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December 8, 2008
Q&A: Kashmiri people, history and human rights

Haley Duschinski, assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Ohio University, has researched issues of the Kashmiri people for the past 10 years.

Professor Haley Duschinski answers your questions about Kashmir. Listen to our  webcasted radio show with Prof. Duschinski, other experts and Kashmiri-Americans here.

Thank you for the dozens of insightful questions about the current situation in South Asia and your perspectives and concerns about the Kashmiri people. I have batched your questions into themes below.

By way of background, I’m a cultural anthropologist at Ohio University, and I’ve been conducting research on issues relating to the Kashmir conflict for the past 10 years through long-term field research in India and Kashmir Valley.

As an anthropologist, I use a bottom-up approach to understanding current politics and economics. This means that I approach the Kashmir situation by trying to understand Kashmiris’ everyday lives and local worlds –- by trying to see things from Kashmiri perspectives and Kashmiri points of view.


Q. How large is Kashmir? How many Kashmiris are there? What are the ethnic/religious breakdowns in Kashmir?

Haley Duschinski: Kashmir Valley is part of India’s northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which lies in the Himalayan Mountains on the borders with Pakistan, Tibet and China.

The state itself is made up of three distinctive regions with different religious and ethnic compositions:

Jammu — about 65 percent Hindu, mainly ethnic Dogras
Ladakh — about 50 percent Tibetan Buddhist with significant Muslim communities
Kashmir Valley — about 90 percent Kashmiri Muslim

Kashmir Valley is located past the Pir Panjal mountain range along the sensitive boundary line with Pakistan, Jammu is located beanth the mountains and closer to the plains, while Ladakh shares many topographical features with neighboring Tibet. The population of the entire state is about 10 million, with approximately 5.5 million people in Kashmir Valley.

Map of the Jammu and Kashmir region. Source: CIA

Kashmir Valley is also home to a minority community of Kashmiri Hindus, who largely migrated out of the region when the separatist movement escalated around 1990. About 7,000 Kashmiri Hindus remain in Kashmir Valley today.

This statewide religious, ethnic and regional variation makes the situation there very complicated.

It’s important to remember that when Kashmiris talk about their homeland, they’re referring to the original territory of Jammu and Kashmir that spans the heavily militarized ceasefire line between India and Pakistan known as the Line of Control.

This original territory has been carved up since independence in 1947 into several different portions. Pakistan controls about one-third of the original territory and China controls a smaller part.


Q. What is life like for Kashmiris?

Haley Duschinski: Since 1990, India has maintained more than 500,000 armed security forces in the region, making Kashmir Valley one of the most heavily militarized areas in the entire world.

The capital city of Srinagar is mapped with armed patrol units, sandbag posts, concrete and barbed wire bunkers and military checkpoints for pedestrians and automobiles. Outside of the capital city, the presence of armed security forces is pervasive, with army and paramilitary forces appropriating public schools, private hotels, cinema halls, government offices, orchard lands and abandoned houses.  Basharat Peer provides a stirring account of everyday life in Kashmir in his upcoming memoir entitled “Curfewed Night.”

Kashmiris are required to carry official identification cards with them when traveling in public, and they are subject to interrogation and search at any time. Many Kashmiris have told me that they feel like they are living in a prison –- that their homeland is under siege. Doctors Without Borders has published reports about the psycho-social and general health of the Kashmiri population.

Everyday life in Kashmir Valley today is largely determined by a special law called the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

Some Kashmiris feel they are living in a prison.

As the Kashmiri independence movement escalated in the late 1980s, the Indian central government declared J&K a “disturbed area” and passed the AFSPA to grant extraordinary powers to security forces personnel, including authority to use lethal force against any individuals suspected of breaking the law and disturbing the peace.

The AFSPA has facilitated various human rights abuses including extrajudicial killing, disappearance, torture and rape. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as Kashmiri human rights organizations have strongly criticized the special act for violating international humanitarian law, particularly the right to life, and for granting state agents impunity for human rights violations.


