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Old Saturday, January 11, 2014
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Saturday, January 11, 2014

An intrepid policeman


SP MOHAMMAD Aslam Khan was for long a marked man — no surprise considering the maverick fashion in which he dealt with criminals and terrorists in Karachi. As some of his colleagues and family members indicated, the slain officer, targeted in a brutal bombing in the metropolis on Thursday which also saw at least two other policemen die, knew he’d go down fighting. While Karachi’s most colourful cop had survived several earlier attempts on his life, including a devastating attack on his residence in 2011, this time around Chaudhry Aslam’s luck had unfortunately run out, as a powerful bomb sent his vehicle flying into the air. The officer was given the sobriquet of ‘Chaudhry’ by his police colleagues and the media thanks to his unorthodox style; rarely ever seen in uniform, Aslam would descend from his vehicle, pistol in one hand, cigarette in the other, evoking the image of a law enforcer from the Wild West. His career was not without controversy, as allegations of staging fake encounters continued to dog him. Yet it was clear that Chaudhry Aslam went after criminals and terrorists without prejudice, hounding political militants, gangsters and religious extremists with equal fervour. His bravery was widely known as he would accompany his men to shootouts involving suspects and remain unruffled even after an attempt on his life.

Chaudhry Aslam’s brutal killing also illustrates the extremely disturbing extent of the reach of the militants and their operational capabilities. It is chilling that the Mohmand chapter of the outlawed TTP — as claimed — orchestrated the deadly hit with such precision. The militants’ malice towards the policeman was understandable; he was one of the key officers at the forefront of the Sindh police’s anti-extremism efforts. It was earlier thought that religious militants sought to use Karachi’s size and resources simply to lie low and recuperate. However, it is now becoming increasingly clear that the militants are using the metropolis as an operational base. Chaudhry Aslam’s killing is further proof of growing Talibanisation of the city. The attack was well-planned and without an active network in Karachi the militants would not have been able to eliminate such a high-profile police officer. For example, it is likely they had inside knowledge about their victim’s bomb-proof vehicle being out of commission.

The incident, yet again, makes us question the logic of talking to the militants. Even after the latest high-profile assassination, some political parties insist the state talk to the TTP. They have a right to advocate talks — even after witnessing what the militants are capable of. The only caveat is that, clearly, the TTP would much rather let the bombs and guns do the talking. The state needs to seriously ponder over how many more men, women and children Pakistan will lose to militant violence before it decides to take firm action to uproot terrorism.

No mass transit systems


IT is not so much the dearth of funds and technology that has hindered the creation of a modern mass transit system in our cities as the lack of political will on the part of successive governments to develop public transport. Indeed, foreign parties have often shown an interest in laying the foundations of an efficient public transport system in the country, and Lahore’s Metro Bus Service, completed with the help of Turkish expertise and inaugurated last year, is a prime example of how determination and cooperation can ease the life of commuters in big cities. But that is a rare example. None of the major cities in Pakistan have a proper mass transit system, and, for the most part, have hardly shown serious commitment towards developing one. So when Minister for Planning, Development and Reform Ahsan Iqbal expresses his hope, as he did on Thursday, that the Karachi Circular Railway project would get off the ground soon, with Japanese cooperation, one can only take his remarks with a pinch of salt. The KCR has been subjected to a combination of disinterest and indecision, with the result that this project has been in limbo for several years now.

Other cities do not have a better story to tell. Over the decades, populations in all major cities — Peshawar, Multan, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Hyderabad, Rawalpindi etc — have swelled substantially, but there is no modern transport system for the millions of commuters. With the very obvious advantages of a mass transit system, that can play a major role in reducing road congestion, saving on fuel, and bringing down high levels of carbon emissions, it is sad that the centre and the provincial governments should pay little heed to the need for a comprehensive transport network. There are examples in our own neighbourhood that can be studied. For instance, Delhi’s metro system, despite occasional snags, transports some 2.5 million passengers each day — and this figure is set to increase as the rail network expands. Unfortunately, in Pakistan those whose job it is to create such a system either hate to travel by public transport or are too far removed from a reality where poor people have to spend hours on the road before they can reach their destination.

Zardari’s secret weapon?


POLITICS is sometimes a theatre of the absurd, and never more so than in this part of the world where a native loquacity meets a hankering for the limelight. So it was outside the accountability court in Islamabad on Thursday where former president Asif Ali Zardari arrived to face five references against him, including a money laundering case, involving $60m. His longtime spiritual mentor, Pir Mohammed Ejaz, who was part of the entourage, enlightened the reporters present that it was due to his meditation that Mr Zardari in 2006 had been freed from “the bad spell he was under”, which enabled him to access the $60m allegedly stashed in a Swiss bank since almost two decades. The gentleman also revealed that he had been “protecting Mr Zardari from hardships since 2001”, thereby shedding some light at last on one of the biggest mysteries of our times; that is, our erstwhile head of state’s ability to successfully sidestep all manner of scurrilous attacks on his probity.

Mr Zardari is not alone among Pakistani politicians in his reliance on a spiritual guide. Former premiers Raja Pervez Ashraf and the late Benazir Bhutto are said to have also consulted their favoured pirs. Nor, it is rumoured, has the business-minded Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif eschewed the practice. However, while Pir Ejaz’s intercessions on behalf of Mr Zardari may have been a force for good for the latter, for many ordinary people, far from finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, such ‘guidance’ often goes hand-in-hand with them parting with their hard-earned money. On the supply side, there is no shortage of unscrupulous individuals willing to exploit religion for worldly gains. The media does not help either by promoting the practitioners of esoteric spiritual arts in the vulgar race for ratings. Perhaps the country as a whole would benefit if its leaders set an example of relying on logic to steer the ship of state.
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Old Monday, January 13, 2014
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Monday, January 13, 2014

Ambivalent on militancy


THE attacks keep mounting, the state keeps dithering, the politicians keep squabbling and the public remains as confused as ever. Yesterday’s attack on PML-N leader Amir Muqam in Shangla is just the latest in a seemingly endless stream of attacks across the length and breadth of the country — and destined to become yet another attack that did not cause an inflection point in the national response to militancy and terrorism. Witness the pusillanimous response of the political class to the bravery of 15-year-old Aitezaz Hussain — so much so that Imran Khan himself has voiced his disappointment at his own party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And while the prime minister and the army chief have shown some moral courage in recognising the ultimate sacrifice and unimaginable bravery of young Aitezaz Hussain, a more fitting response would be if the state finally developed some clarity on what the Taliban represent and why coexistence with their ideology ought to be unacceptable.

