Monthly Archives: November 2010

Kashmir: Obama and the Vale of Tears

Kashmir: Obama & the Vale of Tears

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 30, 2010

There are lots of dangerous places in this world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bolivia, Iran, Palestine, Yemen, and Somalia to name a few. But there is only one that could destabilize a goodly part of the globe and end up killing tens of millions of people. And yet for reasons of state that is the one place the Obama administration will not talk about: Kashmir.

And yet this is a region that has sparked three wars between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, is in the midst of serious political upheaval, and is central to reducing tensions in Central and South Asia.

None of these facts come as a surprise to Obama. While running for office in 2008 he explicitly called for a solution to Kashmir.  “It won’t be easy, but it is important,” he told Joe Klein of Time magazine.

Given that India and Pakistan came within a hair’s breath of a full-scale nuclear confrontation during the 1999 Kargil incident, the importance seems obvious.

According to a recent study in Scientific American—“Local Nuclear Wars and Global Suffering”—such an exchange would kill and maim untold millions, flood the surrounding region with nuclear fallout, and create a “nuclear winter” for part of the globe.

Kashmir also fuels extremists in the region—both Hindu and Islamic—which in turn destabilizes Pakistan and Afghanistan. The conflict has killed between 50,000 and 80,000 people, “disappeared” several thousand others, seen thousands imprisoned and tortured, and subjected millions of Kashmiris to an onerous regime of occupation, with laws drawn straight from Britain’s colonial past.

Why then would President Obama remain silent on the subject, particularly since the outlines of a solution have been in place since 2007?

Commenting on Obama’s recent trip to Asia, Robert Kaplan, author of “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power,” says “In geopolitical terms, the President’s visit” was about “one challenge: the rise of China on land and sea.”

Indeed, this past year has seen Washington hurl one missive after another at Beijing. The U.S. strongly backed Japan over its recent dust up with Chinese fishing vessels in the East China Sea. Washington also intervened between China and several Southeast Asian nations over tensions around the Spratly and Paracel islands. The U.S. and South Korea recently carried out naval maneuvers close to China’s shores, Washington announced new arms sales to Taiwan, and during the recent G20 meetings in Seoul, Obama tried to pin the blame for a global currency crisis on Beijing.

While Washington denies it has any plans to “surround” China with U.S. allies, that seems to be exactly what it is doing when it courts Indonesia, tightens its alliance with Japan, and sets up new military bases in Australia. But the jewel in this anti-Chinese crown is India, and Washington will do whatever it takes to bring New Delhi on board.

The Obama administration has already endorsed the Bush administration’s 1-2-3 Agreement that allows India to violate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Not only does the Agreement undermine one of world’s most important nuclear treaties, but, in a letter to the International Atomic Agency and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan warned that the Agreement “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent.”

While in India, Obama announced it would end most “dual use” technology restrictions, allowing India to buy material that could end up enhancing its military. The U.S. also agreed to sell $5.8 billion in military transport planes to New Delhi.

But of all these, the decision to avoid Kashmir may be the most dangerous and destabilizing.

Tensions over Kashmir go back to 1947, when India and Pakistan first came into being. At the time, largely Muslim Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu prince, who decided to go with India even though, under the British formula for dividing the two countries, Kashmir should have become part of Pakistan. When Pakistan responded by infiltrating soldiers into Kashmir, it touched off a war that, to one degree or other, has gone on for 63 years.

Today Kashmir is divided between the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir held by Pakistan, and the Indian-controlled Kashmir and largely Hindu Jammu. A Line of Control that divides the two areas.

In 1989 Kashmiris staged a revolt, and Pakistan began infiltrating paramilitaries across the Line to attack Indian forces in Kashmir. That war dragged on until 2007, when Pakistan and India began secret back channel negotiations towards achieving a settlement. The talks, however, were scuttled when military dictator-turned-president Pervez Musharraf lost power, and militant jihadis attacked Mumbai in 2009, killing 165 people. India charged that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Service Directorate was behind the attack.

