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Obama And The Balance Of Expectations

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On November 6, US President Barack Obama will pay a tribute to the victims of 26/11 from the heritage wing of the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai—the place where massive destruction and bloodshed took place for the longest duration during the siege in Mumbai in end-November 2008. That’s where his trip begins and that is where we will know what he feels about the fact that almost two years down the line there has been no effective progress on bringing the perpetrators of that massacre to justice.

Then again it is naïve to expect the U.S. to help us in bringing Pakistan to book when the United States is itself incessantly-struggling in trying to make Pakistan follow a completely dollar-funded War on Terror. The contrast of the Pakistan, United States, and India triumvirate can be seen in the light of the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey released in July end for Pakistan and late October for India.

Looking at the survey and the recent congressional polls in the U.S., Obama may now have the distinction of being more popular in India than he is in his own country. The numbers also say that the US has a positive image in India. The good news for India is that its citizens are upbeat about their economy and have confidence in their leadership. Incredibly, “more than eight-in-ten (83%) say the U.S. takes the interests of countries like India into account when it makes foreign policy decisions—the highest percentage among the 21 nations surveyed outside the U.S.” I am with the minority and open to consider my views again after President Obama leaves.

Right next door in Pakistan America’s overall image remains negative despite the fact that it is spending $7.5 billion in civilian aid. And just two weeks or so before Obama’s India visit the United States approved a further $2 billion military package to Pakistan. Irrefutable proof that money can’t buy you love.

While President Obama is hugely popular in India he is extremely unpopular in Pakistan—only 8 per cent of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations surveyed.

“The Pakistan Army, which is surely the most powerful mercenary force in history, simply sends a bill and Washington brings out the cheque book. Obama explained why: it’s known as ‘helping Pakistan in helping us in Afghanistan,’” wrote the editorial director of India Today MJ Akbar.

This isn’t an entirely new thing as it began when Zia-ul-Haq started milking Washington for all he could when the Afghan jihad began. “He turned down Jimmy Carter’s initial offer of $400 million in aid, dismissing it as ‘peanuts,’ and was rewarded with a $3.2 billion proposal from the Reagan administration plus permission to buy F-16 fighter jets, previously available only to NATO allies and Japan.” (1)

The scale of skimming by the ISI officers was baffling. “In Quetta in 1983, ISI officers were caught colluding with Afghan rebels to profit by selling off CIA-supplied weapons. In another instance, the Pakistan army quietly sold the CIA its own surplus .303 rifles and about 300 million bullets. A ship registered in Singapore picked up about 100,000 guns in Karachi, steamed out to sea, turned around, came back to port, and off-loaded the guns, pretending they had come from abroad. The scheme was discovered—the bullets were still marked ‘POF,’ for ‘Pakistan Ordinance Factory.’ ISI had to pay to scrub the Pakistani bullets of their markings, so if they were used in Afghanistan and picked up by the Soviets, they couldn’t be exploited by the communists as evidence of Pakistani support for the mujahedin.” (2)

Any doubts that money is now being used for its intended purpose were cleared by a New York Times story roughly a year before the Mumbai attacks. The NYT had reported that US aid for the War on Terror had been diverted by Pakistan to shore up its capabilities against India.

Terrorism and the complexities of dealing with the ever-dangerous and deteriorating situation in Pakistan would expectedly be at the heart of discussions between Obama and the Indian leadership but whether there would be some tectonic change in the equation remains to be seen. The main aim of the Obama visit will remain economic as he faces harsher realities back home. Obama is coming with 200 CEOs of American firms and he hopes to encourage business deals to reinvigorate the US economy and thereby also improve his re-election chances for 2012.

As far as the expectations of India are concerned the early signs are not too encouraging as there hasn’t been a clear positive sign either on India’s bid for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council or on dual technology transfer. There have also been American concerns over outsourcing. Surely the Obama contingent must have thought about the fact that the visit is not all about what America wants.

According to another NYT story, “corporate America mainly hopes the visit by the president can help better define the common economic interests of the United States and India and build on the trade and investment foundations the business community has already laid.

Harold McGraw 3rd, the chairman of McGraw Hill and one of the executives in the Obama entourage, said the visit was ‘all about economic and job growth for both the U.S. and India.’ India is America’s 14th-largest trade partner, he noted, but ‘should be a lot higher.’”

Obama comes to India as a well-regarded leader of a country that is well-liked, going by the Pew survey, and between his increasingly-growing home concerns and what he can take from India he must also ensure that what he leaves behind, at the very least, keeps that popularity in place.

