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DAWN - Opinion; February 01, 2007

February 01, 2007


Democrats’ concerns

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

I AM writing this on Muharram 10 and praying that it will be a peaceful day. In the past week, we have had some gruesome incidents triggered by sectarian and extremist forces. The suicide bombings in Islamabad, Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan and the rocket and mortar attacks on Shia mosques in Bannu and Hangu are grim reminders of the havoc that these forces can unleash, despite tight security in the month of Muharram.

The conventional wisdom is that all the incidents were related to sectarianism or were a protest against efforts to enforce the rule of law with regard to the proliferation of illegally constructed religious structures. Evidence certainly points towards this.

For those who foment this type of violence the issue is clear. The Sunnis are under attack in Iraq and are being marginalised in a country that they had ruled for centuries. The Shia Hezbollah is seeking similar domination in Lebanon. In the Muslim world, the Sunnis, the true believers, are being sidelined or ethnically cleansed. Elsewhere a battle is being waged against Islam and the norms prescribed by it. This is illustrated by the US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia to overthrow the Islamic Courts, the situation in Sudan, the travails of Hamas, the suppression of Islamic parties in the Central Asian Republics, the banning of the headscarf in France, the blasphemous Danish cartoons and similar developments that are eroding the position of true believers and against which no voice is being raised.

They see this as an American agenda that should be resisted. But Gen Musharraf’s government has cravenly forsaken principles and by pushing for “enlightened moderation” has, in effect, adopted the American agenda as its own. If this were not so why would the “rule of law” be applied only to illegally constructed mosques while thousands of other illegally constructed structures continue to stand? Why is the government focusing on this while leaving unaddressed the question of the general decline in the quality of governance, the rampant corruption and the increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots?

They believe that Pakistan’s return to the path of righteousness must be forced, if necessary by acts of terror that would make the country ungovernable and create in the people of Pakistan a yearning for a truly Islamic government that would bring the norms and values of the early days of Islam to Pakistan’s domestic polity and use the country’s potential to resist the assault on Islam elsewhere in the world.

This line of reasoning has some plausibility. There is no doubt that international developments and unhappiness with the government’s policies have brought fresh recruits or at least sympathisers to the ranks of the extremist forces. But equally there is no doubt that the vast majority of Pakistanis eschew such extremism. They would support in full measure action taken to eliminate extremist forces within Pakistan and to restore sectarian peace in the country even while being deeply concerned about developments in Iraq, Lebanon etc. They would support the elimination of domestic and foreign influence and funding that, in large measure, provides the wherewithal for the recruitment of paid “volunteers” for the extremist cause.

Cynicism, however, abounds. In the view of the moderates, there are far too many individuals and groups in the corridors of power for whom extremist forces are a useful tool to further vested interests or misperceived notions of Pakistan’s national interest. It is the harnessing of these forces that removed the Soviets from Afghanistan. It is these forces that can, if properly manipulated, keep Pakistan’s domestic polity under control and it is these forces that can protect or advance Pakistan’s interests in its neighbourhood. The moderates are hoping but are not optimistic that the current spate of incidents will prove to be a sufficient wake-up call and convince these groups and individuals that the cost of extremism for Pakistan far outweigh the real or imagined benefits that its use as a tool can bring.

This brings me to Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and the unpalatable developments that this has brought in Pakistan’s relations with the US and Nato of late. There is understandable ire in Pakistan about the repetition, this time by the State Department’s Under Secretary Nicholas Burns that Pakistan territory is being used by the Taliban for sanctuary. There is the feeling that the Taliban resurgence that owes largely to the failings of the Karzai administration and the less than sterling record of Nato forces in Afghanistan is being wrongly attributed to Pakistan’s shortcomings.

There is anxiety about the passage in the now Democrat-dominated House of legislation that would make the provision of aid to Pakistan conditional on a certification that "the Government of Pakistan is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control, including in the cities of Quetta and Chaman and in the North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas."

