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DAWN - Opinion; July 05, 2006

July 05, 2006

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Worsening Afghan situation

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


FOLLOWING US Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s recent visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan, her counterparts from the two countries are visiting Washington. The new Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, is already in the US while Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri is due there early next week. The backdrop to the visit is the worsening security situation not only in the south and east of Afghanistan but also in provinces hitherto considered safe.

For the Afghan minister, an important issue is whether Nato forces will take up in full measure the task of fighting the insurgents, given that the independent American operation is to end by next month and some American troops are to be withdrawn while others will remain under the Nato command. They will, perhaps, have very different rules of engagement than those the Americans have employed. Ms Rice categorically told her Afghan hosts last month that America would stay the course in Afghanistan having learnt a lesson from the disaster that followed America’s withdrawal after the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1987-88.

There are good reasons for the assurance to be credible. First, the Europeans share the American view that if Afghanistan were to be abandoned it would once again become a haven for anti-West terrorist forces. This could well lead to the Talibanisation of large parts of Pakistan with far more disastrous consequences. A second reason is that Afghanistan is the source of almost 80 per cent of the heroin that reaches the streets of Europe. However, it is unclear whether the Europeans are prepared to take up the full burden.

A recent statement by the German minister of defence stating that his country’s forces would fire back in self-defence highlights the fact that many contingents in the Nato force will not “robustly engage” the insurgents but will only provide security for reconstruction teams. This applies in some measure to all Nato forces with the notable exception of the British, Canadian and Dutch contingents for whom the rules of engagement are more robust.

This is why the Nato force in the south and east of the country will have only British, Canadian, and Dutch soldiers backed by part of the American contingent. This American contingent will continue to have as its main task the hunting down of Al Qaeda elements while the rest of the Nato force will provide security for reconstruction efforts and engage the Taliban only when forced to do so. The plan is to assert control over the territory and hold it for as long as it takes to saturate the area with “quick impact” rebuilding projects, thus winning the trust of the local population, and hand over to the Afghan security forces.

But already it is being pointed out that the forces deployed in the south are inadequate both with regard to the number of ground forces as well as air support. The British commander has apparently told London that he needs additional manpower and helicopters. The British have lost a number of soldiers in the current offensive and more casualties are expected. The British press is already asking questions about the wisdom of the present action and British parliamentarians are pressing the government for a fuller explanation about the goals and the means needed to achieve them.

If these questions arise in the UK, which has a long history of involvement in the region, one can be sure that the same questions will arise with even greater force in Canada and Holland. The Canadian government, as an indication of its resolve, forced through parliament a vote authorising deployment until 2009 but the vote was won by the slimmest of majorities.

It is conceded that for the last five years the focus of the coalition forces has been on hunting down Al Qaeda militants, while paying little attention to the security or developmental needs of the people of the region. No provincial reconstruction teams were set up here, and, as the security situation deteriorated, even the UN and the NGOs more or less ceased their developmental work. The USAID mission has just put out a press release stating that more than 100 of its employees, most of them Afghans, have been killed in the country over the last three years.

One can presume that many of those killed were serving in the south. With few employment opportunities and fully exploited by local warlords, many of them inducted into government by a weak centre, it is understandable that the people of the region are nostalgic about Taliban rule and are supporting efforts for their comeback. Equally important, the neglect of development has made it an economic necessity for the people to turn to poppy cultivation.

Much more will have to be done to win the trust of the local people with regard to the “boots on the ground” and finding the resources for development. Given the difficulties the Americans and the British had in persuading their Nato partners to agree to the present force levels and aid commitments, it seems unlikely that any substantial increase can be expected.

What are the prospects for handing over to Afghan forces? It should be noted that the cash-strapped central government is supposed to find the money to pay its army since the Americans will no longer do so. This could mean that salaries will be reduced and not paid on a regular basis. The morale of the army is said to be higher than that of the police and other security forces. But when the current operation was launched in Helmand almost 25 per cent of the Afghan army contingent assigned to the task deserted.

