Palestine Issue Remains Key To Stability, Peace: Top US Official

THE PALESTINE issue might have dropped off the front pages of late, but it remains fundamental to peace in the region, a top US official has said.

Talking to a select group of mediapersons in Muscat yesterday (June 21, 2011), Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, said a two-state solution was not only in the interest of the Middle East, but for the United States as well.

“But we have to overcome a lot of mistrust, a lot of history for that,” he said, while adding that the solution has to be eked out through negotiations only.

“The Israelis need to recognize the Palestinians’ concerns on territory and the Palestinians need to understand the Israelis’ concerns over security.”

In Oman for consultations with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said and Omani government officials on issues of mutual interest, Feltman waxed eloquent on the constructive way in which the Sultanate had dealt with the aspirations of its people.

“We recognise that, in Oman, the prospects for continued development and advancement are bright as they are guided by a positive vision.


Against violence

“I had the opportunity to hear the Omani perspective on regional issues, and I look forward to conveying it to my government.

“Oman is an old and important ally in this part of the world, and we seek its values,” he said.

Picking the regional issues, especially in the context of the recent developments, he made clear the US does not condone violence, neither from the protestors, nor from the governments.

While noting his country’s support for the universal principles of freedoms and human rights for people across the world, Feltman stressed Arab Spring was not about the US.

“When people gathered at Tahrir Square, it was not because the US had told them to. They may have been angry with US policies, but that was not the reason why they had assembled there.

“People in this part of the world or elsewhere want to feel that they have a say in the decisions that affect them… their economic future, their political future.”

He, however, agreed there was no one size that fitted all solutions. “Every country has its own uniqueness, its unique history, unique circumstances.”

On Libya, he noted how there had been a healthy debate in the US on exercising the quantum of firepower. “But the Gaddafi forces are getting weaker every day,” he pointed out, while revealing about talk of some countries replacing others for a period of time in the Nato operations.

“In Bosnia, it took two-and-a-half years.

“In Libya, it took 33 days,” he said of the time it took the international community to start operations to stop the massacre of people.

“I was in Benghazi a month ago. The contrast with atmosphere in Tripoli is remarkable. There is fear in Tripoli.”

(This article first appeared on the Front page in the Times of Oman newspaper on June 22, 2011. Click the link to the PDF below to view the page)

New A01 New A02

In Search Of A New Afghanistan: A Book

IN SEARCH of a new Afghanistan, a book by Indian author Sujeet Kumar Sarkar, treads the extra mile to unearth the layers and layers of myths about a war-ravaged country. These myths, Sarkar tells Mehre Alam, have been carefully nurtured by a ‘biased’ media

(This article appeared in the Times of Oman newspaper on August 7, 2012)

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IT’S A search that is bound to debunk a thousand myths. In search of a new Afghanistan. That goes the name of the new book authored by Sujeet Kumar Sarkar, an international developmental professional, who sheds completely new light on a region largely “stereotyped by the Western media”.

Explaining the raison d’etre of this endeavour, Sarkar, in an exclusive interview with the Times of Oman, he said, “My book attempts at unveiling several lesser known facts helping to create an alternative understanding about Afghanistan, for the first time.”

Sarkar, who has worked in Afghanistan for over six years as an international advisor on governance, also felt there was a need to undertake an in-depth study into some of the key issues that needed serious deliberation.

“After 9/11, Afghanistan resurfaced on the map, assuming strategic importance for its regional neighbours as well as the broader international community; it became a critical link, so to say, in achieving both regional and global peace and security,” said the author, who had his formal education in rural development in India and then pursued an advance course in Washington.

Sarkar is convinced that the media has been playing to the gallery ever since 9/11, shaping international perceptions of Afghanistan.

“Sensational press reportage from Afghanistan was more often than not just perfunctory and even biased. Sustained, comprehensive and authentic reports from ground zero were rare. Very few had the opportunity to take a peek into the heart of this country and debate on the real issues plaguing this nascent democracy,” the author said.

What were the initial challenges in collecting and collating the material for this book? “My job profile in Afghanistan, as an international advisor in governance, has been greatly demanding. I also learnt the local language, Dari, to be able to remain objectively connected to the pulse of this nation,” he explained.

In course of his professional stint in Afghanistan, which kicked off in 2005, he had the opportunity to closely witness the development processes across all echelons of society — from rural to urban areas, from north to militant-infested south, from governance to the governed, and more importantly, from ordinary citizens to the power corridors of Kabul — all of which Sarkar has meticulously recorded in the book.

