Friday, August 28, 2009

The Government Of Pakistan Has A Ministry Of Women Development But No Minister Of Women Development

Couple of points.

First, please note that that our government's ministry is not the ministry of women's development, but the ministry of women development. I don't even have a joke for this one.

Second, please note the following from the ministry's "About" webpage:

Now, it's not unusual for political appointments to be unfilled for a while. But I think this government is really stretching the definition of "a while". Plus, it's the goddamn minister, and not some second or third tier bureaucrat we're talking about here.

Good times.

(link via Maila Times)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quick Thoughts On The Champions League Draw

Here's how the teams were drawn up:

Group A: Bayern Munich, Juventus, Bordeaux , Maccabi Haifa

Group B: Manchester United, CSKA Moscow, Besiktas, Wolfsburg

Group C: AC Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille, FC Zurich

Group D: Chelsea, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Apoel FC

Group E: Liverpool, Lyon, Fiorentina, Debreceni

Group F: Barcelona, Internazionale, Dynamo Kiev, FC Rubin Kazan

Group G: Sevilla, Rangers, VfB Stuttgart, Unirea Uriziceni

Group H: Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos, Standard Liege

United, Sevilla and Arsenal are guaranteed top seeds. Getting the top seed in your group is crucial, because it means you avoid the top seed from another group in the round of 16. It can mean the difference between playing a team like Chelsea vs. playing a team like Atletico. Barring hiccups, Barca, Liverpool and Chelsea should also be top seeds, but it's not a sure thing. We shall see.

As a Barca fan, I'm not thrilled about having to get four points off Mourinho's Inter, and I'm certainly not thrilled about the prospect of facing up a fired Samuel Eto'o -- the guy really likes sticking it to his old teams. Plus, if there are two countries you don't want to go to in the dead of the winter, it's Russia and Ukraine. Actually, all things considered, Barca have a pretty tough group. And as some commenters on other blogs have already mentioned, it's the only group in which all four teams won their domestic leagues last year.

Group A should be fun, especially if Robben ends up at Bayern as he is rumored to. But I'm most looking forward to the Group C clashes between Real and Milan. So many storylines: can Ronaldinho recreate his magic at the Bernabeu similar to three years ago, when he scored twice in a 3-0 win? What about Kaka's reception back at the San Siro? You think Gattuso might have a tackle or two in store for him? It should be fun.

Group D is obviously the hardest group. As always in so-called groups of death, it'll be the result against the minor team (what the hell is Apoel FC?) that makes the difference in the end. A draw at home or a loss away might spell disaster. And each of the three majorish teams have different styles, so it'll be captivating viewing for sure.

15th and 16th September is when it all gets started. Is there anything better than the Champions League?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A.Q. Khan Plagiarizing Op-Ed Pieces After Lifetime Of Stealing And Selling Nuclear Secrets

Well, then.

I don't have much to say in this post, except to thank reader Wasay for sending me a brilliant letter published in The News, and to especially thank a Mr. Fahad Rafique Dogar for writing it. Here it is, in its entirety.
This is with reference to Dr A Q Khan's column "Science of computers: part I" which appeared in your pages on Aug 19.

1. Dr Khan writes: "The computer is an essential part of 21st century life. Computer science is a fast-moving subject that gives rise to a range of interesting and often challenging problems. The implementation of today's complex computer systems requires the skills of a knowledgeable and versatile computer scientist. Artificial intelligence -- the study of intelligent behaviour -- is having an increasing reference on computer system design. Distributed systems, networks and the internet are now central to the study of computing, presenting both technical and social challenges."

Now compare this to the first paragraph of Undergraduate Prospectus 2009, University of Sussex( [Note from Ahsan: the provided link is broken, this is the correct one]

"Computing is an essential part of 21st-century life, and is an exceptionally fast-moving subject that gives rise to a range of interesting and challenging problems. The implementation of today's complex computing systems, networks and multimedia systems requires the skills of knowledgeable and versatile computer scientists. Computer networks and the internet are now central to the study of computing and information technology, presenting both technical and social challenges. Artificial intelligence (AI) -- the study of intelligent behaviour -- is having an increasing influence on computer system design."

2. Dr Khan writes: "How do we understand, reason, plan, cooperate, converse, read and communicate? What are the roles of language and logic? What is the structure of the brain? How does vision work? These are all questions as fundamental as the sub-atomic structure of matter. These are also questions where the science of computing plays an important role in our attempts to provide answers. The computer scientist can expect to come face-to-face with problems of great depth and complexity and, together with scientists, engineers and experts in other fields, may help to solve them. Computing is not just about the big questions; it is also about engineering-making things work. Computing is unique in offering both the challenge of science and the satisfaction of engineering."

Now compare this to the first paragraph of Imperial College London website ( "How do we understand, reason, plan, cooperate, converse, read and communicate? What are the roles of language and logic? What is the structure of the brain? How does vision work? These are questions as fundamental, in their own way, as questions about the sub-atomic structure of matter. They are also questions where the science of computing plays an important role in our attempts to provide answers. The computer scientist can expect to come face-to-face with problems of great depth and complexity and, together with scientists, engineers and experts in other fields, may help to disentangle them. But computing is not just about the big questions it is also about engineering-making things work. Computing is unique in offering both the challenge of a science and the satisfaction of engineering."

3. Furthermore, Dr Khan writes: "Computer science is an inter-disciplinary subject. It is firmly rooted in engineering and mathematics, with links to linguistics, psychology and other fields. Computer science is concerned with constructing hardware and software systems, digital electronics, compiler design, programming languages, operation systems, networks and graphics. Theoretical computer science addresses fundamental issues: the motion of computable function, proving the correctness of hardware and software and the theory of communicating system.

Again the University of Cambridge website ( contains the following text: (First paragraph) "Computer science is interdisciplinary. It is firmly rooted in engineering and mathematics, with links to linguistics, psychology and other fields. [...] (Second paragraph) Practical computer science is concerned with constructing hardware and software systems: digital electronics, compiler design, programming languages, operating systems, networks and graphics. Theoretical computer science addresses fundamental issues: the notion of computable function, proving the correctness of hardware and software, the theory of communicating systems."

