Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Imran Khan did not criticize the Army – because he’s not completely insane

A week has passed since PTI’s supporters flooded Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, but the critics are still going strong in their onslaught against Imran Khan. For a whole day after the jalsa the English dailys relented in their attacks on Khan, and congratulated him on proving that his party was as capable of amassing physical supporters as virtual ones. Since that day, however, his detractors seem to have redoubled their efforts to denounce him.
Of course, the traditional criticism of having only Facebook supporters having lost its teeth, others are being repeated with increased zeal. I’ll try to analyse some of these. The first one that was doing the rounds before the Lahore jalsa is that Imran Khan is in cahoots with the establishment. The fact that he did not bring up the issue of the military during his speech is being touted as absolute confirmation of this.  The fact of the matter is that Imran Khan stands a slim chance as it is. He is already punching well above his weight in taking on the PMLN in Punjab and the other major parties elsewhere. What people need to realize is that the military establishment is a force that even the great Zulfiqar Bhutto was unable to tame. The only way to bring the establishment under check is to have a political government that is has such strong populist roots that it cannot be cowed into submission. For this to happen the politicians involved need to have unimpeachable records – an art they have been unable to master. Simply put, the only civilian government that can take on the establishment is one that can call on the people to defend it. A corrupt, inept government has no hope of doing so.  An as yet unelected force that is already in no shortage of enemies would have to be suicidal or insane to start railing against this force at a mass rally during election time. The most anyone can practically hope for from the PTI is an acknowledgement of this problem; an acknowledgement that is forthcoming both in Imran Khan’s book and in several interviews.  Incidentally, it is spectacularly amusing to see political parties also raising this concern since all of them have their roots in the military establishment as well - PPP, PMLN and MQM all have their roots in patronage from one military government or the other.
Furthermore, the military establishment itself is an odd creature. Through the 50s, right up to the 90s, it was criticized for being a puppet in the hands of the United States. It was accused of exercising absolute control over its indigenous population while minting money as a mercenary force for the US. Throughout Pakistan’s history, the army has always been much closer to the US than any civilian government could ever hope to be (Of course, this doesn’t mean that the civilian governments weren’t falling over themselves to prove their loyalty to the US, it just means they never succeeded in making themselves indispensible).  These days, the image of the establishment is very different. It is seen as an ultra-nationalist, pan-Islamic, anti- American force that wants to take over the world. In essence, it is seen to be intent on fighting an ideological war. Of course, the actions of the Musharraf regime were in direct conflict to these assertions. The Musharraf regime was exercising the traditional pre-Islamization role of the establishment in fighting the US’s wars in exchange for money, at the same time silencing detractors. At that point in time, Imran Khan was the only one to call his government on this issue, and he still hasn’t changed his stance.
A trivial issue raised against Khan is whether he will be able to translate his showing in Lahore into actual votes. If he can get them to come to Minar-e-Pakistan, he can get them to the polling booth. I really cannot fathom how this could even be raised as a serious issue. There was a mad rush during the time of the rally to get votes registered, and it appears pretty obvious to me that the next election may have one of the highest turnouts in history. Or am I missing something?
The more serious charges against Khan are made by sullen-faced stalwarts of the PMLN. Khan has not established a set policy as to how he is going to go about making the changes he promises. One must confess that this is the most troubling aspect of PTI’s campaign and one hopes they will sort this out sooner rather than later. The oft-repeated argument here is that problems of corruption are not as simple as PTI makes them out to be. It is not good enough that he wants to make a difference. The answer, of course, is no it isn’t. But it is the absolute minimum requirement. Surely a government that has no intention of rectifying the system is worse than one without a readily available plan. I think it is high time that the Pakistani public stopped trying to get the system to work in spite of bad governance and, for once, faced the menace head on. It’s really high time we started demanding more from our politicians in terms of honesty. In this regard, at his worse, Khan can set the bar at an absolute zero for future politicians.
Another charge against Imran Khan is that he is making compromises that will ensure that he is unable to deliver on his promises. The main line of argument here is that he is inducting too much of the old guard to be able to bring about a change. I can only assume that anyone who makes this assertion is going to be voting for the PTI anyway, as they already see the entire old guard as corrupt and inept – at least with Khan, they will be under new management. At the same time it is interesting to note that Khan is accused of not having any experienced politicians in his party. A catch 22 situation if there ever was one. What the PTI is faced with is the problem of trying to remain clean while performing in a political system riddled with corruption. This is more the fault of our system than the PTI. Nobody should be under any illusions; Khan will have to compromise at some level if he is to have any hope of coming to power. The question is, how much? Will the compromise turn the PTI into another PPP or will Khan be able to keep a check on his rank and file? It is a mammoth task, but one definitely worth undertaking. Many Pakistanis have given up hope of ever seeing a prosperous country. The mass exodus out of the country is testament to this, so it doesn’t take a genius to predict that the odds are phenomenally against Imran Khan. But the PTI has injected new life into the political system and captured the imagination of young people. One can only hope that Khan can amass a backing that ensures his subordinates are unable to overwhelm him.
One great thing about the demonstration of PTI’s popularity is that it has jolted the incumbent parties. The PMLN, being challenged only by the spectacularly maligned PPP, had fallen into a stupor, but the fact that the PTI is now nibbling at their heels means that they have jumped into action. Suddenly they are falling over themselves to clarify their financial accounts and demonstrate the good governance they had once been so proud of. By making such an issue out of corruption, the PTI has put immense pressure on urban parties such as the PMLN to avoid tainted politicians.
Finally, the one stance of Imran Khan that seems to ruffle the most feathers among the writers of English blogs – the Taliban. I will not even bother to clarify the fact that he does not in fact condone terrorism. If you don’t know that already, anything I will say will be a waste of time. But let me start with a sentence I just read in an article on Pakistan Today: “Is playing music all that is required to prove your ‘liberal’ ‘leftist’ credentials?” A good question, to which my answer would be yes, it would appear so, because the people who profess to being part of the liberal, leftist cadre in our society seem to be exactly that shallow. These labels seem to have no meaning at all except that they want to be allowed to have a good time. These people don’t stand for social welfare, they don’t stand for social equality, they don’t seem to be asking for alleviation of income disparity or protesting the damaging effects of globalization, or even protecting the environment. They have no qualms with violations of international law or human rights. If anything, they seem to be spectacularly trigger-happy for people who claim to be progressive thinkers. Their first instinct at any issue is to go to war. They seem to think that the rest of the country can be pummeled into liberal, leftist thought (whatever that means in this day and age). This is their equivalent of spreading democracy around the world.
We need to accept the fact that the Taliban are a not just a product of religious brain-washing, but also a reaction to decades of disenfranchisement. The country has let, and is continuing to let its most vulnerable citizens down. The solution cannot be to go on an all-out war against the population we have spurned. The way out is to try and rehabilitate the people we have antagonized to this degree. They need to be weaned away from the most extreme religious views. This is not an immediate solution – it will take decades. But it has to be tried, and tried again, unless we want to get sucked into an all-out civil war. We need to remember that all governments have a penchant for painting all opposition as intransigent. It is a trick they seem to have picked up from the Americans. Remember the godless communists and the Muslim extremists? In Pakistan we too had the treacherous Bengalis who wanted to break the country. We took up a military operation against them and look how well that turned out. Or the Balochis, they too were insurgents bent upon breaking up the country. We bombed them, and invited others to do the same, now we’re picking up the pieces.
Incidentally, it never occurred to anyone to start a military operation against the Taliban until 9/11. Even then, it was done out of fear of the US reprisal rather than because they were an immediate threat to us. We saw the US and the Taliban, and decided we could take on the Taliban much more easily than the US and went for it. The fault of the Taliban is that they didn’t die out. Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we were fighting some war for the security of the whole world. Sitting in Lahore, I confess I may have a simplistic view of things. But with the limited information coming out of the affected regions, it is difficult to get an unbiased view. I do suspect, however, that the PTI’s performance in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would be a good indicator to how accurate they are on their problem assessment.
To close, I will confess I am cautious in my support of the PTI, but I like to believe its on the right track. I realize Imran Khan’s claims are idealistic. But I fail to see how having an honest idealist will not have a positive effect on the governance of the country.  If it does not manage to eradicate the menace of corruption in our country, it would at least attempt to curb it to manageable levels. It would restore the lost confidence in the government systems, which is in itself a cause for much of our woes.
Of course, Imran Khan could turn out to be a complete scam; a power-monger or a closet Mr. Ten Percent. I have no crystal ball to check whether he goes home after his rallies and practices his evil laugh. Conversely, he could be too much of an idealist and step on too many toes all at once, because let’s face it nobody in our power structure wants a truly incorruptible leader. Not the army with its fingers in so many pies, not the industrialists who are dodging their taxes, not the feudal lord, not the patwaris and thaanedaars he openly denounced in Lahore, not even the media that is getting its funding from so many different vested interests. If Imran Khan tried to be as revolutionary as he says he is, he probably wouldn’t make it to the assembly alive.
Where self-centered pragmatism has failed us so many times, perhaps it’s time for a bit of selfless idealism. There is one aspect of the PTI’s campaign that really bothers me though. Imran Khan is not the last hope for Pakistan. I will support him, and if he fails, I will try again!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Doctor is in (and likely to stay)

