Fixing The Ship Without Sinking It

Syed Yahya HussainyPakistan is not the only country in the world where corruption takes place, but it does seem to be one of the few countries where the approach to reducing corruption actually feeds its existence. While corruption should never be tolerated or excused, we should be asking whether this seeming obsession with corruption in the public discourse is standing in the way of effective solutions. As they say, we should not let perfection be the enemy of good.

The Los Angeles Times reported over the weekend that Adil Gilani, the head of Transparency International’s (TI) office in Karachi, has been threatened by some officials for his work in rooting out corruption. The same day, however, Pakistani daily The News International reported that misunderstandings between TI and the government had been resolved and the two were now working together on joint efforts.

So, what’s the real story about corruption in Pakistan?

As it turns out, corruption is more complex an issue that is often admitted. Part of the problem, as reported by Transparency International, is political instability. This should come as no surprise. Pakistani politicians tend to have a short shelf-life. With a political history that includes more coups than elections, political leaders have a perverse incentive to stash away public funds to ensure their own survival.

But Pakistan is not the only country that has elected one or two crooks in its time. Neighboring India continues to struggle with corruption. In fact, a recent report by the watchdog group Global Financial Integrity found that India has lost more than $462 billion due to tax evasion, crime and corruption. And even that estimate is possibly quite low. Some estimates put the amount of money siphoned off India’s ecnoomy in the trillions. Additionally, The Wall Street Journal this week reported on leaked recordings of phone calls between an Indian lobbyist and her political contacts that has shaken Delhi.

And corruption is not a South Asian export, either. Rest assured, the Americans are in on the game as well.

In recent weeks the powerful American Congressman Charlie Rangel was found guilty of 11 counts of ethical violations including “failure to pay some taxes, improper solicitation of charitable donations and failure to accurately report his personal income” and former Vice President Dick Cheney faces accusations in a bribery scandal in Nigeria.

Though corruption is present in both India and the US, the solution for the problem in these countries is discussed differently than in Pakistan. Rather than supporting transparency and establishing processes that help prevent corruption by making it too risky, discussion in Pakistan focuses on vague and unsubstantiated accusations by political opponents and a sensational media. Corruption often overtakes discussion of terrorism, development, and education in the popular discourse. As a result, these problems continue unaddressed. Simply put, it’s easier to score political points by accusing your opponent of corruption than it is to produce innovative solutions for the deeper problems that Pakistan faces.

Worse, however, are the perennial threats of coup against every seated government, regardless of whether or not it was genuinely democratically elected. Earlier this year, for example, the head of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) political party, Altaf Hussain, publicly called for the military to “take any martial law-type action against corruption politicians”. While this statement was widely condemned, many observed that it was the natural result of a perceived campaign to unseat the democratically elected government by some sections of Pakistan’s media.

Everyone has disavowed the old reflex of trying to get rid of the government mid-tenure. But if you look at the political landscape of Pakistan you will clearly see that there is a media campaign to do just that to the PPP government. Criticism of the government is a duty that a free media must perform, even of problems like the PIA, of load-shedding and rental units, and the wheat and sugar crises, that have a history in the past. But defaming the president of the country so blithely is not a good precedent to set, especially by comparing him to a president recently deposed in Latin America for corruption.

Ironically, many of the journalists involved in this campaign support opposition political leader Nawaz Sharif – himself removed from power in 1999 by a military coup rationalized by claims of weeding out corruption. At the end of the day, the political discussion of corruption in Pakistan has less to do with corruption than with politics.

No one believes corruption should be tolerated, and no one believes that the rich and powerful should be allowed to use the nation as their personal bank account. But eliminating corruption in Pakistan must be approached with reason and patience. If opposition politicians or journalists have evidence that exposes corruption, by all means that should be presented to the public. But using the issue of corruption as a political strategy risks undoing not just the present government, but democracy as a whole. This would do nothing to eliminate corruption, while doing irreparable damage to country’s democratic progress. Removing a ship’s hull to fix a leak mid-voyage only threatens to exacerbate the problem and ultimately sink the ship.

Wikileaks Actually Shows US-Pakistan Relations Are Strong

Syed Yahya HussainyThe past few days we have witnessed a lot of panic about the state of US-Pakistan relations following the release of secret diplomatic cables by the website Wikileaks. In Pakistan, right-wing conspiracy theorists see the documents as proof of a secret plan to seize the nation’s nuclear assets; their counterparts on the American right-wing see the documents as proof that Pakistan is secretly working with terrorist militants. Actually, though, the documents tell a very different story – one in which US-Pakistan relations are stronger than ever before.

