international affairs, middle east, muslims, politics

Justin Trudeau and the Reality of Political Impotence

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 27th, 2014

When Justin Trudeau, the popular leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, entered Missisauga’s Verdi Hospitality Centre on the night of August 11th, several dozen protestors holding Palestinian flags had already gathered near the parking lot outside.

A tenuous ceasefire between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, seemed to halt, for the moment, Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza, otherwise known as Operation Protective Edge. Over 1,800 Palestinians hadperished (among thousands injured) since the beginning of the operation, and Gaza continues to be subjected to an illegal Israeli blockade.

“We’re here to challenge and protest against Canada’s stance on the situation in Gaza,” said Raed Ayad, a protestor who also sits on the board of Palestine House, a local NGO representing the Palestinian-Canadian community.

Unfortunately for Trudeau, initial plans of celebrating Eid-al-fitr with the Muslims of Mississauga under more light-hearted circumstances had to change. Circumstances seemed to dictate a more politically charged event, and Trudeau was under some pressure to deliver.

Still, part of it was due to the Liberal Party’s own doing. About a week or so after Protective Edge took off last month, when dozens of Palestinian corpses (most of them civilians) were already piling up, Trudeau publicized his official view on the matter in a short press release:

The Liberal Party of Canada strongly condemns Hamas’ rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and its rocket attacks on civilians.

“Israel should be commended for having accepted the ceasefire proposal, and demonstrating its commitment to peace. The Liberal Party of Canada, and many in the international community including the United States, the U.N. Security Council, and the Palestinian Authority, had urged a ceasefire that could have ended the tragic civilian loss of life in Gaza and the suffering of Israelis under terrorist attack.

“Israel has the right to defend itself and its people. Hamas is a terrorist organization and must cease its rocket attacks immediately.”

There is no mention of Israel’s disproportionate use of violence, or the unlawful siege. The fact that a massive raid into the West Bank, which killed five Palestinians, prompted the initial rocket fire by Hamas also went unspecified. The statement seemed to place the fault of the entire invasion squarely on the shoulders of Hamas, which refused to agree to a ceasefire at the time, given Israel’s unwillingness to lift the blockade (among other circumstances).

“Trudeau hasn’t condemned any of Israel’s war crimes and it’s a shame on the Muslim community to celebrate Eid with him when ten kids were killed on the day of Eid,” Ayad said.

It’s safe to say that, like Ayad, a large segment of the Muslim community wanted an explanation from Trudeau. One Liberal organizer even said, with regret (though in confidence), that he’d “rather have no statement been made at all” than live with the short blurb that Trudeau’s people posted on his website.

In other words, tension was in the air. Trudeau’s dinner was going to have to be more than just a generic meet-and-greet. At the very least, his speech had to address the situation in Gaza—and perhaps his one-sided statement as well, if people asked.

“We want a clear-cut condemnation of Israel’s conduct from the political opposition in Canada,” said Joan MacNeil, Toronto coordinator for Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), a Montreal-based NGO. “There’s been a lot of hand-wringing from the Liberals and all the candidates should know that people will be looking back on this issue when it’s time to vote next year.”

MacNeil was one of about 800 guests inside Verdi hall that night and works on Middle East policy for a living, so it can’t be said that she represents the average attendee, who probably isn’t as savvy on the Palestinian issue as she is.

Nonetheless, the average person observing the Muslim community could be forgiven for predicting that a crowd of concerned (perhaps even adversarial) Muslim attendees would show up to face down Trudeau and his hardcore supporters. The stage seemed set for a serious exchange to take place.

Trudeau is a central figure in Canadian politics at the moment, and, according to the polls, his party is gaining serious momentum in lieu of next year’s general election. If all goes wrong for the reigning Conservative Party (and for the New Democrats), the 42-year-old Trudeau may end up being Prime Minister in less than a year. This was a rare, golden opportunity for Muslims who attended the event to let him in on their woes and demands. Such a chance isn’t going to present itself again for some time.

That’s precisely why Trudeau’s night at Verdi deserves to be called a real embarrassment for the Muslim community.

To be completely clear, it wasn’t an embarrassment for Trudeau and the Liberals, who did what they had to do. They had put together a lavish setting, brought out a sizeable crowd, and set up an interactive encounter with “Justin.” Numerous Liberal candidates showed up, and, along with a general layout of the party’s agenda, were presented to the crowd.

