Focal Points Blog

Y-12 Activists May Be Barred From Bringing up the Morality of Nukes at Their Trial

Remember the activists, including an 82-year-old nun, who infiltrated the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 12? They’re members of Transform Now Plowshares, the current version of the original Plowshares Christian pacifist movement. The Plowshares Eight initiated these kinds of actions in 1980 when they snuck into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Like their predecessors, the Transform Now Plowshares Three are as physically courageous as they are morally. A lengthy jail term could see at least one of its members, 82-year-old Sister Megan Rice, die while incarcerated.

At the trial in February they each face 15 years in prison and fines up to $500,000. Worse, as the co-director of a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin called Nukewatch, John LaForge, wrote at the Transform Now Plowshares site, “federal prosecutors have mentioned bringing two heavier charges, including sabotage ‘during wartime,’ which together carry up to 50 years.”

Even worse, the Transform Now Plowshares Three may be left destitute of tools with which to defend themselves. LaForge explains.

If the government gets it way, the trial judge will keep facts about nuclear weapons away from jurors and make sure that questions about the Bomb’s outlaw status are left out of jury instructions. … before starting deliberations.

On Nov. 2, federal prosecutors [urged the judge] to “preclude defendants from introducing evidence in support of certain justification defenses.” The motion asks the court to forbid all evidence — even expert testimony — about “necessity, international law, Nuremberg Principles, First Amendment protections, the alleged immorality of nuclear weapons, good motive, religious moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, and the U.S. government’s policy regarding nuclear weapons.”

The prosecution’s justification? That it is “not relevant.” Even though

The U.S. Attorney’s motion … confesses, “[w]e do not suggest that the deployment of nuclear armament systems does not violate international law, but merely that Congress has power to protect government property.”

The value of the Transform Now Plowshares Three’s efforts was initially depreciated because the only kind of soul searching resulting from their actions was about plant security, not the morality of nuclear weapons. Now, federal prosecutors would move to expunge justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial and reduce it to a simple case of trespass and vandalism at a military installation.

Clearly, the U.S. Attorney’s office fears that admitting discussion of the justice of nuclear weapons to the jurors’ deliberations will only obstruct the progress of the trial. More to the point it probably knows it’s an argument it can’t win.

Foiled Coup Against Sudan’s President Bashir Exposes Growing Islamist Dissent

Cross-posted from the Arabist

Last week, Sudanese security forces arrested the country’s ex-spymaster Salah Ghosh and at least a dozen other people, including high-ranking military officers, on charges of attempting a coup against President Omar al-Bashir. Little information has been made available regarding the alleged plotters, but according to AFP, state media also announced that “[t]his plot is led by some opposition party leaders.”

The arrests came a few days after President Bashir returned from a “minor” operation in Saudi Arabia — one of the few places he can travel without fear of being turned over to the ICC to stand trial for war crimes — and oversaw the appointment of one of his main parliamentary boosters as secretary-general of the nation’s Islamic Movement organization, which Bashir and his cohorts created in 1999 after falling out with the cleric Hassan al-Turabi, who in the 1980s and 1990s led the Islamist organization that helped the current regime seize power. The new appointment was strongly criticized by al-Turabi, who is now the leader of the opposition calling for Bashir to step down, and has been described in Sudanese press commentaries as a defeat for “reformists,” since it further weds the organization to the president’s own political party, the NCP. Alex Thurston notes that the political battle at the Islamists’ national conference may not have been a precipitant for the arrest of the accused plotters and other individuals. According to Thurston, “[t]he combination of military defections and Islamist dissent (and of course there is overlap between military and Islamist ranks) poses a major problem for a regime that has relied on these constituencies as pillars of its support.”

If this was a coup by dissatisfied elements of Bashir’s military/intelligence inner circle, it bears out the worst-case scenario(s) alluded to in Reuters’ and the ICG’s November special reports on Khartoum’s precarious control over the factions the regime feels it must placate to avoid being deposed by an increasingly disappointed and impoverished populace. When students and state employees have come out into the streets this this past year to protest government austerity measures, Bashir has dismissed them as “elbow-lickers,” and his security forces have cracked down on them, reportedly spiriting dozens away to be tortured in “ghost houses.”

As an (optimistic) accounting of the “coup” in Al Quds Al-Arabi opines that “regardless of the validity of the charge against the officers of the detainees, this confrontation may have brought the internal crisis in the system to the point of no return” because “there are even signs that the important components in the security sector in turn has withdrawn its support for the regime and sided with the reform camp.”

This would be extremely dangerous to Bashir’s rule because a significant part of the criticism leveled at Bashir from his fellow Islamists stems from the 2005 ceasefire and 2011 independence of South Sudan from the north. Since then, although Sudan and South Sudan “signed several agreements paving the way for resuming vital oil exports and creating a demilitarized zone along their contested, oil-rich border” in September 2012, South Sudan says Khartoum is delaying the implementation of the agreements because it now has “additional demands on security issues that go far beyond the scope of the 27th September agreements.”

Those “issues” are, according to the Sudan Tribune, Khartoum demanding that South Sudan oversee the disarmament of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – Army North (SPLM/A-N), which is fighting an insurgency against the Sudanese Army in several provinces bordering the new South Sudanese state, provinces which have been absolutely devastated by the ongoing conflict, in which thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more made refugees.

Sudan denies there is a humanitarian crisis, of course, yet still does its best to bar aid and outsiders from entering the region as it carries out military operations. Bashir’s government is not going through with the much-needed September agreement because it claims that the SPLM/A-N gets its marching orders from Juba, and there is some truth in this charge.South Sudan says it has no control over the SPLM/A-N, and this is also partly true because even if it is a kind of “stay-behind” organization, as Khartoum charges, like all “stay-behind” organization the SPLM/A-N has its own parochial interests to consider – Khartoum having been quite clear it is willing to pay a high price in civilian lives to secure this region, one of its few remaining oil sources. Moreover, Juba has enough problems trying to disarm militias within its own borders.

Leaving the military matters aside for now, though, there are still sufficient non-South Sudan-related grievances to hound Bashir. According to Reuters:

Perhaps the biggest threat facing Bashir comes from inside his party. The movement that seized power in 1989 in a burst of religious fervor has atrophied. Younger and mid-level officials are angry that the same people have been running the country for more than two decades. Many educated officials are unhappy because Sudan’s isolation curbs their career prospects.

And, from the ICG:

The NCP is in a state of confusion, extensively fractured and with no coherent strategy for addressing multiple security, political and economic challenges. Members are deeply unhappy with the leadership, its policies and massive corruption. Discontent is rising, and local chapters are increasingly challenging decisions, as well as the party’s general orientation. Internal divisions are spilling into the open in the form of critical memorandums and calls for reform. Different parts of the NCP – right-wing factions in the youth movement, the parliamentary bloc, the army and the student movement – have independently sent written protests to the leadership.

Both centers and the ICG also note that Bashir is earning a reputation as a less-than-sincere Islamist among hardliners in the clerical establishment, such as those who helped organize the anti-Western protests this fall that saw the German embassy in Khartoum assaulted and gutted by fire over the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

Bashir may believe he can dismiss the “elbow-lickers” – his security services moved quickly to cow them of stating any repeat mass demonstrations – and rely on old men like his Islamic Movement secretary-general appointee to hold the Young Turks in line, but given how he rose to power, he cannot be so dismissive of such dissenters as his former spymaster Ghosh and ex-special forces men known as the “Al Sa’ihun” who had been deployed in the conflict with the SPLA up until 2005.

