Belated but welcome
JUST when most political commentators were prepared to write off President Bush, convinced that he was more handicapped than most traditional ‘lame duck’ American presidents, he decided to focus on the Palestinian problem from which he had stayed away all these years.
What may have prompted Bush to take on an issue considered so very intractable and fraught with risks? One was the realisation that without a settlement of this long-festering dispute, there could be no peace in a strategic region; and two, that failure to resolve this issue was making it extremely difficult for America’s allies to support Washington’s goals, including the desire to forge a coalition against Iran, which was the other important objective of this trip. The issue of ‘legacy’ may also have influenced the President’s thinking.
But even this minimal involvement came about only after strenuous efforts by moderates, led by Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates, who were convinced that Israel, confident in the knowledge of unflinching US support, was refusing to countenance policy changes essential for its own good, as well as that of the US. It was also their fear that American failure to promote the peace process was discrediting the pro-US regimes, which were seen as complicit in the Administration’s alleged crusade against the Muslim world.
The first tangible evidence of this change was last November’s Conference on the Middle East in Annapolis. Though it failed to meet with initial expectations, it was a step in the right direction, especially when under Rice’s skilful stewardship the conference produced an agreement under which the Israeli and Palestinian leaders committed themselves to negotiate a peace treaty by the end of 2008. Though the final communiqué stopped short of the expected binding agreement, it did revive a peace process abandoned by the US for far too long.
More importantly, Bush pledged that the US would ‘monitor and judge the fulfilment of the commitment of both sides’, declaring that ‘we met to lay the foundations for the establishment of a new nation, a democratic Palestinian state that will live side by side with Israel in peace and security’.
It was against this background that Bush decided to undertake a trip to the region, beginning with his first ever visit to Israel. Understandably, it aroused both interest and expectation, for it represented a welcome stepping-up of the Administration’s involvement in the Palestinian issue. This prompted Carter’s National Security Adviser Brzezinski to characterise it as a trip ‘that may determine how history judges Bush’s legacy’. Was the initiative taken to improve Bush’s historic standing, or was it a genuine effort to bring an end to the long suffering of the Palestinians?
It may well have been both, becauseseity or was it a sincere effort to bring an end to the six observers had warned that Bush had shied away from a responsibility that was both a strategic and moral imperative for the US.
In fact, Bush’s foreign policy is seen as having undermined America’s global legitimacy and therefore its moral standing. It is not only the invasion of Iraq but his attitude to international laws and obligations that has called into question America’s leadership and therefore, if the Bush Administration’s current initiative is serious and meaningful, it will help restore some of its standing.
In remarks in Tel Aviv, Bush sketched the outlines of the deal that he envisages: Israel will have to stop settlement expansions, the Palestinians will have to dismantle terror infrastructure. The 1967 border will have to be modified by mutual concessions and an international mechanism will have to be found to deal with the refugee issue. On the most sensitive issue of Jerusalem, Bush simply said that the two sides will have to work it out.
When leaving Israel, Bush challenged the sceptics by reiterating that a peace treaty would be signed before he leaves office, though neither Olmert nor the beleaguered Mahmoud Abbas offered any concessions. Israeli officials also made it clear that they were not pleased with Bush urging an end to what he characterised as ‘occupation’ of the West Bank, even though Bush also pressed Abbas to rein in the militants, particularly those in Gaza. He called on both sides to make the difficult choices ‘to enable the long overdue’ creation of a Palestinian state, adding that he intended to return to the region to push the peace process forward.
The critics however warn that mere symbolism and empty rhetoric will not suffice to move this process forward. Both parties have demonstrated their inability to resolve the differences by themselves, for neither appears prepared to make the tough choices essential for lasting peace. It is therefore inevitable that this responsibility fall on the shoulders of the US, which alone has the clout and credibility to make the rivals accept painful compromises, provided it is ready to present a serious and just framework for enduring peace in the region.It will however not be easy even with the best of intentions. The hard fact is that the current Israeli government is not only a weak coalition, but includes the racist party of Avigdar Lieberman, which advocates the expulsion of the Palestinians. And, Prime Minister Olmert is under investigation for criminal transgressions and therefore hardly in a position to make major compromises. The Israelis are also confident that no US administration and certainly not Bush, who has staunchly defended its most atrocious policies, including the building of a massive illegal wall, will contemplate applying any pressure on it. Moreover, the US has worked hand in glove with Tel Aviv to discredit the democratically elected government of Palestine and instead resurrected the discredited Mahmoud Abbas, as a straw man to circumvent the elected government, which has been confined to Gaza.
Bush’s initiative, even though belated should nevertheless, be appreciated. If the effort is serious, it can promote peace and stability in the Middle East and also raise the credibility of America’s friends in the region. By declaring publicly that the Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own and by characterising Israel’s control over the West Bank as military occupation, he has already demonstrated courage.
