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Old Sunday, August 31, 2008
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Dark 'traditions'


Sunday, August 31, 2008

The defence put up in the Senate of an incident in which five women, including three teenage girls who wished to marry by choice, were buried alive in Balochistan is appalling. The older women, shot and then buried with them, were presumably mothers or relatives who had sought mercy for the girls. A senator from the province, who should surely know better, defended the barbaric act as 'tribal custom'. Still more shockingly, the acting chairman of the Senate lashed out against the woman senator from the PML-Q who had raised the issue, advising her, rather sarcastically, to go and see the situation in Balochistan herself before raising such matters in the House.

A voice or two was raised against the practice, with another Baloch senator insisting it was not a traditional practice and such events did not routinely take place in his province. But this does not take away the fact that political representatives from Balochistan made an effort to justify the incident. The event took place almost a month ago in a remote village near Jaffarabad. What is extraordinary is that the matter has not been raised before more vocally. The senator who brought it up deserves credit; she has been quite unjustly attacked by others in the Upper House. It has been reported the PPP-led government in Balochistan tried to cover up the atrocity. This too of course signals a deeply flawed pattern of thinking. Surely the government should be seeking the murderers, who first used guns to ensure their victims were injured and could not escape, and then covered them with earth muffling forever their screams of terror are punished and exposed, not protected through some dark conspiracy of silence. The fact the act was 'kept quiet' in fact means the government sympathizes with such doings.

Not just in Balochistan, but elsewhere across the country too, a distorted belief seems to exist that 'traditions' are invariably good and need to be protected. We have seen such thinking used to defend practices that include 'honour killing', vani, swara, the marriage of small children, the beheading of people on orders of illegal 'jirgas'. Other equally barbaric customs too are carried out from time to time, in many cases, despite laws which bar them. There is an urgent need for greater recognition of the fact that 'tradition' is not invariably good. All too often it has been used to oppress the most vulnerable. Women are the most frequent victims. While preserving what is good about our heritage is important, it is equally important to discard what is bad. This after all is what progress is all about. It is due to development, education, greater enlightenment, that much of the world has changed, broken with its past when the need to do so arises. This is why Chinese women, in a society as deeply traditional as our own, no longer have their feet bound at birth but can instead stride confidently into workplaces and educational institutions alongside men. The practice of tying up feet to keep women immobile, able only to shuffle feebly along in slippers in a manner that was thought to enhance their worth as docile wives and daughters, has been prevented by law, education and the active effort made over the decades to do away with evil elements of China's past while keeping intact the good. Traditions that inflict suffering and death on hapless victims in particular need to be done away with here too. There can be no excuse for living on in darkness.

It is deeply saddening that political leaders find it so arduous to understand this reality. It is due to the views we heard expressed in the Senate that we still live in a society where human beings can be buried alive while representatives of people argue this is acceptable. It is true Balochistan has suffered over the decades from a lack of development. The federal government has a lot to answer for in this regard. But it is the province's leaders who must too play a part in guiding it towards a brighter future, not shoving it backwards and making an attempt to defend practices that are quite obviously indefensible.


Source: The News.
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Old Monday, September 01, 2008
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Monday, September 01, 2008

Escalated violence

The conflict in Swat has flared up once more, with air strikes conducted for the first in many months by military jets. The action came in response to stepped up militant offensives in the area. Twenty-two Taliban are reported dead, including two senior commanders. Several military personnel have also been killed. A military spokesman has confirmed the target was Maulana Fazlullah, with intelligence reports apparently stating he was present at the site bombarded by jets. The man who has for months imposed a reign of terror over Swat, however, seems once more to have escaped. It is also a reflection on the situation of our country today that no effort can apparently be made to arrest men like Maulana Fazlullah, guilty of all kinds of crimes ranging from the extortion of money to murder. The writ of state is so weakened in areas such as Swat that law-enforcers cannot act. Instead, attempts must be made to kill ‘enemies’, using bombs or missiles. Sadly, this means innocent men, women and children too die. One woman at least is said to be among the latest victim of the fighting in Swat.

To end the suffering of people trapped in such situations, it is necessary to remove key militant leaders – such as Fazlullah – from the scene. What authorities must ask is if it may be possible to do this through commandos sent in to capture him – on the lines of similar actions seen elsewhere in the world. Good intelligence and ground support is imperative for such action. But putting such men on trial could serve an important purpose, exposing their deeds, countering the argument that they are men of religion and freeing people from their hold. Death would only turn them into martyrs. This is an issue the authorities need to consider carefully and then assess possibilities. Open trials after all have many advantages. This has been seen in all kinds of hearings, including those involving war criminals in the aftermath of wars in many parts of the world. Showing the face of these people as they truly are is important to ensuring their hold on minds is released.

At the same time there is a need to consider longer-term strategy for areas like Swat. The unrest there has gone on far too long. It has devastated education, especially for girls, and livelihoods. The time has come to present before the people of the valley an image of what life could be like once warfare ends. A plan for rehabilitation and development needs to be laid out on the table. This is not only because people need hope, and some optimism regarding the future. But also because a vision of what the state can offer them may play a part in persuading them to line up against militants. Such assistance from people is urgently required to defeat militants. A full-fledged attempt to gain it must begin now, so that calm can one day again return to the Swat valley and people can resume lives shattered by months of conflict.

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Homeless at home

In what is being termed the largest internal displacement in the history of Pakistan, some 40,000 people are reported to have left their homes in Bajaur, fleeing the fierce fighting that has continued there now for the past 20 days. Most have headed to the neighbouring district of Lower Dir, others to the homes of relatives elsewhere. Camps have been set up at government schools and other buildings for the Internally Displaced People (IDPs). In this respect, the ANP government in NWFP, and also the JI – the first two groups to set up camps and offer assistance – have acted more swiftly and sensibly than their predecessors. In past years and months, people displaced by conflict from Waziristan, Swat and other areas had received almost no official help.

While better intent has been shown this time, it is also true that the conditions at the camps are miserable. There are reports of men, women and children having to walk miles to obtain water, of inadequate or unsuitable food being offered to them and of a severe shortage of sanitation. The news that the government has now opted to allow international agencies to come in and offer their expertise is welcome. One must hope they are able to quickly improve living conditions, with many of the displaced persons now fearing they may be forced to spend the holy month of Ramazan away from homes. In some cases families, with some members staying back to protect property and care for livestock, have also been divided.