It is said that the Taliban are relying on opium revenues to finance their insurgency. This is probable but there is no doubt that the warlords, supported by the Americans and the Karzai administration, and government functionaries are the principal beneficiaries of poppy cultivation. An anti-narcotics effort is said to be part of the mandate of the Nato forces, but no hearts or minds are likely to be won if the farmers are deprived of their means of livelihood without having recourse to alternative sources of income.

It is, therefore, likely that at least until 2008, and perhaps until 2009, there will be little effort to end poppy cultivation. This year the poppy yield, thanks to excellent weather conditions and more extensive cultivation, will probably be some 25 per cent more than the record 4,600 tons produced in 2004. What will this mean for public support in Nato countries for “Operation Afghanistan”?

The corruption of the Karzai appointees and the poor governance they have provided had been pinpointed until recently by the western media as the main reason for the deterioration of the security situation. President Karzai no longer commands the same respect as before. How much of the blame for this is to be laid at his door and how much at that of the coalition forces whose patronage of unsavoury characters has been an integral part of the battle against Al-Qaeda is now moot. Can the situation be turned around either by Karzai or by any acceptable successor nominated by Nato? This is improbable. In short, it appears that the prospects for success attending Nato efforts in Afghanistan are limited by the present resources. They can be improved by Pakistan.

This brings us to the question of Pakistan’s role. In his press conference with Secretary Rice, Foreign Minister Kasuri reiterated eloquently that Pakistan’s own interests dictated that it should cooperate with the Karzai government in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan. He was also right in asserting that rather than the Afghans and the coalition forces asking Pakistan to do more they themselves should be required to do so in order to safeguard the border and provide actionable intelligence with regard to the Taliban allegedly directing operations in Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. This might be an impeccable defence, but does it really recognise the extent of Pakistan’s stakes in the elimination of the Taliban threat which is as potent here as it is in Afghanistan?

The Europeans may be worried about the narcotics problem. But of the approximately 5,000 tons of opium that Afghanistan will produce this year, the equivalent of only 1,000 tons of heroin will go to Europe. The rest will be for Pakistan, Iran and the growing number of addicts in Afghanistan itself. Is this something we can ignore? The rampant smuggling from Afghanistan far outweighs our burgeoning bilateral trade with Afghanistan and does enormous harm to our local industry. Is this something we want?

On July 2, the Telegraph published comments by Hafiz Ihsanullah, labelled as the chief coordinator for Mulla Dadullah, the notorious Taliban commander who is directing the current Taliban operations in southern Afghanistan. According to the interview with Hafiz Ihsanullah, the latter directs the recruitment of volunteers for Taliban suicide squads. The article also mentions that of the 34 suicide attacks in Afghanistan many were carried out by Pakistani volunteers, that in Pishin district alone 24 corpses were returned in the last two months for burial and that for the funeral of one of the men, six local and national political leaders from Balochistan were present. Hafiz Ihsanullah has been quoted as saying that for every volunteer killed in Afghanistan he can find 20 more.

In another piece on the same day, the Telegraph talks of Mulla Dadullah Akhund as the Abu Musa Zarqawi of Afghanistan and quotes him as saying that he has more than 200 suicide volunteers waiting to be launched. His objective is said to be to turn Afghanistan into a graveyard for foreign troops. Surely it should not be beyond the capabilities of our intelligence agencies to detain Ihsanullah and to extract from him information on the network of recruiters that one assumes he has spread across Pakistan or to determine whether the Telegraph story is accurate.

The point to be made is that even though we may have decided not to deploy the additional 10,000 troops on the border, for which there could be good reasons, we have to formulate our policies on the basis of the Taliban being a threat to Pakistan. Also, that if the Afghans and the coalition forces are fighting the Taliban they are fighting our battle — just as we used to maintain that in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Mujahideen were protecting Pakistan’s interests and were, therefore, deserving of our support. This is the natural corollary of our oft-stated claim of returning Pakistan’s polity to “enlightened moderation”. How serious the threat is becomes apparent when one reads of Taliban trials and executions in the tribal areas.

