Troubled Frontier

TWO bloody battles on Wednesday and Thursday serve to underline the precarious security situation along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In Thursday’s clash in South Waziristan, the Pakistan Army lost two soldiers while eight Al Qaeda men were killed. The battle — in a village near Wana — began in the morning and continued well into the evening. The army had also to call in helicopters to flush out the militants. This testifies to Al Qaeda’s ability to acquire weapons and challenge the army in the tribal area. More important, the episode serves to underline the fact that Al Qaeda still has sympathizers in the tribal belt. Without support from the local population, it would not have been possible for these militants, all of them said to be foreigners, to challenge Pakistan’s security forces. A day earlier, 10 Afghan soldiers were killed when attacked by the Taliban at a place north of Kandahar.

The two clashes make it obvious that Al Qaeda and Taliban are far from being vanquished as they were supposed to have been in December 2001 when Kandahar, the last of the Taliban bastions, fell. The militants are now on both sides of the border, and it is fallacious to assume — as often done by Kabul — that they are solely based in Pakistan’s tribal area. The Taliban are to be found all over Afghanistan. They may be lying low, but they are quite capable of mounting offensives against Afghan security forces when and where they choose. In fact, at places the Taliban are strong enough to claim that they have control over some areas of Afghan territory: the Barmal District, 15 miles from Pakistan, is in their control.

The fight against Al Qaeda is compounded by the kind of terrain and tribal culture the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area has. The hilly terrain is one of the world’s most difficult areas for any security force to look after. Military planners in the area must also take into consideration the tribesmen’s fierce sense of independence. The vast majority of them may not be Taliban supporters, but they are suspicious of armed intrusions into their territory and guard the traditions of tribal independence jealously. While this may be the position on the Pakistan side of the border, the situation in entire Afghanistan continues to be chaotic. The writ of the Karzai government is confined to Kabul, and the International Security Assistance Force refuses to venture out of the capital city. A professional Afghan army which the Karzai government was to raise is nowhere near its planned strength, thus encouraging the warlords in their defiance of Kabul.

Both Islamabad and Kabul need to look into the issue of security more deeply. Pakistan, for instance, should try to ascertain the meaning of US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s claim that not all sections of our establishment are behind the government in the war on Al Qaeda. The Pakistan foreign office spokesman has hotly denied this, but more may need to be done to remove misgivings abroad. As for Afghanistan, it must set its house in order. The Pakhtoons, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, feel sidelined, because the Northern Alliance’s Tajik group dominates the government. The warlords also refuse to share revenues with Kabul, and often hobnob with the Taliban to blackmail the Karzai government. Both Islamabad and Kabul should know that the issue needs political handling more than resort to force. The two governments should also better coordinate their efforts against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. The misunderstandings between the two have often enabled the Taliban to exploit these differences to their advantage.

Military and civilian posts

THE practice of posting serving and retired military officers against civilian posts has often been underlined and commented upon. A report in this newspaper published yesterday has again drawn attention to the trend, which appears to have picked up speed since October 1999. According to the report, based on an annexure supplied to the Senate library, there were over 1,000 military men, including 104 serving and retired generals, employed in various civilian organizations. In the period since 1999, 15 military men have worked as Pakistan’s envoys abroad. When we have been led for over a quarter of a century by army chiefs rather than elected politicians, why, it may be asked, quibble over a thousand or so military personnel given civilian jobs, even though in several instances the old adage of square pegs in round holes springs automatically to mind? This is particularly glaring in cases where military men have been asked to head seats of higher learning or research bodies.

But there are bigger issues involved. The increasingly intrusive presence of the military in civilian affairs and its exposure to various administrative, political and (in the case of the spreading acquisition of real estate) commercial influences can only harm the military as an institution. It also unnecessarily opens the possibility of a tussle between civilian and military officials in government departments and organizations, and can be interpreted by the former as a lack of confidence in their ability. Besides, it is not too difficult to argue that this risks increasing the army’s stake in political power and civil administration. The resentment created on this account can provide an opportunity to politicians to contend that the military is seeking to dominate every field of activity. Serving military officers in civilian jobs are presumably answerable only to GHQ, and this raises questions of accountability. If we claim that we have a parliamentary democratic system, the principle of civilian supremacy should be fully established and respected in letter and spirit. Gen Pervez Musharraf should take a close look at the present policy and try to convince his men that, except in rare cases where an officer enjoys unusual expertise in a particular field, they should be content with the honour, perks and privileges of military service.

Paediatric surgery

FIFTY per cent of newborn babies in Pakistan with congenital heart anomalies die within days of their birth, as they do not receive proper medical care, doctors were told at a recent international symposium on cardiology. Even otherwise, Pakistan has a considerably high incidence of congenital heart diseases among children, no less than 10 per 1,000 births. These figures tie in with Pakistan’s infant mortality rate, which stands at 84 per 1,000 births. This is 30 per cent higher than the average in other developing countries. The problems in providing medical care in Pakistan, especially in such a specialized area as paediatric cardiac surgery, are many. At the top of the list is the lack of experts in the field because a number of doctors and medical staff concerned with this speciality are leaving the country, along with other professionals ranging from budding surgeons and anaesthetists to nurses and technologists.

The recommendations made at the symposium to introduce a phased programme under which paediatric cardiac surgery should be made a national priority are worth looking into. Doctors insist that in most cases babies respond better to cardiac treatment than adults, and timely intervention prevents complications and even death. Plans already exsist to develop paediatric cardiac surgery units in the cardiology hospitals. A push is needed from the government to get the project going.

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