Archive for May, 2009

Image Credit: insomniacentertainment.com

Image Credit: insomniacentertainment.com

In Hollywood, actors of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent are often typecast as the villains, particularly with the recent onslaught of films and television shows centering on terrorism. What is refreshing therefore, is the casting of Pakistani actor Faran Tahir as Captain Robau in the recent box office hit Star Trek. Tahir has a string of film and television credits under his belt,  from Iron Man and Charlie Wilson’s War to 24 and Sleeper Cell. However, as IMDB indicates, Tahir has largely played the villain on film and television.

That is, until JJ AbramsStar Trek. Captain Robau is the captain of the Kelvin, the starship on which James T. Kirk‘s father, George Kirk is first officer. For those who are familiar with the Star Trek franchise, past captains were often portrayed as weak in order to bolster perceptions of Captains Kirk and Picard. In this film, however, Tahir plays Robau as a heroic and strong leader. In an interview with TrekMovie.com, the film’s co-writer and executive producer Roberto Orci noted, “Being a captain in Starfleet should be a special position and we don’t feel that another captain has to be diminished in order to elevate Captain Kirk. If you are a captain in Starfleet you are a cool mother f—er.”

Trekmovie.com added, “The fact that Tahir is Pakistani also cannot be ignored…Like the Germans and Russians of past generations, many of today’s popular culture villains are played by those of Middle-Eastern or South-west Asian descent. But just like Gene Roddenberry put a Russian onto the bridge of the Enterprise in the height of the Cold War, JJ Abrams has put a Pakistani into the captain’s chair in the post-9/11 world.” The casting is a throwback to Star Trek’s history of “color-blind” roles and is reminiscent of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a future where every person lives up to his or her fullest potential, regardless of race or ethnicity. Tahir, in an interview with SciFi Wire, said, “The biggest compliment is that he [director Abrams] was looking for a certain quality. He could have found that in me, he could have found that in [anyone else]. And it just happened to be me, and … the added … layer to that is that, yeah, I happen to be of a certain descent, and … the casting was [in] the spirit of what Star Trek is about.”

The fact that a Pakistani actor has “made it” in Hollywood is a positive development in of itself, regardless of what roles he gets to play. However, the casting of Tahir as a starship captain is a definite added plus, particularly given the stereotyping and perceptions of Muslims in the West, as well as the typecasting that has always been prevalent in Hollywood. Below is Tahir’s interview with TV Guide about the film [thanks Pro-Pakistan]:

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A friend passed on an interesting story from McClatchy News today. U.S. officials told the news agency Wednesday, “The U.S. is embarking on a $1 billion crash program to expand its diplomatic presence in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, another sign that the Obama administration is making a costly, long-term commitment to war-torn South Asia.” The Obama administration has reportedly asked Congress for $736 million to build a new U.S. embassy in Islamabad, “along with permanent housing for U.S. government civilians and new office space in the Pakistani capital.”

Larger facilities are needed to support and protect the “surge” of civilian officials into both Pakistan and Afghanistan, say sources. McClatchy cited State Department documents, “the plan calls for the rapid construction of a $111 million new office annex to accommodate 330 workers; $197 million to build 156 permanent and 80 temporary housing units; and a $405 million replacement of the main embassy building. The existing embassy, in the capital’s leafy diplomatic enclave, was badly damaged in a 1979 assault by Pakistani students.”

The project is said to rival the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which opened in January 2009 after construction delays costing the government $740 million. Nicknamed Fortress America, the embassy occupies 104 acres of land. According to Foreign Policy, Baghdad’s embassy “is six times larger than the U.N. complex in New York and more than 10 times the size of the new U.S. Embassy being built in Beijing, which at 10 acres is America’s second-largest mission.”

A few thoughts on this development – First, given that expats in Pakistan [and most countries for that matter] are relatively insulated from the rest of society, especially with security precautions, won’t a self-efficient embassy exacerbate that matter further? Can U.S. officials working in Pakistan truly understand the nuances of the country if they never have to leave the compound?

Secondly, although McClatchy reported that it seems likely the administration will receive funding for this embassy [which will also include projects in Lahore, Peshawar, and Kabul], Congress hasn’t even approved funding for the Kerry-Lugar bill for further aid to Pakistan. While I know the safety of U.S. citizens is a different matter entirely, I still wonder how realistic it will be to fund this project.