And unfortunately for the two Sudans, if there is one undertaking Bashir can score points on despite the fuel shortages, “ghost houses” and arrests, it is upping the ante on the southern border.

Nuclear Weapons Laboratories National in Name Only

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) recently returned from another one of his trips to Washington, during which he meets with congressional and executive-branch officials and analysts about nuclear weapons. First, he followed up on the proposed nuclear-pit laboratory at Los Alamos, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), which has now been delayed five years, in large part due to the efforts of LASG.

He reports in LASG’s most recent newsletter that, despite the delay, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, “will almost certainly contain (as does the House version) … a requirement to continue CMRR-NF design and construction.” As of this date, I’m unable to ascertain if that’s the case with the bill, which passed in the Senate yesterday (Dec. 5). Next a House-Senate committee reconciles their separate bills and sends the final version to the president.

Mello gives us an idea of the opposition the LASG has been up against in trying to put “a stake through the heart” of the CMRR-NF just locally in New Mexico (emphasis added).

When and if these provisions pass, they will do so in substantial part because of strong efforts of New Mexico Democrats (Heinrich, Udall, Bingaman, and to a lesser extent Lujan), who have consistently allied with the most hawkish members of Congress to achieve this end.

Mello was also in Washington to reemphasize his concerns with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is becoming increasingly privatized.

The last sliver of NNSA which is not a management and operating (M&O) contractor (just 3%, by dollars spent) is not making many decisions. To say there is a leadership vacuum is an understatement.

In fact, writes Mello:

There is very little space left in which a vacuum could form. When it does, the big nuclear labs and plants (i.e. the contractors) automatically fill it.

Worse

… when NNSA needs “independent” advice, it generally turns to more contractors to help out. The U.S. nuclear warhead business – and it is a very big business, with sweet multi-decade contracts for the vaguest sort of work that run more than $30 billion in total value in the case of [the Los Alamos National Laboratory] (just to pick one) – has very little federal character left.

Mello explains.

The proposals of the nuclear hawks basically amount to unshackling the contractors even more – giving them even more money to begin even more projects with even less accountability. Despite the appearance of occasional inter-party conflict, the federal government – really all parts of it, at the moment – have basically circled the wagons to protect the contractors who run the warhead complex.

He can only conclude that

… most members of Congress do not really understand the degree of privatization involved, or that the nuclear weapons laboratories are actually corporate actors, not federal.

Free Elections Encourage in Sierra Leone, But Most Left Behind by Western Development

The citizens of Sierra Leone have failed to benefit from booming oil exploration and the mining industry.

Cross-posted from The New Context.

Sierra LeoneThe people of Sierra Leone are to be commended for performing their democratic duty—in droves. On November 17, more than 2.2 million voted, almost 90 percent of eligible voters, and no serious violence was reported. Five days later, the National Election Commission (NEC)—responsible for Sierra Leone’s entire voting system, from biometric registration to counting—announced that President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party (APC) was re-elected to another five-year term. Since Koroma received more than 55 percent of the ballots cast, the run-off election some anticipated was not necessary.

His main opponent, former military leader Julius Bio Maada of The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), received 37 percent of the vote while seven other presidential candidates split roughly 5 percent. Local races, from councilors and mayors to parliament seats, also comprised the election.

The SLPP leadership, which has traded political power with the APC since 1961, refused to recognized the overall election results and called for its winning parliamentarians and council members to boycott the government until an “independent international assessment” of the voting can be done.

This was a slap at the NEC and its apparent lack of interest in addressing SLPP complaints of election fraud—including charges of APC ballot-stuffing and vote-buying. The NEC has noted the complaints on its website, asking for the accusers to provide solid proof.

The United Nations chief observer Richard Howitt, who lauded the election as peaceful and transparent, acknowledged reports of APC bribery at several polling stations. But cases of tampering in some districts, according to Howitt, have been the “exception, not a trend.” The chief observer did admit that the ruling APC held a strong advantage in campaign resources and media airtime.

Indeed, the majority of English-language press outlets that cover Sierra Leone back the current administration —some more subtly (The Sierra Leone Times, This Is Sierra Leone) than others (Cocorioko, “Sierra Leone’s biggest and most-widely read newspaper”). The most outspoken English-language outlet supporting the opposition SLPP (that doesn’t formally bill itself as SLPP) has been the Sierra Leone Telegraph. (Read a critique of Sierra Leone’s media during the 2012 election here.)

But polarization in the Sierra Leone media—obviously exaggerated during election season, as in the developed world—only represents more problematic political divisions. Voting is generally done by blocs, not by individuals, who benefit from a patronage system that resembles the special interest groups of First World lobbies. From Think Africa Press

The APC draws majority support from the Temne, Limba and other northern tribes, and Krios of the Western Area, while the SLPP are favoured by the Mende and tribes of the southeast. Elections are regarded as “winner takes all” contests with defeat entailing exclusion and disadvantage for the losers, and their regions…. Both parties, when in power, have used their position to fund political campaigns and buy voters. This practice remains widespread. Political parties continue to organise and condone the intimidation of voters, often perpetrated by their youth wings.

Another problem for the frustrated SLPP leadership: Hundreds of international monitors were on the ground, from the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union, the UN and the U.S. Carter Center—some observers had been in-country for months. The consensus? A free and fair election in Sierra Leone. The international community bestowed its legitimacy and the only group crying foul is the losing party—not a particularly objective group.

The NEC, an organization steeped in international money and credibility, is not concerned about the SLPP’s accusations—nor is it beholden to Sierra Leoneans. Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in by the NEC the day after the results were announced, and he has been congratulated by the likes of President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. The 2012 election is over.

Boomtown

In spite of its wealth of mineral deposits, Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries. In 2011 it placed 180 out of 187 on the UN Development Index, which ranks life expectancy (49), maternal mortality (970 per 100,000), income per capita ($340 a year) and adult literacy (41 percent). It is slowly creating an infrastructure—based almost entirely on foreign aid and investment—but roads, running water, electricity, health care and telecommunications are still relatively scarce. The average Sierra Leonean’s lack of education and skills limit potential of individual advancement and societal growth, particularly by Western metrics.

And yet according to Businessweek, Sierra Leone has the fastest growing economy in Africa.

Sierra Leone’s $2.2 billion economy will expand 21 percent this year and 7.5 percent in 2013, fueled by diamond mining and iron-ore production by London-based African Minerals Ltd. (AMI) and London Mining Plc (LOND), according to the International Monetary Fund [IMF]. Foreign direct investment soared to $3 billion so far this year from $200 million in 2007, Koroma said in an interview … on Nov. 10.

A UN Security Council report in August had the IMF projecting “extraordinary growth of 35.9 percent in gross domestic product in 2012″ and a Chinese steel company pouring in $1.5 billion.

Earlier in November, a major US evaluator of good governance (to encourage public and private investment) gave the international community a new green light to do business in Sierra Leone. Freetown sent this press release:

The Government of Sierra Leone is pleased to inform the general public, development partners, civil society groups and the media that on November 7th 2012 Sierra Leone passed the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scorecard for the first time since the international ratings initiative was established in 2004. The MCC is a United States government aid agency that gives funds to low income countries as a reward for good governance. The decision on which countries to give funds to is based on annual performance scorecards consisting of 20 indicators that measure social, political and economic issues.

