Thursday, December 31, 2009

A modern, hassle free Dhaka!

It was indeed heartening to hear the Prime Minister speak on her Government's firm commitment to make Dhaka a modern city with a smooth communications system including waterways around the city by regaining the rivers. The Prime Minister was speaking at the opening of the third Buriganga Bridge named the Buddhijibi Setu. In the speech, she also re-iterated many of her Government's commitment with regard to Dhaka city.

For the residents of this huge metropolis that ranks among the top capitals of the world in the number of people residing in the city, the Prime Minister's commitment is something they don't even dare to dream these days. Take for instance the traffic situation. It is going from bad to worse. Sometime ago, under the direct order of the Prime Minister, the authorities launched Operation Clean Street. The Prime Minister herself was a victim of that Operation as her motorcade was stranded in the traffic jam to let her see firsthand the miseries that people have to live with on a daily basis on the very first morning this initiative was launched. Subsequent efforts to improve the traffic system through different timing for offices and educational institutions and experiments with lanes and lights also did not have any positive impact in improving Dhaka traffic.

It is surprising that it has not yet dawned upon the authorities that the real problems of Dhaka traffic are, firstly, it has ridiculously small percentage of the city's space for roads for a city of this size. Second, it is the ONLY capital city in the world that has vehicles on the road from different stages of human history. It is quite likely to see on the city road, a brand new Japanese car using the road side by side with carts being pulled by humans! Third, where there is practically no effort to increase the space for city's roads as there is hardly any extra space available to do so, the authorities are allowing hundreds of extra cars into the city's roads every month! Do we need any brains then to predict that Dhaka roads are soon going to be space for parking vehicles of all kinds for physically; they would not be able to move because of sheer numbers?

The grave problem over Dhaka's roads is simply symptomatic of much graver problems with other critical aspects of Dhaka life that make it more than a day dream to believe in the Prime Minister and her resolve to make Dhaka, in her words, a modern metropolis. While I was an Ambassador in Japan, I was once told by a Japanese expert who has worked for a Japanese multinational in improving Dhaka's sewerage. He said that in the context of Dhaka's sewerage management, the city is sitting on a powder keg and when it blasts, as it could anytime, the people would have no alternative but to run away from the city as fast as they could.

In recent times, we have had many seminars and newspaper reports about Dhaka and the rest of the country in the context of possible earthquakes. The conclusion of these seminars/newspaper reports is alarming. An earthquake of moderate intensity would be capable of taking 3/4th of the city buildings down as almost all of them have been built without spending a dime in making them resistant to moderate earthquakes. The regular tremors that have increased of late in all parts of Bangladesh, and given the fact that we are in an earthquake prone zone should scare the daylight out of us.

Dhaka was such a beautiful city not too long ago. Those who have seen Dhaka in the 1950s and 1960s cannot help a tear or two in their eyes as they sit in their cars spending hours to get between distances that in any normal situation, even with traffic congestion, should have taken minutes. In a discussion on traffic with some friends recently, I suggested that one reason for this traffic menace in Dhaka city is the contribution of the newly rich class living in Gulshan, Baridhara, Dhanmandi where each family has 2/3/4 cars. A friend said while this is partly true I should also consider the fact that in the past, one car per family could easily take care of dropping children in school, come back to take the father to his office, come back again to look after the need of the mother, then go back to bring the children home and then again go to the office and bring the father back home. If for the father there was any need for the car for emergency reasons, he could ask for it and get it in a matter of 15/30 minutes depending on location. These days, once the car goes to drop the children to the schools, that car is gone for the entire morning. Hence the father needs a car, the mother another and a third car for the children where the father can afford it. In the city, there are now thousands who can and that has never been brought into the equation. A major way traffic congestion has been relieved in cities elsewhere is by carpooling. In all the discussions we have had over tackling traffic in Dhaka city, we have never heard the authorities who are responsible for Dhaka's traffic even talk about it.

Dhaka's current predicament is a sad one and one must give credit to the Prime Minister for her courage to think that this city could be transformed into a modern city. Unfortunately, the ground realities do not encourage positive thinking here. The Prime Minister is up against people who just do not have any idea that a city such as Dhaka can only survive if everyone who has a stake in it rise above self interest and come around to save the city. Unfortunately, here we have the biggest problem. Rich, middle class or poor, no one in this city is willing to give up even a wee bit of land or his/her own piece of whatever he/she has for a common cause.

Here the rich are the greatest defaulters. They have not just grabbed all the natural wetland in Dhaka city and around it, they have also grabbed and occupied the beautiful rivers around the city that should have given Dhaka's planners in the past such a wonderful natural platform to build one of the most beautiful cities of the world. Belatedly, there has been discussion at all levels against the river grabbers where even the armed forces of the country have been caught encroaching. But as always, we have been loud on talk and very low on action as the rivers, the wetlands, the canals and the rest continue to remain in the hands of the grabbers!

Coming back to the traffic that is now one major problem that is making Dhaka the most un-livable city in the world, a year has passed by but this Government has talked a lot and done nothing to take action to build underground, over ground roads and waterways around Dhaka without which Dhaka's traffic can only make the city come to a standstill. During the caretaker government, the Adviser in charge had twice announced in the media about building for Dhaka an underground traffic system but his initiative was a media event. One just hopes that the elected government would not act the same way as the caretaker government. This government is already a year late on this important initiative and must consider urgently that time is of the essence here.

