Engaging with Taliban

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


BEFORE undertaking an analysis of the agreements reached in Washington by Presidents Musharraf and Karzai under the watchful eye of President Bush, let me first correct the misstatement in my last article that Nato forces were to take over command in the whole of Afghanistan in March next year. It happened, in fact, on Thursday this week at an elaborate ceremony in Kabul.

“Throughout Afghanistan we will continue to confront insurgents when and where necessary,” said British General David Richards, given his fourth star just hours before the ceremony, “but the overarching purpose of our security operations is to enable improvements in government capacity and to accelerate reconstruction and development, for real benefit to the lives of all Afghans.”

As regards the agreements reached in Washington, the two leaders, according to Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri and Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani, agreed to a “verbal ceasefire” and to a “toning down of the rhetoric”. They also agreed, according to the White House spokesman, on “constructive efforts to work together to fight the war on terror and also to address...the root causes.”

According to the White House the two leaders agreed to address the causes that had led to grievances that terrorists exploited when trying to recruit members, especially the Taliban. They agreed on proposed measures that would help “develop civil society” such as the construction of roads, schools, hospitals, etc, on both sides of the border.

There was agreement that Afghanistan would provide timely and actionable intelligence on Taliban activities on Pakistan’s side of the border and that the Pakistani forces would take the necessary action to apprehend the persons responsible.

Most importantly, the two leaders agreed to convene and jointly address loya jirgas of tribal leaders on both sides of the border to presumably create an ambience where Karzai could enter into the same sort of agreement with tribal leaders as Musharraf had done on the Pakistan side. Karzai remains ambivalent on the value of the Waziristan agreement saying that “Let’s see the result but unfortunately up to now, it hasn’t had a good result for Afghanistan.”

His scepticism has probably been reinforced by reports that since the pact the number of Taliban attacks on coalition forces has doubled or tripled. On the new agreement, however, Karzai has been more positive hailing it as “a very important proposal. It’s a very efficient way of preventing terrorists from cross-border activities or from trying to have sanctuaries where they have sanctuaries.” This was supplemented by a comment from an Afghan official who said it was hoped the jirgas could “empower tribal structures to fight extremists and terrorists.”

It is unfortunate that there has already been, from the Pakistani perspective, a breach of the agreement on intelligence sharing. A spokesman for the Afghan intelligence agency announced on Wednesday that they had arrested 17 persons in Nangarhar, Kunduz and Kabul who had confessed to being trained in Pakistan for carrying out suicide attacks in three Afghan provinces. The nationalities of the apprehended persons were not disclosed but it was maintained that the training had been carried out at Shamshatoo, the Afghan refugee camp near Peshawar, and at another camp near Data Khel in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous North Waziristan tribal region. Pakistan’s ISPR chief complained that no such information had been passed on to the Pakistani government and that sharing of such information with the press was absolutely “unwise and illogical”.

This public disclosure without even an attempt at sharing the information with Pakistan first is clear evidence that American efforts notwithstanding trust and confidence between the two governments remain in short supply. This was otherwise the sort of information that should have been shared quietly with the hope that the Pakistanis would raid the two alleged training camps and ensure that they were shut down and those involved in operating these apprehended. Clearly, the lack of trust flows from Kabul’s belief that Pakistan’s operational policy vis-a-vis the Taliban is at great variance from its declaratory policy. The charge that Pakistan is aiding or abetting the Taliban has almost universal appeal not only in Kabul but everywhere in the West.

President Musharraf’s rejection of such charges and his claim that without the ISI and Pakistan the coalition will certainly fail in Afghanistan finds few takers in the West. It is believed in the latter that Pakistan is betting that the coalition forces will soon leave Afghanistan, and then the Taliban, as Pakistan’s proteges, will return to power ensuring for Pakistan the strategic depth that it associates with a friendly government in Afghanistan and the elimination of Indian influence in Kabul and its capacity to use Afghan territory to fish in the troubled waters of Pakistani Balochistan.

