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DAWN - Features; September 4, 2005

September 04, 2005


The Tanai affair

By A. R. Siddiqi

AFTER a stay of over a decade and a half in Pakistan, General Shahnawaz Tanai, defence minister in the regime of President Najibullah, is reportedly back in Kabul. Whether during his long stay in Pakistan he had ever gone to his country or travelled abroad is not known.

Tanai reportedly drove from Islamabad early last month to Kabul. His dramatic return to Kabul may throw yet another spanner in the works of the none-too-easy Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship.

The Afghan press, led by Watandar, an Afghan Persian (Dari) daily, has directly accused the ISI of a hand in the Tanai affair. The paper came out with an editorial captioned: “Mr Tanai’s arrival in Afghanistan is a new game of Pakistan.”

A dyed-in-the-blue communist and a pillar of the Najibullah regime, Tanai was a dubious character attempting an abortive coup against his own friend and president, Najibullah, and seeking refuge in a hostile Pakistan - above all - joining hands with a fundamentalist like Engineer Gulbadin Hekmatyar.

The monthly Defence Journal, Karachi (Vol. XVI, Nos. 4&5, 1990), had editorially noted at the time that three Afghan planes and a helicopter carrying the defecting general and his entourage landed at Parachinar, headquarters of the Kurram agency, 12km from the Pakistan border. First to land was an Antonov 12 transport carrying 12 escapees at 1.30pm followed by an MI-17 chopper with the VIP himself, his family and close collaborators at 2.30 pm. The defection or the flight plan thus took little more than two hours to complete - a brilliant logistical feat in its own right. Having left his family in Pakistan’s safe haven, Gen Tanai, together with some of his senior colleagues, drove back (the air transports flying them into Pakistan having been already quarantined) to Afghanistan to be technically there mainly with an eye on foreign publicity, without running any unnecessary risk to his personal security.

The reaction in Pakistan to Tanai’s coup de theatre was electric - at once expressive of joy and surprise. The way the foreign office reacted might have been closer to unconcealed personal enthusiasm over a much-wanted but largely unexpected event than to a measured and calculated diplomatic response. The foreign office readily lent its ear and voice to the first reports about Najib having been either already killed or holed up in the Soviet embassy in Kabul. The success of the coup was taken for granted until Najib appeared on TV at 10 pm the same night to prove that he was physically there and in effective control of the state apparatus and that the coup had failed.

Whether the Tanai coup was a serious attempt at state seizure or just an ingeniously-contrived escape plan, remains an open question. The first Kabul broadcast about the coup at midday (March 6, 1990) was followed, some four hours later, by another announcing its failure and the dismissal of the coup leader. It was all over within four hours.

Two Afghan top politicians-turned diplomats, Assadullah Sarwary and Mohammad Gulabzoi, respectively their country’s envoys to Aden and Moscow, were said to have been intimately connected with the coup. Assadullah Sarwary, an old comrade of Tanai, was the chief of the Afghan intelligence under Nur Mohammad Taraki. He was a Khalqi hardliner of the PDPA (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan) known as the assassin of the rival Parcham faction. Gulabzoi was minister of interior before being exiled on a diplomatic assignment to Moscow.

Tanai himself was recognized as a hawk and a sworn enemy of the Mujahideen. In Najib’s own words Tanai was the ‘so-called’ hardliner who would advocate a ‘tit-for-tat’ policy against Pakistan. He would even urge targeting Scud missiles at Islamabad. He sought a ‘military solution’ as opposed to the party’s policy of ‘national reconciliation’.

Among the Pakistan-based Mujahideen groups, the only person to have openly supported and confessed to close links with the coup was Hekmatyar, leader of the mainstream Hizb-i-Islami. He owned and supported the coup as a joint operation master-minded by Tanai with his prior knowledge.

He declared: “If the coup is successful, the Tanai forces and Mujahideen around Kabul should form a joint council and then hold elections after six months. Otherwise the jihad against Najib will go on. I was aware of the coup beforehand and had relations with them. Even the interim Afghan government (AIG) knew about it but declined to take part.”

Hekmatyar spoke too soon in the hope and the belief that the coup had succeeded. In a display of enthusiasm uncharacteristic of the man known for his stark pragmatism, he forgot that by supporting a pillar of Najib’s secular and Sovietized regime, he was actually and, quite inevitably, compromising his own ideological credentials.

All the other heads of the Mujahideen groups (Tanzimat) roundly condemned Hekmatyar for supporting Tanai, a communist, even one attempting to topple Najibullah’s secular regime.

Professor Burhanuddin saw no ‘visible’ differences between Najib and Tanai. “Whatever Hekmatyar does is his own business in which the Mujahideen have no contribution.”

