Aside

Did you notice this yesterday? The NY Times named the former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre

Perhaps no single C.I.A. officer has been more central to the effort than Michael D’Andrea, a gaunt, chain-smoking convert to Islam who was chief of operations during the birth of the agency’s detention and interrogation program and then, as head of the C.I.A. Counterterrorism Center, became an architect of the targeted killing program. Until last month, when Mr. D’Andrea was quietly shifted to another job, he presided over the growth of C.I.A. drone operations and hundreds of strikes in Pakistan and Yemen during nine years in the position.

What we have lost with the murder of Sabeen Mahmud

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It is four years since I met Sabeen Mahmud. Salman Taseer had been shot dead in Islamabad for his stance on blasphemy and The Sunday Telegraph wanted a piece on Pakistan’s small band of liberal activists. I had heard of a place called The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi. It sounded like it would fit the bill.

I arranged to meet Sana Saleem, a blogger and activist, there. And she introduced me to the small band of writers and campaigners – on everything from the environment to gay rights – who used the coffeeshop as their second home. (Haven of sense – a post I wrote at the time.)

It felt like it stood in the glorious line of radical coffeehouses extending back to the Enlightenment. The sort of place where a novelist and a comedian used a backroom as a work space. You never knew who you might meet.

And then there was Sabeen. Inevitably she chastised me for the Western media’s Orientalism, as she saw it.

“Why do you always write about the John Lennon poster?” she said, as I asked her about the John Lennon poster. “You wouldn’t if this was a coffeeshop in London.”

In one sense she was right. But the whole point of me sitting there was that this wasn’t London.  This was Pakistan, a country forged from intolerance and kept together by sectarianism. Not just that, she was operating in  a city riven by violence, where murders were barely investigated and where the Taliban ran Sharia courts. That is why her coffeeshop, the scene she encouraged and the questions she cultivated were so important.

And it is why she is one of the most courageous people I have ever met. She knew the risks. She knew how this could end. She knew when she arranged a talk on Friday about the silencing of activists in Pakistan’s troubled region on Baluchistan there would be powerful people who’d rather she kept out of it.

“Someone has to do it,” she had told me that first time we met.

She was one of the people who gave you just a little a bit of hope that maybe, just maybe, things could get better.

On Friday she was shot dead. We will probably never know who did it. We will probably never know whether it was because of Baluchistan or some other cause.

But the reason is clear. The woman and the ideas she represented were a threat to somebody or something. In Pakistan there is never a tipping point, watershed or backlash.

I hope T2F lives on. But it can never be the same. And another public space, where ideas can be honed and shared, is lost.

Daily routines of creative people

I’m not a great believer in getting up early. I prefer to work late. But when I did need to get on with creative thinking (what I still insist on calling “my book”) and mesh it with a “day job” then the best time to make progress was first thing in the morning. And if it was to be decent progress, with clear thinking, then it was best achieved before the second cup of coffee. Exercise before lunch. Followed by more mundane activities thereafter.

So I’d say I’m something of a sluggish Kurt Vonnegut…

Want to develop a better work routine? Discover how some of the world’s greatest minds organized their days.
Click image to see the interactive version (via Podio).

Anyway, I do rather love this graphic. Although some work late night, broadly more creative work seems to be done in the morning, rather than the afternoon. But things might be different if you had included a Rolling Stone or two…

Is it really time to brick up Somalia?

There was a time living in Kenya, when the more seasoned – or cynical – among us hacks would ponder what to do about Somalia.

Eventually someone would say: “Brick it up. Last man standing is declared president.”

They would say it half in jest. It was more an admission of Somalia’s unfixable status than a policy prescription.

And now it actually seems to be happening, with Kenya keen to protect its people from al-Shabaab terrorists who have inflicted so much carnage in the past 18 months.

Kenyan officials say that construction equipment has arrived in Mandera to build what is often called a border wall but is actually envisioned as a barrier of fences, ditches and observation posts that extend from here all the way to the Indian Ocean.

“It’s not like the Great Wall of China,” said Mwende Njoka, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. “That would be too expensive.”

It’s hard not to sympathise with Kenya’s position. But Mandera’s existence is largely down to the border trade – some illicit, some less so. Thousands of people criss-cross back and forth. It is an impossible situation.

And isn’t it sad that it has come to this?

Musa Hilal’s prophetic words in Darfur

“The government call to arms is carried out through the tribal leaders,” Hilal said. “Every government comes and finds us here. When they leave, we will still be here. When they come back, we will still be here. We will always be here.”

