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DAWN - Editorial; September 27, 2007

September 27, 2007


The Fata quagmire

MORE than three weeks after the “kidnapping” of over 200 security personnel in South Waziristan, there is no sign yet that the government is anywhere near securing their release. Following negotiations with a jirga, the militants released a batch of 26 soldiers. But that gesture — our Peshawar bureau chief informs us — was a demonstration of generosity in keeping with the tribal tradition that interlocutors should not go empty-handed. This situation makes one point clear: the government is hopelessly dependent upon the dubious goodwill of the moderates among the tribal chiefs, its own military machine being unable to compel the militants to release the kidnapped. This being the harsh reality, one wonders what is the purpose behind deploying nearly 100,000 soldiers in what is increasingly turning into a wild goose chase. On Tuesday, the interior ministry spokesman said the government would not bargain for the soldiers’ release and that the militants must release them unconditionally. If the militant leadership does not choose to release them, what option does the government have? More force? More troops and more casualties without an end in sight? As the figures show, Pakistan has lost 730 soldiers in the war on terror in Fata, 229 since July 15 alone. Across the border, the US-led coalition forces have, since July 15, suffered only 69 casualties. Yet, it is the governments of these very armies which accuse Pakistan of not doing enough and urge it to ‘do more’.

Have the security forces personnel in Fata developed battle fatigue that is characteristic of all armies bogged down in guerilla wars? Or are they reluctant to fight and kill their own compatriots? One can understand a couple of soldiers being taken by surprise and kidnapped. But the very idea of such a large posse of well-trained and well-armed troops being kidnapped without a shot being fired defies logic. The deal the government made with the militants last September failed to produce results. More ominously, the number of tribal maliks who could be called moderate if not pro-government seems to be declining. This is also an indication of the collapse of Fata’s traditional system in which the maliks commanded authority and acted in close liaison with the government to tackle the recalcitrant elements. Now the maliks’ power seems to have given way to that of the Taliban, who have gone on the offensive with a vengeance after the Lal Masjid crackdown.

It is futile to hope for a new, resulted-oriented strategy until the presidential election drama in Islamabad is over. But it is clear that the strategy so far followed has backfired. While the government must use force where necessary, it must have the wisdom to realise that one must also talk to the enemy. After all, Islamabad has entered into a dialogue with other parties with which it has had acute differences. So what is wrong in talking to the ‘enemy’ in Fata, especially because the forces so critical of Pakistan have themselves failed to contain the ‘enemy’ straddling the Durand Line?

Questions for the media

IT IS time for the media to take stock of its performance. This need for introspection applies to all media outlets but more so to the television channels, for they reach millions as opposed to the thousands who read newspapers and thus play a critical role in influencing public opinion. It is important to ask whether political reporting and debate on most private television channels meet certain basic tests of responsible journalism: fairness, objectivity, balance and differentiation between fact and speculation. Debate in the form of a media spectacle may be entertaining or enlivening for some but not necessarily informative. Honest discussion must be ruled by reason, not emotion alone, and a willingness to at least listen to the other person’s point of view. In the context of the upcoming presidential election, what we are witnessing on television is a sustained and preconceived rant — from quarters both pro- and anti-government — and precious little rational debate. Indeed, the level of discourse may not be greatly affected if, instead of inviting guests, the hosts simply installed a few loudspeakers hooked up to tape recorders. These could then be switched on in turn — or all at the same time, for such is the din on cable TV these days.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court judges asked the electronic media to refrain from commenting on matters that are sub judice. First there are the country’s contempt laws to consider. When a case is in court, there must be no attempt to divert the course of justice or to question the competence and integrity of the concerned judges. Two, as one SC judge observed, talk show participants with no legal training are allowed to hold forth on highly sensitive sub judice issues. Legality aside, do such ‘debates’ add to the knowledge of viewers or swamp them with misinformation? Are members of the media, unwittingly or otherwise, becoming a party to propaganda? Is the media bringing clarity to public discourse or confusing matters further? It goes without saying that we vehemently oppose any curbs on freedom of expression. But these are important questions that the media would do well to ponder. There is no room in ethical journalism for media trials and character assassination, the very traits that the public and the independent media have long deplored in state-run television. True, the electronic media is still in its infancy in Pakistan but it is time it evolved its own code of conduct that incorporates the basic tenets of responsible journalism. Media ethics need not be an oxymoron.

