Friday, 31 July, 2009
Irrespective of the advancements made in the tools used to wage war, ultimately humans must face each other on a battlefield. Predator and drone unmanned aerial vehicles may be able to kill the enemy (along with civilians) but they cannot secure territory. Only infantry soldiers can occupy and secure territory.
Civilized nations agreed to abide by certain behaviours to regulate war in 1949. The Geneva Conventions and the associated Protocols set out some basic rules about how behaviour by combatants.
It seems these rules are optional. In almost any conflict zone soldiers tend to regress to the same type of conduct as their counterparts from medieval times. Isolated and systematic incidents of misconduct have been witnessed among the US military in Vietnam and Iraq. The Soviets / Russians troops in Afghanistan and Chechnya were no better.
Soldiers are trained to destroy and kill and the Pakistani infantryman is no different.
When the Pakistani military finally swung into action in the scenic Swat Valley in May 2009, it was faced with a determined core of Islamic fighters. These fighters have demonstrated their willingness to die for their ideological cause and are at least as fervently attached to their cause as the communist revolutionaries of the 1960s.
By May 2009 the militants were almost in complete control of all aspects of life in the 5,300 square kilometre valley. They operated a regime underpinned by terror. Intimidation by brutal beheadings was the order of the day. Boys were kidnapped to be trained as suicide bombers. The number of girls schools destroyed exceeded 150. Cruel punishments (such as whippings) pronounced by unqualified and often illiterate 'judges' became routine.
There were no remnants of the Pakistani state left to speak off, except perhaps on a map.
In this environment, how does the state restore any sense of faith in the government's ability to restore order? To arrest militants only to have them set free by the civilian law courts due to lack of conclusive evidence is dispiriting for its soldiers. Moreover, it sends the wrong signal to the local population who live in fear of an eventual return by the militants.
The military, which has suffered casualties numbering several hundred since 'Operation Rah e Raast' or the Right Path began, is taking no prisoners in its third operation (in two years) to rid the Swat Valley of militants.
The evidence, though anecdotal and circumstantial, is convincing.
He [Swat policeman] told me that he went to Saidu Sharif [town in Swat] one day. The army issued an invitation through loud speakers to residents to go to houses known to belong to militants and help themselves to anything useful they could find there. So people went and took all kinds of things - washing machines and other household items. In the end, the army destroyed those houses. A different story: someone was arrested in Mingora, accused of being a militant. The army took him to his village and asked three local people to confirm whether he is indeed a militant. Three people confirmed. They shot him on the spot. People were very happy.
Entry from a Diary of a Swat Refugee [former administrator] dated July 14, 2009
It is unlikely that the above incident is an isolated case.
Such harsh tactics may be a necessary short term evil to counter the enemy's main tool, namely intimidation. Undeniably, extreme methods of this sort cannot be sustained and must quickly give way to a normal civic and judicial set up.
Only civilians can rebuild and restore what soldiers so easily and efficiently destroy.
The return of genuine normalcy necessitates a society free from the persistent fear of a return to Swat by the militants. The death or capture of Mullah Fazlullah, the key ideologue of the Swat militants, will go far in reducing the apprehensions of the local population.
Indeed, without a significant military presence remaining in Swat for many months and possibly years the advent of normalcy will remain elusive. The fear factor is too preponderant among the local population. Only a credible security umbrella provided by the military can incubate the basic civil structure.
The Pakistan military may be using twentieth century technology in its fight against Islamic militants, but the rules of the conflict are being written by the ordinary soldier. If the pen of the civil servant does not soon take over from the sipahi's gun then finding the right path may become a long and arduous journey.
The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
- John Stuart Mill
I know the quotation sounds like something George W. Bush might say in a carefully scripted speech - and I apologize for that - as I don't wish to sound like a rabid right wing conservative!
It is a 'preface' to my article about civilization's bid to reclaim the Swat Valley from Islamic militants, 'Of Privates, Militants and the Geneva Conventions.'
The battle is not about who physically controls the picturesque valley but about the future of Islam in Pakistan. Are the Pakistani people ready to stand by and watch illiterate mullahs hijack Islam and impose Saudi style rule in Pakistan?
