DAWN - Editorial; January 25, 2009

January 25, 2009


Drones and diplomacy

DURING his presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly warned that his administration would take out “high-value terrorist targets” if Pakistan did not act first. Presumably, although he did not make this clear, the area Obama had in mind was Fata; however, he did emphasise the strikes would be against ‘high-value’, ‘important’ or ‘key’ figures of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Three days into Obama’s presidency, we have the first evidence of how his promise will translate into action. Drone attacks in South and North Waziristan have killed at least 14 people, including what the media now routinely refers to as ‘foreign militants’. The New York Times, however, has reported that “American officials in Washington said there were no immediate signs that the strikes on Friday had killed any senior Qaeda leaders.” Shortly after the strikes, President Obama convened his first National Security Council meeting on Pakistan and Afghanistan and over the next few days he is expected to review President Bush’s counter-terrorism measures in the region, including the authorisation of unilateral American special forces raids inside Pakistan. At the moment, the signs emanating from Washington all point towards the adoption of a tougher line on Pakistan’s contribution to the fight against militancy and terrorism.

How does the military facet of Obama’s policy towards Pakistan fit in with the diplomatic facet, which Obama has entrusted to the high-profile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke? An early assessment suggests the following: military action will continue in Fata while the US waits to see if Pakistan ‘does more’; aid to the Pakistan armed forces will gradually be tied to concrete results against militants; development aid and other financial contributions will initially be stepped up, with further increases dangled as a ‘reward’ for genuine gains against militants in Fata; and behind-the-scenes diplomatic manoeuvring will occur to see what can be brought on the table for debate on improvement in Pak-India relations.

What isn’t clear is how the Pakistani security establishment will react to all of this. It isn’t hard to see how the Pakistan Army may view Obama’s plans as mere window dressing of the Bush policy of dangling the occasional carrot while mostly relying on the stick. Since August, of the 38 drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed nearly 150 people an overwhelmingly number have occurred in South and North Waziristan. The militants have responded by killing dozens of alleged US spies in the area. However, the Pakistan Army has remained focused on the northern tip of Fata — Bajaur, Khyber and Mohmand — and shown little interest in mounting fresh operations in the southern end, where the Waziristan agencies are located. Such differences do not bode well for diplomacy trumping the military option.

Bridges for safety

PEDESTRIAN safety is not being given the importance that it warrants in our cities. The recent death of a student in a hit-and-run accident on a major highway, and the subsequent hours-long disruption in traffic caused by demonstrating students in Islamabad, underscore this point. The incident has also brought into sharp focus the urgent need for pedestrian bridges at many spots along the capital’s new but extremely dangerous fast-traffic multi-lane highways. The number of vehicles has gone up exponentially in the past few years. Each day’s delay in implementing the plan to install pedestrian bridges along the new network of highways in Islamabad is causing more and more needless deaths and injuries. According to one report, during the past couple of months at least 17 people were killed while crossing the highway where the student mentioned earlier was killed. In fact, this figure is believed to be much higher because FIRs are not registered in many cases. It must also be noted that both sides of the highways are usually populated because of housing schemes and villages, which is why the construction of pedestrian bridges for safe crossing assumes greater importance.

Our pedestrians do not expect expensive, aesthetically designed bridges or air-conditioned bridges with elevators and escalators that some cities elsewhere have built. What they do expect, however, is a better response by the authorities to their need for greater safety and easier access on the roads in the form of efficiently designed and conveniently located pedestrian bridges. To get around the problem of the cost of building these, city authorities in some countries have roped in private players for constructing and maintaining the bridges, giving them advertising rights on the structures in return. In our case, the cost would also have to include the erection of fencing barriers along the whole length of the highways to discourage wayward pedestrians from risking their lives by crossing at dangerous points. The timely construction of such bridges, which ought to be ready for pedestrian use as soon as a new road structure is opened to traffic, is necessary for pedestrian safety.

Time for police reforms

PARTICIPANTS at Shehri’s interactive seminar have suggested that civil society should lobby the authorities on police reforms. This is a valid proposal given the need for greater security and better law and order in Karachi. There is no denying that the working of our police leaves much to be desired. This has been felt for a long time. However, it was only in 2002 that an attempt was made to reform the force. But even before the Police Order

2002 could be implemented amendments began to be introduced to dilute its effectiveness. In its present form, the order does not reflect the spirit of reform. The basic drawback to efficient police performance, apart from factors such as lack of training and equipment as well as corruption, is political interference. It is routine for the executive branch of government to exploit the powers of the police to promote the narrow interests of rulers. As a result, Pakistan’s police is hardly a professional body. It acts as yet another centre of political power.

