Tuesday, November 13, 2018
By Philip H. Gordon
Saudi Arabia is no closer to achieving its objectives in Yemen, and international pressure to end the war is growing. The kingdom can cease its bombing campaign and still defend its national interests.
The murder of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, along with sharply deteriorating humanitarian conditions and growing media attention paid to the war in Yemen, has led to increased pressure on Saudi Arabia to end the war there.
Top U.S. officials are now calling on Riyadh to agree to a ceasefire and participate in U.N.-sponsored talks, and the Pentagon announced last Friday it would no longer provide in-air refueling for Saudi bombing runs.Meanwhile, Congress, led by the new Democratic majority in the House, is credibly threatening to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which countries such as Germany have already done. The growing pressure, a marked departure from the almost-unconditional support the Trump administration has been providing to the Saudis, has led to renewed hopes that the war might finally be brought to a negotiated end.
We should all hope that U.N. talks, led by the able British mediator Martin Griffiths, succeed — but we should also be realistic. Even if the Saudis and their Emirati partners show up ready for compromise, the Iran-backed Houthis, who control much of Yemen today, are sadly unlikely to reciprocate. Having survived years of economic isolation and relentless Saudi bombing, the Houthis know all the pressure is now on the other side. Their Iranian backers, in turn, likely assume they have nothing to gain from compromise either given the Trump administration’s hostility to the Tehran regime. Houthi rejectionism would give the Saudis and Emiratis a pretext to resume the war, possibly including a bloody assault on the port of Hodeidah, which U.N. officials assess could considerably worsen the humanitarian situation even while failing to force the Houthis to give in.
The Saudis claim they will have no choice but to escalate the war if they cannot reach an agreement at the talks, but here’s a better alternative: Declare victory and go home. Given all they have invested after three and a half years of war, and their legitimate concerns about Iranian influence and Houthi threats, that might seem irrational, and it would certainly be a bitter pill to swallow. But it would be far better than continuing with a war that has had incalculable humanitarian, financial, strategic and reputational costs for the Saudis but has not remotely advanced their own declared objectives.
In fact, on almost every measure, Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has failed. Three and a half years after the launch of what was meant to be a quick military operation, the Houthis are stronger than ever; Iran’s influence has only grown; al-Qaeda terrorists remain a major threat; Yemenis are suffering in what may be the worst humanitarian situation on the planet; refugees have poured into Saudi Arabia and neighboring Oman; and Saudi Arabia’s reputation — critical to its ambitions to become a modern, industrial economy and tourist destination — is suffering badly in the United States and around the world. If the Saudis applied the “benchmarking” approach associated with their economic reform plan — reassessing policies regularly and changing them if objectives are not being achieved — they would have certainly altered their policies in Yemen several years ago.
Bearing these high costs would be more justifiable if there were any realistic hope that staying the course would achieve their goal of restoring the pre-Houthi regime to power, but that is unlikely even in the long run. On periodic visits to Riyadh over the past three and a half years, Saudi officials have regularly acknowledged to me in private that the war was not going well, but equally consistently insisted that progress was just around the corner. The optimistic official assurances were eerily reminiscent of those regularly issued by American political and military leaders for years in Vietnam, or by Soviet leaders in Afghanistan, before they finally and belatedly accepted the reality that their military interventions were counterproductive.
For the Saudis, “going home” in Yemen would not mean abandoning the legitimate objectives of limiting Iranian influence or containing threats from Houthis. On the contrary, even if they end the current bombing campaign, there are a number of steps the Saudis could take to defend their national interests and increase their security. These could include enhanced maritime patrols, with U.S. support, to better prevent Iranian arms deliveries to the Houthis; increased diplomatic and economic pressure on Oman — bolstered by major financial incentives — to reinforce its land border with Yemen; a readiness to undertake airstrikes against advanced ballistic missile sites and air bases in Yemen that are used to attack Saudi Arabia, much like Israel currently does in Syria; the deployment of enhanced missile defenses around Riyadh and other Saudi cities, to include U.S.-made Theater High Altitude Area Defense Systems; financial and humanitarian assistance to Saudi allies in Yemen; and even economic and monetary incentives to Houthis, including funds for reconstruction, if they end their attacks on Saudi interests. All of these measures put together would cost far less than Riyadh is currently spending on the war, and they would likely save many lives and bring greater security as well.
