Archive for the ‘ Afghanistan ’ Category

Pakistan: US Participation a Must in Russia-initiated Afghan Talks

As Reported by Ayaz Gul for The Voice of America

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN —
Pakistan says that Russia-sponsored international talks on Afghanistan must involve the United States for bringing peace to the war-riven country, because Washington is the “biggest stakeholder” there.

Moscow plans to host this week (April 14) a new expanded round of multi-nation “consultations” it has recently launched with the stated goals of developing a “regional approach” for promoting Afghan security and a government-led national reconciliation with the Taliban.

But the U.S. administration has already refused to take part in the conference, questioning Russian intentions and motives.

Speaking to a local television station before the Moscow talks, the Pakistani prime minister’s foreign policy aide, Tariq Fatemi, stopped short of admitting the absence of Washington will not allow the multi-nation process to achieve its mission.

“They [U.S] have their troops present [in Afghanistan], they have invested one trillion dollars there, they are the biggest stakeholder, they have lost hundreds of their soldiers, so they have their interests there,” Fatemi explained.

While Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, China, India were represented in the last round of talks in Moscow earlier this year, former Soviet Central Asian states have been invited for the first time to attend the April 14 conference.

“We hope and desire that when any such peace initiative will enter into a next stage, America will have to be made part of it,” Fatemi told Aaj TV when asked whether the Russian-initiated process could bring peace to Afghanistan without Washington.

Pakistan believes Russia is “positively” using its influence with the Taliban to encourage them to join peace talks and Islamabad is supportive of any such efforts, Fatemi insisted.

“Russia has told us its major concerns are that if civil war conditions are there in Afghanistan, it can become a center for terrorist organizations like Islamic State, or Daesh, who will then try to infiltrate into bordering Central Asian states,” the Pakistani official explained.

The Taliban’s attacks on rival IS fighters in a bid to prevent them from establishing a foothold in the country apparently encouraged Russia to support the insurgent group. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday again warned Moscow against maintaining contacts with the Taliban.

“Anyone who thinks they can help themselves by helping the enemy of their enemy is mistaken. Anyone who thinks that they can differentiate between good and bad terrorism is mistaken,” Ghani said.

Speaking at a news conference in Kabul, Ghani acknowledged Russia is also threatened by terrorism and sympathized with victims of recent terrorist attack in that country.

“We have an intense dialogue with all our interlocutors because a stable Afghanistan is to everybody’s benefit and unstable Afghanistan hurts everyone,” Ghani said when asked whether Kabul plans to attend Moscow talks on Friday. He added he wants Afghanistan “as a center of cooperation” in all efforts aimed at stabilizing his country.

The Russian foreign ministry, while regretting Washington’s refusal to attend the coming talks, had also underscored the United States is an “important player” in settling the Afghan conflict.

“So [the United States] joining the peacekeeping efforts of the countries of the region would help to reinforce the message to the Afghan armed opposition regarding the need to stop armed resistance and to start talks,” it maintained.

Meanwhile, Fatemi said Pakistan has also stepped up diplomatic efforts to ease tensions with Afghanistan and is seeking implementation of a proposed mechanism the two sides agreed to in talks last months that were mediated by Britain.

The mechanism, he explained, would allow establishment of a “channel of communication at different levels” between Islamabad and Kabul to help remove “any misunderstanding” and deal with any terrorist incident on either side of their shared border.

“Talks [between the two countries] at the Army level and at different other levels are currently underway, and at a final stage, if needed, foreign ministers of the two countries will also engage in frequent meetings,” Fatemi said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan each deny allegations they harbor and support anti-state militants engaged in terrorist attacks on their respective soils. Tensions have lately risen because of Islamabad’s unilateral border security measures to prevent terrorist infiltration.

Kabul disputes portions of the 2,600-kilometer border between the two countries and is opposed to fencing them, saying it will further add to problems facing divided families.

Pakistan, Afghanistan trade accusations at U.N. over extremist havens

By Michelle Nichols for Reuters

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Afghanistan and Pakistan traded accusations in the U.N. Security Council on Thursday over the whereabouts of Islamist extremists on their porous border as the United Nations described increased tensions between the neighbors as “unfortunate and dangerous.”

Afghanistan’s U.N. envoy, Zahir Tanin, told a council debate on the situation in Afghanistan that “terrorist sanctuaries continue to exist on Pakistan’s soil and some elements continue to use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy.”

Pakistan’s U.N. ambassador, Masood Khan, said “terrorists operate on both sides of the porous border” and many attacks against Pakistan were planned on Afghan soil. He said aggressive policing and border surveillance were needed.

“I reject most emphatically Ambassador Tanin’s argument – root, trunk and branch – that terrorist sanctuaries exist in Pakistan and some elements continue to use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy,” Khan told the council.

He told Reuters in an interview afterward that Tanin had been “ill-advised” to raise the border issues at the Security Council as Kabul and Islamabad were already talking through other channels. Khan blamed Afghan President Hamid Karzai for stoking tensions.

“When President Karzai meets our leadership, he’s most gracious, engaging, he’s a statesman. But when he talks to the media, he says things which inflame sentiment and that’s most unhelpful and destabilizing,” Khan said. “We have given very restrained responses.”

Pakistan’s role in the 12-year-old war in Afghanistan has been ambiguous – it is a U.S. ally but has a long history of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan in a bid to counter the influence of its regional rival India.

Pakistan’s military played a key role in convincing Afghan Taliban leaders to hold talks with the United States, U.S. and Pakistani officials said, but Afghan anger at fanfare over the opening of the Taliban’s Qatar office this week has since delayed preliminary discussions.

