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WTF.

Darling readers, I apologize for the lack of consistent blogging on my end (though twice a week is still pretty good, I say!). I am in the process of launching my start-up company this Fall, so life has been a little manic. I do still read the news and opine to self about things that piss me off. Which is a lot. But because snorting and laughing snarkily to self is lonely (and not as self-indulgent as self would like), I give you yet another WTF list – this time the WTF CRAP (i.e., WTF is wrong with people?!) and WTF YAH (i.e., WTF this is awesome! Yay! Puppies!). Because there are always happy things to WTF about too:

 THE WTF CRAP LIST:

WTF-C #1: The ISI arrested five Pakistani informants who fed information to the CIA in the months leading up to the Osama bin Laden raid, reported the NY Times this week. So…they…um…arrested the guys who helped in the capture of OBL? Somewhere out there (hopefully not on a compound in the Islamabad suburb known as Abutababa), new Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is cackling gleefully. #FacePalm.

WTF-C #2: SPEAKING OF MILITANTS LIVING IN ISLAMABAD’S SUBURBS (Curse you Wolf Blitzer! You haz tainted ma city’s suburbz 4 life!), AFP (via Dawn) reports that Fazle-ur-Rahman Khalil, the head of Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), is sitting pretty in a “suburb” of Islamabad, Golra Sharif. Given that many of these militants also sit pretty all over the country (hey, Bravo, new reality show deal?), this is massively disturbing but not surprising. Dawn reported, “The Pakistani senior government official who spoke with AP said Khalil has been arrested twice but each time was released on orders from Pakistan’s intelligence agency.” WTF.

WTF-C #3: Pakistan seems to top every freaking list these days (even the #1 Nation in Sexy Web Searches, you can’t make this stuff up). A recent Thompson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Pakistan as the third most dangerous place in the world for women. Granted, this was a poll about perceptions, but the fact that 90% of women in Pakistan experience domestic violence in their lifetime is a very depressing statistic indeed.

WTF-C #4: In some non-related Pakistan news, Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned from office today after being tangled in a “lewd” sexting scandal. According to news agencies, Weiner engaged in “‘inappropriate conversations’ with six women over the last three years, including on Facebook, e-mail, Twitter and on the phone with one of the women.” During his resignation speech, in which Weiner “apologized for the mistakes he had made,” reporters cheered, they heckled, and one dude even yelled, “Are you bigger than seven inches?!” Oh dear. Why.

THE WTF YAH LIST (Because some news is fun!):

WTF-Y #1: Speaking of resignations (or things related), Jane Perlez reported this week in the NY Times that COAS Gen. Kayani “is fighting to save his position in the face of seething anger from top generals and junior officers” following the OBL raid. Perlez noted, “The Pakistani Army is essentially run by consensus among 11 top commanders, known as the Corps Commanders, and almost all of them, if not all, were demanding that General Kayani get much tougher with the Americans.” So an inter-military coup? Who knows. But until then, we can thoroughly enjoy the hilarity of “What Kayani Whispered,” an assortment of awesome photos with even more awesome captions:

Via What Kayani Whispered

WTF-Y #2: I would make a terrible rapper. This is because I sound like a Dr. Seuss rhyme when I try. (And then I wore a hat/Shaped like a cat/Where’s my bat?/Boiii) This is why I massively respect people who can rap extremely ridiculously well. Like Adil Omar. I first interviewed the rapper from Islamabad two years ago, (when he was just 17 years old), and he recently released a new music video featuring Xzibit (Yes. THAT Xzibit) and directed by Matt Alonzo (who did “Like a G6″) called, “Off the Handle.” Watch the video below and download the song here:

WTF-Y #3: The Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator program for high-potential social entrepreneurs, launched its new summer of fellows a few days ago. Saba Gul, the co-founder and executive director of BLISS (Business & Life Skills School) is at this year’s Institute, representing her amazing social enterprise, which empowers adolescent girls in rural Pakistan through education and entrepreneurship. BLISS was also just featured on NBC Nightly News, see here. Congrats and good luck at Unreasonable, Saba!

