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  #1001  
Old Tuesday, October 29, 2013
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013


The Balochistan ferment

Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch is trying to be an honest broker at a time when everyone else is moving to the margins of extremism. The nationalist fervour in the province has increasingly curdled into separatism while the military and centre continue to be blind to the problems there. At a press conference in Karachi, Malik touted the upcoming provincial All-Parties Conference in December as an opportunity to hold a dialogue with the militant separatist groups and tackle issues such as forced abductions and the murder of Baloch activists. The chief minister tried to be the voice of reason and balance, pointing out that the military presence in the province was counterproductive even while admitting that FC personnel were needed since the police was not up to the task of maintaining law and order. Despite this, Malik seemed optimistic that he could negotiate a breakthrough, although he downplayed the challenges he is about to face. The separatist groups have made it clear that they do not trust negotiations and that armed conflict is their preferred tactic. They also rejected the very idea of holding and participating in elections as long as Balochistan is part of the federation. At the same time, these groups are increasingly turning to violence, as seen by the recent attack on the Rawalpindi-Quetta train and the targeting of army relief operations in Awaran.

The other side is no less intractable. The government, despite being grilled by the Supreme Court, has been unable to produce the vast majority of ‘missing’ people. Everyone also knows that the intelligence agencies are never held accountable for their actions, no matter how misguided or counterproductive they may be. The PML-N government has also taken an entirely wrong approach to dealing with the Balochistan problem. As the chief minister pointed out in his press conference, the problems the province faces are as much political as economic. Yet the government has only concentrated on the economic aspect, planning the development of the Gwadar port in a series of deals with the Chinese. Nawaz Sharif is obviously pinning his hopes on Gwadar causing an economic renaissance in Balochistan. As fanciful as that notion is, even if it comes to fruition, the main problem in the province is that most of its residents feel like they are denied a say in the use of its resources. The Gwadar port will only strengthen that fear and be seen as yet another in a long line of projects meant to steal resources like natural gas. No amount of APCs will be able to tackle that sense of deprivation until the Baloch have an actual say in and get a lion’s share of the development in the province.


Troubled wars

All our current political and economic issues pale in comparison to the catastrophe we face once we run out of water. Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif recognised this looming disaster when he said that while the power crisis may be solved, in another 15-20 years water will be the country’s biggest problem. He also claimed that the Indus Water Treaty, signed with India in 1960, does not give Pakistan a fair share of water. The minister has a point. While the treaty was a rare example of cooperation between the two countries which worked to the mutual benefit of both, it is now becoming increasingly archaic. The treaty does not account for the Sutlej, Chenab or Jhelum rivers drying up, as is slowly happening. It also allowed India to use water from these rivers for irrigation and power generation, a provision it has taken undue advantage of by pursuing hydroelectric dams that store water Pakistan now needs. In addition, the treaty needs to be updated to account for the reality of climate change and pollution. The shrinking of glaciers may reduce the flow of the rivers by as much as 10 percent over the next 30 years. It is not inconceivable to imagine the two countries fighting wars over water at that point.

Poor relations between Pakistan and India have also led to a decrease in the sharing of technical information on Indian power projects, which only fuels speculation that our share of the rivers is being stolen from us. Outraged rhetoric alone will do nothing to ease the coming water plight. What is needs is a renegotiation of the Indus Water Treaty – perhaps again with the help of international agencies – on the basis of current environmental realities. But that would require an appetite for compromise on both sides that is sadly lacking. In the current political climate, where India is in a permanent state of outrage over alleged firing incidents along the Line of Control, level-headed negotiations seem to be a non-starter. When neither side is willing to back down even an inch over Kashmir, there sadly seems to be no room for compromise over an existential issue like water. Both sides, by delaying action now, will invite an inevitable reckoning where the issue of water will be sorted out in a decidedly undiplomatic manner.
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  #1002  
Old Wednesday, October 30, 2013
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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Delayed haste

The Election Commission of Pakistan is preparing to take on two seemingly contradictory tasks. First, it has to comply with Supreme Court orders and hold local bodies elections as soon as possible. While doing this, it also has to ensure that the process of delimitation is done in a fair manner, ballots are printed speedily and staff is trained for free and fair polls. Despite expressing reservation that it can get all this done within the time frame ordered by the Supreme Court, the ECP announced that elections for Sindh would be held on November 27 and for Punjab and Balochistan on December 7. There are still some hurdles to overcome. The MQM wants to throw a spanner in the works and has filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging Sindh’s local government act. The party wants more powers to be delegated at the local level since it is sitting in the opposition in the Sindh Assembly and would like to better control its strongholds of Karachi and Hyderabad. The MQM petition is likely only to be an inconvenience but it does highlight just how many potential obstacles remain before local bodies polls can be held. The other outstanding problem is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the provincial government has yet to present a local bodies bill. The legislative process is likely to take a few weeks, making it all but impossible for the polls to be held in the province this year.

Even greater headaches await the ECP. It will have to print a minimum of 50 million ballots within the next month while keeping in mind that the ink used in the May general elections was often faulty and made it difficult for the identity of voters to be verified on ballot papers. All the problems faced with returning officers who used their position to impose a religious test for candidates may also recur since the ECP has not trained staff for the elections. The biggest issue will likely be with delimitation as political parties use their influence to carve out constituencies that will ensure the maximum number of seats for them. Hearing challenges and sorting out a fair method of delimitation will be a challenge. At a meeting on Tuesday, the ECP met with representatives from Nadra, the chief secretaries of the provinces, the finance and interior ministries and the Printing Corporation of Pakistan to set a detailed schedule for the polls. Holding ‘hasty’ elections is better than not holding elections at all but following this schedule will push the various government agencies to their limits. Whether they can pull it off is still an open question.