The organizers even had Trudeau walk to each table to (in theory, anyway) speak to every attendee. But, alas, therein lay the rub.

Instead of taking the chance to field some tough questions, those in attendance transformed a relatively democratic setting into something quite comical.

Right after Trudeau’s speech, in which he specified the importance of a “Palestinian state” vis a vis Israel’s security, among other niceties, the audience decided to make a total fool of itself.

As Trudeau began to make his way to the first of many tables, a crowd of about two-dozen people instantly surrounded him. Many of them already had their smartphones on camera mode and were placing their faces next to Trudeau’s. That set the tone for all that followed. This human vortex around Trudeau soon grew into a mini mob. It eventually became impossible for anyone to try and penetrate these layers of human fencing around Trudeau, as this author tried to on three occasions, foolishly. When those who had had their fill finally took a seat, new well-wishers immediately rose up to take their place.

But, in keeping with the laws of physics, the number of people around Trudeau was inversely proportional to the length of each individual encounter. No prolonged question-answer period could have taken place amidst this truly chaotic spectacle. Anyone placed in the wrong spot at the wrong time could easily have been victimized between numerous tables and chairs. Even those sitting down and enjoying their meals weren’t safe from unguarded body parts doing battle for Trudeau “selfies;” buttocks were constantly hitting the heads of those trying to eat their food.

One lady shouted “Where’s the security?” as several bearded men almost got into it with one another as each jockeyed to shake Trudeau’s hand. Those responsible for the Liberal leader’s safety (and, presumably, the safety of everyone else), could only keep calm and mutter “don’t touch him” between elbows, body-checks, and other fanfare. In retrospect, how the night unfolded without half-a-dozen more fisticuffs/brawls is quite mysterious.

“It was unfortunate that many people didn’t remain in their seats as per the organizers instructions,” said Omar Alghabra, a former Liberal MP who’s running for the Mississauga Centre seat in next year’s election. “He [Trudeau] was supposed to visit all tables to engage in conversations with guests, but so many were impatient and didn’t allow others to have any form of meaningful conversations.”

And so it went on for several hours until Trudeau (Elvis?) shook his last hand and left the building. No doubt the entire event could be perceived as a giant commercial for the Liberal Party. Whatever lengthy, meaningful dialogue seemed to have taken place with other Liberal candidates and organizers after Trudeau left. As to the handful of folks who were lucky enough to get a word in with Trudeau himself, they were just that: a handful. It was a golden opportunity and, as far as the bulk of the attendees were concerned, the largely Muslim crowd let it slip through their fingers.

A serious democracy implies a public that’s genuinely interested in shaping public opinion and policy. This interest and awareness should, in theory, increase for whichever community if its people come to realize that they lack the ability to influence power and to improve their own interests.

The Muslims of Canada constitute one such community in the post-9/11 era. Those in power, including Trudeau, will only take the grievances and needs of certain groups seriously if prompted to do so. If Muslims trip over themselves to please politicians, they only guarantee their own political irrelevance.

Given what has happened to the Muslim community under Stephen Harper, in addition to the wreckage that is the Middle East, there’s no good reason why those who attended the dinner didn’t seize the opportunity to truly question Trudeau. Instead, their presence and conduct amounted to one of the more hilarious, and sad, showings of political servitude in recent memory.

This can’t be what the community needs. Muslims in Canada must place the worthiest of candidates in the seats of power, and to influence their political direction. There’s no way for that to happen if they don’t take their civic duties seriously.

[http://www.theislamicmonthly.com/justin-trudeau-and-the-reality-of-political-impotence/]

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international affairs, middle east, obama, politics

Amid the Cease-Fires, a Broken Peace Process

Published by the American Conservative Magazine on August 5th, 2014

Following yet another ill-fated push at a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the latest Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip has been marked by the making and breaking of cease-fires, the latest reportedly starting this morning. The human toll has been devastating—overwhelmingly so for the Palestinians. Over 1,700 Palestinians and 60 Israelis have died (so far) in the 28-day operation, overtaking the death toll of “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which lasted 22 days. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for yet another inquiry into what it sees as “possible war crimes,” just like it did for “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09), which produced the Goldstone Report. Israel’s global image is suffering as the Palestinian dead mount.

