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DAWN - Opinion; November 15, 2006

November 15, 2006

US polls and South Asia

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


THE American mid-term elections turned out almost exactly as a whole host of observers had predicted. The Republicans, in the words of President George Bush, got a “thumping” and lost control of both the house and the senate. The narrow majority in the senate was expected but even optimistic opponents of the Bush administration were surprised by the extent of the majority the Democrats got in the House of Representatives.

A New York Times survey showed that with 10 seats undecided the Democrats had won an additional 28 seats and also gained ground in 80 per cent of the electoral districts. The political landscape in Washington has changed and while there had initially been much talk of bipartisanship there is little doubt that the Democrats will begin asserting their newly found power not only after the new Congress takes office in January, but also in the lame-duck Congress that will hold office until that time.

It appears unlikely that Bush will get through the passage of much of the legislation that is pending during this Congress. One such item is the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement that has yet to be passed by the senate and which after such passage will require to be reconciled with the house version of the bill. There are good reasons to expect that this will not happen.

For one, Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat senator from Nevada who is the senate majority leader-elect, has proposed attaching to the bill a clause that would prevent the administration from setting up in his state the nuclear waste storage dump that the administration believes is required. In his new position, Reid is likely to press for the acceptance of this amendment and to win support despite the administration’s opposition.

The issue is unlikely to be resolved in the short time available, particularly when the senate will have more pressing business before it, including President Bush’s insistence on the confirmation of John Bolton as the US permanent representative to the UN and the confirmation of President Bush’s new secretary of defence.

Also, the Indians have objected strongly to the provision in the house version of the bill (also included in the proposed senate version) that would require them to pledge in an internationally binding agreement not to carry out any further nuclear tests. The Indians argue that the Indo-US agreement called for both sides to accept equal obligations, and since the US moratorium on testing is unilateral, a similar undertaking from the Indians is the most that can be expected. This would have been a make-or-break issue even in a Republican Congress and will probably remain so at least for the next few months.

While there is some truth to the assertion that the Democrats traditionally are sympathetic to India and are, therefore, more inclined to make the concessions necessary to develop Indo-US ties, there are also strong feelings in the Democratic Party about nuclear proliferation and the damage that the Indo-US agreement does to the non-proliferation regime that has so painstakingly been crafted over the past many years.

Many more Democrats than Republicans see an Indo-US agreement without adequate safeguards against proliferation as unjustified, especially in light of the strong stand the US wants to take on the North Korean and Iran nuclear programmes. For the moment, it seems that this agreement will, at the very least, be put on hold.

The Democrats have regarded their victory as a clear mandate for a change of policy in Iraq. Appearing on Sunday morning talk shows, Senator Reid, the incoming armed services committee chairman Senator Carl Levin and the next foreign relations committee chairman Senator Joseph Biden Jr said that a phased redeployment of troops would be their top priority when the new Congress convenes in January, even before an investigation of the conduct of the war.

In his interview on ABC, Senator Levin went so far as to say: “We need to begin in the next four to six months a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq.” He added in a later interview that the purpose would be “to signal to the Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over and that they are going to have to solve their own problems.” The White House has signalled that it is prepared to listen to new ideas on Iraq but would not accept any proposal to set a timetable for withdrawal.

On this question even while the Democrats will continue to be vocal about the need for a quick withdrawal it is more than possible that they, like the Bush administration, will await the report of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group led by former state secretary James Baker — the legal brain behind President Bush victory in Florida in the 2000 elections — and the respected former Democrat congressman Lee Hamilton. This report is not likely to appear until next month by which time the group would have interviewed President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair and contributed to what has been gathered from visits to Iraq and meetings with other participants in decision-making.