Gratefully, it seems as if Pakistanis are ready to return to their roots. A heritage replete with the arts, including sufi poetry. Of Buddhist centers of learning (Taxila) and indigenous Indian customs which are now as much Pakistani as Indian.
It is unfortunate that sometimes even spiritual wars have to take place on an old fashioned battlefield where bloodshed is inevitable.
Thursday, 30 July, 2009
In this era of the internet, word processors and spell checks, there really is no excuse for sloppy spelling errors.
It is the written language that suffers. With written text associated with rap songs and sms invading our colloquialisms, the sanctity of the written word has been surrendered to expediency.
I guess, along with everything else in the internet era, even language has been 'democratized.' It is no longer the privileged domain of nobility and royalty, whose diaries it were that we typically used to read.
Citizen journalists are the new recorders of socials conditions and blogs are the new diaries. If Anne Frank were living today we would be reading her blog. Much like the media was relying on social networks for information during the recent unrest in Iran.
However, the same technology that has popularized informal language has seemingly put in place a self correcting mechanism too. At least as far as the use of exact spelling is concerned.
Witness the GPS system so widely to aid navigation. Modern technology adheres to the old maxim of 'garbage in, garbage out.'
Swedish tourists in Italy take note. If you write Carpi and not Capri and you adhere to the GPS as if it were Moses leading you to the Holy Land, then you will finally reach an industrial town 650 kilometres from your intended destination of Capri.
The only 'Blue Grotto' in Italy is located in the Gulf of Naples and cannot be mistaken for a factory in Carpi.
The complexity of spelling in the modern age is often amplified by the requirement to 'translate' from one script to another.
There is only correct way to spell my last name (Ahmed) using the Arabic script. The language can be Urdu, Farsi, or Arabic but the spelling is the same.
In the Latin script, several variations exist. Ahmed, Ahmad, or Ahmet are the most commonly used.
For me, misspelling (or is that mispelling?) an individual's name in a formal written interaction, say professional email or letter, is the mother of all spelling mistakes! It is tantamount to showing disrespect. It makes obvious someone's lack of interest in me and all that I am.
My name is part of my identity and is an integral part of me.
If there is one thing that I genuinely own a copyright to then that is my very own name. I have owned it since birth. It has always been Ahmed. Check my passport if you like.
Any contract in which my name is spelt AHMAD is null and void even before my pen touches the paper.
Tuesday, 28 July, 2009
Many years ago I asked a friend why he is marrying at such an early age (25). He retorted by asking, 'Have you seen my hair? I will not have any hair left in a few years and who will agree to marry me then?!'
From the days of Samson it's always been about the hair. If one day I happen to locate the Holy Grail but I lose all my hair in the process, I will wonder whether it was worthwhile.
Yes, putting on the pounds and having high cholesterol are also unpleasant side effects of the aging process for males. However, to me baldness just seems far more frightening than a beer belly.
It may be a fashion among some today to shave their heads, especially when their hair is thinning. But there can only be so many Yul Brynner look-alikes on the streets at any one time. I saw 'The King and I' recently and I don't look anything like Yul Brynner.
Most aging rock stars still have hair and they are a decade or so older than me. Yes, it's difficult to tell whether that is natural hair or not but maybe that's just the point. They have hair and it looks natural.
I guess they spend a fortune in maintaining their hair. Me, I know how expensive Regaine (think of it as viagra for the hair) is but I will give up eating one daily meal before I give up my daily dose of Regaine!
It is hair we are speaking off. At my age, each strand of hair is worth its weight in gold. When I see hair in the drain of my shower I don't think how untidy that is but, 'Oh my God, I'm losing so much hair!'
If writing is cathartic then I better just say it. I will go bald one day and acceptance is the only answer. There, I said it and I said it in bold!
Until that sad and mournful day, let there be no doubt that I will fight like a madman to retain my natural hair using whatever magic potions I can find.
As a postscript, have you ever wondered why there are so many articles written about Michael Jackson's nose(s)? The answer is simple. The focus is on Michael Jackson's nose because he had a full head of hair right until the end!
The Pakistani and Indian armed forces fought two 'old fashioned' wars in 1965 and 1971. These wars saw two uniformed armies, along with traditional trappings like tanks and artillery, face each other primarily in the plains of Punjab.
