Monday, June 22, 2009

Stop dancing with dictators, Zardari tells US

The Frontier Against Terrorism
By Asif Ali Zardari
Monday, June 22, 2009

After the debacle of Vietnam, the United States could pack up and leave with minimal consequences for its genuine national interests; similarly, for the British in the subcontinent and the French in Algeria. But the West, indeed the entire civilized world, does not have that luxury in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the Taliban and al-Qaeda are allowed to triumph in our region, their destabilizing alliance will spread across the continents.

In Pakistan today, democracy must succeed. The forces of extremism must be vanquished. Failure is not an option; not for us, not for the world.

How can we ensure that the forces of freedom defeat the forces of fanaticism? The problems that have fueled extremism are multifaceted and the solutions equally multidimensional. We need short- and long-term strategies, and we must realize that to truly eliminate the terrorist menace, we have to succeed not only militarily but politically, economically and socially.

The West, most notably the United States, has been all too willing to dance with dictators in pursuit of perceived short-term goals. The litany of these policies and their consequences clutter the earth, from the Marcos regime in the Philippines, to the Shah in Iran, to Mohammed Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Invariably, each case has proved that myopic strategies that sacrifice principle lead to unanticipated long-term consequences.

Let me focus on Pakistan. The West stood by as a democratically elected government was toppled by a military dictatorship in the late '70s. Because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the West used my nation as a blunt instrument of the Cold War. It empowered a Gen. Zia dictatorship that brutalized its people, decimated our political parties, murdered the prime minister who had founded Pakistan's largest political party, and destroyed the press and civil society. And once the Soviets were defeated, the Americans took the next bus out of town, leaving behind a political vacuum that ultimately led to the Talibanization and radicalization of Afghanistan, the birth of al-Qaeda and the current jihadist insurrection in Pakistan. The heroin mafia, which arose as a consequence of the efforts to implode the Soviet Union, now takes in $5 billion a year, twice the budget of our army and police. This is the price Pakistan continues to pay.

Dancing with dictators never pays off. Frankly, the worst democracy is better than any dictatorship. Dictatorship leads to frustration, extremism and terrorism. But the past is the past, and we can't undo it. We can, however, address the consequences of past mistakes and make sure they are not repeated. My most immediate goal is for the civilized world to rally to the support of Pakistani democracy and the Pakistani people's struggle against extremism.

In the battle against international terrorism, we are in the trenches for ourselves but also for the world. We have lost more soldiers -- 1,200 of them -- fighting the Taliban in Pakistan than all of the countries of NATO have lost, combined, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Thousands of civilians, victims of attacks such as the recent bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, have died.

And on a very personal level, I have lost my wife, Benazir Bhutto, the mother of my children and Pakistan's greatest leader. She warned the world, in her speeches and her writings, in her last book and her very last words, that fanaticism is a threat to all people; that dictatorship had led to its spread within Pakistan; that my nation had to wake up; and that the world must take notice. She paid with her life for her prescience and her courage, and I have to answer to future generations and to my own children that she did not die in vain.

We need immediate assistance. The Obama administration recognizes that only an economically viable Pakistan can contain the terrorist menace. The United States has committed $1.5 billion a year for five years to help stabilize our economy, and the House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have acted decisively to reorient the Pakistani-American relationship toward not just a military alliance but a sustained economic partnership.

Now, the rest of the world must step up and match the U.S. effort. Pakistan needs a robust assistance package so that we can deliver for the people and defeat the militants. And the rest of the world should again follow the American lead in helping us deal with the millions of internally displaced people who are the most recent victims of terrorism in our nation.

But aid is not enough. In the long term, Pakistan needs trade to allow us to become economically independent. Only such an economically robust Pakistan will be able to contain the fanatics and demonstrate to the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide that democracy and economic development go hand in hand. Notably, the United States is moving forward with regional opportunity zones in Afghanistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan that will remove trade barriers and provide economic incentives to build factories, start industries, employ workers -- and give hope to the people. This opportunity zone concept should be a model to Europe, as well. Europe must realize that it is in its own self-interest, as the United States has realized, to do everything possible to grow the Pakistani economy and to provide incentives for Pakistani exports to the continent.

My wife traveled the world preaching democracy to what should have been its loudest choir. The doors of many Western governments were shut to her, but she was not deterred. She was relentless in her passion for democracy, and unwaveringly optimistic about its ultimate success. She said, famously, that "truth, justice and the forces of history are on our side."

