Friday, February 29, 2008


On Friday morning, a remote controlled bomb blast in Mingora's Laki Marwat district killed the local Deputy Police Superintendent Javed Iqbal, and three of his fellow officers.

Not 10 hours later, they suicide bomb DSP Javed Iqbal's funeral procession, killing his son and 40 other mourners, and wounding 80 others. There were around a thousand people in attendance at the funeral. Most of the victims were policemen and their families.

Emergency has been declared in Swat's hospitals, possibly because the Government realises that 40 funerals equal 40 'opportunities' to the sickeningly heartless.

How The IPL Has Changed Cricket Forever

There are times - sitting at home, watching the BBC on September 11, 2001, for instance - that despite not having the benefit of hindsight, you are well aware that a structural shift is occurring, as it is occurring. You don't know how it's going to turn out. You struggle to put your finger on what exactly caused it. But one thing you know for sure is that things will never be the same again. An irrevocable change has taken place, and only time will tell on the extent and content of that change.

The introduction of the Indian Premier League is one such cataclysmic event.

For those who are unaware, here is a brief primer on the relatively short history of the IPL. In 2003, the England and Wales Cricket Board introduced a new, and by all accounts, fresh, form of the game. Struggling to attract audiences to dreary county cricket matches, with limits on overseas players, the tremendous expansion of the English Premier League, crappy weather, boring cricket, and a central contract system that precluded the participation of major English stars on a regular basis, the ECB decided to experiment with Twenty-20. Teams would bat for all of 20 overs, with bowlers limited to 4 over "spells". Eight or nine an over was the expectation. The format put a premium on athleticism, great fielding, innovative batting and on-your-feet-thinkers. Most importantly, it would be over in about three and a half hours. In other words, cricket would finally resemble all other sports in the world not named golf - it would be a recreational activity that could be enjoyed after the conclusion of a day's work and before one went to bed.

From being a sideshow in the international cricket calender, Twenty-20 has assumed greater importance over time. Last September saw the first Twenty-20 World Cup, a tournament that turned out to be infinitely more exciting than the real World Cup earlier that year. It was also given an inadvertent push by the BCCI, with its endless and indecipherable legal wrangling over television rights for cricket played in India. Zee Telefilms, having come out second best in these legal battles time and again, put its money where its angst was, and set up the Indian Cricket League (henceforth ICL), almost in protest. Understanding the danger of an unsanctioned league running parallel to "real cricket," the BCCI - and doubtless, boards around the world - had to come up with a contingency plan. The ICL may not have been "real," but the money it offered certainly was. The contingency plan, as it turned out, was relatively simple, a casual upping of the stakes more reminiscent of a poker game or a superpower arms race than something we are used to seeing in the quaint traditions of cricket governance: we see your ICL, and raise you our IPL.

Officially sanctioned by the ICC and boards around the world, the IPL - slated to begin later this year - features eight franchises based in India. They are owned by celebrities, giants of the business and industrial world, and media conglomerates. The Mumbai franchise cost a cool $112 million to its owners. Players are slated to make hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions, of dollars per season. Superstars from all over the world have signed up, sensing an opporunity to cash in. The cost of the television rights for 10 years was over a billion dollars.

And all this for a maximum of sixteen games a year of a format of the game that did not even exist five years ago.

The IPL has, in many ways, shone the light on some long-standing contradictions within the sport of cricket. In other ways, it has brought to the table yet more contradictions for the sport to face. It is unclear at this juncture, so early in the day, if and how cricket - as we know it - will survive.

Consider, for instance, the struggle cricket has maintained with its identity for the last generation. As sports leagues all over the world have increasingly turned to becoming entertainment industries in addition to fora for athletic prowess, cricket has continuned to wage its battle with its inherent limitations: a game that only nine or ten nations play at a somewhat competent level (and, yes, for the moment I'm including Pakistan though Lord knows I probably shouldn't), and one which elicits a curious indifference and at times contempt from the rest of the world. Not only do they not understand it, they do not care to understand it. Anyone who has ever had a conversation about cricket with American or French people knows exactly what I'm talking about. And honestly, can you blame them? If you didn't grow up on it, would you watch a sport which is incredibly complicated, difficult to follow, has nebulous regulations, lasts an extraordinarily long time, and is limited to certain regions of the world?

Despite these constraints, the rulers of cricket - and that is what they are, the ICC - have made every effort to cross these hurdles. They've attempted to expand the game by playing meaningless one-dayers in Toronto, Sharjah, and Singapore; where, of course, only the Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi expatriates come to watch, thus defeating the purpose of the expansion. They've tinkered with rules and regulations, trying to make the game look more familiar to that 4-minute-mile of markets, the U.S. (remember the substitutes in ODIs?), and in the process turned real fans against it. They've sent money and set up academies in places as far flung as Uganda and Holland, who treat cricket the way I treat roasted duck: suspicously, and with no more interaction than a poke and a prod.

For their effort, they cannot be faulted. The ICC sees football expanding at an alarming rate; it sees world-class tennis players from that hotbed of racquet-mania, Thailand; it sees DVD players and home entertainment systems and downloadable TV shows and iPods and wonders to itself: who will watch cricket in twenty years? You have to concede the point - they're in a bind. And nothing has brought this bind to the casual fan's attention more than Twenty-20: where the hell, he asks, has this been all my life? Why bother with that five-days nonsense when I can go with my kids and missus at 6 and be back before granny goes to bed? Floodlights, barbeques, cheerleaders, music, the whole enchilada - Twenty-20 brings people to the game who never would have watched it otherwise. And tragically, it reminds cricket adminsitrators as much of their broader failings as it does their narrow success. Imagine a low-IQ, unattractive kid with little athletic ability in high school who is great at playing the piano or cello. That's what the ICC feels like.

This is cricket's primary contradiction - an international sport that's not actually global - and Twenty-20 has made it all the more obvious. But there is another contradiction that we have to consider, one that has been actually brought upon by the introduction of Twenty-20 and specifically the IPL. And that is the misalignment of players' and stakeholders' incentives.

The point is made clearer by a few examples. Consider football. Almost all footballers dream to play club football in Europe, and occasionally for their country. FIFA also wants almost all top footballers to play club football in Europe, and occasionally for their country. The football-covering media and fans also want almost all top footballers to play club football in Europe, and occasionally play for their country. The players and stakeholders, then, agree on what is to be done. This is not to say that everyone gets along. Contentious issues are common - but these are more along the lines of "how?" than "what?". Players and governing boards will disagree on the extent of club vs. country, on salaries, on transfer fees and the like. But the players' incentives match up, broadly speaking, with everyone else's.

Or think about the NBA. Most basketball players around the world would like to play in the NBA. It is where they would get the most recognition and the most money. The NBA is also considered the highest form of the game, the one league where the best of the best operate, and the men are separated from the boys. The structure of incentives and preferences, then, align: you go if you are good, and you can go only if you are good.

Now, however, consider what the IPL has wrought. The highest form of the game has always been international test cricket. This status quo has satisfied both administrators, which operate on a national level, and players, who undertand that their financial and professional future is best served by playing for their country. Yes, some players aspire to represent their country for its intrinsic pride. But it is hard to separate that mechanism from a simply instrumental one - if you're not Australian, English, or South African, you better make it to the national team if you want a decent standard of living.

