Saturday, September 22, 2018

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Indian leaders

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Saturday hit back at India after it called off proposed meeting of foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly.
Khan called India’s response “arrogant” and “negative”.
“Disappointed at the arrogant and negative response by India to my call for resumption of the peace dialogue. However, all my life I have come across small men occupying big offices who do not have the vision to see the larger picture,” he said in a tweet.

The ceasefire agreed by Russia and Turkey proves how far Putin has come out on top in Syria

A ceasefire seldom gets a good press. If it succeeds in ending violence or defusing a crisis, the media swiftly becomes bored and loses interest. But if the fighting goes on, then those who have called the ceasefire are condemned as heartless hypocrites who either never intended to bring the killing to an end or are culpably failing to do so.

Pundits are predictably sceptical about the agreement reached by Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Monday to head off an imminent offensive by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces directed against rebels in Idlib province. This is the last enclave of the armed opposition in western Syria which has lost its strongholds in Aleppo, Damascus and Daraa over the past two years.

Doubts about the accord are understandable because, if it is implemented, the anti-Assad groups in Idlib will be defanged militarily. They will see a demilitarised zone policed by Russia and Turkey eat into their territory, “radical terrorist groups” removed, and heavy weapons ranging from tanks to mortars withdrawn. The rebels will lose their control of the two main highways crossing Idlib and linking the government held cities of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama.
There is a striking note of imperial self-confidence about the document in which all sides in the Syrian civil war are instructed to come to heel. This may not happen quite as intended because it is difficult to see why fighters of al-Qaeda-type groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham should voluntarily give up such military leverage as they still possess. The Syrian government has said that it will comply with the agreement but may calculate that, in the not so long term, it will be able to slice up Idlib bit by bit as it did with other rebel enclaves.
What is most interesting about the agreement is less its details than what it tells us about the balance of forces in Syria, the region and even the world as a whole. Fragile it may be, but then that is true of all treaties which general Charles de Gaulle famously compared to “young girls and roses – they last as long as they last”. Implementation of the Putin-Erdogan agreement may be ragged and its benefits temporary, but it will serve a purpose if a few less Syrians in Idlib are blown apart.

The Syrian civil war long ago ceased to be a struggle fought out by local participants. Syria has become an arena where foreign states confront each other, fight proxy wars and put their strength and influence to the test.The most important international outcome of war so far is that it has enabled Russia to re-establish itself as a great power. Moscow helped Assad secure his rule after the popular uprising in 2011 and later ensured his ultimate victory by direct military intervention in 2015. A senior diplomat from an Arab country recalls that early on in the Syrian war, he asked a US general with a command in the region what was the difference between the crisis in Syria and the one that had just ended with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The general responded with a single word: “Russia.”
Russia was in reality always stronger than it looked because it remained a nuclear superpower capable of destroying the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 just as it was before. It should be difficult to forget this gigantically important fact, but politicians and commentators continue to blithely recommend isolating Russia and pretend that it can be safely ignored.  
The return of Russia as a great power was always inevitable but was accelerated by successful opportunism and crass errors by rival states. Assad in Syria was always stronger than he looked. Even at the nadir of his fortunes in July 2011, the British embassy in Damascus estimated that he had the backing of 30 to 40 per cent of the population according to The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which should be essential reading for anybody interested in Syria. Expert opinion failed to dent the conviction among international statesmen that Assad was bound to go. When the French ambassador Eric Chevallier expressed similar doubts about the imminence of regime change he received a stern rebuke from officials in Paris who told him: “Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”
Such wishful thinking and flight from reality continues to this day. Miscalculations by Washington, Paris and London have provided Putin with ideal political terrain on which to reassert the power of the Russian state. The agreement signed by Russia and Turkey last Monday deciding the future of Idlib province is a token of how far Russia has come out on top in Syria. Putin is able to sign a bilateral agreement with Turkey, the second largest military power in Nato, without any reference to the US or other Nato members.

