Saturday, March 27, 2010

Champions League Quarter Finals Preview

In 1806, Napoleon's powerful military confronted a daunting coalition of European powers, including Prussia. Europe had been at war for the best part of fifteen years, and it would take close to another decade for the last vestiges of Napoleonic France to be soundly defeated in war. For a quarter of a century -- from the time of the French Revolution to Napoleon's final defeat -- France fought against myriad coalitions of European states, and never lost. Twenty five years against the rest of Europe. Alone.

Amongst those victories was a particularly comprehensive one against Prussia at Jena and Auerstadt. But this was no ordinary defeat. A young man by the name of Carl von Clausewitz served in the Prussian military, and saw first hand the awesome force that was the French army. Clausewitz, of course, would go on to become arguably history's most prominent theorist of war and, in his own way, changed the course of history.

A run of the mill defeat became seminal because of the lessons it imparted on the Prussians, who resolved to imitate the French war machine to beat it. The military was professionalized, and the General Staff instituted. Inculcating patriotism and nationalism became state policy. The levee en masse was imposed. Training was modernized. And meritocracy, rather than background or social position, became the primary way in which the officer class was constituted. The Prussian motto, it seems, was "If you can't beat 'em, be 'em. And then beat 'em."

It worked too.
Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth, there was no more formidable fighting force in Europe than the Germans. German unification was achieved via a series of victories over France in 1870-1871. It was a most glorious victory; the German Empire was formally recognized in the majestic Hall of Mirrors at the famous Palace of Versailles, home to the French monarchy for centuries. It was the definition of adding insult to injury; a slap in the face that the French would not easily forget.

Why does all this matter? Simple. Imitation may well be the sincerest form of flattery, but there is something more functionally important about imitation: it sometimes works.

Which brings us to the Champions League. The obvious question, of course, is whether or not Arsenal can out-Barca Barca. Both clubs subscribe to the "receive, pass, offer" ethic of football, privileging intelligent movement off the ball to create space; neither is particularly physically imposing; both are often accused of trying too hard to pass it into the net; both can get predictable in attack, especially if there is a lack of viable width on offer; both are loathe to lift the ball more than three feet off the ground, and both play flowing, attractive football that fair-minded observers regard as the most pleasing to watch amongst top European leagues. The only problem for Arsenal is that Barcelona do all of that better than they do.

To be clear, I actually don't think this will be a cakewalk by any stretch, as some in the media are implying. For one thing, Barca simply haven't been at their best in the last two months -- the only complete games they've played in that period were the 4-0 wins against Sevilla in mid-January and against Stuttgart two weeks ago. In between we have seen various problems at various times, such as (a) imprecise passing from the midfield, (b) key injuries to Xavi, Abidal, Keita, Pique, and Dani Alves, (c) an over-reliance on Messi, and (d) a lack of movement from Ibrahimovic.

For another, Barca's pressing which works so well against other teams might not work to the same extent against Arsenal because they too are very comfortable on the ball in tight spaces (though I would submit that they haven't yet played a team that presses immediately after losing possession quite like Barca does).

And then, of course, there is Cesc Fabregas, one of the top ten players in the world having perhaps his best season. We are all intimately aware of the personal and emotional ties that both him and Henry will have in these games. Pep Guardiola will have an interesting decision to make with respect to Yaya Toure vs Busquets for this game. He has tended to prefer Busquets this year, despite Yaya offering more of a physical presence and greater athleticism. But in this game, I think Busquets might be a better bit, because he has the ability to harry players in the middle of the park which Barca will need against Fabregas. If he is allowed a free hand, Barca will be in trouble.

All those are important caveats to the promise of Barca winning this tie, but that is all they are: caveats. Look, anything can happen in cup football, especially with the away-goals rule. It takes one mistake, seriously one mistake, and you can be out. Plus, the only teams that seem capable of knocking Barca out of Europe have been English (Chelsea in 05, Liverpool in 07 and United in 08). It's not as if Barca losing is inconceivable.

