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  #1391  
Old Wednesday, May 13, 2015
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Age of unreason

THE realisation is dawning slowly and inexorably: the horror that was Dec 16, 2014 was no turning point. The curtain has not been brought down on extremist elements; not only do they remain free to propagate hatred and intolerance, those in their cross hairs still have no recourse but to fend for themselves. According to a report in this paper, senior educationist and member of the government-appointed advisory committee for curriculum and textbook reform, Dr Bernadette L. Dean, has had to flee Pakistan after a hate campaign was unleashed against her by an unnamed political party. She was accused by those against her work of being “an enemy of Islam” and “a foreigner woman who has single-handedly made changes to the curriculum and textbooks that made them secular”. The campaign against Dr Dean is only the latest in a series of attacks against educationists in the country. Less than a month ago, Debra Lobo, an American national and professor at a medical college, was attacked and seriously injured in Karachi. Even more recently, a Karachi University professor, Dr Wahidur Rahman, was gunned down in his car.

In a time of unreason — for what is extremism but unreason? — clichés are handy instruments for religious zealots to exploit. Dr Dean’s stellar credentials and long years of service to her country, as former principal of two leading colleges in Pakistan, professor at Aga Khan University, and presently director of the VM Institute for Education, offered her no defence. That she was part of a committee with whose other members she had co-authored the revised textbooks that were reviewed multiple times before being approved, was of no consequence. Nor was the fact that the Islamiat sections were authored only by Muslims, considered a valid argument. Dr Dean’s very faith rendered her a ‘foreigner’, her every action suspect. In a country of unfettered extremism, every attempt to stem the slide into obscurantism is met with resistance, every voice raised in defence of moderation, plurality and intellectual curiosity is silenced, often at the point of a gun. Parween Rahman, Rashid Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud — these are but a few among the many voices of reason that we could not afford to lose.

Instead of protecting those that are Pakistan’s best hope of clawing back the space ceded to right-wing forces, the state remains shamelessly in retreat. Why has action not been taken against the quarters threatening violence against Dr Dean? Why have they been allowed to put up banners with words that are an incitement to violence? Then again, this is the same country where banned organisations have been taking out processions even after Dec 16 and threatening law-abiding citizens. Cosmetic measures, even at this point where nothing less than a single-minded cleaning of the Augean stables is required, will take us even further into the abyss.

By-poll bar on MPs

THE code of conduct for by-elections has always been a contentious subject. The usual complaint is that the government’s side uses its position to influence the polls. The government is often accused of exploiting the official machinery at its disposal and announcing development schemes on the eve of the contest to secure an election or swing it in its favour. The Election Commission of Pakistan, that recently held a few by-polls that were praised for their fairness, is apparently seeking to ensure a level playing field for competitors in three forthcoming by-elections — two in Punjab and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The ECP has issued a code of conduct that prohibits the announcement of any new development scheme in an area that is to have a by-election after the poll schedule has been announced. That is not at all a bad condition — indeed, the tendency to buy votes with resources at the government-backed candidate’s disposal has to be discouraged. Also the commission bars anyone who holds office in the government from participation in electioneering after the announcement of the poll schedule.

To the list of officials, which includes the prime minister, the chief ministers, ministers and advisers to chief executives at the centre and in the provinces, the ECP has added the name of the president. But it is not this inclusion, of the head of the state and not a member of government, which has raised objections — even though the presence of the president in the list of those barred does reflect the extent and depth of polarisation in the country. As it strives to make the by-polls as free and fair as possible, the ECP has gone on to extend the ban to lawmakers in the national and provincial assemblies. Not surprisingly, that has attracted instant criticism from the opposition, and in all likelihood will generate a heated exchange if not a full-blown controversy. In the current situation, the extended ban is going to hit the PTI and its leader Imran Khan who are considered to be the main rivals of the PML-N in the by-polls. It will be difficult if not impossible to find a precedent for this summary placing of halters around the necks of the lawmakers other than those with ministerial posts. The ECP’s intentions and its mission for a reformed electoral system aside, it seems to have overshot the mark in this instance.

SRO withdrawal

THE finance minister has announced that the power of the Federal Board of Revenue to issue exemptions for specific parties from various types of taxes is being withdrawn. This power was exercised via an instrument known as the Statutory Regulatory Order and to date so many SROs had been issued by the FBR that people had lost count. Last year alone, the total tax lost due to exemptions was estimated by the finance ministry to be Rs477bn, with SROs accounting for more than Rs380bn of this amount. This is a staggering number and it is good that the government has finally mustered up the courage to roll back these exemptions. It begins with withdrawing the power to grant SROs from the FBR, thereby closing off the discretionary decision-making that had devolved enormous power to the tax bureaucracy. The next step will be to roll back the hundreds of SROs that have already been issued, which is when the revenue impact of the exercise will begin to be felt and the distortions introduced into the tax code begin to be eliminated.

