Public Square

The Game of Risk

Posted on April 25, 2009. Filed under: Public Square |

Well, at least things are developing, right? Actually, no news would be somewhat good news right now.

Instead, the Taliban are at it again, and now people are getting seriously worried. Serious as in, 70 miles away from the Pakistani capital serious.

That’s right, after initially attempting and failing to capture the Buner district, the Taliban have managed to come in, take over and keep the small groups of authorities at bay. From the NYT,

Pushing deeper into Pakistan, Taliban militants have established effective control of a strategically important district just 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, officials and residents said Wednesday.

The fall of the district, Buner, did not mean that the Taliban could imminently threaten Islamabad. But it was another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and it raised new alarm about the ability of the government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance toward the heart of Pakistan.

This has multiple consequences, and one of the biggest ones that’s yet to be seen is how the Pakistani public will react to this incursion. They’ve been know to favour a certain kind of moderate Islam, without necessarily being against Islamists, until recently. Then, somehow the tide in the country started turning against the Americans (and consequently pro-extremists), despite the tremendous amount of aid and protection from that country. Now, the question is, will this further display of the Taliban’s capability cause more consternation and thus less support for the fundamentalists?

That would be a positive sign, because it might permit the government to open up the borders to American attacks some more. On the flip side, it might cause Zardari to cede more power to the Army which is always, in Pakistan, always looking at taking charge of the country.

So apparently now some of the Taliban have left, but they’re still in strong control of the area.

Meanwhile, America’s questioning the Pakistani government’s ability or will to stop the  Taliban, again from the NYT,

Pakistani authorities deployed just several hundred poorly paid and equipped constabulary forces to Buner, who were repelled in a clash with the insurgents, leaving one police officer dead.

The limited response set off fresh scrutiny of Pakistan’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. The army receives $1 billion in American military aid each year but has repeatedly declined to confront the Taliban-led insurgency, even as it has bled out of Pakistan’s self-governed tribal areas into Pakistan proper in recent months.

Obviously, there are issues at the center in terms of settling the cities and fixing the political process, but all that money has to be going somewhere, right? (Other than conventional weapons for the arms race with India).

Whatever happens, this shouldn’t turn into an argument for and against the Taliban in power, like it did in the Swat valley. It should turn into an argument of how best to deal with them, rather than ceding some control for the time being. And hopefully,  the public will see that and support strong measures for fighting the militants, without giving too much to the Army, and be open to letting America help them stop the militancy, without civilian bloodshed.

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Terror on trial (not an easy task)

Posted on April 18, 2009. Filed under: Public Square |

Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only terrorist that Indian authorities managed to capture alive during the Mumbai Attacks, is now on trial and has been charged with murder, conspiracy and waging war against India.

It’s been a long journey to this point, starting initially with capturing the terrorist alive in the first place.

Then there was the rather complex issue of having the Pakistani government actually accept the fact that he is a citizen of their country. After the Indian government had already made the claim, based on his confession, and investigative reporters from Pakistan’s media visited his hometown, Faridakot, to confirm that he lived there, Zardari’s government responded by cordoning off the village, shutting down a nearby office of the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Toiba, and tried to stop his parents from speaking about him. In January, National Security Advisor Mahmud Ali Durrani admitted that Kasab is a Pakistani citizen, and, naturally, was fired by the President for opening up, a move that even had the Prime Minister critizing his own president.

Once his nationality had been confirmed, attention moved to the domestic problems of how India was going to deal with Kasab, and specifically of who would represent him, after his request for representation from the Pakistani consulate had been denied.

Hundreds of Indian lawyers refused to represent Kasab, citing ethical concerns, and also the worry that violent nationalist groups, like the Shiv Sena, would cause problems for whoever attempted to defend the terrorist. And that’s exactly what they did, after the Indian judiciary (thankfully) upheld the constitutional right for Kasab to have legal aid. The house of Anjali Waghmare, Kasab’s appointed lawyer, was attacked, and Waghmare asked to be removed from the case, before changing her mind and returning, only to be dismissed for a conflict of interest, considering that she represented one of the witnesses as well.  Meanwhile, the police built a special bomb-proof tunnel between Kasab’s cell and the court t ensure his security at all times. Finally, Abbas Kazmi, another lawyer, was appointed to the role and has begun defending the man as the trial began on April 15.

