Tag Archives: New York Times

How not to promote democracy in Pakistan

Bill Keller, formed Executive Editor of The New York Times, has a must-read piece about US-Pakistan relations in this coming Sunday’s New York Times magazine. There’s quite a bit worth mulling over, but one item in particular drew our attention.

In late October, Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad, leading a delegation that included Petraeus, recently confirmed as C.I.A. director, and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Mullen’s successor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Petraeus used to refer to Holbrooke as “my diplomatic wingman,” a bit of condescension he apparently intended as a tribute. This time, the security contingent served as diplomacy’s wingmen.

The trip was intended as a show of unity and resolve by an administration that has spoken with conflicting voices when it has focused on Pakistan at all. For more than four hours, the Americans and a potent lineup of Pakistani counterparts talked over a dinner table.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the dinner was the guest list. The nine participants included Kayani and Pasha, but not President Zardari or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, who provided the dining room at his own residence and made himself scarce. The only representative of the civilian government was Clinton’s counterpart, the new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, a 34-year-old rising star with the dark-haired beauty of a Bollywood leading lady, a degree in hospitality management from the University of Massachusetts and, most important, close ties to the Pakistani military.

Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has proven to be an able and effective representative for Pakistan, and she was appointed by the Prime Minister in accordance with constitutional requirements. Whether she has close ties to the Pakistani military, we are not in any position to know, but regardless, she is one official who should properly attend such a dinner. Unfortunately, so are President Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and the fact that they were left out speaks volumes about why democratic governments continue to be viewed as weak even within Pakistani society. If American officials believe that decisions realistically require the input of Pakistan’s military leadership, they should also require the input on Pakistan’s civilian leadership.

Talking about supporting Pakistani democracy is one thing, but it takes actually demonstrating respect for the civilian leadership to facilitate it.

Extremist Groups on Pakistan’s Campuses – Should Americans Worry?

University of Punjab students protesting against IJT

University of Punjab students protest against Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) and extremism on campus

The New York Times today reports a troubling story about the rise of extremism on college campuses in Pakistan. College campuses have long been home to twenty-somethings experimenting with radical thought. Even conservative commentator P.J. O’Rourke was a college Marxist in his day. But are Pakistan’s centers of education becoming incubators for extremist ideology and violence? There are many reasons to believe that, despite the Times story, the answer is no.

The Times story begins by noting that posters were plastered around the University of Punjab advertising an essay contest eulogizing Osama bin Laden. No sponsor was listed on the posters, and the only contact information given was an email address. No award ceremony was presented, and it is not known whether any students actually participated in the mysterious “contest.” All in all, not much of a story.

With little substance to the story of the mysterious flyers, the reporter shifts to a discussion of the student organization Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), a youth organization started in 1947 by Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi – founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami political party.

The IJT is notorious for its conservative brand of Islam, and the violence with which it enforces its beliefs on college campuses. Though the group claims popular support, this is belied by the fact that the group is forced to resort to threats of violence against its fellow students.

As Salman Masood reports, IJT members in June beat a male student for sitting too close to a female colleague – an act they deemed un-Islamic. Despite IJT’s willingness to resort to violence, Pakistani students are standing up to IJT. After the incident in June, students held a demonstration against the IJT’s tactics. University administrators, too, are cracking down by expelling students involved in extremism.

Political extremism is a problem on college campuses across cultures, even in the US. In 2000, racist flyers were posted on the University of Texas campus twice in one month. In 2005, pro-Nazi flyers were distributed on campus at Central Michigan University. In 2009, Neo-Nazi posters were found at Bucknell University’s campus. While this is a problem, it is one that should be addressed in a way that recognizes the unique political environment of college campuses.

The intensity of student politics is amplified by the energy and passion of youth. As newly independent adults, campus activists often find themselves pushing boundaries and testing the limits of social acceptability. Whether or not IJT itself is complicit in promoting sympathy for a figure like Osama bin Laden, Americans should take heart from the fact that the views of IJT are still so unpopular that they must be enforced at gunpoint.

