Wednesday, March 31, 2010

brush with intelligence -- II

the brigadier was v keen on attending some of the seminars and i told him politely thaty he knew where they were held and was welcome to going to ASR and attending them -- the meeting attended uneventfully and needless to say i never forwarded the brig or the good col any stories that my newspaper did not carry -- or carry

the second time was when i was going to India to attend a seminar at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi -- this was in 2002 when the neighbours came close to war -- india had deployed its army at the border with pakistan and the latter had responded -- the NGO that sent the invitation was obviously well connected because i got a call from the indian embassy informing me that my visa had been approved -- the situation was so bad that when i got on to the shuttle in islamabad (which one takes from the convention centre, to go to various embassies), the driver wasnt even willing to stop at the indian high commission -- he kept on saying 'yeh log visa naheen deh rahay' -- i had to almost force him to stop -- i got off and i walked to the gate with a backpack in my hand -- and quickly walked in -- around 50 or so yards away i could see two men -- one in shalwar kameez and the other in jeans and a shirt gesturing to me to stop -- i knew these were intelligence people who approach every visa seeker at the indian high commission -- i ignored them and went inside -- there i was ushered into a waiting area -- a large bronze statue of gandhi was there looking right at me -- i sat down and then was taken to a larger room -- a man with a trimmed moustache walked in -- he introduced himself as vipin handa and he was in charge of visas at the embassy -- now the general assumption is that people associated with visa operations in any embassy are usually, because of the nature and scope of their job, associated with intelligence services -- this man was very well spoken and said that he was a good friend of the publisher of the paper i was working at (dawn at that time) -- he said his parents were from gujranwala and that he had fond memories of visiting that town though he himself was born in india -- he talked to me about politics in sindh and in particular wanted to know my opinion on why the MQM had announced a boycott of the local government elections that had been scheduled just then -- he talked about many other things as well and we had to indulge in this chit-chat because my passport was being stamped with the visa --

visa given (thank god it was non-reporting) i was led to the gate -- i walked out and one of the intelligence men -- the one in shalwar kameez -- came to me and very angrily said 'tum andar kiyun gaye thay jab hum nay tumhain roka tha?' -- i tried not to lose my cool and told him that he should get on with his 'job', which basically was to go through my passport and jot down my visa details -- he did this all the while huffing and puffing and eventually i told him to, more or less, shut it telling him that he shouldnt complain because he was getting to do what had been assigned to do in any case -- this made him only angrier but luckily for all of us he had to rush somewhere -- presumably to Aabpara -- as he left the other intelligence man came and spoke to me -- he was far more polite and said that the other guy was a hawaldar and that this was to be expected of 'people like him' -- this man was from the civilian IB --

a few weeks later, tensions escalated further and pakistan and india both expelled each other's diplomats -- the indian man to go was vipin handa, who was shown in several pakistani newspapers (including dawn) walking with his two labradors and children across to India at Wagah --

a couple of years later i was trawling the internet and i came across an obituary in the hindu -- it was of a man called vipin handa who it said was killed in a 'freak accident' at an office situation close to the prime minister's secretariat -- mr handa was said to be one of the service's best officers who died prematurely when the lift he was travelling in malfunctioned and fell from a higher floor -- Mr Handa was said to be working of India's Research and Analysis Wing, the report in The Hindu said further.

brush with intelligence - I

the other day at a dinner when someone found out that I was a journalist asked me whether i had experienced any dangerous situations -- i have done no wartime reporter, hell i have done no reporting from FATA or Swat either so cant say its been dangerous -- interesting, intriguing perhaps?
the first time i had a brush with intelligence agencies was when i was a reporter in lahore - nawaz sharif has been ousted musharraf had taken over and the army had been deployed in WAPDA -- in the typical army response after any coup, as if deputing uniformed soldiers (and not qualified and competent engineers) was the answer to making a power utility company more efficient -- WAPDA was also my beat temporarily and i got a call from a col mansoor who it turns out had sent his staff to my house in defence as well -- this given that i had been living in said house for barely two weeks -- sharing it with the owner who was a single doctor -- and a family friend of a my brother in law -- i told my editor, Tahir Mirza, who said no harm in meeting the people -- so off i went -- turns out it is an unmarked house very close to the then airport -- went in -- all men in civilian clothes and met the brigadier who was most interested in my reporting of seminars organized by Nighat Said Khan's ASR -- and told me that any story that I did for my paper which wasnt carried I could give to them! and the col who had invited me was also there and gave me his cell and told me if i ever needed anything - anything -- i should get in touch with him -- during my brief meeting with the brigadier sahab a call came from a man in the field who was calling from a lawyer's function or something like that

My days -- I

i have to say my days so far -- other than my time at the news when that paper's editorial pages really began to take shape (and then i left!) -- were spent at dawn -- there was one year as a sub-editor -- my very first year when i was sent to just about every department (or 'depart' as some people say it) -- this included the much-dreaded supplements which was thought by most to be a punishment given that one didnt have to be creative or even write anything to get by there -- after that were two and a half years as a reporter and then two and a half most fruitful years with dawn in lahore -- this was may 1998 -- i landed in lahore literally with a suitcase -- my red khyber was dispatched by my father from khi via an NLC trailer and i had to go somewhere near raiwind road to get it -- there were three or four days though that i had no car at all and i would walk from where i was staying at a house in block J to the main road -- and it was lahore's may heat (what was i thinking!)
took all of two weeks and slightly more to find a place to stay and that too after i found out (quite the hard way) just how difficult it was for a single guy to get a place to stay in lahore -- and this was 1998! -- once i even agreed on a rent for an upper portion in defence's A block -- 7000 rupees, and took a cheque to meet the owner -- sat down -- and then the owner's daughter came in and said 'abu aap ko ammi bula rahee hain' -- he said 'zara ek minute mein mein aata hoon' -- and he came back and 'sorry jee ghar hum aap ko naheen deh saktay' -- WTF!

