How Do You Say ‘Duh!’ in Urdu?

So how do you say “Duh!” in Urdu? There’s nothing new or remarkable in the suggestion that Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been aiding and abetting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, as highlighted in coverage of the massive leak of U.S. military documents published on Sunday. If anything, it’s conventional wisdom among Afghanistan watchers that Pakistan continues to treat the movement it helped bring to power in 1996 as a strategic counterweight against Indian influence on its western flank. The latest revelations, fantastical as some of them may be, are simply a discomforting affirmation that Pakistan, the beneficiary of $1 billion in U.S. aid every year, continues to pursue interests at odds with those of its Washington patron — just like everyone else in the Afghan war theater does. Contemporary American slang may not have easy Urdu equivalents, but Count Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (“Badshah”) — the timeless handbook on duplicity and cunning in statecraft — was translated into Pakistan’s main language in 1947.

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Abu Mazen and Obama’s Peace Pantomime

Obama is unable to offer Abbas an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, because that is not what Netanyahu has in mind. Indeed, recent reports suggest that during his meeting last weekend with Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli prime minister presented a proposed map of a Palestinian State that fell well short of the Arab League’s proposal for peace. Nor is Netanyahu under pressure from the US to offer more. In fact, Netanyahu believes that he can bend Washington to his will, as he so memorably explained to a family of Israeli settlers in a recently surfaced video clip from 2001: “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”

The “right direction” that Netanyahu made clear in the video, was “to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders”. Unable to offer a state based on the Arab League’s peace terms, Obama hopes to entice Abbas into his “peace event” by offering him a flag pole – specifically, the right to fly the Palestinian flag outside the PA mission in Washington. This is not any flag pole either, but one that provides diplomatic immunity for his envoys there: Palestinian diplomats will soon be able to ignore parking tickets in Washington, DC. Can the “stamps, parades and carnival” predicted by Uzi Arad be far behind?

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How Slovenia Wins the World Cup

Take the 32 countries that qualified for the World Cup and have each represented by an iconic living cultural figure rather than 23 footballers, and here are the results:

Group A:
1. Uruguay — Eduardo Galeano
2. South Africa — Archbishop Desmond Tutu
3. Mexico — Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu
4. France — Guy Baudrillard

Group B:
1. Nigeria — Fela Kuti. (Yes, I know we said “living”; consider this the equivalent of age cheating)
2. South Korea — Rain
3. Greece — Theodoros Angelopolous
4. Argentina — Che Guevara (Not the real Che, but the T-shirt image)

Group C:
1. Slovenia — Slavoj Zizek
2. England — Elvis Costello
3. USA — Bruce Springsteen
4. Algeria — Cheb Khaled

Group D:
1. Serbia — Emir Kusturica
2. Germany — Gunther Grass
3. Australia — Peter Carey
4. Ghana — Anthony Appiah

Group E:
1. Japan — Hayao Miyazaki
2. Cameroon — Manu Dibango
3. Denmark — Lars Von Trier
4. Holland — Johan Cruyff (the cranky post football cultural commentator)

Group F:
1. New Zealand — Jane Campion
2. Slovakia — Martin Skrtel (the cultural critic)
3. Paraguay — Monica Gonzalez
4. Italy — Bernardo Bertolucci

Group G:
1. Portugal — Jose Saramago
2. North Korea — Kim Jong-il
3. Cote D’Ivoire — Alpha Blondy
4. Brazil — Hector Babenco

Group H:
1. Chile — Roberto Bolanos
2. Spain — Pedro Almodovar
3. Switzerland — Jean-Luc Godard
4. Honduras — Karla Lara

Round of 16:

Eduardo Galeano (Uru) 3 Rain (SoKo) 0
Slavoj Zizek (Slov) 3 Gunther Grass 3 a.e.t. Zizeks wins 5-4 on penalties
Emir Kusturica (Serb) 2 Elvis Costello (Eng) 1
Archbishop Tutu (SA) 3 Fela Kuti (Nig) 1
Hayao Miyazaki (Jap) 12 Martin Skrtel (Slovak) 0
Jose Saramago (Por) 4 Pedro Almodovar (Sp) 2
Jane Campion (NZ) 4 Manu Dibangu (Cam) 3
Roberto Bolanos (Chile) 3 Kim Jong-Il (NoKo) 1