Yet, real change — of the good kind — is nowhere to be seen. So the questions have necessarily become grimmer too. What, exactly, will it take for the state to accept that the dialogue-first option is not a real strategy against militancy? A return to the devastating violence that wracked the country in the late 2000s and early 2010s? While the Taliban have proven they still have the ability to launch physically and psychologically devastating attacks, it is also almost certainly true that the sustained pressure put on them in various pockets across Fata and parts of KP by the military has affected their ability to achieve the level of violence of four or five years ago. Paradoxically, then, does a possible depletion of the Taliban’s capabilities — or at least a disruption of their network — mean that the state is willing to settle for a long-term bloody stalemate now? A stalemate in which neither side is poised to inflict the final blow on the other and one in which society, the economy and national psyche are left in a continually perilous state?

To denounce that possibility as craven surrender or supine leadership would be to miss the point. While those characterisations may well be true, the point at this stage really is to try and understand how a different course can be encouraged. Imran Khan and the religious right have staked out their positions. The PPP, the ANP and the MQM — essentially the secular left — showed their lack of ideas over five years. Now, the PML-N appears sympathetic to the idea of dialogue without necessarily being enthusiastic about it. The army appears itching to take on the TTP, but continues to be ambivalent about the idea of jihad and proxies. Somehow, from those variables, a more effective policy against militancy has to be crafted. But from where exactly is the existential question of today.

The eternal mistrust


THE views of former US defence secretary Robert Gates on the mistrust between Pakistan and America shouldn’t surprise us. It has been there even when this country was America’s most “allied ally” and the US had a base in Pabbi. Those were the mad Cold War days, with a commie behind every bush. Pakistan then considered itself at the centre of several concentric circles and enjoyed its self-assumed importance. It had a bilateral defence pact (MDAP) with the US, was a member of the Baghdad (later Cento) pact and was considered a ‘link’ in the worldwide US-led chains of anti-communist alliances because it joined the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, too. Later, along with Turkey and Iran, it adhered to the Eisenhower Doctrine. Yet America never fully shared Pakistan’s view of India, even though secretary of state John Foster Dulles termed neutrality — which the US press called ‘Nehrutrality’ — immoral. Islamabad likewise felt piqued by the massive doses of economic aid which Washington continued to gift to New Delhi. The first major breach occurred during the 1962 Himalayan war when Pakistanis thoroughly enjoyed the drubbing the Indian military received from China. President Kennedy felt Pakistan had not behaved like a US ally, and began rushing American military hardware to India. The split was complete.

The 1965 war widened the rift with America, which would rediscover Pakistan’s strategic importance a decade and a half later when Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan only to be humiliated. It was then left to the OBL hijackers to effect a rapprochement. Eleven years have passed and they have continued to cooperate while secretly and often publicly bemoaning each other’s duplicity. Yet both realise the geopolitical consequences inherent in mutual abandonment. No American strategist would ever think of walking away from the Gulf and southwest Asia where the US has vital economic and geopolitical interests, nor does common sense suggest Islamabad show a red rag to the superpower bull. It is their destiny to cooperate while grumbling and murmuring. Memoirs of a secretary at war, the second Gates book, however, shows a consciousness of Pakistan’s problems when it speaks of safe havens on both sides of the border. In spite of the eternal mistrust, and to repeat a cliché, what unites them is greater than what divides them.

Ban on arms, pillion-riding


ANOTHER spell of high security and another meaningless move by the Sindh government. With Eid Milad-un-Nabi falling tomorrow amid fears that there could be violence, the provincial administration has announced a ban on the carrying of weapons and on motorcycle pillion-riding in five cities, including Karachi. Till Jan 15, special permits to carry arms have been cancelled, and any motorcycle carrying two or more male passengers risks being stopped by the police. And stopped they will be, since regrettably many policemen consider pillion-riding bans as manna from heaven. In a country where the shortage of public transport means that millions ride motorbikes, the citizenry often has no choice but to double-up. Over the next few days, that is reason enough for them to be harassed; many will not be able to avoid paying up. As for the ban on arms, suffice it to say that we are certain that all the law-abiding citizens who have taken the trouble to obtain licences will be dutiful and lock up their weapons. It can only be hoped, though, that all the criminals and violent extremists that keep peace at bay in this country are similarly conscientious. Perhaps they only need telling that their arsenals are best kept out of sight and, preferably, out of use too. (Pillion-riding might not be an issue for many of them since, they say, crime pays — especially in a place with prosecution rates as low as in Pakistan.)

Why should the Sindh government be singled out, though, for its predilection for cosmetic measures that produce little good and act, instead, as yet another inconvenience for millions of people, another reason for them to feel harassed by a state that ought to be on their side? All the provinces and the centre regularly resort to similarly pointless moves, a notable one being the trend of shutting down the mobile phone network during periods of insecurity. Pakistan’s security issues are grave indeed. When will the state start taking them seriously?
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Old Tuesday, January 14, 2014
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14.01.2014
Cybercrime legislation

IT has been done before, and the state seems to be in danger of doing it again: crafting laws that appear to increase citizens’ freedoms and strengthen law and order, but contain mischief-making provisions or caveats that achieve, quite often, the contrary. The new compendium of laws that the government is set to present before the cabinet, which if passed by the parliament would become the Electronic Documents and Prevention of Cybercrimes Act, 2014, must be viewed through this lens.

This legislation consolidates and updates the several different laws that apply at the moment to crimes related to cyber activity and information technology. It also promotes electronic and computerised business through creating space in the system for facilities such as e-signatures, and tailors to current needs legislation such as the Power of Attorney Act, 1881. To be sure, there is a need for this. Internet penetration and technological prowess may be low when the country as a whole is looked at, but usage is growing exponentially amongst those sections of society that have access. Legislation has to keep pace. The draft law contains several provisions that are without doubt required in Pakistan, identifying as cognisable crimes activities from hacking or identity theft to cyber stalking, domain squatting and the transmission of child pornography.

Yet a close reading of the draft reveals portions that are worded such that there is danger of them, if passed into law, being loosely or widely applied, becoming a tool for censorship, or being otherwise misused. Consider, for example, cyber attacks that are described as being “against Pakistan’s interests.” That is precisely the sort of mindset that led to a blanket ban on YouTube instead of the targeted removal of some objectionable content available on the site. Similarly, the draft contains references to “crimes against the state committed with the aid and help of modern technology” and the use of electronic devices to “attack national infrastructure” and otherwise cause “significant problems to the interests of the state.” As Pakistanis already know all too well, when used in legislation such turns of phrase can become means of muzzling critical or dissenting views, and of removing from the citizenry’s ambit material or ideas without justification other than the much-misused ‘national interest’. The draft will be reviewed by parliament when it is presented and legislators must scan it thoroughly for areas of difficulty such as the ones pointed out here. Further, however, given the manner in which such a law will impact citizens’ technological freedoms, open debate on it needs to be initiated. The draft should be made public, and citizens as well as civil society organisations should be provided the opportunity to express reservations, if any. Once in place, laws are difficult to amend. In this instance, sections likely to become problematic can be revised in time.

