Friday, 30 July 2010

Rising sectarianism in Pakistan

The situation in Pakistan is far too violent. Unfortunately, this was compounded by another tragedy, the crash of an Air Blue flight yesterday. May our prayers be with all the victims.

An article I wrote on sectarianism in Pakistan was posted today on ForeignPolicy.com - you can click here to access the full piece.



Failing Pakistan's minorities

BY TAUFIQ RAHIM, JULY 30, 2010     Share

"I would like to believe that peace is possible because without it, there is total darkness."
These were the grim words that my friend left me with as I returned to Dubai from Lahore on July 11 after a short trip to Pakistan. Family members of his perished in the recent attacks on Ahmadi mosques in the city and he was tasked with identifying their bodies at the morgue. It often seems when reading a Pakistani newspaper that you are in three or four simultaneous war zones. The day I arrived on my most recent trip to the country, Pakistan was hit with its most deadly attack of the year, in its tribal areas, resulting in 102 fatalities.
Amidst the ongoing violence there appears to be a more vigorous targeting of religious groups and sites, particularly in urban areas, culminating in the bombing of a prominent Sufi shrine, the Data Darbar in Lahore on July 1, killing more than 40 worshippers. The number of deaths from sectarian attacks has already reached 302 for 2010, compared to 190 for the whole of last year. It harkens back to 2007, when 441 Pakistanis died in sectarian violence. The difference then was that the targeting was mainly outside of Pakistan's main cities (i.e. the sectarian clashes in Parachinar in FATA). This trend represents an ongoing effort by a number of militant groups todelegitimize the government and further undermine its authority; it also raises the fear of‘sectarianizing' an already volatile climate in Pakistan, which could lead to much greater levels of violence.
On May 28, gunmen raided two Ahmadi mosques, one in the Garhi Shahu area and another in the Model Town area of Lahore. 93 people were killed as they attended Friday prayers.  I visited the Model Town mosque on July 10, where witnesses described the horror of that day and expressed a complete lack of confidence in the authorities ability to protect them from another attack. The attack itself started with gunfire and then a grenade was thrown at the imam's pulpit inside the mosque. Two of the gunmen were apprehended by the worshippers, and prevented from exploding their suicide belts. According to an official of the community that I met with there, the attackers were no more than 16 or 17 years of age. This place of worship now resembles a war zone. While the bullet holes and other damage have since been repaired, new protective features are prominent: barbed wire, bars on all the windows, massive steel doors, barricades, snipers on the roof, and guns everywhere.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Behind the Negotiating Scenes in Palestine

"The Palestinians have set three impossible conditions: that the negotiations start from the point they left off at the end of 2008 when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, that they be based on a total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and that the freeze of [settlement] construction continue."
These were the distraught words of Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom in reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' pre-conditions before re-entering into direct talks with the Israelis.  It normally is the Palestinians who are exasperated with Israeli obduracy and not the other way around. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the Palestinian negotiating strategy, entitled Tipping Point, documented this newfound stubbornness in Abbas' bag of tricks. According to the ICG, Palestinian officials believe that the next round of negotiations are their last attempt before they lose credibility in front of their people and in the face of opposition from Hamas: "If we fail again, why should anyone believe we could succeed later." Moreover, the rise of the Obama administration, replete with senior advisors such as Samantha Power, General James Jones, fmr. Senator George Mitchell, and General David Petraeus who are seen as partial to the Palestinian position, has offered the Palestinians an opportunity. It hasn't hurt that across the table sits an increasingly irrational Israeli government, led by a maligned Foreign Minister in Avigdor Lieberman, viewed as extremist by much of Western Europe.

Despite these fortuitous circumstances, the Palestinians and their negotiating team have failed to capitalize, build serious momentum for their cause, or offer innovative approaches. This is despite 'gifts' in the form of international aid flotillas -- to which the PA was largely agnostic except for the Turkish ships in May -- or the Goldstone Report -- which Abbas acted against at the UN in Geneva. Additionally, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is viewed favorably in the West, even having a movement named after him by Tom Friedman called 'Fayyadism.' However, while a young guard is 'modernizing the economy', and a political young guard to an extent has penetrated political circles, this change has not entered the 'negotiations' realm. Even the title of the recent report that the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD) of the PLO put out in December, reads as 'old school': "The Political Situation in Light of Developments with the US Administration and Israeli Government and Hamas' Continued Coup d'etat - Recommendations and Options."

Let's look at the 'political' context for the NAD. It is an arm of the PLO, which is a completely stagnant body. The Palestine Liberation Organization was founded in 1964 and was intended to be a democratic representation of Palestinians around the world; it consists of ten member parties (Hamas is not one of them). It is chaired by Mahmoud Abbas, and is governed by an 18-person executive committee, last chosen in 1996, six of whom are dead. The PLO in fact is responsible for all foreign relations for the Palestinians, has observer status at the United Nations, and conducts final status negotiations with Israel.

Recently Fatah, the most dominant party in the PLO, held new elections for its Central Committee during a 2,000 member pow-wow in the West Bank (August 2009). It was then, that many of the Palestinian 'young guard' from the security/political realm were finally empowered. If you recall, the battle between the young guard (primarily Palestinians who grew up under the occupation or were in Israeli prisons) and the old guard (primarily former exiles from when the organization was based in Tunis) was one of the main triggers for the second Intifada in the early 2000s. Leaders of the young guard included figures such as Jibril Rajoub, Muhammad Dalhan, and Marwan Barghouti, all of whom were elected to the 22 person Fatah Central Committee last year.