As difficult as the situation in Kashmir seems, according to journalist and writer Steve Coll, it is solvable and a failure to deal with it is dangerous. “The conflict has again and again spilled outside of Kashmir.”

Coll is a former reporter and editor at the Washington Post, author of numerous books on the Middle East and Central Asia, and president of the New American Foundation.

U.S. policy has been to keep Kashmir and Afghanistan as separate problems, but, Cole argues, “that policy is no longer consistent with the facts.” Muzamil Jaleel of the daily Indian Express agrees that the two countries “are linked so much now that India and Pakistan are fueling ethnic tension in Afghanistan.”

The current unrest in Kashmir, which has claimed more than 100 lives, is very different than the previous war. It is largely a non-violent movement composed almost exclusively of local Kashmiris rather than fighters infiltrated from Pakistan. It also has a strong contingent of young people, whose tech-savvy skills have put Kashmir’s resistance on the Internet. A decade ago Indian troops could wall off Kashmir. Today, the whole world is watching.

Cole contends the framework for a settlement is fairly straightforward.

First, India would have to rein it its 500,000 troops and paramilitaries. At the same time, the draconian Special Powers Act—originally designed to crush opposition to British rule in Ireland and currently used by the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—would have to be shelved. The laws give virtual immunity to widespread human rights violations by the Indian authorities and allow imprisonment without charges.

Second, the Line of Control would become an international border, but a porous one that allows free passage for Kashmiris.

Third, the residents of Kashmir and Jammu would be given a certain amount of local autonomy.

In the long run, the people of Kashmir ought to be able to hold a referendum about their future. The UN originally proposed such an undertaking, but first Pakistan and then India scotched it, fearful that residents might vote to join one or the other country. In fact, most residents would likely vote for independence.

An autonomous or even independent Kashmir is not only in the interests of the 10 million or so people that inhabit one of the most beautiful—and tragic—areas of the world, it would help defuse terrorism in Pakistan and India. To sacrifice that for what can only be a temporary alliance against an emerging China is profoundly short sighted.

Washington’s silence is no longer a viable option. “We are not asking the Americans to take a position against India and for Kashmir. We are just saying that there is a general recognition that India and Pakistan need to be pushed in terms of a dialogue,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s separatists, told the Financial Times.

Others warn that Indian repression of the current non-violent movement might drive it to take up arms. “The status quo is not digestible for Kashmiris,” Sheikh Showkat Hussan, a Kashmir law professor, told the Financial Times.

Today, Kashmir is a vale of tears, a place capable of sparking off a nuclear war that would affect everyone on the globe. It need not be so.


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“Talking With Terrorists” review

Talking With Terrorists Review

Dispatches From the Edge

Nov. 17, 2010

“Conversations With Terrorists: Middle East Leaders on Politics, Violence, and Empire,” by Reese Erlich, PoliPoint Press, 2010, $14.95

The following from the Washington Post is why you should read journalist Reese Erlich’s book on terrorism:

“U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops, including the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists.”

But who are these “suspected terrorists”?

To the government of President Ali Abdullajh Saleh, members of the Southern Movement, as well as Shiite Houthi in the north, are “terrorists,” but the current fighting is a civil war, one that we are being drawn into on the side of an unpopular and authoritarian regime.

“The War on Terrorism” never made any sense,” argues Erlich. “You can wage a war against an enemy country or an insurgency, but you can’t wage war on a tactic.” In short, just because a group uses the weapons of al-Qaeda doesn’t mean they are same.

Erlich tries to redefine the way we think about the term “terrorism” by placing it in a historical context and letting “terrorists” talk about their goals and political philosophy.  What emerges is far more complex and nuanced than the cartoon characterizations by the mass media.

