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DAWN - Opinion; March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007

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Change in US policy?

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


THE media focus on the political crisis created by the reference against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has minimised the coverage of important developments in US-Pakistan relations during the last few days. Focus on this issue has been restricted to the US view of the crisis and whether the Americans are going to start thinking in terms of a Pakistan without Musharraf with whom they must perforce maintain ties as part of their global and regional war on terrorism.

The official American reaction to the current political crisis has been muted. At the daily press briefings, the State Department spokesperson, even while advocating restraint and emphasising the importance of the right of peaceful protest and the freedom of the press, had praise for President Musharraf. “President Musharraf,” he said, “is a good friend and ally in the war on terror.” “He has a vision for Pakistan”… “President Musharraf is acting in the best interest of Pakistan and the Pakistani people.”

As regards the charges that President Musharraf was being seen as a puppet of the US, the spokesman said “he clearly believes that working closely with the US as well as others in the war on terror is important, because those terrorists that threaten the US as well as other countries around the world pose as great a threat to Pakistan’s future as anything else. They have twice tried to assassinate President Musharraf.” He stated that the president’s suspension of the chief justice was “allowed within the confines of Pakistani law”.

Talk of life after Musharraf figured, however, in the media coverage with the New York Times recently publishing what seemed to be an authoritative article entitled ‘One Bullet Away From What?’ Based on interviews with administration officials this article reiterated the familiar charges of ISI assistance for the Taliban, along with the assertion that Musharraf was accommodating the religious parties as a way of offsetting the growing popularity of the mainstream parties.

The article was, however, quite clear that from the perspective of the administration working with Musharraf may be frustrating but that, “this is one equation we don’t want to touch.”

This reassuring conclusion from President Musharraf’s point of view was only part of why the article was important. Equally significant was the research done by the reporter on what would happen in the event of the president’s departure.There was absolute certainty that even though Musharraf had indicated well that he was all that stood in the way of an extremist takeover in Pakistan the system in place was such that an orderly transition to the chairman of the Senate as president and the vice-chief of army staff as the new COAS could be expected. The article also argued based on the results of the 2002 general election and the 2005 local body elections that the religious parties had no hope of an electoral victory.

It is, of course, an open secret that the Americans have repeatedly urged the president to seek a political accommodation and a power-sharing arrangement with the PPP. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had an article published by The Washington Post. There are unsubstantiated reports of meetings between her and US officials and her somewhat muted reaction to the judicial crisis is said to be an indication that at Washington’s behest she is keeping the door to negotiations with Musharraf open.

Let me return to what I think are the important developments in US-Pakistan relations. The Cheney visit and the warning he is said to have delivered caused a furore in Pakistan. Musharraf’s position, our ambassador in Washington said, was weakened by such actions. This seems to have had some effect in Washington which has, it seems, made a policy decision that henceforth in public statements Taliban activity on Pakistan soil would be acknowledged but attributed to Pakistan’s lack of capacity rather than that of will.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Peter Pace and the outgoing US ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker have all, in their recent statements, spoken of what the Americans would call the “same page”, echoing in part President Bush’s remarks about the Pak-Afghan border area resembling the uncontrolled “Wild West”.

Afghan officials have also stopped or at least reduced the stridency of their anti-Pakistan statements. This, it appears, is the one result that flowed from the meeting of the jirga commissions of the two countries. There has been increasing emphasis in Afghan statements on keeping the door open for such Taliban as want to return to normal life. American statements have spoken of using options other than military ones to cope with the insurgency, although it is not clear as to whether this would also mean granting the Taliban amnesty and a share in power.

The more important developments, however, relate to the announcement by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher made during his recent visit to Pakistan. He pledged a sum of $750 million over the next five years for the social sector infrastructure and other development projects in the tribal areas. I am told that this annual grant amounting to nine billion rupees will be matched by a similar commitment from the Pakistan exchequer.

