Saturday, August 26, 2017

Goodbye Jack Rosenthal.


In the writers world networking is a key part of expanding ones horizons. Years ago Pranay Gupte introduced me to Jack Rosenthal and his lovely wife, Holly Russell, who were visiting Dubai. Something must have clicked because after their official trip was over, we asked them to spend sometime with us and they stay a few days at my home. It was perhaps because rarely, in this world so energized by the material pursuits of people, does one meet someone who simply engages the mind. I vividly recall a dinner we had at home and after everyone had retired I made some mental notes about Jack.

He was a journalist of class and standing, but he brought that unique skill to his social engagements. It was not like he was interviewing people around the dinner table, but he was getting them to speak about themselves. He asked a few questions, always encouraging them to open up and feel comfortable. Jack never once spoke of himself, his enormous and indeed iconic standing in the word of the written world; New York Times, the amazing social role and his role with government too. I guess when you have achieved as much as he had you do not speak about it. In essence I was impressed with the man who graced our table and I wondered if the curry had not been too spicy.

On the few trips after that first encounter in Dubai that we made to New York, we made it a point to meet up with Jack and Holly. One remarkable trip we were in New York with the renowned equine sculptor Karen Kasper, and heard that there was an exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Muesum on the history of the horse. The problem was we were leaving at mid day and with the exhibition opening at 10 AM we would really have to give it a miss. Somehow over dinner the fact we would miss the exhibition came up, and Jack smiled and said yes it would be lovely for horse people to see something as unique as that.

Arriving at the hotel we found a message, an urgent one, from someone from the PR team of the New York Met and that I must call back. Doing so I was almost instructed to be at the a steps of the Met at 8 AM, given a phone number and the final words, 'see you there.' I had a deep suspicion Jack had something to do with that phone call but past mid night did not wish to disturb him. Sure enough at the 8 AM in the morning our party of five was escorted by the curator of the exhibition and given a royal tour of exhibition and indeed it was Jack who had arranged it. Even when I called him to thank him about the thoughtfulness of this amazing man, he sounded embarrassed to be thanked and simply wished me bon voyage.

Jack in a sense anticipated what people would like and did it without any fan fare it was like a true act of giving.  The New York Times have posted an obituary of this amazing soul and my words can never compare or do justice. But in my own experience of Jack Rosenthal all I can say is rarely have I met a man with such compassion and empathy. I know he passed on  and I would simply like to think of him being in the other room and whenever I want to visit him I can recall the memory of the man. I believe I just visited him with this memory of the New York Met, and yes he smiled back, and like he said it 9 years ago, 'my pleasure please you don't need to thank me for it.' he repeated those words and yes he smiled also.

Be safe you will be missed. I will visit you often.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Trumps Afghan Policy.


President Trump's time in office was conspicuous thus far by the absence of a cogent and clear statement on foreign policy. He seemed to tweet his foreign policy feelings and yet his campaign promise of a new policy of NATO, Afghanistan etc were realms of international affairs he could ignore for long. I would also suspect that barricaded by the Russian probe and the chaos in the White House Trump needed to do something dramatic. The Afghan policy can best be received with mixed emotions. While, from an American perspective, Afghanistan seems to be a thorn on the side of a super power like USA, history would tell us that this barren harsh land has been irksome to both the British and the Soviet Union in the past.

Insofar as the intent to have a surge of US forces in Afghanistan is driven by America's strategic objectives, which are murky in terms of Afghanistan, has its own merits. One can argue if the original aim was to rid the world of Osama bin Laden, and that since done during the Obama administration remaining there is in a sense strategically futile. The argument runs that the area is the home for both radical groups like the Taliban and recently the ISIS, so there is a strategic aim to rid them of a home base. One cannot argue against that, however to assert the US is not into nation building but fighting terror is all fine, and something even Obama asserted, a weak nation is more prone to be fragmented by terror groups.

