Friday, April 23, 2010

Are Indo-US relations back on track?

Published in The Daily Star, 24th April, 2010

UNDERSTANDING Cold War international politics was easy. The world then was fairly evenly divided between the two Super Powers and smaller powers belonged to one of the two camps. There was of course a third camp of Non-Aligned countries but most of them too in one way or the other belonged to one of the two camps. One of the themes of relations among nations then was: “the enemy's enemy is my friend.”

With the Cold War in the graveyard of history, balancing contradictory interests among nations is now a very difficult task at the international level. Thus, today we witness far more conflicts than during the Cold War era. The war on terror has turned the world upside down with the introduction of non-state actors and terrorists. The US as the worlds only remaining Super Power is now up to its wits in attempting to balance conflicting interests to make the world safer. US' predicament with its foreign policy goals is facing tough challenge in South Asia as it tries to balance the conflicting interests of India and Pakistan, both nuclear states, into some common purpose to win the war against terror.

USA had leaned towards Pakistan while keeping India at arm's length till Soviet Union dissipated in 1991. During the 1980s, USA and Pakistan were in very close alliance in attempting to deal with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since then, USA has made amends and also moved towards India while keeping Pakistan happy with military and economic assistance. Since 9/11, US-Pakistan relations have regained more than the warmth that existed in the best of times in the past as President Bush accepted Pakistan as USA's most important ally in the war against terror, recognising the fact that without Pakistan's support US would never win that war.

President Bush, however, realised very well that the mindset in both the nations did not change with the end of the Cold War days where each saw US closeness to the other as something negative to its interests. That notwithstanding, in acknowledgement of India's importance as an emerging major player in world politics, US initiated with India the process of signing the US-India civil nuclear deal in 2005 and signed it eventually in 2008. It gave India a pride of position as a nuclear weapons state in the same league with the other responsible nuclear powers. During President Bush's presidency, US-India relations were on an upswing although India had a long list of complaints on US's reluctance to talk to Pakistan on its role in cross border terrorism.

President Obama's decision to substantially increase US troops in Afghanistan in order to win it has placed US-Pakistan relations, despite its own hiccups, on stronger footing than in the past, much to the discomfort of the Indians. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was invited to Washington in November last year and shown great honour and courtesy that stabilized relations for a while. However, India's continued failure to encourage the US to use its overwhelming influence over Pakistan to give up terrorism as a policy has stalled relations. The relationships hit another serious snag over India's lack of success so far to extradite to India or gain access to David Headley (originally Dawood Jilani who accepted the Christian name to avoid detection), a US citizen of Pakistani origin now in US custody in connection with masterminding the Mumbai attack on 26th November 2008. In fact, India's patience has been tested to its limits because instead of acting on the Indian request to rein in Pakistan, US has been suggesting to India to engage in dialogue with Pakistan and solve these problems bilaterally and doing precious little over access to Headley.

From the Indian point of view, US' tepidity in talking to Pakistan has been complicated further because of the explosive nature of domestic build-up of sentiments around 26/11. The fact that Dr. Manmohon Singh has been the most pro-US Prime Minister in Indian history has put additional pressure on the Indian Prime Minister leading up to his meeting with the US President on the sideline of the Nuclear Summit where 47 world leaders gathered early last week (April 12-13). The US took special care to create the feeling that the Obama-Manmohan meeting, which was the first of five meetings the US President held that day, was the special one. While 45-minute time slots were reserved for the other 4 meetings, 90 minutes was allotted for the Obama-Manmohan meeting, though the two used 55 minutes of it. Media attention was also heavily focused on the meeting and generous references were made to the statesmanship of the Indian Prime Minister.

President Obama, whose use of words reveals the same charming nature of the man, said that US-India would work through the legal process for access to David Headley. He also said US would continue to depend on India for development of Afghanistan, a reference intended to take care of India's sensitivity about being historically a neighbour of Afghanistan till the partition of 1947 and Pakistan's contention that India should not meddle in affairs there as it is no longer a neighbour of that country. He also categorically asserted that US understood India's concern over the Af-Pak region and would not do anything that would in any way harm US-India strategic partnership. He added that there is no other country where “opportunities for a strategic partnership is greater” than in India. There was relief, satisfaction, and renewed confidence among Indian officials that US-India relations were firmly back on track, which was conveyed to the media by the Indian Foreign Secretary after the talks.

