Congress wins: and so into “nuclear overdrive” India goes…

KOZHIKODE, Kerala, India – In the event, the vote wasn’t even that close. 275-256, a comfortable margin of 19 votes. Several opposition MPs defied party discipline to vote for the government. The BJP staged a disgraceful demonstration waving huge stacks of money and accusing congress of vote-buying. Now the BJP are guardians of political morality, evidently (not to casually dismiss the charges of corruption or vote-buying. Perhaps India could address this corruption problem by formalizing vote-buying through a more developed lobby system, like Western countries have?). In fact, the BJP probably think they benefit from any disruption in normal procedural functioning of government. They also managed to prevent the Prime Minister from making his own remarks.

The remarks of the PM, Manmohan Singh, published in the newspaper the next day, were interesting in several ways. Let’s dismiss the BJP – they were not opposed to the deal, nor to nuclear energy, nor to nuclear weapons, nor to entanglement with the US – they saw (and still see) a chance to gain from the fall of the government and exploited it. The Left’s criticisms of the deal were that if nuclear energy were to be pursued, it could be pursued without greater entanglement with the US, and that the deal was part of greater strategic and economic dependence on the US. The Congress government’s reply was not so much to defend greater entanglement or loss of autonomy, but to say that the deal won’t cost India autonomy and won’t involve subordination to the US. If it were true, and this was the only (and cleanest – the PM spoke against coal on climate change grounds, acknowledging an interesting tradeoff that many will be facing) way to generate energy, the Congress government would be right in pursuing the deal.

But if it were true, the US would not be pursuing it, since the US is not interested in helping to build autonomous powers, but dependencies and clients. More on that later, I hope.

In any case, as unfortunate as it is that the deal is going to go through, this government surviving is not the worst of outcomes, even for the Left in India. As Siddharth Varadarajan, a fine journalist and commentator who spent some time in Canada, wrote in the Hindu before the vote, the government’s fall would not really have benefited the left. A BJP government would not benefit the left. A reconstituted Congress led government without the left wouldn’t benefit the left much either. What Siddharth didn’t exactly acknowledge was that it was the brief period when the left played a role as power broker that was anomalous: centrist parties don’t like to depend on the left, and as politics usually drift right following the current of concentrated wealth, such alliances are always unstable and always break down over something.

The left’s current move is to join in a group of at least 10 parties, including that of the UP Chief Minister Mayawati, to campaign against the nuclear deal, communalism, inflation (it’ll be interesting to see what policy prescriptions they have on this), and agrarian problems. Hard to know what this formation will do, or what its relationship to Congress will be. For me, the behaviour of the BJP in the parliament and since, as well as the textbook controversy here in Kerala, suggests that communalism is still very much alive and needs to be considered as a danger in any political thinking or work.

Hopefully more to say on development, economic, and environmental problems in the coming days.

Countdown to a confidence vote

KOZHIKODE, Kerala, India July 21/08 – The news India is all centered on tomorrow’s confidence vote, on which India’s Congress-led coalition government, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has staked its rule. The confidence vote was necessary, as I said in my previous blog, because of the Indo-US nuclear deal. In between that blog entry and this one, I had a chance to look at a new document prepared by the Left parties, consisting of correspondence between the Left parties and the UPA over the nuclear deal. Now I might be biased but I have to say that the left arguments strike me as much more coherent than the UPA’s, and this seems to emerge very strongly from the correspondence.

But let us review the arguments of the UPA as best we can.

In order to grow, India needs energy. In order to become a world power, India needs help. The Indo-US nuclear deal will provide the energy, but more than that it will provide technology. The deal amounts to a lifting of the embargo against India that has happened since India exploded nuclear devices 10 years ago and will provide access to the latest in nuclear technologies. India will begin a “nuclear renaissance” that will make India a “nuclear superpower”, meeting its energy needs through international agreements for fuel and self-sufficiency in technology, courtesy of the US. Similarly, the economic, political, and military cooperation with the US is aimed at strengthening India’s strategic position as a global power.

The left response is basically as follows.

There is no disputing that India needs energy, and that at present Indians do not use enough energy to lift the majority of the country out of poverty. But the role of nuclear energy in the current mix is 3% and the most optimistic scenario with this deal is that it could reach 6% by 2020. While they make some allusions in this direction, solar and wind investments might make more sense, especially solar, as well as, (unfortunately from the climate perspective, which Indians will suffer from), coal.

Incidentally, the left is not necessarily against civil nuclear power, but it does criticize the technological and economic lock-in that will occur if the Indo-US deal is struck. There are other nuclear technologies India could use that would ultimately rely on local nuclear fuel (thorium) rather than imported uranium. The tens of billions India will spend on imported technologies from Westinghouse, GE, and other American firms are lost opportunities for building domestic energy technology and capacity (of course, I would argue that such opportunities should be pursued in a non-nuclear way, given that nuclear catastrophes in a country like India would be even more catastrophic).

The deal, in any case, does not amount to a lifting of the embargo. The US President has to report to the US Congress each year on whether India is properly handling its nuclear program and whether India’s foreign policy is congruent with that of the US. For example, the US medium-term strategy involves isolating Iran diplomatially, the long-term strategy involves isolating China. “Congruence” means helping the US in these programs. And what does India get from isolating Iran and China? A lost opportunity at peace and integration in its own region, increased dangers from its neighbours, and in the short term, lost energy sources for development (especially in the form of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline).

