DAWN - Opinion; February 09, 2009

Published February 9, 2009

A journey to nowhere

By S.M. Naseem

A YEAR has rolled by since democratic governance in Pakistan restarted after going through repeated derailments by the military.

However, the awami train already seems to making unscheduled stops and screeching halts, besides being subjected to sudden jolts. The passengers are getting restive not only because of its speed but also due to apprehensions regarding the destination. They fear being robbed of their meagre belongings or becoming the victims of a bomb blast. Trouble is they can’t even pull the chain and get off. They are really being taken for a ride they hadn’t bargained for a year ago.

Almost everyone seems to agree that 2008 brought few favourable changes to people’s lives. In fact, the direct beneficiaries of the Feb 18 elections included not only members of one of the largest cabinets in the country’s history, but also those elected to the central and provincial legislatures and those hoping to get elected to the Senate in March, along with a large number of advisers and other officials appointed by the presidency and the executive.

Of course, those who voted in the Feb 18 elections were neither promised nor hoped for a rose garden, but they did expect slightly better prospects in the foreseeable future, if not for themselves at least for their children and grandchildren. There was a promise — fuelled more by hope than a sense of reality — in the first 100 days of the new democratic dispensation that some of the basic deprivations of the poor and needy, such as food, employment, shelter and education and some of the more common aspirations of the broader citizenry, such as law and order, self-governance, economic stability, infrastructure development, would be addressed in a transparent and pro-active way. The previous regime of Gen Musharraf, with its preoccupation with continuing in power through a divisive and corrosive political strategy, had failed miserably in these areas.

The hopes raised by a cohesive political alliance of the major political parties across the regional and ideological spectrum, which could meet the economic and political challenges of the time and energise and bring together a divided and depressed nation, were short-lived. The alliance, born more out of expediency than commitment to national welfare, was subverted by a confluence of external and domestic factors, which connived once again to deprive the country of a chance to resurrect itself.

The emerging scenario seems to consist of two equally disastrous options: a PPP-MQM-PML(Q) alliance, with the possible jettisoning of Gilani as prime minister and his substitution by a Q-League nominee or a mid-term election with possible gains for PML-N and a break-up of the PPP. Both scenarios are likely to result in the politics of confrontation until Zardari’s term as president comes to an end or the door for military intervention is re-opened. Both are likely to be zero-sum games for the two protagonists, with no net benefits likely to accrue to the poor and the people at large.

Which of the two possible scenarios or combinations thereof will actually be realised depends not only on the dynamics of the ongoing political realignments, but also on hard ground realities. Foremost among these is the vexed question of how to contain the spread of insurgency in the tribal areas to Pakistan’s mainland and beyond its borders, for which, fairly or unfairly, a finger is pointed at the Pakistani state whenever a terrorist strike takes place in any part of the globe.

Until Mumbai, the Pakistani state had been in denial about its involvement in these incidents. As Haris Gazdar points out in a recent piece in the Economic and Political Weekly, it is impossible for non-state elements to act effectively without the orchestration of their activities by the military-led ‘agencies’, which has varied with its needs for covert operations. However, under international pressure and a menacing, if overblown, threat from India to retaliate, Pakistan was forced to approach the matter more seriously. Whether this is a real change of mindset or mere expediency remains to be seen.

Unfortunately, the Pakistani state’s credibility, both at home and abroad, is so low that its claims are viewed with sceptism. Since its inception, it has been unable to unravel any major political incident where the involvement of its intelligence agencies has been suspected, whether it was Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination or the large number suicide bombings and other criminal incidents preceding and following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

The state’s poor investigative capacity and lack of faith in its own machinery is amply reflected in its resort to the UN for help in investigating the latter incident. The state has been reluctant to set up independent inquiry commissions to investigate such incidents and the reports of the few in the past (such as the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report) have never been officially revealed or implemented.

The invisible elephant in Pakistan’s political arena is the state which is fit only to be placed in an archeological museum or a chamber of horrors. Unless it is pulled out from the dysfunctional mode it has fallen into, Pakistan’s destiny will remain unredeemed.

The present political stalemate will aggravate, rather than improve, the state’s ability to bring about the major social and economic changes that have passed us by since attaining independence. Political parties and organised interest groups must refrain from pursuing their short-term gains at the expense of weakening the transformative role of the state which has already been dented through its misdirected use, mainly to protect elite interests.

The regime’s hopes for rescue now centre on the Obama administration’s revisiting Pak-Afghan, Kashmir and related South Asian issues. Even if these hopes are warranted, it is most unlikely that Mr Obama will find it possible to reorder the priorities of his already overcrowded domestic and global agenda to take new initiatives in South Asia, at least until he sees some light at the end of the long tunnel. In any case, Pakistan’s ruling elites will have to put their own house in order before they can hope to get the external support they need so badly to survive. n


How greed ruins academia

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

PAKISTAN’S university system is breaking down, perhaps irreparably so. Thanks to the Higher Education Commission’s grand plans for a massive change, a tidal wave of money hit our public universities during the Musharraf years.

