Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Syed Saleem Shahzad R.I.P.

Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief, was abducted in Islamabad and murdered.

Prior to his disappearance, he had informed Human Rights Watch that he had been threatened by the ISI, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency.

After his disappearance, his family received word through “trusted interlocutors” that he was in the ISI’s hands and would be released shortly.

Instead, his body was found over 100 miles from Islamabad with a gunshot wound in the stomach and what the police termed “signs of torture” on his person.  An autopsy will be conducted.

There is speculation that Shahzad was murdered because of his reporting on the transformation and continued threat of Al Qaeda.

Saleem Shahzad had unparalleled sources within the Taliban and Pakistan’s security apparatus.

On May 20 his new book, Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban; Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 was published.

In the book, he argued that after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the expulsion of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda had evolved new leaders and new doctrine, and deeply embedded itself in a specifically South Asian matrix of terrorism, politics, and security forces.

On his website, Shahzad wrote:

That was the new role of Al-Qaeda in which they fed, reared and train two new generations of leaders from the Islamist cadre of the Pakistani society which included army officers, information technologists, scientists, Jihadi commanders and traditional Taliban.

Shahzad linked Al Qaeda to two terrorist actions that revealed a higher level of determination, professionalism, and infiltration of security forces than the usual Taliban outrages: the Mumbai attack that claimed 126 lives, and the recent assault on the Mehran Naval Base in Karachi.

Based on Shahzad’s reporting, a picture emerges of a motivated, conspiratorial Al Qaeda cell within Pakistan’s military and security forces.

Perhaps Shahzad’s murder was linked to the desire to suppress awareness of this cell and maintain national and world focus on the Taliban-—perceived as indigenous insurgents rather than global terrorists—during the Afghan endgame.

Prime Minister Gilani has promised that “the culprits would be brought to book at any cost.”

We hope his murderers will be exposed and brought to justice.

Saleem Shahzad was a brave and principled reporter.  We extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife and three children and his other family, friends, and colleagues.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

America's Afghan+Pakistan+Baluchistan Follies

I have two pieces up at Asia Times concerning China’s role in the post-bin Laden paradigm for South Asia.

Most everybody, especially Pakistan and China, would be happy with a Taliban-led or Taliban-heavy regime in Afghanistan and a little peace and quiet in the region, even if it comes with Islamist fundamentalist thuggery.

One point that I don’t think is realized in the United States is that there are only a handful of constituencies interested in the continuation of the US-led counterinsurgency program in Afghanistan.

One of them is the array of non-Pashtuns, political progressives, and opportunists who have thrown in their lot with the government in Kabul.

The other is India.

If, as expected, the US turns to Pakistan to midwife a face-saving compromise with the Taliban in order to draw down US forces prior to the 2012 elections, India will have to write off some geopolitical losses.

That’s why the first article is titled India left standing in Afghan musical chairs.

An alternate title could be “That buzzing sound you hear is the Taliban meatgrinder revving up to shred Indian interests in Afghanistan”.

I put little hope in the US strategy that says we’ll “win in Afghanistan” if the Pakistan nation overcomes its paranoia about India, converts its military posture to anti-extremism, shifts its forces from the Indian to the Afghan border, and we finally get to crush the Taliban between the twin anvils of NATO troops in Afghanistan and the Pakistani military in NWFP/FATA.

If India had been honestly committed to that strategy, they should have stepped up to acknowledge and protect Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan.  Perhaps even demanded an end to the overwhelmingly militarized counterinsurgency campaign as detrimental to the peace and security of the region.

Instead, New Delhi tried to play the Great Game, adopted the war on terror framing for its relations with Pakistan, and conjured up an alliance with the Karzai administration that seemed design to forestall the influence or triumph of pro-Pakistan Taliban forces in the government.

Delhi’s dithering and risible efforts to come up with a cultural and geostrategic rationale other than Pakistan-bashing for its ties with an overwhelming Muslim nation on the other side of Pakistan invite the whip of my scorn.