However, the hostility between the two South Asian nuclear powers has led to several other conflagrations, including one that currently has the distinction of being the highest battlefield in the world.
The Siachen Glacier, a glacier located in disputed Kashmir at an elevation of approximately 21,000 feet above sea level, has been contested militarily since 1984. The word Siachin means the 'place of wild roses' in local dialect. The name is a reference to the roses which allegedly grow in the valleys around the glacier.
The Siachen Glacier in a photograph taken in 1913
The area surrounding the glacier was poorly demarcated at the time of the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Subsequent bilateral agreements, including the Karachi Agreement of 1949 and the Simla Accord of 1972, did not make an effort to demarcate the territory as it was deemed to be impossible for normal human inhabitation.
When India launched 'Operation Meghdoot' in April 1984 it was able to successfully secure the high points of the 70 kilometre long glacier, including the Saltoro Ridge and two strategically important passes. Twenty-five years and several Pakistani counter attacks later, the 'Actual Ground Position Line' remains much the same. The Indian forces hold the high ground but are effectively under siege by the Pakistani forces.
The Indians cannot come down while the Pakistanis cannot go up.
While it may be difficult to fault the Pakistani military high command for not properly defending an unpopulated area at an altitude of 6,000 square meters, there were some warning signs that the Indian military was planning some sort of advance. Most notably an Indian military expedition to the Siachen area in 1978 should have raised some red flags.
It is a moot point to suggest that one side has got the best of the conflict, especially given the enormous logistical costs to both sides. But, as former Pakistan President Musharraf has admitted in his memoirs, the reality that the country has lost almost 900 square miles of territory (which Pakistan claims) to India is a bitter truth for most Pakistanis.
The Siachen conflict is an expensive and futile extension of the national honour of the two neighbours. A conflict in which avalanches and frostbites, and not enemy gunfire, generate more casualties do make one wonder who is the real adversary.
Monday, 27 July, 2009
Cows, bulls, oxen and buffaloes. Does anyone really know the difference between these animals?
I guess we are not taught everything we need to know for a productive life in primary school. Is it possible to go through our entire adult life not knowing the distinction between a cow or a bull?
Let's begin 'Cattle 101.'
Cattle and cows are generally used interchangeably. The word 'cattle' always refers to more than one cow. Domesticated cows have been reared for meat, milk, leather and labour (pulling ploughs, etc.) for centuries.
A bull is an adult (uncastrated) male of various species of cattle. Generally, four years and older is considered adult among bovines. Most male cows have the misfortune of either being castrated as calves or being slaughtered before their fourth birthday.
There are a few who survive.
Some are kept alive for breeding but others magically transform themselves into oxen! Ox or oxen are (normally) castrated male cows used as draught animals (animals that pull ploughs, carts and do other arduous work).
That still leaves us with buffaloes. Buffalo cows (yes, buffaloes are also cows) are reared for their meat. Buffaloes can be distinguished by their horns and are sometimes referred to as bison.
Which particular species was first infected with Mad Cow Disease or initially became sacred to Hindus I really cannot say. Ultimately, they all seem to be cows anyway, even the hitherto unmentioned steers and bullocks.
Sunday, 26 July, 2009
Ghalib, the great Urdu poet whose fondness for mangoes I have already written about earlier, was also extremely partial to the odd tipple. (It's probably fair to say his weakness was habitual as many of his contemporaries considered him a drunk!)
Ghalib was once asked whether he was a Muslim and he replied, 'I am half Muslim. I don't eat pork but I drink alcohol.'
I guess he is not alone in being half Muslim. I keep running into more and more of us half-Muslims out there.
I am no wine connoisseur but I can certainly appreciate a nice wine when I taste one. And recently, my (insubordinate) half discovered the joys of Muscat dessert wines.
The grape variety always fascinated me given my fondness of the Omani capital of Muscat. Even though I cannot find any link between Muscat, Oman and the origin of the Muscat grape, I still had to try the wine.
Being a tad stingy, I 'splurged' on a cheap Australian Long Flat Red Moscato 2008 a few days ago. It was not a chore to finish the bottle - I enjoy my desserts even in liquid form! Drinking varied types of Muscat grape wines is now on my 'to do' list.
