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DAWN - Opinion; February 28, 2007

February 28, 2007


Cheney’s surprise visit

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

THE unannounced visit of US Vice-President Dick Cheney to Islamabad, from where he went on to Kabul, was an add-on to the trip he had undertaken to Japan and Australia, largely to thank these two countries for their steadfast assistance in the American-led war on terror.

It would be naïve to believe that his visit to Pakistan had the same objective given the recent spate of what appear to be officially sanctioned statements by former military commanders in Afghanistan, by state and defence department officials and by Senators and Congressmen, all expressing dissatisfaction with the situation in Afghanistan and attributing it in large or small measure to the existence of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Media reports based on either official but anonymous briefings or on investigative journalism, including interviews with Taliban leaders, have been talking about how the Taliban have had their headquarters, their sanctuaries, their training camps and their recruitment centres in Pakistan for the past few years. The New York Times, for instance, editorialised last month that the “Pakistani authorities are encouraging and perhaps sponsoring the cross-border insurgency.” It went on to acknowledge that there were many reasons for the failure of the Karzai government — corruption, warlords and inadequate Nato troop levels — but concluded that even while these problems needed to be addressed, there would be limited success while Pakistan “provides rear support and sanctuary for the Taliban insurgency.” Noting that Pakistan is the third largest recipient of American assistance, it recommended that the “very least Washington should be demanding of President Musharraf is that he enforce an immediate halt on Pakistani military support for the Taliban insurgents who are crossing the border and killing American troops.”

On the official plane, American spokesmen for the most part praised Pakistan’s contribution to the war on terror and the dismantling of the Al Qaeda network. Even their calls for Pakistan to “do more” usually included the reminder that all the allies needed to do likewise. But in recent months, and more so after the transfer of security responsibilities to Nato, official statements have been more bluntly critical of the Pakistani role. Some part of the criticism has been directed towards the failure of the accord the government reached with local leaders in the tribal agencies, and some towards the inability of the Pakistani authorities to trace and apprehend Taliban leaders who were in Pakistan and who were being interviewed by enterprising journalists.

The former military commander in Afghanistan, testifying before the US House Armed Services Committee on February 13, said in his prepared statement that the “Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership presence inside Pakistan remains a significant problem.” Earlier, considerable anxiety had been caused in Pakistan when the then Director of National Intelligence claimed in December that Al Qaeda was regrouping and directing operations from its secure hideouts in Pakistan.

It was not all stick however. During Secretary of Defence Gates’s visit to Islamabad, there was considerable focus on praising Pakistan. President Bush himself, in a speech in Washington on February 15, talked of his strong support for Musharraf, noting that “Al Qaeda has launched attacks against the president of this country [Pakistan]. He understands. He also understands that extremists can destabilise countries on the border, or destabilise countries from which they launch their attacks. And so he’s launched what they call a frontier strategy … to find and eliminate the extremists and deliver a better governance and economic opportunity.” This seemed to suggest that he was supporting Musharraf’s agreements with the tribal leaders and eschewing any reference to suggestions that the Taliban were receiving official Pakistani support.

On Sunday last, in a talk show, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Musharraf a “stalwart fighter” against the Al Qaeda, while conceding that he faced political issues that could constrain his ability to act. Having offered Musharraf this support, she went on to underline in even starker terms than President Bush a message directed, I believe, to the Pakistani people and reflecting what the Americans see as the worst-case scenario, the worst possible denouement of the current struggle in Afghanistan. “The Pakistani leadership knows that Al Qaeda would like nothing better than to destabilise Pakistan and to use Pakistan as the base rather than Afghanistan for its operations,” she said.

Any complacency that these words of support may have created was probably shattered when, just as Cheney was arriving in Pakistan, The New York Times website carried a news report which started with the ominous words that “President Bush has decided to send an unusually tough message to one of his most important allies, Gen Pervez Musharraf the president of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down [Al Qaeda] operatives”.

This information was attributed to senior administration officials who later in the report were also quoted as saying that the overall Pakistani effort had flagged and that while assurances had been held out, the results had not been satisfactory and that what mattered now was “results”. Recalling that the Bush administration has proposed $785 million in aid for Pakistan in the new budget, the report says that Musharraf would be told that these funds could be at risk if he did not take sterner action since the Democrat-controlled Congress was intent on making the aid contingent on a certification from the president that “Pakistan is making all possible efforts to prevent the Taliban from operating in areas under its sovereign control.” This threat would be seen then as coming from the Democrats whom the Bush administration would not be able to control.

