Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Case of Exploding Nerves

We have been frequent critics of Imran Khan the politician in the past and with very good reason. I still hold that his prescriptions for Pakistan's various ills are entirely simplistic and that his flirtations with the mullah lobby are dangerous indicators of his muddle-headed analysis of this country's political economy. And if anything gets my back up more, it's his and his supporters' dour self-righteousness on top of it all.

But even I have to admit that for the first time ever Immy bhai exhibited a sense a wit when he dubbed Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, presiding over a grossly personalized maladministration in the Punjab, the "Dengue Biradraan" (the Dengue Brothers). It actually made me laugh. Perhaps a rising popularity graph in the province can do wonders for your self-confidence. It's certainly loosened Immy bhai's stiff neck it seems.

Imran Khan addressing a big rally in Gujranwala in September

A showdown of egos now looms as the PMLN stages its Lahore rally tomorrow, followed by the Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) rally in the city on the 30th. Since Immy bhai has boasted that the size of the back to back rallies in Lahore will determine "whether Lahore is with Insaf (justice) or with dengue", much is at stake for both parties but particularly for the Sharifs who understandably consider Lahore their home turf. It's unlikely that any real analysis can be drawn from the relative sizes of the two rallies (unless one turns out to be surprisingly small, which is unlikely) and, in any case, when have political jalsas - with their bused-in supporters - ever given a clear picture of a party's electoral prospects?

But if any further proof were needed that Immy bhai's apparent advances in the Punjab (Gujranwala's large turnout on September 26 was the turning point) have rattled the PMLN, you need only read the statement given by their Senator Mushahidullah yesterday:

"About Imran Khan’s PTI, he said how they could talk to a person who talks about sweeping the country like a tsunami and builds his arguments on hearsays [sic] and uses ‘uncivilised’ language against political rivals. He alleged that Imran was and is [an] agent of certain forces active only to damage the PML-N vote bank and is politically ‘immature’. 
He claimed that they had documentary evidence about financial corruption of ‘Mr Clean’ and would make it public at an appropriate time. He asked where from [sic] the PTI chief had got the money to arrange successive sit-ins and rallies in the country as just a few months ago he (Imran) had said on record that the party lacked funds to arrange big shows and perform other publicity stunts. 
“Either he has got funds in an underhand deal with the PPP government or the agencies or through betting in cricket as (cricketer) Salman Butt talked to Imran before accepting the alleged deal with the bookies,” the PML-N information secretary added."

Now, one should realize that Mr Mushahidullah was nothing more than a mid-tier officer in the state-owned PIA, active in the airline's PMLN-affiliated union before he was bestowed with the favour of senatorship by his patron Nawaz Sharif. According to PIA sources, his primary job at PIA was apparently carrying the Sharifs' bags whenever they travelled. We have previously posted items about his own level of civility (here and here) which can give you some idea of his intellectual level. However, this is a new low even for him.

Whatever differences one may have with Imran Khan's politics, no one has ever accused him of personal financial impropriety (which, incidentally, the Sharifs have much to answer about despite the media's amnesia on the matter). For Mushahidullah to then go on and insinuate that he was somehow involved in the spot-fixing saga involving Salman Butt (Butt claimed he spoke to Imran Khan from London to get cricketing tips mainly as a way of deflecting allegations that he was more interested in making money with bookies than in the game itself, Imran confirmed the call, and nobody has even in the slightest implied that the former skipper was in any way connected to the fixing scandal), is to only betray the PMLN senator's own absurdity and nervousness.

If, as is apparent from Mushahidullah's rant, the PMLN is clutching at straws, this rivalry should make for some very interesting viewing in the coming days.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nusrat Bhutto, 1929-2011

Much has already been written and will be written about Begum Nusrat Bhutto, who passed away yesterday. I don't wish to regurgitate those words (you can read more about her life and times here, here and here). But I do want to write a couple of lines for those who did not live through the times that really defined her (and most Pakistanis now, it should be recalled, were born after 1993) and who wonder what the massive outpouring of emotion at the death of an 82-year-old woman who had not been seen in public for more than a decade is all about.

