Friday, November 28, 2008

Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State

President-elect Barak Obama is already taking steps to warm many hearts. If there is any truth in the cliché that morning shows the day, then it is just not only the people in USA but also the rest of the world who can feel that sunshine is about to return to their lives after eight long and miserable winters suffered under President George W Bush by the decisions that the transition team of the President-elect is taking.

Senator Obama is clearly a man of vision; one who can rise about partisanship and lead by bridging gaps rather than dividing in sharp contrast to the man he would soon be replacing. He has already reached out to the Republicans, initiating and then meeting Senator McCain, his opponent in a very bitter Presidential election to ensure that he has his support in the Congress in implementing his agenda of change. His country vitally needs this change to return from the worst economic predicament that USA has faced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. He is already contemplating giving cabinet positions to the Republican Party following President Lincoln who after winning the 1860 election took into his Cabinet some of his bitterest critics for the sake of the country. Obama, who writes or drafts most of his speeches like Abraham Lincoln but also uses speechwriters, instructed one of them to underpin a quote from Lincoln for his victory speech. The writer came out with a quote not used much that says: "We are not enemies, but friends … Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." When these words were spoken by Obama before a vast crowd at Chicago's Grant Park on election night, it found an immediate connect with a nation sick with bipartisan bickering and underscored unequivocally Obama's determination to unite his country.

President-elect Obama's desire to follow the footsteps of President Lincoln by uniting his one-time opponents for the sake of the country can also be seen in his move to make Senator Hillary Clinton Secretary of State. He had fought against her one of the bitterest fights ever seen in the Democratic Party for the nomination for the President. At one stage, Senator Clinton even mentioned publicly and incorrectly that Senator Obama attended an Islamic school in Indonesia where he spent some years as a child with his mother and Indonesian step-father, a reference intended to underline Senator Obama's Islamic link.

The choice of the Senator from New York as the Secretary of State is one in which there are many other positives. Senator Clinton has already proved that she has what it takes to go to the White House and had she not met someone as brilliant and outstanding as Senator Obama, her party's nomination would have been hers for the asking and she could have been very well the President-elect. She has had a comparatively short career as a Senator but during this period, she has gained experience in five committees, notable the heavyweight Armed Services Committee. Although she voted for the Iraq war, she and Obama now shares the common concern of bringing the US troops from Iraq earlier than later. As the First Lady, she played a very crucial role in the Clinton administration with such initiatives as Clinton health care plan (that was aborted in the Congress); State Children's Health Insurance Program and Adoption and Safe Families Act that added credibility and weight to the Clinton White House. At the time of her husband's infidelity, she stood by him by rising above her emotions for the sake of the country.

She is loaded with experience and ability whose inclusion in the Cabinet will be welcomed just not in her country but outside the United States. She will have one additional advantage for the Obama administration if she joins it. She will have an insider in her husband President Clinton to advise her on issues with which he is perhaps one of the most competent to speak to, having been a very successful President in foreign affairs - an interest he is still pursuing with his foundation that provides millions of dollars for development in Africa. As President, Bill Clinton had focused great attention and energy for resolving the Palestinian problem and just before he handed the administration to George Bush, had come very close to a permanent resolution to the crisis. It can be expected that he would influence the Obama administration indirectly for a just and sustainable peace in the ME and moderate the overtly pro-Israel stance that the President-elect had taken during the presidential campaign.

The Obama administration would be assuming office at a time when the US is in the midst of an economic meltdown. By tradition, the Democrats are pro-labour and in trade, protectionist. The economic crisis will only make Democrats in Congress less “free textile trade” and more “fair textile trade” with textile quotas ending at the end of the year. This is not good news for Bangladesh whose crucial export earnings from RMG come mostly from the US market. Bangladesh's economic diplomacy will be tested to the fullest to receive favourable attention from the new administration so that her RMG market in the US does not face a major blow. Bangladesh has no lobbyist working in the US; it has a Bangladesh caucus in the Congress but there is no reason to be optimistic that this group would be able to do much to help Bangladesh with her trade interests. The outlook is bleak with one window of opportunity, which one can see is in a connection that a leading Bangladeshi has with Senator and President Clinton. In this context, I remember an event during the early days of the Clinton administration where Dr. Yunus was being honoured at the US State Department with one of the many international prizes that he has won. In his address at the event, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said that during the presidential campaign in California, when as candidate Bill Clinton was relaxing after a hard day's work, he told a group of close associates that there was an individual working wonders in Bangladesh with the poor and poverty alleviation and that he should be given the Nobel Prize. Very few knew who Bill Clinton was talking about till he named that individual as Dr. Mohammed Yunus. Before that in the 1980s, Dr. Yunus had been invited by the Clintons to Arkansas where Bill Clinton was Governor and ever since, Dr. Yunus has been a very close friend of the Clintons, a fact now widely known in relevant circles in Washington.

Successful diplomacy depends on tact, contact and national power. Of power, the less said the better in case of Bangladesh. Tact or the ability of diplomats to negotiate successfully is on the decline. On contact, Bangladesh has precious little to successfully achieve her foreign policy goals. If Senator Clinton becomes the next US Secretary of State, a window of opportunity would open in achieving Bangladesh's bilateral interests with USA with the element of contact. This window of opportunity could work if a number of other things fall into line. Bangladesh must have a credible election and an elected government in place without resorting to violence. The government that would come to office must make its intentions clear on its resolve to deal with Islamic militancy. As President, Obama would have little or no interest in Bangladesh; there is no reason for him to be. But if Bangladesh can come strongly with a democratic government serious on the issue of militancy, it could attract the attention of policy makers in the new administration, including Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State. In that scenario, Bangladesh could work with Senator Clinton through Dr. Yunus with a very limited bilateral agenda such as sustainable access to the RMG market in the US. An announcement that Senator Clinton would be the next Secretary of State is expected after Thanksgiving and at the moment, it seems certain that she will be.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION: Call to increase regional interconnectivity: Former diplomats urge at roundtable, lament lack of coordination

By Daily Star Staff Correspondent

Former diplomats have suggested that the next elected government formulate a foreign policy prioritizing regional connectivity for economic growth, impacts of climate change, international labour market, energy crisis and access of Bangladeshi products to global market.