The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is responsible for the day-to-day management of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and is led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad since June 2007 in the West Bank; the Gaza Strip is government by an alternative Hamas government, since the 'fitna' severed the territories from one another. While Fayyad has contacts with Israeli government officials (i.e. Ehud Barak) he cannot conduct final status negotiations. Ostensibly, he is accountable to the Palestinian Legislative Council elected from among Palestinians in the occupied territories, but because many of its members are in Israeli jails, a quorum cannot be held; thus Fayyad has been appointed by Presidential decree (additionally the constitutional terms of both the President and the Parliament ended in January 2010, if not earlier).

Therefore, the Negotiations Affairs Department (NAD) is under the tutelage of the PLO, a generally unaccountable body; it is from time to time also subject to the political winds of Fatah.  It is led by Saeb Erekat a historical spokesperson for the Palestinians. To buttress the Department's capacity, in 1998, the PLO approached the United Kingdom for assistance. Under an agreement, the UK began to fund something called the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU) within the Department, to provide technical support for the negotiations process for the Palestinians. The NSU forms the foundation - but not the direction - for the NAD, and consists of two departments: legal and policy affairs, and communication. Funding has been provided also by the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Until earlier this year, the NSU which forms the foundation for Palestinian negotiations, was managed by a British sub-contracter, Adam Smith International (on a for-profit basis), as mandated by the UK government.

For the last 12 years, the NSU, within the NAD - the primary negotiating vehicle for the Palestinians - has been a throughway for a new young guard of Palestinian professionals. Lawyers, policy analysts, media strategists and others, particularly from the diaspora have been recruited into the fold. Many of them are graduates in fact of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; others are from leading law schools in the U.S. and Europe. These are people such as Wassim Khazmo or Issa Kassissieh or Nisreen Haj. Others such as Diana Buttu and Michael Tarazi rose to the media spotlight -- only to be forcibly removed from the scene under external pressures. And therein lies the problem. While the NSU has served as a think-tank for great minds, the PLO and the NAD have not allowed for an incubation of great ideas.

There are several elements to this. Buttu and Tarazi who were virtuoso television spokespersons, may have in fact elicited envy form their political counterparts for the attention they were receiving (note Israel does not have an issue with Mark Regev's ubiquitousness as he is effective). There are a number of very precocious and articulate advocates of the Palestinian cause within the NSU and elsewhere who should be on media stations around the world, but they are not. On another level entirely, the communications strategy of the NAD-PLO is not even 2.0, or 1.0; maybe it's at 0.5. The entire concept of building an audience through new media (YouTube, podcasts, livestreams, etc) or social media (Facebook, Twitter, Digg, etc) is non-existent. Even NAD's recent report in December read more like a UN resolution than a strategy.

The relatively fortuitous circumstances (within the context of an occupation) that the Palestinians today find themselves in, provide the opportunity to truly build a multi-platformed, innovative strategy for negotiations that can prove more effective than any weapons held by any militant group. What does this mean? It includes hosting international study groups; having systematized briefings on each issue (border); coordinated messaging; weekly press 'teach-ins'; running consolidated campaigns around Goldstone, the flotilla or other 'opportunities.' Most of all it means empowering the young guard within the Palestinian braintrust to lead the way (much like President Obama in fact did in his campaign for the Presidency). However, recently, a newly installed head of the NSU, a European-Palestinian with strong credentials, was quickly removed after a month for trying too quickly to change the system.

None of this should discount advancements made within the PLO, or by the NAD, or the NSU itself. However, the stakes are too high to be working at half-effectiveness. As the Palestinian official quoted in the the ICG report stated: "If we fail again, why should anyone believe we could succeed later."

This post was written without the knowledge, input, or expressed approval of any persons mentioned in this post.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Lebanon to be Hot in the Fall

This is a new article just published on Huffington Post that I wrote, reflecting on the current situation in Lebanon and the blowing winds coming in the fall. Please go to the site (by clicking here) to check it out and give your comments.


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The Fall in Lebanon to be Hotter Than the Summer



BEIRUT -- When the temperature in Dubai drops below 40 C or 110 F there is cause for excitement, because you will be able to walk outside. Of course, if you wear glasses, they may quickly fog up with condensation leaving you blind as a bat. Thus, it is the Gulf pastime to fly away for a getaway to Beirut, Lebanon. It is, however, somewhat of a quixotic choice. Lebanon? Home of Hezbollah? Yet amidst the buildings adorned with marks from bygone bullets and bombs, are the beaches and beating nightlife of Beirut. In fact, Skybar, the city's premier nightspot is rated as one of the world's top clubs.

Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, wind in your hair, the warmth of sporadic bursts of fire in your face, you are surrounded by countless wonders of the world who spend hours preparing themselves just to have you glance at them so they can look away. Or you could be at Music Hall, where a sophisticated crowd takes in performance after performance of international musical talent, from Italian opera to Cuban jazz to Jerusalem folk songs -- all in one night. And if that doesn't suit you, perhaps you'd want to go to the Riviera beach club and see how dressing up is really dressing down. Yes, summer in Beirut is quite hot. Nevertheless the fall promises to be even hotter, albeit in an altogether different way.