So, after everyone else has taken their shots at Dr. Saab, it’s time I register my take on the whole affair. I’m assuming, by now, everyone has seen the offending video clip (despite GEO’s efforts to get it pulled from youtube), as well as Dr.Saab’s ensuing jawab-e-shikwa, and have been anxiously awaiting my comments on them. You have, don't deny it! Anybody who thinks Aamir Liaquat’s explanation is the entire truth should stop here, as the follows assumes the opposite.

To start off, was it really that wrong for Aamir Liaquat to be caught swearing, and acting less than charitable while off air? Well, in short, yes! It was exactly that wrong, maybe even more. A very telling sign of this is his subsequent explanation. Had his actions been acceptable, or even only mildly unacceptable, there would have been no need for such a wildly outrageous explanation. He could have apologised, or simply ignored the issue, as he has been steadfastly doing regarding his dubious doctorate for the past many years (fake degrees, as we all know, are only a minor sin). Instead, he dug himself into a deeper hole by stating that the tongue that mentions the name of the Prophet could never engage in vulgarity. So, in his own words, such behaviour would be intolerable and render him unsuited to fulfilling his role on television.

This is both his prerogative and his necessity. The fact of the matter is that the wholesome, unimpeachably pious persona is what he was selling. He could not, under any circumstances, allow this image to be tarnished.

And this is where more culprits need to be drawn into the dock. Aamir Liaquat Hussain is not just a personality engaged in imparting Islam. He is a carefully cultivated, and most importantly, highly lucrative product. Not only does he earn his television channels obscene amounts of money, he is also the face of many an advertising campaign. So, maintaining the false façade of Aamir Liaquat is in the interest of many a powerful group. I’m not sure about his current political standing, but there was definitely a time when these groups also featured a prominent political party.

This brings us to the responsibilities of all of these groups. Since we’ve established that his behaviour was intolerable for someone carrying out his responsibilities, was it not the job of his producers or channel executives to distance themselves from him? Since most of the clips are from Geo, shouldn’t they be held responsible for housing and promoting a charlatan? And what of his ad endorsements? Will advertisers and companies try to pull him from their campaigns?

Of course, I’m living in a dream world when I say these things; in a world where profitability is not the measure of morality. More likely, everyone will look to quietly gloss over this little blip. We’ve all had our laughs, and now it’s back to work, making money selling piety. The only way anybody is going to pull away from Aamir Liaquat after this is if he becomes a financial liability. But since our opinions are mostly decided by these very media groups I suspect there's little danger of that happening and it would just be cheaper to pretend nothing happened.

At the same time, I do suspect one aspect of Aamir Liaquat’s explanation rings true. I have a feeling his accusation that Geo intentionally leaked the video to damage his reputation is not entirely outlandish. After all, they had lost a cash cow to the opposition, why not try to dent their investment? They pulled the video from youtube just a fraction too late. It had gone viral.

On the other hand, if this was the act of a rogue Geo employee with access to the tapes, will Geo be naming him and acting against him for violation of copyright? I suspect not!

