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  #21  
Old Wednesday, December 01, 2010
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Our dereliction in Kurram

December 1st, 2010


According to a report published in a newspaper on November 30, the government has allowed a very dubious meeting between the elders of the Kurram Agency, members of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and “foreign” agents of the Haqqani Group from North Waziristan. The meeting was held “in a guesthouse” in Islamabad and the objective was “restoration of peace in Parachinar (Kurram headquarters) which has remained cut off from the rest of country for three years.”

Who were the interlocutors? MNA Sajid Hussain Turi representing the Shia of Kurram and some elders, while the opposite side was represented by Qari Taj, the commander of the Haqqani Group in Kurram Agency, and Karim Mushtaq, TTP commander for Kurram and Orakzai agencies. Another MNA, Munir Khan Orakzai, also attended the meeting. The talks were fruitless because the Shia Turi side was not willing to give the right of way to the TTP and Haqqani group militants through their territory. In retaliation, the other side refused to lift the roadblock on Thall-Parachinar Road that cuts Kurram off from the rest of the country.

The Turis are in a bind. They can’t leave or enter their agency and have to use Afghanistan territory where they are at risk of being killed by pro-al Qaeda terrorists. Al Qaeda is not particularly fond of the Turis because they are Shia and because they did not allow al Qaeda leadership to stay on their soil after its escape from Tora Bora in 2001. Well-off Turis spend Rs8,000 on a plane ride from Peshawar to get home. The Agency is no longer under any semblance of federal government control for the last three years. And the Haqqani Group from Afghanistan, which is being allowed to hold talks with the Turis in Islamabad, has no business being in Pakistan.

Pakistan is projecting its power into Afghanistan on the basis of warriors who don’t belong to Pakistan and is giving them a status inside Pakistan that violates the sovereignty of the state. The TTP is dominant under the banner of anti-Shia feeling spread in the region by the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned terrorist organisation of Punjab which inspires the tribes that live around Kurram. Kurram lies next to the three Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Nangarhar. It has half a million inhabitants out of which around two-fifths are Shia — besides, the capital Parachinar has a majority Shia population. The agency lies next to Waziristan, Orakzai and Khyber agencies where warlords harbour severely sectarian feelings. Down the road from Kurram to Peshawar, cities like Kohat and Hangu have Shia communities cowering before the power of the Taliban for the last decade.

Kurram has had to run the gauntlet of the first TTP chief, Baitullah Mehsud, who sent his Waziristan lashkar there under the blood-thirsty Qari Hussain in 2007. Around 400 Mehsud and Wazir militants fought against the Shia in Kurram, burning down villages and killing dozens of them. Two months later, another warlord, Hakimullah Mehsud, sent hundreds of fighters to outnumber the Shia offering resistance to him. After becoming head of the TTP, Hakimullah appointed Mullah Noor Jamal from Orakzai, known as Mullah Toofan, to lead the Taliban. Mullah Toofan, a brutal commander, indulged in carnage and blocked the above-mentioned road, cutting Kurram from the rest of Pakistan. Infamous warlord Mangal Bagh of Khyber Agency, successfully challenging the Pakistan army, has also dipped his hands in the blood of the people of Kurram.

Pakistan’s military strategy focuses on a quest to control territories not part of its map, at the expense of territory it does have. The bulk of the Pakistan Army faces India on the eastern border. Because of Pakistan’s ambivalence towards the TTP and the Haqqani Group, it has had to suffer a gradual diminution of its writ in small cities like Kohat, Hangu and Bannu, while virtually losing control over the provincial capital, Peshawar. On the eve of America’s exit from Afghanistan, the focus is on how to prevent India from retaining its foothold there. It is difficult to imagine how territories lost inside Pakistan in the pursuit of this strategy will be regained.


SBP’s discount rate hike

December 1st, 2010


It appears that the battle between the finance ministry and the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is set to continue for some time now. For the second time in a row, the central bank used its monetary policy meeting to increase its benchmark discount rate — the rate at which commercial banks can borrow from the SBP — by half a percentage point. The rate now stands at 14 per cent, close to its 2008 crisis-level peak of 15 per cent.

Yet the central bank has been very blunt about why such a rate increase was necessary. Inflation has been spiralling out of control, largely due to over-borrowing by the federal government. The State Bank has a single over-riding mandate: to control inflation. Its single biggest tool in doing so is interest rates, which it has used somewhat timidly in the past but is now beginning to get more comfortable with. When inflation rises, the SBP raises interest rates in order to curb borrowing and slow down price rises.

The business community has been reasonably irked by the rise in the cost of borrowing. But they should realise that the central bank is simply responding to the constant depreciation in the value of the rupee that has been precipitated by unchecked government deficits. The government does not actually spend too much money, just much more than it takes in as revenues. Think of inflation, then, as an alternative to the taxes that nobody seems willing to pay. Unfortunately, this replacement for taxation has a tendency to hurt the poor infinitely more than it hurts the rich or even the upper middle class.

Economists have pointed out that the real interest rate in the country — the nominal interest rate minus the rate of inflation — is actually still negative. This means that in real terms, lending is still an unprofitable enterprise. Yet we acknowledge that even nominally high interest rates are damaging to the economy. The solution, however, is not to decry the central bank’s moves, which seems to be the default response of many commentators, but to support an increase in tax revenues, such as the reformed general sales tax bill currently in parliament. Only a balanced federal budget can guarantee manageable levels of inflation.
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  #22  
Old Thursday, December 02, 2010
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WikiLeaks and Pakistan’s nukes

December 2nd, 2010


The latest batch of cables released by WikiLeaks says that in a September 2009 meeting between UK and US officials, “growing concern” was expressed about Pakistan’s nuclear programme; more precisely, about the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. The meeting also noted that “China could play a big role in stabilising Pakistan”. Clearly, it is not so much Pakistan’s possible export of these weapons to other countries as their falling into the wrong hands “within” Pakistan.

