What to do in Afghanistan?
THE news that Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, a top Taliban leader, was arrested in Quetta and flown to Islamabad for interrogation by a joint Pak-US intelligence team is being seen in cynical American and Afghan quarters as the usual Pakistani gambit of offering up a major intelligence success either on the eve or the end of the visit of an important American official.
While there has been a discernible pattern of this nature in the past there are strong indications that in the present instance Obaidullah’s detention had been planned some time ago and the trap was sprung on him and his four or five colleagues in Quetta only when it became clear that a further delay would not lead to further information about his other cohorts. Instead, this information is now being sought in the interrogation to which he is being subjected.
The capture of Obaidullah is an important milestone in the battle against the Taliban. Press reports suggest that he was extremely close to Mullah Omar and spoke for him when he directed Taliban operations in Afghanistan. His arrest apparently led to many Taliban commanders in South Afghanistan switching off their satellite phones and possibly changing their hideouts thus disrupting the operations they were planning. If information can be extracted from him, both Pakistani and Nato sources will get better information on the details of the “spring offensive” the Taliban are reportedly planning.
On the other side, the American media was shocked, perhaps more so than the Nato forces, by the suicide bomber attack on Bagram airbase the main military facility of the Americans in Afghanistan while US Vice-President Dick Cheney was stranded there owing to a storm. Official spokesmen were at pains to emphasise that Cheney was at no time in danger from the attack, which killed a few Nato soldiers and a much larger number of Afghans, since the bomb was detonated around the outer perimeter of the base while Cheney was safely ensconced in the depths of the facility.
Both events lend themselves to varying interpretations. Some observers say that Obaidullah’s detention is evidence of the Pakistan’s commitment to eliminate the Taliban from its soil. Others read it as showing that the Taliban leaders, despite vehement Pakistani denials, are present in Quetta and directing operations from there. They would argue that the increased security around buildings in Quetta, apparently prompted by fears of retaliatory attacks by Taliban supporters, show that not only are the Taliban present in Quetta but that they are a formidable enough force to make the powerful Pakistani intelligence think twice before taking action against them.
There is some truth in both assertions. Pakistan has come to the belated conclusion that if there is to be a chance for the moderate Taliban to work out some arrangement with Nato forces and the Karzai regime it will only happen when the more militant diehard Taliban have been eliminated or their influence lessened. It is also true, however, that large swathes of Quetta are populated by disaffected Afghans or Afghans engaged in drug and other smuggling for whom keeping Afghanistan unstable is essential and for whom the Taliban leaders are a valuable tool in this. The fact that there are large refugee camps in Quetta’s vicinity – inhabitants from which find employment in Quetta – further exacerbates this problem.
The bombing at Bagram drove home to the Americans and the Nato forces the strength and versatility of the Taliban forces. Bagram’s distance from the Pakistan border also underlined what the Pakistanis have always maintained – the insurgency is largely indigenous and not driven by forces operating from across the border. The question that will now haunt the security forces is whether this was a one-off incident or the reflection of a new Taliban strategy to target the most sensitive American defence installations in Afghanistan.
For other observers, the attack on American forces at this facility was reminiscent of the attacks that the Mujahideen had successfully mounted on the Russians when they were in occupation of Afghanistan and when Bagram was their principal base for air operations against the resistance forces. Then the Mujahideen had spoken of the attacks on Bagram as showing that the much vaunted Russian armed forces controlled only a few cities and a few bases and that even these bases were unsafe.
The attack, therefore, suggested that the Taliban now see themselves as enjoying the same intrinsic strength and the same level of popular support as the Mujahideen did against the Russians.
On a related front, the American state department has issued its annual narcotics report and has estimated the opium crop in Afghanistan at 5,644 tons of opium as against the UN estimate of 6,100 tons. It maintains that according to the Pakistani narcotics authorities about a third of the Afghan crop transits through Pakistan. But in the press briefing the American assistant secretary of state put the transit figure at between a half and two-thirds.
The report states that of the total value of $3.1 billion only $755 million was paid to the farmers while the rest of the money went into the pockets of the traffickers. It claims that Pakistani traffickers are the main financiers of the poppy crop providing the advances the Afghan farmers need for opium cultivation.