HEC paralysis

The Higher Education Commission, responsible for managing all aspects of the affairs of higher learning in the country, has been without a chairman since the term of former chairman Dr Javaid Laghari expired on August 26. The commission is essentially unable to function, highlighted by the fact that not much progress has been made in streamlining the educational affairs of Balochistan. The CM of that province had visited the HEC some months back, suggesting this be made a priority, so that the Baloch youth could be steered away from extremism. It was agreed that a task force would be formulated, but beyond this there has been little tangible progress.

It is clear that leaving such a critical office vacant for so long is not a good idea. The issue has now been raised before the Islamabad High Court. Decisions at the HEC are taken by its board, headed by its chairman, and affect institutions across the country. Needless to say, this delay is leading to many complications. There also seems to be an unfortunate element of ineptitude involved in the whole affair. It had been announced that Shams Kassim-Lakha, founder of the Aga Khan University, would be taking over as chairman from September 1, but he turned down the offer. It is hard to understand why this process could not be completed efficiently, smoothly and within the set time frame in the first place; it should never have been necessary to approach the court as one petitioner has now felt compelled to. We need to attach far greater priority to the affairs of our education system, given the state of almost-emergency in the education sector. We also need to see why it is that such matters – routine for the most part – become so complicated, holding us back and also exposing the rustiness of our administrative system. Right now, the HEC is urgently in need of a chairman. An all-out effort is required to put the right candidate in place, and end the paralysis that currently holds the HEC in its grip.


Fakery

A former bodyguard and ardent supporter of the PML-N’s Sumaira Malik was reportedly so stunned when he heard the Supreme Court verdict handing her a lifetime ban from public office for possessing a fake degree that he died of a heart attack. He needn’t have been quite that shocked. There was significant evidence to show that someone had taken examinations on Sumaira Malik’s behalf; her sister Ayla Malik of the PTI had also been disqualified for holding a fake degree. To top it all off, Malik’s husband was then serving as the additional secretary of schools and had been the official to attest her degree. The issue of fake degrees has now ensnared dozens of parliamentarians from all political parties. As Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has explained, those holding fraudulent degrees lower the prestige of parliament. Thus, even though degrees are no longer required as a qualification for election to the National Assembly, those who handed in bogus degrees in earlier elections are still guilty of deceiving the public and undermining the trust that has been placed on them by the voters.

There are many who would argue that fake degrees should no longer be an issue since the requirement was introduced by a military dictator and has since been rescinded. That, however, does not excuse the offenders who not only betrayed the public but are also guilty in many circumstances of various crimes such as forgery. What is on trial here is the integrity of people who have been entrusted with huge responsibilities. Sumaira Malik first presented her fake degree in 2002 and has been dishonest about it for the ensuing 11 years. She, and everyone else who stood for election with fake degrees, have clearly demonstrated that they are not to be trusted with the responsibilities of public office.
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  #1003  
Old Thursday, October 31, 2013
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Thursday, October 31, 2013


Nawaz in London

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s London trip to attend the World Islamic Economic Forum was dominated, as most of Pakistan’s international engagements seem to be, by questions of war and militancy. Media coverage of Nawaz’s trip was dominated by his meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at 10 Downing Street. Officially, Nawaz repeated what he has said many times before, including in his first meeting with Karzai in Islamabad: Pakistan does not intend to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and pick sides once Nato forces begin to withdraw from the country next year. As is always the case with such meetings, it is what may have been discussed off the record that will be more consequential. A report in The New York Times, which coincided with the trilateral meeting, revealed that the US had caught Afghan intelligence working with the TTP in an attempt to gain leverage over Pakistan. Since Karzai has cried himself hoarse over alleged Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban, perhaps he can now choose to be at least not so hypocritically public about his complaints in the future. For now his reconciliation efforts with the Afghan Taliban are going nowhere and he needs Pakistan’s help in allowing Mullah Baradar back into the country among other things. So for once we hold both the strategic and moral upper hand.

On the domestic front, Nawaz reiterated his commitment to holding peace talks with the Taliban but admitted that the process had been delayed by continued militant attacks. Although he said that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan was responsible for initiating dialogue, Nawaz did not give a time frame or any indication of what may be discussed with the TTP. With all this activity on the sidelines of the World Islamic Economic Forum, Nawaz’s speech to the forum itself didn’t draw as much attention, even though he had much of value to say. His speech was a coherent critique of the inequality that has become inherent to the modern capitalist system. He spoke of the inequality that exists not only between nations but also within those nations and called for a system of globalisation where the free movement of capital and goods would also be accompanied by the free movement of labour. Such words may not capture the world’s attention quite as much as our militancy problems, but the international community would do well to heed them.


Fact and feud

It took former Awami National Party leader Azam Hoti almost six months to deliver on his ‘threat’ to make ‘startling revelations’ against the top party leadership. What Hoti, expelled from the party earlier this year after lashing out at its chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, has alleged is that Wali, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president of the ANP, Afrasiab Khattak, took $35 million from the US, in a deal that also involved an Arab country, and ‘sold out’ the Pakhtuns. Hoti admits he has no proof and has failed to explain what the US sought in return for the handover of the greenbacks. These unexpected allegations could well be the manifestations of a decades-old family feud that has simmered between the Hotis and the Walis. It stems in part from the displeasure of Begum Nasim Wali Khan, Azam Hoti’s sister, over not being given control of the party after it re-emerged in the late 1970s following a ban placed by the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on the now defunct National Awami Party. Begum Wali Khan had also recently attacked the leadership abilities of her stepson, Asfandyar, and there have been rumours of an attempt to create a new ANP faction.

