The increasing desperation in the Middle East

The news reports are preoccupied with the many families fleeing the Middle East — mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan — desperately trying to get into Europe, as if Europe were a safe haven.  As is becoming evident, after so many days and so much expense in order to make the journey, they are being greeted by reluctance if not open hostility.  Europe is in no way ready to receive them. But it is evident that these peoples — Muslims, Christians, people of all kinds and of all walks of life — are desperately voting with their feet.

In a sense this pattern of migration is not new.  The western world has benefited for many years by the flight of the middle classes, the professional and educated elements of these societies.  Those folks have been fleeing the troubled parts of Asia and Africa for years.  What is new here is that these refugees are from all levels of society:  the poor, the weak, the sick, the broken.  Everyone that has the means to flee seems to be fleeing.

So what drives them out of their homes, their whole social worlds?  Here is a note I received from a friend from one of those countries.

Tragedy and pain have found their way into my every organ today. What has turned my world upside down is that I have no solution to the problems I see. I have become mute. There’s too much suffering — way beyond my comprehension. Why God punishes its people when they are innocent? It’s on these trying days that we’d like to doubt God’s existence, His glory, His powers. But as I probe into the territory of the divine, it’s then that I see Him most vividly. Suffering and pain — contrary to the conventional belief — can make us a whole lot closer to the Almighty. I’m a fighter. Even though I despise the world and all its designs sometimes, I am grateful for all that has been bestowed upon me; and I feel lucky to be alive, fully functional — with all my cognitive faculties intact. In the midst of darkness, there’s always light. And that’s why I must remain sanguine and continue to stay in the fight and forge ahead.

At some point in the course of events we can come to the point when desperation leads us, as he says, to appeal to and seek help in the notion that there is a God who is above it all, who is well aware of the messy world that we live in, and is the only hope for any sense to be made in the human condition.  If there is no judgment, if there is nothing to look for beyond this life, if there is no mercy, then there is no hope.  It’s not good enough to rail at God.  At some point we have to throw ourselves on the mercy of One who is bigger than the world as we know it and has, as generations before us have desired, a bigger plan.

In the mean time, “In the midst of darkness” we seek the light, and remain sanguine, and continue the fight, and forge ahead.

[See the following site for a helpful analysis of what has caused the movement to flee Syria: Click here]



A Critical Note from Afghanistan July 2015

The following is a note from Fahim Masoud, who is visiting his family in Herat, Afghanistan.  I present it here as received.  This is Mr Masoud’s sincere appraisal of the situation.  He is deeply discouraged about the prospects.  This is significant because in the past he has held high hopes for the future of his country.  Fahim is a well informed commentator on affairs in Afghanistan and Central Asian affairs, which makes his dark estimation of the situation all the more sobering.  RLC

The Wall Street Journal has an article on the first female Afghan pilot who has been getting a lot of recognition from around the world. Though now her life is at risk. She’s getting all kinds of threats from the Taliban and her own relatives. This is one example showing how terrible the security situation is in Afghanistan.

This will break your heart, but I believe (BELIEVE) there’s no future for Afghanistan. There’s no order in this country. The people of Afghanistan have devolved into a soul-less bunch. They have no compassion. No understanding of one another. They are too intolerant and cannot accept each other’s differences. This is what the war has done to them. This is what unemployment and lack of resources are doing to them. Ethnic divisions have become much more obvious and pronounced.

Leaders from all around the country voice their support of one ethnic group over another vociferously. Tonight I’m at a gathering in which a bunch of people from a prominent village in Herat are here. They are talking about an “arbab” or village leader chosen by the people of the village. It’s been months since this village is without an arbab yet no one has been chosen yet — even though the village desperately needs one.

Folks in this village cannot choose their leader because they haven’t reconciled their tensions over whether a Tajik or Pashtoon leader should get elected. It’s a shame because most of my father’s relatives claim to be Pashtoon yet they cannot speak a word of Pashto. It’s crazy to be fighting over the election of a leader when you have nothing but the zai suffix at the end of their names.

This county is in a lot of mess. You need to be here to see the degree of chaos and disorder. No one cares. No one. Everyone is here to enrich themselves and walk away. Thousands of people are leaving this country on a daily basis. What’s so amazing is that there are a great number of really, really nice houses on sale in Herat now. The owners of these houses are not only selling their houses but also everything in them. Home prices have gone down significantly because no one is buying anything anymore. There’s no flow of cash. Too many people are on the streets begging for money to feed themselves.

