Archive for November, 2009

Mushy Joins Facebook

As social media terms increasingly become part of the vernacular (“unfriend,” the act of deleting a person from one’s list of acquaintances on Facebook, was  even named the New Oxford American Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’), some of Pakistan’s big names are cashing in. Last month, former President Pervez Musharraf set up his very own Facebook page, so far garnering (by my last login) 33,277 fans. To further affirm the officialdom of his page, Mushy <insert PR team> even uploaded a video, discussing his motivations behind joining said Facebook. He said, “I’ve seen with all my interactions, particularly with the youth…that [they] are extremely concerned and disturbed with what is happening in Pakistan…and what is the future of Pakistan…this got me thinking how I could contribute my bit to quench their thirst.”

I have long been intrigued by the social media phenomenon, and the real versus imagined benefit they bring, [see related piece for Dawn]. Facebook currently boasts more than 300 million active users with about 70% located outside the United States. In Pakistan, it is one of the most popular social networking websites and, as of October 16, 2009, there were approximately 1,094,040 active users. Although this number is relatively high, these users constitute a small percentage of Pakistan’s population – namely those who are literate, speak English (to varying degrees) and own/use computers. Moreover, the transnational nature of these online mediums mean that websites like Facebook can also act as a bridge, bringing Pakistanis (or people of Pakistani origin) living abroad into the same forum as Pakistanis living in the country, fostering an interesting “supranational” dynamic.

This demographic appears to be Musharraf’s target audience on Facebook, who are now part of a far more “democratic” dialogue than many were afforded under his emergency rule. While I laud efforts that allow Pakistanis better access to current and former leaders, I also question their purpose. What is the logic behind initiating this dialogue now and what tangible purpose does it serve, particularly since those who use Facebook are not necessarily the same people who turn up at the polls?

It could be that Musharraf is just trying to remain relevant, and he is attempting to do so by engaging young Pakistanis at home and abroad. While memories of his last year in power are arguably still fresh, the cyclical nature of Pakistan’s politicians does allow for constant rebranding and reinvention.

In fact, RehmanMalik.com could stand to take a few pointers from said PR exercise – especially since “a welcome massage” may not be welcomed by all. No indeed.

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Bringing Hajj Home

Boston Globe/Getty: Muslim pilgrims performing Tawaf around the Kaba

On behalf of CHUP, I wanted to wish all of you Eid Mubarak (belated for those who celebrated it on Friday)! Known as the “Greater Eid,” Eid ul-Adha occurs a day after Muslim pilgrims descend from Mount Arafat during the annual pilgrimage of Hajj. Below, is a version of the piece I wrote on the spirituality of the journey that was published in the Washington Post‘s On Faith column Friday:

From Nov. 25 to Nov. 29, up to three million Muslims from around the world will gather to perform the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The journey is the fifth pillar of Islam; all Muslims who can afford to travel to perform it must complete it at least once in their lifetime.

The hajj is the journey of the individual, within and without, amid the collective. It is about sacrificing human comforts to achieve a higher, spiritual closeness with God and create a strong bond with fellow human beings. The impact of the hajj runs deep, affecting the way participants (hajjis) see the world. In a 2008 study of Pakistani pilgrims called “Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering,” the authors found that performing the hajj “increases pilgrims’ desire for peace and tolerance toward others,” both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Purity and peace are central to the pilgrimage. According to Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani columnist for The News who performed the hajj last year, the ihram was a fascinating part of the journey. Ihram is both a physical and mental state of purity, and is outwardly expressed by wearing special white robes. “In ihram, you cannot lose your temper or do anything that would disturb your own peace, or the peace of anyone around you,” he said.

All Muslim men must wear the same clothing to enter into this state: two sheets of plain white, unhemmed cotton; Muslim women must be dressed modestly, covering their bodies and heads but keeping their faces uncovered. The attire signifies equality among all pilgrims in the eyes of God, eliminating differences based on class, sect, ethnicity and nationality – prejudices that too often cloud our judgment in the world beyond the hajj.

“Hajj is probably the strongest equalizer that I’d ever participated in,” said Shirin Elkoshairi, an Egyptian-American consultant based in Virginia, who performed it in 2004. The hajj, he said, “deeply imprinted a sense of being connected to many different ethnicities, nationalities, languages, cultures and experiences.”

