Jan 1, 2012

Hormuz flashpoint

The announcement on Thursday of a major arms deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States comes at a time when regional tensions centred on the Straits of Hormuz, are rising by the day. There is no direct linkage between the $30 billion sale and the current crisis as the deal was planned over a year ago, but Iran will see the symbolism. The origins of the problem lie in the Iranian threat to close the Straits of Hormuz to oil-carrying traffic if the USA tightens sanctions still further against it; as a part of the American response to what it sees as an emerging nuclear capability on the part of Iran. The American response to the ‘Iranian threat’ is that it is a reflection of the ‘irrational’ behaviour of the Tehran government. This is not the first time that this vital seaway has been the focus of international tension. Both Gulf Wars saw increased naval activity by coalition navies, and the USA, Britain and others maintain standing patrols to protect the Straits which see an average of 13 tankers a day passing through carrying 33 percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipment, representing 17 percent of all oil traded worldwide. The Iranian threat to close the Straits as easily ‘as drinking a glass of water’ may be bravado as the Iranian navy would be no match for the forces quickly deployed against it – but the Iranians have naval assets which could severely interdict traffic. To strengthen their point the Iranians in the last week carried out naval exercises and deployed a surveillance aircraft to monitor a US carrier passing through the Strait. On Saturday there were conflicting reports regarding the firing of a long-range missile by the Iranians – with the semi-official ‘Fars’ news agency saying a missile was fired, but an Iranian navy spokesman saying it had not – but would be in the coming days. The seriousness of the situation must not be underestimated. From the Iranian perspective they are surrounded by hostile states bent on their overthrow or destruction. This is not mere paranoia, and although Iran is militarily no match for any of the states ranged against it, there is a real possibility that conflict could break out if Iran judged the threat to itself to be existential. America will aggressively protect its interests in the region, and will support Saudi Arabia which is the historic enemy of the Iranians. There may be a sense of desperation in the Iranian threat as the sanctions begin to bite, and the situation is on a hair-trigger. The Straits of Hormuz are one of the few places in the world which has the potential to spark major conflict. Cool heads rather than hot words are the need of the hour.

