A 100-day journey into despair- Ghazi Salahuddin

Berlin, in the glory of its summer, is certainly an unlikely location for a crash course on relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, with specific reference to the ongoing development in the tribal belt. London, on the other hand, has its place in our politics and it is hard not to be reminded of the sorrows of our homeland when you are there. This time, however, I had a partial access to a conference on relations between India and Pakistan.
This experience may underline the perception of being under siege – between the conflagration that has recently commenced on our eastern borders and the presently dormant but potentially problematical conflicts along our western borders. And now that I have returned to Pakistan after an absence of just over two weeks, the focus is very much on what lies within our uneasy borders. A topical issue is the performance of the present government in its first one hundred days.

It is now an established tradition to judge the performance of a new government in the first one hundred days of its existence. That is why governments that come into office make promises of what their agenda would be during this period. Yes, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had done the same in his inaugural speech in the National Assembly. One hundred, obviously, is a good measure of time in our existence. So what has this government achieved in its first hundred years?

But let me begin with Berlin and the bearing that my visit of five days had on my understanding of the new great game that is being played along our rugged frontier with Afghanistan. I was a member of a delegation from Afghanistan and Pakistan invited to Berlin by Friedrich Ebert Foundation to study the role of Germany in supporting democratic development and stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In essence, it was an occasion to look at the developing situation in the tribal areas and also in the two countries against the backdrop of the role that the western countries are playing.

There were a number of very insightful and occasionally argumentative discussions with senior officials of the German foreign office and with diplomatic representatives of western countries. At about the same time that we left for Berlin, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made that threat to send Afghan troops across the border to fight militants in Pakistan. It naturally became a point of departure in our deliberations. The Taliban remained a constant topic of debate and it was interesting to see that we, in the delegation, had our different and even adversarial views on who they are and what they mean to do.

As I have suggested, intensive discussions about Pak-Afghan relations and the troubled state of the tribal belt could be a distraction in a faraway place like Berlin. Yet, Berlin provides an ideal stage to contemplate large issues of history. The last time I was in (West) Berlin, the Wall was still there and there was an exhibition in the Reichstag titled ‘Lessons of History’. The Germans have made a very conscious and rigorous attempt to come to terms with their Nazi past.

As an aside, I must admit that Berlin was far beyond my expectations. On the day that I took my flight to London, there was an article in The New York Times that argued that Berlin is the most cultured and lively city in Europe. A real bonus was the youthful and a little rowdy celebration that we witnessed on two nights when Germany won its two football matches in Euro 2008 tournament. There was also a grand show of Turkish presence in the city when Turkey won its match on our last evening in the city. Incidentally, I was in London when Spain beat Germany in the final and the Spanish tourists made their victory march in the centre of the city around midnight.

London, of course, is a familiar feast. One gets to meet some old friends, though these encounters are loaded with nostalgia as well as lament about the current state of affairs back home. I was in London when Tehelka staged its two-day India-Pakistan summit on “designing a new future”. In addition to the ‘usual suspects’ who spoke in the summit’s various sessions, there was a large gathering of Indians and Pakistanis and this allowed, on the sidelines, a lively discourse on the ambiguities and irrationalities of relations between India and Pakistan.

Considering our historical linkages with Britain, London should be seen to provide an appropriate setting to look at what our two countries have made of their freedom. But it is also a fact that meeting in New Delhi or Lahore, the two cities being within driving distance, would be more problematic. In recent years, the peace activists of India and Pakistan have frequently been meeting in Dhaka, Kathmandu, and Colombo. One interesting feature of the Tehelka initiative was that in spite of vociferous assertions of love and goodwill for each other, there were occasional spurts of bitterness and distrust, particularly on the issue of Kashmir.

Anyhow, I spent more than a week in London but when I landed in Karachi a little before dawn on Thursday, I could feel the raw winds blowing. It soon became evident that the overall situation had worsened. Everyone I spoke to was in a dark mood. One can imagine the impact of constantly rising prices and an increasing evidence of disorder at various levels of society. But the depression I encountered was not entirely about these somewhat tangible factors. What worries even the well-wishers of the present government is its apparent lack of a sense of direction.

This drift has a lot to do with the inability of the Pakistan People’s Party to quickly honour its pledge to restore the judges. This has undermined the moral and constitutional basis of the present arrangement. And it has weakened the capacity of the government to deal effectively with other issues. Meanwhile, there are doubts in some minds that the present crises may lead to utterly unsavoury consequences – including the restoration of Pervez Musharraf. He surfaced in Karachi on Friday evening at a carefully staged dinner by the business community.

I was in London when I read that report of a survey conducted by Foreign Policy magazine and Fund for Peace, a research organisation. On the basis of 12 social, economic, political and military indicators to measure the vulnerability of various countries to violent internal conflict and the deterioration of their civil society, the survey found Pakistan among the ten most dysfunctional nations. In fact, it is on number nine. Afghanistan is number seven. Can the Taliban erase this difference in the ranking of the two countries?

The writer is a staff member.
Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

The News, 6/7/2008

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