The Bush administration has made it clear that it is opposed to this bill and will use its influence to prevent the passage of similar legislation by the Senate. But the political signal is clear. A new American Congress is no longer prepared to countenance anything less than Pakistan’s total commitment to the war against the Taliban and will be prepared to impose economic costs on Pakistan if this is not done.

In a visit that was eerily reminiscent of Clinton’s visit to Pakistan in March 2000, the new speaker of the US House of Representatives came to Pakistan last week, met President Musharraf but had no photographs taken with him and gave no interview to disclose what she had discussed. This contrasted with the visits that she paid to Iraq and Afghanistan where her meetings with the leaders were “photo opportunities”.

The conclusion of most observers was that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had impressed upon the president that the new Congress would not, despite Pakistan’s key role in the war against terror, support continued American assistance to Pakistan unless its concerns about Pakistan’s stance on the Taliban were satisfactorily addressed.

Mushahid Hussain, currently visiting Washington, has been arguing Pakistan’s case stating that this legislation should be “withdrawn in the interests of Pakistan-American relations, and in the broader interests of the anti-terrorism campaign”. Our ambassador has been stressing that Pakistan has done and is doing all it can but it is unlikely, given the statements being made by administration spokesmen, that these words will be heeded by a Congress intent on establishing that even while it is opposed to the administration’s Iraq policy it will support its quest for victory in Afghanistan and for the elimination of the potential for this region to become once again a haven for terrorists.

It is, of course, apparent that America’s Nato allies are not being very forthcoming in providing the wherewithal for Nato forces in Afghanistan. The right noises were made at the end of a recent Nato meeting at which Secretary Condoleezza Rice made an impassioned plea for more Nato troops and for removing the “caveats” so that apart from the Americans, the British, the Canadians and the Dutch, other Nato forces could also be deployed in south Afghanistan to battle the Taliban. But in concrete terms not a single extra soldier was committed and not a single caveat removed.

The Americans are now hoping against hope that a meeting of Nato defence ministers may bring better results. This seems unlikely. The Americans, perhaps in anticipation, have by delaying the withdrawal of 3,500 troops increased the size of their own commitment and are apparently preparing also to deploy a rapid reaction force that Nato has been pleading for.

This does not mean that the Americans will falter. The administration and the Congress are one on the issue of commitment to Afghanistan. The administration’s request for $10.6 billion to be spent over the next two years to build the Afghan army and police ($8.6 billion) and reconstruction in the country (two billion dollars) will certainly be approved. We may question how much this aid will achieve given how little has been done with the $14 billion that the Americans say they have already spent in Afghanistan and given the lack of honest Afghan administrators or even honest American contractors. But perhaps they have learnt their lesson from the past and will do better in the future.

While their leverage in Europe is limited and while the sorry experience of the last few years may lead to a toned down rhetoric, Congress will certainly join the administration in asking the Europeans to do more in Afghanistan. In this the Americans will also be joined by nations who have lost soldiers in Afghanistan. According to available figures, in 2006 the Americans lost 98 soldiers, the British 20, the Canadians 19 and the Netherlands two while the other Nato countries lost none. These are also the countries that will be joining in asking more of Pakistan. Perhaps the message will not be delivered as harshly as has been done by one part of the Congress but it will be forthright and will imply if not spell out similar consequences.

Pakistan’s proposal to move the refugees out of Pakistan and thereby deprive the Taliban of the use of refugee camps for recruitment and shelter is not yet getting off the ground apparently because the UN, that may have to provide the funds, insists that all repatriation should be voluntary. Its proposal for fencing which is apparently going ahead, albeit without the mine-laying, has not been favourably received. The Afghans are turning the proposal for a tribal jirga into a something of a joke by making it national in character. And yet the demand will be made that Pakistan should do more.