Q. What is the state of human rights in the region?

Haley Duschinski: The official civilian death toll in the conflict is 20,000. Kashmiri human rights organizations claim that 70,000 people have died during the conflict and 8,000 have disappeared.

Just this summer, Indian armed forces opened fire on unarmed Kashmiri civilians protesting in the streets, killing nearly 40 and injuring 600.

Earlier this year, mass graves [PDF] of approximately 1,000 individuals were exhumed in Kashmir Valley. Due to the special acts, Kashmiris find it very difficult — if not impossible — to pursue justice for these types of human rights violations, and they feel that their suffering has been ignored by the international community.

Kashmiri human rights lawyers emphasize that any sustainable peace in the region must be founded on principles of truth, justice, and accountability.


Q. Who runs Kashmir? Are there local officials? How does the government work with the state?

Haley Duschinski: Like other Indian states, Jammu and Kashmir has a multiparty democratic system of governance, with elections to determine members the union parliament and the state assembly.  Elections were suspended during the peak years of the conflict from 1990 to 1996, but there have been several rounds of elections over the past decade.

The strongest political parties in Kashmir Valley are the National Conference, the Congress Party, and the People’s Democratic Party. In fact, elections are happening right now, and you can follow them on the website of the English-language news site Greater Kashmir.

As a result of the unusual circumstances surrounding its accession to India, Jammu and Kashmir is the only Indian state that has a special degree of autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Article 370 grants the state autonomy in determining its own affairs except in defense, foreign affairs, and communication. Since the 1950s, Article 370 has been substantially eroded through various measures of the Indian central government.

The Hajipir Pass, near the Line of Control.

Q. What is it that India and Pakistan covet in Kashmir? Are there natural resources or strategic advantages that pit the countries against one another?

Haley Duschinski: It is certainly true that Kashmir is located in a strategically advantageous position on the border between India and Pakistan, adjacent to China and Tibet.

But I feel that the contestation over Kashmir is less about the region’s strategic location or natural resources (although there are disputes over a critical water source there) and more about its symbolic and political significance to both neighboring countries.

When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, the colonial territory was partitioned into India, which espoused a principal of secular nationalism, and Pakistan, which espoused a principle of religious (Islamic) nationalism.

India has always claimed Kashmir Valley as proof of its commitment to secularism, while Pakistan claims Kashmir Valley on the basis of its Muslim majority population.  Of course, the situation is more complicated than this, because over the decades India and Pakistan have become locked into a sort of Cold War standoff over the region, with both sides refusing to back down in their territorial claims.

Political parties in each country have benefited from this situation by mobilizing popular support for their political positions and platforms through incendiary rhetoric involving Kashmir.

It often feels as though India and Pakistan are playing out their national security performances along the Line of Control in this border region, with quite devastating consequences for the Kashmiri people.

Q. What do the people of Kashmir want — independence? Will Kashmir ever receive independence from India or Pakistan? Can Kashmir be split up? Could the Kashmiris effectively govern the region?

Haley Duschinski: Kashmiris are vocal in their demand for independence, or azaadi.  The concept of azaadi is complicated, and it means different things to different people at different times.  Kashmiris’ desire for independence is a longstanding one that is shaped by peoples’ collective memories of occupation and exploitation by a series of outside rulers –- Mughuls, Afghans, Sikhs, Dogras and now Indians –- across history. This means that the Kashmiri demand for self-determination is not simply about seceding or breaking away from India; it’s also a way of demanding an opportunity to express their collective will in relation to their own political future.

To learn more about Kashmiri experiences and aspirations, I highly recommend a recent documentary film called Jashn-e-Azadi (“How We Celebrate Freedom”) by a Kashmiri filmmaker named Sanjay Kak.

Many Kashmiris feel dissatisfied with the way that their community has been treated by India since independence in 1947. Indian rule in the region since the 1940s has included repression, economic deprivation and indiscriminate violence, including, at various times, the denial of democratic processes, the manipulation of elections, and the jailing of political leaders.  These practices, and especially the widespread human rights violations since 1990, have made generations of Kashmiris feel very alienated from the Indian state. Kashmiris also remember that they were promised the opportunity to determine their own futures through a plebiscite at the time of accession to India, and that this promise has never been fulfilled.

