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)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

No jigging allowed

In a sign of the times, a Pakistani dance troupe at a spring festival in Larkana was chased off by a group of religious fanatics claiming to be from one of Pakistan's legitimate political parties, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.  A spokesperson from the party later denied that any of their activists were instructed to disrupt the festivities, though party officials had asked the festival organizers to cancel the dance. 

Dance is an integral part of Pakistani culture, something that's been around for hundreds of years, well before the creation of the Pakistani state.  It's a wonderful spectacle to see, lavished with colour and pageantry and nothing approaching the 'vulgar' which religious obscuritants claim it to be.  Last year I went to my cousin's wedding in Lahore.  I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much.  I've been to Pakistani weddings in Canada and to put it mildly, they could lull Jim Carey into a catatonic state.  But to the contrary, leaving those precedents in the dust, this one was a lively affair, complete with drumming, singing and yes,  even a dance performance or two.  

I'm not sure what it is that these radicals are trying to do. Actually, I don't think they quite know it themselves.  They are simple reactionaries to the reality of globalization, men who think Bollywood and MTV, which many of them are seeing for the first time through the explosion of cable and satellite communications, are real-world representations of western life. Well, I can assure them that the little girl who performed at my cousin's wedding is no aspiring Britney. 

But groups like the Taliban, and others who take their ideological queues from them, will have none of it.  Literally, none, not even traditional music and dance.  There's a story I'm researching now for a possible radio documentary about the Pashtun music industry in Peshawar.  In short, it's dying.  Peshawar, that quintessential frontier city in Pakistan's northwest, bordering Afghanistan, used to be the Pashtun music capital.  The top recording artists like Naghma, Nazia Iqbal, and Shahensha Bacha were all based in Peshawar.  They recorded their music videos on the lush green slopes of the Swat valley.  The branch industries that emanated from that dynamic centre - DJs and recording studios, video production houses and even instrument craftsmen - are all suffering.  Naghma has retired.  Nazia Iqbal was threatened by a local militant and advised to go to Mecca for pilgrimmage.  Shenshah Bacha was similarly threatened and forced to join a Tabligh - the Islamic missionaries.

I visited a couple of DJ shops in Peshawar about a month ago.  The area I was told to go used to be flush with shops, belting out beats and flashing colouful (if somewhat gaudy) neon signs.  Now the area is a deadzone.  Shopkeepers sit around idle, waiting for the occasional religious or political rally to give them some work.  "Weddings were our main business," one shopkeeper told me.  "But no one is hiring DJs for weddings anymore.  They're too afraid."   Musicians are naturally feeling the pinch.  If singers don't sing and weddings fall silent, their work dries up. 

And if musicians refrain from playing their instruments, then there's not much use for instrument makers.  Peshawar's oldest master tabla-maker told me he's just about done for.  His business will not last much longer.  A suicide attack at a sufi shrine in Islamabad back in 2005 all but silenced the qawwali singers who regularly gathered there to perform their songs of love and devotion to god.  

What happens to a culture when its artistic expression is silenced? It dies.  

Photo Credits:  (from top)  Women perform a Punjabi dance at a wedding in Lahore, Adnan R. Khan; A girl performs a solo dance at the same wedding, Adnan R. Khan; Musicians perform at a Pashtun wedding in Peshawar, Adnan R.Khan.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Thoughts on Flogging


Welcome to my new blog!  For those of you who don’t already know, this is a more focused continuation of the arkworld blog which has unfortunately been defunct for the past few months.  Instead of reviving it, I’ve opted to start up this new forum dedicated to discussing issues affecting Pakistan and the consequences to the world.  Naturally, I’m in Pakistan and will be here for the foreseeable future.  So, let’s get to it.

I’ve been back in Pakistan now for two months, splitting my time between Peshawar, Islamabad and the Swat valley.  Admittedly, it’s been a surreal experience so far, not because it’s in any way different from my past experiences covering this country but because I know this time around, I’m here for the long haul.  It’s an entirely different mindset.  One side of it is a creeping sense of fear of not knowing the details of the life and culture here as well as I should.  I have a lot to learn.  Then there’s the challenge of translation – how to render what’s happening here for what is primarily a western audience. 

It’s no easy task, considering the width and breadth of the divide between western culture and the Pashtun culture of the Taliban which I’m primarily dealing with.  I’ll try my best to explain the Pashtuns honestly and clearly in subsequent posts.  To start with though, I think it’s necessary to talk a bit about this video that surfaced yesterday of a teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban (see the featured video).  There’s been some controversy today over its validity.  Muslim Khan, the spokesman for the Swat branch of the Taliban, denies that it depicts his group and vows to hunt down and punish the man who filmed it (I shudder to think what he's in for).  He doesn't deny the validity of the punishment under Taliban law, just that it wasn't his group caught in the act.  "The punishment awarded to the woman was just," Khan told reporters today.  "the woman was of loose character." 

