Thursday, 18 December 2008

More on US Aid

The last few months I've barely had time to follow the news and various blogs I read let alone manage to do any blogging of my own.

But just a little snippet that follows on from my post a couple of months ago about US Aid to Pakistan. This little article about the move by some senators to block American aid to the military seems to be making the rounds and causing great angst amongst various Pakistanis.

Of course it pushes all the buttons. All those conspiracy theorists who believe that the Americans are provoking the civil war in the north and the Mumbai attack was an Indian psy-op that went bad (a very popular view amongst Pakistani military officers, serving and retired, I've noticed), get up and point at this to say 'Aha! I told you so!"

Others are worked up about Pakistan being "declared a failed state". This is "threatening the image" of Pakistan, I suppose. The reason people feel so entitled to all that aid is because the idea that Pakistan is fighting the 'War on Terror' for the United States is still a commonly held view. In the words of Biden, the relationship between the two countries is still "transactional".

Personally, I'm fine with tying up/reducing military aid. F-16s, submarines and anti-aircraft guns are no help against the militants in Swat or Bajur. The problem of course is that so long as the Pak-India war drums are beating, those are exactly the kinds of things the army is going to ask for in return for participating in the 'War on Terror'.

Edit: And now we have this: US agrees to increase military assistance. So much for conspiracy theories.

Friday, 10 October 2008

A Light in the Gloom

Will all the bleak news making the rounds and amidst all the doom and gloom, this little snippet of news made me feel just that little smidgen better.

Bravo, I say.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

On US-Pakistani Relations and the Aid Affair

There is an interesting article in today's 'News' by Mosharraf Zaidi called 'Joe Biden's Massive Pakistan Discount'. He takes a look at the recently passed Biden-Lugar Bill in the States which pledges $1.5 billion a year to Pakistan over the next ten years if it meets certain conditions (prosecuting the war on terror and democratic institution-building).

Firstly Mr Zaidi criticises the bill, pointing out that Georgia, with a population of 26 million is getting $1 billion in aid, while Pakistan with a population of over 170 million is getting $1.5 billion. He helpfully provides the following statistics:
In 2006 America's $9.9 billion aid programme in Iraq represented a $353 US contribution per Iraqi. Jordan's comparatively meager $562 million package translated into about $91 per Jordanian. Afghanistan's $3.74 billion programme meant the US provided $114 in assistance for each Afghan. Egypt received $1.79 billion, or about $22 per Egyptian citizen. At $1.5 billion, America's Pakistan assistance package will provide less than $9 per Pakistani citizen (or $8.72 to be precise). The true extent of the discount can be gleaned not by comparisons to post-conflict zones, or countries with solid gold records of friendship with the US, but by a comparison with Georgia, which will get roughly $217 per citizen. In cold numerical terms this means that one Georgian is worth roughly 25 Pakistanis.

This first argument does not seem entirely fair. Firstly, the US is pledging $1.5 billion per year for ten years - in other words $15 billion. Which means that Pakistan would get roughly $80-odd per citizen. Still not a huge amount but fairly substantial. Also its worth pointing out that the aid to Georgia is split, with about $500 million sent this year and the rest to be decided on later.

Its also worth pointing out that Georgia, according to the NYT has received a total of $1.8 billion over the last 17 years, while since 9-11, Pakistan has received over $11 billion (admittedly mostly military aid, but then thats what the military government demanded) and that's not including loans through US-dominated lending institutions and loan deferments etc.

Still, the author's basic point has merit. $1.5 billion isn't going to be working any miracles. His second point seems to be much more pertinent. In his proposal on American policy with Pakistan, Joe Biden rightly said that the American relationship with Pakistan has to move from a transactional to a normal, functional one. But in tying strings to this aid and making it dependent on stopping the Taliban and fighting Al Qaeda, this bill brings the relationship right back to being transactional: Cash for blood.

This is bad for the Pakistani government. And its bad for the Americans as well. Mr Zaidi points out that the Pakistani state is clearly not an effective one - the whole raison d'etre of providing aid aimed at building governmental and economic infrastructure is to make it effective. Yet this aid is conditional on the Pakistani state acting effectively against the militants. This is not a winning strategy.

Far more astute would be a strategy which provides aid aimed at building institutional capacity regardless of the war on terror, and making military aid conditional of performance. This is what Joe Biden has suggested and there's no good reason not to go for this idea. Eventually the idea would sink in to the military types in Islamabad that their strategic interests would be furthered by dismantling the Jihadist framework of regional security than by hanging on to it.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Charlie Wilson's Chair

Via Twilight of the Weimar Era, we learn that UT Austin is establishing a chair in Pakistan Studies in their South Asian Studies department. And its named after Charlie Wilson! Yes, that's right, I said Charlie Wilson!

What better way to encourage the serious study of, and promote the nuanced understanding of Pakistani society, history and culture by naming a post after this man? (Pic: Time)

But the kicker is that under our good General, the Pakistani government was 'extending its services' to help raise money for the endowment. Yes, the Pakistani government always was good at extending its services to good ole Charlie Wilson, wasn't it.

Two Views on Shahbaz Sharif

Here are two views on Shahbaz Sharif. What they both highlight is his dynamic, personal style of government. But while this article finds this generally a laudable quality, this editorial highlights at least one problem to arise from his style of leadership.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Biden as VP and the NATO Supply Line

Back here I wrote about how Biden was being tipped as Obama's VP and what implications this may have for Pakistan. Now that Biden's candidacy has been announced, several other sources have picked up on the story. For example, see here and here.

Also of interest have been recent posts by Peter Marton over at [My] State Failure Blog regarding the logistics issue for NATO forces in Afghanistan. With recent attempts by the Taliban to disrupt the flow of supplies to NATO forces that move through Pakistan, there had been talk of opening a second longer and more expensive supply route through Central Asia. But as Mr Marton points out the recent Georgian war seems to have put a end to that idea, which makes talk of a surge in Afghanistan problematic.

What this has also done, of course, is strengthened Pakistan's hand and in particular that block within the military that argues that Pakistan can take a tougher line against Indian influence in Afghanistan, in resisting American demands to clamp down on militants, and continue to sponsor Taliban groups who will continue to bleed NATO forces dry until their coalition falls apart and they pull out, when they will become the instrument of extending Pakistani influence over Afghanistan again.

Increasingly though, Pakistan's civilian government looks like it doesn't like this plan.

Monday, 18 August 2008

A Sight for Sore Eyes

So I was curious about whether the humanitarian crisis unfolding in FATA has registered anywhere abroad and ended up at the IRIN website run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (What is an Humanitarian Affair anyway? Sounds a little dodgy to me.)

Anyway, looking for the news on Pakistan, one finds mention of the recent flooding of villages along the Sutlej river, but nothing about Bajur.

And I came across this gem of a paragraph in an article called 'High-tech Survey Tool offers New Hope to Disaster-Hit Communities':

The sight of humanitarian assessment teams moving through calamity-hit villages and punching data into small, hand-held computers as they interview villagers may soon become routine in Pakistan.

All I can say is: I sincerely hope not!

Part II: Bajur in the Aftermath of Lowi Sam

This is a follow-up to my earlier post on the Battle of Lowi Sam and the second in a series of posts on whats been happening in the regions along the Pak-Afghan border.

Following the debacle at Lowi Sam and the threatened encirclement of the FC Regional Headquarters at Khar, it seems as if the gloves really came off for the armed forces. Apart from the heavy use of artillery, the army's air arm and the Air Force (including the use of F-16s) both played a heavy role in attacking suspected militants in Bajur.

August 14, which is Pakistan's Independence Day, saw militants taking shelter within the built-up areas of Khar. The military dropped leaflets ordering civlians to leave the areas in which they were hiding as a prelude to bombardment. The leaflets included the following draconian orders:

“Security forces have launched an operation against miscreants and people have to follow certain guidelines for their own safety,” the pamphlet said.

It asked people to immediately alight from their vehicles and raise their hands if a helicopter flew over them.

It said drivers should not park their vehicles under trees. Violators of the instruction would be attacked, it warned.

The following day saw a reported 35 deaths and the bombardment of a number of militant targets, including the Taliban's FM radio station which was operating from a Madressah run by a Maulvi Muneer, a Taliban court and private jail, and anti-aircraft guns the Taliban were using against the helicopters. The leader of the Bajur Taliban, Faqeer Mohammad, meanwhile was said to have narrowly escaped being killed in an airstrikes (Originally the authorities claimed to have killed him, but he later surfaced, though he did admit that several of his colleagues were killed).

