Friday, April 30, 2010

Blog Recommendation: Kaala Kawaa

For those of our readers interested in Pakistani politics and society, make sure to check out Kala Kawa. Mr. Kawa maintains an excellent blog, and we'll be adding it to our blog roll down there on your right.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Barcelona 1 - Internazionale 0 (2-3 on aggregate): The Dream Is Over (Updated)

I have a very painful feeling in the pit of my stomach right now and am hurting considerably, but I am of the view that if I'm around in the good times I should man up and write a post when Barca lose (even though they won 1-0 today, but you know what I mean). Below are some disjointed thoughts, and please keep in mind that I'm upset right now, so I reserve the right to change my mind on some things later.

1. Inter were the better team over 180 minutes. There is no getting around this fact: they deserved to go through. They did all the hard work in the first leg -- very rarely does a team score three goals in one leg of a Champions League semifinal and not go through. The difference between 2-1 and 3-1...hell, I don't even know what the appropriate metaphor would be. But it wasn't 2-1, it was 3-1. And scoring two goals against this Inter team, coached by Jose Mourinho, featuring seven hard-ass South Americans whose sole purpose is to stop you scoring (Julio Cesar, Maicon, Lucio, Samuel, Zanetti, Motta, Cambiasso, not to mention Chivu)? Highly unlikely. I knew as much before the game; I had watched them against Chelsea (both legs) and watched Barca's first leg and knew that finding a way through would be nigh on impossible. Not twice. And so it proved.

2. There is plenty of talk out there about Inter's "tactical brilliance". This is one of pet peeves with football "analysis". Putting ten men behind the ball and having them organized is not a measure of tactical brilliance. It is justified, and it is to be admired if done right under the circumstances (as it was today), and so on, but please don't confuse it for tactical brilliance.

Funnily enough, I thought the actual tactical brilliance from Inter came in the first leg. There they left Milito and Sneijder far enough up the pitch such that Pique, Puyol and Busquets were always fearful of the counter, and thus could not join in the attacks as they did today (substitute Puyol for Yaya). They also took care to not press Barca in the middle of the park, which so many teams try to do before getting ripped apart with their slick passing. No, they made a very conscious decision at the San Siro to press Barca only in the final third, to conserve energy but also to frustrate Barca. It worked, and they nicked three goals to wit (that one of them was off-side is neither here nor there).

But repeat after me: putting. ten. men. behind. the. ball. is. not. tactical. brilliance.

3. The game was supposed to be 90 minutes but it only ended up being about 55 thanks to Inter's time-wasting. I suppose I should hate the game and not the player, but really, this was so egregious. Maicon, Samuel, and Lucio were the biggest offenders. Is it a surprise that Jose Mourinho coached teams all seem to do the same disgusting things? No. But it doesn't make it less galling.

4. A couple of points about Sergio Busquets. He is a cheat -- a diving, play-acting cheat. He embodies everything about FC Barcelona, except exactly the opposite. I don't want to spend too much time on this. I just hope Pep really sorts him out. He's still young, and I have hope that he will learn. But right now, he's a disgusting footballer.

But please keep in mind that while his rolling around was disgusting, Motta was already on a yellow and would've got sent off anyway because a hand to the face is a yellow. He would've missed the final either way too. So please relax on that front. And Motta had it coming to him -- him and Bayern's Van Bommel are the prototypical "we do a lot of shit off the ball and kick everything that moves and are basically thugs but we seem to get away with it an awful lot" guys. So he gets no sympathy from me. (Ironically, both Motta and Van Bommel were important cogs in the Ronaldinho Barca teams).

5. On Ibra and Henry: well, can't say Ibra disproved his doubters today. He held the ball up well, but he also was a non-factor in the box. The simple fact is that Ibra was bought to break Chelsea-style buses. Barca faced a Chelsea-style bus today. And the only time they looked like breaking it is when Ibra was replaced by a nineteen year old kid who looks twelve. I'd say that's pretty damning. He's scored a lot of goals (more than Eto'o) and provided a lot of assists (more than Eto'o) this year, so I'm not saying the transfer was a "mistake". I'm just saying some tough questions have to be asked given the circumstances.

