Sunday, March 4, 2007

March Madness

Editor's note: I am moving over to post at the other blog(also see new articles below).

Don’t push Pakistan too far


4 March 2007

VICE-President Dick Cheney’s visit last week to South Asia was not what one could call a rousing success.

Cheney, the real power behind the Bush Administration, arrived at Bagram air base, formerly the nerve centre for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, it plays the same role for the US occupation. A suicide bomber attacked the base’s main gate, killing a score of soldiers and civilians and hugely embarrassing Cheney. Worse, the 60 km ‘secure’ highway between Bagram and Kabul has become so dangerous that Cheney could not travel by road through this region which is deemed highly secure by US and NATO forces to meet with the American-installed figurehead leader, Hamid Karzai, who is constantly surrounded by up to 200 US bodyguards.

Anti-western forces are quickly gaining ground in Afghanistan. What Washington and its NATO allies keep claiming is an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against a handful of Al Qaeda fighters and Taleban has, in fact, turned into fast-growing Afghan national resistance to foreign occupation. Were it not for the US Air Force’s might and ubiquitous presence, US, Canadian, and British troops would soon be driven from southern Afghanistan. The respected Senlis Council, which closely monitors Afghanistan, reports half that nation is now under Taleban control or influence.

The fast-deteriorating situation there is provoking furious finger-pointing. Washington and NATO are angrily blaming Pakistan for sheltering and abetting Taleban and its allies. Pakistan blames the feeble Karzai regime which can’t control its own territory. Now, US intelligence reports that Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself in spite of President George Bush’s so-called $690 billion ‘war on terror.’

Cheney went on to Pakistan to threaten President Pervez Musharraf, with a cutoff of US aid — and perhaps much worse — if he didn’t crack down further on Pashtun tribesmen in the frontier provinces who are aiding Taleban and other Pashtun and nationalist resistance groups. The western powers are following India’s lead over Kashmir by accusing Pakistan of ‘cross-border terrorism.’

This is untrue. The 40 million Pashtun, the world’s largest tribe, have never recognised the British-drawn 1893 border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that cuts their traditional territory in two. They cross it at will and maintain close links with relatives and clansmen on the other side of the border who strongly support Taleban and its allies.

In the 1980’s and 90’s, I explored and became fascinated by the wild, lawless, then little-known frontier tribal agencies of north and south Waziristan, Khyber, Mohmand, Orakzai and Malakand. Their warlike, fiercely independent tribes joined Pakistan in 1947 under constitutional guarantee of total autonomy that excluded government soldiers from the tribal agencies.

Intense US pressure forced Musharraf to violate Pakistan’s constitution by sending troops into the tribal territories. The army shamefully launched heavy attacks, killing over 3,000 civilians. Outrage across Pakistan forced Musharraf to back down and withdraw some troops. ‘Fight India, not your own people,’ cried the press. It was one of the darkest days for Pakistan’s Army.

Many Pakistanis oppose the US occupation of Afghanistan, support their old anti-communist ally, Taleban, and think better of Osama bin Laden than George Bush. Many senior and junior officers in Pakistan’s military and powerful intelligence service, ISI, feel similarly and are bitter at Musharraf for abandoning Taleban and resistance groups fighting to oust Indian rule in divided Kashmir.

Musharraf is thus caught between Washington’s growing demands and his own people who increasingly accuse him of being an American tool. Washington simply does not understand it has pushed the isolated, unpopular Musharraf too far already. If he is blown up or overthrown, Pakistan and its 40-60 nuclear weapons, could turn into an even bigger and more dangerous hotbed of anti-western activity. The next army corps commander who takes over may not be as amenable to Washington’s demands as Pervez Musharraf.

Meanwhile, Washington is increasingly blaming its Afghanistan fiasco on whipping boy Pakistan, just as the Vietnam defeat was blamed on infiltration from Cambodia and Laos. Recently, a remarkably ill-informed Canadian defense minister foolishly proposed sending Canadian troops into Pakistan’s tribal agencies to ‘fight terrorists.’

Picking a fight with old, loyal ally Pakistan is both morally wrong and fraught with untold dangers. The US has forgotten how it forced another compliant military ruler, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, into policies his people hated. He was assassinated, to national joy.

