Saturday, December 31, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 31, 2011

Hashmi’s swan song

Makhdoom Javed Hashmi delivered his farewell speech to the National Assembly the other day, having resigned his seat (along with his daughter) after leaving the PML-N and joining the PTI. A parliamentary veteran of almost three decades (he began in the partyless 1985 Majlis-e-Shoora of General Ziaul Haq and served the dictator as a minister), Hashmi was given his head by the speaker to say what was in his heart. Hashmi’s speech was of course first and foremost a litany of complaints against the leadership of his erstwhile party, the PML-N. It may be recalled that after the Sharifs opted to accept the offer of going into exile in Saudi Arabia and the PML-N virtually collapsed into a rump party, with the majority of its leaders and members trooping lemming-like into Musharraf’s King’s party, the newly formed PML-Q, it was Hashmi who held the remains of the PML-N together. His defiance of Musharraf landed him in jail on a spurious charge of defaming the military, but he never compromised on his opposition to military rule. Since 2007, when the Sharifs finally returned to the country, he had been sidelined by Nawaz Sharif and company. His departure was therefore the recognisable writing on the wall for some time, the rise of the PTI merely providing the opportunity. But Hashmi did not confine himself to criticism of the PML-N. He delivered a wake-up call to the lawmakers to change their attitude and conduct, which had miserably disappointed the entire nation. He argued that the ruling PPP should concentrate on saving the country rather than the democratic system, although he conceded the right of the incumbents to serve out their full term. However, he advised the prime minister to seek a fresh mandate at the earliest as the present drift had led to the country dying economically and the people deeply disappointed with the demonstrated tendency of the elected members to fill their own pockets instead of serving the electorate. He pleaded for a new Pakistan, for which the sine qua non was the evolution of a new system. An early election, he held, had the potential to bring forth a trustworthy leadership.
Javed Hashmi was echoing what a lot of people have been saying of late. The words ‘change’ and even ‘revolution’ have been ringing out in the political space, particularly since the momentum associated with the rise of the PTI. Unfortunately, though, such is the deterioration in the level of our political discourse (media pundits included) that no one has any clear idea what ‘change’, let alone ‘revolution’ means or entails. First and foremost, it would be instructive to remember that Pakistan’s political energies throughout the 64 years of its existence have been consumed in the struggle for democracy. The resistance to military rule and authoritarian civilian dispensations defines the political history of the country and colours its politics like nothing else. Since 2008, an elected government is in power, but this by now no longer seems enough. The performance of the government on the political, economic and social fronts leaves much to be desired, to put it mildly. Parliament’s performance has been no better, perhaps even worse, bright spots on the legislative horizon such as the 18th Amendment notwithstanding. Taking Hashmi’s nostrums as a starting point, the functionality or otherwise of our assemblies could do with some revisiting. Democracy does not end with free and fair elections. They are only the starting point of the democratic process, whose test lies even more than the polls on the performance of the elected representatives in the assemblies. If these assemblies merely reinforce the notion of ‘parliamentary cretinism’ without answering the expectations and aspirations of their electorate, disillusionment cannot but be the logical outcome. The limited experience of democracy we have points to some ugly features of our political structure and culture. Elected members’ constituency supporters (let alone opponents) constantly complain of the indifference of the members to the problems and plight of the people who voted them in. These members are only available when the next polls roll round. In between, the people are abandoned to their own devices. Even within the paradigm of a parliamentary democracy, there are steps that can be taken to improve the situation and accelerate the march towards a functional, participatory and dynamic democracy. For example, a change of the rules should allow a majority of voters in a particular constituency to recall their elected representative if he or she fails to respond to their needs. The first-past-the-post system could be modified partly to allow party list-based elections on the basis of the overall percentage of votes garnered by a party (an indirect application of this principle is already in use for reserved seats for women, minorities, etc). This would bring people into the assemblies who cannot otherwise challenge the monopoly in the electoral field of landowning clout or money. The disappointment with the hard-earned democracy we have threatens to turn opinion in the direction (once again) of authoritarian or even praetorian dispensations, which have more than been proved disasters for the country. Reform must be undertaken before we reach that point of no return.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 29, 2011

Zardari’s address

Benazir Bhutto’s fourth death anniversary was commemorated by a mammoth, emotionally charged rally in Garhi Khuda Buksh, with the imposing Bhutto family mausoleum as a backdrop. President Asif Zardari’s address on the occasion had been eagerly anticipated, with some observers convinced it would be explosive. As it turned out, however, the hype may have been exaggerated. That is not to say the speech did not have incendiary remarks and references littered through it, but it was basically a reiteration of the ruling PPP’s concerns and claims. Poignantly, it reminded many throughout the land of the late leader’s loss and the seeming inability of the government to bring justice and closure to the issue. Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani separately stated that the murderers were by now known since the investigation into the murder was complete. Further than this he could not be drawn. Intriguingly, the president during his speech at the rally hinted that the names of the perpetrators (by which it can be presumed he meant not those ostensibly charged and in prison, but others) had not been revealed on the request of someone unnamed, and would be revealed at the proper time. Four years on, during which the PPP has been in power almost throughout, that ‘proper’ time is still not visible on the horizon. PML-N and its chief Nawaz Sharif also delivered themselves of their thoughts on the occasion, the former by circulating a questionnaire of 15 intriguing questions related to the affair, the latter by vowing to punish the murders of BB whenever his party came to power.
Moving on to the content of the president’s speech, he made the following points. Zardari vowed to foil conspiracies against democracy, defend the constitution, and, as a son of the soil, not allow any damage to the federation. All this would be pursued through democratic struggle a la Aung San Suu Kyi. He warned against “tailor-made” democracies being promoted, presumably, by the usual cast of suspects. He was dismissive of those jumping fences as those having no significant achievements to their credit.
The president questioned the Chief Justice (CJ) of Pakistan regarding the slow pace in BB’s case. Ironically, on the same day, the CJ asked the same question of the government. All this is of questionable merit, since it does not help advance the cause of getting to the bottom of BB’s assassination one wit. The president implied that the Supreme Court was taking up cases out of turn that put the government in the dock, while ignoring its concerns re the BB and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cases. This is a reflection of the present state of ‘estrangement’ between the executive and the judiciary, a dangerous divide that needs to be bridged rationally at the earliest.
The president took pains to praise and support his (seemingly) embattled PM, reiterating once again that all ‘forces’ were under parliament, the PM represents the federation and the people and all powers have been delegated and rest with the PM and parliament. Democracy, the president argued, needed time to flourish. Meantime he claimed he had given the Pashtuns and the Baloch their rights, advising the latter to struggle along the lines of his party within the ambit of the federation (advice that is subverted by the repressive policy of the military). He also supported the idea of a separate province in southern Punjab as the right of the people of the region to demand their due from Takht Lahore (the seat of power).
On foreign policy, the president expressed the new, assertive tone adopted by the government since the Salala incident. He asserted Pakistan would no longer be part of any international war game, trade with who it pleased (an oblique reference to Iran, particularly the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline) and expand the ambit of trade to China, Russia and Central Asia.
For those who consider the president and the government embattled in the light of the ‘stand-off’ with the judiciary and strains in relations with the military, Asif Zardari’s speech was defiant, hard hitting without being offensive, and an attempt to rally the troops of the PPP for the challenges ahead. Interestingly, the prominence and importance given to hitherto estranged PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan at the rally has set off a new round of speculations regarding a critical role for the redoubtable Chaudhry in days to come. A space to watch, this…

Friday, December 23, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 24, 2011

On the cusp of a defining moment?

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s unusually blunt remarks the other day about moves to oust his government implied that the usual cast of suspects were once again up to their tricks. This candour sent alarm bells ringing throughout the country. The received wisdom was that the prime minister, known for his soft demeanour and reconciliatory manner, had come out swinging against the military establishment and this inevitably meant that the latter would retaliate in customary style. While some were convinced of the possibility of a coup, others regarded that as too risky in the present concatenation of circumstances and thought the intervention (by now considered inevitable) would be indirect. For all the alarmist prognoses therefore, it must have come as a bit of a dampener to learn that the COAS, General Kayani, had categorically refuted all such speculations, stating that the military had no intentions of staging any intervention, direct or indirect, and that it respected democracy and the mandate of the people. Sceptics and cynics may still not be convinced, and they can hardly be blamed, given the dark history of the country where military domination of national life has become a seemingly irreversible fact since the late 1950s.
However, this may not be a 1958, 1969, 1977 or 1999 moment. A tectonic shift below the surface of things, albeit still embryonic and halting, appears to be emerging. Whereas there is no dearth of critics and opponents of the present incumbents, starting with President Asif Ali Zardari and encompassing the PPP-led coalition government, there are few takers for the idea of another military intervention to remove the incumbents. Some are apprehensive whether our hard-won democracy, warts and all, would survive such a development. In this regard, the case of the PML-N appears the most interesting. Having been the victim of a military coup that overthrew its elected government in 1999, its leader, Nawaz Sharif, even when he blows alternatively hot and cold against the government, has been exceedingly careful to distance himself from any notion that he or his party support any intervention by the military, a la the 1990s. Even his hawkish Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar, rose to the occasion on the floor of the house to state that his party would oppose any praetorian move. The parties allied to the PPP and part of the coalition also have closed ranks with the PPP in defence of a continuance of the democratic system. Those outside the present parliamentary setup, for example Imran Khan and Jamaat-i-Islami (both boycotted the 2008 elections), are finding it difficult to make the case for the removal of the incumbent dispensation they love to hate without making the obligatory genuflection towards democratic principles. What does this seeming ‘consensus’ portend?
Without trying to read too much into this (admittedly weak and subject to sudden opportunist shifts) ‘consensus’ of the political class on the need for the continuance of democracy and opposition to all manner of praetorian gambits, one is tempted to venture that we may be on the cusp of a defining historic moment, one in which the legacy of military domination can no longer as confidently call upon the services of one section of the political class to topple a sitting democratically elected government. In the civil-military relationship, badly skewed in favour of Rawalpindi in our history, is there a shift in perception and thinking? Only time will tell. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that only if the political class unites against military domination can the latter be rolled back. The key to our civil-military conundrum lies in two critical areas. One, the political class, whatever its internal rivalries and differences (normal in any polity), must unite against praetorian adventurism and Bonapartism. Two, political party governments must learn to govern in a manner and with a set of policies that bring relief and inspiration to the people. With the democratic consensus on top amongst the political class for democracy strengthened and reinforced by a similar consensus at the base amongst the people that only democracy offers any hope of the redress of their problems and future prosperity and progress, the ground will have been laid for changing Pakistan into a country conforming to the principles of any modern, democratic state and society: the supremacy of the will of the people, reflected in their chosen representatives, subject always to recall if they do not perform.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 20, 2011

