Friday, December 18, 2009

Back in the Game

Okay, so I sidelined myself for a while from the Pakistan action.  No excuses except we all need a break sometimes and in my case, desperately would be an accurate description.  So to Nepal I went to detox and imbibe an atmosphere less inclined toward distrust and paranoia, to breathe the sweet alpine air instead of exhaust fumes and listen to the sound of birdsong rather than car horns.  Much needed and much enjoyed.

But now I'm back and the paranoia is back and the horns and fumes along with everything else that goes with working and living in a dysfunctional country.  I'm not complaining, just setting the scene.  The world I've re-entered has taken another interesting turn - the much anticipated axing of the National Reconciliation Ordinance.  The NRO, many Pakistanis will tell you, was a thinly-veiled attempt by Pakistan's former General Pervez Musharraf to create a space for his political ambitions.  It basically swept clean in one miraculous sweep all the dirt and grime from decades of political corruption, freeing up men like Pakistan's current President, Asif Ali Zardari and Interior Minister Rehman Malik for another run in the vaunted halls of power.  The cases against them have been resurrected, which of course is a good thing.

Nonetheless, there is a downside.  Or rather, there is the reality: Pakistan is struggling toward a responsible democracy but it is doing this in a time of war.  The judiciary is enjoying more freedom than at any other time in its history.  It is at the forefront of the housecleaning.  But the army and security services are still powerful, too powerful for a democratic system to function properly.  The political playing field is still dominated by self-interested elite who place their own interests ahead of the national interest.  So when the judiciary tightens one string, it loosens another.  In this case, the army, which has been at odds with the ruling government, is the winner.  As the dirty laundry of Pakistan's politicians is hung out for all to see, the people will naturally retreat back into the protective embrace of the army.  As corrupt politicians are replaced by more corrupt politicians, the people's trust in the system will again erode.

So is the death of the NRO a good thing?  It is, I think, but only if the cases against the men and women accused of corruption proceed openly and honestly.  If this turns into a witch hunt, if Pakistan's opposition politicians try to turn this into political capital, the system will suffer, the progress toward a real, functioning democracy will be lost.  The PML-N, the largest opposition to the ruling PPP is already demanding the resignation of Zardari.  This is not the way it works.  The cases against him were re-opened yesterday.  They remain allegations and must be proven in a court of law.

The alternative is the endless repetition of Pakistan's political history, where one corrupt party is replaced by another in what can best be described as a keystone cops parody of democracy punctuated by the periodic imposition of military rule.  Pakistan has the opportunity to break that destructive cycle.  But is it up to the task?

Monday, November 2, 2009

What Islam Needs Most

A must read article from the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.  This is what Muslims should be collectively working toward...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sidelining the Army


Just got wind of an article published last week in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall about the Kerry-Lugar bill.  It may sound like old news but there are some key arguments still to be made about all of this.  Mr. Tisdall is very critical of Kerry-Lugar, suggesting that the U.S. is acting like a colonial power by trying to force reform down the throats of Pakistani authorities.  "The rumbling row over a $7.5bn, five-year US aid package is a case in point," he writes.  "Imperious conditions attached to the bill by a Congress reluctant to send more unaccounted billions "down a rat hole", as Democrat Howard Berman charmingly put it, were condemned as insulting and colonialist in Pakistan."  The underlying thread of his position is that Pakistan, as a crucial ally in the war on terror, must be dealt with gently, that the U.S. is to blame for the nation's instability and therefore the U.S. should be prepared to adopt any means which will achieve the desired end of defeating the militant threat there. 

I've written elsewhere about Pakistan's complicity in creating the situation it now finds itself in.  Well before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military was setting the stage for the militant threats it faces today.  Going further back in history, we see the role the U.S. played also, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the support it provided to the military regime of General Zia ul Haq.  Mr. Tisdall's argument, perhaps unknowingly, supports that same failed policy - of backing self-interested military leaders in the pursuit of narrow, and ultimately destructive, national interests.  It is Bush policy all over again.  And we know how that turned out: $10 billion handed over to the Musharraf military regime; $10 billion that disappeared into the "rat hole."

President Obama's administration appears less inclined to trust Pakistan's military (we should keep in mind the current Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was hand-picked by Musharraf).  It is a bold move to try to sideline the army in Pakistan, fraught with dangers, not the least of which is another military coup.  But it is a necessary step.  The war in Pakistan will only be won if and when civilian authorities are the dominant, trusted institution in Pakistan, not the army.   

"By linking the cash to tighter civilian control of Pakistan's military, Washington was trying, clumsily, to strengthen Asif Ali Zardari's government. But it achieved the exact opposite. The president was accused of failing to defend the country's sovereignty, much as he has failed to halt escalating American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion, on targets inside Pakistan."

The alternative is rather less palatable - a nation perpetually run by a military deep-state.  "Clumsy" though it might be, Washington's desire to strengthen civilian governance in Pakistan is the right thing to do.  Keeping watch over how that government spends U.S. taxpayer dollars is necessary considering Pakistan's shady track record with donated funds.   The "opposite"effect was  inevitable in light of the over-arching ground realities inside Pakistan: the public opinion backlash, based on my own discussions with Pakistani journalists, was manufactured by the army.  They pursued a vigorous media campaign during the weeks and months after the proposed bill was made public.  Most Pakistanis have never read the bill so their opinion was easily swayed by the negative media coverage.  I have read the bill and what it sounds like to me is that the cat is now out of the bag, claws drawn; the U.S. has sent a message to Pakistan's military: no more games.

Still, it is an incontestable fact that distrust of the U.S. since the invasion of Afghanistan has skyrocketed.  And as Mr. Tisdall points out, U.S. drone strikes have contributed to the negative perceptions.  But rather than look at these as isolated events, we need to view them as trends.  In a blog post on the Threat Matrix, Alexander Mayer points out that in 2009, the trends appear to be reversing:  while anti-American attitudes have remained unchanged, support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan has plummeted.  Mr. Mayer correctly says that it is perceptions which guide attitudes so while the facts behind U.S. drone strikes are hard to come by (actual civilian casualties, etc), the facts of the threat to Pakistan posed by the Taliban have come into clear focus over months of violent attacks and mounting civilian deaths.  Moreover, Pakistanis don't question who the U.S. is targeting when it fires hellfire missiles from unmanned aircraft; they question the collateral damage these strikes cause.  And incidentally, the Pakistani government and military are fully aware of "American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion"; in fact, they quietly support those actions.  The issue here has less to do with sovereignty, in the eyes of everyday Pakistanis as well, as it does with the loss of innocent lives.

Perceptions are changing.  Taliban suicide bombers are killing vastly more civilians than U.S. drone attacks.   The Obama administration is determined to keep the trend going, pumping hundreds of millions into "cultural understanding" programs at its embassy in Islamabad (see an earlier post for more on that). But distrust of the U.S. is not going to go away any time soon.  Rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan is a complex affair.  It's fashionable to hate America these days.  But it's also fashionable to be American.  Millions of Pakistani Dr. Jekylls are battling the Mr. Hydes in them.  The tendency to blame the U.S. for all of Pakistan's ills is, I believe, a kind of psychological projection.  It is easier to blame the Other, that abstract apparition floating somewhere in the ubiquitous aether, than to turn the mirror inward.

What Pakistanis would see there is not a very pretty sight.  Their nation is in ruins, led by the same corrupt politicians who have for decades acted like sultans rather than representatives of the people.  But they are democratically elected leaders and thus are the political expression of the people's will.  What does that say about the people?  The Obama administration, rather than pandering to the military elite, has decided to deal directly with the democratically elected government.  Yes, it is corrupt, hence the strict conditions placed on aid.  But this isn't a question of sovereignty; it is a question of prudence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Decisive Battle?

