Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Musharraf Problem: Full Text from WSJ

With the permission of the Wall Street Journal, I reproduce below my whole article of yesterday on the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

I drafted this article in the first few hours after Bhutto's death before any public attribution of responsibility. Since then, as partly reflected in the final version, the Government of Pakistan has claimed it has evidence or the responsibility of Baitullah Mahsud, Amir of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan (Tahrik-i Taliban-i Pakistan), and Mahsud has denied involvement through his spokesman, Mawlawi Umar.

As Juan Cole reports today, signs of a cover-up are increasing. Please note that the hypotheses of a plot by al-Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban on the one hand and of involvement by the Pakistani military and government (including in a cover-up) on the other hand are not mutually exclusive.

The Musharraf Problem

Barnett R. Rubin

Reprinted with permission from the Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2007

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was probably a strategic attack by al Qaeda and its local allies—the Pakistani Taliban—aimed at achieving Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most pressing political objective: destabilizing the government of Pakistan, the nuclear-armed country where al Qaeda has re-established the safe haven it lost in Afghanistan.

Many in Pakistan nevertheless will blame their own military, which has failed to stop the suicide bombings over the past five years, including that of Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi in October. Pakistani intelligence now claims to have intercepted a phone call from Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, offering congratulations for the operation. It may be true. But the skepticism with which this announcement was greeted in Pakistan shows that the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to shore up the power of President (former general) Pervez Musharraf cannot work. Even if it is innocent of involvement in this assassination, the Pakistan military under Mr. Musharraf has no intention of ceding power to civilians.

Pakistani newspapers have already published what they claim are the planned results of the rigged elections. Nothing short of a genuine transition to democracy that replaces rather than complements military rule has a chance of establishing a government with the capacity to regain control of the country’s territory and marginalize the militants.

The murder of Bhutto was not just an attempt to derail Pakistani democracy, or prevent an enlightened Muslim woman from taking power. It was a counterattack, apparently by the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda, against a U.S.-backed transition from direct to indirect military rule in Pakistan by brokering a forced marriage of “moderates.”

According to last July’s National Intelligence Estimate on the al Qaeda threat, bin Laden has re-established his sanctuary in the Pakistani tribal agencies. According to a report by the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, the suicide bombers for Pakistan and Afghanistan are trained in these agencies.

Most global terrorist plots since 9/11 can be traced back to these areas. And Pakistan’s military regime, not Iran, has been the main source of rogue nuclear proliferation. It is therefore the U.S. partnership with military rulers in Pakistan that has been and is the problem, not the solution.
Last September, bin Laden released a video declaring jihad on the Pakistani government. When Bhutto returned to Pakistan from exile on Oct. 18—as part of a U.S.-backed strategy to shore up Musharraf’s power through elections—her motorcade was bombed as it passed by several military bases in Karachi, killing over 100.

In October and November, groups allied with the Pakistani Taliban captured several districts in Swat, in the Northwest Frontier Province, not in the tribal agencies. When I was in Pakistan in early November, I was told that this offensive was part of a larger effort by the Pakistani Taliban to surround Peshawar, capital of NWFP, and put increasing pressure on nearby Islamabad, the capital. The next key step, I was told on Nov. 5, would be an attack on Charsadda, northeast of Peshawar, on the Muslim feast of ‘Id al-Adha.

Sure enough, on Dec. 21 a suicide bomber killed 56 people during ‘Id worship in Charsadda. This suicide attack followed by a week the announcement that leaders of various Taliban groups had agreed to establish a common organization—the Taliban Movement of Pakistan—under the command of Baitullah Mahsud, the Taliban commander in the South Waziristan Tribal Agency, where the meeting took place.

But if bin Laden declared jihad against Mr. Musharraf, Pakistan’s leader saw greater threats elsewhere. When he declared an emergency on Nov. 3, he was responding mainly to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which was about to rule that his standing for president while a serving general violated the constitution. Mr. Musharraf continued the longstanding policy of the Pakistani military of putting its own power, justified by the Indian threat, ahead of all other concerns.

Mr. Musharraf dissolved the Supreme Court and arrested thousands of democratic opponents before sending the army to recapture portions of Swat. His priorities—seeing unarmed civilian opponents as the main threat to the country—helps explain why many Pakistanis believe that the military is behind Bhutto’s assassination.

These priorities are consistent with the message that Mr. Musharraf has been sending for years. On Sept. 19, 2001, he told the Pakistani public that he would support U.S. efforts in Afghanistan in order to “save Afghanistan and Taliban, ensure that they suffer minimum losses.” He presented Pakistan’s support for U.S. efforts against the Taliban as reluctant compliance, required to assure the security of Pakistan from India.

Bhutto, however, had started to present a different message: that the people of Pakistan want a government and a state that serves them, not a state that serves the military’s pursuit of a failed strategic mission. She spoke of the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda backers as the greatest threat to the country. She and other parties proposed to extend civil authority over the tribal agencies, ending their role as a platform for covert actions.

An interim of emergency rule and the postponement of national elections may now be inevitable. But if the military re-imposes martial law, further guts Pakistan’s judiciary and legal system, and blocks democratization, Pakistan’s people will resist.
For the first time in the history of Pakistan, respect for the military as an institution has plummeted. The vacuum of authority and legitimacy created by military rule will provide the Taliban and al Qaeda the opportunity they seek.

The Bush administration’s nightmare scenario—the convergence of terrorism and nuclear weapons—is happening right now, and in Pakistan, not in Iraq or Iran. Yet as recently as Dec. 11, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, speaking to the House Armed Services Committee with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, hardly mentioned Pakistan, and characterized Afghanistan as second in priority to Iraq.

It is critical that the Bush administration put Pakistan and Afghanistan where they should have been for the past six years: at the top of this country’s security agenda. The most fitting memorial to Bhutto would be to recognize that the battle for a democratic Pakistan is the centerpiece of the global fight against terrorism. Read more on this article...

OSC: Urdu Press Roundup on Reaction to Benazir Bhutto Assassination

The USG Open Source Center excerpts and paraphrases editorials in the major Urdu-language Pakistani newspapers concerning the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistan: Urdu Press Roundup on Reaction to Benazir Bhutto Assassination
Pakistan -- OSC Summary
Saturday, December 29, 2007

The following is a roundup of excerpts from editorials and articles on the reaction on Benazir Bhutto's killing, published in the 29 December 2007 editions of eight Urdu dailies:

Islam Editorial Questions Flawed Security for Benazir

Criticizing the government for not making foolproof security arrangements for Benazir Bhutto, the editorial remarks: "The situation has taken a worse turn in the wake of Benazir's death, as it has triggered demonstrations and protests across the country. It is hard to foresee how long this agitation will continue. However, what had to happen has happened. It is the responsibility of the government to take immediate steps to punish those involved in this incident. Police had timely foiled a suicide attack bid at the public meeting of Benazir in Peshawar just before the Rawalpindi rally. Rahman Malik (Pakistan People's Party, PPP, leader) had been making repeated complaints of flawed security for Benazir. Why was attention not paid to these complaints? If security arrangements for Bhutto had been beefed up on time, the tragic incident would have never happened."

Express Editorial Discusses Post-Benazir Pakistan

Urging the political leaders and parties to rise to the occasion to bring stability and security in the country, the editorial writes: " Benazir 's martyrdom is a moment of grief not for the PPP alone, but for all the political parties. The time to unite and wage struggle against terrorism and restore democracy has come. This is the only way through which dictatorship can be dismantled and extremism eliminated, if not, then the history that the incident of Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi has written will continue to be repeated."

Khabrain Editorial Sees No Harm in Postponing Elections

Emphasizing that although situation has risen for the postponement of elections, the political parties will have to play their role for political stability in the country by participating in the elections, the editorial states: " Benazir believed in strong federation. She had been active for this and offered her life in this way. The best and only way to keep the mission of Benazir alive and strive for the realization of her cause is to take active part in elections instead of boycotting them."

Khabrain Article by S.M. Mumtaz Says Holding of Elections No Solution

Describing the assassination of Bhutto as great and irreparable loss for the country, the article comments: "The holding of elections appears to be impossible due to the poor law and order situation arising out of the martyrdom of Benazir. The grief of Benazir's martyrdom is not so trivial to be healed in a few days. It will take time to heal. Situation in the country may take a worse turn if elections are held before the situation normalizes."

Jang Editorial Asks Stakeholders To Rise Above Vested Interests

Discussing the political turmoil into which the country has plunged in the wake of Bhutto's assassination, the editorial maintains: "The establishment and the people can only counter antistate elements with confidence by creating a congenial environment. This atmosphere will be conducive by ensuring independent judiciary and responsible media. Every institution should discharge its duties with full freedom and responsibility. The nation has offered a big sacrifice in Benazir's martyrdom. It demands that the survival of Pakistan should be given top priority. The rulers and opposition leaders should not expose the country to more threats by pursuing power and self interests."

Jang Article by Arshad Ahmed Haqqani Urges PPP Workers To Show Restraint

Advising the followers of Benazir to not let their shock cause any damage to the country, the article says: "The horrible and sudden martyrdom of Benazir is one of the tragedies that Pakistan has been passing through for the past sixty years. The country is in the grip of internal instability that was never witnessed before. The people of Pakistan, particularly the people of Sind and Larkana, are in a state of shock. In this situation, the followers of Benazir can be requested to not lose their patience and observe restraint. They should prove their love for Benazir by making efforts to save the country from instability. They must not let their affection with Benazir weaken, instead strengthen it further."

Ausaf Article by Moazzam Raza Tabbasum Appreciates Nawaz Sharif's Reaction

Appreciating the reaction of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif at this critical juncture, the article says: "While the leadership of other political parties has declared Benazir as martyred and accepted that no one can fill the vacuum created by her death, Nawaz Sharif reached the Rawalpindi hospital soon after the tragedy and in his capacity as former prime minister and leader of the Punjab vowed to avenge Benazir assassination. This announcement is rightly being termed as a strong voice of sympathy for the PPP workers and people of Sind in this hour of grief and mourning."