The Jamaat-i-Islami meanwhile called for a halt on the military operation, claiming that it had dispalced over 300,000 people. While that seems to have been an exaggeration, one might get a sense of the scale of displacement by the fact that the authorities at one checkpoint counted 3000 families passing through in search of shelter. A conservative estimate would make that between 15-20,000 people - on one road!

The Prime Minister, in his first address to the Parliament since his return from the States, took a tough stance on tackling militancy. Aftab Sherpao of the NWFP-based PPP-S and the PML-Q asked some tough questions on the use and effectiveness of airstrikes. Aftab Sherpao's estimate was of 200,000 refugees.

By the 16th of August, authroities were claiming to have cleared militants out of Khar and its environs and were calling on refugees to return there, though its not clear how many people responded to this call since they repeated it again the next day (the government is claiming 130 families have returned). More importantly, it seems as if local tribesmen have decided to take on the militants and have started their own patrols to seek them out (militants killed two tribesmen the same day).

While I'm sceptical of the capability of the local tribes to effectviely combat the Taliban, and generally am very sceptical of the idea of heavily armed groups of tribesmen wandering around anywhere, once again what the case does underline is that there does seem to be a strong groundswell of antagonism for the Taliban. The key here is that the military needs to be careful that it doesnt push the local populace back into the arms of the Taliban through indescriminate airstrikes and the use of artillery. People may be happy that the government is doing something about the armed bullies who drive around threatening barbers and telling them how to live, but that happiness may quickly evaporate if they start losing relatives and their houses and property to randomn shelling.

The News has some interesting articles on the situation in Bajur. Firstly we start getting some solid statistics:

Provincial Relief Commissioner Jamil Amjad has said the ongoing military operation had led to the biggest migration in the country’s history. “More than 39,100 families comprising about 250,000 individuals have been displaced, amongst whom some 70,000 people are registered in the relief camps in Dir Lower, Malakand Region and Peshawar,” he told a press conference here.

The largest share of the burden of refugees has fallen on Dir, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees:

More than 85 percent schools, hospitals, rural health centres, basic health units and other government buildings in Jandool and 15 to 20 percent in other parts of the district have been occupied by the military operation victims. The affected families could be seen sitting in the open, under-construction markets, bazaars, bus stands, at roadsides and in camps in a miserable condition. Though the provincial government has been providing tents and food to the migrants at camps for the last three days, the sanitation and other facilities are barely discernible.

It seems as if militants fleeing security forces were also trying to set up shop in Dir, but after prolonged neotiations with local tribal elders, they have agreed to leave.

We also get some insights on what is happening within the area of conflict. Helicopter airstrikes seem to be exercising some form of discrimination when choosing targets:

Choppers were also sent and directed to destroy the house of TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar but since it was located in middle of the houses and aerial strikes could cause damage to other houses and residents, therefore, the idea was dropped. The gunship choppers also bombed militants’ suspected hideouts in other small villages of Mamond Tehsil and Mulla Said Banda and Pashat in Salarzai Tehsil.

I'm not sure how effective these operations are in actually killing militants but they are eroding the infrastructure of the militants' organisations. Hence:

This correspondent on Sunday visited Bajaur Agency’s troubled spots including Seway, where the militants headquarters was located and a so-called Islamic court had been established, Chopatra, the hometown of militants’ commander Maulana Faqir Mohammad, Badan village, the hometown of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Maulvi Omar, and several other places, which were once the strongholds of the Taliban fighters and where their armed men were once publicly checking vehicles at roadside checkpoints.

Ah, but wait, they seem to be fairly effective in targetting militants as well:

The militants admitted that they had suffered heavy losses due to choppers and warplanes and now the thundering voice of gunship choppers created panic in the hearts of many of their colleagues.

Just as a note, I blogged a couple of days ago about Joeseph Biden's proposal for dealing with Pakistan. One of the things he stressed was the need for America to do something concrete to help everyday Pakistanis:

When U.S. aid makes a real difference in people's lives, the results are powerful. In October 2005, after a devastating earthquake, American military helicopters delivering relief did far more to improve relations than any amount of arms sales or debt rescheduling.

Well, 250,000 internally displaced refugees sounds like a major humanitarian crisis to me and seeing as opponents of the military operation in Bajur are blaming all the violence on America, it strikes me as a good time for the Americans to maybe step up and help out with the refugee crisis. Why not have a "reminder that America cares"? In a case like this where all they have to do is cough up some measly amounts of money and basic necessities such as food and water and not make any long-term commitments, it shouldn't be too difficult to make a difference at a low cost.

I don't actually hold out much hope that the US government will actually do anything here, since it has very demonstrably shown not only that it doesn't care, but that it is unable to pretend to care even when it is in its own interest to do so.

But just in case anyone in the US government is listening. How about helping out the poor people of Bajur?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention Crashes and Burns

Back when I was in college, I briefly toyed with the idea of going into the field of International Relations. One day I interrupted a friend studying for a test in her IR course. Upon asking her what she was studying, she replied she was memorizing the "golden rules" of international relations. What, I asked sceptically, were these rules? The first golden rule, she replied, was that no democracy ever goes to war with another democracy.

It was at that point that I knew IR wasn't really for me. I just knew too much history to be able to buy into these kinds of simplistic, uninformed and ignorant "golden rules". In the laa-laa land of American academic IR theory these self-serving theories may have great traction but in the messy, complex, unsimplified reality revealed by history they serve little purpose but to obfuscate the facts.

But wait a minute, these kinds of theories haven't just stayed in laa-laa land but unfortunately have leaked into the public consciousness through ignorant hacks and bestselling writers such as Thomas Friedman, author of the utterly simplistic and mostly wrong cheering chorus of a book on globalization, "The World is Flat" (and incidentally someone who attended the same college I did, which might explain where he gets some of his ideas).

Take for incidence this passage from one of his articles:
So I’ve had this thesis for a long time and came here to Hamburger University at McDonald’s headquarters to finally test it out. The thesis is this: No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.

The McDonald’s folks confirmed it for me. I feared the exception would be the Falklands war, but Argentina didn’t get its first McDonald’s until 1986, four years after that war with Britain.

Now I don't understand why Thomas Friedman is so popular (in the past few months two different people have enthusiastically recommended his abysmal book to me), but then he's just a mediocre popular writer, who will (hopefully) be forgotten a few years down the line. The thing is its not just him, serious scholars buy into this kind of thing.

At this point one may be prompted to point out that the Kargil War between Pakistan and India happened when both had plenty of McDonald's franchises and democratically elected governments to boot, but one could argue that Pakistan and India don't rate high on the democracy scale, or, if you believe Nawaz Sharrif, that the Pakistani army started the war on its own without taking the democratically elected leader of the country into confidence.

But as various bloggers have pointed out, what about Georgia and Russia?

More on this here and here.

If Joe Biden Became Obama's VP Candidate...

The grapevines are buzzing over the idea that Joe Biden might be picked as Barack Obama's running mate. While some people are pointing out that he has made some bizarre foreign policy suggestions in the past, such as splitting up Iraq, as far as Pakistan is concerned, it may just be the best thing to happen to Pakistan in an otherwise dismal year for the country.

First off, Joe Biden has a much better appreciation of what is happening in Pakistan than the concerns of Pakistanis than other Presidential candidates. But better than that, have a look at Biden's proposal for what direction its policy towards Pakistan should take.

What does he propose?

We've got to move from a transactional relationship -- the exchange of aid for services -- to the normal, functional relationship we enjoy with all of our other military allies and friendly nations. We've got to move from a policy concentrated on one man -- President Musharraf -- to a policy centered on an entire people... the people of Pakistan. Like any major policy shift, to gain long-term benefits we'll have to shoulder short term costs. But given the stakes, those costs are worth it.

And how would he do this?

1. Triple non-security aid to $1.5 billion annually for at least 10 years.

2. Make security aid conditional (so for example, don't just pour in money for submarine hunters and air-defense radars which have no relevance to the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan's northern areas, but focus it on COIN-relevant stuff and tie it to what the army is doing against militants).

3. Give a "democracy dividend" of $1 billion above the annual non-security aid to help the new government with the promise of more aid tied to developing democratic institutions.

4. Focus on creating ties with the Pakistani public and not just the elite by "improved public diplomacy and educational exchanges" and "high impact projects that actually change people's lives."

There's an interesting comment on Biden's plan here.

Suffice it to say that it sounds pretty good at least on paper. Its a perennial complaint that whenever Pakistan has a military government that the US needs to do its bidding, money flows like wine, but whenever there is a democratic government, the aid seems to dry up and various sanctions tend to pile up against the country. So its good to hear a Biden recognizing that the aid needs to be based on something other than a transactional basis.

