Saturday, June 21, 2014

Bush and Cheney’s Iraq Legacy

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” 
Proverbs 29:18 

Bush and Cheney spent more than $870 billion of our tax dollars to fund their Iraq War; the stated objective of which was to make America safer by toppling an evil dictator with a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, and one who was harboring and providing material support to Al-Qaeda. Of the total spent, about $41 billion was spent on reconstruction and foreign aid, and a staggering $28 billion on local security (source: “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” prepared by the Congressional Research Service). Also, consider that in addition countless American lives were lost training and equipping the very same Iraqi army that recently ran with its tail tucked between its legs at the first sign of trouble.

If the latest developments in Iraq were not so worrying and potentially dangerous, within an already volatile region, we could laugh at the irony that neither Al-Qaeda nor any other terrorist organisation had operated or been given safe haven inside Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, it was not until a year and a half after the US invasion that Al-Qaeda officially formed in Iraq. Even so, Bush and Cheney had told us on numerous occasions in the lead-up to their invasion that their primary objective was to break the very dangerous nexus between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda before he gave them access to weapons of mass destruction. The truth is that the sectarian chaos and power vacuum created by the overthrow of Saddam gave Al-Qaeda the perfect breeding ground for recruitment and for establishing their very first base of operations in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS), the terrorist group that has overrun major cities and now controls large swaths of the country, was formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. 

“We know that Iraq and Al-Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade…We've learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gasses."  
-President Bush, Speech in Cincinnati, 7th October, 2002* 

“We learned more and more that there was a relationship between Iraq and Al-Qaeda that stretched back through most of the decade of the 90’s, that it involved training, for example, on BW and CW, that Al-Qaeda sent personnel to Baghdad to get trained on systems that are involved.” 
-Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 14th September, 2003* 

(*source: United States Congressional Serial Set, Serial No. 14876, Senate Report No 301). 

As for Cheney and Bush’s smoking gun, independent reviews of the millions of documents seized from across Iraq all reached the same conclusion: “The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had by 2006 translated 34 million pages of documents from Hussein's Iraq and found there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda (source: “Bush's toxic legacy in Iraq” CNN). In fact, the same report stated that there was “no ‘smoking gun’ (i.e. direct connection) and that “the predominant targets of Iraqi state sponsored terror were Iraqi citizens, both inside and outside Iraq.” [source: Institute for Defense Analyses – ‘Iraqi Perspectives Project. Saddam and Terrorism: Emerging Insights from Captured Iraqi Documents’, Volume 1 (Redacted)].

While we can sit here and argue about the justification for the US invasion of Iraq and never agree on it, what cannot be refuted is that the US never established a single credible link between Saddam and Al-Qaeda or produced a shred of evidence that Saddam possessed any weapons of mass destruction; and Al-Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before the invasion. Another dangerous unintended consequence has been that Iran is now the most dominant power in the region with Iraq no longer being able to serve as strong counter-balance. So in sum total, not only did Cheney and Bush’s war make the region less safe than it was in 2003, but it has also spawned a totally new and deadly terrorist organisation called ISIS; one that Al-Qaeda officially broke ties with, for being too brutal.

Conveniently, the Republicans are now trying to blame Obama for the mess Cheney and Bush are responsible for creating. If one were to examine the facts, we should start with the much maligned Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). It is the document which dictated the timing for full US military withdrawal from Iraq. SOFA was negotiated and signed by George W. Bush in 2008 and not Barrack Obama, as many Republicans will have us believe. Bush agreed to all of Nouri al-Maliki demands, which included getting all US forces out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, and leaving no permanent military presence or bases in the country. Turns out that Bush’s ‘liberating’ forces were so unpopular that no Iraqi leader was willing to risk having them stay on with “… several rounds of upcoming elections and an intensely strong popular Iraqi hostility to the U.S. occupation under any name.” (source: ‘Bush's finest moment on Iraq: SOFA, not the surge’ – Foreign Policy). Republicans are now blaming him for not trying hard enough to re-negotiate the terms Bush agreed to; the same Republicans who - at the time it was signed - were proclaiming victory in Iraq.

