Monday, July 15, 2013


US’ new stance on North Korea’s threatening posture
M. Serajul Islam

North Korea became a major issue of concern in Washington and in the country after a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report became public at a recent Congressional hearing that stated with “moderate confidence” that the secluded country has achieved the technology to mount its nuclear bombs on a missile.  North Korea under its new leader Kim Jung-un carried out its third nuclear test in February after new UN sanctions and “disowned his country’s armistice with South Korea and threatened to fire his increasingly capable missiles towards the United States …and put the Korean Peninsula and Washington on a war footing.” After raising hope that with his exposure to the West, he would perhaps bring to his position a different, positive approach than his father and grandfather; the new leader has brought new tension not just in the Korean Peninsula but beyond.

To try and put the public mind at ease in the United States, the Director of the National Intelligence James R Clapper issued a statement to underplay the DIA report. The statement said that the report in question was “not a consensus view of the 15 other intelligence agencies.” The statement lessened public concern but still many Americans, including few in Congress continued to worry about a nuclear threat from North Korea on American soil. These concerns were eased further after President Obama added his input. In an interview he gave to NBC news this week, the President dismissed the fear that North Korea at present has the capability to launch nuclear war heads atop missiles to carry them medium or long range. The President nevertheless did not dismiss the possibility that the North Koreans may have that capability in future by repositioning US’ “missile defense systems to guard against any miscalculations of their part.”

The President in the NBC interview also stated that his administration would not be encouraged by the threats from North Korea to “reward this kind of provocative behavior” adding “you don’t get to bang your – your spoon on the table and somehow get your way.”  The interview strongly hinted that the US Government has changed its strategy to deal with the country in a manner markedly different from the past; to make it come for negations without pre-conditions. In the first term, the President followed a path of engagement with North Korea and participated actively in the Six Party Talks established in 2003 with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea to end North Korea’s nuclear programme by offering it economic incentives that the country very badly needed. The new leader is demanding resumption of these talks conditionally; that the parties accept in advance North Korea’s status as a nuclear weapon state that the United States has flatly turned down.

The Six Party Talks was however never a smooth one and did not succeed in tying North Korea to its commitments to give up the nuclear option. It was marked by “diplomatic stand offs among individual participants, particularly the United States and North Korea.”  In fact, in 2009, North Korea abandoned the Six Party Talks and even went to the extent of showing to a team of US scientists on a 2010 visit to Pyongyang “vast new enrichment facility.” Nevertheless, North Korea under both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, although always provocative, never seemed to cross into a corner from where it could not return. Kim Jong-un seems to be provocative beyond the limits of his father and grandfather. For instance, he is threatening even the United States of a nuclear attack that his father and grandfather never considered and yet insisting the start of talks conditionally; that the participating countries should accept its status as a nuclear weapons state. With such a posture, he believes he can get what his regime wants; badly needed economic assistance!    

The President’s effort to calm tensions with his NBC interview notwithstanding, his administration is taking the threats coming from North Korea’s new leader seriously on the diplomatic front. President Obama sent his Secretary of State John Kerry to the region this week. The Secretary found that even North Korea’s principal supporter China is upset with its one time protégé.  On April 7 at the height of provocations, President Xi Jingping warned North Korea strongly that “no one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” The Secretary carried the US views on North Korea in unmistakable terms to his hosts in Beijing, and US allies in Tokyo and Seoul that the US Government will not any longer be motivated by North Korean “charade” and that the country must return to the negotiating table without any preconditions. Between the President and his Secretary, the US message on North Korea’s belligerence has been stated unequivocally; that the US would not give in to threats and that it does not trust North Korea to keep its promises because in 2005 and 2007, it agreed to forgo the nuclear option for economic aid and when the US and South Korea supplied that aid, it went back and carried out nuclear tests and 2006 and 2009.

The new position of the US government not to be “blackmailed” by North Korea to go for talks conditionally and then be duped again has also been based on its confidence that the latest UN resolutions on sanctions would work on the recalcitrant regime to see reason if member nations abide by the resolutions. Thus the US believes that for the time the better option is to sideline the Six Party talks and work with UN member nations, particularly China and Russia, for the success of the sanctions.  The US believes that it can afford to so because its intelligence and those from allies suggests that the recent threats from Kim Jong-un are exaggerated and that the new North Korean leader is acting out of proportion to his regime’s actual worth. 

 At the end of the week, developments suggest that the new North Korean leader has chewed more than he can digest by making threats that his regime cannot carry out. In doing so, he may have shown that he seriously lacks the qualities that his father and grandfather; the ability to know how far to go. It seems like the US will allow him to cool down, let economic sanctions to work and Wait for North Korea to return to the negotiating table on its terms not on those of the regime so that when it returns to the negotiating table, its hands would be weaker that it was when Kim Il Jong was alive and thus more amenable to the demands of its adversaries for a de-nuclear Korean Peninsula.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and  the Chairman, CFAS

Harare Test defeat and BCCB’s strange statement
M. Serajul Islam

Those who follow cricket as the game of their love are aware of one thing about it that it is the game of glorious uncertainties. A player may score a big century and be out for a duck in the following innings. A bowler may flatten an opposition with his dangerous bowling and be pretty innocuous in the next innings. A team may win big in a Test/one day game and lose the next one miserably. It does not however appear like the Board that manages the game in Bangladesh has even heard of this truth about cricket, let alone understand or appreciate it.

The management of Bangladesh cricket were gaga when the team returned recently from Sri Lanka after drawing the one day serious with a full strength Sri Lankan team and for scoring their highest innings in a Test of over 600 runs in the first Test of the two Test series. Although, they lost that Test series 1-0, the competition was close and it looked like Bangladesh Test cricket was finally finding the ground under its feet after being out of its depths in each of the Test series they played except for wining one against a West Indian team that was less than half its strength and another, a home series, against Zimbabwe that was again a team in its half strength. In the last Sri Lankan Test series, the Bangladesh Captain scored the country’s first double century in a Test innings. The mercurial Ashraful, on his return to the Test arena, came close to scoring his first double century in a Test.

After Sri Lanka, our Board pampered our cricketers to float in the sky.   While it was extraordinary that our team scored that record total in the first Test, they still lost the second and the series. Although they squared the one day series, our cricket management should have known that it was the D/L method that helped them square the series. Otherwise, with Sri Lanka having taken our bowlers to the laundry with those 307 runs, the match should have been won by them easily had rained not intervened. It was the rain gods that helped them win the match but our board and the cricket lovers thought we have finally left our “minnows” tag in Test and limited overs cricket behind.

 Nevertheless, the cricketers deserved the attention that cricket lovers showered upon it because they were truly competitive in both the short and the long versions of the game in Sri Lanka. The cricket lovers of Bangladesh were also encouraged to feel that Bangladesh Test team would finally be able to leave behind the past when they were the butt of jokes in Test cricket circles for being the minnows and emerge as a Test playing country on its cricketing merit. They too felt the same way as the cricket managers about Bangladesh cricket coming to age and rejoiced at the performance of the Bangladesh team in Sri Lanka.

Thus our team’s performance in the first Test in Zimbabwe was a nightmare for our cricket lovers. Not only did we lose the Test that everybody, even our critics as a Test playing nation, thought we would win easily; we lost it by a humungous margin of 335 runs. The defeat came as a rude shock to the cricket lovers but they kept the shock to themselves. The Board did not. It dropped the team like hot potato, blaming it in bad taste for the defeat.  Like bad losers, the BCCB did something that no cricket board has done in cricketing history; it put the blame squarely on the cricketers and did not take an iota of responsibility for the defeat and the Board did this deplorable act in public. A senior official of the board came out with a statement which said: “The batting performance in Harare had no similarity with that in Sri Lanka. We are disappointed with this poor showing by the batsmen. The senior players have not showed enough responsibility.”  Apart from being unprecedented for a Board criticizing its own players like this in public while the team is still on the tour, the statement is a strange one for what else was stated in it.

The statement asked “players who are not fit to return home to Dhaka and get themselves fully fit.” This statement meant that “unfit” players have been sent on the tour. This is an unbelievable acknowledgement that ‘unfit” players have been sent on the Zimbabwean tour. Surely, the Board does not expect us to believe that the unfit players went on the tour on their own. We all know cricket is a team game. If there are unfit players in the team, is it not that was the main reason for the poor showing in the first Test and that the blame for the defeat should fall on the Board ? Before blaming the team in a manner that does not speak much for common sense of the management, those responsible in the Board for sending unfit layers on the trip should first be named and action taken against them before blaming the team. 

