Posts tagged ‘Pakistan’

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.

All the News that’s Safe to Print

By , 24 June, 2009, 2 Comments

You may have missed it in the hubbub over the journos lost in Iran, but two journalists recently escaped from their kidnappers further east on the AfPak border. The New York Times triumphantly announced that it had covered up the kidnapping of David Rohde and his Afghan colleague for seven months in order to reduce their value to the kidnappers and increase likelihood of their release. Other media outfits quickly owned up to having cooperated in keeping the secret.

The bloggers were quick to jump on the Times with cries of hypocrisy—namely, the paper is supposed to report “all the news that’s fit to print,” meaning all verifiable information of material significance to public debate. Having authoritative, first-hand knowledge that a journalist from a major international title has been kidnapped in a war zone certainly qualifies. Moreover, the Times reports extensively on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or on our government’s homeland security policies–doesn’t that give information to the enemy in the same way the editors claim publishing the Rohde story would have?

It would be possible—and indeed reasonable—to construct a code of professional conduct that drew a line between the ethics of reporting on oneself and the ethics of reporting on the government, but the Times would have to come out and disclose such a code and it would have to be water-tight and consistent with industry norms and standards.

One option would be to define “oneself” as the media writ large: journalists are obligated to report on diplomats and soldiers in danger, but are allowed to protect those who go out to do that reporting. Under this code, all media outlets would be expected to participate in the information blackout, as they did in the Rohde case. But this wouldn’t get the Times off the hook for hypocrisy since they routinely report on lost journalists who work for their rivals. The Times could also get away with a code that allowed them keep secret ONLY their own staffers lost, but that would mean letting other papers do the same. Since the Times asked other papers to help protect ITS staffers, it would be guilty of hypocrisy by this measure of ethics too.

The Times’ hypocrisy, it seems to me, lies not in the way they cover national security but in the way they view their media confreres. David Shuster, are you reading this?

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.

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.