It is difficult to believe that Pakistan’s decision-makers are really basing policy on such discredited and senseless notions. The planners, one hopes, have gone beyond the point where, before 9/11, it was asserted that being isolated internationally because of backing the Taliban was a small price to pay for ensuring the eventual victory of the Taliban which “divine providence” would bring about. These officials were fond of saying that “divine providence” had defeated the Soviets, conveniently forgetting the part played by the massive financial and military assistance provided by America, Saudi Arabia and other allies.

One hopes that policy planners know that a stable Afghanistan can never pose a danger to Pakistan even if it is infested with Indian agents and even if the Pakhtuns do not get their rightful share of power (neither of these is likely to happen in a stable Afghanistan). This is a lesson of history.

On the other hand, it should also be known that a Taliban-led or Taliban-influenced government will not be subservient to a Pakistan that wishes to be a tolerant Islamic state. This was established by the peremptory Taliban rejection of Pakistan’s demand for the return of the proclaimed sectarian offenders who had found shelter in Kandahar. It will be on friendly terms with a Pakistan that has a Taliban-type government be it political or military.

If Afghanistan remains disturbed because of Taliban activity the worst sufferers, after the Afghan people, will be the people of Pakistan, because refugees will pour in, there will be no prospect for trade and energy links with Central Asia and therefore little utility for the Gwadar port. On the political plane, the Talibanisation of Pakistan will follow as surely as night follows day.

One hopes that it is this realisation that has prompted the agreement between Karzai and Musharraf on holding joint jirgas in Fata and eastern Afghanistan.

Despite all the misgivings about the agreement reached with the tribal maliks and labelled by some as abject surrender, the idea is essentially sound and an indispensable part of the effort to break the Taliban hold in the area. At a recent briefing, I learnt that a special effort was being made to find officers of integrity and competence to serve as political agents and to man the posts in the newly created Fata secretariat.

The Pakistan government, with assistance from the Americans and other sources, intends to spend large sums of money on development projects in the area. The intention is to allow the people of the region to benefit from the contracts and employment opportunities that these projects generate. It is this sort of economic activity that is the best antidote to the Taliban poison.

The Taliban promise their recruits not only ‘houris’ in the next world but also very concrete financial rewards in this one. It cannot work, however, if it is not replicated across the border in the provinces where the same tribes live.

The Americans and Nato forces have very belatedly recognised that economic development and not military force is the answer to the current problem of Talibanisation. If they can now ensure that they put their weight behind an agreement between Kabul and the tribal maliks of the same nature as has been concluded in Waziristan and if they can then ensure that despite the rampant corruption in Kabul only officials of integrity and competence are sent to administer the eastern provinces, there may be a ray of hope.

Along with the agreement reached earlier that the products of industries set up in Fata and the adjoining Afghan provinces will have duty free entry into the US, this should provide a strong economic incentive for collaboration between Pakistan and Afghanistan. None of this will be possible without the restoration of peace and stability which in turn will require the cooperation of the two governments and the tribal maliks whose leadership role will have to be restored on both sides of the border. This should also lead to the relegation of the mullah’s role in society to what it used to be.

Karzai must also make a more determined effort to engage politically with the Taliban. Currently, four former Taliban are members of parliament. Two former Taliban are in the Senate. Maulvi Abdul Hakim Munib, the governor of Uruzgan province, is a former senior Taliban official. The Programme Tahkm-i-Sohl, or PTS, established to encourage insurgents back into mainstream Afghan society, has resulted in the surrender of about 1,100 people. But this is not enough.

The repeated amnesty offers made since 2002 must be upgraded and the Americans and the Kabul government must be prepared to forgive or overlook in terms of distinguishing between the “moderate Taliban and the “ fighting Taliban”.

Given assurances of such tolerance the Pakistan authorities must use their influence with the Taliban of all stripes now resident in Quetta, Chaman, Pishin and the Tribal Areas to avail themselves of the amnesty.

