Recent Foreign affairs Articles
Tuesday was a hard day to absorb the news. All year I’ve seen some really horrible videos, mostly by ISIS, showing men being shot in the back of their heads, throats slit or being buried in mass graves. But that day… maybe it was the pictures that came out of Peshawar, the Facebook updates from friends or just the nature of the massacre… I was nearly in tears. You can try but you can’t always remain emotionless in the face of such news.
I wanted to wait at least a couple of days to collect my thoughts and write something about the politics surrounding this issue.
I can’t even imagine the horrors that Pakistanis are going through. The Taliban have attacked over 1000 schools in the last five years and they become more vicious every year. How can you even live a normal life when you’re not sure if your kids will come back alive from school?
I suspect this is a tipping point. The Taliban’s desperation is being driven by infighting, defections and losing more support from the public. In June the Pakistani army launched a military operation against the Taliban and other jihadi groups – Operation Zarb-e-Azb – which also seriously degraded their capabilities. Most Pakistanis will always support their army against others. From here on, the Taliban in Pakistan (also called the TTP) is headed for a downward spiral: less people will join them, help them, donate to them and defend them in public. They may successfully mutate into something else, but its certainly likely that the TTP is now headed for doom.
And then there is the international politics. I’ve seen several people since yesterday blame American drone attacks for the Taliban’s actions, or claim that this was all America’s fault anyway since Pakistan was relatively peaceful before 9/11. I want to knock these two fallacies on their heads.
First, the drones. Yes there have been drones strikes in Pakistan but the vast majority have actually been in Afghanistan. The two countries are not the same. Afghanistan has its own Taliban that is different to the TTP and the former does not attack civilian or government targets in Pakistan (unlike the TTP). There are complicated reasons for this, but the point is that drones strikes in Pakistan are rare. It is not unusual for the TTP to kill more Pakistanis in a month than the US government has killed in 10 years of drone strikes. And most of those strikes have been with Pakistani government approval. See more on that here.
Why does the TTP kill innocent Pakistanis when it opposes the killing of civilians via US drones? Because their stated aim is to take over the country, rip up the constitution and install a system of sharia of their hardline interpretation. I’m not making this up – this was in their list of demands. They are waging a war against the Pakistani government and won’t give up until their demands are met. The drones are a sideshow.
Then, the War on Terror. There’s no denying that it has created instability in Pakistan (although Afghanistan was going through a quiet civil war before as the Taliban forcibly took over territory like ISIS have done).
But the seeds of Pakistan’s instability were sown long before 9/11, when Pakistan was funding hardline groups in a proxy war against India. What frustrates me about the ‘war on terror’ argument is how western-centric and ignorant of South Asian history it is. The jihadi groups aren’t new to Pakistan – what’s new is their focus on creating chaos in Pakistan rather than India. (You may argue that the TTP is different to the likes of LeT and others that were focused on India, but the same infrastructure of hardline madrassahs, preachers and support in the Urdu media created the monsters).
I want Pakistan to be a safe, secure and prosperous country. I was also pleased, as someone of Indian origin, that India was the only country yesterday to mark the Peshawar massacre with silence, while not a single Middle Eastern country did the same.
But that safety and security will only come after enough Pakistanis realise that the Taliban itself is the problem, because they want to destroy the country as it exists and remodel it to their own twisted, hardline version of Islam. The United States isn’t helping but blaming them is like focusing on a gash while your body is being destroyed by cancer. The Taliban is the cancer and its about time it was rooted out before it destroys the body of the Pakistani state.
Last night President Obama delivered a speech on how the United States would tackle the threat of ISIS. It rightly deserves a lot of parsing and discussion.
There have broadly been two types of responses:
“Oh no, the USA is back to fighting a war in Iraq again! This won’t end well!” … or…
“Oh god, this won’t do anything to destroy ISIS. The President isn’t doing enough!”
Both are wrong and exaggerated. Here are a few thoughts.
1) The aim of Obama’s speech was primarily to reassure the American public that he was doing something about ISIS. It’s more right to say he isn’t doing enough, but that’s probably a good thing as I explain below. In fact his strategy now isn’t any different to a few weeks ago when he said he had no strategy. And there are good reasons why there is no clear strategy.
