Ahmad Rashid in Silicon Valley
By Riaz Haq
Ahmad Rashid (right) at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, CA
On June 11, 2008 the Indian Community Center in Milpitas, CA was the venue for a panel discussion organized by Asia Society with well-known Pakistani author Ahmad Rashid, Stanford University Prof. Larry Diamond, UC Berkeley Prof. Pradeep Chibber, and Muhammad Humayon Qayoumi, President of California State University at Hayword.
The discussion centered on "The Future of Democracy in South Asia" and was moderated by Prof. Diamond. The event drew a capacity crowd of over 100 attendees of many different ethnicities and origins in the US including Caucasian Americans as well as South Asians, East Asians and Central Asians.
Ahmad Rashid's presence was made possible by his ongoing book tour that brought him to Silicon Valley, California to promote his latest work "Descent into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia". Professor Diamond gave Rashid's book a big plug and stood in line with others to buy and get it autographed by the author after the panel discussion had concluded.
Larry Diamond moderated the panel. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and is the author or editor of more than twenty books, including Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, and the newly released The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.
As part of the introductions, Prof. Diamond mentioned "Freedom House" findings that about two billion people, almost a third of humanity, now live under some form of democracy. Half of this population lives in India, the world's largest democracy. He praised the work of the ICC in nurturing good relations between India as the world's largest democracy and the United States as the world's most powerful democracy.
The panelists were introduced as follows:
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist and best-selling author who has covered Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia for 25 years. He writes for The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Review of Books, BBC Online, and The Nation and appears regularly on NPR, CNN, and the BBC World Service. His newest book is Descent into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Previous books include Jihad, Taliban (which has sold over 1.5 million copies), and The Resurgence of Central Asia.
Pradeep Chhibber is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley. He is the author of The Formation of National Party Systems, Democracy without Associations: Transformation of Party Systems and Social Cleavages in India, and many articles. He holds an MA and an MPhil from the University of Delhi and a PhD from UCLA.
Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi is president of California State University, East Bay. The author of eight books and over 85 articles, he was the senior advisor to the minister of finance of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005 and sits on several boards of directors, including that of the Central Bank of Afghanistan. Dr. Qayoumi has a BS degree in electrical engineering from the American University of Beirut and an MBA in finance and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Cincinnati.
The Panel Discussion
After the customary introductions, Prof. Diamond invited each of the three panelists to speak on the topic for 10-15 minutes. Mr. Qayoumi was the first speaker. He said democracy does not begin and end with free and fair elections. It must be anchored in rule of law and transparency of actions and budget/spending process to stop corruption. In most nations considered free by Freedom House, there is no transparency in budgets and spending. He then proceeded to complain about the lack of US financial support to develop Afghanistan and described Pakistan as the "biggest exporter of terrorism". He questioned Pakistan's raison d'etre as a nation and dismissed it as just four ethnic groups with little in common except a passport and quarreling with each other and Afghanistan as just a buffer state. He blamed Pakistan for most of the problems in Afghanistan and drew applause from a section of the audience.
Mr. Qayoumi was followed by Ahmad Rashid. Mr. Rashid pointed out the two biggest early mistakes by the US in Afghanistan after 9/11. The first mistake was to tell Pakistan to go after Al-Qaeda exclusively and leave the Taleban alone, which allowed the Taleban to gather and regroup in Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border. The second mistake was to farm out security to the Afghan warlords rather than strengthen the central government in Afghanistan.
Rashid said the resurgent Taleban have now become a major threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. He criticized the US policy of continuing to support President Musharraf after the crushing defeat of his loyalists and the Islamists in the recent elections. He said the Pakistani military still dominates Pakistan's foreign policy and it is also continuing to support Mr. Musharraf who is a threat to Pakistan's fragile democracy led by a secular party. He blamed the powerful military for undermining democracy in Pakistan during its 60 years of existence.
Prof. Pradeep Chhibber admired India's democracy and mentioned that all surveys and opinion polls in India reinforce broad public support for current democracy. However, the Indian democracy does face two key challenges. The first challenge is the complete absence of the government or state in large swaths of northern India close to the Nepalese border where Naxalites/Maoists rule. The second challenge is that the government acts in inconsistent and arbitrary ways where it does exist. He went on to say that in some parts of Chhattisgarh the government relies on private militias to act on its behalf. He also acknowledged the existence of corruption and criminal elements among the politicians in India.
Questions and Answers
There was strong participation by the audience in the Q&A session that followed the speakers. This scribe addressed the following question to Ahmad Rashid, "Unlike Al-Qaeda, the Taleban do have roots among the people on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. Do you think the US and Pakistan should negotiate with some elements within the Taleban for peace, rather than rely solely on military means to defeat them?" Rashid said there should be negotiations, but only after "the Taleban sanctuaries end in Pakistan." Prof. Diamond did a follow-up by asking Rashid as to how the sanctuaries could be ended? Alas, Rashid had no answer to this question either during the Q&A or later at the book-signing ceremony in the lobby.
A couple of questioners asked whether Al-Qaeda was real and one even attempted to make fun of the Taleban as "75-year-old students" of the madrassahs in Pakistan. These questions seemed to be tongue-in-cheek but those asking appeared to be quite serious.
There was a question as to why democracy has taken hold in India but not in Pakistan. Rashid suggested it was because of Pakistan's powerful military. Others thought it had to do with religion. This scribe offered that it may have something to do with the emasculation of the feudal lords in India through extensive reform that never happened in Pakistan. There was general agreement that democracy is a process that must be allowed to continue un-interrupted to work out its bugs and improve over time to serve the people.
South Asians in Silicon Valley
The strong South Asian presence in Silicon Valley is helping bring focus to issues related to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the entire South and Central Asian region with the participation of US opinion makers such as Stanford Prof. Larry Diamond who is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution. The ICC is clearly playing a major role and showing a path to PACC, its Pakistani counterpart in the valley.