Complicating the situation is the fact that the ex-chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ameer Haider Hoti, Azam Hoti’s son and Asfandyar Wali’s maternal nephew, has defended Asfandyar Wali – distancing himself from the Hoti tirade. This goes in favour of the Wali camp, also quashing speculation that Azam Hoti had been trying to create a path to ANP leadership for his son – currently an MNA from Mardan. One piece of information that is missing – and which can be very interesting – is the position of the Bilours of Peshawar. On which side does the family stand? Family and politics tend to go together in our part of the world. The allegations of corruption against top ANP leaders appear to be a part of the troubles so often thrown up when any party tries to rebuild itself. The ANP is currently doing just that after its debacle in the May 2013 polls, with Asfandyar Wali attempting a process of reorganisation. The sudden storm whipped up by Azam Hoti obviously hinders things, but right now it seems that the main party leadership is ready to stand with Wali. The longer term political impact of this feud will be watched. While this controversy may well blow over, inevitably it will leave some damage behind. How much is something that for now is impossible to predict with the allegations made as yet not pinned down by anything that even resembles hard fact.
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  #1004  
Old Friday, November 01, 2013
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Friday, November 01, 2013


End of the line?

The Pak-Iran gas pipeline, long presented as the best hope for overcoming our energy crisis, now appears to be dead. And with this devastating development we need to bury all the loud talk, repeated promises, tall claims of sovereignty and freedom to take decisions in our national interest, especially coming from our old and new rulers. The writing had been on the wall for some time. The US was particularly vociferous in warning Pakistan against going through with the project and international sanctions against Iran made it difficult for us to raise the $2 billion needed to build our portion of the pipeline. We had earlier requested Iran to fund us in this endeavour but, now that their oil minister has said that the contract for supplying gas to Pakistan will likely be annulled, that means the certain end of the pipeline. Iran had already constructed the pipeline on their side of the border but the added expense of paying for Pakistan’s part of the pipeline and the fear that we would abandon the project under US pressure has forced the Iranians to take this drastic step. As recently as last week, Nawaz Sharif was making the case for the pipeline at international forums and vowing not to bow down to international pressure. But Pakistan’s past of meek subservience to the superpower obviously weighed heavy on Iran’s mind. Let us be clear though: that the pipeline will not be pursued is because of the US, which wants to isolate Iran for its nuclear programme.

Some doubts had recently been raised about the efficacy of the pipeline. One organisation, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), claimed that Iran would have sold gas to Pakistan at many times the price of domestic gas. This, according to the institute, would have spelled an economic disaster for the country. That did not necessarily have to be the case. The price of domestic gas is indeed quite low right now but that is only because the government heavily subsidises its use. As we begin to run out of gas, those subsidies are gradually being reduced and we will most likely be paying the market price of gas within a few years. The SDPI also ignored how quickly our gas supplies are being depleted. Moving away from gas is simply not an option for us after the Musharraf government made switching to CNG such a priority. Our gas addiction will have to be fed, and Iran was the best option for that. Now the only available alternative is the Tapi pipeline, which comes with an American seal of approval. Constructing the Tapi pipeline will be fraught with risk though since it will run through Taliban-infested parts of Afghanistan. Still, now that the US has scuttled the Iranian pipeline, we have been forced into a corner and left with no other choice.


Dark skies

From the US perspective, its drone campaign in the tribal areas has been a bloodless affair. Drones are operated in rooms far away from the action and any loss of live can be easily waved away because there are no dead bodies to confront. That may slowly be changing. Alan Grayson, a congressman from the Democratic Party, hosted nine-year-old Nabeela Rehman, her father and her elder brother at an event meant to show the human cost of this largely secret war. Rehman, whose grandmother was killed in a drone strike, spoke of the constant fear she and others in the tribal areas feel with the armed drones constantly hovering in the sky. In a particularly poignant moment, she drew a picture of what living under the constant glare of drones is like. Rehman’s testimony was the culmination of renewed focus on the morality and legality of drone strikes, a development that has finally reached American shores. The US can no longer claim that drone strikes are so precise that they kill only militants. Rehman spoke soon after a report from Amnesty International and anti-drone documentaries by Imran Khan’s ex-wife Jemima and independent journalist Madiha Tahir have received considerable attention for finally telling the stories of the oft-ignored citizens of the tribal areas. We may be witnessing the start of a shift in how drone attacks are discussed.

