Friday, June 10, 2011

Prior to the Arab Spring

The attention brought by the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Yemen has captivated a global audience mainly due to the generally non-violent nature in which the protestors are demanding their democratic rights. Of course, there are exceptions such as Libya and Yemen. In reality, western fascination derives primarily from the stance of non-violence by the majority of the protesters, and their refusal to be co-opted by violent and/or Islamist groups. After years of media attention regarding conflict in the Middle East, and the framing of any movement in a Muslim based society as violent or Islamist, we as a society were routinely led to believe this was just “their” way of trying to resolve a dispute. Just as our society assumes that dictatorships are what “they” are used to, because well, that’s Islam isn’t it? Well, the answer is no, and as we know most of the dictators in the Middle East have enjoyed a cozy relationship with the United States Government (Syria and Iran being the exception). I have to admit, as someone who has followed democratic movements for the better part of a decade, I was pleasantly surprised as well. However, I have witnessed a non-violent Muslim based movement up close and personal since 2005, but not in the Middle East, and it’s about to resume once the snows have melted.

In Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, non-violent protests have occurred every summer since 2006. The first major protest organized by a former militant turned peace activist Muhammad Yasin Malik. Mr. Malik organized what he called his “Safri-e-Azadi” campaign, which at times included torch lit processions through the Valley of Kashmir in defiance of an enforced curfew. The turn out was incredible. What Mr. Malik did not realize was that rather than garnering popularity for his own personal movement, he was inspiring a younger generation to defy their conditions and in many ways the dysfunctional leadership of the separatist movements and political parties. This younger generation had found their voice and the ability to speak out for their beliefs, wants and desires with one major condition to their cause, non-violence. Additionally, their utilization of social media since 2008, to the world inspired and served as a manual for those in Tehran, and later the Arab Spring.

The tipping point that solidified for the protestors that they could sustain their non-violence movement occurred on August 11, 2006. 55-year-old Sheikh Abdul Aziz, another leader of a different separatist organization was killed by Indian paramilitary troops while participating in a peaceful public demonstration against the ‘economic blockade’ of the Kashmiri Muslims being enforced by militant Indian Hindu groups allegedly with the tacit support of the Indian government. Due primarily to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, an investigation was not conducted as to why the Sheikh was shot during a non-violent protest that was immediately posted on youtube just days following. I was interviewed just days after on Al-Jazeera as a regional expert, and was asked if I thought the Kashmiri protesters will respond with violence since one of their leaders were killed? They were surprised with my quick and assertive response of “No.” You see, I have seen leaders detained, beaten, shot, exiled and the like over the past few years, and no matter how much press the separatists seek, they are not the ones behind the protests, it’s a handful of brave young Kashmiri’s who have been coordinating and openly conducting their activities via facebook. Go to facebook and type Kashmir in groups, and you will see what I mean.

One very misunderstood aspect about the Kashmiri population is that first and foremost it is young, educated and very tech savvy. They know how far they can reach thanks to their ability to connect with people on facebook, and young western tourists posting online about the realities that they witnessed while visiting what was once considered “Shangri-La.” The young people leading these efforts are not aligned with any of the separatist movements or militant outfits. They are a youth population who grew up under the AFSPA and PSA, and are tired of the daily fear. In actuality, young Kashmiri’s probably would even choose to stay with India if given a choice, and a promise that the more than 500,000 military and paramilitary forces (a modest estimate) who have occupied the Valley of Kashmir, one of three parts on the Indian side of the Line of Control, for the better part of 60 years would finally leave the cities and villages.

If you listen to hardliners in the Indian Government, they talk of militants and terrorists when describing the protesters. From time to time, there are terrorists and militants in IAJK, but they are from Pakistan. Unfortunately, when these militants do attack an outpost, the response typically falls on the Kashmiri people, hence the reason for the protests. Additionally, there are also slogans and chants against the militants, and more importantly Pakistan, calling for non-violence, and to stop coming across the border. Though the overwhelming majority are Muslims who organize the protests, it must be noted that young Hindu’s tired of the violence of the military against the general population also are highly visible participants.

Last summer in Srinagar, thousands of people from all the corners of the Indian-administered Kashmir valley marched by various roads towards Lal Chowk, the city center. The year of mass protests in Kashmir passed away to the wintry Himalayan snow with more than 115 young boys and a few women, killed by Indian forces with the full cooperation of the local police. An unfortunate reality that I am sure will inspire the protesters this summer if their facebook pages are any indication.

Agree or not with the premise of the protests, or the demands there can be no argument about the nature of the protests. I too believe a lot of the assumptions of what the protests will achieve are na├»ve. India and Pakistan in the end will make the final decision of what will happen with this disputed region and the quality of life the people who live there will reside. However, the need for the same scrutiny that our media continues to grant the people in the Middle East needs to happen. One of the leaders and organizers describes himself on his facebook page as,” Moderate, Almost liberal. Conservatives make good terrorists.”

