The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan

Karachi – awash with blood

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Photograph: Getty Images

The residents of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, are no strangers to death and destruction. One of its most popular bazaars was bombed in the 1980s.  Its parks have been strewn with human flesh. Its roads have been full of men shooting blindly at anyone and everyone. Its alleyways have been home to bodies in gunny bags.

Over the past few decades, Karachi’s battle-weary citizens have grown familiar to thedepressing series of headlines, and now, to “targeted killings.” Over 1,000 people were killed in the first ten months of 2010, a 15-year high, and 43 people have been killed since March 18.

As I write this, news comes in that a 17-year-old man’s body has been found, after being missing for two days. He was shot four times – in the head, back and hand. He is another victim of “target killings,” though the term does not encompass who is being targeted, and why. On paper, the “who” is simple: The victims include members of political parties, religious organizations and groups with criminal links. People have been targeted on the basis of their ethnicity – shot for being Baloch,Mohajir (those who immigrated from what is now India following partition) or Pashtun, or because of personal enmity. The question of ‘why’ is far more difficult to understand. Many of the deaths are a clear-cut case of revenge. The death of a political party member, especially from those parties that were formed on ethnic platforms, is enough to provoke their members to engage in tit-for-tat killings.

Political parties have made loud noises of how these targeted killings are an attempt to “destabilize” Karachi, the country’s economic capital. The death of even one person sparks another round of “targeted killings,” derails the fragile political coalition and the security situation. Who gains from this instability? Opponents of the government, for one, who can point a finger at the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and say it is not serious about controlling crime. The small-time gangs, jostling for a piece of the lucrative pie that is Karachi, use the killings in an attempt to show their importance. The various mafias that control the drugs and arms trade or are involved in land-grabbing and extortion also use the killings to give political cover to what is sometimes justpetty murder.

Any analysis of Karachi’s violence is made complicated by the variety of killers operating in the city at any given time. On the one hand there are the criminal gangs large and small, who can arrange anything from a kidnapping to a murder for a price – whether it be money or political favors. And on the other, many political parties have provided patronage to groups of trigger-happy individuals ready at their beck and call, fuelled by a combination of party ideology, ethnic and sectarian hatred.

To their credit, the cooler heads in the main political parties in Karachi – the ethnic Muhajir Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Pashtun-dominated Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP – have all appealed for peace. The ANP has even advocated calling in the army to deal with the violence.

But taking ownership of difficult decisions is a burden few want to bear. When the paramilitary Rangers started a search operation in the low-income area of Orangi Town, the Sindh Home Minister claimed that he, the provincial chief minister and the city police chief had not been informed beforehand. So did Interior Minister Rehman Malik, despite the fact that the Rangers come under the purview of his ministry.

The fragile relationship between the MQM and the PPP is hanging by a thread, and the MQM has publicly said the government must do more to act against criminal groups.

But even if political parties are serious about stopping target killings, the underlying causes of crime have been left unresolved. The sale of licensed and illegal weapons continues unabated. The legal system is beset with lags and threats to prosecuting lawyers, and the untrained and badly equipped police are largely incapable of carrying out any proper action without running into bureaucratic snags, turf wars and political conflicts. Kidnappers and extortionists have plagued businessmen. And police “raids” net scores of people – often based on their ethnic affiliation – fueling further discontent amongst the families who have to endure constant police harassment and limiting the ability of the security services to operate.

There are no easy solutions to the issue, and the PPP is in the unenviable position of having to shoulder the responsibility alone. But as the city’s morgues fill uppolitical parties will have to realize that they cannot afford to sit back and simply make grandiose statements; it is time for action to fix what ails Karachi.

This post was originally published on AfPakChannel

Written by Saba Imtiaz

April 4, 2011 at 6:06 am

Pakistan on the UN Human Development Index

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Pakistani flood victims aboard US Mairne helicopter during humanitarian relief efforts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Image credit: Flickr user DVIDSHUB

Apologies for the lack of posts, dear readers (yes, both of you), but I’ve been rather busy. Personal update – I’ve moved to Hong Kong and started a new job. I’m now a staff hack for a financial magazine, so my trade is going to be equities, fixed income and currency wars rather than political inequity, fixed dictators and military wars. Never fear, I shall endeavour to update this blog as frequently as I can, which will hopefully not be too infrequently. My first topic since my hiatus is a rather pithy one – the UN Human Development Index.

While I’ve always been highly sceptical about sweeping indices that rank states on opaque definitions based on broad categories (my thoughts on the “Failed States Index” can be found here), I do generally consider UN indices to be a bit more interesting. Don’t ask me why, this isn’t based on any well-researched comparison of the UN versus the think tanks, perhaps I’m just an old-school multilateralist and tend to trust the UN a little more than I should. The UN relies on a number of international agencies for its data, making it incredibly difficult to meaningfully analyse the way the index is created.

