Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Historical parallels can be misleading, so I am a little bit wary of reading too much into a comparison between the devastating cyclone which hit then East Pakistan in 1970 and the current floods in Pakistan. But on the surface the similarities are there.
In 1970, the Pakistani government was criticised for not doing enough to help the victims of the Bhola cyclone, exacerbating tensions between the western and eastern wings of the country ahead of a civil war in which East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. In 2010, the Pakistani government has been criticised for not doing enough to help the victims of the floods; potentially exacerbating tensions between the ruling elite and the poor — usually the first to suffer in a natural disaster. At the same time the country is fighting what is effectively a civil war against Islamist militants, for whom poverty and alienation provide a fertile breeding ground.
At the very least, you can say that big natural disasters have unpredictable consequences. For that reason I’m reluctant to start speculating about the long term consequences of the floods, although the Indian blog, The Acorn, has made a pretty good stab at it here. And you can also say that the response of India will be crucial.
In 1971, India backed the Bengali separatists, inflicting a humiliating military defeat on Pakistan, forcing its army to surrender at Dhaka and taking 90,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that war – and there are many – Pakistan’s narrative memory of India exploiting its weakness in a civil war to split the country in two continues to inform its thinking about its much bigger neighbour to this day. So what happens in 2010?
Outside President Asif Ali Zardari’s political rally in Birmingham last weekend, I chatted to a middle-aged woman passing by about the floods in Pakistan. “I have every sympathy for Pakistan and the Pakistanis, but he is not helping them much, is he?” she said. Another woman asked me to explain why it was that the protesters were not focused on the floods but demonstrating “about all sorts”. Inside the rally, a young British Pakistani who had recently returned from a visit to his family home in Kashmir complained about negative stereotyping in the media of Pakistan that had reduced a country of some 170 million people to “a terrorist threat”.
If there is a common thread to the relatively slow western response to one of the worst catastrophes in Pakistan’s history, it is a sense of confusion, not about whether to help, but how to help. That, and the dehumanising impact of stereotypes - corrupt politicians, angry bearded protesters, suicide bombers to name but a few – that obscure the impact of the floods on the very real people – 14 million of them - affected by the disaster.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s trip to Britain was particularly ill-fated. When he first planned a visit which should have culminated in him bringing his son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, out into the political arena, no one could have predicted such a bewildering series of crises. A row with Britain over remarks made in India by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Pakistan must not “look both ways” in its approach to Islamist militants. Pakistan’s worst floods in 80 years. A plane crash, and then riots in Karachi.
So it was perhaps par for the course that his final event in Britain, a political rally in the city of Birmingham for British Pakistani supporters of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), should be dogged by controversy. Zardari faced a firestorm of criticism for going ahead with the visit while his country faced so many problems, and the combination of protesters outside the rally and a shoe-thrower inside appeared to mark the culmination of a disastrously ill-judged overseas tour.
“Whatever the result, this meeting will be a turning point in Pakistan’s history,” Pakistan President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto told his daughter Benazir as he prepared for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1972 in the Indian hill resort of Simla after his country’s defeat by India in the 1971 war. “I want you to witness it first hand.”
If there is a slightly surreal quality to President Asif Ali Zardari’s controversial state visit to Britain - where he is expected to launch the political career of Oxford graduate Bilawal Bhutto at a rally for British Pakistanis in Birmingham on Saturday - it is perhaps no more surreal than taking your daughter, herself then a student at Harvard, to witness negotiations with India after a crushing military defeat.
In all the noise about the war in Afghanistan over the last week, including the WikiLeaks uproar and a spat between Pakistan and Britain over remarks made by Prime Minister David Cameron about Pakistan’s links to Islamist militancy, one piece of news carries real significance.
On Friday, five Taliban members were struck off a U.N. Security Council list of militants subject to sanctions in a move designed to smooth the way for reconciliation talks with insurgents. Among those, two of the five were dead. The other three - Abdul Hakim Mujahid Muhammad Awrang, a former Afghan ambassador to the United Nations, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the last Taliban ambassador to Islamabad before 9/11, and Abdul Satar Paktin – are no longer subject to the asset freeze and travel ban imposed on those on the list.
I’ve been resisting diving into the WikiLeaks controversy, in part because the information contained in the documents – including allegations of Pakistani complicity with the Taliban - is not new. Yet at the same time you can’t entirely dismiss as old news something which has generated such a media feeding frenzy. So here are a few pointers to add to the discussion.
U.S. POLICY TOWARDS PAKISTAN
On the likely implications (or non-implications) for U.S. policy towards Pakistan, go back to 2009, and this piece in the National Interest by Bruce Riedel who conducted the first review of Afghan strategy for President Barack Obama. Having assessed all the evidence, including well-known American misgivings about the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, he concluded that Washington had no option but to stay the course in trying to build a long-term partnership with Pakistan.
Over the past few weeks there has been political brouhaha in Pakistan – played out daily on the nation’s front pages and interview programs — as dozens of federal and provincial lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees. The investigation of office-holders’ university qualifications has turned into a white-hot, nationwide controversy, with the Supreme Court ordering the Election Commission to verify the academic qualifications of 1,065 of the country’s 1,170 members of provincial and national assemblies. So far 46 lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees, and many more are under investigation. There has been speculation that if too many lawmakers are disqualified for holding fake degrees the country may have to midterm elections.
The requirement for academic qualification is rooted in a controversial law imposed by the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2002, which made a bachelor’s degree, or equivalent, mandatory for those running for office. While the law was justified by Musharraf as a move intended to draw in more qualified lawmakers, it was criticized as a ploy to disqualify scores of political opponents, many of whom were veterans of Pakistan’s feudal and tribal political system but lacked the necessary qualifications. The law was also seen as un-democratic in country with almost half the population illiterate, barring the great majority of the population from running for office. Echoing this view, the Supreme Court struck down the law in April 2008. However, some politicians had already acquired fake degrees to run for the February 2008 elections, and their fraudulent degrees have now become a heated issue.
Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, is to be given a a three-year extension to his term of office to maintain continuity in the country’s battle against Islamist militants.
Kayani, arguably Pakistan’s most powerful man, had been due to retire in November. His future had been the subject of intense speculation for months, with opinion divided between the those who argued he should be given an extension for the sake of continuity, and those who said that Pakistan needed to build its institutions rather than rely on individuals – as it had done with powerful army rulers in the past.
Pakistani education authorities are verifying university degrees of members of parliament amid fears that scores of them could be disqualified for holding “fake degrees”, leading to “mini mid-term elections” less than three years after general elections were held in the country.
Large scale by-elections could trigger political uncertainty in the country which is presently confronted with growing threat of Islamist militancy and is struggling to bolster a weak economy.
from India Insight:
Just days ago, scenic Kashmir, torn by two decades of war, was near normal.
Thousands of tourists were flocking to the region and honeymooners were once again gliding in shikaras, small Kashmiri boats, across the mirror-calm Dal Lake.
The disputed Himalayan region has seen a significant drop in violence between Muslim rebels and security forces.