Monday, April 29, 2013

Taliban’s vicious campaign succeeding

One party is dominating the Pakistani election campaign – and it isn’t fielding a single candidate.

Sadly the organisation most talked about in the approach to the 11 May poll is the Pakistani Taliban, whose stated aim of doing all it can to disrupt the election appears to be succeeding.

At least 50 people have died in election-related bombings and shootings – and that figure will almost certainly increase significantly over the next few days.

The Government seems powerless to stop them.

An incredible 22,000 troops and police are being deployed in Baluchistan, the poorest region of the country where the Taliban is expected to be most active, but in fact the terrorist group is striking at will all over the country including the major cities.

The main target is the Awami National Party (ANP), which has no real chance of gaining power in its own right. But it is a secular party which is anathema to the fundamentalist Taliban. Even before the election began 40 ANP activists were killed in numerous targeted attacks in the southern city of Karachi, effectively stifling the party’s campaign there.

More recently 16 people died in Peshawar in a suicide attack at a rally attended by senior ANP leaders, and an ANP candidate, Mukarram Shah, was killed in Swat.

The relentless catalogue of death is having its effect. Teachers in Baluchistan are refusing to perform their traditional task of manning polling stations because of Taliban death threats, while the governing Pakistan People’s Party, which has also received terrorist threats, has scaled back its campaigns in the most dangerous areas.

The Taliban appears to be favouring a victory by the Pakistan Muslim League, the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is widely believed to be open to negotiations at least with the more moderate Taliban representatives.

The situation is best summed up by Asad Munir, a retired army brigadier who once worked for the country’s intelligence agency.

“The most effective campaign is being run by the Taliban. They are holding the state of Pakistan hostage,” Munir said.  


Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sensitivity missing in US airport security

The detention and apparent harassment of an Indian state cabinet minister at Boston’s Logan Airport highlights a continuing problem that officials from non-white countries have when trying to enter the United States.

Uttar Pradesh Urban Development Minister Mohammad Azam Khan was detained and frisked – an incident that might be put down to the hysteria following the Boston marathon bombing, but Khan, travelling on a diplomatic passport and on official business, was clearly no terrorist threat.  

This is also the latest in a long chapter of such incidents. The Foreign Minister in the former BJP Government, George Fernandes, was strip-searched twice in Dulles Airport while on an official visit and the country’s then Ambassador to Washington, Meera Shankar, was given a public ‘pat-down’ at an airport in Mississippi in 2010, apparently singled out from a group of about 30 passengers because she was wearing a sari.

Surely India’s official representative in the United States should have been recognised – even in Mississippi.

These are just three incidents involving Indians. There are many similar stories from other countries and probably many more which are never reported.

While security at airports must be of prime concern, the abuse of public figures, especially those involved in high-level contacts with the United States, does the country’s image no favours at a time when it should be looking after the representatives of countries friendly towards it.

And while there are Americans – I have met them – who have the view that the United States is the centre of the universe and the rest of the world can go hang, this is a dangerous attitude in an increasingly globalised environment.

How difficult would it be for airport security to be given advance information on who is travelling on what flight and at least be aware that so-and-so is a high-level political figure or other VIP and thus no security threat?

To drag people out of a crowd just because they are not wearing Western dress or have a less than white skin is a clumsy, ham-fisted way of handling security.

Ironically, Khan recently advocated that his own state’s police should be given special training “to sensitise them to the problems of the common man”.  


Monday, April 22, 2013

India-China stand-off in Himalayas

Chinese troops have penetrated 10 kilometres inside territory held by India in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir in the high Himalayas.

A platoon-strength contingent of around 50 men have pitched tents and erected what they describe as a ‘border post’, essentially claiming the territory for China.

Because of long-standing tensions with Pakistan, India has significant forces close by and is quite capable of retaliation, but for the moment at least the government in New Delhi is playing down the intrusion.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khursgid believes diplomacy can solve the situation, but military sources close to the incursion say tensions are high.

The Defence Ministry is taking a stronger line, with Minister Arackaparambil Antony saying his country will take “all steps” to protect its borders.

