Peace had its chance
STRONG and decisive action is needed without delay for the situation is spiralling out of control. Baitullah Mehsud captured and then withdrew from Jandola at will, setting houses ablaze and killing pro-government tribal leaders by the dozen. After fresh clashes in Swat that left at least 10 dead on Tuesday, the peace deal struck in May with Fazlullah’s Taliban now exists largely in name. Eight drivers who were part of a food convoy were found dead in Kurram Agency on Monday, 17 paramilitary personnel were kidnapped on Sunday night in Khyber Agency, and there are reports too of the Taliban meting out summary justice and executing ‘criminals’ in Orakzai. Even the NWFP capital is no longer safe from the rampaging Taliban and it is feared that threats to shopkeepers in Peshawar and the abduction last week of members of the Christian community may be a sign of far worse things to come.
Besides the death and destruction seen in the past week or so, what is perhaps most chilling is the consummate ease with which militants are going about their business. Their operations have shifted up a gear, possibly to exploit the chaos that passes for governance in Islamabad these days. At the same time, this latest spate of violence in the tribal belt may also be linked to the recent surge in Taliban attacks across the border in Afghanistan. In any case this madness has to stop. Taking on the militants is of course a daunting task, one that has been attempted before without much success, but the state is left with no choice other than to crack down with all the resources at its disposal. An olive branch was held out to and accepted by both Mehsud in Waziristan and Fazlullah in Swat, and that was the right thing to do. Talking peace not only offered another tactical option, it was in keeping with the spirit of democracy because many in the country favoured mediation over military action.
Peace had its chance but the Taliban blew it. True, there was a brief lull in the violence but the storm is now raging out of control. Maybe the militants were just buying time to regroup, as they did in North Waziristan in 2006. How, it may be asked, will the military option succeed where it has failed in the past. One, it is hoped that lessons have been learned from earlier mistakes, in the theatre of conflict as well as the corridors of power, and that the government will close ranks and gets its act together quickly. Two, we now have a full-time army chief who is not distracted by politics and can focus on the job at hand. Three, failure is not an option.
Swimming against the tide
The Alternative Energy Development Board has not been doing too bad a job in locating potential investors but the pricing mechanism of the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority does not appear to be in sync with reality. Nepra’s accountant-like approach is perhaps unable to factor in the benefits that will accrue in the long run even if investors today are granted some insignificant leverage. The buck, however, does not and should not stop at Nepra. The vision has to come from the leadership. A few words from the prime minister in this regard on the floor of the house, for instance, could have assured the nation that the government was moving in the right direction. But he chose not to utter them and that has added to the bleakness of the situation.
Our tax blues
THE National Assembly has approved the Finance Bill, which stipulates raising an additional Rs80bn in taxation to meet the FY2008-09 revenue target of Rs1.251tr. The original 2007-08 target was Rs1.025tr. The question, however, is not how much the government is able to collect in tax revenue but how. The government does not appear to have thought it necessary to keep the promise made by its first finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who had talked of introducing ‘progressive’ taxation in place of the long-prevalent ‘regressive’ nature of taxes. In the Finance Bill there is scarcely a visible shift from indirect taxes to taxes on income. On the contrary, legislators endorsed the government’s proposal to increase general sales tax (GST) by one per cent, across the board, from 15 to 16 per cent. With a galloping inflation rate and flare-up in food and fuel prices, the poor will have to pay through the nose for everything. The country is in dire need of raising resources to narrow the receipts-expenditure gap and attain the projected growth target, but for doing so the tax collectors have opted for the traditional approach. It will be surprising if the government is unable to mobilise the targeted additional Rs26bn by increasing GST. For the public, nonetheless, it will amount to double jeopardy, since the subsidies on food and fuel will also be slashed from Rs405bn to Rs295bn.
The government should have shown some spine by specifying concrete measures to bring under the tax net all those who draw taxable income from whatever source. Why must the captive 1.6 million people, who barely make up one per cent of the country’s population, be the sole contributors to income tax? While a tax of sorts has been levied on real estate, the prosperous stock-brokering business has been spared the tax on capital gains and the increase in capital value tax. The tax to GDP ratio forecast remains at a worrisome 10 per cent, which is about the lowest in Asia. One would have expected the government to take up the challenge of a meaningful increase. On the positive side, the upward revision in National Savings Schemes rates by two per cent, an increase — though minimal — in wages of unskilled workers and government employees, higher duty on imported vehicles and imposition of additional duties on luxury items could be seen as being in order.
Karzai is telling half-truth
PRESIDENT Hamid Karzai must have seriously tested the patience of the Pakistani leadership when he stated that Afghan forces will invade Pakistan in hot pursuit of the Taliban.
