Monday, December 31, 2012

VIEW: A (Deep) State of Denial

First Published in Daily Times / 31 Dec 2012 (Monday)

By: Afrah Jamal

Thank you to the folks interested in publishing this in Urdu


Hapless polio teams are in the crosshair of extremists and people have come up with their own theories to explain the presence of health workers in the montage of violence. If a polio team does not reach any home, the residents can call a number and let them know. Many houses were left wondering about the fate of the drive this year after the three-day carnage that claimed nine lives, six of them women. A maulana on the media attributes the sudden spike in polio-related violence to government. More polio means more $$, he hisses confidentially. Twitter-sphere assigns the subsequent instability to the dreaded ‘deep state’.



According to them, it can sacrifice anything and anyone on the altar of national interest or in this case — the lure of more dollars. Every ‘whodunit’ begins or ends with a deep state cameo. Apparently, their interference is legendary, as is their fondness for nation (re)building.

Admittedly, regular matches of political chess are the deep state’s forte. One familiar move is assigning instant stardom to unknowns who then threaten to pull million man marches on the capital city come January 2013. The motive can be anything from putting wayward governments in place to checking the ambitions of an unpopular opponent who has been around the block one too many times already. Ergo, all those raised eyebrows, hushed whispers, and an inexplicable desire to herd the nation’s premier spy agency with the nation’s leading terror group.


On the one hand, the United States is charged with destabilising its ally to take away its nukes. On the other, the ‘establishment’ is accused of meddling with law and order to keep the bogey of terrorism alive and well. Never mind that such antics drive Pakistan closer to earning the elusive failed state award. Then the ‘hidden hands’ are summoned to take the fall for air base attacks because the infiltrators prefer flashy gear or sport fancy markings that tie them to our agencies of choice. Foreign agencies really need to rethink those neon signs that always give away their agents.

Remember Conan Doyle’s famous adage, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” All of these scenarios are improbable but not impossible. All this time spent detecting energy signatures of foreign entities is counter-productive for the national interest but excellent for extremist propaganda.

The war has taken a dangerous turn. A future where the WHO packs up and flees, and a blanket travel ban is imposed on Pakistani citizens, leaving Pakistan vulnerable and isolated from the world, puts the nation, deep state included, in some deep trouble. The loss of prestige and plunging credibility would outweigh any perceived gains, but now as before, when looking for culprits, the line up is composed of a motley crew of agencies, allies and rogue organisations.

The Taliban have been linked to many questionable activities in the past. Whether it is schools, universities, mosques, military installations, government buildings, popular resorts, political rallies or targeted assassinations, they have been busy since January 2007. Nine times out of ten, they have admitted their involvement. Half the time, people have contorted the facts around imaginative explanations of their own to justify the slide to oblivion. This is a rare case where ceding ground to the deep state or the long line of potential suspects somehow gives their cause more traction. There can be no better diversion than to have the people forever searching the pile of wrecked dreams for their favourite motif of hidden hands.

That extremists are now giving healthcare as well as the arts and literacy their personal attention is hardly surprising. With the fear of an ‘Afridi-esque’ (alleged CIA doctor-agent) inspired drive still hanging in the air, the possibility of a health worker accidentally stumbling upon their widespread network must be giving them sleepless nights.


Given Karachi’s growing instability and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s fast deteriorating security, the dream of a polio-free Pakistan will have to wait. The UN has suspended vaccination drives for now. Given that Pakistan is one of three nations yet to eradicate the scourge of polio, the future of an entire generation hangs in the balance. The brave volunteers who ventured out without any armed escort could not have known they were on the frontline of terror. Not after hearing stories about warring nations like Sudan that agreed to a ceasefire to ensure the safety of such drives, or knowing that their work went on even in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

Dr Shakeel Afridi’s actions that led to Osama bin Laden’s capture in the heart of the garrison town may have jeopardised the future of polio vaccination but these campaigns have been on the extremist radar since 2005. Not too long ago, a certain radical cleric also known as FM Mullah was casually adding vaccination programs to the stash of crisp conspiracy cards in Swat. In July 2012, members of the UN staff came under attack in Karachi. Six months ago, the Taliban banned polio-related drives in the troubled North, and fear reigned on all three days of the end of the year campaigns.

