US President Obama, age 21 subscribes Airtel from Nalgonda(AP)!

If the records of a private telecom operator are to be believed, then US President Barack Obama is a 21-year-old resident of Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh. In a telling laxity of the telecom service providers in granting telephone connections to all and sundry without proper verification, a Nalgonda resident by the name of M Prasad secured a cellphone connection with the number 9177523297 by passing off the photograph of the US President as his.

To prevent such ludicrous irregularities from occurring in the future, the cops have suggested that TRAI should immediately ban the telecom service providers from activating the mobile connections through third party mechanism.

Read the full news: Man uses Barack Obama’s photo to get new mobile phone connection

Book review by Aditya Sinha: Pakistan on the Brink

Fear and Loathing in AFPAK

Aditya Sinha

Next week marks the anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the man who sat in a cave and on September 11, 2001, attacked America. In the decade between the attack and the assassination, the Americans produced a long list of books dealing with AfPak – Obama’s shorthand for Afghanistan-Pakistan, though his advisors believe it ought to be PakAf – but almost all see matters through the prism of the US strategic establishment. Bob Woodward probably covers wider ground than most, but only because he is, as the late essayist Christopher Hitchens put it, “stenographer to the stars”; and still, his books have not been the best on the subject. (Tuesday will see the release of Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, which promises to be fairly juicy.) Surpassing them all, arguably, is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whose Taliban: Militant Islam, Fundamentalism, and Oil in Central Asia fortuitously published just before 9/11 suddenly became a handbook for not just those of us covering the War on Terror but the entire planet. Since then, Rashid has put his expertise to good use, producing newspaper and magazine articles that rival The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh for both inside information and deep perspective. In 2008, he published Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia which though demandingly dull reading, was uncannily prescient of how things would unfold in the region. And now comes his Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West which makes for an absorbing, if sobering, read.

Courtesy: Aditya Sinha, Editor-In-Chief, DNA

It begins with an account of the secret US operation to kill Bin Laden; it is a defining incident not just because 9/11 began a chain of events which changed the world (the destruction of Iraq, the democratisation of West Asia, the global trend of encroachment on civil liberties in the name of security, etc), and not just because the hunt for Osama changed warfare in that the unmanned aerial vehicle has become the weapon of choice for the world’s militaries, but also because the unilateral operation defined bilateral relations in such a way that Rashid says: “The United States and Pakistan are just short of going to war.” What a sea-change from their relationship until 9/11.
Ahmed Rashid’s riveting account of the Osama operation beat Bergen’s upcoming book and a probably Woodward book on the subject (I’d bet on the Woodward book to come out shortly before the November US presidential elections). In this, and with the various political analyses in the book, Rashid was helped by wide access: regular meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a briefing to US President Barack Obama, briefings from the UN hierarchy and of course, sources all over the Pakistani establishment. His big source in the US government was apparently the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for AfPak, who suddenly died at the end of 2010, perhaps due to turf wars in the US administration which Obama could not mediate and which contributed to the failure to find a way forward in AfPak.
The Osama operation made the Pakistanis livid. Faced with angry junior officers, Army Chief General Parvez Kayani “took the easy way out by blaming the entire episode on the Americans for breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty – but he failed to answer the obvious questions: What had bin Laden been doing in Abbottabad for six years, and why had the ISI not found him?” Rashid asks. He says something you rarely hear his countrymen publicly ask, that the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was actually by Osama, and not by Obama.
For the duration that Osama was a fugitive many Indians smirked at how Pakistan appeared to be pulling the wool over the US’s eyes. It turns out that the US wasn’t fooled, and that it was making plans. As CIA director, Leon Panetta gave his government a list of clandestine operations he wanted, including “even setting up a parallel intelligence organisation that would be hidden from the ISI”. In 2009, Obama “had secretly authorised the CIA to conduct large-scale recruitment of Pakistanis to establish a clandestine intelligence operation, with the help of fifty CIA officers… In other words, the Americans had set up a specific, secret, second intelligence agency to find Osama bin Laden.” Obviously, despite the sheer audacity of the idea of a secret spy outfit right under the ISI’s nose, it was something that had to be done. Obviously, it would seriously injure bilateral relations.
The biggest factor in souring relations was the US approach to Afghanistan, for Obama never made it clear what he wanted. We know that he wants to start leaving Afghanistan by 2014; it’s a political decision given the domestic unpopularity of the war. We know that he has overcome the American revulsion to negotiating with the Taliban (as even India has); “the Taliban had matured considerably since the 1990s”, having tired of war and also having tired of being ruthlessly under the ISI thumb. We know he wants to leave a permanent base in Afghanistan.
But beyond that, the Americans have never clearly defined a political approach to sorting out Afghanistan; as Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars points out, Obama’s first year was spent fighting a battle with the Pentagon on another troop “surge” with which he was able to sell his pull-out plan. Holbrooke’s brief was never taken seriously. The Americans, as Rashid tells us, started negotiating with the Taliban without telling Pakistan, but once the ISI found out, it threw the negotiator in jail. The ISI then planted a phony negotiator who tripped the process up. The Americans never had a strategy for Karzai, around whom nepotism and corruption intensified. The US was unable to help the Afghans build an economy, and Rashid predicts that when troops begin leaving, Afghanistan will collapse in an economic depression.
The US has to now deal with the Pakistan Taliban, whose fingers are itching for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It’s not a far-fetched dream. One of the book’s implications is that as the Pakistan state weakens so does the Pakistan Army. Though the Army dominates the state, it is still part of it. If you watch Gen Kayani’s pattern of behavior, as Rashid does, you begin to see that Gen Kayani is a singularly weak Army Chief, made weaker by President Asif Ali Zardari granting him an extension. There truly is a Mexican standoff between the extremists, the corrupt civilians and the Army. How Pakistan pulls itself out of this is difficult to see, though you can’t blame Rashid for trying to figure a way out.
Since we keep hearing about how Pakistan wants India out of Afghanistan (and how the ISI uses the Haqqani Taliban against Indian interests), Rashid views are refreshing: “Pakistan accepts only… no role for India – yet India is the region’s economic powerhouse and is the most likely investor in Afghanistan’s economy,” he writes. “A peaceful solution to the Afghan war must include the participation of India.”
While reading this fascinating and lively collection of essays, I wondered whether Ahmed Rashid would have written this book had Al Gore become president instead of George W Bush. Would Gore have invaded Iraq, diverting resources that could have helped Afghanistan to its feet, as Rashid argues? After all, Iraq was an American neo-conservative project. Who knows? The Americans suffered a huge blow to their pride and prestige with 9/11, and as it involved Arabs they could not let the Arab World go unpunished. They had to show the world that they could destroy a country that was brazenly against it. In that sense, with Pakistan’s Taliban far from defeated, and the nuclear-armed military losing its grip with each passing day, you would have to say that Pakistan is really and truly on the brink.

