After months of international diplomatic efforts, the Afghan Taliban opened a political office in Doha, Qatar to begin peace talks and end the Afghan war. While the trilateral negotiations between the Taliban, Afghanistan, and the United States have not yet started, they have already hit several important snags.
In an apparent show of muscle, and its continued defiance of recognizing President Hamid Karzai's government, the Taliban opened the new office waving their own white flag and with signs displaying the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" -- the moniker used when they ruled the country in the 1990s. Displeased with the portrayal, Karzai announced that his government no longer plans to send envoys from the Afghan High Peace Council to partake in talks in Doha, but remains willing to pursue the negotiations inside Afghanistan. While the signs were taken down, Karzai felt his government had been sidelined in the process that led to the office opening, and suspended bilateral negotiations on a long-stalled U.S.-Afghan security deal that will govern the American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
But despite their willingness to come to the negotiating table, the Afghan Taliban has not yet accepted or respected any of Washington's and Kabul's primary conditions -- namely to renounce violence and recognize the Afghan Constitution. In fact, just one day after the office's opening, the Taliban continued their daily violence and claimed responsibility for an attack that killed four American troops. The Taliban's intransigence to enter serious talks shows the measure of their strength, and is a sharp reminder that the Taliban's insurgency remains potent, insincere in its dealings, closed to the terms of negotiations, and ultimately, unwilling to reconcile.
The Taliban's approach to circumvent the Afghan government and negotiate directly with the United States also indicates that Karzai's government -- despite being lauded as the main driving force behind the process -- remains the weakest player in the peace talks. Perhaps, the only players who truly benefit from the new office are the Taliban themselves. It appears that their ultimate goal is to follow in the footsteps of Hezbollah -- the Islamist insurgent and political group in Lebanon -- evolving into and essentially operating under a similar militant and political framework in Afghanistan.
Given the current operating environment and conditions, the Afghan Taliban and their affiliated factions appear to benefit from the new political office in at least three important ways.
First, the new office helps the Taliban play to the cameras and spread its propaganda through international outlets. It also gains international recognition and legitimacy in a bid for acceptance as a political force in Afghanistan. Putting up their own signs and flag imply that the Taliban's leadership could use the new office as a base for their shadow government, something that only confirms the worst fears of the Afghan people. If the Taliban pursues their political ambitions under the Afghan constitutional framework, and through an inclusive election process, Afghans could probably live with it. However, if the Taliban were brought in through some sort of a power-sharing settlement without elections, and perhaps under an amended Afghan constitution, that compromises decade-long important gains, it could prove unacceptable to many Afghans.
Second, with easy access to its traditional and historical allies and financiers in the Arab region, the new office enables the Taliban to raise funds and public sympathy for its seditious agenda in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban is already blunt and effective in sending strategic messages that support its military operations in Afghanistan, and it is seizing the Doha process in its favor. These efforts will only escalate, and will receive much more attention once the Taliban establish direct access to important international state and non-state entities, such as the U.N. and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Third, using the new office as a hub, the Taliban will continue to push for concessions from Washington and Kabul, particularly in releasing its prisoners from detention facilities at Bagram Airfield and Guantanamo Bay, and the lifting of travel bans on senior Taliban leadership. The Taliban is also likely to make more ambitious demands in other areas, including changing the Afghan Constitution in a way that increases its influence in the country's affairs. Washington and Kabul might even make some of these concessions in return for unbinding promises the Taliban will later break.
Regardless, the lack of incentives for the Taliban to sincerely negotiate signifies bigger challenges for the effectiveness of the peace talks. Additionally, the success of the talks is further clouded by Karzai's regular anti-Western outbursts, as well as his hasty decisions and obstinacy in reaching the long-awaited Bilateral Security Agreement that Afghanistan desperately needs. With international forces leaving the country next year, the Afghan government needs a security deal with Washington, largely for its own survival. Though Afghan security forces are now fully in-charge of operations nationwide, they are still mired in big problems -- including a growing number of casualties, higher desertion and attrition rates -- and remain cripplingly reliant on international air, logistic, and financial support, things the security deal can ensure.
Every insurgency and conflict ultimately ends with some sort of an agreement and settlement; indeed, the Afghan war will someday end as well. While the resumption of peace talks is a good sign, given the conditions and negotiating terms, the opening of the Taliban's political office in Doha appears to benefit them the most, not the United States and not the Afghan government. Although these incipient talks will take a long time to materialize, Karzai must realize that the continued existence of his government and the feasibility of its nascent security forces hinges primarily on reaching a timely bilateral security deal with Washington, something which should not be disrupted by the Taliban's signs and flag-hoisting ceremony.
Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views reflected here are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @ahmadjavid.
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From December 5, 2012 to January 29, 2013, al-Qaeda's top-tier forum Shamukh al-Islam was down (with a brief return for a few days after December 17). The suppression of the forum is likely the work of an intelligence agency, but no claim of responsibility has been announced. It has also accelerated an already growing trend: the migration of jihadi propaganda from web forums to social media.
In response to the blackout, many jihadi groups, media outlets, and individuals created new accounts on Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook). Others have likely migrated to popular second-tier forums like Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (AMAF), which occurred the last time the al-Qaeda approved forums went down in late March/early April 2012. During that period, I was in the middle of collecting and analyzing data (from February 1, 2012 to April 31, 2012) on a number of jihadi forums spanning multiple languages and Twitter accounts for a New American Foundation paper, which showed empirically for the first time that lower-tier forums did indeed fill the vacuum created by the main forum's absence.