There is still little official word about the precise number of displaced people in the country as a whole. Other displacements have occurred from Balochistan as well as tribal territories hit by conflict. The fact that the issue in Bajaur has been acknowledged permits attention to be focused on the matter. These hapless people have been caught up in a situation that is not of their own making. Militants have attempted to use them as human shields; troops have threatened them with bombardments of villages unless militants are forced to leave them. For local people, this reality has brought many perils. They have complained that neither the state nor the Taliban care for their welfare. The number of civilian casualties of the war on terror runs to hundreds if not thousands. In tragedy there is often opportunity. The government has gained a chance to engage with the people of Bajaur at a time when there are in need of help. It must ensure this aid is extended to them, and hearts won over, for in the final analysis it is only these people who can defeat the terrible terrorist scourge we today face. Militants have put the future of a large number of people at stake by forcing them into migrating to safer areas. This should also serve as an eye-opener for the people who still believe that the government should adopt a peaceful approach in dealing with the extremists.
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Old Tuesday, September 02, 2008
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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Dazed and confused

It is hardly surprising that thousands of refugees from the fighting in Bajaur agency are refusing to go back to their homes (if indeed they still have homes to go back to). Refugees only go home when they feel it is safe to do so, and it is crystal clear to all but the congenitally blind that Bajaur is no safer today than it was before the government decided to announce a ceasefire during Ramazan. The ceasefire announcement was itself mired in confusion as it seems that the government had not had the courtesy to tell the military of its intentions before making the announcement, wrong-footing the army and making all concerned look like stumbling amateurs. The government may also have unwittingly wrong-footed the Taliban, as those wreaking havoc in Bajaur agency welcomed the ceasefire while Maulana Fazlullah in Swat (does the ceasefire apply there as well?) rejected the offer and returned to consulting his dwindling list of girls schools to be blown up. All in all, confusion reigns across vast swathes of NWFP and the tribal agencies, with little sign of a return to peace and order either during or after Ramazan.

The man who announced the ceasefire, interior adviser Rehman Malik, must have left the army command slack-jawed in amazement. The military in Bajaur were beginning to make headway against tough resistance, and to have the government apply the brakes mid-operation and without prior consultation will have done nothing for the relationship between civilians and the military, and even less for the morale of the men fighting and dying at the behest of their civilian masters. There will, however, have been jubilation in the camps of the Taliban. They have thirty days to re-supply, re-arm, reposition and enjoy a little rest and recreation all so long as they are careful with their trigger fingers. The military, unless directly attacked, will watch helplessly as the Taliban take advantage of the aid package gifted to them by a government composed of invertebrates.

Endless rounds of peace talks have produced nothing durable by way of peace in NWFP, and the promised aid and reconstruction packages can only be implemented post-conflict; and the declaration of a ceasefire has not created negotiating space nor given substance to any past or present agreement. It has, however, effectively hobbled the military and given aid and succour to those they were battling against. And the refugees from Bajaur? They have a wisdom born of experience and have decided to stay where they are – better a live refugee than the dead victim of bungling governance.

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Kurram bloodbath

The fact that mayhem has once more engulfed Kurram agency should come as no surprise. It is, however, a tragedy that authorities have failed to do anything to stop the ceaseless bloodletting that has been taking place in the area for the past ten months. As rival Turi and Bangash tribes, divided along sectarian lines, again clashed on Sunday, 95 people are reported dead and over 200 injured. This brings to around 400 the deaths reported within the past three weeks. The latest carnage came as a unilateral ceasefire declared by one of the warring tribes ahead of the holy month of Ramazan was violated by rival tribesmen. The most unholy deeds were witnessed, as militias went on a murderous rampage through village after village. It is quite evident traditional leaders have lost control over the situation. Reports say this is true on either side of the sectarian divide, with elements that have come in to Kurram from other areas now calling the shots. Disturbingly, as the frenzy continues, young fighters are also being actively recruited by both sides. Some accounts speak of teenage boys no more than 15 or 16 years, perhaps younger, taking part in the ongoing blood fest.

Kurram agency, the only one among the tribal agencies to house a significant Shia population, has seen sporadic sectarian clashes over the decades. There have also been bombings at mosques and other places. But never before has the orgy of violence continued quite so long or assumed such terrifying proportions. Following the violation of the unilateral, pre-Ramazan ceasefire, it seems quite obvious that matters are unlikely to be settled at the local level. There is now far too much hatred and distrust in the air. The government needs to step in immediately. Its failure to do so, even as an appeal made last month by the adviser on interior to stop the warfare was ignored, is criminal. Scores of deaths may have been averted. The government must accept the responsibility for not moving in sooner, weeks and months ago, as the latest round of sectarian fury took hold.

What is important now is to ensure people get some respite from violence over Ramazan. They deployment of troops would appear to be necessary to achieve this. The suffering of people has been aggravated by the fact that northern areas of Kurram, including Parachinar, have been cut off from the rest of the country for weeks. Medicines are not available, food is scarce. Sacks of 'atta' have been selling at grotesquely inflated prices. People in need of doctors have been unable to reach them. This situation cannot be allowed to continue. The authorities must intervene now, before more deaths take place in a region that has seen far too many already over the past weeks.

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Shahbaz's future


The political point scoring, that many believe is likely to take on ugly dimensions with the collapse of the central government, seems set to unfold first of all on the battlefield of Punjab. In the provincial assembly with 371 members, the PML-N holds 171 seats. The possibility of the Shahbaz Sharif-led government falling should the PPP pull out of it is very real. The presidential vote on September 6 is being seen as a test of PML-N standing. Signs of weakness may lead to a vote of no-confidence being moved at an opportune time. The PPP is said also to be preparing a full arsenal of varied weaponry, with the law ministry preparing a reference that will challenge Shahbaz's candidature under Article 223 of the constitution, which disallows dual membership. Shahbaz had won seats to the provincial assembly from both Bhakkar and Rawalpindi. The time at which he vacated his Rawalpindi seat had also previously created some slight controversy, with one view being that as he had taken oath as chief minister after victory at Bhakkar another win required a new oath.

