The elusive COG: how useful is the concept?


Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is famously known to have given the concept of Centre of Gravity (COG) in his On War, until recently the Bible of war theory. There’s nary a military school that doesn’t talk about COG. Since at least 1986, the concept has been a mainstay of US military operations. And yet, everyone has grappled with the concept, trying to figure out what it actually means.

Reason: not only is the concept vague and abstract, as recent writings have determined, it is also a mistranslation of the term Clausewitz used — Schwerpunkt. But before we get down to what Clausewitz meant, let’s list, at the outset, at least two problems with On War. They are not new and have been identified before but it is important to recap them to position the argument here.

The first problem is about the authorship of On War. We know that Clausewitz died early, before he had the opportunity to put his notes and manuscripts together. What we have today is a collection of his notes and manuscripts compiled and edited by his widow, Marie von Clausewitz, with assistance from Clausewitz’ students and military colleagues. The three volumes that comprise On War from the 10 they collected and compiled were their interpretation of Clausewitz, who did not have the advantage of revising or editing that draft.

This is also made clear by a note Clausewitz wrote, calling his manuscripts “a mass of conceptions not brought into form…[and which are] open to endless misconceptions.” The quote, it must be said, is contained in Liddell Hart’s Strategy who wasn’t particularly enamoured of Clausewitzean thought. that said, this warning comes directly from Clausewitz and must inform any reading of On War.

But an even bigger problem, noted by several scholars of Clausewitz, both civilian and military, relates to translations from German. This, of course, is a general problem with translating any work where words can have several connotations and meanings. The term Centre of Gravity, in German, would be Gravitationspunkt. In fact, this is exactly the phrase used by the Austrian army to denote COG. Clausewitz, however, as we have noted above, used the term Schwerpunkt which, scholars have noted, should mean “weight of focus or point of effort”, a concept evidently different from COG which can be understood as a hub or the central source of power of the adversary.

This mistranslation has been one of the major problems informing the elusive understanding of COG. Military theorists and planners have been debating ad nauseam whether the COG denotes the strongest point of the adversary or his weakest. An additional problem is the fact, again well-known, that Clausewitz was theorising in and through the concepts of physics of his own time. The application of force and the drag were derived straight from mechanics. But the application of force on an inanimate object is very different from such application on an animate object which is not a single entity. Its reaction will be unknown and how it will morph once force has been applied on it are unknown variables.

To be fair to Clausewitz, he did realise that and hence his ‘fog of war’. Still, when we use COG as some central point of the adversary which, when struck, will yield favourable results, we make the mistake of assuming that (a) the adversary is a simple rather than complex object and (b) that if it unravels, it will necessarily collapse and could not regenerate.

Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London, put it thus: “First, countries, or indeed any political entities, or their armed forces, do not have COGs. As a metaphor, it encourages a search for some vital core that holds the enemy system together. If this core can be identified and successfully attacked, it is supposed that the enemy system will unravel. This assumes an interconnected and interdependent system, incapable of adaption and regeneration. Yet once some key element is removed, social organisations do not necessarily collapse. There may be a transformation, but this could be into something more robust and durable. Taking out the enemy regime, for example, may not result in something pliable and cooperative, but instead a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable.”

Freedman’s reference to “a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable” is a scenario we are witnessing unfolding in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, to name just the four recent examples. When the United States was planning to go into Iraq, I was at the prestigious Brookings Institution. The US planning was focused on defeating the Iraqi army. This, as I noted repeatedly at the time, was both correct and flawed. Correct, because the US-led allied offensive would surely take out the Iraqi army, as it did; flawed, because beyond that the US didn’t have a plan and Iraq — for several reasons — had the potential to transform into a far more dangerous entity, which it did and has.

The point is simple: Clausewitz was writing and observing in the early 19th century. The nature of war, its thrust, its manoeuvres, its outcomes were very different from the fast-changing nature of war in 21st century. For instance, how does one define the COG, or even Clausewitz’ original Schwerpunkt, and apply it to cyberwar with hackers wreaking havoc in virtual spaces and whose attacks have terrible physical consequences? How did the concept work in Vietnam, for instance, where the US military, despite winning the battles, lost the war? Or in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya? How do we apply the concept, whether in terms of COG or ‘point of effort’ to non-state, trans-national actors and groups that have shown remarkable, protean resilience at surviving the application of force, even when such application has been targeted and selective and has degraded their leadership?