India and Pakistan have been pursuing a peace process since 2004 that focuses in large part on finding a way to resolve their contested claims to Kashmir. The peace process has produced some tangible results, most notably a ceasefire across the Line of Control, as well as a series of confidence-building measures such as cross-border bus service and cross-border trade routes. Although Kashmiris have generally responded positively to these developments, the measures still remain largely symbolic gestures without tangible consequence for most people living in the valley.

A soldier by the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

Q. How can this situation be resolved?

Haley Duschinski: Many different plans have been proposed for resolving the Kashmir situation. Before he resigned as president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf proposed a four-point solution involving (1) porous borders in Kashmir with freedom of movement for Kashmiri people, (2) local self-governance within each region of Kashmir, (3) phased withdrawal of troops from all regions, and (4) a joint supervisory mechanism involving India and Pakistan.

Some political factions in Kashmir Valley support this plan, or variations of it, while others continue to push a separatist agenda.

U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama has indicated that he will prioritize a resolution to the Kashmir conflict as part of a more comprehensive and interlocking strategy in South Asia.

As an American academic, it’s certainly not my place to offer resolutions to the Kashmir situation.  I will, however, point out that it’s impossible to imagine any meaningful or productive political settlement that does not take seriously the longstanding grievances and democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people.

– Haley Duschinski

Photos courtesy of Flickr users NotMicroButSoft and dave watts under a Creative Commons license.

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December 8, 2008
Race tightens as ballots are tallied in Ghana

A representative from the electoral commission supervises a Ghanian voter.

Ghanians are awaiting the results of Sunday’s national election. Current President John Kufuor of the New Patriotic Party is stepping down after two terms in office.

Tallies have shown both the ruling and opposition parties leading at varying points throughout the day, as the race is tight.

For more, see the election blog of “Think Ghana,” featuring ongoing updates and citizen reports.

Bright Simons is an executive at the African nonprofit IMANI Center for Policy and Education. He writes at citizen journalism portal OhMyNews about the election and the experience on the ground.

Ghana votes: Who wins, who loses?

Ghanaians are voting as I write.

They are at the polls to elect the sixth democratically chosen President and legislature in the country’s 51 year post-colonial history. Of the 11 regimes that have ruled the former British colony in that period, five have been military insurrectionists.

Most of the streets are deserted, but not from any fear of violence. This is a majority Christian country, and Sundays are normally observed as a Sabbath by many of the 70 percent of the population who profess adherence to the Christian faith. Moreover, the tail-end of this year’s election season has been amazingly calm due to loud clarion calls for peace by the Clergy, eminent members of Ghana’s large Diaspora, and most of the country’s political heavyweights.

As I walked through a peri-urban suburb of the capital, I was struck by the wide observance of the much-emphasized proscription against the overt display of partisan affiliation near any of the 21,000 polling stations across this West African nation of 22 million.

While most of the pre-election polls have seemed to favour the ruling NPP of sitting President John Agyekum Kuffuor and its flagbearer, Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, scion of a ruling dynasty that stretches back before the time of his father, Ghana’s second democratically elected Head of State, many pundits still say the contest is too close to call.

The opposition NDC has campaigned on a platform of change, though the tone has been angrier and grittier than the genial flavour that coloured the Obama revolution of recent times. That has however not stopped the NDC from insisting, sometimes even brashly, that their mission resonates with that of their Democratic counterparts across the Atlantic.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of flickr user bbcworldservice under a Creative Commons license.

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December 5, 2008
It’s the Vladimir Putin Show!

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently appeared on radio and television to take questions from the Russian public in a three-hour session centered on the Russian economy. He pledged to increase aid and invest in struggling companies. Watch a subtitled excerpt from the Q&A below:

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
correspondent Brian Whitmore writes at “The Power Vertical” blog about the public relations efforts of the Russian government as unemployment spirals and the ruble falters.

