A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on December 6, 2013

As a member of the Thembu royal family of the powerful Xhosa clan, Rolihlahla Mandela (Nelson being the ‘civilised’ white name foisted on him by a school teacher) could have easily settled for the prominent comfort he was born to inherit. Instead, he snatched greatness from the jaws of history, by joining and ultimately, leading one of the longest running successful liberation struggles of the 20th century.

Mandela has now been duly deified in the Western media, and as is the rule for all Western deities, he has been thoroughly sanitised as a human rights crusader and paragon of non-violent resistance. This is to read history hypocritically, with only one eye open. Mandela’s true greatness lies not in the myth that he was a saint, but in the fact, that he was not. He fought the struggle he was presented with, with all the tools at his disposal. Unlike those who prefer to heckle from history’s cheap seats (and admittedly, columnists are among the worst offenders), Mandela was, first and foremost, a decidedly engaged political animal who did not believe in ideological purity, in isolation, as being politically commendable. It is this political Mandela that the Third World ought to remember, to honour Mandela’s memory but also for its own edification.

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on July 21, 2012 and in The Mark on July 24, 2012

The Syrian uprising has arrived in Damascus. Over the past week the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has engaged Syrian government forces with enough success that reinforcements have been called from Syria’s hot Golan frontier with Israel. And in a severe blow to the Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad, three senior security officials were recently assassinated within the government’s National Security citadel. They included Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha and Deputy Defence Minister Assef Shawkat (who was also al-Assad’s brother-in-law). The FSA claimed credit, as did an Islamist opposition militia. Others have said the killings were either a coup attempt or even a counter-coup by al-Assad to eliminate potential plotters. Whatever the truth, the net effect is the same: the cost of alignment with al-Assad is now prohibitively high. 

This article appeared in The Express Tribune on April 12, 2012 

There was a moment last December when the mirage shimmered and briefly dissipated for many Imran Khan supporters. Amidst a tsunami of Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa flags, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Vice President Ijaz Chaudhry thundered on stage at the Difa-e-Pakistan Council rally in Lahore. The special message from his quaid, Imran Khan, that he delivered touched the usual conspiracies and clichés about India, America and the Pakistani government. Yet many PTI supporters were taken aback at their party rubbing shoulders with sectarian murderers and terrorists. Khan himself was questioned on sharing a platform with the likes of JuD and SSP. Unfazed, Khan simply said it was his duty to “engage” with everyone no matter how extreme. 

The mirage reconstructed itself. PTI acolytes parroted the party line. The PTI was not associating with terrorists. It was “engaging” fringe elements to wean them into the mainstream. This rhetoric is attractive without being accurate.  

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on February 14, 2012

St. Valentines Day is mostly about the consumerist exchange of sweet nothings. But tender promises made this day can sometimes turn into an enduring relationship. This is one such story.

On February 14, 1945, the USS Quincy lay anchored in the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez  Canal. On board the battleship, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt greeted the Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Their countries already enjoyed a commercial relationship. The Californian Oil Company Socal (now known as Chevron) had begun courting Ibn Saud in 1932, when cartographers had barely added Saudi Arabia to the world map. It struck black gold in Dharan in 1938, while its subsidiary Aramco (today’s Saudi Aramco) feverishly explored the desert. 

But there was more to Roosevelt’s tryst with Ibn Saud than American penetration of Saudi oilfields. Both men knew that World War II had changed the global balance of power. The sun was setting on European hegemony in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia survived on British grace; now it needed to offer its hand to a new partner. WWII had also proved the strategic importance of controlling global oil supplies. Already in 1943 Roosevelt had declared, “the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States,” and had dispatched troops to protect the kingdom. It would, of course, not be the last time American boots massed on Saudi soil. Like forbidden lovers, Roosevelt and Ibn Saud made a secret pact – the so-called Quincy Agreement. As long as oil kept flowing, the US would provide military protection to the House of Saud, and to Aramco, and the “free world,” whose interests seemed intimately bound. Thus was arranged the Saudi-American marriage. 

