Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Warp and weft:tales from the Pakistani blogosphere


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.

I shall refine/amend/drop this series depending on what people have to say. But to get started, here are a few blogs/themes that caught my eye. 

First up, urbanisation. This is important since much of the support for Islamist groups and for the kind of “stability” which some think can best be provided by the army has come from the urban middle and lower-middle classes. As has been the case in India, anger against corruption has also been driven by the urban middle classes who want a bigger share of the pie, while being presented rather disingenuously as concern for the rural poor.  And urbanisation is an essential subject to master for anyone who wants to invest in Pakistan.

Ambiguous, embittering and unstoppable: U.S. drones in Pakistan


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.

India, Pakistan detente: don’t trust, verify every step


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:

U.S.-Afghan agreement: Issues to be addressed

(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:

Did pro-India militias kill Western tourists in Kashmir?

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.

In India and Pakistan talks, an intimately tangled web


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.

The large cracks in fortress Kabul


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?

Tragedies don’t end wars, even in Siachen


One of the most frequently cited misconceptions about the Siachen war – where 135 Pakistani soldiers and civilian staff were buried by an avalanche this weekend – is that it is somehow contained to a relatively small area, as though it were a mountain version of a 19th century battlefield.  The Indian and Pakistani troops, we are told in an oft-used and incorrect phrase, are “deployed on the Siachen Glacier at elevations as high as 22,000 feet.” From there, it becomes a relatively easy step to say, as many are saying after the tragedy, that India and Pakistan should end their futile conflict on the world’s highest battlefield. The argument has gathered momentum with a successful private-turned-state visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to India, generating expectations that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will in turn visit Pakistan this year.

Continue down this track and you overlap with another frequently made argument - that a meaningful and important agreement must be ready to be signed in order to give substance to Singh’s trip. Enter a deal on Siachen, where India and Pakistan have competed over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice high in the Karakoram mountains since 1984. Such an agreement, so the argument goes, would act as a major confidence building measure, building the momentum to reach a settlement of the festering Kashmir dispute and lasting peace between India and Pakistan.

From Afghanistan, the countdown to 2014


The dusty streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, restaurants selling American fast food are bustling and there is a crowd of students and parents outside a girls’ school in the centre of town trying to slip through the shuttered gates at the start of the school year.

Returning to Kabul for the first time since December, there was no sense that the mood on the ground had changed significantly. But I couldn’t help wondering how all this might change once foreign troops who have propped up the Afghan state for more than a decade leave in 2014. There is talk of a return to chaos and civil war, although admittedly you hear more of those grim warnings abroad and in the foreign circles of  Kabul than from the people themselves who will be in the middle of it.

America, Afghanistan and the prisoners they hold


As in any conflict, the prisoners that the players in Afghanistan hold are a key part of their political and military strategy as they head into 2014. For the United States, the more Taliban fighters or even potential Taliban are kept off the battlefield, the better it is. For years it has been running a regime of administrative detentions under which it can hold not only suspected combatants but even people it thinks could be a potential threat for an indefinite period.

For the Taliban, getting its commanders out has been a top priority and indeed its officials say securing the release of  some of them held in Guantanamo is the starting point of the talks that it has had with the United States for more than a year now.  A former frontline commander and cousin of the Taliban’s main negotiator in the talks with the United States told me in an interview that the Taliban would resume the negotiations only when the United States carried out its promise to release five senior Taliban figures held in the U.S. military prison in Cuba.  A prison committee is ready with the names of more comrades that it wants freed.