Saturday, 30 June 2007


Am I the only one who finds this organisation creepy?

By the way, they predict that Musharaf is going to re-instate the Chief Justice.


On Madressah Reforms

Previously I've written about what constituted madressah reforms in Pakistan. Today we learn from Dawn that the latest instalment of Rs. 500 million that was to be handed out to Madressahs to fund "reforms" has been stopped. Why? This is what Dawn had to say:
"The five year multi-billion 'Madressah Reforms' project launched in 2002-03 has completely failed to achieve its objective of bringing madressah at par with the regular school system of the country, sources in the planning commission told Dawn."

The five year project has reached its completion date today. The man in charge of this programme and responsible for the disbursement of the funds is the ignoble Ejaz-ul-Haq. The same gentleman, whose comments about Rushdie's knighthood had drawn protest from the British government. In response the ignoble one had this to say:

“It is surprising that the British government is criticising me. I am the one who is heading the front-line ministry for the front-line state in the war against terrorism,” Haq told AFP. “I never supported suicide attacks. What I meant to say yesterday (in the parliament) was that we are trying to curb extremism, but their (British) actions are adding fuel to the fire and not helping,” Haq said.. “Instead of praising the efforts, the British government has chosen to criticise. It is surprising.”

Yes, it is surprising Mr. Ejaz-ul Haq. Especially since the vast sums of money you have passed out to your Mullah cronies in fact has mostly come from grants of foreign aid from the British government. You seem to have, alas, an all too inflated sense of your own achievements as commander of the front-line in the war against terrorism.

To a large degree the edifice of state education that was established in the eighties is corrupt and poisonous to the social, economic and spiritual well-being of the nation. Reform is a worthy end, but one that needs to be thoughtfully understood. What are we reforming? How? What benchmarks are to be set? When the national curriculum installed by the Zia regime is itself designed to create fantacisim, stunt creativity and incite hatred, what expectations can we have of the state-sponsored madressah education system that benefits from the government allotted zakat tax?

Funnily enough, it was Nawaz Sharif, not the most enlightened of men, who had embarked on a process of beginning to tackle the state education problem. The process had led to the publication of a proposal of substantial reform written by a panel of experts in the field. After the Musharaf coup the proposal was shelved and the wheel is only now being reinvented eight years later.

Meanwhile billions are poured into shoring up a rotten madressah system whose entire purpose when it was created in the eighties was to stoke the flames of hatred against 'enemies' of Islam - who in those days were the enemies of the state. Its not that the money being spent is doing no good. It is actually doing harm. Flushing it all down the toilet would have probably been of greater benefit to the human race.


Thursday, 28 June 2007

On Nation-Building: Bad News From Afghanistan

Unlike Iraq, there are still some reasons to hope that all is not yet lost for those who might wish to help bring about some kind of peace and stability to Afghanistan. Unfortunately there are less reasons for hope now than they were last year, which were less than the year before.

Afghanistan was always an interesting case for nation-building. The Taliban government was basically a collection of notables from the Kandahar region who had bought the loyalty of regional tribal leaders and warlords throughout much of the country. Those who had rejected their offers, mostly ethnic and sectarian minority groups who had fought in the Soviet war and had been part of the post-communist coalition government, the Taliban waged a brutal war of extermination against. Even here, most of their successes were dependent on Pakistani military know-how and funding.

When the Americans began their war on the Taliban, the victory was won, for the most part due to the same regional tribal leaders and warlords being bribed to join the Northern Alliance. There are plenty of recorded instances of local "Taliban" forces turning on the Pakistani and Jihadist volunteers in their camp - often massacring them - after the local commander had cut a deal with the NA.

The fact of the matter is that most Afghans were weary of war, weary of fighting and the prolonged dissolution of their country. They were happy to side with anyone who would promise them safety and security and a decent shot at bettering their lives. When the Taliban government fell and the Northern Alliance formed the nucleus of a new Afghan government, one would have assumed that it wouldn't have been too difficult to convince the populace that the future lay with the new government.

As if turned out, the assumption was overly optimistic. Unsatisfied with the short, victorious 'war' in Afghanistan, the American government turned to its new crusade in Iraq. Afghanistan became the "forgotten war". Huge amounts of aid to help rebuild the country were promised by the world, but only a fraction was delivered. Of that, far too much is wasted on vanity projects and unproductive expenditure. Its interesting to read the following in this BBC article:

Most international officials, aid workers and consultants in Afghanistan live a hermetically sealed life - advised not to step outside by armed security guards, and often working at very high salaries on very short-term contracts.

So too much of the money earmarked for aid to Afghanistan actually goes straight back to donor countries.

The Chief of Staff at the Afghan Counter-Narcotics Ministry, Abbie Aryan, condemned the culture of "champagne and caviar consultants" who come to Afghanistan and "deliver nothing".

There is still no internationally agreed strategy on how to tackle the drugs problem.

Britain plays a lead role in trying to stop the cultivation of opium poppies, and Mr Aryan says that large amounts of British money have been wasted on things that the Afghans do not need....

Rather than responding to Afghan concerns, and helping to fund an eradication coordination unit, when the Counter Narcotics Ministry wanted to set one up, the British government is instead funding a project for aerial photography that will cost more than $10m.

The Director of Survey and Monitoring at the ministry, Engineer Mohammad Ibrahim Azhar, told the BBC that when the project was first proposed, the Minister Habibullah Qaderi asked the British why they could not use a local plane, or at least provide equipment that would still be there when the project finished.

Instead the contract is with a British firm, with two British engineers running it in Kabul.

In his Samuel Johnson Prize-winning book, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City", Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote about how reconstruction in Iraq was a joke. A way to provide astronomical salaries and impressive resumes to young college Republicans and Republican party interns, with little to show for it at the end. By the time the insurgency had become a full-blown insurrection and reconstruction was wound down, the hopes for normal Iraqis that their lives would materially return to the standards that existed in the pre-war, sanction-hit Saddam era, let alone improve on it, had disappeared except for some areas in the Kurdish north. Given that Afghanistan was a multi-national operation with full NATO, UN and Aid agency involvement, things were better managed than in Iraq - but not by a huge margin.

But it certainly was a lost opportunity. Conditions were ideal to make a real impact felt on the ground in the everyday lives of people. But as the years slipped by, conditions deteriorated. The Taliban resurgence, fanned by Taliban sympathisers in Pakistan saw an attempt at insurgency in the mould of Iraq. There was a growing loss of sympathy with the foreign armies, as the civilian casualties mounted, and the Afghan government as farmers turned to poppy cultivation, and the authorities sought to curb it. With the establishment of bases in Waziristan and the recent huge influx of cash and expertise bought by Iraqi Jihadists and bankrolled by Saudi millionaires, the Taliban was in a position to start convincing an increasing number of people that the future lay with them, and not an aloof, murderous and possibly soon-to-leave American military.

Given that NATO has killed more Afghan civilians this year than the Taliban (and that's not including the civilians NATO has killed in Pakistan), how much longer can the good-will be sustained?

One also gets the feeling that the whole exercise of "nation-building" needs to be examined carefully. Most of the major aid agencies have accumulated vast reservoirs of experience and wisdom on techniques that are, or are not effective. But Aid Agencies only account for a fraction of the massive sums devoted by foreign governments and International donor organisations such as the IMF etc. These often have their own priorities and constituencies that need to be appeased when it comes to signing off on big sums of money.

But more than that, I wonder if ideology also comes into play. States and political elites often have ideological views on how a country develops, what causes this, what are its needs and how the process works. This is apart from views on what institutions a modern state has. Would funding an incipient health care system for Afghanistan be high on a list of priorities of a country that does not believe in universal healthcare, for example?

One gets the feeling that the institutional knowledge and understanding of a country like the United States is so limited that it is particularly unsuited to the task of nation-building. Can it wise up?