As Freedman argues: “Force can have an instrumental value, even when it is not decisive in itself. There is always a need to understand enemy objectives and capabilities, but that does not always require working out how to impose a total collapse. Their forces might be deterred, denied, deflected, and displaced without being threatened with a terminal defeat.”

This refers us back to what Sun Tzu said in The Art of War: “In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the enemy’s state capital is best, destroying their state capital second-best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second-best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second-best…Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”

There are lessons in this for us, both in relation to state actors as well as the non-state actors we are fighting. Dealing with state actors, as Sun Tzu makes clear, is not just a function of military power but creation of synergy by harnessing all elements of national power. Ditto for NSAs. They morph and draw their strength from society. That is where one has to deal with the idea. In that sense, the COG or Schwerpunkt (point of effort) becomes an idea more than something physical which can be dominated through the use of force alone. In other words, the point of effort must be to translate the use of force into utility of force.

Clausewitz is useful, very useful indeed. But only if he is read with some of the caveats we have discussed above. For this, within the military, we need thinking officers at all levels, officers who can challenge institutional wisdom and get rewarded for that, instead of being sidelined.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 2016 issue of Hilal, the Armed Forces magazine. It can also be accessed at  

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Of bluster and reality…


Now that post-Uri attack bluster in India, and the fantastic extravagance inevitable to it, has subsided, let’s look at things rationally.

Too many Indian and western analysts talk about Pakistan’s ‘perfidy’, presenting Pakistan as an irrational, revisionist state and contrasting it with India’s restraint. This analysis might serve as accepted op-ed copy, it doesn’t as informed, strategic analysis.

Pakistan is not just acting. It is also reacting. It is important to view and analyze Pakistan’s responses in terms of the peculiarities of the ‘make up and structure of South Asian state-to-state relations, and how India and Pakistan have positioned themselves within it.’ The argument here is not about the real or perceived Indian threat to Pakistan, which is how the issue is generally viewed and discussed. Threat levels, as we all know, can and do fluctuate. Also, whether they are or were real or perceived can be, is and should be debated. The point here is broader and structural and relates to “Pakistan’s drive to avoid falling within India’s ambit of influence”.

This is a legitimate concern and is grounded in realism. Realism, at the most basic level, has a simple premise: relative power is the primary determinant of interstate behavior. Peace can be achieved in two ways: through an adequate balance of power – acquired either by a state’s own strength relative to the other or by bandwagoning with an ally to make up for any weakness; or by submitting – i.e., if state X allows relations to be shaped according to the will of state Y or for X to be coerced by Y into taking the submission option.

Some years ago, discussing the realities of the South Asian region, Dr Moeed Yusuf, working through a system-level analysis, used what he called the hub and spoke model. Briefly, in this model India is the hub and the other states of the region are spokes tied to the hub. India, with nearly 80 per cent of the region’s GDP, a vast majority of the population, nearly three-fourths of the total regional exports, by far the strongest conventional military, and geographical and historical centrality in South Asia, considers itself the natural pivot for this region. This, again, is a function of realism. India’s overbearing presence leaves little doubt of its supremacy in terms of relative power.

Since we have determined that relative power is the most important factor in system-level analyses in international relations, it is natural for India to think in terms of projecting its hegemonic presence and dominate relations with its neighbors. It is a matter of fact that India has an overwhelming power differential with most of its neighbors. That means, given the model, that peace and/or conflict in South Asia depend on (a) India establishing ties with its neighbors on terms preferential to itself and (b) how the other state responds to that.

To that end, it is again a matter of record that wherever and whenever India and a spoke in the wheel (one of its neighbors) have been able to find ‘equilibrium’, resulting in relative peace, the arrangement has approximated the power realities of their bilateral equation. Conversely, whenever one of the spokes has tried to defy the hub (India) on issues the latter considers central, the situation has resulted in tensions, crises, or worse, conflicts.

As I wrote elsewhere: “It is a matter of record that India has had troubled ties with all the surrounding spokes at one point or another. Each of these instances can be explained as efforts by the hub and the particular spoke in question to find an equilibrium that would suit them respectively, keeping in mind, of course, the power imbalance; on each area of disagreement, India would seek an outcome in line with its position, while the spoke would attempt to gain whatever concession it could.”

Of all the spokes in this region, the only one that has consistently challenged India’s power outreach is Pakistan. Both act and react in and through the realist paradigm. The disputes in this scenario are just markers. The real issue is about relative power.

In other words, even if Pakistan and India were to get out of the conflictual model in the sense of war, overt or covert, they would still remain rivals.