Lebanon has experienced a brief respite starting in May 2008, from violence, strife, and political stalemate. It has not been perfect, but the peace has provided a modicum of long-awaited stability. Come autumn that could all change. The rising tensions between Iran and the US, as well as the upcoming indictments to be presented by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, could jolt the country back to instability.

The Doha Agreement on May 21, 2008, allowed for the creation of a unity government (one in which Hezbollah was effectively given a veto in cabinet) and the election of President Michel Suleiman. In fact, it was the first time in 35 years that Lebanon had a legitimate head of state at a time of peace; there was no Syrian or Israeli occupation (essentially), or civil war, or foreign-installed President (i.e. Emile Lahoud). The last two years, also allowed Lebanon to somewhat heal from the Israeli onslaught in July 2006, which devastated the South and suburbs of Beirut particularly, and left Lebanon divided. A generally free election in 2009, gave way to a surprising victory for the March 14 coalition spearheaded by Saad Hariri's (son of Rafiq) Future Party, over the Hezbollah-led opposition coalition. What was even more surprising was that both sides accepted the results and formed a unity government (after some Saudi-Syrian conversations of course). Since then, for the first time in their histories, Lebanon and Syria established diplomatic relations (i.e. embassies) with each other.

Yet, the more things change, unfortunately, the more they stay the same. Yes, the 'party' is still ongoing and on the surface Lebanon is changing. For example, I was at a wedding of epic proportions in the Bekaa Valley (a stronghold of Hezbollah) on Saturday, which brought together a Druze bride and a Shiite-Sunni groom. Young people from whatever affiliation or disposition or sect blended together to celebrate into the night. Musicians from France, a singer from New York, and friends from around the world showcased the cosmopolitan side of Lebanon. However, just two days earlier, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of Hezbollah, had made a stirring speech to the masses in Dahiya and beyond, where he made a claim that has been reverberating in the media for some weeks: several members of Hezbollah will be implicated by the Special Tribunal for Rafiq Hariri's death. What gave people pause, was that he made a pointed reference to current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, revealing personal conversations between the two, where Nasrallah alleged Hariri (the son) told him what the results of the Tribunal would be in advance.

The tinderbox that is Lebanon can explode at any moment. There hasn't been true reconciliation between Sunnis (predominantly supportive of Saad Hariri) and Shiites (predominantly supportive of Hezbollah) since the events of May 7, 2008 when Hezbollah stormed Sunni areas of Beirut in response to the government's decision to crackdown on its telecommunication network. All that is needed is a spark or someone to strike a match, for the country to be engulfed once again in the flames of violence and instability. Since 2005, the Tribunal has been investigating Hariri's death (the father). Now, there is an expectation that the first indictments will be issued as early as September; moreover, in the crosshairs will likely be Hezbollah. Nasrallah has marked a line in the sand saying that no members of his group will be turned over to anyone.

On the other side of the region, the tensions continue to rise between Iran and the U.S.; this will bring further scrutiny on the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah. Due in the fall are reports for UNSC Resolutions 1559 and 1701, which specifically focus on the continuing arms smuggling by Hezbollah (among several other issues). The UNSC may ask UNIFIL forces in the South to take a more direct role in seizing weapons, or investigating arm caches. Already this year, we have seen small skirmishes between UNIFIL and 'residents' of the South. This is likely to get worse in the fall. There is always as well the persistent threat of an irrational escalation by either Hezbollah or Israel with one another, to distract from domestic concerns; thus the situation remains tense on the border.

Does that mean that Lebanon is on a direct path for more internecine conflict? There are signs that the different actors will not want to lead Lebanon to crisis. Hezbollah does not have the same political capital it once did, and it lost considerable popular legitimacy last May when it used its weapons internally. Saad Hariri, himself, has chosen a path of detente, internally and with Syria, which he appears to be committed to despite the circumstances. Finally, Israel is at a weak point internationally, and igniting another conflict with Lebanon would leave it even more isolated.

However, despite the above, the situation is assuredly going to heat up in the coming months. Avoiding conflict, violence and further instability is a priority not just for Lebanon but for the interest of global security. National leaders, regional players and the international community will have to take care not to fan the flames. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Lebanese history, these three groups have often done precisely the opposite.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Of Shiites, Sunnis and a sectarian world

If you are reading this on email or in a feed you must go to TheGeopolitico.com to view the YouTube clip. 

Today's LocoWorld TV clip explores the dynamic of sectarianism in the Middle East. With the region enveloped by 'sectarian' flashpoints on either side - Iran and the Gulf States on one and Lebanon on the other - it is important to understand how exactly the sectarian dynamic influences geopolitics. For that reason I explore in the video (which is longer than usual) some of the current flashpoints in the region. This will be an ongoing theme on TheGeopolitico.com as it is a very intricate and complex issue (sectarianism that is).

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Bahibak ya lubnan -- but sometimes I just have to say, what's going on here? The enchanting words of Fairuz in homage of her homeland are captivating, but unfortunately for all the love that the Lebanese profess for Lebanon, collectively it is not living up to its potential. It is a blunt assessment, but one that unfortunately continues to ring true. Outside the Sky Bars, the cityscape of Solidere, and the beautiful beaches, Beirut is a city submerged in cynism, pessimism, and disappointment. 

