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Old Wednesday, September 10, 2008
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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Agreeing to disagree

The amiable meeting between the PML-N Chief Mian Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, just ahead of the latter's swearing in as president, offers some hope for the future. Although Zardari failed to persuade the PML-N to return to coalition politics, his assurance to Sharif that the government in the Punjab would not be destabilized is important. This has, according to reports, been backed by an order from the centre to Punjab Governor Salman Taseer not to issue statements attacking the PML-N. It had been anticipated that the breakup of the coalition in the centre could lead to a murky battlefield opening up in Punjab, with efforts to topple the PML-N government. In anticipation of such developments, a PML-Q forward bloc had already announced support for Sharif; apprehensions regarding the ugly politics of horse-trading hovered.

It must be hoped the Zardari-Nawaz meeting has put an end to such speculation. Certainly the message of cooperation sent out by both men is a welcome one. The key task for Pakistan's politicians at this time is to prove that civilian rule can indeed succeed. Till now, the failures of democratic governments elected after 1988 to complete their term have left many in doubt about this. Each time a government has fallen, the event has been preceded by a stand-off with opposition parties and multiple accusations of victimization that have only aided the establishment and the other forces that wield power in the country to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

The opening up of cases against the Sharif family a few days ago by NAB had once more raised the spectre of a new chain of developments along similar lines. It must be hoped the Zardari-Nawaz dialogue at this critical time will help to quash any such moves. A democratic system can only deliver when both the government and the opposition play a role in facilitating its functioning and respecting each others rights. We must hope that the long months of interaction between Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, in their many meetings aimed at saving the coalition, have enabled them to build mutual understanding and a line of communication, even if they did not keep the coalition setup afloat. There has been an indication, during the obviously warm meeting, that Sharif and Zardari still share a willingness to work together. This must be kept intact over the inevitably difficult months ahead, so that Pakistan's latest tryst with democratic rule can produce better results than those that have come in before.

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The art of delusion

The arrest of a would-be suicide bomber in Nowshera, believed to be no more that 14 or 15 years old, once more sheds light on how these hapless children are exploited and used for the most evil of purposes. The boy, apprehended near a security setup, was found wearing a suicide vest and was apparently preparing to blow up his target. During initial questioning, he has hinted at links with Baitullah Mehsud. This is not the first time a well-defined trail has led to seminaries in Waziristan. The arrest of the boy belies claims that the series of devastating suicide bombings are carried out by enraged relatives of those killed during military operations in the northern areas. While this may indeed be the case in certain instances, it is quite obvious a whole system, which ensnares young boys and coerces them to act as bombers, is in place and is being operated by those behind the terrorist onslaught we today face.

The arrest in Nowshera coincides with comments from the adviser on interior that the suicide bombers are indeed Pakistani as are their 'handlers' and that they are backed by money collected within the country. This honest acknowledgement makes far greater sense than the assertions made in the past by top government leaders who should know better that Chechens, Uzbeks and other foreigners were behind the bombings and indeed the militant problem in the northern areas. It is obviously not possible for foreigners to mingle with crowds, approach targets in high security areas and then blow themselves up, unspotted and unnoticed before the blast. Their ethnicity in itself would make them the object of attention. The interior adviser also spoke of a third bomber, arrested after the terrible blasts at Wah Cantt that killed over 70, who did not detonate his device. The bomber is said to have opted not to do so after realizing the victims would be Pakistanis, almost all poor workers, and not the 'Englishmen' he had been sent out to kill.

It is time to act against those using deceit and delusion to send child bombers out onto the streets of the country. These criminals are guilty of the worst possible kind of abuse. The seminaries and other places from where they function must be targeted and other teenagers saved from meeting the same fate as those who have been tricked into so senselessly ending their own lives, and those of the other victims that die with them.

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On deaf ears

The message to Washington that the Pakistan government evidently tried to send out, by closing for a brief period the Torkham check post through which supplies reached US-led forces based in Afghanistan, has obviously fallen on deaf ears. A new missile strike in North Waziristan on Sept 8, apparently targeting the home of a key militant commander, killed 22 people. While it has been reported the victims include 12 militants, the commander himself is said to be safe, as is his son. It is thus unclear what the strike, that brought with it terror, fear and suffering, achieved. Meanwhile, the supplies have quietly resumed. Indeed, the message Pakistan apparently intended to deliver was always a half-hearted one, given that another route through Balochistan was kept up and running even when the Torkham passageway was shut.

But still, as a gesture of protest, the closing down of the supply line had some significance. The fact that it has had no impact is disturbing. Washington's policy of intensified attacks in northern areas has already created an immense new wave of anger. It has also claimed dozens of innocent lives and reinforced the perception that the war on terror is one that pitches the US against militants. Pakistan at present seems to have no means to alter US thinking, although Asif Ali Zardari will almost certainly bring up the matter with Islamabad's allies in the White House in the near future. To do so effectively, particularly after the failure of the supply-line closure tactic, Pakistan must present its own strategy for combating terrorism forcefully and by doing so eradicate the threat to sovereignty that we are today facing.
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Thursday, September 11, 2008

The president and parliament

Asif Ali Zardari, during his first media conference after officially moving into the Aiwan-e-Sadr and taking oath at a ceremony where pro-Bhutto slogans rang out throughout the proceedings, chose to keep his cards close to his chest. Indeed, given the fact that the new president said barely anything that was new at all, there must be some question as to why the event was staged in the first place. Even odder was the decision to conduct the maiden press talk of the new president at the presidency in the presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, particularly as beyond rhetoric regarding brotherly ties, little was said at all about relations between Kabul and Afghanistan.

President Zardari stressed throughout the news conference that he would be a president 'subservient' to parliament. This pledge is significant in the backdrop of Pakistan's recent history, with repeated stand-offs seen between elected governments and presidents. Even presidents selected from within the parties themselves, such as former president Farooq Leghari, have opted to act against governments led by the parties they had in the past served loyally. If President Zardari, who currently is in firm control of his party, is indeed able to change this, the move away from conflict between the two institutions would be a significant one. Central to the whole question is that of Article 58(2) B and the powers to dissolve the assemblies that this bestows on the president. The fact that Zardari deftly side-stepped direct questions as to the future of the controversial clause, saying only that parliament would decide, leaves open some doubts as to his intentions. As we all know, parliament, controlled by the PPP, will follow directions from Zardari. Given this, a stronger signal on doing away with the presidential powers to oust the legislature would have been reassuring.