The fear has been expressed subliminally before. The US has officially pronounced that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are safe, explaining that its security measures are state-of-the-art. However, Pakistan has a different take on American intentions. It unofficially thinks that the Americans are bent upon to somehow “take out” the bombs. Throughout 2009, the media in Pakistan was abuzz with planted stories about how Americans pouring into Pakistan on aid-related visas were actually the advance party of the conspiracy to barge into our nuclear facilities.

There is a background to why Pakistan suspects the US. Washington leads a UN Security Council move on the urging of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to investigate the Pakistani ‘father of the bomb’ Dr AQ Khan on his confession that he had handed over some nuclear secrets to other countries. Pakistan has been keeping Dr Khan under layered security to prevent his abduction, although he himself thinks very poorly of this arrangement. The US and its allies have been careful with Pakistan so as not to upset the applecart of their Afghan strategy in which Pakistan plays a critical role.

The “growing concern” expressed in the 2009 meeting reveals a fear not clearly articulated before: that the nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of more aggressive strategists within the army or those linked to al Qaeda through ideology. This fear is once again buttressed by past indications: that a senior Pakistani nuclear scientist with access to low enriched uranium had gone and met Osama bin Laden and presumably offered to make a dirty bomb for al Qaeda. The scientist was questioned in Islamabad and had fainted before being given a lie-detector test. Add to this the fact that Pakistan’s much “weakened” state suffers from a low writ in many parts of its territory where al Qaeda or its supporters are increasingly in control.

What is significant is the reference during the meeting to China as a stabilising agent. Pakistan has had problems with terrorism in its Waziristan area seeping into China’s western province of Xinjiang. A number of Uighur Muslims in training camps in Waziristan posed a threat to China. There are reports that Pakistan, under Musharraf, dealt with them and removed the Chinese complaint in short order. (This did not happen in the case of the Uzbeks despite protests from Uzbekistan’s president.) It is easy to imagine that China would be totally opposed to the rise of al Qaeda and its friends in Pakistan or their coming to power with the aim of controlling Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. There is no one in Pakistan who actually believes that al Qaeda and its supporters will ever come to power in Pakistan. The political order is decisively tilted in favour of the political parties and not the clergy. National politics has settled down as a bipartisan system where the PML-N or the PPP routinely preside over the governance of the country. China is considered a “permanent” friend by politicians and the clergy alike and everybody knows China will not favour a takeover by religious extremists. Pakistan has tacitly accepted this position by attending sessions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) devoted, among other objectives, to countering the threat of religious extremism.

Yet external impressions about Pakistan are formed by the news that comes out of Pakistan. Some of it is not good at all. For instance, the strength of the clerical reaction to the generally felt need of changing the blasphemy law. Anybody comparing it to the past years’ reaction will say that Pakistan has become more radicalised in favour of the obscurantists.


RGST — a necessary evil?

December 2nd, 2010


With parliament haggling over the imposition of the Reformed General Sales Tax (RGST), it is likely that the next round of financing from the IMF will be delayed. There are many sound criticisms of the RGST, not least among them the fact that it is regressive in nature — it disproportionately affects those in lower income brackets than those who earn more. Furthermore, if the economy has to be documented, in terms of widening the tax net, then surely that can be done without having to raise the existing rate of GST. The third, and equally valid, criticism is that the RGST is inflationary and that is something that the economy can ill-afford at this point in time. That said, Pakistan does not have too much of a choice given that it is heavily dependent on funding from international lending institutions such as the IMF.

In that regard, the RGST may be a necessary evil right now, but at the very least its passage in parliament (by no means certain) and imposition should lead to the benefit of teaching the government that long-term planning can help avoid such painful measures. Successive governments have abdicated their responsibility by refusing to even consider taxing income from agriculture, which would have brought politically influential landlords into the tax fold and increased revenue generation and hence reduce our dependence on loans and prevent the government from having to pay massive amounts in interest alone. The additional menace of circular debt in the power sector, which is expected to reach Rs781 billion next year, is further depleting the treasury. This issue also needs to be given high priority because by itself it creates an environment where a sector as crucial as power and energy is having to operate with a large millstone around its neck.

When previous governments tried to enforce a GST, they caved in after protests from business interests. At least the current set-up has shown that it is ready to take tough measures. They will need to follow that up by taking this a step further and making sure that all who can afford it make their due contribution to the exchequer. Only then will the government have the independence to make decisions that are not forced on it by IMF dictates.
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  #23  
Old Friday, December 03, 2010
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An unstable power triangle

December 3rd, 2010


According to the latest batch of WikiLeaks cables, the triangle of power in Pakistan remains unstable because the man who actually runs the country, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, trusts Asif Ali Zardari and dislikes Nawaz Sharif. The writer of the cable, Ambassador Anne Patterson — who must be happy she is no longer posted in Islamabad — also notes that the general cannot afford to be seen being too cosy with Zardari because of his unpopularity (20 per cent public approval as against 80 per cent for Nawaz Sharif) and that Zardari fears he could be ousted by the army.

There was a time when Pakistan — wrongly — thought that a triangle of power in Islamabad ensured stability. The president under Article 58(2)(b), plus the army chief on one side and the prime minister on the other, was the three-way distribution of power that was supposed to preclude the imposition of martial law in the 1990s. What happened was a sad series of topplings in which the president repeatedly ganged up with the army chief to dismiss elected governments under the dreaded article. The decade turned out to be the most disastrous in the country’s history, a truth that was realised by two repentant mainstream parties when they wrote up the Charter of Democracy in 2006.