And Henry? When Pep puts you behind Bojan and Jeffren, I'd say that's a pretty good indication that your career for big teams is over. Not that we needed another reminder, but still. Barca need an attacking midfielder/winger who can score goals in the worst possible way this summer. Whether it's David Silva or Cesc Fabregas or Luis Suarez or Angel di Maria or whoever -- they need another goal-scorer.

6. The refereeing in the two legs was quite crap, but it was quite crap for both teams, so no one can complain.

7. You stay classy, Jose. I mean, just look at his reaction after the game. It's pathetic. It's so, so pathetic. It always has to be about him. Winning or losing, home or away, he can never be gracious. Look at him poking his nose in Guardiola's business. Who does that?

I know there are people out there who like Mourinho for all this stuff, but I can't see why. You can be cunning and employ gamesmanship or what not, but to have such little class is really unseemly. It really is. He is a disgusting human being.

8. Pique, you beauty. He really has become Barca's third most important player, after Xavi and Messi. He can do it all, including, evidently, playing center forward. Watching him in these two legs, and watching him keep Ronaldo in his pocket in the Clasico, and watching him against Chelsea and United last year and against Inter in the group stages, you begin to realize how much of a big game player he is. If he's not wearing the captain's arm-band in less than five years, I'll wear a CR9 Madrid shirt in public.

9. In general, I was very proud of the Barca team today (except for the aforementioned Busquets). They kept fighting and fighting and fighting and gave it their all. It really was a heroic performance. Yes there were some bad touches and some ill-advised shots and some panicky moves in the second half, but you can't fault the effort and the desire. No team is going to win everything, but it really warms the heart when your team leaves it all out there. And Barca did. They can walk away with their head held high.

10. I really hate it when my sports teams lose. It is very, very cruel. European football especially -- you work, and work, and work, and then it comes apart because one or two moments of madness. And I have no need to tell you that this year, as a Barca fan, making (and winning) the final would've been extra special. Extra, extra, extra, extra, extra special.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

China's Rise Will Be Checked By Its Neighbors, Not By The U.S.

Steve Walt has an interesting post on his blog about the future trajectory of China's rise, and what its impact will be. The basic point he makes is that China will continue to rise, and as it does, it and the U.S. will become natural competitors. China, Walt forecasts, will start meddling in the U.S. sphere of influence, will make it difficult for the U.S. to project power where it (China) doesn't want the U.S. to do so, will help in keeping the U.S. bogged down in intractable conflicts (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran), and wean some of America's traditional Asian allies away from it.

This follows the traditional structural realist argument, made most prominently by John Mearsheimer toward the end of of his book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, where Mearsheimer argues that Sino-American rivalry is basically inevitable, and the U.S. should start preparing for that day now (for more nuanced takes on this, see this pair of academic pieces). So there is nothing new or surprising about this line of thinking.

Now, as a good Chicago student who privileges structure, you might think I am sympathetic to this argument, but I am not. For me, to horribly mangle a phrase, all structure is local.

What I mean by that is that China is unlikely to be given the freedom of maneuver in Asia that the U.S. was afforded in the Western hemisphere. The U.S. hasn't had to worry about its security in about two hundred years. It's had weak powers to the north and south, and two massive oceans to the east and west. This, in turn, has allowed it to accumulate power in far-off regions, and throw its weight around.

By contrast, China has Japan and Korea to its east, India to its south, and Russia to its north. These states are unlikely to allow China a free hand in the region; to the contrary, as China grows, it will face a balancing coalition from at least two of those states (probably India and one of Russia/Japan). Make no mistake, there are no Canadas, Mexicos, or Haitis in this neighborhood to politely stand aside.