As for making military aid conditional - well if it will help convince our generals to abandon their proxy militants and focus on stamping out the Insurgency in FATA, thats all to the better. My guess is that they would want at least some of the money to be spent on expensive anti-Indian toys as well, but I'm all for measures that actively help fighting militancy in Pakistan (and by extension, Afghanistan).

So it will be interesting to see what happens next. I personally don't know too much about the other candidates for the VP slot, but generally I've been underwhelmed by Obama as far as foreign policy goes (though he certainly seems better than Mr John "In-the-21st-century-nations-dont-invade-nations" McCain.) But for Pakistan, I think Joe Biden's plan would be much-needed good news.

P.S.: McCain actually went one dumber and recently claimed that the Georgia-Russia war was the “first serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War”. So there you have it. 9/11? Not serious. Invasion of Iraq? A cakewalk. Darfur? Afghanistan? Mid-East? All just giggles. No, the Georgia-Russia war is SERIOUS!

P.P.S.: We've just learned that those evil commie Chinese are using underage athletes to cheat the US of A out of well-deserved Olympic medals. This must be the most serious crisis internationally since the Barbarian invasion of Rome! Something must be done about it!

Decline of the Empire?

As pointed out on the blog, 'Twilight of the Weimar Era', the Pentagon recently released a study called 'Military Advantage in History' which sought to examine empires across history in order to learn how to increase the longevity of the American Empire (the whole silly enterprise is explained here). You can download the article if you have time to spare and need a giggle or two.

I was reminded of this sorry episode when I read Juan Cole's brief note on the impending demise of the Musharraf Presidency. One commentator noted, "you can measure the demise of the Empire by the rate at which its satraps are falling and wringing their hands".

Personally I tend to find all this talk about the impending demise of Empires overwrought. I know the idea is extremely popular in Pakistan amongst the elite classes. Searching for signs of the coming decline of America verges on a national obsession. Still, there's something amusing about puncturing the pompous Imperium-nostalgia of certain American political scientists and foreign policy wonks by turning their own terminology of Empire against them. And with the events in Lebanon earlier this year and in Georgia more recently, one can't help but feel that at least some of the Empire's satraps are indeed in trouble.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Putting the Peices Together, Part 1: The Battle of Lowi Sam

One of the most frustrating things about the media in Pakistan is its seeming inability to piece together dribbles of information to present a larger picture of what is going on. At least, this often seems the case with the dailies [and the TV news for that matter]. Its an area where monthly magazines such as Herald really standout. [I'm still hoping that they start putting up their articles from back issues on line but so far, no luck.]

Recently everyone has been focused on the impending resignation/impeachment of Musharraf and questions over what will happen next. Personally I don't find the issue terribly interesting. Musharraf has been a dead duck in the water for a while now. Removing him is not going to make a major difference (unless, as rumored he takes the NRO with him, which would be interesting). Anyway, all sorts of interesting and shocking things have been going on in our country, particularly as regards the Taliban and, as usual, the media doesn't seem to be doing a terribly good job of putting it into context. So, I thought I might try to peice some things together in a series of posts over the next few days. Each post will correspond, more or less, to a geographical area. Here's the first:

The Battle of Lowi Sam

It seems to have slipped the notice of many people but the Pakistan armed forces have just fought one of their biggest battles since, oh well, since the ill-fated Wana Operation. Once again this seems to have been a poorly thought out and poorly executed move by the FC (Frontier Corps) that led to heavy casulties.

On August 6th, a force of about 150* FC men moved to occupy Lowi Sam in Bajur Agency, an area which they had evacuated about a year earlier under pressure of Taliban attacks. This initial move was reported in the press as a succesful operation. People were said to have welcomed the arrival of government forces because they were "fed up of the self-styled Shariah and harsh policies of the Taliban". However, there was intimation of trouble to come when, according to Dawn, "Thousands of tribesmen have left their homes in Ghazi Beg, Atokhel, Qandaharo and Khwayzai tehsils and are moving to other places fearing severe clashes in the region".

It turns out that those tribesmen knew something was up.

The Taliban responded to the FC move by heavy attacks that lasted throughout the next day. There were reports of heavy fighting and reinforcements were despatched. These convoys in turn were ambushed on the road and by the next day, 8th August, the military was using airstrikes and helicopter gunships to try and break the "seige" of the FC troops. The reports of casulties widely differed and one can probably safely say that neither the Taliban nor the official figures are entirely reliable, but one measure of how badly things were going can be gauged by the fact that the army spokesman was telling reporters to contact the FC and the FC spokesman was refusing to comment.

On August 9th it was reported that the FC contingent had managed to break out of their encirclement and retreat to the regional FC headquaretrs at Khar. Official sources said that there were 9 dead and 55 missing. The Taliban meanwhile were claiming over a hundred security personel dead and were declaring victory and distributing cash prizes.

Some of the worst loses seem to have occured where convoys were ambushed. Here is the description of one ambush by a witness to the NYT:

The insurgents then used rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine-gun fire to attack a relief convoy of reinforcements sent from Khar, according to residents who arrived in the nearby town of Risalpur on Saturday.

The Taliban also laid roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, along the road the convoy traveled, said Mohammed Khan, a timber merchant from the village of Sadiq Abad whose house was on the route.

“When the convoy stopped because of the I.E.D.’s on the road, then the Taliban were everywhere, in every place — they came and attacked the Frontier Corps,” Mr. Khan said in Risalpur. “After the convoy stopped, there was fighting for two days. The Taliban have the natural advantage because there is so much greenery.”

The maize crop in the fields, a month from harvest, was nearly six feet tall and provided perfect hideouts for the insurgents, he said.

And a description of the scene at Lowi Sam from Dawn:

Eyewitnesses said the situation was chaotic and the area was littered with bodies and burnt vehicles. They said the soldiers, who had been under siege for the past three days, had returned to their base in Khaar, leaving behind bodies, trucks and a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

The FC seem to have lost many vehicles, including tanks and a crane.

And it seems as if the Taliban actually chased the FC all the way back to Khaar and actually tried to beseige the FC Regional Headquarters there. The military responded with extremely heavy shelling and ariel bombardment which seems to caused a great deal of collateral damage, as chronicled here. But it did have the effect of breaking the seige of Khar by 11th August.

By now fighting had spread over a large area, the Taliban were using pirate FM radio stations to rally support and call for help from other areas, and the indescriminate use of artillery had sent over 100,000 people fleeing the fighting. An estimate put the death toll at 160 in 5 days of fighting. Millitants also reportedly beheaded two civilians for cooperating with government forces.

On August 12th, came the news that helicopter gunships had killed several militants including Al Qaeda operative Abu Saeed Al-Masri, a report which was denied by the Taliban and is still unconfirmed. Also, the leader of a Taliban group in North Waziristan, Ahmadullah Ahmedi threatened to start attacking gvoernment forces if they didn't stop their operations in Bajur and Swat (more on that in a later post). Its worth noting that things have been peaceful in Waziristan for months, presumably after the federal government and the Taliban there came to some kind of mutual understanding.

By the next day, there were reports of militants in Bajur stopping civilians from fleeing and attempting to "conscript" locals. Authorities accused them of using women and children as 'human sheilds'. Security forces also announced, by the way, that all wheat fields next to roads must be cleared to a distance of 200m from the road, a measure meant to make it harder for militants to launch the kinds of ambushes that caused such carnage on the road to Lowi Sam. As this article in the News describes, locals sheltered soldiers caught in the ambush.

So what is to be made of this sorry tale?

Firstly, its the FC that is taking the brunt of the fighting. The FC is of course under the control of the civillian Interior Ministry. The army, apart from providing air support seems to want to sit out of Counter-Insurgency operations. Certainly in terms of armament and training, the FC is the inferior force.

Interestingly enough, members of the provincial government have been appealing to the army to take action in FATA. Here is an excellent article by Afrasiab Khattak of the ANP to do just that. But so far the army seems to be keeping more of a hands-off policy here.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, whose articles I always take with a pinch of salt claims that informers within the armed forces had tipped off the Taliban about the FC operation, though this may just be rumour turned into 'news'. [Incidentally Mr Shahzad also seems to be the only reporter in Pakistan who keeps reporting about the death of Al-Qaeda No. 3s - Neither the News or Dawn used the term when they referred to the supposed death of Al-Masri.]

Also of note is that the local populace seems sick of the Taliban and would welcome the return of government rule, and, that the massive use of artillery and airstrikes is eroding that support. I fear I may sound like one of those horrible CNN cliche-spewing experts, but its clear that whats needed is more 'boots-on-the-ground' if the militants are going to be 'flushed out' of places like Lowi Sam.