Pakistan Editorial Discusses Claims of Al-Qa'ida Involvement in Bhutto's Assassination

Discussing the government claim that Al-Qa'ida is involved in the assassination of Bhutto, the editorial comments: "Al-Qa'ida has accepted the responsibility for Bhutto assassination. However, the PPP has not accepted this claim. Even independent media has also not confirmed it. The establishment was held responsible for what had happened to Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, Shahnawaz Bhutto, and Murtaza Bhutto. A party worker considers the same forces responsible for the assassination of Benazir. These forces have always proved their hostility for the Bhutto family. It is perhaps due to this very reason that public property is being damaged. This thinking is very detrimental to the federation, and if seen in this perspective it has suffered the most due to this tragedy. The country has now been deprived of such a charismatic leader who had deep roots among the masses of all the four provinces."

Jinnah Editorial Compares Bhutto With Nawaz Sharif

Emphasizing that Bhutto was the only leader in the country who was equally popular across the country and in the federation, the editorial states: "Although Nawaz Sharif does not have as strong roots among the people as Benazir had. His party is also a party of national level. The party has its followers everywhere and its leader Nawaz Sharif been a two-time prime minister. Whatever is said against these leaders, their popularity in the country is immense. We should be obliged to the Bhutto family for the nuclear and missile program, and give it a place that it rightly deserves."

Nawa-e Waqt Editorial Sees No Effective Step by Government To Tackle Situation

Asserting that the government has so far failed to give any line of action to pull the country out of the current political crisis and turmoil, the editorial comments: "Besides the international community, the national leaders have also termed the tragedy as conspiracy to sabotage the electoral process and plunge the country into instability. It is 100 percent true. It has now become impossible for the PPP to participate in the 8 January election. To express his solidarity with the PPP in the current critical situation, Nawaz Sharif has also announced an end to his election campaign and boycott of the elections."

Nawa-e Waqt Article by Zahid Hassan Chughtai Sees Bhutto, Sharif Winning Hearts

Emphasizing that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have won the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan by adopting the path of reconciliation, the article says: "When Benazir talked against religious extremism, it should not have been taken as secular thinking or antireligious approach. Qaid-e Azam (Father of the nation) found this country on the basis of moderate ideology and in the light of eternal righteousness of Islam. There was no room for domination by clergymen or religious fanatics. The country's ideological foundation, however, came under terrorist attack and religious sectarianism, with thousands of innocent Pakistanis falling prey to it. Benazir also fell victim to the conspiracies hatched by such brute and undemocratic minds." Read more on this article...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

WSJ: The Musharraf Problem

My article, The Musharraf Problem, appears in today's Wall Street Journal:
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto was probably a strategic attack by al Qaeda and its local allies—the Pakistani Taliban—aimed at achieving Osama bin Laden’s and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s most pressing political objective: destabilizing the government of Pakistan, the nuclear-armed country where al Qaeda has re-established the safe haven it lost in Afghanistan.

Many in Pakistan nevertheless will blame their own military, which has failed to stop the suicide bombings over the past five years, including that of Bhutto’s motorcade in Karachi in October. Pakistani intelligence now claims to have intercepted a phone call from Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban, offering congratulations for the operation. It may be true. But the skepticism with which this announcement was greeted in Pakistan shows that the Bush administration’s strategy of trying to shore up the power of President (former general) Pervez Musharraf cannot work. Even if it is innocent of involvement in this assassination, the Pakistan military under Mr. Musharraf has no intention of ceding power to civilians.
The complete article is password protected for subscribers only.

Scott Horton of Harpers interviews me on this article for his No Comment blog:
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has quickly brought the chaotic situation in Pakistan back in the public’s eye. To help understand the developments out of Pakistan and to help put the whole situation in a better policy perspective from an American point of view, I interviewed Dr. Barnett Rubin, one of the nation’s premier experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rubin, the author of eight books, is currently Director of Studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. He recently live-blogged the military crackdown from Islamabad, providing some of the best insights available from the scene of the action.
Read the rest here. Read more on this article...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto, 1953-2007

Benazir Bhutto was killed at a PPP rally in Rawalpindi. The rally, with foolproof security was held at Liaqut Bagh - a site which had already seen the assassination of another Prime Minister of Pakistan, Liaqut Ali Khan.

There were earlier reports of security threats on her rally - similar reports were issued before the suicide attack on her in October.

In the nation whose history is dotted by military coups, assassinations and hangings of public figures, this is surely the bloodiest stain. She titled her autobiography, the Daughter of Destiny - but surely she deserved a fate other than the destiny of her father and Liaqut Ali Khan. It is truly a tragedy and a revelation of the chaos gripping the nation.

aftermath: Riots are being reported in various cities. Rawalpindi is in chaos. Cable and cell phone services has been suspended in most of the country. Rumors are flying of curfews. No word from Musharraf, yet. Getty Images' collection of photos taken at the rally by Aamir Qureshi. Read more on this article...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007



If you are a TV talk show host named Yang Rui there are days when it seems like the whole world is against you. American critics dismiss you as a mouthpiece for China; Chinese officials carp about your “intrusive questions”, saying you’re too aggressive, too “Western.” A diplomat from a Muslim country pressured the Foreign Ministry to have you fired for critical remarks, and there were pointed complaints from Africa, where the program is widely broadcast, when you compared the situation in Sudan to Rwanda and Timor. Israelis and Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis, Iraqis and Turks each accuse you of favoring their rivals. Doing your job well means someone, somewhere will not be pleased.

You pull yourself out of bed before dawn, gulp down a cup of milk, and then select a suit, shirt and tie. You have a lengthy live broadcast to anchor starting nine AM. You flick on the TV to review last night’s show as it is rebroadcast, and then boot up the computer to see how the world's changed overnight.

If it weren’t for the day’s hectic schedule, you might like to spend the morning in the book-lined study listening to classical music. But North Korea is in the news, the Six-Party talks, a volatile discussion concerning denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are the topic of today’s special show. In haste, you take the elevator down to the cavernous basement garage of the modern apartment block you live in, key up your car and commence your drive to work. Rush hour is in full force. With your mind on global affairs, you negotiate the bicycle clogged highways and by-ways of West Beijing, mindful of over-loaded trucks, errant cyclists and the odd donkey-cart.

You pause at the entrance gate to CCTV’s headquarters, there are no disgruntled rural petitioners assembled here this morning, but such is the faith in TV that many come here as a last resort. You pause long enough for the uniformed guard to give you a crisp, perfunctory salute, then seek a place to park, securing your favorite parking space on a neglected piece of blacktop behind the East Gate guardhouse. You walk a short distance to the main entrance where you are brusquely waved in by a muscular man in a khaki uniform, then take the elevator up to your office on the nineteenth floor. You sift through memos, lead-ins and research prepared by your staff, then whiz through the Western wires starting with Reuters, scanning the NYT,, and the New York Times online.

What an enviable information flow, what a beautiful world the Internet is for the reader of English!

You gaze out the window at the postcard-perfect vista of Yu Yuantan, imperial Qing garden turned people’s park, now illuminated in the oblique light of the rising sun. To the east, the articulated rooftops of Soviet style towers and grandiose bank buildings line the city’s main thoroughfare. Beyond the chimney-shaped television tower capped with a revolving observation deck, a golden mist hangs over the Fragrant Hills.

Today's show, due to go on live in half an hour, has three guests; the former Japanese Ambassador to Russia, a local Arms Control expert from the Academy of Social Sciences and an American journalist. You're a little nervous about the ambassador because recent tensions between Tokyo and Beijing have put things on edge. On the one hand you want to ask tough questions, it’s your practice, it’s your pride, it’s what you do to create a circumscribed, propaganda-free zone; on the other hand you have to keep things diplomatic. A major issue of war and peace --will North Korea go nuclear, inviting attack from the US and Japan, or will it be persuaded to give up its atomic activities?

While on any given day it is difficult to determine who or how many of the estimated ten million potential satellite viewers in China and abroad are tuning in to the show that you script with your own hand and enliven with your off-the-cuff comments, one thing you can be sure of; Dialogue is monitored daily by Beijing-based diplomats, the Foreign Ministry and various state security agencies.

You check your appearance in the mirror as you knot your tie and take the elevator back downstairs, ambling down the long corridors of CCTV’s aging modernist structure, where discarded lunch boxes and drink bottles litter long, curving hallways and some of the floorboards creak. Although the recently renovated studio for live broadcasts sparkles, building repairs are made only reluctantly now that the all available funds are being poured into the gargantuan new CCTV tower designed by the flashy Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

You briskly stride the length of the second floor to get to the English language newsroom where bilingual Chinese staffers and foreign experts assemble and polish news scripts for the day’s bulletins, mostly international news, sometimes with a China angle. Wall-mounted TV screens simultaneously display half a dozen news programs, including BBC, banned from most Chinese cable providers in China, but an indispensable part of your daily fare as a newsman.

You are shepherded to the make-up room for a quick hair check and a touch of color and powder. Then you are quietly ushered into the oval-shaped live studio next door, silently slipping into your seat and putting in your earphone as another live news update winds up on the other side of the room. Your guests arrive, after handshakes you seat them according to protocol, the Chinese arms expert sitting closest to you, the Japanese ambassador in the middle and the American journalist at the end of the table.

The lights come on, and all conversations cease. An illuminated clock counts down silently. "Hello this is Yang Rui, and welcome to Dialogue..."

I’m sitting with Yang Rui at a wooden table in a trendy Tex-Mex restaurant in the diplomatic district. Though relaxed and smiling, the conversation is never less than serious, even as we order lunch. He tells me how much he enjoys doing live shows, and it’s not just the extra adrenaline and excitement. With live TV, there is no editing, no second-guessing the comments made by hosts or guests, you just have to go with what happens.

Taped interviews, on the other hand, are vexing because they invite endless edits and outside meddling. He talks about how the Foreign Ministry once expressed concerns about the pointed questions he asked Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe, then visiting Beijing as a state guest. Despite the pressures of protocol, Yang Rui had insisted on asking the “old friend of China” about controversial shantytown demolitions, even though he was pretty sure it would be censored out. He was criticized by an aide to Mugabe at the time, so it was to gratifying to see that the interview aired pretty much intact, as best he remembered it.