Wednesday, 27 June 2007

On the Latest Operation in Iraq

So how's the new operation in Iraq going?
Swell, just swell...

Here's an eye-opening account of how U.S. troops clear a street of 'terrorists' in Baquba:

The radio traffic was crackling. Captain Isaac Torres, the commander of Comanche Company, was impatient. An airstrike was called in on the house with the propane tanks. But now it was late afternoon and he wanted to know how the platoon planned to resume the mission of clearing the area south of the street.

The platoon thought it was time to use the bludgeon, pounding the houses across the road with airstrikes or artillery. There were 84 days left in its 15-month tour, which had already included plenty of combat. Apart from the fleeing family and a stray man who had come bearing a white flag to beg for water, no civilians were in sight....

The next morning, an M1 tank arrived on the scene. The neighborhood reverberated with enormous booms as the Americans blasted the front row of homes with antitank missiles, artillery and tank fire. The platoon's advance had been stymied for a day, but there had been no American casualties and more of the insurgent bombs had been cleared out.

And how do we know that the buildings were abandoned seeing as the soldiers had not checked them out? Well, here's an interesting tidbit from earlier in the same article:
The houses where the soldiers had secured their toehold seemed to have been abandoned, but soon after the platoon settled in, a small line of weary Iraqi civilians carrying a white cloth flag emerged and slowly walked away. If some civilians had been lingering in or near the neighborhood, perhaps some insurgents were, too.

Ah. So they were very thorough, then? Not much time for winning any hearts and minds here.


Monday, 25 June 2007

On Robert Gates and the CIA Legacy

TomDispatch has an interesting 3-part article by Roger Morris on Robert Gates and his involvement in the Carter administration and the CIA in the 80s. It makes for interesting reading and is a good insight in to this coldest of cold warriors. Here's an extract from the third part, which starts off by documenting the ill-conceived assassination attempt of Lebanese cleric Muhammad Husain Fadlallah which killed 81 innocent bystanders and injure over two hundred more. The article goes on to show how:
As documents, testimony, and other revelations would later make clear, the Bir plot was typical of Reagan era covert actions, which would include: Illegal aid to drug-running Contras (at war with the left-leaning Sandinista government of Nicaragua); contraband arms sent to both Iraq and Iran (at war with each other); tens of millions of dollars to the anti-Soviet Catholic Church in Poland, but also to nun- and priest-murdering death squads in El Salvador; and, most fateful of all, hundreds of millions to Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan. In the Reagan administration's secret wars -- from Managua to Tripoli, Beirut to Kabul -- crucial decisions were often taken not in careful deliberation with the secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor, or other top officials, to say nothing of the requisite Congressional committees, but when the CIA director and the president were alone.

Worth a read. Even if you are familiar with the period in question.


Quote of the Day!

Back here I wrote about Imperial Nostalgia and had a little to say about the Amritsar massacre, its condemnation by Montagu and the defence of General Dyer's actions by a wide cross-section of British and Anglo-Indian public and political opinion.

Today I came across this quote, citied in John Newsinger's book "The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire":
"You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not."

This statement was made by General Rawlinson, the commander in chief in India, in 1920.


Saturday, 23 June 2007

More on the Pakistani Budget

Sherry Rehman has an excellent critique of the government's proposed budget here in Dawn which is simply a must read. She adds a great deal of nuance and detail to the point I made in my blog here about how the budget is once again concerned with growth at the expense of welfare, thereby benefiting the rich at the expense of the poor. She also points out the following:

1. The Rs. 60 billion handout from the US Pentagon isn't in the budget. Where is it? Rahman reminds us that there is no parliamentary oversight over the military budget (the military does not report what its spending the public's money on).

2. Despite massive economic growth, the Pakistani government still borrows heavily. Massive borrowing from local banks drives interest rates up, inhibits local investment and drives inflation.

3. My point about the need to tax luxury consumer imports is made. (I had made the point about imported cars.) These account for $2.04 billion out of $27 billion spent on imports.

4. Where's the pork? Rahman points out the expenditure of the President House is earmarked as Rs. 316 million. NAB's budget has now been inflated to Rs. 897 million (Rs. 2.4 million a day!) By contrast, the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights is a paltry Rs. 197 million! Does NAB have any kind of results to show for this kind of expenditure? What possible use will this money be put to? One answer might lie in the fact that NAB is now a civilian façade for a retirement welfare club for ex-ISI officials.

As it happens, in the same issue of the Dawn is a small op-ed on the Provincial Budget of Baluchistan. Widespread resentment about the exploitation of Baluchistan's rich mineral and fossil fuel wealth, while the provincial government remained starved of funds, helped fuel the civil war that has raged in the province over the last few years. One might have expected the government to try and address some of these concerns, even on a cosmetic level. Alas, this has not happened.

Firstly, the total budget outlay is Rs. 63 billion. This in a province where the "the federal government extracts no less than an estimated Rs. 78 billion annually from Baluchistan's oil fields alone." That does not, of course count the huge amounts earned from the extraction of sui gas, or the large amounts of coal, iron ore and copper deposits found there. Overall 39 different minerals are being mined in the province (source: Baluchistan Economic Report 2005). Yet the Public Sector Development Programme has budgeted only Rs. 13 billion for social development - of which Rs. 10 billion is unfunded, with the province hoping for handouts from foreign development donors and the Federal government. This amount is solely for the continuance of current projects. No new projects are envisaged.

All this in a province where 47% of the population is below the poverty line, there is no significant private investment in productive sectors of the economy - whether agricultural, mining, or industrial. Female literacy is half that of the national average and maternal mortality is almost twice the national average.

The Federal government argues that it is investing billions in Baluchistan - these billions are all going into the development of the new port and its environs in Gwadar, and the building of a highway infrastructure to link military and naval installations to the rest of the country. While there is some trickle down in terms of menial jobs, this is offset by the navy's encroachment onto coastal areas through which they are destroying the livelihood of Makrani fishing communities. Productive investment this is not.

These are important concerns and needed to be given due consideration by the people's representatives. Alas, the NA has adopted the budget with hardly any changes, or any debate, whatsoever.


Friday, 22 June 2007

Sir Rushdie and the PML-Q's New Election Strategy

These days PML-Q party leaders must be heaving sighs of relief and sending up prayers of thanks to the Almighty. In between, that is, their ever more extraordinary fulminations of gleeful outrage over the Rushdie knighthood. Finally, there may be a way to derail what had looked like an increasingly inevitable election defeat.

Things started to fall apart for Musharraf and the 'King's Party' (as the PML-Q is known) in March when Musharraf had the Chief Justice dismissed for alleged nepotism (and more absurdly, travelling in a helicopter at government expense). The real reason was that according to the constitutional amendments that Musharraf and the King's party had pushed through, with the help of the MMA, (a coalition of Islamic parties) the post of Army Chief and President could not be combined beyond 2007. An attempt by Musharraf to get elected as President would see a legal challenge which would have been decided by the Supreme Court. Musharraf had to ensure that the SC ruling would be on his side. Since Military Intelligence spies on all the members of the SC, Musharraf presumably had information about which way the Chief Justice would rule if a legal challenge were issued.

This backfired in a big way, with most of the legal community coming out on to the streets to protest and insist on the independence of the judiciary. The heavy-handed response by the police against the peaceful protesters, and the heavy media coverage of this response sparked further outrage. Suddenly civil society seemed to be coming out on the streets against military rule.
A rally turns out to greet the Chief Justice (image: BBC)

Opposition parties quickly caught on and tethered themselves to the extraordinary support for the Chief Justice. Protests grew in size and volume. When an attempt to have a rally in Karachi was brutally suppressed by the gunmen from the government aligned MQM party, outrage flared anew. The media was full of outspoken attacks on the government and Musharraf's attempt to curb media freedoms further backfired, even drawing fire from outside the country as well. The government quickly had to back-pedal on the restrictions. To top it all off, the PML-Q was in utter disarray.