There are thousands of reasons to believe that Pakistan’s university campuses are not becoming hotbeds of extremism – each of those reasons is a moderate Pakistani student who rejects such ideologies. Rather than treating all Pakistani students as suspect because of the actions of a few misguided activists, those who support democracy and justice in Pakistan should support the moderate majority of students in Pakistan to ensure they are able to receive a quality education that they can take into the workforce to tackle the challenges facing their nation.

News Reports on Aid to Pakistan Don’t Match Reality

Bill Daley on This Week

When I saw the headline hit Twitter on Saturday, U.S. Is Deferring Millions in Pakistani Military Aid, I immediately thought the worst. But after reading the Times report in full, my fears were allayed. Despite the calls from some to cut aid to Pakistan, this was not happening. The government was merely pausing the delivery of some aid because the trainings and other deliverables the aid was intended to pay for were also being put on hold. Over the next two days, however, the story seems to have taken on a life of its own, and much of the following reporting and commentary does not match reality.

The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg describes the latest news as a policy of “humiliating Pakistan.” Goldberg appears to be basing his read on a single Politico article. What else could explain this paragraph:

What is important is that the Obama Administration believes that public embarrassment of an on-again, off-again ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism will bring that ally to heel. This does not seem like a path to success. The Pakistanis want the respect of the U.S., or at least some recognition that, despite the Bin Laden calamity, they have also suffered at the hand of extremists, and that thousands of Pakistanis have died fighting extremism.

Here’s what Bill Daley actually said:

“Obviously they have been an important ally in the fight on terrorism. They’ve been the victim of enormous amounts of terrorism,” Daley said. “But right now they have taken some steps that have given us reason to pause on some of the aid which we were giving to their military, and we’re trying to work through that.”

Unlike Jeffrey Goldberg’s assertion, the Obama administration has and continues to recognize Pakistan’s suffering at the hands of extremists and the great sacrifice their military has made in the fight against militant extremists, and continues to be an ally to Pakistan in our mutual struggle against terrorism.

Daniel Markey, Senior Fellow for Indian, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, at least realizes that cutting aid to Pakistan is not a viable means of changing Pakistan’s strategic calculus, but he too continues the narrative that deferring this military aid is in some way punitive.

The Obama administration is putting the screws to Pakistan, cutting roughly 40 percent of U.S. military assistance (NYT) and publicly challenging the activities of Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI). The question is: Will these coercive efforts pay dividends, or will they contribute to a downward spiral in U.S.-Pakistan relations?

But is this really “putting the screws to Pakistan?” Let’s take a moment to revisit the original New York Times report.

Altogether, about $800 million in military aid and equipment, or over one-third of the more than $2 billion in annual American security assistance to Pakistan, could be affected, three senior United States officials said.

This aid includes about $300 million to reimburse Pakistan for some of the costs of deploying more than 100,000 soldiers along the Afghan border to combat terrorism, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in training assistance and military hardware, according to half a dozen Congressional, Pentagon and other administration officials who were granted anonymity to discuss the politically delicate matter.

Some of the curtailed aid is equipment that the United States wants to send but Pakistan now refuses to accept, like rifles, ammunition, body armor and bomb-disposal gear that were withdrawn or held up after Pakistan ordered more than 100 Army Special Forces trainers to leave the country in recent weeks.

Some is equipment, such as radios, night-vision goggles and helicopter spare parts, which cannot be set up, certified or used for training because Pakistan has denied visas to the American personnel needed to operate the equipment, two senior Pentagon officials said.

And some is assistance like the reimbursements for troop costs, which is being reviewed in light of questions about Pakistan’s commitment to carry out counterterrorism operations. For example, the United States recently provided Pakistan with information about suspected bomb-making factories, only to have the insurgents vanish before Pakistani security forces arrived a few days later.

As is clear from the Times report, much of the aid is being held up because it’s earmarked for trainings and operations that aren’t happening, or it’s assistance that “Pakistan now refuses to accept.” This sounds more like basic accounting than “putting the screws to Pakistan.”