Both of these forum takedowns -- in March and April, as well as in December and January -- exposed the limits of al-Qaeda's official online media procedures, which are headed by its distribution network al-Fajr Media. Al-Fajr is responsible for coordinating between al-Qaeda Central (AQC), its affiliates' media outlets (As-Sahab Media for AQC, al-Malahim for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Furqan for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and al-Andalus for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)), and the forum administrators. In both takedown cases, al-Fajr could not deliver content from the al-Qaeda affiliates, at least in an official capacity, to the online masses.
Media outlets, groups, and ideologues that, while not expressly affiliated, are inspired by al-Qaeda's worldview have not been hindered by this process, and therefore have not evolved mechanisms for releasing their content. Previously, popular online jihadi essayists like Abu Sa'd al-Amili wrote articles when the forums when down, encouraging readers to be patient and to understand that the forums would persist and would not be defeated. On December 23, 2012, however, Abdullah Muhammad Mahmud, a writer for the jihadi news agency Dawa al-Haqq Foundation for Studies and Research, which is disseminated via a Wordpress blog, provided guidance to online jihadi activists. Mahmud told his comrades that going forward, it was legitimate to use Twitter and Facebook as sources of information for jihadi-related issues. This advice was in a sense revolutionary, as jihadis had previously emphazized the importance of the forums as a method for authenticating materials, to prevent forgeries of official group content. At the same time, though, many grassroots activists had already been active on online social media platforms for a few years on an individual basis.
If the dissemination of official releases is no longer to be done centrally, it has the potential to make the forums obsolete, and usher in a new era whereby jihadi activists primarily rely on social media platforms to interact with one another. It could also force groups that are part of al-Fajr's distribution network to evolve and change their methods of content dissemination. There is already some evidence that this shift has started during the ongoing forum takedown.
Evan Kohlmann, an expert on online jihadism, noted on December 10, 2012: "Due to the absence of top jihad chat forums, al-Shabab (formerly @HSMPress) in Somalia has been forced to rely on Twitter to distribute its latest video release. This may be the first time that any terrorist group allied with Al-Qaida has ever used Twitter as the exclusive point of release for media." It should be highlighted that unlike other al-Qaeda affiliates, al-Shabab releases its content through the distribution network Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Al-Qaeda in Iraq's creation in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (@jbhatalnusra), has also over the past few weeks used Twitter as the first point of release of its content, outsourcing what would be a forum thread with a ‘justpaste.it' page.
On January 25, Twitter shut down al-Shabab's extremely active account, which had some 20,000 followers and often featured pithy, tongue-in-cheek tweets attacking Western governments or other adversaries. Twitter said the ban was in response to a tweet sent by al-Shabab announcing that they would kill French hostage Denis Allex, and then saying they had done so, violating Twitter's rules against violent messages. But just yesterday, al-Shabab opened a new account, from which a tweet was issued that read, "For what it's worth, shooting the messenger and suppressing the truth by silencing your opponents isn't quite the way to win the war of ideas."
AQI and AQAP also used alternate methods to release their content. Instead of going through al-Fajr, AQI used the independent Iraqi-focused al-Yaqin Media to post its content to Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum. AQAP sent its content through Abdullah bin Muhammad, a rising jihadi star online, through his Twitter account. The only group that seems to have been left behind in this brave new world is al-Qaeda Central in Pakistan.
It is possible during the takedown in March/April 2012 that some of the forums learned by creating backup options. Both the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum (@as_ansar) on April 13 and the Somali al-Qimmah Islamic Network (@AlqimmahNetwork) on April 9 created Twitter accounts once they returned. Both now feature links to their Twitter accounts prominently on the front page of their forums. This may be an effort to diversify the forums' ways of communicating with the public and delivering content.
Since the formal period of my study on the state of the jihadi forums and some Twitter accounts ended at the end of April 2012, others have also joined Twitter - though unsurprisingly, none that use al-Qaeda in their official name. They include -- in the order that they joined -- Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen's media outlet Madad News Agency (@W_mdd); Asad al-Jihad2 (@AsadAljehad2), a prominent online jihadi essayist; Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (@MinbarTawhed), a library of jihadi scholarly materials; Jabhat al-Nusra (@JbhatALnusra), the premier jihadi organization active in Syria; Muhammad al-Zawahiri (@M7mmd_Alzwahiri), the brother of AQC's leader and an influential Egyptian jihadi in his own right; Jihad Archive (@jehadarchiv), a website that archives old jihadi organization videos and statements; Abu Sa'd al-Amili (@al3aamili), a popular online jihadi writer; Fursan al-Balagh Media (@fursanalbalaagh), a jihadi translation and transcription service for official al-Qaeda and affiliated content; and Dr. Iyad Qanibi (@EYADQUNAIBI), a popular jihadi ideologue from Jordan.
There is some evidence that use of Facebook is also growing at the expense of the forums, and that individuals are moving jihadi content to invitation-only Facebook groups and pages. The nature of this activity is unclear at this point without further study. Additionally, some jihadi organizations - Jabhat al-Nusra, Jama'at al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Jaysh al-Umma, and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia - have even gone so far as to establish their own personal forums.
But while more jihadis continue to be attracted to Twitter and Facebook, al-Qaeda's official distribution route through al-Fajr media has yet to replace its tried and true method of authentication using its approved forums. Also, online jihadis' reactions to the return of Shamukh after it was down for more than seven weeks illustrated that they were still attached to using the forums. In the future, it is possible that if Shamukh were to be suppressed again, al-Qaeda could confer legitimacy on the second-tier forum Ansar al-Mujahidin, which is already seen as trustworthy by online grassroots activists. In the past, after al-Fallujah Forum was permanently taken offline, it conferred legitimacy on Shamukh. AMAF like others forums, though, uses the same tools and is almost certainly vulnerable to the same kind of takedown tactics. And although Twitter provides a more public platform than a password-protected forum, one crucial utility of forums for jihadis is the ability to have relatively private conversations among themselves. At the very least, now more than ever, there is a hybrid ecosystem for online jihadis.
Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is author of a recent New America Foundation study on the state of the global jihad online. It provides a qualitative, quantitative, and cross-lingual analysis based on data from February 1, 2012 - April 31, 2012.
In a country where ethnic differences and institutional alliances have dictated loyalties and national policies for decades, Pakistan is rapidly cultivating an ideological paradigm that has the ability to put the nation on a starkly different trajectory than it is now.
Since its establishment, Pakistan has fostered a sociocentric culture - one that emphasizes the role of community and groupthink, and encourages its members to act in a way that is best for the community or institution they belong to. It is no surprise then that Pakistanis have deep ethnic allegiances that spill over into politics. Ethnic groups, political parties, and even political institutions, as we have seen with the military and more recently with the Supreme Court, require a deeply imbedded sociocentric approach from all of its members.
On the polar end of a sociocentric perspective of society is the individualistic viewpoint - people examine issues and make moral decisions based on what is best for the individual and individual rights and liberties, and not necessarily that of the group. Individualism is much more common amongst people who can be classified as W.E.I.R.D - Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic - a recently coined term to classify a distinct group of people.
While Pakistan is firmly a sociocentric nation, there are a growing number of Pakistanis who fall into the WEIRD classification, and more importantly, they are being provided the platform to better propagate their views. This is undoubtedly a minor shift, but it has the ability to impact Pakistani politics and policy in significant ways.
At the center of this shift are an increasing number of western educated liberals who find themselves contributing to the national dialogue for a host of issues, thanks to an emerging, robust media. Browsing through the Opinion pages of Pakistan's leading national publications, the Express Tribune, Dawn, and The News International, amongst others, one will find no shortage of liberal viewpoints from a very educated, nearly WEIRD pool of authors - perspectives that are not representative of the population at large, and come from writers who have backgrounds that are not indicative of that of the average Pakistani.
A more ubiquitous media presence, coupled with greater access to information mediums such as televisions and Internet, has contributed to a stronger dissemination of these progressive views. As Pakistan's Internet users approaches 20% of the population, a 66% increase in just four years, and television viewing continues to rise, educated, progressive intellectuals have been able to draw attention to small, yet meaningful issues that display the changing attitudes in the country. This past January, the outrage over Maya Khan and her "Vigil-Aunties," a group of women who swarmed a public park to confront unmarried couples on live TV, exemplified the potential Pakistan's media has in mobilizing and creating outcry over practices that damage individual autonomy. It is not hard to imagine a time recently where such practices may have gone overlooked in Pakistan by the masses.
The rise of a liberal media in Pakistan is a significant trend in the country's ideological development. Individuals like Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the former Goldman Sachs Investment Banker and Harvard educated founder of GeoTV, have created a landscape that, while still nascent, has recently become formidable. Despite its other travails, the democracy that has remained in the country over the past five years has allowed the media to become a more impressive institution capable of catalyzing a paradigm shift in the country.
The proliferation of highly Western media publications is a case in point. Hello! Magazine, a weekly celebrity news publication, a concept that has thus far been foreign in Pakistan, began circulation earlier this year. While condemned by some segments of the population, such publications, along with the views they espouse are becoming more palatable and accessible. Liberal publications and a progressive, ubiquitous, and more accessible media can slowly chip away at sociocentric perspectives that have been steadfast in the country.
But not all WEIRD Pakistanis find themselves channeling the media as their primary vehicle for progress. Members of civil society, like Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch who was educated at Oxford, businessmen such as Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi, who has served as the President of the Pakistan Chamber of Commerce-USA, and the hoard of Western-educated employees of companies like the Acumen Fund, have a much more subtle way of spreading a philosophy that is starkly different from the sociocentric approach that Pakistanis are accustomed to.
The infiltration of such individuals into the world of Pakistan's civil society and political institutions will be critical for any robust change. Pakistani politics is too dominated by ethnic loyalties, dynastic politics, and institutional obsessions. This has damaged and regressed the country in the past, and continues to be one of its main deterrents from progress and stability.
Any national paradigm shift will be gradual, and reliable polls investigating changes in social attitudes in Pakistan have yet to be undertaken, but signs of such a shift are already present in Pakistan's media and politics. While Imran Khan is far from being classified as a liberal, he does champion many of the perspectives that one would find in a WEIRD individual. He has called for an end to political parties being dominated by families, and instead establishing a norm of party leadership being selected on merit, not kin; he has advocated for an end to cultural segregation in the country's politics as well, and instead sees himself as a representative of all Pakistanis - a much disparate stance than the current major political parties who are all known to be supported by specific ethnic groups.
In espousing such viewpoints, Imran Khan has digressed from the sociocentric model of politics that parties in Pakistan have followed for decades. Having spent many of his formative years in England, which included an Oxford education and a marriage to a Briton, it is not surprising that Imran Khan views politics in acutely different terms than is the sociocentric norm.
While this a slow developing trajectory for Pakistan, successful integration of a progressive, individualistic, equality-based framework can help the country become a more politically inclusive nation. Political inclusiveness and true equality will in turn create a more stable Pakistan. The shift being catalyzed by the WEIRD members of Pakistan's society seeks to change the fundamental foundation of how the country's political and economic policies function. Such changes may be slow and subtle today, but are promising for the future.
Aziz Nayani is a student and writer whose research interests focus on South Asian culture and political institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @AzizNayani.
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In recent days, details have emerged about the Pakistani government's pursuit of Internet filtering technologies that would enable it to block up to 50 million websites. This news comes just weeks after a parliamentary committee proposed a ban on "anti-Pakistan" programming on private television stations.