The core of the policy seems to be a military solution. However, we all know from Vietnam to Lebanon that one cannot have a military solution to what is essentially a political problem. In the case of Afghanistan it is the political vacuums that has existed now for over four decades. Trumps open invitation to India to help fill the gap is in a sense short sighted because while India can provide economic and trade based interaction the core of Afghan society is deeply Islamic and staunchly tribal which would be at odds with a Hindu dominate India. Yes India has a role to play but with Pakistan in between the two countries the solution would have been more for both Pakistan and India to be jointly encouraged to stabilise the region.

This leads Trump and his host of sycophants to make statements about Pakistan being the 'safe haven' for the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Such an argument ignores that all shades of the current terrorist groups were created and supported by virtually all the current powers that are fighting them. They were created with the aim of fighting the Russians and Pakistan was the conduit to fund and train them. Yes indeed Pakistan had its own motives in this and when Afghanistan slipped into civil war after the Soviet defeat, they with other allies promoted and created the current Taliban with the idea of replacing the crumbling power structure in Kabul.

The fact remains from 2001 most countries including Pakistan, somewhat reluctantly, took to curbing these terrorist groups and both Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered a series of terrorist attacks. Few understand that Pakistan has suffered over 7000 military deaths and over 65,000 civilians killed and 3.4 million people displaced. Afghanistan during the same period has suffered 61,000 military deaths and 20,000 civilian deaths. It is obvious that Pakistan has borne the brunt of the war on terror no less than Afghanistan and thus to go on talking of the country as a safe haven is incorrect. The TTP (the Taliban faction that attacks Pakistani targets) is based in Afghanistan, just as the Haqqani network which attacks into Afghanistan is based in Miranshah, the tribal north of Pakistan. In 2014 Pakistan launched an offensive against the Haqqani Network and other groups and in November 2014 Gen J Anderson of the US command said that the Pakistan offensive had seriously reduced the ability of the Taliban to conduct offensive operations in Afghanistan.

There is no denying that both Afghanistan and Pakistan want to curb terrorism but in an environment of accusing each other this will not work. The porous border between the two countries is next to impossible to control even though Pakistan has three times as many border check posts on their side compared to the Afghans. I would have felt that Trump should encourage Pakistan and Afghanistan to work together rather than signal Pakistan as partially responsible for the situation in Afghanistan.

On a strategic note such a policy of isolating Pakistan in this vital region will only drive them closer to China, who has been Pakistan's closest ally and China has a long standing border dispute with India too. Many may think that US aid to Pakistan is a leverage but with $750 million is not enough of a tool to change policy alone. Indeed Pakistan needs to do more to fight terrorism and by the same token the world needs to understand that as many people have died to terrorism in Pakistan as any of the countries in the front line of this war. Excluding Pakistan and making it insecure with overtures to India may not really be the best policy.

The single objective of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is noble in its own context but we have to be realistic that such a war will also bring destruction and suffering to more people. Indeed the balance will be whether this escalation brings more suffering to the people on the ground or the continued attacks by the likes of Taliban do the same. There has to be a plan to bring administrative order, district by district, all across Afghanistan as the Taliban and terror groups are ousted. Merely wining the war and not creating a politically and socially workable system will only remove a threat today but will create the fertile ground for someone equally terrible like the Taliban, to replace it.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

North Korea: Brinkmanship that could go wrong.



When studying for my Masters in International Relations one of the cases studies we worked on was the Cuban Missile Crisis. It remains a masterful studying of managing brinkmanship and the art of the graduated response. Kennedy and Khrushchev in that crisis were a blink away from nuclear war and yet we realize that throughout the crisis a process of graduated response and measured strategic analysis was used. From Oct 15th 1962, when the Soviet missiles were spotted in Cuba till Oct 22 1962, when Kennedy made his famous speech asking the Soviets to back down, numerous meetings were held with the NSC and an EXXCOMM was set up and Congressional leaders were consulted on each of the steps.

One of the options that the US Joint Chief of Staff recommended and supported was an all out invasion, something even key Congressional leaders supported, Kennedy decided to use a series of graduated responses from a blockade to diplomacy to resolve the crisis. Indeed, key US allies were briefed on the morning of the 22nd of October BEFORE Kennedy made his speech and side by side back door diplomatic channels were opened to the Soviets to resolve the crisis. By October 28th 1962 the crisis had been defused and the world stepped back from what would have been a major outbreak of war.

