Monthly Archives: June 2010

A land of miracles

Pakistan, I keep telling people, is a land of dreams. It’s a country where what’s possible is limited only by your imagination. Where words, in fact, do not just describe reality, they create it.

Take university degrees, for example. According to Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister of Balochistan, “a degree is a degree, whether real or fake”. Ta-da. There. Crisis averted. He went on to say that regardless of the authenticity of degrees, he will “continue to live in [his] house”. Good to know.

Pictured: A magician. “And for my next trick, watch me make corruption
allegations against all government officials go away . . . Governance is
governance, even if it is corrupt. Presto!” [Picture courtesy APP]

In other news:

– US congresswoman Nita Lowey refuses to give Afghanistan another cent, because she says too much US aid ends up in the pockets of ‘corrupt Afghan officials’. She says she will recommend that no more money is given, other than ‘life-saving humanitarian aid’. Watch this story – it may go nowhere after the subcommittee hearings, of course, but it’s significant, and symptomatic of the growing lack of patience with this nation-building project in Afghanistan.

Another day, another drone. This time it’s near Wana, and interestingly some alleged ‘Punjab Taliban’ and al Qaeda militants were killed. Hm.

– The CS Monitor‘s done a story on how ethnic minorities in Afghanistan are against all this talk about negotiating with the (mainly Pashtun) Taliban. In particular it quotes minority Afghan lawmakers, and anger from public figures about the ouster of Amrullah Saleh, the former Afghan intelligence chief, who was also an ethnic Tajik.

– While we’re talking about negotiations in Afghanistan, US President Obama has made one of his more nonsensical remarks on the matter: he says the talks should be viewed with a mixture of “scepticism and openness”.  So what you’re saying is . . . we should be open to the idea, but not really think it’s going to work? And if that’s the case, how, exactly, are you planning to pull out in June 2011?

– Benazir Bhutto’s name has now been inscribed into law (as the Benazir Income Support Programme Bill 2010). Hardly surprising, considering that this government has inscribed her name into virtually everything else it could get its hands on. I’m just surprised cheeseburgers aren’t now known as Shaheed Benazir Bhutto Burgers.
Now I’m not even entering the debate of whether or not Ms Bhutto was a capable leader – I’m just humbly suggesting that maybe we should spend less time arguing in the National Assembly about chest-thumping on self aggrandizement, and maybe just a little bit more on . . . I don’t know, let’s say . . . governance?

– Finally, thank you Twitter, for letting me know that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is a massive Messi fan, and that Marvi Memon just killed a lizard with her shoe.

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‘We have no idea where they are . . . but they’re not in the US’

Meeting families of Pakistani missing persons at the FIA headquarters, Interior Minister Rehman Malik made what can really only be described as a less than heartening statement: the Pakistani authorities can guarantee that these people are not with the Americans (under the US’s notorious cash-for-terrorists programme, designed for third-world countries looking for some extra income . . . ), adding that we don’t really have any additional information on them at all.
He offered Rs5 million as a reward for anyone who could provide information as to their whereabouts – I wonder if there are any Majors in the intelligence agencies who really need the money . . .

When the families later protested outside the parliamentary lodges to express their dissatisfaction, Malik apparently asked them to stop because of the SAARC Interior Ministers’ conference going on inside.

“Seriously guys . . . not in front of the guests!”

In other news:

The he-said-she-said-that-guy-with-the-gun-said of the Taliban talks saga continues apace. News out of Kabul suggests that Sirrajuddin Haqqani, COAS Gen Ashfaq Kayani and DG ISI Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha had a sit-down with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (I had to physically restrain myself from referring to him as ’embattled’. He is, but if I see that phrase in print one more time, I may kill someone). The Taliban deny it (of course). The US says it knew what was going on all along, but doesn’t think it’ll work (Panetta is echoing comments made by US envoy Richard Holbrooke a few days ago). Pakistan remains tight-lipped – because surely the ‘national interest’ in which all of these talks are being arranged isn’t to be disclosed to just anybody (A thought echoed in this Dawn editorial).

British officers wouldn’t exactly call the new Taliban tactics ‘sniper fire’. More like they’re shooting at long range with pistols and rifles with rather worrying accuracy. Throws that whole idea of the NATO/US military machine being the most advanced in the world up for questioning . . .