The Pavlovian reflex, however, is at work again, but this time the triangle is: the PPP in power at the centre, the PML-N in Punjab and the army chief in GHQ in Rawalpindi. What has the army experienced at the hands of the two parties? The GHQ has always thought that the PPP was too liberal and therefore not sincere to the country’s religious ideology; it was also not outspokenly against India and therefore not sincere to its anti-India strategy. It had to live down the memory of its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, humiliating an already defeated army in 1971 when he arrested its top brass. On the other hand, the GHQ, formerly affectionate towards General Zia’s protégé politician Nawaz Sharif, had to bear the shock of the rightwing leader’s firing of two army chiefs, Jahangir Karamat and Pervez Musharraf, one after the other.

Can one say that the GHQ has learned to fear Nawaz Sharif and that the PPP has learned to fear the GHQ? Actually, that is what the triangle looks like, which the WikiLeaks have confirmed. Nawaz Sharif is not properly a ‘national leader’ because his party has a weak showing in Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; but he is the unquestioned leader of Punjab, which is over two-thirds of the population of the country, and the guardian of Pakistan’s India-centric nationalism. The paradox is that his worldview is closer to that of the army and his view of the war against terrorism affirms the scepticism with which the army views a pro-India American strategy in the region. His party thinks that the war against terrorism is not Pakistan’s war; and the army should normally go along with this posture because of its relationship with the Haqqani Group in North Waziristan.

General Kayani has interpreted the political situation right from the point of his force. He finds comfort in Nawaz Sharif’s views on foreign policy but would prefer to work with a PPP government which is weak at the centre and scared of the army. Yet, by increasingly distancing himself from the Charter of Democracy and talking of a mid-term change of government, Nawaz Sharif may be firming up his position within an increasingly outspoken second rung leadership in his party. But by so doing he is strengthening the clout of the army vis-à-vis the PPP government. The army chief indicates his approval of this strategy by allowing Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to meet him. It is normally accepted in Pakistan that Nawaz Sharif is popular in the Punjabi-dominated army while Zardari is not. The army watches TV channels and knows how unpopular Zardari is among the people; hence, General Kayani’s intervention in the judicial crisis in 2009 and his rejection of the Kerry-Lugar Bill later on.

That the army chief actually sought to strengthen his position further in Islamabad is proved by the WikiLeaks revelation that he thought of having ANP chief Asfandyar Wali as president of Pakistan. Had that happened, Mr Wali would have been presiding impotently over a government formed by another party with a majority in the National Assembly. He must have sensed that a figurehead president holding the post of the chief of the majority party would actually be dictatorial, despite the removal of chief executive powers from him. Since this did not happen, the chief had to fall back on the ‘fear’ that characterises the triangle: the PPP has been putty in his hands in the realm of foreign policy and has no interest in asserting itself, vis-à-vis India at the cost of getting toppled before its term. That he consorts with an unpopular and perceived corrupt party cannot but give him moments of anxiety.

The triangle of power in Pakistan remains essentially unstable simply because it is unnatural for a democracy to sustain this kind of arrangement. One may ask whose fault is that, and here the answer would have to be the army, with its multiple interventions and violations of the constitution in taking over power. A ‘pragmatic’ Zardari can get America to support Pakistan economically more willingly by expressing his hatred of the Taliban and al Qaeda in lockstep with the MQM and the ANP; he can normalise relations with India, rapidly ignoring the slow progress made by the dialogue process started by General Musharraf. On the other hand, a ‘principled’ Nawaz Sharif will move slowly on both these fronts despite his undimmed memory of inviting Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee to Lahore for a patch-up that the then army chief did not like. That is why the UAE ruler has had to define the two by saying that whereas Nawaz Sharif is clean, he remains “dangerous” (for America) Zardari is not clean but he is “good” (for America).

What is needed is for the army to abide by its constitutionally-defined role, and that should be to guard the country’s borders and not get into the business of determining who will win the next election and become prime minister or president. As for civilian leaders, they must learn to be pragmatic and develop the kind of suppleness of approach needed to avoid being internationally isolated.
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Old Saturday, December 04, 2010
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The truth about drone attacks

December 4th, 2010


General (retd) Pervez Musharraf has finally admitted that he had allowed “the US to carry out drone surveillance inside Pakistan’s territory”. Had he gone on record earlier when he allowed public opinion to build up against these attacks by the Americans, he would have appeared more credible today. His effort to minimise the blame by saying that his permission was restricted to ‘surveillance’ — and that too for the benefit of Pakistan forces — is greatly suspect.

He says: “We wanted intelligence; we wanted them [the US] to locate targets. It was only a general kind of carpet agreement with the US, and surveillance was allowed on a case-to-case basis. Once we located the targets, we would decide on the method of striking either by helicopter gunship… or some other way. But that was a decision which was left to us.” And when the drone attacks did not abide by this ‘carpet agreement’ (sic) what did the general do, given the public furore against the attacks in Pakistan?

The present government knew that Musharraf had agreed with the drone option. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani says “the previous government” had given permission for “reconnaissance and surveillance flights by spy planes, but never for attacks”. Yet a member of his own cabinet and the allies in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa kept verbalising their approval of the attacks because they took out the leadership of the terrorists killing innocent Pakistanis. Only in October this year the PPP government, along with its allies, changed its stance on drones and began opposing them.

The American reaction has been a kind of policy double-take. The top officials kept on hinting that the drones were flying from Pakistani soil (photographic proof of this was provided in a report published in a Pakistani newspaper in Feb 2009) and attacking with the approval of the government. The statements were muffled and aimed at not embarrassing a government insisting on denial; also, there was the delicate matter of sparing the current army chief who was a part of the set-up that approved — partially or completely — the drone attacks under Musharraf.

If one believes the Pakistani side, the Americans violated the agreement which was that only Pakistan would act on the “location information” of the targets and not the former. That also means that the drones would not carry missiles but only the apparatus that identifies targets. The truth is that the drones too relied on information and tagging from the ground before they could fire their precision missiles. It is difficult to grasp how the Pakistan Army could benefit from the surveillance done without possessing the drone aircraft.