Living in the Gulf, you find talented Lebanese from all walks of life contributing to economic and social success of their host countries. There must be something in the cedars that cultivates a truly unique sense of entrepreneurship and wanderlust. That global talent pool of 16 million persons of Lebanese descent outside the country are responsible for remittances that contribute up to 25% of Lebanon's GDP. The wealthiest person in the world is arguably the telecommunications magnet Carlos Slim, a Mexican of Lebanese origin worth $50 billion. 

Within Lebanon, the cosmopolitan culture has a vibrancy that is almost unparalleled. You can catch international music acts at the Byblos or Beiteddine festivals, or even see Akon in concert who will be here August 7. Wander into Music Hall and you will be mesmerized. Go to AUB, and you will be surrounded by a historic and free scholarly environment in the Middle East. And up and down Gemmayzeh street there are any number of bars and lounges that conjure up a global imagination. Throughout the country, family businesses based in Lebanon do global trade from West Africa to Canada; professionals with top-level skill-sets would be the envy of any nation in the region. 

Nevertheless, for all the talent and potential of the Lebanese individually, Lebanon has failed to live up to its billing. Every now and then there is blame heaped on the civil war and a casual remark is bandied about that once upon a time Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East; today, the capital is indeed once again featured in the New York Times travel section as a top world destination. Yet the bygone past and a glossy present cannot absolve Lebanese politicians for their abysmal failure to provide a functioning state for its people today. 

The constant political turmoil, 15 year civil war, and external pressures, have made the Lebanese very resilient, and self-reliant. Moreover, a strictly sectarian dynamic of 18 recognized confessions that precludes a census from being conducted (the last in 1932) would surely slow the governance of any country. Thus, the government has become apathetic and unconditioned to true accountable, responsible, effective governing. There was always an excuse and if the government did not provide a service, the people would depend on themselves or their confessional leaders. Now, with a delicate political balance in the country, the young Prime Minister Saad Hariri has a chance to push forward an agenda of progress. However, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same in Lebanon. Unemployment hovers around 20%, Beirut residents are being priced out of their own homes, the deficit and debt are still not under control, tax evasion is pervasive, electricity in many regions is still intermittent and the list goes on. Public transportation and transparency are luxuries that probably don't even make the to do list yet. Try privatizing any institution in the country and assuredly whatever deal is reached will cause a collective rolling of the eyes. 

Recent municipal elections in Beirut were a perfect example of governance without real accountability to voters. Lists of candidates were only submitted several days before the vote, which pretty much went along predictable sectarian (or factional lines) with scant attention to issues, platforms, or track records. Lebanon is of course ahead of Syria, or other regimes. But that precisely misses the point of where Lebanon can and should be in its place among nations. Its potential surely has been undermined by war, conflict, religious tension and a number of other factors. Now, however, the political elite need to step up and demonstrate true leadership on all the unsexy necessities that have been neglected for too many years: finance, health, education, infrastructure for starters. Of course, if you ask many people here in the country, they'll tell you about the faith they have in their politicians: Kul hum haramiyin (they're all bastards). Perhaps. But shepherds are nothing without their sheep. 


Why Naif al-Mutawa is a superhero

Superman. Batman. Spiderman. And Noora? Sami? Mumita? There must be something wrong with this incongruous list. According to Naif Al-Mutawa, however, they flow well together; so well, that Noora, Sami, Mumita and the rest of The 99 will be joining The Justice League in a special collaborative series in the fall. Still doesn't make sense? Listen to Naif himself explain the thinking behind The 99, a new comic book rooted in elements of Muslim cultures. His spellbinding synopsis of the development of The 99 was recently profiled by TED (I have pasted it below for your viewing pleasure as well).

Naif's vision is a cast of characters that embody positive principles that are rooted in the 99 names of God (or Allah) that are known to all Muslims. Why should Muslim youth not have role models to look up to from their own cultures? That was the thinking behind the creation of this groundbreaking initiative which now includes comic books, television series, a movie, and a theme park (in Kuwait). Yet, in pursuing this project Naif has gone beyond the simple call of duty. This could very much have been a project set in a Muslim context for Muslims and by Muslims. Conversely, it is the pluralistic nature of The 99 that makes it a potentially sensational force for cross-culture encounter.

The team that was convened to develop the series includes veterans of the comic book world, from both sides of the proverbial cultural divide. Moreover, the characters while rooted in an Islamic mythology (so to speak), are from countries from around the world. They could very well be Muslim, but they could also very well be Christian, Jewish, or secular. The 99 acts as a vehicle for universal values in a very global sense, that cuts across cultural boundaries. The connection that a young child in Yemen feels with Jabbar could be the same as one in Brooklyn.

This is not new. Many American characters - Superman for example - represent such cross-cutting universal values. Yet, The 99 is replicating that, while emanating form the ideology and culture of Muslim communities. As the world converges, many Muslim youths ask if the amorphous global culture is representative, and if their values are acknowledged. Similarly, in the West, Muslim values and figures seem foreign and detached. The medium of fiction, whether it is The 99, or Khaled Hosseini's the Kite Runner, or even Kingdom Of Heaven, allows us to visualize a common humanity, and facilitates not only cross-culture encounter but even empathy, without the intrusiveness of manufactured outreach programs.

