Under the Magic Tube-Light: A Fantasia

I am a big fan of Musharraf
Ali Farooqi’s “Magic Lantern” fables
, but magic lanterns are for civilized
places like Abbasid Baghdad or Fatimid Cairo. In Pakistan, we look for magic in
more mundane lighting equipment – except when there is load-shedding, of course
.
The other day, having just watched the last episode of
Sherlock, I dozed off on the couch and found myself transported to the land of
fantasy where most of Pakistan’s elite dwells. There, under a flickering
fluorescent light outside a pub somewhere between Badshahi Masjid and
Mazar-e-Quaid (hey, this is fantasy,
y’all), I heard a voice within the tavern cry out something that Sherlock
Holmes once told Dr. Watson: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This revelation re-awakened that
ancient part of my brain that had been pickled for many years in Pakistan
Studies, and the natural urge to explain the absurd behavior of Pakistani
political leadership through serial conspiracy theories became irresistible.
After all, conspiracy theories are cheaper in Pakistan than anywhere else in
the world, except when Shireen Mazari dines alone at a bistro in Manhattan
during her periodic fundraising visits to the Land of Yahood-o-Nasaara. So why
not indulge a bit in the national pastime?
Well, first some background.
After the May 2013 elections, all political parties, bullied
by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan
Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), agreed to “give peace a chance” and negotiate with the
Taliban extremists who had been terrorizing many parts of the country for
several years. This decision, taken at an All-Parties Conference (APC) in September
2013, was followed by a period of inexplicable stasis, with no visible effort
or progress towards negotiations from any quarter. Meanwhile, the Taliban went
about their business as usual – a prison break
here
, an
attack on a church
there, random assassinations of
Shias
, suicide
bombing of Hazaras
, and so on – you know, the normal humdrum work of
terrorists addicted to human carnage. Slowly, inexorably, sentiment built up in
the country for a military operation against these inconvenient killers,
reaching a high point after an extraordinarily courageous 15 year old student, Aitzaz Hassan, set an
example. And as this mood developed, so – magically – did momentum for
negotiations. A committee of, pardon me, nobodies-in-particular was assembled
on behalf of the Government. The Taliban reciprocated by choosing a few gems
from the rich showcase of options available to them from among their
sympathizers – bearded and beardless. Among this chosen elite was Imran Khan,
called upon by his “upset friends” to help them get less upset and kill with
greater kindness. But the Sage of Bani Gala (formerly of Zaman Park and Sussex)
declined the opportunity, choosing instead to retire into the mists of his
fevered fulminations. Nawaz Sharif – in brief moments of visibility – was
visibly mum, while his surrogates put forth statements with a remarkably low
signal-to-noise ratio. The military too went all quiet, leaving the fray to
bloviating mythologists like Hamid Gul, Orya Maqbool Jan and Ansar Abbasi. According
to some reports, even the Americans temporarily curtailed their drone strikes
so the Taliban could cower less and talk more. Of course, the Taliban
gratefully accepted this opportunity and escalated the pace of their
pronouncements – in their usual language of murder and mayhem. More explosions,
more targeted
killings
, a
few dead journalists
, then an
attack of policemen in Karachi
, on Shia pilgrims in
Baluchistan
, on
cinema-goers in Peshawar
and, ultimately, the
beheading of 23 captive Pakistani soldiers
. By this point, even the hound
of the Baskervilles would have howled, but nothing has come from either PML-N
or PTI except more prattle about negotiations. And the military has still
stayed quiet. These are the things that, as they say, need ‘splainin’.
First, PTI’s unshakeable faith in negotiations in the face
of mounting attacks from the other side (though, in fairness, all sides are
their “own” for PTI). Perhaps a hint can be found in Imran Khan’s impolitic
statement that the military only estimated a 40% chance of success in an attack
on FATA (Federally-Administered Tribal Areas), and Gen. Kiyani’s corrective
rejoinder clarifying that, in fact, the military had estimated that cleaning up
FATA would only result in a 40% reduction in terrorism nationally, and eradicating the remaining 60% would require action
throughout the rest of the country. The Taliban, after all, are now a national
brand, and combating them would lead to extensive chaos and bloodshed all over
Pakistan. That is something that the Government understandably wants to avoid. But,
unlike the Government, PTI has no actual responsibility for national security –
a position that their spokesmen proclaim proudly in every forum. Now, if PTI
knows that negotiations must fail and a military operation will be necessary, they
must realize also that things will get a lot worse before they get any better.
The Taliban, confronted on their home territory, will create mayhem in all
other parts of the country – even in Punjab where the elite seem more
interested in golf than in reality. And then people will ask, “Who is
responsible for this calamity?” And Imran Khan will say, “See, this is why I
wanted to keep negotiating rather than starting a war!” And the poor, innocent,
decent and deluded people of Pakistan will nod their heads and say, “Yes, that
is true, Great Leader. Can we please kiss your feet?” And Imran Khan will be
the savior of Pakistan – the man who looked beyond the last mountain and
maintained the serenity of wisdom when everyone else was succumbing to the siren
call of war. Thus, in my conspirofantasy, Imran Khan is being pro-peace so he can pick up the pieces after the coming
war.
But what of Nawaz Sharif? There’s already a conspiracy
theory about his behavior, which says that he is negotiating with the Taliban
to spare Punjab and to give them free rein in all other areas. But really, who
thinks Shahbaz Sharif is that stupid? Enjoying golf in a landlocked Punjab while
the country burns all around? The moderately heavy mandate would go on a
terminal diet! So what explains the taciturn calm of the nihari caucus. Well,
perhaps they are calm because, in fact, the operation for which so many are clamoring
has already begun some time ago – but not where everyone expects it. The
Taliban are certainly signaling that something is stressing them in places like
Karachi and Peshawar. And sure enough, there in broad daylight, an operation is
underway – the so-called operation against targeted killings. There is very
little detail, but stories of “encounters” occasionally leak into the media.
The iceberg theory of clandestine operations suggests that much more is
happening, and that much of it is directed against the Taliban, though the
security forces take opportunistic swipes at the MQM and Baloch groups as well.
In the context of my first conspiracy theory explaining Imran Khan’s behavior,
this makes perfect sense: If the fear is that a Waziristan operation will
ignite chaos in the rest of the country, why not reduce the threat there before
turning to the home turf of the extremists? So my second conspiracy theory says
that the Government and the Army are already well into an operation to push the
Taliban from their peripheral positions back into the FATA box where they can
then be dealt with in a full operation . If so, PML-N would have neutralized
the “pick up the pieces” strategy that Imran Khan might be counting on.
So then, two interlocking conspiracy theories from the Land
of Only If! Alas, in the World of What Is, the actors on Pakistan’s stage are
too short-sighted to have hatched such conspiracies. As for the Taliban negotiating
peace, you’ve heard the story of the scorpion, the frog and the river crossing, right? Yeah, like
that!