The truth is that Iraq has been and remains a big mess ever since the illegal US invasion, which left both a major power vacuum in the center and a government without civil institutions or strong leadership. Another lie that Republicans are good at spreading has to do with General Petraeus’ surge; which was responsible for preventing the total disintegration of Iraq, and cleaning up Rumsfeld and Cheney’s unmitigated disaster and a lack of plan for Iraq, post invasion. Listening to Republicans, one would believe that it was the additional boots on the ground that led to the success of the surge. This is totally untrue, as Petraeus himself has repeatedly made clear. The cornerstone of Petraeus’ success and surge strategy was based on facilitating peace between the Sunni and Shia factions, which in turn led to a disarming of the powerful Shiite militia. It was this peace he helped broker that was also responsible for removing Al-Qaeda’s key weapon: fanning sectarian flames in Iraq. In addition, Petraeus forced the government to focus on developing local institutions, employment programs and on improving the daily life of Iraqi citizens. The final part of his strategy involved a dramatic surge in the boots on the ground, deployed to the most troubled parts of the country in order to dramatically enhance the presence and perception of security. So it is totally disingenuous to say that if Obama had tried harder to find a way to re-negotiate Bush’s SOFA, which never included immunity from prosecution for troops, and left behind a few hundred US troops, that this would have prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq.

There are many things I am critical of when it comes to Barack Obama’s leadership, but his stance on Iraq it absolutely right. Obama understands what Bush and Cheney never will: that democracy is a grass roots movement that must be started by the people, who must also be willing to fight and die for their freedom. It is always bloody and it is always messy, and the hard work always begins once the freedom has been won. It takes a few generations for democratic values and institutions to take root; the country needs to build civil institutions, infrastructure, write laws, agree on a constitution, etc. Where there are long-running sectarian divides, blood will be spilled before wounds can be healed and a country unite. Inevitably, the early leaders are also corrupt and tyrannical, from having grown up without the benefit of ever experiencing liberty or democratic freedoms themselves. The current crisis is not something that has happened overnight;. it is a direct result of the sectarian Pandora’s Box opened by the illegal US invasion. One that left no power structure in the center and a weak and divided nation that is open to manipulation by its various Sunni and Shiite neighbours that include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

This crisis also has a lot to do with Nouri al-Maliki wanting to consolidate his corrupt hold on power by creating a Shiite-dominated government and country. He has been slowly and systematically replacing the competent army generals, commanders and police officers (trained by the US), as well as other government officials and filling these posts with incompetent Shiite cronies who would never threaten him. He has made no effort to form a unity government that is inclusive of the Sunni minority or the Kurds, which was central to how Petraeus won the peace. Instead, Al-Maliki has helped re-ignite the old sectarian divides, and as a result allowed ISIS to slowly and systematically re-build their presence and base in Iraq by recruiting from within an excluded and disenfranchised Sunni community. 

So while there is no question that the Bush and Cheney invasion is single-handedly responsible for creating the massive void that will leave a weak Iraq in turmoil for many decades to come, it is equally true that the only path out is for Iraqis to figure out how to get along, by pursuing the true tenets of democracy; which are reconciliation and inclusiveness. No amount of US intervention on the ground or from the air can help fix this fundamental problem; and I doubt US taxpayers have the appetite for yet another misguided and fruitless effort at nation building. So even though America created this mess, only Iraq has the ability to fix it. Until Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds come together and realise that their real enemies are the terrorists, the world will have to wait and remain a much less safe place. This is Bush's and Cheney’s Iraq legacy.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Open Letter to the Prime Minister of India: Mr. Narendra Modi

"Democracy is a device that ensures that we will be governed no better than we deserve.”
George Bernard Shaw 

Dear Mr. Modi,

Your mandate is greater than any party has had in decades, and it is yours to squander. The people of India have spoken loudly and clearly, but for me you need to start by reaffirming the most sacred duty of a Prime Minister: that of protecting ALL the children of India without regard for their religion, caste or creed. This duty must extend beyond protection. You must also provide equal opportunity to every Indian, giving each one a chance to lift himself from poverty with the benefit of an education. 

For the record, I have long abhorred the Congress-led vote-bank politics of pseudo-secularism that they have played over the last sixty plus years. All they have done is paid lip service to the word, doing nothing to help liberate our downtrodden. They have given sop’s to buy votes in the name of helping people, and created quotas in the name of providing opportunity. This has merely created the illusion of opportunity, and pushed people into jobs for which they are ill-qualified. This has led to further resentment. The Congress Party has done a great disservice to secularism merely to maintain their corrupt grasp on power.

We have the third largest Muslim population in the world, a fact that should make us all proud. They are a part of the rich fabric of our culture and its vibrant history. Now it is time they became an intrinsic part of our future. In many parts of the country, Muslims are still treated like second-class citizens or viewed with great fear and mistrust. Many believe they are terrorists, or that India will be better off without them. 

