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DAWN - Opinion; July 26, 2006

July 26, 2006


The Lebanese tragedy

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

EVEN by the grisly standards of the Middle East, the body count is fearsome in Lebanon. Approximately 400 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the fighting between the Israelis and the Hezbollah and about 800 wounded. Some 750,000 have been displaced. The infrastructure, painfully reconstructed after long years of strife, has once again been reduced to ruins in many parts of the country.

The agonising truth of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s words that his country was being torn to shreds is clearly visible on TV screens as Israeli bombardment and shelling continues. Meanwhile, in Israel, the combined death toll of civilians and soldiers is about 40 while the number wounded is 360 or thereabouts. All this in the short time that has elapsed since the Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

In Gaza, the tragedy is equally intense. By Sunday the death toll — since the June 25 incident in which an Israeli soldier was kidnapped — had risen to 121, and the number of wounded was approaching 600. Much of Gaza is without electricity and the misery of the people is evident on the limited TV coverage Gaza is receiving with the media attention having shifted to Lebanon. There are virtually no Israeli casualties on this front.

The Israeli retaliation for the kidnapping of its soldiers has been out of proportion to the damage it has suffered and is in violation of the principle of proportionality accepted as customary international law and now part of the Hague Conventions. The Geneva Conventions prohibit armed reprisals that intentionally inflict collective punishment against civilian populations as well as the targeting of non-military targets. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a carefully worded statement, said that while “Israel has a right to defend itself, the excessive use of force is to be condemned.”

The UN human rights commissioner, Louise Arbor, has said, “The scale of the killings in the region, and their predictability, could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control.” She added, “Indiscriminate shelling of cities constitutes a foreseeable and unacceptable targeting of civilians... Similarly, the bombardment of sites with alleged military significance, but resulting invariably in the killing of innocent civilians, is unjustifiable.”

This clearly does not weigh heavily with the Israelis who, with America in their corner, can afford to ignore these calls for observing the norms of warfare — just as they have ignored the international community’s calls for an immediate ceasefire. The Israelis are sure they will not lose this war and therefore none of their commanders would ever be tried for criminal excesses.

The Americans have made it clear that they are fully behind Israel’s wanton attacks on Lebanese territory. They have provided it with the wherewithal. As one observer has pointed out, “While the United States provides about $2.5 billion in military and economic aid to Israel each year, US aid to Lebanon amounts to no more than $40 million. This despite the fact that the per capita GDP of Israel is among the highest in the world at $24,600, nearly four times as high as Lebanon’s GDP per capita of $6,200. Lebanon’s lack of wealth is matched by the Palestinians — three out of every four Palestinians live below the poverty line.”

They have ignored impassioned pleas from their closest Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, to pressure Israel into accepting an immediate ceasefire. They have said that a ceasefire was possible only if it was implemented simultaneously with the deployment of international troops, disarming of the Hezbollah militia, return of displaced Lebanese and plans for reconstruction to occur at the same time. This, according to Nabih Berri, the Shia speaker of the Lebanese parliament, was the unacceptable message that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conveyed during her visit to Lebanon on Monday.

Under-Secretary Burns in a public statement had said earlier that an immediate ceasefire would be handing Hezbollah a major victory because it would leave them in a position to launch attacks on northern Israel. So it is clear that the Americans will endorse a call for a ceasefire only after the military capabilities of the Hezbollah have been totally destroyed or at least substantially attenuated. The destruction of Lebanon that this will entail would probably be termed as acceptable “collateral damage”.

In pursuit of this goal the Bush administration has set aside the general principle of not supplying weapons or munitions to a war zone and has sent from its stocks the munitions that Israel needs to replenish the arsenal it is rapidly using up in its relentless assault on Lebanon and Gaza.