He found US government guests could be equally prickly about content and protocol. During an interview with US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, her aides, functioning as US minders, blocked the camera and demanded that the line of questioning be halted because it deviated from a pre-arranged script. Similarly, when Alberto Gonzalez, as US Attorney General, sat for an interview at the US Embassy in Beijing, Yang Rui reported being bullied by US minders who tried to control every aspect of the interview, from questions to seating arrangements and placement of national flags.

And of course there are political sensitivities much closer to home. Yang Rui explains, with a note of exasperation, that Chinese television is at risk of going from political propaganda to commercial propaganda, in effect making the move from mouthpiece to mouthwash.

As the long hand of the state recedes, it yields not so much to serious journalism, such as he would like to see, but bottom-line driven commercial product. He quotes a former CCTV colleague, the Columbia-educated television hostess and media entrepreneur Yang Lan who complained to him about the low-brow pressures of independent television production, nostalgically recalling the “freedom” she enjoyed of being able to talk about serious issues on state-run CCTV.

“China wants to be seen as a serious, responsible player,” explains Yang Rui, “and that requires producing balanced news and winning the trust of the viewer.”

The American invasion of Iraq was a big turning point for CCTV, Yang Rui continues. “That’s when we really started doing journalism. We ran live reports, we quoted foreign sources, we had PLA generals talking military strategy. The head of the news division was so nervous, expecting at any moment to be criticized by the national leadership.” The complaint never came. “They liked it; it was the Americans who complained,” he adds with a grin.

Yang Rui says self-censorship is much more insidious than formal controls; a willingness to take risks should be part of the news sub-culture at a TV station. During orientation, new recruits are admonished; “be willing to be casualties.”

The challenge is to do your job well, he adds, “even if it means losing your job.” During the weekly two-hour meeting he chairs for the youthful, largely female staff of seven producers and a number of assistants, Yang Rui challenges the innate caution and “one-day, one-dollar” attitude of today’s youth. “I see journalism as a noble cause, a mission; too many others see it just as a job.”

I meet Yang many times again in and out of the studio. An American professor in Japan, I am frequently asked to comment on Sino-Japan relations, both in the studio and by telephone hook-up. We meet later at a trendy café in the university district where he is recognized by several students who watch his program to improve their English.

What are some of the memorable interviews has he dealt with? “Ah, Margaret Thatcher!” he says, conjuring up a smile. “What a skilled actress! She was unshakeable.” Michael Deaver, former Reagan aide, was challenging in a different way, “He didn’t answer any of my questions!” He mentions that several Chinese officials similarly proved difficult subjects, they didn’t like being interrupted or asked follow-up questions, tending to treat journalist as scribe. On the other hand, he thoroughly enjoyed repeated interviews with Jimmy Carter, “an honest and smart man” and Chris Patten, “he is tough, his words so strong, he has the instincts of a wolf, but I enjoy talking to him.”

Although Yang Rui still has days when doing what a journalist is supposed to due puts him under immense pressure, his supervisors can’t help but notice that Yang Rui is good at keeping cool. He has also cultivated a long line of diplomats, scholars and statesmen willing to sit in the hot seat as a guest on his show. Now with the Olympics coming up, he will be busier and more in demand than ever.

“Sometimes I think it’s amazing I still have my job,” he confesses over coffee. “What a job!”

pc Read more on this article...

Monday, December 24, 2007

Tehran's Peace Museum

Take a look at this very touching piece by Scott Peterson about the establishment of a peace museum in Tehran. It reveals a different aspect of Iran that is generally ignored in the Western media and I think it speaks volumes about the vibrancy that exists within a society that is trying to come to terms with its past and present. Read more on this article...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

A Crime Foretold: The Charsadda Bombing

Yesterday's suicide attack that killed 56 people in Charsadda, a village northeast of Peshawar, Pakistan, was not aimed just at Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, the former Interior Minister. It was part of a strategy by the Pakistani Taliban, supported by al-Qaida, to surround Peshawar with a ring of destabilization.

At the time of the attack, Sherpao, a native of Charsadda, was praying in the mosque on the occasion of 'Id al-Adha (known in South Asia as 'Id-i Qurban), which commemorates the sacrifice of Abraham's son. In the Torah the son is Isaac; in the Qur'an it is Isma'il. Jews commemorate their account of this event on Yom Kippur: the substitution of a ram for Isaac in the sacrifice prefigures the scapegoat, released into the wilderness by the High Priest to atone for the sins of the people.

And speaking of scapegoats -- I wonder who will be blamed for this? The attack on Charsadda was not exactly a surprise. When I was in Islamabad on November 5 I received some information from Peshawar about the Pakistani Taliban. Here is the verbatim copy (cut and pasted with no change) from the notes I took on my laptop:
Ppl being trained for Charsadda. Will be taken over just before or after Id al-Adha (end of hajj). Cmdr is Sher Khan. Currently training his men in Chapari area of Momand Agency adjacent to Char Sadda district.
If a five-day visit to Islamabad enabled me to learn that an attack on Charsadda was being planned for 'Id, I wonder how many other people knew it. I wasn't even trying to find out about security threats. Somebody just told me in the course of a wide-ranging conversation. I can't say who, but it is not somebody that the government does not know how to find.

To understand better what this is about, look at this map (easier to read original here):

Charsadda is northeast of Peshawar, just southwest of Malakand, where Sufi Muhammad (now jailed) led the Tehrik-i Nifaz-i Shariat-i Muhammadi, an armed movement for implementation of the shari'a, a few years ago. Just north of Malakand is Swat. At the time of my meeting in Islamabad, Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, was leading fighters who took over several villages in Swat. On the northwest, Charsadda borders on the Mohmand Tribal agency, where Commander Sher Khan was reportedly training his men to attack Charsadda. Mohmand agency is just south of the Bajaur Agency, where Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar have frequently been reported. Bajaur then connects to Dir district, which connects the tribal agencies to Swat. According to my informant:
Police intercepted weapons being sent to Fazlullah more than once, and every time military intervened to rescue weapons and people. Over last two years. Running radio for 2 years, stockpiling wpns in Paivand near Nehagh Dara connecting Swat and Dir. Camp run by two Arabs, Syrian and Iraqi.
Social structural differences may explain why the militants chose to attack Swat rather than Dir, which is closer to their training camps: in Dir the tribal structure, dominated by Yusufzai khans, is more intact and resistant to outside influence, whereas in Swat tribal power was weakened by the rule of the Wali, a religious (Sufi) figure, leaving the society less structured and more vulnerable once the Wali was removed. (So say my informants: I have not conducted research on this subject.)

This offensive northeast of Peshawar complements advances from other sides. My notes again:
Encircled Peshawar. Captured Darra Adam Khel [eastern part of Orakzai Agency, which cuts off Peshawar district's southern access to the rest of NWFP]. Advancing on Peshawar from Matani from Darra [Adam Khel] side from south. From Bara in the West [a sub-region of Khyber agency]. Mohmand population in the northwest.
While I have not conducted a systematic search, I have not come across any discussion in the U.S. media of the Taliban offensive to destabilize the areas around Peshawar, which is adjacent to Northern Punjab and the capital, Islamabad. The bombing is depicted as an act of terrorism aimed against an individual, rather than as part of a political and military strategy by a coherent political group. Just last week, however (on December 14), in an interview with BBC Urdu service, Baitullah Mahsud, the commander of South Waziristan, reported that the Pakistani Taliban had agreed to a single chain of command under him.

This apparent U.S. inattention to this major development has of course given rise to conspiracy theories in Pakistan: that the U.S. wants the Taliban to surround Islamabad so that it has an excuse to destroy Pakistan's nuclear weapons.... Of course this is completely ridiculous (please do not circulate this theory on the internet and attribute it to me), but the weak reaction to the Pakistani threat by President Musharraf, who clearly considers the Supreme Court and the Bar Association to be greater dangers to his power, and the continued support for Musharraf by Washington, generate such theories as Pakistanis struggle to make sense out of the slow-moving and quite visible catastrophe that is gathering in their country. The New York Times has it right today: Musharraf is weakening Pakistan. Read more on this article...

Friday, December 21, 2007

Banned in Pakistan: Comedian of the Year, by Ahmad Faruqui (Updated 22 December 2007)

The Pakistani journalist Ahmad Faruqui (left) circulated the column below to a group of friends after his newspaper, The Daily Times, refused to publish it.

In his cover note, Faruqui wrote:
I have been writing for Daily Times since it began publication in April 2002. Attached is the first column of mine which they have rejected because it is too personal.
I expected that the column would be a personal reflection by Faruqui on some taboo social subject.... But it turns out that the "person" in question is none other than "President" Pervez Musharraf.

Faruqui wrote me:
What surprised me was that it was not my first column which was critical of Musharraf. What troubles me is that Daily Times is one of the most liberal papers in Pakistan. I find this very odd.

What's so odd? Musharraf wants responsible commentators, like Mulla Nasruddin:
"I shall have you hanged," said a cruel and ignorant king to Nasruddin, "if you do not prove such deep perceptions such as have been attributed to you." Nasruddin at once said that he could see a golden bird in the sky and demons within the earth. "But how can you do this?" the King asked. "Fear," said the Mulla, "is all you need."

Update: Subsequent to this note being posted, Ahmad Faruqui followed up with more information:

I have found out that the punishment for being "too personal" is two years in jail and a fine of $1,700. And this is after the emergency has been removed and the uniform "doffed."

Comedian of the year

Ahmad Faruqui

TIME magazine has declared Vladimir Putin as Man of the Year. We don’t know whether our own Pervez Musharraf was in the running. He did not make it to the short list. It is quite likely that they put him on another list and he ended up being declared “Comedian of the Year.”

On the global stage, Musharraf is the undisputed king of dark comedy. But mind you, this is very different from the slapstick humor you might see on the Monty Python show.

