The dilemma in Fata

ONE of the major issues in the war in Fata today is the question of collateral damage. Since Sunday, nearly 200 people have been killed, including 50 civilians among them women and children. Cold-blooded as it sounds, there can be no war without collateral damage. In a conventional war between two states, each side is free to heap blame on the enemy for civilian casualties. But a guerilla war has problems of its own. If the guerillas happen to be on foreign soil, problems of conscience are still there but manageable. However, where one is fighting against a highly motivated and bigoted guerilla force on one’s own soil, the fighting gets mixed up with a number of political, moral and ethical issues that defy an easy solution. The government is caught on the horns of a dilemma. If it does not take military action, or does so half-heartedly, it is accused of kowtowing to the religious extremists. If it raises force level, and there are civilian casualties, it is accused of human rights violations.

What is forgotten is that over the years Fata has emerged as a safe haven for militants, not just the home-grown variety but also foreigners who have penetrated this region. If the air strikes by the security forces kill civilians, the vast majority of the victims of suicide bombings by the Taliban are civilians, too (not that there is a moral equivalence between the two). In spite of the constant increase in troop level — from an initial 50,000 to nearly 100,000 now — the Taliban have not been weakened and are showing renewed vigour. The ‘deals’ said to have been negotiated with them have failed to produce results. The most serious development is that some of the security personnel seem to be succumbing to propaganda, or perhaps just criticism, that they are killing fellow Pakistanis.

Let us accept it: the Fata situation is inextricably linked to the war in Afghanistan. There can be no local Fata peace without there being normality across the Durand Line. As British Foreign Secretary Des Browne said recently the Taliban cannot be wished away. Ultimately, there has to be a broad peace agreement, whose principal characters — Islamabad and Kabul — must agree to work jointly to sort the problem out. But let this not be misinterpreted by the militants as a sign of weakness. For such an interpretation has emboldened them in the past and led to the sort of situation that exists today. It is time Islamabad probed the possibility of getting in touch with the Taliban’s moderate wing, if there is any, and developed a modus vivendi. The government has to keep its nerve in dealing firmly with the militants as it explores ways and means to move towards a negotiated settlement. Neither the carrot nor the stick will be able to deliver peace on its own.

A welcome change of heart

IN its recent 47-nation survey of public opinion on a variety of issues, the Washington-based Pew Research Centre has revealed some uplifting information vis-à-vis Pakistan. It seems that despite the atmosphere of almost suffocating religiosity that prevails in the country, the number of Pakistanis who would like to see a separation between religion and the state has gone up from 33 per cent in 2002 to 48 per cent in 2007. This is something of an anomaly — a welcome one, no doubt — when seen against the general trend. For although the overall majority opinion was for keeping religion and the state separate, many countries, both western and Muslim, have seen a decline in the number of those who are absolutely opposed to mixing the two. The United States, Britain, France, Germany and Italy have witnessed a drop in the number of people who favour the complete segregation of religion and government. Moving east, Turkey and India, the two bastions of secularism, have seen a similar reversal of opinion.

So, what is causing this change? In the case of Turkey and Pakistan, two Muslim states, one is tempted to attribute this change of heart to a reaction against state-induced pressure to uphold national ideals — secularism on the one hand and Islamic principles on the other. While the Turkish establishment has frequently come down with a heavy hand on any sign, social or political, of an Islamic revival, Pakistan has promoted religious tenets through its Constitution, its laws and policies. In other words, both countries are witnessing resistance to the state’s imposing on personal faith.

Pakistan’s situation is more complex. The war on terror and the harsh madressah version of religion have obliterated the softer tones of a more tolerant Islam that has been replaced by images of suicide attacks and news of beheadings of military personnel and ordinary civilians by the Taliban. The latter’s forays into even the settled areas is a reminder of the misplaced policies of successive governments, starting with Gen Zia’s regime, that prior to 9/11 encouraged extremist thought and activities. All this has impacted heavily on the nation’s collective psyche. Years of discriminatory laws like the Hudood Ordinances and the blasphemy laws have also stirred debate and dissent, leading people to question what Islamisation has actually achieved. They have also seen for themselves the failure of Islamist governments, like the MMA in NWFP, to bring about any positive change in socio-economic indicators, especially with regard to the continuing abysmal state of women. In these circumstances, one can only welcome the growing view to keep religion and the state separate, as it is this public mindset that will eventually prove to be an effective tool against the spread of militancy.