The symbol of the effort: that monument to India’s tutelage of Afghan democracy, the unfinished parliament building in Kabul.  You can read about it in the article.

And the fact that it was done in the name of “soft power”—itself an acknowledgment that there existed no compelling strategic rationale for the alliance, nor the will and capability to pursue it, in other words, no “hard power”—does not, in my eyes, forgive India.

The resulting hot counterinsurgency war pushed the Taliban pus deep into the wounds of Pakistan.   India has watched and benefited as the war on terror has turned Pakistan into something that’s pretty close to a basket case.

As for the response post-Abbottabad?

Secretary of State Clinton turns up in Islamabad with a list of more “targets” she wants Pakistan to go after; and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh goes to Kabul to advocate for the continuation of “anti-terror” operations.

No surprise that, post-Abbottabad, Pakistan is ready to throw itself into the arms of the Chinese.

My second article, China drops the Gwadar hot potato, concerns the always amusing situation of the port of Gwadar, a white elephant in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

I read somewhere that no legitimate cargo vessel has called at Gwadar in the last three years, unsurprising because a) there are no local markets around the port and b) there are no useful transportation links to anywhere else.

Pakistan’s secretary of defense announced that he wanted China to construct a naval base at Gwadar, eliciting a flutter of "string of pearls" vapors throughout the realm of geostrategic pundits. 

The Chinese immediately issued a denial, for reasons I outline in the article and center on the way an instantaneous veiled threat by the US and India to use the Baluchistan independence movement often seems to appear whenever there appears to be an attempt by Pakistan and China to to advance their shared interests at the expense of...

...what’s that, Binky?

The US Assistant of State for South Asia made a statement about Balochistan?  Right after the Gwadar flap?

Let’s see what he had to say.

Pakistan's Balochistan separatist movement fuelled by domestic policies and not by India: US

WASHINGTON: The separatist movement in Pakistan's Balochistan province is fuelled by the country's domestic policies and not India, a top US official said today.

"I don't think that the existence of a terrorist or a separatist movement in Balochistan is fuelled by Indian financing or anything like that," US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said.

"I think it's fuelled by domestic issues that are internal to Pakistan," Blake said in his interaction with Defense Writers Group here.

Moving into full Fisk mode, I can make the following points:

1) Everybody agrees that the Balochi independence movement is “fuelled” by Baloch resentment at the brutal Pakistani occupation.  What Blake is doing is weaseling on the issue of whether Indian intelligence services are, to continue with the combustion metaphor, fanning the flames by providing assistance to the Balochi insurgents.

2) Is Blake making the assertion that he knows what India is doing in Balochistan?  Of course not.  Just the opposite.  He’s trying to make the case that it doesn’t matter.  So India is off the hook, even if RAW does get caught with its hand in the Balochi cookie jar.

3) What Blake is doing is edging closer to officially legitimizing the Baloch struggle as an indigenous phenomenon, whether or not it gets Indian assistance.

4) Call it another kick in the ass for Pakistan, and for China—whose personnel have already suffered multiple fatal attacks by Baloch insurgents while doing their economic and strategic penetration thing in the province--if it tries to do something in Gwadar.

It is, of course, rather ironic that we are providing at the very least rhetorical aid and comfort for aggrieved Sunni insurgents in Balochistan at the same time we are demanding Pakistan root out disgruntled Sunni insurgents in western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.

Just another reason why our South Asia policy utterly sucks.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bumrushing the Syrian Revolution with the Help of The Independent

The Syrian government has banned foreign and, I would imagine, anything but state-media reportage on the ongoing unrest.

So I guess that foreign journos have little to chew on except reports relayed by dissidents and their own, understandable resentment at Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to dominate the news cycle.

Even so, I think The Independent’s Alastair Beach or his editors reached a new low in submissive fluffing of the Syrian revolution.

Detailed fisking is not even required.  Just cut and paste.

