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Archive for the ‘Op-Eds’ Category

Pakistan Goes to the Oscars

Image from the Guardian: Dr. Jawad examines Zakia's Face

Tomorrow is Oscar day. If you are anything like me, you watch as many Oscar-nominated films as humanly possible (while still, of course, maintaining some semblance of a life) and hope your favorite movies walk away with the coveted trophy.

The Oscars are it, the last pit stop in the awards season, the culmination of all that was brilliant in film that year. This year, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy became the first Pakistani to ever garner an Academy Award nomination. Her documentary, Saving Face, co-directed with Daniel Junge, is up for the Oscar in the short documentary category. The film delves into the issue of acid attacks through the lens of the women affected by tragedy and the doctor trying to help them. In Pakistan, there are 100 acid attacks reported each year, but many cases go unreported, the victims instead relegated to the shadows of society.

Saving Face follows two women who chose not to remain silent. Zakia was horrifically injured after her husband, a drug addict, threw undiluted battery acid on her after she tried to divorce him. In the film, Zakia’s husband, who was in jail following the crime, called the charges against him a “conspiracy,” stating that his wife was his and it was “a matter of dignity.” The crimes against Rukhsana, who is just 25 years old, were also perpetrated by her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, who lit her on fire and locked her in a room. When asked for his account of the attack, her husband Yasir claimed Rukhsana had a temper and high blood pressure and threw acid on herself. He added, “99 percent of [these women] throw acid on themselves.”

The stories are woven into the larger narrative, but also are documented as a journey for retribution. Dr. Mohammed Jawad, a plastic surgeon in London, works to help these women become a part of society again. On Zakia, he performed the first surgery of its kind in Pakistan. The Guardian noted, “He used Matriderm to smooth her ravaged face, gave her a pair of glasses with a painted eye and attached a prosthetic nose, allowing her finally to show her face in public.” The results are extraordinary for a woman who had stopped showing her face in public (instead covering it with a burqa and sunglasses), whose life had previously been stolen by her husband’s atrocities.

The beauty of Saving Face was in its very human and nuanced portrayal of all its characters. Zakia was not just a victim of an acid attack, a faceless woman both literally and figuratively. She was a survivor, someone strong enough to fight against the system. During the film, her husband was found guilty of his crimes, receiving two life sentences. Her case was the first to be tried under the new law passed unanimously by Pakistan’s Parliament (and tirelessly pushed forward by the Acid Survivors Foundation and  MNA Marvi Memon). Rukhsana’s story was more bittersweet but reflected the tragic reality facing most acid victims. Many, like Rukhsana, are forced to live with their attackers, mainly for economic reasons.

This speaks to the complexities that exist in societies like Pakistan, where attitudes towards domestic violence (honor-related or not) and victims, are a very large part of the problem. Lack of economic opportunities, social stigma, and safety problems among others all act as significant obstacles for survivors of these attacks. While passing legislation to give their attackers life imprisonment is an important top-down step, there is much more that needs to be done to address the symptoms behind this problem. We need to do more than just be prescriptive.

I watched the film yesterday evening. I expected to cry, to be horrified and indignant for the state of our society, for the crimes committed daily against women in their own homes and by their own family. But I did not expect to also walk away with a deep and lingering sense of hope. Dr. Jawad’s compassion and charm jumped off the screen, and his deep relationships with both Zakia and Rukhsana were touching. After having a baby boy, Rukhsana told Jawad she had named him Mohammed with hopes that he would grow up to be a doctor just like him. Zakia’s son was also a strong but silent character woven beautifully into the narrative. Though he did not speak during the film, he stood constantly by his mother’s side, a small example of how all is not black and white in these stories.

In a segment for NBC News, Sharmeen, who has previously won an Emmy for her documentary Children of the Taliban, told NBC’s Amna Nawaz, “I fell in love the first time we put the cameras on, and it was because I could see the colors, the textures, the language, the beauty and the heartache that could just transcend all barriers.” The purpose of this documentary, she noted to the Washington Post, was to educate people about acid attacks in Pakistan, but also to recalibrate attitudes towards honor violence. She said, “We wanted men to know they think it is manly to throw acid, but in fact it was the most unmanly thing to do.”

As a Pakistani, I am incredibly proud of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and her much-deserved nomination. But I am also proud of the characters in the film, who were all larger-than-life in their capacity to love, to fight, and to live. We all can learn many lessons from them. At the end of Saving Face, Dr. Jawad noted, “I’m part of this society that has this disease. I’m doing my bit. Come join the party.”