Musharraf’s comedic device is the utterance of non sequiturs with a stern demeanor. And it is this austere visage –almost bordering on anger –that imbues his acts with an inimitable touch.

Who else would say the following? “Against my will, as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan.” You see, he is a man of many wills. The president in him did not want to impose it while the Chief of Army Staff in him did. Hah!

And what does it mean when he says, “As a last resort?” This is an admission, albeit a very indirect one, that without the emergency, he would no longer have remained president. Just the thought of Pakistan without him as president is enough to bring a smile to most people’s face.

The script continues, “The conspiracy was hatched to destabilize the country.” But the conspirators were never named. Dame Agatha Christie would not have approved of such an incomplete story but it is funny in an old fashioned way.

He goes on to say, “I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered.” Alice would have said, “Goodness gracious, general, you had complete freedom of movement, you could go visit relatives, stop by your office if you were in the mood for working and, come to think of it, you could even go shopping. So what caused you to suffer?”

Maybe he felt the police would pick up him up because he was openly expressing his opinions on TV, which was contrary to his own diktats.

But wait. Maybe the suffering was moral. As he went to bed every night, he lay awake thinking of the people that he had put in jail that were lying awake in rotten surroundings. To relieve his suffering, all he had to do was release them.

But did he? Of course not! He had declared an emergency precisely to make them suffer. How dare they rise against him on the streets, agitate against military rule and file petitions in the Supreme Court. He was going to fix them once and for all.

The emergency was not entirely unexpected. For a while, he had been dropping hints that he might impose an emergency if (a) the senior judges of the country joined in a “conspiracy” to end his eight-year rule and (b) if street riots caused political chaos that would hobble the fight against Islamic extremism.

Musharraf went on to say that the Supreme Court, which had been poised to rule on the legality of his October re-election, was acting beyond the constitution. Now that calls for a good round of applause.

The person who suspended the constitution was acting constitutionally and staying within its boundaries but the apex court that was seeking to prevent the abuse of power by that individual were acting beyond the constitution. Says who? Perhaps the Mad Hatter at his tea party.

He concluded his 20-minute address triumphantly by saying that “Now [that] the conspiracy has been foiled … [i]t is my commitment to the entire nation and the world that the election on January 8 will be on time and will be absolutely free and transparent.”

He threw the gauntlet at those political parties that plan to boycott the polls because they feared that the polls would be rigged. Musharraf warned, “This is all baseless and they must desist from it.” To alleviate any doubt, he said the government would invite “any number” of foreign observers to come and watch the fairness of the polls. Whether the invitations have been sent out is an open issue. Whether they have been accepted is another open issue. And whether they will show up to monitor the polls is the $64 million question.

The dictator’s comments beg the question of what is free and fair. Pakistanis have had a few elections under military governments. Perhaps the fairest was held by Yahya in 1970 and the most unfair election by Musharraf 32 years later. In both cases, the results were disastrous because the military was not prepared to share power with the elected representatives of the people.

Yahya refused to hand over power to the Awami League and plunged the country into a disastrous civil war that ultimately dismembered the republic. Musharraf pretended to hand over power to parliament but never did.

In his speech during the presidential inauguration, he took a swipe at the West and lambasted it for seeking to impose democracy on Pakistan. He said it had taken the West centuries to get there and they should not expect a poor nation like Pakistan to get there in just a few decades.

So why was he proceeding now to hold free and fair elections? Pakistan is either fit for democracy or not fit for it. Perhaps he was telling us that he likes to hunt with the hound and run with the hare. That is Musharrafian humor for you.

Like the three dictators before him, Musharraf is exploiting the fact that Pakistanis have not had much success with democracy. When he says that he intends to bring “the essence of democracy” to Pakistan with the next elections, he forgets that India has been a successful democracy for the past 60 years.

It is true that the Indians under a single prime minister (Nehru) had better luck with democracy than the Pakistanis did under seven prime ministers in the 1950s. But the army has been in power for all but a decade since then in Pakistan. If feudalism was the barrier to introducing democratic traditions, the army could have eliminated it.

One has to conclude that there is no democracy in Pakistan because the army does not want it. It wants to be the prima donna. Chronic military rule has crippled Pakistan’s development, leaving it in a state of permanent adolescence. Musharraf concluded a recent interview with the Washington Post by saying that Pakistan was neither “small” nor “a banana republic,” probably leaving the interviewer speechless. The laugh is on him for reacting so defensively.

Read more on this article...

Thursday, December 20, 2007


by Philip J Cunningham

The news kiosk nearest my Beijing residence is nestled under the staircase of a massive pedestrian bridge that spans a centuries-old thoroughfare now thoroughly jammed with buses and cars bearing down on the dust of what was once the heart of the old city in Marco Polo’s time. The sturdy span not only connects one side of the street to the other, but links two different administrative districts.

The bridge is the only reasonably safe and convenient way to cross the busy fenced road, an elevated bottleneck and chokepoint as it were, engorged with foot traffic morning to night. The bridge, fed by four massive staircases rimmed with inclined ramps for pushing bicycles, is sturdy and wide enough on top to accommodate hundreds of pedestrians at once, inadvertently providing the kind of foot flow coveted by street merchants. As opportunistic merchants stake out space along the railing, the path narrows, the crowd thickens and the bridge is transformed into a floating market, allowing wily salespeople to hawk their wares above the pedestrian-unfriendly roadway below.

The market is a black market, operating without permits or permission, but it brings goods to customers, including impulse items and cute knick-knacks you didn’t know you wanted until you suddenly wanted them. Every now and then there is a crackdown and the merchants are brusquely dispersed by police, but the moveable market persists and for the most part it thrives, if only because enough profit is turned to make the risks tolerable.

Because trade is conducted on the sly, it’s buyer beware; quality control and accountability are largely absent. Counterfeit products abound, some relatively risk-free; say the latest installment of Harry Potter, others outright risky, such as unsanitary foodstuffs. Faulty merchandise is near impossible to refund.

Wedged in between the faux marble railings of the footbridge one beholds a movable tableau of unsanctioned commerce, offering everything from pirated books, including political tracts from Taiwan, Hong Kong and translated bestsellers from abroad, to the latest Hollywood DVDs and banned documentaries critical of communism. Everything from socks, bracelets, mobile phone cases, flowers, incense, road maps, toys, tropical fruit, pet rabbits, freshwater shrimp, to fresh fish flopping in buckets — is offered in plain view but can be made to disappear in a moment’s notice.

When police from one of the two jurisdictions arrive, it often suffices for the fleet-footed merchants to shift to the other side of the bridge, and when law enforcement eventually shows up on the other side, to shift back again. Only during the more serious crackdowns, say during a ritual sweep before a major party congress, are the police actions synchronized to effectively clear the span of all vendors. There are poignant times of the day and times of the year when the bridge is strikingly uncluttered and empty, but it doesn’t stay empty for long.

A similar dynamic in the art of the possible is at work in Beijing’s bustling journalism scene. The days when the iron rule of political loyalty and conformity was the single most important force shaping Chinese journalism are gone, the single unified state narrative as espoused by People’s Daily a thing of the distant past. The old stalwarts such as the People’s Daily, faced with competition from a freewheeling commercial press, is rapidly becoming irrelevant fish-wrap. Like many a bloated, state-run enterprise on the verge of bankruptcy, subsidies alone can’t keep it current or competitive in market terms, it is steadily losing readership share to new, resourceful players.

Chinese journalists navigate this brave, new journalistic landscape by pluck and instinct, as the old red lines bend and break, as the old draconian restrictions are replaced by more inconsistent, laissez-faire environment. Censorship is still strictly imposed on selected taboo topics, Tiananmen or Tibet for example, but increasingly the old restrictions are met with defiance, the perimeter of acceptable expression forever being poked, stretched and widened. A combination of creative subterfuge and sheer resilience on the part of Chinese journalists keeps the press doggedly alive.

China is a big place. Different things can be expressed more or less freely in different places, playing one side of the bridge off the other so to speak. It is often the case that papers in south China can say things that papers in the north couldn’t get away with, and vice versa. This drives a practice known as yidi baodao, or “reporting far from home.” Like the vendors on the footbridge who shift from one end to the other to escape the police, wily journalists write for newspapers in province A to criticize corrupt officials in province B. This explains why Southern Weekend, (nanfang zhoumo), a weekly broadsheet published in the southern city of Guangzhou, is such a hit in a city as far north as Beijing.

Another way journalists here protect themselves is to assign important-sounding titles to relatively unimportant newsroom employees. That way, when official disfavor mandates the firing of an editor, the cut can be made with little cost to the real editorial power, and publishing as usual, if publishing under such conditions can be considered usual, resumes quickly. Sometimes prudence requires nothing more than substituting a pseudonym for a byline, something one Chinese-language newspaper requested I file under a different name for fear that any residual records of my reporting on the Tiananmen Square protests would bring unwanted attention to the paper. At other times prudence requires pulling punches and laying low until a given political storm dissipates and passes.

Despite the persistence of government “cleansing” and meddling, the commercial revolution in the media is impossible to ignore. The news kiosk below the footbridge is crowded; headlines sing and papers dance off the newsstands, promising a seductive read. The display is breathtaking compared to the dull, dusty communal fare distributed to the workplace just a few years ago when the workplace was the primary unit of political control.

Newsstands overflowing with printed matter are getting to be ubiquitous in the big city, but their offerings remain uneven. Today’s kiosks peddle everything from tough investigative reporting on corporate malfeasance to deceptive advertorials, from tabloids offering breathless scandal to fashion rags. Risk-taking for the risqué manages to get even scrupulously apolitical journalists into trouble with the law, as libel suits -another new twist to China’s complicated media scene -add to the hidden costs of the news.

It’s a guerrilla war of sorts, but it is not a war against the government per se, as is sometimes implicit in black and white foreign reports about the struggle for press freedom in China. Rather it’s more an uneasy alliance of earnest reporters and conscientious officials working in tandem for themselves and their country. Accurate news reporting is useful, indeed essential, to provide an adequate response to epidemics and environmental disasters, and it serves an equally essential role in providing checks on out-of-control corruption and social injustice in a country in the throes of dramatic and fundamental change.