lucky for me a family friend of my brother in law's had a whole house in block Z to himself -- and though he was slightly off (he would sit in a vest in the garden and drink murree beer all by himself!) he offered me a share of the ground floor for a mere 5000 rupees -- and it was furnished!

security and a book launch

it's not that i was dying to attend the launch of her book but it would have been interesting to go to it nonetheless -- the new book by fatima bhutto -- a friend had my invited and i was supposed to collect it but couldnt for some reason or the other -- but was told that entry would not be possible without an invite -- how times have changed -- security concerns seem to override all other considerations -- till a few years ago going to a book launch was more or less a public affair --

a journalist who doesnt write

a journalist who doesnt write is like a doctor who doesnt practise -- it's been five months now since i last wrote in print -- that's a very long time for any journalist -- hence maybe more recent entries on this blog
what's the whackiest/unlikeliest (though true) stories that one got to do as a reporter --
one that comes to mind happened in the mid 1990s when i was a reporter with dawn in karachi -- and got the tip from a social event -- of a british man working for a well known securities firm in karachi who was asked to leave the country after his cover was blown -- he was working for british intelligence -- the story came on the front page and though the high commission in Islamabad would not confirm or deny it when they were contacted prior to its publication, no denial was forthcoming after it was printed -- the company that he worked for is no longer in pakistan but it is a respected name

Getting writers to write for your pages

there are some writers who began writing for the news when i was editor of its editorial pages -- i asked them to write for the new venture and a few like fasi zaka and aakar patel and george fulton graciously accepted and said that they would be happy -- i thank them -- aakar (who is a former editor of the leading indian afternoon paper midday and also one of india's largest gujarati dailies, and now also writes a column for live mint -- a joint venture with the wall street journal) said that he couldnt refuse his first pakistani newspaper editor -- and i thank him for that -- some others were less receptive and said that they would wait and see how the newspaper fares -- to each his/her own i guess but it does leave you kinda pissed -- if i were in there place i wouldnt give up the opportunity to write elsewhere especially if it came from an editor who bent over backwards to invite me and accommodate me for his earlier newspaper

zaid hamid's fall

the moron zaid hamid fell only when the orthodoxy in society went against him -- what does that say about the strength, or rather lack thereof, of progressive and liberal forces in Pakistan -- the latter cried themselves calling the man a charlatan and an agency plant but nothing happened until the conservative and rightist segments labelled him a follower of a false prophet -- wonder what ali azmat and maria b will do next

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

nestle -- proud owner of pakistani print media

nestle power milk -- proud owner of pakistani print media (except dawn janab)


yesterday was quite a traumatic day in terms of my fatherhood -- which will turn five years this may 29

Monday, March 22, 2010

Amending the Constitution

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

The results of the parliamentary committee led by Raza Rabbani to suggest changes to the Constitution are eagerly awaited, not least because if implemented they could perhaps bring about some much-needed changes to the 1973 Constitution. While several reports have appeared of late touching on this important matter, for all intents and purposes the actual content of the proposed reforms is not yet known and will perhaps only become known once they are unveiled in parliament. However, one issue which has been reported on a bit more has been a proposal to rename the NWFP that has been a key demand of the ANP which controls that province’s government and which for many decades has championed the cause of Pakhtun nationalism. According to some reports, the issue threatens to derail the whole process of constitutional reform with the issue leading to severe bickering between the ANP and the PML-N. In this context, the latter’s stand is widely believed to reflect the aspirations of its electoral constituents in NWFP’s Hazara district which is Hindko-speaking and who have been quite vociferous against any attempt to rename the province to reflect exclusively the province’s Pakhtun population.
Moving beyond this issue, the committee does have serious work to do. For instance, the issue of distribution of power between the three institutions of state – the executive, legislature and the judiciary – needs to be sorted out in a manner so that the recent acrimony and conflict of the past is avoided. Key among this is the question of who is to have the deciding authority to appoint the chief justices and jugdes of the Supreme Court and the high courts. Some legal experts have already expounded – and quite eloquently -- on this matter and have tried to point out that the system currently in place lends itself to confrontation by placing perhaps too much authority with the chief justice. The argument behind this is that the prime minister is after all the leader of the National Assembly and by that position can claim to be the one individual who not only is accountable to parliament but also the chosen representative of the people of Pakistan to govern the state and institute policies as deemed fit by the electorate.
There are some other important issues as well and perhaps foremost among them is the character of the Constitution and hence of the state that it seeks jurisdiction over. Do we want to see a state as envisaged by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Iqbal or do we want to have a state as thought by Maulana Maudoodi? What role is religion to have in this state? What space are the minorities of Pakistan to occupy in the political and private sphere? Can a Christian, Hindu, Parsi or even Sikh citizen of Pakistan aspire to become the president or prime minister of the country or should he resign himself to being a second-class citizen of a country that treats him and his rights unequally simply because of his beliefs? Here, of course, one is referring to the Objectives Resolution which was inserted into the very first Constitution in 1949 and which remains with us till this day. In essence benign and even well-intentioned, the presence of the Objectives Resolution in any constitution, in the current environment, will only embolden the conservatives and their ideological allies in the form of the Taliban and other militant groups. One can only hope – perhaps wishfully – that the committee’s fruit will be an effort will be made to transform the constitution to fully reflect the ideal of the Quaid.