Today we a different form of brinkmanship in the stand off between USA and North Korea. It might be more realistic to say its a show down between President Trump and the Korean despot Kim Jong Un, the latter being in his mid thirties with a panache for missiles and nuclear warheads. Unlike Kennedy in 1962, President Trump has taken to twitter and makes speeches about 'fire and fury' and hopes his rhetoric will be enough to get an equally irrational Kim Jong Un to back down. While there is not denying that any military conflict between North Korea and USA may well result in the total destruction of Kim Jong Un's regime and sadly also his nation. However, as one sided as it may be the fact that Kim Jong Un only needs to make sure that one, yes only one, missile armed with a nuclear warhead lands somewhere close to USA or one of its allies.

Analysts, military and non military, keep telling us that North Koreans would not be foolish enough to take such a risk which would destroy their country. First of all its not the North Koreans taking the risk, its Kim Jong Un, and frankly does he care if a million people are killed when he knows he himself will be taken out? Second, as the twitter tirade continues there is no guarantee that Kim Jong Un may well be taking these tweets more seriously than they are and lacking a sense of humor may just feel any one of them is enough of a hint that the US will strike first. Kim Jong Un knows well that if the US has first strike then his ability to have an effective counter strike will be severely curtailed and may be not even possible.

The danger therefore is that Trump, without even meaning it, may well start the hostilities, and perhaps in that process fulfill his wish to be a war-time President. Factoring China's response into this equation of possibilities creates a puzzle that will take far longer than the 20 odd minutes to have missiles land on some hapless people somewhere in the world. While Rex Tillerson is certainly trying to bring in a modicum of diplomacy to the table, it seems that he is fighting an uphill battle. One is not sure of the NSC and Congress has been consulted on the state of affairs.

The flip side is that the ground work for a diplomatic solution does not seem to be visible. What does one negotiate with? Offer Kim Jong Un there will no regime change if he agrees to give up missiles and nuclear warheads? Well that was the promise to Gaddaffi of Libya and he agreed to the deal only to be ousted soon after. Kim for sure will not give up his war toys, so some middle ground needs to be sought out and he is brash enough not to really be concerned about how much his people suffer under sanctions. In a sense Kim Jong Un is like a suicide bomber he has nothing to lose and therefore there is nothing that can be offered to him in a negotiation.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Trump will go to war. Here is why!



President Trump may, arguably, have knowledge of domestic policy, but when it comes to foreign policy he is woefully out of his depth. His understanding of the world political stage is pedestrian and embarrassingly incorrect. Just the other day when meeting the Lebanese Prime Minister he thanked Lebanon for the war on terror and for fighting ISIS and 'Hezbollah'! Does he not know Hezbollah are part of the Lebanese government and sworn enemies of ISIS? In the back drop of his lack of understanding of foreign affairs it is no surprise that no cogent foreign policy statement has come from his administration. To some extent he has alienated the US from its traditional allies in Europe, departed from the spirit of a consensus on major global issues through interaction with other leaders, and it would seem to him managing foreign policy through 'tweets' is his style or perhaps reflection of his minuscule understanding of the world.

There is no denying the world is in turmoil, and there are some serious theaters of conflict and potential conflict. While there are signs of skirmishes between Iran and US forces in the Arabian Gulf, the bigger, and more troubling, problem of North Korea's nuclear and missile posture causes serious concerns. In the initial days of his Presidency, and before the 'Kremlingate' matter attracted public attention, President Trump was eager to show his diplomatic skills. Meeting the Japanese, Mexican and Chinese leadership. He was buoyant that the Chinese would work with the US to reign in North Korea and not only would a rouge state being stopped in its tracks he would claim he was the mastermind of a diplomatic effort that brought peace to the world. (Perhaps the Noble Peace Prize).