Put another way, it is time for Indian analysts to get out of their ‘Pakistan-is-perfidious’ level of ‘analysis’ and become more rigorous. It is also important for them to start analyzing the comparative conventional military strengths better. [NB: here I am not even referring to the nuclear umbrella.]

In this context, let me put three points on the table, given the chest-beating we have just seen on Indian TV channels (as also, unfortunately, by some faux-Bonapartes in Pakistan): One, since the 2001-02 standoff, generally known in literature as the twin-peak crisis, India’s main concern has been to cut down on the time for mobilization. It was a good lesson because Pakistan’s mobilization was complete because of shorter interior lines even while India’s cumbersome army had barely half-deployed. To offset this disadvantage, India came up with the doctrine called Cold Start, which was to contain eight Independent Battle Groups. While most Indian commentators say CSD is stillborn and India does not have the capability to operationalize the concept, the fact is that they have quietly changed the nomenclature to Pro-active Operations (PAOs). It is true that currently India does not have the capability to launch integrated PAOs, and the exercises they have conducted have not validated the concept, India is busy in modernizing and integrating its forces toward that end. Put another way, the intention is there and the capability has to catch up with it.

Two, Pakistan, in response began working on forward deployments and e-arms and integrated air-land operations. All these concepts have been exercised and validated. The Indian planners know this.

Three, while Pakistan has developed the short-range tactical nuclear weapon, their potential induction has a strategic purpose. [NB: my own assessment on this differs sharply with that of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division and I have written about that.] The fact, however, is that Pakistan’s military is prepared for countering a conventional foray by the Indian army or the Indian air force. What is important here, and I mentioned this in a previous article, India can make no significant gains in the first few days of any military thrust and by then the third parties will have been seized of the matter. Corollary: no net gain for India.

Significantly, bluster aside, the Indian planners know this. This is why, after a couple of irresponsible statements on the first day, the Indian government began to downplay its rhetoric. Significantly also, the rightwing social media that were calling for a nuclear war with Pakistan slowly began to quiet down.

Will this result in something positive?

No, at least not in the near future. The upcoming 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections (possibly in February next year) are crucial for the BJP and could well set the dynamic for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Narendra Modi, who talked about his 58-inch chest, is in a quandary. He must be seen to be doing something. The rightwing has now begun talking about opening a front of India’s ‘own choosing’, taking a cue from what India’s DG-MO said during a press conference in the wake of the Uri attack. Abrogating the Indus Water Treaty is also coming into play. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, chairing a cabinet meeting said that India will now fully utilise waters of western rivers. This is a euphemism for trying to stress and overwhelm the dispute resolution mechanism built into the treaty. The decision to not have the mandatory Indus Waters Commissioners’ meeting is also a violation of the treaty. Meanwhile, India’s Supreme Court has rejected a petition requesting that the IWT be revisited.

The options India would use is to ratchet up its covert war in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as also in Pakistan’s urban centers. Simultaneously, it will try and isolate Pakistan, a venture that hasn’t come to much yet. Occupied Kashmir continues to burn and muddy the waters. However, India still thinks that its market potential will help it deflect pressure. Its foreign minister, speaking at the UNGA Monday, predictably tried to move the international community’s gaze away from IOK to painting Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism, referring to Balochistan. That’s straight from Modi’s playbook.

None of this translates into any immediate change of the game. That said, Pakistan itself needs to think of developing a policy which contains within it multiple strategies employing all elements of national power and not just the military potential. That, however, is a topic for another day.

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Drawing-room Notebooks


Daily Times, December 2, 2007

I fervently want a revolution; want to test my theories; but I want others to get clobbered on the streets. Why must people insist that just because I know that only a new ‘political consciousness’ aka ‘revolution’ can make a difference I must also start one?

I am a naturalised Lahori, part of the flotsam washed onto the incestuous shores of this city.

My name’s up there so that’s a fairly good start. I am a Pisces. For reasons both of the two fish going in opposite directions and because Lahore has brushed off on me, I am a mass of contradictions. But lest anyone think the tension that tugs at me is the stuff of high tragedy. Far from it. It’s quite pathetic but that’s not an issue on which I’d like to go public.

I like to think that I think; in any case, I like to hold forth, both in print and at dinners and get-togethers, now sexily called GTs. Since I have been able to read a few books and can string a sentence or two together, I consider myself a cut above my neighbour or anyone who is sitting beside me. Of course, it is not necessary for others to accept this but then who cares. I don’t, and that is what matters.