The United States should continue to urge the Saudis to come to peace talks and pursue a negotiated settlement. It should also insist, however, that the Houthis and Iran not be given a veto over peace. Saudi Arabia should be pressed to end the current war with others if it can, but alone if it must.
By Samira Shackle
n 31 October, Pakistan’s supreme court acquitted Asia Bibi, a 54-year-old Christian woman who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy. Bibi, a farm labourer and mother of five, had spent eight years on death row, accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad after an argument with her neighbours. After her acquittal, protests erupted in all of Pakistan’s major cities: smashed shopfronts, blocked motorways, burning tyres. And it has left the prime minister, Imran Khan, wavering between defending the verdict and trying to appease the hardline religious protesters.
Perhaps more than any other individual, Bibi has become a symbol of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. To liberals and secularists in the country – as well as to outsiders – this law is brutal, disproportionate and inhumane. Blasphemy in Pakistan carries the death sentence but, despite this harsh penalty, has a remarkably light burden of proof. The accuser can refuse to repeat the allegation in court for fear of blaspheming themselves; the law sets no standards for evidence and no requirement to prove intent. Lower court judges – such as those who condemned Bibi to eight years on death row – are often afraid to acquit in blasphemy cases because of the threat of mob violence. More than 60 people have been killed by mobs after blasphemy accusations since 1990.
To Islamists and conservatives, however, the law has become emblematic of Pakistan’s status as a Muslim state. It is therefore seen as something that must be defended at all costs. While the blasphemy law has been a political flashpoint for years, a specific movement has coalesced around it since Bibi’s arrest. In 2011, two politicians who had spoken up for her release were murdered – the Punjab governor, Salman Taseer, and the only Christian cabinet member, Shahbaz Bhatti. Taseer was murdered by his bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed in 2016. Mass protests were held by Islamist groups, who have held up Qadri as a hero.
In 2015, a political movement called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which exists more or less only to defend the blasphemy law, sprung up. As is so often the case in Pakistan, these extreme elements have been pandered to by mainstream politicians, which provides the space for them to flourish and grow. After the assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti, tentative discussions of reforming the blasphemy law were shelved, sending a clear signal that violence works. During this year’s election campaign, the winner, Khan, appealed to this section of the voter base by vowing to “defend” the blasphemy law.
While the recent protests are ostensibly about Bibi’s acquittal, they are more than that: the TLP and other Islamist groups are defending an intolerant, inward-looking vision of Pakistan that rejects secularism and does not make space for religious minorities. The uniting power of the blasphemy law is such that it has brought together disparate, usually competing Islamist groups in a rare show of unity on the streets. In a particularly alarming speech at a recent protest, firebrand cleric and politician Maulana Fazlur Rehman called for “the people’s court” to override the supreme court.
The judges at the supreme court threw out Bibi’s case since there was no evidence against her. Even against the blasphemy law’s own incredibly low standard, the case against her fell apart. Perhaps this is why Khan, in his responses to the verdict, has repeatedly cited the need to respect the rule of law: he can support the supreme court’s verdict without going back on his election promise to “defend” the law itself.
Yet Khan’s apparent attempt to find a middle ground has left many dissatisfied. Soon after the announcement of Bibi’s acquittal, he gave a speech that – given his history of appeasing more extreme elements – surprised many in its stridency. In it, he supported the supreme court’s verdict and referred to protesters as “enemies of the state”. Yet in the days that followed, as protests closed off major motorways and caused businesses and schools to shutter, Khan and his inner circle appeared to vacillate. Reports emerged that in negotiations with the TLP, the anti-blasphemy group orchestrating the protests, Khan agreed to allow a court to review the acquittal, and to work to prevent Bibi from leaving the country. This was a betrayal of immense proportions, since it is clear that her life cannot be protected while she remains in Pakistan. Her lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, has already fled the country after receiving death threats. In addition to calling for Bibi’s death, the TLP’s leaders called for the death of the three supreme court judges who acquitted her, and instructed followers to rise up against the army chief. Her current location is unclear; over the weekend, there were reports she had left the country which were then denied.