The whole survival of the country depends on the presence of U.S. troops.

Ghani has proven himself a very incompetent leader. He’s disappointed everyone in this country. I doubt he came make it.

A guest of ours a few nights ago said something very wise. He said we liked Karzai because he was our beggar. He said Karzai didn’t mind going abroad and begging for money — to the point that once on a trip to Iran, he brought a bag of cash with him on the plane. Ghani — on the other hand, he said, is too proud and arrogant. He’s too proud to ask for aid. Instead, to make up for the government’s expenses, Ghani has raised taxes on people. This gentleman, after changing his posture, and making sure I was fully listening, said to me, “how dumb is it to raise taxes when people have no money and there’s no business?”

The seriousness and sincerity of his voice, the gravity and reality of the situation made me think very hard about this issue. It reminded of the United States. The reason Americans began their war of independence against the British was taxation without representation. How can you tax people heavily when you can’t give them proper representation, security, and employment? Such a really stupid move on Ghani’s part.

One thing is for certain. This situation is not sustainable. Something catastrophic is inevitable in Afghanistan. Most foreigners don’t say this because they are in Kabul. They don’t visit the provinces often. Kabul is pretty safe. There’s money. Bureaucracy and lots of non-governmental agencies are in Kabul, keeping many Kabulis employed. This is not the case in provinces. None of Herat’s districts and villages are safe and there are Taliban presence in almost all of them.
More later.

Find the article HERE

Muslim Clerics Seek to Protect Christian Girl Accused of Blasphemy

The news that Muslim clerics have stood up on behalf of a Christian girl is a major turn from previous practice.  We have seen so much bitterness and brutality in that part of the world.  Now we have voices rising among the Muslim leadership calling for a more civil way of relating to each other in Pakistan.  Great news.  This group of Islamic leaders should be congratulated for their willingness to stand up for a non-Muslim girl accused of blasphemy.  In fact the accusers included a Muslim cleric.

The article appears in the Guardian, by Saeed Shah appeared on 8-27-12.  Some statements in the article:

Islamic leaders in Pakistan on Monday came out in support of a Christian girl with learning difficulties who is being held in prison, in an unprecedented public denunciation of the blasphemy law by hard-line mullahs. 

The All Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group of Muslim clerics and scholars, which includes representatives from fundamentalist groups, joined hands with the Pakistan Interfaith League, which includes Christians, Sikhs and other religions, to call for justice for the girl, Rimsha, who is accused of blasphemy. They also demanded that those making false allegations be punished. 

Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the council, warned that the “law of the jungle” was gripping Pakistan … 

She is being held in a maximum security jail, where her lawyer says she is deeply traumatised and begging to be released. Her parents have also been taken into protective custody. “We see the Rimsha as a test case for Pakistan’s Muslims, Pakistan’s minorities and for the government,” Ashrafi said. “We don’t want to see injustice done with anyone. We will work to end this climate of fear.” 

Ashrafi is also part of the leadership of the radical Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of Islamic organisations which includes some thinly disguised banned militant groups. The outfit campaigns against western influence and to stop Nato supplies passing through the country to Afghanistan.

The changing face of the Taliban?

Barney Ronay has an article in the Guardian [2/11/12] about how the Afghans united in support of their cricket team against Pakistan.
That the Afghans would support their cricket team against Pakistan’s is hardly news.  I have never met an Afghan that trusted a Pakistani, and war and the dealings with Pakistan’s ISI have simply reinforced that opinion.
What was most interesting was the news that the Taliban expressed support for the Afghan team. That is good news on a couple of grounds.  For one thing, it suggests that they identify with the Afghans, not the Pakistanis.  Again, it isn’t much of a surprise, because even though the Pakistanis have supported the Taliban in their fight against the Afghan government they have won little appreciation from the Taliban.  It is no doubt because the ISI have been heavihanded.  That the Taliban are willing to talk to representatives of the Afghan government reveals their distrust of the Pakistan and desire to escape from their control.  Yes, they want the Americans out, but they don’t want the Pakistanis in either. 
The other interesting thing about the Taliban support of the cricket team is that it suggests that they have softened their opposition to entertainments like radio and TV.  What about wedding parties and dancing?  One of the little noted results of the extended period of war in Afghanistan may be that the Taliban have begun to accommodate to what the rest of the world is like — even what other Muslims are like elsewhere.  The Taliban movement began as a rustic opposition to repressive activities of the local warlords but there appears to have been a kind of subtext in the movement:  resentment against innovations from the outside world of many kinds, things that were deemed from Soviet influence; the sense that come practices were godless (as in Soviet) were later transferred to the Americans.  Now, after so many years engaging with outsiders the Taliban may have decided that some of the innovations from the outside world are OK.  Also, they may have come to realize that the Afghanistan peoples deeply resented all the rules they tried to put into place — enforced by essentially ignorant troops, ignorant of Islam as well as the outside world.