The statement also blamed the umpires for bad umpiring decisions and the hosts for administrative issues to explain the humiliating defeat. The explanation that umpiring decisions was one reason for the defeat was a bad loser’s excuse. The statement said that Bangladesh bowlers have been e no balled after taking wickets. This cannot be a matter of dispute because it is normal these days in any version of cricket. The statement added that “it did not happen when our batsmen got out.” If Bangladesh batsmen have been out to no-balls, what was the team management doing? Did they raise any issue instantly? We know these days with the re-play facilities, games are halted for the decision of the third umpire. If Bangladesh batsmen were out to balls, were any objections raised instantly? It seems not because if it was done and management was efficient, the issue could have been resolved when these occurred in favour of our batsmen.

Unfortunate as the performance has been in the Harare Test; in cricket such debacles happen regularly on issues of cricket being game of glorious uncertainties.  So it has been a matter of great irresponsibility of the Board to have blamed the senior players that did not hide the fact that the blame in the statement was clearly on the captain and players like Sakib and Mahmudullah. The statement has ensured that these top players would not go to the next game frustrated. As for Mahmudullah Ryad, why was he in the team with  a string of poor performances when a young player Mominul Huq with a number of excellent performances in Sri Lanka , a trip of which the Board has made such a big issue, sitting in the dressing room?

Bangladesh’s Test cricket team is a bunch of very talented players who are quite capable of doing their country proud but only as individual players but not as a team, not yet. It is time to consider why these talented players have not blended as a team. If this is done, the onus for their habitually poor performance as a team may fall to a large extent on the Board for failing miserably in turning potentially talented players into a winning time. The players have faults that are largely psychological that the Board does not help to correct by its irrational policy by going over-board when the team brings a few victories/draws (as its one day wins against West Indies last year or the 4-0 victory over New Zealand not too long ago and the recent drawn series against Sri Lanka) and then making a u-turn to blame them after the Harare defeat, as if the good results are largely its credit and the poor results, the faults of the players!

And what about the pitches and structure of cricket in Bangladesh that are the responsibilities of the Board?  Readers may wish to read an interview by ESPN on Bangladesh cricket that appeared this week on its website. The former English cricketer puts a great deal of blame for the present predicament of Bangladesh cricket on the Bangladesh Cricket Board. He has asked the ICC to stop funding the Bangladesh Board to force it to play its role in developing cricket in Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Test team should play the next Test against Zimbabwe not for their glory but to shame the Board for its absurd statement that not only humiliated them but cricket and the country.  At the time of filing this piece, it seems they after the first day’s play in the second Test.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Rana Plaza Tragedy: A test of nation’s conscience
M. Serajul Islam

One piece of news about  Rana Plaza  tragedy did not find  proper place in the media coverage. The media was busy covering  the deaths and other  aspects of the horrendous tragedy and did not highlight the fact  that the BRAC Bank that was located at Rana Plaza had asked its employees to stay home because of the dangerous crack in the 9 storied building.  What BRAC did would be normal and rational for any business establishment anywhere in the world because of the value of human lives and to do the contrary would be blatantly criminal. The five owners of RMG factories in Rana Plaza instead forced their workers to their workplaces and thus to their deaths. The Government and the opposition that does not agree on anything were in agreement here on a core issue.  The Minister of Information called the Savar Tragedy, a case of murder. So did the Opposition’s Barrister Maudud Ahmed.

But then was the Tazreen tragedy in November last year in which 112 workers were roasted alive in another RMG factory  also not a case of murder and over 200 so far that killed thousands   that were all  allowed to be passed over as accidents by indulgent governments?  Has any of the owners who were directly responsible for workers being killed in work places because of their faults  were ever  held,  let alone be tried and punished? Why is it that such accidents have to occur in the RMG industries much more than in others? Finally, why is it that while these RMG workers die in hundreds like animals in slaughter houses, not one RMG owner or any other owner of the industries where such accidents occur with eerie regularity has never suffered even a scratch?

The Rana Plaza tragedy would have been avoided in any country except in Bangladesh as a routine matter.  In fact all fatal tragedies in our industries that have occurred so far could have been avoided if these owners were not assured by the governments that all they have to do after such “accidents” is to lie low; pay some money to those who can bring them to justice while it formed a committee and paid the relatives of the dead compensation to let matters return to normal. In Bangladesh, these steps have become an “unwritten code of conduct”   by the government (not specific to the one in power) to help the RMG owners (and other industries) get away with murder. The RMG associations, the BGMEA and the BKMEA that  protect the interests of the owners  have  used  the RMG’s role in employing nearly   4 million people mostly women and  earning US 19 billion a year (2012) in exports which amounts to 80% of the country’s export earnings to successfully  defend the “murderers” amongst them.

Those who write about the economy of the country have also complemented the claims of the RMG owners/BGMEA/BKMEA to help them act with impunity, wittingly or otherwise. They have described these owners as the “captains of the industry” that has led many among them to believe that their contribution to the economy give them the right to act with impunity in all aspects of the RMG sector even in cases of  “accidental” deaths that occur under their watch. Very few of these individuals who glorify these so-called “captains of the industry” seldom mention the plight of the workers who toil with their lives in their hands for making the RMG sector, the so-called “success story” and the RMG owners filthy  rich.  Every time an accident has occurred, they have expressed sorrow and sympathy for those who died but they failed to expose the ways these owners treated their workers that was almost in all cases, the cause of the deaths and the disasters.

The Savar tragedy, one would like to hope, would be different in a number of ways from those that have occurred in the past. One is the grotesque nature of the deaths that has been graphically exposed on TV for millions to watch and get angry. Another has been the fact that the tragedy occurred while the country has been charged with political instability where the whole country was tensed, angry and upset. The international focus and exposure of the tragedy has been extraordinary with even the Pope drawn to the controversy against the RMG owners.  The public focus on the tragedy this time has made a qualitative difference in the way the tragedy has been handled so far. It is public pressure built through the media that saw Sohel Rana arrested while just a few paces away from finding safety in Kolkata.

The BGMEA has been also more active this time, aware things are not the same as before. When RMG workers were on a rampage, the President of BGMEA said on TV that their anger was expected! Such good sense of BGMEA officials was short lived though. Later they met under closed doors in their headquarter at Hatir Jheel that was pelted by angry garment workers, a building that has been constructed on wet lands acquired illegally and is now standing like a eyesore on the beautiful Hatir Jheel complex. These so-called “captains of our industry” have claimed that the media has exaggerated about what has happened in Rana Plaza! The BGMEA has now asked the country’s 3500 RMG industries to submit documents on their structural designs! The call is a crude bluff to deflect public anger because the BGMEA is as capable of examining such designs as the Salimullah Orphanage.

The RMG industry is indeed the backbone of Bangladesh’s economy, the Rana Plaza tragedy notwithstanding. It still has great potentials to grow even more formidable. To achieve the potentials, the RMG owners must take responsibilities for their actions. Tazrin in December and Rana Plaza now have  almost destroyed  their credibility in the international market that they can tackle only by reforming themselves.  There are many RMG industries that are of world standard. Unfortunately, there are many bad apples in the pack of 3500 RMG units. Instead of calling bluffs anymore, the BGMEA/BKMEA should take few simple steps within their competence but indispensible for the RMG sector industry to survive and regain its role as the “success story” of Bangladesh.

The simple steps that RMG owners must take are, first, restrain their greed from which the good and the bad apples of the industry both suffer. Second, they must  treat the workers as human beings and give proper value to their contribution to the success of the RMG sector. Finally, they must allow the workers the right to form trade union because without it, the workers are exploited at will by the RMG owners where the BGMEA and BKMEA side with the owners and the government as the silent spectator ends up on the side of the owners. The Rana Plaza tragedy is a wakeup call not just for the RMG sector but also one for the country’s conscience.

If the government tries to carry on with post-Rana Plaza tragedy like business as usual, then it would be the start of the process of the death of the nation’s conscience. Already it is under strong criticism of the people for insensitive comments of its ministers. News carried by The Telegraph of London said that on misplaced “national pride”, the government refused foreign assistance that could have saved many lives. Without taking anything from the brave volunteers who risked their lives to save the victims, the job they did was one for the professionals where the government’s expertise is also palpably inadequate.

It is time for the government to put its act together because the task of bringing the RMG back on rails will be a humungous one. Blaming Jamat/BNP would be a waste of time.  Forming committees would be equally futile. The task for the government is to make the owners of industries, particularly the RMG industries, take responsibility and with that, fulfill its own responsibilities; both together responsible for these “cold blooded murders” in our industrials sector. It must unsure that those arrested in the Rana Plaza tragedy get the maximum punishment under the law.