But regardless, humour me and let’s consider the latest UN Human Development Index. Let’s at least pretend that its findings can be of some use to us. The report says not to compare rankings to previous reports because different indicators and calculations have been used, which makes it difficult to interpret the report in any meaningful way politically, or in terms of year-by-year development, but perhaps we can make some geopolitical comparisons.

With reference to Pakistan, one trend factor that we can look at is a comparison with other countries in the region. The obvious comparisons are of course to India (119), Bangladesh (129) and Afghanistan (155), and while Pakistan outpaces Afghanistan rather handily, this should not be seen as any kind of victory.

Afghanistan is a war zone without a functioning central government. Say what you want about army offensives, terrorist attacks in major cities and the ineffectiveness of Zardari’s government, Pakistan is not Afghanistan. I am even less an expert on Bangladesh than I am on Pakistan, so it’s difficult to make a real comparison there. However, there’s no doubt that Bangladesh, as an even younger nation than Pakistan, has made great strides.

The most tempting comparison to make is, of course, the traditional rivalry – Pakistan and India – but by no means is it a perfect one. It is notable that despite Pakistan’s geopolitical position with a 10 year long war next door, a damaging domestic insurgency and a less effective central government, it only appears 6 places behind a country often considered to be China’s most direct competitor in rising power status. Moreover, it is notable that Pakistan has a higher life expectancy at birth than India and a higher mean in years of schooling.

India is a much larger, more diverse, more populous and more stable country, much of that owing to factors beyond both its, and Pakistans, control. These factors play both to India’s advantage and its disadvantage, but judging from them, and they are incredibly broad factors, I’d say Pakistan is doing reasonably well given the many outside threats that hold it back.

This is no reason for Pakistan to rest on its laurels though. The country still lags far behind Sri Lanka (91) and is embarrassingly outpaced by impoverished, unstable countries like Equatorial Guinea (117), Timor Leste (120) and the Solomon Islands (123). Pakistan is only one spot above Congo (126).

To be contrarian, and play devil’s advocate to my own post, you can take these with a grain of salt. Numbers tempt us into a web of assumptions but the reality is, given the rather opaque way in which this index was created, it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from a one or two rank difference. One conclusion that I’ve made, based on little hard data but a feeling in my gut, is that Pakistanis have much to celebrate and much to bemoan. The relative successes listed above can perhaps be attributed to the ongoing willpower, resilience and determination of the Pakistani people in the face of many challenges. However, if Pakistan is to realise its potential, it needs to empower its civil government and institutions through a viable democratic process, the eradication of corruption and meaningful infrastructure development. Unfortunately, with the devastating floods, the grinding poverty, the decade-long war next door and the spiralling violence, these things appear to be far easier said than done. We can only pray.

 

 

Written by alexlobov

November 8, 2010 at 2:16 am

Pakistan Army accused of extrajudicial killings in Swat. Again.

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This video, which has been doing the rounds on the internet for over a week, allegedly depicts the Pakistani Army engaging in an extrajudicial execution of six unidentified men, purportedly in the Swat region. It was reported on blogs and Twitter, but the mainstream media was slow to pick it up, and most interestingly, so was Human Rights Watch.

Since then, it has been picked up by several agencies, and while it was also briefly linked to the Indian Army in Kashmir, most of the discussion seems in favour of declaring it the real Pakistani deal.

The New York Times report:

But American officials, who did not want to be identified because of the explosive nature of the video, said it appeared to be credible, as did retired American military officers and intelligence analysts who have viewed it.

After viewing the graphic video on Wednesday, an administration official said: “There are things you can fake, and things you can’t fake. You can’t fake this.”

Al Jazeera English has a better report that delves deeper into the video and its authenticity:

An organisation called the International Pashtuns’ Association posted the video on Facebook and says that the incident took place during the military’s crackdown on the Pakistani Taliban in the Swat valley the summer of 2009.

The uniforms and rifles appear to be consistent with Pakistan’s standard military equipment, and a former Pakistani general told Al Jazeera that while the video could not be verified, the images should be taken seriously.

“We have to take it at face value at the moment, and take it seriously,” said Talat Masood. “My view is that the CIA and ISI are in a much better position to authenticate this.”

“It looks as though they are Pakistani troops, but there are several other aspects that need to be re-checked  before we can say that it is authentic.”

Human rights groups say the video fits in with “credible allegations” they have received about the conduct of Pakistani troops. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in June that 282 extra-judicial killings by the army had taken place in the Swat region in the past year.