“We were talking to multiple interlocutors behind the scenes and we have been asking them to participate in these talks, (telling them) that we think the war should come to an end,” Khan told Reuters.

‘SUCCEED OR FAIL TOGETHER’

U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Pakistan helped the Taliban take power in Afghanistan in the 1990s and is facing a Taliban insurgency itself. The Pakistani Taliban, known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban, is a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban, though allied with them.

“Stability and sanctity of Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a shared responsibility. Robust deployment of Pakistani troops on our side is meant to interdict terrorists and criminals,” Khan told the council. “This must be matched from the other side.”

A spate of cross-border shelling incidents by the Pakistani military, who said they were targeting Taliban insurgents, has killed dozens of Afghan civilians in the past couple of years.

“We are very concerned with ongoing border shelling,” Tanin told the council. “This constitutes a serious threat to Afghan sovereignty and the prospect of friendly relations between the two countries.”

U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, told the Security Council that the heightened tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan were a serious concern, especially at this stage of Afghanistan’s development.

“Such tensions are unfortunate and dangerous,” he said.

The NATO command in Kabul on Tuesday handed over lead security responsibility to Afghan government forces across the country and most foreign troops are due to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.

“It is for the two countries to address these concerns and problems and their underlying reasons, to build trust and to refrain from any step that could contribute to an escalation of tensions and inflamed public sentiments,” Kubis said.

“They share common concerns and interests in fighting terrorism. They can succeed or fail together,” he said.

After Decades of Neglect, Pakistan Rusts in Its Tracks

By Declan Walsh for The New York Times

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Resplendent in his gleaming white uniform and peaked cap, jacket buttons tugging his plump girth, the stationmaster stood at the platform, waiting for a train that would never come. “Cutbacks,” Nisar Ahmed Abro said with a resigned shrug.

Ruk Station, in the center of Pakistan, is a dollhouse-pretty building, ringed by palm trees and rice paddies. Once, it stood at the junction of two great Pakistani rail lines: the Kandahar State Railway, which raced north through the desert to the Afghan border; and another that swept east to west, chaining cities from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Arabian Sea.

Now it was a ghost station. No train had stopped at Ruk in six months, because of cost cutting at the state-owned rail service, Pakistan Railways, and the elegant station stood lonely and deserted. Idle railway men smoked in the shadows. A water buffalo sauntered past.

Mr. Abro led the way into his office, a high-ceilinged room with a silent grandfather clock. Pouring tea, he mopped sweat from his brow. The afternoon heat was rising, and the power had been down for 16 hours — nothing unusual in Pakistan these days.

Opposite him, Faisal Imran, a visiting railway engineer, listened sympathetically to the mournful stationmaster. This was about more than just trains — more than the decrepit condition of the once-mighty state railway service, Mr. Imran said. It was about Pakistan itself.

“The railways are the true image of our country,” he said, sipping his tea in the heat. “If you want to see Pakistan, see its railways.”

For all the wonders offered by a train journey across Pakistan — a country of jaw-dropping landscapes, steeped in a rich history and filled with unexpected pleasures — it also presents some deeply troubling images.

At every major stop on the long line from Peshawar, in the northwest, to the turbulent port city of Karachi, lie reminders of why the country is a worry to its people, and to the wider world: natural disasters and entrenched insurgencies, abject poverty and feudal kleptocrats, and an economy near meltdown.

The election last weekend was a hopeful moment for a struggling democracy, with the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif winning a huge mandate amid record voter turnout of nearly 60 percent. But the voting left undecided the larger battle against popular disillusionment. In a country forged on religion, Pakistanis are losing faith. People are desperate for change — for any improvement their proudly nuclear-armed government could make, yet has not.

Chronic electricity shortages, up to 18 hours per day, have crippled industry and stoked public anger. The education and health systems are inadequate and in stark disrepair. The state airline, Pakistan International Airlines, which lost $32 million last year, is listing badly. The police are underpaid and corrupt, and militancy is spreading. There is a disturbing sense of drift.

This failure is the legacy of decades of misadventure, misrule and misfortune under both civilian and military leaders, but its price is being paid by the country’s 180 million people.

To them, the dire headlines about Taliban attacks and sterile arguments about failed states mean little. Their preoccupations are mundane, yet vitally important. They want jobs and educations for their children. They want fair treatment from their justice system and electricity that does not flicker out.

And they want trains that run on time.

Peshawar: The Scarred City

At the journey’s beginning, policemen wielding AK-47s guard the train station in Peshawar, on the cusp of craggy mountains that climb into Afghanistan — one of about 40 such checkposts in a city that has long been a hub of intrigue, but that now finds itself openly at war. Since the first Taliban attacks about six years ago, the city has faced a relentless barrage of suicide bombings. No place can claim immunity: five-star hotels and religious shrines, bustling markets and the international airport, police stations and foreign consulates. Hundreds of people have died.

The train system has been deeply affected. Until a few years ago, the tracks stretched up to the storied Khyber Pass, 30 miles to the west, where one of the last steam trains chugged through the tribal belt. Now that line is closed, its tracks washed away by floodwaters and too dangerous to run even if it were intact, given the insurgent violence.

The train system has been deeply affected. Until a few years ago, the tracks stretched up to the storied Khyber Pass, 30 miles to the west, where one of the last steam trains chugged through the tribal belt. Now that line is closed, its tracks washed away by floodwaters and too dangerous to run even if it were intact, given the insurgent violence.

Khyber also gave its name to the country’s most famous train service, the Khyber Mail, immortalized by travel writers like Paul Theroux. It recalls the heyday of Pakistan’s railway raj, when the train was an elegant, popular mode of travel used by the wealthy and working classes alike, with liveried bearers carrying trays of tea, and pressed linen sheets and showers in the first-class carriages.

