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November 5, 2009
A Marine’s thoughts on the open debate over Afghanistan

A U.S. Marine who is an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army discusses the negative effects that an open debate on troop levels and strategy in Afghanistan can have on the effort there. The personal views expressed here do not reflect the views of the U.S. military.

Read more about his experience overseas in his blog, Embedded in Afghanistan.

The wait continues for the president’s decision on General McChrystal’s recommendation. The unfortunate aspect of all of this business is that the debate is taking place in the public eye. While having a public debate on the efficacy of sending more troops certainly satisfies the exigencies of American politics, it’s most certainly not beneficial to the war effort as a whole. I say this because if the decision is made to not send more troops, or even not send as many as asked for the by the general, we will be perceived by the Afghan government, people, and security forces as abandoning them and losing our will to fight the insurgents. I can confirm that the ANA leaders I habitually talked with were always worried about our ability to stick things out and did not want to see us go anywhere until the country had progressed significantly.

Perception is an incredibly important part of any counter-insurgency, as winning the support of the people should ultimately lead to victory. I can confirm that many of the people of Afghanistan don’t really care who wins this war, just so long as someone wins it, and they can live a semblance of a normal life…i.e. the people will support the side that appears to be on the path to victory.

For these reasons, any action leading to the perception of weakness or lack of commitment on our part needs to be scrupulously avoided. It would have been better to avoid all of this public debate on the issue…unless the request is granted of course, in which case we may take some small benefit from all of this publicizing of our intentions on the matter.

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

November 3, 2009
Straddling the two Koreas: DMZ diplomacy with Major Im

North Korean Major Im Dong-chul. Photos: Ben Piven

Part 3 of 6 in our Inside the Hermit Kingdom series on the people and culture of North Korea. Worldfocus multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about his encounter with Major Im Dong-chul while on the north side of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.

Since 1953, it has been the world’s most militarized border. Bill Clinton has called it the scariest place on earth. Undoubtedly, my most compelling moment in North Korea was at the DMZ — Demilitarized Zone.

Many Americans visit the south side of the 2.5-mile wide buffer zone that runs across the 38th parallel, dividing the Communist north from the democratic south. But our group was given a rare glimpse of the north side, where more than one million soldiers lie in waiting.

Our tour guide, Im Dong-chul, was a 21-year veteran of the Korean People’s Army with a sharp jaw and oval eyes. He offered us our only opportunity to engage in real political conversation with a North Korean soldier. Although the dialogue began with tremendous tension, we moved toward a cordial rapport during our 90 minutes together.

Speaking in Korean, Major Im fielded questions about war and peace. The major and I squared off, with two dozen others crowded around, and I seized the challenge of bilateral hardball. I was simultaneously engaged as a journalist and a diplomat. And since Americans of neither profession are common in North Korea, the task at hand was immense.

Promoting the elusive two-party talks sought by North Korea, I asked what message I should relay to President Obama.

Major Im, with the line of control and U.S.-administered building on the South Korean side in the far background.

“The U.S. should end its hostile attitude towards the DPRK by withdrawing its forces from the Korean peninsula. This is the biggest issue blocking reunification,” he said.

“As a representative of the American people, I know that we voted for a new president because we wanted big changes in foreign policy,” I responded. “President Obama is sincere, but he’s busy with a dozen other problems.”

“If every American were like you, there would be peace,” he concluded. “And I hope Obama’s policy shift happens soon.”

I apologized for American bombers leveling Pyongyang during the Korean War, and the major responded to my empathy. I then reiterated the bottom line of denuclearization: the north needs to implement security guarantees for the south.

It was shocking that Major Im even tolerated our input. Apparently, American tourists had never engaged him before. We too felt the pressure, especially in the DMZ meeting room straddling the Korean border.

I wondered about the significance of the exchange. I had come to terms with our contribution to the tourist economy but hoped that we were not becoming apologists for the state’s Juche ideology.

