Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pindiwal newspaper vendor in Paris

Greetings every one:

Every now and then I get emails about boy geniuses from Pakistan who are supposedly hired by the leading universities to solve global crisis. All such stories, and unfortunately without exception, prove to be garden variety BS.

I am, however, sharing with you a truly amazing story about Ali Akbar, a former resident of Rawalpindi, who left the country at 18. He is a street vendor selling newspapers in Paris. He is also an acclaimed author.

He is too much of a commoner to be respected and acknowledged by Pakistanis. But to me, he is the ultimate survivor and a very wise man. Ali Akbar is the Ahsan Danish of our times. I wish Pakistani media would at least acknowledge him.

Sincerely, Murtaza (in Athens (37.58.48 N, 23.45.20 E)

Ali's story in today's Financial Times:

An earlier story from BBC in 2005:

A brief on Ahsan Danish:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Refugees in their homeland

The Globe and Mail editorial on May 05 appropriately highlights that "Pakistan's real interests lie in reasserting its national unity." While the Pakistan's political and military leadership is being pushed to confront Taliban, the real price of military intervention in the tribal regions is being paid by the civilians whose lives and livelihoods have been threatened by the conflict between the State and the militants.

At present, more half a million civilians have been displaced from the conflict-ridden tribal regions of Pakistan. Yesterday, the government of the Frontier Province appealed for assistance because it believed that the rise in hostilities would produce additional half a million internally displaced persons. The provincial government is asking the donor agencies for assistance because it does not have the means to look after a million refugees.

It is incumbent upon those who are pushing the Pakistani authorities to confront Taliban to provide immediate relief and support for hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by this war. The lack of food, water, medicine, proper shelter, and the uncertainty about their future is creating agony in the refugee camps near Peshawar and Mardan. Already, news reports from Pakistan suggest increasing signs of anger and despair amongst the displaced young men in the camps.

Unless massive aid is provided immediately to those displaced by the war in Pakistan, these refugee camps may end up becoming the recruiting grounds for the Taliban.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ahmed Rashid on the Taliban question

The following is reproduced from Dawn.Com.

Pakistan is facing galloping Talibanisation: Ahmed Rashid

On Monday, April 4, veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid addressed a select crowd at Karachi's Mohatta Palace Museum. Not surprisingly, the subject of his talk was 'Afghanistan and Pakistan: Quest for Peace or Recipe for War?' He argued that Pakistan was facing a major existential crisis: 'I no longer say that there's a creeping Talibanisation in Pakistan, it's a galloping Talibanisation.' Here,'s Huma Yusuf presents the salient points from Mr. Rashid's presentation.

Where did the Taliban come from?

The myths about the Taliban need to be clarified. They are not an extension of an external threat, they are not being funded by Russia or India. In the 1990s, the Taliban in Afghanistan were fighting the Northern Alliance, and thousands of Pashtuns went to fight as foot soldiers on behalf of the Taliban. In 2001, the Afghan Taliban fled to Pakistan. Pakistani Taliban, who previously had little clout, became hosts of the Afghan Taliban and earned much money for their assistance. From 2001 to 2004, the Pakistani Taliban grew in numbers and influence and became radicalized because of their proximity to the Afghan Taliban. They planned and mobilized to establish a Taliban 'emirate' or state in Fata and the expansion of that idea of statehood is what we see happening today.

Pakistani Taliban expanding

The leadership of the Taliban is now in Pakistan and they have stated their intention of overthrowing the government here. The Taliban are linking up with groups in Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban movement is turning into a multiethnic movement. Groups cultivated to fight in Kashmir have joined up with the Pakistani Taliban, and include Punjabis with organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkatul Mujahideen. Now, some 40 groups in Pakistan are loosely affiliated with the Pakistan – the several years of progressive diplomacy with India exacerbated the rise of different Taliban-affiliated factions. For that reason, Pakistan faces a more dangerous situation than Afghanistan, where Tajik and Uzbek fighters were not permitted to join the Afghan Taliban movement.

Issues in Pakistani governance

Pakistan is also weaker because of a raging economic crisis, the ongoing insurgency in Balochistan, and a political crisis. The PPP government has wasted one year vying with the PML-N for power rather than tackling the Taliban threat. Meanwhile, ANP, which was supposed to serve as secular face of Frontier province, has collapsed (ANP officials are being targeted by Taliban in northern areas).

Before 2008, the Musharraf government allowed the Taliban to resettle in Pakistan from Afghanistan. Musharraf wanted to maintain the jihadi nexus as a force against the Indians. Also, the emphasis then was on getting rid of Al Qaeda, the Taliban were not seen as a major threat.

After 2004/2005, when military operations did begin in Fata, the government pursued a stop-and-start policy, which involved several peace deals that did not hold. In the meantime, the Pakistan government and army failed to protect the people of the Fata and the traditional tribal hierarchies that were pro-Pakistan. About 300 maliks of tribes were killed and by 2007, there were half a million refugees from Fata in Pakistan. Having lost the goodwill of the population in Fata, the government will find it hard to reenter the area and rebuild traditional tribal structures.