The slick-tongued Mr Zardari also gave away little on the future of former president Musharraf, again tossing the ball as far as indemnity goes to parliament. He did, however, state the PPP did not seek revenge. Rather to the disappointment of a nation bent under crippling inflation, Zardari said nothing about future economic policies, speaking only in vague terms about tackling food shortages. He also said little about that other pressing issue of our time: conflict in the northern areas, militancy and the new threat to sovereignty. Only on one matter, that of Kashmir, did the president promise to deliver 'good news' in the coming months, stating that backdoor talks were on. We must hope this is a pledge that Mr. Zardari will keep. Too many assurances given in the past weeks, months and years by political leaders to people have only fallen by the wayside.

President Asif Ali Zardari, now that he has marked his day of triumph, flanked by friends, family and supporters, must keep in mind that the presidency is not an end in itself. It is only the means to reach towards one. This end must include betterment in the lives of people. It is the support of these people that propelled the PPP to power, and took Mr Zardari to the presidency. The enormous hopes and yearnings of people can be sensed everywhere. Tens of thousands of eyes look towards the new president in the hope that he will deliver what they most ardently seek. Many have already been left somewhat disappointed by the failure to take up any of the issues of rising prices, soaring unemployment and growing despair in the first media talk. President Asif Ali Zardari must keep in mind that in the future, these are matters he cannot simply sidestep. Eventually they will determine the success or failure of his party's government and of his own tenure in the most powerful office in the country.

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Unprecedented hike

An unprecedented hike in power prices, averaging out at about 31 per cent, has come into immediate effect. All categories of consumers, domestic, commercial, industrial and agricultural will pay more for the increasingly unaffordable privilege of switching on a light, running a fan, using kitchen appliances, watering crops or operating any kind of machinery. While domestic users utilizing less than 100 units of power each month have been exempted, the tariff structure has been altered so that users in higher-consumption categories do not get the benefits available to those in the lowest slab for the first 100 units they use. The net result will be a rise of between 26 to 40 per cent for most domestic users. It must be noted that immediately after the budget, power rates had already risen by 16 per cent as a result of a GST imposition. The latest increase comes in addition to this.

One must ask which world the government lives in. Do its ministers, its advisors, its paid experts, its consultants not realize that people simply cannot absorb such rises? That for many families, paying an additional 30 per cent for power is not possible; that in real terms, for a wage earner taking home a set amount that will not instantly increase such a hike is simply not manageable. More and more exhausted people already do more than one job a day. Are people then expected to take children out of school? Sell possessions? Go into debt? Eat less? Rob a bank? These are questions that must be answered. Already, people have cut many corners. For many there are no more left to saw away. For the industrial sector, which has already been facing the closure of power looms, textile mills and other units because of unsustainable increases in energy costs – rendering thousands unemployed – the new rise spells still greater doom. Farmers too complain already of being unable to run tube-wells due to the costs involved, even during those increasingly rare spells when power is available in rural areas.

Worse still, the government, which says the hike is necessary to offset massive losses suffered by the eight distribution companies of PEPCO, has not had the moral courage to come forward and inform people of the measure taken. None of its leaders, who have for months been promising relief, stepped forward to announce the measure. While it has been known for some time that a decision on a power rise had been made, the actual notification was issued quietly, almost covertly, Tuesday night. Those who signed the necessary papers know quite well its impact will be disastrous, further pushing up inflation. What they do not yet seem to realize is that their abject failure to tackle the situation will lead, one day, to the wrath of people turned against them. They must then ask themselves if they are willing to face this wave of anger, which lies not far away.
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Old Friday, September 12, 2008
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Friday, September 12, 2008


Enough, Uncle Sam


It is now seven years since the Al Qaeda attacks on America that in the most literal of senses changed the world forever. Pakistan is at the forefront, like it or not, of the 'War on Terror' that was triggered by 9/11 and its armed forces have suffered considerable losses in the fighting of it. General Kayani, COAS and very much a 'no-nonsense' soldier has made a robust statement about the RPV (Remotely Piloted Vehicle) attacks - "There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border" -- despite which neither we nor he expects any decrease in their frequency - and the Buzzers have been busy again.

American RPV's daily loiter over our border with Afghanistan and often wander deep into Pakistani airspace and are deadly; with many of them armed with the Hellfire missile. Hellfire has visited Waziristan again, killing at least seventeen and injuring an additional nineteen. Seven were Taliban and the rest -- mere collateral damage. Ritual protestations follow, themselves followed by the response of assorted American spokespersons and diplomats that 'Pakistan is a sovereign nation and we respect that' -- which is, of course, complete balderdash. It is as if the constant repetition of the 'sovereignty' mantra will somehow gloss over the fact that Pakistan is only sovereign inasmuch as America wishes or allows it to be; and if America chooses to violate our airspace, blow women and children to smithereens, land Special Forces units to kill a few more women and children before hopping back over the border -- then so be it. The war on terror knows no borders as far as America is concerned, and it will fight that war wherever it wishes and by whatever means it chooses. If that means regularly making small-scale invasions of another sovereign country and killing a few of its citizens…then so be it. But there are unseen consequences…

There is an escalating sense of furious impotence among the ordinary people of Pakistan. Many -- perhaps most -- of them are strongly opposed to the spread of Talibanisation and extremist influence across the country; people who may be described as 'moderates'. Many of them have no sympathy for the mullahs and their burning of girls' schools and their medieval mindset. But if you bomb a moderate sensibility often enough it has a tendency to lose its sense of objectivity and to feel driven in the direction of extremism. If America bombs moderate sensibilities often enough you may find that its actions are the best recruiting sergeant that the extremists ever had -- and the extremists will be quietly delighted at the civilian deaths as they know that more feet will turn to the path that leads to their door.

There seems little that we can do to stop the Buzzers killing non-combatants; and by the same token it is difficult to construct a rhetoric that would dissuade those new recruits from joining the extremist camp. America is daily deepening the well of resentment against itself that no amount of aid input or pious diplomatic platitudes will ever fill; and Uncle Sam should not be surprised if his interests and assets within Pakistan become the target of extremists -- because at least some of those extremists will be the product of his own actions, his very own recruits. General Kayani's men will have to fight these new recruits as well, and fighting one's own people never sits easily in the mind of any fighting force. Be careful what you bomb Uncle Sam, be very careful.