4. The second half of Dr Khan's article (paragraph 7 onwards) can be found in ACM's Computing Curricula 2009. Although he credits ACM but [sic] doesn't clarify that he is directly copying sentences from a document. Also, in the beginning of his piece he does acknowledge one of his former colleagues, an Engineer Nasim Khan, for input for the article; however, it is not clear whether this input is the reason for the apparent plagiarism.

Fahad Rafique Dogar

PhD student, Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh, PA, US

Just a couple of quick points. Please email this post or the letter itself to everyone you know. The people who deify A.Q. Khan may never be convinced that the man is not a national "hero" or the father of anything other than his children, but it is important to show reasonable people that the man is a crook in every sense of the word. Moreover, he is an extremely stupid and lazy crook -- if you're going to cheat and steal other people's words, at least make it from less well-known resources than the front pages of major universities' departmental homepages.

Second, I really wish Rs.5 was big enough to have its own t-shirts and merchandise. I would promptly be sending some to Mr. Dogar if it were the case; sadly this shout-out will have to suffice as an expression of our gratitude.

For those interested, I had a short post a while ago on Dr. A.Q. Khan's brilliant personal website.

The Hullabaloo Over The "Minus One Formula"

Pakistanis love conspiracies and rumors, like to disregard facts on the ground, and absolutely hate trusting the democratic process. Through the confluence of these factors rises the entirely strange and bizarre spectacle of the "minus-one formula", a belief that is neither a formula nor limited to minusing one. Let me explain.

In a manner so sudden that it must be orchestrated, the question of Asif Zardari's future as president of Pakistan has become the most-discussed political issue of the day. Rumors have been swirling in Islamabad and within media organizations across the country that a "minus one formula" is about to be inculcated, and that in an action half way between a coup de grace and a coup d'etat, the "establishment" is in the process of ensuring Zardari's removal from power. Nobody, least of all me, knows where these rumors came from. Nobody knows who exactly is supposed to deliver the final blow. And nobody knows who the relevant actors are, ostensibly pulling strings behind the scenes: the military? Renegade PPPers? Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N? Some combination of all them?

Frankly, I don't care. It is irrelevant. And while it remains speculation at this point, it is disturbing enough. As someone unused to defending Asif Zardari, let me make a few points.

First, Asif Zardari is the constitutionally elected president of Pakistan. There was nothing illegal about his rise to power, nothing untoward, nothing fishy, no rigged elections, no intimidation of voters, no ballot-stuffing, no acts of violence against rivals. It was a free and fair election. The PPP got the largest share of the vote. By the way the system is organized, they got to nominate a Prime Minister and a President. They nominated Yousuf Raza Gillani and Asif Ali Zardari respectively. This is the very simple story of Zardari's ascension to the office of president.

Do all Pakistanis like this fact? No -- page 43 of this report makes that clear. But this does not matter. There is a right way and a wrong way to express dissatisfaction with President Zardari's performance. The right way is to vote out his party when the time comes. The wrong way is to force him out unconstitutionally before the time comes. Pakistan has suffered enough of the latter. If Zardari is removed from power by any means other than a national parliamentary election, it would spell yet another blow against sustained democracy in the country.

As a general rule, Pakistanis are notoriously impatient with their rulers. Within a few months or years, they yearn for the leadership to change, procedural niceties be damned. This is a deeply damaging and problematic political ethos. A populace cannot complain about military takeovers and "dictatorship", come out on the street to fight to insert civilian rule, and then promptly abandon principles when the results are not to their liking. The very point of democracy is that it affords a guaranteed, mechanized and systematic way of removing leaders that the public is against -- it is not a guarantee of good governance or concerns about the common man. It is time the Pakistani people understand this distinction. Voice your displeasure all you want, but supporting non-democratic machinations to removing democratically elected leaders is a red line no one should cross. There is a time and a place for that -- called "elections" and "the voting booth" respectively.

Second, and related to this point, it is time for Pakistan's civil society and political parties to band together and flatly reject the notion of this "minus-one" nonsense. The silence from Nawaz Sharif, champion of democracy and freedom and liberalism, is deafening. This has been a long-standing Pakistani tradition: whenever civilian leaders look to be vulnerable to undemocratic removal, political opponents look to reap the rewards instead of speaking up for the democratic process. Though it would not surprise the more cynical amongst us for this trend to continue, it would be nice if Pakistani political parties unequivocally and loudly dismiss the possibility of "minus one".

Third, it should be emphasized that the actual functional process of "minus one" is unworkable. As Cyril Almeida argued in an excellent column last week, the options for removing Zardari from power -- the judiciary/NRO, an internal PPP revolt, impeaching him in parliament, the Americans or the Army making a move to a song rehearsed time and again -- are either logistically unworkable or extremely unlikely given the socio-political situation in Pakistan. You never say never in this wild country of ours, but it would require a curious set of circumstances to actually bring this about. In December of last year, I made the point that people often confuse a government's weakness for a state's vulnerability. Just because Pakistan is in a dicey position does not mean its leaders are. Zardari is, at present, perhaps the most impregnably positioned civilian leader in Pakistan since his father-in-law. It would take some doing for him to be forced out.

Fourth, it bears emphasizing that nobody knows anything about the origins of "minus one". I treat most claims from public officials in Pakistan with a degree of skepticism, and this goes doubly for a PPP that claims to be an anti-establishment party. The politics of paranoia, victimhood, and personal persecution have been practiced by the PPP every time it has been in power -- under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, under both of Benazir's terms and now.