The infamous Julian Assange of the website Wikileaks earned his first taste of fame when he posted on the Internet a secret military video that appears to show US soldiers shooting down innocent, unarmed men in Iraq in 2007. The release of the video was a thorn in the side of the American government which certainly did not want any more bad publicity for its actions in Iraq, but it was defended by human rights supporters and many in the world community for exposing a cover-up and holding the American military accountable for its actions.

Mr. Assange seems to have delighted in the attention that followed, and he has since orchestrated massive dumps of secret documents smuggled out of American government offices. What he hoped to achieve with this latest release is unclear – there is no claim of any specific wrongdoing by the American diplomatic corps. Rather, it seems Mr. Assange simply enjoys his time in the lime light.

If he hoped to embarrass American or other leaders, Julian Assange probably failed. Secretary Clinton was told by a foreign counterpart, “Don’t worry about it. You should see what we say about you.” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the release of diplomatic cables “irresponsible”. But everyone seems to agree that what has been revealed is fairly well known to those who closely follow world affairs.

That’s not to say that it hasn’t strained relationships, it has – but not for the reasons we like to think. South Asia Advisor for the United States Institute of Peace Moeed Yusuf, quoted on the blog CHUP! – Changing Up Pakistan says that what is revealed by the cables is nothing particularly new, but warns:

…that is not how it will be presented to the man on the street in Pakistan. This will likely fuel even more conspiracy theories in the country.

And that it has. Pakistani newspaper The Nation, prone to anti-Americanism and wild conspiracy theories, claims that the cables confirm their own paranoia:

The disclosures of the US attempt to remove highly enriched uranium from the Pakistani reactor confirm the suspicions of certain political circles in Pakistan that the US has an eye on our nuclear assets, and while doing everything it can to strengthen India, defence-wise and economically, at the same time, it wants to enfeeble Pakistan. That would not only fulfil (sic) the hegemonic designs of India in the region and “solve” the Kashmir dispute, the bone of contention between the two, but also help promote the US strategic ambitions vis-à-vis China. Once Beijing’s fast friend in the subcontinent is rendered powerless in the political game and its adversary emboldened with renewed strength, New Delhi would have no reservations, at least that is the assumption of policymakers in Washington, in making a bold bid to scuttle the Chinese relentless rise to global prominence.

But what did we really learn from the Wikileaked cables? We learned that US-Pakistani relations are fragile and clouded by mutual suspicion and frustration, but each side is working tirelessly to find common ground and to improve trust and cooperation. We learned that the Pakistani military leadership is a powerful political force in a country with a weak civilian government, but is refusing calls by some opposition leaders to step in and is supporting the democratic process as it takes root.

Even on the issue of old uranium stockpiles in Pakistan, what we learned is that there were talks going on to determine the best way to ensure that terrorists don’t have access to nuclear material while protecting Pakistan’s rights and national interests.

We also learned, however, that Mr. Moeed Yusuf knows what he’s talking about. A primary concern in the talks was how any cooperation would be treated by the media.

In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”

Pakistan has a strong and robust defense capability, including a powerful nuclear deterrent larger even that India’s. Transferring some uranium that has been stored next to an old research reactor for years is an awfully strange way of neutering Pakistan’s nuclear capability. Actually, what this entire issue demonstrates is that a major obstacle to improved US-Pakistan relations is the media hysteria that is inevitably invented by journalists more interested in personal fame than the public good.

It is instructive to learn from the Wikileaks documents that despite fears and concerns about Pakistan’s ties to militant groups, however unfounded those fears may be, the Americans have turned a new leaf and are legitimately dedicated to supporting democratic process and not repeating old mistakes by supporting a military coup. Pakistanis are devoted to seeing their nation succeed despite the challenges they face. It turns out, the Americans are, too.

Likewise, the Wikileaks documents clearly depict that most of Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders are willing to look beyond America’s foreign policy follies of the past, and interact with their American counterparts as friends and colleagues. Dedicated to promoting the interests of Pakistan, they deal with the Americans just as any businessmen approach a mutually beneficial transaction.

Unfortunately, the cables also suggest that some political figures such as opposition leader Nawaz Sharif play to populist anti-Americanism in public while making quite different overtures to American officials when they think no one is listening. If Wikileaks has taught us anything, its that we need less duplicity and more honesty from our leaders.

Diplomacy is not handled on the front page of newspapers or by TV talk show hosts, and sensitive issues between nations are not decided on Internet message boards. The men and women who serve their respective nations in Embassies and foreign offices around the world are working tirelessly to represent their nation’s interests in the context of an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global community. With regards to US-Pakistan relations, the lesson from the latest Wikileaks documents is that the two nations are desperately trying to overcome their mutual concerns to find common ground and work together to make the world a safer, more prosperous place. Rather than turning up our noses at the process, we should be applauding.