I highly recommend trying Muscat grape juice to my non-Muslim, half-Muslim and, dare I say it, to my Muslim friends.
Saturday, 25 July, 2009
Male rain gods in the Indian state of Bihar are obviously quite discerning in their preferences when it comes to nudity!
Maybe someone is reading what I write!
In Pakistan's 'Lost Decade' during the years 1988-1999, the country saw four general elections and four successive civilian governments. People's patience with civilian governments' was running so thin by the time General Musharraf took over in the October 1999 coup that there was dancing in the streets to celebrate the military takeover.
Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, and Nawaz Sharif, who headed his own faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, played musical chairs with the Prime Minister's seat until the music finally stopped in 1999.
In 1993, after both Benazir Bhutto (1988-1990) and Nawaz Sharif (1990-1993) had taken their turns at the helm of affairs, a hijra (a person of 'cross gender' and generally referred to as a transvestite in the subcontinent) cheekily ran for Prime Minister with the slogan along the lines, 'We've tried a woman and she failed. We've tried a man and he's failed so now it's our turn!'
Her campaign never gathered enough steam to win a seat and the ambitious hijra became another in the long line of (aspiring) Pakistani politicians who tried to reform the nation but gave up before even getting started.
Perhaps it was at that moment that the seeds of the legally inspired Great Transvestite Revolution of 2009 were planted.
Almost two decades later, in a judgement earlier this month the Supreme Court of Pakistan has ordered that (transvestites) as citizens of Pakistan '... enjoy the same protection guaranteed under Article four (rights of individuals to be dealt with in accordance of law) and Article nine (security of person) of the Constitution.'
On a practical note, the decree paves the way for members of the impoverished community to be eligible for all income support programs offered by the federal and provincial governments'. Equally important, however, is the acceptance of civic responsibility by a system which until recently was only too happy to shy away from any controversy in the face of religious bigotry.
Ironically, the court's ruling came in response to a petition filed by an Islamic jurist, Dr Mohammad Aslam Khaki, who took up the cause after hearing about the tragic plight of the hijra community.
International media please take note, all cannot be wrong in a nation where Islamic jurisprudence and civil law combine to address a pressing civil and human rights issue in a most satisfactory manner.
Friday, 24 July, 2009
The investment guru Warren Buffet once said that it is only when the tide goes down that we discover who has been swimming naked. On Wall Street, being caught with your pants down can get you 150 years in prison. Ask Bernard Madoff.
In the Middle East, it is low tide and skinny dipping was clearly in fashion during the last few years. But it seems that being caught naked is not always a crime. Businessmen caught naked seldom pay the same price as (say) a naked couple cavorting on a public beach in Dubai.
Since the beginning of the global financial crisis, there have been several high profile frauds in the oil rich gulf kingdoms comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Of late, frauds have skyrocketed across the Gulf according to a survey conducted by KPMG late last year.
In recent times, several prominent locals and expatriates have been arrested or detained in the UAE. But the arrests have only served to highlight the weak legal infrastructure prevalent in the Gulf kingdoms.
Persons are often detained for long periods without any charges and seldom produced before a court until long investigation periods are completed. There are few transparent reviews of the evidence or charges pertaining to the arrests and detentions.
The latest fraud is alleged to be worth USD ten billion and involves one of Saudi Arabia's most prominent families, the Gosaibis. (The numbers are large enough to have gone beyond the pages of the Gulf media and into the international press.)
Many regional banks claim to have suffered losses as a result of the alleged fraud. Court proceedings are currently taking place not in Saudi Arabia, but in a US court. A US (or other international jurisdiction) court may provide banks with their best hope of recovering some of the money by having relevant corporate assets attached.
These same banks may fear that the impartiality of the Gulf's legal systems will be sacrificed at the altar of political influence. Or it may simply be a case that there is no legislation in place in the Gulf to tackle (possible) frauds associated with complex financial transactions.
The UAE is trying to address these legal weaknesses by building a parallel financial legal system through the Dubai International Finance Center. However, if confidence in a nation's primary legal system is lacking, participation by the private sector in economic activity will never realize its full potential.
Modern capitalist societies, such as those envisioned by the GCC rulers, demand that transparent, predictable and impartial legal structures are put in place. Until then, the public sector will continue to bear a disproportionate burden of the Gulf's economic development.
