Monday, May 23, 2011

Commissions, Omissions in Obama’s Speech

Commissions, Omissions in Obama’s Speech
Saeed Naqvi

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netaniyahu requires astrological consultations, preferably in Varanasi, to free him from an unfortunate conjunction of stars. President Obama’s blueprint for Middle East could not have come at a worse moment. Bibi was planning a virtuoso performance before a joint session of US Congress.

It is commonly recognized in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, that the Likud PM nurses an adversarial chemistry with the US President. He went ahead with jewish settlements in a most insulting reception to US Vice President, Joe Biden. That was precisely what Biden had come to prevent.

Pushed to a corner and isolated, who can blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas endorse a resolution to be placed before the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize the state of Palestine.

Just as Netaniyahu’s men set about plotting their move, the Arab Spring knocked out the interlocutor Israel had grown accustomed to – Mubarak. This strengthened the Israeli lobby which argued: “who do we discuss peace with; what will be the face of the emerging Mid East?” Obama comes down firmly on this stance.

“I disagree” he says. “At a time when people of the Middle East are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace…… more urgent than ever.” The status quo, he said, is simply “not sustainable”.

Why is the timing of Obama’s speech embarrassing for Netaniyahu? As I have said, the Arab Spring took Israel by surprise. Poor anticipation exposed poor intelligence. To escape constant nagging by Senator George Mitchell, Netaniyahu’s friends in Washington fetched for him an invitation to address a joint session of Congress in May.

The PM’s men fell into deep thought. Should the speech invite Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in quest for peace, or announce a peace plan?

Just then came the biggest shock of all. Again, Israeli intelligence knew nothing about Palestinian interlocutor Mustafa Barghouti shuttling between Ramallah, Damascus and Cairo, arranging meetings in Cairo between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, all under the new Egyptian Intelligence chief, Mourad Mowafi and Foreign Minister Nabil al Araby.

Egypt was once again center-stage, playing its role as Arab leader. This is most disconcerting for an Israel used to dealing with a rubber stamp despot for over three decades.

With circumstances so altered, what will Netaniyahu say on the Capitol Hill on May 24? Ofcourse, he will go hammer and tongs on Iran’s nuclear ambition. But that may not be enough to keep the Congressman riveted.

Before the PM’s team could produce that magical speech, President Obama, looking good after concluding the Osama bin Laden saga, took the wind out of their sails with his speech. It is the most comprehensive speech yet made by any world leader on the theme.

There is a degree of thoroughness in the manner in which this speech of Obama’s has been prepared. Not only is there fulsome praise for Hillary Clinton who “will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history” but there is an imprimatur of professional diplomacy throughout the speech.

For instance a somewhat tired Senator George Mitchell has been replaced by young David Hale as Mid East Envoy. He has first hand knowledge of almost every Mid East station mentioned by Obama, including Bahrain.

In an all important paragraph on Bahrain, Obama chastises those responsible for “mass arrests and brute force.” The leadership in Manamah would know exactly where the President’s barbs are directed.

One spots US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman’s hand in this paragraph. Feltman had painstakingly helped draft a six point power sharing agreement to which Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Khalifa and Moderate Shia leader Shaikh Ali Salman committed themselves. Much to Feltman’s disappointment, the Prince’s uncle (King’s brother) Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa and his coterie of hardliners, scuttled the agreement. It was then that Saudi armoured Personal Carriers rolled in.

Obama mentioned reforms in Bahrain and Yemen as being important for “America to be credible”. In which case Bahrain may have to pick up the thread where Feltman left it.

Since Obama names almost every Arab country which is reforming or needs reform, the omission of Riyadh places Saudis beyond all critical examination as the perfect society, Peace Be Upon It!

Incidentally two important West Asian countries have watched the Arab spring with doubt, even some anxiety –Saudi Arabia and Israel. To the extent that both are fearful of Iran, a sort of unstated common purpose binds them. Since Jerusalem and Riyadh have clout in Washington far in excess of anything that all the Arab countries can jointly claim, there is in place a very powerful troika.