The government asked private banks to contribute funds out of their CSR for Rana Plaza victims. One wonders why on earth should banks that have helped these RMG owners become rich from rags should rescue them here.  The BGMEA must compensate the families of the dead and rehabilitation of the survivors because the guilty ones are its members. They should bear in mind that the Pope has accused the RMG owners of running “slave trade”, paying RMG workers 39 Euros a month! If these steps are taken, in future garment owners will think twice before thinking of their workers as cattle that can lead to the slaughter house at will. If the government and the owners fail in their responsibilities, the workers will finally rise from the ashes of Rana Plaza with dangerous consequences for  all.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Pakistan’s General Election: Democracy comes to the country’s rescue.
M. Serajul Islam

Pakistan went to the polls on 11th May to elect its lower house of the national parliament and the provincial parliaments that will in turn choose the country’s Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the provinces.  Two things about the coming elections made it special. First, it marked a democratic transition of government after the outgoing Parliament had been allowed to complete its full term and the military did not intervene,   events unheard of in Pakistan’s history since its independence in 1947. Second, Pakistan accepted the system that Bangladesh had evolved but rejected with the 13th    amendment to its constitution, namely the system of caretaker Government and used the system successfully for a transparent  and democratic transition of power where the incumbent PPP failed miserably and  the PML-N led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won a big and thumping victory.

However, there are two more issues that made the forthcoming elections in Pakistan different. First,  the government that Pakistanis elected on March11 will see the country through after the US and its allies leave Afghanistan  (by end of 2014) with its primary target to destroy Al Qaeda  and kill Osama Ben Laden and his top associates achieved but with Afghanistan  facing the prospect of falling under the Talibans again. Second, the elections placed a third force led by the former test captain Imran Khan to establish his party the Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf  (PTI) as the second largest of Pakistan’s many political parties. The official results are still awaited but unofficial results have given the PML-N 130 seats (it had won 91 last time) ; the PTI, 35 seats and the PPP, 30 (it had 124 in the last parliament). In the 342 member lower house, 272 are elected and hence a party needs 237 to form a government on its own. PML-N has fallen short of that and would need a partner to form the government that would be a very easy task.

The Pakistani elections have been described both in Pakistani and international media as “historic.” A country that has hovered on the brinks of becoming a failed state because of extremism; fundamentalism and terror to which its international allies contributed a fair share as did Pakistan’s military dominated regimes since the US led war on terror, has taken the first big step towards safety with the just concluded elections. Pakistanis turned out in very large numbers to vote. Against a turnout of 44% in the last election, the turn out this time was over 60%. The voters challenged the threats of the Taliban that had declared the elections as un-Islamic and even the large number of pre-election deaths due to Taliban terrorism did not deter them to come out and vote. In fact, there was clearly an air of great expectancy among the voters that they could win the country’s own war on terror through the institution of the election and hence they turned out in such large numbers.

The results clearly pointed at certain distinct but positive developments on the Pakistani political horizon. First, it has bought the nation together against the religious fundamentalist forces with all the three major parties taking clear stand against the Taliban.  Second, the voters made it clear that they were not happy with the ruling PPP because of to failure to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty from US interference as was palpably evident from the way it treated the country during the operation that nabbed and killed Osama Ben Laden and with the unilateral drone attacks inside Pakistani territory with the government’s clearance. Third, the results are a clear message to the country’s military that the democratic political forces would no longer allow it to pull the political strings while they danced to their tunes. In fact, the elections were the first in Pakistan’s history where the military was a silent spectator. Fourth, unlike all previous elections, this one was fought where India was not by any means a major factor and in fact not even a minor one. Prime Minister-in-waiting Nawaz Sharif went on record with conciliatory gestures towards India during his election rallies.   All in all, the results hinted  that after travelling over six decades, Pakistan is finally close to putting its acts together to establish the democratic way of governance.

Imran Khan’s Pakistan Terik e Insaf Party (PTI), formed 17 years ago never won more than one seat in Pakistan’s National Assembly that the former cricketer himself held briefly. No one ever gave his party a chance apart from giving it attention because of the glamour Imran Khan attracted as a cricketer, his star qualities that has made him the “most famous Pakistani” internationally.  The argument against anyone giving the Terik any chance has been the fact that the Party did not have what needs to gather votes in Pakistan, namely a network built  over decades leading up to the rural Pakistan where 70%  of the country’s voter’s live. Traditionally, Pakistan is still a feudal society where land owners hold tremendous sway over the rural voters who in the past have shown little inclination to vote outside what is dictated to them by the landowners or their agents. The PTI challenged this system and established the party as the third force that would help   strengthening democracy by strengthening the hands of the opposition.

The results did not give the PML-N  a  majority and its base remains predominantly in Punjab. This is good outcome for Pakistan as the new Prime Minister with his past political experience would be led to negotiate alliances to put a government together. This would not allow him or his party to monopolize power and instead seek democratic ways to run the government. The government that Nawaz Sharif will lead will also be one that must work with the Americans and their allies as they leave Afghanistan where the Talibans are on resurgence. Pakistan’s past governments influenced and dominated by the military have indulged deeply with terrorist forces in Afghanistan and created the most dangerous of these groups, the Haqqani network.  For a Pakistani government led by a new Prime Minister and a party that had no role in the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations over the drones and killing of Osama Ben Laden will be better able to deal with the US and other key players in stabilizing the region that in turn will allow Pakistan to gradually return from the brinks of failing with terror engulfing the nation.

Serious issues of corruption, economic problems, deterioration of governance and the civil-military relations will still be massive challenges for the new government and these problems could still threaten the state of Pakistan. Nevertheless, the elections have given Pakistan a genuine chance to win over these issues and bring the country back from the dangers of becoming a failed state. Bangladesh should seriously study the emerging situation in Pakistan because it is moving in the direction from which Pakistan is moving away. The use of the CG system has been a major factor in helping Pakistan in its journey back from doomsday. The Bangladesh politicians could do the country great good if they dispassionately considered if they could take back what they gave Pakistan in its hour of crisis that Pakistan has used to good purpose.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

The UN initiative to resolve Bangladesh’s political crisis
M. Serajul Islam

To say Bangladesh is going through a crisis would be a gross under-estimate. At the same time, to suggest as many have that Bangladesh is sliding towards a civil war would an over-exaggeration. Nevertheless, what Bangladesh is facing these days is grave and portents of ill consequences that could have serious impact on the well being of the country. Bangladesh is showing all the classical signs of breaking at the seams that could eventually lead the country to become a failed state. It is not that Bangladesh has confronted a deep economic recession or gigantic natural disasters that are the reasons of its current predicament. It is also not that the dangers facing Bangladesh are such that no effort would likely help the country come out of the dangers facing it. The dangers facing Bangladesh are political and easily in the reach of the political parties who just need to shelf their narrow self interests and put the interests of the country ahead.

Unfortunately, in the events that were played out on the political stage of the country since the Shahabag uprising of the nation’s youth in early February, the mainstream political parties have not shown what would convince the people that they have anything but their interests at heart. For the first few days after the Shahabag movement had erupted, the ruling party saw in it the chances of making the chances of the BNP of winning the next election, history when the cultural activists with links to the ruling party had succeeded in getting control of the events at Shahabag. They used to good purpose and even the BNP itself felt that the movement would take the AL to another term in power easily.

Then when the anti-Islamic blogs became public and the AL was caught on the wrong side with it, the BNP felt that the tables had turned on the AL. When the Hefazat phenomenon became public and its supporters appeared in Dhaka in numbers that dwarfed those that had gather in Shahabag, the BNP felt it could peg down the AL and not just realize its demands for the caretaker government but also push the AL many steps in the game of negative politics that two two sides play almost unashamedly. Thus on the eve of the May 5th gathering of the Hefazat, the BNP sensing that the political defeat of the AL was imminent, said that all it needed to do was give the AL and “little push” and the government would fall!

That was extremely premature. On the night between 5-6 May, the police/RAB and paramilitary BGs dispersed the million plus Hefazat activists who were sleeping at Shapla Chattar in a manner that is still shrouded in controversy. The Government has said that it dispersed the Hefazat with minimum force and the deaths were in single digit. The BNP has contested this and claimed that deaths were much more and has demanded a judicial inquiry. Nevertheless, the Hefazat has meanwhile fizzled into thin air and with it also has ended the BNP’s dreams that the Hefazat would provide it the leverage to “push” to bring down the government..

