Ban the gun

By Zubeida Mustafa

ON March 1, a burst of gunfire snuffed out the life of a gentle soul in Washington D.C. He was a social worker helping the mentally challenged and drug addicts. He was Jawaid Bhutto, a teacher of philosophy and a progressive scholar in Pakistan before he moved to the US. I knew him as my friend and the husband of a former colleague Nafisa Hoodbhoy. Bhutto’s death grieved us immensely.

The irony didn’t escape me on this occasion. Here was a man who was known to be an ardent advocate of peace and love as well as gun control laws being killed by someone who was not entitled to be carrying a gun, given his mental state, so it was reported.

Continue reading Ban the gun

Getting to know Change

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani  

WE ARE now more than six months into a federal government formed by the PTI. The party disrupted the emergent tradition of two main federally operative parties: the PPP and the PML(N) have now to contend with a powerful entrenched third factor.

      Today, the PTI’s voice resonates as the country’s. Apart from a reiteration of the conviction that the PPP and the PML(N) are entirely responsible and answerable for each and every ill that besets Pakistan; what is it saying for us and to us? And what is it doing to treat those maladies or to dispel political and socio-cultural misgivings as felt and voiced by the people themselves rather than presumed or ascribed to them?

Continue reading Getting to know Change

Afghanistan hangs in the balance

By Zubeida Mustafa

The tables have turned. The Taliban, the militants who sheltered the 9/11 attackers and earned the wrath of America, are now meeting their arch-nemesis in Doha, Qatar. Conducting the talks is Zalmay Khalilzad, a senior diplomat of Afghan descent who is currently serving as the U.S. State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.

Since August 2018, the two parties have met five times. Last Tuesday, Ambassador Khalilzad tweeted: “Just finished a marathon round of talks with the Taliban in Doha. The conditions for peace have improved. It’s clear all sides want to end the war. Despite ups and downs, we kept things on track and made real strides.”

It had been hoped that the peace talks would reach some positive conclusion by spring and a cease-fire announced. This has not happened. Ambassador Khalilzad has returned to Washington for further consultations.

What is holding up the negotiations? The special representative touched on this issue when he identified four major points on which agreement was essential for further progress. They are:

  • Counterterrorism assurances
  • Withdrawal of U.S. and NATO-affiliated troops
  • Intra-Afghan dialogue
  • A comprehensive cease-fire

In the February-March round now adjourned, an agreement has been reached on the draft of the first two questions only. It is obvious that these are the less complex issues on which anyone wishing to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan would agree readily. As it is, both sides, as well as Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, are now feeling uneasy and anxious about the intensely unstable situation in South and Southwest Asia.

U.S. President Donald Trump is also keen on reaching a consensus, as he has promised his people that he would bring American troops home. Since the agreed-upon draft has not been revealed one cannot comment on it, especially on the nature of the assurances regarding anti-terrorism. The Taliban are expected to pledge not to allow anyone to launch a 9/11-like attack against the U.S. again. What safeguards will be offered to ensure this is not known—neither has any time schedule for troop withdrawal been revealed.

The last two issues are trickier still, as they will determine the future political structure of Afghanistan. It requires no knowledge of rocket science to understand that the Taliban are negotiating from a position of strength and want to translate their military strategic advantage into political control over the country. This is a test case for the U.S.

So far, the Taliban have been adamant about having no truck with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. It is dubbed an “American puppet.” There is no doubt that Ghani cannot survive in office without U.S. military backing. Today the Taliban control over 30 percent of Afghan territory. The capital is still held by Ghani thanks to America’s military presence. As U.S.and NATO forces have gradually been pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban have gained in strength. America’s attempts to train the Afghan army and arm it with modern weapons have not succeeded in converting it into a strong fighting force capable of defending the country.

If the Ghani government is sidelined to allow Khalilzad to make a deal in Doha, it would amount to Washington’s political surrender to an enemy it has fought for 17 years. The American electorate could well ask their current and former administrations to explain the loss of over 6,000 American lives in a prolonged and deadly war which failed to yield any political or strategic gains.

Taliban authority is inevitable if the leadership in Kabul is kept out of the talks. Without his government’s participation, Ghani would have no say in the implementation of the final settlement and the power-sharing arrangement that is worked out. Moreover, once the U.S. forces are out of Afghanistan, it would be a walkover for the Taliban.

