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Daily Times Editorials – 22th March 2016

Afghan refugees in limbo

It will be no exaggeration to suggest that the decade-long Soviet-Afghan war, which started in 1979, has had a lasting impact on global geopolitics. Pakistan’s face, for instance, has forever been changed as a direct consequence of the intermingling of Islam, violence and politics in that war. With the aid of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan funded, trained and propped up ideological Afghan mujahedeen to push back the invading communist forces. But it is a matter of public knowledge that these mujahedeen went on to become the Afghan Taliban, who perhaps is the most brutal legacy of the Afghan War. Within Pakistan, the war has had a seismic impact as well. The famously porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan became ever more blurred during the war, with hordes of weaponry, drugs, money and ideology entering Pakistan and feeding rising religious extremism and sectarianism. Pakistan’s variant of the Taliban also has its roots in the frontier seminaries that were the training grounds for the mujahedeen. In other words, the Pakistani state has dropped the ball on multiple fronts because of its shortsighted interventionist policies enacted in the pursuit of ‘strategic depth’, and ever since 1979 the people of both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been paying the price.

Perhaps one of the biggest human tragedies in the years since the start of the war has been the plight of the uprooted Afghan people. Since 1979, Afghanistan has been embroiled in a permanent state of conflict: the Soviet-Afghan War was followed by a civil war, which was followed by the conquest and brutal five-year rule of the Taliban, which was then followed by the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Due to this constant warfare and resultant destruction, millions of Afghans have flocked into Pakistan as war refugees. As early as 1988, at least three million Afghan refugees were housed in camps near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; the number has only increased since then, officially making Pakistan one of the largest hosts of refugees in the world. But while during the heady days of Soviet-Afghan War Pakistan was a willing host and wanted to project the image of a helpful and compassionate neighbour, the matter was imagined to be, handled as if, temporary. But given the now-permanent nature of conflict in Afghanistan, not many of the refugees are willing to be repatriated. There was no infrastructure or policy in place to handle this many people in the long run, and even now, more than three decades later, no attention has been paid to addressing this crisis in a manner consistent with humanitarianism. There has been no emphasis on rehabilitating these war-affected people nor have any efforts been made to integrate the Afghan refugees into society. There have been generations of Afghans born and raised in Pakistan who know no other country, but are treated as pariahs and never allowed to feel like a part of Pakistan.

Due to not having citizenship, they cannot avail any form of formal services, such as healthcare or education, which require an official identification. Law enforcement agencies are frequently accused of caricaturing and mistreating Afghans as fundamentally criminal. Even if Afghans, for political reasons mainly, cannot be awarded citizenship despite living here for decades, they can be issued refugee cards that can grant them certain forms of legal rights and protections. Conversely, it also makes it easier for the state to monitor and regulate the refugees. Certainly, it is true that unregistered Afghans living in an increasingly hostile country will be prone to crimes; but the rate of crime among registered Afghan refugees is remarkably low and lends urgency to the drive to register. However, a recent report indicates that only about 1.45 million Afghan refugees are officially registered with government and have identifications to prove that, which means that there are at least two million Afghan refugees who have no form of identity and thus exist in a legal black hole. Even though back in August, the finance ministry released Rs. 170 million for the registration of millions of Afghan refugees in the country, the interior ministry seems to be unconcerned about pursuing this goal. The interior ministry needs to wake up and take up its responsibility because this matter needs to be treated with the urgency it deserves.

The trial of Musharraf

The latest round of rallies held by the Pakistan People’s Party in protest over the ‘departure’ of General (Retd.) Pervez Sharif from Pakistan is a reflection of the state of affairs of the fragile structure of democracy in Pakistan. The hullabaloo in media and the loud protestations of various political parties indicate the need to keep one issue in limelight highlighting the obvious while conveniently turning away from the deeper malaise: lack of accountability in Pakistan. Whether it is a ‘secret deal’ brokered between government and army, whether it is pressure of the khakis on the civilians, whether it is the judiciary’s show of contrived compassion for a retired chief of the army staff, or whether it is a genuine case of a Pakistani citizen making a trip to a foreign land for medical purposes, there are as many conjectures as there are conspiracy theories. To the ordinary citizens of Pakistan, the situation is all too familiar to lose any sleep over for too long.

