Thursday, January 31, 2008

New Bid to Control Pakistan's Tribal Areas


Today, one story in particular stood out to me - according to the Christian Science Monitor, "For the first time, the U.S. is putting public pressure on Pakistan by asking its leaders to let the U.S. help fight terrorists within the country. Though Pakistan has rebuffed these advances, it has shown signs of taking the terrorist threat more seriously, responding quickly and forcefully to militants' increasingly bold attacks. The monitor quoted Ismail Khan, a reporter with Dawn newspaper, who said, "There is a realization within the military establishment that the government has lost its authority in the tribal areas."

In recent weeks, the U.S. has offered military assistance to root out extremists in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) with combat troops, CIA operations, or training. Although President Pervez Musharraf has rejected the "invasion" of U.S. troops, Washington has become increasingly concerned with militant activity in the region, particularly in the porous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to an article released by Reuters today, "The United States this year will start spending in earnest $750 million where its troops can't go in the hope of making Pakistan's unruly tribal lands less hospitable for Al Qaeda and the Taliban." If the U.S. succeeds in this mission, they hope other nations will help put up $2 billion for development and security in the semi-autonomous FATA. On the Pakistani military effort in the region so far, a U.S. official told Reuters, "The military campaign in FATA has not degraded extremist recruitment, training or operations."

The effort would and must be two-pronged: combining both development and security reforms, following the mantra, "you can't have development without security, and you can't have security without development." According to Reuters, overall literacy in the FATA region, consisting of a population of 3.2 million, is just 17 percent, compared to the national average of 56 percent. Moreover, there is reportedly only one doctor for every 6,750 people. Tribal communities in the area are tired of what they call the government's "empty promises," and a report from the International Crisis Group in late 2006 noted that "anticipation is turning into alienation." As a result, communities that may not inherently support extremism turn to these groups in this power vacuum. Following the earthquake in 2005, I went up north with my mother and sister and was more than a little surprised to see aid tents emblazoned with the titles of various Islamist groups.

The United States knows that it cannot personally implement the allocated funds to improve the FATA region. Raging anti-American sentiment in the area means the only realistic option is if reforms are carried out by Pakistani military and civil authorities. [Image courtesy of Reuters]

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Musharraf "Lambasted" by Former Judge


On Wednesday, Pakistan's deposed top judge Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry described President Pervez Musharraf as an "extremist general" after sacking him and 60 other top judges, reported BBC News today. The story was covered by several news agencies on Wednesday, including the UK's Guardian Unlimited, which reported, "Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudry, who was sacked when Musharraf declared emergency rule last November, said in a letter to western leaders that his wife and three children, one of whom has special needs, were even forbidden from going on to the front lawn of their home in Islamabad as it was occupied by police." A seven-page statement released by "sympathetic lawyers" in Islamabad noted, "Barbed-wire barricades surround the residence and all phone lines are cut."

During his visit to Europe last week, Musharraf told leaders he was "the best hope for democracy" and attacked the supreme court justice, calling him "corrupt and inept." On Wednesday, Chaudry hit back, asserting, "Is there a precedent in history, all history, of 60 judges including three chief justices (of Pakistani Supreme and two of the High Courts), being dismissed and arrested at the whim of one man? This incredible outrage has happened in the 21st century at the hands of an extremist general out on a 'charm offensive' of Western capitals and one whom the West supports." On the subject of democracy, the deposed chief justice wrote, "What the general has done has serious implications for Pakistan and the world. Some western governments are emphasising the unfolding of the democratic process in Pakistan. That is welcome, if it is fair. But how can there be democracy if there is no independent judiciary?"

In a development related to the issue of free elections and the democratic process, news sources today also reported that the U.S. State Department expects the upcoming Pakistani elections to be "tainted" and called on all groups, including international monitors, "to keep a tight scrutiny on the landmark event." The AFP cited statements made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, who said at a recent Congressional hearing,
"We don't necessarily accept a certain level of fraud but if history is any guide and reports are any guide, we should expect some." According to Pakistan's Daily Times, Boucher assured that "the U.S. is doing everything it can to ensure a fair election, including preparing teams from the U.S. Embassy to monitor major races around the country." The Times added, "Asked if the situation in Pakistan could develop like the one in Kenya, where fighting after disputed elections has resulted in hundreds of deaths, he said, 'We’ll know in two weeks.'"

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

NEW POLL: Who Should be the Next U.S. President Based on their Pakistan Policy?

So last week's poll closed today with interesting results. Of the 64 CHUP! readers who responded to the question, "What do you think is the most immediate concern facing Pakistan?", 65% of you answered, 'security,' 21% responded, 'inflation,' while only 10% replied 'free and fair elections.' Unfortunately, I am not aware of the ethnographic makeup of those surveyed, but I still feel the results are significant nonetheless. Although there have been very vocal pressures for democracy and elections, I think we all should understand that this battle against Taliban-linked militants is a very real and very near danger, one that should no longer be ignored.

Although this blog's primary focus is the situation in Pakistan, I think it's hard to avoid the current U.S. presidential race and its potential ramifications for the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations, which in turn could be an enormous impact on the country. The increasingly dire security situation in Pakistan has subsequently caused many candidates to take a stance on the issue. Therefore, I thought it would be timely and significant to poll CHUP! readers on who you feel should be in the White House based on their current foreign policy platform towards Pakistan. If you have comments on the question, the choices, or the poll, as a whole - please comment! Below, I am pasting the basic points asserted by the current forerunners in the race for the White House, compiled by the Council for Foreign Relations:

DEMOCRATS
Senator Hillary Clinton: Sen. Clinton (D-NY) criticized rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in August 2007 for his pledge to pursue Al Qaeda in Pakistan. She called it “a very big mistake to telegraph that and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamic extremists who are in bed with Al Qaeda and Taliban.” Clinton foreign policy adviser Lee Feinstein said in December 2007 that Clinton has “has opposed the Bush administration’s coddling of President Musharraf, and stood steadfastly with the people of Pakistan in their struggle for democracy and against terrorism.”

Senator Barack Obama: Pakistan first achieved notoriety in the presidential campaign in summer 2007 when Obama said he believed the United States should hunt Al Qaeda forces in Pakistan. In November 2007, Obama cosponsored a resolution condemning Musharraf’s imposition of a state of emergency, and calling for an investigation into a prior assassination attempt on Bhutto.

John Edwards: Edwards called Bhutto’s death a “contemptible, cowardly act.” In a phone call with Musharraf shortly after the assassination, Edwards said he urged the Pakistani leader to “continue on the path to democratization” and to allow for international investigators to look into her death. In November 2007, Edwards said the United States should use economic and military aid to Pakistan as leverage to “push Musharraf toward open free elections; toward more democratic reform, to more transparency in the way both the government operates and the economy operates” (NYT).