* Sources differ on the number. Some say between 150 and 200. Another claims 200-300. My guess is that the original force had between 150 and 200 and as more troops were committed to the battle the total number involved approached 300.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Blogging Away...

So once again the last few months have seen a severe shortage of blogging on my part. Not that there aren't many, many things to write and read about - its just that time has been short and with my new job well underway Im not certain that the situation is going to be changing very soon. I will try and scrape together some posts now and then but in the meantime, there's plenty of other stuff out there that makes for good reading.

I've knocked off a few blogs from my blogroll that seem to now be defunct. That includes 'Not the Whole Truth', 'The Dawn Blog', 'The Emergency Times', 'The Glasshouse' and 'The Grand Strategy Blog'.

On the other hand, I've added a few blogs as well, including the 'Middle East Blog', which is hosted by Time magazine, 'Ghosts of Alexander' which focuses on Afghanistan and lastly, what to my mind is the most promising blog on Pakistan out there, 'Grand Trunk Road'. It is intelligent and well-informed and worth reading. [The discussions in the comments sections are also usually interesting.]

P.S.: Other good blogs on Pakistan are Five Rupees and Chapati Mystery.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Nuclear Missle Proliferation... in Photoshop

Okay, so this is old, old news - a month old in fact. I don't really know how I missed it the first time around. Anyway, so you might have heard about the ballistic missile test launch Iran had last month - you know the one where they fired 3 missiles and then released a photograph showing 4 missiles, right?

Well, it seems someone in Iran's Revolutionary Guard knows how to use photoshop... just not that well. Anyway, some people are getting a real kick in photoshopping their own pictures of the missile launch. Some are absolutely hilarious.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn passed away recently. Its kind of interesting comparing the BBC article about his life with this more comprehensive one at Lenin's Tomb. One wouldn't know that he was an anti-semite or one of those 'ultra-nationalists' that Washington used to crib about.

Also interesting to note was that he was published in Russia during Khuruschev's de-Stanlinisation years and exiled during the reaction that followed Khuruschev's ouster.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

1948: Ethnic Cleansing

An interesting review by Roane Carey of Israeli Historian Benny Morris' new book.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Sheikh Rashid

That perennial joker Sheikh Rashid makes for some of the most entertaining television available in Pakistan today. It was back when he was Railways Minister that he developed the habit of calling up four or five TV stations in succession, one immediately after the other, to air his views on every political matter in the country EXCEPT the railways. One would have thought that after losing the elections back in February, he might have faded from the limelight, but of course politicians in Pakistan never fade, but linger on like revenants hoping for a change in political fortunes to resurrect their careers.

So, quiet apart from the fact that Sheikh Rashid still spends his evenings with every major TV station on speed dial, last week he went and gave a sorry excuse for a news conference. After bemoaning the sad fate of the poor, hungry and naked masses who are the victims of rampant inflation, he theatrically demanded to know why the new government has not formulated any new policies to deal with their plight. The implication of his words was that the new government was continuing with the failed policies of his own former government. I wonder if he thinks this is a viable campaign strategy?

Thursday, 1 May 2008

China and Tibet

There is a very interesting letter by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek in last week's London Review of Books that is worth reading for some insight into both China and Tibet. Firstly, the author questions the traditional media narrative of good guys and bad guys, and also points out that:
"What the images of Chinese soldiers and policemen terrorising Buddhist monks conceal is a much more effective American-style socio-economic transformation: in a decade or two, Tibetans will be reduced to the status of Native Americans in the US. It seems that the Chinese Communists have finally got it: what are secret police, internment camps and the destruction of ancient monuments, compared with the power of unbridled capitalism?"

Of course the mainstream western press can't square these important trends with their own preconceived notions and instead resorts to the narrative of nationalistic mythology tinged with oriental exotica. In the current media group-think, more capitalism-driven economic development must equal more democratization and 'freedom'. So its easier to ignore images of mobs of Tibetan youths smashing Chinese shops and lynching Chinese immigrant workers and instead focus on Chinese policemen beating up Tibetan monks. The first image raises troubling questions about the political economy of development and exploitative capitalism while the second can be nicely slotted into the old story of meditative monks being brutally oppressed by vicious communists.

Mr Zizek ruminates further on our idea that there necessarily is a connection between unfettered capitalism and democracy:
"The Chinese used unencumbered authoritarian state power to control the social costs of the transition to capitalism. The weird combination of capitalism and Communist rule proved not to be a ridiculous paradox, but a blessing. China has developed so fast not in spite of authoritarian Communist rule, but because of it.

There is a further paradox at work here. What if the promised second stage, the democracy that follows the authoritarian vale of tears, never arrives? This, perhaps, is what is so unsettling about China today: the suspicion that its authoritarian capitalism is not merely a reminder of our past – of the process of capitalist accumulation which, in Europe, took place from the 16th to the 18th century – but a sign of our future?"

Not an especially cheerful thought.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Gilded Age (Part Deux)

From TomDispatch:
"Think of it as gilding the pain. Last year, hedge fund manager John Paulson of Paulson & Co. hauled in a nifty $3.7 billion. (Yes, you read that right.) Mainly, he did so, according to the Wall Street Journal, "by shorting, or betting against, subprime mortgage securities and collateralized debt obligations." And he wasn't alone. Hedge fund money-maker Philip Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners raked in a comparatively measly $1.7 billion in 2007, also by shorting subprime mortgages. These are fortunes beyond imagining, made in no time at all by betting on the pure misery of others. Think of them as Las Vegas with a mean streak a mile wide.

In a week in which Citibank released news of quarterly losses of $5.1 billion and sweeping job cuts, food riots dotted the planet, oil hit $117 a barrel, and regular gas prices averaged $3.47 a gallon at the pump (with another 30 cents likely to be tacked on in the next month), Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine released its list of the 50 top hedge fund managers. In 2007, they "made" a cumulative $29 billion. (Even to slip in among the top 25, you had to take in at least $360 million.) To put this in perspective, Paulson alone made $1.6 billion dollars more than it is going to cost J.P. Morgan Chase to pick up the tanking Bear Stearns; in one hour, he made 30 times what the median American family earned all last year. And here's a little tidbit to go with that: Income inequality in 2007 was, according to the Associated Press, "at the highest level since 1928, the year before the Great Depression began."

Well, huh.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Food Crises, Agribusiness and Famines

There's an interesting post over at Lenin's Tomb connected to my recent posts on global food prices. Lenin throws in some interesting historical analysis as well and asks the very pertinent question: "Why is it that for the first time the number of obese people (1 billion) exceeds the number of starving people (850 million)?"

But don't just stop at reading the post, I also strongly recommend reading the comments. Of particular interest are several running debates amongst the impressively informed readers, that include the question of whether Mao's agricultural policies saw an improvement in the lives of the bulk of the peasantry, the massive famine associated with the Great Leap Forward notwithstanding, and (more my own area of interest and expertise) to what extent the massive famines of the last 19th century in colonial India were the direct result of British policy. [I strongly recommend the book that is referenced, Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts]

Another article well worth reading is this one in the Telegraph. It argues that rising demand in Asia for meat has less to do with the dramatic increase in prices than the switch to biofuel and speculation on the commodity trading markets [incidentally it is also commodity traders that are artificially raising the price of oil higher as well], citing the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. There certainly is an element of capitalism gone mad when we find that rain forest is being slashed and burned in Brazil to clear land to grow grain for "environmentally friendly" biofuel.


Blaming 'Feudalism' has become the lazy way of expressing 'concern' about Pakistan. It has become a catch-all phrase to describe and explain any kind of troubling social phenomena in the country. But what is this creature called feudalism anyway? Akbar Zaidi has an excellent article in Dawn arguing that the term is out of date and obscures far more than it helps to understand the social, economic and political realities of Pakistan.

Yet More Updates

Some interesting articles that serve to follow up on some of my previous posts:

The United States says it will release $200 million in emergency aid to alleviate food shortages in Africa and other parts of the world. While I hope this is a useful step, the cynic (realist?) in me wonders if this may not be another disaster in the making like the one where food aid arrived in a drought-stricken country a year late, and only served to bankrupt local farmers.

The Ghosts of Alexander blog has an interesting post called The Afghan Individual as a Unit of Analysis, which takes to task the intellectually lazy tendency amongst journalists and academics to "talks of groups in Afghanistan as if they were a coherent unit with a single will".

On a similar note, the folks over at the Kings of War blog, take aim at silly statements like this:

"Muslim countries are not like other countries. In as much as occupying troops are a much bigger theological, psychological problem for Arab countries than somewhere like Japan and Germany. And if you don't understand that about Islam, then you really aren't judging and you really haven't learned from the last four or five years."

