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Archive for October, 2009

AFP Photo: Rehman Malik, seen here praying for a hole to hide in...and a pony.

Rehman Malik, seen here praying for a hole to hide in...and a pony. AFP

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s first three-day visit to Pakistan [as Sec of State] has not been without drama. During her tour, the most high-level visit from the Obama administration, Clinton received both praise and criticism, with some media outlets deeming it a “charm offensive”  and others calling it “a PR exercise, but who will buy what the U.S. is selling…”  The devastating car bombing in Peshawar, killing at least 100 people, took place on the day of her arrival and underscored further the gravity behind her visit. Below, I assess the good, the bad, and the ugly of the past three days.

The Good

On Wednesday, the first day in her visit, Clinton announced that Washington will give $125 million to Islamabad “for the upgrading of key power stations and transmission lines.” The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage, reported, “U.S. officials said the initial disbursement is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to stave off power shortages across Pakistan. They said blackouts are slowing economic growth and aiding the Taliban and other militant groups seeking to weaken President Asif Ali Zardari‘s government.” According to news agencies, the office of U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke reportedly has brought together energy experts “in an effort to attract international investment.” Washington also began other initiatives, from starting an energy dialogue with Pakistan this month “in a bid to find short-term and longer-term solutions to electricity shortages,” to beginning work with Pakistan’s utility companies to lessen power outages and address the lost revenue “caused by outmoded technologies and systemic nonpayment by customers.”

Wednesday’s announcement was part of Clinton’s promise to refocus U.S. aid on the needs of the Pakistani people, which also included $85 million for micro-loans for poor women to start businesses, and $104 million for law enforcement and border security assistance. And, unlike many officials who come to Pakistan and meet only with government and military officials, Madam Secretary also met with university students in Lahore, business executives, and numerous journalists, where she acknowledged the longtime “trust deficit” towards the U.S. in Pakistan because of past policies.

By reaching out beyond regimes and power players and accessing local citizens, these efforts mark a departure from past state visits to Pakistan. While some of her comments were undoubtedly harsh [see "The Bad" below], Clinton is at least willing to acknowledge where the U.S. has been at fault. Her sharp rhetoric signifies a desire to “turn the page” on U.S.-Pakistan relations and address many of the grievances that have led to rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan.

The Bad

Ask and you shall receive, Madam Secretary. In her numerous meetings with civil society leaders, students, journalists, and other citizens, Clinton faced mounting criticism for U.S. foreign policy, as well as accusations that Washington is meddling in Pakistani affairs. During a forum hosted by the Government College of Lahore, one student asked, “The U.S. has betrayed Pakistan. That’s a fact. What is the Obama administration going to do differently?” Other Pakistanis attacked the now infamous Kerry-Lugar Bill, claiming it was “tailored to constrain Islamabad’s military and nuclear program,” while many argued that U.S. drone strikes in FATA were connected to the current violence in Pakistan’s major cities. According to the NY Times, “During an interview with Clinton broadcast live in Pakistan with several prominent female TV anchors, before a predominantly female audience of several hundred, one member of the audience said the Predator attacks amount to ‘executions without trial‘ for those killed.”

Clinton fired back in her responses, not using the most diplomatic tact. Although she acknowledged in her earlier meeting with 200 university students, “Clearly we didn’t do a very good job of communicating … what the [Kerry-Lugar] bill is doing…This is an important lesson for us,” she also took a sharper tone regarding U.S. security involvement. Clinton noted, “If you want to see your territory shrink, that’s your choice,” adding that she believed it would be a bad choice. To a group of journalists in Lahore yesterday, the Secretary of State asserted that she found it “hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to.” Al Qaeda, she said, “has had a safe haven in Pakistan since 2002…So the world has an interest in seeing the capture and killing of the people who are the masterminds of this terrorist syndicate. As far as we know, they are in Pakistan.” According to Dawn, “Clinton’s pointed remark was the first public gripe on a trip aimed at turning around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship under serious strain, but bound in the struggle against religious extremism.”

The LA Times cited a U.S. official, who said Clinton’s comments about Al Qaeda “were not part of a prepared message she had intended to deliver, but reflected her own heartfelt views.” The news agency also quoted Daniel Markey from the Council on Foreign Relations, who said he “was surprised that Clinton would raise the issue of Pakistan’s efforts on Al Qaeda, given the current fragility of the civilian government.” He noted,  “It seems like an odd time to come in and send this one across the bow.” U.S. Ambassador Anne Paterson, meanwhile, said her remarks “were similar to what the administration of President Barack Obama had told Pakistani officials privately.”

The Secretary of State defended her frank talk, noting,

I am more than willing to hear every complaint about the United States…[and] answer, but also to change where we can, so we that we do have better communication and we have better understanding…But this is a two-way street. If we are going to have a mature partnership where we work together…then there are issues that not just the United States but others have with your government and with your military security establishment.