In fact, China's rise is more likely to resemble Germany's in the late 19th and early 20th century than the U.S.'s -- recall that the U.S. had to do very little to check German aspirations. The real price of German ambition was paid by, first, the British and French (WW I) and then by the Soviets (WW II). All these European powers beating up on each other allowed the U.S. to grow basically unfettered, and by the end of World War II, the U.S. had more than 40% of the world's GNP.

I'm not saying we'll something exactly similar here -- for one thing, the presence of nuclear weapons precludes the possibility of great power war as seen on the scale of the two world wars. But it is important to note that by the simple virtue of geography, the American rise has been almost historically unique. For it to get locked into a sustained power competition with another state, that state will have to be given an empty highway in front of it to speed ahead, which China most definitely does not enjoy.

Monday, April 26, 2010

On Anonymous Comments

There's an interesting little debate held at the Guardian on anonymous comments on the internet, and the desirability of having them. The pro-side argues that it's the only way to get a free and open exchange of ideas going, the con-side argues that anonymity brings out the worst in people (rudeness, personal attacks etc). I have a few thoughts on this.

First of all, let there be no mistake: this is a purely normative debate, and has no bearing on the real world whatsoever. We have come way too far down the road of anonymity; can you imagine all those newspapers, blogs, message boards, and random websites requiring real names to post comments? I can't. That doesn't mean it's not a debate worth having, but we should be aware of the stakes, which are purely academic.

Second, there's anonymous and then there's anonymous. Anonymous is when you come up with a nickname or clever pseudonym to post comments. Anonymous is when you write comments as "Anonymous". The former is not a problem at all, and is the norm on basically 99% of well-trafficked websites out there. The latter is uber-annoying because one can't tell people apart. Unfortunately, if you want to ban anonymous comments in blogger, you're forced to use a Google ID, which not everyone has, which is why our blog still allows anonymous comments.

Third, I know the "anonymity brings out the worst in us" argument is one made very commonly; I've made it myself a million times (especially when doing my favorite thing, which is perusing comments on Youtube videos of India-Pakistan cricket matches). But it's worth considering this aspect: human beings are, at root, social animals. By that I mean that basically all of our "natural" instincts are conditioned by the social environments within which we are embedded.

For example, as living animals, we have a need to eat food, but the way we eat food is socially or culturally given. In some parts of the world, it's normal to eat food sitting on the floor, in others you must eat on a table. In some parts of the world, you use a knife and fork, in others your hands, and in others still, chopsticks.

In turn, such social and cultural considerations are mediated by our own personal experiences, narrowing further still the applicability of broad-brush "natural" characterizations. So our "natural" instinct is to want to have sex. Social considerations dictate, in part, what we consider attractive traits in a potential mate, so fair skin might be privileged in certain places and long fingernails in others. And then personal considerations winnow that further, so someone who wears a green shirt the first time is more attractive than someone who wears red, or whatever.

All this is a roundabout way of saying: rabid and disgusting and offensive anonymous comments seem to shine a light on what our "natural" state is -- that is, being rabid and disgusting and offensive. But there's another way of looking at it, and that is to focus on the fact that human beings have constructed society that is advanced to the extent that such outbursts are shunned. When people look at the disjuncture between our behavior in front of other people and our behavior when we are hidden, they shake their heads at what we are, deep down. But surely we can also applaud our societies for rendering such conduct exclusively to the private and anonymous domain (for the most part)?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Inter Will Be Close, But Not Close Enough: Champions League Semi Finals Preview

