Monday 29 June 2009

The elusive victory - war with Taliban will be long and protracted!

Speaking at a reception for Twenty Twenty world cup winning Pakistan cricket team Prime Minister Gillani is reported to have said that “the way the cricketers have won the Twenty20 cup, similarly the Pakistani army will win the war against terrorists in Swat and Malakand...”.

Recent statements by him and some other officials remind me of one of the most embarrassing images for US is the image of President Bush declaring victory in the illegitimate war in Iraq while standing on an aircraft carrier with a banner "Mission Accomplished" flying behind him.

I hope the similarity ends here and that the lives being sacrificed by young men of Pakistan army are not being lost on another un-winnable war. Military operation against Taliban in Swat and FATA (Federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan) continues and according to Pakistan Army number of Taliban casualties can now be counted in thousands rather than hundreds. Military commanders have been pointing out, and rightly so, that a complete victory over Taliban will take months rather then weeks but key towns in Swat region are now back under central control.

It is worth noting that the terrain and the enemy are the same where the mighty Soviet Union fell and where US and its cronies in NATO are engaged in a long un-winnable war. But they have the luxury of being invading and occupying forces who can leave it all behind and wash their hands if they chose to. Pakistan army is fighting on its own territory among its own people and cannot afford to mess it up - or let the politicians turn it into a mess.

Public opinion in Pakistan is still broadly in support of the military operation to rout the menace of Taliban out of the region once and for all. Pakistan governments efforts to build a national political consensus in support of the operation have also been successful and political parties across the spectrum have largely stayed behind the army operation.

It is, however, important to ensure that what appears to be a qualified victory in the short term doesn't turn into a long term defeat.Though a large number of Taliban fighters have been killed in the operation and remaining appear to be on the run, the top tier command structure of Swat Taliban is still intact. Military action has not succeeded in capturing or eliminating key targets like Mullah Fazlullah, Muslim Khan and the like. While these hard core terrorist are alive there will always be a risk of Taliban resurgence once the army has gone back into the barracks.

It is also now public knowledge that the Taliban in Swat and FATA are not simply a local religious outfit with some international jihadis in their ranks. Their free access to American, Russian and Indian ammunition and other advanced tools of warfare points to a wider international involvement and support. Until these supply lines are open and the top tier command still at large the war in Swat will neither be over nor won.

Pakistan Army is not an occupying force in the region and should strive to ensure that it does not lose the credibility of a saviour it has at the moment. Army does not have the luxury of continuing to carry out aerial assaults in populated civilian areas like the Americans have been in Afghanistan. The extent of collateral damage is currently unknown due to blackout on independent media coverage. But nationally there is flexibility in public opinion to this end provided the Taliban do not reappear and the loss appear to have been fruitless.

And lets not forget millions of IDPs who, at the height of unforgiving summer in Pakistan are stuck in ill-equipped and ill-resourced camps. They need to return to their homes soon. The military operation has resulted in destruction of physical infrastructure in the region. In order to repatriate the IDPs they will need to return to a live-able environment which is secure. It is vital to ensure that the IDPs are brought back home as soon as the military leadership confirms a military victory in Swat. But this should accompany at least the following:

  • A new police infrastructure that is trained, equipped and willing to take on the responsibility of establishing the law and order and provide security to citizens without having to rely on military support;
  • A civil administration that does not simply rely of doing deals with the remnants of Taliban or their supporters;
  • institutions of justice and law and order - absence of these gave credibility to the demands of people like Sufi Muhammad in the first place;
  • active counter insurgency mechanism in place with bodies on the ground and in the streets. Having just a military cantonment is not going to achieve this;
  • engage national and regional political parties to create a national voice against the menace. While doing so not to cave in to pressure groups like Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman who are still in the business of making money from dead bodies.
All of this cannot happen overnight even if the government was full of passionate, committed and loyal leaders. It would be almost unachievable if the national leadership takes its eyes of the ball. Lets hope I am not writing a lament on a lost war next summer.

Saturday 27 June 2009

Maternal and infant mortality in Pakistan - the silent killer

Every 30 minutes, one Pakistani woman loses her life due to reproductive health complications that leads to 276 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.

