Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Radicalizing the Poor

Steven Zunes is to be commended for writing and Common Dreams for publishing an article on the “old” issue of NATO’s Kosovo campaign because the parallels between that escapade a decade ago and U.S. policy toward the rest of the Muslim world are sobering. Yes, a few eyes are opening a bit in Washington with the arrival of Obama’s spring, enough perhaps to give cynics a moment’s pause, but Washington and the broader American public have still not learned the lessons of America’s adventures with third world rebellions. At best, Americans start in the middle because they can’t be bothered to study history.

The Palestinian predicament is perhaps the most obvious: that desperate group of the dispossessed gets absolutely no attention except when it turns to violence. Americans remains utterly tuned out, unfortunately, although the recent excesses of both Israel and its U.S. lobby may slowly be awakening the tone-deaf.

This is also the story of Lebanon, whether the reference is to Palestinian refugees or Hezbollah’s representation of South Lebanon’s poor Shi’a. I doubt we have heard the last from the former, of whom several hundred thousand remain, despite Sharon’s vicious little 20-year-war. Further spillover from Bush-Cheney’s mishandling of al Qua’ida and post-invasion Iraq is to be expected.

Until the 1960s, Lebanon's Shiites were a neglected, invisible community, oppressed by feudal landlords and disdained by their fellow Lebanese. Today, they are a rising political force, thanks in large part to the militant political movement Hezbollah. It is now a virtual state-within-a-state, with an army of several thousand men, an extensive social service network, a popular satellite television station called al-Manar ("the Beacon of Light"), and an annual budget in excess of $100 million, much of which comes from Iran, Hezbollah's major patron.--source

As for Hezbollah, after Sharon’s 1982 invasion provoked Hezbollah’s formation and Israel’s 2006 invasion consolidated its image, Hezbollah’s political position continues to improve. But these, like Kosovo, are issues Americans are content to ignore.

South Asia is another matter. Surely everyone must by now be aware that the Afghan Taliban took control in the 1990s after the U.S. walked away, leaving post-Soviet Afghanistan in chaos. And surely everyone must by now be aware we are losing the resultant war. Not only are we losing in Afghanistan, now we are beginning to pay the price for ignoring the plight of marginalized Pushtuns in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

According to former adviser to Petraeus in Afghanistan Australian David Kilcullen:

Pakistan is 173 million people, 100 nuclear weapons, an army bigger than the U.S. Army, and al-Qaeda headquarters sitting right there in the two-thirds of the country that the government doesn't control. The Pakistani military and police and intelligence service don't follow the civilian government; they are essentially a rogue state within a state. We're now reaching the point where within one to six months we could see the collapse of the Pakistani state, also because of the global financial crisis, which just exacerbates all these problems.

The problem of insurgencies being provoked by the failure of “the system” to permit participation by the marginalized applies to non-Muslim regions, as well, of course. The inability of Colombia’s impoverished peasants to get any respect or fair treatment from rich cattle barons until the FARC arose to lead them in rebellion is the classic example.

An underlying theme in all of these disputes is that the oppressed are ignored as long as they “know their place,” which enrages and radicalizes. Then Americans interfere, to be polite, “in ignorance,” claiming they offer peace but siding with the oppressors and innocently asking “why they hate us.”

The disastrous Pakistani military “victory” in Bajaur last August, which resulted in half a million refugees who are still being treated more like prisoners than victims, is a case in point. The Pakistani army effectively employed Israeli tactics of effectively making war on civilians, and reports suggest that Bajaur today looks very much like Gaza. According to well-connected Asia Times reporter Syed Saleem Shahzad, this campaign came as the result of “immense U.S. pressure.”

The American approach to these rebellions in search of justice is to screw the lid of the pressure cooker tighter, in the name of “stability” but without turning down the “heat.” Denied civil services, economic development, and the option of effective peaceful political participation, enforcing short-term stability through military suppression of protest only gives the pressure of frustration more time to build. This in turn empowers extremism (Taliban reformers become Taliban oppressors and U.S. client regimes start bombing villages; FARC revolutionaries become FARC drug-dealers and cattle barons do the same). A cynic would accuse Washington politicians of adopting such a policy intentionally to exploit chaos. (Neil Clark’s essay on “corporate takeover of the ruins of Baghdad and Pristina” is must reading.) Others may attribute Washington’s behavior to ignorance. Either way, it is an increasingly dangerous and ineffective strategy: not only are the original socio-political issues not resolved but local politics become radicalized and Americans become the target.

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