While China has dragged itself, one foot at a time, into sanctioning the North Koreans and tried to pressure its leadership to abandon the missile and nuclear program, the results have not been encouraging. In a sense the Chinese solution, if there is one, would be a series of small, deliberate steps, to convince the North Koreans of changing their policy. Beijing knows that diplomacy is not like instant coffee and an axis of a Beijing-Washington pressure on North Korea has to be well orchestrated and coordinated. Sadly Trumps lack of understanding shows up when North Korea continues to test missiles he loses his cool and tweets not only against the tests but also has a swing at China for not doing enough!

Here is a plausible theory, and one could be totally wrong, but in real politik this happens.

As Trump is beleaguered more and more into the Kremlingate investigation, and perhaps loses support of the Republican's in Congress who held a slim hope that President Trump would be more rational than candidate Trump, I believe Trump will need to change the focus to something bigger, more pressing. In this context an escalation of tensions with North Korea will be the best course for him to take. This may explain why he would 'tweet' his disappointment with China, perhaps knowing that the Chinese would step back on the North Korean issue. The difficult question would be if China would allow the United States to be the policeman in its backyard?

The Chinese know, for the moment, North Korean posturing is not against Beijing, and they may well tolerate a well armed North Korea and in time reign back its missile program, when it suits Chinese policy aims. Would they step up to help Washington in this regard without a qui pro quo. China may well wish to establish that America accept a bi polar world with China having its own sphere of influence extending the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, and the US having its own region of influence.

But these are complicated issues to put into a model of foreign policy and why do that when you can tweet your way into trouble. So here is the prediction, 'if the heat on the Russian issue becomes too much for Mr Trump he may not hesitate to start limited, or surgical, hostilities against the North Koreans. While he may not have read a decent history book, his butler may well tell him that nothing unites a nation like a war.


Friday, July 7, 2017

Media and the US Political Process.



One of the principles of the US political process has been the process of accountability of politicians and government by the vast and power media. To the purists the power of the press as been seen as an important watchdog over executive power enshrining the principle of free speech into a legal right, thus giving it  unmatched ability to not only question but even bring down political figures. Gary Hart, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton all faced the sanctions of the press and these episodes exhibited to the average thinking American that there was someone outside the political process speaking out for the excesses of politicians.

The emergence of Donald Trump onto the political scene in a sense changed the working formula between the press and the politician. While today we are overloaded with the jargon of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts', there has been something more interesting happening. When Trump announced his intent to run for President most felt that not only was it a far fetched idea he also would be the largest target for the press to go after, his bankruptcies, his treatment of women, his almost xenophobic and racist view, all suggested he would be brought down by the press before he even finished spelling the words PRESIDENT, (assuming he could spell).

 Then something quite unique happened. Trump knowingly or unknowingly, started to use the press, yes the very press who could target him, to manufacture consent amongst the public. In the backdrop of the political climate of the US, he enraged the liberal within us, and was embraced by the disfranchised American who seemed betrayed by the political process. When he claimed he would 'drain the swamp' in Washington DC, he spoke out what millions of Americans felt that there was a stinking swamp in DC. When he went after the Mexicans and talked of wall be appealed to the millions of Americans, who rightly or wrongly felt they lost their job to the illegal immigrants. When he painted a religion as 'terrorist' and called for a total ban on all Muslims from entering the US, he voiced what many not familiar with the rise of terrorism were really thinking.

As Trump became more bizarre in his comments and approach the press actually gave him more press coverage! WHY? Simply put as much as the liberal press wanted to go after Trump they knew this outrageous, politically incorrect and often factually off the mark candidate was getting more eyeballs to their channels and newsprint. To media advertising revenue is important and to get that they need eyeballs. The more they fed the news, even if ridiculing Trump, the monster became larger and larger. In a sense it was the Press that created Trump, gave him a media mandate he could not have bought for all the dollars in the world. I believe in that sense the very networks Trumps calls 'fake news' are the ones who created him, and in a sense helped him win the hearts and minds of the unheard vote within America.

