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DAWN - Editorial; July 10, 2008

July 10, 2008


Fall of the rupee

INFLATION is bad because it spikes prices of essentials and makes the people lose confidence in their currency. That is exactly what has been happening in this country for some months now — prices are climbing across the board, and public trust in the currency and economy is declining. The rupee, which lost 6.6 per cent of its value in the first eight days of the new fiscal to sink to just below 74 to a dollar on Tuesday, required yet another series of ‘stabilisation measures’ from the State Bank of Pakistan to recover some lost ground. These measures have temporarily suspended the forward cover facility against imports and halved advance payments for imports to 25 per cent from the existing 50 per cent of the FoB or CFR value of goods. In addition, all oil import payments will now be made through the SBP itself and the timings for foreign exchange transactions have been reduced. Exchange companies (including A and B category) will be required to take prior approval from the SBP for all transactions of $50,000 and above on account of outward remittances or sale of foreign currencies.

The SBP has again pledged its continued support to the rupee to ‘ensure exchange rate stability’. That is what a central bank is supposed to do when the currency is in trouble. But will the latest market stabilisation measures ensure long-term exchange rate stability? There is little evidence from the past to support such an assumption. A similar series of stabilisation measures launched by the SBP earlier in May to arrest the free fall of the rupee did bring stability to the exchange rate for some time. The latest measures too seem to have begun working. But the SBP’s intervention in the foreign exchange market is unlikely to prove to be an enduring solution to the problem. The currency slippages point in one direction: deteriorating economic fundamentals, soaring inflation, lingering political instability and the growing spectre of terrorism. These are areas where the government needs to bring about real improvement. The 18.9 per cent devaluation of the rupee since Jan 1, despite SBP interventions to stabilise the exchange rate, also underlines the necessity of tackling basic economic and political issues. Unless public perception of the country’s economic conditions is improved and investors’ concerns about political uncertainty are allayed, no market stabilisation measures will work for very long.

A distorted history

ROYAL historians and chroniclers bankrolled by despots must necessarily be biased in favour of their patrons. History gets distorted as a result, with some authority figures glorified and others relegated to the dustbin, sins omitted from the official record and achievements either invented or blown out of all proportion. Little wonder then that no objective account exists of the history of Pakistan, a country that has been ruled either by military dictators or authoritarian civilians who conflated personal with collective interest. Where the national interest really lies is in truth but that has been a casualty from day one. And that, as eminent historian Dr Mubarak Ali again pointed out recently, is why we have failed to learn from past mistakes. Dr Ali stressed that “any system based on oppression, coercion and authoritarianism [is] the first problem in the way of writing history”. Pakistan’s history has been dictated, he said, by politics and the personal ideologies of autocratic rulers. Dr Ali also reiterated his call for history to be analysed and rewritten from the perspective of the masses instead of the viewpoint of rulers. This bottom-up approach will be no easy task though because of the natural paucity of source material on social history. Political history as shaped by the elite, plagued though it may be by problems of veracity, is at least well chronicled.

Our ‘official’ history is riddled with prejudice, inconsistencies and huge knowledge gaps, so much so that there was a time when school textbooks made no mention of the break-up of Pakistan. Even today they offer no detailed account of the causes that led to the creation of Bangladesh — the cultural, political and economic marginalisation of the Bengali people or the atrocities committed in the eastern wing by the Pakistan Army. In the early years of Pakistan, history was often written from an anti-Hindu perspective (a biographer hired by the state to record the life and times of the father of the nation was even led into misquoting Mr Jinnah’s famous Aug 11, 1947 speech to the Constituent Assembly) while political Islam and religious duty assumed prominence in the ‘dictation’ seen in the Zia era. A confused sense of identity, or “historical and intellectual dishonesty” as Dr Ali calls it, is also part of the problem. For many the history of what is now Pakistan seems to begin not with the Indus Valley civilisation but the subjugation of Sindh by an Arab invader, Mohammad bin Qasim. An attempt has also been made to place our cultural roots in Central Asia or the Middle East instead of South Asia and this link, sadly and erroneously, is now widely accepted as fact. Independent research free of official bias is needed to correct these and other more recent distortions of history. Otherwise we may never know where we once stood or where we are now heading.

Kabul’s indecent haste

EVEN while the air was still thick with the smell of explosives at the Indian embassy building, Kabul came up with the charge that Pakistan was involved in the attack that killed nearly 40 people, including the Indian military attaché and the political counsellor. The Afghan authorities did not bother to order an inquiry and wait for its findings before blurting out allegations that are only too familiar to us. Let us remember that each time an assassination attempt was made on President Hamid Karzai his government pointed the finger at Islamabad. The last time this happened was on April 28. It is instructive to note that New Delhi itself has not yet blamed Islamabad for Monday’s attack on its embassy, even though India is the aggrieved party and has lost five personnel. But it was ‘brother’ Karzai who rang up Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to say that the attack had been carried out by the ‘enemies’ of good relations between Afghanistan and India.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have a job to do — to combat terror. The Taliban are their common enemy, for the latter are waging war on the two states and targeting not only government personalities and security personnel but also civilians. Because of the presence of the US-led forces in Afghanistan and the kind of situation that exists on both sides of the Durand Line, what is needed is an effort to step up coordination and reduce areas of friction and misunderstanding rather than contribute to tension with wild allegations that play into the Taliban’s hands. In the wake of last month’s attack on Pakistani security personnel in the Mohmand area, it was decided to activate the tripartite commission. The authorities in Kabul should have taken up the matter with the commission and later raised the issue with Islamabad instead of going public with unsubstantiated allegations. One hopes the attack on the embassy will be investigated and the findings shared with Pakistan.

OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

Need to act, now

The Jordan Times

The G-8 summit in Japan had a lot on its agenda this time. While climate change takes central place, there are other competing issues that the leaders of the eight big industrial nations had to address.

…[t]he host country, Japan, wants an agreement to reduce greenhouse gases up to 50 per cent by 2050. This is an ambitious goal, but necessary to save the planet from the dire consequences of global warming. Equally pressing were the issues of food crisis, soaring fuel prices, the sinking US dollar and tensions over Iran’s standoff with the West because of its nuclear programme.

There must be something the developed countries can do to stem the tide of soaring fuel prices and the accompanying food crisis. Feeding people is more important than filling car tanks.

This goal requires national and international legislation. These countries can put a ceiling on oil prices, beyond which oil will not be purchased from any source. What is needed… is an international mechanism that will determine oil prices in a fair and reasonable manner, and impose it on the international market. A temporary freeze on oil imports would send a signal to oil-producing countries and speculators that the international community no longer tolerates a one-sided imposition of prices…. — (July 7)

Obama for Mideast

Khaleej Times

For the Democrats as a whole, the strains of the Hillary-Obama race seem to have delayed realisation of polls indicating far better Republican fortunes than only a few months ago. Obama’s initiative from here will be a good reflection on his credentials as a leader in demanding circumstances. The decisions he takes now will have a pronounced bearing, in one way or another, on the Middle East more than any other region in the world.

His immediate response seems spirited and well thought out. Offsetting his losses on one side of the board, he has apparently decided to gamble on the other, leveraging his excess dollars for aggressive campaigning deep in the Republican South, an area yet to require Republican campaigning because of the strong bond with the party. The key battleground is North Carolina, last taken by the Democrats in ‘76 by Carter…That an African-American Democratic Party nominee’s fortunes there in the next few days can mean a paradigm shift in Middle East realities is one of the most intricate features of present day sole-superpower international politics.

Obama’s coming to the fore is likely to influence events and policies inside as well as outside America, whereas McCain has promised ‘more of the same’…. — (July 5)

Swat: dangers of Talibanisation

By Zeenia Satti

ALTHOUGH Islam encompasses a diversity of racial and cultural identities, the centrality of the Kaaba in the lives of the Muslims can be (and historically has been) politically translated into a bond that transcends the differences.

In order to pre-empt the militarisation of this bond in a region-wide reaction to US invasions in pursuit of energy resources, the neocons are pursuing a strategy of destroying the military strength of each Islamic state in possession of such strength.

Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Pakistan are such states. Pakistan would have been targeted regardless of nukes, though nukes intensify the agenda. Through Afghanistan and Iraq, their neighbours too are being destabilised. While Turkey dealt with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) issue expeditiously, Pakistan is fast becoming an example of successful brinkmanship contrived in Fata.

The June 11 attack on the Frontier Corps (FC) post in Mohmand Agency is a strike at the heart of Pakistan military’s discipline. A military, in which the high command toes the line of a force that intentionally kills the former’s soldiers, breeds mutiny instead of order. It would have been in GHQ’s interest to declare the June 11 strike a misunderstanding. The Pakistan high command’s statement that it was intentional reveals their inability to comprehend the complexities of the issues they are faced with.

While on the one hand the neocons hoped the moral Disney show would elicit European sponsorship of their wars, India and Israel’s collaboration is sought due to the convergence of the latter’s regional political objectives with that of the US. Israel’s peace pursuit with Syria is mere short-term expediency and would not last beyond the former’s showdown with Iran. India’s accusation that Bangladesh is a hotbed of Islamic terrorism is an example of this convergence wherein latent political objectives are pursued through whipping the pan-national bogey of terrorism.

The Islamic state’s collective might vis-à-vis that of their assailants is paltry. The Middle East is currently at a juncture in which pan-Islamism will only up the ante for Islamic states. While this is so at the level of the state, at the level of society the opposite is true, as Iraqi and Afghani insurgencies demonstrate. (This is why the American intelligentsia detests Bush’s policies; they are too bloody for both the invader and the invaded). The strategic imperatives of the current danger require each Islamic state to tend to its boundaries, pursuing progressive, peaceful policies within, akin to the Gandhian nonviolence that delegitimises occupation. What may originally have been a hoax (of Islamic militancy) is being currently provoked by the US into a real menace.