Such legal disputes over technicalities are now likely to assume centre-stage. The aftermath of the coalition break-up could become very ugly indeed. Both the PPP and the PML-N have been courting the PML-Q. At present, it is thought the PPP has the upper hand, with its governor in the province reported also to be playing a part. The fact that the PML-N distrusts and dislikes him has already been made obvious. It seems that power games similar to those witnessed in the past will now be seen once again. The days of brotherhood and solidarity appear already to be over. Bitter rivalry between the PPP and the PML-N -- which is confident that its popularity in Punjab is growing steadily in the post-poll scenario -- is likely to dominate the next phase of politics in the country.
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Old Wednesday, September 03, 2008
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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Buried truth?


The issue of the incident in Jaffarabad district in Balochistan, where five women were reportedly buried alive, has finally created a national furore. This of course is as things should be. Protests have been staged outside parliament over the remarks made by Senator Israrullah Zehri attempting to defend the gruesome 'honour' killing as 'tribal custom'. Other leaders from Balochistan have denied such practices are a part of tradition.

But, sadly, even as the Senate passed a unanimous resolution condemning the incident and demanding punishment for its perpetrators, an attempt at a cover-up is on. The government presented an extremely dubious report before the Senate, stating three women and not five had been killed, that the incident involved a property dispute and was not a case of 'honour' killing and that the women had been killed before being buried. The adviser on interior, perhaps realizing that all this sounded blatantly unbelievable given mounting evidence of the horrific event that had actually taken place, has conceded that this version based on local police accounts differs from the report by the IG and a full investigation is on. But an obvious attempt seems to be on to bury the truth, alongside the hapless women who met so terrible an end. The interior adviser himself shied away from making any reference to a live burial, focusing instead on 'honour' killings that he emphasized also took place outside Balochistan. While three arrests have been made, including that of the fathers of the girls and the brother of two, and two bodies exhumed, authorities insist the brother of a PPP provincial minister was not involved. They have maintained media reports accusing him of playing a part in the whole sordid incident are inaccurate.

This is a distinct diversion from accounts from NGOs that have investigated the happening. People in Usta Muhammad, the principal town of Jaffarabad, had reported a vehicle with government number plates had been used to whisk away the three teenage girls – and possibly another woman accompanying them – from a hotel. They speak of a 'tribal influential' being involved. It is thought the young women, all of them educated, who had chosen to exercise their lawful right to make their own choice in marriage, had come to the town to enter into court marriages with the men of their choosing. Many details, lost amidst various cover-ups, remain hazy. Police now say two and not five women were killed. Local people, in the village of Babakot where the event took place, are clearly too terrorized to talk. The arrested brother of two of the women killed has reportedly taken responsibility. This seems like a replication of the pattern seen in numerous 'honour' killings, where a brother accepts blame, and is then 'forgiven' by the father of the victim, thus ensuring that under the country's Qisas and Diyat law his son escapes scot-free and no one is punished.

The fact that the Balochistan High Court has taken suo motu notice of the incident is good news. This raises some hope the truth will eventually emerge from amidst the sands in which an attempt is being made to bury it. The central government must ensure it participates fully in the effort to punish all those involved in the crime and join hands with civil society for this. The fact that in the first three months of this year, at least 90 women suffered 'honour' killings according to the Aurat Foundation indicates how grave the problem is. Thousands are believed to have died over the past five years for the sake of family 'honour'. The 2005 law that set in place tougher penalties for such crimes remains poorly enforced. These are the wrongs a government, led till the end of this year by a woman in whose name it still speaks, must right. Attempting a cover-up would only add to the crime itself.

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A clean break


It is not often that clear and unequivocal statements come from the mouths of government functionaries; and we therefore warmly welcome the statement by Rehman Malik, adviser to the prime minister on the interior, that Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are one and the same. Analysts and commentators as well as western media outlets have been saying much the same for several years, but were told by the previous government that there was no linkage between the two organisations and that it was foolish to think that there was. Rehman Malik in making the statement that there was a nexus between Al Qaeda and the TTP is thus signalling a significant break with the past by acknowledging reality and eschewing the traditional policy of denial. He went on to say that the TTP was… 'a new face of Al Qaeda' – which is again a welcome acknowledgement of ground realities.

The government has now banned the TTP and issued orders to the State Bank of Pakistan that all commercial banks are to freeze TTP accounts as well as provide complete details of account holders and their transactions. Whilst supporting this overdue move we also urge a note of caution as outfits like the TTP are adept at changing shape and name and swiftly re-emerging under the barriers of the banning order as vigorous as they were in their previous incarnation. The TTP should have been banned long ago, its funds sequestered and its activists disarmed, their strongholds bulldozed. Was this to have happened we may have been able to limit, but completely prevent, some of the violence currently wracking NWFP. The government also needs to widen the scope of its actions against extremism and target latent groups, before they achieve the bloody notoriety of the TTP. One such that is in need of having its wings clipped is Jaish-e-Mohammed, headquartered in Bahawalpur in the south Punjab and in recent months flexing its muscles. NGOs working on women rights issues have been threatened, video and CD shops burned or bombed in Kot Addu and women warned to remain housebound. This is the thin end of the wedge, and it is by allowing such organisations latitude in the early days of their activity that they are able to gain power and influence over a highly suggestible population.

Freezing bank accounts and banning organisations is all well and good, but will only be effective if their successor accounts are frozen and successor organisations are banned and then banned again until the curse of extremism is expunged – and not only in NWFP. JM is just one of several organisations 'giving cause for concern' – and we note that south Punjab is geographically distant from NWFP, which gives weight to the argument that extremist organisations are not confined to traditionally 'radical' areas. Full marks for your forthright clarity, Mr Rehman Malik, and can we please have more of the same in the future – closely followed by the appropriate action, of course?
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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The dead don't lie


As if the original reports of five Baloch women being buried whilst still alive after being shot in the name of honour were not horrific enough; the post-mortem on two of them – three bodies are yet to be located – reveals yet more horror and exposes the lies of the police. The pathologist who carried out the post-mortem said that the women, aged about 20, had been severely tortured and then beaten to death. There were no marks of bullets anywhere on their bodies. This directly contradicts the statements of the Balochistan police who said that the bodies bore multiple bullet-wounds, including wounds to the head, and that the women must have been dead before they were buried. The Balochistan police have – under pressure from the centre – arrested at least two men who are said to have confessed to the crime, but the very last thing that they want to come out of all this is anything approaching the truth of what happened.