This news was not picked up by the British press (who regularly cover West Africa), despite the fact that Sierra Leone did not pass the MCC score card in 2011. Perhaps this information didn’t gel with the media narrative, which hyped the election as tight and warned of political violence. The blurb-style coverage in the West rehashed the civil war from a decade ago and never went without the “Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1.25 a day” factoid. Meanwhile, Freetown had improved, within the year, in MCC categories including Freedom of Information, Girls Primary Education Completion Rate and Trade Policy—yet fell short in Natural Resource Protection and Inflation.

Though the mining industry has boomed, and oil exploration is looming, foreign industrial development has not improved the lives of most Sierra Leoneans. But there is potential for Chinese agriculture funding and hope that prolonged peace can build tourism. The promotion of the concept of free and fair elections has been crucial for private investment, which President Koroma is keen to get.

The NEC Goes International

Ernest Bai Koroma was an insurance broker in 2001—a smart businessman who took advantage of postwar restructuring to win the APC’s presidential nomination in a stunning 2002 upset. (He went on to be defeated handily by SLPP incumbent Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.) In 2007, as minority leader of the All People’s Congress, he defeated the vice president of the SLPP, which had been in power for most of the last decade (when not interrupted by coups).

The NEC played an important role in Koroma’s victory. Though a National Election Commission had been enshrined in the 1991 Sierra Leone constitution, the United Nations effectively made it over as an independent organization in 2005, disconnecting it from the national government. In 2006, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, a former government minister with an impeccable human rights résumé, was named Chief Electoral Officer. (During the 1991–2002 civil war, she was politically and socially active and helped found the Sierra Leonean chapter of Forum for African Women Educationalists [FAWE]. She received various international honors, such as the “Voices of Courage” in 2006.) An impartial, independent NEC, seen as above party loyalty and headed by a respected humanitarian, lent the Commission legitimacy going into the 2007 election.

The 2007 presidential election, not this year’s contest, was the true test of Sierra Leone’s national fortitude (despite the media’s natural inclination to exaggerate this November’s historical significance). Just five years after the war, it was the first election to occur without thousands of UK troops deployed. Buoyed by plenty of funding and technical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and international donors, Thorpe and the NEC saw to it that the election was given a worldwide stamp of approval as free, fair and generally nonviolent.

The peaceful transfer of power from the Sierra Leone People’s Party to the All People’s Congress in 2007 was a watershed in the nation’s existence. However, it was a controversial NEC ruling that put Koroma and the APC in charge. Implying ballot-stuffing and underage voting, Thorpe’s group announced the annullment of ballots in 477 polling stations where “instances in which greater than 100 percent turnout was reported,” in and around SLPP-held regions such as Kailehun and Kenema (see the National Democratic Institute report).

From one perspective, the action solidified the NEC’s status as an objective institution—after all, outgoing president of the SLPP, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, installed Thorpe as chairwoman. That the NEC acted against the party in power could also be seen as adding to its credibility. The UNDP and the international donors were obviously counting on this view. The other perspective, held today by many in the SLPP, is that the NEC stole the election.

Thorpe was widely hailed for the successful election and won the 2009 German Africa peace prize, which augmented her reputation on the international stage. (Read an interview with her here).

To prepare for 2012 election season, Thorpe and the NEC implemented Biometric Voting Registration (BVR), which started recording fingerprints and faces in January. Critics, citing that a majority of Sierra Leoneans live on dollars a day, questioned the program’s cost-efficiency, as well as its potential for technical malfunctions and abuse. But BVR was funded by the UNDP and international donors, which had sunk $40 million into the Commission, and the new form of registration has not come up as an issue.

Another money problem stoked political ire against the NEC when it substantially raised the registration fees for opposition candidates. The smaller parties took Thorpe to task for “incompetence, poor planning, and deliberate attempts to frustrate the oppositions’ chances,” as the Sierra Leone Telegraph editorialized. When President Koroma offered to subsidize the other candidate registration fees, he raised more ethical questions. The international community condemned the move and fees were eventually lowered.

Former Colonizer Makes Good

The United Kingdom became conspicuously involved with its former West African colony when it sent several thousand troops to end Sierra Leone’s extended, sporadic civil war—made possible by Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s lucrative-metals mining, among other things—from 1991 to 2002. The war, which went through many phases with half a dozen factions, became known globally for creating “conflict diamonds” and for the hacking off of limbs by the rebel forces. Between 50 and 75 thousand people died with thousands more dismembered and millions displaced.

In 2000, with United Nations peacekeepers captured by rebel militias and Freetown in danger once again, Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered military operations to evacuate European and British citizens. The mission was quickly expanded by commanders on the ground who secured the capital and airport. Subsequently the British committed to stabilizing the country through counterinsurgency methods and rebuilding the Sierra Leone Army. Along with the paratroopers and special forces came dozens of development and reconstruction agencies to implement various aid packages. The Brits revived Sierra Leone and, along with the UN and thousands of troops, saw the nation through to the May 2002 presidential elections: President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP defeated Ernest Bai Koroma in a landslide.

Blair—blessed by counterinsurgency success and arguably responsible for a new peace and development regime—was considered a hero by many Sierra Leoneans and retained a connection to the land. During his last visit as prime minister in 2007 (a few months before the election), he began work on his African Governance Initiative to promote private investment. He returned to meet with President Koroma and encourage tourism in 2008 and again in 2009.

Blair has praised the good work of Koroma on several occasions, and wrote in 2010: “Since [his 2007 election victory] has taken on the challenges faced by his country, one by one.”

After Blair labeled Koroma a “visionary leader” of Africa, Sierra Leone People’s Party presidential candidate Julius Bio Maada called Blair out (as he’d done before) for picking sides. Maada wrote at the Huffington Post in January 2012

If our President is to be believed, then Sierra Leone is booming. Supported by Tony Blair and international lobbyists, he has taken this message around the world. But good PR is no substitute for the truth…..

For ordinary Sierra Leoneans, life has become much harder. Rice, flour and fish—the essential foodstuffs of our people—have doubled in cost since 2007. Fuel prices have rocketed. Five million Sierra Leoneans remain in desperate poverty. This decline is in contradiction to a government that portrays itself as spearheading an economic boom.

Conclusion

International intervention has reset Sierra Leone on a hopeful path. A string of transparent and peaceful elections are an appropriate and welcome metric of progress. Also, it is important that the reduction in outside government aid and development funds due to the global financial collapse be offset by private enterprise where beneficial. Yet in the drive to make Sierra Leone safe for foreign investment and capital development—in part by creating an international election apparatus—there is a danger of leaving the ordinary Sierra Leonean with no recourse against Freetown’s champions of Western growth.

Michael Quiñones is the editor of The New Context, an online journal of international affairs at the New School .

Tunisia’s Labor-Led Siliana Uprising Honors the Memory of Labor Leader Farhat Hached

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Siliana and the Farhat Hached Legacy

Farhat Hached.

Farhat Hached.

Sixty years ago on this date, December 5, 1952, Farhat Hached, legitimately considered the key founder and father of the independent Tunisian trade union movement, was assassinated by agents of French colonialism. But the movement that he was so instrumental in creating and shaping, the Union General des Travailleurs Tunisien (UGTT), remains vibrant, fighting for workers’ rights, fair wages and social justice today as it did in those now long gone, last dark and painful days of French colonial rule. Nationwide commemorative activities were planned to mark the occasion.