Uncle Volodya Meets Cinderella

He promised to help a school start a knitting club. He invited two little girls and their grandmother to the Kremlin for New Year’s Eve celebrations. And he reiterated his desire to see Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “strung up by his balls.”

Live from Moscow! It’s the Vladimir Putin Show!

Meet Putin, the wise and kindly father figure. Gaze in admiration as the Good Tsar Vladimir soothes the nerves of a jittery nation. Watch in awe as the tough-guy strongman describes how he will take care of his foreign enemies who would do his people harm.

It has become an annual ritual of political theater, this virtual-town-hall extravaganza. It doesn’t even matter that Putin is no longer president — he’s still the “national leader” after all. And sitting on a round electric-blue stage surrounded by an adoring studio audience and sycophantic television anchors, he’s the star, fielding three hours’ worth of carefully choreographed questions from meticulously prescreened ordinary citizens.

“Greetings Uncle Volodya!” Dasha Varfolomeyeva, a little girl from the Buryat Republic in Siberia, said over a crackling phone line, using the diminutive form of Putin’s name usually reserved for close friends and family members.

“Soon it will be New Year’s. We live on grandmother’s pension and there is no work in our village. My sister and I dream about having new dresses, like Cinderella, and would like to ask you to buy them for us.”

“Dashenka,” Putin answered with a bemused smile, also using the diminutive. “I think that you and other children should be able to celebrate New Year’s in a dignified manner and adults must see to it that this wish is fulfilled. As far as gifts are concerned, I would like to invite you, your sister, and your grandmother to Moscow for New Year’s Eve, and then we will decide about gifts.” […]

Putin mainly tried to sooth fears over the global financial crisis that is hitting Russia’s economy hard.

“We have every opportunity to get through this difficult period with minimal problems,” Putin said, despite rising inflation, increased unemployment, plummeting growth. True to form, he blamed the crisis on the United States, which Putin said has “contaminated all leading economies of the world.”

One has to wonder how much longer Russia’s ruling elite can keep blowing smoke into the eyes of their citizens. As Putin was performing for an adoring nation today, oil prices plummeted to a four-year low. And despite protestations to the contrary, Russia’s rulers have made little to no progress in diversifying the economy to make it less dependent on energy and commodities prices.

If current economic trends continue, it will take more than New Year’s invitations, Cinderella dresses, and references to the Georgian president’s private parts to pacify an increasingly panicky public.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

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December 4, 2008
The morning after protesters left the airport in Thailand


A man cleans up remnants of a protest outside the government house in Bangkok on Dec. 3.

Protestors in Thailand relinquished control of Bangkok’s international airport and hundreds of thousands of stranded tourists lined up to leave as flights resumed.

Though the airport may return to normal, Thailand’s political situation remains tenuous. Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat resigned as a result of the anti-government demonstrations.

Chaowararat Chandeerakul, formerly the deputy prime minister, will serve as interim prime minister until parliament chooses a replacement.

John Karr is the Director of Digital Media at The Asia Foundation and writes at the “In Asia” blog about the situation in Thailand the morning after, and the long-term effects of the protests and political turmoil.

Adventures in Asian Travel: Thailand

Budget travelers in search of inexpensive Southeast Asian vacation packages take notice: the Constitutional Court of Thailand has disbanded the ruling government party and barred the current Prime Minister, Somchai Wongsawat, from participating in Thai politics for five years.  In short, the occupation of Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi International airport by anti-government protestors is likely to end soon: you will once again be able to visit Thailand and expect to return home on schedule.   And, even better, in an effort to recoup what the Bank of Thailand believes will be close to U.S. $4 billion in lost tourism revenue, you can expect steep discounts.

Unlike this author, who was attempting to return to the U.S. for Thanksgiving after working in Thailand for three weeks, you will not be greeted (and subsequently menaced) at the airport by metal bar-wielding anti-government protestors.  A hastily-planned return to downtown Bangkok from the airport will not be  delayed by tens of thousands of protestors clogging the toll way.  You will not need to stop along the way for roadblocks or “unofficial” vehicle searches. Your airline will know where its planes are, when its planes are arriving and/or departing from Bangkok, and when you call them to ask, they will tell you.