Everything did not go India's way at the talks although relations have been brought back on rails. President Obama did ask his guest to engage in negotiations that did not reflect that he fully acknowledged the depth of Indian concern over terrorism as a policy by Pakistan. There have thus been criticisms too about the outcome. Skeptics felt that despite assurances, US would not be able to force Pakistan on India's security concerns because its own security concerns needs a willing and obliging Pakistani army. These skeptics also feel that US would not allow access to Headley because he could reveal information that could embarrass the US. It was expected that President Obama would in some way talk about Indian concern in his meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister. Instead, Yusuf Gilani asked from India more evidence against Lashkar- e -Tayeba (LeT) in a press interview after his talks with President Obama. This angered the Indian Prime Minister so much that he ruled out all talks with Pakistan till it took “credible steps” against LeT. Such a statement also suggests that India would be overly optimistic to believe that US would push Pakistan seriously on its security concerns. President Obama is expected to visit India in August and one must wait till then to get a better grip on US-India relations.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

My Foreign Ministry Years, 1986-1990: Abul Ahsan makes his mark

Published in The Independent, April 23rd., 2010

Abul Ahsan was promoted to the rank of a Secretary shortly after he arrived in Dhaka. I had met him only twice before he became the Foreign Secretary but I never worked with him. When I was in New Delhi, he had gone there for a SAARC Meeting as an Additional Foreign Secretary. It was 1983 when Mrs. Gandhi was still alive. In fact Mrs. Gandhi opened that SAARC meeting. I still vividly recollect being awe struck with her personality. When she came down to shake the hands of the delegates (we were a small group), I was frozen at the aura of her personality. It took me a few moments before I could shake her hand! Before this meeting, I was a member of President Ershad’s delegation to the Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGRM) in Fiji in 1982 in which Abul Ahsan was also a delegate, again attending that meeting as an Additional Foreign Secretary. I was then a Second Secretary in the Bangladesh High Commission in Canberra that also covered Fiji and New Zealand. Those days, junior officers in the Foreign Service often felt uncomfortable with their seniors unlike in the erstwhile CSP where the feeling of belongingness in a cadre was shared equally by all. Abu Ahsan was different and he could instantly make his juniors at ease by his very casual but pleasing personality. He made everyone around him feel comfortable because he disliked standing on protocol. He belonged to the 1961 batch in which he topped the list on an All-Pakistan basis. Two of his ex-PFS colleagues, late Humayun Kabir and M. Mohsin were also among the first 10 while current Adviser to the Prime Minister HT Imam had stood 4th in all Pakistan after Abul Ahsan.

I remember my first day with Abul Ahsan in office. He was then staying at the railway Guest House waiting for his predecessor to vacate the house that was earmarked as a residence of the Foreign Secretary. As I sat across him in his room, he seemed flustered and was looking for something in his briefcase that was on the table. I could not help looking at the inside of the briefcase where things were pretty disorderly. I was a bit embarrassed; so was the Foreign Secretary. He however quickly recovered and in his dry sense of humour that was his trade mark, he told me with a wry smile that although the inside of his briefcase looked disheveled, there was a “system” there and he could blindly find whatever he wanted in that briefcase! To prove his point, he said he was looking for a particular paper and in a flash; he brought it out of the pile of papers inside the briefcase and placed it before me to see.

Before joining the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service, Abul Ahsan had taught Economics in Dhaka University. At that time, AHG Mohiuddin was his student. That relationship paid good dividends when Abul Ahsan became Foreign Secretary. AHG respected Abul Ahsan and that made the new Foreign Secretary more comfortable in his job. Abul Ahsan of course did not need to depend on anyone in particular to do his job as a Foreign Secretary because his brilliant career and experience gave him more confidence than he otherwise needed. Nevertheless, in those days, to have AGH on the right side was an asset and Abul Ahsan also made good use of AGH’s respect for him for the good of the Ministry. At least there was no tension between Dhaka and New York. Without Abul Ahsan in between, tension could have affected the work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because as Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud did not make any efforts to please AGH in anyway.

In fact, not long after Abul Ahsan joined as Foreign Secretary, there was rumour that AHG had succeeded in motivating his brother-in-law the President to re-instate Humayun Rashid Chowdhury as the Foreign Minister. When HRC was Foreign Minister, he had an Assistant Private Secretary named Rafiqul Islam. Rafiq seemed to know everybody and that included the President! Once when HRC was waiting for the President at the ante-chamber of his office, the President walked out into the room, his arms resting on Rafiq’s shoulders. It was Rafiq who was mainly responsible for spreading the rumour that HRC was coming back. The Bangladesh mission in New York also echoed the possibility. At the Foreign Ministry, those of us who heard the rumour did not like it because we were happy with Anisul Islam Mahmud who was perhaps the most dynamic and successful Foreign Minister of Bangladesh.

In any case, my time to leave Dhaka was fast nearing. The news came abruptly. It was the 1st of January 1990. Abul Ahsan had an engagement at the airport that day, to receive a guest, and if memory does not serve me wrong, it was the Secreteray General of SAARC. Shortly before he was scheduled to leave, the Director-General (Administration) Abdul Hannan came to see the Foreign Secretary, carrying a file. Abdul Hannan was an officer of the erstwhile Pakistan Audit and Accounts service and was made the DG (Admn) to snub for the Foreign Service officers by HRC when he was the Foreign Minister. Abdul Hannan left after a few minutes with the Foreign Secretary but when he left, he was not carrying back the file. I was called soon afterwards by the Foreign Secretary ’who was standing before his table. He handed me the file, said he was leaving and would be back late and added in his overtly Noakhali dialect “file ta chalu kori dao.” Only when I came back to my seat and read the file, I found out that I was being posted to Washington. I was in a loop of three postings; I would replace Syed Maudud Ali in Washington while he would relieve Ruhul Amin in Tehran to return to Dhaka. On mutual agreement to facilitate the transfer for my colleagues, I agreed to delay my departure by almost six months, although by then I was past three and a half years in Dhaka and needed to go on a foreign posting for financial reasons.