Pakistan's media may be feisty (the country's private television channels are often stridently anti-government in tone), but feisty does not necessarily mean free. In its 2011-12 Press Freedom Index, Reporters Without Borders ranks Pakistan 151st out of 179 nations. The country's culture of violence toward the media is the main reason for this low ranking, but state policies threaten media freedoms as well. Because the rapid and relatively recent expansion of the Pakistani press has not been accompanied by checks on its excesses, media-muzzling measures have effectively become proxies for regulation.
It wasn't always this way. For years, Pakistan's television media environment was dominated by the staid, state-run Pakistan Television. Not until the early 2000s did the nation experience a sudden and explosive proliferation of private cable and satellite TV outlets-the result of a liberalization regime initiated by then-President Pervez Musharraf, who, according to some observers, sought alternatives to the Indian satellite television channels watched by many Pakistanis at the time. Today, Pakistan boasts about 90 private television channels and more than 100 radio stations, but only one media oversight entity: the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority, which falls under the information minister's purview and is widely regarded as ineffective.
What has this pell-mell transition wrought? First, it has produced a vibrant media environment that strengthens Pakistani democracy. It has also promoted civic activism; Pakistani television networks helped catalyze the anti-government fervor that erupted following Musharraf's firing of the country's chief justice in 2007.
Yet it has also unleashed a torrent of ugly content. This ranges from sloppy reporting (The News' coverage of the Congressional hearings on Balochistan earlier this year misidentified a witness, M. Hossein Bor, as a Congressman) to unethical practices (newspaper articles frequently print names, phone numbers, and even addresses of vulnerable citizens such as human rights activists and rape victims, and print journalists are often accused of plagiarism).
Then there is sensationalism. The recent exploits of Maya Khan and Shamoon Abbasi-TV personalities who, with cameras rolling, sought to expose dating couples frolicking in parks and lovers engaged in homosexual activities-have attracted considerable attention. Yet there is also popular TV personality Meher Bokhari, who berated and bullied the late Punjab Province governor Salman Taseer in a 2010 interview. One observer concluded that the interview whipped up such hatred that it contributed indirectly to Taseer's assassination just weeks later. Oftentimes, however, politicians drive the sensationalism. A senior leader from Imran Khan's party once hurled a glass at a fellow guest during a Business TV talk show. And just last month, an official from Musharraf's party appearing on Express News issued a death threat to a co-panelist-with no intervention from the host or producer.
Perhaps the most troubling consequence of Pakistan's unregulated press is the erosion of the line separating fact and fiction. In late 2010, the Express Tribune published a horrifying story about Shamsul Anwar, a soldier-turned-taxi driver. Anwar claimed that two of his sons were kidnapped by militants, with one killed and the other released-only to be diagnosed with cancer, which Anwar had no money to treat. About a year later, The News published an update: not only was the son still in need of medical care, but Anwar reported that his daughter had now been abducted as well.
In January 2012, Anwar admitted that his story was a hoax-concocted, he said, to swindle money from sympathetic readers. Sehrish Wasif, who wrote the initial article, said she hoped the affair would be "a lesson to all journalists, including myself, to not let emotion be the guiding force of a news report." Yet the real blame lies with the anything-goes, report-everything media environment that Anwar so skillfully exploited. The murky distinction between truth and untruth also hovered over the coda to the Khan and Abbasi affairs, when both journalists claimed that their offending segments had actually been staged. And it loomed large in 2010, when several media reports insinuated (with little evidence) that a famous 2009 video of a girl getting publicly flogged in Taliban-occupied Swat was actually a fabrication orchestrated by paid actors.
Islamabad rarely responds to media shenanigans with carefully targeted interventions. Instead, it casts a wide net and resorts to outright bans. In 2010 the government temporarily outlawed Facebook and YouTube (for anti-Islamic content), while in recent months it unsuccessfully attempted to filter 1,500 words out of mobile-based text messaging-including incendiary terms such as "athlete's foot" and "finger food."
These draconian measures are driven as much by political fears as by concerns about better-quality media. Tellingly, the announcements about Web filtering technologies and curbs on anti-Pakistan TV programming were made at a time when national coverage about Balochistan, a province rife with anti-government sentiment and separatist ambitions, has been on the rise. Rolling Stone's website has been inaccessible in Pakistan since July 2011, when it posted a story critical of the army's budgetary spending. And only in the last few days has the government overturned a four-month ban on BBC World News, which aired a documentary last November questioning Pakistan's willingness to tackle militancy.
Encouragingly, Pakistan's media and civil society have taken steps toward promoting regulation. According to Sahar Habib Ghazi of the citizen journalism portal Hosh Media, many small media outlets voluntarily follow the Society of Professional Journalists' code of conduct. The Huffington Post has spotlighted Citizens for Free and Responsible Media, comprised of Pakistanis "who regularly monitor and discuss" national media content. Other promising efforts, however, have lapsed. These include an attempt by Dawn News journalist Matiullah Jan to launch a TV show that singles out unethical behavior in the media. The show was cancelled after 12 episodes, and Jan acknowledged resistance "from the highest levels of the media industry."
This resistance to such ombudsman-like arrangements underscores a basic reality (and one not unique to Pakistan): Sensationalism sells. Criticism of questionable Pakistani media practices tends to emenate from other media professionals, and not from the general public. Media experts contend that news programming -- which produces the most outrageous content -- is more popular with Pakistani audiences than entertainment offerings.
