News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

Becalmed Baghdad counts war’s cost

There have been dozens of bombings in the Karrada district of Baghdad. But there is one date Ali Hameed will never forget – 26 July 2007.

Ali Hameed
We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed
Ali Hameed

At six pm, a massive truck bomb exploded near his fish shop. Five members of his family were killed.

“We thought it was an earthquake because of the power of the explosion,” he told me.

Ali spent several minutes helping the wounded in the street. Only later did he realise that his home nearby had been destroyed. The whole apartment block was flattened.

In total, more than 60 people were killed. Ali pulled the bodies of his daughter and his brother from the rubble.

But, despite everything that happened to his family, he does not come across as angry or full of hate.

“The situation now is getting better,” he tells me.

“Life is gradually coming back to normal for us. People have started to question the purpose of fighting.

“We have a bright future in Iraq. The cloud that was hanging over all of us has passed.”

The smell of grilled fish wafts out onto the road. It is full of people buying groceries, sitting in cafes, and standing around chatting.

There is a sudden bang and I instinctively flinch. But it is just a car backfiring. The locals do not even notice.

Future anguish

Across Baghdad, people are starting to feel more confident. There are still bombings and shootings almost every day. But there is no longer the constant fear.

Dr Haider Maliki
Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent…. It will be a very violent generation
Dr Haider Maliki

The drop in violence has allowed many to think more about its effects. One recent study found that 70% of children exposed to trauma in Iraq go on to develop psychological problems.

At a park in central Baghdad, two orphans are playing.

Salah is nine years old. He was found by the police after a bomb went off. Nobody knows what happened to his family.

Saif is seven. His parents were killed in an explosion.

“I want to tell them [the bombers] it’s against God’s law to kill people,” he tells me. “I want to ask them: why did you kill my mother and father.”

He says he wants to be a policeman when he grows up, so that he can find his parents’ killers and send them to prison.

Salah barely talks at all. His shaking hands tell their own story.

Dr Haider Maliki deals with many similar cases at Baghdad’s only child psychiatric ward. Flowers hang from the ceiling and the walls are brightly painted. They have tried to make it as friendly as possible for the children.

Dr Maliki thinks problems are being stored up for the future.

“Many of the children who have experienced trauma become very violent,” he says. “They are violent towards their parents and they have no respect for their teachers. It will be a very violent generation.”

Letting off steam

On the other side of the city, there is a very different scene. We watch as the stunt bikers of Baghdad take to the streets.

Bikers in Baghdad

Bike enthusiasts make the most of a relatively safer Baghdad

At dusk, more than a hundred people gather on motorbikes. It is an anarchic sight as they race around performing skids, jumps and wheelies for the crowd.

The police keep moving them on, but they always find another venue for their impromptu displays.

The young men are ecstatic – almost intoxicated by the mix of testosterone and petrol fumes.

At one point, the bikers are joined by a man driving a minibus who skids his vehicle wildly around the empty car park.

After all the violence of recent years, young people in Baghdad clearly need to let off a lot of steam.

September 12, 2008

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

Pakistan’s counter-insurgency quandary

The residents of Sheikh Yasin camp are not celebrating the inauguration of Pakistan’s new president.

Taheer, a farmer now resident in the Sheikh Yasin camp
The army’s killing people because America gives it money to fight terrorists, so it has to show it’s doing something
Taher, a farmer now resident in Sheikh Yasin camp

They jostle each other as they wait for hand-outs of bread and queuing for soup, ladled out from huge vats under a canvas tarpaulin crusty with flies.

More than 2,000 people have fled to the camp to escape an army bombing campaign against the local Taleban in the Bajaur tribal area near the Afghan border. More civilians were killed than militants, they say.

For many Pakistanis, this is what the “war on terror” has brought: displacement and death. There is resentment and anger.

Double game

Despite, or perhaps because of, the high price that Pakistan has paid since 9/11, there’s no consensus in the country about how to confront Islamist militancy.

Now with a new president and a relatively new government, once again questions are being raised about the country’s counter-insurgency policy.

Pakistan’s former military leader Pervez Musharraf swung between military offensives and peace talks with militants.

Neither worked, and the general, although a key American ally, was accused of playing a double game by maintaining links with the Taleban.

It’s not clear if it will be any different under the new civilian President, Asif Zardari, who took the oath of office this week. During his party’s short six months in government, it has also tried both war and peace.

But at his inaugural press conference, Mr Zardari seemed to signal a new line. He shared the podium with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president who has accused Pakistan of harboring and supporting the Taleban.

They pledged co-operation against the militants, something for which Washington has long been pressing.

‘America’s man’

“I think so far Mr Zardari has been more forthright and more articulate [than Musharraf] in his belief that the war on terror has to be fought with greater intensity and sincerity,” says Tariq Fathimi, a former ambassador to the United States.

“He has also been very categorical in stating that the war on terror is something that’s in the interest of Pakistan, and that must be something that pleases the Bush administration.”

resident of Sheikh Yasin camp

For Sheikh Yasin residents, the ‘war on terror’ has brought only misery

But for many in Pakistan, his performance has only strengthened impressions that he’s America’s man, and that’s a problem.

