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?