This report more than anything else became the immediate backdrop to Cheney’s visit. What exactly was said has not been made public in full. Cheney himself made no comment after his two-hour meeting with the president, much of it apparently a one-to-one conversation before he left for Kabul. However, in a departure from the past practice of keeping such releases totally anodyne, the statement issued by the Pakistani side mentioned more than just Cheney’s obligatory words of praise for Pakistan. “Cheney expressed US apprehensions of regrouping of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas and called for concerted efforts in countering the threat”, the statement said, and also talked of “serious US concerns on the intelligence being picked up of an impending Taliban ‘spring offensive’ against allied forces in Afghanistan.”

Cheney’s unannounced visit coincided with the visit of British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. While there was some talk of the development of bilateral relations, it was clear that her visit, like that of Cheney and probably coordinated with Cheney, was related to the situation in Afghanistan. Like Cheney she was no doubt worried, given the enhanced British military presence in Afghanistan and its leadership role in the battle against the Taliban in Helmand and other southern provinces of Afghanistan, that British soldiers would be the victims of Taliban cross-border activity.

She was said to have recognised Pakistan’s role in counter-terrorism, and reiterated the acceptable refrain that every allied country needed to “do more”. Beckett also urged for enhanced cooperation and coordination between Pakistan and UK to successfully overcome the threats of terrorism and narcotics in Afghanistan.

What did these two visitors want to achieve? If The New York Times article is seen as reflecting American expectations, it would mean that Cheney has asked for action to be taken on the Al Qaeda camps in the tribal areas that, according to the report, have been monitored by American satellites and where they are convinced that training was being imparted for attacks on western targets. The British would be particularly interested since the Americans believe that the participants in the recent UK-based plot to blow up transatlantic flights were trained in these camps.

For the moment, because of the shock this would give to the stability of Musharraf’s government, US strikes on these camps have been ruled out. But as statements by some local US commanders in Afghanistan have revealed, the Americans stand ready to carry out such strikes and have in fact done so in the past. Cheney may well have implied that unless the Pakistani authorities could ensure greater respect for the agreements they had signed with the tribal leaders, the Americans may take action on their own.

Separately it would also be logical to assume that Cheney has asked for the dismantling of the Taliban Shura headquarters which American analysts insist is based in Quetta. He may have promised American assistance in securing the closure of the refugee camps which Pakistan insists provide sanctuary to the Taliban, but may well have suggested that this should not distract from the principal task of shutting down the Taliban operations that were being carried out in the area, either inside or outside the camps.

Since one of the American objectives in providing economic aid to Pakistan is to assist Musharraf in his battle against the growth of extremism, Cheney may well have asked how this battle is faring given the recent terrorist attacks and the occupation of a government library by girls from the Lal Masjid seminary in Islamabad.

Given the current chaotic situation in Afghanistan, the increasingly cocky statements from Taliban spokesmen about the successes they are expecting in Afghanistan, the flat refusal of the Nato allies to provide additional troops or to deploy existing troops in the South of Afghanistan, and the failure of the Karzai government to win any ‘hearts and minds’ in south and east Afghanistan, it was to be expected that there would be additional pressure on Pakistan from the US and the UK to be of more assistance in keeping their soldiers from harm’s way.

It is a statement of the obvious that our response must be governed by what we see to be in our national interest — national interest being defined more broadly than the protection of parochial or institutional interests. This will be the subject of my next article.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The power of the word

By Zubeida Mustafa

FOR three days last week, forty or so women writers from five South Asian countries along with four others from America, Russia and Peru interacted with one another in a colloquium to discuss what the organisers termed the power of the word.

Hosted by the Indian chapter of the Women’s World International in New Delhi, the meeting was designed to take up the problems women writers encounter in the course of their work. Why the need for such a moot? Jeelani Bano, the Urdu fiction writer from Hyderabad, India, posed the rhetorical question, “Why do we not ever hear of a men’s conference to discuss an issue pertaining to men only?”

Obviously because this is a man’s world and any problem that is discussed by men is seen in the wider perspective of men and women. If there is an issue that is rooted in gender relationships it inevitably has negative implications for women. Hence the need for a conference that revolved round issues such as writing in the time of siege, closing spaces in open markets, exclusionary practices and the guarded tongue in the context of women writers.

Admittedly, many of the constraints discussed at the colloquium have existed since times immemorial and for male writers as well. But for them the rigours of censorship and self-censorship, exclusion and the checks traditionally exercised by the powers-that-be are attributed primarily to factors such as political controls, economic pressures, sociocultural marginalisation, caste and class discrimination, and racial prejudice. But never gender.

The idea of bringing together these women of diverse backgrounds was, as Ritu Menon, a founder member of the Indian chapter of Women’s World and publisher of Women Unlimited, said, to foster women’s freedom of speech, of mobility and of association.

Listening to the South Asian women writers — many of them narrated their poignant experiences of victimisation — one became acutely conscious of two issues that were forcefully driven home at the colloquium. First, every woman writer faces distinct problems at the individual level that are quite unique in themselves. Secondly, on the collective plane they share commonalities that can be taken up when they join hands to exchange ideas, experiences and views and thus gain strength. This is something all women professionals should be doing to reinforce their skills, confidence and self-esteem.

