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Archive for July, 2008

According to a NY Times piece today, “A top Central Intelligence Agency official [identified as Stephen Kappes, the agency's deputy director] traveled secretly to Islamabad this month to confront Pakistan’s most senior officials with new information about ties between the country’s powerful spy service and militants operating in Pakistan’s tribal areas, according to American military and intelligence officials.” The CIA official reportedly presented evidence that showed that members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) “had deepened their ties with some militant groups,” specifically the Haqqani Network [see right image of Maulavi Jalauddin Haqqani, and, for more information on the Haqqani Network, read this piece from the  Jamestown Foundation] that were connected to the surge of violence in Afghanistan, including the suicide bombing this month of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

According to the Times, “The decision to confront Pakistan with what the officials described as a new C.I.A. assessment of the spy service’s activities seemed to be the bluntest American warning to Pakistan since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks about the ties between the spy service and Islamic militants.” However, the AFP reported Wednesday that Pakistan (not surprisingly) rejected the “malicious” CIA report, asserting that it was “unfounded” and “baseless.” Pakistani military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas told the news agency, “I would like to emphasize here that the ISI is a premier intelligence agency which has caught or apprehended maximum Al-Qaeda operatives including those who were linked with criminals and responsible for attacking the U.S. mainland on September 11, 2001.”

Although the CIA assessment is significant, it is not surprising. This past weekend, a directive to shift the ISI under the Interior Ministry garnered major attention among Pakistani media outlets. Although the PPP-led government published a press release soon after “clarifying” this decision, speculation over the ISI’s tug-of-war continued, with sources suggesting the move “had been part of a deal with America,” [see CHUP's previous post on the story]. According to an article from The News, the decision was “deeply linked” to Gilani’s visit to the U.S. this week, as the PM would likely “be put on the spot in some of his top-level meetings, confronted with evidence that some out-of-control parts of the Pakistani agencies, either with or without Islamabad’s nod, were working at odds with the U.S. goals and this has to be curbed by the political government if it wants generous economic and political support from Washington…”

The NY Times report, therefore, seems to affirm this previous assertion and is likely to further validate Washington’s concerns on the matter. A piece in today’s Washington Post reported, “Bush administration officials have responded with skepticism to an appeal by visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for increased intelligence cooperation, which he said would help his country attack militant groups and terrorist encampments near its border with Afghanistan.” One Bush administration official told the Post, “The problem from our perspective has not been an absence of information going into the Pakistani government…It’s an absence of action.”

Although Gilani’s Washington visit appeared rosy on the surface, with both governments exchanging pleasantries in front of reporters, [see related CHUP post], the Post noted, “there was little indication that tensions over their respective contributions to the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban had eased.” The tensions were further illustrated on Monday when a U.S. missile attack killed seven people in Pakistan hours before Bush and Gilani met. Although the U.S. claimed the target, AQ operative Abu Khabab al-Masri, had been killed, Gen. Abbas told reporters that U.S. officials had not notified Islamabad before the attack, adding, “There was no information from their side…They have struck like this many times. We are trying to convince them to share information.”

According to media outlets, Gilani asserted that such attacks violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, the PM noted that if Pakistan had the capacity and information, “then we can hit [such targets] ourselves. Otherwise, it’s a violation and nobody [in Pakistan] will like it.”

The recent PM visit (looking beyond the pleasantries), as well as today’s report on the ISI’s alleged ties to militant groups, may mark the beginning of a deterioration of U.S.-Pakistan ties, both at the diplomatic level, and at the intelligence (CIA-ISI) level. Will this lead, however, to a unilateral U.S. strategy in Pakistan?  Daniel Simons from the Council on Foreign Relations advised in an op-ed today:

Washington should seek to redefine relations with Pakistan, which evolved ad hoc after 9/11. Detailing how we expect Islamabad to help realize mutually agreeable aims is a necessary step toward a more collaborative and sustainable relationship. Putting American troops on Pakistani soil would negate any potential benefits of the Biden-Lugar legislation, [referring to the legislation to triple U.S. nomilitary aid to Pakistan].

Essentially, he added, “An assertive, unilateral U.S. military strategy is more likely to compound our problems than to solve them.” Given the anti-U.S. sentiment already evident in the region, such a statement is likely to ring true.