And that’s not all. The headline on the original Times report used the term “deferring”. The reporters spoke of the administration “suspending and, in some cases, canceling”. When speaking with ABC, White House Chief of Staff Daley said, “hold back.” The only people talking about “cutting aid” are journalists and analysts.

I mention Jeffrey Goldberg and Daniel Markey specifically because these two gentlemen both have a history of writing fair and accurate analyses of US-Pakistan relations. And, yet, they both fall for the chicken little narrative that sees every development as a sign of the end of US-Pakistan relations.

According to government officials, the US is holding back aid that is earmarked for specific deliverables that are also being put on hold. If Pakistan chooses to resume these trainings and other operations, the funds will be delivered. There has been no “cut” to the amount of aid approved for Pakistan.

[Pentagon spokesman Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan] emphasized the delayed aid is a hold, not a halt, and the funds may be delivered if the two nations can resolve certain issues.

The US and Pakistan continue to cooperate in the fight against militant extremists, including Pakistani military offensives against Taliban fighters along the border with Afghanistan. Over a billion dollars in military aid for mutually agreed upon operations continues to flow to Pakistan, as does the billions of dollars in civilian aid set aside by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill. Reality may be less exciting, but it is the way things are.

Quality of US Reporting on Pakistan is Lacking

The quality of US reporting on Pakistan is lacking. This is increasingly evident from the number of reports filed by respected, award-winning journalists at mainstream media outlets that end up proven inaccurate. While some of the confusion may be due to the generally complex nature of US-Pakistan relations,  producers and journalists need to re-examine their processes for vetting sources and confirming information before it is released. With the stakes as they are, we simply cannot afford to keep making mistakes.

TV CameraIn the most recent example, ABC News reporters Matthew Cole and Nick Schifrin reported yesterday that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon threatened to send Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani back to Islamabad if Raymond Davis is not released. This report was immediately denied by the Pakistani Ambassador via Twitter, “Read my tweet: No US official has conveyed any personal threats 2 me or spoken of escalating tensions.”

When ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper responded, “That’s not a denial,” the Pakistani Ambassador reiterated his denial: “This is: Read my tweets: No US official, incl the NSA, has conveyed any personal threats 2 me or spoken of extreme measures.”

What is curious about the report by Cole and Schifrin is that they didn’t seem to ask the Pakistani Ambassador who, as demonstrated by his Twitter feed, is quite accessible to journalists. Instead, they cited “two Pakistani officials involved in negotiations about Davis” and “a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.”

Ambassador Haqqani noted that the Pakistani officials Cole and Schifrin spoke to could not have known what was said in the meeting with NSA Donilon as he was the only Pakistani present. As for the senior U.S. official who confirmed the report, we would be wise to remember that senior government officials have been known to feed high profile journalists statements designed not to inform, but to influence public opinion. Examples of this behavior were well documented in Bob Woodward’s most recent book, Obama’s Wars1.

Following the ABC News report, Pakistani English-language daily Dawn spoke with the US Embassy in Islamabad which described the ABC News report as “not true”, a position confirmed by an official press release from the Embassy early this morning which describes the story as “simply inaccurate.”

But ABC News is not the only major media outlet that’s come under fire for its reporting on Pakistan recently. We have observed in the past that The New York Times has occasionally published problematic coverage of Pakistan, and Pakistani blogger Syed Yahya Hussainy earlier this week criticized The New York Times for relying on the same individuals for comment on issues despite evidence that they may not be neutral observers.

Additionally, as we noted on Wednesday, news reports have suggested that tensions over the fate of Raymond Davis threatened trilateral meetings scheduled for later this month, but this assertion too has been denied by the US government.

Beale also said that there was no change of plan in President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to the US, and nor was President Obama planning to cancel his trip to Pakistan. The spokesperson said that the US embassy and consulates will continue work as per usual in Pakistan.

We wrote on Wednesday that “Both nations’ needs deserve respect and attention, and the only path to a solution that satisfies both nations is open and constructive dialogue.” In order to facilitate such a dialogue, we need the press to cut through the rumor and speculation that clouds public perception about international relations.