These issues were at times subsumed — as they traditionally are in discourses of a specific nature — in the broader question of publishing and marketing of books which are equally relevant for male and female writers. But given the conventional subordination of women in our patriarchal societies, women are doubly affected as they are victims of gender bias as well. This is a battle intellectuals — men and women — should fight together. It is time men recognised the fact that when women writers complain of being misinterpreted, trivialised and silenced, men in the writing profession are adversely affected as well. For freedom of speech and expression cannot be split on the basis of gender.

What should worry us in Pakistan is the state of the publishing industry which has not grown as it should have had more attention been paid to its development. A low literacy rate, the absence of a culture of reading for pleasure, the lack of a strong library network and minimal promotion of academic and literary writing have worked against the publishing trade. Now that globalisation and the emergence of giant publishing houses to reach to a bigger audience as a part of multimedia networks have become the normal phenomenon, the small publisher is being marginalised.

In the West, where marketing is the forte of the big publishers, the book retail chains are now taking control. The power of the retailer is immense and it virtually decides the fate of a given book. It also determines the categories of books to be presented to the reader. That in turn is now giving a direction to the publishing industry.

In this scenario, English has emerged as the language that sells by virtue of being the international language of communication. But this by no means guarantees publication and a market for our own writers who write in English, as Pakistan’s own English-language writer, Kamila Shamsie, pointed out at the colloquium. The whole business of writing has been so commercialised and reduced to being the victim of the tyranny of the marketplace that it has not been an easy sailing for our writers. What happens to writers writing in Urdu and in the regional languages? Their only chance of competing in the larger market is by getting their work translated. Small wonder translation as a genre enjoys today an importance that is beyond imagination. The New Delhi colloquium took up this issue and it was generally felt that without translations many works of excellence would be lost to the world.

What is more worrying is that the predominance of English in the educated classes, both in India and Pakistan, will virtually kill the literatures of the indigenous languages. After some time there will be no one left to write in these languages — for that matter to even read what is written in them. It can well be asked if their own people will read their works in translation? But will the translations be deemed worthy of publication at all? If those who acquire higher education in English lose touch with their own languages, will these literatures perish?

Although the New Delhi colloquium claimed to be a moot dealing with women writers and their problems, many of these gender-neutral issues came up for women writers only. All one can say is that it is time for writers who feel under siege to attend to these issues, especially the language question. Language will, in the final analysis, determine not only the literature we produce but also the quantum and quality of publication.

An uncommon citizen

By Hafizur Rahman

I WAS not surprised to read a newspaper story from Lahore that, when challenged to jump a traffic signal, a truck driver tried to run over the traffic police. Although the policemen managed to survive the assault, I’m sure they must have said to themselves, “that’s enough for today. When we joined the traffic police we never thought our lives would ever be in danger. We’ll make it up tomorrow by working overtime.”

When the traffic police decides to work overtime you can imagine what happens. But that is not the subject of this piece. The point is: how did the truck driver get to this stage where he thought he could bypass the law? Or had he not reached that stage yet and his act was sheer bravado? Because, without exception, all of us in Pakistan are trying day and night to occupy positions where the law and the police should think twice before touching us.

For instance, having moved in the corridors of power for long years, I have the confidence that I can get away with anything short of murder. And even that may be manageable if I have the money to supplement my clout otherwise. It gives me a great feeling of privilege and security. No wonder, other people, less fortunate than I am, are working hard to take a seat beside me in this special enclosure.

I am a typical example of that category of citizens who are absolutely sure at the back of their mind that if they ever take the law into their own hands they will still be out of harm’s way. On the contrary we are sure that the law will take us into its gentle hands as if it was our godfather or something equally benevolent. For instance, I am not bothered either by traffic signals or the constable blowing his whistle at me.

It’s not just that. If I am not able to get a court of law to expel a truculent tenant from my property, I take half a dozen obliging toughs to the place and throw the tenant and his family and furniture out on the road. If there is a vacant municipal plot adjacent to my house, I appropriate it without the slightest compunction.

My son aged twelve drives a car and occasionally runs over people (even the traffic policeman) with impunity. My elder son wields a gun in college, and has been rusticated once, though the principal too had to suffer a transfer. (the boy had grown up so big, I hardly ever see him).

My daughter’s father-in-law is a secretary in the provincial government, and my sister is married to a federal joint secretary. My elder brother is a budding industrialist and has been close to the former prime minister from our Model Town days. My wife….

So you see how well-connected I am. Besides I intimately know a whole lot of people in the right places, and the law is not the only thing that is friendly towards me. I am certainly not a common citizen in respect of many other privileges too.