A sorry looking lot

President Asif Ali Zardari’s return to the country and declared intention to get back into harness at the earliest possible has left his detractors with egg on their face. All manner of rumour, gossip and speculation had been unleashed as soon as the news of the president’s illness became known. Every flight of fancy was considered fair game, from the allegation that the president was no longer able to discharge his duties and should therefore, in accordance with Article 47 of the constitution, be removed from office, to the impending departure of the government. The fact that the presidential spokespeople were consistently conveying that the president had recovered and would soon return cut no ice with those whose visceral hatred of the president and the PPP-led government has blinded them repeatedly to the ground realities and plunged them into folly after folly. No nuance, real or imagined, was overlooked by our hyperactive media in prophesying doom for the incumbent president and government. The wish list of the forces that could, in overheated imagination, be mobilised to unseat the incumbents included the military and the judiciary. Why has this phenomenon of forecasting doom and gloom repeatedly become the leitmotif of large parts of the media and political players?
There are perhaps three sets of actors tilting at these windmills ever since the PPP government came to power almost four years ago. They comprise: 1) Those with an unflagging visceral hatred of the president and the PPP government for ideological, political, and vested interest reasons. 2) Those who may not have begun life in the first category but have become increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the performance of the government since it assumed power in 2008. 3) Our permanent establishment and their satraps that may still harbour suspicions about the PPP despite the latter’s bending over backwards to keep the former sweet. Taken in order, there seems little hope of rescue for the first category, blinkered as its vision is. The second offers at least the possibility of being persuaded that whatever their view of the present incumbents and their performance in office, efforts to see the back of the incumbents must not stray into territory where along with the bathwater (the government) the baby (democracy) also gets thrown out. To those who pooh-pooh democracy because they feel it has failed to deliver, there is only one counsel: patience. Democracy does not offer guarantees for the solution of problems per se. What it does offer is a participatory political process under the umbrella of the freedoms that are an inherent core of any democratic system worth the name. What use are these freedoms, the detractors ask? Freedom to organise, express opinions and exercise the right to oppose through peaceful and constitutional means offer the possibility of putting forth a new, or amending/changing the existing national political agenda. In other words, the struggle for solutions and rights can be waged openly and without fear. The more democratic a system, the better able are all the diverse forces in society to advocate and ‘fight’ for their special or even general concerns. Since we in Pakistan have little or no experience of genuine democracy and true freedom, and far too much than is good for our health of autocracy and dictatorship, we soon lose patience with the seemingly slow pace or non-existence of desirable change under democracy and reflexively start harking back to strongman rule of one kind or another. Nothing has been learnt by such minds from the history of damage done to state and society by such non-representative dispensations littered through our relatively brief history as an independent country.
Prime Minister Gilani, in a relaxed mood at a private wedding in Lahore on Sunday reiterated what some analysts (and this paper) have been arguing since the (now) pricked balloon of memogate and other fulminations have been trying to portray. The ‘crisis’ is more overheated imagination than ground reality. The institutions of state that these agitated minds have ‘clashing’, seem wiser and maturer than those who have been egging them on to bare their knuckles against each other. The meeting between General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani cleared the air considerably and saw them arriving on the same page. The honourable Supreme Court Chief Justice (and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif) is clearly committed to opposing any extra-constitutional intervention to upset the applecart of the present democratic dispensation. Those with axes to grind will therefore have to take a deep breath and relax. And those in our ‘free’ media who have been proved wrong and way over the top in recent days should take time out to reflect on the ethics and sense of responsibility of a truly free media that intends to stay that way.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 15, 2011

Fertilising a troubled relationship

The envoys’ conference, even though its recommendations have not been officially revealed, seems to have spun out a ‘wish list’ of how it would like the relationship with the US to go. It must be conceded that the wish list is a compendium of belated but correct principles that should govern relations between states, as well as the usual practice in official policy formulation to ignore the elephant in the room. When the recommendations reportedly speak of their desire that Pakistan’s external relations should be based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, who would disagree? Unfortunately, these are the very principles that have been conspicuous by their absence in the conduct of our foreign policy since independence. Not only have we continued (periods of estrangement notwithstanding) to serve the US’s and the west’s interests as a client state for most of our history, in our zeal to defeat communism on Afghan soil after the Soviet invasion, we surrendered large parts of our sovereignty in offering our territory to foreign jihadi fighters recruited from across the Muslim world to wage resistance in Afghanistan. Right or wrong, these fateful decisions in the past have had the unintended consequences of threatening the whole world, including Pakistan, with the destructive activities and mindset of the terrorist brigades.
Now, as a result of the Salala incident acting as a trigger, if our foreign office mandarins have woken up to these time honoured principles for the conduct of any self-respecting state, so be it and better late than never. The new ‘red lines’ reportedly under discussion with the US and NATO even as we continue to fulminate in public against the attack on November 26, include no more attacks across the border a la Salala, no more raids a la Abbottabad, and arguably, no more drone attacks without a Pakistani ok (the latter are at a standstill since November 26 and one airbase, Shamsi, has been ‘recovered’). What should have been said in this context is the need to revisit all the secret and not-so-secret agreements Musharraf made with the US without any mandate or a nod in the direction of the citizens of this country. Airbases, overflight and land-based logistics support (which today is charged with causing Rs 40 billion damage to our highway network, is clogging up our ports because of no onward movement, and may end up being taxed if and when reopened), a free run for American spooks and others, all these concessions Musharraf made to his ‘tight buddy’ George Bush Jr. A sovereign, self-respecting country would have acted differently, at the very least negotiating the terms on an equal basis. In return for an acceptance by the US of the new terms of engagement, presumably we would continue to enjoy the critical aid from the US and the west for our ailing economy.
What is not in this discussion so far, and which the prime minister camouflaged in the diplomatic phrase “our legitimate interests”, is the Pakistani military establishment’s support for a proxy war through the Afghan Taliban ensconced on our soil. Arguably, this is the fundamental problem, from which flow almost all the related issues surrounding the Afghanistan-Pakistan imbroglio. And it this unstated reality that informs the Obama administration and the US Congress’ approach to Pakistan. Our civilian government not only does not make this policy, arguably it is by now firmly hitched to the wagon of the military establishment’s strategic depth folly. One immediate result of this ‘consensus’ of all the players in Pakistan’s state and society is the cut-off of $ 700 million owed as compensation for war on terror expenditures. The thought cannot be ignored whether this is the first drop of rain, presaging the deluge? While Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar is at pains to emphasise that Pakistan is not only not responsible for all the ills of Afghanistan (does that imply we are responsible for some of those ills?), it is part of the solution, not part of the problem. This thesis is wearing thin in Washington and other western coalition capitals. Already there are signs that the coalition is seeking to bypass Pakistan in its attempts at a negotiated settlement with the Afghan Taliban. And as though all this were not troubling enough, the US/NATO are now on our case regarding the ammonium nitrate fertiliser used in Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that have inflicted so much damage on the US/NATO and Afghan forces, which is said to originate from our two factories. There seems no end to this interminable saga except an all out struggle for influence and power in Afghanistan between regional players and their proxies once the foreign forces withdraw. A sobering prospect indeed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Daily Times editorial Dec 3, 2011

Memogate in the SC

The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) order setting up a commission headed by Tariq Khosa to probe and report back within three weeks on the ‘Memogate’ controversy has sparked off another executive-judiciary confrontation-in-the-making. The nine member SC bench hearing Nawaz Sharif and others’ petitions on the issue also sent notices to the president, COAS and DG ISI to respond within 10 days, and ordered ex-ambassador Husain Haqqani not to leave the country until the commission had completed its work. Nawaz Sharif himself appeared before the bench and read out his petition, whose underlying justification was that parliament had disappointed in performance, hence the petitioner had approached the SC.
In response to the order of the SC, Babar Awan and other PPP leaders launched a virulent attack on the proceedings, arguing that only the executive can set up a commission under the relevant law. Babar Awan argued that the petitioners should have waited for the parliamentary committee on national security headed by Senator Raza Rabbani to conduct its inquiry into the affair. Approaching the SC even before that committee had started its investigations was tantamount to depreciating the role of parliament. He asserted that the executive and parliament’s turf would not be allowed to be encroached upon by any other institution of state. Also, he contended that the SC passed the order without giving the federation a chance to be heard. On this point, the PML-N has responded by saying the Attorney General was present and did not object to the order. However, the Attorney General has since clarified that he was there in response to the court’s notice and was not representing the federation per se. Without saying so in so many words, Babar Awan implied that the PPP rejects the Khosa commission and left open the question whether the government would cooperate with it or not. He did say however, that the commission would be subjected to a legal challenge. Awan defended Haqqani against the, according to him, ‘unnecessary’ order not to leave the country when the ex-ambassador had himself returned, stated he had no intention of leaving, and resigned to ensure a transparent probe. Awan also lambasted Khosa and his ‘connections’ in the judiciary and bureaucracy, implying a lack of confidence in the impartiality of the officer. He then went on to contrast the treatment the PPP and the PML-N had received from the courts, implying the latter got relief and the former never did.
Statements from various sources that the PML-N chief and his entourage were given special protocol by the SC were firmly rejected the next day by the court with a warning that such utterances about the court could attract contempt.
There is no denying that Memogate has rocked the country and the democratic dispensation to its foundations. While most objective observers decry the implied veracity of Mansoor Ijaz’s claims, there is no denying the need to get to the bottom of the affair, and that too transparently. The memo delivered through General (retired) James Jones to Admiral (Retired) Mike Mullen, which Ijaz alleges was sent with the blessings of Haqqani and the president, has been compared during the proceedings by the Chief Justice with the Nixon-Watergate scandal. While many things still remain to be settled, the most important being the truth or otherwise of Mansoor Ijaz’s alarming claims, the SC’s order and the ruling party’s response promise a new round of confrontation between the executive an d the judiciary, a prospect that will cause a sinking feeling in most citizens tired by now of the seeming inability of the institutions of state to work together in harmony, while recognising and respecting each other’s purview. The division of powers at the heart of our constitutional construct still remains to be firmly delineated. All sides should exercise restraint and let the facts come out, whether through the commission or the parliamentary committee, and not prejudge the issue from anything resembling a partisan position.