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The judges strike back


Policies enacted in violation of principle almost always lead to problems. The federal law minister's dubious formula for restoring judges deposed on November 3, 2007 through a new oath -- effectively enabling the government to ease in the more pliable members of the judiciary while leaving out the most upright -- has run into trouble, with Justice Faqir Muhammad Khokhar, one of the deposed SC judges, warning he would not accept any changes in the seniority list. Khokhar is the aspirant chief justice after the retirement of the present incumbent, Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, in March this year. To add to the quagmire, a Peshawar High Court judge has also refused to accept an altered seniority list published on September 5, and has in an application to the president of Pakistan has stated that the deposed judges ceased to be judges when they declined to take oath under the PCO and could not now resume their previous seniority.

The law ministry's methods seem to be facing a crash. But while these technical issues may yet be sorted out, the broader question is that of the message the government is sending out to people. At present, in the eyes of people, the judges who have held on to principle for over a year occupy a moral high ground. By ditching them, the government loses its standing before people. Its failure to side with the voice of conscience raised by civil society will have grave consequences in the future. The message is also clear to the judiciary: stand up for judicial independence, and you will be punished.

The calculated decision to bring back only some judges will also leave open gaping wounds. The promise made by the PPP government to bring people together, to heal rifts, will remain unfulfilled and this too will have negative consequences for the nation and its citizens who have already seen multiple disappointments since the new government took oath just over six months ago.

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Peril at prayers

The usually peaceful area of Banai in Lower Dir district was hit by tragedy Wednesday night, as two grenades were hurled into a mosque as people offered 'Taraveeh' prayers. At least 25 are killed, 50 others injured – some of them critically. The death toll could rise. The motives for the attack, in a predominantly Sunni area that has no history of sectarian unrest, are unclear. It is, however, being linked, rather ominously, to a 'jirga' verdict in Lower Dir against militancy and protests in some areas of the district against militants. Militants who had sneaked into the area from the adjacent Bajaur tribal agency were asked to leave. The possibility that the attack on devout civilians at worship was carried out in revenge goes only to expose the inhumanity of these killers, who, though they speak in the name of religion, are willing to attack fellow Muslims at will. They are also quite evidently eager to prevent people of the northern areas from speaking out against them. They realize that losing the hold over people that they have imposed through force and fear may in the final run prove even more disastrous for them than the ongoing military operation in Bajaur and elsewhere.

Communities who dare to speak out against the Taliban need to be offered support and protection. It is eventually these people who can defeat militancy, and drive it out of their homes. But they can do so only if further attacks such as that which took place Wednesday are prevented and citizens given their right to voice opinions against men who attempt to quash it with their guns and bullets and grenades.
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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Turning point?


Relations between Pakistan and the US seem to stand at a critical juncture. The COAS, backed by his corps commanders and the government, has hit out strongly at the policy of striking within Pakistan's territory. Some reports state the army has now been ordered to counterattack across the border. These developments have coincided with a report in a leading US newspaper stating that President George Bush had given the go ahead for raids to be carried out inside Pakistan in July, and that this plan of action had been quietly given the nod by Pakistani officials. To add to the complications, President Hamid Karzai, soon after his return to Kabul from the presidential oath-taking ceremony he attended in Islamabad, has indicated he backs US plans to target Taliban and Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan, describing such a change in strategy as 'essential'. He does not say how he intends to tackle growing militancy within his own country, which is adding to the problems being faced by Pakistan and its troops in its western border areas. There have been allegations from Washington of our intelligence agencies providing the militants with information ahead of operations launched to uproot them.

In the wake of these reports, statements and observations, Pakistan's ambassador to the US has been holding a series of meetings with high-level officials in Washington. After a hectic series of interactions, at which the ambassador has presumably pleaded Pakistan's case, he has said the US had assured him there would be no further attacks and that media reports regarding a policy approved at the top to back such offensives were untrue. But this claim was negated by another attack on Friday, on a village compound in North Waziristan, in which two missiles fired from American pilotless drones killed 12 people, including women and children.

One must hope the ambassador, who skilfully manipulated opinion in key places regarding the ouster of former President Musharraf, scores another success. We all know that continued US assaults will only drive more and more enraged citizens into the arms of militants and to the training institutions they run. The unflinching words from Pakistan's military chief and his key officers will also have had an impact in Washington. It is important too at this time, as the parleys continue at various levels, behind the scenes as well as in the public sphere, that Islamabad present before Washington measures that can truly help it take on the vast terrorist armies it has so foolishly permitted over the past years and decades to crop up across tribal areas, assuming the proportions of a Frankenstein. The US may be able to help Pakistan improve the surveillance and intelligence infrastructure it needs to reach into the heart of these dangerous outfits. It can also play a part in setting out on plans to replace seminaries with schools, militant training centres with units that offer employment and vocational education. The COAS has correctly pointed out that the war on terror will take time to win; that there can be no short-cuts. One of Pakistan's aims, as it works towards such a victory, must be to make it clear to Washington that violations of sovereignty will only aggravate the problem. Instead its assistance in what is undoubtedly a massive task can come most effectively by offering support in specific spheres to Pakistan's own forces and by beginning a massive developmental offensive in the northern areas, so that, with territory, minds and hearts can also be won back from the militants. This, in the final analysis, may prove more crucial to a final victory over terrorism than anything else.

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Disgruntled friends


The Awami National Party, which has so far played a low key, but often constructive role in the coalition government, is reported to have threatened to quit the federal cabinet over the failure to award its ministers' portfolios that they have sought. The party is also disgruntled over the fact that it has not been consulted over the question of how the ministries vacated by the PML-N are to be filled. The PPP's own legislators are said to be engaged in desperate bids to grab key slots while the possibility of MQM inductions adds to the heat.

But in all this, the PPP, and Mr Zardari, who still holds the party reins even from the presidency, must keep in mind that losing the ANP at this point would be a devastating blow. The exit of the PML-N has already exposed the fragilities of the coalition setup after the February polls. Sceptics who warned it would not endure have been proved correct. The PPP, despite its power in terms of numbers, needs to build credibility and trust. This has been badly dented by the events of the past few months. The loss of the ANP, as a party whose support in NWFP may be vital to solving the militancy issue there, would be an immense one. The PPP, in its role as the largest member of the coalition, must do what it can to dispel the concerns of its leaders and thus avoid a situation in which the notion of national unity repeatedly presented to people in the months after the election is allowed so quickly to fall into total ruin. Such an eventuality will only damage democracy and diminish the hopes that the country's political parties can guide it to a brighter future.