Quite apart from the lazy, interchangable use of Muslim and Arab, one wonders if what the reporter in question is trying to suggest is that other racial/religious (same thing, no?) groups have much less of a problem being occupied by foreign troops than Arab/Muslims (same thing, no?)

The money quote from the blog: "Whenever I hear talk that smacks of cultural determinism, I reach for my revolver!"

I had also previously written about Obama's attempts to improve his image in Israel. The Rootless Cosmopolitan has an excellent article entitled "Obama and the Jewish Vote".

Barnett Rubin at 'Informed Comment: Global Affairs' provides the text to the policy speech of the ANP's Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the new Chief Minister of NWFP. Its worth reading, and as a policy statement, seems to me to be nuanced and sounding all the right notes. Lets hope the NWFP government has the ability and wherewithal to implement it.

Finally, I leave you with this excellent guest post by Alastair Cooke at the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog about Iraq and the U.S. faith in violence:
Although there are different ideas about how and when to use it, there is, I think, a consensus in Washington on the idea that by applying its overwhelming advantage in military force, the U.S. can do good in the world. It can make the world a better place through the transformative impact of violence, in the way that the violence of the hero in a Hollywood movie “cleanses” the world of incorrigible evil.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

More on the Global Food Crisis

Helena Cobban at 'Just World News' (which is an excellent source for analysis on current affairs), has an interesting post about the global food crisis, with some excellent links in it. Particularly noteworthy is the World Bank report that public order is at risk in 33 countries because of rising food prices.

Ms. Cobban also expresses the opinion that the global food crisis is going to bring about the end of 'America's unipolar moment'. She doesn't elaborate on why she feels this is so. To me, the idea seems counter-intuitive, since the United States is (a) a net exporter of grains and (b) sharply rising demand in the U.S. is driven by the switch to bio-fuel. So, to me at least, it seems as if the food crisis wouldn't cause serious harm to America's global standing and in fact, will probably strengthen it.

One of Ms. Cobban's ideas for a remedy is switching to a less meat-oriented diet. The background to this is that one of the reasons for the rise in food prices is the demand for meat by the growing middle classes in developing countries, particularly China and India. A rise in demand for beef burgers means a much larger rise in demand for grain since grains are used in feed for cows. Cows also take up much more agricultural land.

Now as this old article in the Guardian points out:
The basic rule of thumb is that it takes 2kg of feed to produce every kilogram of chicken, 4kg for pork, and at least 7kg for beef. The more meat we eat, the more grain, soya and other feedstuffs we need. So when we hear that the total global meat demand is expected to grow from 209m tonnes in 1997 to around 327m tonnes in 2020, what we have to hold in our mind is all the extra hectares of land required, all the extra water consumed, the extra energy burned, and the extra chemicals applied to grow the requisite amount of feed to produce 327m tonnes of meat.

So even if vegetarianism is not your thing, eating less beef and more chicken would still make a positive difference (and white meat is much healthier anyway). Still not convinced? Why not browse through this report on 'The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat', especially the graph comparing land use efficiency at the bottom of page 23. Beef has the lowest efficiency with 20 pounds of usable protein per acre, rice has 261 pounds of usable protein per acre and soybeans has the highest efficiency with 356 pounds per acre.

So roughly speaking, in the same amount of agricultural land it takes to feed 1 person with beef, you can grow enough rice to feed 13 people.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Storm in a Teacup (Again!)

The ability of the U.S. media to create storms in teacups is something truly to be admired. When its not Obama dressing up in a turban and traditional Kenyan dress, its the "revelation" that McCain went to topless bars when he was a younger...

Latest storm? Obama never mentioned in his biographies that he spent several weeks in Pakistan back in 1981. Add this to his Pakistani roomate at college and illegal immigrant Pakistani friend, and *gasp!* this all begins to smell of conspiracy!

In other news, Obama has launched a blog in hebrew in an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public, which, according to polls, feels his pro-Israeli crededentials are not as sound as the other two presidential candidates.

Someone asked me the other day if Benazir Bhutto could truly be considered a politician [I believe his point was that she was more a feudal princess than a modern politician]. I replied that I thought that she had been a very talented politician, and that the more pertinent question was, what was her political constituency? Its widely felt in Pakistani politics, that to be succesful, one has to be acceptable not only to the Pakistani people, but also to the American government. The American government, in other words, is an extra-national constituency of any leading Pakistani politician. In the same way, there seems to be the feeling in Washington, that the Israeli public is a key extra-national constituency for any American Presidential candidate.

Edit: So apparently I'm late with the 'breaking news' about Obama's Pakistan connection. Ali Khan blogs about it on the Dawn blog here.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Bits and Bobs

The recent fighting in Basra in Iraq has been dominating the international news. While Fox bemoans the 'defeatist' coverage of 'liberal' media, and CNN and BBC have reporting thats only marginally better, here is an interesting article about Muqtada al-Sadr. Its a chapter from an upcoming book by the Independent's reporter, Patrick Cockburn and makes for interesting reading.

On a different note, Slate has a good explainer on why global food prices are soaring. They also link to a chart showing the global food price index on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's website.

In light of food inflation and recessionary fears in the United States, the IMF had reduced its forecast of global economic growth last month and is now warning that the developing world should brace itself to suffer a knock on effect.

Ah, good news for the future, then.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

UAE forces in Afghanistan

It comes as a surprise to me, but if it will help with the reconstruction of the country then its for the best. Apparently, UAE forces have been operating in Afghanistan for several years now, which is unusual for an Islamic country.

Another interesting article is this one about the Taliban's relationship with mobile phone operators in Afghanistan by Barnett Rubin.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Global Food Crisis

I had posted last time about how the rising price of wheat is usually a larger factor in local politics than other matters. The thought came back to me when I was reading a recent Newsweek article about the protests in Tibet. One of the major complaints of protesters was the rise in food prices, though they placed it in the context of Chinese claims of great economic growth and investment in Tibet over the last few years. The protesters felt that the gains from this increasing wealth was only going to Han Chinese while they had to face increasing food prices.

Tibet is not the only place where this has happened. The internet is littered with news reports about rising prices from Canada to Gaza. This interesting article at the Global policy Forum asks the question 'Are We Approaching a Global Food Crisis?' and has some relevant facts and figures about global food prices.

As the article rightly points out the rises in food prices have a much larger impact in households with low incomes, and thus on poorer countries:
"Most consumers in rich countries are affected only marginally by higher food prices. But in poor countries, many consumers spend most of their income on food. So, higher prices mean smaller portions, fewer meals and consuming foods with lower nutritional value. To afford essential food needs, many low and middle-income households must also cut spending on education and health."

Furthermore, as the article points out, 70% of all developing countries are net importers of food, and the need to import food is a burden on the economy made worse by rising prices.

In Pakistan's case, in a good year, Pakistan's agricultural production more than meet's its requirement for wheat, while in a bad year it is forced to import. The government controls the wheat market by setting the price of wheat that is provided to the millers and then again setting the price of flour in the market. This price is not allowed to fluctuate beyond a narrow band, thereby ensuring that the price of flour remains low. Due to the rise in global prices, millers would make much more money if they exported wheat than if they sold it in the country, but the government only allows the export of flour that is surplus to the country's requirements.

The wheat crisis at the end of 2007 was sparked by a combination of greed and incompetence when the previous government announced a record bumper crop in wheat, with fudged statistics, and quickly granted permission to export half a million tonnes of wheat at $200 a tonne. When it became apparent that this bumper cop only existed on paper, various people in the flour supply chain (millers, retailers etc.) realized there was going to be a shortage, which at some point in the future was going to drive prices up, so they began hoarding flour rather than releasing it for sale at current, lower prices. There were also allegations of smuggling of wheat to Afghanistan (where domestic production of wheat has all but been replaced with opium anyway). However, I'm not sure how substantial the loss of wheat is through this channel. The previous government then heroically ignored the problem until their tenure was up and dumped the entire affair in the lap of the caretaker government that replaced them. They were forced to import wheat at the then global market rate of $500 per tonne and take various measures against hording.

Thus, while Pakistan would have faced the problem of food inflation anyway, the matter was made worse by a greed-induced artificial shortage.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Mysteries of the 'Muslim Mind'

For those who wish to unlock the mysteries of the 'Muslim Mind' I refer you to one of the best articles I have read in a long, long time. It is by Barnett Rubin and can be found here at the Informed Comment Global Affairs blog. Here is the money quote:

"Recently when a reporter who was gearing up for his first trip to the region by reading books on theology and political ideology asked me how it was possible for Hanafi Muslims like the Taliban to ally with Wahhabis like al-Qaida -- was it because the Deobandi school was closer to Wahhabism? I replied (with a pinch of exaggeration) that this had nothing to do with anything, and to understand the Taliban he would be better off looking into the price of bread.