It could certainly be the case that there is a set of masked and nefarious actors in the background -- the "establishment" -- working to destabilize the PPP and its government, as all its leaders seem to be claiming. It wouldn't be the first time that democratically elected governments or their leaders have fallen prey to "conspiracies". But it could also be the case that these conspiracies exist nowhere other than their heads, and as most South Asian leaders are wont to do, are imagining their rivals as being up to all sorts of shenanigans when in fact nothing is actually happening on the ground. While I am more likely to believe the former story -- as I said in the beginning of this post, the fact that these stories kicked up so quickly and simultaneously is too much of a coincidence -- I am not prepared to dismiss the latter out of hand. In Pakistan, as ever, the truth remains elusive, primarily because politics here is almost by nature a backroom affair.

Fifth and finally, while I do not support this minus-one nonsense, I do support the blunting of the president's powers. Pakistan's current political system is the bastard child of a parliamentary system on the one hand, and ad-hoc measures to aggregate power in the office of the head of the state on the other. It is time to do away with this needless confusion. The country's political system was envisaged to be a parliamentary one, with the Prime Minister the head of the government and the President -- if one existed -- solely acting as a titular and symbolic head of state.

President Zardari can fulfill a great service to the country, as well as carry out his campaign promises, by getting rid of the infamous Article 58 2 (b) of the constitution, that allows the President to dissolve parliament at a moment's discretion. Editorials in Dawn as well as The News have both argued for this position too -- that the President should stay, but take the brave step of giving up this ridiculous and anachronistic power. While it would be unwise to hold one's breath on this front, one can hope that the constitutionalists amongst the PPP pressure Zardari to take this bold and much-needed step.

Breaking News: Sen. Edward Kennedy Dies

A fantastic public servant finally succumbs to brain cancer. I'm not going to be tasteless by wondering what this means for the one issue he had an overriding concern for throughout his career: health care. That's an issue for another time and another place. For now, let us just say that the U.S. government is poorer without him.

Here he is pictured with two of his brothers, John and Robert, both assassinated in the 1960s.

Photo credit: ABC News.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Guest Post: Still Work To Do In The Taliban War

Takhalus is a writer based in England who is well informed on the northern areas and the war against the Taliban. He has been kind enough to share his thoughts with Five Rupees in the following guest post.


Watching current affairs shows or reading the latest news online you’d be forgiven for thinking, things are going well for the military operation in Swat. The militants have largely been routed from their key strongholds, the main roads are open, the IDP’s are returning in large numbers and the government estimates that over 1500 militants have been killed.

However as anyone who knows a thing about counter insurgency warfare, the key is winning the peace and preventing the insurgents from re-establishing themselves.

One has to consider the initial
army estimates of the militants strength being around five to six thousand. So even if army figures on Taliban casualties are to be believed that leaves three to four thousand militants on the loose. One theory doing the rounds is that the “military establishment” has decided to go easy on finishing Fazlullah because he maybe a useful asset at some stage. Whatever the case the militants are trying to regroup and establish a new base.

Now all it takes is a
map and a careful reading of the papers to see where they may target next, one obvious target is Shangla district. Poor (the second poorest district in Pakistan after Dera Bugti) and mountainous Shangla briefly fell to the Taliban back in 2007. They lost control fairly early during the army operation and the Taliban never really were able to establish a significant presence. Things have changed now, while the army seems focussed on Swat, the Taliban have started to target local leaders in a move similar to their takeover of Swat.

It’s not difficult to imagine why this hasn’t been in the news, Shangla has historically been ignored by policy makers in Peshawar and Islamabad. It doesn’t attract tourists like Swat does and during winter it is cut off from the rest of Pakistan. What it does have is easy access to the Hazara division of NWFP, an area which has largely been unaffected by the wave of attacks that hit the province, as well as access to
Pakistan’s main road connection to Northern Areas.

If that wasn’t enough, things aren’t looking so rosy in Swat either, this article by Rahimullah Yousafzai on
extra judicial killings in Swat is disturbing. He starts off by implying that the killings are the acts of returning IDP's

"According to a count, 102 bodies have been recovered since July 13, when the first group of internally displaced persons (IDPs), started returning to their homes in Swat, Buner and Dir districts from relief camps and temporary residences in Mardan, Swabi, Charsadda, Nowshera and Peshawar districts."

And he adds this bit...

"The widely held belief is that a sizeable number of militants are in the custody of the security forces and law-enforcement agencies, and none has been formally charged or produced in any court."

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (do gooders that they are) have also come out and openly criticised security forces for their involvement in these killings:

"Amir Izzat, spokesperson for the Swat militants, was arrested from Amandara. Two days later the authorities claimed that Izzat was killed allegedly by militants trying to rescue him when they attacked the vehicle taking him to jail. Independent journalists claim that the targeted vehicle shown to them did not even have an engine. The most harrowing reports were of dead bodies strewn upside down by the military with notes attached to the bodies warning that anyone supporting the Taliban will meet the same fate."
Does that last bit sound familiar? It should be -- it’s the same tactic that the Taliban used to use to intimidate their opponents.

Obviously security forces have historically been involved in things like this for sometime now, as any MQM supporter living in the 1990's can confirm. The difference between Karachi and Swat is just that in Swati tribal society with it's pre-existing blood feuds. An eye for an eye is a recipe for anarchy and a far worse breakdown in law and order.

So what are the options? One option is a permanent military presence through the establishment of military cantonments, an idea which surprisingly
has earned the support of the Awami National Party and would prevent the establishment of new sanctuaries as well as cutting supply lines. The next is development and empowering locals to police these areas through lashkars or community police. Finally you need a concerted programme of development in those areas, something which has not happened.

While I believe the Army can defeat the Taliban and prevent the formation of new sanctuaries, I feel its interest in the operation is waning as fast as the public is losing interest. Ultimately though, to win this battle some real moves towards reconciling Swati society have to be taken and that can’t happen without real political will.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

PIA: Where A Loss Of Rs.5.4 Billion Over Six Months Counts As Good News

That, my friends, is my suggestion for PIA's new slogan since "Great People to Fly With" has run its course, as has the consumer favorite ("Perhaps I'll Arrive"). Now, I'm hoping that I'm not treading on Mosharraf Zaidi's territory here, since he has in the past laid claim to being aghast over PIA's ineptitude (a google search of "PIA" returns 74 results, which itself is quite a story for a weekly columnist who only started writing last year). But I can't resist, so forgive me, Mosh.