Despite the calls to summarily execute Kasab or try him without representation (because he was waging war, and the judicial system doesn’t require representation for ‘the enemy’) I think it was a sign of the maturity of India’s judiciary that they were ready to offer him legal aid, and managed to appoint someone to do the role as well.

While the real way to deal with the attacks is to dismantle the terrorist networks in Pakistan, this is also an important symbolic way of showing that India will be able to punish those involved in such attacks, but in a fair, civilized, humane manner. And if we’re lucky, the trial will also coax more details about the attacks so we have more information on which to act.

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The Carnival of Democracy

Posted on April 11, 2009. Filed under: Public Square |

Switching gears a little bit from the ever-depressing news out of the Af-Pak region, we’re now all set to look at what will be the largest democratic event in human history: the 700 million voters eligible to make their voice heard in the Indian elections, starting Thursday, April 16.

Since India works on a parliamentary system (like the UK, unlike America’s presidential system), its diversity is appropriately eclipsed by the hundreds of parties that voters can choose from, all of which have their own agendas and issues. Having said that, it’s coalitions that really come to power, and the ones that are expected to realistically contend are, with my interpretation of their positions attached;

  • the United Progressive Alliance; this is the ruling coalition, headed by India’s oldest party, the Congress, whose leadership essentially rests on the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and whose politics generally tend towards leftist, secular ideals.
  • the National Democractic Alliance; the present opposition, led by the nationalist, right-wing, some would say more communalist BJP, and
  • the Third Front/United National Progressive Alliance, a hodge-podge of regional parties that mostly have disparate local agendas rather than a common national one, but chose not to align with the other two groups.

Here’s a quick guide to the elections from the BBC (it sorely lacks links, but there’s lots of stuff to click through on the right-side menu.)

You can also follow the elections via Google’s nifty Lok Sabha Elections 2009 page, in partnership with HT media.

Aside from another batch of the bright side/dark side of India articles in the Western press (which are around every time anything that’s even vaguely connected to India becomes popular. You know them, the kind of articles that start off with an image of the glistening, modern buildings that are surrounded by dirty, ramshackle slums, and so on), there are some other reasons why people in other countries and especially their governments should be paying attention to the elections,

  • With the subcontinent getting more important to the world at large, with several leaders putting some of their careers on the line there, especially with practically everyone saying Afghanistan is now Obama’s war, however things turn out with the region’s biggest player will be a major influence on the rest of the region. This is especially true because of India’s present commitment to investing in Afghanistan, which could easily change depending on which block comes to power.
  • Likewise, the prosperity of Pakistan could depend on these elections, as the opposition NDA have promised tougher responses to terrorism (which mostly emanates from the western neighbour), and were the most persistent callers for war after the Mumbai attacks. Subsequently, the negotiations over Kashmir will also depend a whole lot on whoever is in power in the Lok Sabha.
  • The alliance with America (while also playing the field with Russia and Iran), might also changes especially since both the NDA and the Third Front have said they will take another look at the US-India Nuclear Deal. The NDA has even said it might consider sending troops to Iraq.
  • The Big neighbour up north, totalitarian China will also be watching closely, not only to keep an eye on its neighbourhood, but also to establish the ‘efficiency’ of their system of government over ‘messy’ democracy.
  • India, with it’s robust economy that’s expected to grow by at least 5 percent this year, will be expected to start playing a bigger role with other countries in the region, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Burma, Bhutan and Nepal, and depending on the government that’s in power, the relationship with these countries, and the outside world will be significantly altered.

These are only some of the ways the elections will affect the world from a foreign policy perspective without going into real details. But even if none of these points matter, the fact that 700 million people, the eligible citizens of a country that is home to 1/6th of the world’s population, will have the chance to make their voices heard and elect their own government.

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Slash and Burn

Posted on April 5, 2009. Filed under: Public Square | Tags: , , , , , |

If the Twin Towers had been attacked today, the Afghanistan invasion would not have stopped at Pakistan’s border. It would have gone deep into the mountains of Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province, also known today as the fount of global terrorism.