Outside of Afghanistan people want to know if Deobandis are a type of Hanafis that are closer to Wahhabis, but inside Afghanistan all people think about is the price of bread."

This is so true. To some observers (including myself), it had become patently obvious that the PML-Q was going to be trounced in the elections (as long as they were unrigged) simply because of the wheat crisis in the country. After seeing lines of over 1000 people, mostly women, waiting for days outside government utility stores in the hope of being able to buy wheat, the mixture of despair and anger felt by the poor was all too palpable. And even when the PML-Q tried to blame the wheat shortage on the PPP and the unrest following Bhutto's assassination, the charge simply would not stick as the shortages dragged on and on, and their own government's role in manipulating wheat production figures and wheat smuggling became apparent.

To the average schmoe in Afghanistan/Pakistan etc., the issues of Jihad, Sharia, Palestine etc. really don't matter. They just want bread. Take, for an example, our cook. Over the last couple of weeks he would ask for updates about the political situation. Has the new Prime Minister been selected? When will the new Prime Minister be selected? Why is it taking so long for the Prime Minister to be selected? Yesterday his patience was wearing thin. With no Prime Minister yet, he commented, who are we going to complain to about the high price of wheat and food?

The NRO, the Afghan war, Sharia, Kashmir, Iraq, corruption, etc. None of that is what counts. Quiet simply, what matters is the price of bread.

Edit: And of course not long after I wrote this post I came across this article in today's papers about the bread shortage in Egypt and President Mubarak's attempts to combat it.

America's Most Unwanted

So the poll results are in, and we now have a clearer picture of which countries Americans like and dislike. The country which Americans view most favorably: Canada. (No surprises there.) The country they view most unfavourably: Iran. (No surprises there either.)

What about Pakistan? Well its there near the bottom of the pile, just above Afghanistan and below Cuba and Saudi Arabia. A whopping 72% of respondents view Pakistan unfavourably. Well how about that.

Bonus factoid: Republicans are more likely to view Pakistan favourably than Democrats.

Monday, 17 March 2008

On Zardari

I was all fired up to write a long post on Zardari and his ascension to power, and what this means for Pakistan, but I have found that the 'old China hand' has done a pretty good job of doing this at China Matters.

Here's a taster: "Zardari, in his own way, epitomizes the rot at the heart of the PPP just as Musharraf symbolizes the rot at the heart of the Pakistani government."

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Thoughts on the Other Musharraf

Some well-intentioned advice to my Bangladeshi friends:

Some years ago, you decided to part ways with Pakistan. As traumatic as that episode was, in hindsight, it was probably for the best. It seems though, that the military-bureaucratic elite can't quite break the mould in which it was originally cast and it is leading Bangladesh down the same, dusty, well-beaten path that Pakistan has trod so many times before. I would urge you very strongly to reconsider. This path will take you nowhere you want to go...

A Friend in Deed...

Interestingly enough, Major General Jay Hood, once head honcho of Guantanamo Bay has now been appointed chief of the Office of the Defense Representative in Islamabad. I wonder if our ISI generals are going to hold a special viewing of 'Khuda Key Liye' for him? Perhaps they can do dinner before the movie? There's a lovely little Italian Restaurant he might enjoy.

Interesting Blog on Afghanistan

On a slightly different note, here is an interesting new blog on Afghanistan. Some of the articles such as this one about local power structures in Afghanistan and the way in which NATO forces engage with them.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Dawn Blog

So the Dawn-wallahs now have a blog up and running. Dawn is, of course, probably the best English language daily in Pakistan. Though having said that, the News and the Daily Times have their charms as well.

Which War?

In the movie 'A Mighty Heart', based on the abduction and investigation of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Perle (and incidentally, a surprisingly good movie, I thought) there is a scene where Daniel Perle's wife meets with the Pakistan's Interior Minister, Moinuddin Haider (a retired Lt. general appointed to this important position by Musharraf). In this scene, Haider states that he has conclusive evidence that the kidnapping of Daniel Perle has been orchestrated by the Indian Intelligence Agency, RAW for the purpose of making Pakistan look bad in the foreign press. The viewer is struck by the absurdity of the claim, but what makes the episode (based on Marianne Perle's account of the encounter) truly painful is the feeling that the Pakistani state and its most powerful representatives are not only not interested in helping to look for the missing gentleman, but are so completely deluded about what his fate may be that any help that may be forthcoming is bound to be worse than useless.

I recalled this episode while watching Moinuddin Haider on a talk show on TV recently, speaking after the recent suicide attacks in Lahore. As he and various other high-ups in officialdom and semi-officialdom have so often done before, Mr. Haider was dropping veiled hints about the involvement of a 'foreign hand' in the suicide attacks and in Taliban militancy in Pakistan in general. He was more circumspect than he has been in the past, not naming names, and not talking about 'conclusive proof', as others have done, but saying that it only stands to reason that the money, training and material for the bombings/militancy must be provided by someone outside the country. Other military and government officials have not been as circumspect and have explicitly blamed India, Afghanistan, and even Israel.

While India has not been above supporting various nationalist separatist movements in Pakistan in the past, the accusation that it has developed ties to and is funding and fueling the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Pakistan is so absurd that one is somewhat at a loss for words. But the accusation continues to make the rounds, with plenty of people who seem to be willing to credit it. No wonder then, that even while we have several suicide bombings a week throughout the country, and there is such a sense of insecurity pervading the country as has never before been the case, and both the army and civilian law enforcement seem all but helpless in making inroads against this so-called Jihad being waged upon Pakistani society, STILL the Pakistani armed forces' priorities seem to be focused on finding newer and more expensive toys whose purpose is to wage war against India.

For some reason these people are convinced that if only the Americans leave Afghanistan, then all will be well in Pakistan once more. Just as all was well in the pre-9/11 years where the militants were free to wage sectarian war upon Shiites and other religious minorities as an extracurricular sideshow while serving the Pakistani army by waging 'Jihad' in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Yup, the good ole days, when all was well with Pakistani foreign and security policy, and there were no pesky Americans stirring up trouble....

The reason I find this so terribly depressing is that it shows, not only that the capability to address "Islamist" terror does not exist in Pakistan, neither does the will. And it is this second fact which is the kicker. The lack of capability can be addressed to a certain extent through exerted effort. But without the will to make that effort, we will keep stumbling along as we are.

The fact of the matter is that even if the United States and all its armies were to suddenly sink beneath the waves tomorrow and disappear from the face of the Earth, Pakistan would still be at war the day after. And, its not going to be one waged from Delhi.

Edit: These two articles, one from the News and one from Dawn, by anti-establishment intellectuals show the kind of confusion that is prevalent amongst potential policy-makers. They are very ready to point fingers but simply aren't able to suggest lines of action.

McCain? No Thanks.

As if this was not a good enough reason to hope McCain doesn't make it to the White House, there is also this. And here I was, fooled into thinking he was a reasonably sensible 'un (for a U.S. Presidential Candidate, which, truth be told, is setting the bar rather low).

Shall We Dance?

The case of the dancing Sheikh...

Thursday, 21 February 2008


Unfortunately my internet connection has been misbehaving over the last couple of weeks. It was down for about 10 days or so and even though it has undergone a series of repairs, is still somewhat temperamental.

So of course this means that a few peices I had planned to write in the run up to the election are now redundant.

And as for the election itself? Well, I did vote of course, despite the lack of any candidates that i felt like voting for. Some have argued that it was not worth voting in this election, but I strongly disagree. Even if you are going to register a protest vote (for someone who has no chance of winning), its still important to vote.

More on all that later.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

On Economic Miracles Part II

I wanted to try and put into context much of the rhetoric about the economic performance of the country during the Musharraf years (1999-2007). On the one side we have the loud claims on the side of the government about an economic miracle. On the other side we have a host of economists and opposition politicians sniping from the sidelines, sometimes making equally shrill claims of incompetence and impending economic disaster.

Has the economy ‘developed’ rather than simply grown? Is the growth sustainable? Has a platform for future economic growth been laid? Have the benefits of that growth had a positive social impact on the nation and its people? The government claims that this is so, arguing that their policies have placed the economy on a footing whereby it will be able to sustain growth at 7% to 8% annually for the foreseeable future.

Pakistani economists of one stripe or another, have advocated in the media one of three models of economic development. A general idea that runs through these is that a developing economy needs a large amount of capital investment, which spurs economic activity until ‘lift off’ is finally achieved when economic growth becomes self-sustaining and the effects of this growth permeates throughout society.