Rashed Rahman interview with Danish tv

Country cannot be invaded and rebuilt from scratch: Rashed Rahman
Daily Times Monitor
COPENHAGEN: The idea that a country could be invaded and rebuilt from scratch was inherently flawed, Daily Times Editor Rashed Rahman said in an interview with a Danish news channel DR on its premier current affairs programme Deadline.
Describing the setup within Pakistan, Rashed Rahman said that the country consisted of different actors. He said that the military and the ISI were powerful and they were the ones that basically controlled Pakistan’s security and foreign policy in specific areas, such as Afghanistan and India. According to him, the rest of Pakistan was mixed. He said he did not agree with the idea of the export of extremism and the notion that Afghanistan could be controlled through proxies.
“Pakistan is a very divided, complex, multi-layered country, so when you say Pakistan be careful; let’s distinguish between the policy of the army and the policy of the rest of Pakistani society,” he said.
He argued that the current scenario was a result of history, saying that once the West walked away from Pakistan after the Soviets walked away from Afghanistan, the country was left to pick up the pieces.
“So Pakistan has gone with things that are not palatable. For example, raising and supporting the Taliban, bringing them to power in Afghanistan and then after they were overthrown in 2001, hosting them, giving them safe havens. This is a policy that inevitably brings the military and the ISI into conflict with the people who are fighting in Afghanistan, which is the US and NATO and, of course, the Afghan forces,” he explained.
Continuing in this vein, Rashed Rahman said that in these areas, the government was weak and unable to assert itself against the military.
“The US-Pakistan alliance is fraught, enmeshed in friction and mistrust and suspicion,” he said.
Talking about the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Rashed Rahman said that the military felt that it had better position itself to get a piece of the action there. He said that post-2014, the military wanted to see a, if not pliant, then friendly government in power in Kabul. According to him, the military felt that this could be best achieved through the Taliban. This had created the current friction between Pakistan and the US, since the US, NATO and the Afghans did not want the Taliban back in power. This time round, apart from the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan were divided and there was a considerable body of Pashtuns allied with the Karzai regime. According to him, his greatest fear was that there would be a civil war in Afghanistan after 2014, which would affect Pakistan and the entire region and may spiral into separate proxies being supported by regional powers apart from Pakistan.
“If that happens, and I hope it doesn’t, but if it happens, it will be a disaster,” he said.
To a question about who, between extremists and the rest, was gaining the upper hand within Pakistan, Rashed Rahman replied that religious parties had always been marginal in the political process, if it was a free political process. Citing the example of elections, he said that such parties did not obtain more three percent of the seats, if the elections were not manipulated in any way.
“So clearly, Pakistan is a moderate Muslim country. The bulk, the majority of the people are entrenched in the Sufi tradition, they are not extremists. So the extremists are not gaining the upper hand, unless someone gives them a boost,” he said.
According to him, there was a perception in the western media that Pakistan was running amok with fanatics and terrorists, while the reality was that 99 percent of the people just got on with their daily lives, which was never reported.
To a question about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Rashed Rahman said that there was little chance that it would fall into the hands of radical extremists. He said that the military had ensured, along with help from the Americans to some extent, that the arsenal be kept safe. He stated that unless there was a movement inside the military, the arsenal would be secure. He claimed that there had been efforts within the military to bring about a coup or to orient it towards Islamism, but that they had been nipped in the bud, adding that the Pakistan military’s discipline had not broken down and was intact.
About the situation of democracy within the country, Rashed Rahman said that a struggle for democracy was still continuing in the country. He claimed that unless the country persisted with democracy, unless the parliament continued to function and freedoms existed, the extremist tide could not be rolled back.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Daily Times editorial Nov 2, 2011

Istanbul conference

On the eve of the Istanbul conference on Afghanistan beginning tomorrow, the presidents of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Turkey are meeting today for a trilateral summit in which Turkey is expected to play the role of a mediator to bridge the gaps and frictions between Islamabad and Kabul. How far such mediation, and the multilateral conference to follow, will succeed in overcoming not just the trust deficit between the major players but also reconcile what have increasingly emerged as fundamental strategic and policy divergences amongst the ostensible allies remains to be seen.
Having said that, it is necessary to recognise the shifts in position detectable even as the war on the ground (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) grinds on. To illustrate, a targeted US drone strike on Monday killed three people in North Waziristan, reflecting once again the intensified reliance by the Obama administration on a ‘decapitation’ through such remote means strategy. Inside Afghanistan, a suicide attack in Kandahar killed three Afghan UNHCR staff, raising new speculations whether the relative calm on the southern front in recent months may now give way to Mulla Omar’s forces joining hands with the Haqqani network’s intensifying attacks on American, Nato and Afghan forces in Kabul.
While the US seems to be relying, in Hillary Clinton’s words, on “Fight, Talk, Build” to ensure a face-saving exit from Afghanistan, it appears the Taliban, and their Pakistani military backers, are countering with a “Ceasefire, Talk, Wait for the Americans to Leave” posture. This makes eminent sense from their point of view. Why expend lives and resources on major military activity against an enemy that has declared its intention to retreat? This of course does not preclude pinprick attacks and bombings, which of late seem to be concentrated for maximum effect on the cities, rather than a classic guerrilla campaign in the traditional Taliban strongholds of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The US’s ‘bomb-them-to-the-bargaining-table’ strategy, therefore, is unlikely to yield the results hoped for. There is little incentive at present for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table when the battlefield is yielding tactical, strategic, and political success. To add to this tendency, suspicions and the trust deficit between ostensible allies Pakistan and the US, especially because of the recent strategic partnership agreement signed between Kabul and New Delhi, are hardening in the Pakistani military establishment’s minds. The spectre of being squeezed in a ‘nutcracker’ by India on the east and Indian influence in Kabul on the west has always been GHQ’s worst nightmare. Suspicion that Washington is not averse, and may even be relying on, an expanded Indian role in post-withdrawal Afghanistan, has brought the traditional rivalry between Pakistan and India to the proxy war battlefields of Afghanistan. In such an emerging scenario, the Pakistani military feels it holds a few cards of its own. And certainly Washington’s about-face in asking the ISI to help bring the Haqqani network to the negotiating table would bring great satisfaction to the Pakistani strategic planners. They have effectively played the ‘spoiler’s role’ to sabotage any attempts by the US at bypassing the ISI and independently negotiating with the Taliban (occasional reports of such US-Taliban contacts having faded away of late) and won a psychological and political victory by forcing Washington to abandon any such notions and return to asking for the services and good offices of the ISI for any hoped for settlement.
With such divergent considerations informing the Pakistani and US sides, these main players in the Afghan theatre are unlikely to resolve their differing strategic and political goals, and even make the idea of a regional solution through some architecture of a new regional Afghanistan resolution group a non-starter. What then are the prospects in Istanbul or for that matter in the Bonn conference to follow on December 5? It looks increasingly like ‘fight-fight’ while keeping up the pretence of ‘talk-talk’ on the Pakistani side, and just ‘fight-fight’ on the Afghan Taliban side. The ground therefore is being prepared for a new civil war in Afghanistan once the foreign forces leave. The Pakistani military may be convinced it has no choice but to see this endgame through, and plenty of ‘strategic’ advantage in persisting with this course, but there is grave concern about the cost to be paid, now and in future, by Pakistan and its people.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 25, 2011