Finally, with anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan still high, such a project will undoubtedly face backlash, and those ramifications may arguably outweigh the benefits of building a safer complex in the first place. McClatchy quoted the Jamaat-e-Islami‘s Khurshid Ahmed, who stated, “This is a replay of Baghdad…This [Islamabad embassy] is more [space] than they should need. It’s for the micro and macro management of Pakistan, and using Pakistan for pushing the American agenda in Central Asia.”

What are your thoughts?

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Image Credit: AP, Rescue Workers at the Scene

Image Credit: AP, Rescue Workers at the Scene

On Wednesday, at least 23 people were killed and nearly 300 were injured in a suicide bombing in Lahore. According to the NY Times, the attack was “a failed attempt to strike at the nearby provincial headquarters of Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency.” Dawn reported:

The incident took place at a heavily guarded entry point to the offices of Rescue-15 and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) as well as to the official residences of police officers at the Plaza Cinema Chowk at around 10:10am. The buildings are adjacent to the offices of Lahore’s police chief and are only yards away from the old Freemason’s Hall where the Punjab chief minister has his secretariat. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was at his Defense residence at the time of the explosion.

According to media reports, a group of men shot at police officers before detonating a powerful car bomb, damaging buildings in broad daylight in one of Lahore’s busiest districts. The Times described the scene after the attack in its coverage, “The massive bomb left a crater eight feet deep and 20 feet wide and the blast was heard for miles around. Dozens of vehicles were crumpled like paper and broken glass filled the street. The red brick building of the Rescue 15 ambulance service collapsed after taking the brunt of the blast, and emergency workers struggled for hours to pull the dead and injured from the debris.” The dead included 14 policemen and a colonel belonging to the ISI.

Although an official called yesterday’s bombing a “brazen and well-thought out plan,” it certainly wasn’t the first of its kind in Lahore. In fact, it was the third attack in the city in three months. On March 3, a dozen gunmen attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team with rifles, grenades, and rocket launchers ahead of a cricket match in Lahore. Six police guards were killed in the ambush. Later that month on March 30, gunmen attacked the Manawan police academy near Lahore, killing 13 people. All attacks occurred in broad daylight. All were undoubtedly well-coordinated. All appeared to either target Pakistan’s police forces or highlight the vulnerability of Pakistan’s security apparatus. According to BBC News correspondent Shoaib Hassan, Lahore is facing a sustained campaign of violence unlike any it has seen before.” He added, “Security officials believe the city is under attack because it is seen as a stable home for Pakistan’s Punjab-dominated army.” However, noted the Wall Street Journal, “It was unclear whether the main target of the attack was the police, the ISI or both.”

The government has blamed “Taliban fighters” for yesterday’s bombing, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik was quoted telling reporters, “Enemies of Pakistan who want to destabilize the country are coming here after their defeat in Swat.”

While pointing a finger at the Taliban has been common practice of late, it is still a vague and rather hollow accusation. In order to truly comprehend the threat that faces us, it is important to first demystify the term, “Taliban militants.” Following the Manawan police attack, I noted that the incident signified how many militant organizations are operating in Pakistan’s periphery, and how the line between them has become increasingly blurred. After today’s bombing, the “buzz-term” that was mentioned by several outlets and officials was “The Punjabi Taliban.” In the April issue of the Combating Terrorism Center [CTC] Sentinel, Hassan Abbas wrote,

Punjab, the most populated of Pakistan’s provinces, has largely escaped the bloodshed plaguing the country’s troubled northwest. Yet since 2007, violence has escalated in the province. The bold terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s heartland…show that local logistical support for these attacks is attributable to what is often labeled the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ network. The major factions of this network include operatives from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaysh-e-Muhammad – all groups that were previously strictly focused on Kashmir and domestic violence.

Abbas defines the Punjabi Taliban network as “a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin – sectarian as well as those focused on the conflict in Kashmir – that have developed strong connections with Tehreek-e-Taliban, Afghan Taliban and other militant groups based in FATA and NWFP.” The network’s groups shuttle between the tribal areas and the rest of Pakistan, providing logistical support to militant groups based both in FATA and Afghanistan to conduct operations within Pakistan. Abbas asserted in his analysis, “Given their knowledge about Punjabi cities and security structure, they have proved to be valuable partners for the TTP as it targets cities in Punjab, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Islamabad.”

In order to understand the evolution of these Punjabi groups, their longtime relationship with Pakistan’s state apparatus must be highlighted. In the 1990s, many of these militants directly benefited from state patronage [particularly the ISI], and “were professionally trained in asymmetrical warfare, guerrilla tactics and sabotage,” to fight as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Although it is unclear how long the state’s relationship with these groups lasted, some speculate if they still enjoy some form of support from retired members of the military or intelligence.

