DAWN - Opinion; April 25, 2007

April 25, 2007


Deepening Afghan crisis

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh

LATER this week, Presidents Musharraf and Karzai will meet in Ankara at the invitation of Prime Minister Recep Teyyip Erdogan. Turkey has the best of relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and in that sense is better suited than most to play a mediatory role. There is no doubt that Turkey’s own interest in promoting reconciliation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is very strong.

Turkey has had an abiding interest in Afghanistan since at least the start of the 20th century. During the anti-Soviet war, Turkey, despite its proximity to the Soviet Union, was generous in its diplomatic, moral and material support for the jihad. It was perhaps the only country which granted not only asylum but also nationality to Afghans of Turkish origin who had lived for many years in the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan — the famous Wakhan corridor.

There is no doubt, however, that Turkey’s own desire to be helpful has been reinforced by appeals from Washington. President Bush spoke to President Karzai on Thursday last and, according to Afghan sources, much of the 25-minute conversation was taken up by the need for the Ankara meeting to yield more positive results than the effort President Bush had made in September last.

For the Americans, the Bush administration in particular, it is of vital importance that its two key partners settle their differences and agree on a joint strategy to combat the Taliban threat and the concomitant growth of extremism in the region.

They know that despite the “extra effort” to which the Americans have committed themselves in Afghanistan, they are not making much headway either in defeating the Taliban militarily or in “winning the hearts and minds” of the Pashtun population in the south and southeast of the country. Military experts agree that the current force levels in Afghanistan, despite the addition of an American brigade, are inadequate.

The American armed forces, however, have been stretched to the limit in terms of “boots on the ground” by the current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. They cannot deploy any more of their own forces in Afghanistan and by all accounts have been spectacularly unsuccessful in persuading major Nato allies like Germany, France and Italy to increase their force levels or even to change the rules of engagements and allow commanders on the ground to use them in combat zones.

In Canada, whose 2,500-member contingent has suffered some 54 casualties, there is intense debate on the wisdom of the country continuing to carry an unfair part of the burden. There are increasing calls for the withdrawal of Canadian forces, even before the 2009 deadline for which deployment has been narrowly sanctioned by the Canadian parliament.

In Italy, despite the fact that Italian soldiers are not in the combat zone, Prime Minister Romano Prodi is under strong pressure to bring the Italian force home. President Karzai agreed to release five Taliban in exchange for an Italian journalist because Prime Minister Prodi claimed that he would not otherwise be able to retain his force in Afghanistan. Since he did not insist on the release of the Afghan interpreter who was with the Italian, Karzai has faced enormous domestic criticism. A similar or worse situation exists in Germany and France.

The Afghan National Army is being better trained and better equipped. Belatedly large sums of money — five billion dollars — have been provided by the Americans to buy equipment for the Afghan armed forces. It will be many years, however, before this Afghan force acquires the capability to take on the Taliban. The Canadian commander, while being complimentary about the progress the Afghan National Army had made, said that the “jury is out” on whether this army would be able to take on the Taliban on its own even by 2009.

The Afghans are bitter about the fact that there is little to show for the $30 billion pledged in assistance by the donor countries and of which some $13 billion has been expended so far, according to the figures of the Afghan ministry of finance. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation testified in Congress that out of every aid dollar allocated by the United States 86 cents is “phantom aid” that does not directly reach the Afghans.

An Afghan expert has calculated that some $1.6 billion have been spent on technical assistance between 2002 and 2005 but there is virtually nothing to show for it on the ground. Afghans are also bitter about the lives of luxury that expatriate “development experts” enjoy in Kabul’s sea of poverty. A more concerted effort to secure concrete results from development efforts is now underway.

For the last two months, Nato forces in Helmand and Kandahar have been engaged in Operation Achilles designed to clear the area and allow the reconstruction of the Kajaki dam on the Helmand river. The power generated could bring electricity to some 1.5 million people and effect a transformation in the economic situation of the region.

Despite the much-touted effort, there seems to have been little progress. The installation of new turbines remains to be done and many claim that even if this is done the task of protecting the transmission lines and the pylons on which they are carried will be beyond the capacity of the limited force that is available.