At this stage of the Champions League last year, I was confident that Barcelona would get through Chelsea. Importantly, I did not base my prediction on calculated, rational thought. Instead, what I recognized was that the Barcelona of last year were a team of destiny. I instinctively knew that we were bearing witness to history in the making, and that they would go through not because Chelsea weren't capable of knocking Barca out -- they decidedly were -- but because in a season like 2008-09, Barcelona had Fate (or God, if you prefer) on their side. Here's what I wrote:
My head wants to go with Chelsea, but my heart (and not just the Barca-fan part of my heart) says Barcelona. You just get the feeling watching them that they are a team of destiny; where things have fallen in place for one transient period; when the stars and planets have aligned, when Messi has remained fit, and Deco and Ronaldinho aren't around to wreak havoc in the dressing room; when Guardiola has worked magic beyond anyone's expectations in his first year; where each game has represented a tribute to the footballing gods, each an aesthetic and sporting symphony in its own right, each player partaking in this wonderful experience that we shall all remember for the rest of our lives, so that we can all tell our grandchildren: I was there when Messi and Xavi and Iniesta and Eto'o reduced opponents to tears and brought untold joy to the world, and indeed changed it in their own indomitable way; I was there when all excellence -- and not just the concept of excellence, but the very form of excellence, the way Plato meant the term -- found itself embodied in the Blaugrana; and perfection, that ever unattainable of goals for humankind, was just once flirted with, and brought within touching distance of us all, close enough so that we actually felt its presence, the same way Abelard and Heloise felt the other's presence, even if it was only in their imagination. You just get the feeling.
Well, that was last year.

Though Barcelona have reached those heights at various times this year, it has not been sustained or consistent. Moreover, the very point of being special is that it is unattainable with any regularity. Thus, they have come back to ground this year; a regular football team. Make no mistake, they are a very, very good football team, the world's best. But the difference this year is that they exist on the same plane as everyone else, which was patently not the case last year.

Why does this matter? Because considered logically and empirically, Inter have an excellent shot of beating Barcelona. Let's count the reasons why:

1. Barca are tired. The Inter game will be their twelfth in 40 days -- several of them high profile, high octane fixtures (three CL games, Valencia, Real, the derby). The fatigue has clearly caught up with them, as anyone who saw the nil-nil draw against Espanyol will attest.

2. Inter are exactly the type of team Barca hate playing against. Yes, Barca beat them in the group stages of the Champions League, fairly comfortably at that. But their physicality and rough-and-tumble nature, their ability to launch quick counter-attacks and score on the break, and their tactical acumen will test Barca to the limit.

3. Two words: Andres Iniesta. He hasn't been fit for more than a few weeks at a time this entire season. In essence, the decision to play him in last year's CL final against United was a Faustian bargain -- he hasn't really recovered from that injury all year. He's out for this tie, and his ability to play tiki-taka with Xavi in the center of the park is unparalleled, and will be missed. Especially against a team that will compress space like Inter with the likes of Cambiasso and Motta and Stankovic, players that can function in tight spaces are vital.

4. Pep's strange preference for Busquets over Yaya. Yes, yes, I've read all the accounts of Busquets being more positionally disciplined than Yaya, and that he is better at passing and getting attacks started. Even if that is true, it doesn't deflect from the fact that in these bruising encounters -- and make no mistake, Mourinho will make these as bruising as possible -- you need a tough S.O.B, which Yaya is. Yaya is also less likely to dive and roll around like he's been shot, and cost Barca with breakaways the other way.

5. Samuel Eto'o. I've been on record time and again as saying the Ibra swap was worth it. But I will say this: few players take as much pleasure in scoring against their old teams. Few players score as many big-game goals. And few players will strike as much fear in Barcelona's hearts if it's the last ten minutes at the Camp Nou, second leg, and Inter need just one goal to go through. Wouldn't you expect him to score, somehow, someway?

All this is to say, I'm worried. I'm very worried.

But what gets me from worrying too much is that every single time Guardiola has needed to have this team ready this season, they have been. Every single time Xavi or Messi have needed to drag this team with them, on their slight shoulders, they have. Every single time Barca have hit a so-called lull -- and only in their case is a 0-0 draw away to intense, local rivals categorized as a lull -- they have bounced back, and made their next opponents pay the price. Man for man, Barcelona are a better team. Of that I have no doubt.

