Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is reeling after it became the latest major European city to be targeted by terrorists affiliated with the jihadist Islamic State (IS). More than 30 people were killed, and dozens injured, as a result of two separate attacks in Brussels. The first attack targeted the main hall of the city’s international Zaventem Airport, with twin blasts killing at least 11 people. The second attack occurred an hour later and targeted one of the city’s main metro stations, taking lives of more than 20 people and critically injuring several others. The timing of the attack is even more alarming, as it was preceded by the dramatic arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the prime suspect in the Paris terror attacks that killed 130 people in November, in Brussels after four months on the run. The ghastly attack in Paris was also masterminded by the IS, and many security experts and analysts suspect this latest attack is a worryingly prompt response to the arrest of the Abdeslam by the terrorist group. Belgium’s officials have identified two of the suicide bombers as brothers Khalid and Brahim el-Bakraoui, both of them Belgian nationals. The two brothers were already known to the police and were being sought in connection with the November 2015 Paris attacks. Two other attackers, visible in a widely circulated airport CCTV image, are still unidentified, with one of them still believed to be alive and on the run. Consequent to the bombings, Belgium is on the highest level of security lockdown, and government has announced three-day mourning. Globally, the response has been to swiftly condemn the brutality of the attacks as leaders worldwide have expressed solidarity with the beleaguered Belgian state. The IS, however, has threatened even more attacks, warning that “what is coming is worse and more bitter.”
The horrific attacks are another reminder of the boundless cruelty and far-reaching jihadist menace of the self-styled IS. Such attacks on innocent lives anywhere in the world are utterly devastating and words remain insufficient to condemn these ghastly acts. The IS and its ideology represent an existential threat to the forward march of civilisation and the highly strategic targeting of vulnerable, everyday spaces viciously underscore the intent of the group. That the attackers were Belgian nationals is not insignificant, as it reveals a key part of the danger represented by the IS: its seduction of Muslim diaspora in western countries. The toxic appeal and the diffused, internationalised makeup of the organisation exponentially magnify its effectiveness and capacity to proliferate and escape the gaze of the authorities.
Brussels is no ordinary capital city, as, in addition to being the centre of Belgium’s own government, it is also home to the headquarters of the European Union (EU), NATO and various other international agencies. But for such an internationally significant city, it has been wrestling with a growing problem of strengthening jihadist cells and networks for many years without reprieve. Just as an example, many of the Paris attackers were based in Brussels. Therefore, these bombings can be read as a culmination of years of intelligence failures and policing inefficiencies, as they could not have been possible without intensive logistical support and months of planning. After the Paris attacks, it was repeatedly pointed out that the EU as a whole lacked a coherent intelligence-sharing mechanism. The problem is a familiar one for the Pakistani audience: intelligence agencies, even when belonging to the same country, loathe sharing their information, jealously guarding their sources. This results in an information vacuum that greatly benefits terrorists, who are able to effectively cooperate irrespective of borders.
The attack also highlights another systemic problem: the staggering failure of EU policies to integrate its minority population, whose members remain on the margins, feeling unwelcome and hence prone to radicalisation. Serious efforts need to be undertaken to counter the appeal of the reprehensible IS to ensure disenfranchised youth do not fall prey to its magnetic propaganda. Unfortunately, in the wake of such devastation, emotions run high, and acts of blind retaliation and borderline fascist governmental policies take shape. The issue of refugees is being conveniently used by the right wing forces of bigotry as a scapegoat for this attack and such rhetoric will play right into the hands of the IS and its affiliates. Western countries have a careful and crucial balance to maintain: they need to streamline, coordinate and bolster their surveillance and intelligence capacities while simultaneously taking a tactful approach that embraces the minorities and prevents the seeds of radicalisation from taking root. Condemnation of terrorism must be categorical, sans any ifs and buts. And accepting that there is no justification for any act of terrorism under any pretext, the reality is stark: if complacency and hatred are allowed to triumph, there will only be more doom and gloom.
Obama in Cuba
President Barack Obama’s historic two-day trip to Cuba is not only considered significant for being the first by a serving US President in 88 years, but also because it marks a long overdue, groundbreaking, diplomacy move expected from his presidency. Even before the Air Force One touched down in Havana on Sunday, Obama called out to his Cuban hosts on twitter, using an informal indigenous greeting: “Que bolá Cuba?” (What’s up?), radiating feel-good energy about the exchange between two long estranged neighbours. The vigour with which Obama and the First Family are interacting with the public elements of the island life marks a shift in U.S. foreign policy, which, according to analysts, consists of replacing old alliances with new friendships. If this week proves fruitful for Obama diplomacy, the president would finally materialise the pledge he took in the election campaign of 2008: adopt a ‘new strategy’ with Cuba.