The PML-Q was always a rickety coalition of disparate interests. Composed for the most part of professional "lotas" - candidates with secure seats in their localities who sell their party membership to the highest bidder - there is little ideological glue that binds them together. A few are genuine supporters of Musharraf and his ideals of "enlightened moderation", but for the most part they are sell-swords who had realised after the overthrow of the Nawaz government (of which most of them were a part) which side of the bread was buttered.

With election disaster now looming, the PML-Q looked to be crumbling. Mir Zafarullah Jamali, who had been Musharraf's first pick for the post of Prime Minister, quit the ruling party, criticising the party he had formerly led, and calling for a new constitution that clearly laid out the limits of the army's role in the government. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz publicly attacked members of the party for their lack of support during the ongoing crisis. While opposition MNAs vociferously attacked the government on TV talk shows, members of the PML-Q either declined invitations to appear or mounted lukewarm defences of government actions, perhaps afraid of becoming alienated from any future ruling coalition. More tellingly, a minister leaked the increasingly isolated Musharraf's ticking off of his administration at a closed door meeting of the cabinet. "You always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation," he is reported to have said, "I feel disturbed for the first time." Members of the ruling party responded by saying that they had put their careers on the line to support Musharraf, but were not consulted in key decisions. Welcome to the military mindset, one might well have replied.

Former Prime Minister Jamali quit the PML-Q (Image: Daily Times)

There had already been discontent within the party over the proposed "deal" between Musharraf and the PPP. Acknowledging that the PPP would probably win the popular vote in coming elections, Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto were widely known to be negotiating a deal in which Bhutto would be allowed to run for elections and outstanding corruption charges against her would be dropped clearing the way for her to become the new Prime Minister. In return Bhutto would support his candidacy for President and form a coalition government with the PML-Q. These negotiations were still ongoing, with Musharraf's desire to retain his army post as the sticking point, when the storm over the Chief Justice broke. When the PPP, after some initial hesitation, finally threw its lot in with the Chief Justice, these negotiations broke down and Musharraf in a pique of anger declared that, despite his former statements, he would not allow Benaizir Bhutto to return to the country and run for elections.

This now left Musharraf in a bind. If he couldn't rely on PPP votes in parliament to get him re-elected, where was he going to turn? The first step was to reassure PML-Q party members. The second was to cast about for another party willing to ally itself with the PML-Q. The obvious answer would be the MMA.

The MMA is a coalition of a spectrum of Islamist parties. It has its more democratically-minded wing in the JI (Jamaat-i-Islami) but generally the MMA has been happy to work with the PML-Q and Musharraf even while condemning him for his pro-western stance and his stated ideal of "enlightened moderation". It was the MMA that had provided desperately needed votes to get the constitutional changes that cemented Musharraf in power in previous years. The military had also helped the MMA sweep elections in the two provinces of NWFP and Baluchistan in 2002 by banning their main opponents, the nationalist ANP and other Baluch nationalist parties from campaigning. The MMA and PML-Q are coalition partners in the Baluchistan provincial legislature. Finally many of the current PML-Q and MMA leaders had been part of coalition governments in previous years from the time of Zia-ul-Haq onwards.

The major stumbling block was that the MMA and the government were at loggerheads over the involvement of Pakistan in the 'war on terror'. Pakistan's stop-start operations against the Taleban and Al-Qaeda elements in the country were a function not just of American pressure to produce results, or the ISI's desire to maintain a Jihadist network for use against India, but also the government's desire to not completely alienate MMA support. For their part, the MMA feared losing elections to resurgent Pakhtun and Baluch nationalist parties, buoyed by widespread outrage at the MMA's support of the Pakistani army's brutal suppression of Baluchi nationalists in a dirty civil war whose embers are still flickering. Ultimately, the Pakistan army's defeat and humiliating retreat from Waziristan paved the way for an end of military operations and a series of MMA-sponsored deals with militants that have ceded sovereignty over large tracts of Pakistani territory to bodies such as the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.

Baluch nationalists at a gathering of tribal chiefs in 2006 (Image:

But can the MMA make a switch when they have so publicly and loudly decried Musharraf and his government? Furthermore, both the MMA and the PPP are ostensibly members of 'grand party alliance' to restore democracy, how can the MMA justify a break with the PPP when they both have the same declared aims? And on what issue can the PML-Q hope to mobilise support and try and slow the momentum that has built during the countrywide demonstrations against the military government?

Like an angel sent from heaven to offer deliverance, enter Salman Rushdie and his knighthood.

The thing about populist demagoguery about non-issues is that it has no logic, and often its a safe band-wagon to hitch your horses to. What's interesting is that all of these people who are insisting that they will become suicide bombers or assassins and so forth are all from the governing PML-Q party. And look who they are targeting in their speeches.

So you have some women in the Punjab Provincial Assembly indulging in some sloganeering: “Rushdie ki tasveer, Benazir Benazir.” (Rushdie's splitting image: Benazir, Benazir!) You also have the Sindh Chief Minister, Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, a truly odious man, taking the brave self-sacrificing step of renouncing his deceased grandfather's knighthood. To top off the show, he reminded the world that Benazir Bhutto's grandfather was also a knight of the realm and insisted that if she were a true Muslim, she too would renounce her grandfather's knighthood.

Arbab Ghulam Rahim shows off his grandpappy's medals. (Image: Dawn)

At least both their grandfathers worked together in rendering services to the British Empire. On the other hand, the man whose father had Benazir's father murdered, Ejaz-ul-Haq, alleged that Benazir had "contacts" with Rushdie - the impression given that these contacts were of an intimate nature. According to Dawn, "Mr Haq said he and millions of Muslims were ready to sacrifice their lives and everything else to protect the sanctity of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)." Then, just in case someone took him literally, " He said he had never supported suicide bombing."

What better way to create an "issue" to rally people around and attack the PPP on? What better way to distract attention from all the other issues confronting the country today? What better way to draw the MMA and PML-Q together? 'Defending' Islam might just be the gimmick that will allow the two parties to weather the coming elections intact.


Edit: And now the Prime Minister has gotten in on the act. The National Assembly, meanwhile has passed a second resolution condemning Rushdie and the British government. How much political miliage are they going to try and squeeze from this?

Thursday, 21 June 2007

PBS Documentary: Endgame

After watching PBS' documentary 'Endgame', I'm astonished by just how little we knew of the strategic thinking behind the war in Iraq. In the day to day news reports of bombings, kidnappings and "security" operations, its often difficult to discern the larger picture. Its a true case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

PBS has pieced together an incredibly informative documentary. You can watch the entire thing on their website, which also has transcripts of interviews, links to articles and a informative timeline. This is, so far, the definitive account of the changing U.S. strategy in Iraq. Some really important points emerge which really help to deepen our understanding of what has come before, and what is happening now.

By now it is common knowledge that the military and pentagon planners had no post-invasion plan to secure Iraq. There were plans around, most notably one drawn up by the State Department, which were never seriously examined by the war party. One key failure that followed from this was the unwillingness of the American forces to provide security for the Iraqi people after the Saddam government fell. In the looting and violence that followed, groups of armed Iraqi men started banding together to provide security for their neighbourhoods - in these were the seeds of the various militias and insurgent groups that abound today.

What the documentary reveals is that the Americans never planned to secure the Iraqi population. Rumsfeld and his military plans were always looking for the quick exit strategy - they insisted that the U.S. army should try and withdraw as soon as possible. This was known as the 'Light Footprint' strategy. The idea was to withdraw to safe bases, train a new Iraqi army who would take up the security task as soon as they were ready, and then pull out of the country. Rumsfeld refused to countenance alternative strategies of 'clear & hold'.