2) The President didn’t announce anything new other than the prospect of some air-strikes in Syria against ISIS (and possibly Assad). There was a mention of training moderate Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia, but there are some reports this is already happening in Jordan. That’s about it. He ruled out U.S. troops going back into Iraq or Syria, until he is President anyway.
3) There is some merit to the complaint that Obama isn’t doing enough. Air-strikes will dent ISIS but not destroy them, which will take ground troops in both countries. But the USA hasn’t been able to persuade any outside partners (Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Jordan) to commit to troops to destroy ISIS yet. This is why Obama’s announcements amounted to little; there is little the US can do by itself that won’t make the situation worse.
4) In the short and medium term I suspect the Islamic State will expand in size and strength. The Arab countries and Turkey are too scared to confront ISIS (militarily and ideologically) and are still hoping the US will do their dirty work for them. Obama, wisely, isn’t buying it. He has avoided falling for the ISIS trap.
5) I asked others what they would have wanted to see instead.
@sunny_hundal well, a time machine so a UN/int'l effort to stop Bashar before things spiraled out of control would be nice. ????????
— Hend (@LibyaLiberty) September 11, 2014
Well, I’m with Hend on that. Part of the blame for not intervening in Syria lies with those lefties and Muslims (across the US and UK) who opposed such action…but there’s little we can do about that now.
6) If a terrorist attack is committed in the name of ISIS in mainland Europe (most likely France) or the United States, then this will all change.
The Independent’s Partrick Cockburn writes: “West poised to join forces with President Assad in face of Islamic State”.
This is absolute rubbish. Not one British official is quoted saying they would work with Assad against ISIS. Not even anonymously.
When the British Foreign Secretary was asked on Friday by the BBC if the UK was planning to work with Assad against ISIS, he said “No” outright. He added that working with Assad would “poison what we are trying to achieve”. And said it was not “practical or sensible”.
The UK’s sole role in the Iraqi crisis so far has been to provide humanitarian aid. Military involvement would lead to demands for a vote in Parliament, and that’s not happened yet (and unlikely it will happen soon). So far, we are even refraining from air-strikes, let alone working with Assad.
Could it be happening behind the scenes? Also unlikely. The UK has been helping the (moderate) rebels against Assad for years. We have also continuously called for Assad to go. There is absolutely no trust between the UK and Assad. So the chances that we would suddenly start cooperating and trusting each other is remote.
Is the United States working with him? The sole evidence is the Independent’s claim that the US army passed on intelligence about the exact location of “jihadi leaders” through the the German intelligence service to Assad. But Assad has always known where ISIS are because he has been tracking their movements carefully.
One U.S. General has called for Obama to work with Assad against ISIS, but its not yet official US government policy.
We would be foolish to work with Assad against ISIS anyway
Doing so would be a monumental disaster for two reasons.
First, it would mean we neatly fell into Assad’s gameplan. We had always known from the start that Assad wanted to play on the west’s fears by portraying his opposition as Islamic radicals. When he failed in convincing people, he actively worked to build up ISIS.
As recently as 2012, Isil was a marginalised movement confined to a small area of Iraq. Then Mr Assad emptied Sednaya jail near Damascus of some of its most dangerous jihadist prisoners. If he hoped that these men would join Isil and strengthen its leadership, then that aspiration was certainly fulfilled. A number of figures in the movement’s hierarchy are believed to be former inmates of Syrian prisons, carefully released by the regime.
By 2013, Isil had managed to capture oilfields in eastern Syria. But to profit from these assets, they needed to find a customer for the oil. Mr Assad’s regime stepped in and began buying oil from Isil, thereby helping to fund the movement, according to Western and Middle Eastern governments.
Assad always knew that the west is more scared of Islamic militants than dictators. So he helped build ISIL / ISIS as his exit strategy, so we would reach a point where we’d work with him to defeat them, thereby ensuring Assad stays in power.
Working with Assad against ISIS would make us absolute suckers who fell for his grand plan. There are even cartoons across the Middle East that say it explicitly.
