Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thrown to the wolves

Charming, open and conciliatory, Hillary Clinton did very well by my estimation in her conversation with the Pakistani press tonight. Meeting with so many fiercely anti-American journalists at once might have seemed suicidal but she pulled it off. Clinton admitted to America's past mistakes, to Bush's blunders, to America's part in creating the Taliban and expressed the Obama administration's desire to "turn a new page" on Pak-US relations repeatedly.

She addressed the Kerry-Lugar Bill fiasco reasonably well, too. First, she admitted that America should have been more sensitive to Pakistan's reaction and then pointed out that (a) the conditions attached were normal consistent with aid bills to countries like Israel and Egypt; (b) they were also binding only on the US government and not Pakistan; (c) American legislators had to explain the massive $7.5 billion aid to their constituents, who in such hard times would want the money to be spent at home, making these kinds of checks necessary.

The journos – one from each major news channel – all seemed fixated on Kerry-Lugar and one after another repeated the same worn out question about the gap between her friendly words and the imperial designs of KLB. When asked this the umpteenth time she lost her cool, declaring very emphatically that Pakistan is free to refuse US aid if it so pleases, that America was not forcing Pakistan to accept it. The exasperation behind the comment was counterproductive but otherwise Clinton kept her own.

All those bloodthirsty town halls she put herself through on the election trail last year really paid off. The six journalists tonight turned out to be no challenge for her at all. Her Pakistan green blouse was perhaps a bit much but at least she managed to placate the anti-America camp in my family. Am curious to see what the rest of Pakistan thought...

The People of Waziristan

Who are the people of Waziristan? I've been reading news reports in foreign and Pakistani papers and my sense is that nobody is sure who the average resident of Waziristan is; what his or her beliefs, opinions and aspirations are. But four molds have emerged in which they are most likely to be cast:

1. Ferocious tribesman: When invoking this image, the independent spirit and rugged fierceness of the people are invariably expounded. British colonial experience is often cited too. At best, it is used to predict the outcome of the current war as if Waziristan has remained completely unchanged for the interim half century. At worst, analysts and journalists quote Orientalist balderdash that often talks about the people of Waziristan as animals. Prime examples of the former are Roedad Khan and Shafqat Mehmood's opinion pieces in The News and Nicholas Schmidle's reference to Lord Curzon in Dawn. The most flagrant offender in the latter category has been the New York Times. Jane Perlez's story from a few days back quoted Sir Olaf Caroe comparing Mehsuds to a pack of wolves and Wazirs to lonely panthers. There's also Salman Masood talking about "taming the tribes" in The National.

2. Diehard terrorist: This model holds that all the residents of Waziristan are Taliban or Taliban sympathizers at the very least. This doesn't come up in news reports as much as it does in conversation with journalists. More often than not, journalists reporting from Waziristan will tell you that there is little to no difference between tribesmen and the Taliban. This view is linked to the ferocious tribesman mold in describing the brutality of the people of Waziristan. But in explaining their motives it uses Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to thirst for independence.

3. Helpless refugee: This view has become more prominent since Rah-e-Nijat started. It presents Waziristanis as victims of war, disillusioned with the Taliban and the army, just waiting to return to the lives they were uprooted from. Articles that talk in this vein paint people from Waziristan as extremely backward, barely on the fringes of civilization. Dawn published one such article a few days ago but the best example of this has to be yesterday's editorial in The News. The editorial talks at great length about the immense hardship IDPs from Waziristan are facing and the deplorable conditions of life in Waziristan. It is quite transparent in its attempt to stir liberal guilt and is more than a little condescending towards people from Waziristan. At one point the editorial mentions that the refugees are tremendously grateful for the blankets, food and medicine they have received.

4. Pakistanis like us: This mold is invoked only when condemning drone attacks. When a drone kills 20 or so people in FATA, the people stop existing as ferocious tribesmen or crazed terrorists or deprived underdogs and take on the role of green and white Pakistanis, whose death you and I, all of Pakistan, must mourn as its own.

None of these descriptions are convincing, especially since the motives behind the molds are so transparent. The first two are used to form an opinion for or against Rah-e-Nijat. The third to blame militancy on underdevelopment and the fourth to stoke anti-American ire. All fail to give any real insight into the people of Waziristan. More damagingly, they tend towards dehumanizing them.