In matters of postings and transfers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seldom showed it had any planning. Postings and transfers were made in a lot of instances arbitrarily. The concept of a good posting following a hardship one that most Foreign Ministries take into account in placing officers in the Missions was conspicuous by its absence in our system. Such lack of policy encouraged many officers to use their contacts to get good postings. Most Foreign Secretaries and often also the Foreign Ministers obliged when references came from important people. Abul Ahsan was one exception. I remember an incident when a junior officer of the Cypher Department came up to me and said that the Foreign Secretary wanted to see him. As he went in, his spirits were visibly high. He however was out of the room in a few minutes like a thunder had struck him. I asked him if anything was wrong. He said the Foreign Secretary was very upset with him as he had sought a transfer to Washington through someone highly placed in Government and Abul Ahsan had told him that as long as he was Foreign Secretary, he would be posted nowhere.

Personal likes and dislikes of those involved in posting officers to the missions also played an important part in the ad-hoc system in place those days. That did not have a good effect on the morale of the officers who were not willing to use any reference for privileges in service or did not have such references. There were always a good number of officers who did not feel they had been given a fair deal, especially when postings to the mission were concerned. Unfortunately postings to and from missions did not in those days take into account the needs of the children of the diplomats and the staff, in case of the latter more so, in terms of the schools and colleges and many have suffered on this account because of the insensitivity of the Foreign Ministry.

As the Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud was as tough on officers trying to influence their postings and with the duo of Anisul Islam and Abul Ahsan at the helm in the Foreign Ministry, most of the officers felt confident that they would be given a fair deal. Things were made transparent in administration that created a healthy environment in the Ministry during the period Anisul Islam Mahmud and Abul Ahsan worked together. Despite the difference in age with the Minister considerably younger, there was a healthy respect between the two and they were able to bring the Foreign Ministry into reckoning as an important Ministry of the Government. Abul Ahsan would tell me so many stories of his days as a Director-General when Bangabandhu was at the helm of affairs in the period between 1972-75. Bangabandhu would call even Directors-General to his office on a one to one basis on foreign policy issues and Abul Ahsan was one who would those days meet Bangabandhu frequently. These days Directors-General of the Foreign Ministry have access to the Prime Minister only as note takers for her important and sometimes not so important meetings with foreign guests.

As Foreign Secretary, Abul Ahsan found out quickly how the Foreign Ministry had been marginalized meanwhile. He worked with the Foreign Minister for the President’s indulgence to reinstate the Foreign Ministry to its rightful place in Government. That unfortunately did not happen because fate intervened meantime and Ershad’s rule ended in the face of popular public uprising.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

Noise Pollution: Time for us to act

Published in The Independent, 22nd. April, 2010

The Independent’s headline story in a recent issue was about alarming rise of noise pollution. The report went on to say that people of Dhaka run serious risk of heart attack and stroke as a consequence. But then in is second worst city in the world in terms of living conditions, the question is who cares? In fact, with the serious deterioration of the power, gas and water situation, the more appropriate question to ask would be who is there to care for noise pollution? But then noise pollution is a killer and threat of death under no circumstances should be taken lightly. Unfortunately, this government would need a magic wand to solve the power/gas/water crisis and now with noise pollution tagged to it in the long list of crisis people of Dhaka and the rest of the country are facing now, even a magic wand may not do the trick

Realistically, respite on none of the crisis we are facing is in the offing, not at any time soon. The Government seems to be busy blaming the opposition that is making people more frustrated because it is now well over 3 years since those that the present government is blaming have left the scene. It is time that those who live in Dhaka start fending for themselves looking into the future. Dhaka has become the worst livable city in the world as much as for the inability of the government, that includes all parties who have been in power since 1971, as it is for the people living in the city themselves. While we will legitimately expect the Government to play its role in mitigating these problems, we often overlook our own role both individually and collectively in giving ourselves some relief.

The issue of noise pollution is one that is almost 100% in the hands of us the sufferers. The Independent report has very clearly pinpointed not just the locations but also the culprits who contribute to such life threatening noise pollution. Hydraulic horns of buses, trucks and taxi cabs are the main source of noise pollution. Of course the law enforcing agencies have the primary responsibility of taking action against these culprits. But then these offending vehicles are owned by a very small number of people who are well do people in society who, unlike the bus/truck/taxi cab drivers, understand the threat of noise pollution. If these people just want that in vehicles they own, horns would not be blown at random, then the war against noise pollution would be half won even without any assistance from the law enforcing authorities.

