You are currently browsing the monthly archive for February 2010.

In an eloquent intellectual defence of modern American conservatism–which is anything but conservative, and more radical libertarian–Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review write an indictment of the American Left and the Obama Administration for failing to understand America’s exceptionalism. Although I disagree with the piece in its entirety, it’s still well written and is a cogent history of political philosophy in America.

Orhan Pamuk’s The White Castle, a novel that meditates on identity and Islam and the West, following the tale of an Italian enslaved in Constantinople.

I’m also following an online debate between “parachute journalist” Mary Bowers and XYZ, a blogger at Café Pyala, who takes issue with Bowers’ and other foreign journalists’ fetishization of Pakistan

Journalist David Montero discusses the decrepit Pakistani public education system, which is failing over 60 million youth. And it’s not just poor infrastructure and corruption that plagues the system; the nation’s textbooks have been fomenting a hardened Islamo-nationalism. That’s not to say that Pakistan’s public schools produce militants. It goes without saying that most Pakistanis, especially Pakistan’s poor, are tolerant and good people. Instead, the country’s textbooks provided the ideological narrative that allows Islamic radicalism to flourish and gain currency:

“[T]he textbooks still include passages like these: “For the past three centuries the Europeans have been working to subjugate the countries of the Muslim world” and “The Christians and Europeans were not happy to see the Muslims flourishing in life. They were always looking for opportunities to take possession of territories under the Muslims.””

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, famed journalist Steve Coll offers his thoughts on “Taking on the Taliban,” arguing that “there are few strategic issues of greater importance to the outcome of President Obama’s Afghan war [as Pakistan].” Simply put, one of the root problems for NATO in Afghanistan is its militarized neighbour, Pakistan. Coll discusses the latest development in the Afghan War–the capture of Mullah Baradar–and places it in the context of an ostensible change in Pakistan’s strategic priorities in Afghanistan. As I’ve mentioned before, after facing the menace of Pakistani Taliban terrorist attacks through out all of last year (some of which targeted top Army personnel), Pakistan’s military is probably considering a shift in its strategy. It may no longer be actively supporting the Afghan Taliban, which it had previously cultivated as a hedge against a pro-Indian Karzai administration in India. But it’s hard to judge what exactly is going on inside the minds of the boys in Islamabad.

Here are bits from a live chat with Steve Coll I participated in the on The New Yorker‘s website:

Me: In light of recent accomplishments–the capture of Baradar and the strike on the Haqqani network–do you believe that the Obama administration has succeeded in offering Pakistan a “grand bargain”–that is, Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan in exchange for a greater voice for Pakistan in a post-NATO Afghanistan and more aid and armaments for Pakistan?

Steve Coll:
Another good question. I think the administration has succeeded in offering the bargain, yes. I don’t think they’ve succeeded in completing it yet or even ratifying it as the formal and final plan. I did a little reporting before writing this week’s Comment (kind of a radical thing to do when forming opinions, but I was really desperate) and one well-placed person I chatted with on the American side, someone I know to be pretty hard-headed about these things, compared the Pakistan high command to someone who has climbed over a fence, and is now hanging on the other side, looking down, looking around, trying to decide whether to let go and jump. That is, the fence is letting go of the old habits of mind and action. That seems like a pretty optimistic metaphor – not sure I see the evidence for it yet, but it would be great if it’s true.

Saba Imtiaz:
Steve, you wrote today – “For the I.S.I. to repudiate the Taliban entirely, its officers would have to imagine a new way of living in the world—to write a new definition of Pakistan’s national security, one that emphasizes politics and economics over clandestine war” – This has been said repeatedly before, but the Baradar arrest sees to have given people ‘hope’ that the ISI will change. Do you think its possible?

Steve Coll:
It’s the most important question facing Pakistan. I don’t think ISI or the Army’s high command will change their assumptions overnight. My sense of it from passing through and listening from time to time is that because of all the violence and turmoil inside Pakistan, there IS a debate, a new discourse, inside the military and I.S.I. about where Pakistan’s interests really lie vis a vis the Taliban and like groups. But this has not led to the sea change people hope for – not yet.

It can happen, however, if the incentives change. I think of a country like Indonesia. Its military and its civil-military relations were deeply troubled just 15 years ago. Look at the place now – not perfect, but vastly changed in a relatively short period of time because the external incentives all around Southeast Asia and within Indonesia itself have changed.

On Indian-US relations

Hi, Steve. At the London Conference, there was lots of discussion about talking with elements of the Taliban, much to India’s dismay. How is this going to affect the U.S. relationship with India?