Taking on the TTP, part X

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Postscript: I have had a lot of comments from friends on this piece and here is a summary:
1. The deep state has a coherent Afghan policy that requires maintaining Jihadi proxies. That show is still the main show. This farce will go on and the deep state probably doesnt mind the fact that it will go on. 
2. The deep state has already launched an anti-taliban operation, but not yet in Waziristan. Still, its coming. 
3. More of the same. Nothing new has happened, nothing new is about to happen. 
4. The proverbial shit has already hit the fan. Pakistan is beyond the point of no return. 
And so on.
Take your pick. I have no inside info. Every theory falls apart as you pursue it some distance (some fall apart before the pursuit starts. Alas, the left has left the building 😉 ). 

Maybe nobody is in control, but Saudi Arabia, Amrika and GHQ all think they know what they are doing and all think they are about to make monkeys of everyone else.  With that cheery thought in mind, read on..

Apparently the army is about to do something or the other against some group or the other in North Waziristan. This is big news because North Waziristan has been off limits to “operations” for years, with various jihadi groups living, training and carousing in the region with nothing to fear except the occasional drone attack. If the operation goes ahead, this may cause the TTP (the main Pakistani Taliban group) to conduct revenge operations even in the safe zones of Punjab, which may cause real anxiety in real Pakistan.