India’s compliance will be monitored, and if it fails to comply, the US can break the deal and prevent nuclear material from even getting to India. What if the US fails to comply? Perhaps the consequences will be as bad for the US as its blowing off of the Kyoto protocol? Its blowing off of the International Criminal Court? Its blowing off of the softwood lumber agreement with Canada? (In other words, the US can and break agreements at will, without much consequence, while the US is able to make other countries suffer if they break agreements).

Finally, the strategic power India seeks is illusory. Powers do not build up other powers to rival themselves. They build up dependencies to do their bidding. There is no shortcut for India to becoming a global power by a deal with the US. There is only a way to become a client, purchasing arms and playing a regional role of creating mischief and tension in a world that needs neither. What is to be gained by trying to rival China, except forcing China into an arms race of which India’s development and people will be the first victims (and not the US)? Why should India subvert its (admittedly not always consistent) nonaligned history in order to help the US prevent rivals from emerging? To the degree that India has succeeded since independence, it has been by ignoring the advice of the developed countries on economics, politics, and foreign policy, and it has failed by adopting that advice (on agriculture, mass education, intellectual property, and neoliberalism generally). Why risk those gains now?

In any case, there is not much longer to wait. Asking the reader to keep in mind my spectacularly poor record at prediction, I venture that the government will win the confidence vote and the deal will squeak through, though I hope not. I will try to write about it tomorrow (my internet setup is not as good here).

It is interesting to be watching all this from Kerala, which is a somewhat marginal place (its main tourist attraction is literally called the backwaters), not unlike Canada in that sense. Here, in addition to the nuclear deal, there is the textbook controversy I mentioned earlier (in which a 7th grade social science textbook includes a story about a boy who writes down that he has “no religion” in a checkbox). That controversy has now become a tragedy. Reports say that Muslim Youth League activists beat to death a 40-year old school principal, James Augustine, yesterday. He was trying to go to his school and the Muslim Youth League, as well as the Congress League, were protesting outside. Secular activists vowed not to take the mobilizations meekly, and some of them beat up some Muslim Youth activists yesterday, during a dawn-to-dusk “strike”. Today there’s also a one-day education strike, to protest James Augustine’s murder.

Again a superficial impression, since I can’t read Malayalam (I speak it rather poorly) and haven’t really connected with any political people here yet, is that this is a communal agitation for political gain, intended to undermine the government. The government had agreed to back off and amend the textbook somewhat, but the religious activists didn’t back off in response. The role of this type of street agitation, including beating people to death during protests, has some relationship to politics and to the state. I don’t think the police allowed the killing to happen, the way they sometimes do during communal agitations especially in other parts of India, but I don’t actually know their capacities or sympathies – if this type of agitation continues much will depend on both. That the suspects were immediately arrested and that this seems to be widely seen as a tragedy both bode well, though the textbook was amended and that bodes badly.

Next time I’ll try to talk about energy, agriculture, and climate change problems here (for example an anomalously bad rainy season endangers Kerala’s water and hydroelectric supplies – 50% of Kerala’s electricity comes from this source), but in the meantime it’s all about the nuclear deal…

A Day in Delhi

On my way from Pakistan to Kerala, I stopped for a day in Delhi – I have a couple of hours left in this very interesting city. Thanks to friends I had an excellent 48 hours, though I could have stayed much longer and learned much more.

Still, a few thoughts to share. My teacher Gita Kolanad and editor of Seminar Tejbir Singh booked me into the India International Centre, which is a very comfortable haunt of academics and artists (across the street from the International Monetary Fund office actually) with an exhibit on Nelson Mandela and the South African Freedom struggle currently on and a well appointed library where I spent a few hours perusing the remarkable collection of Indian magazines.

I couldn’t help but spend time on the Economic and Political Weekly, which is always very deep and the issue I read was fantastic. It had an article on the food crisis by Prabhat Patnaik, who is a very good left economist. He argued that the current global inflation in food and energy prices masked an earlier phenomenon of global income *deflation* in the neoliberal era. The poor had experienced a drop in their income and their consumption in this period through deflation. How? Three reasons, presented here as I understand them. First, through the neoliberal restructuring and the destruction of welfare programs and subsidies that benefited them. Second, through changes in the economy that devalued their agricultural production relative to other goods (especially manufactured goods that they needed as inputs). Third, through a process he describes in another book, in which elites in the developing world spend on first-world produced goods as status symbols, leaving little surplus left over for investment or advancement of developing economies to higher technological levels (this last is an interesting argument and I think original to Patnaik). Having lost income through deflation, they are now losing again through this new type of inflation, in which basic commodities – especially energy – are rising in price. Patnaik thinks that technological substitution and advance and increased land productivity are all possible with investment, but that capitalism prevents these from being emphasized as possible solutions. I think that the scope for these is limited, but we won’t even have a sense of what the balance between limits of nature and the limits of economic organization until we have a more decent economic organization.

Most of my itinerary yesterday was orchestrated by the extraordinary Badri Raina (with honorable mention to Girish Mishra) who introduced me to Dr. Arjun Dev of NCERT, to some CPM folks, and to some folks at the journal Secular Democracy.

Arjun Dev told an interesting story of a controversy on Kerala textbooks, which he is on a committee to decide on. Apparently in a 7th grade (or 6th grade) textbook, tells a story of a young man whose father has a Muslim name and mother has a Hindu name. He registers for school and where he is to put “religion” and “caste”, his father suggests he puts “none”. The clerk asks the father, what if he is being grouped by religion, where will he fit. The father says if as an adult he develops religious feeling he’s free to choose.

