Focal Points Blog

Microcredit on Trial: The Sacking of Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad YunusCross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

It’s final. Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus has been sacked. This week, Yunus lost his last appeal before the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, ending a two-month legal battle over whether he would be permitted to remain at the helm of the Grameen Bank, the pioneering microcredit institution he founded some thirty years ago.

The battle has drawn attention to some key shortcomings of the microcredit movement, with Yunus’s opponents—including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina—going on the offensive. The result has been a curious situation. Many of the criticisms of microcredit are valid and deserve to be aired. Yet the effort to oust Yunus is part of an unwarranted and politically motivated attack. Moreover, when it comes to addressing the for-profit cooptation of the microcredit movement, Yunus is one of the good guys.

Officially, Yunus—who is now seventy—is being dismissed for remaining in his post beyond a mandatory retirement age of sixty for bank directors. But Yunus’ age was not an issue until, in 2007, he charged politicians like Sheikh Hasina with corruption and briefly considered forming his own political party. As the Globe and Mail reports:

He soon backed away from that plan and today he says he wants nothing to do with politics. But many people here believe Sheikh Hasina’s mistrust and anger are unabated, and the allegations against Grameen gave her a convenient opportunity to take out a potential rival.

“Remember that in 2013 the country will again have elections—this is a way to send a message not just to Yunus but to anyone else who might be considering politics,” said Lamia Karim, a Bangladeshi native who teaches at the University of Oregon and has long studied Grameen.

Karim, who regularly brings a clear and critical perspective to the microcredit debate, has a good article here on “The fall of Muhammad Yunus and its consequences for the women of Grameen Bank.”

Another layer of the recent controversy relates to a Norwegian documentary that aired last fall. It charged that Yunus had improperly redirected some $100 million in aid money from the Grameen Bank to a sister organization. However, a government committee cleared Yunus of charges last month, and there was never any accusation that he had embezzled money or personally profited from the transfer.

With regard to current dispute, I think it is evident that Yunus deserves a defense. There have long been criticisms of his management style—complaints that he is a micromanager and that he hasn’t done enough to cultivate leadership that could succeed him. But those are hardly compelling as critiques of the microcredit movement as a whole. And the age-related rationale for forcing Yunus out is clearly a pretext.

That said, while many of the attacks on Yunus himself are unfair, other criticisms of the microcredit movement that have received attention as a result of his ouster are well-founded. The Guardian mentions several of these:

Hasina has accused the Grameen Bank and other microfinance institutions of charging high interest rates and ‘sucking blood from the poor borrowers.’

The attacks on Yunus come at a time when microlending—once hailed as a model that would change the lives of hundreds of millions in the developing world—faces increasing hostility from politicians across the region.

In India, politicians have accused bankers of profiting from the poor and, in some places, have banned further lending or recovery of debts. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, aggressive selling by scores of unregulated microfinance firms has pushed huge numbers of already desperately poor farmers deeply into debt.

I wrote a profile of Yunus in the Fall 2009 issue of Dissent, where I described the context of such criticisms:

Viewed modestly, placed among an assortment of tools for helping the poor, micro-loans can be fruitfully pursued along with other initiatives; in this vein, the progressive governments of Venezuela and Bolivia have each explored options for expanding microcredit as part of their policies for fostering small business. But to the extent that microcredit serves an ideological function—reinforcing the belief that an unrestrained market works to the advantage of even society’s least fortunate—it can prove tragically counterproductive….

As microcredit has spread throughout the world, it has spawned a growing faction of practitioners who contend that micro-lending should not be dependent on donations. In order for it to make a really significant impact, they believe, it must be profitable enough to attract private investment. Seeking to tap mainstream capital markets for their work, the bankers in this school prefer to use the term “microfinance” to describe their efforts. The tension between them and the more socially minded, profit-averse “microcredit” institutions now represents a major conflict in the field.

Some predict that the number of microfinance lenders will soon dwarf the number of institutions operating on some version of the Grameen model. The Economist noted in 2005 that, “some of the world’s biggest and wealthiest banks, including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, HSBC, ING and ABN Amro, are dipping their toes into the water.”….

[A]s the desire of micro-financiers to turn a profit has come into the picture, a heated debate has emerged over the question: What is an acceptable interest rate to charge the poor?

While microcredit is relatively new, usury is very old. A legion of subprime mortgage brokers, credit card companies, payday lenders, and pawnshops have made amply clear that there is nothing inherently beneficent about lending to those of limited means.

The Grameen Bank’s core loans, according to Yunus, are made at a relatively modest interest rate of 20 percent. Those who have looked critically at the issue argue that, after adding taxes, fees, and mandatory savings deductions, and then measuring annual interest rates using the norms of U.S. banking, even Grameen and other socially driven microcredit bodies regularly deal in loans that charge between 30 and 50 percent interest. With for-profit microfinance institutions, the rates can be much higher. In recent years, reporters for Business Week and the New Yorker have pointed to micro-lenders in Mexico who charge interest between 110 and 120 percent.