The Oscars will air tomorrow evening (EST), and Saving Face will be shown on HBO on March 8th. Sharmeen, you have an entire country behind you. And we are all rooting for you.

UPDATE 2045 EST: Sharmeen just won the Oscar – AHHHHH!!! Pakistan’s first Oscar – SO PROUD!

Horrible quality photo, but I was too excited to take a good one of my television!

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Maya Khan & the Art of Slacktivism

Slacktivists! Gah!

Ah, Slacktivists.

You know who I’m talking about. The Facebook users who ‘like’ every page calling for “Da Peaze in da Pakistan” and “We da true Pakis” and then blog angrily about how angry they are whilst tweeting under a pseudonym name like “Pakiz4Ever”. If I get another, “If you want peace and love in #Pakistan, RT this,” I will go Hulk on someone.

This phenomenon has risen as social media platforms have become increasingly more popular. The Express Tribune recently revealed some interesting statistics related to Pakistan and its presence on Facebook. According to the news outlet, over 6 million Pakistanis now use Facebook, making us #26 out of 213 countries that use the platform in the world. Given that internet penetration is just over 10%, Facebook usage is still relatively small (only 32.86% of the total online population), but the demographics are still significant (18-24 years, English-speaking, educated, “liberal”). Meanwhile, the use of Twitter has also increased significantly, though those numbers are harder to come by (one source noted it was over two million).

While I sometimes look upon Slacktivists with disdain & dripping snark (especially for those who do little more than ‘Like’ a page and feel like they are changing the world), there have been two recent cases for how social media activism can make a dent.

The Maya Khan Episode. Social Media: 1 | Vigil-Aunties: 0

For those of you living under a rock, blissfully unaware of Samaa Television‘s Maya Khan and the subsequent uproar, here is the breakdown. On Monday, Samaa TV fired newscaster Khan “after she led a self-styled moral crusade against dating couples that set off a furious public outcry,” reported the NY Times. These “vigil-aunties” (So p-unny! Ha! Ha!) essentially paraded around a park in Karachi, to ‘expose’ young unmarried couples on camera, even demanding to see a marriage certificate. After the show was broadcast on January 17th, “members of the liberal elite vented their fury on social websites at what they said was intrusion. Pakistan’s English-language media also took up the cause,” reported BBC NewsNosheen Abbas. Despite (two) public apologies by Maya Khan, the network dismissed her and her team and terminated the show. CNBC Pakistan (which owns Samaa) head Zafar Siddiqi said the company didn’t “absolve such behavior irrespective of ratings the show was getting.”

The Thori Si Bewafai Episode. Social Media: 1 | A Plus: 0

I first learned about the Thori Si Bewafai (A Little Unfaithfulness) show from Rabayl’s blog Obama Says Do More, in which she wrote about a reality television show on A Plus, a small entertainment channel, which claimed to use hidden cameras to intrude into real people’s personal lives and expose their alleged infidelities. Hosted by Shamoon Abbasi, the show is reminiscent of the ridiculously trashy American reality show, Cheaters. According to an online petition written by the newly created Citizens for Free & Responsible Media (CFRM),

The host of the show Shamoon Abbasi recently announced on his facebook page, that ‘Thori si bewafai’ is actually reenactments and involves paid actors. If in fact, Shamoon Abbassi’s statements are true, then the synopsis on your website and the programme itself, is a clear misrepresentation of the real nature of the show. But even if the programme is based on reenactments, the content of the show is dangerous; it encourages vigilantism and can lead to hate crimes.

Following the online petition and pressure, Abbasi quit the show, stating in a Facebook note, “I would like to clarify one last thing that myself was not comfortable doing this show in the first place and I AM QUITTING IT FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WERE OFFENDED BY THE SHOW!! I apologize to any one who I may have offended.”

The show is now off the air. Another win for social media activism?

Yay and…ye-ay. While both the Maya Khan and the Thora si Bewafai debacles were examples of how social media can be used to pressure mainstream media outlets, it is more a means to an end than an end itself. Journalist Beena Sarwar noted that this campaign incorporated a multi-pronged strategy in which social media wasn’t the only tool used to put pressure on these outlets. According to Beena,

Zafar Siddiqi from CNBC Pakistan responded promptly and positively to an email endorsed by several signatories that included some known names. His response may also have been due to other actions that were being taken: a copy of the petition signed by over 5,000 people was sent to him. Many people also sms’d him and called the Samaa offices at numbers publicised by some activists, who also posted links to the Pemra feedback form that people used to post complaints to. The Chairman Pemra said in an interview that Pemra had received over 350 complaints about that particular show. In addition, there was a threat of legal action against Samaa TV and several activists had begun contacting corporations to lobby them to withdraw commercials from such shows (both actions were stopped after Mr Siddiqi’s second email responding positively to media consumers’ complaints, but both remain real possibilities for future campaigns).

