A crisis in the making?

THE crime in Baghdad on Wednesday is too horrendous for words. People, including women and children, were lured into a mini-van and then reduced to ashes as the vehicle blew up. This killed 114 people. The same day in the Iraqi capital, a car bomb explosion killed 11 civilians, while in another case 17 persons were dragged out of their homes and shot. This pushed the number of deaths on Wednesday to 142. This toll is next only to the trauma on the Tigris bridge last month. Prompted by a false rumour, a stampede there left nearly l,000 people dead. Wednesday’s slaughter comes in the wake of the joint operation launched by US and Iraqi security forces in the Tal al-Afar on Tuesday, in which 160 people died in house-to-house searches. The victims in Tal al-Afar were Sunnis, and those killed in Baghdad were all Shias. The responsibility for the Baghdad slaughter was claimed by Al Qaeda’s Iraq chapter headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, though the US State Department spokesman said it was hard to verify the claim.

The killings of civilians and the deaths in clashes between militants on the one hand and the US-led forces and the Iraqi security apparatus on the other show no sign of abating. If things continue this way, there is every possibility of Iraq dissolving into a full-blown civil war. The constitutional controversy only adds to this fear. The constitution was never passed by parliament; it was read out and then it was decided to put it to vote. If the draft constitution is rejected in the referendum, one can only pray for Iraq. The draft visualizes a federal system, which is not acceptable to all. The parliament is overwhelmingly Shia, yet most Shias are opposed to a federal system. Being in a majority, they would naturally like to see a unitary state which they could shape according to their own lights. The Sunnis are opposed to a federation because they fear it could ultimately lead to Iraq’s disintegration. In such a situation, the Sunni “triangle” would be deprived of Iraq’s oil revenues, because the reserves are either in the Shia south or Kurdish north. The Kurds alone want a federal system. It serves their interests. They have always been at the receiving end, no matter who called the shots in Baghdad, and would welcome a federal scheme in which they would enjoy maximum autonomy. They already have a regional parliament.

It all depends on how the December referendum goes. If even three of Iraq’s 18 provinces reject the draft, there will be a serious political and constitutional crisis. The immediate result will be that the existing parliament and the government which it created would lose all credibility. The same parliament making a new constitution and putting it to vote again would be incongruous. A negative result in the referendum would only help the resistance and accentuate fissiparous tendencies. There are millions of Kurds across the borders in Turkey and Iran, who would welcome an independent Kurdistan, though it is unlikely that Ankara or Tehran would sit with folded arms, because the stakes are high. A disintegration of Iraq could set in motion a process that could lead to a fragmentation of the Middle East. This would unleash forces — not the least of them extremist and terrorist — which could unsettle the whole region.

Wrong thing to say

THE president talked totally out of turn on the issue of women during his interview with an American newspaper published here on Wednesday. Asked about the Mukhtaran Mai case, he launched into his usual —- and equally tactless —- comparison between the incidence of rape in western countries and Pakistan. It’s happening everywhere, he said, and then added: “You must understand the environment in Pakistan. This has become a money-making concern. A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada and citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped.” Even if a lot of benighted and bigoted people say such things debasing women, should a head of state repeat them at the risk of implying approval? If this attitude of blaming rape and other crimes against women on women themselves and ridiculing NGOs that take up such issues begins to travel upward from ignorant mullahs and male chauvinists to permeate the higher echelons of the administration, then God help us.

A few cases like that of Shazia Khalid, Mukhtaran Mai and Sonia Naz have got publicity both at home and abroad. What about the women regularly abused in the countryside by landlords and powerful elements of the rural bureaucracy? What about the small girls brought to a Karachi hospital recently who were found to have been brutally assaulted? Did they go through rape to get a Canadian visa or Canadian citizenship? And if conditions in the country are so bad that to leave it, women are ready to go to the extent of concocting stories of being dishonored, then too we should be prepared to shed tears if we have any. As to rape in other countries, they pursue such cases, not ridicule the victims; rape is not accepted as part of culture, which it is here in our feudal set-up; the police themselves are not involved; they have no ‘panchayats’ sentencing women to be raped; those found guilty are punished and cases are not hushed up or shuffled from one inquiry committee to another. It is often the case that remarks made during interviews can get reported out of context or acquire an unintended meaning. But the president owes it to the women of Pakistan to clarify his comments.