Today, we shall see if America and Europe are on our side as well.

The writer is president of Pakistan.

Iranian protesters defy warning

Anti-government protesters have continued their demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, the Iranian capital, despite a warning from the country's security forces.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards, a military unit, threatened on Monday in a statement on its website to crush further protests over the country's disputed June 12 presidential election.
The Revolutionary Guards is an armed force parallel to Iran's army which claims to defend the gains of the 1979 revolution against a possible coup.
But the warning fell on deaf ears as shortly afterwards hundreds of protesters gathered in central Tehran amid reports of teargas and batons being used to disperse the crowd.
Riot police and members of Basij, a pro-government armed volunteer force, were deployed heavily in Tehran.
Witnesses said 1,000 protesters gathered at the Haft-e Tir Square despite the guards' warning.
One witness said he saw Basij members attack a group of protesters, dragging them out of a nearby house to which they had fled, the Reuters news agency reported.
'Sensitive situation'

The Revolutionary Guards' statement said the unit would not hesitate to confront "illegal" rallies organised by supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the moderate politician who is contesting the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "At the current sensitive situation ... the guards will firmly confront, in a revolutionary way, rioters and those who violate the law," the statement said.
The Iranian government has also cracked down on independent media reporting on the protests, and imposed severe restrictions on foreign journalists.
The Iranian capital has seen unrest and street protests since results of the vote were announced on July 13.
Over the weekend, clashes between police and anti-government protesters left at least 12 people dead and more than 100 wounded - raising the death toll to 19 since the unrest began.
Iranian state radio reported that more than 450 people had been arrested during Saturday's rallies, mostly around Tehran's Azadi Square.
Forty police officers were also wounded, and 34 government buildings damaged, the Fars news agency reported.
'Constant insecurity'
Despite the deaths, arrests and an earlier warning from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, the demonstrators appear to be undeterred.

Alireza Zaker-Esfahani, an adviser to Ahmadinejad, accused Mousavi of not trying to calm his supporters.

"The weakness is in Mir Hossein Mousavi's political behaviour. ... He is currently issuing statements inviting his supporters to take to the streets. That will not solve any problem," he told Al Jazeera on Monday.
"Rallies will ultimately contribute to abuse, setting buses on fire, bloodshed and constant insecurity for the people."
Earlier, Iran's Guardian Council, the country's highest legislative body, admitted some irregularities occurred during the election.

Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, the council's spokesman, told state-funded broadcaster IRIB on Monday that up to three million votes were under scrutiny, after it was found that the number of votes exceeded the number of eligible voters in 50 cities.

However, he said it was a normal discrepancy because people are allowed to travel to other areas to vote, and that it was "yet to be determined whether the amount is decisive in the election results".

Ahmadinejad won the election by a wide margin, with 63 per cent of the vote, according to figures from Iran's interior ministry.

The ministry said Mousavi received only 34 per cent of the vote.

He and his supporters allege voter fraud and have called for an annulment of the result.

"Lies and fraud"

Ghanbar Naderi, an Iranian journalist and Ahmadinejad supporter, told Al Jazeera that the Mousavi camp is underestimating the support Ahmadinejad received in areas outside the capital.

"They are ignoring the fact that there are so many poor people across the country who really favour Ahmadinejad," he said on Monday.

User-supplied images are the chief source of information from Iran for the world's media "Ahmadinejad has directed his development programmes across provinces in deprived areas, in remote areas, and people saw the results of his promises - he delivered on his promises. That is why they voted for him."
In a statement published on the website of his newspaper Kalameh, Mousavi said that Iranians had the right to protest against "lies and fraud", but also urged them to show restraint as they take to the streets.

"The revolution is your legacy. To protest against lies and fraud is your right. Be hopeful that you will get your right and do not allow others who want to provoke your anger ... to prevail," he said.

Atoosa, a Mousavi supporter, described Mousavi's call to show restraint as a "smart move".

"As we have seen, the crackdown is very hard on people and people are dying everyday," she told Al Jazeera by phone from Tehran on Monday.

"The only way to protest now is to use different methods."

Joy of victory briefly unites a nation scarred by ethnic conflict

Scarcely had the players stepped off the field at Lord's when celebratory gunfire began to crackle nearly 4,000 miles away. Sweets were thrust into smiling mouths. Children danced with unrestrained glee. And cars raced through the streets, packed with revellers as they whooped with delight and waved the Pakistani flag.