The issue concerns a rather cool young Syrian gentleman, Ahmad Biasi, who made a guerilla video debunking desperate government spin concerning cellphone footage of heavy-handed government stomping of detainees in the town of Al Bayda.  Not our town, said the government.  Some old footage...maybe from Iraq?

Baisa did a video tour of his town, showing that the square where the stomping occurred was indisputably Al Bayda.  At the end of the video, Biasi stood in front of the camera and held up his national ID card to certify the authenticity of his film.

The video went viral and the Syrian government detained Biasi.

Now let’s put the spinmobile in the capable hands of Alastair Beach.  He writes:

But his bravery came at a terrible cost. Earlier this month, Ahmad was arrested by one of Syria's most feared intelligence units. Human-rights activists – who received reports last week that he had died under torture – told The Independent that had been held in a secret-service headquarters in Damascus.

Before the weekend started, many people in Syria thought that Ahmad Biasi was dead. Human-rights organisations were receiving reports that he had suffered a terrifying final few hours at the hands of Syria's secret police.

By Saturday night, it transpired he was very much alive and had given an interview to state television offering proof to that effect. "We know he was detained and taken by security," said Wissam Tarif, executive director of the Syrian human-rights organisation Insan. "He was humiliated in front of other prisoners. They urinated on him and he lost consciousness after being electrocuted. He was very badly tortured. They made him an example to the others and made other prisoners watch as he was being tortured."

According to Mr Tarif, the types of abuse used by the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – the notorious branch of the secret police believed to have taken Ahmad – include electrocution, nail extraction and genital mutilation. "The level of brutality they are using is just absurd," Mr Tarif added. "It is so inhuman."

Other human-rights organisations also received reports of Ahmad's death. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, residents in Al-Bayda had feared that "Ahmad may have died after being subjected to severe torture".

At the end of the article, we get the denouement:

Syrian state television dropped a happy bombshell. It ran an interview showing Ahmad Biasi sitting on a leather chair in a blank room expressing his "surprise" at hearing about his own death.
Looking gaunt but otherwise healthy, he said: "I was home when I heard that I had died under torture in a prison. I was very surprised and I felt strange when I saw it on the news. I wondered how they broadcast such fake news. It is humiliating."

The Independent’s takeaway: Score 1 for the Revolution!

Yet in spite of the dramatic turn of events, news of Ahmad's fate may turn out to harm the Syrian regime more than it had anticipated when it released the footage. Activists have already accused the secret police of extracting a forced confession, while others are saying that the interview has inadvertently done what Ahmad intended to do in the first place: prove that he was Syrian and that the original video of government abuse did not take place in Iraq.

And the title of the piece:

Protester who exposed lies at the heart of Syria's regime

Actually, he also appears to have exposed the exaggerations and misrepresentations that seem to permeate the media campaign of the Syrian dissidents...and the foreign media’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism.

In defense of Mr. Beach, it is possible that his efforts to report the fact of Biasi’s detention and the allegations of the opposition straight up got mangled by the editor.

Possibly, the original report was electrocuted, suffered genital mutilation, got pissed on, and/or suffered fingernail removal during its preparation.  All these things can and do occur in the environs of a British newsroom and its adjacent pubs.

It would be irresponsible not to speculate, or recycle the unfounded assertions of interested parties.

But I just know it came at a terrible cost.

I do not doubt that the Syrian security forces do terrible things to detainees. 

But the real story here was that they apparently chose not do them to Biasi—though I would think it likely that they leaned on him in unpleasant physical and psychological ways.  The Syrian government hoped to score a propaganda coup by revealing Biasi—a self-identified, genuine, and celebrated dissident!— emerging alive and reasonably well from the maw of Syrian government detention, thereby giving the lie to the scaremongering of the dissidents.

However, that was a propaganda victory that The Independent appears dead-set to deny the Syrian government, even at the cost of some markedly  ahem tortured prose.

The Syrian revolution is a little more complicated than non-violent protesters rising up against Syrian authoritarianism.

The struggle is still very much in the hearts-and-minds phase for both sides. 