Cynical manoeuvres


IT is fast becoming a Sunday tradition of sorts: Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan appearing before the cameras and holding forth on a range of subjects, most notably the chimera of talks with the TTP. If it were simply about one of the senior-most government representatives trying to keep the public and the media in the loop about important national issues, the Nisar-on-Sunday press conferences would be a welcome addition to the public discourse. But the motives appear to be more cynical than high-minded. For the interior minister is the very same individual who has muzzled high-profile national organisations that fall under his watch — from Nadra to the Frontier Corps and from the passport agency to the Rangers — and who seems more obsessed with controlling the flow of information than focusing on the core aspects of his job. So, not coincidentally, now the minister has chosen the weekly holiday to hold forth on his views — and capture the headlines on what is traditionally a slow news day.

Of late, interior ministers have appeared to have a penchant for the media spotlight. But as Rehman Malik discovered, so too might Nisar Ali Khan: wanting to say something of relevance or import isn’t the same thing as saying something of relevance or import. Yet again on Sunday, the interior minister offered his contradictory assessment of the state of dialogue with the TTP: the TTP is not really interested in talks, the minister said, but the government is adamant that talks can in fact succeed. That would be silliness of the highest order — if the stakes were not so incredibly high. The interior minister appears to have staked his personal reputation on the success of talks with the Taliban — but characteristically for much of this government, he does not appear to have done any of his homework. Now, having learned of the difficulties that talks entail, Nisar Ali Khan is demonstrating that other great shortcoming of many Pakistani leaders: an inability to accept that they were wrong in their original prescription. Unhappily, while the interior minister can try and make a tradition out of Sunday grandstanding, that does little to address the fearful problems he has to contend with on the country’s behalf.

Heritage under threat


LAND-grabbing is a serious problem across Pakistan, as is encroachment and poor governmental oversight vis-à-vis new development. State or private land is gobbled up with impunity, and even historical sites are not spared. Islamabad and its surroundings are also not immune, as encroachers have occupied some of the capital’s most historically important sites. As reported by this paper on Monday, ancient Buddhist caves in the Shah Allah Ditta area of the Margalla hills are being threatened by commercial activities. Restaurants and housing colonies sprouting up in the picturesque environs pose a threat to the ancient caves, which are said to contain paintings dating back 2,400 years. As some observers note, in many cases such enterprises are illegal, built in defiance of court orders. Apparently the Capital Development Authority had drawn up plans to preserve the caves, but they remain on ice. Elsewhere in the capital’s surroundings, Taxila — a World Heritage Site — is also facing dangers from encroachers and commercial interests, while the Paharwala Fort needs protection from land-grabbers. What is more, not far from the caves of Shah Allah Ditta lies a mosque said to date back to the Ghaznavid period, as well as a stupa and monastery belonging to the Buddhist period. If efforts are not made to stop the illegal occupation of land, these sites may be next in line to be taken over and commercialised.

Apart from putting historical treasures in peril, of which there are many in the Islamabad region, such unplanned ‘development’ also puts the environment at risk. There is a lot of space to build housing societies and eateries; why spoil the environment or damage archaeological treasures just to make a quick buck? The CDA, archaeology authorities and other government organs must play a more active role in preserving Islamabad’s heritage and environment. For one thing, the plan to preserve the Buddhist caves must be reactivated while other historical sites in the capital region need to be protected from the rapacious land mafia.
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Old Thursday, January 16, 2014
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Thursday, January 16, 2014

The LG polls circus


IT is hardly news that the local government elections have again been postponed — this merry-go-round has been whirling for a long time. What is new, this time, is that we have not been told when these twice-postponed polls will be held. On Monday, the Supreme Court accepted the request of the Election Commission of Pakistan that the elections be delayed because it was not yet ready for the task. So the vote proposed for March 13 in Punjab and Feb 23 in Sindh has been put off — dates which the ECP itself had suggested on Jan 8, because of the “difficulties” involved. It is not clear why the ECP suggested fresh dates for vote, when surely it must have known by then that all arrangements were not in place. Now sources close to the election body have told this paper that the LG polls would not be possible for another six months.

Is anyone really interested in the local bodies’ elections, except the people of Pakistan? Worldwide, local government elections are considered of vital importance because they constitute the first rung of the democratic ladder. In fact, those elected to these bodies handle affairs which have a more direct relationship to the people’s daily life than those manning the elected fora at higher levels. Yet among the ironies of Pakistan’s traumatic history is that it is the military strongmen who have been quick to organise LG elections. Their motives were, of course, far from altruistic and democratic, for invariably they made these elected institutions serve as an electoral college to give legitimacy to their rule. That elected governments should be tardy on this score is a matter of shame. No LG elections were held during the last five years, and, again, the elected governments have been in the saddle for more than seven months, but the administrations of the two most populous provinces have shown no sincere desire to let the people choose their local representatives. In fact, the two resolutions passed unanimously by the National Assembly in November were a true reflection of our politicians’ view of LG elections when the lawmakers demanded the polls’ postponement and indirectly criticised the judiciary for its “stubbornness” because it insisted on the polls. The truth is our political governments fear the consequences of a vote that may not necessarily reflect the May 11 preferences.

The ECP must finally make sure that it doesn’t have to regret a new date. The printing of ballot papers is a major task, and in Sindh the issue has been further complicated by the tussle between the PPP and Muttahida over the delimitation of constituencies, with the high court setting aside the amendment to the Sindh LG law. And who do candidates in Punjab blame for spending some Rs6bn on an election that has yet to take place?

Prosecution has a case


FOR official prosecutors, the decisive moment quite often comes at a very early stage — when they have to make up their mind whether or not to pursue a case. They are lawyers appearing on behalf of the state and at the expense of taxpayers; and the conviction rate they are in a sense duty-bound to ensure is crucial to the health of the judicial system. Elsewhere they are cast as facilitators of judges, enjoying credibility as well as some fame. Not so in Pakistan. A report from the biggest, and by many accounts, the most ‘settled’ province portrays the prosecutors more as victims than able-bodied, functioning harbingers of justice working at a very basic level. Punjab signifies the extent of the powerlessness of prosecutors in the country. The province had set up an independent service for prosecutors in 2006, which brought only limited improvements to the system. One of the main causes cited for this restricted impact is the lack of a service structure that is commensurate with the work of these lawyers. Not only do prosecution lawyers have to work on small budgets, they are condemned to live with the stigma of being ‘only good enough to represent the state’.

