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Archive for February, 2009

Friday’s Op-Eds

[Image from the AP, PML-N supporters following a demonstration in Rawalpindi]

As the political turmoil mounts following the Sharif Supreme Court ban [see related post], several Pakistani news agencies threw in their two cents on the matter. Today’s Dawn editorial asserted:

…the PPP has opted for a dangerous path of confrontation. Nawaz Sharif, who himself is guilty of increasing bellicosity in recent weeks, immediately upped the ante further by coming out with extraordinary allegations against President Zardari. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess, though it’s safe to say that little good will come out of it. There are several immediate worries. The PML-N may take to the streets in Punjab and threaten a severe law and order crisis. The lawyer’s long march may now culminate in violent confrontation. The federation may feel the strains of pitting the largest province against the center. And on the back-burner may go the country’s serious crises of militancy, the economy and governance. Democracy is not dead in Pakistan, but common sense may be.

The News’ Ayaz Amir, in an op-ed entitled, “So What Else Did Anyone Expect,” wrote, “with the Sharifs’ disqualification by a bench of the Supreme Court – headed by a chief justice whose close links to Zardari are well known – followed by the ouster of the PML-N government in Punjab and the imposition of governor’s rule, Zardari has let slip the mask from his face by revealing his naked ambition: this time to extend his power and wrest control of Pakistan’s largest province.” Amir added, “This is a dangerous gambit with unpredictable consequences because it remains to be seen whether he is able to master the crisis he has sparked or whether it becomes too big for him …one thing about a crisis we should know: you either master it or it devours you, as Pervez Musharraf discovered to his cost when his action against Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry triggered the lawyers’ movement, leading to a series of events over which he had less and less control.”

I do not doubt that the Supreme Court decisions were inherently political in nature. But I wonder what state the country will be in after the violence, protests, and political infighting end. What will  be left after the dust settles? Dawn’s Cyril Almeida asserted, “Domestic upheaval even at the best of times is deeply damaging to Pakistan. But the unique combination of all major players simultaneously discredited while an exogenous threat to the state gathers, that is a scenario that can have catastrophic consequences for the state as we know it.”

The Nation’s editorial noted, The dreams for a tolerant political culture and a viable democracy have been shattered. With uncertainty gripping the country, questions are being raised if the government would be able to complete its tenure.” In the Nation’s opinion, Zardari “needs to seriously weigh the consequences. He alone is in a position to call the ugly standoff to a halt. For this there is need on his part to employ whatever legal, constitutional and administrative means are available to him to undo the disqualification of the Sharifs and maintain the PPP-PML(N) alliance in Punjab.” In the recent issue of the Friday Times, Dr. Hasan Askari-Rizvi, echoed, “If the PPP-PML(N) confrontation spills over in the streets in the Punjab and Islamabad, both will lose and the future of democracy will become more uncertain. If democracy falters under these circumstances the major blame will be on these political parties.” Oh, the irony – “democracy” damaged by its own actors?

In the wake of these political tensions, issues related to the Swat and the tribal areas seem to have been placed on the back burner. Ayesha Siddiqa, however, succintly related the two issues in her Dawn op-ed, “The Price of Justice,” noting,

Everyone wants justice in Pakistan including the deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the lawyers, Mukhtaran Mai and ordinary people. However, the only group that eventually got the government to agree to implement a system of justice they wanted – and popularly called the Nizam-i-Adlis the Swati Taliban. So, the moral of our story is that justice will be granted to the most brutal bidder.

That may be a good albeit depressing thought to leave on. Happy weekend everyone. Here’s to hoping – for the people’s sake – that things don’t unravel further.

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[PML-N supporters protest in Islamabad, AFP]

On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court nullified last year’s election of Punjab’s chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, and “also declined to rule on a challenge to an electoral ban on…former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, effectively maintaining a bar on him standing for election,” reported Dawn. GEO and AAJ News reported that Punjab governor Salman Taseer will assume executive control over Punjab province for the next two months.