Efforts at reconciliation seem to have done no better. The British withdrew from Musa Qala in Helmand province, ostensibly as a result of an agreement with the elders of the town under which both Nato forces and the Taliban would be denied access to the town and development work would be allowed to proceed.

The agreement broke down and currently the town is under the control of the Taliban with the Afghan government and Nato forces claiming that they could retake the town at any time they chose but are waiting for an opportune time so as to minimise casualties and damage to the infrastructure.

As time passes, Musa Qala is increasingly becoming a symbol of Nato’s failure and the Taliban’s success. Even their successful retaking of Sangin as part of the operation for clearing the area for the construction of the Kojaki dam has been attributed to the pleas of local elders to the Taliban to withdraw and save the area from further aerial attacks by Nato.

Karzai has publicly acknowledged that he is engaged in reconciliation talks with the Taliban and that he has had a number of meetings which one assumes would also involve giving the Taliban a share in the administration of the country. There does not appear to have been much progress but it has aroused opposition from many influential quarters. A new front has now been established which seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to the Northern Alliance of yore and brings to the fore the nightmarish prospect of an ethnic divide in Afghanistan.

In the meanwhile, corruption is rampant, opium cultivation and trafficking are flourishing under the aegis of influential warlords, returning refugees are given short shrift and the police and other state officials are perceived as oppressors rather than protectors. It is no wonder that an increasing number of people are becoming convinced that Taliban obscurantism — including the burning of schools and the killing of teachers — was a small price to pay for the security their reign provided.

In Pakistan, the eviction of the Uzbek militants from North Waziristan has been touted as a success for the agreements that the government reached with tribal leaders. What is particularly seen in this light is the further agreement among the tribes of the region, allowing for the administration to be taken over once again by the Pakistan government.

We should note, however, that Mullah Nazir has not publicly renounced his Taliban credentials and has even gone so far as to say that if he promised to stay peacefully Osama bin Laden would be given sanctuary. This may be no more than an effort to satisfy the Islamists among his followers who even while accepting Pakistani suzerainty are not happy with the American occupation of Afghanistan or with Pakistan’s role as a partner in the war on terror.

The point is that whatever the efforts made to turn Mullah Nazir around, much more work needs to be done in the tribal areas.

What is more worrisome is the effect that the growing Taliban strength is having on the rest of the country. It would be a foolish man indeed who did not see a connection between the Lal Masjid stand-off and the Talibanisation that is creeping from the border belt towards the settled districts and is manifesting itself in Islamabad.

The negotiations that Chaudhry Shujaat is having with the Ghazi brothers seem to be leading towards a peaceful denouement only if all the illegal demands made by the vigilantes are accepted. Would this be happening if our body politic — or more correctly our ruling body politic — had not been infected?

Here we are, a mighty nuclear power with extremely powerful security forces reduced to negotiating from a position of weakness with employees of the government occupying government-built and owned property. Here we are, unable to prevent the assembling of forces from outside the Lal Masjid for conferences and for reinforcing their armed strength.

It is clear that we can tackle these problems only when the army abandons the quasi fundamentalists and works in tandem with the mainstream political parties but even that will not be sufficient. We need to insulate ourselves from the pernicious influence that flows into our county from across the border.

We must be honest enough to concede that cities like Chaman and Pishin and large swathes of Quetta have like the tribal areas become Taliban strongholds and will remain so as long as traffic to and from Afghanistan remains unimpeded and as long as the Taliban remain a potent force in south and southeast Afghanistan.

This should be the burden of the discussion between the two presidents. Both countries need to put their own houses in order. Both need to put aside issues of so-called “principle”. Karzai may argue that obstructing free movement at regular border points does not directly address the problem of Taliban infiltration but he cannot say that this will not help.

Similarly, he can argue that he will not accept fencing but if he and the coalition forces cannot add to the 90 odd border observation posts then Pakistan’s fencing can only help. He must accept that whatever his views on the Durand Line or on respecting the traditional free movement in this area the current situation requires drastic measures and these measures should not be perceived as being designed to present Afghanistan with a fait accompli.