For a country that has long endured a stream of bad news, the Pakistan cricket team's victory in the World Twenty20 final on Sunday proved a rare moment of common joy. The thunder of suicide bombings and battles against Taliban insurgents seemed, for once, to have been drowned out by the roar of millions cheering their biggest sporting triumph since former captain Imran Khan lifted the World Cup in 1992.

"We needed this so badly," said Ali Azmat, the former frontman for Junoon, a rock band known as Pakistan's U2. "In this country, people don't get food to eat. There is a war going on. Millions are displaced. There are political problems in each and every province. In some cities, we don't have electricity for 12 hours each day. This was really a great moment for us."

The scenes of jubilation underscored cricket's ability to unite Pakistanis in a manner that has only been rivalled by war with its neighbour India. The sport evokes passions that can outstrip religious fervour. In moments of crushing defeat, a pall of gloom casts itself over the country. By contrast, the bitter and deepening ethnic, political and sectarian divisions that scar Pakistan came to a pause yesterday.

"The team did something that our politicians have failed to," said Ayesha Tammy Haq, a talk-show host and columnist. "They made 170 million people feel proud to be Pakistani. For once, instead of party flags and partisan politics, the Pakistan flag was everywhere."

In Karachi, the stock exchange rose as traders hailed a brightening mood. In the militancy-racked North West Frontier Province, Pashtuns took pride from the performances of the captain, Younis Khan, player of the match, Shahid Afridi, and the leading wicket-taker Umer Gul. Punjabis boasted that the rest of the team came from the majority province. Members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party said it was no coincidence that the victory came as they marked the birthday of their slain leader, Benazir Bhutto.

Many Pakistanis hope that the cricket team's success will help improve their reputation abroad. The country was cast into sporting isolation this year after militant gunmen attacked the visiting Sri Lankan team in Lahore on 3 March. The Pakistani government was criticised, at home and abroad, for failing to provide adequate security.

"We have once again shown the world that united, this marvellous nation has an immense capacity to fight back and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat," said Farahnaz Ispahani, an MP from the Pakistan People's Party.

Peshawar, End Destination For Displaced, Has Rocky Cultural History

"Zeek" Afridi, an up-and-coming singer from Pakistan's embattled city of Peshawar, just wants the Taliban to stop texting him.
A beep from his mobile used to be a friendly sound. Now, it's terrifying. The Taliban has been sending Zeek threatening SMSs. "It's impossible," the 29-year-old says about the oppression artists face in Peshawar, long a home to Pakistan's artists and intellectuals. Now, many like Zeek, as he is known, find themselves face-to-face with the Taliban threat.

Zeek's massive hit song "Khyber Zalmi," or "The Youth of Khyber Pass," features 70-year-old lyrics that invoke "brave youth" who love their country despite those with "bad intentions." Pakistan's youth are "strong arms," the refrain goes, for whom "country" is "life."
By grafting edgier rock melodies onto older, traditional lyrics, Zeek has plugged into a style of music increasingly popular among a booming new generation of twenty- to thirtysomethings.
This is a problem for the Taliban. Nationalism-infused rock music like Zeek's is a potent release for the anger, poverty, and desperation the militia group uses to push young people toward extremism. It has banned musical instruments and public performance.
Destination For The Displaced

Many artists live, like Zeek's family does, in Peshawar. The city is the darling of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan's largest ethnic minority.

As a result of weeks of fighting between government troops and Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, Peshawar has become a destination for displaced persons and international aid organizations.

Rumors of Taliban insurgents infiltrating the city under cover of displaced persons have heightened paranoia in the city. Schools have been attacked, its main bazaar bombed, and a hotel frequented by foreigners and aid workers recently suffered a deadly truck bombing.

Everyday life has been disrupted, and the city's once-vibrant cultural celebrations have lost their color.

Given the Taliban's disapproval of musical instruments and public performance, Peshawar musicians were not allowed to perform at their own awards ceremony recently because organizers feared the event would be bombed.

Even the city's fabled, music-filled Storyteller's Bazaar has deteriorated into a swamp of aid organizations. People are too scared to come out and drop a few rupees on some hot street food.

"I am making good food, but people aren't coming," Muhammed Fahim, one of the few vendors left along the once-populated bazaar streets, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Taking It By Fear

While few think Peshawar will be taken by force, residents say they are already taking it by fear. Mubeen, an elderly cobbler, witnessed the violence first-hand.