Despite clear and present danger, the campaign went ahead on schedule, without the necessary precautions or any visible strategy. Blame must then be generously shared between the state for its failure to anticipate and the establishment for not manning the public opinion counter overflowing with a smorgasbord of unsavoury looking conspiracies.

Images Courtesy of: http://www.sahajanandrosystems.com/wp-content/gallery/isi-iso-trademark-consultancy/isi-mark.jpg

http://www.poliopluspakistan.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/Pakistan-Polio-Cases-Map-M.gif

http://s292.beta.photobucket.com/user/calopcia/media/crosshair4.jpg.html

http://www.pioneerdrama.com/Images/Title_Art/WHODUNIT.jpg

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Review: Personal Histories of Choices: Documenting Renunciation

Published in Daily Times / Dec 15, 2012

Published Under the Title: First Rule of Jihad Club

Thank you Gulmina for the Review copy

Authors: Gulmina Bilal Ahmad, Dr. Anika Ahmed,
Yahya Ahmad, Zulfiqar Haider, Hamza Khan Swati
& a friend who wants to remain anonymous


Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

(The Print Ed has an error - hope they fix it in the online Ed, first para 3rd line that now says 'jihadists are willing' throws my sentence off balance. The 2nd Para has a misprint. not tnatives, natives!)

Unlike the first, second, third rule of fight club (you do not talk about fight club) – retired jihadists willing to open up about their past lives do exist. A dedicated group of researchers bent on tracing the path to radicalization needed no divining rod to identify people who have dabbled in jihad at some point in their lives.

This compilation of ‘confessions’ features interviews with fifteen former terrorists hiding out in the open and not as one would think, skulking in the shadows. Now such a premise might not surprise those who tend to herd all the natives next to the same ridiculous profiling machine or use Abbottabad-gate to promote Pakistan as a comfortable retreat for the Most Wanted.

Before they say aha, they should know that this list of deserters does not carry names of high profile targets. In fact it does not carry any names at all. But their testimonies still matter, especially after watching the diligent interviewers salvage archive footage of an odd politician and low level military men, happily partaking of the jihadist pie. They may not be architects of major attacks; many have never seen combat. And some doubled as agent provocateurs in the late 1990’s.

This is a well worn trail frequented by highly regarded analysts, diplomats and writers. Images of Cold War Mujahideen morphing into post 9/11 archetype adorn its pathways. The book offers a fresh new vantage point that allows readers to gaze upon the secretive world of terror from the inside.

The region is increasingly susceptible to jihadist influences and the odd cases of kidnapping and coercion aside – the majority of subjects arrived at their destination via the ‘Holy’ gateway created few decades ago. This exercise widens the search parameter from the troubled North to the urban centres. The monster from the frame can be anyone, from the friendly neighbourhood electrician to the quiet looking village teacher hailed as the pillar of his community. This is the first of many bombshells.

Though these wayward sheep have renounced that way of life - not all of them are repentant; in some case they are sleepers biding their time, a few cheerfully admit that they are simply ‘on a break’. Seeing the world through their custom made, ‘holier than thou’, splintered glass is nevertheless instructive.

The book neatly divides the case files into three parts: influence of hearsay, media and community. The team had unprecedented access to the ex-militant community and even the most recalcitrant among them had something valuable to share. They map out their individual journeys from all parts of Pakistan, unveiling much more than the naive face behind the cold mask.

Their guarded invitation opens up the portal to terror-ville, albeit briefly. The momentary glimpses yield enough data points to assess both sides of the elusive picture, from the roots of terror to the poisonous yield. These excursions may be harrowing but they offer unique insight into the extremist psyche using private channels outsiders are generally not privy to. Besides capturing the insiders off guard, they also expose the sham pillars on which such cult like movements have been mounted.

