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Archive for April, 2002

The War Goes On

The war in Afghanistan has entered its six month, the concerted air offensive giving way to occasional airstrikes but mostly ground battles against suspected Al Qaeda/Taliban strongholds. As “Operation Anaconda” has shown, the claws may have been blunted, the sting still remains. And so it will, for some time to come.

The US ran the war according to what was their actual primary mission, to topple the Taliban from power and thus deny terrorism in the form of Osama led Al-Qaeda a firm base to operate from. For the record the war on terrorism was primarily meant to bring Osama Bin Laden (OBL) to justice, however Mullah Umar and OBL continue to evade capture. Bin Laden’s No.2 in Al-Qaeda Abu Zubayda, was hauled up recently during raids on urban hideouts in Faisalabad city. On the premise that the tougher they seem the softer they are, he should be a mine of useful information to the US, for whom every bit of knowledge about Al-Qaeda’s intention is necessary in their plans to counter-effectively in their “Homeland Defence”.

According to US military sources, a group of Al-Qaeda fighters who ultimately were estimated to be about a 1000 were spotted gathering in cave complexes east of Khost near the Pakistan border. The battle that developed forced reinforcements by more US troops into the fray than earlier anticipated, it also underscored the fact that the Al-Qaeda/Taliban were now re-grouping in small units, with the ability of coming together very rapidly when faced with an air/ground assault. “Anaconda” was a major test in the US resolve. Having had relatively an easy time evicting the Taliban from the cities of Afghanistan, the US had only the recent Tora Bora experience to go by with respect to fighting a counter-guerilla war in Afghanistan. In Tora Bora, while the fighting was intense, most of the firepower was directed from the air and quite a lot of the guerrillas had managed to escape because the mercenary militias employed by the US failed to come to grips with the enemy. During “Operation Anaconda”, a better quality of Afghan soldiery was clearly in existence with the result that greater firefights took place between combatants on the ground. The induction of a Panjsheeri Tajik armoured unit was resented in the Pashtun area but it remained a resentment only because they were not employed. US spokesmen claimed that 800 of the approximately 1000 guerilla fighters had been killed, this could not be verified as very few bodies, less than two dozen, were actually discovered. The intense air activity must have resulted in high casualties but it seems that the bulk of enemy forces slipped through the net that had been laid for them in high mountain passes and narrow valleys. Obviously the route was into Pakistan across the border where they would get shelter from sympathetic elements. However this help would only be a temporary transit permit, not as a permanent base to carry out cross-border attacks. This is an important point. While there will be sympathy for them and their grievous travails at the hands of Coalition Forces it will be far diminished than the earlier enthusiasm because of the treatment that the Pakistanis got at the hands of Afghans within Afghanistan. Even if an enemy turns up at your gate and asks for help, Pashtun honour cannot refuse that help. What Pakistan has paid in social disintegration and economic devastation thereof as a cost of such help can only be estimated.

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The Rainbow Coalition

A week or so into the Referendum process, the equation has changed drastically in favour of the President, the rallies to muster support having only marginally to do with it. While the process of transformation from a soldier to a soldier-politician will have created new dynamics in his personality, Pervez Musharraf will never become a politician. It is out of character for him to deliberately represent something as true when he knows it is untrue. Most politicians fail to accept something as true even when they know it to be such. On April 16 he did his best to sound political, the Press Conference only managed to reinforce his military identity. Even his apology for the more-loyal-than-king police baton charge on journalists in Faisalabad was revealing, he did not like what happened and therefore was not averse to the need for “damage control” but as the Commanding Officer he took responsibility for the action of his subordinates and was not about to throw the Punjab Governor to the wolves.

