BP oil spill, Bhopal gas leak and America’s nuclear business

President Obama insists on BP paying every dime for the damage caused, directly and indirectly, by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, America demands a limited liability guarantee from the Indian government for US companies selling nuclear power stations to India.

What if a Chernobyl-type disaster happened at an American-designed nuclear plant in the world’s second most populous country? And remember the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster and the shameful treatment of its victims by the American company Union Carbide.

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Kabul suicide bomber targets NATO troops

A suicide car bomb attack targeting NATO troops killed about 20 people near parliament in the capital Kabul today. More than 50 others were wounded. An army doctor said it was the worst bombing in the city for more than a year.

The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, saying they had targeted ‘invading  NATO forces’. The insurgents said they used a van loaded with 750 kg of explosives. The attack came amid US-led military operations in Helmand Province and in the Taliban stronghold, Kandahar. Success in these operations would be essential for President Obama’s intended withdrawal of US combat troops to begin in July 2011.

The BBC defence and security correspondent Nick Childs says, “The Western alliance is making no bones about the fact that it is trying to wrest the military initiative in Afghanistan from the insurgents. So, in the battle for perceptions and hearts and minds, this will be a serious blow, with the high loss of life both of NATO troops and local civilians.”  

A spokesman for the international peacekeeping force confirmed that six of its soldiers had been killed. Apart from the five US soldiers, one Canadian is believed to have died. But most of the casualties were civilians, as is the case in most attacks by combatants.

There was another attack inside Pakistan. At least 12 people were killed in a bomb blast near a police vehicle in the north-western Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan. Officials said the bomb was planted on a bicycle and targeted the deputy police superintendent, who was killed along with his guard and driver.

There have been a number of US drone strikes inside Pakistan since the attempted bomb attack in New York in early May. An American citizen of Pakistani origin, Faisal Shahzad, is in custody as the main suspect and is being interrogated. In response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had warned of serious consequences for Pakistan if security threats appeared to originate from that country.

As President Obama’s deadline of July 2011 for a military drawdown approaches, violence on both sides is likely to increase, resulting in casualties not only among combatants, but critically, among civilians.

Brown in no hurry to leave, Tories and Lib Dems move closer

Conservative 306 (36%), Labour 258 (29%), Liberal Democrats 57 (23%)

So the United Kingdom has a hung Parliament after the general election, with the Conservatives short of the 326 needed for a majority to form a government on their own. On the day after, the defeated prime minister Gordon Brown indicated he would allow the other two main parties to try to form a government and should any other leader want to hold talks with him, he would be available.

Brown appears to be in no hurry to submit his resignation to the Queen. For the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, the results have been deeply disappointing, after the initial surge in opinion polls in the wake of the first televised debate. His reaffirmation today that the party with the largest number of seats and the biggest share of the vote should be allowed to try to form the next government appears to rule out the possibility of a Labour-Lib Dem alliance, formal or informal. Brown remaining the Labour leader would pose an added problem.

In an attempt to woo the Lib Dems, Labour has promised to consider introducing proportional representation as an immediate priority, a long-standing Lib Dem demand. But even with Lib Dem support, Labour cannot achieve a majority in Parliament. The Conservative leader David Cameron has also promised to consider electoral reform and cooperation with Lib Dems on the prospect of dropping Labour’s plan to introduce ID cards and other issues of civil liberties. the Lib dem leader specified his conditions for cooperation – fairer taxation system, greener economy and proportional representation. The two sides are talking.

British 2010 election scenarios

After spending six weeks in South Asia, I have just returned to the United Kingdom. We face the most critical general election on May 6 in the last thirty, perhaps more than sixty, years. Like 1979, when I was here, and 1945, six years before I was born, Britain is in the midst of a worldwide crisis. In 1945, the country had to deal with the aftermath of the Second World War, which the Allies had barely won. The crisis in 1979 was caused by the collapse of Labour government’s  relations with the unions and a deep recession. The country faces an economic crisis of much greater proportions this time.

Two things have contributed to Britain’s woes: the collapse in the US economy visiting the rest of the world and here the governing Labour Party’s own arrogance in the way the current prime minister Gordon Brown managed the economy as chancellor of the exchequer for more than a decade.

