Syed Saleem Shehzad on the Pakistani Taliban

This is his third colum about his recent trips to the Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies.

Seven months ago I visited Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. As my taxi driver headed from Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, he was played some Pashtu music on the car’s CD. Quickly, though, he changed it for jihadi songs.1

1 Shehzad, Syed Saleem. In the footsteps of Osama … . Asia Times. May 28, 2008.


Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s phone call

From The News1:

LAHORE: The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) released on Monday an audio tape containing a conversation purportedly between PML-Q leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi and an unidentified person making references to two senior most members of the judiciary for rejection of the nomination papers of PML-N leaders Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif.

Pervaiz Elahi denies the authenticity of the tape. Here’s the important excerpt:

Caller: You asked for the rejection of their applications (nomination papers). Sir, the chief of Lahore was called last night.
Elahi: Oh, yes, but buddy, the rejection could not be achieved.
Caller: Sir, it’s done. It was finalised last night.
Elahi: (pleased) Oh.
Caller: The chief [justice] of Lahore [high court] was called and given the material. He said that the two people and the material be sent to the high court. Much offended, he (the third person) said why he (the chief of Lahore) let the papers be accepted when they (Sharif brothers) are facing so serious charges. Then the chief of Lahore said that the two people might be sent to him at the high court. He said he would constitute a tribunal to see the nomination papers rejected.

The tape was released by the PML-N information secretary Ahsan Iqbal at a press conference. Iqbal later compared Musharraf to a computer virus2, destroying the whole country.

1 ‘Pervaiz’ caught on tape. The News. May 27, 2008.
2 Khan, Yasir Habib. ‘Ex-CM tape reveals conspiracies’. The Nation. May 27, 2008.

An Afghan reporter in Garmser

Massoud Husseini, an Afghan reporter, goes on an embed with the US Marines1 to see what Garmser, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand province, looked like after the US Marines operation there.2 It seems that he was pissed off by the Marines and they were pissed off by him but it’s an interesting report to read mainly because I’ve never read anything by an Afghan reporterembedded with the US military.

1 Husseini, Massoud. Garmser: Ghost city after U.S. military operation. Kabul Weekly. May 21, 2008.
2 U.S. Marines launch Afghan operation. CNN. April 28, 2008.

Alternative explanation for Mardan bakery blasts

Over at chowk, interactor Optimistic_Aadil from Mardan has an first-hand account of the bakery bombing on May 17 with an interesting alternative explanation:

According to a general consensus, it might be engineered by the establishment courtesy the fact that Mardan cantonment authorities were about to lose a case in the Supreme Court regarding the cutting off of a link road which actually passes through two entities of the contonment, connecting two parts of the city. Incidents of simillar nature happened on the last two occasions whenever the road was about to be opened following the verdicts of the city and Peshawar High Courts in favor of people of the locality. The road was permanently blocked by the army citing security reasons following a suicid blast last year in Dargai where a suicide bomber entered into the Army Cantonment and claimed the lives of dozens of young recruites. The stoppage proved hazardous for the commuters who would reach the city center taking alternative routes which of course were much more time consuming for a distace of about 2 kilometers.

The Steel Mills and the Judiciary Crisis

The News reported on Sunday that former chief of the Steel Mills Lt Gen (retd) Abdul Qayyum, in an interview with Geo News, disclosed that differences between Musharraf and deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry cropped up over the privatisation of the Steel Mills:

The ex-Steel Mills chief said when the case was being heard by a full court of the Supreme Court, President Musharraf called him (Justice Iftikhar) and asked as to what kind of remarks he (Musharraf) was hearing from him, adding the case should be decided in a manner that it does not cause any loss to the country. To this, Justice Iftikhar said, “You shouldn’t worry. I will decide the case in the best interest of the country.”

The next day when the Supreme Court judgment in the case came, it was totally against the expectations of the president. It was then that a row between the president and the then chief justice ensued.1

Khaleej Times has a similar report:

[Qayyum] said that former premier Shaukat Aziz was afraid he would be tried on criminal charges after Supreme Court annulled the privatisation of the Steel Mills citing gross irregularities.2

Today, The News has an article about a statement made by the People’s Workers Union (PWU) Pakistan Steel (CBA) President Shamshad Qureshi who said that Gen Qayyum’s allegations were false and that he was fully involved in the privatization of the organization and was the front man of Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz during that period.3
Parvaiz Elahi took things a step further and blamed it all on Shaukat Aziz:

Commenting on the action of November 3, he said it was Shaukat Aziz responsibility. He said that he came to know about the issue of deposed Chief Justice through television and afterwards Shaukat Aziz also called him about the issue.4

1 Ex-chief of Steel Mills spills the beans. The News. May 25, 2008.
2 Aziz was afraid he could be tried in Steel Mills case. Khaleej Times. May 26, 2008.
3 Union challenges Pakistan Steel Mills ex-chairman’s claim. The News. May 26, 2008.
4 Aziz responsible for judges’ issue, says Elahi. The Post. May 26, 2008.