We may have our concerns about the attitude of some of Karzai’s supporters. We may have concerns about the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan. These are issues that our foreign minister should be authorised to take up in Washington. But irrespective of these issues we must stress our interest in the elimination of the Taliban and outline concrete actions that Pakistan would take in this regard.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Caring for the mentally ill

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE health sector has traditionally received Cinderella-like treatment from the policymakers in Pakistan. In this scheme of things, it is not surprising that mental health has been relegated to the lowest rung of the ladder, if for no other reason than that it is the most misunderstood branch of health science. It is also the most stigmatised.

Thanks to the efforts of the Pakistan Association for Mental Health and some committed psychiatrists, a measure of awareness has been created about mental illness in the country. But this is confined to the patients’, their families’ and the caregivers’ level. As a result, a large number of people suffering from a mental disorders who would previously visit pirs and mazars are now turning towards medical practitioners to seek treatment. But attitudes of the public have yet to change because no campaign on a massive scale has been undertaken to educate people about mental health and illness.

Unfortunately the government which can make the greatest impact by intervening in a timely manners, has been slow in responding to the changing situation. For decades the Lunacy Act of 1912, an obsolete law in the context of the changed medical approach to mental illness, provided the legal and social framework for the practice of psychiatry. Persistent reminders that it was no longer politically correct to refer to the mentally ill as a “lunatic” who should be locked up by the police in ‘charya wards’ of jails, produced some results. In February 2001, after being in the works for 20 years, the Mental Health Ordinance (MHO) was promulgated by the government. This ordinance repealed the Lunacy Act.

The MHO was widely hailed in medical circles, some basic flaws in the ordinance notwithstanding. At least the first step towards change had been taken. But five years later, when the MHO is still a dead letter as it has not been implemented, disappointment has started to set in. It is frustrating to find that all the old undesirable practices continue to thrive as before. Until the machinery provided by the MHO is actually created and made operative, there is no hope for the mentally ill who are left to the tender mercies of the state.

Last week, the federal health minister and the health secretary who visited Karachi assured Dr Haroon Ahmed, the president of the PAMH who has been spearheading the movement for a change in the law, that they would look into the matter. One can only hope that they will treat the PAMH’s demand with a sense of urgency that the issue merits.

What is the MHO and why is it needed? The basic reason is that the changes that have taken place in the science of psychiatry after years of major research in the working of the human mind and discoveries in the pharmaceutical and diagnostic fields have not been reflected in the legal framework, health delivery system and social perceptions and behaviour in Pakistan. Significantly, professionals have been working to educate people about mental health and thus remove the stigma that mental illness carries. They have succeeded to some extent, as is evident from the growing level of awareness.

But the same cannot be said about the government’s role in the matter. Psychiatric services continue to be inadequate while the number of persons in need of help has grown phenomenally. It is estimated that 30-34 per cent of the population suffers from psychiatric/psychosomatic disorders at one time or another, with at least 1.5 million needing institutional care in the country. But Pakistan has only 5,000 beds for the mentally ill, and 40 per cent of these are in the private sector which is not always affordable for the poor.

While the government will have to address the issue of planning for mental health services and budgetary allocations, implementing the MHO requires political will more than anything else. It is now universally recognised that the mentally ill also have human rights which are grossly violated in our society because of ignorance and lack of compassion and humanism in the people dealing with them. The MHO is the only way to stop the old practice of the mentally ill being arrested and thrown into prison to be consigned to oblivion for ever because they are deemed a threat to society.

Under the MHO, a mental health authority is to be set up to advise the government on all matters relating to the promotion of mental health and developing new national standards for the care of patients and to improve mental health services. It is the regulatory body. It was set up in October 2001 and since then is supposedly working on the rules that have to be framed for its own functioning, the national standards and guidelines for diagnosis, care and treatment of psychiatric patients, procedures for the working of institutions and a code of ethics for psychiatrists. Nothing has come out of its labour so far.