There are large numbers of Syrians not particularly sympathetic to the dissidents, whom the opposition is trying to wean away from the government by fomenting an ever deeper and ever more polarizing crisis and support the narrative of a government discredited by its own dysfunction.

It’s a different dynamic from Bahrain (total war against the Shi’a majority) and Yemen (popular revolution hijacked by Saudi meddling).

The government has tried to split the opposition by inflicting repression on those who continue to protest after the pledge of constitutional revision, inviting dialogue with those willing to discuss reforms through a state-mediated process, and raising the entirely plausible spectre of a sectarian meltdown similar to Lebanon’s and Iraq’s to sway the general public in favor of the regime's continued survival.

Nobody has emerged from the ranks of the dissidents to negotiate; it’s pretty much Bashar-must-go.

How well this is working—basically, who will give up through exhaustion first, the demonstrators, the security forces, or the fence-sitters—remains to be seen.

However, from the smaller turnout, albeit at a larger number of demonstrations, there are some signs that the government’s grinding strategy of attrition may be prevailing.

And the opposition isn’t just a question of people’s power by non-violent demonstrators.  It concludes some shadowy, militant forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood (which runs one of the top dissident social media sites) and reactionary, Saudi-backed strongmen like Rifaat Assad and Abdul Halim Khaddam.

Dozens of members of Syrian security forces have died in encounters with armed gangs.  Dissident efforts to cover up and excuse the violence are a story in themselves.  The soldiers “were shot by other soldiers who didn’t want to fire on dissidents”; they were “shot by their officers in a provocation”; in one instance, there was a concession that the security forces might have died at the hands of regime opponents, with the excuse that they reflected  blood-for-blood tribal enmities generated by the crackdown.  The sophists also had their go, declaring that, if the authoritarian government couldn’t protect its own troops, that was nothing more than a demonstration of the fact that it had forfeited its right to exist.

There is now a concerted campaign to keep the demonstrations going, while spurning the government’s attempts to engage in negotiations.

This might be because the dissidents fear that, once the tide of revolutionary passion recedes, they will have a hard time forcing the Syrian government to live up to any bargain.

It also might be because there are important elements among the Syrian dissidents who are still loath to take leadership of negotiations and reveal themselves, because the focus might shift to them...and the Syrian public might not like what they see.

Reportedly, the Muslim Brotherhood—which has a long and bloody history of opposition to the Assad regime, including the insurrection that terminated in the Hama massacre—is considering stepping forward to give direction to the hitherto fractured movement.

The MB is midwifing a gathering in Ankara, Turkey, May 31 through June 2, that aims to give domestic demonstrators and foreign governments something concrete to get behind, thereby ratcheting up pressure on the regime.  The Syrian government, while mindful of the importance of continued Turkish forbearance on the issue of the future of Assad’s regime, is obviously anxious and unhappy that the Turkish government has decided to give the opposition a platform.

Until then, the current strategy seems to be to bumrush the revolution, and keep the ball rolling through enthusiasm, outrage, propaganda, disinformation, some of it delivered courtesy of The Independent.

P.S. For you forensic etymologists out there, “bumrush” originally referred to the forcible and unceremonious eviction of an indigent person by the bouncer from a bar or other place of business that did not welcome his presence.  In the modern era, “bumrushing” took on a reverse meaning: a non-paying clientele forcing its way past security to gain admission to a club or concert.  By extension, it means taking advantage of chaos, distraction, or carelessness by the powers-that-be to seize an otherwise unattainable and perhaps undeserved advantage.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ai Wei, Liao Yiwu, the Dalai Lama...and Nouriel Roubini

I’ve had several articles up at Asia Times in the last few weeks.

Ghosts of Wenchuan marks the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake of May 12, 2008. 

Two of China’s best known dissident artists, Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu, make Wenchuan an important part of their critique of the Chinese political system.

