Saturday, February 27, 2010

Yemen - The Real Story

Yemen - The Real Story

By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 19.02.2010

At a height of 8,500 ft, the old city of Sanaa, capital of Yemen, has a magical air of leisure, its maze of lanes, lined with multistoried mud and brick mansions, decorated with mosaic smudged with age.

But the peace that Sanaa exudes disguises the storm clouds of conflict, every bit as complex and dramatic as Afghanistan, Al Qaeda et al. For good measure, some pro Iran Shias too. The reason why the Yemen conflict does not dominate our TV screens is easily explained. The theatres of conflict in Saa’da, bordering Saudi Arabia, are bare, steep and craggy mountains, suited more for rock climbers than TV crews. Al Qaeda training camps are even more difficult to film because the terrain is vast and the writ of the state does not run beyond major cities like Sanaa and Aden.

That Prophet Mohammad sent Hazrat Ali as the chief Qazi of Yemen (two mosques built by Ali are in the heart of Sanaa) and Wahabi rulers from adjoining Saudi Arabia in the 19th century destroyed Najaf and Karbala, is symptomatic of the theological conflict which remains unresolved to this day. But I shall leave this to theological scholars.

For our purposes, let us pick up the narrative from the conflict between the Ottomans their influence confined to the north of Sanaa and the British who had their sights set on Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea.

It is interesting that while the caliphate was terminated by Ataturk at the end of First World War, an Imamate ruled Yemen upto 1962 when a revolution upturned it. Before you rush to establish links between Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid and the Yemeni Imamate, let me clarify. The system of Imamate is internal to the Shias who are segregated between believers of seven, twelve and an endless, continuing line of Imams.

But post Ottomans, Yemen remained two countries north Yemen with a population of 20 million, with its capital at Sanaa. South Yemen, with a population of four million had its capital at Aden.

When Arab socialism swept the Arab world under Nasser, the Southern, socialist fervent ousted the British in 1967. In the context of the cold war, Southern Yemen came under Soviet influence.

As an automatic reaction, Sanaa, under President Ali Abdullah Saleh, forged other alliance, even with Saudi Arabia. This particular alliance caused many of the Zaidi Shias of the North to seek surreptitious alliances with the socialist south.

Here let me insert another detail even on the pain of complicating the narrative further. When the last Imam Yahya, was under pressure from the Ottomans as well as the Saudis he bargained with the Saudis, his northern neighbour. Under this bargain, two districts of Nigran and Jizan were given to the Saudis on a sort of renewable lease.

According to Dr. Nasr al-Naqeeb, a well known Sanaa intellectual, the two districts are “oil rich”. This unverified fact makes sense. Otherwise why would the Saudis accept two Shia dominated Yemeni towns next door to the militant Shias called the Houthis (derived from name of their leader) who have been a consistent headache for both Sanaa and Riadh particularly since 2002?

Now, let us pick up the narrative chronologically from 1980s after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The US, Saudis and Zia-ul-Haq started manufacturing extreme Islamists in countless Madarsas in Pakistan for which that country is paying the price to this day.

For Prince Naif bin Abdel Aziz, Saudi Interior Minister, the Pakistani Madarsas were not enough. Thoroughbred Arabs had to be trained in militant Islamism too.

What better place to open training camps than in neighbouring Yemen, particularly since South Yemen was close to the very Soviets the militants were being trained to oust out of Afghanistan. Yemen President Saleh’s half brother Ali Mohsin al Ahmar took local charge of all the training camps. Look at the concept: bases for Islamic extremism would check wherever the Soviets reared their heads. It is this Arab component which is at the heart of what is called Al Qaeda as different from the Pushtoon dominated Taleban.

In 1990, the South lost its principal support with the fall of the Soviet Union. The South could no longer resist unification. Saddam Hussain played a leading role in helping Saleh become President of Unified Yemen in 1990.

Just as Zia ul Haq and the ISI chose to keep the Mujahideen as an asset, so did Saleh. Therefore, there should be no surprise at the presence of Al Qaeda in Yemen.

Since Saleh was beholden to Saddam Hussain, he opposed the wars on Iraq bringing him on a side opposed to the Saudis.

