Saturday, April 27, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Operation Geronimo – the Betrayal and Execution of Osama Bin Laden and its Aftermath


Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 27 April 2013
Author: Shaukat Qadir
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal



Book Cover Courtesy: Link

The insider account by a former SEAL later used to prop up the raid sequence of ‘Zero Dark Thirty fills in the dramatic details but a change in vantage point zooms in on the Pakistani equation. In less than a 100 pages, the author proceeds to tie up loose ends leftover from the reams of official spin surrounding the events of May 1 2011.

He is a retired infantry Brigadier from Pakistan Army who uses his unprecedented access to the corridors of military power to launch an independent inquiry into the incident. His research takes in isolated facts, hidden motives and shadowy agendas to create an alternate timeline of events. They correspond with the main outlines of the sanctioned version but differ in the approach. The resultant document builds an appealing profile that demands a second look at the so called ‘mansion’ in Abbottabad and the dead man walking within its walls.

He sets off to meet the same players but their roles shift ever so slightly. An unarmed Khalid still gets shot by a SEAL but now he is taken unaware from the top of the stairs. When it comes to the details of the raid, it is a modified reconstruction and the fairly straightforward plot veers off course as the timing of the crashed ‘helo’ comes into question. The writer, who visited the infamous compound, plays detective and draws his own conclusions from the lack of bloody footsteps, (among other clues) going up the stairs where Khalid exists the story. The helo now drops the raiding party on the roof – the crashing bit comes later. He presents corroborating evidence to support these findings but it is a strange thing to cover-up - crashing at the beginning of a mission sounds much worse than at the end – coming from the roof makes more sense than entering from below.

As bin Laden’s status is downgraded from asset to liability, one recalls the scene from the movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, where someone remarks how no one met OBL in 4 years, he is out of the game, he might as well be dead and that she – the OBL obsessed CIA agent ‘may as well be chasing a ghost’. This observation leads to the tough agent having a mini meltdown. The primary premise of this book also builds upon the increasing irrelevance of America’s Most Wanted, as far as his inner circle was concerned. This revelation makes the betrayal story easier to absorb.

This is a multi-layered narrative adding a curious new dimension to the saga – one where a retired OBL was sold out by his comrades and the elusive figure of a wife overshadows the famed courier. It is an interesting twist that places bin Laden’s wife Khairee, who till 2011 had been in Iranian custody, at the centre of the conspiracy. Mr. Qadir examines her role and the strange connection with the dodgy doctor (Afridi) with his fake polio campaign making a startling conclusion about the bounty hunters. (Spoiler Alert: it may be Al Qaeda)

Concerns were raised about finding the ten year trail of breadcrumbs end in the heart of a military garrison. The Navy SEAL raid that dispatched OBL cast a long shadow on Pak-US relationship. He provides plausible explanations to justify the choice of location and makes use of an email where the PAK Army has to be cut down to size to tie the embarrassing raid and Salala attack together as part of a well thought out strategy.

Mark Owen’s unauthorized account in ‘No Easy Day’ and Kathryn Bigelow’s lop-sided movie refer to the hurriedly seized hardware but according to the book, bin Laden’s PC was left for Pakistanis to collect and analyze. The ISI is nowhere to be seen in that version except for the brief cameo as stonewalling agency- their contribution is lost in the complicit / incompetent dialogue. The book takes comfort from Obama’s initial mention of Pakistani cooperation; ISI’s routine request made to CIA for the compound surveillance is left open for debate. Though he has been a part of detailed briefings by the Counter Terrorism (CT) wing of the ISI and by senior military officials, field operatives and the ISI, he admits spooks will be spook adding that there are ‘too many cover-ups from too many directions to get all the facts’ Consequently, the ISI is called out for its reticence and non cooperation and the CIA - for its duplicity. This attitude lends credence and helps sell the story since he is not out to glorify the service at the cost of the truth.

‘Operation Geronimo’ has the look and feel of an informal presentation with several asides in the form of footnotes where the writer expands upon the conclusions made or leaves little remarks pointing out a tempting trail left unexplored. There are private conversations about OBL’s retirement that leave readers wondering at his reach; he does explain how he comes by the ‘intel’. His forthright manner earns him brownie points even if the simple style of delivery causes the narrative to lose some of the luster. The replay arrays the residents of Abbottabad in proper spy thriller gear and lets our imagination fly. The journey opens the door to a host of new possibilities.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

OP-ED: MATTERS OF THE (ART)


Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / Wed 17 April 2013

By: Afrah Jamal

Thank you Mr. ZK for the invite

Two distinct narratives are at play: one is reflected in the glossy surfaces that adorn the narrow hallway; the other is more subtle and concerns the boy behind the lens. At some point they converge and their combined power lends added poignancy to the proceedings. With a few well-directed clicks, Furrukh Mughal has brought the inscrutable heart of the city to joyous life.



The 16-year-old photographer may be physically challenged but he is also a fighter, refining the essence of life and charting new pathways to success. Granted he is different, but different in this context also refers to his exceptional spirit and poetic vision.