Thursday, 23 July, 2009
In Pakistan, the mango is the undisputed king of fruits. The mango is not considered an ordinary fruit.
The mango's majestic pedigree is well established and predates the country's independence. The fruit has many devotees who celebrate the season's arrival with an assortment of mango festivals. But the mango's greatest groupie is the acclaimed 19th century Urdu (Pakistan's national language) poet, Mirza Ghalib.
Ghalib was particularly partial to mangoes. It is understood that he petitioned his friends with letters each season to request containers of mangoes from their personal orchards. He is known to have referred to at least 25 different varieties of mangoes by name in his letters.
The last Mughal Emperor of India Bahadur Shah Zafar, a contemporary poet and rival of Ghalib, had his own mango orchard in the gardens of Delhi's Red Fort. More recently, when President Musharraf met Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee in 2001, the two leaders exchanged crates of Mangoes as gifts.
Today's rulers have inherited the discerning tastes of their Mughal predecessors.
However, like any kingdom, the mango's rule covers a limited domain. Subjects of the Mango Dynasty are primarily found residing in the Indian subcontinent.
In Singapore, and the rest of South East Asia, the durian reigns supreme. Sweet fragrances are not a prerequisite to ruling SE Asia. The durian, the regional King of fruits, might even owe its rule to the pungency of its aroma. Just its odour instils trepidation in the hearts of all its subjects. Who dare challenge the durian for the throne!
I, for one, am afraid to taste the durian. I surely cannot be the only one with such a (rational) fear?
Historically, a ruler's crown is passed from one king (queen) to another. But in the case of the mango and the durian enduring peace may only be achieved if two members of their family were to be united.
Die hard royalists from either side appear unwilling to cede sovereignty to an alien line.
Wednesday, 22 July, 2009
The unrest is an ethnic issue and should not be mistaken for anything otherwise.
Members of the Uighur community are afraid that their culture and way of life are threatened by Beijing's policy of resettling Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Yes, being Muslim is a part of Uighur culture. But culture typically tends to be a more powerful force than religion. It generally accepts religious influences and synthesises religious values to create a moral code more acceptable to local culture.
To an Uighur, the symbols of "Uighurness" are far more numerous than just Islam. Their own particular form of food, their affinity with the Xinjiang region and the impact of Xinjiang's geography (being part of an ancient trade route) all play a part on the Uighur way of life.
It is dangerous to perceive the recent Xinjiang unrest through the prism of the global war on terror. Islamic militancy and Uighur unrest are not pages from the same book. The Uighur situation is far more akin to events in Tibet and Chinese policy towards ethnic minorities than the war in Afghanistan.
Islamic militants will be happy to hijack the grievances of the Uighur community to pursue their own global agenda.
It is, therefore, important that Chinese government policies and the global community's response do not create another (unnecessary) front in the battle against Islamic militancy by pushing Uighur dissidents into the arms of Islamic militants.
Uighurs are Muslims, but the recent unrest has nothing to do with Islam.
My comment was published in the Straits Times on July 22, 2009.
Tuesday, 21 July, 2009
It is the unfortunate story of a Muslim female in Pahang, Malaysia who has been sentenced to six strokes of the cane for drinking beer in a nightclub.
More evidence to support my idea of the (dangerous) trend of 'Islamization' of the otherwise enlightened nation of Malaysia.
Let's just hope that this is an isolated case and is the exception that proves the rule!
Sunday, 19 July, 2009
An uncommon combination of characteristics, especially difficult to find in a developing nation.
Malaysia is a special place for me. The country provides a ray of hope that a (majority) Muslim country can internalize modernity and adapt to a 'twentieth century way of life' which is in consonance with its religious beliefs. It reinforces the notion that Islam does not have to be hijacked by extreme reactionaries who are opposed to modernity. The same reactionaries who tend to 'pseudo-intellectualize' their opposition to change via obscurantist reasoning.
Reactionaries whose authority and ability to interpret Islamic thought seems to rest only on the length of their beard.
Make no mistake; Malay-Muslims are typically religiously conservative. Islamic scholars and pious people have always been respected within the Malay culture.