The lull at present however should not be misunderstood as the end of the dangerous political tensions and victory of any of the two main parties over each other. The apprehensions in the people’s mind are there and for very good reasons. In the roller coaster ride that the two mainstream parties have taken us since February, there cannot and will not be any side victorious unless there is a political and democratic way of bring the current political tensions to an end. The forces that the two political parties have unleashed on the political stage would simply aggravate if the next government is not chosen in a manner where the people would be convinced that both the mainstream parties have gone to the voters and taken their verdict to deal with the issues that have been opened in the country’s politics.

Anything to the contrary is too dangerous even to contemplate. Unfortunately, Shahabag has given a platform to the fundamentalist Hefazat and the ICT trials, to the Jamat that is not just fundamentalist but quite capable and willing to use terrorism for its political ends. When Hefazat emerged, a major section of the people of Bangladesh were concerned that Bangladesh was close to becoming Taliban. The fact that Hefazat has retreated for the time being does not mean the danger has been resolved. It was force that was used to push Hefazat out. Countries that have used force to deal with Islamic fundamentalism have all paid the price. In Bangladesh, the vast majority of Muslims, tampered by Sufism, have no love for the fundamentalist. It is their support that both the mainstream parties need to deal with the threats of Islamic fundamentalism and the way to deal with is the democratic way.

Thus all fingers in the country are pointing at the two mainstream parties to deal with the problems facing the country the democratic way. They want the forthcoming elections to be one where all the parties would feel comfortable to participate. A major Bangla daily that ran a poll whose credibility has not been contested except by the ruling party that has thrashed it,  has suggested that 90% of the people of the country would like the next elections to under a neutral administration so that all the parties have a fair playing ground to contest. Unfortunately, with the ruling party in no mood to allow the system of the caretaker government to re-emerge and the BNP not willing to contest in any system where elections would be conducted by the party in power,

At a time when the two sides have retreated to opposite sides on resolving the manner in which to hold the next elections, the UN Secretary General  sent his Assistant Secretary General  for Political Affairs to Dhaka last week  to hold talks with the two mainstream parties to help resolve the issue. Oscar Fernandez Taranco held consultations in Dhaka with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Although neither side made any statement that they have changed their conflicting stance on the way to hold the next elections, the ruling party said it would officially invite the opposition to hold talks. The BNP hinted that it would reciprocate. After the return of the Assistant Secretary to New York, Foreign Minister Dipu Moni met the Secretary General in New York. The message to her was also the same as was given by the ASG in Dhaka; that the AL and the BNP must work out a way so that the next elections are free, fair and contested by all the major parties.

The message given by the UN is a clear one; that the two mainstream parties must work out a way so that Bangladesh does not slide towards the abyss. The UN is of course representing the concerns of the international stakeholders led by the United States that has extremely important strategic interests in the region that has been enhanced by its initiatives in Myanmar. With the US/allies about to leave Afghanistan where the Taliban is on resurgence, the western powers would not take the risk of Bangladesh providing international terrorists a new and fertile breeding ground by moving towards becoming a failed state. The mainstream parties, particularly the ruling party, have no reason to take the UN initiative lightly. The ASG had said in Dhaka that Bangladesh that has its peace keepers working for peace around the globe cannot afford to have that peace destroyed in its own country. The statement is loaded that the Bangladeshi stakeholders could ignore only at  their peril and that of the country.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Is USA losing its power to influence politics in Bangladesh?
M. Serajul Islam

The US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman completed her three- days long official visit (May 26-28) with people’s hopes and expectations not exactly answered. Although she was in Dhaka for the second annual Partnership Dialogue, a bilateral forum that was established after the AL led Government came to power this time, people’s hopes and expectations were hardly on the discussions at the forum or on its outcome. People were eagerly hoping she would put her country’s weight behind encouraging the two mainstream political parties to reach an agreement on the way to conduct the next general elections in the country.

The roller coaster ride that the people have been forced to take since the Shahabag movement early in February have put genuine fears in their minds that Bangladesh’s worst political crisis since its independence 42 years ago could be extremely dangerous unless the two mainstream parties, the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP come to an understanding on the way the next general elections would be held for a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another. The AL, having amended the Constitution, is adamant that the next elections must be held under party government that would be headed by the incumbent Prime Minister. The BNP is equally adamant that the next elections must be held under the caretaker government system because it fears that the elections would not be fair if held under an AL led interim government led by the incumbent Prime Minister.

The two parties have been fighting this issue since the AL led Government amended the CG system by the 13th amendment in May, 2011. The fight has become ugly and bloody since the Shahabag movement. Before the Shahabag Movement, in over 4 years of the AL government, the BNP was able to call hartals numbering in the single digits because they were aware of people’s dislike for it. Since Shahabag with the ruling party showing little inclination to accept the opposition’s demand for CG system, hartals have become the order of the day. These hartals have been marked by violence that shows no signs of relenting. The opposition has clearly chosen to path of violence to force the government to force its demand; the ruling party has chosen to use force to subdue the violence.

Wendy Sherman arrived in Dhaka at a time when the political situation in the country could not have been worse. Upon arrival, she called upon both the political parties to settle their differences. She called for a “free, fair, inclusive and credible “election for a democratic change of government in the country. Interpreted in layman’s term, this meant that her government wanted to see, first, the next general elections in Bangladesh to help resolve the current uncertainties in the country’s politics; and second, that all the parties, particularly the mainstream parties would participate in the elections. She threw the ball in the court of the ruling party to find a solution out of the country’s political impasse by discussing and negotiating with the opposition. There was no doubt that her statement on the elections must have made the BNP happy.

The BNP, however, did a “Pranab Mukherjee” again with the US visitor, although this time it was the visiting delegation that cancelled the appointment with the Leader of the Opposition.  The BNP had called hartal while the US visitor was in the country as was the case when the Indian President was in Dhaka that did not go well with the visiting delegation. As a show of annoyance, the US side cancelled the meeting. The Under-Secretary just did not cancel the meeting with Khaleda Zia; she expressed her government’s strong disapproval of hartal and violence in politics for achieving political objectives. It is not the first time that the US Government has used cancellation as a political strategy to flag a message for the Bangladesh political parties. In June 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell had cancelled his meeting with then Opposition Leader Sheikh Hasina on the same issue of hartal. The cancellation of the meeting and the stand on hartal must have been welcomed as “good news” by the ruling party that had reasons to see these as snubs to the BNP.

In a strange sort of way therefore the US Under-Secretary made both the ruling party and the Opposition happy, albeit in negative ways without being able to bring them together or showing any light on how the grave political crisis in Bangladesh would be resolved. Thus she left the people of Bangladesh disappointed because she has not contributed anything to move the two parties from their entrenched position with regards to how the next elections would be held. If she was really concerned about hartals that she rightly identified as disastrous for Bangladesh, she perhaps was not aware that unless the BNP could be encouraged to participate in the next elections, hartals would be the order of the day in the country. While she was entirely justified in being annoyed with the BNP over hartal as Colin Powell was with the AL in 2003, her visit did little to end hartals. In fact, since she left the country, the BNP has show greater resolve to use hartals to achieve its demand for restoration of the CG system.

In official discussions of the Under-Secretary in Dhaka with the Bangladesh Government, she spoke optimistically about Bangladesh. She hinted strongly about Bangladesh’s potentials of becoming the regional economic hub. She however failed to understand the fact that to realize its promises, Bangladesh would have to come out of its current political predicament; that without ending the ongoing political disturbances, Bangladesh could also become the regional terrorism hub for both South and Southeast Asia. The visiting delegation, it seems, did not come to Dhaka with  its homework properly  done; perhaps assured by some quarters or its Embassy in Dhaka that political stability in Bangladesh  that is crucial to US’ strategic interests in the region following its initiatives in Myanmar, would be restored by one way or another. The delegation did not seem to be aware of the depth and seriousness of the political crisis facing Bangladesh.

Perhaps, the United States today does not have the power or the influence in Bangladesh anymore as it used to in the past when the top leaders of both the mainstream parties would  be seen parleying with the US Ambassador at his bidding.  The present US Ambassador is all heart but his effectiveness to encourage and influence the mainstream parties, particularly the ruling party is very limited.   Nevertheless, Bangladesh today needs the support of its foreign friends as desperately as it did in 1971; this time to come out of a quicksand in which the country is trapped. If the elections are not held with participation of the mainstream opposition including the BNP/Jamat, Bangladesh could be moving towards where Pakistan was trapped over the last decade and more, close to becoming a failed state. It is an irony that while Pakistan borrowed the CG system from Bangladesh to find  its way back from becoming a failed state, Bangladesh is moving towards  that by scrapping that same system!

