Monthly Archives: July 2010

Afghanistan won’t let me sleep

The more I think about it, the more I worry about how the endgame is going to work out in Afghanistan. The problem, of course, is that the US strategy of pulling out by 2011, relying on a strategy that combines using heavy force to negotiate from a position of strength, and building Afghan institutions (particularly the police and the ANA), has about as much chance of succeeding as, to borrow a phrase from one of the greatest writers to grace us with his wit, a whelk has in a supernova.

Shafqat Mahmood seems to think so, too. In fact, once you’ve read this, you’ll begin to worry about Mr Mahmood’s mental state. Keep him away from sharp objects, make sure he isn’t left alone with pills, that sort of thing.

Grim.

The problem is that in order for the US strategy to work, the ANA needs to be in a position to secure Afghanistan on its own, with minimal foreign assistance, by next year. Moreover, it needs to have a significant number of Pashtun soldiers, in order for it to be accepted as a national army, and not an ethnic one. At the moment, US forces say none of the Afghan battalions are in a position to act independently of foreign troops. Meanwhile, policemen continue to be beheaded for ‘colluding with foreign invaders’ – hardly confidence inspiring stuff.

The other problem, of course, is that the Taliban were hardly beaten in Marja, which was supposed to be the first step in the US’s big push to force them to the negotiating table. Kandahar will be bloodier, and no less conclusive, when the coalition eventually takes it on.

Cannons to left of them, cannons to right of them.

So if the Taliban can afford to wait out the coalition (with even the UK now announcing a date for the withdrawal of troops (even if said date is 2015)), why would they take any negotiations seriously? The US is trying to force ‘reconcilables’ to the table, and to put pressure on those it considers to be impossible to negotiate with (read: the Haqqani group), but honestly, what incentive do Talibs who do come to the table have to stick to any agreements once the US is gone. The battle for Afghanistan, for them, is ideological, not driven by political agendas.

In other news, while I’m not going to touch the morass of opinion, crisis and just general unpleasantness that is the India-Pakistan dialogue process in this post, US CJCSC Adm Mike Mullen’s just left Delhi, talking about how militants could push India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and emphasising how there needs to be greater understanding, and more concrete anti-terror movement, between the two neighbours. I find this interesting only because of a recent discussion about how the US divides its military commands to separate India and Pakistan (Pakistan comes under USCENTCOM, India under USPACOM), thus making it impossible for them to think about the two together. I think that argument is interesting, but practically speaking, the US has been forced to deal with the realities of India’s and Pakistan’s  problems with each other, because of Afghanistan. Whether or not it does something about these problems, though, is a whole different kettle of fish. But they do know Pakistan’s interest in Afghanistan is not divorced from its enmity with India.

These men (the ANA) are not going to be securing anything,
other than perhaps their lunch, for a while

In other news:

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has been given a 3-year extension as Chief of Army Staff. The only surprising thing about this story is the length of the extension – a one or two year extension was expected, but to keep the COAS on for three more years means he will outlive the current government and all its officials (except the Senators, notably Rehman Malik) and, moreover, will muck up the Army’s seniority ranks quite royally. Nevertheless, he was always going to be given an extension, given his excellent relationship with the US, his generally non-confrontational behaviour with the democratic set-up, and the fact that he has not utterly failed at his job. Note use of the word ‘utterly’. Anyhow, enough intelligent commentary has been written on the man and his extension, so I shan’t add to the cacophony. Read Shuja Nawaz on the AfPak channel in particular, and Ikram Sehgal, who has long been arguing for changes to the overall command structure of the military. Sehgal wanted Kayani to be appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee.

– Federal Minister for Education Sardar Aseff Ahmed says, on the fake degree issue, that Chairman of the NA Standing Committee on Education and fake-degree-witchhunter-in-chief Abid Sher Ali has no authority to deal with the issue, and that “a single person could not exceed his powers for the sake of fame”. Presumably finding out that lawmakers have lied about their eligibility for public office is a publicity stunt, according to the minister.

– Gibran Peshimam has taken the trouble to write us an op-ed telling us that he has no idea why violence breaks out in Karachi periodically. Wonderful. That’s useful.

– Crazy LHC petition of the day: Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement challenged as ‘unconstitutional‘.

– Crazy Twitter Update of the Day: Punjab Governor Salman Taseer wants to be accused of having a fake degree, defaulting on bank loans and tax fraud.

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Freedom in a box is no freedom at all.

This op-ed was originally published in Dawn on July 12, 2010.

The Lahore High Court’s recent order to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to ‘more effectively manage objectionable content’ on the internet is frightening, both in letter and implication. The PTA directives to carry this order out are, really, even more frightening, and if you’re faint of heart, I wouldn’t even suggest that you look over the recent controversy regarding a civil-military media monitoring committee, aimed at “evolving a policy for tuning in the private media to national outlook and securing core national security interests”.

(This last committee eventually met and somewhat sensibly decided to revisit its own mandate, but the fact that it exists at all, and that it has been meeting ‘secretly’, according to a report in this newspaper, is cause enough for concern.)