Ai focussed on the apparently disproportionate number of deaths of children who perished when shoddy “doufu dregs” schoolbuildings collapsed.  He organized citizen investigators to come up with a list of children killed, organized a reading of their names, and created an installation on the facade of a museum in Munich spelling out the phrase “She lived happily on this earth for seven years” (the phrase of a mourning mother of one of the victims) using 9000 children's backpacks.

9000 may well be chosen to represent his estimate of the number of schoolchildren who actually died.  His count and official statistics are at the 5000 level, but it is alleged that the death toll was twice that.

Wenchuan is close to the center of Ai’s criticism of the political and moral rot he sees in Chinese society under the CCP.

Liao Yiwu, a writer, has become more and more well known in the West for his reportage on the marginalized citizens of China that the government doesn't want you to know about. He went into the quake zone and compiled a record, Earthquake Madhouse: A Record of the Big Sichuan Earthquake, of what he saw and heard.

A lot of it apparently did not reflect particularly well on the government’s response, especially its policy of treating the local populace as blame-placing and compensation-seeking troublemakers and placing the quake zone under virtual military lockdown during the rescue, recovery, and early rebuilding period.

Both men labored under government hostility for their advocacy.  Liao was denied the opportunity to go to Australia to accept an award for his eathquake book in 2009, and the Chinese authority recently pulled him off the plane just as he was about to embark on an international tour that would promote his latest book, The Corpse Walker.

As for Ai, he was punched in the face while in Chengdu attempting to testify at the trial of Tan Zuoren, an earthquake investigator who was sentenced to five years in prison for his activism.  The punch apparently caused hemorrhaging in Ai’s brain, and he had a procedure in Munich a few weeks later to drain it.

In April, Ai was detained for suspicion of “economic crimes”, which is what I guess they call lese majeste these days.

The Chinese government would like everybody to remember the $1 trillion yuan it claims to have poured into the reconstruction of Wenchuan.  However, a lot of people apparently don’t see it the same way.  On the third anniversary of the quake, Southern Metropolis Daily ran a quickly-censored editorial invoking Ai’s art as a mourning offering to the dead schoolchildren.

For a lot of activists Wenchuan looks like one of those naked lunch moments, when they witnessed and were nauseated by what they saw to be the regime’s true nature.

I also wrote two Tibet-related pieces.

One was a quickie, Osama and the Real Dalai Lama, on the absurd media fuss that the Dalai Lama has “implied” that the killing of Bin Laden was “justified”.  He said nothing of the sort, and the news reports that raced around the world on the wings of the Internet and little Tweetie feet were all drawn from a single piece of misreporting by the Metro reporter of the LA Times.  The story was useful primarily as a lesson that newspapers behave just like blogs.  They need to fill their screens and follow the buzz.  A false controversy is just as good as a real fact—better, because there is no limit to the juiciness of a falsehood-- so they are happy to peddle BS first and ask questions later if at all.

The second Tibet piece, Tibet’s Only Hope Lies Within is built around McClatchy correspondent Tim Johnson’s new book Tragedy in Crimson.  He argues that the Tibetan political movement is doomed by the power of China and the resulting indifference of all the nations that matter to Tibetan political aspirations.  I take the somewhat different tack that local Tibetan identity—and activism--will survive the tsunami of investment and Han immigration moving into the region.  In fact, marginalization of Tibetans in their own homeland seems to be evoking even stronger feelings of solidarity and grievance as many of the young find refuge in monasteries.

Finally, I wrote a piece China has tool-box to head off high-speed crash about Dr. Doom—Nouriel Roubini’s—prediction that the Chinese economy is due for a burst bubble and hard landing pretty soon.  I agree! But posit that the Chinese government has an active Keynesian doctrine and capacity and will to intervene that the US apparently lacks, and therefore has some effective tools to deal with its problems.

photograph of Ai Weiwei installation by Zoltan Jokay from http://zoltanjokay.de/zoltanblog/2010/01/ai-weiwei-she-lived-happily-for-seven-years-int-his-world-ai-weiwei-she-lived-happily-for-seven-years-int-his-world/