Saturday, January 17, 2015

US, India and the geopolitics of terrorism: delusion, deception and aid

US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the western Indian state of Gujarat on 11 January for a business summit and Islamabad on 12 January to lead a strategic dialogue with the Pakistani government and military. Kerry’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s visit to India scheduled for 24 January. Ahead of these summits, Kerry announced that Pakistan had curtailed and “[taken] action against” terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). This certification is necessary for the disbursement of civilian aid under the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, more often referred to as the Kerry-Lugar Bill, and came just before Kerry’s departure for the subcontinent. However, recent events and their aftermath in Pakistan indicate that state support for terror organisations has not ceased. On the contrary, the specific groups mentioned by Kerry appear to have become more active in recent weeks. In response to concerns from the Indian government, the US has temporarily withheld aid to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar Bill ($250 million out of the $532 million promised this year) but it is widely believed that the funds will eventually be cleared after the negotiations and summits currently underway. In this article, I explore how recent events in Pakistan belie Pakistani and US claims that terror groups have been curtailed.

Terror attacks, blame games and the power of delusion

The 16 December 2014 Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attack at a school in Peshawar that resulted in the deaths of 145 people, including 132 schoolchildren – the deadliest terrorist attack ever in Pakistan – generated immense grief and outrage in the country. Politicians, from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the chief ministers of the provinces and opposition figures like Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Imran Khan, roundly condemned the attack and promised a ‘changed’ Pakistan. Media commentators opined that of all the gruesome atrocities that the nation had witnessed, this was the most gruesome of all, and it was absolutely inconceivable that nothing should change after this horrific event.

Amidst this outpouring of collective anger and demands for substantive change, it was disappointing to note how quickly public discourse took a turn for the worse through manipulation by vested interests and how familiar narratives demonising Pakistan’s eternal adversaries were once again opportunistically resuscitated and given undue air time.

Former President Pervez Musharraf and leader of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamat-ud-Dawah (LeT/JuD) Hafeez Saeed, mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, reached common ground when both decided to blame India for the Peshawar massacre. Figures like Hafeez Saeed, controversial Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz (who has now been issued an arrest warrant for threatening people who criticised his refusal to condemn the Peshawar attack) and former intelligence chief Hamid Gul got on television and “managed to muddle the issue with references to the Indian hand and the eternal enemies of Pakistan (Afghanistan, Jews, America, that sort of thing),” tells us US-based commentator Omar Ali. Anchors on ARY, the most ardently pro-army news channel amongst others in its cohort, fanned the flames of ‘enemy’-bashing by angrily demanding the banning of Indian overflights to Afghanistan. Top military propagandists Ahmed Qureshi and Zaid Hamid declaimed that India would be made to pay for this latest atrocity. Analyst Tufail Ahmad shows in a review of Pakistani media that while the Peshawar attack resulted in “an upsurge of mass sentiment against jihadists in Pakistan” in the liberal, English-language press, the more powerful Urdu press “[presented] a contrary picture with much of the blame heaped on India”.

It would appear that the timeless narratives evincing hatred of India fostered by both military and extremist forces in Pakistan once again came to dominate public understandings of a major atrocity. Thus, going by the virulence of recent propaganda, it would be hard to argue, as Kerry does, that groups like LeT/JuD have been curtailed by the state.

The good, the bad and the ugly

What do propaganda narratives tell us about state support for terrorism? Narratives that shift responsibility onto perceived foreign enemies have played a foundational role in maintaining military power and hegemony in Pakistan. Scholars have long conceded that the Pakistani military’s not-so-clandestine aim of waging ‘perpetual war’ with India, and the decades of seemingly inexorable machinations that have sustained this aim, always was and continues to be a cornerstone of Pakistan’s security state (or the “deep state”, as Omar Ali calls it).

Since the onset of the War on Terror, and in the aftermath of the implosion of the Cold War programme of state-sponsored terrorism managed by the US and Pakistan through the 1980s and 90s, the military-intelligence edifice in Pakistan has propounded pernicious new understandings of terrorism based on a distinction between ‘bad’ jehadis (those based primarily along the Afghan front who target US and Pakistani forces) and ‘good’ jehadis (those whose base is West Punjab and primary target is India), that have obfuscated political debate at all levels of society, from schools and universities to the national media, with the end result that the incalculable social cost that never-ending violence has exacted is hardly ever properly confronted. The outrage generated by each successive atrocity is deflected and subsumed by cynical propaganda, and the potential of a charged public consciousness to act as a catalyst for change is tragically undermined.