Professor Sibghatullah Mujaddedi (Jabhe Milli Islami Afghanistan) while answering a question about his attitude towards a Tanai-Hekmatyar coalition government said: “We will continue our jihad against them.”

Professor Abdul Rasul Sayyaf urged intensifying the struggle to topple the regime and exploit the differences between the Khalqis and the Parchamis.

Surprisingly enough, there has been no official version as yet forthcoming from Islamabad about the protracted stay in Pakistan of General Tanai, his entourage and family and his reported return to Kabul and his present whereabouts.

The writer is a retired brigadier of the Pakistan Army.

What’s in a system?

THERE is a growing fear among opposition MPs that the country may be moving towards a presidential form of government. While there is nothing serious going on in Islamabad to suggest that, concerns remain over the efficacy of the current dispensation. Thanks to the restoration of Article 58 (2b) of the Constitution by the military-led government after the 1999 coup, it is, in effect, the president who has become the pivot of all authority.

The debate on a suitable form of government has been raging for some time in the city’s leading media organs and at public forums. There will be many who believe that the timing of the debate is ominous; but you know better. Sucking up to the president, and historically speaking, the most powerful president at that, is a privilege not many others would like to forego. For his part, Gen Musharraf has given no indication that he espouses the idea of scrapping the parliamentary system in favour of a presidential one. If anything, the former has been neutralized and rendered ineffective, to the sole benefit of an all-powerful presidency.

Elected assemblies have been in place since 2002, but other than passing the annual federal and provincial budgets, and that too without much debate, they have accomplished little in terms of legislation. Critics, however, also make another very pertinent point: that not much is to be expected of the system by stuffing the assemblies with pro-establishment, handpicked deputies. The way the government has conducted itself in this realm has left much to be desired.

It is not a system, say parliamentary or presidential, that is good or bad; the people working the system make all the difference. The problem in our case has been the non-sustainability of political institutions. This is because every time a powerful individual comes to power, or seizes power, the first thing he does is to reinvent the wheel. Institutions thus created and fostered for some time inadvertently come crumbling down the day its creator is thrown out of office.

The truth is that there is no shortcut to democratic institution building. These should be allowed to evolve over a period of time, and the best way to do so is to empower the assemblies by encouraging debate. Parliament should be the official talk shop where all issues are brought on to the table and legislators allowed to discuss matters to iron out their differences. The process should be led by the government, not forestalled by it, as has been the case thus far.

There is nothing wrong with parliamentary democracy, provided those who have been entrusted with calling the shots are prevailed upon to give breathing space to the opposition deputies. If important issues like the Kalabagh dam, the NFC award, and most recently, overtures to Israel, are not brought to parliament, it is the failure of those manning this managed democracy and not that of the parliamentary system.

* * * * *

THE Lahore district coordination officer has warned that under-construction high-rise plazas will not be given a clearance certificate unless they observe the bylaws governing all such construction. There is an obvious construction boom in the city, thanks to the unbridled policy of commercialization pursued by the CDGL since its inception four years ago. The fit is on to leave no street in the city for purely residential purposes. The DCO’s warning, thus, only applies to observing the bylaws and getting your paperwork in order, and not about stopping rampant commercialization.

Look at the new plazas lining the erstwhile residential main boulevard of Gulberg. All these commercial buildings have been approved by the LDA and other civic authorities concerned after collecting hefty amounts in commercialization fee. One is loathe to point out that none of the new, some of them dazzling, plazas has adequate public facilities and safety features enshrined in the so-called CDGL bylaws.

Take the ubiquitous Hafeez Centre, the Pace stores, the two Auriga malls, the City Towers, and you name it. Ever wondered why these plazas literally spill out in all directions on a working day, causing congestion and pollution? The obvious answer is lack of adequate parking space. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the flouting of bylaws goes. There are more serious flaws that do not always meet the eye.

For instance, where are the fire exits in these buildings? Where is adequate ventilation? And are those cobwebs of crisscrossing wires overhead, visible and concealed, entirely safe? There have been several incidents of fire breaking out in such plazas over the years, some involving the top names in consumer merchandizing. In one particular case, it was learnt that fire engines could not even enter the narrow lane and reach the store in question to put out the fire. Why are the same buildings allowed to be refurbished in the mirror image of their destroyed premises?

These and many other disturbing questions remain unanswered.

* * * * *

IT is trees, once again. The good news is that the Lahore Cantonment Board has decided to document all existing trees in its jurisdiction, and plant up to 775,000 saplings in the process this monsoon season. The Cantonment management has been good to the trees; unlike elsewhere in the city, roads in Cantt have not been widened by unscrupulously cutting down the trees. They have been carefully skirted around in most cases. How one wishes the Model Town, the DHA and several other housing societies would learn a thing or two from the LCB.