This whole arrangement is against the market rule and must discourage many of the more intelligent minds from enrolling as prosecutors. Instead, it could attract those desirous and willing to abuse the ‘official prosecutor’s’ position. Then these lawyers work at a distance from the police, that forever-maligned investigation arm of the system notorious for destroying a case file even before it reaches the lawyer. Understandably, those from among the prosecutors who can, divert at the first opportunity, which doesn’t help the reputation of those who cannot. The end result of this chain of frustration is that the crucial first decision quite often turns out to be the wrong one. Official figures show that of the almost 350,000 cases taken up by prosecution in Punjab during January-November 2013, some 150,000 were not worthy of trial. That can only change by turning the prosecution-investigation into an effective machine. The police have to be pulled up and set on the right track. Importantly, conditions have to be created where prosecution becomes worth a good lawyer’s while.

Neutral advice needed


THE maiden meeting of the recently reconstituted Economic Advisory Council held on the weekend proved to be a eulogy of the economic and financial policies designed and implemented in the last seven months by its chairman Ishaq Dar, who also happens to be the government’s finance minister. The input of its members, especially those who aren’t associated with the government in any capacity, according to a handout, was restricted mostly to ‘endorsement’ of his policies, or ‘all-purpose’ comments on the state of the economy. That tells us a great deal about what we can expect from the council going forward. The fate of the reconstituted council is unlikely to be too different from that of similar bodies formed under previous governments.

The fault doesn’t lie with the (non-official, private) members who join such bodies out of their desire to contribute their expertise and give the government neutral advice to help it formulate effective economic policies. The council is structured in such a way that bureaucrats and politicians, who are unwilling to listen to a neutral viewpoint that challenges their monopoly on policymaking, dominate it. Such temporary and non-constitutional bodies can function effectively and meaningfully only when they comprise people known for their grasp on the subjects they are tasked to deal with and are not linked to the government in any way. The body should be working directly under the country’s chief executive and its job should be to function independently of official or political influence to highlight issues that have a direct bearing on the life of the people and the country’s economic development. Such a body should be mandated to identify and analyse the various issues facing the country from a neutral, unbiased standpoint and also prepare periodic reports — monthly, bimonthly or quarterly as is required by the prime minister — to inform the people of gaps in official policies. This will also address complaints, if any, of the council infringing on the territory of one federal department or the other.
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Old Friday, January 17, 2014
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Friday, January 17, 2014

SBP paints bleak picture


IN its annual report on the economy for the last fiscal, the State Bank of Pakistan has correctly pointed out that the country has lost much more than what it has gained from the ‘war on terror’ in the form of foreign assistance and coalition support funds. It notes: “…the actual economic cost of this war on Pakistan is significantly higher” and points out the conflict has caused law and order to worsen, “which in turn has adversely impacted the investment climate, caused production losses, diverted resources to enhancing security, encouraged manpower and some businesses to migrate out of the country, and adversely impacted revenue collection”. This analysis of the conflict’s economic impact is spot on, but blaming poor security conditions alone for all our financial woes as some of our politicians and policymakers are fond of doing will not get us anywhere. The report concedes this when it says, “growing security and persistent structural weaknesses continue to hamper economic growth”.

We may have the war to blame for the deteriorating security conditions. But who is to blame for the failure to correct the structural weaknesses and imbalances pointed out by the SBP? The responsibility for failing the people has to be shared by successive military and civilian rulers as well as the country’s elite. It is regrettable that every government, without exception, has contributed to the economic rot instead of reversing it. The difference lies only in the degree of the decay caused by one government and the next.

When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to power for a third term with a strong mandate in the 2013 May polls, most people expected him to take tough decisions to improve the economy. He didn’t. Take the collapsing energy sector that is pulling the economy apart. Apart from raising energy prices for the average Pakistani, his government has done little to improve governance of public power and gas companies or to recover unpaid bills from powerful defaulters. Similarly, its first budget took billions in taxes from the poor to middle-income households to give to wealthy businessmen. As if this were not enough, an attractive tax amnesty scheme has been designed to reward tax thieves working outside the documented economy. The list of incentives given to the rich in the name of the poor is long. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the government misses budget targets for growth, tax collection, inflation, fiscal deficit, current account, investment, etc as pointed out by the SBP. But all is not lost. Though the clock is ticking, the prime minister still has time to review his economic policies to address the structural imbalances and prove his critics wrong.

Horrific tragedy


THE terrible accident near Nawabshah, in which at least 20 people were killed, 17 of them schoolchildren, stirs up many emotions. There is rage, shock and most of all grief that so many young lives were lost in such a manner. The van the children were in collided with a dumper truck on a link road. This is not the first accident of its kind and, unless we as a nation change our ways, it unfortunately will not be the last. Reports indicate the van was overloaded, which added to the high death toll. Similar incidents elsewhere have also been attributed to negligence or the breaking of rules. Nearly 40 people — mostly schoolchildren — died in a tragedy on the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway in 2011 when their bus overturned; that vehicle was also overloaded. Last year, around 14 members of a family perished in Sheikhupura when a train rammed into a motorcycle rickshaw whose driver had tried to speed through an unmanned level crossing. Also last year, 16 children died when their school van caught fire near Gujrat.

Who should responsibility be pinned on for the Nawabshah tragedy, as well as other such tragedies? Should it be on the greedy transporters who pack kids like sardines into poorly maintained vehicles in order to maximise their profits, or on school managements who turn a blind eye to this? Or should the traffic authorities be made to answer, as they fail to penalise vehicles guilty of violations? For example, children clinging precariously from the backs of school vans are a common sight throughout Pakistan. And do parents also shoulder some responsibility for failing to raise their voice against such dangerous practices? All those in important positions have expressed grief over the Nawabshah incident, while the Supreme Court’s instructions to remove defective vehicles from the roads are also on record. What will it take for the state to move beyond regret and take action to prevent future tragedies? Unfortunately, life is cheap in Pakistan and the lives of children are worth even less. We desperately need a change in attitudes so that life is valued and our children protected from dangerous negligence.

Cantonment in Swat


IT was almost inevitable — the massive and most successful, relatively speaking, counter-insurgency operation in Pakistan is to be crowned off with a permanent military cantonment. Is it a good idea to establish a permanent new cantonment in the Swat/Malakand region, and what does that say about Pakistan’s approach to counter-insurgency? The latter question may be easier to answer: the Pakistani state has not truly been able to move from the ‘hold’ phase of counter-insurgency to ‘build’ and ‘transfer’. The need for a long-term military presence is precisely because failure to capture or eliminate the TTP Swat leadership early on meant that it was able to reappear with new guerrilla, hit-and-run tactics that have kept the overall security situation in the region less than stable. And now, of course, Mullah Fazlullah is also the TTP’s national head. Secondly, the failure of the civilian arm of the state — whether because the military arm had displaced it or because of an inherent lack of capacity on the part of the civilians, or perhaps both — to take meaningful charge of civil administration and the lead on rebuilding Swat has meant that the region has not been able to capitalise on military gains.