This is a step that has been urged upon the government for almost three decades now, dating back to at least the National Taxation Reform Commission of 1985 if not earlier. The fact that it is now going to be implemented — first via a presidential ordinance in the days to come, then written into law via the finance bill — indicates the government might be getting serious about tackling the structural bottlenecks that have hampered the revenue effort for so long now. If the government can undertake this reform measure in earnest, and make a strong effort to pass legislation for State Bank autonomy as well as ramp up its attempts at broadening the tax net, it will be able to show the sceptics that it is serious about undertaking difficult structural reforms. The latter are the real measure of progress. There should be no backpedalling on this promise any longer.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial
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  #1392  
Old Thursday, May 14, 2015
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Attack on Ismaili community

IT is the vibrancy and plurality of Pakistan that the militants wish to destroy. In targeting Ismailis in Karachi, the militants have grotesquely reiterated their message to the country: no one — absolutely no one — who exists outside the narrow, distorted version of Islam that the militants propagate is safe in Pakistan. The Aga Khan has spoken of “a senseless act of violence against a peaceful community”. In their hour of desolation, it is only right that the Shia Ismaili community’s supreme leader has taken a dignified line and sought to comfort what will surely be a deeply anxious community. There is though clear sense recognisable in the attack. As the Peshawar school massacre delivered a devastating psychological blow to the country, so will the Karachi attack prove to be an immensely demoralising episode. And as the Peshawar school massacre forever altered the basic school-day routine of tens of millions of Pakistanis, so yesterday’s attack will tighten the already suffocating blanket of fear over various Muslim sects and non-Muslims. The darkness continues to engulf this country.

The brutal attack against the Ismaili community also raises some very specific questions in the context of Karachi and the security policy being pursued in the provincial capital. Clearly, whatever the state has done over the last 18 months in Karachi, there is no rational expectation that no more terrorist attacks will occur or that all terrorist attacks will be foiled. But there is a sense that the militarised strategy being pursued in Karachi is the wrong one — and that the focus of that militarised strategy, ie the MQM’s militant elements — is too narrow. There are still areas — several ethnic ghettoes — in Karachi that remain effectively cut off from the rest of the city and where law-enforcement personnel only enter on occasion. A strategy based on raids, arrests and, if necessary, killings can never rescue such neighbourhoods from the militants. Then, there has been virtually no discernible action against the extremist mosque-madressah-social welfare network that serves as an indoctrination and recruitment nexus for militants. Simply breaking up existing cells of militants does little to ensure the next generation of militant cells and groups are not being created.

In addition, what of the capacity of an intelligence apparatus that has to keep track of a wide spectrum of threats in Karachi? Surely, that is a task too far for the military-run intelligence agencies alone. There are occasional noises about the civilian-run intelligence and law-enforcement apparatus being part of the operational and strategic loop, but few believe that to be the case anymore. Finally, for all the problems with a military-dominated security policy in Karachi, why has the Sindh government allowed itself to become near irrelevant? The civilian side of the state needs to be more influential and assertive in the security domain, but in Sindh it appears that the government has nil interest in such an endeavour.

Afghan policy change?

FIRST, the good news. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Kabul visit with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and DG ISI Gen Rizwan Akhtar in tow, and his emphatic, unprecedented denunciation of violence by the Afghan Taliban is the clearest sign yet that the Pakistani state is edging towards a far-reaching change in its Afghanistan policy. The symbolism in particular was striking. The prime minister spoke alongside Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the present-day leader of the governance structure that inherited power from the Afghan Taliban in 2001, and criticised what has long been considered by the security establishment here as a loyal ally of the Pakistani state — the Afghan Taliban. If words and symbolism alone do not make policy, there is at least a genuine sense now that Pakistan’s consistent, years-long articulation of wanting to turn the page on Afghanistan may have some substance to it. Consider also that Gen Sharif separately announced via the ISPR the resumption of a road-building project — Torkham to Jalalabad. This underscores Pakistan is also looking to Afghanistan as a trading partner and not viewing it simply as a security conundrum.

Now, the perhaps not-so-good news: it will take a lot for the change in attitude to be replicated by a change in posture and policy on both sides. Both the Pakistanis and Afghans have immediate and medium-term demands of each other. For Pakistan, the issues of anti-Pakistan militants finding sanctuary along the Pak-Afghan frontier and better border management remain urgent priorities. The security establishment here appears to believe that securing Fata and thwarting major terrorist attacks inside the country can only be assured if the banned TTP is denied space and resources everywhere. The ability for some of the TTP leadership and its cadres to cross the Pak-Afghan border with relative ease and find sanctuary in Afghanistan therefore continues to be a key concern of the army. On the Afghan side, the immediate concerns are to tamp down the massive so-called spring offensive of the Afghan Taliban and to bring the latter to the negotiating table as quickly as possible.