Additionally, the US administration is trying to push, in the face of domestic opposition from the textile lobby, for substantial concessions for imports from the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones to be set up in the tribal areas and the adjacent provinces of Afghanistan. This is important from the government’s point of view since it not only provides the sorely needed funds but could be interpreted as representing an endorsement of sorts of the government’s policy of concluding peace deals with the tribal leaders.

There now seems to be some success for the American effort to have more Nato and US troops deployment in Afghanistan. The American Congress is in accord with the administration on whatever it wants to do in Afghanistan and has signalled that it will provide whatever funding the president wants for that sector.

In Europe, despite poll results that show the German people wanting a total withdrawal from Afghanistan, the German government has won parliamentary approval for the deployment of Tornado aircraft to Afghanistan to support military operations in the south and southeast of the country. The Italian prime minister has rejected parliamentary pressure and is maintaining Italian troops in Afghanistan.

There seems to be some reflection on the ground of President Bush’s boast that this will be the year of the Nato offensive against the Taliban. Operation Achilles launched on March 6 has not yet been able to clear the area around the Kajaki dam in Helmand province but some progress appears to have been made. If the dam is successfully rebuilt and does manage to start producing enough electricity to provide power to two million Afghans the effect on the ground situation could be quite electric.

Perhaps the most important development has been the latest US Senate action on the bill for the implementation of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The house in its version of the bill had required the president to certify that Pakistan was making every effort to curb Taliban activity as a condition for the continued flow of American aid to Pakistan.

In the Senate version of the bill, there is no mention of Pakistan. The Senate has, however, passed a non-binding resolution on the subject of assistance to Pakistan and this goes no further than asking that there be demonstrable progress on Pakistan’s part to curb Taliban activity and to promote democracy. It can be anticipated that when the reconciliation conference is held between the House and Senate nominees to arrive at a common text the most the House will be able to get from the Senate negotiators is some reflection on the non-binding resolution in the bill. This would mean that there would be no certification by the president required for the aid to continue.

It was, by my reckoning, never the intention of either the House or the Senate to block aid to Pakistan. Pakistan, despite its ambivalence, is far too important a partner in the war against terror and even more importantly from the American perspective far too vulnerable to becoming a terrorist haven.

The House bill, passed perhaps with an administration nod, was meant to convey a signal to Pakistan and, as one Congressman put it, it certainly got Pakistan’s attention. Now the Congress is hoping that with the additional funding as the carrot and the threat of a cut-off as the stick Pakistan will respond appropriately.

Some people in the corridors of power may well feel that the Americans having explored alternatives have now come to the conclusion that they have no option but to continue to offer Musharraf their unstinting support.

This is partly true. But there should be no doubt that the Americans are looking at alternatives — none very pleasant or easily implemented, but they will not continue down this path indefinitely if American and Nato soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan and if the Taliban continue to enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan. The consequences of a change in US policy may be grim not only for the regime but also for the country.

Look in this context at what American assistance means for Pakistan. We talk a lot about the economic progress that has been made in the last five years and that is undeniable. But we should also acknowledge that much of this has been made possible not only because of wise policies, an essential ingredient, but because of the massive injection of aid.

By one calculation, the US has provided Pakistan some $10 billion in aid much of it in hard cash as payment for the facilities Pakistan has provided for the war in Afghanistan. While our economy has grown, I hate to think of what would happen to many of our ongoing projects if the cut-off of American assistance made it necessary to divert funds currently allocated to these projects.

Perhaps the time has come for a genuine advance towards providing political space to the parties that can reinforce the effort to fight extremism, thereby reducing the level of support that the Taliban appear to enjoy.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

Resigning on principle

By Hafizur Rahman


IN the current crisis triggered by the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, there was talk of one high-up or the other in the government resigning on principle but nobody did, and nor were the principles made very clear. We must remember that in our country no one in power ever resigns, even if he is physically or mentally incapacitated as Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad once was.