The crux of the problem lies, however, in convincing Israel to agree to any agreement, whether it is the Annapolis Agreement or any of the dozen or so that gather dust in the UN archives. The much lauded 1993 Declaration of Principles signed in Washington by Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin envisaged a final settlement by April 1999.
Even the road map, prepared by the Quartet and unveiled by Bush in April 2003 died soon thereafter, under Ariel Sharon’s disregard for its provisions. It is also ironic that in the first phase of the road map that Bush has offered, the Palestinians are expected to build the institutions of a responsible state. But at the same time, Israel, with support and endorsement of the US is either physically destroying them or undermining the democratic process by taking sides in the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas.
The prospect for genuine reconciliation between these two rightful claimants of this ancient land remains remote and therefore lasting peace, most tragically, is likely to elude them for many more years.
Letters to the outside world
IT is bitterly cold here in Peshawar. There is load-shedding of electricity (I just lost this first page and we now have had to resort to the generator). Gas is also in short supply.
So far I have been fairly lucky with the latter, but out in Janus’ (my personal assistant) village, there is only electricity for a few hours every day; no gas, except small dangerous gas cylinders, and very little firewood. His eight-month-old baby has pneumonia.
In the bazaars, there is a shortage of flour. Huge crowds are seen hovering around government subsidised utility stores in the hope of buying some.
Up in Chitral, where they just had three feet of snow, there is no electricity at all as the storms have blown down the power lines.
My driver, Afzal, was trapped in Birir valley and finally had to walk out leaving our vehicle there until such time the road crew can clear the jeep track.
The people are grumbling because the airport officials have done nothing about clearing the runway of snow and there have been no flights in days. I have been waiting for project receipts, which are hopefully in the post.
Here in Peshawar, I am again engaged in writing Letters from Pakistan, addressed to friends and acquaintances abroad and members of our charity Hindu Kush Conservation Association, which runs the infrastructure of our NGO and medical project; some members of which also belong to other organisations in Pakistan. Immediately after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, as after 9/11, the emails came, asking all sorts of questions.
This one from a couple in France, who had lived in Peshawar and had worked for a de-mining outfit in Afghanistan, was typical: “We had quite a shock with the news from Pakistan. What will happen now? Your observations on the above would be most welcome.”
After I sent out the first Newsletter, I received considerable feedback.
Several were critical of Benazir’s arrogance as they saw it, with the harshest words coming from a friend in New York: “There is no cure for stupidity. Why ride in a bulletproof car only to stick your head outside?”
From Japan, a friend wrote: “Even here in Japan, I have seen many times the last moment of Benazir on TV. The people think Pakistan is getting more and more dangerous. My parents and many friends oppose my coming back to Pakistan.”
Fortunately, friends here, like myself, had either called her or emailed and had told her life went on ‘normally’. Someone else wrote to my trustees. “How lovely to get an objective report. Similar thing happened on numerous occasions in the Northern Ireland years. Thank you…”
One lady, a trustee herself of an animal welfare organisation here wrote: “So many thanks for this (Newsletter). All of us are naturally very concerned about the situation and I appreciate enormously that you included me. I shall forward it on to the other trustees. We have only had a brief message from Pakistan…I would be grateful if you would keep me posted.”
As after 9/11, it had been only days before I heard someone say ‘Pakistan is burning!’ In 2001, people were out in the streets, but not all was as it seemed nor what was published in the foreign press. Supposedly, the going rate at that time for burning the American flag was a thousand rupees.
On a visit to the Pearl Continental, I had been staggered to see the hotel absolutely besieged. There were so many would-be customers that the joke was that closets were being rented out for two hundred dollars. Some of these journalists, many still wet behind the ears, resplendent in their mujahideen outfits, hardly knew where Afghanistan was on the map and knew nothing about Pakistan.
There were numerous TV crews from all over the world. One European group had landed on my doorstep. I had a fascinating day taking them round the Old City. Everywhere people greeted us with friendliness and offers of hospitality.
On the present occasion, I have been amazed at the news coverge in the English language papers. When I first came to Pakistan in Zia’s time, such coverage was not possible.
Like most people, I was horrified by Bhutto’s assassination and its aftermath. It seemed like everyone who had ever met Benazir, gone to school with her, had interviewed her, wrote her obituary. Likewise in the UK, according to a journalist friend of mine.
Amateur sleuths gave their versions of what happened, who was responsible and so forth. To quote an overused expression, the mind simply boggled at all the information pouring forth from the ‘experts’. Surely, when a family suffers a tragedy, all the members should pull together. Outside interference, whether in the form of sensational journalism or in the visits of politicians from abroad, is surely not going to be welcome by those who care about the sanctity of the family.
Polls boycott in Balochistan
FOLLOWING the All Parties Democratic Movement’s (APDM) decision, Baloch and Pushtoon nationalist parties are boycotting the upcoming elections in Balochistan. No doubt, the majority of the moderate, literate and student groups in Balochistan are affiliated with the boycotting parties.