Furrukh Mughal (C) with German deputy Consul-General (R), Hans Juergen Paschke and Consul General Korea (L) Chang hee Lee, Tabassum Mughal (far back)

An exhibition of Furrukh Mughal’s photographs held at a local hotel in Karachi on April 5, 2013 demonstrated his inimitable style and unique perspective of life. He set out to achieve his dream in spite of the earthly tethers that keep him bound to the chair or that which affects his speech. His proud father and two lovely sisters are never far from his side, always ready to translate or explain his work. The young photographer was seen surrounded by a beaming family and guests, among them the famous painter/philanthropist Jimmy Engineer, the German deputy Consul-General, Hans Juergen Paschke and Consul General Korea Chang hee Lee.



Mughal started his journey a few years ago with his trusty cell phone camera and an idea. Later armed with more decent equipment he wandered the streets of Karachi finding ways to vocalise the range of emotions churning inside those mortal minds. These excursions take him all over the city, past the rushing sea of humanity to the shores of the Arabian Sea, into the busy heart of a marketplace or a V W show at a food street. Or, in some cases, his own backyard.



The spectacle of imposing architectures and sprawling landscapes captivates the passers-by. Furrukh’s camera sharpens the contrasts and somehow manages to instill a sense of serenity into the fast moving blurs, majestic oceans, and souls that have been cut adrift. The bit players become the protagonists, their tenacity spells out a challenge.



A timeless collection of haunting vignettes that illuminate the human condition, in all its delicate glory comes in focus. The allure of breaking dawn, a droplet of water against a stone backdrop, a determined little woodpecker, who by their account, is a regular visitor to Mughal’s garden. In here is a brilliant artist with an astonishing verve, and a flair for storytelling. Best of all, there is no photo-shop in his vocabulary.



Mughal scouts for locations himself; someone from the family is always at hand reportedly to take him around. Inspiration can strike at five in the morning or at the close of dusk. He has been home-schooled and has no professional training. Mughal went on to master the technical aspects of photography, and in time, grew proficient in the art. Now he can happily critique his sisters’ work and guide them through the process.



Exquisite pieces that value purity and turn unremarkable encounters into memorable moments line the stage. There are recurring motifs of nature, of man and of beautiful monuments that bring an instant sense of appreciation of the infinite wonders around us. The show concludes with a close-up of two very content white lions lost in reverie. It is a fitting end to an incredibly moving experience.



Though the symposium of light and shadow represents a microcosm of society, it can be used as a key to unlock the modern day heart of Pakistan, a land that seen from a distance looks increasingly fragile, and continues to confound. Parallel strands of optimistic overtones run through its troubled arc, a sense of awe overrides the cynicism. The multi-dimensional frame reveals the photographer’s love for beauty and adventure, his penchant for perfection and showmanship, and his understanding of the inherent contradictions of life.



Furrukh Mughal with Consul General Korea Chang hee Lee

In a way they are a metaphor for the artist’s life, a tribute to his indomitable spirit. That he would not give up on his dream despite the fact that the facilities over here are far from perfect makes him the master of his own fate. Tabassaum Mughal, his doting sister, who is also a well known Pakistani designer, believes that here was “a lesson for all kids in Pakistan,” adding that “parents should encourage their children if they are good in anything.” Sanam, his other sister, admires him for being an example for his family.



The subtext is that there is strength in unity and one can move mountains with a loving family at the back. And a steady supply of willpower to get one through the day. The Furrukh Mughals of the world can be catalysts for change, and a wellspring of hope in this uncertain life.





The display only lasted for a day but his sister hints at something bigger planned for the future. Those who missed the exhibition can check out his Facebook page: Furrukh Mughal Photography.



Blur by Me. Thought it looked pretty

View Album Here

Saturday, April 6, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Confronting the Bomb — Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak out

Published in Daily Times / 6 Apr 2013

Edited by: Pervez Hoodbhoy
Preface by: John Polyani (Nobel Prize Winner)
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

I like to appreciate the little things in life, like nuclear fusion....” — Madison Hatter



On a pleasant February afternoon, a nuclear physicist calmly painted a chilling picture of what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack on our pretty little venue by the seaside. “O, we would be the lucky ones,” he declared, “.... eviscerated” within nano seconds, “...wouldn’t feel a thing. But those poor souls in Landhi,” he shook his head, “now they would suffer from radiation effects for years, and a slow painful end,” he added. Apparently, the devastation of Hiroshima would pale in comparison, given the size of Karachi’s populace and the prevalence of plastic.



The terrifying session served as a primer for Pervez Hoodbhoy’s new book, Confronting the bomb — Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak out. Though this is a compilation of articles by scientists from both sides of the divide, 70 % of the pieces are by Professor Hoodhboy. The bomb reportedly viewed by the average Pakistani ‘as symbols of national glory and achievement’ and not ‘instruments of wholesale death and destruction’ takes centre-stage. The band of cheerleaders has been unceremoniously dismissed and a cluster of somber voices explode myths and trade horror stories on the consequences of playing with lethal payloads.