What the IPL has done is bring about a disjunct between what administrators think is best for the game and what players think is best for themselves. What is best for the game is for the top players in the world to continue to play the highest form of the game - regular international test cricket. What is (now) best for the players is to take 47 weeks off, play sixteen games that last three hours each, and make more money than the boards themselves can offer. If you could vacation with your wife and kids for more than half the year, put your feet up and read newspapers for 4 months, and actually play less-than-taxing cricket for one month, wouldn't you do it? What sane individual would turn down that set of benefits and costs?

What these incentives now mean is that players will walk away from the international game at younger and younger ages. With the cramped international calender, the increasing dreariness of international cricket, the travel, the insane media, the airports, the long time spent away from family, the incessant bullshit of boards like those of West Indies and Pakistan, and everything else that goes with playing international cricket, why would you take it? Adam Gilchrist is the prototypical example of this phenomenon. He didn't walk away from the game because he wasn't good any longer, or he wasn't the best keeper-batsman in the world, let alone Australia. He walked away because he got a Godfather deal - an offer he couldn't refuse.

In many ways, the IPL has brought about a perverse reversal of the average cricketers' career. Most begin in domestic cricket, and attempt to make a name for themselves so they can play at the international level. Now cricketers will want to make a name for themselves at international level so that they appear more attractive to domestic leagues. And yes, I said leagues, not league, because if you don't think a bunch of Australian and English businessmen are looking at what's happening in India right now and wondering why they don't get a piece of the action, you're a tad naive and need to get your Greg Mankiw on.

It has also effectively knocked the ICL out of the Indian market. The only way for the ICL to survive will be to move away from India. As it stands, any player considering a permanent switch to domestic Twenty-20 cricket doesn't have a choice to make: the ICL and IPL share weather, geography, tax-rates, culture and everything else, except for one thing: salaries. The money question is one the ICL is destined to lose, because it is quasi-illegal and the IPL is legal. By way of illustration, consider the comparison between pharmaceutical companies and crack dealers. One is a set of legal drug dealers and the other is a set of illegal drug dealers. Which do you think is more profitable?

No, if the ICL stays in India, it will lose. Their best chance of survival is to move either to Dubai or the East Coast of the U.S. If it does so, players looking to sign up will at least have a decision to make. Yes, the IPL may offer a higher salary. But a different location brings a set of questions to answer: is location as important as money? Is weather? Marketing opporunities? My family's happiness? Note, I'm not saying I'd live in Dubai over Mumbai. But what I am saying is that it at least constitutes a decision, whereas matters as they stand now simply don't constitute a decision. Only those not good enough for the IPL or those looking to stick it to their board will play for the ICL - Imran Farhat, coincidentally, comes under both categories.

To return to where I began, one thing is for sure. Cricket - today's cricket - is an endangered species. Who can say for sure that we will continue to see top quality test cricket in twenty years' time? Who can say for sure that cricket won't become more like football, where the international format is a rare phenomenon, to be played three or four times a year and then once every four years in a mega-event? What are the chances of seeing, on a regular basis, Flintoff's spell to Gilchrist in '05 or Wasim's over to Dravid in '99? Lara carving double hundreds in a day or Yousuf playing cover drives like he doesn't want to hurt the ball?

This year is a watershed in our game's history. I am terrible at predictions, but I know that years from now, we will look back at these moments as cricket's 9/11 or partition of India. A seminal moment where everything was uncertain except the realization that a seminal moment had just occurred. And while I loathe rap with a passion, occasionally rappers are smart enough to come up with an astute observation on the human condition:

Mo' money, mo' problems.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New Five Rupees Tradition: The Wednesday Poll

The people have spoken. By a whopping 10-6 margin, you, the readers, have asked for more polls on Rs.5 (the remaining 16 respondents didn't have a strong opinion either way). So from here on until eternity, we will put up a poll here on Five Rupees every Wednesday and call it the Wednesday Poll.

Our inaugural poll seeks the answer to the following: What is the more unlikely and cognitively jarring outcome? Is it (a) Nawaz Sharif becoming the champion of the judiciary, or (b) Asif Zardari resembling a conciliatory statesman? Vote early and often and tell us what you think.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some Media-Related Stuff

A couple of housecleaning issues. First, a couple of weeks back, the people over at PakSpectator interviewed your humble bloggers. So if you want to know more about my favorite travel destinations, NB cornering deceitful witnesses in cross examination, or AKS' bourgeois contempt for Meera and her like, head on over there and have a look.

Second, 95bFM, a radio channel operating from New Zealand, interviewed AKS the day after the elections. You can listen to the podcast here.

A Couple Of Videos

One funny, and one quite pointless.

It's tough to gather up the courage to propose to the woman you love. It's really, really tough to have to deal with her saying no. But man, it's a real kick in the balls when you have to deal with her saying no in front of 20,000 people, be consoled by a mascot that looks like a cross between a mouse and a bear, and have Tracy McGrady laugh at your misfortune.

If you're anything like me, you often sit at your window, gaze at the stars, reflect on your life and priorities, and you ask yourself that deep, meaningful question, the one that has confounded philosophers for centuries, and holds the key to unlocking the mysteries of our existence:
How would I get a cow on to a Suzuki?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Dollops Of Irony: Priceless

Did you guys know that Mastercard's global headquarters are on Purchase Street in a town called Purchase?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Why Doesn't Imran Khan Just Shut Up And Go Away?

Actually, the more pertinent question might be why newspaper editors and journalists continue to seek his opinion on anything. Here he is, spouting off on what he considers the best course of action for the PPP and PML-N.

PAKISTAN Tehirk-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan urged the new parliament not to take oath under the amended constitution while stating the PTI held reservations that both PPP and PML-N might renegade on the judiciary restoration issue under pressure from the US.

The PTI Chief was addressing a press conference at PTI central office here on Sunday after a two-day PTI central executive committee meeting. He was accompanied by PTI central secretary general Dr. Arif Alvi, central information secretary Omer Sarfaraz Cheema, Punjab chapter president Ahsan Rasheed and Amed Owais.

Speaking on the occasion, Imran maintained that if both the majority parties PPP and PML-N announced to take oath on the condition that first deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry should be restored and President Pervez Musharraf should resign, then President Musharraf would step down in 48 hours. He asked the opposition camp to refrain from forming a government until the resignation of President. Imran congratulated both PML-N and PPP leadership on the huge victory in 2008 polls while expressing concern that US was influencing the joint declaration by PPP and PML-N to restore judiciary. He termed the statement by US Foreign Secretary an interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan and called upon PPP and PML-N to shun American dictation. “Both PPP and PML-N should stand their ground on the issue of judiciary since it is an issue of national concern,” Imran said. He said PTI had took a principled stand on the judiciary issue from its inception and the reinstatement of deposed judges was the top priority of his party. He linked the restoration of judiciary to strengthening of democratic values in the country while saying PTI would work to convince democratic forces for restoration of judges. The PTI will be an effective opposition even sitting outside the parliament, he said.

Hilarious, isn't it? Who, one may wonder, does Imran Khan think he is? Why does he think he is qualified to give advice to the two biggest parties in Pakistan? Why does he think he matters?