Most Pakistanis are opposed to their government’s participation in what they call America’s war. And a recent surge in US air strikes against suspected militant targets in Pakistan’s border region has not helped the new government.

“It is making things rather impossible for us,” says Rehman Malik, head of the Interior Ministry, “because when the people hear of an alien attack, nobody likes it, we’re talking about the sovereignty of our country.

“So we are fighting our war… and now we are asking the international community to help us.”

It’s not just the people – Pakistan’s army is also angry, and it’s still the country’s most powerful institution. Any new policy or approach by Asif Zardari would need its backing to be successful.

Analysts say the army is unsure about Mr Zardari but willing to work with him, especially if he can deliver clear parliamentary support for military action.

Pakistani soldiers in NWFP

The army is eager to get the government’s support

That source of popular legitimacy was sorely lacking under the previous administration. But the US air strikes complicate the relationship with the government.

“Within the army there is strong thinking that we are being let down by the government if it doesn’t respond,” says retired General Talat Masood.

“Because then, what would the people of Pakistan think about the army, which is just allowing national sovereignty to be violated in such a gross manner?”

There’s no doubt Pakistan is facing a huge problem of Islamic militancy. But many are convinced it can’t tackle this if it’s seen to be acting at America’s behest.

“Probably the only way to reverse it is to initiate a parliamentary debate,” says Zaffar Abbas, the Islamabad editor of Dawn Newspaper, “to have a home-grown policy to deal with militancy and religious extremism, which is somewhat de-linked from the American demand to have an international campaign against terrorism.

“Unless they are able to do it, it will be nearly impossible to deal with this menace of terrorism.”

Asif Zardari may have signalled that he’s willing to work closely with America. But as a democratically elected leader, he also says he’ll be directed by parliament.

How he handles that is crucial. His challenge is to truly make this Pakistan’s war.

September 11, 2008

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

US marks seventh 9/11 anniversary

New York has paused to remember the times two planes struck the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 – an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Four moments of silence are being held to mark the times when four hijacked passenger planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are attending a ceremony at Ground Zero in New York.

President Bush dedicated a new memorial at the Pentagon, where 184 died.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opened Thursday’s memorial event at Ground Zero, where families of the victims read out a roll call of those who died.

The attacks, which triggered the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush administration’s war on terror, are regarded as the defining moment of President George W Bush’s time in office.

At the Pentagon, he paid tribute to the acts of courage shown by Americans seven years ago, saying: “The worst day in America’s history saw some of the bravest acts in America’s history.”

A flag was raised over the Washington memorial, which was built at a cost of $22m (£12.6m) on a 1.9-acre (0.77-hectare) parcel of land within view of the crash site.

The president was joined in the US capital by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr Bush had stood earlier for a moment of silence with First Lady Laura Bush on the White House lawn at the time the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

It is the last time Mr Bush marks the anniversary as president.

“The president thinks about 9/11 every single day when he wakes up and before he goes to bed,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said on the eve of the anniversary.

‘Put aside politics’

Senators Obama and McCain, the Democratic and Republican nominees in November’s election, will appear together at Ground Zero in the afternoon to lay wreathes in honour of the victims.

Passenger plane hits second tower of World Trade Center on 11 September 2001
11 September 2001 is a day many around the world will never forget

In a joint statement from the campaigns announcing their decision to visit Ground Zero together, the two men vowed to come together “as Americans” and suspend their political campaigns for 24 hours.

“We will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honour the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones,” the statement said.

Their appearance is to be followed by another in the evening at a Columbia University forum to discuss their views on public service.

The ceremony in downtown Manhattan is marking the times when the planes hit the Twin Towers, and when each tower fell – pausing for silence at 0846, 0903, 0959 and 1029.

Family members and students representing the 90 countries that lost people in the attacks also read out the names of all the 2,973 dead.

Seven years after the attacks which shocked the world, Ground Zero is a construction site.

9/11 MEMORAIL TIMETABLE
1340BST: New York World Trade Center ceremony begins
1346: Moment of silence (time first plane hit North Tower)
1346: President Bush has moment of silence at White House
1403: Moment of silence (time second plane struck South Tower)
1430: Mr Bush in Washington for 9/11 Pentagon Memorial dedication
1459: Moment of silence (time South Tower fell)
1529: Moment of silence (time North Tower fell)
1545: Members of Congress gather on the West Steps to honor those killed and injured on 9/11

After years of delays and disagreements over how to commemorate the dead, work has finally begun on a memorial and a new skyscraper – the Freedom Tower – which is due to be completed by 2012.

On Wednesday, Mr Bloomberg called for the abolition of the WTC planning agency, saying the reconstruction was “frustratingly slow”.

“Most important, the memorial must be completed by the 10th anniversary. No more excuses, no more delays,” he added.

On the eve of the anniversary, a top US military commander warned new tactics were needed to win the conflict in Afghanistan, which the US and its allies invaded three months after 9/11.