Most importantly, Musharraf must seek a meeting of minds on the question of tribal jirgas. If the jirga commissions of the two countries scheduled to meet on May 3 could agree to holding tribal jirgas, the partial success achieved in North Waziristan can be built upon.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

What hurts is the rich-poor divide

By Zubeida Mustafa

POVERTY, an area of profound concern for economists in the Third World, has acquired enormous political connotations. It has come to be used as the yardstick to measure the performance of a government. It is therefore not surprising that policymakers make exaggerated claims about poverty reduction.

The Musharraf government is no exception. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz insists that the ratio of those living below the poverty line in Pakistan has come down in five years from 34.46 per cent in 2000-01 to 23.9 per cent in 2004-05.

Yet we have the critics lamenting the high cost of living. According to them, incomes have not risen proportionately. Hence the common man is in dire straits as he struggles to make two ends meet.

Who is correct? It really depends on one’s perception. When seen through the eyes of an economist, the picture of poverty is quite different – even rosy – from how an anthropologist sees it. The economist studies poverty through statistics which are by their very nature biased in favour of the formal sector. Anthropologists, on the other hand, view poverty as a relative phenomenon in a contextualised way against the backdrop of the distribution of wealth in society.

Obviously the anthropologist’s is the more realistic and human approach since bare statistics miss out the human dimension. This was most graphically and conclusively pointed out by Prof Jan Breman of the Amsterdam School of Social Science Research in a talk arranged by PILER in Karachi. The author of several books on labour, peasants and workers in the Third World, Prof Breman has seen poverty from close quarters as a social scientist.

Having carried out field research in Gujarat (India) and Java (Indonesia) over a period of 45 years, he certainly is in a better position to assess the pangs of hunger and the pain of disease suffered by the poor than the economists sitting before their computers in their ivory towers.

The topic of Prof Breman’s thought provoking lecture summed up his underlying thesis. He spoke on “Wishing away poverty, or the poor?” One key figure missing from the audience that evening was Mr Shaukat Aziz, who is the current architect of Pakistan’s economic policy. He would have benefited immensely from the lecture.

Speaking about Gujarat – and that is equally true about Pakistan – Prof Breman pointed out that he found a little improvement in some aspects of the living conditions of the agricultural labour when he returned 25 years later to the village he had studied earlier. The village now had a school and a health centre. Housing had changed and quite a few people were living in concrete houses. But the economic and social gap between the rich and the poor had increased. The poor felt they could not get any poorer. He used the term “pauperisation” to describe the state of the poorest of the poor when a person loses control over his life and lives in a stupor since he has no choices to exercise.

This is what is happening to the poor in Pakistan whose number is growing, Statistics do not tell the true story and can be deceptive. The fact is that the absolute number of poor is on the rise.

Today there are nearly 40 million people – on the basis of official percentages – who can be described as pauperised. In 1990, there were 29 million absolute poor as stated in government documents. What is worse is that the gap between the rich and the poor – the bane of poverty – is also growing and this is reflected in official statistics.

The State Bank Report 2005-06 tells us that the income inequality as presented by the Gini coefficient and the ratio of the highest 20 per cent to the lowest 20 per cent has widened during 2001-05. The Gini coefficient has gone up from 0.2752 to 02976 in the corresponding

period. The ratio of the richest and the poorest has increased from 3.76 to 4.15.

What should be a cause for serious concern is that the social impact of poverty and deprivation on the poor is extremely degrading. They rob the poor of their self esteem. When concurrent with poverty is the growing gap between the haves and the have nots, one has the perfect recipe for discontent, anger and alienation born of an acute sense of injustice.

The worst part is that the poor lose the will for collective action since they feel helpless and unable to change the situation. That also explains why they cannot register their anger and discontent in spite of their massive numbers.

It has been established by studies conducted by sociologists that a community where poverty is equally distributed tends to be more socially adjusted and in better physical health than a community that is cumulatively wealthy but with its wealth unequally divided.