The question here is simple: are we, as Pakistanis, free? Or is our freedom circumscribed by a box? As is often the case, the answer is neither a full-blooded ‘yes’, nor a terrifying ‘no’.

First, the facts.

On June 23, Judge Mazhar Iqbal of the Lahore High Court (Bahawalpur bench), responding to a petition, ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block nine allegedly ‘blasphemous’ websites, including the major search engines Google, Yahoo!, Bing and MSN. Their crime was to make available “material against the fundamental principles of Islam and its preaching”. That the judgment displays a stunning lack of understanding of the basic principles of how the internet works was not lost upon the PTA. Its director subsequently appeared before the bench on June 28, explaining that while the consequences of banning the internet’s most used search engines would be catastrophic for internet users, the PTA could come up with new procedures to monitor ‘objectionable content’, keeping the courts out of the matter entirely, thus ensuring that those of delicate sensibilities needn’t run to the LHC every time their feelings were hurt by content on the internet.

In a draft of the new policy to monitor and block objectionable content, the PTA cites the “recent appearance of blasphemous and sacrilegious content” on the internet as necessitating a new website blocking policy, so as not to create “immense discomfort and dismay amongst the people of Pakistan”. For the sake of “National Security and communal harmony”, it goes on, the PTA will block websites at the URL and IP level that contain objectionable material, which is classified as content that  does everything from “undermining the integrity” of the State to “hurt[ing] national sentiment” (whatever that may be).

Are we children, that we must be protected from that which we disagree with? Or, more pointedly, are we children that we do not know how to deal with that which causes us “discomfort and dismay”? Perhaps we are, judging from the violent demonstrations and calls for action against ‘blasphemous content’ on websites such as Facebook, or the attack on an art exhibition in Karachi in 2009 that had a collage that was ‘objectionable’ to members of the ruling political party. And we may well be children, not because of these outbursts themselves, but because there are no mass marches for preserving freedom of speech, no court orders safeguarding our freedom of expression or right to information. In Pakistan, one daren’t be perceived as pro-‘blasphemy’, and here, being pro-freedom of speech amounts to precisely that. The mental calculus is child-like.

The PTA policy, though, goes on. It also states that any website that “brings contempt to” the armed forces of this country, or the government of Pakistan, is also liable to be blocked. By which standard, of course, the op-ed pages of every newspaper in this country should promptly be taken offline.

The issue one comes back to, whether it is the LHC’s order, the PTA’s directives or the civil-military media monitoring committee’s very existence, is what the role of the State is in regulating information in this country. Fundamentally, it comes down to freedom of expression. And fundamentally, the Pakistani constitution is ambivalent on this matter.

“Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression, and there shall be freedom of the press,” it declares grandly in Article 19. And, with barely a pause for breath, goes on to give the proviso: “subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan […], public order, decency or morality […].” That word ‘reasonably’ is tricky. Countries have gone to war over ‘reasonably certain’ arguments.

We are free, but we are not.

This is not, of course, a new problem. Even in 1954, in the infamous Munir Report, the State perceived itself to be tasked with such duties as ascertaining the “distinction between a Muslim and a non-Muslim”, so that the “consequences” of such distinctions could be enforced. The report went on to outline the difficulties in such a task, but made it clear that such a duty was within the remit of the State. Because one can’t have non-Muslims going about professing to be members of the faith. It is the sort of thing that ‘dismays’ us.

The question comes down whether we reason with our hearts, or with our minds. Are our politics, and public life, part of a rational public sphere, or a purely affective one? To put the question in religious terms: is it the aql (mind), or the qalb (heart), that drives us?

The question has been grappled with since the time of the British Raj, as Indians organised themselves against the occupying British: the Deoband school asked it, as did Allama Iqbal. You may be surprised, but in general the former came down on the side of aql, and the latter on qalb.

If we are to be ruled by our hearts, the inferred question is whether these are the hearts of adolescents, easily broken and needing paternal protection, or those of adults.

Either way, in today’s Pakistan we continue to be free. But freedom in a box is no freedom at all.

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I’ve found the problem with Pakistani security policy

This is it:

ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Interior A. Rehman Malik said on Friday that banned organisations Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Al Qaeda were carrying out terrorist attacks to destabilise the country.

Inaugurating the building of a police station, he condemned the terrorist attack on Data Ganj Bakhsh shrine and said terrorists had no religion and they were enemies of the humanity. He said that since security forces defeated militants in Swat and Malakand the terrorists had turned their attention to settled areas of Punjab and other provinces.

Ever think of taking a trip down to Nagan Chowrangi in Karachi, or to any one of the SSP’s (I’m sorry, the ‘Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jammat’s’) offices anywhere else in the country? Words, Mr Minister – words don’t stop bloodshed. Get to work.

More detailed response to the Lahore attacks later, as I’m traveling in the States for a family event at the moment, but this incensed me to the point of having to put something up.

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