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Manora tragedy


The death of four small boys, all related to each other, as the result of the collapse of a dilapidated wall at their school on Manora Island, highlights the risks many school-going children in the country face. This is borne out by official data. The Economic Survey for the year concedes 5.7 per cent of the buildings of public sector educational institutions across the country are in "dangerous" condition. Another 42 per cent need repairs. Most of the buildings in the worst state are located in Balochistan and Sindh. Many others have no boundary walls, no drinking water, no electricity or no toilets. Some lack even a building. In such conditions, we expect children to learn. Concerns have been expressed over the poor quality materials frequently used by contractors hired by government departments. The result of such negligence was exposed by the October 2005 earthquake, in which 7,000 schools collapsed killing over 17,000 children.

The Sindh chief minister has ordered an inquiry into the incident at Manora. Local people say that while the school itself had been re-housed, the 100-year old structures of the old building had not been demolished by Cantonment authorities. This negligence cost four children their lives. One must hope it acts as an eye-opener to authorities, persuading them to take action that can save the lives of other children like them.
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The last stand?


The stepped up US raids against militants inside Pakistan, with another drone strike killing 12 in North Waziristan Friday, seem to be a part of an effort by the outgoing Bush administration to ensure it can claim some success against terrorists as part of its legacy when it bows out of office within months. Analysts in Washington have identified this as one factor in the changed US strategy seen since July. President George Bush is eager to demonstrate the war he began was a success. Already, he is thinking of the history books. Fears, such as those expressed by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the war on terror in Afghanistan was being lost has obviously contributed to the change in tactics, as have perceptions that Pakistan's own efforts have been sometimes rather lax, involving meaningless deals, negotiations and dialogue. The strongly rooted US belief that elements in powerful places in Pakistan have links to the terrorists is also a vital factor. It is significant that the latest strike targeted a premises used by the al-Badr militia, an outfit that dates back to the war against the former Soviets in Afghanistan and which is thought to have close links to the Pakistan intelligence apparatus.

Pakistan's problem is that its civilian government lacks the means to rein in its own intelligence. At the same time, the Islamabad government is aware the US strikes are badly undermining its authority, weakening the standing of the Pakistan army and, as such, aiding the militants in their task of whipping up greater internal support. For each fighter that dies, a dozen more take his place. As the prime minister has quite candidly stated, Pakistan cannot of course enter into a direct battle with the US. It can, as he has suggested, raise the issue of strikes within its territory at international forums, including the UN. Given the nature of that organization, it is unlikely this will have any immediate impact. But it may enable the Pakistan government to seem a little less impotent, a little more capable of taking at least some kind of action. Talks with British officials are already on, with London said to be attempting mediation in the matter. At least some officials in that capital seem to have realized that, whatever Pakistan's own failings in tackling militants, the US actions will only make the task even more complex and go to strengthen the view that the war on terrorists is one fought for Washington and not the people of Pakistan.

While Pakistan's government, as an establishment, sometimes seems to run along the lines of 'Fawlty Towers' – stumbling from mishap to mishap and making it impossible to decipher intent from mere misjudgement, there are suspicions of a divide within its own ranks. Unusually, the US media has picked out the COAS as a main target for attack. The President has, as yet, to back his army chief's strong statement against US raids, or indeed to say anything on the issue at all. Some smell conspiracy. But then perhaps it is mere inefficiency. There is however an obvious need for Pakistan to speak with a single voice, to raise a call wherever it can about the violation of sovereignty taking place and to convince the international community that, in the final analysis, even when militants are killed, the bombings of northern areas will make the battle harder and not easier to win.

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Zardari in China

President Asif Ali Zardari's trip to China will be significant because it proves Zardari intends to play an active national role, and also because of the attempt he seems likely to make to strike a nuclear deal with Beijing. Based along almost precisely the same lines as India's agreement with the US, Zardari will attempt to persuade China to provide Pakistan with nuclear raw materials to enable it to meet its energy shortfall. With Pakistan facing renewed allegations of failing to tackle militancy, the issue will inevitably give rise to controversy. This is all the more true given the new strains in relations with New Delhi, with allegations certain to come in of the risks such exports pose. Nuclear energy is a proven way to generate relatively cheap energy. Pakistan and India's mutual concerns about increased nuclear capability revolve around fears that raw materials brought in will be covertly diverted towards manufacturing weapons.

But successful talks in Beijing will obviously mark a significant triumph for Zardari on his first outing. The signing of an MoU on nuclear materials will also of course offer some hope that the crippling energy crisis we face may indeed be solved. So far, there has been little evidence that we are moving towards improvement. Industries, smaller factories and workshops have quite literally been paralyzed. Closures are reported to be taking place almost each day. The loss of productivity caused by the lack of energy also affects offices and indeed all work places. Reports that the crisis could yet worsen, due to water shortages, have created yet more panic.

Zardari's visit to China will of course help strengthen unity with a country that has consistently stood by Pakistan through good times and bad. Many also hope that more than this will be achieved, and a nuclear agreement reached, raising the hope that, in time, machines will once more whirr through the day across the country and the waste of time caused by the lack of power will be staunched. The deal assumes still more significance given that no final oil facility accord appears to have been reached yet with Saudi Arabia, making it all the more essential that all available options be looked at.

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Death squads in the Senate

The complaint by PML-Q Senator Yasmeen Shah that she had been warned about death squads made up of Baloch tribesmen being sent after her, to punish her for raising the issue of the women buried alive in that province, is shocking. Yasmeen Shah told the Senate a warning to this effect had been delivered by a fellow Senator, Israrullah Zehri, who had originally defended the burial as 'tradition'. As would be expected, many in the Upper House rose to the defence of the woman Senator from Sindh, calling on police to ensure she was protected.

It is shocking that even today, among legislators who should know better, such opinions can prevail. Zehri has so far appeared unrepentant over his comments. He has too as yet to explain his words about death squads. Worse still is the fact that Balochistan's powerful tribal leaders seem to have engaged in a conspiracy to cover up the facts about the horrendous events in Jaffarabad. The latest reports say up to seven women may have been buried. The FIR leaves out the names of powerful persons who are believed to have taken part in the so-called 'honour' killing.