1 See: Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. 157-159.

New York Times Gives Outsize Attention To Religious Groups

Yesterday’s New York Times published an article about demonstrations by Islamist parties defending Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Salman Masood, the reporter who covered the story, called the protests “crippling” and suggested that conservative religious forces had Pakistan’s government on the run. But Masood’s report ignores fundamental points, including the fact that the strongest supporters of reform have been from the governing party and that a counter demonstration has already been scheduled for the 15th.

Salman Masood wrote that the demonstrations have put the governing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) “on the retreat.” But the officials Masood quotes opposing the blasphemy law – Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, and Sherry Rehman, Member of the National Assembly – are members of the PPP. In fact, the PPP has been the most vocal and active proponents of changing the law with President Asif Zardari repeatedly calling for the law to be reviewed.

In addition to support for reform by government officials, a group of Pakistani citizens including prominent bloggers and journalists has organized a counter-protest for January 15th as a peaceful demonstration of the nation’s large community of liberals who want to see the law amended or overturned.

From the group’s Facebook page:

For thirty years, Pakistani Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been victimized by our blasphemy laws. We all know that these laws are often grossly misused. They do not account for the intent to commit blasphemy, and are most often used to settle personal or monetary disputes. For no fault of their own, victims end up either in jail for the rest of their lives, or killed by mobs. The victims of this law are almost always poor and powerless, and have no one to speak for them.

Recent developments have brought this issue in the public eye once again. It is time to say enough is enough. For too long, one side has dominated this debate, and drowned out our voices. We must remind them that we too are citizens of this country and that we too have a right to express our opinions.

Those of us against this law will be at Karachi Press Club on Saturday, January 15 at 3:00 p.m. to peacefully protest against it. Join us, stand with us, and let your voice be heard for equality and freedom for all Pakistanis.

Blocking traffic is always easier than getting elected – something right-wing religious parties can’t seem to do in Pakistan when facing open elections. Though it’s true that the government has tempered its rhetoric about amending the law, passing a new law is often far easier than changing one that’s been on the books – especially when the laws in question are wrapped in the emotion of religion.

The outsize media attention given to right-wing groups notwithstanding, Pakistanis are ready to shed the residual traces of past dictatorships. They said so quite loudly when they elected a progressive democratic government in 2008, and they will reiterate this call for reform when they come together on January 15th to call for an end to the religious discrimination enshrined in Zia’s blasphemy laws. The Question is: Will The New York Times be listening?

Helicopters for Pakistan

Apache Helicopters

On Monday I wrote that the answer to whether or not the US can trust Pakistan can be found in the answer to a related question: Can Pakistan trust the US? Like an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, each side is searching for an equilibrium of cooperation despite a past of defections. The Tuesday New York Times article speculating that the US wants to expand raids over the Pakistani border didn’t help matters, instead seeming to confirm Pakistani fears of American duplicity. While the US immediately rejected the Times report, the US needs to give more than verbal assurances to our Pakistani allies. We need to give helicopters.

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Media Should Focus On Pakistan Flood, Not Quran Burning Pastor

Pakistan continues to suffer from the historic flooding that submerged over a fifth of the nation.  With over 2o million people displaced by the disaster, and billions of dollars in damage, it is disgraceful how little attention is being paid to the ongoing effects of the floods.

As we posited recently, media headlines – or the lack thereof – are considered a major reason why humanitarian relief is not coming as quickly as it should.

What is more disgraceful, though, is that the American media appears to be giving more attention to the Florida pastor who is organizing an event to burn Qurans than to the needs of Pakistani people.

A search of Google News this morning returned 9,921 links for the keywords “Quran Burning” over the past week, and only 5,854 links for the keywords “Pakistan floods”. This is shameful.