Secondly, working with Assad would be the best recruiting agent for jihadis across the world. Assad is reviled across the Muslim world, having destroyed Syria and killed nearly 200,000 people. He has made millions homeless and forced them into refugee camps.
I can't imagine a better recruiting line for ISIS than: "hey look Muslims, USA and UK are working with the guy who killed 200k of you" #wato
— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) August 22, 2014
This sort of short-termist, idiotic thinking from the West helps the jihadis. By working with Assad the West would end up creating more Jihadis and threaten our security for generations.
There are three common rules when people discuss politics:
1) they are willing to believe anything on the internet if it confirms their prejudices
2) they don’t want to accept people of their tribe do awful things
3) they find a way to blame America or the UK for most of the world’s problems
A recent example: the claim that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the self proclaimed leader of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq – was funded or trained by the CIA or Israel’s Mossad, and that this was apparently revealed by Edward Snowden.
Stories claiming this hoax have gone viral all over the web (example 1, example 2, example 3). This is simply not true. In fact I asked the reporter Glenn Greenwald, who has had more contact with Snowden than most people – this question directly.
@sunny_hundal I've never heard him say any such thing, nor have I ever heard any credible source quoting him saying anything like that.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 6, 2014
Furthermore, Edward Snowden’s lawyer called this claim a hoax too.
So where did ISIS money and the guns come from?
I explain this briefly in my New Statesman article:
“After initially funding its efforts with extortion, smuggling and private donations, it literally struck gold in June when it made off with $400m in cash and gold from the central bank in Mosul.
“Since then it has also captured oil fields and earns up to £3m a day by selling the resource on the black market.
“The group also has a modernised arsenal from the weapons and vehicles it has captured from the Iraqi army. Even the well-trained and feared Kurdish forces are being pushed back in places.”
But America is still to blame, right?
In some ways, yes. The New York Times recently reported:
“The Pentagon says that Mr. Baghdadi, after being arrested in Falluja in early 2004, was released that December with a large group of other prisoners deemed low level. But Hisham al-Hashimi, an Iraqi scholar who has researched Mr. Baghdadi’s life, sometimes on behalf of Iraqi intelligence, said that Mr. Baghdadi had spent five years in an American detention facility where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalized.”
From there he joined al-Qaeda, and later split off into his own group which later became ISIS and Islamic State.
But what about all the pictures?
If you see any pictures, supposedly of al-Baghdadi meeting someone (like John McCain!), they’re also fake. McCain met some Syrian opposition leaders but he didn’t meet Baghdadi. These pics never reveal their source, time, date or location. Unless a pic does that, so it can be verified, its a fake.
So where did ISIS come from?
ISIS were initially an al-Qaeda offshoot:
“The Islamic State is the current incarnation of al-Qaeda in Iraq(AQI), which was created when Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in October 2004. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was declared in October 2006, four months after a U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi (by tf support everette). This was not just a naming convention: according to its organizers, AQI ceased to exist at that point, as the ISI was intended to be a governing institution independent from al-Qaeda and a practical step toward ultimately declaring a Caliphate.”
But ISIS split from Al-Qaeda and went its on way to establish a Caliphate. Its only over the last year they have made serious inroads towards their aims and have therefore become much more prominent.
Now, stop spreading conspiracy theories please.
If I had a penny for every time someone said this to me on Twitter, I’d have bought myself a min-island in the Bermuda by now.
Yes, the United States supports Israel with military aid every year. It also licenses American companies to sell Israel military equipment every year.
But Israel won’t collapse tomorrow if the US cut off their aid. Let’s just go over the numbers to explain.
The United States gave approximately $3.2 Billion to Israel last year. Here’s the breakdown
That includes a sum of $3.1 billion as military aid.
It provides another $504 million in funding: for Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system ($235 million) and the joint US-Israel missile defense systems David’s Sling ($149.7 million)
And there are a few other systems that amount to around $100m. There’s a breakdown here (PDF)
As a proportion of Israeli spending that used to mean a lot – sometimes as much as a quarter of Israel’s defense budget.
