Australian cricket’s rebuilding phase

England have played good cricket to win the Ashes. They came well-prepared both technically and mentally, and as a result, were able to play good cricket. Defeat, without doubt, is a very painful pill to swallow, but as a motivator or instigator towards improvement, the pain felt in not succeeding has few parallels.

There is no doubt in my mind that Australia will use these circumstances as a god-given chance to take a long, hard look at the way things are being done, as indeed they should. Self-introspection is the key here, and Australia need to go through that phase if they are to reach the heady heights of the past.

As always happens in such situations, there have been calls for wholesale changes. Sacking of coaches, players and administrators can be done, but that would not be a solution to the problem. As was written by Justin Langer in his column, there is no denying the fact that, as in 2006, when England came up against an extremely well-prepared, focused and strong team, this time Australia came up against a team which was well-prepared, hungry for success and had players who have begun establishing themselves as very good players. Australia would do well to learn from how England conducted their rebuilding phase. Benchmarking themselves against a system that was able to perform so successfully the task of rebuilding the team, and a team that seemed to possess many of the qualities that lead to success, would not, in any way, constitute a loss of face for Australia. Analyzing the English system and copying, with appropriate modifications, any elements that might serve the cause of Australian cricket would be a prudent thing to do.

There is no short-cut to success. A team does not become the number one team in the world overnight. It takes months and years of careful planning, backroom efforts, proper training and mental conditioning to reach such a stage. Improvement would certainly happen if conducive conditions are put in place, but it would be slow. And that is the way it should be.

Calls to radically overhaul the system by sacking senior players who, in the eyes of critics, are past their prime, is short-sighted. Ricky Ponting has proved himself, beyond a shadow of doubt, to be one of the greatest players of our times. Age, contrary to what is claimed by some, is not the prime factor behind success or failure. The hunger for improvement, dedication and commitment to perform to the best of one’s ability matter incredibly more. On this count, it is not difficult for a neutral observer to see that Ponting still has what it takes to perform as well as he has in the past. Michael Clarke’s decision to retire from T20 cricket in order to focus on 50-over and Test matches, and his reiteration of Test cricket being the ultimate stage for him, should serve to silence critics doubting the commitment of senior players. Talk to Hussey or Haddin or Ponting or Clarke, and a dispassionate observer would realize that there is no reason for doubting their motivation and that Australia is fortunate to have such players around at a time when such individuals are needed, in order to provide stability and leadership during this phase of transition.

A system that has served Australian cricket wonderfully well for so long cannot suddenly be unceremoniously discarded. But, having said that, if things stay in inertia and there is no one to ensure that the levels of excellence are being constantly maintained, then over a period of time even the best and most formidable of systems will gradually decay. The ones who have been assigned the task to rebuilding the system need to look at where improvements could be made in domestic cricket. A strong domestic structure would over a long-term be a invaluable investment (and the success of Australian cricket teams over the years bears testimony to this fact).

It might be tempting to ignore this defeat as a mere blip or, to go to the other extreme, radically overhaul the entire system. But neither of these would serve the cause of Australian cricket. A careful and considered rebuilding phase needs to take place, and if proper steps are taken, there is no reason why Australia can’t return as a formidable force.

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The crisis in Ivory Coast

The crisis in Ivory Coast, precipitated probably in part by its handling by the international community has raised certain questions over the way international diplomacy is being conducted in the world today. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo’s camp says that polls in certain parts of the northern region of the country were fraudulent, and that when those controversy-ridden polls are excluded from consideration Mr. Gbagbo emerges as a winner. The camp of the opposing presidential candidate, Alassane Ouattara, says that Mr. Ouattara is the rightful winner of the presidential elections. The Electoral Commission has said that Mr. Ouattara won 54% of the vote as compared to Mr. Gbagbo’s 46%. The Constitutional Council has said that, discounting the results in regions where it deemed polls were not free from fraud, Mr. Gbagbo won 51% of the votes as compared to Mr. Ouatara’s 49%, and hence, Mr. Gbagbo should be declared the winner. It has been said that the Constitutional Council is headed by an ally of Mr. Gbagbo. (I am unaware whether or not the head of the Electoral Commission is an ally of Mr. Ouattara.) The control of the government machinery is currently in the hands of Mr. Gbagbo, while Mr. Ouattara is holed up in a hotel in the capital Abidjan, where he is being protected by UN forces.