I don't know who the real Waziristani is. I'm pretty certain that he or she is not entirely explained by the above four models. I'm also sure that it is very crucial for the rest of Pakistan to understand Waziristanis, the people who have lived with, and perhaps even supported, the Taliban for so long. That we have failed to do so is a grave failing on the part of our media and ourselves.

Miserable Timing

Manmohan Singh calls on Pakistan to destroy terrorists during a visit to Indian-administered Kashmir. The timing cannot be worse.

Earlier today a car bomb ripped through Peshawar's biggest and most crowded market, Meena Bazaar. The death toll has been rising since the morning and now stands at 95 people. A building has collapsed with people reportedly trapped inside. Others have been burnt to death. Hospitals have run out of blood as they struggle to treat more than 200 injured.

I've been to Meena Bazaar several years ago. I remember it as a place with narrow streets, shops spilling over each other, people thronging the lanes browsing shop after shop full of bright fabrics. A bomb there must have wreaked havoc. The pictures are nightmarish.

Even as this tragedy unfolds, Mr. Singh has decided to lecture Pakistan. If at this time, the Indian government could not find it in itself to condole Pakistan then perhaps it would have been best for it to have stayed silent.

With Pakistanis dying horrific deaths almost daily, we are well aware of the need to destroy the terrorists. Thank you very much.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mother of all battles?

Correction: This post was written on the false premise that Wana is the hub of TTP. In fact, as Rabia has kindly pointed out, Wana is controlled by groups that have promised to stay neutral to the fight. One of the three prongs of the army offensive has taken off from Wana (the other two originating from Razmak and Tank). The post also erroneously identifies Ladha as the focus of the operation instead of Makeen. I make the point that so far the operation has been a cat and mouse game with the Taliban never sticking around to put up a serious fight, which means that the real fight will begin once the army settles in and the Taliban can go on the offensive with its blitz attacks. That assessment I would stick to despite the factual errors in this post.

This "mother of all battles" looks to me like little more than a cop out. The army's three-pronged strategy is set to converge not on Wana, which is the centre of South Waziristan, but on Ladha, which is on the border with army-controlled North Waziristan. They are going west/north-west from Tank and south from North Waziristan. Maybe after capturing Ladha, they'll head down towards Wana but for now there is no mention of any such plan or of Wana at all in news reports.

After a week of steady "we killed ten, they killed three" press releases, the army trumpeted its capture of Kotkai. Everyone got very excited because its Hakimullah's birthplace but really Kotkai is little more than a hamlet on the way to Ladha. Somewhere between Jandola and Ladha, Kotkai was not the theater of the great showdown either. From the body count the army gave, it seems like most of the militants fled the area. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say they went for Wana seeing as fleeing to Ladha would have them cornered.

Now it seems like the army has its eyes set on Sararogha, another pit stop on the way to Ladha. But time is running out rapidly. If you can tell that winter is coming in Karachi, then it most certainly has to be freezing in the mountains of Waziristan. At the rate that the army is going, I have a feeling that they'll capture Ladha in several weeks by which time winter will make further advance impossible. There will be no major battle in Ladha either as the 10,000 militants of South Waziristan will all have packed their bags and moved to Wana. The army will declare victory and settle in for the winter, leaving most of South Waziristan in TTP's hands.

And of course only once the army roosts will the battle really begin. Attrition is the Taliban's tactic of choice and they're damn good at it too. Their part of South Waziristan would be a perfect base to launch suicide and fidayeen attacks on the army for the rest of winter. All we'll be able to do is sit there and take it or retreat.

(Map taken from BBC.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How will it all end?

After decades of careful effort by the military, we have thoroughly institutionalized violence in our country. Pakistani terrorists have turned their violence on our own people and on three of our four neighbours. We now have a most bewildering patchwork of militant groups, each out to kill someone or the other in the name of Islam, bankrolled at some point or the other by the army and its supporters. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jundollah, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Tehrik-e-Taliban (itself a coalition of dozens of militant factions), it seems like we have more militant organizations than NGOs.