But it would be surprising, nay, shocking. There is only one Arsenal player that would make it in Barca's first eleven, and that is Arshavin at LW over Henry/Pedro. Their defenders and goalkeeper (Almunia is worth at least one goal over these 180 minutes) are nowhere near as good as Barca's. Also keep in mind that Barca play (and beat) teams like Arsenal very regularly in La Liga, but Arsenal have never played anyone quite like this Barca team. And then there's the little matter of Leo Messi, who might well run riot against Clichy or Eboue or whatever combination Wenger dreams up.

And here's the kicker: Barca haven't been at their best for large parts of this season, but whenever push has come to shove, whenever they have needed a result, they have knocked it out of the park. They will be inspired, they will be pumped, and, I predict, they will show Arsenal how it's done by winning both legs.

Prediction: Barcelona win 5-2 on aggregate

As for the other games, here are my quick thoughts:

United-Bayern: I want Bayern to win because deep down, United are the only team left in the competition that I think can beat Barca (Chelsea and Real were the others). But honestly, they don't have a shot. I mean, I know the Ribery-Robben combination is supposed to be all that, but color me unimpressed. United are simply playing too well in Europe, and with the seconed leg at home, should go through comfortably, I think.

Prediction: United win 3-1 on aggregate

Inter-CSKA: An interesting one, isn't it? The only reason I'm even entertaining the thought of a CSKA win is their funky playing surface and the fact that their season is just getting underway, so they'll be fresher (though the flipside of that is that they mightn't be in a rhythm like some of the other teams). But Jose-coached teams very rarely lose to teams weaker than them on paper, and he'll have his guys prepared. It won't be pretty, but they'll go through methinks.

Prediction: Inter win 1-0 on aggregate

Lyon-Bordeaux: I really have no effing idea. First of all, the only time I watch French teams is in the Champions League, so I really don't feel qualified to speak on them. Second, intra-country ties in the Champions League always end up kind of weird (like the Liverpool-Chelsea goalathon last year -- 12 goals??). I think Bordeaux are the better team overall, but simply on the basis of the last knockout stage, where Lyon dominated Madrid and Bordeaux barely squeaked past Olymiakos, I'm going with Lyon.

Prediction: Lyon win 3-3 on away goals

Friday, March 19, 2010

Apparently Pakistan Can't Do Anything Right

In a BBC interview, the former UN envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide "has strongly criticised Pakistan's recent arrest of high-ranking Taliban leaders" in an interview with the BBC. Mr. Eide says that preliminary talks (talks about talks) were taking place between the U.N. and Taliban leaders in Dubai and elsewhere but these had now become harder because "[t]he Pakistanis did not play the role that they should have played.... They must have known who they were, what kind of role they were playing, and you see the result today."

Okay, so let me get this straight: Pakistan went after the bad guys and the UN's highest representative says that its not playing ball. When Pakistan was not going after the bad guys, the whole world was going bananas. This is absurd. I wonder what role the U.N. wants Pakistan to play? In any case, the U.S. (y'know the country that invaded Afghanistan and has thousands of troops there) seems happy with Pakistan's role. So why should we care about what the U.N. thinks, clearly the U.S. doesn't which makes the U.N.'s entire exercise rather pointless.

And when the BBC asked Mr. Eide "how high up his contacts were, Mr Eide said: "We met senior figures in the Taliban leadership and we also met people who have the authority of the Quetta Shura to engage in that kind of discussion."

That's right, that's the Quetta Shura - as in the despicable militants based within Pakistan who are actively encouraging violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Did they consider asking the Quetta Shura to just leave Pakistan and go back home? Did they maybe consider that the Shura's presence in Quetta alludes to a deal with the Pakistan's security establishment, and hence indicative of a dynamic not covered within the framework of UN negotiations?