The Afghanistan war – Operation Enduring Freedom – had America cutting down the branches and trunk of the Al Qaeda-Taliban syndicate, and allowed them to see the immediate fruits fall to the ground, except the most prized Bin Laden fruit that disappeared into the mountains. But  America left the roots of the syndicate under the earth, and then got distracted by another shiny, scary tree – this one had leaves that looked a lot like WMD, but turned out to be an optical illusion (or just shoddy botanical intelligence.)

So now, eight years later, with a new set of lumberjacks in office, America is getting ready to do its deforestation right. Obama’s new Af-Pak plan is supposed to deal with those left-over roots and address some of the horrifying after-effects of leaving them there.

A large portion of the new plan is simply repackaged Bush administration blueprints, with the luxury of a few more soldiers and funds thanks to the imminent troop draw-down  from Iraq. But there are some important differences.

In a surprising turn of events, Obama’s adminstration has discovered a faction of the Taliban that are ‘moderate’ and ‘good,’ a group that has surprisingly managed to stay under the radar for the past 8 years. And the new plan involves talking to them.

In reality, this is simply deft rhetoric that might go a long way to improving the American image in the region, or, it could simply backfire on America. Even if they do find some actual members of the Taliban to negotiate with, the Americans will have to be doubly careful that these moderates don’t just turn on them when it’s convenient, like some of the members in the Iraqi ‘Awakening’ are doing now.

The new plan also involves an increased focus on the actual governance of Afghanistan, and involves attempting to deal with the ubiquitous corruption that is doing its part to hold back development. This will be a tremendously important portion of the plan, at least for South Asians, because it involves the long term prosperity of the Afghan people themselves, not just the short term security of Americans.

But here’s where Obama will have to listen to his own special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke.

“The exit strategy, includes governance, corruption, but above all, and this is the single most difficult aspect of what we are talking about today,” Holbrooke said, “it requires dealing with Western Pakistan.”

But so far, “dealing with Western Pakistan” involves only taking out terrorists with unmanned drones. That’s a good start, undoubtedly, but if the last decade has taught America nothing else, it’s that force alone doesn’t work. Why do they assume that Afghanistan’s government needs direct propping up, but Pakistan just needs to be given billions of dollars to take care of itself?

Recent, often horrific, events have shown that the new, democratic government led by President Zardari cannot ensure the safety of his citizens, and that Zardari is as busy attempting to solidify his position as he is improving the state of affairs in the country.

So the $1.5 billion promised to Pakistan if they begin dismantling Al Qaeda and Taliban outfits in the country will go nowhere because, no matter how much oversight is called for, some of that money is undoubtedly ending up in the hands of politicians who will use it to beef up the military against India – a very popular move for the public, and an easy way to shirk American demands – or simply line their own mattresses.

Why not attempt to improve governance and reduce corruption in western Pakistan as well? The counter argument is often that they’re not yet a failed or American occupied state, and doing so would violate the sovereignty of the country.

But, as many experts and the American administration have themselves pointed out, the bigwigs in Islamabad have little real control over large portions of western Pakistan. What else can explain the deals they have had to cut with tribals, most prominently in Swat, to enforce governance in the region?

Even if they don’t actually invade western Pakistan, America will have to change the way the Bush administration’s cavalier attitude towards Pakistan, and ensure a tremendous amount of sustained scrutiny is placed on Zardari and his government’s activity especially in the North West Frontier Province.

It’s time for the plan to really become equal parts ‘Af’ and ‘Pak.’ Only then will the Americans effectively eradicate that abomination of a living creature that is the South Asian Jihadist Tree.

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The Idea of Pakistan

Posted on March 27, 2009. Filed under: Public Square | Tags: , , |

Here’s a primer on a country that is already incredibly important to American affairs in South Asia, and the world for that matter.

You can attempt to understand the very idea of Pakistan and it’s existential qualms at Chapati Mystery, as they commemorate Pakistan Day 2009.

On March 23rd, Pakistan celebrates “Pakistan Day” to commemorate the Muslim League session in Lahore in 1940 at which Muhammad Ali Jinnah most crisply articulated a “Muslims are a nation’ ideology.

