Opinion

The Great Debate

Is there a ‘right’ path for the U.S. in Syria?

Key parties to the conflict in Syria are meeting in Switzerland on Wednesday. The participants have been downplaying expectations that the “Geneva II” peace conference — which will bring together for the first time representatives from the Assad government and various rebel groups along with major international players — will resolve the conflict, or even bring about a ceasefire.

For the U.S. government, the crucial issue at this meeting and beyond is determining if and how to intervene and provide support in a conflict where there may no longer be real “good guys,” or supporters of U.S. national interests, to back. This is particularly important given Washington’s interwoven interests throughout the region — not only in Syria, but in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and beyond.

U.S. support of the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War teaches two valuable lessons for the current Syrian conflict. First, understand who we are helping, what their goals are and how these goals may differ from those of the United States. Second, think in advance about the endgame.

In Syria, the United States has been rightly careful about whom to aid — but as a result, the U.S. government has provided very little aid and thus created a void that others have filled. It is not yet clear whether Washington understands its own end-goals for the conflict and is communicating clearly how to achieve them. As history has demonstrated, this lack of clarity can lead to fateful unintended consequences. U.S. policy in Afghanistan in the 1980s provides a telling example.

Beginning in 1979, President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to send minimal assistance to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration vastly increased this aid, to a high of more than $600 million a year in 1987. The Saudi government matched all U.S. funds.

Fighting for democracy in South Asia

For the first time in post-colonial history, all of the countries of South Asia are democracies.

From Bhutan to Bangladesh, Kabul to Kathmandu, democratic institutions are taking hold and giving people a voice in how they are governed. But these historic gains could be short-lived if troubling trends in some impending political transitions go unchecked.

Over the next six months, more than one billion voters across South Asia will choose leaders of some of the most diverse and vibrant countries in the world. Coming elections in India and Afghanistan and successful recent elections in Pakistan and Bhutan illustrate the depth of passion voters across the region have shown for electoral democracy.

Risky business: Talking to the Taliban

If one event crystallizes Pakistan’s helplessness in confronting its political future, it is the recent assassination-by-American-drone of Hakimullah Mehsud, erstwhile leader of the Pakistani Taliban.

Islamabad had only just acknowledged its plan to hold “peace talks” when Mehsud was killed. Mehsud — with a $5 million bounty on his head, and thousands of civilian deaths to his movement’s credit — was immediately eulogized as the key to peace in Pakistan.

Or so it had seemed to the wishful among Pakistan’s politicians. But the country’s labyrinthine military and political makeup and its often opposing foreign and domestic interests make it difficult to imagine how any Pakistani government can negotiate a deal that brings peace to a time of many terrors. If it is unclear what it means for Pakistan to negotiate its political compact with the Taliban, it is also unclear what it would take to make any deal stick.

Let Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail without us

Adding to an unenviable list of challenges that already includes earthquakes, sectarian violence and an economy teetering near collapse, Pakistan’s leaders are attempting to open a new round of high-stakes peace negotiations with homegrown insurgents, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The United States cannot do much to help these talks succeed, but President Barack Obama should use his October 23 summit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to ensure that if Pakistan’s Taliban talks fail, they fail in ways that unite mainstream Pakistanis in the fight against violent extremism rather than creating new rifts between Washington and Islamabad.

Unlike the Afghan Taliban groups that have had a live-and-let-live arrangement with Pakistani authorities, directing their violence beyond Pakistan’s borders, the TTP has conducted attacks with devastating effect on the Pakistani military and government, as well as innocent civilians. Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, describes the group as the state’s top security threat. And because Pakistan is a nuclear-armed, fast-growing state of nearly 200 million citizens that borders India, China, Iran and the Arabian Sea, the TTP’s disruptive potential also threatens U.S. security.

Impressions of a Pakistan election monitor

Voters at a polling station on the outskirts of Islamabad May 11, 2013. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra Pakistan’s national and regional elections Saturday marked the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another since the country’s founding in 1947.

As expected, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party, which held power several times in the 1990s, won a plurality of the National Assembly seats, and is likely to form a government.

But the winners and losers matter less than the historic process. For the first time, the entire nation was galvanized by election fever. A stunning 36 million new voters registered, especially women and young people. Voter turnout was 60 percent compared to 44 percent in 2008. An unprecedented 15,600 people ran for national or regional political office. Many from outside the ranks of Pakistan’s traditional leaders.