There are voices in Europe and around the world that seek to protest the disproportionate Israeli reaction and the raining down of destruction on a country whose government bears no responsibility for the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. The fact, however, is that while there is sympathy for the Lebanese people, the western countries do want the destruction of the Hezbollah and in this they are openly or covertly supported by many in the Arab governments who fear this renegade movement. Some may regard it as the vanguard for the creation of a Shia crescent in the Middle East.

The Saudi statement issued after the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers made clear not only the Saudi government’s position but also that of most of the conservative Arab governments. “Viewing with deep concern the bloody, painful events currently taking place in Palestine and Lebanon, the Kingdom would like to clearly announce that a difference should be drawn between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures carried out by elements inside Lebanon and those behind them without consultation with the legitimate authority in their state...”

The Saudis are normally chary of articulating in public their position on regional developments, particularly a position that could suggest any diminution of their support for the Palestine cause. The fact that they felt compelled to speak out indicates the depth of their concern.

The Lebanese have been more bitter. The Hezbollah leader may claim that “Hezbollah is not waging the battle of Hezbollah or of Lebanon. We are waging the battle of the nation, whether we like it or not, whether the Lebanese like it or not.” The Lebanese, outside the Shia plurality, see it differently. As Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri put it, “These adventurers (i.e. Hezbollah) have placed us in a difficult situation because of their irresponsibility... We demand a reckoning with these adventurers who embroiled Lebanon in a crisis it does not need.”

Currently, there is no fear, to my mind, that the conflict will spread to other parts. With an effective naval blockade in place and with roads leading from Syria into Lebanon being under constant bombardment there is little chance that Hezbollah’s arsenal will be replenished. The destruction in Lebanon will continue at least for another week or 10 days and in that period whatever remains of the Lebanese infrastructure will be destroyed.

Hezbollah as a movement will survive but it will be left with precious little equipment to maintain its military capability. The governments in the Muslim, particularly the Arab, world will stand by helpless to influence the course of events. Many may even welcome it in the possibly false belief that this price was worth paying to have the writ of the Lebanese government enforced in all of Lebanon and to reduce, if not eliminate, the Iranian influence in Lebanon.

The question that arises is which of these end results was not known to the Hezbollah when it embarked on the raid into Israel and kidnapped the Israeli soldiers? Did they think, after the violent reaction of the Israelis to the June 25 incident in Gaza, that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would not take the same sort of action in Lebanon? Did they not realise that Olmert, largely perceived as untested, would take the path of war to establish his credentials? Did they not realise that in an election year, few American politicians would have opposed an unprovoked Israeli attack leave alone one for which justification had been provided on a silver platter? Could they not anticipate a US Congress vote which supported Israel by 410 to eight?

Did they not realise that in dealing with Bush they were dealing with a man who (as someone said) was “more committed to Israel” than any other and who would “not bow to international pressure to pressure Israel”? Did they not realise that even the small pro-Arab lobby in Europe would be silenced if there was provocation for Israeli action and such provocation came from a group like Hezbollah? Did they not realise that in the Arab world, rightly or wrongly, they would be seen as acting as the pawns of the Iranians in a game that has little to do with the Palestine cause or the release of Palestinian prisoners held by the Israelis?

I have a strong suspicion that all this was anticipated but both the Damascus-based leadership of the Hamas and Hezbollah proceeded nonetheless because they felt that they were in danger of losing their relevance and their support base. Khalid Mashal was strongly opposed to the agreement that his colleague but rival Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh had worked out with President Mahmoud Abbas to stave off the referendum that President Abbas had threatened to hold on the subject of a two-state solution to the Palestine problem.

Haniyeh had in effect recognised Israel — its reality if not its legitimacy — and this was anathema to Khalid Mashal as was the prospect that some progress could be made towards commencing negotiations on the roadmap. There is no doubt in my mind that the kidnapping was the handiwork of Hamas followers loyal to Mashal and opposed to Haniyeh.

