Posts Tagged ‘Jane Perlez’

Must-Reads of the Week

Friday, May 8th, 2009

1. Inhuman. Andrew Sullivan, who has been one of the most insightful commenators on torture, discusses the term “inhuman”:

It’s odd, isn’t it, that we use this word to describe abuse and torture of prisoners. The reason it’s odd is that I’m not sure any animals torture. Yes, they can kill and maim and inflict dreadful suffering in the process of killing, eating or fighting. But the act of intentionally exploiting suffering, of lingering over some other being’s pain – using it as a means to an end – is not an animal instinct, unless I’m mistaken.

And so torture is in fact extremely human; it represents in many ways humankind’s unique capacity for cruelty.

2. 30 Rock. Jonah Weiner discusses 30 Rock’s odd conservative streak at Slate. The explanations he posits for this conservatism are perhaps beside the point, but interesting nonetheless:

Of course, 30 Rock was conceived during the reign of George W. Bush, which might help explain its ideological complexity. The show has been consistently critical of Bush, but perhaps 30 Rock began as a way to explore—and mine for gallows humor—the crisis of identity many liberals began to feel in his second term, when the Karl Rove playbook had seemingly replaced the laws of physics, when the “reality-based community” (including Liz Lemon’s Upper West Side) felt like an island populated by the marginal, flip-flopping, arugula-munching few.

3. Animal Spirits. Chrystia Freeland writes for the Financial Times that the Obama team seems to have accepted the premise of a recent book by behavioral economists about economic crises:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

4. A Taliban Strategist Speaks. To The New York Times. Perhaps the most interesting article I have read about the Taliban’s plans in the Af-Pak region – though I have to wonder why this man would be speaking to a Western newspaper about the Taliban’s strategy. That said, you can judge the article for yourself. I pass it on as it seemed plausible to me:

One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.

His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.

It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.

5. Fool’s Gold. This one is actually a must-listen podcast of a talk given at the London School of Economics. Gillian Tett is a journalist for the Financial Times who recently wrote a book about the financial crisis and what led to it from her view as someone with a background in anthropology reporting who was reporting on derivratives before it was an exciting beat.

Bonus: Polar Insanity. Tim Wu writes in Slate about the perplexing desire of so many people – including himself –  to make the expensive trips to the polar regions:

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What’s almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Unnamed, plentiful beauty feels unearthly and almost decadent, like Sinbad the Sailor’s cave. It is alien to the typical human experience of finding everything we really desire to be scarce, expensive, or behind some temple curtain. It has always struck me that no one bothers to build museums in places of extreme natural beauty, and in Antarctica the effect is magnified. If an iceberg the size of Manhattan showed up outside town one day, why would you bother going to an art exhibit?

Pakistan: The Edge of the Abyss

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Today, as the President Zardari of Pakistan is scheduled to meet with Obama, the news about Pakistan is growing worse and worse.

A nation with nuclear weapons seems on the brink of collapse. Yet it often seems as if the country’s leadership is still more focused on the threat from its historic rival, India. As the New York Times editorial board explained last week:

If the Indian Army advanced within 60 miles of Islamabad, you can bet Pakistan’s army would be fully mobilized and defending the country in pitched battles. 

The Pakistani Taliban is now within that distance – 60 miles – of the capital. It’s advance has not been halted and it continues to destabilize and then take over large portions of Pakistan. You can see the strong position the Taliban is in by reading the story published just a few days ago by Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah also in the Times telling the story of a Taliban strategist who gave them an inside look at the Taliban’s regional strategy – which focuses in a large part on exploiting the border between Afganistan and Pakistan over which the Taliban move without qualms, but which U.S. forces generally respect. The Pakistani army and intelligence agencies are both said to be sympathetic to the Taliban and islamist extremism in general – and U.S. strategists believe their goal is to wait out America’s interest in the region and then use these Taliban forces to exert control over Afghanistan and to destabilize India, which they still consider the main threat to their national security. This is why – despite the billions of dollars in funding given to the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies since September 11 for the purpose of aiding them in their war against the Taliban – their forces they have arrayed against the Taliban are ill-equipped and too few in number – as they have used most of these funds to build up their military for a more conventional war against India. David Sanger, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations some weeks ago told a story he described as telling you “everything you need to know about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.” It is a story, essentially, of a leadership that is friendly with the Taliban – even as they tell the Americans they are doing everything they can to stop them. 