Syria as dress rehearsal: Securing WMD in midst of civil war

As Syria’s civil war spirals into mounting violence, the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpile is generating increased anxiety throughout the Middle East and beyond.  Taking precautionary measures, the United States has reportedly placed 150 “planners and other specialists” in Jordan to work on contingencies — including the chemical weapons threat.

As odd as it may seem, however, we are lucky that Syria’s chemical stockpile marks Damascus’s most serious weapons of mass destruction risk.  Had Israel not bombed the country’s weapons reactor in 2007, the embattled nation — and the rest of us – could have been staring at the globe’s first civil war with a nuclear dimension.

Consider the domestic and international panic that could ensue if rebel factions, terrorists, government insiders or looters in civil war got control of nuclear weapons or their feedstock, or strike at a nuclear reactor to release radioactive contents.  Yet this is what we could indeed face if any one of three relatively unstable countries with nuclear infrastructures–Pakistan, North Korea or Iran– were to suffer the violent political disintegration we see in Syria today.  Equally disturbing — the international community does not have a reliable plan to cope.

Help Pakistan rein in the ISI

By David Rohde
The opinions expressed are his own.

Admiral Mike Mullen’s blunt declaration on Thursday that a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network acts as a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s military intelligence agency is a welcome shift in U.S. policy. After a decade of privately cajoling the Pakistani military to stop its disastrous policy of sheltering the Afghan Taliban, the United States is publicly airing the truth.

Pakistan’s top military spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), supported the Haqqanis as they carried out an attack on the American embassy last week, Mullen said during Congressional testimony. Last year, they arrested a Taliban leader who engaged in peace talks without their permission, according to American officials. And many Afghans suspect ISI involvement in the assassination this week of the head of Afghan peace talks that did not involve Pakistan.

The airing of the ISI’s links to the Haqqanis is long overdue. To me, the ISI is a cancer on Pakistan. It is vital, though, that American officials punish the Pakistani military–not all Pakistanis–for the ISI’s actions.

We need a new Pakistan-U.S. relationship

By Farhana Qazi
The opinions expressed are her own.

For the United States, Bin Laden is history. He is an after-thought. And it is almost certain that the Central Intelligence Agency has moved onto its next target. But for Pakistan, the death of the terrorist kingpin is not over as U.S policy makers debate Islamabad’s role in the war on terrorism.

Since the news of Bin Laden’s death, Islamabad’s elites are being attacked and accused of harboring a famed terrorist leader. In his latest piece for The Daily Beast, Salman Rushdie boldly stated that Pakistan should be declared a terrorist state for playing a “deadly game” with America unless Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus, or the ISI, can offer “satisfactory answers.” Rushdie is right to demand an answer but wrong to insist that Pakistan be isolated for protecting proxies and pariahs.

Less than a week after Bin Laden’s death, there are important details that have emerged that need to be answered. When did Bin Laden arrive in Abbottabad? Why did the local owner of the compound rent the home to an individual in Waziristan? Why did a rival to the once-deadly-terrorist leader of the Pakistani Taliban Baitullah Masud live in the same compound? And why was there indication that the compound was being expanded? What we have are details of a deadly mystery. What we do not have is any indication that Pakistan’s senior leadership had knowledge that al Qaeda’s elite moved to and from Abbottabad.

from The Great Debate UK:

Why Pakistan monsoons support evidence of global warming

-Lord Julian Hunt is visiting Professor at Delft University, and former Director-General of the UK Met Office. The opinions expressed are his own.-

The unusually large rainfall from this year’s monsoon has caused the most catastrophic flooding in Pakistan for 80 years, with the U.N. estimating that around one fifth of the country is underwater.  This is thus truly a crisis of the very first order.

Heavy monsoon precipitation has increased in frequency in Pakistan and Western India in recent years.  For instance, in July 2005, Mumbai was deluged by almost 950 mm (37 inches) of rain in just one day, and more than 1,000 people were killed in floods in the state of Maharashtra.  Last year, deadly flash floods hit Northwestern Pakistan, and Karachi was also flooded.

Burning borrowed money in America’s wars

— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

The Pentagon has an evocative term for the level of spending on a war: burn rate. In Afghanistan, it has been running at around $5 million every hour for much of the year. The burn rate will begin going up next week when the first of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops arrive.

Once they are all in place, the burn rate is estimated to exceed $10 million an hour, or more than $8 billion a month. Much of that is literally burned — in the engines of American jeeps, trucks, tanks, aircraft and power generators. On average, each of the 183,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq requires 22 gallons of fuel a day, according to a study by the international accounting firm Deloitte.

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