DAWN - Opinion; April 10, 2002

Published April 10, 2002

Turbulent political journey

By Khalid Mahmud Arif

DEMOCRACY is promised to the people of Pakistan by all and sundry — politicians, generals, judges, academia, bureaucrats, journalists, lawyers and administrators. It remains elusive despite the catchy political rhetoric.

Fifty-four years down the lane of independence, Pakistan’s democratic credentials are weak for reasons that include crises in leadership, political intolerance, lust for power, fragile political institutions, omnipotent feudal culture and abysmally low literacy rate.

Those who claim to be democrats run their political parties like personal fiefs and become ‘indispensable’ holy cows. Self-perpetuation in power within the political parties and in the government has become a norm in our political culture and all means are considered fair to gain and retain power. And, when strong personalities get the better of weak institutions the results achieved are similar to those that this country has witnessed and endured in its life.

Soon after independence Jinnah and Liaquat had a rendezvous with their Creator. Their successors, inefficient minions, dug their own graves when they failed to frame a constitution and hold national elections. The duo of Iskander Mirza and Ayub Khan played political ding-dong before Ayub eclipsed the president. Ayub’s brainchild — Basic Democrats — dutifully elected their master as the head of state.

Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 weakened Ayub. His heart ailment loosened his grip on administration. The people’s avalanche dwarfed mighty Ayub Khan. His handpicked protege, Bhutto, seized the opportunity and turned against his benefactor. All is said to be fair in love and war. Add politics to this list.

The Yahya administration held first ever general elections in the country that were perceived fair. However, an elected government failed to emerge out of the electoral hat. Instead, East Pakistan collapsed and so did Yahya’s government. Bhutto occupied the centre-stage of national politics and showed considerable promise. Power intoxicated the populist Bhutto and he came to believe that any system that kept him in authority was fair and democratic. Bhutto weakened institutions, rigged elections and his high-handed autocratic rule demolished his government and himself.

Zia promised to hold national elections in 1977 but implemented his pledge in 1985 with a new and untried experiment of party-less elections. The concept of politics without political parties failed, as apprehended by a majority of Zia’s close colleagues, whose advice was ignored by the adamant president. Zia’s decade-long rule further weakened the already fragile national institutions and the amendments made in the Constitution by him, excessive as these were, led to controversies, resentment and polarization.

Zia’s death started a game of musical chairs between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Both became prime minister twice. Both were dismissed twice.

Benazir came to power with sympathy votes in the wake of Zia’s death caused by the mysterious crash of his otherwise sturdy aircraft. She started with a plus but soon disappointed the people with her inexperience and arrogance. She excelled in opening political fronts and showing her inability in settling issues. In the process, she squandered away her considerable advantage rather quickly.

Her second stint is remembered by allegations of financial misdeeds, corruption and accumulation of assets in foreign countries. More popular in the West than in Pakistan, her administration became synonymous with kickbacks, financial wheeling-dealing and one-person rule. Her own nominated president dismissed her and, by their conduct and behaviour, the people of Pakistan approved her exit from power.

Nawaz Sharif was castigated as the protege of a dictator. He started some mega-projects with mini-resources without subjecting them to detailed scrutiny. He was not accused of financial corruption but his family’s industrial estate showed a rapid growth during the period. His inexperienced advisers put him on a warpath with other power centres. On issues of substance his heart dominated his decisions and in the process he learnt a lesson or two at considerable cost.

Notwithstanding their misdeeds and mixed performance, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif retain their vote banks and it is simplistic to assume that their political careers have already run their course. Both remain in the political arena and neither of them can be wished away. The electoral process best defeats politicians. It may be counterproductive to debar them from contesting elections by administrative fiats. In the long run such acts enable politicians to portray themselves as hapless victims of autocratic rulers.

The PPP and the Muslim League emerged as middle-of-the-road major parties in the elections previously held. Their statecraft and administration were not awe-inspiring but their political agenda was based on a national approach. Both should be nourished and allowed to develop on truly democratic lines. To punish or divide them because of the deeds and misdeeds of some leaders in the past would give unfair and harmful encouragement to minor parties, extremist groups and weak candidates to dominate the national scene in the future. This may retard the growth of a healthy political system in the country.

Military rulers prefer stamp of political legitimacy on their rule as the stigma of being a non-elected president begins to tell sooner or later particularly when the rule prolongs. Hence phrases like controlled democracy, basic democracy, real democracy and genuine democracy are used for reasons easy to fathom. Zia’s referendum that ‘elected’ him president boomeranged because the choice given to the electorate was self-serving for the president. Zia won the referendum but lost morally and politically.

