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  #1001  
Old Friday, December 02, 2016
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Default December 1st, 2016.

Date: Thursday, December 1st, 2016.


A whiter shade of pale


The political foreshore is littered with the hulks of parties that for whatever reason were no longer fit for purpose, or had lost direction and relevance eventually to beach themselves to avoid a sinking. It is premature to place the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in that scenario, but it is not inconceivable that a desolate stranding is where it is headed. The PPP is about to enter its 50th year and it is far from being in the best of health. On Wednesday 30th November it began a week of rallies in Lahore to celebrate foundation day. Lahore is the birthplace of the party and once a stronghold, but times have changed as have fortunes.

The leadership of the party is one of the many problems. It is ‘co-Chaired’ by the widower of Benazir Bhutto who leads an absentee life abroad, and his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who is the maternal grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — a model built for tension and conflict if ever there was one. The younger Bhutto has of late been pushed forwards politically to very mixed reviews and his inheritance is not a mantle he wears easily. There are (denied) reports of rifts with his father and other reports that Zardari pere is considering a return to his natal shores.

The week of celebrations is being held within the confines of the boundary walls of Bilawal house rather than at street level, and is said to encompass root and branch party reorganisation at divisional and district levels. The party took a drubbing at the last general election and is no longer the power in the land that it used to be. Whether it can stave off the drift backwards will depend on whether the promised review re-energises a once-great party.

Challenging the dominance of the PML-N in Punjab is no longer a winnable fight, but fortunes in Sindh may take a turn for the better if the current woeful performance can be turned round. Elsewhere a dead horse is being flogged. The PPP has turned a whiter shade of pale, a lonely beach on the horizon.

Introducing train e-tickets


Purchasing a train ticket in Pakistan is a game of survival of the fittest. Long lines, delays and bureaucracy do not help the beginning of a train journey. The recently launched e-ticketing service has also failed to resolve the difficulties involved with purchasing train tickets.

Although the e-ticketing service was launched after a gap of nine years, according to a report by the Auditor General’s office, it is still not fully computerised and the electronic system is manipulated thus creating further problems in reserving berths and seats. As opposed to benefiting Pakistan Railways, the e-ticketing system is then adding to the losses of the already cash-strapped entity.

Malpractices and poor technology has also led to the ticketing system being an unreliable one with the system often showing errors or abruptly shutting down for hours. Pakistan Railway’s online reservations does not yet have the load of all trains and is not available for most trains. But even with this relatively small load, the system is failing to work efficiently. This only harasses consumers and disproportionately targets women, minors and people with disabilities who may not be able to go through the ordeal of standing in long lines.

E-ticketing is neither new nor unique and it is not as if Pakistan cannot cope with e-commerce. Countless online businesses have emerged in recent years, which are running successfully with cashless transactions and barely any physical presence. Airlines have also had successfully running reservation and online ticketing systems. It is unfortunate that our state institutions are slow in keeping up with needs and when a system is developed, it is marred with inefficiency.

Countries in our region have long crossed these barriers and are light years ahead in public transportation services. Bangladesh has had an e-ticketing system since 2012. Meanwhile, China has developed the second longest train network in the world. Pakistan needs to desperately catch up, and at least get a website working right.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2016.
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Old Friday, December 02, 2016
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Default December 2nd, 2016.

Date: Friday,December 2nd, 2016.

A Trump solution


Pakistan has any number of problems great and small, with the rift created at Independence being the greatest and the most impervious to solution. Over the decades there have been many attempts to broker peace. All have failed. The two countries have gone to war thrice. Currently there is an elevated — and escalating — level of tension revolving around the core dispute of Kashmir. The Kashmir issue is a colonial legacy that has proved poisonous in the extreme and continues to do so, but a new player has come to the stage and from an unexpected direction. Donald Trump, President Elect of the United States said on Wednesday November 30 that he is ‘willing to play any role that Pakistan wants…to find solutions to outstanding problems.’ The remark was made in a ‘phone conversation with PM Nawaz Sharif occasioned by the PM calling Mr Trump to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Presidential race. The President-elect went on to say that it would be an honour for him to be thus engaged and that he personally would do what is needed.