Similarly, in south Lebanon, Hezbollah could feel that the international pressure for the implementation of Resolution 1559 calling for the disarming of all militias in Lebanon was beginning to gather force and as Lebanese prosperity increased more means would become available to the government, of which Hezbollah was a part, to persuade or coerce Hezbollah into becoming a purely political party with no military capability. Parochial rather than national or regional interests dictated this sad misadventure.

Western suspicions that Iran, as the main financier and military equipment supplier to Hezbollah, pressured Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to engage in this adventure seem to be misplaced. The temporary diversion of attention that this would achieve would be a small gain for Iran and would be far outweighed by the ill-will it would create in Lebanon, in the Arab world and in the small camp of Europeans and others who are sympathetic to Iran’s position on the nuclear issue. The consequences for America and the world will be the subject of my next article.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Our faulty data collection

By Zubeida Mustafa

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. — Mark Twain I gather, young man, that you wish to be a Member of Parliament. The first lesson that you must learn is, when I call for statistics about the rate of infant mortality, what I want is proof that fewer babies died when I was prime minister than when anyone else was prime minister. That is a political statistic.

— Winston Churchill

Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all. — Charles Babbage

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman, who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house. — Robert Heinlein

If you read these quotations carefully you will know where we are going wrong in economics — all the boastful claims made about Pakistan’s GDP growth and the decline of poverty and so on. First, Mark Twain, the American satirist, conveys deep wisdom when he asks you to get the facts correct before distorting them.

At least our policymakers should know the correct position themselves before they try to fool the public otherwise they will get fooled themselves which can be dangerous. Their data may well be based on what Churchill calls a political statistic. Wouldn’t it be better to dispense with the number crunching altogether? No, says Babbage, the 19th century mathematician, who advises us to use statistics to support our argument even if inadequate.

But that is not easy because many products of our education system can’t differentiate between a billion and a million, and worse still between a million and a lakh. Irrespective of what traits Heinlein, the science fiction writer, finds in us, the fact is that most of us are not able to cope with mathematics.

Seen against this backdrop, one wonders how the government collects the data as some of the figures stated hardly seem to support people’s observations. Doesn’t wrong data distort the reality and impair the effectiveness of policies?

To begin with, culturally we don’t have a strong penchant for accuracy. It is common for us to be deliberately vague in our speech and writings when it comes to numbers. Crowds are estimated at random as “lakh, do lakh”. Even government publications give different figures for the same head in different chapters. That is because different sources are used. The Pakistan Economic Survey 2005-06 conveniently switches from one source to another and leaves the reader totally confounded.

How do we go wrong when we have so many organisations engaged in the task of collecting data, computing and compiling it? There is the Federal Bureau of Statistics, the provincial bureaus of statistics and agencies in various ministries concerned with collecting data in their specific field. The accuracy of the information collected and the figures released depend on a number of factors, and a mistake in any of them can distort results.

Take the case of the inflation rate which is invariably disputed every year it is announced. Based on the price index, it is determined by the items that are covered, the weightage given to each, the areas surveyed and, of course, the base period.

To determine inflation the prices of 374 items, that constitute the basket of goods/services, are collected on a monthly basis from 35 cities (71 markets) and computed on the basis of weightage determined by the family budget. Nearly 42,000 families are surveyed and they are supposedly drawn from four income groups and live in rural and urban areas. The family survey is held in the base year — in 2000-01 in the present case. A five-year period is considered to be ideal. But in Pakistan the period has been stretched to a decade since 1980. This logically detracts from the accuracy of the survey because ten years is a long period in which changes creep into a family’s lifestyle affecting its pattern of spending.

A look at the weightage given to various items calculated on the basis of family budgets six years ago appears quite unrealistic. The item “food and beverage” is highest on the list with a weightage of 40 per cent that is believable. But an expenditure of two per cent on medicine, 3.4 per cent on education and 7.3 per cent on transport appear to be too low. And these are the areas in which prices have risen the most ever since the government left it to the private sector to fill in the vacuum.