Back at the hotel that night, we noticed signs of diplomatic progress on BBC World News. But the process is cyclical: the North relaxes its stance, opens to talks, and then postures militarily after making impossible demands. The leadership clams up, afraid to risk humiliation at the bargaining table.

Later in the trip, we heard endless misinformation at the Korean War museum and during our tour of the captured U.S.S. Pueblo spy ship.

In the conference room that straddles the line of control between the two Koreas.

We were told repeatedly that the Korean War was used to lift the Americans out of the depression and that the U.S. had initiated the war.

Yet, we heard not a peep about the American role in liberating Korea from Japan in World War Two, though we often heard more animosity toward the Japanese than toward the sworn American enemy.

During five days in the DPRK, North Korean people never reacted contemptuously to our group as Americans. While anti-American dogma figures into museums and monuments, strangers were deferential and usually avoided us. Tourism workers were often excessively nice, especially if we addressed them in Korean or Mandarin.

My conversation with Major Im was a small but promising victory for the prospects of diplomacy aimed at bringing the world’s most isolated, nuclear-armed regime in from the cold.

– Ben Piven

November 2, 2009
Hillary Clinton’s message to Pakistan

Hillary Clinton meets with Pakistan’s Prime Minister. Photo: Flickr user americagov

S. Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani diplomat, is now a professor at Seton Hall University. He blogs about the U.S. Secretary of State’s recent trip to South Asia.

U.S.-Pakistan relations have witnessed many ups and downs in the past decades. This is not an infrequent phenomenon in bilateral relations. A perfect congruence of interests between any two states even neighbors — say, the US and Mexico — is well-nigh impossible. So the Pakistanis appreciated the fact that Hillary Clinton was spending three days in their midst. In the past weeks, they have been at the receiving end of horrific suicide attacks from the Pakistani Taliban, which have claimed the lives of more than 200 army and police personnel, as well as innocent men, women and children. These attacks even included a foray into the heavily guarded Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, which shook the Pakistani army. The Pakistani Taliban had hoped to forestall the Army’s long awaited assault on their bases in the tribal areas of South Waziristan, but their efforts failed. The Army launched the assault a few weeks ago.

Clinton’s diplomatic talents were on full display as she conducted herself among a cross section of the Pakistani nation reeling from terrorist outrages. She must have gauged that most Pakistanis support the Army’s actions to destroy the military power of the Pakistani Taliban in the forbidding wastes of South Waziristan. The U.S. leaders have pronounced themselves “impressed” by the Pakistani counter-terrorism operations in that area. The home town of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, has been captured, and he is in hiding. He is a marked man. As I have stated before, there is much riding on this Army operation to militarily degrade the Mehsud militia.

Simultaneously, the Pakistani leadership must take effective action against violent extremists in Southern Punjab who appear to have linked up with the Pakistani Taliban and remnants of al-Qaeda in the remote regions bordering Afghanistan. What was refreshing was Clinton’s affirmation that U.S.-Pakistan relations were too important to be confined only to the counter-terrorism sphere. U.S. help and that of the Friends of Pakistan group which contains many wealthy countries, could be crucial in advancing Pakistan’s socioeconomic development.

Violent extremism will only abate through the accelerated provision of education and employment opportunities. Unemployed youth with no other means of subsistence have to be made stakeholders. They will then join civil society as productive members instead of being recruited as suicide bombers.

Clinton pointedly reminded Pakistanis in her various meetings that the economic inequality between a small rich minority and a large deprived majority is a recipe for violence and unrest. I hope that her frank advice will be heeded by the Pakistani establishment.

Clinton also reassured Pakistanis that the U.S. will not abandon Pakistan this time. Both countries have a huge stake in ridding the region of fanatical obscurantists who want to drag South Asia into the Dark Ages. Let’s hope she means what she says.