Perhaps we should not be surprised as Mr Trump is after all a man of surprises. During the campaign he had referred to a desire to mediate between India and Pakistan saying that the unresolved dispute was ‘a tinderbox’ — in which he is correct, but as ever there are caveats. Thus far none of the Trump team at cabinet level has much — or any — regional diplomatic experience and as far as is known Mr Trump himself has none. Paradoxically this may be no bad thing. No backstory, no taint of colonialism could play well for Mr Trump and his team. Conversely a failure to understand the heavily nuanced relationship could be disastrous, and anyway India would have to be a willing party to any new attempts to resolve the issues as would the people of Kashmir, and there is no suggestion that either has been consulted prior to Mr Trump making his offer. At first sight the Trump offer is outrageous, almost ridiculous, at second look perhaps not much of either after all.


Hopes at the Heart of Asia


The flame of hope in terms of peace talks between Pakistan and India is these days more sustained this side of the border than the other. The decision that the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz to attend the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar may in the end prove to be fruitless; which does not mean it should not have been made — indeed quite the converse. Pakistan is demonstrating once again that it is willing to come to the table, to avail any opportunity no matter how slender or unlikely, to advance the cause of peace. The Heart of Asia conference is primarily to discuss the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, with the India-Pakistan dispute not on any formal agenda. The main business will be around improvements in the connectivity between regional states and tackling the many security threats faced by the Afghan government — but bringing key players together in the same place at the same time creates opportunities to meet informally. The meeting comes in the wake of the failure of SAARC, a grouping that foundered on the rocks of the intractability of the Pakistan-India dispute, and HoAC may be the basis on which a SAARC successor is built.

As yet there is no indication from the Indian side that they have the slightest interest in crafting a meeting on the margins, and the ball is in the Indian court. There was agreement at the last ministerial meeting of HoAC that the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue would be resumed, a decision killed by the Pathankot attack in January this year as well as other subsequent attacks the responsibility for which India placed on the shoulders of Pakistan. There have been repeated and deadly violations by firing over the Line of Control by India and matters spiral downwards. It was India that torpedoed SAARC and Pakistan is not about to do the same to HoAC. The Indian Minister for External Affairs is not going to be attending having delegated a minion, which leads one to wonder just how sincere India is about any part of the peace process. Keep trying Pakistan, you just never know.

Return of Davis Cup tennis tie


Deprived of quality international sports for the best part of the last decade, Pakistan sport fans have some good news coming their way as the Pakistan Tennis Federation have succeeded in convincing the International Tennis Federation and team Iran that security is conducive to hold their Davis Cup tie in Islamabad next February.

Pakistan last hosted a Davis Cup tie against New Zealand in 2004 and since then have been forced to play their home games in their opponent’s backyard or on neutral venues. With the security situation improving in the country, sporting action is gradually returning. Islamabad hosted three small-scale squash events recently which attracted players from different countries. Ever since the harrowing attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore seven-and-a-half years ago, Pakistan has become a pariah for sporting action, however some events have been held in major cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Pakistan hosted amateur Snooker team and tournaments in Karachi in the recent past and now Tennis is also in the fray. The need of the hour is to make the visitors comfortable besides ensuring provision of security. Pakistan sporting bodies need to formulate a cohesive plan and ensure that they make collective effort to convince their international counterparts about the improving security situation. By being on the same page these bodies can ensure the return of top-flight sporting action including multi-nation events and world championships which used to be a regular occurrence in the 1980s and 1990s. Federal and provincial governments have an important role to play and need to have the sporting bodies onboard as the nation puts to bed the nightmares of recent years. Pakistan sport fans must also support the initiative to bring back top-class sporting competition, it is a collective effort indeed and all of us need to play our part.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 2nd, 2016.
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  #1003  
Old Wednesday, December 14, 2016
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Default December 14th, 2016.

Date : Wednesday, December 14th, 2016


Chakwal siege


This December, there has been a celebratory spirit in the air, whether the cheer stems from those who celebrated Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birthday on 12 Rabiul Awwal, or those belonging to the Christian faith, in anticipation of Christmas. Contrastingly, one marginalised group in the country shares only the sentiment of fear and gloom this December, as their place of worship was besieged by attackers in Chakwal on December 12. The Ahmadi community had sent a letter request to the district coordination officer for more security amid looming fears of takeover attempts. The request should have been perused more carefully. There was a definite failure of law enforcement here for not providing the necessary protection to minorities. The authorities should have a judicious decision-making process when it comes to one angry group making threats against another group in this country; promised threats are often delivered and the situation turns bloody. And, this was no small bout of anger; it was a riled-up group of at least 1,000 attackers on the day of a religious holiday, irate that the Ahmadi group would not empty the house of worship upon their demand — so overwhelming as to cause one man to die from cardiac arrest.