Chaudhry Mohammed Ali is said to be the only prime minister in the history of Pakistan who resigned on a matter of principle. He need not have done so, for, with a little manipulation, which is the bedrock of Pakistani politics, he could have managed support for himself in the Constituent Assembly. He did not even try any such trick because his principles were dear to him.

I have related this story before but it can certainly bear repetition for it is unmatched in its downattitude to politics. In the days of the Field Marshal, railway minister Mian Jafar Shah was called upon by his opponents to resign on principle after a bad railway accident, and follow the example of India's Lal Bahadur Shastri who had earlier done so.

Mian Sahib’s reply was a masterpiece of political equivocation. He said, "What principle! I know only one thing. I am a Muslim. I cannot even dream of following in the footsteps of an infidel." Obviously he had his own principles to look after. Talking of railway ministers and resigning on principle, here is a true story. In Ms Benazir Bhutto’s first term, during a cabinet meeting, her railway minister, Zafar Leghari, offered to step down because of a terrible rail accident that had killed hundreds. But as the PM was talking to someone at that very moment, the offer did not register itself properly. Thus another "accident" that is, the resignation, was averted, "by the grace of God," as Mr Leghari said later.

It is a pity that the acts that are a routine feature of political life in the advanced democracies have to be described as noble and most commendable in our country just because no one has the guts, and the political decency, to perform them as a matter of course. Such people are idealists and expect too much from politicians.

We have to be realistic. A man spends millions to get elected to a legislative assembly. Then, because of loyalty to a certain leader and the fact that he has the proper feudal or commercialindustrial background, he is appointed a minister. Should he just give up that prize post on the basis of a whim? For principles are mere whims in Pakistan. And what will be the reaction to a resignation on a socalled principle? A few will clap in genuine praise but the majority will think he was an utter fool.

It is the same in the bureaucracy. A senior officer is held responsible for administrative bungling, wrong decisions and gross negligence that may have caused a loss of crores in public money. There may be no corruption involved, only sheer incompetence. Such cases occur almost every other day in the government offices. The officer may be contrite and may even admit his folly, but he will never think of submitting his resignation, simply because he cannot perceive any principle in such a proceeding.

An incident that I can never forget occurred in Britain in the fifties, and was, for a long time, remembered as a striking example of accepting responsibility for a lapse and resigning on that account. Mr Hugh Dalton was Chancellor of the Exchequer and left office because some vital details of the budget had leaked out. The entire country, including the opposition and the press, was convinced that Mr Dalton was personally not to blame, but he was adamant and almost forced the prime minister to accept his resignation.

In Pakistan every minister may not have a justification or excuse or may be a scapegoat when he is confronted with a failure on the part of his ministry or on his own part. Even where circumstances clearly show his culpability, and by all canons of political and democratic justice he should accept his guilt, even though it was not intentional, he simply does not believe that resignation is a necessary adjunct of ministerial responsibility. This is how you look at a matter in the society you live in. Maybe this too has now become a principle with us.

And what happens when an egregious failing or neglect is pointed out? The minister concerned either expresses indignation at this "hitting below the belt," goes red in the face, and hurls countercharges at his detractors and tries to defend an indefensible position. In either case he makes a fool of himself, though his party and the party leader may give him their support. The greatness that lies behind admitting a fault and offering to make amends is not an integral part of our polity and our national character.

Let me tell you about an incident to which I was a witness myself. This took place in the West Pakistan Assembly during One Unit. Incensed by the charge that his relatives were receiving greater attention in Multan's prestigious Nishtar Hospital than members of the public, Health Minister Syed Alamdar Husain Gilani rose in his seat with great dignity to rebut the charge.