The media has turned against the drones and the Americans have gradually become vilified as allies that violated the sovereignty of the country they were supposed to help. Political parties like the Tehreek-i-Insaaf actually pegged their campaigns on the collateral damage they inflicted on the innocent inhabitants of the Tribal Areas. Is this is a mechanism devised to get out of a commitment that Musharraf had made? The government has now conveyed to the US that drone attacks are not acceptable. The Americans thought they had a clear mandate from Pakistan to use the drones but now the situation has changed. The Pakistanis want the attacks to stop and with the Americans thinking of leaving Afghanistan, the drones are assuming an increasingly greater strategic importance.

Pakistan is on a weak wicket because of its lack of control over areas from where ground attacks inside Afghanistan are being carried out. Moreover, some of the Pakistani territory being attacked by the drones is occupied by non-Pakistani foreigners over whom the Pakistani state has no control over (or it is not willing to exercise it).

Pakistan has to either keep quiet or challenge the American claim that a clear mandate for drone attacks was given. Keeping quiet would be advisable if the former doesn’t want a crisis in its relations with the US. When a decision to defy the American action is taken it will have to be carefully weighed who needs the other more, especially given the fact that many analysts think that America needs Pakistan more than vice versa.


The power of information

December 4th, 2010


Some people, through time, take a leap into the pages of history. The Australian founder of WikiLeaks has done just this, becoming, within months, one of the best known figures around the world — and one of the men most wanted by Interpol. He and his lawyer now say he also faces death threats, which stem from the thousands of documents leaked by the website. It is becoming harder and harder to ascertain truth and falsehood in the case of the WikiLeaks, but certainly it is conceivable that Assange has faced very real threats. There will, after all, be many who are infuriated by the revelations contained in the documents that have shaken the world almost as much as a terrorist attack or other event of such magnitude. In fact, calls have been made, primarily in the US, for WikiLeaks to be treated like a terrorist group. Assange and his lawyers also cite Swedish rape and molestation charges against him as an act of blatant persecution. The somewhat eccentric Assange has been in hiding since the latest set of documents appeared on the WikiLeaks site.

The questions of where the death threats may be emanating from open up all kinds of possibilities. There are so many around the world infuriated by the leaks that it is impossible to pick candidates. The documents from the US describing Russia as a ‘mafia’ state or a Saudi king criticising President Zardari have created their own furore. These are two of many examples. WikiLeaks has, in the past, been accused of endangering lives. But for some powerful figures around the world, public embarrassment may be reason enough to consider putting an end to the source or extracting revenge of the crudest kind (especially since this is the second time this is happening). Assange and his lawyer clearly believe this is the case. The death threats, if anything, further highlight the power of information, the astounding impact it can have and the manner in which it can shake up things even in countries which insist they respect the right of people to know the truth and the right for information to be circulated. For now, the WikiLeaks saga continues and we do not know how it will all end or if this is the last time it will create such controversy.
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Old Sunday, December 05, 2010
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A clergy above the law

December 5th, 2010


A cleric in Peshawar has offered Rs500,000 to anyone who will kill a Christian brick-kiln labourer, Aasia Bibi, sentenced to death for blasphemy by a district court. Maulana Yousaf Qureshi of Peshawar’s famous Mahabat Khan Mosque is outraged that some people are talking of letting the accused go free and repealing or amending or procedurally correcting the law that has terrorised minorities in Pakistan and has become a global index of intolerance of the Pakistani state.

It is a measure of the fanatic excess of the said Yousaf Qureshi that he should encourage all citizens to kill with the blandishment of money, reducing Muslims to paid killers while the process of law is unfolding in the case of Aasia Bibi. Confirming fears that some Pakistani clergy is interfacing with terrorists, he has called on the “mujahideen and Taliban” to kill her, probably knowing that the ferocious terrorist of Bajaur, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, had already made a statement to that effect earlier.

Maulana Qureshi belongs to the Deobandi seminary of Jamia Ashrafia that arose as one of the powerful sectarian madrassas under the patronage of General Zia in the 1980s, even issuing a fatwa against the Shia during the rise of Sipah-e-Sahaba in the country. Qureshi says: “No president, no parliament and no government has the right to interfere in the tenets of Islam.” But the fact is that it is parliament that has made the law, and since parliament is subject to human folly it is equally subject to correction.

What is wrong with the blasphemy law? Simply, it does not accord with the idea of universal justice in so far as it places the burden of proof on the accused. The part of Article 295-C most prone to misuse is where it says that the offender shall be punished if he insults the sacred name of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) “by words either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly”. The official interpretation of the Article lays down further that insult offered to any of the Prophets mentioned in the Holy Quran would also attract the death penalty.

In the case of Aasia Bibi, mitigation was present but was not allowed. The Christian woman was extremely poor, possessed minimal consciousness, and not literate enough to understand what was happening to her. A higher court may soon decide that mitigation was present but was ignored by the district court for various reasons. In many past cases, the lower courts were seen to be under pressure from extremist clerics present inside and outside the court. No one has ever been hanged for blasphemy in Pakistan. Judicially speaking, no one has committed blasphemy in Pakistan since the coming into force of this law. But innocent people have been made to suffer.

A ‘larger bench’ of the Lahore High Court in 2002 observed that “blasphemy cases had increased in recent times and were increasingly defective in evidence.” The court asked the police to get blasphemy investigated by at least two gazetted officers, to prevent the lowly functionaries of the police station, like the ‘muharrir’, to register a blasphemy case.

Nothing has changed since 2002 except that the power of the clergy in the face of a weakened state has increased. Terrorism has weakened the writ of the state and the vulnerable sections of the population are at the mercy of those who would use Islam to satisfy their urge to use violence. Not always conscious of the reasons behind the weakening of the state, we often point to the rise of extremism in the country. Extremism cannot take root unless the state that dispenses justice is weak.