Moreover, despite their current alliance with Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pashtun Taliban, several groups under the Punjabi Taliban’s umbrella have also been highly sectarian in nature. The Sunni-Deobandi essence of these organizations, particularly the Lashkar-e-Jhanghvi (LeJ) and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), adds further dimension to this conflict.

The purpose of this analysis was to demystify the term, “Taliban,” a term we throw around too often without truly understanding its meaning. I also wanted to highlight the rising threat of the militant network in Punjab, and how their alliance with the Pashtun and Afghan Taliban makes their mutual impact all the more dangerous. In order to counter these groups, therefore, Pakistan must not only crack down on these groups but also exploit their divisions to weaken their network and influence. As for us, it’s important to think past the abstract and comprehend that militancy is not only rooted in the tribal areas. The Punjabi Taliban were created by the state itself. And it seems those chickens have come home to roost.

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Image Credit: Wash Po, Child Being Checked in an IDP Camp in Mardan

Image Credit: Wash Po, Child Being Checked in an IDP Camp in Mardan

According to UNHCR, the number of displaced people formally registered by local authorities since May 2 following the military’s offensive in Lower Dir, Buner, and Swat, has surpassed 1.7 million.  About 200,000 of this number are in camps, while the rest are staying with their families and friends or in schools and other communal buildings. According to the front page of the Washington Post yesterday, the crisis is the largest exodus since the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.

As the crisis worsens, numbers of the displaced are shifting into Pakistan’s provinces and main cities. However, while PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif announced today [just prior to the Supreme Court lifting his election ban] that IDPs from Swat “would be welcomed in Punjab,” adding, “Prohibiting affectees to enter another province is a violation of basic fundamental rights and national interests,” the influx has become an increasingly politicized issue among Sindh’s nationalist parties. Yesterday, shops in Karachi remained closed after members of the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM), a movement that promotes the cause of natives of southern Sindh province, called a strike to protest the arrival of IDPs in Sindh. It was the second strike called by the JSQM. A similar protest also occurred on Saturday.

While leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement [MQM] did not specifically back Monday’s strike, they had announced support for the Sindh parties protesting the entry of “outsiders” into the province this past Friday. The MQM’s Dr. Farooq Sattar demanded the government register all displaced families entering Pakistan’s provinces. According to the Daily Times, “He said the Taliban had entered the settled areas along with the IDPs and had set up their operational points in Karachi and others cities of Sindh for suicide attacks and other terrorist activities.” Dawn quoted him adding, “Therefore, we demanded that the president, the prime minister, the interior minister and high-ups of the security agencies declare mandatory the registration of all migrating families arriving in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan and lodge them at special makeshift camps so that the Taliban cannot enter the cities in disguise.”

Although the “Talibanization of Karachi” has continuously been cited as reason for these strikes and demands, the underlying issue goes far deeper, relating also to the power politics of the province. While ethnic tension between Pashtuns and Sindhis is not a new phenomenon [riots between the groups began in the mid-1980s], the recent rise of immigrant Pashtuns into the province, particularly in Karachi, have sparked increased violence and unrest. In November 2008, more than 40 people were killed and hundreds were wounded in two days of ethnic-related killings, [see related post by CHUP’s Karachi correspondent].

In February, BBC News cited Aminullah Khattak, secretary general of the  Awami National Party (ANP)’s Sindh Chapter [the party heads the NWFP provincial government and is mostly Pashtun-based] who said the issue has recently become exacerbated by other factors, particularly since Pashtuns living in Sindh “have progressed economically.” The BBC added, “The ANP argues that “Talibanization” is not a problem in Karachi, but just a ruse for a movement against upwardly-mobile Pashtuns.” Ismail Khan, a member of the ANP provincial executive committee, contends that the MQM, which has its power base in Karachi, is behind this movement, asserting, “We are the only threat to their power, and that is why they have used the specter of Talibanization.”

This is not to say the Taliban threat in Karachi is not an issue. In fact, the rise of Taliban influence in Pakistan’s urban areas, particularly in Karachi, is something I recently wrote about, and should be cause for concern. For the MQM to request that the IDPs be registered is both a legitimate and responsible demand. However, given Karachi’s history of ethnic tensions and violence, the MQM’s stronghold in the city, as well as the recent statement  by Abdul Wahid Aresar, head of the JSQM, who asserted, “We don’t see it as just an issue of helping the displaced people. The motive behind their arrival in the southern-most part of Pakistan from the north is to marginalize the native Sindhis, which we will resist,” the matter is far from simplistic.

