NYT sues Obama administration

December 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

NYT sues Obama administration

The New York Times has sued the Obama administration to gain access to legal documents that have authorized targeted assassinations, especially of U.S. citizens. The most famous of these is the assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen. The Obama administration’s policy of ordering assassinations without formal charges or trials goes even further than Bush-era policies.

The emptiness of the term “terrorism”

December 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

Although the term “terrorism” is widely used as if it had real meaning, it is always useful to remind oneself that the term is specifically constructed and used not to elucidate or analyze but to advance specific policy agendas. Glenn Greenwald’s latest column is a great reminder of how the contemporary usage of the term “terrorism” has been used to further U.S. foreign and domestic policy goals:

The FBI yesterday announced it has secured an indictment against Faruq Khalil Muhammad ‘Isa, a 38-year-old citizen of Iraq currently in Canada, from which the U.S. is seeking his extradition. The headline on the FBI’s Press Release tells the basic story: “Alleged Terrorist Indicted in New York for the Murder of Five American Soldiers.” The criminal complaint previously filed under seal provides the details: ‘Isa is charged with “providing material support to a terrorist conspiracy” because he allegedly supported a 2008 attack on a U.S. military base in Mosul that killed 5 American soldiers. In other words, if the U.S. invades and occupies your country, and you respond by fighting back against the invading army — the ultimate definition of a “military, not civilian target” — then you are a . . . Terrorist [emphasis in original].

As Greenwald notes, if responding to an attack by a military entity in a state of war – in a war that has been unilaterally launched on your country, mind you – isn’t the perfect definition of war and not of terrorism, then nothing is. Read Greenwald’s full piece, it’s worth it.

Drones, fear, and Barack Obama

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Washington Post carried an article yesterday about the terrifying effect of the use of drones by Israel in Gaza. Yes, drones are terrifying. They kill but their terror spreads well beyond their lethal effect. For the people who are targeted, the use of drones is a chilling constant reminder that the aggressor is everywhere, and can strike at any minute, at anyone, any time it wants to. Frustratingly, the story is about Israel’s use of drones, and essentially ignores the fact that the U.S. is the most prolific user of these deadly weapons. But the article does note:

…the most enduring reminder of Israel’s unblinking vigilance and its unfettered power to strike at a moment’s notice is the buzz of circling drones — a soundtrack also provided by American drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas and, increasingly, parts of East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The U.S. drone war is largely invisible, carried out in remote regions sometimes beyond the boundaries of America’s battlefields. U.S. officials are reticent to discuss the program, which President Obama has reliedon more than his predecessor to kill enemies [emphasis added].

That’s right. Barack Obama has relied more heavily on a covert, illegal, and deadly program than George W. Bush – you know, the guy that we all love to hate, the one who illegally invaded Iraq to the chagrin of not just nutty third world people but even Europeans! When you couple this with the explicit policy of the Obama administration that it is legal to assassinate U.S. citizens without charges and without a trial (as it did with Anwar Awlaki in Yemen, again using drones), it may actually be the case that Barack Obama actually has much greater contempt for U.S. and international law than did George W. Bush.

Given that Barack Obama came to office vowing to improve relations with the rest of the world, the fact that he has relied so heavily on a military strategy designed to inculcate fear (without gaining much military advantage) is stunning.


Here we go again, again

September 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

The current war of words between the U.S. and Pakistani governments is just the latest installment of the soap opera that is U.S.-Pakistani relations. The pattern is typical, predictable, and actually quite stable: the U.S. makes demands on Pakistan; Pakistan rebuffs the demand; the U.S. responds with “evidence” of Pakistani complicity in fomenting terror (usually in Afghanistan but also in India); Pakistan negotiates on the initial demand, giving in to some of what the U.S. wants but still rejecting some part of the demand.

So too is the case with the latest “revelation” last week by Admiral Mike Mullen and other U.S. officials that the Pakistani government is actively sponsoring terror in Afghanistan via the Haqqani clan. According to this formulation, the Haqqani network is a state asset that is activated by the ISI in order to maintain leverage against Afghanistan and, by extension, the United States. That is seemingly explosive stuff, but predictably, as early as the next day, we were seeing statements by U.S. and Pakistani officials that they were still interested in “working with each other.” And today, we see that the U.S. State Department spokesperson has stated that “State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said that the US government was committed to its relationship with Pakistan and wants to work constructively with Pakistan on the Haqqani Network.” Ah yes, “work constructively” – that lovely phrase that hides the ugliness of just how much pressure is applied to other countries in order to coerce them to do the bidding of the U.S.