– AFP’s done a story on smuggling across the Pak-Afghan border at Torkham.

Quote of the day:

Mohabbat Khan, 10, told that he looks older than his age, retorts: “Come with me and push this wheelbarrow for a year, then I’ll tell you the same.”

No quotes from Pakistani and Afghan officials on the checks that are supposed to be in place, or what’s being done (if anything at all)? Well-written story, but it isn’t exactly telling us anything new . . . other than that Rs200 isn’t enough to get you across the border.

– Asma Jehangir is running against Ahmed Awais for the Presidency of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and according to The News, leading lawyers (Aitzaz Ahsan, Munir Malik, Ali Ahmed Kurd, Athar Minallah and others) are undecided on who to back. Apparently they’re concerned that both are political choices.

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Well, we wanted an activist judiciary . . .

This was always going to be a problem, once the principle of an activist judiciary was conceded as being a sound one in Pakistan today. I’m not arguing against the judiciary taking a pro-active role in delivering justice (and forcing the government to deliver governance) to the people, but this comes with the territory: you now have a Lahore High Court, always known for being the most conservative in the country, that’s handing out blanket bans on websites like they were Eidi.

(In other news out of that court, lawyers of a murder accused helped him escape from the court after his bail plea was rejected. What, exactly, is going on over in CJ Khwaja Sharif’s little fiefdom? Apparently senior lawyer Ahsan Bhoon, of marching-with-the-lawyers-and-then-taking-oath-as-a-PCO-judge fame, ‘saved’ the unfortunate policeman who tried to stop them – the lawyers were about to take him to the bar room to ‘teach him a lesson’. I’m guessing that this lesson wasn’t going to be on, say, the finer points of constitutional law . . .)

The question is, after this provisional ban on Google, Yahoo, Bing, Amazon, MSN, Hotmail, Youtube, Islam Exposed and In The Name of Allah, what happens next? The lawyers community of Bahawalpur has already announced that it is going to observe a complete strike on Wednesday . . . . . . against the ‘publication’ of this ‘blasphemous’ material on these websites.

Leave aside, for a moment, the absolutely nonsensical nature of the ban – both because of the fact that it violates basic right to information and because it betrays a complete lack of understanding of how the internet works (even if you agree, for some reason, that ‘objectionable’ material should be banned, banning search engines is a bit like ordering that all of Karachi’s roads should be dynamited because an aunty made an illegal U-turn on Amir Khusro Rd). Let’s talk about getting the ban reversed through legal means.

The only way to do this is to file a constitutional petition in a High Court or the Supreme Court, arguing that the ban is, to put not too fine a point on it, idiotic on every level. Here we run into the trouble I pointed out in my last Op-Ed – will the SC or an HC rule in your favour, because it will be seen to be ‘supporting blasphemy’, a move politically akin in Pakistan to stabbing yourself repeatedly in the heart while simultaneously reading Vogon poetry? Well, we’ll never know if we don’t try – otherwise this country will continue to move incrementally towards the intolerant right. This case, of course, is subtly different from the Facebook case in that it calls for blanket bans of search engines, which do not even host the material that is being found objectionable – it can be argued, therefore, without reference to the acceptability of the material itself.

The way to fight this ban, ultimately, is not just on the Op-Ed pages of  English language newspapers, or in witty comments on Twitter (I plead guilty to the latter), it’s through the processes of government. I’m not based out of Karachi at the moment, but I am willing, if others want to pursue this case, to arrange the drafting of a constitutional petition and to find a Sindh High Court advocate who will argue the case pro bono. Get in touch if you’re interested.

In today’s other news:

– The commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has handed in his resignation after this politically ill-advised profile in Rolling Stone, and its now up to US President Barack Obama to either accept it, or let him stay on. And even though McChrystal, an ex-Ranger known for his gung-ho attitude and the ‘prophet’ of Counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics, called everyone in the White House a bunch of “wimps”, aiming particular snipes at US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and national security advisor James Jones, he may yet survive this, because Obama needs continuity in Afghan operations. Either way, however, his position is going to be weakened: either fire the general and appoint a new head of operations in a war you’re trying desperately to turn around, or leave him be and undermine your own authority by allowing such comments from your military top brass. Between the devil and  . . well, a gung-ho ex-Ranger. Read Maureen Dowd, Simon Tisdall and Michael Tomasky on the issue to really get to grips with how difficult this choice is going to be for Obama.