Even if the government does all the right things for Dhaka, like build the underground and over ground roads, the waterways, attend to the sewerage, be conscious about making buildings follow earthquake provisions, Dhaka city would still remain dangerously imperfect. Just imagine the size of Dhaka city. At night, from Sadarghat, the northern tip of the city to Uttara, the southern tip, it takes 20/25 minutes of travel time by car. East to west, the distance is even less, making the city the most congested city in the world. The problem is no one in Government is even taking note of this. The way the people are flowing from outside Dhaka to the capital, the city will die simply by the pressure of just too many people! Therefore side by side, the Government must also make serious efforts to send people to district towns near to Dhaka like Comilla for instance and build connecting fast roads and trains so that people can come from these small towns and work in Dhaka without crowding the city and killing it. Good roads could bring people from Comilla to work in Motijheel, the city's business district, faster than from Uttara or even Dhanmandi at the moment! If the Government is serious about saving Dhaka, it must act and act with vision and not just talk.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Copenhagen Accord and the frustration of the developing nations

THE Copenhagen Climate Conference has been both frustrating and encouraging. Despite across the board acknowledgement by all the 193 attending nations that global warming is a common and impending threat to mankind, the Conference failed to adopt a binding agreement. Instead, the outcome of two weeks of intense negotiation has been a non-binding document named Copenhagen Accord, ironically put together by five of the biggest polluters, namely the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa and brokered by the US President Barak Obama. It has been more frustrating for majority of the developing nations because they went to Copenhagen following two years of hard work since the Bali Conference in 2007, confident that they had been able to place before the big polluters enough scientific evidence to encourage them to adopt a binding document on global warming.

It has been encouraging because, despite the failure of adopting a binding accord, all the attending nations showed the eagerness to tackle global warming voluntarily. The UN Secretary General called the Accord an “essential beginning”. He welcomed it and said that it contained progress on all the key elements that could lead to the adoption of a treaty at the next UN climate conference in Mexico City in 2010. Additionally, some of the big polluters such as the European Union and Japan announced voluntary reduction of emission before going to the Danish capital. The EU agreed to cut emissions by 20% compared to 1990 levels; Japan by 25%. China agreed to reduce its “carbon intensity” by 40-45% while India, Brazil and South Africa also agreed to reduce their emissions by setting voluntary targets. The United States, where the Congress has been considering legislation to cap carbon emissions for the first time, provisionally made commitment to reduce emissions by a weak 3 to 4%.

Obama did not waste any time upon landing in the Danish capital and got involved with the negotiations that had been going on for two weeks prior to his arrival and was going nowhere. He huddled together with 18 other world leaders in an unscheduled meeting within the hour of arriving in Copenhagen in an attempt to rescue the conference from falling apart. In the plenary, in his eight minutes long speech, he expressed his frustration and anger stating that “our ability to take collective action is in doubt”. He highlighted the fact that his administration has started an “ambitious” plan to cut emissions. He put on spot China that he said has become world's number one polluter. He emphasized that an agreement must have three key elements related to global warming: mitigation, transparency and financing. He explained clearly where the major polluters must be subjected to verification to the emission reduction commitment. Using his diplomatic skill, Obama deflected the onus on China and other developing countries such as India, Brazil for their contribution to global warming and the need to subject these countries to mandatory verification on their emission reduction commitments. He cleverly avoided responsibility of the US for global warming. He also did not make specific US commitments for addressing the problem of global warming.

The path to adoption of a binding declaration at Copenhagen was bogged down on the need to set specific target to bring down global warming; the need for mandatory monitoring; and fund for assisting the developing countries meet the challenges of climate change. The majority of the developing countries wanted to set the target of reducing global warming within 1.5 degree celsius. However, the developed countries led by the United States and backed by China, India and Brazil, wanted the target to be within 2 degree celsius. China opposed the mandatory monitoring requirement. In the end, the Copenhagen Accord was able to include all the three crucial issues on a compromise, which majority of the nations accepted with disappointment as the best solution under the circumstances. Some of the developing countries, in their frustration, expressed extreme views and said they have been betrayed. The Declaration includes (1) the recognition to set the climate rise limit to 2 degrees ; (2) to provide developing nations 30 billion US dollars over the next three years to combat climate change; (3) raise another US$ 100 billion by 2020 for them for sustainable efforts to combat global warming; and (4) a mechanism for monitoring and verifying reduction of emission.

Despite the frustration of many developing countries and an universal recognition by nations rich and poor about the dangerous consequences of global warming, negotiations were made extremely complex because pitched against global warming have been equally forceful issues about development such as poverty alleviation and socio-economic enhancement. For instance China and India, antagonists in many UN forums and even bilaterally, have common objectives that do not make it easy for them to make the commitments needed and demanded by the majority of the developing nations in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. China is the 3rd richest country in the world on criterion of GDP but poorer than 132 other nations. India is the fifth richest on GDP but poorer than 166 other countries on per capita. They are now being called upon to undertake obligations that the western countries did not have to take when they were developing and becoming rich, both in terms of GDP and per capita. Between them, they have nearly 2.5 billion people whose economic future are at stake here and stand to be jeopardized in the face of global demand for keeping the world from warming dangerously from greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama also stamped his diplomatic skills during the conference. He did not let a Chinese snub deter him from his goal to leave Copenhagen without an agreement where he would play a major role. In a group meeting of 18 nations, where all other countries were represented at the highest level, China sent a Vice Minister instead to flag the point that it opposed mandatory verification of emission cuts. He also did not wait to be invited to attend a closed door meeting among China, India, Brazil and South Africa. In fact, it was his brokering the five nation document that provided the impetus for the Copenhagen Accord when it looked like it would end without any document at all; that would have been disastrous. Although, among the world's leaders, his stay at Copenhagen was the shortest, his impact upon the Conference surpassed those of all others. The US President, whose popularity rating is sinking, could use his role in Copenhagen to shore up his ratings.