Implement the ordinance

AS Mental Health Day is commemorated around the world today, it is important for us to take stock of the situation in Pakistan. While we have come a long way since the Lunacy Act of 1912 was replaced by the Mental Health Ordinance in 2001 — in terms of public awareness of mental illnesses — the new law has yet to be implemented. This proves what little priority is given to health or to a law which could bring about some positive changes if enforced. Sadly, advocates pressing for its implementation have not been able to garner the necessary support needed from health administrators, which is a pity as it shows their disregard for the suffering of the mentally ill. It is highly unlikely that this government will be able to do anything about the Ordinance as all its efforts are focussed on the current political scenario, but it is still important to keep the issue alive. One way for advocates to do this is to engage political parties in a dialogue on the importance of addressing mental health issues from a legal point of view.

Of equal importance is an awareness campaign on mental illnesses. Stakeholders — like health officials in the public and private sector — have an important role to play in raising awareness on proper care needed for the mentally ill. The Pakistan Association of Mental Health has been working towards this end by setting up camps in low-income localities. But more needs to be done on an ongoing basis, especially in the rural areas where people go to quacks or faith-healers to seek treatment for the mentally ill. Because there is a shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists, general health practitioners need to be trained in identifying and dealing with mentally ill patients to ensure that no one is misdiagnosed or mistreated.

The face of rebellion everywhere

By Mahir Ali

IN a small Bolivian town called Vallegrande, somewhat to the discomfiture of the resident priest, local Catholics commonly offer prayers not only to the Lord but also to a certain Saint Ernesto. The reference is not to some revered religious figure from the distant past but to a devout atheist who blazed a revolutionary trail in the latter half of the 20th century.

It is hard to say whether Che Guevara would have been amused or repulsed by the Vallegrande variety of veneration. ‘When I go to bed and when I wake up,’ says a 27-year-old local, ‘I first pray to God and then I pray to Che — and then everything is all right. Che’s presence here is a positive force.’

In many houses, representations of Guevara are displayed next to those of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary; others feature altars built in his memory, and there is no dearth of stories about miracles that Che is believed to have facilitated.

The laundry room of a Vallegrande hospital has been turned into a shrine. This is where Guevara’s mortal remains were displayed 40 years ago after his summary execution by US-trained Bolivian troops in nearby La Higuera. There is also a massive irony in the fact that he is thus honoured in a region where his attempt to foment revolt floundered chiefly on account of the absence of local support.

The final chapter in Guevara’s brief life — he was not yet 40 when he breathed his last — was monumentally tragic. There was a variety of reasons why the lessons imbibed during the successful guerrilla war to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in Cuba could not be replicated in Bolivia.

Among other factors, the Cuban campaign was waged under the leadership of Fidel Castro, who was a well-known figure in his homeland, and his force, with one notable exception, consisted entirely of Cubans. An Argentinian doctor leading a troop of mainly Cuban fighters was unlikely to produce a comparable impact in Bolivia.

Che himself was an exemplary internationalist to whom boundaries and flags were of little significance. The first mission he undertook after deciding to leave Cuba was in the Congo, where he hoped to assist the forces purportedly intent on re-establishing the legacy of Patrice Lumumba.

Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser had warned Che against the risk of being perceived as a Tarzan figure, but that turned out to be the least of his problems: it was his disenchantment with the local leadership, particularly Laurent Kabila, that drove him out of Africa.

By then it was too late, in Guevara’s view, for him to return to a useful role in Cuba. He did go back, but only in secret, with the aim of preparing his next mission. Che hoped eventually to devote his energies to establishing socialism in Argentina. He accepted Bolivia as an interim task, little knowing that his expedition to that country would be betrayed by the local communist party, which went back on a promise to provide assistance, possibly at Moscow’s direction.

Orthodox communists in Latin America and elsewhere viewed Guevara as a reckless adventurer and spared little sympathy for his view that instead of waiting for the appropriate circumstances to arise, Marxists were duty-bound to contribute towards creating revolutionary conditions.

A trenchant critique of Soviet trade policy at a 1965 conference in Algiers had done little to endear him to the party faithful. Quite a few of them viewed his death in Bolivia as a convenient conclusion to a turbulent career.

However, by then it was too late for anyone to prevent Guevara from being transformed into an iconic harbinger of radical change. The image that immeasurably aided this process was snapped by Castro’s official photographer, Alberto Korda, on March 5, 1960, during a funeral for 80 Cuban victims of an explosion aboard a French cargo ship loaded with ammunition.

Korda noticed the head of Cuba’s national bank gazing into the distance, his handsome features reflecting wrath, sorrow and righteous indignation coupled with steely determination.