This little lesson has apparently united the orthodox of all religions against it, from those who argue the boy’s parents’ marriage itself is illegal, to those who argue that it is encouraging atheistic ideas among youth at a tender age.

And, well, there is also one other issue that is somewhat in the media here.

That is the Indo-US nuclear deal, which is actually on everyone’s minds. The basic contours of the deal: India gets nuclear technology and aid from the US, US companies profit, India gets the chance to increase its share of nuclear energy production from about 3% to about 7%, the US gets a more reliable ally in the region, India sacrifices its chances at further integration with Iran and other neighbours, the US gets a reliable client for its military, India gets military technology by forfeiting its technological and military independence, and accepts some kind of monitoring of its nuclear program by the US. Both strategic and energy/economic arguments have been advanced for and against the deal. Proponents argue India needs the energy. Opponents argue it won’t provide much energy and will provide it at very high cost, crowding out other options (like cheaper and dirty coal, or renewables like solar and wind), and at the biggest cost of independence and integration in the region. I find the arguments of the Left on this issue to be compelling.

In two days there will be a confidence vote of the Congress-led coalition (UDA) government that the government will probably survive, freeing the government to go ahead with the nuclear deal. But in the meantime the opposition parties and the Congress are doing dozens of deals to try to get enough parliamentarians to keep the government alive (for the ruling party) or bring it down (for the opposition). Those who will vote against the government include the religious (Hindu) right-wing BJP, who helped run the country into the ground and unleash horrific communalism while they were in power, and the Left, who oppose the nuclear deal because it subordinates India’s foreign policy to that of the US in Asia.

The nuclear deal obviously needs more explanation and I will do some more of it here, I hope, in the coming days, but I did want to say that while many are accusing the Left of effectively supporting the BJP, it seems to me that the Left had to do what it did. The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M or CPM) supported the Congress-led coalition from the outside on the basis of a common minimum program. It did so to prevent the right-wing from forming a coalition and in the process helped shift the center of gravity of the government at least somewhat left. When the Congress party started trying to push through the nuclear deal with the United States much more rapidly, probably because of US electoral timelines (and possibly US short-term strategic considerations in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran) and including using procedural tricks to exclude the CPM from the details and timing of the deal, the Left either had to call the bluff or back down. Because they withdrew their support, they are accused of effectively helping the right and of being dogmatic. Had they not withdrawn their support, they would have been accused of acceding to imperialism and of being weak and unprincipled. In any case, what credibility does the smaller party in a coalition have once it is known there are no red lines that it won’t cross? It is unfortunate that it is only such threats that can force centrist parties to not act like right-wing parties (and that only sometimes), but it in this world is better to have such threats than not.

(I can’t help but think of the Canadian parallel. In 2006, the NDP was supporting a Liberal minority government and asked the Liberals for a ban on private health care in Canada among other things. The Liberals wouldn’t do it, so the NDP withdrew support, and the Liberals lost the election. Now we have Conservatives in Canada and it sucks. But the Liberals and Conservatives share most policies on economics and have virtually no differences on foreign policy. JK Galbraith, economist and observer of the US, once said something like when voters have the choice between fake right-wing and real-right wing, they’ll chose the real thing. Hopefully they will have more choices in Canada, and India too).

Badri anyway doesn’t think the BJP can win much more than they already have in an election. As we drove by the house of LK Advani, the BJP leader (who just wrote an unbelievably long and, by the reviews, not very good, autobiography), Girish said: “That’s the house of the Prime-Minister-in-Waiting”. Badri replied: “Yeah, he’s going to keep waiting.”

I hope in the coming days (depending on uncertain internet connections and schedules) I’ll get to explain a little more about the details of the nuclear deal and the politics of it. Also some more thoughts on India’s economy, its progress, and its attempts to join the first world – in wealth, in consumerism, and in exploiting and excluding vast numbers of people. All first world countries have an internal third world. With India, that world is still the majority and the gap between the worlds is bigger, and in some ways, more stark.

So, what am I doing in Islamabad?

I am currently sitting in my very reasonable apartment in the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue guest house, typing at a laptop that is sitting on a dresser and using a wireless connection set up for me by my host, Junaid Ahmad, who borrowed an unused router from an office here at the Islamic University and set it up in the apartment next door. I’m trying to type quickly because the “load-shedding” is going to happen soon and I’ll lose my internet connection in the blackout (there are several of these each day, and it is far better here in Islamabad than most other places). These guest houses are fairly new. Situated next to the “old campus” of the International Islamic University-Islamabad (IIU-I), which is itself attached to the Faisal Mosque, one of the biggest mosques in the country and one of Islamabad’s tourist attractions, the guest houses are equipped with air conditioners, fans, indoor plumbing, a mini-kitchen with a gas stove, and a separate dining room. There are patches of grass in front and behind and gondolas where one could sit and do work if the weather were cool enough. People don’t, because it’s been so hot, which is why people also seem to keep much later hours here than I’m used to, getting up late and going to bed late. Overall the idea of these guest houses is for people to be able to contemplate. There is a gate between these apartments (lined up in a row, like townhouses, and all ground-floor) and the road to the mosque. The gate is always attended by a uniformed security guard, usually the same friendly middle-aged fellow. Most of the staff of the guest house that I’ve seen are men of similar age – they actually bring us guests our meals. I’ve actually spent most of my time here, at the computer, with Ahmed Rashid’s or David Macdonald’s book or local newspapers or magazines. Or, if not here, in the campus buildings.

