Archive for ‘South Asia’

Lessons from Strange Places

By , 27 November, 2009, No Comment

This week, I’ve been reporting on the violence in Pakistan’s Baloch province, and I’ve picked up on some fascinating insights that I think have relevance to American thinking about our strategy in Afghanistan–namely, the relative merits of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency:

When Americans hear about violence in Pakistan, they think mostly of the Taliban or of jihadis on the Kashmir border. But the single greatest threat to Pakistan right now is a third insurgency: of ethnic separatists in the Baloch province, who have been pushing for secession for years.

This week, the embattled government announced its proposal for a settlement with Balochistan…As often happens with peace offerings, the federal government’s proposal pleases no one…

Read the full post at Untold Stories.

Live with Talat

By , 25 November, 2009, 4 Comments


As I’ve written previously, one of the joys of being an American abroad is the experience of encountering fellow expats: overwhelmed by our minority status, we tend to band together and overcome geographic or class barriers that divide us at home. There’s a similar experience I’m having as a journalist abroad in a country that is notoriously unsafe for journalists. At home, different publications compete for scoops; here, I’ve had correspondents from rival American papers and local media fall over themselves to hand over their sources and their leads. In no instance has that humbled me more than in the case of Talat Hussain, a local TV host whose program I’ve been watching on our home satellite subscription in New York for ages. In addition to giving me advice on my stories, he generously allowed me to sit in on a taping of his show. Here’s the episode I saw:

Musharraf’s Revenge

By , 21 November, 2009, 2 Comments

Blogging from Islamabad has been delayed this week because, as perhaps I should have anticipated, I picked up a tummy bug soon after arrival that more or less incapacitated me for 48 hours and derailed my reporting. In my defense, it was in pursuit of a scoop that I allowed myself to persuaded into eating out with a source despite knowing that it’s best to stick to home-cooked meals here. [Then again, I ate at this lovely cafe today and seem to be doing just fine.] Ever the wit, my mother has diagnosed the whole business Musharraf’s Revenge.

One upside to the whole thing: I spoke to two doctors here, one with the government who happily proscribed a number of fancy Western antibiotics and one in private practice who proscribed a strict diet of green tea. There’s a nugget of cultural learning in there somewhere, I think.

In any case, the first week has been mostly devoted to getting the lay of the land and boning up on current policy debates. The major kerfuffle at the moment seems to be an internecine media squabble over a controversial piece in a right-leaning newspaper. Here’s my take, cross-posted from the Pulitzer Center’s Untold Stories:

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Can You Wish Yourself Bon Voyage?

By , 15 November, 2009, 1 Comment

When I started this blog, I had high ambitions of posting once a day, which soon became every other day, which soon became once in 4 days, and sometimes even once a week. But this is the first time I have gone two weeks without an update. Apologies.

I do have an excuse. I’m embarking on a four-month quest across South Asia, reporting on the intersection of economics and security; on the role that development, infrastructure, natural resources and trade currently play in the region’s instability and the role that they could play in stabilization.

I’m traveling courtesy of the folks at the Pulitzer Center, and relying on the kindness of family and friends for places to sleep and eat. I’ll be blogging for the Center’s site (and cross-posting here), and publishing the fruits of my more detailed reporting to Forbes and Newsweek. This combination—nonprofit grant, out-of-pocket expenses, handouts from friends, and freelancers’ fees—is a telling window into the economics of the new journalism. My budget says I’ll JUST break even, so it’s unclear whether there’s a business model in international reporting done this way, or whether this method can ever replace what we’ve lost with the collapse of the bureau system. Still, for the moment, reporting great stories without LOSING money suits me just fine—it’s sure to be an incredible ride.

Though I’ll be cross-posting my future items to both this page and my Pulitzer Center page, my first post is already up on the Center’s website, and I urge you to check it out.

What To Do In Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2009, 1 Comment

As the war in Pakistan rages, there have been many pundits offering ways forward. Each of them gets us halfway to a solution, but in the end, none of them has an adequate plan. In this rather long post (advance apologies), I’ll try to cobble together the best of each school.


To begin with, let me summarize the situation. In Afghanistan, groups with Iranian/Persian roots make up almost 80% of the population, with the others each having 2% or 5% shares. The ethnic power balance is clear. It’s governed, ineptly, by an unpopular U.S. puppet and being challenged/revolted against by a more popular insurgency of tribal leaders, i.e. the erstwhile Taliban government. Over the years, many of those leaders have moved over the border into western Pakistan. In Pakistan, the ethnic situation is more complex, with all the major provinces corresponding, roughly, to a different ethnic group and language. In the area bordering Afghanistan, the majority of the population belongs to the same ethnic group–the Pashtuns–who dominate Afghanistan. Indeed, many in the 1940s thought that region should have been part of Afghanistan anyway. Instead, Pakistan negotiated for the territory but agreed to give the Pashtuns there some semi-autonomy, continuing the borders laid out by the Brits in the 1890s. So over the years, as the Taliban and other Pashtun refugees have come over the border, they have some semi-autonomy when it came to organizing and recruiting: the result is a copycat movement, the Pakistan-Taliban, affiliated but not officially tied to the guys we are fighting in Kabul.