The court’s decisions could subsequently mean a confrontation between the country’s two main political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party [led by President Asif Ali Zardari‘ and the Sharifs’ party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz [PML-N]. According to Reuters, the development “raised fears of a return to the political instability of the 1990s, a decade that ended in a military takeover.” The news agency cited political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, who stated, “The political impact of this decision will be extremely negative and if not handled properly this can undermine prospects of democracy in Pakistan…This virtually amounts to excluding one of the major political parties from the political process.” Zaffar Abbas, an editor at Dawn Newspaper echoed, “The political ramifications will be felt for many months to come. We may be looking for a very long, drawn-out battle between the government and the opposition forces led by Nawaz Sharif.”

Although the court made its ruling on the grounds that Nawaz had been convicted of a crime [in 1999], his lawyer immediately denounced the decision, “asserting it was a political decision ordered by President Asif Ali Zardari,” reported the NY Times. In a news conference following the court decisions, Nawaz Sharif told reporters, “This is an attack on the country and on the country’s constitution.” According to The News, the PML-N chief claimed that Zardari had “offered that we [Nawaz and Shahbaz] would be declared eligible by the Supreme Court if we accept the present judiciary including Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar.” He added, “I would have accepted the deal if power had been more dear to me than principles…we have embraced our disqualification but will not compromise on the national interest.” Dawn quoted Nawaz, who further asserted, “Our real judges are the masses, and not the PCO [Provisional Constitutional Order] judges. Have a referendum, I say! And only that way we can come to the real verdict – the verdict of the masses.”

Supporters of the PML-N took to the streets today to protest the decisions. According to AAJ Television, “An angry mob of some 800 people gathered on the main Mall Road in Lahore, blocking traffic by burning tires and chanting slogans against President Asif Ali Zardari. Witnesses said the crowd, including women supporters, attacked banners of the main ruling Pakistan People’s Party and tore down hoardings carrying pictures of the president, prime minister and the provincial governor [Taseer].” Similar protests took place in Multan and “more than a dozen cities and towns” in Punjab province, reported the news agency. The Sharif brothers, especially Shahbaz, are very popular in their provincial stronghold, and protests are likely to continue over the next few days.

Today’s development will also impact the country’s judiciary movement, and will likely galvanize support for both the movement and the Sharifs. Nawaz had pledged to join protesting lawyers [who are calling for the restoration of deposed judges, including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry]  in a long march from Lahore to Islamabad next month, and to take part in a planned sit-in in the capital. According to the NY Times, “Such a move by Mr. Sharif could raise political passions on the street. With Pakistanis suffering economically and security concerns paramount, Mr. Sharif had the potential of causing grief for the unpopular civilian government.”

For further background on the judiciary movement and the Nawaz Sharif controversy, read the articles tagged in this CHUP category, particularly this article.

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CHUP: Teabreak’s Blogger of the Month!

So I’m happy and humbled to report that Tea Break, a network/community for Pakistani blogs, has named me their Blogger of the Month. Thanks for the support and the honor, I really really appreciate it! Here is a link to my interview with them.

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The violence against foreign aid workers in Pakistan, [see CHUP's related post] has garnered significant Western media attention. Jackie, an American working for a social enterprise in Karachi and CHUP’s correspondent, [see all of her past posts] commented on the recent kidnapping of John Solecki in Balochistan, [read more about his kidnapping]. Although media reports surfaced that he had been killed, news agencies reported today that Solecki is still alive. Below, Jackie discusses her feelings on the overarching issue:

John Solecki, head of UNHCR in Quetta, was kidnapped in Balochistan on February 2nd.  His driver, a staff member at the UN for over 18 years was murdered in the attack. Recently, almost every Urdu news channel looped a video clip of a white man, presumably Solecki, nodding his head back and forth and murmuring.  It wasn’t a particularly long or revealing clip – it was difficult to see anything as the man was blindfolded and it was just a head shot. I turned on DAWN News and they too were playing the clip with a quote on the bottom of the screen that read – John Solecki:  “I don’t feel well.”