Come to think of it, I guess it’s about as likely as Aamir Liquat taking legal action against Geo for “dubbing and imitating him” for the purposes of defamation.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you...
A Pit Bull.
Not to be confused with,
A Rocking Horse
Accompanied by,
A Rocking Chair

Thursday, July 21, 2011


*I've used the term Marketing and Advertising interchangeably. I don't know the difference and I'm not going to google it. This essentially refers to anyone trying to present an "image", PR firms, Ad agencies etc.

Can there really be anything more evil than Marketing? An entire profession dedicated to making people feel inadequate. It’s not about spreading the message of the existence of a product. If that were the case we would have advertisements stating the specifications of the product, and/or footage of real, unpaid people testifying to its quality. But that’s not what we get. What we get on our television screens are people endorsing products they have never used and associating the use of certain brands to success or happiness; essentially trying to manipulate us with outright dishonesty. Because at the end of the day, that’s the function of Marketing: to professionalize the skills of habitual liars and schemers (those, of course, who don’t go into politics).
To start simply, you can see the more ridiculously blatant of these attempts on telemarketing channels. There’s always a Herculean couple, dressed up in their gym clothes convincing people that all they need to do is sit in front of the television like a slob, (an activity that should not require work-out clothes) while a belt around their midriff whirrs away to give them the perfect figure. Obviously, the existence of these two titans is to make us think that they are satisfied customers of said product. Of course, seeing the way anyone who needs a fat-free body, from models to bodybuilders, seems to be doing it by controlling their diet and working out, this implication seems not entirely genuine.
On mainstream television these attempts become only slightly less absurd. A whole array of actresses and models are lined up to tell us about the latest whitening cream. Quite apart from the issue of beauty products stereotyping beauty and banishing all non-conformists to the realm of the unattractive, these products are deliberately misleading in their advertisements. For ages, these women have been quite blatantly blacking up for the ‘before’ shot of their advertisements only to be magically whitened in the course of the 30 second ad. Nobody seems to be pointing out that they were already pretty fair to begin with. That’s why they are models in the first place.
And while you were still reeling from this deception, Fair and Lovely decided they needed to expand their customer base in Pakistan to the increasingly vain male population as well. Enter Shahid Afridi, divulging his use of the product, though only for skin protection. Lala, the proud Pathan, has yet to go all the way and suggest he was born as black as the night and owes his current complexion to the regular use of whitening creams. If Fair and Lovely are really so keen on proving the efficacy of their product, why don’t they start with someone who’s a bit more of a challenge?
‘Celebrity endorsements’ is the term used. Random celebrities are paid vast sums of money to come on television and tell us they use a certain product and are amazed by it. Most of the time, of course, they are lying. On the other hand, if they were so very excited about their purchases that they really couldn’t keep the good news to themselves, do they really need to be paid to shout it from the hilltops. Shouldn’t they be doing this for free, or even paying for the privilege? Of course, we suspect something is afoot, but stay generally quiet because at some level we have accepted that it’s okay to lie if the price is right. Anywhere else this would be a conflict of interest, here its creative advertising.
In fact, pretty much anything is acceptable if the price is right, even using your own child as an advertising gimmick. Yes, I’m looking at you Nadia Khan -you and your shameless exhibition of your motherhood and your child. I don’t doubt you would have loaned the poor child to the circus, or even the zoo if the price was right. But there again, Nadia isn’t alone. Something all the more painful for a lifelong Bushra Ansari fan. Why Bushra Ansari, why?!
But celebrity endorsement is only one of the many dirty tricks that are practiced as an art form. There is also pandering to cultural and social moods or trends. The extreme of these is now hitting us with the latest Islamic Banking ads (which I have only heard on the radio, I don’t know if they’re on television as well) which basically declare conventional banking to be devoid of “Barkat”. How they are being allowed to pass fatwas willy-nilly is something that has me completely flabbergasted.
On the other hand, this isn’t the first time religion is being dragged in to do the dirty work of the advertisers. Every Ramazan, we are inundated with advertisements creating an aura of holiness and spirituality around products such as packaged milk and cooking oil. This was quite an issue last Ramazan, with the growing concern in the state about rising religious sentiment.
Interestingly, nobody seemed to have any issue with the exploitation of nationalistic feeling by these companies. There were no complaints while Coca Cola and Pepsi, foreign companies both of them, were trying to outdo themselves in their support for the Pakistan Cricket Team during the World Cup. Switch the channel, and both of them were competing with each other in their support for the Indian team. Nobody seemed to find this odd at all. And this was just during a time of heightened nationalism. During the rest of the year, several other foreign companies tell us about their commitment to our country and assure us of their support in our endeavours to improve it.
Around the world, adverts are accepted as a necessary evil. Well, until advertisers decided it didn’t have to be that way. Adverts could be creative, interesting, entertaining, works of art even. So, wittily prepared 30 second sketches or movies, or whatever you may want to call them started to take over. These had the advantage of being subtle, entertaining, and equally as evil (effective) as before. So now, people didn’t have to just put up with ad breaks, they could enjoy them.
Unfortunately, this last part has completely evaded us in Pakistan. We are still stuck with the ridiculously patronising and irritating ads the rest of the world gave up on two decades ago. So now, we suffer the double whammy of being subjected to evil and not even enjoying it.
The list of irritating Pakistani ads is almost never-ending. There are the “people always ask me…. My answer is always…” ads which make you think, “Okay, but are you lying to them? And why are you telling me this anyway? Don’t you think it’s a little self-obsessed to be discussing this with a complete stranger?”.
There are the irritatingly wholesome family ads where the self-effacing mother is willing to deflect credit to any product that she has used. In fact this kind of irritating glorification of products comprises a majority of other ads as well – “Don’t thank me, thank…” Really? You want me to thank an inanimate object? Or should I write a letter of thanks to the CEO of the company? I really can’t decide which would be saner.
Another brilliant theme was the real people theme - when surprise surprise, a full TV crew shows up at someone’s house to wash their dishes, or their clothes or interview them or some other such thing. And we tolerated the banality of this right up to the point they decided to advertise toilet cleaning liquid in this same fashion. Does it really take a media management genius to figure out that watching other peoples dirty toilet bowls is not something we look forward to while we sit in front of our televisions?
One recent ad that deserves honourable mention in this category is the recent Zong “sau pe sau”. It quite obviously an advertisement conceived and produced by someone with a spectacularly low opinion of the Pakistani public and with no attempts to conceal his contempt. I can just picture him now boarding his helicopter on his way to the Annual Uncreative Evildoers Convention, quickly briefing his assistant, “Just get two flashily dressed idiots wetting themselves with excitement over the prospect an extra hundred rupees. These drones will lap it up!”
Then again, at least Zong tries to stay on message. Warid is beyond even attempting to be coherent. Apparently, we are supposed to go out and buy Warid connections after watching “filmstar Noor” teaching another woman how to dance. Looking at it now, it must have cost quite a bit of money, with all the extras, the sets, and the expensive looking picture quality; makes it even more unbearable to think of the far more useful causes that money could’ve been put to. One can only hope that whoever was responsible was captured and duly punished.
The list is long, and I might return to update it, as it stands I might be here all night going on about it. Just one more before I go though; that smug Habib Supersaver woman, she makes me want to punch her in the mouth.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