But the Awami Express, which waited at the platform, had little of that old-world charm. The carriages were austere and dusty. Porters scurried about in tattered uniforms, taking modest tips from a trickle of passengers. Only one class of ticket, economy, was for sale. The train company, lacking generators, could not offer any air-conditioning.

“We are in crisis,” said Khair ul Bashar, the Peshawar stationmaster, surrounded by giant levers that switch the tracks. “We don’t have money, engineers or locomotives. That’s why there are delays.”

The decrepitude of the 152-year-old railway system has, in recent years, been attributed largely to a Peshawar native: the previous rail minister, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour. A classic product of Pakistan’s patronage-driven politics, Mr. Bilour, 73, faced regular accusations of cronyism, using railway resources — money, land and jobs — to look after his own supporters. Meanwhile, service has floundered. Passenger numbers have plunged, train lines have closed and the freight business — the lifeblood of any train service — has crumbled. The last time the rail system turned a profit was in 1974.

Last year the national anticorruption agency placed Mr. Bilour under investigation; a court later jailed two of the railway’s top managers. The minister avoided prosecution, and in interviews has insisted that a lack of funding was the main problem. More recently, though, Mr. Bilour has become emblematic of another aspect of Pakistani politics: the complex relationship with violent extremism.

When Peshawar erupted in deadly riots last October over an American-made video clip that insulted the Prophet Muhammad, enraged protesters attacked the city’s movie theaters, including one belonging to Mr. Bilour’s family. A day later, the minister made a controversial offer: he would pay $100,000 to anyone, militants included, who killed the offending filmmaker. That gesture ingratiated Mr. Bilour with the Taliban, who offered to remove him from their hit list, but deeply shamed his party, which had suffered fatal militant attacks. In Peshawar, people viewed it with irony: the Bilour cinema was notorious for showing racy films that the Taliban surely would not appreciate.

But the cinemas represented more than just Western culture; they were a rare form of public entertainment in a city that is closing in on itself.

Khalid Saeed, the owner of one of the few theaters left standing in Peshawar, the Capitol, sat in the foyer of the once-grand 1930s-era building, surrounded by tatty posters advertising old action movies. Invading rioters broke his projector and set fire to the screen, he said, but mercifully the flames did not spread.

Still, he said, he understood the frustration. “This is about religion, but it’s also about poverty,” he said, sucking on a cigarette. “There’s so much unemployment here. Young people have nothing to do, nowhere to go. You can read it in their faces. They get upset.”

The rattle of Taliban violence has created a stronger curfew than the local police ever could. Mr. Saeed said his son dared not venture out after dark, fearing attack or kidnapping. And still the militants keep striking.

“Around here, nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” he said with an air of quiet resignation. “What sort of life is that?”

In Mr. Bilour’s case, the entire episode was for naught. A few months later, in December, the Taliban assassinated his younger brother, the politician Bashir Bilour. As election campaigning got under way recently, a Taliban suicide bomber nearly killed Mr. Bilour himself at a rally in Peshawar’s old city. Then, last weekend, he lost his Parliament seat to Imran Khan — the former sports star who has said the government should negotiate with the insurgents, not fight them.

At Peshawar Station, the Awami Express slowly chugged out, brushing against the yawning canopies of gnarled trees and slicing through a crowded clothing market. The clattering grew faster, carriage doors swinging open and shut, as the train rumbled into the countryside. Its passengers — traders, government employees, large families — stretched out on aged leather seats.

Muhammad Akmal, a 20-year-old ice factory worker, was going home to Punjab for a wedding. “Hope to get married myself, soon — perhaps to one of my cousins,” he said. Hopefully, he added, the train would not be too late.

At Attock, the train crawled over a spectacular bridge spanning the Indus River, passing under an ancient hilltop fort built by a Mughal emperor in the 16th century, now occupied by the Pakistani Army.

Sepia-toned images of sweeping train journeys occupy a central place in the Western imagination of the Indian subcontinent, from movie classics like “Gandhi” to the recent “Slumdog Millionaire.” In real life, the Awami Express possessed little of that romance. The 45-year-old diesel locomotive groaned as it belched pillowy black fumes. Fine clouds of dust entered through the open windows. The carriages jerked violently on the corners.

It was not always so. Much as the American West filled out one train depot at a time, Pakistan was forged on steel rails. The state-owned train system, over 5,000 miles of track inherited from the British at independence in 1947, helped mesh a new and fractious country. Trains ferried migrants to the cities, provided a moving platform for campaigning politicians and played a role in the wars against India. It became — and remains — the country’s largest civilian employer, still with more than 80,000 employees.

Today, though, decades of neglect have taken a heavy toll. On paper, Pakistan Railways has almost 500 engines, but in reality barely 150 are in working order. Most Pakistanis prefer to take the bus. Those left on the trains are often frustrated, sometimes mutinous.

Early last year, dozens of protesting passengers laid their children across the tracks in Multan, in southern Punjab Province. They were angry because a journey that should have taken 18 hours had lasted three days — and they were still only halfway to their destination.

In the train engineer’s seat, Hameed Ahmed Rana, a taciturn man in a neat white shirt and a baseball cap, tugged gently on a brass handle and grumbled. The Japanese-built locomotive wheezed and shuddered. “There’s a problem with the oil pressure,” he said. “Not looking good.”

Mr. Rana guided the train into the garrison city of Rawalpindi, headquarters to Pakistan’s military, where artillery pieces poked out from under awnings. Then it pressed south, the landscape flattening as its colors shifted from stony brown to rich green, rumbling past the rich irrigated fields and orange groves of northern Punjab, the heartland of military recruitment.

