Monday, April 27, 2015

Aaron Mannes Review of Thieves of State in War on the Rocks


The terrific strategy blog War on the Rocks published my review of Sarah Chayes' new book Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. Chayes makes a pretty compelling argument that corruption fuels extremism and instability worldwide and that the Western habit of embracing a local fixer (whether a guide or a president) and turning a blind eye as they acquire vast wealth has a certain amount of blowback. The beginning of my review is here:
In 2009 Sarah Chayes had an epiphany. A former NPR reporter who had fallen in love with Afghanistan while covering the U.S. invasion, Chayes had stayed on to run an NGO and then established a small business in Kandahar. Narullah, one of her employees, told her how his brother Najib refused to pay a bribe at the outskirts of Kandahar. After the soldiers hit him and smashed his phone, Najib paid but then called Narullah, who had previously been a policeman. Narullah called the local police chief who scoffed, “Did he die of it?” After relating this story to Chayes, Narullah declared, “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.”
For Chayes, everything fell into place as she realized, “Afghan government corruption was manufacturing Taliban.” From that revelation others followed. The Afghan government was not a weak state. In fact, it was all too effective at its core function — extracting wealth from the people of Afghanistan. Further, the United States government tolerated and often facilitated this corruption, assuming that this was simply how things were done. Looking beyond Afghanistan, Chayes saw an international problem in which developed nations tolerated and abetted corruption, which in turn fueled extremism and fostered instability.
You can read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What if U.S. Politics worked like Israel's System?


I've written before about how Israel's political institutions shape the political outcomes. It is really easy to focus on particular politicians and personalities, and ignore the structural factors behind election results and political culture more broadly. This article, on the juvenile tendencies of Israeli voters, is a good example of the former.

But Israel's system has two features that push voters away from the center and towards the fringes. It creates incentives for fringe parties. This is bad, because parties are how you convert public preferences into policy. Too many parties is bad for sustainable, governable democracy.

First, in the Israeli system you only need a bit over 3.5% of the popular vote to sit in Knesset. Second, the whole country is a single district. Each vote is effectively for all 120 members of the Knesset. What this means is that a mid-level political entrepreneur with a decent following has every incentive to leave the party and start his own party. With his own party he can extract more for his core constituents by joining a coalition with the ruling party (and threatening to leave when he doesn't get his way) than working within then party. Further, this fringe party's very success builds the core constituency, which only cares about certain specific issues.

It might be useful to illustrate how this would play out in the U.S. if our system worked that way. Look at the clip from the poll above. It is a recent poll of potential presidential candidates.

The poll found 60% of Democratic voters supported Hillary Clinton for the nomination, 13% supported Joe Biden, 12% supported Elizabeth Warren, and 5% supported Bernie Sanders. On the Republican side 19% supported Jeb Bush, 18% supported Scott Walker, 10% supported Mike Huckabee, 9% supported Ben Carson, 7% supported Rand Paul, 6% supported Chris Christie, and 5% supported Marco Rubio. For our thought experiment, let’s translate 3% points of support into 2 seats in the “Washington Knesset” (and we’ll round up). To become Prime Minister, the candidate needs at least 61 seats supporting him or her.

Hillary starts off in a pretty good position with 40 seats supporting her directly (more than Likud got in Israel’s elections). Warren, Biden, and Sanders would have about 21 seats combined, so there you go - a majority and premiership. But Hillary has a good relationship with Wall Street and will need to work with them to govern. Whenever Hillary threatens to do something Socialist Bernie Sanders doesn’t like, he can threaten to leave the government, effectively bringing it down. To avoid having her government held up by Bernie Sanders, she might look at others she could work with. Chris Christie would also have about four seats in the Knesset and he is not hard-right on social issues and might be willing to join a Hillary-led government. Of course there is a cost, he’d want a major portfolio with which to provide benefits for his core constituency - maybe Defense for the prestige and lucrative contracts. And, Hillary would need to treat him well, otherwise he’d bolt the coalition. Of course Hillary would also need to keep Warren and Biden happy, which might be hard with economic conservative Christie in the government.