The abundance of training camps (that don’t exist and years of social conditioning ensures that the casting call has steady supply of recruits on hand. That these also double as summer camps for youngsters seeking ways to channel pent up energy comes as a revelation. It also raises some irksome questions. With a little effort the researchers found these foot soldiers. That their masterminds continue to flourish under the world’s most fearsome intelligence agencies watch will bother many.

The change in vantage point adds dynamic layers to an evolving narrative. That everyone is susceptible to the jihad bug. That they don’t all hail from drone strike central; areas around Islamabad can double as training camps. That it can run in the family. And that they are lured away as much by boredom, as by pushy moms, peer pressure, by a steady diet of misinformation, or in some case horror stories dating back to pre-partition days.

Each encounter leaves readers wondering about the gravitational pull of the countless organizations (the book does not divulge names probably because they do not exist!) dotted across the countryside.

The assortment of spotlights trained on this region to scrutinize these shifting plates is blinding. Sometimes they can miss the obvious. This document lets the sinister stereotypes tell their ‘tale of woe’ without any editorializing. These snatches of conversations underscore the popularity of the jihad-based sales pitch. Also, the reasons for their disillusionment should cut through the perpetual fog of war & haze of Taliban/Al-Qaeda propaganda.

This study is part ‘expose’ part ‘wake up call’ and part ‘cry for help’ quietly establishing the sprawling scale of the problem while providing important context for the growing number of conversions. The prose may be a tad unpolished; the closing loses the academic tone presenting its trenchant arguments on the terror debate; ‘we have long crossed the Rubicon of passive debate on the genesis and birth of this radical mindset. ’

Whether they are victims of a questionable State policy or recipients of clever indoctrination campaigns; little is needed to invoke the latent jihadist gene. And that should be a cause for serious concern.

The subjects are young, impressionable with their moral compass stuck on ‘sanctioned Holy War’. Their brief dalliance with terror and subsequent renouncement drags an important aspect of this conflict to the fore. The counter-terrorism strategy is intent on clearing the land of militants but thus far there are few indications that it is as focused on clearing up the rubble of ignorance and bigotry steadily accumulating since before 9/11. ‘Documenting Renunciation’ marks the source of original fault-lines that make the region so vulnerable.

Price: Rs. 1500
Pages: 56

Monday, December 10, 2012

VIEW: The True Cost of Drone Charades

First Published in SHE Magazine / Dec 2012

The other day cricketer turned politician Imran Khan was unceremoniously hauled off a plane and detained for questioning in Toronto over his anti drone stance.

Khan does not like drones.

The Taliban do not care for them either. Ordinary Pakistanis are passionate about sovereignty, and conflicted about how to handle the ‘safe haven’ situation, which leaves them reaching for the pitcher of outrage after every violation. The past six years has seen a noticeable spike in drone strikes followed by rising temperatures on the ground.

The people on ‘ground zero’ interestingly do not necessarily share these sentiments and might even go along with the idea of using targeted strikes to eliminate a common enemy. More on these people can be found in Irfan Husain’s excellent book Fatal Faultlines – Pakistan, Islam & the West.

WikiLeaks cables place the State on the scene when covert wars became an active part of the scenery. Pakistan is not the only target rich environment and countries like Somalia and Yemen are also recipients of US-led drone program. Some simple drone math reveals that to date there have been a total of 323 drone attacks with only 10 recorded strikes from 2004 -2007. The drone strike figure has reportedly hit the 313 mark in just 4 years (2008 – Oct 2012).*

Though Islamabad and Washington have been at loggerheads over cross-border terrorism (Salala), Abbottabad-gate, wayward CIA agents and of course unannounced visits by drones, those paying close attention however will hear condemnation of drone attacks offset by wistful longing. Because of the nature of COIN warfare, the armed forces recognize the need for advanced drone technology that allows them to pursue fleeting targets of opportunity while minimizing collateral damage.

A common argument on Twitter-sphere is that giving American’s leeway hands our enemy on the Eastern front a licence to do the same to, say Hafiz Saeed of Lashkar-e- Taiba (LeT) fame, for instance. The United States remains an ally if only on paper and there happens to be an implicit understanding between the two nations on conducting such strikes; Pakistan’s neighbours on the other hand, can put away their stealth designs.