Fortunately, there is another way to improve Pakistani media standards: Bettering the lot of the average journalist. In 2011, for the second year in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists designated Pakistan as the most dangerous country for reporters. Yet their bravery often goes unrewarded. "It's alright to keep your employees starving while you sip champagne and devour caviar in the comfort of your many mansions," a bitter Pakistani journalist fumed last month about the country's media magnates. Even Taseer, who owned the Daily Times, was excoriated for his staff management; one critic alleged that his workers did not get paid "for months on end" or received only half their salaries. Meanwhile, according to Dawn columnist Huma Yusuf, most of Pakistan's 17,000 journalists have little relevant training; less than 1 percent of the labor force is trained in media or communication studies at the college level.
Expecting powerful media titans to take the lead in regulating their output quality may be expecting too much. A more realistic expectation is that they simply help their employees. Momentum is building for such measures; last week, the Media Commission of Pakistan, a media rights watchdog, released a report demanding that journalists be provided with health and life insurance. By offering more competitive salaries, providing training opportunities, and improving journalists' general well-being, media bigwigs can help make their staffs happier and more productive. Better compensated and trained journalists are more likely to practice their craft ethically and responsibly-thereby setting an example worthy of emulation by their bosses.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @michaelkugelman
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Even as the recently released tell-all Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward raises fresh doubts about the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and will likely stoke mistrust in the United States about Pakistan as a partner against the Afghan Taliban, a series of stories that paint the Pakistani army in a negative light will undoubtedly contribute to the tensions. These events occur against the backdrop of heightened U.S. drone activity inside Pakistan's border region and at least two reported NATO helicopter attacks on Pakistani soil. How the Pakistani army sees these events and addresses the ensuing challenges will have enormous impacts on the future trajectory of South Asia, as well as the direction of Pakistan's fragile democracy.
First, there was the reported kidnapping of The News journalist Umar Cheema and the standard operating procedures of Pakistani intelligence agencies used to humiliate and torture him, according to his detailed account of the incident. Other than denials, there does not appear to be a clear or detailed explanation from the government or the Inter Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan's top spy agency, of who did this, nor any indication from the government that a rapid and credible public inquiry is underway. In the absence of such actions, rumors will fly and allegations will be made that will undermine the state and its agencies.
Second, there has been a new viral video released on the Internet purporting to be a record of extrajudicial killing of blindfolded Pashtun captives in civilian clothes by Urdu-speaking (that is, non-Pashtun) soldiers in army uniforms and carrying standard army weapons. The presence of a senior person identified in the soundtrack as "Tanveer Sahib" may implicate an officer in this incident. According to the New York Times, the Pakistani military initially dismissed the video as a forgery. The Times later reported that the army had investigated the incident, found it to be genuine, and promised to act against the perpetrators.
Fairly or not, this video and other negative stories about the army's operations and its behind-the-scenes role in Pakistani politics will likely be seen within Pakistan as coordinated and hostile actions from outside Pakistan to put pressure on the Pakistan army to bend to U.S. demands on a number of fronts. The army's readiness to move against the elements involved in these killings speaks to its new and informed leadership. Similar reports of extrajudicial killings in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1971 were brushed aside by the army at that time. They lost the hearts and minds of the local population, fuelled an insurgency, and created a refugee stream into India that drew that country into invading East Pakistan to help create Bangladesh. By contrast, in June 1992, an incident in Sindh province earlier described by the army in Sindh as an "encounter" with local robbers was openly investigated by the army high command, following a BBC report of killings by an army major as a favor to a local landlord. The major was court-martialed and sentenced to death. Senior officers who failed to investigate the incident adequately and participated in covering it up were removed or dismissed to much public acclaim. The army's stock went up in the public eye.
The current army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, will need to confront this latest allegation head-on and quickly rather than let it simmer and adversely affect public support for the military as well as morale inside the institution. If a "rogue officer" was at work giving his troops an unlawful command to murder civilian prisoners, then the army needs to clear it up in a manner that will identify and bring to court the culprits and help educate the rest of its officers and troops against similar actions. At a time when the civilian government is under stress and economic and political problems have besieged it, it is important that the army is seen as a stable entity working with the government for the common good.
General Kayani also faces a challenge on the border from the U.S. and NATO. A first incursion into Pakistan seemed to have been handled quickly by him and Adm. Mike Mullen to reduce unhappiness on the Pakistan side. They spoke and decided not to add to the public rhetoric. But now an additional incident in Kurram involving a NATO helicopter attack that reportedly killed three soldiers of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that patrols the tribal areas, has led to the closing of the border to NATO supplies for Afghanistan and a public rebuke from the government of Pakistan.
This situation could easily careen out of control. The Obama administration, which is unhappy with what it perceives as Pakistan's lack of action against anti-American militants, is seriously miscalculating if it is using such tactics to pressure Pakistan to launch operations against its will. Better to argue your case behind closed doors, as allies should -- or risk a public split. Similarly, Pakistan risks overestimating its leverage over the United States and NATO by shutting down the coalition's supply routes across the Durand Line. If anything, this embargo will accelerate the U.S. drive to diversify its logistics chain -- while taking money out of Pakistanis' pockets.
There is some positive news. On Thursday, Kayani announced a fresh list of newly promoted three-star generals, completing his team of senior officers who will outlast his own new three-year term at the helm of the army. By all accounts, he has chosen tried and tested professionals and superseded some Musharraf loyalists. As with the lieutenant generals promoted in April, he has by and large selected apolitical and professional soldiers with a broad, mature view of the world and of Pakistan's place in it. Many of them have topped their classes at the military academy, winning the Sword of Honour, or have attended advanced military courses abroad, as has Kayani. Here's hoping they get their chance to prove that Pakistani's military can be a force for stability in South Asia, and a voice for the rule of law at home.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within and Pakistan in the Danger Zone: A Tenuous U.S.-Pakistan Relationship.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
On the morning of July 26 I woke up at home in Karachi, nine hours ahead of eastern time, to an e-mail from an American friend who writes for The Atlantic's website. "How is WikiLeaks playing in Pakistan?" he wanted to know. The story had broken overnight, and I had no idea what he was talking about. In turn I picked up Dawn, The News, and The Express Tribune, the three Pakistani newspapers that are delivered to my house every day. Not one of them had anything to say on the issue.