A life of struggle and tragedy

In the death of Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the country has witnessed nothing less than the passing of an era. Begum Bhutto was perhaps the last representative within the past or present leadership of the PPP of the original élan of the party – left wing and anti-imperialist. All that has by now given way to the PPP being swayed by the currents of our times. The change in the party’s ideology could perhaps be traced to the moment when, partly because of ill health, Begum Bhutto was removed as the chairperson for life of the PPP and replaced by her daughter, Benazir Bhutto.
In a life that saw both highs and lows, and was never far from struggle and tragedy, Begum Bhutto was the bulwark of support for her husband Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) and after him, to her daughter Benazir. When ZAB was executed in 1979, many erstwhile leaders of the PPP abandoned him in the face of actual or threatened repression by the military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq. Cometh the time, cometh the man, or in this case, woman. Begum Bhutto rose to the challenge, filling the void left by ZAB’s departure from this world, assumed charge of and the chairpersonship of the PPP in 1979, a post she held with great distinction until 1983. It is in this fraught period in the country’s history, when the horizon had darkened with the draconian repression by the Zia dictatorship, that she launched a determined and heroic struggle against the military regime. During this struggle, she suffered incarceration repeatedly and even physical abuse at the hands of the dictator’s minions. Undeterred, she pulled off the remarkable feat of uniting a broad spectrum of political parties to launch the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). The movement was put down ruthlessly with an iron hand by General Zia. Around this time, Begun Bhutto was diagnosed with suspected cancer and allowed to leave the country for treatment abroad. She was a rock of support for her daughter Benazir in her captainship of the PPP from then on.
As though the fate of ZAB was not enough, she faced a continuing series of tragedies of Shakespearean dimensions. First her younger son, Shahnawaz Bhutto was murdered by poisoning by Zia agents. In 1996, her elder son and the apple of her eye, Murtaza Bhutto, was gunned down in Karachi by the police. That was not the end of the Bhutto family’s unprecedented record of tragedies. Benazir herself was gunned down in Rawalpindi after her return from exile abroad. It is not clear whether Begum Bhutto was either told or was aware of the death of her daughter, since by 2007 her Alzheimer’s is said to have rendered her unable to comprehend. A further tragedy was that Begum Bhutto, torn between loyalty to her daughter and the political ambition of Murtaza, cast her lot in with the latter. His killing is said to have so affected her that she not only retired from public life, but reconciled with Benazir and lived out the rest of her days in exile in Dubai.
While the respect Begum Bhutto was held in is reflected in the non-partisan tributes flowing in from all political parties and leaders, naturally it is the PPP, and especially its workers, with whom Begum Bhutto always retained a special rapport, who feel bereft. The prime minister announced a national holiday on Monday, the day of her funeral, and 10 days of mourning. The president, her son-in-law, awarded her the title of Madir-e-Jamhuriat (Mother of Democracy) and a Nishan-e-Imtiaz for her services to democracy and the country. The Sindh PPP announced 40 days of mourning. The party has suspended all political activities throughout the country.
While the outpouring of grief for a great lady and great leader fill the air, her death could not, unfortunately, heal the divide in the Bhutto family. Murtaza’s widow Ghinwa and his daughter Fatima objected to her body not being allowed to come to her home in 70 Clifton, Karachi, or Al-Murtaza, Larkana, although they did travel to Garhi Khuda Bux for Begum Bhutto’s last rites. We do not know what Begum Bhutto would have made of the continuing feud in the family or the very different direction the PPP has taken from the party her husband founded and she steered through very difficult times. Perhaps it would not be far off the mark to surmise that she would have been somewhat disappointed by both. Be that as it may, while death comes to us all, the passing of some is a greater moment than others. Without fear of contradiction, one such was Begum Nusrat Bhutto, the epitome of grace under pressure and immense courage.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 23, 2011

“Days and weeks”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Islamabad from her interaction with the Afghan leadership in Kabul and in the backdrop of the tensions between Pakistan and the US, stemming from a series of events beginning with the Abbottabad raid, Admiral Mullen’s castigation of the ISI’s links with the Haqqani network, and the Pakistani civilian-military response orchestrated through the All Parties Conference (APC). The expectation in some circles may have been that Ms Clinton came bearing gifts and palliative noises. To some extent they may have been satisfied. But the essential thrust of Ms Clinton’s message was clear and unequivocal. The US expects Pakistan to act against the terrorist safe havens on its soil within “days and weeks”, she said, while nudging, cajoling, persuading the Taliban to enter peace negotiations. If they do not cooperate, Ms Clinton asserted, stern action should be taken against them. The palliatives, largely overshadowed by the import of the ‘stern’ message, were that the Pakistan-US relationship is too critical for both sides and cannot be given up, and that the US would not carry out any (further) unilateral actions against Pakistan. She ended by emphasising Pakistan’s critical role in the Afghan endgame, and that the APC call to “give peace a chance” could only be achieved if both sides realise that “we have some work to do”.
Reports state that Clinton seemed to have extracted the recognition from Pakistan that it could do more against terrorist safe havens on its soil. This led some commentators, especially on television, to criticise foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar for having seemingly conceded this point. However, a careful reading of Ms Khar’s statement may show that the American ‘joy’ at the seeming concession may have been overstated, and that the criticism had more to do with sensitivity amongst some of our commentators to the ‘do more’ mantra rather than what she actually said. Khar linked safe havens on this side with their counterparts across the border (a reference to the Pakistani Taliban having found sanctuary in eastern Afghanistan, reportedly with the Haqqani network’s help). Khar went on to say that better cooperation by the two sides could yield better results but categorically refuted ISI’s support to safe havens. So while the foreign minister stuck to her brief, the real question is the credibility of her defence of the Pakistani military and ISI’s role in supporting and providing sanctuaries to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network on Pakistani soil, for which there is by now overwhelming evidence.
A parallel and important development is the concentration of US and Afghan forces in the eastern Afghan provinces considered the stronghold of the Haqqani network, presumably in preparation for military action against the group. Clinton would like Pakistan to put pressure on the group from the Pakistani side (the old hammer and anvil tactic). This would include not only military action on both sides of the border (Ms Clinton pointed out that action on only one side would not achieve the desired results) but that military operations offer limited gains (based on the experience of the military also intelligence cooperation. Pakistani policy makers are by now wedded to the view offensives in Swat and FATA), and it is time now for a comprehensive reconciliation ahead of the withdrawal of the foreign forces from Afghanistan. The question however remains, if the military is not prepared to reject its strategic depth obsession and continues to support the continued fight of the Afghan Taliban against the foreign and Afghan forces, what incentive is there for the Taliban to come to the negotiating table? From their perspective, it makes perfect sense to wait out the withdrawing foreign forces. What may follow causes greater concern. Unlike the relatively easy victory of the Taliban in 1994-96, this time they will face a broader and more determined anti-Taliban front, comprising not just the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, but also those Pashtuns who reject the medievalism of the Taliban. Therein lie the seeds of another civil war in Afghanistan, from whose effects Pakistan cannot isolate itself. Talking of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan while stoking the Taliban insurgency seems, to put it mildly, contradictory.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 22, 2011

Shocking brutality

Nothing defines the post-Gaddafi National Transitional Council (NTC) regime better than the shockingly brutal manner in which Colonel Moammar Gaddafi was literally beaten to death after his capture on Thursday in Sirte. To reiterate the cliché that all is fair in love and war in this context is no comfort. The reports and footage of Gaddafi’s last moments are nothing short of hair-raising. This was a barbaric act in the extreme. With its usual expedient blinkers where its interests are concerned, the west, whether governments or the media, have tucked away their moral compass somewhere out of sight and convenient. The NTC pro-west regime they are triumphantly supporting is less likely to be, as the Libyan Ambassador in London claimed, a state ruled by law so much as a western imperialist satrap. Given that this treatment of a captured leader was not the first manifestation of the brutality of the NTC fighters (note the violence perpetrated against unarmed migrant African workers captured by the NTC and accused of being Gaddafi mercenaries without any proof), what is the explanation for this barbarism?
The NTC forces include al Qaeda affiliated groups who have been trying to overthrow Gaddafi through armed uprisings (especially in eastern Libya) over the years. Ironically, the very west that claims to be fighting al Qaeda worldwide turned a convenient blind eye to the troubling inclusion of these extremist jihadi groups in the NTC ranks. One faction of these al Qaeda affiliates was held responsible for the murder of a Gaddafi regime senior general who defected to the rebels and was leading their military campaign. Yet to date, no one has been held accountable for this murder. Libya presents the picture of the pattern likely to be used by the west from now on to take out regimes that oppose its imperialist ambitions. The model is to use local dissident or rebellious forces on the ground, supported by the US and Nato’s overwhelming technological superiority in air power, missiles and other ‘remote’ weapons to help crush regimes that do not play ball with the west. US President Obama boasted after Gaddafi’s brutal end was confirmed that not one American life had been lost in the Libyan campaign. What he conveniently forgot to mention was the role of covert special forces attached to the NTC rebels that arguably helped and directed their relatively amateur military efforts. Obama’s triumphalism pulled whatever thin fig leaf was put up by Washington under the rubric ‘leading from behind’.
Like in any detective novel, the two critical questions to be asked are: motive, and beneficiary, to determine the villain of the piece. Libya’s oil and gas riches are what the US-led west has been slavering over for a very long time. Gaddafi’s support to anti-imperialist movements worldwide earned him more than a fair share of the ire of the powers that be in our (still) post-Cold War unipolar world. France and Britain, that led the anti-Gaddafi pack, are licking their lips over the lucrative ingress they have gained through bringing the NTC to power into Libya’s oil and gas. As in Iraq, energy sources and imperialist intervention have a symbiotic relationship.
It may be too close to these horrific events to judge Gaddafi’s place in history. However, a few tentative conclusions can be tendered even now. Colonel Gaddafi’s coup in 1969 that overthrew the decrepit monarchy and established a popular Arab nationalist regime openly declared its support of all anti-imperialist movements in the world. Sometimes, his uncompromising stances and criticism of other third world countries that betrayed their ostensible support to such movements because of ties to, and pressure from, the west, invited retaliation and even relative isolation for Gaddafi. He was however, undeterred for a very long time. It is only when the west was able to orchestrate a virtually total isolation of Libya because of the Lockerbie bombing and other incidents, that Gaddafi attempted to compromise with the west. He gave up his nuclear ambitions, support for already dwindling anti-imperialist movements, and tried to craft an acceptable modus vivendi with the western powers. However, if there is one lesson to be drawn from his fate, it is that empires have long memories and are totally ruthless in achieving their goals. Gaddafi joins a long list of the victims of the rapacious greed and domineering imperialist ambitions of the west that litters the history of the modern world. Rest in peace Colonel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 17, 2011