Hamas is considered a “terrorist” organization by the U.S., and the chair of its political bureau, Khaled Meshal, a “terrorist.” But as Erlich points out, Hamas is not considered “terrorist” by other countries in the neighborhood, and it will have to be part of any eventual peace settlement. To dismiss Hamas as “terrorist” is not only false, it is politically disastrous.

Erlich’s interview with Israeli Geula Cohen, a founder of the 1940s Stern Gang, makes an interesting comparison to Meshal. The Stern Gang bombed civilians, assassinated diplomats, and used murder and violence to drive Palestinians off their lands. But while Hamas and Meshal are condemned as terrorists, Cohen and the Stern gang are hailed as heroes, with streets named after them and museums celebrating their feats.

In short, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

A major strength of the book is that the author has spent several decades reporting on this area of the world. When he challenges the mainstream media for reporting that the Taliban are a major recipient of the drug trade in Afghanistan, he can draw on more than eight years reporting on the story to demolish the charge.

The Middle East is a complex place, and the author is always careful to keep the reader informed. If one doesn’t happen to have the history of Hamas or Hezbollah in one’s memory banks, Erlich will provide it.

Erlich is not afraid of asking hard questions or going into dangerous situations, and he is sharply critical of many of the people he interviews. But he also believes the term “terrorist” is a dangerous distortion of reality that can turn a political conflict into a forever war. It also serves as a cover for the expansion of American power into the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as a stream of revenue for the arms industry.

The book is revealing and well written, and whether one is new to the subject or well versed, the reader is going to get a lot out of this slim volume of revealing interviews and sharp commentary.

Read Conn Hallinan’s columns at



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“War Is Not Good For You” review

War Is Not Good For You Review

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 23, 2010

“War and Public Health” edited by Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel. Second edition, Oxford University Press, 2008, $51.22

Back in the 60s peace activists sported a bumper sticker that read: “War is not good for children and other living creatures.” In a way, that sums up Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel’s “War and Public Health,” where 46 experts on everything from epidemiology to international law weigh in on the authors’ central premise: “War and militarism have catastrophic effects on human health and well being.”

Levy and Sidel, both former presidents of the American Public Health Association, as well as distinguished researchers and practitioners in their fields, make the point that, in the end, wars always come home. The most obvious casualties are the young men and women shattered in body and mind by the cauldron of battle itself, but the devastation includes the terrible things that organized violence inflicts on the population and infrastructure where those wars are fought.

But the authors see the shock and awe of battle as only the beginning of the damage war inflicts. War means that nations divert their resources from things like education and health to smart bombs and high tech drones. It means choosing mayhem over economic development, exposing the most vulnerable in our society to disease and privation, and the systematic destruction of the environment. “War threatens much of the fabric of our civilization,” write Levy and Sidel.

Thinking of war as a public health issue allows the authors to break the subject into digestible pieces: consequences, types of weapons, vulnerable populations, specific wars, and prevention. Each major section is divided into chapters, spanning everything from “The Epidemiology of War” to “The Role of Health Professionals in Postconflict Situations.”

According to a recent estimate by sociologist Chalmers Johnson, if all U.S. military-related spending were added together it would come to about $1 trillion a year. Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz concludes that the lifetime costs of treating veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq will top $3 trillion. At the same time, according to the U.S. Census, 50.7 million people in the U.S. are currently without health care.

These are the kinds of tradeoffs the authors and contributors to “War and Public Health” find unacceptable.

The book is more than an expose, however. Levy and Sidel argue that public health officials should be involved in preventing war, just as they would throw themselves into stopping an epidemic.

And in case the reader is not sure how to go about doing this, the book includes an appendix with the names, addresses, phone numbers and emails of virtually every international organization concerned with war and peace.

“War is hell,” said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, and so it is. But the authors of this well-written and accessible book argue that wars are not inevitable, and that time and again human beings have demonstrated a capacity to avoid them. On one hand, “War and Public Health” is an important and valuable effort to expose the consequences of war. On the other, a practical guide to creating a world where health is a human right and war is an anachronism.

Conn Hallinan’s writings can be found


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