Much of this is due to irresponsible vote bank politics, but it is equally due to the fact that it has been convenient to let the majority of Indian Muslims live in the dark ages, under the thumbs of medieval mullahs, who in the name of religion have imprisoned their minds. “Muslims have the lowest literacy rates among all religious communities in the country…” (Source: Times of India article) There is no question that the Congress and their allies have been complicit in allowing this to continue. You can and must change this.

There are many well educated people who have come to believe that Indian Muslims are holding our country back. Some have told me that they believe we should pack all the Muslims off to Bangladesh or Pakistan where they belong. To all these people (and the RSS) I say, let us for a moment look at every country in the world that has staked their national identity on a religion or ethnicity. Where are they today? Do we want India to become a Hindu state so we can be more like a Pakistan or Bangladesh, an Iran or Saudi Arabia or even a Russia? Is this what the next generation really wants? 

country that has chosen to define itself based on religious affiliation, and discriminated against everyone else, has suffered lack of innovation mainly due to lack of diverse talent. These countries will never become economic powerhouses. The fact is that economic might is derived from inclusion rather than exclusion because a great idea knows no colour, caste, creed or religion. Americans realised this a century ago and made an effort to embrace people of all races and religions. The aim was to attract the brightest and best minds from around the world with the lure of higher education, equal opportunity and a reasonably level playing field. 

Ultimately, it is the diversity of our cultures that enables world-beating innovation, which in turn is the most potent engine for job creation and sustained economic growth. Unlike any other country in the world, India’s veins are already bursting with rich and diverse talent - just imagine what we can accomplish if you can help unleash this. India will truly shine.

You must provide every Indian with the right to education, and free all people from the tyranny of ignorance. Put every girl in school, affording her the same opportunities that a boy gets in life. Reaffirm the fact that without our diversity we would be a lesser country and a weaker nation. This is the challenge the people of India have put forth to you. 

Let your legacy be that of an RSS man who took great pains to wipe away the notion of India ever becoming a Hindu state. But if you take us down a path of communal discord or begin to allow the RSS machinery to start creating a subtle and more sophisticated 21st century apartheid like apparatus to discriminate against non-Hindus, then India will once again overwhelmingly choose corruption over communalism at the ballot box in five short years.

So give us the prime minister who helped us beat China (which EVERY Indian knows we can) by unleashing our potential with unbiased leadership, transparent government, business-friendly and consistent policies, all built on a truly secular vision for India.

Give us toilets; not temples…Jai Hind!

Sincerely, 
A Citizen of India


NOTE: updated on 1st June, 2014

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Ode to 2014 India Lok Sabha Elections


“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not the President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country”
Franklin D. Roosevelt 

There is a lot we can and should be critical of in India, and god knows we are all good at that, but let us for a moment also give credit where it is due and marvel at what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. Not sure if any other country in the world could have pulled this off, just based on the sheer logistics of it. I mean the US even had to have one of their recent elections decided by their Supreme Court.

The 2014 Indian elections are the largest in the history of the world. Yes, the history of the world, with approximately 815 million people eligible to vote. To put it in perspective, that is more people than the entire population of Europe.

The election will cover voting for 543 Parliamentary Constituencies, across 35 States and Union Territories. Nearly 10 million officials (including police and security personnel) will be deployed to facilitate free and fair elections. Constituencies vary vastly, not only in voter size but also in accessibility. Malkajgiri in Andhra Pradesh is the biggest Indian constituency in terms of voters, with around 2.95 million eligible voters. Lakshadweep is the smallest with 47,972 voters. In Lower Dibang Valley district of Arunachal Pradesh, Hukani polling station has 22 registered voters, and officials have to travel 22 km on foot to get there (source: Reuters)

Electronic Voting Machines are being used in all of the 930,000 polling stations that have been set up across the country. Basic Minimum Facilities for polling stations will include drinking water, shed, toilet, and ramp for disabled voters. Voters will also have a “None of the Above” option on voting machines.

The voting has been broken into 9 phases or poll days starting with the first Poll Day on 7th April, 2014 (Monday) and the tenth (last) Poll Day on 12th May, 2014, with the results being announced on 16th May 2014.