In Dhaka city, traffic movement is incredibly slow. Blowing the horn serves no purpose at all. The drivers blow the horn just to release their tension and frustration. Little do they know that the horn in the vehicle is for emergency use only and one can drive for hours in any modern city of the world without hearing the noise of a horn. In fact, prohibiting these drivers from blowing the horn could even have a positive effect on road accidents in which these drivers make the maximum contribution. They believe that just by blowing the horn, the road would open up for them like magic so that they can speed in any manner they like and it is by driving in any manner they like, that many innocent people are killed in our riads every day.

The generators merrily buzzing all around us these days is of course a new source of noise pollution. Recently, I want to a friend’s house in Gulshan where noise pollution in Dhaka came up for discussion. He took me out and what I saw struck was unbelievable. His house is exposed three ways to apartments, only free towards the road. From the three sides, the generator exhausts are turned towards my friend’s house. People living in theses apartments are all the cream of society; yet they do not have the minimum civic sense to refrain from causing such misery to an innocent neighbour. Although Dhaka may be deteriorating as a city; its construction boom however gives us a different signal. With the construction boom, there is a different kind of noise pollution that goes around the clock. Recently, I had to file a FIR in Gulshan Thana because my next door neighbours were bringing construction materials at dead of night and making such horrible noise that would make anybody’s sleep impossible. Just imagine waking up at 2am in the morning with noise of labourers downloading stone pebbles with shovels and piling them up on the footpath! The screeching sound is so unbearable that one could be driven to do anything crazy to stop the noise. This type of noise pollution happens in all parts of Dhaka city.

On noise pollution, the offenders are thus both the rich and the poor; the educated as well as the uneducated. Even the barest minimum of civic sense would allow us to escape from the dangers of noise pollution to which The Independent story has referred. Can’t the truck/bus/taxi cab owners show this bare minimum of civic sense by asking their drivers not to blow horns like desperados running away from a crime scene? Can’t they do away completely with the hydraulic horns? Can’t those developers in the construction business take special care that people’s sleep is not disturbed at night? Can’t the generator owners ensure that the discomfort of noise from the generators is not passed on to neighbours?

I share with everybody, their frustration with the shortage of power/gas/water. Even in these daily necessities, if we showed greater civic sense, our predicament could have been somewhat better than what it is at present. With noise pollution, the matter is in our hands. Can’t we do something about it? Charity, they say, begins at home. It is time we see what we can do ourselves while also expecting the Government to do its bit. At the moment, neither is doing much and Dhaka is sliding into an abyss.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Nuclear Summit endorses US' nuclear objectives

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April 17, 2010

One of President Obama's election pledges was to secure “loose nukes” in his first term in office. Towards achieving that pledge, he invited to Washington 47 nuclear states to get a plan of action to deal with nuclear threat from non-state actors and terrorist groups in place of “some vague gauzy statements.” In the built up to this Summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that US intelligence sources have information that Al Qaeda terrorists are seeking to get hold of nuclear weapons while at the same time planning to target nuclear installations for terrorist attacks. Her statement put the Summit in context.

In attendance were all the big players. China was represented by President Hu Jin Tao; India by Manmohan Singh; France by President Sarcozy while Foreign Secretary David Miliband stood in for his Prime Minister. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one surprise absentee, withdrawing at the last moment perhaps apprehending censure. Before embarking on getting all the important nations using nuclear energy and/or possessing nuclear weapons for a Summit, President Obama laid down the new US nuclear policy a week ahead of the Summit. In that policy, President Obama made a substantial departure from his predecessor by putting a halt on the development of any new nuclear weapons. The other important element of the new policy is that it clearly states that the US will not launch a nuclear attack against a non-nuclear state even if such a state would launch a biological or a chemical or a crippling cyber attack. However, US would reconsider nuclear retaliation if the development of chemical or biological weapons reached a stage to subject the US to a devastating attack.

President Obama followed the announcement of his administration's new plan by a meeting with President Medvedev of Russia, a country indispensable for the success of the new nuclear policy of the US President whose main objective is to discourage nations from acquiring nuclear weapons. Together, the US and Russia have 95% of the world's nuclear weapons and that makes it indispensable for the two countries to cooperate to, first, contain the spread of nuclear weapons, and then to eventually eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. President Obama wants success of such a strategy to be the lasting legacy of his presidency.

US-Russian relations had soured over the war in Georgia last year. Russia was also unhappy with the US initiative for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as a shield against Iran's nuclear ambitions that Russia objected as it is on its backyards. In the end, President Obama and President Medvedev were able to reach an agreement that should be seen as a success for the US President's diplomatic efforts and not very good news for the Iranians who in the past have depended on the Russians for support on the nuclear issue. In the agreement the USA and Russia would voluntarily reduce their nuclear arsenals by a quarter as a first step in the containment policy of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of unstable regions. The treaty will be finalized by December and then it will have to be ratified by the legislature of both the countries. It could then lead to more substantial reductions in further talks between the two countries next year. The US-Russia Summit set the stage for cooperation on the nuclear issue that was firmly in evidence during the Washington Nuclear Summit.