This sense of spiritual clarity and unity feeds into the culmination of the hajj, known as the Day of Arafat. On the dawn of this day, Muslims make their way to Mount Arafat and Plain Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon some 1400 years ago, and where it is believed all will gather on the Day of Judgment. During the sermon, he emphasized the importance of tolerance and unity, saying, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab… except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”

In light of this spirit, Muslim pilgrims come together this day to pray and seek repentance. For many, it is their most humbling and cleansing experience. Shaza Haq from Rawalpindi, Pakistan, has performed Hajj several times with her husband Ijaz Ul-Haq, the former Pakistani minister for religious and minority affairs. She reflected, “When I reached Arafat, there were millions of people there, but there was still a feeling of being alone, with just God there.”

During the hajj, spiritual clarity is an individual experience, but is also mirrored in the journey of all pilgrims – a reflection on how ideas of personal accountability, tolerance, and humility are universal qualities of Islam. Often, however, many of these lessons can be forgotten once the ihram is no longer present and pilgrims resume their daily lives, as some who have returned have noted.

In a world burdened with violence and intolerance, it is important to harness lessons from the hajj to tackle these issues and foster greater mutual respect among Muslims as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. Networks of hajjis should be developed to sustain the sentiment of tolerance and equality brought forth by the hajj, especially in light of the aforementioned study’s finding that pilgrims are 22 percent more likely to say that people of different religions are equal. Hajjis should help educate others who were not part of the journey and act as leaders within their own communities, thereby bringing the journey home.

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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/Getty: The Taj Hotel on fire on Nov 26 2008

As the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks fast approaches, we have been inundated with op-eds, analysis, and statements – mostly centered on the impact of 26/11 on Indo-Pak relations and the status of Lashkar-e-Taiba today. The attacks on November 26, 2008, when 10 gunmen armed with assault rifles and explosives besieged the city of Mumbai for 60 hours, killing 170 people and wounding 300 others, may not have been India’s deadliest incident, but it did change “the world’s understanding of terrorism in India as real-time television footage streamed into American and European living rooms,” noted Georgetown University’s Christine Fair. In an op-ed in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, she added, “It catalyzed discussions in Washington and Delhi about Lashkar-e-Taiba and the danger that group and its fellow travelers pose not just to India but to other countries.”

During his state visit to Washington, Indian PM Manmohan Singh maintained past rhetoric when he asserted that Islamabad had not done enough against the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks. He told reporters, “We have been the victims of Pakistan-aided, -abetted and-inspired terrorism for nearly 25 years. We would like the United States to use all its influence with Pakistan to desist from that path. Pakistan has nothing to fear from India. It’s a tragedy that Pakistan has come to the point of using terror as an instrument of state policy.”

The recent arrests of two men in Chicago with alleged ties to Lashkar only further confirm suspicions of the militant group’s growing reach and influence, and how it has increasingly become a transnational threat. According to Reuters, “David Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana were arrested last month and accused of plotting an attack on Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which ran cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in 2005.” According to court documents, the two men allegedly “discussed their plans with members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Al-Qaeda linked Pakistan-based militant Ilyas Kashmiri,” labeled the fourth most wanted terrorist by Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. Reuters added, “Lashkar also talked to them  [Headley and Rana] about possible attacks in India and suggested these should be given priority over the alleged plot in Denmark.”

Last Thursday, HBO premiered a very timely and significant film entitled, Terror in Mumbai. Narrated by Newsweek and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, The documentary chronicles the time period the ten LeT gunmen attacked Mumbai, using interviews with police, survivors, tapped phone calls between the men and their commanders in Pakistan, and footage of the captured gunmen, Mohammed Ajmal Kasab‘s confession. The film offers incredible insight into the group, the psychology of these young gunmen, and their relationship with senior figures within the organization. Here are a few of my own observations:

The Mumbai gunmen were young boys from rural Pakistan with very little exposure to the outside world. Perhaps the most chilling clips of Terror in Mumbai featured the the tapped conversations between the gunmen and their “controller,”a man by the name of Brother Wasi, allegedly based in Pakistan. According to the film, Indian undercover agents had reportedly fed 35 SIM cards to the LeT. After the beginning of the attacks on Mumbai’s Leopold’s Cafe and CST Railway Station, police began combing cell phone frequencies, and learned that three of the aforementioned SIM cards had been activated. During a very telling clip, the controller was speaking to the gunmen, urging them to set fire to the Taj Hotel. Overwhelmed by the opulence of their surroundings, the gunman said over the phone, “There are computers here with high-tech screens! It’s amazing. The windows are huge! It’s got two kitchens, a bath, and a little shop.” The controller reminded him, “Start the fire, my brother. Start a proper fire. That’s the important thing.”