It doesn’t any more, primarily because Israel has had a healthy and growing economy. In 2000, Israel GDP was $124.9 Billion. Last year it was more than double that – $291.3 Billion. In comparison, Egypt has a smaller GDP ($271 BN) even though it has 10x the population (more comparison: India’s GDP: $1.8 Trillion; UK $2.5 TR; USA $16.8 TR).
In other words, US military aid to Israel is now worth merely 1% of its GDP. It’s a bonus, not essential money.
The country is doing so well it has more cash than needs, thanks to the recent discovery of gas reserves. It is discussing setting up a sovereign fund and discussing where to invest that surplus.
In fact, this situation has even led some pro-Israelis to call for the military aid to be cut to Israel, on the basis that Israel would then have to rely even less on its ally. They don’t want Israel to be seen as subservient to US interests and clearly think Israel will do just fine without American money.
The point is, US military aid to Israel has largely become an irrelevant factor in this war or the future. Cutting it off won’t hobble Israel. If America abruptly withdraws it over illegal Israeli action, then it may force a change in behaviour but that is a highly unlikely scenario.
A court judgement out this week sheds light on a very under-reported and rarely-discussed problem within South Asian communities in the UK.
In 2007 I reported for BBC Asian Network on women who come to the UK as brides from South Asia, and the potential problems they face. Since many don’t speak English (and are sometimes discouraged from learning it!) – they are more vulnerable to being abused, exploited, beaten or abandoned. One way to help, I argued, was to make it compulsory for them to learn English, so they could more easier seek help when needed and play an active role in British society.
Here are the facts of the case, as laid out in the court judgement. What’s extraordinary about this case is that a British law-firm (Dawson Cornwell) fought on behalf of this woman and won a judgement against the man. I hope it sets a precedent and serves as a warning to other men thinking of abandoning their wives.
* * * * * *
A very young wife was lawfully brought to the United Kingdom, where she was dependent upon her husband and his family, and where she gave birth to a child who has major disabilities. Her husband made little effort to secure for her the immigration status to which she was entitled and when the marriage got into difficulties, she was then sent out of the country with no right to re-enter. The result is that she and her child have been separated for the past three years, a situation that is a wholesale breach of their right to respect for their family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The child, S, was born in 2005 and is nearly 9 years old. He has very severe learning and communication disabilities. His parents are both of Pakistani origin. The father was born in England while the mother came here in June 2002 after an arranged marriage that was celebrated in Pakistan in 2000 when she was around 15 years old.
In December 2012, the father pronounced a talaq. In August 2013, the mother remarried in Pakistan. She says that this marriage was a marriage of convenience. Her father was planning to arrange for her remarriage to a person of his choice and she went through a ceremony of marriage with someone else to prevent this. Her evidence is that she has never lived with this “husband” and has no intention of doing so in future or of bringing him to the United Kingdom.
The mother described several occasions on which the father and his mother would slap and kick her and pull her hair. These did not cause major injury and she did not seek medical treatment or, in general, complain to the authorities. However, on 7 February 2011, she did make a police report and went overnight to a refuge. She explains this as being because the father struck S on that occasion. The father denies any violence whatever.
The judge also writes:
The father’s failure to secure the mother’s immigration status was a gross dereliction of his responsibility towards her and towards S. In his evidence, he claims that he was unaware of her precarious position, having left matters of that kind to his own father. He says that when she left the country in July 2011 he did not know what the position was. I found the father’s evidence incredible and I reject it. He knew perfectly well that if the mother left, she could not return. The reason why the father and his family were so careless of the mother’s position was because it suited them.
Having considered all the evidence on this issue, the judge found that the mother was tricked into going to Pakistan. He also made it easier for her to travel back to the UK and see her son, and forced the father to give her some visitation rights.
Well done on the judge on handling this so well.
It may be that this case also sets a precedent for other ‘stranded’ spouses. As the judge said right at the beginning:
Where one party to a failing marriage has secure immigration status and the other does not, the opportunity arises for the former to exploit the latter’s weakness by taking advantage of immigration controls. This case is a bad, but by no means unique, example of what has come to be known as the stranded spouse.