It was revealed that the Balochistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), a never before heard of group, kidnapped Mr. Solecki and demanded the return of “141 women in security custody and over 6,000 ‘missing’ people” (DAWN) in addition to Balochi independence, in exchange for Mr. Solecki’s safe release. A follow up piece in DAWN last weekend quoted government officials who stated, “Their [BLUF’s] demands are not based on facts.” The government claimed there are no women in custody and that the missing people figures were closer to 1000. I believe the real numbers lie somewhere in between these two claims. I empathize with the Balochi complaint that the government unfairly discriminates against the province but when horrific acts such as these occur it becomes very difficult to maintain this view. Violence breeds further violence and alienates sympathetic observers from the cause.

This event and other recent, similar acts of violence carried out against aid workers and journalists leave me thoroughly disheartened. The myriad of issues this country faces is depressing enough, to add to this already bleak situation, violence perpetrated against outside parties who come to help is demoralizing. I say this from the perspective of an American in Pakistan hoping to create some positive change. I have many problems with US foreign policy, particularly in this region, and specifically chose to work outside of the US government framework. Mr. Solecki lives and works in Quetta, assisting Pakistan. I am not suggesting that grandiose gestures of gratitude are necessary, and I acknowledge complaints many raise regarding UN/NGO work, but kidnapping and/or murdering aid workers is a despicable act.

Why did this group who seeks Balochi independence kidnap this man? To draw international attention to the problems Balochistan faces – i.e. to grab headlines. Why must you attack someone who is working to improve your area of the country – an area that, as you so often point out, is ignored by your own government? The group has claimed that the UN is ‘not doing enough’ for their problems.  This infuriates me – people criticize international organizations (and the West in general) for getting involved in global problems, but then become incensed when they feel their particular issue or problem is not addressed. The UN has several active programs in Pakistan; UNHCR works to provide assistance to Afghan refugees, a hugely important issue for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. By working to provide services to this marginalized population, it stabilizes a potentially difficult group that would only aggravate the problems Balochistan face.

In saying this, I do not mean to portray international organizations as godly, benevolent entities.  These organizations are rife with problems and hypocrisies, but I believe their mandates are worthy and it is already difficult to remain dedicated to a challenging task without the added threat of violence. I empathize with some of the anti-American sentiments the majority of this country expresses, but when acts such as these are committed the question of ‘why help?’ emerges. While I understand that many Balochi people feel they have been wronged by their government, they should not take their frustrations out on an entity that seeks to improve their region.  Perhaps they feel – why should the UN help the Afghans in Balochistan when the Balochis themselves face so many problems? But, that is not the mandate of UNHCR and, more importantly, a refugee problem of this magnitude is a serious issue for Balochistan. Also, UNHCR played a very active role following the October 2008 earthquake – assisting both Afghans and Pakistanis.

There are other, more productive, ways to draw attention to your issue than kidnapping those working to improve the community, and certainly more appropriate people/groups to direct your anger towards. I recognize that BLUF’s actions do not reflect the wishes of all Balochi people, but violent attacks against aid workers who live outside of their country, working to improve the livelihoods of people from an entirely different part of the world utterly disgust and dishearten me. [Image from Malik Siraj Akbar Writes]

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Some Good Links…

The NY Times.com featured a really fantastic and powerful short documentary on the issue of female education in Swat Valley. The Times’ Adam Ellick and Irfan Ashraf profiled a Pakistani girl on the last day before the Taliban shut down her school, [click on the image below to watch the video].

picture-33

At one point in the film, a female student, veiled to protect her identity, read a speech out loud:

The title of my speech is the situation in Swat. Swat Valley: the paradise on earth, is in the northwest of Pakistan. Swat Valley: the land of waterfalls, lush green hills and other gifts bestowed upon it by nature. But my dear friends, today Swat has in the past few years become a heartland for Pakistan Islamic militancy. Today this idyllic valley of peace is burning. Why the peace of this valley destroyed? Why the peace and innocent people of the valley targeted? Why our future is targeted? …Who will solve our problems? Who will return our Valley to peace? I say nobody, no one. Our dreams are shattered…

The AFP reported today that schools in Swat Valley reopened, “but attendance was extremely low despite a fledgling truce between the government and insurgents.” An education ministry official told the news agency that only 10 percent were in attendance due to security fears. A private schools association spokesman added, “Another reason is that many families are still frightened and thousands more left the valley because of the fighting.”