The effects of this were numerous. Firstly, it allowed the militias free reign, allowing them to gain credibility and leverage. Secondly it allowed places like Fallujah to become safe havens for insurgent groups. The Iraqi army never managed to take over security operations, and with no security, chaos and bloodshed grew, reconstruction efforts stalled completely and the nascent Iraqi government continued to lose credibility in the eyes of Iraqis. Perhaps most ominously, Al-Qaeda was successful in its declared aim of sparking off a sectarian civil war. These failures were compounded by a military leadership obsessed with the focus on an 'Exit strategy' and a presidential administration that refused to admit the truth of what was happening, both to the U.S. public and to itself and consequently refused to make any difficult decisions.

It was only in 2006 that the movement to shift to a different strategy gained momentum - that was to take U.S. troops out of their safe bases and into the streets - to provide security for Iraqi civilians and 'clear and hold' neighbourhoods. This strategy needed a huge commitment of troops and money and so Bush dithered. Until, that is, the 2006 elections which led to a resounding defeat for the Republicans. Galvanized by this defeat, Bush sacked Rumsfeld, the main opponent of a 'surge', a move ironically enough, supported by Democrats. The head of the military in Iraq was also removed. The new plan was adopted, but once again watered down. It was considered politically too unpalatable to commit the kinds of numbers of troops a 'clear and hold' strategy needed. Instead of a 'surge', the U.S. generals were to get a 'dribble'.


Wednesday, 20 June 2007

The Art of Stick Fighting

(Image copyright Dawn)

So exactly what kind of education are these 'students' of the Lal Masjid Madrassah getting? Commentators in the mainstream press in Pakistan were appalled when the government seemed to cave in to the demands of the fundamentalists without resistance. The humiliation seemed to be all the more complete given the ability of the Masjid students to kidnap policemen at will whenever they needed to put extra pressure on the government for some reason or the other. Why, they asked, is the government so reluctant to send in the police to clear the miscreants out once and for all? After all, baton-armed police were being used with impunity on various protest rallies and demonstrations in favour of the chief justice at around the same time. How much trouble would a rabble of stick-wielding fanatics be?

Quiet a lot actually. From the photograph it would appear that the students of the Madrassah are learning a one stick style of 'Silat'. Silat is the name of a family of martial arts that is predominant in South East Asia and in recent years has acquired a reputation in the Muslim world as being a genuinely Islamic martial art. (This would differentiate it from such recent developments as 'Ninjabi', which is basically modern western self-defence techniques adapted for yuppie hijab-wearing Muslim women.) Its history of use against various colonial armies, particularly those of the Spanish, Americans and the Japanese also made it more popular and relevant than the more stylised Chinese Muslim martial arts.

Here's a video of a couple of students practicing disarming techniques:

Recently various silat forms have also started becoming more popular in the west. It is particularly popular in the Netherlands, which came in to contact with the style during the colonial rule of Indonesia. This is someone's sparing video and demonstrates just how effective the silat techniques can be against other stick wielding opponents - such as the lathi armed policemen who might be expected to raid the Lal Masjid.

Silat is primarily about reflexes, speed and balance. Hence its supposed to be a good martial art for women as well. From an Indonesian silat training institution, we learn about an 104 year old female silat master who demonstrated the art at a tournament back in 2003. So these folk may well have benefited from a silak-inspired education as well (Image from the Telegraph)

The spiritual aspect of a martial art is often an important (some would say most important) component. Traditionally Islam spread through South East Asia through sufi teachers and traders. Many of the silat training institutions trace their routes to sufi orders and see the practice of silat as a path to enhancing one's spiritual consciousness and its relation to the dancing exercises of Turkic sufi traditions.

More recently, however, the spiritual traditions of Islam have been losing ground to modern, legalistic and literalist ideologies and this has been reflected in modern silat training centres which, while still emphasizing chivalric codes, don't emphasize sufi ideals. What's interesting is that sites such as these still repeat sufi traditions while de-emphasizing their more esoteric meanings. Silat and Islam are still seen as intertwined, but it seems some of the essence is lost. This story, for example, extols silat as a way to bring converts into the fold.

So going back to the question of any confrontation between the madrassah students and police, one wouldn't imagine that the police would have an easy time of it. Quiet apart from the fact that the madrassah students are trained in stick-fighting, the difference in morale would be telling. While the students believe they are fighting for God, the policemen are disaffected, poorly paid and really not too sure why they are there. Today, for example, over a thousand policemen who had been bused in to surround the Lal Masjid disobeyed orders and marched in protest, after one of their sick colleagues died of an illness. During the march they turned on their superior officers and beat up several other policemen who were trying to film them.

As the colonial edifice of the Pakistani state continues to crumble, one wonders if it wont be the highly organized and disciplined cadres of the Islamists who might carry the day in any confrontation.


Patil on the Veil; Shobhaa De on Patil.

Another storm in a teacup. First, the Congress-backed candidate for the ceremonial post of president in India urges Hindu women to throw off the veil, and adds a little bit of historical revisionism to urge them along. This doesn't go down too well with historians or Muslims. Shobhaa De writes a scathing article on Patil's candidacy, calling for an appraisal of her as a candidate "without this stifling regional tokenism and gender symbolism."

I'm pretty impressed with Shobhaa De's article. I thought she was just a trashy romance novelist. Well, she is, but I suppose there's more to her than that.

Also worth quoting is a bit from the Times of India article on the origins of the veil amongst Hindu upper caste women in India:
"Over time, seclusion came to be combined with purdah/ghoonghat and became a signifier of female respectability amongst the higher classes, and part of the feminine code of modesty. That is why it was also observed among elderly female relatives."

This is actually a very good summing up of why the hijab is becoming so popular amongst the Pakistani urban middle and upper classes. Its a signifier of gentility and respectability. It also asserts a connection to an 'authentic' Pakistani (defined as Islamic) identity amongst social groups that have historically been excluded from sharing power in the state apparatus and have therefore been alienated from the older form of "authentic" Pakistani identity which tended to have a very narrow class base.


Tuesday, 19 June 2007

The National Budget

I've been browsing through some elements of the Pakistani government's proposed budget. Unfortunately I don't have either the time, or the expertise to give it a thorough going over, but I thought I would post some of my reflections on some of the features that caught my eye. At a later date I hope to pursue some of the debates about the budget more carefully. In the meantime there is a good, short overview of what's in the budget here. There is also an interesting article in the Gulf News under Benazir Bhutto's name (though it reads as if it was written by someone on her economic policy team) which mixes some good analysis of Pakistan's economic needs with plugs for the former PPP government.

So, the budget. Firstly, its huge - almost 22% bigger than last year's budget. Military spending once again increases, as does the allocation for educational spending. Interestingly, education spending is still 1/12th of the official military budget (its a widely known secret that actual spending on the military is much higher).

As an aside, I tend to be a little cynical about increased education spending. While I'm for it in principle, there tend to be far too many cash cow pet projects and a severe lack of overall strategy in educational development. Education is not going to have a major social impact just by having more money thrown at it. Remember how the Education Ministry spent millions of rupees on buying computers for government schools after a presentation by Intel's marketing team? No wonder the country manager for Intel sounds the warning that Pakistan is being left behind in the "world IT scene" while simultaneously being "very optimistic about increasing our future market share" in the country. There's big money in education.

Okay, back to the budget:

There's a great deal of talk about poverty alleviation through fighting inflation. Which is odd, because if people are currently poor, fighting inflation, at best, keeps them where they are instead of improving their situation. The Bhutto article has some good bits on why the budget does not present a sound strategy to fight inflation.

Pension allocations have increased, which is to the good. Minimum wage has now increased to Rs. 4600. Interesting. I never even knew that Pakistan had a minimum wage and I don't think many other people do either. But at least if the government sticks to the minimum wage this should have a knock on effect on salaries elsewhere.