However, though she was unapologetic for her frankness, she did “carefully scale back” her comments Friday when speaking to the media, noted the NY Times. The news agency quoted the official, who said during the interview,

When the U.S. gathers evidence that Al Qaeda fugitives are hiding in Pakistan, we feel like we have to go to the government of Pakistan and say, somewhere these people have to be hidden out.We don’t know where, and I have no information that they know where, but this is a big government…Somebody, somewhere in Pakistan must know where these people are. And we’d like to know because we view them as really at the core of the terrorist threat that threatens Pakistan, threatens Afghanistan, threatens us, threatens people all over the world.

The fact that Clinton was more cautious in her statements today could mean that Washington is attempting to not “ruffle any more feathers” in Islamabad, particularly given the current military offensive in South Waziristan. Moreover, despite Clinton voicing her feelings [which was arguably refreshing given the oft-tired rhetoric we hear from state officials], her statements may have been a little too honest if the purpose of her visit was to smooth the increasing strain between the two countries. In some ways, Clinton’s visit was a tremendous shift in Washington’s approach to Pakistan. It marked a significant attempt to engage the people of Pakistan, not just the parrots in power. In other ways, it may have been too much too soon for a population still very suspicious of the United States. I’ll leave that topic of discussion up to you.

The Ugly

Aside from the Al Qaeda references, another eyebrow-raising statement by Clinton was highlighted by the Pakistani press: “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton termed Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani the magician of politics when she heard that he was unanimously elected as the leader of the house in parliament last year and was running the house with consensus since then with the confidence of the establishment and the masses alike.” The News, in its coverage, quoted Clinton, who reportedly turned to the premier and said with a broad smile, “Excellency you are not a simple politician but a political magician and I am deeply impressed by your way of governance.”

Errr, yeah. Someone might want to tell Madam Secretary that Yousaf “Harry Potter” Gilani also has a magical disappearing act, which he demonstrates whenever bombings or attacks strike Pakistan’s major cities.

APP Photo/Gilani: Harry Potter's got NOTHING on my Invisibility Cloak!

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SonofaLion - NiazSA

Son of a Lion, Carolyn Johnson Productions

Son of a Lion, the feature film debut by Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour, tells the story of a young Pashtun boy Niaz Afridi. Though Niaz is from Pakistan’s tribal weapon-making village of Darra Adam Khel, he defies his father’s expectation to carry on the family’s gun making business by demanding an education. The film, which has drawn critical acclaim at international film festivals and is a 2008 Independent Spirit Award Winner, is significant because it explores the nuances of the Pashtun culture and attempts to break down stereotypes of a group often lumped together with the Taliban. Son of a Lion opens in select theaters in the United Kingdom November 6, [see Mara Pictures for further information]. Below is CHUP’s Q&A with Gilmour:

Q: You went from being a medic on a film set in London to filming your first movie in the dangerous terrain of northwest Pakistan. What inspired you to make the jump into film and why did you choose to go to Pakistan for your first project?

For a few years following the 9/11 attacks in New York, I was working as personal medic to Hollywood celebrities whenever they were in London for film shoots. It was while looking after Sharon Stone that I realized how far I had strayed from my mission in life. Paramedics, like most health professionals, are generally imbued with compassion and a sense of justice. Did I train for five years to dish out headache tablets to famous people? The vacuousness, materialism and selfishness of the world in which I inhabited began to frustrate me and I knew my calling was far greater.

In addition to this, having traveled as a tourist in Pakistan in August 2001, I had been deeply touched by the country. Immediately after crossing into Pakistan from India, my wife and I were overwhelmed by the difference in attitudes towards us. We were struck by the kindness and generosity of Pakistanis, whatever their ethnicity. In particular, when we ended up in Peshawar to shop for textiles, we were impressed by the extreme hospitality and good nature of the Pashtuns. A year later, the memory of ‘gupshup’ with the Pashtuns chased me on the film sets of London. The terrorist attacks in NYC had set off a wave of Islamaphobia and outright Muslim hatred in the West, perpetuated by governments and media outlets who ought to have been less hysterical. I was angry and it spurred me into thinking about way in which I could balance out the stigmas and fear-mongering. Being exposed to film as I was at that time convinced me that film as medium had tremendous power to influence people worldwide. This is how film became my weapon to fight Islamaphobia and misconceptions of Pashtuns.

Q: The film, Son of a Lion, goes beyond just touching upon a father-son narrative and really delves into the Pashtun identity, which is significant given the many misconceptions that exist about this group. How did you go about befriending the Pathans you met in the area and how were they part of the creative process of the film?