In search of power

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

According to a report, Iran is upset that Pakistan, despite its severe power shortage, hasn’t taken up the former offer for cheap electricity for at least its western regions. While the authorities at Wapda and Pepco may be in a better position to answer why the offer hasn’t been taken up, our own answer is that this all is indicative of the way government – and in particular the bureaucracy – works in Pakistan. For instance, in 2009 right before the advent of summer, the minister for water and power said several times that loadshedding would end within a year and justified his -- now obviously outlandish – claim by saying that the government was tackling the problem in a serious manner. It turned out that the minister was referring to the rental power solution, which in due course of time became mired in controversy. This perception is more or less probably justified given the short-term nature of the solution provided by rental power plants and the exorbitant cost. Besides, the government has not been able to stay away from allegations that have surfaced in the media of certain key members of the government receiving substantial kickbacks.
Iran’s consternation, however, may be partly political since America has of late also tried to offer Pakistan assistance in the energy and power sectors. Washington has suggested that the possibility of nuclear power is being explored with a senior official saying that this issue will be one of the key topics to be covered under the inter-ministerial meeting scheduled to begin in the US capital from tomorrow. Given the nature of the ‘beast’, so to speak, of loadshedding, any help in this regard from any quarter – even if it is from India to provide power to Punjab – should be welcomed, provided of course the pricing is reasonable and doesn’t translate into a significant increase in the average electricity bill. At the same time, serious effort has to be made to bring down transmission and distribution losses for all electricity distribution companies, particularly KESC. Furthermore, headway on the bringing the crisis under control will not be possible until the circular debt issue is resolved as well and that means a determined effort by the federal and provincial governments to pay to Wadpa and its distribution companies they monies owed to them by various departments and public-sector organizations. This figure is over Rs50 billion and its magnitude creates problems for power companies to the extent that they are not able to buy fuel to power their generation plants – and this, not a lack of installed capacity per se, is partly the reason for the power shortages that are afflicting the country and affecting all Pakistanis in a most calamitous way.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

The interview to the BBC by former UN envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide in which he quite bluntly said that Pakistan’s arrest of Mullah Baradar ended up secret talks with the Taliban has created quite a storm. The Foreign Office in Islamabad has rejected Mr Eide’s assertions saying that Pakistan itself wanted these talks to go ahead and that its action to arrest Mr Baradar had been “misinterpreted”. A day earlier Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had said – and one can understand his exasperation – that why would the former UN envoy make such a statement. Implicit in the foreign minister’s question would be a hint that perhaps Mr Eide is saying all this at some other party’s behest, a party which is not very happy with Pakistan’s action because it may have caused the said party to lose leverage with the Taliban. If this is indeed the case – though on the face of it there is no evidence to suggest that it should be – then the UN official’s remarks will be seen as coming not from a neutral observer but from someone who is clearly taking side – i.e. not the side that Pakistan is on.
The interview is quite explicit in that the former UN envoy quite clearly said that the arrest was carried out with Pakistan knowing fully of the consequences that it would have on the peace talks. This line of reasoning was brought up earlier in some western news reports as well when Mr Baradar’s arrest initially became known. At that time it was dismissed as a conspiracy theory – among the dozens that seek to explain what goes on in this part of the world – propagated by elements who were not happy at Pakistan gaining leverage in the talks that America and its western allies were having with the Taliban for a possible peaceful settlement in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office spokesman who contested the contents of Mr Eide’s interview also publicly admitted (and this is perhaps the first time that a Pakistani official has done this) that the operation to net Mullah Omar’s right-hand man was a joint operation in which US officials took part as well. Clearly, the suggestion is also that if Pakistan was in fact trying to sabotage the secret talks with the Taliban then what were the Americans doing taking part in the raid?
At the same time, as it presses its point, Islamabad, and perhaps more so Rawalpindi, must both realize that they suffer from a serious trust deficit as far as claims on such matters are concerned. Pakistan’s actions in the past where it has said one thing and done entirely another are not easily forgotten by the rest of the world and that is why often when it does something in today’s world, other countries don’t readily believe them or that they are being done with the right intentions. Of course one view to counter this would be – and this is being said for the sake of argument – that all countries need to take into account their own interest first and policies need to be guided by these priorities. The issue in Pakistan however is that such priorities – and the interests that arise out of them – have since long been the exclusive domain of the military, and that is something that needs to change.