Naif is a trailblazer, but he is not the first and nor will he be the last. Ideas like The 99 are truly transformative. When others like it come along, I hope they will receive the same support.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Déjà Vu at Kabul Conference

I wrote a piece today in the Huffington Post on the conference held in Afghanistan. I have posted it below, but I encourage you to also visit the site by clicking here or on the title.


Déjà Vu at Kabul Conference



Today, Kabul played host to over 40 foreign ministers and other international leaders representing the broad coalition of the "unwilling, but we can't abandon Afghanistan" group of countries. This event -- the ninth such conference in nine years (but the first in Afghanistan) -- ended with a typical long communique representing an abstract agreement reached by the parties. Here is an excerpt from the front of the document:

The consensus of the nation is being translated into a vision through a concrete program of action for the renewal of the state.

This sentence is emblematic of the wonkish if not vacuous nature of the agreement. Afghanistan has become an intellectual playground and industry for politicians, the media, military, development agencies -- and the list goes on. Yet the result has been failure. It is harsh, but unfortunately it is the truth. The Kabul conference was yet another example of déjà vu. The same people. The same process. The same platitudes. No new ideas means it is impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Over the past nine years, nine such conferences have been held: Bonn 2001; Berlin 2004; London 2006; Rome 2007; Paris 2008; Moscow 2009; The Hague 2009; London 2010; and Kabul 2010. There have been some positive outcomes from these conferences, most principally the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) drafted in 2005 and revised in 2008. Yet, too often these events have served as glossy photo-ops that gloss over the real and grave challenges that Afghanistan presents to the international community. June was the deadliest month on record for NATO forces since the beginning of the conflict. Each successive year the communiques issued have emphasized the need for security. Today, President Karzai's plan for a 2014 'transfer of military leadership' was endorsed by the countries present at the conference. It is hard to see why this agreement will have the requisite effect of shifting momentum from the Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan.

Another outcome of the conference is the continued donor support for the country. Since 2001, an entire Afghanistan industry of various sectors has come together in Kabul based on foreign aid. The Independent covered this well in a comprehensive article last year.

The high degree of wastage of aid money in Afghanistan has long been an open secret. In 2006, Jean Mazurelle, the then country director of the World Bank, calculated that between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of aid was "badly spent." "The wastage of aid is sky-high," he said. "There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal."

The thousands of foreign aid workers, consultants and others receiving part of the largesse, do have an impact for sure. Yet, it is more and more difficult to justify spending $30,000 per month (at least) to pay, house, and secure a foreign aid worker, who has limited movement and in the end limited impact. Moreover, a significant amount of aid goes towards abstract ideas such as gender mainstreaming and aid effectiveness. It isn't that aid effectiveness for example isn't a good idea. Quite simply put, hiring another UN coordination officer is just not the answer for more effective aid.

Afghanistan continues to be mired in tremendous conflict, still ranked 6th on Foreign Policy's failed states index, with the lowest GDP per capita outside of sub-saharan Africa. The 31-point communique released after today's Kabul conference will not solve this situation. The answer then is not to cancel all financial support for the country or withdraw all military forces. It is, however, necessary to reposition completely the failed strategy so far. Instead of focusing on the minutiae of intellectual aid projects, funding should be diverted simply to large-scale infrastructure projects that will bring tangible results to the Afghan people, including boosting employment (away from the Taliban): roads, electricity, schools and hospitals.

Militarily? The solutions are not so clear. What is apparent is that the Afghan population and especially the plurality Pashto population, are becoming more sympathetic to the Taliban. An increased US presence has not been working to strengthen control over the country. Ultimately Afghans need to take the lead, and local security needs to be the focus of training. Separate the war on terrorism from security and stability in Afghanistan. The US should continue, as Fareed Zakariya pointed out, to chase the remaining international terrorists remaining in the country, through special forces, and other surgical strikes. Yet, it should extricate itself and empower completely Afghan forces to secure their own cities, with only rearguard support. As difficult of a prospect that this is, it is the only way forward.

Today's conference, unfortunately represented more of the same for the future instead of a sharp break with the past, and that can only mean continued disappointment in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Why is Iran the constant enemy?

I have posted my video blog entry for the week (LocoWorld TV). This clip analyzes the rush to war with Iran and questions if the US knows where it's heading and why. 

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Why Saudi Arabia is progressive

Saudi Arabia is progressive?

On March 11, 2002 flames engulfed a girls’ public intermediate school in the holy city of Mecca (Saudi Arabia). Although this alone was tragic, what happened next was appalling. Members of the mutaween, a law enforcement agency of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, severely hindered the rescue efforts. These religious policemen blocked male rescue workers from entering the school in order to prevent them from ‘sinning’ or coming in close contact with uncovered females. Unfortunately, the young girls were not wearing the abayas (black robes) required by the Saudi government. Some of the students trying to escape the burning building were stopped from exiting by the mutaween, and one witness reported seeing the religious police “beating young girls to prevent them from leaving the school because they were not wearing the abaya”. The initial stampede from the fire and subsequent activity resulted in 15 deaths.

This characterization is emblematic of the criticism of Saudi Arabia, and in particular its abhorrent human rights record over the years. After all, Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchial dictatorship that operates as a pseudo-theocracy, and denies freedom to religious minorities and equal status to women. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International continue to issue reports, claiming that "Saudi Arabia spares no expense in trying to hide these gross human rights violations." In fact, just in April, a Lebanese television presenter was set to be executed for 'sorcery' (although his punishment was deferred for now). So how is Saudi Arabia progressive?