The extent of the manipulation of public opinion in media affiliated with the deep state’s strategic interests can be gauged from the manner in which even major events are completely distorted. For instance, many in Pakistan continue to believe that the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, in which 168 people were killed, were the handiwork of a crazed Hindu (Indian) colonel, and not a carefully-orchestrated campaign planned by the LeT/JuD in Pakistan (allegedly with state intelligence support) and executed by 10 of its foot-soldiers who reached the shores of Mumbai on 26 November 2008. Leaders of LeT/JuD such as Zaki-ur Lakhvi and Hafeez Saeed, who, due to international pressure, were either jailed (Zaki-ur Lakhvi) or were facing trial (Saeed and his deputy Hafiz Abdur Rehman Makki) have now been bailed and/or released from the ignominy of a perfunctory, stationary and toothless judicial process in which state prosecutors refused to get involved and those who did were killed by terrorists. Saeed (who has a USD 10 million bounty on his head) has been allowed to hold public rallies and continues to incite hostility against India. His spurious declarations on national television have only served to legitimise and add ballast to his agenda. Indian intelligence reports suggest that Saeed and the LeT are currently planning for multiple attacks in New Delhi and Agra. 

Ultimately, the most pertinent question here is this: what implications does this habitual displacement of responsibility onto perennially demonised enemies have for the future of counter-terrorism efforts? 

Contradictions of US aid to Pakistan

It is not an easy question to answer. But one of its most serious ramifications stands before us in the matter of US civilian and military aid to Pakistan. Other than the Kerry-Lugar Bill, a new defense authorisation bill was passed by the American Congress and signed into law by President Obama at the end of December 2014. The bill, known formally as S.1847 or the Carl Levin and Howard P 'Buck' McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, provides for $1 billion in aid to Pakistan in 2015, conditional on Islamabad’s ‘demonstrated commitment’ to the dismantling of the Haqqani Network, al-Qaida and Tehrik-i-Taliban (i.e., the ‘bad terrorists’). The Punjab-based LeT/JuD and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) (which has been responsible for atrocities against Pakistani Shias) find no mention in the bill. Moreover, Kerry’s certification that Pakistan has indeed ceased support to terror groups like LeT and JeM (for the disbursement of civilian aid under the Kerry-Lugar Bill), in the face of glaring contradictory evidence, further complicate this anomaly. Going by these acts of omission and falsification, it would appear that the US is willing to countenance Pakistan’s selective approach to tackling terrorism.

It is not as if the ‘bad’ outfits (the TTP and al-Qaida) are solely focused on terrorising America and Pakistan. (In fact, al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced in September 2014 that India would be its next target and theatre of action.) Instead, what is remarkable is that even in the face of continuing brutality and irrefutable proof that the policy of fighting one group of terrorists while simultaneously sponsoring others is simply self-destructive, there is no sign that the Pakistani military is ready to abandon its duplicitous strategy. The delusory narratives blaming India for the Taliban’s crimes are merely the latest symptom of a much larger malaise. The US would be better served if it confronted the problem squarely and brought some transparency to its military and civilian aid policy in Pakistan.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Boyhood, the movie

The movies that Richard Linklater-Ethan Hawke have done together have a special place in my heart. I absolutely love the Before series - Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Each of them has left me awestruck and breathless. They are so intensely realistic and so intensely simple that, in my view, they have a magical and ethereal quality. There's something truly, ineffably momentous about those movies. Momentous because they seem to capture really significant moments in time - moments that appear insignificant, mundane and prosaic but are teeming with joie de vivre and the joy of small things. My response to them, even though they are very 'intellectual' with dialogue taking precedence over action, is always very physical. (Besides, this caveat doesn't entirely apply here as I do actually like movies where dialogue is privileged over action.) The words, stories and destinies that these movies weave together always evoke a physical reaction. Immersion is the term that comes to mind. Empathy. Complete and utter identification. It is said that the dialogue for each of these movies is written collaboratively by the actors and director, drawing on their own experiences and ideas as they go along. Perhaps this is what rouses that multitude of emotions viewers feel - the final work of art is not the product of a single mind but of several artists, each of whom is deeply embedded in the work (as character and creator), producing a melee of truths, emotions and experiences that capture and speak to a multitude of unique realities. Boyhood is a masterpiece like the others. Of course what makes this film even more special - staggeringly so - is its epic quality. Made over 12 years, it captures the lives of the characters as they physically and emotionally age and evolve in real-time, ultimately producing a portrait of life that, I believe, is unlike any other work of fiction on screen. In today's media-saturated times, this is bound to be lauded, lionised, fetishised and then critiqued as what-have-you [insert tired postmodern jargon here], but really, nothing can take away from the experience of watching that real physical transformation unfold on screen - the actors aging, their voices, faces, physique and even temperaments changing in dramatic temporal forward lunges. It is incredible. Every slight inflection, every crease, every facial line and burrow assumes significance. The reality of the aging process is a tantalising 'device' (no, it is not a device, it cannot be in this case). In fact, I reconsider what I said earlier; jargon will not suffice here. Twelve years of a process of constant change, transformation and creation, and all of this in a narrative that is so very intensely simple - this is really special. The Before series is similar in that the same process underlies it, but there the parts work as self-contained narratives. (I think the next Before film is going to be utterly devastating, in both senses. There is something tremendously frightening and yet very calm and enlightened about the film-maker's and actors' ability to negotiate and wield the aging process, and its inevitable culmination, in their art.) Filmmakers and artists will surely wonder at the risk and commitment involved in something like this (twelve years to capture one story in today's accelerated times?). The Before series were small indie productions that had a niche audience; with Boyhood, that has changed, I would say. For me, the magic continues, and I left the theatre yesterday as spellbound as ever by the creations of the Linklater-Hawke duo.

