November 16, 2009

Pakistan Catch Up

Any hopes Londonstani had that Pakistan would be trouble-free while Ms Henley-on-Thames made a slightly nervous visit didn’t last long… about 7 hours to be exact.

The day Ms HT arrived at Islamabad International Airport, two grenade attacks on schools in Quetta wounded 17 people. Considering that the attack took a relatively minor toll, it seemed a military officer’s statement (as reported by the local press) that Taliban resistance was dying down reflected a bottoming out of Taliban violent capabilities in general.

The average reader might have felt that things are calming down in Pakistan as less reports of horrific attacks made it on the front pages and the hourly bulletins. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. The violence picked up again after the Quetta attack and bomb attacks or near misses have occurred on a near daily basis. The deluge of death and destruction seems to have exhausted the international media. When the same thing happens time after time, its importance for news organisations falls. The BBC website relegated the depressingly similar stories coming out of Peshawar to its "other top stories" subsection of the South Asia section. Reuters wrapped up most of the reports on bomb attacks into stories with a wider political scope. To be fair, even Pakistani media is becoming inured to reports of bombs going off in crowded places.

To give a realistic account of what's been happening in Pakistan, here is a run down:

Nov 8: A suicide bomber killed 15 in Peshawar including the main target - the head of a Lashkar who had formerly been in the Taliban. A spokesman for the group claimed the attack. On the same day, local papers quoting police statements reported that a police "sharpshooter" had killed a suicide bomber on the outskirts of Islamabad. A couple of the newspapers did wonder where a "sharpshooter" suddenly came from, since Islamabadies are used to seeing slightly nervous policemen awkwardly holding AK47s rather than anyone matching the word "sharp".

Nov 9: A suicide bomber killed a policeman and two civilians at police checkpoint in Peshawar.

Nov 10: A suicide bomber in a car killed about 26 and wounded 104 in a market in Charsadda, a town in NWFP about 30 kms from Peshawar. In response Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani said the attacks were likely to continue as "the militants are on the run". Which suggests that "miitants are on the run" whether the frequency of attacks is increasing or decreasing, making them a useless indicator of success. 

Nov 11: No civilian deaths it seems, but the Pakistani army lost seven soldiers to a IED in Mohmand. The interior ministry ordered an enquiry into the shooting of the suspected suicide bomber on Nov 8 after reports his death was an extra judicial killing by police.

Nov 12: Iranian consulate official shot dead in Peshawar

Nov 13: Two suicide car bombs, one at intelligence (ISI) offices in Peshawar and another in Bannu, killed 17 people. The Taliban later admitted the attack.

Nov 14: A suicide car bomb killed 12 people in Peshawar. It seems the bomber was trying to enter a military area but detonated when he was approached by security at a check point. At tabout the same time, the military killed 13 fighters in Swat - yep, that would be the area that's supposed to have been cleaned up.

Nov 15: The authorities announced something of a coup with the arrest of a Taliban leader responsible for Punjab and Islamabad. The figure, who was not identified, was reported as coming from a "Middle Eastern" background. The newspaper reports, citing police sources, said the Taliban commander was probably planning a large-scale attack in the capital and had been monitored as he moved about the Margalla Hills trying to enter the city. It should be noted the hills are practically part of Islamabad, with a number of hiking trails and restaurants.

Nov 16: Four people died today when a suicide car bomber attacked a police station in Peshawar.

The predictable increase in dead bodies was pushed from people's minds (at least editors' minds) by the Seymour Hersh New Yorker story that the United States was talking to the Pakistani military about helping secure the country's nuclear arsenal. Our own AM posted on the topic, wondering about the accuracy of Hersh's reporting. 

Predictably, in Pakistan, Hersh's report carried more baggage than just the burden of accuracy.

The foreign ministry called the story "totally baseless and utterly misleading". The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Tariq Majid said there was "no question" of allowing a foreign power access to "sensitive information about our nuclear assets". The American embassy in Islamabad also denied the story.

The flag-waving "Pakistan right or wrong" element of the media showed through its coverage where exactly the sensitivity lay.

One of the main "right or wrongers" is called Shireen Mazari. In an article entitled "Fantasies, Falsehoods and a Forewarning" she spends much time talking up the competence and professionalism of the Pakistani army and rebutting Hersh's suggestion that extremist elements within the army could seize the nuclear bombs. In a little ironic turn, Mazari sets out to disprove one of Hersh's points that Pakistani nuclear weapons material is kept "de-mated" from triggers and delivery mechanisms in order to provide pause for thought. Mazari reckons Hersh has screwed up as she knows that the weapons are not "de-mated", but only kept on non-hair-trigger readiness. So, thank you to Ms Mazari, if she's correct, for telling any newspaper reading militants that if they do get to the weapons, they just have to flick the on switch rather than assemble the whole thing. Great. That'll show Hersh!

Pakistani sensitivity surrounding nuclear weapons is based around the central position the weapons - or more accurately, building and owning the weapons - occupy in Pakistan's image of itself. To Pakistanis, their country mastered the most technologically advanced science on earth with minimal resources. No one wanted them to have nukes, but they got them anyway. And now they have them - like a kid with a knife on a housing estate - they feel their weapons make the world look on them with a little respect. All this talk of the security of the nukes sounds to Pakistanis like the world is saying "Ok, you got them. But obviously, you aren't sensible enough to keep hold of them. So pass them on to an adult for safe keeping."

No one likes to be told they aren't good enough and questioning the army's ability to guard its pride and joy is about the same as getting a multimedia, television, internet, newspaper and magazine campaign with some viral marketing thrown in that endlessly repeats "You're rubbish Pakistan, and you know you are." In case anyone is thinking Flashman-like thoughts about the "childish underdeveloped brains of the natives", it's worth looking back a month or two to the reaction of the British media when Americans dared to tarnish the image of the NHS, which the same papers pour scorn on regularly themselves.

A useful news feature from AP summed up well the relationship Pakistanis have with their nukes:

"Such reactions — a mix of defensive outrage and fury that their own government might be giving nuclear secrets to Washington — don't surprise people who watch this country.."

"Look here, this is our most important totem pole, our nuclear capability," said opposition lawmaker Ayaz Amir..."

"Pakistan's nuclear weapons program is many things here. It is a sign of Pakistan's technological prowess and it's a point of pride that Pakistan has the Muslim world's only nuclear missiles. It is also, they say, a strategic insurance policy, a way to ensure that Pakistan cannot be obliterated in an atomic firestorm launched by India. At the very least, Pakistan will be able to fire back"

"The New Yorker article, though, insists Washington is — in private — very worried...But inside Pakistan, it is heresy to raise such concerns, and many people can reel off the nuclear safeguards: strict oversight of personnel, physical separation of weapon components, complex locking systems.