And so it begins.  The Pakistani army is finally going into its nation's Taliban heartland.  To put what they face into perspective, operation Rah-i-Nijat - meaning Path to Deliverance - is not dissimilar to Nato's push into southern Afghanistan back in 2006.  South Waziristan tribal agency is the hive, where the most diehard of Taliban fighters reside and where foreign jihadis, mainly Uzbeks, have claimed their own mini-fiefdom, injecting a toxic mix of brutality and suicidal determination into Pashtun society.  Altogether, they claim to have tens of thousands of fighters, not to mention thousands more suicide bombers.

Pakistan is sending in 28 000 troops.  That works out to approximately 2% of its total military, reserve and paramilitary personnel.  My question is: What do they expect to deliver?  Sweets?

It's of course much too early to say how all of this will play out.  Pakistani military officials have been in negotiations with some militant groups in South Waziristan, hoping to convince them to stay out of the fight.  They are also relying on technology, begged and borrowed from the U.S., to help them focus their operations.  U.S. drones will be flying reconnaissance missions, jamming and surveillance equipment is being rushed out to the front.  Quite frankly, it all sounds a little familiar: these are the same tactics employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan, which begs the question: Who is really guiding Pakistani military strategy?

And ultimately, Pakistan has its own interests in the region, and they are not always in line with American interests.  So while on the one hand, Pakistan appears to be taking cues from the U.S. on how to fight, they have their own reasons for why they are fighting.  It's certainly not, as the U.S. would like, to clear the region of militants.  The Pakistani military is determined to rid its territory of militants who pose a threat to its national security but it is not so amenable to ridding its territory of all its militants.  Some of them are an asset.

Funny that.  During the recent debate in the U.S. over Afghan policy, one of the big questions was why the American troops are there in the first place.  What is their objective?  Defining objective guides policy.  One of the arguments being forwarded, largely by the conservatives, was that the U.S. should limit its objectives to dealing with al Qaeda in the region, what they define as the real threat to America's national security.  Fixing Afghanistan is not our problem, these hawks bemoaned.  These are the same hawks who quietly support violent dictators in other parts of the world, who have nurtured violent revolutionaries of their own in the pursuit of American interests.  Funny that.  They're not so different than the Pakistanis.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Obama and the Nobel

Has the Nobel Prize always been a political affair?  Am I missing something?  Admittedly, I am not a Nobel groupie.  Ask me who won the Literature prize last year and I'll scratch my head for a while before shrugging my shoulders.  Not that I don't respect the institution.  It is an important forum in which humanity recognizes the achievements of individuals working toward a better, more peaceful world.  The key word here is "achievements", meaning what has been accomplished.  Scientists, for example, aren't awarded the Nobel for the discoveries they make.  They win the Nobel when those discoveries begin to contribute to society in a positive way, when, in other words, the theory is used in practical applications, proving itself a valid contributor to the Nobel ethos.  This is why a physicist might only win the prize years after the theory he's winning it for was discovered (one of the winners of this year's physics prize, Charles K. Kao, made his award winning discovery in 1966).  Similarly, in the more abstract realm of Peace and Literature, awards should not be given based on the ideology (or theory) an individual holds, regardless of his potential to turn his ideas into concrete action.  It's the action that matters.

Obama's ideas about a nuclear-free, multilateral world based on cooperation is noble, but it's not Nobel.  In fact, many of us subscribe to the same ideology; it's not a new concept.  The hope we place in Obama is important, necessary, but it is still an unrequited hope.  We are still waiting.  And the process of building him up as the next great hope has its negative space as well: we set him up for an even bigger fall.

In terms of the Nobel prize, what the Committee in Sweden has done is politicize the award.  They've stamped an ideology with Nobel approval.  They did the same thing in 2006 when they awarded Orhan Pamuk the Literature prize.  Like Obama, Pamuk might have deserved the honour one day but to award it to him when they did, the Nobel committee was more interested in recognizing another ideology: the modern, secular muslim, at a time when modern, secular muslim role models are so desperately needed. In Nobel terms, the value of that ideology to the promotion of world peace, while relevant, should remain secondary to the achievements of the individual receiving the award.

But perhaps all of this is just another reflection of the 21st-century zeitgeist: the Reign of the Ideologue.  The committee members selecting Nobel recipients are not unaffected by the currents of the age; they also hope and dream.  Regrettably, the net result is the devaluation of the Nobel Prize.  When the selection process becomes ideologically-driven, what does being a Nobel Laureate really mean?

Friday, October 9, 2009

More Hyphenated Controversies

Wow! Who'd'a figured an American law to increase funding to Pakistan would cause such controversy. Being the irreverent cynic that I am, I'm compelled to frame the overwhelmingly negative response to the Kerry-Lugar bill as petty whining. The opposition is pissed because, well, they're the opposition, that's their job. Plus, they won't see any of that money. The army is pissed because they are being more than sidelined, they are being reigned in (the bill places some serious conditions on the Pakistani government, the foremost of which is to put the army under civilian control).

Admittedly, I have to retract my scathing criticism of the U.S. in an earlier post; seems they're not as unmindful of Pakistan's raging self-interest and duplicity as I'd thought. Kerry-Lugar is a tightly-packed document of limitations and oversight. Pakistan will receive the money it needs but only if it fulfills what the U.S. expects of it. The only valid criticism I can see in this is the accusation that the American administration is trampling on Pakistan's sovereignty by placing so many "conditionalities" on the money. But let's face it: it's their money. If Pakistan wants it, they'll have to accept the conditions.

The counter-argument of course is that the war Pakistan is fighting is America's war; they started it by invading Afghanistan so they should be obligated to pay for it. I disagree with that line of thinking. It is narrow and self-serving. Pakistan nurtured the Taliban, Pakistan promoted militancy in the northwest so that it could be used as a proxy to serve its interests in Kashmir. The narrative that has Pakistan sitting innocently by while war was brought to them from across the ocean is pure fantasy. Musing on irrelevancies like what might have happened if the U.S. had not invaded is pointless. The way things were going in that region, the world would eventually have had to turn its attention there anyway. And not in spite of Pakistan, but because of it.

Nonetheless, some of the conditions Kerry-Lugar sets will be hard to swallow. In one section, for example, Pakistan is expected to dismantle "terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country, including Quetta and Muridke." But Pakistan denies terrorist bases exist in Quetta or Muridke. By accepting the bill as it is written now, they admit they have been lying.

I believe they have been lying. I've been to Quetta and met with the Taliban there. They told me in no uncertain terms that they use Pakistani territory, and Quetta specifically, to rest, re-group, and plan attacks across the border. "Our commanders work in shifts," they told me. "They work for four months in Afghanistan and then come to Quetta to rest and plan. A replacement is sent out from here with new orders." The only error the U.S. makes is in calling it a "base". There is no "base" in Quetta, not in the sense of a physical place that can be located and shut down. A better word would have been "network" but that's semantics.

Muridke is different as far as I know (I've never been there). My understanding is that a compound belonging to the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa (formerly the Lashkar-e-Taiba) is an ideological training ground promoting jihad against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Young men are indoctrinated there and then sent to training camps in other parts of Pakistan (primarily in Pakistani-held Kashmir and Swat).

The problem here is that the Pakistani military considers both the Taliban in Quetta and the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa crucial strategic assets. Being told by a foreigner to stop supporting them could be interpreted as a direct violation of its sovereignty. What Pakistan's military doesn't seem to understand is that when you use proxies to influence events in another country, you lose the sovereignty cover.