They aimed to topple the Taleban and hunt down Osama Bin Laden, who the US believes masterminded the attacks.

Admiral Mike Mullen believes insurgents are launching attacks from neighboring Pakistan, and US-led forces must target their “safe havens” in that country.


What are your thoughts on this anniversary? Are you attending any 9/11 memorial ceremonies? Send us your comments and reflections

September 10, 2008

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

Mapping where militants operate in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, seven years into America’s self-declared war on terror. (Text: M Ilyas Khan)

Helmand, Chaghai

Kabul’s writ has never run strong in the remote southern plains of Helmand province. Further south, across the border in Pakistan, lies the equally remote Noshki-Chaghai region of Balochistan province.

Since 9/11, this region has been in turmoil. In the Baramcha area on the Afghan side of the border, the Taleban have a major base. The chief commander is Mansoor Dadullah. From there they control militant activities as far afield as Nimroz and Farah provinces in the west, Oruzgan in the north and parts of Kandahar province in the east. They also link up with groups based in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Helmand Taleban, unlike comrades elsewhere in Afghanistan, have been able to capture territory and hold it, mostly in the southern parts of the province. They constantly threaten traffic on the highway that connects Kandahar with Herat.

Kandahar, Quetta

Kandahar has the symbolic importance of being the spiritual centre of the Taleban movement and also the place of its origin. The supreme Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the city his headquarters when the Taleban came to power in 1996. Top al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, preferred it to the country’s political capital, Kabul.

As such, the control of Kandahar province is a matter of great prestige. The first suicide attacks in Afghanistan took place in Kandahar in 2005-06, and were linked to al-Qaeda. Kandahar has seen some high-profile jailbreaks and assassination bids, including one on President Karzai.

The Afghan government has prevented the Taleban from seizing control of any significant district centre or town. International forces have large bases in the airport area as well as at the former residence of Mullah Omar in the western suburbs of Kandahar city.

But the Taleban have a strong presence in the countryside, especially in southern and eastern areas along the border with Pakistan. Afghan and Western officials have in the past said the Taleban have used Quetta, the capital of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, as a major hideout as well as other Pakistani towns along the Kandahar border.

Mullah Omar is probably in hiding in Kandahar or Helmand.

Zabul, Toba Kakar

Afghanistan’s Zabul province lies to the north of Kandahar, along the Toba Kakar mountain range that separates it from the Pakistani districts of Killa Saifullah and Killa Abdullah. The mountans are remote, and have been largely quiet except for a couple of occasions when Pakistani security forces scoured them for al-Qaeda suspects.

Reports from Afghanistan say militants use the area in special circumstances. In early 2002, Taleban militants fleeing US forces in Paktia and Paktika provinces took a detour through South Waziristan to re-enter Afghanistan via Zabul. Occasionally, Taleban insurgents use the Toba Kakar passes when infiltration through South Waziristan is difficult due to intensified vigilance by Pakistani and Afghan border guards.

Zabul provides access to the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Oruzgan and Kandahar. There are few Afghan or foreign forces in the area, except on the highway that connects Qalat, the capital of Zabul, to Kandahar in the south-west, and Ghazni and Kabul in the north.

South Waziristan, Paktika

South Waziristan, a tribal district in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), is the first significant sanctuary Islamic militants carved for themselves outside Afghanistan after 9/11. Militants driven by US troops from the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar province in late 2001, and later from the Shahikot mountains of Paktia in early 2002, poured into the main town, Wana, in their hundreds. They included Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Afghans and Pakistanis. Some moved on to urban centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Others slipped back into Afghanistan or headed west to Quetta and onwards to Iran. But most stayed back and fought the Pakistani army during 2004-05.

The eastern half of South Waziristan is inhabited by the Mehsud tribe and the main militant commander here is Baitullah Mehsud. The western half, along the border with Afghanistan, is Ahmedzai Wazir territory where the chief commander is Maulvi Nazir. The Mehsuds only live on the Pakistani side, while the Wazirs inhabit both sides of the border.

These sanctuaries directly threaten Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where the US-led forces have a base in the Barmal region and several outposts along the border to counter infiltration. Pakistani security forces also man scores of border checkposts in the region.

However, infiltration has continued unabated and the number of hit-and-run attacks on foreign troops has been one of the highest in this region. Militants based in the region are known to have carried out strikes as far away as the Kandahar-Kabul highway.

North Waziristan, Paktia, Khost

The North Waziristan region is dominated by the Wazir tribe that also inhabits the adjoining Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost. North and South Waziristan form the most lethal zone from where militants have been successfully destabilising not only Paktika and Khost, but other Afghan provinces such as Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak and Logar. Groups based in Waziristan region are known to have carried out some recent attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well.

Tribal identities are particularly strong in Paktika, Khost and Paktia. During the Taleban rule of 1997-2001, these provinces were ruled by their own tribal governors instead of the Kandahari Taleban who held power over the rest of the country. In the current phase of the fighting they coordinate with the militants in Kandahar and Helmand, but they have stuck with their own leadership that dates back to the war against the Soviets in 1980s.