Not everybody has behaved dishonourably in this 'matter of honour'. The interior minister had the good sense to reject the original report that the Balochistan police sent him, which was a cut-and-paste of extracts from newspapers – he rejected the second report as well and awaits a third. The federal law minister, Farooq Naek, caught the mood of the public and said on Wednesday that … 'those behind this crime will be given exemplary justice.' The media, despite the deprecating comments of Jan Mohammed Jamali, acting chairman of the Senate, has shone a light where light is rarely seen and where many would rather it was never seen at all. Credit must also go to the common man; as for perhaps the first time there is an honour-killing case that has finally brought out a sense of disgust and revulsion among a broad and deep cross-section of the wider population. It is not only the pundits and civil-society activists who are outraged, it is ordinary people as well; and this might be the case that finally tips the balance towards the rejection of such 'cultural practices' by those who had hitherto either condoned them or simply turned a blind eye.

Let us now see robust support for the rule of law from the centre as well as from the provincial authorities. Let us see the lying and corrupt police officers who are complicit in this awful act brought to book as well as the murderers. Let us see those who committed the crime in a court of law in front of a judge who will not be swayed by culture or bhatta. What we will never see or hear is the written or verbal evidence of the women who were murdered – yet they did not die in vain, and the dead cannot lie. Their remains are yielding a truth that exposes the barbarity of their killers, a truth that is a dagger in the heart of the 'culture' that saw them to an early and miserable grave.

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Vengeful deeds


Barely ten days have gone by since the PML-N quit the coalition government in the centre. But this period of time seems to have been enough to open up a true chapter of vengeance. NAB, now under the federal law ministry, has wasted no time at all in re-opening three corruption cases, filed against Nawaz Sharif and his family members in July 2000. It is obviously stretching incredulity too far to have anyone believe that there is no element of revenge in this action. Even as the PPP's prime minister, who seems to serve a purely cosmetic purpose, continues to offer up meaningless platitudes, insisting that the PML-N will be invited back to government after the judges are restored, the real, much more vicious power set-up continues its operations behind the scenes.

The re-opening of the cases involving the Hudaibiya Paper Mills, the Ittefaq Foundry and Raiwind assets bring back the worst memories of the 1990s, and the terrible politics of vendetta that marked the era. The first two cases involve loans taken from banks and allegedly abused; the last concerns assets accumulated by the Sharifs that were allegedly in excess to their declared income. In the months after Nawaz Sharif was removed from power in October 1999, details of the alleged malpractices filled every newspaper. The references of course ended up in a dusty file as Nawaz, Shahbaz and their closest kin boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia.

The re-opening at this juncture is quite extraordinary. The government has not even made the pretence of neutrality that would be expected in any normal circumstance. Even its own self-respect seems irrelevant to it. It also seems willing to drive the final nail into the coffin as far as its ties with the PML-N are concerned. The coalition has indeed fallen apart in the worst possible way, as had been predicted. Former president Musharraf, the PML-Q's Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and former minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed can almost be heard chuckling, indeed roaring with mirth, over how swiftly their forecasts have come true.

There is another point to be made here. NAB, as before, has been used simply as a means to extract revenge and victimize politicians. The cases are obviously intended to exert maximum pressure on the Sharifs, as the presidential poll looms and battle lines harden in Punjab. The task of conducting any meaningful process of accountability is clearly beyond our leaders. This has been true before; it is true now – with the politics of animosity now taking centre stage in their worst possible form. Hope of sanity on the political front has, it seems, faded further away.

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Good brothers


The slogan of Pak-China friendship is one all of us have heard for decades. The way this is put into practice within Pakistan must however have raised many questions in Chinese minds. To add to the Chinese nationals killed in terrorist incidents in the recent past or made victims of other kinds of violence, two engineers from the country, who vanished four days ago, have been seized by the Taliban in the Swat area. The two employees of a mobile phone company, with their Pakistani guard and driver, were abducted in Lower Dir. The Taliban have presented a list of demands they wish the Pakistan government to meet in exchange for their safe release.

The pattern of blackmail we have seen before continues. The Taliban have once more proved they are a criminal outfit, out to inflict the maximum possible damage on their country. Their acts make it less likely that investment, and with it jobs that people so desperately need, will come into Pakistan. Giving in to their demands puts at risk the welfare of others. Not doing so puts the life of the hapless victims now in their hands at risk. The government is caught in an unenviable dilemma. But it must keep in mind this has arisen as a direct consequence of failing to deal previously with the extremists. It must not now repeat the crippling mistakes of the past.
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Old Friday, September 05, 2008
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Friday, September 05, 2008

Ground realities


The first US ground action against militants staged by forces that landed in Waziristan has sent shock waves through the country. The audacious assault is a blatant violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. At least ten, and possibly up to 20, civilians, including women and children, are reported to have died. The reports say they were gunned down as troops burst into a house and then opened fire on other bewildered villagers who had gathered around it. There is no news of any deaths of militants, though some reports say several unidentified persons have been whisked across the border into Afghanistan. The ISPR has condemned the 'completely unprovoked' act of killing, and confirmed two US helicopters had landed early Tuesday morning in South Waziristan. Senior security personnel have denied intelligence was shared.