What leaves me scratching my head is why the Pakistani people still bow down so pliantly to the military. It's not as if they've ever actually won a war. It was under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq that Pakistan began its self-destructive slide into Islamic militancy, and the chaotic Musharraf legacy should still be fresh on their minds. If anything, the Pakistani army has become little more than an elite class, comfortably ensconced in plush homes on heavily fortified, prime Pakistani land, enjoying the benefits of unrestricted power. They gorge on what little money Pakistan has while the people starve and suffer. They send out young men to fight wars of their own making and then portray themselves as the guardians of the state.

So why exactly is the army so "insulted" by Kerry-Lugar? Wouldn't logic dictate that after so many years of trying to play god with people's lives, after decades of subterfuge and meddling in political affairs, they would lose the trust of the international community? They should not be surprised. But they counter that their current battle against militants, in which thousands of young Pakistani men have lost their lives, should be enough to convince the world they can now be relied upon. I'm in the process of putting together a story which undermines that argument. Suffice to say the Pakistani army is NOT turning a new leaf.

The more pressing question is why the Pakistani people still feel the army acts in their own interest. Perhaps it's a question of placing your trust in the lesser evil. Politicians have completely failed Pakistan, and they do it with much less grace than the army. At least the army is skillful enough to cover up their blunders; politicians parade their ineptitude openly. Against that backdrop, the army looks positively angelic.

But now politicians, especially Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has never had a good relationship with Pakistan's generals, sense an opportunity. My feeling is that Zardari would like to see military control transferred to his office, much as it is in the U.S., making him the Commander in Chief. Kerry-Lugar is a first step. As for the money, well, if the U.S. oversees how it is used as thoroughly as the bill lays out, then it shouldn't end up in the pockets of politicians. Nonetheless, I'm still skeptical. Pakistan's elite have been pilfering money for decades. They've become exceptionally good at it - masters of collecting cream. Their will to fatten up on foreign handouts is powerful so I don't doubt that they will find a way.

The key consequence of Kerry-Lugar is the wedge it has put between Pakistan's civilian government and the military. Now we have two self-absorbed groups battling for supremacy. Personally, I'm not about to pick a side. Both are distasteful to my palate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's possible

Given all the debate in the U.S. over what to do next in Afghanistan, I figure now's a good a time as any to throw in my two cents. When you strip the issue down to its essence, at least from the American perspective, one question remains: What is the endgame? It used to be creating a stable, democratic, and moderate Afghanistan. Before that, it was eliminating militancy, primarily the al Qaeda threat, to safeguard the U.S.'s national security. The two missions are intended for two different audiences: the first for the people of Afghanistan (and the world in general), the latter for the American people. The first requires a strategy to win hearts and minds - a culturally transformative approach - whereas the latter is by its nature militaristic.

Neither is achievable.

I've written a little about the challenges facing the transformative approach in the past couple of blog entries. People tend to be resistant to change imposed by outsiders, especially when that change affects the fundamental pillars of a society - namely, its language and culture. Transforming Afghanistan, or the Pashtun culture which is the epicenter of the conflict there, will take generations. It is possible but it has to happen from within. That's not to say western countries should simply walk away - we tried that after the Soviets left Afghanistan back in 1988 and look where it got us. Instead, we need to support the existing structures of the society, recognizing the elements of it that promote peace and strengthening them. That, of course, means understanding the culture first.

Walking away means abandoning Afghans and Pakistanis to the sharks. Pakistan may be able to handle it - they have enough firepower to solve their militant problem at any time, though they prefer to project an image of desperate need, to keep the foreign (i.e. U.S.) funds flowing in. Afghanistan on the other hand, will crumble, ironically because Pakistan, shedding its 'under siege' image, will go back to being the Taliban puppet-master.

What Pakistan perhaps doesn't realize, or underestimates the potential danger of, is how deeply militancy, in the form of global jihad, has made a footprint inside the country. It's as much a threat to them as it is to anyone else, which happens to be the crux of their argument for increased financial support. But I predict that if the U.S. and Nato leave Afghanistan any time soon, what will follow is a swift Pakistani "victory" over the militant groups in the northwest and a sudden re-emergence of what's now called the Quetta Shura (Mullah Omar's group) inside Afghanistan. Oh, and a civil war there, naturally.

Which brings us back to Pakistan's quandary: can it, as its military believes, completely contain its homegrown militants? I don't think so. They've managed it in the past only because the scale of the militant jihad didn't extend beyond Kashmir and Afghanistan - both regions within Pakistan's sphere of interest. Now it's gone global. Global jihadists - Uzbeks, Arabs, and a growing number of Pashtuns and Punjabis, have made the northwest of Pakistan their own base of operations. The Quetta Shura, Pakistan's ally, has gone down that road, though to what degree is still speculation. Nonetheless, if Pakistan supports the return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan it risks joining hands with an ideology premised on holy war. How that would play into Pakistan's own growing global jihadist dilemma is anyone's guess, but I'm guessing it won't be good.

So a military element to the Af-Pak puzzle is now inevitable. It needn't have been this way but it's pointless to pine over what could have been. Perhaps if the U.S. hadn't invaded Afghanistan, the spread of global jihad might have been kept in check. There were moderate elements in the Taliban regime at one time. After 9/11, some were calling for Osama bin Laden to be handed over to the U.S., others wanted him turned over to a neutral third-party, preferably an Islamic nation (fair enough considering the legal issues involved). Instead, they got an invasion. That act has done more damage to Afghanistan, and more critically to the Afghan people's perception of the U.S., than any occupation, no matter how long. It has strengthened the militants' hand. These are the facts of history. The facts of today are different: a disenfranchised people sandwiched between radicals (both of the Islamic and the western kind), a shattered Pashtun nation and a long, messy road of broken promises.

Ultimately, the problem now is trust. There isn't any. Pashtuns don't trust the west to keep its promise of lifting them out of poverty without at the same time destroying their culture. The west doesn't believe Pashtuns are capable of transforming their society on their own. To a degree, both are right, which is why it's so hard to convince either of them otherwise. But knowing a piece of the puzzle doesn't mean you're in a position to solve it. The west is right: the Pashtuns need help, in no small part because of how western countries contributed to dismembering their society during and after the Soviet occupation. But shoving western values down their throats is not the answer. Reciprocally, the Pashtuns make a point when they accuse the U.S. of neo-colonialism: they are being invaded - culturally and linguistically. But so is the rest of the world, something the Pashtuns don't realize.

The solution lies in letting go of the impossible - browbeating a society into accepting your ways or thinking you're doing your society a favour by isolating it from the rest of the world - and focusing on what is possible.

The U.S. and Nato need to accept that the Taliban will inevitably have a role to play in Afghanistan's future. It's up to them to decide whether that role will destructive or productive. Negotiating with the Taliban has been attempted, and it has failed. But I believe the problem was in the approach: even for moderate, nationalist Taliban (as opposed to the extreme, global jihadist variety) there are cultural redlines that cannot be crossed. We have to learn to accept those lines. Girls' education? Eventually. Eliminate purdah? In time. You cannot shatter these kinds of barriers; they must be disassembled, brick by brick.

