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April 25, 2009

Pirates and Piety in Somalia and Pakistan

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to meet the foreign minister of Somalia at an event organised after the Arab League Summit in Doha. Mr Mohamed A Omaar is a suave Oxford-educated gentleman who spent much of his career overseas but was convinced to return to his homeland and become part of the new coalition government that has recently been formed in Mogadishu.

I marvelled at his willingness to leave a relatively comfortable life to take on a high-risk career in a country that has most often been associated with the term “state failure”. Several decades of civil war; a short but failed effort at stabilisation by the US; the secession of its northern region of Somaliland; and an armed intervention from some of its African neighbours have left the country utterly fractured and dysfunctional.

The result has been a dramatic rise in a loot-driven economy, most acutely manifest in the rise of piracy from the Somali coast in which a whole bevy of characters from fishermen to former navy officials have been implicated. The International Maritime Bureau reported that 111 of the 293 incidents of piracy or armed robbery at sea worldwide in 2008 took place off the coast of Somalia — double the number from the preceding year.

Sadly, it is the novelty and drama of piracy on the high seas that has brought back the world’s attention to this beleaguered yet promising land of frankincense. Accounts of Somali piracy have ranged from sheer dread of their links to Al Qaeda to a romanticisation of their efforts to stop illegal dumping and over-fishing in the region.

Anyhow, the American media got a diversion from covering Pakistan’s turmoil this week by focusing on the dramatic rescue of an American captain from Somali pirates. In another engaging twist to this story, the ship that was pirated was not some commercial vessel carrying goods to fuel global trade but rather food aid for impoverished Africans!

Captain Richard Phillips hails from my home state of Vermont and got a hero’s welcome when he returned to his village of Underhill, a few miles from our home. At the same time, a Somali pirate was also brought back to the US to face a piracy trial for the first time in almost a century. There is bewildered amusement on American talk shows about this young captive whose age is not known by even his parents.

Interestingly enough, many small towns in the United State have encountered Somalis in various capacities because of the United States’ willingness to accept several thousand refugees from the country over the past decade. Many of them have been placed in far-flung states and are beginning to build their lives as so many other immigrants have done in the fabled American “melting pot”.

Yet the captive pirate is more of a curiosity than any of the immigrants and brings home the striking interactions that can occur between communities in a globalised economic system. Negligence to consider deteriorating state circumstances across the world can impact communities far removed from each other. The same argument for imminent intervention is being used regarding Pakistan’s situation.

Surprisingly enough, Pakistan and Somalia have had peculiar ties and commonalities. Among the few foreign students still enrolled at Karachi University is a group of Somalis, whose interest in coming to Pakistan for higher education is representative of several decades of educational cooperation between the two countries. Perhaps a more striking commonality that the two countries seem to currently share is that both governments are negotiating with Islamists. The new President of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, is a hafiz-ul Quran trained at Sudanese and Libyan Islamic institutes and was formerly commander of the Islamic Courts Union. Interestingly, the Islamist movement in Somalia also arose out of the need for judicial reform, similar to what happened in Swat.

What is remarkable is that the new Somali government has managed to form an alliance between a group of devoutly religious Islamists and a bunch of Western-educated technocrats. There is still a group of even more hardened young jihadists (known as Al Shabab) who continue to call for the retrogressive interpretation of sharia. However, they are being marginalised by the Islamic Courts Union itself and most religious clerics in the country as misguided absolutists. The country seems to finally be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and got commitments of more than $300 million in development assistance at a donors’ conference in Brussels earlier in the week.

These developments augur well for Somalia but also have some important lessons for our own Islamist parties in Pakistan. It is high time that some of the educated Muslim scholars from the Jama’at-e Islaami and other religious institutions as well make it clear that the Taliban brand of Islam is a caricature of this great faith. Just as the Islamic Courts Union has disassociated itself from Al Shabab and Al Qaeda, and formed an alliance for the implementation of a pluralistic vision of Islam, the Pakistani ulema must actively sermonise to reclaim the minds of the youth in the Frontier from the infection of militancy.

If such a transformation is possible in Somalia, that has held the epithet of Islamist state failure for so many decades, it can surely be possible in Pakistan too.

Posted by Saleem Ali at 01:45 AM | TrackBack

April 11, 2009

Treating Pakistan's "Cancer"

President Obama’s recent statement on US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan had some rather stark superlatives, labelling the border region “the most dangerous place on earth for Americans”, and sharply referring to extremism in Pakistan as a “cancer that could destroy the state”.

If the administration’s diagnosis for an acute malignancy is to be followed, then the response clearly needs to be systemic as well as targeted. Any reputable oncologist will tell you that a symptomatic approach still does not deal with the systemic causes of “cancer clusters” in the first place; that requires far more introspection on behavioural patterns.

The administration appears to be following a path whereby systemic causes of extremism are still being given minor importance in comparison with the larger tough-talk of drone attacks and threats of “no blank cheques”. The cushioning of the tough talk with the incentive of conditional development aid of $1.5 billion per year is also facing greater resistance in Congress, even though this is a relatively small amount in the larger scheme of US investment in fighting terrorism.