Dialogue with America

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

One couldn’t agree more with a retired Pakistani general in his assessment of the current state of ties between Islamabad and Washington, and his observation on perceptions in Afghanistan and Pakistan of this relationship. The general said that whenever something bad happens in Afghanistan Pakistan is immediately blamed, and in particular the ISI and the military while whenever something bad happens in Pakistan, America is blamed. We could add our own two cents to this. Take for example a recent survey in America according to which Pakistan ranks among the lowest in terms of countries with a positive image among Americans. This may be in part due to the image that the American mainstream media portrays to its readers and viewers of Pakistan as being a militant/Taliban-infested state overrun by fundamentalist Muslims all bent on teaching America ‘a lesson’. While reality may not exactly be that it would be fair to say that Pakistan is not exactly a beacon of tolerance and it is a fact that anti-American feeling runs high, even among the more educated and affluent segments of the population. That this is happening at a time when Washington has embarked upon one of its most ambitious Fulbright programmes ever and when Islamabad stands to become one of America’s largest recipients of civilian aid should say something about the perception of US policies by most Pakistanis.
It is in this context that the ministerial-level dialogue this coming week – March 24 to be precise – between America and Pakistan in Washington should be seen. The fact that it is happening at all is a welcome indication of the important that the world’s superpower attaches to its ties with Pakistan. Having said that, the reality is that Pakistan – for obvious reasons – finds itself in a position where it has to constantly prove itself to America that it is a worthwhile ally in the war against terror. The proving part is in large part fuelled by the image portrayed among large swathes of the mainstream western media of the Pakistan military playing a double role in the war on terror, allying with America on the one hand but also providing help in the form of safe havens to the Taliban to carry out attacks on American and western troops in Afghanistan. That Pakistan has so far been unable to get rid of this perception is caused in some part by the fact that in the not-too-distant past it was engaged in such deception and because it was behind the creation of a Taliban government in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.
The dialogue will focus on security and terrorism issues of course but the two sides are also expected to discuss economic ties and a major component of this is expected to be some kind of assistance to Pakistan to help overcome the ongoing energy crisis which is crippling the economy because of massive loadshedding every day. One hopes that Washington will listen to Pakistan’s concerns, especially those that Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has been expressing of late, i.e. that Islamabad has been doing more than enough and that this needs to be understood and acknowledged. For its part, Pakistan will need to understand that as far as important matters such as fighting militancy and terrorism are concerned, there can be no distinction of those behind such acts – there are no ‘good Taliban’ or ‘bad Taliban’ – and that it needs to match its words with consistent policy actions.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pandering to the Taliban

Editorial -- Express Tribune -- (coming out soon in the market)

What is one to make of Shahbaz Sharif’s speech that he made at a seminar at a seminary in Lahore on Sunday? In short, the Punjab chief minister is saying that the Taliban should not be attacking Punjab because one, the PML-N doesn’t “take dictation” from America and two, because both the PML-N and the Taliban have taken a stand against General Pervez Musharraf that is more or less the same. To quote the operative part of the chief minister’s somewhat shocking – but not entirely unexpected – statement: “General [Pervez] Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad and [sic] if the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab.”
One clearly gets the sense that the Punjab chief minister is coming across as an apologist for the Taliban because instead of using the provincial police and various law-enforcement and intelligence agencies under his command to fight these terrorists he is asking them to not target the province because of the reasons mentioned above. In fact, the point of the matter is that regardless of the reasons mentioned therein, how can the chief executive of the country’s largest province possibly request – it didn’t seem anything but that – the Taliban to not target the province? Shouldn’t he, as the person elected to head the province’s government, be taking the fight to the terrorists and the militants instead of trying to ‘appeal’ to their good sense – as if they (the terrorists) would have one!
The chief minister and his press information department may try damage control at the controversy that has already been created and one way may be to say that the comments were made at a madressah and should be seen in that context. However, this can easily be countered by saying that location should not really decide the content of what the chief minister says on a matter that is so sensitive and crucial to the nation’s very survival. What kind of message and/or signal is Mr Sharif sending to his police force and to the members of the law-enforcement network, many of whom have lost their lives, or a loved one, to fighting the terrorists? Basically they are to believe – and they would be completely justified – that the provincial government completely agrees with the justification given by the Taliban that their movement is more or an anti-America and anti-military dictator struggle. In fact, one wouldn’t be surprised if some of the PML-N’s more sensible leaders would be thoroughly embarrassed by what one of their leaders – and party’s president to boot – has said on the Taliban.
Another question that the comments raise is that is the chief minister suggesting that the Taliban spare Punjab because of the stance taken by the political party which is running it? That can only be seen as bad for inter-provincial harmony because people living in other provinces – or at least some of them – may interpret it to think that the Punjab chief minister cares only for his province and not for the nation as a whole, given that fighting militancy needs to be a top priority nationally. By Mr Sharif’s warped logic, attacks in Rawalpindi are not on because that city comes under the jurisdiction of the Punjab government but attacks in Islamabad are justified because it comes under the federal government and the latter is run by a party which is hand-in-glove with Washington? If that is not pandering to the Taliban then we do not know what is. Also, does the chief minister really believe the Taliban’s propaganda that if the government of the day were to disassociate from cooperating with the Americans the suicide attacks would stop? He also seems to believe – and this too is a dangerous myth that needs to be shattered – that the war against terror is not in Pakistan’s own interest. Shahbaz Sharif needs to act like a leader and that means taking – sometimes – unpopular stands. In this particular case, most Pakistanis – and certainly most people in Punjab – will agree with the chief minister but he needs to act like a leader; and that means telling people uncomfortable things and challenging their worldview especially if it is misplaced and misinformed.
The Punjab chief minister needs to support his police and law-enforcement agencies who are not afraid to lose their lives in fighting the terrorists bent on imposing their hardline interpretation of faith on everyone else – he also needs to take the fight to the militants and should understand that what he has said will only embolden them.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The curious case of nursery admissions

when you're bored at work you do stories like this -- but just as well because its been over three months since i last wrote in print

By Omar R Quraishi

Admissions to the nursery section and class III of arguably the city’s most prestigious school, Karachi Grammar, commenced from this week, according to a notification posted on the school’s admissions website and interviews conducted with parents of applicants. Last year, the nursery section admitted around 120 students from a pool of 1,500 applicants, most of whom had already spent around two years at the pre-school level in various institutions scattered across Karachi.

A child is eligible only if he is between the age of four years two months and three years three months at the time of entry – which is August every year. The initial application process involves queuing outside the school on two separate days – for one hour each day – when slips for registration are given out to parents. The first day is for children who already have at least one sibling already in the school or whose parent (at least one) has been a former student. The next day slips are handed out to children with neither of these connections.