It should be noted that Pakistan was estimated to have had 500,000 heroin addicts in 2000 and while fresh estimates will be made available by the UN drug agency later this year, a Pakistani spokesman said in parliament that there are now some four million drug users and 500,000 heroin addicts in Pakistan.
My own view is that this figure is far too conservative. We had 2.5 million users in the 1980s when the combined production of Pakistan and Afghanistan was less than a quarter of what it is today. A truer estimate which should emerge in the UN study would probably show around five million to 5.5 million users and about a million heroin addicts. In other words, about three per cent of Pakistan’s population, mostly working age male youths predominantly in Balochistan and the Frontier, are now drug users, with all that that implies for the future wellbeing of our society and for the current susceptibility of such youth to the siren call of martyrdom.
It should also be noted that the Americans believe that the drug trade finances Taliban activity. This is probably true even though the major part of the profits from this trade – I estimate 80 per cent – stays with Afghan officials and Afghan warlords as is apparent from the garish and sickeningly expensive villas that they are building in Kabul and other urban centres in Afghanistan.
This drug money is clearly not sufficient to finance Taliban activity particularly when there is some credence to be attached to reports that Taliban recruits are paid as much as $10 a day as against the $1.7 to $2 that the Afghan policeman receives in the regular force and the $1.6 that he receives in the newly established auxiliary police force. Clearly, there is financial support from other sources and that such of it as is not from Pakistani donors is routed through Pakistan via Dubai or other such centres in the Middle East from where one can assume the major zakat donors come.
So what should we do? We have to be clear that the Taliban are as much a danger to Pakistan as to Afghanistan and that in recognising this we have to take concrete measures to eliminate this menace. The problem must be seen as one of dealing with the Afghan Taliban and their supporters in Balochistan’s cities and border areas on the one hand and the Pakistan Taliban and their support for foreign militants in the tribal areas on the other.
For both problems one part of the solution lies in changing the current political alliances structure and bringing into prominence those elements of the domestic polity who see eye to eye with the government on the nature of the Taliban threat. Pending, however, the conclusion of the tortuous negotiations that can bring such changes about, there are still some steps, albeit insufficient, that can be taken without jeopardising the present dispensation.
In the first instance – Balochistan – there should be no qualms about the use of military force against the Afghan city dwellers since most of them are in any case illegal residents. A clear warning should be issued to their patrons in or outside the provincial government that protecting such elements would carry legal and political penalties.
The movement of the residents of the refugee camps should be restricted with the traditional elders of the camp being served clear notice to clean out the alleged facilities that exist in the camps or in their immediate vicinity and to monitor the activities of the identifiable extremist elements. This should be done pending the closure of the camps and the shifting of the refugees to new sites where a rigorous official army screening and control procedure should be put in place before the shifting.
In the meanwhile the monitoring of cross-border movement through the biometric system and the fencing of relatively inaccessible border areas must continue.
In the tribal areas we have to recognise that military solutions are not possible against our own people. Undoing the damage to the psyche of the people (done by the Talibanisation policies deliberately followed by us and our allies in the 1980s and by us alone in the mid-1990s) and restoring the authority of the tribal maliks and elders of the region is going to take time and an enormous amount of effort.
Since the accord of September 2006 there have been many announcements from the newly established Fata secretariat about the development work that is to start in the tribal areas but there is at least in published reports little to show for it. We must accept and persuade our friends both across the border and elsewhere that this is going to take time but our assertions would carry more weight if we could point to concrete steps that have been taken on the ground to generate employment and to provide the political and material support that can help rebuild the standing and authority of the traditional elders of the region.
President Bush had spoken in his February 15 speech of special assistance for development in the tribal areas. This must be made to materialise. The proposal for the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones must be pursued more vigorously, and in anticipation of the setting up of industries in the region local youth must be given vocational training either in new centres in the region or in existing ones in settled districts and they should be paid a stipend while receiving this training.