Over the top

Masood Hasan So 2011 has slipped away without a trace. An entire year gone over into the abyss like a large ship that is one moment on the horizon and then slips over the rim and is gone without even a wake. Today is the first day of yet another year and it has become increasingly hard to call it by the usual ‘Happy New Year’ tag that we were once used to. What has really happened? Is time actually flying or are we getting senile? And why is it that when you look back on an entire year, 365 days and all, it is but a blur? Yes you remember the highs and the lows but for the rest of the many days that make up the year, there is not much to hold on to. Life is time passing, is it not? And in the words of T S Eliot with those evocative lines that open Burnt Norton ‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in the future,/And time future contained in time past,/If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable’. In our own lives and in these days it is the growing realisation that time past is not redeemable. Thus a feeling of loss and a brooding sense of pessimism pervades. An American friend of mine with a wicked sense of humour used to say about Pakistan, ‘The situation is hopeless but not serious.’ While it almost always evoked laughter I have often thought what these clever lines really meant other than the obvious cynicism they reflected. I don’t really know. All I do know is that it somehow, aptly describes the human condition that afflicts Pakistan from end to end. And that is sad. There is not much to be cheerful about. The mood that grips us is much like the gloom that descends on our cities when the sun absconds after a fruitless battle all day. The gathering dusk and creeping shadows overpower, with few lights to challenge them. There is no sunshine here. It’s gone. Vanished. In these days of eternal gas, power and water cuts we are just about existing. We are a depressed nation. No songs of joy here. Those bleating about the promised ‘change’ do so for such obvious motives that even a log of wood would see through the charade. The downside of all years gone and the promises that were never kept have shaken to the core even the most diehard ones. This is not what we came here for? This is a parody. We have missed the bus, the last train out, the departing ship. The sense of squandering opportunities prevails now like the fog on the motorway. In terms of lives of nations, maybe 60 years is nothing but a mote in the eye but what have we really done with these years is shameful. First the many leaders who have climbed to great positions of power most undeservedly and once there have systematically plundered the country and its assets assimilating wealth beyond belief. Then the generals who have always held sway, backed by an organised and armed self-serving system. The ‘servants’ of the people who have robbed us day and night. The police, a world full of criminals deadlier than the criminals they seek. The rank and file of society out to make a fast buck, stab everyone on the way and live beyond the reach of the law. We all love money especially when there is plenty of it. We pray to it because it is the only god we know, but how much can you accumulate? Among thousands of instances of gross corruption shine many nauseating gems. Some time back reports emanated that the current prime minister’s spouse who didn’t bat her professionally made-up eyelids cleaned out the inventory at London’s Harrods store. The VIP loot, crates of it, arrived and were whisked away in special trucks from Chaklala to her favourite city infested by poverty, flies and beggars. No one raised an eyebrow heaven forbid. Other stories abound. There are reams about the president, endless ones about the clout-wielding brass and conniving civil servants but relax. No heads are rolling or ever will. But she is not the only one or the first one. Literally everyone has done the same and worse. We have some of the most enviable laws crafted by mankind but neither do they exist nor ever practiced. We carry out the most shameful acts while shamelessly swearing our utter commitment to such laws. When the laws aren’t suitable, they are simply broken or cast aside. Tinpot dictators, insincerity dripping from every pore in their bodies trashed the Constitution, a serious offence yet they grew even more powerful. That line of our rogue’s gallery is a very long one and just about most of those the Almighty thrust upon this hapless nation have come and gone leaving Pakistan, in worse circumstances. Today we don’t even have the basic necessities that are the bare minimum requirements of any society – but perhaps this is not a society after all? Even if it is an apology of one, what right has any group of individuals to stay in power, make stupid speeches, lie daily and do nothing tangible in the way of this basic duty? That is of course a very silly and naïve question because we all know what is what. Between that great commando and the current dispensation and 15 precious years, we are starved of power. It is a matter of great shame. This is the year 2012 and we could well be in the Stone Age or thereabouts. What are the people expected to do to fight the cold, cook food and survive? Burn fruit crates? Cut trees down? But nothing shakes the capital and the focus is that this vile set-up must complete its five years and Inshallah, they will. Hallelujah! Revenge is the best democracy indeed! But this is an old story and it is a poor variation of a bedtime story where the prince eventually arrives, kills the giant and rescues his darling. Unfortunately this princess will soon be an ugly hag. She is already over 60 and time hasn’t been too kind to her. Those rallying to rescue her need to be first rescued themselves. But no one is going to pull Pakistan out of the terrifying mess it is now. Every ill that besets any society now has its death like tentacles over everything – touch anything and you see it is rotten to the core. Rules don’t apply, principles don’t matter and the illiterate roughnecks have the day. With ill-gotten money they have raked in and rake in all the time, they are ensuring their offspring, perhaps louts today with money to throw around, will soon be at the learning centres of the world, acquire sophistication, return and marry into other power wielders. The die is thus cast. You need a revolution but most of us cannot spell the word and those who can, don’t have a clue what it is all about. 2012, please go away.