Firings and getting shows that encourage intolerance and vigilantism off-air are a short-term fix, but they ultimately don’t solve the greater issue – the need for independent checks and balances on the media. While Pakistan’s electronic media boom has been an important phenomenon, there also needs to be measures to curb that rein, so that it remains (relatively) responsible. Sahar Habib Ghazi wrote recently for Dawn, “My appeal is that we cannot lose steam with the [Maya Khan] parks episode. We have to continue to build pressure for all news channels to realize that they cannot afford to sacrifice ethical standards for ratings and money.”

For those of us who crowed that Maya Khan was a victory for social media, remember that pressure via platforms may help achieve one-off victories, but they do not cut to the root of the problem. Social media activism, while a tool, can’t achieve that end – it’s too simplistic, too microscopic. As long as you are aware of that limitation, then we’re cool. But if you ask me to RT for Peace, I’ll go Hulk.

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The Weekly Pah-kee-stuhn Musings

NYT/AP. Gilani: I should just Expecto Patronum all of you! All of you! Kayani: Oh God.

The problem with blogging about Pakistan is that there’s no dearth of topics and issues to write about. Turning on the television hits you with drama, intrigue, and conspiracy theories as caricatures scream in vain and to no one in particular.

And that’s just on our news channels.

Rather than be overwhelmed by the multitude of things I could write about, and hence, um, not actually write anything, I decided to spare you the excuses and just package them as a list. With a bow. And a rainbow. You’re welcome.

1. Gilani went all Jadoogar on the military. If you don’t know why Harry Potter should be jealous of Gilani Sahib, check out this past post. This week, media outlets and Twitter feeds alike were abuzz after Prime Minister Gilani fired Pakistan’s Defense Secretary [retired] General Lodhi. (Poof! He was gone. Jadoogar! Ooh!) According to media outlets, the controversy resulted from Lodhi’s statements during his Memogate investigation, claiming the Ministry of Defense (MOD) had no control over the ISI or Pakistan military.

Not surprisingly, coup rumors were abound after said news went public, as the Express Tribune reported Gilani allegedly made a “panicky” phone call to a British diplomat to support the PPP government. The British Foreign Secretary appealed for calm today, urging that all parties respect “the constitution and help ensure stability.” So military coup in the making? The jury’s still out, but I highly doubt it given the proximity (hopefully) to elections as well as the military’s own capacity to perform a coup. Al Jazeera English quoted analyst Moeed Pirzada who further iterated, “The Pakistani military is not the political player it used to be. It knows it’s not in a position to capture political power in Islamabad … not with the Supreme Court being the biggest impediment.”

But why such a high octave of rumors now? There are obviously many reasons, but one factor [purposefully?] upping the notch is…

2. The controversy known as #Memogate. Gah. I recently wrote about the first iteration of the Memogate scandal here, when Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz alleged that he was asked by [now former] Amb. Haqqani to pass a memo to former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, asking for help in reigning in Pakistan’s military establishment. The military, particularly COAS Kayani & ISI chief Pasha claim there is truth to the document & urged the judiciary to investigate its origins. Gilani claimed that Kayani & Pasha were violating the Constitution by submitting statements to the Supreme Court. ISPR responded by calling Gilani’s statements false and could have “very serious ramifications.” Gilani responded by saying the Army’s statements were – wait for it – released with his consent, i.e. “Just kidding, guys! I totes let the Army make allusions to a military coup, that would hence usurp my power!” Hee! [Note: read this great piece by Mohammed Hanif on how the military uses rumors over force.]

As the three-member judiciary panel gears up to for the memo inquiry this coming Monday, “A separate bench of the Supreme Court is scheduled to convene that day to hear the government’s explanation for failing to comply with earlier court orders to reopen corruption cases against Mr. Zardari,” noted the NY Times. Raza Rumi said it well when he noted, “The real threat for the government is a proactive Supreme Court which has taken a serious notice of noncompliance with its orders. The civilian government is stuck between two powerful institutions, which are no longer comfortable with business as usual.”