The core issue is not the election boycott, but the serious detachment of the nationalist parties from mainstream politics and the poll process. This is alarming.
The main reason for their boycott of the poll is the military operations unleashed by the federal government which led to killings, arrests and brutalities in Balochistan. Their boycott will certainly give the government an opportunity to re-install a pro-military religious government in the province to continue its unpopular policies.
The four major nationalist parties that are boycotting the polls are the Balochistan National Party (BNP), Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, National Party (NP) and Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP). These parties believe that the ‘boycott weapon’ might prove to be effective against dictatorship and autocracy.
They believe that the on-going military operation had worsened the situation in Balochistan which had taken a critical turn after the assassination of Baloch nationalist leaders Akbar Khan Bugti and Balach Marri. Also disturbing is the arrest of thousands of Baloch political activists, including Sardar Akhter Mengal, who are being tortured while others have disappeared.
This is not the first time that people in Balochistan are boycotting elections. In 1977 the political parties in the province had boycotted the polls under the umbrella of the PNA because of the military operation and the detention of a majority of Baloch leaders.
In the 1970 elections, when intelligence agencies were not involved in ‘election management’, the moderate Baloch nationalists won three out of four National Assembly seats and eight out of twenty in the provincial assembly. Although five members were elected as independent candidates the majority was supported by the nationalists. JUI was able to win only two seats in the 1970 elections in Balochistan. The Pakistan People’s Party did well in Punjab and Sindh but failed to win a single national and provincial seat in Balochistan.
In 1988, Baloch nationalists won the majority seats in Baloch populated constituencies. JUI and other parties managed to win seats from Pushtoon dominated areas of the province. Nawab Akbar Bugti was appointed chief minister. His unpleasant relations with Benazir Bhutto-led central government made it difficult to initiate a mega economic activity in the province to uplift the socio-economic condition of impoverished masses.
In 1990, once again Nawab Bugti’s JWP and other Baloch nationalists won a majority in the province but were prevented by the intelligence agencies from forming a government. In 1993, Baloch nationalists suffered heavy election losses due to election manipulations by the agencies and some internal fractions.
In 1997, BNP formed by veteran Baloch nationalist Sardar Attaullah Mengal secured quite a reasonable number of seats in the Balochistan Assembly and formed a coalition government in the province. But soon after the May 1998 nuclear tests and the BNP’s opposition to them led to the dismissal of Akhter Mengal’s government.
In the 2002 elections, General Musharraf successfully sidelined the Baloch nationalists and paved the way for pro-Taliban MMA elements. The systematic exclusion of Baloch moderate parties resulted in political violence and the intensification of the tensions between Islamabad and Balochistan. The 2008 elections will further alienate the moderate Baloch and Pakhtoon political forces from the centre.
With Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti eliminated and the BNP president Sardar Akhter Mengal incarcerated, any political engagement with the Baloch is difficult. Selfish religious elements will dominate Balochistan’s election scene and can be expected to form the future government in the province.
In its report of July 2007, Elections, Democracy and Stability in Pakistan, the International Crisis Group expressed concern about Islamabad’s support towards religious groups in Balochistan. It argued, “Now, as before, Musharraf has little choice but to support the Islamist parties to counter his moderate opposition. The pro-Taliban JUI’s help is essential to him, particularly in Balochistan, where the staunchly anti-military Baloch nationalist parties would likely win a free and fair poll. In the national parliament too, Musharraf would need the Islamists’ support to get renewed approval of his dual hats.
“If the Islamist parties gain five more years of power in Balochistan and NWFP, their militant allies – Pakistani, Afghan and transnational – will benefit, and the moderate parties, which still retain the support of the vast majority of the population, will lose.”
Baloch parties have also raised their concerns about the central and provincial caretaker governments and described them as biased and alleged that a ‘master plan’ had been prepared to rig the elections. It seems that the ‘brothers and sisters’ of caretaker ministers in the province will ‘win’ the elections. They claim that free and fair general elections are not possible when 23 out of 28 district nazims belong to the PML-Q, JUI-F and the pro-government BNP. There is visible evidence that close relatives of provincial caretaker cabinet members are contesting the polls from several constituencies and are likely to get elected thanks to the profound influence exercised by the provincial administration.
The APDM leaders are holding rallies to convince the masses as to how could free, fair and transparent elections take place in a country where political parties are prohibited from campaigning freely in an atmosphere of intimidation induced by the military and where top Baloch representatives have been persecuted on ethnic basis. They have been jailed for years without any transparent judicial trials. Political activists have been detained for months under the pretext of maintenance of public order.
Although, the government seems determined to hold elections in the province, the turn-out in the province will be low and the legitimacy of the polls will remain questionable. In future, any provincial government in this volatile province would not be in a position to function and deliver, as it will lack a mandate from the people. The nationalist parties enjoy very strong mass support and they can paralyse the provincial government when they want.
The writer is a member of the Senate.
|© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008|