Nothing new can be expected from the study group. All possible permutations and combinations for an Iraq “solution” have already been aired by various think-tanks and analysts. These have ranged from constitutional guarantees for the Sunni minority to get a fair share of the country’s oil wealth to partitioning of the country, and from a military confrontation with Iran and Syria to an international conference in which the two countries could be persuaded to cooperate in bringing stability to Iraq. What will, however, be relevant is the time-frame for an American withdrawal in the context of whatever solution is proposed.

The Iraqi government seems to appreciate that pressure in this direction will become too strong for Bush to resist, no matter what his own views on “staying the course” and securing “victory” may be. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who had in the past weeks been extremely critical of American policy changed tack in a recent BBC interview. He said that he was sure that President Bush would maintain troops in Iraq and that even the Democrats were not pressing for a withdrawal. Other leaders from the Sunni ranks have been equally categorical in asking that the Americans stay. They have pointed out that the problem in Iraq was of militias and that only the coalition forces could help to control and disarm them.

In the most dramatic move to tackle the changed situation, Prime Minister Maliki has also announced that he would undertake a major reshuffle of his cabinet, holding incompetent ministers thrust upon him by coalition partners responsible for the corruption and poor governance with which his administration has been charged. It would be reasonable to assume that the catalyst for this announcement was the realisation that if the Iraqis did not get their act together, the Americans would be even more loath to stay on and that Iraq’s descent into chaos would become certain.

While the principal focus is on securing troop withdrawals and disengagement from Iraq, it is likely that attention will also be given to the American troops in Afghanistan and the worsening situation in that country where the Americans have some 20,000 troops out of which they have lost 230 so far. One can expect the Democrats, once they start the investigation into the invasion of Iraq, to highlight the degree to which it led to diverting attention from Afghanistan and from the war against Al Qaeda and its adherents in Afghanistan and its immediate neighbourhood.

The more relevant issue, however, will be to determine whether, like the ill-fated Russian invasion of 1979, the Americans too were waging a losing war. They will note that though there were no divisions within the Nato alliance on the war against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, even with Nato in command in Afghanistan, most Nato countries were reluctant to allow their forces to engage in the combat against the Taliban in the south and east, leaving the British, Canadian, Dutch and American forces severely under-resourced.

The logical response, apart from pressuring Pakistan which they are bound to do, will be to consider whether they are prepared to send more Americans into the war zone or whether they should cut their losses and cope with the consequent chaos in the region by other means.

The Bush administration will certainly argue that one of the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan would be the Talibanisation of a large part, if not the whole, of a nuclear, unstable Pakistan. If this gives the Democrats reason to pause, and it should, the next question will be what changes are needed in Pakistan to secure its full cooperation in Afghanistan and to prevent the further growth of extremism.

The general reaction — not only of the opposition but also of the army-created PML (Q) — to the destruction of the madressah/terrorist training camp in Bajaur will suggest that the present government has little credibility among Pakistanis and no support even from the outfits it has created. The Bush administration will argue that the army is the only stable institution in the country and the only force that can, if suitably persuaded, fight the dangers of extremism and Talibanisation. It may also argue that pressuring President Musharraf to give moderate parties the political space they need to combat the religious parties and their extremist adherents, may be seen as one way out but the danger was that the army may then, in a bid to retain power, align itself with the religious parties.

The options in Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be seen as being any more palatable than they are in Iraq. But one thing is certain. The sympathy that President Bush has often expressed for President Musharraf’s difficulties will find less resonance in the new Democrat-dominated Congress in Washington. The new Congress may acknowledge that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s poor governance and the abysmal reconstruction effort in south and east Afghanistan have contributed to the Taliban’s resurgence. But they will also assert that Pakistan’s assistance — active or passive — has played a major part in this resurgence.

They will insist that Pakistan go beyond the so-called search for a political solution in the tribal areas, which they will again argue was a sign of weakness and surrender to extremist forces. They will note that in Afghanistan the agreement with the locals in Musa Qala, under which the British withdrew troops on the understanding that the local leaders would ensure that the Taliban also stayed out, had failed. They will argue that whatever the risks Musharraf sees he must allow the moderate political parties to participate fully in free and fair elections.