Taliban leaders have already been discussing their future plans. Theirs would be an Islamic state, but they have moderated their tone somewhat, not wishing to revive memories of the ideological state they created from 1996 to 2001. Yet their extremist anti-female and anti-culture stance and militancy invites skepticism given their past record while in power.

They have also promised to cultivate cordial and friendly relations with Islamabad. This is to be expected. After all, Pakistan has been a friend that has provided them support and helped them break out of their isolation. Islamabad’s role in paving the way for the Doha talks has been acknowledged by Washington.

These developments have profound implications for Pakistan’s geopolitical prospects, which currently appear to be bleak. Taliban policies are bound to evoke a reaction from their rivals in the north of Pakistan. To begin with, it is feared that as soon as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, in-fighting will break out, leaving Pakistan to cope with the mess that is bound to be left behind. That has happened before, and it will happen again. Pakistan lacks the capacity to address the ensuing crisis. It might complicate matters further. The U.S. withdrawal will create a vacuum if an agreement with firm international guarantees is not drawn up.

Pakistan will be back to square one—but in a worse regional scenario than ever before. The situation as it has emerged today has Russia and China eying the happenings in Afghanistan closely.

Since 2014, various forums have been set up to tackle the Afghan crisis. These have included Russia, China, the Taliban, Ashraf Ghani’s rivals, India, Pakistan, Iran and even the U.S. itself in various combinations. It was Trump’s categorical announcement about pulling out of Afghanistan that triggered the Doha framework that was firmed up by bringing Khalilzad into the negotiating process.

Even before the fifth round of negotiations ended on March 12, the world faced another crisis of grave dimension. India and Pakistan came to the brink of war on Kashmir. Considering that those two states are now nuclear powers, a full-fledged war between them would have led to nuclear havoc in South Asia.

Sherry Rahman, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the U.S., reminded readers in an article published in Dawn that in the four wars India and Pakistan have fought since 1947, they have suffered a combined death toll of 22,600.

She cited a study by the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War that says in a nuclear confrontation in South Asia, 21 million people could die, and it could cause global famine resulting in the death of two billion people worldwide.

Rahman’s article was a powerful reminder that Kashmir had re-emerged as a dangerous flashpoint which should not be ignored.

At this stage, Kashmir will cast its long shadow on the talks in Doha. Though neither of the two nuclear powers are interlocutors in the Afghan negotiations, Kashmir will remain in the backdrop. Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have had a complex triangular relationship since 1947, when the British departed from the subcontinent.

Now we know more about the happenings in the region last month. The newspaper Dawn has revealed after due investigations that it was the Trump administration that played a key role in preventing the sparring between the two neighbors from spiraling out of control into a conflict of serious magnitude.

The goings-on behind the scenes will certainly have an impact on the Doha talks when Khalilzad returns to Qatar at the end of March

An uphill drive

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE road that takes you to the Khatoon-e-Pakistan School, Karachi, is a steep one. It has been an equally uphill drive for Shehzad Roy’s Zindagi Trust to transform the institution it adopted in 2015.

The school was in a shambles a few years ago like all peela schools I have visited. They have huge buildings and expansive playgrounds testifying to the vision of their founders from the early years of Pakistan. But lacking maintenance and good governance, they have fallen into decay.

Continue reading An uphill drive

Say no to GM maize

By Zubeida Mustafa

THERE is bad news and there is good news for our environmentalists, agriculturalists, healthcare givers and all those who care for the welfare of Pakistan. First, the bad news.

In January, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Cargill, the global food and agricultural producer with an annual revenue of $114.6 billion (2018), will be investing $200 million in Pakistan in the next two to five years. This announcement came after two top-ranking executives of Cargill met Prime Minister Imran Khan. It seemed innocuous, at least to people who know little about biotechnology giants.

One of them, Monsanto (now merged with Bayer), fathered the genetically modified organism (GMO) in 1983 which did terrible damage to numerous crops and farmers all over the world. As a result, we saw a spate of high-profile lawsuits in which the company admitted to having bribed officials abroad. At least 35 countries have now banned GMOs.