Nusrat Bhutto with Chinese premier Zhou En Lai and Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1964 (Photo: Dawn)

To understand the connection that millions of people - and not just the supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party - feel with Nusrat Bhutto, one must understand how her grace under pressure and in the face of overwhelming tragedy - here was a wife and mother who lived to see most of her immediate family wiped out - inspired countless others with her fortitude. Hers was a human story that transcended her class or her position in the elite stratosphere of politics. And yet, having lived a life of comfort and luxury for most of her early life, she was also never accused of being aloof from the trials and sufferings of the ordinary workers of the party she led after her husband's incarceration by the military. She had the 'touch' that made her more than just the wife of a wrongly-hanged leader. It could be argued that her real character and mettle only emerged when she was faced with the most demanding test of her private and public life. That she never wavered in her convictions is what endeared her to those millions who needed a figurehead symbol in the fight against the most brutal tyranny Pakistan has ever endured.

An injured Nusrat Bhutto at an impromptu anti-Zia rally in Lahore, 1977

At the same time, one must also acknowledge her symbolism, for those who mourn today, of a bygone era, before religious fanaticism and guns and venal corruption came to define this country's politics. When she stood, with blood streaming down her face from wounds inflicted by the sticks of General Zia's goons, she stood with a defiant moral authority that needed no certification from the media, maulvis or armed security guards.

Nusrat Bhutto, rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why Your Parents Warned You Against Taking Too Many Drugs

I had the chance, or misfortune, to stumble upon yesterday's Khari Baat Lucman Ke Saath on its repeat today and I am still reeling at the heights of lunacy achieved in that programme. And no, I am not referring to the fact that, as an intro to the show, Mubasher Lucman kept pretending to present declassified and Wikileaked US government documents, which are freely available on the web and which have been written and talked about for the past one year, as documents that he had somehow mysteriously and surreptitiously got his hands on ("I have got Anne Patterson's entire email," he once proclaimed). I'm not even referring to how he claimed that one of his guests, Asfandyar Kasuri (who he claimed needed no introduction but who at least I have no idea about aside from the fact that he apparently likes to be known as 'Fundy' on Facebook) had a show shut down on Aaj TV because he had, horror of horrors, interviewed Noam Chomsky. (Yes, I'm sure the fact that the show, called Washington Report, looked like VoA's bland Khabron Se Aagay and was in English with Urdu subtitles played no part in its being axed.)

No, the task of raising the psychosis quotient immeasurably was laid at the feet of that well known expert on globalization and Pakistan-US relations, Ali Azmat. In his opening lines, Azmat pointed out that he was smiling to himself at some of the initial discussion of US foreign policy hypocrisy between Lucman and Kasuri, because, hey, "We'd been saying it all along for five years and we were dubbed conspiracy theorists by people." After the obligatory-for-a-Lucman-show segue into an attack on Najam Sethi as a slave of American capitalists,  Azmat got really warmed up. (Mr Azmat did sort of confuse the name of the think tank Sethi is a fellow at, calling it the Project for the New American Century rather than the New America Foundation, but that was only the smallest confusion in the mind of the former 'bad boy of rock'.)

Here's the first part of Ali Azmat expounding his dialectical vision (the relevant bit begins around 05:45):

In the space of next few minutes, Azmat told us the following (and I swear I am not making this up):

1. The music of Michael Jackson and The Beatles was developed by the Tavistock Institute in England to wean people away from their indigenous culture and impose cultural imperialism on the world. 
2. The Rockefeller Foundation forced musicians ("by hook or by crook") to tune their instruments' A-note at 440 Hz after 1945 since that is the frequency that causes human beings' "cellular structure" to be unsettled the most, in order to propagate "mass hypnotism and mass crowd control." 
3. This mass brain-washing was dubbed "counter-culture" and was led by a consortium of record companies, television channels and General Electric. 
4. Hollywood's end-of-the-world type disaster films, zombie movies and vampire flicks are all part of the same "orchestrated and planned" conspiracy to confuse people whether "Balochis are killing us or Punjabis are killing Balochis." 
5. The Occupy Wall Street Movement in a thousand cities across the globe is being funded by the same capitalists it is ostensibly fighting against. 
6. The "North Command" of the US Army which is ostensibly responsible for domestic security is preparing for the Third World War within the US employing mercenary Poles and Ghanaians. 
7. Corporations put fluoride in the water (anyone else remember Dr Strangelove?), poison in toothpastes and "monoxide sodium glutamate" {sic} in chips and juices to spread cancer.