From time to time, I still go back and read Samantha Power’s New Yorker piece Dying in Darfur. Published in August 2004, just as the world was waking up to the bloodshed in Sudan’s western desert region, it is credited by Mia Farrow as one of the key pieces that turned her on to the unfolding humanitarian crisis.

And it remains a perceptive piece of writing.

It is the final paragraph, and the quotation above from Musa Hilal, that makes it so illuminating. Every time I do one of the “why have we forgotten about Darfur?” radio pieces, I scribble out his words in preparation. But I never seem to be able to squeeze them in on air.

Hilal is generally referred to as a – sometimes THE – Janjaweed leader, whose militias carried out the bloody bidding of the government in Khartoum.

But his words show a more complex relationship, one that I find instructive for considering any broadly tribal society and its political relationships with the centre – whether in Pakistan’s border lands, or in Afghanistan or in the Middle East.

Because Hilal is still there. Darfur was his country before it was Omar al-Bashir’s. And his deadly campaign of 2003 onwards was part of his deal to make sure he stayed there.

Consider that when you hear that his militias are being incorporated into Sudan’s armed forces. Is it part of a programme to exterminate non-Arab tribes? Or is it Khartoum’s way of trying to rein in Hilal himself?

Then earlier this year he turned against Khartoum, urging his followers not to vote or even to disrupt elections. Of course he relented, no doubt after a lucrative deal was struck, and his men “were seen forcing voters who were boycotting to vote for the ruling party candidates and Bashir”, according to Sudan Democracy First Group (PDF here, and it is well worth reading the whole thing).

The dramatic reversal has raised doubts about Hilal’s sincerity and real intentions and concerns about how far the Government might go to contain his growing political ambitions without relinquishing ultimate control on its manipulative policies in Darfur.

Understanding this dynamic is crucial to understanding how Darfur and Sudan work. For as Hilal said 11 years ago, “We will always be here.” Proxies have a habit of sticking around long after they are wanted or needed. Something you suspect he knew well.

Isil’s culminating points

Foreign Policy has a piece on how Isil might be losing hearts and minds as it discovers how difficult it is to govern.

The ultimate, if not proximate, cause for this “culminating point” (to wax Clausewitzian) is in the inability to deliver basic public services and the failure to promote a more inclusive sense of civil society — the same sociopolitical and socioeconomic vulnerabilities the extremists exploited to begin with.

It reinforces my point about the rise and fall of Islamist movements.
Of course the problem with all of this is that so much analysis of Isil is essentially wishful thinking. But I do hope this is true.

Why I want a generous dotcom billionaire to buy Alan Turing’s notebook

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Last year, the British government granted an export licence for a notebook that belonged to Alan Turing, the famed code-breaker and father of modern computing. It is an extraordinary artifact, a product of his wartime thinking on the concept of a universal language.

I have spent the past few days speaking to some of Britain’s most knowledgeable Turing experts. None of them even knew of the notebook’s existence until Bonhams, the auction house, announced earlier this year it was being sold in New York, much less had a chance to study it before it left the UK.

So the question is this: If mathematicians who have studied Turing’s legacy and relatives, such as Sir Dermot Turing who is a trustee of the Bletchley Park Trust, haven’t had a chance to examine its contents, how can the British government be sure it wasn’t losing a vital part of our history forever?

That is a question that Lord Sharkey raised in parliament. He was told the government had consulted experts – but their identities had to remain confidential.

And so it is that the most important Turing manuscript ever found – the only one in his own handwriting – was allowed to slip out of the country last year. On Monday it is expected to sell for “seven figures”, as the Bonhams people so coyly put it.

The only hope is that a generous and wealthy Turing fan does the decent thing and returns it to the UK for display, perhaps at Bletchley Park. (It has happened before.) Or at least scans it and makes it available for study.

The worst case is that it disappears into a private vault and is never seen again.

Now imagine this was a piece of art. Is it possible to imagine a painting of this importance slipping out of the country and then turning up for sale in New York without anyone even knowing?

Imagine the outcry. Imagine the public outrage.And then the fundraising. The Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund give out millions of pounds each year to save paintings for the nation – including a Van Dyck for £6.34m.

Now if we can afford that sort of money for a painting by a Dutchman, surely we can afford a measly million quid for a document that represents one of Britain’s most brilliant minds?

The two cultures live on.

Turing’s legacy was neglected for too many years. Now that we have woken up to his extraordinary contribution to the Twentieth Century (with The Imitation Game, for example), isn’t it about time that we did more to protect what is left of his scattered papers?

And in the meantime I’ll be hoping that a dotcom billionaire or a geeky banker does the right thing on Monday.