Without dissecting the competence and capacity of Mr Karzai to make good on his bellicose statement, one is compelled to think not about the contents, but reasons behind his statement. When Karzai claims that militants are crossing over into Afghanistan and fighting the Afghan and coalition forces, he is telling the truth, but only half the truth.
Gen Daniel McNeill, the American general who commanded Nato forces in Afghanistan till recently, came closer to the whole truth when he spoke in Washington last week: “There’s no Pakistani miscreant behind every tree in Afghanistan. It’s simply not so.” Gen McNeill’s honesty is a rare element in western capitals these days. The norm is to heap blame on others to escape embarrassment to oneself.
Karzai’s dilemma is that if he tells the whole truth, he could fall out of favour with his western benefactors. His anti-Pakistan rhetoric thus has internal dynamics as well. American media has been flooded with reports in recent weeks indicating an increasing US uneasiness with Karzai’s performance. Karzai’s reality check came at the recent donors’ conference in Paris where he was pressed to control corruption that has seeped deep into his administration. He has been accused of failing to arrest warlords and drug barons. Under his watch, Afghanistan has emerged as the world’s opium capital, producing 92 per cent of the global output. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says it produces $4bn worth of opium, or 53 per cent of its gross domestic product, making it the most lucrative industry. Western nations, particularly the US, are increasingly becoming frustrated with Karzai’s soft peddling on drug lords. Many powerful drug barons and warlords are said to be bribing his administration to escape justice.
In addition, Karzai has shown incompetence in controlling corruption, uniting a divided country, and giving it a firm direction. His many failures have made him hugely unpopular amongst 34 million Afghans. His statements based on half-truths indicate a scramble to win some respect as he plans to run for re-election next year. Whenever Karzai speaks against Pakistan, his favourite punching bag, one can hear a failing leader who needs some pedestal to give him a boost.
Perhaps Karzai may have to contest against another powerful Pashtun Afghan of American shades, Zalmay Khalilzad. The current US ambassador to the UN and once an undeclared American viceroy of Afghanistan, Khalilzad, as he considers the possibility of becoming the future resident of Gulkhana, the Afghan presidential palace, has been testing the political pulse of the Afghans. Many Afghans already view Karzai as a US puppet. Khalilzad might stand a chance because of his track record as an effective administrator, a tough taskmaster, and someone who could be as influential in Afghanistan as in Washington — a win-win situation for Afghanistan as a country.
Only the external dynamics of Mr Karzai’s allegations hold some ground. Even President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged the presence of foreign militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas and cross-border attacks many times. The Pakistani Taliban have frequently named the suicide bombers sent across the Durand Line. The talk of rogue elements within the Pakistani military supporting the Taliban is no longer unfamiliar. Frustration in Washington and elsewhere has been increasing over Pakistan’s ‘less-than-acceptable’ action against militants. From President Bush to ‘unnamed’ administration officials, all are speaking the same language — safe havens for Taliban and Al Qaeda in Fata.
Pakistani diplomacy, true to its tradition, has failed yet again to convince its supporters in the West that all its actions are aimed at securing not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment has failed to come up with a unified strategy to allay the concerns being voiced by Hamid Karzai on his behalf or on behalf of his foreign backers. Pakistan has done little to put its house in order, when it comes to dealing with Afghanistan. And when the political leadership, mainly the Awami National Party, decided to mobilise the Pushtoons’ traditional jirga (tribal assembly) to curb violence, it received general acceptance. However, the foreign office failed yet again to sell the idea to the West — cornering the bad guys by signing peace deals with the good guys. As a result, the West remains sceptical, critical, and now increasingly impatient.
The use of rhetoric from Pakistan and Afghanistan cannot wish away the challenges both countries face. They cannot avoid each other, and non-cooperation between them cannot be an option. They have to effectively work together to bring peace. A stronger, more stable Afghanistan is in the best interests of Pakistan.
Afghanistan ranks second in Brookings Institution’s Index of State Weakness in the Developing World. Pakistan ranks thirty third in this index of 141 weak and failing states. While the index may not be completely reliable, it is still a powerful tool for analysing a state’s ability to perform in four key areas: the state’s ability to ensure sustained economic growth; maintenance of legitimate, transparent and accountable political institutions; saving its population from conflicts; and securing its territory and meeting the basic needs of its population.
It seems more serious than ridiculous when the world’s second weakest state accuses the thirty third weakest country of destabilising it. Afghanistan could be the biggest threat to Pakistan’s security. Reason: Islamabad cannot save itself from the spillover effect of Afghan instability, as is already being witnessed. Thus, Pakistan has a greater responsibility in helping Afghanistan to stabilise. This situation puts the greatest responsibility on the key interlocutor in the region — the United States. Washington has to strike a delicate balance in dealing with the two countries.