WTF-Y #4: Nothing makes me happier (or yell WTF-Yah!) than Coke Studio, which just premiered its fourth season in Pakistan. The immensely popular show, which “embodies a musical fusion of exciting elements and diverse influences, ranging from traditional eastern, modern western and regionally inspired music,” already has a number of memorable songs and collaborations, including Kangna. But while I will always love Coke Studio, I have also been loving another initiative, Levi’s Original songs, particularly this gem by The Strings & Zoe Viccaji:

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Source: Guardian

Today, more than 80 paramilitary soldiers were killed when at least one suicide bomber blew himself up at a military training center in Charsadda. At least 115 people were wounded in the bombing, labeled by the NY Times as, “the first major terrorist attack since the American raid in Abbottabad on May 2 that killed Osama bin Laden,” and by other outlets as the deadliest attack in Pakistan since last November.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, and a spokesman told the AFP, “This was the first revenge for Osama’s martyrdom. Wait for bigger attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” (The AfPak Channel’s daily brief, however, did note, “Pakistani police officials…were skeptical that the attack…was the work of the TTP, and suggested it may have been orchestrated by Omar Khalid’s group, which is currently fighting the Pakistani Army in Mohmand.”)

In a Parliamentary session today on the bin Laden operation, ISI Director General Pasha (who may or may not be resigning) admitted to intelligence negligence but not failure regarding the U.S. raid that killed OBL.

Jason Burke noted in a column for the Guardian,

There is a terrible inevitability about the bombing in Charsadda, Pakistan, on Friday morning. Little about it is different from previous bombings. There is the same vicious tactic…a familiar target: hapless recruits to the underpaid, under-equipped paramilitary frontier corps. There is a familiar culprit…The only difference is that this strike comes after the death of Osama bin Laden. It is an attack, claimed in the name of Al Qaeda in effect, by Pakistanis on Pakistanis.

As I watched images of injured young cadets on the news, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sick because as this country goes up in flames, people are not protesting for the thousands of Pakistani lives lost because of terror attacks in the last few years alone. No. They are protesting violations of sovereignty committed by the Americans. They are pointing fingers at one another, shifting blame, searching for scapegoats. I am sick to my stomach.

Other interesting reads before the weekend:

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Deal or No Deal

What say you, Howie Mandel + Briefcase Ladies? Deal or No Deal?

It has been over a week since news broke that Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. operation in Abbottabad, and developments are still unfolding, tensions are still building, and we still are not quite sure what the hell is really going on.

On Monday, our illustrious PM Yousaf Raza Gilani made a speech before the Pakistani Parliament, strongly rejecting allegations of Pakistan’s complicity in hiding Osama bin Laden or incompetence in tracking him down. On the topic of what went wrong, Gilani did admit that there had been an intelligence failure, but refused to take sole responsibility, instead noting,  “It is not only ours but of all the intelligence agencies of the world.”

Good deflection, Jadoogar.

Gilani also used the speech as an opportunity to highlight the U.S. violation of Pakistani sovereignty, saying Pakistanis are “rightly incensed” about the covert U.S. operation on the country’s soil. He emphasized,

Abbottabad hosts a routine Military training institution, which does not require any elaborate special defence arrangement. There is no denying the US technological ability to evade our radars. We regret that this unilateral action was undertaken without our concurrence.

In several interviews post-raid, former President Pervez Musharraf came out as one of the most vocal critics of the U.S. operation, also calling it a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

But on May 9, the Guardian’s Declan Walsh reported that the U.S. and Pakistan had struck a deal in 2001 permitting a U.S. operation on Pakistani soil to go after Osama bin Laden. Walsh noted,

Under its terms, Pakistan would allow US forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the Al Qaeda No3. Afterwards, both sides agreed, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion.