Pakistan’s declared red flags are ‘boots on the ground’ and barring sneaky SEALS or joint operations, the U.S. has respected these lines. While both countries may not always agree on the choice of target, they can chalk up their successes to shared ‘intel’ and precision targeting courtesy the Reapers/Predators lurking in the skies.

Pakistan’s limitations in the technological department are partly the reason behind this uneasy alliance. The recently concluded four day International Defence Exhibition & Seminar (IDEAS) 2012 proudly showing off armed drone capability attest to its mounting ambitions.

Some might mistake this as a new chapter heralding the end of Pakistan’s decades old reliance on American technology. The alternate to American controlled drones would probably be Pakistani led drones which might pacify those voices who object the ‘Made in USA’ label but only in theory. Because those that decry the frequent violations also find the human cost appalling. Whether it is an American sitting in Nevada or a Pakistani in Jacobabad, the risk of collateral damage remains the same.

Successes notwithstanding, the blowback from drone attacks has steadily pushed the nation to the brink of collapse. The one-sided picture has allowed naïve politicians and opportunistic media personnel to tie every failure from sectarian killings and religious intolerance to increased radicalization and unrest in Sindh and Baluchistan with the secret drone program. And it has caused the sympathy bank of Taliban to swell at an alarming rate.

The mixed signals have seriously compromised the military’s ability to expand operations, stoked the flame of anti-Americanism, undermined the State and offered the Taliban room to manoeuvre. The farce prevents the public from seeing how the presence of sanctuaries threatens the integrity of the State. It allows the extremist to hijack the narrative and use the space to play on the public’s emotions and redirect the ire from Taliban sponsored terror to American made Hell-Fires (missiles fired by US drones). Their strategy has been effective and extremism has now taken on the mantle of an unpleasant, yet understandable side-effect of Western hegemony and not, as is the case a destructive ideology

Khan, who missed his flight and some fund raising lunch because of his detention, had come on the radar because of his anti - drone march to Waziristan. That drones have alienated a major part of the nation should not come as a surprise to the Western world. Staging impromptu run-ins with immigration however is no way to win converts.

This policy of deniability has hurt not only the war on terror but also the military’s standing with the public. Ownership of the drone partnership could have saved precious moments spent battling over sovereignty and spared Pakistanis the sight of the State asking its military if it can shoot the drones knowing perfectly well why it won’t. That time could have been better spent finding ways of breaking news of its role in the shadow wars and that such a partnership has nothing to do with the lure of shiny hardware.

Cultivating the public trust will be tricky for a military perceived as a spineless stooge for standing idly by while drones played havoc with its sovereignty. Pakistan’s current problem with safe havens cannot be cured by replacing drone strikes with pretty Hearts & Minds campaigns - or by putting up costly charades for that matter.

* http://pakistanbodycount.org/drone_attack accessed on 11 November 2012

Images Courtesy of: http://timeglobalspin.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/ap100129032031.jpg?w=720&h=480&crop=1

http://wikileaks.org/IMG/jpg/folder_small.jpg

http://www.ideaspakistan.gov.pk/intro1.jpg

Saturday, December 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “After The Rain”: Short Stories for the SAARC Region

Thanks to Ayesha Zee Khan for the Review Copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 08, 2012

Also appeared in Google Books Section

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Compiled by: Ayesha Zee Khan

After the Rain is a compilation of short stories that pans over the SAARC region striving to bring a cross section of voices suited for its literary experiment into the fold. The collection houses five writers and ten entries. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is not coincidental since these offerings rely on personalised snapshots to project their exotic vision onto a fresh new canvas.

Budding authors and established names come together from Nepal, Maldives and Pakistan to showcase their range and the region’s rustic charm. This impromptu gathering of ‘the chosen ones’ boasts of names like Ibrahim Waheed ‘Ogaru’, the ‘writer-artist’ from the Maldives; Pushpa R Acharya from Nepal; Arbab Daud and Kiran Bashir Ahmad from Pakistan. Ayesha Zee Khan, the winner of the SAARC Literary Award 2012 for Building Bridges, an anthology of poems, also lends her voice to the chorus.