In the meeting between the Prime Minister and the Under-Secretary, the former expressed hope that the BNP would participate in the next elections. It is on that hope that the US should focus for if the ruling party could be encouraged to bring the BNP to the elections, the US and Bangladesh’s foreign friends who are angry and upset with hartals would be able to bury their fears over it together with the rest of Bangladesh. The US would do itself a lot of good, given its own strategic interests are aligned with political stability in Bangladesh, to work with Bangladesh’s development partners and perhaps also with its new strategic ally India and the Arab countries to influence the Government to have what Wendy Sherman said upon arriving in Bangladesh, “a free, fair, inclusive and credible election”. Unfortunately the leverage for such an election is mainly with the ruling party and less with the BNP for Bangladesh to walk away from its impending tryst with disaster. Assuming that the US really wants credible elections in Bangladesh, the Under-Secretary has barked up the wrong tree on her just concluded visit to Bangladesh.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Syria resilient with Russian support
M. Serajul Islam

Recent history of US involvements abroad in pursuit of regime change has been all successful. Saddam Hussein of Iraq; Muammar Gadaffi of Libya and Mollah Omar of Afghanistan were almost pushovers who were ignominiously driven from power with the first two losing their lives in the process while Mollah Omar passing into oblivion with US achieving its objective of regime change effortlessly. Thus it was widely expected that with the USA relieved of worries in Iraq and Libya and in the process of leaving Afghanistan, it would be able to do in Syria what it had done in the other three countries rather effortlessly.

That expectation seems to be fading and fast.  Bashar al- Assad whose regime was expected to be history long ago is now finding his position better than at any time since the efforts started to push him out of power. That too, after his regime has been found in recent days with unequivocal proof of using chemical weapons, the Red Line set by President Obama for direct US involvement in the Syrian civil war that has  lasted over  two  years in which already 70,000 people have been killed and millions have been  made refugees in the country and  abroad.  The turn of fate in favour of Bashir al Asad in recent days, the use of chemical weapons notwithstanding has been primarily because of the backing his regime is being given by the Russians, the Iranians and the Hezbollah based in Lebanon.  The weak and factional ridden rebels now have no hope of a regime change in Damascus unless Bashar al- Assad leaves  on his own volition or the US shows the inclination to do what it did it Iraq and Afghanistan and to a partial extent in Libya; get directly involved in the Syrian civil war.

As far as Bashar al- Asaad stepping down; the prospects are to the contrary. In a recent TV interview to a Lebanese TV, he has spoken confidently of the prospects of his troops gaining the upper hand in the civil war in Syria. That his position has strengthened enormously was evident from when he warned Israel that he could allow attacks on the Golan Heights. He gave ample hints in the interview that his recently found strength has been due to the arms his regime has received from Russia, once the most dependable ally of his father Hafez al-Assad from Russia’s days as the major component of the erstwhile Soviet Union. The Syrian dictator said that Russia is under contract with his country for supply of arms and have been implementing the contracts in recent days and weeks.

The Israelis are worried whether Russians have delivered S-300 air missile defense system to Syria because it would “compromise its ability to strike from the air” and the system would provide Syria the ability to strike deep into Israeli territory.  In his TV interview, the Syrian President was vague on the delivery of S-300 missile defense system although in text message sent out by the TV station before it broadcast the interview, it mentioned that Russia had delivered the S-300 missile system to Syria. Political analysts and diplomats in the region though suspected the TV station’s claims and thought that Russia was weeks away from delivering such a system to Syria. They nevertheless were convinced that once Syria received the S-300 missile defense system, the civil war in Syria could escalate to a serious regional conflict with the possibility of involving Israel in it.

At the time of writing this piece, talks were scheduled to be held in Geneva   for preparing the UN Peace Conference on Syria that the United States and Russia have been trying hard to put together for a political settlement to the Syrian civil war although the two countries have significant differences on what is happening in Syria and future course of events there. In the context of the UN Peace Conference, Bashar al- Asaad spoke confidently and appeared more in control for two fundamental reasons. First, he has Russia, a Permanent Member of the Security Council and once again ready for regaining the role its predecessor USSR played in world politics, firmly behind his regime together with support from Iran and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, formidable regional allies. Second, the opposition to Bashar al- Asaad is palpably weak by its inability to come together as a united force against Damascus. In fact in his interview to the Lebanese TV, Bashar al-Asaad ridiculed the leaders of the factions fighting him as those doing so from the luxury of five star hotels. He pointedly said that after the Geneva Conference when held, when the Syrian delegation would return to their country, his opponents would retreat to the luxury of the five star hotels!

Recent events thus hint clearly that in Syria, the outcome would not be the way the US achieved results in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. It would be quite a while before the world would see any regime change in Damascus. In fact, it is increasingly becoming less and less likely that Bashar al- Asaad would leave power on his own any time soon. In fact he has boasted that only death would see him out of power. Thus as the world loses its patience to see the Syrian dictator out of office because death for him is most unlikely at this stage, the focus is falling on the role of the Obama administration. Indeed the US President is coming under serious criticism both at home and abroad for pushing back the reasons he has set for his administration for getting directly involved in the Syrian conflict.

The Obama administration, critics feel, is setting back the Red Line without explanation for its direct involvement in Syria. In fact, the US is even reluctant to support the call from the dissidents to enforce the “no fly zone” that it had done in the case of Libya with telling effect. The US’ reluctance has been encouraged by a few facts. First, the forces fighting the government forces are an amalgam of 63 largely unknown factions. The US suspects that Al Qaeda elements are also fighting amongst these factions helping dissidents directly would help Al Qaeda causes, something the US would not do under any circumstances.  Second, after the involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the country has sacrificed many thousands of its men/women in uniform and spent hundreds of billions of dollars, the US public is largely disinclined to see the US get involved in any war overseas something that the US President acknowledged in his State of the Union address last February.

Thus the US appears to be more inclined to let diplomacy and negotiations work out a settlement to the crisis in Syria. Unfortunately that looks unlikely for the Russians are in no mood to listen to the Americans. The prospect of the Geneva Peace Conference therefore showing the way for ending the Syrian civil war  is very uncertain; in fact least likely.  The developments in the near future that could set a new direction for the Syrian civil war could come from the way Israel reacts to Russia’s involvement in favour of Damascus that has encouraged Bashar al- Asaad to issue new threats to Israel. Already there has been action in the strategic Golan Heights between government forces and rebel forces, first time in over four decades that has no doubt worried Tel Aviv. Meanwhile the Syrian Government troops have recaptured Qusair, long held by the rebel forces, a town crucial for assuring supplies of arms and Hezbollah men from Lebanon.

The US will now no doubt be urged by its ally Israel for more direct involvement in the Syrian civil war that could change the directions where at the moment Bashar al- Asaad is gaining the upper hand   decisively.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

The Indian High Commissioner’s press conference on Bangladesh-India relations
M. Serajul Islam

The Indian High Commissioner’s recent press conference given at the invitation of the National Press Club was unusual and refreshing. Pankaj Saran has been in Bangladesh for a year or so. Unlike some of his predecessors, he has kept a low profile and has refrained from making public remarks about the politics of Bangladesh. His interview at the National Press Club was unusual because he restricted his views/comments/opinions on Bangladesh-India relations to clear questions in the public mind over some of the outstanding and unresolved issues. He spoke on domestic issues of Bangladesh only while answering questions from the floor and in a manner that cannot be considered embarrassing to his hosts. Thus by his press conference, the Indian High Commissioner has set an example that some of his colleagues in the diplomatic corps, who regularly embarrass Bangladesh by speaking on its internal affairs in contravention of the Vienna Convention, could follow.

The High Commissioner’s press conference was also refreshing because he was candid in talking on all the issues even the contentious ones and he did not refrain from taking responsibilities where relations have faltered. Thus he spoke on  the Teesta deal and  the land boundary agreement (LBA) unlike some of India’s  political leaders, including  former  Foreign Minister SM Krishnan,  who  said repeatedly that  both issues would be resolved soon while  aware that the  reality was to the contrary  and  thus willfully misled Bangladesh. Pankaj Saran said it was “unfortunate” that the Teesta deal had not been signed and reiterated his government’s commitment on it and the LBA but declined to give a time frame on when the two contentious issues would be resolved. On Teesta, he also said that New Delhi was talking with the stakeholders to reach a consensus and that notwithstanding, “water continues to flow without any hindrance”. On the LBA, he said that the Manmohon Singh Government does not have a 2/3 majority necessary for ratification and that consultations were going on with stakeholders for a consensus.

