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DAWN - Editorial; October 24, 2007

October 24, 2007

The common enemy

THE reiteration of commitment by India and Pakistan on Monday to working together to curb terrorism in their countries is welcome. The foreign ministry officials from the two sides meeting in New Delhi reported progress on the anti-terrorism mechanism set up last year by President Musharraf and Prime Minister Singh when they had met in Havana, Cuba. The officials reviewed and exchanged intelligence on the acts of terrorism that have since taken place in India and Pakistan, and decided to meet again for a next round of talks in Islamabad in a few months’ time. This, too, is reassuring, given the history of sensitivities involved, especially on the part of India. The mechanism seems to be working in that instead of blaming each other for acts of terrorism taking place in one country or the other, New Delhi and Islamabad have at long last risen to the occasion, agreeing to fight off the common enemy.

Whether it was the February bombing of the Lahore-bound Samjhota Express in India or subsequent attacks on shrines and entertainment venues there, Indian authorities have traced them to terrorist organisations out to rock the ongoing peace process between the two countries. It is hardly a moot point now that terrorist groups responsible for such attacks, whether they are based in Pakistan or India, have cross-border linkages. The acknowledgement of the fact by the two sides has taken a long time in coming, for which lack of mutual confidence could be cited as a plausible reason. Now that this hurdle has been crossed, it is time to frankly exchange intelligence information that can lead to the busting of terrorist rings which may not be operating under one umbrella organisation. Radical Islamists as well as Hindu extremists may represent two opposing sides of the spectrum, but when it comes to derailing the peace process between India and Pakistan both seem to have a cause to live and die for.

The masterminds of any given acts of terrorism may be physically present in one country or the other, the fact is that they can readily find collaborators in the targeted country. It is such multiple nexuses that need to be identified and busted before either side can hope to bring the perpetrators of death and destruction to justice. Hence the need to sit across the table, take stock of the situation and discuss ways and means to prevent such attacks in the future. The restraint and the maturity shown by leaders of India and Pakistan in recent months by avoiding to blame each other in the aftermath of terrorist assaults that have taken place in both countries will help further the confidence that is needed for the composite India-Pakistan dialogue to advance.

Defiant postures are no good

WHILE a direct or sponsored attack by the US on Iran’s nuclear assets may not appear as likely as it did until recently, hawkish statements and actions by the governments of both countries continue to add to current tensions. Recently, President Bush said that in order to avoid a third world war, Iran should be prevented from learning how to build nuclear weapons. Not to be left behind, Vice-President Dick Cheney warned Iran of ‘serious consequences’ on Sunday, saying that the global community could not ‘stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfils its grandest ambitions’. While the White House has sought to play down tensions by stating that a diplomatic solution was the preferred option, a change of nuclear guard in Iran is bound to deepen the rift between the two countries. At the time of writing, Iran’s new atomic negotiator, Saeed Jalili, was to hold talks in Rome with the EU on the nuclear issue. Mr Jalili has replaced Ali Larijani, who, though unwilling to comply with western demands of halting Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities, is nevertheless regarded as somewhat more moderate. In contrast, Mr Jalili is known to share President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hawkish views, and his appointment as Tehran’s chief atomic negotiator has sent out negative signals to the West. In this atmosphere of distrust and growing political uncertainty in the Middle East, such rash decisions by Iran and threatening postures by the Americans can only increase the chances of conflict.

It is unfortunate that the US is not being realistic about Iran’s intentions — which surely are not to target American interests through a nuclear strike, given its engagement with major players like China and Russia, an important restraining factor. Moreover, Tehran has shown that it is willing to soften its approach to the West as seen during the episode of the 15 British sailors, captured and subsequently released by Iran some months ago. The International Atomic Energy Agency, too, has sought to dispel fears by saying that Iran is at least three to eight years away from developing atomic weapons and that it did not pose an immediate threat. American aggression is only hardening Iran’s defiant stance and, despite domestic doubts over Mr Jalili’s appointment, is boosting hardline opinion in that country. For its part, Iran’s leadership has shown a lack of maturity in dragging its feet over opening up all its nuclear facilities to IAEA inspection and delaying explanations on the discovery of bomb-grade nuclear material. Iran, although allowed under the NPT to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, has a responsibility to the world to clearly show that its intentions are not mala fide and that it does not harbour any designs that could imperil the international community.