If Inter go through, and it must be emphasized how plausible that outcome is, it won't be because they outplayed Barca. It'll be a freak goal or a ridiculous off-side or a stupid penalty or some such. Of course, that can happen. But put a gun to my head, and I have to pick Barca. Inter will be close, but not close enough.

PREDICTION: Barcelona go through 2-1 on aggregate.

Quick thoughts on Bayern-Lyon. Not having watched an awful lot of these two teams outside European competition, I advise you to take my words with many grains of salt. My first inclination is to suggest that Lyon are simply a better team. Every time I watch Bayern, they are shambolic defensively. Every time I watch Lyon, I come away impressed with how organized they are, both going forward and tracking back. They've easily been the more impressive team in Europe this year, so I have to go with the form book.

PREDICTION: Lyon go through 4-2 on aggregate.

The Chief Justice's Delusions Of Grandeur And Irreplacability

So what do you know. Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has been making menacing noises about the apex court's ability to strike down any laws that parliament comes up with -- you know, the body responsible for making laws and all. That one. Even Aitzaz Ahsan -- Aitzaz Ahsan! -- is thinking they've overstepped the mark here, though of course he expressed such feelings quite diplomatically. I want to make three quick points about this before I go to bed.

First, I don't actually understand the object of the complaints here. Now, it should be noted that the Chief Justice didn't say anything explicitly against the 18th amendment, it's just that the timing of his remarks functions as a pretty good indicator of what he's talking about, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Assuming the conventional wisdom is right -- and I think it is in this case -- it raises the obvious question of what the hell his problem is. The wrangling right at the tail-end of the negotiation process of the Rabbani committee ensured the court got the tie-breaking seventh vote on judicial appointments; essentially the judiciary now controls itself in a complete and unmitigated way. So what is the problem? Am I missing something painfully obvious here? What does the judiciary have against the 18th amendment, either legally or politically?

Second, note the language he used -- "may strike down any law inconsistent with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and the Sunnah and the fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution." Did you happen to notice what comes first and what comes second in that sentence? Wasn't the lawyer's movement once proudly held up as an example of a secular, progressive movement by a civil society eager to project their views on to the Hero, Iftikhar Chaudhry?

Maybe I'm overreacting here. But it seems to me that while the lawyer's movement and this judiciary have never been avowedly theocratic, they (a) use religious undertones very strategically and politically in their pronouncements, and (b) reflect a peculiarly eschatologicial view of political developments whereby the only thing standing between us poor sods and the end of time is this Hero, who will help deliver Justice and carry us safely to Paradise under his stewardship when the time is appropriate. I exaggerate, but only just. The point is that this judiciary has never been secular in any meaningful sense of the term, and nobody should pretend that it is. Now, maybe you think that's not a big deal, but that's a different question.

Third, as I've talked about in detail before, Iftikhar Chaudhry is prone to delusions of grandeur that basically all Pakistani public figures -- generals, politicians, even journalists -- suffer from. He really does believe in unrestricted power for the judiciary, not for its own sake per se, but because he truly believes that we, the people, need him to occupy that role. We wouldn't survive otherwise. In that sense, he is Pakistanier than mangoes in the summer, weird art on buses, and paiya jaams.

Isn't it interesting that the only figure in recent Pakistani history to willingly circumscribe their powers -- rather than bargain for more as Iftikhar Chaudhry is doing here -- is Asif Zardari? His detractors might point to the fact that he was pushed into doing so by the public and the political elite, both within his party and without. To that I would say: so? How many other people have been pushed to give up powers and still not done so? Is it unfair to say that Asif Zardari is unique in a very historical sense of doing what few others have done? And doesn't he deserve large dollops of credit for this?