What is sad to me is that the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan is Pakistani. It’s the result of an internal war within our country, and the victims are our people. The collateral damage should therefore evoke a unified, national response. And to be fair it has, at least among the civil society [see Deadpan Thoughts on Pakistan’s civilian response to the conflict as well as Teeth Maestro’s inspirational journey to the camps]. But the devolution of the issue into a politicized power struggle is indicative of the broader reality that exists in our nation – that, at the end of the day, many will allow provincial, ethnic and religious divisions to cloud their judgement of what is humane, what is right, and what is good for Pakistan.

Good related post: Saesneg’s “IDPs: Condition Check.”

For CHUP’s other posts on the IDP crisis, [including ways you can help] click here.

Also: Many, many thanks to the Karachiites who allowed me to pick their brains on this issue on Twitter.

Finally: A small note – the BBC mentioned CHUP today in their coverage of Pakistani blogs mobilizing for Pakistan’s refugees. Teeth Maestro was also mentioned, which is fantastic. There are so many other blogs that are doing so much to raise awareness on the crisis (Deadpan Thoughts, The Swat Plea via Teabreak, Chowrangi, the list goes on), and it’s been incredibly inspiring to be a part of this community.

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Image Credit: NY Times

Image Credit: NY Times

On Friday, Dawn reported that tribesmen near Swat Valley are forming militias, or lashkars, to prevent the Taliban from expanding their influence in the region. Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ghani, who is leading the offensive in the upper part of Swat valley, told the news agency, “They are resolutely defending against the advance of the Taliban. That’s the silver lining that I can see.”

According to news agencies, several people were wounded or killed in a clash between armed villagers and Taliban fighters in Kalam on Thursday. A similar confrontation also occurred in Lower Dir. The Wall Street Journal, in its coverage, reported, “Hundreds of armed residents of Kalam, a picturesque mountain town of about 50,000 people, came out to fight about 50 Taliban fighters who tried to enter, said the town’s deputy mayor, Shamshad Haqqi. He said several militants were killed or captured amid intense fighting.” Haqqi told the Associated Press, “We will not allow Taliban to come here.”

Although the formation of tribal lashkars is significant in bolstering both the military’s offensive and perceptions of support for this war, this is not a new phenomenon. According to the Jamestown Foundation, “The lashkar is a traditional tribal militia, often formed on an ad hoc basis for the accomplishment of a specific purpose...Every tribesman in the lashkar is armed with his own weapon, food and supplies…They are assembled for the resolution of a particular issue and then disbanded. In general, the tribal lashkars have a good track record of bringing peace and order to their wild land, but they twice failed to expel Al Qaeda fighters from the tribal region in 2003 and 2007, when big lashkars with thousands of volunteers were formed in South Waziristan.”

Joshua Foust at the Registan blog, commented further on the role of these local militias, and the government’s system of dealing with them:

That system…has broken down. In just the last year alone, thousands of tribal elders—who would normally organize and exert control and influence—have been beheaded by the Taliban. Since the Taliban is mostly a domestic force, they know exactly who to target to strategically weaken the domestic opposition against them…there were widespread reports of local communities raising Lashkars and begging for government help when they were surrounded and massacred by the Taliban. Islamabad ignored them, and in short order those Lashkars were scattered and fleeing in droves, their volunteers hoping to keep their heads attached to their bodies for the crime of trying to keep the Taliban out.

This time around, noted the Jamestown Foundation, “it [the raising of lashkars] is not just a mere display but a real and genuine indigenous movement against the militants who have created major problems for the local tribes.” While these militias must be supported by the military to prevent a repeat of what we witnessed before, the issue is not cut and dry. Last October the NY Times reported, “there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact.” For example, while the military can support these lashkars, they cannot initiate them. Moreover, “Great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself.” A general who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity said that while the military was willing to lend supporting fire from artillery and helicopters,  they would not give the militias heavy weapons, for fear of them becoming an offensive force.

Therefore, while lashkar developments are “good news” because they manifest a rising tide against the Taliban, their formation should be taken with a grain of salt, both in terms of their actual impact as well as their complex relationship with the Pakistan Army.

In reality, if we are looking to truly supplement the military’s offensive on the ground, both Pakistan’s Frontier Corps and police forces must be bolstered. The FC are vital because they are a localized Pashtun paramilitary force that have more legitimacy and on the ground insight into the region than the Pakistan’s mainly Punjabi military. Several analysts argue that the police can perhaps be the most effective force. RAND’s Christine Fair noted recently, “It’s always police that win insurgencies.” Hassan Abbas, in his report last month, “Police & Law Enforcement Reform in Pakistan,” cited Kelev I. Stepp’s Best Practices in Counterinsurgency, who emphasized the police should be “in the lead” with “the military providing backup support and strengthening the police with diversified training capabilities to help meet the security needs of the at-risk population.” If Pakistan wants to truly counter this militant threat, not just in this offensive but in the long run, overarching initiatives to overhaul and reform our law enforcement are vital.