If the benchmark is Canada or New Zealand, then the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would have to be cast out as extremely regressive. Yet, to evaluate Saudi Arabia on an absolute standard may be conventional, but it is certainly misleading. It is more relevant to compare the Saudi Arabia of today to the Saudi Arabia of yesteryear. In fact, since King Abdullah formally came to power in 2005, the situation has markedly been improving. Simply look at Human Rights Watch's own words. This is an excerpt from their report in December 2001:

Decades of disrespect for human rights have distorted political and civic life in Saudi Arabia and dangerously narrowed possibilities for peaceful political reform...The ruling family is perpetuating a system that breeds intolerance and political violence. Saudi Arabia's government is intolerant of public dissent, whether it comes from Saudi liberals or conservatives. Any criticism of the ruling family and its closely-knit circle of supporters, including the official ulema (religious scholars) is off limits.
Here are some telling findings from HRW's recent article (July 1) in the Huffington Post:

Saudis are somewhat freer today, and many credit the king. Saudi writers have won regional awards this year, and the diversity of Saudi society is on display, thanks to the growth of electronic media....Saudis see some progress in three areas -- women's rights, freedom of expression, and judicial reform...Rigid gender segregation between men and women is loosening in public places, though it's still the norm in the workplace and schools...King Abdullah has made a good start, but he should keep the momentum going."
The article also mentions a number of areas which still require significant improvement, mainly judicial transparency, women's rights, freedom of religious minorities and so on. Yet, it is a stirring story, to see how Saudi Arabia is changing today. When I went to Saudi Arabia to work on a project while at McKinsey, it was not without hesitation. However, the progressive vision of King Abdullah to open the society and liberalize its education system specifically is inspiring. This is not to be naive. It is not an electoral democracy. Yet, that cannot be the only metric to use. And more fundamentally, reform, change, and development is a long trajectory that will not happen overnight. To expect it to do so, is precisely the foolish philosophy that inspired the invaders of Iraq.

There are several clear examples of change underway. In multiple ways the King is encouraging an entirely new ecosystem for education, from creating a new first-rate education program for gifted and talented students to modernizing and internationalizing the university network (see KAUST, which will also have both men and women in the same classroom). On human rights, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of creating a new human rights organization for the Gulf, as well as introducing 'human rights' to its educational curriculum. The Human Rights Commission in Saudi Arabia is also actively soliciting cases. And on women's rights King Abdullah is pressing the country to tackle taboos and cross new frontiers. He has appointed a woman for the first-time to a cabinet-level position (for women's education) for example. Saudi Arabia is also ahead of other Gulf countries in tackling domestic abuse. A recent report by a think-tank in Riyadh showed that 40% of articles during the first two months of the year in print media addressed women's issues.

The King and his allies are pushing forward an agenda for change in Saudi Arabia. Each day, there are different restrictions being lifted, and old traditions being confronted. A senior cleric was removed from his post when he labelled the plan to integrate university students as un-Islamic. Furthermore, he is opening lines of critical dialogue even on religion. None of this however, means that Saudi Arabia is a free society. Repression still exists. Women are still second-classs citizens. Rather than embracing the diversity of the country, the government continues to repress minority groups, particularly Shia Muslims. And, for all the social change being encouraged, political power is still consolidated within the grip of a King.

Yet, since when was the situation in the Middle East black and white? This is the reality. There is no emerald city. Change will come incrementally and deliberately. It will take time, and there will be setbacks. Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah is pushing things in the right direction.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

'When ideas have sex' - and why it's halal

TED Global just wrapped up in Oxford with a program to blow your mind. Speakers ranged from Joseph Nye - the progenitor of smart power - to Naif al-Mutawa the creator of The 99. It was a power-packed lineup meant to foster innovation and creativity from a plurality of perspective. The talk that grabbed many headlines was "When ideas have sex," (also reposted below) delivered by Matt Ridley. Ridley is a best-selling author, who believes in rational optimism. The fundamental premise that he offered is that not only is the arc of prosperity trending upwards, but it is also due to the sustained interaction of peoples and ideas. In isolation, the parts amount to much less than a collective whole. What does that mean for the Middle East and the Muslim world? Are Arab countries fostering the necessary level of interaction to help their societies reach the tipping point of progress and development?

Fundamentally, the answer would have to be no. In fact, it is one of the most endemic problems facing many developing countries, and particularly those in the Middle East. Faced with external threats and internal strife, bonded by the vestiges of colonialism, the inhibition of discourse and exchange is a systemic problem. The problem has been highlighted a number of times, never as clearly as the UNDP Human Development Report for the Arab world starting in 2002. At the outset, fostering a necessary level of interaction, requires a knowledgeable population firstly that has the literacy to pursue interactions, be they cultural, academic, economic, social, political or otherwise, and secondly an economy that is managed well enough to allow for trade, and industrial and economic collaboration and learning.

The Arab world specifically has failed to deliver on this promise. A telling graph is that of Egypt and South Korea's economic development. In 1968, Egypt's GDP per capita (in this graph nominal) both in nominal an real terms exceeded that of South Korea. Yet, since that time it has been a story of opposite directions, as the graph demonstrates. Today Egypt's economy is still in its primitive stage, and the population as a whole whole is unprepared to participate in a global knowledge-based economy, given the level of only 71% having basic literacy.



