Archive for the ‘South Asia’ Category
New York-Obama’s impending visit to Burma in the context of America’s “pivot” to Asia in this so-called “Pacific century” (in contrast to the previous Atlantic century epitomized by the formation of NATO etc) raises a lot of grave human rights concerns, many of which in the case of Burma have festered for decades. Obama will attempt to make America’s presence felt in Southeast Asia during the upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.
In 2008, I traveled to the border town of Teknaf on the border of Burma’s Rakhine State (aka Arakan State) to document the festering Rohingya crisis at the junction of South and Southeast Asia. My visits to the fetid refugee camps south of Teknaf, Bangladesh culminated in From South-to-South: Burma’s Stateless Minority Under the Tip of Globalization’s Spear and my visit to the Rohingya migrant community in Karachi, Pakistan’s squalid Korangi Town area resulted in From South to South: Refugees as Migrants: The Rohingya in Pakistan.
I was covering the Rohingya issue, which began in earnest with ethnic pogroms in 1991, before it became to relatively hotter topic than it is now in 2012. Trying to bring attention to the crisis either here at the UN headquarters or down in DC on Capitol Hill was essentially a fool’s errand. To think that POTUS would be visiting Burma at that time (or any other time in modern history) seemed absurd.
Now everyone from CNN to the International Crisis Group is trying to catch up to speed and sound alarm bells on the world’s most persecuted, stateless people who are enduring a campaign of ethnic cleansing in part to make way for the development of offshore transnational natural gas projectson the Arakan coast. And the fact that international attention is being brought to these pogroms is a good thing, shame that it takes killings and displacements of thousands for it to come to the fore.
A key reason the Rohingya keep being killed and pushed out into the sea is that they are a stateless people. The insidious Burmese regime that tells the world it is gently democratizing continues to insist that these poor unwanted souls are ‘illegal migrants’ while the Sheikha Hasina administration in Dhaka cruelly maintains that the Rohingya are ‘economic migrants‘ that it cannot be responsible for aiding while its own citizenry go without. The Rohingya exist between the guns of the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) and the Bangladesh Rifles (Border Guard Bangladesh). The Rohingya are hemmed in by a difficult geography with their only remaining option to try and reach refuge in Thailand by sea. Many of them then drown in unsound vessels and rough seas.
As China and India, and now the United States, compete for economic and political influence in Burma, there has been no indication that the persecution of the Rohingya will be tamped down. The array of ethnic questions burning on the country’s periphery have been alight since independence from Britain in 1948-less than six months after the dissolution/independence of British India-have not been quelled with the re-introduction of Burma onto the world stage. Just because superficial change such as the return of Coke and Pepsi have taken place in no way beens that the Tatmadaw will not continue their brutal policies of scorched earth pogroms and enslavement. They may end up being emboldened.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
New York- In sorting through some old belongings today I found a couple of now ancient-seeming portfolios which I went to a lot of trouble to make at the tail end of the portfolio era. In what turned out to be fruitless, expensive exercises in futility I spent countless hours (not to mention loads of money on ink and specialty papers) printing attempts at gorgeous images. I scanned some of the images and decided to show them here on this blog. Though these images may appear, and perhaps are, somewhat random, they were part of my earliest project concept which I titled “The Fabled City.” I envisioned it as grassroots, multimedia education project to enlighten denizens of American cities about the complex civilizational crossroads where South Asia, Central Asia, and the Iranian Plateau intersect.
The ultimate goal of the project was to then inform the public about the people and socio-cultural history of Afghanistan working past the entrenched framework of Afghanistan clichés as a “buffer state,” “failed state,” or worst of all, “the graveyard of empires.” Could you imagine if a coterie of overeducated policy wonks and far removed armchair historians constantly referred to the country you call home as some sort of “graveyard?” Or in the case of Pakistan, “the world’s most dangerous place?” Or Iran being “evil” in some way? Though all of these terms are or were meant to have a purely geopolitical resonance (in theory), it is a short jump to the demonization of a culture particularly when punditry is then mixed with geographic distance.
I had an idea-somewhat indicative of the era-to do a guerrilla-style wheatpaste poster campaign in the manner of a 1990s New York City street artists like Cost and Revs (who have long since faded into relative obscurity). I thought I could bring awareness to this region-much of which had been cutoff the the outside world since 1979-by starting a one man grassroots poster campaign. I was gearing up to embark upon this idea just as 9/11 shook this city. My plan to photograph Taliban-ruled Afghanistan (ie the Islamic Emirate) after the winter snows thawed in the spring of 2002 morphed into doing war photography in the Islamic State of Afghanistan among the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (ie the Northern Alliance) some six-months ahead of schedule. I still clung to this idea well into the 9/11 wars.