A former senior U.S. official told the Guardian, “There was an agreement between Bush and Musharraf that if we knew where Osama was, we were going to come and get him. The Pakistanis would put up a hue and cry, but they wouldn’t stop us.”

Mushy! You got some ‘splaining to do!

Not surprisingly, Musharraf doth protested such reports. In an interview Wednesday, he told ABC News, “Never! And this is the assertion being cast by the Guardian and I rejected that. I condemn such an insinuation. There was no such deal.”

Interestingly, though, the Guardian wasn’t the only outlet to “cast such an assertion.” In the Friday Times last week, Ali Chishti alluded to something similar, when he quoted former intelligence chief Shah Mahboob Alam who also said, “The U.S. initiated a unilateral action based on an understanding with Pakistan from years ago.”

On Wednesday, Reuters cited more sources – current and former U.S. officials – who further said “the message that the United States would dispatch forces to go after bin Laden if it found him in Pakistan was repeatedly passed on to Pakistani authorities so that, at a minimum, Islamabad should have had no illusions about the U.S. position.”

So, deal or no deal?

It is no secret that Bush and Musharraf had a close relationship post-9/11 attacks.  In a joint statement between the two leaders in November 2001, they reaffirmed “the strength and vitality of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Pakistan,” with Musharraf welcoming Bush’s decision “to lift a number of economic sanctions that would allow for the resumption of cooperation with Pakistan.”

Mush: I got you, bra. Bush: Na, bra.

Unless Musharraf suddenly changes tact and admits to a deal (not likely) we really won’t be sure of anything, particularly if the “understanding” that was met was never put in writing. Nevertheless, given the U.S.-Pakistan history of covert deals (hello, drone strike policy), struck so that the U.S. can achieve their interests and the Pakistan state can pretend like they don’t know that we know, we can at least be justifiably suspicious.

The significant part of the deal-or-no-deal debate though, is how it has shifted our attention away from what’s really important; i.e., how the Pakistani military and our intelligence agencies either managed to allow one of the biggest intelligence failures to happen, or worse yet, how they managed to keep OBL hidden as their strategic interest for so long [read Shahid Saeed's piece at Dawn for words of wisdom as well as Chris Fair's piece for the AfPak Channel]. Forget holding the Pakistani military and ISI accountable to the Americans – hold them accountable to us, the Pakistani citizens, who bore the brunt of these misgivings.

As a nation, we often point fingers outwards instead of at ourselves. Conspiracy theories reign supreme. Political pot shots to garner votes and popularity are the norm. And amidst this circus, no one seems to give a damn about anyone but themselves. Pray tell, how can we hope for any progress if accountability is never even part of the vernacular?

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FP Image: Lalala, Friends Forever...

Yesterday, investigative reporter/author Bob Woodward‘s Obama’s Wars made its highly anticipated debut in bookstores. The book highlights more of what many of us already knew – that the government is deeply divided over the current Afghanistan policy (cough, Stanley McChrystal‘s interview with Rolling Stone). According to a book review by the New York Times,

Although the internal divisions described have become public, the book suggests that they were even more intense and disparate than previously known and offers new details. [Vice President] Mr. Biden called [Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan] Mr. Holbrookethe most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met,” although he “may be the right guy for the job.” A variety of administration officials expressed scorn for James L. Jones, the retired Marine general who is national security adviser, while he referred to some of the president’s other aides as “the water bugs” or “the Politburo.”

But perhaps the more startling revelation – or at least the one that is garnering news headlines this week – is the allegation that the CIA is running a 3,000-strong Afghan army to carry out clandestine operations in not only Afghanistan, but also across the border in Pakistan. According to the Washington Post review,

The CIA created, controls and pays for a clandestine 3,000-man paramilitary army of local Afghans, known as Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. Woodward describes these teams as elite, well-trained units that conduct highly sensitive covert operations into Pakistan as part of a stepped-up campaign against Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban havens there.

