A troubled country

PAKISTAN is in the midst of several crises. The picture at this stage appears dismal. However, even in this period of despair there are exceptions that inspire confidence in the future of our country.

The other day I was fortunate to witness such an instance, during a PIA flight from Islamabad to Lahore. I was struck by wonderment when I heard a woman’s voice announce, “This is your captain and it is a pleasure to welcome you aboard; I will be flying you to Lahore.…” PIA has a few women pilots in its service, but it was my first time to take a flight captained by one of them. Well done.

If Pakistan has been able to provide such opportunities to its women (though sadly not to a larger number), then there is still hope for us despite the very poor and venal leadership provided by some of those who head our leading institutions.

I am a believer in the dictum that if there are a few good men left amongst us at the helm, then we shall emerge much stronger from our struggles than many may think. The point that is worrisome, however, is whether we will be able to retain our institutional coherence that is essential for stability; without strong and vibrant institutions a country stops progressing and begins to decay.

Pakistan has been no stranger to turbulent times since its birth. It was the resilience of its citizens and some of its leaders heading various institutions that kept it going. By early 1960 it was marked as one of the upcoming Asian tigers with a head start compared to others.

Those were the years when the Koreans and others came to learn how to develop economies and how to create national airlines and many other things. Our promise was nipped in the bud by the crass stupidity of initiating a war with India. Had we not made that error of judgment, the fate of Pakistan may have been quite different today.

The recent deterioration in the civil-military governance structure is yet another step taking us down. Generally speaking, such results are expected when expediency rather than principles prevail. It is not understood why we criticise the US vehemently when we ourselves forced it to intervene as revealed recently by the publication of Condoleezza Rice’s account of how the US brokered a deal between President Musharraf, who was then the army chief, and Benazir Bhutto, leader of the PPP who was tipped to become Pakistan’s next prime minister.

Ms Rice’s account indicates that Gen Musharraf manipulated Washington to become a player in Pakistan’s internal affairs. It brings to mind a comparison with the ongoing memogate affair in which the conduct of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, and by implication that of President Asif Zardari, has been challenged in the Supreme Court; if their conduct is considered treasonous, one wonders if Gen Musharraf was not equally culpable.

The recent downward slide in US-Pakistan relations took a turn for the worse when the US Senate passed the defence authorisation bill, freezing the roughly $700m earmarked in aid to Pakistan, pending assurance that Islamabad would take steps to prevent militants from using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against US-led forces in Afghanistan.

According to an article in the National Journal, “the number of IED attacks in Afghanistan has spiked to an all-time high [according to US military officials], because of the free flow of critical bomb-making materials from neighbouring Pakistan.

“Senior military officials said there were more than 1,600 strikes involving so-called ‘improvised explosive devices’ in June, setting a new record for the long Afghan war, and underscoring the dangers posed by militants operating inside both of the troubled countries. The number of IED strikes in June 2011 is nearly 25 per cent higher than the monthly average for the conflict. In May, for instance, there were 1,250 IED attacks.”

Connecting Pakistan to the IEDs opens up yet another Pandora’s box. What is the message from Congress to Pakistan — that it should prevent Afghan militants from laying IEDs? It has not been possible for the International Security Assistance Force to do so since 2004. Or is the message more threatening and is the US charging Pakistan for the presence of the IEDs in Afghanistan?

This truly may be a flight of the imagination if that is what is meant. Yet, another more pernicious deduction perhaps is that Pakistan is being pressured to act against the Haqqani network that is considered to have singular expertise in the use of IEDs.

However, research indicates that IED warfare was unknown in Afghanistan and was a skill that was brought by Arab fighters from Iraq after 2004 and was allegedly encouraged by the Iranians.

According to a 2009 report in the Middle East Quarterly, the Iranians were providing some Taliban Iranian-made IEDs as well as heat-seeking missiles against the western forces. Though the Iranian government denied any such involvement, sections of the Iranian establishment were alleged to be behind such moves.

Several media reports from Afghanistan suggest that Iran has been increasing its operations in Afghanistan in an effort to gain influence with the contending insurgent factions and to hasten the departure of US troops from the country. This analysis tends to show that Pakistan has limited influence in the IED matter.

On the other hand, the recent declaration of jihad by the Defence of Pakistan Council, a forum for hard-line Islamist parties, indicates the need for caution and the lowering of institutional tension, otherwise larger social unrest may follow soon.

Article published on dawn newspaper

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