The Afghan difficulty with Pakistan lies in the extent to which Pakistan believes, or claims, it can help address Afghan concerns — and vice versa. Past experience suggests otherwise. But then past experience has not had a civilian and military leadership on the Pakistani side and a president on the Afghan side who are willing to engage with each other to this extent.

Circular debt plan

THE government has agreed with the IMF to implement a plan to reduce the circular debt next year to reportedly half of what it is today. The circular debt has been a millstone around the neck of the power sector for almost a decade now, and this is not the first time that the government has announced its intention to reduce it. Still, this time what is different is that the plan that has been announced sounds a little more realistic than before — if only because ordinary folk will be footing the bill. Going by the details that have emerged, particularly from the interactions of the Fund team with the media, the plan involves reducing the subsidy outlay by not passing the full benefit of oil prices to the consumers, the privatisation of some power-sector entities and a multi-year tariff that incorporates larger system losses into the tariff. What this means is that the circular debt is to be eliminated by passing on the costs to the consumer, through higher power tariffs, particularly to pay for theft, as well as lower reductions in oil prices at the pump. The idea is to improve the financial health of the three distribution companies to make them attractive for investors at the time of privatisation.

Nobody denies that better management of energy-sector entities is necessary to deal with the chronic power crisis and the best way to accomplish this is to increase the role of the private sector. But doing so at the cost of the customers is debatable. At the very least, the details regarding the multi-year tariff ought to be made public, either by including them in the Letter of Intent for the next tranche of the Fund programme, or through the Nepra website. Approval of the tariff should also be done through a public hearing by Nepra where representatives of the public ought to be allowed to air their reservations. Reducing the circular debt is a national priority. But the manner in which this goal is reached ought to have some consensus behind it.

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2015
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  #1393  
Old Saturday, June 20, 2015
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Default An absence of war

An absence of war
OF late, senior Indian and Pakistani politicians have been trading threats and accusations like Federer and Nadal exchanging ground-strokes from the baselines. Although lacking the tennis champs’ elegance and athleticism, our leaders are still slugging it out in the media as they have been for decades. The only comic relief in this dull scenario was provided by a pigeon, now cooped up in an Indian jail on suspicion of spying for Pakistan.
This hilarious episode serves to underline how old animosities are now hard-wired into the relationship. ‘Kashmir’ and ‘terrorism’ are the two key words that figure in speeches and press releases wafting from Islamabad and New Delhi like some noxious miasma. Over the many years I have been writing for this and otherpublications, I doubt if I have written on any other topic as often as I have about the need for normal relations between the two neighbours. But increasingly, I have come to see this won’t happen in my lifetime.
There was a time when I blamed Pakistan more than India for dragging its feet over the normalisation process. But now I see Indian policies and posturing as the bigger hurdle. Ever since Musharraf’s out-of-the-box proposal to settle the Kashmir problem away from the old UN formula was rejected by India, there has been nothing new to break the stalemate.
Indian public opinion against Pakistan has hardened. Except that India has now fastened on terrorism as an excuse to obfuscate:
its demand that Pakistan must curb the terrorist groups on its soil as a precondition for talks hardly helps matters. Granted, the 27/11 Mumbai attacks were traumatic for millions of Indians. But it cannot have escaped the notice of policymakers and the media that Pakistan is (finally) engaged in a life-and-death struggle to eliminate terrorism. Basically, India is quite comfortable with the status quo, and the only downside for New Delhi is the relatively minor inconvenience of not being able to trade overland with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Pakistan has made it clear that its borders will be opened to Indian trucks after a comprehensive settlement of outstanding disputes. And while bilateral trade between India and Pakistan would be good for both economies, and make life a little better for millions of their citizens, such considerations have never mattered much to our ruling elites. Travel between the neighbours remains as difficult as ever; in fact the two countries are now further apart than ever. There was a time when the Pakistan military establishment needed the threat from India to justify its huge budget. But with jihadi groups supplanting India as our enemy number one, there is no longer any need for raising the Indian bogey. India, too, has China to justify its vast military spending. So on this count, at least, Islamabad and New Delhi could think of normalising ties. But the mindset developed over decades of enmity dies hard. Talking to a serving general a few years ago, I said it was difficult to imagine an unprovoked Indian attack. He replied that the military looked at a potential adversary’s capabilities, not his intentions. I can imagine an Indian general saying something similar about China. One thing that has changed is the hardening of Indian public opinion against Pakistan. Mostly, this has been fuelled by hyper-nationalistic Indian TV channels with their mind-numbing chat shows. In this, the two countries have much in common. For a reality check of how much the mutual hatred balance has altered over recent years, take Pakistan’s 2013 elections as an example. Here, Nawaz Sharif was able to mention normalisation of ties with India as one of electoral promises. Such a stance in an Indian election today would be a sure vote-loser.
Recently, an Indian participant at a conference in Islamabad wrote about being overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity she came across in Pakistan as soon as people discovered she had come from across the border. She concluded her article with the sad observation that Pakistani visitors to India would never encounter the same warmth and hospatility.
Had this been the extent of the problem, it would not matter much, especially to younger Pakistanis and Indians who are largely indifferent to our shared history and culture. But given the vast arsenals and armed forces on both sides, there is every reason to worry. Indeed, the introduction of nuclear capability into the equation is a cause for concern across the world.
The fact that Pakistan has recently inducted short-range nuclear-capable missiles is an indication of a suicidal strategy. Such weapons might check an invading Indian column, but would cause heavy civilian casualties as well. And the soil would be contaminated for decades.
So, yes, peace between India and Pakistan remains a goal worth pursuing. Sadly, the constituency for peace is rapidly shrinking. Given the poison being spread by an irresponsible media and immature politicians, the best we can hope for is an absence of war.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2015
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  #1394  
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Default Asia’s parallel paradigms