The customary condemnations have come in, a protest lodged with the US embassy in Islamabad and complaints made to military commanders based across the border. It is unlikely these will have much impact. Similar gestures made by Pakistan in the past have simply been brushed away as minor irritants. The country has repeatedly failed to defend its territory. The situation now seems to be worsening with the US apparently no longer sharing advance information about predator strikes or other aerial offences. (In this context, the issue of intelligence is also important because going by the public stance of the government it would be fair to assume that Islamabad is not supplying intelligence to the Americans and NATO for such attacks.) Of course Washington is at fault. We have all seen how its arrogant actions in invading Iraq and Afghanistan have added manifold to the difficulties of these nations. The same disregard for interests other than its own is dictating US landings within Pakistan. But it is also true the situation is, in part at least, of Pakistan's own creation. Washington, like many within the country, is convinced intelligence agencies or elements within them are linked to militants. These concerns have repeatedly been expressed, irrefutable video and audio evidence placed before top officials including the prime minister. Yet Islamabad seems unwilling, or unable, to do anything about this. Such paralysis can only encourage unilateral action.

This having been said, there can be no doubt the killing of civilians in such fashion and the illegal invasion of a sovereign country, can only aggravate the situation. Hatred for the US is bound to increase in Musa Neeke, the village that saw the pre-dawn raid, and in areas around it. This in turn will fuel more rage, more militancy. The task of Pakistan in tackling the problem will become even harder, the perceptions that this is a war fought on behalf of others more strongly rooted. Pakistan's leadership, as it ponders means to defend its borders, must somehow convey these realities to Washington and also take measures to strengthen its own internal resolve to battle terror, lessening the temptation for external forces to step in.

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A narrow escape?

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has emerged unscathed from an apparent assassination attempt. The attack came from snipers based atop hills that line the route to Islamabad airport, as the prime minister's motorcade travelled along it to collect him on his return from Lahore. Rather ironically, at least one of the shooters is thought to have been based metres away from the spot where the unheeded words of the nation's founder, calling for 'Unity, Faith and Discipline' stare out from the greenery.

There is still conjecture as to whether the attack was intended to kill or merely send out a warning. But the fact that three gunmen were used suggests a full-fledged assassination bid. Several other facts are also clear: the sniper who hit the car that would have been carrying the prime minister was obviously highly skilled, able to pick out with accuracy a target moving at high speed. In this there are frightening echoes of the unsolved Benazir Bhutto killing, in which a gunman apparently struck from the midst of a tumultuous crowd. It would also seem that the would-be assassins had inside information regarding VVIP movement. Only this can explain the timing of their bid. The security implications are immense. Rather bizarrely, the prime minister has stated he had in fact been informed of the assassination plan a day ahead and had accordingly changed travel plans. He has not said who warned him or why no bid was made to follow-up on this critical information. Even more alarming is the fact that even this last-minute change in itinerary appears to have been known to the gunmen, who waited at precisely the right spot on the right day. One can only hope those behind the bid are identified – before they can strike again with possibly more lethal consequences.

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What is your name?

Sectarian conflict is nothing new in Pakistan or anywhere else for that matter, and wherever there are sects within the same faith there will at some time have been conflict. Today, the sectarian bloodletting in Kurram agency has a death toll that looks like it will top 1,000 within a week with no sign of a let-up. Such is the ferocity of the conflict in Kurram that some commentators are suggesting that it is 'ethnic cleansing' -- not so; it is sect and not ethnicity that drives the bloodlust. Across the country at various times in the recent past both Shia and Sunni groups have bombed one another's mosques and imambargahs at will and now we see what appears to be the selective kidnapping of Shias – abducted in Bara tehsil of Khyber agency.

Selective kidnapping is not new either but what is particularly disturbing about the most recent kidnapping is its scale. Between 40 and 50 recruits of the Hangu Police Training College were the targets and if recent history is anything to go by their chances of a safe return to their families are slim. The Taliban have regularly kidnapped military and paramilitary personnel in NWFP and the tribal areas in recent years, often killing those they found to be Shia before releasing the rest of the group; a simple asking-of-the-name or examination of identity card being enough to sort the quick from the soon-to-be-dead. Mangal Bagh, head of the banned Lashkar-e-Islam and de facto ruler of Khyber agency says that none of his men are involved in the abductions and he will do all he can to trace the missing recruits – an offer that is at best hollow and at worst a sickening mockery.

The canker of sectarianism now spreads the length and breadth of the country, with no minority able to feel safe or secure. Prime Minister Gilani has proposed a cross-sect jirga in an attempt to short-circuit the Kurram conflict and we wish him well in his endeavours – but suspect that a single jirga no matter how well-intentioned is going to do little to resolve matters. The families of those taken in the latest iteration of sectarianism can do nothing beyond say their prayers and hope – and the Hangu Police College might give some serious thought to providing protection for its recruits as they move from place to place in the future.
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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Day of destiny


By midnight of today, Saturday the sixth of September 2008, Pakistan will have a new president. He – there are no female candidates – will almost certainly be Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto. For many he is a controversial candidate, and some commentators have described him as 'risky'. Miles of newsprint and hours of airtime have been consumed discussing the pros and cons of his candidacy, the ups and downs of his political and social life, his physical and mental health and the state of his bank accounts. One might be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know about Asif Ali Zardari, but there is yet a known unknown that we have to discover – if, by due process, he is indeed elected we do not know -- cannot yet know -- what sort of president he will be. We can make as many assumptions as we like, as many convoluted extrapolations of arcane statistics, as many interpretations of rumour and conspiracy theory – all as we like; and be no closer to knowing just what sort of president Asif Ali Zardari might turn out to be. We do, however, have some inkling as to the sort of president we would like him to be.

On Sunday morning, if elected, he will wake up as the most powerful person in the entire nation. What he does with that power in the days, weeks and months that follow – and he will not have long to prove his worth, three or four months at most – will tell us the kind of president he is. Whether he is benign, a healer who is able to dress the wounds that leak blood and life from a stricken land; whether he is a bridge-builder, who comes with bricks and mortar and a strong pair of willing hands to join with others to throw the first ropes that will make the bridge across the rushy streams that divide the political landscape. Whether he will come in days of rage, sword-handed and with a list of enemies who will swiftly find themselves in places they would rather not be. Whether he will be a president who speaks of peace and plays at war. Whether he will be a light for us, clear and bright, or a guttering flame that dies and leaves us again in the crepuscular gloom that has so often enveloped the Land of the Pure.