Continue reading Say no to GM maize

Why Language is important in Education

By Zubeida Mustafa

I shall begin this paper by listing five myths which have dominated our collective thinking on language in education in Pakistan. This thinking also shapes the narrative on education in many other countries that were decolonised  less than a century ago.

Myth # 1

Language has no bearing on a child’s education, Irrespective of which language is used in the classroom, it is the quality of teaching that determines the quality of education.

Continue reading Why Language is important in Education

Luring readers

By Zubeida Mustafa

A DISCUSSION on libraries always leads to the chicken-and-egg debate. We have few libraries because there are no readers. Or people do not read books as there are no libraries. In Karachi, both are in inadequate numbers.

Belonging to a literary family, the newly appointed commissioner of Karachi, Iftikhar Ali Shallwani, has rightly decided not to get trapped in this debate. He has proceeded to address the issue of the state of libraries by setting up a Council of Karachi Libraries comprising 12 members. These councillors have been tasked with the “restoration, revival and revamping” of the public libraries of the city and upgrading them. For this, the members will visit every library and prepare a report on its working. Hopefully, they will also make suggestions on how libraries can promote the book culture in our society.

Continue reading Luring readers

Provincialism and centralism: Levers?

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Pakistan’s federal and provincial connectivity – which has a fraught history to put it mildly – is being subjected to increasing stress directly and indirectly, in ways great and small. Is it ingenuousness or ingenuity that is responsible: How reckless can political rivalries and pro-interventionism get?
There have been some sudden shocks but a steady nibbling at consensual accord on inter-provincial and collective national mutuality of interest is unpleasantly discernible. Wiser heads – such as the PPP’s Senator Reza Rabbani and Sindh’s former governor Zubair of the PML(N) — pinpoint errors, counsel and forewarn. Unfortunately, accusative demagoguery is more engaging and accessible in talk-shows that can tincture and define public opinion. Legitimate grievances and fears are voiced inside and outside the parliament by legislators and the executive but without doing much to allay misgivings or subject their manifestations and causes to constructive analysis and review in the houses. Parliamentary conduct appears narcissistic, rather than publicly representative. Outside of parliament, the President of Pakistan and provincial governors are national figures, symbolizing the federation. If they seem to prioritize party preference and objectives in over-frequent public appearances and off-the-cuff comment they are misreading the tenor and constitutional nature of office. Continue reading Provincialism and centralism: Levers?

A dubious solution

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC) is once again in the limelight, unfortunately for negative reasons. An ordinance signed last week by the president (himself a dentist by profession), who should have understood its implications better, provides for the constitution of a 17-member council to run its affairs. The PMA, the body that represents the doctors, has rejected the ordinance on the grounds that it is ‘undemocratic’.

The document provides for members of the PMDC being nominated by the prime minister, the chief ministers of the four provinces, the College of Physicians and Surgeons Pakistan (CPSP) and the armed forces. Its tenure will be for three years and it will elect its own president. Its composition is diverse with some laypersons also being included to represent the public in addition to the medical professionals. The sceptical response from some quarters is understandable. It is feared that the ordinance will allow some vested interests to monopolise control of the PMDC for their own advantage.

The fact is that the PMDC has had a controversial history from the start. It was introduced by the Ayub regime in 1962 through an ordinance and since then has mostly depended on ordinances for its existence. On some occasions, the government of the day (the PPP in 2012 and the PML-N in 2014) brought the PMDC issue before parliament for enacting a law but that was jettisoned by a subsequent ordinance. The approach has basically been an ad hoc one.

Continue reading A dubious solution

Peace in Afghanistan will come at a price

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE U.S. is now trying desperately to pull its forces from Afghanistan. Seventeen years of war is long enough. The human toll has been heavy, with more than 2,200 American lives lost and 20,000 soldiers wounded. This figure doesn’t include the Afghan and Pakistani men, women and children who have suffered. Imperial powers still have to learn that it is easy to jump into another country that is weak and unstable—but to get out is a tougher job. And waging war in Afghanistan has never been a cakewalk for any outsider.

Moves are afoot there to work out a compromise, but the U.S. government has no understanding of how the present moves will change the diplomatic contours of Southwest Asia, the hub of America’s longest war in history. An American negotiator of Afghan origin, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been talking to the Taliban since August 2018.

Continue reading Peace in Afghanistan will come at a price