President Obama thus went to the Nuclear Summit with sufficient preparation and a vision on what he expected the Summit to deliver. In opening the Summit, President Obama was emphatic in telling his fellow Summiteers that the risk of nuclear attack is now on the rise despite the end of Cold War. The increased threat according to him comes from international terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda. He received unanimous endorsement of the Summiteers about the threat from terrorist groups and the need to make all nuclear materials safe in the next four years so that none would fall into the hands of the terrorists. President Obama put the terrorist threat in context by telling Summiteers that plutonium no bigger than an apple would allow the terrorists to detonate a device that could kill hundreds of thousands. Heeding to the need to secure nuclear materials Ukraine, Canada and Mexico voluntarily gave up highly enriched uranium each possessed to make it harder for terrorist groups or criminal gangs to steal a key ingredient for making atomic bombs. The Summiteers agreed to cooperate with the IAEA for sharing information on nuclear materials to prevent trafficking.

On the issue of dealing with Iran that is a key element in the new US nuclear policy, President Obama was able to get China on board when the Chinese agreed to work with USA for a fourth round on sanctions against Iran in order to deter it from possessing nuclear weapons. There was, however, some discrepancy between the US and Chinese statements on sanctions against Iran with the Chinese unwilling to mention Iran in public. Russia that is equally crucial if not more in keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was more firmly with the US following the nuclear deal between President Obama and President Medvedev reached in Moscow shortly before the Washington Summit. Thus a major outcome of the Washington Summit has been the gathering of forces against Iran in its perceived attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. On North Korea, the Summit concluded that although “sanctions are not a magic wand”, there was alternative but to continue with it to force that country to return to nuclear disarmament talks that it had abandoned before President Obama took office.

The Summit has been a success for India as it helped bring US-India relations back on firm track after it had wandered off on the issue of Pakistan's use of US military aid against India. President Obama received the Indian Prime Minister as the first guest in the limited list of bilateral meetings on the sides of the Summit. He assured Manmohan Singh that the US would take up India's concerns seriously. Media reported “relief, satisfaction and renewed confidence” among Indian officials after the 50-minute talks between the two leaders.

The Summit helped raise the stature of President Barak Obama on world stage because he was able to give the leadership and vision needed for handling the apprehensions across many nations, particularly those in the western world, about the terrorists gaining access to nuclear weapons. He also succeeded in raising the level of concern for protecting nuclear installations from terrorist attacks. In fact, the Summit reiterated in its non-binding communiqué the major objectives of the new nuclear policy of the United States that the President had announced shortly before the Summit that has been the largest gathering on US soil since the 1946 conference in San Francisco for establishing the UN. There has also been criticism of the Summit and its achievements. One criticism stated that no concrete mechanism has been designed to deal with nuclear terrorism.

The author is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director at the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Regional integration in South Asia: Learning from Africa

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April,10th , 2010

A very thought provoking and stimulating seminar was held recently at the Policy Research Institute (PRI). The topic was 'Regional cooperation in Africa: Lessons of experience and implications for South Asia.' The keynote presentation was made by Mr. KY Amoako, the founder and President of African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET) and a former vice president of the World Bank. Mr. Praful Patel, also a former vice president of the World Bank assisted Mr. Amoako in his presentation.

Mr. KY Amoako and Mr. Praful Patel placed facts in their presentations that amazed many of the participants at the way Africa in general and West Africa in particular is integrating, highlighting in the process how South Asia is lagging behind. One hears of Africa, particularly West Africa, in the context of wars, civil conflicts, and human rights violations, courtesy of the international news media. Very rarely, one hears of the region in the light in which the two presenters represented West Africa at the Seminar. Some of the key elements that emerged from the presentations were extremely interesting. In the western African experience, the region is moving towards regional integration which is qualitatively a paradigm shift from regional cooperation, the stage where South Asia is stuck since the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), was formally launched in the Dhaka Summit of the South Asian Heads of State/Government in 1985.

In West Africa, the countries have been historically disintegrated. South Asia, in contrast, was once integrated and then disintegrated because of British colonization and is now trying to move back to where it was before the British left. There is thus a significant difference in the background of the two regions that, overtly, should have made integration easier in South Asia. However, British colonization left in South Asia certain fundamental problems that have so far proven almost insurmountable in integrating the countries of South Asia. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were identified as three South Asian nations where legacy of history has stood formidably against integration. In case of India and Pakistan, the two were encouraged to seek and own nuclear weapons for protection against each other.

Terrorism was discussed as a new factor that is complicating regional integration in South Asia. The Adviser to the Prime Minister strongly placed before the audience the initiative of the Bangladesh Prime Minister to tackle the curse of terrorism. He highlighted the commitment made by Sheikh Hasina during her state visit to India in January to fight with India jointly the scourge of terrorism. He said that Bangladesh soil would not be allowed to carry out terrorism into neighboring countries. The Adviser's point was well taken as a positive move towards integration but Bangladesh's commitment notwithstanding, participants in the seminar identified terrorism as another formidable obstacle in the path of integration together with legacy of history from South Asia's tryst with the British colonizers.