For many years, Pakistan hands and Pakistani political elites assumed that the unofficial alliance meant that any radicals trained in this lawless border region had their eye on Kabul anyway. So long as their enemies were Russians or Americans in Afghanistan, Islamabad did not care. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s military/intelligence units were quite happy to have these radicals training in their backyard in the hope of turning some of them east to fight India. It never occurred to authorities, or they chose to block out the possibility, that the Pakistan-Taliban was also a class movement of the disenfranchised and downtrodden who would turn on social elites in Islamabad directly. Instead, they insisted that if the US had not bungled the first and second Afghan wars (which we did), there would be no Pakistan-Taliban, and that if the US withdrew, the Pakistan-Taliban would just go back to being harmless country bumpkins that Islamabad could ignore. What Pakistani elites have learned, the hard way, these last few years is that the Pakistan-Taliban have it out for them too, that this is not just America’s war but Pakistan’s war too. So long as vast class inequities and social injustices exist, not only in the tribal regions but across the country, the Pakistan-Taliban will be able to expand eastwards.

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The Press Does Matter

By , 6 April, 2009, 1 Comment

To all those who scoff at the notion of the press as a social institution that is something more than the sum of its participants, witness the controversy over the recent move by the Pakistani government to free the judges shackled by President Musharraf two years ago. I’ve blogged about the civil rights issues in Pakistan before and written about them elsewhere, but today, I spoke with Ayesha Tammy Haq, host of a business show there, about the media’s promotion of and even active involvement in the lawyers’ movement.


On one level, the Pakistani experience gives credence to claims that citizen-media can adequately discharge the civil-society-strengthening duties of a Fourth Estate. On another level, as Haq pointed out in our conversation, journo-activism has yet to function over any long period of time–it’s quite effective when marshaled to some political cause, speaking truth to power on behalf of the public, but what becomes of the activist bloggers once their chosen candidate is in office? How effective and/or credible can they be as outside critics or interpreters who decipher power for the public if they helped bring that power into being?

Finally, it’s worth noting that professional journalists, citizen-activists and the lawyers themselves argued that a restored judiciary would protect the free press. That’s the paradox that always rankles me when it comes to citizen-journalism. While their methods threaten the idea of “the Press” as a semi-independent profession, the citizen-journalists almost always claim there is.

Journalism and Democracy

By , 29 December, 2008, No Comment

Fear not, cyberfriends. I have surfaced from Christmas-induced hibernation with many cultural reflections to throw at you before ’08 fades into ’09. To start with, this belated announcement:

Najaam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times–has recently won the Golden Pen journo award, meant for reporters and editors who use their pulpit to promote and support free institutions and good governance.

Sethi has done much of that in his career, notably going to jail in 1999 for his criticisms of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He’s taken plenty of flack from the religious right for his hard line on terrorism. And though an initial supporter of General Musharraf as an antidote to both the corruption and the growing fundamentalism of the Sharif era, he was among the harder hitters when time came to expose Musharraf for the fraud he was. In a country where the press has historically not been free, Sethi certainly deserves recognition.

But it’s not a cut-and-dry case. First of all, Sethi’s more recent work in defense of the free press came at a time when Pakistani media in general was rising to new levels of bravery in response to new levels of suppression, especially after the imposition of martial law last November. Watch Kiran Khalid’s excellent documentary on this struggle and you’ll realize that Sethi has been honored to recognize, symbolically, the long way that Pakistani journalists, as a group, have come.

At the same time, Pakistani media has a long way to go. The most striking thing about the way Sethi’s own paper covered the award is the power given to the government to determine the interpretation. The story was titled “Award for Najam Sethi an honor for Pakistan.” The article focused on Minister of Information Sherry Rehman’s remarks following the Golden Pen announcement, where she presented his work as protecting the government from “regressive elements.” Given that the prize was given in part to honor Sethi’s “independence” and his willingness to be “at odds with Pakistani authorities,” this warm fuzzy treatment from the government, and the appropriation of that warm fuzziness by the press, is a bit uneasy.

It has me worrying that the zeal among Pakistani journos to really crusade for press freedom was particular to the struggle against Musharraf, but the check of public opinion on authority matters just as much, if not more, in democracies as in dictatorships: in democracies, exposing official sins has a clear impact of changing voter behavior. I hope Sethi and company know this.

Kudos to CNN on Bombay coverage

By , 26 November, 2008, 3 Comments

I don’t have the answers to how and why this happened, but being a media junkie, I do have some reflections on the way it was covered for audiences here in the States.

After an election season where I thought they did an innovative job, MSNBC completely failed today. Granted, they’re not an international network so they don’t have an army of correspondents to call on. But still, in the few segments I saw, I didn’t get the sense they were even trying to make heads or tails of the situation. Instead, what we got was some panel discussions about how a terror attack might be read as a test of Barack Obama as President-elect. I flicked to Fox for a split second; they were debating the same question, but the concern was about the strength terrorists might gather in the interregnum before January 20th. Never mind that none of this makes sense given when it’s Bombay, not Baghdad; at 4:30 EST, when people around the world are still trying to get the basic who-what-when of casualties and injuries, the U.S. political ramifications are manifestly NOT the story.