Khan is far from being the first prime minister in Pakistan to pander to the conservative religious lobby, but this does not make it any less worrying. “If a government does not stand by the decisions of the apex court, the country cannot survive,” Khan said over the weekend. Yet these words are empty if they go alongside a willingness to cede ground to groups representing a bigoted and intolerant mindset that explicitly seeks to override the rule of law.
News of her acquittal on October 31 was met with the shutdown of major roads in cities such as Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, where cars were burnt and smashed by mobs organized by the Tehreek e Labbaik party (TLP), an extremist religious party. Even the news of her release from prison was greeted by a baying mob of thousands of men who waved banners demanding that she be hanged -- a terrifying and visceral picture of the patriarchy in action.
Despite being declared innocent by the courts, it is Asia who is on the run like a criminal and needs to leave the country before the mobs track her down.
Even her lawyer, Saiful Malook, had to uproot his life and family and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Other less well-known members of her legal team like Muhammad Aman Ullah, who has stayed behind in Pakistan, is fearful for his life. How did this happen in a so-called democracy like Pakistan? Ever since the military dictator Zia ul Haq began the Islamisation process of Pakistan in the 1980s, religious leaders have acquired unprecedented power. Saiful Malook, who I interviewed in late 2017 while he was preparing Asia's case, lays the blame firmly on Zia ul Haq.
"He made them ministers, gave them cars, built them bungalows, got them involved in government. Before that the religious leaders were quite weak, now they are stakeholders in government and in corruption." It was Zia ul Haq who revived the dormant British law on blasphemy by increasing the maximum penalty from 10 years to death. Yet the irony is that to date no one has been executed by the state on the charge of blasphemy, but many have been killed by the mob -- one estimate is 75. It is also this mob rule that prevents the quick dispatch of blasphemy cases in the lower courts, even when the evidence provided is as flimsy as a flight of fantasy.
The political strategy of the extremists has been to pack out the courts at every blasphemy hearing so that judges are reduced to nervous wrecks and refuse to take on cases, pleading ill health.If they do hear the cases, they simply do not acquit defendants. Lower-court judges are typically less educated and more sympathetic to the religious lobby.Saiful Malook recounts the story of the judge who sentenced Asia Bibi to death, who has preserved the pen which he used to sign off her judgment as a source of pride. The higher up you go in the Pakistani legal system, the more likely you are to get justice because judges further up the hierarchy are paid well and have security provided by the state.
Of course, even this security can turn out to be illusory as Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was to discover when he was killed by his own guard in 2011 for visiting Asia in prison and calling for her to be released.The few lawyers who take on these life-threatening cases command huge fees. Many of the blasphemy victims, like Asia, are just too poor to go all the way up to the Supreme Court and languish for years in prison.But Asia caught the public imagination and donations poured into her campaign from all over the world. Rights organizations like Amnesty International also stepped in to help fund some of the legal fees.
Although the leadership of subsequent governments after Zia has been drawn from the liberal elites whose personal lives have eschewed religion to a greater or lesser degree, all of them, except General Pervez Musharraf, have relied on religious parties for their power. It was a strategy of appeasement and vote garnering.
Benazir Bhutto was the great feminist hope when she succeeded Zia but failed to overturn his Hudood ordinances, which, for example, required women to produce four witnesses to prove rape to avoid charges of adultery. Nawaz Sharif condemned religious violence against minorities but did very little to reverse the sharification of Pakistan.Musharraf cultivated an image of Enlightened moderation, introduced some women-friendly laws and pushed back against religious forces.However, Afiya Zia, a Pakistani activist and academic, in her new book "Faith and Feminism in Pakistan" says his policies were "more symbolic than transformative" while the backlash of radical conservatism against women went unchecked. Imran Khan, elected to power recently, and yet to shake off his image as playboy of the Western world, plays a similarly duplicitous game. He has valorized the Pakistani Taliban for standing against US imperialism, has aligned with religious-right parties like Jamaat-e-Islami at provincial level, has expressed his support for blasphemy laws, publicly supports the acquittal of Asia Bibi and then behind the scenes, does a deal with TLP accepting its demand for a review petition of the Supreme Court judgment and to keep Asia Bibi in the country. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom produces an annual report surveying the state of religious freedoms across the world. Pakistan has appeared regularly as a "Country of Particular Concern" and is the only country to be put on a special watch list in its 2018 annual report.