Frankly, I don’t think it matters where the video was recorded.  More importantly, what the footage reveals is the culture of crime and punishment that guides Taliban justice.  I wrote an article in Maclean’s magazine a couple of weeks ago covering what exactly Sharia, or Islamic Law, in Swat means, politically, legally, socially.  After spending a month researching the story, I came to the conclusion that the Taliban of today are not the same Taliban of say ten years ago, using the word Talqaeda to describe the nexus that has been formed between the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The two are virtually indistinguishable now, most disturbingly in the adoption of global jihad by the Taliban.  Taliban leaders in Swat are quite frank about their agenda: spread Sharia around the world, starting in Pakistan.

I’ve had some reader comments accusing me of fear mongering.  Maybe I am: having visited Talibtown, Pakistan I’m scared shitless of these people and their brand of justice.  Granted, the Taliban aren’t alone in meting out corporal punishment for even minor crimes (Singapore is infamous for it) but the legal methodology they use is quite honestly ridiculous.  To see a Taliban Sharia Court in action is a little like watching a gang of hairy thugs fulminate over legal issues they know nothing about.

Hairy Thug #1:  Duhh, the cousin of my uncle’s sister says he saw her touch his arm once.  That’s bad. BAD!

Hairy Thug #2: Doesn’t the Quran say arm touching is punishable by 100 lashes?

Hairy Thug #3: Yeah, the mullah at my mosque says so.  He has to be right - he’s a mullah.

Head Hairy Thug:  Who else witnessed the arm touching?

Hairy Thug #1: Errrummm…my sister.  She says she didn’t see nothin’.  But, you know, she’s a woman.  What’s a woman know anyway?

Head Hairy Thug: Man witnessed arm touching.  Woman witnessed no arm touching.  A woman’s testimony is worth half the man’s.  Therefore, by the logic of mathematics, we have full-guilt versus half-innocence.  The punishment for arm touching is 100 lashes.  Ergo, 50 lashes!  QED.

Okay, it’s not quite so farcical, but you’ve got the gist.  Now let me ask this question:  Would it be different if the accused received due legal process and, having verified her guilt, was then sentenced to 50 lashes?  Or death by stoning?  Is it the process, left in the hands of violent militiamen, that’s so fundamentally wrong or the entire Sharia system itself?  That’s a much tougher question to answer. 

In that last Maclean’s article, I ask the question: Will the people of Swat get the kind of justice they’ve been demanding for decades?  Here’s the interesting thing about Swat: until 1969, it was not fully a part of Pakistan.  It was an autonomous princely state legally subject to a combination of Sharia courts and a local system of council arbitration (the jirga).  The people loved it.  Many still think back fondly to those days when you could have a dispute resolved within weeks or months rather than the costly years it takes under the current secular system.  In demanding the return to Sharia, the people of Swat are basically demanding justice.  Their voting patterns in the last two general elections are telling in this respect: in 2002, they voted for a coalition of religious parties who promised Sharia.  Those parties broke their promise, joining a Musharraf-led coalition that joined the U.S.-led war on terror.  Corruption, already a bloated beast in Pakistan, fattened up on dictatorship.  Things changed after the 2008 elections.  The dominant party in Swat, and the rest of the NWFP, is now the ANP, a secular, Pashtun nationalist movement.

I went up to Swat in 2008 during the January election campaign.  The war was on at that time meaning all hotels were closed (journalists were banned from going into the area but I managed to get through the military checkpoints posing as a tea merchant).  A local journalist whose father owned a hotel in Madyan agreed to let me stay there but warned me that there was no heating and no running water.   It was a dingy old place that my team and I turned into a self-contained apartment.  We bought a portable gas stove from the market and my local contact donated a gas heater from his house.  My driver served as cook and we bathed in ice-cold water brought into the room in buckets.  Even with the heater, nights were frigid and the constant threat of the Taliban finding out about us meant many sleepless nights taking turns standing guard at the door. 

It was a tense time in Madyan.  Only a week earlier, the Taliban had swept into town, ordered the police out (they obediently complied) and continued on south toward Mingora, Swat’s main city.  Taliban sympathizers and criminal opportunists ruled the town while the army sat tentatively in their barracks, uncertain of who was the enemy and hogtied with fear of pissing off the locals if they tried any offensive.  Election campaigning was done kamikaze style: quick, sudden bursts of postering and mingling with the public.  But here was the clincher: every party, from the Islamist-based JUI to the fiercely secular PPP, promised Sharia.  Hey, this is election time and as we all know, to win an election, you play up to people’s demands.

The ANP won the election on a strong Sharia platform (ironic for a secular party), which tells me that it’s not Sharia in and of itself that Swatis want but rather justice.  In their collective memory, the last legal system that worked for them was a Sharia system so they want it back.  The only problem is that the people who ran the old Sharia courts were part of the royal administration.  They were moderate Muslims.  Now, it’s the Taliban.  

The ANP have kept their promise.  Sharia is back in Swat but I doubt the people will get what they were expecting.  I was up in Kanju a little over a week ago, on the road to Matta where Taliban presence is strongest.  It is a frightening place.  Bands of Taliban roam the streets wielding sticks and Kalashnikovs.  I tried photographing but within 15 minutes was pounced upon by a group of Taliban who ended up breaking my camera.  They let me go, but only after I threw down the names of some powerful contacts I have in the TNSM.  Welcome to justice, Taliban style.

Photo Credits: Adnan R. Khan

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

About me

Coming Soon...

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