Too much arm-twisting of a nuclear armed and relatively stable Pakistan could accelerate the spillover of Afghan instability. US planners have to understand that a stable Pakistan is the only hope for stabilising Afghanistan. Thus it needs to encourage the two countries to work in harmony. Pakistan should be allowed a chance to try its home-grown strategy for dealing with a phenomenon that was never seen before in this region. Collaboration, cooperation, and mutual trust are the only avenues to success for both countries.
One of America’s greatest presidents, Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Great thoughts speak only to thoughtful minds, but great actions speak to all mankind.” The world is expecting not just great thoughts from the two countries but resolute action in the right direction.
The writer is a US-based journalist.
A RESIDENTIAL skyscraper in Dubai that will change shape as individual floors spin around a central core has begun taking bookings from potential buyers. How quickly they will put their names down for the flats will depend, however, on how seriously they choose to take the enterprise.
The building is the brainchild of a Florence-based architect, David Fisher. It appears revolutionary in more ways than one. As the floors swivel, the silhouette of the tower will mutate. The floors will be divided by horizontal wind turbines which will generate enough energy to power the structure. The roof will be clad with solar cells.
The dwellings will be manufactured as a series of pods in a factory outside Bari in southern Italy, transported to the site and attached to the concrete column. They will arrive already painted, decorated and, in some cases, with walls hung with artwork.
The plan was outlined by Mr Fisher in a press conference at the Plaza Hotel in New York, with assistance from digital graphics and a violinist. “Today’s life is dynamic, so the space we are living in should be dynamic as well,” he said. “Buildings will follow rhythms of nature. They will change direction and shape from spring to summer, from sunrise to sunset, and adjust themselves to the weather. In other words, buildings will be alive.”
The lead partner was identified by Mr Fisher as Rotating Tower Dubai Development Limited, which he said was based in Britain.
He did not seem able to confirm that the authorities in Dubai had yet formally signed off on the construction of the tower. But the factory in Italy is gearing up to start making the pods in the coming weeks, he said. Potential investors may pause, meanwhile, because the highlight of Mr Fisher’s professional career to date appears to have been developing pre-constructed marble bathroom suites for hotels. “I have not designed skyscrapers, that’s right,” he acknowledged to a reporter.
He also admitted that the morphing nature of the building might make one question its structural soundness. “You asked if it is safe,” he said. “I had my doubts at the start, but now I am very confident.”— © The Independent
OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press
The power of civil society
The Egyptian Gazette
The influential media in Egypt and its swift exposure of illegal practices have encouraged citizens and civil society to object to certain projects, which are not in the public interest and … seriously harm the public health and the environment. The case in point is the proposed Agrium project in Damietta, whose citizens… have surprised the Egyptian government and the whole world by protesting on the grounds that the Canadian venture would harm the environment and the wonderful summer resort of Ras el-Bar.
Civil society has surprised the government with its opposition to hosting an industry banned in developed countries because of the pollution it causes, although such factories are often welcomed in the developing countries. The citizens of Damietta have given the government a lesson in pride by refusing what the developed nations themselves refuse.
The reports from a parliamentary fact-finding committee and the State Council have found faults with the $1.4bn fertiliser project. Though different parties admit that the proposed location for this polluting factory is unsuitable and have offered to move it elsewhere … some officials have been saying that it’s all up to civil society! If civil society approved the project in Ras el-Bar, would the government and the Canadian company go ahead regardless of the terrible harm it could cause the area? This means that civil society…will have an important role to play in supervising many other projects this business-oriented government would like to approve, even if they aren’t likely to make the nation much money. — (June 22)
Unsung heroes of development
The Gulf News
The pace of development in the UAE … is frenetic. Iconic buildings … spring up almost every month, plush resorts bloom in the desert as more and more people decide to set up home…But welcome as this is, it is vital that basic infrastructure keeps up with the speed.
Utilities may lack the glamour associated with large commercial or residential towers but no project is viable if … power is not on or no water comes from the taps. What goes on above the ground level is eye-catching but what makes it work is what takes place underground: cable ducts, sewage pipes and telecommunication lines.
It is no easy task configuring, planning, mapping, often for projects many years or decades in advance. The strategic vision in the UAE has been simply breathtaking in turning imagination into reality, transforming plans into concrete; but it stands to reason that as more developments come on line the greater will be the need for utility services.
Just before the handover, the Hong Kong authorities gave the go-ahead for a massive new airport but were at pains to point out that they also gave the green light for a massive sewerage system. This new system…was just as essential to Hong Kong’s future growth…
Utilities and infrastructure are the unsung heroes of modern projects, they are only noticed when absent. Turning a light switch on is an action we often take for granted. Planning for the future is by definition a never-ending process and not always appreciated… — (June 21)