The religious right has so far not managed to win power at the ballot box, but its ability to rouse a rabble and paralyze the country has given it a disproportionate and vicious grip on what's left of democracy in Pakistan. Trump, take note: if you court religious extremists, you are in danger of letting mobs weaken democracy.
Tucked in a valley in the remote highlands of central Afghanistan, Jaghori has been a safe haven in recent years for members of the country's beleaguered Hazara minority.
But the peace in Jaghori, a district in Ghazni Province heavily populated by the mainly Shi'ite Hazara, was shattered last week when Taliban militants launched a major offensive to seize it. Afghan special forces and pro-government Hazara militiamen continue to battle the militants, with clashes killing hundreds of people and forcing thousands to flee their homes.
When asked why the Taliban would try to take an area that has long been considered unattainable, analysts suggest that the hard-line Sunni movement is emboldened by territorial gains made elsewhere in the country, and has something to prove.
Expanding its reach into a central region inhabited by an ethnic group renowned for its opposition to the Taliban could be a game changer in the battle for national influence.
The Taliban terrorized Hazara during its oppressive 1996-2001 rule, when the militants wrestled control of central Afghanistan through brute force and a campaign of targeted killings. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban has been unable to make inroads in Hazara-dominated areas.
"The Taliban want to prove that they are capable of governing non-Pashtun territories," says Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst. "They have been able to govern ethnic Tajik and Uzbek areas in the north, and they want to govern Hazara-dominated districts as well."
Apart from Jaghori, the militants have also attacked the district of Malistan, also in Ghazni. Fighting erupted two weeks ago in the Khas Uruzgan district, which has a sizeable Hazara population, of the neighboring Uruzgan Province.
'Alternative Governing Force'
The Taliban has traditionally drawn on Pashtuns to back its insurgency, but it has successfully recruited disgruntled members of other ethnic groups as it has expanded its reach. The recruits have boosted the Taliban's ability to seize territory beyond the Pashtun-majority areas in the country's south and east that serve as its base of power.
To this point, Hazara areas have been the exception.
Analysts note that the Taliban has tried to portray itself as a genuinely national movement, and to bolster that image it has tried to attract members of other ethnic groups. It has also distanced itself from sectarian and ethnic-driven attacks, although it is in fact often blamed for orchestrating incidents.
"Unlike in the case of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, the Taliban doesn't have Hazara in their ranks, which is a big challenge for them," Mir says. "However, if they are capable of controlling and governing Hazara territories without brutality and abuses, then it might play well in their strategy, which is to portray themselves as an alternative governing force not only in the south but in the entire country."
'Never Accept Taliban Rule'
Taliban rule would be difficult to sell to Hazara. Aside from past Taliban atrocities against the community, the group's strict interpretation of Shari'a law and its policies on women and education would threaten advancements seen in Hazara areas in recent years.
In Jaghori, for example, there is near-universal girls education, and the number of boys attending school is higher than the national average. Women also work outside their homes and can drive cars, as is the case in most urban areas of Afghanistan but which is banned in areas under Taliban control.
During its draconian rule, the Taliban denied girls the right to go to school, and women were not allowed to work outside the home. If they ventured outside, women had to don a burqa and be escorted by a male relative. Although the Taliban has relaxed some of its strictest positions, its restrictions on education and women persist.
"Hazara will never accept Taliban rule willingly, and will do their best to resist them," says Ali Adili, a researcher at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul. "Hazara do not want to have any reversal on their civic gains."
Highlighting the anti-Taliban sentiment among Hazara, civilians took up arms against the insurgents before the central government belatedly sent reinforcement troops, including special forces and warplanes, to besieged districts this week.