Aware of the possibility of a coming operation and being serious players, the TTP has wasted no time taking the initiative. They have made monkeys of Mian Nawaz Sharif and Chodhri Nisar  and completely hijacked their idiotic “talks” gambit. It is likely that the “talks” were always meant to be a farce, and MNS and company thought this was just a good way to expose the bloodthirsty Taliban and their civilian supporters (like the PTI and the Jamat e Islami) before the serious business of killing starts and the inevitable blowback causes the Punjabi people to look around for a scapegoat. If so, the gambit has failed spectacularly. The TTP proved cleverer and more capable than the government of Pakistan and announced their own farcical committee to hold negotiations with Nawaz Sharif’s farcical committee while their brothers continued to knock off opponents and spread terror. It has been a brilliant performance, nicely cataloged here by Ayaz Amir. 

But a bloodier phase may start soon. 50,000 Pakistanis have already died and more (unfortunately) are going to pay the price in the days to come. It probably didnt have to be this bad. More efficient ways of terminating (betraying) the Jihad experiment were possible, mostly involving cleverly cooperating with the US, India and China, but sometimes elites dont know what side they are on. Even though Pakistan’s rulers were never going to set up some Jihadi North Korea and wave the Juche flag, they couldnt bring themselves to bite the bullet and 12 years of waffling have certainly raised the casualty count and made the next phase more painful that it had to be.

But these are mere details. Since even birather China wants the Jihadi safe havens terminated with maximum prejudice, its gonna happen, one way or the other. Liberals should keep their heads down and occasionally protest the human rights abuses to come. The rest is not up to them…
The story line remains a problem though. All the indications are that operation is going to rely on the CIA-RAW conspiracy template to justify the action. This, coupled with the presence of Imran Khan and media Taliban (like Orya Maqbool and Ansar Abbasis) is going to confuse the narrative in so many ways, its hard to even describe it. The confusion is so bad, our well armed elite may end up losing the war just because it didn’t have a good enough story to fit the war.
500,000 man army, 200 nuclear weapons, 3000 tanks…but no story that can hold it all together.
Pakistan remains sui generis.
See what our tax rupees are paying for:

The Taliban meanwhile are sending some messages of their own:


So, the Taliban brought headless (freshly killed, blood soaked) bodies in an open pickup truck and dumped them on a “government controlled” road in Mohmand and filmed the scene…for 11 minutes. You can watch the video if you are up to it. I know there are bigger problems in Pakistan, but from here this seems vaguely disturbing

Brown in space

Science in India has to some extent a reputation for lassitude. Mind you, not Indian scientists, but institutional Indian scientific culture. So what explain’s the space program? From India, Proof That a Trip to Mars Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank:

While India’s recent launch of a spacecraft to Mars was a remarkable feat in its own right, it is the $75 million mission’s thrifty approach to time, money and materials that is getting attention.

Just days after the launch of India’s Mangalyaan satellite, NASA sent off its own Mars mission, five years in the making, named Maven. Its cost: $671 million. The budget of India’s Mars mission, by contrast, was just three-quarters of the $100 million that Hollywood spent on last year’s space-based hit, “Gravity.”

My explanation is simple: national pride and motivation to do something that matters. Soviet science did great things too, when it could motivate people. The issue in places like Italy and India is to incentivize this sort of productivity in their general scientific cultures.

Why the elite in the Rest yearn for the West

I’ve become an old hand in the developing world since I’ve done a fair bit of travelling.

I’ve noticed that elites throughout the world (and middle classes) dream of the West even when they lead fairly prosperous lives at home.
I could never really fathom why this was the case because if one has money (and lots of it) what’s the functional difference between Bombay and London (also the advantage being in the developing markets one can be part of the elite class at much lower wealth levels, which are not possible in the West).
I’ve realised that it’s all to do with self-actualisation and the stress of individuality that seems to be the distinctive hall mark of Western culture. In the East & global South the collective spirits is so strong that people take human connections for granted.
In the West self-actualisation is so pronounced that human ties take a very secondary role to the life of the individual (reality is far more blurred but this is the ideal).
So when Hollywood and Cable Tv bombard images of well turned-out successful Western individuals it takes a hold on the national imagination. Hence the global developing elites aren’t necessarily yearning for personal prosperity but the dream of becoming one’s own self that only seems possible in broadly prosperous and largely middle class societies (even if the US may be among the more unequal societies the huge size of its middle class still holds pronounced cultural sway).

Baloch terrorism?