Shooting this film was a great lesson to me about the Pashtun psyche. This film is a drama, not a documentary, so I needed to find actors willing to participate and there was a great deal of reluctance at first. Film is not generally a medium considered by conservative types in FATA as something acceptable. Judging by some of the Pashto films in the market, I can understand why. But film does not have to include negative and damaging information. Indeed, if film is used by the right people in the right way for the common good of humanity, it can be beautiful and uplifting. Even the Taliban and Al Qaeda have YouTube accounts and make films for Al Jazeera! In no way did I want ‘Son of a Lion’ to be a Western perspective of Pathans. This would be too obvious and has already been done by too many ignorant news stations and I despise it. For the film to be a real glimpse of Pashtun mentality, I knew I needed actors who would improvise.

Befriending a Pathan is not easy as an outsider as they are notoriously suspicious about the intentions of Westerners. This comes as no surprise after so many Western nations have tried to control them, failing dismally each time. For me it took months of waiting in Lahore, teaching film at IQRA University and then countless cups of tea with contacts in Peshawar and villagers in Orakzai trying to convince them to help me. I mean, by the end of pre-production I needed a bladder transplant, that’s how much tea I had to drink for this film!

When I mentioned the word ‘honor‘, the fact I could not return to Australia without a feature film, most of the Pathans felt obliged to assist me I suppose, thanks to Paktunwali. Nevertheless, I believe they were genuinely convinced I wanted to represent them in the best possible light and saw this film as platform to show the world who they were as a people. When those who are frustrated and angry do not have a proper platform to express themselves, they often resort to violence and I think this is part of the problem in FATA. Pashtun tribes have not been consulted about the best way forward in dealing with militancy in their midst. Musharraf‘s negotiation’s with the tribes doesn’t count, as he was also pandering to Taliban. The real Pashtun voice is rarely heard in the Western media. In making this film, I was offering locals a chance to send the world a message in the form of an entertaining drama.

As a consequence, each actor was given the freedom to make up their own dialogues, to help shape the whole story, and to bring their own material to the process continuously. We see news footage of the security situation daily. What we don’t see are the feelings of Pashtuns. My story was about challenging misconceptions about a group with whom we are quite unnecessarily at war with.

Q: Your film tells the story of 11-year-old Niaz who lives with his father Sher Alam Afridi in a small town, where for generations the local population has earned its living by producing weapons. Niaz, however, wants to receive an education. This is such an important message – what do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

The real message in this film is, I believe, that when it comes to ‘change’ in the world of Pashtuns, its a very slow-burning evolution. One cannot say to a Pashtun, ‘Look, we think you should join the wider Pakistan, lose your autonomy and modernize or we’ll send in the army’. It just won’t work. In the film, Niaz sees the value of an education that includes science, languages, mathematics and so on. Although these subjects can be part of madrassa curriculum, in the FATA they tend to be left out. Niaz, as the son of a Pashtun, challenges his traditionalist father, which is a big thing in this culture to do. The boy wants an education and his father wants him to carry on in his gun factory. The only individual on earth who can possibly change a father’s way of thinking is perhaps his own son. This is the message, that when it comes to Pathans, any change must come from within, must be between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister to be effective. It cannot be enforced by outsiders like the Pakistani Army or NATO or US predator drones. True change will never come at the barrel of a gun.

Q: Have the people in the villages you filmed in seen the film? What was their reaction?

Yes, those in the villages and towns where Son of a Lion was shot have seen it and were thrilled. One or two were unhappy with the fact that I made a comparison between madrassa and government schools. Of course, I don’t have any problems with madrassas at all, I believe that in the absence of properly-functioning government schools, a madrassa is often the best option so long as it does not advocate violence. I do however believe in a well-rounded education and this means that in addition to religious instruction every child is entitled to satiate their inquisitive minds about life and nature and health, to learn skills for future employment opportunities and most importantly, to understand their human rights.

So let’s have madrassas in FATA with a wider curriculum. All those involved in the film are, above all, ecstatic there is a film depicting them not as murderous extremists but as innocent men, women and children caught in the middle of a greater game in which they are but victims, pleading for a little understanding and compassion from the outside world. One day, they hope, we will see them for who they really are.

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©Zackary Canepari/NY Times-All Rights Reserved

As the military offensive in South Wazirstan wages on and violence continues to strike the country’s major cities, it is apparent that Pakistan is under siege, both literally and figuratively. Given that this is as much a war of ideas as it is a tangible conflict, the issue of what has allowed militant ideology to flourish should also be tackled. Below, Bilquis, a consultant in Lahore and a regular contributor to CHUP, delves into the parallel step that must be taken in this war:

On Facebook and various blogs site, I’ve seen numerous friends cite Imran Khan’s passionate rhetoric advocating for negotiations with the Taliban/militants. According to him, because we can’t tell them apart from civilians, the government must not attack Waziristan or any other area. We need to negotiate or else there will be more mayhem. As I clicked through Dawn’s photo archives of terrorist suspects captured in the past week, I couldn’t agree with him more. How do we tell them apart? Who is with us and who is against us?