The fighting between the mostly Pashtun Sunni Taliban and Shi'ite Hazara has heightened fears of ethnic and sectarian violence, even as the Taliban has denied it is specifically targeting Hazara.
Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting some 40 percent of the 30 million population. Hazara make up around 10 percent.
'Try Their Chances'
The districts of Jaghori and Malistan in Ghazni Province are strategic because they are considered the gateway to the Hazara-dominated provinces of Bamiyan and Dai Kundi, peaceful areas where the Taliban currently has no influence.
Large parts of Ghazni are under the control of the Taliban and the militants briefly overran the provincial capital, Ghazni city, in August before they were beaten back by Afghan special forces backed by U.S. air strikes. Ghazni is strategically located on the main highway linking Kabul with the southern city of Kandahar.
"The Taliban may want to try their chances at wresting control of the Hazara areas from the government as they already control large parts of the non-Hazara districts in Ghazni Province," Adili says.
The Ghazni fighting prompted demonstrations in Kabul and Ghazni by Hazara, who have complained of official neglect after a string of militant attacks targeting the community. A suicide attack close to where demonstrators had been gathering in Kabul killed at least six people on November 12.
A recent U.S. government watchdog report said the number of districts under government control or influence was at the lowest level since 2015. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said only 55.5 percent of the total 407 districts were under government control or influence, with the rest either contested or controlled by the Taliban.
Zofeen Ebrahim, Annie BanerjiOne in three girls and one in five boys miss out on primary school in Pakistan, campaigners said on Tuesday, urging the new government to live up to promises to build more girls’ schools despite attacks by militants opposed to female education.
Nearly 22.5 million of Pakistan’s estimated 50 million children are out of school, most of them girls, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report, highlighting problems of poverty, lack of federal investment and a shortage of government schools.
“The number of out-of-school children in particular, and girls specifically, is on the rise and the number of government schools are not increasing in the same proportion,” Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer with HRW told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
At around the age of 14, only 13 percent girls are still in education, he said, attributing this mainly to a shortage in secondary schools for girls, as well sexual harassment, early marriage, gender discrimination and abusive teachers.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow at policy think tank Tabadlab, said there is a girls’ education crisis in Pakistan, where four out of five schools are primaries, meaning that girls often have to travel long distances to attend secondary school.
“Safe, accessible and plentiful schools for girls are a distant dream in Pakistan,” he said.
Worldwide, more than 130 million girls are out of school, costing the global economy as much as $30 trillion, according to the World Bank.
Pakistani Taliban and allied Islamist militants, who regard girls education as anti-Islam, have been attacking thousands of schools for young women in northwestern and northern parts of Pakistan.
AASTHA SINGH and SONIYA AGRAWAL
Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s son Saad Bajwa got married recently in a high-profile ceremony which was, however, performed by a hardline mullah.
Journalist Taha Siddqiui Monday shared a video, posted by another journalist Afshan Masab which showed a glimpse of the Islamic cleric performing rites in Saad’s nikah ceremony. The cleric, who was sitting beside Khadim Hussain Rizvi, chairman of far-right party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, gave some inflammatory speeches as well.
Siddiqui captioned the video by saying that army chief Bajwa “asked an extremist pro Mumtaz Qadri (murderer) mullah to do the nikah ceremony”.
The journalist also sought an explanation from army spokesperson Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor about why Gen. Bajwa was “endorsing such extremists”. AASTHA SINGH and SONIYA AGRAWAL Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa’s son Saad Bajwa got married recently in a high-profile ceremony which was, however, performed by a hardline mullah. Journalist Taha Siddqiui Monday shared a video, posted by another journalist Afshan Masab which showed a glimpse of the Islamic cleric performing rites in Saad’s nikah ceremony.
The cleric, who was sitting beside Khadim Hussain Rizvi, chairman of far-right party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, gave some inflammatory speeches as well. Siddiqui captioned the video by saying that army chief Bajwa “asked an extremist pro Mumtaz Qadri (murderer) mullah to do the nikah ceremony”.