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DAWN - Editorial; November 16, 2003

November 16, 2003

Abdullah’s allegations

AFGHAN Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah’s views about Islamabad’s policies towards his country need to be taken seriously. Unlike previous occasions when Afghan officials have merely expressed concern about the activities of the Taliban, Mr Abdullah this time directly accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban. In his interview with Dawn’s Washington correspondent, the Afghan foreign minister was specific about the charges against Islamabad and listed them in a rather harsh tone. Pakistan, he said, was “allowing” Taliban leaders to operate from its soil. According to him, they were moving freely within Pakistan because Islamabad had given them “a free rein.” Asked where the attackers on US and Afghan troops were coming from and where they were getting their arms from, the Afghan leader said that they were coming from Pakistan and that it was Islamabad which was giving them arms and ammunition. He alleged that Taliban leaders were not hiding but were holding press conferences and “cabinet-like meetings” in Quetta. His comments should be seen against the background of a resurgence of violence in Afghanistan. The Taliban continue to attack Afghan and American troops, and reports in the international media say they are in control of at least three districts in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan.

The plain fact is that, two years after the end of their government in Kabul, the Taliban have managed to resurface. The extent of their strength, organizational structure and operational ability may be open to speculation, but the fact remains that the Taliban are far from being a vanquished force. In any case, any movement with an ideological motivation, however flawed, cannot be suppressed by military means alone. The task is made more difficult by two other factors. One is the mountainous nature of the area with its thousands of caves, crevices and passes. For that reason, it is virtually impossible to seal off the long Pakistan-Afghanistan border of more than 3,000 kilometres. Two, there is still considerable sympathy among some sections of Pakhtoon tribesmen on both sides of the border for the Taliban. Surely, the Taliban cannot operate without shelter and protection from local tribesmen in areas difficult for security forces to reach. Pakistan’s security forces have been operating on their side of the border and doing all they can to ferret out the remnants of the Taliban. But this is a task that needs time, patience and perseverance.

All this serves to highlight the need for improving coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan at both political and operational levels. Obviously, coordination would not be possible if there is mistrust between the two. Public statements like the one made by Mr Abdullah serve to complicate rather than help matters. It would have been much better if the Afghan foreign minister had taken up the issue with his Pakistani counterpart instead of going public with a long list of charges. He must know that Pakistan and Afghanistan have a history of mistrust dating back to this country’s creation, and there is no dearth of outside powers which would like to exploit the differences between the two countries. The two nations are linked by indissoluble bonds of faith, language and culture, besides roaring trade conducted through both traditional and non-traditional channels. As recent history shows, war and strife in Afghanistan invariably produce their spillovers affecting Pakistan. Peace and stability in Afghanistan is, thus, as much in Kabul’s interest as in Pakistan’s.

Peace initiative on hold

THE recent power-sharing plan proposed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), likely to be accepted by the Sri Lankan government, had aroused new hopes for ending a 20-year-old civil war that has claimed 65,000 lives. But then President Chandrika Kumaratunga struck with her constitutional powers, proroguing parliament and imposing emergency, as Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was meeting President Bush in Washington on November 5. The Norwegian mediators, who had brokered a ceasefire between the government forces and the LTTE rebels in February last, and who were in Colombo to conduct a decisive round of talks, have now left for home citing ambiguity as to who is in charge of the peace process from the government side: the prime minister or the president. The political impasse between the constitutionally powerful head of state and the prime minister, belonging to rival parties, over how much to cede to the LTTE is not a good development. In their solitary meeting the other day since the suspension of parliament, the two leaders failed to bridge their differences on how to carry forth the peace process with the LTTE rebels.

The stakes are high in what now seems to be a game of political upmanship, as neither side wishes to cede the credit of ending the civil war to the other in case a peace deal is finally struck with the LTTE. However, there is some hope in an otherwise depressing picture. The president has not dissolved parliament, nor has she fired the prime minister; and the ceasefire between the government forces and the LTTE still holds. One hopes that in the days to come the two leaders will show more maturity and iron out their differences at a time when chances for ending the civil war were never greater in two decades. The Norwegian mediators left Colombo on a positive note, saying that they would want to resume their role as soon as the president and the prime minister have resolved their differences.

The Mall underpass

THE opening on Friday of The Mall underpass by the Punjab chief minister marks a small but significant step towards easing growing traffic ingestion in Lahore. Great inconvenience was caused to motorists and others during its construction. Diversion of traffic had resulted in long lines of vehicles and traffic snarls at various crossings and roads. However, while things return to normal, much more remains to be done to ensure smooth flow of traffic and to build a communication infrastructure commensurate with the needs of a vastly expanded metropolis. This is also necessary to promote economic activity and tackle the widespread unemployment problem. It is somewhat reassuring that the Punjab government plans to take up more such projects in the coming months in Lahore and other busy centres like Rawalpindi and Gujranwala.

In Lahore, work on the FC College bridge underpass is expected to start after Eidul Fitr and the government is considering constructing the long-delayed Ring Road for easing traffic congestion. The chief minister has announced that these projects would be followed by more underpasses at Lal Bridge, Jinnah Bridge, Faisal Chowk, GPO and Lakshami Chowk. Flyovers and dual carriageways are also necessary to ensure speedier and smother flow of traffic in the city. Lining up the requisite resources is vital to accomplish these objectives. The chief minister earlier said that during his visit to Germany, his negotiations with the German Development Bank proved successful and that the bank had agreed to extend financial assistance for uplift projects in Punjab. According to him, the bank has also agreed to release suspended grants to Pakistan. In the past, grants could not be used because of the indifferent attitude of government officials. This must not be allowed to recur. Effective use of resources must be ensured as part of a comprehensive strategy for the provision of a better communication infrastructure.