Compared with the demands of a loan shark exacting 200 or 300 percent interest, these terms might be considered an improvement. But they strain credibility when presented as instruments of poverty relief.

In short, microcredit is not necessarily harmful. But when made an extension of neoliberal market fundamentalism, it certainly is.

You wouldn’t know it from his detractors, but Yunus recognizes this. Among major players in the microcredit world, Yunus has been one of the most vocal about denouncing the movement’s profiteers. In January he wrote a fine op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “Sacrificing Microcredit for Megaprofits.” There he argued:

In the 1970s, when I began working here on what would eventually be called “microcredit,” one of my goals was to eliminate the presence of loan sharks who grow rich by preying on the poor. In 1983, I founded Grameen Bank to provide small loans that people, especially poor women, could use to bring themselves out of poverty. At that time, I never imagined that one day microcredit would give rise to its own breed of loan sharks.

But it has….

To ensure that the small loans would be profitable for their shareholders, [microfinance banks] needed to raise interest rates and engage in aggressive marketing and loan collection. The kind of empathy that had once been shown toward borrowers when the lenders were nonprofits disappeared. The people whom microcredit was supposed to help were being harmed. In India, borrowers came to believe lenders were taking advantage of them, and stopped repaying their loans.

Commercialization has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance, and it indicates a worrying ‘mission drift’ in the motivation of those lending to the poor. Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.

It is uncertain what will happen next to Grameen, and whether future changes will end up benefiting the bank’s poor borrowers. But this much is clear: efforts to vilify Yunus should not obscure his very important warning about microfinance’s alarming wrong turns.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising.

Mercenaries Once Again Operating at the “Tip of the Spear” in Africa

Private Military and Security CompaniesOne has to wonder what the old generation of independence activists in Africa, those who fought for freedom across the continent, would think of the current state of affairs. Over 30 years since the OAU Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa, ‘Modern Day Mercenaries’ are once again operating across the continent. In their current guise, these mercenaries are now known as Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC’s), and while they have evolved from their notorious ancestors in some key (and positive) ways, the lineage is still strong. Fundamentally, these are still armed civilians operating for profit and private companies, rather than under the flag of any particular state and thus are not recognized as soldiers under the Geneva Conventions.

While the majority of PMSC’s are not involved in direct hostilities (but rather are providing logistical functions), there are a number of PMSC’s that Brookings Institute scholar Peter Singer would say are operating at the “tip of the spear,” and therefore closer to the traditional conception of mercenaries. From Djibouti hiring Blackwater to hunt pirates off its coast, to the training of a battalion in the DRC by Protection Strategies Inc (under the auspices of AFRICOM), these descendents of the mercenaries that plagued the continent during the post-colonial period are once again becoming prevalent on the continent.

The activities (and widespread abuses) of PMSC’s in Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely documented. There are at least as many contractors in these two countries as there are military personnel (with nearly 200,000 operating in the 2 countries as of 2010), and the notorious abuses of contractors at Abu Ghraib have long been etched into the public’s psyche. Moreover, the name Blackwater (now known as Xe Services) will forever be associated with the infamous massacre at Nisoor Square in 2007 – for which none of the Blackwater employees were held fully accountable (although a recent appeals court decision means that justice may yet be forthcoming after the case was initially dismissed).

Aside from their prevalence and criminal acts that have gone unpunished, there has also been a great deal of criticism over the financial effect of using PMSC’s including massive overbilling, alleged waste and uncompetitive bidding processes for government contracts. The Commission on Wartime Contracting set up to investigate and give recommendations on these issues has yet to submit their final report (due in July this year), but the latest interim report by the CWC suggests that the U.S. government needs to drastically reform its use of contractors. And yet despite these abuses, the lack of criminal accountability, and the accusations of financial impropriety, there seems to be a consensus in Washington at least that PMSC’s are here to stay. In the current discourse there is no mention of whether we should be using PMSC’s, but rather how can we use them in such a way that avoids wasting money and attracting bad publicity.

Thus it is against such a background that we see an increase in the prevalence of PMSC’s on the African continent. Expert David Isenberg has written about the possibility of PMSC’s exploiting the crisis in Libya to extract a profit. UN reports have said that PMSC operations amount to a new form of mercenary activity, and that their use could be a threat toward human rights and self determination. In addition, the lack of accountability and enforcement when it comes to crimes and abuses by PMSC employees is a worrying sign; how can the principles of human rights and the rule of law be improved on the continent if the use of such actors in Africa is on the rise?

If PMSC’s are really here to stay, then their lack of accountability for criminal acts (not just using civil remedies such as tort law) needs to go. On this there can be no compromise, whether you see PMSC’s as either a necessary evil or a progressive use of the private sector in a fragmented international system.