There were a few other issues that were raised by the two keynote speakers resulting in a great deal of vibrant discussions. Among the major achievements that Mr. Amoako identified towards regional integration in West Africa is the visa free travel among the members of Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS). In that context, the role of Nigeria was also mentioned. Mr. Amoako said that in achieving regional integration in West Africa, the Pan-African vision of such great African leaders as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere played a key role; such elements have never been present in South Asia's move for regional integration. The visa free travel is an instrument that has helped these countries significantly towards integration. Mr. Amoako said that while there was favourable reaction from the smaller western African nations for visa free travel all along, Nigeria, the largest and economically the most well placed country in the region, was steadfast in its objection for a long time. The visa free travel among the West African countries became a reality only after Nigeria withdrew its objection.

Participants regretted that in South Asia where the need for visa free travel is extremely important to start the process of integration, the concept has not yet found any favour. Some of the participants were critical about India. They felt it could play the role in the region that Nigeria has played in western Africa. The participants felt that terrorism in the region would cause inordinate delay in South Asia's move for visa free regime. India's size, both physical and economic, and its mindset in not living up to its natural dominance in the region were considered by a few participants as serious impediments to regional integration.

Mr. Praful Patel introduced water as an issue for integrating nations in South Asia. He gave the example of the agreement reached on sharing the waters of the Nile that involved 15 countries where conflicts and differences were overcome for common benefit of the signatory countries. He also spoke on the Senegal River development as another success story for achieving the region's economic integration. He provoked the participants to consider the tremendous benefits that could accrue for 700 million plus people in the flood plains in Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh if the four countries cooperated together for managing rivers, rain water, and water from melting snow of the glaciers in the Himalayas. Participants agreed that cooperation for successful management of the region's water resources could leap-frog the region towards regional integration and economic development. Mr. Patel identified lack of political will as a main reason for lack of cooperation in the management of the region's water resources.

Africa is achieving significant results towards integration that will allow it a paradigm shift in their integration and development efforts. South Asia unfortunately is still stuck, struggling to cooperate. In South Asia, legacy of history, terrorism, India's dominant but less positive role are some formidable obstacles that are holding South Asia from integrating which is a key element for regional approach to poverty alleviation in the region. The abundance of water resource in the region, particularly in its northeast, where nature's blessings are being wasted, could be a very important factor for integration. The message that emanated from the PRI seminar is that politics and lack of political will is holding back South Asia from regional integration as opposed to the African experience and thus holding the 40% of the world's poor from breaking out of the vicious circle of poverty. The African experience has rich lessons for South Asia.

The author is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Obama’s secret trip to Afghanistan: War to continue till end

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Daily Star, April 3rd, 2010

PRESIDENT Obama is breathing more freely these days after signing his domestically crucial Health Bill into law last week. As a sure sign of this President Obama took his first trip to the war zone in Afghanistan, his first since becoming the President. For security reasons, the visit was veiled in secrecy. The President left for Camp David on Friday afternoon to give the impression that he was going there for a relaxed weekend after his victory with the Health Bill. The small group who accompanied the President were assembled there and sworn to secrecy. From there, the President and his men left un-noticed for Andrews Air Force base to board the Air Force One to take a 13-hour long flight mostly through the night. The flight landed in Bagram Air Base at 7pm Sunday evening from where he took a helicopter ride to the Presidential Palace. Before Afghans woke up on Monday morning, Air Force One was on its way back to Washington. The President's visit to Afghanistan lasted in all six hours!

Afghanistan is not Obama's war but that of his predecessor. It was the frontier of Bush's war on terrorism before he left in search of Saddam's illusive WMD with the war on terror in Afghanistan unfinished. As President Obama did not just inherit the war in Afghanistan, he in fact stamped his total support to fight his predecessor's war with more vigor and determination to win. In fact, contrary to his pronouncements in the period leading to the Presidential elections, Obama increased US troops in Afghanistan significantly instead of bringing them back.

Obama's trip to Afghanistan was necessitated by a number of factors on the ground. The war on terrorism has not been progressing fast enough for the US to convince them that it is being won. In recent months, the number of casualties among the US troops has increased dramatically, though it has been partly the result of US attacks in Taliban held areas following deployment of additional troops by the President. In the first three months of this year, the number has almost doubled compared to the first quarter of 2009. When Obama took office, there were 34,000 US troops in the country. The President has committed to increase that number threefold to reach 100,000 by the coming summer, with many already there. On Sunday, while the President was in Kabul, there were nearly 80,000 troops in Afghanistan.

It is not just that more US soldiers have been getting killed that has worried the President. The US has placed its confidence on the administration of Hamid Karzai for creating the type of governance and security environment where there would also be no fear of resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, encouraging the US to eventually leave Afghanistan. The Karzai administration has not been able so far to convincingly respond to US apprehensions. The President, therefore, went to Afghanistan to get a first hand feeling about the results of the additional troop deployment. However, more importantly, he went there to deliver a personal message to Hamid Karzai stating that he needed to shape up on a number of fronts.