They regretted that Bangladesh is failing to gain many benefits because of divergent foreign policies of successive governments and a lack of coordination between the foreign ministry and other ministries concerned.

While formulating the policy, the government should have a broader national consensus and consider the changed world's aspects, especially the economic crisis, they said yesterday at a roundtable.

The ambassadors who represented Bangladesh in different countries over the past few decades also stressed the need for "re-branding" the country in the international arena by projecting its achievements in microcredit and other social sectors and its multi-ethnicity.

The Daily Star and the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (C-Fas) jointly organised the roundtable titled "Future Directions of Bangladesh Foreign Policy" at the newspaper's conference room yesterday.

"No foreign policy can be effective without a minimum degree of coordination and coherence. Unfortunately, the role of foreign ministry has been undermined and diluted in Bangladesh and we need to find ways of re-establishing the typical role of the foreign office," said former ambassador Farooq Sobhan at the discussion.

The Bangladeshi diaspora can play a critical role in improving Bangladesh's image abroad, he said, adding that overseas employment, trade, attracting foreign direct investment and fighting terrorism are the key foreign affairs challenges for Bangladesh.

Sobhan said Bangladesh should devise strategies on the basis of the changed global scenarios--rise of India and China on one hand and the economic meltdown on the other.

Moderating the function, C-Fas Chairman Ashfaqur Rahman said, "The new government will have a lot of home work to do regarding foreign affairs."

In his keynote paper titled "Future Directions of Bangladesh Foreign Policy: Dreams or Nightmares?", Dhaka University Professor Imtiaz Ahmed detailed aspects of Bangladesh's past and present foreign policies and how it should be redefined taking into consideration globalisation and the ongoing global economic crisis.

In a globalised world, economic growth is largely interlinked with foreign relations and the challenges facing the country are not going to end unless creative policy initiatives are undertaken to overcome them, he said.

If Bangladesh is to go beyond its current economic growth of over 6 percent, it needs to resolve its energy requirements on a priority basis, he said, adding that in that case the country needs to think beyond oil and coal and keep all options open.

"This would require investment in knowledge and expertise in drafting agreements at both bilateral and international levels. Any lethargy or slippage in what would be protracted bound to cost Bangladesh heavily," said Prof Imtiaz of international relations department.

Referring to a recent research, he said should Bangladesh invest in the development of semi-skilled migrant workers, including catering to restaurant business and plumbing, and have them sent to Europe, it could end up raising the remittance flow up to $30 billion, if not more.

"Here too, creative institutionalisation at home and external engagements is required," he added.

Former ambassador Harunur Rashid said sometime foreign policy is determined by a small cabinet or stalwarts in the ruling party or the prime minister's secretariat undermining recommendations of the foreign ministry.

"There is no consensus or bi-partisanship regarding the country's foreign policy," he said.

He said national consensus is required on issues related to global warming as such environmental issues affect crop production, health and salinity of water.

Harunur Rashid advocated stronger inter-connectivity and transit facilities with India, Myanmar, China and other neighbouring countries. Such transit facilities will increase trade opportunities for Bangladesh, he said.

The former ambassador also stressed the need for paying more attention to the Bangladeshis living abroad.

"We must project Bangladesh as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country," he said.

Harunur Rashid said there is a communication gap between the politicians and the foreign office in regard to foreign affairs. He also recommended setting up of a research and evaluation unit in the foreign ministry to devise a long-term plan.

Executive Director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) Dr Mustafizur Rahman said Bangladesh will have difficulties in getting market access for apparel to the US under the Obama administration as Obama will be more protectionist.

Bangladesh's foreign policy has to be devised considering the trade opportunities in the south block that includes India and China, he said, adding that carbon trading, territorial issues and nuclear energy should be the new focus of the foreign policy.

Former ambassador Anwar Hashim said, "Since globalisation is to stay, we have to devise ways to benefit from it and fight its negative aspects."

It is essential to determine the country's interests abroad and dispassionately evaluate the achievements and failure in the past 38 years to formulate a foreign policy for getting the benefits of globalisation.

"There are hundreds of issues and we have to prioritise those," said Anwar Hashim.

Former ambassador Muhammad Zamir termed water management, power, environmental degradation and food security the most crucial issues to be included in the foreign policy priority list.

The line ministries usually do not care about the foreign ministry and deal with external issues directly, he said, adding that the foreign ministry should take a coordinated approach in dealing with foreign affairs.

Putting emphasis on capacity building, Zamir said the foreign ministry officials should learn the languages of the countries where the number of Bangladeshi migrants is high and Bangladesh has trade interests.

Former ambassador Shamim Ahmed said it is necessary to look for employment opportunities beyond the Middle East because the decline in oil prices there may have negative impact on Bangladesh's labour market in the region.

The country's image cannot be improved ignoring half the country's populace - women, said ambassador Nasim Ferdous, adding that the foreign ministry should play a key role in creating a pool of female professionals and researchers.

Former diplomat and adviser to the caretaker government CM Shafi Sami said Bangladesh is failing to formulate an effective foreign policy because of polarised politics and lack of good governance.

Brig Gen (retd) Shahedul Anam Khan gave the welcome speech.

Former ambassadors Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, Serajul Islam, Kazi Anwarul Masud, M Shafiullah, chief editor of Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS) Zaglul Ahmed Chowdhury and businessman SM Mainuddin Momen also spoke.

Friday, November 21, 2008

US foreign policy under President Bush: A critical view

IN an interesting interview given to the New York Times recently, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has given the administration of President George Bush high marks in the area of foreign policy. Secretary Rice has been a National Security Adviser in the first Bush Administration and then replaced General Colin Powell in 2005 to become the Secretary of State in President Bush's second administration.