This changed focus in the drones debate is unlikely to affect US actions any time soon. Grayson’s event attracted only four other congresspersons, a sign that both parties in the US are still strongly in favour of drone attacks. Grayson’s statement that drone attacks could end if Pakistan stopped secretly supporting them also points out another problem. Either way, the attacks are still continuing, with another three people killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan on Thursday. The latest attack blew away all claims of a slowdown or suspension of the attacks after the prime minister’s US visit, notwithstanding the claims by spirited members of his small delegation. Pakistan is increasingly trying to have it both ways on drone attacks. The state condemns the attacks as a violation of its sovereignty but then undermines that condemnation, as the Ministry of Defence did when it told the Senate that only 67 civilians have been killed in drone strikes since 2008. That shockingly low number is contradicted by just about every independent organisation that has researched drone attacks. Pakistan may speak out against drones publicly but the authorities’ private actions are now shrouded in doubt, especially after memos leaked to The Washington Post showed that we were fully briefed on the attacks by the US. It has been too easy to say that innocents like Nabeela Rehman are the victims of US aggression. The truth is a bit murkier. Yes, the US deserves the lion’s share of the blame since they actually carry out the attacks but the Pakistani state’s implicit support indicts it too. Add to that the brutal Taliban presence in the region and you are left with civilians with no one to turn too. These civilians may finally have been given a voice but those in power seem intent on ignoring them.
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  #1005  
Old Saturday, November 02, 2013
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Saturday, November 02, 2013


The killing of Mehsud

The apparent death of TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone strike in Miramshah is sure to be seized upon by many as a turning point in the war against militancy. Such speculation may be premature until the ramifications of this killing become clearer. Hakeemullah has been pronounced dead three times before, in 2009, 2010 and 2012 but reappeared each time, although we can be reasonably confident this time that the group will soon have a new leader. It is already being reported that the TTP has now confirmed the death and has also appointed a new leader. The more important consideration is whether Hakeemullah’s death will end up changing anything. When Hakeemullah’s predecessor Baitullah Mehsud was taken out in a US drone strike, it had no discernible impact on the TTP’s ability to plan and carry out strikes. This, indeed, is what critics of drone strikes have pointed out all along. Targeting individuals brings scant advantage when dealing with a group with as many members as the TTP while the civilian cost of drone strikes only helps them recruit even more people to their cause. Add to that the question of sovereignty and you can see why the Foreign Office condemned the drone attack and will likely not take back that condemnation even though it will invite ridicule and scorn from those who support drone warfare.

One outcome of Hakeemullah’s death can be that it will spur a leadership battle within the TTP. In recent months, as the TTP fired its spokesman and also sidelined Muawiya, the leader of the Punjabi Taliban, we have seen that the TTP is not a unified entity so much as a loose coalition of militant groups with different aims and strategies. Should these groups be divided in the aftermath of Hakeemullah’s killing it could end up weakening the TTP. There is also certain to be a lot of confusion about the status of negotiations with the TTP now that the outfit doesn’t have a leader of Hakeemullah’s stature. Already the matter has been shrouded in some confusion with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif insisting that talks with the TTP have begun, something the militant group itself denied. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar had in fact announced just yesterday that a three-man delegation of negotiators will leave for initial contacts with the TTP today. After the drone strike he blamed Washington for sabotaging the peace talks. If the government is indeed serious about negotiations it should now capitalise on Hakeemullah’s killing and begin talks with those in the TTP who are as amenable to the idea of negotiations as he was. The security forces should also brace themselves for a wave of retaliatory attacks, as happened after Baitullah was killed. The US may have killed him but we will have to deal with what comes next. Only history will judge if Hakeemullah’s killing was a turning point in the war against militancy, but for now we should be prepared for the worst.


Go figure!

The question of how many people have been killed in terrorist attacks will always be open to interpretation depending on how the counting is done. The number of 40,000 dead has often been used, although this figure seems to also include the militants killed in military operations. Independent researchers have put the casualties at around 20,000, although even that estimation must be taken with a grain of salt since they tend to rely only on media reports that rarely follow up on how many of the injured later lost their lives. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has now waded into the debate after telling the Senate that 12,404 people have been killed in terrorist attacks since 2002. More controversially he claimed that only 191 people had been killed in terrorist attacks since June of this year. That assertion incensed Senator Zahid Khan of the ANP who rightfully pointed out that nearly a hundred people had been killed in the Peshawar church bombing alone and that these figures were obviously unreliable. Nisar’s haughty demeanour after being aggressively questioned precipitated a walkout from the opposition parties and the filing of a privilege motion against Nisar. That Nisar had also provided a figure of 281 people killed in response to another senator only goes to show how unreliable his data was.

Nisar tried to absolve himself of all responsibility for the figures by claiming that the numbers had been provided to him by the provincial governments. This attempt at excuse-making should not stand. The fight against terrorism is being led by the federal government and the military and so they should have accurate information about the damage being wrought by the militants. The government also has a role in paying compensation to those who have been injured and to the families of the dead. If it does not have accurate information on casualties how can the government be trusted to pay out this compensation? Nisar also did his credibility no good by asserting that only 67 civilians have been killed in drone attacks, with close to 97 percent of the fatalities being militants. Nisar’s counting bears no resemblance to the work done by independent organisations, which even in their most conservative estimates believe that civilian casualties are in the hundreds. According to reports, the Foreign Office has denied the veracity of these figures, making us wonder if there is even an iota of coordination between the different departments of this government even on matters as important and critical as this. The situation is ridiculous in the extreme. The interior minister, it seems, is part of a government effort to distance itself from criticism of drone attacks after it was reported that the government had always been briefed by the US on these attacks. Amnesty International had also pointed out that the government does not compensate victims of drone attacks nor does it provide them with any other kind of assistance. Lowballing the number of civilian deaths could be used as a way to justify their callous indifference. Either way, Nisar needs to return to the Senate and provide more detailed breakdowns of all casualties. A government that cannot even keep track of its innocent dead is not a government that can inspire any trust.
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  #1006  
Old Sunday, November 03, 2013
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Sunday, November 03, 2013