It is eminently possible, failing positive developments, that the new Congress will oppose the annual waiver on the grounds of the law prohibiting assistance to a military regime that came into power by overthrowing a legally elected government, and make it impossible for the Bush administration to continue to provide the promised military and economic assistance to Pakistan.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Seeking forgiveness

By Hafizur Rahman


NOW that Pakistan is on the way to mending fences with India, and the ultimate objective is to solve the Kashmir tangle, with the United States acting as honest broker (one hopes it is really honest), we should also think seriously about improving our relationship with Bangladesh.

Politically, diplomatically, economically the relationship is all right but it is in the domain of emotional repair that initiative needs to be taken, because sometimes it is more difficult to placate an estranged brother than make friends with a sworn enemy. Bitterness can be a terrible hurdle.

I was not a great admirer of Mian Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, but once he said something really wise. For the first time in 25 years after 1971, a popularly elected leader of the country publicly stated that the military action in East Pakistan had been a grave mistake. But he went no further. In his place, I would have expended all my powers of persuasion to convince my people that we owe a national apology to the people of Bangladesh.

After I had brought them around to my way of thinking, I would have taken a large representative delegation, including the three service chiefs (if they had condescended to obey my orders) to Dhaka, and there, in an address in Paltan Maidan, formally and in a spirit of genuine contrition, we would have sought the Bengalis’ pardon for thrusting our imperialism on them which led to their breaking away from us in 1971.

If Japan can do this and seek the forgiveness of the Chinese, an alien people, for the barbarity and inhuman treatment they inflicted on them during the Sino-Japanese war, why can’t we adopt a similar gesture towards a people we still claim are part of our common psyche and our so-called Islamic character? Even the queen made it a point to visit Jallianwala Bagh to pay homage to those who had died at the hands of British soldiers.

In Bangladesh they say to visiting Pakistanis, “We still love you but we couldn’t live with you in a master-servant relationship. You do not realise it but you effectively started the alienation process when you killed our young men for preferring Bengali to Urdu. We could have given our lives for Pakistan, but not for our masters in West Pakistan.”

Incidentally they also say, “And we are told you have found a scapegoat in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. How is it possible for one man to break up a country by just saying idhar ham udhar tum? Even if he had not uttered these words, and even if you had agreed to make Sheikh Mujibur Rahman prime minister or president, we couldn’t have stayed together. You people are incapable of changing and getting rid of your superiority complex.”

Some years ago, a pager by Dr Tariq Rahman on the Bengali language movement had revived old memories dimmed by time and taken one back to those early days when the people of East and West Pakistan had common aspirations and the new state was an exciting adventure for both. There must have been something wrong with me as a Punjabi that I used to look at Bengalis as equal partners in that adventure. Much as I admired, respected and even loved the Quaid-i-Azam I was taken aback by his declaration in Dhaka that Bengalis were welcome to use their language in their provincial affairs but the national language of Pakistan would be Urdu and Urdu alone.

I am no historian, but my reading of the Pakistan story tells me that all the political personalities really close to Mr Jinnah were those who could not conceive of any other language sharing the honours with Urdu. He himself could hardly speak Urdu, and he certainly couldn’t read it. (Take it from me, he couldn’t. His mother tongue was Gujrati.) He thought his colleagues from the UP and Punjab were speaking the truth when they told him that Urdu was the language of all those Muslims who wanted Pakistan. Those from East Bengal, who were close to him, like Khwaja Nazimuddin for instance, themselves spoke Urdu and did not truly represent the feelings of the Bengalis.

Anyway the fact remains that, over the years, the fight for Bengali gradually turned into a fight for a Bengali homeland and a fight for a greater share in the government of the country. It also became a demand for a more decent and sensitive attitude on the part of the western brothers who were incorrigible in considering themselves a cut above the Bengalis in everything — in looks, in brains, in physique, in the manner of their dress, in the way they spoke English and the stylish way in which they lived.