In the words of Scooby Doo, Ruh roh.

NPR‘s JJ Sutherland, also struck by this revelation, further confirmed the existence of these Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams with two anonymous U.S. officials. And Reuters, in its blog Now or Never, noted that U.S. officials not only confirmed their existence, they “bragged about it.” CNN quoted one official as saying, “You’re talking about one of the finest Afghan fighting forces, which has made major contributions to security and stability.”

We have heard time and time again that the key to stability in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. And so far, the U.S. has preferred drones in the air versus boots on the ground, walking a tenuous tightrope above Pakistan’s sovereignty. Drones have obviously been immensely unpopular, and reports indicate that the CIA has conducted 20 drone strikes in September alone, “the most ever in a single month and more than twice its monthly average.” [For more on drone strikes, see New America Foundation's comprehensive coverage and map].

The recent rise of drone strikes illustrates the U.S.’s frustration with Pakistan, and have resulted in increasing efforts to take matters into their own hands. Media outlets reported that NATO helicopters launched three attacks in Pakistani territory this past Friday. According to Al Jazeera, “Sergeant Matt Summers, an ISAF spokesman, confirmed on Sunday that the helicopters had crossed into Pakistan in pursuit of fighters. He did not say which countries’ forces were involved, but the United States is the only coalition member that uses Apaches.” Not surprisingly, the Pakistani government responded with a “very angry” statement threatening to “consider response options” unless ISAF took “corrective measures.” [Insert Team America Hans Blitz reference here.]

The recent revelation in Woodward’s book is yet another sign of this more aggressive approach towards Pakistan, but it holds very problematic ramifications. First, training local Afghans to fight across the border in Pakistan is not only a challenge to national sovereignty, it also bears an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman noted,

…that same history also shows that the U.S. can’t control those proxy forces. Splits within the mujahideen after the Soviet withdrawal (and the end of CIA cash) led to Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, which paved the way for the rise of the Taliban. One of those CIA-sponsored fighters was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now a key U.S. adversary in Afghanistan. And during the 2001 push to Kabul, a Northern Alliance military commander, Abdul Rashid Dostum, killed hundreds and maybe even thousands of Taliban prisoners. He was on the CIA’s payroll at the time.

Moreover, as Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin noted, Woodward’s book “sheds new light on the Obama administration’s vast outreach to the Pakistani civilian government led by President Asif Ali Zardari,” considering its war effort contingent on the success and survival of this government. This, to me, is why this U.S. aggressive security policy is so problematic – on one hand, the administration has a vested interest in the survival of Zardari’s government. On the other hand, these security-related decisions that ultimately challenge Pakistani sovereignty and fan the flames of anti-American sentiment only further undermine this civilian regime.

Regardless of the Pakistani government’s “very angry” statements following helicopter attacks and repeated drone strikes, the public sees the state as complicit in this U.S. policy, or, at the very least, too weak to truly challenge this strategy. In a country suffering from a recent flood disaster, a weakened economy, and political volatility, such policies ultimately breed further instability and rumors of regime change. The U.S. has often said the stability of Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. But that statement goes both ways.

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GQ image: Gary Faulkner doesn't need to wear fur. Gary Faulkner skins you and wears it!

Gary Faulkner, i.e. the “Bin Laden Hunter,” i.e. “Step Aside Jack Bauer, there’s a New Bad Ass in Town,” i.e., “What is this Guy Smoking?”, is somewhat of an enigma. He is a  50-something with failing kidneys, a criminal record, and a calling to track down Osama bin Laden, or, as he likes to call him, “Binny Boy.” When Pakistani authorities caught Faulkner attempting to cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border back in June, he was armed with a pistol, dagger, sword, Christian literature, and night-vision goggles. It was his 8th time visiting Pakistan to track down OBL.