Negotiating a deal with Taleban and other Afghan resistance forces is the only way out of the current morass, not undermining Pakistan or expanding a war that is already lost.

Eric S. Margolis is a veteran American journalist and contributing foreign editor of The Toronto Sun

Video: Israeli invasion of Nablus

Multimedia: Video: Nablus Invasion, Day 4 ( 1 March 2007)

Multimedia: Video: Nablus Invasion, Day 2 ( 1 March 2007)

Multimedia: Video: Nablus Invasion, Day 1 ( 1 March 2007)

Diaries: Live from Palestine: A Day in the Life of Nablus Under Curfew ( 1 March 2007)

How Barack Obama learned to love Israel

Obama to AIPAC: Won't rule out nuking Iran
Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 4 March 2007

From left to right, Michelle Obama, then Illinois state senator Barack Obama, Columbia University Professor Edward Said and Mariam Said at a May 1998 Arab community event in Chicago at which Edward Said gave the keynote speech. (Image from archives of Ali Abunimah)

I first met Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama almost ten years ago when, as my representative in the Illinois state senate, he came to speak at the University of Chicago. He impressed me as progressive, intelligent and charismatic. I distinctly remember thinking 'if only a man of this calibre could become president one day.'

On Friday Obama gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Chicago. It had been much anticipated in American Jewish political circles which buzzed about his intensive efforts to woo wealthy pro-Israel campaign donors who up to now have generally leaned towards his main rival Senator Hillary Clinton.

Reviewing the speech, Ha'aretz Washington correspondent Shmuel Rosner concluded that Obama "sounded as strong as Clinton, as supportive as Bush, as friendly as Giuliani. At least rhetorically, Obama passed any test anyone might have wanted him to pass. So, he is pro-Israel. Period."

Israel is "our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy," Obama said, assuring his audience that "we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs." Such advanced multi-billion dollar systems he asserted, would help Israel "deter missile attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza." As if the starved, besieged and traumatized population of Gaza are about to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Obama offered not a single word of criticism of Israel, of its relentless settlement and wall construction, of the closures that make life unlivable for millions of Palestinians.

There was no comfort for the hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza who live in the dark, or the patients who cannot get dialysis, because of what Israeli human rights group B'Tselem termed "one cold, calculated decision, made by Israel's prime minister, defense minister, and IDF chief of staff" last summer to bomb the only power plant in Gaza," a decision that "had nothing to do with the attempts to achieve [the] release [of a captured soldier] nor any other military need." It was a gratuitous war crime, one of many condemned by human rights organizations, against an occupied civilian population who under the Fourth Geneva Convention Israel is obligated to protect.

While constantly emphasizing his concern about the threat Israelis face from Palestinians, Obama said nothing about the exponentially more lethal threat Israelis present to Palestinians. In 2006, according to B'Tselem, Israeli occupation forces killed 660 Palestinians of whom 141 were children -- triple the death toll for 2005. In the same period, 23 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, half the number of 2005 (by contrast, 500 Israelis die each year in road accidents).

But Obama was not entirely insensitive to ordinary lives. He recalled a January 2006 visit to the Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona that resembled an ordinary American suburb where he could imagine the sounds of Israeli children at "joyful play just like my own daughters." He saw a home the Israelis told him was damaged by a Hizbullah rocket (no one had been hurt in the incident).

Six months later, Obama said, "Hizbullah launched four thousand rocket attacks just like the one that destroyed the home in Kiryat Shmona, and kidnapped Israeli service members."

Obama's phrasing suggests that Hizbullah launched thousands of rockets in an unprovoked attack, but it's a complete distortion. Throughout his speech he showed a worrying propensity to present discredited propaganda as fact. As anyone who checks the chronology of last summer's Lebanon war will easily discover, Hizbullah only launched rockets against Israeli towns after Israel had heavily bombed civilian neighborhoods in Lebanon killing hundreds of civilians, many fleeing the Israeli onslaught.

Obama excoriated Hizbullah for using "innocent people as shields." Indeed, after dozens of civilians were massacred in an Israeli air attack on Qana on July 30, Israel "initially claimed that the military targeted the house because Hezbollah fighters had fired rockets from the area," according to an August 2 statement from Human Rights Watch.