Quake survivors still homeless

IT seemed rather insensitive for Erra’s deputy chairperson to tell quake survivors in Swanj and Dheerkot in AJK on Sunday to finish building houses by the year-end. It implied that they were resisting the idea or were lagging behind in meeting their deadlines when it is known that the authorities have been slow to deliver on their promises of reconstruction and rehabilitation. This is not to place the entire blame on Erra but two years after the destruction displaced millions of people, it is not encouraging to hear that only 92,000 homes have been completely rebuilt while 250,000 are nearly complete. One can understand if people in the villages took slight at his statement, even if that was not his intent. It is, however, indicative of a general attitude towards quake survivors, whose complaints towards authorities’ attitudes and efforts towards their rehabilitation continue. Take the still contentious issue of compensation where survivors speak of discrimination. If one family received Rs25,000 for its destroyed home, another is said to have obtained more by paying bribes. Families are expected to build a home in Rs175,000 and this is proving difficult, especially in higher altitude areas where it costs a lot to transport the material. These issues of discrepancies have not been addressed in earnest.

These grievances, along with reports of officials’ involvement in corruption, were reported in stories on the second anniversary of the earthquake. It is clear that thousands of families will spend a third winter homeless. This is tragic and calls for expediting efforts to ensure that compensation is handed over to all qualifying survivors in a judicious manner — and promptly — so that they can proceed with building their homes and moving on with their lives. It is equally important for the authorities to ensure that work is expedited on schools, hospitals and civic amenities which were also severely damaged, if not destroyed, during the earthquake.

Beyond the explosive homecoming

By Mahir Ali

ONE can hardly disagree with Benazir Bhutto when she argues that militant Islamists must not be allowed to determine the political agenda in Pakistan.

To a certain extent, however, they have already been doing so. The mass murder in Karachi that transformed her homecoming street party into a bloodbath is only the most recent manifestation of their ability to inflict deep and painful wounds.

Arguably the most important question before the country today is how the national agenda can be wrested back from the terrorists. It is hard to see how a tawdry cohabitation deal between Bhutto and Gen Pervez Musharraf can possibly serve as a suitable answer. Cooperation between all forces that are sincere in their desire to roll back obscurantist trends and stave off the terrorist threat is a sine qua non of progress, but it can only succeed in a truly democratic context. And that’s something that does not, for the time being, appear to be on anyone’s agenda.

Bhutto’s return to Karachi after eight years in self-imposed exile was well choreographed, although the tumultuous reception that awaited her apparently exceeded the Pakistan People’s Party’s expectations, and much of the popular enthusiasm was genuine. Sindh has always been the PPP’s primary stronghold and a robust turnout by the true believers was more or less inevitable.

Their ranks were evidently swelled, however, by those hungry for change, those who have waited in vain for palpable benefits to trickle down from the stupendous levels of economic growth that Pakistan has supposedly enjoyed in recent years. Not surprisingly, they are willing to pin their hopes on any symbol of change. Their expectations of an improved livelihood and generally better conditions under Bhutto would probably have been kindled even if she hadn’t decided to revive her father’s populist slogan of food, clothing and shelter.

Possibly out of desperation, they tend to forget that during her first two stints as prime minister, hardly any effort was made to honour such promises. Furthermore, given her reliance on foreign sponsorship, it seems the faith of the masses in Bhutto is inadequately reciprocated.

Yet, after last week’s events, there is considerable goodwill for her to build upon. The hundreds of thousands who thronged the streets of Karachi helped to restore some of her credibility, which was running particularly low in the wake of her desperation to reach a modus vivendi with the military ruler. It was further enhanced by the despicable assassination attempt. Bhutto suspects that elements in the military establishment sympathetic to the Islamist militants were behind the atrocity. That is certainly a possibility, although it’s equally likely that the militants needed no encouragement.

There are those who suggest that in the light of Musharraf’s advice and other warnings, Bhutto ought to have postponed her return. But are there any grounds for assuming that conditions would have been more propitious a few weeks — or even several months — hence? It’s not as if efforts to defang the militants and the terrorists are on the verge of success; in some parts of the northern territories, for instance, the self-proclaimed Taliban are seemingly able to kidnap government troops at will.

In the circumstances, it was arguably brave rather than foolhardy of Bhutto to opt for the role of homecoming queen. This is a trait that she has undoubtedly demonstrated before, particularly during the years of victimisation under Gen Ziaul Haq. It does not necessarily follow, however, that the good of the nation was paramount in her mind, notwithstanding all the rhetoric about democracy and social justice. It is easy to contrast Bhutto’s return from exile this time around with her arrival in 1986, given that there is no counterpart to her ‘Zia jaawey ee jaawey’ slogan of 21 years ago — even though, in posters that portray him with medals, sash and a middle parting, Musharraf bears a striking resemblance to Zia.