The psychology of these young gunmen is fascinating, particularly since they had reportedly been indoctrinated over the course of three months, when they undertook their “training.” During this time, they went from being impressionable young boys to hardened militants. Although this is a relatively short amount of time, Reuel Marc Gerecht from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies told Zakaria on his CNN GPS show, “Once you’ve sort of got the imbibed the idea of jihadism, once you’ve imbibed the idea that you can…more or less exile people from a moral universe that you live in, it’s not that difficult… to get young men to kill.” In the film, one witness at the CST Railway Station noted the gunmen “showed no fear or horror. They were like children firing toy guns…killing whoever they chose.”

In a clip where Kasab was being interrogated, he revealed that recruits during their training were “forbidden to speak to one another,” thereby furthering their isolation and strengthening the hold of commanders over these young men. At the end of their training, their commanders told them, “Guys, the time has come for your test…now we’ll know who’s for real.” When asked if he felt pity for the people they gunned down, Kasab hesitated before answering, “I did but he [the controller] said you have to do these things, if you’re going to be a big man and go to Heaven.”

Terrorism has increasingly become transnational and remote. One of the most striking parts of Terror in Mumbai was the ability of a single controller to keep not only a firm grasp on the situation, but also on the gunmen. Brother Wasi was in constant contact with the young men, who continuously updated him on their whereabouts and the overall situation. Moreover, Wasi was closely monitoring news channels’ coverage of the Mumbai attacks, allowing him further insight into the on the ground reality, or at least how media outlets were portraying them. This access allowed Brother Wasi to subsequently direct the gunmen to methods of garnering further media attention. Speaking to a gunman in the Taj Hotel, Brother Wasi said, “My brother, yours is the most important target…the media is covering it more than any other.” On his CNN show GPS, Zakaria further commented, “Brother Wasi, the remote controller of the terrorists, understands that in this day in age unless it is seen on TV around the world it has not happened.”

Now almost one year later, Terror in Mumbai is a chilling reminder of the attacks as well as the organization of the Lashkar e Taiba. Since the attacks, the Indian government has presented Pakistan with seven dossiers of evidence. However, they have all been met with Interior Minister Rehman Malik‘s demands for more information. As a result, relations between New Delhi and Islamabad remain strained. Given the current status quo and the widening trust deficit, what will it take to change the stagnant relations between India and Pakistan? In terms of the post-Mumbai investigations, which side will have to give to ensure progress?

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A month ago, the Pakistani military began its long-awaited ground offensive into South Waziristan to defeat the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Nearly two weeks ago, Pakistani forces took Sararogha, the reported militants’ capital. On Tuesday, they “escorted” several Western journalists on a restricted tour of the area. According to the NY Times, “militants appear to have been dispersed, not eliminated, with most simply fleeing.” The tour reads similar to a class show-and-tell, with Army officers eager to portray the recent successes as tangible proof that the offensive was running smoothly. Officials displayed piles of items they had seized, “including weapons, bombs, photos and even a long, curly wig.”  Al Jazeera also noted that journalists were shown “purported Taliban pamphlets, including one on making bombs, captured ammunition and weapons, and pouched vests that suicide bombers pack with explosives.”

Commander Brig. Muhammed Shafiq told reporters, “It all started from here. This is the most important town in South Waziristan.” The Washington Post, in its coverage, reported,

Once in Sararogha, they [Army] found ample evidence of a Taliban mini-state. A school had been turned into a militia training center and courthouse, with classes in how to manufacture improvised explosives and formal hearings on local disputes. Directives on Taliban letterhead, left scattered in empty rooms, ordered certain mullahs to be given weapons and decreed that no marriage dowry should cost more than $900.

