Afghanistan withdrawal timed for US elections

NEXT year, Barack Obama will face the task of trying to get re-elected. In normal times, the elimination of Osama bin Laden would have sufficed to see him through. But these are not normal times; try what he does, the US economy does not seem to be responding.

Hence, he has decided to pull out some troops from Afghanistan. The timing is very good – 10,000 leave this year and another 23,000 by September 2012, a couple of months before the Americans go to the polls. The Afghanistan war is not popular with the American public and for good reason. Obama’s move makes political sense.

The whole Afghanistan adventure has been marked by a lack of purpose. The initial rush of troops to the country was purportedly to exact revenge for the attacks on the US in 2001; the stated aim at the time was to hunt out and either capture or kill Bin Laden. The US took until May this year to kill the man. But long before that the nature of the mission had changed.

One of the main reasons for the American presence in Afghanistan is to build a pipeline to carry natural gas from Central Asia to Pakistan and on to India; work began on this pipeline in 2002. It remains to be seen exactly how the pipeline will be guarded after the US ends its presence in Afghanistan.

All American adventures overseas in recent years have been tied to the country’s energy future; Iraq was invaded because Saudi Arabia is becoming an increasingly unreliable ally. Religious fundamentalism is growing by leaps and bounds and the al-Saud regime often has to cater to domestic political concerns which run directly against American interests.

The US departure from Afghanistan is not as dramatic a move as its hurried exit from Vietnam; nevertheless, there are some things which are similar. The Taliban will come back to power in Afghanistan once the US leaves and there will be internecine warfare between the various ethnic warlords as there was after the Soviets left in 1989.

Evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka

BRITAIN’S Channel 4 television screened a remarkable programme on Tuesday, the 14th of June, one that nobody would expect to see in a Western country.

Graphic evidence of war crimes by the Sri Lankan military and the militant group, the Tamil Tigers, during the war that led to the elimination of the Tigers in 2008-09, was screened from 11.05pm in a programme titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. (The programme is also available on YouTube; just search for “Sri Lanka killing fields”.)

The programme is not for the squeamish or those who cannot bear to see what actually happens in a war. This was a war fought between sides which were not equal – as the programme shows the military had heavy hardware and was prepared to use it. All Tamils were treated as terrorists and they were fair game. Indeed, the military gathered them together in so-called no-fire zones and then killed them.

Hospitals were shelled despite the fact that their coordinates had been provided to both sides of the conflict by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Children, old women, the feeble, the sick, pregnant women, aged men – they all served as cannon fodder for the bloodthirsty Sri Lankan military.

The government had given the military carte blanche as far as the war was concerned; they did not have go fight with one arm tied behind them. This led, in the end, to soldiers killing civilians in cold blood and collecting video footage as grotesque war souvenirs. Women were raped and then killed. Half-dead corpses were thrown around like sacks of potatoes.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon visited some of the government camps where those Tamil civilians who survived were interned. He stayed a few minutes and then moved on. In April, the UN produced a damning report wherein it cited plenty of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both the government and the Tigers. Ban Ki-moon has refused to act on that report – he says he has no authority to do so. Doubtless, he is also conscious of the fact that with the end of his term looming, his chances of re-election will depend on having China on-side. Beijing has been Sri Lanka’s ally during the war and after; weapons were supplied to Colombo and in return a $2 billion contract to build a port and naval base in the Hambantota district, from where the president, Mahinda Rajapakse hails, went China’s way.

China, of course, is not the only country to help Sri Lanka in this manner. Israel supplied Kfir fighter jets and India provided intelligence to help Colombo destroy Tiger re-supply craft which were being used to replenish the militants’ weapons stocks. In their time of need, the Tigers found no country willing to help.

Now it remains to be seen whether there will be any action by the so-called international community. My guess is that nothing will happen. The US has shown no interest in speaking out about the atrocities and if it stays silent, every other country will hold its peace.

But unless justice is seen to be done, the situation will continue to simmer. Tamils will leave Sri Lanka in increasing numbers but there will be anger and hurt in the community which will resurface some time or the other. By going after the Tigers and ending the 26-year insurrection, the Sri Lankan government has, metaphorically speaking, sown the wind. They may well end up reaping the whirlwind.

Is Hersh right or wrong?

THE well-respected American investigative reporter, Seymour Hersh, has come under a lot of fire from conservatives recently after he published an article in the New Yorker, saying that there was no conclusive evidence that Iran was making any moves towards building a nuclear bomb.

Hersh is a legendary figure in journalistic circles; he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and, more recently, was responsible for exposing the abuse by American forces in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Some of the criticism came from the Wall Street Journal which was very careful to avoid citing Hersh’s credentials but, instead, concentrated on pointing out where he had gone wrong in the past. For an investigative report, getting it right 50 percent of the time is better than most and Hersh is far better than that.

The WSJ piece, written by a cantankerous gent named Bret Stephens (partial article here; the skinflints at WSJ charge for rubbish like this) dwells heavily on what Hersh has got wrong in the last four or five years. It does not give the reader any idea about the major triumphs that this intrepid man, one of the few newspapermen in the US with even a shred of integrity after the Iraq invasion of 2003, has recorded.