Most of his inputs for this book have come from his consultations with a wide range of stakeholders during his stay in Afghanistan. He also had had informal discussions with Afghans from various walks of life, about the various facets of their lives. These notes, debates and discussions form the crux of his book.

Ten years since the war began in Afghanistan and billions of dollars spent, what has been the tangible progress for a common Afghan? “In reality, the country is grappling with a lack of financial resources to fast track its development process,” Sarkar replied.

“This may come as a surprise to many that the US and the West have actually committed a bulk of their aid around military support, rather than development, in Afghanistan, in the last one decade.

“In fact, 90 per cent of the resources provided by the Western countries in the name of rebuilding Afghanistan are largely used by these countries to service their military apparatus, to tame the Taleban and irreversibly degrade their capabilities,” he explained.

Sarkar is also convinced that had the US and the Western policy makers employed more resources in development, rather than military operation, one would have seen a very different Afghanistan by now.

“The whole world has to understand that military operation is not going to bring in the desirable results. Without strategic stress on development, it will be impossible to ameliorate the conditions of the citizens reeling from almost three decades of civil war and terrorism. Development

alone can win the hearts and minds of Afghans and connect them to the mainstream nation-building process. This would further reduce the influence and grip of Taleban over the common man in Afghanistan.

“In fact, the very inability of the State to fast track the development response and assuage the suffering of the common man is helping Taleban to gain ground, especially in the volatile southern provinces.”

Sarkar is also convinced that despite the ongoing hurdles, including a worsening law and order situation owing to a resurgent Taleban, Afghanistan has made some good progress, especially in the sectors of education, infrastructure, health etc.

“Things are not as grim as painted by the international media. One has to understand the dynamics and intricacies of the development and reconstruction process in Afghanistan before holding any perception about it, and more importantly, before getting sucked away by popular notions.”

How fatigued is the common man from the war? “The common Afghan is completely exhausted. He lives on a tiny vestige of hope and the least he expects is some peace and stability, if not rapid prosperity and growth.

“The State needs to expand the scale and scope of public services immediately to assuage the suffering of the masses, but is unable to do so due to resource scarcity on one hand, and the growing Taleban unrest on the other.

“While it has been possible, to some extent, to redress the common man’s plight in the Northern provinces, the volatile southern belt — the traditional stronghold of Taleban — still poses a huge problem. This is exasperating the common man and alienating him from the State, which in turn is making the Taleban stronger and helping them gain from the unfolding situation in Afghanistan.”

So, is development the real answer to all the ills that plague this picturesque country? “In the last one decade the focus has been more on degrading the capabilities of Taleban than development. For every single dollar that is being invested for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, 90 per cent of it goes into security operations. And after one decade of military efforts, Taleban have grown stronger than ever. The military operation of the last decade has been counter-productive in some sense. I have explained in my book how two terrorists grow out of one killed by the NATO forces.

“Military operation is not the solution in Afghanistan. The international community should expand the development budget and invest more resources in development. This would allow the State to provide public services to the war-weary citizens and address their crying needs.

“This would also allow the State to connect the citizens in the fold of a nation, otherwise better organized in terms of their ethnicity, region and even local leaders. I am glad that there is a growing realization among the international community now.

“At the recently concluded Tokyo conference, the international community pledged $16 billion for fast tracking the development process. This is a marked difference from their initial approach towards Afghanistan.”

Finally, would he narrate any unforgettable incident/s while working on the book? “I once witnessed a suicide bombing from as close as 40 meters. It could easily have been me.

“In this book I have cited numerous incidents to suggest that it’s one bad moment that separates life from death in Afghanistan.

“The second most touching and very sad moment was losing my close friend, Abdul Latif Ashna, the deputy governor of Kandahar, in a targeted suicide bombing. He provided me with a lot of insight for this book. At one point, I almost gave up the hope of writing this book. But then I realised that writing this book is perhaps the best way to pay tribute to hundreds and hundreds of such departed noble heroes. They are my inspiration for writing this book.”

(This article first appeared in the Times of Oman on August 7, 2012. Click the PDF of the page below to view the article)

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‘We Want To Be A Bridge Between The Muslim world And The EU’

THE CYPRUS question has been hanging fire for three decades now, posing an intriguing dilemma for the international community. At the centre of the tug-of-war is the picturesque Nicosia which has the dubious distinction of being the world’s only divided capital.

The country has been divided since Turkish troops invaded it in 1974 in response to a coup by Greek Cypriot militants seeking union with Greece. Ever since, the northern part has been governed by the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is recognised as an independent entity only by Turkey.

