DAWN - Editorial; January 11, 2009

11 Jan 2009

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Obama and Pakistan

SENATOR Biden came to Pakistan as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but his real significance is that he will soon be sworn in as vice president of the United States. The visit threw up the usual platitudes about democracy and development, and Pakistan reciprocated by handing out a pro forma medal. Yet, the thrust of American diplomacy is clear: the key to the stability and security of Afghanistan lies in Pakistan’s border areas, and Pakistan needs to do more to help the Americans. There are at

least three things the Obama administration will want from Pakistan: one, eliminate the sanctuaries of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Fata; two, clamp down on the cross-border movement of militants; and, three, secure the supply routes of American and international troops in Afghanistan running through Pakistan. Whatever America may offer Pakistan in terms of non-military aid, acting as an interlocutor between Pakistan and India on terrorism and Kashmir and propping up Pakistan’s battered international image, the results on the Pak-Afghan border will be the prism through which the Americans judge their relationship with Pakistan. And with Obama expected to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, the scrutiny will be intense.

However, with every new administration there is a window of opportunity to recalibrate relationships. While an Obama administration will be no less compromising in the pursuit of American interests in the region, it

may bring a more nuanced understanding to the table than the Bush administration. President-elect Obama has already connected the dots: the ‘solution’ to the Afghan ‘problem’ lies in a regional approach that incorporates Pakistan’s strategic interests. Our interests, as defined by the security establishment led by the Pakistan Army, lie in a stable, peaceful and friendly Afghanistan which will allow the army to focus on what it considers its primary task, defending the eastern border against the Indian armed forces.

There is no obvious way to square the American and Pakistani interests, which is perhaps why the Bush-Musharraf-Karzai era failed to bring peace to Afghanistan and what has led to the recent spate of drone attacks in Fata. A starting point, however, could be to go beyond the ‘transactional’ relationship between the US and Pakistan. The $1.5bn a year from the Biden-Kerry-Lugar bill; RoZ legislation that enhances Pakistan’s access to US textile and other markets; expanding USAID missions in Pakistan; focusing aid on health, education, law enforcement and justice programmes; using the Friends of Pakistan forum to coordinate international assistance — these are just a few of the many suggestions already made by think tanks and analysts. Choices exist; the next few months will make it clear if the Obama administration prefers the stick or the carrot when it comes to Pakistan.

Terror in Lahore

FIVE blasts in quick succession in Lahore on Friday night added to the chill in the air. The first four explosions took place around the Al Falah building, formerly housing a cinema house which has been converted into a venue for holding stage plays. The fifth blast came soon afterwards and the apparent target this time was the Tamaseel Theatre at Mozang Chungi. With two of the busiest parts of the city hit, the panic spread fast. Thankfully the damage was contained since the two theatres happened to be closed at the time of the explosions because of Muharram. Nonetheless Lahore’s residents were once again reminded of the terrors that may be brewing in their midst and the damage the terrorists are capable of causing. One year ago, on Jan 10, a suicide bomber struck at the GPO square close to the Lahore High Court killing 25, mostly policemen. Even more powerful attacks followed in March in one of which the terrorists aimed to and almost succeeded in destroying the Federal Investigation Agency offices on Temple Road. In a recent incident on Dec 24, a woman was killed in a car bomb explosion in the Government Officers’ Residence-II.

Friday’s blasts were, however, readily linked to another series that has been played out at the so-called cultural venues of Lahore, with the suspicion being that these were the handiwork of a local group of prudes. In early October last year, three bombs went off in Garhi Shahu inside fruit juice corners frequented by boys and girls. In November, just when everyone was about to celebrate the peaceful holding of the World Performing Arts Festival, the show was hit by blasts on its penultimate day. Mercifully, large-scale damage was avoided and the organisers, in a show of courage, went ahead with the closing ceremony the following evening. A similarly heartening resolve has been shown by a producer scheduled to stage a play at Al Falah. But the official response leaves much to be desired. It is as if the officials are out trying to take credit for the ‘mildness’ of the terrorists’ effort. Let’s hope that this is for public consumption only and back in their thinking rooms, the officials are in receipt of the real message that these ‘trial bangs’ bring. The fear will stay unless and until, beyond the convenient catching of a suspect or two; there is a swoop on terror in earnest.

Polio: time to begin afresh

THAT as many as 118 cases of polio virus were reported in 2008, a year in which we were supposed to qualify for a polio-free status, carries its own irony. Against this backdrop, the resolve voiced at a meeting of federal and provincial health ministers the other day in Islamabad to intensify efforts to root out the menace can only be viewed as timely. Rhetoric being the hallmark of officialdom, it is understandable that many would prefer to wait and see how much of this resolve will actually translate into action, for only action and not mere words can bring about a positive change. After all, the official oratory was not much different when the country had first missed the target in 2000. One can remind the naysayer of the fact that in the five-year period after missing the bus, there was a meaningful reduction in polio cases which recorded an all-time low in 2005. Unfortunately, complacency crept in just when the authorities needed to go for the final push to break the barrier.