With the death of terrorist leader, and some feel the mastermind behind the Mumbai Attacks, Ilyas Kashmiri, Kashmiri’s have peace of mind that one less terrorist that has terrorized their lives is gone. I am sure his death in many ways was a sigh of relief for many throughout the Valley. His terror outfit has terrorized the people of Kashmir both directly, and indirectly via the Indian Militaries typical response. If so, it will be very difficult for media outlets to continue to leave out insinuations that violence that takes place during these protests are perpetrated by the protesters themselves. If that happens, then hopefully the rest of the western world will finally take notice of what has occurred in Kashmir prior to the Arab Spring.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Nuclear Weapons Make for Strange Bed Fellows

In 1998, the then US President Bill Clinton declared South Asia as “the most dangerous region on the planet.” A declaration now appearing much closer to the truth than what then was considered a boisterous claim due to the continued turmoil in the Middle East and rise of Islamic extremism at the time. Seven years ago while I was attending a symposium in The Hague back in 2004, UPI Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Mr. Martin Walker stated that, “the world will see a nuclear war in the next 20 years between India and China.” During that time, I was a Northeast Asian specialist, particularly focused on historical reconciliation of the region, and non-proliferation of the Korean Peninsula. Two years later, I found myself working from the very heart of the Kashmir Issue, and gaining a clear understanding of why Mr. Walker and President Clinton held such a strong opinion about China v India, and not India v Pakistan. It’s time the rest of the world realizes the importance that there are three nuclear-armed states in one region, with the high potential for a forth should Iran fulfill their goal of becoming a nuclear state.

The schizophrenic relationship between India and Pakistan of course is well known, and the longest current conflict on the planet. They have fought four wars and threatened each other with nuclear weapons. Moreover, India and Pakistan have yet to restart the peace process, and deal with the Kashmir Issue with the political will necessitated in order to bring the conflict to its rightful conclusion. However, the “unrecognized” players in the region, China and Iran, have made for strange bedfellows for both India and Pakistan. Whether it be China v India both economically and militarily, or Iran v Pakistan mainly due to sectarian issues, you can find conflict between at least two of the parties on any given day.

The alliance between Pakistan and China has reached its zenith. According to US intelligence analysts China views “an attack on Pakistan, as an attack on China.” This was confirmed to me while speaking on a panel in 2008 with then Pakistani Ambassador to the US Mahmoud Ali Durrani. Amb. Durrani told me that “Pakistan in the long term views its relationship with China much more important than relations with the US given the regional proximity and conflict with India.” At the time, China was a player in the Kashmir dispute, though for the most part a minority party. However, military and intelligence exchanges are now a regular occurrence, and a major reason for concern in the US Government. Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the Chinese Government felt so comfortable that it asked Pakistan for the remains of the so-called “stealth” helicopter destroyed during the midnight raid. This for some people came as a surprise, and has raised suspicions on how much information regarding the chopper was shared between the allies. However, what has occurred the past week regarding security relations between Pakistan and China following Yusuf Raza Gilani’s visit to China, reveals something greater than originally envisioned by anyone.

The recently renewed security ties between Pakistan and China and the sale of 50 fighter jets, submarines and other naval technological transfers is viewed by security officials in Washington as “Pakistan’s rebuke of the US invading its sovereignty and kept in the dark about the Bin Laden raid.” Additionally, Pakistan is considering granting China not only access to the Arabian Sea, but naval bases on the Pakistani coastline, This will drastically increase Chinese presence in the region, as well as guarantee safe passage of their goods and energy supplies to an from Iran and Pakistan. Moreover this will permit China greater access to the Indian Ocean with newly minted frigates, subs and aircraft carriers, an issue officials in New Delhi already find themselves fretting over.

On the other side, you have India’s relationship with both Iran and the United States. Yes, the United States AND Iran. Given US presence in Afghanistan, “security agreements” with Pakistan, and leading the fight against a possible nuclear Iran, the irony could not be any greater. More surprisingly, the speed of increased ties between India and the US over the past five years on security related issues has caught many analysts by surprise. First, there is the controversial nuclear deal the US entered with India, ultimately forgiving India of disregarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and welcoming New Delhi as a part of the nuclear club. A source involved with the negotiations at the State Department for the then Bush Administration told me at the time that, “there is a push to get this deal done in order to send a signal to Tehran, Beijing and Islamabad that the US has not only an ally in the region, but an ally with a hardened million man army and cutting edge nuclear technology.” However, just this week I spoke with the same source who requested anonymity due to work with the current administration at different agency involving South Asian security issues said, “in no way could we have predicted the speed and scale in which the relationship between India and the US, or Pakistan and China, as well as India and Iran, would escalate in the way it has. At least in the end all sides will check each other on the nuclear front.” That without a doubt is an incredible hedge given the fact the heart of the conflict between all states involved rests on two issues: energy and more importantly, water.

You see, the fight over the disputed Kashmir region has very little to do with Mahatma Ghandi, Mohammad Jinnah or Jawaharlal Nehru. It has very little to do with a Muslim majority in the Kashmir Valley of India or Hindu Jammu. It has even less to do with the disputed Amaranth Shrine that grabbed headlines a few years back thanks to overzealous Indian BJP hardliners. It has to do with water that flows in China, Pakistan and India providing hydroelectric power for close to a billion people, and access to drinking water for close to 3 billion people in the Siachen Glacier region.

UCLA Prof. Stanley Wolpert who wrote “A River Runs Through It…Kashmir” originally brought the realization to US Law Makers back in 2008 at a conference on Capital Hill. “Without question water is the most important commodity on the planet today, and the two quickest rising powers who also house the worlds two largest populations are seeking to stake their claims on the largest regional source, and will do so at any an all cost possible, including war. If your people do not have access to drinking water, then does war and nuclear fallout really mean that much to you at that point?” He went on to say, “Of course, you are not hearing of this in the international media and security reports, I mean water just isn’t a sexy issue like oil and religion…” His analysis was quite grim, but it does have a point.

As I look back to my days in Den Haag and learning about the world’s most dangerous hot spots from intelligence officials, UN Representatives and media elites such as Martin Walker, I never could have imagined how much I would become acutely aware and understand his grim 20-year assessment of China, India, Iran and Pakistan first hand. More importantly, his view of the global landscape and the importance South Asia would come to the forefront at the rate of speed seven years later. Then again, nuclear weapons do make for strange bedfellows.