How do we overcome the problem of the foreign militants whose presence in the tribal areas prompts allegations that Al Qaeda has now established secure hideouts in the region and has even set up camps to train operatives for terrorist strikes against American and European targets? While not denying the sacrosanct nature of the “Pashtunwali” tradition let us not forget that if Bin Laden escaped from the cordon placed around Tora Bora by warlords paid by the Americans, he did so only by paying even more than what the Americans had done. We should be scouring our human resource base to find the people who can perform this task. It is not, if we put our full effort into it, an impossible task.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
The Kohinoor saga
A RATHER childish response to economic sanctions by Britain could be for Pakistan to demand the return of the Kohinoor diamond. That is if our former rulers ever have the gumption to impose such sanctions and suffer loss themselves. Don’t forget that they have been called a nation of shopkeepers. And it is not we who gave them this title.
By the way, why this sudden anxiety on the part of some people in India and Pakistan to ask for the Kohinoor which adorns the royal crown of Britain? Is it the only priceless valuable that was taken away by the British in their 200-year stay? And if the Kohinoor does come back who should get it? India or Pakistan? Do we have another Indo-Pakistan dispute in the making?
Cultural treasures once stolen are never returned. They are supposed to be part and parcel of political and military conquest. Though there have been cases in modern times when the thieving country admitted the crime and made restitution. But such cases are rare. Germany and Russia are still locked in a dispute over cultural assets.
Germany wants the art treasures that the USSR army took away to Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg) and Moscow during the last days of World War II. Experts allege that many of these treasures were themselves stolen by Hitler from European countries overrun by his armies.
Remember Melina Mercouri, star of the famous movie “Never on a Sunday?” She went into politics and became Greece’s minister for culture. She had a special gallery built in Athens to house the Elgin Marbles which were pieces from the Parthenon that Lord Elgin, Britain’s ambassador to Greece, quietly pilfered some 200 years ago. She was unable to get the Marbles back but, as a gesture of defiance, kept the gallery vacant for a possible change of heart by Britain.
Fruitless official efforts to retrieve the Kohinoor have a history. Some time in 1994, when Sheikh Rashid, the firebrand “Son of Rawalpindi” was culture minister in Mian Nawaz Sharif’s first government, he grandiloquently announced his determination to compel the British government to return the Kohinoor to Pakistan.
Whatever the result of his sabre-rattling, the Sheikh did make a memorable faux pas. He betrayed his scholarship by saying that since the diamond had been taken by the British conquerors from the Muslim Mughals, it must revert to their heirs, the people of Pakistan. Are we heirs to the Mughals?
What had happened was that the Kohinoor was held by Shah Shuja, the exiled ruler of Afghanistan living in Ludhiana. Maharaja Ranjit Singh coveted it and was anxious to secure it for himself, as were most rulers and kingdom-grabbers in those times.
So, using all the guile he was capable of, Ranjit Sigh offered Shah Shuja certain concessions, and probably also some material help, to secure the throne of Kabul in exchange for the Kohinoor. But Shah Shuja was reluctant to do the deal. The Maharajah invited him to the palace in Lahore Fort, showered praise on him and declared that henceforth they were brothers.
Then in a master stroke of native cunning he told the Afghan prince that it was now incumbent on the two “brothers” to exchange turbans in the true Punjabi fashion. It is said that, without waiting for a reaction, he took Shah Shuja’s turban, which contained the diamond, and placed his own on his “brother’s” head and became the owner of the Kohinoor. The wily Maharajah had gathered intelligence that Shah Shuja kept the diamond hidden in his headgear.
So, in fact, Afghanistan’s right to the Kohinoor precedes that of Pakistan. Someone should awaken President Hamid Karzai to this. Then we’ll have another contender for that bauble.
When the Sikh dynasty was finally overthrown and Punjab was formally annexed by the British, his minor grandson Dilip Singh, was whisked away to England to be educated there. After some time he embraced the Christian faith and married an English wife and was “prevailed upon” to make a gift of the Kohinoor to Queen Victoria.
It was then that the “Mountain of Light” landed as the star piece in the British crown. If you want to take a look at it you can buy a ticket to view the crown jewels in the Tower of London. Out of sheer politeness one may not call it thievery, but that is what it was in reality.