Still, what may make sense from a narrow military perspective may not be the best idea from a state perspective. If Swat/Malakand is the model for other counter-insurgency campaigns, then does that mean a permanent military presence will be established in the other insurgency-hit areas of KP and Fata — and what about the now-rejected idea of cantonments in Balochistan? While local resentment in Swat isn’t very high, other regions may not be similarly amenable to a military operation leading to a permanent military presence. Better counterterroism measures, a stronger police, a more invested civil administration and a local political leadership willing to lead — that route is preferred to the one the Pakistani state is set to embark on in Swat.
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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Tableeghi Markaz bombing


THURSDAY’S blast at Peshawar’s Tableeghi Markaz throws up a number of questions. The atrocity is particularly puzzling not because of what happened, but because of where it happened. There is nothing new about terrorist bombings targeting mosques, imambargahs, other houses of worship or public places as Pakistan has been witnessing such events for over a decade. Instead, it is surprising that the militants would choose to strike a target that represents conservative religious thought. Perhaps this, yet again, shows that in the militants’ holy war, nothing is sacred. Tableeghi centres have been bombed in the past, most notably in Swat last January. While the TTP has been quick to distance itself from the Peshawar blast, we should remember that the Pakistani Taliban are not a homogenous group, as numerous outfits are functioning under the militants’ umbrella. So while the ‘official’ TTP spokesman may have denied responsibility, there is a distinct possibility that hardliners within the militants’ ranks carried out the bombing.

But why target the Tableeghi Jamaat, an apolitical, largely peaceful group that concentrates on preaching? After all, the group and many in the militant movement are ideologically linked, pledging allegiance to the Deobandi school of thought, even though the Tableeghis stress peaceful preaching, while the militants wish to spread faith by fire and the sword. There are a number of possibilities; some observers feel the militants are not happy with the movement, criticising the Tableeghis for emphasising preaching over jihad. Some Al Qaeda-linked Takfiri groups have actually issued fatwas against the Tableeghi Jamaat. So the bombing possibly was carried out to ‘teach’ the Tableeghis a ‘lesson’. Sectarian militants may also be responsible, while the role of foreign elements cannot be ruled out.

Of course, only a scientific investigation can help identify the perpetrators. But conducting such a probe will be difficult as, according to reports, volunteers washed the crime scene soon after the attack, while police and the media were initially barred from accessing the site. If such tragedies are to be prevented in future, organisers of religious events and administrators of mosques and other places of worship where large numbers of people gather need to cooperate with the authorities. Hundreds of people were in the mosque and fatalities could have been much higher had bomb disposal unit officials not defused a number of similar devices in the building after the bombing. When such large gatherings are taking place, it is essential that the participants are thoroughly checked, especially in cities like Peshawar which have seen a high level of terrorist violence. Meanwhile, elements within the state and political parties who are eager to talk to the militants must consider that if the Taliban are not willing to spare those who are ideologically close to them, what they can be expected to do to ideological ‘opponents’.

Wrong move by US


IT may not amount to a real tightening of the screws yet, but the palpable hostility towards Pakistan in the US Congress is a problem that can snowball suddenly unless it is dealt with soon. The latest anti-Pakistan — and what other way is there to describe it really? — measure on Capitol Hill is a thoroughly inappropriate attempt to tie economic assistance to Pakistan to yet another pet peeve of the US. Release Shakil Afridi, the doctor in prison who is linked to the attempt to verify Osama bin Laden’s presence in the Abbottabad compound, or forego some $33m in US aid, Congress has demanded. That is a bad idea. And so poorly thought out is Congress’s move that the other demand — to drop all charges against Mr Afridi relating to the American attempt to track down Osama bin Laden — is just factually incorrect. Mr Afridi’s legal woes stem from charges that have nothing to do with Osama bin Laden.

To be sure, the Pakistani state’s — or to be more direct, the security establishment’s — treatment of Mr Afridi is utterly deplorable and wrong-headed. Trying to essentially lock him up in prison and throw away the key on the most dubious charge of aiding militants is a thinly veiled attempt to punish him for the perceived embarrassment he caused to Pakistan by taking part in a sophisticated and enormous manhunt that ultimately found Osama bin Laden stashed away in Abbottabad. But a prosecution in bad faith in Pakistan does not automatically equate to the US Congress acting in good faith, or even being cognisant of a wider relationship between Pakistan and the US that both sides need to keep afloat. The congressional move — the most recent one in a string of new conditions being attached to aid to Pakistan — will invariably be seen in this country as an attempt to browbeat and intimidate policymakers here. That never has and never will work to either side’s advantage. But there is something that can be done on the Pakistani side that can help salvage an increasingly difficult situation: the new ambassador to the US must urgently attend to rebuilding ties with Congress and create a modicum of goodwill there towards Pakistan.

How far is too far?


IF the line between vigilance and vigilantism is thin, so too is the one delineating investigation from harassment. Television news channels need to pay more attention to these distinctions. There are too many instances where, in the headlong rush to get the scoop, the ethics that make the media a responsible fourth estate have been breached. Into this category falls the current trend, as highlighted by a recent feature in this paper, of non-fictional crime shows. Here presenters ‘investigate’ some practice they consider reprehensible, expose the supposed perpetrators and frequently prompt police action. There are many examples: a presenter demanding that couples out walking in a park prove they are married to each other, another accusing college students of visiting a brothel, a third asking inappropriate questions of transgender people who already live on the fringes of society.

That such material is considered suitable for putting on the country’s television screens is a sad indictment of the mindset of the electronic news media. While this can be blamed on misconceptions of what audiences prefer (for the data from which popularity is gleaned is sketchy, at best), this is also because of the way the electronic news industry mushroomed and people were able to get positions that they were under-qualified to serve. But the gravity of the issue is much deeper than the farce passing off as investigative journalism. This is about citizens’ most basic rights, and violations. Through such shows, many television channels have started behaving like judge, jury and executioner. Private spaces have been invaded without warrants, private business interfered with, private information has been splashed across the television screens — all without the media having the legitimacy to ask questions that, say, the police do. Meanwhile, in airing such fare and asking people to report wrongdoing to them, these shows stoke Pakistani society’s worst, most indecent, instincts. Surely there’s no need to go to such lengths.
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Monday, January 20, 2014

No policy to fight militancy


ANOTHER severe blow by the TTP against security forces has been delivered, then quickly followed up with a faux promise of entering into talks with the state. Meanwhile, the government prepares to unveil its much-touted internal security policy while still insisting that talks are very much the preferred option. And sections of the national political leadership issue perfunctory condemnations of the TTP while insisting that dialogue isn’t going anywhere because of the shortcomings and indecisiveness of the government. If that chain of events were offered up as the plot of a horror novel, it would be dismissed as too fantastical and unreal. Except, it is very much the reality of Pakistan today — and profoundly depressing.