Today's Dawn is reporting that the airline lost a whopping Rs.5.4 billion in the first six months of this year. Moreover, the report is filed in the same sort of tone that a parent adopts when their athletically challenged child finishes last in a school race -- "now, now, beta, at least you finished ahead of, uh...well, um, the point is you tried." Honestly, go read the report. You really get the feeling that the reporter or Dawn's editors are actually happy about this outcome.

Thankfully, regular reader Wasay sent me their annual financial report from last year (i.e. before the "encouraging" five and a half billion rupee loss). It makes for highly entertaining reading. Before we get to the hard data, let me show you a couple of pictures.

That's the first page of their annual report. No, seriously. Because if there's one thing I think when I think of PIA, it's "the budding era of growth." Wait, there's more.

I'd make some lame joke about how you have a better shot of getting where you need to go on a bloody air balloon than a PIA flight, but I'll spare you. Please continue to note the soaring rhetoric.

Ideology? They do know this is a financial statement for a business, not a manifesto for a new political party, right? What, exactly, is PIA's ideology? Do they even know what the word "ideology" means? Let's move on.

Alright, enough with the pictures. I don't know if I'm ready to crunch some numbers, but I am pumped up as hell. LET'S DO THIS! YEAHHH!

So if you go to pgs 58-65 of the report, you will notice the following things that Wasay pointed out for me:

1. In 2008, PIA reported a loss of about Rs.35 billion. Read that number again.
2. in 2008, PIA had about 18,000 employees.
3. According to Hina Rabbani Khar, Minister of State for Finance and Economic Affairs, only 2.5 million Pakistani pay taxes.

Using basic arithmetic, we can arrive at the following conclusions:

1. Each Pakistani taxpayer basically paid Rs. 14000 to the government to finance PIA's losses. As Wasay said, think about how many schools and hospitals you could build if each Pakistani taxpayer paid that much money for, um, schools and hospitals.

2. We could save ourselves a whole hell of a lot of trouble if the government simply gave each PIA employee a check for Rs. 2 million at the beginning of the year, and told them to stay home. The financial bottom line would stay essentially the same. Think about that.

We could even cut the middleman (the government) out by having groups of 142 taxpayers each pay their Rs.14000 share straight to a PIA employee of their choice, and we could all call it a day.

All jokes aside, this is a truly sordid state of affairs. And this is not some deep-rooted, nigh-on unsolvable problem like the Taliban war or anything. The solution is simple: STOP GIVING MONEY TO PIA! For God's sake, stop giving money to PIA. Please.

Anyway, I thought the cast of characters atop the airline also presented a fairly interesting picture. For instance, the chairman of PIA, Mr. Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, is said by the report to be the "perfect blend of a businessman and a politician", which naturally leads one to wonder why PIA couldn't just be handed over to the perfect businessman instead. The report also tells us that the Managing Director, Captain Mohammad Aijaz Haroon, "hails from the famous Memon community known for its business acumen in Pakistan." I wish I was making this stuff up.

Then there's Lt. Gen (Retd) Syed Athar Ali, who is a director on PIA's board and whose qualifications are impressive for a war strategist but not so impressive for someone in charge of turning an airline around. This is his full mini-profile:
Lt. Gen (Retd) Syed Athar Ali is a nominated director since November, 2008. He holds Masters Degrees in War Studies from National Defence University and International Relations from Columbia University, USA. He is presently Federal Secretary Defence. He held various command, staff and instructional appointments which include representation of Pakistan on UN Peace-Keeping Mission in Sierra Leone in the dual capacity of Deputy Force Commander and Chief Military Observer for more than two years. Lt. Gen. Ali is a recipient of Hilal-i-Imtiaz (Military).

Now, someone has to explain two things to me. First, if PIA is ok with losing 35 billion rupees, how about make it 35 billion and 500 hundred, and hire someone who can actually write grammatically correct English to write this nonsense? Second, is there anything in that profile that suggests this man is a director of PIA for any reason other than the fact he is, or knows someone, important? When people complain about bureaucrats and ex-military generals and colonels dominating civil society, this is what they mean.

I don't even want to imagine what each director makes as a monthly salary, but I have to imagine its at least a million (10 lakhs) a month. At least. And since this man, according to the report itself, is currently Federal Secretary Defence, can anyone proffer a guess how many times he actually showed up to work? The man has another job, for the love of God -- one that he is infinitely more qualified for, I might add.

So there you go. The Pakistani taxpayers are financing an airline that loses money better than it flies planes, financing cushy jobs for cronies and bureaucrats and retired military men, and financing the ludicrous continuation of this failed enterprise.

Can anyone tell me why?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Links For Thursday

Damn, it's been a long time since I had a links post. Let's jump right into it.

I don't know if this is a good measure of the validity of the Afghan election, but Britney Spears is voting in it. According to records.

Did you know that women cry for 16 months of their lives? The rumors that it would actually be a round fifteen if Titanic had never been released are, sadly, untrue.

I don't know if this video is based on truth or fiction, but either way, it's bloody hilarious. I'm inclined to believe the story is untrue because I refuse to believe anyone can voluntarily go two weeks without checking email.

Mark Cuban has a brilliant post pillorying some poor sod who had the audacity to email him with a bad business plan.

I don't know what Niall Ferguson is thinking. So I definitely have one thing in common with Paul Krugman and James Fallows. One of the sillier e-controversies around, but then again, wouldn't the internet collapse under its own weight without silliness to hold it up?

Stephen Walt criticizes Obama for arguing that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan is crucial for its security because, in Obama's words, denying al-Qaeda a safe haven is a worthy cause to for a war. For two dissenting views directly attacking Walt's views, go here and here. Yglesias jumps in too.

A super informative post by Arif on where the war against the Taliban stands right now. The synopsis is: like everything else, practice makes you better. Pakistan has been fighting this war for over five years now. It appears that the military is finally making headway.