Hillary’s obvious choice would be a grand coalition with Jeb. Both are relatively moderate and could probably work together. But together they’d only represent 55 votes, they’d still need to keep Biden or Warren in the government, where each of the coalition partners would exercise outsize power. Every major decision would require painstaking compromises. Besides, Hillary’s voters wanted her in power, not Jeb. An alliance with him would hurt her with her base of support. Scott Walker wouldn’t be an alternative. Since one of his primary programs is anti-labor, it is unlikely pro-labor Biden or Warren (to say nothing of Socialist Bernie Sanders) would be wiling to join him in the government.

Now, here is where things get very interesting. Some of the smaller parties might see an opportunity. Mike Huckabee would have about 7 seats. Maybe, in exchange for a key portfolio and regular support to his constituency (say large social programs run through churches) he’d be a fairly docile member of the coalition. Maybe Marco Rubio with 4 seats, and primarily interested in foreign affairs could be partner - in exchange for a major national security portfolio. But that would pull the government in different directions on national security issues.

Finally, there is Dr. Ben Carson with 6 votes. In the American system as it currently works, a candidate like Carson is weeded out in primaries (remember when Herman Cain was the GOP front-runner?) But in the Israeli system, a mercurial celebrity can run, garner votes and sit as an independent party in the legislature and reap benefits as the major parties attempt to woo him.

Pretty ugly scenarios? Welcome to Israeli politics. Netanyahu has less than half the seats he needs to govern. Even with his two key allies he only has 44 seats (and these allies need care and feeding in their own right.) Even a grand coalition with the second largest party would only give him 54 votes - not enough. The most likely scenario is a government with his core allies, the two religious parties, and one of the new centrist parties. But this won’t be easy. The centrist parties tend to be secular and don’t like the religious parties.

It is easy to blame Netanyahu for his lack of vision, his pandering or his particular policies (and it should be emphasized - he has his flaws!) It is also easy to say that Israel's democracy is failing, that Israeli voters have turned extremist. But look at the system and how it shapes incentives and outcomes.


No political system is perfect. The U.S. has its share of gridlock and constituencies that benefit disproportionately from government policies. But, at its the core the separation of powers means there are a great many things the president can do without congress, but at the same time congress is empowered to check the president. In most parliamentary democracies the Prime Minister also has a very broad scope of things he or she can do. But in Israel, because of the political fragmentation, the Prime Minister is constrained at nearly every turn. As an experienced Israeli foreign policy hand observed, “the prime minister must strike a deal with the minister of defense every morning."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The End of Russia and What it Means for America - My review and other thoughts on the iron lsws of demographics

Last year I reviewed Ilan Berman's terrific Implosion: The End of Russia and What it Means for America in The Middle East Quarterly. Demographics has long fascinated me and I'll have some additional comments at the end. But first, here's the review:
With Russian president Vladimir Putin playing an outsized role on the world-stage, any book discussing "the end of Russia" is quite the intellectual outlier. But Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and an experienced Russia hand, looks to the field of demographics (too often ignored by students of international affairs) to observe that Russia's population is on the precipice of a rapid decline and that its current economic strength rests on weak foundations. Berman has done an enormous service in pointing out this deep trend in international affairs. 
Russian birthrates are well below replacement levels; life expectancy has declined, and Russians are rapidly fleeing the corruption and lack of opportunity in their homeland by emigrating to the West. Russia's depopulation is particularly problematic in the Far East where a resurgent China covets the vast resources of this enormous region. As Russians leave Asia, Moscow will be hard-pressed to enforce its authority in the face of China's growing presence. 
Meanwhile, in European Russia, Muslims are the fastest growing segment of the population and, thanks in great part to Russia's heavy-handed counterterror policies, are isolated from broader Russian society and turning towards radical Islam. Berman suggests some nightmare scenarios were these trends to continue, but more importantly, he raises the fundamental question of what will become of Russia when Russians are a minority in their own country.
While the Russians have proven adept at exploiting their Soviet-era arms, nuclear, and space industries as well as the country's vast energy reserves to woo and pressure other states, the author also shows how other Soviet legacies, such as a decayed social and physical infrastructure, are rapidly hollowing Russian power.
After sketching out these trends, Berman prudently avoids making predictions, but a more in-depth analysis would be welcome. Are there no opportunities for the United States and the West in Russia's coming implosion? And how can Washington best position itself to take advantage of them? Finally, Russia is not the only Eurasian country facing a demographic collapse: How will aging Europe and Japan factor into Russia's future?
First, it is worth noting some key stuff that Berman got dead on - most notably the fundamental ricketiness of the Russia economy. With oil prices low, their economy is in free fall. The increased aggression of a Russia seeking to hold on to its place on the world stage is another key point.