Although difficult financial times finally stemmed the flood, this enormous cash infusion served to amplify problems rather than improve teaching and research quality.

Naked greed is now destroying the moral fibre of academia. Professors across the country are clamouring to lift even minimal requirements that could assure quality education. This is happening in two critical ways. First, to benefit from three-fold increases in salaries for tenure-track positions, professors are speedily removing all barriers for their promotions. Second, they want to be able to take on more PhD students, whether these students have the requisite academic capacity or not. Having more students translates into proportionately more money in each professor’s pocket.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Quaid-i-Azam University, said to be Pakistan’s flagship public university. Barely two miles from the presidency and the prime minister’s secretariat, it was once an island of excellence in a shallow sea of mediocrity. Most other universities started lower, and their decay has gone further and faster than at QAU. Some are recognisable as universities in name only.

QAU’s departments of physics and economics were especially well known 35 years ago, which is when I joined the university. The faculty was small and not many PhD degrees were awarded in those days. Money was scarce, but standards were fairly good and approximated those at a reasonable US university. But as time passed, less care was taken in appointing new faculty members. Politics began to dominate over merit and quality slipped. That slow slippage is now turning into rapid collapse.

Last month, at a formal meeting, QAU professors voted to make life easy for themselves. The Academic Council, the key decision-making body of the university, decided that henceforth no applicant for a university teaching position, whether at the associate professor or professor level, could be required to give an open seminar or lecture as a part of the selection process. Open lectures were deemed by the council as illegal, unjust and a ploy for victimising teachers.

This is mind-boggling. Public presentations allow an applicant’s subject competence and ability to communicate to be assessed by the academic community. (For the record, this writer insisted that requiring open lectures from candidates is standard practice in every decent university in the world. This prompted angry demands for his dismissal as chairman of his department!)A second major decision also dealt a stunning blow to the future of QAU. The council voted 25-12 that QAU’s PhD candidates did not have to conform to international standards. It decided to overturn its earlier acceptance of the HEC’s requirement that the international GRE subject tests must be passed by a candidate prior to awarding a PhD degree. Some professors gleefully noted that the HEC had been mortally weakened by the removal of its chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, and argued that good advantage needed to be taken of this happy fact. Those who wanted international testing were labelled agents of foreign powers.

This horrible mess comes from a misguided HEC policy that emphasised numbers over all else. The number of PhD students registered at various universities, including QAU, was purposely made to explode. But many PhD students, perhaps because of their poor schooling, are not good enough as PhD material. Under pressure to maintain a minimal standard for PhD students, the HEC finally decreed a pass-mark of 40 percentile in the international GRE subject test.

The GRE test is fairly elementary and pitched only at the Bachelor’s level (i.e. 16 years of education). It has, however, proved to be too difficult for many Pakistani PhD students even at the end of their PhD studies. In spite of several tries, most cannot meet the 40 percentile pass mark, an extremely low level. But it is common for Indian, Chinese and Iranian students to score twice as much at the beginning of their studies.

Why the urgency for eliminating international testing? This is easily understood. Each professor gets paid a few lakh rupees per PhD produced, with a current maximum of 10 students per supervisor at QAU. Lifting the GRE requirement removes a threat to the additional income of their supervisors. To keep up appearances, from now on a token internal test will be used instead. It is hard to imagine that any student will be allowed to fail. While the decision of the professors to do away with international testing has been greeted with relief by many enrolled PhD students at QAU, among better students there is a sense of foreboding of an endless downward slide.

Many students recognise that international tests are difficult but they also know it is a real measure of what they have learned. Although students in all other departments have reportedly failed, the fact is that even average students in the physics department have done reasonably well. Over the last year, a total of nine students in the physics department have cleared the 40 percentile requirement. Three students, who the department subsequently honoured, secured over 75 percentile. All students, whether they do well or otherwise, say they learned a great deal of the subject matter in preparing for this challenge and felt more educated. The problem is their teachers seem to think the test is impossibly difficult, or perhaps they are insufficiently equipped to help their students prepare for it.

The involvement of teachers in running QAU’s non-teaching affairs is another bad sign. A weak university administration appears unwilling or unable to resist the growing power of professors who seek personal profit at the expense of public good. There is even resort to violence — some professors had physically kicked the former registrar, the second-most senior university administrator, out of his office. This action drew no comment from the head of the university.