On the same day, Republican Senator Mark Kirk did his part to play the role of bad cop by stating that the U.S. government should “cut military assistance to Pakistan in the light of the allegations made by the US administration and military about Pakistan having links with the Haqqani network.” We have lost count of the number of times that Some Important Person or the other has called for cuts to U.S. aid to Pakistan in the last couple of years. It’s amusing to note that despite such threats and protests, the aid continues to flow, mostly in very generous proportions (Pakistan still remains the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel). Maybe, just maybe, there’s something in it for the Americans?

All of this is certainly not to minimize the sheer venality and, frankly, stupidity of the Pakistan establishment, in its attempt to manipulate various domestic and foreign actors and try to maintain leverage against the U.S. The Army, the ISI, Zardari and the other civilian politicians – they would sell their own mothers down the river before they would do what’s right for the Pakistani people. And sadly it’s the Pakistani people who continue to pay the price of this absurd but very costly soap opera.

Pentagon releases latest security assessment, prepares for perpetual war

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Pentagon recently released its annual assessment of global security, and the report predicts an era of perpetual war in which peace is the exception rather than the norm. Of course, unsaid in the report is that the cause of war is the Pentagon itself. Instead, war is framed as the means by which to achieve peace. Somewhere, George Orwell is weeping.

An excellent analysis of the report and its coverage in the Washington Post is at Keating’s Desk. Do check out the full entry, it’s worth the read.



More on Schmiddle’s account of the OBL raid

August 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s some more critical analysis of Nicholas Schmiddle’s fantastical New Yorker account of the raid to kill OBL in Abbottabad. The writer, Russ Baker, raises more questions about the accuracy and ethics of Schmiddle’s piece, but he also uses this moment to raise questions about the apparent lack of accountability and oversight of the U.S. military by civilian leaders – including, possibly, Barack Obama.

Russ Baker investigates, for instance, the controversial decision to dump OBL’s body in the sea, and discovers some interesting contradictions that suggest that the decision was made by a low-level operative in consultation with Saudi officials:

At the time of the raid, the decision to hastily dump Osama’s body in the ocean rather than make it available for authoritative forensic examination was a highly controversial one — that only led to more speculation that the White House was hiding something. The justifications, including not wanting to bury him on land for fear of creating a shrine, were almost laughable.

So what do we learn about this from the New Yorker? It’s truly bizarre: the SEALS themselves made the decision. That’s strange enough. But then we learn that Brennan took it upon himself to verify that was the right decision. How did he do this? Not by speaking with the president or top military, diplomatic or legal brass. No, he called some foreigners — get ready — the Saudis, who told him that dumping at sea sounded like a good plan.

Here’s Schmidle’s account:

All along, the SEALs had planned to dump bin Laden’s corpse into the sea — a blunt way of ending the bin Laden myth. They had successfully pulled off a similar scheme before. During a DEVGRU helicopter raid inside Somalia in September, 2009, SEALs had killed Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, one of East Africa’s top Al Qaeda leaders; Nabhan’s corpse was then flown to a ship in the Indian Ocean, given proper Muslim rites, and thrown overboard. Before taking that step for bin Laden, however, John Brennan made a call. Brennan, who had been a C.I.A. station chief in Riyadh, phoned a former counterpart in Saudi intelligence. Brennan told the man what had occurred in Abbottabad and informed him of the plan to deposit bin Laden’s remains at sea. As Brennan knew, bin Laden’s relatives were still a prominent family in the Kingdom, and Osama had once been a Saudi citizen. Did the Saudi government have any interest in taking the body? “Your plan sounds like a good one,” the Saudi replied.

Let’s consider this. The most wanted man in the world; substantive professional doubts about whether the man in the Abbottabad house is him; tremendous public doubts about whether it could even be him; the most important operation of the Obama presidency; yet the decision about what to do with the body is left to low-level operatives. Keep in mind SEALs are trained to follow orders given by others. They’re expected to apply what they know to unexpected scenarios that come up, but the key strategic decisions — arrived at in advance — are not theirs to make.