And Pakistan? Dealing with Pakistan is necessary but should not be obsessive. Pakistan will always act in its own interest. Supporting the Taliban is in its interest because of how deeply India has penetrated into the chambers of Afghan politics. That is also an undeniable fact. One could try to fix the Indo-Pak problem first (i.e. Kashmir) and hope that will fix Afghanistan, but it's a fool's hope. And we are talking here about what is possible. By recognizing a Taliban role in Afghan politics, the west meets Pakistan's interest while at the same time ensuring that the more radical global jihadists are sidelined. That's a first step. Then comes the hard part: eliminating those global jihadists. That will be a long, quiet war, fought on multiple fronts, not the least of which will be political and ideological.

The Pashtuns will have a major role to play...well, actually, the central role. Engaging the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, engages the people, just as now, fighting the Taliban means fighting the Pashtun people. Supporting the Pashtuns will mean diverting much of the cash now flowing into the pockets of Pakistani and Afghan politicians, generals and bureaucrats into the infrastructure of Pashtun society. The existing tribal system, for example, is in desperate need of re-construction. Village halls for jirgas, equipment and know-how to codify and "modernize" what is currently a chaotic mix of ad-hoc edicts, recognition of village elders as a legitimate political institution. These are starting points. The downside is that success will not be measured in a few catchy headlines. Success will be like the hour-hand of a clock, moving imperceptibly toward the magic-hour. We probably won't even notice when it gets there.

But here's the thing: it will eventually get there. It is possible.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Love America

More on the theme of my last post. So is Pakistan changing too quickly? Is progress playing at conqueror rather than agent of change? Is there a difference? Maybe progress needs to be imposed, maybe it has to be stuffed down people's throats like broccoli and carrots. It's good for them, though they may not realize it just yet, those poor ignorant barbarians. But once they're enlightened, they'll understand.

Something tells me that's simply not true, call it intuition.

What if on the other hand, we let history play out on its own terms, at its own pace. We leave Afghanistan and Pakistan to their own momentum. They will develop will they not? It will take more time but they will progress in their own way. Isn't that the nature of civilization: to go from simple to complex, tribalism to monarchism to dictatorship to democracy? Isn't the revolution inevitable?

Somehow I doubt it, call it pessimism.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo lately in the Pakistani press over the expansion of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. In 2009, the Americans are projected to increase their spending by 500% over 2008 on embassy enhancement activities. Pakistanis, demonstrating their brilliance for conspiracy theories, see in this an insidious takeover plan: "The U.S. is sending 5000 marines to Pakistan!" the more inspired among us warn. "It's an invasion!"

Well, not quite.

Invasion it may be, but not of the militaristic kind. The bulk of the money, according to the State Department, will be spent on promoting America, fixing its image and spreading its culture in Pakistan. The plan is to "expand English language programs, enhance communications and journalism training, support book translation, increase television and radio programming targeted to youth, and augment support of moderate local programs and organizations." The effort is not dissimilar to other efforts in other troublesome countries in the region, like Iran, where shaping the public's opinion is preferable to pugilism.

I have no qualms with admitting that I love America. I love its literature and its arts. I love its ability to re-invent itself, which is simultaneously the source of its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I love the way it lets people speak their minds, or at least did so at one time and I'm confident under the Obama administration will do so again. I'm also in love with an American (it's a fatal kind of love but genuine); my brother is married to an American (she's a sweetheart). What I don't love is the prevailing belief in America that it has somehow struck on the Rosetta Stone of cultural perfection. Somehow, over its illustrious history, Americans have become enamoured with their own success, or the success of their forefathers, forgetting the reasons that made success possible in the first place. I'm of course talking about that ability to re-invent, not society as a whole necessarily - a daunting task - but rather the individual, the unique building-block of a society. The freedom to express oneself without the threat of official, or unofficial, censure lies at the very heart of American, and more broadly, Western advancement. It has produced some of the greatest writers, painters, composers, scientists and leaders the world has ever known (as well as some of its leading wackos, but that's the price one must pay).

Rather than draw on that history, America, and western countries broadly, are trending toward cultural reductionism. The trope reigns supreme, at the expense of plurality. I wrote something about it a while back:

"In this rapidly shrinking world, cultures are constantly being confronted with the reality of the Other. In fits and starts people are beginning to recognize the value of other cultures as a source of enrichment. And not only other cultures, but also the value of our own other selves. To take that thought a step further, singular identities don’t exist, a theme Herman Hesse explored so beautifully in Demian. They are a false construct, like God, the product of fear, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the Other. Singular identities, like God, become an object of worship, a source of dogma, and inevitably a source of conflict. Applied to current events, the wars we see around the world today are not a Clash of Civilizations but rather a Clash of Identities. As the world shrinks, as histories, and the languages that transmit those histories, mix and new identities challenge the old, established ones, societies in general and the people who specifically make up those societies will naturally struggle against what they perceive as a loss of identity.

So the challenge in the world today is to find a way to overcome the dogma of singularity, to create a space where multiple identities are accepted as the natural state of being. It will be a long and difficult road: to challenge the religion of the singular self is to oppose the power structures that derive legitimacy from that religion, those - like the Taliban, like the neo-cons - who reinforce the illusion of dominant cultures and superior modes of thought. Language is, at one and the same time, the lock and the key."

I'm sure the U.S. administration understands this: language is the key to understanding a culture, hence the emphasis on the english language in Pakistan. The unfortunate reality is that the linguistic exchange is unidirectional - very few people in the west are clamouring to learn Urdu. But alas, there can be only one global language (foreseeing the dilemma to come, some people have even tried to create one - Esperanto, for example, codified in the late 19th century to promote world harmony). In the Language race, English is running furlongs ahead.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing another conspiracy theory here - some linguistic plot cooked up by a secretive cabal of Harvard Comp. Lit. graduates. I just think it's an inevitable consequence of globalization. The downside is that Pakistan - because of its own cultural diversity - isn't uniformly marching in lockstep into the 21st-century. Large swathes of it are being left behind, or choosing to stay behind. The conflict in the northwest is, at least in part, related to this:

"There is one thing I’ve noticed over the seven year’s I’ve been coming to Peshawar: the explosion of English language media. It’s everywhere now, on television and in DVD shops, over satellite feeds and in internet cafes. Back in 2002, when I first came, there was only a smattering of it, the odd satellite-equipped television at a better-than-average restaurant, beaming in Hollywood and MTV. But as the cost of technology has gone down, the ubiquitousness of it has gone up exponentially. Every home now has a DVD player, satellite dishes top high-walled mud compounds in the Tribal Areas like gifts from outer space, and cable television is all the rage."

The Taliban reject the culture accompanying the influx of the english language into their areas, the deeply conservative Pashtun regions along the Pak-Afghan border. They have no patience for intellectually-developed concepts like women's rights (they equate it with what they see on imported DVDs and CDs, or on MTV and Bollywood). So when the West obsessively (to them) demands girls be educated, they perceive ulterior motives.

I'm not sure if aggressively pursuing more "cultural understanding" will be in the best interest of the U.S., not if it remains so unidirectional. I admit, there is a need to dispel some of the more serious misconceptions about the west that Pakistanis hold. But equally, the reverse is true. Rather than approach a culturally proud people like the Pashtuns by towering over them in the charade of pseudo-superiority, wouldn't it be more prudent to approach them in an atmosphere of mutual understanding (with the emphasis on 'mutual')?

Or does loving America mean not asking these kinds of questions?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Chocolate Americans

My cousin said something to me yesterday that took me a little by surprise. "I don't understand why the world thinks Pakistan is such a militant, backward country. In my experience, we have more freedoms now than ever before." Really? Wow. I mean, his perspective is perhaps slightly skewed - he comes from quite a wealthy family. When he told me this, we were cruising the neatly trimmed streets of Gujranwala Cantt, the posh, army-dominated district of Gujranwala city about a hundred kilometers northwest of Lahore, in his father's Honda City sedan. The area is the Brentwood of Punjab (or the Bridal Path, if you're Torontonian). We passed by homes that in Canada or the U.S. would be considered mansions - individually designed, palatial properties oozing rupees.