All is well...

The unseemly sight of concrete blocks and MP check-posts has now become an integral part of our lives. God only knows when we will be rid of these symbols of insecurity; unless things change drastically, I suspect it may not be during my lifetime.

Having said that, I do try to maintain some sympathy for the poor men manning these posts. Apart from being forced to stand long hours, carrying out what must be a spectacularly mind-numbing activity, they also have to deal with the fact that they are in one of the most thankless jobs in the world. If they start checking everyone indiscriminately, they get indignant people shouting “Do I look like a terrorist?” If they start profiling, they get people criticising how easy it is to get past them – “I could’ve been carrying a bomb, and he didn’t even check!” The poor guys just cannot win! The fact of the matter is, they slow us down and they scrutinise us. We do not appreciate either of these, so naturally we’re always looking for some way to criticise them.

Keeping this in mind, I try to remind myself that the poor guys are doing their jobs and to keep my irritation under check. I’m no expert on security, so I go along with the minimum deterrence argument. After all, if something was to happen, everyone would be questioning the security agencies and not me. I ignore the fact that standing bumper to bumper in a four-lane traffic jam at the checkpost is probably the most vulnerable position one can be in. I tolerate the fact that apart from check posts coming into Lahore, there are now check posts for leaving Lahore - perhaps there is a need to prevent bombs exiting the city. I even go so far as to try to convince myself that the guy staring at the sky while his gun is aimed at me is actually in search of divine guidance. If there is a slight chance that these measures will at least inconvenience terrorists in some minor fashion, perhaps they’re worth it.

Ever so often though, something happens that momentarily shakes even my compromising and somewhat naïve belief in the system.

If you’re driving on the canal road from Thokar Niazbeg towards the city, you will come to a point where you can turn towards Jinnah Hospital or continue straight on the canal. To facilitate an unfettered drive on the canal, there is a division in the road, so that those turning are segregated from the main road. They can also decide to go straight from there, but have to go through the inconvenience of a traffic light.

So, the other day, coming up to this division I noticed that traffic was clogged on the path going straight. Several other people also noticed this and decided to go through the traffic light. Being a stickler for traffic law I decided it was a moral grey area to use the turning lane to go straight and proceeded onwards. Most other people were not burdened by such moral dilemmas and proceeded through the traffic light. As we inched closer to the heart of the congestion I realised the reason for it - a check post. And not just any check post, one with about fifteen armed men standing around it. None of them seemed the least bit concerned with the fact that cars were whizzing past behind their backs in the next lane.

Now, as we are all aware, terrorists are notoriously conscientious drivers. Being nothing like these other boors, they would never dream of using the turning lane for going straight; apart from being unsporting from a security perspective, such an action would be a spectacularly unethical breach of the driving code. So, for that reason, I thought the security guys had their bases covered. I inched closer with this calming thought until a truly terrifying prospect occurred to me. What if there was such a thing as an unscrupulous terrorist? Or, what if in a moment of weakness, or even by accident, a terrorist just went along and did what most of the other people were doing and avoided the check post altogether? It would render the time and energies of those fifteen fine people completely wasted. I know this is a far-fetched idea, but one does ponder a bit when one lives in troubled times.

So, when I was passing through the barriers I decided to share this bone-chilling possibility with one of the security personnel. I stopped my car next to him, pointed behind him and said, “People are just bypassing the check post.” He looked at me silently and then turned away uninterested. Obviously, he had heard this one before. I breathed a sigh of relief and drove on; these guys had already considered the idea. All was safe.

Friday, May 6, 2011

More Osama!

I haven’t been writing much recently, and had decided to stay particularly away from the whole Osama saga because I think I’m not educated or informed enough to present anything solid or insightful. Three days of going through articles on the internet have, however, confirmed that this is hardly a reason to stop. So, once more into the fray!

I am somewhat handicapped by my lack of knowledge though, but I shall use my ignorance to complete this entry. To me, the whole Osama episode has given rise to a plethora of questions, and with few conclusions. So, today, I shall list all these questions, and hopefully tick them off one by one in the coming days as more news is forthcoming.

So let’s start with the big one. Did the US really find and kill Osama bin Laden in a compound a kilometre from Kakul? Though this question is being raised in Pakistani conversations and on conspiracy theory websites, the mainstream media seems to have decided that the US is telling the truth. The US government, on the other hand, is not making much of an effort to win over naysayers. The SEALs apparently did DNA tests and facial recognition that satisfied them, but beyond that there is little solid evidence they can present to a third party. Obama has also refused to present photographs. Again, though photographs can be doctored and would probably still have critics, the fact that the US administration is in no mood to share does present an air of reluctance to confirm their achievement. O yes, and they decided to give Osama a burial at sea within hours, because apparently Islam demands that the burial be quickly dealt with. And the US is, of course, famous for its gracious treatment of enemy combatants.

So, essentially, we’re supposed to just take the US government at their word. If there was a list of bodies that have a history of unimpeachable honesty, the US government would not really make it.

According to Obama, he’s dead, we won’t see him again. Fair enough, except that had he died 6 years ago, we still wouldn’t see him walking around. In fact, when was the last time we did see him? That the Americans are expecting their word to be taken as gospel truth is almost cute.