The ironic thing, though, is that this cacaphony still is business as usual. Politicians are not the only players who reign over politics, they are joined and often challenged by the judiciary and the military. This politicized warring, this blurring between the lines, mean we are also distracted from *real* issues like…

3. The Gas Shortage. Hello, McFly! The gas crisis in Pakistan isn’t so much a shortage as much as it’s the result of horrendous management. Or as Khurram Hussain noted in his piece for Express, it’s the result of an addiction. As CNG stations ran short on fuel and/or shut down in the country, protests broke out as people voiced their discontent. The gas shortage became visual as you would drive past rows of cars waiting at the CNG stations. But beyond the lines, beyond the protests, the crisis goes much deeper. Take away gas, and citizens are immobilized. They can’t drive their cars, they can’t take buses to get to work, they can’t cook their food. This has impacted industries, where, in Punjab, rows of factories have had to shut down. It’s affected jobs and livelihoods. In my opinion, that more than coup rumors is worrisome.

Also while you were watching Memogate

4. The Saleem Shahzad Report came out. And it was inconclusive. The Pakistani journalist was abducted, tortured and found dead outside Islamabad last year, two days after his report on connections between Al Qaeda and the Pakistan Navy was published. Although several facts pointed to an alleged connection to the ISI, the Saleem Shahzad Commission did “not hold any institution or individual responsible for his death,” instead blaming “belligerents” for the incident. Given this lack of accountability, it’s no wonder the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) once again said Pakistan was, for the second year in a row, the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. CPJ’s Bob Dietz told AJE,

[The media in Pakistan is] free and vibrant, but let me qualify that with saying that they are under tremendous amounts of pressure from all sides. There’s been a lot of emphasis on intelligence services attacking journalists, but the fact, if you look at the journalists slain in the last few years, is that the ISI is only one of the actors that is putting pressure on journalists, threatening them and responsible for their deaths as well.

The news about Pakistan is, as always, eventful. The negative developments couched in this list are a reflection of the ground reality, but they are also a snapshot of what’s in the news. My work convinces me every day that Pakistan is a country with tremendous potential that has been horrifically managed. We are the victims of poor leadership, institutions that care more about pointing fingers outwards than looking inward, and a number of inefficiencies in our national value chain. Peel back that rotten layer, and you see the positive stories of opportunity, innovation, and energy. It may not completely overcome the bad, but it’s enough to be the silver lining. At least in my opinion.

And if you ever need further proof of change, check out this preview for Pakistan’s Next Top Model (PNTM). Because nothing says “Pakistanis, they’re just like us! Yay!” quite like reality television franchises & model wannabes smizing. What ups, #FAT (Fashion Against the Taliban).:

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Photo: Express/Shaheryar Popalzai

This past Sunday was Christmas Day, PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif‘s birthday, and the 135th birth anniversary of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father of Pakistan.

This past Sunday was also Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”)’s much-anticipated political rally in Karachi. For those of us not physically at the Minar-e-Quaid (Jinnah’s Mausoleum), the PTI jalsa was cause to gather at friends’ houses, tweet feverishly, and offer sideline commentary to no one in particular. Or maybe that was just me.

By this time, you have undoubtedly read a flurry of news coverage on said jalsa. But for those who haven’t, here is the rundown. PTI leader Imran Khan – the oft-labeled “cricketer-turned-politician” – has gained much political traction and popularity in the last year, after launching his political party officially in 1996. Fahad Desmukh, in his radio piece for PRI’s The World, noted,

The PTI attracted mostly urban educated professionals, but failed to get a mainstream following. In fact, in the 2002 parliamentary elections, Imran Khan was the only candidate from his party to win a seat…But now Khan has managed to mobilize enough young urban professionals to become a rising political force. In the past, this demographic shunned politics as a dishonorable activity. But young people are coming out now out of frustration with the current leadership.

Last month, PTI’s jalsa in Lahore garnered between 100,000 to 200,000 supporters – one of the largest political rallies in the country. This past Sunday, thousands of people came out on the streets of Karachi. Although PTI estimated the number at 500,000, news agencies report that the number in attendance was closer to 100,000, still making it one of the largest rallies in Karachi in recent years. Mutahir Ahmed, a professor at the University of Karachi, told Dawn, “He is riding a wave of popular politics right now. There is a lot of frustration among ordinary people, as well as political workers right now, which he is cashing on.”

In an article for the Express Tribune entitled, “Imran Khan Wins Hearts & Minds at Karachi Rally,” Shaheryar Mirza and Saad Hasan interviewed one rally attendee, who said, “I don’t know why but Imran Khan gives me hope. I want change, security and a better future for my children.”