But beyond that, I've been interested in demographics since reading Ben Wattenberg's The Birth Dearth I've been fascinated by demographics. Not the short-term growth and decline of towns and cities (although that is interesting) or the changing ethnic make-up of a region - no, I'm interested in the big stuff. Where is a nation - or all of humanity - going?

Most of the developed world is heading into population decline (Japan is already there) and birth-rates across the world have slowed dramatically. On the whole, this is for the good. For centuries population growth was slow because disease took such a heavy toll. The number of people who served childhood was small and then there were innumerable opportunities to die. Infections and injuries were easy to acquire and tough to survive. Even modest improvements in health care and sanitation lead to explosive and unsustainable population growth.

But leveling off is one thing, what about outright decline. Does youth provide a certain energy and push for innovation that might be lacking in an older society? Intuitively, this seems right, although it may not be true. The U.S. with modest population growth is a world center for innovation. Japan is the world leader in population decline, and their economy is in the doldrums, but that hasn't prevented them from inventing and creating. On the other hand, population growth leaders like Pakistan and Nigeria are hardly centers of innovation and creativity.

If there is a happy medium, it is probably the United States which maintains a just below-replacement level birthrate augmented by relatively generous immigration policies. Through immigration the United States regularly welcomes the most capable and resourceful people from the rest of the world. This may not be a planned strategy to maintain American strategic advantages, but it sure works out that way.

With Europe heading towards decline will that lead to the slow end of Western Civilization - that amazing thing that started with the Greeks and has been an engine of liberty and wisdom for thousands of years? Or do these ideas have a power and resonance that extends beyond any ethnic group? I loved my time at St. John's College in Annapolis and hate to think that these profound ideas will fall into the dustbin, ancient texts of little relevance.

In the short-term, population contines to grow. But the trends are slowing. I grew up reading science fiction in which a sprawling, brawling humanity spread across space. I imagine we'll still explore, but with low population growth will there be a real incentive to colonize? (In fairness, colonization here on Earth was a mixed bag for many, particularly the original inhabitants.)

Maybe we'll keep out own planet tidy, visit around as tourists, and focus on self-acualization. It is a vision of humanity growing up.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Islamabad's Military Myopia: Review of CC Fair's "Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War"

The Journal of International Security Affairs just published a book review I wrote of C. Christine Fair's excellence Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army's Way of War.


My review is available free on the magazine's website. But, there is a lot of other good stuff in this (and every) issue. You should really subscribe!

Pakistan is becoming a bit of an obsession of mine. I've written about how free trade can help Pakistan, several times on whether the country is viable in the long-run, the ethnic cleavages and economic divides facing Pakistan, and even a strange comparison of Pakistan with Canada.

My review is below, but I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the terrific cover. It is by Saira Wasim a talented Pakistani artist who presents the human drama in her profound paintings, with a frequent focus on South Asian politics. In a talk, Fair stated that the Pakistani military censors rejected the cover. The generals of Rawalpindi could handle Fair's tough critique, but Wasim's imagery was too much!