On the other hand, it seems everyone (the mainstream media, the various first world governments, and even our very own government and establishment) is willing to do just that. The most suspicious of these is of course our army. Why, after years of claiming that Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan, and with an in-depth knowledge of games of deception, didn’t our government, or any other organisation present doubts over the US claim? Did the SEALs hang around and show them the body and the test results? Perhaps they did. I haven’t come across any such news though. So I guess that’s another question, what exactly happened when the operation ended? Did the Americans hand over things to the Pakistanis and leave, or were they long gone before the Pakistani’s turned up? According to the Express Tribune account (which seems to be the Pakistani account as well), by the time Pakistani forces got into the act, the SEALs were well on their way home.

There is some evidence left to be verified though, isn’t there? What about the dead son’s body, and the twelve year old daughter, both of whom are supposedly in Pakistani custody? Can we at least do our own DNA tests on them to confirm that they are in fact OBL’s offspring?

If we are to combine two facts, that Pakistanis had no contact with the Americans during the operation, and still, without any evidence presented to them, found American claims incontrovertible, does this mean they sort of knew that this was on the cards? Does it mean that all their intelligence that seemed to suggest that Osama bin Laden was either dead or far far away was not all that solid, and they did in fact suspect that bin Laden was hanging around one military academy or another in Pakistan? Or (for love of conspiracy theories) is it just possible that they figured they could shout themselves hoarse and no-one would take their word over the US, and decided to just go along with the story presented to them?

Moving on now to the question of Pakistani involvement: did our forces have any idea there was a military operation going on a kilometre from Kakul? Did they have any idea that American helicopters had violated their airspace and were carrying out a forty-minute operation in the cantonment-heavy city of Abottabad? Assuming American stealth technology really did manage to dupe our radars (which they probably are capable of doing), was there no human intelligence at all? What about Sohaib Athar, who was tweeting the whole operation from his home? Apparently he heard the helicopters at 1 AM, some time before he reported a blast. Did nobody else notice this helicopter? Or is our response time a mere 40 minutes?

On the other hand, there are suggestions that the army was actually in on it. The explanation here is that the Army would fear backlash from bin Laden’s sympathisers and is therefore trying to play down its role. But seriously, is our army really that afraid? And is this alternative version of events really much better? Would they rather appear completely incompetent and/or duplicitous? How long would they think it would take for people around the world to join the dots and come out condemning them? Did they think the Pakistani public would be pleased to hear about their performance in being completely clueless as to when our security is breached? This version seems highly implausible. Especially since the army had no response for two days after the incident. The lack of a story, even a false one, seems to indicate that our military was indeed caught with its trousers down.

Or is there another possibility? Is it possible that we actually have no modus operandi for such a situation? So a couple of American helicopters violated our airspace and headed towards Abottabad, what were we to do? Shoot them down? This is the same military that has, for all its condemnation, never dared to shoot down an American drone. Would it have been practical for it to engage American helicopters? Was it perhaps easier to look the other way while the Americans went about their business?

Then of course, the question that everyone’s been asking. Did they know bin Laden was lying a stone’s throw away? As stated earlier, it would explain their reluctance to refute US claims. And well, it just seems ridiculously odd that the US figured this out, based on information supposedly provided by the ISI, and yet the ISI, sitting within spitting distance of bin Laden didn’t manage to put things together. Were they really this incompetent? Were they not really interested in capturing the ailing Al-Qaeda chief and therefore not really looking? Or were they looking for the opportune moment to trade bin Laden? Or maybe, they actually were giving him sanctuary. Maybe he was somebody’s BFF.

Here’s another story I base on absolutely nothing: Maybe the CIA knew bin Laden was in ISI custody in Abottabad and were content to have him safely tucked away for a rainy day. And maybe the ISI knew that the CIA knew and were quite happy to oblige at their convenience. But in the recently deteriorating relationship between the two agencies, the CIA decided to up the ante by going it alone and showing the Pakistani military who was boss.

If you decide to ignore my brilliant story, here’s the low-fat version, based again on the two agencies deteriorating relationship. It’s been no secret that all has not been well in the house that the CIA and ISI built. There was Raymond Davis, there were the growing protests against drone attacks, demands that CIA reduce its personnel in Pakistan and most recently there was the ‘leak’ in the papers that the CIA considered the ISI to be a terrorist agency. So, at least at the face of it, they were having a bit of a tiff.

What better way to justify the presence of operatives in Pakistan, and bring the ISI in line than to prove they are incapable of or unwilling to deal with problems themselves?

I won’t go into detailed questions about the legality of the operation and the actual inaccuracies between the various versions of events presented by the US. We should all know explanations for these off by heart by now. The varying accounts are of course because of the fog of war - “It all happened so fast”. Never having been in a combat situation I can’t comment on whether this is a justified response. One would think that they would get their story straight before presenting it, what with all the recording equipment and whatnot. I guess Obama’s approval rating couldn’t hold out a few more days. And of course, it’s all legal. When has the US government ever acted illegally? And shame on you for nitpicking when the whole world is celebrating the death of our generations bogeyman (not that the world’s safer or anything, but still, why do you have to be such a downer?).

Just out of curiosity though, did they confirm bin Laden’s identity before or after they shot him? Hypothetically speaking, what would they have done if, after shooting him, they do the DNA test and it turns out to be someone else? (If I was in that situation, I’d just get rid of the body as soon as possible… not that I’m implying anything!)

I might return with more questions if they arise, but for now, I’ll leave with a gem of a quote that will answer any niggling doubts you may still have on the legality of the operation (you nitpicker!):

"Frankly, I don't know," McDonough continued. "I've seen differing accounts as we gather more information. I don't know for certain whether bin Laden was armed or not. But I do know that our tremendous ... assault team that made that raid that day made exactly the right decision in each case, as far as I'm concerned."

PS. Before I got carried away, the idea was that I could write up all the questions and then draw the various conclusions from each one. And when I say draw, I mean literally draw, like a graph. Maybe I'll do that now...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Musings at an airport

I can’t stop my hands trembling. For the past forty minutes I have been going through a fixed routine. Pacing swiftly, sitting down, lighting up a cigarette, extinguishing it untouched, getting up again, pacing again; I have exhausted this repertoire several times over. I tell myself that all this nervous activity is bound to attract attention, especially at an airport. This makes me even more nervous.