For Pakistan's elite, life is perhaps better than ever. The rich are raking in money and there is a very determined push amongst them to appear more westernized in the face of all the negative press Pakistan is getting these days. I'll call it the Negative Space Syndrome: the more you tell them what they are not, the more vociferously they will try to prove that's exactly what they are. Modern and progressive is the prevailing image these days, which is doublespeak for Western.

Can I blame them? Of course not. The fact is that the West has become synonymous with modernity. To be modern means to wear jeans and t-shirts and sport spiky hair (my cousin also told me about a trend sweeping the Pakistani A-list that requires one to wear jeans to formal events). The modern Pakistani speaks perfect English and knows the difference between a salad fork and a dessert fork. He, or she, listens to music based on western elements - 4/4 time signature, 4-bar phrasing, and if you can squeeze in an electric guitar, so much the better - and watches television programs that depict other Pakistanis living western-style lives in smartly decorated homes with manicured lawns and designer furniture. The progressive Pakistani is a voracious consumer, and damn proud of it (this doppelganger, you see, is a little behind the times, flagrant consumerism is not the dirty little secret it's becoming in the west, at least not yet). Oh, and yes, of course he plays golf.

There are more of these chocolate-Americans than you'd think. Pakistanis just want to fit in; they want in to in-crowd. As much as I'm a little miffed by this copycat caravan, I also have to admit that a part of me wishes the west would pay a little bit more attention to it. I mean, this is what they want is it not? For Pakistan to be modern? Wouldn't it be nice if all of us could sit around the same dinner table without worrying about embarrassing cultural faux-pas? Not to worry, Ma and Pa Smith, Ma and Pa Khan have learned the ropes! Well, some have, those who can afford it, in Karachi and Lahore, and in gated communities like the one my cousin lives in in Gujranwala.

Is the number growing? I can't say for certain but it certainly feels that way. There are a handful of television stations that now cater to this demographic. Dawn TV is the most well-known, Pakistan's only all-English news and lifestyle network that runs shows like Breakfast at Dawn (talk show), A Taste of Fusion (cooking show), and Framed (all about the arts). It seems to be doing well and growing.

The world, unfortunately, still doesn't know much about it. The western media remains fixated on that other Pakistani face: the bearded, fanatical, scowling mug so typically imbibed by western audiences. Personally, I don't blame them. They - me included - are after news, not to promote Pakistan. That, I'm afraid, is up to Pakistanis. Some efforts are being made, however. Dawn will be broadcasting in the U.S. soon. Watch out for it. You may be surprised by what you see.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The New Great Game

So many wars in Pakistan these days it’s hard to keep track. Mangal Bagh, Fazlullah, Mehsud…these are the who’s who of Pakistan’s militant scene. Each war has it’s plan and purpose, each militant his role to play in the New Great Game, each bullet and barrage a target, though not necessarily in the sense of an object caught in the crosshairs. Targets are much more abstract in this part of the world.

Which leads us irrevocably to the real war playing out here: the war for meaning, the war for the ‘why’. This war is the source of the madness I wrote about earlier. It is the modern war, the war of ambiguity: ambiguity of purpose, ambiguity of enemy, ambiguity of resolution. The questions people ask are all linked to this latter war: Why is America so interested in Pakistan? Why does the world hate us? Why are they afraid of us? Why are we dying? Why are our lives worth so much less than yours? Why are our corrupt leaders getting richer while we starve? Why? Why? Why?

It’s enough to drive anyone mad.

The problem is, there are no simple answers to those questions. The New Great Game is playing out in a dimensional space so far removed from the people it affects that its purpose is shrouded in mystery. The rules of the game are known to only a select few.

Zardari is off again on his intercontinental panhandling mission. “Money!” he exhorts. “We need money!” Pakistan, he says, is where Islamic militancy must be confronted and destroyed. Perhaps. Perhaps not. That is another of the mysteries of the New Great Game.

What is no mystery is that money is not the solution. The Chinese government, in its practical wisdom, has figured that much out. No more money for Pakistan, they say. It is destined to slip through the known universe into an extra-dimensional space defined by corruption, into bank accounts that exist in the fathomless depths of the World Out There. Instead, the Chinese will invest in Pakistan’s infrastructure. It will build, build, build.


The Americans still haven’t caught on. Barack Obama has enthusiastically welcomed the most recent Congressional act of stupidity: more money for Pakistan. But he’s not stupid, which leads me to believe that the U.S. administration is less interested in helping the Pakistani people than it is in making sure Pakistan’s leadership stays in its back pocket. There is evidence: Mangal Bagh, a militant who a year and a half ago was no one in the grand scheme but today is the target of a massive military offensive. Why? The answer likely lies in the fact that it is Mangal Bagh who is attacking Nato and U.S. supply lines to Afghanistan. The militant who was once a darling of the ISI is now a target of its wrath. The Americans can’t have this little upstart disrupting its war in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Pakistan is not stupid either. Its leaders know they can’t just outright win the war against the militants. That war is their bread and butter. It’s what buys them their mansions abroad; it’s what pads their prodigiously padded bank accounts. It’s what’s helping them play catch up in Pakistan’s arms race with India. They attack militants like Mangal Bagh but never actually defeat them. They never capture the guy, or others like him. Keep the game going, they say, it’s a cash cow.

So the game goes on. The people suffer and die. They ask that cardinal question – why? – but receive bombs and bullets in lieu of an answer. They are the pawns in the New Great Game. Disposable. No one pays attention to their war. Why? Because you see, there is no money in it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dirty War


The war is on my doorstep. This is what doesn't usually get covered in the West's mainstream media: there are multiple wars going on in Pakistan. We only hear about the major ones: Swat, Waziristan. But there are currently operations ongoing in other parts of the tribal belt as well. One, oddly named 'I Have Come Again', started yesterday in Khyber Agency, right on the border with Peshawar, primarily against the Lashkar-i-Islam (LiI).

I know the LiI. I met their leader, Mangal Bagh, at his compound in Bara last year, where the current operation is unfolding. My sources tell me Bagh is not in Bara now - he's in hiding somewhere else in the Agency (I know where but I think it's prudent not to say, to maintain journalistic neutrality not to mention preserving my life).
I'm relatively certain the Pakistani ISI knows where he is. This is what's so strange about this operation: I have multiple sources telling me Bagh is an ISI man. He's one of those militants who refuses to join the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and has gone as far as to deny TTP militants access to the territory under his control. The deal, as far as I can f igure it, is that if he keeps out of Pakistan's war against the Taliban and he can have his little fiefdom.

So what exactly has gone wrong? Bagh's men have been accused of attacking NATO supply convoys heading to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass, but that's been going on for a some time now. The prevailing logic was that Bagh was attacking foreign interests, not Pakistan, and by proxy, supporting the Taliban's jihad in Afghanistan, which is in the interest of the ISI.

So if not the convoy attacks, then what? Bagh has also imposed the jizya tax on all non-muslims living in Bara, an area well-known for its Sikh minority. But again, that happened months ago and the government did nothing at the time. Actually, the jizya is not necessarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism. It's a tax, like the zakat that all Muslims are supposed to pay. Taken together, the two taxes form a single income stream for Islamic rulers, much like income tax in the West. At any rate, the jizya is not sufficient provocation for a military operation. Then what?

