Monday, January 23, 2012


By:Rabia Ahmed    PAKISTAN TODAY

...and the cost of security

A small lizard fell into my soup last night. As I jumped back the lizard with a huge effort flopped out again, leaving a wriggling tail behind. The soup was cold anyway without gas to heat it. As it gurgled down the kitchen sink, the electricity went too.

Our stolid prime minister has declared that Pakistan’s gas and electricity shortage problems will end within six months. It is possible he knows something the rest of us don’t, being something of a gaseous anomaly himself. Or maybe he was referring to an ingenious agreement just entered into with neighbouring Afghanistan.

Under the terms of this agreement Pakistan, itself in the throes of a crippling power shortage, is to develop Afghanistan’s water storage and hydro-electric generation systems on the River Kabul. In a stroke of brilliance it is agreed that any surplus power thus generated is to be re-imported into this country.

There is, however, one glitch: according to a report in this newspaper, most of the water in the River Kabul is fed into it by the River Kunhar, which originates funnily enough in sada apna Chitral. We appear therefore to be grabbing our nose by reaching around the head. Water storage on the River Kabul is also likely to cause water shortage in the River Indus, leading to a further drop in Pakistan’s capacity to produce power itself. This capacity is almost solely reliant on the availability of water which is increasingly scarce as a direct result of the ineptitude and failure of successive governments of Pakistan in providing – you got it – adequate water storage.

Such masterly examples of planning naturally render extrinsic enemy plots quite redundant.

Meantime, this week saw the same stolid and longest self-serving democratically elected prime minister of Pakistan in the courts, on charges of contempt, aided by the inimitable Aitzaz Ahsan.

Jo lawyer bhi hain shaair bhi, dono hi bohat khoob

Long March ka maqta laikin Ahsan ko na bhaya

The prime minister’s appearance in court seems to have been a carefully orchestrated affair. He was escorted by a large coterie of chanting followers in their cars, speaking evidence of his terrific popularity which excused their blocking all traffic for hours. Also accompanying him were several obligatory hysterical security men, bullet proof vehicles, as well as a gunship helicopter which flew over and around the route and Supreme Court building that whole morning. It was most impressive.

The PM, demurely dressed, appeared driving himself and his barrister in a chaste white car. This further evidence of his being the people’s representative must have brought a tear to many a susceptible eye, especially when he began his statement by quoting the pioneer Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s line: “Dukhaan di mari jindri aleel hai.’’ He went on to assure the court of his undying devotion to the constitution and the law of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

One incongruous detail then: it appears that the license plate on the PM’s car, LRZ 786, once again chosen no doubt with an eye to its devout overtones, did not belong to any car owned by him. It belongs instead to a random citizen, now wandering bemusedly around the streets of Lahore who has no known connection whatsoever to the prime minister or his car.

Therein lies a tale, I’m sure, and it is wriggling to be told.

The country and its people now await events following the arrival (or not) of Mr Mansoor Ijaz. Further evidence, if any is required, of our government officials being all on the same page has been provided as ever by the inimitable Mr Rehman Malik who has promised to provide complete security for Mr Ijaz, to the extent of a securing a suite for him on the premises of the Home Ministry. He cannot, however, promise that Mr Ijaz will not be arrested as soon as he sets foot in the country. Was he, maybe, referring to a maximum security cell?

The PM, on the other hand, has said quite firmly that security will not be provided for Mr Ijaz when he visits Pakistan to give evidence in court. It isn’t, he said sternly, as though Mr Ijaz were a viceroy visiting the country. In case anyone failed to understand him he clarified further that security was worth billions, and would therefore not be provided for Mr Ijaz’s person.

Ah, so that must be it then. If security costs billions, that of course is why members of the government down to every tinpot official moves in those perpetual clouds of bullet proof cars, security men, ambulances, and even gunship helicopters, and why the common man of Pakistan, being a citizen of such a poor country, lacks it so utterly.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


By:Rabia Ahmed        PAKISTAN TODAY  17 January 2012

Imagine all the money we could save

Mehdi Hassan and Noor Jehan’s songs held the public in thrall during the war of 1965: Apni jaan nazar karoon; Aye watan kay sajilay jawanon; Meria dhol sipaiya. Now if only the dhol sipaiya would remember their raison d’etre, people would still be peshingtheir wafas to the army today and they’d be something more than justsajilay.

Many jawans lost their lives in Pakistan’s several wars and skirmishes against enemies within and without its borders. However the armed forces cannot claim to be alone in their losses here.

According to figures produced by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2003 140 civilians lost their lives in Pakistan, as did 24 members of the Security Forces and 25 terrorists. These numbers peaked in 2009 with 2,307 civilian, 1,011 Security Force and 8,267 terrorist deaths...a staggering 11,585 deaths that single year alone.

In 2010 the figures were down to 1,796 civilian, 469 SF, and 384 terrorist deaths, a total of 7,435 fatalities. Data collected up to February in 2011 indicated 226 civilian, 98 SF, and 384 terrorist two months alone.