Here's the clear-headed Mr Azmat in all his glory:

As a sum-up Asfandyar Kasuri (who is either really the most tolerant person on the planet or the yin to Mr Azmat's yang) first helpfully points out the meaning of the phrase "military industrial complex" and that the American media is controlled by big commercial interests, with nary a sense of irony about the fact that he is sitting on a channel and a show that runs on corporate advertising. When he mentions the power of wealthy advertisers such as Exxon, Lucman boastfully tells him to go ahead since "Exxon does not give us any advertising." Unfortunately for him and Dunya, Ali Azmat then goes on to mention a local bank's name which is dutifully bleeped out by the channel and leads to Lucman grumbling that Azmat would get him into trouble. These televangelical radicals are almost funny.

Oh, and the solution to these problems (because, you know, Lucman loves solutions)? According to Azmat, we should stop dealing with banks completely since they take commissions on every transaction thereby destroying Pakistan's and the world's economy. And lest you ask, as Lucman does, whether we should then keep our money in socks: we should not keep money in any case and instead buy gold and silver. I really am not making this up.

We should also stop buying corporate products. Ostensibly this includes some of the telecom and fast-food products Mr Azmat himself sold until recently and the products that funded this show.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Problem With Hired Protesters

Credit for digging up this Video of the Day, and even inspiring the title should go to @shahidsaeed on Twitter...

This is from the anti-Zulfiqar Mirza protests outside the Karachi Press Club on October 10, which followed the return to Pakistan of the former Sindh Home Minister and his attempts to stoke controversy yet again by bilious rants against his bete noire, the MQM and its leader Altaf Hussain. The MQM castigated the media for giving too much importance to the "nobody" Mirza and pretended it had nothing to do with the "spontaneous" protests while at the same time, through its testy reactions, it probably gave Mirza exactly the importance he craved. In any case, do not miss this hilarious clip where the chant leader begins with slogans of 'Altaf Kutta', which he belts out twice before realizing what protest he's at, upon which he slaps his head and does a 'tauba'. Unfortunately, it still doesn't prevent him from receiving a reproachful whack and being dragged away... As I said, bloody hilarious!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Geo Does Women Empowerment, Kinda

You know how, sometimes, you want to write a post on something big and important but then along comes something trivial but so funny that it's hard to pass up? Well, that's what I feel right now.

See the following ad featured on the back page of The News today, featuring a line up of Geo TV's drama serials for the week:

Geo TV ad in The News today

Read the descriptions of the storylines. In the interest of easy reading, I am reproducing them verbatim below (my favourite has to be #4):

1. Is woman made to sacrifice herself on man's desire?
2. Is a woman so useless that she can be kept and left on one's own wish?
3. Does a widow have the right to remarry?
4. Helpless woman with limited options.
5. Is it really hard to believe a woman?
6. Is a woman born only to be used?
7. Is woman so weak that any man can shake her existence?

What a rollicking week of entertainment to look forward to. Or could one say that the success of the relentlessly misery-focused Bol has gone to Geo's head?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Comedy As Serious Business

“Ever wondered what you could do in light of ongoing terrorism, the Haqqani network, the Taliban, the al Qaeda? Tried shooting off a punch line, or throwing a joke at them?”

So began this piece in the Express Tribune today praising This Is Standup Comedy, a four-part web series in which local comics Saad Haroon and Danish Ali ostensibly “try and explore the effect terrorism has had on Pakistani society”. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that as the series loaded I was already thinking but haven’t we got any psychologists for that?

Half the point of good comedy is that it isn’t earnest, well-meaning or motivated by the desire to please people or explain the world. It is about subversion. A good comic will not say the right things. He or she will say the wrong things. And if, in the process of saying the wrong thing, they punch a hole in my own Line Of Bullshit Control, well then ladies and gentlemen we have a winner. Or rather, a loser. Because that’s what genuinely funny people or POVs tend to be, losers aka misfits, underdogs, freaks, misanthropes, outsiders.