Bagh also controls the lucrative drugs and smuggling trade in Khyber. Bara is a key transit point for hash and opium/heroin, not to mention the riotous illegal goods business. He's also imposed a tax on those activities, padding his coffers and forcing hash prices in Peshawar up by as much as 300%. But again, Bagh's been in this business for years. It's nothing new. A Pakistani military commander told me once that drugs and smuggling are a time-honoured tradition in Khyber (which is why it is the richest of Pakistan's seven Tribal Agencies). Most of Bara's men are involved in some way in the business so the Pakistani authorities do not want to touch it - the last thing they need is to make more enemies.

So what's left? Kidnappings? Bagh is involved. Encroaching Talibanization? Bagh is involved (he is the one threatening music shops and cinemas in Peshawar). Mangal Bagh has put his militant stamp on Peshawar like no other militant has. But the problem is that a lot of people, especially in his stronghold, support him. They credit him with taming Bara, a place infamous for its criminals. "Before Mangal Bagh came, there was prostitution here," one local resident told me. "There was alcohol and murder. Everyday someone was killed." Bara was the wild west of tribal country. It was out of control, leaderless and slipping into anarchy. Now, it's Mangal Bagh who is Don. And he's brought in his own brand of Islamic justice.

So the question remains: why an operation now? There are a number of possibilities. Bagh is currently at war with a local, pro-government tribal militia. There are many of these militias that have popped up over recent months throughout the Tribal Areas (more on that in an
upcoming article in Maclean's magazine). The government needs these militias, especially now as Pakistan's wars shift into a new phase, one in which the enemy isn't an overarching militant movement, or an alliance of militant groups, but a splintered collection of localized insurgents. Over the past year, the Pakistani military has hit at militant networks hard; they've broken them up, scattered them. The recent leadership dilemma the TTP has faced is part of a process of fragmentation. The Pakistani military strategy seems to be to keep these groups divided but in doing so, they now face dozens of smaller, uncoordinated insurgencies. In this case, in terms of guerrilla warfare, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Enter the tribal militias, or lashkars. They are now the frontline against these groups, the ones with the local knowledge and support to take on what are quickly turning into localized tribal conflicts. Is the Pakistani military showing its support for these groups, specifically in Bara for the one fighting Mangal Bagh, by carrying out operations?

It's hard to say right now, the operation only started yesterday. It could also be a mere show of force, to placate domestic and international concerns over Pakistan's commitment to the war (the U.S. has been very critical of Pakistan's inability to protect the Nato supply route). It could also be that Mangal Bagh has overreached and lost the favour of the ISI. He is, by any measure, a powerful force now, well-funded and well-armed (the Pakistani authorities list him as Pakistan's sixth most-wanted militant). Perhaps this is a preemptive strike, to take down a man who is becoming to big for his own baggy britches. Or it could simply be a warning. This needs more investigation and time to see how things play out. In my opinion: this is the start of Pakistan's dirty war.

Photo Credits: (from top) The border between the Khyber Tribal Agency and Peshawar, Adnan R. Khan; Mangal Bagh and his senior commanders at their compound in Bara, Adnan R. Khan; A hash shop in Khyber, Adnan R. Khan; Lil militants in Bara, Adnan R. Khan.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

From Disquietude to Madness


A little more on Peshawar’s madness. I called it disquietude in an earlier post, but it has now graduated to madness. Not the usual madness; not the endearing madness we sometimes call ordered chaos, or the untamed organics of a city that functions according to its own, unwritten rules, not, in a word, eccentricity. No, this madness is more clinical. It inspires pity, and maybe even a small amount of fear. It is not the madness of saints but the madness of kings.

I feel it, in the same way a person feels the sudden attack of cold diving into the sea, before his body adjusts to the new environment. I don’t want my mind to adjust; I’m struggling against it. I want to understand this madness, not share in it. Is that possible? Perhaps it’s inevitable that I’ll end up adopting some of it, slipping into insanity’s shell to protect me from reality.

And that reality is something to be feared: the reality of never-ending despair, of absolute hopelessness, of waiting, waiting, waiting…for something to happen, anything. The reality of prison life, stuck in this sordid place without even the hope of a fantasy of escape.

Yet, I’m not stuck here. I have a home, somewhere, multiple homes in fact, in Canada, Turkey, Costa Rica…I can leave, anytime I want. This is why my experience with this city’s madness will always remain externalized. I can’t adopt it as my own even if I wanted to because it doesn’t belong to me. I have no claim of ownership over it.

Peshawar’s madness is for Peshawaris, and I get the sense they are jealous of it, they guard their madness, hoard it for themselves. “You can never understand what it means to live in this city,” Aftab, my fixer, told me last night. “You are only a Peshawari when you cannot leave.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Heroes and Villains


Jaswant Singh’s written another book. I haven’t read it yet but I think I will. There’s so much controversy surrounding it already. He’s been kicked out of the BJP for it, vilified in the Indian press, and praised in the Pakistani press. Well, I mean, he did pick a pretty push button topic – Jinnah and Partition. I was speaking today about it with a colleague of mine at the Daily Times bureau here in Peshawar. “The BJP is just shooting itself in the foot by complaining about this so much,” he said.

I agree.

So a member of India’s nationalist party concludes, contrary to the official Indian narrative, that Partition was not Jinnah’s fault, that, in fact, if not for Nehru and Patel’s refusal to consider a decentralized Indian polity, Partition may never have happened. Naturally, this is a controversial thing to say in India, but to eject a senior member of your party from its ranks because of an academic book simply further cements the perception that the BJP has become more an ideological monster than a legitimate political movement. Their trouncing in the last elections should have set off a few alarms. Hold on, Indians don’t want a party whose basic premise is Hindustan for Hindus? So perhaps Indians would prefer a more plural society, based on the fundamental principles of democracy and human rights? Is it possible?

Certainly it is. Preferable. But the BJP, under the influence of the RSS has lost sight of what power in a democracy means. It is not a weapon to wield in the interest of rigid ideology (the Bush years taught the world that crucial lesson succinctly, and painfully). Power in a democracy evolves out of cooperation, in the ability of a government to respond to the needs of the people. “The opposition’s role in a democracy,” I said to my colleague, “is to keep the ruling party in line, to act as the conscience of the people, to ensure the rulers are abiding by the democratic compact: to serve the people.” The BJP has proven again that it is incapable of playing that role.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Back in Pak


And so it is: Pakistan again. And still it feels new, changed, altered in a way that I can’t necessarily describe in words but exists nonetheless in a kind of shapeless form. Re-constituted, perhaps.

This re-constituted Pakistan smells less like war and more like disquietude. War is certain, factual, undeniable. War happens to people; disquietude happens in people. That inner world is making itself known, bursting through the surface of the communal corpus like a feverish sweat. It disorients; it fractures the consciousness, breaks it into jagged, unbridgeable fragments. Here, is the world of war; here, the world of peace; here, the world of dreams, of futures and possibilities; and here, alone, isolated, is the world that could have been, the lost world, the world of longing.

I landed in Peshawar at precisely 4:08 local time Saturday morning. The airplane touched down tentatively, bouncing twice off the tarmac before acquiescing to a pugilistic relationship with solid earth. It swayed and stammered to a stop and then rolled grudgingly to the terminal. In the chaos of the baggage reclamation point (that is, in fact, what they call it here), there was the first inkling of that disquietude, in the way the waiting passengers shifted their weight, from one foot to the other, their mounting frustrations, and in the heat, the unnatural thickness of it that seemed to emanate not only from the air but from the people themselves.