And why has the state become weak? Because it has allowed multiple centres of power to emerge through the practice of proxy jihad. The state was attracted to the use of non-state actors because its nationalism mandated it to fight unequal enemies. Wiser ways of overcoming the superior enemy, like making rapid progress in education and achieving high economic development, were ignored by an establishment dominated by military thinking. One can only hope that this will change soon.


Shooting the messenger

December 5th, 2010


Given the sheer number of disclosures, both embarrassing for Pakistan’s leaders and damaging to its policy, it is no surprise that the cabinet’s defence committee has denounced WikiLeaks’ publication of American diplomatic cables. But the strategy the defence committee has chosen to take is illogical. It is to be expected that the revelations contained in the cables would be denied but the committee went a step too far in describing WikiLeaks and its activities as a conspiracy against Pakistan. Although only a small percentage of the over a quarter of a million cables have been released thus far, few countries have been spared embarrassment. If the WikiLeaks document dump is a conspiracy, it is one that has no obvious beneficiary.

Right now, Pakistan needs to worry less about who is behind WikiLeaks and concentrate on dealing both with the public-relations fallout of the leaks and, more substantively, fixing the governance issues that have been brought to the fore by the cables. It has always been an open secret that the military acts as a puppet-master, pulling the strings of democratic governments to ensure its interests and ideology is advanced. Only now do we have confirmation, though, of just how tenuous the hold of democracy in the country really is. Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani saw no problem in speculating about removing the president and installing his preferred prime minister. Such blatant interference is intolerable and, because it took place behind a veil of secrecy, more insidious even than direct military takeovers. Instead of condemning WikiLeaks, the government should be thankful that it brought military meddling to the fore. Now that the citizenry has some idea of the extent of army control of the democratic process, there is a chance that there will be a push-back against the men in uniform.

President Asif Zardari and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif will surely be upset that the extent of their unpopularity throughout the diplomatic world is now available for public consumption. Both need to resist the urge to scapegoat WikiLeaks for shredding their reputations. Instead, they need a bout of soul-searching to try and figure out just how their names and the collective reputation of the country has plummeted so much. The fault, the government needs to realise, lies not in WikiLeaks but in ourselves.
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Stop being petty, Delhi

December 6th, 2010


The Indian government’s recent actions regarding Pakistani trade are somewhat confusing. On the one hand is the Indian high commissioner’s speech in Lahore earlier this week where he advocated an expansion of trade ties between India and Pakistan, suggesting that a full-blown effort at regional economic integration be undertaken in South Asia. On the other hand, the Indian government has been lobbying the World Trade Organisation to block the European Union’s (EU) move to grant concessionary trade access to Pakistan. Is India for free trade access for Pakistani goods or against it? It seems difficult to tell.

The reality is that India fears that even temporary preferential access to the European market will give Pakistani goods a competitive advantage over Indian goods and possibly reduce some of the trade between India and the EU. Yet it seems quite unreasonable to argue that since the industries most likely to benefit from the trade agreement are not located in the flood-affected areas, the agreement should be nullified. The Pakistani economy as a whole will benefit from trade access to European markets and the overall prosperity is in the benefit of flood victims, especially since India realises that the EU is not like to give any cash handout out of the fear that it will likely be squandered on corrupt or inefficient aid projects.

Getting the EU to grant preferential trade access in lieu of aid to the flood victims has been one of the few policy successes of the Gilani administration as a response to the flood. To have that taken away due to a grudge held by the Indian government would be unfortunate indeed. India has aspirations to become a regional or even global power. New Delhi would do well to realise that it is often incumbent upon larger states to show magnanimity towards their smaller neighbours. Or, at the very least, not be quite so openly petty.


Reign of terror

December 6th, 2010


The kind of terror the Taiban unleashed in Swat during their rule is now beginning to come forward in its entirety. Perhaps this is because terrorised people are finally finding the courage to speak out about their ordeal, as they gain confidence that the reign of militants in the valley is truly over.

Following the accounts of the public flogging of two other women — including Chand Bibi, the young woman whose beating by bearded men was captured on camera and shook the world — a third woman, Mairaj Bibi, has told of being beaten by militants in 2008 in front of her father-in-law and eight year old son. An attempt seems to have been made to force her to confess to illicit relations with her father-in-law. Initial suggestions focus around the possibility of family rivalry and revenge extracted by those who had power at the time.

This fits in with other accounts of Taliban rule. Far from being driven by any kind of religious zeal, the militants seem to have been driven by a lust for power and many of their worst atrocities seem to be a means to settle small scores. The arming of thousands of young men by the Taliban offered them the opportunity to do so with no one to stop them. The accounts coming forward, such as those from Mairaj Bibi, appear to confirm this. There is no other way to explain what happened to her. The phenomenon of the Taliban needs to be studied in this light and exposed before people.

There is another aspect to all this. It is so far unclear if any of those involved have been put on trial or penalised. This needs to happen. Extra-judicial killings and other kinds of abuses we have heard of in Swat are no answer. They only worsen matters. We need a fair process of justice so that some of what went wrong in Swat can be undone.


Smoother sailing?

December 6th, 2010


The Judicial Commission has begun the process of making recommendations for filling vacant slots in the superior judiciary. These include 32 judges to the high courts who had been granted an extension to avoid a crisis while debate raged on over the method of filling seats as well as the chief justice of the Islamabad High Court. The process will take some time, given that a long list of names is to be considered and debated with the chief justices of the high courts also set to attend the meeting, as will the attorney general and law minister as members of the judicial commission.