But it’s equally pertinent to remember that after the PPP emerged as the largest single party in the 1988 elections — despite the best efforts of Inter-Services Intelligence to thwart Bhutto’s party — the assumption of power entailed a compromise with the military-bureaucratic establishment whereby Ghulam Ishaq Khan retained his presidential post as Zia’s automatic successor and Sahibzada Yaqub Khan remained the foreign minister.

A similar arrangement is evidently being contemplated for 2008, with the army effectively retaining control not only of the presidency, but also of security and foreign affairs. So much for democracy.

It is also worth recalling that this is not the first time Bhutto has relied chiefly on external assistance. Washington was, for her, a crucial port of call even in the 1980s. This time, the process of coming in from the cold began with a conversation in 2004 with Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, and Musharraf’s first conciliatory message to Bhutto was reportedly conveyed by the British high commissioner in Islamabad.

Lately, Condoleezza Rice has been doing her bit for the Bhutto cause. London and Washington have attempted to play down their role, but the level of micromanagement is illustrated by the manner in which diplomats leaned on Altaf Hussain in an effort to prevent his Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz from stirring up trouble in Karachi.

If they feared a repeat of the carnage of May 12, we now know that much worse lay in store, and chances are it emanated from parts of the body politic that US and British representatives can’t reach. It is interesting to note that in commenting on last week’s bomb blasts, the State Department deemed it necessary to point out that Musharraf, too, had condemned them. It would have been considerably more useful if it had acknowledged, instead, the crucial role that the US has played in spurring Islamic extremism in Pakistan since the late 1970s.

It has, of course, had plenty of local assistance. And the disinclination towards an honest appraisal of the recent past is by no means exclusively an American affliction. Bhutto, not surprisingly, is assiduously avoiding references to her two abysmal stints in power.

Musharraf is not keen to revisit his categorical statements against her and Sharif, nor the period when he was straining at the leash in his eagerness to mount provocations against India on the Kashmir front. Neither of them is prepared to reflect on their respective roles in ushering the Taliban into Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, when Bhutto was prime minister and Musharraf was director of military operations.

A willingness to be more open about the past would help to build confidence that some lessons, at least, have been learned from the more egregious follies of yesteryear. As things stand, whatever happens over the next couple of months, a Pakistan in which faith returns to the personal sphere, the army goes back to the barracks, politicians are no longer obsessed with what the country can do for them, and the dominant superpower plays a role as a friend rather than as a master will remain a mirage.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon all hope. But it does point towards a need to be considerably more wary of self-proclaimed saviours, regardless of whether they are attired in khaki or in green.

The writer is a journalist based in Sydney.

OTHER VOICES - American Press

For-profit libraries a sad story

IT’S not much of a murder mystery because the culprit is always the same: Public libraries get killed by local government budget slashers. Among this year’s victims are the 15 libraries of Jackson County, Ore. They were shuttered in April when the county ran out of money.

But this tale has a twist: the libraries will reopen this week because the county has found a for-profit private company to run them: Library Systems and Services of Maryland. Sadly, the libraries will have fewer staff and be open for fewer hours — only 24 hours a week for the biggest branch…

A privatised library is clearly better than no library at all. But funding cuts and outsourcing recall the circumstances of early American history, when libraries were private institutions supported by members and philanthropists.

…The American Library Association has had mixed reactions to privatisation. A 2000 report said that when used carefully, ‘outsourcing has been an effective managerial tool’. But in 2001, the association adopted a policy opposing ‘the shifting of policymaking and management oversight’ from the public to the private for-profit sector. The association argues that libraries are an ‘essential public good’. — (Oct 22)

Imported wisdom

‘ONE more than before,’ the ancient text advises. In the original Sanskrit, this centuries-old wisdom wasn’t meant as a fast track into the global economy. But for a new generation of Indian technology students, these formulas based on Hindu scriptures offer remarkable shortcuts for success in math. It makes sense for Houston schoolchildren to adopt some of these habits and learning techniques that make many Indians such good mathematicians.

According to a story by Chronicle writer Purva Patel, a local Indian-American businessman, Rajesh Parikh, has founded a tutoring school that teaches so-called “Vedic math” — traditional formulas that make computing problems from basic math to algebra and differential equations almost magically simple.

The math school’s growing success reflects Houston students’ increased use of tutoring programmes and, of course, the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. But it also shows how the traditions of Houston’s immigrants are among the city’s greatest assets.

Recently, starting with a Florida franchise, more American students are learning Vedic Math.

In the quest to keep youngsters in school and competitive with their often better-prepared peers in Asia, Houston-area schools should explore using the ancient techniques of Vedic math… — (Oct 21)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007