Ah, the psychological underpinnings of hope and change. We saw it work with the Obama 2008 presidential campaign, and leveraged again by Afghanistan’s Abdullah Abdullah during his recent presidential run.  It’s the promise of something different. And though it may just be semantics, words like hope and change induce positive associations with absolute ideals of happiness, progress, and prosperity.  For a fatigued and frustrated Pakistani populace, that is a fuzzy but welcome option.

I don’t claim to be an expert on our political system (I actually don’t claim to be an expert on anything), but I have been fascinated with the perceived rise of PTI & Imran Khan in recent months. Here are a few observations both on the lead-up to the December 25th jalsa, the rally itself, and subsequent reactions post-rally.

  1. PTI Snakes on a Plane: You have to give it to Tehreek-e-Insaf. They know how to market their vision to urban masses & millennials alike. Prior to the Dec 25th jalsa, the party generated buzz by launching a telemarketing scheme akin to Snakes on a Plane (if you received a phone call from Samuel L. Jackson telling you about those mother**** snakes on the mother**** plane, then you know what I’m talkin’ about). Many Karachiites received a 30-second phone call from Imran Khan inviting them to the rally. Although the call was pre-recorded, many almost believed they were receiving a personal call from the man himself. Insert swoons here. The strategy is a reflection on the party’s overarching marketing approach – the use of choice words (hope, change & the like), leveraging social media, telemarketing all enforce a broader theme: Imran Khan & PTI offer something new, something approachable, something hip, something different from the status quo.
  2. Imran Khan Cricket Hero, Imran Khan Politican = Same, Same: I don’t think I’ve ever heard so many cricket analogies. Oh my goodness. In a BBC interview prior to the jalsa he noted, “It’s like playing a World Cup final…this could be a defining moment in Pakistan.” In the lead-up to the rally, Imran reportedly called PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif a club cricketer “flexing muscles with a Test cricketer.” The list goes on. And while I think cricket & “tsunami” references could form its own drinking (coke! hee!) game, the analogies further raise positive associations of Imran circa 1992 World Cup. Imran the politician + Imran cricket hero = Imran heroic politician.
  3. Rally like it’s a Britney Spears Concert: When the band-formerly-known-as-Junoon’s lead singer Salman Ahmed started singing Junoon songs, all I could think was, Wow he sounds just like Ali Azmat! And then I realized he was lip-synching. It was, in fact, Ali Azmat. Such a Britney move, dude. In their post on the rally, Cafe Pyala noted, “With more ‘heavyweights’ joining, PTI youth may have to live with the fact that the music has died with the Lahore jalsa.”
  4. PTI – Stragglers Welcome: Ahsan over at Five Rupees had a great post on the politicians who have crossed over from their own parties to join PTI, and what it all means: “…when the potential for success for [insert party here] ticket goes down, and PTI’s chances of success go up, we’re more likely to see politicians from [insert party here] to leave for the PTI,” though this may not be the case for MQM or Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). The new additions to PTI are relative heavyweights, including Javed Hashmi from PML-N & Shah Mehmood Qureshi from PPP. Before watching the jalsa, I thought they were sure to help PTI’s clout. But then I watched SMQ talking like a wannabe Shakespeare (community) theater actor about nuclear policy during the rally, and am now grumpy and undecided.
  5. Insecurity is the Best Form of Flattery: You can tell other political parties (namely the PPP & PML-N) are beginning to feel threatened when they start resorting to petty mudslinging and banding together. PM Gilani, who reportedly also made a statement that Zardari was actually younger than Imran, also told media outlets, “Those people who are talking of revolution – are there any new people among the revolutionaries or are they mostly those who wanted to bring revolution along with Musharraf?” Curiously absent from those critiques – the MQM. Curious indeed.

(Express Image) Gilani: Bhai, your plugs may need some sprucing up. Look who we're up against. Nawaz: Curse those gorgeous locks of hair. Curses!

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been impressed with the perceived meteoric rise of Imran & his party. His speech, especially in comparison with the other speeches at the jalsa, was powerful & hit all the right notes – from wishing Pakistani Christians a Merry Christmas to addressing the Balochistan issue. And though the PTI Manifesto can and should be a better representation of how PTI aims to do much of what they promise (including, ahem, ending corruption in 90 days! Eee!), I do think Imran has steadily moved away from the days where he stood against everything and for nothing. Does that mean I still have my reservations? Hell yes. Does he really have the establishment on his side and what ramifications will that hold? What does an Islamic Welfare State mean in reality? What does all of this mean in reality?