They viewed the Bengalis with contempt (don’t let anyone try to tell you they didn’t). The simple lifestyle of the Bengalis, strong emotional reactions, stress on their own brand of nationalism, were anathema to West Pakistanis, and these brown sahibs made no secret of their feelings. It was imperialism all the way, and worse than the imperialism the Bengalis had seen in Englishmen since it came from their so-called brothers. How many times did I not hear the words “These fellows can only understand the danda, the stick.” The civil and military Punjabis and the elite among the Urdu-speaking officers had discovered a colony and were enjoying every minute of ruling over it.

My wife used to call me the local Cassandra, predicting dark happenings only. This was because I had told her in the early sixties that if we carry on like this the Bengalis would go their own way in 10 years. I don’t claim prescience. It was plain common sense, and any idiot who kept his antennae in working order without letting them being jammed by sentiment, could have seen it the way I did.

The subject is good for a book and I am glad that books are being written on it. A recent one is a voluminous history of the language movement by Professor Anwar Dil and Mrs Afia Dil, who now live in the States. I wonder if those who were responsible for alienating the Bengalis ever get to read these books. I have my doubts. Most of us still hold on to our colonial ideas and make them evident in our dealings with Pakistan’s other nationalities also. We have learnt no lesson.

History cannot be overturned. What has happened cannot be undone. The hatred of years, generated by our treatment of the Bengalis and our snooty attitude towards them cannot be transformed into love. But a formal and sincere apology may do wonders. As it is, what can the Bengalis’ love give us now, and what purpose can it serve when we stand separated? But, I repeat, a formal and sincere apology from former brothers may turn the tide of animosity. Let us not forget that, apart from our complexes about ourselves, and about them, the people of Bangladesh are better off now, for their language really unites them as a nation. And look at us! Maybe this is our punishment from God.

Where have they vanished?

By Zubeida Mustafa


MANY would remember Argentina’s ‘dirty war’ in the late seventies when thousands of people who challenged the government’s ideology ‘disappeared’ without a trace. Augusto Pinochet’s Chile set a similar record when dissidents were picked up by security forces never to be heard of again.

Is Pakistan following suit? According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), nearly 600 people are reported to have disappeared in the last two years, of which 170 cases have been verified.

This phenomenon started in the wake of 9/11 when Pakistan was deemed to be the breeding ground for terror and was under pressure to catch “terrorists” and “earn bounties totaling millions of dollars” as admitted by President Musharraf. What was initially a carefully planned operation under the law of the land has grown into a no-holds-barred adventure in which the police, the intelligence bodies and the military agencies pick up people on the slightest suspicion without observing the legal processes. It is difficult to imagine the agony it causes the family of the disappeared. They have no idea if the missing person is dead or alive, and if alive, in what condition.

After suffering in silence for years — there are people such as Dr Aafia Siddiqui (wanted by the FBI) and her three young children who vanished from Karachi in 2003 and are still unheard of — the affected families are now sufficient in number to raise their voice in protest. In October they demonstrated before parliament house in Islamabad and received much media publicity. HRCP and Amnesty International have also joined them in their struggle. As a result the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of this problem and called on the government to trace the whereabouts of the 41 cases whose names had been put up before it. This ghastly phenomenon simply reflects on the mindset of the powers that be who consider themselves above the law. They have not yet produced a detailed report on the 41 detained people, as directed by the chief justice of Pakistan.

Who are these unfortunate people? Even if one were to presume that they are criminals of the worst kind, does it mean that they have lost their right to be tried under the law and be given the legal protection that is their due? Is it fair to torture their families by leaving them in a state of suspense about the fate of their missing ones?

That is precisely what is happening today as people disappear and are not accounted for, even when the courts ask the government to produce them under habeas corpus petitions. In order to evade the long arm of law the police have been found to be running private detention centres in hired premises away from the thanas so that they fall beyond the purview of the courts’ inspection teams. The army’s intelligence agencies have even had the guts to inform the courts that they are not answerable to them.