At the same time, I feel Imran Khan’s negotiation strategy is a decade too late. I’m not saying our strategy should be ‘Wham bomb thank you Ma’am’ – that was the half-hearted strategy of the past military rule. Nor am I happy to see innocent civilians become collateral in this military offensive and hear of the rising death toll. What we need during this war is not the next step, but the parallel step. We need to address what has led to all of this, and by we, I don’t mean our inept politicians and pseudo- military-personnel-turned-rulers. I believe we refers to Pakistan’s citizens, the next generation, you and I.

As many of us know, what has driven militancy is a combination of factors – poverty and a lack of education and development that has been exacerbated by an extremely narrow ideology. Our past apathy towards the two most under developed regions of Pakistan—Balochistan and Waziristanhas been the most damaging. These areas have a weak basic infrastructure— mud roads, ghost schools, dilapidated hospitals, lack of law and order, and hardly any human rights—which makes them an ideal breeding ground for extreme ideologies.

Many scholars and politicians, particularly Imran Khan, have argued that the people in these areas have lived in traditionally lawless societies  for centuries. Given this ground reality, they say, we must respect their traditions and work within this context. I disagree.

As T.S Elliot aptly noted, “A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.” These traditions ignore issues that have allowed a zealous ideology to mushroom all across Pakistan, especially in rural Punjab. Take the the young girl who was flogged by the Taliban in Swat, for example. Do we want these traditions? Do we want men/women/girls being bartered to resolve disputes? Do we want our people to see a continuously distorted narrow vision of what the world is? I certainly don’t.

Therefore, as the war wages on, and our President, Prime Minister and senior opposition leaders hide within their mammoth securities barricades, it’s time to leave aside our materialistic lifestyles and work towards changing our country.

I’m not talking merely of monetary donations for social development; I’m referring to one simple thing — Education. Look around you; most of us have people working in our households. A question to ask is whether their children go to school. Do we know whether they can afford their education? And most importantly, do we know what they are being taught? Many of us will unfortunately say yes to only one of those three questions. So go and approach the man working in your house and ask how many of his children attend school.  Help him finance their education. More than 75 percent of our country is illiterate and less than 2.5 percent of Pakistan’s GDP goes towards education. To stem the growth of militancy, we can start by educating our people.

Although the government has pledged to allocate seven percent of the GDP towards education by the year 2015, there is still a long way to go. The current state of the much touted National Educational Policy (NEP) will not bring about change. As Naveed Ejaz noted about the NEP 2009, “Apart from the odd cursory analysis or two, it seems as if educationalists, academics, politicians and the media are largely uninterested in the contents of the document. The silence of this group is puzzling and criminal in itself!’”

We must push the government to reform the educational system by focusing on improving public system education and madrassa reforms. Ask any real or pseudo politician and he will say that education overhaul is an expensive process. I think that they really don’t know what they are talking about. We don’t need them to reinvent the wheel, just mimic a good one. For instance, the Cuban education model is an excellent one for us to imitate. Not only is it simple, but it is also low-cost and provides incentives for all:

  1. The Cuban state has a monopoly on all aspects of production of educational materials – design, publishing, and distribution. As a consequence, the state is able to keep costs low, address the learning needs of the poor, and distribute all educational materials free.
  2. As the Cuban education model operates within a tight budget, to deal with shortages, schools work hard to maintain books and schools in good condition. According to The Cuban Education System: Lessons and Dilemmas, “Students continually rebind books and repair other learning equipment and school furniture as part of their weekly ‘labor education.’ Exercise books are often used several times: students write with a pencil and when they complete the exercises, erase the book for reuse. Thus in Cuba, teacher and student initiative and creativity appear to compensate, at least partially, for the lack of resources.”
  3. There is an emphasis on properly trained teachers, which accounts for most of their educational budget, rather than an experimental teacher model.
  4. The Cuban national curriculum is continually reformed and adapted to local realities. All school calendars vary according to local production schedules. This allows flexibility and avoids dropout rates in schools.
  5. In addition, the Cuban model also promotes technical and vocational learning in secondary school that allows students to learn about certain professions.

Perhaps in order to expedite this reform, Pakistan will need additional funding, but I believe it is a small price to pay in order to stem existing or future ideologies. Therefore, if we make the government take this parallel step amidst our current conflict, we will transform our incumbent education system in the years to come and subsequently create a new “liberal” ideology that enlightens and drives our country forward.