I am quite passionate. And by this I mean in matters political. Since November 3, I have been on the verge of taking to the street and bringing the Temple down on the Khakis, the modern equivalent of Philistines.

But I haven’t done that. Not because I lack courage. No sir, my cup floweth over with it and no, Courage is not a brand of single malt, though I wish it were. The reason I haven’t taken to the street is because I am to be the ‘mind’ of the movement against oppression. This is not a medieval fight where generals led from the front; in modern combat, the front is the ops room in the rear. Plus, the contested zone requires foot-soldiers.

And don’t you dare think I am the Orsino of revolutions, more in love with the idea of revolution than perpetrating one. That would be too harsh a judgement and a wrong one too. It’s just that if I were to give vent to my fury and take to the street, the vulgar functionaries of the government would not be able to appreciate the difference between a thinking revolutionary and a fighting one.

I am Jean-Paul Sartre. I know that violence like Achilles’ lance heals its own wounds, but that is no reason for me not to keep a safe distance from it. In any case, this is an intellectual discovery. It will be outrageous to want to see a thinker becoming a guinea pig for his own theories.

There are thousands who are useless and whose energies can be diverted towards the task of overthrowing an oppressive regime. They cannot think; they do odd jobs. They will never be able to achieve anything. It is my calling to instil a new consciousness in them. They shall be remembered. I will even write a book, fraught with new formulations, one that will be picked up by the departments of sociology and political science across the world as a classic on socio-political movements.

Why must I present myself on the street to the black-and-tans, who will have no regard for my intellect, and let the world lose an asset? Also, who would enlighten the elites at dinners? If I were put in jail, I would also be deprived of the many necessities of life that are essential to my well-being. It should be obvious that unless I feel good and satiated I cannot think. That would hurt the revolution.

There is the morning cup of tea. It’s an old Bertie Wooster habit without which I cannot begin my day. The cup is brought me by the local variant of Jeeves. It takes me time to get up, sip the tea and read through the morning newspapers. I am also rather finicky about my bathroom. I spent more money per square foot on it than on any other part of the house. Latest research has also found a strong linkage between thinking and crapping. So a decent bathroom becomes essential to deep thinking. I am told the jails don’t put much premium on bathrooms. Going to jail would then mean not being able to think and that would only delay the advent of the much-needed political consciousness and its endpoint — a revolution.

I know Marx thought revolutions were a non-voluntarist phenomenon but he was wrong. You need a vanguard and you can’t have the thinkers in the vanguard go out and get arrested or worse, killed. Once the head is cut off, the movement will be akin to a headless chicken and we all know what a headless chicken does. It does nothing except go round in circles.

I also need to earn enough so I can keep thinking. I must come to office everyday. I need a nice car and a driver to drive me around and so on. Thinking is a full-time job and a sacred one. Comfort and thinking go hand in hand. Now unless jails were prepared to provide me with a suite, cable TV, laptop, books and other stuff to imbibe and regular outings where I could hold forth intellectually, I couldn’t be expected to write Prison Notebooks. I consider it a waste of time to invite myself to jail.

The point really is that I fervently want a revolution; want to test my theories; but I want others to get clobbered on the streets. Why must people insist that just because I know that only a new ‘political consciousness’ aka ‘revolution’ can make a difference I must also start one?

Ejaz Haider is Consulting Editor of The Friday Times and Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times.

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Religion, modernity and violence


By Ejaz Haider

In his article Disrupting the journey from normalcy to terror, friend Mosharraf Zaidi anguishes over two important questions: why would highly-educated Muslims turn to violence, and what are the nodes through which modernity is processed or, as I would add, unpacked by Muslims in this age.

Zaidi argues that since 9/11, “Muslims all over the world had a moral, operational and I would argue, even a spiritual responsibility to clearly distinguish Islam and Muslims from the insanity of slamming planes into buildings and killing innocent people”.

He believes, extending his argument, that “Muslims had to construct an identity that was distinct from [the] ugliness of the atrocities [the] terrorists had already committed, and would in the future commit. The distinction had to be total, and utter – aesthetically, narratively and functionally. We needed to be able to self-identify as Muslim, while retaining our origins, our connections, our roots and our future stakes in modernity”.

Zaidi’s article prompted eminent lawyer and friend Feisal Naqvi to argue that the problem can be situated in the dominant thought that “the Quran is not just divine in origin but divine in essence. The Quran was thus not ‘created’ at any moment in time. Instead, the Quran is ‘uncreated,’ existing like Allah outside space and time”.