If you are being affected by this (or other issues like a forced marriage) and need some support, get in touch with Sharan Project
The other day, in a discussion among friends on Israel’s attack on Gaza (I generally avoid them, even on Twitter), one said Hamas started the latest round of shelling by bombarding Israeli towns and inviting a response.
I have no way of verifying this, so I shrugged. Its irrelevant who started it.
On social media I’ve seen Israelis blame Hamas and say they’re merely defending themselves, so they’re justified in attacking Gaza. Israelis ask “what would you do if someone attacked you with rockets?“. Its a really counter-productive question to ask, and it misses the wood for the trees.
Palestinians are a desperate people who live in an open-air prison camp controlled by Israel. Their lives are lived in squalor and poverty. This is beyond dispute; even Israelis know it. Israel blocks drinking water and proper sanitation even when its not attacking Gaza. It keeps building illegal settlements when there isn’t a war going on.
Palestinians aren’t stupid – they can see Israel wants to slowly annex their land until its too late for independence. In fact, its PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated quite explicitly in a (very under-reported) speech just last week that Palestinian weren’t going to get independence.
That makes it even more likely that Hamas will provoke Israel into an angry response. They see it as the only real option available to them.
Every time Israel responds it is goaded into spending money, becoming more extreme, killing more Palestinians children and becoming more isolated from international opinion.
Sooner or later something has to give. The Palestinians have little to lose by carrying on by goading Israel. They already live their lives in squalor and under occupation.
Israel on the other hand has over-stepped the mark already to the point it has alienated most of European public opinion. A few more missteps, coupled with the rise of social media, and American opinion could rapidly turn against them too.
Once that happens Israel really will face an existential crisis.
The question for Israelis shouldn’t be “what would you do?“, but “how do we break out of this cycle?“. But they’re not asking that. Benjamin Netanyahu has stoked up his country enough that the majority want immediate respite and instant revenge. They’ve lost sight of the broader picture.
Israel may be winning the battle on the strength of its military now, but Hamas is winning the longer strategic war.
The Washington Institute recently published a note titled ‘The War Between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement’ – on tensions between the two movements.
Its worth emphasising briefly that there are differences between the two, mostly that ISIS are even more brutal than AQ and freely break many rules that Osama Bin Laden set for his own people.
But I think al-Qaeda has effectively lost the battle for terrorism supremacy to ISIS / Islamic State already.
All the world’s focus, the momentum and the expansion is on side of ISIS, not al-Qaeda, which matters to the impressionable men who want to be on the side of winners not losers (like most people, really).
Plus ISIS is based in the Levant, which has much bigger symbolic value for Muslims than the mountains of Afghanistan (by tf support everette) . In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Al Qaeda militants have to hide from US drones or the Pakistani army. In Iraq and Syria, they have near free rein and their opposition is melting away (for now).
Most importantly, ISIS claim to have established an Islamic State – which has even more symbolic and religious value for the kind of impressionable men who want to get involved in jihad. I suspect more fighters will abandon Al Qaeda and join ISIS over coming months, effectively finishing off Osama Bin Laden’s brainchild.
But what prompted me to write this short note was news of heightened security warnings across US airports. I suspect that US Homeland Security officials have come to the same conclusion and know this infighting has grave consequences.
Al-Qaeda leaders will be making the same calculations about ISIS and will likely re-double their efforts to regain momentum and attention. And in the terrorist world there’s only one way to do that: by launching terrorist attacks in the West.
A few observations on the ongoing crisis in Iraq and Syria.
1) British foreign policy is dead
Ed Miliband’s fairly gentle questioning of Cameron yesterday in PMQs illustrated the obvious: there is consensus among the three main parties that there will be no military intervention in Iraq again. The same goes for President Obama, who has been proceeding far more carefully than he is given credit by the left and right. In one sense Syria has sealed the fate of military intervention: when a humanitarian and strategic disaster on that scale cannot elicit a US-UK response, its highly unlikely Iraq will. For better or for worse, we have given up major on military interventions in other countries. The American and British public are firmly against them, despite what commentators in the press say.
