Thursday, December 25, 2008

Ban Ki-moon: Another Dismal Year

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has had another dismal year in office. Not only has the UN made no progress on any front under his leadership, his personal efforts at conflict-resolution, especially in Africa, have all come a cropper.

In the Sudan, the largest projected UN peacekeeping effort is in suspended animation because of foot-dragging by Khartoum and a basic lack of international confidence in the efficacy of a UN force in the face of significant armed opposition. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a case in point: UN peacekeepers have been completely ineffective in stopping a civil war that has claimed over five million lives because the foreign profiteers who fuel the war have nothing to gain from peace.

In situation after situation the UN under Ban stands on slippery ground. It has been unable to get a handle on the lawless turmoil of Somalia. In Kenya, it was sidelined by retired UN head Kofi Annan simply because he inspires much more confidence than Ban. In Zimbabwe, the UN has no role because Ban's close relationship with the British has shorn him of all credibility in the eyes of the country's embattled President, Robert Mugabe, and the regional mediator, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

Ban's frustration at Zimbabwe's refusal to let his Special Representative even enter the country found expression at a recent closed-door meeting of the Security Council attended by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. In remarks that were released to the Press by his spokesman despite their supposedly secret provenance, Ban railed at the economic, social, political and health crisis in Zimbabwe. For all of 2008 there had been no effective government of the country. There had been a "failure of leadership ... to do what is best for the people of Zimbabwe." Including Thabo Mbeki in the criticism, Ban said: "Despite our continued efforts, I, unfortunately, have to conclude that neither the government nor the mediator welcomes a United Nations political role, and there is limited space for my good offices."

I wonder if Ban ever asks himself why he's getting so little respect. If he does, the answer is in print: former US envoy to the UN John Bolton, whose support for Ban was critical in getting him the job, says in his July 2008 memoir that a criterion in picking Ban was that he would be unlikely to rock the boat. Bolton told one interviewer Ban was chosen because he "wouldn’t get up one morning and conclude he was God’s gift to humanity."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Terrorist Info? Call 1090

India now has a nation-wide terrorism hotline: 1090. It is hooked up to a national center and to local police or Anti-Terror squad, who are under instructions to act as quickly as possible on information received. The number is toll free number and can be dialed from mobile phones. The identity of callers will be kept confidential. Readers in India are requested to spread news of the new number to as many people as possible.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Shashi Tharoor Unplugged

My old UN colleague Shashi Tharoor has been much in the news in Mumbai.

In the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 attack his column in the Times of India refering to the "savage irony" of the terrorists landing at the Gateway of India which was built to "welcome the King-Emperor" in 1911 got some unfavourable notice, but then he bounced back on Mumbai television talk shows. A little item in the TOI saying he had been asked by Sonia Gandhi to stand for Parliament from Thiruvanthapuram also got him some notice. (The Malayalam Press had a slightly different take on that story: he was reported to have attended a Congress meeting in Thiruvanthapuram along with 10,000 others, to hear Sonia Gandhi speak. The Mathrubhumi quoted him as saying that no one had asked him yet to run for Parliament.)

Shashi has made clear that if asked, he is willing to be drafted into politics. Speaking on the unfortunately titled program, Shashi Tharoor Unplugged, he told an interviewer from Mumbai's NEWS-X station that the Indian middle class had to get involved in politics, and that he was prepared to do his bit.

Asked about 26/11 he offered the observation that because people of all communities had died in the attack, there had been no subsequent sectarian fallout. The interviewer tried unsuccessfully to direct his attention to the very large sectarian flap set off by Minorities Affairs Minister A.R. Antulay's speculation about the possible role of "Hindu" extremists in the murder of Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism chief Hemant Karkare by one of the terrorists. On 22 December both houses of Parliament had to be adjourned because of the Antulay storm; the BJP was calling not only for his ouster from the cabinet but his arrest on charges of treason.

Also somewhat surprising was Shashi's contention that Pakistan's sinister spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), was established by the CIA in 1979 to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. While the ISI has done a great deal of work for and with the CIA, it was actually established in 1948 by a British officer who stayed on in independent Pakistan as Deputy Chief of Army Staff; its primary role then, as now, was/is to fight India.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apologies to Amitav Ghosh

The hurried analysis of Indian media punditry which I did in the immediate aftermath of the 26/11 attacks got Amitav Ghosh's column in the Hindustan Times profoundly wrong. The inadvertent omission of a few words completely changed the intended meaning. The column by Ghosh was perhaps the most nuanced and perceptive of the those reviewed. He did not accept the easy references to the attack on Mumbai as "India's 9/11" and advised against a response comparable to that of the United States to the demolition of the World Trade Center. The error in the original post has been corrected. My apologies to readers -- and Ghosh.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Mumbai Postmortem

In all the comment and analysis that has followed the 26/11 terrorist invasion of Mumbai there seems to be a general consensus that jihadists sponsored by Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, were responsible for the attack. The United States and Britain have energetically taken up this traditionally Indian view, and even China, a strong ally of Pakistan, joined in the unanimous call by the United Nations Security Council urging Islamabad to act.