The statement added: "Human Rights Watch researchers who visited Qana on July 31, the day after the attack, did not find any destroyed military equipment in or near the home. Similarly, none of the dozens of international journalists, rescue workers and international observers who visited Qana on July 30 and 31 reported seeing any evidence of Hezbollah military presence in or around the home. Rescue workers recovered no bodies of apparent Hezbollah fighters from inside or near the building." The Israelis subsequently changed their story, and neither in Qana, nor anywhere else did Israel ever present, or international investigators ever find evidence to support the claim Hizbullah had a policy of using civilians as human shields.

In total, forty-three Israeli civilians were killed by Hizbullah rockets during the thirty-four day war. For every Israeli civilian who died, over twenty-five Lebanese civilians were killed by indiscriminate Israeli bombing -- over one thousand in total, a third of them children. Even the Bush administration recently criticized Israel's use of cluster bombs against Lebanese civilians. But Obama defended Israel's assault on Lebanon as an exercise of its "legitimate right to defend itself."

There was absolutely nothing in Obama's speech that deviated from the hardline consensus underpinning US policy in the region. Echoing the sort of exaggeration and alarmism that got the United States into the Iraq war, he called Iran "one of the greatest threats to the United States, to Israel, and world peace." While advocating "tough" diplomacy with Iran he confirmed that "we should take no option, including military action, off the table." He opposed a Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah and insisted "we must maintain the isolation of Hamas" until it meets the Quartet's one-sided conditions. He said Hizbullah, which represents millions of Lebanon's disenfranchised and excluded, "threatened the fledgling movement for democracy" and blamed it for "engulf[ing] that entire nation in violence and conflict."

Over the years since I first saw Obama speak I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy and his call for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Michelle Obama and Barack Obama listen to Professor Edward Said give the keynote address at an Arab community event in Chicago, May 1998. (Photo: Ali Abunimah)

The last time I spoke to Obama was in the winter of 2004 at a gathering in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. He was in the midst of a primary campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate seat he now occupies. But at that time polls showed him trailing.

As he came in from the cold and took off his coat, I went up to greet him. He responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the The Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"

But Obama's gradual shift into the AIPAC camp had begun as early as 2002 as he planned his move from small time Illinois politics to the national scene. In 2003, Forward reported on how he had "been courting the pro-Israel constituency." He co-sponsored an amendment to the Illinois Pension Code allowing the state of Illinois to lend money to the Israeli government. Among his early backers was Penny Pritzker -- now his national campaign finance chair -- scion of the liberal but staunchly Zionist family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. (The Hyatt Regency hotel on Mount Scopus was built on land forcibly expropriated from Palestinian owners after Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967). He has also appointed several prominent pro-Israel advisors.

Obama has also been close to some prominent Arab Americans, and has received their best advice. His decisive trajectory reinforces a lesson that politically weak constituencies have learned many times: access to people with power alone does not translate into influence over policy. Money and votes, but especially money, channelled through sophisticated and coordinated networks that can "bundle" small donations into million dollar chunks are what buy influence on policy. Currently, advocates of Palestinian rights are very far from having such networks at their disposal. Unless they go out and do the hard work to build them, or to support meaningful campaign finance reform, whispering in the ears of politicians will have little impact. (For what it's worth, I did my part. I recently met with Obama's legislative aide, and wrote to Obama urging a more balanced policy towards Palestine.)

If disappointing, given his historically close relations to Palestinian-Americans, Obama's about-face is not surprising. He is merely doing what he thinks is necessary to get elected and he will continue doing it as long as it keeps him in power. Palestinian-Americans are in the same position as civil libertarians who watched with dismay as Obama voted to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act, or immigrant rights advocates who were horrified as he voted in favor of a Republican bill to authorize the construction of a 700-mile fence on the border with Mexico.

Only if enough people know what Obama and his competitors stand for, and organize to compel them to pay attention to their concerns can there be any hope of altering the disastrous course of US policy in the Middle East. It is at best a very long-term project that cannot substitute for support for the growing campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions needed to hold Israel accountable for its escalating violence and solidifying apartheid.

Ali Abunimah is the co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse