Posts tagged ‘War on Terror’

Zero Dark Thirty: A Review

By , 20 February, 2013, No Comment

Last night, I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I expected to be disappointed, but I did not expect just how much the film would irritate me. Here are the four biggest problems I had:

1. The film is inaccurate.

Despite screenwriter Mark Boal’s promise not to play ‘fast and loose’ with history, there is a lot of sloppiness to his script.

The majority of the film is set in Pakistan, where CIA employees work out the U.S. embassy compound. The protagonist, Maya, drives her own car in and out of this compound, something few women in Pakistan, and no senior officials, do.

When two agents sit down with a prisoner for a meal, he’s served hummus and tabbouleh. This is laughable. Pakistan is not a Middle Eastern country, and no one there is eating hummus, unless they are going to ethnic restaurants.

When CIA operatives masquerade as aid workers offering vaccines to get bin Laden’s DNA, the film misstates the vaccine being offered (it was hepatitis B, not polio) and doesn’t address the consequences of using humanitarian workers as a cover, thereby discrediting NGOs that provide real aid to Pakistanis.

I could go on a long time picking out details like this, but the point is: to anyone who has any firsthand experience of Pakistan or the ‘war on terror’ in South Asia, the movie is highly implausible.

2. The film glorifies torture.

It is no secret that there is a lot of time spent on torture in this film, from the opening water-boarding scene to later segments featuring forced nudity, dog collars, and a grown man confined in a small wooden box.

What makes the film abhorrent, however, is not that it depicts torture – it would have been inaccurate to exclude it entirely. The problem is in the way it is depicted. Maya’s initial discomfort with torture is something she has to overcome, and we are encouraged to view it as part of her personal growth when she does. Later, when President Obama ends the torture program, we are encouraged to see it as a bureaucratic annoyance.

When the White House asks for hard evidence – photos, phone logs or DNA – that the Abbottabad compound houses bin Laden, Maya’s boss replies, “We lost the ability to tell that when we lost the detainee program.” That statement is presented uncritically, with no one in the room challenging it. It summarizes the position of the film on torture, which is that it was central to CIA success.

As people with knowledge of the matter have pointed out, this is a highly inaccurate claim, not least because in a real room of intelligence officers, there would have been more dissent. Yet it would be an immoral claim whether it was accurate or not, because torture is unequivocally wrong even if it can be effective.

3. The film pretends to be journalism.

My biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty, however, isn’t in its Orientalist depiction of Pakistan or its abhorrent justifications of torture. It is the film’s utterly dishonest attempt to cloak these views under the mantle of journalism.

Its opening title, “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events” is a claim to journalistic authority. It’s a much stronger claim than the standard “based on a true story” we’re used to seeing in historical fiction. Presenting it at the start of the film, rather than during the credits, accompanied by audio of real phone calls from the collapsing World Trade Center, is a way of making an explicit plea that we interpret what follows as fact. Director Kathryn Bigelow herself has referred to the film as a ‘reported’ work and an ‘imagistic version of reportage.’

Lots of viewers – the ones who don’t have any expertise on this topic – will take these claims at face value, and thereby walk away with the conviction that all the film’s fictionalizations are factual, that this is a work of journalism. That is wrong.

Bigelow and Boal are retreating behind the argument that art should be weighed against its fealty to a ‘higher truth’ not against political context. I am skeptical of this notion, but it simply doesn’t apply to a work that has been marketed as nonfiction.

4. All art is political.

Even without its pseudo-journalistic framing, the film would still be problematic.

All culture happens in a political context. Art that aims to be ‘neutral’ by simply presenting ‘the way things are’ is still political. When you present political context as ‘the way things are’ as opposed to ‘the way individuals have chosen for things to be’ you are normalizing the prevailing political order, and thereby helping to sustain it.

This film normalizes not only the torture apparatus, but also the validity of spending ten years and billions of dollars on the bin Laden search in the first place. Plenty of reports suggest that the al Qaeda center of gravity long ago moved away from bin Laden to splinter groups elsewhere, or to lone militants radicalized online.