The only time the Kohinoor was displayed in the subcontinent was when King George V held a magnificent darbar in Delhi in 1911 where the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to the old seat of the Mughals was announced. He wore the full regalia on the occasion. If Sheikh Rashid had been around at that time he could have pinched the diamond there. Otherwise there seems to be no chance of its coming back.
When he was culture minister in 1994 Sheikh Rashid did not bother to consult the Foreign Office which could have told him that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as prime minister, had already made a diplomatic effort in 1976 to get back the diamond from the British government but the request had been politely turned down.
He would also have come to know that when Mr Bhutto had called upon Britain to return the Kohinoor, it was not because he thought he was successor to the last Mughal emperor, but because the diamond had gone from Lahore and it was on the basis of its ownership by the last Sikh ruler of Punjab that Pakistan claimed it. Significantly, India also intended once to get the Kohinoor by using the Sikh card.
I know for sure that ZAB was not content to give up the issue after the negative response from Whitehall. At that, because of the breaking away of East Pakistan, he had decided to leave the Commonwealth and was not anxious to placate the British. What further steps he had in mind to get back that most coveted precious stone is something we’ll never know.
And now as a comic finale to the matter, we have a penniless Sikh in Amritsar who is said to have written to Prime Minister Tony Blair asking him to send the Kohinoor to him by return post. Beant Singh avers that since his great-grandfather was adopted by Dilip Singh’s daughter, Princess Sophia Alexandra, he is the only rightful claimant to the diamond.
Revisiting women’s movement
MARCH 8 is International Women’s Day. It should not be made into a day of lamentation decrying the plight of women in Pakistan. No doubt it saddens one’s heart to see the honour killings, the rapes and the domestic violence that women suffer.
Then there is the prevalent gender bias in society combined with the fact that unequal opportunities marginalise women. It makes one ask, how far do we still have to go?
But there is another question that begs to be asked. How far have the women of Pakistan come? They have certainly come a long way. And this answer makes March 8 an occasion for celebration. The women’s movement which has been scoffed at by cynics deserves a pat on the back for effecting a change in attitudes. It has succeeded in creating enough public awareness about the status of women to put the women’s issue squarely on the national agenda. No political party can afford to ignore it and every government feels compelled to address it.
The greatest compliment for the women’s movement in Pakistan came from an Indian activist, Dr Roop Rekha Verma, whose principled stand cost her her job as the vice-chancellor of Lucknow University and head of the philosophy department. She is today the secretary of Saajhi Duniya, an NGO working for social justice and peace. She told me in a meeting I had with her recently in Lucknow that she and her colleagues admire the women activists in Pakistan for their courage. “In any religious state – be it Islamic, Hindu or Christian – many constraints exist within the religious framework in which one operates. It is not easy to raise many of the issues that the women activists in Pakistan have been focusing on. They have achieved a lot.”
That is most encouraging for those struggling for women’s rights in conditions that are quite frustrating. Dr Verma talked to me about the pro-women laws that have been passed recently in India – the latest being the act on domestic violence adopted by the Lok Sabha in 2005 that came into effect in the closing months of 2006. Dr Verma is not happy with the slow pace of implementation. The mechanism needed to provide relief to women has not been created in every Indian state and is not always effective where it does exist.
In Pakistan, the women’s movement is still struggling to undo the anti-women laws imposed on the country by the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq. Women achieved partial success in 2006 when the infamous Hudood Ordinances were modified – but not repealed as demanded by women – by the Protection of Women Act. Laws, such as the one on domestic violence – are still a distant dream, concerted efforts by PPPP MNA Sherry Rehman notwithstanding.
A momentum for change would be created if laws illegalising violence against women and recognising their right to gender equality were enacted. But to be really effective and durable, the change must come from below. Why has there been little change in the attitudes of women at the grassroots level in Pakistan? WAF has itself conceded that there is need to address its mobilisation strategy to make it more effective.
Explaining her modus operandi, Dr Verma informed me that Saajhi Duniya was launched informally several decades ago as a group to promote inter-communal peace and harmony. She would visit areas where Hindus and Muslims lived in close proximity. Such localities became powder kegs waiting to explode when tensions were running high. She and her colleagues would meet people individually or in small groups at corner sides or in their homes and talk to them. It was a kind of therapy and thus they spread their message of peace.