I've never been a fan of John Bolton but maybe he was on to something, the U.N. just doesn't get it. And Bolton was speaking about a U.N. headed by Kofi Annan and not the largely incompetent Ban Ki-moon.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ultimate Metric Of Success In This War Is The Safety Of The Pakistani People

Something strange is afoot among the Pakistani body politic and military establishment. If you've been reading reports and blogs, you would think the war was over, and that Afghanistan, India, and the U.S. lost (do I really need to spell out who won?). With a post-US withdrawal scenario in Afghanistan looming, our strategic mavens seem to be on the road to securing what they conceive of as Pakistan's national interests, and ensuring considerable leverage and influence in Afghanistan. It's come to the point where Hamid Karzai, no friend of Pakistan, summed it up thus: "India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother ... we're conjoined twins, there's no separation." How times have changed.

This state of affairs has meant that we get unnamed sources within the military establishment saying things like "We hold all the cards," talking about securing a "strategic coup...against rising Indian influence in Afghanistan", all the while continuing to make territorial gains against the TTP in the tribal areas. All of this reflects a rising confidence and sense of satisfaction with the status quo and the trajectory of events in the region in the short and medium term.

While I would love to share this smugness, there's a slight problem: you see, Pakistan keeps suffering terrorist attacks. To be sure, there are peaks (this past week, and the two month period of Otcober-November 2009) and valleys (first two months of this year) in the levels of violence, but no sane, rational observer would say that the threat of indiscriminate violence against Pakistani citizens has dissipated in any meaningful way.

Ultimately, this is what matters most. The job of the political and military leadership is not to secure "Pakistan's interests" -- whatever they may be -- in Afghanistan. Such language bears an uncanny resemblance to the neoimperialism that both our right and left so vociferously denounce when it originates from the West. No, the job of our political and military leadership is to ensure a robust, but by no means perfect, level of safety for its citizens, so that they can go about their daily lives. It's pretty simple.

This does not mean, of course, that one should expect or hope for success in a day, week, or month. I don't think any fair-minded reader could accuse me of impatience with our efforts in this war. This is a long, hard slog, and will remain so for a while, unfortunately. But my central gripe is what those efforts seem to be geared toward, rather than immediate-term success or failure of said efforts. I would submit that the Pakistani public has paid a fairly steep price for the last time our brilliant strategic minds devised their regional adventures. One hopes they have learned their lesson.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blogging Will Be Light For A While, At Least From Me (Updated Below)

I'm insanely busy over the next three or four weeks -- literally, 7:30 a.m. to midnight type stuff -- so blogging will be light to non-existent from me. I'll pop in every now and then with a links post, but no real analysis or anything. I'm sure the self-flagellation from you guys will commence any minute now.

UPDATE: While I'm off blogging, I will use our twitter feed to post links etc. I know it's not exactly the same, but it's something.

That Nasri Goal

What a night. It's been a long time since Arsenal have had a big win against respectable opponents or anyone actually - it was their first win with a 5 goal margin since the very first game of the season. And they should've score a couple more - there were glaring misses my Arshavin and Sagna.

Arsenal deserved to win but they weren't always in control, Porto had the opportunity to get right back in the game but they didn't and Arsenal grabbed their opportunity by the balls. Quick and effective.

But it doesn't matter that they weren't solid at the back, or that Porto lacked incisiveness, or that Clichy was once again poor, or that Campbell looked old. Arsenal won 5-0 and had fun doing it, what more can you ask for. They huddled together in the end looking energized and enjoying each others company, that made the win all the more sweeter.

Best of all, Nasri scored this most sumptuous goal:

Breathtaking stuff. There's a reason why they once called the new Zidane. (Then again they'd hail any technically gifted French footballer of Algerian descent as the new Zidane. I wonder if he had all the new Maradonas play against the new Zidanes, who'd win?)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Lahore Bombing

A suicide car bomb ripped through an FIA and Special Investigations buildings in Lahore early this morning killing a dozen people and injuring scores more, of whom 11 are said to be in critical condition. The blast also damaged a neighbouring school, and many of the casualties were parents returning from their daily school run. According to Dawn, eight of the dead were women.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban have claimed responsibility and termed it as a retaliation against US drone attacks and the Pakistan military operation in South Waziristan. I don't buy that. This appears to me to be most probably a retaliation against the killing of Qari Zafar and / or the capture of other high profile TTP and Al-Qaeda terrorists in Karachi. Then again one can't always expect much logic from the Taliban and their cohorts.

