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DAWN - Opinion; September 17, 2008

September 17, 2008


A new political party needed

By Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen

OVER the last year and a half the feisty ‘lawyers movement’ captured the imagination of the world press by challenging Musharraf’s ‘emergency’ rule and demanding the restoration of the former chief justice whom the rash president had dumped.

Now Musharraf is discarded but the former chief justice is still stuck waiting in the wings. So disgruntled protesters see their mission as half accomplished.

They are probably not being hard enough on themselves. Are we the only ones who recall that Chaudhry is the same chief justice who quietly approved Musharraf’s takeover in 1999? Not a peep at the time. Only much later did they fall out when Musharraf overstepped himself. The nature of their dispute appeared as much a personal spat as a constitutional issue.

Though there is a history of top lawyers selling themselves to dictators, many onlookers were heartened that the lawyers were suddenly performing a vital role as staunch supporters and defenders of civil society — if there is much of a civil society left in Pakistan anymore.

Once the lawyers launched their vanguard movement, all sorts of interests with varying motives and shades of opinion attached themselves to it. Together they all managed to discredit and eject Musharraf, but they were not able, or even inclined, to put up any alternative programme for the uplift of the ordinary people and of the country. If not, what was all the fuss about?

When widely hailed elections occurred earlier this year, as promised, despite Benazir’s terrible assassination, the brave lawyers’ movement simply withdrew from the fray and left it to the customary bands of much less virtuous politicians to sort out the nation’s shaky future. Our valiant legal eagles instead kept playing the single screechy note of impeachment, which happened to accord nicely with the deep-pocketed Nawaz Sharif’s personal agenda. Indeed it was an utterly obsessive vendetta. The lawyers enjoyed universal approval and acclaim for being plainly on the side of the angels for so long as they confronted nothing other than the increasingly isolated and bewildered Musharraf.

Next thing you know Asif Zardari, stalling doggedly on restoration of the chief justice because he hardly saw an advantage in it, was elected president. The People’s Lawyers Forum cheered Zardari’s election. But some disappointed lawyers have been sorely tempted to launch yet another political agitation, this time against the election of a president who many believe boasts a different array of imperfections than those displayed by Musharraf.

Such an effort, though, would entail a massive waste of energy for these commendably concerned professionals and for the masses who go along. The trouble is that only one spellbinding but meaningless item comprises the lawyers’ agenda — change the government, no matter what little difference it makes.

The situation evokes an admirably indiscreet comment that a philosophical Brazilian general made in the 1980s as his country veered from dictatorship back to democracy: “The good thing to be said for democracy is that the people will be more obedient because they will feel they have more power.” (Brazil, fortunately, has done slightly better than he foretold.)

So here is the tough plight faced by all would-be reformers each time democracy returns to Pakistan with the usual fanfare. Democracy gets reduced to a manipulative device in the hands of the reigning party or coalition leadership, who use it to line their pockets while the citizens who vote them into power get a few crumbs, if that. The history of democracy here is that ordinary people, who are not allowed near the inner circles, have never tasted the genuine political liberty needed to make a government at least somewhat responsive to their needs. No matter who rules, the people always wind up on their own.

Hence, why shouldn’t the lawyers seize the chance and form a political party along audacious reformist lines, rather than merely await the next party change in government? If the intelligentsia among the lawyers forget about lionising particular people, produce a new manifesto and start educating the public on policies needed to improve their daily lives, that project would be worth all the trouble.

The western powers, especially the US, will keep turning up obliging local leaders to look after security and economic concerns in this region. No one realistically can ignore those concerns. However, as the US awards itself permission to attack anyone it deems a terrorist anywhere on the planet, and inevitably commits horrible blunders with ‘technical precision’ only presumably ignorant citizens back home can believe, one has to wonder how any government can comply with the arrogant intentions of the Bush administration and hope to last in power.

In fact, no matter who is in power in Washington next year there will remain a danger that more civilians will be killed. Bush now plans to channel more twitchy trigger-gingered forces to Afghanistan from Iraq, forces that have proved they are no good at anything except destroying the social fabric wherever they go. Despite the self-deceiving conceit of the counter-insurgency doctrine, they always wind up murdering a lot of innocent people in the name of security.