Steve Coll:
India’s government is led at the highest levels by people who understand counterinsurgency theory and practice. India pushes the United States to be tough-minded about Pakistan and particularly I.S.I. and its links to the Taliban – it fears the pattern of clientitis in U.S. relations with the Pakistani military. At the same time, India wants a stable relationship with a Taliban-free Pakistan and knows that ultimately might include a poltiical solution of some sort, just as India has negotiated with its opposition in Kashmir and many other places. So it’s just a question of sequencing, emphasis and whether all of the parties can work in alignment from month to month and season to season. In public, there have been some gaps in the U.S.-India relationship during the last few months. In private, I think things are better, but I’m not sure how much better.

On changing the mind of Pakistan’s national security decision-makers

Hi Steve. I know this is a hard question to answer, but how do you think the US can shift the “geopolitical incentives [as you see it[ that have informed Pakistan’s alliance with the Afghan Taliban”? National security thought is more a habit of mind than just a fact-based, geopolitical calculus. I think it’s pretty hard to alter the assumptions and worldview with which Pakistan’s top thinkers function–just as it’s hard to do in the realm of US foreign policy.

Steve Coll:
You’re right. The incentives can’t be abstract. They have to be material. India’s economy is growing at eight percent plus. Pakistan’s economic potential – and therefor, the economic potential of its military, its military families, etc. – is as basic to the country’s survival as its tanks and airplanes, but whether the country’s leaders will ever find the will and courage to take risks around that insight is hard to know.

Plus connu à titre de BHL, Bernard-Henry Lévy, intellectuel français et écrivain prolifique, s’implique toujours aux coeurs des débats qui ont rapport à l’islam et la laïcité dans l’espace publique française. Hier soir, je l’ai vu passer à la télévision sur l’émission, On n’est pas couché, où il défendait son nouveau livre, intitulé “Pièces d’identité.” J’avais, je continue d’avoir, beaucoup d’admiration pour cet homme, qui je considère un des plus grands partisans de la laïcité–une philosophie auquelle je tiens fortement.

Mais, en lisant sa dernière chronique, “Pourquoi je suis favorable à la loi burqa,” je suis un peu sceptique de ses idées, et si on était jamais semblable. Il y a quelques semaines, j’ai expliqué mon opposition au projet de loi proposé par une mission de l’assemblée nationale française qui vise à banir la burqa dans les espaces publiques. Mon argument a souligné que la burqa n’est qu’un vêtement, et que l’état démocratique ne pourrait jamais justifier contrôler la liberté d’expression, de porter un tissu qui n’empiète pas sur les droits des autres.

Par contre, BHL dispute: “On dit : « la burqa est un vêtement ; tout au plus, un déguisement ; on ne va pas légiférer sur les vêtements et les déguisements »… Erreur. La burqa n’est pas un vêtement, c’est un message. Et c’est un message qui dit l’assujettissement, l’asservissement, l’écrasement, la défaite, des femmes.” Je lui demande à répondre à cette question: que donne le gouvernement et les cours français le droit de déterminer qu’est-ce que c’est l’assujettissement? Il répondrait que “tous les anti-esclavagistes du monde nous donnent tous les arguments possibles contre la petite infamie supplémentaire qui consiste à faire des victimes les propres auteurs de leur malheur.” Ben, le contraire–que c’est la France, un ancien empire colonial, qui veut coloniser et asservir les corps des femmes mussulmanes–est autant possible, non?

De plus, il nous assure que “[l]e port de la burqa n’est pas une prescription coranique.” Merci Ayatollah Lévy de l’avoir confirmé pour nous, vos fidèles. L’état n’a pas l’autorité ni le mandat de se prononcer sur les prescriptions religieuses dans une société laïque.

En définitive, je reste un fan de votre mode et l'(h)air intellectuel.

The New York Times reports that Operation Marjah, a major joint NATO-Afghan offensive in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, is more about shifting perceptions on the ground than just military victory. Before they began the offensive, US military commanders, who are leading the operation, took a poll of locals to measure their opinions of the US and the Taliban.

“This is all a war of perceptions,” General McChrystal said. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

The operation also actively involved the Karzai administration for the first time:

Notably, this was the first time that the Americans took pains to involve the central government of President Hamid Karzai in such a significant operation, let alone a multiphase campaign that included the military, government and economic stability. Aside from contributing thousands of troops, Mr. Karzai and his aides, with significant help from the Americans, basically built a government in waiting. The aim is for the Afghan government to carry out programs in education, health and employment as soon as the area is secured, according to a senior American officer.

The size of the onslaught was a departure from past practice, too. The allied force is so large as to be described by one senior American adviser as “overwhelming to the point of saturation.”

And the operation was advertised, almost in neon lights, so far in advance and in such detail that there was none of the element of surprise that combat commanders usually prize.