Politics make strange bedfellows. Copenhagen Conference has proven that international politics make even stranger bedfellows. Nations that have a very well documented history of conflict and disagreement brokered the Copenhagen Accord. The five are also the biggest polluters. Even at the plenary and group negotiations in Copenhagen, they spoke against one another bitterly, with the US openly accusing China as the biggest polluter. Yet on self interest, they came together. One way of looking at the silver lining of an otherwise dark cloud would be to see that the Copenhagen Conference has brought the biggest polluters together and have thus placed them on a spot. The world would now be watching them. The US, which under President Bush had dismissed the threat of global warming, has come into the climate negotiations under Obama as seriously as all the other nations. If the threat from climate deteriorates, the accusing voice against them would become stronger. Thus, in a way the UN Secretary General's hope that a binding agreement could be achieved soon may not be farfetched. For the time, the victims and the potential victims in the developing nations can only hope that the promise of funds to mitigate their sufferings would not remain empty words.

Published in The Daily Star, December 26, 2009

My Days in the Foreign Service (a series): Entry of Mohammed Mohsin

One of the drawbacks of the career diplomatic service in Bangladesh has been, and unfortunately it still is, the lack of camaraderie among the officers in the Bangladesh Civil Service (Foreign Affairs). When Bangladesh became independent, there were 60 plus officers of the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service who formed the backbone upon which the career diplomatic service of Bangladesh or the BCS (FA) was based. For an independent country’s Foreign Ministry, this was a very small number. Before the BCS (FA) was established and regular in-take into the service started through the Public Service Commission, the Ministry had to take officers who belonged to other services as lateral entrants. There was always an under-current among those who directly joined the Foreign Service and the lateral entrants. Then within those who were from the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service, there was a further under-current because a small number of those officers were given two years’ seniority as freedom fighters. Thus, the Foreign Service cadre that was challenged with forces outside the Ministry during the Ershad era did not have the sort of camaraderie that was needed to face those external challenges.

As a Director in the office of the Foreign Secretary, I watched those visible shortcomings of our cadre. It made me sad to watch those shortcomings that were reflected in our inability of showing solidarity behind the Foreign Secretary. During Fakhruddin Ahmed’s tenure, there was an incident in New Delhi in which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had censured the Indian Foreign Secretary AP Ventakaswaran publicly. The entire cadre then pitched behind the Foreign Secretary against the Prime Minister to demonstrate their solidarity. Such a unity in our service was in those days something inconceivable. The situation is sadly worse today and only in a fit of madness could one even imagine that the Foreign Service cadre would take a stand like the one that involved the Indian Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Majority of the officers in the Ministry were in those days more inclined for their personal interests in postings and promotions and did not care much that the Ministry’s powers and functions were being divested in the other Ministries or that the Foreign Secretary was being removed and a new one appointed on personal whims.

The removal of Fakhruddin Ahmed as the Foreign Secretary was a case in point where the Foreign Service cadre failed to show the cohesion that was necessary at that time to face external challenges unitedly. There was no reason for Fakhruddin Ahmed to be replaced when Nazrul Islam succeeded him. It was the whim of the President that was the main reason for changing him. The Foreign Minister did not uphold the interest of the Ministry and allowed the President to change Fakhruddin Ahmed without even a word of protest. Normally a Foreign Secretary remained in office those days for two years. When Fakhruddin Ahmed was recalled to the Ministry, he had two years for his retirement. There was no reason why he should not have been allowed to complete two years and go into retirement with honour and dignity. Since there was no doubt that Fakhruddin Ahmed was removed because of the President’s wish, the Foreign Ministry did not even have the courage to arrange for him a farewell that he so richly deserved because he had the absolute respect and confidence of all the officers in the Ministry except the Foreign Minister.

Nazrul Islam personally respected Fakhruddin Ahmed like the rest of us but he too lacked the courage to arrange a farewell for Fakhruddin Ahmed because he was aware that such an event would perhaps not be liked either by the President or the Foreign Minister. Thus Fakhruddin Ahmed spent almost a year that he had for retirement as an Officer on Special Duty (OSD), a ridiculous title that has been evolved in our civil service to humiliate officers short of sacking them. However towards the end of Fakhruddin Ahmed’s retirement, some of the senior officers led by M Mohsin, Mustafizur Rahman, later to become Foreign Secretary in1997 and died in office in 1999, arranged for Fakhruddin Ahmed a farewell dinner in Dhaka Club that was attended both by the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary. There were speeches at that dinner and a few, emotional ones. Mustafizur Rahman spoke passionately and did not hide his disappointment at the way Fakhruddin Ahmed was treated. The Foreign Minister was visibly annoyed because a lot of what was said that night was indirect criticism of him for allowing Fakhruddin Ahmed to fall victim to the whims of the President. After emotions were contained and things became normal, Nazrul Islam told Fakhruddin Ahmed that the Foreign Ministry would arrange a big farewell for him. The Foreign Minister was also listening to the conversation. I was standing in a corner. We were all standing. Fakhruddin Ahmed looked at the Foreign Secretary, paused for a while and then told him bluntly but calmly that he had left the Foreign Ministry not to return there again. All of us present there could not help feeling a deep sense of hurt as Fakhruddin Ahmed spoke those words. I could sense a drop of tear or two in Fakhruddin Ahmed’s eyes as he sat down. Later in 1991, Fakhruddin Ahmed returned to the Foreign Ministry but as irony would have it, after the fall of Ershad as an Adviser for the caretaker government that was formed to conduct the elections for bringing Bangladesh from the dark days of military dictatorship to democratic rule. The day he went to the Ministry to become the Adviser, he received a warm welcome from the entire Ministry that belatedly showed the respect for him that they failed to show when he was humiliated and later left the Ministry on retirement after a year as an OSD.