The accord means that Turkey will increase its military stake in northern Syria, but it can only do so safely under license from Moscow. The priority for Turkey is to prevent the creation of a Kurdish statelet under US protection in Syria and for this it needs Russian cooperation. It was the withdrawal of the Russian air umbrella protecting the Kurdish enclave of Afrin earlier this year that enabled the Turkish army to invade and take it over.
As has happened with North Korea, President Trump’s instincts may be surer than vaunted expertise of the Washington foreign policy establishment and its foreign clones. They have not learned the most important lesson of the US-led intervention wars in Iraq and Syria which is that it is not in western interests to stir the pot in either country. Despite this, they argue for continued US military presence in northeast Syria on the grounds that this will weaken Assad and ensure that any victory he wins will be pyrrhic.
Everything that has happened since 2011 suggests the opposite: by trying to weaken Assad, western powers will force him to become more – not less – reliant on Moscow and Tehran. It ensures that more Syrians will die, be injured or become refugees and gives space for al-Qaeda clones to reemerge.
Russian dominance in the northern tier of the Middle East may be opportunistic but is being reinforced by another process. President Trump may not yet have started any wars, but the uncertainty of US policy means that many countries in the world now look for a reinsurance policy with Russia because they are no longer sure how far they can rely on the US. Putin may not always be able to juggle these different opportunities unexpectedly presented to him, but so far he has had surprising success.
 

What the White supremacist told police will shock you

White supremacist James Harris Jackson, accused of killing Timothy Caughman, a black man, told police it was “practice” for a larger attack he planned to carry out in New York City’s Times Square, a court has heard.
Mr Jackson told police after the incident on 20 March in 2017 that he hated black men and that his ultimate goal was to kill several black men – particularly younger men.
Police interview video shown at a pretrial hearing on Thursday, showed Mr Jackson saying he was particularly bothered by black men in the presence of white women as he hated interracial relationships.
“That’s the main crux for me,” he said. He added that interracial couples were “an insurmountable problem” for him.
 Mr Jackson has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him - murder as an act of terrorism and as a hate crime.
In March 2017, a then 28-year-old Mr Caughman travelled from Baltimore to New York City with the explicit plan to kill black men, police say.
Mr Caughman was collecting cans and bottles for recycling in the city’s midtown when Mr Jackson approached him and fatally stabbed him with a “Roman short sword” that he had tucked into his pants.
Mr Jackson told detectives that after he stabbed Mr Caughman he fled the area and walked aimlessly around Manhattan until he turned himself into police in the wee hours of 22 March.
“I was just kind of processing what had happened” he told detectives. “If I just stab another person what difference does that make? The point’s already been made.”

The interview video also reportedly shows Mr Jackson re-enacting the killing to lead interrogator Detective Joseph Barbara.
Mr Jackson, who booked a hotel in Times Square as his base, told detectives that he was going for “something a bit bigger” calling it a “terrorist attack” and adding that he wanted to “influence the national conversation”.
    

Mr Caughman lived in a room as a permanent tenant at a hotel named Barbour Hotel, which houses formerly homeless people transitioning to permanent housing.
For years he ran a local branch of Neighbourhood Youth Corps, an anti-poverty programme giving low-income youth work experience.
Seth Peek, a cousin of Mr Caughman told The New York Times he earned an associate degree attending college in Brooklyn and Staten Island. Mr Caughman labelled himself a “can and bottle recycler” in his Twitter bio – a way his relatives said he made ends meet.
Mr Jackson would face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted.

My Road Trips in Bangladesh

By Habib Siddiqui

I have returned to the USA from Bangladesh after staying there nearly three months. During my visit there I lost three close relatives; the most devastating of which was the loss of my brother-in-law Bahar who was married to my sister. He will always be missed in our family. He was a social worker who had affected the lives of so many who would always miss him dearly.