Pul-e-Jawan in India: How talks can bring peace

Results can’t be seen overnight but talking peace is part of making peace. PHOTO: CITIZENS MEDIA FORUM, DELHI

The Pul-e-Jawan country forum in India, organised by the Citizen Media Network, convened in Delhi on April 14. It was a follow-up to an event in Kabul where citizen journalists and young peacemakers from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India had met in February.

This  event was organised just two days after the Pul-e-Jawan forum in Pakistan, which was hosted by Bytes for All in Islamabad on April 11 and April 12.

So, where does the name Pul-e-Jawan come from and what is its aim? As their website states,

“Pul-e-Jawan literally means ‘Bridges of Youth’ in Dari, as well as in Urdu and Hindi. The aim of Pul-e-Jawan is to transform the conflict in South Asia by highlighting youth perspectives on common challenges and aspirations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.”

In addition to on the ground work, campaigns and meetings, this forum intends to use the power of social media to exchange ideas and reach out to people across national boundaries. It also looks to finding ways of carrying conversations without feeling limited by the difficulty in attaining visas.

Shivam Vij, journalist and founding member of Kafila put it quite aptly when he said at the Pul-e-Jawan country forum in India:

When you think of the other country, you first think of the border. You don’t imagine it as a country full of people, roads, street signs, food and conversations. You imagine it through images you can access, through state narratives and media narratives, and also narratives of people who have come from there.

However, social media allows you to drop into internal conversations between Pakistanis. You get to see the country in a nuanced way. You get to know a place without visiting it.

He also shared numerous examples of cross-border friendships, some of which are documented in a piece he wrote for First Post last year.

Dr Madanmohan Rao, Research Project Director of Mobile Monday, also spoke at the event about the significant role social media has played in countries like Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. He shared a number of case studies and hoped for the possibility of using social media to express, question and critique.

His ardent faith in the potential of social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogs was refreshing, especially since the speakers who preceded him seemed rather sceptical of the new media. They kept harping on the time-honoured importance of traditional forums like newspapers, magazines and television channels. What they didn’t take in to account was that traditional media and new media could work together and support each other.

Of course, one cannot overlook the fact that only a tiny percentage of India’s population has access to computers and the internet. However, using this gap as an excuse to undermine the potential of social media is unfair .

At the same time, it is important to remember what journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, said at the forum:

Social media does push the boundaries of freedom of expression. That’s great but in the midst of all this optimism about the internet, I’d like to sound a word of caution. Let’s remember that there is no substitute for going to the field and meeting people.

All these speakers at Pul-e-Jawan’s India forum gave the audience a vibrant range of examples and ways in which citizens can become media practitioners and contribute enthusiastically to public dialogue and social change.

Two other highlights of the day are worth mentioning; a talk by Dilip Simeon, Chairperson of Aman Trust and the performance of Dastan-e-Taqseem-e-Hind by Ankit Chadha and Darain Shahidi.

Dilip Simeon gave a spirited talk, emphasising the importance of speaking out and standing up against injustice and human rights violations. He introduced the audience to the concept of ‘collective guilt’, whereby the onus of acts committed by individuals is seen as synonymous with what the whole community should take responsibility for.

For example, if a politician is assassinated by the people of a certain religion, all members of that community are seen as guilty and avenged for the crime. It was a powerful concept and struck a chord with many. This was mainly because it came only a few hours after the performance of Dastan-e-Taqseem-e-Hind; a story spun around the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. It was presented in the tradition of Dastangoi, a lost art form of Urdu storytelling currently being revived by Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Husain.

The performance was very moving and got a hearty applause from the audience. It became even more poignant when Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes for All joined us on Skype from across the border. Shahzad spoke of the need to build bridges and work together on online and offline initiatives. He focused on pressurising governments for a more relaxed visa regime to enable greater inter-personal contact, which is crucial to a more humane understanding of the demonised other across the border.

Did the forum yield any tangible results?

Can one make peace seated in a plush auditorium?

Did our voices reach the people who make decisions?

These questions are bound to come up.

But there are no easy answers for them. The best one I’ve come across was uttered by Shivam Vij:

Talk shopping is very important. Chai and charcha (tea and talks) can bring aman and chain (peace and calm).

I believe in this. We can’t expect to see results overnight, but talking about peace is a part of making peace. In today’s circus of competing and conflicting voices, it is important to stand up for what you believe in. And when there are so many people believing in the same thing, a difference is a certain reality. It is just a matter of time.

I came back really inspired from the Pul-e-Jawan gathering, and I have a feeling that many others did too. (courtesy: Chintan Modi/

Follow Chintan on Twitter @chintan_connect