Arms sales resumption

US-PAKISTAN relations seem to have entered a new phase of development with the announcement in Islamabad that Washington will help strengthen Pakistan’s conventional arms capability. The details have not been spelled out but the joint statement issued at the end of the three-day talks between the two sides breaks new ground in the military relationship between Pakistan and the US in the post-cold war era. Gone, of course, are the days when this country was America’s most “allied ally.” The collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent diminution of Pakistan’s strategic importance led to a lowering of the level of the country’s relationship with the US. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s geostrategic location in a volatile region is still one of its major assets. This was forcefully brought home by the events of Sept 11, with Pakistan playing a key role in the US-led coalition against terrorism.

Pakistan’s military establishment has always been America-oriented, and the cut-off of all military supplies when the Pressler Amendment went into effect in 1990 badly hit the country’s military capability. The withholding of the delivery of the F-16s for which Pakistan had paid in cash in advance is a sorry chapter in US-Pakistan relations. In the negotiations just concluded in Islamabad, the Pakistan delegation raised the issue without there being any commitment from the American side. However, the leaders of the two delegations, as well as the joint statement, spoke of both previous transactions “which got interrupted” and new weapons systems which Islamabad was keen on acquiring. Pakistan has given to the American delegation a list of military hardware in which Islamabad is interested, while US Undersecretary of Defence Douglas J. Feith said his country had an interest in Pakistan’s security concerns. More significantly, he said the two countries had developed “a very sound basis” for military cooperation, because his country had an interest in helping Pakistan “enhance its conventional defence capabilities.”

Placed as Pakistan is, it cannot afford to ignore its defences. Given the unhappy relationship with India and the history of three wars, Pakistan has to maintain a credible level of defence as a safeguard against Indian military threats and New Delhi’s hegemonic propensities. Besides, there is the unresolved Kashmir dispute which India seems in no mood to resolve by peaceful means. The present stand-off along the border and India’s refusal to have a dialogue with Pakistan serve to underline the kind of defence capability Islamabad has to maintain to safeguard its independence. Short of resources, Pakistan is constrained to have a large defence establishment that costs it dearly in terms of social sector development. Things would be vastly different if Pakistan and India were to sort out their differences and disputes and concentrate resources on giving their peoples a better life. However, in the absence of such an understanding, Pakistan feels that it has no option but to maintain a minimum level of defence capability. The resumption of American military sales should, thus, serve to plug the gaps that have developed in Pakistan’s defence systems and rectify the imbalance in regional military strengths because of the rapid and phenomenal increases in India’s defence spending and capability in both conventional and nuclear terms.

Unkind and uncalled for

INTERIOR Minister Moinuddin Hyder’s sweeping denunciation of NGOs during a ceremony in Islamabad on Thursday was not merely unduly harsh but also wholly unwarranted. The minister lashed out at civil society organizations and accused them of creating unnecessary hurdles in the way of development. Coming from a senior member of the government, such sentiments can only further poison the atmosphere for a section already under attack from various religious elements. The minister’s outburst was not an isolated example of official distrust of NGOs. A number of high-ranking officials have of late made unkind remarks about such organizations. One example was the attack on NGOs by a senior ranger’s officer in Okara. He accused the protesting tenants working on military farms of being misled by NGOs, which he claimed were working for foreign powers to undermine the state.

What is irresponsible about such verbal excesses is that it echoes the opinion of some religious parties who have recently found a new bogey in the shape of NGOs. In their eyes, such organizations further a western agenda and receive vast amounts of foreign funds to undermine people’s religious and cultural values. While no one would argue that the NGOs are above criticism, denouncing them in such a sweeping manner is both unfair and in some ways downright dangerous. In recent months there have been a number of attacks on NGOs by fanatics, mainly in the NWFP. Organizations working for women’s education and health have been singled out. Whatever the failings of individual organizations, the NGO sector has become a vibrant force for change and — for the care and well-being of the most disadvantaged sections of society. Many NGOs have done commendable work in the fields of health, education, human rights, family planning, the environment, disaster relief and other vital areas. Ironically, they have managed to fill the vacuum created by the government’s unwillingness or inability to make an effective contribution in the social sector. To attack such groups in sweeping terms can only strengthen the hands of the obscurantist forces.

Mounting road tragedies

THE death of 20 people in a bus accident in Azad Kashmir on Friday speaks of the unchecked mayhem on our roads and highways. The narrow, rutted roads snaking through AJK’s hills are a veritable death trap for heavy vehicles, causing recurrent mishaps. The death toll could go up as many of the injured are in a critical condition. According to reports, the driver lost control while negotiating a turn causing the bus to fall into a deep ravine. Overloading, responsible for countless such tragedies before, seems more to blame in this case. Many passengers were sitting on the roof. It is this wanton disregard of the safety of passengers as well as of the rules of safe steering in a difficult terrain that is behind many of the tragedies that occur on our roads. Coupled with poor driving skill, speeding, neglect of vehicular maintenance, bad roads and poor traffic engineering, it is making a chilling contribution to the rising accident rates.

At least 21 people were killed and 17 others injured in a head-on collision between a Quetta-bound coach and an oil tanker over a week ago. Recently, seven people were killed and six injured in a collision between a van and a trailer in Lahore, which was the scene of another major road tragedy earlier this week. Every day there are many major and minor mishaps in Karachi as a result of reckless driving and poor traffic control and regulation. Pakistan, having one of the highest accident rates, cannot afford to ignore this socially explosive problem. Routine observance of traffic weeks and days alone will not do. Along with infrastructural improvement and better regulation, sustained efforts are required to develop awareness of the dangers posed to road users. Licences should be issued to only those who have the required driving skill and are conversant with safety rules. Pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists weave through heavy traffic, ignore red lights and do not observe precautions. They also must be the focus of enforcement efforts.

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