Bahar died shortly after returning from Chennai Apollo Hospital in India where he had undergone cancer treatment. Contrary to the false hopes given by the hospital doctors his case proved to be incurable. The hospital program coerced him into buying an expensive and lengthy treatment program that obliged him into buying very costly medicines that were simply wasteful, leaving a sense of being robbed monetarily. Soon after returning to Dhaka he was admitted to the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka where he died on July 27 before the Friday prayer. Before his burial in his ancestral land in a suburb of Comilla, three funeral services were held in Dhaka, Comilla city and his village, attended by thousands of people who knew him. I was able to see him alive a day earlier but could not speak with him when he was already in the intensive care unit. While those who attended his funeral prayers were ordinary masses, some dignitaries did attend the services – showing Bahar’s connection at all levels of the society.

The distance between Dhaka and Comilla is only about 100 kilometers. But the highway was so congested that it took us nearly four hours to reach Bahar’s ancestral home, outside the Comilla city, just before sunset. After his burial, hoping to return early, we left around 9 p.m. However, because of the terrible traffic jam and gridlocks at multiple places we reached Dhaka after 5:30 a.m. It was an awful experience for all the commuters that night!

In the last 20 years whenever I visited Bangladesh, I have avoided traveling between Dhaka and Chittagong by road, and the experience in July this year once again proved that my decision was rather wise. And this is a sad commentary given all the government publicity and hoopla about miracles in the road communication sector inside Bangladesh under the current administration. Truly, if the Communications Minister had put more time into ensuring the success of the government projects than badmouthing opposition parties the commuters would have benefitted and thanked the government. But the reality of a daily commuter in Bangladesh is quite different than those portrayed by the government.

I could understand why the commuters condemn, cuss or curse the government for its massive failure in the public sector where corruption is so rampant. I was told by many contractors that more than half of the allotted fund for construction projects ends up being gulped by government agencies and politicians before they see it. I am told that less than a quarter of the allotted money is spent on the project, thus leaving the newly constructed roads and highways quite vulnerable. That possibly explains why in a report on June 20, 2017, in which the World Bank presented a list of infrastructure cost, especially in road construction, it shows the cost of per kilometer road construction is $2.5 million to $11.9 million in Bangladesh, which is the highest in the world. This cost of construction is simply mind-blowing given the fact that the labor cost in Bangladesh is one of the lowest in the world. [Note: A four-lane highway costs $1.1m to $1.3m a km in India and $1.3m-$1.6m in China.]

Most of the large government projects these days are given to the Chinese contractors who continue to make a very bad name for themselves in the construction sector. They have been accused amongst other things of unfair price-gouging, dragging and slowing down projects to maximize their gains. Thus, within a very short period, these newly constructed roads and highways are inundated with potholes. Most Indian convoys of lorries that are using Bangladesh as a transit to move their goods are overloaded, beyond the design capacity of the roads and highways being built, compounding the problem further. Unless such abuses of Indian lorries are stopped it would be impossible to stop the premature destruction of the roads and highways. I am also told that Sheikh Hasina government’s more-than-generous policy with the Indian transportation of goods and materials have had a very negative impact on Bangladesh economy.

One of my nephews works with the Rohingya refugees for an international NGO. He lives in Cox’s Bazar, only about 150 kilometers south of the port city of Chittagong. Cox’s Bazar beach, long known for fishing and tourism, is sandy and has a gentle slope with an unbroken length of 120 km (75 miles); it is the longest natural sea beach in the world. He and his wife insisted that I visit Cox’s Bazar. Since I have not been to the area in more than four decades, I could not reject their invitation. We left very early in the morning by a private car to avoid heavy traffic, but still it took us nearly five hours to reach the town.

I recall that in the 1970s, when I travelled with my parents and siblings it took us only three hours to reach Cox’s Bazar from Chittagong. These days, the traffic on the road connecting the two cities has grown several folds while the condition of the road has deteriorated severely, and as I have noticed elsewhere, it was full of potholes, some as deep as a foot. In order to skip some of these deep potholes, drivers were often driving on the wrong side of road, thus, making the entire traveling experience a very risky and tiring one, taking away all the charms out of visiting scenic Cox’s Bazar.