Jinnah builds upon twinned arguments: First that Muslims as a community had politically divergent goals and their historical specificity was inarguable. It was a strictly communitarian reading of history that forcefully argued away all notions of co-habitation, without once citing an example.

But, more interesting, was how he differentiated Muslim community in India from all other … [with the] notion of a “Muslim India within India” as a distinct polity.

Indeed Pakistan was set up to be the anti-India (not secular; unity not in diversity, but in Islam) as well as the home of South Asian Islam, distinct in its way to other Muslim countries. But those existential ideals, being religious because secularism “will not work”, and therefore forcing the populace to unite under one religion, has not turned out so great for the country.

We stand 62 years after independence with Pakistan a largely incoherent nation.

The disconnect between the government, the army, the people, the tribes and the militants has meant that they can neither unite under the two-state solution (Pakistan as the theological alternative to India), especially with a number of local insurgencies either to free themselves from the government (Baluchistan) or to become more radical (Swat). The two-state solution also unnecessarily makes Kashmir a bigger issue than it actually is, obscuring other more important problems between the two countries.

But uniting under Islam is also becoming problematic as the government and others try to fend off radical Islamism, and turn the public tide against the militants that are sometimes seen as fighting the good fight against America.

Still, that doesn’t mean everything’s all bad.

If one is to pick a unifying theme in these contrary forces in Pakistan’s short history, then Justice and the Rule of Law would be of singular importance. The movement, so-called Lawyers Movement, which was triggered in March 2007 is, by far, the most important and most successful in Pakistan’s history. It managed to remove Musharraf from military and civilian power, forced elections and, now, re-instated the Chief Justice. It is, I think, a singular opportunity to for Pakistan to undertake a serious re-consideration of its self-conception.

Will Pakistan, in the coming days, attempt such a re-working of its foundational ideology? Or are the centrifugal forces too strong by now? Has the moment to “solve Pakistan” already faded? I certainly hope not.

It is now simply another country in South Asia. It can lay claim to inheriting the Mughal (Muslim, I may point out) Empire, but so can India. It can claim oppression at the hand of the Brits, but so can India.

Without simplifying the issue, it’s almost as if it’s India-lite, the way Canada is to America.

Actually, scratch that, Nepal is our Canada, Pakistan is our Mexico. (Burma our Cuba, Bangladesh our Colombia?)

I haven’t oversimplified things with ridiculous analagies at all, have I?

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The Great Restructuring

Posted on March 15, 2009. Filed under: Public Square, Uncategorized |

I know this blog is focused on South Asia, and this will be a digression from that overarching theme, but as someone who hopes to make journalism his profession, I feel compelled to make some mention of Clay Shirky’s latest analysis of the newspaper business. This is a Must Read for anyone interested in the business.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.

Indeed, newspapers did all sorts of things to try and make money online, but there was one problem with most of these plans.

As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better? Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online.

If you read the post you’ll understand better that the way the fifth estate has survived in the last four centuries by occupying a peculiar crack between being an integral, governmental body (BBC, PBS) and having to make a profit acting as both a middleman (advertising medium) and content provider, with most of the money coming from the former.

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

That will no longer last in the age of the internet. Advertisers have found better and other ways to peddle their wares, for now at least. News organizations must now either put money into becoming better middlemen, or try and get their content to pay for itself.

And that doesn’t mean a paid model; Paywalls, micropayments, etc. won’t work, except in specific niches (WSJ, Consumer Reports). So what then?

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

The title of this post comes from Jeff Jarvis’ rather grand idea.

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How do you hold a rogue moonbeam in your hand?

Posted on March 14, 2009. Filed under: Public Square, Uncategorized |

How do you solve a problem like Pakistan?

Well, what do you do when your radical traitor of a brother, who you swore you’d never talk to again, is now broke and seems to have a terminal disease?

You help him out, that’s what you do. You throw him a bone. Family’s family after all, isn’t it?

And that’s what India needs to be doing, if it ever hopes to live in a region that isn’t constantly hampered by strife, militancy and, as a result, sustained poverty.