A proposal to give the tribal areas full representation In Pakistan

Dawn has an article by retired army officer Gulman S. Afridi [“Fata needs a new social contract”] that gives us a view conditions in the tribal areas of Pakistan, FATA, that enable us better to understand why so many tribesmen participate in the insurgency.  
Afridi points out that the FATA tribesmen were originally enthusiastic about the founding of Pakistan, and    

[Their enthusiasm] “was reinforced by the Quaid`s announcement of his decision to pull out all military forces from the tribal areas and to allow the people complete freedom of movement.


The successive constitutions of 1956, 1962 and 1973 of Pakistan, …  retained the colonial-era administrative and legal system enacted in 1872 and embodied in the Frontier Crimes Regulation(FCR) 1901. This system is inherently oppressive, negative in purpose and authoritarian in spirit.
It gave virtually unlimited judicial and administrative powers to the political agents to fine, blockade, detain and seize hostile groups and confiscate or demolish property in the tribal areas.
Fata MNAs did not voice the true feelings of the people as, being themselves no more than glorified maliks, their own interests coincided with the continuation of the system. The larger, dominant state system bears the responsibility for continuing with the outdated parallel legal system for over six decades after Independence.
Lack of effective representation and participation of the tribal population in the decision-making process was always a sore point. At present, they are represented by 12 members in the National Assembly and eight in the Senate but these legislative bodies cannot make any laws for Fata being the absolute domain of the president.
Fata has no representation at a provincial level and no elections are held at the local level. With devolution of powers to the provinces through the 18th Amendment, representation at a provincial level has become critically important.

Neglected for decades, Fata is one of Pakistan`s poorest regions, with reportedly over 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.
Huge unemployment, alarmingly low literacy rates, poorhealth services and a badly underdeveloped infrastructure has set Fata apart from the rest of Pakistan. The dismal human development indicators are a clear sign that the state has failed to perform its role in Fata.
Unlike previously, the tribesmen, after some reluctance, welcomed all development initiatives of the government after Independence.
Society was well on its way to progress when it saw its `natural` course of change and development rudely interrupted with the coming of thousands of foreign Mujahideen and recruitment of locals by the US and Pakistan in the 1980s to fight what was then the Soviet Union. The story of how the world abandoned the Mujahideen and Afghanistan, following the end of the Cold War is well known. But what is, perhaps, not known is that Fata too was abandoned, leaving it with a jihadi mindset, an abundance of cheap modern weapons and easy entry and exit of foreign Mujahideen.
The weaponisation of society and the presence of foreign extremist elements has dealt a serious blow to the tribal system. This in large part is responsible for the current imbroglio.

. . . The tribal society, considered classless and egalitarian, has transformed considerably into a class-based society.  Four distinct classes comprising the big maliks, the new rich, the educated and professionals and the common masses can be identified in tribal society. Their overall aspiration and social behaviour towards change and reforms are often characterised by the class to which they belong.
. . . 

No serious effort was ever made by the government to change the FCR, reduce poverty and give effective political representation, basic human rights and a mechanism to redress grievances to this marginalised region of Pakistan.
By failing to fulfil its obligations, the state appears to have abandoned Fata to its fate.
Fata has suffered heavily for being consigned to the backwaters, ignored and exploited for jihadi activities.
The resulting militancy has considerably weakened the tribal structure as well as the old system of governance that cannot be revived.

Afridi is calling for a structural change in way FATA is integrated into Pakistan society:

A paradigm shift is required in approaching governance and socio-economic issues in Fata. It will not be easy but the path to peace and lasting solution lies in ending the isolation of Fata and integrating the region into the mainstream through a new social contract.

[click on the title for a link to the source.]