After spending some hours in the city, we planned on going towards Ukhia, located further down south. Bangladesh Army Engineers have done a superb job in connecting Ukhia and Teknaf to Cox’s Bazar town with a scenic two-lane road that goes by the shoreline. However, getting to that Marine Drive meant driving through a two km-long road connecting Marine Drive to Cox’s Bazar town that was full of potholes. It was one of the worst roads I have ever travelled in my life. What concerned me most is that nearly half the traffic on that road comprised of vehicles belonging to the UN and NGOs – local and international – that are trying to provide material help to the persecuted Rohingya refugees settled in Teknaf and Ukhia camps. What impression are these foreign visitors making about Bangladesh, the host country of the Rohingya refugees? Surely, a very bad impression!

Any concerned local administration should have realized the importance of that connecting road and made sure that it remained functional. Sadly, the local municipality has miserably failed in that vital task and is leaving its visitors with a very negative impression about the local government. Such an oversight from municipal and government authorities is simply inexcusable when hundreds of thousands of foreigners are visiting Cox’s Bazar to provide the necessary material aid to the most persecuted Rohingya who had fled to Bangladesh to escape genocide in Myanmar.

What was supposed to be a short ride took several minutes, and my body was aching from the bumpy ride over the potholes in a private car before we entered the Marine Drive. After a few minutes of ride along the scenic Marine Drive, we stopped by the coast of the Bay of Bengal to enjoy its natural beauty. Before sunset, we headed back home for Chittagong city. The ride took longer time and we arrived in Khulshi after five hours and a half.

On our way back home at night, I noticed that more than 80% of the trucks and buses were operationally unfit (most did not have tail lights, brake lights and signal lights) and should not have been permitted to drive on the roads and highways. The potholes were making everyone’s drive a dangerous one, let alone a difficult one, esp. for those unfit buses and trucks, driven sometimes by reckless drivers who seemed to care less about saving lives.

As I have already noted in an earlier article, roads and highways in Bangladesh remain some of the most dangerous in the world. The Government of Bangladesh needs to make its communication system safer for its commuters and every citizen failing which more people will die from traffic accidents. It can start that process with the much-needed fitness tests on trucks and buses and road repair/maintenance jobs. Seemingly, road repair or maintenance work is not a priority or profitable enough business to the greedy ones who have had illicitly made millions from the misery of commuters compared to a full job on the roads when they could have a bigger share of their Hari-loot! This vulture-like attitude of corrupt government officials, politicians and their clients is not only unhealthy, it is simply suicidal for a poor country like Bangladesh.

Friday, September 21, 2018

I can't see how a Palestinian state can ever happen

Abu Yussef Abu Dahuk is 60 years old. But of course he looks around 75 or 80, because he is a Bedouin and lives under a corrugated iron roof and sheets tied together with string, and because he owns just 120 goats which belong to his 17 children. And because the Israeli cops and soldiers a couple of hundred feet away are ready to demolish his little slum and drive him away.
The Palestinian had two wives – the first died 18 years ago, and the second serves us the usual scalding hot tea on this scalding hot morning – and has been expelled from his grazing lands three times; first from Tel Arad near the Israeli town of Beersheva and then again after the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and then in 1974. Now the Israeli High Court of Justice – and yes, let justice indeed be its name – has decided that the 180 members of the Bedouin Jahalin tribe should be dispossessed once more. They must be moved to an area in Abu Dis not far, as the residents point out, to a garbage dump. Not that you can be dispossessed of rags and a mud school or bits of rusting metal that prop up a plastic roof over shacks.
But it’s not that simple. We all know – the Israelis know, the EU which has given €315,000 to Khan al-Ahmar knows, and the Palestinians know – that this is no chance demolition. Just over the hills to the north peep the red rooftops of the Kfar Adumim Jewish colony, and the destruction of Khan al-Ahmar will give its Israeli inhabitants room to move – high court permitting, needless to say – down to the highway and thus destroy the last of the Palestinian villages beside the road to Jerusalem. Another circle of Israeli concrete around the city will be complete.
Abu Yussef Abu Dahuk knows all too well what this means. “The settlement continues to be built and so they must move us out. Now we are not allowed to cross the valley behind us with our goats or the settlers will take our goats. We are not allowed to build proper homes and so we have to use these metal structures. The settlers can build a villa, with electricity and a water source and a garden – and for us in the winter, we can build nothing. We put plastic on top of the metal to stop the water falling on us when we are sleeping.”