Hayao Miyazaki (Jap) 2 Jose Saramago (Por) 3
Eduardo Galeano (Uru) 2 Slavoj Zizek (Slovenia) 4
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (SA) 2 Emir Kusturica (Serb) 3
Jane Campion (NZ) 3 Roberto Bolanos (Chile) 2


Saramago 3 Zizek 3 a.e.t. (Zizek wins 3-2 on penalties)
Kusturica 3 Campion 1

Final: Zizek (Slovenia) 3 Kusturica (Serbia) 1

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Gone (World Cup) Blogging

Here’s a panel I did with friends a few weeks ago. For my daily World Cup musings, click on’s 2010 World Cup Special. And you can also follow my relentless footie and political babble on Facebook and Twitter…

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What the Gaza Flotilla Tells Us About the Future of the Mideast

Thus my latest in the National:

‘We’re the only ones who believe them,” a US official was quoted as complaining last week in response to Israel’s account of its attack on the Gaza aid flotilla.

The bloodshed on the high seas and the resulting diplomatic fallout is a reminder of just how far US influence has fallen in the region, and the grim prospects for the US president Barack Obama reversing that trend as long as the US continues to accord Israel special status.

Indeed, in a statement that would have evoked howls of protest had it been made on Capitol Hill, the Mossad chief Meir Dagan last week told a Knesset sub-committee that Israel is turning “from an asset to the United States to a burden”.

The drama of last week has forced the US and its European partners to concede that the Israeli blockade on Gaza is untenable, as is its underlying policy – shared by Washington and the Europeans – of refusing to engage with Hamas as an intractable fact of Palestinian political life.

The fact that a group of defiant civil society activists – backed by the Turkish government – has forced that acknowledgement is a sign of how far the balance of power in the Middle East has shifted.

It is a change that will also have implications for how the Iranian nuclear standoff is resolved.

Even before the flotilla debacle forced the US to postpone its attempt to bring a new sanctions resolution to the UN Security Council, the effort to isolate Tehran over its nuclear programme was in trouble.

Sure, the American administration claims to have Russia and China signed on to a new sanctions resolution. But both countries have demanded that any new measures be gutted of the ability to seriously hurt Iran. They insist that Tehran satisfy the transparency concerns reiterated last week by the IAEA, but also maintain that a solution can be achieved only through dialogue.

On the negotiation front, the only game in town right now is the fuel-swap agreement brokered with Iran by Turkey and Brazil. Those countries, both of which are currently on the Security Council, were outraged that the US simply ignored the proposal despite the fact that it largely resembled the deal offered to Iran by Washington last October and that Mr Obama himself had encouraged his Brazilian and Turkish counterparts to pursue the deal.

Sure, the agreement doesn’t halt Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium, but the same was true for the deal offered by the US last year.

The former IAEA chief and potential Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei urged the US and its allies to reconsider. “I was surprised at the reaction that some countries would continue to say that they want to apply sanctions, because if you remove over half of the material that Iran has to Turkey, that is clearly a confidence-building measure. To say that we are going to apply sanctions nonetheless despite this deal, I think would be completely counterproductive.” He added that while “there is a fear about Iran’s future intentions, [it] can only be resolved through negotiations and trust”, for which there’s plenty of time because “nobody is suggesting that Iran is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons.”

There was more bad news for Iran at the conclusion of the month-long Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference, which Washington had naively hoped would build support for sanctions.

Instead, the conference called for action on achieving a nuclear-free Middle East, and for Israel to sign the NPT and subject its own nuclear capacity to international scrutiny. The Arab states led that initiative, making clear that while they supported efforts to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, they rejected the principle of Israel maintaining a regional monopoly on nuclear force. The Obama administration had little choice but to back the nuclear-free Middle East principle, but warned that it would not support a process that “singled out” Israel or put its security in question.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu instantly vowed not to sign the NPT, and to boycott a regional summit on the issue two years from now. Far from being “singled out” by others, Israel in fact singles itself out by being the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East – the trump card of its sense of security – and by refusing to sign the NPT. The American nod and wink to Israel’s nuclear status was also a diplomatic victory for Iran, which accuses Washington of applying a double standard.