As irony would have it, Nazrul Islam who kept silent while Fakhruddin Ahmed waited for those nearly one year to go to retirement, unsung, faced the same fate at the hands of the President. In fact he was changed under circumstances more humiliating than what was meted out to Fakhruddin Ahmed. By the middle of 1988 when Nazrul Islam had completed a year as Foreign Secretary, it was inevitable that he would not last much longer. In the first week of July, 1988, our Ambassador in Brussels Mohammed Mohsin arrived in Dhaka. He was recalled but he did not know what was in the Government’s mind about his future because he had at that time, a couple of years more to serve. On a fine morning, a few days after he had arrived in Dhaka, he came to meet the Foreign Ministry. He came to my room and as I stood up to receive him, he asked me if the Foreign Secretary was in his office. I told him that he had gone to a meeting in the ERD and would be back soon. Mohammed Mohsin that day was dressed in a white safari that went very well with his grey hairs. I knew him from before when I served as a Section officer in the late 1970s when he was a Director General. At that time my Director-General was Farooq Sobhan, who later became Foreign Secretary and currently the President of Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI). Whenever he used to be away on official trips, Mohamed Mohsin used to hold additional Change of his office.

After a few words of pleasantries, Mohammed Mohsin gave me a hand written note scribed on a page torn from a note pad. He handed it to me casually but what I read in that note was anything but casual. There were a few names there related to postings of Ambassadors that was not a news for me as they were expected. However after the short list, there was a small paragraph that said that Mohammed Mohsin would be the next Foreign Secretary and that Nazrul Islam would be posted to an un-named Mission soon singed by the President in green ink that he loved to use ! I looked at Mohamed Mohsin and in my surprise; I even forgot to offer the new Foreign Secretary my congratulations! After I recovered from my daze, I told Mohammed Mohsin that Nazrul Islam was not aware that he was being changed and that someone would need to tell him as soon as he came back to the office. Soon afterwards, Mohammed Mohsin left my office and a while afterwards, Nazrul Islam returned with Mustafa Mohammed Farooq who had accompanied him to the meeting in ERD. When I entered the Foreign Secretary’s room, I found the two in the inner chamber playing chess! I came to my room and waited. When MMF came to my room on way out, I told him the news and asked him if Nazrul Islam was at all aware that a coup had taken place.MMF told me that Nazrul Islam was not only unaware of his fate; he in fact had discussed with him some of his future plans as Foreign Secretary while returning from ERD in the car.

Soon Mohammed Mohsin returned to my room. Immediately I ushered him to Nazrul Islam. Then a few sparks flew between the two and I saw Mohammed Mohsin and Nazrul Islam go together to the Foreign Minister. Later I learnt that Nazrul Islam wanted to be assured the post to which he would be going before the news that Mohammed Mohsin would the new Foreign Secretary was released to the press. The office order naming Mohammed Mohsin as Foreign Secretary was released two days later when the assurance that Nazrul Islam would be Ambassador to Soviet Union came from the President. A second order came out that day; that I would become Director in the Foreign Minister’s Office That did not happen though but that is another story for another day.

Published in the Independent on December 25th and 26th, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Mandela, Invictus and statesmanship

I watched on the opening night Invictus, a Clint Eastwood movie with Morgan Freeman playing the role of one of the greatest men of our time, Nelson Mandela. Although I am an admirer (who is not?) of this great man, I was not sure whether a movie on him could capture my attention for over 2 hours. When the movie ended, I thought I could sit for a re-run. In fact, I regretted that I could not see it a second time straightaway. The movie centered on how Nelson Mandela used the World Cup Rugby held in South Africa in 1995 to help his country win over hate and unite South Africa. In the absence of his statesmanship and vision, South Africa almost surely would have self-destructed itself. When apartheid, the worst system of oppression of a minority group over a majority ever established in human history, fell and Nelson Mandela won the election to become the first Black President of South Africa leading the African National Congress, his followers wanted to settle the scores against the Whites.

Nelson Mandela's vision was different. He knew without unity the end of apartheid would be meaningless and unsuccessful. One of the earlier scenes of the movie showed Nelson Mandela's first day as President. As he walked to his office, the whites at the Presidential Office who worked with his predecessor FW du Klerk under the apartheid system were packing in somber mood, as if the entry of Mandela was a funeral event. As Mandela walked to his office, his Secretary, a black woman, walked into the room with him, carrying a load of papers under her arms, and said to the President that she would need to sit with her for the engagements of the day. Instead Mandela asked her to gather everyone at the President's Office for he wanted to talk to them.

Soon everyone gathered to hear the President; blacks as well as whites. The President came quickly to the point. He told the whites that he was surprised to see them packing to leave. He said that they had the freedom to do so but that he needed them and would want them to stay. His security was then at the hands of his comrades in the ANC. As the security men settled into their room in the President's Office, 4 white security men walked in and handed to the black security chief, who had asked for additional men, a letter signed by Nelson Mandela attaching them to his security team. Surprised and angry, the security chief walked into Mandela's office and politely but firmly wanted to know the reason for appointing to his security, men who had tortured and violated human rights of ANC supporters and coloured people under apartheid. Mandela replied that he could not think of better qualified men for security as those he appointed to his team had the professional knowledge required for the job having worked with his predecessor! He acknowledged his comrade's anger and disappointment but encouraged him to learn to forgive, adding that forgiveness was food for the soul.

Mandela was aware that many of his followers were not ready for forgiveness; inclined more on revenge. He was equally aware that without black and white reconciliation, South Africa would be destroyed. Indeed, South Africa was going that way while negotiations were going on between the white racist government and the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990 having by then served 28 years of imprisonment and torture. Violence continued even after Mandela was elected President in 1994. It was then that he saw a great opportunity in the World Cup Rugby Tournament in South Africa in 1995 to save his country and establish it as a multi-racial democracy.