October 28, 2009
Taiwanese Internet gamers addicted to ‘Happy Farm’

A Taiwanese gamer playing Happy Farm on Facebook.
Photo: Flickr user copycatko

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.  She writes about the current Taiwanese obsession with a Facebook game.

“Happy Farm,” a six-month-old Facebook application, has spawned millions of cyber farmers across the island. According to the game developer, Taiwanese fans constitute up to 80 percent of the 3.7 million members of “Happy Farm.” Thanks to its popularity, Facebook’s reach rate in August was up 60 percent from July, which helped Taiwan post the highest growth in new Facebook members worldwide during September.

The rule of “Happy Farm” is quite simple: You come, you seed, you conquer. Each virtual farmer is allowed to set up farms, grow crops and raise livestock in a fiercely competitive environment. Points are won not only by one’s hard work but also his craft in stealing from friends when they are offline.

However, not everyone is happy with “Happy Farm.” Taiwanese premier Wu Den-yih recently had to step in to discourage people–especially civil servants–from playing it.

Wu’s comment came after several server shut-downs at local police stations because too many police were playing the game at work. The authority also worried that “crop-stealing” might hurt the image of the police.

The Happy Farm craze has set Taiwanese society in circus. In private companies, managers have issued statements to make clear that “harvesting in an air-conditioned room is immoral.” Some restaurants have even been renovated to resemble the “Happy Farm” interface to attract customers!

Students are complaining that too much work has made them unable to wake up in the middle of night to guard their crops; even drug dealers have been seen using the game to contact customers and establish new networks.

Experts say that overuse of Happy Farm didn’t come out of thin air, though. Taiwanese people are generally overworked, and it is the fatigue generated by heavy workload, experts argue, that leaves people no choice but to get connected through the Internet as much as possible.

According to the 2008 World Competitiveness Yearbook published by the Lausanne-based business school IMD, Taiwan’s working hours were ranked as the fifth-longest in the world – behind Mexico, Hong Kong, South Korea and India.

Since each Taiwanese employee has to work an average of 2,256 hours a year, experts said “Happy Farm” provides an ideal environment for self-indulgence at work. While taking care of your own farm brings contentment, getting a taste of humanity by stealing crops somehow eases the feeling of isolation.

Now, pardon me for ending my article here. I really need to get back to my farm to collect some pumpkins.

October 27, 2009
U.S. continues to tango with Osama and the Taliban

A Burka-clad woman in Afghanistan. Photo: Flickr user YanBoechat

S. Azmat Hassan, a former Pakistani diplomat, is now a professor at Seton Hall University.  He writes about the unending search for Osama bin Laden and why the U.S. should shift its strategy.

The month of October marks the eighth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. It is now over eight years since the Bush administration successfully removed the Taliban regime from power in Kabul. But there was a crucial difference between the US eviction of Saddam from Kuwait and forcible regime change in Afghanistan.

In the former case the U.S. led coalition made sure that the Iraqi Army was destroyed. In the case of the Taliban many of their soldiers were allowed to escape to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. Inexplicably, they were not pursued and neutralized. The Taliban lived to fight another day, and today they have regrouped to become a formidable fighting force.

Similarly, Osama bin Laden, who was virtually trapped in the Tora Bora Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, eluded capture. His whereabouts have remained unknown despite the millions of dollars spent on the largest manhunt in history. A FBI reward promising $25 million for information leading to his arrest has also proved unavailing so far. More pertinent I believe is the question: how relevant is bin Laden to America’s security concerns?

Bin Laden’s views may still appeal to a scattered following in Yemen, Somalia, parts of North Africa and elsewhere, but his ability to energize a vast multitude of Muslims to fight America seems to have been seriously compromised.

So the time has probably come to lessen our morbid fascination with the man. The Taliban leadership in Afghanistan may have already written him off as a credible ally. Instead of continuing to expend resources and efforts to find Bin Laden, it may be better for the US to reach out to elements among the Afghan Taliban.The attempt should be to wean them away from the diehard elements around Mullah Omar.