Pax Americana, it seems, is slowly in decline. Mr Obama’s promising words in his Cairo speech a year ago have delivered no substantial change in US policy in the region, and Ankara seems no longer willing to tolerate the suffering being imposed on Gazans with Washington’s tacit consent. In taking this position, Turkey is channeling regional public opinion, and doing so in a way far more credible and effective than the hollow antics of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And the challenge to the blockade may have succeeded: the blockade’s stated purpose, after all, was to throttle the Gazan economy in the hope that collective punishment would turn the civilian population against Hamas. That’s a policy now being deemed untenable even by the United States – something that would not have happened without the flotilla.

Exposing the failed Gaza policy has also reignited calls for the US and its allies to recognize the futility of trying to conduct an Israeli-Palestinian peace process as if Hamas simply didn’t exist. Pressure is mounting for the West to find ways to try and integrate Hamas into more stable political arrangements.

None of this lets Iran off the hook in terms of its NPT obligations, of course. But the consensus among the key players is that the Iran standoff will be resolved through a negotiated compromise. What the events of last week have taught us is that the global and regional balance of power here is shifting in ways that make it unlikely for conflicts in the Middle East to be resolved on terms set by the US and Israel.

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Has Globalization Stolen the World Cup Magic?

Who is this kid? Pele terrorizes Sweden in 1958

Nobody outside of Brazil had heard of the 17-year-old who exploded onto the international stage in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden with a display of skill, audacity, guile, vision and sheer exuberance that was to make Pele a global household name for the next half-century.

His status as the global symbol of football excellence was all the remarkable considering that the world only got to see him three more times at the quadrennial World Cup tournaments, culminating in 1970. Pele, after all, played his weekly club football for Rio De Janeiro’s Santos, whose games weren’t available on satellite TV.

There are many reasons why World Cup 2010 won’t surprise us with a new Pele, but the first should be obvious: today any teenager even half as talented would likely be on the books of Barcelona or Arsenal already, and therefore a familiar face to European club football’s massive global TV audience.

Think Alexandre Pato, the 20-year-old Brazilian striker who joined AC Milan at 18, or Manchester United’s marauding 19-year-old Brazilian fullbacks, Rafael and Fabio da Silva, who signed at 17, a year older than Spanish midfield supremo Cesc Fabregas was when he joined Arsenal.

In Pele’s era, the world’s best players met only at the World Cup. Today they play each other once or even twice a week while the whole world watches.

Last year’s Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United was the world’s most-watched sports event of the year, with an audience of 209 million. And a lot more than that were expected to tune into the recent Real Madrid-Barcelona Spanish league showdown.

It’s not hard to see why: El Clasico, as the Spanish fixture is known, pitted the world’s two best players, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo against one another, with a supporting cast stronger than either would find in his national team.

The fact that the European game now features all the world’s soccer heroes is the reason you’re as likely to see a Chelsea or Arsenal shirt being worn at a mall in Shanghai or San Diego as in a Baghdad demonstration or Mogadishu firefight.

Almost without exception, today the world’s best players play their club football in Europe. Brazil’s and Argentina’s World Cup squads will be picked almost entirely from Europe-based players, and those will also be the mainstay of the likes of Uruguay, Chile and Honduras. Ivory Coast took just one home-based player to the recent African Nations Cup in Angola, and Ghana is likely to do the same at the World Cup. Don’t expect any in Cameroon’s squad, while there are unlikely to be more than two or three in Nigeria’s squad.

Read the rest here

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Scoring Round 1 of Hillary vs. Ahmadinejad

My piece on Monday’s NPT conference debate:

Walking out on Monday’s U.N. speech by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been good domestic politics for the Obama Administration and its closest European allies, but it won’t necessarily help them prevail at the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference that began Monday. In fact the move by delegates from the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Hungary, New Zealand and the Netherlands, among others, may have perversely played to Ahmadinejad’s advantage.

To be sure, the Iranian leader had been put on the spot by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who earlier from the same podium had criticized Tehran’s failure to comply with disclosure requirements of the treaty, and resulting U.N. Security Council resolutions. “The onus is on Iran to clarify the doubts” over its intentions, Ban had said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing the same event hours later, warned that Iran “will do whatever it can to divert attention from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability.” She pointed out that Iran was the “only country in this hall that has been found by the IAEA board of governors to be currently in noncompliance with its nuclear safeguards obligations,” and demanded that it be held accountable.