Taking advantage in a chill in Riadh-Sanaa relations, the Shia’s (Huthis) bordering Saudi Arabia stepped up their “Shiaism” on both sides of the border. For Saudis, the most offensive manifestation of this behaviour was the Shia celebration of Id-e-Ghadir, the most important Id on the Iranian calendar which sometimes offends other Muslims.

Border skirmishes alarmed Sanaa. Even more worrisome was the apparent coalition emerging between the secessionists in the South and the Shias in the North. Global pressure against Iran’s nuclear ambitions has agitated northern Shias into more cross border militancy, since the Saudis are leading the Arabs on this issue.

There have been reports, put out by US intelligence sources, that 400 Hizbullah fighters were, at one stage, present to fight alongside the Shias. These fighters have since been withdrawn.

All of this is terribly worrying for the Saudis. In the event of a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, Yemen northern Saa’da town could well be a retaliatory needling point against the Saudis!

In any case, there have been atleast five full fledged wars against Sanaa since 2002.

International pressure has caused the two sides to sign a six-point peace agreement. One of the points is that the Shias “will refrain from attacking Saudi territories”.

So, in the old town of Sanaa people sit around in circles chewing Qat, a bunch of leaves, a sort poor-man’s non-addictive cockaine (imagine paan with an intoxicating edge), spending their days in this legally sanctioned national habit, quite oblivious of the storms which in their collective minds have hovered around them for as long as they can remember.

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By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 10.02.2010

The entire lobby area, the vast cigar lounge merging into a large breakfast station at Amman’s Intercontinental was packed mostly with young Jordanian women with flaxen blond and black hair. There were men too, some from the diplomatic corps.

Each guest had a red or whit wine glass. This was logical since it was billed as a wine tasting party, a sort of monthly promotional affair at one of Amman’s premiere hotels. Each guest had to pay 24 Jordanian dinars which works out to about Rs. 2,500. Every table had been sold out.

Those denied the pleasures of wine tasting by sheer pressure of numbers, fell back on an even more exotic indulgence: smoking the “sheesha” or hubble-bubble (hukkah), with the aroma of apple or apricot tobacco wafting through the richly decorated Lebanese restaurants, celebrated as the very best. Here too the presence of young women, unescorted, at four of five separate tables, inhaling the aromatic hubble-bubble with an expert sense of pleasure.

There was nothing cheap or inelegant about the women, probably young executives or even house wives.

What did look out of place were a group of men occupying the central table, obviously Omani as was clear from their decorated headgear. They did not laugh raucously as the women did. Nor did they smoke the “sheesha”. Unlike others at the restaurants, they did not show any interest in that gift of the Ottoman Empire called Raki in Turkey, Arrack in Jordan and Lebanon, Ouzo in Greece and Pastice in France.


If all of this comes across as hedonism, a sort of callousness in the midst of so much human tragedy associated with the Middle-East, we are missing out on atleast two points.

First, the specific conditions prevailing in Jordan. Throughout the turbulence since the creation of the Israeli state, the trauma of 1967, the duet of King Hussain and Prince Hassan and now the young King Abdullah have performed a nimble pirouette of diplomacy and Statesmanship.

Beirut, at its prime the world’s most cosmopolitan city, has been riven with sectarianism and decay particularly since the Israeli invasion of 1982. Amman became a partial refuge for the Beirut elite.

Since Desert Storm in 1992, Jordan encashed its goodwill with the international community to help the suffering Iraqis by maintaining regular supply of essential goods along the 1000 mile (thousand mile) Amman-Baghdad Highway.

After the 2003 occupation of Iraq, Jordan provided hospitality to atleast a million. Ask a friend in Amman today to suggest a good restaurant and he will suggest “Mazgouf”, the charcoal grilled fish Baghdadis were so proud of.

The strength of Jordan has been its acute awareness of its geographical vulnerabilities. It was with this appraisal of his nation of six million (80 percent of whom are Palestinians) that King Hussain signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

It is this intelligent management of its circumstances that has provided those Jordanians at Intercontinental with the space to breathe easy.

Second, we sometimes underestimate the capacity of homo sapiens to adjust to the most severe circumstances as conditions of normalcy.

Soon after Operation Desert Storm, hotels in Baghdad were thriving with wedding parties.

During the Nicaragua war, the place to find the Commandante (revolutionary political leaders) was the downtown night club.