One in 23 Pakistani women die in childbirth, compared to one in 5,000 women in developed countries. Most of these deaths are preventable. There is widespread poor reproductive and nutritional health among women.

Sixty-five percent of women in Pakistan deliver their babies at home and only eight percent of home births are supervised by a trained attendant.

Pakistan's average fertility rate of 4.1 children born per woman is one of the highest in South Asia.

And in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), 135 out of every 1,000 children under the age of five die from curable illnesses.

(sources: World Health Organization and USAID)

It is very likely that the actual situation on the ground is more serious. In the absence of a comprehensive mechanism for recording mortality and its causes, and the fact that while most of the data is available from urban areas majority of population in Pakistan still lives in rural areas where mortality figures are likely to misreported or misrepresented.

At a time when the media headlines in and about Pakistan are focussed almost entirely on war against Taliban, suicide bombers, corruption, electricity shortages and dire national economic situation - a major piece of news went almost unnoticed. After a relentless campaign by civil society and advocacy organisations government of Pakistan has finally endorsed the Maternal Mortality & Human Rights Resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). This would go a long way towards raising awareness about this issue which has until now been a low priority for the government policy makers.

But this is not a menace that the cash starved and intellectually deprived government of Pakistan can deal on its own. Civil society and independent charities are increasingly becoming active at advocacy and practical levels of support. Once such organisation is the UK based charity International Foundation for Mother and Child Health (IFMCH) who have set out as their mission to reduce maternal and child mortality in Pakistan and improve life expectancy for mothers and children through increased awareness of personal health among young mothers to be, improvement in community knowledge and attitudes towards mother and child health, training for health care providers, and expansion in access to health services through a state of the art maternal hospital to serve as a centre of excellence.

Dr. Saleem Khan, Chairperson of IFMCH, was among scores of British Pakistanis who went to Pakistan to help the victims of earthquake in Kashmir valley in 2005 and had a first hand experience of the gravity of problem with maternal health and came back convinced that government and aid agencies alone cannot solve the problem on their own and that a wider and actively hand on intervention from civil society is needed. Trained as a maternal health expert he is a successful property tycoon in Cheshire. He has declared to give it all up to focus his energies in delivering the vision of the IFMCH. Strong believer in Allama Iqbal's (national poet of Pakistan) verse

"Fard Qaim Rabte Millat Say Hai Tanha Kuch Naheen
Mauj Hai Darya Main Aur Baroon-e-Darya Kuch Naheen"

(literally meaning that an individual is successful connected with the nation but nothing without it - just like a wave is a wave when in the river but nothing outside it), Dr Saleem is looking for citizens of the world irrespective of nationality, religion or race to come along and join him in achieving this herculean task. Over the last few days IFMCH has also launched a Facebook group for anyone interested to join the conversation.

Monday 22 June 2009

Cricketing nomads paint the Lords green

They are the pariahs of the cricketing world. No sporting nation in their right mind wants to travel to their country to play cricket or any other sport for that matter. World cricketing powers, due to vested political interests of certain friends with whom we share history and geographical boundaries, are bent upon stripping them down of any role in the global cricket community. They have not played much inernational cricket over the last two years because at home the powers to be are generally incompetent and more interested in petty politics. Their own performance has been less then ordinary and patchy during this period. Their moral character has been marred by allegations of drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and ball tempering.

Yet the nomads of the cricketing world Pakistan picked up the Twenty Twenty cricket world cup last night to remind the world why they, despite all their problems, have always been one of the most exciting teams to play with. They also provided a nation starving for good news something to cheer about.

Lords cricket ground is not used to the noise, colour and excitement that comes along with matches played by Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. Last night was a spectacle but a clear indicator for the cricketing authories in Pakistan on the preferred course of action for future. Due to security concerns, that the world very rightly has, about travelling to and playing in Pakistan sports will be in exile for the coming few years. UK is second home to Pakistan cricket and can provide enough fan base for "home cricket" to be played here. Do not let these talented cricketing nomads rot in obscurity. While our armed forces and political masters try to tackle the Taliban menace at home, let the boys play international sports overseas at our second home.