The President met with President Karzai for half an hour and then also met his Cabinet colleagues. He then met the US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the US Commander General McCrystal. Before boarding Air Force One for its long flight back home, the President addressed 2500 US troops and civilians. While addressing the troops, the President said that that they are gaining on the Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. He added that to make America safe, US troops would keep these elements on the run. To the cheers of the troops, the President said that “the United States of America does not quit when it starts something” making it clear that the troops would remain in Afghanistan till final victory is won.

In a briefing given before Obama's meetings in Kabul to reporters who accompanied the President, National Security Adviser James Jones said that in his meeting with President Karzai, President Obama would lay down benchmarks for better governance in his second term that he started last August. Jones said that the benchmarks would be in areas of merit based system for appointing key government officials; dealing with endemic corruption and the narcotics trade that is helping fund insurgent operations. In particular, Jones said that the President would seek strategic responses from Karzai on “reversing the momentum the Taliban and the opposition forces have been able to establish since 2006.” An administration official said that at the talk, the President told Karzai that some progress has been made in all the key areas where the US is seeking benchmarking of progress. President Obama welcomed some progress in local governance and emphasized the need to establish more credible national building institutions and more efforts for tackling corruption. The official described the talks as “very productive” and “business like”.

One would have expected that the President would be curt with President Karzai, given the fact that his administration is far short of the benchmarks that the US considers necessary for him to partner the US to win the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. While, with the deployment of additional troops, Taliban strongholds are under serious pressure, so are increasing deaths among US troops. Establishing nation building institutions is also not progressing well enough to create confidence in the US or other western nations that have committed troops in Afghanistan. Corruption and the narcotic trade are also not under control.

Karzai assured Obama that by the end of 2010, Afghan security forces would be able to take over some security responsibilities from international forces and by 2014, responsibility for total security. These claims are very optimistic for Karzai, who has started his second term amidst accusations of fraud. His own cabinet members are also suspected of corruption. These facts notwithstanding, President Obama re-asserted his administration's confidence in Karzai.

The President even invited Karzai to Washington in May. These developments suggest that the President has no other alternative but to go along with Karzai because by committing a significant increase of troops, he has left his administration with no alternative but to finish the war where Karzai is the only Afghan leader upon whom the US can depend. An alternative to Karzai is just not anywhere around.

Despite the surge of US troops and President Obama's resolve, Osama Ben Laden is still around and delivered a message on air just a couple of weeks before Obama's trip. With the war in Afghanistan nearing a decade, the end is not yet in sight. So far over 1030 US soldiers have died in Afghanistan. The total is over 1700 with deaths in allied troops taken into account. Time and patience may be running out for the United States and its allies in the context of the Afghan War. One just hopes that President Obama was able to deliver that message to President Hamid Karzai and encourage US troops in the theatre of war.

The author is former Ambassador to Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

My Foreign Office Years, 1986-1990: Abul Ahsan becomes Foreign Secretary

Published in The Independent, April 2nd; 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The short tenure of AKH Morshed came to an end in a strange manner. He went on leave preparatory to retirement (LPR) while he was a member of the President’s delegation to Malaysia to attend the Commonwealth Summit. I am not sure whether an officer could go on LPR while abroad. There are many who would say that an officer has to be in the country to avail the privileges of LPR.

Before going on this trip, AKH Morshed was in New York on an official trip. While he was away, the Director-General (Administration) informed me that I would have to get a note signed by the Foreign Secretary that he would like to prevail the advantages of LPR before he went on his trip to Malaysia with the President. AKH Morshed arrived that day from New York in early morning and in the evening, he left with the President. I was at the airport to receive him as I was whenever the Foreign Secretary left on an overseas trip or arrived home. I was not sure whether the Foreign Secretary would come to the Ministry that day but it was important that he should. I requested him to come to the Ministry, telling him that there were a few issues that needed his attention before he left for Malaysia. The Foreign Secretary was tired and he wanted to relax that day but came to office later in the day at my insistence.

At the Ministry, I had the note ready for the Foreign Secretary to sign related to his LPR given to me by the Director-general (Admn). I was also not sure whether the Foreign Secretary would be given an extension because there was no news even in the Ministry that a new Foreign Secretary would take office soon. I had however seen a note in which it was mentioned that AKH Morshed would soon be made the Chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), a think-tank sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. The post was then and still is a honouray one and was then occupied by former Foreign Minister Shamsul Huq. I had also seen a separate note, hand written by the former Foreign Minister in which he did not seem very willing to relinquish the post. There was thus a lot of confusion in the Ministry at that time where everything was very uncertain. The most unfortunate aspect of it all was the fact that AKH Morshed was kept in the darkness concerning his fate.