There have been a number of reported poll violations that include booth capturing, bogus voting and intimidation of voters across half a dozen states, but “what is true, though, is that these violations have been brought to light by the EC's staff and cameras, which has allowed them to be dealt with swiftly.” (source: Scroll.in). However, in any undertaking of this magnitude there are bound to be some missteps and problems; what is commendable is how swiftly the EC has taken action and dealt with them.

The Election commission has gone through great pains to ensure free, fair, peaceful and participative elections; which in their words “are the life force of democracy”, and I think we can all agree that they have done a tremendous job and the world’s biggest democratic election process is something we can all celebrate and be very proud of!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Open Letter to Narayanaswami Srinivasan, former president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)


“As he was valiant, I honour him. But as he was ambitious, I slew him.”
William Shakespeare 

Dear Mr. Srinivasan,

The tragedy in this saga is the fact that the sport that you were meant to champion and steward has been the greatest victim of your hubris. We realise that money can buy many things; votes, support from local, regional and even international cricketing boards but what you have never understood is that it cannot buy you the one thing you covet most – respect. 

Granted money also buys you the illusion of power, and make no mistake that it is nothing more than an illusion, because it is based entirely on surrounding yourself with spineless sycophants who will march to your tune, follow your orders and fill you with hot air – as long as you keep lining their greedy and sweaty palms and not a moment longer. You see it is only your money that these people respect, and not you. If this type of power is all you seek, then I feel sorry that you will never know what it feels like to truly earn the respect of people, based on your deeds and your actions; the only real and lasting respect in this life.

The respect to which I refer could have been earned by building a true legacy for the BCCI, by furthering the cause of cricket and doing right by it. This honour is earned by putting your country and our sport first. It is an honour reserved for men who are willing take on the greatest mandate the BCCI has ever had in its history, and use it to put India and Indian cricket on the world stage. For years global cricket was dominated by a small minority of overlords in England and Australia because they had the financial muscle to call all the shots. Even though it was the contribution of many other teams and boards that enabled the growth of cricket, the power structure remained unchanged. 

Then came an era of explosive economic growth in BRICs which helped open the floodgates of fan support in Asia. Along with the tide of fans came a tidal wave of advertisers and marketers falling over themselves to write large cheques to the BCCI for a small share of the billion plus Indian eyeballs and wallets. It is easy to discount another very important reason for this cricket frenzy and that is the men who wore the Indian blues with great élan on and off the field during the same time. I am talking not of our current young Turks who earn six figure paydays for IPL matches but of the men who played this sport because it was their passion; Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tedulkar, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh to name a few, can be credited with lifting India on their able shoulders; their dedication, integrity and hard work took Indian cricket to its zenith, thus giving the BCCI a mandate that a single cricket board will likely never again have. 

However, under your stewardship the BCCI chose to exercise this authority not by showcasing our largesse as a nation or by commanding the world’s respect based on our actions but by embarking on a small minded, medieval and myopic grab for power. Your BCCI focused all its efforts on gaining control over cricket’s governing body, the ICC, fought for more revenues (BCCI already has more money than they know what to do with), threatened meeker boards to submit to your whims and fancies, and bullied everyone into allowing you to be crowned Chair of ICC.

For years the BCCI opined about how poorly all the non-white teams were treated; about how the sub-continental boards were underrepresented and never given a voice. For years we complained about the fact that there were no TV cameras at the World Cup we went on to win, when India and Kapil Dev outplayed Zimbabwe, as it was not considered an important match for the ICC to waste precious resources on. Under your stewardship of the BCCI, India had a chance to shine by presenting ourselves as a beacon of fairness and integrity. We had a chance to lead by example and show the world that when the tables turned and we had the decree to lead, we did not spend our time trying to even old scores or by seeking revenge. But that we showed our one-time oppressors how everybody deserves to be treated - based on their contribution to the sport and not based on the colour of their skin or the thickness of their accent. 

We had a chance to demonstrate that we can take the high road, the path less traveled and carry even those who once exploited us, showing them a better way forward. You could have brought the minnows of cricket in from the cold and leveled the playing field forever. After accomplishing all this you would have likely won the ICC chair on merit and based on overwhelming support from every cricket board in the world. 

Then you could have focused the ICC’s energies along with the BCCI’s financial muscle on spreading cricket fever into the untapped meccas of football. From Europe to South America, you could have recruited the game’s greatest ambassadors and dispatched them to spread the cricketing gospel; through IPL style exhibitions games designed to light a spark in young impressionable minds the world over; at a time when many are losing faith in the religion of football based on their sports own recent scandals. 