Even more strange that Brennan would discuss this with a foreign power. And not just any foreign power, but the regime that is inextricably linked with the domestically-influential family of bin Laden — and home to many of the hijackers who worked for him.

Is it just me, or does this sound preposterous? Obama’s Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser is just winging it with key aspects of one of America’s most important, complex and risky operations? And the Saudi government is the one deciding to discard the remains of a man from one of Saudi Arabia’s most powerful families, before the public could receive proper proof of the identity of the body? A regime with a great deal at stake and perhaps plenty to hide.

Read the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the killing continues…

August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Another day, another drone strike:

A US drone attack has killed at least 21 militants in north-western Pakistan, local intelligence officials said. The drone fired two missiles, destroying a vehicle and a compound near Miranshah town in North Waziristan tribal district, on the Afghan border. The dead militants include some foreigners and are believed to be part of the Haqqani network, officials say… “The dead included local Taliban as well as some Arabs and Uzbek nationals,” news agency Reuters quoted an unnamed intelligence official in North Waziristan as saying.

The Obama administration has stepped up the rate of drone strikes considerably. As the article notes, just last month, drones killed more than 30 people within 24 hours in North Waziristan. And of course, the dead are always, by definition, “militants.” Who needs to check, right?

Osama bin Laden in English

May 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

This is the tragedy of Pakistan. It has taken the government nearly two weeks to address the country about the nighttime American raid deep inside Pakistani territory that killed al-Qaeda’s chief, Osama bin Laden. And, when it finally did do so –after speaking to the American media– it did it in English. Start at 6:21:

The point is driven home by local coverage of the parliamentary speech by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani: The chyrons (text) are entirely in Urdu; the speech is entirely in English. It’s a visual depiction of the the alienation between the rulers and those they rule. It’s also a testament to the servile obsequiousness that has become the hallmark of our government vis-a-vis the Americans. For highlights of the speech, you can see this video.

All this, while the Army was putting out a contrary message: General Kayani called the American operation a “misadventure” and warned the Americans against such future escapades. This is the military that’s actually responsible for the massive incompetence or more likely, collusion, that kept bin Laden in Abbottabad.

Politicians of all stripes are calling for the resignation of the President and the Prime Minister with little said about what is actually the Army’s mess. This includes the former Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi and cricketeer turned politician, Imran Khan. Will another civilian government be unable to complete its term? Is there a coup in the making? The Army is good at making lemonade out of lemons.

Finally, here’s a link roundup, in no particular order, on OBL:

Share your links and suggestions in the comments.

Karachi burns, again

May 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

The news has been dominated by the Facebook debacle which has now led the Government of Pakistan, directed by the Lahore High Court, to ban not just Facebook but over 1,000 other domains in Pakistan. (For the record, we condemn the ban, while recognizing at the same time that initiatives such as the “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day” group on Facebook isn’t about advocating free speech at all, but rather is designed to hurt, offend, and inflame.)

Meanwhile, Karachi has been suffering terribly, with 23 people killed on May 19 in targeted attacks. May is always a tricky month, and not just because of the heat. Readers may recall that May 12, 2007 was one of the deadliest days in recent Karachi memory. On that day, supporters of the lawyers’ movement were prohibited from demonstrating peacefully, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) took the opportunity to not just shut down free speech and peaceful assembly but also take aim at its political rivals. On May 12, 2007, 46 people died and about 150 people were injured as the result of orchestrated violence by MQM thugs. These thugs were unhindered in their mayhem, and in some cases even helped, by local law enforcement authorities. The targets of the violence were ostensibly supporters of the deposed judges, but were targeted because of their status as activists of local opposition parties, most notably the Awami National Party (ANP).