The US excesses in Iraq, Afghanistan and publicising of Abu Gharaib horrors may be tactical manoeuvres on Pentagon’s part. These create the suicidal militancy the neocons’ appointed generals seek the international community’s support against. The spectacle of lawless gangs who use force to establish a system that denies women the right to education, destroys the world’s priceless heritage of art, systematically violates the internationally acceptable standards of human rights and threatens to take the movement across the border makes the land that presents such a spectacle a legitimate target of foreign aggression.

Why? Because the onward march of this destructive political force presents a threat to civilisation. A political mould for casting such militancy is being financed internationally. The dot com boom has been replaced by the Afghan poppy bonanza under the US aegis.

In such a milieu leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a national scale or Mullah Fazlullah on an ethnic scale, are dangerous not for their avowed enemies but for the people that harbour them. At a time when all guns of the deadly international military industrial complex are turned towards bigoted militant Muslim organisations, it is unwise to concede ones territory to such an organisation, which is what the Swat peace deal in essence amounts to.

Though Sufi Mohammad is the face of the peace deal, it is actually an indirect deal with Mullah Fazlullah. The existence of his brand of militancy in Swat, a state economically rich in mining wealth and geo-strategically perched on the intersection of a strategic route connecting Pakistan to China and Central Asia, decreasing reliance on Afghanistan, can be exploited by Washington, New Delhi and Kabul.

It is no less a cause of alarm for China. Restiveness amongst the Muslims of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region means the spread of such militancy threatens China as well. A straight road from Swat to Xinjiang, the Karakoram Highway (KKH), can be exploited by the militants for their own purposes during volatile moments. From blockades to KKH’s physical destruction jeopardising trade to its utilisation for fanning the separatist fires in Xinjiang are the risks incurred if Mullah Fazlullah’s militancy is allowed to make Swat its political home.

The intelligence agents have warned that Uzbek, Tajiks and other Al Qaeda sympathisers enjoy Mullah Fazlullah’s protection, who wants a Taliban style emirate in Swat. The Indian National Security Advisor M.K. Narayan has stated on record that an unstable Pakistan means increased problems and aggravated militancy within India, adding that infiltration and an uncertain situation across the border “crimps our drive to cut troops in Jammu and Kashmir”. Any flash in Jammu and Kashmir violence will give India the excuse to declare Swat as the culprit, just as Fata provides the US with a scapegoat.

The ordinary Swatis do not want Fazlullah’s reign of terror, as shown in ANP’s 2008 victory. A massive food crisis is looming over the regional horizon. During the crunch, many a people may be driven to stealing in desperation. If Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-i-Muhammadi’s (TNSM) version of law is allowed to prevail, Swat risks international notoriety for being the valley of people with cut hands. International bestsellers such as The Stoning Of Soraya M. have already maligned Iranian society, a sophisticated nation of poets, philosophers and Sufis.

Though the most rigorous women’s rights movement in Pakistan’s history was launched during Zia’s reign, it was the sentencing of female rape victims who could not produce witnesses for the heinous crime perpetrated upon them that defined Pakistan under Zia, even though none of the sentences were actually carried out.

The moral outrage over the Saudi courts’ decision to sentence a woman rape victim to 90 lashes because she was in a car with a man not related to her is another case in point. The blend of such notoriety and militancy renders a state the target of foreign aggression under the aegis of the ‘war on terror’. It is not in Pakistan’s interest to let the Fazlullahs of Pakistan reign over any area of Pakistan, much less the sensitive area called the Swat valley.

The writer is an energy consultant and analyst of energy geopolitics based in Washington DC.

A smoke-free island

By Kathy Marks

IT is the world’s smallest self-governing state, with a population of just 1,400 and few resources other than fish and coconuts. But the South Pacific island of Niue believes it can set an example by becoming the first country in the world to go smoke-free.

There are about 250 smokers on Niue, a speck of coral with a GDP of barely NZ$6,000, and local officials say the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses is placing a heavy strain on the health budget.

Sitaleki Finau, Niue’s director of health, is backing a bill to prohibit smoking and the sale of tobacco in public areas and private homes. The bill has been presented to parliament, but the government has not yet signed up to it. “Small countries are allowed to be ambitious,” he said. “If a small country can do this, then big countries will start thinking. Imagine what that means.”

Like many countries, Niue — which translates as “behold the coconut” — has banned smoking in government offices and public buildings. But outlawing tobacco would be a radical step — particularly on an island so relaxed that, according to one saying, the dogs chase the cats at walking pace. One village, Tuapa, has already declared itself smoke-free. Tobacco is not sold there, and villagers refrain from smoking in public and during ceremonies.

No date has been set for a vote, which could be two years away. Niue, 1,375 miles north-east of Auckland and 312 miles from Tonga, its nearest neighbour, is a former British protectorate. Britain gave it to New Zealand as a reward for the latter’s contribution to the Anglo-Boer War, but since 1974 it has been independent “in free association” with Wellington.

Those who live on the island, 100 miles square, regard it as a South Pacific paradise. Beaches are heavenly, crime is non-existent, and the plentiful seafood includes crabs so large that people walk them on leashes. The locals serenade each other on guitars while watching tropical sunsets.

— ©The Independent, London