The AJE report also includes responses from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who also say that the video is consistent with numerous reports in the past of the Pakistani Army engaging in such executions. Indeed, both HRW and the NYT have reported it in the past.

The Pakistani Army has, predictably, denied reports and declared the video fake.

The real question is over what fallout this will cause.

Reuters says that it could threaten US aid to Pakistan and includes a quote from State Department spokesman PJ Crowley: “Human rights and the issue of extra-judicial killings has been a part of our ongoing conversation … with Pakistan.” I’d say that quote pretty much sums up the US response, an “ongoing conversation” is vague enough to indicate some sort of action, but nothing concrete or real.

Scarecrow at Fire Dog Lake sums up the inconsistency in relation to drone attacks:

But then one must ask whether there is some moral or legal distinction between what the Pakistan forces are alleged to be doing, which if true would be an egregious crime and warrant protests from all civilized nations, and what our own military teams are doing when they observe a Pakistani village or group of individuals via drone cameras and then, from targeting rooms that may be located in the US, direct the drones to bomb and kill those individuals. Because I’m having a hard time seeing a meaningful difference.

Indeed, it is difficult to find a meaningful difference. Moreover, there’s the much publicised case of Anwar al-Awlaki, and reportedly three other US citizens, all of which are in line to be assassinated by the US Army. Legal challenges to these assassinations have been blocked by the Obama Administration by invoking the State Secrets doctrine to shield it form judicial review. And, of course, there’s the ongoing protection of those involved in Bush-era torture allegations.

So is the US going to withhold aid from Pakistan or take any real action over these killings? Hell no, there won’t even be a statement of condemnation. Why? Because obviously, the Obama Administration doesn’t care. It will put sanctions on Iranian diplomats for torture, but it’s not going to censure a key strategic ally for the war in Afghanistan. In this case, American exceptionalism must, to some extent, be extended to strategic allies.

So anyone looking for something concrete to come out of this, don’t hold your breath. Instead, just wait for it to blow over, as undoubtedly it will.

Written by alexlobov

October 1, 2010 at 5:37 pm

On Aafia Siddiqui’s conviction

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Pakistani protesters burn effigies of US President Obama and former Pakistani President Musharraf in Multan (PHOTO: REUTERS)

It was bound to create controversy and outrage in a country fixated with Dr. Aafia Siddiqui. The sentencing of the Pakistani neuroscientist — dubbed the ‘Grey Lady of Bagram,’ the ‘daughter of Pakistan’ and ‘Prisoner 650′ by her supporters — in a New York court on Thursday has riled many in Pakistan, including the government that had campaigned for her release.

But other than the typical and expected anti-U.S. comments made by Aafia Siddiqui’s supporters, anger was directed at the Pakistani government. On Thursday night, Siddiqui’s sister Fauzia addressed a press conference minutes after the ruling (86 years imprisonment on seven counts) and said it was a “slap on the face of our rulers and every leader of the Muslim world” and that she had been reassured by government officials that Aafia would be repatriated. She accused the Pakistani government of “selling Aafia out repeatedly.”

It is an ironic state of affairs. The Pakistani government, which had reportedly paid $2 million for Siddiqui’s legal defense, made her into a folk hero of sorts and regularly communicated with her family, is now taking the heat. Politicians appeared instantly on television channels to denounce the government for not acting in time to ‘save the daughter of Pakistan.’ Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told Pakistan’s upper house of parliament that the government was trying to initiate an extradition treaty for Aafia Siddiqui’s release. “We did not spare any effort,” Gilani claimed, and said “Dr. Aafia is the daughter of the nation. We fought for her and we will fight politically to bring her back.”

Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani said in an e-mail interview, “We have made sincere efforts to help her legally and diplomatically and will continue to do so. We understand Fauzia Siddiqui’s grief but it is sheer fantasy to believe that Aafia’s imprisonment is because of the Pakistani government’s inaction or that the Pakistani government could somehow spring her from prison in the U.S. In over two years since her reported arrest in Ghazni, the government of Pakistan has sought but not received evidence from those issuing statements on her behalf that could disprove the U.S. government’s version of events.”

Fauzia Siddiqui said in an interview with Dawn News that she had been fooled by Amb. Haqqani and alleged that he had told her he privately met with the judge presiding over the case.

Aafia’s comments before her sentencing were a mix of confusion and conspiracies. According to Al Jazeera English, “She disputed her lawyer’s claim that she is mentally unfit to stay on trial, then went on to talk about her dreams and the symbolism of her dreams, genetic testing, her belief that Israel is behind the attacks of September 11, 2001, and that Israel was plotting with her prison warden to attack the United States.” She claimed she was not being mistreated and appealed to her supporters to not turn to violence. Fauzia repeated Aafia’s call for calm, but also said that she had been forced to make a statement saying she was not mistreated and invoked gory visions. “Have you forgotten the hearings when she would appear covered in blood, her face would be swollen and (her body) would bear marks of being hit by rifles?”