In other words, this constrains not only the interpretation of the Quran like one would a constitution but because the Quran is unlike a constitution — a covenant by the governed — it cannot be amended. What was true yesterday is also true today and will be true in the future.

The corollary: since human history flows along the river of constant change, one must change and adapt. But if the source of the law lies outside of spatio-temporal limitations, change must be rejected in favor of some ahistorical purity. In other words, those that Zaidi is anguishing about, once bitten by the bug, can only process modernity ahistorically regardless of any modern education. [NB: Naqvi’s long article from four years ago can be read in full at 3Quarksdaily.]

Both gentlemen, incisive thinkers, have done well to begin this debate. Given the battles raging within Islam and also some perceived armageddon between Islam and the West, it’s important to try and find some answers. But doing that requires positing the right questions.

Take, for instance, Zaidi’s use of the term ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’. What do these terms mean? The killers in some ways are as modern as those who don’t kill. They use and create technology in which they are often better than those of us who want this violence to end.

As Zaidi pointed out, the Safoora attackers, planners, and financiers are all highly-educated. So, what accounts for their being ‘pre-modern’? I use ‘pre-modern’ because Zaidi’s argument implies that despite a modern education, their resort to violence somehow makes them pre-modern. This implied proposition can be challenged at many levels and the history of ideas — for instance the violence that emerged from the ideas of Enlightenment — is a rejection of this.

Could then this be what Naqvi argued: the inertia at the center of Islamic legalism?

While that is a valid debate, how does one account for the violence of Sendero Luminoso in Peru or FARC in Colombia or ETA, the Red Brigade, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the IRA et cetera?

Further, the inertia that Naqvi has so eloquently spoken about, and which is decidedly a problem that must be intellectually and practically tackled, has existed for centuries. Yet, it is only now that we see it come into play. Naqvi speaks about the democratization and new communication technologies that has pulled it down from the ivory tower and made it relevant to the masses. That to me tells us more about the democratization processes and the autocratic rules that preceded them in post-colonial states than the inertia itself being a cause of what we are witnessing today.

I’d say the same about Zaidi’s argument. The violence we are witnessing today is not about Islam per se, though that is now the most important marker. It is also not about processing modernity. It is essentially political and geopolitical. Could it be a coincidence that most ‘terror group’ texts begin with a reference to the infamous Sykes-Picot Pact and the Balfour Declaration. Equally, these texts talk about corrupt leaderships, poor governance and a system borrowed from the West that doesn’t work for predominantly Muslim states. These are propaganda pamphlets for sure; they also conflate arguments, use straw men, non sequiturs etc. But everything they say also has a kernel of truth and that appeals to the people.

As Fanon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth: “In its bare reality, decolonisation reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives. For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists.”

Today’s confrontation is unfolding in a world where some are far more powerful and others can barely survive. Where post-colonialism is also neocolonialism. And this argument is not just an Islamist argument. As Zaidi put it brilliantly, there are many nodes to this journey. Some make it; others don’t. But the journey is always modern in the sense of this drama unfolding today, not yesterday, even as yesterday informs our today and will our tomorrow.

Zaidi and Naqvi both have made important points. Those points need to be debated. But where I differ with them is the issue of modernity and whether the violence can be determined as pre-modern and Islamic. Yes, the inertia becomes important. Yes, the Utopia it offers in propaganda terms is a central marker of this discourse but the struggle itself and its objectives are neither just Islamic nor pre-modern. They are here and now.

The violence, no matter how abominable and gut-wrenching, is part of a calculated strategy, just like the violence by states, the only difference being that the statist framework is for us the legal-constitutional one and therefore legitimate. It is about taking control of one’s destiny, being sovereign, to use Georges Bataille’s term where “sovereignty …has many forms. But ultimately it is the refusal to accept the limits that the fear of death would have the subject respect.”

This is by no means an exhaustive review or a final word. Far from it. There is still no real understanding of how and when an individual can decide to kill and get killed. It is just an attempt, like that by my two dear friends, to add my feeble voice to the concerns they have raised and the importance we all attach to this discussion in terms of the context in which this is unfolding.

Ejaz Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider

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Jumping into trouble

The Other Column, May 6, 2007


It’s silly to punish people for their virtues rather than vices and I am both saddened and amused when that happens.