REPUBLICANS
Mike Huckabee: Huckabee’s response to the Pakistani crisis in late December 2007 raised concern in the media about his foreign policy experience. He made erroneous comments about the country’s state of emergency and the number of Pakistani illegal immigrants in the United States (TIME). In general, Huckabee has said the U.S. “failure to engage Al Qaeda in Pakistan seems to be leading inexorably to their attacking us again.” In his Foreign Affairs article, Huckabee called for a policy of “tough love” toward Pakistan, and said as president he will pursue Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Sen. John McCain: Sen. McCain (R-AZ) has advocated continued U.S. cooperation with Musharraf to “dismantle the cells and camps that the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain in his country.” In a November 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, he warned that the “Talibanization of Pakistani society is advancing,” and said the United States should make “a long-term commitment to the country.” This would include bolstering Pakistan’s security capabilities to enhance “Pakistan's ability to act against insurgent safe havens.” He also said the United States should “bring children into schools and out of extremist madrassas,” though he did not specify how the United States should approach that task.

Mitt Romney:

Romney says the United States should try to bolster moderate forces in Pakistan to prevent “radical jihadists” from taking power. At an August 2007 Republican debate, Romney criticized Obama’s plan to enter Pakistan with “actionable intelligence” to pursue al-Qaeda. Obama “says he wants to unilaterally go in and potentially bomb a nation which is our friend,” said Romney. “We’re trying to strengthen Musharraf. We’re trying to strengthen the foundations of democracy and freedom in that country so that they will be able to reject the extremists.”



The Rise of Tehreek-e-Taliban


The recent fighting between militants and security forces has dominated news coverage of Pakistan. Yesterday, the hostage-taking of 250 schoolchildren and subsequent surrender of the "gunmen" garnered major media attention, although sources differed on whether the incident was perpetrated by a "criminal gang" or by "Islamic militants." According to an article in today's Daily Times, Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Javed Cheema told the AFP that the gunmen were members of a "kidnapping gang," although President Pervez Musharraf called them "extremists" at yesterday's news conference in London. Today's UK Times further asserted the hostage-takers were "pro-Taliban militants."

Despite the contradicting accounts, the increasing presence of the extremists in the region is very problematic for the current security situation in Pakistan, as well as the region as a whole. Today's Daily Times' editorial focused on the rise of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, the umbrella organization that was formed last month in an effort to coordinate extremist activities and wage a joint struggle against the Pakistani military. According to the Times' editorial, the organization is made up of 40 groups "commanding an army of 40,000 gathered in Peshawar to unite under a single banner." During a television interview cited by the Daily Times' editors, the leader of Tehreek-e-Taliban, Beitullah Mehsud claimed "he had never met Osama bin Laden but had known Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader who died in Iraq fighting the Americans." However, according to sources inside the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), Mehsud does receive funding from the overarching AQ organization.

As has been noted before, very little is known about Beitullah Mehsud [see CHUP! post for January 18th], perhaps adding to his hype. On Tuesday, U.S. News and World Report released an article on the militant leader, entitled, "Pakistan's Most Wanted Warlord." In the piece, Kevin Whitelaw wrote, "While the United States has been urging Pakistan to scour its largely ungoverned tribal regions for Al Qaeda leaders like Osama bin Laden, the Pakistanis have been more focused on tribal extremist figures like Mehsud, who has mounted a serious challenge to the authority of Pakistan's embattled government." Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at RAND, commented, "Baitullah Mehsud is a primary ringmaster for cultivating and deploying suicide bombers. He himself has said so. It's a banner of honor he drapes about himself."According to a report from the United Nations last August, a Taliban source claimed 80 percent of suicide bombers in Afghanistan pass through recruitment centers, training facilities, or safe houses in the Waziristan region before they "reach their targets." [Image courtesy of Reuters]

Monday, January 28, 2008

Gunmen in Pakistan free School Hostages


On Monday, breaking news coverage of Pakistan focused on armed men taking 250 schoolchildren and teachers hostage after escaping from police in the Bannu district of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) earlier today. However, later on Monday, news sources reported the gunmen surrendered to "tribal negotiators" in exchange for safe passage from the area. The Associated Press, AFP, and BBC News quoted statements made by Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, who asserted on Pakistani television, "The criminals have surrendered to the jirga [tribal council] along with their weapons. No children have been hurt and all have been released." The AP emphasized in its report that Cheema described the gunmen as "criminals" rather than Islamic militants. The AP and the UK's Guardian Unlimited also cited President Pervez Musharraf, who told a joint news conference in London, "It was incidental that those criminals entered the school. It has been resolved peacefully." District police chief Dar Ali Khattak also told reporters that the militants had "all types of weapons like rocket launchers and grenades."

There have been heavy clashes between the military and Islamist militants in recent weeks, a subject that has been widely covered by the media. On Monday, the Pakistani press reported the Army reclaimed the Kohat tunnel on Sunday in fighting that left 24 militants dead and two security personnel injured. Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told the Daily Times, "Engineers are checking the tunnel for any explosives planted by militants. The tunnel and Indus Highway will be opened soon."

Monday's hostage-taking and subsequent surrender is significant to me not only because of what happened, but how the government failed to take complete advantage of the situation to further depict these militants in a negative light. In Iraq, Al Qaeda increasingly alienated its support because of its indiscriminate bombings - killing not just Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. soldiers, but also innocent civilians. As a result, many former insurgents allied with U.S. forces and fought against the extremist group. Likewise, today's incident (if Taliban-linked militants were behind it) can and should be broadcast in a similar light in order to garner the support of the local populace - that these militants are not acting in your interest, they kill indiscriminately, and their actions put your children and women in harm's way. In a culture heavily defined by honor, these themes curry support in the government's favor, and should be used as such. [Image from BBC News]

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Pakistan is Turning on Musharraf


The title of today's post was the header of a pertinent Wall Street Journal commentary by Hussain Haqqani, a former adviser to Benazir Bhutto who is currently a professor of International Relations at Boston University. Haqqani wrote, "Pakistan's embattled President Pervez Musharraf is touring European capitals to try and convince Western governments of the country's stability, and his own good intentions. He should instead face the evaporation of support for his authoritarian regime at home." The author cited several reasons to bolster this statement- including the fact that 68% of Pakistanis want the President to "step down immediately," and that 100 retired military officers recently signed a statement in Pakistan "describing him as an embarrassment to the powerful military that has so far been his power base." According to Haqqani, "Western governments should no longer accept Mr. Musharraf's sales pitch that he is a valuable ally in the war against terrorism. A ruler widely hated by his own people is unlikely to be effective in defeating the expanding insurgency waged by al Qaeda's Taliban allies."

The author asserted that Pakistanis are increasingly united in their disapproval for Musharraf, "and of the civil-military oligarchy he represents." In a piece by NPR, entitled, "Imran Khan Brings Anti-Musharraf Effort to U.S.," Pakistani politician and former cricket star Imran Khan criticized U.S. support for the President. He told NPR's Steve Inskeep, "Gen. Musharraf has done a brilliant PR job here where he has convinced the people that he is one man holding these hordes of terrorists, the bastion against these extremists...." This week, Imran reportedly met with U.S. Congressional leaders and spoke at several engagements in the U.S. in an effort to change the image of the Pakistani President. In the interview with NPR, he asserted, "across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go .... The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country." When asked whether U.S. influence could cause or prevent a change in Pakistan's government, Imran responded, "Well, at the moment, the only backer of Gen. Musharraf is the U.S. government. The army is only backing him now because they think that the U.S. government backs Musharraf."