The veteran Afghan militant Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in North Waziristan. He has wielded considerable influence over the top commanders in South and North Waziristan. He is also reported to have maintained links with sections of the Pakistani security establishment and is known to have mediated peace deals between the Pakistani government and the Wazir and Mehsud commanders in the region. Mr Haqqani is now an old man, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over most of his work.

There are many Arab and other foreign fighters in North and South Waziristan. This is due to Jalaluddin Haqqani’s close links with the al-Qaeda leadership. He married an Arab woman in the 1980s.

In view of the sensitivity of Waziristan region, US-led forces have set up a large base in Khost from where they conduct operations not only along the Waziristan region to the south but also in parts of the border region in Paktia and Nangarhar provinces to the north.

Kurram, Khyber, Nangarhar

As the Pakistani military strategists who organised Afghan guerillas against the Soviets in the ’80s discovered to their delight, Kurram is the best location along the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border to put pressure on the Afghan capital, Kabul, which is just 90km away. But because the region is inhabited by a Shia tribe that opposes the Taleban for religious reasons, the Taleban have not been able to get a foothold here. Analysts say this is the main reason why the Taleban have taken so long to improve their strength in areas around Kabul, such as Logar and Wardak.

Some militant groups in the Khyber tribal district have carried out attacks on foreign and Afghan troops in Nangarhar province. But the Pakistani government has kept a close watch on them. One reason may be to curb the ability of these groups to block the highway through Khyber which serves as the main conduit for supplies to international forces in Afghanistan that come via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Kunar

Analysts have long suspected Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other top al-Qaeda leaders. The Mohmand and Bajaur tribal districts are also believed to be the stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the main Afghan guerrilla leaders of the 1980s. Mr Hekmatyar fought the Taleban in 1990s, but after 9/11 started working with them. The actual extent of cooperation is not known. The groups in Mohmand and Bajaur are members of an umbrella organisation which is headed by South Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud known as the Tehreek-e-Taleban (Pakistan Taleban).

Militants based in Mohmand and Bajaur have been striking at installations and supply lines of international forces based in the Narai region of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. In recent months, they are also reported to have crossed the Hindu Kush foothills to carry out attacks on foreign troops in the Sarobi, Tagab and Nejrab areas around Kabul.

Oruzgan, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar

For a long time the Taleban were unable to maintain sustained pressure on the country’s south-central highlands. But with safe sanctuaries in the border region – from the Baramcha area of Helmand province in the south, to some parts of Pakistani Balochistan, the Waziristan country and Bajaur-Mohmand territory to the east – the Taleban finally have the capacity to challenge the government in this region. The roads in Ghazni and Oruzgan are not as safe as they were a couple of years ago and officials are losing the will to maintain the government’s authority.

Training camps run by al-Qaeda and Taleban groups have multiplied in secure border regions over the last few years. Safe havens have also afforded the militants endless opportunities to find new recruits. The Waziristan region is also known to be a haven for young suicide bombers and trained in remote camps. The Taleban also appear to have had access to sophisticated military equipment and professionally drawn-up battle plans.

The strategy appears to be the same as in 1980s – ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Sporadic attacks on the security forces and the police have grown more frequent over the years, and have also crept closer to Kabul. At the same time, the Taleban have destroyed most of the education infrastructure in the countryside, a vital link between the central government and the isolated agrarian citizenry.

Oruzgan has mostly come under pressure from groups in Kandahar and Helmand. These groups, as well as those based in the Waziristan-Paktika-Khost region, have also moved up the highway via Ghazni to infiltrate Wardak on the left and Logar on the right. Safe and quiet until less than two years ago, both these provinces are now said to be increasingly infiltrated by Taleban fighters. The same is true of militants putting pressure on Kabul from Sarobi and Tagab in the east, with their tentacles stretching back to Laghman, Kunar and Bajaur.

Swat

A former princely state, Swat, in northern Pakistan, was governed by a British era law which a court declared unconstitutional in early 1990s, triggering a violent campaign for the introduction of Islamic law in the district.

The insurgency was effectively put down in 1994, but it re-emerged after 9/11, and was joined by many battle-hardened militants from Waziristan, Bajaur and the neighbouring district of Dir. During a 10-month long operation that still continues, the security forces have disrupted the infrastructure of the militants but is still to clear them out of the area. The militants have been targeting the security forces, the police, secular politicians and government-run schools.

September 6, 2008

Pakistan votes for new president

Pakistan votes for new president

Asif Zardari

Asif Zardari – one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians

Voting has started in Pakistan to elect a successor to Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president last month rather than risk impeachment.

The winner is expected to be Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Voting is being held in both the national and provincial assemblies.

The next president will have to tackle an Islamist insurgency and an economic crisis which are threatening the country’s stability.

Controversy

Mr Zardari was thrust into the center of political power by the killing of Ms Bhutto last December after which he became head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

WHO VOTES FOR PRESIDENT?
Total votes: 702
National Assembly 342 votes
Senate 100 votes
Four provincial assemblies 65 votes each
Winner needs simple majority of votes

What Pakistanis think

‘Master plan’ to save Pakistan

Q&A: Presidential poll

Send us your comments

Mr Zardari is regarded by many as the de facto prime minister and he is now almost certain to become president.