The situation in Pakistan is dire [still!], but the American media pays no attention

I guess the American media have to make a horserace out of the Iowa caucus, the preoccupation of recent news reports, but as a consequence a lot has been ignored, as if what goes on elsewhere is less significant for the American people.  Consider the situation in Pakistan, a nation with which we are engaged in the war against the Taliban/Al Qaeda.  It still seems to be on the verge of some kind of melt-down.  Akbar Ahmed [Al Jazeera, Jan 2, 2012], a Pakistani anthropologist, seem to think the situation is serious.  In his recent comment on the problems Imran Khan will face if he succeeds in becoming the Prime Minister there he describes the situation [with each point bulleted separately]:
  • [Pakistan’s] biggest province Baluchistan, which comprises almost half its territory, is in a state of open revolt. Baluchis complain about government’s policy of “kill and dump”.
  • An entire generation of journalists and professors is being systematically killed.
  • The Tribal Areas of the former Frontier Province is a theatre of war, involving thousands of Pakistani troops.
  • Suicide bombers terrorise Pakistan with impunity.
  • There is no end in sight to the violence.  . . . No one is safe. Kidnapping and killings are commonly reported.
  • The tensions between the military and civilian authorities are barely kept under the surface and the two are often pulling in different directions.
  • Add to this, the woes of the ordinary Pakistani facing unemployment, high prices, shortage of electricity, gas and water who sees his rulers plundering the country and sending their ill-gotten loot abroad and you have Pakistan today.
A nation in such an internal state of confusion and decay, holding nuclear power, engaged rather ambiguously in a war in which Americans put their lives at risk every day – this situation merit’s virtually no notice in the American media.  Try as we might, we cannot avoid being part of an ever compressing world, in which what goes on virtually anywhere can have consequences elsewhere.  And Pakistan’s woes bear directly on what becomes possible for the American government, whoever becomes its President this year. 

Stratfor: Kurram agency road is open. More access. Better control

Stratfor has released a map of Kurram agency in Pakistan showing that a key road has been opened to Parachinar.  This is a volatile area, in any period.  The article says that the road has been closed since 2007 because of fighting between Sunni and Shia Pashtun tribesmen, a  familiar problem in this area.  The Stratfor article says that 

. . . Kurram agency in the past has been used to project influence from the east into Afghanistan and particularly Kabul — which is only 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Pakistani border — making its value to the Haqqani network obvious. Both Parachinar and Thal are areas where the Haqqani network and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are known to operate safe-houses and use for logistics and training purposes, and opening up the road would facilitate travel for the militants between the two cities.

The road opening seems to be owing to a truce agreement by the two sides, and Stratfor thinks that Haqqani might prefer to close the road.  That there will be more military traffic on this road has to be taken for granted.  Improvements in transport facilities have a large influence on the course of affairs; that this road is now open says a lot about the politics of the region as well as the quality of transport facilities.  

China’s restrained relation to Pakistan

Jane Perlez’s report on Pakistani-China relations a while back revealed significant dimensions of that relationship that are worth emphasizing [click on the title for a link to the whole article]:  Pakistan, for all its potentiality to China, is not yet in a position to be useful to China.  Several statements in this text stood out for me:

“Pakistan’s ability to use China to offset its collapsing relations with the United States may be far more limited than it appears, raising the prospect that Pakistan will be left on the world’s periphery once the Americans wind down the war in Afghanistan …”

But China’s core interests lie elsewhere — in its competition with the United States and in East Asia, experts say. China has shown little interest in propping up the troubled Pakistani economy, … [and they] have pulled back on some [projects] as they have come under the threat of terrorism . . . . Last month a large Chinese coal mining company . . .  canceled a $19 billion contract in Sindh Province, citing concerns about security, in particular employees’ safety.”

The most important concern about insecurity in Pakistan is that it could spill into Xinjiang. 

“[I]f it’s not stable [in Pakistan] we can’t keep the peace in Xinjiang.”

And the project in Gwadar has stalled. 

The Pakistanis]  “asked China to build a naval base at Gwadar, the port on the Arabian Sea where China completed commercial facilities in 2008. [But they were rebuffed.] … For the moment, China does not see Gwadar as being of much strategic value, . . .  Since its completion, the port has become a rusting hulk, a destination to nowhere.”  

Yes, the original supposition was that it would become a terminal for pipelines from Turkmenistan, via Afghanistan, and possibly from Iran.  Events in Afghanistan have precluded that.  Even so, it is reasonable to suppose that under different circumstances Gwadar could become vitally important — an issue to be watched.