All of those characteristics are explained by the psychological goal of this campaign, a shift of perceptions among the fence-sitters and the fearful among the Afghan people.

Here’s a great profile of the relationship between Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, and General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff. The piece provides an excellent overview of the personal and geopolitical factors at play in US-Pakistani relations, and their cooperation (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. It’s a flattering portrait of Pakistan’s most powerful man.

“On a flight from Islamabad to Kandahar that night, Mullen told reporters that he had once again been impressed by what he saw. “To see how much progress has been made–for all intents and purposes the insurgents are gone.” Asked to grade the Pakistani army’s counterinsurgency technique–which the United States has urged Kayani to employ in lieu of brute force that incurs collateral damage and breeds more insurgents–Mullen didn’t hesitate. “It’s exceptional. I give them an ‘A.’” Though Mullen was not able to visit South Waziristan, he was pleased by reports of progress there. “Kayani laid out this plan to me in early 2009. He has executed everything he said he was going to do,” Mullen said.”

On Thursday, a Joseph Andrew Stack crashed a plane into an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) building, killing at least one person. Stack, who has a white, Christian sounding name, posted a suicide note on his website prior to the crash, stating “Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let’s try something different; take my pound of flesh and sleep well.” He also posted a video, which praised Jesus and cited the Holy Constitution. Okay, that part’s made up, but it speaks to my frustration with the American media’s inability to describe this heinous act as terrorism. If we were comfortable calling Sgt. Nidal Malik Hassan, responsible for the Fort Hood massacre, a terrorist, why isn’t Stack a terrorist?

Let’s follow the logic:

Sgt. Hassan was upset with the United States government and its policies.

He used an established ideology/belief system–Islam–to justify his hatred. (That doesn’t mean that the ideology necessarily led him to kill, but that it informed his thinking.)

He killed innocent civilians based on that ideology.

Ergo, he was an Islamic terrorist.

Joseph Stack was angry with the United States government and its policies.

He was inspired by an ideology (the anti-tax, anti government Tea Party movement.) Again, that doesn’t mean that the Tea Party movement justifies violence or hatred by any means–oh heavens no!

He killed innocent civilians based on that ideology.

Ergo, he was a Tea Party terrorist.

February 19, 2010 – A US drone strike has killed Mohammed Haqqani, brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani. The Haqqani network, led by Sirajuddin, is responsible for several attacks on NATO troops and NATO supply lines in Afghanistan, and is affiliated with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

In his book, Descent Into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid described the Haqqani network as an asset of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s top intelligence agency. The Haqqanis were permitted to covertly operate on Pakistani soil, and in turn they agreed to not attack the Pakistani establishment. The drone strike comes as a blow to the Haqqani network and signals, perhaps, a shift in Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan. For the drone strike to have been successful, the United States would have had to rely on Pakistani intelligence, which indicates a willingness on the ISI’s part to cooperate. Moreover, two days ago, Mullah Baradar, another Taliban commander, was captured in Karachi. When Baradar’s arrest was announced, various analysts remarked on the news with cautious optimism, unsure of whether the arrest was a harbinger of a new Pakistani strategy. This latest drone strike lends credence to such a shift: Pakistan is willingly cooperating with the United States and NATO in Afghanistan now, but on the condition that it receives a stake in a post-NATO Afghanistan and that India’s influence in the region is curbed.

Update: It’s almost as if the ISI read David Kenner’s post on, and said effyou. Kenner complained about Pakistan’s reluctance in going after the Haqqani network–and boom, there’s an attack on the Haqqanis: “Although General Kayani has shown a willingness to go after Taliban operatives in South Waziristan, the Pakistani military has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. requests to take on Haqqani operatives to the north. For years, U.S. officials have accused the ISI of maintaining links to tribal patriarch Jalaluddin Haqqani. In one particularly blunt message delivered in 2008, CIA Deputy Director Stephen Kappes traveled to Islamabad to tell the Pakistanis, “[W]e know there’s a connection … and we think you could do more and we want you to do more about it,” as summarized by a senior American official to the New York Times. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also stated publicly that Pakistan’s ties to the Haqqani network, as well as other extremist groups in the tribal areas, “are a real concern to us.” The ISI is thought to maintain its ties to Haqqani because it perceives his organization as a valuable asset in countering Indian influence in Afghanistan.” ISI sab ka dada hai–the ISI is everyone’s granddaddy.