Take the delightful David Baddiel-written film starring Iranian funnyman Omid Djalili, The Infidel:

Take Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Syal and Nina Wadia’s experiences of growing up in multicultural Britain in Goodness Gracious Me:

Take Fifty Fifty, which proved that censorship doesn’t have to be a bar to the pithiest of social commentary:

Take Chris Cooper, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s Four Lions, which showed us the difference between making fun of jihadis and making a funny about jihadis:

Now take This Is Standup Comedy, which consists largely of Saad Haroon and a host of other people pretending stand up comedy didn’t exist before English-speaking Muslims in a post-9/11 world discovered it, lamenting how hard it is to a) be misunderstood b) get a visa, and go outside and jump up and down on it.

You should do this not just because it’s good for your hams and glutes, but also because both Haroon and Sami Shah* – the genuinely wacky Danish Ali, despite his top billing, sadly only has four lines – are both talented, experienced comics and really should have known better than to try to pass of intellectual laziness as an ethical stance.

[*Update: We have received clarification from Sami Shah that he was not involved in the creation of the series and was merely interviewed for it. We apologize if a misleading impression was given by the above lines.]

The series does not explore the effect terrorism has had on Pakistani society as much as it explores the unfortunate results of comics being unable to transcend their own social/religious/ethnic/sexual identities. The answer to why this is so might lie in this line from the ET review:

"Haroon and Ali are well known among the hip crowd for being Pakistan’s première English language stand-up comics."

This is pretty much the comedic equivalent of jumping into a river with a concrete block around your ankles, which, as anyone else who has tried it at home can tell you, is really not funny.

When it happens – as This Is Standup Comedy inadvertently showcases - what you are left with is not the tight writing or detached dissection of universal human traits the four examples above feature but different versions of punch lines that can be summarized thus:

Terrorists are stupid.

People who think I’m a terrorist are stupid.

Why don’t you like me?

Live shows or series inhabiting this position don’t do themselves any favors. First, the comics seem to feel that being brown, from a conservative background and funny is in itself a novelty so they don’t work very hard and the material just isn’t good enough, especially when you compare it to thematically similar work that has already been done in both English and vernacular languages. This goes back to that notion of the wider world, and specifically discrimination, not existing before 9/11. Local comics looking to get mileage out of Islamophobia as a lived experience should look to the Jews. Not to convert (you’d have to be a real motherfucker to do that) but to contemplate what Jewish comics learned years ago; the trick is not to make fun of the goyim being anti-Semitic but to make fun of the Jew experiencing anti-Semitism instead. For example, Sami Shah's throwaway line about just wanting to 'understand the Taliban' could have led into a riff on hipsters at Espresso discussing ideology over a latte, but instead we are left again with the hackneyed profiling joke.

Second, I don’t really believe a stand up show on the day after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban any more than I believe a fashion show an hour after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban or my naanwala sticking bread in a tandoor the morning after a bomb blast is fighting the Taliban. Sometimes trying to make a living is just that, trying to make a living. The only difference between a certain kind of Pakistani in the creative sphere and my naanwala is that he doesn’t make a song and dance (and documentary) about it.

And now for something completely different…

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This Lucman Is No Hakeem

I had not actually planned to write this post but am doing so on the insistence of some of our friends on Twitter who think, quite rightly, that that medium is a rather ephemeral one and the information supplied on it should be preserved in a relatively more easily accessible format such as this one.

This post is a follow-up to Pakistan Media Watch's scrutiny of an apparent campaign against well-known journalist and television anchor Najam Sethi, which raises some very valid questions about who is behind the vilification and to what end. They are obviously mainly rhetorical questions since we can all tell what the possible motivations are when one looks at some of the illustrious names involved and the means employed. However, the PMW post also includes links to two television appearances by current Dunya TV talk show host Mubasher Lucman, wherein he attacks Sethi by name almost without provocation, and this is what prompted sharing this story.