However, Musharraf seems to be defending himself abroad and at home. During his Europe tour this week, the President addressed London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), where he called for support, not "criticisms and insinuations." According to an editorial in today's Daily Times, Musharraf, in an interview with the BBC, also insisted he was still popular in Pakistan on the basis of his numerous "reliable sources of information" and would "willingly leave if he became unpopular." Although these statements are interesting in light of the vocalized opposition to his rule, the Times editorial conceded, "The truth is that he is the only leader in Pakistan who at least verbalizes against terrorism and its origins. Not even the leaders of his own party, the PMLQ, are willing to speak on the subject. The opposition parties fear retaliation — even more so after the assassination of Ms. Benazir Bhutto — and seldom say anything on the subject. Keen to avoid being targeted, the media too is far more cautious to report against it than against the government and its glaring inefficiencies." At this point, are we capable of crediting the Pakistani President with anything positive? Or are we so jaded that we refuse to see any action in a positive light?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Battle Continues as Gen. Kayani Visits Posts in Swat


Once again, security developments dominated press coverage of Pakistan on Thursday. According to Pakistan's Daily Times and The News, the Chief of Army staff [the new head of the military after Musharraf took off his uniform], General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said that military operations, though part of the national effort, "are only a means to an end." Kayani made these remarks while visiting "forward" posts in Swat. According to news agencies, "Gen Kayani acknowledged the support of the people of Swat, which he said had helped the army restore normalcy to the area. Talking to local notables, he stressed the need for them to contribute to peace and welfare of the people."

Meanwhile, the LA Times reported the U.S. Pentagon is making plans to send military personnel to Pakistan to train the country's security forces, "taking advantage of promising ties with the country's new top general." The news agency noted, "The Bush administration has avoided using American troops in Pakistan because it would be deeply unpopular with many Pakistanis. The plans would limit the U.S. mission to instructing Pakistani trainers, officials said recently, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proposals are not final. Those Pakistanis then would train their country's forces." An anonymous Defense official told the LA Times, "The U.S. has to be careful of what it is doing inside Pakistan. If it becomes obvious, that's one of the things that could undermine the stability of the Pakistan government. It could provoke a response that could easily get out of hand."

Kayani has reportedly been a major influence behind these training efforts. Since Musharraf relinquished his army uniform, the new army chief has taken steps to redeem the military and move it "away from its focus on preparedness against rival India and toward fighting Islamic extremists." Much of the fighting has been concentrated along the border with Afghanistan, and the militant stronghold is located in southern Waziristan. On Thursday, BBC News ran an interesting article, entitled, "Why Waziristan Matters," discussing the implications of the region. BBC's Jill McGivering wrote, "The battle for control in South Waziristan is critical. It is described as one of the most important frontlines in the fight against Islamic extremism, a new proxy war." Militants in this area, she noted, "are drawn from a cluster of local tribes and embedded in local communities." Control of Waziristan, McGivering added, is key to controlling Afghanistan as well as stabilizing the northern regions of Pakistan. [Image courtesy of the Daily Times]

[Forgot to also note an interesting commentary in the Washington Post today by columnist David Ignatius on Kayani.]

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Democracy Is Not Born in a Minute"


On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to stick to his pledge to hold free elections, but added that she understood that democracy "is not something born in a minute," reported Pakistan's Daily Times today. The official told reporters traveling with her to Berlin for meetings on Iran, "We are all working very hard with the Pakistanis to try and ensure that the elections will be an opportunity for Pakistan to get back on a democratic path and an opportunity for Pakistanis to come together." However, she asserted, "These elections need to be elections that will have the confidence of Pakistanis."

The issue of free and fair elections has recently been a source of contention among Pakistanis and the international community as a whole. Despite Musharraf's recent assertions during his Europe trip that power will be transferred to whomever wins the upcoming February elections, Pakistanis are still skeptical of the leader. A significant article released by the Associated Press today reported that "an influential group of retired officers from Pakistan's powerful military" has "urged" Musharraf "to immediately step down" from power, noting his resignation would both promote democracy and help combat religious militancy. In a statement released late Tuesday to the media by the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society, they stated, "This is in the supreme national interest and it makes it incumbent on him to step down." The AP news agency underscored the significance of this development, noting, "The group of former generals does not speak for serving officers, but its tough stance is an embarrassment to Musharraf whose popularity has waned considerably in the past year. It could strike a chord within the army's current ranks — which are forbidden from expressing political opinions — over how a once-respected institution has lost a lot of support among the wider public as Musharraf's personal standing has eroded over his maneuvering to stay in power."

I think this week's poll falls in line with Wednesday's news coverage - should our focus be on free and fair elections if the security situation is increasingly deteriorating? Will a new, democratically elected regime be able to handle a war that is being waged in our own country? On Wednesday, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made statements addressing this issue. According to Reuters, Sharif said Pakistan's "perilous" security situation is hindering the campaign for the Feb. 18th elections "with politicians putting their lives at risk when they go out to seek votes." The former PM told reporters, "Elections are around the corner but what sort of an election campaign can one conduct? How can we go out?"

The security situation, inflation, and issues related to the elections all present the chicken and the egg problem - does a more secure country allow for a better electoral process? Does inflation further exacerbate violence, and vice versa? The United States has grown increasingly concerned with the problematic security situation in Pakistan, and the Bush administration has been under growing pressure from Congress to cut aid to the country, "or impose restrictions linking democratic reform to funding levels." On Tuesday, Sec of State Rice emphasized that this assistance was important and would continue, reported the Daily Times. She stated, "We have to have a long-term, consistent, predictable relationship with Pakistan." Such assertions do not mean the U.S. is satisfied with Pakistan's actions regarding extremism and intelligence collection in the country. However, according to an article in Wednesday's Dawn newspaper, a U.S. official noted, "We have to be careful conducting operations in a sovereign country, particularly one that’s a friend of ours and one that has given us a lot of support. The blowback would be pretty serious." The News also cited the U.S. official, Dell Daily, the State Department's counter-terror chief, who added, "Pakistan's new military chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, already has shown he is an aggressive commander, and U.S. officials are confident he will make progress. If Pakistanis ask for help, the United States will provide it." [Image courtesy of the Daily Times]

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

POLL RESULTS

Last week's poll, probing who readers thought were responsible for Benazir's assassination, is now closed. The results? Of the 70 people who answered, 47% believed Al Qaeda/Taliban was behind the attack, while 27% felt that government agencies had a hand in the killing. While 17% voted other, only 8% believed the government was behind the assassination. Just to put these results in perspective, the recent Gallup Pakistan poll [see January 14th post] found that nearly half of the 1,300 Pakistanis surveyed believed that government agencies or government-linked politicians were responsible for Benazir Bhutto's assassination, while only 17% believed the military/government's assertions that Al Qaeda and/or the Taliban were involved.