The international reaction to the elections has been particularly strong in its immediate aftermath. France, the former colonial power and a nation that has been said to be wielding a lot of influence in the country, has recognized Mr. Ouattara as the elected president and has asked Mr. Gbagbo to step aside. The UN has also echoed similar sentiments. The United States also put itself in the camp demanding Mr. Gbagbo’s dismissal. The West African regional body, Ecowas and the African Union also expressed the same opinion. Ecowas went further and threatened military action if Mr. Gbagbo refuses to accept defeat.

A few things come to light here as regards the international reaction to the situation there. The powers that be have overwhelmingly come out in support of Mr. Ouatara and have been unequivocal in their demand for Mr. Gbagbo to step aside. Secondly, and what is somewhat surprising is that this coloring of Mr. Gbagbo as the defeated villain and Mr. Ouattara as the victimised victor has been done at an incredibly quick pace. The threat of application of military force by Ecowas has shown, for good or for bad, that the grouping is firmly behind Mr. Ouattara, and in essence, probably leaves little room for negotiations with Mr. Gbagbo. As was noted by a commentator, instead of acting as an arbiter in the crisis, Ecowas has probably erred by unequivocally denouncing Mr. Gbagbo’s actions. The threat of force, of international isolation, and that of economic sanctions do have an effect, but pushing Mr Gbagbo into a corner, and issuing statements that have the capacity to derail peaceful settlement, even before there has been a chance to resolve the differences at the negotiating table probably does not seem to be a solution that might be able to bring lasting peace in the long-term.

It has been noted by some commentators that Ecowas, despite its aggressive public posturing, is unlikely to send troops very soon. The international community is now trying to force Mr. Gbagbo’s hand by drying up his funds. Without funds, the theory is that he would not be able to pay the government employees and the armed forces. Economic pressure, it is thought, ought to bring his downfall sooner rather than later. True, the tactics being employed here could indeed succeed and Mr. Gbagbo left without any other options might be forced to step aside. But there are certain other consequences of such actions. Ivory Coast is split into two antagonistic regions, the north and the south. Mr. Ouattara is a representative of the mainly Muslim north. Ivory Coast has had a history in  the recent past of civil-war type violence. Though the international community may succeed by force to place the crown on Mr. Ouattara’s head, it is anyone’s guess how long it would stay there. And if Mr. Ouattara does indeed come to power as a result of international isolation of Mr. Gbagbo, the sense of alienation and persecution felt by his supporters by the events in the aftermath of the elections is unlikely to be a precursor for warm and cordial relations with Mr. Ouattara’s supporters. If anything, it would only lead to enhanced efforts by the supporters of the ousted president to avenge their defeat, and such increased antagonism in an already combustible environment is certainly not the recipe for peace and prosperity.

Diplomacy is often a highly duplicitous game, where one’s words seldom serve more than to mask one’s thoughts behind a veil worn often solely out of informed self-interest. Being that as it may, it is hard to imagine what pushing Mr. Gbagbo into a corner could possibly achieve. Even if he is required to be removed from presidency, it would probably be a better idea to provide him with a honorable route for gracefully exiting the scene. Such a manipulation, although by no means the perfect solution, would probably be one way out of this current impasse. Having said that, it needs to be added that even such a solution would not hold water in the long run. The conflict between the north and south needs to be resolved, which may possibly takes years. A power-sharing scenario, or what in the context of Iraq has been termed as a unity government, could be implemented.