The contribution is the sole opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the opinion of CHUP. If you would like to contribute a piece to CHUP, please email Kalsoom at changinguppakistan[at]gmail[dot]com. Pieces should be no longer than 800 words please. For past contributions, click here.

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An Era of Citizen Resolve

AP Photo: Students Chant Slogans at a Rally in Islamabad

AP Photo: Students Chant Slogans at a Rally in Islamabad

On Saturday, the Pakistani Army announced it had captured Kotkai, a town “important for both its symbolic and strategic value.” Kotkai, the home of the new Tehreek-e-Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud and militant commander Qari Hussain, was reportedly taken after “intense fighting” between the military and Taliban in South Waziristan. According to the NY Times, “It was the first notable sign of progress in what military analysts say will be an arduous slog for the army against a resilient enemy.”

While these tactical victories are necessary for the military to gain ground in South Waziristan, they are overshadowed by the continuing onslaught of terror attacks in the rest of Pakistan. On Saturday, the same day as the Kotkai capture, at least 32 people were killed in three separate attacks throughout the country. Pakistan’s information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told reporters that recent attacks have killed about 200 people total. And, while much of the violence has targeted Pakistan’s security apparatus – from the Army’s General Headquarters to Pakistan’s Aeronautical Complex – devastating bombings also struck Islamabad’s International Islamic University last week, killing 6 students and causing the government to shut down all schools, colleges and universities for five days.

Amid all this chaos and confusion, Pakistan’s crisis of leadership has been made all the more apparent. In his column, aptly titled, “Where Are You, Our Leaders,” Cyril Almeida wrote,

We’ve heard a thousand times how a successful counter-insurgency needs the support of the people. But right now it feels like it’s us, the people, against the ubiquitous suicide bombers and fidayeen attackers, with our leaders hiding inside their bombproof houses and cars and behind walls of impenetrable security.

Within this vacuum, local citizens are taking the reins. This weekend, students in Islamabad and Karachi took to the streets, denouncing all acts of terrorism and protesting the closure of educational institutions. In Karachi, Pakistanis from various universities formed a group, Jaag Meray Talib-e-Ilm, and demonstrated outside the Karachi Press Club on Saturday. On the Laidback Show, bloggers Faisal Kapadia and Awab Alvi interviewed some of the students at the rally [see the video here]. One passionate girl told them, “We are requesting the government to provide us [universities] with security. We are appealing to the students of Pakistan to stand with us…this cannot go on..education is essential for our future.”

Tazeen, who teaches at a private university in Karachi, wrote at A Reluctant Mind,

In two days time, they [students] managed to not only mobilize other students and made their presence felt with out any prior activism experience; they did so in face of opposition from their parents and families who tried to discourage them from stepping out of the secure confines of their homes. They did it when a local TV channel aired the news that a suspected bomber wearing a suicide jacket was seen in the vicinity of the area of protest.

In Islamabad, Pakistan Young Journalists Forum (PYJF), in collaboration with the Pyaam Foundation and Future Leaders of Pakistan (FLP) organized a peace rally at the International Islamic University on Sunday. The rally, led by Pyaam Foundation founder Basit Subhani, PYJF President Rahat Kazmi, and FLP’s Faiz Paracha, stopped at the sites where the attackers struck the university, showering rose petals and praying for the victims of the bombings, as well as the army and police officials killed in terrorist attacks. According to the Daily Times, the protesters “said the people would not succumb to terrorists, who wanted to destabilize the country. They expressed resolve to get together against terrorists.”

This inspirational, awe-spiring show of citizen resolve by no means absolves our government of blame. Pakistan’s leaders should be the figures encouraging these movements. While our Army is fighting the war against the Taliban, they should be ensuring that universities and schools are provided with security, that suicide attackers are not falling through the cracks in Pakistan’s cities. They should be providing food and shelter to the hundreds of thousands displaced by the conflict. So far, they have failed in every regard. Meanwhile, the country’s youth has stepped forward, showing that, despite efforts to instill fear in the nation, they at least will not be terrorized.

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Reuters: A peace sign. Irony.

Reuters: A peace sign. Irony.

The United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime came out with an interesting report this week, which found that Afghanistan-grown poppies fuel a $65 billion heroin and opium market that feeds 15 million addicts. The paper, entitled, Addiction, Crime & InsurgencyThe Transnational Threat of Afghanistan’s Opium, reported that the country “produces 92 percent of the world’s opium, a thick paste from poppy used to make heroin, and the equivalent of 3,500 tons of opium is trafficked out of Afghanistan every year.” Two-thirds of this amount is turned into heroin, while the rest is trafficked as opium.