In the past the rush for the slips has been such that parents have lined up at least 12 hours prior to the scheduled opening time, with some coming fully prepared with chairs and food, or at times asking domestic servants and/or drivers to stand in line. That however has changed somewhat but the numbers – of applicants that is – hasn’t.

Standing in line on one of the days would give the indicate that perhaps this school is the only decent one in the whole city. Express Tribune briefly interviewed some of the parents – who spoke on the condition that that their names not be used given that they all were participating in the application process. Some of the parents bordered on the hysterical when asked what would happen in case their child was not admitted given that the admission rate – statistically comparable to admission at a top Ivy League university.

A couple said that they had placed their child in tuitions – as in other than what they were learning in their pre-school – and that this was to adequately “prepare” them for the test that is an integral part of the admission process for applicants to both nursery as well as class three. The latter stream has a test which is around three hours long and tests skills in English, Urdu and Mathematics. One parent, however, said that three hours was simply too long for a child so young but then in the same vein also admitted that this was something that she was willing to put her child through, for the sake of a chance at admission to the school. Clearly, in all of this it seems as if the parents are being tested and not their children because they, not their child, go through all the emotional upheaval associated with a rigorous selection/admission process.

As for the nursery section, the three-year olds first go to office of the school’s headmistress with their parents. Shortly thereafter, they are invited by the headmistress to come to her side of the table where they are shown a family photograph and asked to identify the people present (this, ‘legend’ has it, was introduced some years back after a particularly industrious family used a decoy couple as parents to sit in on the interview). After that, a teacher takes them to an adjoining room where they are tested. What they are tested on is not really known because parents stay in the headmistress’s room and are then ushered outside to wait on their child. It is believed however that the test involves ascertaining the child’s motor and other physical skills as well as analytical and related organizational abilities. They may be asked to colour an object or identify one and – this has never been confirmed but seems to be quite a favourite with many pre-schools since they all train their students to do it – write their names.

Interviews are scheduled to run through March and most of April and the result will not be due till the last few days of that month. As one mother of a nursery applicant put it: “My life is on hold till the list comes out – and after that, it may well end.”


No change at the ISI

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

The extension given by the prime minister to the current chief of the ISI, Lt-Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, has been described by large sections of the media as something that was necessary for the continuation of the military’s successful strategy in fighting the militancy inside Pakistan’s borders. On the face of it this may seem to be a sound argument but it does raise the issue that surely there would be another candidate to step into his shoes. Also, that military doctrine, strategy and tactics should not rest on a single individual and given the way that the Pakistan Army works, it would indeed be fair to say that that is not the case. This means that while the military’s recent determination to go after terrorists and militants in various parts of Fata as well as in Swat is a welcome change – and perhaps added to this could be a change of heart, so to speak, vis-à-vis the Afghan Taliban – such a shift should not be linked with the continuation in service of certain individuals. In other words, the shift needs to be institutional and founded in the institution’s philosophy and approach and this is perhaps where the problem – and not just with military extensions – lies.
Giving extensions in any government organization – civil or military – is not a good idea and should be done only in the most extenuating circumstances, it at all. The reason is straightforward: extensions deny otherwise deserving individuals, who have been rising through the ranks, gaining valuable experience and forming the (reasonable) expectation that one day they too will have a chance to do what the incumbent is doing. As such extensions can be bad for morale and send a signal to waiting officers that service rules and regulations can be set aside for other considerations

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Well done, Dr Singh

Editorial -- Express Tribune --(Coming out soon in the market)

India’s prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh was not far off the mark when he told members of the Lok Sabha on March 5 that talking with Pakistan was essential and the only way to avoid any potential “miscalculations” from either of the countries was to have a continued bilateral engagement and that an environment in which there was no contact between the two countries had the potential to cause great harm to both countries. Dr Singh’s government came in for much criticism during the course of the parliamentary debate following its decision to hold a secretary-level meeting with Pakistan – this at a time, according to the Indian opposition, when terrorism from within its borders was still being directed towards India. The prime minister’s response to this was simple but more importantly it was pragmatic and practical and indicates that he does not really share the view of the Indian military-bureaucratic establishment which tends to see Pakistan through a very hawkish lens. For example, his response to those who oppose talks with Pakistan was logical in that he pointed out that the rest of the world was engaged with Pakistan and India’s not doing so was not really isolating Islamabad. He also pointed out – from India’s point of view of course – that a problem did exist on this issue and that the best approach was to address it and not think that it could be just wished away by not talking to Pakistan

Of course, this is not to say that Pakistan does not have its fair share of hawks, and they can be found not only in the civil-military establishment but also in society in general and in particular in the increasingly powerful media. However, Dr Singh’s remarks will go a long way in countering those on both sides who do not want to see any semblance of peace between the two countries. By the Indian prime minister’s own acknowledgement of his belief that channels of communication between the two countries should never “break down” it seems that perhaps the coming months may well see a reinvigoration of the currently moribund dialogue between the two countries. What Dr Singh has now told his own parliament could well be seen as a re-assertion by him – and his national security team, which includes the reportedly moderate Shiv Shankar Menon as principal adviser – towards a full re-engagement of Pakistan. And that can only be a good thing because both countries exist side-by-side, share a long border, have a common language and a quasi-common culture.

