DAWN - Editorial; October 9, 2001

09 Oct 2001

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In this hour of peril

WHAT was feared most has come to pass. War is finally on Pakistan’s doorstep. As American and British forces began pounding selected targets in Afghanistan on Sunday evening, the world community’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the problem came to nought. Pakistan had all along tried to use its leverage with the Taliban government to seek a peaceful solution to the problem arising from the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. It had been in constant touch with the Taliban and used diplomatic channels as well as informal contacts to prevail upon them to hand over Osama bin Laden to a third country for trial. However, the Taliban refused to oblige. They failed to realize that they were totally isolated, and that the entire world, including most Muslim states, was fully supportive of the Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to punish the perpetrators of the Sept 11 carnage as well as those aiding, protecting or harbouring them. The Muslim world also realized that the bombing of the World Trade Centre in which thousands of innocent civilians were killed was in no way a deed that could further any worthwhile cause, whether of the Kashmiris or of the Palestinians. The Taliban’s failure to grasp this simple fact and their resort to emotive slogans failed to cut ice with the Muslim world or with their own people.

Now that the action has begun, certain questions pose themselves. How long will the military campaign last? What will be its scope? Will it be an open-ended and all-out war? What will be the shape of things after the immediate objectives have been achieved? Pakistan has vital stakes in answers to these questions, because this country has once again become a front-line state in the context of Afghanistan. Not only that, Pakistan has vital interests in Afghanistan, given the two countries’ geographical proximity and the economic, cultural and ethnic relations that bind them together. Without doubt, whatever happens in one country affects the other. Against this background, one should feel relieved to a certain extent by what President Musharraf said at his press conference yesterday. He said that he had sought and received assurances from the US and Britain that the action in Afghanistan would be “short and sharp” and that it would be targeted. This means that the air strikes are and will continue to be only against Al Qaeda’s training camps and the Taliban’s military installations. This is of vital importance, because indiscriminate bombing could result in huge civilian casualties which would politically recoil on the world coalition against terrorism. As President Bush said in his speech, the war was not against the Afghan people but against terrorists and those who were harbouring them. Any other course, specially high civilian casualties, can have a negative impact on Muslim countries which at the moment are fully behind the US-led world coalition.

At his press conference yesterday, the president dwelt at considerable length on two more vital points. One was his warning that the Northern Alliance should not be allowed to exploit the post-Taliban vacuum. The Northern Alliance, he said, “must be kept in check”, otherwise Afghanistan could return to anarchy. The Alliance consists mostly of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other minority ethnic groups. Any government formed by them would not be acceptable to the Pakhtoons who are the single largest ethnic group. For this reason, the president was right when he said what Afghanistan needed was a “balanced” government. More important, he said, Pakistan had sought and received assurances from the US and UK that the post-Taliban government would be a Pakistan-friendly government. In this context, he said, King Zahir Shah could perhaps play a facilitating role. Clearly, Pakistan cannot give open-ended support to the former king, because once he was a zealous supporter of the Pakhtoonistan bogey.

President Musharraf also emphasized the need for building Afghanistan when the war ended. He laid emphasis specially on water management, land and agricultural development and on rebuilding the economic infrastructure. Obviously, it is the people of Afghanistan who need the world community’s support and help and not the warlords who have played havoc with their country in a mad lust for power. Pakistan already has two million Afghan refugees on its soil and more are expected to come. Knowing its financial and other limitations, it cannot afford to let millions more to pour in. Islamabad has, thus, correctly decided to limit the numbers by letting in only the infirm and the sick. One hopes the military action that began on Sunday night would soon achieve its immediate objectives, with attention and efforts directed then towards the formation of a broad-based government acceptable to all sections of Afghanistan’s population. Only such a government can play a meaningful role in the infrastructural rehabilitation and economic reconstruction of the country with the help of the international community.

Inept and abrasive

TWO tragic incidents of a very different nature occurred in Karachi on Saturday, leaving seven persons dead and many injured. While the incidents were not linked in any obvious way, they drew attention to the alarming law and order situation in the city, and more particularly, to the totally inept performance of the city police in handling violence. Take the example of the killing of four persons outside a madrassah in North Karachi. Two men riding a motorcycle opened indiscriminate fire on people emerging from the madrassah and managed to get away. The men were confident enough to move to another madrassah in the same locality where they resumed their shooting spree. Luckily, no one was killed in the second attack although a large number of people were injured. One would have expected the police to have been on high alert following the recent attack on an imambargah in the city, expecting some kind of retaliatory action. When what appeared to be a revenge attack took place a couple of days later, the police were found seriously wanting.

While the police were absent or inactive when they were most needed in one case, their quick-at-the-draw approach in another led to tragic consequences on the same day. A car driven by a lawyer was hijacked by two armed men who drove the man and his seven-year-old son across the city. The police were informed and the stolen car was located and chased by a mobile. When the hijackers began firing at the cops, they retaliated without taking into account the safety of the two innocent persons inside the car. Sadly, the lawyer and his son, as well as one of the hijackers, were killed in the intense firing. The killings brought back memories of a similar incident earlier this year when two young children of a judge were killed when the police botched up an attempt to prevent hijackers from getting away with a stolen car in which the children were held hostage. It is incidents of this nature that help give the police a bad name.