What’s being drowned out of the news: Flooding in Pakistan again

It’s surprising what doesn’t get reported in the news. The case at this moment that strikes me is the flooding in Pakistan. Again the people of Pakistan have to bear flooding — on top of the suicide bombing, the corruption, the indifference of their own government to their needs, the failure of the education system, etc. etc. The Pakistani folks deserve better leadership. The comparison with what’s happening in India displays in stark economic numbers how much Pakistan has suffered because of the narrow-focused military leadership that has controlled politics in the country. In so many ways, Pakistan illustrates how important good leadership matters.

But today’s news is what may be called a natural disaster because of the flooding, but as others have pointed out “natural disasters” are actually rarely “natural”: Much has to do with the human preparedness for events like this. For this is a repeat of the flooding last year, when the government failed to provide much help to those most affected. Now the numbers are growing.

Here are some details from today’s article in Al Jazeera [“Anger grows over Pakistan flood relief: Rescue efforts after heavy flooding in Sindh province still hampered by bad weather, as 132 deaths reported.” Al Jazeera 10 Sep 2011 06:59].

• A least five million people in Sindh and Baluchisntan provinces have been affected by the monsoon rains.
• About 900 villages have been submerged and about 100,000 homes have been completely destroyed.
• About 200,000 people have turned to relief camps.
• The worst-hit districts are in Sindh and Baluchistan.
• Residents in the area were in desperate need of assistance, asking for food, drinking water and shelter. “We have lost our homes, our belongings, and our lifestock. No one is here to help us, the government is not worried about us,” said one person.
• It’s still raining in Sindh. According to one official, “most people have been rescued. There are a few, unfortunately, who want to stay on their own lands. But we are trying to bring rescue to their doorsteps…”
• The flooding has also caused tremendous damage to Pakistani crops during the harvesting. … up to 13 per cent of the country’s estimated crop may have been lost.
• In the “most fertile part of the province [Sindh]” … more than 80 per cent of the cotton crop has been destroyed.
• “60,000 cattle have gone, drowned and dead.” [In Sindh]
• Last year, about 20 million people were directly affected by the worst floods in the country’s history. About 2,000 people were killed in the disaster. Now we have another year of it.
• One year after the floods, more than 800,000 families remained without permanent shelter and more than a million people remained in need of food assistance.

Link to the original article here:
Anger grows over Pakistan flood relief – Central & South Asia – Al Jazeera English

NB: The trends in Pakistan: population, resources, and public opinion

I have just finished reading Bruce Riedel’s Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad [D.C.: Brookings] and as usual the more detail I get on Pakistan the more I wonder about the future for that country. I keep hoping for signs that the plethora of dilemmas there are being resolved before they spin completely out of control. But I find it hard not to despair the more I think I know about it.

Here are some statistics that Riedel provides on the country. Consider the trends these numbers represent: are they not reason for alarm? [from Riedel 2011: 120+]

On population
> 53.8% of Pakistanis are under the age of 19.
> 37.7 % of Pakistanis are between the ages of 20 and 39
> At the current rate of fertility in Pakistan the population will reach 460 million by 2025.
> By 2050 Pakistan will be more populous than Indonesia.

On resources
> Probably for reasons of the population growth, per capita water availability between 1951 and 2007 declined from 5,000 to 1100; by 2025 the number will drop to 700.
> This decline could become worse if the warming of the earth cuts the amount of flow from the Himalaya glaciers. I am told that the decline is already measurable.

So, some problems:

What are the prospects for employment of this young population in Pakistan these days? Or in the next ten years? [So far, one of the main paying jobs for young men is jihad.]

And, if the current situation remains so conflicted, what are the prospects for resolving them when the population has doubled? Or tripled?

And then there are the conditions of popular opinion, which has been profoundly influenced by the Pakistani military.

> More than two-thirds of Pakistanis have a negative view of the United States.
> 90% of Pakistanis believe the U. S. wants to weaken the world-wide Muslim community.
> Half of the Pakistanis believe the US is Pakistan’s greatest danger [greater than India].
> Only 11% regard the Taliban and Al Qaeda as its greatest danger.
> 79% of Pakistanis have a favorable view of China.

Note the reaction to the Kerry-Lugar legislation of 2009 that tripled aid to Pakistan: “Pakistanis almost universally denounced it.” [p123] Most of the editorials were against it — and most of them “were orchestrated by [Gen] Kayani, Chief of the army, and the ISI… ” Such are America’s colleagues in the attempt to stabilize Afghanistan and crush Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

So it is crucial that our leadership take further steps to reach the Pakistanis people and help them work through the substantial challenges that lay ahead.