The troika would have been even more imposing had the Libyan misadventure not created a rift in the Atlantic alliance on whether the group in Benghazi should be recognized as the legitimate government of Libya. David Cameron, the latter day, would-be Winston Churchill, rushes in where Obama fears to tread.

There is another aspect which worries Riyadh as much as it worries Jerusalem: New Egypt’s approach to Iran. For Egypt, Hamas and Hezbullah are of greater concern than meditations on Iran’s nuclear ambition.

Demonstrations in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain all the way around to Yemen has produced paranoia in Riyadh about an encirclement by Shias who will, they fear, eventually have Iranian support.

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Monday, May 16, 2011

Osama: Impact on Indo-Pak Relations

Osama: Impact on Indo-Pak Relations
Saeed Naqvi

How will Osama Bin Laden’s elimination by US Special Forces impact on Indo-Pak relations?

The Pak army is demoralized.

The Civilian authority, without any sheen at the outset, is looking creditable.

It is beginning to look like 2007 all over again.

Gen Pervez Musharraf had signed on with the Americans post 9/11, in November 2001. The theatre for military action was Afghanistan, but even in early 2002, militants or their relatives had started crossing over to the North West Frontier.

Ofcourse, Musharraf made the U-turn on Afghanistan but with one caveat. He would join the US led war on terror in Afghanistan, but the Jehad in Kashmir would continue because the Pak establishment would not be able to cushion the backlash if Pakistan were to turn its back on both the militancies. New Delhi must remember: Americans accepted the difference between global and regional terror.

The Americans and the Saudis understood Musharraf’s predicament. The General had committed himself to fighting the very same militant Islamist forces his all powerful Inter Service Intelligence had diligently put together since 1980.

Initially, Musharraf was given room to play both sides of the street. But as the theatre of war shifted from Afghanistan to the Af-Pak border, indeed regions like Swat, Pakistani military action invited a huge backlash in terms of suicide attacks and general unpopularity among the people, as the impression was amplified that Pakistan, in fighting America’s war, was killing its own people.

Remember, these were days when President Bush’s regular incantation was that President Musharraf was his stoutest ally. In fact Musharraf’s grades in the White House were in inverse proportion to his grades in the Pak street – particularly after the Lal Masjid crackdown in the heart of Islamabad, killing hundreds of Madrasah students, including women.

Opposition by the Chief Justice, Lawyers agitation, the pressure from US Congress to have democratic elections in Pakistan (because both Afghanistan and Iraq had gone woefully wrong for the US), were all votes of no confidence in the Army.

The atmosphere in which the elections of February 2008 were held was something of a watershed. Not once was an anti India slogan raised. Kashmir was not even mentioned.

The Pak army, its head bowed over the Af-Pak operations, bereft of the Anti India card, its raison d’etre, because of total public disinterest in the theme, had never felt so humiliated since the creation of Bangladesh. To be seen in uniform was an embarrassment.

This was the state of affairs when the Taj in Mumbai was set ablaze on November 26, within three weeks of President Obama’s victory and barely nine months after the most India/neutral election campaign in Pakistan’s history.

It was such high voltage drama on live TV that the Indian media virtually declared war on Pakistan. Pakistani media, which behaved with exemplary restraint on the India theme so far, willy nilly retaliated. All promises of Indo-Pak bonhomie were turfed out of the window.

The Hamsaya Dushman (enemy neighbour), Hindu India loomed once again. The army uniform was back in vogue.

Despite the uneasy CIA-ISI equation (for over a decade), the apparently cozy drift continued until the US NAVY SEALS administered a lethal one-two punch on the Army’s chin in Abbotabad. It was supposed to be a routine sparring round in the ring, not the real thing.

In other words, as in 2007, the Army’s stock is dismal. PMLN leader Nawaz Sharief has criticized the army and demanded a judicial inquiry. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami is chastising it.

