Apr 19, 2009

Recent op-eds about Pakistan paint a dire picture

Recent op-eds in various newspapers have painted a terribly dire picture of Pakistan's current situation and future prospects. The opinion pieces that one reads every once in a while about Pakistan, aren't usually particularly rosy, but this sudden clumping of articles over the past few weeks is worrisome as the situation gets progressively worse.

The stranglehold of the Taliban in the northwest, the flogging of a peasant girl, and the peace treaty with Taliban forces have dominated headlines, sparked debate, and have caught the elite in Pakistan and the bourgeoisie by surprise. However the news item that bothered me the most, and if true, will be the biggest threat to the country's stability, is the possible Talibanization of Punjab, which is the heart of Pakistan. A recent New York Times article entitled, "United Militants Threaten Pakistan's Populous Heart" reported the following:

Telltale signs of creeping militancy abound in a belt of towns and villages near here that a reporter visited last week. Militants have gained strength considerably in the district of Dera Ghazi Khan, which is a gateway both to Taliban-controlled areas and the heart of Punjab, the police and local residents say. Many were terrified. Some villages, just north of here, are so deeply infiltrated by militants that they are already considered no-go zones by their neighbors.

In at least five towns in southern and western Punjab, including the midsize hub of Multan, barber shops, music stores and Internet cafes offensive to the militants’ strict interpretation of Islam have received threats. Traditional ceremonies that include drumming and dancing have been halted in some areas. Hard-line ideologues have addressed large crowds to push their idea of Islamic revolution. Sectarian attacks, dormant here since the 1990s, have erupted once again.

Sadly, the Taliban are exposing one of the biggest weaknesses in Pakistan, and that is the disconnect between the peasants and the ruling class. They are simply providing these peasants an alternative rule. Pakistani feudal lords and the government have had a stranglehold on the livelihoods of the poor, leaving them frustrated and aching for change. The Taliban are simply filling the void.

...people complain that landowners and local politicians have done nothing to stop the advance and, in some cases, even assist the militants by giving money to some of the religious schools.

“The government is useless,” said Mr. Ali, the local landlord. “They live happy, secure lives in Lahore. Their children study abroad. They only come here to contest elections.”

The police are left alone to stop the advance. But in Punjab, as in much of the rest of Pakistan, they are spread unevenly, with little presence in rural areas. Out of 160,000 police officers in Punjab, fewer than 60,000 are posted in rural areas, leaving frontier stations in districts virtually unprotected, police officials said.

Locals feel helpless. When a 15-year-old boy vanished from a madrasa in a village near here recently — his classmates said to go on jihad — his uncle could not afford to go look for him, let alone confront the powerful men who run the madrasa.

“We are simple people,” the man said. “What can we do?”

I've always felt that what Pakistan needs is a revolution from the ground up. With the poor standing up to the feudal lords, fighting for better pay, for better schools and job opportunities for their children. I just wish it wasn't in concordance with the Taliban. Armchair Pakistani's like myself, aren't the only ones worried. According to the following article, entitled, "Pakistan on course to becoming Islamist State", Western intelligence officials agree that Talibanization is spreading fast.

"The place is beyond redemption," said a Pentagon adviser who asked not to be further identified so he could speak freely. "I don't see any plausible scenario under which the present government or its most likely successor will mobilize the economic, political and security resources to push back this rising tide of violence.

"I think Pakistan is moving toward a situation where the extremists control virtually all of the countryside and the government controls only the urban centers," he continued. "If you look out 10 years, I think the government will be overrun by Islamic militants."

That pessimistic view of Pakistan's future has been bolstered by Islamabad's surrender this week for the first time of areas outside the frontier tribal region to Pakistan's Taliban movement and by a growing militant infiltration of Karachi , the nation's financial center, and the industrial and political heartland province of Punjab, in part to evade U.S. drone strikes in the tribal belt.

The Taliban aren't the only ones that are feeding off the discontent sweeping the masses. A recent Atlantic piece talks about the discontent Baluchi's and summarizes that...

With its “Islamic” nuclear bomb, Taliban- and al-Qaeda-infested borderlands, dysfunctional cities, and feuding ethnic groups, Pakistan may well be the world’s most dangerous country, a nuclear Yugoslavia-in-the-making. One key to its fate is the future of Gwadar, a strategic port whose development will either unlock the riches of Central Asia, or plunge Pakistan into a savage, and potentially terminal, civil war.
...and ends with a short interview with a Baluchi freedom fighter who is determined to gain Baluchi autonomy and rid the province of Pakistani influence...

Nisar Baluch was the warm-up to Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, the chief of the Marri tribe of Baluch, a man who had been engaged in combat with government forces off and on for 50 years, and whose son had recently been killed by Pakistani troops. Marri greeted me in his Karachi villa, with massive exterior walls, giant plants, and ornate furniture. He was old and wizened, and walked with a cane. Marri spoke a precise, hesitant, whispering English that, combined with his robe and beige topee and the setting, gave him a certain charisma.

“If we keep fighting,” he told me gently, “we will ignite an intifada like the Palestinians’. It is the cause of my optimism that the young generation of Baluch will sustain a guerrilla war. Pakistan is not eternal. It is not likely to last. The British Empire, Pakistan, Burma—these have all been temporary creations.

