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World - May 15

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The Great Game’s New Clothes

Conn M. Hallinan, Dispatches from the Edge
According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Leon Panetta, the U.S. never informed Pakistan about the operation to assassinate al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin because it thought the Pakistanis could “jeopardize the mission” by tipping off the target.

Maybe, and maybe not. This is, after all, the ground over which the 19th century “Great Game” was played, the essence of which was obfuscation. What you thought you saw or knew was not necessarily what was.

The “official” story is that three CIA helicopters—one for backup—took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan and flew almost 200 miles to Abbottabad, most of it through Pakistani airspace. Pakistan scrambled jets, but the choppers still managed to land, spend 40 minutes on the ground, and get away.

Is it possible the helicopters really did dodge Pakistani radar? During the Cold War a West German pilot flew undetected through the teeth of the Soviet air defense system and landed his plane in Red Square, so yes. Choppers are slow, but these were stealth varieties and fairly quiet. But at top speed, the Blackhawks would have needed about an hour each way, plus the 40 minutes on the ground. That is a long time to remain undetected, particularly in a town hosting three regiments of the Pakistani Army, plus the Kakul Military Academy, the country’s equivalent of West Point. Abbottabad is also 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, and the region is ringed with anti-aircraft sites.

Still, it is possible, except there is an alternative scenario that not only avoids magical thinking about what choppers can do, but better fits the politics of the moment: that Pakistan’s Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) knew where Bin Ladin was and fingered him, estimating that his death would accelerate negotiations with the Taliban. Why now? Because for the first time in this long war, U.S. and Pakistani interests coincide.

... The bottom line is that Pakistan simply cannot afford to continue the war, particularly as they are still trying to dig themselves out from under last year’s massive floods.

In April, Pakistan’s top military, intelligence and political leadership decamped to Kabul to meet with the government of Harmid Karzai. The outcome of the talks is secret, but they appear to have emboldened the parties to press the U.S. to start talking. According to Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban” and “Descent into Chaos,” the White House is moving “the fledgling peace process forward” and will “push to broker an end to the war.” This includes dropping “its preconditions that the Taliban sever links with al-Qaeda and accept the Afghan constitution before holding face-to-face talks.”

Given that in 2008 the Taliban agreed to not allow any “outside” forces in the country and pledged not to pose a danger to any other country, including those in the West, this demand has already been met. As for the constitution, since it excluded the Taliban it will have to be re-negotiated in any case.

While there appears to be a convergence of interests among the major parties, negotiations promise to be a thorny business.

... Murphy’s Law suggests that things are more likely to end in chaos than reasoned diplomacy. But self-interest is a powerful motivator, and all parties, including India, stands to gain something by ending the war. India very much wants to see the 1,050-mile TAPI pipeline built, as it will carry gas from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to Fazilka, India.

A lot is at stake, and if getting the peace process going involved taking out Osama bin Ladin. Well, in the cynical world of the “Great Game,” to make an omelet, you have to break eggs.
(5 May 2011)
This sounds more to me than what is being said in the U.S. media.

"Conn M. Hallinan s a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, “A Think Tank Without Walls, and an independent journalist. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. He oversaw the journalism program at the University of California at Santa Cruz for 23 years, and won the UCSC Alumni Association’s Distinguished Teaching Award, as well as UCSC’s Innovations in Teaching Award, and Excellence in Teaching Award. He was also a college provost at UCSC, and retired in 2004. He is a winner of a Project Censored “Real News Award,” and lives in Berkeley, California."

-BA




Egypt and Israel Headed for Crisis

Jonathan Cook, CounterPunch
Nazareth -- Israeli officials have expressed alarm at a succession of moves by the interim Egyptian government that they fear signal an impending crisis in relations with Cairo.

The widening rift was underscored yesterday when leaders of the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation pact in the Egyptian capital. Egypt's secret role in brokering the agreement last week caught both Israel and the United States by surprise.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called the deal "a tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism".

Several other developments have added to Israeli concerns about its relations with Egypt, including signs that Cairo hopes to renew ties with Iran and renegotiate a long-standing contract to supply Israel with natural gas.