According to Shafiq,  the Army faced “stiff resistance” trying to take over Sararogha, which they first attacked by air before sending in ground forces. After facing rocket attacks and artillery from militants in the surrounding hills, the military finally prevailed after a five-day battle, capturing the town. According to military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military has reportedly taken 50 percent of Mehsud territory, “including most major towns and roads.” Abbas noted the Army “would soon begin to press into villages where militants were hiding.” Brig. Farrukh Jamal, at nearby Laddha, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying, “They are hiding in caves and we will capture them soon or kill them.” [As expected, a Taliban spokesman who spoke to Dawn Wednesday denied the military’s claim, saying they had merely vacated the area and would retake it later.]

As always, these successes are tainted by the underlying truth – that this war is not going to be over any time soon.  In the COIN mantra of clear, hold, and build, clearing has never been the Pakistani Army’s problem – it’s been how to hold onto these areas and ensure the Taliban does not return in their absence. The NY Times quoted Talat Masood, who asserted, “Are they really winning the people — this is the big question. They have weakened the Taliban tactically, but have they really won the area if the people are not with them?” In the case of Sararogha, the 10,000 person town was completely deserted, meaning there were essentially no people to win over. Moreover, given the lack of services provided to the displaced families from the area, it may be hard for the people to trust anyone upon their return, let alone the state. Also, noted the Times, “Finding a reliable local partner will be difficult,” given that militants “have altered its social structure, killing hundreds of tribal elders and making it hard for the military to negotiate.”

In the meantime, terrorist attacks continue to strike the rest of the country, particularly Peshawar, which has been heavily hit in the past few weeks. A suicide attack outside a judicial complex on Thursday killed 16 people and wounded 36, reported Dawn News.

On a lighter note, the NY Times At War blog posted some really interesting photos reportedly confiscated from homes during the offensive. Taken with “inexpensive automatic cameras,” the photos almost seem like a Taliban-esque fashion show, with militants brandishing rocket launchers with avant garde abandon. Without further ado, I give you Taliban Fashion Week:

NYT: Mehsy (left) sports the latest Tartan style, while Mehsy (right) displays his new kicks.

NYT: These fellows are sporting the latest Taliban headgear fashion! Aren't they just darling?

NYT: You're a lion! A lion! Roar at the camera! Roar!

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"Stupid Jadoogar. I'll Expecto Patronus him one day."

"Stupid Jadoogar. I'll Expecto Patronum him one of these days."

Forbes magazine just released their “World’s Most Powerful People” list, and guess what – Pakistan PM Yousaf Raza Gilani, our very own political magician, made the cut. Ranked at #38 (out of 67), one slot behind Osama bin Laden and two behind Indian PM Manmohan Singh, Forbes wrote,

Less powerful than bin Laden—can’t find him in his own country. Oversees Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, ceded responsibility for tracking down terrorists to military. Busy fending off Obama, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, deposed militant groups. A little defensive? ‘We want stability in the region. We ourselves are a victim of terrorism and extremism.’ Still has keys to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

What Forbes fails to factor in is how well Gilani manages to fend off such forces, or whether it is he we should credit for being able to manage it all in the first place. If the Taliban, Al Qaeda and deposed militant groups are the topics du jour, than shouldn’t Gen. Ashfaq Kayani – the man commanding Pakistan’s armed forces – have made the cut? Moreover, it could be argued that President Asif Ali Zardari is really the “human pinata” who takes beatings from all sides, as evidenced by the recent letter sent by President Obama to his Pakistani counterpart. In the letter, delivered by national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones, Obama said “he expected Mr. Zardari to rally the nation’s political and national security institutions in a united campaign against extremists threatening Pakistan and Afghanistan.” Failing to do so, noted the NY Times, “would undercut the new strategy and troop increase for Afghanistan” he is preparing to approve.

In a recently released article infused with the byline, “Zardari Attempting to Fend off Maneuvers by Military, Intelligence,” MSNBC discusses the fate of Zardari, “who is engaged in seemingly never-ending battles with the country’s powerful military and intelligence establishments.” It seems that as Zardari is increasingly buried under heaps of criticism, political stand-offs, and scandals, [French submarines, anyone?], his Prime Minister – henceforth known as Jadoogar (“magician”) Gilani is sitting pretty, relatively unscathed, and now a member of the Forbes fraternity. How do you like them apples? As Nadir Hassan over at Newsline noted, this isn’t entirely undeserving, given that Gilani has won some political victories. Moreover, he wrote, “Gilani’s power has increased as Zardari has alienated more and more Pakistanis. Fairly or not, Gilani is seen as a counterpoint to Zardari which has allowed him to oppose the president as the country turns against him.”

