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DAWN Editorials – 17th December 2015

Anti-terror’ alliance

WHILE Foreign Office officials claimed they were ‘surprised’ by Pakistan’s inclusion in the 34-nation alliance announced by Saudi Arabia it now appears that Riyadh had received assurances of Pakistan’s participation — though it is not clear at what level.

Pakistan has, however, sounded a cautious note regarding “the extent of its participation”. Indeed, it is best to proceed carefully, given the number of member-states and the geographical sweep of the area, in addition to the fact that the alliance seeks to bring together countries as disparate in foreign policy orientation as Nigeria, Turkey and Malaysia.

Not included in the alliance that has both military and ‘ideological’ content as announced by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir are some of the Middle East’s key states, including Iran, Iraq and Syria, the last two ravaged by the militant Islamic State group, which — along with the ill-defined terrorism — is supposedly the pact’s target. What is missing is a common threat perception.

The US-led military alliances formed after the Second World War had members which saw a common threat in the Soviet Union and the communist movement. In this case, the 34 member-states do not share a common perception of events in the Levant, their attitudes towards IS varying from non-active opposition to indifference — with many governments fearful of actively taking on IS.

For Pakistan, the alliance poses many questions. Since Riyadh, according to the Saudi defence minister, will be the ‘joint operations centre’, it is not clear whether alliance members would be required to take part in military action on Syrian or Iraqi soil.

Because President Bashar al-Assad enjoys unqualified Iranian support, besides that of Hezbollah, such an intervention will appear to have sectarian overtones which countries like Pakistan and Lebanon with large Shia minorities can ill afford.

Similarly, while air strikes by America and some European countries are targeting IS, Russia has recently stepped up its support of the Baathist regime by also attacking other groups.

Turkey has shown no interest in degrading IS, even when Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s hordes had reached its border by taking Kobane; Ankara is more concerned about the Kurdish militia and is involved in crisis management after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane.

With international powers and non-state actors working at cross purposes in the Syrian cauldron, Pakistan, like many of the other countries, would find it extremely difficult to be part of an alliance which has not stated categorically that the target is only IS.

This is not to deny the need for all regional countries, and the Muslim world in general, to evolve a common strategy to fight the evil that is terrorism, but the way to achieve this is a gradual alignment of anti-terror policies free from any thinking that smacks of sectarianism.

Pakistan must seek more details, especially about the kind of military role it will be required to play as a member of the alliance.

SCO promise

THE prime minister chose the occasion of the 14th meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation heads of government in Henan, China, to reiterate his government’s commitment to greater regional ties with its neighbourhood to the north.

The remarks focused on identifying common values and regional cooperation to reap economic benefits, as well as to strengthen each country’s commitment to the fight against the forces of disorder and conflict that are a “threat to state sovereignty and territorial integrity” everywhere.

The remarks are welcome, as well as the larger vision that they derive from. Greater cooperation among neighbouring states on infrastructure and energy, as well as connectivity and broader developmental goals, can go a long way to strengthen their own capacities to withstand challenges to their sovereignty and deliver on promises to their citizenry.

Pakistan’s support for the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative being advanced by China is well known, and its potential to boost the framework for growth in the country is equally well understood.

But it will take more than resolve to realise the vision and take it beyond just a statement of intent. First order of business ought to be ensuring a consensus within Pakistan, and not repeating the mistakes of the past, when foreign assistance in critical infrastructure projects ran aground on the myriad dissensions that are the hallmark of our democracy.

This is a fragile task, and it will take skilful politics to navigate. Second order of business must be to ensure that Pakistan’s own interests have been properly safeguarded when negotiating the terms of the country’s integration into a regional matrix.

We have a history of making such decisions in an emotional manner, and that mistake ought to be avoided. Third, and equally importantly, polite suggestions to consider broadening the participation in this regional matrix to neighbours east and west ought to be entertained with seriousness, and again without emotion.

Regional connectivity and cooperation yields its benefits with growing generosity with a larger number of partners, and Pakistan’s location holds far greater promise than can be envisioned through a geopolitical lens.

Realising the vision contained in the prime minister’s remarks is a tougher challenge than many realise.

Yet it is quite possibly the single greatest guarantor of our future growth and prosperity. It is important to not let it devolve to the lowest common denominator, where Pakistan becomes little more than a road for other people’s commerce.

Schools at risk

WHERE Pakistan is in general characterised by either the shortage of meaningful initiatives or disinterestedness in following through on them, the problems often seem to multiply exponentially.

Consider the issue of security for schools, which have been on the list of institutions under the militant-terrorist threat ever since the Army Public School massacre last year brought the unthinkable into the realm of the real.

In March, a partnership between the police and a mobile phone service provider made possible the initiation of an Emergency Alert System for educational institutions.

The idea was to provide school administrators/employees with registered handsets through which, at the click of a button, any perceived risk could be communicated immediately to police officers trained and deputed to take matters from there.

The project was launched in Punjab and Karachi. In the former, the initiative has been expanded gradually to cover every district. In Karachi, though, while the initial push was made — in the first six months the police registered over 4,000 schools and deputed 200 officers to receive panic alerts — the situation now is that the system has been lying idle for three months. As reported on Wednesday, the continued non-payment of dues has led to SIMs being blocked.

With the country observing this week the death anniversary of APS students and staff, the timing of this disclosure could not be more heartbreakingly poignant. What more could be needed to make the authorities in Karachi prioritise security for educational institutions and the safety of our children?

It is this sort of disinterestedness that communicates the idea to the people that state authority is not just incapable, it is callous to boot. Here, the issue is grave and the danger frighteningly real; just a day before the Dec 16 anniversary, the security establishment had put out a terror threat warning for the city’s educational institutions.

It is downright shocking that a system that has the potential to save lives has been so carelessly flung by the wayside.

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