Category Archives: Musings

No, it’s not Pakistan’s “turn”…

Pictured: Not Jinnah Super.

If I hear one more person ask me, in relation to the recent historic uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, when Pakistanis are going to rise up and take their turn in line on the Popular Revolution Ride, I think I might go Hosni on them.

That is to say, I might do some very, very unpleasant things to them.

Events in Egypt (and Tunisia , lest we forget Sidi Bouzid) are yet to fully play out, but what has happened in those countries is nothing short of historic. The popular uprisings, consisting not of political and human rights activists (the bread and butter of any protest, if you will) but of regular people from a diverse array of backgrounds (young, old, Muslim, Christian, rich, poor, devastatingly poor . . even the cats hate Hosni, for Christ’s sake) represent more than just popular discontent with economic policies, but, more significantly, the breaking of fear.

When a million turned out at Tahrir Square, their message was simple: “Mubarak, we are no longer afraid.”

The same was true of Tunisia, an uprising that may have taken its fuel from soaring prices and unreasonably high unemployment, but which was sparked not by poverty, but by a man  not willing to endure insults to his dignity from a government purporting to be his own. It was a tragic, poignant illustration of something that most citizens in Tunisia had felt: a breaking of spirit from constantly being humiliated by government officials and members of the ruling party. A constant reminder not just of their disconnect from power, but of power’s utter disconnect from their humanity.

All of which brings me to the streets of Karachi, Lahore, Sargohda, Kohat or even Chak Shehzad, where I’m in imminent danger of committing a homicide if some well-meaning activist-type points to Tunis, looks up at me with her (or his) big, brown eyes and says, earnestly, “When will we learn?”

Tunisia and Egypt rallied against autocratic dictators who have been in power for, respectively, 27 and 30 years. They rebelled against single-party states where opposition parties are banned and activists disappear into the night if they try and drum up support for uprisings against the existing system. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s systems of government are simply transvestite dictatorships, masquerading as democracies (not that all transvestites masquerade..) because in the current world order, being an outright dictatorship is simply not done. It tends to get one invaded, for one.

Both Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s former president, and Hosni Mubarak operate states where the security forces are feared and loathed. They operate(d) with impunity, above the law – which would still not have been so bad, if they actually used said impunity for good, as it were, rather than evil. But the security forces did not serve the people, they served their masters – Ben Ali and Mubarak.

And, finally, ala everyone’s favourite Arkansas-governor-turned-philandering-President: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Pakistan, for those who haven’t been paying attention, already has a democracy (a deeply flawed one, in some ways, but at least one that isn’t appearing in drag . . . well, alright, it wears an army-issue brassiere, but aside from that it generally turns up in the right sort of attire). We have an active opposition (some might argue far too active, engaging in populist rhetoric rather than actual policy making), and while the intelligence services do act with impunity, this has been changing (slowly, ever so slowly, with the current Supreme Court bench’s crusade for the ‘disappeared’ being an illustration). And, finally, we have no dictator: only a bit of an idiot who was elected to power constitutionally but two years ago.

Our government is deeply flawed, but in ways that are fundamentally different from the cases of Egypt, Tunisia and even Algeria.

Our economy, though, is in serious trouble, and you’ll get no argument from me on that front. Note, however, that while many will point to all sorts of reasons why the PPP won the 2008 polls, they often tend to forget that the elections actually took place in the middle of the wheat crisis . So, it can be argued, Pakistanis have already had practice at kicking out a government for letting inflation on basic goods run rampant.

So, to put all of this into context, consider this: in order for Pakistan to be Egypt or Tunisia, Zia would have to still be in power.

And I don’t know about you, but neither hell nor high water would have kept me from the streets if that was the case.

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I’m sending my psychiatrist’s bill to Dr Aafia Siddiqui and Altaf Bhai

The more I read statements and ‘demands’ made by political leaders in Pakistan about Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the more I wonder why, as someone who supports democratic processes in Pakistan, I’m not an alcoholic yet.

Much has been said about ‘Dr Aafia’ (why we don’t call her ‘Dr Siddiqui’ is beyond me. Is it because she’s a woman? Is there another, more nefarious, Dr Siddiqui who mediapersons and political leaders wish to make sure we don’t mistake her for? Or is ‘Aafia’ just too fun a name to pass up using on as regular a basis as possible? Who knows?). More, perhaps, than has ever been said about the fate of female prisoners in Pakistani jails. Or about how annoying Pakistani wannabe hipsters are (which, to my mind, is a fairly pressing issue…and if you disagree, you are a Mossad-RAW-CIA agent. Or you wear jeggings.)

Right, so the point of that last paragraph was that there has been a ridiculous amount of Op-Eds, beepers, ‘live breaking alerts’, inane talkshow conversation and just general consternation about Dr Siddiqui’s sentencing in a US court. With our penchant for victimisation, and the connect-the-dots mentality we display whenever trying to fit something within the ‘narrative’ of the US leading a war against Muslims, this was inevitable. Frankly, I’m not going to get into the political communication aspect of this, because Mosharraf Zaidi has already done a great job of that, here.

No, what bothers me goes beyond the “contrived outrage”. It is that when demanding Dr Siddiqui’s release, political and civil society leaders invariably refer to either “humanitarian grounds“, or her “innocence“. Based on this emotive plea for the release of their ‘innocent sister’, they believe the US government should immediately comply and repatriate Dr Siddiqui to Pakistan.

Um.

Do these people (and ‘people’ here covers the breadth of Pakistani society – from political leaders to that guy on the street angrily waving a “America is terrorist!” placard) know how courts work? Here’re the Cliff Notes: Based on the presentation of evidence, the merits of any case are decided based on interpretations of the constitution and legal precedents; the burden of proof rests with the prosecution, while the defence must only prove that either a) the prosecution has not provided reasonable grounds for believing that the act was committed, or b) that the ‘act’ was not ‘illegal’, either because the relevant laws do not apply, or because it does not fulfill the criteria for violating those laws. (There, now you dont need to go to law school.)

That’s still not the important bit. The important bit is coming up. Watch for it.

This is the important bit: the government cannot, at its own discretion, just decide to ‘give someone back’ after a court has ruled that they are guilty of a crime. Justice and politics are two very separate subjects. Hell, Obama might think that giving Dr Siddiqui back will be the final push Pakistan needs to finally believe that the US loves it truly, madly and deeply and will never, ever, ever abandon it again . . . but that still doesn’t give him the power to reverse the decision and hand her back. Not even if he can conclusively prove that such a move would save American lives (as opposed to, say, koala lives, ‘American lives’ are the most valuable commodity going in the US political sphere).

The point I’m trying to make is this: they can’t just hand her back because they feel like it. There is a system, and she has been adjudged guilty based on that system. If she is to be released, she must be released by the system, through an appeal and production of enough evidence to show that the previous judgment was wrong. Am I saying she’s guilty? Hell, I don’t know . . in particular I think there are real questions that need to be asked about how she ended up at Bagram Air Base at all. But what I am saying is that if you ‘demand’ that the US should hand Dr Siddiqui back because she has been, according to you, ‘unjustly convicted and imprisoned’ and if your belief is that this should happen through an executive order and not through a legal appeal, then you’re . . . well, let’s not put too fine a point on this: you’re an idiot.

Now I’m going to go get a drink.

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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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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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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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