It could well be true that Mr. Ouattara is the rightful winner of the elections and that Mr. Gbagbo has no business holding on to power. Democracy is indeed a nice notion in certain situations; however, a loud and seemingly discriminatory discourse on democratic scruples and ideals is probably not what is required presently given the ground situation in Ivory Coast. It needs to be remembered that Mr. Ouattara, if and when he does come to power, would have 49% of the population (or 54%, depending upon the source) against him. Such figures may not matter in a nation where democracy is well-established, and where there does not seem to be an imminent possibility of civil war breaking out. However, this could well be a recipe for disaster for Ivory Coast. It is quite possible that in such a nation, divided as it is between two warring halves, a democratic election resulting in a single victor, would end up alienating half of the population. Thus it needs to be understood that democracy, the way it is practiced in the nations of the West, may be a significantly less-than-ideal fit for a populace that at present is not ready to embrace it. it is expected that the international community at large, and especially the nations that hold tremendous sway in general in international affairs, would take into account the future prospects for peace in Ivory Coast, and possible ramifications of their actions, in determining the course of action to be followed to find a way out of this deadlock.

The Runaway General??

Gen. McChrystal and his aides uttered remarks that were unbecoming of them. President Obama decided that removing Gen. McChrystal was needed for furthering the cause of national security. And so, there we have it. The person, who has been termed by some commentators as the chief architect of the US Afghan war strategy, has been fired.

Here we shall not pretend to go into the correctness, or fairness, or the lack thereof, of the decision, or into the logic of opening up to a journalist who, as has been demonstrated incontrovertibly, yields scarcely believable powers if granted such intimate access. Nor will we put up a show of covering in any degree the General’s perceived indiscretions in the past, or plausible mistakes committed by the civilian administration regarding the war, or the bickering and infighting among the various stakeholders in the Afghan war (McChrystal, Holbrooke, Eikenberry and Karzai among others), primarily owing to my lack of complete knowledge on these subjects. Indeed, it would have been enlightening to be aware of this background. Nevertheless, we will go ahead without the aid of such knowledge.

It is true that Gen. McChrystal’s remarks reflect unprofessionalism and a degree of contempt at his civilian masters. The General’s views and those of the ones close to him, admittedly, can not be openly professed, and probably to many, they seem to be in bad taste. However, the trash talk they indulged in is, in all fairness, not unlike the sort of talk that is heard within the privacy of a locker room. It is indeed highly plausible that the parties who have been the target of unsavory comments in this episode, may well be indulging in the same sort of conversation, albeit with the knowledge of being out of earshot of any journalist.

Having said all this, let us try to look into the factors that might been considered by President Obama in deciding about Gen. McChrystal’s future.

1. Was Gen. McChrystal correct in his “analysis” of Mr. Obama’s security administration?

The comments made by Gen. McChrystal and his aides might look crass on the face of it, but there would (hopefully) have been sound underlying reasoning as to why Gen. McChrystal differed in views with the said persons.

The comments certainly brought to the fore the differences of opinion among the various players involved in decision-making, that have been observed for some time. Hence, in a way the comments were welcome, because though they sound immature they do raise important issues if you look deeply into them.

President Obama addressed this issue well when he stated in his speech announcing the change of commanders that: “I welcome debate, but I won’t tolerate division.”

2. What in the world was Gen. McChrystal thinking giving this interview?

This is a million dollar question, and unfortunately not being mind-readers, many of us will not divine the answer to this. The comments were certainly sensational, and as one writer put it: “It seemed as if Gen. McChrystal wanted to get himself fired.”

A question before Mr. Obama would have been whether a commander who shoots off his mouth in such an unguarded manner is capable of leading a war effort on the ground.

Given Gen. McChrystal’s long history and reputation for being an exceptional and extremely intelligent soldier, this indiscretion would probably not outweigh his capacity to lead and take strategic decisions.

In terms of talent and ability, Gen. McChrystal would still have enjoyed the backing of the concerned authorities.

3. Given that the internal feuds are now very much public, can there be a united house if Gen. McChrystal is retained?

This probably might have been an important consideration for Mr. Obama. At this crucial stage in the war (Mr. Obama had publicly announced that the pulling out of American troops would begin in July 2011; commentators are also getting sceptical regarding the outcome of the war or benefits to be gained from it), the commander-in-chief would certainly like to have a united team that does not spend too much of its energy and focus in belittling each other. And, given the high stature of the personalities involved, it is certainly not unwise to bear in mind the (possibly) hurt egos of the various players.