The first model, which I will call “The World Bank Model: Mark I”, was formulated in the 50s. It is based on the idea that to achieve ‘lift off’, an economy needs investment from abroad focused on promoting rapid GDP growth. This rapid growth will lead to industrialisation which will in turn allow the country to repay its loans. The movement of labour from rural to urban areas would feed industrialisation and allow the benefits of economic growth to ‘trickle down’ to the population at large. Eventually, once the supply of labour starts to contract, wages for the population will begin to rise. Living standards will rise and lo and behold! A fully developed society will result! A couple of elements were added to the this model in the 70s and 80s. Firstly, the growth of export-oriented industries was seen as key to achieving “lift off” – otherwise economies would remain in debt for a very, very long time. Secondly, the need for ‘responsible’ fiscal and monetary policies were emphasized –gotta pay off those loans.

The second model, which I will call “The World Bank Model: Mark II”, was formulated based on the experience of the preceding decades. It was belatedly realised that the wealth of most developing economies didn’t really trickle down, so much as pool at the top. It was therefore decided that certain institutional structures needed to be created, mostly to do with educational and health infrastructure as well as governance, if the channels for trickle down were to work effectively. The need for social sector and governance reforms was emphasized, not just because of 'fuzzy liberal' sentiment for the teeming masses, but because economists found that developing economies without social governance actually undermined economic growth. Opportunities for expansion were lost and instability ensued. This second model was given explicit shape in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2006. Shahid Javed Burki, a former World Bank economist and ex-Finance Minister of Pakistan, is a proponent of this approach, both in his columns in Dawn and in his book Changing Perceptions, Altered Reality: Pakistan’s Economy Under Musharraf, 1999-2006.

The third model, which I will call “The Slow GDP Growth Model” is gleaned from what I have read by the economist Qaiser Bengali. This model has a greater emphasis on government intervention in the economy, an emphasis on industrial growth for domestic consumption, low foreign debt and higher employment at the expense of a high GDP growth. The idea is to replace “trickle-down” with heavy government investment in social infrastructure in order to raise living standards, with explicit reference to China and India’s nurturing insular, state-dominated economies for a "gestation" period, allowing them to grow and attain a certain critical mass before subjecting them to global market forces. The idea is that a socio-economic foundation first needs to be laid before “lift off” can occur.

While the Musharraf government has made lip-service to adhering to the second model of development (it has to, since many of the country’s loans from institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and other foreign donors are tied to investing in the social sphere), it is obvious that it has not made any serious attempts to work in this regard. Policy and political will is focused on the first model of economic development. This sense is reinforced by listening to the various pronouncements of former PM Shaukat Aziz or former special adviser to the President and current Finance Minister, Salman Shah – their focus is all on GDP growth and foreign investment.

But the problem here is, not only is the first model flawed, but Pakistan’s economic performance does not even meet its relatively simplistic standards. The government has repeatedly claimed that they have placed the economy on a sound footing and the country is poised for “lift off”. [More recently, Musharraf has said that this position was being threatened by the Chief Justice’s ruling against the Steel Mill sale and the consequent deleterious effect on foreign investment.] But something both Shahid Burki and Qaiser Bengali, amongst just about every other dispassionate (and some rather impassioned) economic observers, have underlined, is that the claims that Pakistan has undergone an economic miracle is a myth.

Lets look at the country’s economy in terms of the First Model:

The government claims that its policies have led to:

  1. Foreign investment
  2. Increase in exports
  3. Increase in Foreign Reserves
  4. A decline in poverty
  5. Sustained economic growth

All seems to sit well with World Bank Model I, right? Maybe not. Lets look more closely.

1. Foreign investment was mostly confined to privatising existing state run enterprises, along with small, yet significant amounts in the stock market and in real estate. While the injection of foreign capital and management was expected to help improve these enterprises, investment in new industries has been tentative to say the least, and is only done in limited form with major concessions (50 year tax holidays, limited liability, etc.). Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is still very low and contributes very little to the economy. Pakistan is still considered too politically unstable to be an attractive proposition for long term investments. Anything that can’t be dumped for cash in quick order is risky.

2. The increase in exports have mostly been in primary goods – agricultural produce, cotton, etc. These are dependent on price fluctuations and seasonal variations. While the increase in global prices in a number of primary commodities have inflated the export ledger, its important to realise that percentage wise the export of industrial goods has dropped precipitously. For example, textile exports have actually declined, leading to the closure of hundreds of textile mills, but the export of raw cotton has increased. Furthermore, the rise in exports has not matched the rise in imports which have escalated at a far faster rate, which means that the balance of payments deficit is now at unprecedented levels.

3. Thanks to the global crackdown on money laundering, the vast amounts of money previously remitted through the ‘black’ hundi system from foreign workers now came through official channels. This had three consequences: these vast amounts were now taxed, providing additional revenue to the government; the local banks were flush with cash, [which along with banking sector reforms and the introduction of newer technologies (ATMS, credit cards etc.) spurred the boom in consumer credit financing]; foreign exchange reserves grew. Foreign exchange reserves were also bolstered by three other windfalls; heaps of money from the United States for participation in the War on Terror; the sale of state enterprises as part of the ‘privatisation’ process; the cancellation or rescheduling of foreign debt post 9-11, and a geopolitical climate conducive to new loans on generous terms. I term all of these ‘windfalls’ because they arose from particular situations external to the economy and may not come again. The U.S. money tap will close someday (perhaps sooner, perhaps later); the state will run out of stuff to privatise; and the rescheduled loans will eventually come due once more. The Pakistani economy needs to be able to handle its balance of payments before this happens. Which it currently can’t.

4. A decline in poverty? Statistics in this field have become a free for all. Government sponsored reports insist that poverty is declining. NGOs beg to differ. Its probably safe to say that the data is inconclusive. The problem is not just of current data, but of past data as well. Approximately a third of the population earns less than a dollar a day. But whether or not that is defined as poverty is debatable. And whether or not that figure is a significant decrease from previous years is also debatable. But given increasing inflation, especially food inflation, which far outstrips the rise in GDP per capita, or increases in minimum wage etc., its safe to say that while figures on poverty are debatable, the purchasing power of a large chunk of the population has been decreasing over the last few years, particularly the urban poor and agricultural wage workers.

Perhaps more to the point is the question about whether the Pakistani economy has moved (or is moving) to the point presented in the ‘World Bank Model I’ where the benefits of the growing economy can trickle down to the population at large. The answer is a resounding ‘no’. Firstly, most of the economic growth has been in the services sector, which has created upward economic oppurtunities almost exclusively for the educated, urban middle classes. Few jobs have been added to the economy. There has been very little industrial growth. Agribusiness has benefited landholding farmers, particularly those who own middle and large sized land holdings (or institutions like the army which owns huge tracts of agricultural land) – but this has basically been confined to parts of the country (incidentally building on the success of the transport infrastructure built there during the Nawaz years). Agricultural productivity is limited by the lack of credit, transport, irrigation and other oppurtunities to large tracts of land, particularly in Sindh, Balochistan and southern Punjab.

5. Is the current economic growth sustainable? The answer has to be ‘not yet’, given that the trade deficit is so high, that investments are skewed towards speculative sectors, that the country has a very low investment to national savings ratio, and that growth has been focused on the service sectors, particularly banking, which itself is exposed to a wide variety of consumer loans. These consumer loans were driving growth in other sectors where the performance was good, such as agribusiness and the automobile industry. Already, the banks have started drawing back from these sectors (several banks have stopped giving auto loans for example). The government itself is now borrowing very heavily from local banks and the wave of inflation coming from the rise in oil prices is only now going to hit the economy (so far the government has been subsidising costs through various ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, dipping into the National Reserves, and borrowing). On top of this are infrastructural failures which are active hindrances to further growth, such as the energy crisis, poor human resource development, underdeveloped infrastructure, lack of foreign markets and of course the political instability. Its all very well to sell off existing industries and talk about the money you have made. But the conditions for more industries to be created simply are not being put into place. 'Lift off' has not yet been achieved.

Now all of these are criticisms from the standpoint of ‘World Bank Model I’. There are more criticisms to be made if we look at matters from the perspective of the other two models. Unfortunately I don’t really have the time to go into them at this point in time (I do have a job and a family after all). Perhaps that can await a later post.

Update: Kaiser Bengali recently gave a talk in which he expounded on his criticisms of economic development. I find his characterization of Pakistan in the 50s, 60s and 70s as a development state, and in the 80s, 90s and 00s as a 'national security state' an interesting and informative tool.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

On Economic Miracles

Having been viciously struck down by the flu, I have been unable to blog much in recent times, even though there has been a great deal of grist for the mill.