To understand why the MQM would want to target the ANP requires a bit of background on Karachi politics. First, it must be understood that the MQM was the brainchild of the military establishment, in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and the dictator du jour in Washington. The party, supported no doubt a very real constituency on the ground, was meant to weaken the power of opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chief among them. This was possible because of a radical demographic shift that had occurred in post-independence Karachi. Starting in 1947, Karachi became home to millions of “refugees” from India who were mostly Urdu-speaking, mostly from the United Provinces (later Uttar Pradesh) in India, and mostly urban and lower middle class. This was in contrast to the local Sindhi-speaking population, which was largely rural and working class. A vacuum was created with the departure of Hindus from Sindh, since this group represented most of the wealthy elite. But instead of allowing for upward mobility for local Sindhis, the departure of elite Hindus allowed the newly-arrived migrants to rise to the top, which they could do much more easily given their advantage in education, bureaucratic and entrepreneurial experience, and not least their fluency in Urdu which gave them tremendous cultural capital. In time, the urban centers in Sindh, most notably Karachi and Hyderbad, came to be dominated by the Urdu-speaking community, or Muhajirs (migrants) as they came to be known.

The PPP was certainly the first truly national party, drawing from all ethnic groups within Pakistan, but the party had an especially faithful following among Sindhis. So nurturing the MQM, which represented the Urdu-speaking, would be a useful way for the establishment to weaken the PPP’s position. And that’s precisely what happened. Today, the MQM controls the local government of Karachi, and it holds most of Karachi’s seats in the provincial and national assemblies. The appeal of the MQM has been primarily to claim discrimination on behalf of a privileged group – that is, to want to maintain privilege and power in the face of rather feeble attempts to redress the grievances of the poor (in this case, mostly rural and Sindhi). So one can immediately see that the party is a reactionary force. But it has become much more sinister in the recent past, bordering on fascist, and the targeted attacks on May 12, 2007, and again on May 19, 2010, are good illustrations of this.

What’s happened to Karachi in the last two decades is yet another demographic shift. This time, the city is seeing a rapid increase in the Pashtun population of the city (driven by war, drugs, foreign intervention, and the ever-present lure of The City). Karachi now has more Pashtun people than Peshawar. It is Pakistan’s largest Pashtun city. By some accounts, the Muhajir and Pashtun populations of the city are almost at par. So the MQM feels threatened. Thus, the attacks on ANP activists (the party representing Pashtun interests), the targeting of Pashtun neighborhoods, the demonizing of Pashtuns as extremist and violent, and the narrative of the “Talibanization of Karachi” and the need to fight against it. All of this makes the War on Terror extremely useful for the MQM for entirely local reasons, and for the most banal of motives: to hold on to power.

What happened on May 19, then, was a reminder from the MQM – that they’re still in charge, and no challenge to the party’s authority will be tolerated. And, in an ironic twist of fate, the government at the Center, led by the PPP, now also finds it convenient to deploy the War on Terror for its own ends (also for banal motives: power and cold hard cash). The PPP is also in coalition with the MQM in the Sindh Assembly, but it is in coalition with the ANP at the Center, which means it has done some balancing act in the last few days. But it seems clear which side it will come out on. Just today, the Interior Minister announced that the deployment of Rangers in Karachi will be increased:

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said that the recurring of the targeted killing incidents in the metropolis after every four-five months is a part of a conspiracy to destabilise the country and its links go to Fata and Swat…

He said that the deployment of Rangers in the city was being increased and the special powers conferred upon them under the Anti-terrorism Act of 1997 had been extended for three months.

So, to recap: the reactionary MQM conducts a terror campaign against Pashtun Karachiites, the PPP uses this as an opportunity to link the very local processes in Karachi to the war in FATA, and the federal government gets to keep its hold on Karachi via the brutal Rangers. Ah, the War on Terror – it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

“Bloody Civilians” and the Army

March 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

A story in the National this week, “Pakistan’s Broken Mirror”  about the country’s restive province, Balochistan. An excerpt:

But for the government of Pakistan – and particularly for its army – Balochistan is first and foremost the epicentre of a stubbornly secular Baloch national rebellion whose endurance poses a threat to the state’s ideological and geographical coherence.

Balochistan is a looking glass for Pakistan today, reflecting the tortuous struggle to imagine a national community. How the state handles the rising tide of Baloch nationalism will also determine the future of Pakistan’s nationalist project.

Meanwhile, here’s a story from FATA areas in northern Pakistan where Pakistan’s army just attacked one of the areas in Fata, Orakzai Agency, killing innocent civilians:

Pakistani warplanes attacked a number of sites in the Orakzai Agency today, including a mosque, a school, and a religious seminary, killing 61. Security officials initially labeled all 61 “suspected militants,” though locals later conceded that a great many of them were actually innocent civilians.

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