It was another matter entirely when I logged onto my computer and the New York Times website. For the next several hours I was transfixed, trying to digest both the firestorm in the international media and the pin-drop silence at home.
The most likely explanation of this is that the story
broke too late to make it into Pakistani newspapers on Monday morning. The
conspiracy-minded might argue it could have been suppressed, perhaps even in
advance, by the Pakistani state, or that domestic newspapers would not want to
jump into dangerous territory without taking the time to examine the matter
closely. Either way, the silence continued almost unbroken throughout the day.
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Karachi recently played host to Fashion Pakistan Week, a five-day event showcasing the work of 52 designers. But while the fashion weeks of the world -- like those in London, Paris, and New York -- are known for their cutting-edge designer collections, this latest show in Pakistan was associated with bravery -- specifically, defying the Taliban.
Although foreign media coverage of Fashion Pakistan Week has lent the event immense publicity -- organizers cite the numerous publications that covered the event as a sign of success -- the stories haven't been about the fashion. A slew of articles and captions published during the first major fashion week held in Pakistan in November 2009 set the tone for the fashion week held this April to be not about draping and design, but about daring and drones.
And though this type of "stereotypical" coverage of fashion being used as political tool has decreased this last year (as designers would say, "That's so last season!"), there was a notable shift in the messages being delivered at this month's fashion week in Pakistan. Designers, presumably tired of being branded in heroic terms, attempted to turn attention to their craft and their plans to make Pakistani fashion a recognizable brand abroad.
For the past few years, reportage on Pakistani culture abroad has been all about "defiance," whether it's a music school or a literary festival. Pakistan has been conducting military operations against the Taliban for years now, and drone attacks conducted by the United States have taken out some of the most notorious terrorists in the country, such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mehsud. Thousands of Pakistanis have died in attacks in the northwest and in other areas of the country, including large cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Quetta. The fact that life still goes on in other parts of the country despite the many suicide attacks seems to have become a wondrous fact for the world at large. And so the stereotype of "look at these brave Pakistanis, carrying on despite all the doom and gloom" has dictated reportage of any event in the country.
But does this cloud of stereotypes have a silver lining?
It does have its benefits. For example, despite being laden with clichés, several facets of Pakistani culture are now being promoted abroad. One of the country's most promising musical outfits, Zeb and Haniya, who originally hail from the northwest region of Pakistan but are currently based in Lahore, have been profiled in several publications.
In some ways, the coverage has helped translate into the attention that Pakistani designers, for example, really want. Buyers from the Dubai retail stores Soiree, Designer's Lounge, and Source and Indian retailers such as Carma and Ogaan have descended upon Lahore and Karachi, looking to pick up Pakistani designers they can stock at boutiques abroad. International fashion publications are planning to feature Pakistani fashion, and the focus is finally on the clothes.
Interestingly enough, the past few years have seen an evolution in the mainstream cultural events and projects being planned. While the Pakistani fashion scene was often criticized for being too focused on Western apparel, the designs now heavily feature homespun traditional fabric and ethnic jewelry. The music being played at fashion week includes not just the latest Lady Gaga single, but also Pakistani pop songs from the 1980s and indie music from 2008.
I spoke to American journalist Carla Power about what she thought about Pakistan's fashion week. "I wasn't at the first fashion week," she told me, but said she remembered that the "flak jacket" crowd (referring to war correspondents) "came down for the event." So in the short run it helped. "But," she continued, "if that continues to be the case it would be a pity."
I asked Power if there were any underlining benefits to news coverage of fashion weeks that paint designers as brave souls defying the Taliban without any focus on their work.
"Edward Said would be rolling in his grave if he saw an entire country being reduced to being either pro- or anti-Taliban," Power said. "But there is this sense that the only reason the international press was at fashion week to begin with was this so-called war on terror. The tragedy would be if all this creativity was boiled down to the polar opposite."
The cultural references being drawn from Pakistan were center stage on the runway this week as well. Syed Rizwanullah, a young Karachi-based designer, showed a collection called "Depression Chic." A model walked out on the runway in a patchwork burqa, which she threw off to display a modern take on harem pants and traditional tights (called churidar in Urdu). In a conversation after his show, Rizwanullah told me why he thought the burqas would be a hit were he to retail them. "I can imagine why people would want them … if you're having a bad day and don't want to be recognized, have a pimple or got too tanned." It was a unique take on a garment that is generally associated with religious convictions.
Couture designer Umar Sayeed paid homage to the brilliant Pakistani artist Sadequain, whose work was translated by Sayeed onto every inch of fabric and even the shoes worn by his models. It is ironic that just across the street from the venue for fashion week, a mural Sadequain painted lies neglected. The reason? It is located on the ceiling of Frere Hall, a venue that has become off limits for the public because the neighborhood also features the U.S. Consulate.
But whether fashion week can ever escape the baggage of stereotypes really does depend how Pakistan's security situation goes -- and whether it will still be necessary to thank the interior minister (as the fashion week emcee did) every night for his support and help for the event to go ahead.
Saba Imtiaz works for the Express Tribune, a newly launched English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
In late August, a couple of weeks after a U.S. drone strike incinerated Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s most popular televised chat show, “Capital Talk,” hosted a panel to discuss national security. Among the guests was a squat, middle-aged woman with short black hair, streaked with silver dye, named Shireen Mazari. A defense analyst and public intellectual, Mazari is known for her hawkish nationalism--and deep suspicions of India and the United States. Her presence in the studio suggested that, despite the enormous threat her country faced from homegrown terrorists, the conversation that night wouldn’t center around Mehsud or the Pakistani Taliban.