Published in Huffington Post on 2 December 2010

Pakistan Taking the Wrong Lessons From American Politics

Syed Yahya HussainyAs a young democracy, Pakistan looks to the United States and other advanced democracies for lessons in how to play politics. Some of these, including the move to open and transparent elections, have been positive. But there are signs that some of the uglier parts of American politics are influencing a polarization in Pakistan’s politics as well.

The National Accountability Bureau is a government agency that deals with corruption. As with any corruption watchdog, the agency has not been without controversy. But the present controversy surrounding the agency has nothing to do with any action taken or not, but with the appointment of retired Justice Deedar Hussain Shah as the new agency chief.

At issue is whether or not Mr Shah can be truly impartial given his past as a parliamentarian with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a concern raised by the leadership of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) party.

In response to the appointment, Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif (PML-N) is threatening a “long march” protest against the government. This despite the fact that the PML-N leadership has in the past praised Justice Shah for his professionalism and impartiality in the courtroom. While newspapers are calling this latest threat “absurd,” it does raise important questions about the polarization of politics in a nation that is only just beginning to find its footing on the path of democracy.

While many judges in Pakistan feign political neutrality, loyalties do exist and are fairly easy to identify. That does not mean that judges with a personal inclination towards one political party or another cannot be trusted, but it is interesting to see who is considered controversial and who is not.

Khwaja Sharif, Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, is not seen as problematic despite his open activism for the PML-N. Justice Sharif wrote a book, Nests Built On a Weak Branch, that includes tales of his traveling to London to meet with Shahbaz Sharif where he encouraged the PML-N leader to campaign against the PPP government. According to the Lahore High Court Chief Justice, Shahbaz Sharif treated him to a lavish meal and offered him money, which he declined.

Nor is Khwaja Sharif the only PML-N stalwart to be appointed to a court without controversy. Khalil ur Rehman Ramday — a former Deputy Advocate General of Punjab whose brother is a three-time Member of the National Assembly under the PML-N banner — was appointed to the Supreme Court in February of this year and is considered by many to be an independent arbiter, able to set aside his political preferences when decided matters of law.

Today, however, Shahbaz Sharif is singing a different tune when it comes to the newly appointed head of the National Accountability Bureau, Deedar Hussain Shah. Admitting that he has “no personal grudge” against the retired Justice, Shahbaz Sharif continues to suggest that because Mr Shah has supported the PPP in the past, he cannot be trusted to serve with impartiality.

Shahbaz Sharif may remember the corruption case against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari that was dismissed after the disclosure of taped conversations revealing that the PML-N leadership had pressured then-Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum to issue a conviction for political reasons. Facing trial for professional misconduct, Justice Qayyum resigned from the court. Still, the PPP government has not called for the resignation of either Khwaja Sharif or Khalil ur Rehman Ramday.

So why is this faith in impartiality reserved only for Pakistan Muslim League supporters?

Sadly, a whiff of provincial chauvinism sours the air surrounding this debate. Much as some American politicians refer to Midwesterners as “real Americans,” playing up stereotypes of effete “limousine liberals” in the nations coastal cites, too often there is a sense that politicians and media elites from Lahore and Karachi view those from Sindh and other provinces with a slight disdain, as if they were not serious people meant to run the country.

The PPP, being predominant in Sindh, bears the brunt of this chauvinism, which often surfces in subtle ways such as media reactions to President Asif Zardari’s wearing a Sindhi-style cap, or the way that accusations of corruption seem to follow Zardari despite his never having been convicted of any charges. Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) may own millions of dollars in real estate in London and only pay a few thousand Rupees in income taxes, but it is the Sindhi politician who is assumed to be corrupt.

But such chauvinism becomes much more than merely personally destructive when it threatens to close the doors to participation for anyone simply because of their ethnic or political backgrounds. In order for democracy to flourish and the country to move forward, we must overcome these petty prejudices and recognize that just as Justice Ramday can be trusted to serve on the Supreme Court, so too can Deedar Shah oversee the National Accountability Bureau with impartiality.

Whether Punjabi, Sindhi, Baloch or any other ethnicity, we are all Pakistani, and we all have the best interests of the nation at heart. We must learn to trust one another, to judge each other based on our individual actions, not where we were born or what political party we belong to. We have all sacrificed too much, overcome too many hardships to let our own personal prejudices keep us from achieving our dream of a strong, prosperous and united Pakistan.