This effort would require, in security expert Bruce Hoffman’s words, “intelligence on the ground.” Do the U.S. and NATO have enough Pashto-speaking operatives deployed in Afghanistan to accomplish this task? If the Taliban commanders can be assured of a power sharing arrangement in the Afghan government, the present fraught situation in Afghanistan could conceivably take a turn for the better.

The Pashtun tribesmen do not form a monolithic bloc. It is military confrontation by the US that unites them against what they perceive to be a foreign military occupying their land. If they see the prospect of an end to the Afghan war through co-optation in the Afghan government, they may be willing to lay down their weapons.

I believe it is desirable to explore this option to end a ruinous war which if pursued militarily alone, could last indefinitely. This prospect would not be in the interest of any of the principal actors. It would probably engender more turmoil, more bloodshed and more agony in that region, with ominous consequences for all.

October 22, 2009
Chatting with a German officer in chaotic Afghanistan

An Afghani shopkeeper in Herat. Photo: Khushbu Shah

Khushbu Shah studied political science at Berkeley then did a Masters in conflict studies at the London School of Economics. She currently lives in Kabul and conducts research for a consulting firm.

I never say no to a meal in Afghanistan that consists of anything besides the usual combination of greasy meat and greasy rice. When my manager called me around noon last week to join her inside our gated compound for “special company and gourmet food,” I was already ringing her doorbell before she hung up the phone.

As I strolled in, four men in military uniform turned around. My boss flashed a mischievous albeit discreet grin my way.

As I realized that this was my first encounter with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and I had a million questions to shoot their way.

As the instant Starbucks coffee was poured into steaming cups, I cornered one of the guests, a lieutenant colonel from the German Armed Forces Technical Advisory Group (GAFTAG). I hounded the worn out and lieutenant-colonel with questions about his interaction with the Afghans who worked under his auspices in maintaining equipment for the burgeoning Afghan army.

Because he mentors Afghans willing to join the international forces for work, he worries constantly about how their equipment is not always up to international standards. There is also a lack of understanding between his team and the national staff in terms of the relative importance of their jobs.

Showing a remarkable amount of passion and sincerity that I did not expect from a man in his position, he constantly referred his frustration with getting his Afghan workers to take their jobs seriously. His mentee chose this job maintaining equipment because it was close to his home, he knew the Afghan in charge and he got to stay in Kabul.

When the colonel brought more than $2,000 USD worth of new equipment for his mentee, the first thing out of the man’s mouth was,” But where is my present?” According to the lieutenant colonel, this mentality has become prevalent over the last decade of international assistance because people prioritize their individual own survival and their immediate concerns: money and presents.

We mulled over the the need to strengthen the the Afghan National Army (ANA). We also lamented the fact that an ANA soldier makes $70 a month versus over $1,000 for a UN driver. Also, the lieutenant colonel adamantly stressed the need for a stronger police force as the basis for post-conflict reconstruction.

Finally, of course, I had to ask him about Obama’s impending decision and the possibility of an increase in American troops. Surprisingly, his answer was not the one I expected. He replied with a simple statement, “If the current number of troops have shown no promise of improvement or change, then there is no point in increasing the number now or later.”

I have days where I meet private security contractors and end up throwing out many harsh words. Generally, it is a battle between the humanitarians, journalists, and NGO workers versus the security contractors and ISAF, but this was a conversation to remember. Not once did I feel the urge to launch a verbal assault, and in actuality, I gained a new perspective on the ISAF’s daily struggles.

– Khushbu Shah

October 21, 2009
South Korea struggles to provide for more North Koreans

Pyongyang residents at the Arch of Triumph. Photo: Ben Piven

The South Korean government says that the number of North Korean refugees in South Korea has surpassed 16,000, and recent immigrants are generally uneducated and underemployed. Worldfocus contributing blogger Jamblichus writes about their plight.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry has requested 9.3 billion won (US$7.9 million) to beef up its resettlement facilities for defectors from the North as the number of refugees arriving from its destitute neighbor keeps climbing.