Whatever the long-term consequences of this latest episode in the most protracted military occupation in modern history, many Israelis may very well come to see Netanyahu’s rejection of the latest peace plan, led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, as a missed opportunity.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading correspondents, spoke to numerous senior U.S. officials who were involved in the latest Kerry-led push. Barnea’s conversations with these officials provide a rather clear picture of what Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was willing to concede to his Israeli counterparts:

He [Abbas] agreed to a demilitarized state; he agreed to the border outline so 80 percent of settlers would continue living in Israeli territory; he agreed for Israel to keep security sensitive areas (mostly in the Jordan Valley – NB) for five years, and then the United States would take over. He accepted the fact that in the Israeli perception, the Palestinians would never be trustworthy.

He also agreed that the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and agreed that the return of Palestinians to Israel would depend on Israeli willingness. ‘Israel won’t be flooded with refugees,’ he promised.

In other words, Abbas and the P.A. gave away the house. They conceded key settlement blocs, the Jewish parts of East Jerusalem, and the Palestinian right of return. A two-state solution based on U.N. Resolution 242, 338, and 194 would not have included such concessions to Israel.

Still, Netanyahu said no, demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and that Israel maintain “complete control over the territories.” Then, Israel’s Housing and Construction Ministry, headed by Uri Ariel (“an extremist who opposes any agreement with the Palestinians,” according to Barnea), announced the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem by 700 housing units. The entire Kerry process fell apart, and Abbas began to focus on forming a unity government with Hamas.

This act of national reconciliation, by which Hamas essentially adopted Abbas’ program for dealing with Israel, was what ultimately provoked the latest punishment of Gaza. Hamas provided no repudiation of Mahmoud Abbas’ concessions after moving into reconciliation. Despite its awful charter, Hamas has, according to a 2009 report by the United States Institute of Peace, sent Israel “repeated signals” that it is willing to accept peaceful co-existence in a two-state resolution of the conflict based on international law.

None of this was good enough for the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu’s administration then used the deaths of three Israeli teenagers this past June as a pretext to raid the West Bank, killing five Palestinians and arresting hundreds. This resulted in a barrage of rockets from Hamas about a month after the West Bank raid began, precipitating the current Israeli operation.

Noted U.S. scholar Norman Finkelstein has pointed out in his authoritative account of Operation Cast Lead that, according to Israeli political strategist Avner Yaniv, Israel is reacting violently to what he calls the Palestinians’ “peace offensive.” Yaniv used the phrase in his book Dilemmas of Security (1987) to characterize the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982. According to Yaniv, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at that time, led by Yasser Arafat, was contemplating a two-state solution with the Israelis. The problem was that nobody in Israel wanted to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state. So, in September 1981, Israel made plans to invade Lebanon, where the PLO was based at the time. The war that ensued put a stop to any possibilities for serious negotiations.

As history continues to repeat itself in the 21st century, Israel’s track record of bad timing calls into question its willingness to negotiate in good faith. The Kerry process, insofar as the Barnea piece (among other “leaks”) reveals, already favored the Israeli desire to permanently swallow up crucial parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The occupation and the planned, permanent annexation of Palestinian land both constitute crimes under international law. According to “Article 49” of the Fourth Geneva Conventions, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Moreover, the Palestinians were essentially leaving the refugees’ right to return (as per U.N.S.C. Resolution 194) up to Israel’s “willingness.” With Abbas and the P.A. making substantial concessions, and Hamas being backed into a corner financially and politically, the Israelis could have accepted the Kerry-brokered deal. It was an offer that clearly favored Israel. Instead, the world witnessed yet another incursion into Gaza.

If Israel is given the chance to permanently annex parts of the West Bank and push the ever-growing Palestinian population into cantons, then it can expect a much more desperate, perhaps violent, Palestinian response. If that moment arrives, then Israelis may very well regret not taking the Kerry deal when it was on the table. It won’t just have to deal with rudimentary Hamas rockets then, but also with the roughly two million Palestinians currently living in the West Bank who will be forced into an even more desperate situation.

So why didn’t Netanyahu and the Israelis simply say “yes” to such a complimentary deal? The answer, according to the American negotiators, can be found in Israel’s desire to expand settlements. Israel approved plans for nearly 14,000 new settler homes during the nine months it was involved in peace talks with the Palestinians. The entire military occupation, including all settlements, covers about 40 percent of the West Bank. Evidently, Israel’s broader ambition includes the permanent seizure of the land that it currently occupies.