The MHO also stipulates that boards of visitors will be appointed to carry out inspection of a psychiatric facility in its jurisdiction — this kind of monitoring is needed after one hears horrible tales of maltreatment being meted out to the mentally ill behind barred doors in some institutions. The MHO spells out in detail the guidelines to be observed if a person has to be admitted on an “involuntary” basis to a psychiatric facility and the rules governing his admission and discharge. No board has been appointed.

The ordinance requires district courts to be designated as the courts of protection and magistrates to be specially empowered to perform judicial functions assigned to them by the ordinance. Thus the court appoints the guardian of a “mentally disordered” person if one is required and the manager of his property to ensure that no violation of human rights takes place. Similarly, the magistrate is involved in the “involuntary admission” and discharge of a patient. Neither has any court of protection been designated nor any magistrate assigned the powers he is required to exercise under the MHO. As a result the ordinance remains a dead letter.

The law also provides for community based mental health services which offer many advantages, especially for those patients who can be looked after by their families at home. In keeping with modern concepts such services provide guidance, support and education to the caregivers, while rehabilitation and preventive measures are available to the patient on an informal basis. The existence of such services can be less disrupting for the patient and his family. They cost less to operate and can reach out to more people than institutional care.

What is delaying these actions by the government? It seems to be nothing more than apathy and indifference which the provincial health departments and the federal ministry of health are notorious for. It would be a pity if after coming so far the government were to abandon its quest for a new approach to mental health.

No end to directives

By Hafizur Rahman


SOME directives and fiats of the government can only be described as needless, if not redundant. For instance, in two months’ time the ministry of religious affairs will circulate copies of an ordinance prohibiting eating and drinking in public during Ramzan and prescribing imprisonment and fine for those who break the law.

Wasn’t God’s own law enough? Why create the impression that people will be more afraid of the state than of the Almighty? Anyway the government is welcome to its edicts and orders. Talking of Ramzan reminds me of what Mian Nawaz Sharif once did as prime minister. He issued a directive that no iftar parties were to be held by officers and ministers at government expense. One of the few good and sensible things he did. Since, after that directive, officers were supposed to spend their own money on these parties, they chose not to spend it at all and so there were no official iftar receptions. Let us see what happens in October this year.

Bureaucrats are accustomed to receiving directives. If someone were to compile a collection of the directives issued by successive governments of Pakistan and the provinces during, say, the last 40 years, the compilation may well rival the Encyclopaedia Britannica in size and volume.

These directives are an offshoot of the decisions taken at the highest level of the administration, not only on matters pertaining to the day-to-day management of government business and sometimes (though rarely) to problems of people. But you’ll be surprised to learn of the non-official matters they also cover. They have talked about how officers should behave, dress and comport themselves, even in private. Though, thank God, there has never been one telling them how to treat their wives. That may come one day.

I have a lifelong experience of seeing these directives being consigned to the waste paper basket, and have often laughed and wept at some of them. I must tell you about one issued by the Punjab government — a masterpiece that I can never forget. It came out some time in 1989 and, in my opinion, takes the cake for silliness. As usual it went to all departments and agencies of the provincial government and advised them — in fact directed them — to improve their “working and their moral tone” within 30 days or be prepared for “dire consequences.”

The 30 days passed many times over and those violating the directive waited in vain for the dire consequences, but there were not even ordinary consequences. Mian Nawaz Sharif was then Chief Minister. Either he couldn’t make head or tail of the directive when the draft came to him for approval (for actually it did emanate from him) or he was too busy dealing with the ‘villainous’ People’s Party to pay attention to its contents. Or may be he couldn’t decide about the consequences.