Coup d’état

Dr Farrukh Saleem Over the past four years, the balance of power has moved in favour of a civilian government. In the past, a civilian prime minister or a president could not survive without the army’s support – Gilani and Zardari have. The mere postulation that the generals are now relying on the courts to undermine a civilian government is indicative of the army’s strategic diminution. Over the past six decades, the army had a near monopoly over Pakistan’s political-economy; no more. Over the sixty-two year period since Independence, the army has been the major stakeholder sometimes allowing the PPP and PML to take turns. Operation Fair Play, the coup d’état that brought down the elected civilian government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, could not have been successful without two things: the PML’s support and Justice Anwarul Haq’s ex post facto validation. General Mirza Aslam Baig brought down Benazir Bhutto’s elected government with Nawaz Sharif’s political support and Justice Afzal Zullah’s upholding the dissolution. In 1993, General Waheed Kakar forced Nawaz Sharif to resign. General Musharraf’s coup d’état was validated by Justice Irshad Hasan Khan while Benazir Bhutto had issued a statement in support of the coup (the PPP workers had distributed sweets). Almost all Pakistani coup d’état were supported – either immediately or within a few months – by the US. In essence, all of Pakistan’s coup d’état had an internal and an external dimension. The internal half had two components: support of a major political entity and a reasonable assurance of an ex post facto validation by the superior judiciary. This time around, both Nawaz Sharif and Iftikhar Chaudhry seem to have learned lessons from history. As far as the external dimension is concerned America will – and always has – only focus on its own immediate strategic interests. In the past, the Pakistan Army has always been of strategic value to the US – and thus American support for coup d’états. On the face of it, Pak-US military-to-military relations have soured but Pak Army could still be instrumental in achieving US strategic objectives in the region. The PPP government, having failed to deliver domestically, now looks up for US support to survive. The really good news out of Pakistan is that the Supreme Court – even for the generals – is taking centre-stage. To be certain, PPP’s worst enemy right now is neither the Supreme Court nor the GHQ. The PPP’s worst enemy is neither corruption nor America. Its worst enemy is its sheer incompetence and the failure to manage the economy in the interest of Pakistani voters. And that is why a large segment of the population is craving for a change – military induced or otherwise. If the civilians don’t change Pakistan’s direction the military would have to. A classic coup d’état is sudden, illegal and sometimes violent. A ‘smart coup d’état’ is slow, legal and nonviolent. To be sure, moving from overwhelming domination of the military to complete civilian supremacy is a generational issue provided the political leadership develops wisdom as well as vision. President Asif Ali Zardari celebrated his 56th birthday on the 26th of July but I feel that the ‘older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom’.

Truths and half-truths

Jumping on the bandwagon of Imran Khan is the latest fad in Pakistani politics. On his part, the erstwhile skipper is willing to admit to his “XI” anyone who matters. Until quite recently, a common criticism of Imran Khan was that his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was a one-man show and that it didn’t boast of a single political heavyweight other than the leader himself. In order to become a significant force, the argument went, a political party must have a critical mass, and since the PTI was well short on that account it remained a non-entity in national politics. Whether Mr Khan himself had been selective in choosing his team or frontline politicians just shunned him is open to debate. But the criticism held water. However, now the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Notable political leaders are making a beeline for the PTI and the former speedster, to borrow idioms from his own dictionary, is claiming one prized scalp after another after his fiery spells in Lahore and Karachi. Thanks to him, erstwhile rivals from Multan as well as Kasur have sunk their differences and become friends, at least on the face of it. And it seems more surprises are in store. The PPP and the PML-N, watch out! One can hardly find fault with Imran Khan’s swelling the size and muscles of his party. In a democratic dispensation, if a political party is to capture power, it must win the electoral race; and in order to do so, it needs to field candidates who have a sizeable vote bank. The PTI fought electoral battles in 1997 and 2002 and on each occasion was routed. The reason: the party didn’t have winning horses. But now it has several, whose number is on the increase. The novelist E M Foster classifies characters in a work of fiction into flat and round. The former remain what they are, while the latter change in the course of the story. Mr Khan has also matured as the plot of the Pakistani political drama unfolded itself during the last few years. Kudos to him. Imran Khan is running the gauntlet of criticism of his adversaries for being the new political face of the establishment-a charge that he denies vehemently. The validity or otherwise of this allegation aside, the same charge is being levelled by those who themselves owe their rise to power and glory in the past to the backing and blessings of the establishment. If selling one’s soul to the power behind the throne in Pakistan’s political system is a sin, easily the majority of notable politicians, including some of the celebrated icons of democracy, are sinners. The PTI leader is also under fire for welcoming turncoats from other political parties to his fold. But, again, change of loyalties has been a common practice in Pakistani politics and parties not only keep their doors open to defectors but also encourage defections. Most of the men and women who have thrived on the political scene, past and present, were turncoats. Several persons who grace the present federal cabinet were important members of the Musharraf government. And, but for the turncoats, the PML-N government in Punjab would have fallen apart. That said, one may point out some contradictions in Imran Khan’s avowed programme. To start with, he talks about bringing about a revolution in Pakistan. Nice. But revolution is not mere regime change. It’s complete overthrow of the existing social and political order. Electoral politics has seldom, if ever, ushered in a revolution. Elections, at best, are a means of reforming the socio-political order; they are not meant to replace it. Worse, Imran Khan has joined hands with those who have the highest stakes in the preservation of the status quo. These people are opposed even to political reforms, to say nothing of revolution. The skipper’s claims of effecting a revolution with the help of such people is as ridiculous as MQM leader Altaf Hussain’s call on the generals sometime back to lead a revolution. Imran Khan wants to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state. Again, a nice promise to make. But the devil lies in the details. The welfare state is essentially a Western concept born after the Second World War in response to the challenge posed by the growing threat of communism then. Assuming that the notion of an Islamic welfare state, like that of Islamic socialism, is not self-contradictory, some questions need to be answered. What type of Islamic state does the PTI leader want to construct? Would he follow in the footsteps of Gen Ziaul Haq and inject another heavy dose of religion into politics? In a multiethnic society like ours, religionisation of politics is a dangerous game to play, in that it enthrones one creed over the rest, which leads to the latter’s alienation. In case of Pakistan, which is already facing the menace of religious militancy on a horrendous scale, marriage of religion and politics will spell only disaster. As for the welfare state, it is on the eclipse, if it has not already passed away. The fundamental problem in creating and sustaining a welfare state is how to finance its expenses growing out of its multifarious role. At a time when governments across the globe are struggling to contain the burgeoning budget deficits, a promise of establishing a welfare state seems to be a very bold one-to say the least-even bolder in case of Pakistan with a persistently narrow fiscal space. Thus, though a welfare state is a goal worth pursuing, its creation will require both a quantum leap in public revenue and a drastic cut in non-productive public expenditure. If it comes into power, would the PTI be able to achieve that? Would the party, for example, cut back significantly on defence spending or introduce agriculture income tax, given that many of its frontline leaders come from the feudal class? Come on, skipper, you need to be more honest with the people. Imran Khan is a staunch critic of drone strikes, because they are a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and kill innocent people. Hardly anyone will question this. But what about the activities of foreign militants in Pakistan? Don’t their clandestine activities violate our sovereignty? By the same reasoning, what about the death of soldiers and civilians at the hands of the militants? Don’t these deserve to be condemned with as much force as the predatory raids? But the PTI leader seldom, if ever, speaks against the activities of alien militants and suicide attacks. All he does is to attribute these to Islamabad’s alliance with Washington. Bewailing at drone strikes and winking at suicide terrorism is at best speaking only half the truth.