The PPP must take a stronger stance in this matter. Cutting across party lines, it must fully stand by the PML-Q Senator. As the party in government in Balochistan it must also ensure that all those behind the reprehensible act in Jaffarabad are punished, including the brother of a provincial minister widely believed to be involved. It must also investigate the death squad reports. The perception that the party is involved in disguising facts will hurt it immensely. It must then do what is right and stand by Yasmeen Shah and others like her who speak out with the powerful voice of conscience.
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Monday, September 15, 2008

Convergences

Change is in the air everywhere, and a range of interlocking events and processes are producing a shift in the fabric of geopolitics, in the way in which some nations do business and perceive their relationships. This is not unexpected – the world changes, nothing is forever, and we should not be surprised if the nations engaged in the so-called WoT are shifting their strategic thinking. The Bush White House is preparing to pack its bags – although be prepared for a re-run of the Bush years if McCain and his fundamentalist running mate Palin are elected in November – President Zardari is beginning to find his feet and has departed for talks in London and Washington and an address to the UN General Council. General Kayani is shaping up to be a very different COAS to his immediate predecessor, more bite and less flannel. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK is set to discuss “a new security strategy” with our president when he visits there later this month; and new strategies for dealing with Al Qaeda and the Taliban are being talked about on all sides. NATO has said very pointedly that its mandate to operate in Afghanistan does not extend to ‘over the border’ action – giving the message that over-the-border operations are the responsibility of the Americans.

We note here that American forces in Afghanistan are not under NATO command and control – a fact often lost in the fog of war but of considerable importance if we are to understand the complex nature both of the conflict that spills over our borders and our relationship with America. Worryingly, a set of statements in the last week from senior members of the Bush administration and the US military that they may not be winning the ‘war on terror’ – and that they could actually conceive of losing it - should say make us all sit up and pay a little more close attention, in particular to the position of Pakistan and its role in the ‘war on terror.’ If that is a war that America eventually loses, then we will have lost as well.

The problem for Pakistan is that it is between a rock and a hard place – and that the events referred to above are happening at what in geopolitical terms are lightning speed, and all coming together in a convergence that has a meeting place in the rugged borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last Friday saw yet another drone attack and more civilian casualties; and the analysts and pundits are busy mulling the possibility of Pakistan striking back. Although there are mixed views – any strike back has to be balanced against the fact that Pakistan receives large amounts of aid and military assistance from the US – it does seem that we may be moving in the direction of a symbolic action against American intrusions. The weight of any counterpunch would have to be carefully measured. Perhaps the downing of a drone or a two-week halt to supplies of fuel that transit Pakistan en-route to coalition and American forces in Afghanistan? Enough to deliver a gentle ‘reminder’ but not enough to trigger a devastating response? There is a sense of attitudinal hardening in Islamabad; we would lose any fist-fight we got into with the Americans, which does not mean that we surrender the territorial imperative. A symbolic action, clearly flagged as such, may have to be our response if convergences are not to squeeze the life out of us.

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The best remedy

Whilst it would be wrong to say that National Literacy Day celebrated last week (Sept 8th to be precise) was not observed in Pakistan, it would be right to say that it was overshadowed by events of seemingly greater magnitude. Political matters dominated the headlines and were of interest to many – but you had to be able to read to understand those headlines, and literacy or the lack of it remains perhaps the single greatest impediment to development that is faced nationally. Illiteracy coupled with its bedfellow Ignorance have together conspired to produce a nation that suffers what amounts to a national disability, and a failure by successive governments to invest in this most essential of goals since partition has done the population a considerable disservice.

Figures for literacy and illiteracy rates are far from accurate, with officials saying that they usually rely on international agencies like UNESCO for such things, and we thus have to treat those figures which are available with a degree of caution, and at least in the case of those issued by any government department assume they err on the side of optimism. The Federal Ministry of Education says that the aggregated adult literacy rate nationally is 56%, which to even the most myopic of observers is a considerable exaggeration. There are ‘pockets’ where aggregated literacy for males and females reaches this figure and sometimes exceeds it, but they are relatively few. More typically, and taking south Punjab as being typical for underdeveloped areas, the latest published rates are: Multan 43.4 per cent, Bahawalnagar 35.1 per cent, Bahawalpur 35 per cent, Rahimyarkhan 33.1 per cent and DG Khan with 30.1 per cent. When the figures for female literacy are separated out an even darker picture emerges: Multan 32.28 per cent, Bahawalnagar 23.78 per cent, Bahawalpur 23.95 per cent, Rahimyarkhan 21.82 per cent and DG Khan 18.5 per cent. Anecdotal figures for the population of Cholistan put male literacy at around six per cent and female literacy as ‘statistically insignificant’ at less than one per cent.

‘Literacy is the best remedy’ was the slogan of World Literacy Day, and few (literates) would disagree with that; but not everybody wants to see Pakistan become a literate nation. Feudalism and a deep cultural resistance to educating women and girls both work hard to keep this a backward country. Now is the time for the feudal in the Presidents House to lead by example. His sons and daughters read and write, and we would be heartened was the President to make a raising of the national literacy rate a leading priority of his term in office. By how much? Well 10 per cent would seem like a good number to aim for.
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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Blind man's bluff


The hopes that our political parties could lead the way to a bright new future in which new traditions of democracy are set have quickly receded. Such optimism had bloomed briefly after PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif paid a cordial courtesy call on newly-elected president Asif Ali Zardari and amidst the exchange of smiles and warm handshakes promised to play the role of a 'constructive' opposition. Zardari's instructions to the Punjab governor immediately after the visit, asking him to refrain from attacks on the PML-N, seemed to fit in with the same rules of civility. But almost instantly, the nightmarish visions from the 1990s, when political players engaged in the ugly games of numbers to bring each other down and conducted under underhand campaigns towards the same end have been resurrected.

The indications are that a game for power is on in earnest in Punjab. The PML-Q is being persuaded to join hands with the PPP to topple the Shahbaz Sharif government. Though no one yet knows what the precise dimensions of this game are, it seems the carrot of the post of chief minister is being offered to Moonis Elahi, the son of former chief minister Pervaiz Ellahi, to persuade the party to align itself with the ruling coalition. The politics of dynasty continues, from one party to the other. Sons inherit political parties like heirlooms, husbands take over from wives and brothers are appointed to key posts. Other than the issue of merit, there is also that of democracy. The people of Punjab, like those elsewhere in the country, gave a resounding verdict against the PML-Q. Moonis Ellahi himself was soundly defeated in Lahore. To place a chief minister from the vanquished group once more in power amounts to a demeaning slap in the face for people proving to them that their votes mean nothing.