Once Israel implements even more “facts on the ground,” it may very well go back to the negotiating table, and, along with a weak Palestinian Authority, accept a U.S.-brokered deal that includes all the original concessions. At that point, any Palestinian movement for self-determination will be hampered by the Palestinian Authority’s acceptance of a deal that clearly overlooks it.

[http://www.theamericanconservative.com/amid-the-cease-fires-a-broken-peace-process/]

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international affairs, middle east, muslims, obama, politics, war on terror

The Dogs Are Eating Them Now, By Graeme Smith: A Review

Published by Muftah.org on August 1st, 2014

It can be tough to wrap one’s head around the fact that the war in Afghanistan is the longest the United States has ever fought. Indeed, the conflict has lasted longer than World Wars I and II, longer than the Vietnam War, and longer even than the Iraq war. That thought itself begs the obvious question of “why,” or, to put it another way: “what were the invaders doing and what took them so long?”

Graeme Smith’s The Dogs are Eating Them Now is a Canadian war memoir that examines this question from multiple angles. Smith was the Globe and Mail’s correspondent in southern Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. He is a person who has lived in the country, been shot at, and had “the charred flesh of suicide bombers” stuck to his shoes. His memoir is a series of dispatches that details his findings and view of the mission there.

Although he admits to lacking the same in-depth experience throughout the whole of Afghanistan, Smith notes that the south “serves as a useful case study.” Indeed, it was in the South “where the war became most intense” and where the international coalition’s “policy most obviously went wrong.”

Smith’s book is not—and does not aim to be—a geopolitical analysis of what happened or may happen in Afghanistan (Smith notes that one cannot expect to form an accurate picture of Afghanistan by thinking “on the level of theory”). It is his hope the reader will come away with a more informed view of the conflict by the time he reaches the last page.

At the end of the book, Smith concludes that the international community should not exit Afghanistan hastily and without a sense of responsibility. With parts of the country unattended, “anarchy” or “civil war” may end up filling the vacuum. Whether or not one agrees with these final assessments, Smith’s brave reporting on a number of important issues stands on its own merits. His willingness to acknowledge his initial naiveté, contributes to an honest picture of Afghanistan’s current state, from his point of view.

An Evolving Understanding of Western Failures

Smith’s voice is weary, but sharp and collected. He started his correspondence for theGlobe as a 26-year-old with high hopes the West was going to bring “the whole basket of civilization” to Afghanistan, a country that desperately needed it. But Smith also starts his book by acknowledging the international coalition’s objectives were not reached, and that assumptions policy makers made about Afghan society seriously hindered efforts to remake the country.

By the time the “world’s great armies” had gathered in Southern Afghanistan, in the beginning of 2002, the Al-Qaeda camps had long disappeared and the Taliban were no longer in power. The mission evolved from chasing global jihadists to a much grander plan: to remake the country in the West’s image and to establish a peaceful, democratic state. It is quite obvious by now that the international community failed at this. Smith notes that no international force has ever managed to control all of Afghanistan without controlling the South’s biggest city: Kandahar. Coalition troops routed the Taliban in that region again and again (with Canadians often leading the way), but the fighting never seemed to reach a rational end-point.

As time went on, Smith began to recognize the deep flaws in the methodology adopted by Western forces. Major military operations against the southern insurgency failed to win hearts and minds. Coalition forces wanted to use the presence and threat of the Taliban to justify their own invasion. They wanted to recast themselves as fighters against the “real invaders:” the Taliban. After witnessing the Battle of Panjwai in 2006, an offensive that saw the Taliban routed once again by coalition troops, Smith realized the residents of Southern Afghanistan were a tough crowd when it came to the “Taliban vs. good foreigners” narrative.

Afghans were not always cooperative with the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF) efforts to root out the Taliban. In fact, Afghans with loose ties to the Taliban became the enemies of many Western troops on the ground. These Afghans joined the insurgency to repel what they thought was a foreign invasion led by international powers to control their country’s future.

