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Archive for June, 2009

Qureshi and Armitraj talk tactics, AFP photo

Qureshi and Armitraj talk tactics, AFP photo

This past Friday, the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan met in Italy to discuss terrorism and strained ties between the two nations. Reuters labeled the development “the second high-level bilateral talks since November’s Mumbai attacks.” Pakistan has been pushing for a resumption of peace talks with India since the attacks, and while state-to-state relations have long been the primary channel of diplomacy [hence the name Track I], citizen diplomacy, or people-to-people relations have also been instrumental in promoting goodwill and improving perceptions between the two nations.

These days, the trend is best exemplified by a Wimbledon doubles team made up of Pakistani player Aisam ul-Haq Qureshi and Indian Prakash Armitraj. Dawn, in an article entitled, “Indo-Pak Tennis Duo Defy Traditional Rivalry,” wrote, “The pair believe their tennis doubles partnership shows sport can transcend the boundaries between people — and say the warm response to their joining forces shows how the situation has shifted in recent years.” Armitraj, in an interview with the AFP, said,

You find a big international event like this, you find an Indian and a Pakistani playing together, and all differences — color, creed, everything — go out the window. You’re fighting for a common cause on the court and it’s a beautiful thing. The only thing you have to lean on is each other.

This is Qureshi’s second time partnering with an Indian player, [he previously played with Rohan Bopanna.] Pakistan’s number one ranked player told Reuters, “These guys are my best friends on the tour. We have the same taste and same culture and I love hanging out with them.” He asserted to the AFP, “…there has been so much going on between India and Pakistan politically but I never once thought of that when I’m playing with Prakash…I just hope I can send a positive message.”

In 2002, Qureshi teamed with Israeli player Amir Hadad during Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Although the partnership was denounced by the Pakistani tennis federation, who threatened to ban him from the Davis Cup, the pair were awarded the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for continuing to play together despite pressures from both communities. This time, Qureshi and his partner are facing less backlash, a sign that attitudes have shifted, he noted. He added,  “People in Pakistan have been wishing me all the best…I’m glad they’re able to realize that sport is bigger than all the religions, colors, cultures.”

The Qureshi-Armitraj duo have moved on from Wimbledon’s second round to face the fourth seeds in the third round match on Monday [1200 GMT]. As Qureshi noted to reporters, “My goal is to promote tennis in Pakistan and the only way is to do well in the biggest tournaments in the world. I’m very pleased that he’s [Armitraj] the guy next to me.” His partner echoed, “You’re fighting for a common cause on the court and it’s a beautiful thing. The only thing you have to lean on is each other. A lot of people can benefit from that attitude.”

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Picture 4

On Thursday, the NY Times’ posted another video story by Adam Ellick, who’s produced diverse reports on topics ranging from Pakistan’s sex toy industry to the rise of drug-resistant tuberculosis in Karachi. This time, he profiled Todd Shea, an American who came to volunteer in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, a disaster that killed 80,000 people. As Ellick noted in the voiceover, “he never left.” Three years ago, Shea established a “no frills” charity hospital in Kashmir called CDRS, or Comprehensive Disaster Relief Services, which provides quality healthcare services to the people in the remote and earthquake-affected areas in northwest Pakistan. CDRS’ efforts are concentrated in Chikar, one of Pakistan’s poorest and most remote villages located about 25 miles from the Indian border with a population of about 150,000 people. According to Ellick, “For decades, the community’s medical needs have been ignored by the government…”

The video [embedded below] opens with Shea singing “Dil Dil Pakistan” at a community fair, designed to teach the survivors of the earthquake the basics of proper healthcare. He doesn’t have a college degree or a medical background, but told the Times, “I’m certainly not the most qualified person to take on the task of building…in this area at least…a revolutionary healthcare system, but I’m the one who’s here.” A musician prior to his time in Pakistan, Shea indicated that he once suffered from addiction issues. Now however, he “decided to get addicted to something that was good for other people.” In fact, Shea uses music to raise awareness about CDRS and their efforts, at one point performing at MTV’s studios in Karachi with a Pakistani musician.

