punished for breaking the ban on female driving: One was sentenced 10 lashes by a court in Jeddah and another was detained in Riyadh.

The incidents highlight the continuing disparity between the rights of men and women in the kingdom. Women may be able to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections, but they still can’t drive, argue in court before a judge, travel, get an education or a job without male approval.

“Saudi Arabia made the giant leap this week from an F- to an F+ in human rights,” David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights, said in an e-mailed response to questions on Sept. 27. “It’s unconscionable that in the 21st century a woman cannot drive herself to work, a restaurant or just for the fun of it.”

Saudi Arabia, holder of the world’s biggest oil reserves, has mostly avoided the anti-government demonstrations that have rocked the Arab world this year. The kingdom announced spending plans totaling about 500 billion riyals ($130 billion) to prevent the regional unrest from sparking dissent at home.

Some women, inspired by the Arab spring that has led to the fall of the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes and sent the Libyan leader into hiding, have been pushing for change, using social- networking sites. One of their efforts, a campaign called Baladi, calling for female participation in municipal elections, has succeeded.

Leading ‘Saudi Spring’

“Women in Saudi Arabia are leading the Saudi spring,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, one of the Baladi campaigners, in a telephone interview on Sept. 26. “We’re going to push for driving as a next step.”

Another effort, Women2Drive, a campaign that called on women with international drivers’ licenses to break the only ban of its kind in the world and start driving on June 17, also appeared to be making headway until this week. More than 50 women responded to the appeal that day. Several across the kingdom continued to drive and it seemed as if authorities were turning a blind eye to the women behind the wheel.

A statement from Women2Drive said the woman who was sentenced to the 10 lashes had appeared before the Jeddah court twice before the sentencing. Two other women have been called to court, including Najla Hariri, who was forced to sign a pledge not to drive again and is scheduled to appear before a Jeddah court for trial in one month, and another woman who is on trial in the Eastern Province, the Sept. 27 statement said.

Police Summons

“This is completely unacceptable and certainly breaks laws and regulations as well as international treaties that Saudi Arabia has signed,” said the statement. “What is happening is horrifying and must immediately be stopped.”

Madeeha Ajroush, a 58-year-old psychotherapist, said she was detained in Riyadh after driving “to express my joy at the king’s decision.”

“Someone saw me drive and complained to authorities,” Ajroush said in a telephone interview yesterday. “After I got home, the police came to summon me.” She spent 3 1/2 hours at the station, signed a no-driving pledge and was let go.

Hariri, a 45-year-old Saudi housewife, said she received a call on Sept. 21 summoning her to appear before Jeddah’s prosecutor on Sept. 25, the day the king issued his decree.

“My need to drive should not be considered a defiance of the law, the ruler or religion,” said Hariri in a telephone interview from Jeddah on Sept. 27. “I drive out of a need, because I don’t have a driver.”

Teaching Driving

The latest government actions have led to a suspension of a new initiative that Women2Drive campaigners had hoped would boost their effort: teaching women how to drive. More than 1,500 women had ticked the “learn” box on a confidential form the campaigners sent around by email.

During the summer months, a small group of women looked for neighborhoods where students can practice without getting arrested, compiled instructional material, including how-to videos, for the theoretical part of the course and looked around for female volunteers with valid international driver’s licenses.

“There’s no written law that bans women from driving, so how can women drivers be prosecuted?” said Noura Yousef, one of the campaign organizers, in a telephone interview from Jeddah on Sept. 26.

Saudi Arabia enforces restrictions interpreted from the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. In addition to the restrictions on women, the government enforces strict gender segregations in public, including at restaurants, schools and lines at fast food take-outs.

The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

In Pakistani Media, the U.S. Is a Target for Acrimony

The United States might still be weighing its options about how to deal with Pakistan, but many politicians, retired army generals and popular television talk show hosts here have already made up their minds that America is on the warpath with their country.Such is the media frenzy and warmongering that popular talk show hosts have even begun discussing possible scenarios of how Pakistan should react if the United States attacks the country. One television news channel has even aired a war anthem.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has called on a conference of opposition political parties and government’s allies for Thursday to discuss the crisis. The government is also enlisting allies.