Secretary Rice said US foreign policy has served the cause of democracy worldwide successfully, working under President Bush's belief that democracy is not just for a few. She cited Iraq's move to a multi-ethnic democracy and voting rights of women in Kuwait as evidence. She also said that because of US' role, the European parliament has not been afraid to award Andrei Sakharov prize to Chinese dissident Hu Jia despite the blowback from Beijing. She said Egypt will change and that Egyptians will demand a different presidential election next time.

On Middle-East, Secretary Rice said there have been substantial gains but cited that the real change has been in conversation all over the region where every country is now seeking some form of popular legitimacy. In the context of Palestine-Israel relations, she said that “the Palestinian leadership is avowedly in favour of negotiations, renounces violence, and recognizes the right of Israel to exist. There is a robust negotiating process, and they have made a lot of progress on how to get to a two-state solution”. She said Hamas takeover of Gaza has been a problem but that the Egyptians have helped in containing conflict. The US effort there has been to strengthen the hands of Mahmoud Abbas to take an agreement to the Palestinians by demonstrating that Hamas has no solution to the Palestinian problem.

On Iran, Secretary Rice said the objectives have been to change the behaviour of the regime but not the regime itself and help indigenous forces there with democracy. On Darfur, Secretary Rice expressed regret that the principle “the responsibility to protect” that the UN adopted in 2006 in the end meant nothing but empty words with no one wanting consequences, leaving the US using sanctions unilaterally to no useful purpose.

On Europe, Secretary Rice dismissed the perception that US has poor relations with that continent as “myth” though she admitted some disagreement without any serious problems in US-Europe relations. On Russia, she said that the country is in an “infrastructural nightmare” where an aging population is being replaced by a “sickly population”, concluding that US could remain “calm” about Russia.

About President Bush's legacy in foreign affairs, Secretary Rice said the most important one has been in spreading the message of freedom just not from tyranny but also poverty, disease and linking these to US's security needs. She said the world is at a historical transformation and US foreign policy goals set to motion by President Bush will tie democracy, defense and development in one single process. She also said that Bush's foreign policy has successfully handled foreign assistance, doubling it in Latin America; quadrupling in Africa and tripling worldwide, adding 300 new AID officers and 1100 Foreign Service officers to the State Department.

Secretary Rice's interview is, to say the least, very interesting given the fact that upon analysis it is very thin on substance against the claims she has made. Egypt elected Hosne Mubarak in 2005 for fifth consecutive six-year term by 88% and her prediction for a more credible election next time rests only on the hope that Mubarak will be too old to participate in it. The situation in Iraq is far from what has been claimed and she has not talked about the human costs, with so many thousands of innocent lives lost, not to speak of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent that has caused the greatest meltdown in US history that is now threatening to take down the world economy with it down the same path in which it now lies.

The claim on change in ME is also suspect given the fact after eight years of Bush's tenure, the region remains as far removed from democracy as it was at the end of the Clinton term. Ironically, it is in Palestine that a truly democratic parliamentary election was held in 2006 in which the Palestinians freely and fairly elected the Hamas that the US rejected because of Hamas' links to terrorism. In June 2007 US, in collusion with Israel, unsuccessfully tried to put a faction of Hamas led by Mohhmad Dahlan whom President Bush called “our guy” to overthrow the Hamas led Government. In fact the foundations that are the basis of democracy that the US preaches like universal franchise: elections for political offices, a freely elected parliament, are present only in Iran and Palestine. Elsewhere, monarchs are as powerful as ever and as a result of US foreign policy in the region, these monarchs have received extra hundreds of billions of dollars by windfall as a consequence of increase in price of oil three fold due to the invasion of Iraq. They have spent these extra billions partly to distribute further economic prosperity to their people so that they have less need to think or worry for democratic governments. Thus, at least on surface, there are no significant moves for democracy in the ME, except in Egypt where US economic and military aid has kept and continues to keep General Mubarak in power.

Iran has been identified by the US as an “axis of evil” and in these last eight years, there has been speculations on and off that US would invade that country to bring down its alleged nuclear installations urged by its strongest ally in the region, Israel, that has a major nuclear arsenal of its own and had in the past attacked Iraq in the 1980s to bring down that country's nuclear installation. Iran's only fault, seen by the US, is that its President has said Iran will wipe Israel out of existence. That statement, unacceptable as it is, has never been put in its proper perspective from the Iranian point of view. Iran is in the middle of a region surrounded on all sides by nuclear weapons states: Israel on the west, Russia on the north and Pakistan on the east. With all three, the US has excellent relations. In case of Pakistan, US endeared her at a time when General Musharraf had come to power after overthrowing a democratically elected government and under the cloud for selling nuclear technology in the open market. Iran needs to be assured of its own security that cannot be enhanced with Israel urging the US to attack Iran and USA calling Iran an “axis of evil”. Furthermore, Iran, with its view on Israel notwithstanding, cannot be denied access to civil nuclear technology, now less so after the US has signed the civil-nuclear deal with India which is a nuclear weapons state.

The failure to focus on the Palestinian issue as the most important problem in the ME has been a major failure in US foreign policy under President Bush. It took his Secretary of State Colin Powell eight months to pay his first visit to ME and on that visit he said that Iraq and not the Palestinian issue was more important in US foreign policy, thereby striking all the good work done for resolution of the Palestinian problem in the Clinton era; a problem that is the single most important factor that has rendered maximum wind to the sail of Islamic terrorism. The hastily declared war on terror following 9/11 that took the US to Afghanistan in search of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and then leaving Afghanistan with the work unfinished to invade Iraq on falsehood and deceit placed the US foreign policy into conflict with the rest of the world, the consequences of which have devastated the world.

The postscript on the assessment on US foreign policy under President Bush has been written in the way the world rejoiced at the victory of Senator Obama. Never in history has a world leader been hailed the way as Senator Obama has been hailed; nor ever will a US President leave office with such an abysmal infamy record as President Bush. The world's rejoicing at Senator Obama's victory has been due almost totally to the failure of US foreign policy in the past eight years. The doctrine of pre-emptive strike and “you are either with us or against us” that have been at the basis of US foreign policy during this period have made the United States very unpopular with the rest of the world. The new US President, Secretary Rice's tall claims in her NYT interview notwithstanding, will have a very challenging task ahead to win back the trust that the world has lost in the US by recasting the foreign policy of the neo-con that has been based on the belief that US can and has the power to impose its will on the rest of the world.

