Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

Anyone here been to Pakistan and speaks English?

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cricket  refugeeU.S. Vice President Joe Biden made a rather odd comment during his visit to Pakistan this week.  “We want what you want: a strong, stable, democratic Pakistan,” he told a news conference, according to the Washington Post.  “We wish your success because it’s in our own interest.” 

It was  not that he was wrong to deny accusations that the United States is out to destabilise Pakistan – a conspiracy theory fuelled by confusion over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, which to many Pakistanis seems so irrational that they assume there must be a darker plan behind it. Nor that he was wrong to promote democracy — although the United States has had a track record of backing military rulers in Pakistan when it suits them.

It was more in the choice of language — not necessarily Biden’s strong point. It left you wondering which audience he was appealing to when he said, “we want what you want”.

To popular sentiment, which at the moment is running high? But it is not about the need for democracy, but about defending the honour of the prophet Mohammed against perceived western-driven attempts to amend provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code imposing the death penalty for anyone believed to have insulted him.  Religious parties have been able to bring thousands out into the streets to defend Pakistan’s so-called blasphemy laws, after the murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his own security guard over his opposition to these legal provisions.

After Holbrooke, chances of political settlement in Afghanistan fall

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holbrookeReading through some of the many thousands of words written about Richard Holbrooke,  for me two stories stood out in their ability to capture what will be lost with his death:

The first was in Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s obituary in the Washington Post:

“While beleaguered members of Mr. Holbrooke’s traveling party sought sleep on transcontinental flights, he usually would stay up late reading. On one trip to Pakistan, he padded to the forward of the cabin in his stocking feet to point out to a reporter a passage in Margaret Bourke-White’s memoirs of the time of India-Pakistan partition and independence. Bourke-White quoted Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah telling her that Pakistan would have no problems with the Americans, because ‘they will always need us more than we need them.’ Mr. Holbrooke laughed, saying, ‘Nothing ever changes.’”

Lashkar-e-Taiba threatens more violence in Kashmir

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The Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group blamed by India for last November’s assault on Mumbai, has threatened more violence in Kashmir after a five-day gunbattle that killed 25 people, including eight Indian troops.

A spokesman for the group, speaking from an undisclosed location, said: “India should understand the freedom struggle in Kashmir was not over, it is active with full force.”

The Pakistani kaleidoscope and the Swat ceasefire

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The debate over the Pakistan government’s decision to seek peace with Taliban militants in the Swat valley by promising to introduce sharia law is proving to be like everything else in the Pakistani kaleidoscope – turn it a little bit and you see something else.

Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the peace deal could encourage groups in other parts of the country to copy the example of the Taliban in forcing through changes. ”The bottom line is that while conflict might be arrested for the short term in one part of the country, it might escalate in other parts where groups of people acting like the Taliban could impose their will on the rest of the population in the name of changing the judicial, economic or political system,” she says. “Ultimately, this could come to redefine Pakistan’s identity completely.”

Holbrooke in Pakistan: a sea change?

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With Richard Holbrooke very much keeping his own counsel about his maiden visit to Pakistan, it’s been hard to assess quite how much change is to be expected from President Barack Obama’s new special envoy.

But a couple of early op-eds suggest that the change might be quite substantial. 

The other Guantanamo

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U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the Guantanamo military prison closed within the year, but what about the detention centre in Bagram, the U.S. military base in Afghanistan, which has an equally murky legal status ?

An estimated 600 detainees are held there, without any charge and many for over six years, rights activists say. That makes it more than twice the number held in Guantanamo, and according to military personnel who know both facilities, it is much more spartan and with lesser privileges as this report in the New York Times says.

What does Pakistan want from U.S. envoy Holbrooke ?

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Former Pakistan ambassador to London and Washington Maleeha
Lodhi has given a taste of what Richard Holbrooke can expect when
he makes his maiden visit to Islamabad next week in his new role as
President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Pakistan and
Afghanistan.

She may have owed her diplomatic career to General Pervez Musharraf,  but being an ex-official does not mean she has lost touch.

U.S. missile strikes on Pakistan : more of the same under Obama or worse to come?

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The first U.S. missiles have struck Pakistan since U.S. President Barack Obama  took office, dispelling any possibility that he might relent on these raids that have so angered Pakistanis, many of whom think it only engenders reprisal attacks from militants on their cities.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari protested to the U.S. ambassador over Friday’s twin raids in South and North Waziristan and  newspaper editorialists and commentators are worried this is just a foretaste of things to come. The strikes, the first since Jan 2, have led the Dawn newspaper to recall Obama’s statements during the presidential camapaign when he repeatedly said he would “take out high value terrorist targets” inside Pakistan if it was unable or unwilling to do so.

Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

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Earlier this month, I wrote that the brief given to a South Asian envoy by President Barack Obama could prove to be the first test of the success of Indian diplomacy after the Mumbai attacks. At issue was whether the envoy would be asked to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or whether the brief would be extended to India, reflecting comments made by Obama during his election campaign that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would ease tensions across the region.

That question has been resolved – publicly at least — with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of India or Kashmir.

Obama and his South Asian envoy

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There’s much talk about President-elect Barack Obama possibly appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to South Asia. The New York Times says it’s likely; while the Washington Independent says it may be a bit premature to expect final decisions, even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

But more interesting perhaps than the name itself will be the brief given to any special envoy for South Asia. Would the focus be on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or on Pakistan and India? Or all three? The Times of India said India might be removed from the envoy’s beat to assuage Indian sensitivities about Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral issue to be resolved with Pakistan, and which has long resisted any outside mediation. This, the paper said, was an evolution in thinking compared to statements made by Obama during his election campaign about Kashmir.

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