The High Commissioner acknowledged Bangladesh’s support and cooperation on security and its positive impact on the insurgency problem in the Northeastern states of India the way New Delhi had not acknowledged before. Upon questions from the floor, he also acknowledged that his country had saved great deal of money that it would have otherwise had to spend to combat the insurgencies. He however said it would be unfair to put any financial value to Bangladesh’s cooperation, adding that it would be a “fallacy” to think that security issues stop at the border.  He made it clear that a stable Northeast was essential for Bangladesh because if those states become unstable, it would also de-destabilize Bangladesh. He also gave a breakdown of the US$ 1 billion soft loan that India had provided Bangladesh. There has been a great deal of confusion over the loan. The High Commissioner said that out of the loan, India had already given US$ 200 million as grant that Bangladesh would, according to information given to New Delhi, spend on the Padma Bridge and that projects for an additional US$ 700 million have been identified.

The most positive aspect of what the High Commissioner said in press conference was on India’s relations with Bangladesh in the context of the country’s partisan politics. He reiterated the stand that was stressed by the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee when he had visited Bangladesh as the country’s Finance Minister in May of 2012; that New Delhi was interested in building relations with Bangladesh and not with any particular political party. The High Commissioner said categorically that New Delhi would have no problem dealing with a BNP Government if the voters returned that party to power stating: “We will always abide and respect the wishes of the people of Bangladesh.”  Pankaj Saran stressed that India respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bangladesh, adding that cooperation did not mean loss of sovereignty.

India’s failures to give Bangladesh the Teesta deal and the LBA notwithstanding, Bangladesh-India relations have come a long way under the present term of the Congress in New Delhi and the Awami League in Dhaka. The negotiations have encouraged people in Bangladesh to believe that the country could become the regional economic hub through connectivity. The BNP that had opposed granting India land transit uncompromisingly in the past has softened substantially because it too saw that Bangladesh could become the regional economic hub if land transit was implemented sincerely as regional connectivity and not simply as a corridor to benefit India alone. The BNP’s changed stance on land transit/connectivity was however conditional upon India resolving Bangladesh’s concerns over water sharing, trade and border related issues.   Begum Khaleda Zia during her visit to India late last year assured New Delhi that her party would support the recent initiatives of the Bangladesh Government whether in power or in the opposition provided India delivered to Bangladesh its commitments on a quid pro quo basis.

There is a strong public perception in Bangladesh that India wanted the AL in power at any cost. When New Delhi invited the BNP leader to New Delhi many thought that India had changed that policy in line what with Pranab Mukherjee had stated in Dhaka in May 2012. But thereafter, the way New Delhi supported the Shahabag Movement even after it had openly taken an anti-opposition stance, many in Bangladesh were frustrated   and disappointed that India had again returned to playing favourites in Bangladesh. Therefore the High Commissioner’s statement that New Delhi would have no problem in dealing with a BNP Government if voted to power was encouraging because it suggested that India backed the democratic process in Bangladesh.

The High Commissioner’s statement that security issues do not stop in the border was also equally encouraging. It indicated that New Delhi was aware that if Bangladesh destabilized, India also would suffer the consequences. Therefore India would want an election in Bangladesh that would be “inclusive” where all the major parties would participate as all the western countries have suggested because the consequences of having an election without the main opposition parties were too scary to contemplate. The High Commissioner’s press conference thus raised hope that the Indians would use its influence in Bangladesh to lend its voice with the developed countries to encourage the government of Bangladesh to hold “inclusive”, free and fair elections where voters would have the democratic choice of voting for any of the mainstream parties and not just one.

It was unfortunate that two people were killed at the Jessore border at the hands of the BSF to coincide with the High Commissioner’s press interview that otherwise went down very well with those who follow these events closely and the media.  He had said in the Conference that since January this year, there had been no deaths in the border.  The deaths thus should remind New Delhi that the killings had not stopped and its zero tolerance commitment was not working. Given its potentials for damage relations as a highly emotional issue in Bangladesh, the killings needed stop forthwith if Bangladesh-India relations were to proceed in the “right path” as the High Commissioner thought it was after coming through “ups and downs in the past”.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.

USA to arm Syrian rebels: Is this too late?
M. Serajul Islam

The White House has finally ended its long silence over getting involved in Syria on the side of the beleaguered and truncated opposition by deciding to provide it with arms after the civil war has been going on for over 2 years and taken more than 90,000 lives (according to UN) and made over a million refugees. Perhaps provoked by Bashir al Asaad’s boastful interview to a Lebanese TV station not too long ago where he said that his troops have succeeded in turning the tide in the country’s civil war decisively in favour of his regime, the Obama administration has finally woken from its long state of denial to the predicament of the millions suffering the consequences of the Syria civil war. Perhaps, and more likely so, the US has found it difficult to remain in a state of denial any longer about its hands-off policy towards Syria  with more “definite proof from its intelligence” that Damascus has used chemical weapons to subdue the opposition.

The White House explained that the decision to provide arms to the rebels was not a sudden decision and that it came after it had kept the Syrian situation under careful focus and continuous review for over a year. The Obama administration has also been divided internally over providing arms to the rebels during this period. Advisers of the President in the White House have been reluctant to do so apprehensive that it would “be a slippery slope to wider involvement.” The Pentagon has been against providing arms to the rebels fearing such involvement would be “too risky and expensive.” Among both, the back of the mind concern has been the fact that the rebels are not a coherent and monolithic group and that among them are Islamic fundamentalists with links to the Al Qaeda. The State Department has however consistently supported US involvement in Syria, arguing that without US involvement “the region would collapse into chaos.” In the end, the latest evidence of use of chemical weapons by Damascus swayed the opinion of the State Department to encourage the Obama administration to provide arms to the rebels.

The decision by the White House to provide non-lethal arms to the rebels to start with will see the return of the CIA into “covert action role” overseas for the first time since the end of the Cold War era that was increasingly taken over by the agency’s direct action through the drones. The CIA proposed to deliver the arms to the rebels through its network primarily in Turkey and to lesser extent in Jordan. Unfortunately, the US decision to provide arms to the rebels based on the red line has been received with skepticism by both Russia and the UN.  The UN Secretary General in an unusual step of opposing the White House in public has said that the US should not have taken the decision on the arms supply without waiting for “more definite proof”. The Secretary General said that to reach final conclusion on use of chemical weapons, it ld be necessary to establish “conclusive evidence of chain of custody” for which it would also be necessary for a UN team to be inside Syria and investigate which has not happened or likely to happen as Damascus has refused to allow any UN team on its soil. The Russians have rejected the US claim with contempt. President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Ambassador at the UN have stated categorically that the proof provided by the US intelligence has been inconclusive.

The US decision to assist the rebels has also come as too little too late. Against the rebels’ need for heavy equipments such as armour piercing and anti-aircraft weapons, Washington has decided to supply them with only light weapons. The timing has also been a bad one for the cause of the rebels. After making gains last winter, the rebels are now on the back foot and have only recently lost to the government forces the strategic city of Qussair that has opened the supply route from Lebanon for both Hezbollah men and arms for Damascus.  Meanwhile as the US vacillated, international actors such as Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have come in support of Damascus  aggressively that has been the main reason why the tide of the civil war has turned in its favour that has been reflected in the buoyant mood of President Basher al Asaad.

The Syrian rebels’ response has thus been cool to the White House decision. They are unhappy that they have not been promised the heavy weapons they consider crucial. Their major demand for enforcing the no-fly zone that the US and NATO had enforced in case of Libya with telling effect has still not been answered by the White House. In fact as far as this demand is concerned, it may already be late because when the rebels had asked for it, it had the upper hand in the civil war that Damascus has been able to overcome by air power and the rebels are now on the defensive. Further, without heavy weapons, the rebels are now even more so than before at the mercy of Damascus and its air power.