Asia’s parallel paradigms
By
MUNIR AKRAM
IT is now almost a truism that Asia will be the focal point of geopolitics in the 21st century as Europe was in the last 200 years. The reasons are evident: two-thirds of the world’s people inhabit Asia and it produces more than half of world output. Despite the current economic slowdown, Asia will remain the engine of global growth in the coming decades. At the centre of this tectonic shift is China. Its pace of economic growth and scale of poverty reduction is unprecedented in history. China’s rise has already changed the security and development dynamics in Asia; it is now poised to change the Western-dominated global economic and political order.

Thucydides posited that conflict is inevitable when rising powers emerge to challenge ruling ones. Most pundits thuspredict conflict and confrontation between China and the United States, today’s dominant power. However, such conflict and confrontation is not inevitable.
Today, global affairs operate under two parallel paradigms: one, the traditional paradigm of power and rivalry; two, the emerging paradigm of interdependence and common interest. At the present stage of history, both paradigms coexist uneasily. Obviously, old habits die hard. The power paradigm remains dominant in the policy establishments of the US, China and other states. But the new paradigm is becoming more compelling, for more people, in more places. Under the old power paradigm, the US, China and other powers have continued to pursue their national interests in a zero sum game. The US is building a string of alliances around China’s periphery (Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam and, putatively, India). The Chinese pushback is visible in the new relationships with Russia, Central Asia, Iran, and as far away as Latin America (close to the US ‘periphery’) and the consolidation of old relationships, such as with Pakistan.
The US is shifting most of its naval power from the Atlantic to the Pacific (as part of the ‘pivot’ to Asia). In response, China has declared the intention to build and deploy a blue water navy.
The rivalry now extends to trade and development,including: access to natural resources; mutually exclusive trade blocs; rival development models and institutions, and the struggle for control of global economic and financial institutions.
There are several security challenges that have been exacerbated by this great power rivalry. It has prevented them from taking effective and coordinated action to control the maverick regime in North Korea. Contrary to the interests of all, the Korean peninsula is now nuclearised. Similarly, no stable security structure has been evolved to manage the complex rivalries between China, the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia in North East Asia. The Sino-Japanese dispute over two small islands could spark a confrontation involving the US and its other allies. The most immediate threat of direct confrontation between China and the US today arises from the multifaceted disputes over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea. China’s ‘string of pearls’ position is being challenged by the US ‘string of alliances’ around China, accompanied by assertive overflights and naval patrols.
The South Asian subcontinent is a neglected powder keg. Another confrontation between India and Pakistan is anan
ever-present possibility because of Kashmir, Balochistan, terrorism, a border incident, a conventional and nuclear arms build-up. The US encouragement of India’s ambitions as a means of containing China, adds an ominous strategic dimension to the India-Pakistan rivalry. This extension of great power competition now extends to other South Asian states — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as Afghanistan.

Fortunately, the power paradigm is not the only driving force in world affairs today. The parallel paradigm of interdependence and convergence is also in play. The US and China are highly dependent on each other to maintain economic growth and prosperity. China’s growth is fuelled considerably by its exports to the US. Conversely, living standards in the US would decline sharply in the absence of cheap imports from China. China holds a considerable part of the debt issued by the US. A collapse of the US currency or contraction of the US economy is against China’s interests.

China has benefited greatly from US and other foreign investment and associated technology transfers and continues to do so. Now, China itself has emerged as a significant source of investment, not only in resourceextraction, but also industrial and infrastructure development in the developing and developed countries, including the US and Europe. China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, involving land and sea trade corridors, will constitute a major contribution to the further integration of the global economy and rising prosperity across Asia aswell as Europe and Africa. While this will consolidate and enlarge China’s influence and power, its impact will be highly positive for all participants, including the US.