At the height of the war in Takhar Province in early November 2001 I managed to visit the broken columns of the heavily looted Graeco-Bactrian city of Ai Khanoum overlooking the Panj River dividing Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In Iraq in May 2003 I climbed the humongous, spiraled minaret of Malwiya in Samarra before things turned ugly in that country’s nihilistic fitna and anti-occupation war. The minaret was later attacked by insurgents in 2005 after American soldiers carelessly used the ancient monument as a lookout post. From the top of the Abbasid calpihate-era Malwiya, I gazed at the magnificent al-Askari shrine housing the bodies of the 10th and 11th Twelver Shi’ite imams, its gilded cupola shining brilliantly under the Iraqi sun. The sacred al-Askari dome was later demolished by Sunni sectarian fighters in February 2006 and its minarets were destroyed by them in June 2007.
I was digging around in a musty closet and unearthed these decade-old prints which I then hastily scanned in a consumer Epson flatbed scanner. I don’t have much use for these rather benign, old prints now. Maybe I will finally paste them up around the Brooklyn or Queens waterfront as I intended to do exactly a decade ago. The Fabled City was crushed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Unending war and terror would come to rule the day rather than the elements of architectural elegance and sophisticated history I had hoped to use as tools to foment a better day.
Los Angeles- The May issue of MLM is out. Worked hard on this one. Enjoy! If you’re not already enjoying, subscribe!
Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn is reporting on the possible death of Baitullah Mehsud in Wednesday’s missile strike which is believed to have killed one of his wives. Mehsud’s demise would mean an uncertain fate for the future of the TTP in South Waziristan and it is not clear whether he would have a successor. Of course it has been rumoured that Mehsud has been dead before so we’ll have to wait and see on this one.
Here is the full text of the article: ”
ISLAMABAD: There is a strong likelihood that Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud was killed along with his wife and bodyguards in a missile attack two days ago, Interior Minister Rehman Malik told Reuters.
‘We suspect he was killed in the missile strike,’ Malik said on Friday. ‘We have some information, but we don’t have material evidence to confirm it.’ Meanwhile, Director General ISPR Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas cautioned that the reports of Mehsud’s death are still unconfirmed. ‘We are receiving reports and probing,’ he said. ABC News cited a senior US official as saying there was a 95 per cent chance that Mehsud was among those killed in the missile strike. US officials have visual and other indicators it was Mehsud and Pakistanis are now trying to collect physical evidence to be certain, ABC reported. A US official also told Reuters that there was reason to believe Mehsud was dead. ‘There is reason to believe that reports of his death may be true, but it can’t be confirmed at this time,’ said the official, providing the information on condition of anonymity. The official would not comment on the circumstances surrounding Mehsud’s possible death.
A relative of Mehsud’s dead wife had initially said the Taliban leader wasn’t present when the missiles struck, but rumours that he had either been wounded or killed refused to die down. The stricken house is some two hours’ walk from Makeen, and Taliban fighters had cordoned off the area, refusing to let people enter, according to villagers. A senior Pakistani security official said that aside from Mehsud’s wife, one of Mehsud’s brothers and seven of his bodyguards perished in the attack. The official said intelligence services were trying to discover the identity of another victim, and there was a good chance it was Mehsud. Intelligence agents had also picked up signs that leaders of various Taliban factions planned to gather for a shura, or council meeting, somewhere in Waziristan later on Friday.—Reuters”
I have a piece this week on the Huffington Post on where Pakistan was and where it is or could be going. Read it here…
On April 15th, Jamestown hosted and exhaustive conference on the subject of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s too much else to include for the number of people gathered and the all the topics covered under the umbrella of the larger concept of Pakistan’s tribal wars but here are some of the highlights.
The first panel consisted of Ahmed Rashid and Shuja Nawaz. Rashid sadly described the “surrender of the state” in the Swat valley to Sufi Muhammed and said that the Swati Taleban had taken over the instruments of the state in spreading their own version of Sharia law, which, Rashid said, differed markedly from historical Sharia that had been practiced in the area in previous decades. Rashid told the audience that that the Pakistani Taleban, the TTP, had an agenda of Islamizing all of Pakistan and challenging the army. Shuja Nawaz spoke pessimistically of a “battle for Pakistan” and described an army that was able to clear but not build and hold (one can think of the example of the Bajaur operations) which is critical in a COIN strategy (which every speaker described as non-existent in Pakistan’s military doctrine).