Maulvi Faqir's death

Editorial -- Express Tribune -- (coming out soon in the market)

Unconfirmed reports on Friday from Fata indicate that Maulvi Faqir Mohammad may have been killed in an airstrike in Mohmand Agency. Faqir, who is head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Bajaur chapter is said to have been seen in Mohmand after his base in Damadola was captured by the army a few days ago. A newspaper report said that local residents had reported that their village had been surrounded by the Taliban and that this usually happens only when a key commander is killed. If Faqir is indeed dead, it would be a major victory for Pakistan’s anti-terror fight since he had, by his own admission, been a strong supporter of Al Qaeda’s number two Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. Also, he had served as the TTP’s deputy head and was being tipped as a possible successor to Hakeemullah Mehsud.

Faqir’s alleged death also brings to forefront certain reports published in a section of the international media alleging that he could have been an ISI asset and that he was instrumental in the Taliban using Bajaur as a base to make forays into neighbouring Afghanistan’s Kunar province. (By the same token, however, Pakistani officials have accused him of letting in Afghan elements from across the border and come and make havoc in Bajaur). However, his death could well be the harbinger of a noteworthy repositioning of the establishment’s policy on fighting terrorism. Also what lends credence to this are recent arrests of important militant commanders from across the country. However, whether this shift in policy -- and there should be no doubt about the fact that it would be good for Pakistan -- is permanent and whether it means a full frontal assault by the state on all militant outfits using Pakistani territory is something only time will tell.

Bank profits

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out in the market soon)

According to a report in this newspaper, profits of the banking sector rose sharply by 24 per cent during 2009 – this at a time when the economy is doing badly and experiencing very low growth. Normally in such an environment the financial sector would not be doing well – and in particular banks and other lending institutions. This is because business activity tends to slow down and according demand for loans for investment purposes – on which banks make their much of their income – goes down. Furthermore, since profitability and returns on investment opportunities in the economy in general also decline, those who partake of such opportunities also see their incomes hit. So if one were simply to go by commonsense banks should see their incomes dwindle when an economy is not doing too well – as is happening in Pakistan’s case. The question then arises that what is the reason for Pakistani banks seeing such a significant rise in their profits, during a year when the economy has not performed so well. And the only answer that would make sense – both from an economic as well as a logical point of view – is that banks in Pakistan have substantial monopoly power and that they work together (as in collude) to fix interest rates that they charge on their loans and in the process ensure high profits for themselves. This would also suggest that the industry regulator – the State Bank – does not do a particularly good job of safeguarding the interests of consumers, i.e. account-holders and that it seems beholden to the corporate power of the banking system.

The fact is that barring a year or two, banks in Pakistan have seen a substantial rise in their profitability every year. And while this may be well and good – and perhaps necessary to some extent – for the growth of what is a key sector of the economy, it needs to be reasonable, in that it should not come at the expense of the consumer. However, given its consistency and magnitude of growth the profitability could only have come in this particular manner and by the SBP not playing its due role. Proof of this also comes from the fact that since long banks have had a very large spread – i.e. the difference between the rate offered to account-holders and that charged from loan applicants, so the wider the spread the greater the bank’s profit. In the past, this matter was raised in the media but the then SBP head more or less dismissed it by indicating that it was one of the key drivers behind growth in the sector. But it should be clear to the State Bank now that this is not a very good argument since profitability and growth need to be kept at reasonable levels otherwise a relatively small segment of society – banks and their shareholders – will gain at the expense of a relatively large swathe – i.e. accountholders. This imbalance needs to be corrected and this can be done if the State Bank carries out its responsibility of safeguarding the rights of bank consumers.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When judges speak

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

Judges are supposed to speak through their judgments or that is what seems to be the traditional view of at least the superior judiciary. To a certain extent, this view – prevalent in the subcontinent – is a legacy of British rule in that in the Anglo-Saxon view of things, judges should normally lead a secluded life away from the public realm and should not be seen to be mingling with politicians, bureaucrats or other government officials. This seclusion or detachment if you will is deemed necessary for preserving the judiciary’s impartiality and it is perhaps this concept of being physically away from the public eye that is seen as being a traditional view of how judges should behave and conduct themselves. Furthermore, this seclusion from the public sphere is deemed to lend authenticity and greater moral validity to their judgments. The question is that does this still happen in today’s Pakistan? Do the judges of today still go about conducting themselves in the same manner that judges of days gone by – Justice A R Cornelius, Justice M R Kayani or later Justices Dorab Patel and Fakhruddin G Ebrahim – conducted themselves?
It is in this context that one chooses – with the utmost of respect and no ill-will of course – to comment on remarks made by Justice Javed Iqbal, the seniormost judge of the Supreme Court to participants of the National School of Public Policy in Islamabad on March 4. Justice Iqbal spoke in very glowing terms of his boss, the Chief Justice of Pakistan, saying that he had “changed the course of history and the current democratic struggle was there because of his courage and struggle”. He further said that the chief justice was “a symbol of bravery, boldness and rule of law” and was “acclaimed for supremacy of the Constitution” not only in Pakistan “but across the world”. Justice Iqbal also talked of a personal anecdote saying that when he took suo motu notice of a case involving a plot of land in Balochistan meant for hospital a former chief minister of the province offered him 50 plots for judicial officers in Gwadar and that he had declined the offer because “this wealth belongs to the nation and the country”.
While the honourable judge is perfectly right in saying that for far too long governments have misappropriated precious resources of the land which are for its people and it was about time that the superior judiciary did something about it. That is a fair statement and shows to the general public that those who sit in the Supreme Court are concerned about the plight of ordinary people and about corruption. However, a line should be drawn somewhere because after all the job of the judiciary is to deliver judicial verdicts that seek to uphold and reinforce the ideals as embodied in a country’s constitution. There job – and one says this again with the utmost of respect – is not per se to act like politicians and to defend their superiors at public forums. If the judgments are good, delivered in a reasonable amount of time and if justice is seen to be served by the people of this country then there will be no need for a public endorsement of the chief justice and his actions by his number two. Such acts come more within the job description of a politician because after all their work relates to communicating with the general public and in trying to build alliances to either remain or ascend to public office. Judges should not aspire to do that and if they wish to do so, they should leave their black robes and join a political party.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Operation in North Waziristan?