Rugby was a game for only whites during the apartheid era. The blacks neither watched it nor knew much about the game. In fact, in a scene in the movie, they were cheering the English team against South Africa. Mandela thought if he could motivate South Africa to win the Cup and get the majority blacks to take pride in that victory as South African victory, he would be able to achieve a lot of the reconciliation that he wanted for the future of South Africa. The task was a difficult one, even for Mandela. The first problem was with the name of the team that was known as Springboks. It was a reminder of racism because it was taken from the Afrikaans , the language of the majority whites . The black dominated (in fact the body was exclusively black) sports authority of South Africa wanted to change the name for one acceptable to them and in fact, they unanimously took a vote to do so. When Mandela heard of the vote, he arrived at the meeting and risked his political future to urge the blacks not to change the name that he said would take the pride out of the team and ensure their defeat in the Cup. He managed only 12 votes but underscored his determination to unite the blacks and the whites to back the Springboks as a means to national reconciliation.

Mandela just did not have to convince the blacks. The whites, many still racists, also had to be taken on board, most important of all in the context of Rugby World Cup, the Springboks that included just one black. Mandela went to the team, talked with them, and when he met them in the field during practice, he knew each by name, having made the effort to recognize each from his picture. He most of all took the captain of the team into confidence for which he invited him to his office for tea. While seated in his office, Mandela asked the captain to change seats with him so he did not have to look at the sun coming into the room through the window, reminding audience of his days at Robben Island prison where years of mining under the sun had almost blinded him. The greatness of the man not only motivated the captain; what sunk in him deeper was the ability of Mandela to forgive. Mandela told the captain that there were days during his cruel and inhuman incarceration when he felt like giving up. It was at those dark times that he drew courage from a poem of an English poet, Edward Ernest Henley (1849-1903) that he would read over and over again. Henley was handicapped but he did not let that demoralize his spirit and wrote a short poem Invictus, Latin for unconquered, to underscore his fighting spirit.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from
pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced
nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings
of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of
wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror
of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find
me unafraid.
It matters not how
strait the gate,
How charged with
punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

In the movie though Mandela was shown giving the captain a copy of Invictus; in real life he gave him an extract from an equally great piece of inspirational writing, Theodore Roosevelt's speech of 1910, The Man in the Arena.

A weak South African Team ended beating the giants of Rugby like the All Blacks of New Zealand and other formidable opponents like England that was totally unexpected. As the Springboks went on the winning spree, the blacks cheered the team with national pride, inculcated in them by their beloved Mandiva, Mandela's tribal name. Mandela was so involved in motivating the Springboks to win the Cup that even when on an overseas trip, he was more focused on the fate of the Springboks than on the issues of negotiation with his hosts. Finally, when a racist white sportscaster told the Captain of the Springboks that he had won the Cup for the 60,000 spectators in the stadium, he said he had won the Cup for 43 million South Africans. Mandela had won the hearts and minds of just not the Springboks; with winning the World Cup, he successfully brought down the wall of hatred between the two races and started the process of reconciliation.

The movie has a great message for a world torn in conflict where even a President like Barak Obama who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize had to order a troop upsurge in Afghanistan that he acknowledged on the TV programme 60 Minutes as the most difficult choice he ever made. Mandela was confronted with greater challenges than many of his contemporaries, Obama included, but he had the statesmanship and the vision to rise over his personal grievances and those of the majority of his people, grievances that were no less motivating for settling by force of power than many being pursued in the contemporary world. Instead he succeeded with forgiveness as an instrument of great human achievement that force and vengeance would not have accomplished. In doing so, he was the real Invictus of Henley's poem. He was as Henley scribed the master of his fate and the captain of my soul. Nelson Mandela left office at the peak of popularity few leaders in history have achieved after one term in office in 1999 to become the conscience of the world.

Published in The Daily Independent, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

New troop deployment and Obama's approval rating

ALMOST a year into his tenure as President, Obama is getting bogged with problems that are making it difficult for him to back his promise for change with results. One of the problems is in Afghanistan where he is finding it difficult to finish the unfinished war of his predecessor. Another major setback is the economy. A combination of greed of leaders of the financial sector, lack of government regulation and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq/Afghanistan wars during the Bush era (total cost of the wars is now getting close to US 1 trillion) has pushed the economy into the worst recession for decades.

In Iraq the USA seems to have come to terms with the insurgency, as it appears at this point in time. In Afghanistan, however, the war against terror has not gone as expected. Years of neglect to finish the war there to attack Iraq during the previous administration has allowed the Taliban to re-group, forcing President Obama to send 20,000 troops there in March although it did not help in turn the tide. In a speech in West Point Military Academy on December 1st given to 4000 cadets (many soon to be deployed to Afghanistan), and telecast nationwide, the President announced to send 30,000 troops over a period of six months. By the end of this year, US troops in Afghanistan would number 98,000. There are 29,950 additional US troops in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under NATO command of 64,500 troops, majority supplied by the NATO member countries.

The President's speech is being seen as a defining one for his Presidency. Although most Americans are wary of foreign wars, the positive turn in Iraq has enhanced their patience. Since the request made by Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, the Commander of US troops in Afghanistan, in August for additional troops to offset the gains made by the Taliban in recent years, it was widely expected that the President would commit the additional troops. Hence, the announcement did not come as a surprise. In a survey by CNN soon after the speech, 62% of Americans favoured the additional troop deployment. The speech is, however, being criticized because of the July 2011 deadline the President also announced for the beginning of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. In the same CNN poll, 58% considered the withdrawal date to be a bad idea because this will give the Taliban the option to wait out that deadline instead of fighting the strengthened US presence.