Book Review - Islamabad’s Military Myopia

By 
Aaron Mannes
C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 368pp. $34.95.
Beset by violent ethnic and sectarian tensions (including a radical Islamist rebellion), increasing environmental degradation, and severe economic crises, nuclear-armed Pakistan is nothing short of an international security nightmare. Yet, despite this plethora of difficulties, the real authority in the state, the Pakistani Army, does little to ameliorate these challenges and instead focuses its efforts on an all-consuming, Sisyphean strategic rivalry with its far more powerful neighbor India.
Concerned about Pakistan’s future, the United States and its allies have sought to induce the Pakistani military to re-focus its effort by offering assistance with the country’s legitimate security needs. But, in her thorough and compelling study of the Pakistani army’s strategic culture, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War, C. Christine Fair explains that such efforts are ultimately fruitless because Pakistan is what George Washington University professor Charles Glaser calls a “greedy state” that is “fundamentally dissatisfied with the status quo.”
Fair, a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a seasoned observer of South Asian politics, divines Pakistan’s strategic culture, the “lens through which the Pakistani army understands its security environment and its role,” by studying the nation’s defense literature, supplemented by the memoirs of top officers, as well as her own extensive fieldwork in Pakistan. In the process, she deflates a number of myths about Pakistani history—myths which Pakistan itself has propagated to advance its cause.
The central question surrounding Pakistan’s strategic culture is why its military continues to make security decisions that result in failures. Since the state’s founding in 1947-48, Pakistan has initiated a series of wars against India, all of which have left it in a weaker position than before the start of hostilities. It has also engaged in other policies, such as supporting jihadist groups against India that have, in many cases, ended up rebounding to its detriment. The siphoning of the nation’s wealth for a fruitless arms race with India, meanwhile, has impoverished the Pakistani people and left the state with inadequate institutions or infrastructure. Pakistan’s nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups has also engendered considerable blowback, bringing sanctions down on the state—a dangerous situation for a nation so dependent on foreign aid and IMF bailouts.
Finally, there is little prospect for any improvement in Pakistan’s strategic situation. India, which is far larger than Pakistan, has also outpaced Pakistan economically, enabling extensive qualitative military improvements to a military that already possesses a significant quantitative advantage. At the same time, India’s rise as a market and global power allows it to forge important new alliances, particularly with the United States and Israel, that give it greater access to military hardware and training, economic opportunities, and an improved diplomatic position internationally.
Rationally, Pakistan should reach an accommodation with India before its situation deteriorates further, in order to refocus resources on the difficult task of repairing its decrepit physical and social infrastructure. But, as Fair shows, Pakistan simply cannot take this path because opposing India’s rise—as opposed to defending Pakistan—is at the core of Pakistan’s strategic culture. The loss of the ability to act against India is tantamount to surrender.
Pakistan’s fixation with India is inextricably tied to the founding of the nation itself. When the British Raj was partitioned into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan (a process that was accompanied by communal violence that took hundreds of thousands of lives and created over 10 million refugees), Pakistan felt it was cheated of Muslim-majority territories such as Jammu and Kashmir, as well as Muslim-ruled princely states such as Hyderabad. Pakistan initially consisted of two parts, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, which were separated from each other by India, leaving the new state, in the words of its founder and first president Mohammed Ali Jinnah, “moth-eaten and truncated.” Critically, Pakistan did not receive its share of military stores and assets, placing it at a fundamental disadvantage and giving rise to the notion that Hindu India wanted Muslim Pakistan to fail.
Pakistan, established as the nation for India’s Muslims, embraced Islam as an ideology to unify its multiple ethnicities. Generally, Pakistan’s turn toward Islamism is blamed on General Zia, who served as the country’s military dictator during the 1980s. But Fair points out that the first Pakistani armed forces chief (and later President) General Ayub, while personally secular, exploited Islam to unite the nation and motivate the army. So the situation remains; believing that without a commitment to this ideology the state will fail, Pakistan’s army has been the major engine in the nation’s embrace of Islamism. The commitment to an Islamic ideology dovetails neatly with the widespread belief that India continues to seek Pakistan’s demise.
This belief has by now become canon. Pakistan’s military literature extolling Islam is accompanied by extensive descriptions of Indian Hindus as cowardly and scheming. The classic Pakistani Army text entitled India: A Study in Profile discusses the “Hindu psyche” and, according to Fair, is replete with “patently Orientalist, if not outright racist, concepts.” A continuing theme in Pakistani military literature is that Hindus are weak and unmotivated to fight, as opposed to Pakistani soldiers who, infused with Islamic instruction, can prevail even against India’s numerical superiority. At the same time, Hindu India is striving to become the regional hegemon and a global power, and only Pakistan can prevent its ascension.