Editorial -- Express Tribune (paper coming out soon)

The possibility of an army operation in North Waziristan seem to be gaining credence with reports indicating the arrival of several battle tanks in the main town Miramshah. The reports quoted an unnamed security official as saying that the military hardware had been sent after a day of clashes with local Taliban and security forces and that their arrival was meant as a “show of force”. On March 1, there was an attack on FC soldiers in the town’s main bazaar as a result of which two of the men lost their lives. Other than the deployment of the tanks, local people have also reported the distribution of pamphlets by the military calling the Taliban agents of Israel and India – thereby only adding to the speculation that an operation against the militants is imminent.
If the operation were in fact to happen, it would suggest a turnaround in Pakistan’s policy on fighting the Taliban – in particular the distinction between those who are ‘bad’ and those deemed ‘good’ – and also with regard to its strategies for engaging Afghanistan. For all intents and purposes, large chunks of North Waziristan are controlled by a handful of Taliban commanders, among them Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani (and increasingly his son Sirajuddin). The latter has often been accused by the Americans of masterminding much of the violence in the adjacent Afghan provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khost. Sirajuddin Haqqani was also alleged to be behind the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last year and a brazen attempt to assassinate Hamid Karzai during a military parade – also last year. Consequently, since long both Kabul and Washington have been asking Islamabad to take decisive action against the Haqqani network in particular to deprive it of its sanctuary in North Wazirstan; and for the longest time, Islamabad had been resisting. So if it were to finally commit to an operation in the agency to rid it of militants that would be good on several counts. Other than making the Americans and Afghans happy, it would benefit Pakistan’s internal security because of the close nexus between the Taliban operating in Afghanistan and those carrying out terrorist activities inside Pakistan.

people on board

quite a few tv/radio people

george fulton
fasi zaka
wajahat s khan
naveen naqvi
ayesha tammy
talat hussain (has agreed but we have to contact him)

five rupees blog guy -- ahsan b
adp diaries guy -- omar bilal akhtar
tazeen the blogger
sami shah -- formerly of blackfish
shandana minhas
the brilliant faiza s khan has agreed to do a column as well

all this sounds exciting -- now only if we were going into print soon

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

JI and the TTP

Express Tribune -- (coming out soon in the market)

We don’t have to jog our memory all that much to remember that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the man believed to be the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, was arrested by Pakistani intelligence agents from the home of a man and a woman believed to be members of the Jamaat-e-Islami. While the English press raised this issue initially it died down, not least because many Pakistanis see Khalid Sheikh Mohammad as a hero rather than a terrorist. However, Tuesday’s revelation by the military commander leading the fight against the TTP in Bajaur that the house of former JI MNA Sahibzada Haroonur Rasheed was the operational headquarters of the Taliban in the agency comes across as conclusive proof that the JI is much closer to the TTP than it would like most Pakistanis, or indeed the rest of the world, to believe. This perhaps explains why the party has never criticized the TTP for all its heinous and dastardly actions inside the country in which thousands of innocent civilians have died and why it has not said a word against suicide attacks. The JI needs to be asked to explain its association with the TTP and if proven an accomplice then appropriate measures should be taken against it, the least of which should be its public naming as an abettor of the country’s most wanted terrorist network.

PTCL 'package'

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

What is one to make of PTCL’s new ‘one rupee one minute’ package which is being heavily advertised on television and newspapers these days? According to the new tariffs, calls can be made nationwide at the rate of a rupee a minute – and this is a good thing given that not too long ago calling Lahore from Karachi (and vice versa) would cost more than 10 times that. The deception – and PTCL seems to be an expert at that comes in the fine print and if one had read the advertisement closely they would have noticed that the one-rupee-per-minute rate applies to local calls as well. This basically means that PTCL has quietly more than doubled its local call charges – and local calls make up the bulk of its total calling traffic. Prior to this, a local call cost a little over two rupees for every five minutes and with the new ‘package’ a five minute call will cost five rupees, or more than double! In all this, one can only wonder what exactly is the industry regulator – the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority – doing given that one of its primary responsibilities is to protect the interests of telephone users. One example of what can only be called collusion between it and PTCL can be found on the latter’s website which has a link to the PTA website on it!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