What we the people would like is a person who we can trust, who represents us and our country on the world stage and has the respect of other nations in so doing, we would like a person who, despite his own personal wealth, is not so rich as never to be able to understand what it is like to be poor. So if you awake as president on Sunday morning, Asif Ali Zardari, look out of your window at the peons, the gardeners, the chowkidars, the driver who waits to take you on your first drive to the President's House – and raise a hand in greeting, palm outwards. It would be a worthy start.

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Shadows in the skies

Even as parliament lashed out angrily against the first US ground action inside Pakistan, other aircraft believed to carry US colours cast their ugly shadows over the skies of North Waziristan on Sept 4. A missile dispatched by the unmanned drone is reported to have struck a house in a village close to the Afghan border, killing several people, including a number of Arabs. Ominously, the US media has warned there will be more attacks. Equally alarming is the point-blank refusal by both the White House spokeswoman and the US Secretary of State to make any comment on the raid in Pakistan, said to have been conducted by US Special Forces. The Pentagon too has had nothing to say. This conspiracy of stealthy silence is being read as a signal that the US plans more such action. Sources in Washington have been quoted as reinforcing past complaints that Pakistan has not done enough to tackle terrorism and that specific targets within the Northern Areas are being struck.

For Pakistan's government, the situation is an almost impossible one. The foreign minister and other senior government leaders have stated the ground attack marks a 'serious escalation' in the actions of coalition forces based in Afghanistan inside Pakistan. But beyond words and efforts to convince Washington to re-think its strategy, it is doubtful the government can do very much to stop the US from going ahead with its plans. So far it seems obvious the protests within the country have fallen on largely deaf ears in the offices of US policy makers. Many fear the worst could still lie ahead. Washington, after all, is hardly known for its sensitivity to the concerns or interests of others.

While the civilian government has just reason to feel aggrieved that the US has decided to act now – rather than during the long years of rule by its ally, former president Musharraf, when the militant issue grew and took firm root – it must tackle the situation with wisdom. Washington needs to be persuaded the anti-terrorist cause will be damaged greatly by the rising tide of national rage against US-led missions in the area. Pressure on Pakistan to halt its own anti-militant operation in the tribal areas has grown, with FATA legislators withdrawing support for Asif Ali Zardari. To make its bid to bring about a re-think in strategy on Pakistan successful, Islamabad must present a concrete blue-print of its own for tackling the problem. This must include dealing with the awkward issue of links between intelligence agencies and militants that has been brought up. The task is admittedly not an easy one, but then the alternative is a loss of what remains of Pakistan's sovereignty as US actions continue and more people die. The choice then, seems clear. We must act ourselves and prove Pakistan, its people and its military are capable of driving terrorists off our soil once and for all, and that we can do this better without intervention from the outside.
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Sunday, September 07, 2008

President Zardari

Asif Ali Zardari is the president of Pakistan. After his huge win on Saturday, he will be walking into the presidency with a huge burden of history on his shoulders. The massive margin of his victory is such that the election may seem to have been almost a formality – however, his job will be anything but that. From the jail cell in which he spent 11 years of his life – despite having been convicted of no crime – he has taken a place within the most elevated building in Islamabad. For him, in both personal and political terms, it has been a momentous journey. It has also been – thankfully, given our unfortunate experiments with military interventions -- a democratic one. Unlike the last presidential election we saw just eleven months ago, when former president Pervez Musharraf won a controversial poll boycotted by almost every group aside from the ruling PML-Q, this time participation has been full, the process fair, albeit with a result that was predictable. In terms of federal integrity, the support Mr Zardari received from the assemblies of the three smaller provinces is significant.

But, there is no time to look back. The challenges ahead are enormous. The issues the president, as the most powerful man in Pakistan, will need to address are towering. For a starter he needs a quick and complete makeover of his image from a wily politician, winding his way up, not mindful of whether he was breaking his promises or losing his credibility, to an international statesman who carries weight and is taken seriously. To do that he must quickly fulfil all the promises that he broke in the past, now that he has come out of the wall of political and physical insecurity that may have bothered him in the past. He must do away with the 17th amendment, ending the tussle for power between president and parliament, a power which repeatedly rocked the system and plunged it from one catastrophe to the next. The president will also be moving into the presidency at a time when multiple crises face us on other fronts too. From across the western frontier, US forces threaten to continue their assaults. The sovereignty of the country is at risk. Within its territory the economic situation seems to be worsening by the day. While the rupee has been able to slow its slide against the dollar, on a day-to-day basis, hyper-inflation affects every citizen. Forecasts of food riots have been made, fuel costs may rise further and a new increase in power rates looms.

There is also the lingering issue of the judiciary, as lawyers continue their protests. The bitterness created by it will linger. Political animosity between rival parties grows by the day and threatens to add to existing difficulties and problems. An unacknowledged civil war of low intensity is being fought in Balochistan, across Punjab masses of unemployed young men seek occupation and the threat of terrorism lurks everywhere. Finding means to solve these problems is obviously no easy task. Mr Zardari can hope to achieve it only by uniting people and patching over the political, ethnic and sectarian strains that threaten to tear Pakistan apart. For this, he must build a relationship of accommodation with other political parties; he must weave together a consensus on how to tackle militancy and he must infuse within his own party the spirit and will it needs to roll back the despair that engulfs people. The feeling that a kind of paralysis exists must be ended. Ending the feeling of political uncertainty and doubts about his ability to achieve these goals, the new president must rise to the occasion, show magnanimity, unite the nation, provide them trusted and dignified leadership and take the political process further. Asif Ali Zardari's ability to achieve this will determine how he fares over the years ahead and how a man, who in a break from the country's patriarchal tradition draws power from a woman, is eventually treated by history.

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Supply-line politics


The trucks carrying goods and fuel supplies to allied forces based in Afghanistan through the border point at Torkham will no longer roll through Khyber agency each morning. In what is being interpreted as a response to the US ground attack in South Waziristan that killed 20 people, including women and children, orders have been issued to political authorities in Khyber to halt this supply line. Growing unrest in tribal areas and the possibility of attacks on the vehicles is being cited by local authorities as a possible reason for the decision. If indeed this measure has been taken to express anger over the US assault on its territory, it seems strange the Pakistan government has not seen it fit to make a more open announcement to its people. Instead, reports have filtered through to the media from Khyber. The orders have been issued verbally; there has been no clear-cut statement as to the reasons. Public outrage over the killing of innocent civilians and the audacious violation of sovereignty is acute. The government must say how it plans to counter the American actions. The cutting off of supplies, as a concrete action, would appear to be one means to do this.