Inside the train, fans hung inertly from the ceiling as the day’s heat pressed in. The carriages, filling up, were acquiring the air of a village tea shop. Men smoked and chatted; small traders boarded carrying salty snacks and hot drinks; families with women pulled sheets across their seats for privacy.

The conversation, inevitably, turned to politics and religion. An argument about the merits of various leaders erupted between a Pashtun trader, traveling to Karachi for heart treatment, and an engineer who worked in a military tank plant. “We’ve tried them all,” the engineer said with an exasperated air. “All we get are opportunists. We need a strong leader. We need a Khomeini.”

A group of jolly Islamic missionaries, known as jamaats, squeezed into a long seat, offering a foreign visitor smiles, a snack and an invitation to convert to Islam. “We’re not on this world for long,” said Abdul Qadir, a rotund man with a gray-speckled beard, proffering a plate of sliced apple. “People have a choice: heaven or hell. So they should work toward the afterlife.”

Lahore: Class and Corruption

 

Almost on schedule, the Awami Express panted into the grand old station at Lahore. A Hollywood movie starring Ava Gardner was shot here in 1955; today the yard is cluttered with empty freight vans.

Once the seat of Mughal emperors who ruled the Indian subcontinent, Lahore is the center of gravity for Pakistan’s cultural and military elite, a city of army barracks, tree-lined boulevards, artists and chic parties. It is also the headquarters of the 152-year-old railway empire. In the 1960s, Pakistan Railways was said to own one-third of the city’s land, and today the company is still run from a towering colonial-era palace, where clerks scurry between offices down polished corridors.

Up close, however, there is evidence of decline.

At the Mughalpura rail complex — a vast yard of workshops and train sheds stretched across 360 acres with 12,000 employees — workers were operating at 40 percent capacity, managers complained. Electricity cuts bring work to a halt, while entrenched unions, a rarity in Pakistan, stridently oppose any efforts to shed jobs or cut benefits. Unions blame management for corruption; managers say the unions are inflexible. Strikes are frequent.

Outside the plant gates, Muhammad Akram, a railway blacksmith, wore a tinsel garland that showed he was on a “token hunger strike,” from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The system was on the verge of collapse, he said: “It’s like sitting on the edge of the sea, wondering when you will fall in.”

The misfortune of the railways has, however, benefited Lahore’s elite. Traditionally, the city’s wealth has stemmed from the surrounding countryside, where feudal landlords live off the rents of poor peasants. For decades, the landlords have epitomized Pakistan’s gaping divisions: paying no tax, treating seats in Parliament like family heirlooms, virtually a law unto themselves on their own lands. But things are changing. Of late, the landlords are being nudged aside by a new elite, one that has found a home in a gilded country club built on railway land.

The Royal Palm Golf and Country Club, a lavish facility with an 18-hole golf course, gyms, 3-D cinemas and cigar rooms, opened in 2002 at the height of the military rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The club, which costs $8,000 to join, has become a showcase for new money: families that made their fortunes from property and industry, contacts and corruption.

The Royal Palm’s glittering social functions, attended by men in expensive suits and women in ornate gowns, are a staple of local society magazines. The opening of a local Porsche dealership was celebrated here in 2005 with a gala dinner featuring exotic dancers flown in from Europe. Some events even offer alcohol, although guests are encouraged to drop their wine glasses when the cameras show up.

“This is a family club, and a lifestyle choice,” said the manager, an architect named Parvez Qureshi, sitting in his stained-wood office overlooking the golf links.

But the Royal Palm was also built on the bones of the railways.

The rail minister at the time was Lt. Gen. Javed Ashraf Qazi, an ally of General Musharraf’s and a former spy chief who leased the railway’s land to a consortium of businessmen. Critics accused him of giving the land away at a sweetheart rate.

“It was not a clean deal. Absolutely not,” said Nasir Khalili, chairman of the Gardens Club, an officers social club with 1,400 members that had to surrender its property.

The National Accountability Bureau, which investigates official corruption, concluded last year that the Royal Palm deal had cost the government millions of dollars in lost revenue.

It was not the first time that the military had chipped at the rail system. Back in the 1980s, the military ruler Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq diverted train freight business to the National Logistics Cell, a military-run road haulage company that cornered the market for transporting wheat and other commodities. Less publicly it smuggled C.I.A.-financed weapons destined for mujahedeen rebels fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

“With freight gone, the railway was doomed,” said Salman Rashid, a travel writer who has specialized in the train network.

One evening, a raucous concert took place on the Royal Palm driving green. Thousands of teenagers crowded onto the grass to see Atif Aslam, a popular singer, in a performance sponsored by a cellphone company. Militant violence has curtailed public events in Lahore; most take place in such cloistered circumstances.

Before a crowd of about 4,000 young people, some joined by their parents, Mr. Aslam, wearing skinny jeans and a fur hat, bounded across the stage in a sea of testosterone, fluttering vocals and crashing guitars.

To a foreigner, many posed a rhetorical question that betrayed their wounded sensitivity to Pakistan’s international image. “Do we look like terrorists?” asked Zuhaib Rafaqat, a 21-year-old computer student. “The West seems to think we are. But look at us — we’re just enjoying ourselves, like anyone else.”

Sindh: Abiding Alienation

Charging across lush fields of wheat and cotton, the train crossed into Sindh Province, where it halted at Sukkur, on the Indus River. The Lansdowne Bridge, completed in 1889, spanned the water — one of several feats of engineering by the British colonialists who hacked through mountains, traversed ravines and cut across deserts to make a railroad in what has become Pakistan.