Abuse of power, malfeasance, special interests, and a lack of transparency are the frequently the targets of this new Chinese journalism, and when a story is suppressed it is not because it is critical per se but because the criticism cuts too close to certain vested interests and certain power holders protected by the party. By urgently addressing these issues before things spiral completely out of control, sometimes getting away with it, sometimes not, the Chinese press is both partner and adversary to the government by shining light in dark places.

Properly understood, journalism is a supremely patriotic undertaking, helping society to correct itself, to address errors and grievances before things tumble out of control.

Be that as it may, doing real journalism in China remains a thankless job for the most part, low pay, high risk. Pursuing the truth conscientiously is not a career for the faint of heart, it has been in the past, and still is to some extent, a fast track to unemployment, prison or exile, in the intrepid tradition of Liu Binyan, Dai Qing, Li Datong and other spirited journalists who dared to speak truth to power.

But such lone courageous individuals are rare. Most reporting is couched in the realm of the possible, though not without integrity and not without risk. Even taking into account a certain amount of compromise, a watchdog press can serve as a curb on societal excess. Caijing, a leading business publication edited by Hu Shuli, has run several eye-opening investigative reports on real estate corruption in Beijing. The money may be lost forever, the injustice stands uncorrected, but every bicyclist and taxi driver in Beijing seems to know about it and real estate developers, who are corrupting the press with their own hidden agendas backed by lavish advertising, are subject to increased ridicule and suspicion.

Chinese journalists who came of age in the Deng Xiaoping era have been swept up as much by the turbo-capitalism Deng unleashed as a corrective to communistic excess as the pithy political injunctions he is remembered by. To navigate the uncertain terrain of this fluid, translucent world one must be opportunistic and observant, effectively “groping for stones as one crosses the river.”

Old draconian restrictions are lifted only to be replaced by extremely complicated and tricky new rules that effectively “democratize” the burden of censorship by making every editor, every writer, even bloggers, guardians of their own pen.

While residual heavy-handed censorship is disdained for its blatant clumsiness, there are ways around it with word of mouth and the Internet, but the new, insidious pressures to censor the net pose new fresh challenges. To some extent this can be met with creative subterfuge; irony, sarcasm, symbolic expression and other zigzag forms of subversive speech can withstand the befuddled gaze of the straight-laced censor. More corrosive of the net’s ability to provide reliable information is the epidemic of hate speech, ad hominen attacks and misinformation, polluting the well of public knowledge.

China is awash in a swirling sea of information, more than ever in its history, thanks to the Internet, cell phones, handy-cams, blogs, satellite television and newspapers. Increasingly you can find what you are looking for if you know where to look, but you must first master the art of reading critically, oftentimes between the lines. Read more on this article...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Afghanistan: Who's to Blame? (Updated)

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, at a NATO meeting in Edinburgh, has decided to change tactics in dealing with NATO allies in Afghanistan:
"We're going to try to look at this more creatively than perhaps we have done in the past when we basically have just been hammering on (allied governments) to provide more," Gates said in a post-meeting interview with a small group of reporters traveling with him from Washington.
Why the change? Maybe Gates was embarrassed when Europeans pointed out what happened just last Tuesday when he testified at the House Armed Services Committee with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen:
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged Tuesday that the U.S. military's primary focus remained the war in Iraq, not Afghanistan, prompting criticism from Democratic lawmakers who want the Pentagon to devote more attention and resources to the Afghan conflict.

Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the war in Afghanistan was an "economy of force" operation, a military label for a mission of secondary importance.

"Our main focus, militarily, in the region and in the world right now is rightly and firmly in Iraq," Mullen said before the House Armed Services Committee. "It is simply a matter of resources, of capacity. In Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must."
Maybe Gates should speak to his own Commander-in-Chief about the importance of Afghanistan (which has no dedicated link on the White House website).

More troops might be useful in Afghanistan, if they had the right mission. Put in more troops with the wrong mission, and they will just fail more quickly and more messily. But the whole "blame Europe" trope is just an exercise in the Bush administration's favorite activity: avoiding accountability. (By the way, is authorizing the use of torture an impeachable offense, like covering up illicit sex? Just wondering.) A few facts:
  • In 2001 the administration rejected an offer from the UK, France, and Germany to place the entire Afghanistan mission under NATO.
  • Until 2003, the administration rejected increasingly urgent requests from President Karzai, the United Nations, and many others to expand the International Security Assistance Force.
  • The administration continues to claim that Afghanistan and Iraq are one struggle, knowing full well that most NATO members did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
  • Before major deployments of Canadian and European NATO troops to southern Afghanistan in 2005, the administration assured its partners that it would take care of the infiltration of Taliban from Pakistan; the administration had completely ignored Pakistani support for the Taliban until then and had not even deployed any intelligence resources to track it. Since then infiltration has increased, and Pakistani Taliban allied with al-Qaida now have free reign in much of the border region, as the authority of the administration's chosen partner, General Pervez Musharraf, continues to crumble, and Europeans continue to be killed by guerrillas and suicide bombers trained, funded, and equipped in Pakistan.
  • The administration continues to press relentlessly for an escalation of eradication of Afghanistan's opium poppy crop, even though the conditions for successful use of this counter-narcotics tool do not exist, and the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands, whose troops will bear the brunt of the resulting increase in insurgent activity, have opposed these pressures.
In any case, a retired four-star general speaking at a private meeting recently characterized the lack of troops in Afghanistan as a "sixth-order problem." The key problems are the lack of a coherent regional strategy, especially toward Pakistan and Iran, and the failure from the very beginning to invest adequately in governance and development and in any aspect of security but the Afghan National Army. All of these resulted from decisions taken by the Bush administration in 2001-2002, not from our European allies.

Some of these same allies may have made some of these points in private at Edinburgh. As a result of Gates' new attitudes, he is now working with other NATO members to address these shortfalls:

Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, who joined Gates at the conference, told reporters afterward that he and his counterparts agreed that the nonmilitary part of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan also needs to be re-energized and improved.

"There was a strong sense that the civilian side, run by all of our governments and by the U.N., needs now to be elevated and expanded and be made as strategically purposeful as what we see on the military side," Burns said.

Gates said the Edinburgh talks produced a consensus on the need to fashion an "integrated plan" for what needs to be achieved in Afghanistan within the next three to five years as well as specifics on how those things can be accomplished.

The major proposal circulating to address these issues is the appointment of a high-level coordinator. The leading contender for this position, former Bosnia High Representative Paddy Ashdown, has argued:

"I've always said that Afghanistan was more likely to succeed if the international community co-ordinated itself and spoke with a single voice," the former Bosnia chief told Sky News television.

"Its failure to do so has led us to a position I think where the relatively low level of resources we are putting into Afghanistan are seriously wasted," he added.

Such coordination is badly needed. But calling someone a "high level coordinator" does not enable him to produce high-level coordination. The position is reported to include being appointed both UN SRSG and the NATO Senior Civilian Representative and perhaps eventually EU Special Representative as well. But the UN SRSG has no budgetary authority over the UN agencies, let alone the bilateral donors (led by the U.S.) that provide aid through their own parallel (and very wasteful) channels. The NATO SCR has authority over neither military activities nor the civilian assistance provided by the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The EUSR has no authority over the aid provided by the European Commission. Unless the "coordinator" presides over a pooled international budget for Afghanistan, including security sector reform, development aid, and counter-narcotics, he will just become another agency that needs to be coordinated. Inevitably, he will be tempted to spend his time hectoring the Afghan government rather than coordinating the international actors.

The Afghan government badly needs coherent support from the international community; but a high-level "coordinator" without real authority will not deliver it. Afghans will listen to such a coordinator only if he actually produces more coherent assistance. Otherwise he will be a focal point not for coordination, but for blame. I hope that's not the point.

Update: I posted this on Saturday afternoon without realizing that the New York Times had already scheduled both an editorial (Plenty of Blame for Afghanistan) and a front-page news story (Afghan Mission Is Reviewed as Concerns Rise) on this subject for the Sunday paper. Read more on this article...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Anthony Cordesman: Missing Metrics of Progress in Afghanistan (and Pakistan)

Two new papers by Anthony H. Cordesman provide the most meticulous analytic base for evaluating progress in Afghanistan of any study I have seen. Cordesman warns:
The entire history of governmental reporting on war since ancient Athens is a warning that democratic governments need constant public and legislative scrutiny, that they make more mistakes without it, and that governments do not deserve public trust, they must earn it.
Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, used to work from Senator John McCain (R-AZ). He characterizes U.S. reporting as follows:
Unlike Iraq, the US government has never attempted to provide any structured metrics or analysis of the fighting. The US Department of Defense has largely halted detailed reporting on the war. It has not provided any recent formal reporting on the course of the war. The web site for Operation Enduring Freedom has been replaced by a general heading for Afghanistan that is almost useless in providing meaningful information on the war. The US State Department provides some data on aid spending, but no meaningful data on either the detailed justification for that aid or measures of effectiveness of aid beyond some data on projects completed as distinguished from the level of requirements met and impact on war fighting. The White House web site is little more than a morass of slogans.
It takes a bit of work to find that morass, however; there is no link to items on Afghanistan on the White House home page. The link to Barney Cam, rather than providing footage of any of my Afghanistan-related activities (such as my attempts to convince various border officials that it is perfectly normal to have dozens of visas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., London, Madrid, Berlin, Paris, Rome, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya, in one's passport), instead shows the President's dog.