The apparent normalcy of Ramallah and Jerusalem is in the midst of intense inner tension. I was not allowed to visit Gaza. But I am certain that even in that sad place, folks sit around fires and share a joke.


The most annoying aspect of the Middle-East is the endless delusion about elections. Hamas ruled Gaza will not accept local body elections announced by Israeli occupied West Bank. Iraq is in convulsions about the possible participation of former Baathists as candidates in elections campaigning which begins in mid February.

“If Baathists are Kosher why not Hamas which won a landslide victory in 2006?” Asks Samir Mahmoud, a Palestinian in Jordan.

We all know about the elections in Afghanistan and the issue of legitimacy surrounding Zardari in Pakistan.

As for President Ahmedinejad, the important point under discussion in these parts is not his election. Egyptian intelligence has reported preparations for a military strike against Iranian nuclear installations.

With 2,00,000 US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq?

If these intelligence leaks are not the real thing, they are certainly part of psychological warfare!

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Monday, February 15, 2010

View from West Bank

View from West Bank

By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 05.2.2010

Whether you are in Ramallah or in Jerusalem, the impression is unmistakably the same: this is no time to engage in peace talks. To begin with, there is an absence of war which feels like peace, just as heavy mist outside the window can be mistaken for rain. Is it the lull before the storm?

If the Palestinian economy is growing at 7.5% despite the recession, where is the incentive for any engagement with the Israelis towards some elusive final conclusion.

The more time passes the more Hannan Ashrawi looks exactly the same, in fact a little younger in her trouser suit having a sumptuous meal in Ramallah’s excellent restaurant, Daran her special table set next to a blazing fire place. It is cold on the West Bank these days.

In her fancy office, she clutches onto a large mug of coffee, sketching a pessimistic scenario.

Firstly, there is universal disappointment with President Obama whose special envoy, George Mitchell has been able to nudge mid-east peace not an inch.

To her great annoyance the Iranians have drawn all the attention on themselves by that nuclear bomb peep show. She is upset that the Iranian Hizbullah, Hamas link up is undermining Palestinian unity. In other words, by her admission, Palestinian unity lies in tatters.

This means that the Hamas in the Gaza strip is at present an entity totally disengaged from those who are being reported in global newspapers as the Palestinians.

So, the West Bank is apparently booming. There is almost as much construction work going on as in New Delhi in preparation for the Commonwealth games. Pardon the slight exaggeration, but that is more or less the scale of construction work going on in the West Bank. Law and order, even in towns like Nablus is under control.

Oded Eren at the Institute of security studies in Tel Aviv, attributes West Bank’s good health to two factors: Israeli relaxation of road blocks and massive injection of funds from donors as well as the Palestinian Diaspora.

On the Israeli side, there is no urgency for talks because the maze of walls and tunnels to insulate the Israelis from the Palestinians has for the past year eliminated burning of buses and suicide attacks.

President of the Palestinian authority, Mahmud Abbas, has extracted from Prime Minister Netaniyahu a freeze on construction of settlements in the occupied territories. But his own Palestinian colleague, Hannan Ashrawi, says there is no freeze because constructions are going on.

Mahmud Abbas’s problem is that the lame duck premier Ehud Olmert had given him several openings on boundaries and sensitive issues like the future of Jerusalem. One reason he flinched from any agreement is the dominant fear that will continue to plague him so long as he is in the Hamas line of fire. How can he sign conclusive documents without the support of the Palestinians in Gaza?

Israel’s all powerful Deputy Prime Minister for intelligence and Atomic energy, Dan Meridor (Dan MERIDOR) is adamant that Hamas cannot be brought into the equation because it does not accept the Jewish state nor return (“or even let the parents meet”) the Israeli soldier in their custody.

The fact of the matter is that Netaniyahu, an arch right winger himself, has a cabinet so far to the right as to make him look like a cooing dove. The present cabinet, in other words, will rather bring down the government than let Netaniyahu engage with Abbas on anything short of total Israeli terms.

So what does Abbas do. At the time of writing a special Boeing was being readied for him. A 12 member delegation is due to descent on New Delhi on Feb 11 to “mobilize opinion”. The key logistical issue being discussed is whether the delegation obtain their visas in Amman or in Cairo.

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Political Diary

Political Diary

By Saeed Naqvi
Dated: 29.01.2010

I haven’t quite understood what happened at the Conference in London on Afghanistan because, with the suddenness of revelation, Yemen was listed along with Afghanistan as one of the items in global focus.