In a hearing by the Senate Armed Forces Committee a day after the West Point speech, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates was grilled by Senator McCain, a member of the Committee, on the precise withdrawal date. The Secretary told the Committee that the administration would review ground reality in December, 2010 but has not been specific whether that would or would not delay the withdrawal date. He reiterated the conviction of General McChrystal that the additional troops would be enough to reverse Taliban gains and allow the 170,000 plus Afghans to be available at that time to successfully handle the transfer of security responsibilities. He also stressed that the July, 2011 date would mark the beginning of the withdrawal, not the completion of withdrawal. General McChrystal also emphasized that the withdrawal date is a flexible one, not “absolute”, making US presence in Afghanistan open ended.

McCain's grilling notwithstanding, most Americans want the US to finish its task in Afghanistan. In fact, the Senator himself talked to Secretary Gates to ensure that the US does not leave its job in Afghanistan unfinished. Americans supported President Bush almost totally when US invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda and the Talibans, who hosted them, as revenge for the 9/11 killings. Thus, they would not want Afghanistan to go back to the Taliban, even though till date 974 US men/women in uniform have died there. President Obama may have made an error in judgment, thinking that a firm date of withdrawal would please Americans, on assumption that they want the troops to return home. This error is explained by the fact that 58% Americans said that declaration of the withdrawal date is a bad decision.

Apart from the decision of sending more troops, Obama's overall approval rating as a President has fallen to 48% in a CNN poll taken after the West Point speech. This is the first time the rating has fallen below 50% in his tenure. It is the economy that has brought Obama to this position along with his opponents not letting any excuse go by without attacking him. Even his recent courtesy bow to the Emperor while on a trip to Japan has been termed a “bow gate”; a criticism that would normally not have been made but now finds acceptance because the economy has not turned around. The thousands of jobs that are being lost every month are at the heart of the concerns of most Americans. The President, conscious of the job situation, has held a job summit at the White House and has followed it with a Town hall Meeting in Pennsylvania after making his West Point speech on his Afghan Policy.

The economy is thus the key reason that is pulling the President's rating down at the moment. However, by most predictions, the country is on course for economic recovery which is now a matter of time and the President's ratings are going to bounce back to more a comfortable zone by the end of next year when his administration sits down to review the ground reality in Afghanistan. Although job losses have continued the 11,000 jobs lost in November have been the smallest, leading many economists to predict that the trend is on the reverse mode.

The President's future and the chances of delivering on his promise of change will depend on foreign affairs and not the economy. History of foreign intervention in Afghanistan does not go with the optimism that the President and his General have placed on the results of increased troop deployment. The US partner in this offensive is Pakistan, which has its own domestic problems, some insurmountable, to dedicate itself fully to President Obama's Afghan Policy. The Karzai administration that has taken over power for a second term amidst controversy is beset with a variety of problems of which endemic corruption is the most obvious. The Karzai administration will also not be much of a help in implementing the Afghan Policy successfully by readying itself for the take over of the security responsibilities to allow the US troops to start returning home after July 2011.

President Obama's current predicament with foreign affairs and the economy are problems he has inherited from his predecessor. But as President, he has no other recourse but to own his predecessor's actions as that of the nation and treat them as issues of his administration. On the economy, the President has the advantage of hindsight to help his administration overcome the current economic problems. In his recent Pennsylvania Town Hall meeting, President Obama said that his administration will ensure that the regulations that were not used to keep the financial institutions in place will now be enforced proactively with newly added safeguards so that the country not only comes out of the recession but also ensure that such a predicament never occurs again. Afghanistan is going to be the big problem for Obama by the time he prepares for election for a second term. The Taliban, as many in the US and particularly Obama's opponents are suggesting, would probably wait out the July, 2011 deadline while engaging the US troops in limited scale to add to the death toll of 974.

The NATO countries have not matched USA's decision to send more troops. The US has been expecting 10,000 additional NATO troops but so far has a commitment of 7,000. France and Germany, the largest contributors, are unsure about sending additional troops. Afghanistan thus could become a hot potato in President Obama's hands.

Published in The Daily Star, December 12, 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Days in the Foreign Service (a series): 1986-1990: Nazrul Islam's Decline

The tenure of Nazrul Islam that lasted for 14 months (May 1987-July 1988) was almost all in the midst of political upheaval in the country. Soon after he assumed office, the military government of General Ershad introduced a bill in Parliament in July, 1987 that provided military representation in the district councils. The AL walked out of Parliament on the issue and took politics to the street. The BNP that had not participated in the 1986 elections was already agitating against the Ershad Government. The political climate thus was extremely fluid and volatile where hartal was the order of the day.

At the Foreign Ministry, those of us who were working for the Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary or the Administration were spending our nights in the office to avoid walking the long way to office where there were also the dangers of falling in the hands of the hartal activists and being humiliated. Nazrul Islam was given an official house in Gulshan but he found it inconvenient to come from there to office on hartal days, although he was provided police escort. He moved early in his tenure to a house in Dhanmandi to be nearer to the Ministry. The heated political climate in the country made lives of all working for the civil bureaucracy difficult as we were left to fend for ourselves to attend office during these frequent hartals without failure.

At the height of these agitations, the military government declared emergency and announced fresh elections for March, 1988. The evening the announcement was made, I received a call from the Foreign Secretary to be at the office by 8pm. I was there earlier than 8pm and soon afterwards, the Foreign Secretary was there. He gave me a list of Ambassadors, mostly of the developed countries, and asked me to call them to office within the hour for a briefing on what led to the introduction of the emergency by the Foreign Minister. Soon, the Chief of Protocol M Mohsin arrived. The job was a protocol wing's job. But as the protocol officers were taking time to arrive, I was asked to do the job. M. Mohsin was aware that I was handling a job that his officers should have handed. I came to my room and started calling the Ambassadors one by one. When I called the Soviet Ambassador, he told me that he was in his pyjamas and had retired to his bed, in humour of course. I replied back that as the Foreign Minister would be briefing him and his colleagues on a very important national issue, he had no option but to come, assuring him that the Foreign Minister would not mind if he came in his pyjamas! M. Mohsin, sat across my table in a chair with his legs spread on another and watched me all the while, saying nothing. That started a relationship where I saw him closely and became aware of his qualities as a diplomat and a gentleman and learnt to respect him as one of the best officers in the Foreign Service cadre.