Therefore, the decision of the White House will not tilt the civil war in Syria in favour of the rebels in the short term. However it will turn the civil war into a proxy one with the US now throwing its hat in favour of the rebels to match Russian and Iranian involvement in favor of Damascus and Hezbollah which is one step ahead and supplying both arms and men to fight against the rebels. At the G8 Summit that just concluded in Ireland, Russia’s support for Syria prevailed and the Summiteers were unable to adopt any consensus statement condemning Bashar al Asaad. The Summit called for a peace conference in Geneva for establishment of a “transitional governing body” but without indicating a time frame for the conference and  very importantly without any mention of the ouster of the Syrian dictator. President Putin’s strong role in favour of Bashar al Asaad in the D8 Summit has provided the Syrian President with a new lease of life and it does not seem that he would be meeting the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gadaffi any time soon, USA’s arms to the rebels notwithstanding.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

John Kerry’s  first visit to India as Secretary of State
M. Serajul Islam

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just completed a 3 day visit to India, his first since succeeding Hillary Clinton to the position in President Obama’s second term. The visit was undertaken by the Secretary to co-chair the 4th round of US-India Strategic Partnership for discussion of the entire gamut of strategic partnership issues. Nevertheless, the most recent developments in Afghanistan, US support for archrival Pakistan, Indian protectionism over trade issues, foot dragging by India on safety issues over purchases from of nuclear plants from USA under the civil-nuclear deal and recent US immigration bill and its impact on outsourcing formed the backdrop of the important visit that suggested tensions in the development of bilateral relations the way President Obama envisaged it would. On his November, 2010 visit to India, the President had said that the “relationship between the US and India would be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

The formal part of the visit of the Secretary went off well.  Secretary John Kerry was assisted in the Dialogue among others by US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Admiral Samuel Locklear of the US Pacific Command.  From the Indian side, Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid co-chaired the Dialogue and he was assisted by Montek Singh Alhuwalia, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and a team of senior officials of a number of key ministries. The US-India Strategic Partnership Dialogue has developed a well structured framework over the 3 rounds held earlier which was followed in the 4th round as well. The entire gamut of strategic issues was discussed under four broad heads. These heads were:  (1) Regional Strategic Consultations; (2) Security and Strategic Partnership; (3) Strategic Partnership in Commerce, Science and Technology, Education and Energy; and (4) Global issues.

In the Joint Statement that was issued after the Dialogue, the two sides reviewed “the extensive transformation of bilateral relationship and identified key sectors of cooperation that will continue to add strategic depth to the partnership.” On specific issues, they reaffirmed “their shared vision of peace and stability in Asia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans” and agreed to work for fulfillment of this vision within the good number of existing forums of cooperation and interaction. The US-India-Japan trilateral format was mentioned as one forum for expanding strategic cooperation. The Dialogue emphasized upon the need for concerted efforts to deal with challenges of terrorism “including the dismantling of terrorist safe haven”. On Afghanistan, it stressed the commitment of the two countries to build a “stable, democratic, united sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan” and in this context underlined the importance of an “Afghan led and Afghan inspired reconciliation process “for a stable Afghanistan after the departure of the foreign troops after 2014. The two sides expressed satisfaction with the growth in two way trade that has reached US$ 100 billion and in defense related trade that has reached US$ 9 billion.

The issues that were discussed in the Dialogue were so many and diverse that it led one commentator to write: “On paper the bilateral relationship is almost universal in its reach, innovation, space, health, clean energy, defense, counter-terrorism, you name it, we are supposedly talking to the Americans about it.” Quite understandably therefore the JS did not bring out the current tension between the two countries because the issues causing tension were discussed by the Secretary outside the Dialogue. On Afghanistan, the Indians have been deeply concerned by US moves for peace talks with the Taliban. The Times of India flagged this concern when it wrote bluntly that the US should not be allowed to “hand over power to the Taliban and run”. The Indian concerns are based on the fact that any accommodation for Taliban in a post-US Afghanistan is a plus for Pakistan. The Indians also fear that any accommodation for Taliban would be seen as encouragement for “Jihadi groups of various hues and be disastrous for the stability of South Asia as a whole.” The Secretary assuaged Indian concerns by assuring that it considers India’s role in ensuring stability of Afghanistan to be crucial. Nevertheless, he did not make any commitment to back away from bringing the Taliban subject to three conditions, namely renounce violence, break ties with al Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution, for a peace settlement to allow it to leave Afghanistan. On these conditions however, the Secretary left confusion with the State Department officials insisting that these conditions as “outcomes of successful negotiations, not as preconditions to sit down at the negotiating table.” 

The Indians could not help noting significant differences between the new Secretary and his predecessor. On her first visit to India in 2009, Hillary Clinton had started that visit with strong words against Pakistan in the context of the Mumbai terror attacks. On his visit, the new Secretary started off with remarks on floods in the Indian state of Uttarkhand while making a 45 minutes speech upon landing in New Delhi. He devoted half of that speech on “clean energy and how India needs to be proactive.”  He avoided associating Pakistan with terrorism and instead suggested that India and Pakistan should “invest in each other’s economies” to build trust. The Indians are aware of the Secretary’s recent initiatives in trying to bring the Taliban into the loop in a peace settlement in Afghanistan where he has handled matters directly with the Pakistan leaders by-passing both the US Embassy in Islamabad and the Pakistan Embassy in Washington. On issue of terrorism, the Secretary disappointed India. He was silent on cross border terrorism coming from India and restricted his comments to terrorism being a challenge to all democratic countries.

On follow up on the civil nuclear deal where movement had come to almost a halt, the Secretary informed that the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and Westinghouse are close to concluding a commercial agreement that would ease the passage for construction of reactors in Gujarat by Westinghouse. The development would be significant because the civil nuclear deal that was concluded by the two countries towards the end of President Bush’s tenure and had held such great promise of bringing the two countries together in strategic relationship had hit the hard rock in recent times over “India’s nuclear liability law which ensures supplier accountability in the event of a reactor mishap.” The US side had expected reciprocity from India to sell nuclear reactors to the country as pay back for opening India to the international market for buying nuclear reactors. India was prohibited from doing so by the powerful Nuclear Supplier’s Group for its refusal to sign the NPT. 

The Secretary’s visit was not a ground breaking one and it was not intended to be one.  The popular reaction after the visit in New Delhi was: “Well, we did not expect much, so we were not disappointed.” The Secretary did not do much to dispel lingering feelings in New Delhi about his “softness” for Pakistan. The Indians also did not relent on issues of trade protectionism. The visit thus simply carried over the general trend of current US-India relations where they share a “myriad of shared interests including fighting Islamic militancy and managing rise of China” but nevertheless currently at a stage that has been described by the conservative Washington based think tank AEI as “stable and boring with a hint of frost”.  Nevertheless, the two sides have stressed their seriousness to carry forward their  strategic partnership  by announcing that Vice-President Joe Biden would be visiting India end of July and  Prime Minister Manmohon Singh scheduled to visit Washington in September.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador

Tahrir Square delivers Egypt  a military coup
M. Serajul Islam

Tahrir Square (TS) that had helped bring down 60 years of military dictatorship in Egypt under the influence of Arab Spring has now brought down an elected government to hand power back to the military! The Egyptian people who had gathered in millions at the TS and defied death and military tanks to bring down  Hosne Mubarak again gathered in millions at the Square again; only this time to bring back the  military to save the country from disastrous  governance under the democratically elected  President Dr. Mohammad Morsi. When Army Chief General Abul Fattah Khalil Al- Sissy announced that Dr. Mohammad Morsi was no longer President of Egypt after the military’s 48 hour deadline for him to step down had elapsed, the millions at TS greeted the General’s announcement with the same spirit and enthusiasm with which they had greeted the stepping down of the military dictator Hosne Mubarak.

President   Mohammad Morsi defied the General’s announcement initially. On his Facebook, the President’s men posted bulletins stating that he was still in power and that the announcement of the military was illegal. That notwithstanding, the political reality in Egypt has changed. For all practical purpose, a military coup has for the time being condemned the country’s first freely elected democratic President in 60 years to where Hosne Mubarak had been condemned; to the ranks of ex-Presidents. That position for Dr. Morsi was formalized when the White House, after waiting on the sidelines and refusing to side with the demonstrators in TS, issued a strongly worded statement that accepted the new reality in Cairo.   The statement however expressed “deep concern” over the military’s decision to remove President Mosri and demanded of it “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible through an inclusive and transparent process.”

The transition of power in Egypt from the military to the elected officials was not smooth. The movement in TS for the deposition of the military dictator Hosne Mubarak was easy.  It took just 18 days to force him out.  What did not happen though was that the military’s stranglehold on power that extended everywhere in the Egyptian society was not weakened in any major way by the revolution in TS. Thus, once President Mubarak was forced out and the millions at TS had dispersed, the military, not just continued to exercise political power; it delayed both the parliamentary and the presidential elections and also the drafting of the Constitution by the elected parliament. The military dictated and ensured that its special position in the country remained the same as  under the  regime of President Hosne Mubarak when the new Constitution was ultimately drafted and passed by the parliament dominated by the Peace and Justice Party (PJP), the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

The PJP was able to reap the benefits in both the parliamentary and presidential elections because the MB was the most organized political force in the country. The history of the MB goes back a long way. Established in 1928 as a Pan-Islamic movement, the Brotherhood was a banned political entity during the military dictatorships of the Generals, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. However, the MB did not remain idle while banned politically. It organized itself in non-political Egypt, in the society and remained in touch with the grass roots as a major force in society. Thus when the military relented and held the parliamentary and presidential elections, the Peace and Justice Party  came out successful in both, though in the Presidential election, it was able to defeat the military backed candidate marginally because by that time, the secular forces had already started to see in the MB the real enemy rather than the military. Nevertheless, once embedded in the Presidency, Dr. Mohammad Morsi received support of allies in the region and helped the United States in a peace deal between the Israelis and the Hammas. In particular, his Government was able to establish close ties with the United States. Thus when the millions gathered this time in Tahrir Square, they chanted anti-US slogans. They also expressed their anger against the US Ambassador in Cairo for being soft on the regime when they were up against the Mosri regime. In fact, while the temper in TS was boiling   against the regime, White House was pursuing hands off policy much to the anger of the TS demonstrators.