To be fair, the threat to QAU is not just from inside. The campus contains some of the prime undeveloped public land in the capital. This land is being encroached upon by surrounding villagers as well as political influentials. University administrators, supposedly on behalf of the public interest, plan to sell off bits and pieces of university property to commercial interests. The sale of a piece of campus land to make a gas station on Murree Road is currently under negotiation. But the university’s land was given to it for educational purposes. It rightfully belongs to future generations of Pakistanis.

The writer is chairman and professor at the department of physics, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

The Afghan puzzle

By Rakesh Mani

BY all measures, the Bush administration’s strategy in Afghanistan has been an abject failure.

Taliban insurgents are moving from strength to strength; they have seized control of the Swat valley, imposed their austere version of Islamic law and thrown open challenge to the writ of the Pakistani state.

Violence and chaos on the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland are spiralling out of control, and the Pakistan Army seems to have little control over the situation.

President Obama’s grand plan to stabilise the troubled region hinges largely on a ‘troop surge’ that will presumably boost the US military presence by three brigades — 15,000 men. Yes, a surge might bring a reduction in civilian casualties and collateral damage from air strikes, but there are several important factors that threaten this strategy:

(i) Increasing the number of troops on the ground will heighten the prevailing sense of occupation among the notoriously resistant Pashtun population. Creating enemies among the Afghan masses will only reverse whatever progress we register.

(ii) Military supply routes are a serious concern. Just recently, militants essentially cut supply lines to Afghanistan by bombing a bridge in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency. It is difficult to see how a troop surge can work if supply routes are going to be constantly under threat.

(iii) Most Nato partners have been careful to keep their troops away from conflict-ridden Taliban areas in fear of public reprisals at home. It is likely that a troop surge will be filled largely by the United States. But more American troops in troubled areas will necessarily result in increased human cost. And the American public’s support will evaporate if a spike in fatalities dominates the headlines. Is President Obama prepared to go in deeper, and risk public disapproval?

In light of these challenges, some analysts have suggested recruiting Afghan tribes to the battle, and using them to secure Taliban and Al Qaeda strongholds. This would be a dangerous mistake.

In a society of multiple clans and sub-clans whose various allegiances and blood feuds have been running for centuries, arming local militias will only encourage warlordism, worsen the security situation and undermine the writ of the Afghan government.The strategy of using local actors may have worked well to quell a sectarian insurgency in Iraq’s Anbar province, but its effectiveness vis-à-vis a religiously-inspired Taliban is doubtful at best. Different theatres of war require different approaches.

The Obama administration needs a clean break with the failed policies of their predecessors in the White House. Authorising covert drone attacks and incursions across the Durand Line, which separates Afghanistan and Pakistan, has only succeeded in creating an unprecedented backlash in the region. It has enraged the masses, fuelled anti-American sentiment and brought greater sympathy for the Taliban in these areas.

If the region is to be stabilised, it is imperative that we strategically rethink policy on Afghanistan and formulate a more creative and counter-intuitive approach. To that end, it can only be beneficial if talks with the Taliban are encouraged.

Yes, the basic pre-conditions of the United States government and the Taliban do not meet. President Obama wants more international forces in Afghanistan, while the Taliban’s primary condition is that these forces must leave Afghan soil. It’s a stalemate.

But with American blessing, talks can be pursued on a local Afghan setting. The Afghan government, with the assistance of special envoy George Mitchell, can work to negotiate significant power-sharing deals with senior Taliban figures on the condition that they lay down their arms and accept the Afghan constitution. For the flexible opportunists among them, the incentives are clear.

The challenge will be to identify and separate the Taliban’s hard-line ideologues from its cadre of ‘less-militant, more-opportunist’ elements. After all, the Taliban is a mix of several different regional actors who harbour multiple motivations. Fatigued by battle, their unity is, arguably, not what it once was. Manipulating this framework can hold the key to solving the Afghan puzzle.

The ‘iftar meeting’ that was held between various Afghan parties, including Taliban representatives, under Saudi hospitality in Makkah, is a positive sign. Although it is difficult to imagine the Taliban agreeing to the presence of foreign troops and accepting the Afghan constitution, progress on this front is not entirely impossible. It will be challenging, but this avenue must be encouraged and explored — in conjunction with the deterrent of a harsh military option.

The United States and its allies cannot afford to rely solely on aggressive military operations. They will have to engage both Afghanistan and Pakistan and create the military and diplomatic framework that can enable them to secure their stability.

The idea is not to impose a solution in Afghanistan, but to create the opportunities that allow for an Afghan solution.

The writer is a New York-based writer.


Alarm bells or new strategy?