The Foreign Minister was at his best at occasions such as the one he addressed that evening. He briefed the Ambassadors and High Commissioners on an issue that was not particularly popular in a manner that did not bring critical comments from the floor. By his side was Nazrul Islam who was equally capable of holding his own and between them, they represented the Government that evening on a difficult issue in the best way possible. Many of us present there that evening did not accept the defense of the Foreign Minister for the declaration of emergency. Nevertheless we did not fail to admire the ability of HRC and Nazrul Islam to represent the Government on a very difficult and unpopular issue. There were present that evening among few Ambassadors, who despite the fact that the Ershad government was un-democratic, nevertheless backed him because of reasons of Cold War diplomacy of the period.

Ershad himself those days took the major decisions on foreign relations where the Foreign Ministry did not play much of a role. He worked out a relationship with the United States through the US Ambassadors in Dhaka among whom Howard Schaffer (1984-87) played a significant role. At that time, Ershad's brother-in-law AHG Mohiuddin was an important factor in many matters related to the Foreign Ministry and foreign policy. AGH as he was popularly known was a member of the erstwhile Pakistan Taxation Service of 1965 batch who was posted in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington and later as the Deputy Permanent Representative/ Alternative Permanent Representative and finally as the Permanent Representative in New York during Ershad's 10 years long rule. He was encadred into the Bangladesh Foreign Service in 1981 after Ershad assumed power. In the entire period of Ershad's rule, AGH enjoyed a special status that did not commensurate with his seniority in the cadre.

The Permanent Mission in New York , after AGH was posted there was an alternate Foreign Ministry, more powerful than the Ministry itself in areas where it chose to exercise its influence. Where in all other Missions, Ambassadors/officers/staff were directly under the control and supervision of the Foreign Ministry, the Permanent Mission in New York was a power unto itself where AGH decided everything about the Mission, including posting and transfer of officers there. Although AGH exercised influence out of the ordinary, the good thing about him was he did not use his influence to put anyone in trouble. In fact, whenever he contacted the Ministry, it was invariably to help someone working for him at the Permanent Mission. He demanded loyalty and anyone who had ideas of his own had to move out prematurely from the Mission. Some of his officers and staff used his influence for good measure for their personal gains.

The President and AHG with obvious concurrence of the Foreign Minister placed the United States on top of the agenda. In order to reach the Congress effectively, they appointed a lobbyist for the first time in history of Bangladesh-US relations. I remember taking the contract to the residence of the Foreign Minister for his signature of a hartal morning under police escort. Nazrul Islam had little to do in negotiating the appointment of Bannerman (can't recollect his first name), who was a staffer of Senator Lugar, as the lobbyist for a hefty fee. That morning, visibly unhappy, he signed the contract on the dotted lines before handing the document to me to take to the Foreign Minister. Nevertheless, the pro-US policy was successful for the President. When Bangladesh became the first developing country to join the US led coalition for the Gulf War in 1990 at a time when the popular movement against Ershad has reached its peak, the US backed the President and was very unhappy when he was removed.

The political situation did not improve at all even after the March, 1988 elections because that time, both the mainstream political parties, the BNP and the AL, boycotted the elections. The elections led to an important change in the Foreign Ministry when Wajid Ali Khan Panni was appointed as the Deputy Foreign Minister. He was given the post as part of a political accommodation. The Deputy Foreign Minister was a friendly person and straightaway became close to the senior officers of the Ministry. Unfortunately, he did not get on well with the Foreign Secretary. Although at about that time, Nazrul Islam was trying his best to become friendly with the senior officers, there were a few who were not happy with him. Abdul Quayyum, an ex-PFS officer of the 1965 batch was one who was particularly unhappy with Nazrul Islam. Abdul Quayyum was a close friend of AHG or at least that was the perception that he gave everybody in the Ministry. Nazrul Islam was hell bent upon sending him out, no doubt because he thought Abdul Quayyum was reporting on him and the Ministry to AGH.

In the end Nazrul Islam had his way. Abdul Quayyum was named as Ambassador to Morocco despite his unwillingness to leave the Ministry. The news about Abdul Quayyum's agreement from the Moroccan Government was released to the press post haste without consulting him. The CV of Abdul Quayyum that was given to the press was an old one that mentioned he had two children where in fact he had more. An infuriated Abdul Quayyum stormed to the Foreign Secretary's room the day the news was released in the press and had an exchange that I listened to, with the door between my office and the Foreign Secretary's office party open, so as to be able to intervene in case that was necessary. It did not come to that but I could not believe that any officer of the Ministry could use language that was exchanged that day with the Foreign Secretary at the receiving end.

Wajed Ali Khan Panni and some of the senior officers eventually submitted a Summary for the President on the idiosyncrasies of Nazrul Islam. That was something quite unusual. Those days, the Foreign Secretary was the principal accounting officer of the Ministry. No summary could be sent to the President without the Foreign Secretary's signature. The rules notwithstanding, the Summary went to the President where it was received. The sad part was that the Foreign Secretary was blissfully unaware of the summary. What was equally sad was the fact that the senior officers who sent the Summary did not make the effort to sit with the Foreign Secretary to try and explain their frustrations with him. That action not only led to Nazrul Islam's unceremonious exit ultimately but also exposed to those who were determined to undermine the Foreign Ministry, its internal weakness.