Rooting out foreign militants

TUESDAY’S seizure of a small spy airplane, large amounts of ammunition and sophisticated communication equipment, along with Monday’s arrest of 21 militants in North Waziristan, may prove to be the breakthrough the Pakistan Army needed in that volatile region. Despite military action and efforts to engage local tribal leaders in dialogue, the military has been unable to flush out all militants hiding there. NWFP corps commander Lt Gen Safdar Husain’s disclosure that a recruitment office had been seized, a junior level administration officer arrested for passing on sensitive information and the possibility of an MMA minister’s direct or indirect support for terrorists prove the overwhelming hurdles that prevent the army from bringing the area under control. That a recruitment office was functioning there or that equipment that can track army movements was found shows how undeterred militants are by the heavy deployment of troops and how much local support they still command. The possible involvement of a minister is shocking and must be fully probed. On Wednesday, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao said that he was investigating links between the minister and Al Qaeda but no action would be taken without concrete proof. Meanwhile, the minister has denied all allegations.

The situation in the tribal belt has been one of unrest in the last 18-odd months and both sides have suffered heavy casualties, among them civilians. However, military action must continue to root out terrorist elements whose presence in the tribal belt should not be tolerated. At an appropriate time a political dialogue with tribal leaders should be undertaken, as their support against militants is very crucial. This region has been largely ignored and no efforts made to integrate the locals into the national mainstream. Funds for development have been allocated and released but the fruits of that have not yet reached the common tribesman.

Prelude to recognizing Israel?

By Karamatullah K. Ghori

SPOKESMEN of the government may go on insisting that there is no rush to recognize Israel and establish normal diplomatic relations with the Jewish entity long treated as a pariah by Pakistan. However, this is about as best a defence as the mealy-mouthed apologists for the regime could offer for a major shift in Pakistan’s foreign policy. A Rubicon has been crossed, whether one may accept it or not.

The full media exposure accorded to the Kasuri-Shalom conclave in Istanbul is a measure of the Islamabad mandarins’ smug confidence that what they are embarking on is something that they have no reason to be fudging about. This high threshold of confidence is welcome: if one decides to bite the bullet why should one be squeamish about it.

The choice of Istanbul for this groundbreaking meeting also has a ring of inadvertent homage to history. The pundits in Islamabad may or may not be aware of it, but when brutally expelled from Andalusia at the end of its Islamic rule by marauding Christian zealots, the Jews had found sanctuary and refuge in Constantinople of the Ottomans and prospered there. They ventured back to Europe from there in vengeance and the rest, as they say, is history. The Turks, hospitable and accommodating as ever, to both their old friends in Islamabad and new friends in Tel Aviv, may have been trying to be the harbingers of a new era between Pakistan and Israel.

But while there may be no dispute with the cosmetics deployed by Islamabad, its semantics are not beyond dispute. In fact, it is downright misleading and bogus. It’s one thing for the government in Islamabad to claim every move it contemplates as being inspired by the highest national interest, but it’s provocative to claim that it’s also for the benefit of the much wider Muslim Ummah.

This is precisely what Islamabad seems to pretend by insisting that access to Israel would help ‘engage’ the Jewish entity for an early settlement of the intractable Palestinian-Israeli imbroglio. Pakistan simply doesn’t have the credentials, or clout, to weigh in between the Palestinians and the Israelis in a manner where its intervention could be taken seriously.

The Palestinians obviously have no appetite for Pakistan playing the honest broker in their plethora of problems with Israel. They have quickly shot down Islamabad’s hot air balloon by publicly rebuking its claim that PNA or President Mahmoud Abbas was consulted in advance about the initiative on Israel.

There is little gainsaying that there is a legacy of distrust in the Palestinian minds about Pakistan. They cannot blot out from their collective memory the scars left on their psyche by what Ziaul Haq did to them as King Hussain of Jordan’s Reich Marshal in the brutal 1970 crackdown. This scribe has interacted with the Palestinians in half a dozen Arab capitals and can vouch for it without fear of being contradicted. It’s disingenuous to claim that Ziaul Haq made up with the Palestinians, or they forgave him. Even if they forgave him they haven’t forgotten what he did to them.

The only Pakistani leader the Palestinians genuinely admired and respected was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged by Ziaul Haq. The visceral distrust of Pakistan’s military rulers by the Palestinians is only likely to be exacerbated by what we are going to do to them by rushing to embrace Israel, ostensibly because Ariel Sharon has done a great favour to the Palestinians in Gaza. It’s naive, if not pretentious, of us not to be able, or willing, to see that the Gaza withdrawal is only a red herring. Sharon has thrown a scrap of barren earth to the Palestinians in order to hold on to the fertile West Bank, and all the Jewish settlements nurtured there by him.