President Zardari meanwhile tried to assure American lawmakers – who he met with yesterday – that the money they were sending to Pakistan was being used wisely by likening it “to the government’s bailout of the troubled insurance giant, American International Group” according to the Times. 

The fall of Pakistan to the Taliban is perhaps the worst case scenario national security experts can imagine. The Taliban is allied with Al Qaeda – who have planned to use weapons of mass destruction against America. Pakistan has nuclear weapons in numerous locations throughout the country – and is already responsible for more nuclear proliferation than any other nation on earth. It is, what Dick Cheney might call, the nexus of America’s worst fears. And worse yet, none of America’s policies in the region seemed to have had the desired effect – former President Musharraf seemed unable to truly take on the Taliban and terrorist elements, despite his being motivated their attempts to kill him – and America, by continuing to support Musharraf in the face of his desperate bids to hold onto power, alienated many Pakistanis and was finally removed from office due to the pressure from both America and groups organizing for a civil society; Benazir Bhutto, martyred running for office, said all the right things and seemed to recognize that the fundamental enemy of Pakistan was no longer India – but the religious extremists within it’s own borders; but she never had an opportunity to lead Pakistan again; her widower, the current President Zardari has followed too much in the path of Musharraf and had likewise angered many Pakistanis by using his power to undermine political rivals  (leading to massive destabilizing protests until he backed down due to pressure from America and groups organizing for civil society) – while at the same time, despite fine words, he has been unable to make progress in combating the Taliban. Instead, he signed a deal with them to allow the Taliban to impose their extremist religion on a large region of the country. Despite the glaringly self-interested actions of Pakistani leaders – and the fact that even today with the Taliban encroaching upon the capital, it is not clear that the government is yet committed to rooting out these insurgents or terrorists – America has been forced time and again to double down in our support of Pakistan’s leaders. What other choice do we have? Pakistan is too important to allow it to fail – and it has nuclear weapons. 

Which is why we can longer accept the constant refrain from Pakistan’s leaders that “Everything’s fine; please send helicopters.” Pakistan is “ground zero in many of the worst-case scenario exercises gamed out by national security officials [and seems] on the verge of spiraling out of control.” General Petreaus is apparently saying privately that “the next two weeks are critical [in] determining whether the Pakistani government will survive.” David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert advising the Obama administration, expressed a related point:  “We have to face the fact that if Pakistan collapses it will dwarf anything we have seen so far in whatever we’re calling the war on terror now.” 

This is where we are – at the edge of an abyss. And it seems there is nothing for us to do but to trust that our government is properly trusting the ineffectual (or perhaps conflicted) Pakistani leadership to control the situation.

Or is that all we can do? Wendy Chamberlin, a former ambassador to Pakistan suggested another idea: “We have to make clear that our relationship is with the people of Pakistan and not with [any] one man…” I don’t this is what she meant – but it seems to me that the best way to make this clear is for Americans to begin communicating with Pakistanis. And I don’t just mean the government.

Remember the Obama campaign – which encouraged tens of thousands of volunteers to call or email or knock on the doors of millions of citizens – in a grass-roots effort to change the nation? We should start that. Here. Today. Go on Facebook. Find someone from Pakistan. Send them a pen-pal letter and ask them what’s going on – so each of us can do our part to figure out what is going on in what we are being told is a very dangerous situation. Be humble; be curious; be respectful. But reach out. It seems kind of silly, but what other choice do we have?

The Primal Politics of Pakistan

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

The stories that have been coming out of Pakistan in the past few days have been extraordinary. It is politics being shaped by individuals at a basic and primal level, in a way only possible in an unstable nation. Just a few weeks ago, Simon Tisdall in the Guardian would write that:

Pakistan’s disintegration, if that is what is now being witnessed, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, a riveting spectacle, and a clear and present danger to international security. But who in the world can stop it?