His story is incredibly powerful and inspirational. So far CDRS employs 38 people, although only one doctor has relocated to Chikar to work. And though Dr. Rizwan Shabir said he was surprised by Shea’s “casual” appearance when they first met, he told the NY Times, “I thought, if this person can come from America and serve our people, then why not me…”

CDRS currently runs on $170,000 a year and served over 100,000 patients in 2008. If you would like to make a donation to Todd Shea’s efforts, click here.

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AP Image: Qari Zainuddin with his bodyguards earlier this month

AP Image: Qari Zainuddin with his bodyguards earlier this month

On Tuesday, media outlets reported that Taliban commander Qari Zainuddin was shot dead in Dera Ismail Khan. According to the NY Times, “The initial investigation indicated that the gunman was a guard named Gulbadin Mehsud who was thought to have been loyal to Mr. Zainuddin.” Dawn, in its coverage, noted the attacker entered the compound after morning prayers “and opened indiscriminate fire when they were asleep, killing Zainuddin on the spot.” The alleged attacker escaped after the attack, which also wounded another guard.

News agencies primarily framed the incident in light of Tehreek-e-Taliban head Baitullah Mehsud, noting Zainuddin was considered his “chief rival.” Al Jazeera quoted one of Zainuddin’s aides, Baz Mohammed, who vowed to avenge his death, asserting, “It was definitely Baitullah’s man who infiltrated our ranks, and he has done his job.” Earlier this month, Zainuddin reportedly criticized Mehsud following an attack on a mosque that killed 33 people. He told the Associated Press, “Whatever Baitullah Mehsud and his associates are doing in the name of Islam is not a jihad, and in fact it is rioting and terrorism…Islam stands for peace, not for terrorism.”

The purported rivalry between Mehsud and Zainuddin is interesting and goes much deeper than last month’s statement. Zainuddin, also a member of the Mehsud tribe, split from the Tehreek-e-Taliban nine months ago, according to the UK’s Daily Telegraph. The NY Times reported that he had formed an alliance with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government, [although the Pakistani military 'officially' denies supporting either Zainuddin or Bhaitani].

According to the Daily Times, Zainuddin was also the self-appointed successor of his cousin Abdullah Mehsud, a top Taliban commander best known for masterminding the October 2004 kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in Pakistan. He was killed in 2007 when security forces raided his hideout in Balochistan. After his death, Baitullah Mehsud emerged as the leading Taliban commander in the region, [the power base is located in South Waziristan], but sources note a splinter group claiming to be the successors of Abdullah [as well as the "real" Taliban] also formed at this time.

In fact, noted both the Daily Times and the Long War Journal, Zainuddin used posters with images of Abdullah Mehsud as well as pamphlets vilifying Baitullah Mehsud in order to recruit followers. The Daily Times cited one pamphlet distributed in Tank and South Waziristan on March 16, which said, “Baitullah Mehsud is not involved in jihad because Islam does not allow suicide attacks, which his group is perpetrating…Our doors are open to all those who have suffered injustice at the hands of Baitullah. We also warn people against keeping contacts with Baitullah or facilitating him in prolonging his rule.”

This past month, reported the NY Times, both Zainuddin and Bhaitani organized a tribal jirga with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally further opposition to Baitullah Mehsud. And, although Zainuddin said he commanded around 3,000 fighters, there is also no confirmation of these claims, [in fact, the Long War Journal suggests he had inflated the number to portray a greater influence and capability than was actually the case].

Here’s what we do know: 1. Zainuddin’s assassination Tuesday signified an escalation in the rivalry and the long-standing tit-for-tat murder campaign between Baitullah Mehsud and fraction groups. Dawn reported a successor has already been appointed to replace Zainuddin. However, although Baz Mohammed indicated the murder would strengthen “their resolve to wage war against Baitullah,” other news sources indicate it may instead intimidate others from joining the anti-Mehsud group.