Sources: For 1 and 2 from the writings of Steve Coll. Others New York Times and Pew Research Center.


Three Cheers For Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan took on India on Saturday at the World T20 championship American novelist Marvin Cohen’s words came to my mind: “Life is an elaborate metaphor for cricket.”

War-ravaged Afghanistan’s journey from refugee camps to the elite league of cricket is nothing short of heroic and they played extremely-well considering the context. One Afghan player got to a fifty faster than a run a ball and another bowled sharply and with purpose. There was no hesitancy in running between the wickets and everyone noticed that the players were not overawed. Why would they be? South African captain Graeme Smith was quoted by the New York Times, when told that an Afghan batsman had declared himself unafraid of Dale Steyn—one of the world’s fastest bowlers—as saying: “I wouldn’t be either, if I had grown up in a war zone.”

The great Australian all-rounder and World War II fighter pilot Keith Miller had a very relaxed attitude on the playing field that enchanted spectators and made him a favourite of the English public. He attributed this to the fact that sport was trivial in comparison to war. When asked many years later about pressure on the cricket field Miller responded with the famous quote: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt (German fighter plane) up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Richard Downey, the Archbishop of Liverpool from 1928 to his death in 1953, made a curious observation about cricket when he said: “If Stalin had learned to play cricket, the world might now be a better place.” That gives us the context as the Cold War’s last and most poignant battle was fought in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan.

Is cricket really trivial compared to war? For help I turn to Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera and to his amazing novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the background of the over-familiar banality of private life.

Since there is no single historic event we can count on being commonly known, I must speak of events that took place a few years ago as if they were a thousand years old: In 1939, the German army entered Bohemia, and the Czech state ceased to exist. In 1945, the Russian army entered Bohemia, and the country once again was called an independent republic.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a study of variations. ‘The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.’ Mirek says in the opening chapter of the novel: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The chapter that brings out the thought behind this piece is the second chapter that contains an orgy of pleasure taking place under the larger canvas of pain.

“Karel shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Marketa was right: Mama had really changed. She was pleased with everything, grateful for everything. Karel had been expecting in vain a quarrel over some little thing.
On a walk a day or two before, she had gazed into the distance and asked: ‘What is that pretty little white village over there?’ It wasn’t a village, just boundary stones. Karel took pity on his mother, whose sight was dimming. But her faulty vision seemed to express something more basic: what appeared large to them, she found small; what they took for boundary stones, for her were distant houses.

To tell the truth, that was not an entirely new trait of hers. The difference was that at one time it had annoyed them. One night, for instance, their country was invaded by the tanks of a gigantic neighbouring country. That had been such a shock and brought such terror that for a long time no one could think of anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were ripe. A week earlier, Mama had invited the pharmacist to come and pick them. But the pharmacist neither came nor even apologized. Mama was unable to forgive him, which infuriated Karel and Marketa. They reproached her: Everyone else is thinking about tanks, and you’re thinking about pears. Then they moved out, taking the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, Karel realized that the answer to this question was not as obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”

Why Cricket Needs A New Game Plan

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They are as sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing.
— The Merchant of Venice

When Christopher Martin-Jenkins used this Shakespearean beginning to cry out for less cricket in 2003 the world was not going through as acute a food crisis or as humungous a surfeit of cricket entertainment as it is now. Twenty20 was not even in the womb and a private enterprise like the IPL was nowhere in the distant horizon.

“The media have to take it on the chin: we make a lifelong living from the game and there are ways of sharing the load. But for players there is sometimes no way off the treadmill,” Jenkins wrote. In six years after that we have crossed many oceans and packed double the amount of cricket in half the time and the ‘whole cricket system is blinking red’ and needs urgent attention and a solid roadmap.

What Cricket needs is a convention that considers all issues and takes a comprehensive look at the state of the game; something that can be metaphorically-likened to world leaders trying to grapple with global warming and the threat it poses to our planet. Left unattended the game would flow towards instant gratification and instant super-stardom as the pot of gold for new generation fans and the younger players respectively.

Just see the number of injuries on the circuit and the number of careers that could have been great but are just footnotes now and you’ll get the point. Are the administrators in their hurry failing to take care of the goose that lays golden eggs? Fast bowlers are fast becoming a dying breed and we’ve already seen a few express ones bowing out of Test cricket.