Other criticisms dwell on Hersh’s characterisation of the Iraq invasion as a “mistake”; this is correct as the march to control Saddam’s oil was a deliberately planned mission by Dubya and his cronies. The possibility that Sy indulging in sarcasm appears to have escaped people.Hersh, more than anyone else, knows the background of what led up to the Iraq invasion.

If Hersh is right in pointing out that Iran is nowhere near a nuclear weapon, then a huge amount of the fear factor that is being drummed up by Israel and its cohorts in the US dissipates immediately. Even Israelis, such as the former Mossad chief, Meir Dragan, have gone on the record, saying that Iran poses no danger at the moment.

But if the fear that hangs over the Middle East is lifted, then it becomes difficult for Israel to continue to get the support it does in the US. Support which translates into lobbying muscle, aid and diplomatic support. Hence anybody who writes an article like Hersh did will be targeted.

The tragedy of Sri Lanka

AS THE Sri Lankan government twists and turns and manouevres in order to try and prevent a war crimes investigation being ordered by the United Nations into its conduct during the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, the first definitive account of the conflict has emerged.

Former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, has written a book titled The Cage which gives a detailed and powerful account of the tragedy as it unfolded.

Weiss had to tread a difficult path as he wrote the book; given the oath that he took as an UN employee, he was unable to divulge any material that came to him in that capacity. Despite this very difficult obstacle in his path, he has done an extremely credible job in tracing the history of Sri Lanka that has a bearing on the country’s current position.

The Tamil Tigers, formed in the early 1970s, became the most powerful of the groups fighting for a separate state for their people and were known for the reign of terror that they imposed. They killed anyone standing in their way and massacred both Sinhalese and Muslims to enforce their writ. They were also not loath to kill their own people, if those people happened to be standing in the way of their supreme leader, Velupillai Pirapaharan and his ruthless ambitions.

The Tigers made a number of miscalculations. They reasoned that no state would resort to the type of bloodthirsty and ruthless tactics they employed, no government would indulge in the kind of indiscriminate killing that they carried out. The Tigers forgot that the state had twice put down rebellions, by Sinhalese youth in the shape of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna, in 1971 and again in 1989, in a singularly, bloody-minded manner, killing all and sundry and in a pretty gory manner too.

The Tigers also thought that India would act as a bulwark if things became really bad – after all, the main powerbroker in the Indian Ocean had broken a siege of the Tamils in the 1980s, at a stage when the Sri Lankan army had them cornered. India, of course, has a Tamil population to which it has to cater, given that the main Tamil party in India is in coalition with the ruling party at the federal level. And finally, the Tigers failed to realise that in the post-2001 world, countries are less inclined to regard breakaway groups as romantically as they did in the past.

Sri Lanka ensured that India would not act as an obstacle this time by bringing China into the picture very cleverly. The Sri Lankans first asked India if it would be interested in constructing a port in the southern Hambantota area; when India declined, realising that it might be obligated to Sri Lanka if it accepted, the Sri Lankans asked the Chinese who gratefully accepted. The contract was then expanded to include a naval base; when Sri Lanka went to China to seek weapons and influence at the UN level for its pursuit of the Tigers, Beijing was only too happy to oblige.

When India realised that China was cutting in on its normal sphere of influence, it agreed to provide Sri Lanka with intelligence that led to the destruction of many of the Tiger arms re-supply craft, thus depriving the Tigers of fresh stocks of arms. By doing this, the Indians once again hoped to get back into Sri Lanka’s good books.

In 2002, the Sri Lankan government had signed a ceasefire with the Tigers; at that point, the Tamil group controlled something less than the one-third of the island which was its maximalist demand for its own state. At this point, Pirapaharan could well have bargained and got at least two-thirds of what he had set down as his ambit claim. But he refused to budge and in 2003 announced that the Tigers were withdrawing from the ceasefire.

In 2005, the current president, Mahinda Rajapakse, came to power. A year later, having put his brother, Gotabaya, in charge of defence, the war began to eliminate the Tigers. Gotabaya was promised that political considerations would not interfere with this goal; in the 1980s, when India made food drops to the besieged Tamils, Gotabaya was a member of the armed forces and that memory remained with him.

The Rajapakses kept to their word. They massacred the Tigers and shot a number of leaders of the movement in cold blood as they were trying to surrender. They did not mind if there was collateral damage in the form of about 40,000 civilians killed by both sides. They had a goal and they were as bloodthirsty as Pirapaharan in their determination to achieve it, come hell or high water. They had a regular well-paid army which was not asked to fight with one arm tied behind; the Tigers did not have the number of troops to match as several of their hardened fighters had left the movement in 2002, confident that the struggle was over.

While the low-level war began in 2006, the government only formally abrogated the ceasefire in 2008. By May 19 the following year, it was able to declare victory and show Pirapaharan’s body on television. His twisted dream had come to an end, a lesson to all those fighting for separate states that one needs to compromise in order to achieve at least a part of one’s objectives.