But it is not for nothing that 60 years later, through all of Tunisia’s years as an independent country, through the Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s years, that it has been impossible to snuff out the memory of Farhat Hached. He’s too much a part of his country’s history. Farhat Hached was the son of a fisherman from the Kerkennah islands, 12 miles off the coast of Sfax, a poor island chain, ‘the periphery of the periphery’. He made history. Sixty years after his death, he’s still making it.

There was no better way to celebrate Hached’s heritage than the way it was done in Siliana, Tunisia, a town ninety miles southwest of the capitol Tunis. There, for five days, classically militant Tunisian youth – those same folks whose righteous wrath overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship two years ago – took to the streets with the local members of the UGTT. For five days tens of thousands of them stood strong in the streets of Siliana, facing down units of the Tunisian military sent by the Ennahda-led government to crush their moment. The military open fired with bird shot, wounding 200 and if the reports are accurate, permanently blinding at least 17 youth.

But when physical confrontation ended and the UGTT called off the demonstrations, it was the government, shaken to its core, that was forced to concede, and not the workers. A few days before the sixtieth anniversary of Hached’s assassination, and with the shadow of the self-immolated Sidi Bouzid youth Mohammed Bouazizi also haunting them, the three-party coalition transition Tunisian government blinked first, backed off and agreed to the UGTT demands that the district’s governor be sacked and that a state jobs program be implemented to address the nagging socio-economic crisis facing not only Siliana, but the whole country.

The labor-led Siliana uprising was more than just a spontaneous expression of anger and frustration. It was much more. It was a reminder that massive youth unemployment, low wages combined with classic ‘structural adjustment take-aways’ were among the key contributing factors to the revolt which brought down Ben Ali and forced him and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, to flee the country on January 14, 2011. It was a protest against the government’s dilly-dallying, its fixation with shifting Tunisian society in a more religious direction while coming up empty (or almost so) in efforts to address the country’s appalling poverty and unemployment. It was a protest against the social polarization between rich and poor, between the urban centers and the more rural areas, which again has hardly been addressed since Ben Ali fled the country. At Siliana, the Ennahda-led transition government, one that has continued in the tradition of the neoliberal economic policies of the Ben Ali administration in its main lines, took a sharp blow.

And make no mistake – Siliana was a warning to the transition government – nothing less: get serious about dealing with the country’s genuine problems, or face the consequences – that, failing that ‘the people’ will sweep you from power as they did Ben Ali. The message was unambiguous: time to get back to the basics – to resolving the socioeconomic crisis, the crisis in democracy which had triggered the 2010-2011 social explosion in the first place. Siliana sent another message to the Tunisia’s government: that the UGTT, as it was when Farhat Hached was using his extraordinary talent as a labor organizer, remains a force with which to be reckoned.

Farhat Hached, watching all this, from his vantage point above, must be smiling. Looking down from above, he raises his fist in solidarity with the youth and trade unionists of Silliana.

La Main Rouge Assassinates Farhat Hached

On December 5, 1952, on the road to Rades, Farhad Hached was gunned down by a French para-military hit squad called La Main Rouge (The Red Hand) in an operation which all signs suggest was run by the French résident général, Jean de Hautecloque, a hard-line colonial administrator sent to Tunisia to break the back of the growing pro-independence movement. The murder took place in two stages. First, a car pulled up alongside of Hached’s; two gunmen on the passenger side opened fire, severely wounding him and drove off. Hached was still able to get out of his car alive. But then a second car stopped; gunmen got out and finished Hached off with bullets to the brain. Hached left a devastated 22-year-old wife and four young children: the oldest Nour-eddine, who would become Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States and Japan, was eight years old; his youngest Samira, who would never know her father, only eight months old.

According to an account in a recently published biography of Mahmoud El Materi, one of the founders of Tunisia’s Neo-Destour – ‘New Constitutional’ Party, (Mahmoud El Materi: Pionnier de la Tunisie Moderne by Anissa El Materi Hached. Sud Editions, Tunis: 2011), Hached’s assassination provoked angry demonstrations far and wide throughout the Arab World and Europe at the time. Trade unionists in Casablanca, in a number of Algerian cities and elsewhere throughout the world demonstrated for over a week following the assassination. A street in Casablanca bears his name as do numerous schools, hospitals and streets throughout Tunisia. Other ‘Red Hand’ assassinations of Tunisian nationalist leaders followed: Hedi Chaker, head of the Neo-Destourian Party in Sfax was also killed as was Chadly Kastalli, vice president of the Tunis Municipality and close to the pro-nationalist Moncef Bey. But none of these assassinations achieved their goal of derailing the nationalist movement and utterly destroying the Union General des Travailleurs Tunisiens – the UGTT as it was already commonly referred to and still is today. To the contrary, in the aftermath of Hached’s death, the movement for national independence from French colonial domination stiffened and would lead a mere four years later to Tunisian independence, in which Hached himself had been a major player.

The Man From Kerkennah

Sixty years after his murder, Farhat Hached remains nothing short of a much-loved national Tunisian hero of the anti-colonial movement. Hached was one of the least factional figures of his day during a period when factionalism was rife. His eyes were always ‘on the prize’ – independence from France, although he never lived to see the end of the French Protectorate in Tunisia that he helped to discredit and ultimately defeat. While time – and historical revelations – have tended to puncture the halos atop the heads of many of the country’s nationalist icons, Hached’s contribution and reputation remain intact. Hached’s family along with several French human rights groups are suing the French government both for an apology and for the release of classified government documents related to the case.

Farhad Hached was born on Kerkennah, a small chain of fishing village islands off the coast of Sfax in 1914. In 1929, forced to leave school at the age of 15 and seek employment because of his father’s death, Hached found work in Sousse, some miles up the coast halfway between Sfax and Tunis with la Société du transport du Sahel (the Sahel Transportation Company) as a mail courier (convoyeur). Almost immediately some of his other talents surfaced. He wasted no time in organizing a union of transport workers, which affiliated with the France-based Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT). Hached’s union activities continued and soon he became active beyond the transport workers and involved in regional and national union organizing drives, for which, eventually in 1939 he was fired.

Difficult years followed during World War II, when Tunisia was ruled by Vichy French and temporarily occupied by the Nazis until British and US armies liberated it in May of 1943. After the liberation, Hached was rehired by the Free French colonial government to direct its Public Works Department in the Sfax region. He immediately went back to union organizing, and now, employed, took the hand of a Kerkennah cousin, Emma Hached. Soon thereafter, Hached broke with the CGT for which he had organized for 15 years. He, and other Tunisian trade unionists were critical of the positions taken within the French union by socialists and communists who ignored – and did not support – the Tunisian call for independence from France. Now the Tunisian trade union movement would be then and forever, standing on its own Tunisian feet, finding its own way.

The split was significant as it marks the beginning of an independent Tunisian trade union movement with its own leadership and a cadre split off from the colonial center in Paris. Hached’s experience, having ‘grown up’ politically and as a union organizer within the CGT (as either a member or supporter of the French Communist Party – I do not know the exact details here) was by no means unique. Another North African, whose evolution paralleled Hached’s is the Algerian trade unionist and anti-colonial militant Messali Hadj.