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On Monday, President Bush praised Pakistani PM Yousaf Raza Gilani “for his commitment to their joint battle against extremists.” According to the Associated Press, “Bush and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani strolled before the assembled media on the South Lawn after a private Oval Office meeting. Appearing upbeat, they sought to publicly ensure their constituencies that the U.S-Pakistan bond is tight and intact despite tensions between Washington and Islamabad.”

This is Gilani’s first visit to the United States since his PM appointment following the February 2008 elections. Reuters, in its coverage, noted Monday’s meeting came just “hours after a suspected U.S. missile strike killed six people, possibly including an Al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons expert, in a Pakistani tribal region.” The news agency added, “The strike underscored U.S.-Pakistani tensions that Gilani’s visit was intended to dispel…”

After watching Bush’s statements to the press Monday, I realized we obviously weren’t going to hear the uncensored, no-holds-barred details of his and Gilani’s talks. Although Gilani said the Pakistani government was “committed to fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe,” he stopped short of making any concrete public promises about how Pakistan would deal with militants in its border areas, noted Reuters. The U.S. President was equally vague, calling today’s session “constructive,” predictably asserting, “After all…Pakistan is a strong ally and a vibrant democracy.”

The reality of most official state visits is that the public only hears a regurgitation of official rhetoric. Politicians often “play nice” for the camera, summoning images of pixies, fairy dust, and prancing hand-in-hand through fields of daisies. Although Washington is no doubt impatient with Pakistan’s new government, Bush seemed to play extra nice today, particularly when he added almost as a sidenote, “Of course we talked about the common threat we face…extremists who are very dangerous people.” Somehow I think the more gritty details played out during the off-the-record meetings. [See the video below]:

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On Saturday, Pakistani media outlets reported that the government placed both the Inter-Service Intelligence (more commonly known as ISI) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) under the direct control of the country’s interior division. According to Dawn newspaper, “The country’s three main intelligence agencies have been working under various authorities. The ISI and the IB were working directly under the prime minister, while the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) was being overseen by the interior minister.”

Under this new landmark decision, reportedly approved by the Prime Minister prior to the departure of his U.S. trip, “all the three main spy agencies will work under the interior ministry.” The agencies, under this ruling, would all be answerable to the country’s interior minister, Rehman Malik. Dawn noted in its coverage, “The ISI – described as a ‘state within state’ – has over the years taken flak domestically as well as abroad for its policies. Although it was earlier answerable to the prime minister, there was an impression that the agency was acting autonomously, and not under the orders of the prime minister.”

Saturday’s ruling was met with both relief and criticism.  According to an editorial in today’s Daily Times,  both the PPP and the PML-N welcomed yesterday’s decision. The editors noted, “Needless to say, most politicians’ initial reaction is that of relief and approval because of the ubiquitous perception that the agency has, at some time or the other, fiddled with politics and undermined the development of a democratic civilian order.”

However, ex-ISI chief Lt. Gen. (ret.) Hamid Gul asserted that the ISI is Pakistan’s “premier strategic asset and its relocation would harm the country’s defense establishment.” Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, cited Gul, who said the decision to relocate the intelligence agencies “was good news for the enemies of the Pakistan and it was a time of celebration for India and Israel.” The news agency added,

Terming it a part of deal with America, he noted that after the suicide attack on Indian Embassy in Afghanistan, the Indian government had stated that it would break the ISI and now it had succeeded in breaking such an institution that had been a defending line of Pakistan’s other institutions.

The News further affirmed that the decision was in part due to U.S. pressures, reporting that it was “deeply linked” to Gilani’s visit to the U.S. this week since the PM will likely “be put on the spot in some of his top-level meetings, confronted with evidence that some out-of-control parts of the Pakistani agencies, either with or without Islamabad’s nod, were working at odds with the U.S. goals and this has to be curbed by the political government if it wants generous economic and political support from Washington…”

However, in an effort to backtrack on Saturday’s announcement, the government released another press release Sunday, essentially reversing its decision to place the ISI under the Interior Division. According to the Daily Times,  the government reportedly “clarified” their earlier announcement, noting that the issue over the control of the ISI was “being misinterpreted” and would continue “to operate at the prime minister’s discretion.” The news agency noted that the press release stated, “The said notification only re-emphasizes more coordination between the Ministry of Interior and the ISI in relation to the war on terror and internal security.”