There are a number of global issues where cooperation is essential between the two leading powers as well as other countries. Climate change threatens the entire planet. The US, China and other major carbon emitters — Europe and India — are required to take joint action to reduce emissions and build a world economy based on green energy. Global growth can be sustained, and poverty elimination achieved within decades, but only if mutually reinforcing and collaborative policies are adopted by the leading economies on trade, finance and investment. Such close collaboration is increasingly indispensable on a growing number of other issues: disease control; cyber security; outer space; non-proliferation and terrorism.


Finally, despite their strategic competition, all major powers have a common interest in containing and resolving the growing plethora of inter-state and intrastate conflicts that rage across Asia and the Middle East. The interdependence paradigm is gaining grass-roots support in most major powers — within civil society, business, the media, academia and in international organisations. Given the growing evidence and urgency of multiple global challenges, and the compulsion to cooperate for survival and stability, it is probable that the 21st century may witness a historic shift from strategic competition to comprehensive cooperation. The challengeis how to manage the current dangerous transition from the power paradigm to the paradigm of interdependence.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2015

http://www.dawn.com/news/1189472/asi...llel-paradigms
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  #1395  
Old Sunday, June 21, 2015
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Default Charter of economy again

Charter of economy again

GIVEN how politics ends up dominating all discourse in our country, it does not sound like a bad idea to have a charter of economy that encapsulates some key areas of consensus and separates economic policy from politics. The idea has been floated in the past by the government, and most recently the finance minister again referred to it at the conclusion of the general discussion of the budget. There can be little doubt that the conduct of economic policy needs to be less influenced by politics, and it is worthwhile to recall that the PML-N itself did the most to politicise economic matters when it was in the opposition. Its members were the most vocal in opposing documentation measures, efforts to reform the GST, any manner of privatisation or divestment of shares in state-owned enterprises, or any new revenue measure. While opposing new initiatives of the last government, the PML-N also invoked every populist trope that Finance Minister Ishaq Dar bristles at today. For example, the PML-N criticised the then ruling party for raising oil and electricity prices and the then senator Ishaq Dar himself did his best tostymie the RGST by deflecting the debate away from the tax reforms towards other issues such as reform of publicsector enterprises and elimination of tax evasion. Then president Zardari had to reach out to Nawaz Sharif directly, through a letter, and ask for his support in economic matters, an overture that was rejected summarily.

Now that his party is in power, the finance minister is perhaps discovering that it is far easier to stymie reforms than to shepherd them through the legislative process. Yet, in spite of the history outlined here, it would be wise on the part of the opposition to accept the invitation from the government to formulate a consensus around economic policy enshrined in a charter of economy. If anything, the history of the PML-N in opposition is the clearest proof that such a charter is badly needed. Continuing the tradition of opposing reform measures simply for the sake of opposition would only keep the country stuck in the same self-destructive cycle.

But developing a charter of economy is going to prove far more complicated than the charter of democracy was. The economy requires the application of different economic policies depending on the circumstances. Economic policy can be about pursuing growth, or employment generation, or redistribution or consolidation, depending on the governing philosophy of the ruling party and the circumstances that obtain in the country. Tax policy can be reformed to pursue objectives such as elasticity or equity. If a consensus can be developed on the broad outlines of the economic policy that the country needs, that indeed would be a positive step. But nobody should underestimatethe difficulties involved in keeping politics out of economics, least of all the finance minister himself.
Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/news/1189471/cha...-economy-again
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Last edited by Man Jaanbazam; Sunday, June 21, 2015 at 11:52 AM.
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Old Monday, June 22, 2015
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Default Refugee crisis

Refugee crisis



NOTWITHSTANDING all the successes touted as hallmarks of the modern age, it is a sad reality that globally, displacement as a result of wars, conflict and persecution is currently at the highest level ever recorded. On Thursday, the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends Report, World at War, said that the number of people forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 stood at a “staggering” 59.5 million, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. The increase, it said, represents the biggest-ever jump in a single year. To put that in perspective, consider this: globally, one in 122 people is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum; if this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th largest. These figures hold special significance for Pakistan, which hosts some 1.5 million registered refugees from the protracted conflict in Afghanistan. This gives it the dubious distinction of being the country with the second largest number of refugees in the world (the first being Turkey, which is home to 1.59 million Syrian refugees).