Friday, January 9, 2015

At what cost the sacred?

The Charlie Hebdo massacre was not an accident, not a stray act of horror and not an unanticipated calamity. It was the culmination and result of a noxious coming together of ever-increasing radicalisation and political paralysis in the face of radicalisation and violence. It was the outcome of a series of ‘provocative’ challenges to reigning orthodoxies and the violent backlash these challenges invited. But this is not to suggest that the challenges themselves caused the ‘retribution’, a deeply disturbing and pernicious argument that has been put forward in relation to Charlie Hebdo for some years in some quarters until now (and perhaps even now); in this case, retribution, a term that evokes such guttural revulsion, was fuelled by a politics of ‘la haine’ and vitriol and enabled by the reticence of the rational, secular public. 

Political leaders and the news media of liberal democracies have played a significant role in this. As Michael Weiss argues in Foreign Policy and Emma-Kate Symons argues in Quartz, both politicians and media commentators and editors have repeatedly condemned Charlie Hebdo in the past for pushing the boundaries of satire and for indulging in bad taste, and they have done so on the premise that it is morally wrong (and of course politically disastrous) to mock images and precepts sacred to Islam, and to criticise Islamic fanaticism. Much blood has been spilled over the idea of the sacred, but, in this postmodern morass of competing visions and political ideologies, each of which is apparently as valid as the next, a basic question needs to be asked - what is sacred? And how have we sacralised what we have come to view as sacred? At what price the preservation of that which is sacred and, at the other end, at what cost sacrilege? I revisit Salman Rushdie (1990):

“No, nothing is sacred in and of itself, I would have said. Ideas, texts, even people can be made sacred - the word is from the Latin sacrare, 'to set apart as holy' - but even though such entities, once their sacredness is established, seek to proclaim and to preserve their own absoluteness, their inviolability, the act of making sacred is in truth an event in history. It is the product of the many and complex pressures of the time in which the act occurs. And events in history must always be subject to questioning, deconstruction, even to declarations of their obsolescence. To revere the sacred unquestioningly is to be paralyzed by it. The idea of the sacred is quite simply one of the most conservative notions in any culture, because it seeks to turn other ideas - Uncertainty, Progress, Change - into crimes.”

For years, the journal’s satire has been has been criticised as racist and incendiary. But I find the charge of racism specious here. When religion is attacked, it is attacked for what it stands for – the attack is a matter of principle. The oppression that religions bring with them is always oppression – it does not become any more acceptable or any less repugnant when it is perpetuated under another name, another designation, another God. I’ve encountered arguments from both religious reactionaries and leftists that decry the journal’s ‘provocation’ as an ‘act of war’ – truly, if there is anything in this gruesome saga that is more disturbing than this consensus then I do not know it. It is in characterising intellectual challenges, satirical or otherwise, as acts of war that we have the root of our anomie. There are now voices calling for respect for freedom of expression and free speech. We argue that the freedom to offend is precious and must be protected at all costs. For Charlie Hebdo, however, these calls and exhortations to defense of free speech have come too late. Twelve people have been brutally, unconscionably massacred. The tide has turned irrevocably. These deaths prove conclusively that claims of the sanctity of western values and freedom are ultimately otiose and meaningless in the face of the real and unrelenting violence that awaits those who offend. Those who imagine that this is a blip, yet another condemnable aberration, in European politics delude themselves. Charlie Hebdo was an outlier in that they repeatedly, recklessly and, yes, courageously, pushed the boundaries of a palpable new political order characterised by previously unthinkable levels of censorship and suppression of dissent. Isn’t it a mark of utter complacency and self-deception to imagine another taking its place in the aftermath of the massacre? The changes, repression of thought and self-correction that have gradually and imperceptibly transformed intellectual debate for many years now stand starkly before us in all their resplendent ghastliness. I do not doubt that each one of us, by omission or commission, is implicated in the rise of the new regime, and thus, by extension, in the brutal and unconscionable fate that befell Charlie Hebdo.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

To Modi

you bring out the worst
in the best of us
and the best
in the worst of us;
the secular elite are all in a flurry,
their well-endowed intellects
imploding with angst,
their capacious hearts
bursting with indignation,
and their gentle salons
now rattling with the sound of
splenetic typing on well-worn keyboards;
meanwhile, the masses are all agog
with paens of your glory
while dire warnings flow uninterrupted
from the ivory tower,
and angry denunciations are heard
in Mashobra (or Bloomsbury);
What is it, Modi?
What is it about you
that makes everybody go nuts?