This apparent tug-o-war over the ISI does not reflect well on the current government. Yes, the relative autonomy of the ISI has been a long-standing issue and is problematic for a coalition attempting to prove its competence, both to its citizens and to the international community. However, this weekend’s developments served only to undermine its authority, instead highlighting the government’s internal power struggles. On Sunday, Pakistan Muslim League-Q (the previous government’s ruling party) Secretary-General Mushahid Hussain used this an opportunity to emphasize the current regime’s incompetence. According to the Daily Times,

Terming it a fundamentally flawed decision on all counts, political, administrative and national security, he said that it was ironic that the PPP-led government has no faith in its own intelligence and investigative organizations but is seeking to politicize a national institution like the ISI.

It will be interesting to see how much attention will be paid to this situation in the coming week, as Gilani meets with U.S. President Bush in Washington, D.C. and issues related to Pakistan’s administration over the FATA will likely be on the table.

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A friend passed on a YouTube clip of Pakistan’s rising female pop duo, Zeb & Haniya, or Zeb Bangash and Haniya Aslam. The cousins released their debut album, entitled Chup, on July 19th nationwide. The music video for the song, Aitebar, meaning ‘Trust’ in Urdu, also began airing this past Saturday, [see clip below].

This duo is especially interesting because of their back story. Zeb and Haniya are Pathans, [although the band is primarily Lahore-based]. In fact, noted a Newsweek article, “Zeb & Haniya’s brand of folksy music draws on that Pashtun heritage and can easily fit into the province’s longstanding Sufic tradition. Their songs can be playful and sensual, addressing the themes of love and longing “to God through the conceit of a lover,” says Bangash.” Their music uses a combination of guitar, drums, and trumpet, “as well as more exotic stringed instruments like the sarod, to express “Western and Eastern melodies arranged for a global audience,” says Bangash.” According to the Newsweek piece, “Aslam and Bangash are at the forefront of a group of independent-minded Pashtuns [Pathans] who have harnessed the power of the media to beat back the conservative tide.”

Perceptions of the NWFP and Pathan culture are often linked to the Taliban‘s brand of extremism, a fact that was fueled by the former provincial government [headed by the MMA, a coalition of religious parties] banning the singing and the playing music in public places, including in vehicles. According to a news piece, “When militants bombed music shops, it did nothing to stop them.” Singers and bands like Zeb & Haniya, therefore challenge these perceptions. In a recent interview, Zeb asserted, “We are not fighting our culture to make music. When Pathan families get together, there’s lots of fun, lots of food, lots of meat, and lots of music. That has been fading away from our experience and other people’s perception of Pathan culture. It is something we want to reclaim.”

The same interviewer noted,

Pakistan has not lacked women singers, but Zeb and Haniya are the first vocalists to be writing their own songs and composing their own music. For Chup, Haniya also plays the rhythm guitar. They describe their music as a fusion of American folk, swing, jazz and blues, Bollywood, along with influences from Turkish and Lebanese music and the homegrown qawwali and ghazal, quite unlike what Pakistan has heard so far.

Below is their first music video. To hear more of Zeb & Haniya’s music, you can visit their official website. [Image above from Dawn]

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Pronouncing Pakistan

It’s a known fact – Americans, for the most part, pronounce Pakistan – PACKistan. As much as I have tried to alter this pronunciation, one American at a time, (following a summer internship in college, for instance, most of Senator Harkin’s office had succumbed to my ‘Pahkistani’ wiles), I often question the source of such semantics. If we pronounce America, Amrika, and they pronounce Pakistan, Packistan, then is it a case of “you say tomato, I say tomahto?”

Much of my pondering came to head yesterday when I saw an amusing clip on CNN’s Situation Room, entitled, “Pronouncing Pakistan.” The news agency explored the different pronunciations of our country by U.S. presidential candidates, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. Much like the photo posted above, McCain says Paackistan (note the long ‘A’ sound emanating from his facial expression), while Sen. Obama, labeled by his critics as a “multi-culti fruitcake,” uses the more ‘ah’ sound, when pronouncing the word. Click here to see the clip.