Cordesman shows that the usual framework for reporting is misleading:
Almost all reporting on the war has also dealt with the Afghan conflict as if it was somehow separate from the build-up of the Taliban, Al Qa’ida, and other Islamist extremist movements. Governments and the media have covered one conflict as if it were three different struggles:
  • The fighting against the Taliban and Islamist extremists in Afghanistan.
  • The fighting against the Taliban and Islamist extremists in the tribal agency areas (Waziristan) in Eastern Pakistan.
  • Al Qa’ida and Bin Laden operations in the near "sanctuary" in the region, probably Waziristan.
The fact is, that all three of these conflicts are so interlinked that they cannot be separated from each other. Moreover, it is far from clear that the US, NATO, or Pakistani government are winning any one element of this broader struggle. Its center of gravity has become a struggle for control of Pashtun territory that is evolving along ethnic lines and cuts across national borders. As Musharraf’s declaration of a State of Emergency shows, events in Pakistan are too troubled and uncertain at every level to not see this war as an Afghan –Pakistani conflict.
Furthermore, the depiction of the struggle as primarily military and of the solution as more troops is wrong:
The war is not a military struggle or classic counterinsurgency. It is an exercise in armed nation building that involves all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and sectarian groups, and which is primarily a struggle for the control of political and ethnic space that extends across a national boundary.
The second paper consists of a very useful a status report on the "Afghan-Pakistan War" in the form of slides. His summary of conclusions:
There is no way to calculate how long it will take the Afghan government and Afghan forces to be effective, or how long it will take NATO/ISAF and the US to “win” in Afghanistan. Pakistan remains a major wild card in predicting the outcome, and one
where the recent Musharraf coup has made the Afghan-Pakistani war even more unpredictable. The sheer survival of Al Qa’ida’s top leadership is a problem in itself, and there are few indications that the attrition of some of Al Qa’ida’s leadership has so far had any serious effect.

Even if one focuses solely on Afghanistan, progress is far from clear and victory is anything but certain. Many of the security, governance, and aid efforts during 2002-2006 were poorly organized and coordinated, lacked focus on key security and stability problems, and were badly underresourced in money and manpower. . . .

At the same time, improvements in virtually every aspect of Afghan governance have been grindingly slow. . . .

The counternarcotics effort has failed to reduce supply, given the Taliban new influence and access to resources, and done more to alienate than aid the Afghan people. New increases in aid money have yet to have a major impact in the field, and
serious questions exist about the ability to use aid effectively in high risk and conflict areas.

The most serious question affecting the ability to “win” in Afghanistan is also what will happen in the future. It is whether the US, NATO/ISAF, and Afghan government can carry out a prolonged campaign that is likely to extend long beyond 2009 -- probably by at least half a decade. The Afghan-Pakistan War is an ideological, political, economic, and military war of attrition where the Taliban may be able to either “win” or at least “defeat” the US and NATO/ISAF simply by surviving and outlasting the willingness of outside powers to sustain the conflict. In a war between time and technology, time is likely to be decisive . . . .
The papers contain insights on every aspect of the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict. Read them both here. Read more on this article...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Update on the NIE Spin in Washington and Tehran

I just saw this piece by Dennis Ross about the incompetent way the NIE was framed and presented to the American public and was stunned to read the following:

" 2005, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani told a visiting group of American experts, including George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment, that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons research. According to Perkovich, Rafsanjani said: "Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the fuel cycle, we don't need anything else. Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions."

I could not believe it. The content of the 2007 NIE was already in the public domain, only not yet culled by the intelligence community?! In 2005, the head of Iran’s Expediency Council, and one of Iran’s most powerful politicians, admitted to an American non-proliferation advocate the existence of a nuclear weapons program that it had halted and this was not made news at the time! I do not mean only the halting part of it but also the admittance to a weapons program.

So I had to check and of course while what George Perkovich actually heard or said he heard was not made up, all inferences about a weapons program were clearly made up. Perkovich’s quote is from a piece in Washington Post by Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer framed in the following way:

"There had been clues for those willing to see them. …. And during a dinner in Tehran with visiting American experts in 2005, Iranian leaders Hashemi Rafsanjani and Hassan Rowhani flatly declared that the country's nuclear weapons research had been halted because Iran felt it did not need the actual bombs, only the ability to show the world it could. "Look, as long as we can enrich uranium and master the [nuclear] fuel cycle, we don't need anything else," Rafsanjani said at the dinner, according to George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Our neighbors will be able to draw the proper conclusions.""

How exactly the assertion that “as long can we can enrich uranium and master the fuel cycle, we don’t need anything else,” was turned into admittance that Iran had a nuclear weapons program that was halted is beyond me, but I guess this is the way “intelligence gathering” in the media and among pundits works. Factual leaps are made in order to suit the argument in the hope that no one checks.

So the leap makes sense in terms of the spin that is being placed on the NIE: Iran had intentions to build the weapons; it will continue to aspire for it through means that are allowed within the terms of its NPT obligations; and that is dangerous enough even if Iran actually doesn’t go for the bomb. Dennis Ross states the argument succinctly:

"Maybe, as Rafsanjani was suggesting, the Iranians will be satisfied only to foster the appearance of having nuclear weapons without actually producing them; for Rafsanjani, so long as Iran's neighbors assume it has nuclear weapons, they'll become responsive to Iran's wishes. But can we count on Iran's maintaining such a posture indefinitely? And even if we could, what would the Middle East look like if Iran gained far greater coercive leverage over all its neighbors? Wouldn't oil production policies be used to separate us from our allies or further manipulate the world's economy? Wouldn't we face a region increasingly hostile to our interests? Wouldn't we see the prospect of Arab-Israeli peace diminish as Iran worked to weaken, isolate, and demoralize the Jewish state? And to avoid being at the mercy of Iran, wouldn't the Saudis decide to go nuclear--and wouldn't that impel the Egyptians to do the same? The point is that even the image of Iran as a nuclear power carries with it very dangerous consequences, including that the Middle East might become a nuclear-armed region.”

Get it? Even if the “appearance” of Iran getting nuclear weapons is Tehran’s intent, Iran is still dangerous (even if we are the ones that have kept and keep making Iran appear as though it is getting nuclear weapons). Hence, Iran should be stopped from getting that appearance even if, Ross bemoans, the Bush Administration’s handling of the NIE release has made stopping Iran’s “virtual” weapon difficult if not impossible.

In some ways, despite the mendacity in reporting what Hashemi Rafsanjani said, Ross’ statement of what the Iran concern is all about is refreshingly honest. It is not about a nuclear weapons program that poses a physical threat to others but the strength Iran gains by appearing to have the bomb, which to Ross is still unacceptable and against American interests in the region. So the issue is not the oft-repeated and tired assertion that Iran is a "country whose leader wants to destroy Israel,” but Iran’s ability to “weaken, isolate, and demoralize the Jewish state.” Just how Iran’s “virtual” endowment of nuclear weapons will do this, Ross never explains.

Just in case, you are wondering what the man who supposedly claimed that Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons program because a mere appearance of a weapons program is enough thinks about the NIE release and commotion, here is what Hashemi Rafsanjani said yesterday:

"In my view, there has been so much exaggeration about this report. It is certain that this report has no benefits for the U.S. Rather, it hurts the White House. To think that there is a conspiracy or scenario involved does not correspond to logical standards, except that the main point of this report is that Iran has stopped its policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003. This report emphasizes that there was intent but was set aside. This is not a new statement. American officials have repeated this position many times. There is nothing in the report that can be used to harm us except the claim that they have always repeated and we have always denied. The United States wanted to hide this report but if it was revealed that such report existed and the White House prevented its publication, that would have been another blow against the hawks. This report along with ElBaradei’s report has created a new atmosphere and has made the works of hawks in the United States difficult, both for increased pressure and military aggression. But the depth of their hostility has intensified and their efforts against Iran have increased. Today American and Europeans efforts for implementation of sanctions and sanctions have increased. This doesn’t mean that we should put our head under the snow and say everything has passed. We have to act with caution and deliberation.

The last sentence is obviously a dig at Ahmadinejad’s proclamation of victory after the release of the NIE. But to me what is most interesting is Hashemi Rafsanjani public rejection of the conspiratorial outlook. Given the number of phone calls I have received from family and friends in Iran regarding the NIE, I understand what Hashemi Rafsanjani is talking about. There really are many people in Iran who think the Bush and Ahmadinejad Administrations are in cahoots and whatever George Bush does is planned and intended to help strengthen Iran's hardliners. The way the NIE was released has fed those suspicions.

It is really hard to convince folks in Iran otherwise, given the reality that Bush Administration’s policies have indeed strengthened the hardliners. Read more on this article...

Monday, December 10, 2007

CNN compares Al Gore to Jerry Lewis (cross-posted at Daily Kos)

I'm in a hotel room in Ottawa, Canada, for a very serious conference on Afghanistan. Consequently I was watching CNN while getting dressed.

I don't know if it is on line somewhere, but someone should check Miles O'Brien's segment on American Morning about Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize for Peace. What is the theme? Al Gore is more popular in Europe than in the U.S., just like Jerry Lewis! CNN then illustrates this profound point by showing a particularly moronic segment of The Nutty Professor. For you young people out there, this was a 1963 comedy (released just a few months, believe it or not, before Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove), about a science professor who drinks a potion to make himself handsome. I don't have time to search the archives of Cahiers du Cinema right now, but French film intellectuals reportedly found depths of irony in le Jerry that escaped Americans....

Just like Al Gore!

CNN cut to a segment with some discredited global warming skeptic (i.e. flat earther) for balance. American Morning played a quote of one of its own reporters claiming that Nobel Peace Prizes are political. Miles O'Brien reported from Oslo that Nordics love nothing more than Bush-bashing, and that approval of Bush is only 10-12 percent in Norway! He doesn't mention that it is currently hovering at 24 percent in the U.S. and falling.

Just to add to their attempt to be "fair and balanced," CNN adds (with no evidence whatever) that this is the prize that Bill Clinton would have liked to win for his Middle East peace efforts, but that instead it went to his Vice President. Who was "defeated" seven years ago by George W. Bush.

And there's more. Apparently, according to Miles O'Brien, as many as 90 percent of those credulous, Bush-bashing Europeans actually have confidence in the findings of science!!! As compared to a mere 50 percent of Americans, who apparently are wisely skeptical

There was more too, but I was too stunned to take notes. I never saw The Nutty Professor. But I did see Dr. Strangelove. In fact I saw it on my first date with the woman who is now my wife. Perhaps if CNN had existed in 1964 it would have illustrated a segment on the danger of nuclear war with an interview with General Jack D. Ripper arguing that the Soviet Union was trying to pollute our "precious bodily fluids" and balanced it with an interview with some "scientist."