Soon after the split from the CGT, Hached, in concert with other Tunisian trade unionists began the process of bringing together an independent Tunisian national trade union movement. His first effort was to create what was referred to as the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of the South – meaning the south of Tunisia (l’union des syndicats libres du Sud) based upon a three point program: 1. Social Justice 2. Equality between Tunisian and French workers (working in Tunisia) and 3. Support for national independence and an end to French colonial rule. Not long afterwards, he organized, or was involved in organizing, a similar federation in the north of the country which came together in Tunis and shortly thereafter, logically, the two federations merged, in 1946, to form the General Union of Tunisian Workers (l’union generale tunisienne de travail – UGTT).

Hached becomes secretary general of the UGTT at the age of 30

In 1947, at the tender age of 30, Farhat Hached was unanimously elected as secretary general of Tunisia’s independent trade union movement. From the outset, Hached directed the energies of the UGTT ending colonialism and winning independence for Tunisia. Autonomous of French influence and completely independent politically, the trade union movement became one of the main bases for support for the broader nationalist movement led by Habib Bourguiba and his pro-independence Neo-Destour Party. The strikes, demonstrations and agitation for independence from 1946 onward intensified as did the calls by the UGTT to improve the standard of living of Tunisian workers under colonial conditions with all the indignities involved.

As a result of this focused, controlled militant activity, the mood of the country as a whole radicalized. Then in 1949, the UGTT became the Tunisian branch of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), which gave Hached international connections and influence far beyond Tunisia’s borders, including in the United States and Western Europe. At the time there were two main international trade union federations. Besides the ICFTU there existed the Moscow-leaning World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). During much of the Cold War the two confederations were in competition with each other, splitting the international working class movement down the middle and weakening the impact of both.

In a few short years Hached had become an international personality, and as such was able to present the cause of Tunisian independence internationally. That the radical Hached would choose to lead the Tunisian trade union movement into the U.S.-dominated ICFTU rather than the WFTU is interesting. Part of his reasoning most probably was that he wanted to steer the Tunisian trade unions away from the WFTU, where the CGT retained considerable influence and in so doing limiting the influence of French colonialism on the Tunisian labor movement. Along similar lines, the leadership of the Tunisian nationalist movement, and Habib Bourguiba in particular, tried to develop good relations with the United States, both because the Tunisians understood that the United States was the emerging global hegemonic power that could nudge the French to grant Tunisia independence. They were right about that.

Five years later – and a year before he was assassinated – Hached was able to report to a national congress of the UGTT, the progress the movement had made which included:

• The UGTT had grown to embrace 120,000 workers throughout the country.

• It had led an organized and disciplined grass roots movement against the French Occupation.

• The Union had won for Tunisian society as a whole a number of civil rights and constitutional guarantees from the French colonial administration.

• The UGTT had achieved international recognition by its adhesion to the ICFTU of which Hached had been elected to its executive board.

• The creation of the UGTT had encouraged, with Hached’s personal participation, other North African nations under colonial domination (Morocco and Algeria under French domination, Libya ruled by the Italians) to create their own trade union movements independent of their colonial overseers.

• The UGTT had developed its own economic and social vision, civil rights goals that were embraced by the nationalist movement that could provide direction to the nation after independence.

The French Repress the Tunisian Independence Movement

In 1952, hoping to gain a quick independence, the Tunisian national movement opened negotiations with the French government. The negotiations failed and were almost immediately followed by a harsh wave of repression against the movement. The French colonial government in Tunis engaged in a full-scale press to break the back of the independence movement in one fell swoop. Most of the leadership of the independence movement, including Habib Bourguiba, were arrested. A curfew was imposed; all political activity was banned; mass arrests were carried out by the French Foreign Legion.

It was at this moment of full crisis, with the nationalist movement reeling from the repression, that the UGTT stepped forward, picked up the pieces and assumed the leadership of both the political and armed resistance (there was some) against the French authorities. In so doing, it was the trade union movement in general, and its talented leader Farhat Hached that saved the independence movement from collapse. In the face of the wave of repression, and French Colonialism could, when it felt obliged, reveal its fangs in the nastiest of fashions, it was Tunisian trade unionists – its working class – that stood fast, held their ground and continued the struggle for independence as they say ‘on all fronts’.

And for that they paid a price, a terrible price, one hardly acknowledged outside the country. 20,000 trade unionists were arrested and placed in prison and concentration camps, knowing they would face what the French in North Africa excelled at: abuse, torture of an exceedingly refined kind, possible death. Of the 20,000 arrested, 9 were condemned to death and executed, 12 condemned to life imprisonment of forced labor, with many others receiving heavy jail sentences. In protest demonstrations hundreds were killed and wounded.

In a letter that Hached wrote just before his own assassination to secretary general Oldenbroek of the ICFTU, the Tunisia trade union leader comments, “Let us add (to the repression noted above) the 50 assassination attempts against Tunisian militants organized by Le Main Rouge (The Red Hand), French colonial paramilitary terrorist group. ” Others, when released from concentration camps (imagine – only seven years after the defeat of Hitler the French were establishing concentration camps in Tunisia!) were denied employment.

The resistance largely organized by Hached and the UGTT in that crucial year of 1952, in many ways broke the back of French colonialism and set the stage for talks between France and the Tunisian national movement that would, four short years later, result in independence, an independence that Farhat Hached never lived to see but to which he made a considerable contribution. His heritage lives on, in his children and in all Tunisians.

Burma’s Buddhists Determined to De-romanticize Buddhism for West

Monks with gunsDoes any religion in the world have a cleaner rep than Buddhism? With much of its efforts devoted to helping one realizing the divinity within him or her, it’s disinclined to repressive morality or proselytizing. More to the point, much less violence is committed in its name than that of the other great religions. The operative word is “less.”

For instance, Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka committed violence against Christians and Tamils. Even worse, during World War II, the Buddhist establishment — even Zen — cooperated, for the most part, with the militaristic Japanese regime. For more, read Buddhist Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2010) by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer.

Recently Burmese Buddhists — incited by monks, no less — have been conducting violent attacks against the Muslim Rohingyas with whom they share the Rakhine district, which borders Sri Lanka, from where the latter emigrate. Robert Fuller reports for the New York Times.

The Buddhist monastery on the edge of this seaside town is a picture of tranquillity, with novice monks in saffron robes finding shade under a towering tree and their teacher, U Nyarna, greeting a visitor in a sunlit prayer room.

But in these placid surroundings Mr. Nyarna’s message is discordant, and a far cry from the Buddhist precept of avoiding harm to living creatures. Unprompted, Mr. Nyarna launches into a rant against Muslims, calling them invaders, unwanted guests and “vipers in our laps.”

“According to Buddhist teachings we should not kill,” Mr. Nyarna said. “But when we feel threatened we cannot be saints.”

As if, Mr. Nyarna, there isn’t a world of difference between simply not being a saint and advocating ethnic cleansing. Earlier this month, at Reuters, Jason Szep and Andrew R.C. Marshall detailed some of the violence.

Tuesday [October 22] began with a massacre. … By 7 a.m. … hundreds of Rakhine arrived on boats to surround [the village of] Yin Thei, said a resident contacted by telephone. By late afternoon, the Muslim villagers were fending off waves of attacks. The resident said children, including two of his young cousins, were killed by sword-wielding Rakhines. Most houses were burned down. … A Yin Thei villager telephoned Musi Dula’s neighbours and said police were shooting at them. Another farmer nervously told Reuters how he watched from afar as police opened fire from the village’s western edge, also at about 5 p.m.