Pakistan’s legal system favours the culprits and protects them from speedy justice. Slow, cumbersome and time-consuming trial of senior politicians suits prosecution, defence, accused, advocates and trial judges. The game plan is simple. Trials are purposely delayed and prolonged by all the vested interests in the hope that time will remove the urgency and a change in government will take care of the case. The game — I protect you, you protect me — is familiar in the corridors of power.

Legal and political issues cannot be settled by military means. Ayub’s constitution died with his own exit from power. The flawed system of Basic Democracies met its Waterloo. Yahya, floated a Constitution when time was already up for him. Zia’s non-party elections were doomed to fail ab initio. Zia accepted the advice of his colleagues and retained the 1973 Constitution. However, he amended it so liberally that the tug of war between the presidents and the prime ministers damaged national unity and democratic norms. In democratic dispensations, major amendments in the constitution are best made by elected parliaments.

Corruption, a global menace, has afflicted every society, Pakistan included, in varying degrees. One may take a lenient view of petty cases of corruption at lower levels but those holding high positions in state administration should be severely punished if found guilty of corruption and graft. And, corruption at the top policy-making levels — civil and military — demands exceptionally firm handling and exemplary punishment. Any person at the higher echelons of leadership should, on conviction, be at least debarred for life from holding any public office in the future.

Pakistan’s political journey has traversed a rough and bumpy course. Its pitfalls of the past should provide food for thought to all concerned. The forthcoming elections place heavy responsibilities on the government, on the political parties and on the electorate. All the three must rise to the occasion. The government and the election commission must ensure total transparency and fairness in the polls. The political parties and candidates must not indulge in electoral irregularities. And, the violators should be firmly and swiftly punished. Lastly, the public should not be alienated from the political process.

The country has witnessed a trend of decreasing electorate participation in successive elections held since 1970. Every effort may be made to reverse this worrisome phenomenon. The electorate participation in the past was 61.45% in 1970, 61.88% in 1977, 53.69% in 1985, 43.07% in 1988, 45.46% in 1990, 40.32% in 1993 and 35.42% in 1997. A strong media effort should encourage the voters to exercise their franchise for the good of Pakistan.

The writer is a retired general of Pakistan army.

Victimized for loyalty

By Hafizur Rahman

EVEN casual readers of this column will have noticed that I am no admirer of the Pakistan government’s officer class. During the last twelve years I must have written as many times about the shocking manner in which our bureaucracy has always failed to respond to the aspirations of the people.

In my own way I have made fun of its idiosyncrasies and its fads and foibles and how the chair of authority holds an almost magical fascination for its members. Incidentally it is this chair that also infuses in them a snobbery that goes ill with the poverty of the people.

A couple of times I have also expressed my views about some very fine officers that I came across during nearly forty years of service in Punjab and at the centre, and singled them out as shining examples of humanity, decency and devoted public service. What I have never touched upon is an aspect of the bureaucracy that is as frequently witnessed as indifferent and unsympathetic administration — cases of political victimization. But more of this later. Meantime, let me recapitulate.

Apart from the disagreeable personal and official characteristics mentioned above in passing, the burden of my criticism of the senior bureaucracy has been much more serious, and, in short, comprises its failure to realize its moral responsibilities as the most educated, truly sophisticated and extraordinarily privileged class that Pakistan inherited in August 1947. At that time its members, with their experience of the government of British India, wielded tremendous authority, and their influence over the incipient politicians was incalculable.

My grouse has been that, but for rare exceptions, they did not put this influence to good use in favour of the free people of the new Muslim state. These politicians knew nothing of administration and government, and the only sacrifice that they had made for Pakistan was short periods in jail as a consequence of the Muslim League’s politics of agitation. Only a few of them, from Bengal and Sindh, knew what it means to rule (for) the people, because the Muslim League had not been in the government in Punjab. Who could they learn from except senior members of the various services?

They may have tried to learn, but the officers did not teach them what they needed to be taught — that public office was a trust and, in the new ideological state, needed the qualities required (if I may say so) for managing a mosque and its funds or an Islamic waqf or a religious institution. Instead they revelled in the privileges of office and learned quickly to misuse their powers either for personal profit or political aggrandizement.