Time sometimes sneaks up on people - it certainly does on me, particularly when I watch Barcelona and realize that their youngest players (Bojan, for instance) were born in an altogether difference decade than I was. So it may surprise people to know that it has been twelve years since Imran Khan founded his party, Tehrik-i-Insaf, or Movement for Justice (presumably, he got tired of the West and its "fat women in miniskirts", not to mention its "addiction to sex and obscenity" and decided Pakistan politics would be more fun).

Since the founding of PTI, there have been three National Assembly elections. In the first, him and his party got floored. Understandable, perhaps, since he was stepping into uncharted (and murky) territory of contesting an election one year after the formation of his party, though it bears explaining how little 5 million pounds can buy in terms of electoral power on the streets of Pakistan. Nevertheless, we can write off this campaign to his inexperience and, um, inexperience I guess.

In the second, a full six years after his debut in politics, PTI won a whopping 0.62% of the popular vote and managed to procure a grand total of one seat - one! - out of 272. In terms of the popular vote, the PTI narrowly beat out such political luminaries as PML-Z (the Z stands for our good friend Zia), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (aka PKMAP), the BNP (not that BNP), the Jamhoori Watan Party, and the PPP-S. The PTI narrowly followed on the heels of those erstwhile political heavyweights, the PML-F (F for functional, I kid you not) and the PML-Junejo. This is the company the PTI kept in terms of political power after the 2002 elections. It's all there on the Wikipedia page - go check it out when you're done reading this.

It should be noted that six years is an awfully long time in Pakistan politics. Consider that the ZAB founded the PPP in 1967. By 1973 he had won one and a half elections (we know how the half turned out, don't we?). You may object and say ZAB was a once-in-a-generation politician, and that comparing him to Imran Khan is a nonsensical comparison.

[We interrupt this blog post to narrate a ZAB story I got from Owen Bennett-Jones' book. When ZAB was foreign minister, he met President Kennedy for talks. The latter was highly impressed. "If you were American," JFK told ZAB, "you would be in my cabinet." ZAB shot back: "Be careful, Mr. President. If I were American, you would be in my cabinet." Classic.]

Ok, so ZAB is a bad comparison. What about roly-poly, low-IQ Nawaz Sharif? Dude was thrust upon Pakistan by the ISI in the 1988 elections. Six years later, he could more than hold his own, and was a political heavyweight (no pun intended) in his own right.

So suffice it to say, six years is a long time. If you're winning less than one percent of the popular vote, and are getting one seat out of 272 a full six years after your party was founded despite instant name recognition, a clean slate in terms of reputation, and foreign money behind you, it's safe to say that you're kind of a loser.

As for the third election, only those completely unaware of Pakistani politics will be unaware that the douchebag sat out the election, protesting Musharraf's actions against the judiciary.

So to recap: twelve years, three elections, two pitiful ass-kickings, one very convenient boycott.

Now, I return to my question at the beginning of the post: why does Imran Khan matter? Why are his pronouncements treated so referentially? Why do journalists seek his opinion on political issues of the day? Shouldn't the threshold for political relevance be slightly higher than one seat and 160,000 votes? (Seriously, if I tried, I could get at least one tenth of that. Give me one-tenth his money, and I promise to deliver 16,000 votes. Hell, Five Rupees' readers, their friends, and their families at least guarantee me 1000, right?).

Why is his name even in the papers? Again, I return to the company he keeps. Do you ever read about PKMAP or the PML-Z and their stances on the judiciary issue? If not, why is Imran Khan afforded such respect? Can someone please explain this to me?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Musharraf seeks US support for Miranshah II

On Friday, the Washington Post published an article authored by Musharraf, wherein he reaffirms Pakistan's commitment to the fight against terrorism and once again acknowledges that the simple application of military force is not a viable solution to the crisis in FATA:

"... as the U.S. experience in Iraq has shown, military force alone is not sufficient. A successful counterinsurgency requires a multi-pronged approach -- military, political and economic. Our political strategy emphasizes separating terrorists from those citizens living in the regions bordering Afghanistan. Our economic strategy is bringing education, economic opportunity and the benefits of development to those same areas. As history has clearly taught us, when people see improvement in their daily lives and the lives of their children, they turn away from violence and toward peace and reconciliation."

Musharraf's article follows a second peace deal entered into earlier this week at Miranshah, between the Federal Government and the Wazir and Daur tribes. Unlike the previous peace deal of September 2006, the current agreement has supposedly been reached with the local tribal elders as opposed to the militants groups. It is noteworthy that Musharraf advocated the same point before the American media after the September 2006 deal. Once that agreement fell apart, Musharraf's terror-fighting credentials took a substantial hit. Consequently, this current peace deal may be met with some skepticism in the American press.

Interestingly, General Kayani's physical attendance at Miranshah just days prior to the accord could suggest that he eschewed the traditional approach of relying exclusively upon political agents/intermediaries, and chose to be directly involved.

Musharraf also appeals (again) for American patience with respect to the establishment of democracy:

"[B]uilding democracy is difficult in the best of conditions; doing so in a complex country such as Pakistan -- with its uneasy political history, with its centuries-old regional and feudal cleavages, and with violent extremists dedicated to the defeat of democracy -- is even more challenging. As history has shown, a peaceful transition to democracy requires the leadership of government and the willingness of the population to embrace democratic ideals. The people of Pakistan on Monday demonstrated that willingness; now it is time for government leaders to work together and do our part."

As should be expected, the Pakistan Army and prior American policy do not feature within his list of structural hindrances to democracy.

Friday, February 22, 2008

On Musharraf, The Judiciary, And The U.S.

Several readers have pointed out that being prescient isn't exactly my thing. I will therefore cease and desist in my attempts to predict what will happen, and rather concentrate on what should happen. Hereunder are three things I'd like to see:

1. Musharraf has to go

It's plain that he has outlived his purpose. His value-added potential is low to none. He has little authority. His reputation, if one remains, is in the doldrums. In short, as Aitzaz Ahsan said, it's time for Mush to pack his bags for Turkey.

I say this as someone who supported a number of Musharraf's actions during the first seven years of his tenure, from his attempts to tackle militancy head on, to opening up the economy to market forces, to his privatizations schemes, to his rhetorical (if not substantive) stance on women's rights and, most importantly, on his quest for a long-lasting settlement with India on Kashmir. This did not mean that I supported everything he did - his diatribes against Mukhtaran Mai, his instinctive lashing-out at unflattering media coverage, and his embrace of the Mindless Medieval Assholes and the Chaudhries chief among his failures - but, broadly speaking, I supported the guy.

The wheels came off in March last year. The paranoia, the supercilious beliefs in his own popularity even when it was evident that it was dwindling at a rapid rate, and most of all, his panga with the judiciary and the media didn't just leave a bad taste in the mouth, they rendered him ineffectual. Let me state again: I am not drawn to a particular personality. I am drawn to someone who does stuff that works, who is proactive and tries to figure out problems on the ground and goes about solving them. Hell, I'd vote for Qazi Hussain Ahmed if there was evidence that he was the guy who Made Things Better On The Ground. Musharraf stopped being that guy last year.

As things stand right now, even sound proposals by Musharraf are likely to be shot down by the stakeholders in the system (parliament, parties, media) simply because no one wants the taint of being associated with him. Hell, even his own party, the Q-League, didn't use his image or his name in their election campaign. When Pervez Elahi and Chaudhry Shujaat think they're too good for you, it's time to wrap it up. Through a combination of stupid and egregious mistakes, Pakistanis' short-term memories, and citizen fatigue (seriously, it's been more than 100 months since Musharraf rose to power), Musharraf can no longer be of service to Pakistan. One hopes he recognizes this fact soon, and doesn't attempt to delay the inevitable.

