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.

Bin Laden’s death: things grow curiouser and curiouser

AS the days go by, the number of questions and lies around the killing of Osama bin Laden by American secret service troops seems to only grow longer. And the doubts emanate right from statements made by the head of the country and all the way down.

(Reuters has posted graphic images taken after the raid.)

Here’s a sample of the questions that I would like to see answered:

President Barack Obama said the operation had commenced in August year when evidence was obtained by the CIA that bin Laden may be hiding in Pakistan. That means it was eight months before the actual hit took place. Was this not enough time to plan things properly, including a version of events that needed to be made public, a designated spokesman, and a co-ordinated release of information?

If the Americans, as stated, were unsure, until they entered the building , that bin Laden was really inside, how come they had already arranged for an imam (a Muslim religious leader) to be on a warship ready to bury the man?

Why was this imam waiting in readiness if, as is being touted, the mission was a kill or capture mission?

Why did the Americans pretend that their own officials (Obama and his senior aides) had followed the raid minute by minute when the CIA director Leon Panetta himself said that there was a period of about 20 to 25 minutes when nobody in Washington had any idea about what was going on?

Why did the Americans shoot an unarmed man and then give out – even Obama mentioned it – that he had resisted arrest?

Why did the Americans say bin Laden had used one of wives as a human shield when the woman had actually run towards them and they had shot her in the foot?

Why did the Americans claim the house in which bin Laden was hiding was worth a million US dollars when in reality it was worth only a quarter of that?

Why was this house described as a mansion when it was really tatty inside?

Why did American officials say a son of bin Laden named Hamza was killed and later change the name to Khalid?

Why did Americans claim that there was a fierce 40-minute firefight with people in the Abbottabad house where bin Laden was and later change it to just one person in the house having a gun? And that one person was killed moments after the raid commenced.

With so many unanswered questions and lies hanging over this event, can one really blame the conspiracy theorists for going into overdrive?

Bin Laden’s death: the old American habit of lying is back

THE US of A sure knows how to screw up things. For them, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by American forces was an act that would have guaranteed a lot of good karma right across the world.

The problem is, they tried to embellish the tale of his death with unnecessary lies. There’s a simple rule about lies – much in the same way that cadavers float to the surface, lies generally get exposed. The only variable is their shelf life.

It hasn’t taken long for the Americans’ lies to be exposed. For one, bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed. The Americans said he had fired back at them when they entered the room in which he was; now it turns out that both bin Laden and one of his wives were in that room, both were unarmed and the woman rushed towards the Americans and they shot her in the foot. This is straight from the White House, courtesy its spokesman Jay Carney.

Bin Laden was then killed in cold blood. The Americans lied when they said they could not have taken him alive. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan knows that the Americans did not want to capture him alive and put him on trial – a lot of what he would have said in a courtroom would have been pretty damaging to the CIA.

Another lie the Americans told was about bin Laden using the woman in the room as a human shield – turns out he did no such thing. The Americans shot the woman in the foot when she ran towards them as they entered the room. Bin Laden did not grab her and hold her in front of him as a shield. An attempt to paint him as a coward failed. Why did they try to do so?

There are other lies that are being exposed: CIA veteran Bob Baer, speaking to the BBC, pointed out that it would have been impossible for the type of helicopters used in the raid to kill bin Laden to operate in the area without being noticed as they make an awful racket (he exaggerated to get his point across, saying that they could have been heard in Karachi, more than 1500 kms away).

Baer also pointed out that it would have been impossible for the helicopters to enter Pakistani airspace without being spotted on radar; given that Pakistan shares a border with two countries it distrusts – India and Afghanistan – it is on the alert round the clock. The Pakistanis were in on the whole thing – nothing else explains this.

Baer was also adamant that the raid could not have happened without Pakistani troops being present – though, he said, they would have stayed outside the premises as they did not want to be involved in the killing.

It is inconceivable that the Pakistan armed forces were not aware that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad which is about 122 kilometres from the Pakistan capital, Islamabad. Abbottabad is also home to the Pakistan Military Academy and Baer made the point that it was impossible for a foreigner to be in the area without gossip spreading about his or her reason for being there.