This week's poll asks CHUP! readers what they feel is the most immediate concern facing Pakistan. While I concede that the survey choices may be simplistic and may not fully grasp the depth of the country's problems, it still aims to gauge reader opinion and break down the most immediate issues in Pakistan. Please take a moment to participate, and remember the key word is immediate, not long-term.

44 Killed in Pakistan Militant Fighting

Today, Pakistani security forces' struggle with militants along the Afghan border and more statements by President Pervez Musharraf dominated press coverage of the country today. According to the Associated Press, the army said that the Islamic militants attacked a fort on Tuesday, "one of two clashes with government forces that left seven troops and 37 fighters dead." The attack on the fort occurred in southern Waziristan, an area the AP described as, "a lawless tribal region where Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants operate." It was the second clash on the fort this month.

Speaking in Paris, France today, Pakistani President
Pervez Musharraf insisted the remnants of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan is the "most serious issue" plaguing the country. He told reporters, "The 100,000 troops that we are using ... are not going around trying to locate Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri, frankly. They are operating against terrorists, and in the process, if we get them, we will deal with them certainly." However, the President still rejected claims that the violence was a sign of resurgent Taliban, insisting, "There is no Taliban offensive ... being launched. These are pinpricks that they keep doing — and we have to manage all of that." According to BBC News, the President also stressed on Tuesday that it was impossible for "militants to gain any access to Pakistan's nuclear arsenal." More specifically, he stated, "There is a zero percent chance of either one of them, they (the weapons) cannot fall into any wrong hands...We don't think it is possible that this Al Qaeda or Taliban can take over in Pakistan. We cannot be defeated like this."

An article in today's NY Times, entitled, "Musharraf Trip Shadowed by Troubles at Home," commented on the "troubles" in Pakistan as the President continues his four-nation tour in Europe, where he intends to show his resolve in fighting terrorism and to "talk up investment opportunites." However, noted the Times, "his pitch, after the assassination of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto will be made in the shadow of a rapidly escalating jihadist insurgency, an economy suffering from sudden power and wheat shortages, and worries that elections, which have been delayed to Feb. 18, will not be free and fair." Both supporters and critics of Musharraf feel that his past "pillars of strength" as a leader are now being severely challenged."

Today's NY Times editorial also discussed the issue of Pakistan, particularly the rise of violence and the Islamist militancy, developments that are problematic for the country's future. On the topic of U.S. involvement in Pakistan, the Times' editors advised, "The United States, already bogged down in
Iraq and Afghanistan, must be extremely careful about further military entanglement in Pakistan. As a long-term solution, it must encourage political and legal reforms in the tribal areas and spend as quickly as possible a new $750 million allocation by Congress that could improve the lives of Pakistanis and deprive militants of new converts."

I have attempted to provide daily news briefs to keep readers of this blog updated on the
media's portrayal of the current events in Pakistan. What has struck me while monitoring the press is that in the struggle between militants and Pakistani security forces, we, as Pakistanis, seem very divorced from this conflict. If you look at the Iraq war, and the way the American media addresses that conflict in the United States, there seems to be unflinching support for U.S. troops - American citizens and lawmakers may criticize the administration's strategy in the war, but never will they "be against" the soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. In contrast, the military also seems isolated in their fight against Taliban-linked militants. Maybe I'm wrong, but why are we so divorced from the struggle of our own troops? Is it because we do not identify with the Pakistani military, an institution in the country that has acted largely of its own accord, or is it something else?

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Journalist's Perspective on Pakistan

I had the opportunity to interview a U.K.-based Pakistani journalist who works mainly with a U.S. news network. She has worked on the ground in Pakistan for many of the country's recent breaking news stories. Below is a transcript of our discussion after she returned from covering the situation following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

You were a journalist on the ground following Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency last November, and again after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. How was the atmosphere in the country each time?

When the state of emergency was declared, two groups of people were under pressure from the government: 1) political opponents and lawyers; 2) the media. There were strict restrictions on the media. Both the local and international news channels were off air. Newspapers were printed, but with certain restrictions. Lawyers were arrested in the thousands. As a member of the media, I definitely felt like I had to be careful. I was with an international TV network, so we seemed to have a bit more flexibility and weren’t stopped from reporting anything. But the local media was under extremely tight restrictions. Some local journalists told us they had received veiled threats.

Having said that, if you weren’t a lawyer or a journalist the state of emergency didn’t really affect your life at all. On the surface everything seemed normal for the everyday man/woman. However, there was a definite sense of uneasiness because people didn’t really know what the state of emergency really meant. Psychologically, knowing their country was in a “state of emergency” was a bit demoralizing.

This time when I went, I got there a little after Ms. Bhutto’s assassination. The whole country was in mourning immediately after her death. Friends in Karachi especially, said the city ...was like a ghost town. A few days after, life seemed to be getting back to normal. This time, there were no media restrictions. But with the upcoming elections, we were concerned that the violence might pick up, so we had to remain vigilant.

The Economist recently called Pakistan "the world's most dangerous place." Given your experience on the ground, do you agree?

There is no doubt, there is a terror threat on the ground in Pakistan. This is the first time the country’s been plagued by suicide bombings. Pakistan’s been through a lot in the past, but never suicide bombings. But to call it the world's most dangerous place is a bit over the top. You’ve got places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, you can pretty much carry on with normal life. I would stay away from crowded/market areas, if possible. But apart from that, it’s all pretty normal. People don’t need to walk around with armed guards and armoured vehicles. Having said that, it’s always good to be vigilant.

The story of Nicholas Schmidle's alleged deportation caused waves in the media over here [see blog post January 16 for more information] - what is your opinion on what happened? If the government did deport him, did that effect your or your team's approach to framing stories, etc.?

The government is extremely sensitive about anything to do with the militants and the army’s activities in the north of Pakistan. During the state of emergency, there was a blanket ban on reporting on any of the stories in the north. That didn’t stop us from reporting on the fighting in Swat. We just gave the government a chance to comment, and they didn’t stop us from releasing our story. But you never know, it could be different next time. Each time we talk about any of these stories, we know we’re risking angering the government; we know we’re risking deportation. There is a very real threat in northern Pakistan, which is spreading into the main cities. That’s something no one can deny. Banning stories and deporting reporters draws more attention to the story, and gives the government bad publicity. So I’m not sure why they do it. All they have to do is refute any claims they deem as false. The Pakistani media in general is very bold and really courageous. They should be encouraged, not stomped on. But historically, the governments in Pakistan – even the “democratic” ones -- have tried to control the media when their power was threatened. This is not the first time.

What is your opinion on what is occurring right now?

Elections are slated for Feb. 18, so the political parties are in full campaign swing. So far, I’ve yet to see any of the two main parties address the terror threat. If you ask a man on the street what his main concerns are, pretty much all of them will tell you security, the cost of living – or both. They don’t seem to be too fussed about what democracy means or who’s at the top. They just want the bombings to stop – and they want to be able to feed their families. It’s pretty basic. We’ve yet to see any of the parties discuss how to tackle those issues, so far. For the two main parties – PPP and PML(N) – Pakistan is a different country from when they last ruled. There are new and more immediate priorities, namely security and inflation.