My nerves are not unjustified. I’m a dead man. Not literally, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though that has the potential for a nice sketch. Man walks into a police station and nervously says, ‘I’m a dead man’ and it turns out later he actually is a ghost. It’d be tough to keep that interesting until you hit the punch-line, but I’m sure it can be done. I’m smiling. What the hell is wrong with me? Well, a lack of concentration for one. My inability to organise my life is another. A few failed and spectacularly short relationships might point to the existence of a third, though maybe it’s just a symptom of the second.

There I go again, getting caught up in an analysis of my life. I need to focus. Otherwise, I’m not going to have much of a life left to screw up again. Perhaps I should eat something that will help me to think. A nice chocolate bar, that’s the solution. But which one though? I bet they have a very limited choice here. It’s a crummy little airport. I bet they don’t even have Galaxy, and if they do, it’s probably all melted and refrozen and out of shape. Forget the chocolate. I’m not going to have it. But how will I think without it? I’m going to die, without any attempt at escape, because this stupid airport shop doesn’t have a decent bar of Galaxy.

Hold on, am I really buying this? This isn’t some silly little exam that I can blame on bad weather and ill-health and explain away till next time. In all likelihood, there will be no next time. Just like that Eminem song.

Focus, man, focus! Let’s go over what has happened so far. Let’s try to assess the situation. Understand the gravity of the events. Do an analysis of the risk and loss involved, like those actuaries do. Or gamblers. I’m a smart guy. I can do this. Ok, lets start. I was ordered to take a flight from this airport - a simple enough task for most people. But then I’ve never considered myself to be a part of the rabble. I am a prince among men. A diamond in the rough, just like Aladdin. Have I teetered into sarcasm in my own mind? I don’t even know if I’m being serious when I’m talking to myself?

Does it matter if I’m special? Does it matter if any of us are? For fuck’s sake, will you FOCUS! Last thought – I like that phrase ‘fuck’s sake’.

So, returning to the little problem at hand. We chose this airport for its lack of security. Well that was a good call, not much security here. That guard looks like he’d let a cannon pass if its wheels didn’t squeak and disturb his slumber. But is that a plus or a negative? Am I more afraid of the authorities, or the people who hired me? Let’s just note this down as ‘inconclusive observation’.

Perhaps I should be drawing a conclusion. Perhaps that’s my problem; my ceaseless procrastination. Okay, here and now, lack of security, good or bad? Well, I could be shot right here and now, but for that to happen, they would need to know I’d screwed up. Unless they were following me, there’s no other way. Thank God I didn’t attend that bastard’s last-minute calls. He must’ve assumed I was already on the plane. He didn’t think too highly of me, but I don’t think he suspected I was this incompetent.

Seriously though, when did it come to this? I had such a promising childhood. My little quirks were always so endearing. Oops, turned up at school in his slippers, what a character! Who would’ve thought that all these events were eventually going to culminate in the monumental cock-up I have managed today. Missing the flight I was supposed to hi-jack. I mean, seriously!

How did a nice boy like me end up in a situation like this? A few stereotypical things come to mind. Lack of employment, lack of stability, lack of family. Lacks and lacks of everything. I am a lack-pati! Oh, what a corny! It’d be funnier if I was married… and Indian.

So, everything’s sorted, I can die in peace. You jackass!

Maybe it wasn’t a screw up. Maybe I subconsciously didn’t want to go through with it. Perhaps I’m a newly discovered Buddhist. I have generally avoided violence all my life. Well, at least when it was to be directed towards me. No, that’s not it. It was that damn taxi-driver driving as if he had all the time in the world, ‘Don’t worry sir, no need to rush’. The bastard broke down twice on the way.

I told them to get me a car to the airport, but no. Cheapskates, serves them right. What kind of an operation are they running anyway. I’m sure if I explained this to them, I could make a compelling case. Yes, I’ll tell them it was all their fault for not getting me a car. I’m sure they’d listen to that. Right before they castrate me.

O shit, it’s 5 o’clock already. I’ve been analysing the situation for ages. It’s now over an hour since the nice lady at the check-in counter told me she couldn’t let me on the plane. They’re probably expecting the news to break any minute now. I’d better run for it. I saw a bar on the way here. It's far enough away from the airport, I'll go there.

So now I’m in the bar, glued to the news on the television. How can I possibly get out of this? If only that plane would crash. Nobody would be any wiser about what happened. It wouldn’t be my fault. Everyone would think I’d died on-board. Please God, I’ve rarely asked you for anything. Please crash that plane. Show me you’re there. Show me you care about me. Crash that plane!

I’m feeling better now. Planes crash all the time, don’t they! I mean, I know the chances are usually remote, but I think God is definitely going to make up for everything that’s gone wrong with my life on this one. I can feel it!

Ah, this is going to be a story for the ages. I’ll tell my children all about it…when the time is right, of course. Or maybe, I’ll just go directly to my grandchildren and tell them.

Maybe someone will make a movie about this at some point. It’d probably be a comedy, the way this is turning out. Shit, that means whoever is playing me is going to be some sort of bungling comedian. Unless someone does it tastefully. That would take a real genius to capture the reality of the situation.

Hold on, everyone’s gone quiet. What’s that on the news? An aeroplane is in trouble. The pilot’s reported he can’t get his landing gear down. What’s the flight number? Dammit woman, we know the situation is tense at the airport, what the hell else were you expecting? Just tell me the damn flight number! Really, are you going to go on about how worried you are? Is that what’s important - how you feel? What about – o there it is. It can’t be… It is! It’s my flight! And it’s circling because it can’t land. God has come through for me.

But is this situation good enough? A plane crashes on the runway? Yea, I think it would at least get me off the hook. Who’s going to chase after a dead man?

They’re trying to get it down somehow. All the fire-trucks and ambulances have lined up. Little do they know that the divine force is not with them. But what if it lands? Well, I’ll be done for. But it can’t, can it? No - no way. My hands are shaking again. People around me are trying to calm me down - Don’t worry? It’ll land? I’ll keep my mouth shut. Okay, time for the final approach. The pilot’s bringing it in. Please don’t let it land. Please no.