There's still a strong emphasis on sales tax, which is a flat tax that effects poor and rich equally, and once again more chipping away at more progressive taxes - to the benefit of the rich. For example, there is a proposal to drop the Capital Value Tax on imported cars. Poor people, who are not buying many imported cars, don't benefit much from this. But on the "upside" we'll be seeing more Mercedes' and Porsches on the streets in coming years.

This raises an interesting point about "development" spending priorities. Due to Pakistan's booming economy over the last few years, the Musharraf government has been able to spend huge amounts on infrastructure projects. Local governments, Karachi most notably, also launched a large number of infrastructure projects in Karachi. Many of these have taken the form of roads, bridges, underpasses, highways etc.

It brings to mind the two different models of infrastructure spending by the USA and UK in the fifties. The USA opted to go for massive infrastructure spending on roads, the highway system, etc. which acted as a massive subsidy for the automobile sector. The UK on the other hand opted for massive spending on public transport thereby building a train, tube and bus network that was one of the best in the world at the time. The US government was inviting Americans to buy cars. The UK was dissuading them from doing so. The social and environmental impact of these decisions are with us today. I should also say political impact, since the USA is such a huge consumer of petroleum that much of its foreign policy is focused on ensuring that it has cheap and steady supplies of oil.

Which brings me back to the massive infrastructure projects in Pakistan's cities, and the attempt to promote automobile ownership. Most Pakistanis seem to take it as a sign of modernisation and economic development that car ownership has boomed in the last few years. But despite the multi-million rupee projects to improve Karachi's road, congestion remains a major problem, as does pollution. Interestingly proposals for a monorail and revamping for the circular railway and other public transportation schemes have been rejected, halted or severely watered down. One suspects that its not the best way to plan for the country's future.

One last thing. The sales tax on paper and paper products has been ramped up to 20%. Why? Its not as if the country needs any more disincentives to printing and publishing.


The Elocution Contest

Back in my school days, the annual elocution contest would roll around towards the end of the school year. Class by class, the whole school would be marched down to the large covered ‘shed’ in the yard and seated on mats laid out before the stage. The event would be greeted with a mixture of relief and indifference. Relief from escaping the usual routine of classes and indifference because of our complete lack of interest in what we were supposed to witness.

The elocution contest was also referred to as a ‘debate’ by some, but that was a debatable label. Picked students would prepare speeches on a given topic and then recite them before the bored and listless crowd. The point was not to debate with, or in any way engage with the ideas of the other speakers, rather it was to speak loudly, passionately, and clearly. While the judges then tallied up points, the podium would be handed over to any one from the student body who wished to add a few comments.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting part of the whole affair. Heads would go up as people strained to see who was volunteering. Groups of friends would try to cajole, flatter, bribe or threaten one of their band to go up and say something. Volunteers would spring up and set forth, grinning impishly at some inspired witticism they had thought of, or clutching a piece of paper with a few scrawled words on it nervously to their chests.

These volunteers were driven primarily by one of two impulses: to seek to impress the headmistress and senior teachers in the hope of getting noticed for plum posts of responsibility or, more often, to seek to impress their peers by providing some kind of relief from the tedium of the whole affair. This second group was the one that really sparked the audience's interest. Outrageous statements were made, witticisms passed on something a previous orator had said and absolutely nothing was added to the understanding of the topic on hand. The audience would roar its approval and clap loudly – the more provocative the statement, the louder the applause - and the volunteer would return to the crowd to appreciative slaps on the back and giggles from his friends.

I was reminded of this sordid ritual of my youth when reading about the Pakistani parliament’s passing of a resolution to condemn the knighthood of Salman Rushdie. MNA after MNA came up to the floor to make one outrageous statement after another. One can imagine the appreciative back-patting and giggles when they returned to their seats. The level of ‘debate’ is obviously not very different from what it was in my school all those years ago.

But in the whole distasteful affair there is a silver lining. Ten years ago, even five years ago, this ‘debate’ would have been mostly hidden from the eyes of the public. Newspapers might carry the highlights, but in a country where newspaper circulation has always been pitifully low, even amongst the 40-odd percent of the population that is literate, there was little awareness of what our elected representatives said or did on our behalf. Furthermore, parliamentary correspondents could be leant on to present sanitized accounts of proceedings. The proliferation of television news channels has had a major impact on political reporting and the impersonal eye of the camera is difficult to contradict or discredit.

In days gone by, Mr. Ejaz-ul-Haq would simply claim that he was misquoted. Now he has to backtrack and offer “clarifications” and perhaps, be a little more guarded next time with what he says. At least that’s a step forward. Its no longer just his superiors in the administration, or the bored, listless crowd seated in the National Assembly, that he is addressing, but the world.


Monday, 18 June 2007

Failed States

'Foreign Policy' magazine and the Fund for Peace recently released their third annual Failed States Index. Pakistan is ranked a surprisingly high 12th on the overall indicators of instability, making it just better off than Haiti (11th) and just worse off than North Korea (13th).

The bottom five, in order, are: Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and then Chad.

'Most Improved' prize goes to Liberia, followed by Indonesia (primarily on the back of its settling of the Aceh conflict since 2005 and economic stabilisation). The country whose situation changed the most drastically for the worse over the last year is Lebanon which has seen a sharp drop, followed by Somalia.

Now generally I'm sceptical about these kinds of exercises and always find that their methodology is endlessly debatable. But a survey of these results does seem to correspond to my own rough estimates. I'm not sure if I would put Sudan at number one though. It seems to me that with the large oil reserves and a rich wildlife ecosystem that have been discovered there, and with the humanitarian disaster and civil conflict limited to one part of the country, and no serious crisis for its government, its probably better off than both Iraq and Somalia, but that's only from a cursory look.

Interestingly Pakistan's economic performance is one of the highest rated in the rankings. In the 50 worst states, only Columbia, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea have better performing economies - and all three economies are major oil exporters that have been benefiting from the oil boom of the last few years. This is particularly interesting because the myth of Pakistani economic weakness still plagues political and public debate in Pakistan. Instead on focusing on social justice, public services and narrowing the poverty gap, the government still insists on following narrow, growth-driven economic polices that contribute to the growing inequality between rich and poor and ignore social priorities such as the environment.

That's particularly important because according to the report, Pakistan is in the high risk category with regards to environmental sustainability. Whatever gains Pakistan is making through its booming economy are at threat if environmental management is not made a priority.


The Debate Club

The lower house of parliament in Pakistan once again covered itself in glory by passing a resolution condemning the knighthood of Salman Rushdie. In the National Assembly the Minister for Religious Affairs, Ejaz-ul-Haq, the son of the former American-backed military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, and a stalwart of the Musharraf government, said that if someone blew up Rushdie in a suicide bombing, they would be justified.

After this caused an uproar amongst the opposition, he once again took the floor to say that he did not condone terrorism and hadn't meant to justify it.

One shakes one's head in wonder at the sheer stupidity of it all. Lets first take a look at Ejaz-ul-Haq. The man is an imbecile, whose personal contacts with the ISI and Jihadist establishments are questionable to say the least. In his position as Minister of Religious Affairs he has received millions of dollars of funding from the U.S. and Britain to "reform" Madressahs. These reforms consisted of convincing Madressahs to register with the government in return for being recognized as universities. A Madressah "degree" is now on a par with a degree from Karachi University as far as employment opportunities go. He proudly appeared on TV to proclaim that he was the man responsible for having terrorism charges dropped against Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi (of Lal Masjid fame) and having him released from custody two years ago. (One of the participants in a plot to assasinate Musharraf had used one of Rashid's cars to move about.)

The funny thing is that this isn't the first time Ejaz-ul-Haq's big mouth and love for suicide bombing have come out into the open. Here's a quote from Pervez Hoodbhoy's article 'Waiting for Enlightenment':
The federal minister for religious affairs, Ijaz ul Haq, speaking at the launch of a book authored by a leading Islamic extremist leader on “Christian Terrorism and The Muslim World,” argued that anyone who did not believe in jihad was neither a Muslim nor a Pakistani. He then declared that given the situation facing Muslims today, he was prepared to be a suicide bomber.