The Guardian is reporting that Cesc Fabregas is set to become a "pawn" in next year's election for Barcelona president. Honestly, this is one of the more unseemly aspects of the game in Spain. Elections are great, but when candidates start promising certain players or certain things -- I don't know, it doesn't seem right. If you get the guy you promised, it still looks unseemly. If you don't get the guy you promised, you look really stupid, as does the club. Anyway, this may well be much ado about nothing; I can't see Cesc not coming to Barca next summer, at the latest. It's time.

What. The. Fuck? Next month's "Entertainment Weekly" will feature a video ad in the magazine. Read that again.

If you ever need proof that Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry has no actual problems, please read this story. I'd try to summarize it, but honestly, I don't have the heart. Just please read it. I'd take the ISI over those idiots any day.

Amit Varma wishes that a hue and cry was raised every time the immigration staff at US airports treat brown people disrespectfully, not just when celebrities are treated disrespectfully. Hear, hear. This Shahrukh Khan story has been super interesting in one way -- I've had a very wide range of people ask me for my opinion on this: from Jewish political theorists at Chicago to middle aged women in the W's family. Seriously. And please check out the Daily Show's segment on this. I never thought I'd hear the word "madarchod" on American television, but there you go:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Shah Rukh Khan Detained at Newark
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealthcare Protests

Finally, kudos to the Obama administration for meeting with and talking to all the stakeholders in Pakistani politics -- including the religious parties. Also, the last two sentences of the story I just linked to made me laugh out loud.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Video Of The Day

I think the words we're looking for are "oh" and "snap".

Nailing The "What Has All That U.S. Aid To Pakistan Really Bought?" Canard

Reading this tweet from Arif Rafiq -- yes, I have succumbed in that I read some tweeters (twitterers?) now; no, I have not gone so far as tweeting myself -- made me think of one very general point about the "What have all the billions of dollars of U.S. aid bought in Pakistan?" argument. The basic position of this argument is that the U.S. has given Pakistan in excess of $10 billion since 9/11, and yet many of the problems that the aid is designed to take care of (defeating the Taliban and dismantling militant networks on Pakistani soil) are still very much with us. This state of affairs then leads to a common set of complaints, that can be captured in one sentence: what is all that money buying us?

The seemingly obvious empirical observation that high doses of foreign aid are "not working" in Pakistan is plagued by selection bias. It should be fairly intuitive that, all else being equal, the biggest problems, whether for governments or firms or families or individuals, will attract the most money. And yet, because the biggest problems are so big, they need more than money to solve them.

If one runs a simple regression of effectiveness of foreign aid vs. amount of foreign aid, my best guess is that there will be a negative coefficient. That is, it will appear -- at first glance -- that the more money you give, the more likely you are to fail. However, this would be plainly due to selection bias: the most money is going to places where it is least likely to work. Think of it this way: no one complains about the billions of dollars spent to cure cancer by arguing that it only took $1.65 to figure out what to do about ankle sprains. Different problems, different requirements. If a lot of money is going somewhere, and the results aren't coming, it could just be that the problem is very hard to solve, and that while billions of dollars are a necessary condition for success, they are by no means a sufficient condition.

There are of course many reasons other than the selection-bias issue that the money the U.S. has sent has not resulted in more success. These include (1) a lack of close operational cooperation on the ground, until recently, between the U.S. and Pakistan despite the existence of a formal alliance; (2) the siphoning off of cash by the Pakistani military for armaments better aimed at India than non-state actors; (3) the inherent difficulties in winning guerrilla wars against multiple actors (which many analysts underestimate drastically); (4) the Pakistani military's relative weakness and lack of training in fighting a counterinsurgency; (5) the weak public support, until recently, to take the fight to the Taliban; (6) the ability of the Taliban to secure funding from disparate sources including drugs, local taxation, and kidnapping; (7) the deals and concessions granted to the Taliban at critical junctures which backfired considerably; and (8) a lack of organizational unity within Pakistan's military establishment on how (and who) to fight.

While each of these factors -- and others I have neglected to mention -- are surely important, it is useful to consider a more general assessment of what money can and cannot buy, and the conditions under which we should expect large flows of aid to secure politico-military gains on the ground. Treating all problems as relatively equal, and therefore expecting that greater inflows of cash will result in greater likelihood of success, is foolhardy.

Blogging Elsewhere Too

I'm having a mini-affair with the Afghanistan-Pakistan Channel blog on Foreign Policy's website (I refuse to call it AfPak in public, I'm sorry). Though Rs.5 remains my true love, I will occasionally post there. I'm still deciding whether or not I want to cross-post everything, but for now, go check out my first piece.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

PML(N) Shows Its True Colours

I don’t like Nawaz Sharif or the PML(N). It wasn’t always so, during the last election I genuinely thought that the party through the induction of young, educated members had progressed admirably and that it may yet prove capable of tackling the challenges faced by Pakistan. I was dead wrong.

The PML(N) has not grown, it is a regional, ethnic party that has no connection with people outside Punjab, worst of all the party’s leaders don’t seem to mind this too much.

Take for example yesterday’s decision by the Punjab government to ban the outflow of wheat from Punjab to the other provinces and set the price at a grossly subsidized Rs. 10 / kg. As a result, a standard 20 kilo bag of wheat will now retail across Punjab for Rs. 200, the same bag of wheat costs Rs.600 in Quetta, and good quality wheat can cost in excess of Rs.700 / 20 kg in Karachi (or my mother just got ripped off!). In addition to this all Tandoors in Punjab have been directed to sell tandoori roti for Rs. 2, the same roti costs Rs. 6 in Karachi.

I'm pretty sure that this move is based on sound economic principles, but it will no doubt be popular with the voters. (Though it must be said that it would be more popular if the Sharif clan hadn't recently been publicly shamed for illegally importing two Siberian tigers and housing them in a special air-conditioned environment.)

Populist actions are typical of PML (N) governments, however what is surprising about this move is how polarizing it is. People in provinces not named Punjab are incredibly angry, the politicians in the other provinces are ticked off because they cant replicate the move and it makes them look bad, ordinary people are pissed off because they view this as another instance of Punjab screwing over the smaller provinces.