The IIU-I is a public university and known to be not in the same league as universities like Quaid-e-Azam or LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences). It has an old campus and a new campus. The new campus, which I’ve been to once, is on the other side of town. It is itself divided into men’s and women’s campuses, which as far as I could tell were architecturally identical, mirror images of each other. The old campus is used mainly for administration – the offices of the President, Rector, and institutes (Iqbal Institute, Islamic Research Institute, and others) – are located here. There are a few classrooms and auditoria, and students for our classes take buses from the new campus to this one. The class I’m teaching here, I teach in a small auditorium on this old campus, a 3-minute walk from the guest house.

The teaching is unpaid but the Iqbal Institute is covering part of my travel expenses. My class is called “Critical Thinking” but in retrospect it might have been called “Critical Thinking for the Modern Muslim Woman Psychology Student.” For some reason, even though this university has students in Islamic Studies, Economics, Political Science, International Relations, Environmental Science, Bioinformatics, Media – the vast majority of my 40-some students are psychology students from the women’s campus. I have a smattering of male students form other disciplines (mostly economics and politics). Robert Jensen, who is teaching Media Law and Ethics here, has a slightly bigger group of about 60, all from the Media and Communications program. Males and females are together in our classes, which is not normal practice and which caused a few tensions (see Robert Jensen’s article on an incident that happened the other day). Most of the women in my class wear the hijab, many wear the niqab, and a plurality just wear the traditional shalwar kameez. A couple of the men wear western clothes, most wear the shalwar kameez, and a few alternate on alternating days.

In addition to the class, Jensen and I have been doing some public lectures and interviews. This morning I was on Geo TV’s “Nadia Khan show”, which is usually about entertainment and cultural matters, in which the host, Nadia Khan, takes calls from an adoring audience (like a daily, breakfast version of Oprah, maybe?). I talked about environmental problems and how they impact developing countries, and participated in the ritual of “Happy to You”, in which Nadia exhorted me to dance (seated) while she gave birthday and other greetings to viewers. On perhaps a more serious note, we’ve also done some talks on media and cultural issues, and will be doing a couple more on globalization and democracy in the coming days.

The way that I am teaching “critical thinking” also has some of its own embedded assumptions: my implicit goal is to encourage students to think carefully about their assumptions, question and discard them if necessary, be open to alternative views, and to be able to think free of ideology, or at least to be able to explicitly choose their ideological affiliations from what they know to be a set of alternatives. So I taught some logic and statistics concepts, and then I taught different economic, psychological, and political frameworks (liberalism, conservatism, keynesianism, marxism, freudianism, behaviorism, cognitive). For a writing assignment, I gave them an excellent piece by Chinese Revolutionary Lu Xun on women’s rights, given in 1923. A bonus question was to get them to guess whether the writer was male or female, what country, and what decade – most guessed a Western woman in the 1960s or later.

There is, you may recognize, a certain randomness to my being here, doing this. How would someone who works on environmental problems and tries to write in service of social movements end up teaching at an Islamic University in Pakistan? I obviously seized the opportunity partly for the chance to be close to these events for a journalistic trip, but how did the opportunity come up? The answer is my host, Junaid Ahmad.

Junaid is a mid-twenties recent graduate of law school in the United States, an American of Pakistani origin who seems, from what I can tell, almost as fluent in Urdu (especially the English-loaded Urdu you hear here) as he is in his first language English. He has a booming voice, a sense of humor, and a complete earnestness about leftist politics. I met him at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre five years ago, where I found him to be a very sincere and knowledgeable activist. Over the years since then, I’ve known him mainly through his writing, some of which we published at ZNet and which provided an excellent and nuanced view of politics in Muslim societies, which is his main interest. At times very polemical, Junaid’s writing style sometimes hides the fact that he is humble, open to new thoughts and ideas, deeply committed to social justice. Here in Islamabad, he is the ‘fixer’: the behind-the-scenes person who organized our classes, our public talks, and our meetings with activist and other groups. He’s been an excellent host, and I am here to try to help him with his agenda.

What is that agenda, exactly? You may have noticed that many Muslim countries are currently under the boot of the empire, or under a lot of pressure from it. I don’t dislike the empire because it’s the US, but because it deprives people of their rights and their lives. It also provokes reactions, some of which are healthy and others of which are unhealthy, and conflicts that cause a lot of suffering and have the potential to cause more. Among these is a certain reading of religion and a certain kind of nationalism, which can be sexist, homophobic, authoritarian, hierarchical, anti-democratic. To Junaid, these are not the only readings for either the religion or the community – they are incorrect readings that become hegemonic in society when they serve the interests of the powerful.

On the contrary, social justice and gender equality are all fully compatible with Islam, in his view. If I say that the religious doctrines are a big part of the problem, Junaid argues that my view lacks nuance. But above all his argument seems to me to be strategic, which he himself is reluctant to concede since, according to him, “it makes one’s engagement with his/her faith rather utilitarian”. His question: “Are you interested in criticizing the entire society, or are you trying to transform it?” Because if it’s the latter, you have to meet people where they are. Rather than maligning their faith, Junaid wants to contest those who would use it to argue for hierarchical interpretations, or even those who would use religion for a resistance bereft of social justice content, what Tariq Ali called “the anti-imperialism of fools” in his “Letter to a Young Muslim”.

It has led him into controversy with other activists he respects, but who he feels are too dismissive of religion and unwilling to try to understand why people might be driven to problematic interpretations of Islam. Last year he suggested that the militants at the Lal Mosque were drawn to that ideology because, in addition to being used by the state, they had been abandoned by it, and by those who could have led young people in more constructive directions.

