Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thoughts on the NFC

This whole debate on criteria for distribution of revenue between provinces is completely superfluous. We are a federation – at least in name. And the current government seems to want to make that a reality. It then follows that the NFC award should be abolished entirely and the system reversed. Provincial governments should get control of their own revenue and give only a fixed percentage to the center. No interprovincial redistribution is required. If the federal government wants to fund a specific project in a poorer province or supplement a cash-strapped or overpopulated province's budget, it can do so out of its own share.

I fail to understand the logic of wholesale transfer of taxes paid by residents of one province to another simply because the other province has more people. This just does not hold in a federation.

The fact that Sindh, which contributes 60% of Pakistan's revenue, gets to keep only 20% (25% of the divisible pool) for itself seems like an utter travesty. There is no incentive for people of Sindh to pay taxes because anything they contribute beyond a certain amount will not be spent on them at all. People living in other provinces, on the other hand, not only have their own taxes spent on them (excluding what goes to the federal government) but also get money from the people of Sindh.

I'm not saying that provinces should not help each other out or support development in other places. Once each province gets control of their own revenues then provincial governments can certainly lend and borrow from each other or even give aid. But taxes of a particular province should be spent in accordance with the wishes of its people and its elected government.

One could counter that the people of Sindh also have a voice in the federal government, which makes it equally qualified to spend Sindh's money. First, that is contrary to the concept of a federation. Second, because Sindh gets representation in the center according to its population, which is small, its voice cannot be heard as loudly. Historically, it has been very easy for Punjab to ride roughshod over the wishes of other provinces because it has the majority in the center. Just two days ago when IRSA stopped water supply to Punjab because it had drawn more than its share from the Indus, Punjab went to the center and forced it to release more water in contravention of the interprovincial watersharing agreement. Farmers in Sindh are going to get less than their share of water this season because of Punjab's arm-twisting. Lesson: justice for smaller provinces is hard to get at the center.

From where I stand, the NFC award is entirely suspect. Punjab asserting its right to the lions share of the revenue, most of which it did not generate itself, is laughable. If I'm paying oodles of money in taxes every month, I'd like to see them spent here, where I live, first.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Media Code of Conduct

The code of conduct that eight television channels agreed to on November 6 has received deafening applause. Given that the plaudits are coming from the mainstream media itself, I'm not particularly inclined to take them very seriously. The code was a long time coming and while The News today patted itself on the back for its "emerging maturity" it failed to mention that the code saw the light of day only because of the threat of government interference.

Don't get me wrong. I do not agree with the amendments the assembly was going to make in the PEMRA Act. The clauses forbidding any talk prejudicial to the ideology and sovereignty of Pakistan (whatever that means) and anything that ridicules the head of state, armed forces, bureaucracy or judiciary were blatant attempts at censorship. But the media has not been very responsible in exercising its newfound freedom.

The code addresses some of the media's shortcomings. Violent images will not be broadcast and more care will be taken in verifying facts and reporting hostage situations live. But it remains unclear how binding this code really is. Reading the Dawn report one gets the impression that it is not. It repeats ad nauseam that the the code is just a voluntary guideline. In fact, the words "voluntary" and "voluntarily" appear eight times! Does that mean that these channels can disregard the code whenever the please? Will there be no comprehensive system of regulation, no penalties for infractions? Apparently not.

This supposed sign of maturity seems more like a puerile publicity stunt. A ploy to get the government and the public off the media's back. And even then the media failed to mention in its "voluntary guidelines" any resolve against advocating violence. The pogrom against Ahmadis that Aamir Liaquat Hussain's show of 7 September 2008 sparked does not seem to sit very heavy on the media's conscience. Freedom of speech has its limits and preaching violence against human beings is beyond the pale. Preaching the murder of Pakistani citizens on national television is nothing short of abominable. But the media has not even paid lip service to preventing such deplorable incidents.

I don't think this code of conduct is good for much. Ideally, the government, media and civil society should sit down and come to an agreement on a code of ethics, which should be made into law and enforced by a regulatory body through fines and penalties. The code should be precise in wording (like the media's code of conduct not the assembly's proposed amendments) but it should also be binding. If the media is serious about its role as the fourth pillar of democracy it has to step up and accept the responsibilities that come with the job.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thrown to the wolves

Charming, open and conciliatory, Hillary Clinton did very well by my estimation in her conversation with the Pakistani press tonight. Meeting with so many fiercely anti-American journalists at once might have seemed suicidal but she pulled it off. Clinton admitted to America's past mistakes, to Bush's blunders, to America's part in creating the Taliban and expressed the Obama administration's desire to "turn a new page" on Pak-US relations repeatedly.