Karachi in focus

The Supreme Court’s long-running hearing into the law and order situation in Karachi continued this past week, but with a slightly changed focus. This time the bench, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, looked into the weapons-smuggling and drug-running culture in the city and questioned officials from the Customs, the Coast Guard and the Anti-Narcotics Force. Particular attention was paid to the 19,000 containers, many of them believed to have weapons and been part of Nato’s shipments for their war effort in Afghanistan, which went missing from the port. The various agencies responsible have been far from forthcoming on the issue, with some even claiming that the US does not transport its weapons through Karachi. The hearings showed that the agencies have no concrete plan to tackle the smuggling menace, with the chief justice remarking that government officials seem to be in on the business. The bench has ordered that a concerted effort be made to root out arms and drug smuggling, believing that solving just this issue will lead to a significant drop in violence. As welcome as the court’s efforts are, its orders will only be implemented if there is a change in the culture of government officials. For too long now civil servants and law-enforcement officials have benefited from smuggling and it will require significant political will to even take small steps towards changing that.

The Sindh government did provide better news to the Supreme Court regarding the results of law-enforcement operations in Karachi. According to figures presented to the bench, 6,840 suspects have been arrested. These efforts do seem to be bearing some fruit since 139 people have been killed in target killings since the operations were started two months ago, a steep decline from the 330 people killed in a similar time frame before the operations. That progress, however, will be illusory if there isn’t a concerted follow-up. There is political agitation in the city against the operations with the claims that some are being unfairly targeted. There is also the problem of keeping suspects behind bars since the Rangers hand over people they have apprehended to the police. The police themselves are so politicised, owing allegiance to the dominant parties in their areas, that suspects are usually set free without charge or else let go because of a lack of evidence. In the long run, Karachi will only be saved if political parties cut off their links to criminals and mafias. That change will come not from law-enforcement officials but from a realisation that practising politics from the barrel of a gun does no one any good.


Minimalist measures

A nation that already confronts inflation standing in the double digits faces more bad news. The government, apparently to keep the IMF happy, has not passed on the benefits of a global fall in the prices of petroleum to consumers – and turned its head away from their pain. While the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority had recommended a Rs2.48 cut in the per litre price of petrol, the government has announced a miserly reduction of just Rs0.48, or less than half a rupee. Under this measure, effective from November 1, the price of petrol would stand at Rs112.76 against its earlier price of Rs113.24 per litre. This cut, virtually symbolic in nature, is unlikely to have any real impact on the wallets of the people of the country, who scramble to find enough cash to meet their daily needs. The decision by the government to ignore the advice of the regulatory authority will hit millions very hard indeed.

There have also been some minor reductions in the prices of other petroleum products. High speed diesel has dropped by Rs0.12 and kerosene by Rs0.13. The trifling reduction in the price of kerosene oil appears to be an especially harsh measure given that the fuel is used by the poorest of the poor to light their stoves. The fact that more relief has not been offered to them makes it quite obvious where the government’s priorities lie. The picture emerging is not a reassuring one. It is obvious the decisions on petroleum pricing taken by the government will not do anything to increase its popularity with a people already facing an unprecedented hike in the costs of living. The question being asked is what the PML-N setup is doing to improve economic conditions for people. A promise to improve the economy and ease the miseries of citizens had after all been one of the key campaign slogans used by the party which won the May 11 general elections. So far, it shows no signs that it is willing to stay true to its pledge. This is a familiar pattern. The petroleum pricing issue is one that is easy to see through. International masters who actually control so much of what happens in our country have once more been placed on a higher pedestal than the people. As a result, suffering will increase and the easing of burdens that could have been offered to them has been snatched away from people based by a singularly vicious act of policymaking.


Miramshah shelling

The recent chain of events in North Waziristan has brought it into sharp focus once again. Reports of shelling by security forces in the area, and a call issued to local people based in villages around the town of Miramshah to move their families to safer locations must, therefore, be seen against the wider backdrop of what has been happening there. The call, issued by the Hafiz Gul Bahadur militant faction, comes through a pamphlet in Urdu distributed in around six villages and asks residents to shift women and children to safer parts of North Waziristan. It also asks shopkeepers to move away valuable items.

The pamphlet is the latest indication that a ceasefire agreement reached in 2006 between security forces, the Taliban and elders of the Utmanzai tribe has fallen apart. Past peace deals had met a similar fate. Under the deal that was made some seven years ago, local people were to guarantee the protection of security convoys passing through the area. This measure has not worked well, with the convoys coming under attack time and again. In the latest incident a security check post was fired on at Miramshah Bazaar on Monday, prompting retaliatory firing on houses in which two civilians are reported to have been killed. There was another incident of firing on Thursday, with more people injured as a result. The pamphlet urging people to move away and the appeal to others in North Waziristan to give them shelter quite clearly suggests that the Taliban expect and are preparing for expanded fighting. Others have opined that the security forces may be getting ready for a broader action in NWA. The US has of course been pressing for this for some time, and, as in everything else, the Washington factor complicates what is not in the first place an easy situation. Developments in the area will then be closely watched. Right now there are indications that the militants at least are preparing for a new round of hostilities. In some ways these seem to be inevitable and, as we have seen before, it is local people who suffer the worst as a result of this. There is a possibility of a new round of displacement from the area, following the call to people to move away from a locality that could turn into yet another war zone in a region hit by continuous conflict for almost a decade.
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Monday, November 04, 2013


