Feb 15, 2009

Twists and turns on a rocky road

ALMOST everyone I encountered during a recent visit to Lahore expressed grave concern about the situation unfolding in Swat, the northern Pakistani valley long renowned for its natural beauty. Lately it has been transformed into a byword for unnatural violence.The Pakistani Taliban, as they are known, have a particular aversion to schools: they are reported to be responsible for blowing up nearly 200 of them, taking special pride in destroying schools for girls. When the fanatics ordered a blanket closure of schools, the local authorities announced open-ended winter vacations from mid-January.That has not stopped the enemies of knowledge from pursuing their explosive campaign. Of the schools that survive, most are not expected to reopen for as long as the turbulent mullahs remain unleashed. The government in Islamabad claims that military forces are engaged in a concerted effort to dislodge the militants and reclaim the territory.In recent weeks, a much ballyhooed “new strategy” has been put into effect, and senior officials have been assuring the public that it will imminently produce results. Nobody seems to believe them. One can only wonder whether this might have something to do with the present government’s reputation for unsubstantiated claims and breached promises, which is unenviable even by Pakistani standards.In the Swat context, the average citizen finds it difficult to accept that the nation’s armed forces are incapable of tackling a ragtag bunch of jihadis, which inevitably leads to suspicions of military-militant connivance.If that is indeed the case at any level, is the civilian government a party to it? Does it, for instance, subscribe to the view that a degree of ongoing violence is an essential means of maintaining the flow of military aid from the United States? Or do its decision-making powers simply not extend that far, which would suggest its pronouncements on various matters are part of an elaborate political charade?A responsible government with a modicum of real power would at least have concerned itself with establishing or reinforcing stability in areas where it enjoys a degree of leeway. One presumes it does have some discretion in the conduct of relations between the centre and the country’s largest province.Precisely what purpose, then, is being served by attempts to undermine the provincial administration of Shahbaz Sharif, with the apparent aim of replacing it with a coalition between Asif Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a faction that relied largely on military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s patronage and was thoroughly humiliated in last February’s elections?The situation is reminiscent in some ways of the tussle between Islamabad and Lahore during Benazir Bhutto’s first administration, although in those days the army had a clear favourite in Ziaul Haq’s protégé Nawaz Sharif, whose Islamic Democratic Alliance (or Islami Jamhoori Ittehad) had actually been cobbled together by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency. That, of course, is no longer the case. The Sharif brothers now face the threat of legal disqualification from holding public office.Zardari has already erred grievously in conceding to Nawaz Sharif the high moral ground on the question of the restoration of senior judges dismissed by Musharraf. Disqualification would compound that error, and dismissing the Punjab government through the aegis of the Musharraf-appointed provincial governor, Salman Taseer, would effectively confer political martyrdom on the Sharifs. These are mistakes that a government whose popularity and credibility nosedived within weeks of assuming office can ill afford.The extent to which the army might be involved in the attempted de-Sharifisation of Pakistani politics is open to speculation, but it obviously has a great deal of say on the front of Indo-Pakistan relations, particularly in the context of deepening tensions in the wake of last November’s carnage in Mumbai. That may help to explain the thus far scatterbrained response to Indian allegations and insinuations, and the continued mishandling of the preliminary investigative report that is said to have been prepared on the basis of evidence — or information, as Pakistani officials prefer to term it — supplied by New Delhi.The report had apparently not been shared with India, let alone made public, when Pakistan’s high commissioner in London, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, disclosed that among its findings was the conclusion that the Mumbai attacks were not planned in Pakistan or Britain. A claim of this nature lacks credence unless it is backed up by evidence — or information — on where and by whom the terrorist plot was hatched.If Shamsul Hassan’s comments were unauthorised, he has faced no visible consequences — unlike Mahmud Durrani, who was promptly sacked from his post as national security adviser after publicly admitting that the lone surviving Mumbai gunman, Ajmal Kasab, was indeed a Pakistani national.The retired major-general’s close links with Washington have unofficially been cited as an explanation for his loquacity. However, that hardly detracts from the impression of an attempted cover-up, given that Kasab’s nationality was thereafter confirmed by sundry other official sources — and treating it as some sort of state secret made little sense in the first place.Islamabad’s panicked behaviour inevitably raises suspicions about what else is being concealed. And as far as Durrani is concerned, perhaps the most valid question would be: at whose behest was a former military secretary to Gen Zia offered such a sensitive post by a PPP-led regime in the first place?Nearly a year into its tenure, the elected government’s record offers little cause for complacency and even less evidence of administrative competence. More than four score cabinet members testify to an expansive (and expensive) strategy of political consolidation, a poor substitute for winning popular confidence.The latter option is obviously incompatible with the administration’s powerful aversion to transparency on virtually every issue of national importance, from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to the secret arrangement with self-confessed nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan. Not surprisingly, this serves as a boon for the nation’s leading industry: rumour mills, which are able to operate overtime because they are powered not by electricity, which is in short supply, but by the dearth of knowledge, which is plentiful.Meanwhile, distressing as the present dispensation might be, the realistic alternatives remain equally depressing.During the aforementioned sojourn in Lahore, I couldn’t help but note that the dawn chorus of birdsong, a cherished memory from long ago, is now dominated by a cacophony of cawing. I may, of course, be mistaken. Perhaps carrion crows have always occupied front row in the twilight choir. Yet it somehow seemed like an apt metaphor for the state of the nation.By Mahir Ali/Daily Dawn Lahore

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