She addressed the Kerry-Lugar Bill fiasco reasonably well, too. First, she admitted that America should have been more sensitive to Pakistan's reaction and then pointed out that (a) the conditions attached were normal consistent with aid bills to countries like Israel and Egypt; (b) they were also binding only on the US government and not Pakistan; (c) American legislators had to explain the massive $7.5 billion aid to their constituents, who in such hard times would want the money to be spent at home, making these kinds of checks necessary.

The journos – one from each major news channel – all seemed fixated on Kerry-Lugar and one after another repeated the same worn out question about the gap between her friendly words and the imperial designs of KLB. When asked this the umpteenth time she lost her cool, declaring very emphatically that Pakistan is free to refuse US aid if it so pleases, that America was not forcing Pakistan to accept it. The exasperation behind the comment was counterproductive but otherwise Clinton kept her own.

All those bloodthirsty town halls she put herself through on the election trail last year really paid off. The six journalists tonight turned out to be no challenge for her at all. Her Pakistan green blouse was perhaps a bit much but at least she managed to placate the anti-America camp in my family. Am curious to see what the rest of Pakistan thought...

The People of Waziristan

Who are the people of Waziristan? I've been reading news reports in foreign and Pakistani papers and my sense is that nobody is sure who the average resident of Waziristan is; what his or her beliefs, opinions and aspirations are. But four molds have emerged in which they are most likely to be cast:

1. Ferocious tribesman: When invoking this image, the independent spirit and rugged fierceness of the people are invariably expounded. British colonial experience is often cited too. At best, it is used to predict the outcome of the current war as if Waziristan has remained completely unchanged for the interim half century. At worst, analysts and journalists quote Orientalist balderdash that often talks about the people of Waziristan as animals. Prime examples of the former are Roedad Khan and Shafqat Mehmood's opinion pieces in The News and Nicholas Schmidle's reference to Lord Curzon in Dawn. The most flagrant offender in the latter category has been the New York Times. Jane Perlez's story from a few days back quoted Sir Olaf Caroe comparing Mehsuds to a pack of wolves and Wazirs to lonely panthers. There's also Salman Masood talking about "taming the tribes" in The National.

2. Diehard terrorist: This model holds that all the residents of Waziristan are Taliban or Taliban sympathizers at the very least. This doesn't come up in news reports as much as it does in conversation with journalists. More often than not, journalists reporting from Waziristan will tell you that there is little to no difference between tribesmen and the Taliban. This view is linked to the ferocious tribesman mold in describing the brutality of the people of Waziristan. But in explaining their motives it uses Islamic fundamentalism as opposed to thirst for independence.

3. Helpless refugee: This view has become more prominent since Rah-e-Nijat started. It presents Waziristanis as victims of war, disillusioned with the Taliban and the army, just waiting to return to the lives they were uprooted from. Articles that talk in this vein paint people from Waziristan as extremely backward, barely on the fringes of civilization. Dawn published one such article a few days ago but the best example of this has to be yesterday's editorial in The News. The editorial talks at great length about the immense hardship IDPs from Waziristan are facing and the deplorable conditions of life in Waziristan. It is quite transparent in its attempt to stir liberal guilt and is more than a little condescending towards people from Waziristan. At one point the editorial mentions that the refugees are tremendously grateful for the blankets, food and medicine they have received.

4. Pakistanis like us: This mold is invoked only when condemning drone attacks. When a drone kills 20 or so people in FATA, the people stop existing as ferocious tribesmen or crazed terrorists or deprived underdogs and take on the role of green and white Pakistanis, whose death you and I, all of Pakistan, must mourn as its own.

None of these descriptions are convincing, especially since the motives behind the molds are so transparent. The first two are used to form an opinion for or against Rah-e-Nijat. The third to blame militancy on underdevelopment and the fourth to stoke anti-American ire. All fail to give any real insight into the people of Waziristan. More damagingly, they tend towards dehumanizing them.

