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DAWN Editorials – 11th February 2016

After the strike

THE end of the PIA strike is a moment of relief for everyone, not least the government.

The latter might be tempted to think that it has triumphed and crushed the workers’ protest, but such a feeling would be misplaced.

As for the workers, while they demonstrated their ability to bring airline operations to a standstill, they were not able to win significant concessions from the government, at least none that have been made public.

This is not surprising considering they had no exit plan as such, no demands that could be credibly met without having grave ramifications for the larger economy. With no clear road map about what to do afterwards, the workers’ decision to end the strike was not entirely unexpected.

But the strike has also put PIA employees at the centre of a national conversation, a debate about public-sector enterprises and what path forward is best to bring them out of their serious difficulties. On that front the workers can still strike out, if they have the capacity.

The union leadership should now acknowledge that overstaffing is a problem at PIA. It may not be the biggest problem and is certainly not the only one, but it is indeed a challenge, and they should present a viable plan for addressing it.

Simply demanding that the privatisation agenda be abandoned is not going to win them any battles. The government should also resist any temptation to overreach.

Protests by workers of the sort that we have just witnessed have not been seen in Pakistan in many years, and there still exists the possibility of a resurgence. This is a moment to consolidate and negotiate for both parties, and it should be utilised as such.

The entire episode, particularly the tragic deaths, was avoidable and the product of mismanagement by the government, and the government would be making a mistake if it were to start behaving like a conquering army at this stage.

The privatisation agenda outlined by it is an ambitious but delicate affair; it also lies at the heart of the structural reforms that the government is trying to undertake.

The promises made to the workers that their grievances will be given an audience, should be upheld, and both parties should sit down and decide on the path to rationalise the staffing of PIA.

Many amongst the airline’s staff may need to be moved to a surplus pool, and agreements should be in place that the unions will cooperate with the future management in return for a stable and orderly rationalisation of the human resource requirement of PIA.

Both government and the unions need to realise that they are not the primary stakeholders in the airline. It is the customers, and all decisions should prioritise the customer experience.

The matter remains sensitive, and due care should be taken to put the recent disruptions firmly in the past.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2016

Saudi coalition

AS speculation grows over whether Saudi Arabia and its allied states will deploy troops on the ground in Syria, lawmakers have rightly asked the government to explain where Pakistan stands on the matter.

At a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, legislators stated that the government had failed to inform the committee whether Pakistan had joined the ‘anti-terror’ coalition cobbled together by the Saudis.

Also read: Govt’s ‘vague policy’ on Saudi-led coalition worries Senate committee

When asked about the matter, the foreign secretary said details about the coalition “were still not clear”. This opaqueness on such a key foreign policy issue is frankly unsettling.

While the Saudis have said that a possible deployment in Syria would be designed to target the militant Islamic State group, clearly, considering that Riyadh has called for regime change in Damascus, the reaction from Bashar al-Assad’s government will hardly be welcoming.

In fact, senior Syrian officials have minced no words in criticising the Saudi plan. Any effort to counter IS and other extremist groups must be aligned with Damascus, or else chances are fair that the Syrian conflict will get even more complicated than it already is.

The reason for increased talk of Saudi, Turkish or other anti-Assad boots on the ground in Syria is because the government in Damascus, backed by Russian air power as well as Iran and Hezbollah’s help, is on the verge of retaking the key city of Aleppo.

Should the Syrian government retake this strategic city, it would be a major blow to the opposition — moderate or otherwise.

The question is: if the Saudis decide to embark on a mission that can only be described as folly, should Pakistan plunge itself into the maelstrom also?

The logical response to this would be that Pakistan should maintain its neutrality and refrain from getting involved in what will be a very messy fight.

Pakistan can surely continue its counterterrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia, but committing our troops to an unclear, ill-defined mission would be a huge mistake.

This country did the right thing by resisting Saudi pressure to join the war in Yemen. By all accounts that conflict is not going well for the Saudis and the Yemeni rebels are far from neutralised.

Where Syria is concerned — though the peace process may be all but dead — regional states must not give up on a negotiated solution. However, if the Syrian conflict takes an unpredictable turn, Islamabad must very clearly state where it stands.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2016

Farcical terror exercise

THERE is obviously something wrong when a nation faced with danger that threatens to cut down its very future, chooses to reduce that horror to the level of a spectacle.

Consider the farce put up at Karachi’s Jinnah University for Women on Tuesday when the student body attended the Sindh police’s ‘hostile environment awareness training’ session on campus.

Students were informed about weapons of different calibres and told which ones the militants use most commonly, such as the AK-47 or M16 rifles — as though being able to identify a particular gun would in any way translate into being able to ward off an attack.

This piece of rather meaningless detail was followed by Special Security Unit commandos staging a mock battle with armed attackers, and killing them amidst gunfire, smoke and explosions. At the inception of the proceedings, SSU SP Mohammad Muzaffar Iqbal told the students that the programme would equip them with the basic skills to counter such a situation.

Other than give physical shape to nightmares that the young in Pakistan already suffer, how would such an exercise help prepare the students in any way?

This was not a one-off; the tableau was held at the University of Karachi last week and more are planned at different institutions.

Neither are the Sindh police the only ones to react in such a bizarre fashion. From other parts of the country have come reports of efforts to teach students and teachers to handle weaponry so that they can act as the first line of defence, the suggestion that if a guard is not trained in handling weapons he can bring in a relative who can do the job, and other such foolishness.

Meanwhile, exercises that could actually save lives, such as evacuation drills, have taken place hardly anywhere. Perhaps those are not of high-enough visibility to interest those who plan counterterrorism procedures, but there is nothing to be gained from drills such as those outlined above other than the waste of time and resources.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2016

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