2. Iftikhar Chaudhry should be released from house arrest and then not return to the judiciary

Is there any doubt that the former Chief Justice is now a political figure? This may or may not be his doing - after all, Musharraf was the one who fired the first salvo in the "politicization of the judiciary question" by, uh, politicizing the judiciary - but honestly, has Iftikhar Chaudhry been completely blameless? Do judges on Supreme Courts around the world partake in massive political rallies, as Iftikhar did after he was fired the first time? Do they make political speeches outside courts of law and through telephone addresses, as Chaudhry did and continues to do? No, they do not. Judiciaries around the world are political because of the space they occupy in governing structures. They are not political because of the self-aggrandizement of, and stoking-of-fire by, justices. Iftikhar Chaudhry has now fallen into the latter camp, and this is unfortunate. It should also preclude him from reoccupying his chair in the Supreme Court.

[An aside: are we really ready to live in a world where Nawaz Sharif is the champion of the judiciary and Asif Zardari sounds like a statesman? Can someone please tell me what exactly is going on here?]

I know what pro-Chaudhry/anti-Musharraf people are going to say in response: "hey, it's not his fault this happened. He was just doing his job. If he's political now, it's only because Mush made him a political figure." And I agree. But no one can argue that after the initial firing, Chaudhry was/is a neutral arbiter of important legal-constitutional questions. With that in mind, this is what I would have liked to hear from him on July 20 last year, when the panel that handled his case exonerated him and reinstated him to his position:

"Friends, I am happy that the struggle between the forces that believe in the rule of law and those that do not has resulted in the victory of the former. Today is an historic day. However, because I unnecessarily and unwillingly became a lightning rod for political debates and action in the country, I can no longer occupy my position on the Supreme Court. My neutrality on important legal-constitutional questions will doubtless be compromised and questioned. Now that I have been proven innocent of crimes I was accused of, and my record is as clear as my conscience, I am going to devote the rest of my life to providing free legal aid to raped women in rural areas/free legal aid to orphans and child laborers/some other philantrophic legal-based venture. I know all those who fought against the forces of dictatorial persecution will wish me the best of luck toward this goal, just as I wish the best of luck to Judge Random Khan who will replace me. Thank you."

He can still say this, by the way. When (and it really is when and not if) he gets released from house arrest, he can still say this. He won't say it - even I can't get that prediction wrong - but from a normative standpoint, I sure as hell would like to hear him say it.

3. The U.S. should stay out of post-election maneuvering

Seriously guys, I say your entire South Asia desk at the State Department just take a 6-week vacation. Please. I say this for your sake as much as ours. Please. I'm begging you. Please.

Look, I can definitely see why the U.S. thinks it can stay involved. It gives us oodles of aid, gives us fancy weapons that we could use in a war that we would invariably lose against India, and understands perfectly well that as the sole superpower, it can do as it damn well pleases. But just because doing-stuff-because-you-can worked out well for Brad Pitt, doesn't mean it works out for states in the international system.

One of the unintended consequences of U.S. involvement is that in the current political climate, anyone who appears to have U.S. backing is instantly tagged with perjoratives like "poodle," "lapdog," "Busharraf" and the like. One of the gravest mistakes any U.S. analyst can make right now is confusing "a vote for moderate secular forces" for "a vote for the U.S." I read recently (but can't find the link, sorry) that the U.S. enjoys a whopping 16% approval ratings among Pakistanis. Clearly, the U.S. needs to vanquish the self-serving and horribly misguided opinion that moderate = American supporter.

This is why it's crucial the U.S. stay out, for its own good. Right now, Pakistani politicians and leaders are in the midst of a messy trading period, where allocations of power are still being decided. Until such allocations are made, and there is a certain concreteness to Pakistan's governing structure, it behooves the U.S. to not get involved. Don't worry, guys, the terrorists will still be there in a month's time. We can catch them then. If you choose to get involved now, anyone who has your backing will be invariably compromised, and Pakistan will relive the same battles that we did for the last six years ("Traitor! America backer! Biggest Terrorist Of All!). Don't do that to us. Don't do that to yourself.

We'll let you know when you can come back to the bedroom. Promise.

NYT: CIA Base In Pakistan; Musharraf Gave U.S. Greater Leeway To Conduct Military Operations In Tribal Areas

Ok, I know I was supposed to go to bed, but please check this story out in the NYT. In some ways, it only confirms what all of us thought we knew. But man, is this a political grenade or what? Here are some excerpts:

WASHINGTON — American officials reached a quiet understanding with Pakistan’s leader last month to intensify secret strikes against suspected terrorists by pilotless aircraft launched in Pakistan, senior officials in both governments say. But the prospect of changes in Pakistan’s government has the Bush administration worried that the new operations could be curtailed.

Among other things, the new arrangements allowed an increase in the number and scope of patrols and strikes by armed Predator surveillance aircraft launched from a secret base in Pakistan — a far more aggressive strategy to attack Al Qaeda and the Taliban than had existed before.


In the weeks before Monday’s election, a series of meetings among President Bush’s national security advisers resulted in a significant relaxation of the rules under which American forces could aim attacks at suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of strike options.

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.

The new, looser rules of engagement may have their biggest impact at a secret Central Intelligence Agency base in Pakistan whose existence was described by American and Pakistani officials who had previously kept it secret to avoid embarrassing President Pervez Musharraf politically.

That wouldn't happen to be the same Musharraf who according to the NYT has not been serious about fighting militancy, is it? Couldn't be.

Cartoon Of The Day

Via Slog:

And on that note, I'm going to bed.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Is this the most absurd article on the Pakistani elections?

Jason Burke of The Guardian in a humdinger of an article examines the Pakistani elections. A few of his sagely insights are reproduced for your enlightenment herein under.

"You might notice the number of new factories, the cheap concrete "shopping malls" with their tile and glass facades and the swarms of Suzuki Mehrans, the tiny four door car which is Pakistan's best-selling vehicle. It is this that explains one major trend in Pakistan's politics which has slightly drowned in the alphabet soup of all the parties and sub-parties over the last days: the broad success of the Pakistan Muslim League. Though the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party seems set to just win the largest single number of seats in the national assembly, in many ways it is the PML – which is likely to unify its two main factions in the near future – that is more tapped in to the deeper currents in Pakistan. After all, the opposition PML faction barely had enough time to organise candidates for all national seats. And even though half its leadership was based overseas until very recently, it still did almost as well as the PPP."

Ah, indeed. How could I have forgotten the mega projects initiated by Nawaz that led to Pakistan becoming an economic prowess, stupid Musharraf had to come in and ruin the fun. This explains why Musharraf is not credited with the economic successes of the last few years!

How could I be so naive to imagine the PML(Q) to not be a faction of the PML(N)? How could I be so stupid to not regard the PML(Q) as a political party but rather a marraige of convenience that sought to capitalise on the goodwill associated with the name Pakistan Muslim League and Quaid-e-Azam (Quaid-e-Azam)? Why, oh God, why?

"The PPP and the PML broadly represent two different faces of Pakistan, and the election maths shows clearly which way the country is heading.