Invest! Pressure the Pakistani government to begin trading and opening up the country to Indian private investors. Put money into infrastructure and civil society development.

India has already extended Most Favoured Nation status to Pakistan, although this hasn’t been reciprocated, the only such case in the world. But right now they need the help, and they’d be hard-pressed to refuse it.

But wait, aren’t they supposed to traditional be arch-enemies, sustaining a pseudo-war over Kashmir, and will never agree to work that closely, especially since the Mumbai attacks?

Well, the “tradition” of being enemies only extends to the 1930’s, when the British first started dividing the locals on the basis of religion. For a culture that prides itself on unity in diversity for thousands of years, 80 shouldn’t mean much.

Indians and Pakistanis speak many of the same languages, although they may write them a little differently, wear the same clothes, enjoy the same movies and music, have the same obsessive passion for cricket and share the same penchant for inept politicians.

It’s only the emotional baggage left over from partition that keeps the people of the two countries apart.

So what’s keeping the two governments from working closely with each other?

As should be obvious from the events of the last few months, there’s the alarming spectre of fundamental Islamism that works closely with the Pakistani Army and the ISI to keep the two countries apart. And they’ve even managed to dictate the public mood, somehow rousing anti-India sentiments after the terrible events of the Mumbai attack.

The only way to counter the forces of jihadism, is to show that the country can succeed without fundamentalists. But it doesn’t seem likely that Pakistan will be able to do that on their own anytime soon; what with giving up the Swat valley to the Taliban, freeing A.Q. Khan and ceding more control of the NWFP to the tribes.

So they’re going to need some help.

Right now its the Americans and Chinese who are pouring money into the country. But the Yanks do it despite widespread opposition from the Pakistani populace, and also follow their own objectives in the region, having sunk $15 billion in the last 3 years without much to show for it. And the Chinese essentially help provide them with the military capabilities to keep India at bay,  furthering the Chinese aim of being the sole superpower in Asia, without actually being invested in a stable, prosperous Pakistan.

So who does benefit from a stable Pakistan? India!

They’re already spending millions in Afghanistan; Substantial amounts of money that goes to local institutions and infrastructure to induce democracy via prosperity.

Why not apply the same model to that other western neighbour, and, better yet, tie the money to Pakistani progress on dismantling the terror networks?

The actual process would have to take place in a careful, considered manner, with constant efforts to manage the publicity of such actions, but just because it will be difficult doesn’t mean its failure is assured.

The Indians would have to convince their own media, politicians and public to actually pour their own money into a country many see as being the “anti-India.” But after years of an unsuccessful peace process, and just as Islamic terrorism has upped its ante, Indians might be ready to face facts and be proactive about the situation, rather than expecting Pakistan to deal with it. They would have to make sure their money is not wasted on projects that will be destroyed by the Islamists.

On Pakistan’s side, it will be crucial to ensure that public opinion doesn’t see the investment as a form of a ‘soft’ invasion, a tough thing to ask, and the best way to do that would be to find a convenient public measure, subsidised by India, that actually has an impact on the average Pakistani.

If the government, and even more importantly, the people of Pakistan were convinced that their own prosperity depended on India’s, then the very dynamic of South Asian politics could change, and Pakistan might be less inclined to give a free rein to the terrorists.

India has always fancied itself as the big brother to the other South Asian countries, but the extreme volatility of the neighbourhood has stopped it from being able to pull its weight the way China or the US does.

This is its chance to have a positive impact on the region. Instead of trying to establish success by ruining its backyard via mini-wars and the promotion of insurgency, a la Russia, India would be helping to save its neighbours and the Subcontinent itself, starting with its antithetical little brother, Pakistan.

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Mixing Sports, Politics and Terror

Posted on March 2, 2009. Filed under: Public Square |

At least five members of the Sri Lankan cricket team have been injured in a shooting incident in the Pakistani city of Lahore, a Sri Lankan minister says.

The incident happened when unidentified gunmen fired on a convoy carrying Sri Lankan and Pakistani cricketers.

Pakistani officials said about 12 gunmen were involved and grenades and rocket launchers were recovered from the scene.

Read on at BBC NEWS.