Junaid is working through IIU-I, then, partly because of family connections that go a long way here (his father is the respected political scientist Mumtaz Ahmad, who taught at Hampton University in the US and is now running the Iqbal Institute here at IIU-I), and partly because it is where he thinks his efforts to introduce different readings and interpretations of Islam and politics can make a difference. He brings activists from outside to try to spark a broader intellectual culture on these problems, and he’s brought Farid Esack, As’ad Abukhalil, Shabana Mir, and Robert Jensen through so far. Some of the university’s officials are backing the effort and one was so optimistic that he said that “hopefully, probably, in a few years, it might have a marginal effect,” which of course fit well with my own tendencies toward self-deprecation.

What Junaid is trying to do in Islam is similar (though not exactly the same) to what Robert Jensen is trying to do with Christianity. Some of Jensen’s talks here have touched on these themes and I have had a preview of his upcoming book on it, a book which will expand on his essay “Why I am a Christian (Sort Of)”. Jensen sees religion as spiritual and ethical striving, not as supernatural claims and moralistic rules. Jensen’s argument is clearly also strategic: The US is a deeply religious society, and it makes more sense to try to understand why, to recognize that most or all of what is bad are cultural and political practices that are associated with religion rather than religion itself, and deal with it, rather than to spit on it.

There is a certain kind of liberation theologist (and I know a few of these), regardless of religion, that is at once fun and incredibly frustrating to argue with. They reject all the same ugly practices and the religious justifications for them. They just argue that they are perversions of the religion and not consequences of it, and that religion like any system of thought or ideology is contested terrain. They argue that if one can’t reject socialism and its values of equality and solidarity on the basis of the lack of democracy in the USSR or Cuba, then one also can’t reject Islam because of the practices of the Saudi regime or the Taliban. Junaid can nuance you to death, but in the end he is trying to take an original approach to do something very important. I continue to think I’d rather have the liberation without the theology, but the times are a little too desperate to dismiss projects and ideas that are a little different from my own. And that, I suppose, is why I came here.

Justin Podur was in Islamabad from June 24-July 17. He can be reached at

On drug wars and opium fueled insurgencies

ISLAMABAD JULY 13/08 – Over the past few days the Americans have hit the Pakistanis at the border and are increasing threats of hot pursuit. Some of the peace deals between frontier forces and militant groups are holding. In other areas, the Taliban have besieged Pakistani troops, kidnapped soldiers and others, and killed them in ambushes. In Pakistan’s newspapers the debate is about how much Pakistan can support the American war on terror. An article by Mohammad Ali Siddique suggests that Pakistan can’t afford not to support the Americans and must not engage in separate peace deals with Taliban and al Qaeda groups operating on the border. The Americans and NATO will tire of the war and decide on a negotiated peace, and at that point Pakistan can make peace. But not before, because that would cause America to tilt further towards India and isolate Pakistan from the West.

And being isolated from the West carries heavy penalties. Sudan is feeling that right now: the International Criminal Court has decided to pursue charges against Omar Bashir, the sitting president of Sudan, for war crimes in Darfur. Alex de Waal’s books and blog are the best guides to that complex conflict, and on that blog the ICC’s decision was referred to as “a Disaster in the Making”. Putting aside the political nature of such a prosecution, given that no one is considering prosecuting Bush for what the US is doing in Iraq or Israel for what it’s doing to the Palestinians, there is also the effect of such a move on the possibilities for peace in Sudan. In that context, it is a very irresponsible move, a pre-emptive strike against a negotiated settlement. But it does have another effect: to show third world leaders what might be in store if they are too defiant. Or, in Pakistan’s case, if insufficiently committed to the war on terror.

Of course, the war on terror is not the only war going on in this region. In the background, ready to be re-emphasized at any minute, is the war on drugs. Like the war on terror, it is ill-defined, open-ended, both unwinnable and unlose-able (drugs will never declare victory), and therefore a perpetually useful pretext: until it is widely seen for what it is. Below I will discuss supply, demand, and possible solutions.

Before delving the war on drugs, I would like to dispense with one little phrase. The idea of an “opium fueled insurgency” can be deceptive. It is true that the covert networks designed for smuggling arms and money to counterinsurgent forces – such as the CIA and ISI networks designed to supply the Afghan mujahadin when they fought against the USSR – are also easily converted to drug smuggling networks. It is also true that illicit drugs were understood and tolerated as a way for these forces to support themselves financially during the war against the USSR (on the connection between drugs and covert operations, the indispensable book is Alfred McCoy’s ‘Politics of Heroin’). But the current situation in Afghanistan is slightly different. Today, the Afghan economy is dependent on poppy, which, according to UN sociologist David Macdonald’s book “Drugs in Afghanistan” (Pluto Press 2007), supplies 60% of Afghanistan’s GDP and employs 10% of its people (pg.96). Everyone in the economy, from farmers to local warlords, from foreign intelligence agents to government officials, from the Taliban to probably NATO soldiers as well, are taking a piece. So it’s not just the insurgency that’s opium-fueled, it’s the entire economy.