The railway project was foremost a tool of occupation: first to transport cheap cotton to English factories, later to move troops toward the northwestern frontier to guard against invasion from czarist Russia. Tens of thousands of construction workers died on the job, perishing in blistering summers and freezing winters, or from diseases like scurvy and malaria.

South of Sukkur, waterlogged fields mark a modern calamity: the 2010 floods, which inundated about one-fifth of the country, affected 20 million people and caused up to $43 billion in economic losses, according to some estimates. Topsoil and entire villages washed away in muddy waves, never to return.

In the Awami Express’s grimy dining car, a cook named Amir Khan stirred a greasy chicken broth over an open flame, then flopped onto a stack of soda crates. He gestured to the flood-scarred landscape.

“Zardari will show this to America, so that he can get some money,” Mr. Khan said with a cackling laugh, referring to President Asif Ali Zardari, who comes from Sindh. The cook wiped a mug clean, then paused reflectively. “Maybe if Benazir were alive, things would be different.”

The assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was a traumatic event for Pakistan, but also for its railways. Enraged supporters attacked 30 train stations across her native Sindh, burning 137 coaches and 22 locomotives in a sulfurous protest at the failure of the state to protect Ms. Bhutto.

Still today, the trains present an easy target for disgruntled Pakistanis. As the Awami Express pushed south, the railway police passed through the train, brusquely searching passengers and their luggage. The police increased railway security after Baloch separatists exploded a small bomb at Lahore Station last year, killing two people. More recently, ethnic Sindhi separatists have singled out the train lines for attack.

Sindh is the hub of Pakistan’s Hindu population, which, like other minorities, has suffered from deepening intolerance in recent years. Stories of forced conversion of Hindu women at the hands of Muslim zealots have caused media scandals; last year some Hindu families, complaining of prejudice, left for India. But they were an exception: most Hindus remained behind, and some are quietly thriving.

At the southern city of Hyderabad, a train branch line jutted into the desert, toward the border with India. This was Thar, a desert region where, unusually, Hindus are predominant. A rural commuter service — a train with open doors and a handful of seats — ambled through irrigated farmland toward the desert. On board were farmers, small traders and pilgrims returning from a Hindu shrine, the bareheaded women adorned in gold and silver jewelry.

At the district’s main town, Umerkot, the local colony of snake charmers lives in the shadow of a clay-walled fort. The chief snake charmer, wearing a bright red turban and playing a flute, entranced a cobra as it curled from a wicker basket. Later, he produced a government certificate that attested to his ability to “perform a dangerous act of passing three-foot snake from nostril and mouth.”

“Half of our people are in India,” he said afterward, pointing toward the desert and the border. “But we feel ourselves 100 percent Pakistani.”

Karachi: The Slum Patriot

Land is gold in Karachi, Pakistan’s tremulous port megalopolis: a city of migrants, filled with opportunity and danger, where space is at a premium that is often paid in blood. Political parties, mullahs, criminal gangs and Taliban militants all battle for land in the city, often with weapons. The railways offer an easy target.

Slums crowd the train lines that snake through the city, pushing up against the tracks. Migrants have been coming here for decades, seeking economic opportunity or, more recently, fleeing Taliban violence.

A short walk from Karachi’s main train station lies Railway Colony Gate No. 10: a cluster of rough shacks, pressed against a slope, bordered by a stagnant pool of black, putrid sewage.

Among its residents is Nazir Ahmed Jan, a burly 30-year-old and an unlikely Pakistani patriot.

Mr. Jan, known to friends as Janu, is from the northwestern Swat Valley, where fighting erupted in 2009. After the Taliban arrived, his family fled Khwazakhela, a village “between the river and the mountain,” which he described with misty-eyed nostalgia: lush fields, soaring mountains and his family’s grocery store, later destroyed in fighting.

In contrast, Karachi is gritty and ugly, he acknowledged. He made his money selling “chola” — a cheap bean gruel — as he guided his pushcart through the railway slum. It earned him perhaps $3 a day — enough to feed his two infant children, if not much else.

But Mr. Jan was an irrepressible optimist. At least Karachi was safe, relatively speaking, he said. And it had other attractions.

In the corner of his home was a battered computer, hooked up to the Internet via a stolen phone line. He used it to write poetry, mostly about his love for Pakistan, he said, pulling out a sample. One couplet read:

“If you divide my body into 100 parts /a voice will cry from each one: Pakistan! Pakistan!”Mr. Jan’s face clouded. He had contacted national television stations, and even the army press service, trying to get his work published, he said, folding a page of verse slowly. But nobody was interested; for now the poetry was confined to his Facebook page.

“I just want to express my love for my country,” he said.

Distrusting politicians, he harbored a halcyon vision of what Pakistan could become: a country that offered justice, free education and health care, where leaders made the people wealthy, and not the other way round. “That would be the Islamic way of serving the people,” he said.

Mr. Jan smiled and, clasping his hands across his chest, excused himself. He had to work. The mountain migrant vanished down the street behind his pushcart, children scurrying around him. He whistled a Pashto folk tune, his soup jostling in the cart.

From the distance came the sound of a hooting train, pulling into the station. It was surely late.

This article was reported and written before Declan Walsh’s expulsion from Pakistan by the Interior Ministry on May 10.

The Problem with Pakistan’s Democracy

By Farahnaz Ispahani for Foreign Policy

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On Sunday, former military dictator Pervez Musharraf was at last given permission to run in the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 11, but only in the northern district of Chitral. Two other districts rejected his nomination papers, and his application in Islamabad is still pending. Elections officials in Pakistan, acting under directives of the country’s Supreme Court, have excluded several candidates — among them Musharraf — from running in the elections. This pre-selection of candidates is based on controversial Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, decreed by military ruler General Zia ul-Haq in 1985 as part of his Islamization agenda. These articles forbid anyone who does not meet the test of being a good Muslim or patriotic Pakistani from becoming members of Pakistan’s parliament. Until now, the highly subjective criteria of these provisions have never been implemented in practice.