And well done! to Sri Lanka. No other team deserved to be in the finals than you. It was not just the night for your talented team.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Pakistan has Laws, but not the Rule of Law

Closing line of the press release from Transparency International Pakistan announcing the publishing of results from 2009 National Corruption Perceptions Survey reads that "Pakistan has Laws, but not the Rule of Law". How apt!

On a positive note survey reveals today Judiciary appears to be the institution that has been able to repair its reputation compared to last year and has moved from the coveted position of 3rd most corrupt institution down to number seven. I believe that this is more to do with the high regard and esteem that general public gives to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and the continued trust that people have in his intentions and ability to change the judicial infrastructure for the better.

Judiciary are followed by the Media in enjoying public confidence in their ability to influence change. Movement by the civil society that lead to undignified departure of dictator General Musharraf, and subsequent reinstatement of judges sacked by him for defiance against tyranny would not have been successful if independent Media was not standing besides the civil society facing all sorts of oppression from the military and later civilian rulers.

Biggest loser and rightly so is the Health sector i.e. the medical profession in Pakistan who are now perceived to be the 3rd most corrupt sector behind only the Police and Power (the electricity people!!!).

Unsurprisingly “lack of Accountability, “Lack of transparency ” and abundance of “Discretionary Power” in all walks of life are considered be to the root causes of spread of corruption.

There are some interesting results as well. Looking at the global corruption barometer produced by Transparency International [map below] I found it interesting that our regional neighbours India rate the Political parties as the most corrupt institution but not according to us Pakistanis. We give this dubious honour to our civil servants and public officials - although if asked the question who is the most corrupt person in Pakistan the honour will still be bestowed upon one Mr. Asif Ali Zardari our erstwhile president.

That brings me to the UK MPs who have become household names because of their household claims. The expenses scandal has resulted in some interesting media coverage and ways of exposing "within the rules" corruption. One interesting representation of this scandal is the heat map of MP expenses produced by MSN. One glance at the map gives you an idea of the scale of gravy train that the MPs had in place for God knows how many years. Click on your constituency and you can look at the details of what your local MP has been claiming from you during 2007/08. Made me wonder if we were to produce a similar map for Pakistan our green traditionally green coloured map would turn red hot all over.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Day of the vigilante

Not many might remember a development in Karachi around May 2008 that sent a chill down every god fearing (or just caring) human being's spine. Fed up with the deteriorating law and order situation in the city vigilante inflicted justice began to flourish and there was a series of episodes where robbers caught red handed were brutally murdered by the mob - in one case burnt alive. Images (disturbing images - discretion advised) published by Pakistani media shocked the nation and an outcry by those who believe in human rights brought this form of justice to an end before it took roots.

In the Upper Dir district of troubled North West of Pakistan a group of villagers took up arms against what has been reported as a group of Taliban and their supporters, razed their houses to the ground and killed four alleged militants. This is widely being reported as a positive development and that it could mark a return of Tribal Lashkars (literally meaning militias) to begin fighting against Taliban.

In a discussion on Pakistani security situation a friend raised a question that in North West Pakistan - where carrying arms is a local tradition and every household has a weapon of some sort, automatic assault weapons like Klashinkovs are widely and cheaply available - why don't people of every town and village pick up their arms and stand up against Taliban! This is a question that is raised by many but troubles me equally.

In the civilised world it is the duty of the state to provide security to its people and put in place institutions, mechanisms and tools to enforce law and order and justice for all citizens - whether they are in Karachi or Swat. When state fails to provide this security chaos ensues. Whereas the mobs in Karachi had no right to take law in their own hands and take life (even of those who committed crimes), it is also not right of anyone of us to expect citizens in the North West to take up arms to protect themselves.

Letting and asking common people to take law into their own hands can have other consequences as well. Over the last few decades we have seen religiously motivated mobs goaded by uneducated and hateful local mullahs murder those belonging to other sects or religions for the crime of committing blasphemy. We have also seen mobs being exploited by clever unscrupulous people to score personal vendettas and get away with murder.

I wouldn't like to see a group of MQM activists attacking a Pathan settlement in Karachi under the guise of attacking a Taliban hideout - a mob doesn't use brain - for them every Pushto speaking bearded man in a turban will be a Talib(an).

Vigilante justice has no place in a civilised world (all areas of Pakistan included).