Pakistani military literature likewise blames Pakistan’s endemic internal violence on Hindu conspiracies. There is an irony to this particular accusation, as Pakistan has long sponsored terrorism and proxy violence in India. The traditional narrative holds that Pakistan first began using Islamist proxies in collaboration with the U.S. against the Soviets in Afghanistan. But in fact, after reviewing decades of Pakistani military literature, Fair finds tremendous interest in guerrilla war, infiltration and the use of non-state actors from the very foundation of the Pakistani state. Indeed, the 1947 war with India was sparked when Pakistan sent Pashtun tribal militias into Jammu and Kashmir to seize control of those territories. In much the same way, Pakistan used tribal militia proxies in Afghanistan in the 1950s, and the 1965 war with India started when Pakistan sent mujahideen into Jammu and Kashmir.
Nuclear weapons have allowed Pakistan to continue and expand its risky strategies to counter India, certain that India will limit its retaliation to avoid a potential nuclear crisis. This was highlighted in the 2002 standoff, when, after Pakistani terrorists attacked India’s parliament, India mobilized its forces but ultimately found itself with limited options, knowing the conflict could become nuclear. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons also guarantee international attention, as foreign powers will intervene and attempt to resolve a crisis rather than allow war to break out and potentially become nuclear. Fair conducts a quantitative study and determines that, under its nuclear umbrella, Pakistan has been far more likely to engage in risky behavior such as provoking crises with India. In the face of Pakistan’s deteriorating position, nuclear weapons, perhaps more than any other factor, have allowed Pakistan to continue its regional rivalry.
In her penultimate chapter, Fair examines possibilities for change in Pakistan’s strategic culture. Her conclusions are not encouraging. The military is an unlikely source for reform, especially because its ideological commitment to countering India gives the military priority in claims on the state’s resources. Fair touches on this important point, and other analysts—such as Ayesha Siddiqa in her book Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy—have shown how military officers have materially benefited from their de facto (and sometimes de jure) control of the state.
Other sources, both within and without Pakistan, are equally unlikely to foster needed change. While democratic governance has expanded since General Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president in 2008, the army has successfully transmitted its strategic culture to Pakistani civil society. A strong Pakistani civilian government may be willing to seek better relations with India, but vast and influential segments of Pakistani society (if not an outright majority of it) today embrace the military’s worldview. Conspiracy theories involving India, the United States, and Israel are regular features in Pakistan’s media. Fair notes that Pakistani civil society includes many illiberal elements. For example, the lawyers’ movement, which led the national protests that brought down Musharraf, is closely linked to a number of radical Islamist parties and supported Pakistan’s monstrous blasphemy laws.
The international community has limited tools to change Pakistan’s strategic culture. If the 1971 defeat by India (in which Pakistan lost half of the country) was insufficient to persuade Pakistan’s generals to pursue a different course, it is difficult to imagine a military defeat that could. The United States attempted to invest in Pakistani institutions with the 2009 Kerry-Lugar-Berman congressional aid package, but this effort has been resisted at every point by the Pakistani military.
In her final chapter, Fair concludes that Pakistan is a pure “greedy state” seeking fundamental change to the international order. Past policies toward Pakistan have been attempts to address the country’s legitimate security needs. But, Fair writes, “If Pakistan is a purely greedy state, driven by ideological motives, then appeasement is in fact the more dangerous course of policy prescription.” Fair calls for “sober realism” and argues that “the United States and its partners should seriously consider what it means to contain the threats that emanate from Pakistan…”
This is the only element missing from an impressive work. Having proposed a containment strategy of Pakistan, a discussion of policy options would be welcome. To be sure, such an approach will not be easy. The available tools have consequences. Financial sanctions will harm the already impoverished Pakistani masses. Military options against a nuclear-armed state are limited. As a prominent Muslim nation, isolating Pakistan diplomatically may prove difficult. Unfortunately, Fair has convincingly demonstrated that the Pakistani military has chosen a course that leaves the United States and its allies no other options.
Dr. Aaron Mannes is a researcher at the University of Maryland Laboratory for Computational Cultural Dynamics and co-author of two books on South Asian terrorism.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Traveling in India: Learning Curves & Costanza