I know Pakistanis in general are loath to appreciate anything Zardari does, and that's fine -- free country and all. He is at root a very unlikable man, and I get that. But instead of deifying Iftikhar Chaudhry and his power-grabbing ways, which the public has done for three years now, we might actually doff our cap in the direction of a man who has taken some serious lashings in the court of public opinion, and yet boldly given up his powers willingly (even allowing for a loose definition of "willingly"). It's something Iftikhar Chaudhry might do well to learn.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pakistan's All-Time XI

I have a blog post up on Dawn, picking the best possible Pakistan test team ever. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Thoughts On The Army's Missile Strikes In Khyber That Killed 70 Innocent Civilians (Correction Appended Below)

I have some quick thoughts on the Pakistan Army's missile attack(s) that killed about seventy civilians on the weekend in Khyber. Evidently, the attacks killed next to no militants; to the contrary, villagers who had taken up arms against the Taliban ended up being killed.

First, this instance highlights something I've referred to before, namely that relying on militaries to report their own conduct is begging for misinformation or, less charitably, lying. The Pakistan military is not unique in this case, as anyone who has seen the well-circulated Wikileaks video of the American Apache helicopter mowing down Iraqis knows well.

But the bottom line is that the grim security situation in these areas -- precluding the wide presence of independent journalists -- along with the army's proclivity for secrecy, means that we are unlikely to get anything close to objectively true information from these theaters of war. On the macro-level, yes, we might have something approaching an accurate portrayal -- we can tell, for instance, which areas have their residents returning to them or which areas are most conflict-prone. But the micro-level, the nitty gritty details of the conflict, like a particular clash or a particular bombing? In these rural areas, outside the purview of independent media? Forget about it. This is one of the reasons I refrain from commenting on day-to-day events in this war -- I simply don't know what's actually true on the ground. My caution to you, the readers, would be to exercise similar skepticism when told by the military that they've killed 32 militants here or apprehended 9 militants there. We don't know, we can't know, and that's the simple truth.

Second, I'm actually quite curious why these deaths haven't received more coverage in the press. It's front and center on the BBC South Asia website, but on the online editions of the major English dailies in Pakistan -- Dawn, The News, The Daily Times, and yes, the Express Tribune, there is nothing there referencing this news, at least as of 3pm Chicago time on Wednesday.

Instead, the papers are dominated by (a) the Abbottabad violence and the 18th amendment, (b) the China earthquake, and (c) the latest drone attack in North Waziristan. Now, it could be that this news has come out before the various papers have had the chance to update their sites -- Pakistani newspapers aren't like Western ones in the sense that there is 24/7 updating, at least at present. On the other hand, it's difficult to dismiss the suggestion that 70 deaths in Khyber means something very different than 70 deaths in Lahore for the media and pretending otherwise is to simply adopt blinkers as eyeglasses.

Third, and most obviously, there's good ways to fight an insurgency and bad ways to fight an insurgency, and killing 70 innocent civilians who were on your side actually fighting the other side is definitely in the latter category. I wonder if anyone in the military will actually pay for this in the very least, say by losing their job or being investigated? I won't hold my breath. I doubt the military will even go as far as the Americans in Afghanistan who (laughably) gave Afghan families sheep as a token of their contrition after killing five innocent civilians in a raid gone wrong.

CORRECTION: Both TLW in comments and Cafe Pyala point out that this news was covered by the Pakistani dailies on the weekend, so my apologies for the error in claiming that there hasn't been any coverage. But as Cafe Pyala notes, what's interesting about this story is that it has subsequently been buried. Read their post for why they think this might be the case.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There Is Violence In Abbottabad Because Punjab Is A Hot Girl

You can always trust Pakistani politicians to screw up a good thing. The historic passage of the eighteenth amendment last week was exactly that: a seminal moment in the country's political history, where our representatives in the National Assembly unanimously approved changes to the constitution that strengthened the hand of democracy and parliament. It was, almost unambiguously and without caveats, A Good Thing. It proved, or so I thought, that when push comes to shove, our leaders are capable of coming together and keeping the big picture in mind. Yes, there were some last-minute shenanigans from Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N, but all's well that ends well. Right?