"The classic PML voter is urban, lower middle class, relatively educated, with a world-view informed by Pakistani nationalism and a very contemporary moderate

"These people are likely to personify the modern Pakistani, if such a person exists.

"And there are millions of them, in all the main cities, in Karachi, in Lahore, in Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Hyderabad and Islamabad."

And there I was thinking that the PML (N) failed to win a single seat in Sindh and Baluchistan, and only a handful in the NWFP regions that border Punjab. That the PML(Q) would not control Baluchistan if Baluch leaders weren't hiding in the mountains of Iran or under detention in Britain. I'm such a 'tard!

"By contrast, the PPP's voter, by and large, lives in a different world, a world that was dominant up to a decade ago. It is a world that is much more rural, more deferential, more rooted in tradition. Its nationalism is less marked and its Islam less influenced by the international trends of the last 30 years and thus much less politicised and much more based in centuries-old Sufi traditions.

"This is a Pakistan that is disappearing. One PPP candidate in rural Punjab recognised this last week, telling me that his party needed to "re-invent itself". Unless it does, it will soon find itself entirely reduced to the poor, rural southern province of Sindh. The PPP's showing in this election has been distorted by a variety of positive and negative factors: the death of their leader, the multiple splits of the PML, the vote against those politicians tarnished by their association with President Pervez Musharraf and the unpopularity of the party's new chief, Bhutto's widower."

I mean it's disappeared so much that it only managed to win a seat in all four provinces and gain a sizeable majority. I mean having an overwhelming majority in the second largest province of the country really is unsubstantial. The much closer ties that the PPP enjoys with the leading politicians of Balushistan and NWFP is inconsequential.

Ok so maybe Jason Burke you do have a point but for the love of God do not start by telling me that the PML(N) is a representative of urban, moderate political thought that has wide spread national support.

You can view the full article here.

(Courtesy The Guardian)

Stuff To Read For Wednesday

Too busy to write a complete post, but I'm providing some links for your reading pleasure.

The Israel Lobby and British Foreign Policy.

Musharraf strikes a conciliatory tone. Not.

MoDo rips the Clintons again. Honestly, the best thing about this campaign has been the NYT op-ed attacks on the Clintons. It's like they all got together in a room and said, "Let's make Krugman feel like an ass for six months, ok?"

Andrew Symonds is being a big baby. Or a money-grubbing big baby. Or a politically unaware jackass extraordinaire money-grubbing big baby. He's definitely being one of those things.

You know, people will have sorts of opinions of Musharraf's legacy, but one thing's for sure. He deserves a large amount of credit for our relations with India today. I mean, sometimes you have to pinch yourself when you realize that India and Kashmir was simply not an election issue and that most major parties have given their assurances to India to continue the peace process. Sometimes normalcy and the complete absence of anything happening is an exceedingly good thing.

Hey, did you know Pearl Harbor "was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War"?

London and New York try to give bottled water the boot.

The French invent rubber that mends itself, even if sliced in two.

Can someone please explain to me why newspapers bother quoting Imran Khan on anything? The man presides over a highly unsuccessful party, didn't bother contesting elections this time, has no real policy wonkishness or oratory talent to speak of, and is somehow still considered a real politician. It's beyond me. I wish he would just go away.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

PPP workers block Kala Pul following clash with Bhai Log

I’ve been thinking of writing a post on the tenuous nature of a PPP MQM alliance considering not only their history but also the recent incidents of pre-election and post-election violence.

That will have to wait. My cousin’s just called, telling me to give Kala Pul a miss on my way home. Party workers of PPP and MQM have clashed in that area; PPP workers have taken to the streets and are now pelting cars.

My cousin’s stuck in traffic and is attempting to find a way to Cantt. I’m leaving so this info will have to do. I’ll probably take Clifton Bridge – the American Consulate has its advantages, added security for us mere citizens of this land.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Map And Why The PPP And PML-N Will Not Form An Alliance

First of all, kudos to Dawn for this snazzy map. As of 17:02 GMT on Tuesday, this is what it looks like:

You can click on the picture if you want more detail. As should be obvious, the red is PPP (commies!), the blue is PML-N, the green is PML-Q, the purple is MQM and the orange is the ANP.

A couple of observations, before I move on to something else. First, the MQM swept Karachi. If anything captures the rural-urban/PPP-MQM divide in Sindh, it's this map. Second, look at how evenly split southern Punjab is between the PPP, the PML-Q, and the PML-N. This conveniently leads me to the following prediction:

The PPP will form an alliance with the PML-Q in the centre and in Punjab.

Now, I know many of you have little faith in me and my predictions (yes, Nikhil, I know it's a justified lack of confidence). But bear with me, as I plow through the logic of my claim:

First, if we live in a multi-party world (and we do), and there are two clear front-runners (and there are), and there a litany of smaller parties (and there are), then it makes no rational sense for the two front runners to ally. Did the U.S. and Soviet Union ally after World War II and gang up against the rest of the world? No, I submit to you, they did not. They went from being allies to adversaries in a matter of months because each saw the other as its biggest rival. The same dynamic applies here. The PPP and PML-N both understand that the other is its biggest short-term and long-term threat to electoral supremacy. Furthermore, I ask you to think of this in terms of payoffs and costs. The payoff to the two major parties of forming an alliance is unbridled power in the NA. The cost is servitude to the other, because each of them owe the other for its support. Now consider an alliance between the PPP and the PML-Q. The benefit to the PPP is a workable majority (caveat: if the numbers work out, we don't know for sure yet). The costs are considerably lower, because the PPP has to share its majority with fewer stakeholders. It owes significantly less to the PML-Q than it does to the PML-N. Think about it: would you rather share $13 relatively evenly or $10 relatively lopsidedly?

Second, consider the issues. Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N would like to chart an anti-Musharraf course, impeach him, and restore the pre-November 3 judiciary. Asif Zardari has said no such thing. All he has stated concerning immediate issues is that (a) he wants an international investigation of BB's death, (b) he wants the judges and Aitzaz Ahsan released from house arrest, and (c) he wants to restore media freedoms. Read between the lines, people: the PPP, as of now, is still hedging its bets on the Musharraf question and the judiciary question. If they choose to go the conservative route, they will find ready and willing allies in the PML-Q. [Speaking of reading between the lines, here's what Zardari is quoted to have said by BBC: "For now, the decision of the party is that we are not interested in any of those people who are part and parcel of the last government." Key words: For now.]

Third, consider the politically most powerful province of Punjab. Here, the PML-Q has actually done decently well if you consider the debacle in the rest of the country. As things stand right now, the PML-N leads with 101 Provinical Assembly seats, followed by the PPP with 77 and the PML-Q with 64. If they choose to, the PPP and PML-Q can easily subvert the PML-N's power in the Punjab government.

I may turn out to be horribly wrong about this, because politics is a funny game and we don't even have the full results yet. Asif Zardari is already said to have made overtures to the PML-N. But I've stuck my neck out and provided a target in terms of a falsifiable claim. Let's see what happens.

Analysing the ANP's victory

One of the talking points from the elections so far has been ANP's victory in the NWFP. I'm extremely happy that the ANP has won. Even more so by the fact that the MMA lost. I'll take a party founded on ethnic and provincial lines over one that believes that it is doing God's work; especially in the current climate.