Pakistan needs a new political party that is unwaveringly committed to social democratic goals, prodding other parties in the same direction so that their populist promises become more than words. Is it too much to ask the lawyers to start thinking along those daring lines now that the short-term objectives are nearly met? Or are the lawyers only looking after lawyers’ needs?

They should form a progressive party that attends to housing, sanitation, health and education first, which is the best possible way of tamping down any attraction that terrorist activities otherwise might exert. Such a vigorous new party won’t be tied into old boys’ networks. It will be free from the old agenda. And it can be an unhampered critical voice.

Lawyers and doctors tend to come into close contact with the masses, and can articulate and work to serve some of their needs (as well as their own), and really make a difference. How long must one continue this sad merry-go-round of venal politicians followed by arbitrary generals followed by more clueless politicians — and always with the same results?

In this lawyers’ movement are quite a few selfless leaders who disregarded any personal gain to start a risky movement. What were they ultimately angry about? Is a high-handed misuse of the law unconnected to the mistreatment of the population? If the same old democratic elitism is what one settles for, then Zardari is the rightful successor. Do nothing — but there will be nothing to complain about.

Three strikes & he’s out?

By Cyril Almeida

ASIF is batting on two strikes. Another swing and a miss, and he’s going home. The first strike was the bizarre, abortive handover of the ISI to Rehman Malik.

The second was Kayani’s rebuke the day after Asif was sworn in as president. Ostensibly Kayani’s condemnation was of the Americans, but between the lines was the real target: Asif. Get your act together, the army chief was telling his supreme commander.

Asif has stumbled badly on Afghanistan. The macho men who wanted to defy the American juggernaut on the warpath the day after 9/11 are still amongst us, still advising defiance. The day after 9/11 this was sheer foolishness. But it is no longer the day after 9/11. Seven years of the Americans in Afghanistan and reality has changed. Pick up any report on the West’s adventure in Afghanistan and you will find two things: one, US policy in Afghanistan has been a failure; two, US policy in Afghanistan will not succeed without Pakistan being on board.

In the world of realpolitik, this is known as an opportunity. So why must Asif so cravenly accept the Americans letting loose their Special Ops troops and raining down missiles in Waziristan when he can happily unleash? He had every chance at his debut press conference; instead, he bizarrely chose to speak alongside Karzai. The Afghan president is about as popular in the Pakistani Army as George W. Bush in an Al Qaeda training camp.

What is the problem in Afghanistan? In a word: Karzai. Don’t take my word for it, here’s what The New York Times had to say in an Aug 20 editorial: “Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, must rein in his government’s rampant corruption that has all but driven his people into the hands of the Taliban and criminal warlords.” What then was Asif doing at the side of a man not only discredited in the West but hated by the Pakistan Army?

Another thing: the western — read American — strategy in Afghanistan has failed. Again, don’t take my word for it. Francesc Vendrell, the EU envoy in Kabul for six years, had this to say over the weekend: “We are not destined to fail, but we are far from succeeding.” Earlier, Vendrell told Stephen Sackur of BBC’s ‘HARDtalk’: “I do leave with a sense of regret that we’ve made so many mistakes. ... we’ve got to do a hell of a lot to make things right.” In the euphemistic world of diplomacy, this is the equivalent of saying “we’re a disaster.”

Given this record of western failure why does Asif have to be so apologetic for Pakistan’s failure to help out the Americans in Afghanistan? There are 26 Nato and 14 non-Nato countries contributing troops to Isaf. Each country’s rules of engagement are so complex and dense that were the Taliban to walk right up to some Isaf troops and dance a little jig, certain countries would still not allow their soldiers to shoot. Why then must Pakistan always ‘do more’?