Published in The Independent, December 10, 2009

Friday, December 4, 2009

Obama tries to allay Indian fears

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the United States was the first such visit by a Head of State/Government under the Obama administration. The hosts used this point in the media to single out the visit as a special one. Likewise, the state banquet given to the Indian Prime Minister, where over 300 guests were invited, was also mentioned in the media in great details to underscore the care and the attention that the hosts have taken to make the visit remarkable. The President's choice of words to praise India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it obvious that he was also trying to underscore the visit as more than an important one. He referred to the usual pitch that marks such visits between the two countries; theirs being the two largest democracies in the world. This time, the fact that both Obama and Manmohan Singh have only recently assumed office (Manmohan Singh for a new term) and would have a long time to implement agreements reached between the two countries was added to the usual pitch to underscore the visit's importance.

The official talks between the two leaders lasted two hours. A Joint Statement was issued following the talks and the two leaders also addressed a joint press conference. Obama acknowledged India as a “rising and responsible global power” and welcomed it for “rise of a stable, prosperous and rising Asia”. Obama said the US considered its strategic partnership with India “as one of the redefining partnerships of 21st century” and added that the necessity to broaden and strengthen US-India cooperation would be a matter of priority for his administration. Obama underscored India's fantastic rate of economic development and stressed upon the need to strengthen trade and investment in each other's country for mutual benefit. In the context of the agreements reached at the Pittsburg G20 Summit, President Obama underscored the need for India to “have a greater voice in shaping the international financial structure.” Obama also said at the press conference about an agreement to interact closely on the issue of climate leading to the UN sponsored Copenhagen Summit next month.

President Obama also said that the two countries agreed to deepen cooperation on “transnational threats”. To prevent future attacks like the one Mumbai witnessed a year ago, they agreed that “our law enforcing and intelligence agencies will work closer, including sharing information.” President Obama assured India that the Civil Nuclear Agreement reached in October 2008 would be implemented soon and welcomed India's participation in the nuclear summit next year “in a shared vision of a world without nuclear weapons.” President Obama also spoke of US-Indian cooperation in education, disease control, and food security. Manmohan Singh expressed satisfaction at the agreement of the two sides to strengthen their strategic partnership and to cooperate closely on trade and investment relations. He expressed pleasure at the assurance on implementing the Civil Nuclear Agreement. He also echoed the sentiments of Obama on the agreement to work on climate, economic issues, education and food security. The visit was also significant because of the 8 MoUs signed on a wide range of areas highlighting deeper cooperation between the private sectors of the two countries.

The ambiance created around the visit by the hosts was in contrast to the build up to the visit from the Indian side. The US President's state visit to China just days before Manmohan Singh's trip to Washington did not make the Indians particularly happy. Former Indian Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Washington Lalit Mansingh said that although it is easy to explain Obama's bow to the Emperor of Japan as a matter of protocol, his bending over backwards to please the Chinese was nothing but “appeasement”. The Indians are unhappy that the Obama administration has been paying too much attention to China and not enough to the Indians. The warmth of relations that was there under President Bush who brought US-India relations out from the cold storage after decades of antagonism during the Cold War was missing going into the visit. The Indians were getting apprehensive because of the Obama administration's silence to activate the Civil Nuclear Agreement. The US had to use its influence with the 43 nations Nuclear Suppliers' Group to get its clearance to sign the deal.

The task of making the visit successful thus lay more on the lap of the US than on the Indians. In fact, the US had to walk the tight rope on this account. It had to keep Pakistan happy by not giving too much to the Indians as the Obama administration has already pinned that country as a strategic partner in the war against terror. China is the emerging world giant set to overtake Japan soon as the second strongest economy in the world and eventually beat the US to the number one position. China is also US's most important trading partner. These are just a few of the imperatives that make relations with China extremely important for the US. In fact, Lalit Mansingh was correct when he said that Obama's overtures towards China during his recent trip was “appeasement” because given China's ever growing influence in world affairs, and US's dependence on China for economic reasons, it is in US' national interest to keep China happy.

Thus, the US cannot lean towards India without considering the reactions of Pakistan and China. By reiterating commitment to work with India on issues of climate; terrorism in South Asia; global trading arrangements; the US has assured the Indians about India's importance to the US as a strategic partner without upsetting Pakistan and China. The importance of US-India Strategic Dialogue established at the level of Secretary of State/Minister of External Affairs as underscored by Obama has also made the Indians happy. These facts notwithstanding, no agreement has been signed nor any commitment made by the US with India which may upset either China or Pakistan. Nevertheless, the assurance given by the US to implement the Civil Nuclear Agreement has been a major outcome of the visit. A visibly relieved Indian Prime Minister said at the joint press conference that it would take at most a couple of months before the deal is implemented.

In the context of big power international politics, the visit will not give India any new importance than what it already enjoys. In the context of regional politics in South Asia, the visit has clearly underscored that India will be, to the United States, the regional leader where Pakistan would be the exception. Bangladesh may have less of the US attention on regional matters such as those related to security and terrorism, sharing of water of common rivers or on maritime boundary and US may be inclined to take the Indian view on such matters to decide its policy.

The two big issues upon which the US media reported extensively are the state banquet where the First Lady wore an elegant dress designed by an Indian designer; the Indian cuisine served on the occasion; and the galaxy of elites who were invited to it. The other big issue is the gate crashing event of Tareq Salahi. Neither issue is of substance but still they dominated media attention. This does not suggest that important issues were not discussed. It nevertheless suggests that the issues discussed did not make any breakthrough which might have taken US-India strategic relations to the next level as was predicted by Assistant Secretary for South Asia Robert Blake in his pre-visit assessment. Rather, the visit of Manmohan Singh will maintain the current US policy in Asia, that of not choosing a favorite among India, Pakistan and China.

Published in The Daily Star, December 5, 2009