Meanwhile CNN rose to the challenge. They have the institutional advantage of bureaus and affiliates everywhere that can feed them live footage and photography, and they’ve been ahead of the curve in using the internet to get similar footage from citizen-journalists. [I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that this is the way citizen-media is likely to achieve its potential: by presenting itself as a resource to the established media and capitalizing on the establishment’s brand and reach; not by taking down the big names.]

Moreover, CNN showed today they had mastered the 21st century version of established expertise: today’s expert is not a news anchor, a la Cronkite, telling us what to think; it’s an individual professional, a reporter, interpreting the facts on air, thinking outloud. And there aren’t yet enough citizen-bloggers who’ve been reporting on conflict for 20+ years who can think aloud at the level of CNN’s best.

Allow me to explain: there was a moment when Miles O’Brien was getting confused about who the splinter group claiming responsibility for the attack is (poor thing, he’s just the substitute anchor in for Wolf Blitzer this week and he certainly hadn’t planned on covering a big story after markets closed on a holiday eve). It’s someone named Dekkan Mujahideen and until this morning, no one had heard of them, but as every analyst remarked, they have obviously been at this long enough, given that they launched a coordinated, multisite attack and somehow infiltrated official facilities to get access to a police van and uniforms.

Anyway, O’Brien kept trying to do the old-style anchor thing (where you give the viewer a clear worldview) by painting the level of coordination as a sign that this was al-Qaeda-esque. He had 5 sources on at once and wanted each of them to be his ‘yes’-men in promulgating that view. The reality, however, is that the reporters are the real experts and the silver stroke came when Barbara Starr, who’s been covering the Pentagon and US national security for a zillion years, changed the subject in the middle of O’Brien’s chat with her to tell him, by the way, that this al-Qaeda link was messy. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, she said (I paraphrase), al-Qaeda uses suicide attacks and bombs, not hand grenades and hostage-takings. This, she said, smacks more of the domestic kidnapping economy that has plagued developing countries for decades, now mixed with the ideology of militant fundamentalism, and that’s how officials will likely tackle the case. The FBI correspondent agreed, explaining to O’Brien that U.S. agents will do everything they can to offer support, but that we should (as MSNBC failed to) recognize that not every news story is an American one first. To his credit, O’Brien got the message and spent the next half-hour trying to understand domestic Indian conflicts and what the parameters of international jurisdiction are in such cases.

Finally, the whole team at CNN gets brownie points for recognizing that in crisis moments, the first role of journalists is to inform the public with news they can use. Zain Verjee kept reminding us that the State Department is running a hotline to help Americans get in touch with relatives who might have been staying at the Oberoi and Taj hotels. O’Brien kept apologizing for the time lag on the video feed, “it’s not live, but it’s as live as we can get,” and even for his own ignorance. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but you really got the sense these guys were trying to be public servants. On Thanksgiving Eve, I owe them a little gratitude.

Dumb as we wanna be

By , 24 July, 2008, No Comment

Tom Friedman has a line about US energy policy—“dumb as we wanna be.” I’d like to apply the same to our policies in Pakistan. Right now, we’re pummeling billions into the Pakistani military to help us fight insurgent Taliban sympathizers on the Pak-Afghan border. This is a good cause, but giving a blank check and big arms shipments to the army, then waiting for them to do the right thing is a bad methodology.

First of all, as the NY Times reports, there’s no guarantee that the funds go towards counterterrorism. Secondly, by helping to expand the power of the military at the expense of civilian leadership, we undermine the progress of the rule of law. That’s been the case throughout the Musharraf years, but it’s even more so now when there’s a new democratic government who campaigned as an alternative to Mush. Thirdly, by encouraging the country to focus so myopically on its military, we feed the fire of a ballooning deficit and stalled economic development.

In the end, this “counter-terror” policy of ours promotes dictators over democratic leaders, martial law over constitutionalism and wasteful government spending over economic growth. But it’s when young people have no economic opportunities and no voice in government or in the law to appeal for change that they turn to radical alternatives like terror in the first place.

As Dumb As We Wanna Be.

Vote for Ahsan at FP.com

By , 3 June, 2008, No Comment

Foreign Policy magazine is having a contest for the top 100 public intellectuals, and a personal hero of mine is on their list of candidates. Aitzaz Ahsan, a lawyer and political activist in Pakistan, is responsible for bringing down Musharraf’s party in February and restoring the Chief Justice that Mush tried to sack last year. Now he’s crusading to get all the judges restored and give the judiciary back its full rights. Over the course of his career, he’s suffered house arrest and all forms of physical and mental abuse and the least I can do to express my admiration and my gratitude to him as a fighter for democracy is this little bit of virtual electioneering.

For a truly awesome profile of Ashan, read James Traub’s piece in this weekend’s NYTimes magazine.

For some inspirational political poetry, see Ahsan’s video on YouTube!
To vote for him in the contest, visit ForeignPolicy.com.