In a pained voice he said, "Look at my health and physique." He was tall and rotund and weighed more than 200 pounds. He then asked his brother, also an MPA, in Punjabi to show himself to the House. "Stand up, Rehmat Shah," he said, "and show the House your health." Syed Rehmat Shah Gilani got up with some difficulty, since he was short and dumpy, and weighed nearly 300 pounds. "My other near relations too are of the same size and model”, said the minister proudly. "Let the House judge whether we are in need of treatment in hospitals." There was a thunderous applause at this explanation. I leave it to you to decide who performed better: Mian Jafar Shah or Syed Alamdar Husain Gilani.

Actually it is a question of realizing one’s responsibility. Ministers are personally culpable in very few cases -cases that really call for their resignation because a large majority of instances of proven misdemeanour never get known. But notionally they are responsible for everything big and small that takes place under their charge. I think it is a good tradition to accept responsibility, and I am sure many ministers in Pakistan would be ready to do that, only if they are not expected to resign as a consequence. That is asking for too much.

With a sense of déjà vu

By Zubeida Mustafa


IS THIS the turning point? As the events in Islamabad unfold, it becomes instantly clear that the filing of the presidential reference against the chief justice has come as the proverbial spark in a tinderbox that was waiting to explode. Had it not been the reference, it would have been something else.

That is why people are interpreting the happenings of the last 12 days as the lawyers’ revolt, the public’s outrage, a storm on the political horizon and an attack on the fourth estate and so on. What is clear is that the discontent that was building up has now burst into the open.

It is now that one becomes acutely aware of the failure of our political system. The key test of a democracy is not how its leaders are elected, how it legislates its laws or how justice is dispensed. The real strength of a political system is how political crises are handled and how smoothly governments are changed when they lose credibility. A healthy and stable democracy contains mechanisms for a peaceful transition with a measure of continuity in the political and constitutional structures and the socio-economic framework.

The tumultous happenings in Islamabad with their echoes reaching every corner of the land leave one guessing about what the future has in store. Do not other countries – even the long standing democracies of the West – face similar crises? Remember the massive anti-war rallies in Britain and how Prime Minister Tony Blair was put in the dock at the Labour Party convention last year and was obliged to announce a deadline of sorts for his exit? President George W. Bush has also had his share of troubles aplenty. But the difference is that the American constitution and the unwritten Basic Law of Britain have safety valves to let the steam out and, if it gets too hot in there, for a change of government.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s political system provides no exit strategy for a ruler whose conviction, in any case, is that he is destined by the divine to rule for life. It is widely believed that the present crisis has been sparked by the president’s reference against the chief justice who was making the administration and the army uncomfortable by taking up issues that the power wielders would prefer to sweep under the carpet. But the fact is that the political balancing act that President Musharraf has been performing all these years has reached a stage that it can no longer be sustained. He has opened far too many political fronts for his own good and now stands isolated. Since the system has no mechanism to cope with a confrontation of this nature, the country finds itself in this messy deadlock that we see today.

If one has a strong sense of déjà vu – with a different scenario and actors – can one really be blamed? Ayub Khan’s exit came when the price of sugar shot sky high and the disgruntled public took to the streets. His own colleagues in uniform moved to divest him of his office. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Waterloo was engineered by the powers that be when the PNA made poll rigging the contentious issue and the army stepped in. The period of civilian rule in the nineties was saved the agonising process of the beginning-of-the-end because the tenure of Benazir Bhutto’s and Nawaz Sharif’s governments was cut short by the army before a crisis built up.

This time the situation is different in another way. The whole process has been expedited and intensified by the television channels. In constant competition with one another, they have played a key role in bringing a minute-to-minute, blow-by-blow account of the happenings in the capital into people’s sitting rooms in the cities and the autaqs in the villages. On a recent visit to Alam Khan Chachar village (with a population of 500) in Dadu district of Sindh, I found the community fully informed about the drama being enacted in Islamabad. This has whipped up public anger and created lively interest in what is going on, making it more difficult than ever for the government to suppress the truth. The government now has two options. It can either retreat under pressure, which may give it a little breathing space – but only for the time being. With elections due in a few months, the regime will find itself under immense pressure and may not be able to resort to the constitutional juggling that it has had recourse to in the eight years that Musharraf has been in power. But that is taking a rosy view of things. The other choice before the president is to heed his military instincts which will unquestionably prompt him to crack down on those challenging his authority.