The PML(N) is perhaps trying to offset the grievance of the Punjab population over the energy crisis, Punjab has been particularly hard hit (serves them right for not paying electircity bills!). But nobody is holding the PML(N) singularly responsible for this and it's unliklely that the party is losing any support because of this situation – the PPP on the other hand certainly is losing support in Punjab over this issue. Maybe the PML(N) is attempting to court voters in Southern Punjab, but I’m not sure such a grand move is required considering the ineptness and corruption of Prime Minster Gillani and his cohorts in the Multan region. Once you factor in the anger of the other provinces by the antics of the Punjab government, such a move makes no sense.

This episode once again proves that Nawaz Sharif and his party are content with appealing to their party’s base and would rather seek political control nationally by entering into a coalition with minority partners from other provinces than expand their vote bank, an arrangement that will invariably be unstable.

This is highlighted by the PML(N)’s tepid response on various other issues that don’t directly impact Punjab. Pakistan can be a goldmine for opposition politicians, the country is perpetually in the midst of disaster and presents those not in power with plenty of opportunities to speak out and gain support. And even if this doesn’t win you seats it can win you respect, which would certainly help when it comes time to building a coalition.

Inevitably what worries me most about the PML(N) and the Sharifs in particular are their views on national security and religion. The party openly supports the imposition of a more stringent Islamic system of governance and has always been sympathetic to religious zealots, but it doesn’t seem to have realized just how much these religious forces have changed, and how dangerous they have become for the federation. In particular the PML(N) does not seem to view Islamist groups stationed in Punjab, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi as state enemies, perhaps believing that these forces can be controlled and unleashed on India one day.

The most recent example of the PML(N)'s lax attitude towards religious extremists comes in form of Shahbaz Sharif’s response to the Gojra Riots. Shahbaz did not pay enough attention when news first started emerging of tension in the area and was late in mobilizing security forces. Once it had become clear what was happening he did issue statements of condemnation and stated that he would be going to the area as soon as possible, however he ended up delaying his visit and didn’t reach their till four days after the riots started (there were protests in Gojra specifically because the honourable CM postponed his visit). Most tellingly, a couple of weeks later Shahbaz Sharif held court with a delegation of ulemas, some of whom belonged to Toba Tekh Singh (the district where Gojra is situated) and stated that:
The whole nation will have to unite on a platform for the stability of the country and elimination of terrorism and extremism, foiling the nefarious designs of anti-Pakistan elements.

The promotion of solidarity and religious harmony was the need of the hour as the elements inimical to the country were bent upon creating confusion and chaos. He said the Ulema had always played an effective role in promoting peace and religious harmony and they would continue making such efforts in future as well. He was talking to a delegation of Ulema, led by the head of Jamiatul Muntazir Maulana Syed Niaz Hussain Naqvi, here on Friday.

Martin Luther King said that "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." At a time when the country is faced with challenges that seem insurmountable and battles forces that seem unconquerable, the PML(N) has chosen to adopt a path that is the most comfortable and least controversial, it has chosen to pander to those who were responsible for atrocities against an entire community rather than confront them.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Roots Of Pakistan's Democratic Deficit, And The False Promise Of The Lawyer's Movement

A question that has spawned a great deal of rumination amongst students of South Asian politics is why democracy has failed to take root in Pakistan. At a general level, why has Pakistan suffered from periods of military rule -- under four different generals, three of whom were in power for close to a decade or more -- and why has its periods of democratic rule been marked with tenuousness and instability?

Before we can answer that question, it is first necessary to understand just what we mean by democracy. Within the political science literature on democracy and democratization, there remains a significant divide between those who favor minimalist definitions of democracy and those that argue for a more holistic conception of the term. The former tend to equate democratic rule with the holding of free and fair elections in which populations have a real choice of candidates, and an ability to either directly or indirectly vote for their rulers. The second group thinks of this as much too limiting; it is concerned not just with the ways in which a government comes to power, but also with the ways in a government exercises its power. For them, the mere holding of elections is not enough to qualify a country as government. It must, instead, be liberal in nature -- guarantee freedoms of speech, press and association, for instance.

While these definitional debates are useful, they can also be unwieldy and ultimately lose the forest for the trees. At bottom, a democratic system of government should connote limits to power. In other words, it entails checks and balances; governments and people in power must be held back from excesses not by their own goodwill or strength of character, but by institutions and rules which are enforced. Where exactly those red lines are drawn differs from system to system, but reasonable people can safely distinguish between countries where legitimate checks exist and those where they exist in name only.

If one accepts the definition I have laid out for democracy -- that it speaks to limits to power -- then it becomes clear that the military is far from the only actor that should be held culpable for Pakistan's democratic deficit. Pakistan's civil society, especially its political parties, have aided in Pakistan's tortured relationship with democracy.

The military in Pakistan is a fair but easy target. Its position within Pakistani society and politics has been well-described and detailed; I will limit myself to the most obvious and patently true claims here. First, it secured for itself a position of guardian-of-the-state by amplifying both the (very real) military threat India posed in the formative years of statehood, as well as its ability to adequately deal with that threat -- for all its bluster about one Muslim being the equal of ten Hindus in combat, the Pakistani military has never actually beaten India's in a war. Second, it has entrenched itself in the political and social life of the state with housing cooperatives, business ventures, academic appointments and other areas where the military, as an institution, simply does not belong. Third and most obviously, it has taken it upon itself to remove elected leaders from office any time those elected leaders either pose a threat to the institutional interests of the military, or cross the circumscribed bounds of appropriate conduct for politicians -- bounds drawn, quite naturally, by the military itself.

For these and other reasons, many analyses of Pakistan's failure to become a truly democratic state start and end with the military. It has been the most obvious impediment to representative government, and as such affords an easy target.