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CS Monitor: Displaced Pakistanis wait for food in Peshawar

CS Monitor: Displaced Pakistanis wait for food in Peshawar

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. will provide $100 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to the growing number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Pakistan. Clinton, in the White House press briefing Tuesday, told reporters, “We face a common threat, a common challenge, and now a common task. We have seen an enormous amount of support and determination out of the Pakistani government, military, and people in the last weeks to tackle the extremist challenge.”

There has been a growing recognition in Washington that the United States needs to redefine its approach to Pakistan, “and a growing number of Pakistan and counterterrorism experts have concluded that a crucial missing ingredient in U.S. policy was closer contact with the Pakistani people,” reported the Christian Science Monitor.

Frederick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told the Monitor,

For the last year, the consensus in Washington has been that we needed to create a stronger link to the Pakistani people, that that was in fact the missing link in our relations with a critical part of the world. This is a terrific first step to show we do care about the Pakistani people and not just about Afghanistan or terror.

In her briefing today, Clinton announced the American people can also participate in this new humanitarian initiative. By texting “SWAT” to 20222, anyone in the United States can make a $5 donation to the UN High Commissioner’s Office for Refugees (UNHCR) for use in the Swat Valley crisis.

So please, if you are based in the U.S., text in your donations! I am also pasting Clinton’s briefing in its entirety below, which was refreshing and well worth watching:

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If you didn’t get a chance to watch Sunday’s interview with former President Pervez Musharraf on Fareez Zakaria’s GPS, here is the transcript from the show, and below, is the first third of the segment.

Musharraf, in the above clip, addressed the constant criticism of Pakistan. He ultimately defended the military and the ISI, noting,

So, the world must understand, and the world must help Pakistan repair this torn fabric of ours, national fabric, instead of criticizing — why is Pakistan like this, Pakistan is spreading Talibanization. At this moment, we are lucky — the world is lucky — that we have this army and the ISI. Now, instead of weakening them, abusing them, criticizing them, we must strengthen them. Because, if they don’t deliver, who else is going to deliver? It will all fail.

Given the constant surge of negative press on Pakistan, particularly in the Western media, I felt the aforementioned statement made a valid point. We want to bolster morale among our military and police, not dampen it further by damning every offensive before it finishes. Headlines like, “Pakistan is Rapidly Adding Nuclear Arms,” “The Nightmare Scenario,” and the most infamous, “Pakistan: The Most Dangerous,” are in a sense damaging because they entrench perceptions without even delving into the gray area of conflict.

There was one pretty classic line from this clip. When Zakaria asks Musharraf where the $10 billion in U.S. aid went during his administration, Musharraf answered, “Five billion — half of it — is reimbursement for the services provided by Pakistan. It is not your money. It is our money. So, let me say it again. Half of it, $5 billion, is our money. We provided services to you, so you are repaying us.” You tell him, Mushy.

Overall, I thought Musharraf’s interview went pretty well. While many former leaders or opposition members use these segments to voice their criticism of the government, he didn’t. Instead, Musharraf asserted, “I wish the government well, because they are facing a very, very strong challenge of rectifying the economy, first of all, fighting terrorism. And then, over and above, there are political challenges. That makes the situation in Pakistan complex.”

Following the show, I was left pondering the current perceptions of Musharraf. As Zakaria noted, while Zardari‘s current approval rating is just 19 percent, for much of Musharraf‘s presidency, his approval was in the 60 to 70 percent range. Granted, ratings plummeted during the last year of his presidency when Musharraf did everything possible wrong (from the firing of the judges to the state of emergency), but the fact that many Pakistanis approved of him for seven years is still noteworthy. On YouTube, comments related to his Zakaria interview all sang his praises, with users proclaiming, “Long Live Musharraf,” “General Musharraf, Pakistan needs you,” and even, “I love you Sir.”

Now, I am not saying that YouTube comments are necessarily reflective of the broader sentiment, but it does lead me to probe how we will perceive Musharraf’s legacy. Will he forever be tainted by his last year in power, or do the “good years” factor into your opinion? Moreover, does the current government’s policies and the increasingly negative perception of President Zardari put things in perspective? How do you remember the Musharraf years?

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