A train has been derailed by a bomb in Southern Pakistan and it seems the Baloch Republican Army may have claimed responsibility (I am relying on twitter here, I have not yet seen a formal claim of responsibility, but it is certainly a strong possibility given that there have been earlier train attacks claimed by Baloch separatists). Several children are among those killed and children have died in almost every train bombing to date. This has started the usual back and forth about terrorism as a tactic and someone mentioned the inevitable “terrorism is the weapon of the weak”.  

My first thoughts, and I hope others will step in with informed comments: 
If the BRA is responsible, then they are being very self-defeating here. It is a Pakistani myth that terrorism is the weapon of the weak. It may be a weapon sometimes used by the weak, but it has never gotten them very far on its own. From Palestine to Chechnya to Kashmir to Balochistan…it just makes the strong more easily justify their oppression. Terrorists like TTP are winning because they have inside support, they have a more coherent narrative than their enemies, they have strong (minority) ideological support throughout Pakistan and above all  because they are STRONG enough to beat up the so-called army and get away with it. 
The Baloch are not that strong. They will only increase their own suffering. Armed struggle is not an end in itself, it is a tactic. Like all tactics it has to form part of some greater whole. If sensibly applied, it can be critically important. If not, its just so much more pain and suffering with nothing to show for it…or it makes things worse. This is just sad.

Some quick additional points (just because I know from experience that they will come up):
1. I am not discussing the morality of terrorism (I personally believe deliberately targeting innocents is ALWAYS morally wrong, but that is not my point here). 
2. Can it sometimes work? Sure it can. There is no universal umpire making sure such things never work.  As part of some larger effort, where some clever and ruthless leaders are using the careful application of terror as one element in a larger strategy it can (unfortunately) be part of a winning effort. But not by itself. In this case there is no well defined and united Baloch leadership out there, who may be using these attacks as well defined parts of a larger effort.  A Baloch Lenin or Mao (or even a Baloch Molvi Fazlullah) could use terrorism as one part of a larger, well thought-out effort. A Baloch group that just blows up stuff here and there is only getting more innocents killed. 
3. Could Balochistan see a more serious and more dangerous (and potentially successful) liberation struggle in the days to come? It could, mainly because the people oppressing them are so good at scoring own goals and messing things up. Even so, it seems unlikely to succeed unless an outside power (aka the United States) makes (or is making) a VERY serious effort to make this happen. Otherwise, this struggle can go on for a long time, but it wont lead to successful secession. 
A Gandhian approach will not necessarily work either, but may be a better bet. It could conceivably co-exist with a relatively narrowly targeted armed insurgency, but not with one that uses indiscriminate terrorism…the state will simply use the terrorism as justification to wrap up the non-violent side and nobody will be able to stop them; “civil society” and international pressure will be blunted by the existence of terrorism….. and.the terrorists will not be able to help their civilian sympathizers because a bit of terrorism here and there is all they have, unlike the TTP, who can turn it on and off and negotiate concessions for their front organizations using calibrated and credible threats. 
 

Hello from Baroda

It’s my fourth visit to India since Dec’12. I’m very find of the place but it seems the Indian economy is definitely in slow-down mode, most of the bill boards around Calcutta airport were empty of ads.

The new airports cropping up in the metros are simply amazing (admittedly I’m referencing this to Africa but Bombay Airport’s can trump even Heathrow – the brief given to the interior decorators at Bombay airport was that amenities should be of such a standard that “people should miss their flights”).
I think the world is beginning to segment where we are also beginning to see a “Frontier” First, the urban regions (probably coastal America, Ny-Lon, Tokyo-HK) that are on the cutting edge of development and than the stable First World (Berlin, Paris). 
I think that the upcoming elections in India are going to be a watershed and it seems that Modi will be good for the economy. However the Gujarat riots were really something else (in the aftermath of those riots however they’ve come to a complete stop) since apparently there were detailed lists of minority-owned businesses and it had spread from Ahmedabad old town to the prosperous suburbs (one Hindu woman who had owned a Benneton? business with her Muslim husband had to stand outside it and recite the Gayatri Mantra? to prove she was Hindu).
Anyway I think that though Modi’s track record is patchy (the riots do seem to be a failure either way) he is the man to bring India back on track. Big government just cannot work here (or in Africa or elsewhere for that matter) since the largesse gets distributed all around.
My journeys to India now span east (Calcutta), south (Chennai), west (Mumbai, Baroda, Kolhapur) but ironically not the heart and north of India (the most “Pakistani” parts of the country Lolz).

