Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

The woman who died twice; Pakistan and acid attacks

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There are many ways to make women invisible. One is to ignore them; another is to banish them from public view; and in the case of acid attack victims, to literally efface them. Pakistani acid attack victim Fakhra Yunus seems to have suffered all three, when after being deformed by an acid attack in 2000, she escaped to Italy for treatment where she lived for years, largely forgotten in the country she left behind.

This month, according to Pakistani media reports, she jumped to her death in Italy, guaranteeing that at least for a brief moment, her name would be remembered. Her body was brought back to Pakistan and Pakistan’s Geo News channel ran a story on her accompanied by before-and-after pictures of a once beautiful girl. On Twitter, links to old stories about her were unearthed and exchanged - a detailed profile in Time magazine from 2001, and a story in Newsline from 2011. Activists also launched a  petition seeking justice for acid attack victims.

Fakhra Yunus, a former dancing girl, was catapulted into the feudal elite when she married into one of Pakistan’s best known political families – her former husband Bilal Khar is the cousin of now Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar (whose make of handbag alone has garnered more attention recently.) After years of abuse, Fakhra Yunus fled back home where she said her estranged husband caught up with her when she was sleeping and poured acid over her. Bilal Khar was never prosecuted, and insisted after her death that he was not guilty.

After the acid attack, Fakhra Yunus sought  help from Tehmina Durrani, who herself had married into the same family before leaving and writing of her own experience in her autobiography “My Feudal Lord”. Helped by Durrani, she was able to move to Italy where surgeons attempted to restore her face.  Yet in some ways, Durrani wrote in an op-ed, she had already died back in 2000.  When she committed suicide, wrote Durrani, “Fakhra died again to remind the world that she had lived.”

Do you think Afghanistan hasn’t changed since 1842?

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With U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in disarray, one of the tropes we are likely to see with increasing frequency is the notion that Afghans are inherently ungovernable, too steeped in tradition to accept the “modernity” offered to them,  and by extension, only have themselves to blame for failure.  It will come in seemingly innocuous references to the massacre of the British army during its retreat from Kabul in 1842, graphically symbolised by William Brydon, the “lone” survivor struggling into Jalalabad on his horse.  We might see a revival of the historically inaccurate cliche about Afghanistan being the Graveyard of Empires (the British went on to defeat the Sikhs and kept their empire for another century.)

Pundits will explain how Afghanistan’s history offers a guide to its future (because people in Afghanistan can be frozen in time in 1842, rather as though we might freeze our conception of Americans to the United States in its pre-civil war days).  And then we will see comments like this, from the editors of the National Review Online:  “The impulse to throw up our hands and be done with the entire business is understandable. The protests over the Koran burnings brought home, again, that we are dealing with primitive people in a primitive society operating on a system of values vastly different than ours.”

Afghanistan : the creeping enemy within

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Shortly before U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s  plane was to land on an unannounced trip in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, an Afghan man in a stolen pickup truck drove onto the tarmac at high speed. The  truck crashed into a ditch after it sped across the runway ramp and the driver, whose motives were unclear, emerged from the vehicle in flames.  No explosives were found on the man who later died or in the truck  and the Pentagon said at no point was the defense chief’s plane in danger. But it was an extraordinary breach of security at the British airfield in the southern province of Helmand which sits next to a vast U.S. Marine base.

Later that day U.S. Marines,  gathered to hear Panetta speak, were ordered to leave their weapons outside the tent just like the Afghans who had been told before not to bring their weapons to the tent. The New York Times quotes the top U.S. military officer in Helmand as saying he wanted a consistent policy for both the Marines and their Afghan partners.  Again it tells you about the nervousness that has crept into U.S. operations in Afghanistan, after a spate of green-on-blue attacks or attacks on coalition forces and advisers by their Afghan allies that strike at the heart of the mission  to prepare the Afghan national forces to take over the fight against the Taliban.

Beneath the radar, a Russia-Pakistan entente takes shape

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Russian PM Putin shakes hands with Pakistan's PM Gillani during their meeting in St.Petersburg

One of the early calls that Vladimir Putin took following his expected victory in the Russian presidential election last weekend was from Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. He congratulated Putin on his success and invited him to visit Islamabad in September which the Russian leader accepted, according to newspaper reports citing an official statement.