Perhaps if Pakistan wasn’t actually doing something about its Taliban problem — somewhere, anywhere — the supine cravenness of Asif before the Americans would be understandable. Except that we are. Bajaur and Swat are being pounded mercilessly, militants are being flushed out, leaders are being knocked off. But the Americans aren’t satisfied because Bajaur is at the northern tip of the tribal belt while they are more concerned with the southern bit. Waziristan, north and south, and the Haqqani, Hekmatyar and Nazir networks exercise the Americans. Meanwhile, 300,000 Bajauris flee the bombing and Ambassador Patterson, de facto American leader in Pakistan, announces that $50,000 has been set aside for “gas stoves, pots, utensils and plastic sheeting”. Well, fantastic. That’s less than the cost of a Hellfire missile fired from a predator. So for Asif to denounce the American forays into Pakistan wouldn’t be jingoistic nationalism — it’s common sense. For one, Asif need only imagine how much less common sense than nationalism there is in the army. For another, he has an unbelievable luxury — he can. Everyone knows the Americans can’t really afford to be on the wrong side of Pakistan. Jack Straw and the French have already distanced themselves from the strikes inside Pakistan. Here’s more from that NYT editorial, with the alarmist headline ‘Afghanistan on Fire’: “Sending American troops or warplanes into Pakistani territory will only feed anti-American furies. That should be the job of Pakistan’s army, with intelligence help and carefully monitored financial support from the United States.” If all these important — western — folk think American Special Ops running around Pakistan and blowing up the place is such a bad idea, why must Asif be so tepid in his criticism?

There’s another reason for Asif to unleash against the Americans. The same NYT story on Bush’s secret authorisation of strikes inside Pakistan, also had a staggering allegation against Kayani: that he knew of the plot to bomb the Indian embassy in Kabul. In living memory, a Pakistan army chief has not been directly implicated by the Americans in a criminal plot.

This then is the scenario that Asif is confronted with: angry Americans who can only rattle the Pakistani cage so much; an army chief who is under American fire; and a failed American policy in Afghanistan. Why can’t Asif connect the dots? Figure out who’s your enemy, who’s your friend and when to take a hit for the team, friendly or otherwise. Asif should make the Americans squirm a little. The next time Patterson, Boucher, Negroponte — or even Bush — is on the phone, ask your secretary to tell them you’re on the phone with your daughter at college.

And get a better team. We were made to believe that Chaudhry Mukhtar was passed over for prime minister because he was too much of his own man. None of that is on display as defence minister. Mukhtar must still be sulking over being passed over because every time he opens his mouth someone somewhere in a uniform gets angry. Then there’s the oily Husain Haqqani. Listen to the man long enough and you’ll be confused: is he the Pakistani ambassador to the US or the US ambassador to Pakistan? So incompetent is Asif’s defence team that the intellectual nobody with the connections to die for, Rehman Malik, has come out the brightest of the lot. At least you have to hand it to the indefatigable Malik: he does try, even if he’s out of his depth.

The survival lesson for Asif is clear: push back against the Americans, or else be pushed out by the army.

Romancing the Taliban

By Adil Zareef

PAKHTUNKHWA is in flames. Suddenly, we are at the epicentre of a conflict — and there exists a feeling of total helplessness.

Suffering is writ large on the handsome faces of ordinary folk at the mercy of raging gunfire, bombs and explosions for no fault of theirs — except for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Such is the pitiless hand of fate.

With repeated US threats and incursions into Pakistan’s tribal territories, GHQ’s sound and fury has become a whimper, reflecting both the limits of power and the odds confronting Pakistan. An unequal patron-client relationship exists between the US and Pakistan. Democratic niceties apart, the Bush administration always considered it expedient to carry on business with its chosen strongman military dictator, at the peril of the long-term national interests of both countries.

In a calculated move, when the nation’s economy and foreign policy became totally bankrupt, Gen Musharraf went away. What did the elected leaders inherit? Plundered national assets (privatisation, deregulation) a destabilised Afghanistan, and worse, a militarised state with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan unleashed on the Pakhtunkhwa landscape. This is not the first time Pakistan has been ditched and all’s fair in love and war. Two lovers turned antagonists is not novel. So why then are we cursing our stars and the US?