In this milieu the discussion between Harsha Bhogle, Sanjay Manjrekar, Lalit Modi, and Gideon Haigh in Time Out for Cricinfo has been refreshing and heartening. Lalit Modi spoke about just a seven-week window for the shortest form and how Test cricket is the most important form of the game.

“Test cricket is, actually, the highest-paying entity for the board. Test cricket is actually our bread and butter, which people don’t understand. We are never going to compromise on Test cricket. In fact, our viewership is high for Test cricket. When I talked about doing something for Test cricket, it’s for other countries where Test cricket is going down. In India, our ratings are going up. We are tracking that year by year, it’s going much better for us, and in fact we get paid highest for Test cricket,” said Lalit Modi.

As surprising as the Modi quote may seem it can’t beat the one given by Sanjay Manjrekar: “The fact is that the IPL, at the moment, is the most popular cricket product we have. And it’s something we’ve got to respect. It has also shown Test cricket and 50-overs cricket what they are lacking.

I think it’s important to have more and more people getting interested in sport, more and more countries getting interested in the sport. For the last 10-15 years, we haven’t seen too many countries seriously getting into cricket. So that tells you a bit about 50-overs cricket and Test match cricket. Maybe Twenty20 and IPL can start doing that.”

That tells me just one thing: Sanjay Manjrekar has lost it.

Is cricket a trade that more and more people and countries should get interested in it? Maybe Twenty20 can foster greater understanding between the US and Afghanistan or between US and Iraq. And it would be great for humanity if the Taliban and the Coalition Forces meet each other on a cricket field and leave the battlefield for good. If that happens then I’ll be the first person to celebrate and embrace Twenty20 as the global unifier.

For the sub-continent it may prove to be the biggest boon—the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project can be negotiated at the toss— as Twenty20, generally, and IPL, specifically, may bring Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India together. You’ve also got the perfect advertisement ready: IPL achieves what the IPI could not.

The circle was complete when the US joined the league and thus brought all stakeholders in the War on Terror together under the gospel of Twenty20. Europe is easy with England, Ireland and Holland already playing cricket and the ECB can be given the responsibility to get new recruits. Afghanistan has already played the United States in a Twenty20 game on February 11, 2010. Maybe IPL is the way out from the human condition. Maybe.

Manjrekar sees the last 10 to 15 years as bleak for cricket because there have been no serious new converts but he forgets to check that cricket history is over 132-years-old and we all know why eight countries are seeped in a cricketing culture.

When people who have played Test cricket start saying things like we need more countries getting interested in the sport and when Test cricket’s premier bowler of the last two decades lavishes praise without context then it makes me wonder just how much money is the IPL generating for everyone to say it is the greatest thing to happen to mankind since the wheel.

Even if the shorter form is good and caters to the taste of the majority it would be worth considering that Shakespeare hit the nail on the head when he said: An overflow of good converts to bad.

The Beginning Of A Very Unusual Fall—Part I

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For columnists and for news hounds, the beginning of this autumn has been quite a good fall. The journalists though would be happy to give the credit for most of the explosive disclosures and the fake bombs to this unusual season that has tempted certain well-bred horses to open their mouths.

We can come to the big guys later and begin with a small tragedy that unfolded in our neighbourhood. The Nation in an editorial comment said that the death of more than 19 people, all in a desperate attempt to get subsidised flour, should be enough to put any decent leadership to shame. The incident happened in Karachi; it could not be ascertained at this point of time if anyone was ashamed.

A story from London around the same time reported that Britain is spending about Rs 20 lakh a day on protecting former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf. The suave Musharraf had earlier kicked up a storm by admitting that US aid for fighting terror was diverted to strengthen military capability against India.

We are not really in a position to blame Pakistan for spending on building up more military capability towards the eastern side, especially since they were not privy to the fact that we have just learnt: our first and only hydrogen bomb test in 1998 was not that big a gung-ho moment.

Facts, especially the inconvenient ones, have consequences as Manoj Joshi’s Saturday piece in Mail Today elaborates. The piece has a lot of technical information presented in a manner that can be understood even by those of us who are not experts. The timing of this disclosure, 11 years later has ensured that we have managed to achieve the worst of both the worlds.

A former ISI officer has said that Mian Nawaz Sharif met Osama bin Laden five times and the al Qaeda chief sponsored Sharif’s election campaign in 1998. He said hopefully Nawaz would not ‘tell a lie’ in this regard.
Nawaz can surprise anyone as his political nous is the stuff legends are made of, especially after he sought to cement his position by manipulating two crucial jobs in his second term; the chief of army staff, traditionally the top military job in Pakistan, and the chief spy, the director-general of ISI.