Laurence Hull is a former Foreign Policy In Focus intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lives in London, UK and is studying history and international studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

One Group of Students Proves Immune to Bin Laden-Death Fever

Students celebrating bin Laden death(Pictured: Harvard students celebrating the killing of bin Laden.)

One week ago, some DC-area college students wondered if finals would be canceled because of Osama Bin Laden’s killing and the celebrations that ensued. Others, as I can attest, asked professors for extensions on their final exams.

Students were wondering about having to take their exams because hundreds had stayed up until the early Monday morning hours celebrating Bin Laden’s death in front of the White House. The school newspaper at American University, where I teach, quoted a student as saying, “The scene was unbelievable. People were climbing trees and singing, it was a completely unplanned gathering…. For a day we weren’t Democrats or Republicans. We were all Americans.” Others gathered on American University’s quad, singing the national anthem and chanting USA! USA! USA!

Amid the celebrations, several students in my class “Anthropology of Life in the United States” stepped back to ask about the larger significance of what they’d witnessed. “I heard students running through the hallways yelling, ‘Osama Bin Laden is dead! Turn on the news,’’” wrote one student, Hallie, in her final exam, due the day after Bin Laden’s killing. “Why are we celebrating death and violence? I read on one of my friend’s [Facebook] status, ‘Party Tuesday Night—Amurica [sic] Themed. Kill Terrorists. That is a prime example of how death and war [are] normal in the United States,” she continued. “Though the subject is more complicated than I can describe…death and violence should never be celebrated.”

A Japanese student, Sanshiroh, offered an outsider’s perspective. Referring to hundreds of billions of dollars in annual U.S. military spending, he observed, “the global military supremacy of the United States almost seems to be the national identity. As teenagers play [the warfighting video game] ‘Call of Duty,’ military casualties no longer get reported anymore, and college students gather to celebrate the death of the leader of the enemy, warmaking has definitely been normalized and become the American way of life.”

Another student, Christine, agreed, saying, “It is clear that warmaking is not a temporary state of mind for U.S. American[s]. Boys play with G.I. Joe dolls and watch movies featuring soldiers killing. War has become intertwined with notions of patriotism and the American economy itself.

“With millions of Americans shouting a raucous yelp of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ upon learning of Osama Bin Laden’s death, it is clear that our identity as a nation is tied to our military prowess,” Christine’s exam continued. Pointing to the size of the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address, she wrote, “massive military spending has become intertwined with the fabric of our country’s values.”

Hallie, one member of this generation that’s been at war for half her lifetime, offered a similarly broad historical perspective just a day after Bin Laden’s killing: “The United States was founded through war and has never stopped. We have been involved in at least 200 military interventions [since World War II]. With the wars today, it is clear that there is no military solution, and if we keep spending money on the wars and going into debt, our empire is going to crash…. The habit will not be broken until something major happens.

“We used to be a nation focused on justice,” Hallie concluded her essay, “but now we are a nation focused on controlling the world through means of violence and power. What have we come to?”

I, for one, am very thankful we didn’t cancel finals.

Thanks to Fukushima Nuclear Terrorism Got a Whole Lot Easier

When we think of nuclear terrorism, we think of a nuclear bomb smuggled into an American city. Or, perhaps, a plane crashing into a nuclear reactor. But nuclear terrorism suddenly got a whole lot easier than planning either of those scenarios. Suddenly, it’s as easy as emptying a pool of water. At Japanese news site Asahi, Fumihiko Yoshida reports about spent-fuel-rod pools like those that overheated in Fukushima for lack of cooling water.

“If pools were damaged by a terrorist attack and water was lost, the scenario would be the same as what occurred at the Fukushima plant,” said [Allison Macfarlane, associate professor of environmental science and policy at George Mason University].

Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists explains how such damage might occur.

. . . a possible cyber attack . . . could instantly kill a regional grid that provides electricity to nuclear power plants and on-site backup electrical systems, resulting in a Fukushima-type disaster.

In other words, instead of setting off a bomb or targeting a reactor directly, terrorists could cause a Fukushima-type disaster by instead targeting the functioning of spent-fuel-rod pools. At least one world leader is taking this to heart. Yoshida again.

Several days after the crisis began on March 11, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the expanding threat of a nuclear catastrophe in Japan had changed his thinking on the safety of nuclear power.

“It certainly caused me to reconsider the projects of building civil nuclear power plants” in Israel, he said. [Physicist and one-time White House national security advisor Frank] Von Hippel’s interpretation of this comment is that considering the instability in the Middle East today, Netanyahu’s new position reflects, at least to some extent, security concerns about the potential use of nuclear power plants as “radioactive bombs” if they are targeted for attack.