Some ascribe such arbitrariness to divine justice, arguing that the vices finally catch up with a person and take him or her down when they least expect it. But this seems to me to be a rather specious argument –— unless one were to accept that gods are either capricious or badly in need of efficient secretarial staff that can work out the small details of who needs to be punished (or rewarded) when, why and for what.

In any case with I-mates and other gadgets these minutiae can be managed quite easily now and surely the gods know what is happening at the foot of Mount Olympus. Methinks, therefore, that if there is any impulsiveness involved in such cases, it has more to do with the fickleness of humans rather than vindictive gods.

Consider the case of Ms Nilofar Bakhtiar, the federal minister for tourism, and until recently, the head of Q-League’s women wing. (Incidentally, her bio on the official website reveals that like the present writer she was also born in Bannu, NWFP. Could she be an army brat also?)

Ms Bakhtiar, who “got passionately involved in social work right from childhood”, also worked fervently towards getting the boot when she was advisor to prime minister on women’s development — the case of Mukhtar Mai comes to mind immediately. Instead, she was made the minister for tourism.

As tourism minister, however, she seems to have directed her energies towards making Pakistan an attractive destination for those who, like Ian “Beefy” Botham think it is a place to send one’s mother-in-law to, all expenses paid. She knows the tourists don’t normally come to a country that is dry, has poor hotels, high morals, low morale and even lower regard for women, especially the kind who like to go economical in their clothing when on vacation. Yet, Ms Bakhtiar has accepted the challenge and, as fellow-writer Alefia mentioned, is trying to create something out of nothing.

Ms Bakhtiar is one brave lady and an incorrigible optimist.

But what has really endeared her to me is her gumption to go paragliding on a physique that would normally keep lesser souls away from athletic activity. What’s more, upon landing she also decided to hug her male instructor, damned be those who have since been singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic and announcing the arrival of the Lord.

Indeed, as she told an Indian TV channel, she “jumped” for a “good cause”, and as causes go, this one was also definitely higher than the individual who undertook it. Even so, if you jump from above, cause or no cause, and anyone who has done that and survived knows it, you tend to hug whatever or whoever is close to you, be it a tree, a man, a buffalo or, if nothing or no one else is available, yourself. As it happened, the instructor was on hand and it is generally accepted practice in the civilised world that after performing and surviving a dangerous stunt, one hugs the instructor if he or she is on the spot. No big deal about that.

But no sir, it seems like Ms Bakhtiar’s party is not convinced. Under the able leadership of Chaudhry Sahib, the party thinks that Ms Bakhtiar’s act of hugging the instructor has set a bad precedent for the women of this country and she must be removed from her position as the head of the party’s women wing. I must note that while Ms Bakhtiar’s head has rolled for an innocent hug, Auntie Shamim, the Heidi Fleiss of Islamabad, is planning to rock hundreds of happy households (but of that some other time).

For now all I can say is that Ms Bakhtiar is likely to have the last laugh when Auntie Shamim’s book comes out.

Meanwhile, insiders say Chaudhry Sahib is really worried about the future of the League. He should be because Allama Iqbal and the Quaid have passed away, Liaquat Ali Khan has been murdered and, as Chaudhry Sahib put it succinctly, “Tabiat apni vee kuj theek nahi rehndi“.

The League’s future does look bleak, but that is another topic again and can wait until we have another incarnation of the party.

Leaders sometimes take decisions under pressure which may not wield good results, but must be forgiven because we cannot reach either their highs or fathom their lows. So it is with Chaudhry Sahib and the Great Leader. They do things that would look plain stupid to common minds but that is because common minds are just that — common.

Why do you think, dear reader, we refer to something that looks quite straight as common sense? And pray, how can anyone expect the leaders to employ a sense that belongs to the commoners. Theirs is a special world; for them is a special sense.

Take, for instance, the fact that it is common sense to stop digging when you find yourself in a hole. But if you are a leader, what will you do: finding yourself in a hole you will start digging and keep digging until you just can’t get out.

Don’t shake your head, sir. How else will you ever get rid of one set of leaders and find another.

Originally published in Daily Times:

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Crap with gravitas


Most of us treat shitting as just that, shitty and crappy –— an issue not worthy of second thought or, worse, a process that one has to put up with as a biological evil. That’s most unfortunate.

The only cure for this dismissive attitude towards the pleasure of a good morning download is constipation. And if anyone thinks that there is nothing profound, or at least profoundly satisfying about a good crap, he needs to see someone who is desperate to crap but can’t, or hasn’t, for a few days. Better still, he should go through the experience himself to realise the absolute importance of even a half-satisfying crap to a healthy and happy life, both private and social.