In 1979, and again in 1997, economic failure swung the public mood decisively and produced a solid majority for the victorious party. In the former case, the Conservatives came to power and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ended up restructuring the British economy and society. After a traumatic period in which the labour unions were defeated and the Soviet Union collapsed marking the end of the Cold War, the Thatcher-Reagan mission seemed to have been accomplished. But those solutions created new problems.

It may be stating the obvious, but it is nonetheless worth noting that the 2010 general election comes at a time when the UK economy is in dire straits: total national debt, money owed to the private sector and other purchasers of UK gilts, £848.5 billion or nearly 60 percent of the gross national product; the public sector borrowing in 2009/2010 around £178 billion or 12.6 percent; the overall unemployment rate 8 percent, the highest since 1996; more importantly, the working age employment rate 72.1 percent. Roads and government buildings in many parts of the country have fallen into disrepair, heath care and education are facing drastic cuts. The outlook is deeply pessimistic and likely to remain so possibly for a decade.

There has been a steady erosion in trust in the mainstream political parties. And, for the first time in memory, there is a real prospect of a hung parliament, or the winner – Conservatives or Labour – emerging with a narrow lead, or a weak majority.

It means one of two possible scenarios. Either a weak Conservative government led by David Cameron, who is young, attractive but inexperienced like Labour’s Tony Blair at the time of his ascent to power in 1997. Or another Labour government, dependent on a resurgent Liberal Democratic Party, without Gordon Brown as prime minister. But any Labour-Lib Dem deal would be difficult if the Labour Party resisted changing its leader – a less likely event after defeat. In any case, the next government faces an enormous task. It will have to raise tax and cut public services, a recipe for growing public discontent.

Except drone killings, US policy is achieving little else

Militants armed with guns, grenades and suicide car bombs attacked the American consulate and a political rally in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, killing nearly 50 people and wounding many more on Monday.

The attacks were launched within minutes and were the most serious this year in Pakistan. Monday’s events raise serious questions about America’s continuing military operations against Pashtun opposition in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

Pakistan’s Taliban claimed responsibility for the consulate bombing in Peshawar, claiming it was in retaliation to America’s drone war. The Taliban threatened further attacks on US targets.

The White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the attack on the consulate was of “great concern” and that “we strongly condemn the violence.”

Monday’s first bomb struck a political rally in the town of Timargarah in Lower Dir.

A spokesman for the Awami National Party said that members of his party had been celebrating plans to change the name of North-West Frontier Province, where Lower Dir is located, when a suspected suicide bomber detonated his explosives.

Al Jazeera’s Pakistan correspondent Kamal Hyder described the attack on the US consulate as well coordinated. It shook the entire city, yet did not cause the kind of mayhem seen in Dir. “That will be the only consolation for the security agencies,” Hyder said.

These events underscore the fact that, despite American drone attacks, the Taliban remain a serious force.

Al Jazeera correspondent suggested that although the militants have been driven out of their strongholds in key areas, a substantial number have infiltrated into the settled areas. 

Meanwhile, a group of Afghan parliamentarians says that President Hamid Karzai, angry and frustrated at Washington and its allies criticizing and belittling his government, has threatened to step down and join the Taliban if foreign pressure on him continues.

The Afghan MPs said it was the second time in recent days that Karzai had threatened to quit and join the Taliban.  

Karzai reportedly said that ‘if I come under foreign pressure, I might join the Taliban,’ Farooq Marenai, MP from Nangarhar province, said. Karzai repeated his threat at a closed-door meeting at a time when tension between him and the United States is increasing. Only a few days before, the Afghan president, installed by Washington after the Taliban’s overthrow in late 2001, had alleged that foreigners were behind the fraud in last year’s presidential election.

Karzai has bitterly complained that he and his government are not sovereign and exercise little control over military operations.

Defying pressure from Washington to boycott Iran, the Indian government has decided to appoint its Tehran ambassador Sanjay Singh to represent the country at a two-day conference on nuclear disarmament in the Iranian capital beginning on April 17.  Delhi also insists it has not shut its door on the pipeline project running from Iran through Pakistan to India.