As the game of blind man's bluff continues, with the PML-N warning of conspiracies against its government, there is also conjecture the PML-Q may join the government in the centre. The unprecedented resignation of Pervaiz Ellahi as leader of the opposition in the National Assembly is being read as one indication of this. The future of the constitutional amendment package, prepared by the PPP, too hangs in the balance. The PML-N is ready to back an end to Article 58 (2) B, but not if this is presented as part of a deal that includes the judicial issue. Without the PML-N, the majority needed for an abolition of the amendment seems unlikely. Pakistan then once more stands on the crossroads. Its political parties seem to be tempted towards vying for short-term gains. Many of us fear longer-term disaster and a return to the unsavoury politics of deal-making that marked the last decade of democratic rule in the country, doing so much to discredit it and indeed paving the way for a dictator to come charging in.

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International moves

All eyes are now pinned on Asif Ali Zardari, as he attempts to find a way to tackle the crisis of sovereignty Pakistan currently faces, with drone flights said to be continuing over Waziristan. The president and the prime minister are reported to have discussed the matter at length in a telephonic talk. So far President Zardari has given little way concerning his stand on the whole matter. Even at a detailed briefing to senior officials at the Foreign Office, he did not bring up the issue. This may in some ways be a wise strategy. Often, fewer words are better than too many.

But at the same time, President Zardari must remember that many eyes are now focused on him. The issue of US action in Pakistan will obviously figure as the focal point for talks in London and also with other world leaders. Zardari faces a tough task. He must persuade the world that Pakistan is able, and willing, to act against terrorists – but also that he is eager to do all he can to prevent foreign forces operating within the borders of his own country. In this task, Zardari needs to keep in mind the power of perception. It was the deeply rooted belief that former president Musharraf was simply a front-man for Washington that contributed greatly to his growing lack of popularity within the country. Zardari must assess how he can steer clear of this trap. His position is an awkward one. Pakistan, for reasons rooted in economics and politics, needs the US. But at the same time, in its war on terror, the US also needs Pakistan and its military. This is a reality that President Zardari must mesh together in his talks overseas, even as criticism mounts at home over the situation on the country's western border and the repeated invasions taking place across it.

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New Delhi mayhem

The five synchronized bomb blasts that hit New Delhi shopping areas Saturday have left the city still reeling from the aftershocks. Twenty-two people died; many others were injured. The timing and location of the bombs was obviously intended to inflict maximum psychological and physical damage. Even though the death toll is mercifully lower than that inflicted by similar attacks during the past few months in Jaipur and other Indian cities, the pattern of the bombings is identical, pointing to a single source of origin. Police say two other devices were found before they could detonate.

An Indian Muslim group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. There is a possible connection with stepped up violence in Kashmir. The terrorism could well be rooted in India's own, considerable, internal issues and its politics of communalism. But it is inevitable that some fingers will point towards Pakistan, given the link of the bomb blasts with Muslim groups. The latest blasts indeed come at a time when Indo-Pak ties are already under strain after the suicide attack on the embassy in Kabul and acts of terrorism with India. This hardly augurs well. While Pakistan has been quick to condemn the attacks this can only partially control the damage. A more stable regional situation and a warmer equation between Pakistan and its immediate neighbours is essential to the welfare of the country. Those behind the attacks are out to prevent the building of such a relationship, and as such are out to harm the interests of all people in the country. We must all do what we can to prevent them from succeeding.
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The President Speaks


Sunday, September 21, 2008

The address by President Asif Ali Zardari to a joint session of parliament has been a historic one, going beyond fulfilling the constitutional requirement of speaking before both houses. As the man who will give the country its direction into the future, Zardari in his short but focused address laid down a clear-cut blueprint of his vision. While paying tribute to the martyrs of the past, including his late wife, Zardari stressed the need to move on. He also spoke of reconciliation, of national harmony, of the need for unity – and certainly the conduct of the session itself marked his success in achieving this. In direct contrast to the lone address to parliament made by his predecessor in 2004, during which former President Musharraf lashed out viciously at politicians while opposition parties kept up their disruptive desk-thumping through his tense speech, Zardari was warmly welcomed into the National Assembly. Smiles were visible in many places, the PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif sat in the gallery on an invitation from the government, clapping along at key moments. The importance of this attainment should not be ignored in an age during which Pakistan has faced increasing internal strains, between institutions, between provinces and between schools of thought.

Zardari also surprised many by asking parliament to begin an immediate review of the 17th Amendment and Article 58-2(B), which empowers him as president to dismiss assemblies. As he himself noted, no president before had offered up his own key powers quite so willingly. Quite clearly, Zardari, for the present at least, has little to fear from parliament. But his emphasis on the now much bedraggled 1973 Constitution being the only consensus document indicates he may yet prove to be a president who does not fit in with expectations and who may even put the interests of the country before his own. This, in the context of Pakistan's recent political history of tussle between elected governments and the president, would be a development of considerable significance.

On most other issues, Zardari stuck safely to rhetoric. He spoke of the need to tackle terrorism, through dialogue, development and force as a last resort. He paid tribute, as the three service chiefs watched, to soldiers who had lost their lives and he suggested a briefing to parliament on the security situation. He also spoke of the need for closer regional ties and for a reassessment of provincial autonomy. While acknowledging the economic crisis, he admitted the government could immediately do little to alleviate the suffering of people.

As an orator, Zardari is not particularly inspirational. Certainly, the tone and content of his address caused no major waves. But perhaps they created small ripples of hope. Zardari is a man anxious to leave behind some mark in history, some legacy that will allow him to be remembered through the storms of time. Some close to him say this indeed is his most ardent wish. He now has the opportunity to make it come true. The test though lies ahead. If Zardari can truly salvage a flawed democratic structure and set in place stronger foundations on which parliament can grow in strength and stature, he will have served his country well. The politician from Sindh, who so unexpectedly, as a result of a chain of events triggered by the tragic assassination of his wife, has moved to the post of president, represents a distinct break from the past. He has no trust in the establishment, indeed is known to loathe and fear it. Through the decades he has seen its manipulations and mechanizations at work against the PPP. He is also different from most other politicians, in that he draws his political lineage from a woman, breaking the old pattern of patriarchy. His words on acting to prevent crimes against women, and his final words in Sindhi calling for Pakistan to prosper, both speak of the new traditions he brings with him into the presidency. Perhaps such change is what Pakistan needs. Only time will tell.