The two faces of Zardari

I have a feeling that the members of the press have given up trying to glean any meaning from Zardari’s contradictory statements and are simply amusing themselves finding appropriate facial expressions to match the tone of his interview of the day. Here’s the picture that was on the top of the “Musharraf is a relic of the past” story in The News– angry, crazy Zardari:

The News, May 23, 2008

“So like my little daughter Bakhtawar would say, if you move, I move”1

Today, a Daily Times column reporting more conciliatory statements by him features a happier (but still kind of crazy-looking) Zardari:

The Daily Times, May 25, 2008

“Making the impossible possible is the job of a politician”2

1 “People want govt to throw out Musharraf: Zardari.” The News. May 23, 2008.
2 “PPP Has Working Relationship with Musharraf: Zardari.” The Daily Times. May 25, 2008.

More on Black Friday

From an editorial today in The News1:

The KSE crash is of course only a reflection of the overall situation of the economy and, dare one say, the polity. The grim reality is that Pakistan finds itself in the grip of both economic and political turmoil. The two are indeed closely tied together. The economic crisis – high inflation along with a mounting budget and trade deficit along with declining investment, a weakening currency and capital flight – is contributing to political uncertainty, with expectations that it may be used against the government with the grim inflation figures and lowered debt rating offered up as evidence of the inability of government to deliver. At the same time, in the immediate future, there can be little hope of the political stability that would be needed to boost investor confidence and create an environment conducive to economic growth. The vicious cycle seems unbreakable for the present. The mood at the stock market has indeed remained downbeat for weeks. This is unlikely to change soon given the turbulence in the political atmosphere, and a long, rocky road towards recovery from both political and economic crisis still lies ahead.

1 “Black Friday”. The News. May 25, 2008.

Relief for the poor

Business Recorder reports1:

Punjab Finance, Planning and Development Minister Tanvir Ashraf Kaira has said poor, salaried class and farmers will get relief in the coming budget for the fiscal year 2008-09, saying, “Our main focus would be to give target subsidy to the poor in the budget.”

The relief would come primarily in the form of price controls. Abid Hasan, a former operations adviser for the World Bank, agrees with the goal, if not the means, in his take on the situation published in The News today2. His plan revolves around the introduction of a “poverty reduction surcharge” (his fancy name for “tax”) on what he considers superfluous luxuries like cars, cell phones, stock trading, and high utility bills.

Actually, at first I was encouraged because he takes the view that government subsidies and price controls have contributed to Pakistan’s economic woes. He argues, for instance, that by letting farmers sell at market prices, smuggling and black market loss would be reduced and farmers would have the resources to increase food production for next year. However, look at what Hasan proposes when it comes to cars:

More generally, tax policy should be used to switch consumption patterns appropriate to the country’s poverty status. As an example, in Pakistan for every one car sold, four motorbikes and four cycles are sold. The ratio for India is six motorbikes and 10 cycles, and in Vietnam it is 25 motorbikes and 10 cycles, for every one car sold. These two countries are almost the same or higher per capita income, and similar poverty profile, as Pakistan. And yet their population uses, relatively, more motorbikes and bicycles. Progressive tax policy – for example, zero rating bicycles, motor bikes and public transportation and high taxes on cars – and correct pricing of fuel would encourage this “pro-poor” switch.

He offers no justification for the implication that India and Vietnam have a healthier ratio of cars to motorbikes and bicycles. Why not tax cars so much that the ratio falls to 1:100? How is the proper ratio determined? Why isn’t it good that more Pakistanis can afford cars? Without the hard numbers, it’s hard to even say that Pakistanis can afford more cars, since it could just as easily be that fewer Pakistanis can afford motorbikes and bicycles, or that bicycles and motorbikes aren’t as useful to Pakistanis.

In the end, I’m just annoyed that Hasan takes the time to rail against socialist economic policies like price controls only to suggest that we solve the problem by introducing new socialist economic policies like high taxes on certain items to get various ratios into what the government determines is most healthy.

1 Budget will be poor-friendly: minister. Business Recorder. May 24, 2008.
2 Hasan, Abid. Spend on the poor to save Pakistan. The News. May 24, 2008.

Karachi stock market reflects political, economic uncertainty

The Karachi stock market closed down over 4.5% on Friday in the largest single-day loss of 2008. According to Dawn1, investors had expected a drop after the State Bank of Pakistan raised the discount rate to 12% from 10.5% on Thursday in a bid to curtail inflation. However, the size of the drop suggests that the rate increase was a pretext for exiting the market as Pakistan faces tough political and economic challenges. Since mid-April, the Karachi stock market has lost about 20% of its value. Inflation has increased dramatically, the government budget deficit has reached record heights, and foreign exchange rates have fallen.

1 Hussain, Dilawar. Billions wiped off on KSE’s ‘black Friday’. Dawn. May 24, 2008.

Afghanistan Unveils Ambitious Development Plan

This NPR report 1 by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson describes the difficulty the Afghan government faces in getting international funding for its $50 billion strategy to rebuild the nation. Western officials are wary of simply handing over funds to the Afghan government due to allegations of corruption and mismanagement. An illustration:

Yet how some Afghan contractors hired by the ministry spend international aid money raises serious questions. For example, one contractor in Kandahar province recently agreed to pay $100,000 to a local Taliban commander to ensure his men would leave the project alone.

The builder claims he and other contractors have no choice but to cut such deals to protect their projects in high-risk areas such as Kandahar.

He allowed NPR to listen to, but not tape, his negotiations by speakerphone with the Taliban leader. He also sent the Taliban commander a copy of the contract to prove he wasn’t making more on the project than claimed.

1 Nelson, Soraya Sarhaddi. “Afghanistan Unveils Ambitious Development Plan”. NPR. May 21, 2008.