Even the new twists to the plot offer little real hope. Reports of military attacks in the Mirali region of North Waziristan yesterday appear to be part of an emerging pattern: the military will hit back when attacked. The military has denied that yesterday’s events in the Mirali region are linked to the Bannu attack on its troops. However, if true, it would suggest less a well-thought-out, meaningful policy to push back against the militants and more a reactionary move that will achieve little. Even the details of the Bannu attack are fairly unsettling: if there is some sense to ferrying troops to North Waziristan in private, unmarked vehicles, why were the vehicles not searched thoroughly before the troops were allowed to board them? If such patently obvious operational details are overlooked in such a high-risk environment — it is difficult to imagine more at-risk troops than those headed to North Waziristan — then what does that say about the overall preparedness of the army?

Still, the fundamental problem remains one of policy confusion. Specifically, the PML-N government has simply not been able to articulate a coherent strategy to tamp down the militancy threat and the security establishment is unwilling to embrace a zero-tolerance, no-to-militancy-of-any-stripe policy. Until those two fundamentals change, there will be nothing meaningful that can be done to combat the terrorism threat. A national consensus that the TTP cannot be adjusted within the structures of the Pakistani state and society is achievable. That does not mean the military option is the automatic and only option. But the talks-first mantra has ceded too much ground to the TTP and allowed them to manipulate the national narrative and the state’s response to the TTP threat. Surely, the politicians pushing for dialogue must be aware of this by now and the PML-N’s stuttering attempts to initiate talks must have made the government aware of why the present course is unwise. But do they have the courage to pick the right course?

Rise in religious conflict


ONE could arguably posit that religious violence has been the defining characteristic of much conflict in the past few years. The after-effects of the Arab Spring, for instance, have unleashed ideological forces bent on drawing religious boundaries in blood to further their political agendas. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 198 countries — covering a reported 99.5pc of the global population — looks at the issue of faith-based violence from various angles. The results show that religious hostilities increased across the world in 2012. While this may not be surprising because such conflicts cannot be seen in territorial isolation and usually depend on both external and internal triggers, the numbers are nevertheless disturbing. Of the countries included in the study, 33pc — including Pakistan — saw “high” or “very high” levels of internal religious strife, including sectarian violence, terrorism or bullying in 2012, compared to 29pc in 2011 and 20pc in 2010. As expected, the report shows that the Middle East and Africa have experienced the sharpest spike, while China is included in the “high” category for the first time. Among countries with “very high social hostilities based on religion”, Pakistan tops the table, as it did in the previous year. This does not appear far off the mark. As we are all too aware, sectarian killings occur in this country with horrific regularity, mosques belonging to various sects are bombed, and blasphemy accusations trigger bloody reprisals.

While the percentage of countries with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions on religion remained about the same as in 2011, there are several very populous countries among these, with the result that 76pc of the world’s population lives in countries with “high” or “very high” levels of restrictions on religion. Interestingly, in the report, the countries with the highest social hostilities involving religion (the number of these increased from 14 to 20 between 2011 and 2012) includes many categorised as having “very high” government restrictions on religion, suggesting that state-sanctioned discrimination of religious practice has a significant bearing on attitudes towards minorities that can take the form of violence. This causal link often finds expression in Pakistani society where religious affiliation can define the extent of one’s vulnerability to violence.

A thorough professional


ALONG with being a gentle, artistically inclined human being, Musadiq Sanwal will be remembered for ably guiding dawn.com, this newspaper’s internet edition, from its early days to the position the portal is at today. A BBC-trained web journalist, Mr Sanwal, who tragically succumbed to cancer on Friday, played a major role in helping bring the ethics and journalism this paper is known for into the new realm of digital media. A thorough professional dedicated to his craft, his experience and skills helped the portal overcome its teething problems. He was instrumental in bringing together dawn.com’s team, giving it shape, supervising the website’s content and design changes and helping the site evolve. Those familiar with his work recall that Mr Sanwal faced the formidable challenge of transforming the website from merely being a mirror of the newspaper into a distinct 24x7 multimedia news site that stayed true to the principles of Dawn, with aplomb. It was a proverbial passing of the baton as the traditional newsroom went digital. As a former Dawn editor commented, “his charm and demeanour allowed him to be a consensus-builder; his resilience, professionalism and knowledge of online platforms allowed him to chisel away at all obstacles, including some archaic notions about both content and technology, and deliver dawn.com in its present shape”.

Apart from work, Musadiq Sanwal was a man close to the arts, while his comrades from his student days recall a politically active young man who was at the forefront of many political agitations during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship at the National College of Arts, Lahore, his alma mater. A talented singer and theatre person with a penchant for activism, Mr Sanwal could be seen performing at musical events in Karachi, the city he spent the final years of this life in. Hailing originally from Multan, the city of saints, he was greatly fond of Sufi poetry and indigenous music. Musadiq Sanwal may have gone too soon, but his work and memory will live on.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Action but not enough


ON a day when the TTP struck yet again against the military, the government finally appeared to stutter into some kind of action. On Sunday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced he would cancel his upcoming visit to Switzerland to stay back in Pakistan and deal with a security crisis that has gone from long brewing to slowly exploding. Then yesterday, the federal cabinet convened to consider Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan’s much-touted and long-awaited internal security policy. At last, some kind of seriousness seemed to be on display — and not just in talking somberly about the overall dynamics and present situation of dialogue with the TTP. This is precisely what is expected of a government faced with a monumental challenge that has only grown on its watch so far.

So much for the good news. The less welcome news is that seriousness of purpose has not yet translated into serious policy. The interior minister has much to say about his plan to combat terrorism, but the details known so far — either leaked to the media or whose contours can be made out from public statements of various government officials — suggest that the simplistic approach of taking on militants who have taken up arms against the state continues to dominate official thinking. Surely, the outlawed TTP needs to be — to borrow a phrase made fashionable by American officials — disrupted, dismantled and defeated. But that is only to try and address a problem that has already exploded and is impossible to ignore anymore. The roots of militancy and terrorism are deep and complex — and any long-term policy to defeat terrorism must attack those roots too. That means a gamut of measures beyond the strictly kinetic that run from socio-economic reforms to strengthening governance and state regulation in problem areas.

Nevertheless, sitting down and taking stock and trying to formulate some kind of national policy against militancy is the desperate need of the day — and the government should be encouraged to continue down this path. The politics of it aside — the PML-N worried about the blowback in Punjab and the pressure that Imran Khan and the political right can bring to bear on the government — it is perhaps as important as the other aspect: a civil-military understanding on what is the best path to pursue. That the TTP has refocused its attacks on security targets after a spell of attacks against soft targets will have surely added some tension to civil-military ties when one side wants to try dialogue first and the other side is absorbing bloody blow after bloody blow. While the anti-militancy policy must be of the civilians’ own creation — at least from the democratic, constitutional perspective — no policy will succeed if one of the main instruments necessary to defeat the TTP is not in sync with the military.

