South Asia


Islamic Warriors: Pakistani soldiers in Arab armies

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | South Asia


Every year thousands of Pakistanis leave their homeland to take up arms in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, enlisting in the armed forces of their wealthier Islamic neighbours. Driven by historical, economic and religious forces, Pakistan is now the world’s most prolific exporter of military personnel. So what drives them to do so, and how does the phenomenon benefit Pakistan’s foreign policy?

Pakistan has been deploying its own military to the region for decades. Pakistani pilots flew Saudi jets in combat and 15,000 soldiers were stationed in the kingdom during the turbulent 1970s and 80s. Personnel were also sent to train the militaries of numerous emerging Arab states which lacked the necessary experience and knowledge, and a force was sent to Kuwait during the Gulf War.

Pakistan’s strong Islamic identity and need for nearby strategic and economic partners has driven these commitments, and the resulting shared history and institutional links has forged close bonds between states and militaries alike.

However, the strongest flow of Pakistani power to the region is now unofficial and largely unnoticed, with many Pakistanis travelling to the peninsula of their own volition and donning the uniform of Arab countries.

One intriguing case is the recruitment of young men from Pakistan’s Balochistan Province into the Royal Army of Oman. The origins of the arrangement can be traced back to 1784 when Oman, then a significant colonial power, gained possession of the Gwadar region in what is now Balochistan’s Southwestern corner. Many Baloch people migrated to Oman and have played an important part in Omani history since that time. In 1958, Pakistan purchased Gwadar from Oman for US$3 million. The deal included permission for Oman to continue recruiting soldiers from Balochistan. The practice continues to this day with thousands applying for each intake, eager for opportunities which are hard to find in their underdeveloped region.

A more recent phenomenon is the influx of former Pakistani soldiers into the armed forces of Bahrain. The tiny gulf state suffers from internal conflict caused by a rift between its Shia majority and Sunni ruling elite, and has struggled to restore order. Lacking qualified personnel, its government has relied on Pakistan since 2011. Pakistani military foundations publicly advertise positions and up to 2,500 Pakistanis have joined Bahrain’s special forces, national guard and riot police, where they now comprise 30 per cent of the security services. Conditions are dangerous and many have been killed, but with pay exceeding US$1,140 a month it remains an attractive prospect when compared to Pakistan’s average of $162.

Several other countries on the Arabian Peninsula employ Pakistani soldiers. The majority of Qatar’s army comprises foreign soldiers, many of whom are Pakistani. Pakistanis are also recruited into the armed forces of the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where entire battalions consist of Pakistani manpower.

Why are Pakistani soldiers in such high demand in these countries?

The Arab countries desperately need effective soldiers. The combined population of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE is just 53 million, compared to the 79 million of Iran which some consider a major threat. Many of them have vast areas to defend as well as regional ambitions, and they simply can’t recruit enough soldiers. On top of this, their armies have notoriously poor records in combat which is ascribed to a lack of experience and cultural difficulties.

On the other hand, Pakistan has a large population and extensive military experience. Its army benefits from lessons learned during conventional wars with India, and modern soldiers have fought a brutal counterinsurgency campaign against extremists and achieved considerable success. The knowledge and skills this has produced is a valuable commodity and sorely needed in the region. This is demonstrated by the appointment of Pakistan’s previous army chief, Raheel Sharif, as commander of the beleaguered Saudi-led forces currently battling rebels in Yemen.

Low wages in Pakistan allow the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula to easily attract recruits. Religious considerations also factor in. As a Sunni-majority country, Pakistan provides soldiers who easily assimilate and provoke none of the outrage that US soldiers do. They are also neutral in potentially volatile tribal politics.

It is unusual for a country to allow so many of its citizens to join foreign armies. But for one in an awkward position such as Pakistan, it is a convenient arrangement. Pakistan needs good relations with stable Arab countries. However, it must also avoid provoking its influential neighbor Iran by giving its rivals too much support. Pakistan must walk a tightrope to maintain relations with both.  By exporting soldiers in an unofficial capacity, the government manages this by having a tangible impact on security in the Arabian Peninsula while also avoiding the political ramifications that excessively deploying its own forces would entail.

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Human costs of the sacred cow

Tess Styles

Uncategorized | South Asia


India is home to over 200 million cows, more than any other country in the world. They roam freely on the streets, unfazed by the surrounding cries of street vendors and incessant tooting of horns as they go about their business. It is not uncommon to find that a cow has caused a traffic jam by wandering into the middle of a busy intersection.