With all the news about the President’s trip to India, I recall my own trip almost exactly a year ago. In fact, I went to the Republic Day parade in Delhi and it was great although I was not invited to sit with the Prime Minister (a shocking oversight.)

So India was a blast, a fascinating place and I would go back in a second. But there is a learning curve. My most recent previous trip abroad had been to Greece for a conference. Greece is no problem. It is designed for tourism, English is abundant and it was great, easy, and wonderful. Yes there was a financial crisis, but it had very little to do with us. There appeared to be protests but they seemed pretty benign (we visited one.) We saw riot police around, but usually with their helmets off and lit cigarettes - which tells me either the riot is over or they aren’t really expecting one.

India is more difficult. Things don’t work the way you expect.

First, India has the potential to turn you into George Constanza - obsessed with small amounts of money and the location of acceptable bathrooms. This is not ludicrous.

(Actually now that I think about it, there was a Seinfeld where the gang went to India and George didn’t go to the bathroom the entire trip.)

The Marble Palace in Kolkata is a fascinating visit. It is the beautiful but decaying mansion of some 19th century landowners who bought just about everything they could in Europe. There is a huge variety of European art, of a great variety of quality. To go, one either has to arrange for a special permit beforehand or pay a bribe at the door. My enjoyment of this was not complete. Having diligently stayed hydrated I needed to use the facilities. Unfortunately the facilities available were not acceptable (putting mildly). So I tried to concentrate, but I think I got a bit less out of my visit than I would have otherwise.

After that visit, I had the driver take me to a luxury hotel where I could take care of things. Regardless, lesson learned, always have a “go” strategy.

The other thing is that as a tourist everyone you might is looking to make money off of you and you tip everybody - and often prices aren’t set - so there are minimal guidelines as to how much to tip. It is always, “As you wish.”

You leave your hotel to walk around, a dozen cabbies and rickshaw drivers begin calling for your business. If you stand still for an instant, someone will offer their assistance by shepherding you to a restaurant or store that they work with. (Side note, my wife and I are not shoppers. We don’t have the money for really nice stuff and we are not interested in accumulating junk. But everyone wants you to come by their store…)

Things in India are, on the whole, inexpensive. But the constant barrage of sales makes one extra cognizant of their money and thus less welling to part with it.

One example, we went to a world renown bird sanctuary near Bharatpur (which is a couple of hours form New Delhi.) We had a terrific guide who walked about five miles around the sanctuary with us, pointing our birds and snakes. It was really pretty great. He carried around his telescope and had a trick for placing the lens of a phone on the lens of his telescope for great close-up shots. (Side note: on hearing we were from Washington DC he was very familiar with the government shut-down and had many questions about it. The world can be an oddly small place.) So it was a great tour.

His rate was 250 rupee per hour ($4-5 dollars). So I estimated the total price would be 1250 rupee and I’d add a generous tip, maybe give him 1800 rupee for a great tour where we saw just about every bird in India (and some snakes - did I mention the snakes?) When we were done the total was 1800 rupee! He added 50 rupee an hour for carrying around the telescope and I rounded down to 5 hours while he rounded up. I gave him 2000 rupee and walked away a bit perturbed.

Which was a ridiculous way to feel! 2000 rupee at the then exchange rate was about $35 - a terrific price for a really incredible tour. But, having had people harp on me for tips and money, I was sensitive and didn’t want to be “taken.” Of course the reality was, I was going to be “taken” no matter what I did and what I paid.