US foreign policy under President Bush has sent democracy, defense and development on three different directions. It will now be President-elect Obama's task to bring these in line for sake of the United States and the world.

Published in The Daily Star, November 21, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

EDITORIAL COMMENT: The Caretaker Government must create a level playing ground for national elections

What was supposed to be a watershed in the development of democratic and bipartisan politics in Bangladesh is now petering towards re-establishment of one-party rule that we saw in the first 3 years of our independence and then during Ershad’s dictatorship. It is thus no surprise that in the type of partisan politics that is now being established, the partners will be the Awami League and General Ershad.

Our politics has never been perfect. In fact, it is because of such imperfection that this military-backed Government clamped emergency and expressed their determination to reform politics and politicians. The BNP’s demands for contesting the election may not have been entirely justified in the eyes of this Government; but then we have seen the Awami League make such demands in the past that have been viewed with consideration. Their demand for cancellation of election after BNP handed power to the Caretaker Government and the civil disturbances that followed ushered in the emergency. In fact, the AL has publicly stated their role in this context. The AL Chief, before leaving for US after emergency was clamped, said before the media that it would enact all ordinances of the Caretaker Government to law if they came to power.

The Caretaker Government has disappointed a lot of people by its failure to take the BNP on board. This fact alone makes its two years stay in office questionable for its failure to make the playing field level for the two mainstream parties to participate in the elections. It does not need common sense to suggest that if a party that won the last two of the three democratic elections in the country, the last one overwhelmingly, does not take part in the next election, then the outcome will not be credible and instead democracy will be dealt a deadly blow and it will push the country to uncertainty and will make the miseries that the people have faced under the Caretaker Government futile and for a lost cause.

The BNP’s decision not to go to the elections should have been deliberated with more care. It wasted too much time worrying about the time factor and was caught on the wrong foot when the date of the elections was announced. It will now have to show maturity to explain to the nation its reasons for not going to the election so that it can make a positive contribution to the country instead of going to the street and agitating over it which will only imperil the country. They should feel confident that a government formed in the manner it is going to be will not give it the moral sanction to govern and an election held without it will not be one that will last.

A word must be said about the foreign diplomats; particularly those representing the developed ones who make it their business to interfere in our politics, taking the plea that they are doing it for our good and for democracy. How would they explain that the 18th December election will be held with the party the represents half of the people of Bangladesh out of it? The perception in the public mind that it is these meddling diplomats who have been responsible for the emergency will now need no more evidence to be established.

Those who love Bangladesh and want it to prosper, including the AL, have the responsibility to see that a credible election is held in the country that would require the participation of all the parties, particularly the AL and the BNP. All is not lost and the Caretaker Government must make efforts still to bring the BNP to the election.

Seminar on maritime boundary

Published in The Daily Star, November 20, 2008 (by Daily Star staff correspondent)

While continuing negotiations with India and Myanmar on maritime boundary delimitation, Bangladesh should build capacity to conduct physical surveys in the Bay of Bengal, so it may make proper claims with the UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) in 2011, experts said.

Pointing out a lack of proper political direction on the issue during the tenures of past governments, the experts stressed on increasing maritime capabilities for learning about the economic importance of the resources in the bay.

The opinions were expressed by speakers at a roundtable yesterday arranged by The Daily Star on "Bangladesh's Delimitation Issues with India and Myanmar" held in the newspaper's office conference room.

Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, welcomed the speakers while Brig (retd) Shahed Anam, defence and strategic editor, moderated the session.

The speakers said July 27, 2011 is the deadline for Bangladesh to file maritime claims with the United Nations (UN) in line with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The date however is not for determining the sea boundary, so scopes for negotiations will remain.

So it is important to take proper preparations rather than being frustrated about the issue, although much time has already been lost, they added.

They said Bangladesh can promote its national interest best by negotiating on the basis of equity principle, while India and Myanmar prefer to settle the issue in equidistance method which will not do justice to the countries in locations like Bangladesh is in.

Rear Admiral (retd) SI Mujtaba, former foreign secretary Barrister Kaiser Murshed, former state minister for foreign affairs Reaz Rahman, former ambassadors Barrister Harun Ur Rashid, Muhammad Zamir, Ashfaque Ahmed, Serajul Islam, and Shameem Ahmed, former adviser to the caretaker government Shafi Shami, AK Azad of Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), Dr Uttam Kumar Deb of the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), and Professor Shahiduzzaman of the international relations department of Dhaka University spoke at the event.

The speakers said amid a lack of political direction, the media have a great role to play through raising public awareness regarding the issue.

Commodore (retd) Khurshed Alam made a brief presentation on the maritime boundary delimitation issue, the historical background, international laws and conventions, as well as about the country's position, progress in the negotiation, and the ground reality.

He said a great deal of harm has already been done to the country by not taking proper action in proper time, and it will be too late if the nation fails to take a decision now.

He recommended setting up a permanent forum for dealing with the matter, redrawing the baseline, updating the maritime zone act, claiming continental shelf up to 350 nautical miles into the bay, and developing maritime capabilities to safeguard national maritime interests.

Reaz Rahman said Bangladesh has an opportunity to claim up to 350 nautical miles of the continental shelf into the deep sea fulfilling the conditions of UNCLOS.

After 2002 the immediate past government had trained some 15 officials of the foreign ministry on maritime issues, but they were later posted abroad, he said.

"The country should determine the maritime boundary through negotiations according to international conventions, at the same time the government should build capacities for the younger generation," he said.

Shafi Shami stressed the need for arousing a political will for delimiting the maritime boundary as the country has not moved much yet on the issue.