Almost 80 per cent of India’s 1.3 billion human citizens are Hindu. Cows are regarded as sacred in Hinduism, which explains why they seem to have a license to do as they please.

The cow’s gentle nature embodies the religion’s “do no harm” principle and forms part of the reason they are held in such high esteem. Ironically however, it is the humble cow that is at the root of widespread controversy and violence throughout India.

[caption id="attachment_5960" align="alignnone" width="3872"] A small herd of urban-dwelling cows inhabiting a street in Jaisalmer, India[/caption]

Cow slaughter is banned in 24 of 29 Indian states. Following the government’s recent crackdown on butchers in the northern and western states of Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, restrictions have tightened further. The butchers are suspected of selling cow meat, instead of the permitted water buffalo meat.

As India’s largest meat-producing state, the beef ban comes at a great cost to many citizens in Uttar Pradesh who rely on the meat trade to make a living.

Since the election of right-wing chief minister Yogi Adityanath last month, hundreds of meat shops and slaughterhouses around the state have been forced to close. Most of the slaughterhouses are owned by Muslims, who make up 14 per cent of India’s population.

Authorities claim that the new restrictions are only aimed at shutting down illegal businesses, however locals believe they are being unfairly targeted. Even small shops selling only goat, sheep and chicken have been closed, despite these meats being legal to trade.

Many in Muslim communities have earnt their livelihoods through the meat trade for decades and do not have any other skills to make money. Already poor before the new restrictions, these families now face even greater hardship and uncertainty.

It is not only Muslims who are being impacted. The resultant meat shortage in the state has also led to Hindu workers employed in legal abattoirs facing the prospect of losing their jobs.

In addition to the crackdown in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat last week increased the penalty for cow slaughter to life imprisonment. Anyone convicted of even transporting, possessing or selling beef will now also face up to ten years in jail.

Risks of severe legal punishment for cow slaughter are not the only factors sending butchers out of business. Following the new laws, meat shops around the country have been vandalised and set alight, leaving many involved in the meat trade fearing for their lives.

It is not the first time such violence has erupted due to controversy over cow slaughter.

In 2015, a 50-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh was violently murdered by a mob after being accused of slaughtering and eating a cow. The man was dragged from his bed and bashed in the head with a sewing machine, before being repeatedly kicked, stabbed and beaten with bricks in front of family members. Police later revealed that the meat the family had been consuming was mutton.

Last year, two Muslim cattle herders aged 15 and 35 were brutally tortured and hanged on their way to a livestock fair. The assailants are believed to be Hindu radicals who strongly opposed cattle trading.

Despite its stringent laws on cow slaughter, India paradoxically remains the world’s largest exporter of beef. The beef industry claims that this is all buffalo meat, which is not prohibited in most states. However, many suspect that at least some cow meat is being smuggled out of the country.

This is certainly the case along the India-Bangladesh border, where the beef ban has indirectly resulted in the establishment of an illegal cattle smuggling trade. The high demand for beef in Bangladesh means that those willing to endanger themselves (and their cows) by navigating the dangerous river crossing fetch a high price on the other side. This is not only resulting in numerous human fatalities, but is also a counterproductive outcome of the laws aimed at protecting cows.

Whether or not they are achieving their purpose, there is no doubt that the newest regulations will impact thousands. And worse, the beef ban disproportionately burdens poor and disadvantaged groups for whom affordability renders beef a dietary staple.

By widening the gulf between Indian communities, the new regulations have inadvertently created a chasm into which humans and cows alike are liable to fall victim.

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Australia’s Afghanistan legacy: Missing in action?

Chris Taylor

Society and culture | South Asia


Six years ago I was a soldier in the volatile province of Uruzgan, where Australia sent the bulk of its forces during its commitment to the Afghanistan War. Australia has since withdrawn from Uruzgan, closing another ostensibly successful chapter in its military history and begun celebrating its actions.

Yet despite the deaths of 41 soldiers, hundreds badly wounded and $7.5 billion spent on the war, remarkably little was achieved. Uruzgan is now the single most Taliban-controlled province in Afghanistan.

My home was a remote outpost in a farming valley where a handful of Australian and Afghan soldiers lived, worked and fought the Taliban together. Despite the hardships and numerous casualties, we achieved some modest successes.

Taliban insurgents remained, but the loss of fighters, commanders and equipment weakened them. Security was gradually improving and there was hope that one day government services could be introduced to the area.

But any sense of accomplishment was tempered by the knowledge that Australia would soon be withdrawing from the base, leaving the Afghans to provide security on their own. I was not optimistic about their chances.

These concerns are now justified.