Amidst this heartening consensus there is a niggling question that remains unaddressed: what has the ISI to gain from an attack on India at this time? Even the most die-hard India-haters in the ISI leadership must surely see that improved ties with New Delhi have eased the mounting pressures on Pakistan from a set of potentially disastrous problems that include terrorism at the hands of drug mafias pretending to be Islamists, and a national economy on tenuous life-support from the International Monetary Fund. In this situation it makes little sense for New Delhi to blame Pakistan for the Mumbai attack or threaten military action. No matter how "surgical" the strike on terrorist training camps, its only real effect will be to derail a peace process that is critically important to both countries. Which brings us back to the question: who benefits from the Mumbai attack?

For an answer we must look to Indian history, specifically to the creation of Pakistan at the time of Indian independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Though billed as a homeland for Indian Muslims, Pakistan was conceived by British policy-makers primarily as a tool to defend and promote their strategic interests in the region. That required animosity between the two newly independent countries, which was achieved by the conflict over Kashmir, initiated when both Indian and Pakistani armies were still under British command. (The assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at this time removed from the scene the major agent for peace.)

Pakistan’s Directorate of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which was established by a British officer serving as Deputy Chief of the Pakistani Army after the country's independence, has been a primary tool for manipulating the region. Set up to coordinate action against Indian forces in Kashmir in 1948, its primary aim has remained unchanged for six decades. However, its roles and capacities grew enormously during the Cold War, when Pakistan emerged as a key Western proxy. In the 1950s and 1960s it was the base for American U-2 surveillance aircraft operating over the Soviet Union and China, and in the 1980s it became the staging area for the Mujaheddin, with the ISI serving as the conduit for massive financial and arms aid from the United States. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pakistan became the pivot of a Western effort during the 1990s to control the rich resources of the newly independent Central Asian republics. That involved the ISI in promoting jihadist groups, organizing the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and overseeing the rise of Al-Qaeda.

During most of this period British and American interests in South Asia were coherent, but that began to change after 1998, when, in the wake of the Indian declaration that it had become a nuclear-weapon State, the United States initiated a major revaluation of its policies towards the region. The Indo-US strategic relationship that emerged, and American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, accelerated the growing UK-US divergence; Tony Blair’s “poodle” reputation and his resignation from office were rooted in his attempt to continue traditional support for Washington.

The transatlantic split became more visible in January 2008 when London failed to gain firmer control of Afghanistan by having one of its former intelligence operatives take charge of the UN, EU and NATO operations in the country. Word of the appointment was leaked at the UN, and generally taken to be a fait accompli till Afghan President Hamid Karzai refused to endorse it; his opposition was a clear signal that Washington and London were not on the same page. At just about the same time, the Karzai government told two senior British officials in Afghanistan, one working for the UN and other for the EU, to leave the country within 48 hours; they had been conducting unauthorized negotiations with the Taliban insurgents.

What is the reason for the US-UK split over South Asia?

The cause is not ephemeral policy; it is rooted in basic differences in the nature of American and British power. The United States is a large country with a continental economy, global military reach, and a fundamentally democratic society; it is the dominant force in international affairs, confident of meeting any challenge to its power. Britain is a medium/small country with an unspectacular economy, governed by a social/political elite that grew rich on the criminalities of the colonial era, including the slave and opium trades, and the economic strangulation of dependent territories. Because of that, and despite centuries of parliamentary democracy and a free Press, the British impact on the world has been fundamentally undemocratic; globally, Britain’s power now continues to depend on its capacity to subvert and manipulate developing countries, especially the resource-rich countries of Africa, and the populous countries of Asia.

The new Indo-US strategic relationship that has emerged over the last decade has thus been inherently threatening to Britain. So is the more recent d├ętente between India and Pakistan. Add Afghanistan to the mix, and a war directed at the drug lords who finance “Islamic terrorism” – the prime instrument for manipulating societies across Asia and Africa – and we have panic time for the remnants of imperial Britain. Over the last decade, just as all these developments were in train, terrorist attacks on India, Pakistan and Afghanistan have risen to an unprecedented crescendo. All three governments would do well to take seriously the declarations of innocence by the official authorities of their neighbors. They should also look to British proxies within the region if they want to defend their people from gratuitous assaults.