The senior bureaucracy, nurtured on British traditions of integrity and justice, and with hardly a blot on its escutcheon till independence, could have made them do anything, if they had decided to remain unselfish and had the good of the fledgling country and its innocent and naive people at heart. But rather than talking the political upstarts out of undesirable scheming and insisting on the path of probity and rectitude in government affairs, its members chose to go along with them. It was like the modern-day pusher introducing innocent youths to narcotic drugs.

I must now get to the point — victimization of officers on political grounds. It is not my discovery but a fact of life in Pakistan that such officers fall in two categories. There were those who knowingly supported top members of an elected government in their dirty politics and, by keeping them happy, lined their own pockets with ill-gotten gains or shared them with their patrons. Quite a few of them are now in prison or were let off by being dismissed from service, with their deceitful earnings untouched. They have met their desserts and we may leave them ruing their deeds.

But it is the second category that must receive our attention. This comprises officers who, with the best of intentions, performed extremely well in important duties assigned them by a political regime but earned the dislike of the successor regime which chose to associate them personally with their former masters and were penalized. The fault of these officers was that they were made that way and would do well anywhere, always endeavouring to give of their best. I could name many, but I shall confine myself to just one who recently wrote a newspaper article about his travails.

He is Masood Sharif Khan Khattak, better known as Major Masood Sharif, director-general of the Intelligence Bureau in PM Benazir Bhutto’s second term. He has asked a significant question: if a public servant adequately met a challenge to the state by terrorists, and, risking his life, overcame the gruesome horror, and was then punished for it by dismissal from service, who will want to take up any future challenge to the state?

To worst patch of terrorism that Pakistan has ever faced, says Masood Sharif, was in Karachi during 1984-95. Peace and the writ of Pakistan were finally restored in that city in 1995-96 through essentially an IB-spearheaded operation under his command. For the people of Karachi there is no need to repeat what they went through all these years. On August 14, 1996, President Leghari conferred the Hilal-i-Shujaat on Masood Sharif and on Saeed Khan, IGP, Shoaib Suddle, DIG Police, and Major General Muhammad Akram, DG Rangers.

But what happened after the fall of the PPP government in November 1996? Leghari, on the advice of PM Nawaz Sharif, in an act unprecedented as well as contemptible, withdrew the awards from the three civilian officers but did not have the guts to do the same to the military general. Masood Sharif was held in Karachi jail for three years. No charges could even be drawn up against him, and was finally released on bail by the Supreme Court. In the process he was humiliated, insulted and tortured, his family literally thrown out of government accommodation, and he was dismissed from service without a trial. All because he was considered close to Benazir Bhutto.

Asks Masood Sharif: “Where was the state that I had defended against terrorism when I and my family were meted out a treatment that was disgraceful and utterly humiliating? While I defended the state when it was vulnerable, the state did not defend me when my family and I were vulnerable and needed to be defended against vicious and vindictive people.”

This was a sample, though a very cruel and base sample, of what an officer can face from the successors of a political regime which he tried to serve to the best of his ability. As a retired public servant, all that I can say is, “May the Almighty protect the services from such victimization.”

Uncertainty in Kabul

By M.H. Askari

IN typical Anglo-Saxon style, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a recent TV interview, blamed it all on “the terrible weather” when he was questioned about the unduly long time the international coalition force was taking to put down the Al Qaeda resistance in eastern Afghanistan.

He maintained that extreme cold and snowfall in the mountains in eastern Afghanistan had hampered the full use of the “military assets” available to the force. Rumsfeld, nevertheless, acknowledged that the coalition troops had not been able to dislodge a large number of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters entrenched in the tunnels and other underground shelters in the Arma mountains.

According to other US officials, about 2000 coalition troops had surrounded the strongholds and killed hundreds of the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants after the Operation Annaconda was launched “but hundreds more remained.” American B-52 bombers were carrying out air strikes against their hideouts almost round the clock.

US military experts now seem to realize that their earlier estimates of the number of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters still holding out had not been realistic. Pentagon officials have, of late, stated that it is too early to tell “how many they are and what they are doing.”

What could be a matter of direct concern to Pakistan is the constant emphasis on the close proximity of the Pakistani border to the scene of resistance. This could almost imply that the elements inside Pakistan were perhaps providing logistical or other support to the Al Qaeda/Taliban fighters who had refused to surrender. There has even been talk of secret passages linking the underground shelters with the possible routes of their escape or reinforcements.

The question whether the coalition forces could cross into Pakistan in ‘hot pursuit’ of the stragglers has also come up in the consultations between the American and Pakistani officials in the matter, and there have been differences of perceptions.