Musharraf Vows Free Elections, Geo News Back on Air

News coverage of Pakistan on Monday focused on statements made by President Pervez Musharraf as he began his four-nation European tour. The AFP news agency quoted the President, who told reporters in Brussels, "We must have fair and transparent elections [on Feb. 18th]. Whoever wins, obviously power will be handed over to them." Moreover, he emphasized that his administration would not "deny forming a government to whichever party forms a majority." According to Reuters, Musharraf also asserted that there would be no possibility of the elections being rigged.

The President also responded to concerns over human rights and democracy in Pakistan. Although he said he believed in both, he termed Western preoccupation with these issues as "obsessive." The Associated Press quoted him stating, "While we believe in democracy and human rights and civil liberties please allow us time to reach what you have reached. And you have taken centuries to reach it." According to Reuters, Musharraf also told reporters, "We have a feudal tribal environment in some of our provinces, therefore in accordance with our environment we have to adapt democracy, human rights, civil liberties."

According to news sources, Musharraf also commented on the status of media, an issue that been very contentious in Pakistan. Although he conceded the media was "restricted" during the six-week state of emergency in November, he asserted that now, "there was no limit on their freedom." As Musharraf made these statements, news agencies reported that Pakistan's private Geo Television Network was back on air today. According to a Reuters newswire Monday, "Geo was the last channel to come back on the air of several that were blocked when Musharraf imposed emergency rule on November 3..." Although the President lifted the emergency in mid-December, Geo remained blocked on cable channels. According to the Pakistani newspaper, The News, "People from various walks of life have welcomed restoration of Geo News transmissions on cable...Lahore newsmen have termed lifting of ban on Geo News a major success of the journalist community and the entire civil society ..."

Despite the development today, BBC News noted the media still faces restrictions in Pakistan. Therefore, reported BBC's Jill McGivering, Musharraf's
"need for foreign friends has probably never been greater." During his Europe trip, "He wants to convince the rest of the world that the public pledges he keeps making are genuine: that the postponed elections next month will be free and fair. That his real goal is for a smooth transition of power to the new government. And also that, if the road is rocky, he is Pakistan's best hope of stability."

An editorial in today's Daily Times noted that Musharraf, talking to six top editors in Rawalpindi, linked the current "turbulent" times to three crises facing Pakistan: (1) the crisis of the transition to democracy, (2) the crisis of the war against terrorism and extremism, and (3) the crisis of the economy if the first two cannot be contained or resolved. According to the Daily Times' editors, "The real 'crises' today have sprung from the government on President Musharraf’s watch and they are: (1) agitation for legitimate constitutional rule, including separation and autonomy of state institutions, (2) public rejection of the intervention of the army in civilian affairs and a struggle for civil-military relations under the constitution, and (3) an intractable crisis in the equation of center-province relations in the country." They added, "What is dangerous, however, is that in these crises, the crisis of fighting terrorism is not included simply because it is no longer close to the heart of the people." We already see the ramifications of the "war" that is currently being fought on the Afghan border between militants and Pakistani security forces. Denying its existence can only be problematic for the country's future.
(Picture from Reuters)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Breaking News: Pakistan Arrests Teen Suspect in Bhutto Assassination

In yet another twist to the unfathomable Bhutto assassination: news sources reported this morning that the Pakistani police has arrested a teenager who was allegedly part of a five-man squad in the plot to kill the former PM last month. According to the AFP news agency, "The suspect, 15-year-old Aitezaz Shah, was arrested from the northwestern city of Dera Ismail Khan on Friday while planning a suicide bombing during Ashoura." The Associated Press cited an intelligence official, who said "the 15-year-old told investigators that the five-person squad was dispatched to Rawalpindi, where Bhutto was killed, by Baitullah Mehsud." Newswires cited Interior Ministry spokesman Iqbal Cheema who stated he had not received information about any arrests, or about any new developments in the Bhutto case.

The development further supports previous government allegations that Mehsud and Al Qaeda-linked militants were behind the assassination. However, what's interesting is whether the recent news - the CIA announcement and the arrest of a teen who allegedly confessed to the crime - changes perceptions about who killed Bhutto. Although the majority of people in the sidebar poll affirm that AQ was behind the assassination, a significant portion of those polled, as well as those surveyed in the recent Gallup Pakistan poll, suspect that government agencies were complicit in the attack. So here's a question - does this change your mind? Or are you still a skeptic?

Supporting Aitzaz Ahsan - by Fahad Hasan

Note: CHUP! does not officially endorse any political candidate in Pakistan - we instead serve as a platform for young Pakistanis to voice their opinion, and balance these commentaries with factual news briefs and analyses. With the elections [hopefully] approaching, one of our contributors discusses his support for Aitzaz Ahsan:

Pakistan has often been criticized for lacking in leadership and promoting policies that exacerbate the harsh divide between the rich and poor. However, there are people fighting to restore the integrity of this federation, one of them being Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan.

Ahsan has a long history of fighting for democracy. He grew up in a feudal Punjabi family that was active in politics, and is a product of Aitchison College and Government College (GC). Following his passion, he was admitted to Cambridge to study law, where he graduated in the first division.

The principled, freedom-fighting phase of Aitzaz Ahsan’s life began after he came back to Pakistan, post-Cambridge. Ahsan was persuaded by family members to take the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam—the exam that determines who is admitted in to the Pakistani beauracracy. The acceptance rate for the CSS is said to be about 2% of total candidates—Aitzaz Ahsan finished first out of all candidates. However, much to the surprise of all, Ahsan chose to refuse the honor, stating that he did not wish to be under the undemocratic government of General Ayub Khan. This act started a struggle against the army’s constant quelling of democracy in Pakistan. He joined the Pakistan People’s Party in the 1970’s and won a provincial seat in Punjab. He became a provincial minister, but exhibited his passion for justice by resigning after an incident in which Lahore police fired on protesting lawyers. For this act of defiance, Ahsan was kicked out of the PPP. Later, Ahsan became influential in the fight for democracy and rejoined the PPP after an almost decade hiatus. He went on to become a Federal Minister in Benazir’s first government and has served various functions over the last twenty years, including Leader of the House, Leader of the Opposition, and President of the Supreme Court Bar.

As President of the Supreme Court Bar, Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan has done the most damage to the Musharruf dictatorship. He was prominent in the lawyers' movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice. Over the last year he has been jailed a number of times for his support for the Supreme Court judges. Presently, Ahsan is under house arrest, as he has been for more than a month now. Talking about prison, Ahsan once remarked to the New York Times, “My only prayer is that never again in this land should prison seem to be the only honorable option for political activists or for anyone else for that matter.” The tragedy of the situation is that the government can try to quell honorable voices, like that of Aitzaz Ahsan, while it talks about free and fair elections. Ahsan, wearing the hat of a lawyer, has said that he will boycott the elections because of the stifling of the judiciary.