Mariam Abou Zahab, an expert on Sunni-Shia internecine conflict in Pakistan and co-author of Islamist Networks: The Afghan-Pakistan Connection presented a fascinatingly detailed background on this conflict within the broader turmoil occurring throughout Pakistan. Though it may be hard for outsiders to differentiate between the various contexts of carnage coming out of the country on a daily basis, Mme. Zahab told of the fitna, or sectarian Islamic warfare that has been shredding the fabric of Pakistani society since the 1980’s which was part of a proxy struggle between Iran and the al-Saud family. This sectarian warfare is relevant to the conflict in FATA and the historical context of the Afghan war for several reasons. Two of the seven tribal agencies, Kurram and Orakzai, have significant Shia populations and hence inherent conflict. Zahab states that the influx of large numbers of Sunni Afghan refugees during the Soviet era skewed the Sunni demographic in FATA well out of its historical balance. According to Zahab, this suited General Zia ul-Haq just fine. Zia was greatly annoyed by particular Shia tribes in crucial border areas refusal to let mujahideen cross their territory during the anti-Soviet war. For Zia these Pashtun Shia presented both a tactical and ideological issue. Zia’s “Islamization” of Pakistan was also a defacto Sunnization of the country as well. Skewing the tribal areas in favor of Pashtun Sunni clients was necessary to prosecute the war in Afghanistan. Outside of an historical Islamic context, the violent schism harks back to the British Raj when colonial officers divide et impera by favoring wealthy minority Shia landholders against the unwashed Sunni masses tilling the land. Within Pakistan’s unannounced civil war, mosques are detonated, captured Shia soldiers are beheaded and imams are assassinated. Sectarian outfits in Pakistan are, in the words of David Kicullen, “Fighting Smalls Wars in the Midst of a Big One.”
Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings spoke to Pakistan’s lack of a counterinsurgency strategy which most of the experts throughout the day agreed the country so desperately needs. Cohen described Pakistan’s enemy-centric war fighting strategy as self-defeating because it further alienated local populations which remains fervently counterintuitive to COIN doctrine. The army’s “ethnic mismatch” fails to represent the makeup of of the society at large being a heavily Punjabi dominated institution which leads to a deadly cultural gap when fighting Pashtun (or Balochi) militants. Cohen also criticized Pakistan’s civilian leadership for its “knowledge deficit” in the country’s military affairs which may be a product of the natural tension in the swinging pendulum between democracy and dictatorship for the past six decades. The Army, Cohen said, has no discernible interest in taken lessons from other campaigns from the Pakistanis could implement in their internal land war. Cohen mentioned various Indian COIN operations of yore that Pakistan’s army could seek to learn from. Not bloody likely…
Jamestown’s Andrew MacGregor, describing recent attacks on Peshawar’s freight terminals, gave an interesting presentation on NATO’s baffling choices for logistical supply routes presenting a region wide context. The cycle of supplying Western forces in Afghanistan has built-in instability with bribes being paid regularly to the Taleban. In order to let equipment pass through their jurisdiction, the Taleban exact payments from trucking syndicates which are used to fund a widening insurgency. Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) camps sprouting up on the outskirts of Karachi as a result of the Pakistan Army’s operations have given cover to militants from FATA and NWFP now operating in Sindh where they threaten the formerly safe port for NATO supplies. While trucking military supplies through Pakistan are threatened (not to mention taking away legitimate income from the Pakistani trucking industry), other much more costly sounding and arduous supply routes are being considered like a South Caucasus-TransCaspian-Kakakh route, an old Soviet supply route beginning in the Baltics in Riga and continuing on to Central Asia through the Russian Federation. MacGregor spoke of the “Iranian Route” which would make the most sense logistically, especially considered Iran’s relative stability and wealth of infrastructure. Such a move would be highly improbable, at least for the United States, without a major overture from the Americans but may be doable for some EU militaries. Central Asian routes may give Moscow a degree of leverage over the authoritarian states it is trying to hold within its orbit and could likely be a great odds with NATO’s objectives in both Afghanistan and possible membership candidate states.
I participated in a World Have Your Say debate hosted by Madeline Morris on BBC World Service with guests Zahid Hussain, Times of London correspondent and author of Frontline Pakistan:The Struggle with Militant Islam, Walid Phares author of The Confrontation:Winning the War Against Future Jihad and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Pakistan People’s Party insider Wajid Shamsul Hassan. The show’s producers called me to react to Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani’s recent comments on a his espousing of a “bailout” of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan rather than, say, AIG or GM. I, and I think most rational internationalists, agree that Pakistan certainly does need help but that of a nuanced and self-sustaining sort rather than thoughtlessly throwing further billions at the military while the feuding feudal kleptocrats Asif Ali Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif create a political smokescreen in their constant dust ups. As an asymmetrical civil war engulfs swaths of Pakistan’s geography and attempts to silence members of its civil society, a regional rethink is required by all parties. The United States and Pakistan have quite different objectives in regard to Afghanistan and South Asia as whole (not to mention China and Russia) and a modus vivendi by several sides will be necessary to solve the “Af-Pak” crisis.
As someone at a party in Karachi said to me last year,”Ten years ago we were being compared to India, and now we are being compared to Afghanistan. What the hell happened”?
The BBC podcast can be downloaded here…