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune Blogs on January 4, 2012

“One morning, upon awakening from agitated dreams, Gregor Samsa found himself, in his bed, transformed into a monstrous vermin.” 

Thus begins Franz Kafka’s novella masterpiece Metamorphosis. The novel inhabits the familiar bizarre frame of Kafka’s work, of a world where the transformation of Gregor Samsa into a giant insect-like creature elicits hardly any surprise from Samsa’s family and associates, or indeed from Samsa himself. Samsa spends no time pondering his metamorphosis, why it may have occurred or how the process may be reversed. He busies himself instead with mundane concerns, and immediately upon his transformation spends an inordinate amount of time simply looking for a comfortable position to sleep in. For Kafka’s literary canvass was one where utter absurdity was a fact of life. Perhaps Kafka was a proto-Pakistani. 

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on December 11, 2011

Let me make a prediction. Pak-US relations will soon return to what passes for normal, and any major scaling back of ties will remain at the sole discretion of the US. Pakistan simply remains too profoundly strategically dependent on the US for any other outcome. 

Since its inception Pakistan has defined its security pre-eminently in military terms, and pursued an increasingly untenable military balance with India. The strategic arithmetic of this position is as clear today as it was to Pakistani leaders in 1947: An abiding foreign policy of military confrontation with a foe possessing overwhelming strategic superiority can only be sustained with a powerful external patron militarily, diplomatically and economically underwriting Pakistan’s position. 

A version of this article appeared in The News Blog on November 24, 2011

The curtain has dropped on the first act of the so-called Memogate scandal, but the drama is far from over. With Hussain Haqqani’s resignation (or sacking, depending on whom you believe) as the ambassador to Washington, the question loomed: having cowed the civilian government, would the military establishment once again force a former general into the ambassador’s residence in Washington? Military heavy weights were certainly among the top contenders, including a former ISI chief and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this context, the appointment of PPP legislator and former Information Minister Sherry (Shehrbano) Rehman came as a surprise. 

This article appeared in The Express Tribune Blogs on November 17, 2011

Pakistan is not immune to the insurrectionary air of the Arab Spring or the international “Occupy” movements. There is a genuine appetite for change, and Imran Khan is adeptly channelling it. Buoyed by these sentiments, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf jalsa (rally) in Lahore on October 30 was undoubtedly a huge success. Imran Khan is the harbinger of the Pakistani Spring. Change is coming. Yes we Khan. 

Clinging to this simplistic hope, throngs of urban, middle-class, and typically election shunning Pakistani youth have gravitated towards the PTI. Politicization of this section of society is, of course, a welcome development. The highly conservative, Islamist or ultra-nationalistic/xenophobic social and political outlooks of many such youth make the PTI their natural home.

But other progressive minded young – and sometimes older – people have also been taken in by Imran Khan’s political googlies. Informed more by his cult of personality than his politics, they genuinely believe that Imran Khan represents a moderate progressive or even a leftist political movement – a movement for radical change.

This article highlights the inconsistency between the PTI’s progressive rhetoric and political action.

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on August 27, 2011

Libya represents a watershed in the Arab Spring. The men heading Tunisia and Egypt may have fallen, but the military elite from their regimes still hold power, fighting a rear-guard political action against nascent revolutions. By contrast the Libyan regime is truly shattering.  

A version of this article appeared in The Express Tribune on August 12, 2011

The protests in Syria have spread to Hama, a city with a rebellious past. In 1982 it was the bastion of an Islamist uprising against the secular Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party rule of Hafez al-Asad, father of current Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The elder al-Assad’s brother was put in charge of the pacification campaign. The city of Hama was levelled under an artillery barrage and up to 20,000 were killed. It is cruel irony that Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s brother and head of the elite Republican Guard, is leading the latest siege against Hama. An estimated 2000 men, women and children have been killed since the Arab Spring came to Syria. 

It is also ironic that Bashar has become his father. Youthful, reformist and with little apparent desire for power, Bashar enjoyed enough popular legitimacy to turn Syrian protests into a rallying cry for much needed political reforms. That he did not do so reflects a number of failing political gambles and constraints.