It most certainly is not the case that “besides other neighbouring countries, India’s RAW agency is also involved. Israel and other countries could also be involved,” as explained by the (hopefully soon to be erstwhile) Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah. I wonder which other neighbouring countries besides India could be involved? It can't be Nepal, Manisha Koirala is from Nepal and she's mighty fine so certainly not them. Must be the Bhutanese then.

It is an absurd state of being that this bombing makes me more anxious than the two recent bombings in Karachi, the latter of which happened a few hundred meters from my office while I was still at the office. But its easy to reassure oneself after sectarian violence because there is method to the madness, there are specific targets involved and it is possible to avoid those targets, or at least one imagines that it is.

The return of violence at a time when things were getting somewhat better is a real blow, and one can only hope that this is not an indication of things to come. And while messers Zardari, Gilani, Malik, etc., may try to milk this situation politically, there is sound logic in that argument. At the height of the violence in Punjab it was common to hear people speculating about the army taking over, many actively encouraged the army to do so, but since the lull in violence talk of the army coming into power has died down. Troublesome political issues such as the transfer of power by the CDGK and the appointment of associate justices to the Supreme Court have been resolved politically. Insecurity felt by the state and its citizens invariably leads to authoritarian and illiberal thoughts.

One must also hope that this event does not dampen the resolve of the military and law enforcement agencies against taking actions against Islamist militants, which have met with considerable success in recent weeks and months.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Links For Friday

Stuff to read as you count down to the weekend:

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a non-binding resolution on Turkey's (really, the Ottoman Empire's) conduct against the Armenians in World War I, calling it "genocide". Fair enough actually. But I do eagerly await the U.S. government terming the mass murder and relocation of Native Americans also as "genocide". Not naive in the slightest to expect that, yes? Keep your eye on that ball, kids, we should hear on this very soon.

Ad of the year, right here, from Pepsi, featuring Messi, Henry, Fat Frank, Evil Drogba, Kaka and Arshavin. The last shot of Messi is priceless -- "Thierrry?". Hahahaha. Classic stuff.

This story was all over the Twitterwebs this week. It's hilarious. Pakistan is billing the U.S. for services offered in the so-called war on terror, and is not being paid in full, because they think we're lying. Honestly, I wouldn't put it past us, though I obviously don't know which side is right. But isn't it hilarious that bargaining on the international stage replicates my mother talking to her darzi?

Osman has a fantastic column laying into the PCB administration. Must read.

Good news! AIG is going to pay out executive bonuses. Again. After suffering losses of billions of dollars. Again. Just an all-round classy crowd, these guys.

It's the final countdown on health care reform. Will it go through? Who the hell knows? But it's been a long, bumpy ride, and one hopes it gets over the line. Read Ezra Klein's reaction to Obama's "Let's finish this thing" speech.

This was probably my favorite read of the week, an in-depth look at the intersection of local crime and local politics in Karachi from Newsline. Really superb piece. It's really sad that there aren't book-length treatments of this stuff out there (trust me, I've looked). It is my aim to write a political history of Karachi one day. I don't know when -- there's at least two or three other book projects I have in mind that would probably take priority over this -- but if I remain in good health in fifteen or twenty years or so, it will be done.

If you're an IR or Poli Sci student, you've seen these quantitative-qualitative methodological battles before. Doesn't make them any less entertaining every time they happen.

Freakonomics tries to figure out if men are better drivers than women. Please. Anyone who's ever seen a woman try to parallel park should know that this is a stupid question.

Even by Tom Friedman's standards, this was a really perplexing and inane column; basically, we're supposed to take the word of a corporate CEO that cutting corporate taxes and giving corporate subsidies is a good thing. Yglesias' take on this is excellent.

Carlos Tevez says that if John Terry had done what he did to Wayne Bridge in Argentina, well...let him tell it. "In my neighbourhood if you do that, you lose your legs, or more – you don't survive."

