Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Darkening Horizon

A perfect storm is brewing in Pakistan, a storm that will have regional and international implications of great consequence. In the immediate, Pakistanis themselves suffer. The war in Afghanistan has not abated, despite 9 years of fighting. In fact, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have become a particularly dangerous battleground for a war that has now spread into Pakistani territory and threatens a fragile civilian establishment. The Obama administration continues to pursue a policy of measured response to insurgents within Pakistani territory, relying principally on unmanned drones to conduct raids in the tribal regions. However, there are few within Pakistan’s security apparatus that could rightfully deny the presence of US military assets operating from within Pakistan’s borders, fueling deep mistrust and resentment of the rulers in Islamabad. Rather than containing the Taliban to their homeland in the southern provinces of Afghanistan, a new front rages in the FATA that now threatens Pakistani stability. By and large, there has been a concession by the Pakistani security establishment that its long-held strategy of covert support for Islamist groups (including the Taliban) has backfired. The basically institutional view that Islamist proxies could be used by the ISI to exert influence in Afghanistan and thus provide a counter to Indian influence and strength has collapsed.

The floods in Pakistani defy description. The sheer scale (an area the size of England affected) of the tragedy must give us pause. The international community has pledged aid, and this will likely provide a modicum of relief. However, as is so often the case, those affected by this tragedy were among the poorest of Pakistani society, so while international relief may ease the transition from disaster to some semblance of normalcy, ordinary Pakistanis will return to the equilibrium state of an overall lack of development. Even prior to the floods, the amount of spending on education and health was woefully insufficient. Islamabad has not implemented any long term planning strategy for the agriculture or manufacturing sectors, and Pakistan is now importing wheat. The booming IT sector in India – a vital factor in that nation’s rise in global prominence – is all but non-existent in Pakistan. The overall lack of economic activity within Pakistan has resulted in a meager tax base, and continued dependence on foreign aid.

To be sure, these are massive challenges for any government. However, as if adding fuel to long burning fire, Pakistan may soon be faced with a Parliamentary crisis. The ruling PPP-PML(N) coalition shows signs of fragility, and it’s hard to imagine that Nawaz Sharif will expend efforts to repair the breach rather than shore up support for his own coalition should a no-confidence vote be held against Zardari and the PPP. However, the greater threat to Zardari may be from within his own party. There is virtually no debating Zardari’s cronyism, and recent events seem to find Zardari tightening his inner circle while excluding competent and respected senior PPP officials. Naheed Khan was recently quoted as stating that the PPP is becoming a “one man show.” Both she and her husband, Safdar Abbasi are senior officials in the PPP, and its Khan’s assertion that Zardari is closing ranks and surrounding himself with people that lack competence in governance. The PPP’s Executive Committee recently convened to discuss current matters of state, and Abbasi’s absence was conspicuous. Zardari does himself – and ultimately Pakistan – a great disservice by denying capable technocrats access to the levers of power at such a critical time in Pakistan’s history.

Perhaps most alarming is projecting what may happen in the case of a no confidence vote in Parliament. PML-N would emerge as the default ruling party. However, given the current composition of the Parliament, creating a coalition that could withstand a further no-confidence vote poses a significant challenge. In such a case, a general election would be required. The time frame for an election will be crucial, as maintaining security will become an absolute necessity. The announcement of a general election will undoubtedly inspire Taliban action. The worst case scenario is that the security situation deteriorates to the point where a legitimate vote cannot be held, and the military must intercede to provide continuity of governance, a familiar narrative in Pakistani history. While most accounts of General Kayani paint him as a mostly apolitical figure, he did once preside over ISI, an institution that believes that they alone should determine Pakistan’s destiny. Furthermore, military rule in Pakistan may be well received by a US administration desperate for a competent and capable partner in Pakistan. Previous administrations certainly were not squeamish about supporting military rule, and the most cynical view in Washington has long believed that it’s exactly what Pakistan requires.

The stakes are incredibly high. For the poorest Pakistanis, the fragile middle classes in Lahore and Karachi, and for the ruling elites, the moment dances on a knife edge. The dream of Jinnah remains deferred. The only question left is for how much longer?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Voices in the Wilderness

In late 2003, I started working with Professor Elie Chalala at his magazine, Al-Jadid. Having come out of university with a degree in Comparative Literature, a working knowledge of French and a deep interest in post-colonial issues in the Middle East and south Asia, it was the perfect venue for me. I knew it would give me an opportunity to write to edit and to stay in touch with contemporary trends. what I didn't know is how much it would teach me about the importance and power of dissent.

I think we in the West often underestimate the power of a repressive government. After 9/11, many in the West asked "where is the moderate Muslim denunciation of these acts, where are the voices of reason." Many in the West were led to believe that maybe such voices didn't exist. However, the fact that moderate voices didn't make it to the pages of the Times or the Post was less a function of their existence, and more so about the fact that they are under constant threat of severe repression.

In many countries in the Middle East, the most critical voices are academics, artists, journalists and opposition activists. These groups are also among the most heavily scrutinized, harassed and oppressed populations in that part of the world. The fact is quite simple: Moderate and dissenting voices exist and toil arduously throughout Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. However, we in the West - who often take our freedom of speech for granted - cannot begin to fathom what life must be like for a journalist who must choose between self-censorship or torture, or an artist who must choose between tempering of passion or arrest.