The Occupy movement

In 951 cities in 82 countries around the world on Saturday, protestors turned out against the inequities and excesses of free-market capitalism. The movement that started from Spain earlier this year under the title the Indignants, has now spread to the US and other countries. In New York, it is exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street campaign. Whereas the protests elsewhere were peaceful, in Rome violence broke out, with attacks by enraged protestors on cars and property and police action with tear gas and water cannon. While critics and defenders of capitalism have castigated the protestors for lacking any coherent programme, the protestors seem very clear about what they do not want. And these basics are universally the inspiration for these protestors from New Zealand, through Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America in solidarity with their American counterparts in New York. What are the basics this global movement against capitalism shares? They include: rejection of traditional political elites (seen as being complicit in the skewed nature of the benefits and burdens of a corporate-dominated world); a belief that globalisation benefits the rich more than the masses; anger about intertwined business and political corruption. What has lubricated the protests beyond borders is the connectedness and empowerment fostered by the internet and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. This phenomenon first surfaced in the Arab Spring movements in Tunisia and Egypt. By now, these means of communication globally are the currency of protest movements anywhere.
To understand this emerging phenomenon of transnational protest, we need to retrace our steps to the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and with it the socialist project in most parts of the world produced a triumphalist declaration of victory for capitalism (Francis Fukuyama declared it the ‘end of history’, i.e. the final and irreversible victory of free market capitalism and liberal bourgeois democracy). Blind faith in the private sector as the engine of unlimited progress and the panacea for all of humanity’s problems led to de-regulation of the dominant financial sector. A seemingly innocuous sub-prime mortgage sector collapse in the US soon set off ripples that exposed the underbelly of a mountain of debt and paper based on it, the mounting default of which produced a spectacular collapse of the heights of the banking and financial sector worldwide. Banks and financial institutions declared ‘too big to fail’ were temporarily bailed out through public funds (i.e. the taxpayers’ money). Soon, it seemed like business as usual, with the banking and finance elite once again enjoying its perks, privileges and huge remuneration, while the spreading effects of the finance sector’s collapse caused the real economy (manufacturing, industry, etc) to also tank. High unemployment followed, and seems insoluble, leading to young people in the developed and developing world being confronted by the prospect of no prospects for their future. The Arab Spring protests, as the current Occupy movement, enjoy a large representation of this youth in their ranks. In the developed world, their uncertainty is compounded by the debt they incurred while seeking educational qualifications and which, in the absence of jobs, they are hard put to it to retire in the foreseeable future.
While Europe wrestles (with hoped for IMF help) to recapitalise its failing banks to prevent countries such as Greece, Ireland and others from seeing their economies go down the tube, the people on the streets have acquired, as part of their alienation from the system, a sense of helplessness in the face of control of their lives by global forces beyond their reach or ability to change. The political elites stand accused of trying to salvage the system from the debris on the backs of the ordinary people. The post-Second World War Bretton Woods architecture of the global economic and financial system seems incapable of finding viable solutions to arguably capitalism’s greatest recessionary crisis since the Great Depression.
Pakistan’s young constitute 65 percent of our population. They too are going through similar thoughts and perceptions. The system offers them little or no hope, the political elites are visionless, corrupt, self-absorbed and indifferent. All the makings are there for an explosion of indignant protest. Why has it not happened already? Perhaps because the complexity of Pakistan’s crisis and the dominant narratives that seek to explain it are creating more confusion than light and clarity. Lest the political elites be lulled into complacency on this account, it would be in their interest to read the writing on the (global) wall and seriously fear the emergence of a protest movement that would be aimed at all of them, without exception, and that would threaten to sweep all their shenanigans away and dump them in the dustbin of history.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 15, 2011

Democratic culture and norms

The National Assembly (NA) on Thursday resembled nothing more than a boxing/wrestling ring. The protagonists of near-fisticuffs were the PML-N and the MQM, two parties between whom bad blood has been in evidence of late. The fracas started when Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar, while vociferously opposing a bill moved by the federal government to create a DHA on land allegedly belonging to Punjab province, suddenly and inexplicably rounded on the MQM and its leadership in language that soon generated a matching response from the other side and this inspired some young hotheads on both sides to make threatening physical moves towards each other. Fortunately, government coalition MNAs and saner parliamentarians managed to keep the two sides separate, otherwise a free for all was in the offing. Not since the 1950s, when the Speaker of the NA died in an assault in parliament, has Pakistan seen the like of the scenes witnessed in the NA on what can only be dubbed ‘black Thursday’. It may be salutary to point out that the death of the Speaker in that unspeakable episode was followed soon thereafter by the first military coup and imposition of martial law in the country.
Chaudhry Nisar is an effective critic when he marshals his facts and arguments, but he has shown a disconcerting tendency to get carried away by the exuberance of his own verbosity and descend rapidly into language skirting close on disrespect if not abuse. If the Treasury benches are expected to uphold democratic parliamentary norms in accommodating their colleagues on the opposition benches, how much more is the responsibility of the Leader of the Opposition to set a good example? Being an effective parliamentarian also imposes the need for restraint, discipline and civility. The problem of course is not confined to the person of the worthy Leader of the Opposition. He is merely one of the more prominent representatives of an authoritarian mindset that afflicts our polity and society. Such a mindset is often so convinced of the rightness of its position as not to brook any dissent or obstacle to its realisation. Democracy, on the other hand, sets rules for behaviour inside and outside parliament and imposes on its adherents the requirement of patience, even when there may be ‘provocation’.
The reasons for the existence of this authoritarian mindset are not difficult to discover. A society with considerable tribal and feudal hangovers in terms of its economic and social structures must be open to the risk of these structural hangovers producing their concomitant ways of looking at the world. It is doubly unfortunate therefore that instead of transcending such aberrations from democratic culture and behaviour, Chaudhry Nisar threatens on the floor of the NA to emulate the ‘model’ of the South Korean and Japanese parliaments (both known for their members’ pugilistic talent). The other major reason for authoritarianism in our country are the all too frequent military coups and other forms of intervention/interference in politics. A polity buffeted repeatedly by military dictatorship and/or dictation must inevitably leave as debris notions of ‘strong man’ solutions to our complex and increasing problems. Hence the tendency to look to the military either when democratically elected civilian governments ‘disappoint’ or rivals of the incumbents seek extra-constitutional ouster of the sitting government (this tendency is the hallmark of the eleven-year democratic interregnum of the 1990s).
These approaches to politics have led to the pendulum swinging between military dictatorship and civilian elected governments for most of our existence as an independent state. The latter governments are still constantly fearful of the threat of a praetorian intervention (whether open or clandestine). What exacerbates these fears are when opposition (political and civil) starts to rise on the basis of the non-performance of the incumbents or their authoritarian behaviour. Perhaps for this very reason, the present ruling dispensation has practiced what it calls its ‘reconciliation’ policy, and its critics dub unprincipled opportunism leavened only by the overriding desire to cling to power.
Whatever democracy’s discontents (and they are mounting), the track record has hopefully established for all time the negative consequences of military interference in matters political, interference that arguably leaves more problems in its aftermath than it set out to resolve. Therefore all of us, as a polity and society, have to learn the lesson that a system of democratic governance can only be constructed if we learn to curb our ‘natural’ instincts and acquire the patience for the rules of the game, rules that require opponents to put up with incumbents who continue to enjoy a majority and wait their turn at the hustings for a fresh appeal to the true sovereign, the people.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 8, 2011

Movement in the offing?

Although the opposition rally from parliament after a walkout from the National Assembly (NA) to the Presidency proved a damp squib, there is little room for complacency on the part of the government. The sit-in in front of the Presidency only managed to mobilise over a 100 members of the NA and Senate, most of them belonging to the main opposition party, the PML-N. Smaller opposition parties attended thinly or were conspicuous by their absence. The conjuror’s trick of once again inducting the MQM and mollifying the PML-Q to stay in the coalition just a day before may have acted as a dampener. However, government complacency on this account can only be described as breathtaking, since there is an obvious inability to see the storm clouds gathering. The prime minister vociferously defends the president for his voluntary surrender of presidential powers accumulated under military dictators and praises him for the ‘restoration’ of the 1973 constitution, while baiting the opposition to bring a no-confidence motion if they dare. Naturally the prime minister feels on solid ground here, as the opposition does not have the numbers for such a move to succeed. And if the relatively modest opposition show at the Presidency is taken as proof positive that all is smooth sailing for the incumbents, this may be the familiar phenomenon of blinkered vision in self-interest.
The fact is that, modest or not, if the opposition’s sit-in is the sign of a shift from opposition inside parliament (with which the opposition seems clearly to have got frustrated since it does not seem to have had any effect) to the street, it may be time for the incumbents to sit up and take notice since there is a plethora of issues on which, arguably, the opposition could hang its campaign. The recent load shedding riots may be a sign of things to come as a miserable citizenry responds to calls for ‘direct’ action. For the opposition, opportunity begs in the list of obvious public grievances, as much as in the list it has so far ignored. Amongst the former are load shedding, the absence of governance (including the continuing plight of natural disaster victims, past and present), corruption, law and order, etc. Conspicuous because of their absence from the opposition’s demands are the major issues of terrorism (on which the PML-N stands compromised), unemployment, inflation, etc, i.e. the issues of immediate and long term concern in the daily grind for survival of the vast majority of citizens. Unless the opposition sheds its conservatism on these latter issues and addresses the vital problems afflicting the masses, it may not find more than a passing response from the people.
Does this mean the complacency of the government is justified? They may have the parliamentary front buttoned up, but the performance of parliament over the last three and a half years is hardly inspiring. There is a lava of discontent bubbling under the surface on the streets and in the villages. A defence that constantly invokes past mistakes and misdemeanours is inevitably wearing thin. The people want results, first and foremost a vision and policy framework that promises relief and a future. Both are conspicuous by their absence. The team leading the coalition government suffers on account of incompetence, at whose heart lies cronyism.
The vacuum of leadership at the heart of Pakistan’s politics therefore seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. However, it would be a mistake to rest sanguine in the face of spontaneous outbursts of protest, which seem more and more likely. Whether these can lead to a ‘Pakistani Spring’ and throw up a fresh leadership able to inspire the people with a vision that departs from business as usual remains an open question, but not one that the incumbents can casually dismiss without running the risk of being overtaken by history. Of course, recourse to any extra-constitutional or praetorian intervention is a tired idea whose track record should serve as a cautionary tale. But the country’s state and trajectory has put the question of who will lead Pakistan out of its present morass once again centre-stage.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 6, 2011