In addition to this, there are an estimated one million Afghans resident illegally in the country too; as reported on Saturday, an exercise to register them is set to get under way on July 25 — it will be a six-month process that is to involve the setting up of 21 registration centres across the country. Here in Pakistan, the Afghan population is generally viewed as a burden, but one that must necessarily be shouldered in the light of humanitarian concerns and the fact that the neighbouring country has not seen peace of any durable shape for over three and a half decades, as a result of conflicts of varying types. Efforts to encourage the refugees to return have met with some success — some 45,000 people have gone back to their country under a UN-sponsored voluntary repatriation programme since January. But the fear felt by many in terms of returning to their own country can be understood, especially since many amongst the refugees’ number were born here. Pakistan continues to receive UN support to see to the needs of the refugees, but the fact remains that Afghanistan’s affairs need to be permanently settled, with little possibility of a return to conflict before a large-scale repatriation of refugees can be expected. The world has an important role to play in this regard, not least Pakistan and the regional countries.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015

http://www.dawn.com/news/1189564/refugee-crisis
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Default More effort needed in Afghanistan

More effort needed in Afghanistan

AN inaugural Pentagon report submitted to Congress evaluating the post-December transition from leading the war effort in Afghanistan to a so-called train, advise and assist mission named Resolute Support has in diplomatic language spelled out the security and governance challenges in Afghanistan today. Clearly, the massive spring offensive by the Taliban has been a setback for hopes of stability in Afghanistan while the unity government has struggled to get beyond persistent political troubles that have made it all but impossible to improve governance there. President Ashraf Ghani is a leader pulled in many directions with his hands often tied and multiple factors beyond his control. In truth, however, what is playing out in Afghanistan at the moment is partlythe result of the US not having a reasonable or realistic strategy there for years now, with President Barack Obama in particular seeming more focused on an exit from Afghanistan than anything else.
Consider the various ways in which the US has contributed to the ever-increasing uncertainty hanging over the fate of Afghanistan. If the unity government is not working out or does not appear to be able to overcome internal differences, is that really a surprise? But it was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s dramatic diplomacy that created the unlikely marriage between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the first place. Then, when the White House announced its surge-and-exit plan in 2009, it was apparent straight away that an artificial timeline had been imposed — a timeline within which the Afghan army and police forces simply would not be able to develop the capacity to defend large swathes of the country. Even more problematically, the US long dithered on talks with the Afghan Taliban and then belatedly attempted to nudge along an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned embryonic peace process. Collectively, that history has surely informed the rapidness of the deterioration in 2015.
Yet, the missteps and mistakes of the past should not mean that the deterioration of 2015 cannot be reversed. One consistent positive is that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours — and that includes Pakistan — agree that civil war in Afghanistan is not in anyone’s interest. Moreover, over the past couple of years at least the USAfghanistan-Pakistan trilateral ties have moved in the right direction, with the US and Pakistan stabilising their bilateral links and the Pakistan military-Afghangovernment relationship witnessing unprecedented cooperation. The China factor too is a new and positive influence, while the spectre of the Islamic State making inroads in Afghanistan could induce the Afghan Taliban to take talks with Kabul more seriously. Key to reversing the alarming deterioration of 2015 though will be realistic goals by the Afghan government and the outside powers. Afghanistan is not going to become a vibrant and thriving democracy with strong institutions and a sustainable economy anytime soon. A modicum of stability and governance will do — and the route to that clearly lies through a more urgent effort at talks.

Published in Dawn, June 22nd, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/news/1189565/mor...in-afghanistan
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Default Killer heat wave