And so the sentencing was used — as most volatile incidents are — to stage public protests countrywide.

Members of civil society and the religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Jamiat Talaba clashed with the police in Karachi and Islamabad. Their aim was to protest outside the U.S. consulate and embassy in the respective cities. On Thursday night, protestors in Peshawar burned tires and stomped on posters of former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Political parties rarely call for protests after suicide bombings, but the Jamaat-e-Islami called for countrywide protests shortly after Aafia’s sentencing. Breathless condemnations of the sentencing came in almost instantly from political parties. A high-level meeting was chaired by Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik on Friday evening to form a committee on Aafia’s repatriation.

While Pakistani leaders have often been accused of dragging their feet on the issues that matter — be it condemning terrorist acts, clamping down on militant activities or ensuring transparent flood relief efforts — Aafia Siddiqui’s sentencing has kick started everyone into action.

The millions displaced by the floods in Pakistan, thousands languishing in jail awaiting trial and the countless women who are victims of honor killings, mistreatment in jails and discrimination will not see anyone rallying for their cause. Not acting swiftly to help them — who should also be dubbed daughters of Pakistan and supported by politicians — is the real injustice. Instead, the focus continues to be on the woman with the explosive purse, an illustrious past, a dubious story and now, an 86-year sentence.

This post was originally published on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel blog here.

Other stories I’ve done on Aafia Siddiqui’s case:

WikiLeaks: Aafia Siddiqui’s incriminating purse – The Express Tribune

Not a daughter of Pakistan – AfPak Channel

Written by Saba Imtiaz

September 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm

63.

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Its hard to recall an Independence Day in recent history that has not come with a feeling of overwhelming depression.

The Independence Day of my childhood is a distant memory – listening to “Dil Dil Pakistan” by Vital Signs on repeat, watching the parade in Lahore (a city I grew out of love with at the same time that the Sharifs turned it into an almost Legoland-like version of itself), buying flags.

The Independence Day of my adulthood is very different, marked with cynicism and the wonder that this country has managed to survive for so long.

This year, that feeling is magnified as Pakistan faces the worst natural disaster in its history. Floods have ravaged the country, with $1 billion worth of crops destroyed, millions displaced, over a thousand dead, and diseases spreading rapidly through those affected. Houses, lands, livestock, lives – gone. Tales of corruption and deprivation emerge from deluged areas, of those who have lost everything and have no one to turn to, of people who have been cut off from the rest of the country.

As midnight approaches,  there will be celebratory gunfire in my neighbourhood from those who choose to mark occasions such as Independence Day with shooting aimlessly in the air. There was gunfire a few weeks ago near my house too, as rioters made store owners close up to protest an MQM legislator being killed in Karachi, another victim in a wave of targeted killings that has claimed over 200 lives.

There will be no celebrations in Pakistan tomorrow, officially. But there will be the same questions. How exactly has this country survived?

As Cyril Almeida wrote in today’s Dawn about the economic crisis:

The challenges may be grim, but they are not insurmountable — yet. What is terrifying some people in Islamabad, however, is the attitude of the present government. Like first-class passengers demanding caviar on a sinking Titanic, the federal government seems supremely unaware of the storm that is slowly engulfing it.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

August 14, 2010 at 1:50 am

Posted in Pakistan

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Wikileaks: Friend or Foe in Afghanistan?

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The most famous guy from Townsville since Keith Urban.

This piece was originally published on Foreign Policy’s Afpak Channel, titled “Getting A Grip on WikiLeaks

By now, most readers are aware of what The Guardian calls “a huge cache of secret U.S. military files” that was leaked online by WikiLeaks on Sunday. There are more than 90,000 records and it will take journalists, pundits, and researchers a very long time to pore over all of them, but The GuardianThe New York Times and Der Spiegel, which received the leaked records several weeks ahead of time, carried out the initial analysis.

You can find the dedicated pages set up by the newspapers by clicking the links above, or if you have a lot of free time on your hands, browse the entire set so far released on the WikiLeaks website. For those with less time, Gregg Carlstrom has a solid selection of the key points to have been reported thus far up at Al Jazeera English.

Many of the responses from commentators, particularly from experts on the conflict, have been unimpressed. CNAS fellow Andrew Exum called the records “merely additional examples of what we already knew” in the New York Times, and was even more dismissive in his initial responseon his blog. Afghanistan analyst Joshua Foust called the bulk of the newspaper reports from the three above “low-hanging fruit” and wrote at length about the possible danger this leak has created for sources that were carelessly not redacted by WikiLeaks. Steve Schippert of Threats Watch finds this “latest episode amusing at best and reckless at minimum.” And so on.