Now perhaps we shouldn't expect anything better from a buffoon like Haq, but what about the Assembly as a whole? What possible business is it of the parliament of Pakistan who the British government confers a knighthood on? Does Ghana pass judgement on who receives the sitara-i-imtiaz in Pakistan?

Partially this kind of stupidity is the result of Musharraf's rape of the constitution over the last 7 years. The Parliament, which is meant to be a legislative body, has been stripped of its legislative functions and has become little more than a pulpit where people rant and rave about whatever might get them on to the news. This is why it spends its time routinely condemning, amongst other things, plays, wedding feasts, Indian missile tests, renovation works in Jerusalem, American air strikes in Afghanistan, newspaper cartoons and people who destroy mosques in Iraq even though they don't know who they are. When minority representatives complained about government apathy over the vandalisation of the Sikh Gurudwara Nankana Sahib temple in September 2004, the National Assembly manfully swung into action and condemned the desecration.

What else could they do?


Edit: This article has been significantly edited from its original.

The Geek War

Time magazine has printed an interview with an iraqi bomb-maker, one of those responsible for the construction of the sophisticated devices that are the cause of most American casualties (and which the US government still blames Iran for). It makes for very interesting reading. Here's an excerpt:
Saif Abdallah says his inventions have helped kill or maim scores, possibly hundreds, of Americans. For more than four years, he has been developing remote-control devices that Sunni insurgents use to detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the roadside bombs that are the No. 1 killer of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The only time he ever felt a pang of regret was in the spring of 2006, when he heard that the Pentagon, in a bid to fight the growing IED menace, had roped in a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Abdallah, an electronics engineer by training, once dreamed of studying for a Ph.D. there. "I thought to myself, If my life had gone differently, who knows? I might have been on that team," he says, his eyes widening as he imagines that now impossible scenario. Then he shrugs. "God decided I should be on the other side."


Edit 1: Thaks to foodi for pointing out that I had forgotten to link to the article in question. I have now done so.

Edit 2: In an op-ed article in the NYT, John Robb called the war in Iraq the first "Open-Source War". After watching the Islamic State of Iraq's video instruction manual/propaganda documentary "Hunting the Minesweepers" and its slick presentation on how to take out the latest armoured vehicles the U.S. army has deployed in Iraq, the term seems a particularly apt one.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Pakistan News Blogs and NAB

I came across a very interesting blog that basically reprints news articles about Pakistan news, current affairs etc. called Watandost. I've added it to my blogroll. Interestingly the blog is maintained by Hassan Abbas, the former NAB official who is currently at Tufts and is the author of 'Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism.'

Also check out excerpts from his 2004 Dawn article on the rise and fall of NAB here. (Its the second article in the post.) Its very very informative and makes for interesting reading on how NAB became THE repository for both the hopes of all the people who thought Musharaf would be good for Pakistan, as well as a justification for Musharaf's rule.

Abbas shows how NAB was caught in a catch 22 situation because Musharraf need it to at least appear to be successful to show that he was making good on his promises to 'clean up' Pakistan while also cutting deals with the very people NAB was investigating in order to consolidate his hold on power. Also, NAB was a new institution with very little funding or experience in investigative techniques. To bolster it and speed up the visibility of its functioning a new set of ordinances that undermined judicial procedure were promulgated and the ISI and other intelligence agencies were turned to in order to provide funding and manpower.

Needless to say this was not good for NAB in the long run. Nor for the country.


P.S. Another Pakistan news blog with a decidedly pro-democracy slant is Civil Society Pakistan.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Keeping the Story Straight

Looking through bits and pieces that I wrote over the last few months, but never went on to complete and post, I came across this unfinished piece about the Musharraf government's capitulations to militants and the largest loss of sovereign Pakistani soil following military defeat behind the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. It remains unfinished, and perhaps in some ways, now redundant, but I'm posting it here anyway since very few people in Pakistan seem to know about or even acknowledge the carving out of an independent state in our northern areas:


The Musharraf administration have obviously not learned anything from the Bush government. While it has been acknowledged universally by the media, analysts, think tanks, intelligence officials, government bureaucrats and even low level administration officials in the U.S. that there really was no connection between Saddam's Iraq and Al Qaeda, Bush, Cheney and the top ranks have stuck to their guns, repeating endlessly the lie that there was a link. Such stubborn discipline in the face of reality is truly admirable.

Alas discipline is not a prime quality of the Musharraf administration. For years it has been the party line that there is no Al Qaeda in Pakistan. There were stragglers, foreigners, miscreants and the odd sympathizer but no significant Al Qaeda presence. Needless to say that it has been acknowledged universally by the media, analysts, think tanks, intelligence officials etc. that there is a very significant Al Qaeda presence in Pakistan, dug in in the tribal areas. In fact, last month Musharraf himself stated that "Al -Qaeda is in our mountains, in Mir Ali. This is completely true."

Was the government finally facing up to reality? If so, no one told the Foreign Office, which only a few days strongly rejected the claim that there were Al Qaeda bases in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Not quiet on the same page, are we?

But given the actual situation in NWFP and the tribal areas, perhaps the administration can be forgiven for not always knowing what lies to tell and which lies are now redundant. Given the military defeat of the Pakistani army and its retreat from the tribal areas last year, and the humiliating terms it had to sign with the Taliban and Talibanesque fringe groups, the fact of the matter is that Pakistan has actually lost control of the largest chunk of its territory since the ill-fated 1971 war. 2006 was the year that the 'Islamic Emirate of Waziristan' came into existence.

The Pakistani government still officially denies that it lost any territory. Rather, they claim that they simply signed accords with local tribes that meant that the tribes would take it upon themselves to ensure that none of the foreign "guests" residing in the region would take part in any terrorist acts.

The actual signatories of the accord were the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. Of the patchwork of tribes in the area, only those whose leaders were Jihadis were recognized as signatories. Other tribes that were not so closely connected with the Taliban or other Jihadi groups were abandoned and found themselves now subject to Taliban-style rule - enforced by tribal rivals. In return for being given a free hand to do what they wished, the Pakistan army asked only that the Jihadis not attack them.

Interestingly the process was then repeated in a number of other tribal areas. As it so happened, under pressure from the United States, Pakistan allowed limited air-strikes to be carried out against a few targets in late 2006 and early 2007. Meanwhile, emboldened by their success, Jihadi groups started putting pressure on other other tribal agencies and even areas of Pakistan proper, forcing more concessions from the Pakistani government and fears from local tribes that they were being abandoned.

Friday, 15 June 2007


Silly woman. Pfft!

More War On Terror

After helicopter strikes earlier in the year and naval bombardment earlier this month, the growing American presence in Somalia isn't doing much to win hearts and minds. I suppose the young Swedish couple mentioned in this article were lucky not to end up in Guantanamo... or in Albania.


Thursday, 14 June 2007

Pinky and the Brain

I've discovered a new source of infotainment: The Pinky Show.

This is particularly relevant as I gear up to find a job:

And having worked in the field of Education for seven-odd years, there is a disquieting ring of profound truth to this:


Quote of the Day!

This breathless statement from Patricia Cohen in the IHT:

"Developments around the world have been tearing sizable holes in what has been a remarkably powerful idea, not only in intellectual circles, but also in Republican and Democratic administrations - that capitalism and democracy are two sides of the same coin, trends that reinforce each other."

'Does Capitalism Lead to Democracy, And How?' the article asks. Cohen quotes a who's who of political studies departments in the Unites States as they all scratch their heads and puzzle over why capitalism hasn't been democratizing the world as their theories insist it should.