According to the Guardian, as he came to power, Baitullah had in fact “demonstrated his utter ruthlessness by killing hundreds of the Mehsud tribe’s traditional elders…who might have led resistance.” McClatchy News spoke to around a dozen Mehsud chiefs in separate meetings. One tribal chief told the news agency, “Not since the time of Alexander the Great have the Mehsud people suffered such slavery…We want to stand with Zainuddin but we don’t trust the government. Three times in the past, they have made deals with Baitullah Mehsud…We are scared that the generals will make up with him again.”

2. Although the Pakistani military officially denies this, most sources report the rise of these anti-Mehsud groups has been part of the state’s strategy to isolate Baitullah Mehsud and his supporters, particularly since “Many believe that Mehsud can be defeated only by a member of his own clan,” noted McClatchy.

This information is problematic, to say the least. Just because Zainuddin and Bhaitani said their fighters would remain neutral against any government offensive against Mehsud’s network does not mean their own motives are clean and rosy. In fact, in an interview with McClatchy News this month, Zainuddin noted he diverged with Baitullah on two fundamental points: the use of suicide bombing and attacks on Pakistan, since, as he noted, “Islam doesn’t give permission to fight against a Muslim country.” However, the late commander had also pledged to send his forces into Afghanistan once Mehsud is vanquished to expel international forces. He told McClatchy, “The whole Muslim world should come together because all infidels have come together against Islam. Whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Chechnya, Muslims must protect ourselves…The problem is that we cannot go to Afghanistan these days because we have had to deal with Baitullah.”

So ultimately,  in an effort to defeat a short-term but dangerous enemy, we are once again breeding further militancy, a phenomenon that will undoubtedly haunt us [and the West] in the long-run. While I understand the military may have to resort to such measures to create fissures in the militant network, the ramifications and the true benefits of such a strategy must be further weighed. In our effort to take back our country, we need to be aware of whose hands we are placing our future.

As Pakistan prepares to launch its offensive into South Waziristan and resolutely target Baitullah Mehsud, it is abundantly clear that this conflict is not black-and-white, a fact I tried to make clear in my above analysis. It is made increasingly more complex amid news of continuing U.S. drone strikes. Late Tuesday, media outlets reported that 45 people were killed in an alleged drone attack in South Waziristan. According to the NY Times, “If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft” in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a fact sure to exacerbate anti-American sentiment in the region.

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Reuters: Afridi celebrates after hitting the winning runs.
Reuters: Afridi celebrates after hitting the winning runs.

Today, chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” resounded throughout the country, as Pakistan defeated Sri Lanka by eight wickets to become the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup Champions. It was, as Dawn noted, the first major title Pakistan has won in 17 years, and it comes at a time when the country faces a multitude of burgeoning problems. Pakistan’s team captain Younus Khan told reporters after today’s victory, “We were the underdogs and had less pressure, but we came good in the big games. It’s a credit to the country and to the team…This is a our gift to our nation. Hopefully, it will help cheer them up.” Cricket is the sport Pakistanis bleed for, and the team, [especially Shahid Afridi] are undoubtedly national heroes. Congratulations to Sri Lanka as well for an incredible game! Below, Shaheryar Mirza, a journalist based in Rawalpindi, further discusses today’s victory:

It’s true. A four hour cricket match can raise a nation out of the doldrums of war and economic despair. If only temporarily, the Pakistani nation can unite and bask in its glory on the global stage. In a trip around the streets of Rawalpindi, a microcosm for other cities around the country, there was a zeal and fervor only recently seen at political demonstrations. Only this time, there were song and dance to replace anger and frustration. As Pakistanis waved flags and pulled wheelies on their bikes it was reminiscent of what this country used to look like, and what it should look like more often.