What is the drugs situation? As with any commodity, we can look at supply and demand. Part of the supply side is the covert networks just discussed. Most opium moves from Afghanistan by the ‘Balkan route’: through Pakistan, Iran, the Gulf States, through to Turkey and Europe (Macdonald pg. 105), taking about 9 months to arrive from the Afghan farm to the European street. There are creative ways of smuggling employed, since high profits in the industry make it feasible to do things like stuff almond shells with heroin and smuggle them randomly interspersed with real almonds. But above all, the trade depends on the suborning of public officials. In Afghanistan, reports range from estimates that dozens to 60% of elected parliamentarians are linked to warlords and drug trafficking in some way (pg. 95). Similar percentages probably apply for police and of course the warlords who still control local areas. Then there are the officials in the countries along the route.

Another important piece in the supply puzzle has to do with the push-the-water-balloon nature of drug cultivation. Both Iran and Pakistan were major opium producers until 1979, when the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan both outlawed production in their countries – production which simply shifted to Afghanistan. If production in Afghanistan could somehow be eliminated, it would no doubt shift somewhere else.

The final supply side consideration is the farmer. No Afghan farmer grows rich from growing poppy. On the contrary, sociologist David Mansfield ( conducts field studies for the UK government and other NGOs on why Afghans do or do not grow poppy. He found four differences between farmers who grow poppy and those who are able to make a living growing vegetables, fruit, wheat, and other cash crops. First, poppy growers have less land (or no land, working as sharecroppers). Second, poppy growers have more debt. Third, poppy growers live in areas where access to market is difficult, while successful non-poppy growing farmers live near provincial centers. Fourth, poppy growers generally live in regions where the writ of the state is weak or not fully extended.

In this context, eradication programs lead to financial ruin for already heavily indebted farmers.

In a May 2007 report to the UK government, Mansfield warns that “talk of spraying elicits the threat of violence and/or a declaration of intent to support Anti Government Elements. The perception that corruption is endemic amongst those conducting eradication (including their involvement in the drug trade) and reports of bribery and partiality during implementation further weakens the legitimacy of counter narcotics efforts.” He also notes reports that “in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar as well as Farah, there were increasing reports of Taliban and government officials finding ways to co-exist. Respondents suggested that in many areas both sides had made agreements not to engage in hostile action. These agreements left government officials undisturbed in the district centres whilst the Taliban were free to operate in the surrounding rural areas.” Evidently Pakistan is not the only place where separate peace agreements and local arrangements are being made.

Now we turn to the demand side. In the imaging of Afghanistan as a source of drugs that corrupt the streets and youth of the West, the many victims of addiction in the region are made invisible, as Macdonald shows. Addiction is complex, but it does go along with displacement and war. Many Afghan refugees became addicted to opium in Pakistan or Iran (both of which have major addiction problems of their own) and brought their addictions back when they returned. Without prospects for peace or opportunity, religious and legal restrictions are insufficient to stop people from turning to opium and heroin to dull their pain. A study by the RAND corporation years ago suggested that the cheapest way to fight a drug war was to spend dollars on treatment for addiction, which was far cheaper than trying to interdict shipments of drugs or eradicate crops.

Finally, to solutions. The most likely possibility is that the drug war will be allowed to continue, providing its many benefits to many people and meting out suffering to many others. Perhaps a truce will be called for a time? The governor of Helmand province suggested in 2006 that those in the drug business should be encouraged to invest their profits in Afghanistan (construction companies and industries) rather than taking the money out to tax havens (Macdonald pg. 97). Among those seeking victory in the war on drugs, some look to the Taliban’s ban on opium in 2000 as a total success. Macdonald points out several problems with this: first, it was accomplished through terror. Second, it was only a year-long, a year in which, some suggest, the Taliban used the ban to drive the price up so they could sell off existing stocks at high profit margins, after which they would have probably allowed cultivation to resume (had they not been deposed).

One suggestion by the Senlis Council (a European think tank) in 2005, is to license Afghanistan to produce opium legally. Today, licit opium is produced by Turkey, India, France, Australia, Hungary, Spain, and a few other countries (pg. 34). The idea was rejected by the Afghan government. The counter argument by the Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics, that they could not guarantee that opium wouldn’t be smuggled out for the illicit trade, seems to me to be unconvincing. How could a situation where some licit and some illicit opium was coming out of Afghanistan be worse than the current situation? Of course, this kind of licensing would have problems too: it would drastically lower the price available to the farmer, who would probably then require some form of price support (which could also be applied to other crops). Without such support, and so long as an illegal market existed and set a higher price, smuggling would continue.

David Mansfield and David Macdonald implicitly suggest some mix of alternative development for farmers, interdiction, and fighting the addiction. Within the current framework of prohibition, that may be the best that can be done. But accepting the current framework means accepting some absurdities. Macdonald reports that “Australian and German bio-engineers have also recently created another alternative to traditional opium poppy plants, mutated poppy plants that produce… thebaine and oripavine used in analgesic pharmaceutical drugs… but without producing morphine that can be processed into heroin.” (pg. 71)

Surely we ought to be able to change the rules to fit the plants than to change the plants to fit the rules.

In the 1970s, under the imperially-controlled regime of the Shah, Iran managed to distribute opium legally to registered addicts. In Macdonald’s words, this “suggested a humane drug regime that permitted older people who had used opium for many years the comfort afforded by regulated doses of opium for the aches and pains of old age and to avoid suffering withdrawals.” Those under 60 had to seek treatment – treatment based on a maintenance dose (for more arguments on ending prohibition, see Mike Gray’s 2000 book “Drug Crazy”). Most societies seem to combine both irrationality and hypocrisy in their drug policies. These serve those who profit from the drug war, the monies, the weapons, and the pretexts that it provides. They do not serve addicts, users, or farmers. An end to prohibition and an end to the drug war would take a powerful weapon away from the war on terror.

Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad. He can be reached at

The writ of the state: Is Pakistan’s insurgency fueled by too little state, too much, or the wrong kind?

ISLAMABAD JULY 8/08 – Another couple of days of bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan, each with its own message and each by a different group. A couple of days ago the Americans hit a wedding party and killed over 20 people in Afghanistan. In Kabul yesterday the Indian embassy was struck by a suicide bomber killing over 40 people. The next day a series of bombings in Karachi – six blasts in an hour, wounding dozens. These bombs were low intensity, and not suicide blasts. After the bombing of the Indian embassy, an Afghan official said something like: “we believe an intelligence agency from the region was involved” – a clear allusion to Pakistan’s ISI. A friend speculated that the bombings in Karachi were India’s response – a warning in this world where governments send messages to each other by bombing people. The American bombing of Pakistani troops weeks ago is widely thought of as sending a message to the Pakistani army.

It raises a question of who the sides are in this war. The Pakistani army has engaged in some bloody fighting against the Taliban on the border in the past, although the current method involves negotiation and conceding control of areas to the Taliban. When the government fights the insurgents, they are seen as doing the bidding of the US. On the other hand, according to Ahmed Rashid’s analysis, the government uses and manipulates the insurgents and historically has used them to try to have their way in Afghanistan. This is why the responses to the insurgency are so contradictory. The US mission is expensive and its interests there are unclear – the US supposedly wants to find and destroy al Qaeda, but there are also ways that a constant terrorist threat is useful to governments that try to use fear to control the population. The US also probably wants troops and bases in the region to watch South and Central Asia.

In his new book “Descent into Chaos”, the incomparable Ahmed Rashid offers an analysis that is at its core a statement to the US: if you really want to get rid of al Qaeda, you have to do something about the Taliban; if you want to stop the Taliban, you have to rebuild Afghanistan and allow Pakistan to democratize (ie., stop supporting the military exclusively). For the US, though, the questions are – there are costs and benefits to al Qaeda’s existence as a low-level insurgency capable of doing occasional terror attacks on US civilians, there are benefits to having US troops in the region, but the costs of what it would take to really stop them really worth it? Would paying those costs bring the US increased control over the region or the world?

Probably not. The Taliban would wither away if Afghanistan and Pakistan had the type of sovereignty where the direction of government and economy were determined by their people (and if there were sensible global agricultural policies and no drug prohibition – but more on that in a future column), the dream of third world nationalism. Under such conditions the Taliban would have no legitimate claim to be fighting foreign occupation and all they would have to offer was social conservatism and violence. Other political and social forces would emerge they would not be able to compete with.

Unfortunately, a dream of a world of sovereign countries is a nightmare for the US. In that sense, I disagree with Rashid: I don’t think the US will act in ways that would bring its citizens safety from terrorism, because the rewards of domination of the region, for those in charge, outweigh the risks of terrorism against US citizens. On the other hand, not everything is under US control. The Taliban (and probably part of Pakistan’s establishment) figures NATO will get tired of the costs and go, and that they can be waited out. If the US choice is between building a sovereign Afghanistan and allowing a sovereign and democratic Pakistan on the one hand and cutting some kind of deal and leaving on the other, they are more likely to just leave.

If it is too much to suggest the US can suddenly act benevolent, what about Pakistan? The Taliban, some argue, have flourished not just because of the NATO occupation of Afghanistan but also because of the absence of the state in the border areas. A story by Anwarullah Khan in yesterday’s Dawn reports the Taliban setting up Sharia courts in Bajuar agency, “and a large number of people are using them to get disputes resolved, instead of waiting for action by the tribal administration.” The Taliban said this was because people were tired of the current system. That’s one response to a vacuum created by the state’s absence from an area. Another is lynching, as happened in Karachi in May. Four men had robbed a house, were caught by a mob and three of them killed. Police were stopped from helping the victims. Another attempted lynching happened a few days later in Lahore but police were able to save the robbers. Anees Jillani in the June edition of the (excellent) monthly magazine “Newsline” argues that the police are underresourced and untrustworthy, the judges corrupt or afraid.

But it might be too simplistic to talk of the “absence of the state”. The June edition of “Herald”, another fine magazine, had a special feature on “The Great Land Robbery”: in which elites, entrepreneurs, the military and bureaucrats took a great deal of land for the Gwadar port in Balochistan (a resource-rich province with poor people) and distributed it for personal enrichment, with callous disregard for local people’s rights. There are stories of local fishing and picnic spots being seized to make way for tourist hotels, of people being roughed up for trying to get their rights to their own land recognized, and worse. The cover story concludes: “Though the focus so far has remained on the violent conflict taking place elsewhere in the province, Gwadar too is seething quietly.” Here the state isn’t absent so much as present in ways that are negative, which generates rebellion as a consequence. That the state then deals with the rebellion by force doesn’t help address the deeper problem of the nature of the state and its relationship to the people.

Without addressing that though, it is hard to see how the current problems could be solved. A hard-nosed analyst might say “yes, but we live in the world we live in, and neither NATO nor Pakistan’s government are perfect but they are the only tools to deal with the Taliban.” That would be true if they were tools that were capable of fixing, rather than further breaking, the situation. It might actually be less realistic to expect the US or Pakistan’s establishment to solve these problems.

