Book Review: “The Exile” captures the strange History of Osama Bin Laden’s ‘Wander Years’

Al Qaeda
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has posted a tweet after the release of a 19-page Al Qaeda report in Arabic, which claimed Iran supported the extremist group before the 9/11 attacks. VOA

May 29, 2017: Title: The Exile; Author: Cathy Scott-Clark & Adrian Levy; Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing; Pages: 640; Price: Rs 699

Between fleeing his Tora Bora mountain stronghold in 2001 till the US finally settled scores with him in 2011, Osama Bin Laden’s whereabouts were a deep mystery. But in his — and his top aides — disappearance, there was far more going on than we know. Remember what else happened in the Indian subcontinent in December 2011 that may have facilitated his escape from Afghanistan?

And then it is not only Pakistan’s complicity or negligence that is the story, nor the US’ short-sighted approach and its egregious errors that long delayed his detection after top Al Qaeda leaders were bombed out of their Afghan safe haven by the vengeful Americans in wake of 9/11.

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In their latest book, the gifted investigative journalist duo of Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy bring out much more that we know or believe about Al Qaeda — its tense relations with the Taliban, how divided it was over 9/11, and who actually called the shots in the operation which, despite its success, turned out to be massive overreach.

And there is a most complete account of how Bin Laden and his extensive family spent their dangerous “wander years”, especially the rather strange things he got up to. (According to some sources, he attended a preparatory meeting on the 26/11 Mumbai attack) and the efforts to apprehend them.

Of equal relevance is a penetrating examination of the close but strange and eventually strained links between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

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Noting that nearly two decades after “few books have told the history of Al Qaeda from the inside”, Scott-Clark and Levy hold that the difficulty of getting into “any volatile, paranoiac outfit, one that executes outsiders as spies and lures reporters to meetings that become kidnappings” is just one reason.

The other reason, say the duo, whose most recent work was on the 26/11 Mumbai attack, especially on the heritage Taj Hotel, is an “extraordinary act of control by Western governments”, particularly the Americans, who only released a “cherry-picked history” and even misleading revelations by sources.

On the other hand, while a surprising number of top Al Qaeda leaders retain their life and (some) liberty, there is a virtual gag order by various Arab, Asian and African governments that took them in.

But Scott-Clark and Levy, who got the idea for this book from a chance meeting in 2012 with a Yemeni youth who had come to Pakistan to free his sister — Bin Laden’s fourth wife, held by authorities after the Abbottabad raid along with other survivors — contend it is a story that needs to be told.

“We need more detail and not less. We require more nuance and understanding if we are to ever tamp down a bloody conflict that threatens the globe….” they say and spent years of research and meet a varied set of people to get the complete story.

And these meetings with Bin Laden’s family, friends, mentors, companions, aides, as well as security chiefs and religious and media advisers, in Pakistan, across the Middle East from the Gulf to Mauritania, the US and Britain, resulted in “a story told about Al Qaeda by Al Qaeda men and women with nothing more to lose but lots to prove” — and well corroborated.

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But apart from Bin Laden’s life as well of his family and close associates, there are also key political, security and geopolitical issues they bring out — express or implied.

And while America’s willful blundering into another war before an existing one was won or even successfully completed is known, we also learn about its tendency to let its predilections, not pragmatism, dictate its statecraft and brute force and near-torture its interrogation methods over skilled but non-violent methods of competent interlocutors.

But while a temporary gainer was then Pakistani leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, who saw aid dollars in every help he rendered to the US before his own life was threatened and realization dawned there was a secret power centre accountable only to itself, the winner was another regional power that took deft strategic advantage of Al Qaeda’s dispersal to safeguard itself and to make up with other enemies. And when they were rebuffed, Iran had the tools for revenge. (IANS)

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Book Review: Author Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” deserves Plenty of Plaudits

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception

Tim Harford
Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy cover. Facebook
  • Author Tim Harford has written a new book titled ‘Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
  • Tim Harford is also an economist and a columnist

New Delhi, August 22, 2017: The i-Phone may seem the pinnacle of human endeavour, ingenuity and technological prowess — but while Steve Jobs deserves the plaudits, the range of technologies making it possible were a collective effort, facilitated by a surprisingly unexpected benefactor. Such tales are discussed in Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy.”