The photograph remained unpublished for many years. By 1967, however, it had made its way to Europe. One of the people reputedly responsible for its dissemination was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who had described Guevara as ‘the most complete man of his age’. It was a young Irish graphic artist called Jim Fitzpatrick who transformed it into the familiar two-tone image that became ubiquitous after Che’s martyrdom.

During the rebellion among western youth in 1968, this representation of the heroic guerrilla was borne aloft at almost every demonstration. Before long it was transformed into a universal symbol of resistance, visible from Palestine to Peru. Even so, few could have imagined at the time that its appeal would prove so enduring.

In some ways, the face of Che Guevara became a fashion statement, coopted by the very forces of capitalist commerce that the revolutionary leader sought to destroy. Yet the image has always — even when reworked by Andy Warhol and borrowed by vodka or underwear manufacturers — subliminally reflected an undercurrent of rebellion, a refusal to accept the status quo.

In recent years it has been suggested that in order to reaffirm his stature as a relentless warrior against the multifarious wrongs inflicted on society, Che ought to be rescued from the T-shirt in which he has been trapped.

It may well be the case that a sizeable proportion of those who slip into Guevara-adorned T-shirts or star-encrusted berets are only vaguely aware of what he stood for. On the other hand, let’s not forget that this method of pledging allegiance to Che’s vision is favoured even by the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, the elected presidents of Venezuela and Bolivia.

Yes, that’s right: Bolivia, the land where Guevara offered the ultimate sacrifice, now boasts a presidential palace decorated with a coca-leaf version of Korda’s iconic snapshot. Bolivia and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are both in some ways a crucial part of Che’s legacy, even though Chavez and Morales acquired powers through democratic means. This is how, in the 21st century, the spirit of Che is being kept alive.

Ideological foes are keen to equate Guevara with Osama bin Laden or with suicide bombers inspired by Islamist zeal, but such comparisons are odious not only because Che was fundamentally averse to the idea of taking innocent lives, but also because his idealistic vision of a hard-working, non-exploitative society bears no resemblance to the deleterious goal of a Sharia-governed caliphate.

Three decades or so ago, I was impressed by biographer Andrew Sinclair’s description of Che as someone who dedicated his ‘life and death to the poorest of men without help from God’.

More recently I encountered Guevara’s response, in 1964, to a letter he received from Maria Rosario Guevara, a Spanish woman who wondered whether they might be cousins. ‘I don’t think you and I are very closely related,’ he replied, ‘but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades, and that is more important.’

Now there’s an emotion that deserves a resounding Amen from believers and non-believers alike.

The writer is a journalist based in Sydney

Tortured logic, tortured result

American Press : Miami Herald

CRITICS cheered when the Bush administration did an about-face and disavowed torture as a government-sanctioned policy… reports now indicate that while the administration was paying lip service to the idea of abiding by anti-torture statutes, it was doing something else behind the scenes. First, it jettisoned officials in the Department of Justice who didn’t agree with it. Then the administration welcomed a new lawyer to head the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven G. Bradbury, who was happy to comply with the wishes of his superiors. Under the tenure of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Mr Bradbury wrote two new secret memos that gave superiors what they wanted — a way around the law.

The 2005 Detainee Treatment Act championed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., outlawed “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners in US custody anywhere in the world. Never mind, said Mr Bradbury.

Congress rightly has opted for the higher standard, but to no avail. Given the president’s penchant for “’signing statements” that undermine the very laws he signs, this is not the first time he has appeared to thwart the will of Congress… — (Oct 8)

Can I put you on hold?

American Press : The New York Times

AT least one credit card company is hoping to turn the cellphone, which is already an electronic Swiss Army knife, into a substitute for credit cards, allowing you to buy items simply by waving your phone at an electronic reader. This is part of the continuing evolution of “mobile payment”, a phrase that can’t help but make you wonder what exactly was immobile about cash…

The idea of a credit phone was inevitable… It is hard to escape the impression that if retailers could they would find some way to hook up directly to the pre-rational brain …a part of the brain to which, for many of us, our cellphones have constant access. In a way, it is hard to believe that buying on impulse could be made any easier than it already is. But the credit-phone would do away with even the vestigial delay caused by having to get your card out of your wallet.

Imagine a society in which there are no impediments to the gratification of any consumer desire, where impulse, not restraint, is the higher law. And the plot of that novel? It would work out what human nature really looks like — and whether it is really human nature at all — when the only restraints on consumption are self-imposed. It would be a good book, and you could buy it with a swipe of your phone. — (Oct 7)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007


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