The family surveys are conducted ostensibly on scientific lines. Then where do the distortions come in? There is plenty of room for error which may not always be deliberate. Thus the rural areas are not surveyed for the prices because they are said not to have an organised market. The retail prices are taken to calculate the consumer price index and it is common knowledge that the fluctuations in the retail prices are more pronounced.

But the biggest distorting factor is the unwillingness of the people to participate in surveys. Be they individuals or organisations accuracy and authenticity are not their strong points. People, even educated ones, are not used to record keeping. How many of us record our daily household expenditure in detail as our mothers and grandmothers did? Those of us who go and do our shopping at the supermarket and pay by credit card or cash never note down each item individually.

Along with food items we also buy other household goods such as tissue paper, detergent and sometimes cosmetics and medicine which are lumped together in one bill. All we can tell the surveyor when he comes are broad figures which may be totally out. As for the poor who are illiterate and have a daily income, they would not know themselves how they spend their money.

Furthermore, people are most reluctant to disclose any information of a financial nature such is the lack of confidence in the government and its functionaries. No amount of reassurance that their confidentiality will be respected can persuade them to cooperate with the data collector. People are convinced that whatever information they provide to a stranger would be used against them. The business, trade and industry sectors are not transparent in their financial dealings and account keeping. They either refuse to give information or suppress part of it.

Some government departments maintain their own records of institutions that operate under them. These are based on paperwork. For instance, the education department will give you a list of schools that were entered in the registers when these institutions were set up. But they no longer exist. There is no record of that and they constitute the ghosts schools that have closed down long ago without the parent body even being aware of it.

That would explain why the inflation figure released by the government generally appears to be so ridiculously low. In this context, poverty also would not have fallen as much as the government would like us to believe. So all one can do is to keep one’s fingers crossed and make broad estimates. In this guessing game it would be better to err on the side of caution, rather than boast of a rosy picture that robs the government of its credibility.

Speaking in public

By Hafizur Rahman

BEFORE I propound my views on the subject of this piece which is about speaking in public, let me first narrate an anecdote which is a particular favourite of mine. It also goes down rather well in company.

While going through this anecdote one may keep in mind that it is just a story. Besides, one may recall that some of the most brilliant public speakers and orators in the subcontinent came from religious parties. There was Syed Ataullah Shah Bokhari of the Ahrar who would start his address after the ‘ishaa’ prayers and end it just before the ‘fajar azaan’.

And not a soul would move from his place. All the present heads and leaders of all of Pakistan’s religious parties are equally magnetic speakers.

The anecdote now. A traveller in a remote village was struck by the novelty that the maulvi of the tiny local mosque was reading the ritual prayer from a book. Tickled by the man’s “learning,” he asked him who his mentor had been and where he was to be found. Beaming with pride the man named a nearby village.

Leaving aside his business, the traveller decided to meet the man’s ‘ustaad’, and on reaching his little mosque found him reciting the azaan by reading it out of a book.

Duly impressed, the traveller took his ustaad’s address from the man and went there. The ustaad of ustaad was seated in his hujra. The visitor went in and said “Assalam-o-alaikum.” The man looked at him as if trying to catch the meaning of his words. When the traveller repeated the salutation in a louder voice, the chief scholar opened a box, took out a piece of paper and read out “Wa-alaikum-ussalam.”

I am not going to employ this story for or against the practice of making extempore speeches. You may do so if you like. Maybe in a way it illustrates the unfortunate decline of the art of public speaking in Pakistan. I have noticed in Islamabad that in every public function of a social or cerebral nature, the “distinguished” experts invariably read out their views. Hardly anyone regales his audience with an off-the-cuff address.

Either they are phoney experts or they don’t trust their speaking ability. Even the so-called chief guest, who has hardly anything worthwhile to say in any case, fishes a paper out of his pocket and reads from it.

If this chief guest is a minister (who has been perforce invited because otherwise the TV people would not cover the occasion) he will fumble and trip over words written by someone else, usually the PRO, and heave a sigh of relief when he reaches the end of his peroration. Of course the end is marked by profuse clapping from the audience, which is another way of saying, “Thank God the infliction is over.”