The Police Order 2002 had sought to correct this aberration by introducing two bodies: the public safety commission and the police complaints authority, both at different tiers. By providing for the appointment of members who are independent and hold diverse political opinions to these bodies and empowering them to oversee the working of the police force and look into public complaints, the order sought to bring the law enforcers under the watch of an independent monitor to weaken the government’s capacity to interfere. But what do we have today? Ineffective safety commissions, if they exist, and complaints authorities merging with safety commissions so that the latter have ceased to function as forums for the redress of public grievances. The powers of the safety commissions in matters of appointments, transfers and promotions — all key tools in manipulating the police — have also been diluted. The immediate need of the hour is to have the amendments to the Police Order revoked so that reforms can be implemented in their true spirit. It needs to be recognised that the failure of the police to act professionally and efficiently not only affects the level of security in the country, it also has an adverse impact on the working of the judicial system. Without good and honest investigation, the prosecution is weakened and justice cannot be dispensed.

OTHER VOICES - Indian Press

The Indian Express

The Tribune

Obama’s policy

IF New Delhi has been nervous about US President Barack Obama’s ideas on South Asian security, it now turns out that Islamabad is neuralgic. On Obama’s very first day in office, the White House announced that it will hold Pakistan accountable for the rapidly worsening situation in its borderlands with Afghanistan. Top officials from Pakistan, including its envoy in Washington and a senior general in Rawalpindi, have urged the new administration to be patient.

In the foreign policy agenda identified by the Obama White House, Pakistan and Afghanistan are at the very top. This should be no surprise since the principal threat to American national security today comes from the lawless borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.... As he indicated throughout the presidential campaign, Obama now proposes to shift American military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, which he believes is the central front in the American war on terror. Obama is also convinced that Afghanistan can’t be stabilised without getting the Pakistan army to play straight. It is in this context that we must see Obama’s approach towards Pakistan and South Asia.

If New Delhi stops viewing Obama’s policy through the prism of its past fears, it will find that the unfolding dynamic between Washington and Islamabad offers many diplomatic opportunities. America faces an extraordinary threat from the badlands in the northwestern parts of the subcontinent and Obama desperately needs to succeed. This in turn opens the door for India to offer substantive political and security cooperation to Washington in stabilising the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.... — (Jan 23)

A precious resource

WHILE India is aspiring to become a global power, most of its citizens do not even have the basic amenity of adequate water supply. During the last seven years, nearly 1.5 lakh villages have lost access to water supply. According to the comptroller and auditor general’s report, while 85 per cent of rural India is dependent on ground water, the environmental degradation and reduced recharge have made most underground sources ineffectual. In grain-surplus states of Punjab and Haryana, with over 20 lakh tube wells and pumps, water-tables have gone 1,600 feet deeper. The ground water levels fall by 25 to 30 metres every year.

...The Punjab government’s curb on the early sowing of water-intensive rice is appreciable, but it has to be regulated furthermore. The state government, instead of following appeasement policies like free electricity to farmers, should find suitable steps to augment water resources. To arrest the water-table, Haryana is planning a joint project with the centre. In Sirsa district, a pilot project involving recharge and storage tanks has already been initiated. Indeed ... India and its states cannot afford to fritter [water] away. The central government has been spending crores of rupees on water conservation, yet little attention is being paid to harvesting rainwater, even though it is estimated that if five per cent of the rainwater is harvested annually, it could produce 900 million litres of water.

The centre’s initiative to make it mandatory for people to recharge underground water needs to be implemented with greater earnestness. Concerted government efforts must seek community participation, and the revival of the traditional water sources has to be encouraged. — (Jan 21)

The great global ricochet

By Mohsin Hafeez

WE’VE come full circle. The great age of globalisation has reversed its trend. For some (coincidental) reason, it seems to have struck us at a time when the global economy has taken a tumble.

What was considered a boon for the world at one time is now identified as a bane, a boomerang of sorts, for the financial world.

What we see in one part of the world has its ripples floating across the map. And if that part happens to be America, then the swell turns out to be more of a dictation, what with the enormousness of everything inextricably intermingled with the rest of the globe. We have seen the effect of it in the past and, like no other time, are seeing it now. The credit crisis that emanated from the US for reasons of myopia and governmental aloofness has travelled farther than one had first envisaged it would. It seems now as if no one is insulated from this tsunami.

The etymology of the current crisis may be traced to the greed to make a killing by lending to less than prime borrowers by charging a higher premium, based on the philosophy of enlarging the number of American homeowners. Underwriting standards lowered across the board as short-term quarterly financial results started making headlines; violence begets violence just as greed engenders more of the same, unfortunately with disastrous results.

The effect of this crisis in the US has been vast. By some reliable analysis, it will continue to aggravate through 2009 with some respite creeping along in the middle of 2010. As is market tradition, the equity market will show some improvement prior to the actual growth in the economy. The prognosis is dismal and the world will follow, not precede, this American recovery just as it did its ruin. With some exceptions, like the Middle East with its vast reserves from the oil bonanza to somewhat temper the effects the world will see a series of crises unlike anything since, perhaps, the Great Depression.

All countries have certain primary dynamics instrumental to the growth of their economies. In the US, it is consumer spending which accounts for almost two-thirds of the economy. With free availability of credit, what first seemed like a virtuous circle soon reared its ugly head wrapped around in the worst viciousness of its kind.