That being said, the best forty rupee I spent in India was paying someone to go away. Across from our hotel in New Delhi was the Jantar Mantar, an outdoor astronomical observatory. For its time it was an extremely sophisticated laboratory which took precise measurements of the movements of the planets. I’ll be honest,I have no idea how it worked and I could read and re-read and probably never quite understand it. But it was fascinating, first as an effort to understand how the universe works and also as an odd surreal space.

An older gentleman joined us and began telling us about the Jantar Mantar. We had acquired a guide. It became quickly apparent that he was reciting to us what was on the plaques posted around the site. My wife does not brook being ripped off and we’d just been through the whole put-put shopping thing.

“I got this,” I told her. I went to our “guide” explained to him that we’d see the site on our own pace and handed him two twenties (which was worth about 75 cents.)

Money well spent.

Overshadowing my peevishness was the flat out there is simply astounding poverty. It is on an unbelievable scale. Every tour book will advise you to avoid beggars, not even to make eye contact as that just encourages them. Of course as a Westerner you stick out and are a magnet to all of them. At the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, waiting for my driver, a man with only one working limb (an arm) on an odd bike contraption tried to catch my eye. When I walked to another corner he followed. But I had been counseled, if I gave him money many more would come out of the woodwork. It was unbearable.

One quickly and simply has to come to terms. The poverty in India is bigger than you, it has causes that are complex and will resist simple solutions. Unless you are willing to turn your life around and become Mother Theresa, you simply have to ignore it. There is no way in your short trip that you can have the slightest impact and tossing your money around will only get you more unwanted attention. This is, unfortunately, the reality. When I spoke to Indian friends, they shrugged. They just ignore it too.


Of course Obama’s trip is a bit different than mine. The only person asking him for money was Prime Minister Modi and they have a lot to offer one another. Also, the President of the United States might be able to take a crack at helping to reduce poverty in this magnificent fascinating country. More power to him.



Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Paris Attacks: Terrorism, the Press & What's Next

Andrej Matisak, the foreign affairs editor at the Slovak daily Pravda, blogs at A Stamp on the World and asked me for some of my thoughts on the terrorist attack in Paris.

His questions are in italics.

President Fran├žois Hollande called the attack an act of terrorism. Without too much speculations who did it I think we can call an attack on media also the attack on freedom of speech. So in your opinion, how should media react, should there be some limits for example in depicting the Prophet? 

My response is below, but you can read some other responses here:
The freedom of expression is essential to a modern humane society. While one can sympathize with Muslim anger at negative depictions of Muhammad, there is no justification for violence. Most people have objects and individuals that they venerate, but part of being a member of an open society is accepting that what one holds dear and sacred may be an object of humor or scorn to others. Free societies offer innumerable legitimate means of protest. Perhaps the most significant means of protest is to simply ignore what give offense. 
Journalists and the media should stand firm and not bow before intimidation, although one can sympathize that they are worried about their safety. The story should be reported soberly and without hyperbole. These monsters were willing to kill people over some pictures in a magazine. This is a trivial reason – an excuse – for murder. That simple fact above all else should be highlighted and emphasized.
I know we should be careful to conclude anything at this stage, but what do you make out of these attacks in France? From your point of view, do you see an indication that this could be a bigger terrorist operation linked to AQAP (ISIS, maybe), perhaps even a sleeper cell (could they be more)?

My response is below, but you can read some other responses here including the thoughts of the always thoughtful Max Abrams:
We have conflicting claims that this was an AQAP operation and an ISIS operation. While the attackers were inspired by these groups, it is not clear whether or not there was external direction to this operation. It is also difficult to know if this is part of a larger plot and events could prove this analysis wrong. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to be part of a larger plot. While French intelligence was caught off-guard by these attacks, they are nonetheless highly capable organizations. Stopping a specific attack requires a combination of skill and luck. However, as events unfolded it became clear that French intelligence knew a great deal about the perpetrators. Undoubtedly, suspect associates of the perpetrators will receive visits in the next few days to forestall follow-on attacks. If there were to be more attacks, they would have been launched already. Further more attacks may not be necessary. With a relatively small terror attack, the murderers shut down a great city and threw a nation into panic. Their goal was terror, and terror is what they achieved.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Is a Pakistani Turnaround Possible?