No lectures, please

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia could be seen as ground-breaking in many ways. For instance, he is the first Indian head of government to visit the kingdom in over two decades and perhaps a handful of foreign leaders who were invited to address its shura council (body akin to parliament). However, perhaps the most important facet of his visit – certainly as far as Pakistan is concerned – had to do with remarks made by India’s junior foreign minister which for a while created quite a storm among the Indian media. Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor said in an interview to a journalist that Saudi Arabia could “perhaps be a valuable interlocutor” between India and Pakistan given Riyadh’s very close ties with Islamabad. The minister was talking in the narrow context of India attempting to use all avenues at its disposal to impress upon Pakistan that it needed to address the terrorism issue first before headway could be made on other issues central to the conflict between the two nations.
As for Dr Singh’s address to the Shura, possibly the most important point was that he said he was willing to “go the extra mile” provided that Pakistan addressed the terrorism issue with earnest. The problem is that what it seems is that the Indians do not trust the Pakistanis at all – and this lack of trust isn’t just related to fighting terrorism but is bound to colour every aspect of their bilateral relationship. This is further compounded by the fact that the Pakistani side – and for good reason – sees all this quite differently. Cases have been registered against those believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks and Pakistan has not denied that the LeT was in all probability behind the attacks and that the attackers came from Pakistan. India believed – and clearly still does -- that there is an element (or more) of official involvement in the attacks. But for the sake of argument it surely doesn’t expect the government to publicly acknowledge this. What can be done is that terrorism can be fought head on and this is happening – with sometimes tragic consequences – inside Pakistan. Hundreds of soldiers, police and paramilitary personnel and above all thousands of civilians have lost their lives because of this fight and this is something that New Delhi instead needs to acknowledge. If it does this with even a little bit of seriousness the trust deficit will be significantly bridged.
Furthermore, India needs to realize and understand that nothing will happen as far as ties between the two countries are concerned unless and until there is movement beyond this mantra of it asking Pakistan to do more on terrorism. Pakistan doesn’t really need any lectures on how to fight terrorists from anybody.

Of marriages & MNAs

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

Our august members of parliament have been saying some strange things of late on the issue of marriage. First it was a female MPA of the Punjab Assembly, from the PML-Q, who made the following gem of a remark on the floor of the house: she said basically that men should be allowed to marry more than once, without having to seek permission from the first wife. The reason for this rather outlandish and completely unnecessary remark (and rather ironic given that such a misogynistic statement should come from a woman) was that this would allow the "womenfolk" of the country to live with peace and with honour. This means that the said PML-Q MPA believes that (a) marriage is perhaps the only way for a woman to leave in peace and with honour; that (b) by implication women who are not yet married or choose not to marry are not at peace and do not live an honourable existence and (c) that a wife's permission is not needed for a man to take on a second wife despite religious injunctions which clearly state that a man may have more than one wife provided he is able to do justice to all of them. Clearly, the last point means some sort of permission would be needed so one can only wonder why the PML-Q MPA would delve into such an issue in the first place.

As if this weren’t enough, on Feb 25 we saw an MNA of the PPP saying that most members of parliament should have more than one wife. According to the newspaper which reported this, not a single member of the house either tried to deny or confirm what Mr Gabol had said. In fact, one MNA from FATA tried to quote from the Quran saying that religion allowed men to have up to four wives. Mr Gabol in fact came up with the figure of 80 per cent and it is unclear how he managed to get such a precise estimate. However, the only voice of sanity – as happened the other day as well – was the PPP’s Sherry Rehman who tried to obliquely take issue with this subject (directly would perhaps incur her the wrath of religious conservatives of which many can be found in each and every party, save perhaps the MQM).

The former information minister referred to the Punjab MPA’s remarks and said that it was surprising that no one in the Punjab government responded to it. May we add to Mr Rehman’s surprise, that no one in the assembly itself or society in general has so far chosen to comment on the matter. The reason could be partly because people in this country tend to veer away from debating religious matters lest they fall foul of the moral majority or because many believe that men should take on two, three or four wives and that for this they don’t need to ask for permission from their current spouse. In all this one can say that it would be better if taxpayers money – of which a lot is spent on parliamentary proceedings – were put to better use than giving unsolicited – and patently absurd – advice to the women and men of this country. Also, Ms Rehman’s example is worth repeating; the one where she quoted Sunni Islam’s highest authority, the Jamia Al Azhar in Cairo which has already ruled on this matter saying that a man may marry more than once only if he can do “justice” to all his wives.

Poison Inc.

Editorial -- Express Tribune (coming out soon in the market)

There is a poison in our midst and it slowly but surely eating away at the inside of Pakistani society. And it has been sired by a monster that is very much of our own making and not the result of a sinister American/Zionist conspiracy and some would have us believe. The poison of sectarianism has become embedded within many of us and for this General Zia and his Islamization should be thanked in particular along with the civil-military establishment in general which over the years has nurtured and patronized some of its most potent (read vicious) actors. The result is all before us: people professing to be Sunnis killing Shias and calling them ‘kaafirs’, and Shias retaliating in kind. And now we have even different Sunni schools of thought going – quite literally -- after each other’s throat. What happened in Dera Ismail Khan and Faisalabad districts over the weekend during the Eid Milad celebrations is the outcome of years of indoctrination and preaching of a mindset among many people which places a premium on intolerance and on the use of physical violence to further one’s beliefs.

The sectarian violence in both districts followed protests against processions being taken out to commemorate the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday. In one case, students of a madressah reportedly located adjacent a mosque in a village outside Dera Ismail Khan allegedly fired on the milad procession and this caused at least one death and bullet injuries to several people. This then became the trigger for participants of the procession to attack the seminary and a local mosque. As for Faisalabad, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan has announced a shutter-down strike to protest the firing on an Eid Milad procession, thereby lending credence to the assumption that the sectarian violence was not between Sunnis and Shias but between Barelvis and Deobandi. In this particular instance a mosque believed to be linked to the banned sectarian organization Sipah-e-Sahaba was involved in the violence because according to reports of the incident some of the procession attackers had sought refuge in it.
This isn’t the first time that violence as senseless as this has happened in Pakistan and it certainly won’t be the last. Unless, the government and the over-arching state-apparatus realize that they need to come down hard on those who are promoting hate and intolerance in Pakistan society. The government should prosecute and punish prayer leaders who give sermons asking for a jihad against Shias or even other sub-sects within their own sect. It should bring madressahs into the fold of regulation and accountability (just like mainstream schools in the country) and should stop patronizing sectarian parties and their leaders.