Harun Ur Rashid said Bangladesh had proposed a joint survey to resolve the issue with India, especially about South Talpatty during the 70s, but India did not agree.

Barrister Kaiser Murshed said the maritime issue is not a matter of a national debate but of a national consensus, so all should work together on the issue for the sake of national interest.

Serajul Islam said no professional approach has been seen yet for solving the problem, although the country has to file its claim within 2011. He suggested bringing technical and legal expertise on the matter under a single umbrella.

SI Mujtaba said it is regrettable that politicians and bureaucrats have failed to demarcate the maritime boundary yet.

He urged the government and policy makers to take the marine resources into consideration.

Stressing the importance of the country's marine resources he said, "We need to adopt a look south policy towards the sea rather than looking east or west."

Muhammad Zamir said the foreign ministry took many steps regarding maritime boundary, but all those seemed to lack proper planning.

Since the issues involve national security, political direction is a must to solve the problem, he said adding, no matter which government comes to power, it must develop some experts who will help the government in moving forward on the issues.

Dr AK Azad of BIISS suggested joint explorations with neighbouring countries in the bay, as ultimately the differences of resolutions are about marine resources.

CPD researcher Dr Uttam Dev said the negotiations should not only focus on sovereignty, rather should also take into account the economic importance of resolving the issue.

"So it is very clear, the negotiators should know what they are getting out of the negotiations and what they are losing," he said mentioning upcoming projected crisis of gas reserve in the country. So the country needs to focus on capacity building on legal, scientific and economic resources.

Suggesting use of the influence of international alliances during negotiations, Prof Shahiduzzaman said the country should not get stuck in a single strategy.

"We should think about the manifold ramifications of the issue. We should not put all eggs in a single basket," he said adding that Myanmar might even try to use its force against the country in the future.

Learn more about the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and upcoming events about Bangladesh's national, regional, and international challenges and opportunities.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Where is Bangladesh Headed?

Bangladesh’s politics has again entered into turbulent waters with BNP’s 4 point demand for participating in the elections. It seems unlikely that the Government will be able to provide satisfactory answers to the demands that cast dark shadows over the proposed 18th December elections.

The nature of the demands notwithstanding, this Government just cannot have elections without the BNP. It came to office as it did not want then Caretaker Government to go ahead with the January 22nd election without the AL as that would have not made the elections credible and used that excuse to extend their tenure now close to 2 years. The same argument should apply now that credible elections cannot be held without the BNP; else by logic it would lose legitimacy and expose itself to legal questions being raised about its tenure once emergency is lifted.

One understands that a group in this government would feel more comfortable with AL forming the next government as under it, the BNP has suffered much more by comparison. It is now up to Dr. Fakhruddin to hold charge and give both the parties a level playing ground for the election by listening to the BNP’s grievances. It is unfortunate that he did not pay much attention to political issues that have come up now for if he had, the problems facing the nation now would have been known to him long ago and he could have spent his time in office more for resolving these and the nation would have not faced its current uncertain predicament. Governance for which he came to office is not just cutting tapes, giving speeches in meetings or touring abroad. He has said many times that he heads a caretaker government and if that be so, his one and only task should have been to see that elections would be held in a manner acceptable to all for which BNP’s participation is a must.

As for our guests, the diplomats in the country, they have made it their affair interfering in our politics as if it is their main occupation. In doing so, it was interesting and unbelievable that both the mainstream parties were visited by a group of Arab Ambassadors to be given their views on our elections given the fact that in most of their countries, democratic election is unknown!

Unfortunate as it is that we keep on being humiliated by these foreign diplomats, it is time to see if they could do something positive for Bangladesh by their interest in our politics. Let them talk to the parties concerned, the caretaker government most of all, and make them see that holding an election without a major political party will only push the country to conflict and confrontation that could be disastrous for Bangladesh at a time when we need to have peace in the political process to save the country from failing.

Friday, November 14, 2008

US mission in Afghanistan: Doomed?

Published in The Daily Star, November 15, 2008

PRESIDENT Bush's decision in 2003 to attack Iraq, leaving the mission in Afghanistan incomplete, and the country's history are combining to produce the same results as the Soviet invasion in the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban and militancy that has risen alarmingly in recent times. The gloomy scenario has been brought into international attention by the Ambassadors of Great Britain and Russia in Kabul.

The British Ambassador Sir Shehard Cowper-Coles' assessment came to press when a secret telegram from the French Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul, who had a one-to-one meeting with him on September 2nd, was leaked to the press. In the assessment of the British Ambassador, the “current situation is bad and getting worse; so is corruption and the Government has lost all trust” and that the regime of President Karzai is surviving because of foreign forces “who are slowing down and complicating and eventual exit from the crisis which will be dramatic”. Sir Shehard felt that the American strategy “is doomed to fail” and Britain should “dissuade the American presidential candidates from getting more bogged down”. Sir Shehard recommended a dictator to save Afghanistan.

The British Foreign Office, quite understandably, denied any truth in the leaked telegram. That notwithstanding, the Soviet Ambassador in Kabul gave an interview in October on similar lines. Ambassador Zamir Kabulov's views are more relevant because of his background. He worked for the KGB in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. He was also an advisor in the 1990s to the UN peacekeeping envoy during the turbulent period in the mid 1990s before the Taliban captured power in Kabul. Ambassador Kabulov said that the US led mission in Afghanistan is committing the same mistakes as the failed Soviet invasion such as focusing on the cities leaving the countryside unattended where stirrings of opposition grew into full blown insurgency that they eventually failed to contain. The increasing number of troops that eventually reached 147,000 added to their unpopularity as they failed to understand Afghanistan's “irritative allergy” or a deep dislike for foreign occupation, which in the past led them to end all foreign occupation, including the British in the 19th century. According to Ambassador Kabulov, “the more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked." There are 20,000 troops, including 18,000 from US under Operation Enduring Freedom and 47,000 under International Security Assistance Force from 40 countries, mainly NATO members that includes 17,000 US troops. The crucial mistake Soviet Union made was to stay after changing the regime, one that the US has also repeated. Ambassador Kabulov concluded that the US mission would fail the same way the Soviet invasion did two decades ago.