As is often said, (and indeed was reiterated by Mr. Obama in his speech) that no individual is larger than the war effort (or any other such activity). This sentence was used by Mr. Obama to justify his dismissal of Gen. McChrystal. But, it could also have been easily applied to argue that, the individuals who were targets of the snide remarks, would do well to keep aside their bruised egos and rise to the challenge of directing the war efforts.

Admittedly, it might have been a big ask to have the team function with total cohesiveness given this incident. So, in that sense, Mr. Obama probably did the right thing by relieving Gen McChrystal of his duties.

4. Would Gen. McChrystal now command the same amount of respect that he used to command earlier?

This question has been raised by some commentators. If Mr. Obama were to retain Gen. McChrystal after having him come over to Washington DC, he would, in effect, have a man who has just been exposed to public ridicule, commanding an army of soldiers. Would the soldiers’ behaviour towards their commander change? Would he be viewed by them as a fallen hero? In my opinion, the attitude, towards him, of those under working under him would not change. But, can the same be said of other parties with whom Gen. McChrystal holds negotiations and discussions? Would Gen. Kayani or President Karzai view Gen. McChrystal in a different light, or try to accord less weightage to his views? I don’t know. But, Mr. Karzai did issue a statement that he would like to see Gen McChrystal retained.

5. How would Gen. McChrystal’s loss affect the war effort?

Some commentators have opined that the current Afghan war strategy was inspired largely by Gen. McChrystal. So, would removing him be akin to deplaning the pilot of a single-pilot aircraft? It seems that Defense Secretary, Robert Gates also had such doubts. He said that his fears were assuaged by the nomination of Gen. Petraeus for the job. It is said that Gen. Petraeus is widely respected across party lines within the US, and reports from the UK seemed to indicate that he enjoys a high degree of respect there. Reports also seemed to indicate that Gen. Petraeus was deeply involved in charting the current strategy for the Afghan war. In that sense, it seems that having Gen. Petraeus at the top might not lead to a loss in continuity.

Many analysts have pointed out that Gen. McChrystal was the only American official seen as having a somewhat close relationship with the erratic Mr. Karzai. (There have been many reports questioning Mr. Karzai’s actions and indeed his legitimacy and ability to rule Afghanistan; but that is not our concern here.) If Washington does regard Mr. Karzai as someone who is important to their future plans for Afghanistan, would retaining Gen. McChrystal have been a right thing to do?

Mr. Obama did not accede to Mr. Karzai’s wish to see Gen. McChrystal retained. Here, we can also point out that Mr. Karzai had, just a few days back, fired two top-ranking Afghan officials (the head of the intelligence agency, and the Interior Minister), who, according to commentators, were seen as the two Afghan officials closest to the West.

Another aspect to this discussion concerns Gen. Petraeus’s diplomatic skills. According to reports, he is an adept diplomat. That should prove useful in dealing with the Afghan and Pakistani officials.

6. How would a decision by Mr. Obama be viewed by the enemies?

This might have been an important consideration. One should, in general, not paint the picture of being a house in disarray, especially when the enemies are watching. (I don’t really know about this; may be, painting such a picture might lull the enemy into a false sense of security, which can then be exploited.)

Thus whoever was to go to Afghanistan as commander of the NATO forces should be seen to have the complete (and unqualified?) backing of Mr. Obama and the other important power brokers.

Having called Gen. McChrystal to Washington, would it have been possible for Mr. Obama to issue a statement that Gen. McChrystal’s behaviour was not upto the standards expected of him, but that he is to continue as commander in Afghanistan, and that he enjoys the total support of Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden, the National Security Advisor, James Jones and the others? I’m not sure.

This raises the issue that the person being appointed in Gen McChrystal’s place be of a stature equalling or exceeding that of his ousted predecessor. Gen. Petraeus, it is said, fits the bill.