It is easy to dwell on the past and castigate the socialist policies of Gemal Abdelnasser or the inert leadership of Hosni Mubarak. It is harder to contemplate what needs to be done in order for 'ideas to have sex' in the Arab world, and to a large extent, many Muslim developing countries. Yet, a starting point has to be literacy and enrollment in education. This is an issue I will revisit in this blog, but let me leave you with a stark excerpt from the Arab Knowledge Report of 2009:
Many key problems still form a major obstacle to the establishment of the knowledge society [in the Arab world], perhaps the most prominent among them being continuing illiteracy. Around one third of the adult population is unable to read and write, meaning that there are still some 60 million illiterate people in the Arab countries, two-thirds of them women, and almost 9 million children of elementary-school age outside school, most of them in the countries that have not solved the illiteracy problem. It is impossible to realise the ambition of setting up the knowledge economy and society as long as the regional gross enrolment ratio in upper secondary education remains below 55 per cent for males and females alike, when the industrially advanced states and those of Central Asia have achieved enrolment rates around 84 per cent.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Times Square pseudo bomber, gives a pseudo goodbye

It wasn't supposed to be this way. I can hear whispers from across the Atlantic from Faisal Shahzad's jail cell: "I coulda been somebody." Unlike Marlon Brando, Shahzad has no one to blame but himself for the multiple dimensions of his failure.



Shahzad, as you must know by now, attempted to blow up a Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square. I am not sure exactly what happened, but this young man who threw his entire life away in order to join the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban, squandered his opportunity to join the hall-of-fame of self-proclaimed shaheeds or martyrs. He had received $16,000 in capital, training, and other planning materials, yet failed to deliver any return to his terrorist masterminds in Pakistan. I mean, was he not concentrating in the bomb-making class when they taught how to connect the detonator? Either way, New York is lucky that Shahzad's incompetence got in the way of killing civilians. Of course Shahzad still doesn't comprehend that he failed. He confessed to his crimes and plead guilty June 21, declaring:

"I'm going to plead guilty a hundred times over because until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan and stops the drone strikes ... we will be attacking the U.S.," he said. "And I plead guilty to that."
What is really sad for Shahzad is that he has had his so-called confession of a pseudo-terrorist video released while he is still alive, instead of having been released post-mortem (see the video at the bottom of this post). The video was edited down from 40 minutes (probably due to the fact that it is quite boring) and released on Al-Arabiya TV. Some of the highlights of his words include:

  • "Islam will spread and defeat the democracy...and all the schisms and isms will be defeated."
  • "I hope the hearts of the Muslims will be pleased."
  • "This attack will also be a revenge attack for [Baitullah Mehsood]
The video represents the sad mumbling of a confused Pakistani-American youth, whose family originally comes from a village outside Peshawar in Northwest Pakistan. I will write more about this trend in the future, but there are strong sociological and psychological factors that are more individual in nature, which often cause young men like this to join an outfit like the Pakistani Taliban. It is almost a cross between joining the Crips and the Jonestown cult; it fulfills a need for self-confidence, identity and mission, as well as helping young people address what they see as social grievances.

In any case, take a look at Shahzad for yourself:

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Where are those Muslims at?

Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a report entitled "Mapping the Global Muslim population." If you have time, you should definitely check it out. I wanted to share with you an interactive table from the report of the Muslim population across the world with you, that is quite interesting (see below).

Are the numbers reliable? The United States, according to the data here has only 2.5 million out of the global population of 1.5 billion Muslims, which is based primarily on self-reporting via Census data. Similarly, China only records 21 million Muslims, where the figure might be two or three times as much. In any case, take a look for yourselves -- if there is any definition to where the Muslim world is, this is it! (p.s. if you are reading this in your email, you will have to go to the website as the formatting won't come through). 


Interactive Data Table: World Muslim Population by Region and Country

For information about how data for each country or territory were collected and analyzed, see Data Sources by Country. Sources include national censuses, demographic and health surveys, and other general population surveys and studies. Population figures for previous years have been projected forward to 2009 based on the assumption that the Muslim population of the country is growing at the same rate as the general population.
Data for countries marked with an asterisk (*) are drawn primarily from general population surveys, which have smaller sample sizes than demographic surveys and are not designed to measure the size of small minority populations. This may lead to undercounts of Muslims in countries where they represent a small minority of the population and overcounts where they represent the vast majority of the population. Those numbers, therefore, should be considered more approximate.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Petraeus should reconsider US approach in Afghanistan

Please visit Huffington Post for a new article I published on Afghanistan. You will find it also reposted below.


Petraeus Should Reconsider 'More of the Same' in Afghanistan



I am extremely concerned that this is our ninth year at war. I am extremely concerned about the health of our force. I am concerned about the rotation arrangement [for troops]. ... I see the stress in every level of our chain of command, from those who are doing the most difficult fighting and sacrificing on the ground to even our senior leaders.

These were the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussing the state of the Afghanistan conflict in late June at the Aspen Institute. As General David Petraeus assumes the mantle of leadership in Afghanistan, he faces the difficult task of shifting the momentum away from the Taliban. No matter what his wizardry in counterinsurgency, the challenge in Afghanistan remains daunting. The proverbial 'enemy' -- i.e. the Taliban-led insurgency -- appears to be gaining strength, whereas America's ally, the Karzai government, increasingly looks disjointed. In fact, June was the deadliest month for NATO troops (102 casualties) since the war began.