Every political leader in our country has set out to prove that they can undertake the ideals laid out in Jinnah’s vision. Every leader makes vague promises, tugs on our heart strings that this time, dear citizens, they will be different. The difference with Imran is that he is an option we have not tried before.

Does that merit my vote? I’m still undecided, but at least his campaign has spurred me to vote. You should too.

Other blog posts/related pieces you should read:

A Reluctant Mind – Pedaling Obscurantism (esp. on the female dress issue)

Obama Says Do More – The PTI Rally in Karachi or Democracy is Alive & Well in Pakistan But Not Really

Dawn – Cowasjee’s Open Letter to Imran Khan (from 1996)

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Photo Source: The News

So by now the madness over Veena Malik (actress, reality show breakout starlet, crazy maulvi fighter extraordinaire), her published nude cover photo, and her subsequent row with India‘s FHM Magazine is old news. I mean, that was so last week. Over it. (Here is a link to the story in case you live in a cave or away from the wonderful world of Twitter & Facebook news feeds.)

But did you know that Veena’s fake ‘ISI‘ tattoo as well as another almost-nude photo of her in camouflage were code for a MILITARY COUP?! Yes, everyone. Veena was totally in the know, using her cover shoot as an underlying message to tell us all what was really going on. With an Indian magazine no less. Oh, the irony. OMGZ, how GENIUS!

See what I just did there? I started a little rumor. Ok, it was a little far-fetched, closer to being a conspiracy theory, but the line between rumor and conspiracy is often thin, especially in Pakistan. And with rumors flying on Twitter today about whispers of a potential military coup, it is fair to ask whether we are too trigger happy when it comes to the Pakistan rumor mill.

Twitter Feed After News of Zardari's Ill Health Surfaced

These rumors were compounded even further after Foreign Policy reported that President Zardari flew to Dubai to undergo medical tests Tuesday. In the FP piece entitled, “President Zardari suddenly leaves Pakistan — is he on the way out?“, Josh Rogin wrote,

A former U.S. government official told The Cable today that when President Barack Obama spoke with Zardari over the weekend regarding NATO’s killing of the 24 Pakistani soldiers, Zardari was “incoherent.” The Pakistani president had been feeling increased pressure over the Memogate scandal. “The noose was getting tighter — it was only a matter of time,” the former official said, expressing the growing expectation inside the U.S. government that Zardari may be on the way out.

According to this same unnamed U.S. official, Zardari had a “minor heart attack” and may resign due to “ill health.”

Cue the speculation.

Rogin cited the Atlantic Council’s Shuja Nawaz, who noted, “This is the ‘in-house change option’ that has been talked about,” a plan in which Zardari would “step aside and be replaced by his own party, preserving the veneer of civilian rule but ultimately acceding to the military’s wishes to get rid of Zardari.” He added, “Now if [the military] stay at arm’s length and let the party take care of its business, then things may improve. If not, then this is a silent coup with [Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza] Gilani as the front man.”

While I think the FP and The Cable are credible outlets, the use of unnamed U.S. and Pakistani sources who are all speculating (for example: “the growing expectation inside the U.S. government” or “in what might be a precursor to Zardari stepping down”) show how we can be both trigger-happy in our news production and our news consumption. The title of the FP piece, “Zardari Suddenly Leaves…Is He on His Way Out?” is framed as leading question, further baiting the rumor mill. Dawn Newspaper, in its subsequent coverage of the FP piece, conveniently quoted the unnamed U.S. source as well as half of Shuja Nawaz’s hypothesizing (mentioning the ‘in-house’ change option but not the fact that the military could stay at arm’s length), exacerbating this even more. (The Express Tribune and GEO Television provided similar coverage.)

Meanwhile, as noted by Arif Rafiq over at the Pakistan Policy, Zardari’s aides have not done well in quelling the speculation. Rafiq noted, “Rather than being honest and forthcoming [about his heart condition], Zardari’s spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, did what most Pakistani government officials do to their people: obscure the truth. He said Zardari is in Dubai for a routine medical checkup,” which is obviously not true. The Khaleej Times also quoted Babar who said earlier,

…said that contrary to media reports the President did not visit any hospital today for tests or treatment. Instead the President held separate meetings today in Presidency with Prime Minister, Chairman Senate and Interior Minister to review overall situation, security arrangements for Ashura and legislative business in Senate before leaving for Dubai…

So essentially on one side we have the overactive rumor mill, and on the other the “let’s-pretend-everything-is-just-dandy-camp.” Great. Because nothing makes people more suspicious than obviously playing down a situation, even if it may be in response to potential sensationalism. (This is when I realize my Masters degree in Conflict Resolution could have come to great use! Sad Kalsoom.)