Hundreds of thousands of people crammed into New York's Times Square to bid farewell to the old year and watch Lady Gaga trigger the famous drop of a crystal ball marking the start of 2012. A raucous crowd that New York police said was expected to reach up to a million people enjoyed unusually warm weather, screaming and cheering in front of a top-drawer line-up of entertainers including Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber before midnight Saturday. The crowd spilled from the "Crossroads of the World" into adjacent avenues in the biggest US public celebration of New Year's, which climaxed with the slow slide of a huge crystal-encrusted ball. Gaga, dressed in a huge silver mask and matching dress, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pressed the switch to send the glittering ball on its descent. Confetti poured over Times Square and elaborate fireworks lit up the sky over Manhattan. Times Square has hosted the Big Apple's biggest party since 1904, with the ball drop starting in 1907. The fact that New Year's Day fell on a Sunday and relatively balmy temperatures for winter helped boost this year's turnout. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said there'd be huge security for what he expected to be a record crowd. Backpacks and alcohol were banned and many revelers were forced to wait for hours behind penned-off areas. Thousands of police officers, including 1,550 newly minted graduates of the police academy, were deployed, along with bomb sniffing dogs, sharp-shooters and anti-terrorism units. "Our helicopters will be up in the air and checking the 200-block area around Times Square," Kelly told the CNN television network on Friday. "We have heavy weapons response teams that are in, you know, appropriate locations," Kelly said. "On New Year's Eve if you see something suspicious, there should be a police officer pretty much within arm's reach." In addition to pop diva Gaga and teen sensation Beiber, New York saw rock veteran Chuck Berry perform at a club, and opera great Placido Domingo, 70, sing at The Metropolitan Opera. The celebrations were also an excuse for some innovative spin-offs and marketing gimmicks, not least the "Bytox Hangover Prevention Remedy" promising to stop the new year's headache.