What has actually touched our hearts is the human suffering. The helpless non-combatants have nothing to gain from the shenanigans of the merciless powerbrokers in Washington D.C. or Islamabad. They have everything to lose. It is yet another numbers’ game for the US. What with Iraq, Afghanistan and the bloody trail of human tragedies America has inflicted on one civilisation after another in its quest for unbridled power, it is not surprising that we are now at the receiving end.

What makes matters really worrisome is the national discourse on terrorism and our outright rejection of the global opprobrium being heaped on us. From Kashmir to Delhi and from Afghanistan to the capitals of Western Europe, the footprints of Islamic militants have been traced to Pakistan and Afghanistan hinterlands. The jihad policy of various governments in Islamabad, with regard to the destabilisation of Indian-administered Kashmir and Afghanistan, has been flawed. Surviving on monthly IMF rations, Pakistan cannot afford to have grandiose ambitions. The jingoism and bravado instilled in the minds of common Pakistanis by successive governments, whether democratic or otherwise, have proved self-destructive.

While ANP’s central leadership was consumed by Zardari’s presidential elections, innocent Pakhtuns and their party activists and local leadership were being killed brutally in the Swat valley by Taliban fanatics. Their homes, hujras and livelihoods were being blown up. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced in Bajaur as the Taliban advanced towards Dir and Buner. Hangu and Kurram have become irredeemable. A worthwhile effort against this onslaught is seen lacking by both Islamabad and their Pakhtun coalition partners.

Credible reports confirm that most high-value Taliban leaders remain unharmed, while the fleeing innocent population bears the brunt of guns and bombs. It seems that the establishment, led by the agencies, is now earnestly clinging on to its pipe dream that the home-grown Taliban will defeat the advancing US forces. This policy of ‘strategic depth’ has not waned, despite changed actors, and the ‘cloak and dagger’ policy remains intact. Governor Owais Ghani lashes out at the Taliban as enemies of the state, but also tells the BBC that Afghanistan has to come to terms with the Taliban as ‘a legitimate political force’.

This double-dealing discredits the entire military operation. The fumbling anti-terrorist policy is marked by a disconnect among several state agencies, often working at cross purposes and creating confusion. As one policy expert said, the federal government, intelligence agencies, provincial government, Fata administration and the military are not on the same wavelength. Under these circumstances, quite naturally the brunt of militancy and the military operation is borne by the population.

Take for instance the operation in Swat and Bajaur. Reportedly, the military is not targeting hideouts of the Taliban as it should. When Taliban fanatics were killing the family members of ANP legislator Waqar Khan in Swat, blowing up their homes and hujra, military personnel, according to some reports, were present across the hill near a government school. The extremists walked over, ordered the victims to stand in a line and then mowed them down. Evidently, no military personnel came to save them. Meanwhile, Mullah Fazullah still roams around freely and so do other leaders of the TTP openly addressing the media.

Likewise in Bajaur, the Taliban leadership remains as elusive as ever. The refrain of government functionaries blaming RAW and KHAD agents takes one back to the Afghan jihad period. With millions of dollars pouring in to hunt down the militants, if the intelligence operatives cannot trace the Taliban leaders and perhaps a handful of hardcore militants who are responsible for countrywide bombings and suicide attacks witnessed almost on a daily basis, then they need to quit their jobs.

Writer Ahmed Rashid has graphically described the involvement of our jihadis in the “comprehensive destruction” of Afghanistan. Most vexing is the role of the ulema and religious parties who refuse to openly disown these dastardly acts of terrorism. In the same vein, enlightened representatives like Imran Khan by terming the entire TTP movement a reaction to the US presence in Afghanistan, and absolving Pakistan’s policy blunders, are trivialising a serious issue.

The question of ‘national sovereignty’ becomes irrelevant each time a drone hits a Taliban sanctuary inside Pakistan territory. As we have miserably failed, despite gobbling up billions of dollars in this “war against terror”, does not our defence of the ‘borders’ become tenuous?Having jettisoned an independent judiciary that is meant to promote transparency and credibility in the affairs of the state, the role of the political parties has become questionable. Without checks and balances, the discredited and personalised politics of the Musharraf period persist. And so will the Kafkaesque ‘war against terror’.