If I were the Pakistani establishment, I would take the Forbes rankings with a grain of salt, especially considering that Osama bin Laden somehow snagged the 37th spot and Oprah Winfrey is ranked all the way up at #45, [she gives cars to her audience and threw her weight behind Barack Obama, for God’s sake!] Another curious and bizarre decision? Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, India’s most wanted man, is apparently the 50th most powerful person in the world. The Forbes reasoning further solidifies why these rankings should be laughed at rather than taken seriously – “Rumor has it he’s hiding out in Pakistan, protected by appearance-altering plastic surgery as well as friends in the Pakistani intelligence community.”

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Picture 1

Ali Azmat Music Video: Kalashnifolk

Adam Ellick, a fantastic video journalist, has covered a wide range of topics related to Pakistan – from the issue of Swat to the sex toy industry to the issue of drug-resistant tuberculosis in Karachi. Yesterday, the NY Times released another video report entitled, “Tuning Out the Taliban,” in which Ellick discusses why Pakistan’s music stars have yet to sing out against the Taliban, despite journalists, playwrights, and even moderate Islamic clerics condemning the militant organization. In his accompanying blog post, Ellick wrote,

…in a nation where the West is often the villain, television stations and big businesses have little economic or political incentive to put their name on a musician with an anti-Taliban platform.The result is a surge of bubble-gum stars who have become increasingly politicized. Some are churning out ambiguous, cheery lyrics urging their young fans to act against the nation’s woes. Others simply vilify the United States.

The brothers behind the rock band Noori, told Ellick, “First of all, it is the West that is against the Taliban because it is very heavily affected by it…we are not.” Such a statement is ironic given how many Pakistanis have been impacted by the continuous bombings and violence in the country. In fact, more than 200 girls’ schools have been destroyed by Taliban-perpetrated bombings. When probed on the bombing of girls’ schools, musician Ali Azmat came up with an answer that was frankly disgusting: “You cannot blame the Taliban for that, where do you think the funding is coming from…it’s the agenda of the neocons to de-Islamicize Pakistan…”

Ellick’s video is interesting because it raises some important points. First, as role models for the country’s younger generation, do musicians have a responsibility to come out against the Taliban? We have seen the power of celebrity elsewhere in the world, with stars like Bono raising awareness about AIDS or Angelina Jolie acting as the UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. Whether or not Pakistani musicians care to accept it, their messages have a profound impact on the youth of the country. Columnist Fasi Zaka said in the video, “When they don’t think the Taliban is the problem, the reason is because they’re convinced that we Pakistanis could never be like that, that we’re peaceful people, and that it must be the Indians, Americans, Israelis. If that’s being mimicked by pop stars then that’s a significant problem because it’s reinforcing the wrong view.”

Zaka’s statement raises my second point regarding the power of celebrity in Pakistan. The songs and themes released by these musicians are not just a reflection of their own personal views, they are a reflection of public opinion as a whole. According to a recently administered poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan [via the Zeitgeist Politics], while 51% of those surveyed in the country support the military’s offensive in South Waziristan, most still do not believe it is only Pakistan’s problem. Instead, when asked whether the war was in the American interest, the Pakistani interest, or both, 39% still view the operation as America’s war.

Given the increasingly high anti-American sentiment in the country – a phenomenon exacerbated by U.S. drone strikes in the region – such views may be misguided but they are not surprising. The problem occurs, though, when Pakistani music stars link this sentiment to conspiracies in their songs. In the Azmat song, Klashinfolk, the singer “omits a stream of anti-Western conspiracy theories.” He told Ellick, “We know for a fact that all this turbulation in Pakistan is not us, it’s an outside hand.” Columnist Nadim Paracha asserted, “You talk to a musician over here, you say whats the problem, he won’t come up with a fantastic insightful answer for you…he’ll come up with the most rhetorical, most cliched crap.”

I am attaching Ellick’s report below, and I’ll leave you with one question, “At a time when the very state of Pakistan is under threat, is it the responsibility of all citizens – especially celebrities – to speak out against the Taliban, even if it means putting their own lives at risk?”

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