According to the ministry’s 2010 budget proposal, Seoul plans to spend just over four million dollars to build a second Hanawon, a resettlement center for defectors and around three million dollars to establish smaller “Hana” support centers across the nation.

Lets hope that those doling out the cash take the request seriously (the ministry has requested a 25% budget increase for next year) for North Korean refugees are becoming a growing underclass in the South whose needs current resettlement facilities are hugely under-equipped to accommodate.

Until the late 1990s, the number of North Koreans defecting to the South remained insignificant, totaling just 86 between 1990 and 1994 and remaining in double-digits each year until 1999. Numbers began to shoot up thereafter — following a devastating famine in the North — with 583 arriving in South Korea in 2001 and 1,139 the following year.

On February 16, 2007, the unification ministry pulled a cracker for Chairman Kim Jong-il on his birthday by announcing that the total number of Northern refugees arriving in the South had reached 10,000; just 32 months later there are now more than 16,000. You do the math.

The first wave — in fact more a gentle ripple — of defectors were largely drawn from the North Korean elite. But recent defectors have often been young and unskilled, hailing from the communist state’s North Hamgyong province. The sheer numbers have meant they are treated no longer as romantic escapees deserving of full approbation by the southern public — but a burden on the taxpayer, somewhat unsophisticated and potentially threatening to the social order.

The South’s rigid and hyper-competitive education system looks almost designed to alienate young defectors further from an already difficult-to-crack South Korean society. And while there are success stories — from world champion female boxer Choi Hyun-mi to journalist Kang Chol-hwan — the vast majority wind up unemployed.

A survey of 654 defectors that was conducted in December 2006, showed that 45.1% were unemployed, 30% had part-time employment, 13.1% had temporary employment, and only 11.8% were either self-employed or had full-time employment. Another survey conducted by Professor Park Sang-an of Seoul National University in the same year came up with an unemployment rate of over 67%.

Things may have improved since then, but I’m guessing not dramatically, particularly given the sheer increase in numbers arriving. Another survey reported by the Chosun Ilbo in 2007 found more than half of North Korean teens in South Korea drop out of school, a staggering figure compared to the 1-2 per cent drop out rate for South Korean students.

Given the numbers, seven million bucks doesn’t sound like all that much. There’s only so long South Korea can afford such a failure of integration — as defector numbers burgeon — before the problem becomes significantly more visible. Let’s hope the Unification Ministry gets its money.

October 20, 2009
The end of the world — or a new conspiracy theory?

Mayan-inspired artifacts in Yucatan, Mexico. Photo: Flickr user ncreedplayer

Many conspiracy theorists, contradicting the claims of most scientists, point to 2012 as the year of the apocalypse. They often cite the Mayan calendar as evidence that doomsday will occur just over two years down the road.

Blogger Sean Goforth writes how the Mayans do not actually see 2012 as the end of the world — but merely as the end of a time cycle — and how most have more pragmatic concerns.

According to History Channel lore the Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. Indeed the Long Count calendar, one of several used by the Maya, reaches the end of a 394-year cycle, known as a Baktun, at about that time. The Long Count calendar begins in 3114 BCE; hence, 2012 AD will mark the end of the 13th Baktun.

Popular consciousness has conflated “Mayan calendar” and “end of cycle, 2012,” interpreted ‘cycle’ to mean ‘existence’, and spawned a rumor mill that the world is on the brink of destruction. Turns out, global demise is at hand, rife with meteors, tidal waves, “pole shifts”, nuclear annihilation, etc. I, for one, was unaware until last semester. While returning mid-term exams, a student quipped that his grade didn’t matter because everyone is going to die in three years anyway. Normally a quiet bunch, I found myself among a chorus of doomsdayers. The speculation seems unlikely to abate—next month the apocalyptic thriller “2012” will debut in theatres.