In the New Yorker, Steve Coll [author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens] has an interesting take on Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, [see CHUP's previous post on this topic]. According to the writer, OBL is currently in Miranshah, North Waziristan. He noted, “The argument against this guess is that the town and its environs are a relatively busy area with some Pakistan Army presence. The argument for it is that it’s hardcore Taliban country controlled by the Haqqanni clan [see CHUP backgrounder on the Haqqani network], which provided the territory and protection that Osama used to create Al Qaeda’s very first training camps more than twenty years ago. Old friendships die hard in that part of the world.”

A Dawn editorial today also discussed the recent sectarian violence in Dera Ismail Khan, arguing that “the devastating suicide bombing of the funeral procession of a slain Shia local carries all the hallmarks of imported violence.” The piece further discussed the role of Qari Hussain, [whose nom de guerre is Ustad-i-Fidayeen] a militant commander based in South Waziristan who is “believed to be a recruiter and trainer of suicide bombers and has infused his ideology with a virulent stream of sectarianism.” The editors asserted,

Only an investigation into the D.I. Khan bombing can determine if the circumstantial evidence pointing in the direction of Waziristan and Qari Hussain is in fact true. But, as we have stressed before, the different strains of militancy in Pakistan have overlapped to the point where it makes little sense to treat sectarian violence as separate from Al Qaeda attacks and militancy in Punjab as different from that in FATA and northern Pakistan…Defeating the hydra of militancy does require different tactics at the local level, but there must be overall strategic coherency too.

For all those who missed Imran Khan‘s interview yesterday on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show, GPS, here’s the transcript of the segment. On the government deal with TNSM, he noted:

Remember, this is Sufi Muhammad who the government has done a deal with. His nephew, Fazlullah, [**note: Fazlullah is actually his son-in-law] is far more radicalized. His demands are far greater. His idea of Sharia is way, way different to what, you know, what this deal is. As being done, it’s fairly moderate. The worry is that, you know, there will be hiccups on the way…And so, in my opinion, we have no choice but to start talking to people, winning over the people of the tribal area, have peace for a start. Unless there is peace, you can’t have dialogue. And so, I think it’ll be a slow process, but that is the only option. And I think the government got scared that, if they did not sign some sort of an agreement right now on Sharia, the whole area was getting further radicalized. Because there are even people much more radical than the man, Sufi Muhammad, with whom they have formed this deal with.

Will this deal bring peace to the region? Here’s The News’ Kamal Siddiqui‘s take on the question. He noted, “This whole peace agreement sets a bad example for others if there is no provision to bring to justice those who bombed, killed, attacked and maimed. In this manner, it encourages others who are following the same violent path and who, inevitably, will also end up signing deals with the government. The deal gives them a clean slate.”

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Last week, CHUP reported that Ali Nawazish broke a world record when he passed 23 A-levels in subjects including pure mathematics, travel and tourism, and sociology. The 18 year old from Rawalpindi, Pakistan received 21 A grades and a B and a C, and will be a part of the Guinness Book of World Records. He is currently studying at Cambridge University, and took some time to speak to CHUP about his achievements:

Q: Congratulations on completing 23 A-Levels! Given that Cambridge said they only needed three A-levels for admission, why did you decide to pursue 20 more?

My decision to pursue so many subjects did not have as much to do with Cambridge, I guess it was more of a test. If you were to ask exactly why I did them I wouldn’t know. I loved doing it though and am absolutely thankful for the opportunity and humbled by the amazing support of everyone.