It would be remiss, however, to neglect to mention other responsible parties for Pakistan's democratic deficit. Uninformed and Manichean views often treat Pakistan's political parties as Davids taking on Goliath, unable to change the course of politics only because the military stands in its way. Such views are heavily misguided; Pakistan's political parties, with some exceptions, are as interested in democracy as a system of government as the military itself.

First, Pakistani mainstream political parties are highly personalist -- they exist less as instruments of democratic spirit than objects to be owned and molded by chiefs and party heads. The Pakistan People's Party, almost universally regarded as the country's biggest party, is an apt example. Formed by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, it has never been headed by someone not related to the former Prime Minister -- when Bhutto was hanged in 1979, the party was transferred to his wife, and then his daughter, who in turn was assassinated in 2007, upon which the party was handed to her husband and then nineteen year-old son. The MQM, an ethnic-based party in urban Sindh, is more democratic in its inner workings but still considers the word of its exiled leader Altaf Hussain as quite literally the word of God. In fact, it requires party-members to sign the following oath, one which appears truly bizarre to outsiders:
I,... believing that Allah is here and watching over me, swearing by His book and my mother, take oath that I shall remain loyal to the MQM and Altaf Hussain for my whole life. I will not take part in any conspiracy, planning or action against MQM or Altaf Hussain and I will not maintain any link with anyone who is involved in any of the acts mentioned above. I swear by my mother that if any conspiracy against MQM or Altaf Hussain or any act harmful to them come into my knowledge, I shall immediately inform Altaf Hussain or other main leaders, even if the conspirator be my brother, sister, mother, father, any relative or friend...I swear that I will keep every secret of my party and regard it more precious than my life. I swear that I shall accept Altaf Hussain's decision as final in any matter and obey all his decisions. If I disobey any of his decisions, I must be regarded as a traitor. I swear that I have and I will have blind trust in party leader Altaf Hussain...May God help me to remain firm and loyal to the MQM.

Few mainstream Pakistani political parties hold internal elections -- the Jamaat-e-Islami is one notable exception -- and most are identifiable by a personality more so than an agenda. This, then, is the first problem: when loyalty to personalities consumes political parties, it becomes hard to reconcile the contradiction between ostensible demands for democracy on the one hand, and unquestioned and unbridled internal power on the other. It is a strange experience to hear Kings and Queens talk about democracy, even if they are Kings and Queens of parties rather than countries.

The second point to be made about political parties is that all too often, they have been willing to make Faustian bargains with military rulers or their associates in the domestic intelligence communities, all for their self-interest and short-term access to power. Nawaz Sharif, the man who today speaks most vociferously and stridently in favor of democracy, began his political career as a protege (and pawn) of Pakistan's military-intelligence apparatus, and helped destabilize Benazir Bhutto's first term in power in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Benazir herself was remarkably open to deals with autocrats, as long as she was guaranteed a fair sum of power in return. The MQM, as well as various religious parties, have all in past helped prop up military rule. In short, Pakistani political parties talk a good game about democracy, right up to the point where they can gain from not doing so; it takes very little arm-twisting for them to sacrifice principles for power.

Third, Pakistani political parties behave in highly undemocratic ways when in power. Recall our definition of democracy: a system of government with an involved set of checks and balances, and limits on power. In term after term, Pakistan's civilian leaders have attempted to dismantle any limits on power that may exist, and have attempted to centralize power in the executive. This is a truism applicable especially to those civilians elected in the post-1971 era, and especially to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The former made viable political competition in the country difficult at best, moved against trade unions (despite purportedly representing a left-of-center party) and other civil society organizations, clamped down on the press, and was perhaps the most megalomaniacal leader Pakistan has ever had (which is really saying something). Nawaz Sharif meanwhile, that champion of an independent judiciary, had his party's cadres storm the Supreme Court to obviate the apex court hearing a case against him in 1997. He also attempted to declare himself Ameer-ul-Momineen (leader of the faithful), which would have left him with de facto autocratic powers. Even today, President Asif Zardari has dragged his feet on a campaign promise to repeal laws that allow the executive to dissolve parliament at his discretion; it is unclear what factors, other than a desire for greater power, could be responsible for the delay.

In conjunction, these three factors -- the highly personalist and loyalty-based political processes within parties, the proclivity to cut deals with military governments for short-term gain, and undemocratic behavior even from nominal democrats in power -- have meant that Pakistan's military has had an able partner in its destruction of democratic institutions. Very few parties can claim to have not played a role in this destruction at some time or another. Political parties in Pakistan have become adept at using the word "democracy" as a stick to beat the authoritarian government du jour, and have used it as an instrument to paint themselves as guarantors of a liberal and democratic order, if only given the chance by Western backers (Benazir Bhutto, with her Harvard and Oxford education, turned lobbying and schmoozing in Washington, New York and London into an art-form).

The country's much-celebrated lawyers movement cannot escape these characterizations. Acknowledged both at home and abroad as a brave and peaceful movement for the rule of law that ultimately brought an end to Pervez Musharraf's tenure as Pakistan's leader, the lawyer's movement has shown an ugly side in recent weeks. For one thing, the leader of the movement, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, has shown that he too cannot respect institutional boundaries, and demonstrated an alarming tendency to meddle in political affairs that are neither his nor his court's concern.

Moreover, lawyers have been involved in acts of violence recently, hardly serving as exemplars of the rule of law for which their putatively fought for over two years. In incidents widely reported in the Pakistani media recently, they physically assaulted both journalists and police. While it would be unfair to paint with broad brushes and implicate the entire movement because of the actions of a few, cynical observers of Pakistani politics have not been disabused of the notion that the lawyers movement was nothing more than a segment of society acting out to secure its parochial interests (the judiciary and the lawyers), seized upon by opportunistic parties and stakeholders (the PML-N, Imran Khan) as a vehicle to launch an anti-regime movement. While its ends were noble in the sense that they called for an end to military dictatorship, one must be careful to not impute the lawyers with pure and snow-white motives. By their recent actions, the lawyers and the judiciary -- or at least some elements of it -- have shown that the spirit of democracy, limits to power and the rule of law are tactical tools, not non-negotiable ends. In this, they are hardly alone in Pakistan's civil society.