Unlike other doomsday prophecies, this one contains a germ of archeological and astronomical truth. Along a rural path in southern Mexico, a tablet known as Monument Six was discovered in the 1960s. Inscriptions on the ruin note the year 2012 and speak of something happening with Bolon Yokte, a Mayan god associated with war and creation. One section of Monument Six roughly translates as, “He will descend from the sky.” A little eerie perhaps, but nothing too damning when put in context. David Stuart, an expert on Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas, states, “The Maya never said the world was going to end, never said anything bad was going to happen necessarily, they are just recording this future anniversary on Monument Six.” The Maya also plausibly cited 2012 because they were astronomical prodigies. Upon the 2012 winter solstice the sun will line up with the center of our Milky Way, an occasion that only comes around every 25,800 years.

But the idea of the clock “running out” in 2012 is a Western invention. The Maya in fact celebrated the end of cycles, so the transition from the 13th Baktun to the 14th should be greeted, if anything, with revelry. And the Maya noted dates beyond 2012. Guillermo Bernal of Mexico’s National Autonomous University points out inscriptions at various Mayan sites reference future dates as far away as 4772. Part of the misinterpretation emerges from the Mayan practice of pre-recording important dates.

Still, experts are getting rather frustrated with the hubbub surrounding the Mayan calendar. Apolinario Chile Pixtin, a Mayan elder, is annoyed: “I came back from England last year, and man, they had me fed up with this stuff.” Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, calls the doomsday scenario “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.” Academics and Maya elders instead believe Earth in 2012 will be hit by a “meteor shower of new age philosophy” and pop astronomy, no doubt teased by TV specials.

Ruminating on doomsday in three years may be engrossing, but it’s a luxury many Maya don’t have. A drought-stricken 2009 is proving quite harsh. According to one Yucatan archeologist, if you went to Maya Yucatan communities and said the world might end in 2012, “They wouldn’t believe you. We have real concerns these days, like rain.”

– Sean Goforth

October 19, 2009
Moving beyond “Afpak” in U.S. foreign policy

A Waziri man in Bela, Pakistan. Photo: Flickr user sahrizvi

S. Azmat Hassan is a former Pakistani diplomat.  He is now a professor at Seton Hall University.  He writes about the current Pakistani military campaign in South Waziristan and what the U.S. should do in the troubled region.

After months of planning, the Pakistani army has finally dispatched 38,000 troops into the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of South Waziristan. President Zardari and Army Chief Kiyani doubtlessly hope for a knockout blow to the newly anointed leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. How much support Hakimullah enjoys among his fierce and warlike fellow tribesmen, the Mehsuds, is not known.

Military analysts estimate that Hakimullah commands around 10,000 fighters including 1500 battle-hardened Uzbeks from Uzbekistan. The Pakistani Taliban may be numerically outnumbered but have the advantage of terrain, tribal solidarity and extremist ideology.

It is crucial for the Pakistani army to blunt the power of the Mehsud group. A stalemate this time will be interpreted as a serious setback which could have ominous repercussions for the Zardari-led civilian government. If Hakimullah stands his ground, his stature among violent extremists in the region will grow. The ability of the Afghan Taliban to continue to use Pakistan’s lawless and ungovernable tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan as sanctuaries will continue unimpeded. Therefore there is much riding on the Pakistani operation. Its reverberations will be felt not only in Islamabad and Kabul but also in Washington, London and other Western capitals.

The modern history of Afghanistan is a sorry saga of continual blundering by the Afghans, the Soviets, the Americans and the Pakistanis. The Afghan leadership fell into the lap of the Soviets in the 1970’s, and the Soviets committed the original sin in 1979 of invading, occupying and brutalizing a poor neighbor which had done it no harm. The famous Soviet physicist and Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, said it best when he stated, “The war in Afghanistan itself was criminal, a criminal adventure taken on, undertaken by who knows who, and who knows [who] bears the responsibility for this enormous crime of our motherland.” The US turned their backs on a broken Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in defeat in 1989. This was a sure recipe for radicalizing the region.