Instead, over the course of the next half hour, the panel discussed reports that Blackwater, the North Carolina–based defense contractor that recently changed its name to Xe Services, was operating in Pakistan. Hamid Mir, the host of “Capital Talk,” showed video footage of Islamabad’s most expensive neighborhoods, featuring multi-story villas with high walls and satellite dishes. The homes looked like any other on the street. But red arrows, superimposed on the screen, pointed to allegedly incriminating electrical generators and surveillance cameras perched atop the walls. “American undercover people are coming,” Mazari said. “They are renting homes, and Blackwater is providing security, running death squads and assassination squads ... It is an occupation, by default.”
Mazari’s hunt for American spies and undercover defense contractors was only getting started.
To read the rest, visit The New Republic, where this was originally published.
Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.
FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP/Getty Images
In today's New America Foundation/Foreign Policy launch event for the AfPak Channel (which you can watch live here at 12:15 p.m., though registration is now closed), Peter Bergen, Steve Coll, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be talking about what it's like to report from the region that U.S. President Barack Obama has made the focal point of his foreign policy agenda: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama's focus contrasts starkly with his predecessor's, who concentrated mostly on the war in Iraq. I wondered, in light of the difference, what has really changed in the way the media covers these two wars since Obama took office on January 20.
Fortunately, my Foreign Policy colleague Michael Wilkerson has already picked up on this, and was kind enough to send me the latest batch of raw data from the good people at the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, who track how much coverage various topics get weekly as a percentage of the total, which they call the "newshole."
The short answer as to how much has changed is: a little, as Michael observed last month. Afghanistan is slowly gaining ground on Iraq: since the first week of August, Afghanistan has gotten about four times the total coverage as Iraq has, and the percentage of the newshole devoted to Afghanistan peaked during the week of the August 20 presidential election at 10.2 percent. And coverage also bumped up a little during the week of Obama's March 27 Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy speech.
From the beginning of June 2008 until last week, Afghanistan averaged 1.97 percent of the newshole, compared to Iraq's 2.51 percent. But if you only look at the time period that Obama's been in office, Afghanistan jumps up to 2.93 percent, versus Iraq's 2.06 percent. Obama's foreign policy focus has accordingly apparently dictated a slight uptick in the amount of U.S. media coverage devoted to Afghanistan -- though the total still remains under three percent. A larger version of the chart is available here.
The American Journalism Review has an excellent survey of how Obama's focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan has led many big news outlets to ramp up their correspondents' reporting on and from the region, which I highly recommend. I also recommend tuning in to our event today; Peter Bergen and Rajiv Chandrasekaran are both recently back from big reporting trips to the region, with Rajiv breaking the news that the NATO airstrike in Kunduz that killed as many as 125 including several dozen civilians was based largely on a single Afghan intelligence source, and Peter corresponding for CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 from Helmand province.
By Sylvana Q. Sinha
The media's constant bellowing and measuring of public opinions poses a critical challenge to modern democracy: our leaders must balance the will of those who elected them with the need to make wise policy choices.
On any given day one can find a poll that measures public sentiment on most any topic -- ranging from whether the selection of Ellen DeGeneres as a new judge on "American Idol" was appropriate to whether the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting (for example, a Washington Post-ABC News poll finding that 51% say the war is not worth fighting; an Economist/YouGov poll finding that 32% agree with sending more troops and 65% expect that "The U.S. will withdraw [from Afghanistan] without winning.").
All this ubiquitous polling makes it increasingly difficult for our leaders to actually lead us. McClatchy Newspapers recently reported: "[Vice President Joe] Biden has argued that without sustained support from the American people, the U.S. can't make the long-term commitment that would be needed to stabilize Afghanistan and dismantle al Qaeda." If this is true, it is absurdly shortsighted. The true test of a leader is whether she/he can guide us down the right path, even when it is the least popular one.
In the case of Afghanistan, President Barack Obama and his administration should not fall prey to the emotional and uninformed demands of an American public that for the most part does not fully understand the region. At last, President Obama appears to have carefully crafted a plan that is more thorough and realistic than anything that his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever imagined for Afghanistan. Regional experts have already expressed strong support for President Obama's plan for Afghanistan, namely because of its focus on good governance and security. Ahmed Rashid said in an interview last week that President Obama's plan is "the best thing we've got at the moment. It's far more productive and incisive than anything that President Bush did. [Obama's] committing the resources. This whole plan needs time -- a minimum of two or three years.... [The American public's] impatience is misplaced and unfair." AfPak Channel editor Peter Bergen has also expressed his support for the plan: "[D]ramatically scaling up the size of the Afghan army and police is the best American exit strategy from the country, and that effort is at the heart of Obama's plan."
President Obama's plan, which focuses on protecting the Afghan population and strengthening the Afghan security forces, deserves the attention and resolve of government officials and security analysts alike, above all because at this point, abandoning Afghanistan is the one option we absolutely cannot afford to pursue.(Read on)
In an FP piece Monday, Morton Abramowitz argued that the U.S. media have been too soft in covering the shift in policy toward the war in Afghanistan, and that the war in general has received too little scrutiny.
The article made me wonder if there had been an increase in coverage of Afghanistan since the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, given his professed focus not to lose there and his changes in policy.
Fortunately, the Pew Research Center's Project on Excellence in Journalism [PEJ] keeps weekly tallies of which topics are covered in the U.S. media, or as they call it, the "newshole." In one interesting graph, they show how much less coverage of Iraq there is now than two years ago.