This cannot be good for the region. Cricket is one of the few things that unites South Asians, and the cricketers are usually extremely secure, so if the gunmen were able to get to them, means no one is safe.

At least five policemen have been killed in the attack, police say.

Sri Lanka Sports Minister Gamini Lokuge told the BBC that early reports indicated that the injuries to five players and a coach were minor.

Sri Lankan media reports said two of the players including Thilan Samaraweera, who scored a double century in the ongoing Test match, have been taken to hospital.

“Five [of our] cricketers have injuries, but they are OK. But the players are shocked. They have never gone through anything like this before,” former Sri Lankan player Sanath Jayasuriya told an Indian news channel on the phone from Colombo.

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Here we go again

Posted on February 26, 2009. Filed under: Public Square | Tags: , , , , |

Just when things seemed like they were going well (actually, okay, things didn’t seem like they were going well at all), South Asia begins stumbling back in to the morass of totalitarianism and violence.

First, Pakistan; always  a good source of exciting journalism, doesn’t make it a great place to live.

Says Dawn,  one of the few examples of good journalism in the region,

ANOTHER dubious judgment has been added to the annals of Pakistan’s grim judicial history.

What happened?

Well, the present democratically elected President Asif Ali Zardari’s chief political opponent, the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was barred from holding elected office, Wednesday. His brother, Shabhaz Sharif, the governor of the state of Punjab, was also barred, forcing Zardari to impose executive rule in the province.

Dawn (in its editorial) continues,

Defenders of the Supreme Court, the few that there are, will argue on narrow technical and legal grounds in defence of the court’s validation of the Sharif brothers’ disqualification from electoral politics. But this would be thoroughly misleading.

The grounds for the Sharifs’ disqualification were laid by a dictator and no one with an iota of common sense could accept that Pervez Musharraf was trying to uphold the rule of law or some elevated principle of justice by shutting the Sharif brothers out of electoral politics.

So, what happens next? Well, the usual. Protests, more protests, backbiting, violence, and in case you didn’t get the idea , more protests.

To use Seinfeld’s words, not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, there’s little else the populace can do; facing mostly corrupt and inept politicians, the only thing to do is get out in the streets and force some sense into them.

The problem really is, who will lead them out of this mess? Zardari (or really the late Benazir Bhutto) was supposed to fix the country, despite being a corrupt money-lauderer. He and Nawaz Sharif actually worked together to get rid of the military dictator and later elected president, Pervez Musharraf.

The sheer danger of the job, coupled with the fact that you have to know someone to know someone, means fresh, new, idealistic youngsters are unlikely to attempt to be a politician, and anyone that does break through is probably already a member of ‘the family’ and will only continue the cycle of corruption and nepotism.

And the people of Pakistan will continue to suffer everything from inept and often downright irresponsible journalism to extremist terrorism and all the problems that come with these.

At the time of last year’s election three main issues threatened to engulf the state: militancy; a severe economic downturn; and a crisis of governance headlined by constitutional imbalances and judicial turmoil. A year later, few would argue that the politicians have acted responsibly in tackling those crises.

Yet, if Pakistan is ever to escape the morass of a dysfunctional polity, those issues must be resolved in the political realm. The judiciary has done a disservice to the people by injecting itself into a patently political issue in a way that will only worsen short-term instability and do nothing for long-term betterment.

Next time, Bangladesh and the country caught in between.

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The Key to South Asia: Not Kashmir

Posted on February 21, 2009. Filed under: Public Square, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Most foreign policy experts and commentators today agree that Afghanistan and Pakistan are the real forefronts of America’s War on Terror. This is the place where global jihadi terrorism has been allowed to grow and flourish, especially while American troops are otherwise occupied in Iraq. An increased military focus on Afghanistan, accompanied by a drawdown of armed forces fighting the ‘mistaken’ war in Iraq, was even a major part of then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign, and Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to this promise with the recent move of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. As Obama’s administration begins to work out the details of its foreign policy, it will be imperative to gain a proper understanding of the factors that influence the politics of the region, and especially pinpoint the specific issue that needs to be dealt with in order to achieve stability in the region. Presently, the American and British foreign policy establishment mistakenly views the Kashmir issue as the key to the dynamic and troubled political relationships in South Asia; a policy that distracts these Western governments from the true nature of the power players in the region.