Much of the discourse in the wake of this leak has also been about Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. Some have asserted that Assange is “a master of making it about himself,” that he has “a flair for public relations” and that he’s more of an “activist” than a journalist. These assertions are another failure of perspective. The media landscape is full of journalists with opinions and entire publications that blur the line between activism and journalism. This is not new. It also is not at all uncommon for journalists to use stories to bolster their careers and publications routinely build readership by getting “scoops” published. Journalism is a competitive industry and being good at public relations shouldn’t be viewed as something insidious.

Firstly, I agree that the failure by WikiLeaks to make more effort at redactions to protect individuals from reprisals is contemptible. I also agree that those that have been watching Afghanistan closely, even over just the past few years, may not find it at all surprising that Pakisan’s ISI is heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan, or that there are many instances of seemingly recklessfriendly fire incidents and IEDs causing civilian casualties. Many may not even by surprised by reported Iranian involvement in maintaining the Afghan insurgency or rumors of Osama bin Laden’s death. These things have been talked about for a while now and, some (like the ISI business) more credible than others (like OBL’s death), but WikiLeaks has not, thus far, been able to present hard evidence of any of them, leaving many of us exactly where we started off before the leak.

What I disagree with is the lack of perspective shown by so many writers and analysts in their failure to see the forest for the trees. Assange may be sketchy and WikiLeaks may be anti-war but the narrative constructed from this raw data is being funnelled through three respectable publications that have long reported on the war. The reason why the “War Logs,” as they are called by the Guardian, are important is not that they provide groundbreaking new information or even explosive evidence to back up old information. They are important because of the sheer scale of documentation and because of the overall picture they paint of the war, considering that this is a war that is steadily approaching the nine year mark and has cost taxpayers in the U.S. alone almost $200b. And the public, particularly in coalition countries and the many countries in the region that this war has a direct impact on, still needs to think about this war.

Of the government statements in response to this leak, my favorite so far has been Senator John Kerry’s initial take:

However illegally these documents came to light, they raise serious questions about the reality of America’s policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan. Those policies are at a critical stage and these documents may very well underscore the stakes and make the calibrations needed to get the policy right more urgent.

So yes, there is little that’s new (so far) in these “War Logs” and, yes, we know little about Julian Assange and his motivations and, sure, if you don’t trust the man and are an expert on the conflict, then feel free to disregard this story completely. Whether you believe that this war should end or not, it’s safe to say that it isn’t going very well and, at the very least, we should welcome an opportunity for the public to reassess and rethink whether, to them, this is a war that is still worth it. For that purpose, then, the “War Logs” can’t do any harm.

Written by alexlobov

July 29, 2010 at 4:07 pm

All bomb blasts are not created equal

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All bomb blasts are not created equally.

This is why TV anchors will mumble about ‘places of worship’ and shriek about a shrine being bombed.

It is why cinemas are closed today, but not for the victims of another attack.

If all attacks were equal, this one on a shrine – less than 2 weeks ago – would not have gone widely ignored.

All victims are not created equal.

It is why the attack on Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel is mentioned far more than the one on Peshawar’s Meena Bazaar.

Pakistanis, and the world at large, have created icons that represent this country.

It is why fashion week is triumphant and defiant, and ordinary Pakistanis who go out to work aren’t.

It is why Aafia Siddiqui is a ‘hero‘, but the way this woman has been disparaged – first by Pervez Musharraf and now by PPP legislator Jamshed Dasti is hardly cause for concern.

Pakistan is more than one person, one sect, one religion, one political party, one attack. It is more than a Newsweek cover or a Kipling reference.

The failure to recognise this is part of this country’s misfortune.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

July 4, 2010 at 1:43 am

Posted in Pakistan

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BREAKING: Pakistanis may offer you tea and biscuits while hating on your freedoms

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The man brandishing a gun is probably dangerous, but he may also offer you biscuits. Credit: GETTY Images

It seems like every day there’s a new steaming pile of nonsense published in the mainstream media about the Muslim world. For a geographically disparate grouping of countries that’s so incredibly important geo-politically it certainly isn’t easy to find informed comment and analysis, certainly not in the papers that constitute regular reading for many people in the West. If people are still beating the ‘clash of civilisations’ drum and decrying that ‘they hate our feedom’ then we know we have a problem.

Take National Geographic, a magazine that claims to have been “inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.” If the feature about Pakistan it’s running this month, written by John Lancaster, is anything to go by then the inspiration is going to lead to more misinformed pity, orientalist ‘Other’-ism and fear-mongering. This might help people to ‘care’ but it does nothing to improve the greater scheme of things.