The Pakistani security establishment trained and groomed the Taliban after the latter captured power in Kabul in 1996. Today the Pakistani Taliban has turned on their former mentors. For the Pakistani leadership and common people, they have become Frankensteinian monsters.

The Obama administration made a big error in coining its so-called ‘Afpak’ strategy. What was required were two different approaches for two different, albeit neighboring, countries, with not much in common between them. Conflating the two and putting them in the same basket showed both ignorance and unfamiliarity with the political dynamics of both.  I am glad Obama is reviewing Afpak. He should treat both countries as separate entities, and the U.S. should craft different approaches to them. Hopefully Richard Holbrooke after his numerous visits to both nations has been able to advise Hilary Clinton and Obama suitably.

To succeed in its campaign, the Pakistani army will have to take a crash course in counterinsurgency warfare. Conventional land wars and confronting Taliban insurgents in their mountainous bases are as different as chalk and cheese.  The Pakistanis desperately need counterinsurgency materiel such as attack helicopters, electronic surveillance devices, night vision goggles, etc. The U.S. should cut out the bureaucratic red tape and provide such assistance quickly. It is in their interest that the Pakistani army succeed in their assault on their mutual enemies.

Finally, I would advise the Pakistani planners and their American allies to locate and cut off the financial support available to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. This is an achievable task. The UN and Interpol can provide help, as can the European Union, the Iranians, Russians and other interested parties. Without sizable financial support, such insurgencies wither away sooner rather than later. That is how al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former strength. This is the most effective way to defang the two Talibans.

October 19, 2009
Rewriting history in East Asia

A Japanese textbook criticized for whitewashing war crimes.

Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus,  is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.  She blogs here about an unusual proposal by the Japanese foreign minister, and the roadblocks to pan-Asian unity.

During a lecture at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan last week, Japan’s Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada suggested that China, Japan and South Korea write a common history book.

The proposal set East Asian nations buzzing.

Japan has been notorious for its distortions of the historical record – propagated in the Japanese education system –  that whitewash the war crimes of Imperial Japan before and during World War II.

The  Japanese approach to history has caused turmoil in the region for decades.  According to a survey conducted by Chinese media,  Twenty-three percent of respondents said the biggest obstacle preventing trilateral cooperation among the three nations is “dispute over history.”

But after Japan’s general election in August,  the country seems to be at a turning point in many ways.  New Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama is endeavoring to fix fragile trilateral relations by introducing the concept of “Yuai,” the Japanese term of fraternity.

China and South Korea apparently were pleased with the idea of a common history book.  “It is a good idea to make a textbook based on a common recognition of the past histories of the three East Asian nations,” a presidential spokesman in South Korea said, “however, it will be a long-term and painstaking project.”

Indeed, in Japan, conservative nationalists have already held several rallies, accusing Okada of being a “madman” or a traitor.”  The road to consensus building doesn’t look so smooth.

Still, there have been precedents for former foes sitting down to write history textbooks together. In 2006, France and Germany co-authored the textbook in response to calls from high school students of both countries. The history textbook not only touches on the arduous reconstruction during the post-war era but also examines the war crimes of Nazi Germany.

François Fillon, the then-French Minister of National Education, noted, “We have lived through centuries in which the interpretation and writing of history nourished a ferment of bitterness between us.  We are now seizing the opportunity to make it the bond that unites us.”

Can we Asians apply the European model here, despite the fact that hatred, mistrust and animosity have kept us apart for centuries?

To me, the answer is yes.

I believe the concept of “Yuai” is the first step in reaching out to one another. I believe there is something shared by all mankind — something strong enough to break the boundaries of time and space, gender and race — that could bring us together once again.

Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

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