Just to give Americans an idea of what this amount means in the larger scheme of US counterterrorism operations overseas, $1.5 billion is approximately twice the cost of building the new US embassy in Baghdad. For a country of 160 million people, providing such a “carrot” will hardly satiate many appetites, especially when the Pakistani government has announced that it needs $30 billion in foreign assistance to meet its development challenges that have been hindered by the “War on Terror”.

(Oops, sorry, Secretary of State Clinton has decided to not use that term anymore — “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the new name of the game. Congratulations to the new administration for moving from hyperbole a la Bush to euphemisms a la Obama!)

Adding to the administration’s equivocation, American journalists who are obsessed with the narrative of “failed states” continue to present story after story about Pakistan with some level of repulsive bemusement. The latest example is an Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine.

As if to add insult to injury, General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen also recently admonished Pakistan about “indications” that the country’s intelligence services may be involved in helping the Afghan Taliban. Such vilification will further infuriate the Pakistani public, which feels victimised by the Taliban far more than the West, with thousands of soldiers killed and its own society further fractured by dissent and suicide bombings.

Such rhetoric also demoralises the Pakistani intelligence services, which can be credited for helping in the arrest of some of the major Al Qaeda kingpins, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaidah.

There may indeed be some nefarious activities within the ISI just as much as there have been manipulative activities by the CIA in the past. However, the way to approach this issue is to look at the ultimate cause of such activity, rather than hurling vacuous accusations. In the context of the Afghan conflict, both Pakistan and India have been interfering at various levels in the country, as noted by eminent scholars such as Christine Fair.

To deescalate this perverse Indo-Pak competition for dominance over Afghanistan, a regional solution is needed to resolve conflicts between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir and Balochistan. However, the Obama administration succumbed to Indian pressure and decoupled the Kashmir conflict from the regional strategy, and has threatened drone attacks on Balochistan that can only further destabilise the situation.

India has spent over $1.1 billion in aid on Afghanistan in the last five years when more than 80 percent of its own population lives in abject poverty. The goal of such neighbourly munificence should be questioned internally by Indians as well during their upcoming election. If neighbourly kindness is India’s ultimate goal, I can assure you that Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s closest contiguous neighbours, would be most appreciative of such aid as well!

As for the Obama administration, if they are truly interested in a reform strategy towards Pakistan, they must first recognise the importance of building peace through a sustained strategy of diplomacy and development. I voted for Mr Obama and his “audacity of hope”, but his current approach to South Asia has left me disenchanted.

So what can the Obama administration do to bring back the sparkle in my eyes and those of many other Pakistani-American constituents?

There are many alternative strategies that need to be explored within the development mandate. Development aid must be specifically targeted towards key projects that can highlight America’s direct commitment to the Pakistani people — for example, direct aid to build desperately needed power plants or dams rather than more “capacity-building” for NGOs that USAID adores. Such intangible programmes often end up providing inflated overhead for consultants and have little palpable impact in winning “hearts and minds”.

Wide-scale weapons buy-back programmes such as those carried out after the Yugoslav conflict need to be implemented as they have proved to be fairly effective. Within one year, the programme in Croatia recovered 10,000 rifles, 7,000 anti-tank rocket launchers, 15,000 grenades and almost 2 million rounds of ammunition. In impoverished parts of our region, a carefully conducted programme of this kind could yield very positive results. Some hardliners will still need to be fought, but any combat must follow such ostensibly “softer” strategies that will gain much wider and lasting results.

A primary reliance on armed tactics is based on the false premise that terrorism is somehow a static phenomenon. The metaphor of “cancer” is particularly apt for our purposes: highly targeted radiotherapy, analogous to commando-style raids that have yielded important Al Qaeda targets, are essential to kill cancer cells. But excessive radiation (in the form of repeated drone attacks) itself spawns further cancer cells.

That is just what Al Qaeda is hoping for — a propaganda victory with further examples of US military intervention to gain more recruits and create more “cells”. Even beyond Pakistan, the damage that a heavy-handed approach to conflict resolution has done to US relations with the Muslim world is evident. The protests against Mr Obama’s first official visit to Turkey, a Muslim country that recently hosted a Pak-Afghan summit, clearly show that artful oratory and some mild palliatives of development aid will not be enough to gain sympathy for America’s objectives in the region.

Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net

President Obama’s recent statement on US policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan had some rather stark superlatives, labelling the border region “the most dangerous place on earth for Americans”, and sharply referring to extremism in Pakistan as a “cancer that could destroy the state”.

If the administration’s diagnosis for an acute malignancy is to be followed, then the response clearly needs to be systemic as well as targeted. Any reputable oncologist will tell you that a symptomatic approach still does not deal with the systemic causes of “cancer clusters” in the first place; that requires far more introspection on behavioural patterns.