It is unfortunate that if we do more -- and we should because Pakistan’s own national interest demands it -- we will be seen as capitulating to American and western demands. Perceptions are important particularly when the government’s credibility is low. But reality and the real needs of Pakistan should determine our response.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Caught in the trap of poverty

By Zubeida Mustafa

LAST week Davos, a picturesque hill resort in Switzerland, played host to the rich and the famous. The World Economic Forum held its annual meeting there on January 24-28 as it has been doing since 1971 when Dr Klaus Schwab, a professor of business management at the University of Geneva, conceived the idea of bringing together so-called thought leaders to “improve the state of the world”.

Although the WEF has been organising this moot for over three decades, the state of the world seems to be going from bad to worse. Every year in January, political and economic leaders and some academics meet to define the agenda for the next 12 months. This year the theme of the multifarious discussions was “shifting power equations” and the 2,400 or so participants promised to translate their commitments on climate change, global trade and globalisation into practical programmes.

Will they? A major impact of the thrust towards globalisation has been the growing inequality in the distribution of wealth. According to a United Nations report the richest one per cent own 40 per cent of the world’s wealth and half of the global population owns barely one per cent of the planet’s riches (which are taken to be financial assets, land, buildings and other tangible property). A cruel twist of fate, according to Oxfam, is that 800 million people go to bed hungry every night. This inequitable distribution of wealth is not just among nations. The rich-poor gap has always been pronounced in Third World societies but now the blue collar workers in industrialised countries have also begun to feel the pinch as their jobs are being axed with businesses moving to the developing countries where labour is cheap. Those who went to Davos were the wielders of power, influence and wealth. By its very nature the WEF is a rich man’s club that keeps the poor out. It meets supposedly to solve economic and social problems, but its hidden agenda is to enable big business to strike deals among themselves and to lobby the political leaders who are in a position to enter into multi-million dollar transactions on behalf of the state.

The thousand companies that form WEF’s core members have annual revenues of over one billion dollars. They pay an annual membership fee of $250,000 to become institutional partners who decide the agenda and $78,000 to be an annual meeting partner, in addition to the annual membership fee of $ 2,500 and the annual meeting fee of $6,250. The last two are also paid by the not-so-rich businesses from the Third World who are invited to attend to counter charges of the forum being an elitist, exclusive group.

Not surprisingly, 68 per cent of the companies that come to Davos are from Europe and North America. This year only 131 Asian and 43 African firms were represented at the WEF, accounting for barely 17 per cent of the companies present.

Given the composition of the membership of WEF one cannot be certain that it will even begin to attempt to resolve the problems of the poor. If a reminder was needed of the needs and demands of the poor, it came about the same time in Nairobi, Kenya where the World Social Forum held its seventh meeting on January 20-25. Constituted as an assembly of the poor in 2001, the WSF takes up issues that are closer to the heart of the poor. At Nairobi the focus was on housing, labour, freeing and democratising knowledge and information, Aids, migration, fighting free trade agreements, people’s sovereignty, debt burden and agrarian reforms. The participants of WSF have no wealth to boast of. Their strength lies in their numbers.

The issues taken up at Nairobi are themes Pakistan would do well to address for the sake of its poor. It had a visible presence in Davos where Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz was busy assuring investors how safe their investment would be in Pakistan. But is foreign direct investment (FDI) the panacea for all our ills?

Last year the nation was proudly informed that FDI in Pakistan had amounted to $3.8 billion in 2005-06. It is expected to jump to seven billion dollars in 2006-07. Last year $1.4 billion accounted for the privatisation proceeds of PTCL and KESC, which can hardly be counted as investment in the true sense of the word. Similarly the $351.5 million portfolio investment has been described by the State Bank as volatile and it would not want to place too much reliance on it.

Hence one cannot assume that FDI in itself eliminates poverty. One cannot even be certain that it creates jobs because it depends on the kind of projects to be set up. If they are capital intensive they will actually axe jobs in a bid to mechanise and rationalise. If a project is import-oriented it will lead to an increase in imports that will affect the country’s balance of trade.The government insists that the incidence of poverty in the country has been falling. Its claim has, however, been disputed by the World Bank. Moreover, its claims are so contentious and confused that it is difficult to believe that 12 million people have been pushed out of poverty in the last five years as claimed by the State Bank. There has been a lot of juggling around with figures to get the desired results. The State Bank report 2005-06 tells us that the yardstick for measuring poverty has now been increased to Rs 878 per adult per month (quite questionable) from Rs 723 earlier.