I’ve written about Faulkner before, here and here. But nothing prepared me for the awesomeness that was in this month’s GQ. Oh yes. That GQ. Here are some gems from the piece, though you really should read it in its entirety:

  • “Gary’s youngest brother, Scott, a doctor in Fort Morgan, Colorado, drove him to the Denver airport two weeks earlier, on May 30. ‘He was in great spirits,’ says Scott. ‘He was excited about his trip. I remember he was looking at his crossbow, deciding whether or not he should take it.’” Yes. He just said crossbow. He is not kidding.
  • “‘I believe that is going to go down in history,’ his other brother, Todd, tells me, ‘and kids are going to write essays about that 200 years from now.’” Forget 200 years from now! I’ve written two posts already! And damn it, give Gary Faulkner a freaking reality show, Fox!
  • In response to “You’ve been described as everything from hero to crackpot,” Faulkner responded, “I’m a little of everything. I’ve done crack, I’ve done crank, I’ve done coke, I’ve done pot, I’ve done everything in the world out there.… You know, I’ve been to prison, I’ve been shipwrecked, blown up, shot, stabbed. My story does not just start here; it started when I was 5 years old, the first time I tried to hot-wire a car.…” Oh sweet baby Jesus.
  • “‘He just had a dream about hunting down bin Laden,’ remembers Jim Sage, who has worked on construction jobs with Faulkner over the past decade. ‘In his dream he was supposed to get there without his feet touching the ground.’ At first, Faulkner took this to mean that he had to go by boat. So he bought a twenty-one-foot yellow-and-white yacht called the Piña Colada…he set sail from San Diego. He figured he’d head west across the Pacific and work it out from there.” Later Faulkner took the “feet not touching ground” thing to mean he should get there by hang glider. You can’t make this stuff up.
  • “Gary says he was told that Al Qaeda had not only noticed him but photographed him and was circulating his picture. After dark that night, believing they were soon coming to get him, he headed up the mountain…’It’s old-school for me, because I used to be a thief, so nighttime is my time. I laugh. Here I am in the middle, they’ve got a squeeze play going on, and once again I slipped away in the night.’” For some reason, this is my mental image when I read that [circa Zoolander, when he's toiling in the mine]:

(Zoolander image) "Whee! Can't catch me Al Qaeda!"

  • “He has told me that he doesn’t particularly care for the media nickname that seems to have stuck the most, Rocky Mountain Rambo, but I’m not so sure. When I see him write down his name for strangers, he’ll write “Rocky Mountain Rambo” beneath it, and when there’s a problem finding a New York hotel reservation, he wonders aloud whether he might have been booked under the name Rocky Mountain Rambo.” Personally I prefer the Bin Ladenator, but that’s just me.

The piece is about 10 pages long, but it is worth reading, not just for the laughs, or the headache that may ensue afterwards, but because there really is no one else like Gary Faulkner.

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Today, at least 39 people were killed and 95 were wounded in twin suicide blasts in Lahore, the second attack in the city this week. A senior official told Dawn News, “The bombers walked up to Pakistani army vehicles in the densely populated R A Bazaar area of Lahore, blowing themselves up as people sat down to eat before the Friday prayers were to begin.” My piece today in Dawn (republished below), primarily discusses Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri‘s 600-page fatwa against suicide bombing, but given recent events, it provides fodder for further debate on how to counter such attacks. Qadri’s edict, being 600 pages, has been viewed as a good but inadequate attempt to target the right audience – i.e., the young jihadists and potential suicide bombers. My point in the piece is to really find a way to implement it in a wider counter suicide bombing communications campaign so that it is effective. Because at the end of the day, we can’t just sit back and allow these attacks to keep happening:

Image from CNN: Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri

There has never been a shortage of fatwas. These legal rulings or opinions made by religious authorities address a wide array of issues concerning politics and social norms, and have both justified and widely condemned the use of violence. In 1998, Al Qaeda ideologues Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a fatwa “to kill the Americans and their allies.” However, a number of imams and scholars since have issued fatwas against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In November 2008, for example, more than 6,000 Muslim clerics in India signed a fatwa against terrorism, following a similar edict issued earlier in the year by India’s top Islamic institution Darul Uloom Deoband.