The politics of economics


Sunday, September 21, 2008

The federal finance minister has said that, as part of an economic plan that envisaged an end to assistance from the IMF, the government had decided to phase out the subsidies on fuel, gas and power. Subsidies on oil and gas have already been eliminated and that on power is to go by the middle of next year. The government believes this 'home-grown' economic package will help create macroeconomic stability and enable it to close the growing fiscal deficit that currently stands at 4.7 per cent. This assessment may be accurate, and there can be no doubt that steering clear of an IMF programme is wise. Indeed, almost every country in the world has now quit the IMF – leaving it, as an organization, looking increasingly redundant. Its 'structural adjustments' have brought little benefit to the developing countries that implemented them and indeed have played a part in plunging people in these nations into crippling poverty and the countries themselves into greater and greater debt.

In its plan to end subsidies, the government must however balance the need for economic stability against that of political turmoil. The sudden elimination of subsidies, in a series of price increases made since March this year, has already added immensely to the burden on people everywhere. The elimination of the subsidy on diesel means the resultant increase in transportation will usher in still greater inflation. Natural gas too is no longer a cheap fuel, and even kerosene rates have risen dramatically. Life for the poor will, as a result of the new policies, become even tougher. Left to the mercies of a free market with the government passing on real prices to them, their suffering will increase. The country's leaders must ask themselves whether this worsened reality will in time bring with it turbulence that will shake the system. There are already assessments that Pakistan's current economic woes are mainly the consequence of political instability rather than fiscal flaws. Greater turmoil on this front is as such obviously undesirable. Looking beyond statistics and rows of figures, the government must consider whether imposing more hardships on people already bowed under the weight of rapid inflation will at some point force them to take action, perhaps violent action. The World Bank has warned of the possibility of food riots in Pakistan and other countries; everywhere in our society anger lurks just below the surface. It could flare out in the open assuming far more menacing proportions than is currently the case.

There is also the question of principle. The issue of free markets vs state intervention is still the subject of heated debate. There are no simple answers. The fact that the state in the US has had to intervene, in a complete break from the usual pattern of capitalist practice, to rescue people from the terrible impact of the financial crisis unfolding there, raises still more questions about the system. In Pakistan's particular context, there is also the issue of what kind of state its people most need and whether it needs to do more or less to protect them from the hazards they face in times of worsening crisis on many fronts.
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Monday, September 22, 2008

Pakistan’s 9/11


The Marriottt in Islamabad is no more. This is a reality that many are still finding it hard to come to terms with. The hotel, where wedding guests assembled, where friends chatted, where journalists covering key events gathered, where business deals were struck and from where tourists ventured out to explore Pakistan has been converted into a charred ruin. The last ‘Iftaris’ taking place at it turned into a dark nightmare as a suicide bomber rammed a truck loaded with explosives into its entrance. At least 60 people have died; more than 300 injured. The precise toll is still impossible to determine with bodies still being pulled out from rooms engulfed by an inferno unleashed by the blast.

Even in a nation that has become resilient to shock and accustomed to terrorist violence, the attack has created horror. It is being described as the worst suicide bombing yet to take place in the country - Pakistan’s very own 9/11. The bomber is believed to have used 1000 kilograms of high-quality explosives in the attack. There can be no doubt about his intentions. The act has proven too that terrorism is an evil that Pakistan must fight. It is not a war that involves the US, or other powers. It directly affects each and every one of us; we must therefore fight it. The people who died are almost all Pakistanis. Most among them are poor security guards, drivers, waiters, hotel staff - caught as the explosion ripped through the building. Those who killed them are too Pakistanis. They are not aliens, not outsiders. It is our flawed policies that have allowed them to grow and to develop the maddened mindsets of hatred that spurs their actions. It is senseless to point fingers elsewhere. We must wake up to the fact that these people come from amongst us; they target venues within the country and they kill their own countrymen.

It is time we accepted this war is our own. There must be no ambiguity about this. The Marriott, for many, was the face of Islamabad. Its destruction is a reminder of the scale of the threat we face. No one in the country is safe, no place secure.

The opinions we still hear everywhere, in roadside cafes, in offices - and among the country’s establishment - that the militants who have entrenched themselves in northern areas are ‘good’ people, that force should not be used against them - is one reason why we today face such high levels of peril. Pakistan is now rated as the most dangerous place in the world. All those who have seen the charred graveyard of vehicles, of trees torn apart, of ash covering green belts, of people writhing in hospital beds, will not disagree with this assessment. Yet the fact that so many still believe the forces capable of the mayhem we saw in Islamabad on Saturday deserve some kind of protection, that they deserve to be regarded as men of honour with whom dialogue is possible, explains why they have so far proved invincible. Such thinking needs to change. There must be a consensus across society about the need to act with unity and determination to save what still remains of our wounded country. We must try to breathe life back into it. As inevitably happens after any major incident, rumours, theories, conjecture about why the Marriott was targeted will continue to circulate. There has been vague talk of US nationals being present, of equipment being moved in. This is irrelevant. It is senseless to attempt to decipher the motives driving killers to acts of evil. What is important is to find a way to vanquish them. The President, in the immediate aftermath of the blast, has spoken of the need to turn sorrow into strength, to face the situation with courage. The words express the right sentiments. What is crucial is to find the means to act on them and to ensure that everyone in circles of decision-making is working towards the same goal. The civilian and military government must ensure cooperation and combined planning towards this end.

There are now several key challenges ahead. They go beyond the question of immediate arrests or an investigation of the blast itself.

These are of course important, but we need to look further and draw up a plan of action that in time will help us build a country where people are safe and where the terror that lurks everywhere in Islamabad and indeed other cities does not forever haunt us. How can this be done? Indeed can it now be achieved at all? These are questions we must face up to. Too much time has already been lost. The actions being contemplated today should have come years, perhaps, decades sooner. After all, suicide bombings were, even five years ago, almost unknown in the country. We must ask ourselves how we so rapidly descended in the abyss of violence we face today. In 2003, 189 people in the country died in terrorist related incidents. In 2007 this figure stood at over 3,500. In 2002, 20 died in two suicide attacks.