There are strong indications that Obama and the British foreign policy corps seem to believe that ‘solving’ the Kashmiri problem will be crucial to bringing peace to the region, an idea comparable to the assumption that a resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem would instantly bring lasting peace to the Middle East. Kashmir is undoubtedly an important factor in the overall structure of South Asian politics, and if this were 1947, right after independence and the partition of India and the first war over Kashmir, or even 1965, after the Indo-Pakistani war somewhat solidified the Line-of-Control which separates Kashmir between the two countries today, then the push to solve Kashmir ahead of all other regional issues would make sense. But, in the post-September 11th and post-Mumbai attacks world, it’s impossible to look at the terrorism that emerges from South Asia and attribute it entirely to a question of Kashmiri independence or how the two countries should divide the region.

While on the campaign trail, and before the Mumbai attacks, Obama made the following comments which were received with much criticism from the Indian administration and media,

“The most important thing we are going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan…We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

One of the problems, especially for many in India, with these comments was the suggestion that outside mediation would speed up the peace process that, at that point in time, was slowly progressing through delicate back-channel talks which might not have survived under the public scrutiny and pressure associated with third-party mediation. But the bigger issue with Obama’s statement was the implication that the Kashmiri issue was at the heart of Pakistan’s inability to deal with the militants who were supposed to be the real enemies in the war-on-terror.

Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, courted even more controversy by making similar assertions while on a tour of India in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

“Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders.”

As with Obama’s statement, the basic nature of the comments wasn’t entirely untrue, but, when putting them into context, there was the implication that the Kashmiri issue was the main reason that 145 people, including foreign nationals and Jews, were targeted and killed during the Mumbai attacks. In addition, Miliband echoed Obama’s assertion that Pakistan’s failure to deal with the militants was the result of their preoccupation with India and Kashmir.

The reality is, of course, much more complex. Pakistan’s difficulty in dealing with the militants is a direct consequence of the way politics and governance has come to operate in the nation. Over the years, Pakistan has struggled to establish itself as a stable democracy, having had four separate military dictators in its 62-year-old history, each of whom had a major effect on strengthening the influence of the army. Indeed, one of the most unique features of modern Pakistan is the precarious nature of the government’s position, especially with regard to the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. In essence, the civilian leadership has “virtually no control” over either of these institutions which have played and continue to play an important role in the politics of the region. 

The aggressively independent army’s multifarious problems stem from inadequate training and equipment, the inability to fight militants and insurgents in the difficult, rocky terrain especially in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Experts have even questioned the willingness of the army to attack and dismantle the very militias that were once in partnership with the army. The ISI has, on the other hand, has actively funded and supported extremist and anti-American militants in the past, and many believe it continues to do so. A leaked report by the British Defense Ministry in 2006 claimed that, “indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism or extremism – whether in London on 7/7, or in Afghanistan, or Iraq.” In fact, the very group that poses the biggest threat to democracy and stability in South Asia, the Taliban, was created and sustained with ISI funds, expertise and arms from the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the years leading up to the September 11 attacks.

As a result, these influential institutions, the army and the ISI, that are supposed to be organs of a legitimate democracy yet still contain many personnel that have regularly worked to nurture and encourage militancy, continue to operate mostly independent of the writ of the government. Without heavy oversight from the government, both the army and the ISI can continue to cultivate the militants and extremists without fear of any retribution from either their own government or the Americans. According to Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria,

Pakistan has long viewed [the militias which are supported by the ISI and the army] as having given the country “strategic depth”—keeping its historic foes, India and Afghanistan, off balance. For Islamabad to genuinely renounce these groups would require a fundamental strategic rethinking within the Pakistani military.