Most recently, Dr. Tahir ul-Qadri, a Pakistani Barelvi Muslim scholar, issued a 600-page global ruling against terrorism and suicide bombing, which provides a point-by-point theological rebuttal “of every argument used by Al-Qaeda inspired recruiters.” Although many scholars have released similar fatwas in the past, Dr. Qadri, the founder of Minhaj al-Quran International, “argued that his massive document goes much further by omitting “ifs and buts” added by other thinkers,” noted the BBC.

According to the 80-page summary of the edict,

Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri goes that crucial step forward and announces categorically that suicide bombings and attacks against civilian targets are not only condemned by Islam, but render the perpetrators totally out of the fold of Islam, in other words, to be unbelievers.

The fatwa has garnered much press attention among Western news outlets, such as Fox News, CNN and the Washington Post. But while many have celebrated the release of a religious decree grounded in Islamic jurisprudence and history, others remain doubtful of its actual impact on potential young suicide bombers. While Minhaj al-Quran International is active in 70 countries and has 5,000 members in the UK, Qadri is considered to be relatively liberal and tolerant. Therefore, the people that would follow and accept his fatwa are unlikely to be the same as those susceptible to being recruited by Islamist militant groups.

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC, further emphasized, “The Sunni religious authority, as distinct from the Shi’a religious authority, is fragmented. So there’s not one figure who can issue a fatwa that every Sunni will listen to.” While Ahmed noted that any fatwa of this kind is important, the problem we are facing with suicide bombers “is that they are not from the same class [as moderate scholars like Qadri]. These young recruits respond much more to their own imams and preachers.”

No one questions the airtight credibility of Qadri’s text. But the issue we should raise is not whether the fatwa will have an impact, but how to ensure that it does. Fatwas or edicts of this kind can be influential if they are implemented in a culturally nuanced way, using language that can be understood by the intended target audience. In other words, if militant recruiters are using drone strikes to vilify the United States or the Pakistani government, countering this ideology requires messaging that takes similar realities into consideration. Although Qadri’s fatwa is based in exhaustive academic research, most young jihadists won’t take the time to sift through 600 pages in their decision-making.

Qadri may not be a universally accepted figure, but his text can be used as the focal point for a strategic communications campaign geared towards countering militancy and terrorism. This fatwa will only have the intended effect if local imams and religious leaders from various sects endorse and adapt it for their nuanced communities – applying Qadri’s language and framing it within the ground realities. Madrassa leaders more open to reform can incorporate the fatwa’s text into their curriculum. Imams of local mosques can use the fatwa’s framing of terrorists as today’s Khawārij in their sermons, subsequently making it digestible for the public. Rather than simply shutting down jihadist chat rooms, intelligence agencies can create pop-up ads using language from the fatwa to vilify and undermine militant ideology. Pamphlets, billboard ads, and radio spots can be other potential mediums.

We are well-aware that Islam is a religion of peace, that it has been hijacked by militant and terrorist organizations to justify violence and intolerance against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The question, therefore, is how do we use that knowledge to make a tangible difference? As an end, Qadri’s 600-page fatwa has its limitations, and could very likely end up on the metaphorical shelf, gathering dust. However, this airtight research could instead be used to enforce a more localized and nuanced campaign that could have a more strategic impact.

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Say Hello to My Rubber Glove

Image by AP

As of January 4, 2010, citizens of 14 nations – Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – have all been dubbed countries of “interest.” And no, not interest in a good way, as in, “We see you as fellow human beings, let’s have a conversation and get to know one another.” Interest as in, “Hi, we see you as an immediate threat because of your religion and nationality, let’s have a conversation with my ominous rubber glove.”

And here I thought eight years after 9/11, we had learned so much.