We carry out an operation against Swat Taliban and there are reports of Jaish-e-Muhammad expanding its hold in southern Punjab. We start an operation in South Waziristan and there are reports of Taliban and al-Qaeda entrenched in Quetta. It seems like every time we muster up the resolve to deal with one faction another springs to prominence. How we will stamp out all these groups, I have no idea. Does the army even want to dismantle all the militant organizations? How does it end?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Kerry Lugar Crazies Pt 2

The unabated storm over the Kerry Lugar Bill confirms two trends that do not augur well for our democratic experiment. First, that the military establishment, despite its apparent complaisance, is actually loathe to relinquish power. That the army has expressed its disapproval so strongly, directly and indirectly (for let's face it, at least some of the shrieking in the media is at the army's behest), bodes ill for the future of democracy. Then again, I am not entirely closed to the possibility that the army just feels backed into a corner, dealing with a formidable insurgency, India and a hostile public and then suddenly finding its stream of cash dammed. Perhaps, its a case of asking too much too soon. But its much more likely that the army doesn't want to hand over real control to the civilian administration at all.

The second issue that Kerry Lugar has brought to the fore is the complete immaturity of the media and politicians. In 2008, it seemed like the media would be the strongest pillar of democracy but channels like Geo have sacrificed the country's interests for sensationalism. It is after all so much easier and more profitable to sell shrill anti-Americanism than responsible tempered reportage.

The opposition too has decided to cash in on the anti-American current in Pakistani opinion at a very real risk of destabilizing the current government and forsaking the very real benefits to our economy and to the lives of Pakistanis. It was a truly cringeworthy moment when a series of MNAs were interviewed on Geo, all of them admitting to having opposed Kerry Lugar in the assembly without actually having read the bill. I had thought that the opposition, especially PMLN, had been aware that if they rocked the boat too much they would all end up overboard, but that willingness to preserve the democratic order over party interests seems to have disappeared.

The government's weaknesses have been exposed in this furor too. They have been unable to effectively project their point of view in the media. The best of them have come off sounding like sheepish apologists for nefarious American interests. They should have cast themselves as defenders of democracy and the average Pakistani.

Bringing the fight to the GHQ

The Taliban have thrown down the gauntlet. The final showdown in South Waziristan can't be too far. What is unclear is whether or not the months-long blockade and the hesitant skirmishes were a strategic blunder on the army's part. But whether it gave the Talib a breather or a blow, they seem ready for the impending fight. Now that the GHQ has been attacked, the army will be galvanized into action too.

The road ahead is tough. The casualties many. But its time that we steel ourselves and clean up our mess.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Kerry-Lugar Crazies

Given the tenor of anti-Americanism of late, the fuss over the Kerry-Lugar Bill is far from surprising. But the utter lack of depth and intelligence in the frenzied discussions on TV and in the National Assembly is deeply disappointing. We just secured 7.5 billion dollars worth of non-military aid. That is a huge sum of money. At 1.5 billion dollars a year (120 billion rupees) it equals to over 10% of our annual tax revenue (revenue for 2008-09 stands at 1150 billion rupees). In other words, the bill makes our government 10% richer!

To be sure, Kerry-Lugar comes with strings attached. But the bill that passed in the US Congress is nowhere as stringent as the original draft, which thanks to the lobbying of our government was watered down substantially. And given Pakistan’s circumstances, some of the strings that come with the money are in fact pretty good for the people.

The most important and least talked of condition is that none of the aid be spent on the military. The money will instead fund programs in basic education, agriculture, maternal and child health, higher education, family planning, microenterprise, disease eradication and so on. In my opinion that is fantastic news. The US has been giving huge dollops of aid to the Pak army since the war on terror began and the people of Pakistan had been largely ignored.

The fact that America isn’t simply cutting the government a check is also a plus. It means that the fat cats in the government and bureaucracy won’t be able to get their grubby paws on the wads of green. After the massive misuse of international aid meant for the earthquake victims, America has become much more wary of our venal ruling elite.

So far so good. Now for the controversial stuff. A clause, which Kamran Khan has termed “the most provocative clause”, goes as follows: “An assessment of the extent to which the government of Pakistan exercises effective civilian control of the military, including a description of the extent to which civilian executive leaders and parliament exercise oversight and approval of military budgets, the chain of command, the process of promotion for senior military leaders, civilian involvement in strategic guidance and planning, and military involvement in civil administration.” Khan finds this clause immensely objectionable and has declared it a conspiracy to drive a wedge between the government and the military. So basically, the politicians, journos and pundits are pissed because America wants to make sure it gives aid to a civilian government rather than a military one? Aren’t these guys supposed to be anti-establishment? Weren’t they on a crusade against America because it had been supporting Musharraf and the establishment? Now they don’t want the world’s superpower to keep our military in check?