Our correspondent says that in recent months Mr Zardari has shown skill by forging a large coalition and using it to peacefully unseat the former military ruler, President Musharraf.

Mr Zardari is one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians.

For years he has been hounded by allegations of massive corruption – although he has never been convicted.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took his PML-N party out of the governing coalition last week, accusing Mr Zardari of breaking key promises.

Many in Pakistan fear the country is facing a return to an old-style politics of confrontation at a time when urgent action is needed to improve the economy and deal with a raging Islamist insurgency.

Juggling demands

Mr Zardari is seen as pro-Western and supportive of Washington’s self-declared war on terror.

Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s coalition with Mr Zardari did not last long

If he becomes president, he will have to juggle the demands of the United States, Pakistan’s powerful army, and strong anti-American sentiment in the country.

Our correspondent says Mr Musharraf tried to do that and failed. She adds that Pakistanis hope that Asif Zardari will have more success, but they see little in his past to encourage them.

The other candidates are Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge who has the backing of Mr Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who was nominated by the PML-Q party that supported Mr Musharraf.

In the Islamabad parliament, members of the upper house, the Senate, are voting first, followed by the lower house.

Voting is being held in a similar fashion in Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

There is only one round of voting and whoever has most of the 702 votes wins. Results are expected late on Saturday.

August 28, 2008

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

WarGames

Before the days of flat screen monitors… and Perestroika

The conflict in Georgia has awoken fears of a new Cold War between Russia and its allies and the West, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But will the animosity come back to haunt Western imaginations as it once did?

“We share the same biology,
regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too”

That couplet might be a mere piece of lyrical doggerel to any listener born after 9 November 1989, but when Sting released the single Russians in 1985, it came out of a deep mine of anxiety in the West about the course of the Cold War.

Sting

A good period in which to make profound statements…

For nearly five decades, the Cold War provided a rich seam running right through popular culture in the West, throwing out films, music, novels and even computer games that carried the fears, conscious and subconscious, of millions.

In the 1950s, science fiction movies were often allegories about different aspects of Cold War politics. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers was interpreted as a reference to McCarthy-era paranoia, Invaders from Mars as a parable of communist infiltration, and the Day the Earth Stood Still as a simple fantasy that some higher supernatural power would come to try and sort everything out.

After the world reached the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was another wave of Cold War-inspired fiction, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove perhaps the most notable example.

With the detente of the 1970s the Cold War thread became less noticeable, but with worsening relations in the early 1980s, both sides of the Atlantic were suddenly replete with fictional Cold War dystopian scenarios.

On the British side people were treated to the agonisingly poignant graphic novel When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and its film adaptation, as well as 1984’s Threads, about the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were the mini-series Amerika and World War III, and the gruesome The Day After with its vivid montages of men, women, children and even horses being vaporized.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

…and ripe for sensational scare-mongering

On the silver screen WarGames explored the issue of computer hacking against a background of mutually assured destruction , while Red Dawn took the usual brat pack characters complete with preppy letterman jackets, and armed them with AK-47s to fight a Soviet invasion of the US. Popular attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc were shaped by movies like Rocky IV, where the drug cheat Ivan Drago was emblematic of suspicions held against Soviet athletes.

As well as Sting’s Russians, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s chart-topper Two Tribes provided a musical accompaniment to the era. It seems strange to discuss now what was, even then, viewed as often laughable ephemera, but the course of popular culture reflected deep-seated fears, particularly significant among those too young to temper their concerns with a grasp of the political context.

Almost as soon as it had intensified, the Cold War quickly ebbed away, and by the end of the 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down and relations defrosting across the whole of eastern Europe, it suddenly became a bit silly to pick the Soviet state as baddies.

Hollywood had to find new protagonists for a new zeitgeist, and fast.

Bond sabbatical

While rarely casting Russia itself as the main enemy in a storyline, and indeed often featuring a sympathetic KGB general, the James Bond franchise was unmistakably driven by Cold War themes of espionage and fear of weapons technology. It was inevitably affected, says film critic James King.

It was a competition to be modern – consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism
Jane Pavitt

“Bond went into limbo for seven years, for many reasons, but one was that it didn’t feel relevant any more.

“The first film I remember that actually caught up was True Lies. When that came out it was almost a James Bond film and it had a new Hollywood enemy, which was an Arab – this was the new thing.”

Post 9/11 there has been a glut of movies either tackling the threat of terrorism, attacking the politics of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a host of television programmes that have explored the fall-out for Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. A poster for the current movie Shoot on Sight – with its tag line “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” – is typical.

In the space between the end of the Cold War and Islamist terrorism entering the mainstream mindset as the main threat to the West, movie producers did their best to come up with convincing action movie baddies.

Having been conceived long before the fall of the wall, the Hunt for Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, still performed well at the box office in 1990. But in projects conceived after the end of Cold War hostilities, the baddies are very often neo-nationalists or rebels trying to destabilise a friendly Russia (Crimson Tide and Air Force One) or are avaricious terrorists and gangsters of other nationalities (Die Hard).