It’s coming down lower... lower. I’ve put my glass down. This irritating guy next to me has his hand on my shoulder. I bet he can feel my heart racing. All the blood has rushed to my head. My ears are throbbing. The flight is about to touch down, and… Aargh. What’s wrong with these fuckers at the news channel. You’re supposed to be giving me the news as it happens, you bastards! They’ve switched to the studio. Okay, hold on. They’ll tell us soon enough.

Just have another drink. I can barely get the words out to order a cool glass of water. The barman’s put it down in front of me with a look of sympathy. Just gulp it down.

Here's the update! And…


God proving once again that He not only hates me, He enjoys torturing me as well. Probably shouldn’t have shouted out loud like that. The guys at the bar are staring at me though it doesn't really matter any more. Things are about to get much worse. It's time to get my bag and passport and disappear. If only I can make it to the airport.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Liberal War Drum

It occurs to me that we are in a perpetual state of internal conflict. Salman Taseer’s murder got the ball rolling for 2011. This time, during the dispute over amendments to the Blasphemy Law, Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri took a drastic route in expressing his opinion on the matter. So now, the battle lines are drawn between the ‘liberal’, secular side and the conservative, religious one. Because I get my news from the Express Tribune and Dawn, I am inundated with news and blogs denouncing the Mullahs and celebrating the heroic life of the controversial Governor.

So this time, we all stand together and decry the hard-line stance of the Barelvi sect in Pakistan. Last year, of course, we liked them, because the main villains were the Wahabis who have been gaining some notoriety by being blamed for suicide bombs and whatnot. We were told that their brand of ‘fundamentalist’ Islam was inevitably going to cause trouble. Sufiism was the way to go.

I have spent most of my life only marginally aware of the existence of such sects. Now, of course, they are all the rage.

Sectarianism wasn’t the only issue in the year that was. Mobs and violence were associated with religious violence against religious minorities. There was a host of problems along ethnic lines. The Sialkot incident shook the country. And of course, politics has also become a source of violence recently.

It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that all these incidents could be related. While bloggers compete with one another in their condemnation of each event individually, these ‘liberal’ voices are fast losing ground in the physical world. The fact that Qadri is being treated as a hero in certain sections is a shocking indictment of this situation. So, why are liberals losing ground? In my opinion, it’s because of their failure to relate to the on-ground realities in the country. It is their misdiagnosis of a basic problem stemming from an inability or reluctance to ask the basic question: why are people so willing to turn to barbarity?

Try this on for size. Pakistan, as a state has failed miserably to cater to the needs of its population, and to provide it with the basic necessities needed for growth. Among the musical chairs played out between military and civilian rule, neither has succeeded in providing people with a truly representative government. Time and again, an autocratic, pro-US military government has been replaced with a disconnected, even more pro-US civilian government. In successive oligarchic (or colonial) governments the well-being of the people of Pakistan has at no point featured in the equation. This, of course, is becoming more and more apparent with the crumbling infrastructure, the rising inflation, the mass unemployment and the total despondency of the ruling elite and the upper classes to these issues.

The root of all this evil, in my opinion, is the one dirty word that it is now unfashionable to quote in liberal audiences – corruption. The atmosphere of social, moral and financial corruption ensures that people have little or no faith in the working of the state machinery and have no one to turn to for protection of their rights and property. Since there is no supreme arbiter in the land, everything is up for grab and/or sale, sending out the very dangerous message of ‘every man for himself’.

This gives birth to what I call the Scavenger Mentality. The Scavenger Mentality is on display everywhere in the country, and among almost all strata of our society. It’s on the roads, where people are more willing to crash their cars than have to give way to someone. It’s at any social gathering you have to form a queue. Our newspapers are littered with stories of one person killing another over a minor altercation. We are not willing to give an inch because we live in perpetual fear of exploitation, and therefore always ready for confrontation.

With government institutions rendered impotent by their corruption, as well as their reputation for such corruption, there is a vacuum in the market for providing their functions. No longer possessing the moral right to govern, these institutions cede control of many of their functions to other groups, such as feudal structures, jirgas, mafias or religious groups. These groups are now free to exploit those that subscribe to them for their own purposes. Religious groups are in the unique position of being able to offer a better afterlife.

The government, like all governments, is eager to play up the terrorism/religious extremism issue. It provides a good distraction from their day-to-day corruption and incompetence, and absolves them from any culpability in causing the situation. Following suit from the Americans, it chooses to turn this into a battle of good versus evil, rather than a predictable outcome of the states inability to enfranchise and provide for its citizens. People aren’t being pushed towards extremism by rampant social injustice; the Mullahs just have a magic sermon that turns people into savages.

The upper and upper-middle class (of which I consider myself to be a member) ‘liberal’ voices are repeatedly talking of going to the mattresses. The language in recent blogs is of war: war against the extremists, war against the Mullahs, war against intolerance. We will not tolerate the intolerant! But the intolerant aren’t reading these blogs, and even if they were, they are beyond caring.

The fact of the matter is these classes have not been pulling their weight in the country. We study in private schools, go to private hospitals, and work in multinational companies. Matters concerning law and order are dealt with by some uncle or the other. Our political and social opinions are formed in a culture isolated from the vast majority in the country. We are not politically active, and have never taken on the task of questioning our leadership. The educated elite that was to protect the rest of the country from exploitation at the hands of foreign and domestic powers has completely dropped the ball in enabling both.

Now, our little fortresses are under attack. The chaos outside the city walls occasionally finds its way inside our comfortable little worlds, and we respond violently. Someone complained recently about not being able to ‘live and let live’. Unfortunately, the educated elite have spent too long living and letting live or die. Now, the time is to act for the collective good of the country, and not just for the protection of our own lifestyles. Instead of trying to ignite or escalate a conflict between liberal and conservative that will only result in strengthening the corrupt leadership on both sides, this elite should be moving to correct the basics.