Jehangir Karamat supported civilian-led democracy but Sharif sacked him as some of Karamat’s speeches in his view seemed like a sign of a military coup. It did become clear later that he had badly misread the situation. He named Pervez Musharraf, a little known general with a liberal reputation to head the army.

“Bill Clinton seemed to have a soft spot for Sharif; but many of Clinton’s senior aides and diplomats, especially those who knew Pakistan well, regarded Sharif as an unusually dull, muddled politician. He seemed to offer a bovine, placid gaze in private meetings where he sometimes read awkwardly from note cards.”

The piece by Najam Sethi, editor of Friday Times and the Daily Times, picked four inter-related yet intrinsically different and irregular pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that has to be solved for achieving lasting peace in the region. Sethi says that the next 12 months are critical for Pakistan, America, Afghanistan and India if 9/11 is not to remain a millstone around everyone’s neck. The article elaborates on what all the four countries involved should do.

No one can disagree that the dynamics between these four players would be crucial to achieving regional as well as international peace; though the advice to these four players reminds me of a man who epitomised the writing of the genre that has come to be known as Victorian Sage.

John Ruskin, as a very little boy, once ascended a pulpit to deliver one of the world’s shortest sermons. He said, “People, be good.”

My comments on a lead story in the Hindustan Times on a Saturday a few weeks ago were incorrect and bogus. The story was days ahead of the situation that has now unfolded with the Hurriyat expressing interest in reviving dialogue with India. Although I would still not be so lyrical in a news story to say that former militants can aspire to be artisans and mechanics. Nonetheless, the error stands corrected.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik has challenged India to a debate on 26/11. Malik also said that it was a “fact that India had solid information on the Mumbai attacks long before the tragedy, but it did not share anything with Pakistan, nor did it take any action to stop the attacks”.

India should not be slighted by Malik’s challenge but calmly accept his authority on the intricacies of the 26/11 plot and assure him that we would concede the debate if he is sincere and kind enough to tell us the entire truth.

The Iranian President Ahmadinejad on the other hand has not expressed any desire for a debate and has again declared the Holocaust as a ‘myth’. “The pretext for establishing the Zionist regime is a lie… a lie,” he added.

We should, as Najam says, resolve all our disputes in a brotherly manner of give and take. And the people to people contact since India’s friendship tour to Pakistan has remained affectionate throughout. Even after Mumbai, as the final of the T20 World Cup shows: the victory of Pakistan was celebrated here almost as our own.

Pakistan though must understand that brotherly negotiations on the table are not possible as long as it keeps nurturing and arming groups that are baying for our blood; and the fact that Pakistan is sometimes even ready to send its state actors in disguise to give the impression that it is a popular uprising makes India nervous to believe in table manners.

Cosmopolitan Mumbai’s Tryst With The Jungle

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Pakistan’s vacillating stance after the chilling and brazen attacks in Mumbai has been disheartening but not unexpected. The United States should know this better as this is not the first time they are getting exposed to layers and layers of deception in Islamabad. The strategy of buying time in any possible manner and to relegate what happened in Mumbai to the dismal background of unresolved terror acts that are being investigated works very well for Pakistan. And why give up a strategy that has worked so well for so many years.

Pakistan has milked Washington for three decades now while following its own agenda. The confirmation of the New York Times story two years ago has come from the horse’s mouth this time as Gen Musharraf candidly admitted that the money given for the War on Terror was diverted to strengthen military options against India. Of course, a denial has also come within days.

Tavleen Singh in her column for The Indian Express a few weeks ago wrote about covert operations as a way to counter the threat of Islamist terror that originates from across the border—a dismal but realistic way to counter a state that uses non-state actors as its most potent foreign policy tool. We should though proceed in our own sensible manner.

The passionate piece of Arundhati Roy for the Guardian after the Mumbai attacks attempts to put the violence of those terrifying November days in context using her celebrated talent with words. The vast background she paints starts with the Radcliffe line and covers the Gujarat riots, the Kashmir issue, Babri Masjid and also the Batla House incident; all legitimate issues in themselves that offer a convenient and lazy explanation when considered together.

Roy is confronted with the same problem that the West faced in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; the search for the ‘root causes’ of terrorism. Her delusion is not rare and though she lashes out at George Bush, her approach is strikingly similar to the-then American president. When the refusal to use the word fanaticism is based on the reluctance to recognise the fact of fanaticism then the response automatically becomes a flight of fancy.