Both Ambassadors have made compelling arguments that reflect ground realities where chaos and insurgency led by the Taliban has reached almost a crescendo, making the Karzai Government ineffective and the war on terror seriously threatened. Some members of NATO forces in Afghanistan have also spoken out publicly in similar ways. Outgoing British Commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith told a London newspaper, also in October, that military victory in Afghanistan “is neither feasible nor desirable”. Even the Bush administration officials in a recent secret meeting with officials of Senator Obama and Senator McCain have delivered the same grim message: the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse.

In contrast, the US with her international partners have invested a great deal to win the war on terror that in 7 years has helped Afghanistan achieve a democratic constitution; an elected President; an elected parliament, and in addition to substantial infrastructure development, a GDP now worth US$ 21.5 billion. Following improvement of security in Iraq, foreign Islamic militants have moved to Afghanistan making the region, in the words of Senator Obama, the new frontier in the war against terror. Leaving now would mean letting the Taliban win power militarily that would be unacceptable for obvious reasons. A change of US strategy in Afghanistan is therefore a must to win that war.

The main problem in such a review is of course how to deal with a resurgent Taliban. In July, President Bush signed a secret order to empower US troops in Afghanistan to carry out attacks by land inside Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan to take out Taliban sanctuaries without informing Pakistan. It suspected that Pakistan's military intelligence, the ISI, has been making earlier aerial attacks ineffective by giving the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements advance information. Unfortunately, this strategy is not working because the US led attacks inside Pakistan have failed to take out the sanctuaries, causing instead more death of innocent people in Pakistan. Further, it has strained USA-Pakistan collaboration without which the war on terror cannot be won in the region.

The US, to help rebuild Afghanistan, must deal with the resurgence of the Taliban by keeping Pakistan in the loop and taking into account what motivates Pakistan to back the Taliban. The Taliban was created by Pakistan and the US to contain the Soviets. The US left Afghanistan once the Soviets left, leaving the Pakistanis alone with 2 million Afghan refugees and deeply involved in Afghanistan in a manner where it was impossible for them to withdraw. Pakistan continued to assist the Taliban with arms and training and eventually helped them to power in Kabul.

Pakistan's support for the Taliban has also been influenced by security and territorial compulsion that require a friendly Government in Kabul. Since 1947, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been at odds over the drawing of the Durand Line. All Governments in Afghanistan have refused to accept this line as the boundary between the two countries by refusing to accept Pakistan as a successor state to the British rule. The fact that a portion of Afghanistan's major ethnic group, the Pashtuns, also lives in Pakistan makes it imperative for Pakistan to keep the Durand line intact. It can only be assured by a government in Kabul friendly towards her that led Pakistan to back the Taliban. Attempts to break the nexus were made when General Musharraf joined the US' war on terror, but these were at the lower level of Pakistan's intelligence who had built the nexus over many years; it never really withered away. The nexus has come to surface in a pronounced manner since Mushraff's departure. The new administration in USA should therefore use its influence in Kabul to take up Pakistan's concern over her territorial integrity vis-à-vis Afghanistan so that Pakistan does not have to depend on the Taliban to give her that assurance. The Pakistanis are also concerned over India's role in Afghanistan. Mutual antagonism towards Islamabad has historically drawn Kabul and New Delhi closer, increasing Pakistan's security concerns and her need for a friendly Government, like the Taliban, in Kabul. The US, that now has more leverage with New Delhi after the signing of the civil nuclear deal, should also use her influence in building greater and better trilateral cooperation involving India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The ability of Islamic militant forces worldwide has weakened and within these elements, serious doubts have been raised about terrorism as a strategy. A move towards negotiating with these forces in Afghanistan at this point in time, with a new administration coming to office in Washington, may not be an idea to be dismissed hastily. Former US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, speaking in New York University last month said it would be “a very good thing” if negotiating with some elements of the Taliban brought them to the political process while under Saudi initiative, elements of the Taliban and members of the Karzai Government have already met in Saudi Arabia. Afghan officials are also talking to the Taliban in Kabul. Writing in the current issues of Foreign Affairs, Barnett E Rubin and Ahmed Rashid (author of the incisive book 'Taliban: Militant Islam') have mentioned that the only way to stabilize Afghanistan is through “a major diplomatic initiative involving all the stakeholders” including Pakistan and Iran.

Unfortunately, both Senator McCain and president elect Obama have stated publicly that they would commit more troops to win the war on terror. President Bush has already signed 8,000 additional troops to arrive in Afghanistan in January and a request for 15,000 additional troops from General David McKiernan, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is pending. This could only intensify and complicate matters for the worse. The new US administration must also consider that the current violence is shaking the will of Europeans to continue to contribute troops to the NATO mission.

The new administration in Washington must seriously review the military option in favour of the political and diplomatic ones. Increasing US military presence to destroy the resurgent Taliban and other militants opposing the Karzai Government by force, a policy pursued with some success in Iraq, would only turn the predictions of the Russian and the British Ambassadors into prophecy. Also, Afghanistan will elect a new President next year. Hamid Karzai has not proved effective. Side by side with political and diplomatic efforts, the new US administration should also look for a replacement for Karzai, someone tougher and more effective.

The new administration must commit more funds for national building efforts in key areas of countering narcotics, strengthening governance and economic development, building infrastructure and jobs and humanitarian assistance while dealing with the major task of security through diplomacy and political maneuverings, not by increasing troops, for the better future of Afghanistan.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

EDITORIAL COMMENT: Let it be a Tripartite Meeting among Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed

In a bleak political scenario, the news that the two former Prime Ministers have agreed to sit together is one piece of good news for everybody. The way the news has come to press suggests that the idea was raised to Sheikh Hasina by Ambassadors of three European nations and she agreed with the idea. When the BNP chairperson was later asked by journalists about her reaction to what Sehikh Hasina told the Ambassadors, the former was positive to the idea of the meeting between her and Sheikh Hasina.