Indo-Afghan strategic partnership

The very outcome the policy of strategic depth was intended to prevent has finally come to pass, precisely because of that policy. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have just signed an Indo-Afghan strategic partnership agreement in New Delhi. The agreement deepens existing ties in the trade and culture fields, but most significantly, in security cooperation. It envisages Indian training, equipping and capacity building of the Afghan security forces in the run up to and after the US/Nato withdrawal by 2014. Pakistan’s so-called strategic depth policy could be seen as consisting of denying India influence in Afghanistan, which our military and intelligence establishment has tended to view as its ‘backyard’, a description fiercely contested by all Afghans, even the Taliban. The ingress with the Afghan security forces yields a level of influence at the heart of the Afghan state that can only be understood in the light of history. The Soviet-trained and equipped Afghan army in the past was imbued with revolutionary communist ideas transmitted by exposure to what the Soviet Union represented. The Republican coup of 1973, as the communist one of 1978, would probably never have come about without the tacit and explicit backing of the Afghan army. Indian-trained and equipped Afghan security forces will almost certainly repeat that historical parallel, this time to the advantage of India. The ‘nutcracker’ squeeze from east and west so feared by our military strategists may well now become a reality, especially given the recent frictions between Kabul and Islamabad over the safe havens of Pakistani soil used by the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network to attack US/Nato/Afghan forces across the border and the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani. On the latter issue, the Afghan National Directorate of Security has accused Pakistan of not cooperating in the investigation into the murder. Of course our foreign office, in usual mode, denies this. In short, our brilliant strategists have succeeded beyond measure in driving Afghanistan into the arms of India. How has all this come to pass?
After 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, whereas India projected soft power into Afghanistan, having by now invested some $ 2 billion in reconstruction and infrastructure building in Afghanistan, Pakistan stuck to its old paradigm of offering safe havens to and supporting a proxy war by the Taliban and Haqqani network. A golden opportunity to turn the page and befriend Afghanistan in its hour of need was thus missed. Afghan resentment of long standing interference by Pakistan in its internal affairs has wiped out whatever goodwill Islamabad had earned during the days of the anti-Soviet resistance. Now, Pakistan is hated by most Afghans whereas India is seen as a benefactor and true friend. The shortsightedness of our strategic planners stands badly exposed thereby.
The Indo-Afghan partnership now threatens a renewed and prolonged proxy-cum-civil war in Afghanistan after the foreign forces depart. With Afghanistan not being at peace, Pakistan and the region cannot hope for things to settle down. This war will inevitably slip across borders and destabilise the region further. Pakistan’s military establishment has tried, and failed, to convince the world that it has genuine and legitimate interests in Afghanistan and therefore cannot leave things to take their own course. Had that ‘interest’ been confined to having a friendly government in Kabul while recognising the sovereign right of the Afghan people to manage their own affairs themselves, and backed up by help rather than sabotage of the Afghan polity and society, Islamabad may have obtained more purchase. As things stand now, Afghanistan will continue to lose a great deal in the prolongation of its internal conflict, in which the contending sides may be backed by rivals India and Pakistan. But the real loser in the end will be none other than Pakistan itself, internationally already isolated, regionally seen as a troublemaker extraordinaire.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Daily Times editorial Oct 5, 2011

The crisis deepens

The violent protests rocking the country, with Punjab as their epicentre, against prolonged scheduled and unscheduled load shedding has added the latest nail in the coffin of the present dispensation. The protestors vented their frustration and anger at electricity deprivation for long hours of the day and night by attacking electricity distribution companies’ offices, vehicles and other government property. Some collateral damage to private property also occurred, especially when charged up crowds were subjected to ruthless police action involving water cannon, tear gas, firing and the ubiquitous lathi (baton). The country was roiled by the violent protests and the police’s violent response almost throughout its length and breadth. It was inevitable then that these events should find an echo in the proceedings of the National Assembly. Turning roundly on the government, opposition parties led by the PML-N lambasted the treasury benches for caring not a fig for the misery of the people. Households’ inconvenience has been added to by the impact on industry and commerce, with closures and inability to do business fully producing lay offs and further unemployment. Without means to purchase high priced food, and suffering the unwanted attentions of the dengue mosquito in darkened communities, is it any surprise that the citizen has said ‘Enough!’ This is not to justify the violence on display, only to point to the reasons for such seething anger that can no longer be mollified by sugarcoated assurances. The police’s harsh methods may have succeeded partially in rolling back what threatened to become a countrywide tide of fury and destruction, but unless things improve, this could well be just a lull before fresh storms.
Unfortunately, our political class is unable to rise above itself even in moments of such momentous national crisis. The tired old mutual blame game is predictably on display again. While the government is on the defensive, some at least in the opposition may see this as a heaven sent opportunity to rock the ruling party back on its heels. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N seems to have decided to jump into the load shedding fray and lead what it hopes will transform into a political movement to unseat the present incumbents. It must be admitted that the latter have not done their cause much good. It is being put about that the present unprecedented energy deficit is first and foremost due to the circular debt, secondarily (and temporarily) due to reduced irrigation discharges from the dams that lead to reduced hydel power, and last but not the least, breakdowns in the nuclear power plants at Chashma. The first at least has been in public knowledge ever since this government came to power. It took the unprecedented breakout of virtually countrywide riots to induce this government to announce that it was releasing Rs 11 billion to the energy sector to re-enervate the at a standstill KAPCO and HUBCO, which will add 2,000 MW to the system. It boggles the mind why the government could not have done this earlier and staved off the crisis. Compared to the reported figure of Rs 300 billion circular debt, this is a mere drop in the ocean. In addition, the government has decided to institute conservation measures such as two weekly off days and shutting down markets by 8:00 pm. Although this is estimated to save 1,000 MW, it is not certain if the provinces will go along, especially since the chief ministers absented themselves from the energy conference chaired by the prime minister. In addition, the government proposes a 12-16 percent electricity tariff increase, sale of government paper to the banks, and a loan from then ADB to address the circular debt. The first proposal promises more protests. The other two may be more feasible. Let us not overlook the fact that traders and businessmen in various parts of the country are threatening to withhold their electricity bills unless the present situation improves markedly.
As if the woes of KESC’s customers are not an object lesson, the government proposes the privatisation of nine more generation plants, a move critiqued by Transparency International on precisely these grounds. The government had better get its priorities right. First and foremost, it has to address the present miseries of the citizen and business by ensuring an improvement in power generation as quickly as possible. All other ideas will have to wait until this is achieved. Otherwise the hopes of the opposition to use this crisis for political gains in the shape of a generalised movement against the government may well turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Oct 4, 2011

Intensifying accusations

At the same time that the shrill tone of charges and counter-charges between Pakistan and the US appears to be easing, new, intensifying accusations, this time from Afghanistan, promise to keep the pot boiling. A statement from Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace has quoted investigators as saying that former Afghan president Burhannuddin Rabbani’s assassin was a Pakistani national from Chaman, Balochistan. According to the statement, the evidence shows Rabbani’s death was planned in Quetta. The statement went on to quote the investigators as saying that documents, other evidence, a biography, address and phone numbers of the suspects involved in the plot have been submitted to Pakistan’s government for their arrest and handing over. Meanwhile President Karzai, clearly deeply shocked by the assassination of his chief peacemaker with the Taliban, is said to be reviewing the whole peace strategy. Statements to the effect that it was no use talking to the Taliban, and that it only made sense to talk to Pakistan had been issued by the Afghan president only the other day. Pakistan’s foreign office (FO) of course rejected these accusations out of hand, choosing at the same time to throw the ball back in Afghanistan’s court by stating that perhaps some of Afghanistan’s own ‘agencies’ may be behind the murder. The so-called evidence given to the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, according to the FO, was actually the confessional statement of an Afghan national accused of masterminding the assassination. Needless to say, the FO exonerated the ISI of any involvement in Rabbani’s death. Hundreds of Afghans meanwhile, were in the streets of Kabul protesting against Pakistan because of cross-border shelling and Pakistan’s alleged involvement in Rabbani’s assassination. Relations are at a very low ebb once again, with the Afghan foreign ministry dragging its feet on convening the trilateral meeting of Afghanistan-Pakistan-the US scheduled to be held in Kabul. The National Assembly session that started in Islamabad yesterday was expected to yield more fiery rhetoric along the lines of the All Parties Conference (APC) the other day, espousing patriotism and in the process letting the military establishment off the hook as far as fingers of suspicion being pointed at it are concerned.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in an interaction with print media in Lahore on Sunday delivered himself of the ‘newfound’ wisdom vis-à-vis the Taliban. Fresh from his APC ‘triumph’, which saw the prime minister skilfully deliver the entire political class, one or two honourable exceptions aside, into the hands of the military establishment and its narrative of strategic depth, the prime minister said the government was committed to peace through dialogue with the Taliban in the tribal areas. He did not specify whether he meant the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ Taliban. Nor did he indicate whether the Taliban were in turn willing to enter any such dialogue. If history is any guide, the only terms on which the Taliban have been willing to enter any such process is on their exclusive terms, which involved ceding control of territory to them. Such concessions and compromises in the past proved short lived and led to bigger conflict the day after. Mr Gilani was careful in his choice of words when he said any such elements ‘reconciled’ would be asked to ‘decommission’ themselves, since the term ‘surrender’ was humiliating in the tribal code of honour. The prime minister went on to say that his government had not signed a single agreement with the US, and that the APC ‘unanimity’ had persuaded Washington that there would be no US footprint on Pakistani soil. Pakistan, he continued, wanted no fight with anyone and he advised a moderate approach in relations with Afghanistan and the US. Does the prime minister realise the contradiction between his sweet words and the ground reality of the proxy war against Afghanistan, a sovereign neighbour, being waged from safe havens on Pakistani soil?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 28, 2011