Al Jadid has strived to bring these voices to a wider audience, to prevent them from being drowned in a sea of fundamentalist and statist propaganda. I may be biased by my personal involvement with the magazine, but that cannot detract from the vital role that such content can play in a time when the dialogue about the Middle East suffers from irrational polarization. Al Jadid shows us the possibilities of the Middle East; this region has inherited more than just Islamism, it still has traces of Pan-Arabism, Socialism, as well as artistic and literary traditions descended from one of humanity's great civilizations. This is a vision of the Middle East that must be at the forefront of the discussion, rather than shackled and hidden away.

I will place a description and link to Al-Jadid in the Resources section of this website. Please head over and take a look.

All best . . .

Monday, September 20, 2010

Working from the Script

Tonight, PBS aired Charlie Rose's annual interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I have seen numerous long form interviews with Ahmadinejad, and each occasion proves interesting and certainly worth the time. Charismatic, engaging, these words don't really describe the Iranian President, yet there is a certain subtle affability in the way that he speaks, although at times it devolves into smug self-assuredness.

However, personality aside, what is fascinating is how Ahmadinejad so closely sticks to the playbook. Leaders in the contemporary Middle East follow a very well choreographed script. The importance of the script cannot be underplayed as it achieves multiple aims simultaneously, but more importantly mixes principled positions with broad obfuscation.

The first vital element is Palestine. Every Middle Eastern leader, whether they be Arab or otherwise, will openly and proudly champion the cause of the Palestinians, though few will lift nary a finger to actually bring about a change in their situation. Yet, this is considered a vital public relations position. The masses in the Middle East expect their leaders to take such a principled stand, and more leaders will campaign on their supposed support for the Palestinian struggle. Ahmadinejad can even go one further, as it is basically common knowledge that Iran provides material support for Hamas. However, it is not vital whether the support is real or imagined. What is important is that the stand is considered a principled and moral one. The Palestinians are indeed suffering underneath the boot of an apartheid regime. The leaders who currently claim to represent the Palestinian people in multilateral and bi-lateral talks were not the same people chosen by the Palestinians to represent them in the last national election. Ahmadinejad, like his Arab counterparts present a principled position; the Palestinian struggle is real and requires an approach that holds Israel to account for its continued violations of international law.

Which brings us to the next element of the script. I speak of course about Israel, however, the script is slightly adapted for the Iranian case. When talking about nuclear inspections and the NPT, Ahmadinejad points to the hypocrisy surrounding Israel. This is a fair and legitimate point. Israel has denied IAEA inspectors access to alleged weapon sites, and has not signed nor does it abide by any provisions of the NPT. This, again, is a perfectly legitimate argument that corresponds with the facts, and is well within the accepted discourse of International opinion. You may not like what Ahmadinejad is saying, but its both true and significant. Of course, the argument most heard in defense of Israel's weapons program is that they are beset on all sides by enemies. Israel has also occupied its "enemies" in varying degrees for over 40 years, and continues to operate what amount to open air prisons in Gaza and the West Bank.

Ahmadinejad goes on to say that this is a case of "politicising" the argument against Iran. Which leads us to the third, the neo-colonial/great game argument. Charlie Rose asks an important question: what is the reason for the conflict between Iran and the United States? I say important because I think generally it is taken for granted that there must be good reasons for it. Ostensibly, the conflict has to do with nuclear proliferation, and maybe support for Hezbollah and Hamas (though I doubt the US is really all that concerned about that. The proxies justify endless and unconditional support for Israel). Ahmadinejad points out, again correctly, that when the US armed and encouraged Saddam Hussein to enter into a war with Iran (one of the bloodiest of the 20th century)there was no question of nuclear weapons, there was no Hamas or Hezbollah, so what then? Here, Ahmadinejad tells Rose "Its a game." In so doing he evokes the spectre of imperialism and neo-colonial adventure. If one is willing to keep an open mind at this point, the possibilities of propaganda, misinformation, Manichean Devils and newspeak create a dizzying realm of disturbing possibilities. And again, reasonable doubt enters the fray. Maybe the Iranian regime isn't so bad after all?

Of course, the problem with an actor stuck on the script is the inability to improvise. When Ahmadinejad suggests that the same international standards should apply to Israel as they do to Iran, he is correct. In actions between states, an essentially anarchic international system depends on uniformity of principle. However, when faced with internal human rights violations, one can no longer point fingers. Though Ahmadinejad tried at least once, when suggesting that Secretary Clinton is obsessed with executions in Iran while ignoring certain friendly countries that still behead the damned with swords in the public square (take that Saudi Arabia!). It is on this point that Ahmadinejad as well as his Arab counterparts, lose their place and stumble. To be sure, he has rehearsed, and the answers come off as smooth as can be, but they ring hollow. The Mohammadi case isn't a great one, the Western press ran too far with it. However, any cursory Google search will return numerous cases of journalists, activists, opposition leaders and organizers silenced -often violently - by the Iranian regime. This, like the plight of the Palestinians, is not in doubt.

What is interesting is that while the script becomes fuzzy for the Middle Eastern leader when it comes to human rights, his very obfuscation is integral to the greater narrative: The proud and brave, principled leader, standing up for the Palestinians against the Zionist regime, trying to bring his people out of the darkness of the imperial machinations of the West's Great Game, while not giving his beloved masses the right to choose for themselves.