And indeed Defence Ministry sources say that this intrusion is just one of many provocative acts by the Chinese in recent times.

As a result India has moved tanks and heavy artillery into Ladakh.

For the moment the situation is stalemated, with Beijing insisting its troops are simply conducting routine patrols on the Chinese side of the Line of Actual Control, which is the nearest thing to a border in areas which both sides claim.

“China is willing to solve the boundary question through peaceful negotiations,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

And that is the root cause of the problem. The “peaceful negotiations” have dragged on for half a century, since the short 1962 war between the two countries. China has established its borders with every country except India where it still has designs on large swathes of territory.

Some years ago it produced a map showing the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as “Southern Tibet”.   

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hope for Hindu refugees

The arrival of 479 Pakistani Hindus in India seeking asylum, reveals a little-reported humanitarian situation on the sub-continent that has its origins in the partition of the two countries 66 years ago.

In 1947 at the insistence of Muslim leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the western states of British India were split away to form mainly Muslim Pakistan. The divide resulted in massive dislocation at the time as millions of the ‘wrong’ religion on either side of the new border became refugees in order to escape persecution.

Spasmodic atrocities have continued ever since, but the sheer weight of Muslim numbers left in India (it is not widely known that India holds the world’s second largest Muslim community after Indonesia) has been a source of some protection.

Not so with the Hindus in Pakistan. While Hindus made up 22 per cent of the population in 1951, that number has shrunk to two per cent today. At the time of partition Jinnah promised the Hindu minority they would be “free to practice their religion, free to visit their temples”. In fact most of those temples have been destroyed during sectarian disturbances or forcibly converted to other uses and Hindus live in perpetual fear of persecution and worse.

Elections in Pakistan inevitably lead to upsurges in violence and with one pending next month it is not surprising that the latest batch of refugees has crossed the border.

Their spokesman, a farmer who gave his name as Dharamyeer, said he would rather die than return to Pakistan.

“Hindus are not safe there. Our daughters are abducted and forced to convert. We can’t cremate our dead as Pakistanis tell us we must bury them instead,” he said.

“We want Indian citizenship so that at least we can die here peacefully.”

So far that has not been granted with the Indian Government threatening to deport them now their visas have expired. However, after widespread publicity and sympathy for their plight, a one month’s extension has been granted. This may give them time to complete the legal formalities required for citizenship applications.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher’s real legacy

I heard the news of Margaret Thatcher’s passing today with a pang of sadness. Not that I had any great affection for the former British Prime Minister, but the death of someone who played such a significant role during one’s lifetime is like a little death of one’s self – or at least a reminder of one’s own mortality.

As a convinced Europhile I could never come to terms with her visceral hatred of everything across the English Channel and while miners got what they deserved when she crushed their strike in 1984, her attempts to introduce a poll tax was a policy too far. A clear case of a leader in office too long who had begun to believe she was invincible.

If there was one point that defined her 11 years in Downing Street it was the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina in 1982. It was an opportunity she seized and a turning point in Britain’s post war history.

Until then the nation had been in obvious decline: a crumbling giant that had given away its empire and, despite its membership of the European Union, had yet to find a role with which it could be comfortable. Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had rebuffed President Lyndon Johnson’s request that it send forces to the Vietnam War; instead its once formidable army was reduced to acting as policemen in the Northern Ireland quagmire.

Whether Thatcher saw the Falklands as an opportunity to unite the nation in a good old fashioned piece of biffo, or was simply following her gut instincts, will never be known for certain, but the fact of her sending a task force to the South Atlantic to reclaim the islands in a short and victorious war unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour unseen since 1945.

More importantly, it ensured she would win the next election and the election after that, keeping from office Labour’s then Leader of the Opposition, Michael Foot who, despite his powerful intellect and a command of the English language unmatched since Churchill, would have been an unmitigated disaster as Prime Minister.

Britain’s decline can be firmly laid at the door of Labour Prime Ministers Wilson and James Callaghan, two men more intent on holding on to power than using it constructively. Their combined reign, interrupted by the four years of Edward Heath’s valiant attempts to give the country a role within the European Union, were characterised by high inflation, soaring unemployment and flat-lining economic growth.    