Of late, however, there has been a growing clamour for a “re-unification of the island”, especially after the induction of Cyprus into the European Union (EU). This longing, interestingly, is growing despite rejection by the Greek Cypriots (in a UN referendum) of the inclusion of the Turkish Cypriot side into the EU.

This longing for unification follows the opening of some crossing points in 2003, following which nearly 8,000 Turkish Cypriots cross over to the southern part each day, legally, to work and return as the day draws to a close. For these workers, the earnings have multiplied at least three-fold in the last three years since the borders softened. It also poses a unique situation where, technically, the Turkish Cypriot side is a part of the EU, but sans the benefits of the Union, courtesy the presence of Turkish troops on the island.

There is also a feeling that the barbed problem of Cyprus (the wall was demolished recently, but the division remains), could be a major snag for Europe, as well as its the big challenge. And for the Turkish government, on the other hand, the choice is between refusing to make further compromises on Cyprus and keeping its EU talks on track. Cyprus, meanwhile, continues to be flooded by armies – the Turkish army, the British army (it retains some of its bases since the time Cyprus was under its rule), the Turkish Cypriot army, the Cypriot Republic army and the United Nations peacekeeping troops who monitor the “no-man’s” land.

In a candid interview with Khaleej Times’ Senior Chief Sub Editor Mehre Alam in Nicosia, Cypriot Foreign Minister Georgios Lillikas talked on a wide range of issues concerning his country, the EU, and the Middle East. Excerpts of the interview (Filed on May 8, 2007):

Q: The British Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon has been quoted as saying that the media is not writing much about the Cyprus issue these days. Would you agree with the view that Cyprus may have become “a forgotten island” today?

A: Like any other media around the world, the British media, too, tends to focus on the issues that relate to fighting, bloodshed or about people getting killed. In the conflicts where there is a kind of status-quo although there is a violation of international law and the problem is not solved, the media does not evince as much interest, except in cases where there are new developments, and which can hog their attention. I think this is how the media functions these days.

To quote another British politician, the late Robin Cook, it would have been much better if Cyprus were to have joined the European Union (EU) as a unified island, instead of a divided one…

Cook was a very good friend of Cyprus. He sincerely advocated the cause of the unification of Cyprus. He also was one of the ardent supporters of the induction of Cyprus to the EU. All parties would agree to the view that the problem of the island nation should have been sorted out before its induction to the EU. And of all these people, those who were most eager for this to happen were the Cypriots themselves. Nobody has been craving for a solution to the island nation as much as the Cypriots do. You should not forget that it’s our territory that has been under the military occupation of Turkey. It’s in our territory wherein Turkey keeps bringing in more and more settlers. And it’s our island that has so many refugees who are unable to return to what were once their homes. Almost 35 per cent of the Greek Cypriots are refugees.

Therefore, we are all the more interested in having a solution as soon as possible. But for a solution to emerge, what is required is goodwill from both the sides. It would also invariably mean that Turkey would have to arrive at a solution: a compromise. All sides will have to make some compromises. It cannot be a compromise from just one of the sides. Moreover, is it correct to expect the “victim” to make the biggest compromises?

Greek Cypriots recently demolished a wall that symbolised the decades-old division of the island. What kind of symbolic significance does this act have vis-a-vis the psychological longing for re-unification?

You are right. The wall in Ledra Street (in Nicosia) indeed was a kind of symbol reminding everybody that this is a divided island and that Nicosia is still the only divided capital in the world. The demolition of the wall did mean a lot to the Greek Cypriots. It symbolised the will of the common man as well as the government to move forward on the path of re-unification.

Unfortunately, the Turkish troops refuse to leave this place. The will of the citizens will prevail only if they leave Cyprus. But with all the interest exhibited by the international community – the UN, the European countries etc., we hope that Turkey will ultimately agree to withdraw its troops from the crossing point (the line of division). In fact, we had suggested the opening of eight crossing points across the line of division in order to facilitate exchange of contact and trade between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. At the moment, we only have four crossing points open. Let’s hope that after the Turkish elections, we will have some good news on this issue.

How soon can the international community hope to see a unified Cyprus? Could it be the end of 2007? Or early 2008, possibly?

Unfortunately, nobody can predict this. For the unification to come about, you need to have the political will on the part of not only the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, but also Turkey. In the recent months, we have received an aggressive message from Turkey. After many years, we have again received threats from Turkey that they could use force, especially after the agreement we signed with Egypt and Lebanon for the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Some countries believe that Turkey’s aggressive and negative attitude is because of the looming elections. I am not sure about that, I think that’s true. Let’s see what happens after the elections in Turkey. Let’s see what happens after the current political crisis in Turkey blows over. And we do hope that this crisis blows away quickly. If it is true -and I hope it is true- we could have new developments in 2008.