The Islamic System of Government

The opening of the farcical (probably intended as such) “negotiations” between powerless pro-Taliban negotiators selected by the government of Pakistan and equally powerless pro-Taliban negotiators selected by the Taliban (2 of their representatives, including cricket star and political buffoon Imran Khan, have already dropped out) has led to a rash of TV appearances by various luminaries discussing the suitability or otherwise of the Taliban’s demand that “Western Democracy” be replaced by the “Islamic System” in Pakistan. In this debate the Islamists obviously have a huge advantage, in that the founder of the state promised a state “based on Islamic ideals” where there will be “nothing but Quranic principles as our constitution”,  the first constituent assembly duly passed an “Objectives resolution” that states that Pakistan will be a state where Muslims can live “in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah” and the current constitution includes detailed “Islamic” provisions including the statement that no law shall be repugnant to the holy quran and sunnah. Still, there is some wriggle room in that the anti-Islam panelists can raise the question of “whose Islam” and thus defer the enforcement of Quran and Sunnah till such time as agreement can be reached about what it is that the Quran and Sunnah actually require of us. In the interest of the infidels and unislamic panelists, I want to point them towards a more substantive argument: The Shariah as traditionally understood (and various left wing Iranian jokers notwithstanding, there IS no other shariah yet) simply has NO POLITICAL SYSTEM. 

 No details about division of powers, method of selection of ruler, transfer of power, institutions of the state, etc etc. Nothing. Nada. There is no there there. If shariah is the set of rules and laws put together by the jurists of the four madhabs of Sunni Islam (nobody pretends that Pakistan is about to enforce some sort of Shia shariah, so that is besides the point) then they are practically nothing except detailed rules of inheritance, marriage laws and few penal regulations (regarding robbery, adultery, alcohol, murder but not, for example, about rape or transporting banned drugs across state lines). There are, of course, endless arguments about minor rules of social and personal conduct and hundreds of volumes of conflicting fatwas about farting during prayers and prayers to be said before and after sex.
But there is practically nothing about the political system or the constitution of a modern state. Any ruler and any state arrangement is OK as long as it is nominally Muslims and enforces the above rules for its Muslim population (and some humiliating ones for its non-muslim population). Once this is made clearer, we can proceed further.

Unfortunately for the infidel panelists, where we proceed next is also troublesome. It will turn out that while the constitution of Pakistan (or ANY other constitution) is more or less kosher as far as division of powers, elections, parliaments and supreme courts is concerned, the shariah DOES have a few rules about alcohol, amputation of hands and conversation with women…. and those rules are not being enforced in Pakistan.
Back to square one.

On a more serious note, i highly recommend Carl Brown’s Religion and State; the Muslim approach to politics. Must read. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2074197.Religion_and_State
Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics

GHQ Response to Taliban Demands

The TTP (Pakistani Taliban) has issued a list of 15 demands in the course of the farcical Taliban1 versus Taliban2 “negotiations” currently being used to keep ppl busy till the next operation in Pakistan.
In response, Mr Imtiaz Mahmood has issued a set of 15 demands that GHQ would have issued if it was not participating/directing/watching this insane farce.

15 point response to Taliban’s demands, should be as follows if Pakistan army had any balls, but we all know that they are deficient in that department:


1. Surrender. 
2. Face trial for your crimes against the state
3. Compensate your victims under Qisas and Diyat. 
4. Apologize to the entire world especially Pakistanis.
5. Deposit your weapons with the Pakistan Army
6. Name your handlers both in Pakistan and abroad
7. Rebuild all the schools you blew up.
8. Rebuild all the mosques, churches and Sikh Gurduwaras you blew up.
9. Confess to being child molesters and rapists.
10. Deposit all your funds in the state treasury so that these can be used to build girls schools in your area.
11. Admit that what you did was un-Islamic and against Shariat.
12. Repent
13. Take a shower.
14. Agree to voluntary castration.
15. Make a Gangam Style rendition video in FATA with Pakistani and US soldiers.

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