Taliban fighters overran the outpost last October and dozens of Afghan soldiers defending it reportedly defected. A video published on the Taliban’s news website, Al Emarah, shows soldiers surrendering the base and handing over weapons and armoured vehicles.

Nearby bases fell in a similar manner and the Taliban now control the valley. Despite years of commitment and the loss of at least eight soldiers, Australian forces left little lasting impact.

[caption id="attachment_5510" align="alignnone" width="552"] Patrol Nase Wahab pictured above under control of the Afghan Nation army and below after falling to the Taliban (Top source: author) (Bottom source: Al Emarah)[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_5532" align="alignnone" width="435"] Combat Outpost Mashal above manned by Australian and Afghan soldiers and below under Taliban control (Top source: author) (Bottom source: Al Emarah)[/caption]

What happened there is just one example of a broad collapse of security across Uruzgan. After Australian troops withdrew in 2013, the Taliban made sweeping gains and now claim to control the entire province except for district centres. Uruzgan Governor Mohammed Nazir Kharoti has called for Australia to return to the province and says the Taliban are threatening the capital, Tarin Kot, and are “coming very close to the city…a kilometre, to two kilometres in some sites.”

Reinforcements have prevented the city from falling, but the countryside remains out of the government’s reach.

So, what of Australia’s legacy in Afghanistan? Attempts to bring Uruzgan under enduring government control certainly failed. Yet Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Campbell, defends Australia’s achievements as part of a bigger picture, citing “education, communication and thousands of kilometres of road infrastructure” that have improved quality of life for Afghans and liberated them from the desperate conditions they once endured.

Australia’s commitment may have indirectly supported social and economic development elsewhere in Afghanistan, in the larger cities and safer provinces. But in Uruzgan, quality of life remains dire.

Even before the Taliban seized much of the province, government services and infrastructure began to crumble. According to tribal elder Haji Mohammad Qasim, two years after Australia’s departure only 20 per cent of Uruzgan’s schools remained functional. Those that were open were run by elderly teachers with no understanding of modern education.

Health care was non-existent in most places while the central hospital relied on unqualified staff with inadequate supplies. Some infrastructure projects were successful, but many were never completed and much of Uruzgan received no development. The province remains a leading producer of opium.

Despite this grim picture, can Australians take comfort in the idea that they did their best against insurmountable obstacles? It is debatable.

A controversial strategy facilitated the spectacular collapse of governance and security in Uruzgan. Leaders neglected the requirement to build government institutions that follow the rule of law. Instead, they used a tribal warlord named Matiullah Khan to assert control through his personal power. His assassination in 2015 left behind a province with no successor and no viable institutions. Uruzgan descended deeper into lawlessness and the Taliban capitilised on the chaos.

Uruzgan’s only hope now is that the government in Kabul will survive and become strong enough to impose order. This is a tenuous prospect. The government's authority is dwindling, now controlling just 57 per cent of Afghanistan and propped up only by foreign support.

As I look back, I wonder if we ever had a chance of success. Without enough manpower to defeat the insurgency and without serious efforts to build a functional administration, it is difficult to imagine how Australia’s mission could have ended differently.

Despite this, Australia poured soldiers and resources into the province for nine years. Australians and Afghans alike paid a heavy price, with many killed and countless more bearing physical and psychological wounds that will never completely heal.

The question is unavoidable: was it worth it?

[gallery ids="5537,5536,5535,5534,5533" type="slideshow" link="none"]

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Seeing the elephant

Economics | South Asia


“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century American saying, meaning the gaining of world experience at a significant cost. It originated from travelling circuses, where curious people would pay exorbitant sums to literally, see the elephant.
Today there is an altogether different sort of elephant, one for which the cost is incurred when it is not seen. The identity of this pachyderm is, of course, India.
India has long played second fiddle to its North-Eastern neighbour, coming up short on most metrics of hard power including economics and military strength. India's strengths in areas such as its stable democratic government have failed to make up the difference in raw growth that China has enjoyed over the last 25 years.

World Bank comparison of Chinese and Indian GDP growth since 1990
This however is beginning to change. In particular since the landslide election of Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, India has begun to show more muscle on the international stage.
In its local region, the Modi government has been proactive in engaging its neighbours. Bhutan and Nepal were two of the first countries visited by President Modi, and have since successfully concluded important energy agreements with New Delhi.
More significant however has been India's growing interests in South-east Asia. In the 20th century India purused the “Look East” policy, aimed at capitalising on its historic and cultural connections with South-east Asia. This century India has revived this policy, and is pursuing ever closer relations with the region, in particular economic ties such as its trade deals with Singapore and Thailand.
India is also enhancing its position strategically. Vietnam in particular is developing close ties with India, and in early September the two countries signed a US $500 million dollar arms agreement. They also maintain training relationships in high tech platforms such as submarines and fighter jets.
For China this represents perhaps its most significant long term strategic challenge in Asia. While the statistics today paint a bleak picture for India in comparison to China, and a positively stark one in comparison to the US, the long-term trends are in India's favour.
In the most basic sense, India simply has a lot more untapped potential than China. China today is experiencing the slowing of growth common to all newly industrialised countries, while India remains further behind in this process. China's lead is, in this sense, transient.