All in all, 9,620 civilians died in the space of seven years and two months in this country, while 3,443 SF personnel and 20,150 terrorists lost their lives, a staggering total of 33,213 lives all told.

Either the armed forces are no longer effective, or unable to be so.

Mind you, the performance elsewhere is as poor. Each successive civilian government has been more inept than the one before, so much so that our current president has been WikiLeaked as a ‘numbskull’ in a conversation between Sir Jock Stirrup and American diplomats, and as ‘highly corrupt’ to quote other senior British officials.

I found myself writing last week about whether democracy is all that it is cracked up to be. Can the same question be asked about the armed forces? Dare I ask if an army is really necessary in this country, at least in the shape, size and form it takes today?

Casting a slur (whether real or imagined), on two groups seems to cause the supporters of each to spit and foam incoherently at the mouth. So much so that writing about them has become for me an exercise in taking the Mickey out of both. Those two groups are the PTI and the army.

So let’s carry on with a few more facts.

According to an article by Kamran Yousaf in a daily newspaper, Pakistan’s defence budget for the year 2011-12 increased by almost 12 percent from the previous year, and now stands at over Rs 495 billion. This does not include a whopping Rs 73 billion set aside for military pensions which sum is to be taken from the civilian budget, in addition to other sums taken from the civilian budget. The column goes on to say that according to Bushra Gohar of the ANP, the defence budget of Pakistan has never been properly questioned in parliament.

Any organisation that finds itself running out of jobs has to create them. The huge American arms industry has been doing so for years by supporting and creating the need for weapons around the world. WikiLeaks have indicated that the Pakistani establishment too is implicated in supporting terrorism in the entire South Asian region...and beyond. It also points towards the corruption of the various components of the Pakistani government.

The ineptness/involvement of the Pakistan army in the Osama bin Laden case, their ineffectiveness in the Raymond Davis episode, American drone attacks and regional militant violence begs the question why such huge amounts of funds are being diverted from the crucial needs of a poverty stricken nation into military coffers.

To quote one single example, the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital in Lahore needs more than two billion rupees in donations this year to help patients who are otherwise unable to pay for themselves.          

And there are many, many other examples. Two years ago the Layton Rahmatulla Benevolent Trust which runs a free eye hospital in Lahore required Rs 423 million to be able to continue treating curable blindness in Pakistan. This year costs have risen as have their requirements.

Education needs money. Roads, power, industry…all beg for help, and we give money to a bunch of people who end up forming a state within a state and have become so much too big for their boots? Let me spell that out: what justification does such huge and ineffective military spending have when our people have no food and in many places no drinking water?

Given such conditions, we may all be better off overrun by foreign armies anyway.

What excuse do we have for pandering so to our army?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


By:Rabia Ahmed               Monday, 9 Jan 2012 9:51 pm  PAKISTAN TODAY

A trial of Benazir’s grave

In his interview with Hamid Mir, Mr Zardari, although extremely relaxed and otherwise rational, was definitely working to build further evidence of mental incapacity should need for such evidence ever arise again. He was more than a little schizoid, a state characterised by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements. What with his attempt at being both Zardari the Co-Chairperson as well as the neutral and unaligned (and much maligned) President of Pakistan all at the same time, this was very clearly the man who gave birth to the slogan ‘Pakistan Khappay’.For those who do not know, this means ‘Long Live Pakistan’ in Sindhi but the very opposite in Urdu and Punjabi.

Mr Zardari was also asked whether his government meant to write to the Swiss government with reference to the cases against him there. He replied that his party had decided against it. He then likened the Swiss case to ‘a trial of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto’s grave’.

PPP supporters around the country are probably nodding their heads sagely and agreeing that this would be a sacrilege.

It is a lesson taught in Chapter 1 of ‘Demagoguery for Dummies’ that human beings invented speech in order to disguise their thoughts. It is beyond doubt that Asif Zardari is past master at using speech to press the right buttons on a public that has actually been trained into manipulation.

It is a mystery how Benazir came to be ‘shaheed’ in the first place, and I am not speaking of the criminal facts surrounding her death. Also, what on earth does ‘a trial of her grave’ mean? Quite aside from these is the question of how pertinent either of these is to the issue of the Swiss cases.

The Pakistani public, firmly in possession of a sheep-like mentality and quite unstable due to the strong vein of sentiment and irrational religiosity that runs through it, has thus been seeded with appropriate phrases. It means that Benazir Shaheed, firmly established in sainthood for a while now, accompanied by her husband co-suffused in her aura, has now been further saddled with the onus of placing him above any proceedings against him because this will be considered disrespectful to her grave.

This is a great illustration of rhetoric unleashed by a politician/demagogue, aimed at the median mentality of his electorate. It is in every demagogue’s interests to keep public mentality at the level of his speech.

A well educated, reasoning public is only possible in countries where those in public office are elected on the basis of their performance. In places like Pakistan, such a public would be a gross inconvenience.

The tendency to grasp at short term personal benefit in this country means that many schools paid for by international donations exist on paper alone, since the money allocated for them has found its way into unauthorised pockets.