Telling a population that is steadily losing everything to turn away from extremism and violence is an exercise in futility. The liberal elite need to stop beating the war drum and start asking their government institutions why the situation has come to this, and what they are doing to correct this. We need to educate ourselves as to what is going on in the country, and try to get some perspective as to the causes of our current predicament. We need to stop condoning corruption and sacrificing honesty and practicality for the sake of liberalism. And we need to get out of this confrontational stance. The battle lines along beliefs are a distraction from what really ails the country.

Unless we are some extremely unlucky exception, genuine psychopaths are statistically rare. While the support of militancy and religious extremism by previous governments (again both civilian and military) has been a strong contributor to their rise, the growing polarisation in our cities has deeper reasons to it. Growing violence in countries is the hallmark of states that fail to function cohesively in economics, social welfare and in providing justice. These should be our focus if we are to find a way out. Liberals should be more concerned with actively strengthening our institutions by purging them of incompetence and corruption.

After living in isolation for a long time, liberals have been thrown into the deep end. They may now choose to pick a romanticised fight that will further polarise the country, or try to tackle the major practical problems that face its common population. I have long written off the idea of revolution in the country as impractical, but the rising violence is making me revisit my stance. While I condemn the killing of Salman Taseer, I am more worried that the rising wave of frustration and discontent may result in even more frequent and indiscriminate attacks.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Physically Illogical

-This was written in response to an article in Express Tribune on 4th January, 2010. It was an excerpt of one of Pervez Hoodbhoy's talks.

While reading the article published under Pervez Hoodbhoy’s name, entitled ‘Why do they pick on us Pakistanis?’ I was still trying to assess the arguments when I hit the second last paragraph.

“For example, Imran Khan — who speaks of the West as the fountainhead of evil — prefers to keep his family in London and New York, owes his fame to a game invented by British colonialists, and employs real doctors rather than hakeems for his cancer hospital.”

Now, I have never been to MIT, and do confess to having limited education, but clearly, logical thought is not part of their curriculum for physicists. Before I move on to the rest of the article, the mind-blowing absurdity of this statement has to be addressed. While criticising Imran Khan’s choice to keep his family abroad seems a reasonable argument in pointing out his hypocrisy (which it is not… but we’ll come to that), the good doctor has seen fit to point to his fame in a ‘colonial’ game, and his employment of medical professionals as signs of his closet western-ness.

So apparently, anyone who indulges in the most popular sport in the subcontinent automatically loses his license to criticise any action being conducted in the West (of course, it’s all one big area over there that invented the game among their other achievements). Anyone who has ever been to a doctor is also out. Unless you frequent hakeems or any other local forms of medical professionals, you too have no right to criticise the West. I’m assuming this is because ‘the West’ gave us modern medicine. Presumably, anyone who has ever used algebra in America has no right to criticise Arab policy either.

Let’s move on from this staggeringly illogical statement, with the assumption it was made in a moment of madness, and try to get to the core of the text. Firstly, the idea is presented that Pakistanis have a hard time at American Immigration because of a bad track record. While I can understand the frustration and humiliation of people subjected to ‘the special line’, the measure in itself is logical enough.

The second point, however, seems a little extreme. The only two options that presented themselves to Dr. Hoodbhoy during his inflamed rage towards the American bombing of Vietnam were either to bomb Harvard Square or to leave the country. Why was he not out there, protesting like everyone else? Why was he not withholding taxes or picketing the White House? Of course, his move in itself is commendable, he returned to Pakistan, and the impoverished country no doubt gained an eminent physicist. But his flight did little to pacify the Vietnamese. I don’t know, perhaps he did protest, but his return to Pakistan made the war go away, at least for him.

Then, in the soul-searching that ensued, Dr. Hoodbhoy came to another staggering conclusion. Since injustice against the weak has been practiced by every strong party in history, the weak should just accept it and get on with their lives. Quite brilliant!

The article then turns into an ode to Western liberalism. People are safer there to practice their religions, their rights are secure and so on and so forth. Critics of the US are not contending any of this. Even extremists like Faisal Shehzad never claimed they were protesting local American prejudice. The US comes under attack from the likes of Imran Khan because of their overbearing ‘bull in a China shop’ foreign policy. In the sentence where Dr. Hoodbhoy mentions the decency of Americans in protecting Muslims in their own country, he is also completely flippant about the two illegal wars that George W. Bush started which killed thousands of people. Of course, I forgot, it’s the way the world works.

US forces currently occupy bases all the way from Pakistan to North Africa, where they prop up despotic, repressive regimes. They have gone against UN policy time and time again, and bombed innocent civilians in almost every part of the globe. People in these areas do not have the option of going home and forgetting all about it.

Obviously, I am not endorsing terrorism, but surely the only other solution is not to lie down and accept the status quo as morally correct. Pervez Hoodbhoy seems as resigned to being a second rate citizen of the world community, tiptoeing around American whim, as he claims minorities are in Pakistan.

Finally, let’s make the distinction between Pakistani Americans, and Pakistani students in America. Pakistani-American’s who live in America, and have adopted the American way of life should of course be shunning radicalism and violence, but that’s not the entire story. They do also have a right, and perhaps to some extent, a responsibility to protest and criticise unjust actions by their own (or as Dr. Hoodbhoy would prefer ‘adopted’) government. They are not there to quietly and apologetically keep their heads down, and keep out of sight; they are there to live a normal life.

Pakistani students, on the other hand, could, and should be acting as ambassadors. They should obviously be shunning radicalism in their own country, but also educating common Americans about what makes the US so unpopular in the third world.

Perhaps, from a purely practical perspective, one could argue that immigrants should try to adapt to their host country, but surely commentators in Pakistan have the right to criticise Western policy they disagree with?

As this is an excerpt, I suspect (and hope) that there is a great deal that is incoherent and could possible be taken out of context, but by and large, the apologetic theme that is willing to fatalistically accept illegal wars, while criticising its blowback is troubling. Perhaps if eminent Pakistani intellectuals such as Pervez Hoodbhoy were able to make more of a fuss about the injustices of American foreign policy and its disastrous effect on Pakistan, misguided youths such as Faisal Shehzad would not feel the need to express their own discontent in such a violent way. Instead our leading minds tend to shirk away from any such responsibilities, perhaps for fear that the next time they won’t even have the opportunity to stand in the slow-moving line.