But Ahmadinejad had always intended to change the subject and emphasize division in the international community. His speech played to the majority of countries that position themselves somewhere between the U.S. camp and Iran’s, opposing Iran building nuclear weapons and insisting that it comply with its NPT obligations, but not necessarily convinced by Western accusations that weaponization is Tehran’s ultimate goal. Either way, they insist that dialogue, rather than further sanctions or coercive measures, is the way to resolve the issue.

The preference for dialogue is repeatedly sounded by key players in the dispute like China, as well as by Turkey and Brazil, both of which are currently serving on the Security Council, where the U.S. and its allies are trying to win support for new sanctions. In this respect, the distinction between those who walked out on Ahmadinejad’s address and those who stayed to hear him speak may not be insignificant.

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Why Ahmadinejad (Hearts) NY

Anti-Ahmadinejad protestors in New York last time: The Iranian leader will hope to see the Israeli flag flying prominently among those denouncing him

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was clearly unsettled by the news that the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, plans to show up in New York on Monday at the UN’s Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

As far as the US is concerned, Iran is a pariah in the international conversation about proliferation, and halting its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons is one of Washington’s key objectives at the New York conference.

“If [Mr Ahmadinejad] believes that by coming he can somehow divert attention from this very important global effort or cause confusion that might possibly throw into doubt what Iran has been up to … then I don’t believe he will have a particularly receptive audience.” At least she hopes not.

Somewhere in Tehran, Mrs Clinton’s remarks will have prompted Mr Ahmadinejad to smile his pantomime villain’s smile. He’s going to New York because he believes he’ll have an opportunity to confound US objectives.

Sure, he’ll be the focus of much opprobrium – senators from Mrs Clinton’s own party tried to reverse her administration’s decision to grant him a visa, apparently ignorant of their country’s obligations as host to the United Nations. And there will be hundreds of demonstrators across from the UN headquarters, perhaps some waving Israeli flags. At least, Mr Ahmadinejad hopes so, because he too intends to make an issue of Israel – not by threatening to wipe it out, but by pointing that Israel possesses a nuclear arsenal capable of wiping out Iran 20 times over, and yet doesn’t feature in Washington’s non-proliferation agenda.

So while the US hopes to use Iran’s failure to fully comply with the transparency requirements of the treaty to raise support for new sanctions against Tehran, the Iranians plan to draw attention to western double standards in applying the NPT.

Exhibit A will be America’s own nuclear arsenal, and the Obama Administration’s new doctrine that claims the right to launch a nuclear first-strike on Iran so long as Washington deems Tehran to be outside its obligations under the NPT. The treaty, of course, makes no provision for the use of nuclear weapons in policing non-proliferation; on the contrary, it requires countries that already have such weapons to make credible moves towards complete disarmament.

The recent US-Russian agreement to trim their nuclear arsenals to some 1,500 active warheads each – enough to destroy the entire planet many times over – will do little to convince developing countries that the nuclear club is keeping its end of the bargain.

Iran will try to rally those countries with a message that those who complain loudest about Iran’s nuclear programme are systematically violating the spirit of the agreement, which was never about safeguarding the nuclear-weapons monopoly of a handful of nations.
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Who ‘We’ Are When the Whistle Blows

Chelsea’s Drogba and Kalou fly the Ivoirian flag. But Kalou was very nearly a Dutchman…

The second installment in my three part series on the World Cup for the South African Sunday Times (this one on football and national identity)

The fleet-footed Chelsea forward Solomon Kalou might permit himself a wry smile as he stands at attention for L’Abidjanaise, the national anthem of the Ivory Coast, when Les Elephantes face Portugal in their World Cup opener on June 15.

Were it not for the stubbornness of former Netherlands immigration minister Rita Verdonk, Kalou would have turned up at the World Cup in the other orange shirt – as a Dutchman. By turning down attempts by the Netherlands football authorities to fast-track citizenship for Kalou in time to pick him for the 2006 World Cup, the conservative Verdonk actually spared his parents a major headache: the Dutch that year played a group game against an Ivory Coast squad that included Solomon’s older brother, Bonaventure.

But the episode is simply a reminder that international football often demonstrates just how fluid and fungible the notion of nationality can be. In the same 2006 World Cup, when Croatia played Australia, three players in the Croatian squad were actually Australian, while seven of the Socceroos were eligible to represent Croatia.