I could get angry with Umar Farooq Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to detonate an explosive in his underpants, forever earning himself the nickname “pantybomber.” Thanks to his actions on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, not just Nigerians, but people from 13 other countries dubbed “state sponsors of terrorism” have to suffer the consequences. The new rule will also apply to anyone traveling to U.S. destinations from those countries, who will all face extra scrutiny at airport screenings.

I could also point a finger at U.S. intelligence agencies, who reportedly had enough information to “head off” the attempted bombing but “failed to connect those dots,” noted President Obama in a statement yesterday. According to his administration, Obama further asserted in a meeting with Cabinet advisers and members, “This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. It was averted by brave individuals not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.”

But riddle me this, Mr. President – if the intelligence agencies screwed up, and the system failed to work, why are scores of people paying the price? Is this a sign of that mutual respect you so powerfully called for during your speech to the Muslim World in Cairo? Because, let me tell you, I don’t feel mutually respected when Don Juan of airport security calls me out of line, and not because he wants to perform a rubber sock puppet show for my enjoyment.

I am all for keeping us safe, and I am all for fending off terrorist threats. I am from a country whose citizens have been victimized by terrorism, that has been waging its own war, however successfully, against a similar threat. Last year alone, over 3000 people died in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. So believe me, I understand that you don’t want that threat on your soil. But neither do we. Treating each individual as one massive threat will only add to the problem, because it fails to recognize the nuances of this conflict, or the tremendous importance of perceptions. It is sad that in the eight years after 9/11, that lesson still has to be learned.

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Image Credit: NY Times

Following the end of President Barack Obama‘s speech on the new Afghanistan strategy Tuesday, the Washington Post‘s  headline read, “‘Afghanistan Is Not Lost,’ Obama Says.” That title aptly summarizes the sentiment behind the president’s West Point address. Prior to Obama’s announcement, news agencies had already disseminated the main points – the current status quo is not “sustainable” in Afghanistan, the U.S. will be escalating their presence by 30,000 troops by the first part of 2010, a withdrawal of these forces will begin in July 2011, and power will be transitioned to the Afghan government and the Afghan people in a “responsible” manner. On Tuesday evening, the president couched these points in heavy rhetoric, emphasizing why Al Qaeda continues to be a continuous threat to the United States and its Allies, and why Americans need to continue to invest in this war.

Frankly, I did not expect much more from this speech, precisely because of what the president was trying to achieve.  Obama was primarily addressing an audience of young cadets at West Point, many of whom will be deployed as a result of this new strategy. He told them, “I know that this decision asks even more of you as a military that, along with your families, has already borne the heaviest of all burdens.” Ultimately, the president on Tuesday was trying to assert his role as the American commander-in-chief, a figure capable of making the tough decisions, a person who, despite recent critics crowing to the contrary, does not “dither” on matters of national security and safety.

As such, the speech was an unsurprising stream of expected rhetoric. But it was what Obama didn’t say that can be assessed – namely, what all this means for Pakistan, Afghanistan’s perceived “brother from another mother.” During the speech, the president touched upon Pakistan briefly and vaguely, stating,

We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan. That is why we need a strategy that works on both sides of the border. In the past, there have been those in Pakistan who have argued that the struggle against extremism is not their fight… The Pakistani Army has waged an offensive in Swat and South Waziristan. And there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy…Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interests, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

Obama went on to assert Washington’s commitment to an effective, long-term partnership with Pakistan. But during his speech, he did not make a distinction between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Doing so would have highlighted a flaw in the argument that the U.S. and Pakistan share a common enemy, particularly since Pakistan’s military is fighting the Pakistani Taliban but continues to make deals with anti-NATO/U.S. militants in North Waziristan, [see also related CHUP post]. Ultimately, getting Pakistan to see eye-to-eye with the U.S. on the Afghan Taliban is a continuing issue. Following the speech, CNN correspondent Michael Ware noted, “The war is not won or lost in Afghanistan…the key to that is in Pakistan and the [Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban] sanctuaries and safe havens [in the border region].”