Apart from an all too apparent streak of complacency, the authorities would do well to keep an eye on certain other factors in the equation. The national immunisation coverage, as one official put it recently, is not more than 40 per cent and in urgent need of expansion. A somewhat confused hierarchy in the presence of multiple stakeholders is another issue that needs to be sorted out in order to ensure a smooth and accountable campaign. The chain of transmission that begins in Afghanistan and runs across Pakistan owing in large measure to the outward migration of refugees is another major factor behind the resurgent virus. It is getting worse because of the wave of militancy in the Frontier province where it is becoming increasingly impossible for immunisation and surveillance teams to conduct meaningful activities. It is not surprising that of the 118 cases reported last year, 52 related to the NWFP. It is only by taking a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach at the policy level and sustained efforts on the ground that the country can hope to get out of the existing rut.

OTHER VOICES - Indian Press

The Economic Times

The Shillong Times

Grim TV serials

EVER wondered why the characters in Indian TV serials have been having a tougher time than usual as they struggle from one crisis to the next? ...

The rationale for the angst on the small screen could be that if viewers feel what’s happening in reel life is much grimmer than what they have to put up with, they could even adjust to the real world. The markets may be very volatile, the GDP growth-rate projection may be periodically revised downwards….

However, that is nothing compared with the plight of a female protagonist in one of the TV serials who is told that her husband will be executed for killing a colleague unless she gets a letter granting forgiveness from the mother of the victim.

And who, after doing the needful, is separated from the spouse by a smiling villainess and who then has to admit the only child to a hospital for an emergency operation for which there is no money. Whew!

And just when you wonder whether things can get worse, they do…. All of which makes your head spin in a way the sensex can’t.… A year-end poll, conducted by TNS Gallup International, has just told us that India is among the world’s 10 most optimistic nations, with 42 per cent of its population expecting that the economy will get better in the year which has just begun.

It could be that the grimness of Indian TV serials gives viewers a feeling that real life just can’t be all that bad. — (Jan 8)

Hard talk

SINCE the terrorist attack in Mumbai … India has been talking tough…. Pakistan has understandably stood its guard denying its role in spreading terror and refusing to crack down on terrorist outfits on its soil. … Manmohan Singh has … made it clear that India is convinced of Pakistan’s complicity in exporting terror to India. He has timed his offensive well. In early December, his government had accused the ISI … of involvement…. But at that time it could not produce any evidence…. On this occasion, India is armed with solid evidence…. The sophistication and precision of the Mumbai offensive should convince Pakistan and other international powers that Islamabad’s state apparatus was engaged in the foul operations. It goes against Prime Minister Singh’s earlier statement that Pakistan is a victim of terror rather than its sponsor. … What is surprising is that there has been no reaction in Washington.

It is difficult to tell what kind of evidence can condemn Pakistan as a sponsor of global terror. Undoubtedly, the ISI and also a section of Pakistan’s army had a hand in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.

The US has not deplored the act. The evidence gathered by the UN was not sufficient to force Pakistan to clamp down…. Pakistan’s strategic interests still converge with those of the US. At one time, Islamabad could get away with using terror against neighbours as a state policy because of US protection. … Delhi, however, cannot just relent in its verbal offensive. — (Jan 9)

Darwin’s year: time to reflect

By Q. Isa Daudpota


CHARLES Darwin was kind enough to publish his great work On the Origin of Species when he was exactly 50 years old. That will allow us to celebrate his 200th birthday anniversary and the sesquicentennial of the book this year.

His work’s scientific, philosophical and social implications are revolutionary. Today all true scientists accept his theory of evolution as fundamental to the understanding of life on earth. It underpins all modern biological and medical sciences and helps view life as a unified system based on rather simple yet profound rules.

The biggest ever Charles Darwin exhibition (www.tinyurl.com/aysymz) will run until mid April in London. Not all is lost if you cannot get to it as much exists on the Internet that can help remove the misconceptions that many Pakistanis have about the theory, starting with this website and its excellent links. Several new books will appear as will documentaries and TV programmes that will reach our shores if there is enough demand.

Among the important recent audio-visual presentations worth showing in Pakistan is the seven-part TV series Evolution prepared by the US Public Broadcasting Service. The accompanying book with the same title by Carl Zimmer is also useful for a better understanding of the theory. Supplement these with a study of the PBS website on evolution (www.tinyurl.com/783wm8) which has a wealth of material, in text and video, for students and teachers.

What if one wants to visit one of our own museums to learn about evolution? One would naturally turn to our Museum of Natural History in Islamabad. I, in fact, visited it about four years ago when asked to review the design of a planned extension to the building. Sadly the building, set in the idyllic green surroundings of the Shakarparian hills, is poorly designed and constructed.

During the visit I walked to the lowest level. This is where the museum explicitly shows how the evolution of life took place on earth. You enter the moderately sized room with its four walls painted to show quite nicely the story of life. Starting on the right one sees in almost seamless progression the appearance of primitive life forms in water, moving on to fish, reptiles, amphibians, land-based animals, primates and then early humanoids, the hunter-gatherers, finally getting to modern humans. This brings one back to the door where one began the journey. If you stand in the middle and turn around you see the panorama of life before you. A good teacher of biology could keep a class occupied for several hours in this room alone.