South Block went into deep thought on the yoking of Yemen with Afghanistan. Then a responsible US diplomat told me that the media was misleading us as usual and that London was all about Afghanistan. So clearly the last word on what happened in London has not yet been heard.

Also, London happened in the shadow of President Obama’s state of the Union address. This was more than just an ordinary distraction. Everyone almost forgot Davos.

Yes, the Afghanistan conference. Whatever may have been decided in London, the fact of the matter is that very little was expected of the gathering. All one knows is that President Obama has announced troop withdrawals after 18 months. To facilitate conditions for this withdrawal 30,000 or more troops will be inducted now.

Mercifully, inane comparisons are no longer being made. “Look how the surge worked in Iraq” we were being told. Implication being that it will work in Afghanistan too.

First, the surge has not worked in Iraq. Look at the rash of recent bombings and suicide attacks. Further, the US troops have not withdrawn. A large number have simply retired into cantonments.

Comparisons with Iraq are absurd for more basic reasons. When the US troops occupied Iraq, the world for the first time in decades became aware of a truth: that 65 (sixty five percent) of Iraq was Shia who cheered the demolition of the Baath party under Saddam Hussain. Likewise the Kurdish north, protected by the no fly zone since operation Desert Storm, rejoiced in its virtual autonomy.

In Afghanistan there is nobody rejoicing at the US-NATO presence.

Ask Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Kabul, after Washingtyon retaliated militarily in 2002 how he was able to obtain Iranian co-operation during the military operation.

Ofcourse the Iranians were happy with the Al Qaeda and Taleban variety of Islam being targeted, if possible obliterated. They were equally thrilled with arch enemy Saddam Hussain’s fall.

In other words, the US had ca co-operative Iran during the Afghan and Iraq operation. Is this co-operation likely to be shunned on account of the on-again-off-again nuclear issue?

But at present, in Afghanistan, the nightmare the US faces is a failing Pakistan. Even if one accepts the ludicrous proposition that the US will achieve in Afghanistan in 18 months what it has not in eight years of disorganized exertion, how do they intend to tranquilize the AF-Pak border?

Just because the media has not played up dissensions within the US administration, it should not be assumed that whatever is on display as policy in London does not have influential detractors in Washington. It is no laughing matter that Peter Galbraith, second in command of UN operations, resigned his job because Hamid Karzai was persisted with despite a fraudulent election.

S.M. Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart met on the margins in London. Krishna had the advantage of Richard Holbrooke’s appraisal of the situation in Pakistan. The American worry is they don’t know who is really in control in Islamabad. Yes, notionally the buck stops with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, but who is the politician with any longevity?

For India, there is no optimistic view on Pakistan. There is either a softer, in my view the more helpful approach, or a hard line sustained by retired persons from the Armed forces, and the Foreign Service.

The hard line maintains that whoever you talk to in Pakistan will have little traction because the Army plus the ISI will scuttle the peace process. The extreme manifestation of this approach is Arun Shourie’s statement in Parliament after Mumbai: “Two eyes for an eye and a jaw for tooth”

The pragmatic view accepts the Pak Army as an obstacle, but let us not forget that Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh never came closer to a peaceful arrangement along the LOC than when Gen. Musharraf was in control.

The basic constituency in Pakistan in quest of Peace with India is civil society across the board. Yes, the IPL snub will hurt, but the Pakistani people would like to get out of the jam they are in. So, some contacts with Pakistan, even at the official level are in order. They will help bring down temperatures.

But what if another Mumbai happens? Will, I can guarantee you that there are malignant vested interests (some on our side too) out to repeat Mumbai. The important thing is to remember WHY? These interests are out to scuttle any normalcy with Pakistan. They thrive on Indo-Pak hostility. The only way to frustrate them is by not derailing peace processes. This is where the role of the media comes in: report the outrage but keep your cool. If you whip up war-like hysteria, you have walked straight into the trap the terrorist, supported by the ISI or not, has laid for you.

Once you generate hysteria against an act of terror, willy nilly you begin to demonize Indian Muslims too. And once that happens the great edifice of Indian secularism which protects, among others the world’s second largest Muslim population, is weakened. And that precisely is the project of those who author 26/11, and its variants.

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