My response to the above statement? ORLY?


Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Imperial Nostalgia

So what's with all this nostalgia for the mythical glory days of Empire? Its sad and somewhat telling that the public consciousness needs repeatedly to be reminded of the rather more sombre realities of Empire.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. Its a harrowing experience, but an important one. Its easy to disconnect the kind of thinking that led to the dehumanization of Jews in Europe from the story of western civilization, or western culture, and pin it firmly on to the chest of an aberrant Nazi ideology.

But can the holocaust be so easily shunted aside? Was Nazi thought really so alien and different from everything else in the social and cultural landscape that gave rise to it? Can we simply attribute this kind of thinking, as some have done, to having its roots in the "German character", whatever that is? Surely the logical answers to these questions are no, no and no.

Recently I have acquired Sven Lindqvist's book "Exterminate All the Brutes". Part travelogue and part-history, the book takes its title from the words spoken by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's indictment of colonialism, Heart of Darkness. I haven't read the book yet, but here is a passage from a book review:
The ultimate theme of this book is Lindqvist’s belief that the Holocaust was not truly unique in European history, but rather was the culmination of European policy towards outsiders. For Hitler, fueled by anti-Semitism, the Jews were in the way of his plans for expansion. And like the Africans, Aborigines, and Native Americans before them, they needed to be eliminated. As Lindqvist puts it, "Auschwitz was the modern industrial application of a policy of extermination on which European world domination had long since rested." The policy was only seen as a horror when it was applied to other Europeans.

The point was driven home when I was reading an article by the historian Derek Sayer, "British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre 1919-1920" (Past and Present, No. 131. (May, 1991), pp. 130-164). The Amritsar Massacre occurred when Brigadier-General Dyer led a force of fifty riflemen to a large walled maidan where a crowd of up to twenty thousand people had peacefully gathered in defiance of martial law ordinances. Without issuing any warnings or orders to disperse, Dyer ordered the troops to open fire on the crowd, firing over 1,600 rounds. Estimates vary, but at least 379 people were killed and over 1,200 injured. When explaining his actions, Dyer stated:
"I fired and continued to fire until the crowd dispersed and I consider this the least amount of firing which would produce the necessary moral and widespread effect it was my duty to produce, if I was to justify my action. If more troops had been at hand the casualties would have been greater in proportion.... There could be no question of undue severity."

"The massacre", as Derek Sayer points out, "was an exercise in moral education." In fact it was carried out for the good of Indians everywhere - a part of the civilizing mission of benevolent British rule. Dyer went on to say:
"It was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it... I thought it would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realize that they were not to be wicked."

And on why he did not disperse the crowd peacefully:
"I could disperse them for some time, then they would all come back and laugh at me and I considered I would be making myself a fool."

As an aside, there seems to have been a genuine and deep-rooted fear amongst colonial officials of not being taken seriously by the natives from whom they expected to command fear and respect. Take for example this incident, related in Anderson's book Histories of the Hanged and reproduced in a review in the Guardian:
One officer quoted by Anderson gives a taste of the impunity - and the hatred. Interviewing three enemy suspects he says: "One of them, a tall coal-black bastard, kept grinning at me, real insolent. I slapped him hard, but he kept on grinning at me, so I kicked him in the balls as hard as I could ... When he finally got up on his feet he grinned at me again and I snapped. I really did. I stuck my revolver right in his grinning mouth ... And I pulled the trigger. His brains went all over the side of the police station. The other two (suspects) were standing there looking blank ... so I shot them both ... when the sub-inspector drove up, I told him the (suspects) tried to escape. He didn't believe me but all he said was 'bury them and see the wall is cleaned up'."

What's relevant here is not that this kind of atrocity occurred, or that Dyer was proclaimed a hero by the British press and hailed as the saviour of British India both by the Anglo-Indian government and in the House of Lords. (That the army shared this assessment can be seen in its double promotion of Dyer over the next year.) Rather, what I want to draw attention to is something that happened when Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state of India, attempted to have Dyer removed from his post.

Montagu was a liberal politician and his views on the situation were at odds with the Anglo-Indian government in India, as well as with much of the British public. Montagu was attacked in the press for his "mendacity and equivocations". In a public debate in the House of Commons on whether Dyer should be censured or not, he came under repeated bitter attack, and then was himself the subject of a proposed censure.

The most virulent attacks on Montagu followed the failure of this motion and focused in on the fact that Montagu was a Jew (only the second ever to enter the British cabinet). Vituperative editorials ran alongside articles such as "The Cause of World Unrest (the Jews)" and "These Be Thy Gods, O Israel!" Even generally supportive papers such as the Times had written "Mr Montagu... is also a Jew, and in excitement has the mental idiom of the East", thereby being "insensitive to our English method of political argument."

And there we seem to have the germs of it. The idea, ultimately so tragic, that Jews were not of the West, but of the East. Jews in Europe had always occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in society - many integrating to a large degree, but never quite managing to shed their identity as an 'other' (indeed, one might say, holding on to a distinct identity). But in the scramble to quantify, qualify and classify the hierarchy of races that gripped European society in the late 19th century and early 20th century - a project that was itself rooted in the experience of colonialism - Jews ended up on the wrong side of the divide between the higher, Occidental races, and the lower, Oriental races. It was this 'understanding' that made it possible for Europeans to treat them just like they were treating any other non-European group that somehow or other were seen as inhibitors of progress - as brutes to be exterminated.

Its sad, but true, that despite the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, the British felt free in using similar systems (albeit without the 'Final Solution') in their handling of colonial groups such as the Mau Mau in Kenya. And it shouldn't surprise us that this kind of thinking is able to once again come to the fore to justify outrages such as Abu Ghraib.


Albania: Most Allied Ally?

Previously I quipped about Albania's staunch support for the war on terror by its participation in the coalition of the willing. Little did I realise that Albania actually does fulfil an extremely important role in the war on terror - it is the dumping grounds for innocent detainees who have been released from Guantanamo. The NYT goes in depth on the case of the Uighars from China who were detained in Afghanistan, spent 4 years in Guantanamo and finally were sent to settle in Albania. Thus the US government is able to rid itself of a thorny problem thanks to the accommodating folks in Albania.

But hang on! There's something rotten underneath this façade of saccharine sugar-coated pro-Americanism. Within Albania lurks a dangerous watch-thief who has targeted the U.S. president. Ye gads! Despite avowals to the contrary, Albania may not be as reliable an ally as we thought!


Tuesday, 12 June 2007

New Found Freedom

Oil workers went on strike in Iraq after the government refused to pay promised bonuses again. The Iraqi government displayed its keen understanding of freedom by issuing arrest warrants for union leaders and sending in soldiers to deal with threats to oil production "with an iron fist."

Obviously the Iraqi government has learnt from watching American capitalism at work in Iraq, what with American construction contractors using slave labour to build the American embassy and U.S. army camps in Iraq.

Interestingly enough the American embassy is the size of the vatican and has been described by Tom Engelhardt as "the Imperial Mothership dropping into Baghdad."

Here's a description of the embassy:
"This self-contained compound will include the embassy itself, residences for the ambassador and staff, PX, commissary, cinema, retail and shopping, restaurants, schools, fire station and supporting facilities such as power generation, water purification system, telecommunications, and waste water treatment facilities. In total, the 104 acre compound will include over twenty buildings including one classified secure structure and housing for over 380 families."

What? No slave pens?


Rebuilding Afghanistan

The BBC has a very nice series of photographs up by Peter Biro of the International Rescue Committee of ordinary Afghans, showing how many are working to rebuild their lives. The commentary attached is also enlightening. Well worth checking out.


Monday, 11 June 2007

Bush in Albania

George Bush is given a "hero's welcome" in Albania - probably the most pro-U.S. country in both Europe and the Muslim world. Of course the reason they love America so much is because of Clinton's policy for armed intervention in support of Albanians in Kosovo - a policy that was opposed by Bush and publicly denounced by him during the run-up to the 2000 elections. Oh, the irony is killing me.