Q: It seems like it takes an immense amount of dedication and passion to achieve what you did. What kept you motivated? How did you go about studying for the exams – did you use tutors or did you prep by yourself? More importantly, did you have time outside of studying to be a normal teenager?

Normal teenager? Well depends on your definition of normal, but I enjoyed what I was doing (strangely enough) – it was new, an uncharted territory, so it was exciting and terrifying at the same time. That was motivation enough. As far as the preparation goes it was mixed, did some from school, some by myself, some from teachers who were wonderful enough to teach me at odd hours (like 2 am at night I mean) and my personal favourite YouTube. I would like to think I was a normal teenager who hung out with his friends and had a blast.

Q: You’ve received a lot of media attention for breaking a world record – how does it feel, as a Pakistani, to make the Guinness Book of World Records?

Well, I am still in the process of being inducted. How does it feel to be a Pakistani and be about to go into it? It is amazing. I love being who I am and my identity is Pakistan. I am glad for the minute difference in people’s perceptions that might come about because of all this – that is amazing. I still hold to the fact that everything that has happened is too much. I am not worthy!

Q: You’re now at Cambridge University, studying computer science. What would you ideally like to do with your degree?

I don’t know, I planned to pursue medicine after this. But, now its a bit unclear. I am waiting for some clarity, but I am not panicking right now.

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[Image said to be from 2006]

A friend passed along an article yesterday from the UK Times, which reported that the United States “was secretly flying unmanned drones from the Shamsi airbase in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan as early as 2006, according to two images of the base taken from Google Earth.” The pictures, first obtained by The News, show an unidentified flying strip in Balochistan — bearing the coordinates of 27 degrees 51 minutes North, 65 degrees and 10 minutes East — “proof that Pakistani ground was being used,” reported the news agency. The Times noted that they also obtained copies of the images [which are no longer on the Google Earth website] and confirmed that the coordinates match up with the Shamsi base, “also known as Bandari, about 200 miles southwest of the Pakistani city of Quetta.”

In the first image, believed to be from 2006, there are three drones visible, [see above]. However, although The News identified the drones as Global Hawks, which are used only for reconnaissance, The Times cited Damian Kemp, an aviation editor with Jane’s Defense Weekly, who said the drones’ wingspan appears to be 48-50 ft. He noted, “The wingspan of an MQ1 Predator A model is 55ft. On this basis it is possible that these are Predator-As…hey are certainly not RQ-4A Global Hawks (which have a wingspan of 116ft 2in).” In fact, according to a report last month in Jane’s World Air Forces, “Pakistan’s only drones are Italian Galileo Falcos, which were delivered in 2007.”

[Current image of the airbase]

The second image, [believed to be from 2009, see above] “undoubtedly shows the same airstrip as the image from 2006.” According to The Times, “There are no visible drones, but it does show that several new buildings and other structures have been erected since 2006, including what appears to be a hangar large enough to fit three drones. Perimeter defenses — apparently made from the same blast-proof barriers used at U.S. and Nato bases in Afghanistan — have also been set up around the hangar.”

The Times UK noted in its coverage:

U.S. special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the U.S. cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several “high-value” targets as well as many civilians. The Google Earth image now suggests that the U.S. began launching Predators from Shamsi — built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips — at least three years ago.

This explanation seems to fall in line with U.S. Senator Feinstein‘s comments last week [thanks for the link Heather], when the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said that unmanned Predator aircraft operating in Pakistan are flown from an air base in that country, suggesting a much deeper U.S.-Pakistan relationship than has previously been disclosed. In a CS Monitor blog yesterday, entitled, “Oops! Pakistan condemns US’s drone attacks (but also hosts them),” Issam Ahmed noted the Google Earth revelation is likely to infuriate opposition groups, as well as embarrass the Pakistani government. That is probably an understatement given how politically sensitive the rise in drone attacks has been. So far, the U.S. embassy has declined to comment on the images, while Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s chief military spokesman, admitted on Tuesday that U.S. forces were using Shamsi, but only for logistics.