The official death toll is five Rakhines and 51 Muslims killed at Yin Thei, including 21 Muslim women, said a senior police officer in Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar. He denied security forces opened fire or abetted the mobs. … As Yin Thei burned, the last of nearly 4,000 Rohingya Muslims were fleeing the large port town of Pauktaw, in a dramatic exodus by sea that had begun five days earlier.

Returning to the Times article, Fuller writes, “the country’s leading liberal voice and defender of the downtrodden, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been circumspect in her comments about the violence.” For their part, Szep and Marshall write that Suu Kyi’s “studied neutrality has failed to defuse tensions and risks undermining her image as a unifying moral force. Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, says she refuses to take sides.” [Emphasis added.]

Besides that she’s a Buddhist, how does she justify her silence? Seasoned Burma watcher and activist Roland Watson speculates. In April of this year he wrote:

It is difficult to fathom her actions, but a number of explanations are possible, including: She didn’t know how bad the Tatmadaw [Burma's army] was treating the ethnic groups; … she censored herself; she thinks the problems that the ethnic nationalities have are their own fault (as many Burmans [the majority ethnic group] believe) … or, she noticed that since the international community ignored the atrocities it was safe for her to do so as well. (Of note, the United States, her close advisor, for two decades only backed her and refused to acknowledge the regime’s war crimes.)

During his recent visit, writes Fuller, President Obama at least made a nod to violence against the Rohingyas.

Mr. Obama spent a considerable portion of a speech at Yangon University focusing on the importance of diversity, singling out the “danger” of the Rakhine situation and telling his audience “there is no excuse for violence against innocent people.”

But (Fuller again), like Suu Kyi, Burma’s President Thein Sein keeps the issue at arms length.

… President Thein Sein told a visiting delegation from the United Nations in July that only Muslims who have been in the country for at least three generations would be allowed citizenship. The rest were a “threat to the peace of the nation,” he said, and would be put in camps and sent abroad. The United Nations rejected the idea, saying that it was not in the business of creating refugees.

Diplomats say that Mr. Thein Sein has retreated from that position and is now talking about resettling displaced Muslim populations inside the country. He sent a letter to the United Nations just before Mr. Obama’s visit saying that once passions cooled he would “address contentious political dimensions, ranging from resettlement of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But he offered no details or time frame.

Let’s return to Mr. Nyarna, who has a talent for putting his foot in his mouth, who said

… many Muslims do not “practice human morals” and should be sent to Muslim countries to be among “their own kind.”

Clearly, even some Buddhists need a refresher course in “human morals.”

The U.S. and Central & South Asia: Four More Years

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Conn Hallinan has been outlining and analyzing them. His first two reports covered the Middle East and Africa.

From the ice-bound passes of the Hindu Kush to the blazing heat of the Karakum Desert, Central Asia is a sub-continent steeped in illusion. For more than two millennia conquerors have been lured by the mirage that it is a gateway to immense wealth: China to the east, India to the south, Persia to the west, and to the north, the riches of the Caspian basin. Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, British, and Soviets have all come and gone, leaving behind little more than forgotten graveyards and the detritus of war.

Americans and our NATO allies are next.

It is a cliché that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, but a cliché doesn’t mean something is not true, just that it is repeated over and over again until the phrase becomes numbing. It is a tragedy that the US was “numb” to that particular platitude, although we have company. In the past 175 years England has invaded Afghanistan four times.

Our 2001 invasion was itself built on a myth—that the Taliban had attacked the US on 9/11 was fabricated to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq 17 months later. That both invasions turned into disasters is hardly surprising. Rudyard Kipling and TE Lawrence predicted those outcomes more than a 100 years ago.

Most of all, the war has been a calamity for the Afghan people. The country has staggered through more than 30 years of war. According to a recent UN survey, conditions for Afghans in the southern part of the country are desperate. Some one-third of the area’s young children—one million under the age of five—are acutely malnourished. “What’s shocking is that this is really high by global standards,” Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission to Afghanistan, told the Guardian (UK). “This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa, and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance.”

The area in question embraces Kandahar and Helmand, the two provinces targeted by Washington’s 2009 troop surge. That the provinces have widespread malnutrition and are still deeply restive—both are among the most dangerous areas in the country—is a commentary on the futility of the entire endeavor.

The question is, what now? How the White House answers that will go a long way toward determining whether Afghanistan can begin to extricate itself from its long, national nightmare, or once again collapse into civil war that could destabilize the entire region.

There are a couple of truths the White House will need to absorb.

First, there can be no “residual” force left in the country. Right now the Obama administration is trying to negotiate a status force agreement that will allow it to keep anywhere from 6,000 to 15,000 troops in the country to train the Afghan army and pursue al-Qaeda. Such an agreement would exempt US forces from local laws, and is a non-starter for Afghans from the get go. The Taliban and their allies—in particular the highly effective and quite lethal group, the Haqqanis—will not allow it, and insisting that US troops remain in the country will guarantee the war continues. If there is one truth in Afghanistan, it is that the locals don’t cotton to outsiders.

Nor are the regional neighbors very enthusiastic about having the American military in residence next door. Since those neighbors—specifically Iran, China, Pakistan and Russia—will be central to any final settlement, one does not want to annoy them. It doesn’t take much effort to derail a peace process in Afghanistan.

As for al-Qaeda, it doesn’t exist in Afghanistan, and it is even a specter of its former self in Pakistan. In any case, the Taliban and its allies are focused on local issues, not worldwide jihad, and pose no threat to the US or NATO. Indeed, way back in 2007, Mullah Omar, leader of the Afghan Taliban, pledged that the organization would not interfere in the affairs of any other country.

The White House can get the ball rolling by finally closing down Guantanamo and releasing its Taliban prisoners. Pakistan has already started its prisoner release. Washington must also stop its aggressive use of drones and Special Forces to pursue Taliban leaders. These so-called “night raids” and drone assassinations are not only provocative, but make any final agreement more difficult to negotiate. The US has already decapitated much of Taliban’s mid-level leadership, which, in turn, has atomized the organization into scores of local power centers. In fact, that decentralization may make reaching a final agreement much more difficult, because no single person or group of people will be empowered to negotiate for local Taliban affiliates.

In the long run the war will most likely be resolved the way most things end in Afghanistan: in a compromise. For all their war-like reputation, Afghans really excel in the art of the deal. The Taliban will be part of the government, but all the scare talk about Islamic extremists sweeping into power is exaggerated. The Taliban are mostly based in the Pashtun-dominated south and east, and they will remain the biggest players in Helmand, Kandahar and Paktika provinces. But Pashtuns only make up a plurality in the country—about 42 percent—and will have to compromise with the other major ethnic groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Even when the Taliban ruled the country it never succeeded in conquering northern Afghanistan, and it has less support today than it did then.

One major danger comes from US support for local militias that do nothing to control the Taliban, but are quite successful at building up provincial warlords and protecting the opium trade (harvests increased 18 percent over a year ago). The Soviets followed exactly the same path, one that eventually led to the devastating 1992-96 civil war.

In short, the US needs to get out, and as quickly as possible. Its NATO allies have already boarded that train—the French are leaving a year early, the Dutch are gone, and the Brits are bunkered down—and prolonging the war is more likely to end in a debacle than any outcome favored by Washington. It is not our country, we don’t get to determine its history. That is a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam, but apparently did not.