But then it’s important for us not to waste this year, 2007 (as a year for breakthrough). That’s why we have insisted on the implementation of the agreement of the 8th of July. The reason is that this was the idea of the United Nations. The idea germinated with the initiative of (Cyprus) President Tassos Papadopoulos, and the meeting he had with the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Paris in February 2006. Annan and the Security Council were of the view that we should organise working groups to prepare the ground for discussions on the crucial issues of the Cyprus problem with the aim of bringing closer the positions of the two communities. In parallel, the idea was also to have the technical committees working at the technical level to sort out the day-to-day problems affecting the lives of people in Cyprus.

I think that is the only procedure we have in front of us. The leaders of the two communities had signed the agreement. However, unfortunately, Mr. Talat (Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat) later rejected the agreement by sending a missive to the UN secretary-general. I hope that after the involvement of the international community, at least this agreement will be implemented in 2007 and we do not have to wait any further. By 2008, we may be in a position to move forward in the direction of full-fledged negotiations.

How difficult it is to foster trust and reconciliation between the two communities (Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots) and to provide conditions for the ultimate re-unification of this island nation?

There is no problem between the two communities. There have been more than 10 million crossings of people and nearly three million crossings of vehicles across the ceasefire line since 2003. Everyday we have 8,000 Turkish Cypriots coming in, working in the Republic, and getting much higher salaries than what they were getting in the occupied area. We have never had any incident. This shows that people are ready to live together and cooperate.

The problem is at the political level. There is lack of goodwill and political will on part of the Turkish government to move forward. We have made a lot of proposals. The Cypriot Government has taken many a measure to support and help the Turkish Cypriots to earn higher per capita income and have a better quality of life. With the measures taken by our government and the EU, I think we have already had some good results to show. The per capita income of the Turkish Cypriots has gone up almost three-fold in the last three years. At the same time, the Government is also encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to engage in trade with the Greek Cypriots. The Green Line Regulation adopted by the EU allows this trade to happen. Last year, we had a volume of trade of worth nearly 3mn Euros. This clearly indicates how trade between the two sides can leapfrog in a very short span of time.

Unfortunately, the Turkish Cypriot leadership doesn’t allow trade from the south to the north (from the Greek Cypriot side to the Turkish Cypriot side). When the Turkish Cypriots buy goods from the Greek Cypriots, they have to pay income tax on it. The tax is imposed by the Turkish Cypriot authorities to make the products expensive as well as to assert that they are a separate country.

We have submitted numerous proposals to the EU with regard to preparing conditions to foster more common areas of cooperation and interest between the two communities. The only way re-unification could be achieved is by creating common interests. If the people have common interests, they will join hands to defend their common interests. On the other hand, if we continue to reinforce the ideas of separate economy, separate trade and separate interests, it will only reinforce the division.

From our side, we’ll continue to take unilateral measures to create the necessary conditions for the unification. I hope we’ll have positive response from Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot leaders as well.

The Archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church and the top Muslim cleric of the Turkish community had a landmark meeting some time back where they discussed, for the first time, the re-unification of island. One of the thorny issues between the two sides is the crumbling churches on the Turkish Cypriot side and the upkeep of mosques on your side. Does this issue remain a stumbling block?

The meeting between the two religious leaders was a very positive one. I must say that we have never had any religious problem in Cyprus. Never! We never had a conflict of a religious character. The Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots have lived together for centuries.

As for the restoration of the religious monuments, the Government of Cyprus has already restored all the mosques in the free area. There is not a single mosque left, which has not been restored. In addition to that, we have three of these mosques that are functioning – where prayers are being held. The Turkish Cypriots as well Muslims from other nationalities who are living here or are visiting here perform their prayers in these mosques. And we are happy to see that. Cyprus was always a melting pot of cultures of three different continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. If our culture is so rich it’s because of this variety between religions and civilizations. We are proud of this eclectic history of ours.

If and when the unification does happen, do you think it will rubbish the theory of the Clash of Civilisations? And, therefore, will it show the way to the world, where some quarters are taking this theory rather seriously?

I fully agree with you. We had, in fact, organised an inter-faith dialogue last year in Larnaca (in Cyprus). It was a very successful meeting. A large number of religious leaders and figures from the Christian and Muslim communities, including from Malaysia, participated in the dialogue. We plan to continue holding such dialogues. We are even considering setting up some research centers for the purpose.