Lancaster was the Washington Post’s South Asia correspondent from 2000-2006 and was based in Delhi. I find it difficult to fathom how a man who spent so long embedded in one of South Asia’s greatest cities could so spectacularly fail to understand the situation on the ground in any kind of complex cultural context. I haven’t even been to Pakistan but his latest piece for National Geographic is so obviously horrible that it makes my nostrils bleed with the stench of it.

I was unable to get past the opening page’s introductory abstract before vomiting in my mouth a little bit:

The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow. [NatGeo Page 1]

“The Taliban would not be amused.” We have a new winner ladies & gentlemen! If I could get a piece published in National Geographic simply on the basis of things that go on in Pakistan that would not amuse the Taliban I would surely have multiple book deals by now. I challenge you all to preface the next four things you write, no matter what topic, with “the Taliban would not be amused.” Since the Taliban are generally not amused by much it seems, it’s the perfect blanket opener for any piece.

And it doesn’t get any better from there. Lancaster leads us into a web of juxtapositions all reliant on one single premise: that Pakistan is a weird conservative Muslim country that’s really poor and has lots of terrorism but OMG they also like normal Western-type stuff sometimes! Some of their men wear ponytails! One dude even had a pierced eyebrow! Maybe later they’ll all get together and have an early 90s party, wear flannel and watch Home Alone!

Even when Lancaster gets investigative, actually talks to people and describes specifics it fails to get any better. For example, to illustrate the sore thumb nature of Aitchison college, Lancaster chooses to provide us with the following:

The Aitchisonians, thoroughly versed in Amer­ican pop culture, chatter at dinner about the relative hotness of J-Lo and Salma Hayek. Both they and their teachers are infused with a strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance, especially toward the United States. “We all thought you were a spy,” one of the teachers told me after I spent time teaching at the school in 2009. “We hate Americans.” [Page 4]

Wow, isn’t that a curious paradox! Those crazy natives can talk about American pop culture on one hand but hate on America on the other! Why is it, that in the age of the internet and global media, it’s still considered legitimate journalism to point out that people in other countries know about American pop idols? What is that meant to illustrate exactly? And why is their interest in American pop culture supposed to be mutually exclusive to their opposition to US foreign policy?

But it gets worse. Watch Lancaster clumsily segue from a paragraph about women who dance for men in dingy clubs to Sufis:

“The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship.” [Page 4]

Or be amazed by how Muslims surprisingly respect Jesus. We’re supposed to have the prior expectation that Muslims all hate Christians and want to kill us, remember?

“A white-bearded man gripped my arm. “We like Jesus!” he declared in English. “Jesus is a prophet too!” [Page 5]

Laetr, Lancaster spends an entire page telling us about how dangerous madrassas are supposed to be and then surprising us with how hospitably he was received at the one that he visited:

I didn’t expect to get past the gate, so I was surprised when, after a phone call or two, we were invited to return later that day to meet the nazim, or chief administrator. “It is in the tradition of the Prophet to be hospitable,” said Mau­lana Imdad Ullah, greeting us in a small ante­room over tea and lemon biscuits. [Page 6]

You expect to be beheaded on videotape to the shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and instead you’re served tea and lemon biscuits. Wonders must truly never cease for John Lancaster.

To wrap up the piece, Lancaster provides further shocking news, that Pakistan suffers from income disparity where some people are, like, really rich… in a poor country! [Page 7] Never mind that this occurs in practically every single developing nation the world over, the sheer injustice of it all is still supposed to surprise us.

And just when you think that maybe it’s over, maybe Lancaster has gone through every single possible cliche in the book and has finally run out, maybe he will be forced to contribute something new to the broad field of writing about Pakistan, the piece ends with the most common traveller’s cliche of all:

I hadn’t been there long when an elderly woman walked up to me and extended a cardboard box. “You must have a sweet,” she insisted. “It is being offered in the saint’s name.” I was touched by this gesture to a stranger, which reassured me that somehow Bulleh Shah’s teachings had not been forgotten—and might yet prove more enduring than the Taliban’s. The taste of the woman’s offer­ing lingered for a long time. [Page 8]

Excuse me while I dry retch some more. I forgot that in order to write a successful travel piece about a developing country you need to mention that the locals are surprisingly friendly and hospitable and will even offer you things, in spite of their despotic government/conservative religion/terorrism/poverty/crime.  You need to illustrate this with an example of a local, preferably someone old and very poor who doesn’t speak good English, who offers you a small meaningless token despite being a stranger. Cue the collective: “awwwwww!”