Thatcher’s nascent administration was struggling to meet these challenges and its popularity was plummeting. Without the Falklands Foot would probably have come to power with his utopian vision of converting the country into a socialist paradise. Where this would have placed Britain in the mid-1980s and beyond is too terrible to contemplate.

After the Falklands Britain did begin to have confidence in a role as an influential middle-range power, closely allied to the United States and ready (in the case of the Second Iraq War too ready) to embrace the American view of the world.

The knee-jerk anti-Americans would maintain this was a bad, even terrible thing for the nation. I believe the alternative would have been a Britain today lining up with Greece, Ireland and Cyprus for International Monetary Fund bailouts.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pyongyang ‘aiding’ US Asian policy

The American decision to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) to Guam is being portrayed as a necessary and sensible move to neutralise missiles launched by North Korea should its threat to rain nuclear destruction on the Pacific island become reality.

But it is interesting US officials admit that THAAD, which consists of land-based rockets that simply crash into and destroy enemy missiles in flight, will take several weeks to become operational.

By which time, one would think, the crisis will have passed or Guam would be a radioactive ruin.

In addition, THAAD has been designed to attack smaller targets such as Scuds. Its effectiveness against large Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) which North Korea would presumably launch, is problematical.

It is much more likely the Pentagon is assessing Pyongyang’s rhetoric as just so much hot air; that it has no real intention of launching what would be a suicide attack on the US and its Asian allies. However, this would be an excellent opportunity to install a missile defence system whose purpose would  really be to deter any future aggression from China.

Beijing’s assertion of territorial rights over islands in the South China and East China seas has Washington analysts concerned should this policy, at some future date, extend to territories further afield.

The installation of THAAD in normal times would have led to vigorous protests from China which would claim it was part of a plan to contain and isolate it in its own backyard. But in the present circumstances Beijing can hardly protest.

In effect, North Korea is unwittingly aiding its great enemy’s plan to maintain a strong and effective presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Another act in Pyongyang’s fantasies

There is a picture on the internet of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a desk poring over documents, presumably of a strategic nature. He is surrounded by four generals, all far older than him, who are “briefing” him on the latest military situation. The caption also points to a map on the wall and translates the Korean characters:

‘Plan for the Strategic Forces to Target Mainland US’.

If ever a picture was staged for international consumption it is this one. While the map is not clear, the straight lines that are visible suggest the courses of missiles that would rain down on Hawaii and the West Coast of the American mainland and beyond.

Who do they think they are kidding?

North Korea has at best a couple of 1950s-style atom bombs, too cumbersome to be mounted on rockets, and a missile program which is literally at the hit-and-miss stage. Certainly it could put a bomb aboard one of its planes and try to drop it on Seoul or Tokyo, although the sophisticated detection systems operated by South Korea and Japan, backed by American satellite technology, would see it shot down probably before it had left North Korean airspace.

Once again Pyongyang is engaged in a war of words with the rest of the world – a war that is certainly at a higher level than previously, but words nonetheless. Of course the West must take note and make preparations, just in case some nutcase gets carried away by the rhetoric and issues the order for Mission Impossible, but apart from that remote possibility, nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula is in the realms of Alice in Wonderland.

A more interesting question is why North Korea has upped the ante in this way at this time. A lot of commentators have spent considerable energy in trying to analyse Kim’s motives on the assumption that everything that has happened stems from his orders.

I will stick to my belief that Kim is being manipulated by entrenched interests – represented by those highly-decorated gentlemen surrounding him in the picture. The young leader with fresh ideas and first-hand knowledge of the West, possibly inclined towards a more normal relationship with his country’s neighbours, is being hectored into maintaining the status quo.

After all, if tensions were relaxed what reason would there be to keep a million well-fed men and women under arms? Might the next step be disarmament with resources now in the hands of the military being transferred to the starving peasantry? Heaven forbid!

If this is the case then Kim is losing the battle against his generals. It won’t mean a great deal in the West – just a few more tabloid headlines and employment for all the so-called North Korea experts. For the poor people north of the DMZ? Well that’s another story.