Not only are the damaged reactors at Fukushima leaking radiation, they’re discharging ideas how to turn nuclear reactors into terrorist weapons.

Decapitating the Head of the Snake: bin Laden and Our Inner Avenger

Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan referred to killing Osama bin Laden as “decapitating the head of the snake known as al Qaida.” Bloodthirsty choice of words, especially considering that decapitation has been one of al Qaeda’s preferred modes of execution, most notoriously, Daniel Pearl at the likely hands of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In the past, when humans were beheaded as punishment, the instrument of death was usually an axe or guillotine. Leave it to members of al Qaeda to take throat cutting to extremes. Perhaps they hoped Allah would accept a victim thus butchered as a sacrificial offering.

But inviting the comparison to al Qaeda by using decapitation as an image may have been Brennan’s point. It’s as if he were saying: we shot him in cold blood, but at least we didn’t decapitate him like al Qaeda.

Speaking of barbarism, Focal Points readers are aware that I’ve been questioning what seemed like the cold-blooded killing of bin Laden. Upon learning, again from Brennan, of the fear that bin Laden may have donned a suicide vest, which was theoretically possible while the SEALs swept the compound, I’ve withdrawn my objections on that count.

Legal reservations, such as acting on information gained under torture (of course, those raising that objection conveniently forget that heretofore they’ve adhered to the conviction that information obtained during torture isn’t trustworthy). More to the point is political assassination as, at the New Yorker Jeffrey Toobin reminds us.

. . . it’s worth noting that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing [of bin Laden] represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated, No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

But, personally, this author is most disturbed by the celebration over a killing, the likes of which he’s never witnessed in the United States. It likely surpasses public reaction to Hitler’s death. As I previously wrote

How does Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing look to the rest of the world? An NBA player, of all people, has an idea.

[Chris] Douglas-Roberts [was] disturbed by the ensuing celebration. It reminded him of the response in Afghanistan — which was also captured on television — following 9/11. “We just looked like the Afghan people, a decade later,” he said.

Still, that doesn’t absolve myself and those who share my view from taking a look in the mirror as well. At Guernica, Noam Chomsky writes:

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. . . . his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.

Would we be big enough to contain the glee welling up in us?

Whether or not we’re willing and able to confront our inner avenger is up to us. But, it’s imperative that we refrain from celebrating for the record lest we reduce ourselves to the level of those publicly gloating over bin Laden’s killing.

Could the Death of bin Laden Become a Cornerstone of Peace in Afghanistan?

Panetta PetraeusAccording to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Laden was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

Gen. Hammad Gul, former head of the ISI, told the Financial Times on May 3 that the ISI knew where he was, but regarded him as “inactive.” Writing in the May 5 Guardian (UK), author Tariq Ali says that a “senior” ISI official told him back in 2006 that the spy organization knew where bin Laden was, but had no intention of arresting him because he was “The goose that laid the golden egg.” In short, the hunt for the al-Qaeda leader helped keep the U.S. aid spigot open.

Indeed, bin Laden may have been under house arrest, which would explain the absence of trained bodyguards. By not allowing the al-Qaeda leader a private militia, the ISI forced him to rely on it for protection. And if they then dropped a dime on him, they knew he would be an easy target. As to why he was killed, not captured, neither the U.S. nor Pakistan wanted him alive, the former because of the judicial nightmare his incarceration would involve, the latter because dead men tell no tales.

As for the denials: the last thing the ISI wants is to be associated with the hit, since it could end up making the organization a target for Pakistan’s home-grown Taliban. If the ISI knew, so did the Army, though not necessarily at all levels. Did the Army turn a blind eye to the U.S. choppers? Who knows?

What we do know for certain is that there is a shift in Pakistan and the U.S. with regards to the Afghan war.

On the U.S. side, the war is going badly, and American military and intelligence agencies are openly warring with one another. In December the U.S. intelligence community released a study indicating that progress was minimal and that the 2009 surge of 30,000 troops had produced only tactical successes: “There remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency.” The Pentagon counter-attacked in late April with a report that the surge had been “a strategic defeat for the Taliban,” and that the military was making “tangible progress in some really key areas.”

It is not an analysis agreed with by our NATO allies, most of which are desperate to get their troops out of what they view as a deepening quagmire. A recent WikiLeak cable quotes Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union, saying “No one believes in Afghanistan anymore. But we will give it 2010 to see results.” He went on to say Europe was only going along “out of deference to the United States.” Translation: NATO support is falling apart.

Recent shifts by the Administration seem to signal that the White House is backing away from the surge and looking for ways to wind down the war. The shift of Gen. David Petraeus to the CIA removes the major U.S. booster of the current counterinsurgency strategy, and moving Panetta to the Defense Department puts a savvy political infighter with strong Democratic Party credentials into the heart of Pentagon. Democrats are overwhelmingly opposed to the war but could never get a hearing from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican.