I don't know who the real Waziristani is. I'm pretty certain that he or she is not entirely explained by the above four models. I'm also sure that it is very crucial for the rest of Pakistan to understand Waziristanis, the people who have lived with, and perhaps even supported, the Taliban for so long. That we have failed to do so is a grave failing on the part of our media and ourselves.

Miserable Timing

Manmohan Singh calls on Pakistan to destroy terrorists during a visit to Indian-administered Kashmir. The timing cannot be worse.

Earlier today a car bomb ripped through Peshawar's biggest and most crowded market, Meena Bazaar. The death toll has been rising since the morning and now stands at 95 people. A building has collapsed with people reportedly trapped inside. Others have been burnt to death. Hospitals have run out of blood as they struggle to treat more than 200 injured.

I've been to Meena Bazaar several years ago. I remember it as a place with narrow streets, shops spilling over each other, people thronging the lanes browsing shop after shop full of bright fabrics. A bomb there must have wreaked havoc. The pictures are nightmarish.

Even as this tragedy unfolds, Mr. Singh has decided to lecture Pakistan. If at this time, the Indian government could not find it in itself to condole Pakistan then perhaps it would have been best for it to have stayed silent.

With Pakistanis dying horrific deaths almost daily, we are well aware of the need to destroy the terrorists. Thank you very much.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mother of all battles?

Correction: This post was written on the false premise that Wana is the hub of TTP. In fact, as Rabia has kindly pointed out, Wana is controlled by groups that have promised to stay neutral to the fight. One of the three prongs of the army offensive has taken off from Wana (the other two originating from Razmak and Tank). The post also erroneously identifies Ladha as the focus of the operation instead of Makeen. I make the point that so far the operation has been a cat and mouse game with the Taliban never sticking around to put up a serious fight, which means that the real fight will begin once the army settles in and the Taliban can go on the offensive with its blitz attacks. That assessment I would stick to despite the factual errors in this post.

This "mother of all battles" looks to me like little more than a cop out. The army's three-pronged strategy is set to converge not on Wana, which is the centre of South Waziristan, but on Ladha, which is on the border with army-controlled North Waziristan. They are going west/north-west from Tank and south from North Waziristan. Maybe after capturing Ladha, they'll head down towards Wana but for now there is no mention of any such plan or of Wana at all in news reports.

After a week of steady "we killed ten, they killed three" press releases, the army trumpeted its capture of Kotkai. Everyone got very excited because its Hakimullah's birthplace but really Kotkai is little more than a hamlet on the way to Ladha. Somewhere between Jandola and Ladha, Kotkai was not the theater of the great showdown either. From the body count the army gave, it seems like most of the militants fled the area. If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say they went for Wana seeing as fleeing to Ladha would have them cornered.

Now it seems like the army has its eyes set on Sararogha, another pit stop on the way to Ladha. But time is running out rapidly. If you can tell that winter is coming in Karachi, then it most certainly has to be freezing in the mountains of Waziristan. At the rate that the army is going, I have a feeling that they'll capture Ladha in several weeks by which time winter will make further advance impossible. There will be no major battle in Ladha either as the 10,000 militants of South Waziristan will all have packed their bags and moved to Wana. The army will declare victory and settle in for the winter, leaving most of South Waziristan in TTP's hands.

And of course only once the army roosts will the battle really begin. Attrition is the Taliban's tactic of choice and they're damn good at it too. Their part of South Waziristan would be a perfect base to launch suicide and fidayeen attacks on the army for the rest of winter. All we'll be able to do is sit there and take it or retreat.

(Map taken from BBC.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How will it all end?

After decades of careful effort by the military, we have thoroughly institutionalized violence in our country. Pakistani terrorists have turned their violence on our own people and on three of our four neighbours. We now have a most bewildering patchwork of militant groups, each out to kill someone or the other in the name of Islam, bankrolled at some point or the other by the army and its supporters. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jundollah, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Tehrik-e-Taliban (itself a coalition of dozens of militant factions), it seems like we have more militant organizations than NGOs.

We carry out an operation against Swat Taliban and there are reports of Jaish-e-Muhammad expanding its hold in southern Punjab. We start an operation in South Waziristan and there are reports of Taliban and al-Qaeda entrenched in Quetta. It seems like every time we muster up the resolve to deal with one faction another springs to prominence. How we will stamp out all these groups, I have no idea. Does the army even want to dismantle all the militant organizations? How does it end?