Regardless of his current position to boycott the elections, I still strongly support this figure, a man whose history only further emphasizes his political principles and integrity.

Related videos: Ahsan speaking before his arrest
Police brutality as he appeals for calm
(Picture from Wikipedia)

Friday, January 18, 2008

CIA, Pakistan Concur on Bhutto's Death


An interesting development was released today: According to news sources, the CIA (the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) has added its support to the Pakistani government view that Al Qaeda and Pakistani militant, Baitullah Mehsud were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on December 27th. In an interview released by the Washington Post today, CIA chief Michael Hayden specifically said the former PM was killed by militants allied with Mehsud with support from the AQ network. He said, "What you see is, I think, a change in the character of what's going on there. You've got this nexus now that probably was always there in latency but is now active: a nexus between Al Qaeda and various extremist and separatist groups." He added, "It is clear that their intention is to continue to try to do harm to the Pakistani state as it currently exists."

Most Western press coverage of Pakistan focused on this announcement. The LA Times, in its article, reported, "The intelligence official said he could not disclose how the CIA had reached that conclusion, including whether the assessment was based, at least in part, on a telephone call that Pakistani authorities say they intercepted shortly after Bhutto was killed. In that call, a man said to be Mehsud congratulates a cleric who claims that his associates carried out the killing." Despite Hayden not revealing the source of his claim, BBC News noted, "Correspondents say that Mr. Hayden's comments are the most comprehensive public assessment by U.S. intelligence of Ms. Bhutto's death." Although the Pakistani government (and now the CIA) has claimed that Baitullah Mehsud was behind Benazir's assassination, the pro-Taliban leader has denied involvement, although the LA Times noted he has not commented on the purported call.

Just who is Baitullah Mehsud, however? Just this morning, before I read this latest development, I was listening to a profile by NPR on the militant leader, and was intrigued by how little is actually known about him [the picture above was posted by the BBC, whose caption read: "Baitullah Mehsud has an aversion to publicity and photographs"]. According to NPR, these are the facts we know: Mehsud is in his early 30s, he is from the Mehsud tribe in southern Waziristan, he fought against U.S. forces in Afghanistan and wants to see the introduction of Shari'a law, and has been fighting against the Pakistani Army. President Pervez Musharraf has called Mehsud a "facilitator for Al Qaeda" and has accused him of organizing a wave of suicide bombings that have left 400 dead and 900 wounded in the last few months. According to the government's logic, Benazir's convoy was attacked by a suicide bomber; ergo, the attack must have been perpetrated by Al Qaeda-linked militants. However, the details become fuzzy when the video of her attack shows her being shot at before the blast occurred. Moreover, noted NPR, although the government cited the transcript of Mehsud's conversation with another man as proof of his responsibility, there is no way to know whether they were indeed talking about Benazir's assassination, or the authenticity of the recording.

With the paralleled poll [see the sidebar] still ongoing, readers of this blog seem torn over just who was responsible for Benazir's assassination. This controversy aside, the rising power of Mehsud is a significant and problematic development for the current situation.

Oh, and another interesting article in today's NY Times that I forgot to list - about the state of the Taliban insurgency in Peshawar.
(Picture from BBC News)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Bomb Blast in Peshawar Kills 5


According to breaking news reports today, a suicide bomber detonated explosives in Peshawar, killing 5 and injuring 23 others. Although western news sources noted the bombing occurred at "a Shiite mosque" in the city, several Pakistani news sources, including The News, specifically reported the attack happened "at the door of [an] Imambargah when people entering there were being scanned." Imambargahs are also known as Hussainias, which are congregation halls for Shiite ritual ceremonies, particularly those associated with Muharram. The AP reported, "The blast comes as minority Shiite Muslims prepare to mark the Ashoura festival, which in previous years has been marred by sectarian violence involving rival Sunnis." The news agency also cited Pakistan's Dawn TV that noted, "the Imambargah Qasim Baig mosque was crowded with worshippers at the time of the attack." A "crowd of enraged Shiites," crying and beating their chests, reportedly prevented the Associated Press reporter from reaching the scene. A separate article from The News reported that Karachi declared a "security high alert" on Thursday following the Peshawar bombing. Sectarian-motivated attacks often occur during Ashoura - just yesterday, a suicide bombing in Iraq targeting Shiite worshipers in Diyala province killed at least 8 people, and the bombing in Peshawar today reportedly occurred in the same quarter of the city where a suicide attack during Ashoura last year killed 11 people.

Most sources in today's Western press focused their coverage more heavily on an incident that occurred yesterday - when Islamist militants attacked and seized a small Pakistani army fort near the Afghan border. According to the LA Times, "Although the fighters did not gain significant ground in the attack Tuesday night on Sararogha Fort, they did further erode confidence in the U.S.-allied government's ability to control the frontier area where the Taliban and Al Qaeda flourish." The news agency cited Talat Masood, a retired general who is now a political analyst, who said Wednesday, "The militants are now challenging the army openly. They have become very bold and are consolidating their positions." The NY Times reported that Tehreek-i-Taliban, "an Islamic group that is sympathetic to the Taliban," said that it had carried out the attack and had killed 16 soldiers and captured 24. The newspaper added, "Militant groups operating in the tribal region formed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan ­ the Taliban Movement of Pakistan ­ last month, to coordinate their activities and wage a joint struggle against Pakistani forces."

An article in Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper reported today that Pakistan is "taking a more welcoming view of U.S. suggestions for using American troops to train and advise its own forces in the fight against anti-government extremists." The news agency cited U.S. commander of U.S. Central Command Adm. William Fallon who said Wednesday that "he believes increased violence inside Pakistan in recent months had led the country’s leaders to conclude that they must focus more intensively on Qaeda hideouts near Afghan border." Fallon said expanded U.S. military assistance to Pakistan would include a U.S. training program for tribal groups in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

Fallon's statements yesterday are extremely significant given the same tribal model that is currently being applied to Iraq. The organizations, known as the Awakening Councils (or interchangeably in some provinces as the Concerned Local Citizen Groups), has turned predominately Sunni tribes against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and has subsequently been hailed as a success. The question, however, is could such a model be applied to Pakistan? Are there inherent differences in Pakistani tribal culture that may not allow such an approach to take root?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Hands Unite in Pakistan - by Omar Ul Haq


Below is the first contributed post by one of my closest friends from home, Omar, who wrote a brilliant and very personal article on the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. I'd also like to emphasize and call attention to the NGO mentioned in the piece - H.A.N.D.S, an organization that aims to change the way Pakistanis are prepared to respond to crises and manage disasters. Although the earthquake hit over two years ago, the aftermath of the disaster is still felt today, so please take a moment and visit the website [listed above].

“On Saturday, October 8, 2005, two blocks of the Margalla Towers - a posh building of luxury apartments in Islamabad – collapsed after a 7.6 Richter scale earthquake struck at 8:53 am and lasted for approx 6 minutes. Besides many killed, more than 250 people, including foreign nationals, were buried alive under the debris. Over all, 74,698 died in Pakistan resulting from the Earthquake."