It is well known that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence has a soft spot for extremists. The agency was provided with billions of dollars by the Americans during the war against the Soviets and it channelled the funds to the various militias in Afghanistan, with the lion’s share going to the Pashtun groups; Pashtuns are present in Pakistan in large numbers, hence the bias.

The ISI is close to the Afghan Taliban and also the local version, the Pakistan Taliban. There are plenty of sympathisers within ISI ranks, men who want to see Pakistan become a fundamentalist Islamic state.

To believe that a unit like this was unaware of the presence of bin Laden in Abbottabad is like asking one to believe that the moon is made of cheese.

This constant changing of the story has led to one thing – the proliferation of conspiracy theories on the internet.

There have been conspiracy theories aplenty about the September 11 attacks despite the fact that the two masterminds, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, spoke to journalist Yosri Fouda of Al-Jazeera and detailed the plot.

Fouda, along with Nick Fielding of the Times, wrote a book titled Masterminds of Terror in 2003 detailing the modus operandi of the attacks but this has not quelled the conspiracy theorists. You can’t get closer to the plot than by reading this book.

There are already plenty of conspiracy theories on the internet about bin Laden’s death. I hope it doesn’t turn out that the Americans got the wrong man!

Bin Laden’s death: the fallout

THE death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan today means that the US President Barack Obama will have absolutely no problem getting re-elected.

Bin Laden was killed by American secret service troops in Abbotabad, an affluent suburb close to the Pakistan capital, Islamabad.

Not that Obama has looked like having a worthwhile challenger from the Republican side in his bid for another four years in the White House; however, given the fractured state of the American nation, there was always a possibility that someone from the right would be able to capitalise on the dissatisfaction caused by the financial problems dogging the country.

That possibility is now precisely zero.

A second fallout of the killing is that Pakistan will face increased attacks within its borders. When Obama announced the news, he had to walk a tightrope – he could not let on that Pakistani troops had also been involved but at the same time he could not make it look as though the Americans had violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.

But given that such a killing could not take place in a suburb like Abbotabad, home to the wealthy and educated for the most part, without Pakistani cooperation at a very high level, it is impossible to believe any report that says Pakistani special forces were not involved as well. This will not win Pakistan’s rulers any brownie points with their own population.

Pakistan has had few settled periods in its own history. It has been under martial rule for most of its existence after a painful partition from India in 1947. It has festering internal problems all over the place and is beholden to the US for aid. To the West and many other countries bin Laden was a terrorist; to Pakistan and many other countries who have suffered due to the wishes of American imperialism, he was seen as someone who had managed to gain some revenge.

And to people like the Palestinians, who have suffered under the yoke of Israeli occupation for decades, bin Laden was a hero who kept to the straight and narrow, demanding justice for them while taking the fight to the one country which has ensured that Israel is not held to account.

In Britain, there must be at least a few people who are old enough to recall the manner in which the colonial empire used its policy of divide and rule to ensure that India did not stay united and wonder if, with the benefit of hindsight, that was a wise policy. The child born of that policy, Pakistan, (which ironically means the land of the pure), has been implicated as playing some role or the other in practically every single notable act of terrorism in the last 30 years.

Does the US now draw the curtain on Dubya’s war on terror? Can it pull back troops from Afghanistan now that the reason for them going there no longer exists? What does it do with the body? Muslims bury the dead as soon as possible; the Americans have removed bin Laden’s body to the Bagram air base in Pakistan and will have to decide whether they show it to the world or else quietly bury it. Either option will create its own problems.

The US has painted this as a major victory; yet is it really so? Is the fact that the most powerful nation in the world took nearly 10 years to capture a man like bin Laden a demonstration of superior military and tactical ability? The killing has left as many questions as existed before.

In the battle of captains, Dhoni comes out ahead

ON SATURDAY, India won the World Cup cricket tournament, defeating Sri Lanka and becoming the first team to win the competition at home. But the more remarkable aspect of the win was the way it showed how a captain can lead and accept responsibility, even in this day and age when people are loath to do just that.

India was set a target that wasn’t overly intimidating but not easy to get either; batting second and scoring 275 at Bombay’s Wankhede Stadium isn’t a walk in the park. One needs someone to play a long innings, or two or three people to play knocks of about 60 or 70 to get to this kind of target.