For 2008 the figure already stands at over 300. Who knows what the toll will be by the time the year reaches its bloody end. An understanding of how this happened, and why it was allowed to happen, is crucial to developing a strategy to deal with the ghastly realty we face.

But there are ways to try and overcome terror, provided there is will, and commitment and a shared vision. The measures that are required include an improvement in security and the training of personnel at checkposts. In Iraq, such an enhancement in their skills has helped bring down the number of bombings and the number of deaths. But far more is needed than mere security. The fact is that today, thousands of persons recruited through the years for ‘jihad’ by militant outfits - with or without official patronage - roam in our cities, our towns, our tribal areas. In most cases their only skills involve the use of guns, grenades and bombs. A means has to be found to rehabilitate these people and prevent them from leading still others down the staircase that leads to violence. In times of high unemployment and high desperation such recruitment is taking place rapidly. We must also act decisively against key militants, their outfits and their seminaries. Many in northern areas are able to identify seminaries where killers are trained. Such institutions exist too in our cities.

They must be closed down. The immediate task for the government is to build the consensus required to go about this. There is no time to lose, no time to waste. The still smouldering remains of the Marriott are a reminder of the need for urgent action. If we fail now, there will yet be worse to come in the days ahead.
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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

After the tragedy


The search operation at the gutted Marriott Hotel is over. All the bodies have been pulled out, the injured recover in hospitals. The process of investigation is well underway. The government has indicated there is evidence of origins in Waziristan. Mercifully, there has been no serious attempt at the official level to blame 'foreign' hands, as has too often happened in the past. Everyone seems willing to face the reality that this act, like those before it, has been perpetrated by Pakistan's own people. Both the prime minister and the president have accepted this in their words of condemnation. There are some reports, including one appearing in this newspaper, that the bombing may have been carried out by an extremist splinter group, led by a man who till June this year had been in custody in Karachi. It has been suggested his release, on court orders, was facilitated by agencies in a bid to prevent more suicide bombings. In other words a 'deal' was struck, and then broken. While it is impossible to determine whether the release of Qari Saifullah Akhtar led to Saturday's devastating tragedy in Islamabad, the report once more focuses attention on the dangerous nexus between our intelligence apparatus and extremist outfits. Others like him too walk free. Some continue to preach at mosques. Until this relationship between agencies and militants is ended, we can be certain that there will be yet more violence within a country torn apart by terrorism that has claimed thousands of lives within the past few years.

There is as yet no way of saying how the investigation will proceed. But there is plenty of room for doubt. After all, even with a PPP government in power since March, little headway seems to have been made in the inquiry into the December 27assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Beyond the detention of a few low-level operatives, we do not seem to have succeeded in making much headway in exposing the masterminds who planned other bombings, in Lahore, in Islamabad, in Wah and elsewhere. Given this record, perhaps Pakistan should take up the offer made of FBI assistance. After all, after a crime of this scale, we need to swallow pride and acquire all the help we can. The threat we face today is unprecedented. The foremost priority must be to prevent other such outrageous acts of violence in the future. The sense of almost universal shock caused by the blast at the Marriott must be used as a means to launch an all-out offensive against the forces behind it.

The blast, and the scenes we saw immediately after it, have all exposed some bitter truths. They concern the failure to secure Islamabad, despite the threat to it, the inadequacies of the rescue operation with fire hoses too short to reach the top floors and the flaws in the training of hotel security personnel, who experts say may have been able to shoot the bomber as he pulled up besides them in his truck. These aspects are all significant, but they concern issues of micromanagement. There can be no doubt that better preparedness is needed in each of these areas. But what is crucial is the need is to tackle the broader issue itself. This means tackling Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the mindsets of hatred they have created. Pakistan must evolve an indigenous strategy for this. But it also needs support from the rest of the world. For this reason, President Asif Ali Zardari's visit to the US is important. The issue of terrorism needs to be put before the UN and before US leaders, so that the world can collectively stand behind Pakistan as it takes on forces that now threaten its very survival.

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Global economic turmoil

There can have been few weeks in the history of the global financial markets that have seen events of such magnitude as that we have just witnessed. The US treasury is said to be preparing to set up an $800bn fund to effectively buy back from the banks and mortgage lenders a large portion of the US mortgage market; and the global banking and financial services sector is being shaken to its foundations as the hitherto 'spotless' institutions crumble in the wake of the ever-expanding sub-prime mortgage crashes. They have taken down Bear-Stearns, Merrill-Lynch and Lehman Bros and - almost but not quite – AIG; which the Forbes Global 2000 list has placed as the 18th largest company in the world. The American government was prepared to allow Merrell-Lynch and Lehman's to go to the wall but blinked with it came to AIG, which as one of the worlds leading insurers was underwriting much of the risky business taken on by the banking sector.

If AIG went down they would take with them a lot of other ships in the financial fleet, so the US government in an unprecedented move has injected $85bn as a loan over two years and effectively nationalised AIG – a move hitherto considered unthinkable within the US, the ultimate free market economy. AIG is not technically bankrupt – it has a trillion dollars in assets worldwide – despite which it has posted trading losses every month for the last nine. Were AIG to have folded the consequences would have been far more wide-ranging than those resulting from the loss of Merrill-Lynch or Lehman's. It has policy-holders in over 100 countries (and is a significant figure in he Pakistan insurance sector) and a swathe of categories :- business, home-ownership and mortgages, credit lines, domestic and motor-vehicle insurance and airline passenger insurance; all of which would be catastrophically impacted by its demise.

The decisive move by the US government spells the end for AIG top management as it did for the managements of the mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac whose top brass were guillotined after they too were crippled by the sub-prime crisis. The taking on of high-risk loans and then trading those loans bank-to-bank is what has shot the whole global banking industry in its collective foot. The big banks can no longer make what are effectively very large bets on three-legged horses and then expect the state sector – the tax payer – to provide the lifeboat when Tilly the Tripod fails to win the race and the punters are lined up asking for their money back. The high-risk loans given to customers who could not afford to service their debt, coupled with a collapse in the value of the properties they had bought, eventually wound up in the lap of AIG as they were the underwriters – in which sense it may be that there is less 'blame' to attach to them than to the rapacious bankers. Lending money to people who cannot afford to repay the debt is the road to ruin; a moral tale that the local banking sector should consider closely as it rolls out ever more credit facilities into a struggling economy; and encourages into new debt a population that struggles to service the debt it already carries.
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