An Out-of-Touch Approach

Smith notes how the Western mission in Afghanistan failed to predict how strong this anti-invasion sentiment would be. This “out-of-touch” attitude is itself one of the more revealing, if not startling, aspects of Smith’s observations, which call for a reassessment of NATO’s interventionist strategies. As Smith notes in the introduction, such self-reflection “is not likely to happen” because “NATO claims victory.”

The book includes a section detailing findings from discussions Smith and his Afghan researcher had with dozens of Afghan insurgents —an  endeavor which was made into an Emmy Award-winning video series called “Talking to the Taliban.” Because his Afghan researcher was able to conduct interviews in areas off-limits to foreigners, Smith is able to offer rare, first-hand insight into the worldview of Taliban insurgents. The 42 interviews also provide a good sense of the complexities beneath the official, often jingoistic, assertions coming out of NATO and its member states.

To begin with, it is quite obvious that, at least in Southern Afghanistan, ISAF has been dragged into a conflict that contains complex tribal dynamics, which it has yet to fully grasp and engage with effectively. Hamid Karzai and his weak administration are made up of a few tribes, which are exclusively responsible for governing the country. This has antagonized other tribes throughout Afghanistan. This kind of tribal rivalry has fueled the insurgency. The Zirak Durrani tribal federation, which includes Karzai’s Popalzai tribe, dominates the Afghan government. The insurgents surveyed were all ethnic Pashtuns who were part of tribes that inhabited the South. When it comes to building Afghanistan’s future, these tribes feel excluded by Karzai’s inner circle.

NATO’s use of airstrikes has further compounded the problem by causing “collateral damage” among the civilian population.  According to Human Rights Watch, in 2007, civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes “almost tripled” compared to 2006.

Smith also outlines another Western strategy that backfired:  the destruction of poppy fields in order to cut off funding to the Taliban. Again, Western forces found themselves caught up in a complex dynamic they did not appreciate quickly enough. The logic seemed simple: poppies fuel the opium trade, which is used to fund the insurgents. Fewer poppies must mean less insurgents. Unfortunately, the destruction of poppies also meant the eradication of many Afghanis’ livelihoods. In a country with a crippled economy and limited industry, growing poppies was a means of survival for many Afghan farmers. Angry farmers who had their soil destroyed by airstrikes, or who had their fields burned by foreign occupiers naturally saw the invaders in the worst possible light. This helped fuel the insurgency.

Smith provides superb (and brave) reporting on how corrupt and powerful Afghan officials have themselves been involved in drug trafficking. Near the end of the book, Smith recalls a memorable episode involving a drug trafficker caught by Afghanistan’s Counter-narcotics Police, who carried a letter of protection signed by Mohammed Daud Daud, the deputy minister of interior responsible for counter-narcotics. Daud was Afghanistan’s most powerful anti-drug czar before being killed in 2011.

The Torture of Detainees

Among ISAF’s many errors, the detainee torture scandal has received perhaps the most attention. The hand over of prisoners by Canadian Forces (CF) to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Directorate of Security(NDS) resulted in detainees being systematically tortured.

Investigations into the matter, as well as information from whistle-blowing diplomats, seem to suggest CF knew torture was happening and refused to act. A subsequent investigation into the matter by the Military Police Complaints Commission concluded CF brass actively kept its investigators in the dark about the detainees’ situations. The watchdog noted that Canada’s Harper administration actively stonewalled its investigation, threatening the commission’s independence while insisting it ought to have final say over information disclosed to the public.

Leaving Afghanistan

Sadly, this gap between government policy and reality has remained consistent throughout the Afghan war. Smith hopes the international community will change course and find new ways to serve Afghans. Yet the mystery here is how, after fighting a prolonged war with such a stubbornly flawed mindset, the United States and the rest of NATO can find it within them to radically change course.

The United States and its allies want to exit Afghanistan without losing face. That means focusing on repeating successes while glossing over errors and failures. Though the West has been able to improve certain aspects of Afghan life, such as decreasing the rate of infant mortality, the country, known as the “Graveyard of Empires,” is a more violent place now than before the invasion.

Smith leaves his audience with more questions than solutions. But the points he raises are necessary to consider for policy makers and those who care about Afghanistan. Only by acknowledging failure can Afghanistan’s future be accurately assessed. Perhaps that is why the international community’s relationship with Afghanistan has been, and is likely to remain, a rather depressing one.

[http://muftah.org/book-review-dogs-eating-now-graeme-smith/]

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