If and when the unification of Cyprus does take place, we will have such large communities of Muslims and Christians living together in a European country. It will indeed be a good model of their peaceful co-existence inside the EU, especially if you consider that Islam is at the centre of discussions in Europe today.

Coming back to the previous question, I must add that unfortunately a large number of our churches and other icons of great heritage value have been destroyed in the occupied areas. We have not been allowed to restore some of our churches there. Some of the rare artefacts were stolen and sold abroad. Some of the churches have been transformed into restaurants today. At the moment we do not have the willingness of the other side to restore these churches.

Can the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in general, or the UAE, in particular, play the role of facilitators in the dialogue for the ultimate re-unification of Cyprus?

I think they do have a role to play. The GCC countries have been playing a big role in seeking a solution to the Palestinian problem. They also played an important role in the stabilising of Lebanon after the recent imbroglio (attack by Israel).

The GCC countries can put to good use their weight and voice in the Arab and Islamic worlds to contribute to the efforts towards the unification of Cyprus. This is one of the issues that I am discussing with some of my colleagues in the GCC.

Unfortunately, Turkey has been using the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) forum to promote the division of the island. Recently, it has been calling upon the Islamic countries to recognise the so-called Turkish Cypriot Republic of Cyprus (TRCC) as a state. Cyprus, on the other hand, has never had a problem with the Islamic countries or the OIC.

On the contrary, I think the Islamic world has always had excellent relations with Cyprus. Many a time in the past, we have played the role of facilitators for peace when some Muslim countries faced crises with some other countries.

Now, with the induction of Cyprus to the EU, we want to continue to become the bridge between the Islamic world and the EU. We believe that we are in a better position to do so, thanks to our traditionally excellent relationship with the Arab world. We understand better the sensitivities of the Islamic world.

I hope that the Islamic countries will not allow Turkey any more to take advantage of and exploit the OIC for their own political objectives.

(This article first appeared in the Khaleej Times newspaper on May 8, 2007. Below please find the web link of the article)

‘Trump’s Campaign Was Never Well Organised’

EVEN AS pundits see the race for the White House narrowing noticeably following the renewed FBI probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails, US entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank F Islam asserts it would have no impact on the outcome of the US presidential election.

This is because, argues Frank, Donald Trump’s campaign has been in disarray and displayed little logic and even less of a focus on key issues. “Trump’s campaign was never well organised. There has been a lot of turnover at the top. His campaign has not had much of a ground game and it’s been out-manned in most of the critical states,” the civic leader and a key backer of the Clinton campaign, told Qatar Tribune in an exclusive interview.

Frank says the presidential debating rounds were crucial and he cites three key takeaways: “Hillary Clinton demonstrated her knowledge, competence and composure and was always cool, calm and collected.

“By contrast, Trump was anxious, agitated and aggressive with very little subject matter expertise.

“The polls show that Clinton won all three debates. Trouncing Trump in the first, beating him soundly in the second and letting Trump beat himself in the third.” 

One of the key concerns for Clinton supporters has been the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, and hovered around the issue of immigration. So what could be the outcome in the event of a Trump victory?

“That’s hard to imagine. I would say I personally believe that would be a very bad thing for America and all Americans and not just racial and ethnic minorities. I would not want to speculate on what Trump would do as President. I would only say, consider his attacking and antagonistic words. If his actions align with them, his agenda would not be a kinder and gentler one, replied the Indian-born Frank, in the email interview.

While he says he cannot speak for the Indian in Diaspora, he believes the overriding issue for the community would be forging stronger bonds between the US and India and building upon the strong foundation established by President Obama and Clinton while she was Secretary of State.

There are a number of important areas for collaboration including economic development, education, climate change, security in Southeast Asia, and world peace, says Frank, who blogs regularly for The Huffington Post and hosts his own TV show ‘Washington Current Review’ on MHz Networks, and is often called upon to speak on a variety of business, education and non-profit forums.

On the other hand, he points out, “Secretary Clinton is a friend of India. I would expect her to build on the Obama foundation and make the alliance between India and the US one of the best in the world.” 

Frank, however, admits the current campaign may have reached the nadir in terms of the discourse and rhetoric. “I think for many voters, the candidates’ character and personalities took precedence over matters of policy or substantive issues. This election cycle was a sad one for American democracy. In my opinion, Donald Trump’s negative attitude and style contaminated the entire process.

“Enough said on that. I am looking forward to November 9, the day after the election, and seeing Americans of goodwill coming together to unify America,” says Frank.

(This article first appeared on the Front page in Qatar Tribune on November 3, 2016. Below please find the web link and the PDFs of the page)

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