Hence Dr Breman is more perturbed by the unequal distribution of wealth and the existing disparities rather than the fact of poverty itself. Besides when the cake is large and the slices are relatively equal in size even the smallest slice is not too small and can be filling enough to keep a person quite satisfied. He pointed out that there were people in his own country who were poorer than others but because their basic needs are met and the gulf between the rich and the poor is not so wide, the low income classes are not as badly off as the economically disadvantaged in Pakistan.

The millennium development goal calls for the halving of poverty by the year 2015. But such statistical targets, even if they are achieved, will not improve the lot of the poorest of the poor. The issue that really needs to be addressed primarily is that of the disparity of wealth between the various sections of society.

When the poor live alongside the rich – see the shanty towns that creep up to the boundary walls of the palaces of the rich in our cities – the psycho-social, economic and political repercussions of this phenomenon are devastating, more so when the rich are used to ostentatious living and flaunting their wealth.

Life without a cleric

By Hafizur Rahman

A NEWSPAPER report has disturbed me and my family and we don’t know what to do about it. In any case it is too late to do anything. The matter concerns our faith.

Since we believe ourselves to be Muslims, we are naturally anxious that the end should be satisfactory. And with all the talk about the Shariah in Pakistan we want to be sure that we are not deficient in the matter of faith.

All this while we have considered ourselves not only Muslims but staunch Muslims, but our eyes have been opened by a revelation made by a well-known Islamic scholar of Rawalpindi. And what we behold with open eyes is hardly calculated to give us solace.An Urdu columnist has referred to a maulana’s revelation and thus brought it to our notice. And it is because of his column that we find our peace of mind disturbed. It has created doubts in our minds whether we are really qualified to call ourselves Muslims. According to this column, the maulana had dwelt on the role of the maulvi in our daily lives. So that there is no misunderstanding, I repeat the exact words as quoted by the columnist.

“The poor maulvi whom you revile (said maulana) is he who made your mother lawful for your father. It is he who chanted the azaan in your ear and breathed faith into you. And it is he who will say your funeral prayer when you die. What have you given him in return?”

Just forget what we have given the maulvi and all that, and concentrate on the three most important moments in a Muslim’s life as mentioned by the maulana. It is these three functions that have caused a commotion in my family and stirred us to our very depths about what may be in store for us in the hereafter. According to the maulana, all these three functions have to be performed by maulvis, even though we give them nothing in return.

You see, the problem in our case is that for all these three significant moments in our lives as Muslims we employ the services of maulvis. But when my wife and I were married, the nikah was read by an old friend of my father-in-law. He didn’t have a beard so he couldn’t have been a maulvi.

When my father died, his funeral prayer was led by an old friend of his whom we called Uncle. This friend too didn’t have a beard and used to protest violently if anyone addressed him as Maulvi Sahib. When our two daughters were born I myself recited the azaan in their ears. I do not have a beard, nor can I be described as a maulvi by any stretch of the imagination.

So what is the position now? Were all these occasions properly sanctified? Since those who presided over these rituals were not maulvis, and since (if we go by the word of the maulana) only maulvis are entitled or expected to perform these functions, can it be stated with authority that, in our case, the acts were in complete accord with the actual religious practice? Or will the verdict be that they were null and void, ab initio, as lawyers are in the habit of saying?

While I can make up for my personal lapse by getting a maulvi to recite the azaan in the ears of my daughters (and their four children too who had suffered a similar fate because of my eagerness to play the amateur maulvi), what about the funeral prayer of my father?

I would hate to be admonished by him when we meet in the next world, in case such a meeting is part of the post mortem scheme of the Almighty. But I can ignore that too. My father is not here to tick me off. When the time comes for that we shall see. But what about my nikah with my one and only wife?The matter is complicated by the fact that she died some years ago, and I hate to live with the thought that when she was alive we were not properly married for 37 years. The only consolation is that her funeral arrangements were not in my hands and the last rite was performed by an authentic maulvi. So there is at least one worry less. But the question still rankles whether it was holy wedlock or a theological deadlock while it lasted.

During my forty plus years on this planet I have been under the impression that in Islam you don’t need a practising maulvi for anything. Let alone chanting the azaan in an infant’s ear, or reciting the prayer on someone’s last journey, which any Muslim can do, I was taught that for a marriage to be solemnised the man and woman had just to take the prescribed vow before witnesses and the deed was done. I as nikah-khwan was not de riguer. Such is the simplicity of Islam and such is its freedom from a professional priestly class.

