Saturday, August 7, 2010

Floods Provide Political Boon For Pakistani Militants

Pakistan’s worst flooding in almost a century may well be remembered as much for the magnitude of the disaster as for the fact that it constituted a major setback for the government and its Western and Muslim allies in their competition with militant Islamists for hearts and minds. The floods are joining a long list of disasters in a host of Islamic countries in which militant Islamists garnered popularity by quickly and effectively responding with relief and emergency aid in stark contrast to a government that was slow to react and unable to quickly provide services to victims.

Effective Islamist aid operations strengthen the militants’ contention that governments perceived as corrupt, authoritarian and heavily dependent on foreign aid cannot be trusted to serve the people. In the case of the Pakistani floods, that message is reinforced by mounting criticism of President Asif Ali Zardari for visiting France and Britain during the floods rather than staying at home to coordinate relief efforts, which he says are the responsibility of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. The message is compounded by the fact that militant Islamist charities, some designated by the United Nations or the United States as terrorist organizations, provided shelter, food, clothing and medical aid to thousands displaced and made homeless by the floods days before government and foreign aid started to arrive in areas where the government is competing with militants for control. If past disasters in Pakistan itself as well as in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Indonesia and Bangladesh are any yardstick, the political capital up for grabs will likely be secured by the militants who for the umpteenth time have proven to be able to deliver where governments failed.

The lesson learnt from these disasters is that economic competition with militant Islamists is as important a component in the struggle to defeat faith-inspired political violence as is military strength and law enforcement. If anything, the study of the world’s most sustainable and lethal, faith-based terrorist groups, including Palestine’ s Hamas, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e-Taibe and the Taliban in Afghanistan, shows that economic competition may hold the key to substantially weakening, if not defeating these groups. Falah-e-Insaniyat, the charity arm of Lashkar-e-Taibe, widely suspected of being responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008, has emerged as the one of the most effective providers of relief in flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan. What makes these groups so effective is the fact that they trace their origins to being faith-based service providers. Only at a later stage, and sometimes only reluctantly, did they bolt a military apparatus onto their civil activity. They successfully win hearts and minds by effectively responding to natural and man-made disasters in areas where governments like that of President Zardari have effectively ceded responsibility for the provision of basic social services, including security, education and healthcare. “With a few exceptions, lasting insurgency endings are shaped not by military action but by social, economic, and political change…The government may defeat the insurgent military cadre, but, with few exceptions, insurgencies do not end until case-specific root causes are addressed: The kind of grassroots support necessary to build and sustain an insurgency is fed on social, economic, and political discontent…,” concludes a recently published Rand Corporation study on how insurgencies end.

The problem for Western governments and their allies is translating the realization that they need to compete economically and not only militarily with militants is translating theory into practice. As is evident with the Pakistani floods, the cost benefit analysis of that realization and the organizational implications it has for the military has yet to sink in. Adapting the organization of armed forces so that they can effectively incorporate economic competition in their strategy is a slow process that contrasts starkly with the speed in which militants like Lashkar-e-Taibe are able to demonstrate institutional flexibility. Western military officials and UN and other aid workers grapple in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, with the fact that the military is structured as a fighting machine rather than a development agency and aid organizations are not geared to defending themselves – a combination of skills and ability inherent to successful militant groups.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rocket Attack Points To Egypt's Bedouins

A recent rocket attack on the twin Red Sea resorts of Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan focuses attention on long-simmering discontent among Egypt’s Bedouins in the Sinai peninsula. Both Egypt and Jordan have charged that the rockets that killed one person in Aqaba were launched from the Sinai - the second such attack in the last three months. Egypt has denied the allegation arguing that its border with Israel is heavily monitored. Egyptian security forces have nonetheless launched a security sweep of Sinai, acknowledging that Palestinian and Bedouin groups are active in the region. Egyptian and Israeli authorities charge that Bedouin tribesmen are part of a smuggling network that tunnels supplies into the Gaza Strip and sneaks African migrants across the border into Israel. In an ominous development, the attacks signal increased militant activity in the Sinai and radicalization of local Bedouin groups. The rocket incident adds to mounting tension on Israel’s borders in a week in which Israeli and Lebanese forces clashed for the first time since Israel attacked the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizbollah in 2006 and Arab states are seeking to ensure that an international inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri that reportedly will point the finger at Hizbollah operatives does not plunge Lebanon into renewed civil strife. The rocket attack was launched barely two weeks after Egyptian Interior Minister Habib Adli agreed in a meeting with tribal leaders to release scores of detained Bedouins, including prominent activist and blogger Mossad Abu Fajr, in a bid to ease tension with the Sinai residents and neutralize Bedouin threats to sabotage oil and gas pipelines, including a natural-gas line that supplies Israel. In return for cooperation in apprehending terrorists, the government also promised to rollback repressive measures and initiate development projects that would create jobs in the Sinai. In June, security forces clashed with Bedouins after a police operation to capture unidentified fugitives failed. Egypt has long had difficulty in maintaining law and order in the Sinai, crucial to the country’s tourism industry. In 2004, twin bombings at resorts in Taba and Ras al-Shitan killed at least 34 people. A year later, 88 people died in bomb attacks in Sharm el Sheikh, and in 2006 at least 23 people were killed in blasts in Dahab. Bedouins, cooperating with various militant groups, including Hamas, Hizbollah and Al-Qaeda linked cells, are believed to have been involved in the attacks.