However, since I first started travelling to KL / Malaysia in 2001, I have noticed several subtle changes over the years. Visible forms of religiosity among the Malays have increased. A slow but perceptible 'Islamization' of Malaysian society seems to be taking root.
Two of Malaysia's thirteen member states are now ruled by the Islamic opposition party. In these states the trappings of secular rule are slowly disappearing.
Pause to consider some of the intellectual debates that have recently captivated the country. Is the practice of yoga by Muslims un-Islamic? In the opposition ruled states, the deliberations are more indicative of Iran or Saudi Arabia than Malaysia. Is it permissible for females to wear make-up? Can they wear shoes with high heels that may attract attention by making a noise when they walk?
UMNO, the traditional ruling party in Malaysia, is even talking to the Islamists about joining hands in a coalition. (UMNO is a broad multi-party coalition which has ruled Malaysia since 1957, the year the country won its independence from Britain.) Such (controversial) coalition talks show how far the Islamists have penetrated the political mainstream.
The goal posts of political debate have shifted decidedly to the right and in favour of the Islamists.
To be fair, Malaysia benefits considerably from its 'Islamic Connection' in many ways.
Tourism links between the Arab world and Malaysia have increased dramatically in years following 9/11. Visitor numbers from the Gulf countries are noticeably higher. Flights between KL and major Arab cities are plentiful. (See also my blog entry entitled '9/11, Malaysia, Tourism and Islam' of July 17, 2009.)
Business links have also thrived. Arab capital has poured into Malaysia. The new trend is best represented by financial firms like the Saudi Al-Rajhi Bank trying to establish a retail presence in Malaysia. Walk around prime areas in KL and you will almost certainly come across a spanking new Al-Rajhi branch, complete with Arabic livery.
KL has successfully established itself as an international center for Islamic finance. Malaysia is a pivotal player in the development of Islamic financial instruments and institutions. KL is a mandatory stop for any road show peddling Islamic bonds.
As Islam wrestles with the many internal contradictions created by governing ideologies that range from the rigid Turkish secularism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to the stern Shariah implemented by Saudi Arabia, Malaysia cannot be ignored. Surely, it has issues concerning the allocation of economic resources among minority groups, about the role of English in its society, but it is a relatively peaceful and affluent society. A fact which, sadly but arguably, makes it a successful nation in today's Islamic world.
If an Islamic society is about providing an enabling and positive environment for believers and unbelievers unlike, then one can do much worse than looking to an Asian Tiger for a few of the answers.
Friday, 17 July, 2009
While much has been written about the loss of revenues suffered by certain countries (e.g. by the US due to the reduced number of Saudi students now attending US universities), little has been written about the beneficiaries of the new paradigm.
Malaysia is one of the winners.
Please see my comment published in the Straits Times on July 17, 2009.
A more detailed (and opinionated!) comment is on its way.
Tuesday, 14 July, 2009
The battle lines were drawn against a security establishment that, like Turkey, was grounded in secular nationalism and religious Islamists whose political party had won a majority in the elections. The Algerian ruling party, or the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had ruled Algeria since the nation won its independence from France in 1962 was afraid of losing its monopoly over the Algerian state.
The Algerian civil war was a bloody and dirty affair, irrespective of which side one was on ...
The Algerian Son
A wailing Algerian woman,
Stoops over her son.
Her veil shrouds his body,
Another casualty of a religious gun.
The rebels seek shelter,
In the caves of Kabila.
The generals plot and plan,
In fortresses freckled around Algeria.
Endless desert lies between.
Emptiness for sons and lovers to die,
For wives and women to mourn.
To learn another religious lie.
Another casualty of a religious gun,
Arrives before the last burial has begun.
- Imran Ahmed
Sunday, 12 July, 2009
More than two months after the military operation began, there is hardly any talk about either the success of the military operation or its human fallout in the form of 'Internally Displaced Persons' or IDPs. However, a recent article in the Straits Times did a useful job in trying to quantify the cost of the 'War on Terror' paid by Pakistan.
Please see my comments published in the Straits Times on July 8, 2009:
Please see my comments published in the Straits Times on June 26, 2009 on an article by Mr. Pant:
The Pakistan High Commission also waded into the debate:
Please read my comment published in the Straits Times on July 2, 2009.