Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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Opinion Archive
The News International Pakistan

 Taking steps in the right direction
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
It is easy enough to point out what is wrong with Pakistan. We face a militant insurgency in the north, terrorist activities in the rest of Pakistan, an enormous humanitarian crisis in the form of the IDPs and weak democratic structures. But there is also another side.

Let's look at what has gone right in the last year and a half. When General Kayani took over from General Musharraf, he had a daunting task before him. Not only was the army facing a challenge by rogue militant forces that had previously enjoyed the military's support, but the image of the Pakistan Army was also greatly tarnished in the eyes of the public. There were doubts about its sincerity and competence in weeding out anti-state elements, resentment against its exaggerated economic interests, and disdain for its interference in the country's political space.

Yet General Kayani has taken steps to improve that image, and although the press and public at large must continue to monitor the army's performance, encouraging it to minimize collateral damage and battle the insurgents with dedication, there are a number of heartening indicators.

The biggest difference between General Kayani and General Musharraf is that the latter can concentrate on his job as army chief and not be distracted by competing concerns of maintaining popularity as a politician. During Musharraf's time, the strategy of supporting the Islamic threat at some level so that the west could be convinced of Musharraf's indispensability led the military to enter into dubious alliances with political forces that would provide space to extremist ideology. The 2002 election, in which the MMA was assured a certain number of seats so that they would in turn support Musharraf in passing the controversial Seventeenth Amendment, was a glaring example of this.

But in the 2008 election, the military wisely refrained from interfering and hence there was consensus on the election result and a routing of the Islamic parties. General Kayani also departed from Musharraf's stance against the lawyers' movement and helped resolve the crisis in a peaceful manner and one in which the citizenry felt rightly empowered.

In addition, the many serving and retired military men who had been appointed to important civilian positions were called back by General Kayani, and in the same spirit, he halted plans for an expensive GHQ facility, declaring 2008 the Year of the Soldier instead. This was followed through by increasing the pay of the demoralized foot soldier and by increasing compensation amounts for members of the Frontier Constabulary in the event that they lost their lives in battle.

In the most recent effort to repair the army's image, General Kayani also announced that all military personnel would contribute a day's salary to the IDPs. These efforts must be noted and lauded. Moreover, according to trusted sources, the military is continuing to purge itself of the jihadi elements that had infused its ranks during the Zia era. Although to be fair to Musharraf, this policy began during his time, but it has not been abandoned by Kayani.

Collective ownership of the war by the ruling civilian coalition and the military is essential and must be supported by the public at large. And while it is imperative that our government do a lot more for the IDPs and ensure their freedom of movement, other steps taken in the right direction need to be appreciated. The recent peace conference organized in Peshawar jointly by the HRCP and the newly formed Aman Tehreek was attended by two district nazims along with several intellectuals and human rights activists. And although the ruling ANP should be more active in organizing such seminars, the trend is markedly different from the MMA approach.

The All Parties Conference moreover was another effort at consolidating the secular opinion within the country. And although it can be critiqued for ceding the Parliament's rightful authority, the efforts to build consensus on the part of the ruling PPP must be lauded. Since the APC was called at the insistence of Mian Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N owes it to the government and the people to back this stance consistently. The likes of Khwaja Saad Rafique, who oppose the party stand on this, should not be the ones appearing on talk shows as PML-N representatives. Mr Rafique's personal opinion is irrelevant. It is the PML-N's public stance that is at issue here, and it must not waver in the wake of the tragic attack in Lahore. By attacking Lahore, the militants are sending the PML-N a message but true leadership cannot appease.

The media must also play a responsible role in this regard. Independent analysts who do not belong to any political party should be welcome to express personal opinions. But representatives of political parties, at this critical juncture, need to express the stance of their respective parties. Otherwise, we will be confusing the people. In addition, those politicians who represent a minority of public opinion, namely Imran Khan (PTI, at its zenith, won one parliamentary seat) should not be given disproportionate airtime.

Some media personalities are acting responsibly and their efforts must be praised. Munib Farooq of Dunya News, for example, made the effort to talk to several IDPs camped in schools. Unlike many other anchors who ask abrupt and non-sequential questions, Mr Farooq bothered to have conversations such that the IDPs felt comfortable in describing how their lives were affected by the Taliban and by the military operation. And although they were understandably disturbed by the military operation, in the words of one IDP, "Hamain pata nahin tha key fauji acha hai ya Taliban lekin ab hamain pata hai ke fauji acha hai."

Talat Hussain of Aaj TV also conducted a very good show with students in Peshawar. Through appropriate and intelligent cross-questioning, Mr. Hussain was able to unveil real opinions as opposed to knee-jerk reactions that often come through from the lack of coherent or probing interviews. Other hosts however are disturbingly meek when interviewing Taliban operatives.

This begs the question: should they be interviewing them at all? Kashif Abassi, for instance, is very well respected for his hard talk with all manner of politicians, but when he interviews Taliban commanders, there is no hint of cross-questioning. I distinctly remember one interview where the Taliban operative not only disgraced Mr. Abassi by not taking his questions seriously, but also continued to twiddle his toes in the face of the ARY camera.

An even more disturbing occurrence happened on a TV channel when a reporter managed to interview the four valiant SSG commandos (now shaheed) when they were in Taliban custody. Although the reporter was extremely harsh with the commandos, asking pointless questions like why they were sporting long hair as army personnel, he was dutifully obedient to the Taliban commander. While the four commandos have laid down their lives for Pakistan, I wonder why no military or civilian high command bothered to contact the said reporter to ask him where they were kept.

In these trying times, it is important to isolate the militants. And although the state must initiate reforms as there is no surer antidote to extremism than citizen empowerment, there must however be no confusion on the intentions and competence of the anti-state elements. And while President Zardari must be praised for conferring Hilal-e-Shujaat on the courageous Afzal Khan Lala, circumstances dictate that he go further. Afzal Khan Lala must be named the next governor of NWFP, as suggested by astute Pakhtun analysts like Jamal Khan. The people of the province respect him and he understands the plight of the displaced. We are fortunate to have him amongst us. Let us take one more step in the right direction.

The writer is a London-based lawyer-turned-political commentator.

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