Cold War the Sequel

The effect of the end of the Cold War on secret services and military personnel came to be a major theme. John Le Carre was one of those spy novel authors who made the transition smoothly. The Russia House marked the last of his novels released during the Cold War, the next three deal with the effect of the thaw on intelligence operatives, while the subsequent four, including the Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener are not directly related to the Cold War. But Hodder and Stoughton, his publisher, maintain sales of the Cold War novels were unaffected by the events of 1989.

Threads

Threads – not your average prime-time BBC drama

King is sceptical about whether current Cold War fears will quickly feed back into popular culture.

“Films take a while to get on the screen – I don’t think we will see anything for a year.”

Film producers and publishers may also feel that with the long lead times, tensions could be defused by the time anything gets to market.

They are returning to Cold War classics but not necessarily because of modern fears over relations between the West and Russia. WarGames was recently remade as a straight-to-DVD release although terrorism underpinned the story rather than a renewed Cold War. It has also been recently reported that Red Dawn is to be remade, although the exact plot is unclear.

But as well as those cultural products directly referencing or making allusions to the Cold War, the conflict also provided the backdrop to massive shifts and vigorous battles in everything from product design and modern art to fashion, says Jane Pavitt, curator of the Cold War Modern exhibition opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was a competition to be modern,” says Pavitt. “Consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism in Europe in the 1950s. That’s why fashion and kitchen goods can be seen as part of this.”

For those who were too young to remember the Berlin Wall coming down, or were born afterwards, the unique fears of the Cold War era, and the popular culture they steered, may be hard to appreciate.

But for anyone over the age of 25 in the West, they remain a deeply significant part of our psyche.


Add your comments on this story.

What about Soviet / Eastern Bloc popular culture during the cold war – was it also full of espionage dramas and ‘what if’ nuclear bomb scenarios? As someone old enough to remember it from a British perspective, I realise I have no idea at all how it was perceived and represented in media the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’m sure there is a level of propaganda and also aware that creativity was somewhat stifled, but is there a parallel strand of writing/drama/film-making that we’re all ignorant of over here?
WorldGirl, Enfield, UK

I have grown up at the other side of the Iron Curtain and can assure you: the fear that the Cold War would spiral out of control was just as real on our side, only that we expected the West to make the first move. This was reflected in our popular culture in a similar way as was quoted in the article. I used to think: perhaps both sides are just too afraid of each other, perhaps such fears could be calmed by assuring each other that “we” would not make the first move. However, my views have changed a bit over the years. Having seen how readily the West is prepared to enter into a war (Yugoslavia, twice in Iraq, Afghanistan) and how openly it encroaches on Russia’s borders by supporting various colour-coded revolutions, I am beginning to wonder who was indeed the more aggressive side. For anyone getting into a rage about this posting: just for one moment, try to forget our view that we are always right and that our view on democracy justifies any means to spread it around the world. Try to be unbiased and then read again what I said.
Holger Laux, Bristol, UK

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that in times of national perceived potential threat from outside, so much creativity happens. I remember vividly the tension of the 1980s, the big changes in the UK and around the world. In some ways, it was an exciting time because every new day could bring danger. Is that what we humans survive on and does it draw us together?
Krystyna, Sedgley

In the mid 1980’s I can remember being in a 6th form who generally agreed that they would not live to be 30 because nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. A strange mix of living a normal life but with the constant knowledge of impending disaster. This is probably why I felt so uneasy with the worsening relationship between Russia and the West. The world is, in my opinion, much less stable than it was in the 80s and the politicians are much more dangerous and paranoid than Maggie/Ronnie/Andropov/Chernenko.
John Ferris, Coventry, UK

I’m 27 and can just about remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though I can’t say I remember much more about the cold war. I’d raise your threshold to at least 30!
James, London

How true. I was only nine years old when they installed an air raid siren to the roof of our school. There were lots of discussions about what we would do with our last three minutes of life before the bombs arrived. It sounds trivial now but at the time we were convinced it would happen.
Dawn, Redhill

Reading the above it confirms my gut feeling that it is the Media that stir up scenarios causing more trouble than most just by publishing half of the story and twisting the facts. Even the BBC has succumbed to the drum of the gutter press by allowing the papers to show headlines on some of their programmes such as Breakfast, the BBC does not need to give the like of these people air time they have enough journalists to concoct their own stories, so why of why do they (BBC) despoil their standards with drivel?
Robert, Liverpool

I was born in 1985 so missed the hysteria, but we were subjected to ‘Threads’ in school. I didn’t sleep for weeks and when I did I dreamt of that cat on fire and the melting milk bottles! Haven’t been to Sheffield since!!
Martin Doyle, St Albans

Threads was an excellent – and terrifying – story, and was also the first ‘post-holocaust drama’ to incorporate the concept of the nuclear winter, which had only recently been realised. And it was more than just a story: it included occasional subtitles to spell out what would be happening. It’s hardly likely to get repeated (and would in all likelihood be out of date with its figures), but as an illustration of why not to play with nuclear weapons it was second to none.
Ruaraidh Gillies, Wirral, UK