I remember there were caustic comments from the press, but the Punjab government washed its hands of the directive by admitting that this great exercise in senselessness had originated from the federal government. This was during the interregnum between General Ziaul Haq and Ms Benazir Bhutto when acting President Ghulam Ishaq Khan reigned supreme. On their part the officers warned to improve their working and moral tone within 30 days laughed heartily, since otherwise too, this was probably the 999th in a long series of directives and was not meant to be taken seriously.

The best joke about such directives is that the officer sending them downward presumes that they do not apply to him. In actual fact, therefore, this particular directive was meant for the daftari (who keeps all office files) and the sweeper because it also warned them to “shum bureaucratic practices” and “make the administration neat and clean.” These were the exact words used. Surely “neat and clean” indicated that they were aimed more at the latter functionary than anyone else, since he alone can bring about sweeping changes in office working.

The federal and provincial governments take great pains to keep on reminding officers that that they are not rulers but servants of the people. If a change in attitude has not come about it is not the fault of the officers. They try their hardest to look and behave like servants, but it’s no good. You see, when they look at members of the public standing before them, humble and abject, and even grovelling, they forget the words that are dinned into their minds and start behaving like the rulers they have been since 1947.

There have been directives on every conceivable subject: on being properly dressed, on saying one’s prayers, on behaving like gentlemen, on treating MNAs and MPAs with respect, on eschewing wastage of public funds, on not living beyond one’s means, on not letting their children drive staff cars, and on cleanliness — though never on godliness.

Others have exhorted officers to be punctual, conserve stationery, tour regularly, maintain office files properly, save office record from mice, not to have too much tea, use the telephone sparingly, allocate a separate hour for meeting members of the public, and not to pay heed to sifarish. There was even one directive advising officers not to be corrupt. It sounds unbelievable but I swear it’s true. I have yet to see an officer who stopped being corrupt on reading it. I suppose such an idiot is still to be born.

Directives are usually followed by sub-directives asking for reports on implementation. In the middle rung of the hierarchy a special officer is deputed for this work. He generally makes a nuisance of himself and, but for the fact that his reports about non-implementation are never read, some officer might well be in serious trouble for making fun of directives.

A nice practical joke would be to get the chief executive of the country to agree that copies of all the hundreds of directives issued so far be supplied to all officers and a test conducted after they have studied them for a month about how much they have imbibed from their contents. That this will achieve nothing is immaterial. What matters is that for a month all officers will remain busy in the exercise and not have to play at being servants of the people. Many public problems might get automatically resolved through this enforced inactivity.

I say this because I once knew an officer who used to put away in a special drawer any ticklish file on which he had nothing useful to contribute. After a couple of months he used to find that the matter had got resolved somehow. Do you think a directive could be issued to senior government officers on the basis of this experience? No.

Africa project

IT was billed as “the year for Africa” by Tony Blair, a theme built upon by non-governmental organisations and celebrities and culminating in the Live8 series of concerts tied to the G-8 summit at Gleneagles.

One year on, and what has happened? “Overall, the outlook for Africa continues to be more favourable than it has for many years,” the OECD concluded recently. Annual growth of nearly 6 per cent this year and a further 5.5 per cent next year adds up to an unusually prosperous spell for the region. But little of this had anything to do with the G8. Nor can Mr Blair’s Commission for Africa claim credit for the bright spot.

In fact, it is rising prices being paid for raw materials that have delivered improved exports and government revenues, especially in the oil-rich countries such as Angola. Even Kenya, without prized commodities, has had a bumper year thanks to increased tourism receipts. Economic growth is always going to be more important to a long-term ending of poverty in Africa than exogenous aid.

Yet the millions who pledged their support to the Make Poverty History campaign last year are entitled to ask if politicians have delivered on their promises. The brief answer is that, other than debt relief, they have not. In particular, promises of an additional $50bn in aid by 2010 seem a long way off - figures from Oxfam note that aid has effectively only gone up by $5bn. Specific pledges for Africa, such as universal access to HIV treatment by 2010, are also well adrift.

—The Guardian, London