Your departing flight will not be delayed and subsequently cancelled day after day after day.

Should you decide to exit the country via another route, say, one of Thailand’s other international airports, your travel plans will not be complicated by uncertainty and confusion.  These airports will not face similar threats of closure or disruption, and rumors will not swirl around the viability of one port over the other.  If you opt for a land route, you will likely reach your destination without a need to bargain for taxis at the Thai-Cambodia border, taxis made exceedingly scarce by the flood of your fellow travelers attempting to do the very same thing you are doing.

And finally, once you arrive at another country’s airport, you will not need to travel to several additional countries to make a connecting flight home.

Budget travelers take note.

As a potential visitor to the Kingdom, you should know that tourism generates jobs and fuels growth and employment throughout the country.   In the aftermath of the closure of its main international airport, Thailand now faces the real possibility that visitors from around the world will opt for what they perceive to be a more reliable or “safer” vacation spot. For Thailand, billions of dollars will be lost as a result of altered perceptions. Even Thailand’s credit worthiness – the sovereign rating of a country’s ability to service debt – has taken a temporary hit.  Real damage has been done.

Budget travelers should know that most Thais understand the need to repair the reputation of their beloved country with tourists, and most have already begun the long process of drawing people back. In the coming months, your visit to Thailand will likely be a smooth, pleasant, and untroubled event because Thailand is, in reality, a beautiful place, exceedingly welcoming of foreign visitors.  Expect a two-week travel package covering all accommodation expenses and hotel taxes.  Offers may include breakfasts, lunches, and possibly no fewer than 10 dinners.  Expect multiple tours and activities, the services of a trip-leader speaking the language of your choice, baggage handling, and a maybe even a 5 percent credit toward your next trip.  Expect good times.

The people of Thailand want you to visit, and they want you to visit often.  But in addition to offering discounts, Thais must also resolve the long-simmering divisions among their political leaders if they hope to bring visitors back to their country.  Though most perceptions are fleeting, they have the power to shape the choices of travelers in the coming months, and the negative images associated with a visit to Thailand have arisen as a result of real political problems.  These perceptions could harden into a long-term problem if the political conflict continues to spill over into the general population, and it is upon this general population that the economic costs of a reduction in tourism will inflict the greatest damage.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user adaptorplug under a Creative Commons license.

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December 3, 2008
Afghans fear militia rule as U.S. reaches out to tribes


Tribal leaders in Afghanistan.

The U.S.military may begin reaching out to tribal militias for assistance in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda as it reviews its strategy in Afghanistan.

Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn are researchers living in Kandahar and the co-founders of AfghanWire. They write at From the Frontline about the problems of this strategy and Afghan sentiment towards militias.

Panicked Solutions

Special agents from America, Germany and Pakistan are sent to a zoo in Afghanistan to track down some missing rabbits. The western agents start looking around, surveying the field, setting up field offices and establishing contacts. The Pakistani agent goes straight to a zebra.

A few days later, the others still haven’t been able to find a rabbit, so they go over to the Pakistani agent to see how he’s getting along. When they come closer they see him beating the zebra with a big pole, shouting at the top of his lungs: “SAY I’M A RABBIT! SAY I’M A RABBIT!”

This joke was told by a highly respected tribal elder in Kandahar last week at the end of a long and frustrating conversation about American plans to engage the tribes in Afghanistan and their apparent decision to support the (re-)formation of local militias.

It would have been funnier were the situation down here not so critical. Daily NATO bombing throughout the region, occasional suicide attacks within the city, pervasive and unashamed corruption, rising food and fuel prices, and an increasingly brutal campaign of assassinations are just some of the features of everyday life for the average Kandahari.

