Will the Afghan Surge Succeed?

Soviet Exodus War Rug

M. Shahid Alam

More than eight years after dismantling the Taliban, the United States is still mired in Afghanistan. Indeed, last October it launched a much-hyped ‘surge’ to prevent a second Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, not imminent yet, but eminently possible.

The first dismantling of the Taliban was a cakewalk.

In 2001, the United States quickly and decisively defeated the Taliban, killed, captured or scattered their fighters, and handed over the running of Afghanistan to their rivals, mostly Uzbeks and Tajiks from the Northern Alliance.

Unaware of Pashtoon history, American commentators were pleased at the smashing victory of their military, convinced that they had consigned the Taliban to history’s graveyard.

Instead, the Taliban came back from the dead. Within months of their near-total destruction, they had regained morale, regrouped, organized, trained, and returned to fight what they saw as a foreign occupation of their country. Slowly, tenaciously they continued to build on their gains, and by 2008 they were dreaming of taking back the country they had lost in 2001.

Could this really happen? That only time will tell, but prospects for the Taliban today look better than at any time since November 2001.

Continue reading “Will the Afghan Surge Succeed?”

Q+A: Giles Ji Ungpakorn on the Thai coup

"The situation has similarities to Honduras and Turkey and even Haiti (the latter in terms of how the NGOs reacted to the military coup). It is a sort of distorted class struggle, lead by capitalist politicians like Taksin, but developing its own momentum in a time of deep crisis."

On Friday, Thailand’s Supreme Court ruled to seize over $1B in assets from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed in a coup in 2006 on the pretext that he used his position to benefit his private businesses. The ruling prompted a few protests lead by the overthrown government’s red-clad supporters but the coup regime used the ruling to turn Bangkok into something of a police state.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai dissident and professor currently living in the UK after being charged with criticizing the Thai crown, answered a few of my questions on the latest developments in Bangkok after filing this analysis with LINKS.

Last week, Thai politics worked its way back onto Western newscasts when the supreme court in Bangkok convicted Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption charges and ordered the seizure of his assets. His conviction ostensibly lent legitimacy to the coup which forced him from power but as we all know, the first casualty of any war is the truth. What should we really know about Thaksin’s trial, its predictable conclusion, and the recent actions of the government?

The trial was supposed to “prove” that Taksin had used his position as Prime Minister to bring in regulations favouring his mobile phone company. Yet it was merely a political trial to give legitimacy to the illegal 2006 coup. A trial held in a society with double standards in applying the law and a judiciary eager to serve the generals.

Continue reading “Q+A: Giles Ji Ungpakorn on the Thai coup”

The Assault on Illhem

by Tariq Ali

Forgive an outsider and staunch atheist like myself who, on reading the recent French press comments relating to Ilhem Moussaid the hijab-wearing NPA candidate in Avignon, gets the impression that something is rotten in  French political culture. Let’s take the debate at face-value. A young  Muslim woman joins the NPA [New Anti-Capitalist Party]. She obviously agrees with its program that defends abortion, contraception, etc, i.e. a woman’s right to choose. She is then told that despite this she does not have the right to choose what she wears on her head. It’s astonishing. There is no Koranic injunction involved.  The book says: “Draw their (women’s) veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty”, which can be interpreted in several ways but is disregarded most blatantly by hijab-wearing Egyptian women I see in Cairo and Karachi wearing tight jeans and T-shirts that contradicted the spirit of the Koranic message.

Patriarchal traditions, cultural habits and identity are what is at stake here and they vary from generation to generation. Pushing people back into a ghetto never helps.

Continue reading “The Assault on Illhem”

David Sanger: NYT reporter with son in IDF not an issue

David Sanger lays to rest concerns about reporter-Israeli Defense Force link.

The Electronic Intifadah, Tikun Olam, Mondoweiss, and FAIR have all been probing whether NY Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces.  The implications of such a tie for an ostensibly credible reporter are huge.  But to date, Bronner and the newspaper have been somewhat evasive when asked for confirmation and how this might be a conflict of interest.