And then there are the Brazilians: not those representing their own country, but the likes of Portugal’s Deco and Pepe, Spain’s Marcos Senna, Croatia’s Eduardo da Silva, Poland’s Roger Gurreiro, Turkey’s Mehmet Aurelio, Tunisia’s Francileudo Dos Santos and dozens more who have represented a total of 26 other national teams.

Switzerland’s electorate may be increasingly hostile towards immigrants, but the country’s fortunes in South Africa in June will depend heavily on the Turkish forwards Gokan Inler and Hakan Yekin, Cabo Verdean holding midfielder Gelson Fernandes, Ivorian defender Johan Djorou, Kosovar Albanian wide man Valon Behrami and a half-dozen other players from former Yugoslavia. Let’s just say that in international football, these days, the Zulu Scotsman named Makhathini in the Cadbury’s Lunchbar TV ad would no more raise an eyebrow than does Scottish striker Chris Iwelumo, whose dad is Nigerian.

Read the rest here

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The World Cup as War by Other Means

The first of my three-part series on the 2010 World Cup for South Africa’s Sunday Times:

‘Just don’t mention the war” was the cardinal rule when hosting German guests at Fawlty Towers, the eponymous hotel in the ’70s British TV sitcom. But it has never applied to England football fans: whenever their team plays Germany, they taunt the opposition with a ditty (to the tune of The Camptown Races) with the lyrics: Two world wars and one world cup, dooh-dah, dooh-dah …

The English are hardly alone in linking football and war. When Holland beat Germany in a Euro ’88 semifinal, literally 60% of the Dutch population took to the streets to celebrate, many of them chanting “Hurrah, we got our bikes back!” That was a far larger crowd than the one which celebrated Holland’s victory over the Soviet Union in the final of the same tournament days later, but the bicycle reference said it all: Dutch people had had their bikes confiscated when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands 48 years earlier. Those who fell/rose cheering from their graves, wrote Dutch poet Jules Deelder, while a veteran of the underground resistance enthused: “It feels as though we’ve won the war at last.”

Payback for wartime humiliation was also the Argentine narrative for Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal against England at the 1986 World Cup (and the “goal of the century” he added later in the game). Sure, Maradona used his fist to prod the ball over Peter Shilton for the opening goal, but for a country still smarting from the wounds of the Falklands/Malvinas War four years earlier, England had to be beaten by any means necessary. As Maradona said afterwards: “We knew they had killed a lot of Argentine boys (in the Malvinas), killed them like little birds. And this was revenge.” Sure, Maradona had cheated, but so had the British, in Argentine minds, by sinking an Argentine warship outside the zone of exclusion around the islands, killing some 323 sailors. Jorge Valdano, who was on the field that day, knew Maradona had cheated, but said “at that moment we only felt joy, relief, perhaps a forced sense of justice. It was England, let’s not forget, and the Malvinas were fresh in the memory.”

El gol de ciclo

In international football, you don’t just talk about the war; you re-enact it – at least in a safer form. It’s not always safe, of course: the 1969 “football war” between El Salvador and Honduras broke out when long-standing border tensions boiled over following an ill-tempered qualifying match for the 1970 World Cup. And the event deemed to have signalled the onset of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s was an ugly brawl involving fans and players that broke out at a match between Dinamo Zagreb – deemed the Croatian “national” team – and Red Star Belgrade, whose “ultra” fans later went on to become the nucleus of the Serb Tiger militia – notorious for its war crimes.

Even in the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, there were a couple of dodgy moments although, mercifully, none lit a spark. The showdown between Egypt and Algeria produced a week of rioting, sabre rattling and the withdrawal of ambassadors, while Fifa officials kept a nervous eye on matches between the two Koreas and between Turkey and Armenia.

Although he wasn’t even writing about football, the legendary Trinidadian historian CLR James nonetheless offered the key to understanding its international dimension when he famously asked: “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” The game, James wrote, could only be properly understood in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the British Empire.

He recognised sport as a ritualised combat, channelling nationalist passions and reinforcing national mythologies. And it’s not hard to guess what James would have made of the spectacle of Trinidad and Tobago being dismissed from the 2006 World Cup through Peter Crouch hoisting himself to head in England’s breakthrough goal by pulling on the dreadlocks of defender Brett Sancho….

Read the rest here.

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