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Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]

Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.


I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.


If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…


Raza Rumi: lines drawn & boundaries transcended

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an assassination attempt, a book review -- and a counterpoint of musicians ]


I have mentioned Raza Rumi only once before on Zenpundit, in Darfur question… and wider Sufi ripples two years ago. This week, however, there was an attempt on his life, and on the 29th, Rumi posted about it on his Jahane Rumi blog:

Finally, I countenanced what I had been dreading for quite some time. Journalists and media houses being under threat is a well-known story in conflict-ridden Pakistan. I had also heard about my name being on a few hit-lists but I thought these were tactics to scare dissenters and independent voices. But this was obviously an incorrect assessment of the situation.

On Friday night, when I had planned to visit Data Darbar after my television show, my car was attacked by “unknown” (a euphemism for lethal terror outfits) assailants. The minute I heard the first bullet, the Darwinian instinct made me duck under and I chose to lie on the back of the car.

This near death experience with bullets flying over me and shattered window glass falling over me reminded me of the way my own country was turning into a laboratory of violence. Worse, that when I saved myself, it was not without a price. A young man, who had been working as my driver for sometime, was almost dead. I stood on a busy road asking for help and not a single car stopped…

As I tweeted when I heard about the attempt, I was distressed to hear of the attack, and wish him well — and Pakistan, too.


I’ve been a quiet admirer and occasional reader of Rumi’s blog for quite a while now, and am looking forward to reading his book, Delhi By Heart.

The first and final paragraphs from Venki Vembu‘s review of the book confirm me in my wish to do so. They also — and here’s what this post is really all about — show us both the deeply etched lines of division –

In his novel The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of the imagined cartographic lines that divide people in the Indian subcontinent and cleave their souls. Many of these “shadow lines” are etched in bitter, hand-me-down memories and imaginations, and for that reason are rather more indelible than lines on a map, which can perhaps be redrawn over time.

— and the possibility that such lines and boundaries can be overcome, erased, transcended —

Rumi offers this fascinating narrative as a “faint voice that wants to transcend boundaries and borders and reject the ills of jingoism spun by nation-state narratives.” In form and spirit, this unusual travelogue is like a jugal bandhi: songs of bhakti tradition fuse seamlessly with qawwali strains from the Nizamuddin dargah. It is an enchanting illustration of how the divisive shadow lines of history can be erased when hearts and minds are opened to new experiences.


Finally, for your listening pleasure: an intricate jugalbandhi or musical dialogue between Zakir Hussain on tabla and Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri flute…


Sunday surprise #20: when mirrors breathe

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- my sunday surprise series is where i offer my own variant on cute cat pictures and quotes by einstein attributed to gandhi ]



Here for your consideration is a video of a box of mirrors that lives and breathes, believe it or not, on an iron lung:

There are so many things going on in this video to delight me, I hardly know where to begin:

  • mirrors, hence symmetry…
  • mirrors mirroring mirrors, hence recursion…
  • distorting mirrors, hence carnival…
  • diffraction, hence moire effects, or the universe as silk…
  • prismatics, hence the many in the one in the many…
  • diastole / systole, hence the universal tide
  • the inanimate animate, hence the hard question in consciousness — aka “does spirit matter?” and “is matter spirit?”
  • breath, hence life itself
  • We could talk about any or all of these…



  • N-Light Membrane
  • Artists:

  • The Numen Group
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    Recommended Reading

    Monday, March 17th, 2014

    [by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

    Top Billing! Adam Elkus – Blowback, Drones, and Narratives: Then and Now 

    If it’s really just export controls that are the gateway to the “caricature” future that Zenko fears, then the US arguably could drone terrorists away without considering any of his previous precedent-based arguments as long as it keeps a tight grip on exports. Why not just drone the terrorists with a light conscience, if states can’t or won’t make killer robots anyway and the only way they could get them is if we allow it? Indeed, as later detailed, Zenko argues that even advanced industrialized states are having problems with the make and deployment of drones. If drones are so inefficient, difficult to make, and future use of them is so tentative that the only guaranteed pathway to drone dystopia is Uncle Sam giving the world drones, then the drone problem must be vastly different than we have imagined it. 