Dark reckonings

Trying to lure energy companies from London to invest in Pakistan, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif claimed that the government’s decision to pay off the Rs450 billion circular debt may have saved the country from plunging into darkness. As sales pitches go, bragging about eventually paying bills that were long overdue is hardly going to inspire confidence in jittery outsiders. Shahbaz also neglected to mention that the circular debt was paid off by simply printing new money and that it will soon begin accumulating again. The government simply is not liquid enough to prevent its re-emergence. The World Bank is even more pessimistic about the state of our energy sector, saying in a recent report that loadshedding is costing the economy about Rs450 billion a year and that more than 12 percent of electricity bills remain uncollected. We are also so dependent on imported oil that our foreign currency reserves are perilously low. The only solution the government has offered so far is to continue raising the price of electricity. Now that the Iranian gas pipeline seems to be dead and buried, with the government unwilling to withstand US pressure and build its portion of the pipeline, we can also expect corresponding increases in the price of gas. In short, the energy sector in Pakistan is a disaster no matter how hard Shahbaz Sharif may try to convince foreigners otherwise.

In fact, the Punjab chief minister should be the last one to sing the praises of our dying energy sector. The gas shortage is so bad that the province has decided to shut all CNG stations over the winter so that industrial and domestic users will not have to endure too much gas loadshedding. The shortage has come just a few short years after Pervez Musharraf encouraged mass consumption of gas and launched a massive campaign to convince people to shift their cars to CNG. This is the problem with how the energy sector has been managed in Pakistan. Short-sighted decisions that provide only temporary relief are trumpeted as game changers even as the difficult tasks of improving transmission losses and strengthening our crumbling infrastructure are postponed because their effects will be felt too far down the line for the government to get immediate political mileage out of them. Shahbaz Sharif may just be playing his role as a salesman in London to try and lure potential investors but all investors worth their salt will know that the chief minister is taking them for a ride.


Right wronged

The Right to Information (RTI) bill, originally introduced as an ordinance by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, has finally been passed by the provisional assembly but amendments added to the bill have made it considerably weaker. The RTI bill now imposes a fine of Rs50,000 or a two-year prison sentence for those who ‘use the information obtained for mala fide purposes’. The bill itself does not define what falls under the ambit of mala fide purposes so this clause could end up scaring away people from seeking information and be used to persecute those who uncover official wrongdoing. For some reason, the Peshawar High Court has been exempted from public bodies that must comply with the terms of the bill. A wide swath of information that should routinely be made available to the public has also been exempted from the bill, including topics related to ‘international relations and security’, ‘disclosure harmful to law enforcement’, ‘public economic affairs’, ‘public money’, ‘privacy’, ‘legal privilege’ and ‘commercial and confidential information”. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, by adding these exceptions to the bill, could deny the release of almost any information it would prefer to keep secret. Should they be abused, these clauses have the ability to render the rest of the bill null and void.

Despite these regrettable changes, the RTI bill could be used as a model for the other provinces and the centre. The draft Freedom of Information Bill presented by the PML-N is a travesty that does the very opposite of what such a bill should do. It gives individual departments the right to decide if they want to release documents and the only oversight is in the form of an ombudsman who can advise them but has no real authority. Each request for information also requires the payment of a burdensome fee which will surely discourage the public from exercising their right to know what their elected representatives and public servants are up to. This is where the RTI bill should inform the Freedom of Information bill currently being considered in the Senate. The RTI bill mandates that officers be appointed who can be approached for all requests for information and who will be expected to avoid delays and obfuscation. Even more importantly the RTI bill includes protection for whistleblowers so that no one will lose his or her job for revealing information that could be damaging to those in power. Of course, the success of the RTI can only be judged by its implementation but the federal government should pay heed to some of the language in that bill.
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Tuesday, November 05, 2013


Appointments delayed

One of the main reasons the PML-N swept into power was the supposed competency it would bring to grossly mismanaged government departments. You may not agree with the ideology of the party, the reasoning went, but you could certainly be sure that it would be an efficient steward of the economy. Five months later, that promise is ringing hollow. The government is yet to appoint the heads of 28 public sector enterprises, including such vital institutions as PSO, Pepco, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Pakistan Steel Mills. This is a dereliction of duty that will have severe consequences. Any newly-appointed head of these enterprises needs a considerable amount of time just familiarising himself or herself with the culture of the institution. It is notoriously difficult to find ways to work around entrenched bureaucracy with career civil servants ready to thwart political appointees at every turn. Just getting the relevant information to get the job done can involve long tussles with civil servants. The five months that have already been lost do not augur well for the reform of these enterprises. With the government now admitting that it may be at least two more months before suitable candidates are appointed, we can basically write off any chance of improvements in the first year of the government.

The inordinate delays have been so unexpected and so self-defeating that there are whispers going around about possible conspiracies. Many of the public-sector enterprises that remain leaderless are being considered for privatisation. The PML-N government, the thinking goes, wants to run these enterprises to the ground so that they can be offered to friends of the government at throwaway prices. This was also suggested by the Supreme Court when it looked into the running of the PIA, another government-owned enterprise slated for partial privatisation and operating without a head. The government itself has done nothing to show the public that these outlandish theories have no basis in reality. Most of its actions since coming into power have been conspicuous for the way they help the ultra-rich at the cost of everyone else. It may also be a case of the PML-N deciding to pursue the same style of governance it practiced in Punjab, where Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif decided that only he was capable enough to look after most government departments. That didn’t work particularly well in the province and it certainly won’t work at the federal level. Qualified professionals are badly needed to turn around the fortunes of these ailing enterprises so that they can perform services beyond simply providing employment to bureaucrats.