The administration appears to be following a path whereby systemic causes of extremism are still being given minor importance in comparison with the larger tough-talk of drone attacks and threats of “no blank cheques”. The cushioning of the tough talk with the incentive of conditional development aid of $1.5 billion per year is also facing greater resistance in Congress, even though this is a relatively small amount in the larger scheme of US investment in fighting terrorism.

Just to give Americans an idea of what this amount means in the larger scheme of US counterterrorism operations overseas, $1.5 billion is approximately twice the cost of building the new US embassy in Baghdad. For a country of 160 million people, providing such a “carrot” will hardly satiate many appetites, especially when the Pakistani government has announced that it needs $30 billion in foreign assistance to meet its development challenges that have been hindered by the “War on Terror”.

(Oops, sorry, Secretary of State Clinton has decided to not use that term anymore — “Overseas Contingency Operations” is the new name of the game. Congratulations to the new administration for moving from hyperbole a la Bush to euphemisms a la Obama!)

Adding to the administration’s equivocation, American journalists who are obsessed with the narrative of “failed states” continue to present story after story about Pakistan with some level of repulsive bemusement. The latest example is an Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan published by the Carnegie Endowment’s Foreign Policy magazine.

As if to add insult to injury, General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen also recently admonished Pakistan about “indications” that the country’s intelligence services may be involved in helping the Afghan Taliban. Such vilification will further infuriate the Pakistani public, which feels victimised by the Taliban far more than the West, with thousands of soldiers killed and its own society further fractured by dissent and suicide bombings.

Such rhetoric also demoralises the Pakistani intelligence services, which can be credited for helping in the arrest of some of the major Al Qaeda kingpins, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaidah.

There may indeed be some nefarious activities within the ISI just as much as there have been manipulative activities by the CIA in the past. However, the way to approach this issue is to look at the ultimate cause of such activity, rather than hurling vacuous accusations. In the context of the Afghan conflict, both Pakistan and India have been interfering at various levels in the country, as noted by eminent scholars such as Christine Fair.

To deescalate this perverse Indo-Pak competition for dominance over Afghanistan, a regional solution is needed to resolve conflicts between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir and Balochistan. However, the Obama administration succumbed to Indian pressure and decoupled the Kashmir conflict from the regional strategy, and has threatened drone attacks on Balochistan that can only further destabilise the situation.

India has spent over $1.1 billion in aid on Afghanistan in the last five years when more than 80 percent of its own population lives in abject poverty. The goal of such neighbourly munificence should be questioned internally by Indians as well during their upcoming election. If neighbourly kindness is India’s ultimate goal, I can assure you that Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s closest contiguous neighbours, would be most appreciative of such aid as well!

As for the Obama administration, if they are truly interested in a reform strategy towards Pakistan, they must first recognise the importance of building peace through a sustained strategy of diplomacy and development. I voted for Mr Obama and his “audacity of hope”, but his current approach to South Asia has left me disenchanted.

So what can the Obama administration do to bring back the sparkle in my eyes and those of many other Pakistani-American constituents?

There are many alternative strategies that need to be explored within the development mandate. Development aid must be specifically targeted towards key projects that can highlight America’s direct commitment to the Pakistani people — for example, direct aid to build desperately needed power plants or dams rather than more “capacity-building” for NGOs that USAID adores. Such intangible programmes often end up providing inflated overhead for consultants and have little palpable impact in winning “hearts and minds”.

Wide-scale weapons buy-back programmes such as those carried out after the Yugoslav conflict need to be implemented as they have proved to be fairly effective. Within one year, the programme in Croatia recovered 10,000 rifles, 7,000 anti-tank rocket launchers, 15,000 grenades and almost 2 million rounds of ammunition. In impoverished parts of our region, a carefully conducted programme of this kind could yield very positive results. Some hardliners will still need to be fought, but any combat must follow such ostensibly “softer” strategies that will gain much wider and lasting results.

A primary reliance on armed tactics is based on the false premise that terrorism is somehow a static phenomenon. The metaphor of “cancer” is particularly apt for our purposes: highly targeted radiotherapy, analogous to commando-style raids that have yielded important Al Qaeda targets, are essential to kill cancer cells. But excessive radiation (in the form of repeated drone attacks) itself spawns further cancer cells.

That is just what Al Qaeda is hoping for — a propaganda victory with further examples of US military intervention to gain more recruits and create more “cells”. Even beyond Pakistan, the damage that a heavy-handed approach to conflict resolution has done to US relations with the Muslim world is evident. The protests against Mr Obama’s first official visit to Turkey, a Muslim country that recently hosted a Pak-Afghan summit, clearly show that artful oratory and some mild palliatives of development aid will not be enough to gain sympathy for America’s objectives in the region.

Dr Saleem H Ali is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s research centre in Doha, Qatar and an associate professor of environmental planning and Asian Studies at the University of Vermont. His latest book is Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassahs (Oxford University Press, 2009). www.saleemali.net

Posted by Saleem Ali at 09:58 AM | TrackBack