Please stop doing this. Drumming up panic when there is no need. Even Russia has said they don’t want another cold war. There is NO crisis, just sabre rattling as always.
Rich, UK

Yes a large influence on Culture of the 80’s when I grew up. I went into the RAF and ended up at Greenham Common on the other side from the peace camp. I have still have a Cold War playlist on my iPod with tracks like ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Mad World’ and ’19’. Recent Computer games like Operation Flashpoint also hark back to the Cold War 80s. Are we going into a Second Cold War. Yes and there is nothing the West can do.
Simon CS, Farnham, Surrey, UK

The Cold War was fun and inspired some great films.
Matt, Philadelphia USA

Let’s hope that we don’t go back to the scare-mongering of the early eighties. For once I would like to think that today’s youngsters are a bit de-sensitised to the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ thoughts portrayed back then. I myself started digging out a bunker at the age of seven for our family to shelter in. When I was discovered I claimed it was a copy of Percy Thrower’s Blue Peter sunken garden!!!
Jenny, Wolves

I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war growing up. It was an all too real possibility. The intro to “Two Tribes” used to frighten me, and “Threads” is just as disturbing to watch now as it ever was. We also had the misfortune to live nine miles from the RAF/US Navy bases and oil refineries making us a prime target. When the Air Force did their low-flying exercises in the middle of the night, I’d lie awake waiting for a bomb blast to follow. That said, I think the idea of being nuked at any moment really beefed up Western popular culture at the time.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

They don’t need to drop the bomb. Russia has between 1/4 and 1/3 of the world’s oil and natural gas.

All they have to do is turn the taps off.
Philip Le Roux, Aldershot HANTS UK

August 22, 2008

Zardari nominated to be president

Zardari nominated to be president

Pakistan People’s Party leaders Asif Ali Zardari (L) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (C) and ex-PM Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad on Tuesday 19 August 2008

The coalition must decide who will be Pakistan’s new president

Pakistan’s biggest party, the PPP, has nominated its leader, Asif Zardari, to be the country’s president.

Pervez Musharraf resigned from the post on Monday in the face of the threat of impeachment by his political enemies.

Mr Zardari’s main coalition partner, Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, is not in favor of Mr Zardari getting the job.

The two men are also deadlocked over how many of the judges sacked by Mr  Musharraf during emergency rule last November should be reinstated.

Twenty-four hours

PPP spokeswoman Sherry Rehman told reporters in Islamabad that senior PPP members had come to a unanimous decision to nominate Mr Zardari.

“Mr Zardari thanked the Pakistan People’s Party of which he is the co-chairman and said he will announce his decision within the next 24 hours,” she said.

The PPP and the PML-N have been discussing ways to reduce the power of the presidency. But if Mr Zardari gets the job, it is not clear if such reforms will go ahead.

He took over as PPP leader after his wife, Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December.

The president is chosen by the two chambers of the national parliament and the country’s four provincial elections. The election will be held on 6 September.

Mr Sharif prefers what he calls a consensus president.

Wednesday deadline

Earlier on Friday Mr Sharif agreed to let parliament hold a debate next week on how to reinstate the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf.

He had threatened to pull out of the coalition government unless it was agreed on Friday that all the sacked judges be restored.

The PPP fears that if former Supreme Court judges, including ex-Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, are reinstated, they could overturn a controversial amnesty that Mr Musharraf granted Mr Zardari Ms Bhutto last year that paved the way for them to return to the country.

That would open up Mr Zardari to prosecution on long-standing corruption charges.

Mr Sharif pulled back from his threat to withdraw his PML-N party from the governing coalition after talks with other coalition parties in Islamabad.

But Mr Sharif is still hoping the resolution will result in Mr Chaudhry and the other judges getting their jobs back.

“Wednesday should be the day for reinstatement of judges,” he told journalists.

Squabbling

The coalition was elected in February but analysts say it has failed to find solutions to Pakistan’s economic crisis and to the militants in its north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Pakistani security officials examine the site of the suicide bombing in Wah

The politicians’ squabbling is hindering any possible plan for tackling militant violence.

The Pakistani Taleban claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide bombings on an ordnance factory in the town of Wah, near the capital Islamabad. It was the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The militant group promised more attacks in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

On Friday the Taleban said at least 16 of their fighters were killed in clashes with security forces in the north-western district of Hangu.

In the Bajaur tribal region near the Afghan border, reports said at least one person was killed and eight others were injured when army helicopters fired at a convoy. Locals said the vehicles were carrying civilians who were fleeing the fighting in the area.

Mr Musharraf, a key ally of President George Bush’s “war on terror”, stepped down this week after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.

He sacked about 60 Supreme Court judges during a state of emergency in November to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

Analysts say that although the PPP and PML-N worked together to hound Mr Musharraf from office, there is a history of intense rivalry and mistrust between the two main parties.

The parties differ over the future of Mr Musharraf, who has been replaced by a caretaker president, the speaker of the Senate.