No progress in education


THE findings of the Annual Status of Education Report, 2013 are not very encouraging, showing a continuously high trend of underachievement in Pakistan’s schools, particularly in Sindh. There are several depressing statistics, such as the fact that 57pc of grade five students cannot read a grade two English sentence, or that half of such students cannot read a grade two story in Urdu, Sindhi or Pashto. The survey, which covered 138 rural districts and 13 urban centres, found that Punjab has the best educational indicators, while Sindh is at the bottom. The study shows that there are more out-of-school children in the rural areas while children studying in private institutions performed relatively better than their peers in state schools. If our children continue to show such poor levels of literacy and numeracy, it is difficult to imagine how we will survive in the 21st century.

A large amount of funds and numerous interventions have gone into trying to fix the education sector. So why do we continue to perform so dismally? Many educationists cite corruption as the number one reason for the failure of the education system, particularly in the public sector. For example, teachers in many state schools can’t or don’t teach while teacher absenteeism is also high. Yet these same individuals continue to draw monthly salaries without fail. There are also serious questions about the teachers’ abilities, especially in Sindh, as ‘educators’ are inducted under political quotas with no effort to judge their capabilities. Unqualified individuals will only produce barely literate students. The infrastructure of schools, or lack thereof, is also a key factor in keeping children away. Can youngsters really be expected to regularly attend school and learn anything when school buildings are bereft of basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets? Ever since devolution the provinces have had greater control over education, yet in most respects they have failed to deliver. To turn the situation around, teachers must be recruited on merit and updated with the requisite skills while there also needs to be strict accountability of all stakeholders in the education sector. The sector is a time bomb that will explode soon if left unattended.

Egypt’s constitutional farce


WILL the constitution approved through a referendum that was hardly transparent give peace and stability to Egypt? The entire exercise is suspect because of the political ambitions developed by army chief Gen Abel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first democratic government and crushed the opposition with an iron hand. The campaign for what the anti-military activists have called a “sham referendum” was rocked by anti-government violence and the arrest of thousands of dissidents, both Islamist and liberal, who had called for a boycott of the vote. The approval of the draft constitution will now be followed by a programme for presidential and parliamentary elections, and it is obvious they will, like the referendum, lack credibility. Egypt is now a police state, Adly Mansour is acting president only in name, and real power rests with the army, whose chief announced recently that he could run for president “at the people’s request”.

The Egyptian army has a vested interest in controlling the political process because of its huge business and industrial stakes. The new constitution, for instance, has a clause which provides for trials in military courts of civilians working in businesses owned by the army. The constitution also restricts demonstrations and protests, and rights NGOs say the basic law will give birth to a political system that does not guarantee citizens’ rights and liberties. No wonder that the opposition calls it “the military’s illegitimate constitution”. When the election campaign begins, the Muslim Brotherhood will not be there, because the military-led government has declared it a terrorist organisation. If history is any guide, parties banned by the military have invariably re-emerged with greater strength. The Brotherhood government had made many mistakes, but a subversion of the constitution was hardly the way to rectify matters. Egypt now seems to be headed towards a Mubarak-type dictatorship, and the fruits of the Tahrir uprising seem all but lost. The system the constitution will give birth to will hardly be able to last long.
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24.01.2014
Law’s slippery slope


WHEN the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance, 2013 was promulgated last October, it sent a wave of unease and apprehension through the human rights and legal communities. While few would argue that the legal framework for dealing with terrorists and militants does not need a comprehensive overhaul, many would say that security cannot come at the total expense of individual rights and freedoms. The PPO erred in using a hammer where a scalpel would have sufficed — from allowing the designation of an ‘enemy alien’ in dangerously broad terms to allowing for wide-ranging powers of detention and search. Now, compounding the original problems, the government has sanctified indefinite detention under the PPO — a truly extraordinary overreach.

Unsurprisingly, the government has dodged questions about the real intentions and true purpose of the latest legislative move, leaving speculation to fill the gap. Connecting the dots, it would appear the extended detention powers that the government has vested in the security forces are linked to the Supreme Court’s dogged pursuit of missing persons. Unable, or perhaps just plain unwilling, to obey the law and the court on the issue of missing persons, the security establishment, via the political government, may be seeking to buy yet more time for itself while it determines how to extricate itself from the missing persons debacle. If true, that would hardly be shocking — but it does raise an uncomfortable question: why is the government time and again willing to try and come to the rescue of those in the state apparatus involved in grave human rights violations instead of defending the constitutional rights of the public that it was elected to represent?

The misguided approach to strengthening the country’s anti-terror legislation appears to be rooted in two familiar problems: capacity and will. Ensuring justice in securing convictions against terrorists and militants while keeping innocents out of the state’s dragnet is a complex and difficult task. While there are no easy solutions, international experience suggests that there can be some reasonably adequate solutions. It starts with building up the capacity of the state, but it also requires a great deal of intelligence and expertise. The Pakistani approach seems to be the opposite: hasty solutions that rely more on their draconian effect to achieve a measure of success without much thought to collateral or long-term damage. That militancy and terrorism are the greatest threats to internal security that this country has ever known is undeniable. But in trying to fight terror, the state cannot be allowed to unleash a reign of terror of its own. Indefinite detention is near the bottom of a very slippery slope.

ECP without a chief


GIVEN the paralysis that has characterised governance for the last eight months, it is not surprising that the nation’s top election-holding body has been without a head. Retired Justice Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim resigned in July, and since then the PML-N government hasn’t considered it worth its while to give the ECP a new chief in consultation with the opposition. The result is that the ECP has been working under an acting chairman since last summer. This is holding back electoral reforms that could ensure the next general polls are fair, free and transparent. The process for choosing an ECP chief has been institutionalised through the 18th Amendment. Previously, the president nominated the ECP chairman, often arousing the distrust of the opposition. The amendments now make it obligatory for the prime minister to send three names, in consultation with the leader of the opposition, to a parliamentary committee, which will finally make the choice. The reasons for Mr Ebrahim’s resignation following the May 11 polls do not concern us here, but the absence of a permanent chairman has served to handicap the ECP. We are aware, for instance, of the mess created with regard to the LG elections. Prompted by the judiciary to fix the dates for the polls, the ECP announced the schedule and later pleaded for a postponement because it didn’t find itself ready for the task.

Now it is clearly the federal government which has failed to set the process in motion as required under the 18th Amendment. But then the ECP is not the only area where the Nawaz Sharif government has been guilty of inaction. It took its time, for instance, to appoint a defence minister, and the country is still without a proper foreign or commerce minister; and where the government did seem to stir — as in the case of appointments and dismissals of heads of several federal institutions — it appeared motivated by political considerations, inviting a judicial snub. There is no doubt the sudden rise in acts of terror has added to the chaos in governance, but finding an ECP chief in consultation with the opposition should not be such a time-consuming job.