There are good arguments for the significance of catching bin Laden, but the film does not allow its characters to have this debate. The head of the CIA’s operation in Pakistan voices skepticism about Maya’s project. But he is never taken seriously by his peers (or the audience) and is fired from his post in disgrace. The film is on Maya’s side by default, and the audience in my theatre clapped at bin Laden’s death.

Bigelow is a talented director and the film is well made. But she uses the war on terror and claims of historical accuracy as a cheap backdrop for her characters’ stories, refusing to engage in any real way with the moral implications of doing so.

That’s not artistic subversion. It’s disgraceful callousness, and deserves to be called out as such.

Bin Laden Dead: Fallout in Pakistan

By , 2 May, 2011, 1 Comment

A post up at Foreign Exchange on the bin Laden raid and what’s come of it in Pakistan:

In other words, as Pakistan has sunk deeper into the abyss of violence, the country’s political debate has divided on two related questions: how involved are we in America’s war, and does more involvement make us safer or less safe?

The raid on bin Laden’s compound only underscores that debate, and the information emerging so far presents all sides with new ammunition.

Read it all here.

Disappearances in Pakistan

By , 30 December, 2010, 1 Comment

I’m vague and inconclusive over at Foreign Exchange again today, this time in response to an NYT story about disappearances in Pakistan.

I must admit the Times story doesn’t sit easily with my reporting in Pakistan…The Times makes two common foreign policy reporting mistakes–trying to fold an old local dispute largely ignored by the international community into a more recent narrative in which the West has a stake; and glossing over the conflicting interests of diverse factions within Pakistan (the courts, the President, the army). That’s a shame because ultimately, the competing centers of power in Pakistan are a much larger problem for its NATO allies than are these human rights violations, and in desperate need of elucidation.

Read it here.

What McChrystal really said

By , 22 June, 2010, 3 Comments

For several weeks, I have been working on a piece about civil-military relations, but this morning’s news about Stan McChrystal essentially preempts the story I wanted to tell.

In case you’ve missed it, McChrystal agreed to a profile for Rolling Stone, a magazine whose non-arts coverage I usually find to be shrill and unscrupulous. But Michael Hastings, the reporter, did not need stridency to slam McChrystal–the general’s own words, those of his closest aides and advisors, and even of his soldiers, did that for him. In the piece, McChrystal and co. complain about the President’s lack of military knowledge coming into office, about the ‘interfering’ role played by the State Department’s Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, about the outdated thinking of ‘clown’ National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and about the ‘betrayal’ of the military by Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Vice-President Biden, both vocal opponents of McChrystal’s proposed surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the American rank-and-file in Afghanistan tell Hastings the surge isn’t working.
This afternoon, a furious Obama summoned McChrystal to Washington, and the punditocracy is abuzz over whether Obama will sack him.
Read More →

ICapp Exclusive: Sherry Rehman Slams Punjab’s “Total Insanity”

By , 19 June, 2010, 4 Comments

In the wee hours of the morning, I got word that Pakistani politician Sherry Rehman was circulating an op-ed statement against the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and wealthiest province. Think of it as the Midwest (farms, mills, and traditional values) meets New England (history and culture and more tradition). It’s where the army recruits from, where the most federal funds go, and where the tourists want to visit. In other words, it’s the establishment.

Rehman was outraged because Punjab has just decided to give some of those federal budgetary funds to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity considered to be the political arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant organization focused primarily on the ‘liberation’ of Kashmir and its establishment as an Islamic state. Unlike the militant groups in the Western part of Pakistan (who focus on destabilizing Pakistan itself) or those militants exiled in Pakistan due to the US/NATO operations in Afghanistan (who focus on fighting Western forces), L-e-T targets Pakistan’s major rival, and as such, has historically received support from Pakistan’s military elite, and a blind eye from its government.But, says Rehman, direct financial support from civilian leaders is a new step, and a bridge too far. “It’s total insanity,” she shouts, when she speaks to me from her home in Karachi.
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Video: The Phantom Dog