One wonders how many teachers in Pakistan would, however, notice the white pillar from floor to roof, over one foot wide, that separates the pictures of the hordes of apes from the hunting humanoids. (Nowhere else in this room are the different life forms shown separated from other groups.) More importantly, will the teacher on noticing this anomaly, point it to the students and discuss it? A clear discussion on this issue alone could lead to a much better understanding of biology (and life generally) than a year of learning facts that fail to unify the subject.

I gathered a number of museum staff nearby to ask their opinion about why the museum chose to separate the apes from the humanoids, given that after Darwin it was generally accepted that human are primates, i.e. closely related to monkeys and apes. Most remained quiet. One said, in true bureaucratic fashion, that I would need to contact the director who designed the room. Another said that if the connection was shown the museum would be burned down by religious fanatics. The museum’s stagnant website, perhaps reflecting this attitude, has no mention of Darwin or evolution. Instead, it should be the main institute explaining and displaying artifacts of natural history on the foundations laid by scientific Darwinian ideas.

Then there are people like Harun Yahya, the prolific Turkish writer, whose slick books fill our bookshops and unambiguously oppose Darwin. I once saw a room full of talented Pakistani school students at a space camp being shown a movie about creationism produced by Yahya’s outfit. This phenomenon is not particular to Pakistan or the Muslim world. In America about 55 per cent of adults held a tentative view about evolution for the last decade. A third of adults firmly rejected the theory; only 14 per cent thought of it as ‘definitely true’. Only scientific education, formal and informal, can overcome this bias. Nature, the premier science magazine, offers 15 examples (www.tinyurl.com/a3n4nh) from over the past decade or so to illustrate the breadth, depth and power of evolutionary thinking that poses a serious challenge to ideas of people like Yahya.

For the Semitic religions to have relevance in today’s modern world, there has to be acceptance that the rules of nature apply to materials, bodies, energy and the environment, and explain the creation of the immense variety of species and their evolution. That they may arise from a single or a small number of basic primal organisms and transform due to mutations and natural selection was explained thoroughly by Darwin.

Darwin and his great work provided a revolutionary break from the past by placing humans as part of the evolving flux of life. He did what Copernicus managed in the 16th century by displacing Earth from its central position in the universe to being a mere planet moving around a rather ordinary star obeying physical laws that were formalised later by Newton. It should have taught us modesty.

Darwin is right up there with Newton in the greatness league. He, unlike his fellow Englishman, was a wise, modest gentleman. A befitting tribute to Darwin in this anniversary year would be a greater understanding of his ideas and perhaps this could lead to revolutionary changes in our own thinking.

The author is a physicist and environmentalist.

‘Designer babies’ raise ethical questions

By Ben Quinn


THE birth of the first British baby genetically screened before conception to be free of a breast cancer gene was hailed on Thursday as a breakthrough by doctors but raised fresh questions about the ethics of creating so-called designer babies.

The baby girl grew from an embryo screened to ensure that it did not contain the faulty BRCA1 gene, which would have meant she had a 50-85 per cent of developing breast cancer. While mother and daughter were said by a spokesman at University College hospital, London, to be doing “very well” following the birth last week, medical experts and those involved in cancer research were considering the implications.

Paul Serhal, medical director of the assisted conception unit at the hospital, said: “This little girl will not face the spectre of developing this genetic form of breast cancer or ovarian cancer in her adult life.”

In June the mother, then 27, told how she decided to undergo the screening process after seeing all her husband’s female relatives suffer the disease. The woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, said at the time: “We felt that, if there was a possibility of eliminating this for our children, then that was a route we had to go down.”

The technique, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), has already been used in the UK to free babies of inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. But breast cancer is different because it does not inevitably affect a child from birth.

Permission to carry out PGD for breast cancer had to be obtained from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority by the London clinic which performed the procedure.

Dr Sarah Cant, policy manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said the decision to screen embryos to see whether they have a faulty breast cancer gene was a complex and very personal issue. Kath McLachlan, a clinical nurse specialist at the charity Breast Cancer Care, said it would give those carrying the faulty BRCA1 gene “another option” to consider when starting a family.

She said: “While the selection of an embryo through PGD can reduce a person’s risk of developing breast cancer, the procedure cannot prevent a non-genetic form of the disease in later life.”

Doctors at the private clinic at University College hospital conducted tests on 11 embryos by removing just one cell from each when they were three days old. Six embryos were found to carry the defective BRCA1 gene. Two embryos which were free of the gene were implanted, resulting in a single pregnancy. Faulty genes are responsible for between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the 44,000 cases of breast cancer that occur in the UK each year.

As the debate about the ethics involved in the procedure was renewed, the main objection from critics remains the charge that it opens the door to the creation of babies for parents who may want their offspring to be top of the class, excel in sport, and have hair, eyes and other physical characteristics that into a particular family’s wish list.

— The Guardian, London