Killer heat wave

AS large parts of southern Pakistan endure a heat wave that has killed more than 250 people in the city of Karachi alone — and the figure could be higher if some deaths have gone unreported — many may ask what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the impact of such destructive weather events. Lashing out against a shortage of electricity, like many chose to do in the Sindh Assembly on Monday, does not take away from the fact that the country is generally not equipped to prevent weather-related tragedies. True, long hours without power have only exacerbated the stifling heat but what must also be noted is that the majority of deaths have occurred largely in the city of Karachi, whereas the extreme temperatures have been felt from Sukkur to Turbat. Even in Karachi, the deaths have been reported from the poorest localities — Lyari, Malir, Korangi and Karachi East — and day labourers aredisproportionately amongst the affected ones. The heat has hit all of us, but those who have not been able to survive its impact would not have been helped very much by greater supplies of electricity.
The first question to naturally arise is this: what can people in Jacobabad, Larkana, Sukkur and other towns of Sindh and Balochistan teach the people of Karachi about surviving an extreme heat wave? Some answers might point towards cultural habits, like dressing appropriately to not expose crucial parts of the body to the direct rays of the sun, and managing work rhythms to avoid the hottest parts of the day. But life in large cities is far more demanding. Dwellers here require heightened awareness of the various stages of heat injury to know well in advance when it is the right time to rest and find some shade. Perhaps the provincial government can run a quick awareness campaign about the types of symptoms to be on the lookout for, such as muscle spasms, headaches and faintness. But complicating this effort is the month of fasting and the inability to rehydrate, which is an essential intervention to avert the onset of a heat stroke.
One thing is for sure though. Electricity for air conditioners is not the answer where the problem is the very low thermal efficiency of most of the construction undertaken in the hottest parts of the country. Perhaps raising the thermal efficiency standards of public buildings and mandating thermal efficient codes on new housing colonies and apartment buildings is the more logical first step. Perhaps we can learn something from how revised building codes were implemented in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake to make construction more resistant to tremors, and apply the same lesson to revising building codes in Karachi to promote thermal efficiency. That would be the long road to take, but it would certainly make future heat waves more bearable without causing large-scale power outages.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial
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Afghan parliament
WITH a powerful bombing targeting the Afghan parliament in Kabul on Monday, coupled with a Taliban advance on the northern town of Kunduz, the Islamist militia has shown that its offensive capabilities are very much intact. While government buildings in Kabul have been attacked before, this is the first major assault targeting the Afghan parliament. The symbolism has not been lost, with the Afghan Taliban suggesting they can strike at will. It is a small miracle no lawmakers lost their lives — parliament was in session at the time of the attack — while Afghan officials say a number of militants have been killed. Elsewhere, reports indicate that the militia may be on the verge of taking Kunduz city; it has already taken over a neighbouring district while the Taliban have also made territorial gains in Helmand. These developments, in particular the attack on parliament, will put additional.pressure on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government, as the Kabul administration looks increasingly shaky in the face of the militant advance.
Decades of war and occupation have brought little to Afghanistan apart from death and destruction. With the fall of the Taliban regime following the US-led invasion in 2001, stability has remained elusive as the militant movement has challenged the government in Kabul. Yet if the Taliban try to regain power militarily, clearly the vicious circle of conflict will only continue. That is why all stakeholders — the government in Kabul, the Taliban as well as external powers — must put their weight behind a negotiated settlement to the Afghan imbroglio. The Taliban have been conducting back-channel talks with several interlocutors, including those close to Mr Ghani. Among their major demands is the withdrawal of all US forces from the country as well as the release of prisoners.
While they have been making advances on the battlefield, perhaps the Taliban have also kept up the talks effort because of the arrival of another militant player in the neighbourhood — the self-styled Islamic State. Regardless of their motivation for talks, the Taliban want the reopening of an office in Doha as a central contact point with all parties. The Kabul administration must keep the door of dialogue open while Pakistan, though it has admittedly lost some of its influence over the Taliban, must also encourage the militia to reach a negotiated settlement. Unless all parties agree to cede space and make compromises, a negotiated solution will not be possible.

In the name of the poor

THE capture by elite interests of a special programme meant to benefit poor farmers in Punjab clearly illustrates where matters are going wrong in the provincial government’s way of doing things. A special scheme under the Chief Minister’s Package for Poor Livestock Farmers was supposed to provide free vaccination for cattle belonging to needy farmers. But instead, most of the vaccinations ended up being administered to cattle belonging to MPAs of the PML-N, or their relatives and friends. This would not be a noteworthy issue by itself, were it not for the fact that the budgets of Sindh and Punjab particularly are full of schemes of this sort. If such elite capture can be carried out so easily in a relatively simple programme such as this, it is easy to imagine what happens in many other programmes where the handouts can include cash or readily encashable items such aslaptops.
The Punjab government has budgeted Rs30bn in its Annual Development Programme for “special initiatives”, which include large numbers of schemes that are basically handouts of precisely this sort. This is the largest allocation in the ADP after infrastructure. Likewise, the Sindh government’s ADP budgets 40pc of its total outlay on “social protection” measures that include up to 85,000 beneficiaries, we are told, for cash handouts in different forms. In many cases, the targeting of these schemes is very opaque and vulnerable to elite capture. Of course, the possibilities of elite capture should not be used to argue for a complete withdrawal of the state from all such redistributive functions. The poor and marginalised need state support. But more needs to be done to ensure that support meant for these underprivileged communities does not get co-opted by the elites. How exactly this is to be achieved needs further input, but provincial governments relying on massive increases in such schemes should also give more thought to ensuring the protection and sanctity of the rights of the intended beneficiaries.

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial
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Loss of forestland
EVEN though there is no shortage of examples, the casual attitude with which matters of long-term importance are decided by those at the helm of administration in Pakistan comes as a shock every time. Concern for sustainability and the outlook for the future are thrown to the winds, with political expediency and optics dictating the outcome more often than not. Consider the decision taken last week by the Sindh government to allot 9,000 acres of forestland to the Pakistan Army. That the move relates to a 14-yearold application and the fact that it came at a time when the PPP, which is in power in the province, was at loggerheads with the military establishment, indicates that it was less the welfare of fallen soldiers’ families — who the army says will be the beneficiaries — and more the political climate that proved the motivating factor. The application had formally been forwarded to the Sindh government in 2001, seeking 35,521 acres in the forest lands in Garhi Yasin in Shikarpur district; this is in line with the army’s policy to allot land to the heirs of fallen soldiers, especially in Punjab.
While the policy may be commendable, and the government ought to consider formulating a similar scheme for members of the police force which is at the forefront of combating urban terrorism, the issue here is of allocating forestland — and that too in a province that is already significantly denuded of trees. In terms of Sindh, the bulk of its forest cover — by some estimates, as much as 90pc — is already gone. The last thing the government ought to be doing is giving over thousands of the acres remaining. True, land-use policy requires that the leaseholder can use no more than 80pc of the total holding for agricultural purposes, but even if this rule is adhered to — and that’s a big if, given how things work in Pakistan — it translates to the forest in this area being stripped down to a mere shadow of its current size. Instead of sacrificing the forests, the provincial and federal administrations need to be urgently focusing on addressing the issue of deforestation, which is occurring at an alarming rate across the country. There are already several predictions, based on hard science, that this is amongst the countries most at risk as a result of climate change and global warming. It behoves the policymakers to start preparing immediately.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial

crimes in Gaza
IT was known for long that both Israel and Hamas had committed crimes against humanity during the Israeli blitz on Gaza last year, but, according to the UN human rights body, some of the actions fell within the category of war crimes. Releasing its report in Geneva on Monday, the UN Human Rights Commission said it had been able to gather “substantial information” that showed both Israel and Palestinian militant groups committed “serious violations” of international humanitarian and human rights laws, some of them constituting war crimes. While Palestinian groups, especially Hamas, fired rockets on civilian targets, the Israeli war machine poured artillery and tank fire on a whole range of civilian targets in Gaza, including apartment buildings, UN-run schools, mosques and shopping plazas. Nevertheless, it would show a gross lack of sense of proportion if Israel and Hamas were bracketed together in the conduct of war. The civilian casualty toll, the firepower used and their effect on the victims give a fair indication of the extent of violations committed by the two sides. Hamas, according to thereport, fired 4,881 rockets and 1,753 mortars, while the Israeli armed forces used 50,000 artillery and tank shells besides conducting 6,000 air strikes. No wonder, civilian casualties should be what they were: 2,200 Palestinians, including 550 children, dead, with Israel’s loss being six civilians out of a total of 73 people killed.
It is, however, the after-effects of the war that deserve to be noted, for the UN report warned that the consequences of fighting “in Gaza”, not in Israel, would “impact generations to come”. Obviously, the Hamas rockets would not cause the same havoc which Israel’s 50-day blitz did on Gaza’s infrastructure together with the devastating impact this had on the Palestinian people’s everyday life. Gaza remains occupied territory, because Israel controls its air, land and sea exits despite the much-heralded “disengagement” by the Ariel Sharon government. For that reason, the occupier and the occupied cannot be placed on an equal footing in moral terms.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial

Political inertia in heat crisis
EVERYBODY wants to blame someone else — nobody wants to take any responsibility. The chief minister of Sindh showed up in the provincial assembly yesterday only to demonstrate that he was totally unaware of what has been happening in the provincial capital during the days he was away. Once the peak of the heatwave, that has caused more than 700 deaths in Karachi alone, appeared to have passed, the chief minister issued instructions to close “offices, schools and colleges”. Never mind that it is summer holidays and schools and colleges are already shut. He blamed K-Electric, the city’s power company, and its private management for failing to ensure the supply of uninterrupted power during the heatwave, accusing its private management of acting like businessmen, but said nothing about the dismal state of power supply in Sukkur and Larkana, the cities he had just come from, wherepower riots have been taking place for days and electricity supply is in the hands of state-owned corporations.
But Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah is not alone in issuing bizarre instructions and engaging in a blind blame game in the midst of a crisis. As power load-shedding in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also reached unbearable proportions, Chief Minister Pervez Khattak stood in his own provincial assembly and threatened to burn down the offices of Pesco, the state-owned power utility that serves the province. He did not say how that act would help alleviate load-shedding in the province. Meanwhile, Minister of State for Water and Power Abid Sher Ali threatened to take K-Electric from its private management if it did not improve its performance, and blamed the deaths in Karachi’s heatwave on the power utility. He is apparently unaware that the power to take such a step does not belong to him or to his ministry. Nor did he explain how the performance of his own ministry, which had promised zero load-shedding for domestic consumers during Ramazan, was any better.
All three gentlemen are major figures in our political galaxy, but their words sound like those of angry little men addled up in the heat of the moment — all thoroughly worked up but bereft of any ideas. Perhaps it would have been better for the Sindh chief minister to cut short his visit to Larkana and return to Karachi to organise relief camps for victims of heatstroke, even if it meant using the party machinery to run and staff them, as has happened on numerous occasions in the past, rather than resort to absurd instructions and a blame game. Where are thegovernment relief camps in the affected localities? Or those run by political parties, or even by medical students? Where is the campaign to spread public awareness about the early symptoms of a heatstroke? All that these irresponsible statements demonstrate is the tremendous disconnect between the political leadership and the people they purport to lead. Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2015
http://www.dawn.com/newspaper/editorial
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