The list of names, once finalised, will be passed on to the parliamentary committee for approval as laid down under the 18th Amendment. For all the uproar that surrounded the matter, it seems things may work out quite well after all. For now, the storm that had hit the high seas and threatened to do a great deal of damage to the system seems to have died down. For this, the Supreme Court deserves credit. Its judgement in the matter was wise and respectful of the constitutional role of institutions. We hope this degree of maturity can continue and be expanded. We have suffered many times due to a fearful clash between institutions. This must not happen again. It is hoped that parliament will act with the kind of intelligence that can make individuals aware that the interests of the nation come above all else. The process of appointing judges is an important one. We need our courts to work efficiently and prudently but we also need a sense of stability, not just for the political front but also for the sake of our economy.

Over the past months, there has been much talk of a threat to the system. Problems between the judiciary and the parliament highlighted this. The key issue of the appointment of judges stood at the nucleus of the whole matter. It seems things may be working as per the requisites of the law. We must hope then that all institutions are ready to play their role. The appointment of judges is a test case. Let us hope all goes according to the requirements laid down in law and nothing is done to churn up calm waters.
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The politics of dharnas

December 7th, 2010


Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami Dr Munawar Hasan moved his party another step forward in the pursuit of his rejectionist politics when he addressed what he called a dharna in front of parliament on Constitutional Avenue in Islamabad on December 5. The roster of his disaffection from the present order under the PPP coalition was already familiar: enslavement of the country to the US; pursuit of unjust war against elements fighting against the Americans; the perfidy of allowing America to carry out drone attacks; and rampant corruption under the PPP government.

As he asked army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani directly not to agree to the American demand of attacking North Waziristan, the past and present Jamaat leaders were at his side, including the inventor of dharna politics former amir Qazi Hussain Ahmed. Dr Munawar Hasan is the stormy petrel of national politics, believing in intensifying the Jamaat’s politics of rejection rather than toning it down. The argument behind this radical agenda is that politics of the status quo has run its course, at least for the Jamaat, and now only a promise of revolution will bring back votes absorbed by other rightwing parties, led by the PML-N.

The biggest strain borne by the Jamaat came from the ‘deal’ the ruling MMA made with General Musharraf when Qazi Hussain Ahmed was its leader. The deal resulted in the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment which gave legal cover to the general to carry on ruling the country. The ‘deal’ caused internal rifts and the MMA — which failed to protect its Shia component from terrorists — began to crack, losing the 2008 election and bisecting on the lines of Jamaat-JUI politics. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) is in the government, playing a complex game of compromises; the Jamaat, with Qazi Hussain Ahmed gone, has Dr Munawar Hasan carrying the banner of an aggressive agenda in contrast to the JUI-F.

Dr Hasan has many likeminded small-party leaders. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf has been playing close to the Jamaat line, but Mr Khan was conspicuous by his absence at the Islamabad dharna. More dharna sessions have been announced, but will the politics of extremes win the day? Or will the politics of flexibility of JUI-F reap greater advantage for its considerable vote-bank which is larger than the Jamaat’s? Unfortunately, neither Imran Khan nor Dr Hasan will make much headway in Punjab where the former is looking for PML-N votes and the latter is hoping to recover the votes the Jamaat has lost to Mr Nawaz Sharif. The rise of the Tehreek-i-Insaf Party in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa may in fact damage Jamaat and JUI-F both.

Aggressive agendas are an enemy of the sophistication needed by political parties under democracy. Aggression needs forceful articulation and that is impossible without an outpouring of rage at the status quo. Only two leaders in the political arena are indulging in the politics of rage: Dr Hasan and Imran Khan. Most analysts think that the voting population, while being aroused by expressions of rage, are also scared of conflict and destruction as agents of change. Elections symbolise gradual evolution, not revolutionary uprooting of the system. Such analysis is reaching Imran Khan but Dr Hasan is insulated against it because of the continuity of the party line adopted by Qazi Hussain Ahmed whose personal style, however, was less aggressive.

The Jamaat is countered effectively by the rise of ethnic politics in Karachi; in Punjab, the PML-N is firmly in place, strengthened by its new contacts with Jamaatud Dawa and Sipah-e-Sahaba. On the other hand, a less ‘ghairatmand’ (honourable) but more flexible and sophisticated Maulana Fazlur Rehman is shoring up the internal strength of his Pashtun-dominated JUI-F by being in the ruling coalition, deftly placing his man at the head of the Council of Islamic Ideology. The Jamaat may be pleased to hear an octogenarian Roedad Khan delivering his usual philippic against the PPP government at the dharna, but Roedad Khan will help little in enhancing the Jamaat’s profile in national politics. The government was wise in its decision to give the ‘dharna’ a wide berth.


Blasphemy law saga

December 7th, 2010


The saga of Pakistan’s blasphemy law continues. Hearing a petition from a citizen challenging parliamentary moves to amend a law that has inflicted suffering on hundreds, the Lahore High Court has directed that the blasphemy law not be amended until a final ruling is made in the controversial case of Aasia Bibi — the 45-year-old mother of five who faces a death sentence on charges of alleged blasphemy. PPP member Sherry Rehman had planned to move a private members bill seeking changes in blasphemy laws while such amendments are said also to have support from other members of the party.

At the end of last month, the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court had issued an order preventing a presidential pardon for the victim of the latest blasphemy charge following indications from President Asif Ali Zardari that this was being considered. This move had been condemned by the president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association as well as by human rights activists.

The case of Aasia Bibi exposes the rift lines that run through our society. On the one hand, we have clerics baying for blood and even setting a price for the killing of the woman, while on the other we have those demanding an end to the misuse of the blasphemy law. This, of course, is not to suggest there should be any lack of respect for the religious sentiments of people and the fact of the matter is that the existing law, notably over the past two decades, has been used more often to victimise rivals or settle personal scores. It has also been a long-standing demand of minority groups that their sentiments be protected. It is vital that justice be done in this matter. Several government functionaries, including the Punjab governor, have said on record that the woman has been wrongly accused and convicted. The courts, parliament and other institutions must make this a key priority and do what they can to ensure that laws likely to be used as a means to harass the vulnerable or which add to the extremist trends that run through our society do not remain on statute books.
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WikiLeaks damage control

December 8th, 2010


Those who think the WikiLeaks were manufactured by the US to embarrass and defame certain individuals should take a look at the extent to which the US administration is going to take them off the internet. WikiLeaks.org is under attack from all directions. Those who have collaborated with the government include book-selling Amazon which has removed WikiLeaks from its hosting services. But some, like server DynaDot, are under pressure to do likewise. As a result the WikiLeaks.org web address is no longer functioning after an American internet company pulled the plug on the site.

