Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
“O hunter! why did you hold the arrow in your bow? You opened your closed eye slowly. It looks like you started watching my youth. Yes, I am that deer in this forest.”
“And, the tender Talib Jan; The one with long hair, The young Talib Jan, Who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan… You would not ask me why I am crying.”
Those lines are from three poems in the newly published “Poetry of the Taliban”, a collection that is as maddeningly confusing as it is revealing. The hatred of the west. The intimacy between the hunted and the hunter. The dirge for the dead boy. The collection, edited by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, is a map of sorts into the inner thinking of the Taliban movement, yet one that is painfully hard to follow. Such is the diversity of these poems that you cannot read them and stereotype the Taliban movement either as an enemy which must be crushed or, equally perversely, as a coherent movement that just needs to be coaxed into a peace deal to end the Afghan war. They are poems which deserve to be studied closely.
Pakistan’s relationship with the United States can’t get more transactional than the prolonged negotiations over restoration of the Pakistani supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan, according to leaked accounts of so-called private negotiations, is demanding $5000 as transit fee for allowing trucks to use the two most obvious routes into landlocked Afghanistan, blocked since November when two dozen Pakistani soldiers were killed in an U.S. air strike from Afghanistan. The United States which apparently paid about $250 for each vehicle carrying everything from fuel to bottled water all these years is ready to double that, but nowhere near the price Pakistan is demanding for its support of the war. It also wants an apology for the deaths of the soldiers but America has stopped short of that, offering regret instead.
In 1997, the business-friendly Nawaz Sharif was prime minister, relations between Pakistan and India were thawing and the two countries were trying to use improved trade to put decades of animosity behind them. Or as the Indian journalist Salil Tripathi wrote at the time, “this sorry state of affairs may be about to improve – through commerce.” Then came the nuclear tests in 1998, the Kargil war and a coup in 1999, mass military mobilisation in 2001-2002, the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and now, finally, we are here again.
Trade is the new/old panacea of India-Pakistan relations, moving ahead rapidly after Islamabad said last year it was ready to match India’s offer of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status. The Economist called it “a profound and welcome shift” that could eventually open up for India trade through Pakistan to Afghanistan and the markets of Central Asia and beyond. As trade increases, so the argument goes, India and Pakistan will build the trust needed to tackle their territorial disputes, while economic inter-dependence will reduce the risk of conflict.
I am going to break a self-imposed rule and recount my latest conversation with a Pakistani taxi driver. His parents live in Lahore, so we got talking about his main worries about Pakistan. The answer - lack of clean water and dengue fever. I am somewhat parodying the tired journalistic device of “my taxi driver said” here (I promise not to do it again) – since you can quote a Pakistani taxi driver without even going to Pakistan (London minus the extra airfare) – but here’s my point. People don’t always, or even often, talk about the stuff that makes headline news – like relations with the United States, the war in Afghanistan, Islamist militancy, drones, civilian-military competition and political confrontation. Pakistan (190 million people or more) is also cultural, social, economic and historical; it is religious but not only religious, traditional and urbanising; it is the most parochial country to be obsessed with the outside world; the most feudal to be driven by a web-savvy and growing youth; its issues include music and education, the price of onions and the fear of dengue.
To capture some of that, I have decided to start, on an experimental basis, a round-up of some of the latest articles in the Pakistani blogosphere. Apologies to anyone who feels they were unfairly ignored this time around but 1) I notice more those on my Twitter timeline (@myraemacdonald), 2) I am looking at themes that would be worth exploring further 3) I have tried to exclude those about The Big Political and Geopolitical Issues and 4) This is a personal choice rather than a scorecard. I have, however, included blogs from the diaspora with some reservations - inside the space created by the internet, and particularly on Twitter, diaspora/Pakistan conversations appear seamless (especially, for reasons I have never understood, when Manchester United is playing); outside the internet, real world influences are different in ways that are not always obvious.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate on drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas is that it rests on a tangle of assumptions on which neither Washington nor Islamabad can agree. The result is a corrosive discussion which undermines U.S. legitimacy and gives Pakistanis a focus for anti-Americanism which drowns out all other issues, including how militancy should be tackled and the Afghan war brought to an end.
This week the United States and Pakistan again publicly contradicted each other on the use of drones. While top White House official John Brennan described drone attacks as legal, ethical and wise, Pakistan lodged a formal protest against the latest strike on its tribal areas while its foreign ministry condemned it as a “total contravention of international law”. The hardening of Pakistan’s attitude to drones – it has shifted from tacit approval and token condemnation to more vocal opposition – overlaps with a dispute over Washington’s refusal to apologise formally for a NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border last year. Pakistan has insisted on an apology before it reopens supply routes for troops in Afghanistan, closed since the attack.