It is not clear still how such a meeting will be held or what role the Government will play in it. The Commerce Adviser, who has the habbit of losing no opportunity to appear before the media, later said before TV camera and journalists that "on the basis of their (Hasina-Khaleda) eagerness, the government is always ready to take any kind of initiative helpful for the progress of the nation.” The Adviser’s comment suggests that the Government has no role still in the proposed meeting and it has to be seen how it will be involved when the talks are held ultimately.

The nation had been expecting that the two former Prime Ministers would have a good and working relationship with each other since they emerged as the leading politicians of the country after leading the democratic movement that ended the decade long dictatorship of General HM Ershad. The lack of it was responsible for many of the country’s political problems.

At this moment though, the problem is not really between the BNP and the AL; nor is it between the two ladies. It is the Caretaker Government’s role that has been responsible for a lot of the current fluidity in the country’s political process. It is because of this, the meeting between the two ladies should in fact be a tripartite meeting between Begum Khaleda Zia, Sheikh Hasina and Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed if the objective is to untangle the current political impasse and move the country towards a credible election for transition from a military backed government to an elected government. Otherwise, the two former Prime Ministers sitting together will not solve the current political impasse as the solution to it lies in the Caretaker Government.

Monday, November 10, 2008

UPCOMING EVENTS: The Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS)

Ambassador Serajul Islam also co-founded the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies (CFAS) along with two other former Ambassadors from Bangladesh. CFAS was founded on the intent to develop awareness that foreign policy issues are not necessarily issues that need to be kept away from the public and handled in secrecy. Such issues often need to be aired publicly and foreign policy formulated objectively to serve the best national interest and this can be done by taking public opinion on board. In this context, the CFAS intends to work with the relevant committee of jatiya sangsad, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other Government Ministries dealing with Bangladesh’s external relations; political parties, interest groups and eventually with the public through meetings, seminars, publication of reading materials and eventually town-hall types of meetings with ordinary citizens to integrate and articulate their views on crucial foreign policy issues.

The following are upcoming CFAS events that may be of interest. To view past CFAS events, visit the CFAS events page.

November 22, 2008: Future Directions of Bangladesh Foreign Policy

The Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS, in collaboration with the Daily Star will hold the Second Round Table on the “Future Directions of Bangladesh Foreign Policy” with the political parties, business groups, media and academia as stakeholders, on Saturday, November 22nd at 10 am at the conference room of the Daily Star. The first Round Table was held with the retired Ambassadors in May this year.

January 2009: Dialogue on Bangladesh-India Relations

CFAS will also hold a Dialogue on Bangladesh-India Relations in January, 2009. The objective of the Dialogue is to bring out a paper for presentation to the next elected government of Bangladesh and will be the outcome of discussions between a team of experts from Bangladesh and India. A delegation from India led by Ambassador Abhyankar, former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, with Ambassador Dev Mukherjee, former High Commissioner of India to Bangladesh as a member, will visit Dhaka for holding preliminary meeting with CFAS on 23rd November, 2008.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

EDITORIAL COMMENT: December Elections in Bangladesh Need Participation of Both the BNP and the AL to be Credible

Politics in Bangladesh has entered a crucial phase. The election is has been scheduled to be held on 18th December. Sadly, at this critical juncture, the BNP has raised serious objections to its participation because it feels that the EC has not made the playing field even. It has listed a 7 points demand before the EC as conditions for its participation in the elections.

The elections on 18th are crucial to bring back the country on path to democracy. This caretaker government spent nearly 2 years to give the country a fair election. During this period, the Government of Dr. Fakhruddin, backed by the armed forces, has turned things upside down, trying to deal with corruption, reform institutions, politics and political institutions, with the objective of holding free and fair elections.

If at the end of it, a major political party feels that there is no level playing ground for its participation in the polls, then for all practical purposes, the efforts of this Government has not been successful. The people of this country felt that the BNP’s efforts to hold the January 22nd elections in 2007 would have been meaningless without the participation of the AL. Likewise, they now feel that without the BNP in the 18th December elections, the country cannot have credible polls.

In this case, the BNP’s decision has been based on two issues that should be given due consideration. First, the redrawing of the constituencies has affected the BNP much more adversely for them to feel that the EC has not been fair. Then the CEC’s comments on the 2001 election was one that toed the AL;s official line that the 2001 election was not fair. Thus the doubts about the EC’s fairness in the minds of the BNP are logical that cannot be wished away.

This Government should not hold elections just because it has announced the date for holding it. The date can be re-scheduled if the Government wants to hold honest and fair elections. It is time for this Government to show the public that it is an honest one.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Message of Change from President Obama

Published in The Daily Star, November 8, 2008

THE US voters rose above racial prejudice and voted to the White House as their 44th President a black man and thus made history. A country where slavery was once institutionalised and legalized, where even as late as in the 1960s blacks were still fighting for their civil and human rights, has now changed forever. Martin Luther King's dream that there will be a day when people will be judged not by the colour of their skins but by the content of their character is now a reality.

Senator Barak Obama won a landslide victory with 364 electoral votes and 53% popular votes on his promise of change. The voters of US, particularly the youth, came together to let their country breathe fresh air again. The world has also been freed of the suffocation suffered under President Bush as his neo-con advisers sought to re-write international law by inventing the concept of pre-emptive strike, which gave them the right to attack any country that they thought is a threat to the United States. They attacked Afghanistan and Iraq under that concept after the events of 9/11. Threats of attack were held out against North Korea and Iran assuming these two nations to be parts of the “axis of evil”. They turned the world upside down for the worse.

There was spontaneous support internationally for President Bush's war on terror in pursuance of which the US invaded Afghanistan. The world heaved a sigh of relief when the Taliban fell. Thereafter, Bush's neo-con advisers went to Iraq on totally false premises leaving the work in Afghanistan half-done to complete the unfinished objectives of elder President Bush; that of removing Saddam, occupying Iraq and getting control over the country's oil. With the Iraq diversion and the manner of it, the US lost its image and support worldwide. It divided the US internally and the world externally following the lines drawn by President Bush himself that “you are either with us or against us”. The world went against the US and her worldwide image received its worst battering ever.