There is no feeling that the central government in Kabul projects a legitimate source of authority down here either. The reputation of that government – and foreign powers by association – has been muddied over the past 7 years. The early years of US raids and night abductions in Kandahar are still not forgotten; massive and unfiltered corruption has permeated to all levels of the government, often working from top-down and bottom-up at the same time; involvement of these government figures in the drug business goes on at a very high level; the central authorities are too weak to implement their decisions (and are perceived as such), and the parliament functions only as a shadow of itself; there has been no media campaign of any sophistication or that is able to respond with the speed that the Taliban themselves have proved capable; there is a concomitant lack of visible signs of development money – and much vanished in submissions back to western countries anyway; and there has been an effective, sophisticated and prioritized Taliban information and media campaign noting all of the above.

Despite this situation, on Tuesday Afghan parliamentarians emphatically spoke out against President Karzai’s own plan to arm local tribes against the Taliban drawn up by the Tribal Commission. MPs argued that the Afghan army and police force should be strengthened instead.

The authors’ own incidental experience talking to people from all kinds of backgrounds in Kandahar also offers overwhelming evidence that people fear the return of the militias. “If the militia comes, they will do everything,” explained one friend. “They will rape my boys and my wife. There will be no more government. Now we have maybe thirty percent law in the city. With the militia there will be none. It will be the end.”

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user keith stanski under a Creative Commons license.

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December 2, 2008
Q&A: Ask your questions about the conflict in Kashmir

The attacks in Mumbai have brought new attention to an old dispute between India and Pakistan about the land of Kashmir.

The region of 13 million straddles Pakistan, India and China, but India has controlled the majority of Kashmir for decades. Pakistan controls a much smaller area, as does China.

Since 1947, India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the part of Kashmir controlled by India. Though India is mainly Hindu, two-thirds of the population in this part of Kashmir is Muslim, the predominant religion of Pakistan.

An anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir has recently intenstified, and India believes such insurgents may have been responsible for the attacks in Mumbai.

Haley Duschinski is a cultural anthropologist at Ohio University who regularly travels to Kashmir, most recently in February. Her research focuses on violence and war, human rights and transitional justice in Kashmir within the context of the ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan.

Thank you all for your questions. Professor Duschinski has answered them here.

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December 2, 2008
Nepalese government moves to end private schooling


Children at a public school in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Since Maoists took office in Nepal in April, the government has proposed a number of reforms — including a controversial statement by Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai that the government will end private investment in education by 2010 and nationalize all schools.

The country has now imposed a 5 percent tax on private schools in order to better finance rural education. One-third of the country’s 41,000 schools are private and report higher average scores on national tests.

Bhumika Ghimire is a freelance reporter based in the U.S. and writes at citizen journalism portal OhMyNews. She examines Nepal’s taxing system and the controversy over the private school tax.

Nepal: Taxing Education?

In Nepal’s context, the system to collect tax is still very primitive. You can fool the government and not pay your dues for years. There are plenty of big businesses, in heart of capital Kathmandu, who manage to escape every year and yet the government is unable to catch them-forget about taking legal action.

Add to the outdated collection and reporting mechanism, the country is also seriously behind in finding new revenue generating areas. Yes, there is income tax but limited numbers of people earn enough to be in the tax bracket, as for levy on businesses and industries, the chain of corruption runs very strong to actually make a big addition to the national purse.

As a result, every year Nepal loses millions of Rupees. Corruption, outdated mechanisms, tax code fit for a medieval age and lack of enforcement is forcing the country to be dependent on generosity of foreign governments and organizations. It is a matter of national shame.

Enter Maoist leader and Finance Minister Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai. The man who gave Nepal a “pie in the sky” budget earlier this year, promising big changes has finally done some number crunching, it seems. Dr. Bhattarai has now realized that there is not enough money to fund the dreams he promised, so now he is ready to tax Nepalese to make up for the difference.

First sector to be attacked is education, private education institutions to be precise. The minister wants all private education intuitions to pay five percent “educations tax”. He wants the money to be used to educate marginalized children and those in remote Karnali region of Nepal.