    The XX Committee – Nobody knows Anything 

    ….Second, most of these smart young people really don’t know anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they had great SATs and went to top schools and have mastered the art of sounding smart, attaining admirable fluency in that unnatural dialect known as Beltway-speak, but as for any deep knowledge about any particular subject relating to how the world really works, that’s about as rare in this crowd as unicorns and Bigfoot. There should be no surprise that Chekists are winning handily these days. [....]

    There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English. If you want to understand Putin’s Russia, you will need to seriously look at the history and culture of that place, and Ukraine too, and learn their languages to boot. If this is too hard for you, then don’t try. If you want to predict what Russians and Ukrainians will likely do next with any degree of accuracy, learn about Russians and Ukrainians. For Putin and his system, you will need to learn about Chekists too, since their worldview is unique and powerful to the initiated.

    War on the Rocks (Sean Kay) NATO Revived? Not so Fast 


    The crises in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 are Exhibits A and B of a dramatic failure of the decision to extend NATO engagement into these countries.  Of course, Putin is responsible for his own actions. But this 2008 decision by NATO played directly into Putin’s own rationalization of the invasion of Georgia – which was followed by Ukraine’s withdrawal of its NATO application and the consolidation of pro-Moscow forces there.  Meanwhile, efforts at the time to get hard Russian sanctions on Iran were lost – which would have offered an opportunity to freeze Iran’s centrifuge numbers at 2008 levels instead of the current efforts to deal with far more advanced Iranian capabilities.  One might ask exactly how American national interests were served in this process.

    WPR (Steve Metz) -Strategic Horizons: U.S. Military Is Not Ready for the Age of Megacities 

     Many security analysts and futurists agree that in the coming decades the prevalent form of conflict will not take place in remote rural areas like in Afghanistan but in the massive, highly connected megacities that are already experiencing most of the world’s population and economic growth. In his recent book “Out of the Mountains,” David Kilcullen, one of the most astute thinkers on the changing nature of security, argues that all aspects of human life in the future will be “crowded, urban, networked and coastal.” Megacities will be the locus of economic energy and cultural creativity in the future, but they will also be the source of much of the world’s insecurity.

    Small Wars Journal (Octavian Manea) - Responding to Crimea by Bolstering NATO’s Military Presence in Central and Eastern Europe 

    SWJ: How should we explain Putin’s escalation in Ukraine?

    A. Wess Mitchell: There is a longstanding if somewhat repressed desire among the Russian political elite to repatriate lost limbs of the former Soviet empire. This impulse runs very deep in post-Cold War Russian strategic thinking. The conditions that developed in Ukraine over the last few months provided a political pretext for acting on that geopolitical impulse. The democratic backlash to President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision not to move his country closer to Europe at the EaP Summit and his ensuing ejection from Kyiv threatened the possibility of a more Westward oriented Ukraine on the doorstep of Russia. In both strategic and ideological terms, these developments were seen as being unacceptable for the interests of the Russian state and elite. Recent U.S. diplomatic behavior also suggested to the Russians a permissive strategic environment in which Putin could act without incurring high costs. This created an opening for a kind of “rebate revisionism.” Putin seized it. 

    Nuclear Diner – War with No Hope

    ….Like many American kids in the decades after World War II, my friends and I fought the Nazis in a forested lot near my house. We took turns killing and being killed. War movies taught us about the French resistance, holding off the Nazis until the Americans arrived; the British, surviving through the bombing raids; soldiers engineering a break from a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Good guys and bad guys.