If I need cement or steel or bricks for building a house (I seem to be doing that constantly!) I know where to get them cheap, and quickly. I don’t have to stand in a queue to pay my bills or get a servant’s identity card made or have my own passport renewed.

Almost regularly, every three years or so, I am allotted a plot on the basis of the fact that neither I nor my wife and children own any urban property in any part of Pakistan. If my college-going son takes a pot shot with his gun at a member of a rival students’ gang, I know a couple of newspaper editors who’ll keep the ugly news out of the press. The police, of course, I can well look after.

I am also what is generally described as a prominent and respectable citizen. Being a senior bureaucrat I would join the assembly as soon as I retire from service. Meantime I have the best of both the worlds. The most enjoyable privilege attached to this appellation is that I get invited to all sorts of places – from a reception for a foreign head of state to the long line that accords a warm welcome to our president or prime minister when they return after conquering hearts and minds in foreign lands.

I am regularly invited to the Horse & Cattle Show in Lahore, and once I even made it to a meeting of intellectuals called by a prime minister to find out the country’s pressing problems. I am readily available to the official news agency to give a favourable comment on anything done by our top government leaders either to promote democracy or demote it.

All this tends to give me the feeling of being the government’s son-in-law, to use a crude Punjabi phrase. It has also made me aware of my inherent birthright to get things free. When cinema-going was in fashion, I never bought a ticket, nor do I buy one now for any dramatic performance or cultural show or other entertainment.

I always say it is immaterial whether I go to a function or not but I have the right to be invited, since I am a senior officer. I can’t tell a cricket match from a matrimonial match, but you will see me in the VIP enclosure whenever the MCC or any other CC is around. I simply adore these invitations and keep them on the mantelpiece of my drawing room till they are replaced by others.With all these rights and privileges and contacts and connections and facilities and amenities within my grasp, why should I have to bother about the piddling concerns of rules and regulations? After all I am not a dacoit or a highway robber that the minions of law and order should be allowed to spoil my peace of mind in any way.

And if the rest of the people around me are trying hard to emulate me, and in that process, are jumping traffic signals and running over police constables (like that stupid truck driver in Lahore) it’s not my fault. All that I can do is to wish them luck in their endeavour to match my good fortune.

Missile fantasies

THE emerging debate over the deployment of US missile defences in Central Europe is based on a series of false pretences. The Bush administration pretends that it is sensible to invest $225 million next year in preparing to install ground-based interceptors and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against an attack from Iran, even though the glitch-plagued defence system hasn't yet proved workable and Iran doesn't have a missile that could reach the United States or Europe.

The Polish and Czech governments, eager to deepen strategic cooperation with the United States, pretend that they will benefit from hosting the systems, even though they have little reason to worry about threats from the Middle East and the Bush administration has been slow to reward their past collaboration in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The prize for cynical posturing, nevertheless, goes to Russia, which in the past few days has suddenly advanced a claim that it knows to be false: that the deployment of the antimissile system would weaken the Russian nuclear deterrent. As Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals know, even if US interceptors in Poland could function according to the Bush administration's scheme -- which they can't, and won't anytime soon -- they would not be capable of stopping a single Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, much less the massive force that remains at Moscow's disposal. US officials have met with Russian counterparts on at least 10 occasions to explain this.

Mr. Putin and his generals nevertheless are threatening that Russia might respond to the US missile defences by redeploying intermediate-range missiles that were banned from Europe by a 1987 treaty. An even more sinister comment came Monday from the commander of Russian missile forces, who said that if Poland and the Czech Republic hosted the US rockets and radars, they would be targeted by Russia's strategic missiles. This crude attempt at intimidating Moscow's former Soviet satellites predictably produced a defiant response from the two governments and probably eliminated any domestic opposition to an otherwise questionable venture. As Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg put it, "The Czechs will now think the shield is even more necessary."

The Bush administration's pushing of this initiative, which would not result in the deployment of any interceptors in Europe before 2010, is probably motivated by the same political impulses that have driven missile defence since 2001. Administration officials are determined to create a program so literally set in concrete that it can't be stopped or reversed by future presidents -- as was the missile defence program of President George H.W. Bush. Whether the technology actually works or a threat exists that justifies the rush never seems to matter much.

Such sandbagging justifies close scrutiny by Congress of the Pentagon's $10 billion funding request for missile defence in next year's budget, including the funds for Poland and the Czech Republic. But the Russian gamesmanship is more worrisome. On the opposite page today, Mr. Putin's foreign minister denies any interest in confrontation. But at the same time Mr. Putin may use the US defence program as an excuse to revive a major piece of the Soviet nuclear arsenal with which to threaten Nato members in Europe. It's hard to think of a quicker way to revive the Cold War.

—Los Angeles Times

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007