Susan Chira, the foreign editor of The New York Times replied to The Electronic Intifada that “Ethan Bronner referred your query to me, the foreign editor. Here is my comment: Mr. Bronner’s son is a young adult who makes his own decisions. At The Times, we have found Mr. Bronner’s coverage to be scrupulously fair and we are confident that will continue to be the case.”

FAIR, If Americans Knew and other media watchdogs have frequently taken issue with that grand postulate.  What do fellow Times reporters think?  Today on a public radio program I asked NYT chief Washington correspondent David Sanger how the newspaper could maintain credibility on the Middle East (mp3) when it didn’t address these types of conflicts of interest.  Sanger seemed to confirm the IDF report, but awkwardly repeated the emerging company line that it wasn’t a problem—at least not for the “AfPak” sector he was pontificating about.  “The last time I looked in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have not seen the Israeli military as a significant operating source there.  So if we have a New York Times reporter with a son in the IDF, and I think I know who that reporter is, ah and there’s no reason that the reporter’s son should be limited in what he does by what his father may…profession is, I’m not sure it has anything to do with our reporting on Afghanistan or Pakistan.”  Indeed.

Continue reading “David Sanger: NYT reporter with son in IDF not an issue”

Al-Biruni on India

M. Shahid Alam

Painting - Ajanta Caves

Speak the truth,
even if it were against yourselves.

Quran (4:134)

It was my master, Abu Sahl, who led me on to it.
“Write what you know about the Hindus,” he said,
“There are people who want to converse with them,
To understand their religion, science and literature.
We only have hear-say, a farrago of materials never
Sifted for accuracy. Give us facts with analysis.”

And so I put my heart to it, starting with Sanskrit.
This wasn’t an easy undertaking, without grammar
And dictionaries. I traveled through their country
Quite a bit, talking to learned Brahmans, and spared
Neither trouble nor money collecting manuscripts.
Often I invited their scholars from far-away places–
Kashmir and Kashi–to come and work with me
In Ghazni. I have endeavored in writing this book
Not to be polemical. I intend this account of India
To be nothing but a simple historic record of facts,
At once comprehensive and objective. I present
To you the theories of the Hindus, exactly as they
See them, supporting my explanations of them
With ample quotations. If any of this strikes you
As heathenish, then try to understand that such
Are the beliefs of the Hindus, and they themselves
Are best able to defend it. This book should suffice
Anyone who wants to understand the Hindus,
And discuss with them their myths, metaphysics,
And mathematics; their astronomy, arithmetic,
And astrology; their codes, customs, and conceits
On the very basis of their own civilization.

First published in Swan, 2004

–M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Write to him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

The Conquest of Cool I

When is dissent hip? This is the subject of the following discussion hosted by the excellent Your Call Radio. Participants include Douglas Haddow of Adbusters, whose article, ‘Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization‘, generated one of the longest running debates in the magazines history (the article presently records more than four thousand responses on the Adbusters website). Also participating are  Dan Sinker of Punk Planet, and journalist and hip-hop historian Davey D. They discuss: What is the relationship today between pop-culture, counterculture and dissent? What is the counterculture that sells media now? And can activists reclaim the counterculture that now permeates the mainstream?

The discussion is also joined later by Ishmael Reed and Thomas Frank, author of the splendid work The Conquest of Cool. In the book Frank (who also authored the classic What’s the Matter with Kansas? and edits The Baffler) shows that the advertising industry did not just co-opt the ’60s counterculture movement, in many respects it anticipated, indeed created, it. The instant-gratification individualism and the perpetual pursuit of uniqueness were the perfect compliments to capitalism’s manufacturing of needs to fuel the consumption on which it thrives. If capitalism had built planned obsolescence into its products,  the counterculture’s very idea of rebellion was premised on  ‘standing apart’. As soon as a new product was in the hands of more than one, it had lost its uniqueness, pushing the rebel to search for a new ticket to cool. Rebellion which seeks expression in merchandise manufactures its own needs, and the engines of capital obligingly hum along. Franks gives the example of the Volkswagen Beetle ads, which were all designed as a critique of mass culture. To own a Beetle, then, was to stand apart.  And the process continues as I’ll show in this series of three posts.