As President Zardari seemed to buffoonishly wield power – ham-handedly using the power of the government to sideline his opponents, resistant built up. First, he refused to honor a deal he made with his main opponent, Nawaz Sharif, to reinstate the chief justice of the Supreme Court Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry who had been dismissed by President Musharraf. This was especially significant as the civil society movement or the Lawyers Movement which was formed to protest this move of Musharaff’s was one of the primary factors forcing him to step down. Then – and I skip over a great deal here, Zardari closes down a television station for seemingly political reasons prompting, as The Daily Times reported:

Federal Information Minister Sherry Rehman resigned from her ministerial slot on Friday night to protest the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA)’s blocking of a private TV channel.

With Sharif and Sharif’s brother still agitating for change – specifically the reinstatement of Chaudhry – the current Supreme Court, which is seen to be in the pocket of Zardari, rules that neither Sharif nor his brother can hold any public office. Sharif and his N-League party begin to stage mass rallies to protest this decision – which then prompts Zardari to take even more drastic action. He places all of his political opponents under house arrest – for their own protection – and bans rallies. Over the weekend, Sharif breaks out of his house arrest to go to a large demonstration as Jane Perlez reports in the New York Times:

Sharif, who had planned to address the demonstration, left his house in a convoy of cars that broke through a ring of barriers, including barbed wire and parked buses that had been placed by the police.

When he arrived at the rally in Lahore, Sharif was aided by elements of the police sympathetic to him – and embraced by the crowd:

As his bulletproof four-wheel-drive vehicle entered the main thoroughfare of Lahore, it was showered with pink rose petals from the crowd, made up of lawyers, party workers and couples who came with their children to join what turned out to be a celebration of Mr. Sharif’s nerve.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik meanwhile urged all Pakistanis to refrain from joining the long march which was supposed to converge on the capital of Pakistan yesterday:

I urge all Pakistanis not to join the long march as we have credible information that enemies of Pakistan could take advantage of the situation.

Yet, despite this, people came out. They confronted the police and military who tried to break up the rallies – and the police and military turned back. According to Jane Perlez again:

The army did not stage a coup, but insisted that the government accept a compromise.

Perhaps it was this factor more than Sharif’s nerve or Zardari’s ham-handedness that prevented this from going down as power plays usually do in Pakistan – in bloody violence. Zardari agreed yesterday to meet the demands of the Lawyers Movement and Sharif – and to restore Chaudhry as Chief Justice. Sabrina Tavernise described the scene in Islamabad in the New York Times:

In the crowd, whose members included a radio announcer who was researching homosexuality and an illiterate mechanic who wore a flower pot on his head to stay cool and admitted to stealing monkeys to get by, one word was on everybody’s lips.

“Justice,” said Mr. Khan’s wife, Rubina Javed, smiling broadly. “We came for justice.”

The word was apt for the victory at hand: the restoration of the chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to his court. But others in a jubilant crowd celebrating on Mr. Chaudhry’s lawn on Monday were working from a broader interpretation…

“This movement has given an awareness to the common people in Pakistan of their rights,” said Shamoon Azhar, 26, a doctoral student at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, sitting on the lawn with a large group of his friends. “This is about awareness. It’s given people confidence. It’s shown people it can happen.”

Ashtar Ali, a corporate lawyer was quoted by Jane Perlez:

This is the first time in the history of Pakistan that the police and civil administration have defied orders by the government to control public demonstrations. The writ of the government has failed.

The big winner in all of this is – of course, Sharif, as a Pakistani columnist put it:

He understood the pulse of the country.

Yet at the same time, the basic story of the American relationship with Pakistan remains the same. Richard Holbrooke summed it up when asked whether Pakistan’s security forces were committed to rooting out terrorists:

I’ve rarely seen in my years in Washington an issue which is so hotly disputed internally by experts and intelligence officials.