And on the streets, weaving through emptiness, past abandoned blast walls, skirting barricaded alleyways, the city itself oozed a venal malaise, an existential rot. Peshawar is collapsing in on itself, its superstructure weak and decayed. “There is nothing here anymore,” the taxi driver said, offering me a Morven cigarette. “We are like the city of the dead.”

“We are like” he said. There is no separation between the city and its people. It has become a single entity. When a bomb destroys a building, it also shatters a limb of the urban body. But my fixer tells me there hasn’t been a bomb blast in the city since the one in June at the Pearl Continental hotel. Peshawar should be healing.

And yet it’s not. Instead, like an injured man left behind at the scene of a grotesque accident, it bleeds slowly to death, wounds turning gangrenous. Has the world forgotten about Peshawar? Perhaps not, USAID has donated millions of dollars for the beautification of this seminal frontier metropolis. Can the locals look forward to a future of gardens and cafes? Will Peshawar transform into the Pashtun Paris? Or perhaps more importantly: is that what the people need?

After settling into my hotel, I’ve spent the past three days trying to re-construct Peshawar through my own frame of reference. Sadly, I am no surgeon so all of these severed limbs and bleeding arteries feel alien to me. A part of me wants to run, to escape the way this pitiful place begs you to do something: “Help me!” it screams. “Fix me!” Something elemental in me rejects the ploy, for that is what I believe it is – a trick, a scam, a trap designed to entangle me and prevent my eventual escape.

Peshawar is dying and it wants to take anyone it can with it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

From the Deep South

What a messed up country I'm in.  So full of conspiracies and paranoias, replete with absurdities. So many Pakistanis I meet are spiralling into the dark caverns of clinical psychosis, ravaged by so many years of poverty and misrule, constantly force-fed half-truths and flat-out myths. Petrified in an archaic state of existence.  Example: in yesterday's paper, on page 5, way down at the bottom, a tiny, quarter-column story about a young couple 
executed for eloping.  A jirga (tribal council of village elders) made the decision and because the area they come from is officially ruled by tribal customs, the authorities said they could do nothing about it.  The couple was captured by their respective tribes after they were released on bail by local police.  And then murdered.  For what?  For falling in love. That is one of the tragic realities of Pakistan.

I spent the past week in the deep south of Punjab where these types of things happen often.  A few years ago, I wrote a story about 'honour crimes' in Pakistan.  What I realized then, and what still holds true today, is that there is much more to this than cultural tradition.  We (meaning we in the west) cannot simply fall back on the rubric of moral relativity to justify what happens to women, not only in south Pakistan, but in so many other parts of the world.  Tradition is only a small part of these horrific crimes. In Pakistan, there is also an economic component: women are property; or more specifically, sexual access to women is a commodity that is bought and sold between men.  Beyond that, there is the tribal legal system - jirgas and faislas - in which men resolve various disputes (including property rights) by trading women.  The local leaders, the Sardars, who run these tribal courts receive a tidy cut for presiding over and ruling on the disputes.  It is in their financial interests to keep the system running.    

Ending these practices will require a global effort.  Pakistan's political and judicial institutions are too saturated with the very men who profit from the system to do anything about it.  These days especially, when Pakistan is in crisis and begging for money from the west, we need to pressure our politicians not to hand over cash without any conditions attached.  I can guarantee that any money that flows into Pakistan without strict oversight will end up lining the pockets of the very men who abuse and debase women.  

Here are some women's rights groups in Pakistan you can go to for more information:

Now, I know with that kind of a lead up, moving to the lighter side of life may be in bad taste. But I did promise some people a picture of the nipple-head burka.  Of course burkas are one of the most powerful symbols of how women are deprived of their rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan. This version, however, is just too funny to pass up:

And...for another possible reason why the Taliban are making headway in Pakistan, note the following from an article in today's The News daily:

So that's why the terrorists are doing so well: it's all that martian backing.  Damn those little green men!  Where's Mulder and Scully when you need them?

Photo Credits (from top):  Adnan R. Khan, A mother and her child recover in hospital after her abusive husband doused her with acid for leaving him; Adnan R. Khan, A couple in Sindh who married for love, are forced to hide out at an undisclosed location in Sindh; Adnan R. Khan, The patriarch of a village household in Sindh keeps a close eye on his women; Adnan R. Khan, A local Sardar presides over a land dispute between tribal clans, deciding in the end that one family must hand over a daughter to the other as compensation; Adnan R. Khan, the nipple-head burka in south Punjab; Adnan R. Khan, It's the aliens, stupid!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Crush the Taliban?

Apologies for the long delay between posts.  For the past week I was roaming around southern Punjab reporting on a story for Maclean's (more on that in an upcoming post).  While I was sweating it out in the south - quite literally - a facebook friend asked me a question that I think deserves some serious attention.  It's something I've been asked often, on radio interviews, by my editor at Maclean's: why can't the Pakistani army just take out the Taliban?  It's a difficult question to answer but I'll give it a try.

The Pakistani military has proven it is capable of defeating Taliban militants.  The Bajaur operations are one example; success in Mohmand is another.  But why then the concessions in Swat?  Why turn it over to militants with barely a fight.  One military commander based in Swat 
told me it was because that region is too heavily populated to engage in the kind of heavy operations that won Bajaur (if you can call it a win; more accurately, it was a strategic victory with the Taliban retreating into the mountains to regroup).  Collateral damage is a concern for Pakistan.  Bajaur has been devastated.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees have flooded into camps on the outskirts of Peshawar.  And for every man, woman and child killed because of Pakistan's military actions, potentially dozens more join the militant ranks.

That's the humanitarian side.  There is, however, another, less noble reason for Pakistan's restraint.  In military terms, the Taliban still represent an asset for the Pakistani military.  I discuss this in some detail in a Maclean's story: since the fall of the Mullah Omar Taliban regime in 2002, Pakistan's military, particularly the ISI, have been desperately looking for a new partner in Afghanistan to counter Indian influence.  After the Taliban fell, the opposition Northern Alliance, heavily backed by India as well as the U.S., took control of the Afghan government (these are primarily Persian-speaking warlords who were losing the civil war against the Taliban before the U.S. intervened; Karzai, a Pashtun, was a token figurehead who has proven that he is unable to reconcile Afghanistan's warring ethnic groups).  After losing their trump card, the ISI has been scrambling to find a malleable Taliban faction that can represent Pakistan's interests in the new Afghanistan.  That objective has become increasingly important since the Obama administration recalibrated its foreign policy, placing Afghanistan at the top of its agenda.  Obama has said he is willing to find a negotiated solution to Afghanistan.  He is willing to speak to "moderate Taliban" (whomever they may be).  In Swat, Sufi Muhammad represents a possible candidate (Obama has indicated that he will take a wait and see approach to Swat, and if successful, to perhaps repeat it in Afghanistan).  The message the ISI is getting is that the Taliban will likely play a role in a future Afghan government, similar to the re-emergence of the Baath Party in Iraq, albeit under a different name - the Sunni Awakening.  By giving ground in Swat, the ISI is freeing up the fighters there to take the fight over to Afghanistan where they will, by the prevailing logic, gain some influence so if and when the Taliban enter Afghan politics, Pakistan will have its interests represented.  A similar strategy was in play in Waziristan where the Pakistani military left militant factions led by Nazir and Bahadur alone in return for their guarantees not to take their jihad to Pakistan, focusing instead on Nato and American troops across the border in Afghanistan.  that deal appears to have fallen apart after both commanders recently struck a deal with Baitullah Mehsud, the South Waziristan militant commander of the Pakistani Taliban.