The precedent is there. Nato recently confirmed that British commanders reached a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban via the local shura in the town of Musa Qala in Helmand. This required both the Taliban and the British to withdraw, leaving the locals to manage their affairs and to create the conditions for development work. From such ceasefires to more durable steps is a long but not impossible journey.

Let us hope that the new agreement with Karzai reflects an acceptance on the part of Islamabad that the Taliban are a threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan and that the new agreement is a reflection of Pakistan’s determination to work with the Afghans and the international community to eliminate this menace by non-military means.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Quake spending needs transparency

By Zubeida Mustafa


WHEN the devastating earthquake of October 8, 2005, struck Azad Kashmir and parts of the NWFP, nearly 73,000 lives were lost, 70,000 people were seriously injured and 2.8 million were made homeless. The magnitude of the tragedy was enormous and Pakistanis as well as others from all over the world responded by sending in donations in cash and kind.

Many volunteered their time and services to help the victims. The government of Pakistan rose to the occasion to extend a helping hand.

It set up the Federal Relief Commission headed by a relief commissioner with the responsibility of “overseeing relief efforts targeting shelter, food, clean water and immediate medical care” as stated by the government.

A year later the time of stocktaking has arrived. Have the promises made in October 2005 been fulfilled? Have the sufferings of the earthquake victims been alleviated? Have they received the succour they were promised? The question now being asked in October 2006 is: how have the survivors fared?

A lot has been said about that, thanks to the electronic media which has reached out to the affected areas and talked to the people. The press has also been surveying the scene all along. But more than the media, many NGOs have done a solid job of monitoring the relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation work. They have, therefore, been better placed to challenge the government’s tall claims about its achievements. Hence the war of words between the government and the NGOs working on the ground.

The charges and counter-charges being traded in many cases have emerged as a game of numbers. The figures quoted by Erra (the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Agency that was set up after the temblor) of the people who have received aid and the number of housing units rebuilt are challenged by NGOs that claim to know better.

The various television channels that have sent correspondents to Azad Kashmir and the NWFP have focused their cameras on angry men and women complaining against government officials, post office functionaries, the patwaris, and the local bodies’ councillors who have tried to cash in on their miseries to make a quick buck. Speaking at a public meeting in Muzaffarabad on Sunday, the president admitted that there might have been wrongdoings at the lower level and said he would look into the matter. But what actually needs to be looked into is the lack of transparency that has characterised the financial side of the relief and rehabilitation effort. One must remember the government was handling billions of rupees donated by generous and kind-hearted souls and friendly governments. A comprehensive assessment is not possible in the absence of the relief and rehabilitation budget. Erra’s director general, finance, told me that his agency’s budget is awaiting audit and it will be months before it is available on Erra’s website (www.erra.gov.pk).

First, let us see what funds were collected after the tragedy struck. Within days of the earthquake the government announced the establishment of the President’s Relief Fund for Earthquake Victims and appealed to the people to donate generously. According to the federal budget 2006-07 document showing the revenues collected by the treasury, Rs15.047 billion were collected under this head.

Erra’s website gives details of the foreign aid received. It puts the total amount pledged as $ 6.522 billion. Now its annual report (not put on the website) says that only $1.6 billion was actually disbursed. Technically, each and every penny of the amounts must be accounted for. This is all the more important if it is noted that of the foreign assistance pledged by various countries at the donors’ conference in November 2005 — officially perceived as a fantastic foreign policy success — nearly 61 per cent, that is $4.020 billion, is in the form of loans that have to be repaid. Of the $2,501 million grants, the bulk (78 per cent) has been given to NGOs.

Arif Hasan, the chairman of the Urban Resource Centre and the Orangi Pilot Project Karachi, estimates roughly that seven per cent of the donations will go back into the servicing of the loans — that is if all of them are received. The Rural Development Policy Institute (RDPI), Islamabad, which undertook a study to “investigate the political economy of the earthquake in the NWFP and AJK” states that the status of disbursement has not been made clear from official sources as yet.