But before I go any further, it is perhaps appropriate that I should set down the epistemological basis of a column about crapping, a topic that would generally not be favoured by the more squeamish among us. Four broad reasons force me to write about it: the first should be obvious. I want to restore the issue to its rightful place, given how vital it is for the health and well being of all of us. In other words, it must not be treated as something all of us do but which should never be discussed in polite company except with a doctor and that too only when we either stop crapping or begin to crap more than would be considered normal. Incidentally, I also abhor figurative references to nonsensical talking or failure as crapping. Crapping successfully is a great success; to refer to it in the sense of failure or nonsense is crap…sorry, nonsensical.

Two, a friend recently narrated to me a conversation among some young women vexed by the question of how to crap after they had gotten married to their boyfriends. The normal response would be that they should crap the way everyone does. But the issue, apparently, was more complex than this. These women, who were putting their best foot forward while dating their men, had now realised that marriage was less glamorous than dating and when two people are living together 24/7, they do what everyone’s gotta do, which also means they have to crap. So they now worried about the sounds and the smell and the rest that goes with crapping. All of them had devised innovative methods of reducing the embarrassment of the act. This attitude I find unacceptable for something so useful, smell and all.

Three, having taken up a serious issue like post-coloniality in two previous columns, it is only right that I should now treat yet another important issue, in some ways even more relevant to the life of human beings –— from the First to the Third World —– than the interstitialities that post-coloniality purports to address. Indeed, in its necessity and universality, and given the embarrassment attached to it, it is probably more egalitarian than any other act performed by human beings.

Finally, and this is most important, a friend who has an eye for the absurd remarked the other day that the only but most thoughtful invention by Muslim scientists in the last 700 years of waning glory is the Muslim shower, a device generally unknown to the West –— some things must remain exclusive to the faithful –— but which is vital for the upkeep and cleanliness of Ummah’s underpinnings. However, as the friend remarked, the next step in this great invention should be an attempt by the faithful or the greater minds among them — —difficult though it is –— to ensure that the backsides from the Muslim east to the Muslim west should be able to get warm water during winters.

I told the friend that we should be thankful for the Muslim shower considering that until the arrival in these parts of the Portuguese, our lotas were without a base and hence prone to somersaulting from one position to another. Some such still exist but in more hallowed confines. The ones found in the toilets now have a base; the more advanced toilets have Muslim showers and the most advanced have the luxury of bidets. So until someone can graduate to a bidet, he will have to make do with the cold Muslim shower.

There are some other reasons too. Literature has many references to crapping and toilets. Erica Jong’s heroine Isadora Wing describes the toilets in various parts of the world in Fear of Flying and peoples’ attitudes to shitting, the German being the worst. Allen Ginsberg — who was obsessed with his anus for various reasons, including emulating the homoerotic poetic tradition from William Blake to Walt Whitman,— came to live in Calcutta and described how the Indians shat. He would often read out poems about crapping to audiences.

I recently also came across a blogger who titled a piece The Transcendence of Shit: A Global Perspective, a fairly well and wittily written diary, which begins with a joke: “What would you prefer, a good f*** or a good shit?” The punchline is “that a good shit is more enjoyable because you don’t have to hug it for two hours after you’ve had it.” One thing’s for sure; whoever thought of this joke has his priorities clear. He also, definitely, knows what it means to have a good crap even though most people in their superficiality would probably give the wrong answer to the question above.

Some weeks ago, fellow columnist Munir Ataullah used the word “fart” and then defended the usage on the grounds that if a spade may be called a spade so should a fart be called a fart. This is as reasonable as any argument can get, and reason Munir is fraught with. By the same token it is important not to brush the issue of shitting under the carpet or dilute its intensity by using terms like defecating (does anyone say he is going to micturate, which is an unnecessary obfuscation for plain, honest peeing? And making water… that’s the worst).

So peeing is peeing and crapping is crapping and both happen to the strong and the weak “tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” Hence, there is need to look at crapping with gravitas. If this goes down well, maybe we could do it next week!!

This piece was originally published in Daily Times as The Other Column in December 2005.

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The soldier and the lover…


An evening at Shaista Sirajuddin’s is always a stimulating affair and never fails to remind me of the time when I would sit through her class, usually the only one I attended, trying to soak in every word and image.