More worrying still to Israeli officials are reported plans by Egyptian authorities to open the Rafah crossing into Gaza, closed for the past four years as part of a Western-backed blockade of the enclave designed to weaken Hamas, the ruling Islamist group there.

Egypt is working out details to permanently open the border, an Egyptian foreign ministry official told the Reuters news agency on Sunday. The blockade would effectively come to an end as a result.
(5 May 2011)
Significant change is underway. Probably more important than the killing of Osama. -BA



"Every 30 Minutes": Crushed by Debt and Neoliberal Reforms, Indian Farmers Commit Suicide at Staggering Rate
(audio, video, transcript)
Amy Goodman, Democracy Now
A quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last 16 years—an average of one suicide every 30 minutes. The crisis has ballooned with economic liberalization that has removed agricultural subsidies and opened Indian agriculture to the global market. Small farmers are often trapped in a cycle of insurmountable debt, leading many to take their lives out of sheer desperation. We speak with Smita Narula of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University Law School, co-author of a new report on farmer suicides in India.
(11 May 2011)



Why the Dream of Microfinance is Turning Sour

Leo Hornak, Independent/UK
Small loans were meant to spell the end of Indian poverty. Instead, they reinforce it.
---
I remember the day three years ago when I decided I no longer wanted to be a part of the microfinance industry. I was standing in a one-room house in a small town in southern India, meeting a family that had taken out a microfinance loan. The mother and father were tired and nervous – both had the gaunt, prematurely aged look that is the hallmark of rural poverty in India. With them was their daughter Laxmi, a tiny eight-year-old girl, hiding in the folds of her mother's sari.

"For the three days that they took her away, I couldn't touch food," Laxmi's mother told me through a translator, pointing at her daughter. "We are just glad to have her back." A few weeks before, Laxmi had been kidnapped and held hostage by a local moneylender called Mrs Lalitha. Laxmi's parents had failed to keep up with payments on a debt. The debt was not to a loan shark or a mafia boss, however. It was to a registered Indian microfinance company which still claims in its brochures to be dedicated to fighting poverty, with a particular emphasis on women's rights and "empowering the girl child". Loan repayments had been informally outsourced to the moneylender.

What happened to Laxmi would no doubt have horrified the founder of the microfinance movement, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus. For most of the past year, however, a backlash against abusive and exploitative microfinance practices has been growing across Asia.

... Although many microloans did go towards starting businesses, a huge proportion was spent on simply getting by and surviving in poverty. The villagers used the loans to pay off other debts, meet medical fees or fund their children's weddings. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of spending, but clearly it is not a means of ending poverty.

I came to see microloans as playing a very similar role to credit cards in the West. Cards and microloans provide a useful source of money when people are in need of ready cash, but they are not interest free, and for most people they are not a route to wealth and affluence. Those who are financially illiterate or unfortunate are at considerable risk of sinking into a spiral of debt when this kind of lending goes wrong. This is what happened to Laxmi's parents – and many others in southern India where microfinance is now in crisis.

The second myth is that microloans are the most useful service we can offer the poor. Dr Yunus has argued that access to loans should be considered a "human right", as without credit it is impossible to earn one's way out of poverty. It would be more realistic to admit that debt is not a passport to wealth in Bangladesh, India or inner London.

It would have been helpful if the microfinance movement had placed more emphasis on other banking services, such savings or insurance, than om loans.
(8 May 2011)



UN: Global Population to Top 10 Billion by 2100

Environment News Service
The world's population will surge past nine billion before 2050 and reach 10.1 billion by the end of the century if current fertility rates continue, according to United Nations figures released Tuesday.

Today's world population is currently close to seven billion, increasing by the second, and is projected to surpass seven billion towards the end of this year.

Today, 42 percent of the world's population lives in low-fertility countries, that is, countries where women are not having enough children to ensure that, on average, each woman is replaced by a daughter who survives to the age of procreation.

Another 40 percent lives in intermediate-fertility countries where each woman is having, on average, between 1 and 1.5 daughters, and the remaining 18 percent lives in high-fertility countries where the average woman has more than 1.5 daughters.

Most of the increase will come from high fertility countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa but also in some nations in Asia, Oceania and Latin America, the UN data shows.
(5 May 2011)
This story has been out for more than a week, but in case you haven't seen it ... -BA

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