The future of Afghanistan is linked to Pakistan, where current US policy is in shambles. A recent poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis considered Washington an enemy. Many attribute those figures to the deeply unpopular American drone war that has killed scores of civilians. The drones have definitely made a bad situation worse, but the dispute goes deeper than missile-toting Predators and Reapers. Pakistan is legitimately worried about its traditional opponent in the region, India, and Islamabad views Afghanistan as part of its “strategic depth”—a place to which to retreat in case of an attack by the much stronger Indian Army. Given that Pakistan has lost four wars with its southern neighbor, paranoia about the outcome of a fifth is understandable.

Instead of showing sensitivity to this concern, Washington has encouraged India to invest in Afghanistan, which it has done to the tune of over $2 billion. India even has paramilitary forces deployed in southern Afghanistan. Further, the Obama administration has taken Kashmir off the table, in spite of the fact that, in the run-up to the 2008 elections, Obama promised to seek a solution to the long-running conflict. Dropping Kashmir was a quid pro quo for a growing alliance between New Delhi and Washington aimed at containing an up and coming China.

But Kashmir is far too dangerous to play the role of a regional pawn. India and Pakistan came very close to a nuclear war over the area in the 1999 Kargil incident, and both countries are currently accelerating their nuclear weapons programs. Pakistani and Indian military leaders have been distressingly casual about the possibility of a nuclear war between the two countries. Rather than actively discouraging a nuclear arms race, Washington has made it easier for New Delhi to obtain fuel for its nuclear weapons programs, in spite of the fact that India refuses—along with Pakistan—to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As with agreeing to mute concerns over Kashmir, the US’s waver of the NNPT is part of Washington’s campaign to woo India into an alliance against China. A nuclear exchange between the two South Asian countries would not only be a regional catastrophe, but would have a worldwide impact.

Independent of the dangers Kashmir poses for the region and the world, its people should have the right to determine their own future, be it joining Pakistan, India, or choosing the path of independence. A UN-sponsored referendum would seem the obvious way to let Kashmir’s people take control of their own destiny.

For starters, however, the US should demand that New Delhi accept a 2004 Indian government commission’s recommendation to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which Human Rights Watch calls “a tool of state abuse, oppression and discrimination.” The Special Powers Act was first created to control Catholics in Northern Ireland and then applied across Britain’s colonial empire. It is used today by Israel in the Occupied Territories and India in Kashmir. It allows for arrests without warrants, indefinite detainments, torture, and routine extra-judicial killings.

Washington’s fixation with lining up allies against China has also seen the US cut corners on human rights issues in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Indonesia. But recreating a version of the old Cold War alliance system in the region is hardly in the interests of Central and South Asians—or Americans, for that matter. India and Pakistan do not need more planes, bombs and tanks. They need modernized transport systems, enhanced educational opportunities, and improved public health. The same can be said for Americans.

There was a time when countries in Central and South Asia were responsible for much of world’s wealth and productive capacity. In 1750, India produced 24.5 percent of the world’s manufactured goods. England, in contrast, produced 1.9 percent. By 1850, the world had turned upside down, as colonialism turned—or to use the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term, “de-evolved”—India from a dynamic world leader to an economic satrap of London. The region is emerging from its long, colonial nightmare, and it does not need—indeed, cannot afford—to be drawn into alliances designed half a world away. It is time to bring the 21st century’s version of “the Great Game” to an end.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Hamas Helped, Israel Handicapped by Threats to Their Respective Publics

On Wednesday November 21, under an Egypt-brokered deal, Palestinians and Israelis agreed to end all hostilities against each other after eight days of relentless Israeli attacks on the coastal enclave. Israel also agreed to open all crossings and facilitate the movement of people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip. But it did not accept a proposal to lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Over 160 Palestinians, mostly women and children, were killed and about 1,200 others were injured in over 1,500 Israeli attacks on Gaza that were carried out during the eight-day period of November 14-21. It is too early to tell whether the ceasefire will hold for very long, and if it does, whether its central provisions will be implemented.

For those who still remember the Israeli attack on Gaza four years ago and the slaughter of Palestinian civilians and the repeated violation of ceasefire agreement by the Israelis, the current ceasefire should hold no hope, especially as we have begun to notice similar patterns of violations taking place again. Looking back four years, to the end of ‘Cast Lead’ and since then and up to the beginning of last Israeli attack, 271 Palestinians, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, have been assassinated by Israeli air strikes, by drones, by planes, by helicopters and ZERO Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets.

Israel has already used excessive violence to disperse Palestinian civilians who gathered on the Gaza side of the border, with a few straying across into Israel, to celebrate what they thought was their new freedom now to venture close to the border. This so-called ‘no-go-area’ was decreed by Israel after its 2005 ‘disengagement’ had been a killing field where 213, including 17 children and 154 uninvolved, had lost their lives. Only in the last few days, Israeli security forces, after firing warning shots, killed one Palestinian civilian and wounded another 20 others with live ammunition. Despite this note of pessimism there are a number of fundamental differences between the situation in Gaza and Hamas fighters in Gaza in 2012 compared to 2008.

First, the change of dynamics resulting from the Arab Spring and change in Egypt. The two regional countries that the U.S. needs badly to act as interlocutors, and isolate Hamas — Turkey and Egypt — are arguably right now the closest and most important allies of Hamas. Israel is more isolated than Hamas and has fewer friends. Even the British Foreign secretary, who under normal circumstances is only good for rubber stamping whatever Israelis does, this time took a cautionary approach and did not offer any support for a ground invasion.

The fact that Israel cannot count on diplomatic support from U.S.-oriented regimes such as Mubarak of Egypt creates a new dynamic in the Middle East and puts far greater pressure on Israeli leaders to be more realistic in their approach to the peace process. This generates a better environment for a more realistic and pragmatic approach to finding a longer lasting, and more permanent peace in the Middle East.

The second difference in my assessment is Hamas’ acquisition of more sophisticated weapons dealt a serious blow to Israeli morale. These long-range missiles allowed Hezbollah in Lebanon during the 2006 Israeli war not only to secure itself against Israeli aggression, most importantly: it created a more symmetrical confrontation by taking the war into cities in the occupied territories that had been immune from any attack for a long time.

The attack on Tel Aviv soon after the first Israeli attack on Gaza in the latest war, not only was a shock to the political leadership in the Israeli government, it heralded a new chapter in the relation between the freedom fighters in Gaza and the Israeli occupying forces. These weapons turned the table of confrontation with Israel in favor of Gaza and made another Israeli victim feel bold enough, if not fully secure, to confront it with a real sting.

One does not need a complicated analysis to conclude that if the fighters in Gaza have gained access to missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, then they must have acquired anti-tank weapons similar to those that were used by Hezbollah in 2006 with devastating consequences for the Israeli tank divisions and especially for Markova 4 tanks that the Israelis had invested so much in constructing an image of invincibility around it globally.

It became clear soon after the 2006 war with Lebanon that the Achilles heel of the Israelis was the fear factor that demoralized its population. The fact that, in 2012 as in 2006, it was Israel who proposed the truce, clearly indicate that for the military leaders in Israel, a scared population is not the same as the dead Gazans are for Hamas – scared populations would sap the shaky morale in Israel even further, while for the freedom fighters in Gaza, innocent civilian casualties energize them to go an extra-mile to avenge.