A piece in Slate that our London-resident readers will relate to. It's on how easy it is to get lost in London, and how the signs aren't exactly super-helpful. My view on this is that "old" cities are always more difficult to navigate than "new" cities, because the latter are built on a grid. Growing up and watching Hollywood movies, I never understood how the cops knew they were going north or west or whatever when in a car chase; in Karachi there's no conception of this stuff (in fact, back home it's even worse than that, because all directions are given with reference to landmarks, not street names). It took me about 17 seconds to get to a grid city to figure out how intuitive it really is. If you get lost in America, you're an idiot, I'm sorry.

And finally, did you know that Barack Obama is a 130-year old Pakistani? Don't believe me? Check out his ID card.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Blog Recommendation

For those interested in Pakistan and Pakistani affairs, you should check out Recycled Thought. It's run by a graduate student of Political Science in London, so it's more in-depth and thought out than the average analysis you see out there. We're adding it to our blog roll on the right under "Pakistan" and you should make it a regular read.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Asif Zardari's Piece In The Guardian

What, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or New York Times weren't available? Well, I encourage the move east. Hopefully at some point soon Zardari (Haqqani) will write op-eds in Pakistani newspapers (after brief stopovers in German, Polish, Belorussian, Turkish, and Afghan papers). Anyway, here's some snippets of the op-ed, with the little voice in my head as background noise.
When I was elected president more than a year ago, Pakistan was in a grave condition, strained by terrorism and a ravaged economy.

Not to mention the setback of an incompetent buffoon being elected as President. Go on.
I am working with parliament to run a country, not a political campaign.

Could've fooled us!
Terrorists do not want Pakistan to succeed. They want to distract us from preparing for a stable and prosperous future. But militants underestimate us. Just as our people refuse to be terrorised, our government refuses to be derailed from its course of fiscal responsibility, social accountability and financial transparency.

You weren't derailed because no one in your government cares about the war -- throughout the most gruesome violence, the front pages were filled with news about the shenanigans over the NRO and long marches and ECLs and god knows what else. You handed control to (or were usurped by, to be charitable) the military, and let them handle things. It's easy to not be derailed when you don't give a shit.
Pakistan even met IMF criteria last month to receive the "fourth tranche", or £0.79bn, of its loan funding – no easy feat during a global recession. Corrupt governments don't reach this level of IMF partnership.

Um, I don't even have a joke for this one. And frankly, it doesn't need any humorous embellishment from me; it's pretty funny on its own.
If the community of developed democratic nations had, after our last democratic election, crafted an innovative development plan with the scope and vision of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after second world war, much greater economic, political and military stability would already have been achieved.

Just once I would like to see Zardari (Haqqani) in the press or in public in Western capitals NOT bring out the begging bowl. Just once.
Now some western reports suggest the Pakistani military does not support the policies of our democratic government. This is not true. Not only is our military courageously battling extremists in Swat and Waziristan, and succeeding, but our troops also are supporting the country's democratic transition and adherence to our constitution.

And I can promise you that I'm not writing this because Kayani is holding a gun to my head right now. Cross my heart and hope to die.
History has shown the difference between expedient policies and the long-term goals of true statesmen. When the history of our time is written, Pakistan's decisions will be seen as a turning point in containing international terrorism. We are building a functioning society and economy. In the end, these sometimes unpopular steps will create a Pakistan that sucks the oxygen from the fire of terrorism. Those who are counting on Pakistan to back off the fight – militarily and economically – underestimate my country and me.

I'm sorry, you may be a lot of things, but you are not a statesman. I mean, even your most ardent supporters wouldn't believe that characterization. I agree that Pakistan is not as bad as it was, say, six months ago. But please keep these self-congratulatory messages in check. It has the exact opposite effect of what you intend.

Monday, March 01, 2010

The End Of The Road For "The Office"?

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not going to watch "The Office" anymore, and I can't say I blame him.