Sound of the sand

The voice of the desert is no more with us. Reshma, the popular singer with the distinct voice died at a Lahore hospital on Sunday. Her powerful voice – which brought with it something of the desert where her ancestral roots lay – touched hearts everywhere, including those of western audiences. Ironically, that beautifully deep voice died after a long struggle with throat cancer. Reshma was in her mid-60s, but had seemed to form an integral part of the music scene in the country since forever, probably because she had started out so young on the music scene.

Reshma was born in Rajasthan in India around 1947 and migrated to Pakistan soon after that. She was discovered singing, at age 12, at the shrine of Shahbaz Qalandar by a TV and radio producer and made her debut in front of radio audiences with the song, ‘Laal Meri’. The child prodigy immediately made an impact and her career took off, her raw and untrained voice showing immense talent. Song after song followed. Echoing the sound of the sands, her legacy lives on in not just her own songs but by the renditions others have done of them. It is a legacy that will not be forgotten easily – or soon. The power of folk music and its raw appeal is what made Reshma distinct from the otherwise carefully-digitised music we are now used to. We are told that in her last days she encountered hard times with a lack of cash and patronage. This, unfortunately, is how the story goes for most of our singers and artists. Left to deal with old age, loneliness and poverty, their songs are shamelessly used but they themselves are not given the kind of respect, honour and compensation they deserve. A lasting tribute to the woman known as the ‘nightingale’ could be a fund set up to support other emerging folk singers so that this culture is preserved. The soul of our indigenous voice is close to becoming lost and Reshma’s voice is a reminder of the simplicity and the power inherent within our soul that unites us in music.


No remedies

According to reports, over the coming weeks the prices of thousands of commonly used medicines in the country are to rise by up to 18 percent as four members of the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan meet soon to determine pricing issues. The absence of a national policy on drugs means that it is possible for the government to make arbitrary decisions, and this is what seems to be happening in this case. While members of the government say that essential drugs will not be hit by the rise, it is expected that many of the pills, syrups and capsules we use to treat common maladies are among those that will go up, making access to healthcare even further away from the reach of the common people. The prices of drugs in Pakistan are already among the highest anywhere in the region.

The key issue here appears to be to keep multinationals happy. It is pointed out that out of the 32 multinational companies that operated in Pakistan until two years ago, 12 have already moved out and the government is obviously eager to hold on to those that remain. But to do so, it seems ready to sacrifice the needs and welfare of its own people. For many, the increase in costs would be nothing short of a tragedy. The impact of such decisions needs to be considered in human terms. We simply do not see this happening and the failure on this count highlights the urgent need for remedy as far as policymaking goes so that people can be spared the agony that comes as a result of decisions made on little more than whim – and which act only to worsen the situation in which they live. Certainly, the drug price increase will fall in this category.
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Old Wednesday, November 06, 2013
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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

After Hakeemullah

The killing of TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone strike has led to a surprisingly unanimous reaction from Pakistan’s political class: it is all the Americans’ fault. That view was most strongly expressed by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan who found the timing of the attack suspicious and felt it was part of a US plot to scuttle peace talks with the TTP. Nawaz Sharif was slightly more circumspect at a cabinet meeting but maintained his strongly anti-drone stance. The prime minister and chief of army staff were also present to witness a demonstration of how drones can be shot, a move that was certainly meant to send a message to the US. The JUI-F’s Fazlur Rehman declared that everyone who is killed by the US automatically becomes a martyr while the PTI’s Imran Khan has vowed to stop Nato trucks from going through Pakistan after November 20, even blocking roads if necessary. Should the PML-N not agree with the PTI – highways after all fall under the power of the centre – we could end up with the unedifying spectacle of a provincial government taking to the highways to deny the writ of the federal government. Relations between Pakistan and the US have always been rocky but have plunged to a new low. There is also a danger that the unity witnessed at the APC will be destroyed as all the political parties try to one-up each other in expressing anger at the US.

The government would be better off taking a wait-and-see approach. The TTP will be in a state of confusion right now and we need to take advantage of its relative weakness. Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, the head of the TTP’s supreme shura, has been appointed as the interim leader with Khan Said, better known as Sajna, the frontrunner to take over the leadership spot. Shehryar Mehsud, who is from the same clan as Baitullah Mehsud is another likely contender. The TTP may take some time to select a new leader since the group will be wary of meeting together for fear of being attacked by drones. To that extent, Nisar was correct that negotiations have been scuttled since we do not have a leader to negotiate with right now. He was also right in complaining that the US always dictates and is never ready to listen. The TTP, if it responds as it did when its other leaders were killed, is also likely to launch a wave of revenge attacks. For the US these possibilities did not have to be accounted for when they targeted Hakeemullah since the entirety of the fallout will be borne by Pakistan. The anger we feel at the US may be justified but at a time when we are stuck between the US on one side and the Taliban on the other anger alone won’t suffice.