Change of tone

After the flurry of bitter exchanges in recent days between the US and Pakistan, better sense seems to have prevailed, if the diplomatic efforts and change of tone emanating from Washington is anything to go by. US Ambassador Cameron Munter has interacted with Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir immediately after his return from Washington. They have agreed to remove the ‘misunderstanding’ and continue the negotiations process to avoid the relationship taking a turn for the worse. Reports say Bashir discussed Mullen’s statements, the blame game and ‘baseless allegations’ against Pakistan and suggested avoiding the media for sorting out issues, relying on diplomatic channels instead. He has also asked once again for intelligence about the Haqqani network, which is a rhetorical question better put to Aabpara. State Department spokesmen in Washington have avoided stoking the fire by fending off probing questions by the American media amidst calls by US politicians to reconsider, at the very least, aid to Pakistan and return the relationship with Pakistan to a ‘transactional’ one. This implies quid pro quo.
Pakistan meanwhile has launched a diplomatic offensive to take its closest allies into confidence. The visit of the Chinese Vice Prime Minister Meng Jianzhu yielded Beijing’s traditional support to Pakistan and agreements to help with infrastructure and other projects to the tune of $ 250 million. The Saudi intelligence officials who reportedly visited Islamabad, followed by ISI chief General Shuja Pasha’s dash to Riyadh, are being viewed by some as Saudi mediation between the two quarrelling ‘allies’. The military too, whether reflected in the Corps Commanders’ conference statement or ISPR head General Athar Abbas’s formulations, indicated a recognition of the need for ‘quiet diplomacy’ to bring down tensions.
On the other hand, the political leaders of Pakistan have already come out swinging against the US. No doubt this will be further accelerated during and after the All Parties Conference Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has summoned for September 29, where caution may be thrown to the winds and bellicosity be the order of the day. The prime minister’s own statements, and those of Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar in New York indicate that the politicians are on some other wavelength. Whether this is a strategy agreed with the military to play ‘good cop, bad cop’ is not certain. What is clear though is that international diplomacy and domestic politics seem to be pulling in different directions. That may be because diplomats and the military see the situation more soberly, devoid of the distortions of populist rhetoric, whereas politicians can seldom resist the temptation to play to their domestic audience, if not the gallery.
The cost of the downward spiral in US-Pakistan relations has already sent shock waves through the economy. The stock exchange plunged amidst fears of a breakdown in relations, the rupee floated to around 90 to the dollar, partly because of the ‘dollarisation’ currently underway amidst fears for the future. These negative signals should give pause to all stakeholders to reconsider their fiercest belligerence against the US. We may not like much of what Washington does or even how it does it. But it is not only the US that has constraints so long as it is engaged in Afghanistan. We too have considerations to weigh, first and foremost the struggling economy and the future of a rescue sans US aid and goodwill. Emotion may be cathartic, but it is rarely a good substitute for calm, considered policy, especially in the delicate position Pakistan is placed in, and the fact that the country the gung-ho amongst us want to take on is the sole superpower in today’s world. Not only should the current furore be cooled, diplomatic efforts must find ways to continue to enjoy, if not the goodwill and friendship, at least the tolerance of the US. Any other path will damage Pakistan immeasurably.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 27, 2011

The chickens coming home to roost

The Special Corps Commanders Conference chaired by COAS General Ashfaq Pervaiz Kayani expressed its concern over the negative statements emanating from the US. At the same time it rejected all allegations against the ISI regarding support to the Haqqani network. The conference concluded its statement by reiterating the military’s commitment to enduring peace in the region. Centcom Commander General Mattis held meetings with the COAS and CJCSC General Wyne to address the irritants in the Pakistan-US relationship. On the face of it, although not much is known about these exchanges, the tone of the Corps Commanders and the CJCSC appeared to be one of seeking to defuse tensions. This relatively sober response from the top brass of the military should come as no surprise. They know perhaps better than anyone else the stakes involved. Nevertheless, given the unprecedented belligerent tone of the American statements, the defence forces seem to be preparing for the worst case scenario: attacks by the US forces against the Haqqani network’s safe havens in North Waziristan (and perhaps Kurram Agency).
Following in the military’s footsteps, the government seeks to mobilise all the political forces in defence of the country’s sovereignty, implying also defence of the military-dictated foreign and security policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan. After contacting most of the political leadership of the country, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has convened an All Parties Conference on September 29. The purpose obviously is to garner political support across the board for the military’s stance. What helps this process of course is the hackneyed appeal to patriotism, which, as everyone knows, is often the last refuge…
On the other side of the divide, Republican Senator and member of the powerful Armed Services Committee Lindsay Graham wants Pakistan “put on notice” regarding its ties with the Haqqanis. White House adviser David Plouffe says the Obama administration is considering various options to persuade Pakistan to act against the Haqqani network. That could include a suspension of aid, which in any case has been made conditional on cooperation against the network as far as the latest package of $ 1 billion passed by Congress is concerned.
While all this verbal sparring is in progress, Afghanistan has accused Pakistan of firing more than 300 rockets and artillery shells across the border over the last five days, causing civilian casualties and damage. Our military has denied any such barrage. The chorus advocating Afghan retaliation against Pakistan for an earlier alleged barrage was held back by President Karzai in July. However, the cause for concern is that if these bombardments are traced to our side of the border, Kabul would have a strong international diplomatic case for retaliation, particularly since it would be able to point to the cross-border insurgency emanating from safe havens in Pakistan. Needless to say, the issue needs to be understood objectively. Whereas Pakistan stands accused of harbouring and encouraging the Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan (and the US/Nato combine) can at best be blamed for their inability to deny our Taliban (the TTP) safe havens courtesy the Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan. If Pakistan reserves to itself the right to retaliate across the border for attacks from that side, could not that very argument be turned against Pakistan? Obviously wisdom requires that all sides proceed with caution, exercise restraint in public statements, and ensure that the greater objective of the anti-terrorism campaign, peace in the whole region, is enabled through trilateral cooperation.
As to the reflexive argument in parts of our media that the Haqqanis were sourced by and still retain links with the US, it is a fact that both Washington and Islamabad created, funded, armed, trained and unleashed extremists in the name of jihad, an enterprise that has come back to haunt all sides in this potpourri. The blowback from the ill-thought-through reliance on fanatical forces to wage jihad is now here in full force. However, there is no satisfaction in this prediction coming true. Only a sad wisdom that the chickens are finally coming home to roost. What should not happen however is that fissures between the ‘allies’ cause the terrorists to break out in whoops of joy while they continue their deadly work.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 25, 2011

Sleeping with the enemy

The spate of mutually irritating exchanges between Pakistan and the US in recent days is reaching fever pitch. Stung by forthright accusations of harbouring the Afghan Taliban and especially the Haqqani network in safe havens on Pakistani soil and supporting their attacks on US/Nato/Afghan forces across the border, the government and the military have hit back with equally provocative rejoinders. Prime Minister Gilani advises the US not to send ‘wrong messages’, Foreign Minister Khar warns of the loss of an ally, COAS General Kayani rejects Mullen’s charges. All three nevertheless end on a ‘constructive engagement’ note.
In Pakistan, there has been a lot of noise and fury, full of hollow slogans and chest thumping about our ‘sovereignty’ and how the 180 million people of Pakistan are prepared to defend it against any US-led ‘boots on the ground’ inside Pakistani territory. Sceptics view this chorus as delusionary, misplaced nationalism. Soberer minds recognise that the game is one of brinkmanship, not taking on the world’s sole superpower which, despite its economic troubles, packs the most powerful and overwhelming military punch in the world. Both sides are pushing the envelope to the maximum. The risk is that given the polarisation between public opinion in the two countries, this brinkmanship can spill over into actual confrontation if care is not exercised. There are those amongst us who think we have the US over a barrel and therefore whatever the bluster out of Washington, as the prime minister put it, the US “cannot live with us and cannot live without us”. There may be truth in that assertion, although how far this can be pushed must be a cause for concern. Two points need noting here. Arguably, if we continue to nettle the Americans through our support to extremists who are giving them a bloody nose every so often, the US will, if it is not already, explore options that reduce its logistical dependence on Pakistan. A by-product of this will be immediate and perhaps long term strictures on the political, economic and diplomatic front, which will hurt Pakistan gravely. When and if the US’s hands are freed from the Afghan quagmire, it will not look kindly on our shenanigans. Retribution is the leitmotif of empires. Two, even if the US finds ways to live without us, the question remains, can we live without the US (goodwill)? This is not a time for emotional froth, it is a time for sober reflection where Pakistan’s interests lie and whether these are compatible any longer with the dual policy adopted after 9/11, in which the blood lust in American eyes was sought to be assuaged by cracking down on and delivering al Qaeda, while preserving the Afghan Taliban for a protracted campaign of guerrilla and asymmetrical warfare that has been the hallmark of all resistance movements to foreign occupiers in Afghan history.
As the withdrawal date looms, domestic politics and the exigencies of seeking re-election could tie Obama’s hands to adhere to the declared course. However, a question mark has arisen over the feasibility of the withdrawal plan as announced. In some ways it is natural that in the phase of withdrawal, the Taliban and Haqqani network are stepping up their attacks to strengthen their position in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The bypassing of the ISI by the US and the Afghan government in negotiations with the insurgents may also be a contributory factor in the escalating seriousness of the ‘state of siege’, particularly in Kabul, which the Afghan government and its allies would like to portray as their secure base. The more that myth is shattered by bold attacks on the US embassy, Nato headquarters and other ostensibly secure establishments, the more the withdrawal plan begins to look unrealistic. The coming vacuum of power has not, and does not seem likely to in the foreseeable future, been filled by the Afghan security forces. Withdrawal of foreign forces may be the harbinger therefore of either a long civil war or the quick running over of the anti-Taliban alliance. Potentially, a Taliban government in Kabul this time will spell trouble for Pakistan in the shape of the Pakistani Taliban. We are crafting the tools of our own destruction unthinkingly.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 23, 2011