The developments are shocking, no question. But it also leads me to ponder the power of technology today. While it may allow for a greater transparency of information [which can be good or bad depending on who you talk to], it seems to also play an increasingly important role in conflict. Not long ago, I read that Google Earth was playing an unlikely role in Iraq, helping people survive sectarian violence in Baghdad. Several websites were reportedly set up using maps of various neighborhoods so Baghdadis could avoid running into death squads. The technology has also been used for ulterior purposes. Iraqi insurgents, for instance, were known to use the technology to plan their attacks. The Indian government also claimed the Mumbai attackers had used Google Earth to familiarize themselves with their targets.

Here’s another technology-related note: in a unique study published by the MIT International Review, geographers found that simple facts, publicly available satellite imagery and fundamental principles of geography place Osama bin Laden in one of three buildings in the northwest Pakistan town of Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal region near the border with Afghanistan. John Agnew, a UCLA geography professor and co-author of the study noted, “We believe our work represents the first scientific approach to establishing bin Laden’s current location. The methods are repeatable and could easily be updated with new information obtained by the U.S. intelligence community.”

Somehow I think that if Al Qaeda monitors the media, [which they do] making such revelations public may not be the best way to capture OBL. Just a thought.

**Teeth Maestro also blogged about the Google Earth imagery, click here.

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On Wednesday, media outlets reported that a reporter for GEO News, Mosa Khankhel, was killed in Matta Town in Swat Valley. According to GEO’s breaking news report, Khankel was shot dead  by unidentified gunmen while he was on duty. However, later news reports cited GEO News journalist Hamid Mir, who said, “Mosa was not only shot but also decapitated. He was continuously facing problems while reporting in Swat. The mood of celebration has been converted into mourning.” Similar details were televised on CNN International, which reported that Khankel disappeared for an hour before his team found his body with gunshot wounds and a partially severed head.

[Image from the AFP]

Ironically, Khankel was reportedly killed after covering a peace march led by Sufi Mohammad, leader of the Sharia movement and founder of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-Mohammadi [TNSM]. The aging militant leader [who was jailed in Pakistan for six years in 2002 after leading his supporters to fight against U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan] told the crowd in Mingora, “I have come here to establish peace and I will not leave until this mission is achieved.” According to Dawn News, “Police and witnesses estimated that 15,000 people marched in the crowd, waving black and white flags as they paraded through town with the cleric, who advised them to recite only verses from the Holy Quran.” Reuters quoted Mohammed telling his supporters, “I ask you to remain peaceful. We have reached an agreement with the provincial government and Nizam-e-Adl (Islamic system of justice) will soon be enforced here.”

According to CNN correspondent Stan Grant, however, what may threaten a lasting peace deal are forces within Mohammad’s own family. In a segment entitled, “Taliban Family Ties,” Grant reported that although the Pakistani government considers Sufi Mohammad a more “moderate” influence in the region, he may have problems convincing his son-in-law, Mullah Fazlullah, the firebrand cleric in Swat known as the “Radio Mullah,” [see CHUP's related backgrounder, as well as Grand Truck Road's great piece on the myths of radio jamming] to lay down his weapons permanently. Zahid Hussain, a journalist and author of Frontline Pakistan, noted that Mohammad needs to use his strong support base in Swat to convince Fazlullah and his supports to halt the violence, but “that is not going to happen.” According to CNN, “The Pakistani government may think they can divide them [Mohammad and Fazlullah] but the fear is that they will answer with one voice.”

The horrific murder of GEO’s Mosa Khankel today is an ominous indication that this peace deal will not spell an end to the violence in Swat. Azhar Abbas, GEO TV’s managing director asserted that Mosa was “the first martyr of this peace deal.” Pakistan’s Information Minister Sherry Rehman called the act, “an attack on journalism,” and the government has promised an investigation into the matter. According to the Associated Press, “Reporters have often been killed or kidnapped in northwest Pakistan in circumstances that are rarely investigated. Journalists there say they face threats from both militants and members of the security forces and have to be very careful on what and how they report.” Our thoughts and prayers go out to Khankel’s family.