Prioritizing National Interests

With the recent buzz about Aafia Siddiqui’s case, one is forced to wonder what our priorities are when it comes to national interests. It is only logical to assume that floods, terrorism, educational and healthcare infrastructure along with political and economical security for the nation are a definite priority for us. These require the undivided attention and focus of our government.

John Wooden a hall of famer athlete and a coach said “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

What we can do at the moment is work towards factors that can actually be worked upon. Pakistan continues to reel from devastating floods that have resulted in thousands of deaths, decimated its economy and left much of its population homeless and vulnerable. Pakistani floods had been met with less publicity and fewer calls to action than the Indian Ocean tsunami, Kashmir floods and Haiti earthquake, despite the UN’s estimation that the number of people affected is higher than the three disasters combined. The United Nations and the United States, along with other countries and organizations, have pledged millions of dollars for the relief effort, but much more aid is needed.

Our country’s economy has suffered a major setback. We were already under large debts and now funds will have to be poured into efforts for reconstruction. Different sectors of the economy, especially agriculture, will bear losses for a long time to come. So far, the floods have covered a fifth of the country, destroyed roads, demolished schools and bridges of all scales, damaged the country’s power stations, wreaked havoc on our dams and swamped millions of acres of agricultural land. Crops have been destroyed and millions of diseases are likely to follow once the water completely recedes.

Terrorism is also a major concern that needs immediate attention. The future of Pakistan’s role in the war against terrorism is dependent on its political and economic ties with the US. Pakistan is an integral part of global war on terrorism and is not only defending itself, but also protecting the entire world form the catastrophe of terrorism and extremism. We need a strategic partnership with the rest of the world to foster peace and stability in the region, promote economic stability and address energy needs.

Marian Wright Edelman, an America activist emphasized on the fact that the challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place. We are an impoverished and underdeveloped country, and have suffered from decades of internal political disputes and low levels of foreign investment with some of our other long term challenges including expanding investment in education, healthcare, electricity production, reducing dependence on foreign donors, political tensions both internal and external, and an economy trapped in a cycle of debt. At this point in time, is it really a logical decision to get ourselves caught up in Dr. Aafia Siddiquis case?

Plight of Karachi

Syed Yahya Husainyby Syed Yahya Husainy

We are living in an increasingly contentious political climate fueled by partisan gridlock, negative campaigns, and huge trust deficit contributed by a largely biased media. Promotion of civility in everyday life is a much needed virtue. It is not just an important psychological but also a political factor. With all the street violence and blame game being played for the lawlessness in Karachi, let us not forget that civility lies at the root of true democracy. The legacy of Dr. Imran Farooq should be honored by respecting the same democratic process which he was an advocate of, not by killing people or setting buildings and vehicles on fire.

On the end of the “combat mission” in Iraq, American President Barack Obama said,

“It’s well known that he and I disagreed about the war from its outset, yet no one could doubt President Bush’s support for our troops or his love of country and commitment to our security”.

President Obama’s choice of words was very respectful towards former President George W. Bush, even though he disagreed with the former president over the Iraq war issue (among many other things), making this an excellent example of being civil in a democratic environment.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah in his letter on Gandhis death stated:

“Whatever our political differences, he was one of the greatest men produced by the Hindu community, and a leader who commanded their universal confidence and respect…”

Jinnah and Gandhi were contemporaries, colleagues and archrivals. However, despite the propaganda, Jinnah and Gandhi’s relationship was based on mutual admiration and friendship.

Why is it that lately when we disagree, we treat each other as enemies and let blind hatred get the best of us? Why can’t we respect others opinions and not attack individuals – only their ideas?

When a friend recently set off to buy a handgun for his protection, I was forced to think how Karachi has seen its share of better days. With the death of Dr. Imran Farooq – a native of Karachi and one of the founding members of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement – current situation in Karachi has gotten out of hand and it seems that the city has descended once again to its dark ages. Turn on the TV and you see clashes, violence, firing, deaths and everything else unimaginable in the biggest industrialized city of Pakistan. A sad day for Pakistanis and Pakistan!

The situation in Karachi is especially of concern as it is the provincial capital of Sindh, run by a coalition government formed by MQM and the PPP. Before Dr. Farooqs death, tensions between the MQM and PPP were already running high because of the possibility of a large shift in demographics as flood victims from interior Sindh began moving towards Karachi, a largely “Muhajir” populated city.

Respected American Federal Judge Charles W. Pickering once said that, “A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant and respectful.”

If we are to live up to the promise of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, we must to communicate in a more respectful and non-violent manner, giving way to improved public discourse. We all have the ability to display and deliver a positive attitude and this will result in the strengthening of our social fabric and our city becoming an even better place to live in.