The American forces in their hunt for the remnants of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters have for long focused on the town of Khost which is perceived as a major land route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A Pentagon spokesman has been quoted as describing Khost as a “dangerous place” pointing out that the city is saturated with weapons and has been a significant site of the fighting between “competing warlords.”

The Pentagon has also been worried about the strategic position of Khost, suggesting that it could serve as a convenient site for the regrouping of the surviving elements of Al Qaeda and Taliban. Fighting could intensify once spring sets in, making it possible for troops on both sides to move around better.

It is regrettable that there should be any doubts on the part of the coalition in respect of Pakistan’s willingness to support the international campaign to combat terrorism and deal with the situation in Afghanistan. During President Pervez Musharraf’s talks with the US president in Washington in February, it was generally recognized that Pakistan was fully committed to the US-led campaign against “terrorism and extremism everywhere including within Pakistan.” President Bush had unequivocally stated that Gen. Pervez Musharraf was “a leader of great courage and vision” who would work in close partnership with the US.

The fact that the international coalition has not been able to totally overcome the resistance by Al Qaeda and Taliban elements in certain parts of Afghanistan is equally a matter of concern to Pakistan. The capacity of the extremists to fan out into the border areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border and spread their gospel of hate should not be under-estimated.

Some political commentators, such as Jonathan Power, have pointed out that countries responsible for “some 90 per cent of the world’s arms sales continue to allow their arms companies to do dirty business with only minimalist controls and interference.”

It is no secret that the Taliban/Al-Qaeda cadres have had little difficulty in securing weapons for their terrorist activities. Most of these arms manufacturers and sellers are located in the western countries. A sort of nexus between the arms dealers and the lawless elements is widely recognized. Added to that is the scepticism expressed by no less a person than the United Nations’ human rights expert, Dr Kamal Hossain (one-time Bangladesh foreign minister), regarding the commitment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) stationed in Kabul to “keeping the peace, much less to checking the tide of crime and lawlessness.”

Dr Hossain has called upon ISAF “to create an environment in which people can feel free from fear and human rights are respected.” Pakistan with its long physical border with Afghanistan and the long history of ethnic, cultural, linguistic and geo-political links between the two countries, has reasons to be more sensitive to the situation in Afghanistan than any other country in the region.

As the US-led operations in Afghanistan enter their sixth month and despite the setting up of an interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai in Kabul, the restoration of peace in Afghanistan continues to remain uncertain. The recent creation of a basic nucleus of a properly trained Afghan army should be seen as a promising development. Mr Hamid Karzai while inspecting the soldiers on the completion of their training in Kabul the other day appeared confident that Afghanistan was on the way to acquiring a modern national army of its own.

However, trained by a motley of instructors drawn from the French, German, Dutch, Italian, Turkish and British components of the ISAF serving in Afghanistan and with equipment donated by as many as 18 different nations which have collaborated in the setting up of the ISAF, it may be some time before they can develop inner cohesion and function as a fully disciplined military unit.

Drawn from many different fighting forces, previously controlled by different warlords, it would not be a simple matter to wean their loyalty away from their erstwhile bosses.

There are fears of Afghanistan breaking up into semi-autonomous regions, dominated by their respective warlords. During the years when their country was under Soviet occupation, the warlords had come together for the single purpose of throwing the Russians out. According to experts, even when they functioned more or less as a single force, they retained their regional and tribal identities. To complicate matters, contrary to the overall complexion of the Afghan nation, in which the Pakhtuns are in majority, the Afghan military schools in 1985 had more Tajiks (48 per cent) than Pakhtuns (45 per cent).

Unless the Pashtuns get their due share, it would be something of an illusion to believe that peace and stability could be restored to Afghanistan in the foreseeable future. A professor of international relations of Peshawar University attending a seminar in Karachi last week (who did not wish to be named) was of the view that it is going to be a long and tortuous road to peace in Afghanistan. According to her, the unrealistic composition of the Kabul’s interim administration with more Tajiks than Pakhtuns in it, rules out the prospects of stability returning soon to the country.

The delay in the former Afghan king Zahir Shah’s return to Kabul also means a setback to the prospect of peace being restored in Afghanistan. For a permanent administration to be inducted in Kabul it is essential that a Loya Jirga should be convened and the ex-king is perceived as the best person to do that.

Although it is generally assumed that Zahir Shah could still return to Kabul in the near future, no date has yet been set for his journey back to his home country. Adding to the uncertainty is disturbing news that Jamiat — the most powerful faction in the Kabul interim administration — is opposed to the restoration of monarchy. Of course, Zahir Shah himself has indicated that he has no ambition to be a monarch all over again and that he was willing to perform any role that is assigned to him.