On a broader front the political climate into which Trump was stirring the press was fraught with its own problems. The Democratic Party was divided in a more deeper sense than was visible on the surface. Eight years of Obama's administration had in a sense ignored its constituency and the party organization at the state and county level in key states seemed to have been ignored. Hilary Clinton represented a political segment which largely was considered out of touch with the blue collared workers who had been behind the Obama revolution, and too entrenched with the vested interests within the Democratic Party resulting in Bernie Sanders as the voice for the very workers that felt had been ignored by the likes who those who threw in their lot with Hilary Clinton.

It would not be incorrect to say that the Clinton camps shenanigans robbed Bernie Sanders of the nomination and in that one move stepped further away from the very blue collared workers who then swayed to the Trump camp. Hilary's own problems with emails, and lack of focus on the issues all played out in a back drop where Trump was winning over the unheard, making statements and promises that seemed stretched but by then the electorate really did not care.

I have no doubt in my mind that the moment Hilary Clinton hijacked the nomination from Bernie Sanders she lost the heart of the Democratic Party. I also believe that Trump could not have romped into the White House had he been facing off Bernie Sanders. While the Democrats have to reinvent themselves and go back to the grassroots with a fresh approach the media on the other hand has three and half years of waltzing to learn with a Trump who will always be out of step with them.

The media also has to do a major rethink of their role and in a sense bring in a more balanced approach. Feeding the monster will only make it larger than it is, and while resetting the relationship may not be easy it would help if the media realized they were a part of the circus that created the consent that took Trump to the path of the White House.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

India-Pakistan Final: Form against the Unpredictable.



On Sunday India and Pakistan take to the field at Oval for the final of the ICC Champions Trophy, each carrying the weight of expectations of millions of people. India rides on the form of its front line batsmen and the fact that in the recent group stage match they thrashed Pakistan. Sharma, Dhawan and Kholi backed by a hard hitting middle order, (though not tested yet) have been the mainstay of India's strength in one day cricket. In this sense they have embraced the style of modern cricket, which suggests to rely on the batsmen to post a high score or have the hard hitting to chase down any total. England, South Africa and many other nations imbibed this philosophy as the rules of the game changed to favor batsmen more than bowlers.

For Pakistan who for decades have had a mercurial batting line up the strength to win matches always rested with the bowlers. In a sense as the rules changed the dice were loaded against strong bowling sides. For the past decade Pakistan has tried to follow the style of modern cricket, failing mainly because their players never had the exposure or temperament and perhaps self belief to approach the new form of the game with confidence. The adjustments have been all the more hard because as they felt the gap was being filled a betting scandal would force them to lose a talented player.

After the defeat to India, it would seem someone woke up in the Pakistan camp and said this new approach to one day cricket just does not work. In the matches since then the modern approach was shed off and a return to what Pakistan was good at was visible. The bowlers became the mainstay of their strategy, explaining the bizarre decisions to bowl first where many other captains would have done otherwise.

India on the other hand has continued to reinforce its belief in its batsmen, keeping in tune with the modern approach to the game. The result has been usually muscling their way to wins with never really having to bat below number 6. Interestingly the one game they lost to Sri Lanka, they reached 319 for 6 mainly due to the openers contributing 200 of the 321 runs they put on the board, the other six batsmen adding only 100 runs in the crucial power plays and yet Sri Lanka played the same game and romped home with ease.

To predict a win an passion filled match such as this final would be foolish. It could be anybody's day. While India will not change their modern day approach to the game Pakistan will perhaps revert to their bowling as the mainstay. But the bowlers will not have to try and contain India, like they tried in the recent game, but to go for wickets, like they did with South Africa, Sri Lanka and a strong England. Yes the Oval pitch will be skiddy and different to the wicket in Cardiff, and the bowlers will have to stick to a line and length form of attack. If Pakistan can do that then a couple of quick wickets will change the complexion of the game.


India may well on the exterior be confident of their strength and form but they know well the potency of the Pakistan attack once it smells blood. For the men in green the discipline on the field and belief in the bowling will have be the potential weapon that could rattle Indias top order and expose the middle batting line. India will also know that the batting line Pakistan now presents has learned to keep the scoreboard moving and in a couple of new faces they have the ability to change the fate of the match.