This, Mr. Srinivasan, could have been your legacy for the BCCI, for Indian cricket and for India. And it is for squandering this opportunity that you owe your countrymen an apology before you go quietly into the night.

Yours Sincerely,
A Cricket Fan

READ Cricket's Obituary: Demise of a Gentleman’s Sport

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Crimea & Punishment: US Influence in Decline

"If we can't persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we'd better reexamine our reasoning."
Robert S. McNamara

John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, recently visited Kiev, the besieged Ukraine capital. From there he accused Russia “of making up reasons for intervention in Ukraine, saying that ‘not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims*."  Kerry went on to further refute Russia’s justification for amassing troops in Crimea based on their assertion that “Russian-speaking citizens (were) under siege…*" (*Source: CNNArticle).

At face value I would be inclined to agree with Mr. Kerry. The people of Kiev marched in protest of their elected government led by Russian strongman Victor Yanukovich to overthrow him. It is true he was democratically elected (even though there were numerous anomalies and allegations of voter fraud and vote rigging). For our purposes let’s assume he was democratically elected. So while we can argue that his government’s demise was un-democratic in that it did not transpire at the ballot box, what cannot be argued is the fact that Mr. Yanukovich completely lost the confidence of his own ministers, cabinet and party. In the end he had no credibility, and therefore no legitimacy, left to govern the people of Ukraine. It was just a matter of time before he would have had to submit his resignation and hold new elections, which is why he fled.

What surprises me most about the current crisis in Crimea is not the recent turn of events but that nobody in NATO, the European Union, MI-5, State Department, CIA, NSA or the White House saw this coming. In my estimation, Putin was always going to take all necessary means to protect his substantial trade and geopolitical investments in Ukraine. We were all aware that Mr. Yanukovich was the Kremlin’s man in Kiev. Russia has historical ties to the region starting in the 18th century. Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954, but they still share the same language and many Ukrainians work in Russia today. Most importantly Russia has billions of dollars invested there. “Take Crimea, for instance. More than half of its 2 million people are Russian, and Russia still maintains a naval base there.” (Source: NPR Article). Did the Western powers seriously expect Putin to walk away or agree to settle this matter with meetings, phone calls and group hugs? Mr. Putin is ex KGB and a man who has long portrayed a tough guy image. We have all seen the pictures of him wrestling a bear and riding a horse shirtless. He is not going to go silently into the night when there is a direct challenge to his authority and influence within his geopolitical sphere and right on Russia’s doorstep.

Putin claims that he was asked by Mr. Yanukovich to send troops to protect the Russian speaking populations in the East and in Crimea; it is a pretty thin argument. Even without a law degree one can see that there is no legal justification for Russia’s action. Let’s for a moment forget Putin’s claims for amassing troops in Crimea and go back to 2005 to another invasion of a sovereign country. Now consider John Kerry’s statement accusing Russia and substitute Ukraine for Iraq - of making up reasons for intervention in (Iraq), and that ‘not a single piece of credible evidence supports any one of these claims;" funny how his statement still applies to the Iraq invasion. To this day there is not proof of Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda, nor any evidence they supported, funded or harbored any terrorist organizations. We all know that there was never any credible evidence presented (only anecdotal from exiles and dissidents; which were written off by German intelligence who provided them to US and UK) of a stockpile of deadly chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. There was never any imminent threat to the United States of America or the world at large, as we were repeatedly told by Cheney, Bush and Blair. No matter how you feel about the Iraq invasion there can be no dispute that there was no legal justification for it within International Law. Perhaps this is why the US was able to convince only one of the more than one hundred and ninety countries in the world of its need to invade a sovereign nation.

There is no question that Mr. Putin has no moral right or legal justification to invade the Ukraine. The problem is that after the invasion of Iraq, the United States lost its moral authority to stop Russia or any other country from doing the same. It is a simple matter of International law; if the US can break it at will, then why not another country? Bush and Cheney set a very dangerous precedent, that too at a time when US economic dominance is in decline. Mr. Putin is well aware of this fact and has taken a calculated but smart risk. He knows the US can no longer take the high ground or afford another war. While the European Union can take the high ground, they are averse to war. However, since Russia supplies almost a quarter of their oil and natural gas, Putin knows that the EU is highly unlikely to do anything too damaging in terms of sanctions or economic reprimands. Perhaps, now Bush and Cheney can add this to the already high cost of their Iraq war.