The ANP is touting this as a victory for its ideology. But is it? I really hope so, but I'm not so convinced. The MMA's fall from grace is based largely on two factors 1) Internal spats and disintegration and 2) the MMA's support of Musharraf.

These factors were compounded by the low voter turn out that is likely to have kept disinterested MMA supporters at home. Furthermore, tribal elders who supported the MMA, no longer saw it as a viable Islamic party owing to its support for Musharraf and, by default, U.S.A. These guys are likely to throw their weight behind radicals like the Pakistani Taliban who don't really stand in elections.

So while the ANP may have won, it may not have the support that it claims to have. But you know what, I don't care. The problems facing the NWFP will take an enormous resolve and I'd prefer in power a party that at least recognises that there is a problem rather than one that exacerbates it.

It should, hopefully, also have support from the centre where the PPP seems serious about tackling the issue. But I really do hope that this issue does not become a casualty of a national coalition. The Tableeghi Sheriff's of Raiwind do like doing God's work; it is after all the only way of becoming Ameer-ul-Momineen.



I think it's about time we allowed the people of NWFP to rename their province. Imagine having four children namely Babra, Reema, Meera and Brown Boy Youngest of Four born in Room 3 AKU Maternity Ward; now Brown Boy Youngest of four born in Room 3 AKU Maternity Ward is bound to feel like a leper! He may even want to change his name to Amjad. Shouldn't we afford him the respect of being an Amjad?

More Questions To Ponder On The Elections

Do the results mean that pre-election concerns of massive rigging were the dog that didn't bark? Are these the fairest elections since 1970?

Will Musharraf not put up a fight if the PPP and PML-N ally against him? The NYT report suggests he won't:
Two politicians close to Mr. Musharraf have said in the last week that the president was well aware of the drift in the country against him and they suggested that he would not remain in office if the new government was in direct opposition to him. “He does not have the fire in the belly for another fight,” said one member of his party. He added that Mr. Musharraf was building a house for himself in Islamabad and would be ready soon to move.

How great has the media coverage been? You can, for instance, find up-to-the minute results here on each of the provincial assemblies as well as, of course, the national assembly.

If all the "stalwarts" of the PML-Q lost resondingly, how did Chaudhry Pervez Elahi manage to win?

Are we really going to see the age-old enemies (the PPP and PML-N) form a coalition? I'm deeply skeptical, not because I have doubts that people can bury the hatchet (they certainly can) but because each of them, as an individual party, has much more to gain by aligning with a smaller party and being the big brother in a coalition government than being on fairly equal terms with each other in a coalition government. If they do form an alliance, almost everything I've read about coalition building in electoral politics will turn out to be wrong. At the very least, I will have a couple of questions to ask of Daniel Posner.

We also have to consider the fact that ethnically and ideologically, the two parties have very different platforms. The PML-N is a Punjabi dominated, (supposedly) business friendly party. The PPP is a Sindhi dominated, (supposedly) poor-friendly party. Is the spectre of a Musharraf exit sufficient to close the very important disjunt that exists between their outlooks? If yes, what happens if/when Musharraf leaves? If not, which party out of the three main candidates - the PML-Q, the MQM, and the ANP - will each of them court/choose as a partner?

Come on, people, let's hear what you have to say.

Correction: An earlier version of this post had me comparing the elections to 1973, not 1970. This shows you should not try and write a post in between classes. In any event, the error was regretted and corrected.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A Quick And Dirty Analysis Of The Results So Far

We know the following things so far:

1. The PPP will have a plurality in the National Assembly, and will form the government in Sindh. It will form coalition governments in Balochistan and perhaps Punjab, depending on how the rural areas of southern Punjab go.

2. The PML-N will have the second-most seats behind the PPP in the National Assembly. It figures to form the provincial government in Punjab (if the as-yet uncounted areas go its way and/or a bunch of PML-Q people shift allegiances after the trouncing they have received).

3. The PML-Q is done and dusted.

4. The ANP figures to form the provincial government in NWFP.


If what AKS says is true (i.e. Nawaz Sharif has offered the PPP a role in Punjab as well as its support in the NA in return for Aitzaz Ahsan being nominated for PMship and the PPP's support for a policy of impeaching Mush and restoring the pre-November 3rd judiciary), then we think we know the following things.

1. Imran Khan's political career is, if not over, then at least struck a serious blow. Remember Imran hung his hat on the fact that he was the only one fighting a "principled" fight, the only one fighting for the judges and democracy, and that until the pre-November 3rd status quo wasn't restored, elections meant nothing. The PML-N has undercut that stance, by contesting elections and taking Imran's stance on the judges and Mush. Whether or not the PPP agrees to Nawaz's proposal is irrelevant when one solely considers Imran Khan, who's now (a) out of the loop, and (b) has nothing left to hang his hat on.

2. The PPP leadership has a very interesting decision to make. Its presumptive candidate for the PMship was Makhdoom Amin Fahim, more pragmatic and willing to deal with Musharraf on a variety of issues. The PML-N has upped the stakes and essentially asked the PPP to make a decision on which it has been waffling for over 12 months now: whose side, the PML-N is asking the PPP, are you really on?

3. The MMA, like the Q-League, is done, at least for now. Already torn apart at the seams by pre-election differences by the major factions, the JUI and JI (one wishing to boycott the elections and the other not), it has now been dealt serious blows by the ANP in NWFP, the PPP in Balochistan, and the MQM in Karachi. There is a lesson here for political observers: artificial constructs, which both the Q-League and the MMA were, cannot survive strife.

4. If (and this is a massive if) the PPP jumps on the anti-Mush bandwagon with the PML-N, then I simply don't see a peaceful way for Mush to stay in power. Either he rides off into the sunset, or he tries to force the issue and violently interfere in the political process. The million-rupee question is: how will the army react to any orders to suppress dissent and protest on the streets?

To round off this discussion, a few unanswered questions:

1. Why is the PML-N being so conciliatory toward the PPP? Is this tactical or strategic? In other words, is this a short-term ploy to achieve some set of nebulous aims, or does the PML-N actually mean what they're saying? Is the PML-N actually willing to undercut the chances of a Javed Hashmi or a Shahbaz Sharif becoming PM? What are they up to?

2. Does anyone outside the PPP trust Asif Zardari? How many people within the PPP trust Asif Zardari?

3. Are we going to have to see a PPP-MQM squabble in Sindh? Is this a healthy prospect?

Stay tuned, folks. I get the feeling this party has only just started.

Some News Trickling In

Apologies for the lack of posts on election day. Our only contributor currently in Pakistan, AKS, is stricken with internet issues. Anyway, he just sent me two texts and I thought I would relay them.

1. Fazlur rahman's lost, sheikh rashid and the chauhdrys are trailing. anp has swept nwfp, ppp sind, lahore pml n.

2. I visited about 10 polling stations in different areas of khi. city was deserted. low voter turnout but not non-existent. almost everyone i know voted.

For on-the-ground information, I'm afraid that's all we have at present. You, the readers, can of course help by going to the comments section with news, views, your thoughts on the day in general, random stories you've heard, and other such tidbits.

Oh, and before I forget. Below, a voter in Karachi, who urges you to "Check it out you assclowns - for all your political gusto, I am the one actually out there trying to make a difference, rocking the vote. While others theorize or demonize the outcome, im doing the best a common man can." Indeed, common man. Indeed.