Ware also brought up the regional implications of the war in Afghanistan, calling it a “chess game,” with Saudi Arabia and Iran both playing hands in the area, and India and Pakistan using it as “yet another battlefield.” Reuters, in its coverage, noted, “Many analysts say Pakistan is reluctant to take on the Afghan Taliban as it might need them to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan in case of a U.S. pullout.” Understanding these broader regional issues are key to approaching this war, and particularly a linked Pakistan strategy.

The NY Times cited Obama’s advisers who conceded that the president “could not be very specific about his Pakistan strategy” Tuesday because “American operations there are classified, most run by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The NY Times added, “In recent months, in addition to providing White House officials with classified assessments about Afghanistan, the C.I.A. delivered a plan for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.” This was reportedly the message delivered by Gen. Jim Jones when he visited Islamabad several weeks ago, though “the Pakistanis, suspicious of Mr. Obama’s intentions and his staying power, have not yet agreed.”

Given the increasing anti-American sentiment on the ground, a broadened U.S. presence in Pakistan will undoubtedly be met with rage/indignation/burning tires.  And, if Islamabad (covertly) agrees to such terms, it will further cement the perception that we are not fighting “our” war but “America’s” war, a distinction with negative ramifications. Ultimately, as Washington continues to push this  flawed “AfPak” strategy,  the term “FakAp” increasingly seems more fitting, (credit for “FakAp” goes to @majorbuttretd on Twitter, who blogs over at Bostive Neuj).

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"Ha..ha...jusssttt kidding on the resignation thingy...err..."

"Resignation?! I made a funny!"

This past Saturday, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told reporters he would resign if the private security company Blackwater (Xe) was found operating in Pakistan. Following the release of Jeremy Scahill‘s piece in The Nation, “Blackwater’s Secret War in Pakistan,” he may have already snatched his toupee off the hat stand and headed for the hills.

Scahill, a well-known critic of private security contractors and author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, found in an investigation, “At a covert forward operating base run by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater (known as Blackwater Select) are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.”

Scahill cited a well-placed source within the U.S. military intelligence apparatus, who further revealed, “The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help run a secret US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes.” And that’s not all, noted Scahill. Some of the personnel in the program, a division so “compartmentalized” that even “senior figures within the Obama administration and the U.S. military chain of command may not be aware of its existence,” also work undercover as aid workers.

When I first saw the headline blazoned across my Twitter feed, I immediately thought the source was Pakistan’s The Nation, rather than the American media outlet The Nation. Ironic, isn’t it? Allegations of Blackwater involvement in Pakistan have been circulating for months, propagated mainly by figures from Pakistan’s “right,” such as Shireen Mazari, Zaid Hamid, and Ahmed Quraishi. While Scahill’s assessment is more grounded in direct statements (rather than circumstantial evidence), it is interesting that a Western journalist’s assertions are immediately seen as more legitimate and credible than reports in Pakistan, many of which were branded as “rumors” and garnered heavy skepticism.

I do not have enough information to verify Scahill’s assertions, but it seems significant that his entire piece is founded on three anonymous sources – one with “direct knowledge of Blackwater’s involvement” who worked on covert U.S. military programs for years, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the second a former senior executive at Blackwater, and the third a U.S. military source with “knowledge of Special Forces actions in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” The White House, not surprisingly, did not return calls or email messages seeking comment for Scahill’s story, and Blackwater spokesperson Mark Corallo told The Nation, “Xe Services has only one employee in Pakistan performing construction oversight for the U.S. Government,” adding the company has “no other operations of any kind in Pakistan.”

While I personally don’t know what to believe, nor do I think it really matters, I am curious to see Rehman Malik’s reaction to such a report. Will he resign as promised? In the words of the all-mighty Magic 8 Ball, “Don’t count on it.”

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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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