There's two basic ways in which a show stops being funny, and it really depends on what type of show it is. If it is a show in which there one superstar carrying the load, and he/she is basically the only reason it is funny, then the show will stop being funny the day you get sick of that person's shtick. It's not that that person ceases to be funny, it's just that you no longer find it tolerable that you have to wade through all that other crap just to get to one person doing their thing, and that becomes that. This is what happened to "Entourage" for me -- I loved Ari, but honestly, three years of "super-intense, always yelling, endearing but kind of a dick" was enough. The same thing has already happened with Barney in "How I Met Your Mother" and the same thing will happen with Sheldon and "The Big Bang Theory" in about a year, you watch. It's just a matter of time.

The second type of show that stops being funny is when writers decide there's nothing left to say, so they make it a soap opera and try to make it a 30-min chick flick every week. This, by the way, is also called "the Friends syndrome", named after a show that was exceedingly funny until they decided to make Monica and Chandler a serious couple rather than a humorous (and transient) sideshow. By the time Joey fell for Rachel, the show had just fallen off the deep end. Did we really need lovey-dovey stuff over and above the interminable Ross-and-Rachel crap? I think not. Think back to when "Frasier" became boring -- not a coincidence that it happened to be around the time Niles and Daphne became an item, is it? I don't know how else to put it: love is bad for comedy. Romantic tension? Funny. Romance? Cringe-worthy.

A little of both have happened to "The Office". It's become a little too Jim-and-Pam-y for my liking, and Michael Scott is beginning to annoy me too. It's done, and it had a great run. But it's not even the funniest mockumentary on NBC on Thursday nights anymore. That, my friends, is "Parks and Recreation".

Quote Of The Day

Come on, Zizou. It's been four years. Let it go already.
Of course I reproach myself. But, if I say 'sorry', I would also be admitting that what he himself did was normal. And for me it was not normal. Things happen on the pitch. It's happened to me many times. But I could not stand it there. It is not an excuse, but my mother was ill. She was in hospital. This people did not know. But it was a bad time. More than once they insulted my mother and I never responded. But there ... and it happened. And to apologise for this? If it was Kak√°, a regular guy, a good guy, of course I would have apologised. But to this one? I apologise to football, to the fans, to the team, but to him I cannot. Never, never. It would be to dishonour me. I'd rather die. There are evil people. And I don't even want to hear those guys speak.

By the way, has anyone actually figured out what Materazzi said to Zidane? I've heard the "son of a terrorist whore" story as well as the "I hope you and your family die an ugly death" story as well as the "Keep your shirt, I'll give mine to your whore of a sister" story.

Anyway, here's the video, once more.

The Strangest Paragraph From A News Story I've Seen In A While

It's not just that Shashi Tharoor is giving us English lessons. It's how he's giving English lessons.
With the news of "departure" playing big on channels back home, Tharoor questioned the interpretation. "An interlocutor is someone you speak to. If I speak to you, you are my interlocutor. I mentioned the Saudis as our interlocutors, i.e. the people we are here to speak to," he tweeted.

I love that we live in an age where a story can end with the fact that someone important "tweeted" something and nobody bats an eyelid. Nobody except for me, I guess.

Anyway, I want to make three points about this. First, I actually like Twitter; it's grown on me a lot faster than Facebook ever did. It's great mainly because you get access to so many links it's not funny. Kudos, technology people. You finally came up with a website that actually makes our lives better/easier. It's been a barren run since the whole "web-based email thing" but you finally got one. Well done.

Second, more substantively, how desperate are the Indians feeling that they want to approach Saudi Arabia to rein in Pakistan? What's next, asking China to step in on their behalf? How did we get here? Everything from offering talks because they didn't want the bus to leave for Afghanistan without them on it, to asking for the Saudis help smacks of "Hmm, we don't have too many options here"-itis. The military/ISI must be feeling positively giddy right now, and if there's one thing we've learned, when they feel good about themselves is when we should start preparing for something enormously stupid and hubristic; a happy military/ISI is usually bad news for the rest of us.

Third, I'm sorry, Shashi Tharoor is one of those people I will never trust. Why? Because he's a South Asian who has an accent that makes him pronounce the word "power" like "par", as in the golf term. Have you ever known a desi with that type of accent who you don't hate? I didn't think so.