Asked by a friend about why Pakistan had suddenly decided–yes, decided, because the ISI knows exactly where the top Taliban leadership is hiding–to capture Mullah Baradar in Karachi, I speculated that it was part of some grand bargain over Afghanistan. Steve Coll agrees with my analysis:

“Over the last few months, by multiple means, the United States and its allies have been seeking to persuade Pakistan that it can best achieve its legitimate security goals in Afghanistan through political negotiations, rather than through the promotion of endless (and futile) Taliban guerrilla violence—and that the United States will respect and accommodate Pakistan’s agenda in such talks. Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban, especially in recent years, was always best understood as a military lever to promote political accommodations of Pakistan in Kabul. Baradar, however, has defiantly refused to participate in such political strategies, as he indicated in an e-mail interview he gave to Newsweek last year. The more the Taliban’s leaders enjoying sanctuary in Karachi or Quetta refuse to lash themselves to Pakistani political strategy, the more vulnerable they become to a knock on the door in the middle of the night.”

Pakistan’s military and intelligence leadership has realized that it can effectively leverage its Afghan Taliban assets in exchange for greater influence in a post-NATO Afghanistan.

Pakistani President Zardari’s brazen miscalculations have once again plunged the country into political turmoil. The president, hoping to stack one of his own on to the Pakistani Supreme Court, circumvented the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and attempted to promote Khawaja Sharif, Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, to the highest judicial body in the land. While the president’s office contends that it had consulted the chief justice–a requirement of the Pakistani Constitution–Chaudhry himself denies it. The irate judge and the president are once again at each others’ throats, and Pakistan is in a political and constitutional crisis.

It may well be that the president did in fact consult the chief justice, but there’s little evidence of that. The bigger story here is the political ineptitude of Asif Ali Zardari and his motley crew of (ill)advisors. As the bloggers at Cafe Pyala remarked, you’d expect Zardari to be a little more circumspect, considering his terrible polling numbers and already precarious standing vis-a-vis the military and the other political parties.

Pakistanis, watching yet another democratically-elected government collapse, are left wondering: why can’t politicians get it right? More and more now recall the good ol’ Musharraf years, and many in the media and in countless “drawing rooms” hope for a military coup to oust Zardari.

Ahmad Quraishi, a Pakistani journalist, is among those clamouring for the benevolent rule of the Pakistani Army. He rightly argues that Pakistani’s political leadership is inept, stupid, moronic, (insert epithet here.) There’s no question that a class of feudal lords and wealthy businessmen has run–to the ground–the country since Independence. The military, on the other hand, represents competence, rationality, the middle class. Quraishi offers an anecdote: The National Defence University (NDU) in Islamabad has offered a national security workshop every year since 2002, inviting military leaders, journalists, businessmen, and politicians to learn about government and participate in simulated crises (i.e Model UN for grown-ups.) Then Quraishi presents this apocryphal conclusion: “NDU officials, both civilian and military, have one observation that has been constant during the past eight years of national security workshops: Military officers, businessmen, social activists and journalists often show the best performance. Politicians come last. Most can’t even draft a single-page policy brief, or work with a PowerPoint presentation.” Haha, the stupid pols can’t even draft a policy brief. So funny. If my sarcasm isn’t apparent yet, it should now be.

It’s no laughing matter that politicians in Pakistan are ill-equipped to make policy and run organizations. Isn’t that partially because they’ve been repeatedly undermined? No elected Pakistani government has ever completed its term without military intervention. I’m not arguing that incompetence and corruption don’t explain the sad state of Pakistan’s political class, but a significant part of the blame lies with a system and a military class that refuses to let democracy run its course. Politicians in Pakistan have to be more concerned with watching their backs lest some marauding Chief of the Army Staff usurp. Naturally, that takes their attention away from governance and turns politicians into the short-term focused, rent-seeking twerps we witness today.

Quraishi also has no sense of irony or history. He argues that a new military coup would allow the professional class into politics–that they’d bring rational government and save Pakistan. “If it comes to a military-led intervention, both military officers and politicians will have to stay out of actual power. The army chief may not become a chief executive. The military might have to look into a new concept called the ‘Smart Coup’, where the military can bring capable Pakistanis to power with a firm executable plan of reform over five years, or more, fully backed by the military. There may not be time to put the plan to vote. It will have to be implemented.” When General Musharraf grabbed power in 1999, Pakistanis too foolishly believed that another military coup would save the country. He brought banker Shaukat Aziz from New York and appointed a slew of technocrats to his administration. Rumours about how he held weekly teleconferences with prominent Pakistani-Americans became common. His was a “Smart Coup” too. Alas, as the Roman Republic under Caesar and Augustus would soon realize, so too would Pakistanis realize, that power, when rested in the hands of one man, entails disaster.

The sycophantic pleas for General Ashfaq Kayani, the current chief of the Army Staff, to stage a coup resemble the ones for Musharraf in his heyday. I hear Quraishi and his lot screaming, “just one more coup, baby, one more, and we’re good”–like crackwhores pleading for one more hit of that sweet, hard dictatorship.