By Adil Zareef

PAKISTAN’S interior adviser has announced a crisp new strategy for Swat, the details of which have not been divulged, although it was mentioned that Al Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Tanzeem-i-Islami and the Tora Bora and Qari Mushtaq groups needed to be tackled. Fortunately, it has dawned on the authorities that the militants’ objective is not simply the imposition of Sharia but the destruction of Pakistan.

But the adviser was frugal with information when it came to details of civilians killed and injured and schools pulverised. It is only when the horrors of Swat abate that the enormity of the death and destruction wreaked on the peaceful Swatis will truly emerge.

The state’s being in perpetual denial has horrified both independent analysts and those living in the NWFP’s war-ravaged areas. The people here have been subjected to a sense of brutal insensitivity by the government and the latter’s obfuscation of the facts. Political parties stand motionless or speak with muffled voices.

At what price one may ask? Thousands of civilians in Swat district have left. About 200 schools have been bombed and health centres, tourist resorts and forests ravaged. Several children and girls have either been abducted or gone missing. The state cannot ignore this reality for long. So where is the public outrage against this massacre?

There has been a lot of double talk. Generally, the public has been led to believe by the security agencies that RAW, Mossad and CIA mercenaries were bent upon dismembering Pakistan. Meanwhile, in the event of being threatened by India, the Taliban representatives say they will be on the side of the state. All this has created confusion in the minds of Pakistanis about the Taliban phenomenon (especially when it is recalled that they were abetted and financed by state agencies for reasons of ‘strategic depth’) conveniently blamed on Nato forces inside Afghanistan, the Indians and others.

The outright lies, distortions, cover-ups and fumbling by the state’s spokesmen have reached absurd proportions not only leading to a credibility deficit but the suffering of hapless civilians in the name of ‘national interest’.

Having bartered their political mandate for certain ‘terms and conditions’, the PPP-ANP duo is being blackmailed into fire-fighting in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack and covering up the state’s ‘strategic position’ about Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan.

It is not merely the clamping down on the Muridke madressah or the few training camps already on the western list. In question are hundreds of madressahs and training camps in Pakistan including the notorious Peuchar camp in Swat that remains untouched by Operation Rah-i-Haq. These threaten our state structure more. The government should shut these terrorist outfits.

It is a question of standing up to the very dark forces that threaten to undo the fundamentals of religious rationality and a moderate worldview and of challenging the dungeon of bigotry staring us in the face — and that we stubbornly refuse to accept.

Was it not a matter of grave injustice to have killed thousands in East Pakistan in the name of national interest? We have carried out similar military operations on the same flimsy grounds in Balochistan, killing the provincial leadership or forcing it into exile. This has led to the destruction of local livelihoods, and vast tracts of land have been taken away in the name of development.

Meanwhile, the ruthless oligarchy that enriched itself on Afghan blood during the Afghan war abetted by western and Saudi petrodollars has turned on its own citizens.

Had the ANP-PPP leadership been wiser it would have worked towards constitutional reforms by first restoring an independent judiciary. In Pakistan’s blemished history, for once the judiciary stood up to ruthless praetorian forces, asking intelligence bosses to account for the hundreds missing; besides there was the demand for constitutional transparency while conducting a ‘war against terror’. If the US was to blame for forcing Pakistan’s dictator into such terms, the political leadership too is guilty of carrying on with a discredited strategy and not setting its own house in order.

Instead of demanding accountability from Musharraf and transparency from the GHQ on the policy framework, the PPP-ANP duo let them off the hook. Under an undefined power-sharing mechanism the ANP is now paying a price in terms of credibility deficit and governance issues. Death warrants for the entire leadership living in virtual seclusion from the electorate have also been issued. The parties will eventually fall victim to the vagaries of this strategy.

Under no circumstances, should Pakistanis feel relieved because of a “better coordinated military strategy for Swat” promised by the ISPR. The obfuscations have gone on for too long. Pakistanis should demand an explanation from GHQ as to why and how thousands of diehard, ruthless Arab, Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik and Pakistani jihadis travelled from faraway Tora Bora and Waziristan when Musharraf was in power along with the MMA. Why were they allowed to wreak havoc on Bajaur and then Swat?

Where are these deadly ‘strategic assets’ being shifted to in the NWFP to repeat another gory game of death and destruction on Pashtun lands? Latest news from Dir and Mohmand points towards another wave of civilian exodus as these mercenaries are ‘transported’ there for bloodletting yet again. Who controls the NWFP, the ANP or the GHQ?

Unless we demand a full-fledged investigation by impartial world bodies this ghastly ‘war against terror’ unleashed on innocent civilians will not cease. The heartless butchers of this deadly game need to be uncovered to secure our future and for peace in the region. It is time the world spoke out with one voice: “Stop the genocide!” n

The writer is a member of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy.




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