However, if a loya jirga is not held soon, the whole question of how Afghanistan should be governed could remain unresolved. This may mean the country slipping into a state of chaos all over again and perhaps give an open invitation to opportunists and adventurers to create conditions similar to what they were like after the Soviet were driven out. It could also mean a period of uncertainty for Pakistan all over again and a chance to foreign powers to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.

Palestinian realities

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still has not clearly explained what he hopes to achieve through his military assault on Palestinian cities in the West Bank, but he has dropped a couple of hints.

Last week, he said publicly for the first time that he would like to send Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into exile abroad and hunt down a number of his top political and security lieutenants.

Mr Sharon seems to believe that Israel can stop Palestinian terrorism through its own force of arms and that Mr Arafat and his deputies eventually will be replaced by a more moderate leadership willing to accept Mr. Sharon’s plan for a “long-term interim settlement” that would indefinitely extend Israeli control of East Jerusalem and most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Like Sharon’s previous attempt to destroy Palestinian national aspirations through an invasion of Lebanon, this strategy is doomed to failure. At least some officials in the Bush administration understand this. Secretary of State Colin Powell last week clearly explained why the Israeli offensive won’t work. “No matter how many tanks go through how many villages, at the end of this process you will still have suicide bombers,” said Mr. Powell. —The Washington Post

Will Powell succeed in his mission?

By Mahir Ali

“EACH new morn,” the report said, “new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face...” Shakespeare had medieval Scotland on his mind when he conjured up these images, but they are equally applicable to the current state of affairs in Palestine. Kristallnacht, the name given to a concerted Nazi assault against the Jews in Germany and Austria on the night of November 9-10, 1938, offers an even more apt analogy.

Only a spectacular provocation could have compelled George W. Bush to shake off his lethargy and reassess his determination to steer clear of the seemingly intractable Middle East conflict. Ariel Sharon can take pride in having offered that opportunity.

Although Bush last week pointedly overbalanced his mild criticism of recent Israeli military action by reiterating the anti-Arafat recriminations typically voiced by his and Sharon’s spokesmen, in a carefully scripted departure from usual practice, he also called upon Israel to withdraw its forces from the West Bank.

To underline his resolve, Bush announced that secretary of state Colin Powell would be despatched to the war zone in yet another attempt to broker a peace. The former general wasn’t rushed to the airport, however. Lest Sharon find himself under pressure to start pulling out his shock troops immediately, his friend in the White House decided to hold off for a week. How many lives will be lost in the interim?

Although Sharon made it clear that he was less than thrilled with the latest American diplomatic offensive and gave no immediate indication of any intention to halt his army’s rape of the West Bank, it is hard for Israel to flatly ignore Washington’s wishes. That is why General Anthony Zinni was allowed to meet Yasser Arafat in the latter’s battered Ramallah headquarters — a courtesy that was not extended to a European Union mission led by Javier Solana.

The decision may, of course, have been guided partly by the realization that whereas the EU tends to sympathize with the Palestinians, Zinni hasn’t gone to great lengths to disguise his blatantly pro-Israeli bias. That makes him an all but useless interlocutor as far as the aggrieved party is concerned, and it is hard to believe that the White House and the state department were unaware of his proclivities before he was assigned to the Middle East. Even if that were so, he clearly ought to have been taken off the case after being quoted as likening Sharon to a teddy bear and Arafat to an ogre.

However, Zinni is obviously not the main obstacle to peace. The malign influence of Sharon is writ large over the current state of the occupied territories as the Israeli army ruthlessly goes about its task of destroying all vestiges of Palestinian autonomy. The persistent demand that Arafat must take steps to halt the suicide bombings is accompanied by the wilful destruction of the Palestinian security apparatus. Perhaps it’s futile to look for logic in fascist behaviour, but Sharon must be aware that he is also undermining the very basis of a US-brokered agreement: implementation of the Mitchell and Tenet plans is contingent upon what is described as security cooperation between the two sides, but that can hardly be considered feasible after the events of recent weeks.

If the US administration has finally grasped the fact that Sharon is part of the problem rather a potential participant in any acceptable solution, it wasn’t obvious from Bush’s statement last week. “The chairman of the Palestinian Authority,” he said — his speechwriter evidently being ignorant of the fact that Arafat is technically president of the Authority and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization — “has not consistently opposed or confronted terrorists. ... The situation in which he finds himself today is largely of his own making. He’s missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he’s supposed to lead.”