Islamabad, the capital, has seen a flurry of diplomatic activity with the visits of Chinese and Saudi officials. The American ambassador, Cameron Munter, has also met with President Asif Ali Zardari and Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir.

After meeting with Vice Premier Meng Jianzhu of China on Tuesday, Mr. Gilani said that “China categorically supports Pakistan’s efforts to uphold its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” an oblique reference aimed at the United States.

Earlier in an interview with Reuters, Mr. Gilani warned against any cross-border raids by American forces in Afghanistan. “We are a sovereign country,” Mr. Gilani was quoted as saying. “How can they come and raid in our country?”

Pakistan’s powerful army and intelligence chiefs, meanwhile, have conveyed their message through their posturing. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the army chief, canceled his Monday visit to Britain, stoking a sense of crisis.

On Sunday, General Kayani led a meeting with his top military commanders. No press statement was issued, but leaks to local media outlets warned of a “stern response” to any attack on Pakistan by American forces from Afghanistan.

A military official, privy to the meeting, said that the military commanders agreed to make efforts to defuse the situation and de-escalate the tensions with the United States. However, “certain decisions were taken, primarily of some defensive nature, in the event of a possible U.S. attack,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Lt Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the country’s spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, also flew Monday to meet with Saudi officials. Saudi Arabia is a close ally of Pakistan.

Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired lieutenant general and former head of the ISI, said Tuesday that the United States is “pressurizing Pakistan to hide its own failures in Afghanistan,” a widely held view here. Mr. Qazi, now a senator, was quoted as saying that “U.S. officials often lie for their own interests” and as criticizing the American media for supporting what he called government propaganda against Pakistan.

The sharp display of anti-American sentiment is reflective of the deep divisions, mistrust and suspicions that exist between the countries.

The rambunctious electronic and print media have been rife with discussions about the possible rupture between the two troubled allies. Several retired army officials have taken on a very hard line, urging the government to break ties with the United States.

Such displays have been evident in the past few days, since Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a statement describing the Haqqani network, a militant group based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as a veritable arm of the ISI. He also charged that the ISI had supported an attack this month by Haqqani militants on the American Embassy in Afghanistan.

“Why cannot we snap diplomatic relations?” asked Shuja Khanzada, a retired colonel, during a live talk show on Tuesday on Dunya TV, a private television news network.

On Monday, Hamid Mir, the host of “Capital Talk,” a talk show on the popular news network Geo, started the show asking, “Is United States going to attack on the ground in Pakistan?”Mr. Mir, who has a penchant for sensationalism, asked Asma Jahangir, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, what would happen if, in response to an American attack, Pakistan blocked the NATO supply lines that pass through the country for the Afghan war.Ms. Jahangir rebuked the host. “America hasn’t launched any attack yet, and you are talking this way,” Ms. Jahangir said. Instead, she urged Pakistanis to reflect on where they have gone wrong.

Earlier in the show, another participant, Abdul Qayum, a retired lieutenant general, said that an American attack was a possibility.

When another participant, Farukh Saleem, a columnist and widely quoted analyst, criticized the local media by saying that it had “put more fuel on the fire,” General Qayum interjected and said Admiral Mullen’s statement was an insult to the whole nation.

“You cannot trust them,” General Qayum said of the Americans. “There is a history of betrayal.”

In another talk show, “Khari Baat” on Dunya TV, Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul, a former ISI chief, said that American threats were actually a blessing in disguise, as they had united the whole nation.

General Gul said the United State wants to give archrival India a “proxy role” in Afghanistan and American actions now risked the “dangers of a third world war.”

In an interview, Enver Baig, a former senator, said that the threatening American statements “resulted in gluing all political parties together.”

He added, “U.S. elections are approaching closer and Americans want a safe and respectable exit from Afghanistan and are scapegoating Pakistan,” echoing a widespread perception in Pakistan.

“The majority of the public sentiment is anti-American despite the fact that the U.S. is the biggest donor to Pakistan,” Mr. Baig said. “The U.S. has not been able to convert this into good will. American P.R. in Pakistan is very poor.”