In the last few weeks, Younus Khan has proved that he can raise an unpredictable, isolated yet talented team to the top of the sport. Many may argue that it is just 20/20 cricket and not a One Day or Test Series. But to counter these arguments one can just point back to the time that One Day’s were thought to be an aberration or a passing trend. Under the coaching of Intikhab Alam, Khan managed to extract a performance from the Pakistan cricket team that has not been seen for at least a decade. Pakistan’s last great triumph was at the 1992 World Cup and since their embarrassing loss in 1999 to Australia, the team has never looked the same.

What more can one say but BOOM BOOM. If I had a dollar for every time I heard that phrase in the last few weeks I’d be a rich man. Shahid Afridi dazzled the cricketing world with his drifted yet pacy leg spin. Googly’s, the quicker ones, pure leg spin and the flipper, you name it, it was part of Afridi’s bowling arsenal. As cricket commentators would put it, he bamboozled the batsmen in this tournament and made many a top order batsman look amateurish. Through the first few matches, Afridi struggled to find form with the bat until his promotion up the order. The captain told him to play his natural game and Afridi’s natural game is exactly what makes his fans love him, but it is also his greatest weakness. Fortunately, once he was promoted, the cries of BOOM BOOM from the crowd were justified by the bat.

Afridi displayed a previously un-witnessed maturity, patience and class to his approach between the wickets. Gone was Afridi’s trademark: close-your-eyes, swing and just pray. He played deft cuts, quick singles and doubles and built his innings like a master batsmen. Yet he still managed to entertain the crowd with big hits, and with the crowd already on his side he could do no wrong. Afridi’s performance cannot be mentioned without highlighting the running catch he took against New Zealand to dismiss Scott Styris and what seemed to be a turning point in the match and Pakistan’s T20 campaign.

It would also be unfair to go on without highlighting Umar Gul’s effect on the tournament. Gul’s 12 wickets in five matches with a record-breaking performance of 5 for 6 were truly phenomenal. Batsmen seemed defeated before they even faced him. His reputation built during the first few matches preceded him, and in cricket, mental advantage is key to winning the battle between bat and ball. Gul managed to get the ball to start reversing by the 12th over, a feat apparently never seen by most of the cricketers participating in this tournament. Gul showed that it was his skill and superior bowling action that achieved the reverse swing and not ball tampering. No other team had a bowler that could match the consistency and lethal nature of his Yorkers.

Credit goes to the whole team as Younus Khan, after experimenting in the opening matches, settled on an opening pair in Kamran Akmal and newcomer Shahzaib Hassan. Akmal was consistent in providing Pakistan with a steady start in each innings. Shahzaib failed to make an outstanding impression, but he is young and shows promise. Younus Khan consistently put on 20 to 30 quick runs with a couple fifties throughout the tournament. Shoaib Malik played out his role as an orthodox batsman that could anchor Pakistan’s innings at any given time. Malik proved useful with the ball to fill up some of the middle overs and dry up the runs.

Saeed Ajmal turned out to be the silent hero for Pakistan. One of the leading wicket takers of the tournament, he was overshadowed by Umar Gul, but his performance with the ball contained the opposition’s runs and took wickets at regular intervals. He has proved to be a standout off-spinner for Pakistan with an impeccably disguised “doosra.”

Lastly, Abdul Razzaq proved to be Pakistan’s psychological trump card. His admission into the team re-energized the squad and made believers of a team which at the beginning only looked like they half-believed. He bowled disciplined spells that can only come with experience. Razzaq was that extra spark that the team needed to finish the job.

Pakistan’s number one weapon, though, was the heart and will to win. They played with a passion that had been missing from the team for years. This passion seemed to be fueled by their desire to uplift a bruised and battered nation. They had the hopes and dreams of an entire nation on their shoulders, and they carried it proudly. A team without a home-ground showed that they can turn any ground into their home territory.