Somebody should find the transcript and go over it line by line. Incredible. Read more on this article...

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Reading the NIE in Tehran

Although the immediate official reaction to the release of the National Intelligence Estimate has been curiously positive, welcoming the assessment as a vindication of Iran (an “official confession” of the United States, in the words of government spokesman and justice minister Gholam-hossein Elham and “announcement of Iranian people’s victory on the nuclear issue” according to Ahmadinejad), there are signs that other important players are mulling over questions related to the timing and implications of the report. The report also seems to be feeding into the on going domestic debates about the Ahmadinejad administration’s handling of the nuclear file as well as regular political jockeying that is integral to the Iranian political landscape.

The first objection to seeing the report only in a positive light came in Tabnak, a website closely associate with the former head of Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps, Mohsen Rezaie. A commentary called “The Other Side of the Coin of the NIE,” acknowledges the positive impact of the argument that Iran has not had a weapons program since 2003 but cautions about the negative aspect:

“If in our reasoning for the critique of U.S. foreign policy regarding Iran’s nuclear technology, we rely on this report in a one-sided and reckless manner, this means that we accept that the American spy agency [sic] has mastered , at least in the past seven years, its knowledge of the process of the expansion of Iran’s nuclear technology and negate the past statements of this agency which saw its hands tied in the Iran’s information and security arena and this, undoubtedly, can have very negative and unpleasant effects in the domestic developments of the country. All these things were unfortunately ignored in the official position announced on Tuesday.”

The commentary goes on the point out how the NIE effectively negates the IAEA’s long standing position that no evidence of diversion has ever been found in Iran and urges the government to approach the report with more caution and not affirm the “intelligence presence of the United States in Iran.”

In another commentary in Tabnak, the NIE’s assertion of a 2003 turnaround is discussed as a “big lie” and the point is made that no change occurred in the Iranian program in 2003. The real change, the piece argues, came in 1998-9 when there was a change of leadership at Iran’s Nuclear Energy Organization and when under this new leadership “various and dispersed activities …became focused in activities related to the fuel cycle.”

Another set of cautions came in a television interview with Ali Larijani, Iran’s nuclear negotiator who was recently relieved of his job by Ahmadinejad. Pointing out that the NIE was released at Bush’s behest, he posits the report as part and parcel of American domestic politics, pointing to the need to create credibility after the Iraq intelligence fiasco. The need to make the case that at every step, depending on the information available, the right decision is made in the US, is offered as the second reason for the release of the report while the creation of a “breathing space” and need for a push back of the “Zionist lobby’s intense war mongering” is posited as the third reason.

Finally, Larijani points out that in the NIE there are elements in line with the 5+1 position that pressure works on Iran. This leads him to say, “On this basis it can be interpreted that by the release of the report the U.S. intends to change phase in its stance regarding Iran…. ElBaradei’s recent report and clearing of most of the ambiguities placated the United States. With this report, Washington intends to affirm ElBaradei’s report and say that like ElBaradei we think Iran does not have a nuclear weapon but believe it can move in that direction in the future.”

Also, in an implicit dig against Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, who has reportedly not been very cooperative in his meeting last week with Javier Solana, Europe’s foreign policy chief, Larijani identifies Iran, Solana, ,and ElBaradei as a triangle and sees Iran in need of cooperation with the IAEA as well as continued dialogue with Solana. Cautioning against presenting the discussions with Solana as unimportant, Larijani analogizes the situation to a “container of milk that the United States would like to overturn.”

Along the same lines, the former deputy foreign minister, Abbas Maleki, writing in Etemad-e Melli daily, acknowledges the domestic consumption of the NIE and its importance in undercutting the rush to war. He also points to the seeming confusion that plagues current US foreign policy is the Middle East. Still he states what while “American power may be in decline,” underestimating American diplomatic prowess is a mistake.

Finally, speaking to students at Ferdowsi University in Mashad, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and current advisor to the supreme leader, also cautions against seeing the report as positive. “We should not be too content with these types of reports. These reports, for or against Iran, have no impact on Iran’s diplomatic behavior… Of course we should see it as a good omen that our peaceful nuclear program has been vindicated and we should know that this report, like ElBaradei’s report, contains positive and negative points, hence value it on the basis of its capacity… These types of reports should be approached with doubt since more than wanting to give Iran its due; they are pursuing their own electoral interests.”

Clearly, important players of Iranian politics are more reluctant to declare the report as a victory for Iran than Ahmadinejad who has a political stake in taking credit for Iran’s aggressive policies paying off and implicitly connecting his policies to the turnaround of the American intelligence community. Read more on this article...


Inside Chinese state TV: When dialogue is hard talk


BEIJING - Earlier this year I was about to sit down for a live TV interview for the public affairs program Dialogue at CCTV’s main studio in Beijing when my former employer from Japan suddenly showed up.

An NHK news crew from Japan was on hand, roaming the premises of CCTV to “study” the impace and success of Dialogue. The visiting camera crew followed Dialogue talk show host Yang Rui around the newsroom and into the studio as he and I sat down to discuss nuclear proliferation with China’s distinguished Persian-speaking former envoy to Iran, Ambassador Hua Liming. As the NHK crew filmed CCTV filming us, we were joined on air by a Xinhua correspondent on the ground in Teheran, analyzing US moves in the region

Things had suddenly come full circle for me. I first got involved with Chinese state television indirectly while working for NHK in Tokyo in 1991 as the producer of China Now, a news-magazine co-production designed to educate CCTV in the art of TV, at least as practiced in Japan at that time. The idea was that CCTV would provide raw footage to Tokyo where it would be combined with NHK footage, re-edited, narrated and transformed into “real” TV, though the results were decidedly mixed.

I had been hired by NHK on the strength of my China freelance reporting during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis and assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that they had wanted a journalist. I was being offered opportunity to helm a politically sensitive Sino-Japanese co-production, but there were mountains of political correctness to take into account.

As I subsequently wrote in numerous memos to NHK brass, including the chairman, even superb production values can’t save a basically flawed product. I made specific reference to the nationalistic bias of certain news reports on Japanese radio and TV, where I freelanced, and on China Now, where I was a staff producer. If you add propaganda to news you still get propaganda.

Even when CCTV provided raw footage that was truly moving or newsworthy, the pressure to produce something that neither side would take strong exception to put me in a bind. The few times China Now managed to make a pointed edit or powerful turn of phrase, complaints from Beijing and Tokyo were sure to follow, each side conveniently blaming the “gaijin” to preserve the tenor of Sino-Japanese amity. My unique opportunity was mission impossible, the news magazine had to be unnewsworthy to succeed.

Even when China Now was not as anodyne as its sponsors intended, both sides had something to gain. Chinese TV was still in its infancy compared to Japan’s sophisticated industry, there was much to learn, at least in production terms, and Tokyo saw it as means to foster goodwill in Beijing while obtaining for NHK increased access to China in terms of footage old and new, obtaining exclusive rights to certain coveted archival materials while winning permission to film in sensitive border areas.
I left China Now, turning down a salary increase and new contract, when I discovered it was being used as a conduit to move cash payments and Japanese researchers unrelated to my show into China.

A decade later, I found myself again at the gates of CCTV, this time at the Beijing headquarters offering a journalism seminar under the auspices of America’s Knight Foundation. During a talk attended by the production staff of Dialogue, I urged going live and presenting diverse viewpoints to boost the program’s journalistic merit and credibility. A long silence was followed by an unexpected invitation. "When would you like to be on?”

Soon after I was under the lights talking about everything from Mao, Taiwan, human rights, NGO’s, espousing views on a wide array of topics, the only coherent thread being my own idiosyncratic take on things, one individual’s tentative exercise of press freedom in a sensitive environment. That many of my views might be described as leftist was initially reassuring though later disconcerting to my hosts, because there is little that is leftist about China today, even though Chinese like to think of themselves as being somehow more progressive than Americans.

China benefits greatly from being slightly different from what foreigners think it is, either because it is changing so rapidly that old assumptions no longer hold, or because it is so good at throwing up illusions that foreigners find engaging. Expecting tight controls when I first got to CCTV I found the range of speech on CCTV’s premier talk show to be refreshingly open. I was never told what to say or what not to say with one exception, and that was on one of the early live shows.

Minutes before the studio lights went one and the cameras started to roll, I was treated to one of those inimitable and mildly intimidating Chinese compliments which can be read in multiple ways, redolent of inclusion and exclusion, encouragement and enforcement.

“You are the first foreigner invited to talk on Chinese TV about Chairman Mao in a live, unedited broadcast.”

As I took my place facing the immaculately groomed host at the glass table in the main studio, after an admonition to turn off my cell phone and a brief brush over at make-up, I sat in silence trying to gauge the import of the veiled warning implicit in the “first foreigner” compliment. Being bestowed with the status of “first” this or that is not without hidden baggage. It is not so much a tip of the hat to assimilation as a reflection of how cunning and parochial China can be even in this global era.

I thought of Sydney Rittenberg, an American communist who had risen to great heights at China Radio before finding himself imprisoned in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He had achieved notoriety as a “first foreigner” in many categories real and contrived, but got in the most trouble for his outspoken broadcasts on radio.

Being asked to talk about a perennially sensitive topic was as much a bind as a breakthrough in part because it implied a kind of trust. Was I being trusted to talk freely or did being first imply something else? My worst fears were driven home just minutes before show opened when the host whispered to me. "Please don't say anything about Mao's women. This is about his political legacy."

Blame it on the studio lights, but I was sweating by the time the countdown to the live broadcast began.

Host Yang Rui opened the program with a short introduction about Mao’s life, spoken in his naturally authoritative, stentorian voice. His English is astonishingly good, so it must have been my nervousness that caused me to mishear the first question.