The last major civilian supporter of the war is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but Gates, her main ally, will soon be gone, as will Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff. The shuffle at the top is hardly a “night of the long knives,” but the White House has essentially eliminated or sidelined those in the administration who pushed for a robust war and long-term occupation.

A surge of sanity? Well, at least some careful poll reading. According to the Associated Press, six in 10 Americans want out of the war. Among Democrats 73 percent want to be out in a year, and a USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want Congress to address an accelerated withdrawal. With the war now costing $8 billion a month, these numbers are hardly a surprise.

Pakistan has long been frustrated with the U.S.’s reluctance to talk to the Taliban, and, from Islamabad’s perspective, the war is largely being carried out at their expense. Pakistan has suffered tens of thousands of civilian and military casualties in what most Pakistanis see as an American war, and the country is literally up in arms over the drone attacks.

The Pakistani Army has been deployed in Swat, South Waziristan, and Bajaur, and the U.S. is pressing it to invade North Waziristan. One Pakistani grumbled to the Guardian (UK), “What do they [the U.S.] want us to do? Declare war on our whole country?” For the 30 million Pashtuns in the northwest regions, the Pakistani Army is foreign in language and culture, and Islamabad knows that it will eventually be seen as an outside occupier.

A poll by the New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest—home and refuge to many of the insurgents fighting in Afghanistan—found some 80 percent oppose the U.S. war on terror, almost nine in every 10 people oppose U.S. attacks on the Taliban, and three quarters oppose the drone attacks.

The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

The Pentagon will resist a major troop drawdown. There is also opposition in Afghanistan, where Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities are deeply suspicious of the Taliban. The Karzai government also appears split on the talks, although recent cabinet shuffles have removed some of the more anti-Pakistan leaders.

Then there is the Taliban, which is hardly a centralized organization, especially since U.S. drone attacks and night raids have effectively removed more experienced Taliban leaders, leaving younger and more radical fighters in charge. Can Taliban leader Mullah Omar deliver his troops? That is not a given.

Both other insurgent groups—the Haqqani Group and Hizb-i-Islami—have indicated they are open to negotiations, but the Americans will have a hard time sitting down with the Haqqanis. The group has been implicated in the deaths of numerous U.S. and coalition forces. To leave the Haqqani Group out, however, will derail the whole process.

The U.S. would like to exclude Iran, but as Rashid points out, “No peace process in Afghanistan can succeed without Iran’s full participation.” And then there is India. Pakistan sees Indian involvement in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategy to surround Pakistan, and India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who attack Indian-controlled Kashmir and launched the horrendous 2008 attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Laden, well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.

Back in the Victorian era the British Army marched off singing a song:

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and we’ve got the money too

But in the 21st century most our allies’ armies don’t want to fight, ships are useless in Afghanistan, there aren’t enough men, and everyone is broke.

For 33 years the people of Afghanistan have been bombed, burned, shot, tortured and turned into refugees. For at least the moment the pieces are aligned to bring this awful war to an end. It is time to close the book on the “Great Game” and bring the troops home.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.

WikiLeaks: Gitmo Guards’ Rewards System for Detainees Backfires

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the fifty-second in the series.

The story of Yasser Talal Al Zahrani offers one of the most mysterious, and ultimately tragic, narratives in the “Gitmo Files” published by WikiLeaks this past week. The son of “a senior official in the Saudi Interior Ministry, reportedly holding the rank of abid, or brigadier,” the seventeen-year-old al Zahrani reportedly left home, having just completed the eleventh grade, “after hearing that sheiks from neighboring [sic throughout] towns were saying jihad in Afghanistan (AF) was a religious duty.”

He first travelled to Karachi, Pakistan, financing “the trip himself with saving he had earned selling perfumes to hajj pilgrims.” In Karachi, al Zahrani hooked up with a man named Saria al Makki, who travelled with him to Konduz, Afghanistan.

In Konduz, detainee was taken to a place called the Taliban Center. He spent one month training under an individual named Khair Allah on the use of the Kalishnikov rifle, the Makarov pistol, hand grenades, and in field training. The detainee was then assigned a guard position at a second line post between Konduz and Taloqan.

The American Taliban fighter, John Walker Lindh, remembered Abu Ammar distinctly, in part because he was little more than a kid when they fought together in Afghanistan.