The situation amounts to hate crime and inciting social unrest amongst an already vulnerable minority. It has set a dangerous precedent, or perhaps one already being followed from before as the group has faced everything from targeted attacks to desecration of cemeteries and places of worship. It is too easy to rile up a mob against minority groups to take over property or settle disputes. There exists no such thing as following a path of non-violent dispute resolution in Pakistan. Vigilante justice needs to be eradicated and our law-enforcement agencies tightened up further. The Punjab government’s nonchalant attitude towards the issue was perturbing; it tweeted only blanket face-saving statements on tolerance and non-discrimination ignoring the fact that this was significantly more than a “misunderstanding” between two groups. It was, once again, an attempt by one group to use force to oppress another group, behaviour that is routine in this country.

Changing of the guard


The last week has seen a number of changes in the senior ranks of the army as the new Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa eases into his post. Whilst there are no real surprises about any of the officers newly posted or about the posts they are to take up there is a sense that a new broom is at work. The new COAS is wasting no time setting his agenda and it is evident that he intends to continue with and extend the agenda of his predecessor. General Bajwa put his cards on the table on Monday 12th December when he visited the Peshawar Corps Headquarters for a briefing-in-depth on the ongoing security operations as well as how matters will be moved forward in Fata, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Malakand division. All have been the focus of intense army operations in recent years, particularly since the National Action Plan was formulated to counter terror and as a response to the attack on the Army Public School in December 2014.

General Bajwa has spoken of his commitment to breaking the nexus between terrorists and their facilitators, a not-particularly-coded message that he is going to go after the chain that links the terror paradigm from top to bottom. That chain is known to run from the remote fastnesses of the mountains in the north to the sprawling cities of the plains — and Karachi. He acknowledged that army actions had created the space and opportunity to restore and refurbish governance, and that ‘equitable development’ was a necessity across FATA. Perhaps a message to any political listener that may be bending an ear in his direction. Civil government has its part to play if the army is not going to have to run a repeat performance in months and years to come.

There is a new Corps Commander in Karachi, a new Director-General of the Inter-services Intelligence, a new Chief of General Staff and a new Corps Commander in Peshawar along with a slew of other postings. The Guard has changed but many of the historical challenges remain. We wish the new team at the khaki helm every success.

PIA Chairman resignation


All bucks stop somewhere, and in the case of the chairman of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) it stopped on his desk, and Azam Saigol resigned on Monday 12th December. He had been in post since May 2016. The reason for his resignation was cited as ‘personal grounds’ but coming soon after the crash of flight PK-661, and technical faults on another ATR aircraft on Sunday 11th December which led to the aborting of a takeoff, it looks like Mr Saigol opted for an honourable exit.

All nine ATR aircraft are now grounded pending an investigation. It is also noted that a PIA flight from Manchester recently reported ‘technical’ problems and a flight from Lahore to Toronto had to land at Manchester because the passengers had managed to block the toilets. The latter case is clearly a self-inflicted wound and the passengers failed to obey instructions for toilet use, but other incidents have no such easy explanation.

Regarding the crash of the ATR aircraft and the subsequent grounding of the ATR fleet that at a stroke has negatively affected many PIA internal flights; it has to be said that whatever the cause the manufacturers have not called for a global grounding of all ATR fleets. A total of 432 ATR-42 aircraft have been delivered worldwide up until December 2014 and the type is still in production. Were the manufacturers to suspect an endemic fault then the type would be grounded everywhere. It is not, and ATR-42s are not falling from the skies the world over in a spate of incidents.

Perhaps prematurely Mr Saigol had cited engine failure as the cause of the crash, saying that he did not think there was any technical or human error. Both the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder have been recovered and will tell us what happened. It was at the very least unwise of Mr Saigol to pre-empt the formal investigation, and his resignation under the circumstances entirely appropriate — though unusual in the prevailing climate of corporate denial.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2016.
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