Next issue. Every year before aid can be released, the US State Department will need to assure the Congress that the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies are not supporting terrorist groups and are still keen on pursuing terrorists. This according to Kamran Khan is a “damning declaration” that paints our venerable forces as terrorist sympathizers. Ummm… Wasn’t it the Pakistani media that has been harping on the terrorist-military connection for this past decade? Weren’t we all sick and tired of the intelligence agencies supporting groups that bomb Pakistanis, capture our territory and fuel sectarian conflict? The fact that there are Taliban sympathizers in the military is not news to anyone. That the US wants to keep the military honest on this count too can only be a good thing.

As far as I can see, the strings that supposedly rob us of our sovereignty are just the kind of leverage the civilian government needs to keep the army at bay. The only loser in this scenario is the army, which not only gets zero money under the bill but is also put on probation. So shouldn’t the politicians and the media be applauding rather than jeering Kerry-Lugar? Shouldn’t the public get over its knee-jerk anti-Americanism and see the bill for the good thing that it is?

The only condition that I can fathom the Pakistani public objecting to is that the US wants Pakistan to dismantle its nuclear weapons proliferation network. This is a sensitive subject for Pakistanis. Most of us love our nuclear bomb and are keen to retain our right to sell it to whomever we want. And if most really feel that passionately about our right to proliferate nuclear weapons then sure go ahead and turn down the 7.5 billion dollars. The army will certainly be delighted. And while our schools and hospitals won’t see any of that cherished green, at least military aid will continue unabated. A win-win for the army. And the public can sleep soundly at night believing that with the Americans out of the way we will have secured a sovereign democratic federation for ourselves.

Correction: The Kerry-Lugar Bill is even better than I had thought. All these military-related strings are applicable to aid attached to the Pak army not the development aid, which means that the bill should be a dream come true for anyone who supports democracy in this country. Clearly, the media and the opposition are not in that camp.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Competition Commission forced by the SC to discourage competition

Has anyone noticed the Supreme Court's recent instructions that the Competition Commission Pakistan fix the price of sugar? I'm assuming that it is not entirely awake to the irony of a competition watchdog fixing prices. Its Econ 101 Mr. Chief Justice. The way to ensure that sugar finds its optimal price is to strictly impose anti-cartel laws. If each sugar mill is setting its price independently, the retail cost will come down automatically: without an agreement between mills, it is in the interest of every mill to keep its prices as low as possible to get an edge over the competition.

Fixing prices may seem like a more surefire way of doing things but it has proven to be impossible to implement so far. Plus, its notoriously difficult to determine the optimal price. But suppose the government does manage to enforce an ideal fixed price, if and when the production costs of sugar increase, the fixed price will drive mills to bankruptcy, creating a genuine supply crisis. And if the government then decides to raise the price for legitimate reasons it will have a political disaster on its hands. Better to let the market take care of all that and let the CCP do its real job.

Monkey's short escape from cage: CM forms body to look into zoo affairs

LAHORE, Oct 5: A monkey escaped from its cage and kept the Lahore zoo staff running after it for several hours on Monday.

It was caught by the zoo staff with the help of Rescue-1122 after a hectic struggle.

Zoo staff said the colobus monkey escaped when a keeper went into the cage for cleaning it but left the door open. The monkey disappeared into trees and was finally spotted on the trees near the road facing Alhamra Art Centre. As the rescue team and zoo staff climbed up the trees, the monkey came down and hid in nearby bushes. Zoo staff surrounded the area and finally took the monkey back to the cage.

Punjab Wildlife Department Director-General Jahangir Ghauri said the matter was being investigated and staff responsible for this incident would be taken to task.

Zoo director Zafar Shah, however, termed monkey’s escape a conspiracy against the present zoo administration. He said some elements who did not want to see him as director were behind such moves.

However, he did not mention the names of those elements.
This article in Dawn caught my attention. Maila Times couldn't have come up with a better spoof. Goes to show how absurd life can really get in Pakistan.

Sadly, the rest of the article isn't really very chuckle-worthy. It lists a whole Noah's ark full of animals that have died under the Lahore Zoo's watch. A lioness died of renal failure after she was given too much antibiotic. Five urials (wild sheep according to Google) died of poisoning when the zoo decided to spray the grass with insecticide. Three cubs also died recently. And a macaw worth 300,000 rupees mysteriously disappeared from its cage.