Here is the first of them, from Lucman's own programme Khari Baat - Lucman Ke Saath from September 26. The relevant bit begins around 8:45 into the clip when Lucman suddenly diverts a discussion about US-Pak relations into an attack on Sethi:

For those who cannot understand Urdu, here is a brief transcript of the relevant comments between Lucman and his guest, the reporter Sami Ibrahim who until recently covered the US for Geo in Washington and now works for Dunya:

Sami: ...Evidence exists with the Pakistan army that the CIA is involved in Balochistan and in the Tribal Areas and that India is fighting its proxy war. But the Pakistanis have not yet presented this proof [publicly].
Lucman: The problem is because of people like you, journalists like you who want to take favours from the US, and for which they are selling Pakistan and denigrating it... For example, people like, a name I took this morning in a programme too, Najam Sethi sahib...Look at how much he has maligned Pakistan just to get [American] nationality for himself and his children.. can you justify that?
Sami: Look Mubashar sahib, any journalist who keeps getting invitations from the US, whose earning comes from the US, he will obviously call Pakistan bad names and try and put American interests front and centre and try to justify it. And now if Sethi sahib is trying to do that...
Lucman: He's been doing it for such a long time and all of you are silent, all of you have made a lobby [for him], all of you America promoting journalists...
Sami: No, but I think the Pakistani people have understood these things. Whether it's such a journalist or politician or intellectual or whoever, I think they stand exposed. And now the way the Pakistani nation has expressed itself in a united way against the US, I don't think I am wrong in my understanding that the Pakistani people have understood these underhand tactics.

I will come back to Lucman (whose claims that Sethi says what he says to get US nationality for himself and his children could easily fall foul of defamation laws) but just want to point out a couple of things about what Sami Ibrahim says. For those who cannot tell the nuances from the translated transcript, Sami is obviously very much in on the diatribe against Sethi, the fake berating by Lucman belied by the unabashed smile on Sami's face. Secondly his attack on those journalists whose earnings are tied to the US is a bit rich coming from someone who represents a channel that has taken US funding to set up a bureau and pay the salary of its correspondent there.

In any case, coming back to Lucman, here is the other clip that PMW linked to, this one from the morning show on Pakistan Television earlier that same day, hosted by former film star Noor, in which Lucman is a guest. The relevant bit begins around 2:00 into the clip:

Here, once again, is a translated transcript of the relevant portion:

Noor: Which anchors are there which you think [present a constructive point of view on television]...?
Lucman: Better you not get me started... I can tell you the ones that I dislike intensely. I'll take the names too, I have no problems.
Noor: Ok, tell us.
Lucman: The one I dislike the most is Najam Sethi. Anyone who promotes America, I don't like. Those who earn from Pakistan, who have been made by Pakistan and then go and defame Pakistan, I curse such people. There are many such people.

Now, Lucman's dislike for Sethi and Sethi's views can be justified as his opinion and aside from the potential slander pointed out earlier, the principles on which Lucman professes his antipathy to Sethi cannot be called into question. Many 'nationalist' Pakistanis would feel the same way in theoretical terms about anyone who was promoting the agenda of some other country because of some vested interest. But note that I am NOT going into the actual content of what Lucman finds disturbing about Sethi's views - personally I have never considered Sethi's criticism of the Pakistani state as denigrating Pakistan, rather perfectly valid critiques that any right-thinking person needs to make - and as PMW has shown, there seems to be far more to this campaign than the simple views of a man who equates critique of the establishmentarian mindset with bad mouthing the country (and it should be remembered that Mubashar Lucman's father was, after all, in the military).

But what I find rather rich is the self-righteous claptrap about "defaming Pakistan" Mr Lucman is able to consistently spew on television (he has vigorously defended match-fixers such as Salman Butt and attacked rape survivors such as Mukhtaran Mai on his programme), given his own rather chequered past. I want to relate a small anecdote that should show how much he actually has done to keep Pakistan's flag flying high.

In 2005, before his advent on TV, Mubasher Lucman directed his first and (thankfully) only feature film, Pehla Pehla Pyar. The hype was immense but when it was finally released in 2006, it turned out to be the biggest flop of the year. However, the controversy that simultaneously engulfed Lucman was far more problematic. It turned out that Lucman, who had had post-production work done at a lab in Thailand had fled from there without paying off his bill, valued by the studio at around US$80,000. In fact, he had defrauded the lab by taking a work-print (which is sort of an unfinished draft print) on the pretense that he needed to have the film censored in Pakistan, and then used that print to make cinema release copies from other labs in India. (Labs generally do not release prints or negatives until their bills are settled.) The result of this fraud was not only that the release prints were of very poor quality (made as they were from an unfinished work print rather than the original negatives which were still with the Thai lab), but that Thai studios collectively banned all Pakistani filmmakers from using their facilities. In addition, the Thai lab then wrote a letter to Pakistani film associations detailing the fraud. Under the threat of legal action and immense pressure from film associations in Pakistan, Lucman finally, ostensibly, settled the dues, allowing Pakistani filmmakers from accessing Thai facilities once again.