What the President has managed in the past week is very far-reaching, a decisive shift in the political landscape in Pakistan. In the 1965 Presidential race between Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, 80000 Basic Democrats acted as an electoral college. In 1984, Gen Ziaul Haq used Referendum as a sleight of hand. In keeping with his character and his penchant for taking calculated risks Pervez Musharraf has opted for a far more transparent process, a mixture of 1965 and 1984 with the realities on the ground in 2002. By choosing direct universal franchise over the indirect process of an electoral college, Musharraf has pre-empted democratic protest by reaching into the very basics of democracy. And very intelligently he has put the Nazims and Naib Nazims of the Local Bodies under notice to get off the fence and be counted, using the grassroots rulers as vote musterers rather than being voters only. Everyone and his uncle knows that while the Local Bodies election were fought on a non-party basis, nearly 80% of these elected owe their existence to one party or the other. Once in power in various municipalities, the elected officials have been forced to stay with the “party-less” fiction, according to the laws availing they could be disqualified. Moreover, those who have been elected to the Local Bodies have a vested interest in keeping the system in place. Virtually a District Governor, a Nazim has authentic political power in his area, far more than any MNA/MPA had, or even a Federal/Provincial Minister. Why should he voluntarily give up the new status quo, he has far more power being elected locally than being a small cog in the nation’s capitals. The result has been nothing short of devastating.

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The Song, Not the Making

Entering the political arena for any soldier is like an infantryman trying to cross a minefield covered by massed artillery including a fair amount of air-bursts. Being a commando, Pervez Musharraf is certainly more infantarian than a gunner, moreover he is anything but “lean and mean”. Calling for a referendum seeking the peoples’ approval of his policies for the past 30 months and continuation as President thereof past Oct 2002, the President proceeded not to heed the advice of a small number of his real friends who were deadset against any Referendum, he went with the majority, i.e. the “yes-men”.

Informed legal eagles are both for and against the Referendum, making constitutionality a matter of legal opinion depending upon which side you represent, so that is not reason for apprehension. The electability of Pervez Musharraf is also not a source for worry, he is extremely popular among the masses and the polls predict a good percentage will vote for him to stay in power and continue his governing the country, or rather, his monitoring of good governance of the country. What is worrying is that while he has been very effective in ruling the country by single fiat without association with any politicians, in this new political environment, one he (and we) could have done without, he has to be vary of perceived friend and foe alike. It was scary looking at the politicians in the front row in Lahore on April 9, on a corruption-meter they exceeded all that NAB has hauled up till now.

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Calculated Risk

The President’s proposal to hold a referendum seeking public opinion for remaining President after October 2002 was approved by the Cabinet and the National Security Council on April 3, 2002. Preliminary indications are that the referendum will be held on May 6, by the time this goes into the print the President will have announced the date during his address to the nation. The purpose of the exercise is to determine whether the people of Pakistan approve of the President or not, and more importantly, would they want him to continue post-October 2002? Most of the major political parties, among them PML, PPP, JI, JUI and JUP, oppose the referendum on the plea that referendums are only meant to solicit public opinion on matters of great national importance and are not to be used as an election tool. On the other hand the President’s idea has received the support of quite a few smaller parties, among them PML(Q), PTI etc.

Surely, with the past record the political parties of total mis-governance and making a hash of the nation’s affairs, General Pervez Musharraf should have no problem getting the people’s vote of confidence. Political parties in Pakistan long ago lost the trust of a majority of the people, having been given numerous opportunities in the past at governance at which they failed miserably. Now they should have no locus standi. Yet being persistent, they must cry themselves hoarse at every opportunity to justify their “democratic” existence. The proposed exercise should be in fact a unique opportunity for the people to indicate whether their confidence in the political parties has been restored? The onus of credibility acquisition should be on the political parties, that should be the real referendum. If it were left to me, instead of asking whether the people want General Pervez Musharraf, the referendum would ask the question “if you think the President should not continue as President after October 2002, then vote “NO”! The political parties are proclaiming to high heaven that the President does not have the people’s support, on the contrary the masses support the political parties. As such they should have no problems in getting people to come out of their homes to vote NO, after all during general elections they usually spend a fortune from their ill-gotten gains on providing transportation, meals, etc for the voters on Election Day. If the Referendum had adopted this route, those in favour of General Pervez Musharraf would have stayed home. If the negative vote was more than 50% of the electorate that normally vote in any election ie. 36% vote in the last National Assembly Elections would mean 18% of the electorate in the Referendum, we would know the people are not with the President but with the political parties. However if “the great silent majority” voted with their feet and stayed home, we would have had confirmation that Pakistani people approve of the President. But give the President credit for not following this “negative” route when he could easily have done so. Knowing that Gen Zia’s referendum hurt the credibility of the exercise, he has the absolute courage to test the nation’s resolve by putting his own credibility on the line.

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