Some other interesting statistics – most of this heroin is trafficked out of Afghanistan through Pakistan (40%). According to the report, Most of the Afghan borders with Pakistan are wide open, enabling low-risk smuggling back and forth across the Durand Line, especially in Balochistan. Almost no drugs are seized in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) although thousands of tons transit the region.” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told reporters, “The Afghanistan/Pakistan border region has turned into the world’s largest free-trade zone in anything and everything that is illicit — drugs of course, but also weapons, bomb-making equipment, chemical precursors, drug money, even people and migrants.”

While none of this is very surprising – Afghanistan’s opium production and trade is infamous at this point – it was interesting to learn that “the value of heroin also increases with each border crossing – from about $3 a gram in Kabul to up to $100 on the streets in London, Milan or Moscow.” Moreover, Europe accounts for 19 percent opiate consumption, while Russia and Iran use 15 percent each. Given that opium is the major source of revenue for the Afghan Taliban, looks like Anna Moscow and Hans Berlin’s drug habits are helping fund militants. It’s not just those pesky “Islamic charities.” Problematic.

The report also noted, “Since 2005, there has been a conspicuous increase in the number of security incidents in Afghanistan in parallel with the sharp rise in opium production. The nexus of drugs, crime, and insurgency has become stronger, also spilling over into neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan.” From 2005-2008, the Afghan Taliban has made $450-600 million from taxing opium cultivation and trade. While the Pakistani military believes the Pakistan Taliban receive about $200 million from Afghan drug money, opium is not the militant organization’s only source of revenue.

Shahan Mufti over at Global Post cited Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, who noted the Pakistan Taliban follow a rule in which they “live off the land,” generating funds via a diverse range of sources, such as kidnapping ransoms, collecting donations from local people (though doing so with AK47’s probably dilutes the thrill of giving back – just a thought) and the sale of counterfeit cigarettes, which is said to make up 20 percent of their funds according to the Center for Public Integrity. Moreover, the Taliban in Pakistan are constantly coming up with new revenue streams. Mufti noted, “The environmental protection agencies in Pakistan are blaming the “timber mafia” — illegal loggers — for funding the militancy.”

Using Rehman Malik‘s all-time favorite metaphor, (I can just see him clapping with glee) then if the Taliban are “injured snakes,” food still allows it to survive, to regenerate. Traditionally, insurgent groups tend to have one major source of revenue that fuels their activities – such as the cocaine trade for FARC in Colombia, and, as mentioned earlier, the poppy cultivation and trade for the Afghan Taliban. What is challenging is that the Pakistani Taliban doesn’t necessarily follow the traditional pattern and has been relatively innovative in garnering revenue. In order starve the “snake,” then we have to be as innovative in our solutions, going beyond charging people guilty of terror financing under the Anti-Terrorism Act, [as Rehman Malik announced  Thursday] and actually getting to the root of the problem.

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JourneyintoAmerica

Journey into America: The team conducts a social experiment in Arab, Alabama

The below piece first appeared in Dawn Newspaper’s World section. It was my third installment in a series on “Muslims in America,” where I attempt to show how Muslim-Americans are working to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes in the United States. You can read the Dawn piece here:

The United States is a country founded on freedom, justice, and tolerance. These fundamental ideas are revisited in Journey into America, a documentary that explores American identity through the Muslim lens. Professor Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, traveled with a team of young Americans for nine months, visiting over 75 cities and 100 mosques in the United States. The result is an unprecedented effort to understand the nuanced dimensions of Islam in America, and its place within the broader American identity.

Journey into America, the companion to Ahmed’s earlier study Journey into Islam, is the first consolidated anthropological study on the Muslim-American community. Five Americans were chosen to be part of his team – Craig Considine [the film’s director], Madeeha Hameed, Jonathan Hayden, Frankie Martin, and Hailey Woldt. According to Ahmed, the team members not only were instrumental in conducting the necessary fieldwork; they also acted as his “guides” on the journey. For his team, the film was also a journey of discovery. Hailey Woldt, a former honors student of Ahmed’s who traveled with him to the Muslim World for Journey into Islam, told me this study challenged her preconceived notions about her own country. She noted, “I learned so much about my own society by talking to the Muslim community.”

At one point in the documentary, the team visited Arab, Alabama, where they conducted a small social experiment, dressing Woldt in a full abaya to gauge the residents’ reactions. Despite the fact that Arab [pronounced ‘Ay-raab’] is a small and more homogeneous town, people were warm and welcoming, living up to what Ahmed hailed as, “Southern hospitality.” In an interview with Woldt, she added the Arab residents were open to getting to know her as a person, rather than viewing her simply “as an image or a stereotype.”

Such anecdotes in the film were refreshing because they showed how misconceptions persist on both sides of the divide. While ignorance does exist, it does not always come from a place of hatred, but sometimes from a simple lack of exposure. In such instances, there is an opportunity to foster understanding and change perceptions, as was illustrated a number of times throughout Journey into America.