One of the Chechen terrorists said during the siege of the theatre in Moscow: “We will win in the end, because we are willing to die—and you are not.” The Chechen who said this hit the Achilles’ heel of a ‘modern rational society’. What background explains the actions of a young Egyptian man about to finish his architectural study in a Hamburg University from where he takes a detour to lead a suicide mission as the pilot of the first plane that hit the World Trade Center on a bright September day in New York? His companions were 15 Saudi Arabians, one Lebanese and two men from the UAE—no one was a veteran of the Afghan jihad and most had visited Kandahar for the first time between 1999 and 2000.

Lee Harris, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Opinion Journal’, rubbishes the naïve attempts of a cause and effect explanation. “Only a profound misunderstanding can explain the ill-fated American project to deal with terrorism by bringing democracy to the Middle East,” Harris commented on America’s misadventure in Iraq.

The Palestinian elections in 2006 indicate the scale of the mistake. The free and fair elections in Gaza produced a landslide victory for Hamas, regarded by the US and the European nations as a terrorist organisation. The rampant corruption of Fatah, Hamas’ main rival, was how the West explained this victory. Could it not be that Hamas won simply because it echoed in the most direct and vehement manner the populist sentiment of not accepting the state of Israel; the agenda that defines Hamas.

In a liberal society people are not harassed for their opposing view points; and we can disagree with Roy’s opinion but not with her right to express them. The author’s language skills, sadly though, are not enough to mask her misplaced sense of history, especially about Afghanistan. Kabul was once an elegant city of broad streets and walled gardens before it became a site of vicious urban battles that erupted seasonally and led to a state of physical ruin and human misery that compared unfavourably to the very worst places on Earth.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling is to entertain children and adults and should not be seen as a definitive work about the rules that govern the chaos from which mankind seems to have evolved. The first law of the jungle is that there is no law. And whenever the law of the jungle is the final arbiter of any conflict, those who are reasonable are always at a disadvantage. A ‘modern rational society’ needs order while the ‘fanatic’ wants to disrupt that order precisely because the resulting jungle is to his advantage. ….Continued. Click on the headline to read the full piece.

‘What an unlucky country’

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Early in September 2001, the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center got a routine report from Ahmed Shah Massoud’s intelligence service about two Arab television journalists crossing the Northern Alliance lines from Kabul. The CIA had renewed its partnership with Massoud in September 1996, after a gap of almost six years. The alliance focused mainly on Arabs in Afghanistan and reports were sent via dedicated lines that linked the Panjshir Valley to Langley. In this instance the Center took note. It did not seem of exceptional interest.

This information is almost towards the end of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning book for general non fiction Ghost Wars by Steve Coll, who was the managing editor of The Washington Post then and is with The New Yorker magazine now.

Osama bin Laden and the freedom he had under Taliban rule brought the CIA back into the region. Coll’s riveting and authoritative narrative paints an astoundingly vivid picture of the years starting from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001. The New York Times called it the finest historical narrative so far on the origins of al-Qaeda.

At the US Embassy in Islamabad the Taliban’s rise was evaluated as an isolated Afghan mystery. Many career officers in the US government believed, even as late as September 10, 2001 that Mullah Omar would hand over bin Laden on his own, as Pakistan was assuring them.

“Afghanistan after 1979 was a laboratory for political and military visions conceived abroad and imposed by force. The language and ideas that described Afghan parties, armies, and militias originated with theoreticians in universities and seminaries in Europe, the United States, Cairo, and Deoband. Afghans fought as ‘communists’ or as ‘freedom fighters.’ They joined jihadist armies battling on behalf of an imagined global Islamic umma. A young, weak nation, Afghanistan produced few convincing nationalists who could offer an alternative, who could define Afghanistan from within. Ahmed Shah Massoud was an exception.”

“Few in Panjshir could read or write, but Massoud’s parents were both exceptions. His father was formally educated. His mother taught herself to read and write, and urged her four sons and four daughters to improve themselves similarly. Ahmed Shah Massoud’s mother meted out family discipline, and because he was a child who seemed naturally inclined to mischief, his reprimands came often. She never struck her children physically, her sons recalled, but she could wither them with verbal lashings. Years later Massoud confided to siblings that perhaps the only person he had ever feared was his mother.”….Continued. Click on the headline to read the full piece.

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