Servers who removed WikiLeaks offered the excuse that they were under severe attack by hackers which endangered websites other than WikiLeaks, forcing them to remove the secret cables. Among other domain hosting companies, Octopuce in France had to remove WikiLeaks after being served a warning by the French government that said that it is unacceptable for a criminal site to be hosted in the country. Relying on a law that bans ‘criminal’ websites, the French industry minister wrote to the body governing internet use, warning that there would be consequences for any company or organisation helping to keep WikiLeaks online in the country.

So WikiLeaks has been inaccessable except through one Swiss domain. Julian Assange — the WikiLeaks founder who was arrested by British police on December 7 on a European warrant issued by Sweden — knows the American government and its collaborators are on a weak moral and legal ground and has struck back saying that the state has privatised censorship to avoid opprobrium: “These attacks will not stop our mission, but should be setting off alarm bells about the rule of law in theUS.” French company OVH, which hosts WikiLeaks, has warned it will consult lawyers to take on the French government, asking the court whether the government has the right to close down Octopuce.

WikiLeaks have done a lot of damage to America’s relations with friendly and unfriendly states alike; and the effort clearly is to foreclose on the leaks that are in the pipeline, some of them relating to nuclear weapons and, therefore, even more dangerous. American action is bound to meet a backlash from within America but the administration would be willing to weather that storm when it comes.

Damage control will, at best, be partial and its success will be judged against secrets that will not be put out for public consumption. Much also depends on how Mr Assange has arranged the storehouse of information in his possession. The leaks can surface again after some time; they are bound to resurface in the long run in any case. The damage done has been considerable, threatening the superpower’s diplomacy in the coming days. Always taking advantage of internal fissures in host countries, American diplomats gleaned crucial information from threatened politicians, pretending to help but practically deepening the rifts.

What has been revealed may not be as damaging to the US as to the leaders reported upon. In the case of Pakistan, it has brought into open the confusion of lack of trust among major players, especially three central figures: the army chief, the government and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Politics in Pakistan is a like a jungle where political instincts are centred on the survival of one at the cost of another. Among all kinds of ‘deficits’ in Pakistan, the one that should bother all citizens while facing the onslaught of a formidable al Qaeda is the deficit of trust in the basic tenets of the state.

What may be even more off-putting is the similarity between the conditions in Pakistan and those obtained in Afghanistan. The Americans are supporting President Karzai while talking about his corruption behind closed doors — now doors unlocked by WikiLeaks — and President Karzai leans on friends within Afghanistan who don’t really love him as their leader. This damage will not be controlled easily.


Tall talk

December 8th, 2010


Former president Musharraf has clearly changed, at least to some degree, following his years away from home. He appears to be, judging from an interview to this paper which was done in Dubai, calmer, and perhaps somewhat more subdued, than before. The manner in which he has gone about launching his party has been organised and, for the most part, principled. Besides, it is good that the retired general is going about the whole thing through the correct approach in that he has formed a political party and is canvassing for support.

That said, there are some things that have not changed at all. For instance, the former president still does not accept the extent to which his era gave rise to a great many of the problems we face today. Blaming his downfall on a breakdown in law and order, and holding the police chiefly responsible for this, does not really tell the whole story. His belief that he could be re-elected also seems just a trifle naïve. He has, however, had the grace to accept that the NRO was a mistake. His assessment that a breakthrough with India was close at hand also indicates the right intentions, though we cannot really be sure how realistic his analysis is.

In other respects, the ex-dictator has followed the patterns of the past. He has lashed out against civilian politicians and the politics of vendetta. It is precisely this kind of contempt for leaders chosen by people that has damaged our system in the past and prevented democracy from thriving. The fact that it continues demonstrates that the retired general still has a lot to learn. He should start thinking about these factors now. If he wishes to become a part of the democratic system, to seek the votes of people and to move to a tune not played out by the military, he must also demonstrate respect for all other players within it. These include the popular leaders he has so often denounced. The fact is, however, that they have been put at the posts they hold solely on the basis of the will of the people and Musharraf will need to realise that winning this kind of respect is a task that involves a great many factors. His party is yet to prove it possesses them.
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Death of a diplomat

December 16th, 2010


It is considered bad form to speak ill of the recently departed and, truth be told, there is much to admire about US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who died on December 13. Over a five-decade long career, he helped broker the Dayton Accords that ended one of the Balkans’ intractable wars and established the state of Bosnia, worked for full diplomatic recognition of China and always spoke out for peace over force.

Holbrooke’s final assignment was probably his most difficult. As US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, a tumultuous region if ever there was one, he was responsible for convincing Afghan President Karzai to step up as the US slowly drew down its forces. He was also working with Pakistan to ensure the fight against militants was stepped up. It was here that Holbrooke’s famed penchant for bureaucratic infighting served him ill. Instead of treating this perilous assignment with delicacy, he was like the proverbial bull in a china shop. He could be as harsh on his country’s own failings as he was on others, describing US aerial bombing of Afghan poppy fields as “the single most ineffective programme in the history of American foreign policy.” His abrasive style didn’t make him many friends in this region and his importance was supplanted when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton edged Holbrooke out and took a more direct approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That Holbrooke was not entirely successful in his final mission was not for want of trying. One newspaper last year said, only half-jokingly, that Holbrooke spent more time in Pakistan than President Asif Ali Zardari. And he did win some significant victories in his complex, intractable task. Holbrooke was among those who convinced the Obama administration to distinguish between al Qaeda and the Taliban and to bring the latter to the negotiating table with Karzai.