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Below, Ahsan Mirza, a student based in Toronto, Canada discusses Pakistan’s conflict in the FATA. Due to the fact that his best friend is helping IDPs in Swat Valley, the piece is a personal reflection on the current situation:

As I sit here comfortably in my Toronto apartment browsing my usual rotation of blogs, my best friend, comrade, and hero is working for Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] in Swat Valley, helping conflict-affected Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). I am originally Pakistani, he is Quebecois (French-Canadian). Our friendship has been built on years of helping each other, bonding, and uniquely long conversations that I always found to be unusually profound and reflective. He has been one of the greatest sources of inspiration in my life (as he has for many others among our acquaintances).

Our friendship–my relationship with him–has given me a strange sense of urgency about the instability in Pakistan. I have many childhood friends in Pakistan, many relatives, and even family members. But for some reason, this cross-ethnic, cross-cultural, cross-religious bond speaks so differently to what this conflict means, about what is at stake.

Sitting so far away and viewing the conflict through the lens of the media, it is difficult to grasp the human element of this conflict. Human lives go beyond statistical death tolls. Families are destroyed. Friendships that have taken years to form and evolve can be ended in an instant. Dreams and aspirations are being crushed. The hope for the future, the infinite promise of life beyond the present, the desire to see a loved one – simple and universally fundamental human aspirations are at stake.

Just a couple of weeks ago, two of my friend’s MSF colleagues were killed in fighting in Swat. At the same time, the 72-hour deadline on John Solecki‘s life (what a tragic pun!) draws to an end. (The deadline was extended on Monday for an unspecified amount of time). This followed the beheading of Piotr Stanczak, a Polish engineer working in Balochistan. Countless others have been collateral victims of US air strikes, Pakistani army actions, and militant attacks. There are open and growing black markets of US Military Equipment proliferating in Peshawar. Last Tuesday, the Financial Times dedicated a full page and a half to Pakistan’s Febrile Frontier (a rarity only a few years ago).

With each passing day, I try to fight off the feeling of being more and more desensitized to the news stories coming out of Pakistan. When faced with the inevitability of helplessness and the feeling that there is no solution, the human psyche adopts the path of ignorance.

Yesterday, the pro-Taliban militants in Swat declared a 10-day ceasefire as a goodwill gesture towards peace negotiations being carried out by the NWFP government. For some reason, there is no optimism that this ceasefire will be a means for peace and prosperity that has so far eluded the people of Pakistan.

The ceasefire is a highly desperate and hopeless act by the Pakistan government to restore peace to the valley. The agreement also signifies a resignation to the fact that the pro-Taliban elements and ideology have moved beyond the Tribal Areas and acquired a stranglehold over one of Pakistan’s four provinces (if not two). Indeed, it was exactly one year ago, in February 2008, that the Pakistan Army entered a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The peace deal seemed doomed to fail right from the start, but who would have thought that the Swat Valley, not FATA, would be the subject of the next peace deal.

What impact will Sharia law have on the inhabitants of Swat Valley? Pakistani officials have said that “the new system would have nothing in common with the draconian rule of the Taliban,” and that “the people demanded this and they deserve it.” Somehow I find this hard to believe. In January, BBC News ran a regular “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl” in which a grade 7 schoolgirl from Swat wrote her reflections as the Taliban announced and then executed a moratorium on girl’s education in the Valley. Reading the diary would bring tears to any readers’ eyes. What will be the fate of these schools under the new law? To me, the closing of these girls schools is only symptomatic of what will happen under such an extremist regime.

In a press conference announcing the truce, Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the chief minister for the North West Frontier Province, spoke of a legal vacuum that existed and is now going to be filled by the new Sharia law. To me it seems that the bigger vacuum is a psychological and spiritual vacuum in the social psyche that yearns for answers and guidance.

We (Pakistanis, Muslims) often point the finger at “the West,” claiming that they are not addressing the root of the problem, be it in Israel, Iraq, or Afghanistan. However, the irony is, it seems, that we haven’t ourselves understood the root of the problem. And the chickens have come home to roost.

