Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
As the silver waters of the Kishanganga rush through this north Kashmir valley, Indian labourers are hard at work on a hydropower project that will dam the river just before it flows across one of the world’s most militarised borders into Pakistan.
The loud hum of excavators echoes through the pine-covered valley, clearing masses of soil and boulders.
The 330-MW dam shows India’s growing focus on hydropower but also highlights how water is a growing source of tension with downstream Pakistan, which depends on the snow-fed Himalayan rivers for everything from drinking water to agriculture.
Islamabad has complained to an international court that the dam in the Gurez valley, one of dozens planned by India, will affect river flows and is illegal. The court has halted any permanent work on the river for the moment, although India can still continue tunneling and other associated projects.
So many deaths in Pakistan; so many to outrage or upset us. How do we choose whose death to notice? The civilian killed by a drone strike? The Shia Hazara gunned down in Balochistan? The Ahmadi father knifed to death in his home? The beheaded Pakistani soldier? The mother who died in a suicide bombing? The murdered journalist? The child swept away by floods? The acid attack victim?
And let’s be clear – we do choose. The domestic and international media decide whose deaths to highlight. We put their stories out on Twitter. Politicians speak about their case. Since there are too many deaths for us to condemn them all, we notice only some. I have been thinking about this, the politicisation of death, after two stories appeared in the last few days about two very different people killed in Pakistan.
If you go to the run-down Desh bazaar in central Kabul – which sells everything from widescreen Samsung televisions to used shoes - it doesn’t matter what currency you use to pay for your shopping. They will accept the afghani, the US dollar or the Pakistani rupee.
But if you were to go further east to Jalalabad near the border with Pakistan, you will probably end up paying for everything in the Pakistani currency, or kaldhar, as it is known in Afghanistan from the Taliban period. In fact, the shopkeeper – who buys all his goods from Pakistan – might even insist you pay in rupees rather than afghanis. An Afghan colleague who was coming through Jalalabad on his way back from Pakistan said the restaurant where his family stopped for lunch refused the afghani. And just as a large swathe of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan uses the rupee, in the west the Iranian rial competes with the afghani.
In a carefully worded statement, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was sorry for the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO airstrike on the Afghan border last November. She slipped in an apology too on Pakistan’s behalf saying that, “We are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists.” And she announced that NATO supply routes, closed since last November, would be reopened.
One of the risks of the deteriorating situation inside Pakistan and its worsening relations with the outside world is the temptation to box it into a manageable category to make it less bewildering. Thus this week, the disqualification of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani by the Supreme Court was widely described as a “judicial coup” - an evocation of the many military interventions in Pakistan since its creation in 1947 – and from there it became easy to compare it to the reassertion of military power in Egypt . By then we were but a hop, skip and a jump away from Pakistan’s definition as a failed state.
But Pakistan is not a failed state. It is perhaps better described, as columnist Doctor Mohammad Taqi said on Twitter, by what in medicine would be considered ”a long term acute patient…like a successful failed state”. The disqualification of the prime minister will not lead to the collapse of the democratic system in Pakistan – rather the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will choose a new prime minister and limp on to elections due by early next year.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is using increasingly forthright terms to describe the spillover of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in its campaign of drone strikes. “We are fighting a war in the FATA, we are fighting a war against terrorism,” he said during a visit to India. The idea that the United States is at war inside Pakistan, albeit in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, is not new. But the use of language is significant, requiring as Spencer Ackerman noted at Danger Room, “a war-weary (US) public to get used to fighting what’s effectively a third war in a decade, even if this one relies far more on remote controlled robots than ground troops”.
Panetta’s choice of words (and venue for delivering them) may not go down too well with Pakistani authorities in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. It is not particularly promising for the people of FATA either, who find themselves caught in the middle of a shadow war between the United States and Pakistan. But in one respect, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Rarely has the United States fought a war in a place about which it knows so little. If Panetta’s comments force people to learn about FATA, it might even lift us out of what until now has been a polemical debate between supporters and opponents of drone strikes, with little attention paid to the voices of people who actually live there.
According to the Pakistani media, Shakil Afridi, the doctor who worked with the CIA to help track down Osama bin Laden, has been jailed not for his role in trying to find the al Qaeda leader, but for colluding with the Lashkar-e-Islam militant group and its chief, Mangal Bagh, based in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Dawn newspaper cited court documents showing that the tribal court which sentenced him to 33 years in jail ”did not entertain evidence relating to Dr Shakil Afridi’s involvement with the CIA, citing lack of jurisdiction as the main reason….” (Afridi was sentenced under the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a British colonial-era law used to deal with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)). Instead, Afridi – arrested on May 23, 2011 shortly after the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who found and killed bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad – was convicted on the basis of “his love for Mangal Bagh”. “The court held that the LI (Lashkar-e-Islam) had sought the support of foreign intelligence agencies across the border in Afghanistan to wage war against the state of Pakistan and that Mr Afridi’s association with the militant outfit proved his involvement in activities inimical to the state of Pakistan.”
For the purposes of argument let’s take this account at face value - and at this point nothing about the Afridi case should be considered “true” in any meaningful sense. (Under the FCR he has had no opportunity to speak in public and give his side of the story and if he were under trial in a fair court of law, he would have to be assumed innocent until proven guilty.) If he was sentenced for links to Mangal Bagh, the question of whether he was a hero or a traitor in working with the CIA is irrelevant. So too are the ethics of running a fake vaccination scheme to try to find bin Laden – for which Afridi stands accused not as a traitor but a bad doctor.
“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.”
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.