On the high seas

By Kausar S K

IMAGINE a ship rolling on the choppy seas, with high waves pushing and pulling it in different directions. Those at the helm appear convinced that they are entitled to control the ship. People here are wearing life-saving jackets. In a curious way, they are self-sufficient.

It is said a society passes through three phases before the battle for social transformation, based on social justice, acquires a steady foundation. The first stage involves the culture of silence. Here people accept their socio-cultural practices silently. Then comes the culture of protest where violence breaks out. Within this somewhat chaotic state, the culture of verbalism also begins to operate. Society, however, struggles for a higher level, and critical consciousness is born.

For a society to reach this stage, institutions play a role. Professionals become de-professionalised in that they become people-oriented and recognise the structures of oppression that must change. They recognise how their own professions could be maintaining the status quo. However, for social transformation, critical consciousness by itself is not enough. Change comes with the making of the critical mass.

Something new has been happening in our society, as the cultures of silence, protest and verbalism prevail simultaneously. Different currents flow — rapidly, restlessly, ferociously, defiantly. They embody the battle for and against social transformation. The ship is tossed around, sometimes appearing to break apart sometimes steadying itself in a near celestial embrace of hope and joy.

Amidst this turmoil there is an additional caveat in Pakistan. It is the varied discourse on Pakistan as a nation. ‘We are not a nation state’, is sometimes stated as categorical fact, and sometimes posed as a question or expressed as a concern. Whether these concerns emanate from a culture of verbalism or protest is open to interpretation; that it could impede the creation of a critical mass is a major threat to the forces seeking social transformation.

The debate over the issue of Pakistan as a nation perhaps could be settled with the help of some empirical evidence. Two recent events can be examined. The earthquake of Oct 2005 and the lawyers’ movement that began last year.

The earthquake shook the entire nation and Pakistanis all over the world responded with a passion not witnessed in them before. According to one physician who had returned from the US, her adopted home: “When I left Pakistan I had said I have nothing to do with this country any more… I had cut myself from it, and so it was no longer part of our being. Then came the news of the earthquake. I phoned a friend and told her I was going to Pakistan. … A few friends decided to come with me. … I landed in Karachi and went straight to Islamabad … and somehow, without any planning, but with people helping I soon found myself on top of a mountain conducting a clinic to which streams of people came.”

As she spoke she also seemed surprised at the discovery she had made. She had experienced a great pull that drove her rapidly across the oceans. Had a latent identity stirred within her, and asserted itself and powered her to act for action was needed? There were many such stories.

When earthquakes happen elsewhere, Pakistanis do not react in the same way they did to the Pakistani earthquake — for it was their earthquake. Was it not again an identification felt deep inside because of an implicit oneness that is often not part of consciousness? A number of identities lie buried in a person; one surfaces when time calls out to it.

The second empirical sign of being a nation was when Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was ousted by the military ruler and the lawyers surged forth. Civil society had already been protesting here and there on one issue or another (like small pockets of critical consciousness), and found their concerns echoed in the cry of the lawyers. They joined the protests and were welcomed. Support came from all quarters. A poor rural man somewhere in Punjab when asked why he was in the throng waiting for the chief justice, he said it was for justice. “With him we poor can get justice.”

This social movement was unique for it was not for appropriation of power, but the autonomy of the judiciary. It brought the entire nation together. Here too a common identity was in action. It flowed beyond geographical borders and was found in other countries protesting on the street in support of their fellow countrymen.

The critical mass is clearly in the making in Pakistan, and forces are already working against it. The nation needs to strategise so that there is no rolling back of the grounds gained. Critical consciousness is actively mediating between a state that appears nation-less, and a nation repeatedly betrayed by the state. The system that has so far dominated Pakistan has rendered people helpless, but nations will never accept helplessness once they have emerged from a culture of silence, and are going beyond the culture of protest.