India’s captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had batted at number 6 right through this tournament. He hadn’t made any decent scores, his best effort being in the low 30s. But he had led the team with his usual calm approach and the final saw him display his leadership qualities.

When India faced Pakistan in the semi-finals, Yuvraj Singh, a batsman who had been a model of consistency, fell for a first-ball duck. Perhaps the intensity of the occasion overcame him – there is no bigger game for either country, and this was a World Cup semi-final to boot.

Had Yuvraj been sent in during the final – India was 114 for three at the stage when he would normally have come in – and not performed, India would have been under immense pressure. The load on Dhoni would have been that much greater. There was also the matter of retaining a left-right hand combination to make it difficult for the Sri Lankan spinners to control the flow of runs.

But Dhoni was in woeful form. He had made some team changes – pulling in the non-performing Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, and leaving out the capable off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin – and if he had failed, then it is unlikely that anyone would have allowed him to forget his decisions in a hurry.

Dhoni could have sent in Suresh Raina, a capable if young player, to retain the right hand-left hand combination. Raina showed immense maturity in partnering Yuvraj during the quarter-final against Australia, taking the team from 187 for five, a position when things could have come unstuck if a wicket had fallen, to the 261 needed for victory.

But no, Dhoni came out himself. He looked in terrible nick, but kept making ungainly strokes and taking singles and twos here and there. Gradually, he grew in confidence and his form returned. He is never a pretty batsman to watch, but can hit the ball with great power.

One must bear in mind that the two men who were expected to do great things in the final, veterans Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendular, had both fallen by the time the total reached 31. Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli added 83 before the latter fell.

Then Dhoni took over. He and Gambhir took the total to 221 and then Dhoni and Yuvraj took India to victory, with Dhoni hitting a majestic six to seal the win.

One can contrast his actions with those of the Sri Lankan skipper, Kumar Sangakkara, who failed to implement the team’s strategy which has been uniform throughout the tournament – throttle the opposition, and then take wickets when they are trying to increase the scoring rate. Sangakkara left out one of the premier spinners, Ajanta Mendis, based on the logic that India plays spin well. Yet another spinner, Suraj Randiv, was included.

Sangakkara normally bowls his best speedster, Lasith Malinga, in spells of three, three and then four overs. This time, when Malinga was brought back midway through, to obviously try and take a wicket, he was given just the one over. Sangakkara’s other trump card, veteran Muthiah Muralitharan, did not even complete his quota of overs.

And long before the end appeared to be nigh, Sangakkara’s body language told the wrong tale – he looked beaten, his shoulders were hunched, he looked really agitated and in a panic.

I have commented some years ago on the way Dhoni goes about his captaincy; leadership comes naturally to this man who hails from one of the most under-developed regions of the country.

He hasn’t completed a college degree. He doesn’t know the latest buzzwords. He is verbose during TV interviews. He isn’t terribly good-looking. But he shows, time and again, that leadership is a natural trait. You can’t create leaders – they are born, not made.

Hosts to fight for honours

INDIA went into the World Cup semi-final against Pakistan depending on its batting. Pakistan, on the other hand, was banking on its bowling. On the day, things came out in reverse.

For the first time since 1983, the final of the World Cup cricket tournament will be contested by non-white teams. In 1983, India met the West Indies and registered a famous victory; on April 2, India will take on Sri Lanka, both teams bidding for a second win in the tournament, Sri Lanka having won in 1996.

After getting off to a flying start – Indian opener Virender Sehwag took 21 off the third over of the match, bowled by Umar Gul, a medium-pacer who has been one of the Pakistan’s star performers in the tournament – India did not exactly sparkle. Despite reaching 114 for one off the first 18 overs, India finished with 260.

Gul fared poorly on the day, giving away 69 runs off eight overs, the occasion probably getting to him.

The only Pakistani bowler to give away less than four runs per over was off-spinner Mohammed Hafeez who went for 34 in his 10 overs. Wahab Riaz took the wickets, five of them, but gave away 46 runs in his quota of overs. But India made life difficult for themselves; scoring ws not unduly difficult but no batsman could dominate apart from Sehwag.