While political victimisation is a prominent part of the political dynamic of Pakistan, the stark lack of transparency and accountability has delineated a structure that thrives on an environment in which there is an absence of checks and balances. One civilian government after the other, after being voted on a promise of changing Pakistan, perpetuates a system of weak governance, little or no effort to strengthen institutions, self-serving agendas, blatant nepotism, unchecked corruption, and immunity. And as a self-prescribed antidote to that, ostensibly in sync with the wishes of the people, the almost three decades of military rule, in negation of the sanctity of the democratic model of government, ended up in disempowerment of the institutions they set out to stabilise. The entire system is rotten, and no amount of cosmetic overtures would ensure the establishment of mechanism of proper accountability in Pakistan.

Military rulers have had immense popularity in Pakistan, even the support of many political parties who profess to be democratic in spirit. The case of treason on Musharraf would have had resonance if all military dictators — even posthumously — are put on trial. The protests of political parties would have had substance if their leaders have not, at one point or the other, chosen forced or voluntary exile from Pakistan to escape judicial trials. Other than more than 11 years of the incarcerations of Asif Zardari — which produced no proof to convict him of any crime he was accused of — and politically-motivated jailing of various leaders — from Benazir Bhutto to Nawaz Sharif — most Pakistani leaders have been ‘guilty’ of leaving Pakistan when judicial trials loomed on their heads. Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, Altaf Hussain, Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari and Pervez Musharraf… the list has the most famous names of Pakistan’s power elite. And while it would be a great service to Pakistan if the powerful are treated like the ordinary, facing the reality of accountability, trials and jail, it would be not be fallacious to say that in the present set-up of governmental shortsightedness and moral dithering, and military’s apparent hegemony this idea seems utopian.

Energy crisis

Finally, government has diverted its attention to the actual area of concern. It has announced that out of the 46-billion dollar Chinese investment under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a total of 36 billion dollars will be spent exclusively on ending the shortfall of electricity. It is a fact that an endemic energy crisis, blamed on years of mismanagement, is crippling the economy and making lives of millions of people miserable. There is a gap in demand and supply. Our power generation mostly relies on thermal power plants that produce almost 65 percent electricity. But the cost of this electricity is very high because thermal power plants are run on furnace and diesel oil. Government is working on a number of projects, including coal-based, hydropower and solar, across the country with Chinese assistance. It is long-awaited news that work is underway on these energy projects. At the same time, focus should be made on improving the existing power infrastructure in the country.

So far the performance of the present government seems worse in the energy sector compared to previous regimes. Reportedly, Federal Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif has confessed his government’s failure and inability to resolve the energy crisis until 2018. Amid long hours of load-shedding, there seems no end in sight to the crippling energy woes. The PML-N government is busy making tall claims about its performance in the energy sector, however, there is a lack of clarity in these claims. When the PML-N campaigned for the general elections 2013, it made tall claims of ridding the nation of electricity shortages within days, then weeks, then months. Later, this was extended to six months, two years, and lastly, till the end of its tenure. The energy crisis is the result of the wrong policies of the Musharraf regime that did not add a single megawatt of electricity in its nine-year existence. The PML-N government has inherited the crisis but the way it has been handling the situation, there is no hope that the nation will hear any good news any time soon. In fact the PML-N government has completely failed to understand the severity of the energy crisis and has been attempting to befool the country with false claims. In this scenario, Khawaja Asif deserves appreciation for having spoken the truth. Instead of issuing contradictory statements, government should present the real picture of the crisis. It should realistically describe the extent of the crisis and then present its strategy on how to deal with the problem. Electricity crisis will not go away till government comes up with a clear mind and strategy to deal with the challenge. Long term planning and its proper implementation are what the government has failed to do. Instead of pursuing half-baked ideas and projects, government should take stock of all the pros and cons and roadblocks of every initiative.

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