Awaiting inauguration

THE photograph in this newspaper of a new children’s complex at a hospital in Vehari that has yet to be opened because it is awaiting an electricity connection is a reminder of how little importance is given to healthcare in this country. What is particularly disappointing about this instance is that the hospital project is a joint effort with an NGO (which provided the equipment and furniture), and the delay in its opening sends bad signals to donor communities wanting to collaborate with the government on similar social uplift projects. The reason given for the delay is Multan’s electrical power company’s inability to install a new transformer. That it could take five months for such a task is shocking, especially because it involves a children’s hospital, which is desperately needed in the area. But clearly no one is pushed about the hospital being opened on a priority basis, except for the poor parents. Those in charge of the hospital should be taken to task for their negligence on the delay in the matter.

In view of the low priority given to healthcare, especially children’s, health-related statistics have always been abysmal: the infant mortality rate is 80 per 1,000 live births while the number for the under-five bracket is 101. Children grow up in poor sanitary conditions with no access to clean drinking water or emphasis on proper nutrition. And the government does not spend as much as it should on preventive health, be it on vaccinations or on ensuring the supply of clean water. Healthcare must be seen as a right and not privilege. For this to happen, elected representatives have to change their attitudes and fight for more funds for healthcare in their localities in the same way they would fight for more funds for other projects. The government must show a steely will in safeguarding children’s health.

Costlier imports, heavy taxes

By Sultan Ahmed

THE world oil prices are soaring again. After the US sweet crude crossed 80 dollars a barrel last week, it finally reached a record 84.10 dollars which revived fears of the hundred dollars a barrel approaching soon as projected earlier.

The Brent light crude in Britain was not far behind and the Saudi heavy crude too responded to these price movements. In Asia, however, it stays at 81 dollars. At home Dr Salman Shah, advisor to the prime minister on finance, sounded a note of warning saying if the oil prices went on rising, the government may have to raise POL prices after a brief pause.

In the US, the output from Alaskan oil wells is down by 200,000 thousand barrels a day. With the cold weather starting there, its stocks are down by 7.1 million barrels. More disturbing news came from the Middle East where French President Sarkozy issued a strong warning to oil-rich Iran over the nuclear issue. The UAE is cutting down its oil output but for reasons of repairing its oil production system.

The rise in the price of oil is partly due to the fall in the value of the dollar against other currencies like Euro. Along with that prices of base metals and gold in dollars have gone up. The Opec oil producers want their oil worth real money by getting more dollars for their fluid and not let the depleting dollar make them lose their real earnings.

The lasting credit crunch in the West should normally repress the demand for oil and hold down its prices but it has not happened now.

While President George Bush is talking of troop reduction in Iraq, Alan Greenspan, the financial sage who was for long chairman of the Federal Reserve, says in his just published memoirs The Age of Turbulence that the Iraq war is about oil. If oil was the great gold for which any sacrifice is worth, then the West’s game plan should have been far different from the one played out in Iraq by the US.

Meanwhile, in the wake of turbulence prevailing in the oil world, Goldman Sachs talks of hundred dollars a barrel by the middle of next year. Another prediction puts it rise at 95 dollars a barrel by the end of this year. To met the growing demand from major consumers, including China and India, the Opec has agreed to increase its oil output by only half a million barrels more and that extra oil will not be available in the market before November.

Though oil is a wasting asset, the Opec will have to produce more rather than let the price skyrocket to 100 dollars. Such a rise in the prices will make the countries of the world look for more oil desperately or pay attention towards alternate technologies. The consumer countries will have to adopt more energy conservation measures and try to reduce their demand for oil.

Politically such giddy oil prices may force the West to promote political and military tensions between the Arab countries and sell more high-priced arms to them. Higher oil prices may also tempt the West to instigate wars between the oil states as had happened in the past.

If the dollar continues to suffer declines, the Opec states may prefer to move out of the dollar belt and price their oil in a stronger currency like Euro or on the basis of a basket of currencies. China and Russia are emerging as financial centres after Tokyo and Singapore.

China is already reducing its holding of dollars as its reserve currency. Pakistan lost heavily earlier by putting all its reserves in dollars but later corrected it by investing in a basket of strong currencies, primarily the Euro.

So far, Pakistan’s policy has been that the higher the oil price, the higher the taxes and larger the revenues from oil and gas. As a result of this policy, it collected a record Rs157 billion as revenue from oil and gas. That includes Rs64 billion as general sales tax on petrol which is a heavy levy.

The policy pursued by enlightened governments is that the higher the rise in consumer prices of essential goods, the lower the tax levy. That is not so in Pakistan where when import prices rise, duties also rise. Instead of lowering the duties and letting the consumer breath freely, the government prefers to earn more revenue.