It goes without saying, but this win was a gift for the Pakistani people and most importantly a gift for those internally displaced people of the Swat Valley. The sons of their land were the heroes of the Pakistan team. The people of the NWFP have been thrust onto the world stage for the wrong reasons, and now they can hold their heads up high and display their talent. Thanks to Younus Khan’s gift, the displaced people may have something to smile about, if only for a short while.

As Pakistani’s sing and dance throughout the night they can once again feel proud to be Pakistani. Cricket is after all, just a game. But in a country like Pakistan it’s a game that serves as an ambassador that every Pakistani can be proud of. Shahbash boys…shahbash.

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Honoring World Refugee Day

Image Credit: UNHCR

Tomorrow is World Refugee Day, dedicated to raising awareness on the situation of refugees throughout the world. The commemoration of the world’s refugees and displaced came after the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 55/76 in December 2001. The resolution, aside from calling for World Refugee Day to be celebrated on June 20, also noted that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defined who is a refugee, and what rights they are provided under international law.

I had the opportunity yesterday to attend an event sponsored by UNHCR for World Refugee Day. UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and actress Angelina Jolie and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres were among the speakers, and Rose Mapendo, a Congolese refugee who started her own NGO, Mapendo International, received the Humanitarian of the Year award. The event also included a live feed from a Darfur refugee camp in eastern Chad, where a UNHCR staff member and a young refugee spoke to the audience. The speeches, videos, and photos were incredibly inspirational, and I have to admit I teared up several times.

Very awful photo taken by my phone at the event [Apologies]

Very awful photo taken by my phone at the event

Jolie’s speech occurred soon after news broke that she and Brad Pitt had donated $1 million to UNHCR to aid the over 2 million people displaced in Pakistan. The actress has traveled to Pakistan three times since becoming a goodwill ambassador for the agency in 2001, including after the 2005 earthquake, when her and Pitt visited survivors of the disaster.

During her World Refugee Day speech, Jolie emphasized the need to see refugees as individuals, as more than just a statistic. She said,”I know the strength that diversity has given my country – a country built by what some would now dismiss as asylum-seekers and economic migrants – and I believe we must persuade the world that refugees must not be simply viewed as a burden. They are the survivors. And they can bring those qualities to the service of their communities and the countries that shelter them.” Although she related several personal stories of her time with refugees around the world, she also provided some statistics, noting,80% of the world’s refugees are hosted and have been for years. Pakistan still hosts 1.7 million Afghan refugees.”

Although many of the day’s speakers discussed the plight of refugees in countries throughout the world, the concern over Pakistan’s displaced was voiced numerous times. In his speech, Guterres spoke of the two UN workers who were killed last week in the Peshawar hotel bombing. Although he noted, “Humanitarians are becoming more and more a target,” and this poses a terrible dilemma for international agencies, he asserted, “But UNHCR staff never ask me how to leave. They always ask me how to stay.” In fact, on June 12, a press release affirmed the international agency will not be pulling out of Pakistan:We are committed to helping the millions of displaced people in the region. Our operations have continued this week, and we have been working with our partners to register new arrivals in camps and to improve conditions – installing fencing, shades over tents and privacy walls. We intend to remain responsive to humanitarian needs and flexible in how we deliver them.”

Following Thursday’s main event, I attended a luncheon hosted by USA for UNHCR, which featured a talk moderated by Ann Curry with Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. The smaller and more intimate event focused solely on the plight of refugees in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Mortenson, whose non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute [CAI] has established dozens of schools in both countries, was truly impressive in person and during his remarks, noting that security and development can be addressed at the same time, particularly if we engage local communities. He asserted, “The greatest fear of the Taliban is not the bullet but the pen.”

According to Mortenson, there needs to be a greater effort to understand the needs of Pakistan’s displaced by actually engaging the refugees, rather than just blindly shuttling in funds. The IDPs, he noted, must be empowered to become self-sufficient,  whether that means providing them the tools to produce their own canvas tents or the skills necessary to rebuild their homes. This is a fundamental point, particularly given a statement today by Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar that the “operation in Swat Valley has almost ended and people displaced from the region will start returning to their homes from Saturday.”