Well, not exactly. Violence and riots in the Hazara division of the NWFP, er, sorry, Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa has led to eight people being killed, more than a hundred injured, and businesses and homes damaged. What the hell is going on?

Let's backtrack for a second. When Nawaz Sharif took his infamous U-turn on the Raza Rabbani Committee package, nobody knew why, exactly, he did it -- was it because of its implications for the judiciary, or because of its implications on renaming NWFP? It is now clear it was most definitely the latter. Why? Well, the renaming of the NWFP to Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa hasn't included a reference to the Hazara population, which is Hindko speaking. Evidently, Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa wasn't enough of a mouthful, and the province should've really been named Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa-Hazara.

This, in turn, matters because Hazara is one of the few districts outside Punjab that the PML-N can actually claim some support. And so when Nawaz Sharif ended up backing the name change with concessions granted his way -- it was originally just supposed to be Pakhtoonkhwa, but the Committee decided to reward Sharif's tantrums and intransigence with "Khyber" -- his rivals in Punjab, the PML-Q, could step up and attack him for it, saying he sold out the people of Hazara in return for other clauses in the 18th amendment.

So, to recap, Nawaz Sharif opposes elements to the 18th amendment for parochial interests, is satisfied with concessions on those interests, the amendment passes, at which point the PML-Q steps in and makes a big deal about all this and pushes the PML-N into a corner, which, in a strange way, justifies Nawaz Sharif throwing a hissy-fit before the passage. The PML-Q's fanning of the flames has resulted in this violence, and has serious implications for the passage of the bill through the Senate.

You see, after a unanimous passage in the National Assembly where all parties supported the amendment, the PML-Q, PML-N and assorted others are reversing their view of this in the Senate. The PML-Q's U-turn is the big one, because they have 21 seats in the 100-member Senate, which requires a 2/3rds majority to amend the constitution. The PML-N has seven. If some from the PML-N end up supporting the Q's stance -- and by all accounts, some do -- it will make getting those 67 votes extremely difficult. More importantly, the JUI-F has ten seats in the Senate, and also appears to suddenly be against the bill after being for it a week ago.

And here's the thing: this is one of those pieces of legislation that needs to be supported by everyone to be effective. The very point about the painstaking negotiations conducted by the Raza Rabbani Committee over many, many months was that it would ensure support from all the stakeholders. When you are introducing changes to the country's constitution in such a sweeping and grand manner, you want to be able to say with a straight face that it was supported across the spectrum. Conversely, if it passes with significant opposition, it becomes a political hot potato rather than an instance of true and lasting reform.

So this is where we are now: thanks to the blatant opportunism and myopic conduct of the PML-Q, not only are innocent lives being lost and private property being damaged, but the passage of truly historic legislation is no longer a sure thing. One potential solution would be to de-couple the renaming issue with the rest of the constitutional reforms, pass the latter and worry about the former some other time. But there's no telling how much that would anger the ANP.

This also goes to show how being from Punjab really screws up one's ability to deal with the rest of the country. The conventional understanding of Pakistani political history in the smaller provinces is that Punjabis are bent upon domination and don't care at all about them and are evil etc. I don't subscribe to that view, I just think the political incentives are very skewed for Punjabi politicians that it ends up looking that way to the smaller provinces.

What I mean by that is that control of Punjab is so important and such a big deal in the context of Pakistani politics, that parties in and from Punjab are willing to sacrifice goodwill and popularity in other regions for gains in Punjab to too great an extent. It's all about trade-offs.