I have often thought that if the minister or the VIP concerned would feign a bad throat and could get someone from Radio or TV to read out the speech for him with better diction and delivery instead of reading it himself, greater justice might be done to the drafting powers of the PRO, even if the draft was a rehash of old addresses by other ministers.

I am also intrigued by an inexplicable phenomenon. Most personalities in high places who are effective and entertaining ad good speakers will labour through a written speech without pauses and stresses and the minor gestures that should go with them, and make a mess of the whole thing. It is my personal observation that Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Mr Z.A. Bhutto were noteworthy examples of this type. Excellent speakers otherwise, they didn’t know how to read out a policy statement which perforce had to be in written form.

In my limited experience there were two politicians who could be depended upon to make good speeches and impress their audience, and who never relied on written drafts. They were late Haneef Ramay (former Punjab chief minister and then assembly speaker) and Raja Zafrul Haq, one of the leading lights of the present PML-N. It was a delight to listen to them.

Please note that I am talking of speeches at occasions where educated people were congregated to listen to views on a particular subject, expressed in hopefully learned language, and not tub-thumping and pulpit-rattling as is the case in political rallies that are an integral part of our politics and where the orators do not mean what they say and do not say what they mean. A speech is a speech and a harangue is a harangue.

Of course there have been many excellent speakers in our public life (though none to match late Maulana Kausar Niazi whose quality was his logical and rational interpretation of Islam that would convert any non-believer) but since I never go anywhere nowadays I may be pardoned for ignoring them and confining myself to Messrs Ramay and Zafrul Haq. However, there is no denying the fact that extempore speaking is generally going out of fashion.

This may be due to the fact that important persons have no confidence in their intellectual ability and power of self- expression. Otherwise why should ex-president Farooq Leghari and ex-chairman Senate Wasim Sajjad (to cite two examples who come to mind) would have had recourse to the written word when they were in office and had to speak a few formal sentences at state or public functions?

Mr Leghari was never one for public speaking and had even avoided addressing public meetings after he transformed himself from a serving CSP officer to a politician in the PPP, but I have seen him speaking at formal conferences articulately and with pronounced confidence when he was in service? But what has gone wrong with Mr Wasim Sajjad? He has been an eminent lawyer and has ably argued cases before intimidating judges of the superior courts. Why should he have had to read out an insignificant bit of address at an insignificant function?

The fact is that I will give anything to avoid making a speech, even the briefest one, so intensely am I given to stage fright. I must be the only government officer living who never replied to remarks made at farewell parties for me when I was in service. In view of this confession I leave it to you to decide what value, if any, to place on my views on public speaking, and that too extempore.

Crackdown in Cairo

WITH the tacit consent of the Bush administration, authoritarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is continuing his campaign against the democratic movement that sprouted in his country last year.

His latest target is the fledgling independent press, which in recent months has dared to publish stories about rampant official corruption, criticize Mr Mubarak’s promotion of his son’s political career and promote the liberal democratic reforms that President Bush once advocated for Egypt.

Last week Mr Mubarak’s ruling party reaffirmed a law that makes it a crime, punishable by imprisonment, to “affront the president of the republic” or insult parliament, public agencies, the armed forces, the judiciary or “the general public interest.”

This violates a promise Mr Mubarak made two years ago to end the jailing of journalists — and it is more than a mere threat.

On June 26 a court sentenced the editor of one of the new independent newspapers and a reporter to prison for the “crime” of having reported on a lawsuit that accused Mr Mubarak, plausibly, of “wasting the government’s resources,” “squandering foreign aid” and turning “Egypt into a monarchy.” (The plaintiff is also in jail.) A few weeks earlier two Egyptian bloggers covering an opposition demonstration were arrested, jailed for several weeks and brutally treated; at least one was raped in a police station.

—The Washington Post