Besides the 20 per cent who are categorised as vulnerable are not counted among the poor which they are because they lack the capacity to absorb the shocks the economy undergoes sending prices shooting up. Needless to say these shocks are there in abundance and not always in our control.

But above all the State Bank admits that inequality has grown in the last five years. One may add that the gap is pretty substantial. The ratio of the highest 20 per cent to the lowest 20 per cent has moved from 3.76 in 2001to 4.15 in 2005.

Grand delusion

By Robert Kagan

IT’S quite a juxtaposition. In Iraq, American soldiers are finally beginning the hard job of establishing a measure of peace, security and order in critical sections of Baghdad -- the essential prerequisite for the lasting political solution everyone claims to want.

They've launched attacks on Sunni insurgent strongholds and begun reining in Moqtada al-Sadr's militia. And they've embarked on these operations with the expectation that reinforcements will soon be on the way: the more than 20,000 troops President Bush has ordered to Iraq and the new commander he has appointed to fight the insurgency as it has not been fought since the war began.

Back in Washington, however, Democratic and Republican members of Congress are looking for a different kind of political solution: the solution to their problems in presidential primaries and elections almost two years off. Resolutions disapproving the troop increase have proliferated on both sides of the aisle. Many of their proponents frankly, even proudly, admit they are responding to the current public mood, as if that is what they were put in office to do. Those who think they were elected sometimes to lead rather than follow seem to be in a minority.

The most popular resolutions simply oppose the troop increase without offering much useful guidance on what to do instead, other than perhaps go back to the Baker-Hamilton commission's vague plan for a gradual withdrawal. Sen. Hillary Clinton wants to cap the number of troops in Iraq at 137,500. No one explains why this is the right number, why it shouldn't be 20,000 troops lower or higher. But that's not really the point, is it?Other critics claim that these are political cop-outs, which they are. These supposedly braver critics demand a cutoff of funds for the war and the start of a withdrawal within months. But they're not honest either, since they refuse to answer the most obvious and necessary questions: what do they propose the United States do when, as a result of withdrawal, Iraq explodes and ethnic cleansing on a truly horrific scale begins? What do they propose our response should be when the entire region becomes a war zone, when Al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations establish bases in Iraq from which to attack neighbouring states as well as the United States? Even the Iraq Study Group acknowledged that these are likely consequences of precipitate withdrawal.

Those who call for an "end to the war" don't want to talk about the fact that the war in Iraq and in the region will not end but will only grow more dangerous. Do they recommend that we then do nothing, regardless of the consequences? Or are they willing to say publicly, right now, that they would favour sending US troops back into Iraq to confront those new dangers? Answering those questions really would be honest and brave.Of course, most of the discussion of Iraq isn't about Iraq at all. The war has become a political abstraction, a means of positioning oneself at home.

To the extent that people think about Iraq, many seem to believe it is a problem that can be made to go away. Once American forces depart, Iraq will no longer be our problem. Joseph Biden, one of the smartest foreign policy hands in the Senate, “recently accused” President Bush of sending more troops so that he could pass the Iraq war on to his successor. Biden must assume that if the president took his advice and cancelled the troop increase, then somehow Iraq would no longer be a serious crisis when President Biden entered the White House in 2009.

This is a delusion, but it is by no means only a Democratic delusion. Many conservatives and Republicans, including erstwhile supporters of the war, have thrown up their hands in anger at the Iraqi people or the Iraqi government. They, too, seem to believe that if American troops leave, because Iraqis don't "deserve" our help, then somehow the whole mess will solve itself or simply fade away. Talk about a fantasy. The fact is, the United States cannot escape the Iraq crisis, or the Middle East crisis of which it is a part, and will not be able to escape it for years. And if Iraq does collapse, it will not be the end of our problems but the beginning of a new and much bigger set of problems.