Source: IMF WEO database (October 2014) for 2014 estimates, PwC projections for 2030 and 2050
India also has a number of hidden strengths. Regime stability is a controversial question in China, with many Westerners and some Chinese prediciting that the Communist Party will have to reform or collapse. Whether such bleak scenarios are true or not this issue has no hold over India, which has enjoyed 70 years of stable democratic rule.
In strategic terms India is able to play the role of an offsider. China today appears to believe that it can force the US out of Asia, and that if it does so it will be the regional hegemon. The first proposition is highly debatable. The second is geographically illiterate.
India is fundamentally tied to Asia in a way that the United States is not. If and until China can work out how to send the Indian subcontinent back towards Antarctica, Asia will be home to two billion-strong giants; neighbours who inhabit the same geographic space.
Many nations in Asia are today turning to the US for support. The issues in the South and East China Seas are largely working to the US' diplomatic favour, with many historically unfriendly Asian nations such as Vietnam seeking Washington's support. It would be folly to think that even if shorn of the US, these nations would not just turn to the next best thing.
The emerging reality in Asia is not bipolar or even unipolar, but multipolar. Even if China succeeded in forcing the US out, other competitors most of all India would emerge to take its place. Failing to take other powers into consideration only makes openings for them.
Those looking to catch a glimpse of who will be playing ringmaster in the Asia-Pacific would be wise to check in with the elephant.

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Facebook: A coercive political actor?

Marco D’Alessandro

Society and culture | South Asia


If Facebook could stack an election against the likes of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump, would you want it to? Would you want it to quash the threat of global terror by employing algorithms to censor content which demonstrates partiality to flagged organisations or individuals?

Facebook may seem to be an innocuous and convenient communication platform, however it has become apparent that Facebook has the means to transform these questions into reality. In the majority of situations the only mechanism capable of constraining Facebook is corporate morality.

The website’s capacity to intervene in political activities last gained media attention earlier this year when it took a partisan and coercive approach to conflicts between Kashmiri separatists and Indian forces.

In early July, The Guardian sourced numerous reports claiming that videos, posts and accounts had been deleted for displaying content relating to the death of Burhan Wani. Wani lead the Hizbul Mujahedeen, an organisation seeking Kashmiri independence, viewed by many in India as a terrorist group but as freedom fighter by Kashmiris and Pakistanis.

The deletion of content was extensive. In one instance a journalist’s account was deleted under Facebook’s no tolerance policy for support or praise of terrorist organisations, due to the inclusion of a photo depicting the funeral of Wani.

Many argued that this and other examples of censorship, such as a week-long block imposed on an account for providing a link to a blog mentioning Wani, were political in nature. Facebook’s policy caused deep frustration in Kashmir, depriving people of a forum many had used in the past to voice opinions about regional politics and tension.

[caption id="attachment_4429" align="aligncenter" width="482"] Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr[/caption]

From the nature of censorship incidents uncovered by The Guardian it’s easy to see why many Pakistanis and Kashmiris believe that Facebook took a pro-India stance and actively participated in political suppression, extending beyond its duty under its own policy to shield users from extremist content.

Facebook’s actions in Kashmir provide a complete contrast to the defined status of political neutrality the website has adopted in the United States.

Evidence emerged in 2012 that Facebook had conducted an experiment aimed at discovering whether the site could be used to affect voter turnout in that year’s Federal election. An academic paper published on the study found that Facebook’s “I voted” initiative could have raised participation by as much as 0.6%.

Earlier this year speculative articles were published contemplating the website’s capacity to rig an election. The site has approximately 1.59 billion users worldwide and the tweaking of algorithms to alter what users see therefore has strong potential to influence thought globally. After Zuckerberg publically made anti-Trump comments the question was raised by employees as to whether the company should attempt to stack the election against him.

This issue was suggested as a discussion point in regular Q&A sessions between employees and Zuckerberg, although it did not receive adequate votes to be the topic for that week. However, a statement made by Sheryl Sandberg, a high level company employee, suggests that there is no intention of doing this: “Facebook would never try to control elections.”