Political pundits have always discussed Cuba as a thorny constant in U.S. foreign policy in the last five decades. Over the years, the U.S. has kept its southern neighbour at bay, slashing its economy with trade sanctions and travel barriers. Nevertheless, the present Obama regime is being simultaneously criticised and applauded by Americans for engineering closer ties with Cuba. Last month, both countries joined hands to reboot their commercial air traffic. The diplomatic shifts have also been marked by the official inauguration of US embassy in Cuba as well as the White House press release announcing a closure of Guantanamo Bay detention facility in near future.
However, this changing US-Cuba dynamic signifies much more than the establishment of friendly borders. It validates that Obama has finally realised the failure of the long-validated U.S. policy of containment, a souvenir of the Cold War. This policy of trade embargoes has neither achieved its desired effects nor assisted the U.S. in gaining a wider set of allies, particularly in Latin America. If succeeded, Obama’s reforms will ensure economic ties between the two countries, bringing prosperity in terms of foreign investment. Agriculture sector in the U.S. is salivating at the prospect of gaining access to rich Cuban resources. Meanwhile, U.S. businesses may also be highly allured to the tourism sector in Cuba, growing in manifolds since the last decade.
Nonetheless, critics have already started positing Obama’s nonchalance towards Cuba’s dismal human rights situation in order to achieve his own political agenda. Millions of Cubans struggling under the oppressive communist regime of Raul Castro had high hopes attached to the U.S. presidential trip. Anti-Castro protesters were hoping Obama would demand immediate improvements in human rights. However, instead of voicing their plight in his exchange with Castro, Obama has merely agreed to meet Cuban dissidents before ending his trip on Tuesday.
The real significance of this trip lies in U.S. moving further away from its Cold-War era, for which Obama should be greatly applauded. Whether his overture will be successful or not, that would require Cuba’s assistance. It is high time Cuban revolution bore fruit by overthrowing the communist regime. This change can only be brought by Cubans themselves, and not architected by any U.S. agency. What can be expected from US government, meanwhile, is a similar application of reengagement with their other former foes. A presidential visit to Tehran, for example, can be one such initiative that still needs to be partaken. But, for now, there should be affirmation of the fact that the bald eagle has finally decided to befriend the Cuban trogon.
PIA Privatisation Bill
Government is facing stiff resistance from the Opposition regarding the passage of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Privatisation Bill in parliament. Government, after facing defeat in the Senate, had proposed in the National Assembly through a motion to refer Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (Conversion) bill, 2016, to a joint sitting for consideration. However, the opposition is giving tough time to government that has made it difficult for the treasury to get the bill passed. There are certain concerns not only of the opposition but also the employees of PIA regarding the privatisation of PIA. Government cannot take a solo flight over the issue due to a possible backlash in the next general elections. It has to take the Opposition into confidence in order to go ahead with its plans of privatising the national flag carrier. On March 22, the government deferred tabling the controversial PIA sell-off bill in the joint parliament session for three weeks while forming a 10-member committee to convince the Opposition on its proposal.
PIA has become a white elephant due to the poor policies of successive regimes in handling the affairs of this national organisation. There are certain factors that have brought PIA on the verge of collapse. It has been learnt that PIA has been running into deficit for the last 16 years as its yearly deficit is over Rs. 20 billion. It is argued that PIA is overstaffed and a large number of appointments have been made on a political basis in the last few years. Other reasons include a lack of professional management and the appointment of political cronies on key posts. PIA was also under loss due to the purchase of ageing fleet that caused safety and maintenance problems while PIA had to make heavy payments against the induction of new aircraft on a long lease.
There should be a rational approach to rectify those faults that PIA has been facing now. It has become a globally-accepted notion that large organisations can only be run successfully under professional management. A retrenchment of unnecessary employees should be done by retaining only those who have proven merit and are an asset for PIA. The employee per flight ratio should be similar to other successful airlines. Government needs to abandon the policy of absorbing its supporters into public sector organisations in violation of merit-based inductions. Solid plans need to be implemented to make PIA a profitable organisation while addressing all genuine concerns of stakeholders. The Opposition should not oppose the bill for the sake of opposition; rather all pros and cons need to be reviewed for finalising the passage of the bill. If the problem can be rectified through consultation, the Opposition must support the government in finding out a logical solution to the issue of PIA’s privatisation.