I would think that anyone wanting to be president in January 2009 would be hoping and praying that the troop increase works. The United States will be dealing with Iraq one way or another in 2009, no matter what anyone says or does today. The only question is whether it is an Iraq that is salvageable or an Iraq sinking further into chaos and destruction and dragging America along with it.

A big part of the answer will come soon in the battle for Baghdad. Politicians in both parties should realise that success in this mission is in their interest, as well as the nation's. Here's a wild idea: Forget the political posturing, be responsible, and provide the moral and material support our forces need and expect.

The next president will thank you.—Dawn/Washington Post Service

The final or finale?

By Mark Lawson

ONLY one result could have begun to repair the damage to the reputation of British television and society caused by the 2007 series of Celebrity Big Brother. And on Sunday night, Channel 4 got it.

The Indian actor Shilpa Shetty, whose culture, speech and birthplace had been mocked by other contestants, was declared winner of the gameshow with 63 per cent of the final vote.

A viewer who had been in a monastery or up a mountain for the last month might have been persuaded of the advanced racial harmony in Britain as Shetty hugged the runner-up, singer Jermaine Jackson, an African-American convert to Islam. What a mature country it must be in which a Hindu and a Muslim from other countries prove the two most popular contestants on reality TV.

But to those who had followed the whole contest, this final image was merely a gaudy but insufficient bandage on gaping wounds to Channel 4 and its most profitable format.

Sunday night's scenes concluded a bizarre month in which two of the eliminated contestants -- Jade Goody, former winner of the non-celebrity version of Big Brother, and her mother Jackiey -- were reportedly interviewed by police investigating the possibility that Shetty's treatment on TV broke anti-racism laws. That investigation continues.

As a result of the row, a government minister, Peter Hain, unexpectedly found himself commenting on television more often than Nancy Banks-Smith. But, while C4 achieved the only tolerable outcome, controversy simmered to the end, when the sound on the live transmission cut out at the moment that some members of the live public audience seemed to be booing the victorious actor.

"Sorry for the loss of sound," apologised a caption. But the glitch was a lucky accident for a station on its best racial behaviour.

"I don't understand how people can boo our final two contestants," a visibly concerned Davina McCall said to the invited spectators. The sound was only restored when fireworks were ignited to cover Shetty's ceremonial exit, but hisses of dissent could still be heard beneath the bangs.

The winner seemed determined to think the best of her experiences. During the incarceration in the house, she had said: "If this is today's UK -- it's scary!" after one of the spats with Goody which C 4 had officially dismissed as a "culture clash." But, in her post-coronation interview with McCall, she said: "Jade did not mean to be racist. I really don't want to leave England getting anyone into trouble. I just want to thank the whole of Great Britain for giving me the opportunity to make my country proud."

This remarkably graceful speech raises three possibilities. Shetty is such a good actor that they should give her the 2007 Oscar now, Helen Mirren or no Helen Mirren, or she was saying what she really believes. Or she was cannily responding to racists in the manner calculated to make them most uneasy: showing an intelligence and graciousness they will never acquire.

Earlier in the live final, the exterior mikes had also mysteriously failed at the moment when Danielle Lloyd, 23, a former Miss Britain, left the house in joint fifth place to what seems likely to have been a brutal public reception. It is Lloyd who has probably lost most from this contest.

She entered the house as a model but after her participation in the gang ranged against Shetty -- including the lethally ambiguous suggestion that the Indian should "go home" -- newspapers have suggested that her professional and personal engagements are in jeopardy.

But Big Brother's future is more uncertain. A show which once started celebrity careers has now been seen to threaten them. The show, however, is the network's golden goose. So, though the bird is now rancid and tasteless, the assumption must be that they will serve it up again. —Dawn/Guardian Service

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007