* * * * *

BACK to the wagons and minibuses, says the district transport authority, which notified 37 revamped routes for these vehicles this week. The policy of taking such public transport off the road without making alternative arrangements was flawed in the first place. Rickety and old many of these vehicles might be, they serve a purpose all the same. The stress should be on their roadworthiness not their existence per se.

A sprawling city the size of Lahore needs a well-integrated urban train and bus transit system, which has only existed on paper so far. So until that takes shape, let the wagons and the minis ply our roads. Meanwhile, the transport authority which presides over the existing pollution-ridden, free-for-all public transport, should consider making safety masks available at an affordable price to commuters who do not own personal vehicles. —OBSERVER

Petroleum prices don’t bother the affluent

THERE was a time for the common man when prices rose at the time of budget in June each year. That is no more. Now prices can be revised any time during the year and take the common man by surprise.

For some time there was this expression called “mini budget” that was used, and apprehensive folks anticipated “mini-budgets” at different times. From what is happening now even these mini-budgets have become obsolete. Now there is no timing, no schedule for revision of prices.

When the petroleum prices were raised substantially on Aug 31, not all citizens were surprised. World oil prices have been steadily and disturbingly moving up for quite some time. “How long would the government take that hit?” asked one Karachiite.

In fact, if one goes by the reaction so far, there is widespread criticism and condemnation of the decision to raise petroleum price. Obviously, the fear is that there will now be an all round price hike. I have the salaried and fixed income groups in mind. What do they deny themselves as a family to be able to take this shocking impact on their shrinking income! (Inflation target in the country is to be revised upward, says a report in Dawn on Sept 2.)

When prices rise like this, it is quite natural to speculate on what happens to the common man’s family. Of how it suffers, and resents, and blames everything around for what goes wrong in its life. But strangely after all is said and done, said one colleague the fact is that people don’t seem to be cutting down on consumption. Do the shopping centres and bazaars, crowded and well stocked as they are, and growing as they are in number, and in size, reflect the point that there is a price hike that is worrying for the majority. There is strength in the argument that it is only a small minority that is given to consumerism, which gives the false impression that it is a good time for all.

There is news that the Porsche Company is setting up showrooms in Pakistan after anticipating a market here. Referring to this, a gentleman from Oxford University has written a letter to a newspaper saying that it is ironic that in a country where people are struggling to make both ends meet, and where prices are touching the skies, the elite are keen on buying the most expensive sports cars.

Let’s face it: for all that we say and preach, and whatever the price spiral for the majority, the elite and its extravagance and ugly ostentatious demonstration of their materialism is unbridled, even though it is despised. The Porsche factor is only a symbolic indicator how this society is moving. In fact, the way Pakistan’s petroleum prices have been rising over the years and having an impact on other essential items citizens have multiple fears that their purchasing power will get eroded, all the official promises of development and progress notwithstanding.

I have been talking to some residents post petroleum price rise and many points emerged from our conversations. One of them relates to what could be described as a kind of cynicism. That after a while this price rise will also become a part of the past, and people will adjust to it. He said gone are the days when the common man got his point of protest across effectively. I tried to argue with him and said that perhaps the government would come out with well-considered plan to curb the consumption of petroleum products, and there may also be introduced energy conservation steps, which when implemented would be for the larger good of society.

I referred to all the statements that have come from the political parties, and the transporters, besides assorted others. He felt that this was a natural reaction, which with the passage of time would get “lost” in the multiple other frustrations that the Pakistani lives with.

Our conversation turned to Ramazan that is due next month when the well known tradition of rising prices, gets aggravated. The fear that we discussed was related to traders and businessmen raising their margins of profit, which again is something that citizens are familiar with. There are official campaigns that are executed in a very mechanical manner to meet the demands of officialdom and bureaucratic procedures.

A trace of what one is referring to is amply reflected in this Dawn story on Sept 2 which reported that “Pulses, onion prices start moving up”. The story mentions that as Ramazan is only one month away and petroleum rates have been increased, prices of pulses have started moving up and market analysts smell hoarding activity and artificial jack-up of all prices to make windfalls in the holy month.

Of course, one is also anxious about world oil prices, whose further rise could still have negative impact on the prices here. It is a fortnightly exercise, after all!

Shall we try to end on a note of mild optimism? The CNG station owners have assured that they presently have no plans to increase the price of CNG. And that if any CNG station owner does increase the price this should be brought to the notice of the CNG Station Owners’ Association. Some of us are keeping our fingers crossed vis-a-vis this assurance.

There is also some cheer to be had from the news that “chicken prices fall on supply glut” by at least Rs15 per kg. For those who opt for white meat, for reasons dietary or culinary, this should be good news. How long the prices remain this way is something one would find hard to believe.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005