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On Monday evening, Geo News televised a rare “worldwide exclusive” with senior Al Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed, who urged Pakistanis “to help Afghans fight U.S.-led coalition forces and condemned President Pervez Musharraf for arresting Arab and Afghan fighters and handing them over to Washington,” reported the Associated Press. The news agency added that al-Yazeed, an Al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan, also “reiterated Al Qaeda’s claim of responsibility for the June 2 suicide car bombing on the Danish embassy in Islamabad that killed six people.” According to BBC News, Geo said the interview, conducted by their reporter Najib Ahmad, was carried out in the Afghan province of Khost, and “is the first interview granted by a senior Al Qaeda member to the independent media since 2002.” According to MSNBC,

Ahmad, the Geo reporter, is the president of the Karachi Press Club and said he used a Palestinian intermediary to arrange the interview.  It took three months to arrange and took place a few days ago, Geo said. Ahmad traveled to Peshawar, near the Afghan border, where he was given dark glasses and driven to the interview site…

The Egyptian commander spoke Arabic during the interview, which was dubbed in Urdu for Geo’s Pakistani audience.

During the televised appearance, al-Yazeed, who is also known as Shaikh Saeed, further discussed the Danish embassy bombing, asserting, “We had chosen a time for the attack when there would be no innocent Muslims around.” It should be noted that all eight people killed in the June 2 attack were reportedly Muslims. Reuters, in its coverage of the interview, noted, “Al Qaeda justifies killing fellow Muslims by deeming them to have become heretics, excommunicated from the Islamic community because of their loss of faith,” or, in this case, because they worked for a Western embassy.

The rare interview, dubbed in Urdu, was obviously meant to target Pakistanis sympathetic to the Al Qaeda cause. The AQ commander called for more Pakistanis to fight in Afghanistan, noting, “In fact it is obligatory for them to render this help and is a responsibility that is imposed by religion. It is not only obligatory for residents of the tribal regions but all of Pakistan.” Sheikh Saeed is known to hold AQ’s No. 3 position. MSNBC reported, “The U.S. has long targeted al-Qaida’s third-highest-ranking officials, because they believe the men who occupy that position are the chief operational officers of the terrorist group.” BBC noted, “Mustafa Abu al-Yazeed is understood to be the operational commander of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan – a position which the Western intelligence community has long viewed as pivotal to the planning and execution of militant attacks around the world.” Since 2001, five occupants of the organization’s number three spot have been killed or captured.

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In the past week, civil society members have made several strides against extremism that are worth noting. At a symposium this past Thursday, journalists, editors, and civil society representatives expressed a deep concern with the rising extremism in Pakistan. At the event, hosted by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), media professionals strongly condemned threats on two leading newspapers and their chief editors. According to the The News, the representatives said in their speeches, “This trend of intolerance had been gaining strength for quite a while, showing up in the bombing and closure of girls’ schools, video and barber shops and the suicide attacks on the unarmed citizens.”

The meeting last week supported the protest held in Lahore today. On Monday, the Daily Times reported that Pakistan’s “civil society representatives, journalists and lawyers protested against intolerance and extremism in the country at the Lahore Press Club.” The news agency noted, “Dozens of people, carrying placards inscribed with slogans against extremism, intolerance and suicide attacks, attended the protest and shouted slogans against religious rigidity.” The Daily Times and Aaj Kaal Editor-in-Chief Najam Sethi asserted, “No one has the right to suffocate the voice of the media. The media has always raised its voice against extremism and it will continue to do so.”

This is not the first time that such protests have occurred. In April 2007, thousands of Pakistanis staged rallies in the country’s major cities of Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar to condemn extremism and the exploitation of Islam. According to the Daily Times, the protests, particularly in Lahore, marked “the first time a large crowd has rallied against religious extremism…” The news agency added, “The protesters – including civil society and human rights activists, minority groups, political workers, lawyers, trade unions, journalists and students – gathered at the Lahore High Court building” and began marching towards the Punjab Assembly.

Although the Pakistani government has publicly denounced extremism and has indicated their resolve in solving the militancy problem, efforts by members of the country’s civil society and media to counter this threat are arguably more significant. The fight against religious militancy, a force that perpetrates acts of violence and intimidation against innocent Pakistanis, cannot only be tackled through a top-down approach. Instead, support for these hardline elements must be marginalized by Pakistan’s people, particularly by those civil society representatives and journalists who have effected change in the country. These people are not only legitimate actors in Pakistani society, but they possess the voice and the medium necessary to foster support for the government and military’s policies in the NWFP and tribal areas. Despite what many think, this is not the United States’ war. This is not the military’s war. It is also not the government’s war. This is our battle against extremism, against those who have hijacked our religion to justify violence, and against those who preach intolerance and hatred in order to legitimize their actions.

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