“Hello, this is Yang Rui, welcome to Dialogue…”What do you think about Mao’s women?”
"Mao's women?"
“Mao’s women?”
I paused. Why was he putting me on the spot with such a provocative opening? Was it a trick question? A loyalty test?
"Yes. In the Yangtse River."
"Oh, you mean Mao swimmin'? You mean, like, Mao’s symbolic swim in the river, like in the Yangtse at the start of the Cultural Revolution?"
It was an awkward start to doing live political commentary on China’s state TV, but the cameras kept rolling and Dialogue now goes live as a matter of course.

What I like about CCTV is that they are willing to try new things, pushing boundaries both technical and political. Fully cognizant of the limits and dangers of state TV, which is to say cushioned by a bureaucracy that tolerates mistakes that would be intolerable in the West or Japan (especially sloppy production values) the staff is ever-vulnerable to being fired for crossing, inadvertently or intentionally, ever-shifting political lines.

Strangely enough, that creates a kind of laissez-faire attitude. As a result of production values that are part spit and polish, part spit and scotch tape, you have an operation that does not lend itself to be taken terribly seriously, with the serendipitous result that you see weird and wonderful glimpses of reality that are hard to find elsewhere. Everyone makes mistakes, many Chinese speakers mispronounce, every show could be the last show and much of it is compelling and real.

Much of the success of Dialogue can be traced to the hard work, political perceptiveness and improvisational skills of host Yang Rui, whose stentorian voice and attention to detail makes him a television natural. Last year he was in the midst of doing a show on candidates for man of the year in China, drawing from a list of political celebrities feted by the mainland media.

"How about coal miners?" I said, going off topic.
"Coal miners. We sit here, under these lights, all this electricity, we all enjoy the benefits of the power, and they are dying, 30 or more a week. Coal miners should be the men of the year."

And to Yang Rui’s credit, he threw away the script and we talked about the plight of coal-miners instead of the rich and famous.

The fact that Dialogue is English language TV means much of what is said on air goes in one ear and out the other of China’s more xenophobic censors, mostly monolingual old-time ideologues who can’t very well vet the program unless it is taped. Given the ephemerality of the live format, old time ideologues are unlikely to tune in, let alone pick up on tongue-in-cheek humor and ironic nuances.

Another reason why Dialogue can provide relatively free discussion space in a relatively unfree political environment is due to its judicious and diplomatic selection of discussion topics; they can’t control how a “typical freewheeling American,” as they have pegged me, will answer any given question posed on live TV but they pick and choose the questions. I was pointedly uninvited from a show during Hu Jintao’s visit to the US for fear I would make waves by being too critical of the Bush administration. Thus it gave me satisfaction to be invited on during Bush’s visit to China, and again after his State of the Union speech last January. I didn’t pull any punches, causing an exasperated producer to express the wish that I tone down my criticism of Bush since “America is important to China.”

To be fair, it is part of Dialogue’s brief to cover international affairs with diplomatic sensitivity and aplomb; the views expressed by the host and Chinese government guests are not necessarily the voice of China but may easily be perceived as such. Yet many government-linked speakers are a delight to be on with, the cautious but erudite Iran specialist Ambassador Hua Liming comes to mind, while other guests, usually the ones who demand all the questions in advance, are more interested in monologue than dialogue.

Early on I objected to the inquisitional tone the program sometimes took, and refused to answer the “We Chinese, you Americans” type of clichéd questions. As a guest on the show, I felt I brought credit neither to CCTV nor myself unless we avoided ethnic stereotypes and cultivated an atmosphere that expected and accepted a wide range of views

But for every misstep and clunky moment, there have been wonderful moments when a true conversation takes flight, steering clear of cliché, party line and national stereotypes. While I have been vocally critical of Tokyo’s foreign policy on the show, I have introduced a number of Japanese guests to Dialogue. Yang Rui, like most Chinese I know, has a short fuse on the topic of Japanese revisionism; his family suffered terribly during Japan’s war of invasion. Yet I urged him, when he was playing the role of host, not to say things like “that Koizumi guy” but to remain as neutral as possible for the sake of balance and maintaining an atmosphere conducive to discussion. Thus I was pleased to meet Yang Rui in Kyoto last month when he visited Japan as the guest of one of the Japanese professors who is now a regular commentator on the show.

In my eyes, CCTV first started to look like a real news station during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, at least in terms of its Mideast coverage. It’s vaguely demeaning, if not insulting to both sides to say America has gotten so bad as to make China look good, but that dynamic cannot be completely discounted. American TV is more free, but not free of nationalism. Chinese TV is blatantly nationalistic at times, but China is at peace with the world and studiously keeping a low profile, if only for long-term strategic reasons, in this golden age of trade.

In the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, CCTV gave a handful of Americans like myself a chance to say things that prime-time American TV, still in the US-flag-on-the-lapel stage, was not ready to hear. I paraphrased Churchill, calling Bush’s plan to attack Iraq the “wrong war for the wrong reasons at the wrong time” and was invited back to do a show after the war commenced, in which I expressed my view that France and Germany were true friends of America because they didn’t blindly follow Bush like Blair did. More recently I have found occasion to speak out against possible US intervention in Iran, while urging China to play a more constructive role. As for the likelihood of a US attack, I said if someone wants a fight they can usually find a fight. It would take something as little as a leaf from an Iranian tree blowing over the border to get tensions up.

Chinese TV has also given me the opportunity to express very personal opinions; when face to face with a Chinese general I used the baffling language of American counterculture and pacifism to make my point. When asked about tensions in the Taiwan Straits, I criticized the missiles on both sides, when asked Hiroshima, I said no city ever deserves such a fate, when the topic was nuclear proliferation, I talked of Dr. Strangelove. Pacifism and cultural irony are not part of the Communist Party’s vocabulary and it allows me to stake out a little space of my own in an intimidating environment.

Dialogue’s strength as the credibility anchor for CCTV 9 rests largely on the grit and integrity of its anchor, his preparation for each show and his hard-talking approach.

But domestic topics remain touchy and Chinese guests remain nervous about talking openly, partly out of habit, partly because they have a nose for political winds undetected by foreign guests. And if that isn’t enough to worry about, they have to manage fine distinctions in English, a language as different as can be imagined from what they are accustomed to.

When I wrote about communist-party-newspaper-editor-turned–communist-party-critic Li Datong, a CCTV producer pulled me aside, asking me if I wrote the article. I said I did, adding that I found Li Datong to be a great journalist. He smiled, saying he thought so too. On several subsequent occasions, I quietly suggested a show on the Tiananmen demonstrations, which I had covered as a freelancer working for ABC and BBC in 1989, but judging from the gap-jawed reaction, it won’t happen any time soon.

Despite the party-enforced intransigence on Tiananmen, I have seen dozens of other television taboos fall by the wayside, but CCTV, like a dragon shedding scales, is still recognizably a dragon. Dialogue is like BBC’s Hard Talk with Chinese characteristics, which makes it frustrating at times, but along with unevenly observed and sometimes clumsy efforts to promote a Beijing view, there exists an unexpected degree of freedom to talk in-depth and in detail about thorny political issues such as North Korea, Sino-Japanese historical disputes, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, atomic proliferation, substantive topics that more commercially-driven channels would find difficult.

The atmosphere at CCTV News is laid-back, almost somnambulant at times, and not the sort of nail-biting news operation I’ve seen in other world capitals. Just as China is a nation full of first time drivers, TV talk shows are full of people making their first time appearance on TV. Perhaps out of necessity, CCTV is a patient teacher, giving the newcomer time to adjust, and tolerant of little technical mistakes that might provoke a summary firing elsewhere.

China’s English-language TV channel also gives a fair number of foreigners the chance to appear on TV, some of them neophytes, others quite skilled on camera, in roles ranging from weather caster to cultural tutor, from news commentator to news anchor.

The station’s high hopes for international programming not only remind me of NHK during its internationalist heyday a decade or so earlier, CCTV is actually more international in the sense that there is less of a glass ceiling. At CCTV people of diverse racial backgrounds are put in front the camera in contrast to NHK’s overtly Japan-first attitude, which relegated foreigners to invisible roles.

Even CCTV’s English news, which relies on foreign wires and video for much of its content, though guided by government policy, has seen it fit to hire dozens of foreigners for narration and on-camera news-reading, most notably Edwin Maher, a former weather caster from Australia. During my time at NHK foreigners were put on air too, but only if they looked passably Japanese, that is to say “Asian in appearance” as specified in the Japan Times classified ads. The foreign anchors were Japanese-Americans from Hawaii.

In the decade since I was hired by NHK to help CCTV, the latter has indeed learned much about “real” television news, while NHK, if anything, has been in a retrograde pattern. The controversial “ethnic cleansing” of foreign employees at NHK after a change in station leadership and more recently political pressures from right-wing politicians such as Abe Shinzo, who instructed NHK to cut stories on things like comfort women while jacking up the volume on reports with an anti-communist slant, has taken a visible toll on the product and morale at Japan’s erstwhile number one broadcaster.

If NHK reeks of revisionism, CCTV is forward-looking, bristling with change and hopes for more change. Symbolically, the international transformation of CCTV will be complete in the next year or so when its current headquarters, a dull modernist monolith typical of the late communist style is replaced by a provocative new pretzel-shaped building designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus.

But that’s just how things look on the outside; the facelift could augur a period of change or disguise the fact that very little is changing. For CCTV building news credibility is a taller order than building a new skyscraper. If it does come to earn the viewers trust, it will not be on account of its brassy new building but tough, dediciated individuals such as Yang Rui who work tirelessly to improve the program in every little way they can.

On the day when NHK paid a surprise visit to CCTV to measure their rival’s progress in international broadcasting, I had a chance to chat briefly with the Japanese visitors. I was impressed with the humility of the Japanese producer who said that he wanted to take a close look at the success of CCTV’s Dialogue since “NHK is under-performing in its international programming.”

The innovations of CCTV, once a student of NHK, are now of compelling interest to the teacher. Given recent political tensions, it is reassuring to see that Japan and China are continuing to exchange ideas and learn from one another.

(The author has worked in television and film in China and Japan since 1986)

Philip J. Cunningham Read more on this article...