Oh, It's ON Now

Barack Obama is taking his fight on healthcare reform all the way to the NYT's op-ed page.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Israel Launches Airstrike on Swine Flu

I'm not even kidding. Israel really does need to develop some other solutions to its serious problems.

I would also like to point out the contemporary impossibility of getting a PIA plane filled entirely with wailing and screaming imams and mullahs, to fly over Pakistan. Primarily because the Americans are currently likely to shoot it down.

The Rabbi going nuts on the phone is the best. Also a big fat shout out to S for the link.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrating Independence Day By Not Celebrating It

I looked at the my computer clock thingy on the bottom right hand side of my screen today and realized it's August 13, one day before independence day. For a second, I thought I should have a commemorative post on the blog but I didn't know quite what to say. Plus, I think "celebrating" independence day is kind of silly -- I've never really understood it. I mean, I understand why governments and political parties and organizations make a big show-and-tell about it. But I never understand why ordinary people bother putting up flags on their cars or houses or bicycles. I suppose the "day off work" thing is kind of cool, and the crazy bikers on Seaview have a reason to advertise the lack of silencers. But actually feeling pride or whatever else I'm supposed to feel on August 14? I just don't get it. It's just another day for me.

Anyway, for clues on what to say for the blog, I went through our archives (this blog officially became three years old on August 2). And it became quite apparent that our blog hasn't exactly marked this day with great fervor since its inception.

For instance, on August 14 2006, NB had a post. It was about Abdul Sattar Edhi's autobiography. The one throwaway line about independence day was "In my mind, he's the Pakistani who most deserves to be discussed on the 14th of August." Good one, NB. Nice segue. Seriously, well played.

In 2007, we didn't even bother with a post. None of us. Not one. Check the archives.

In 2008, we had a veritable orgy of posts on August 14 and 15 (I'm adding the 15 because we live across multiple time zones, and so a post we wrote on August 14 according to local time might show up as August 15 in the archives, not because we're secret RAW agents infiltrating the Pakistani blogosphere).

I posted a video of a PPP motorcade followed by extremely lame cop cars, a video taken by yours truly, and a quote by Sassi Palejo comparing Musharraf to Hitler. AKS posted a charming personal story about bigotry within the Jamaat-e-Islami. Bubs posted a thorough critique of an Amir Taheri column on the question of impeaching Musharraf. And NB posted on sex aunties Karachi defence horny (you have absolutely no idea how much this post has poisoned our search referral logs).

You will notice that none of these posts had anything to do with independence day.

Anyway, I think it's fair to see that us five rupee-ers treat August 14 like all people older than fifteen think of their birthday: unable to figure out what the fuss is about, but will take the merriment and distraction from everyday stuff. Not exactly bumper sticker material, but there you go.

Speaking of bumper stickers, I say we have a mini-competition. Try to sum up Pakistan in ten words or less. Here's my effort:
Hey, world! We're still here, despite our best efforts.

Happy independence day, everyone. And to those back home, enjoy the day off and the long weekend.

You Go, Girl

Rachel Maddow hits all the right notes here. I highly recommend watching this.

I don't think it's easy for people outside the U.S. right now to properly gauge just how absolutely crazy the hardcore base of the conservative movement is acting right now. From their media stars (Limbaugh, Beck) to irresponsible politicians (Palin, Cheney) to nutjob foot-soldiers, they have all coalesced around the idea that Barack Obama is dangerous, is a Nazi, is a Socialist (anyone remotely familiar with European history will find those characterizations going hand in hand quite funny), and is a threat -- a physical threat -- that must be countered. Combined with racist misgivings about his race...I don't even want to put in words what I'm thinking. You know what I'm talking about.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quote Of The Day

Paul Krugman sums up the nutty portion (and it's quite sizable in my mind) of the American right:
Obama is a Kenyan-born Nazi Muslim planning to euthanize seniors while putting them in concentration camps.

Don't forget, he's also ashamed of his country, the one he's not actually a citizen of.

Poll Post

You can comment on this week's poll here.

Blog Recommendations

Three recommendations for you guys today.

Since the football season is set to begin, the Barca fans out there should check out The Offside: Barcelona blog as well as the Barca Transfer Zone. I've been reading the former for quite a while and recently started reading the latter. They're both excellent, check 'em out. Also, the Offside blog has a bunch of links to other team blogs run on a similar basis (i.e. The Offside: Real Madrid or The Offside: Chelsea or whatever), so if you're a fan of some other team (in any league), you should follow the link and you'll find where you need to go.

On the U.S. politics side, you guys should check out Ezra Klein. He's very wonkish (the type of person who reads think tank reports for fun) and has a very clear way of presenting complicated policy ideas. He's been particularly useful for me during this whole healthcare debate.

All three are being added to the blogroll on the right.

Five Fun Videos -- One For Every Rupee

It's been a while since I did one of these video collection posts.

A number of you might have already seen this clip of Ricky Gervais talking about Hitler and Nietzsche. In case you haven't, it's comedic gold.

Reader Wasay sent me the following video. I can't decide if it's the funniest thing I have ever seen, the scariest thing I have ever seen, or the craziest thing I have ever seen. You decide.

Since the football season is almost underway, I thought I'd put up a goal from Barcelona's campaign last season. It's from a fairly unlikely source (Keita) but I'm putting it up because it exemplifies Barca's season and style of play. 19 passes in all, and not one of them was a wasteful or silly or needless. Precision football at its finest.

Here's a completely bizarre video from Radiohead. The song is called "House of Cards" and the video was made without any cameras or lights. As the Youtube description tells it, "Instead, 3D plotting technologies collected information about the shapes and relative distances of objects. The video was created entirely with visualizations of that data." It's also aided by the fact that it's an absolutely kickass song.

Finally, this video is for the Sopranos fans out there. It's the one hit that remains etched in my memory more than the others, if only for the brilliance of the production of the scene. I don't know much about film, but this was a great sequence.

What about you, readers? Put your video recommendations in the comments below.