Dr. Bhattarai’s desire to educate marginalized children and those in Karnali is noble. But is taxing private educations institutions the only way to achieve that goal? How about cutting down on government expenditure on frivolous items like good for nothing foreign trips (where the minister’s wife and children also tag along), or letting go hundreds of “yes men” hired by the government just to “return favor?” or maybe the minister won’t mind not getting paid for a year or two while the country is rebuilding.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ah zut under a Creative Commons license.

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December 1, 2008
Cities vulnerable as warfare goes urban

A member of the Indian army near the Taj Mahal hotel.

In the wake of the attacks on Mumbai, former Indian army officials have called for a shift in strategy and training to enable the army to better combat urban terrorists.

Saskia Sassen is a professor of sociology at Columbia University working on a project about cities and war. She writes at OpenDemocracy about the growing phenomenon of urban warfare, which puts cities and their residents on the front lines.

Cities and new wars: after Mumbai

The Mumbai attacks of 26-27 November 2008 are part of an emerging type of urban violence. These were organised, simultaneous frontal assaults with grenades and machine-guns on ten high-profile sites in or near the central business and tourism district.

This has affinities with the asymmetric street warfare waged by the gangs in Rio de Janeiro that every now and then announce they will take over a major central area of the city from (say) 9am to 5pm: the result is shuttered shops and empty streets. If the police try to respond, it is open warfare, and the police rarely win – this is a challenge for which the police are not trained. After 5pm the gangs withdraw. It is often said that all of this results from inadequate policing or crime waves.

But that is too simple. There is a deeper transformation afoot. It is still rare but it is more frequently becoming visible. It is as if the centre no longer holds. Cities seem to be losing the capacity they have long had to triage conflict – through commerce, through civic activity. The national state, confronted with a similar conflict, has historically chosen to go to war. In my new research project – on cities and war – I am studying whether cities are losing this capacity and are becoming sites for a range of new types of violence.

Further, the new asymmetric wars have the effect of urbanising war. This brings with it a nasty twist: when national states go to war in the name of national security, nowadays major cities are likely to become a key frontline space. In older conventional wars, large armies needed large open fields or oceans to meet and fight, and these were the frontline spaces.

Today the search for national security may well become a source for urban insecurity. The “war on terror” reveals that cities become the theatres for asymmetric war, regardless of what side of the divide they are – allies or enemies. The attacks in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, are symptomatic. So too is the United States’s conventional military aerial bombing. It took under three weeks to destroy the Iraqi army’s resistance and take over power in 2003. But then the asymmetric wars set in, with Baghdad, Mosul, Basra, and other Iraqi cities the sites of conflict – for years. Indeed, the fact that the Mumbai attackers evidently sought and prized Americans and British among the hostages they took, is clearly related to George W Bush’s declaration of war on Iraq and Britain’s supportive role.

The traditional security paradigm based on national-state security does not accommodate this triangulation. What may be good to protect the national state apparatus may cost major cities and their people a high (increasingly high) price. In the dense and conflictive spaces of cities, a variety of forms of violence can be foreseen.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user USELESSNANO under a Creative Commons license.

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November 27, 2008
Park rangers return to Congo’s imperiled gorillas

More than half of the world’s 700 remaining mountain gorillas live on the edge of a war zone in Congo’s Virunga National Park.

Conflict has ripped through eastern Congo, uprooting thousands of civilians. But violence has also impacted the country’s mountain gorilla population that lives on land that has absorbed much of the fighting.

This week, rangers returned to the park’s main gorilla sector for the first time in over a year. The rangers are now canvassing the forest to determine how many of the gorillas have survived.

Last year in the park, at least 10 gorillas were killed — several shot in the head. Soldiers also captured baby chimpanzees and monkeys and took them as pets.

Rangers at Virunga National Park’s blog write from key patrol posts about their return to the gorillas.

Nov. 25: Up among the mountain gorillas

Today was an extraordinary day. We launched the gorilla survey to get an accurate assessment of the status and health of Virunga’s mountain gorillas after 15 months of conflict.