From an IHT article it's obvious Bush is more popular these days in Albania than he is back in the States:

On Sunday, all that love poured in Bush's direction, and when the president jumped briefly out of his limousine during a stop near the prime minister's villa in the town of Fusche Kruje, the crowd went wild, turning a presidential visit into a virtual mosh pit.

Hands were shooting at the president from all directions, grabbing his sleeves, rubbing his graying hair. Women kissed him on both cheeks. Men jostled to get close as Secret Service agents encircled him. As he stood on the running board of his limousine, waving before ducking back in the car, a second limo pulled up from behind to protect him.

From Jonathan Beale's tour diary of Bush's European tour:
President Bush has just received Albania's highest award "The Order of the National Flag". To Albania's prime minister I give the "Order of the Toady".

And why for example - if America's so loved and such a wonderful friend - did the president's Secret Service ask the Albanian military guard - who lined the road out of the airport - to surrender their weapons?

And why did the Albanians agree to such a ridiculous request? They all looked a bit silly with their hands behind their backs in army fatigues. It can only mean that someone out there in Albania actually doesn't like Mr Bush. But today I don't think we'll find him!

Albania is also the staunchest American ally in the "war on terror", reccently tripling the number of troops it has in Afghanistan to a grand total of 140.


Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention

How does humanitarian intervention work? Darfur is much on everyone's minds these days and humanitarian intervention is once more in demand. Alas, there seems to be some disagreement about how to go about intervening.

Pansy-ass programmes to provide humanitarian aid by naive goody-goodies is obviously not the American way of humanitarian intervention. We need real action here! The saying about good intentions and the paving on the road to An Uncomfortably Warm Place comes to mind.

I was all set to have a big post on Darfur, but I confess that I'm a little numbed. The uses and abuses of history, of the media; the sheer bloody, rampaging triumph of ignorance; the self-serving cynicism of the moral high ground... it just all gets me down.

But riddle me this: what is to be done when a government starts arming a variety of militias to ethnically cleanse areas in a region under its control, encourages slavery, and promotes bitter warfare with militias of other ethnic groups, leading to well over half a million deaths, almost four million displaced refugees (sorry, five million) and a humanitarian crisis spread over several countries?

Ans: Why, you distract attention by voicing concern about the plight of the poor victims of the fighting in Sudan of course (and back the group that refuses to stop fighting). Never mind the complexities of the situation.


Edit: Maybe the USA and Sudan have more in common than we knew?

Authorities Hit Upon Solution to Guantanomo Legal Chaos

Last week the Bush administrations bungling attempts to try the inmates at Guantanamo Bay received another blow when a judge ruling made mockery of the military tribunal system that was invented last year.

The legal chaos surrounding the Guantanamo detainees - just about all of whom are "smallfry" foot soldiers or simply bystanders who got swept up in the military operations in Afghanistan - has become a severe source of embarrassment. The problem the Bush government has is, quiet simply, how does it make this problem go away? It can't release the detainees because that would be admitting that they never had any case for holding them in the first place, unless the prisoner agrees to plead guilty in return for their freedom (that is precisely what happened in April with the Australian detainee, David Hicks). It can't try them in anything other than the most blatant of kangaroo courts which they are having trouble creating in the U.S. So what to do?

Well obviously here is the answer. Make detainees so miserable that they take their own lives. Its not as if it hasn't happened many times before. Ah, but there is an insidious side to this! Obviously these terrorists are engaged in terrorism when they commit suicide. As the IHT soberly reports:
The former commander of the detention facilities, Rear Admiral Harry Harris of the U.S. Navy, described earlier suicides as acts of "asymmetric warfare" - an effort to increase condemnation of the prison.

Devious, these terrorists, aren't they?


How to Escalate Civil Wars 101

Here's an interesting article from the International Herald Tribune: 'U.S. Arming Sunnis in Iraq to Battle Old Qaeda Allies'. Essentially it relates how the U.S. military, delighted by infighting between Sunni nationalist militias and Sunni Jihadist militias has decided to arm the nationalists and turn a blind eye to their activities according to the dictum 'the enemy of my enemy, who is also my enemy and the enemy of my allies (who are also allies of another of my enemies) is my friend'. Guardian photojournalist Sean Smith witnessed the phenomenon which he recorded here amongst a series of other disturbing photos from Iraq.

After quoting glowing reports of success from American military commanders, the IHT article goes on to note:
But critics of the strategy, including some American officers, say it could amount to the Americans' arming both sides in a future civil war. The United States has spent more than $15 billion in building up Iraq's army and police force, whose manpower of 350,000 is heavily Shiite. With an American troop drawdown increasingly likely in the next year, and little sign of a political accommodation between Shiite and Sunni politicians in Baghdad, the critics say, there is a risk that any weapons given to Sunni groups will eventually be used against Shiites. There is also the possibility the weapons could be used against the Americans themselves.

The question is: who will the militias use these weapons against? Will it be the Americans? Or Shiites? Several months ago I had linked to this article which chronicled how many Sunni militias are leaving off attacking the Americans in order to attack Shiites. Last month, we learnt that Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shiite Mahdi army was looking to forge ties with Sunni militias to try and build a pan-Iraqi movement to oppose U.S. occupation.

One suspects that once the weapons and money are in the hands of various local militia leaders, there will be no control over how they are used and who they are used against. In the fluctuating political landscape of a chaotic post-invasion Iraq, today's ally can be tomorrow's enemy and vice versa. And of course one would be naive to assume that armed gangs only use violence for political ends. Armed robbery, kidnappings, turf wars and vendettas are always going to be the primary use of weapons in a land where there so so much physical and economic insecurity. The Americans' claim that creating more armed gangs would help "to stabilize Iraq, and to speed American troops on their way home." Obviously, the second goal is the main one, the first, merely lip-service. After all, what does the Iraqi government have to say about this?
An Iraqi government official who was reached by telephone on Sunday said the government was uncomfortable with the American negotiations with the Sunni groups because they offered no guarantee that the militias would be loyal to anyone other than the American commander in their immediate area. "The government's aim is to disarm and demobilize the militias in Iraq," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Maliki. "And we have enough militias in Iraq that we are struggling now to solve the problem. Why are we creating new ones?"

But who cares what the Iraqi government wants? They should just shut up and enjoy the freedom they have been given.


Michael Moore and Healthcare

Speaking of Michael Moore and Healthcare systems, here's an interesting little story.


Friday, 8 June 2007

The Destruction of Culture

From an article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian:

Hussaini confirmed a report two years ago by John Curtis, of the British Museum, on America's conversion of Nebuchadnezzar's great city of Babylon into the hanging gardens of Halliburton. This meant a 150-hectare camp for 2,000 troops. In the process the 2,500-year-old brick pavement to the Ishtar Gate was smashed by tanks and the gate itself damaged. The archaeology-rich subsoil was bulldozed to fill sandbags, and large areas covered in compacted gravel for helipads and car parks. Babylon is being rendered archaeologically barren.

Meanwhile the courtyard of the 10th-century caravanserai of Khan al-Raba was used by the Americans for exploding captured insurgent weapons. One blast demolished the ancient roofs and felled many of the walls. The place is now a ruin.

Outside the capital some 10,000 sites of incomparable importance to the history of western civilisation, barely 20% yet excavated, are being looted as systematically as was the museum in 2003. When George tried to remove vulnerable carvings from the ancient city of Umma to Baghdad, he found gangs of looters already in place with bulldozers, dump trucks and AK47s.

And on top of all this, the Salafist fundo militant groups have started a campaign to destroy Iraq's many shrines and tombs including the tomb of Ezekiel where Jews and Muslims used to worship together right up till 2003. Sigh.