Lindh identified detainee as Abu Ammar from Saudi Arabia. He further stated that detainee was one of the youngest, which is why he stood out. Lindh stated detainee was approximately seventeen years old and was always joking and talking. Detainee…was involved in foo services. Detainee was always at front line base camps…

When the front line crumbled under the pressure of American fire power, “the group retreated to Konduz where coalition forces surrounded them.” Lindh reported that while there, al Zahrani “helped in a kitchen of an Arab guesthouse (as a cook) in Konduz after fleeing from the front lines.” Just over a week later, Konduz fell, and al Zahrani’s group cut a deal with the Northern Alliance, “Allowing fighters to leave with their weapons and travel to Mazar-E-Sharif, AF, where they would surrender.” What happened then is a bit confused, but the report notes that

On the eleventh day of Ramadan, the fighters traveled to Mazar-E-Sharid where they turned in their weapons and were taken to the Qala-I-Jangi prison. The day after they arrived at the prison, detainee and others were taken to a square in the prison yard. Detainee heard gunfire and explosions coming from the prison and then a firefight ensued injuring detainee in the leg and foot. He fell to the ground and remained in the same position until nightfall, when other prisoners retrieved him and carried him back to the underground prison. They remained there for seven days before they were forced to surrender.

A month later, he was turned over to the American forces, and processed to Guantanamo Boy shortly thereafter.

From what can be gathered in al Zahrani’s assessment, he was quite a handful. In the five years he spent in Guantanamo, Abu Ammar racked up over one hundred disciplinary infraction reports detailing all manner of disruptive incidents, including

assault, failure to follow instructions/camp rules, using provoking words and gestures with the guards, threatening the life of a guard, damage to property, inciting a disturbance, exposing himself to guards, possession of both weapon and non-weapon type contraband, and cross block talking. The detainee had twelve reports of disciplinary infraction for assault in 2005. The detainee’s most recent assault was committed on 13 November 2005 when he punched a guard in the jaw upon being returned to his cell. The detainee has numerous cases of verbal harassment and threats towards guards…The detainee was a major participant in the voluntary total fast of 2005-2006. The detainee has notes of conducting PT, to include combative type training, and at least twice has taunted guards claiming to want to fight. On 11 July 2005, detainee told a guard that he would use a knife to cut his stomach open, cut his face off, and then drink his blood, smiling and laughing as he said it.

Major General Jay Hood, who authored the report, determined that al Zahrani’s antics were enough to keep him held indefinitely in Gitmo detention, despite the fact that the Saudi was basically of no use to al Qaeda or the Taliban, much less the United States Government.

No reporting indicates detainee served in a leadership or operational planning capacity….detainee’s exposure to the jihadist element in Afghanistan is unremarkable and less than many other detainees. The information detainee is assessed to know about the Taliban and events in Qala-I-Jangi is limited beyond what he has already provided. It is assessed the intelligence to be exploited from detainee is limited, and it would probably be dated and not tactically or strategically critical…most reporting indicates detainee was probably the average mujahid…

As it turns out, while al Zahrani may have been the average mujahid, he made a name for himself at Guantanamo for being one of four inmates to successfully commit suicide. Three months after the assessment was conducted by Hood, al Zahrani and two other detainees simultaneously killed themselves in their cells. According to the Washington Post,

Zahrani, in Cell A-8, was the first detainee to raise concern among guards. One guard passed his cell and thought the silhouette under his sheets looked too small. When guards inspected further, they found the sheet concealing random items and Zahrani hanging from a noose in the darkness… Some of the guards were “very emotional,” according to the report [on the suicides]. “I feel that the guards and myself on Alpha block did an inadequate job monitoring the detainees that night to make sure that they were following the rules as to show some kind of skin while sleeping,” said one guard, who name was redacted from the documents.

Inadequacy was only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation later demonstrated that

guards had become lax on certain rules because commanders wanted to reward the more compliant detainees, giving them extra T-shirts, blankets and towels. Detainees were allowed to hang such items to dry, or to provide privacy while using the toilet, but were not supposed to be able to obscure their cells while sleeping.

Guards told officials that it was not unusual to see blankets hanging in the cells and that they did not think twice when they passed several cells on the night of June 9, 2006, with blankets strung through the wire mesh. Authorities believe the men probably hanged themselves around 10 p.m., but they were not discovered until shortly after midnight on June 10.

How al Zahrani was able to get his hands on all this good-behavior swag given his extensive list of misdemeanors was never explained. What is clear, however, is that al Zahrani was slated for release at the very moment he decided to take his own life. “Zahrani, according to Guantanamo records, was next on the ‘Saudi DMO’ list, which meant he was imminently going to be part of a “Detainee Movement Operation” that would have transferred him to Saudi Arabia’s reintegration program and ultimately to freedom.” He was twenty-one years old.

A Bin Laden Trial a “Circus”? Who Doesn’t Like a Circus?

I have it on good authority that Navy SEALs put a premium on capturing targets because they’re taught that information is the true prize. Then why, we continue to wonder, did one of them shoot Osama bin Laden, especially since indications are that he’d already been captured? Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan explains.