India had an anchorman in veteran Sachin Tendulkar who made 85 after being dropped four times. Many of the other batsmen got starts but did not go on. Young Suresh Raina made an unbeaten 36 as the innings fell away, ending with 260.

After a start when the run-rate was around 9 during the first five overs, with Sehwag in a ferocious mood, it was a middling effort at best. Had Pakistan held their catches, India would probably have struggled to reach 200.

When Pakistan began the chase, things seemed to be on track until Asad Shafiq fell for 30 at 103. He was the third man to go and the scoring rate was, at that stage, on par. But after that there was nobody to keep Misbah-ul-Haq company.

Pakistan had no decent anchorman – Misbah made a painful 56 but did not hang around long enough and, more importantly, could not lift his scoring rate. Pakistan’s best batsman, Younis Khan, made only 13. And the two who could have scored faster when the asking rate increased – captain Shahid Afridi and youngest Umar Akmal – fell for 19 and 29 respectively. On the day, a quick 50 or 60 was called for from either of them.

Surprisingly, India’s bowling and fielding was disciplined. Ashish Nehra, coming back into the team to replace young offie Ravichandran Ashwin, was the pick with two for 33 off his quota of 10 overs.
And though Zaheer Khan and Yuvraj Singh went for nearly six an over, each took two wickets.

If India wins the tournament, it will be the first time that a host has won at home. If Sri Lanka triumphs, it will be the country’s second win as host, but neither would have come at home. Sri Lanka defeated Australia in the 1996 final which was held in Lahore; India’s win in 1983 over the West Indies was at Lord’s.

ABC News 24 is a dismal failure

THEY call it ABC News 24. I call it ABC News 23. I think my nomenclature is more accurate since the ABC depends on the BBC to fill up an hour of its news broadcasts late at night, the 1am and 2am slots. But even at those late hours, the BBC tends to highlight what’s wrong with the ABC’s 24-hour effort and exactly how pathetic the latter is.

For one, the ABC’s footage from abroad is always stale. One never gets to see more than one turnover every 24 hours. Indeed, it often goes to 30 or even 36 hours. With a 24-hour channel, one depends on coverage of foreign news quite a bit – there isn’t that much happening on the domestic front.

And the ABC is ill-equipped to cope with such a channel. The spread of correspondents is very thin – for example, one person looks after South Asia, a region where nearly a quarter of humanity lives. This region encompasses two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, that are crucial to the future of the West. Afghanistan is a country under partial Western occupation and Pakistan is terrorism central.

Being the only Muslim state that has nuclear weapons, Pakistan is of great significance news-wise. If any other state in the region or the Middle East does obtain nukes, you can be sure that Pakistan will be the source. Yet, the ABC has no full-time correspondent there. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence controls events in Afghanistan but the ABC, which claims to champion good old-fashioned news values, does not rate it important enough to station someone in Islamabad.

And let’s not forget India which is some kind of a bulwark to these countries. It is impossible for one person to spread themselves across this terrain and do anything like justice. Most of the time the correspondent, Sally Sara, is reduced to reading scripts from agency wires while stale footage creeps across the screen.

The ABC News 24 network appears to be a product of the ego of the corporation’s managing director, Mark Scott. He swore to implement it using the available staff. But the ABC is now cutting support staff in various bureaux abroad and also expecting increased output. The gruel will be spread thinner by the addition of water. Never mind if it tastes bad.

Another thing that Scott has championed is the airing of opinion: he obviously feels that ABC staff should have a site where they voice their opinions. Hence the Drum was born. It compromises ABC staff to a large extent as they, being employees of a government-funded body, are not expected to show political bias when it comes to reporting. Yet, via their opinion pieces, their biases are on open display.

The Drum also makes its appearance on the 24-hour TV channel and illustrates the old adage – you can’t make a carpenter out of a plumber, they are two different trades. Steve Cannane, an extremely competent radio broadcaster, is a tepid and boring interlocutor on the program, stiff and evidently uncomfortable and out of place.