More than 20 years ago, Barnett Rubin, an omnipresent Afghanistan expert, lamented in Foreign Affairs that the "turbulence of this once isolated land can no longer be a matter of indifference to a world whose powers have invested so much in this struggle." Unfortunately, it was precisely indifference on the part of the international community that ensued; the backward nation of Afghanistan was deemed irrelevant with the end of the Cold War. Today, the consequences of repeating history and abandoning the country would be catastrophic for global security, not to mention the Afghan people.

Yet, how do you define victory against a fragmented collection of insurgent groups -- a question raised by former Senator Gary Hart to Admiral Mullen at the Aspen Institute Forum. It is similarly unclear who will join the coalition to 'victory.' Canada has maintained its intent to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, something that could influence other wavering nations like the United Kingdom and Germany, likely leaving the U.S. on its own in the near future. As for Afghan forces, according to a new report by the U.S. government, only 23% of Afghan soldiers could work unsupervised.

Many analysts have, however, touted the new surge as a stepping-stone towards success in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen favorably compared the circumstances in Afghanistan today with those of Iraq just a few years ago; for example, casualties yearly in Afghanistan are similar to those monthly in Iraq at the height of its violence. Sri Lanka's surge demonstrated tactical success in extinguishing a long-term insurgency, and what had appeared to be an endless conflict. Nevertheless, an Afghan surge, while a comforting idea, will be hard-pressed to turn the tide in the country.

Firstly, unlike in Iraq, the corresponding indigenous forces are more fragmented and less motivated; there are no awakening councils in Afghanistan. Secondly, in Iraq the surge focused on cities, particularly in the Sunni triangle, and other urban areas in Al-Anbar province. Afghanistan is a much more mountainous and treacherous terrain, unlike much of the desolate desert of Al-Anbar. Additionally, the disparate population in Afghanistan is largely rural (est. 75%), while in Iraq it is largely urban (65%), making it easier for the insurgency to regroup, and survive in isolated pockets, not to mention the sanctuary available for the Taliban in the tribal areas in Pakistan.

Adm. Mullen mentioned that as goes Kandahar so does Afghanistan. The embattled city will be the focus of a NATO surge operation similar to that in Marjah in February, which while bearing some fruit, has left the town haunted by the Taliban and embroiled in government corruption. It is difficult to visualize success with more of the same. Frequent reports indicate that even Afghan President Hamid Karzai is hedging his bets by increasing contacts (whether direct or indirect) with insurgent groups.

The arrival of a savior in General Petraeus should be used as an opportunity to fundamentally break with the past nine years and mark a new strategic course. New approaches may lead to new ideas to shift the momentum. Invite the Iranians, Indians, Chinese and Pakistanis to one roundtable. Hold ceasefire talks with any willing insurgents. Consider a sincere end-date (the five year rough timeline at the G-8 Summit does not suffice) and clear withdrawal strategy. With more of the same, there will continue to be a lack of creative solutions being offered, and only further despair in Afghanistan.

Monday, 12 July 2010

After the World Cup Euphoria - A LocoWorld special

Every Monday, I will present a fresh perspective on the recent happenings from around the world. Hosted at LocoWorld.tv, and right here on TheGeopolitico.com, each clip captures in two minutes the thought-provoking trends behind the headlines.

Today I explore the aftermath of the World Cup and what it means for Spain and other countries. Enjoy!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Mr. Carter goes to Dubai

It doesn't get more auspicious than the Capital Club in Dubai, an old-style 'networking' club, which apparently "meets the demands of...those powering the region's growth." That was the venue for a wonderful afternoon today with former US President Jimmy Carter, organized by several Harvard alumni groups. A robust 86, Carter seems to be getting sharper with age, both in terms of insights and the forthrightness of his comments. The Carter Center is doing work across 75 countries around the world, and the President talked extensively about its projects around "disease eradication," particularly in Africa, as well as its activities in monitoring elections.

Yet, it was also increasingly clear that the prevailing passion for the President today is realizing a Mideast peace. Outlining his vision for a Palestinian state -- something that he had advocated during his Administration in the late 70s -- Carter was quite forceful about Israel: "I think every government in the world recognizes a two-state solution except Israel." He continued, "The persecution of Arabs in Israel, and of Palestinians in the West Bank, and worse in Gaza, I believe are international crimes." It was after all the Carter Center that observed and certified the 2006 parliamentary elections of Hamas, only to be slapped by the EU-US boycott of a truly democratically elected government; one of the first democratic transfers of power in the Arab world.

Carter's sense of abandonment on the issue can be traced back to the 1978 Camp David Agreement, of which there were two. The first was in fact a comprehensive framework for Middle East peace, which envisioned the return of occupied territories to the Palestinians. The second concerned a peace between Egypt and Israel. Only the second was truly adhered to, and both Israeli Prime Minister Begin and US President Reagan essentially walked away from the first track agreement regarding the Palestinians.

Today there's another young President with ambitions for fostering an overdue peace. In terms of advice for President Obama, Carter succinctly instructed: "Be courageous and do what's right." Hopefully he's listening.