The US was of course served with a dilemma by the crowd at TS. The dilemma was whether or not to support the crowd at TS that had gathered against a democratic government to bring the military that suspended the Constitution drafted by the elected representatives. That was the reason for the initial hands-off policy. The US was given the way out of the dilemma to accept the change, albeit with a stern warning to the military,   by the fact that the military has not taken power directly. It has formed an interim government with Adly Mansour, the Head of the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court as President of the interim government.  The military, before deposing President Morsi, had held meetings with religious and civilian leaders and agreed on a road map to return Egypt to democratic rule. However, thus far, the real power in Egypt, the military, has not made any mention when Egypt would have those elections. Nevertheless, the nature of change may allow the United States to continue with its aid program worth US$ 1.4 billion a year and still abide by constitutional prohibition against aid to military governments.

That road map is also frosty at the moment and uncertain. The MB is by no means a push over. Although warrants have been issued against 250 MB leaders and President Morsi has been interned, the MB has significant hold.  MB supporters have vowed that they will fight this in the streets and that they would not go home till Dr. Morsi is returned to power. If they organize themselves and defy threats of death and gather at Tahrir Square, they too would be able to show the same numbers that resulted in the military intervention and perhaps more.  Egypt thus could be facing a serious and dangerous future with real threats of a civil strife between the military and its new civilian backers and the MB. What should be borne in mind is what happened in Algeria where Islamists were pushed out of power that they won democratically that pushed the country into a civil war that has literally destroyed the country.  Egypt could be facing such a future.

The major factor against Egypt going the Algerian way is USA’s involvement in Egyptian politics. It supported the Islamist PJP government against the demonstrators and has now put the new regime on hold and demanded that it should return the country to democratic rule quickly.  With its massive aid package most of which goes to the military, USA has almost a stranglehold on Egypt’s military to force it to abide by the warning embedded in the strong White House statement.  Unfortunately for Egypt’s tryst with democracy, President Morsi and PJP did not measure to the demands for peaceful transition to democracy and the opposition has been too fragmented. The MB is still and will remain a major political force in Egypt and when the country has democratic elections, it is very likely that the Peace and Democratic Party would again return to power, perhaps more wizened by its current unfortunate predicament. Thus Egypt may not go the way Algeria has but the fear remains nevertheless and USA will have a major role against such a fear becoming a reality.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt
The New US Immigration Bill crosses Senate
M. Serajul Islam

The 11 million illegal immigrants who have been praying, hoping and lobbying ever since the White House initiated a bill in the first administration of President Obama for  bringing them out of the cold and legalizing them had a good reason to rejoice recently. Late last month, the US Senate passed the bill that would enable them to become legal immigrants and put them on the path to be US citizens by 2025. The bill was passed by 68 votes in favour and 32 against. A bipartisan group nicknamed the Gang of Eight worked tirelessly since April to work out a package that ultimately encouraged 14 Republican Senators to vote for the bill. The bill must now pass in the Republican dominated House (234 against 201 Democrats) by 60% of House members to become law. 

The Republicans opposed the bill tooth and nail when it was introduced in 2010. Its progress was blocked when the Democrats lost control of the House that year. The Republicans are traditionally anti-immigration. They are opposed to any proposal to legalize illegal immigrants without first stopping the flow of illegal immigrants to the country. The Republicans in the Congress felt that the White House initiated bill if enacted into law would send the wrong signals to law breakers and encourage the flow of illegal immigrants through its 700 mile long southern border with Mexico. They were also concerned about the huge impact the bill would have if it became law on the federal budget. These Republican concerns have been articulated by the Washington based conservative think tank, Heritage Foundation that in a study concluded that the proposed immigration reform bill will be a “fiscal black hole”, a view that the Washington Post in a recent editorial has described as “myopic and regressive” that “has been proved wrong by generation after generation.”

The bill was a major issue in the last Presidential election. It enabled President Barak Obama to win his second term easily. His support for the bill was a major factor for the 74% votes he received from the Hispanics in the country who are a formidable force in the electoral equations of the country. The Republicans knew thereafter that they cannot reject the immigration bill without facing adverse consequences. There will be a midterm election for the Congress next year followed by the presidential election in 2016. Therefore they have tried to make the passage of the bill as hard as possible for the conservative votes without rejecting the bill outright so as not to upset the majority that supports the bill including the Hispanics and other immigrant minorities. The Republican Party in Senate thus grudgingly agreed to consider the bill after ensuring that the bill included measures for stopping 90% of those who try to cross into the United States through the US-Mexico border. They did not want to be in the same predicament they faced when they agreed to immigration reform under Reagan administration on commitment of enhancement of border security that was fulfilled.

Thus the main focus of the Gang of Eight was thus on the security measures. To do this, they divided the bill into parts and although it was passed in the Senate as a package, they placed the security concerns of the Republicans at the beginning before the other issues in the package that included details on how the 11 million illegal immigrants would be legalized. The bill passed in the Senate set aside US$ 46 billion to strengthen border security that will include doubling the number of border security guards  to 40,000 and  recruiting 3500 additional custom officials to ensure 100% border surveillance and  apprehension of 90% would-be border crossers.  Among a number of revisions of existing immigration laws, the bill if enacted into law would bar US citizens from sponsoring siblings for immigration.

The bill does not give the illegal immigrants any easy passage to citizenship which will come in 2025 if it becomes law. Additionally, they will have to pay fines and taxes and meet the other stringent conditions of becoming a citizen. To enhance the prospect of safe passage of the bill, the report of the Congress Budget Office (CBO) published recently was particularly helpful. The Report trashed the Heritage Foundation conclusions and was partly responsible for the change of mind among the 14 Republican Senators who voted for the bill. The CBO report admitted that legalizing 11 million illegal immigrants would cost the federal government US$ 262 billion in direct spending over the next decade. It however also concluded that with 11 million people working as legal migrants, “revenues would soar by US$ by US$ 459 over the same decade” and the federal deficit would go down by US$ 200 billion”.  

The above notwithstanding, the prospect of the bill becoming law is by no means certain. In fact, given the mood in the House following the Senate decision, the prospect is uncertain.  Speaker John Boehner who in the past has allowed vote of a few bills after discussing with House Democrats successfully that earned the anger of some of the Republicans in the House has said that he would not do anything with the immigration bill unless he is assured that majority of the House Republicans are disposed favourably. Republican Congressman Peter Roskam who is also a deputy whip described the bill the Senate passed as a “pipe dream” and said that “the House has no capacity to move the bill in its entirety.” The Republican Congressmen will meet in Washington next Wednesday in a conference to hash out a response to the bill that is likely to be “contentious and unpleasant.”

Meanwhile, President Obama has welcomed the Senate action and hoped the House would also pass the bill to make it into law and help in the passage of “historical” immigration reform legislation by August. Senator John McCain, a member of the Gang of Eight urged his Republican colleagues in the House to sit down with him and his colleagues, if not for the sake of the bill itself then at last for the future of the party. A veteran politician and an erstwhile Presidential candidate, the Senator is well aware of the damaging political consequences of opposing the bill now when it has more than met the fears and demands of the conservatives on the security issue that will make the Mexico-USA border the most secure border in history with the most advanced use of technology. However, House members who are seeking re-election in conservative constituencies are unwilling to listen and are opposing the bill strongly.

The Hispanics are now 17% of the country’s population and growing fast. Thus by simple common sense,  they will be a major factor in all federal elections in future and that power is assured to  grow fast . If this group is pushed on the immigration issue by any foolhardy stand of the House Republicans, then the GOP’s chances in all future elections could be very seriously jeopardized. In an editorial on June 30th, the Washington Post has urged Speaker Boehner to either back the Senate bill or enact “similar legislation as a vehicle to open negotiations with the Senate in a conference committee.” Otherwise, the editorial wrote, the GOP would be voting for “status quo that has led America to a dead end.”  The Republicans are facing a major political dilemma over the immigration bill while the 11 million illegal immigrants wait, hope and pray they would allow common sense to guide their response. 

The writer is a retired career Ambassador.


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