This time around, the Election Commission of Pakistan has allowed officials in each parliamentary district to vet candidates. The result is a mish-mash of arbitrary decisions. Almost 100 members of the out-going legislatures, many of them deemed popular enough to win re-election, have been disqualified for producing fake college degrees at the last poll, when the generals mandated the possession of one as a pre-condition for membership in parliament. The law was changed by parliament in 2008 and it is questionable why, after serving for five years, these politicians are being challenged now.

Former Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf was disqualified on grounds of unproven corruption allegations. Musharraf was barred from running in two districts while being found sufficiently sagacious in another. The leader of the opposition in the outgoing parliament, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, was similarly found to be lacking in the criteria in one district where he filed his nomination papers, while being allowed to run in another.

The last few days have witnessed the spectacle of Election Officers asking candidates to recite specific verses from the Quran, prove that they pray five times a day, and in the case of a female candidate, even respond to the question “How can you be a good mother if you serve in parliament and are too busy to be fulfill your religious duties as a wife and mother?”

The pre-qualification conditions have adversely affected liberal candidates while favoring Islamist ones. Columnist Ayaz Amir, who is part of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, has been disqualified from running as a candidate because he wrote articles that were “disparaging” about the ‘ideology’ of Pakistan. Militant and terrorist leaders have had no problem in meeting the litmus test of religiosity and commitment to Pakistan’s ideology. Nomination papers for Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, who heads Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a reincarnation of a banned terrorist organization, were cleared even though he has publicly acknowledged his role in the killing of Shias in the country.

In addition to facing discrimination from election officials, liberal politicians must also contend with threats from terrorists – threats that have not persuaded the judiciary or the permanent state apparatus to enhance security for these politicians. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has warned that candidates and rallies of ‘secular’ parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Muttahida Qaumi Movement, and Awami National Party (ANP) would be targeted, and the targeting has already begun. The ANP lost one of its finest leaders, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a few months ago. The TTP took credit for the murder.

The elimination of liberal political figures must be seen as part of the process of creeping Islamization, as well as the permanent militarization of Pakistan, which began during Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. Using Islam and a narrow definition of patriotism to limit the options available to voters is nothing new. It is a direct outcome of Pakistan’s long history of dominance by unelected institutions of state, euphemistically referred to as the ‘establishment.’ In addition to existing under direct military rule for half its life as an independent country, Pakistan has always lived in the shadow of the ubiquitous influence of generals, judges, and civil servants.

No elected parliament was ever allowed to complete its full term until this year. But instead of allowing voters to choose the new government in a free and fair election, the establishment wants to make sure that the voters have only limited choice at the polls. A direct military coup is no longer feasible. The politicians, led by President Asif Zardari, have foiled bids by the judiciary to virtually become the executive. The battle between elected leaders and unelected judges has come at great cost to several outspoken individuals in the country’s politics. Now, an election with pre-qualification could ensure the establishment’s supremacy without overtly pulling back the democratic façade.

From the establishment’s perspective, Pakistan’s politicians cannot be trusted to lead or run the country even if they manage to get elected by popular vote. The political system must somehow be controlled, guided, or managed by the unelected institutions who deem themselves morally superior and even more patriotic than those supported by the electorate. This patrician approach is reflected in the assertions of Generals Ayub Khan (1958-69), Yahya Khan (1969-71), Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Musharraf (1999-2008) at the time they took power in coups d’état. It can also be found in the constant efforts by Supreme Court judges and civil servants to second-guess the people by deciding who is and who is not eligible to run in elections.

General Zia ul-Haq created structures for limiting democracy that would outlast him. He drastically changed the constitution and legal regime in ways that have proved difficult to reverse, even a quarter century after his death. The outgoing Pakistani parliament completed its term and amended the constitution to make it closer to what it was originally intended to be. But the Islamic provisions introduced by Zia ul-Haq persist, enabling the establishment to use Islam as an instrument of control and influence over the body politic.

Article 62 demands that a candidate for parliament demonstrate that “he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic Injunctions; he has adequate knowledge of Islamic teachings and practices obligatory duties prescribed by Islam as well as abstains from major sins; he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law; and that he has not, after the establishment of Pakistan, worked against the integrity of the country or opposed the ideology of Pakistan.”

Article 63 disqualifies a Pakistani from becoming an MP if “he has been convicted by a court of competent jurisdiction for propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, or the sovereignty, integrity or security of Pakistan, or morality, or the maintenance of public order, or the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary or the Armed Forces of Pakistan.”

Both constitutional provisions provide considerable leeway to an ideological judiciary to influence the electoral process and exclude critics of the establishment from the next legislature. The recent celebration and positive commentary over parliament completing its term should not distract us from an ugly reality. Pakistan’s establishment may have refrained from another direct coup, but it is still far from accepting the basic premise of democracy – the supremacy of parliament among institutions and the right of the people to vote for whomever they choose.

Farahnaz Ispahani is a former member of the Pakistani parliament and former Media Advisor to President Asif Ali Zardari, as well as a writer and minority rights advocate.

Pakistan’s Dangerous Elections

As Reported by Fasih Ahmed for The Daily Spin

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A self-confessed peddler of nuclear weapons, a sport star turned messiah, a Saudi proxy who once wished to declare himself the Shadow of God on Earth—these are just some of the candidates in Pakistan’s upcoming national elections.