Unfortunately, two of the innocent souls in the Towers were those who were very special to us. Farid Zia Khan, my fathers best friend since nursery, was married to Hina Farid, my mother's cousin and they had three beautiful children together. Nida and Danish are both around my age and Nayha was 8 years old, an angel that could melt anyones heart. Our families have been obsessed with each other for as long as I can remember and we would have our usual lunches, dinners, drives, vacations, and hanging out sessions on a regular basis.

I still remember coming home on Friday, October 9th, 2005 after a long week at work, lying down on my couch, and flipping through different channels while trying to find something to watch on the television. Although I usually went out on Fridays, I had decided to stay in that night to catch up on some sleep. I began to make myself a sandwhich when I recieved a text message from my mother saying "big earthquake in Pakistan, something wrong with Margalla Towers, Hina is not answering the telephone so I'm driving to their house. I hope Allah brings good news". I read the text message, thought it must have been a slight tremor, and continued to make myself some dinner while watching an old episode of Friends.

An hour later, my mobile began to vibrate as I continued to recieve more text messages. I leaned over and saw another message from my mother, which said "Hina and Nayha are missing, praying to Allah that everything is fine". I didn't really comprehend what she meant by the fact that they were "missing" and I continued to assume that there must be dozens of people standing outside the Towers and she was probably trying to find them through those crowds of people. I remembered sitting in their flat in Margalla towers a few months ago while it was pouring rain and we were ridiculing those who had built this building as we felt the tower sway from side to side. I began to wash the dishes when finally, my father called sounding extremely upset to let me know that Farid Uncle was in Lahore, Nida and Danish were in Dubai, and that Hina Aunty and Nayha were inside Margalla Towers when it collapsed.

Although my father had been extremely straight forward with me, I kept telling him to speed it up and find them as I was convinced they were probably standing outside the Towers, hidden amongst the crowds of people. I refused to even consider the possibility that they had collapsed with the building. I decided to call Nida and Danish and speak to them as my Father was stressing me out and didn't have much information regarding the situation at the time. I spoke to Nida, who was confused, scared, 7 months pregnant, and had not spoken to anyone from Pakistan as yet. She passed the phone to Danish who, also in denial at the time, chose to avoid discussing the current crisis and was instead asking me how I was dealing with the snow in Washington DC. A few minutes later, I called back to find out if they had an update on the situation and like the rest of us, they were watching the news and could not believe that the building that CNN International was showing on repeat, minute after minute, was the building that they called "home". We briefly discussed the next available flights to Pakistan and they immediately left for the airport. Having only experienced a few tremors during my time in Islamabad, I could not even begin to imagine the extent of the tragedy taking place back home.

I didn't know how to react, let alone comprehend what had happened. We were glued to CNN, which was showing the collapsed "Margalla Towers" constantly and I couldn't believe that this was the same building we had spent so much time in for the past few years. Our hearts sank to see the building, the relief effort which was ridden with inefficiency, poor organization, and without any apparent leadership. It was depressing to say the least, to see Pakistan, a developing nation, trying to orchestrate a rescue effort without any proper machinery or equipment. However, we were incredibly grateful for those who had flown in from all over the world to help out in every possible way. CNN reported that they had heard voices of others trapped under the cement, but it wasn't possible for a medical team to get to them until the debris was completely removed. This was a time that Pakistan was truly in a "state of emergency" and we began to witness the entire country come together, holding hands, to fight this crisis together.

My parents called for the next two days telling us that there was still a glimmer of hope that Hina Aunty and Nayha may have survived and that we should continue to pray for them. As much as I wanted to prepare myself for the worst, it just wasn't possible at the time. I could not help but think about Farid Uncle, Nida, and Danish and what they must be going through. Nida, who was seven months pregnant at the time, needed her mother and younger sister at this crucial stage of her life and I wasn't able to understand why God would make her go through this. Hina Aunty was a gem of a person, so full of love and energy, and anyone who had ever met her would tell you that she was the glue that kept everyone together. In the words of her brother, Nameer Ameen, she was "a woman full of life, always laughing, and making others laugh. A spiritually devoted individual who not only lived what she preached but also inspired everyone around her". Nayha was truly special as well, shared a striking resemblance to her mother, and was looking forward to becoming an Aunt to Nida's baby, which was due in the next two months. And as Nameer has also said, she "had the power to steal your heart in a heart beat and had the ability to capture your love and attention no matter what. A darling of her father's heart, she was the only one who could melt Farid Zia's heart like no other has ever done before".

As I was sitting with a friend in my apartment two days later glued to the Television, that is when I received my mother's text message. "Nayha passed away. I don't know if Nida knows yet so please don't say anything to her. Farid identified her body and I recognized her new glass slippers which she had shown me when I had gone there for lunch yesterday. No news of Hina yet, please pray for her." My heart sank as I sat there with my mobile in my hand, tears rolling down my face, I shut my eyes, and just saw Nayha's face. The angel had passed away and gone to heaven in such a tragic way that it was just unbelievable. "Nunee Naahoo", as we all called her had kept her first "roza" ever that day and had forced her father to make it back to Islamabad in time for Iftar to eat with her. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen and I refused to accept the fact that God had taken away this precious girl from her family.
It was not long before my mother sent a final text message saying "Hina passed away and I am leaving for the mortury". My mother's sister, her cousin, her best friend had passed away and I cannot even imagine what she must have gone through while identifying her body. Sitting in Washington DC and having to go through this with my brother Osman, my friends, and colleagues was probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to deal with in my life. I still had two months before I was able to leave the country and wasn't sure if I would ever have the strength to face Farid Uncle, Nida, and Danish and what I would say to them.

As I arrived in Pakistan, one of the first things I did was go to their house to visit them. Driving to an entirely different side of Islamabad, a different sector, and a completely different house to visit them was strange to say the least. I was shaking, sweating, and extremely nervous as I walked in to meet Farid Uncle, Danish, and Nida, who was expected to deliver any day. I didn’t have to say or do anything. I hugged them, sat with them, and relived all our memories for the next several hours. I needed to spend time with them and I can safely say that this was truly a moment of awakening for me: life could end in the blink of an eye and we should not take anything for granted. We stayed there for hours and before we knew it, it was 3:30 am. We remembered the time we were sitting in their living room in Margalla Towers a few months earlier just hanging out and Hina Aunty had come to the living room, huffing and puffing, and was trying to push us out of the door way while screaming "shahbash, ghar jao aur subah keh waqt aana". We had pushed her back, burst out laughing, and continued to chat away with Nida and Danish while she brought some tea and breakfast for us.

As human beings, we can't rewrite fate or what God has in store for all of us, however, we can at least try to understand and learn from our experiences and maybe then, we could be better-prepared and better-equipped to deal with such disasters in the future. As we all know, the destruction of Margalla Towers was no accidental tragedy. As time and investigations have proven, poor construction techniques, substandard materials, bribery, and corruption of the involved parties are the factors responsible for taking the very lives of so many and destroying so many families forever. I don't think it will ever be possible to forget those who passed away in the Earthquake. As a tribute to them, Nameer Ameen, Hina Aunty's brother, has started an NGO in their name.