Many Palestinians may indeed have felt betrayed by Arafat, but for rather different reasons. But by victimizing him, Sharon has washed away most of his sins in Palestinian eyes. The candlelit visage of a national icon haunted by his ruthless nemesis is a figure most of them can identify with. Just a few months ago, Sharon was dismissing Arafat as an irrelevance. Unconcerned about having had to eat his words, he has lately been contemplating aloud the advantages of sending the PLO leader back into exile — the “solution”, he experimented with in 1982 while leading the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The Israeli prime minister just doesn’t get it. As far as Palestinian moderation is concerned, Arafat is the best he is going to get. Were Arafat somehow to be removed from the scene, it is inevitable that a more radical leadership would emerge. Through his actions, Sharon has helped to guarantee as much. On the other hand, chances are that the prospects for peace would brighten somewhat were Sharon to be taken out of the equation — provided that he is replaced by someone relatively amenable to reason rather than Binyamin Netanyahu.

A recent opinion poll suggests more than two-thirds of Israelis support Sharon’s war against Palestinians, and about a quarter would have no qualms about Arafat’s assassination. Perhaps this is not altogether surprising in view of the broad risk posed by suicide bombers to Israeli civilians. One could argue endlessly about whether bombings in public places such as cafes could be considered legitimate acts of resistance against a ruthless occupying force. If Bush and Sharon are going to make no distinction between the terrorists and those who harbour them, should the suicide bombers be expected to differentiate between the instruments of oppression and those who, one way or another, sanction their actions. Would such a question even have arisen in the context of the Jewish resistance to Nazi oppression?

It is extremely difficult under any circumstances to condone indiscriminate violence, regardless of whether the targets are Palestinians in Jenin or Israelis in Tel Aviv. What’s beyond dispute is that the use of massive force by the state is, if anything, likely to encourage further acts of wilful self-destruction. It is well nigh impossible for those of us who haven’t experienced the torture, daily humiliations, frequent bereavements and utter despair of Palestinian existence to fathom the degrees of anger and hopelessness that motivate the suicide bombers. How, then, can Sharon’s war be expected to persuade them of the virtues of peaceful coexistence?

Throughout his tenure at the helm, Sharon’s actions have served to diminish the safety of Israelis. Only a dimwit could fail to recognize that security is a two-way street. But Israel, like the US, wants security only for itself, and seeks to guarantee it through lethal force. Whether or not Sharon is dreaming of something analogous to Hitler’s Final Solution, he is clearly the most dangerous man in the Middle East today — and a much worthier international target than Saddam Hussein.

Although US intervention in various parts of the world is invariably worth opposing because of its tendency to produce disastrous results, in this particular context it is incumbent upon Washington to act forcefully. Israel, after all, is America’s favourite and most trusted proxy power in the region; it thrives US handouts and owes its brute strength primarily to American military over-indulgence. It also happens to be a terrorist state.

Let no one presume, however, that Bush has changed his tune because the scales have fallen from his eyes. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have been able to persuade the administration to step in because even the most hawkish of Bush aides — vice-president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz being the most obvious culprits — have realized that no foreign leader (with the exception of Tony Blair, of course) would even publicly condone, let alone actively back, their goal of toppling the Saddam regime through military action without some sort of a ceasefire in place in the occupied territories. Cheney recently toured the Middle East without eliciting a scintilla of support for targeting Iraq. Even Kuwait expressed its opposition to the project. Yet the US administration’s enthusiasm for demolishing Baghdad remains undiminished, and Bush suggested at the weekend that even Iraqi compliance with UN arms inspection demands would not make him change his mind. If anything, Washington appears to be keener than Saddam to keep independent inspectors out of Iraq, lest their investigations should prove claims that Iraq has stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to be unfounded.

The effectiveness of Powell’s mission this week, which will take place after Sharon has had time enough to do his worst, will depend to a large extent on the degree of pressure the US is willing to put on its Israeli chums. Don’t expect even the mildest sanctions, let alone the threat of a hiatus in arms shipments. If anything, the reverse strategy is likelier: Just pretend for a while to be a good boy, Arik, and you can have all the weapons and cash you want.

The trouble is, even the pretence of decent behaviour is beyond Sharon’s capabilities. Powell could also be hobbled by the hawks back home, as he was last year when he proposed an international presence in Israel. And a suicide bombing during his visit to the region would give Sharon the opportunity he needs to slip back into warmonger mode.

One wonders which of these three possibilities Saddam is most fervently wishing for.



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