“After Bangladesh left Pakistan,” Marri continued, in his mild and lecturing tone, “the only dynamic left within this country was the imperialist power of the Punjabi army. East Bengal was the most important element in Pakistan. The Bengalis were numerous enough to take on the Punjabis, but they seceded. Now the only option left for the Baluch is to fight.” He liked and trusted no one in Pakistan who was not Baluch, he told me.

And what about Punjabi overtures to make amends with the Baluch?, I asked.

“We say to these Punjabis”—still in his sweet, regal voice—“‘Leave us alone. Get lost. We don’t need your direction, your brotherliness.’ If Punjab continues to occupy us with the help of the American imperialists, then eventually our name will be nowhere in the soil.”

Marri explained that Baluchistan overlaps three countries—Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan—and would eventually triumph, as the central governments of all those lands weakened. Gwadar, in his view, was just the latest Punjabi plot that would prove temporary. The Baluch would bomb the roads and pipelines leading out of the town.

Plus it won't be long before Pakistan's allies desert it. The central government needs to prioritize and the army needs to stop focusing on India as its primary target. Frustration in the US is rising. A recent Boston Globe article talks about Pakistan juggling between supported the Taliban in order to keep getting aid, and pretending to chase after them as well.

The ISI's puppet show in Afghanistan enables Pakistan to prevent not only India but also Iran and Russia from gaining too much of a foothold in Afghanistan. The double game also brings Pakistan $1 billion a year in military aid from the United States.

This is how the game works: The army and the ISI hunt down Al Qaeda figures for the United States and have no compunctions about striking hard against Islamist radicals who want to seize power in Pakistan. These actions make Pakistan a valued US ally in the war on terror. But at the same time, Pakistan has an interest in keeping the jihadist pot boiling in Afghanistan. As long as the Taliban and kindred groups are in the field, American military aid continues coming in, and India is kept at bay.

It's a sad situation and I can't find the words to bind together all these articles because there is truth to all of them. Things are spiraling out of control. I've always defended Pakistan's status as a "failed state"....but I fear that it is beyond failure now.

Apr 18, 2009

Why do snakes keep escaping inside planes?

If you're going to carry snakes on a plane, then wouldn't it be advisable to put them in a secure container? Turns out last week, some pythons escaped on a Qantas Airways flight!

The snakes, just six inches long, were among 12 Stimson's pythons being flown from Alice Springs to Melbourne. At first it was thought the reptiles may have been eaten by the other snakes, but this was discounted after they were weighed on landing. Passengers were transferred to other aircraft. The jet was fumigated but the snakes' bodies are yet to be found. "They're not endangered so a decision was made to fumigate...if these snakes turn up they will be very much dead snakes," David Epstein of Qantas said.
Let's hope they find them alive.

But the questions remain unanswered: How do these damn creatures keep escaping? And secondly, why do we feel the need to keep transporting snakes on planes? This isn't the first time snakes have escaped. I've talked about this a few years back!

By now you must realize that I like talking about snakes a lot. But I don't really like them. In fact, I'm terrified of them. I think being surrounded by snakes is as awful a death as being surrounded by sharks. But I find these critters fascinating, because for some oddball reason, snake movies rock! I'm sorry, fans of Jaws, but shark movies do not rock. Read my top 10 snake movies list (it's actually just 8!) for convincing evidence.

Apr 15, 2009

My thoughts on the retired Indian colonel's letter to General Kayani

I'm in two minds about the suggestions in this letter outlined by retired Indian colonel, Harish Puri. Colonel Puri like most of us, is horrified by flogging of a teenage girl, within the borders of Pakistan. He writes...
...the video of the teenager being flogged represents an even more abject surrender by the Pakistani Army. The surrender in 1971, though humiliating, was not disgraceful. This time around, sir, what happened on your watch was something no Army commander should have to live through. The girl could have been your own daughter, or mine.
However, I'm not shocked by the imposition of Sharia law in the northwest to appease the Talibanesque community that resides there. After all, we've had Sharia based law in all of Pakistan during the 80's. And that area has never really been under the control of the central government.
I, like most like-minded individuals wouldn't mind seeing the Taliban blasted into the sky. However, that's not going to cure the disease. The ideal situation would be to provide security for the people of this region, allow them to live their lives WITHOUT the Taliban influence, and gradually weed out ignorance that spawns them, with education. The army can definitely help with security for schools, infrastructure and provide stability to the region.

But the onus is upon the educated citizens of Pakistan, the middle class, the urban elite. They have to stand up in unison, against the influence of the Taliban, against possible future military intervention in the political arena, and aggressively towards focusing on the education and of our women and children. At least the Indian colonel sees a glimmer of hope....
But in the gloom and the ignominy, the average Pakistani citizen has shown us that there is hope yet. The lawyers, the media, have all refused to buckle even under direct threats. It took the Taliban no less than 32 bullets to still the voice of a brave journalist. Yes, there is hope – but why don't we hear the same language from you? Look to these brave hearts, sir – and maybe we shall see the tide turn. Our prayers are with you, and the hapless people of Swat.