As for the potential military coup? Rafiq has the most rational dose of speculation I’ve seen so far:

It would be difficult to hide the fact that Zardari was being pushed (illegally) out of office by the army. The army would then be condemned by a wide set of actors… Zardari in exile would then play the role of political martyr, stirring up his currently disenchanted party base and possibly even do really well in the next elections. Kayani is not one to act brashly. He wouldn’t push Zardari out right now.

Here’s what I hope: For once, I want the military to not be the one holding the government in power accountable. Let the regime go out, but not like this.

Here’s what I think: Aside from a few unnamed sources and cloak-and-dagger like whispers, we really don’t know anything. So stop churning the rumor mill even more (and God knows, I’m guilty of it too. Damn you Retweet!). And for those of you ‘excited’ about Zardari’s illness, shame on you. You should be better than that.

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Leaked & MemoGated

Zardari: Ah, crap. (Source: 3QuarksDaily)

This piece first appeared today in Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, which you can see here.

This morning Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, resigned his post over the scandal known as “memogate,” whereby Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz alleged that he was asked by Amb. Haqqani to pass a memo to former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, asking for help in reigning in Pakistan’s military establishment. But while Haqqani’s resignation may signal an end to this episode, the prior evolution of events was nothing short of a witch hunt.

The ‘witch’ in question varies depending on whom you speak to. If you’re a member of Pakistan’s opposition parties, Haqqani’s actions were an act of treason, and his resignation is only a further admission of guilt. How dare he, they demand to know, ask for foreign (American) help to control Pakistan’s military? How dare he be secretive about said actions?

If you’re one of those in the ruling party, Mansoor Ijaz is a lying conspirator, a man not to be trusted. The revelation of the memo, they claimed, was really just an excuse to target democracy, to vilify the PPP government. Haqqani’s resignation was not an admission of guilt, but a sacrifice in honor of said democracy.

In the serial drama also known as Pakistani politics, all the key elements have been in place – intrigue, cloak-and-dagger conspiracy, treason, and secrecy. From the outset, it plays out much like an episode of Game of Thrones, where in their thirst for power, the main actors all simultaneously destroy each other (or themselves). Except this is real life, and we’ve seen this episode numerous times before. Politicians are intent on leveraging “memogate” for their own party ambitions in anticipation of the upcoming elections, while the military sits pretty on the sideline, their hands clean of the public mudslinging. As is often the case, dangling a threat to sovereignty or to Pakistan’s security is enough to stir a feeding frenzy.

For those of us who read the memo in question, who perused through the BlackBerry messages exchanged between Haqqani and Ijaz, and who have read every imaginable op-ed and interview on the controversy, one thing is abundantly clear: even with Haqqani’s resignation, we still are not entirely sure what happened. It is possible that we may never know. We should concern ourselves not with asking hypothetical questions, but asking the right questions. What constitutes treason within the Pakistani narrative? And why are many challenges to the current civil-military status quo met with such accusations?

In the case of this incident, Haqqani’s alleged actions were called treasonous and unpatriotic because he is said to have attempted to challenge the security establishment, to hand over Pakistan’s sovereignty to America. As Fasi Zaka noted in his op-ed for the Express Tribune the memo sought to allow “another state a unilateral deal of internal policy actions without any legal authority [that] bypasses all codes of conduct.” Extra negative points if that foreign hand happens to be American.

But shouldn’t we then place other purported back door dealings under similar scrutiny? Why do we continue to be incensed by the alleged attempts by a civilian politician to undermine the security establishment but fail to express similar outrage if the same security establishment undermines a civilian government, whether it be through military coups, backchannel talks with militants to retain strategic depth in Pakistan, or even purported deals permitting a U.S. operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil?

The civil-military imbalance, as also noted by Mosharraf Zaidi for Foreign Policy, is the primary reason behind this disconnect. Pakistan’s military, despite its flaws, has historically projected a stronger and more resolute image than any civilian regime. The national sentiment has long bought into this perception. The charge of treason against former Ambassador Haqqani is, therefore, subjective, laced with emotion, and used conveniently in the semantics of political pot shots to desperately curry favor among the masses. Treason makes for a good sound bite. But in throwing around such accusations, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

Haqqani’s resignation today will be viewed as an admission of guilt to some and a sacrifice to others. But the bigger issue has been left untouched. In terms of Pakistan’s broader civil-military relations, the sign is clear — cross the military, and you will get burned. And as the mudslinging continued, it became increasingly clear that the only players getting dirty and tainted were the politicians. Long live democracy.