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[Residents in Mingora, Swat distribute sweets in celebration of the deal]

On Monday, Pakistan agreed to suspend military offensives and impose Islamic law in the Malakand region [which includes Swat Valley], “making a gesture it hopes will help calm the Taliban insurgency while rejecting Washington’s call for tougher measures against militants,” reported the Associated Press. According to the news agency, “A U.S. defense official called the deal ‘a negative development,’ and some Pakistani experts expressed skepticism the truce would decrease violence.” Athar Minallah, a lawyer and civil rights activist, told the AP, “This is simply a great surrender, a surrender to a handful of forces who work through rough justice and brute force…Who will be accountable for those hundreds of people who have been massacred in Swat? And they go and recognize these forces as a political force. This is pathetic.”

Today, a number of news agencies released op-eds commenting on the development. Several included a background of the FATA and Swat Valley in their pieces. Shahan Mufti at Global Post noted that Swat’s history is similar to the tribal areas in some ways. Like the tribal region, Swat was also once an autonomous area, with independent judicial and political systems. In 1969, however, Swat Valley joined Pakistan as regular territory. Mufti wrote:

Part of what the Swati people lost with joining Pakistan were their local judicial system of “qazi” courts, which closely followed Islamic law. And the British styled Pakistani judicial system has never completely established itself in the region. Swat has had periodic uprisings through the decades to restore the old order and through the 90’s there were similar deals between the government and armed political groups to restore the old law.

He added,

The most recent cease-fire is seen by some as a tactical move by the government to simmer down fighting as legislative elections approach in about two weeks and a street protest movement against the government is planned for mid-March. Some others say that the government is bowing to pressure from militants.  Regardless, the move is likely to be supported by many Pakistanis and the government might win some much needed points for restoring peace — if this really does lead to peace.

Shaheen Sardar Ali raised an interesting question in today’s Dawn:

A few basic questions demand answers. Are the people of Swat and Malakand a different breed of Muslims to the rest of the province and the country? One hopes not. If we are all God-fearing Muslims and if Sharia as defined by Sufi Mohammad et al, is the only way forward for peace and prosperity, then ought we not, as a country, embrace it? Why try it out only in Malakand; why not simultaneously in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and Multan? Democracy and the will of the people carries no meaning if gun-toting individuals can legitimately take over a population.

The Nation also underscored the issue of the government allowing a parallel legal system to operate in Malakand, noting that “it would be bad practice,” for a system to be introduced “over and above” the Pakistani Parliament. The editors also differentiated between the overarching Taliban organization, TNSM, [who operate over Malakand Division] and its sister organization’s actions in Swat. Will the Taliban in Swat, under Mullah Fazlullah, continue to deprive young girls of an education? The Nation noted,

The hydra-headed militancy in the region does not speak with one voice. Schools continued to burn during the last peace move in Swat and the Taliban accused other groups to be involved. Will the agreement be acceptable to all militant groups? Will some of them not continue to fight till Sharia of their liking is imposed all over the country?

According to BBC News’ M Ilyas Khan, Monday’s development “inspired both jubilation and widespread concern.” He noted, “Human rights groups fear that parallel systems of justice lead to social fragmentation and will hurt civil society in the long run.”

Nevertheless, he reported, many people in Swat were relieved to hear of a temporary end to the fighting. An acquaintance of Khan wrote to him, “The sun is out after weeks of winter rains, and the people are celebrating on the streets, because there are no soldiers on the streets and no mullahs in the back alleys.” Munir, an administrator in Swat, wrote in a BBC Diary, “On Saturday our family was about to leave the village but when we heard that the government was going to promulgate Islamic Sharia law in Swat we were very happy, very excited. We decided to stay. It might not mean the end of fear but it will mean the end of violence here.” Ilyas Khan added, “…there is considerable war fatigue in Swat, and people would be happy to live under any system provided there is peace.”

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