Also, I strongly recommend reading the profile itself. As a reporter, it makes me go all tingly.

– On the court front, the LHC is not the only court doing some crazy things. The SHC CJ, Sarmad Jalal Osmany, has apparently asked for, and been granted, funds by the government to fly to the US for surgery. The government is footing the bill for his flights as well as his treatment. Now, I’m sorry that the CJ has dodgy ankles, and from all accounts he’s an excellent and fair judge who tolerates no nonsense in his court, but it is simply not the government’s place to pay for this treatment, particularly after a provincial and federal ban on precisely this sort of thing.
And this is coming a few weeks after the same CJ demanded that he be given an incredibly expensive bullet-proof vehicle. Why? Because the CJ of the Peshawar HC got one.
Dear god, give me strength.

–  Today’s uplifting story of the day: How International Relations Theory can be adapted to deal with a Zombie Apocalypse. Brilliant.

– Today’s completely random Express-Tribune story of the day: Fatima Bhutto says she has moxie, and craves only Justice. That latter reminds me more of this, than this.

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It’s time to talk about the homicidal elephant in the room

An edited version of this op-ed originally appeared in Dawn, on June 22 2010.

On a recent research visit to Friday prayers at a madrassa known for advocating the use of violence against ‘unbelievers’, I was advised, in no uncertain terms, and on the highest authority, to harm those who would “offend the shan of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)” – topping the list were Jews and Christians, with Ahmedis following close behind. (Interestingly, the man leading the prayers reserved his harshest words not for any of these people themselves, but for those who “sympathise and provide comfort” to members of the Ahmedi community.)

All this, of course, was happening behind a police security picket and, indeed, happens week in and week out.

Earlier in the week, I visited the Karachi headquarters of a banned sectarian group (now operating under the name Ahle Sunnat wal Jammat), where I was told that the organisation’s main purpose is the disenfranchisement of members of the Shia community. As the group’s representative told me of all the “dangers” that the Shias pose and how and why it is perfectly correct to oppress them, given that they “offend” the sensibilities of other Muslims, a Rangers jawan sat opposite us.

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room. Mainly because the elephant is violently intolerant at best, and homicidal at worst.

This is not, however, a piece about the government not cracking down on religious groups with intolerant views of society that espouse violence against other Pakistanis. It is about why the government is not in a position to do so, not because of some double- or triple-game being played with ‘strategic depth’, but because of what regular Pakistanis believe, and more importantly, tolerate.

Take the Lahore High Court’s ban on Facebook for hosting material that was declared to be “offensive” to Muslims. The LHC’s decision may have been particularly narrow and conservative, but the actual issue, as raised by a legal analyst, is this: if indeed the ban was challenged on appeal in the Supreme Court, the court would very likely have upheld it, not because of any legal merits of the case, but because the Supreme Court cannot be ‘seen to be supporting blasphemy’.

Why?

The issue, then, is not necessarily the organs of the state and the decisions that they make, but the society in which those decisions are made. Specifically, when it comes to religion, it is about how violent actors are able to gain public support.

Understanding this support is, in many ways, key to understanding how and why members of the PML-N campaign with heads of banned sectarian organisations, or the courts set free heads of organisations that have been banned because of their links to violent ‘jihad’.

And what’s more, it appears that everything we thought we knew about the nature of this support is wrong.

A recent report published in the International Security journal suggests that there are four ‘conventional wisdoms’ that appear to govern counterterrorism policy in Pakistan. First, that poorer or less-educated people are more likely to support militancy. Second, that personal religiosity and support for Shariah predicts support for militant groups. Third, support for religious political parties (such as the Jamaat-e-Islami) predicts support for militancy. Finally, that belief in democracy and support for militancy are mutually exclusive.

Fair enough. Those sound perfectly reasonable.