Popular outrage


THE mourners are back on the streets. There is a sense of déjà vu as we look at the moving pictures of men, women and children sitting with the remains of their loved ones in the biting cold of Quetta, waiting for justice. We saw these images before a little over a year ago, when the heirs of the Alamdar Road bombings began a protest sit-in that was replicated nationwide. That protest may have brought down the incompetent government that ruled Balochistan at the time, but for the province’s Hazara Shias and for other citizens who have been victims of terrorism, little has changed. Sectarian and jihadi militants still operate with impunity as indicated by the attack on pilgrims returning from Iran on Tuesday in Mastung, which triggered the latest protests. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to show little by way of leadership or resolve, much like the previous dispensation. Expectedly, protests have spread to other cities, with main arteries blocked in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and other locations. This has resulted in traffic gridlock and business closures; yet how else can peaceful citizens express their outrage at the government’s inability or unwillingness to tackle terrorism? Regrettable as the inconvenience to citizens is, there is apparently no other way to grab the government’s attention.

To his credit, the Balochistan chief minister did visit the protesters on Wednesday. Yet to meet the protesters’ demands — which are also the demands of many Pakistanis — of punishing the perpetrators of Tuesday’s outrage and uprooting terrorism, it is the federal government and security establishment that will need to take meaningful action. As we’ve said before, the fight must be taken to the militants. If the state fails to take solid action, such displays of public disaffection will only intensify. The people have buried too many loved ones mowed down by terrorists.
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25.01.2014
Draconian measures

IF there is some semblance of a serious state response to the militancy threat at the moment, it is happening on two tracks: kinetic operational details and the legislative framework. Both are essential to the fight against militancy, but working on a plan is not the same as having a workable plan. On the operational front, have the lessons from past operations been absorbed fully? The two largest operations — in Swat/Malakand and South Waziristan Agency — that have been undertaken are far from an unqualified success. In South Waziristan, after some decent preparation and a good start the gains quickly became murky. The senior leadership of the TTP escaped and lived to fight another day, and to this day, the region abutting North Waziristan is anything but safe. In the case of a North Waziristan operation, there is the added complication of an exit into Afghanistan for militants — meaning that some cooperation from the Afghan side will have to be sought and secured.

In the case of Swat, which stands as perhaps the most successful counter-insurgency operation to date, there was no real thought given to the exit strategy for the military — which has meant that nearly five years on, the army is set to build a permanent infrastructure in the region. Surely, while new cantonments are not necessarily and automatically a bad idea, there should be some thought given at this stage to how North Waziristan, in fact, the whole of Fata, ought to be governed once the area is cleared of militants and the writ of the state is re-established.

On the legislative side of things, while war zones do call for special legal frameworks and emergency provisions, putting expediency ahead of everything else can create more complications than it may resolve. For one, in an era of an assertive judiciary that has rightly emphasised constitutional protections and rights of the citizenry, are the draconian steps the government is contemplating and already authorising through ordinances able to stand up to strong judicial scrutiny? Just as relevantly, is the government even aware of its responsibility to keep the public and parliament in the loop about its intentions and plans? The militancy threat is immediate and dire and it needs to be combated aggressively. But turning the country into a police state or security state is hardly the answer. Draconian powers, once bequeathed, are notoriously difficult to wrest away from state institutions. Whether it requires making the proposed laws time-bound or place-specific or having an adequate oversight mechanism, the need to restrain the state cannot be forgotten in the blind dash to defeat the enemy.

No progress on new airport


IT is impossible to recall a single example where any public sector development project in Pakistan has been completed within the stipulated period and at the originally estimated cost. And the New Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad is one among many examples of official neglect that the country’s projects, small, big and mega, suffer from. The entire development sector is a victim of gross official neglect, bureaucratic delays and political interference. The public perception is that all development schemes are conceived to benefit those with resources in one way or the other. In its hearing on the progress made so far on the airport project, the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly found to its consternation that the cost had escalated almost three times: from the original estimate of Rs37bn it was now Rs95bn.

The scheme which is delayed by over four years has had five project directors since it was launched in April 2007. The audit officials suspect massive financial corruption and mismanagement in the implementation of the project. After having spent Rs41bn of taxpayers’ money, the Civil Aviation Authority, which allowed “unqualified” people to oversee the project construction, has discovered serious lacunae in its engineering design. For one, the area doesn’t have underground water. So water supply to the new airport that is estimated to be used by 6.5m passengers annually will be a major problem. The National Highway Authority is yet to acquire land to construct a road to connect the capital to the airport, with the powerful real estate business demanding its share in the spoils. Somehow the CAA hopes to make the facility operational by 2016. There are also reports that a lobby is pushing the government to shift the airport to Rawat. It seems to have the prime minister’s ear. The prime minister had recently suggested the same, saying it would spawn skyscrapers along the Islamabad Expressway. Some capital watchers have found implicit in this suggestion a proposal to scrap the current project located at Fatehjung. It is nothing if not a cruel joke with the taxpayers who have no option but to finance our rulers’ abrupt flights from one idea to another.

A stillborn process


FOR many political observers, the news of Maulana Samiul Haq’s ‘quitting’ the peace process designed to bring religious militants to the bargaining table with the state must have been greeted with mirth. After all, when did the maulana-led process ever begin? An ostensibly hurt Samiul Haq released a statement on Wednesday in which he blamed Nawaz Sharif’s “lack of seriousness” for the failure of his grand push for peace. However, Prime Minister House retorted with a sharply worded statement on Thursday that Mr Sharif had never actually tasked the maulana with “any specific mission”. Who to believe? Our politicians have mastered the art of spin and are known to dismiss statements on record as ‘siyasi bayan’. But most people familiar with the hurly-burly of Pakistani politics had regarded Samiul Haq’s original claims of opening dialogue channels with the militants with scepticism. After all, reports indicated the prime minister had never explicitly assigned the cleric the role of go-between and gave him the vaguest of go-aheads to attempt mediation. The maulana, never media shy, made it appear as if he had been officially anointed the state’s peace emissary to the Taliban. Samiul Haq has backed out because, according to him, despite getting positive feelers from the Talibs all he got from PM House was silence. He added that the recent air strikes in North Waziristan also scuttled the ‘peace process’. PM House disagreed, saying they had not heard anything from the maulana in weeks.

Even if Samiul Haq had not abandoned his peace mission, his efforts were hardly likely to have succeeded. It is debatable how much actual influence the ‘Father of the Taliban’ retains over his wayward progeny. After all, as any parent will tell you, disciplining kids is not easy. And if those kids grow up into militants out to conquer the country, things really get difficult. These errant children of ‘jihad’ are hardly likely to listen to their elders.
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