Ibrahim Waheed Ogaru unveils a moment in time when the reverberations of the past overlap with the present; he paints his nostalgia-laced journey in broad-brush strokes. Arbab Daud relives his harrowing trip into the wild. Pushpa R Acharya’s skilful sketches mark the end of an era. Kiran Bashir Ahmad gets the longest screen time to style an elaborate production. And Ayesha, who has compiled the tome, stays faithfully immersed in the fantasy/nightmare. Together they interpret the regional contours in their own distinctive style in an attempt to open the door for more accessible literature.

It is an ambitious little book that tries to define new heights of literary greatness with its simple fare but there are difficulties along the way of a technical nature that might prevent it from reaching the summit. One of them stems from the editing department.

Mischief is My Middle Name that bears trace elements from the Bachon Ke Duniya and Taleem-o-Tarbiyat years (Ayesha wrote Urdu fiction for children’s magazines back in the day) retrieves the precious stash of amusing family portraits from some dusty old attic. As the floodgate of memories is opened, so does the forgotten case of childhood follies. The Life’s Great Challenges doused with some good old-fashioned sentimentality asks readers to brood over the misfortunes of a downtrodden woman as it resurrects the mama-in-law stereotype. The suppressed daughter-in-law is not far behind. One narrative rallies around a happy delinquent who does not get her comeuppance and the other discovers a convenient doormat who gets more than she bargained for. Its spirited storytelling and carefree imagery notwithstanding, such offerings require major spring-cleaning to remove the impression that a few portions may have simply been put through Google translator instead of some diligent editor.

For entrée, Arbab Daud’s Piece of Peace starring himself props its modest vision from Wana against the ominous geopolitical situation. The concoction pads its crooked delivery of ‘tour-de-Wana’ with humour as it cheerfully stumbles into no-go territories setting off grammatical minefields along the way. This is just the beginning and cumbersome questions regarding syntax, style or overall structure pop up at inopportune moments, leaving the interesting layout along with its tragic depths unexplored as readers head off into the sunset looking for enlightenment in Pakistan’s troubled ‘Wild West’ and later find themselves in the midst of a hunt.

Then there are voices that may falter at times but leave profound impressions despite their fondness for quirky analogies or repetitive language that threatens to pinion the prose. Shama Book Point seeks out Karachi’s faded beauty and changing landscape as it traipses by a painter and a harmless looking bookstore owner engaged in conversation. The narrative has been carefully framed against a raw background to mirror the pervading ambivalence summoning deepening shadows and forlorn hopes for company. The Colours of Dreams might have been inspired by some case study ( I have since learnt that it was not) delving into a churning mass of superstition and faith in an uplifting tale of a poor family burdened with a problem child.

Pushpa R Acharya has been credited somewhere as an ‘academician, poet, translator and journalist’ and is the author of Chhaya Kal: an Anthology of Poems (in Nepali). In Olena’s Diary, he uses mysterious motifs from myths and legends based on tales gathered from the northern villages of Nepal for the desired effect. Jack in the Box by Ogaru observes the ongoing duel between local Romeos, pitching the village fisherman against the local Khateeb, leaving one to plot some revenge ‘Eastern-style’. Both writers have a role in preventing the literary dialogue from flat lining.

The book was sent to the International Sufi Festival, organised by the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL), a subsidiary of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), and will be available in the market soon. There is a nice little foreword by Frank Huzur (poet, playwright and author from India) but no ‘Editor’s note’ or in this case ‘Compiler’s note’. Readers remain in the dark about the inspiration behind After the Rain or the criteria for selection. Since it seems to be missing a critical component — parts of the Pakistani chapter — because of those uneven edges might be viewed as the weakest link in the goodwill chain. Hopefully, it is nothing a hawk-eyed editor with nerves of steel cannot fix.