What next? This is certain that in these circumstances one can forget about democracy our intellectuals have been dreaming about since Ayub Khan clamped the first martial law on the country. Even if some kindly general decides to give the political leaders a chance, can they get together and forge a consensus on the critical issues that face Pakistan today? The political opposition is so fragmented that the only point of agreement among them is to oust General Musharraf from power. They are at loggerheads when it comes to adopting a stance on the role of Islam in governance, the country’s foreign policy especially vis-à-vis India, Afghanistan and the US, and the status to be accorded to women.

That is Pakistan’s dilemma. No ready answers are available, given the absence of clear leadership choices before the people. This is frightening. Does it mean that the slide into chaos is inevitable?

Everything and nothing

TO square the upbeat language of Monday's British government's policy review document on public services with the results of this morning's latest Guardian-ICM opinion poll is not easy.

The prime minister hailed the public services document as "the most complete and convincing account of how any government that wants to be both progressive and successful can stay ahead of the curve". Yet Tony Blair's confidence sits unconvincingly alongside a poll in which Labour is again marooned on 31 per cent, in which it trails the Conservatives by 10 points, in which the (admittedly snapshot) indication is that it will do even worse if it elects Gordon Brown as its leader, and in which only 25 per cent of voters think that the extra money that Labour has invested in the public services has been well spent.

The disjunction between Labour's self-image as the party of and for the modern world and its objective circumstances as a party heading towards defeat is spectacular. Figures like these do not suggest a party that is ahead of the curve but one that is rapidly falling behind it.

There is a case for taking the policy review document seriously. But there is also a case for not taking it very seriously at all. The case in favour of the document - the first of six covering the large questions confronting every modern government - goes like this. The review describes and addresses the real - not an imagined - Britain.

It is an honest and informed analysis of the practical limits and the political vulnerability of the universal welfare state model of British public services. It applies traditional social democratic values in a different way, taking account of past failures and of expectations that have perhaps been irrevocably changed by the Thatcher revolution.

Its emphasis on personalised services, individual choice, diversity of supply and frontline flexibility accords with the experience of modern consumer-citizens, while remaining true to progressive principles and offering a way of solving inequalities that the old system failed to confront. It is a worked-out, joined-up, nailed-down vindication of Labour work done and a route map through the work Labour has still to do.

The case against the policy review is that it has been little more than a Blair vanity project, much ado about nothing. After 10 years in office and on the threshold of an exit he does not really want to make, Mr Blair has insisted that colleagues and officials must set the direction they will follow after he leaves.

He wants to create so much momentum behind the kind of approach he favours that no successor will be able to apply the brakes without paying an unacceptable political price. His aim is to force Mr Brown along Mr Blair's own road. The fact that the chancellor went along with this yesterday, embracing city academies, greater choice and personalised services, is ultimately only a pyrrhic victory, since Mr Brown is unlikely to refer to the review ever again if he takes over.

Mr Brown's true views and real instincts are very important, because they hold the key to whether Labour can overcome the 15-point Tory lead which, the indications are, Labour would face if it elected him as leader. But the bigger question is whether the Labour vision of the British welfare state is the right one.

It is striking to contrast the personalised service model embraced by Mr Blair and -- apparently -- Mr Brown with the more traditionally social democratic agenda adopted by Germany's SPD in Bremen in January. The Labour document barely mentions social democracy or the welfare state.

The SPD equivalent says nothing about choice or personalisation. Doubtless each manifesto says something about the immediate political circumstances of the two parties.

— The Guardian, London



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007