Confused yet?  Well, it gets even more complicated.  From the government perspective, instability in Pakistan is a potential financial windfall.  Pakistani politicians, particularly President Zardari, have repeatedly demanded financial compensation for Pakistan's participation in the war against the Taliban.  Billions of dollars are being pumped into the country and no one really knows where that money is going.  Pakistan's military is being modernized at U.S. expense.  It's a cushy little scenario for greedy, corrupt politicians and war-obsessed military leaders alike (especially considering Pakistan's enduring paranoia over the Indian threat).  If Pakistan looks to be winning the war against militancy, they lose that financial and military support.  

All very complicated and all extremely risky.  This is the dark, decrepit world of competing national interests.  

Photo Credits: (from top) Adnan R. Khan - A Pakistani military checkpost in the Swat Valley; Adnan R. Khan - Villagers in Bajaur pay their respects at a mass grave site where victims of a U.S. drone attack were buried.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cricket Update

In the biggest upset of the tournament so far, Afghanistan took down giants Ireland at the World Cup qualifying tournament in South Africa.  It was a stunner: Afghanistan batted first and came through with a supremely catchable 218-7.  Ireland looked to be on their way to an easy victory when they reached 186-5 with oodles of overs left to play.  Then came Afghanistan's star fast bowler, Hamid Hassan.  He proceeded to bowl 5 wickets in 18 balls giving up a measly 10 runs in the process.  Ireland 196-all out!

For those of you not familiar with cricket, the key thing here is the 5 wickets (meaning outs) in 18 balls.  In baseball, that feat is equivalent to a pitcher striking out 5 batsman with 18 pitches.  Think about it.

Currently, Afghanistan is playing Canada.  The Afghans batted first and finished up with a much more respectable 265 runs.  Canada is now chasing.  And me?  I'm torn.  I want Afghanistan to win but not necessarily at the cost of Canada being eliminated from the World Cup.  Actually, now that I think about it, I hate cricket.  I really don't give a rat's ass about the World Cup.  But wouldn't it be great if the Afghans made it?  Oh, and just to note: Canada lost to Ireland in the round robin.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Humpty Dumpty Doctrine & The Keystone Cops

There's an odour of destruction in the air. It's an insipid kind of smell, quietly working its way into the Pakitsani subconconscious like a hit of acid working its way to the cerebral cortex.  You feel it whenever you talk to a person, or if you ever observe someone closely while they're watching the news - this acute but still subdermal anxiety, twitching just under the surface.

Pakistanis know they're under attack but by whom remains a mystery to them.  Is it the Taliban?  But the Taliban don't blow up 
mosques during Friday prayers.  Al Qaeda?  What is al Qaeda? Who is Osama bin Laden? Is he even alive?  Is it maybe their own government, or the ISI, that much-maligned and nefarious Pakistani spy agency?  Perhaps it's the U.S.?  And almost definitely India, but of course, who could doubt that?  The rumours are many, the conspiracy theories abundant and complex.  But there is one thing all Pakistanis can agree on: Someone is out to destroy their nation.

In an upcoming article in Maclean's, I speak to an ISI agent about India's role in Pakistan's turmoil and the theories that abound concerning the fate of the Indo-Pak Cold War.  One Canadian analyst argues that there is a larger plan, guided by the CIA, to dismantle Pakistan. India is reportedly aiding and abetting Baloch separtists in Pakistan's southwest.  The Humpty Dumpty Doctrine is in full effect, with dire consequences for the region.  Is Pakistan on the road to collapse?

On a slightly lighter note, an article in today's Daily Times struck me as darkly funny: Pakistani police trainees at the Manawan training facility in Lahore, the place where militants staged a daring raid recently killing 8 recruits, made a dash for it the other night after hearing sounds that sounded like gunfire. Someone apparently started shouting they were under attack again.  One hundred and sixty-seven budding young officers high-tailed it outta there in a panic and spent the night somewhere in the city, slinking back to the training centre the next morning.  Police officials say there will be a full enquiry - those spreading hysteria would be punished.  But here's the funny part: the same officials added that those who were "actually scared" would be spared.  I wonder how investigators will go about differentiating between the provocoteurs and the simply faint of heart?  Skid-mark test maybe?  No, that would just lead to 167 pairs of soiled underwear.

Here's the sad part: the reality is that too many young men join the Pakistani police ranks, not to 'Serve and Protect,' but to 'Sit and Collect' (as in bribes).  They're certainly not paid enough to risk their skins.  Is it any wonder that the police in Swat, when the Taliban came to town, just put down their weapons and walked away?

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Go Afghan Cricket!

On a positive note.  Not all is gloom and doom in Afghanistan.  Most people are not following this - I doubt most people in the world are even aware of it.  The Afghan national cricket team has been rocking the cricket world for the past couple of years.  This, people, is the quintessential underdog story.  Picture it: Afghan kids, fleeing war in their homeland, sentenced to a life of poverty in the refugee camps of Pakistan, make do with the little they have, turning dusty fields into pitches, converting discarded sticks into bats, wrapping refuse with tape to make balls and start playing cricket.  From those meagre beginnings emerges what is now Afghanistan's pride and joy. 

Right now, the Afghan national cricket team is competing in the 2011 World Cup qualifying tournament in South Africa.  Let's put that in perspective: they are competing against teams like Canada, Ireland and Scotland.  Not bad for a bunch of former refugees.  I've been following their progress for years, not because I'm a cricket fan (can't stand the game), but because my Afghan fixer for the past 7 years is their former manager and current head of marketing.  I've had to suffer through long nights of cricket on the television in places like Kandahar and Kabul.  I've been subjected to long monologues about intricacies of the game, which doesn't make me an expert but certainly more than the ignoramus I'd rather prefer to be.

I've also been privy to some of the politics that go on behind the scenes in Afghan sport.  Nothing in that divided nation is immune to politics.  Cricket was initially scorned by many Afghans as a Pakistani import.  It received little recognition even a short 3 or 4 years ago, just when the national team was starting to make waves on the international stage.  But as success piled onto success, people started to take notice.  Here was something Afghans could feel good about in a nation saddled by all things bad.  

Now the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.  Everyone wants a piece of the team (in part, no doubt, because of the money that's begun flowing into the national cricket program).  Some Persian government leaders have begun moaning that the team unfairly favours Pashtuns, adding another element to the ethnic divide that remains Afghanistan's core issue.  Team representatives counter that no Persians have shown enough talent to make the cut.  "We've had Persians try out," my fixer told me recently, "but they just don't have the skills yet."  That's natural: Afghan cricket developed in Pakistan's refugee camps.  The refugees there were primarily Pashtuns (the majority of Persian refugees were in Iran, where cricket is non-existent).  It will take time develop cricket nationwide.

The process has already begun.  The Afghan Cricket Council is currently professionalizing its academy in Kabul.  Development programs exist throughout the country, including the Persian-dominated north and west.  My great hope is that cricket can be a force for good in the country, healing the festering wounds that decades of war have inflicted on Afghanistan's ethnic groups.  Given time and space to grow, it could be a nexus around which all Afghans can unite, like hockey in Canada or football in Europe. 

So let's all keep our fingers crossed for the Afghan boys in South Africa.   Tomorrow they play a crucial round robin match against their long-time foes the UAE.  A win would guarantee them a spot in the Super 8 round, and bring them one step closer to their World Cup dream.


(to follow the tournament, visit the ICC official website; also check out the documentary a British journalist, Tim Albone is currently shooting about the teams road the World Cup)

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