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DAWN Editorials – 14th May 2016

CASA moves ahead

AFTER decades of discussion, a landmark power transmission project has finally taken the first step towards realisation. In a slightly over-the-top ceremony, the heads of four states that are party to the CASA 1000 project put their hands together to turn the first bolts on the first tower on which will hang a transmission line that will carry 1000MW of electricity from Kyrgyzstan via Tajikistan and Afghanistan to Pakistan. The four ‘stans’ will connect Central and South Asia in the first regional power-sharing arrangement of this sort, involving so many partners. Regional power transmission lines have enormous potential, and CASA is best viewed as the first step towards a larger future where transmission lines run from Iran, Turkmenistan, Russia and China towards Pakistan and help create a regional market for power. The vision is marvellous and holds the promise of creating a powerful convergence of interests of Asian neighbours, binding them together in a mutually beneficial arrangement, and helping lift Pakistan out of its perennial and long-standing power deficits.

But there are a few problems standing in the way which will take much political will to settle if the vision is to advance towards its full promise. One problem is the growing need to reform power tariffs in Pakistan to allow for a greater role of market forces in power pricing. This step has been stuck in limbo since the early 1990s, hostage to a deep-rooted political economy that militates against any changes in the status quo. The second problem is security, rightly highlighted by the World Bank, which is a key partner in the project. The security situation in Afghanistan has already led to upward cost revisions in the project, which will ultimately have an impact on the final tariff. It also casts a shadow over the project’s viability and capacity for expansion. It is imperative that all power centres in Pakistan realise that perpetuating a deeply flawed status quo in both areas — security and power pricing — keeps the country bottled up in a highly untenable situation. Pakistan needs to break out to achieve the next generation of growth to power our future, and this means building linkages in power, natural resources, transport and many more areas. CASA breaks new ground towards this future, but it is just the starting point. Realising the full potential of the project requires some profound changes within the country.

Saudi-Iran Haj row

UNLESS there is an eleventh-hour deal, Iranians will not be able to perform Haj this year because Riyadh and Tehran have not been able to agree on organisational details. The guilty parties include the two governments which have failed to sort out their relations, frozen since January after the unfortunate attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran following a Shia cleric’s execution by Saudi Arabia. Time is running out. But both sides continue to blame each other for the impasse. While the Saudi minister for Haj and umrah said Iran’s was the only side that had refused to sign an agreement and had made “unacceptable demands”, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance accused Riyadh of sabotage. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran. Since, in such a situation, visas can be issued only by a third country, Iran wants Riyadh to have the visas issued by the Swiss embassy, which looks after Iranian interests.

The bad blood between these two oil powers has done enormous harm to the Muslim world and worsened the bleak Middle East scene because of their adversarial policies on Yemen and Syria. Instead of resolving their dispute and working for peace in the Muslim heartland, Riyadh and Tehran have adopted inflexible positions. No wonder, Syrian peace talks are being held in Geneva rather than a Middle Eastern capital. The truth is that the deadlock over Haj arrangements is a reflection of the deeper malaise that characterises their bilateral relationship. It is also a measure of Pakistan’s diplomatic impotence that it is in no position to mediate between two of its friends, and it is Switzerland which is looking after Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia. The redeeming feature is that talks continue, even though, as the Iranian minister put it, “it’s now too late”. For political reasons, thus, a large number of Muslims would be deprived of their right to perform what is one of the five pillars of their religion.

Torkham tensions

WHILE yesterday’s meeting between the Afghan ambassador and the army chief resulted in the reopening of the Torkham crossing after nearly four days of closure, a more permanent solution is needed to end border concerns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Following the Bacha Khan University attack in Charsadda in January, the security establishment here decided to try and finally tackle the Torkham problem. The legendary, and also infamous, border crossing has long been a source of problems for both the Afghan and Pakistani states — mixing with the mass of humanity that uses the border crossing each day is believed to be a significant militant element, such as the one that the security establishment says was involved in the university attack. Aware that the Afghan state, which does not recognise the Durand Line and fiercely resists anything resembling border fencing, may not have reacted positively to Pakistani requests for cooperation, a unilateral plan was developed. At the official border crossing itself, valid paperwork would be eventually required for all those seeking to enter Pakistan. Meanwhile, to prevent illegal crossings from nearby areas, a fence would be constructed inside Pakistani territory on either side of the Torkham crossing.

The Pakistani plan appears reasonable and can create a template to monitor cross-border human traffic. But all plans must be implemented in a manner that minimises on-ground tensions. The Afghan response, while predictably hostile, may also have been exacerbated by the unilateral actions that Pakistan has taken. Instead of immediately attempting to erect a fence, perhaps the Pakistani state should have first used the full spectrum of its diplomatic and military contacts to explain the situation to Afghan officials. Through diplomacy and military-to-military contacts a picture could have been painted of how Pakistan’s proposal would serve the interests of both the Afghan and Pakistani states and people, and that it is militancy and criminality that would be most affected. As for the Afghan concern that the transit rights of local populations might be curbed through the new measures, an awareness campaign could go some way towards encouraging Afghan nationals to acquire passports or other necessary travel documents.

What is unacceptable, however, is the escalation of military tensions along the border as was evident in the last few days. The brinkmanship that the Afghan and Pakistani security establishments find all too easy to indulge in must stop. The Torkham crossing also has a significant humanitarian dimension, with many Afghans relying on it for access to healthcare and for family reasons. Given that the very reason for the Pakistani attempt to institute new measures at Torkham was to ensure legitimate traffic, it is wrong to punish the people who have relied on the crossing for genuine needs. Moreover, Afghanistan and Pakistan have enough troubles of late to deal with for yet another issue to be added to the mix. Such tensions should not be allowed to recur.

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