Thousands of lives of US soldiers have been lost; many times more innocent people have been killed as a result of the actions of the US. Hundreds of billions of US dollars have been pumped to Iraq and Afghanistan that pushed the US economy to its worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, such that even a US 700 billion dollar bailout package may not help overcome. The meltdown of the US economy has threatened to take the rest of the world down the same path. President-elect Obama thus will be inheriting an office that will challenge him like that office has not challenged anyone in history. The new President must not only lead his country; he must also set the directions for the rest of the world both politically and economically. In bringing the promised change in his country, President Obama must also think of the rest of the world for the fate of the two is inextricably linked.

President-elect Obama's package of economic reforms won the voters' approval overwhelmingly. These reforms will now no doubt develop into a movement for US' benefit under his dynamic leadership. His foreign policy priorities, however, would require re- evaluation to bring the change the rest of the world, who welcomed his victory with the same enthusiasm as people in the US, is expecting. His administration must change direction to lead the world not by bullying but by earning respect and support that most nations gave the US after 9/11 in her demand that those responsible for the acts should be punished.

President-elect Obama will thus have his hands full in dealing with foreign policy that should receive his administration's attention as much as domestic issues for the sake of the US and the world. Senator Biden no doubt will bring all his experience to assist him in the area of foreign affairs. During his campaign, Senator Obama has identified Afghanistan as the new frontier where the war on terror would be fought. On a trip to Israel, he promised the Israelis more than they have received from any US leader, giving to them the whole of Jerusalem. On South Asia, he thought the real problem is not between India and Pakistan but between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These stances indicate that Senator Obama would have to rethink his priorities if he wants USA to become the respectable leader of a problem ridden world that his predecessors could have easily achieved but lost on a totally unrealistic view of the world; that the rest of the world had no choice but to accept the US as the leader.

The world was expected to become peaceful, where wars and conflicts were supposed to become history after the Soviet Union fell. That did not happen and trouble spots sprouted like bamboo shoots on all the continents. The one in Middle East, involving the Israelis and the Palestinians became the most dangerous. It became the root for growth of Islamic extremism by groups who used Islam to fight injustice to Palestinians who have been made refugees in their own homeland. President Bush's inadvertent slip about the crusade on TV when informed about the 9/11 incidents helped drive Islam and the western world on a dangerous clash course of civilizations where, if justice had been done in Palestine, there would not have even been cause for what eventually happened. Let it not be lost to the new President that it had taken General Colin Powell as Secretary of State eight months to make his first visit to the region under the Bush administration.

President-elect Obama thus needs to review his policy on Palestine for this is the key to bringing the Islamic and the western world into partnership. In fact, a just and successful resolution of this issue may not need the US to fight the war on terror for then this war can still be resolved without military action. He must bring the occupation of Iraq to an end early in his Presidency and open dialogue with Iran instead of taking the neo-con stance and dealing with it as “an axis of evil”. If a nuclear power like India is provided civil nuclear technology under an agreement with the US that Senator Obama backs, then the case of Iran for civil nuclear technology must also be dealt with diplomatically and not by threat of war.

In Afghanistan, the Bush administration has messed up everything. The Taliban is resurgent there again threatening the elected and US backed government of Hamid Karzai. Recently the British and Russian Ambassadors in Kabul and also experts on Afghanistan have suggested that it may not be a bad policy to talk with the Taliban and insurgents for the military option there is a doomed one. President-elect Obama must review the US policy in Afghanistan and look at the diplomatic and political options as against the military. Also, his assessment during the campaign that the problem in South Asia is between Pakistan and Afghanistan and not between Pakistan and India would also need to be re-assessed for the problem between the latter two is much deeper. The signing of the civil nuclear deal between the US and India has elevated the latter to a pre-eminent position that could ruffle the delicate balance of power in the region. President-elect Obama should ensure that India uses this newfound prestige for positive ends so that the long-standing problems that the nations of South Asia have with her are resolved amicably and justly.

Bangladesh's major interest in the Obama presidency will be in trade. By tradition, Democrats are pro-labour where interests of the US workers come first. Bangladesh's RMG sector, upon which its national economy is heavily dependent, would face difficulties under the Obama presidency for two reasons. First, till the new President is able to lift the country out of her economic miseries, consumption in USA would continue to suffer and hence the need to import RMG would be significantly reduced, in turn affecting Bangladesh adversely. Second, the new administration would also put trade agreements of the past under serious scrutiny and introduce tougher standards from which Bangladesh's RMG exports could suffer adversely. During the presidential campaign and earlier, McCain's position on free trade was more favourable to a country like Bangladesh than the one taken by President-elect Obama. One avenue for continued and increased access of Bangladesh's RMG could be made by pleading on its LDC status for which the need for effective lobbying would be of the essence.

President-elect Obama has been chosen by destiny to create the United States of Martin Luther King's dream. He has the vision, the charisma and the brilliance to do it. The world, however, has changed a great deal since the dream, and the fate of the US is now inextricably linked across national frontiers. President-elect Obama must thus not lead his country only; the world is also looking towards his leadership. Those two hundred thousand people who cheered him in Berlin as a presidential candidate represent the hope that people outside USA places on an US President. Professor Huntington's prediction of a clash of civilizations was taken up by neo-cons to destroy Islam that in turn has brought so much conflict, death and misery. Senator Obama can change this prediction and establish a fusion of civilizations for, on the basics, Islam has no fight with Judaism and Christianity because all three are religions that have evolved from the same source.

The people of the United States deserve to be congratulated for ending their long winter of discontent suffered under a White House in the hands of the neo-cons and letting sunshine back in by their historic effort to elect Senator Barak Obama as their President. Let President-elect Obama give a part of that sunshine to the rest of the world to enjoy for US' long winter of discontent has also been theirs.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan. His email address is