As it turns out, though, not really. Having carried out extensive fieldwork to gather data from thousands of individuals from various backgrounds, the authors found that, in general, there is no correlation between support for militancy and the factors outlined. A separate study, carried out on six Muslim countries in 2009 for the Journal of Conflict Resolution, found that not only was there no correlation in any of those countries, higher income and higher literacy groups in Pakistan were actually more supportive of militancy than lower income and literacy groups.

Clearly something is wrong with the way the question is being framed. And indeed there is. Inherent in each of the conventional wisdoms is a simultaneous assumption that there is such a thing as a ‘taste’ for militancy that can be ‘educated’ out of a person, and the divorce of the model from politics.

What the authors of the International Security report found was that the Pakistani public’s support for militancy is, essentially, a political decision. People will support violent action against US forces in Afghanistan, for example, if they believe the US presence in Afghanistan to be an occupation; they will support action against Pakistani government targets if they believe the Pakistani government to be acting against Pakistan’s interests. Further, there is heavy discrimination between different types of militant groups: therefore while support for groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan may be generally low, there is more solid support for sectarian groups, or groups that mainly operate in Kashmir. Within support for groups in Kashmir there is further nuance: in general the data showed that people who believe that the Indian government harshly cracks down on Muslims did not necessarily support Kashmiri groups, because there was an inherent realisation that any violence on their part would result in a violent backlash against other Muslims.

While the data did not show that understanding the political views of people will always predict support for militancy, it did show that there is a significant correlation. The point here is, of course, that support for violence in this country runs deeper, and is more complex, than policy appears to have so far assumed.

So, to return to that madrassa, or to the Lahore High Court – why do Pakistanis feel, by and large, comfortable with the fact that there are groups advocating violence against other Pakistanis, or courts advocating blanket bans on freedom of speech? That’s a question that this society needs to answer, and it appears that the truth is rather messier than advocates of liberal democracy would like: Pakistan is not a largely closed, repressive (in the matter of religion) country because its rulers are that way. It is because its people are.

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On Flo guilt, Gen Petraeus and the Express-Tribune – it’s eclectic Saturday!

I had dinner at Cafe Flo, a very upmarket Karachi restaurant, last night, and came away with several competing emotions, all vying for the rather limited space in my brain. At first I felt guilty for having spent so much money on what was, essentially, just a meal – this was closely followed by the realisation that the amount in question was, frankly, preposterous for anything not made of solid gold.

Mostly, though, I found that my overwhelming feeling was of not actually being full.

Ah well.

*

– Metaphor of the day: US CENTCOM chief Gen Petraeus says the Taliban are a bunch of snakes. And the ISI are aged babas with flutes, then?  On a slightly more serious note, Petraeus does seem to grasp the set-up of this conflict, from Pakistan’s point of view, fairly well, and in his testimony at the ongoing congressional hearings he sometimes comes off sounding more like a Pakistani diplomat than a man who’s running the US war – in essence, he’s been pleading with the politicians not to push Pakistan’s establishment too far with their favourite stick: the ‘Do More’.

– Sindh High Court developments you’ve probably not heard about, but should care about: in the ongoing defamation case filed by PPP Information Secretary Fauzia Wahab against The News‘s Ansar Abbasi, the SHC bench has upheld a stay against the defendant, barring him from publishing material that defames any party without adequate proof. That a High Court stay-order was needed for this to happen is indicative of the level of responsibility in Pakistani journalism today. The court noted in its remarks when upholding the order, which Mr Abbasi appealed on the grounds that it apparently stopped him from ‘doing his job’ (!!), that the court was not ordering him to do anything that he shouldn’t be doing anyway.
Watch this space, as The News is using the case to claim that it is being unfairly victimised. The firm pursuing the case, according to sources within it, is going to aggressively push this case as far as it will go, and is prepared to file contempt of court charges the moment Abbasi steps out of line, on any story. The same firm, in fact, has obtained a stay-order against columnists Shaheen Sehbai and Anjum Niaz and TV channel Dunya News for writing/broadcasting uncorroborated stories about Riaz Lalljee, a Karachi businessman who was recently abducted and then released in mysterious circumstances. If the SHC takes an activist line on pursuing these cases, watch for many, many more to be filed, and maybe, just maybe, the media in this country will begin to think about the importance of accuracy in reporting.