SEAL Team Six was told to accept surrender only “if he did not pose any type of threat whatsoever,” and if troops “were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED [improvised explosives device] on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever,”

But Americans weren’t aware of that when they were celebrating what sounded like a cold-blooded shooting. Even here: Jubilation Erupts in Harvard Yard As Obama Tells World Osama Bin Laden is Dead. (In a side note . . . young men — want a true test of how yoked to violence your sexuality is? Young women cheering bin Laden’s killing: major turn-on or turn-off?)

How does Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing look to the rest of the world? An NBA player, of all people, has an idea.

[Chris] Douglas-Roberts [was] disturbed by the ensuing celebration. It reminded him of the response in Afghanistan — which was also captured on television — following 9/11. “We just looked like the Afghan people, a decade later,” he said.

As you’re no doubt tired of seeing me post, a court case would have been preferable. Many claim that a trial would be a “circus.” At the Independent (via Duck of Minerva via the Progressive Realist) Geoffrey Robertson writes:

I do not minimise the security issues at his trial or the danger of it ending up as a squalid circus like that of Saddam Hussein. But the notion that any form of legal process would have been too hard must be rejected. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – also alleged to be the architect of 9/11 – will shortly go on trial and had Bin Laden been captured, he should have been put in the dock alongside him, so that their shared responsibility could have been properly examined.

Failing that, Robertson adds

Bin Laden could not have been tried for 9/11 at the International Criminal Court — its jurisdiction only came into existence nine months later. But the Security Council could have set up an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague, with international judges (including Muslim jurists), to provide a fair trial and a reasoned verdict.

This would have been the best way of de-mystifying this man, debunking his cause and de-brainwashing his followers. In the dock he would have been reduced in stature — never more remembered as the tall, soulful figure on the mountain, but as a hateful and hate-filled old man, screaming from the dock or lying from the witness box.

At its most elemental level, legality exists to mitigate man’s brutality to man. A court case would have spared us Americans (including President Obama at Ground Zero) making a brutish spectacle of themselves.

Returning to bringing bin Laden back alive, at Time’s Swampland, Massimo Calabresi writes:

John Yoo, who wrote the brief [for the Bush administration] that provided legal cover for waterboarding, sleep-deprivation and other harsh interrogation methods, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal . . . arguing that bin Laden’s assassination “vindicates the Bush administration, whose intelligence architecture marked the path to bin Laden’s door.” . . . Most provocatively, Yoo asserts that by killing bin Laden, rather than capturing and interrogating him, the Navy Seal team made a grave error. “Special forces using nonlethal weaponry might have taken bin Laden alive . . . [and] one of the most valuable intelligence opportunities since the beginning of the war has slipped through our hands.”

It’s mortifying when John Yoo gives voice to one’s sentiments. But, no matter what his motivation is, when he’s right, he’s right.

A Generation Exhales with Bin Laden’s Death

The enthusiastic flag-waving. The gaudy red, white, and blue jumpsuits, the booming chants of “USA, USA, USA.” The huge crowd of jubilant young people gathered outside the White House, celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death.

Is it right to celebrate the death of an individual, even one as abhorrent as bin Laden?

His death won’t bring home the thousands of troops fighting and losing their lives in the name of “nation-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “Global War on Terror” (a never-ending war on a tactic) won’t end with bin Laden’s death. Is it really appropriate to engage in such unrestrained partying?

I feel it’s somewhat jarring to see the images of Americans marking this historic moment by partying outside the White House and across the country. We may be effectively guilty of celebrating death and exhibiting the worst of Western excesses, while we continue to condone drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill terrorists and civilians alike.

However, from the perspective of someone who was only 11 years old when the 9-11 attacks happened (as were many of the college-age revelers), there’s a real emotional and mental aspect to this event that is being overlooked. Every young person in my age group vividly remembers where he or she was when the terrorist attacks happened. I remember hearing the news crackle through the radio on my school bus in London and then seeing the horrific images of the attacks once I got home.

While my contemporaries and I may not have had the ability to look at the events through a critical lens, the images from those days will be forever burned into our psyches. There was a definite feeling that the world we knew before the attacks was gone and that things would never be the same again.

For those of us who grew up in the West under the shadow of the attacks in New York, Washington, Madrid, and London, Osama bin Laden is really the embodiment of a world that has become gripped in fear and hatred. A man who was responsible in whole or in part for murdering thousands of people, encouraging a climate where human rights and freedoms are limited, destroying the popular image of Islam as a religion, and radicalizing the debate on identity so that it has become “them vs. us.” Perhaps my generation, he has become a literal bogeyman who changed the world we live in for the worse.

The kind of celebrations that erupted in front of the White House could be seen as a disturbing sign of people who have been whipped up into a jingoistic frenzy. However, I suggest that these celebrations are something else: the collective “exhale” of a group of young men and women who have grown up in a world that lacked confidence, belief, and any semblance of “peace.”