So Lancaster lived in Egypt and Delhi for years, was a bureau chief for one of the biggest papers in the US, and the best he can come up with for his National Geographic feature (!) is that Sufis dance, Jesus is a Prophet in Islam and that poor people in a “failed state” know about American pop culture while simultaneously hating on its foreign policy and offering him sweets. This could’ve been written by a student backpacker.

But the most dangerous thing about this sort of reporting is not the lazy nature of it, not the sad state of affairs that many of the world’s top publications still find themselves in and not the insult to our intelligence that it delivers. The danger lies in what it says about the reading public. We, as the loosely termed West, the educated elite that read National Geographic and The Washington Post, are supposed to see Pakistan as a country of poverty-stricken, ignorant and illiterate terrorists who ‘hate our freedoms’ with a vengeance and will nuke us at the very first opportunity. We are then supposed to be surprised by how friendly people in Pakistan actually are, how much they know about our way of life and in how much danger these relatively friendly, sort of liberal people are from some bogeyman (in this case the Taliban). Cue audience bemusement when US pop culture and foreign policy are erroneously conflated and we discover that people can simultaneously love J-Lo but hate US support for Israel. We are meant to be overcome with pity, curiosity and bemusement for the next 23 minutes, then we go to Starbucks, forget all about it and read an identical piece a week later and think exactly the same things.

The fact that the sheer orientalism, paternalism and outright ignorance embedded in this piece represent the status quo for Western readers everywhere scares me. It scares me a lot. These readers will go on to vote for governments that can go nuts with foreign policy towards countries like Pakistan as long as it’s positioned in a way that plays into their constituents’ ignorance. If we don’t have good quality reporting about places like Pakistan, how can people become informed about a place they might never be able to visit? Clearly, National Geographic ‘inspires’ with little more than the same token surface reporting that’s been written for decades and hasn’t changed much since the days of Kipling and Flaubert.

Written by alexlobov

July 1, 2010 at 6:16 pm

What does it mean to be a “Failed State”?

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People sleeping on a bus in Pakistan (10th most failed state in the world) | GETTY Images

The term “failed state” has been thrown around with wild abandon for quite a while now and has only grown in popularity and public prominence since Foreign Policy magazine, in partnership with the US think tank Fund for Peace, started publishing its annual Failed States Index in 2005.

But what does it mean to be a “failed state” and what is the real impact of this index?

The ranking is based on the total scores of 12 indicators. For each indicator, the ratings are placed on a scale of 0 to 10. The total score is the sum of the 12 indicators and is on a scale of 0-120. More information on the indicators used and further methodology can be found here.

My initial qualms are simple. How comprehensive can the tracking and monitoring of these indicators possibly be for each of the 177 states included in the 2010 index? How much access are researchers going to get to a country like North Korea, for example? How many hours of work would it take to be able to effectively establish a comprehensive rating of 12 indicators for 177 states within a reasonable time frame? Questionable, very questionable.

Putting that aside, even the structure itself is flawed. There are too many problematic examples for a single blog post but here’s one. All 12 indicators are weighted equally. One of those indicators is, say, “Progressive Deterioration of Public Services.” Ok, that’s pretty important. But what about the equally weighted “rise of factionalized elites,” described, in part, as “use of nationalistic political rhetoric by ruling elites”? I can see how that could be dangerous but it’s also pretty arbitrary and I can certainly think of worse things. That means a country with no nationalism but no public services whatsoever, and a country with sparkling public infrastructure and lots of flag-waving will be ranked equal in terms of being “failed.”

Also, how these indicators are squeezed into a rating out of 10 is beyond me. How do you assign an entire country a rating for “legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia”? What gives Pakistan a rating of 9.4 in this category vs. Iraq’s 9.3?

Ultimately, the index is obviously flawed, but ok, it’s impossible to create a perfect index that will sum up how 177 countries ‘failed’ to live up to a contrived ideal of perfect statehood. Which begs the question, should we even be trying? I understand that this is full of political bombast. A magazine that can tell its readers which states are ‘the worst’ and which states are ‘the best’ is surely useful. But also surely harmful.

Much of the danger arises when what the index is actually saying is compared to what people perceive it to be saying. The words ‘failed state’ set off massive psychological alarm bells, they tell potential tourists to avoid the country at all costs, they tell potential investors to put their money elsewhere and they inform the general language and framework of public debate about these countries, something that can be very damaging in the long run. When your average FP-reading punter reads the words “failed state” they don’t immediately question the methodology, they just hear massive alarm bells ringing in their head screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG!!!111.” These crushingly important perceptions can swiftly become prejudices when one considers how little thought your average reader puts into critically analysing the index itself.