And that is how Mr Lucman contributed to raising the stature of Pakistan himself. Ostensibly this was not considered when he was conferred Pakistan's third highest civilian award, the Sitara-e-Imtiaz this year. But what's that they say about those living in glass houses?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fear and Loathing in AfPak

In this lead story from the online edition of the New York Times on the 26th of September, reporter Carlotta Gall humanizes one of the 16 American and Afghani officials allegedly ambushed and killed in cold blood at the Pakistani outpost of Teri Mangal in 2007, at the end of what they had thought would be a peaceful meeting to resolve a border dispute:

"…a Pakistani soldier opened fire with an automatic rifle, pumping multiple rounds from just 5 or 10 yards away into an American officer, Maj. Larry J. Bauguess Jr., killing him almost instantly. An operations officer with the 82nd Airborne Division from North Carolina, Major Bauguess, 36, was married and the father of two girls, ages 4 and 6."

US Major Larry J. Baugess (source: NYT)

Ms Gall’s story, the publication of which coincided with an increase in the verbal volleys being fired in Pakistan’s direction, blended seamlessly into the narrative currently being fed to the American public by its mainstream media. The narrative can be summarized by this editorial, The Latest Ugly Truth About Pakistan, in the same publication two days before:

"Those who came under fire that day remain bitter about the duplicity of the Pakistanis. Colonel Kuchai remembers the way the senior Pakistani officers left the yard minutes before the shooting without saying goodbye, behavior that he now interprets as a sign that they knew what was coming."

The increased rhetorical aggression is, in its own words, just the latest play in this game:

“The Pentagon hopes public exposure will shame the Pakistanis — who receive billions of dollars in aid — into changing their behavior.”

But realpolitik aside Ms. Gall – who is an award winning, experienced reporter covering Afghanistan and Pakistan - and the New York Times, are right to seek to ‘tell the truth’ and expose this story of ambush, murder and injustice in the AfPak borderlands in 2007. That, along with making a profit, is what serious journalists and serious publications are supposed to do. Here is another example of a similar story about the unjust ambush and murder of 16 men in the AfPak borderlands in 2006.

 The Spin Boldak massacre of 2006 (Photos from Afghan CID via The Atlantic)

This one is the culmination of a two-year investigation by roving reporter Matthieu Aikins. It is the story of smuggler Shin Noorzai and the 15 companions (farmers, traders, and a 16-year-old boy) who were traveling with him in Afghanistan in 2006 when he accepted an invitation from Mohammed Nadeem Lalai, an officer in the Border Police, to stop in Kabul on their way to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif to celebrate Nauroz. Lalai led them to a house where, during the festivities, the 16 were drugged, bound, gagged, loaded into vehicles with official plates and driven 500 kilometers south to Spin Boldak, by a smuggler/Border Police colonel named Abdul Raziq:

"Raziq and his men loaded their captives into a convoy of Land Cruisers and headed out to a parched, desolate stretch of the Afghan-Pakistani border. About 10 kilometers outside of town, they came to a halt. Shin and the others were hauled out of the trucks and into a dry river gully. There, at close range, Raziq’s forces let loose with automatic weapons, their bullets tearing through the helpless men, smashing their faces apart and soaking their robes with blood. After finishing the job, they unbound the corpses and left them there."

Brig General Abdul Raziq (source: The Atlantic)

If the name Abdul Raziq sounds familiar to anyone who follows developments in Afghanistan, it is because he is now Brigadier General Abdul Raziq of the Border Police, and also acting Police Chief of Kandahar, where he continues to exercise his penchant for torture and killing. The drug trafficker's rapid rise through the ranks is all the more remarkable, Mr Aikins establishes, when you consider how well documented his extracurricular activities have been:

"Though Raziq has risen in large part through his own skills and ambition, he is also, to a considerable degree, a creation of the American military intervention in Afghanistan. (Prior to 2001, he had worked in a shop in Pakistan.) As part of a countrywide initiative, his men have been trained by two controversial private military firms, DynCorp and Xe, formerly known as Blackwater, at a U.S. -funded center in Spin Boldak, where they are also provided with weapons, vehicles, and communications equipment. Their salaries are subsequently paid through the Law and Order Trust Fund for Afghanistan, a UN-administered international fund, to which the U.S. is the largest contributor. Raziq himself has enjoyed visits in Spin Boldak from such senior U.S. officials as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus."