Palestinian statehood bid

US President Barack Obama’s rejection of the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the UN was hardly a surprise. Long before he took the podium to address the UN General Assembly (UNGA), it had become obvious from guarded official and not so guarded unofficial comments that the US, as usual, was going to stand by its ally Israel, right or wrong. To stave off a looming diplomatic disaster, since the Palestinian bid has evoked a great deal of sympathy and support from the UNGA, Obama and the Israeli government coordinated wonderfully in suggesting bilateral talks were the only path to a solution that offered the Palestinians a state in return for security for Israel. Have bilateral, trilateral or even multilateral talks yielded anything in the last two decades? Not for the Palestinians, although Israel has used stalling tactics to buy time and create new ‘facts on the ground’ (e.g. expanding Israeli settlements on the West Bank). Arguably, Israeli intransigence and repression have rendered the Oslo Accords dead in the water. Since these were premised on a ‘two state solution’, that has left Israel holding all the cards, occupied and expanding territory, a US-supplied arsenal that would be the envy of any great power, and a blank cheque from Washington for all other, economic, etc, needs.
Obama has predictably disappointed his liberal supporters the world over. The Cairo speech attempting to build bridges with an alienated Muslim world is a distant memory, while the Israeli lobby and the foreign and security policy establishment has encircled Obama and forced him to relinquish any notions of ‘change’ he may have carried initially into office. Between Washington and Tel Aviv, therefore, it has been business as usual, with nary a hiccup, the mild but quickly quelled disagreement over new settlements being drowned in the roaring reception Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accorded in the US Congress on his last visit.
The Palestinian side was expected to submit its statehood recognition request to the UN Security Council (UNSC) today, although reports were swirling that the US might conjure a last minute reprieve for itself and its satrap. This could only mean some carrot (and perhaps stick) to cajole the Palestinians to retreat, even though threatening noises from the US Congress to cut off US aid to the Palestinian Authority seem to have had the opposite effect of what was intended. If the Palestinian bid proceeds as planned, and the US vetoes it in the UNSC, the Palestinians can still salvage “observer state” status by approaching the UNGA. That too would amount to a diplomatic and political advance for the Palestinian cause. Whether the bid succeeds or not, it has already put the US and its cat’s paw Israel on the diplomatic mat. Ironically, while the Palestinians suffer daily repression, evictions and humiliation at the hands of the Israeli state, the oppressor seeks ‘security’ for itself! To equate the pin pricks of the occasional crude rocket attack from Gaza with the bloody track record of the Zionist entity would be laughable were it not such a grave and continuing tragedy. The Arab world’s repeated betrayals of the Palestinian cause have left Israel sitting pretty and the Palestinians having perforce to rely on themselves. Unfortunately, the split between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas has weakened the voice of the Palestinians. It would be in their own interest to subsume their internal differences to the greater good of their common cause, although that seems unlikely at present.
Pakistan must support the Palestinian statehood recognition bid to the fullest extent. If the Muslim world and other countries that adhere to international norms of justice add their voices to the growing chorus demanding an end to Israel’s depredations and occupier logic, perhaps the Palestinians may still have their day in the court of the world’s peoples.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 22, 2011

Rabbani’s assassination

Head of the Afghan High Peace Council and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani has been assassinated in treacherous fashion by a Taliban emissary ostensibly negotiating peace. This is the highest profile assassination since the fall of the Taliban government post-9/11. The circumstances surrounding the murder bear eerie parallels but also significant differences with the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud two days before 9/11. Both victims were Tajiks, but whereas Masoud’s assassination was arguably the harbinger of 9/11, its subsequent fallout in the shape of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by US forces and the ouster of the Taliban regime, Rabbani’s removal will merely mean a serious setback to the inherently difficult project of a peaceful settlement with the Taliban. That may well be the intended message behind the assassination. Interestingly, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was at first quick to claim responsibility and even threatened more such assassinations, but 24 hours later seemed to be retracting the claim and retreating into ‘damage control’. That may be because the assassination of Professor Rabbani will not go down well with non-Pashtun as well as anti-Taliban Pashtun elements. Rabbani was chosen by President Karzai for the task of making peace as the most credible, acceptable peacemaker. If the Taliban are averse to making peace with such a respected figure, the prospects for negotiations with the Taliban could well prove dead in the water. That would strengthen the sceptics in the Northern Alliance leadership, who have always looked at the peace project askance. What may follow therefore could be an intensified and even more bitter inter-ethnic and intra-Pashtun civil war in the backdrop of the US/Nato forces’ plans for incremental withdrawal. Whether the intensifying attacks of the Taliban, especially on the relatively secure capital, prove a factor in a change in the withdrawal strategy is too early to say. But the prospects of renewed and even bloodier conflict in Afghanistan cannot but bode ill for that country and the region.
While Pakistan’s president and prime minister, US President Obama and Afghan President Karzai all roundly condemned the assassination, ritual vows of continuing the search for peace were heard all round. One of the possible fallouts of the event may well be increased pressure on Pakistan to deny the Haqqani network (and perhaps even Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura) safe havens on Pakistani soil from which to conduct attacks on US/Nato/Afghan forces. The Haqqani network in particular has been the stuff of high level exchanges in recent days between American and Pakistani officials from COAS Kayani-Mullen to Foreign Minister Khar-Clinton, with Panetta sniping away from the sidelines. Suspicions will inevitably arise that Rabbani’s removal may have the blessings of the ISI, of late fuming at being bypassed by the direct US-Taliban contacts as well as the Afghan government-Taliban ‘negotiations’. That suspicion, proved or not, will be sufficient to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan to act against the Afghan militants operating from Pakistani soil. The assassination will be read in important capitals and amongst other centres of policy analysis as a possible message by the ISI on the perils of leaving it out in the cold as far as any negotiations with the Taliban are concerned. After all, the ISI stands accused already of sabotaging Mullah Biradar’s (Omar’s number two) secret, independent of the ISI negotiations with the Americans.
It is amazing that the calculations of our military establishment and its intelligence arms seem rigidly stuck in old paradigms, oblivious of the fast changing scenario, not the least of which is the deteriorating relationship with the US. Influential voices in the US are advocating an aid cut-off for the Pakistani military and a concentration on building a healthy prosperous civil society in Pakistan. Whether it comes to that or not, inevitably our proxy war adventurism in Afghanistan is inexorably leading us to international isolation and a pariah status politically, economically, and diplomatically. Is the mystical notion of strategic depth worth this game and its end result?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Editorial Daily Times Sept 21, 2011

Dengue epidemic

The latest figures of dengue patients diagnosed with the disease and the number of deaths in Lahore are 6,666 and 44 respectively, and rising. This of course is a fraction of the numbers crowding the hospitals for fear of having contracted the disease, even if on examination, only about 16 percent of those are found to have actually been struck by dengue. Because of a lack of public awareness and accurate information about the disease, a sense of panic has gripped people. Fear of the unknown is the root of this apprehension. In the vast majority of even confirmed dengue fever cases, although modern medicine still has no cure for viruses like dengue, conservative treatment yields positive results and recovery is probable. Only if a person contracts dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF), a different virus, is the likelihood of fatality greater. Because the epidemic is a new and unknown development, a public awareness campaign with expert input should have been mounted earlier. However, better late than never, as the Punjab and federal governments have benefited from the advice of the Sri Lankan dengue experts team operating in Lahore now and are gearing up for such a campaign through the media.
While the media was being briefed by the Sri Lankan team in Lahore on Monday, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani also held a national dengue conference in the city to help coordinate the fight against the epidemic. To this end, the federal government has offered all help and assistance to the Punjab government in an all too rare show of solidarity transcending partisan politics. A national coordination mechanism in the shape of a Coordination and Strategy Cell at federal level has been announced. The Cell will coordinate amongst the federal and provincial governments and facilitate coordination and aid from international donors and health organisations for the provinces. Since dengue is no respecter of provincial boundaries or provincial autonomy (Raza Rabbani’s objections to the federal government ‘interfering’ in health matters, devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment, notwithstanding), it is rational and positive that the federal and provincial governments, not only Punjab but all the provinces, should be coming together to coordinate their efforts against an epidemic that is showing signs of emerging all over the country.
Meanwhile in Lahore the Punjab government has, in an excess of late zeal, used Section 144 to seal 69 diagnostic laboratories accused of charging more for the dengue blood test than the maximum of Rs 90 fixed by the Punjab government. Their owners and employees have also been taken into custody. Car service stations have been shut. While this end of the Punjab government’s activity smacks of trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, since if the public awareness campaign had been conducted before such draconian actions in the name of public health and safety, any following strict actions would have earned more public support. As it is, that objective may not have been achieved, while the closure of laboratories has exacerbated the overcrowding in the remaining laboratories and hospitals. Closing schools and higher education institutions for 10 days too seems misplaced zeal. The Punjab government needs to reach out to the citizen and institutions in a rational manner to educate everyone on the need for the entire community to pull together if the epidemic is to be combated. For a start, the preventive end of the campaign requires each householder, workplace owner and authority responsible for public spaces to ensure all potential breeding grounds for the dengue mosquito, i.e. stagnant pools of water, both clean and sullied, are either drained or filled up with sand to prevent the female laying its eggs and the larvae hatching to maturity. Spraying to kill the mosquitos and larvae must accompany these measures.
The dengue epidemic has alarmingly exposed the cracks in our public health regime. In today’s interconnected world, countries have to be even more vigilant since mass health hazards have plenty of opportunity to travel. Pakistan must gear up its public health awareness and preventive regimens, while also being prepared to manage the curative side if an epidemic does strike.