But why can’t we, for a change, stop playing our jaded pan-Islamic card and say with the authority of a sovereign state that we are taking this road because we think it is in the best interest of Pakistan?

If the Palestinians think we are throwing them to the wolves, so be it. If the feckless. Muslim Ummah has chosen to forsake the Palestinians — with their Arab brethren taking the lead — what divine sense of mission should goad us to be the Lone Ranger of Palestinian interests and burn our fingers in the process of salvaging their irons out of the fire?

Let us, for once, wield the purely nationalistic card, even if it may seem unabashed and brazen to some, and say that in the scale of national interest — which should always be primordial in any analysis — the need to mend fences with Israel comes out right on top of the scale. But, then, such a tectonic shift in our foreign policy demands, per se, that it should reflect a national consensus rather than being seen as a ‘diktat’ from the government in power, as it clearly smacks of at this stage.

A national consensus is ineluctable on an issue of such gravity as recognition of Israel. It makes no sense at all for General Musharraf to take the King of Saudi Arabia into confidence while keeping his own National Assembly out of the loop. What’s a national assembly for if it can’t be deemed worthy of being informed, much less given an opportunity to debate the pros and cons, of a subject of such magnitude, prior to casting the die? Is King Abdullah more integral and germane to Pakistan than its own National Assembly?

Which, quite understandably, makes the move vulnerable to all sorts of innuendos and insinuations from both concerned and not-so-concerned quarters, at home and abroad.

Conventional wisdom makes a convincing case that General Musharraf, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and, last but not least, King Abdullah of Jordan, are Washington’s quartet on which its policy in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world is pegged. Washington has decided, in the wake of the success of Ariel Sharon’s Gaza move, to energize this quartet in the interest of bolstering the Israeli credentials in the Muslim camp. Jordan’s King Abdullah will soon be in Israel to felicitate Sharon on his ‘statesmanship’. General Musharraf, for his part, will be addressing an inter-faith conclave in New York, from the platform of the American Jewish Congress.

All these moves are calculated to give a morale boosting to Israel because its ‘soldier-statesman’ prime minister has been so charitable to the Palestinians. All these arguments aren’t easy to debunk as too conjectural or academic.

Pressure there has been-subtle at times, crude at others-on General Musharraf to rectify a historic error by recognizing Israel. Washington has adroitly packaged this demand as an essential requirement of its ‘war on terror’, conveniently ignoring Ariel Sharon’s well-documented role as a purveyor of state terror.

The American reasoning may be that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would deal a heavy blow to Muslim militancy throughout the Islamic world and take a lot of sting out of it. Arguably, it could easily trigger the opposite effect, at least in the short run, especially when there is no sign of an early American exit from Iraq.

But there’s some merit in the argument that recognition of Israel by the second largest Muslim state in the world could unleash a domino effect and bring down the reservations and inhibitions of the fence-sitters in the Islamic camp keenly waiting for an inducement of this kind to climb over the fence.

Arguably too, Israel is bound to garner far more benefits than Pakistan from a normal relationship. For the first time in its chequered history, it will gain a foothold in a major, non-Arab, Islamic country in the heartland of the Muslim world. Turkey, the only non-Arab to interact formally with Israel, is not regarded as belonging to the Islamic heartland the way Pakistan is. Such a move is bound to open many other doors for Israel and reap a real windfall for the hitherto pariah Jewish state in the Islamic world, and many an international club, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, where reservations from the Muslim countries have so far kept Israel out.

Pakistan’s booty will be far less, comparatively speaking. It will, no doubt, raise Pakistan’s stock with the powerful Jewish lobbies in the US. That seems to be the crunch issue with Islamabad’s policy-makers. But clairvoyants, like minister Sher Afgan Niazi, are dead wrong if they think Pakistan’s fence-mending with Israel would checkmate the spiralling Indo-Israeli camaraderie, especially in defence cooperation.

General Musharraf has often been accused by the American academia and think-tank mandarins of not coming clean in his claim as a front-rank fighter in the war on terror. They suspect him of playing on both sides of the street and not cracking down hard enough on the militants in Pakistan. His expected ‘chance’ meeting with Sharon in New York should do his fractured image a world of good in the eyes of America’s intellectual gurus. No wonder he was so keen on Istanbul building a platform for him to climb on.

But the general could do a lot more for himself by taking his own countrymen into confidence, and instilling a sense in them that recognizing a country like Israel, with whom we don’t have an axe to grind, will be in the best interest of Pakistan.

The writer is a former ambassador.

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005



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