"I was there when the bomb went off [in the bazaar]. I saw bodies. I saw people hurt," he says. "But because I have a family to feed, I come back here to work. But these kinds of actions are against religion, against humanity. I saw two innocent women killed by that bomb."

The Taliban justifies their crackdown on artists by quoting an obscure line from the Koran, but British ethnomusicologist John Baily thinks the ban on musical instruments and public performance points to "a competition between different kinds of music."

"In the year 2000, eight years ago when I was in Peshawar, then a very large number of professional musicians from Kabul were all in exile in Peshawar," he tells RFE/RL. "Now, I know, from having talked to somebody quite recently in Peshawar, all those musicians have gone back to Afghanistan. And I hadn't realized, really, how severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today."

As the Taliban's influence began to rise in Peshawar, Zeek became concerned for his life and left the country. But after a friend told him some weeks ago that the Taliban were listening to his albums and may target his family, he took the first flight back to Pakistan.

Zeek grew up listening to a band called Junoon, which became a sensation in the South Asian music scene in the early '90s, earning the name "Pakistan's U2." Their blockbuster "Sayonee" sold millions of albums.

Zeek probably never expected to share the problems of Junoon's guitarist and vocalist, Salman Ahmed, who has been targeted by extremists for decades.

'Have To Be United'

Today, Ahmed is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, spending his time between Karachi and Manhattan, and is optimistic about Pakistan's future.

If artists formed a coalition in Pakistan, Ahmed tells RFE/RL, they "will outnumber the extremists," but they "have to be united, just like the extremists are united in their goals of destruction."

"We musicians and poets must not be afraid of them because [the Taliban] neither act nor talk like Muslims," Ahmed says. "Our modern and traditional culture are both against Taliban and their world view."

But Zeek says that his "colleagues, including musicians, singers, and other art performers, are in panic. We are all at risk."

It's a risk worth taking, Ahmed said after a trip to Peshawar in late May, because arts and culture are "a far more lethal force against extremism."

"Nowadays, musicians are going through hardships. I was there for few months, and returned just 10 days ago. I could not see that people are really terrified, but I think that majority in Afghanistan and Pakistan are against the Taliban and they want they Taliban to be defeated."

"Guitars and amps," he says, "can drown out the bullets."

U.S. Toughens Airstrike Policy in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — The new American commander in Afghanistan said he would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes here, in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths that he said were undermining the American-led mission.

In interviews over the past few days, the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, said the use of airstrikes during firefights would in most cases be allowed only to prevent American and other coalition troops from being overrun.

Even in the cases of active firefights with Taliban forces, he said, airstrikes will be limited if the combat is taking place in populated areas — the very circumstances in which most Afghan civilian deaths have occurred. The restrictions will be especially tight in attacking houses and compounds where insurgents are believed to have taken cover.

“Air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” General McChrystal told a group of his senior officers during a video conference last week. “We can lose this fight.”

“When we shoot into a compound, that should only be for the protection of our forces,” he said. “I want everyone to understand that.”

The statements by General McChrystal signaled the latest tightening of the rules for using airstrikes, which, while considered indispensable for protecting troops, have killed hundreds of civilians.

They have also angered the Afghan government, which has repeatedly criticized American and NATO forces for not taking enough care with civilian lives.

In December, the American commander at the time, Gen. David D. McKiernan, issued guidelines ordering his soldiers to use force that was proportional to the provocation and that minimized the risk of civilian casualties.

General McChrystal’s new guidelines follow a deadly episode last month in the Afghan village of Granai, where American airstrikes killed dozens of civilians.

The episode highlighted the difficulties facing American officers under fire, as they are forced to balance using lethal force to protect their troops with rules restricting the use of firepower to prevent civilian deaths.

The episode, on May 4, began when a large group of Taliban fighters attacked a group of about 200 Afghan soldiers and police officers and American advisers. During the firefight, which began just after noon and carried on into the night, the Americans on the ground called for air support.

American fighter jets, and then bombers, came to the scene, dropping a number of 500- and 2,000-pound bombs. The bombs succeeded in ending the attack, but they did much more damage as well.

A Pentagon report estimated that at least 26 civilians had been killed in the airstrikes. It concluded that American personnel had made significant errors, including violating procedures, that led to those deaths. Among those errors, the report said, was a failure by the American personnel to discern whether Afghan civilians were in the compound before they attacked.