When we think of the wonders of our modern world, we may cite these flashy hand-held devices that enable us to communicate, entertain ourselves and find information instantly. But they are merely one facet, for our lives now owe to a range of inventions and discoveries stretching from the humble plough to Google, and from the elevator to intellectual property, and achieved in several unusual and unexpected ways.

And while the i-Phone does make a list of 50 such inventions, so do concrete, clocks and infant formula as well as limited liability companies, public key cryptography and the welfare state — and many others, including some which may seem surprising.

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception — the iPhone especially — and how they affected us socially and economically from the beginning of civilisation to workings of the world economy now. Or rather in laying its foundations.

These 50 inventions, he says, range from those “absurdly simple” to ones which became “astonishingly sophisticated”, “stodgily solid” to “abstract inventions that you cannot touch at all”, profitable right from their launch or, while others were initially commercial disasters.

Also Read: Book Review: Hinduism in Ancient India and the Various Aspects of its Traditions by Greg Bailey

“But all of them have a story to tell that teaches us something about how our world works and that helps us notice some of the everyday miracles that surround us, often in the most ordinary-seeming objects. Some of these stories are of vast and impersonal economic forces; others are tales of human brilliance or human tragedy.”

Harford, known for his “Undercover Economist” series, does stress that he doesn’t seek to identify the 50 most economically significant inventions for some seemingly obvious entrants — printing presses, airplanes, computers — are missing. And there are good reasons why.

He also promises that while zooming in closely to examine one of these or pulling back to notice the unexpected connections, will provide answers to questions like the link between Elton John and the promise of a paperless office, how an American discovery banned in Japan for four decades affected women’s careers there, which monetary innovations destroyed Britain’s Houses of Parliament in the 1830s.

Harford also explains how all these inventions have two facets — they may not be always benign — in the longer run, or ensure a “win-win” scenario for all.

While it is easy to see inventions as solutions to problems, he warns against seeing them as only solutions, for they “shape our lives in unexpected ways — and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else”.

These attributes are best shown by the case of an ostensibly well-meaning American inventor who is responsible for poisoning our environment twice-over though his two contributions were initially helpful, and then by both the beneficial and baleful impacts of the plough — or banks for that matter.

Harford also shows that there is more to an invention than its inventing, and even for any one of them, “it’s often hard to pin down a single person who was responsible — and it’s even harder to find a ‘eureka’ moment when the idea all came together”.

Dealing with such aspects in the brief interludes between the inventions, placed in no discernible chronological or thematic order, Harford also seeks to put them together at the end to pose the vital question of how we should think about that often used and often misunderstood buzzword “innovation” today.

“What are the best ways to encourage new ideas? And how can we think clearly about what the effects of those ideas might be, and act with foresight to maximise the good effects and mitigate the bad ones?” he asks.

But as his incisive but illuminating and entertaining sojourn through centuries of human activities and endeavours show, there are no easy or definite answers. (IANS)

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Rediscovering Hanuman, the evergreen hero (Book Review)

Hanuman was a hero who combined strength with sweetness, humour with gravity, sharp intellect with childlike innocence, sensitivity with power, traditional wisdom with innovative spirit, and fierce determination with gentle humility.

Lord Hanuman, Pixabay

May 02, 2017:

Title: The Chronicles of Hanuman; Author: Shubha Vilas; Publisher: Om Books International; Pages: 278; Price: Rs 350

While the West keeps searching for new heroes every few years, the East is happy with the plethora of already existing ones. And this book is a story of the most dynamic among them – – “the evergreen, original superhero Hanuman”.

 Hanuman’s saga is, of course, all too well known. Hanuman tales have entertained and educated civilisations for centuries. But author Shubha Vilas, a spiritual seeker and a motivational speaker, feels there has been no attempt to present the Hanuman stories in a contemporary way, without deviating from the original traditional narrative.

“The Chronicles of Hanuman” is a sincere attempt to bring together the many tales of Hanuman that have existed in Indian mythology and folklore for thousands of years. But it also carries some stories most people would have probably never heard of.

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Starting from his divine birth to his most heroic acts, the engrossing book is packed with any number of short Hanuman stories from the Vedic times. Each story ends with what one can learn from Hanuman’s exploits in Lord Rama’s war against Ravana.

The book also has a rich section on prominent Hanuman temples spread across the country. As devotees know, Rama may be the hero of Ramayana but there probably are more Hanuman temples than Rama’s. The reason is not difficult to seek.