There came a stage when the people who began to see her point of view would hold meetings themselves and invite Dr Verma to come and address bigger gatherings. To penetrate any community she would invariably approach it through a community activist to win its confidence.
Dr Verma extended her field of work to gender issues when she observed that any problem that she addressed had a strong gender dimension.
If the women’s movement in Pakistan has failed to mobilise women sufficiently at the grassroots level it is because its communication strategy has not been directed at women at the grassroots. At this level only a one-to-one strategy works as the relative success of the NGOs working for the population programme has demonstrated. The women’s groups have still to do that on a large scale. That is how religious parties operate and therein lies the secret of their success in indoctrinating people.
Take the case of WAF. It has served as a powerful pressure group that has effectively lobbied for the women’s cause. It has also taken up individually the cases of women who have fallen victim to violence or have been under threat. But it still has to reach out to the grassroots women – and also men – in normal course so that their mindset begins to change subtly and they internalise the new approach.
Rather than wait for a crisis to erupt when the women activists react and play their conflict-resolution or relief-providing role, the time has come for the movement to be more proactive and reach out to women on a one-to-one level on a regular basis. Some of them might already be doing it but the practice is not widespread enough to make an impact. As Dr Roop Rekha Verma did more than 30 years ago and is still doing, activists must go out and meet the women – those children of a lesser god – who would benefit from interacting with them.
This is the kind of mobilising Gloria Steinem, the American feminist icon I met in New Delhi, advocates. She writes in her book Doing Sixty and Seventy that she has been travelling around the US for the last 25 years working with women, and some men, in “the kind of direct action organising” that she first saw in India and was magnetised by. It involved what a team leader in India during her stay there in the sixties had counselled. “You have to listen, you have to know, you have to sit down eye-to-eye.”
"I CAN calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men." So concluded Sir Isaac Newton after seeing £20,000 of his savings burst into nothing in the South Sea investment bubble.
Three centuries later the ups and downs of financial markets are a continuing source of puzzlement. Panic on world trading floors this week, which at one point had wiped £55bn off London shares, has been attributed to two factors. But exactly why either an overdue cooling of Shanghai's booming market or a warning on the US economy from Alan Greenspan -- who is no longer the chair of the Federal Reserve -- should trigger such big losses is not clear.
Last week saw some recovery in New York but not in London, where nervousness persisted. Stepping back from the specifics, are there grounds for thinking that this outbreak of jitters reveals deeper doubts about the financial outlook?
For four years now, stock markets have been on a bull run. The buoyant mood of investors has been much enhanced by a serious dose of cheap money, which the world's central banks have been relaxed about dispensing ever since they scrambled to avoid recession after 9/11.
But now, as interest rates creep back up, the question is whether the authorities have encouraged history to repeat itself in record time by inflating a new bubble that has become ripe to implode only seven years after the dotcom balloon was popped.
There may be something in such fears, but they can be overdone. For -- in the terms of an earlier warning from Mr Greenspan -- the exuberance is not so irrational this time round. So severe was the hangover from the millennium party that London's FTSE 100 index still remains below its peak in 2000 - and that is despite sustained growth since then in the corporate profits that give shares their underlying value.
Even if share prices in themselves suggest an amber rather than red alert, the worries do not end there. For most of the last decade the US has been the engine of world growth, its free-spending households keeping the world's factories humming. Doubts about how long this can continue are not new, but they are becoming more salient, as US house prices start to fall and the debts of those who dwell in them become bigger.
The macroeconomic counterpart is a current-account deficit that remains close to 7 per cent of national income, an overdraft requiring finance on a scale that the rest of the world will not be able to provide for ever. Even after the dollar's recent fall, further adjustment is needed. The question is whether this will happen gradually or whether a hard landing is in store.
Sixty years ago today the International Monetary Fund opened its doors amid hopes that governments could coordinate to solve such problems. That was always optimistic, and looks especially so at a time when capital flows round the world with fewer fetters than ever. Free-flowing money has come alongside prosperity, but the crucial role that this vast and anonymous force will play in shaping the outlook can only add to the uncertainty.
—The Guardian, London
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007|
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