At my request, the wonderful people at PEJ provided their raw data on how much coverage Iraq and Afghanistan were getting as a percentage of the "newshole" over the last year. Using my extraordinarily rudimentary Excel chart skills, I decided to examine if much had changed since President Obama was inaugurated and started implementing changes in policy.
The short answer is: not a lot. Although there are occasional spikes, the total coverage of Afghanistan jumps over 5 percent only once, in July, corresponding with a major offensive in Helmand under the newly appointed command of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And the average is low. From January through July, Afghanistan received an average of 1.92 percent of coverage, while Iraq got 2.01 percent.
That Afghanistan and Iraq are now nearly equal in coverage is a change. From June-December 2008, Iraq averaged 3.26 percent and Afghanistan 1.17 precent. Still, with the amount of U.S. taxpayer money going into both places, and the amount of reconstruction funds wasted, one has to wonder about the low percentage devoted to both wars. The sad part is, even if average media consumers were more interested, which they are not, only a few huge media outlets could afford to cover the wars constantly, and most of them are already losing money anyway.
A bigger version of the chart is viewable here.
By Brian Glyn Williams
One of the biggest questions in Kabul today is whether exiled Afghan-Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum will return from Turkey to Afghanistan. Dostum, who has served as chief of staff of the Afghan Army and deputy defense minister, traveled to Turkey in December 2008 to visit his family and has not been permitted to return by President Hamid Karzai. Karzai has seized upon an incident wherein Dostum beat a rival as a pretext for keeping this powerful warlord in exile. But the underlying reasons for Dostum's exile stem from the fact that he is a popular leader among his own people, the Turko-Mongol Uzbeks, and defends their interests vis-à-vis the Pashtun-Tajik-dominated Karzai government.
Regardless of the reasons for his exile, Dostum's chances of returning to his homeland were hurt by the recent publication of a New York Times article. The July 10 article by James Risen, "U.S. Inaction Seen After Taliban P.O.W.'s Died," revived charges against Dostum of killing hundreds of Taliban prisoners of war back in November 2001's Operation Enduring Freedom. These unsubstantiated charges referring to the transfer of captured Taliban prisoners were first made in a 2002 Newsweek article, "The Death Convoy of Afghanistan," but were largely forgotten because no investigation into the killings was ever carried out by any Afghan or international organization. Risen's article has, however, refocused the light on them, and President Obama has reacted to the article by announcing he will launch an investigation of the charges.
Although it might seem natural for a liberal-leaning newspaper like the New York Times to focus on exposing the war crimes of an Afghan warlord, there is a twist to this story that few non-Afghans are aware of. Namely, that Dostum has a reputation as the most liberal warlord in Afghanistan and has long stood as a defender for secularism and the empowerment of women. In addition, he has consistently fought against the Taliban who are now encroaching into the northern territories that he and his followers have kept free of insurgents. A history of Dostum's activities paints a picture of a warlord whose goals are aligned with those of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan and one that defies stereotypes of Afghan warlords.
Dostum the Kingmaker
Unlike other warlords in Afghanistan, Dostum was not a fundamentalist mujahideen. On the contrary, he first rose to power in the early 1980s as an antimujahideen counterinsurgent. Dostum proved to be incredibly efficient as a leader and soon cleared the mujahideen from his home province of Jowzjan. Dostum's "Jowzjani militia" was subsequently upgraded to division status by the Afghan communist government and came to include 40,000 fighters. By all accounts they fought loyally, especially against the fanatical mujahideen faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is currently aligned with the Taliban.
But as the jihad ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Pashtun-dominated communist government sought to demobilize the Uzbeks who were seen as ghulams ("Turkic slave warriors"). Forewarned of the government's plans, Dostum mutinied and seized the northern plains town of Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum's seizure of the holy shrine town in April 1992 deprived the government of the mandate to rule the land and led to the central government's collapse. The various mujahideen commanders then carved the country up into fiefdoms. For his part, Dostum ran a ministate in the north made up of six provinces based on Mazar-e-Sharif. Far from pillorying Dostum, at the time the New York Times, in a 1996 article that helped its reporter win a Pulitzer Prize, described his fiefdom as follows:
General Dostum is widely popular here in Mazar-i-Sharif, the dusty city of two million people where he makes his headquarters, and not only among ethnic Uzbeks, many of whom take pride in the martial state he has created, with tank barrels and antiaircraft guns bristling from every mud-walled fort and hilltop. For many others, it is the freedoms here, fast disappearing in areas under Taliban control, that make him an icon.
'I think he is a good leader, because people here can live as they want,' said Latifa Hamidi, 18, who is in her first year of medical studies at Balkh University, an institution financed by General Dostum.
Like perhaps half of the population of the city, Ms. Hamidi is a refugee, in her case from Kabul, where her father was killed by a shell five years ago. She has nightmares about what would happen if the Taliban defeated the general and took control here.
'I want knowledge, and I want a useful life,' she said. 'I don't want to be forced to stay at home.'"
But Dostum's secular realm was overwhelmed by the Taliban in 1998, and he was forced to flee to exile in Turkey. He returned in April 2001 to fight a horse-mounted insurgent war against the Taliban from a mountain base in the Hindu Kush. When he heard about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dostum offered to assist the Americans. On Nov. 9, 2001, he once again seized Mazar-e-Sharif, and this led to the collapse of the Taliban house of cards, thus preventing the United States from having to launch a frontal invasion of the Afghan "graveyard of empires" in winter. It was at this time that he captured thousands of Taliban, some of whom were reported to have died. Dostum has repeatedly claimed that between 100 and 120 prisoners died, many from wounds. But until an investigation is carried out, the unsubstantiated claims that hundreds or perhaps "thousands" of Taliban prisoners died will continue to bedevil Afghanistan's most secular warlord.
Brian Glyn Williams is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
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