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Old Tuesday, September 02, 2008
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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Dazed and confused

It is hardly surprising that thousands of refugees from the fighting in Bajaur agency are refusing to go back to their homes (if indeed they still have homes to go back to). Refugees only go home when they feel it is safe to do so, and it is crystal clear to all but the congenitally blind that Bajaur is no safer today than it was before the government decided to announce a ceasefire during Ramazan. The ceasefire announcement was itself mired in confusion as it seems that the government had not had the courtesy to tell the military of its intentions before making the announcement, wrong-footing the army and making all concerned look like stumbling amateurs. The government may also have unwittingly wrong-footed the Taliban, as those wreaking havoc in Bajaur agency welcomed the ceasefire while Maulana Fazlullah in Swat (does the ceasefire apply there as well?) rejected the offer and returned to consulting his dwindling list of girls schools to be blown up. All in all, confusion reigns across vast swathes of NWFP and the tribal agencies, with little sign of a return to peace and order either during or after Ramazan.

The man who announced the ceasefire, interior adviser Rehman Malik, must have left the army command slack-jawed in amazement. The military in Bajaur were beginning to make headway against tough resistance, and to have the government apply the brakes mid-operation and without prior consultation will have done nothing for the relationship between civilians and the military, and even less for the morale of the men fighting and dying at the behest of their civilian masters. There will, however, have been jubilation in the camps of the Taliban. They have thirty days to re-supply, re-arm, reposition and enjoy a little rest and recreation all so long as they are careful with their trigger fingers. The military, unless directly attacked, will watch helplessly as the Taliban take advantage of the aid package gifted to them by a government composed of invertebrates.

Endless rounds of peace talks have produced nothing durable by way of peace in NWFP, and the promised aid and reconstruction packages can only be implemented post-conflict; and the declaration of a ceasefire has not created negotiating space nor given substance to any past or present agreement. It has, however, effectively hobbled the military and given aid and succour to those they were battling against. And the refugees from Bajaur? They have a wisdom born of experience and have decided to stay where they are better a live refugee than the dead victim of bungling governance.


Kurram bloodbath

The fact that mayhem has once more engulfed Kurram agency should come as no surprise. It is, however, a tragedy that authorities have failed to do anything to stop the ceaseless bloodletting that has been taking place in the area for the past ten months. As rival Turi and Bangash tribes, divided along sectarian lines, again clashed on Sunday, 95 people are reported dead and over 200 injured. This brings to around 400 the deaths reported within the past three weeks. The latest carnage came as a unilateral ceasefire declared by one of the warring tribes ahead of the holy month of Ramazan was violated by rival tribesmen. The most unholy deeds were witnessed, as militias went on a murderous rampage through village after village. It is quite evident traditional leaders have lost control over the situation. Reports say this is true on either side of the sectarian divide, with elements that have come in to Kurram from other areas now calling the shots. Disturbingly, as the frenzy continues, young fighters are also being actively recruited by both sides. Some accounts speak of teenage boys no more than 15 or 16 years, perhaps younger, taking part in the ongoing blood fest.

Kurram agency, the only one among the tribal agencies to house a significant Shia population, has seen sporadic sectarian clashes over the decades. There have also been bombings at mosques and other places. But never before has the orgy of violence continued quite so long or assumed such terrifying proportions. Following the violation of the unilateral, pre-Ramazan ceasefire, it seems quite obvious that matters are unlikely to be settled at the local level. There is now far too much hatred and distrust in the air. The government needs to step in immediately. Its failure to do so, even as an appeal made last month by the adviser on interior to stop the warfare was ignored, is criminal. Scores of deaths may have been averted. The government must accept the responsibility for not moving in sooner, weeks and months ago, as the latest round of sectarian fury took hold.

What is important now is to ensure people get some respite from violence over Ramazan. They deployment of troops would appear to be necessary to achieve this. The suffering of people has been aggravated by the fact that northern areas of Kurram, including Parachinar, have been cut off from the rest of the country for weeks. Medicines are not available, food is scarce. Sacks of 'atta' have been selling at grotesquely inflated prices. People in need of doctors have been unable to reach them. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. The authorities must intervene now, before more deaths take place in a region that has seen far too many already over the past weeks.


Shahbaz's future

The political point scoring, that many believe is likely to take on ugly dimensions with the collapse of the central government, seems set to unfold first of all on the battlefield of Punjab. In the provincial assembly with 371 members, the PML-N holds 171 seats. The possibility of the Shahbaz Sharif-led government falling should the PPP pull out of it is very real. The presidential vote on September 6 is being seen as a test of PML-N standing. Signs of weakness may lead to a vote of no-confidence being moved at an opportune time. The PPP is said also to be preparing a full arsenal of varied weaponry, with the law ministry preparing a reference that will challenge Shahbaz's candidature under Article 223 of the constitution, which disallows dual membership. Shahbaz had won seats to the provincial assembly from both Bhakkar and Rawalpindi. The time at which he vacated his Rawalpindi seat had also previously created some slight controversy, with one view being that as he had taken oath as chief minister after victory at Bhakkar another win required a new oath.

Such legal disputes over technicalities are now likely to assume centre-stage. The aftermath of the coalition break-up could become very ugly indeed. Both the PPP and the PML-N have been courting the PML-Q. At present, it is thought the PPP has the upper hand, with its governor in the province reported also to be playing a part. The fact that the PML-N distrusts and dislikes him has already been made obvious. It seems that power games similar to those witnessed in the past will now be seen once again. The days of brotherhood and solidarity appear already to be over. Bitter rivalry between the PPP and the PML-N -- which is confident that its popularity in Punjab is growing steadily in the post-poll scenario -- is likely to dominate the next phase of politics in the country.
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