In her story, Ms Gall hints at how official inquiries into the 2007 incident seemed opaque and half-hearted:

"General McNeill, who is retired, remembers the episode as the worst moment of his second tour as commander in Afghanistan, not only because he knew Major Bauguess and his family, but also because he never received satisfactory explanations in meetings with his counterpart, the Pakistani vice chief of army staff, Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat."

In his, Mr Aikins notes a similar pattern of investigative shortcomings on the other side of the line:

"In public, American officials had until recently been careful to downplay Raziq’s alleged abuses. When I met with the State Department’s Moeling at his Kandahar City office in January, he told me, “I think there is certainly a mythology about Abdul Raziq, where there’s a degree of assumption on some of those things. But I have never seen evidence of private prisons or of extrajudicial killings directly attributable to him."
"Yet, as a 2006 State Department report shows, U.S. officials have for years been aware of credible allegations that Raziq and his men participated in a cold-blooded massacre of civilians, the details of which have, until now, been successfully buried."

Both include the obligatory search for meaning in the tragedy reference. Ms Gall with:

"As for the Afghans, they still want answers. “Why did the Pakistanis do it?” General Same of the Afghan Army said. “They have to answer this question."

Mr Aikins with:

"It was a tribal conflict,” Waheed said, shaking his head, his long fingers trembling as they tapped against his cheek. “Raziq had a problem with Shin, but why did he have to kill all the others?"

To the jaded eye weary of reading endless accounts of the death and destruction wrought by mankind’s continued obsession with playing toy soldiers, the most interesting thing about Ms Gall’s piece was its timing, and this account of one of her previous interactions with Pakistani intelligence. Mr Aikins', on the other hand, kept my attention, partly because of nuggets like the following:

"Toward the end of 2009, senior ISAF officials reportedly thought about pushing for Raziq to be replaced. According to leaked cables, a high-level meeting was convened in Kabul, chaired by Deputy Ambassador Earl Wayne and Major General Michael Flynn, to discuss the problematic behavior of Raziq, among others. “Nobody, including his US military counterparts,” one cable noted, “is under any illusions about his corrupt activities.” Ultimately, however, General McChrystal, who was then the commander of ISAF and U.S. forces, decided that Raziq was too useful to cut loose, according to an article in The Washington Post. (McChrystal, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.) Cables also reveal that an American information-operations team even proposed a plan, “if credible,” for “the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’ of Razziq."

We wait with bated breath for a time when there will be a US policy push for the longer-term encouragement of stories in the international media on the ‘reform’ of Pakistan.


Hunter S. Thompson

These two strikingly similar and yet markedly different stories had me reaching for a passage from the beginning of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary, describing the hard-drinking clientele of Al’s Backyard:

"Vagrant journalists are notorious welshers, and to those who travel in that rootless world, a large unpaid bar tab can be a fashionable burden.

There was no shortage of people to drink with in those days. They never lasted very long, but they kept coming. I call them vagrant journalists because no other term would be quite as valid. No two were alike. They were professionally deviant, but they had a few things in common. They depended, mostly from habit, on newspapers and magazines for the bulk of their income; their lives were geared to long chances and sudden movements; and they claimed no allegiance to any flag and valued no currency but luck and good contacts.

Some of them were more journalists than vagrants, and others were more vagrants than journalists – but with a few exceptions they were part-time, freelance, would-be-foreign correspondents who, for one reason or another, lived at several removes from the journalistic establishment. Not the slick strivers and jingo parrots who staffed the mossback papers and news magazines of the Luce empire. Those were a different breed.

…In a sense I was one of them – more competent than some and more stable than others- and in the years that I carried that ragged banner I was seldom unemployed…It was a greedy life and I was good at it. I made some interesting friends, had enough money to get around and learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.

Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.

At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles- a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going."

Hunter S. Thompson killed himself in 2005.