Mr Zardari’s party has said it believes Mr Musharraf may have immunity from prosecution.

But Mr Sharif’s party argues he should stand trial for, among other things, abrogating the constitution.

August 21, 2008

Pakistan bombers hit arms factory

Pakistan bombers hit arms factory

Police at the scene of the Wah bomb

The emergency services rushed to the scene of the bombings

At least 55 people have been killed in twin suicide bombings outside a munitions factory in the Pakistani town of Wah, police say.

The attack is the deadliest on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The bombs hit the city, 30km (18 miles) north of Islamabad, as workers left. Many people were injured.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taleban said they had carried out the attacks, which he said were a response to army violence in the country’s north-west.

Speaking to the BBC, Maulvi Umar of the Tehrik-e-Taleban Pakistan said the bombings in Wah were in retaliation for the deaths of “innocent women and children” in the tribal area of Bajaur.

Map

He said more attacks would take place in Pakistan’s major urban conurbations unless the army withdrew from the tribal areas.

Correspondents say Wah, in the province of Punjab, is a strategically important town normally under heavy security as it is home to a large industrial complex producing conventional arms and ammunition.

Local police chief Nasir Khan Durrani told : “Many others have been injured and we expect casualties to rise in the coming hours.

“At least 25 people have been critically injured.”

Mr Durrani said none of the dead was military personnel.

‘Disturbing’

The first blast took place outside the gate of the factory as workers were leaving work during a shift change.

Minutes later, another blast took place at another gate of the same factory.

Pakistan's Al-Zarar tanks are made at Wah

Tanks used by the Pakistani army are made at Wah

Mohid Ahmed, a student from Wah, was on a tour of the ordnance factories and witnessed the immediate aftermath of the blast from his bus.

“It was very disturbing,” he told.

“There was smoke, bodies and blood. Those who were left alive were in great suffering. I saw a man clutching his leg and crying in pain and asking for help. I saw people running away from the scene.”

On Tuesday, 32 people were killed in a suicide attack on a hospital in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

It is the second recent direct attack on a Pakistani military installation.

Last September, 17 officers and soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on a special forces base in the nearby town of Tarbela-Ghazi.

The ordnance factories at Wah lie on the road into Pakistan’s troubled north-west, where fighting between security forces and Islamic militants has raged in recent weeks.

Established in the early 1950s, it is a sprawling complex manufacturing everything from tanks and small arms to artillery shells.

Militants have often threatened to increase the level of violence unless the army pulls back from tribal areas close to the border with Afghanistan.

On Monday, President Musharraf, a key ally of President Bush’s “war on terror” resigned after nine years in power to avoid being impeached.


Are you in Wah? Have your been affected by the bombings? Send us your comments

August 17, 2008

Musharraf ‘running out of time’

Musharraf ‘running out of time’

Anti-Musharraf protests in Multan, Pakistan (13 August)

Analysts say Musharraf’s best way out would seem to be a dignified exit

Pakistan’s foreign minister has said President Pervez Musharraf must stand down in the next two days or face impeachment proceedings.

“Musharraf is running out of time”, said Shah Mahmood Qureshi, of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) – a major partner in the governing coalition.

Draft charges against the president include violation of the constitution and gross misconduct, officials said.

Mr Musharraf’s office has said he will not resign and will defend himself.

The impeachment campaign was launched last week by leaders of the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

A PML-N official said: “There is a long list of charges against him… we will file them, by the latest, by Tuesday.”

If Mr Musharraf chooses not to quit, he would be the first president in Pakistan’s history to be impeached.

Weighing up options

A spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a pro-Musharraf party, said that the president’s advisers were considering his options.

STEPS TO IMPEACHMENT
Impeachment proposers need 50% majority in Senate or National Assembly
President given notice of impeachment, and has three days to respond
Joint session of Senate and Assembly must be held between 7 and 14 days later to investigate charges
If resolution presented, joint session must approve with two-thirds majority

Nawaz Sharif, who was toppled in the 1999 coup, said he was opposed to any deal which would give his old rival a “safe passage”.

He has said the president should be tried for treason, which carries the maximum sentence of the death penalty.

But the PPP, the party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, says the decision of whether to put the president on trial should be left to parliament.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman, said the PPP “never indulges in the politics of revenge as it wants a stable Pakistan and a sustainable democracy in the country”.

Support for the president in a recent vote of confidence in the provincial assemblies has almost entirely collapsed.

Mr Musharraf’s best way out would now seem to be a dignified exit before parliament meets to debate the impeachment, our correspondent says.

Talks are going on behind the scenes.

The ruling coalition parties will have to decide where the former army chief, a key ally in Washington’s war on terror, is allowed to live and what protection he will receive, our correspondent says.

Mr Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

He gave up control of the army last year and his allies were defeated in February’s elections but he retains the power to dissolve parliament.

But his public standing suffered a huge setback in 2007 when he sacked Pakistan’s chief justice and nearly 60 judges to prevent them from overturning his re-election as president.

But analysts say the president is still thought to have heavy influence over the military and its reaction will remain crucial.

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