Much rides on the May elections, which, if they take place as planned, will mark the first-ever transition in Pakistan’s history from a fully civilian elected government to another. The path to revival or ruin for this nuclear-armed nation of some 180 million will depend on the results of what is shaping up to be a highly contentious—and dangerous—race. At stake is how Pakistan will deal with the looming withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, where Pakistani generals fear India will establish a foothold. Then there is the issue of the state’s inchoate policy toward the al Qaeda and Taliban terror franchises that has cost Pakistan some 49,000 lives since the 9/11 attacks. Add to that the economic mess—food and fuel shortages, unemployment, inflation, mounting costs from the war on terror, running deficits from voter-pleasing social welfare and development schemes—and the electorate’s not surprising loss of faith in Parliament.

And terrorists, especially the Pakistani Taliban, have threatened to disrupt the elections through intimidation and assassinations. Among their avowed targets: President Asif Ali Zardari and his Pakistan Peoples Party (and their political allies, which are also deemed liberal and pro-American) as well as former president and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, who recently ended his four-year self-exile and returned to Pakistan.

The Election Commission has pleaded with the Army to help keep the peace on May 11. But already, the violence is taking its toll. On Sunday, a bomb disrupted the campaign office belonging to a Zardari ally in northwestern Pakistan. Two were killed, and at least five injured. The Pashtun-dominated party is also being bloodied by drive-by bombings in Karachi. Earlier this month, the district election commissioner of Quetta was shot dead, and pamphlets warning citizens against voting have been menacingly strewn across Baluchistan province.

At the same time, terrorists have promised not to disrupt the prospects of cricket legend Imran Khan or the Pakistan Muslim League (NAWAZ), a party strategically allied with sectarian and terrorist groups for electoral muscle.

Pundits have speculated that threats from the Taliban as well as the weight of incumbency will suppress turnout and that the goal of “free, fair, and peaceful” elections mostly will remain an unfulfilled aspiration. But the 85-year-old chief election commissioner of the country, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, thinks otherwise. During the last election, voter turnout hovered around 40 percent. But Ebrahim says several factors–including a vibrant media culture, a generation of young idealistic voters, and an empowered civil society—could bring a surprising turnout as high as 60 percent of the electorate. “When I see the enthusiasm of the people, I am inclined to think it is possible,” he told The Daily Beast. “No one can promise that the democratic exercise will be completely free and fair,” he says. “But I am confident the 2013 elections will be different.”

This time, 86.1 million Pakistanis—more than a third of them between the ages of 18 and 30—are registered to vote at polling stations across the country. The Election Commission has allowed some 148 political parties to run, allotting symbols to each party to help voters who cannot read. Nuclear salesman A.Q. Khan’s party, for example, has been given a missile; Imran Khan’s, a cricket bat.

With more than 10,000 candidates nationwide, the polls will present Pakistanis with a range of options to choose from. The left—which wants social freedom and liberties, peace with India, a laissez-faire approach to Afghanistan, continued strong relations with the U.S., and curbs on the Army’s power—is led by the Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies. The right—anti-India, anti-America, and preaching the importance of religion in political life—is represented by Imran Khan and his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf; Saudi-backed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League, as well as smaller religious parties. The fringe is occupied by Musharraf, A.Q. Khan, and the political divisions of militant groups that have also been allowed to run.

According to the most recent polls, if elections were held today, they would yield a hung Parliament, and thus require expert coalition building. That in turn would mean that candidates spearheading smaller parties—candidates such as Imran Khan—will become kingmakers, handed disproportionate power to decide Pakistan’s future. 

Fasih Ahmed is the editor of Newsweek Pakistan. He won a New York Press Club award for Newsweek’s coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Ahmed was also the inaugural Daniel Pearl fellow and worked at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington, D.C., bureau in 2003. He graduated from Columbia University and lives in Lahore.

The Massacre of Shias in Shia founder Jinnah’s Pakistan

By Manzer Munir for Pakistanis for Peace

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Another day brings news of a yet a new massacre on the Shia community in Pakistan. By last count, at least 47 people have been killed in a bomb attack in the Shia enclave inKarachi Pakistan by the name of Abbas Town with many other injured.

I’m ashamed of this brutality and for the 3rd consecutive large scale attack on the Shia people in Pakistan. The founder of the nation, Jinnah and his sister Fatima Jinnah were Shia Pakistanis. My wife’s family is Shia. Now for the first time, today I am also a Shia Pakistani.

I feel for the fear that this Shia community across Pakistan must be feeling for the last several weeks. Earlier this year, nearly 200 people had been killed in two separate attacks targeting the Shia community in the south-western city of Quetta in January and February. And for what? For having a different view on certain events in Islam’s history? For that these murderous theologically ‘purists’ would want us to believe? Are they not Muslim? And if you answered no to that, then are they not at least human?

These are your fellow Pakistani who cheer for the same cricket team, sing the same anthem, love the same green and white crescent star flag, they read the same history books, and eat the samechaat. Do they not also face Mecca when praying? Did Allah not also create them? Stop killing everyone that does not see the Qu’ran with your Salafist and Wahaabi eyes. No matter what Islamic school of thought you may follow, one thing is certain, bombing and killing scores of innocent women and children is not something God, any God would ever condone, certainly not in his name. Certainly, this is not Prophet Muhammad’s Islam.

I wish the people of Pakistan somehow would put a stop to this weekly targeting of this community throughout Pakistan. Obviously this is the job of a competent government to arrest and dismantle the network throughout the country so that there are no more perpetrator left. This is not the job of the populace. Sadly, the most inept administration in Pakistan’s history is still in power. Zardari’s government is highly incompetent in running a country effectively. With elections a few weeks away, the desperate general population of the country is hopeful for a good change.

