Posted on 11-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Newsweek has ruffled some feathers in Switzerland with a provocatively titled article “The Death of Switzerland.”  While this probably sounds like music to the ears of mercurial Libiyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi who tried to introduce a resolution in the United Nations last year calling for the dissolution of country, it has naturally drawn some pushback from the locals that Newsweek is being a a tad melodramatic.  See link.

They may have a point.  Even in their alpine refuge the Swiss are hardly immune to the worries and fears that have spread across an aging continent.  With no tradition of taking in immigrants, Europeans have struggled to integrate the more conservative and religious (and often Muslim) newcomers.  Even the increasing separation of Switzerland’s communities is hardly original in today’s Europe.  See link.

If, as the Newsweek article suggests, English is rapidly becoming the common tongue of the Swiss, it is yet another example of how the former language of imperial rule is today the glue that holds diverse countries (like India) together.

Malaise is easy to find across the Western world nowadays.  One thing the Swiss have in their favor is 800 years of experience in keeping an unwieldy confederation together and adapting to changed circumstances.  It is too early to count Switzerland out.  Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

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Posted on 11-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Many observers have noted that one of the unintended side effects of weakening European nation states in the cause of European integration has been to give the long suppressed sub nationalities their opportunity to claim greater autonomy.  For example the Catalans and the Basques in Spain, some Scots (and increasingly many English) in the United Kingdom do not see the advantage of being a constituent part of the national unit when they could instead get the protection of the super-national European Union.

This has been most evident in Belgium.  Created in 1830 after a Catholic and often French speaking region revolted  against the Dutch dominated United Kingdom of the Netherlands, the country has always been divided among the French speaking Wallonia in the south and the Dutch speaking Flanders in the north.  Last year there were serious concerns that the country that houses the headquarters of the EU would dissolve. (For analysis of possible scenarios of dissolution see here, for the experiences of a bemused American tourist making sense of the situation in Brussels see here).  An artificial country that some joke is united only by its soccer team and monarchy in a region that has almost never been united, Belgium may have outlived its purpose.

The secessionist trend started by Woodrow Wilson’s famous calls for self determination 90 years ago is not one I look on with much favor.  I can understand it in national units that suppress regional languages and cultures (like France) or where the majority community oppresses the minority and exploits the resources in the minority region (Pakistan in Baluchistan; Sudan with its southern half), but in many of these European countries such a situation does not exist.

What often exists is rank selfishness.  In Belgium a once dominant community is now the economic underclass taking more than its fair share of state resources.  In Italy some in the more prosperous North would rather get rid of the far poorer South (if that was where Italy would end up, they might as well have left poor Francis II on his throne).  It is a sentiment sometimes expressed in the United States where residents of certain states are convinced they are subsidizing everybody else (some with more justification than others).   It is also evident in India as noted by the recent brouhaha in Maharashtra.  See link.

It is a short sighted approach that ignores the inevitable swings of history.  Belgium where poorer Flanders is now economically dominant is a fine example of this.  A cacophony of small states will eventually bring with it far more intransigent battles over national resources (notably water and in the case of England and Scotland oil reserves), inherited debt and other conflicts and a much harder job to divide aid at the European level.  They would be better off working towards a common national purpose while retaining their regional culture (that includes you too Quebec).

But then I do not speak from the perspective of a paranoid or threatened minority.

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Posted on 11-02-2010
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

Following up on my previous posts here and here, is this Newsweek article on the practical difficulty of buying off the Taliban.  See link.  A failure to buy off the “good-Taliban” renders a large chunk of the Obama administration’s Afghan pacification strategy meaningless.  Ron Moreau’s article highlights how the choice before the Pashtun peasantry resembles Morton’s fork.

There is no love lost for the brutal Taliban, but still a sneaking admiration for the true believers who have not taken the easy way out.  But the weak and venal Karzai regime along with its equally brutal warlords offer likelihood of protection.

When the Americans leave it is very likely things fall apart.  As noted in previous blogs, the Taliban resurgence has been immeasurably aided by the inability or the unwillingness of Pakistan to crack down on their former clients.   Pakistan’s crumbling state has also been unable and unwilling to seal off the porous Afghan border.  So the Taliban can strike, retreat to its Pakistani refuge and strike again. Even without the active backing of Pakistani intelligence services, this strategic advantage allows them to survive the immense disparity of manpower that exists on the ground.

Assuming Pakistan has cut off the cash and weapons flow to its former proxies, will that continue once America leaves?  There is little love lost between Karzai and his Tajik and Uzbek allies and Pakistan.  The temptation to rehash the early 1990s could prove irresistible to a Pakistani regime that still tries to distinguish between the domestic Taliban it is bombing and the Afghan Taliban it harbors, however unwillingly.

For a long time I supported the Afghan surge and still believe the diversion of American attention to Iraq cost the world a chance in a generation to guide an exhausted Afghanistan to an uneasy peace.  But as the Afghan conflict starts morphing into a tribal civil war of the sort that has plagued it since the creation of the country by Ahmad Shah Abdali, the desirability of American boots on the ground in the middle of the crossfire will continue to drop.

I hold out a tiny sliver of hope that the Afghan regime will prove my pessimism wrong, but the sliver is tiny and keeps shrinking.

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