Like the 2006 war, the underdog, Hamas, comes out of this confrontation in much more favorable status than the Zionist regime in Tel Aviv. Despite all the military shields, Hamas was able, even in the last hours of the conflict, to attack Israel. This has certainly enhanced Hamas’s prestige among Palestinians and in the Arab world, and, in a ‘zero sum gain’ relationship, any gain of prestige by Hamas by necessity implies a loss for the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas. It will be more difficult than ever to bolster the Fatah leadership on the West Bank as Hamas grows in stature.

The third outcome of this war is political recognition given to Hamas leadership by a number of Arab leaders. During the attacks several leading foreign ministers from the region visited Gaza and were received by the Hamas governing authorities, thus undermining the Israeli policy of isolating Hamas and excluding it from participation in diplomacy affecting the Palestinian people. As Richard Falk has stated:

. . . throughout this just concluded feverish effort to establish a ceasefire, Hamas was treated as if ‘a political actor’ with sovereign authority to speak on behalf of the people living in Gaza. Such a move represents a potential sea change, depending on whether there is an effort to build on the momentum achieved or a return to the futile and embittering Israeli/U.S. policy of excluding Hamas from diplomatic channels by insisting that no contact with a terrorist organization is permissible or politically acceptable.

The most important outcome of the latest attack has been the strengthening of the argument that the existence of more parity in the region would undermine the hawkish and belligerent Israeli position that so far, with the overt and covert support of the US, has not agreed to implement any treaties agreed upon in the previous negotiations and by implication would lead to a softening of such a position making a long term resolution of this conflict more likely. I hope this realization would lead to less saber rattling about attacking Iran.

Like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas has punched a big hole in Israel’s overinflated air ego balloon sending the military leaders to the drawing board. This may be an opportune moment for the peace lovers in the region to become more active. They may be able to prevent this carnage from being repeated again.

Ibrahim Kazerooni, originally from Iraq, is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog.

Theft Is Not the Only Threat Militants Pose to Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons

Earlier this month the Stimson Center issued a report by George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled The Non-Unitary Model and Deterrence Stability in South Asia. The daunting title notwithstanding, the paper is not only readable for the general reader, but spellbinding for nuclear-weapons specialists. Hint: “non-unitary” in this context means a nation which fails to demonstrate a “tight, coherent line of authority” over hostilities emanating from that state — in this instance, Pakistan. Though I haven’t quite finished reading the 22-page report, the excitement it generates has spurred me to get a jump start on posting about it.

To being with, it’s doubtful that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are at serious risk of being purloined by Islamist extremist militants. At this time, the greater nuclear risk to which it’s subject, as Perkovich sees it, is the confusion that India experiences when, for example, its parliament was attacked in New Delhi in 2001 and during the Mumbai 2008 assault. Thus the nuclear deterrence model, which, according to conventional thinking [this author, for one, has his reservations], worked for the United States and Russia may not be universally applicable. Why not? Perkovich writes:

… when it comes to functions as portentous and centrally controlled as initiating and managing warfare between nuclear-armed states, it is generally assumed that a tight, coherent line of authority operates approximately in ways consistent with the unitary model. If a state is not functioning as a unitary actor, or claims not to be when it is convenient, or is not perceived to be by those who seek to deter it, the implications for deterrence stability are profound.

Specifically …

When India is attacked by actors [Islamic extremists militants] emanating from Pakistan and with ties to Pakistani intelligence services, it naturally infers that such actions represent the intentions and policies of Pakistani authorities.

The result:

The projection of violence from Pakistan [by non-state actors] into India means that deterrence (through non-nuclear means as well as nuclear) has failed to prevent aggression. The task then remains for India to threaten or undertake punishment to compel Pakistan to redress the offense and to deter Pakistan from repeating it and from escalating the conflict. If Pakistan does not [seek] to detain and prosecute the perpetrators … pressure mounts for India to demonstrate through force that it will not be deterred from escalating the conflict in self-defense.

Perkovich then provides an example of the confusion that can ensue from attacks by Pakistani non-state actors on India.

For example, while India could perceive that the terrorist attacks it attributes to Pakistan signal Pakistani aggressiveness, Pakistani leaders (and the public) [Subtle point alert! -- RW] could perceive the initial terrorist attacks as a signal that the Pakistani state does not seek a wider conflict but is merely signaling resolve to press India to make political accommodations, in Kashmir or more broadly.

Trickier still …

This signaling process becomes all the more difficult and precarious if the Pakistani leaders who are presumed to be the authors of Pakistan’s signals and actions deny that the perpetrators of the conflict-triggering violence actually do manifest the policies of the state.

Why? Because …

Indian leaders then face a highly unstable dilemma. They could act as if the initial violence reflects the intentions of Pakistan’s chain of command, and send countervailing signals of retaliatory action according to normal models of deterrence, in which greater credibility and righteousness tend to reside with the defender.

This might only confuse Pakistan though. Perkovich explains.

But if Pakistani leaders [themselves] believe or claim that the perpetrators were not carrying out state policies, and India does escalate, Pakistani leaders will feel that India is the aggressor, significantly changing the dynamics of crisis and deterrence stability. “Normal” models of deterrence do not hold in such a situation.

In the end …

… disunity produces dangerous confusion and ambiguity that interfere in the management of deterrence. Who is sending signals through violence that is perceived to be emanating from the state and/or its territory? What is being signaled? … how does one manage deterrence and escalation processes in such a situation? In this latter scenario, disunity erodes the rationality on which deterrence is predicated.

Afghan Military Killings of American Troops Underscores Absurdity of Our Afghan Adventure

In an article for the Los Angeles Times, David Zucchino writes about the incident at Kabul International Airport in April 2011 when an Afghan Air Force colonel killed nine Americans.

The nine killings remain the single deadliest incident among insider attacks that have targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. … Although insider attacks in Afghanistan are persistent — at least 80 attacks and 122 coalition deaths since 2007 — no single incident seems to have registered on the public consciousness in the United States. Few family members of those killed have spoken out.

Until now.

Widows of two of the dead officers [and] retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sally Stenton, a former civilian police investigator who was a legal officer assigned to the airport the day of the attack … have pored over a redacted Air Force report, the Central Command report and a separate Air Force chronology.

They contend that the shooter, Afghan Air Force Col. Ahmed Gul

… had help from fellow Afghan officers. … They point out that 14 Afghans were in the control room when Gul opened fire. None were killed or seriously wounded.

The U.S. Air Force investigation quoted Afghans as saying they fled or took cover when Gul opened fire. The reports, the three women said, indicated the Afghans did not attempt to rescue or treat the wounded advisors.

Furthermore

The three women contend that the [U.S.] Air Force failed to uncover Gul’s radicalization in Pakistan and Kabul — and the vows he made to kill Americans.

Such killings make a senseless war such as Afghanistan that much more so. Questioning the U.S. Air Force may help to make sense out of it, at least it attaches a semblance of honor to the deaths.

Meanwhile, those who lost soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq seek to make sense of their deaths by clinging to the belief that their loved ones died while defending the United States. But many of them know that the Iraq War was unjust and, even if they believe Afghanistan War was warranted, that it has passed its sell-by date. Nothing is more painful than acknowledging the truth of John Kerry’s refrain, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die” in a war.

Should loved ones also eventually acknowledge the fruitlessness and injustice of those wars, some solace still remains. First, soldiers in any war fight, in large part, to protect (and avenge) their squad mates. Second, those who die are, in effect, occupational casualties. However quotidian it may seem, just like work itself, dying on the job has its own inherent dignity.

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