The GDP growth has stalled and the country has been in a recession since December 2007, with a negative growth rate of 0.2 per cent for Q4 2007, followed by another negative growth of 0.3 per cent in Q3 of 2008, as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) Home prices have fallen by as much as 40 to 50 per cent in some parts of the country. Unemployment has increased to 7.2 per cent. The administration has pumped in hundreds of billions of dollars into the financial system by picking up shareholding interest in banks. Still, credit has had little thawing, if any. To the naked eye, that is a crisis of confidence more than the availability of funds.

Given what we have to deal with, the US must focus on home value stabilisation. It helps in at least two ways: one, it generates consumer self-confidence and, thus, helps bolster spending which we badly need, and, two, it stems bank losses associated with such assets and, thus, generates room in their balance sheets to lend again.

The TARP (acronym for Troubled Assets Relief Programme) was primarily meant to purchase distressed bank mortgages so banks could lend again, starting out with a relatively clean slate. That died its own death as Treasury Secretary Paulson made a flip-flop and bought shares in banks instead.

The Federal Reserve, independently, has provided hundreds of billions of dollars in liquidity by allowing even non-banking financial firms to come to the window for borrowing and at rates never heard of before. Besides, it has subsequently allowed a host of financial services companies to convert to banking corporations, thereby enabling them to help mobilise deposits for liquidity. The Fed has also started to buy mortgage-backed securities from the now state-sponsored Freddie and Fannie to help reduce the conforming lending rates, and plans to do so to the extent of $500bn in the next six months.

The foreclosure of homes is reaching an alarming level and is greatly contributing to an inexplicable drop in property prices because of its very characteristic of being contagious. A couple of things might be in order: one, have syndications, both international and domestic, buy up pieces of properties in the US, and, two, aggressively pursue the mortgage modification programme.

Having syndicated companies buy up in blocks homes left abandoned cleans up the market and offers a promise of excellent returns to the buyers given the current price-levels. These buyers are in no need to borrow to buy as we ought to be pursuing a certain category of consortiums; for example, let’s interest the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, and the Middle Eastern petro-dollar to flow in. It creates jobs in the related industries. Besides, it serves the main purpose of stabilising home prices.

Granted, there is market risk the investors may be exposed to. Without going into details, and with all the hoopla on the size of the next stimulus à la Obama, surely there could be risk-mitigation measures set aside for investors as a part of the total spending in the backdrop of a trade-off.

Concurrently with this measure, the administration ought to focus on Main Street by being proactive in modifying home mortgages. Mortgages payments can be recalculated based on a reasonable proportion of one’s income, called the debt ratio, by reducing the rate.

Another way would be to elongate the term of amortisation so payments are manageable. Yet another way is to forebear a part of the principal and base the new mortgage on the current asset value, with the condition that the forborne be collected by the sponsor of the scheme at the time of the sale of the home.

Without some really serious help from the administration, no major relief can be expected any time soon. The measures suggested may carry some socialistic undertones but the priority at this time should be to ignore ideology and espouse pragmatism; it’s whatever floats the boat, for America and, consequently, the world.

The writer is a consumer banker based in US.


Obama to use his email

By Bobbie Johnson

BARACK Obama is likely to become America’s first emailing president, as part of sweeping changes to the way the White House uses technology aimed at making his presidency the most open and connected in history.

After several months of questions over whether avid BlackBerry user Obama would be able to continue using email while in office, reports suggest that secret service agents have approved the use of a highly protected mobile phone for personal email. Past presidents have eschewed email for a mixture of security and legal reasons. George Bush sent his last email shortly before taking office in 2001, and there is no computer in the Oval Office.

The news that he has been sanctioned for personal email will come as a relief to Obama, who had said he was so attached to his BlackBerry that “they’re going to have to prise it out of my hands”.

Within seconds of his swearing-in on Tuesday, the White House website was given a facelift, with a series of additions aimed at internet-savvy Americans.

As well as a weekly video address — which goes out on YouTube — the site contains a blog written by advisers and detailed descriptions of his agenda. “WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement,” wrote Macon Phillips, the White House’s director of new media.

Using the site to gauge public opinion and gather feedback would translate some of the successes of the Obama campaign, which used its website, email and text messages to help raise unprecedented funds and give the illusion of a direct connection between the candidate and the millions of people who signed up to support him.

Despite revelling in its hi-tech image, the Obama administration still has decisions to make about its approach to technology. Among them is the choice of chief technology officer, a new post that many hope will be filled by a senior figure from Silicon Valley who can help to lift the US economy out of recession.

Although many names have been thrown around over the past few months — including Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, and Apple’s boss, Steve Jobs — the administration has yet to make a public decision. It is believed the shortlist has narrowed to two candidates; Padmasree Warrior, the chief technical officer of computer networking giant Cisco, and Vivek Kundra, who has the same job for the government of Washington DC.

Among Obama’s ambitious plans is a scheme to fully computerise the US health system with electronic medical records.

— The Guardian, London