7. Can this unexpected incident be indeed turned into a blessing in disguise, and used to revamp the entire war effort?

It is being said that the American public is growing increasingly disillusioned with the continuing war. People are questioning the benefits, if any, that are to be gained in continuing this war. People are said to be questioning whether this war can actually be won.

Against this background, it might probably have been a god-sent opportunity for Mr. Obama to take stock of what needs to be done to remedy the situation – both on the ground, and in terms of public opinion. Does the war strategy need immediate modification? Should there be a policy change? Would taking out the current set of players and replacing them with a new set provide a fresh impetus to the efforts without breaking continuity? Should Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Eikenberry also be removed along with Gen. McChrystal?

Mr. Obama did say that the replacement of personnel does not mean that there is going to be a change in policy.

8. Do the infamous comments undermine civilian control of the military?

Publicly making such remarks is certainly wrong. A soldier is expected not to say such things. People have said that if Gen. McChrystal were to get away with this, there might be a sense of injustice felt by the junior soldiers in the army at special treatment being given to a powerful man.

Gen. McChrystal and his aides certainly did not help his case by commenting on virtually every prominent member in the civilian national security team.

9. Would Mr. Obama be seen as “weak” if he failed to punish Gen. McChrystal?

The President of the most powerful nation in the world and also the commander-in-chief of the most powerful army in the world, would probably not like to be viewed by friends and foes as weak. (There are some very interesting events going on that point to the power/strength of a civilian administration. President Obama has said and metaphorically has probably been keeping a foot on BP’s throat. In India, this has thoroughly exposed the weakness of the Congress-led government to do a fraction of what the US government has been able to do, as regards the Bhopal gas tragedy. As an aside, the fact that the company involved in the Bhopal incident is an American company makes the situation all the more interesting, and probably makes for an enlightening case study.)

There is another issue related to the publication of the Rolling Stone article that not many commentators have talked about. It does seem strange that a sane General and his sane aides would make such remarks “on record”. It is quite possible that they were under the impression that these were comments being made “off the record”. Did Michael Hastings violate any unwritten ethical laws of journalism? Do there exist any such laws at all? I did like this article by David Brooks in the New York Times on the Culture of Exposure in journalism.

Well, so what are the lessons learnt from this episode? Keep your mouth shut in front of anyone named Michael Hastings? Look before you speak (look before you leap?? ah, we want literal lessons)? All’s fair in love and war and journalism? When speech is rotten, silence is golden? (Speech is silver?? Try telling this to Gen. McChrystal.) A Rolling Stone brings down The Boss (again, “a rolling stone gathers no moss” needs a new avatar)? Laughter is *not* the best medicine? The enemy is closer than you think? Crouching tiger, hidden journalist?

Well, this is getting quite long. I guess I should stop. 🙂

World news round up

The UN Security Council voted 12-2 in favor of increased sanctions against Iran. Turkey and Brazil, which had tried to broker a deal with Iran just a few days prior to this, opposed the sanctions, while Lebanon abstained.

The US-led war against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan is continuing. A report by the London School of Economics has claimed that support to the Taliban is “official policy” of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI. A major “game-changing” discovery has been that of huge untapped mineral reserves in Afghanistan.

The Gulf oil leak is causing great heartburn and anger in the US. US lawmakers grilled BP CEO, Mr. Tony Hayward on his company’s alleged neglect of safety issues that led to this catastrophe.

In Kyrgyzstan, violence in the southern city of Osh between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz has caused great havoc and, according to the UN, has displaced 400,000 people. The violence is said to have been caused by relatives of the former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was deposed in April, as a means to bring down the current interim government.

ISI and Taliban

A damning report, prepared by the London School of Economics, pointing to continued support to Taliban from the highest levels of the Pakistani civilian and military establishment, including President Asif Ali Zardari – ISI behind Taliban’s strength. (June 2010)

An article in The Hindu on the LSE report: ISI supporting Afghan Taliban as official policy.

An interview with the former Afghanistan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh (June 2006), where he talks about the obstacles being posed by Pakistan in the fight against Islamic terrorists – Return of the Taliban.