Laurence Hull is a former Foreign Policy In Focus intern at the Institute for Policy Studies. He lives in London, UK and is studying history and international studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Reading Netanyahu the Riot Act Would Have Done More to Halt Terrorism Than Killing bin Laden

Netanyahu ObamaBut apart from that cynical thought, let us be straight about one thing. Bin Laden was killed this Sunday, and it does offer serious possibilities.

Gullibility and skepticism seem joined at the hip. People who would take their umbrellas if the Obama administration told them it was sunny outside are quite willing to believe and quote any deranged website with a conspiracy theory. It is interesting to note the convergence of left and right — Osama’s death was faked, Obama’s birth certificate was forged.

Occam’s razor compels me to think that neither is true. And by the way, I was living close to the World Trade Center, saw and heard the planes, and commented at the time on Rudi Giuliani’s spectacular incompetence at putting his emergency headquarters in Number 7 World Trade Center and stocking it with tanks containing thousands of gallons of fuel in defiance of his own city’s Fire Department regulations.

That consistent incompetence is a factor that has fueled a thousand conspiracy theories. Going after Saddam Hussein and downplaying Afghanistan allowed Bin Laden to get away. Trusting the Pakistani ISI, former CIA surrogates in the region, allowed him to stay away. The war in Afghanistan was consistently under-resourced so the Bush White House could exorcise its own familial ghosts in Baghdad.

But strategic incompetence has not obviated flashes of tactical brilliance on the part of conservatives. As I said at the time, the perennial TV news backdrop of the triptych of the burning World Trade Center flanked by Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein helped provide the emotional strength for the war on Iraq, despite it having nothing to do with Al Qaeda or the 9-11 attack. It occurred to me that some of the exultation on those young faces in the flash mob with their unseemly celebration of Bin Laden’s death could have derived from subliminal childhood exposure to those images. It is also that image which has given some metaphysical substance to the absurdity of a war on an abstraction, the “War on Terror.”

Which comes back to the death of Bin Laden. It was a very risky move for Obama. “Liberals” and Democrats are not allowed the luxury of spectacular failure. Jimmy Carter’s abortive attempt to rescue the hostages from Teheran haunted his career. A similar helicopter crash in Pakistan could have sealed the fate for the Obama White House.

Of course an assassination on the territory of a foreign and allegedly friendly state could also have caused problems. It is indeed illegal in a prima facie way, but Bin Laden’s presence in a major Pakistani metropolis certainly embarrasses the government there. It was in everybody’s interest not to inform the local authorities. The Pakistan government could disclaim knowledge, and the US could be certain that any information they passed on would go straight to warn Bin Laden. Indeed, such is the climate of rancor among American conservatives one would almost wonder if one of the worries in Washington was a risk of leaks or sabotage from insiders there. But internationally, while, say Beijing and Moscow might tut tut about it, the heirs of the KGB are hardly in a secure pulpit to sermonize, and their real feelings are more likely to be admiration than admonition.

Even the burial at sea is, shall we say, a red herring. Few of his victims got to choose their funeral rights, and the Sunni Wahabi tradition is spartan in the extreme.

In any case the action has given Obama a big boost domestically at a time that he needed it. It would be ironic if healthcare for elderly Americans were protected because the President has overseen the assassination of an elderly Saudi, but that’s politics!

Internationally, it will not necessarily have that much effect. Bin Laden was no Lenin overseeing an Islamist international. Al Qaeda was a state of mind more than an organized conspiracy. He was no Old Man of the Mountains sending out his assassins, but his example inspired the varying spontaneous degrees of psychopathology among the disaffected.

But his rallying cause for jihad still holds: US support for Israel is as strong now as ever. Obama would have had more beneficial international results taking out Netanyahu politically than eliminating Bin Laden physically, since it would address that genuine cause. Recent poll results from Iran and Egypt suggest that the US still provides plenty of room for suspicion in the region.

One possible consequence is that Obama might be tempted to declare victory and pull out of Afghanistan. He could even claim budget savings to protect Medicare! However, the Taliban were not controlled by Al Qaeda and his death is unlikely to affect their belligerence. His elimination at least allows the US to get over its prejudices and get into serious talks with the Pushtoon communities for a negotiated settlement of some kind.

Indeed the exorcism of the Bin Laden ghost could even provide political cover for talks with Hamas and Hizbollah. Of course anyone except Fox news pundits knows that Al Qaeda had nothing to do with them at all, but with his shade out of the way, an emboldened Obama could do it.

But it comes back to the same core problem. At the core of America’s fractious relationship with most of the world, and particularly the Middle East, is Washington’s relationship with Israel — and he is unlikely to get Netanyahu’s “permission,” for it. Would he go ahead anyway? How about being tough on terror — and on the excuses for terror as well? It is possible and desirable, but is it likely?

For more by Ian Williams visit Deadline Pundit.

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