Surely it offered the government an opportunity to prove something was being done. It is uncertain how far the cutting off of supplies will hamper US-led forces in Afghanistan. It seems likely alternative routes to acquire goods can be set up by them, even if this involves greater costs and more complex logistics. But for all this, the gesture from Pakistan is immensely important. The country cannot stand by and allow foreign invasions. The third US attack in three days took place on Sept 5, as US planes bombed North Waziristan. Three children were among those killed. For Washington, these deaths are nothing more than 'collateral damage'. For Pakistan, they amount to the senseless murder of innocent people. Fury across northern areas is rising. Islamabad cannot allow such US action to go unchallenged. The decision to stop the transportation of goods is one step. It must also be backed by others so the message can get through Washington's seemingly impenetrable walls.

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New oath


Three of the deposed Supreme Court judges have taken a new oath administered by Chief Justice Dogar, and resumed duties. Others seem likely to follow. The deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry stands increasingly isolated. The government has said his position will be considered once he takes oath. The tactic adopted to bring back the judges had become clear as high court judges took new oaths. It is now being followed through to its logical conclusion. The likely end will be a return of almost all the judges, except Justice Chaudhry.

If we put on the lens of principle, there is much that is dubious about all this. The PML-N, the party that had most vociferously advocated the judicial cause, has cried 'foul play' and alleged that rather than adhering to the Bhurban agreement, the PPP has opted to bring back judges in a manner intended to hurt rather than boost the standing of the judiciary. From the perspective of the PPP, it has of course been able to deliver on its pledge to restore judges, using a means that indirectly keeps out Chaudhry – a man about whom the party has many reservations.

Once more, judicial independence has been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Talk of a 'package' that would guarantee an independent judiciary has faded almost entirely away. The repercussion of this will be felt in the future, even after the lawyers who have continued their brave movement for over a year vanish off the streets and return to the courtrooms that have stood abandoned by many of them for so long.
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Monday, September 08, 2008

Falling oil prices


Oil prices, which have been sliding down over the past few weeks from their July high of $147 a barrel have continued to tumble. A weakening global economy is seen as a factor in this. The latest slump, to $110 a barrel, is reported to have been triggered by fears regarding the damage Hurricane Gustav, sweeping across parts of the US and the Caribbean, could inflict on oil installations and the energy infrastructure. Some reports suggest the OPEC oil cartel, which produces 40 per cent of world oil, may cut production if global rates fall further, to under $100 a barrel.

Today, every citizen in the country is facing the brunt of unchecked inflation. These hikes hit especially hard during Ramazan, when many household budgets are stretched to breaking point. The inflation is largely a consequence of the successive increases in the prices of PoL products seen over the past few months. Rates of petrol, diesel and kerosene – the fuel used by the poorest of the poor — have been pushed up higher and higher, bringing with them an increase in the transportation costs of nearly every commodity. Of course it is consumers who are forced to bear the biggest burden as costs are passed on to them. According to the Federal Bureau of Statistics’ consumer price index, the inflation in the rate of food items soared to a record 33.81 per cent in July. Wages of course remain static. Even WAPDA’s ability to produce power has been hit by the higher rates of oil, leading to a worsening power crisis.

We have been told the price hike is the result of global rises in oil rates; that the government as such can do nothing about it. The prime minister has lamented the hardships this international situation has brought for people and promised relief. But now that world prices have begun to come down, surely we can expect some of the benefits to be passed on to these same people. So far there has been no indication of this. Indeed some accounts state yet another petrol price rise may be made. The government’s primary duty is to safeguard the rights of its citizens. Today, people everywhere are literally unable to survive because of the inflation. We heard new stories of the impact of this reality with each passing day. We have over the past weeks and months suffered the results of the increase in global oil prices. It is now only just that the benefits of the current slide should also be passed on.

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Pay up!


As loadshedding continues and consumers rail against the failure of the power providers to keep the lights on, few understand that a large part of the problem is that defaulting provincial governments and agencies are not paying their electricity bills. If the average householder does not pay their utility bills they quickly find themselves disconnected; but pulling the plug on an entire province that has not paid up is rather more difficult so the government is considering a proactive move to break the cycle of circular debt that is crippling the power sector. Rather than wait for the laggardly consumer to pay his bills the government is looking at the possibility of deducting costs at source, which is going to be something of a shock to those who are used to shuffling their debts around the table and paying as little as possible and as far after the due date as they can get away with. Currently, gas and oil companies are in trouble because their bills have not been paid, as are the independent power producers. Plainly put, power generation is not a ‘for-free’ activity anywhere in the chain of supply. No pay, no power; it’s that simple.

The sums involved are large. FATA owes Rs75 billion, KESC Rs60 billion, the provinces collectively Rs11 billion, various defence organisations Rs8 billion and the federal government owes itself Rs1.5 billion. Aggregating from all defaulters there is a circular debt of Rs400 billion across the energy sector. An ‘at source’ deduction is going to be unpopular with provincial governments used to the fiscal merry-go-round and may well create cash-flow problems for them in the short term; but the reality is that the accumulated problems of the power sector, most of them inherited, have to be addressed by the new government and there is no painless way to do this. Despite the undoubted discomfort these measures will bring to everybody (hitting the poorest hardest, as ever) they are essential if the country is to dig itself out of the hole that the previous government dug for itself – and its successor. We also note that this is practical and pragmatic — rather than populist — governance; a government that is beginning to mature beyond juvenile and unattainable political promises and grapples with and then takes, unpopular decisions. We may not thank them for it today but we may well thank them for it in our tomorrows.

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Ramazan scams


We all know that the giving of charity increases during the month of Ramazan. Indeed, as the month-long period of fasting has begun, posters and banners have appeared everywhere, seeking alms for those in need. Beggars of course have also multiplied on roads in all big cities. The giving out of ‘Zakat’ is of course a part of the spirit of Ramazan. The daily generosity feeds the hungry each day as the ‘iftar’ meal is distributed from private premises. The fact that this year some house-owners have had to employ security guards to maintain order outside their gates is proof of the growing desperation of people.