– Finally, I can’t figure out  what the Express-Tribune is for. Take a look at this Opinion page on the website. From the excerpts and headlines, the only conclusion I can reach is that it’s a newspaper where burgers and people ‘just like Jinnah’ from the professional classes can write open letters to Pervez Musharraf, the Chief of Army Staff, and PM Gilani’s janitor.
I’m sure it makes sense, to someone. Damned if I can figure it out, though.

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Ssshhhhh . . . I’m hunting Bin Ladens.

Alright, I realise that in my last post, two-and-a-bit months ago, I promised to write more regularly. I then disappeared off the face of the planet, ignoring this blog with the sort of dedication one usually only finds among the devout, or the criminally insane.

This time I mean it – somewhat idiotically, I timed my last pledge to coincide with all of my papers and exams for the small matter of my MA. Have been in Karachi on a research trip for the last month, but should now be in a position to write more regularly.

So there.

Now, to business. Specifically, yesterday’s story of the day: American construction worker with failing kidneys sets off into the woods of Chitral to hunt down Osama bin Laden (I’m linking to the NYT story on this because it’s just . . . well, better than the ones in the local papers. Better researched, more details, less meaningless standard news-writing – but I’m going off on a tangent. More on that later.)

So, armed with a dagger, night vision goggles, a pistol (with 40 rounds of ammunition – this man must be a dead shot, if he was planning on taking out OBL’s hideout and killing him with just 40 shots fired. Or maybe he’s Chuck Norris.), a camera and, my personal favourite, a “small quantity of hashish”.

Great. As if Pakistanis don’t have enough things to worry about, now we’ve got to be on the lookout for crazy, drug addled Americans roaming around the countryside, like demented wolves, looking for a bearded men to kill.

Today’s reading:

Dawn says Pakistan is trying to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan through the Haqqani network. This is not news, but here’s some food for thought: with the realignment in the Afghan security establishment (i.e. intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh quitting and Karzai’s comments showing acceptance for a Pakistani role in negotiations (though the man’s statements on Pakistan’s forward-looking role in Afghanistan tend to be slightly schizophrenic, to be fair)), are we seeing another (small) step towards a negotiated peace in Afghanistan, brokered through Pakistan. Also, where does Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami fit into this jigsaw? It’s possible that in order to broker peace in Afghanistan, the interlocutors will have to get not just the Afghan government, NATO and the Talibs to talk to one another, but the militant groups to talk amongst themselves. Tricky. Beyond demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops, Afghan militant groups may well have varying agendas, and there will be a significant amount of power up for grabs in these negotiations.

– Karachi’s caught, once again, in the grips of sectarian violence. Actually, that’s not true. Karachi’s caught in the midst, at this particular moment,  of sectarian, political and ethnic violence. While sectarian groups are carrying out targeted killings of each others workers (the Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jammat, the SSP’s new name in Pakistan has played a central role here), political killings continue. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tweets he will not “will not allow anybody to ignite violence in Karachi, or any other part of Pak. Peace will be established at all costs.” Ah. So we should all just rest easy, then. Malik’s on the case. This would be comforting, if he were any good at this sort of thing. More on the lack of movement against militant groups and actors later, but this sort of thing is symptomatic of the government’s piece-meal approach of negotiated values when it comes maintaining stability.

– Poor old Hussain Haqqani just wants some helicopters. Quote of the day: “I have been ambassador here for two years, and all I have to show for it is eight secondhand Mi-17 transport helicopters […]”.

– And because no day’s reading is complete without a crazy story, here’s this, from the Express-Tribune. Aamina Haq thinks animals are awesome, and wants to do something hardcore. Thanks, E-T! My life is now complete.

Finally, there’s an Op-Ed I’ve just written up appearing in Dawn in the next few days, so will repost that. Next post soon, and very likely on thoughts to do with my MA dissertation research: What do militant media strategies look like, and how do they fit into the idea of a Pakistani public sphere? Fun times.

p.s. I’m now on Twitter. Oddly. Look me up (AsadHashim), and watch as I grapple with what should be the next Olympic event: Tweeting – attempting to communicate intelligent in 140 characters or less.

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