In Chicago, the team encountered a street named Mohammed Ali Jinnah Way, in honor of Pakistan’s founding father, Quaid-e-Azam. Interestingly, the street was commissioned bya longtime Jewish figure on the Chicago City Council, Alderman Bernie Stone. In the film, Stone admits, “I probably have better support from Muslims than Jews.” He adds, ‘My message is that each of us should treat each other as you would treat your own brother.” In Los Angeles, the city with the largest Muslim population in America, Sheriff Lee Baca calls himself a Pakhtun, having traveled not only to Pakistan but also to the Khyber Pass. Well-versed in Islam, he is an instrumental leader in encouraging understanding among the various faiths in his community.

The film explores the diversity of the Muslim-American community, from a Shia congregation in New York City to a community in Dearborn, Michigan to the oldest mosque in America, built in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Professor Ahmed and his team even visited Sapelo, a small island off the coast of Georgia. There, they interviewed Ms. Bailey, a direct descendant of Bilali Muhammed, a West African Muslim slave brought to Sapelo in the early 19th century. Although Muhammed’s descendants have since converted to Christianity, the churches on the island still face east towards Mecca, and until recently, worshipers removed their shoes before entering the church. To this day, the people of the island bury their dead facing Mecca.

These different stories become the interwoven narratives of the documentary, creating a colorful picture book of the Muslim-American community. Despite the nuanced differences between the communities, Akbar Ahmed noted there was still an “overall sense of being Muslim.” Moreover, he and his team were overwhelmed by the tremendous amount of hospitality they received. That generosity and warmth, he said, became a universal thread in their journey. Professor Ahmed added, “They were so grateful because we were traveling to their homes and talking to them face-to-face, rather than writing about them from afar.” In doing so, Ahmed and his team gave these communities a voice to tell their story.

The question of American identity was another constant thread in Journey into America. In particular, the film sought to address the difficult question of how Islam fit within these parameters in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The issue was touched upon in the film’s numerous interviews with notable figures, including Noam Chomsky, former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Akbar Ahmed’s team also met with Keith Ellison, a Muslim Congressman from Minnesota, who took his oath of office on the Holy Quran. Although he came under attack by some who called it “a threat to American values,” the interesting twist was that the copy of the Quran used for the swearing in ceremony was owned by one of the country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

For Ahmed, the journey was an effort to not only probe Muslim identity in America, but also revisit the ideals of these founders. He told me, “We were hunting for clues of what the founding fathers wanted [for American society].” When the team visited the University of Virginia, they encountered a statue of Thomas Jefferson. In the hands of the third U.S. President was a book dated 1786 and the words, “God-Jehovah, Allah, Brahma, Ra…” The founding fathers’ ideal of religious pluralism was immortalized in the hands of this statue. For America to progress, Professor Ahmed noted, it must rediscover these fundamental values. Journey into America is therefore a definitive study on all of these difficult questions, using an approach that is as humanistic and emotional as it is academic.

Journey into America, produced and narrated by Akbar Ahmed, directed by Craig Considine, is 99 minutes long. It has shown at numerous film festivals, including the Islamic Film Festival, and has screened throughout the United States. The next screening will be at the Washington National Cathedral at 5:30 pm EST on October 25 in Washington, D.C. [Click here for ticket information] The documentary will also be presented on Pakistan’s AAJ Television in the coming weeks. You can see the trailer for the documentary below:

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BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

BBC News: The South Waziristan Offensive

Day 3 of the Army’s much-anticipated ground offensive in South Waziristan was underway Monday, and Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas met with reporters to update them on the operation’s progress. According to news agencies, the Pakistan Army is “ahead of schedule” by 36 hours, advancing up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) into the mountainous area. In the last 24 hours, Abbas added, forces have “enveloped” Kotkai, the town of Taliban commander Qari Hussain, while guerrillas have “taken positions on mountains.” According to the military spokesman, 78 militants and nine soldiers have been killed since the offensive launched Saturday. The spokesman from the Taliban’s camp, not surprisingly, offered contradictory numbers, countering that militants have inflicted “heavy casualties” on government troops. Given that there is no way to verify either statements [reporters are barred from South Waziristan], I wanted to provide a breakdown of what we do know, [or at least what we know better]:

1. The Rah-e-Nijat offensive ["Path to Salvation"] has been a long time coming. In June 2009, the military announced this new offensive into South Waziristan, but only unleashed artillery and air strikes on the area, weakening the militant stronghold but certainly not defeating it. There were several reasons for this, but I shall highlight one of the main ones. In June, a spokesman from Gul Bahadur‘s militant group in North Waziristan [a rival of Mehsud's Taliban] announced they were scrapping their peace deal “because of U.S. drone strikes in the region.” The Taliban faction had initially agreed to sit on the sidelines during the military’s South Waziristan offensive, but the disintegration of the deal complicated the Army’s chance at success in the region. As the BBC’s Syed Shoaib Hasan noted back in July, “no one has ever defeated a combined insurgency in the Waziristan area.”