Facebook’s 2012 experiment appears not to have favoured any one party. Despite this, if Facebook wished to do so, the only significant constraint would be their own morality. Facebook is protected by the First Amendment in the same way a media outlet is, unconstrained by the law in the censoring of content.

According to Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, the only time in which a legal constraint would apply is if Facebook were to collude with a candidate.

“If Facebook was actively coordinating with the Sanders or Clinton campaign, and suppressing Donald Trump news, it would turn an independent expenditure (protected by the First Amendment) into a campaign contribution because it would be coordinated—and that could be restricted.”

Despite Facebook presenting a stance of neutrality this does not seem to extend beyond the borders of the United States or perhaps other western nations, as evidenced by Kashmir. The role the website will take outside of this somewhat protected bubble is uncertain. Facebook’s neutrality is already undermined by existing algorithms which filter content to display posts based on your ‘likes’ and interests, meaning most users are deprived of exposure to conflicting views.

The capacity of Facebook to influence a wide range of political matters has become evident in the last few years, however the implications of this remain unclear, its potential remaining in its infancy. Despite choosing to make a public commitment to relative neutrality in the US the site’s involvement in the quashing of Kashmiri political discourse is worrying.

Facebook’s capacity to yield influence and its recent actions surrounding tensions in Kashmir demonstrate that it has now become a coercive political actor, almost devoid of legal constraint. The question of how or if it should exercise its considerable influence is one for each individual and begs another important question; how is Facebook influencing you?

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Bhutan, body counts and beauty

Harrison Rule

Society and culture | Asia


In elegant white cursive, the words “mountains, monasteries and magic” accompany an image of a picturesque Buddhist temple delicately balanced on the edge of a rugged cliff face.

This is the scene chosen by travel guide giant Lonely Planet to encapsulate what the Himalayan hermit kingdom of Bhutan has to offer visitors, as one of the guide’s “Top experiences in Asia.”

Though the company behind the iconic blue spine travel guides has always been criticised for homogenising and euphemising myriad cultures and societies, Lonely Planet’s most recent glossy depiction of Bhutan seems more fitting for a clichéd corporate motivational poster hanging above the water cooler in a dreary office break room.

In reality, the land of the Thunder Dragon is definitely no Shambhala.

Bhutan has developed an image as a tranquil Buddhist paradise. This naïve polaroid of a peaceful nation untouched by the trappings of the modern world is a convenient mask for a country plagued by a legacy of violent ethnic cleansing.

Between 1987 and 1992 the Bhutanese government systematically implemented a series of ethno-nationalist policies targeting the Lhotsampa minority who mostly resided in the south of the country. Programs which enforced the wearing of national dress in public places and the banning of Nepali in Lhotsampa schools quickly escalated to forced evictions, rape and human rights violations.

Vidhyapati Mishra, writing from a UNHCR refugee camp in 2013, described his father’s appalling ordeal with government officials in an op-ed published in The New York Times.

“They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chillies in his cell just to make breathing unbearable.”

After 91 days of torture Mishra’s father agreed to sign what was called a “voluntary migration form”, giving him a week to leave the country his family had inhabited for four generations.

[caption id="attachment_4395" align="alignnone" width="2016"] Lhotshampa and Nepali communities, such the one pictured in the Paro Valley of central Bhutan, today lie mostly uninhabited (Image Source)[/caption]

When Lonely Planet, the largest travel guide publisher in the word presents Bhutan as a fanciful Buddhist utopia – “as close as it gets” to Shangri-La – it perpetuates a narrative which discounts the experiences of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, many of whom are still waiting for resettlement in Nepalese camps.

A desire to create the next big ‘undiscovered gem’ for adventurers has seemingly compromised Lonely Planet’s commitment to responsible travel. The actions of the publisher instead help bolster Bhutan’s efforts to be perceived internationally as a ‘happy country’. The champion of the International Day of Happiness at the UN and governed by Gross Nation Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan has skilfully avoided significant international penalties for a protracted refugee crisis which remains unresolved even today.

This however is not a call for Lonely Planet to damage the reputation of Bhutan.

As a small country jammed between China and India, the hermit Kingdom faces a future of unknowns as it enters the international arena. With little military might or economic power Bhutan will soon discover that its greatest resource is its rich and varied culture.

Its position as the intersection between Tibetan, Himalayan and Hindu cultures is a recipe for a strong sustainable tourism industry. It is the responsibility of publishers like Lonely Planet to highlight this diversity – laying a path for potential future reconciliation.

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