Among maulvis you can have the most learned and the most ignorant. The late Maulana Kausar Niazi was the most enlightened maulvi and there are scores in the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI and the Islamabad International Islamic University, with which I once had an association of sorts. Some of the imams of Islamabad mosques are real gems and it’s a pleasure to talk to them.

And there was “Maulana” Sabz Gull who was imam of a small mosque in the outskirts of the old city of Peshawar. This was in the end of 1958 or thereabouts. I was charged with the duty of finding a maulvi to preside over the nikah of a friendless young woman. After the ritual was over, I asked everyone concerned to sign on the nikah-nama. However, we were sheepishly informed by my maulvi that he was unlettered and could only affix his thumb impression on the document. I’ve still got that nikah-nama with me.

I don’t know if Maulvi Sabz Gull later learned to read and write, but apparently he was quite proficient and successful in the performance of his priestly duties. I wish I could locate him now. I am sure he would be able to find a way out of the dilemma in which that columnist’s remarks have placed me and my family.

Yeltsin’s legacy

WHEN a statesman dies he gets tributes — even from those who suffered most at his hands. The news of Boris Yeltsin's death on Monday was no sooner out than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, expressed his condolences to the family of the man who had forced him from office.

Mr Gorbachev said that "major events for good" rested on Mr Yeltsin's shoulders, but even the charitable Russian reformer could not resist adding "and some serious mistakes". The truth is that Mr Yeltsin's legacy proved to be a bitter pill, from which Russia is still suffering.

Mr Yeltsin did not start his political life as a democrat. Ordered by the politburo to demolish the house where the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were shot by Bolsheviks – a spot that was becoming the focus of embarrassing demonstrations – the young first secretary of Sverdlovsk party, like the slavish apparatchik he was, complied readily, sending the bulldozers in at night. He was always a quick-thinking opportunist, and when at the height of perestroika he was promoted by Mr Gorbachev to run Moscow, Mr Yeltsin sensed his sponsor's weakness.

And yet for a fleeting moment he almost made it as the hero of Russia's nascent democracy. In July 1990 he abandoned the Communist party altogether. Soviet forces seized the television headquarters in Lithuania in January 1991 in response to the Baltic republic's moves towards independence. With some courage, Mr Yeltsin called on the troops not to obey illegal orders.

He persuaded a majority of deputies in the Russian parliament to amend the constitution and establish a directly elected executive presidency for Russia. When communist hardliners took Mr Gorbachev hostage in the Crimea in August that year, Mr Yeltsin jumped on a tank, urging its embarrassed crew to break from the coup. It was the iconic image of the fall of the old regime, but the truth of that day is that the tank commanders were so unsure of what they were meant to be doing that they stopped at red traffic lights.

But if Mr Yeltsin cast himself as the founding father of post-communist Russia, a Thomas Jefferson he was not. A meeting at which the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus plotted the downfall of the union ended in a drunken brawl. Russia's democratic dawn lasted for only two years, until the new president ordered the tanks in against the same parliament that he had used to bring down the Soviet system.

Now blood was being shed in the name of liberal democracy, and some democrats were uncomfortable. Mr Yeltsin's dogmatic abandonment of state subsidies on prices set inflation galloping to 2,000 per cent. It was called shock therapy, only it was too much shock and too little therapy. Millions saw their savings wiped out overnight, while those close to the president and his family helped themselves to vast personal fortunes which they keep to this day.

Even before Mr Yeltsin sent an unmarked column of tanks into Grozny to crush the separatists and start a decade of brutal war in Chechnya, liberal democracy was being crushed by the president's fatal embrace. The western backing that the president enjoyed only sealed the fate of the democrats. Many of the seeds of Russia's authoritarianism were planted in that era. If Mr Yeltsin's free-market reforms caused a bigger fall in industrial output than that inflicted by Hitler's 1941 invasion, the response of an oil- and gas-rich Russia today is to be aggressively nationalistic.

—The Guardian, London

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007