The United Nations has declared the Pakistan flooding the worst humanitarian crisis ever. It presently affects over 21 million people. While the death-toll has, thankfully, been relatively low, the destruction has been immense. With over 20 percent of the nation submerged by flood waters, houses, crops, business, and national infrastructure has been destroyed across the nation. And the disaster is growing.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said earlier this week that,

“Everything I saw and heard today confirmed that this disaster — already one of the largest the world has seen — is still getting bigger.”

The Council on Foreign Relations has warned that, beyond the immediate human suffering caused by the floods, the disaster threatens the stability of a close American ally.

The deadliest floods in Pakistan’s sixty-three-year history have killed over 1,600 and affected nearly fourteen million people. The devastation is sorely testing the government’s capacity, and setbacks are likely in its efforts toward economic growth and development, fight against militancy, and the country’s civil-military relations.

Despite the clear and present danger posed by ignoring Pakistan’s need for relief and reconstruction, the American media has focused more on the publicity stunt of a small-time extremist. Rather than give a platform for the divisive and destructive antics of small-time fanatics, agenda setting media organizations should devote more time and resources to raising awareness and promoting constructive solutions to the needs of our friend and ally, Pakistan, in this their time of need.

Media Headlines Hurting Humanitarian Relief

Evidence is mounting that media headlines are hurting humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan. While there are several factors that are having a negative impact on humanitarian giving, media coverage of the flood – or lack thereof – is one obstacle that could be easily overcome.

According to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered last week,

The Project for Excellence in Journalism said there was 10 times as much U.S. news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti as of the floods in Pakistan.

Buzard said without a stream of stories and vivid images playing over and over on cable TV, public awareness of a disaster is low and donations are correspondingly weak.

Despite George Clooney talking about the floods and the need for humanitarian relief donations at this year’s Emmy Awards and Public Service Announcements by other celebrities such as Alyssa Milano and Angelina Jolie, mass media coverage of the disaster continues to be marginal.

Recently, the Boston Globe featured an op-ed by Sen. John Kerry calling for Americans to do more to support humanitarian relief in Pakistan. While it is important that such calls-to-action appear in as many places as possible, it is disappointing that his column appeared in a regional newspaper, and not an agenda-setting media outlet like the New York Times.

The Times, in fact, has paid relatively little attention to the floods in comparison to other aspects of Pakistan. Recent Times headlines focus far more on issues of terrorism and security than disaster relief and economic recovery for the devastated nation:



Pakistan’s Ambassador, Husain Haqqani, mentioned during an interview with MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan that, “we haven’t seen any of your major television personalities land in Pakistan doing wall-to-wall coverage yet.” Patrick Rooney, Executive Director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, said on PBS News Hour last night that, “…there has not been as much media coverage [as previous disasters]. And one of the things we’ve seen in other disasters is the greater the media coverage, the greater the disaster relief giving.”

With all of these voices pointing out that inattention to the floods in agenda setting publications like The New York Times is having a negative impact on humanitarian relief – why does this inattention persist?

While it is certainly important that the Times and other news outlets report about the terrorist groups that are plaguing Pakistan, natural disasters such as Pakistan’s present flooding are no less vital to national security – both Pakistan’s and our own.

New York Times' Problematic Pakistan Coverage: Politicians and the "Tax Gap"

Pakistan's Tax Gap

Getting people to pay their taxes is a problem as old as taxes themselves. Even Jesus caused controversy by having dinner with Zacchaeus the tax collector – a hated man in his community. So it should probably come as no real surprise that Pakistan, like all nations, has a sizeable tax gap – the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid.

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise puts the blame squarely on the politicians, saying that the nation’s dysfunctional tax system is “mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves.”

That is an incorrect characterization.

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New York Times' Problematic Pakistan Coverage: "Fake Degrees"

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been in Pakistan announcing $500 million in new civilian aid projects, the New York Times has been reproducing misleading narratives from Pakistan’s political opposition. Over the next few days, I’ll be responding to the most egregious of these stories in order to correct the record, provide much-needed context for American readers, and, hopefully, inspire the journalists at the Times to more adequately fact-check their reports on Pakistan while being mindful of possible political influence underlying their stories.

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