Regardless if the resettlement of the IDPs takes place tomorrow, in the next month, or the next year, they must not be treated as the hapless victims being shuttled between camps and war-ravaged homes. They can be empowered to rebuild their communities, to essentially take control of their future if we give them the skills and resources needed to do so. As Angelina Jolie said in her interview with Ann Curry following the event yesterday, [click here to watch the video], “We desperately need them to contribute. We should be relying on them more and more there. They are a tough, smart bunch of people. And they are the future of their country.”

Although the plight of Pakistan’s displaced is a cause very important to me, I walked away from yesterday’s events struck by the global nature of this crisis. About two-thirds of the world’s forcibly uprooted people are displaced within their own country. In fact, according to the latest figures released by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), “there were 26 million IDPs around the world in 2008, unchanged from 2007.” And those numbers refer only to those internally displaced, not those who are technically considered refugees under international law. In honor of World Refugee Day tomorrow, we should not only remember the toll of conflict on nations, but more importantly their impact on individuals – mothers, daughters, brothers, sisters, neighbors and friends. They are not just the victims of war, but they are the survivors. And that should inspire us all to get involved.

Below, is Jolie’s speech yesterday, [on a side note, I did not get to meet her, but I did, quite literally, bump into her, as I tried to navigate the crowd]:

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Pakistan Zindabad!!

Given the volatile situation in the country, today’s cricket victory should give Pakistanis something to smile about. After defeating the tournament favorites South Africa in the first World Twenty20 semi-final, Pakistan will move on to play either Sri Lanka or the West Indies in the final Sunday. Team captain Younus Khan told reporters after the game, “We are slow starters, we arrived late, didn’t have a lot of practice sessions so there was no pressure on us – but suddenly we are in a good position.” He, along with many people, gave credit to Shahid Afridi, who hit 51 runs, took 2-16 [bowling], and was subsequently awarded man-of-the-match. BBC quoted Afridi as saying, “The captain and the coach [Intikhab Alam] really gave me a good confidence. I asked them to send me in as number three and after that I enjoyed my batting. In the semi-final you don’t have any more chances – this is good for Pakistani cricket.”

This is what the Guardian had to say about Afridi’s performance today:

Afridi’s promotion to No. 3 was Pakistan’s wild card, and his 51 from 34 balls justified it. It has never been possible to ascribe logic to an Afridi innings. There is none. Even before the advent of Twenty20, no matter how serious the circumstances, he was thoroughly recalcitrant. He only averages 15 in 41 Twenty20 matches, and he started scratchily, barely looking at the bowler’s approach initially. But he is a perpetual menace, occasionally contained but never controlled. From the depths of his memory, he summoned what his former coach Geoff Lawson concluded was his ‘best innings for two years.’

It is incredible how sports can unify a country and ignite the national spirit. I am always proud to be Pakistani, but was especially proud today, [a feeling echoed by Pakistanis at home and around the world]. So, it’s been a good day. Pakistan Zindabad, and good luck to our team in the final!

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Today, a friend told me about a Pakistani news story that garnered much attention when it reported that a four-inch alien turned up in Lahore a few weeks ago. I have to admit, I was more than a little curious and promptly googled said story. Below is the news clip in question:

Not to worry though. Aliens are not on the loose in Pakistan. It appears that after careful analysis [done by people with way too much time on their hands], the “alien” in question was a hoax, bearing a strong and uncanny resemblance to a plastic toy. If you don’t believe me, see below:

Image credit: newzonfire.com

Image credit: newzonfire.com

If aliens were to come to Pakistan, I would think the immediate reaction wouldn’t be to stone the poor thing to death, but to act as Pakistani comedian Saad Haroon, [who will be performing in Washington, D.C. June 18 at 7 pm, click here for further information] noted in his stand-up routine below:

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