It’s clear for some time now that India and Pakistan are on the cusp of the kind of open trade relationship they had until the 1965 war when all business links were snapped, border trading posts shut and overland Indian access to Afghanistan blocked. It was never to be the same again, despite fitful progress over the years.
On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has invested a great deal of personal credibility in a rapprochement with Pakistan, inaugurates a $4 billion refinery in the northern state of Punjab , not far from the border with Pakistan. While the bulk of the refinery, which is a joint venture between billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and an Indian state oil company will feed the hungry energy markets of India’s booming northern triangle, it stands to reason that some of the fuel sales will flow westwards, to Pakistan. The distance from Bhatinda where the 9 million tonne refinery is located to Pakistan’s heartland city of Lahore is about 100 miles. If you don’t sell it to the market next door where else would you begin from ? Pakistan’s refining capacity is half the domestic demand and last year it opened up diesel imports from India, although petrol and other petroleum products are still on a rapidly dwindling negative list.
from Expert Zone:
(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)
The draft strategic partnership agreement between the U.S. and Kabul to address their relationship after the completion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal in 2014 has been arrived at after negotiations. The draft addresses the issues for ten years beyond 2014. A scrutiny of Afghan forces and the challenges they face highlights issues that merit inclusion in the agreement.
from India Insight:
A government human rights commission in Kashmir on Tuesday evening said it will review records from the 1995 abduction of Western tourists after a new book claimed that four of six foreign tourists were murdered by a pro-India militia to discredit India’s arch-rival Pakistan.
On July 4, 1995, Americans Donald Hutchings and John Childs, as well as Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan were kidnapped by the little known Al-Faran militant group while trekking in the Himalayas near Pahalgam, 97 km (60 miles) southeast of Srinagar.
Listening to Narendra Modi campaign for re-election in Gujarat in 2002 after some of the worst communal bloodletting in India’s history, one word was repeated so often that even I, with little knowledge of the language, could follow the meaning. “Pakistan”, he said, was the real threat to India. No matter that his opponents accused him of orchestrating violence in which some 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in retaliation for the burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train returning from a flashpoint town in northern India. “Pakistan”, he said, was responsible for terrorism in India. “Pakistan”, Modi repeated five times like an incantation, his fist clenched, his neck garlanded with marigolds. The cheering crowds were to be left in no doubt that only he, with his brand of Hindu right-wing populism, could stand between them and the external threat. The guilt-by-association at the death of so many Muslims earlier in the year in Gujarat, a state which borders Pakistan, was to be rechannelled into victimhood and vulnerability. From there came a process of expiation and, for Modi, electoral victory.
A full decade on, cleared by Indian courts of involvement in the Gujarat bloodshed, his image rehabilitated at least for some as a leader who can deliver good governance in India, Modi faces a new state election in Gujarat at the end of this year in which Pakistan will again play a role. It will be far less than before – India has moved on from the tensions of 2001 and 2002 when it came close to war with Pakistan over a December attack on its parliament. But the fact that Pakistan will play any role at all in the Gujarat campaign is testament to the peculiar intimacy of India-Pakistan relations, and with it, the tangled web of domestic politics that will define how far and how fast the two countries can go in improving ties.
Arrive in Kabul and you know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic on its crumbling roads. Whole streets are blocked off by concertina wire and sandbags, while a zig-zag series of blast walls are designed to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber. Indeed, the walls seem to get higher and more neighbourhoods disappear behind this concrete curtain each time you go back. And yet insurgents have repeatedly breached the layer-upon-layer of security, as happened in September when the vast U.S. embassy compound came under attack, and now on Sunday when the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic district was again targeted along with parliament.
The one feature common to the multiple attacks on Sunday and the daring September operation was that the attackers sneaked into half-finished or empty buildings, took positions half-way up the building and were able to hold off an armada of helicopters and Special Operations forces for up to 20 hours. Kabul has been in the midst of a construction boom that has slowed only recently as the Western pullout looms in 2014. The result is that you have a number of these high rise buildings in the centre of town which offer vantage views of the city – especially the sealed-off parts where the diplomatic and political elite live in virtual bunkers, and which an ordinary Afghan can hardly ever see, much less gain access to. From the reports so far, the attackers didn’t have to do much to get into these lightly guarded blocks, many of them just empty shells. Once in, it was easy to hide behind a concrete pillar on a sixth-floor landing and fire rocket propelled grenades at the western installations below while holding off the choppers. The question is why are these buildings left unguarded even after the U.S. embassy was attacked from another one in the vicinity last September. What about the measures that were set in place to monitor such high-rises?