Robert Fisk's article on the subject can be read by clicking here.

Marine Le Pen refuses court-ordered mental health test

'I'd like to see how the judge would try and force me do it', says former presidential candidate.
To read the news, click here.

Article 35A: An Unprecedented Situation In Kashmir

By Naseer A Ganai
  • Former Army Chief General V K Singh, who is now Minister of State for External Affairs, once described Ghulam Hassan Mir, one of the founding members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), like a ‘God’.
  • In 2013, Singh called Mir as “true Indian who would die but would never allow anyone to tarnish the sovereignty of the country.”
  • Former R&AW Chief A S Dulat while praising Farooq Abdullah in The Vajpayee Years says, “I wonder if as such people say, Farooq is not reliable then who the hell in Kashmir is reliable. "Is it coincidence that one Kashmiri that Pakistan never tried to approach - because he was too unpredictable, that is, he was too much his own man-was Farooq Abdullah?".
  • Hurriyat leader Prof. Abdul Gani Bhat would describe the PDP founder Mufti Mohammad Sayeed as “Indian by conviction.”  
  • On September 13, Farooq Abdullah chaired a meeting of parties at his Gupkar residence in Srinagar where former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, senior Congress leader Taj Mohiuddin, CPIM leader Mohd Yousuf Tarigami, Ghulam Hassan Mir and others were present.
    After the meeting, Omar said it was unanimously resolved that the government of India should clear its stand on Article 35A that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir and debars non-state subject to own land in the State. They requested the central government to defer the hearing on Article 35 A to January 09 2019 till a democratically elected government is in place in the state.
    As the government of India connected Urban Local Bodies and Panchayat election with that of the Article 35A while arguing in the Supreme Court that the case be deferred citing the ULB and Panchayat elections as reason, the two major regional political parties PDP and NC, with three former chief ministers, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti decided to boycott polls asking that democratically elected government in Jammu and Kashmir should take call on the Article 35A.
    The election boycott calls would come from separatists, who would argue that Government of India project participation in the elections in Kashmir as referendum in favour of India. In contrast, practice has been the NC and the PDP would encourage people to vote. The PDP took the discourse further as its leaders like Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and now Mehbooba Mufti would often describe Jammu and Kashmir Assembly as the most powerful Legislative Assembly in India and would loudly say that Jammu and Kashmir Assembly would be part of solution of Kashmir issue.
    The central government was also generous toward them, though not practically, and even Narasimha Rao, when he was Prime Minister, promised “short of Azadi sky is the limit” in Jammu and Kashmir, which promoted Farooq Abdullah to come up with the autonomy resolution in Jammu and Kashmir Assembly. The then BJP government in 2000 rejected the resolution passed by the State Assembly but Dr. Farooq didn’t break the alliance with the BJP. Mehbooba Mufti promised self-rule but after the 2014 elections which she fought against the BJP, she forged an alliance with the BJP. Now the situation is such that a request from them to the central government to defer the hearing on Art 35 A on January 09 2019 till a democratically elected government is in place in the state is not entertained.
    Separatists, for the first time, might be watching the situation with interest. As the government has decided to go ahead with the elections, giving no importance to poll boycott of Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, or for that matter on Hassan Mir, it is sort of vindication of separatist stand that mainstream doesn’t count here for New Delhi. The separatists have been usually calling them: “Quislings and puppets of New Delhi.”
    If the Centre doesn’t entertain a request to defer the hearing on Art 35 A till a democratically elected government is in place in the state, from likes of Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, then how come it expects that the separatists should come forward for talks as “our doors are always open for anyone who is ready to talk.” It is indeed an unprecedented situation in Kashmir.