Those that do exist teach a curriculum composed of irrelevant, soppy details. This curriculum stresses the rote learning of historical events and names. It does not encourage students to think or engage in debate on any issue arising from these events. As a result we churn out an electorate of unreasoning, ill-informed persons easily led by means of slogans and misinformation which works well into the hands of politicians seeking to lead by such means, rather than by good governance.

At its basic level, all education provides students with the ability to read and write, which is the ability to speak and scribe alphabets strung together to form words and sentences. Only a good education encourages students to look beyond the alphabet forming the phrases they read, to critically assess and understand the concepts behind the words.

The sad fact is that we send our children to schools (whether government or private) only for the sake of ‘keeping them away from trouble’. In other words, to prevent them from thinking too independently, a habit that is considered a threat to morality.

On the contrary, the protection afforded by means of an education that stresses imagination, self-discovery, debate and analysis is the best safeguard for a nation, much more so than a weapon toting army with or without nuclear capability, or a judgemental social police.

Unless we train ourselves to think freely and critically, statements such as Mr Zardari’s which seek to connect two quite separate matters by links forged of cultural and emotional millstones will always be present, and will always have the power to drown us.

Monday, January 2, 2012


By:Rabia Ahmed     PAKISTAN TODAY

On the competence of the electorate

If an elected person or group of persons proves disappointing one can only blame oneself, as with marriage to a person of one’s own choosing. In the case of marriage, both arranged marriages and marriages of choice appear to possess a similar profile of success (or failure), which makes it difficult to prefer one above the other. In fact, the best option is probably a blend of the two.

So why are people so much in favour of democracy to the exclusion of other options, at least here in Pakistan, where we have neither seen much of democracy and have only been disappointed when it (supposedly) existed? In fact the question should be whether what we so fondly call ‘democracy’ in Pakistan is democracy at all.

Democracy appears to have become a cornerstone of civilisation. Suggesting alternatives (‘the ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination,’ Voltaire) results in shock and recoil, as if you’d owned up to having lice. I postulate that this affection for democracy in Pakistan is related to the mysterious rolling of ‘Rs’ which has afflicted us all of a sudden.

Much of Pakistan’s short life was spent under military dictatorship; years of unmitigated disaster – think Zia and Musharraf more than Ayub. However, none of the civilian governments interspersed through these martial episodes of history can claim to have delivered better, their only difference a mandate of sorts to form a government. Given that many of those elected assumed office under dubious credentials, it begs the question how strong this mandate actually was. In fact, their performance based on self interest and toeing the party line rather than representation of their electorate only adds to the doubts surrounding this system of government.

Of course the inevitable intellectual argument is that non-democratic forms of government such as military coups are unacceptable ‘because they do not allow institutions to develop’. Ah, these institutions. Are any of them really alive much less well in Pakistan today?

One institution, of course, is the parliament including, as mentioned above, several members possessing dubious, even fake credentials. In 2010, the Election Commission issued summons against twenty parliamentarians in this connection, seven from the National Assembly, eleven from the Punjab and one each from the Sindh and Balochistan Assemblies.

We also possess a judiciary suffused with bias against the civilian government of the day. Expressing her disagreement with the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision to take on the case and conduct an enquiry into the memo scandal, Asma Jahangir, counsel for Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani, questioned whether the court was there to serve and protect the rights of the public or the establishment.

Pakistan’s over-endowed and scandal-ridden military establishment, addicted to being in government, is unwilling to relinquish foreign policy and security related decision-making into civilian hands where they belong. Hierarchically, it considers itself above the civilian government and the president of the country, both of whom are in fact charged with the command and upkeep of the armed forces under the constitution of Pakistan.

A top heavy Steel Mill, PIA and Pakistan Railways, riddled with corruption, nepotism and cronyism, a similarly afflicted bureaucracy, power providers on the rocks, and the tale of the aforementioned institutions not allowed to develop is told.

Democracy, as Plato found, ‘presupposes a competent citizenry.’ It is also pertinent what Albert Einstein said, that ‘an empty stomach is not a good political advisor.’ The question is therefore: do we have a competent citizenry in Pakistan or/and one with a full stomach? And if not, can democracy work here?

We know literacy, education and economic figures for Pakistan. There is moreover no civic or political education in the schools of this country which would enable what educated individuals there are to make informed decisions about the leaders they elect. Neither Mr Zardari’s emotional references to martyred family members ad nauseam, or Mr Nawaz Sharif’s carping on improper removal from office, nor indeed Imran Khan’s hunky good looks – none of these are valid grounds for election.

True we have only ourselves to blame if our choices turn out to be poor, and in Pakistan democracy’s other raison d'ĂȘtree does not work either where we can replace our choices, or force our elected representatives to do their job by threatening them with loss of office. Once secure in office these elected individuals appear to develop an uncanny ability to remain there, as well as the thickest of skins, preventing the penetration and efficacy of any external pressures whatsoever.

So once again: why are people so much in favour of democracy, at least here in Pakistan? Is it because there are no alternatives? But wait now,are we speaking here of democracy, or of Imran Khan?