Other credible estimates of civilian deaths in Granai ranged much higher. An investigation by a Kabul-based group, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said that at least 86 women and children had been killed, and as many as 97 civilians altogether. The Afghan government said 140 civilians had been killed.

The Pentagon report did not dispute the conclusions reached by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and referred to its “balanced, thorough investigation.”

The deaths in Granai make up part of the huge rise in civilian casualties that are characterizing the war in Afghanistan.

A United Nations report found that the number of Afghan civilians killed in 2008 was 40 percent higher than in 2007. The Taliban and other insurgents caused the majority of the civilian deaths, primarily through suicide bombers and roadside bombs.

The changes highlighted by General McChrystal go to the heart of what went wrong in Granai. In that case, there were at least four airstrikes: the first by F-18 fighters and the other three by a B-1B bomber. The report found that it was the last two airstrikes that probably caused the civilian deaths.

In those cases, the report found, the bomber’s crew tracked suspected Taliban fighters as they entered a building, and then attacked without determining whether civilians were inside. The report said there were probably civilians inside those buildings when they were destroyed.

Under the rules that General McChrystal outlined, those strikes would almost certainly be prohibited. They would be prohibited, the general said, even if it meant letting some Taliban get away.

Referring to airstrikes, General McChrystal said, “If it is just to defeat the enemy, then we are not going to do it, even if it means we are going to step away from that firefight and fight another time.”

According to the Pentagon report, the B-1B dropped five 500-pound bombs and two 2,000-pound bombs. The initial airstrikes, carried out by four F-18 fighters-bombers, the report said, killed insurgents but no civilians.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, the director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said Sunday that the American response in Granai was “disproportionate.” And he said he was pleased by the changes outlined by General McChrystal.

“We are looking forward to seeing the new guidelines, and actually seeing how they would be translated into practice,” he said.

Last September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered new rules specifically to defuse tensions over Afghan civilian deaths.

During a recent visit to Kabul, Mr. Gates said the American military would quickly apologize and offer compensation to survivors in cases of civilian deaths, even in advance of formal investigations to determine exactly what had happened.

“I think the key for us is, on those rare occasions when we do make a mistake, when there is an error, to apologize quickly, to compensate the victims quickly, and then carry out the investigation,” Mr. Gates said after a meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

Iran council 'admits poll flaws'

Iran's Guardian Council, the country's highest legislative body, has admitted some irregularities occurred in the disputed June 12 presidential election.
Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the council, told state-funded broadcaster IRIB on Monday that up to three million votes were under scrutiny, after it was found that the number of votes exceeded the number of eligible voters in 50 cities.
However, he said "it has yet to be determined whether the amount is decisive in the election results".
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative incumbent president, won the election by a wide margin, with 63 per cent of the vote, according to figures from Iran's interior ministry.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated reformist candidate, received only 34 per cent of the vote, but he and his supporters allege voter fraud and have called for an annulment of the result.

'Western' influence
Tehran, the Iranian capital, has seen unrest and massive street protests since the results were announced on July 13.
Send us your videos and pictures from Iran The government is blaming the crisis on what it calls "terrorists" influenced by the West, and has said it will clamp down on any violent action.
"The first issue is security - no country will deal with other issues and then talk about security," Hassan Ghashghavi, a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said on Monday.

"First, security must be there, and then you can talk about elections, freedom, human rights and democracy."

Over the weekend, clashes between police and anti-government protesters left at least 12 people dead and more than 100 wounded - raising the death toll to 19 since the unrest began.

Hundreds arrested

Iranian state radio reported on Monday that more than 450 people were arrested during Saturday's rallies, mostly around Tehran's Azadi square.

Iran unrest online

Social media is playing a crucial role in Iran's crisis.
Browse photos on Faramarz's Flickr stream Forty police officers were also wounded, and 34 government buildings damaged, the Fars news agency reported.
Despite the deaths, arrests, and a warning from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, the demonstrators have been undeterred.

Mousavi himself renewed calls on Sunday for his supporters to continue to protest.

In a statement published on the website of his Kalameh newspaper, he said that people had the right to protest against "lies and fraud", but also urged them to show restraint as they take to the streets.

"The revolution is your legacy. To protest against lies and fraud is your right. Be hopeful that you will get your right and do not allow others who want to provoke your anger ... to prevail," he said.

The Iranian government, meanwhile, has cracked down on independent media reporting on the protests, imposing severe restrictions on foreign journalists.