When the Foreign Secretary came to office that day, I went up to him and told him about facts; that I had seen a note that he was being made the Chairman of BIISS and that he needed to sign the note on LPR. The Foreign Secretary signed the note. The Foreign Minister was in office at that time and I suggested to the Foreign Secretary to talk to the Foreign Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud about what the Government had in mind about him. I am not sure what was discussed between the two but the Foreign Secretary left office that day soon after. When he returned from Malaysia, he was not the Foreign Secretary! That was indeed incredible for there was a delegation led by the President going to attend a Commonwealth where AKH Morshed went to attend it as Foreign Secretary but ceased to be one while still a member of the Bangladesh delegation.

There were friends of mine who were members of that delegation. One of them was Jamil Majid, another Iftikharul Karim, a former member of the ex-PFS. They both told me later that AKH Morshed’s predicament was discussed at their level in Kuala Lumpur; whether AKH Morshed had forfeited his claims under LPR or whether an officer could go on LPR while abroad. They however did not know that I had a note signed by AKH Morshed about his intentions for availing LPR. Recently Jamil Majid and I discussed this issue again arguing whether an officer could go on LPR while not in the country and working in the post from which he was retiring. We could not arrive at a conclusion. Legally, it does seem untenable that one could go on LPR as AKH Morshed had unless there was an executive order over-riding the requirement for an officer to be in the country and at the post before going on LPR. In case of AKH Morshed, there was no such executive order. It could however be argued that AKH Morshed was taken on that trip by an order of the President and therefore there was executive sanction for relaxing on the rules relating to the LPR in case of AKH Morshed.

Remembering Jamil Majid and AKH Morshed in the context of that visit also made me reflect on the former, an officer of the ex-PFS batch of 1970. When Jamil Majid was posted to London in 1988, AKH Morshed who was then the Additional Foreign Secretary said about him in his farewell that with Jamil Majid gone, the Ministry would need an encyclopedia for losing him! He was so correct for Jamil Majid was then and still is the quintessential resident scholar who just did not seem to have every bit of information stacked in his brain; he was then in regular habbit of “trapping” many of us to bets on wide range of subjects and issues to end up taking him to lunches and dinners. In Delhi where we worked together, he once so much astonished the US Defense Attaché while talking on General Douglas McArthur at a dinner that the former in amazement was forced to ask whether Jamil Majid and not he was the US Defense Attaché!

There were interesting things that happened on that visit. One concerned the President’s desire for humour in one of his speeches. The President had asked that the Foreign Ministry officials to prepare a speech for him that he was going to deliver at the dinner for the Heads of State/Government for which he was chosen with humour inserted in it. When the Foreign Secretary was informed of the wish, his response was that humour cannot be delivered on order! The President of course was not daunted by the “failure” of the Foreign Ministry to deliver. He gave his speech extempore and also made sure that it had humour. He used the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the butt of his humour. He told the participating dignitaries, with Margaret Thatcher present, that his son, then just a kid, knew about Margaret Thatcher and called her the “iron lady”! The President thought there would be appreciative laughter from his distinguished audience. Instead there were long faces around the table. The President only succeeded in committing a diplomatic faux pas that humiliated the country. AKH Morshed was just not right when he said that humour could not be delivered by order; people not naturally gifted at making humour should try it only at their peril!

When the President’s delegation to the Commonwealth Summit returned, the Foreign Ministry lost a Foreign Secretary without getting a new one. Among those who were in line to succeed AKH Morshed were Rezaul Karim of the 1959 batch (with 2 years’ ante dated seniority as a freedom fighter) who was then Ambassador to Iran and Abul Ahsan, who had then just completed his tenure as first Secretary General of SAARC. It was Abul Ahsan who was eventually chosen for the post. When Abul Ahsan came to Dhaka, I was at the airport to receive him. While waiting for his luggage, he took me out for a walk outside the VIP lounge. He expressed to me his disappointment and displeasure that he was not promoted to a Secretary before he was called home to succeed AKH Morshed. His point was that many in the civil service of the erstwhile ex-CSP cadre many batches junior to him were working as Secretary and he was deliberately humiliated by not being made a Secreteray and then called home to become the Foreign Secretary.

Abul Ahsan was the type of diplomat around whom legends are made. He was one. He had stood first in the CSS examination of 1961 on all-Pakistan basis. There were so many stories about him that made us feel that we all knew him without working with him. I was one of those who seemed to know him just too well but had never worked with him. In fact, when he assumed charge, I was already at the Headquarters for over three years and regretted that I would not be with him for much longer. I continued with him seven more months and enjoyed every day of that period because he was a Foreign Secretary every one of us wanted to work for. I hope to write on some of those days in the forthcoming pieces.

I was very sad at the short stay of AKH Morshed as Foreign Secretary. But we worked in those days in an environment where those who decided upon such things did not have much use for merit. In an earlier piece I erred about the academic credentials of AKH Morshed. He is a BA (Hons.) from University of London, School of Jurisprudence; LLM from Harvard and was called to the Lincoln’s Inn as Barrister-at-Law. He stayed as Foreign Secretary less than four months!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.