Ahmed Rashid argues in his book that the Taliban were not of Afghanistan or Pakistan but a kind of transnational phenomenon. The flip side of that is that they don’t have, and I don’t think will get, deep roots in Punjab or Sindh or even Balochistan, where there are other class structures and huge concentrations of economic, political, and military power and a 150-or-so-million other people. The maximal scenario, it seems to me, is that when NATO leaves, if NATO leaves irresponsibly as they are likely to, the Taliban could take over Afghanistan and Pakistan’s NWFP. That would be a terrible outcome, but I believe the counterinsurgency underway makes that outcome more likely as time goes on. A similar suggestion has been made more than once in the media here in recent days: that Pakistan just withdraw to the borders of NWFP and allow the Americans to occupy the region. It is offered tongue-in-cheek, of course, because that would just precipitate the Taliban takeover and also discredit Pakistan’s government massively domestically and internationally – governments don’t, and can’t, willingly hand over parts of their country for foreign occupation.

Where does that leave the writ of the state? The writ of the US should not be over Afghanistan or Pakistan, and it is creating more problems than it is solving. Withdrawal is necessary, and the sooner the better. One can recognize that there are more and less responsible ways to withdraw without supporting an imperial power’s claim that it needs to be there to prevent things from getting worse. As for the writ of Pakistan’s state and its transformation, that’s a project for the people, but one that would also be made easier without destructive US interference.

Justin Podur is currently visiting Islamabad. He can be reached at

A bombing in Islamabad; suspended operations in NWFP

ISLAMABAD JULY 7/08 – Last night there was news of a suicide bombing at a police station near the Lal Mosque in Islamabad. The Lal Mosque, last year, was the site of a takeover by Muslim students, who had been doing vigilante actions and some kidnappings, and who were eventually overrun by force, with the authorities killing many of them. There was a rally to commemorate that event, and a bombing nearby. 19 people were killed in the bombing. Among them, 15 were police who had been deployed to the rally.

The editorial pages are full of opinion and analysis on how to deal with the insurgency. A column in yesterday’s Dawn by Anwar Syed had an interesting argument: “The view is shared by many that America’s war with the Taliban is not our war, and that by joining it our government has been killing our own people… the problem is that the Taliban do not and will not, even if our American connection is broken, treat the generality of Pakistanis as their people. They think of us as nominal Muslims, hypocrites, worse than infidels. They have no interest in our survival and well-being as individuals or as a state.” Syed goes on to advocate the use of force against them, something I am not so confident will produce the desired result. But he makes an interesting point.

The point is also made by Ahmed Rashid, whose book, “Descent into Chaos”, I saw at about a dozen bookstores in the Saddar bazaar in Rawalpindi, where I went yesterday. One bookseller told me it was his bestselling book. Rashid argues (pg. 401) that “the Taliban belong to neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan, but are a lumpen population, the product of refugee camps, militarized madrasses, and the lack of opportunities in the borderland of Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have neither been true citizens of either country nor experienced Pashtun tribal society. The longer the war goes on, the more deeply rooted and widespread the Taliban and their transnational milieu will become.”

Rashid also talks about the Lal Mosque incident in his conclusion (pg.382), arguing that the government tolerated the students actions for a long time to send the message of its own indispensability to the international community – if Islamic militancy could reach the capital, who could keep it down except the military government? By using the students this way, the military helped create a movement that it would then violently suppress.

Rashid’s prescription for Pakistan cites a paper by the Pakistan ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, who calls for (pg. 403) “national reconciliation that brings an end to the demonization of politicians by the army; a new military culture that is taught to respect civilians, institutions, and neighbors; and reformed intelligence agencies that cease to interfere politically.”

In other words, Rashid is arguing that phrase you hear a lot here – that the ‘writ of the state’ needs to be extended, but that it has to be a different kind of state. An interesting question that arises is, is it better for the current state, with its too-strong military and interfering intelligence agencies, to try to extend its writ into places where the insurgency is strong, or would that only make things worse, until the state is transformed?

In the meantime, what the state is doing is a complicated mix of negotiating peace pacts with some groups, threatening operations against others, and doing operations in some areas where the insurgent groups have advance warning to leave the area. The recent operations in Bara in the NWFP against the Lashkar e Islam of Mangal Bagh concluded this way, with the leader Mangal Bagh agreeing to negotiate and the operation being suspended as a result. As Rashid’s book shows, this rhythym of negotiation and advance-warned operation has been part of a pattern in the past few years. Other repeated acts are US missile attacks, some bloody operations by the military, and assassinations, killings, and kidnappings by the militants.

One of the most perceptive commentaries I’ve seen was by Rafia Zakaria from a couple of days ago in the Daily Times. A lawyer and doctoral student based in the US, she compared the narrative of the Taliban, which says it is fighting the Americans who are occupying Afghanistan and their proxies in the Pakistan military and government, with the narrative of the government, which has not been able to come up with so clear a narrative. In these political-military conflicts, words are as important as weapons, and the story of a government trying to fight extremism is not compelling when the government clearly uses extremism when it’s convenient.

Perhaps a narrative of being committed to day-to-day issues could work? But not for a government committed to privatization. The government actually finally deregulated gas prices, which gives sellers the option of raising prices further. There are multifaceted water problems, too, with recent flooding in Rawalpindi causing 2 people to drown, sewage coming up into hospitals, and outbreaks of diseases caused by sewage in the water. On the flip side, tube wells tapping into the water table could lower it to dangerous levels, according to Pakistan’s Environmental Protection Agency (quoted by Atif Khan in Saturday’s Daily Times-Islamabad). An organization wanting to deal with day-to-day issues will quickly find itself contending with non-governmental organizations – the subject of a future column.