The Supreme Court Bar Association, Lahore and Peshawar High Court Bar associations, among others, are seeking judicial inquiries.

The decline in public esteem in 2007 was galling for an army which generally keeps itself pampered. But it bounced back after 26/11.

How will the army seek to rehabilitate itself in the public eye this time? The end of Osama bin Laden will loom so big in global consciousness that anything resembling terrorism (even the cross border variety) will come under close scrutiny of the international community. Pushed thus against the wall, the mind may furnish some sensible solutions.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has the right ideas on Pakistan. The Indian media can help by gloating a little less.

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Monday, May 9, 2011

Deniability a Must for Infidelity: The US-Pak Affair

Deniability a Must for Infidelity: The US-Pak Affair
Saeed Naqvi

All clever infidelities have deniability built into them.

Pakistani establishment would have to be out of its mind to enter Osama bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideout on a white charger. Such foolhardiness would swell the ranks of Jihadi outfits in Pakistan. Murderer of Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer would resurface as a model. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadiris would sprout, searching for targets and expecting to be showered with rose petals.

Speculations will continue till doomsday on the level of coordination between the US and Pakistan in tracking down Osama. Four helicopters in a garrison town and the host (invaded) country knew nothing about the prize resident?

Admit to invasion of sovereignty and the army loses face. Acknowledge cooperation, and Jihadists expand exponentially. Therefore, fall back on “deniability”, cure for all infidelities.

President Obama’s May 1 statement announcing Osama’s death could not have been drafted carelessly.

“Tonight, I called President Zardari and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts”. Notice the next line: “they agree that this is a good and historic day for both our nations”. This means President Zardari and his National Security team which must include the army, are agreed that Osama’s elimination is a “historic day for both our nations”.

Look at the last line of this pithy paragraph: “and going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Pakistan is not being asked “to join us” in the fight against Al Qaeda. It is being asked to “continue”. Only an ongoing arrangement is “continued”. It is therefore pointless to split hairs on the extent of Pakistani cooperation unless the purpose is to embarrass Pakistan.

That Pakistan continues to harbour militants, Jihadists and terrorists is a story as old as the Murree hills. And Americans armed with technology which enabled four noisy helicopters navigate through blind spots in the Pak radars, did not know all the terrorism being hosted by Pakistan? This is the kind of rubbish even Americans do not believe?

Who would believe that all the CIA and local mercenary Intelligence did not know about the goings on in the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007? It played a key role during the Mujahideen war against the Soviets from 1980 to 1989. Maulana Mohammad Abdullah, the head of the mosque, had excellent relations with President Zia-ul-Haq who, with Saudi and American co-operation, built up a series of Madrasas for the manufacture of Jihadist all along the Af-Pak border. The most significant training unit in the hinterland was Lal Masjid. And Americans did not know?

It was only after Lal Masjid was raided and hundreds of young men and women in the seminaries attached to the mosques were killed, that there was an incremental spurt in suicide bombings. In that perspective, imagine the price the Pak establishment would have had to pay had it been tempted to claim Osama as trophy. A country where sensible people are afraid opposing an uncivilized Blasphemy law is hardly in a position to take on the most awesome militant in history.

What will be the consequence of Osama’s elimination? Cancer when punctured sometimes flares up. There may be terrorist eruptions by way of revenge in the short term.

And in the long term? Remember how Veerappan, the bandit in the jungles of Karnataka and Tamilnadu kept the security forces on their toes for years. But when he was killed, sandalwood smuggling stopped.

Osama’s death however does not end the scourge of Islamic terrorism boosted by him.

This scourge will taper off only when injustice tapers off in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Palestine, when the West palpably sides with justice. Pakistan is a distinct case where popular anti Americanism and an India centered army combines to manufacture militancy.

Speculations that US-Pak relations may rupture because of US unilateralism on Pak territory are premature. To the contrary, US and Pak relations may look demonstrably healthy when the Af-Pak meeting takes place in May with US participation.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kabul last week was called off because there was information that something was afoot in the vicinity, all the talk of US unilateralism notwithstanding.