However, according to news agencies, the army has once again “come to an understanding” with Bahadur’s group as well as the Taliban faction of Maulvi Nasir to keep them from fighting against the government during the offensive. According to the Associated Press, not only do the groups agree to not join the Mehsud Taliban’s forces, “They will also allow the army to move through their own lands unimpeded, giving the military additional fronts from which to attack the Taliban.” The news agency added, “The agreements underscore Pakistan’s past practice of targeting only militant groups that attack the government or its forces inside Pakistan.” The issue of U.S. and NATO troops across the border is therefore a different matter entirely, and will probably mean the current offensive will have little to no impact on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Moreover, while the Army is terming this as no more than an “understanding,” it will be interesting to see how this loose alliance will pan out in the long-term. Because the Army must break up the enemy, the deal is tactically necessary in the short-term, but may be strategically problematic later on.

2. Who is the Army fighting in the offensive? We have just established who the military is not fighting in this operation. In Rah-e-Nijat, being termed “the mother of all battles,” the Army is seeking to destroy the Taliban faction of the late Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in August and succeeded by Hakimullah Mehsud. The militants are said to number between 5,000 – 15,000.

This number includes “some hundred” to 2,000 pissed off Uzbek fighters. According to Dawn, “The reported death of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev in a drone attack in South Waziristan in August was a big blow to the violent foreign militant group that was waging a fierce campaign against Pakistan and its state agencies.” The Uzbek militants and other foreign fighters will reportedly “provide some stiff resistance,” mainly because they “have few places they can escape to,” noted a Dawn editorial.

The new Mehsud [who I dubbed Mehsud 2.0 in this post] recently vowed to launch a wave of attacks in Pakistan’s main cities, a threat we saw come to life last week. The breadth and reach of the recent violence, though, means the Mehsud Taliban has alliances with militant groups in  other parts of the country, particularly in Punjab, [i.e., the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi and the Jaish-e-Muhammad]. Therefore, although the military is targeting the Mehsud stronghold in South Waziristan, it is unlikely attacks in major cities will stop, unless the government plans to target these organizations as well. [This point was illustrated Tuesday, when suicide bombers struck Islamabad's International Islamic University.]

3. The Army’s sent 28,000 additional troops to South Waziristan. That’s good right? On paper, sure. Pakistan’s forces against roughly 10,000 militants is a ratio of 3:1. However, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill conventional warfare. This is counterinsurgency. According to a defense analyst who spoke to NPR Monday, the number of troops are far “too low,” and such numbers “will force them into guerrilla warfare that could last for years.” Over at the Long War Journal, Bill Roggio cited a study done by Sameer Lalwani at the New America Foundation, who noted, “Between 370,000 and 430,000 more troops would be needed in the FATA and the NWFP region to meet the minimum force-to-population ratios prescribed by counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, much higher than current Pakistani deployments of 150,000 [overall in the region].” This is in part due to the “demographic and topographic terrain” of the region which are ideal for protracted insurgency and therefore call for much “higher than average force ratios and far more military assets than Pakistan possesses.”

With winter fast-approaching, time is not on the Army’s side, though Newsline‘s Nadir Hassan conceded, “the harsh conditions may be to the army’s benefit. For over two decades, until a ceasefire was negotiated in 2003, Pakistan’s troops had been fighting the Indians to a standstill in Siachen. The topography and weather of Siachen is like South Waziristan on steroids and the experience should give an advantage to the army.” At the same time, though, the military has been and will continue to face stiff resistance from militants in the region, ultimately meaning the operation will last longer than the predicted few weeks.

What is still unclear is the fate of the over 170,000 people displaced by the South Waziristan operation, [also highlighted at the Zeitgeist Politics]. Families began leaving the region in June, following the military’s announcement of Rah-e-Nijat, and settling mainly in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. According to McClatchy News, “The refugees are being offered no food, blankets or other aid, however, no camps have been set up for them and resentment against the government and army is growing fast. The government halted aid in September, apparently in an attempt to prevent it from making its way into the hands of the Taliban.” In an interview with BBC News Monday, correspondent Syed Shoaib Hasan echoed that adequate supplies have not been provided so far to the rising number of IDPs, and spoke further on the issue of militants potentially hiding amongst the displaced. Despite the registration points that have been set up, he noted, “it is very difficult to tell who is Taliban and who is not.”

Given that Waziristan has never been truly “conquered,” and recent offensives have only been “partially successful,” [ending in peace deals rather than military control], it seems we have a tough, wintry road ahead of us.

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