They take a less scenic route to chart Pakistan’s nuclear trajectory and sound the alarm over the nuclear world order. Apart from short bursts covering the usual timeline of events that left Pakistan vulnerable, and made them favour nuclear props over economic stability, comes an introspective study bent on penetrating the layers of obfuscation surrounding the bomb’s true potential, not as a deterrent but as a destroyer of worlds. It also probes the bomb’s credibility citing ill-advised misadventures like Kargil, which the former president, Pervez Musharraf continues to defend, as the only war caused by the presence of nukes.

The no holds barred discourse advances theories about early warning systems (they do not really work), challenges beliefs about Pakistan’s stability post bomb and inspects the integrity of statements made by a former interior minister who shall remain nameless that claim our nukes are ‘200 percent safe.’

When the book tries to determine the number of bombs needed, it cites figures from an article by a defence analyst: 10 bombs to take out two cities at 5 per city; 40 bombs if enemy has the ability to take out 50 percent of the arsenal in a pre-emptive strike and another 50 percent by interception. When the figure jumps to 1,000 bombs in response to 90 percent riposte and intercept capability of the adversary, Hoodhboy calls him out for his ‘de-generative logic’.

What prompts these calculations are explained in the next passage of the article, not included in this book. They do not imply a run to the market for a 1,000 bombs but list factors required for minimum credible deterrence. In the analysts words: “In actual case the increments in the enemy’s offensive and defensive capabilities may not be as large thus requiring only marginal adjustments to our own nuclear arsenal.” (Air Power in South Asia, Second Edition).

The author of these figures believes in the futility of an arms race remarking that the high statistics are merely for ‘ease of calculation’, avoid those decimals, and to make a point. With a retaliatory strike, the enemy takes out 900 bombs, which leaves a 100. The 90 percent intercept capability destroys 90 more in the pre-emptive strike, leaving 10 bombs, the same number needed to take out 2 cities. The destruction of two cities as minimum unacceptable damage is hypothetical and inflicting a much smaller level of pain could achieve the minimum deterrence clause in reality.

Of course, when both sides have 100 percent intercept or riposte capability, there is no deterrence and even an infinite number of bombs will be insufficient. That he is not a war mongering general but a former air force officer/analyst (the book also gets his name wrong) known in his circles for dispensing hard hitting truths, tends to get lost in translation.

Fluctuating bomb counts are just a tiny part of the picture and ‘Confronting the Bomb’ studies the changing regional dynamics should Iran succeed in its nuclear ambitions leaving the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia free to join the club, and the doomsday scenarios that follow. At the same time it doesn’t seem overly worried with the idea of a nuclear Iran opining that ‘unwelcome as having another set of nuclear issues would be, it would not necessarily be catastrophic’ further adding that ‘in all likelihood nuclear Iran would moderate its dangerous rhetoric and, like other existing global nuclear rivalries, this one too could be managed.

The book goes on to examine the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and scoffs at a 40-year-old vision that powers ‘nuclear energy projects that provide energy at a higher cost’, and are ‘located at unsafe sites’ adding to the ‘risk of catastrophic accidents’. It wonders at its decision makers who ‘remain intent on the nuclear dream when in the United States , the home of that dream, no new nuclear reactor has been built in three decades.’ It serves as an indictment of the policies and the fallacies that accompany the ‘crown jewels’ in our arsenal. ‘The hubris following the 1998 tests, together with the promise that the bomb would transform Pakistan into a technologically and scientifically advanced country, is now nowhere in evidence.’

During the book launch the writer opined that it fulfils 6 percent of the nuclear energy needs of India and 2 percent of Pakistan’s despite all the financial resources. “We have a toy at Kanupp with its miserable 70 percent MW power not enough to power a house in Golimar,” he concluded.

The writer goes on to show why the West cannot do a 'bin Laden' to our precious bomb despite the premise of a recently cancelled TV show Last Resort that nukes Pakistan and lives to tell the tale. Hoodbhoy calls such a contingency ‘a final act of extreme desperation’ and to properly de-fang Pakistan, ‘all major nuclear weapons facilities, reactors and uranium enrichment plants’ would have to be taken out'. That does not deter harmless looking scholars living in the west from making (un)educated guesses about the alleged sites.

The Last Resort scenario might require some suspension of disbelief but it also depicts a non-nuclear Pakistan in danger of being overrun by enemies now that its armory is short of ‘the bomb’. With this book a new chapter has been added where the bomb’s utility as a shield has been shoved aside while its role as mischief maker gets amplified.

Those who were not worried before will be left questioning the wisdom of keeping up with the Joneses after reading the 400 page document/cautionary tale. The book may serve as a deterrent for nations planning to go nuclear in the future. For those already in the game, it brings in the ghosts of past and present to quell the celebratory mood and rethink the future.

Book Image from Bina Shahs blog

Pervez Hoodbhoy Image Copyrighted. from my KLF 2013 collection