In India, when import prices fall, the duties are raised. That is a healthy approach. That is what China is also doing to beat high food inflation. Malaysia is doing the same as there are no other means to reduce prices and lower inflation.

When the government thinks only of revenues and grabs windfall gains from the hardships of the consumers, the latter suffer. Large additional revenues are too tempting for governments in Pakistan and they care little about its impact on the low income groups and the poor.

Pakistanis do not get the benefit of higher oil production at home. When new oil finds are reported, there is no relief for the people as they continue to pay the same price for the imported oil as well as the indigenous oil.

Now the vegetable oil importers have called for a reduction in the duty on the imported oil. Malaysia had also supported the demand following a rise in the price of palm oil. It is time the government accepts their demands and make the palm oil less expensive. What is needed now is a clear statement of policy by the government that if the import prices of essential goods go up , the import duties will be reduced and later when the import prices come down, the duties can be raised. If that policy had been followed, the government last year would not have been able to raise Rs157 billion as revenues from oil and gas.

The time has come for the government to step up the efforts to look for more offshore oil and give the oil companies the necessary incentives for a greater effort.

Governor of the State Bank, Dr Shamshad Akhtar, has described the market and financial crisis in the West as a wake-up call for Pakistan for a better legal and regulatory framework.

Troop pullout from Fata

Pushto Press: Wahdat

THE government is mulling a proposal for withdrawing additional troops from the tribal region in the supreme national interest, says Governor Ali Jan Aurakzai. All the more welcome is the gubernatorial assertion that his administration cares two hoots for those piqued by its decisions — driven by popular aspirations for lasting peace. Citing the existence of 16 Indian consulates and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan’s border provinces, he claims officials have found proof of India’s involvement in fomenting trouble in the strategically important tribal belt.

The government’s writ, he admits, may have been undercut by brainless violence, but effective measures are underway to dispel the impression that the tribal areas have become ungovernable.

A pullout of forces from Fata will represent glad tidings for the entire nation, which believes the explosive situation there is a direct outgrowth of an untenably aggressive policy pursued by the authorities. Had the tribal jirga been given a fair chance to resolve disputes, things wouldn’t have come to such a sorry pass.

Today, the region is under the international scanner, with the US constantly focused on it in the war on terror.

Instead of clinging to the military option, the rulers still have time to demonstrate acumen in finding a political solution to the problems facing the tribesmen.

A troop pullback plus reactivating the jirga mechanism to woo disgruntled elements back into the fold could produce the desired results. A peace pact Aurakzai signed with local Taliban in Waziristan following his appointment as governor proved to be a good first step.

The accord, despite its denunciation by certain quarters, went a long way in bringing a semblance of harmony to the troubled agency. If the jirga is given back its time-honoured mandate, the prevailing unrest will surely give way to calm and quiet — an imperative for the development of a backward region which has been a breeding ground for terrorists. — ( Sept 24)

Choosing dialogue over war

Pushto Press: Raah-i-Nejaat (Kabul)

THE United Nations, voicing support for dialogue between the western-backed Afghan government and Taliban insurgents, has offered to broker peace between the antagonists. On the face of it, the emerging situation throws into bold relief an embryonic shift from the UN-sponsored Bonn Conference, Nato’s military campaign against the militants and the policy of slamming the door on peace parleys with the Taliban.

The forces hell-bent on fighting it out with resistance groups have some sort of problems with comprehending the centrality of negotiations to the politics of peace and war in the 21st century — a diplomatic lingo that has been taking on new meanings since the Cold War.

Some quarters point to the global fraternity’s current policy on the Taliban-spearheaded insurgency. They wonder why foreign troops ceased fire in Musa Qala district of the Helmand province with a faction that was left out of the Bonn moot on Afghanistan.

The cynics opine that driving the rebels to the negotiating table is indicative of inherent contradictions in the present international approach to challenges before the war-torn country.

Admittedly, war alone does not resolve the problem. This stance has been, and remains, flawed for obvious reasons. What we propagate is a sustained and substantive dialogue at all levels to overcome the fundamental dilemma facing the nation. Instead of getting stuck in semantics, clinging to non-issues or being obsessed with formless abstractions, negotiators must make an honest effort at steering the nation out of the present crisis.

Had we paid close attention to patent ground realities over the last five years, thousands of killings in imprecise airstrikes and ill-planned military operations could have been prevented. Our political leaders … should pause for a bit of soul-searching and ask themselves this simple question: which direction are we heading in, and why? — (Sept 23)

––Selected and translated by Mudassir Ali Shah

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007