Arif Hasan also points out that a substantial sum has been spent on the overhead costs — 25 per cent for consultancy charges and 10 per cent for contingency planning. As is the wont in Pakistan the builders involved in infrastructure building earmark a profit of 25 per cent for themselves. Giving the example of the USA’s grant of $510 million, Hasan says nearly $300 million was deducted by the donor for the costs incurred.

The problem with the government’s handling of this massive sum is that it has failed to pay attention to the accuracy of budgetary/financial details, let alone make these public from time to time. As a nation we tend to be vague about statistics. That leads to loss of credibility. Take the president’s speech on Sunday. He made a sweeping remark that a sum of Rs20 billion was collected in the relief fund — the budget document puts it at Rs15.047 billion. Then the president went on to state that this was used to disburse Rs 25,000 each to 500,000 people. This works out to Rs12.5 billion. All these figures fail to tally.

This casual approach to finances does not help. Neither does playing around or tampering with figures. According to the RDPI report “Recovery Delayed, Recovery Denied”, work on nearly 83 per cent of the assessed houses (600,000) has still not started and 1.9 million people will be forced to spend another winter in temporary shelters. This was confirmed by Erra’s website on September 15, 2006. But three weeks later, Erra suddenly claimed out of the blue that work had started on 30 per cent of the houses. This change in figures has been described by RDPI as a “magical surprise” and it wonders how the pace of reconstruction suddenly picked up in 20 days. Its own ground level observation found that because of Ramazan construction work had slowed down. “Erra has cooked up inflated figures for public relations exercise,” RDPI observes.

It confirms “massive irregularities in the acquisition and processing of data regarding the registration of beneficiaries”. As a result, the people suffered because of delays in disbursement. Besides, ad hoc planning and disbursement of compensation and relief have also led to much confusion. The DG finance, Erra, told me that the government releases the funds he asks for to finance his agency’s work. He referred me to the cabinet division for more information on the funds received by the government and how they are spent.

The DG said last year Erra’s budget stood at Rs37.72 billion. For this year, he has asked for Rs50 billion, which incidentally works out to the $800 million, the amount for which the government has made a fresh appeal. But shouldn’t the government take the people of Pakistan into confidence and let them know precisely how the earthquake relief and rebuilding money has been spent? We also need to be told how the new loans will be repaid.

Endnote: Of the 60 donors who came forward to help, 17 were governments of Muslim countries and the Islamic Development Bank who together gave $1.77 billion. Only 40 per cent of this amount was in the form of grant, two-thirds of which went to NGOs. The Aga Khan Foundation gave $ 53.50 million as a grant to non-government organisations. Saudi Arabia, the largest donor from the Muslim world has still to pay what it pledged.

The other bank robbers

By Hafizur Rahman


WHICH is the worse criminal of the two: a dacoit who robs a bank because robbery is his vocation, or the so-called honourable politician, the legislator elected by people, the industrialist with political clout, who obtains a fat loan from a bank and knows from Day One that he’s not going to pay it back because he’ll get it waived by using his connections with the ruling regime?

Of all the games and tricks invented by Pakistan’s politics for bribing and corrupting its practitioners, the most blatant, amounting to a crime, is the waiving of bank loans. It is unspeakable in the enormity of the evil it embodies, and vies with the working of the infamous Chicago gangsters. Only the gun is not used, just the pen, and to what telling effect.

Some time ago I read two revealing reports printed side by side in a national Urdu daily. They painted a graphic picture of the two-pronged attack that our banks have to suffer — one from dacoits and the other from self-styled decent citizens who are actually robbers in disguise. It was difficult to decide which of the two types had caused the greater harm, but apparently the gentlemen thieves had carried the day, as well as the greater booty.

One report stated that during the year 1995-96, a total of 207 branches of banks and financial institutions had been subjected to dacoities, with the result that Rs 230 million had been looted which these institutions would be hard put to it to replace. The other said that nationalised banks and other institutions had waived loans totalling more than four billion rupees during the two years — 1997 and 1998. Needless to say, all those who benefited from this generosity (exercised at the behest of the ruling regime of course) were millionaires and billionaires.