The main contributor to the Drum, Annabel Crabb, is also unsuited for television; she was recruited as chief writer for the Drum website and does an excellent job there but her long-winded sentences do not work on television. She ends up monopolising the program and, even then, often cannot complete what she means to say. She is periodically cut off in mid-sentence by Cannane who appears to be obsessed with trying to discuss X number of topics on a given day. Result? The discussion lacks any depth.

The guests on the Drum are, by and large, a boring lot too; even when there are people who can be a bit unconventional (like the chaps from the Chaser, for example), everyone tends to take a cue from Cannane and it becomes boredom central. Members of the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think-tank (stink-tank would be more accurate) appear to have a kind of permanent booking for one seat on the Drum and, as most right-wingers do, tend to make the program as dull as ditchwater.

The way staff have been allocated jobs on News 24 is evidence of hasty decision-making. Virginia Trioli, one of the best and brightest in the ABC, one who can interview people with charm and ferocity, one who has more than a passing knowledge of world affairs, is reduced to reading the news. And then there’s Aly Moore who tends to regard the studio as she does her sofa at home – nothing else can account for the way she tends to lounge on the news desk every few minutes. Moore should always be behind a camera and needs some voice training to tone down the squeakiness of her delivery.

Competing with Cannane for the title of wooden man of 24-hour channels is sports news reader Paul Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy may well have the edge on Cannane. Sport is heavily Sydney-centric, reflecting the traditional bias that led to the nation’s capital being built in Canberra. Kennedy often seems to be operating in the past tense, so frozen is he, something like an animal caught in the glare of headlights.

The hurry with which the ABC set up News 24 is evident in some of the names it has chosen for its programmes. Al Jazeera has a interview programme called One On One; the ABC could do no better than pinch and modify it to One Plus One. This is just one example. One Plus One could also have given its host, Jane Hutcheon, some voice training to speak on a lower key. It grates on the ear.

One lesson that the ABC could have learned from Al Jazeera, which has grown to be a great success because of the journalism it produces, was to pick its correspondents from the areas it covers. A man knows his own home much better than an outsider. But given that Scott pledged to set up the channel with no extra expenditure, the ABC is reduced to recyling and re-recycling. You see the same footage tagged differently on every news programme on the ABC – and it does have a fair few channels.

So what’s new about News 24? You can see Lateline and Lateline Business a few extra times. You can see the 7.30 Report again if you happen to be suffering from insomnia – and what’s more, you can see Four Corners and Media Watch on an HD channel. Forget the fact that the last two named programmes are repeated on the analog channel ABC1 as well.

And before I forget, you can also get the time from ABC News 24 because it has a digital clock on-screen. I find that the most useful bit of the channel as I do not possess a watch.

What are Western troops doing in Afghanistan?

TWENTY-ONE Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since Canberra decided to join the American mission to that country. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed, and a goodly number of other Western forces have also paid the ultimate sacrifice. But to what end?

All these deaths have been in vain, for it looks very much like the Taliban will slowly come back to power; indeed, the Americans are already talking to the Taliban through proxies in Saudi Arabia in order to try and save face when they (US troops) are forced to crawl back to their bases. That will come about sooner rather than later as the American public will stomach just so many deaths; after that, it will become too much of a political hot potato for President Barack Obama to handle.

After all, the man does not want to be a one-term president. Keeping troops in Afghanistan will push down the ratings of a man who is already not going too well in the opinion polls.

The Americans sent forces to Afghanistan back in 2001, in retaliation for the attacks by al-Qaeda on the US mainland. Even at that stage, it was not very clear what their mission was, apart from exacting revenge. Killing Osama bin Laden was said to be top of the list; presumably killing his top lieutenants was also a priority.

Nine years on, bin Laden is very much alive. His chief aide, Dr Ayman Al Zawahiri, is alive and kicking as well. And the mission to Afghanistan has gone dangerously downhill. A great deal of the money poured into Afghanistan by Western and Arab donors has ended up in the pockets of sundry warlords. Many have repatriated some part of what they have managed to swindle, in the expectation that once the Taliban returns to power, they will have to flee the country if they want to stay alive.

Nobody had any illusions that the Americans would unseat the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalist party which was governing Afghanistan at the time of the September 2001 attacks. But was that the end-all and be-all of the American mission? If the aim was to disrupt the activities of terrorists who were likely to plan future attacks on America, then that hasn’t been fulfilled.

Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who could be better described as the mayor of Kabul as his writ runs only thus far, is already talking to one of the Taliban leaders, Sirajuddin Haqqani, in the hope that he may be able to survive the return of the religious fundamentalists to power. It is highly unlikely that Karzai will be able to stay on and he is probably planning his departure now.

The problem is that the Americans have repeated the mistakes of Great Britain and the Soviet Union and tried to install a government of their liking in Afghanistan. Nobody has ever been able to do that. Afghans do not like outsiders and no matter how much money is used to try and bribe them, they will smile, take the money and then support their own. That is an Afghan trait and has not changed for centuries. Boning up on history would have helped the Americans no end.

Given the number of troops that have been deployed in Afghanistan, it is a joke to even think of controlling the country. Hardly had the troops been deployed when the Americans decided to invade Iraq and made that mission the top priority. The porous borders with states that are not exactly inclined to be helpful to the Americans have compounded the problem. The behaviour of mercenaries hired by the Americans – so-called contractors who handle various security-related tasks – has not helped to any degree. These mercenaries are often prone to smash up a local man’s car simply because they suspect him of being a militant. Not many people in Afghanistan have cars to begin with.

But even if the Americans and their allies had gone on a massive PR blitz to try and endear themselves to the Afghans, it wouldn’t have made much difference. The Afghans don’t mind living in a mess – as long as it is of their own making. They don’t like being invaded, they don’t like foreigners. In fact, which country likes to be ruled by outsiders? The American mission to Afghanistan will end in defeat; it might be a good idea to cut the losses and run right now.

History tells us: the ICC must take the blame for match-fixing

IT WOULD be amusing to read all about the apportioning of blame by various people in the wake of the recent revelations about match-fixing, were it not for the fact that the whole thing is so damn serious. But then one should not be surprised about all the breast-beating that is going on – it is common for people to concentrate on the effects and forget the cause.

It does not take much effort to go back to the event that provided the seed for the growth of match-fixing in cricket. Remember, one is not talking about betting on cricket, that has been around for as long as the game has been played.

In 1980 the first international one-day cricket match was held in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. This was sanctioned by the International Cricket Council and it marked the start of trouble. The matches in Sharjah increased in number and India’s win in the 1983 World Cup gave the tournaments held in the desert emirate a fillip.

For one, the Sharjah tournaments were built on one factor – the enmity between India and Pakistan. There was always a third team invited (or even a fourth) to make up the numbers, but given the large numbers of Indian and Pakistani expatriates in the UAE, they were the focus.

Additionally, the Sharjah cricket organisers opened the doors to illegal betting of huge amounts by people of dubious reputations. Apart from the cricket, celebrities from both India and Pakistan were invited to attend. The UAE is a peculiar place – you can walk in to the country with a million dollars in a suitcase and no questions are asked but if you carry a Bible in, you may be questioned for an hour or more. Before oil came into the picture, Dubai was better known as the source of gold smuggling into India.

Both India and Pakistan have massive amounts of black money in their respective economies and lots of this money was used to wager large amounts in Sharjah. A great many dubious people offered awards in Sharjah to buy popularity and these were accepted without any hesitation – Pakistan batsman Javed Miandad earned more than a million dollars in 1986 when he hit a six off the last ball of a game to defeat India and win a tournament for Pakistan.

The UAE is known to harbour a number of people who are wanted in other parts of the world, people like the smuggler Dawood Ibrahim, who fled India in 1993 after he was being sought by police as a suspect in the bombing of the Bombay stock exchange that same year.

It is inconceivable that the ICC was unaware of all the goings-on but it chose to turn a blind eye. Cricketers were benefitting financially – the Sharjah organisers used to present three cricketers with money at every tournament – and the ICC was being paid the fees it sought. What’s more, any ICC bigwig who visited during the tournament was treated like God.

But the tournaments provided the means for illegal bookies and people of their ilk to gain access to players – one merely had to host a reception in Dubai for the cricketers (no liquor is served in hotels in Sharjah, hence the choice of Dubai which is just a 20-minute drive from Sharjah) during the tournament and one could pal up with the best players from India and Pakistan.