These problems are exacerbated further by the articles FP prints to go along with its index. Check out, “Postcards from Hell,” a series of wonderfully cliched images of starving African people, shifty-looking ethnics with AK-47s, ominous burqas and random fire. These images have all the intellectual depth of a Michael Bay movie and do little but promote flawed pigeon-holing of entire nations into neat boxes marked “poverty” & “danger”. Things are made worse by charmingly worded accompanying captions, the writer of which seems to have trawled the thesaurus for every possible synonym of ‘bad’ but provide very little by way of explanation. For example, the caption under 32nd most failed state, Iran reads: “Clashes broke out in Tehran after a disputed June 2009 election saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming victory over his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi,” which doesn’t tell me much about why Iran is any more ‘failed’ than number 33, Liberia.

Then there’s the ‘analysis’. Robert Kaplan’s piece, quaintly titled “Actually, it’s mountains“, a stinker that was seemingly faxed-in after a 45 minute session with the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, stands out for me. Kaplan spends most of the article harping on about the problematic geographies of the countries on the list and then rounds it off with a hopeful-sounding “None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism.” Thanks, Rob, I feel a lot better. I suggest a new title: “Actually, it’s lazy.”

Or what about George Ayittey’s “The Worst of the Worst“, a list of a bunch of terrible dictators and all their evil transgressions. Once again liberally applying the thesaurus, Ayittey goes through his list with wild abandon, brutally deriding the “bad dude dictators” and “coconut-heads,” and mercilessly cutting them down with the sword of Western Reason while riding past on his high horse.

But what is the use of all this sensationalism? We are told that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a bad man but there is no analysis of the complex Iranian political system where most power (including foreign policy and control of the armed forces) actually rests with Ayatollah Khamenei. We are told that Hosni Mubarak is a bad man but nowhere is it mentioned that his regime is propped up entirely by the US government. And that’s just the basics, there’s no in-depth analysis anywhere suggesting that maybe Iran is seeking a nuclear deterrent to Israel, or that Uzbekistan was used by Bush as a staging post for the War on Terror, thus giving Karimov legitimacy, or that Mubarak’s torture was not only approved but taken advantage of by America’s use of extraordinary rendition. Nope. Nada. Just lots of bad men and ‘failed states’.

And therein lies the problem with their entire concept. There is far too much weight behind the two words “failed state,” and too many conflicted definitions, to entrust the definitive explanations of entire nations to a few scantily-analysed annual magazine articles. Readers, do yourselves a favour: next time you read somewhere that a state is ‘failed’ or a head of state is ‘bad’, or a ‘dictator’ or a ‘coconut-head’, ask why. Because until we start asking why and actually analysing the global situation in a broader manner we will never find real solutions, just constant fear and further entrenchment of damagingly simplistic binary assessments of entire peoples that many already perceive as ‘the Other’.

Written by alexlobov

June 24, 2010 at 8:11 pm

We’re all conspiracy theorists, y’know.

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So even before I’d clicked on the New York Times video by Adam Ellick (to accompany a story by Sabrina Tavernise) I was filled with a sense of foreboding (though that could be because of the series of dreams I’m having in which I end up in a nameless Russian city and lose my job).

Glenn Greewald has a good takedown of the piece here, but I wanted to blog about the video. It splices – too creepily in fact – quotes from guests and hosts on talk shows, interviews and statements (including one by  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to put together a compelling little film on why Pakistanis are conspiracy theorists.

While it accurately points to anti-US statement in the country – hardly a secret, really – the manner in which its done is discomfiting. The quotes are all strung together to form a narrative that – surprise, surprise! – Pakistani media is hugely critical of the US. What, precisely, did the NYT expect? That showing an hour of Voice of America’s Urdu programming would make everyone follow suit? Or that one could expect rationality from every talk show host in Pakistan? For example, the one host that Ellick describes as a moderate is currently front page news in Pakistan. (Daily Times. Oh, you don’t believe a Pakistani newspaper? Here’s The Guardian on the same issue.)

But if you were to watch those talk shows in their entirety, you’d realize that it does feature opposing views, particularly of people who do not believe Faisal Shahzad was a CIA plant or whatever outlandish rumour it is that is doing the rounds these days. If you would do a Google search, you’d also realize that one of the key complaints that many Pakistanis have with local talk show hosts is that they are too pro-government or side with the US too much.

It is very easy to present a one-sided, skewed version of events and tailor them to a specific audience. Why should I be surprised? That is exactly the same way anti-US sentiment has been broadcast in this country.

After all, we’re all conspiracy theorists, y’know.

Written by Saba Imtiaz

May 28, 2010 at 5:45 am

Posted in Pakistan, US

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