There have been cases where government-controlled banks have refused to remit a few hundred rupees that ageing indigent widows owed them, and had threatened to go to court for these petty amounts. Since the final arbiter in such cases is the government, I am sure it would have upheld the banks’ cruel decision if its approval had been sought. “Rules do not permit such charity,” would have been the answer.

But rules do allow the government to indulge in this other charity whereby many crores of rupees have been written off in the cases of rich businessmen, especially those who occupy a privileged position in the country’s politics or are “eating and drinking companions” of those who wield authority and call the shots in the establishment.

If someone could ask the government to cite the ethical and moral reasons behind such prodigality towards the rich and meanness towards the poor, it might be difficult for it to do so. In such cases the government never replies, for it has no answer. Pakistan is perhaps the only country calling itself a democracy and where its governments do not feel obliged to answer public queries.

But then, who can ask the government to explain? Those who can are themselves mired in the dirt of corrupt practices and may themselves be seeking waivers for their own loans and advances. In any case the government is not obliged to give explanations of its actions to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

Once, long ago, I was badly in need of money to pay off some debts. I went to a friend who was manager of a branch of the National Bank of Pakistan. There were restrictions on advances and overdrafts but he said he would arrange to help me out through another way. Then he asked me laughingly, “What sort of loan do you want? One that has to be paid back or the other which we forgive and forget?” That was the first time I came to know of such money transactions.

There was no question of my getting the latter for I was a government servant and not in business or industry. But curiosity prompted me to ask for details. His answer was, “Why bother? If you were qualified for such a loan you would have known how it is done and I would have just managed it for you.” The conversation ended with my wife pledging her jewellery with the bank and getting the much-needed money.

The robber politician has to deal twice with a nationalised bank for the kind of looting that has cost the public exchequer more than four billion rupees in two years — an amount that has gone down the drain. He is made much of when he goes there for the first time to fill up the prescribed forms. The loan amount is then duly transferred to the account named by him.

The second time is when he wants the loan and its interest to be forgiven in view of his straitened circumstances or his industrial unit having gone sick. Actually he need not go personally. Just a telephone call from the joint secretary concerned in the finance ministry is sufficient to do the trick. But many do go, saying to themselves, “Yar, the banker is an old friend and may come in useful again.” But most robber politicians (or politician robbers, if you will) dispense with this courtesy and consider it a waste of time.

Yes, just a telephone call to rob a bank, to deprive the nation of its wealth. If the dacoits who raid banks and national savings centres had any sense they too would get the powers-that-be to make a telephone call to facilitate matters for them instead of risking their lives to get a few lakhs. After all, where is the difference?

On paper of course there has to be credible justification for waiving the loans, howsoever huge, of persons who would be described in Punjabi as “the government’s sons-in-law.” Economic depression, failure of crops, closure of mills and factories due to various reasons, etc. etc. If you were to look into the accounts of these undertakings a case would surely be made for non-return of the loans. But you will find, at the same time, that this lapse into paper bankruptcy makes no difference to the lifestyle of their owners.

They carry on as before. Their mansions are there, and so are their expensive limousines. Their foreign trips are not affected, and weddings in the family are staged in the old opulent and ostentatious manner. Even the sons studying abroad are not made to feel the pinch. None of these loan-takers have been known to sell their assets or moderate their expenditure. And yet they cannot pay back loans.

In the words of my banker friend, these robbers know it from the very start that the loan is not meant to be repaid. In this they have the support of the government of the day. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” They corrupt each other and do it openly and with shameless panache.

Challenging authority

COMPARED with most young journalists, Bob Woodward made quite a start. Two years after stumbling into the trade he began uncovering a scoop that would bring down a US president and see himself played by Robert Redford in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Establishment credentials, including a Yale degree and a spell in the navy, did not mark him out as likely to challenge authority but did make him the perfect complement to the hard-nosed Carl Bernstein. The closeness of their Washington Post partnership, whose Watergate revelations led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment, was immortalised on screen.

—The Guardian, London



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