    That mental frame made it hard to understand what World War II had been in Estonia and, from what I have read, in Ukraine. I kept asking questions, not getting it until one day I realized: the good guys didn’t come to the rescue on the Eastern Front. There were individuals who performed acts of heroism or who managed to keep the lives around them reasonably humane. But many, perhaps most, died.

    Imagine that you own a small farm or a business in town or are the town’s police chief. A war is raging. The neighboring country has been demanding military bases in your country, and then their army occupies your town. They kill some people, put some people on trial, deport others without trial, and conscript some of the young men. The soldiers demand food and take up residence in houses they like. Women are raped. Some people learn to deal with the occupation and do well. The police chief has little choice but to cooperate; the alternative is death or deportation, leaving someone much more ruthless in charge. Your farm is torn up; your business is co-opted to provide the occupation.

    A year passes. Now the other side advances and takes your town. The fighting kills more people. Cousin Endel retreats along with the army that conscripted him. Old Aunt Mari has a heart attack while she is gathering the chicken eggs.

    Now other people are put on trial, raped, deported, conscripted. The police chief again cooperates, a different group of people ingratiate themselves with these occupiers. Your farm, if it still is in your possession, is torn up, your business co-opted. Endel’s brother Mart may now have to fight his older brother, neither for a cause that he chose.

    Scholar’s Stage – Smallpox on the Steppes 

    The Becker-Posner Blog -The Embargo of Cuba: Time to Go- Becker and End the Cuban Embargo—Posner 

    Information Dissemination-Watching the Russians… Off Florida’s Coast

    PARAMETERS –  (Robert Bunker)  Defeating Violent Nonstate Actors  and (Frank Hoffman)   What the QDR Ought to Say about Landpower 

    Diane Ravitch-Michael Powell on the “Gilded Crusade” for Charters

    Brainpickings.org -The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

    The American Conservative   Twilight of the Right 

    Al Jazeera America – The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals 

    Cato Unbound – Human Nature vs. Libertarian Ideals 

    ScienceDaily- Smart People Are More Likely to Trust Others


    That’s it!



    You say Ezekiel and I say Ezequiel

    Monday, March 3rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Keith Oatley's theatre as simulation that runs on minds applied v briefly to two Ezekiel narratives ]

    Here’s the transcript of a conversation in a car between FBI Agents Shane Daughtry and Eve Rearden, from the 2011 movie Jerusalem Countdown, based loosely on Pastor John Hagee‘s book of that name:

    EVE: We have information that the CIA has been investigating certain Biblical or apocalyptic events.

    SHANE: Whoa, whoa. Are you kidding me?

    EVE: I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it either but apparently recent world events have been fitting right into what is known as the Ezekiel war scenario.

    SHANE: What is the Ezekiel war scenario? Eve?

    EVE: According to the Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel, in the Last Days the people of Persia, which is, of course, Iran, and the people of Gog or Rosh, which many believe to be Russia, form an alliance whose main purpose is to obliterate Israel.

    This is fiction, loosely based on scripture and adapted to politics — apocalyptic scri-fi, if you will, and not very good scri-fi at that. Joel Rosenberg does the genre much better.

    Recommendation: do not run this film as any kind of a simulation of future history!


    For a second shoe, we have John Malkovich‘s directorial debut, a brilliant movie titled The Dancer Upstairs, based on Nicholas Shakespeare‘s book of the same name…

    What catches my eye here is the suave urbanity of Javier Bardem‘s policeman dealing with the crude and brutal folk-religious ideological underpinnings of the revolutionaries, in this case syncretic with the “Fourth Wave” Marxism of Sendero Luminoso.

    This is terrorism fiction at its best, or close to it — Ann Patchett‘s 2001 novel, Bel Canto, richly brocaded around the 1996 hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, would probably be my first pick — simply because the prose is so gorgeous, such poetry.

    Recommendation: run this one! The Dancer Upstairs

    But hold on, The Dancer Upstairs deserves a post or three of its own, and I’ll be back for those two screenshots once enthusiasm overcomes fatigue…


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