But each year, there are also those who stage elaborate scams to collect money that goes into their own pockets. In Lahore, young men with clipboards have been roaming many areas seeking donations for charities that in some cases seem not to exist beyond a few badly printed pamphlets. Others claim to be collecting for religious causes of various kinds. In several cases local ‘masjids’ have denied the collected money has been handed over to them. Authorities need to move in to stop such scams and scandals. Those behind them need to be dealt with under the relevant law. The philanthropic spirit that still runs through our society is one of its more positive features. It is this quiet giving of charity, in homes, in offices and marketplaces that feeds families and keeps children in schools. An effort must be made to prevent it from being exploited, both by raising awareness about the need to donate with care and stepping up policing to check those collecting funds on the streets for causes that are not genuine.
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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Over to Asif


Immediately after his election as president, Asif Ali Zardari has struck the right notes. He has called once more, as he did after the Feb 18 election, for a national government, urging the PML-N and the MQM to join the federal cabinet. With an overwhelming victory behind him, Asif also now speaks from a new position of strength. The presidential poll proved his party remains virtually the lone national voice, able to pick up votes in all provinces. Indeed, it swept the ballot in Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan, with the PML-N obtaining a larger share of votes only in Punjab. While the result of the presidential election was a foregone conclusion, the numbers as they came in have added strength to Mr Zardari's position.

The priority of the new President must be to build unity. The suggestions said to be coming in that the Punjab government be toppled must be resisted. The reports stating that Mr Zardari is already in dialogue with Nawaz Sharif about the possibility of patching over differences is encouraging (The two leaders met on Monday). For the present, Mr Sharif has offered 'positive' opposition; those close to Mr Zardari believe he may choose to continue work for a restoration of a full-fledged coalition. The president-elect has also spoken of looming challenges. His most immediate tasks will be to tackle militancy (whose latest manifestation was a massive suicide bombing outside Peshawar over the weekend), combat federal friction and take on economic disarray. These are obviously huge missions. But the reports that Zardari is already planning new policies for FATA and for Balochistan, and has been assured of full military support by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani are encouraging.

The key to stability in Pakistan lies also in building greater regional harmony. Mr Zardari's success in the presidential contest has brought in swift congratulations from India and an equally quick agreement to attend his oath-taking from Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. These gestures from both nations offer a possible opening to making a good start with them. The reality is that cooperation with both is critical to solving Pakistan's multi-faceted internal problems, ranging from terrorism, to food shortages to inflation. Mr Zardari has lost no time in opening up parleys with various key players within Pakistan. He must also do the same as far as Pakistan's neighbours go.

Asif Ali Zardari, by cancelling the senseless decision of a holiday in Sindh to celebrate his victory, has also sent out a message of sorts. He has indicated he is aware of the need to work hard, and with commitment, given the national situation. But clear-cut goals and a sense of purpose need to be created. Asif Ali Zardari's most important priority must be to give a country that sometimes seems to have lost its way, a definite sense of direction towards which it can set out, seeking a future that is more harmonious and less violent that its present.

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Kashmir bloodshed

The report that Indian forces have shot dead six militants in Kashmir, including senior commanders of two Pakistan-based 'jihadi' outfits, opens up the possibility of greater tension between the two neighbours. The clashes between Indian troops and militants coincide with massive protests in Indian-Held Kashmir against Indian rule in the area. Meanwhile, the leader of Kashmir's National Conference, Omar Abdullah, has said it was India's failure to 'seize the opportunity' offered under Musharraf in 2006-07 to sort out Kashmir, that is a cause of the latest violence in the troubled region. Kashmir's top spiritual leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, has meanwhile warned of a violent upsurge if Indian action to suppress protests continues. Such violence in Kashmir has in the past led to greater militant action from groups based both inside and outside Indian-Held Kashmir in support of the struggle.

The view that the Kashmir issue could have been settled a year or two ago, mainly as Musharraf offered a 'one-window' opportunity, is both unrealistic and rather naïve. There are so many complexities to the issues, which has lingered on now for over 60 years, that they seem impossible to settle either swiftly or easily. But the events unfolding now are unfortunate. The resurgence of militancy, that New Delhi alleges emanates from Pakistan-based groups, raises once more a long-standing issue between the two nations, It also seems obvious that despite Musharraf's promises, these groups were not disbanded, but simply asked to adopt a low profile. The Mirwaiz is also correct in his argument that the Kashmiri people must be allowed to determine their own destiny. But this will not happen immediately, and in the meanwhile the governments of Pakistan and India both once more face a situation in which violence in Kashmir threatens to add new strains to the ties between them and hamper efforts to draw closer in terms of trade, travel and other issues.

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Out of gas

The government is contemplating closing down petrol pumps for one day in the week and observing two weekly holidays in a bid to control oil consumption, which rose by about 19 per cent in 2007-08, compared to the previous year. Increased consumption, combined with higher international prices, meant Pakistan paid $4 billion more this year than the previous year for oil. The federal cabinet has now decided, according to news reports, that controlling the consumption of petroleum products is vital to check the growing fiscal and current accounts deficit. These financial realities, however unpleasant, have to be faced. There must be some doubt as to whether the methods opted for are the right ones. The last time two weekly holidays were announced, for similar reasons as those that exist now, people simply took off on trips out of station, adding to fuel consumption rather than cutting it down. The argument that shutting down pumps Friday, ahead of the two-day break, will help stop this seems ludicrous: people will simply fill up Thursday and perhaps even take off for longer breaks!

While cutting oil consumption is necessary, so too is the need to plan out measures aimed at achieving this carefully and thoughtfully. There are still many doubts over whether the 'day-light saving' time introduced three months ago has had any impact. Other power-saving measures have simply not been implemented. Ahead of announcing steps, the government must also consider other options – including car-pooling mechanisms or checks on car-leasing. Policies put in place must be considered ones, so they can have a real effect on checking the crisis rather than simply adding work inefficiency and the resulting difficulties caused to citizens.
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