Karachi this month

With the start of the month of Muharram, the Shia community in Karachi will be even more fearful than usual that they may be targeted. If recent history is anything to go by, an attack is a near certainty. The list of attacks in Karachi during Muharram makes for frightening reading: in 2012 a blast at an imambargah in Orangi Town killed two; in 2011 two people were killed on MA Jinnah Road while in 2010 a blast at a Muharram procession took 25 lives. The worst of these years attacks took place in 2009 when 43 people were killed on Ashura in a blast on MA Jinnah Road. Another five Shias, including two doctors, were killed in Karachi this November 4, adding to the already tense atmosphere that always accompanies Muharram. In previous years, law-enforcement officials have shown themselves unable to stop attacks and there is no reason to believe that this year will be any different. City police chief Shahid Hayat sought to reassure citizens that they need not worry and that all those involved in Shia-Sunni violence would be apprehended in the next two to three days. Hayat’s promises alone will not suffice. Violence against Shias, in Karachi and the rest of the country, is carried out by organised militant groups with many thousands of members. Even though many of these groups have been outlawed they continue to operate freely throughout the city without ever being stopped by the police. Why should we now believe Hayat that things are about to change?

AIG Hayat also said that all target killers would be arrested in a couple of days, another promise that simply cannot be fulfilled. The Rangers operation in the city has been going on for nearly two months and even then target killers continue to operate, even if the total number of killings has decreased in that period. However, a fresh round of violence on Tuesday – that took at least eleven lives – shows just how precarious the situation is. Hayat also drew a link between the violence and the underground economy that exists in the city but did not explain what the police was going to do about it or even acknowledge that the police itself benefits from the undocumented economy. Instead of trying to pretend that the police can make all violence vanish in a matter of days, Hayat would serve the city better by ensuring foolproof security during the month of Muharram. Part of the reason Hayat may be making such confident pronouncements is that he fears losing his job. There is a petition in the Sindh High Court which challenges his promotion to the position of police chief. He has also been unable to win the trust of the MQM. Trying to do his job in such circumstances might be near impossible but Shahid Hayat will face even more opposition if his words prove to be hollow.
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Thursday, November 07, 2013


A mandate for change

As it had earlier warned, the Supreme Court has now indicted Defence Secretary Asif Yasin Malik for contempt of court after he was unable to hold local bodies elections in cantonment areas. The key point here is whether the residents of over 40 military-controlled cantonment boards in the country should have the right to representation or not. The Election Commission of Pakistan and army officials had agreed in September this year that polls would be held in 42 boards by November 3; the defence ministry had issued the required notifications. But despite this the polling procedure has not taken place. The SC has made it quite clear that it takes a very bleak view of this attitude, and its contempt action leaves no doubt about this at all. Now we find out that the prime minister has only just been provided with an ordinance that would govern the elections in the country’s cantonment areas. Since parliament is currently in session, the prime minister cannot simply promulgate the ordinance. It will have to be debated in parliament, amendments to the ordinance will be suggested and argued over. The entire process could take quite some time and breach another SC deadline – this time of a week to finalise preparations for the holding of local bodies elections in cantonments. The onus is now on parliament to ensure that the SC orders are followed in letter and spirit.

Orders have now been issued for polls to be held along with LB polls at the provincial level on December 27. It is to be seen of course what happens from this point on, especially as the provincial level polls are far from certain with the ECP holding that it will not be logistically possible to complete preparations by this date. Another potential roadblock in the path of elections in the cantonments could be put up in Rawalpindi. The military is quite satisfied with the status quo, which puts the cantonments under the control of military men. If moves are made to ensure that any legislation regarding the elections has no teeth, it would undermine the democratic ideals the SC is trying to ensure are extended to the cantonments. Soon the ECP will also have to get involved. It should make sure that elections in cantonments are held on the same day as the province in which the cantonment is located. It will also have to provide the same level of scrutiny to cantonment elections as it does everywhere else so that the elections are not manipulated. The basic right to vote in local bodies elections has essentially been denied to people living in cantonments for too long. Now the SC has given the government a mandate and an order to finally change that.


Drone data

Officials in the Ministry of Defence finally seem ready to admit what everyone in the country already knows: the figure of 67 civilians killed in drone attacks that the ministry provided to parliament was completely wrong. A public admission of this entirely unbelievable number will not be sufficient; the ministry also needs to credibly explain how and why such a low figure of casualties was provided. Until it does so rumours will swirl and gain a currency of their own. For example, some would suggest that the government continues to support drone attacks in private, something we know was being done till at least 2011 thanks to leaks provided to The Washington Post, and so wants to play up the supposed accuracy of these weapons. If that is indeed true then it could mean that the government’s recent vociferous condemnation of the drone attack which killed Hakeemullah Mehsud is nothing but a performance meant to trick us into believing that our leaders aren’t colluding with the US. Nawaz Sharif also recently declared that drone attacks aren’t a war crime – as was suggested by an Amnesty International report – in an apparent softening of the state’s stance. We also need to go beyond just getting the civilian casualties of drone attacks wrong and find out if the intelligence that lead to the attack on Hakeemullah was provided by Pakistan.

The Ministry of Defence, in providing these erroneous casualty figures, also claimed that there were no civilian victims of drone attacks since 2012. Should it continue to stand by this claim or even revise it only slightly upward, the ministry will have to explain how it collects its data and classifies someone as a civilian. We already know that the US automatically assumes that any man of military age killed in a drone attack is a militant unless proven otherwise. Do we have the same flawed criteria where we assume everyone in the tribal areas is a militant? Since this figure was also the first time any government department has provided information of drone attacks, we should use the flawed number to demand more such data. Since the Ministry of Defence is obviously accounting for the damage wrought by drone strikes – no matter how flawed its counting may be – there is no reason for it not to make such information public soon after the attacks take place. The government should then use this information not just to educate but to compensate the victims of drone strikes. We cannot just use these civilians as propaganda tools in our love-hate relationship with the US.
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