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.

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