The money attracted other teams too and as the years went on the organisers scored their biggest coup by signing the West Indies, at that time the hottest property in world cricket. Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka all came and played and were feted and wined and dined. Nobody raised any question as to why cricket in the desert was needed. It was something like the Packer days again, only this time the ICC gave the whole shindig its blessing.

Prior to Sharjah, there was hardly any talk of throwing a game of cricket. It took a few years for the bookies to develop their contacts to the point where they could make demands. Sharjah began hosting two tournaments a year soon after it started operations and this provided a fast track for unsavoury activities to grow.

in the 1990s , there was more and more talk about matches being influenced by factors other than the players’ ability. On the Indian tour of the West Indies in 1997, one Test, when India fell for 81 when chasing a little over 100 for victory, was a game that came in for some examination. An Indian writer, R. Mohan of the well-known Indian paper, The Hindu, lost his job after his betting activities came to light. And by the turn of the century, a few cricketers had been found out and banned from the game.

It is easy to gain access to junior players once one knows the seniors. And mind you, the seniors need not be in the pay of bookies, but merely acquainted enough to be persuaded to introduce others to the men who pay cricketers to fix games. After all, if you were told that Al Capone wanted to meet you during the heyday of that gentleman’s existence, would you have turned it down?

The ICC never objected to cricket being played in Sharjah. The only reason why the tournaments are no longer being held there is because there is no space on the international calendar after the future tours programme was put into practice. The ICC has even shifted its own headquarters to Dubai – simply because it benefits from the no-tax regime in the UAE and also gets free flights from Emirates airline – which is owned by the ruling family of Dubai – for its officials. When an international body has sold itself out in this manner, can it ever hope to call attention to the wrong-doings of its players?

Why Ricky Ponting should be sacked

RICKY Ponting is one of the best cricketers in the world to watch when he is on song. The man has played 145 Tests, captained Australia since 2004 and is a pugnacious fighter all the way.

Despite all this experience and these attributes, Ponting does not deserve to captain the country any more. Not after he decided to bat in the second Test against Pakistan in Headingley last night and saw the team blown away for 88.

Ponting is a great cricketer. He is not a good captain, something I have pointed out in the past.

With all his experience of having played in England, why did Ponting take such a decision? It is being put down to a Test in England in 2005 when he put the home team in – without Glenn McGrath in his ranks – and ended up losing the Test and the Ashes.

He is not the only captain to be haunted by a decision made in the past, one which cost him dearly. Steve Waugh was similarly loath to enforce the follow-on after he did so in India in 2001 and lost the Test and finally the series.

But a captain is expected to have some intelligence and also to use it. The conditions in Headingley were treacherous – exactly the kind of weather that would help bowlers like Mohammed Asif and Umar Gul who pitch it up and can move the ball either way. And what transpired was a slaughter of a very good Australian team.

One just has to see the way Michael Clarke was dismissed to understand what Australia was up against. The ball from Umar Gul swerved at the last minute and uprooted Clarke’s middle stump – and he is a man with very good technique, one who generally plays down the right line.

It’s not so long ago that Pakistan had Australia on the ropes – in Sydney last year. That time Asif was the wrecker-in-chief but Australia managed to escape. Asif was much more difficult to play in Headingley and that should give an indication of exactly how bad the conditions were.

But would Australia have had Pakistan in as bad a position if they had sent them in? Given the way that the Australian bowlers performed when Pakistan batted – in similar conditions to which Australia had been knocked over – they could do little. Pakistan got away to an excellent start and had practically overtaken their rivals before a wicket had fallen.

A captain should have the maturity to think a decision through, not react in a standard way that is pre-determined. Each Test is different and one can impose oneself on the opposition by bowling first just as well as one can by batting first. Ponting, great cricketer that he is, lacks that maturity even today. Either that, or he has no faith in his bowlers – and given the way they performed, one could not fault him for that.

I doubt that Shane Warne, the greatest captain Australia never had, would never have made such a decision. Ponting did and that shows the difference in reading the game between him and the leggie.

Even if Australia does escape from the hole that it has dug itself into due to Ponting’s muleheadedness, it would not justify his decision. Captains must think and then act. Not the other way round.