Inviting David Brooks to My Class

The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.

M. Shahid Alam

On January 12, the New York Times carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.

My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one could explain its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

But they offered no comments about Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.

I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?

Continue reading “Inviting David Brooks to My Class”

Ex-Guantanamo Guard Apologizes to Former Detainees

The BBC recently arranged a meeting between Brandon Neely, a former Guantanamo Bay guard, and two former Guantanamo detainees, Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed. Both Rasul and Ahmed were released from Guantanamo in 2004 after being detained there for two years. Back then, Ahmed, Rasul and Neely were all 22 years old.

Neely served as an officer at Guantanamo for 6 months before leaving to serve in Iraq. Having quit the army in 2005, Neely admits that it was only after he left the military that he began questioning the government’s claim that prisoners at Guantanamo constituted the “worst of the worst”. 

The decision to meet came about as a result of Facebook, which Neely used in order to get in contact  with Rasul and Ahmed early last year. Upon receiving a message of apology from Neely, Ahmed explains:  “At first I couldn’t believe it. Getting a message from an ex-guard saying that what happened to us in Guantanamo was wrong was surprising more than anything.”

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Death By Sanctions

Guernica
M. Shahid Alam

Iraq deaths double under UN sanctions.”
New York Times, Feb.17, 2000

Sleep my child, do not wake now.
The portents in the sky foretell
a searing death for you.

The couriers of death have come,
stealth in their cyber gaze:
they scour the land for Saddam.

They poison every river, creek and well.
They darken school and hospital.
They warp the words you spell.

For star, for oil and cross they fly.
They will not cease to tyrannize
your dying days and hellish nights.

They will not cease their deathly watch.
Their mission is to fossilize
your bones, your heart, your eyes.

Sweet my child, do not wake now.
Your eyes once soft are hard
as rock: your hair is white as snow.

– M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2000). You can reach him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

Iqbal, Is the Sky Yours or Mine?

Allama Iqbal
Muhammad Iqbal, 1877-1938, was a poet of Urdu and Farsi, philosopher, sufi, and revolutionary, who combined in his works the traditions of Al-Ghazzali, Rumi, Ibn-e-Khaldun, Ahmad Sirhindi and Shah Walilullah. While he understood the power of the West, had read the Western philosophers, and was familiar with the advances in physics, unlike Syed Ahmad Khan, he remained firmly rooted in Islamic tradition, and refused to re-examine the Islamicate through Orientalist texts. He was criticial of the West’s excessive emphasis on reason, its materialism, and the depredations of capitalism. Many decades before Frantz Fanon and Aime Cezaire, he was the deep thinker and stirring poet of self-discovery, urging peoples of color to regain their dignity, to dig deep into their own traditions in order to overcome, and transcend, the materialism, racism, excessive rationalism, and the West’s abuse of power and its own principles.

This ghazal is a translation from Wings of Gabriel, the best collection of Iqbal’s Urdu poetry. From time to time, I will be presenting translations from this collection.

اگر کج رو ہیں انجم آسمان تیرا ہے یا میرا

translation by M. Shahid Alam

If the stars are topsy-turvy: is the sky yours or mine?
Should this fret me? Is the world yours or mine?

If Heaven lacks the tug, the heat of love’s adventure,
Dear Lord, this cosmic enigma is yours: not mine.

On that first dawn of creation, how dared he to defy
Your decree. Was he your emissary: or was he mine?

Muhammad is yours, Gabriel and the Qur’an too.
But these melodic words: are they yours or mine?

It’s this star, scintillating, that lights your creation.
Whose loss is it – the fall of Man? Is it yours or mine?

— M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. He is author of Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan: 2000), Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI: 2007), and Israeli Exceptionalism (Palgrave: 2009). You may reach him at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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