Sanjay Singh will attend the Tehran conference “Nuclear energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None” – a sign of India’s annoyance over constant diplomatic pressure from Washington that goes back to the Bush administration. The Times of India newspaper quotes Indian government sources as saying that, as well as civilisational ties with Iran, Tehran is important for Delhi not just for energy but also for strategic reasons in Afghanistan.

The Tehran Times reports today the Indian envoy as saying that Iran can help India greatly in meeting its energy needs, including oil, gas and electricity.

India, Iran and Russia all cooperated in helping the Northern Alliance in the US-led campaign to remove the Taliban, before President Bush turned against Iran in his ‘axis of evil speech’ in January 2002.

Taliban Number 2 arrest ‘ISI-CIA plot’ – Times of India

A report in the Times of India (18 March, p 10) has added a new twist to the recent arrest of Mullah Baradar, claimed to be second in the Taliban leadership, in Karachi. Originating from the Afghan capital Kabul, the report said that Baradar’s capture by Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, operating with the American CIA, was in fact aimed at foiling the Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s hopes of direct peace talks with the Taliban, bypassing Pakistan.

The Times of India quoted an unnamed adviser to President Karzai saying that the Kabul government was holding secret talks with Mullah Baradar when he was captured in Pakistan’s southern city, Karachi. The president was infuriated at the sudden arrest and felt that it raised questions about whether the United States was really willing to back negotiations with the Taliban. The Afghan adviser claimed that Baradar had given ‘a green light’ to participation in a three-day peace jirga (tribal assembly) President Karzai was planning to hold next month.

The report clearly implied that Baradar’s arrest came as part of an attempt to sabotage Kabul’s overtures to the insurgents. Numerous attempts in the past have failed for one reason or another. But if they had made progress this time, then the justification for the American military surge and intensified operations in Helmand and neighboring provinces in southern Afghanistan would have been weakened.

The US military commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal has announced that the next big target of the foreign forces will be the Taliban spiritual center Kandahar after the current military operations in the Marjah area in Helmand province.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. – Report from South Asia

I have now spent a week in India. This is enough for a visitor to begin to gain a new perspective on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and its impact. Attacks  in all three countries in recent days are widely discussed in both print and broadcast media, when in more normal times the rowdy behavior by parliamentarians over the issue of women’s representation in the Indian Parliament would have eclipsed all others.

Last weekend’s suicide attacks in the Afghan city of Kandahar, which killed around 35 people and injured about 60, receive prominent coverage in the Times of India and many other newspapers.  The bombers targeted a local prison and a police station in the city. The Afghan authorities expressed satisfaction that no prisoner escaped. But the casualty figures paint a more distressing picture and their impact is much more. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali, said two of the explosions occurred close to his home, but it was not damaged. Ahmed Wali is a member of the Kandahar Provincial Council.

Bombs in the southern Pakistani city of Lahore, less than 20 miles from the Indian border, caused death and destruction, as well as in Peshawar in North-West Frontier Province. And in an apparent plea to the Taliban, the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, asked them not to target Punjab as his provincial government ‘would not take dictation from outsiders’. The Chief Minister is the brother of Pakistan’s main opposition leader and former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The Punjab chief minister said that extremism and terrorism were the consequences of wrong policies of a dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, for which the country was paying a heavy price. Further, in a pointed reference to the United States, Sharif accused Pakistan’s ex-military ruler of enacting a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule. Coming from a mainstream political figure, these remarks represent the views of considerable sections of society in Pakistan.

As American pilotless aircraft continue to attack targets Washington claims to be Taliban and al Qaeda hideouts, and Pakistani forces under US pressure launch more raids in the north-western tribal belt, these political developments mirror the turmoil in military conflict between the foreign forces and the opposition. The Taliban say the latest suicide bombings in Kandahar are a warning to the NATO forces, whose commander Gen. McChrystal has recently said that his next big target after Marjah in Helmand Province would be Kandahar, Taliban’s spiritual center. In this sense, the carnage in Kandahar over the weekend is a sign of things to come. On the other hand, there are those in Pakistan accusing India of being behind the Lahore attack; and Indians accusing Pakistani intelligence of helping groups that are planning attacks in India cities.

The warning from Washington that Lashker-e-Taiba in Pakistan has hundreds of targets in India and worldwide on its list is a fillip to India’s counterinsurgency hawks.