An article in the New York Times on the links between ISI and the Taliban – Afghan strikes by Taliban get Pakistan help, US aides say. (March 2009).

Is India goofing up on Israel?

Common sense and pragmatism point to an enhanced strategic partnership that India must strive to develop with Israel. Though I am not entirely aware of the current state of affairs and the benefits that will be accrued to New Delhi, and the world as a whole, through such a partnership, going by the protests against Israel among the self-righteous elite in India and elsewhere (who in their delusional megalomania have arrogated to themselves the task of guarding what they term “human rights”), as also from those with a certified record of sponsoring terrorism, it is very possible that Israel is as much, if not more of, a victim of such propagandists as the aggressor that they have made it out to be. India, a victim of Nehru’s and the Congress’ appeasement policy, espoused (at least, publicly) an anti-Israel stand for 4 decades, and it wasn’t until 1992 that diplomatic ties were established between India and Israel.

Here is a paper by Dr. Subhash Kapila (August 2000), titled “India-Israel Relations: The Imperatives for Enhanced Strategic Cooperation”: http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/%5Cpapers2%5Cpaper131.html.

Here is a news article (2008) on Indo-Israel ties: http://jta.org/news/article/2008/02/25/107188/indiaisrael.

Some news articles on the current Middle East controversy, and the official stand taken by India: http://beta.thehindu.com/news/national/article451060.ece, http://beta.thehindu.com/news/article443081.ece .

The CPI(M) has been trenchant in its criticism of Israel. Given the “nationalistic” history of the Left parties (or should we call a spade a spade, and dispensing with hard-to-find euphemisms, term them anti-nationalists with a singularly enviable track record attesting to such unenviable credentials) this is probably all the more reason why India should befriend Israel. 🙂

An article on Indo-Israeli relations (2003): http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/07/world/the-bond-between-india-and-israel-grows.html?scp=26&sq=india+israel&st=nyt

A news item on Israel’s help to India during the Kargil war: http://www.rediff.com/news/2003/sep/08sharon2.htm.

A survey (2009) shows the sympathy/admiration of the general Indian populace for Israel: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3696887,00.html.

Faisal Shahzad, anti-Americanism, and terror (by Pervez Hoodbhoy)

(An interesting article from The Hindu: http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article425696.ece . The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.)

The man who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square was a Pakistani. Why is this unsurprising? Answer: because when you hold a burning match to a gasoline tank, the laws of chemistry demand combustion. As anti-American lava spews from the fiery volcanoes of Pakistan’s private television channels and newspapers, collective psychosis grips the country’s youth. Murderous intent follows with the conviction that the United States is responsible for all ills, both in Pakistan and the world of Islam.

Faisal Shahzad, with designer sunglasses and an MBA degree from the University of Bridgeport, acquired that murderous intent. Living his formative years in Karachi, he typifies the young Pakistani who grew up in the shadow of Zia-ul-Haq’s hate-based education curriculum. The son of a retired Air Vice-Marshal, life was easy as was getting U.S. citizenship subsequently. But at some point the toxic schooling and media tutoring must have kicked in. Guilt may have overpowered him as he saw pictures of Gaza’s dead children and held U.S. support for Israel responsible. Then a little internet browsing, or perhaps the local mosque, steered him towards the idea of an Islamic caliphate. The solution to the world’s problems would require, of course, the U.S. to be damaged and destroyed. Hence Shahzad’s self-confessed trip to Waziristan.

Ideas considered extreme a decade ago are now mainstream. A private survey carried out by a European embassy based in Islamabad found that only four per cent of Pakistanis polled speak well of America, 96 per cent against. Although Pakistan and the U.S. are formal allies, in the public perception the U.S. has ousted India as Pakistan’s number one enemy. Remarkably, anti-U.S. sentiment rises in proportion to aid received. Say one good word about the U.S., and you are automatically labelled as its agent. From what popular TV anchors had to say about it, Kerry-Lugar’s $7.5 billion may well have been money that the U.S. wants to steal from Pakistan rather than give to it.

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