The current sad and alarming nation in the country is not what the father of the nation, Mohammed Ali Jinnah envisioned. Jinnah was a “was an Ismaili by birth and according to Vali Nasr, a noted expert on Shia Islam, he believed that Jinnah was a Twelver Shia by confession, although not a religiously observant man. He wanted a tolerant and secular Pakistan, a nation of majority Muslims, but one that also respected all religions and their right to exist freely within its borders. What we have is the opposite of that and not the Islam nor the country that neither the prophet nor the leader had preached about. Pakistan needs to stop this insanity. Stop killing Shias, stop imprisoning Christians for allegedly ‘blaspheming’, stop desecrating the graves of Ismailis and most of all I want these criminals to stop destroying this already fractured country by carrying attacks on helpless citizens.

A nation unable to protect its minorities is not in the end much different than Germany during the Holocaust. The standing by of the majority Sunni population will mean that they have blood on their hands also. This time its Shia blood. Tomorrow it will be Christian or Sufi blood, or perhaps that of a soldier or policeman targeted by these militants and terror outfits. Arrest and grant death penalty to those who are responsible.

Pakistan needs to get rid of all the militant groups for the safety of the common citizen and make peace with its neighbor India instead of cultivating many of these terror groups for proxy wars in Kashmir. The same dog bites you back and is not controllable. It should have never been raised for attacking. Best to put it to sleep, make peace with India, solve the problems of its own people and develop the economy and provide safety and security for a hungry population.

Of course for this to all happen, Pakistan needs to have a fair and free election later this year where the best person should win, one who is a patriot and wants to better the nation and not enrich their pockets from it. I am not sure there is anyone in the bunch running that qualifies.Imran Khan comes pretty close, although not a candidate without his own fallacies. All I can say week after week after hearing the news that comes from Pakistan is that may God help this nation, the most precarious country in the world.

Car bomb kills 37 in Pakistan

As Reported By Adil Jawad for The Associated Pres

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A car bomb exploded outside a mosque on Sunday, killing 37 people and wounding another 141 in a Shiite Muslim dominated neighborhood in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi — the third mass casualty attack on the minority sect in the country this year.

No one has taken responsibility for the bombing, but Shiite Muslims have been increasingly targeted by Sunni militant groups in Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub and site of years of political, sectarian and ethnic violence, as well as other parts of the country.

The bomb exploded outside a Shiite mosque as people were leaving evening prayers in Pakistan’s largest city. Initial reports suggested the bomb was rigged to a motorcycle, but a top police official, Shabbir Sheikh, said later that an estimated 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of explosives was planted in a car.

Col. Pervez Ahmad, an official with a Pakistani paramilitary force called the Rangers, said a chemical used in the blast caught fire and spread the destruction beyond the blast site. Several buildings nearby were engulfed in flames.

Men and women wailed and ambulances rushed to the scene where residents tried to find victims buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings. The blast left a crater that was 2 meters (yards) wide and more than 1 meter (4 feet) deep.

“I was at home when I heard a huge blast. When I came out, I saw there was dust all around in the streets. Then I saw flames,” said Syed Irfat Ali, a resident who described how people were crying and trying to run to safety.

A top government official, Taha Farooqi, said at least 37 people were confirmed dead and 141 more were wounded.

Sunni militant groups have stepped up attacks in the past year against Shiite Muslims who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s population of 180 million people. Sunni militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban view Shiites as heretics.

Tahira Begum, a relative of a blast victim, demanded the government take strict action against the attackers.

“Where is the government?” she asked during an interview with local Aaj News TV. “Terrorists roam free. No one dares to catch them.”

It was the third large-scale attack against members of the minority sect so far this year. Two brazen attacks against a Shiite Hazara community in southwestern city of Quetta killed nearly 200 people since Jan 10.

Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for the bombings, which ripped through a billiard club and a market in areas populated by Hazaras, an ethnic group that migrated from Afghanistan more than a century ago. Most Hazaras are Shiites.

Pakistan’s intelligence agencies helped nurture Sunni militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the 1980s and 1990s to counter a perceived threat from neighboring Iran, which is mostly Shiite. Pakistan banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in 2001, but the group continues to attack Shiites.

According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 Shiites were killed last year in targeted attacks across the country, the worst year on record for anti-Shiite violence in Pakistan. The human rights group said more than 125 were killed in Baluchistan province. Most of them belonged to the Hazara community.

Human rights groups have accused the government of not doing enough to protect Shiites, and many Pakistanis question how these attacks can happen with such regularity.

A resident who lived in the area where the bomb went off Sunday said there had been another blast nearby just a few months ago.

“The government has totally failed to provide security to common people in this country,” Hyder Zaidi said.

After the Jan. 10 bombing in Quetta, the Hazara community held protests, which spread to other parts of the country. The protesters refused to bury their dead for several days while demanding a military-led crackdown against the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group. Pakistan’s president dismissed the provincial government and assigned a governor to run Baluchistan province.

No operation was launched against the militant group until another bombing in February killed 89 people.

The government then ordered a police operation and has said some members of the group have been arrested. One of the founders of the group, Malik Ishaq, was among those detained and officials said he could be questioned to determine if his group is linked to the latest violence against Shiites.

The repeated attacks have left many Shiites outraged at the government. After the last blast in Quetta, Shiites in Karachi and other cities also demonstrated in support for their brethren in Quetta. Shiites in Karachi set fire to tires and blocked off streets leading to the airport. Many Karachi residents planned to strike on Monday as a form of protest following Sunday’s attack in their city.

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