For instance, in this case, the PML-Q and PML-N know they look bad to everyone else in the country, but they don't care, because the stakes are so high (control of Punjab). But for parties and leaders from other regions, compromise is easier because the balance between goodwill in their small constituencies and goodwill in other small constituencies is more even, and so they wouldn't want to go too far in alienating either of those. The trade-off is more even for them. However, when it comes to judging political gains in Punjab versus political gains in other regions, it's not even close: you do what you have to win in Punjab, and forget everything else.

Think of a group of four or five girls, one of which is significantly hotter than all the others. The extent to which you're willing to work hard to impress the hot girl will be very different to your level of effort to impress the others. You'll probably be more willing to compromise on your morals and values for the hot girl than you are for the others because, hell, she's hot! Well, Punjab is a very hot girl when it comes to Pakistan's political structure. Because of its population and majority in parliament, and the fact that it is historically been the heartbeat of Pakistan, power in Punjab matters a lot. And, unfortunately, that's exactly what we're seeing evidence of right now.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

I'm Back, But Will Violence In Karachi Be?

My schedule, after about seven or eight weeks of hell, is finally looking to loosen up, so blogging should slowly but surely return to normalcy.

According to unconfirmed reports, Altaf Hussain is in a coma after suffering a brain hemorrhage. I really need to underline the "unconfirmed" bit there, but assuming this is true, what does it mean for Karachi?

Well, I'm not sure to be honest, but I think it could mean bad news. Let's step back for a second, and take a reverse-telescope view of violence in Karachi in recent times. When has it been the most violent? From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. When was it the most calm and peaceful? The early and mid 2000s. What does this tell us? It tells us that Karachi is most violent when political and demographic control of the city is at its most contested, and most peaceful when everybody knows who's in charge.

This is actually consistent with most prominent studies of civil violence, and agrees with most logical understandings of the uses of violence. Organizations need to use violence when they need to intimidate local populations to get them on their side. And when would they need local populations to be on their side? When there is a danger that they support someone else. So high levels of violence presuppose that there is an element of competition for control of an area. But if everybody supports you already, and you're the Big Boss, violence is superfluous and unnecessary.

Note that this logic holds not just for militaries and militias, but also gangs (which don't use much violence except in neighborhoods which rival gangs are infiltrating) and political parties (one of which I'm about to get to).

Everybody in Pakistan knows the MQM is a violent, thuggish organization. However, such a characterization conceals more than it reveals because it assumes that they are always violent against everyone. Patently, this is untrue. It would be more accurate to say that when their dominance in Karachi is challenged in any serious way, whether it's from Pashtun migrants, local Sindhis, the military, the ANP or the PPP or the Jamaat, they get violent (80s/90s/May 12, 2007) to remind everyone that Karachi is theirs. Conversely, when nobody is in any doubt on who controls Karachi, such as in the Musharraf era, especially when Mustafa Kamal took over from Naimtullah Khan, their control is well-established and, as a result, the marginal utility of violence is low.

All this is a preamble to my suggestion that Karachi may see higher violence in the coming weeks and months because control of the party, and consequently the city, will be up for grabs. This is one of the very serious downsides to the cult of personality that dominates the MQM -- and, to be fair, most political organizations in Pakistan. Because Altaf Hussain is synonymous with the MQM, the party, as far as I am aware, has not thought in any serious way about life after Altaf.

In a way, this is inconsistent with the MQM's structure as an incredibly decentralized, meritocratic political party. But the fact remains that at the upper echelons of the party, loyalty and devotion to Altaf bhai is a prerequisite for getting anywhere, so it's unlikely the MQM has arranged for an orderly and peaceful transfer of power within it. If anything were to happen to Altaf bhai, one can safely assume a chaotic and almost-assuredly violent succession struggle, which will draw Karachi squarely into the cross-hairs.

Think about it this way: in the bad old days, which of the following was the MQM most brutally violent against? (1) The military and police, (2) Pashtuns and the ANP, (3) Sindhis and the PPP, or (4) MQM Haqiqi?