Hina and Nayha Disaster Services, Pakistan (HANDS, Pakistan) is a tribute to both of them, who have inspired all of us to make a difference in the lives of those who need and deserve better preparedness when faced with calamities like earthquakes. HANDS aims to change the way Pakistanis are prepared to manage such disasters by proactively educating the public on the risk factors of earthquakes and other natural disasters and increasing public awareness in safety, hazard mitigation, as well as redefining construction standards in earthquake zones. In time, HANDS will hopefully provide world class search and rescue operations in the most efficient manner possible, dramatically reducing the loss of life during a calamity such as an earthquake or a flood.
We should never forget the disaster that changed our lives twenty-six months ago and always remember the ones we lost with a smile. I am still amazed at how so many races, cultures, and religions came together to help our country in our time of need. May Allah grant everyone who passed away with Paradise and forgive all their sins.

Rest in peace and we shall meet soon.

The Deportation of Nicholas Schmidle


Nicholas Schmidle, an American journalist and a Pakistan-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, was allegedly deported last week by the Pakistani government, reportedly following the release of his January 6th article in the NY Times, entitled, "Next-Gen Taliban." In the piece, Schmidle described the growing strength of the Taliban in Pakistan as well as the increasing struggle among Islamists who wish to be part of the democratic process and those who wish to destabilize the nation. He noted, "The emergence of Taliban-inspired groups in Pakistan has placed immense strain on the country’s Islamist community, a strain that may only increase with the assassination of Bhutto. As the rocket attack on Rehman’s house illustrates, the militant jihadis have even lashed out against the same Islamist parties who have coddled them in the past." However, he wrote, "For now, it is Islamist violence that seems to have the political upper hand rather than the accommodation of Islamist currents within a democratic society."

Following the release of the article, Schmidle told BBC News that he had been given a deportation notice "but no reason for the government's move." The day before, Schmidle recalled, an officer from the Pakistani ISI had stopped by his house and told his security guard, "He told my security guard that my visa had been canceled as I was writing against Pakistan." However, the government denied such claims, and on Saturday said the journalist had left Pakistan "on his own volition." An information ministry official told the BBC, "Initially a deportation order was served to him but it was later withdrawn. He left Pakistan on his own."

The incident, despite the conflicting reports, has sparked much controversy, both in Pakistan and among members of the international community. In a press release, Reporters Without Borders condemned Schmidle's "forced departure," asserting, "This does not bode well for the situation of foreign journalists, especially the many reporters who will be going to Pakistan to cover the legislative elections due to take place in a month from now..." In the country, the PPP also condemned the alleged deportation, describing it as "outrageous." Pakistan's Daily Times cited PPP information secretary Sherry Rahman, who said despite the lifting of the so-called emergency, "the regime continued to hound media on one pretext or the other." She cited a recent report from the aforementioned Reporters Without Borders that described Pakistan as "the most dangerous Asian country for the media in 2007." The Times added, "Most astonishingly she said 34 journalists in the province of Sindh were booked on the charge of rioting following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. After the November 3 martial law, the regime shut down 45 private satellite TV channels and two radio stations adding to its long list of unconstitutional moves over the last eight years." The alleged forced departure of Schmidle, she concluded, was "another reminder of the fact that an authoritarian leadership never had tolerance for independent voices."

The media in Pakistan has always been independent, vocal, and free-reigning. The recent incident, as well as the treatment of the press in the past few months, has been extremely significant given the current atmosphere and the rising dissent against the government. In a society that has been increasingly plagued by violence, riots, and subsequent crackdowns, what role has, can, and should the media play?

[A reader of this blog recently passed on a very poignant and interesting article by Shahan Mufti on the role of independent television in Pakistan, that is a good resource for this topic.]

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Poll Experiment

So in the Gallup Pakistan poll cited below, only 17 percent of Pakistanis surveyed believed Al Qaeda militants were behind the assassination of Benazir's death. I decided to set up a mini-poll (see the side bar) to understand our audience a bit more and to gauge your opinion on the incident. Hopefully, this could be a good segue way to delve further into people's thoughts on the issue, as well as a further reflection on people's views on the government in particular. So please, vote!

Musharraf Under Pressure as Police Probe Bombings

On Monday, 10 people were killed and more than 40 were injured in a bomb blast in a crowded market in Karachi on Monday. News sources, including the LA Times and the Pakistan's Daily Times, noted that an explosive was reportedly rigged to a motorcycle and left near a fruit cart. The Daily Times cited Sindh Police Inspector General Azhar Ali Farooqui, who said, "The bomb had exploded around 7.45pm at a market near the Gul Ahmed Textile Mill, within the jurisdiction of the Quaidabad Police Station." Although no one has claimed responsibility for the recent wave of attacks, authorities say they were designed to exacerbate instability ahead of the February elections. Government officials, not surprisingly, blamed Al Qaeda-linked militants from tribal regions along the Afghan border for the bombing. The LA Times added, "The bomb was detonated in an area dominated by Pashtun tribesmen who have moved to the city."

Following the bombing, President Pervez Musharraf faced new calls for his resignation, reported the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency on Tuesday. Monday's blast occurred as Musharraf visited Karachi, although the Associated Press noted that he did not appear to be the target of the blast. Nevertheless, opposition leaders called for the ex-general to resign in the wake of the recent spate of violence, that the AFP reported has killed more than 800 people in the last year. Yesterday, Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif told an election rally of about 3,000 people in Islamabad, "Musharraf has destroyed Pakistan. He is blindly following America's orders. The whole of Pakistan is drowned in blood." [For an interesting piece on the militants in the country, see today's NY Times article.]

There has been increasing pressure on the Pakistani President to resign. Pakistan's prominent newspaper, The News, featured recent statements made by Pervez Hoodbhoy, described as "the brilliant Physics professor at Quaid-e-Azam University," who told an Italian journalist, "I want Musharraf to go -- resign or somehow be removed, preferably without bloodshed. I want the independent judiciary restored, a new neutral caretaker government installed for overseeing free and fair elections, and then elections that would decide upon the new parliament and prime minister. This will not immediately solve Pakistan's fundamental problems -- army dominance, maldistribution of wealth, religious fanaticism -- but it would get Pakistan on the track to democracy instead of the self-destruction it is racing towards."

The cycle of violence and instability in Pakistan has been self-enforcing, and many have pointed a finger at the current President, who we have seen become increasingly more defensive as he has come under attack, [see Monday's post with the Newsweek interview as well as his recent interview with CBS News' Lara Logan on Jan. 6th]. I've noted this shift in his interviews with interest - from a man who once instilled hope in Pakistanis to an ex-general who has become increasingly unpopular and on the defensive - when did that change start? Do all Pakistani politicians and leaders have a shelf-life before they, too, are deemed insufficient for the process?