With Diddy, Innocent, Pierre, Altor from IGCP, and others, we joined the rangers and trackers who remained behind in the Gorilla Sector and moved into the forest. Within an hour, we had found the nests of the Humba group, and after tracking them for ten minutes we began to hear those wonderful familiar grunts.

We almost fell on Humba himself, sitting under a tree, looking at us wondering what all the fuss was about. Humba is the most laid back of all the silverbacks I know, and his wonderful temperament affects the whole group who were all very relaxed. Diddy and Innocent began their work with the trackers and rangers to try to identify all the members of the group. I won’t pre-empt the results which will be published in about one month, except to say that we have nothing to worry about with the Humba group. They’re in good shape.

I have to go down to Rumangabo tomorrow, as there is still an awful lot to do, but the team is remaining up here to continue the survey.

Nov. 22: [Park Ranger] Innocent Returns to Bukima

This afternoon I accompanied Innocent as he and other Rangers tested the road up to the Bukima Patrol Post. The road hadn’t been used in more than a year so it was very difficult, but in the end we made it to the top.

As you can see from the video I filmed, the Rangers were extremely glad to be back after such a long absence. We are now back in Rumangabo, but we left some trackers behind. The plan is to go back up tomorrow morning with all our equipment and look for the Humba gorilla group in the afternoon. We are all very excited to see how they are doing!

To read more, see the Virunga National Park blog.

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Photos courtesy of the Virunga National Park blog.

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November 26, 2008
Islamists likely to shape Somalia’s future

A mass burial of victims killed during fighting in Mogadishu.

Somalia’s offshore and onshore struggles have come to international attention in recent weeks with the focus on pirates hijacking ships and Islamist forces fighting the Western-backed government.

David Axe is an independent correspondent contributing to From the Frontline and World Politics Review. He blogs at “War is Boring” and writes about Islamist gains in Somalia and what Islamist leadership would mean for the country.

Good News, Bad News in Somali Islamists’ Return

Against the backdrop of starvation and warfare, there are signs that Somalia’s decline might soon turn around. At this point in Somalia’s tortured history, the country’s fortunes are tethered to its resurgent Islamist groups.

In early November, one of southern Somalia’s major ports fell to an advancing Islamist army. The U.N. had been using the “beach port” at Merka to deliver thousands of tons of food aid to refugee camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu. With its fall to the Islamists, there was concern that food shipments might be disrupted. But Pete Smerdon, a U.N. spokesman in Nairobi, Kenya, told World Politics Review that there is “no indication” the Islamists’ rise will have any effect at all on the aid effort.

That’s good news, for Islamists likely represent Somalia’s future. This year, two main Islamic groups have made steady gains in the country’s south, two years after they were driven from Mogadishu by a mixed army of Ethiopians, northern Somali militiamen and U.S. Special Forces.

In the aftermath of the Ethiopian invasion, the deposed Union of Islamic Courts and its hardline armed wing, Al Shabab (“The Youth”), launched a brutal insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and sapped the strength not only of the Ethiopians and the Ethiopians’ Somali allies, but also of a small African Union peacekeeping force clinging to life in Mogadishu.

Last year, Al Shabab adopted tactics pioneered by insurgents in Iraq and Lebanon, and announced its support for al-Qaida’s global terror campaign. But soon thereafter, rifts appeared in Al Shabab’s alliance with the more moderate Islamic Courts. Today, Al Shabab and the Courts are barely on speaking terms. They control mostly separate swaths of southern Somalia and, according to sources in Mogadishu, squabble over land in those regions where their presences overlap.

While Al Shabab has few friends in Mogadishu, many city residents are cautiously optimistic that the resurgence of more moderate Islamic groups will mean a measure of law and order not seen in Somalia for two years. The Ethiopians’ stated desire to withdraw their roughly 50,000 troops, plus political infighting between the northern clans, can only hasten the Islamists’ return to power. That the Islamists have left Merka’s aid effort untouched is an indication that regime change might be relatively smooth and minimally bloody.

To read more, see the original post.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user ISN Security Watch under a Creative Commons license.

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