Either way, who ever wins, in terms of cricket fans it does not get bigger than an India and Pakistan final. Its a match where statistics, form and the words of pundits all are left on the boundary line, because on the square any thing can happen..


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pakistan Cricket: Batting on Hope!



Pakistan cricket team turned up for their match on June 4th at Edgbaston against India, and yes there were 11 players decked in green and they all had the necessary gear. That is about the best that they could do, sans Mohammed Amir, who clearly must think immigrating to a cricket playing country may be better than playing for a team for which amateur might be a compliment.

From the selection, to the bizarre decision to bowl first, and to tactics this was a sorry saga of a slow death, almost by choice. Rarely have Pakistan gone into major tournaments without the hope that one player will come to the party and play a match winning game. Micky Arthur, the Pakistan coach, admitted his choice of Wahab Riaz was based on the hope the big match would bring out a big game from him. After Amir's brilliant first over the script, if written in the mind of the captain, went to shreds. Any edifice a restoration of morale based of a middle overs come back went to shreds with Wahab Riaz's senseless bowling.

Sarfaraz as captain always gave the Pakistan team the hope, yes hope, that the leadership will have a spirit of fighting back. Simply having a fighting spirit is not enough, there has to be a strategy and one has to play to that strategy. Yes talent is good, and perhaps we have too much of it, but little skills to create the winning attitude within the teams thought process.

It was never clear what Pakistan as a bowling side was trying to achieve other than perhaps buy a wicket. And when the chances came they were squandered away and put done to the pressure of the game. In the modern game playing Ireland is a pressure game, so wake up and get used to it. The captain seemed on his own, lost in a confused state of mind and none of the senior players were consulted by him; it seemed he has an unshared plan and somehow through some miracle of hope it would fall in place.

If the bowling was abysmally lost in the woods, the batting was a disgrace. In the modern game you rotate the strike, you pick the loose balls to put away, you make the bowling side work for your wicket and do everything to derail their plan. Azher Ali may well carry the statistic of a fifty to his name, but someone had to remind him its not a test match. Azhar Ali and Hafeez were schoolboys who somehow picked up the Pakistan colors and thought that was enough. Babar Azam, while talented cannot fall into the trap of lauding on past innings, he has to play his role with professionalism and not just hope.

Was the target achievable? With a game plan, yes, with application and a positive approach yes. So what was missing? Perhaps the decision to bowl got to the team as it baffled everyone else. India planned it clearly that given the weather DLS would come into play and all India needed to do was get to 20 overs with a 130 odd score with no loss. We all know with each over lost the DLS system works against you if the side batting first has put up a decent score with no wickets lost.

Pakistan cricket needs dependability and this means just like we know Amir will get 7 to 8 of his 10 overs in at a good economy rate and apply pressure, we cannot be sure of any of the other 10 players. We can not even depend on them to field the ball or take a simple catch. There has to be a thought process behind the game, who does what and when, and when things are not going to plan what is plan B and Plan C.

Yes not playing cricket at home can be part of the problem, but strategy and approach are not bred on the grounds on Gaddafi Stadium, this is common sense and it would seem that is pretty uncommon with the people who manage cricket in Pakistan. In some sense our losses are put down to the one excuse, we do not get to play on home grounds! Pray tell me what will the dead pitches of Karachi and Lahore teach you to handle conditions in Australia or England? Indeed its not easier to prepare the domestic talent without cricket at home, but there is a domestic league and till the security situation is not seriously improved one has to make do with the resources we have. Nay not make do, but to approach the game with a modern mind set.

Yes the Champions Trophy is a tough battle and Pakistan cannot get anywhere if their approach does not change towards the remaining matches. This means some major chats with key players, it also means axing some players and getting a strategy in place not only for each game but each phase of each game.

Hope will not win matches, talent alone will only give you flashes of individual brilliance, but a team focused on a plan and true teamwork where all departments of the game change. We know making changes midway in a tournament are not recommended but then desperate times need desperate measures.