UPDATE: More texts from AKS:

3. polling stations were chill and nicely exciting in the morning but when i went in the afternoon it had become more tense.

4. i witnessed a higher turnout in defense, clifton than tariq road and gulshan. things also got more tense here perhaps because there's a close fight.

5. Political affiliations aside, the ppp volunteers at the polling stations were real thugs. i'm sure the mqm guys were equally dangerous but they didn't look it.

6. punjab is being divided between pmln and ppp. ppp has baluchistan, fair number of independents though. as things stand pmlq will only have 10 percent of the na.

7. key pmlq people sherpao, liaquat jatoi, faisal saleh hayat, omer ayub khan are all losing. mma has been trounced in the frontier.

8. nawaz and zardari have spoken. pmln will support a ppp govt in punjab and centre if they nominate aitzaz for pm, impeach mush and restore judges. dawn news.

9. retard ayaz amir, of dawn, [Ahsan: I don't think he writes for Dawn anymore, by the way] is winning a na seat on the pmln ticket!

ANOTHER UPDATE: Chaudhry Shujaat has lost his constituency.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dangers Of Expecting Too Much

Just a quick post before I exercise my right to have a life on the one day in the week I happen to take off. I was reading this article in the New York Times and, frankly, I couldn't get past the second paragraph, which reads thusly:
The nationwide parliamentary elections are intended to usher in an era of democracy in Pakistan after months of political turmoil and nearly a decade of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf.

Hands up if you think that sentence even remotely resembles the truth. That's funny, I see no hands.

Listen, it's great we're having elections. Honestly. But let me tell you right now what the elections won't do:

1. The elections will not "usher in an era of democracy". Democracy rests on, and can be equated to, secure property rights, an independent judiciary, an independent media, legal-constitutional respect for minorities, and the ability to freely and fairly choose one's rulers or representatives in a legislative body. Pakistan currently has, uh, none of those. Furthermore, these elections will not change any of these structural factors overnight.

2. The elections will not end, or even necessarily help, the fight against militancy. No matter how much some Pakistanis may sympathize with their aims - yes Hameed Gul, I'm looking at you - no one can argue that militants exist within the framework of democratic politics. In other words, militancy and the political process exist on two entirely separate planes. It is no coincidence that the last few acts of terrible violence in the country have been aimed at election rallies (two attacks over last weekend against the ANP, and one against the PPP yesterday; the three attacks combining to kill close to 75 people). The militants simply don't think electoral politics is a good idea, so to expect them to go into hiding after the elections is simply foolhardy. Even if one is to grant the extreme notion that their goals are political, it is plain to see that their means are military. So to those blinkered in the West by dreamy ideas concerning the potential for elections to quell violence, I ask that you think again. If anything, we should expect an upsurge in violence immediately after the elections, as the militants attempt to destabilize the new government. Such an upsurge will be perfectly in keeping with the militants' modus operandi thus far: to shatter the foundations of the Pakistani state - its military, its political parties, and the confidence and security of its people - to as great an extent as possible.

3. The elections will not lead to wheat being cheaper. They will not lead to petrol being cheaper. And they will not lead to sugar being cheaper. Irrespective of who wins, these facts are patently true.

Sorry if any of this is a downer. It really shouldn't be, because nothing I've said is particularly new or original. But it's striking how many people - both in Pakistan and in the West - think that these elections are going to be our version of the Berlin Wall crashing down. They won't be.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

My Mother's Thoughts On The MQM

Sometimes, you don't need these fancy schmancy PhDs in Political Science to get to the heart of the matter. This morning, I had the following conversation with my mother, proud Pakistani and Karachiite, eldest daughter of an Air Force man:

Me: So who're you voting for on Monday?
My mother: We'll see about the national assembly. But for the provincial assembly, I'm voting for the MQM.
Me: I'm sure that thrills Abba [my dad, by the way, hates the MQM].
My mother: No, he's very angry with me [my mother, by the way, has trouble with my sarcasm].
Me: Anyway, why're you voting for the MQM?
My mother: Because I know if they're not in power, they're not going to let anyone else rule peacefully. So you might as well vote for them. Plus, they've done some decent work on Karachi's infrastructure the last few years. Sometimes it's better to make the thief the security guard.

Yes, indeed. In fact, I love that quote so much, I'm putting it up on our banner.

Thoughts On The NBA (Primarily The Trades)

Many of you (okay, probably two) will be wondering why I haven't posted anything substantial on basketball for a while. After all, I deem it important enough to be one of our categories over there in our little categories section. Plus those readers who happen to know me personally know that I'm a huge fan. So what happened? Well, a couple of things. First, there's just been way too much stuff to write about in the last few months. With the political turmoil in Pakistan and election season in the U.S., not to mention my real work (which for now constitutes working on my MA; I'll talk about the project here on Rs. 5 when it's done in a month or so), I simply haven't had the time.

For another thing, I'm simply down on the NBA right now. A lot of things have really frustrated me over the last few months. Consider the playoffs in the last two seasons. In 2006, the refs almost cost Phoenix the series against the Lakers when they made those atrocious non-calls in game 4 (when Kobe hit the game winner after Nash "lost" the ball). They then handed Miami the championship, repeatedly bailing Wade out against Dallas, sending him to the line when defenders had the temerity to breathe on him. It wasn't just the fact that the refs were deciding the game instead of the players, but that the refs were rewarding a certain style of play: put your head down, drive into the lane, flail your arms, and hope for a whistle. Just like evolutionary biology contorts itself to keep ugly people around, so too NBA refs were somehow making sure that ugly basketball lived on: if refs rewarded a certain style of play, you can be sure as hell that other teams would emulate it, thus reducing the aesthetic quality of the game.

[Just a quick interruption: conventional wisdom states that in team sports, coaches/managers/captains control the style of play. Get a different manager/coach/captain, the thinking goes, and your style will change. This is true, but only to a limited extent, and it masks a greater truth - that the greatest determinants of style in any team sport are referees. I guarantee that if refs in football start yellow-carding dives regularly and unequivocally, you'll see diving out of the game in a matter of months. Officials and referees are the most powerful people on the field/court/pitch insofar as the quality and content of the product concerned.]

Anyway, as I was saying, the 2006 playoffs were sort of a disappointment. But they were nothing compared to last year's Phoenix-Spurs series. San Antonio is one of those rare teams that manages to commit more infractions than any other team, and yet is held up as the standard, the beacon of light in a world of darkness, the Team That Everyone Respects. I never understood it. They have a guy who flops at least four times a game (Ginobili). They have a guy who is arguably the dirtiest player in the NBA and risks injuring people every time he guards them (Bowen). They have a guy who mopes and makes that puppy dog face every time a call goes against him, even though he's a supposed MVP and the greatest power forward of all time (Duncan). Their coach is a goddamn Cold Warrior. And their point guard married Eva Longoria. Can anyone please explain to me why this team has any fans? And speaking of fans, you know what else is really annoying? When in their home games, Spurs' fans start their stupid "Go, Spurs, go!" chant. Arrrghh! They sound like eleven year-olds at a birthday party playing musical chairs. I just want to strangle them.