Because it is Pakistan, my first thought about the school attack was cui bono? Did the Pakistani military engineer this to gain world sympathy, particularly as the US prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan and hence no longer needs Pakistan (and can thus deepen the growing alliance with India.)

Pakistan is a lush garden for conspiratorial thinking and it begins to rub off on those who study the place. More than a few Pakistani commentators have insisted RAW (India's intelligence agency) or some other outside power must be behind this. The reasoning being that Muslims cannot kill Muslims (spurious since across the world we see exactly that happening constantly.)

But, as the Egyptian polymath Tarek Heggy observes, in a statement all too appropriate to Pakistan:
The undemocratic rule contributes with his ideas, statements, and information media to consecrating the belief in the conspiracy theory, which is a useful fig-leaf behind which he can hide his won shortcomings and failures, in that it allows him to blame the problems and hardships faced by his people, and his inability to respond to their aspirations, on outside elements rather than on the real reason… conspiracy theory renders them [the people] defeatists and advocates of the line of least resistance, which is to bemoan their lot as parties conspired against...
Conspiracy is unlikely. The attack was on an army school, indicating the army itself is vulnerable. That would be a bridge too far for the brass of Rawalpindi.

That the Pakistani Taliban would carry out such an attack indicates that the military's offensive may be working - although these things are hard to know with any certainty. It is probably true that the Pakistani Army is causing mass casualties where it is fighting in the FATA, shelling, bombing and yes killing large numbers of civilians. That of course does not justify terrorism.

This has echoes of the Beslan attack in Russia. I for one have little sympathy for The Russian government across the board (I am grateful every day that my great grandparents had the sense to get the hell out of that place and come to the United States of America!!!) and they did terrible things in Chechnya. But Russian parents are like parents everywhere and one hates to see them lose their children. So I have great, great sympathy for the parents who lost children - AND the people of Pakistan in general.

Is this the event that will galvanize Pakistan to root out the deep deep cancer of terrorism?

It’s awfully pretty to think so. But there have been plenty of other mass attacks in the past decade, if they did not inspire the country to get its act together, it is difficult to see what would. (I’m not alone in my pessimism.)

In fairness to the Pakistani military, the mountains of FATA have been harboring outlaws since the dawn of civilization. But that is where sympathy for Pakistan’s rulers ends. They have continually fostered Islamist terrorists as proxies in their endless war with India and their desire to undermine any kind of effective government in Afghanistan.

Further, Pakistan has continually chosen to devote its national wealth to the military in order to challenge India. The military dominates Pakistan’s politics, allowing them to grow wealthy on the eternal war with India, although in fairness Pakistan's civilian elites aren't much better. This has systematically robbed the other critical needs of the nation. While news reports often focus on madrassas educating radical cadres, Pakistan’s public education system is no better. It is also underfunded, leading to high levels of illiteracy. Critical infrastructure such as the water and electrical systems are steadily decaying - endangering agricultural and industry. Pakistan is already a poor country, and the prospects for any kind of turn-around are dim.

While FATA is the center of a Pashtun insurgency, Karachi, Pakistan’s main port, largest city, and economic engine, is riddled with crime and violence. There are also regular massacres of Pakistan’s Shia minority by large well-armed gangs/political parties.


In the past Pakistan had an impressive Westernized elite. There continue to be a deep bench of Pakistani technocrats. But the very social fabric is challenged by Pakistan’s Orwellian blasphemy laws in which any criticism of Islam can bring criminal charges. Once the accusation is made, the accused (well before any trial) risks being murdered by vigilantes. This is terrible for Pakistan’s small non-Muslim minorities. But it will soon begin to shape discourse in all sectors and chill any dissent or discussion outside of very narrow and radical bounds.


I have every sympathy for the people of Pakistan. Unfortunately, without better leaders and a dramatic shift in national purpose - which would require political courage and wisdom of the highest order - I don't see what can truly better their lot and free them from the endemic violence and poverty in which they are mired.