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Monday, May 2, 2011

New Egypt Trumps Israel on Peace Process

New Egypt Trumps Israel on Peace Process
Saeed Naqvi

The dizzying pace of developments in the Arab World have left dictatorial casualties, sectarian and tribal conflicts, unsettled monarchies and opened up possibilities of at least two democratic elections. The first, ofcourse, is Egypt in September.

The second election on the cards has been made possible by the surprising announcement in Cairo that Hamas and Fatah have agreed to reconcile their differences. Next week Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas Politbureau chief Khaled Meshal will meet to sign the agreement.

The agreement calls for a caretaker government of technocrats who will also set the ball rolling for Presidential, Parliamentary and National Palestinian council elections within a year.

Israelis, barely recovering from the week long Passover observances, are in a state of shock. In the first week of May Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was to visit Paris and London, presumably to firm up the resolve of these capitals on Libya and also to refine passages in what he had hoped would be a historic address to the joint session of the US Congress.

By so doing he would have sailed around the Obama team with which his equation is frosty. But with the surprising turn of events in the Palestinian parlour, the game changes radically.

Winds of change in the Arab world left Israel initially distraught with the fall of Mubarak. But then the mood changed. Changes elsewhere were seen as popular quest for empowerment in which, for once, Arab-Israeli peace (or its obverse) was not the centre piece.

Broadly, there emerged two dominant schools of thought in Jerusalem. Yes, tectonic shifts were taking place across the Arab world but it was totally unclear where these changes would lead. “The Arab spring could easily turn into an Iranian winter!” is Netanyahu’s favourite incantation.

So, this school of thought says: don’t be hasty on the peace process. Let us watch which way the Arab cookie crumbles.

The other school of thought suggested the opposite: this is the time to take the initiative and shape the outcome in the various Arab states, initiative toward a settlement with the Palestinians.

But settlement with which Palestinians? Mahmoud Abbas has little credit even in the Fatah. To talk to Hamas would be to confer legitimacy on it. In the circumstances the best course open to Netanyahu was to spell out a peace plan with or without any consultations with Mahmoud Abbas. This was the advice being given.

The option to wait and watch while the Arab picture clarifies was overwhelmed by the other danger looming on the horizon: the Palestinian intention to ask the UN General Assembly during its upcoming session in September to recognize an independent Palestinian state which would include the Gaza strip.

Netanyahu, ofcourse, has condemned Fatah’s reconciliation with Hamas “which seeks the destruction of Israel”.

No one expects Hamas to publicly backtrack on its stand vis a vis Israel. But once the UN recognizes a state of which both Fatah and Hamas are sponsors, where is the requirement for Hamas to announce another recognition in a annexure?

Jerusalem is an alert city. There was some speculation that Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would certainly be attempted. But the tightening speed with which the Egyptians were able to deliver a difficult agreement has taken peoples’ breath away.

One clear conclusion observers will draw is that the change of regime in Cairo has weakened Israeli intelligence. Surely meetings in which new Egyptian intelligence chief, Mourad Mousafi, Foreign Minister, Nabil Al-Arabi, Deputy Head of Hamas’ Damascus Political Bureau, Fatah’s Azam Al Ahmad all participated, would not have remained secret in the Mubarak days.

In fact Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Intelligence Dan Meridor told me with remarkable candour: “we were all taken aback” by recent developments in the Arab world. “First thing we must learn from these developments is humility – we simply did not know.”

Well, for the time being the New Egypt has clearly pre empted whatever Netanyahu was planning to tell the joint session of Congress.

The serious business now is to navigate Egyptian and Palestinian elections successfully. This means a commitment not to discard results that are not fancied by Israel or US or both.

From Algeria in 1991 to the Palestinian elections more recently, the West has been guilty on this count: it has thwarted popular verdicts, aggravating militancies.

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