By , 19 January, 2010, No Comment

I’m back on BloggingHeads today, this time talking up my work in Pakistan with Zeke Webster (alias: Don Zeko) of the blog Discord. We cover counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in general, US counterterrorism/counterinsurgency in South Asia, what Pakistan is really thinking, and the rights of South Asian women. Though they just posted this to BHTV, we filmed in mid-December, when I was in Karachi, and before the last wave of attacks in Pakistan and in the U.S. Some of this is outdated, but hopefully it still informs and entertains.

Comment here.

*Title Character is revealed at 10:28, 24:05 and most hilariously, at 42:00.

Keeping Busy

By , 15 January, 2010, No Comment

I really am. Just not at this blog. Here’s what I’ve been up to.

1. Trying to keep up with the latest wave of attacks in Pakistan:

These questions remind us that the Pakistani Taliban does not have its eye on a concrete goal or purpose. Structurally, that makes them a weaker adversary than the Afghan Taliban, who are united behind the goal of an Islamist state in Kabul. But strategically, this paradoxical mix of interests makes the TTP harder to fight. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies have at least been able to define victory as reclaiming Kabul and making it impossible for the Taliban to regain, even if the strategy for doing so leaves much to be desired. If victory is conclusively denying the enemy his goal, what constitutes a Pakistani victory over the TTP?

2. Getting my head around the major security threat to India.

The biggest threat to India’s security thus lies not with those left out, economically, from its growth, but with those disconnected, politically, from its democracy. Most of the people–officials, journalists, professionals, and academics–I’ve spoken to believe the unevenness that matters is not monetary, but geographic: between the central government and various provinces interested in running their own affairs.


These range from the Telangana separatists who wish to split off into their own province to the Maoists who who wish to rule several existing provinces according to cowboy populism, to the North-eastern provinces that demand to leave India altogether. Though these movements recruit followers from the economically down-and-out, their central demand is a political one. It’s the political nature of the movements that makes even their economic claims lethal.


Read both posts in full at Untold Stories.


The Things that Matter

By , 11 December, 2009, No Comment

Third video of the week: my interview with Gallup’s pollster Ijaz Gilani, Part 2, on the economy, terrorism and civil strife.

Read my analysis at Untold Stories.

Why Af-Pak is really just Pak

By , 6 December, 2009, 1 Comment

The latest, cross-posted from my Pulitzer Center blog:

It’s been a big week here in Islamabad. First off, there have two more bomb attacks, one at the naval compound down the street from where I am staying and one out in Pindi, the next town over. Secondly, Barack Obama finally announced his plans for the war in Afghanistan: 30,000 more troops now; phased withdrawal started in 18 months. Thirdly, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani completed a tour of Germany and Britain.

The three incidents shared space on the front pages of the Islamabad dailies and in the national mind. After all, while Americans heard the speech live on Tuesday night (7 am here), most Pakistanis watched it on replay later on Wednesday, and many Pakistanis did not begin responding to the policy until Thursday. Conventional wisdom did not form till the weekend, by which time the capital was also dealing with the bomb blasts and with the developing story in London, where, in a Thursday morning press conference, the PM pushed back against British intelligence reports that some 60% of global terrorist plots emerge from Pakistan.

To most people here, the West is a fair weather friend. While waging a war in Afghanistan that sends militants over the border into the Pakistani frontier, the West complains that Pakistan harbors too many terrorists. While insisting that Pakistan both aid that war effort and crackdown on its consequences, America announces that when Afghanistan—and just Afghanistan—is secure, it will pack up its bags and leave. This imbalance certainly anger those who have a knee jerk opposition to the United States or paranoia about American-Indian conspiracies. But the most passionate criticism of this policy has come from elite liberals who have supported and defended the Afghan war and feel, to put it simply, betrayed.

Continue reading “Pakistan: Why Af-Pak is really just Pak” »

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.