Richard Holbrooke was a realist, one who understood the need for an exit strategy, who knew Pakistan’s problems were too complex to be solved at once and who tried to bring accountability to the oodles of aid coming Pakistan’s way. After the simplistic militarism of the Bush administration, Richard Holbrooke’s diplomacy was a welcome change.
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Violence in Muharram

December 17th, 2010


The month of Muharram that once brought Muslims of all religious denominations together under the symbolic flag of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom, has become a season of violence. This year, the government is spending billions of rupees cordoning off imambargahs and procession routes with the help of the police and rangers to protect the Shia community.

Last year, Ashura processions were attacked in many cities, including Lahore, where such incidents had been unknown. Karachi saw people dying from suicide bombings twice, once on the occasion of Ashura and the second time on the occasion of Chaliswan (the fortieth day of Martyrdom). The cities that lie along the road that goes from Peshawar to Kurram Agency were always under threat because of the Sunni-Shia admixture there and the persisting parallel writ of the Taliban over them.

Quetta in Balochistan, where the Hazara-Shia community is ghettoised and therefore easy to target, is once again tense as the much-weakened provincial government ensures safety to the processionists of Imam Hussain. Much violence has occurred there and in the Shia-majority areas of Parachinar in Kurram Agency and in Gilgit–Baltistan. Parachinar has been cut off from the rest of Pakistan for the past two to three years because the Tehreek-i-Taliban, and particularly Hakeemullah Mehsud, have been killing people on the basis of sect for the past decade.

Why has Muharram become such a season of tragedies for us? The people of Pakistan are not fired by sectarian hatred. Wherever there is no clerical or terrorist coercion, they coexist happily and, not so far back in the past, used to intermarry as well. Scholars who have investigated the closing of the Pakistani mind agree that Pakistan’s sectarian war is a relocated conflict and is a radiation from the fire that was lit in the Middle East and the Gulf when Arab leadership passed from secular leaders to religious ones, and Iran arose as the champion of the scattered Shia communities in the region.

One can date the participation of the state in sectarianism under General Zia in this relocated war. He got the Zakat Ordinance promulgated in 1980 and wrongly applied it to the Shia on the advice — and draft of the law itself — of an Arab jurist sent to Islamabad by Saudi Arabia. In 1987, General Zia allowed the mujahideen fighting the war against the Soviet Union to attack two Shia strongholds, Kurram and Gilgit-Baltistan. In the 1980s, Maulana Manzur Numani of a famous Lucknow madrassa was paid by Rabita al-Alam-e-Islami to get fatwas of Shia apostatisation issued from the madrassas of Pakistan. Numani wrote a book Khumaini aur Shia kay barah mein Ulama-e-Karam ka Mutafiqqa Faisala (Consensual Resolution of the Clerical Leaders about Khomeini and Shiism) and this was widely circulated in Pakistan. The Iraq-Iran war poisoned minds in the region, and organisations linked to jihad began carrying out punishments in light of these fatwas. In 2003, when the Shia Hazaras were massacred in Quetta it was revealed that the fatwas from the major Deobandi seminaries were in circulation in the city before the massacre, but no one took notice. In fact, the Hazaras later put the fatwas on their website straight from the 1988 collection of Manzur Numani, but again the jihad-weakened state took no notice.

There are two ways the state will ‘exclude’ its unfavoured communities. One is by apostatising the identity of a community it thinks deviant; the other by intensifying the identity of the majority community. Both these processes have been resorted to. The Shia have responded by retreating into the non-consensual (with Sunnis) aspects of their religion and fear losing everything if they don’t do this. This conflict is at times bilateral but in most cases it is unilateral, with terrorists killing innocent Shias. But Karachi, more than any other city, has the potential of being the largest and most fearsome arena of this battle.

WikiLeaks has revealed that the region of origin of this conflict is still embroiled in sectarian politics. As Iran moves towards its nuclear objectives, the ‘relocated war’ of Pakistan will move up the graph of intensity. And the state in Pakistan is too weak to look after its people.


Deadly doings

December 17th, 2010


Pakistan’s occupation of places of ignominy on lists rating countries in various spheres is something we are accustomed to. But the evidence that we are adding to the areas in which we rank among the worst in the world is frightening. According to the annual report released by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Pakistan is now the deadliest nation in the world for journalists. The total numbers of journalists who were killed this year is 42, out of which eight were in Pakistan, the highest number in any one country. Suicide bombings and being caught in crossfire were largely blamed for the causes of these deaths. Iraq follows Pakistan in terms of numbers of casualties, with four journalists killed this year.

The statistic is an alarming one. It shows just how unsafe journalists are on the ground. Reporters, stringers and TV cameramen are among the most vulnerable, since the nature of their job requires them to be close to the action as it happens.

It is, of course, no coincidence that a number of those killed have died in tribal areas. It is here that conditions are most hazardous and media persons on the ground are most likely to be targeted by those involved in a conflict that has many complex dimensions. The death of so many journalists is, however, not entirely a matter of accident. It is also a fact that they receive too little protection from authorities whose duty it is to ensure they are able to carry out their work safely and without hindrance. In some cases, agencies and other groups linked to authorities have actually played a part in putting the lives of media professionals at risk.

Newspapers, TV channels and other media organisations need to consider the CPJ report carefully. In the first place, their employees need insurance. What is, however, even more crucial is to work to create a safer environment for journalists to perform their professional duties. Pakistan’s ranking as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists suggests the environment has changed rapidly for reporters. A new strategy needs to be worked out to keep them safe. The government and bodies representing working journalists and media organisations must work together to achieve this.
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