2) China is more worried about Iraqi oil than the USA
Less than a quarter of American oil imports are from the Middle East. The US isn’t just a net energy exporter now, some say it may become the world’s largest producer of oil by next year. Meanwhile, a majority of oil exports from the Middle East now go to Asia, and China is particularly exposed. If oil prices shoot up because of ISIS, I suspect China will throw money towards Iran to send more troops into Iraq and wipe them out. The geo-political plates have shifted significantly over the last ten years.
3) We’ll look back at ‘stable’ ME dictatorships
The US supported dictatorships across the Middle East because they provided stability. I suspect we are about to see commentators on the left and right, who earlier wanted to see democracy across the Middle East, going back to supporting dictatorships for the same reason. To take one example, Mehdi Hasan would like the US government to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. I’ve debated other lefties too who would prefer to see Assad propped up in Syria. The same may soon apply to Iraq, and will be an argument against popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere.
4) Kurdistan may arise
The strength of ISIS has strengthened the hand of Iraqi Kurds who, in the face of a disintegrating national Iraqi government, may demand an independent Kurdistan. This is on balance a good thing because the Kurds are a persecuted minority and don’t have a homeland. But it may also increase sectarian tensions and there will be questions of how an independent Kurdistan would protect itself.
In my view there is little doubt the invasion of Iraq in 2003 lit the tinderbox across Iraq, but the conflict has taken a life of its own because its driven by deep-rooted sectarian differences. There is no appetite for military intervention in the foreseeable future, among politicians or the public, unless we are under provable, imminent threat. Whether that means we see a more peaceful world, or one where other countries (Russia, China) try and take advantage, remains to be seen.
A group called ISIS, which even some in the al-Qaeda leadership have disassociated themselves from, are now rapidly taking over large parts of Iraq. There is a sense of panic in the air because it obviously means more conflict in the Middle East, and more refugees trying to escape their brutal control.
But it has also sparked an odd debate here in the UK.
In the Guardian, Owen Jones writes: ‘We anti-war protesters were right: the Iraq invasion has led to bloody chaos’.
But this has been obvious for a few years now. I opposed the invasion from the start and was at most of the demonstrations against it (including the big one in Feb. 2003). Only a few deluded idiots now believe the invasion of Iraq has gone well. In fact the invasion was a disaster from day one, despite attempts by Americans to stage a few stunts to pretend it was going OK.
So that’s an old debate, while the one about ISIS is a new one.
Firstly, ISIS has grown out of the chaos in Syria, which we sat by and watched instead of working with Arab countries to end. We should have joined a military coalition with other Arab countries to bomb Assad’s military installations and weaken him – thereby driving him out into asylum in Iran or elsewhere.
I wrote about ISIS in January this year, saying: “as these groups become prominent, the fallout is being felt in surrounding countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Pakistan”.
Sitting by and watching has made things worse. We’ve gone from 20,000 dead in Syria (“if we intervene now, we’ll make it worse”) to nearly 200,000 dead (*silence*). The ongoing chaos has helped ISIS grow and destabilised surrounding countries. And all that is about to get worse.
As I said:
Intervention in Syria is not a matter of ‘If’, but a matter of ‘When’. Do we wait until the situation spirals further out of control, and Al-Qaeda re-establish a powerful base, or go for damage limitation earlier?
Secondly, are we meant to be against countries militarily intervening in other countries? I ask because Iran is now sending troops into Iraq (without official invitation) to fight ISIS. What if those troops are used to suppress Kurds? Will people on the left raise their voice then?
Basically, we are sitting around watching the situation get worse, as many predicted. ISIS hasn’t grown because we invaded Iraq (though we definitely wrecked the country and Saddam Hussain would have been better placed to quell them)… they’ve grown because Syria was allowed to spiral out of control.
Since we have now committed to sitting around and doing nothing, the situation in the Middle East is about to get much worse.
Addendum: in case it isn’t clear, I’ve given up on the prospect of any military action now. We’re now committed to sitting around on our hands and pretending it could be worse.
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