American failures

How did we get from 2001 to where we are today? The Bush government got distracted by Iraq, which provided a diversion of attention and resources from the situation in Afghanistan. Instead of having an on-the-ground plan for capacity building in Afghanistan, the US supported warlords – instead of empowering the centre, regional powers were bolstered. Plus, little was done about the drug trade, which is now the main source of funding for the Taliban (it is estimated at 300 million dollars, but Rashid believes the real figures are triple that amount). Instead of defeating Taliban in Afghanistan, Americans routed them to Pakistan.

Obama policy

US President Barack Obama is now doing what Bush should have done in Afghanistan (troop surge, capacity building, securing the ground to ensure that presidential elections can take place this August). In Pakistan, however, American options are limited. There was a hope that after February 2008 elections, there would be a strong coalition government that could serve as a civilian partner for Obama to partner with. After all, army has proved unreliable ally (especially since it still thinks that India is the main enemy; army officials dislike Indian presence in Afghanistan; and army officials don't like Karzai and other Afghan leaders). However, there is no one for America to partner with. PM? President? Opposition leader? They have all proved too weak.

As a result, US is asking for aid to help Paksitan, but there is very little trust and faith in Pakistan amongst the Congress. The aid that will be given will be packed with conditionalities that Pakistan won't be able to accept. Congress is asking, who will we give this aid to?

India question

There is a tit-for-tat game between India and Pakistan whereby they support nationalist insurgencies in each other's countries (so while India may be giving funds in Balochistan, Pakistan is helping out rebels in Assam). But India is not funding the Taliban. India realizes that the Taliban will be at their border next and they have nothing to gain from supporting the militants.

Regional strategy

New focus of Obama administration is regional policy – get Afghanistan's six neighbors involved and make them sort out regional stability and set a common agenda. But first, bilateral issues will have to be sorted: Indo-Pak will have to clear the air, Pakistan and Central Asian states will have to reach understandings, and Iran and the US will have to start negotiating. This way, Afghanistan is not only a problem, it becomes a trigger for regional problem solving. This is one of the most doable and productive aspects of the Obama policy for Af-Pak.

Fallacies of Swat deal (Nizam-i-Adl Regulation)

The ANP thought that the deal would be contained within Swat, but that was very misguided thinking. The Taliban have an expansionist agenda. They make deals in one areas so that they can secure it and then move into other areas. There has also been no cessation of their killing of ANP and other government officials and they have not agreed to lay down their arms. Instead of achieving anything, the Swat deal formalises a different form of law and governance for one part of Pakistan, thus weakening the government.

The law in Swat is Taliban law, and it's nonsense to say that the Swatis have been practicing Sharia for decades. The Taliban law has nothing to do with the mild form of Sufi-influenced Sharia that Swatis have had from 1960s.

Government was definitely taken by surprise by the speed with which Taliban moved on from Swat to Buner, Dir, etc. They will not stop and government should realise their ultimate goal of toppling Islamabad. To that end, the operation in Swat is welcome. But the question is: will it be a sustained offensive?

Also, there are already one million IDPs who have escaped from Fata and northern areas. If the army is seriously going to tackle Taliban menace, it must learn counter-insurgency tactics and get the right equipment to target Taliban without damaging entire villages.

Making the same mistake again

The US Defense secretary sees "larger role for Saudis in Pakistan." While enroute to Riyadh, Mr. Gates explained that he would like Saudi government to help reach consensus in Pakistan about the threat from the Taliban.

I don't think Robert Gates is naïve or ignorant. Knowing very well that it is the Saudi-inspired Wahabi Islam that drives the Taliban militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, why would he ask Pakistanis to seek help from the Saudis.

Every fundamentalist mosque I have ever visited in Pakistan, every militant madrassah that I know of is getting direct ideological and financial support from Saudi Arabia. The prayer leaders in Saudi Arabia routinely praise the Taliban in their sermons. What could Saudi clergy and government possibly offer to reach consensus against the Taliban in Pakistan when the Saudis are the primary supporters of their violent, fundamentalist ideology.

I think the name of the game is to contain Iran. Fearing Iran's growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia is pushing all buttons to contain the Shiites of Iran who now exert strong influence on the Shiites of Iraq (who constitute majority) and that of Afghanistan where the Shiites are a large minority. Last month, the Saudi King Abdullah offered a personal audience to the visiting Chief of Army Staff of Pakistan, General Kiyani. May I ask why a King is busy talking with Generals from another country? Unless the plan is to use Pakistan's Armed Forces to open a front against Iran from the troubled Baluchistan province.

The Shiite orthodoxy exercising control over Iran is also not careful with the newly regional influence of the Iranian State. In Ahmedinijad, Iran has its own Mullah Omar, equally regressive and out of touch with the aspirations of his people. If the Iranian leadership does not smarten up fast, the US, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states may find success in opening a front against Iran from Baluchistan using Taliban as an excuse.