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Hanuman was a hero who combined strength with sweetness, humour with gravity, sharp intellect with childlike innocence, the sensitivity with power, traditional wisdom with an innovative spirit, and fierce determination with gentle humility. Indeed, as the author underlines, Hanuman is one’s original hero — and will remain so. IANS

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Book Review: What will be Pakistan’s Fate? Toxic Legacies and Structural Weaknesses

Tilak Debasher's new book on Pakistan deals with a handful of debated issues related to the country

A Pakistan Navy soldier stands guard while a loaded Chinese ship prepares to depart, at Gwadar port, about 700 kilometers (435 miles) west of Karachi. Pakistan, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. VOA

– by Vikas Dutta

Jan 5, 2017: Title: Pakistan – Courting the Abyss; Author: Tilak Devasher; Publisher: Harper Collins India; Pages: 472; Price: Rs 599

What will be Pakistan’s fate? Acts of commission or omission by itself, in/by neighbours, and superpowers far and near have led the nuclear-armed country at a strategic Asian crossroads to emerge as a serious regional and global concern while creating many grave internal faultlines that raise doubts about its viable existence – or even existence for that matter.

Could Mohammad Ali Jinnah, as he left New Delhi for ever on August 7, 1947 have visualised the “moth-eaten” country he obtained in less than a decade with his iron determination, the machinations of the imperial power and mistakes of his opponents, “would within twenty-four years be broken into two?”

Or that the “rump come to be variously described as ‘deeply troubled’, ‘in terminal decline’, ‘in crisis’, ‘failing’, ‘on the edge’, ‘on the brink'”, unable to “provide minimum safety and law and order to its citizens” or “survive without repeated external financial support”, become “a hotbed of terrorism, both internal and external” or “a nuclear proliferator?” asks Pakistan expert Tilak Devasher.

Devasher, who retired in 2014 as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat where he specialised in security issues in India’s neighborhood (and continued to maintain the interest), goes on, here, to undertake a full-scale and clinical examination of the various ills plaguing the country.

His research and analysis indicates that the roots of many of Pakistan’s problems lie in its past, in some cases, stretching back to before its founding. Also at fault, he finds, is the nature of the party that accomplished the work, the tactics used by the founding father, probably without much thought to their future implications (rather atypical of the forensically precise Jinnah), other structural weaknesses that were ignored, besides the latter errors.

Devasher admits his “fascination” with Pakistan doesn’t stem from being of a Partition-affected family or even Punjabi, but from the stories told by his air force officer father, about two of his superiors who later on headed the Pakistan Air Force. His interest was further strengthened by his own reading of Indian history, especially the freedom struggle, but this also raised questions about the two countries’ different courses.

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As a history student, he was not content to “skim the surface” and went deeper to know more about how Pakistan’s creation impacted its future, and the “real issues that plagued the country and its people”, beyond the “exciting issues” figuring in the headlines.

This, Devasher seeks to bring out in this “holistic book” which encompasses both “exciting issues” like terrorism and the roller-coaster course of relations with India as well as “boring”, but no less vital, ones like ideology, economy, environment, demographics and other internal dynamics. He however stresses it is not a comparative study with India.

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Beginning, most methodically, from the foundations, comprising the movement for Pakistan and legacy, he goes on to the building blocks, or the Pakistani ‘ideology’ and provincial relations, the framework, comprising the army and its relations with the state and society, and the superstructure which covers Islamisation and the sectarianism that also ensued, the role of the madarsas and then terrorism.

Then, he outlines the worrying state of the crucial “WEEP” sector – water, education, economy and population, and takes up relations with four key states – India, Afghanistan, China and the US.

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Devasher, who ends almost every alternate chapter with how the discussed issue is leading Pakistan to the abyss, is quite gloomy in his conclusions, mostly arrived at careful and reasoned analysis, quite free from prejudice.

The main, he singles out, are the weakness of Islam as a uniting force (as the Munir Commission found in the 1950s), of hate (and why) and quest for parity with India, and the weakness of the political culture (due to the spells of military rule), which in turn affects society, economy and security.

Though he gives no dramatic prescriptions or ways to deal with the eventuality of an implosion, which he gives a decade or so, what makes this book essential reading is its warning against emulating any of Pakistan’s failed, fatal choices – especially the role of religion and hate of the’other’ for nation-building – which some of its more stable neighbours could well pay heed to. (IANS)