On this evening, a few days ago, Shaista mentioned Keith Douglas, an English soldier and poet who studied at Oxford and then reported for recruitment and graduated from Sandhurst to fight in WWII as an officer in the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry, a Reconnaissance Armoured regiment. Captain Douglas was killed during the Normandy landing on June 9, 1944 by a mortar shell splinter so fine, as Ted Hughes wrote, that no wound showed on the body. He was 24.

War claims the young and the best, as Herodotus noted millennia ago. That hasn’t changed.

I had not heard of Douglas before but have since read some of his poetry and read up on him. There is horror in those lines, the dreadfulness that always attends violence, more so at a large scale. But the paradox is the understanding that comes with it, the value of life in the midst of death, the appreciation of relationships, sacrifice, camaraderie, even empathy for the enemy.

There is deadly, matter-of-fact prose in the rattling of machine guns and the employment of other weaponry; but it’s the human behaviour in the midst of the sound and fury that signifies both much and nothing, that awes, and the combination is always poetic.
What does one say when “returning over the nightmare ground” after “the combatants [have] gone” one sees

the soldier sprawling in the sun.
The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

There’s the sense of victory for one’s side but there is also human emotion which goes beyond the sides we take because we are either born into them or, as sometimes happens, we think we are fighting a “just” war being on a particular side.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

These are the moments when war’s larger picture, the one that interests the historian and the strategist, shrinks to become one man, the dead soldier who has his woman’s picture in his pocket and who now lies with a burst stomach, decaying, having crossed the line from where none has ever returned, regardless of the pain and love of those who are waiting for the one who death has singled out and claimed at that moment.

But, for the living, or still living, there is also the grim acceptance of the broader picture, of stakes involved, of the job that must be done, no matter how many fall in the course of doing it. And there is also the recognition that tomorrow death may visit the one who has seen his comrades fall today.

War, then, is the constant interaction of deadly prose and awe-inspiring poetry, each informing the other. I cannot think of any other human activity that embraces in itself, and subsumes, so many paradoxes and ironies: such selfishness and such selflessness, such ruthlessness and such compassion, such cold calculation and such passion.

I was talking to Maj.-Gen Tariq Khan, IG-FC. He has, and is, commanding some of the most difficult counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas. A cavalry officer, he belongs to South Waziristan himself. I asked him about the Scouts that make up the Frontier Corps and its 14 battalions. Are they trained for this kind of war?

General Khan said that he had always endeavoured to keep the Scouts as Scouts. This is how he put it: “Being from the Army I know the value of drills and procedures. While most people feel these are a necessary nuisance to allow for efficiency, I do not agree. These SOPs etc are important because while the average soldier is doing a mission, he does not [necessarily] understand the intent. But the Scouts are too individualistic and must never have their wings clipped by SOPs. They follow an intent and not merely the mission. The Soldier appreciates a situation; a Scout anticipates it.”

I found the fine distinction very incisive. This kind of insight comes when the commander knows his men and when his men know him. That bond does not come easy. War is fascinating and dreadful, more dreadful than fascinating because when the fighting is on and the blood is spilled, the average soldier does not think in terms of poetry or the philosophy of it. That luxury is meant for those of us who can find the right words and write despatches. A Douglas, or to raise the bar, an Orwell, is an exception.

Where the taking and giving of lives is involved, the officer has to lead from the front. General Khan believes, as an adaptive leader, that “the initiative and independence of the Scout” must not be disturbed. If it is, “you shall have a radically negative shift in the efficiency of the institution”.

He went on: “Just a year ago they lost forts, lines of communications and border control; look at it now! These are probably the best troops in the world. If you have their confidence they will follow you to hell. But getting their confidence is not so easy.”

True. General Khan and his officers have had to be with their men in almost every difficult situation. They must compete with them when they shoot rifles, live with them when there is a problem, face the danger where it is most dangerous. General Khan himself was with the troops during the worst days in Bajaur and remained there for two weeks until the siege was broken.

And then there is, in the middle of it all, the simplicity and the hilarity. General Khan told me: “Driving back on the route you took to Khar and back now in the worst days of last year, my driver on reaching the Motorway at Mardan decided to get sophisticated and told the gunman next to him, ‘Put on my seat belt’. The gunman reached across and yanked the belt from where it was secured and promptly tried tying it up with the handbrake. When I asked him what the hell he was doing, he looked at me and said, ‘Didn’t you say we must have our seat belts on? Why are you worried how we do it as long as we do it?'”


This article was originally published in Daily Times on Sept. 17, 2009.

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