By now the myth of Musharraf's economic miracle has been pretty much punctured, but just in case one wants some more details on the topic, here is some interesting reading:

An Interview with the economist Qaiser Bengali from The News which can be found here at Watandost.

An article from Dawn on the atrocious decline in Pakistan's social indicators as measured by the Human Development Index.

Just below the above article, in the same issue of Dawn is an article about the officially sanctioned abuse of public funds by the previous government even as food inflation reduces the purchasing power of ordinary people. One, amongst many startling figures noted in the article; "A report in this paper on Oct 23, 2007 said, ‘Government spends Rs 65 million on overseas treatment of 18 bigwigs’ and ‘that too in a country where the public per capita health expenditure is a measly Rs 360’." Yes, you read that right, the government spent Rs. 3,611,111 per head for the treatment of 18 rich members of the ruling class, while its average expenditure on the layman was Rs. 360 ($5.7) per person, most of which is not spent on treatment, but on infrastructure (building maintenance, electricity bills, the health ministry, etc.). To make further sense of why this happens, I refer you to my earlier post on how the state serves the elite, while failing the poor.

Finally, here is a report that the Caretaker Prime Minister, Mohammad Mian Soomro, has had to form a committee to "ascertain the accuracy, reliability and credibility" of the economic data put forward by the previous government. It seems, not unsurprisingly, that some of the data broadcast by the previous government as 'proof' of their economic achievements has proved to be unreliable. Surprise, surprise!


Edit: And on top of it all, here is an article in today's issue of The News about Pakistan's social sector and an analysis of the weaknesses of its social policy.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

Great People To Fly With

This may have been a great PIA ad campaign in 1979, but I suspect it would not be received well these days...

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

State Failures

Much ink has been spilt over whether or not Pakistan is a failed state. The question, I think, is somewhat misleading, because few who argue one side or the other of the question care to think about what the functions of the state in Pakistan are. Given that the state apparatus was created to promote and protect the wealth and power of a small segment of society, can its inability or unwillingness to promote the welfare of the rest of society be accounted a failure?

Leaving such questions aside, there is no doubt that for a great number of people in Pakistan, the state continuously fails to provide them with the bare basics of what is expected from any modern state. This was vividly illustrated in the sad case of Mudassar Alam.

Mudassar Alam was a 14 year old resident of Hyderabad who on 21st November was punished by his 4th grade teacher in the government school he attended reportedly for not doing his homework. He was beaten, then forced to do 100 sit-ups. When he complained of severe abdominal pains, the teacher believed he was making excuses and forced him to continue with the corporal punishment. Afterwards, in severe pain, he skipped out from school and went home, where his parents became worried and rushed him to the nearby government hospital. According to a media report, "He was catheterized for not being able to pass stool or urine", was "suffering from acute low blood pressure and very high pulse rate" and his "Intestine were jumbled and perforated, and turned blackish due to blocked blood circulation."

The doctors at the government hospital operated on the boy, but pus developed in the wound in his perforated intestine and he had to be operated on a second time. After almost two months in hospital, the boy passed away. As for the quality of the medical care received by Mudassar, it is worth mentioning this quote from the boy's father on his death:

""On Thursday when my wife complained to on duty doctor that her son is oozing some whitish liquid from his mouth doctor didn’t pay attention and said it normally happens. But when his condition deteriorated and nurse examined him he had lost his life by then,” the weeping father said."

The father, by the way, was an agricultural worker, who worked in a nearby banana orchard. He lost his job the day he took his son to hospital and was replaced, because of course, there are no labour protection laws that apply to the vast majority of the poor in this country.

Initially no action was taken against the teacher who resorted to corporal punishment. In fact, he tried to pay off the family with a bribe of 15,000 rupees in return for a statement from them saying that the boy had been seriously ill before he had come to school that day. To force the parents of the child into compliance, he threatened them with his "contacts" in "intelligence agencies". It was only after the case was reported in the media [about two weeks after the incident] that the government's Education Department finally stirred itself into suspending the teacher and launching an inquiry. A month and a half later, the inquiry still has not reached any kind of conclusion. The Education Department however, did say, that they could not offer any kind of financial help to the student or his family.

Taking this as a test case, it is clearly apparent that the state failed in the provision of education, failed in the provision of healthcare, failed in the provision of justice, failed in the provision of labour rights and finally failed to exercise self-accountability in order to guard against future failures. Interestingly enough, the specter of the "intelligence agencies" were also used as an instrument of coercion in an attempt to hush up the incident, though ultimately this failed to silence the affair - perhaps because the teacher's connection to these "intelligence agencies" was fictional. Had a more well-connected personage been behind the incident, we may have seen the state succeeding in doing what it does best - serving the interests of the elite.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Cracking Up?

After the assasination of Bhutto, I argued that while the country was heading for [even more] political instability, it was not in danger of breaking up. I did add the following comment though:

"This is not to say that our political leaders might not still manage to drag the entire nation into chaos - its possible I suppose, given the state of affairs and the seemingly miraculous ability of our political leaders to really make a mess of things. However, that will require some effort and a whole series of mis-steps."

Well it certainly seems as if the first of those mis-steps have now been duly taken by our erstwhile leaders. How? By playing the ethnicity card.

The prime culprits are the PML-Q. Perhaps realizing that their opponents in the PPP are pretty much going to sweep rural Sindh, they seem to have decided to jettison any hope of winning there and have resorted to whipping up hatred against Sindhis in order to bolster their hopes in other parts of the country. The Chaudhries and their party have, among other things, accused Sindhis of being responsible for all the violence following Benazir's death, have alleged that all the victims of the violence were Punjabis, Mohajirs and other ethnic groups, have alleged that ethnic cleansing was carried out by Sindhis during the violence and have called for government financial assistance for those who lost property in the violence to only be paid to non-Sindhis.
With great hoopla, the PML-Q set up a 'refugee camp' in Lahore to house Punjabi refugees supposedly ethnically-cleansed from Sindh.

During the violence several trains were stopped on the tracks and burnt after rioters forced their passengers to disembark. Railway signals were also destroyed. This brought the country's railroads to a halt, with thousands of passengers stranded at small stations in the interior of Sindh without food or shelter for several days. Since the violence occurred only a few days after Eid, the trains had been packed with people returning from holidays with their families to their places of work - a large number were people from homes in the Punjab and NWFP returning to Karachi. The PML-Q has also given this disruption an ethnic flavour, presenting it as violence against Punjabis. The image of trains under attack particularly resonates because it was one of the features of the violence of Partition - violence that was especially severe in the Punjab and memories of which still linger in the national consciousness.

Unsurprisingly, there were sensationalized reports of the rape of Punjabi women by Sindhis - as always the spectacle of the 'others' threatening 'our' womenfolk is always a guaranteed crowd-puller in a society dominated by notions of machismo and honour. Given the problems the PML-Q is having pulling in crowds for their election rallies, its not surprising they have turned to these kinds of tactics to counter the so-called 'sympathy wave' that is expected to benefit the PPP following Bhutto's death.

The ethnicity card has been heavily criticized by human rights activists, members of the PPP and the PML-Q's coalition partner, the MQM. Even the Punjabi Students Association of Sindh has condemned the irresponsibility of the PML-Q.

Needless to say, the government is silent on the issue.

Having said all this, one should keep in mind that the rhetoric of ethno-nationalism is not new, and certainly not the sole purview of the PML-Q. The Baluch insurgency has long been fueled by talk of Punjabi domination. It was once a mainstay of shrill MQM rhetoric, [though these days it tends to be muttered under breath rather than announced in election speeches] and many Sindhi politicians complain about a Mohajir-Punjabi nexus that dominates the government and economy. Benazir Bhutto herself stirred the pot a couple of days before she returned to Pakistan in October by making a very inflamatory statement at a press conference in Dubai about how after a coup the military hanged her father, a Prime Minister from Sindh, but allowed Nawaz Sharif, a Prime Minister from Punjab, to live in luxurious exile. [Which of course begs the question, did she think Nawaz Sharif should have been killed as well, just to make things fair?]

It has been a long time since one has heard the level of hate-speech and calumny that one is now hearing in the country. One can only hope that better sense prevails and that the various political figures stop digging their fingernails into the cracks that are appearing in the Federation. But its not just the rhetoric that has to change. To a large extent, these trends are the reflection of a national political process that is severely damaged and a strong sense of alienation from the state which is felt by large sections of the populace. People who can sense that the state does not operate in their interests are more open to the suggestion that it operates in the interests of people of another ethnicity.