Amid Afghan gloom, a glimmer of hope on regional front

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One of the comments you hear quite often about the long U.S. war in Afghanistan is that the Americans should leave it to the region to sort out its own problems. It is sometimes said in fear that the United States will abandon Afghanistan to civil war; sometimes in exasperation over its often confusing policies; and sometimes in anger. With the U.S. approach to Afghanistan in disarray after protests over the burning of copies of the Koran, regional powers are, however, attempting to do just that.  Progress, whether in the first meeting of a China-Pakistan-Afghanistan trilateral, or in improved trade relations between Pakistan and India, or in regional diplomacy led by Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation among others, is extremely tentative.  And regional powers, especially India and Pakistan, may yet end up backing opposing sides in any civil war which follows the withdrawal of most foreign combat troops at the end of 2014. But the fact that regional diplomacy is happening at all suggests there is at least some hope of salvaging the situation in Afghanistan.

China, whose help has long been sought by the administration of President Barack Obama to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan, hosted a meeting in Beijing at the end of last month in which the three countries pledged to support an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and to work together to accommodate each others’ concerns, a foreign ministry statement quoted by the China Daily said. “Analysts spoke highly of the significance of the dialogue,” the China Daily added, “which marked the beginning of new process for countries in the region to tackle problems by themselves.”

And now, into the dead end in Afghanistan

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When the history of the Afghan war is written, the protests over the burning of copies of the Koran will certainly be defined as a watershed. What remains to be seen is whether they become the moment the United States lost the war, or rather, when America lost patience.

The anger of Afghans is evident, whether it be over the sense of religious insult or the sheer frustration with a war that has gone on too long and yielded too  little.

Culture wars: The burning of the Koran

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U.S. President Barack Obama has apologised for the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a military base in Afghanistan and the top general in the country has ordered all coalition troops to undergo training in the proper handling of religious materials by March 3.

Quite apart from the question of how can you “inadvertently” burn books, the bigger issue is can soldiers be so blindly ignorant of the consequences of their action ? Is it because these were soldiers in the rear, insulated  in a huge base that  sometimes feels like a little America with its gymns, snack joints and the easy conviviality between men and women, a setting far removed from the hard-scrabble country outside ?

Difa-e-Pakistan: What we know and do not want to hear

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It is an adage that everything is already known; it just has to be rediscovered. But it applies particularly well to the rise of the Difa-e-Pakistan (Defence of Pakistan) Council (DPC). The new alliance of Islamist groups, campaigning for a break in ties with the United States  and an end to warming relations with India, is giving clear shape for the first time in many years to an underworld of hyper-nationalism, militancy, sectarianism and faith-based politics whose influence in Pakistan has until now operated largely beneath the surface.

And many Pakistanis are not liking what they are seeing.  Columnist Ejaz Haider described the very public rallies of the DPC - which includes the Jamaat-e-Islami political organisation, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the humanitarian wing of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group),  the anti-Shi’ite Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and former spy chief Hamid Gul among others – as “a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment for the entire nation and, yes, the military and its various intelligence agencies”.

Afghanistan: Asia’s Congo

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                                   By Dan Magnowski

For many in the West, Afghanistan and Iraq have much in common.
 Both are Islamic countries whose nasty regimes were kicked out by
the U.S. after September 11 2001; in both places, the Americans,
British and others stayed and spent huge amounts of money on nobody’s
quite sure what; and both were examples of ‘evil’, back when that was
a cornerstone of foreign policy thinking.

Afghan “exit strategy” begins to unravel

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The Afghan “exit strategy” appears to be fraying badly before it has even had time to get properly underway. With many fearing civil war after foreign combat troops leave at the end of 2014, it was always going to be hard to weave together the different elements needed to offer a hope of peace. Among those elements was a concerted international strategy to show outside powers were not going to abandon Afghanistan by promising generous funding after foreign troops leave;  some kind of regional detente, and sufficient momentum behind talks with Taliban insurgents to shape the conditions for a dignified withdrawal.

Yet signs are that it is getting harder rather than easier to pull those different moving parts together.

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