Are these people who fall prey to the arbitrary despotism of the police and the dreaded “agencies” really that dangerous to be whisked off without proper warrants? Asma Jahangir, the chairperson of the HRCP, says there are five categories of people who are picked up by the agencies. First, there are journalists who are taken away to intimidate them and their families. The idea is to silence them and stop them from reporting on issues the government feels sensitive about. Fifty journalists have received this treatment in the last two years. A few months ago one newspaper reporter was detained for several weeks in Waziristan by the agencies and then found murdered.

Secondly, there are Baloch nationalists who have been detained to punish them for their anti-establishment views. With the government working to suppress the Baloch demand for autonomy and a greater say in their own affairs, the nationalists are not popular with the establishment.

Thirdly, there are Sindhis from the extremist Jeay Sindh Mahaz and their likes who threaten the government’s tenuous hold on the province. At times they are picked up secretly to stop them being troublesome.

Fourthly, many people have been arrested on the suspicion of being terrorists or having links with Al Qaeda.

Finally, there are the unfortunate ones who are taken into custody by the police or the intelligence agencies to settle old scores.

The growing scale of this problem is horrifying. Even more horrifying is the fact that the political parties and parliamentarians have not raised a hue and cry about forced and involuntary disappearances. This has given the government a free hand to act as it pleases. This is not at all good for the image of the country which was elected earlier this year to the UN’s Human Rights Council. It is this body that has recently adopted the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and called on the General Assembly to adopt it too and open it to signature and ratification.

Even before the Convention becomes international law, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances that was set up in 1980 has been seeking to assist “families in determining the fate and whereabouts of their relatives who, having disappeared, are placed outside the protection of the law”. Its modus operandi is to establish a channel of communication between the families and the governments concerned. The idea is to clarify the whereabouts of disappeared persons — whether dead or alive. But the WGEID only considers well documented cases.

Before Pakistan is put in the dock internationally, the government would do well to acknowledge the problem and do something about it. The judiciary, as it is already doing, and the various departments concerned could make a beginning by publicising the names of the missing people and bring pressure to bear on the police and the intelligence agencies to release information about the missing person and regularise his detention, if it is needed, through a court of law.

Asma Jehangir had promised to post the names of the people who have disappeared on the HRCP’s website. This should prove to be an effective approach for publicising the names of the victims and to generate pressure on the government to disclose their whereabouts.

Improvements in voting

AN estimated 83 million Americans voted in last week’s elections. Some people encountered difficulties, but not of the scale or scope that had been predicted by Election Day doomsayers. Overall the voting system worked.

Because the vote of every person is so important, problems are not to be minimised. It is unconscionable that some Prince George’s County, Md., voters had to wait in line for four hours to vote. It is disturbing that Virginia election officials received reports of people being given incorrect information in an apparent effort to intimidate them not to vote. Balky voting machines, faulty software and disputes over whether voters were properly registered cropped up across the country.

Local and national election officials must focus on these problems as they assess their election night performance so that further improvements can be made. By the same token, the politicians and critics of electronic voting who tried to undermine public confidence should be mindful that the chaos they predicted did not occur. They should be responsible in their future suggestions for change.

No one denies there are shortcomings. The generational decline in voter turnout is more reason than ever to figure out better ways to encourage voting. Is early voting a good idea? Should Election Day be a national holiday? How about adopting Oregon’s system of voting by mail? All are ideas worthy of consideration, but let’s not fool with parts of the process that aren’t broken.

A key here is the public’s belief that the votes they cast will be counted. That confidence was reflected in national exit polls showing that 88 per cent of Americans trust the system. More telling, though, was the way the nation accepted without question the outcome of two razor-thin contests that decided which party was going to control the US Senate.

— The Washington Post