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Who Watches the Watchmen?

Photo: NYT/AP

In last week’s Economist, an article delved into the increased use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – also known more colloquially as drones – in present-day warfare. As The Global Post noted in their related series, “The Drone Wars are the new black.”

What was once a super sleuth secret weapons program by the U.S. government is now openly referenced by the likes of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who recently said, “Having moved from the CIA to the Pentagon, obviously I have a hell of a lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had in the CIA, although the Predators weren’t bad.”

Good one Leon. Not so “secret” anymore!

During his tenure as the former director of the CIA, Panetta “oversaw a dramatic increase” of drone strikes. Since becoming president, Barack Obama has intensified the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, from one every 40 days under the Bush administration to one strike every four days. The Economist reported,

John Brennan, Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism chief, has made it clear that as America draws down its forces in Afghanistan over the next three years, there will be no let up in drone strikes, which, he claims, are partly responsible for al-Qaeda being “on the ropes”. The grim Reaper’s ability to loiter for up to 24 hours, minutely observe human activity from five miles above while transmitting “full motion video” to its controllers and strike with pinpoint accuracy has made it the essential weapon in America’s “long war”.

According to U.S. officials, the rationale for an increased usage of UAVs is obvious – the drones allow reach into places where U.S. boots cannot. They also can hit very specific targets – or at least they’re supposed to, the numbers are hotly disputed. While the U.S. government claims that the drone program [which, besides Pakistan, operate in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq] is a success, “claiming that out of the more than 2,000 people thought to be killed so far, all but 50 were militants,” the number of civilian casualties has been contested. According to analysis conducted by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann from the New America Foundation, the true civilian fatality rate since 2004 is about 32 percent, versus the 25 percent cited by government calculations.

Via the Economist.

The recent death of Al Qaeda militant [and U.S. citizen] Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in a September 30th drone strike as well as the number of civilian casualties lends itself to an interesting and pertinent discussion. From a legal perspective, drones sit in an uncomfortably gray area. U.S. officials, not surprisingly, will tell you that drone strikes are perfectly within the parameters of international law. U.S. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Koh has stated (via the Global Post),

It is the considered view of this Administration … that U.S. targeting practices, including lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, comply with all applicable law, including the laws of war … the United States is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, as well as the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks, and may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law. As a matter of domestic law, Congress authorized the use of all necessary and appropriate force through the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). These domestic and international legal authorities continue to this day.

But just who operates drones raises an issue as well. According to the Global Post, drones used by the military are considered an extension of armed conflict, and are therefore more likely to be deemed acceptable by international law standards. But what if the same system is deployed by the CIA to target a specific individual or group? What about the death of innocent civilians? Or U.S.-born citizens-turned-militants like Awlaki [btw, no love lost for Awlaki, but just raising the argument here]?

For me, the issue of drones goes beyond the issue of legality. It touches on the progression of warfare as a whole. Or whether morality, arguably the foundation of international law, is really being compromised in favor of the arbitrarily defined “greater good.” In an article by Barbara Ehrenreich for Guernica Magazine this past summer, she discussed how the emergence of a new kind of enemy – “non-state actors” – has partly contributed to a shift in how we combat war, namely with “robot”-like machines (including but not limited to drones). She wrote,

Video cameras, borne by drones, substitute for human scouts or information gathered by pilots. Robots disarm roadside bombs…today, the U.S. military has an inventory of more than 7,000 [UAVs], ranging from the familiar Predator to tiny Ravens and Wasps used to transmit video images of events on the ground. Far stranger fighting machines are in the works, like swarms of lethal “cyborg insects” that could potentially replace human infantry. These developments are by no means limited to the U.S.

This is not to say that human beings do not play a significant role in today’s conflicts. But is the “automation” of warfare something that should concern us? A guy sitting in Nevada operating a drone by a joystick may not feel the same gravity of war as a soldier fighting in the trenches. As we become more detached and more removed, are we losing touch with the humanity of warfare [and yes, that was an ironic statement, since many feel warfare is inhumane by nature]? Civilian casualties become dots on a computer screen, the collateral damage of the “best worst option.” Computer viruses affecting drones become a significant tool in cyber warfare. And we in turn become increasingly distanced from the reasons why we engage in conflict in the first place.

An interesting debate, nevertheless. Who does watch the watchmen?

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