So this team ends up beating the most aesthetically pleasing group in the NBA, the Suns. And they don't beat them because they're better, but because in David Stern's twisted logic, rules like "You can't leave the bench in case of a fight" have to be strictly adhered to, but rules like "You can't knee the opposing team's point guard and league MVP in the balls" and "You can't kick a guy in the heel when he's driving in for a dunk" are to be applied somewhat less stringently. Anyway, once the refs and David Stern handed the Spurs that series, I was beyond livid. Add that to the fact that Cleveland (!) got to the Finals beating a grand total of one good team (and even that team didn't play hard for three of the six games), and you can see why I was disheartened.

This year has throw up its own slew of problems. Consider the disparity between the conferences right now. As of today, February 15, Denver is out of the playoffs. A team with two all-stars and one which really should have had three (Camby's having another monster year), with a great supporting cast and a decent coach, is out of the playoffs. Not because they're underachieving, or not playing hard, but simply because right now, they're eight teams in the West better than them. They're 32-20! 32-20! 12 games above .500! Over in the East, Philly (Philly!) is in the eighth spot, with a...(wait for it)...23-30 record (I wonder how AI would feel about his new and improved team sitting home in April while his former team, led by superstars like Igoudala, Andre Miller, and Dalembert get into the playoffs). The disparity in their records doesn't even reveal the true gulf in quality, because Denver plays most of its games in the West and Philly most of theirs in the East. In other words, 32-20 in the West would probably be 40-12 in the East. That, for the record, would be 2nd place right now. And can anyone dispute that if Denver was in the East, as it is presently constitued, it would be behind Boston but ahead of everyone else? Anyone?

What this means is that out of Phoenix, New Orleans, San Antonio, Dallas, the Lakers, Utah, Golden State, Houston, and Denver, five won't make the second round. Five of those teams will not make the second round. I'm sorry I keep repeating myself, but can you honestly blame me? I would venture to suggest that each of those five teams could be anywhere between best in the East to third in the East, but no lower. The difference in quality is just ridiculous.

Of course, the solution to this would be easy: just scrap the entire notion of conferences. Seed the best sixteen teams in the NBA by record first, head-to-head second, plus/minus differential third. If 12-13 Western teams make it, so be it. It would make for the most satisfying result anyway. That fact, by the way, guarantees that the NBA will never do it. Any time they can actually do something smart for the fans, you can be sure they won't bother trying. (Sometimes it's worse than not trying - sometimes the NBA actively discourages other people from trying. Witness their refusal to let Dwight Howard raise the rim to 12 feet for the dunk contest this Saturday. Why, you ask? Because the idea "clashes with their intent to apply as many standard NBA rules to All-Star Weekend contests as possible." Because, you know, nothing screams "standard NBA rules" quite like All-Star weekend).

Anyway, that's enough bitching for me. Here are my thoughts on the various trades and non-trades.

Gasol to the Lakers
For once, I actually agreed with Greg Popovich. Here's what he told SI after the trade: "What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I would have voted no to the LA trade." This was truly highway robbery. The Lakers got exactly the type of guy they wanted and gave up a bunch of liabilities in the process (really, you should try and watch Kwame catch the ball; it's a truly painful experience). Now they pair a 27 year-old Gasol with a 20 year-old Bynum with a Kobe in his prime with a young and hungry supporting cast (Farmar, Turiaf, Vujacic, Walton) with just the right amount of smart, heady veterans sprinkled around (Fisher, Odom). That's a championship caliber team. Only, they're not going to win it this year. Two reasons:

One, teams that pull a major trade in the middle of the season almost never win anything substantial the same year. The lack of familiarity dooms almost all of them. The only exception to this rule in the last ten years has been Rasheed to Detroit in '04. The only other exception I can think of off the top of my head is Clyde to Houston back in '95. That's it. You pull a monster trade, you do it in the off-season, so your team and coach can have a training camp together and build from there. This is especially true of a team with a complicated offense like the triangle.

Two, the Lakers need to pull another trade, and here's why. Bynum plays center. Gasol (a weak defender) plays power forward. And Odom will now shift to the 3. Now, do you really think Odom can guard small forwards? You think he's quick enough to stay in front of Carmelo? How about Ginobili? Josh Howard? Grant Hill? McGrady? You think Odom can guard these guys? I don't. I also don't think Gasol can guard the Duncans, Boozers, and Nowitzkis of the West. What this means is that the Lakers will have two weak links on the defensive end in the playoffs, and that usually spells doom (you're allowed one if you want to win a ring, but two is pushing it).

So in the off-season, after they're bounced in the second round, the Lakers need to trade Odom for a young athletic three who's happy playing defense (Igoudala would be nice, but they can't get him, not for Odom). And then their team will be complete, and they'll be favorites next year. But not this year. Not yet, Laker fans. Not just yet.

Shaq to Phoenix
Dear Lord, what a disaster this will turn out to be. What's been truly funny to me is the reaction to the trade. First, everyone came out and said they hated it. Then, following Rule Number 178627 of Punditocracy (Thou Shalt Stake Out A Position Completely Contrary To What Logic Dictates If It Means That Thou Standst Alone), everyone shifted their opinion, saying "hey, maybe it could work after all!". Of course, all the pundits made the exact same move at the same time, thus defeating the purpose of the original move.

This will be terrible. Mark my words, this will turn out to be unmitigated disaster. First, Shaq will clog up all the space in the middle. The reason the Suns are so devastating on offense is that they can put three three-point shooters on the perimeter, and let Nash and Amare work the pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. The opposing team has to decide if it wants to give up a thunderous Amare dunk, a short jumper by Nash, or an open three. That option is now gone. Second, Shaq is a terrible defender. If Phoenix thinks he's going to help their defense, they're in for a rude shock, because he's going to get beat by any center who can move his feet. Third, he's a terrible rebounder. You have to be able to jump to get rebounds, and Shaq, sadly, can no longer jump. Fourth, for all the talk about chemistry, wait until Shaq gets grumpy at not getting a touch for three or four posessions. This is still an immensly proud man, and he's not going to be happy with merely starting the break, as everyone seems to think he will be. Fifth, dude's going to be hurt all the time. The guy has played more than 67 games just once in the last seven seasons. Whatever you say about Marion, at least he showed up to play more than once a week.

I feel bad, primarily because I love Nash and I think he deserves a ring. But he's not getting it with this team. Not in a million years.

Kidd to Dallas?
Call me crazy, but I think a non-trade will work out best for the Mavs here. Really, what do you get with Kidd at this point? A 35 year-old dude who shoots his age, that's what (well, almost - his FG% is 36). He's not going to run and gun because that's not Dallas' style, and really, he's too old to stay in front of the Parkers and Iversons, who are the type of people he'll be asked to guard. So what exactly is the point? I have absolutely no idea why Dallas would pull this trade, especially given all they're giving up. It's just not worth it.

I'm convinced that Dallas, if it doesn't pull this trade, will become along with San Antonio and Utah the favorites in the West. My reasoning, outlined earlier, is simple: the playoffs favor teams that know and trust each other. Continuity is good, not bad. When you have a core that's been together a while, and has played heated 7-game series in raucous atmospheres, and has won and lost together, then you stand a chance. If Dallas stands pat, I say they become the favorites, notwithstanding the damage to their chemistry this non-trade would have wrought. I mean, shouldn't Devin Harris' feelings be considered in our calculations?

Webber to Golden State, Damon Stoudamire to San Antonio, and Korver to Utah
Inconsequential and stupid, realtively inconsequential and not bad, and very smart and unheralded, respectively.

That's it for me. Enjoy the weekend, guys.