Admittedly, the effort to influence Kashmir’s political climate has been one of the main objectives of the ISI’s involvement with militancy. Over the last few decades, the ISI has supported numerous insurgent Kashmiri groups and according to some experts they have since lost control of many of these groups. But since their inception as local militias fighting for Kashmiri independence, these groups, most significantly the Lashkar-e-Taiba (L-e-T), the terrorist organization alleged to have planned and carried out the Mumbai attacks as well as the 2005 attacks on the Indian parliament, have enlarged their objectives and are no longer satisfied with simply winning back Kashmir. In fact, L-e-T’s explicit aim includes the “restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of India” and to bring about “a union of all Muslim majority regions in countries that surround Pakistan.” So even the groups that might have started out Kashmiri-centric, are now modeling themselves after Al-Qaeda, demonstrating how much smaller of an impact the Kashmir issue itself has on militants in the region today.

The present democratically elected government of Pakistan, for its part, has shown a clear intent of reining in the power of the army as well as the ISI. It has disbanded the meddling political wing of the ISI and even attempted to bring the intelligence organization under the Interior ministry, an attempt that was recanted within three hours of its announcement. The problem in this case is that the situation of the government itself is precarious, in that it still has to draw sufficient amount of public approval in order to remain in power. Even though Pakistan is an ally of the United States in the war-on-terror and the populace is mostly moderate, rather than extreme Islamists, a strong anti-American sentiment still prevails among the public, and any action that seems to pander to the needs of a Western government, such as cracking down on the ISI, could threaten the ability of the administration to remain in power.

It is this delicate balancing act that Zardari has to carry out; dealing with powerful international allies that are often in direct opposition to influential domestic institutions, which have been connected to extremists and militants, while also maintaining public support. And it is this aspect of the South Asian political situation, rather than the Kashmir issue, that America and the international community will have to focus their efforts on, in order to achieve success in the region.

A large part of those efforts from the international community will have to focus on keeping Pakistan solvent and giving Zardari’s government enough support that it can establish order to the country. Along with the rest of the world, Pakistan is facing a protracted credit crunch which forced it to approach the International Monetary Fund for a loan of over $12 billion to “ward off a debt crisis.” America too, has provided nearly $15 billion of monetary aid to the country over the past few years because of its help as an ally in the war on terror, but an unknown amount of that money was passed on to the army and the ISI. Some reports indicate that Pakistan “diverted much of the money to build up its forces against India.” This highlights another consequence of unnecessarily elevating the importance of the Kashmir issue, because giving such publicity to the issue naturally raises the stakes on either side, and thus results in money and manpower being wasted by both countries in order to match the other on each side of the LOC. The Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act, a bill sponsored by now Vice President Joseph Biden would “triple US nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects.” The U.S will have to ensure that enough oversight is in place this time to see that the money goes towards improving the democratic structures rather than simply going to the military.

Since assuming the presidency, Obama seems to have backtracked somewhat on his original stance regarding the relative importance of the Kashmir issue in the region. The administration is continuing the “de-hyphenated” policy towards India and Pakistan which was initiated after the U.S.-Indian nuclear energy deal was passed. Obama also gave only Afghanistan and Pakistan to the portfolio of his South Asian special envoy Richard Holbrooke, keeping him away from having to deal with Kashmir; a decision which many claim was the result of heavy lobbying by the Indian community. On the other hand, Obama has also appeared prepared to take the fight to Pakistan, launching drones and allowing missile strikes in the country. While this will have a positive strategic and military effect, the U.S. will have to make every effort not to unduly compromise Zardari’s government.

Holbrooke has a tremendous task ahead of him. Obama’s administration has shown less patience with both the Afghani and Pakistani governments, and a willingness to carry out unilateral military action, but Holbrooke will be the one having to deal with the fallout of this action. In addition, he will also have to make every effort to ensure that neither of the countries reverts back to lawlessness or has to contend with the specter of the ‘failed state.’ At the same time, developments like the freeing of A.Q. Khan, the man accused of having proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea, and the acceptance of Talibani law in the Swat region, will force Holbrooke to take a deep, incisive look at the objectives that the US has in its engagement of the region. Kashmir will continue to be a contentious, significant issue in the region and every viable solution must be considered or even attempted, but as the international focus turns away from the problems of the middle-east and takes a better look at the issues in South Asia, the Western community will realize that achieving a stable, even prosperous Pakistan and Afghanistan will be far more important in the overall scheme of things.

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