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Express Tribune Editorials – 12th May 2016

Breaking the logjam

From time to time, the politics of Pakistan works itself into a position of helpless and impotent immobility. A sterile and energy-sapping expenditure of effort that is taking nobody anywhere, least of all the democratic dispensation. The Panama Papers have had that effect. They have created the political equivalent of an irresistible force and an immovable object, with the opposition being the former and the prime minister the latter. This would not be an entirely bad thing were the struggle to be played out in parliamentary time, instead it is being fought from prepared positions that leave no space for compromise and as the battle rages, the country tends to drift, an inattentive hand on the tiller.

Whilst military interventions in the democratic process are rarely welcome especially given past history, the evolving nature of democracy in Pakistan has a khaki space, and the need for reasonably equable civil-military relations means that from time to time, suggestions as to course-correction come with a military tone to the voice delivering them. Thus it is that Army Chief General Raheel Sharif is reported to have urged the prime minister to resolve the logjam that the Panama Papers have produced. Much of the rest of the business of the state has been placed on the backburner, with pressing issues particularly relating to national security no longer centre-stage.

Doubtless the subtext of the meeting between the army chief and the prime minister was the yet unresolved matter of who takes primacy in operations against extremists in south Punjab. The military will favour something rather more robust than the generally hands-off approach of the prime minister who has a vote-bank to protect. The addition of matters Panamanian to the mix has had the effect of hamstringing the government, a position that the opposition is more than happy to abet and collude with. The prime minister is said to be coming to parliament on May 13; though whether he does, and if he does whether what he has to say dampens the fires, remain open questions. He would be wise to come clean and give ground gracefully, honour preserved all around. This could also ensure that civil-military relations remain smooth. A khaki-hued solution but a solution nonetheless.

Prepping for a backlash

Stung by the April 19 bombings in Kabul, which claimed 64 lives and injured 350 others, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has hardened his stance against the Taliban, prioritising war over reconciliation. One broad indication of this altered strategy came in the execution of six Taliban inmates on May 8, the first instance of capital punishment being awarded since the Afghan leader came to power in 2014. He even rebuffed calls from Amnesty International, which only days earlier had urged him not to sign death warrants of prisoners convicted of terror offences, and went ahead with the hangings. The executed men are said to be those who had a hand in the deadly Kabul rampage, and Mr Ghani ostensibly must have been under pressure to place them under the hangman’s noose.

However, now the Afghan government will have to watch out for a furious backlash sooner or later. Not only Amnesty International, which had argued that by hastily seeking retribution for the horrific Kabul bombings, the executions will neither bring the victims the justice they deserve nor Afghanistan the security it needs, but even former Afghan president Hamid Karzai had opposed the move, saying this approach could bring disastrous consequences for the country. Given how the Taliban have been increasing the intensity of their attacks, and given that the Afghan forces seem to be on the back foot, the Taliban may up the ante even more so now. That will bring further pain to the already beleaguered Kabul government. The suspicions with which the Afghan government eyes Pakistan’s handling of the fragile peace process will do no good, and the two governments must take measures to build trust. Only then can the two administrations craft a coordinated strategy to push the peace process forward. If things don’t pan out that way, the security situation could become worse in Afghanistan, and as a consequence in the region at large, what with the Taliban vowing to press ahead with their notorious spring offensive.

Cringeworthy safety measures

The Supreme Court building in the country’s capital houses some important people and public service offices. It is a pivotal body of justice and democracy but apparently that was not enough for the authorities to pay any heed to the safety of the building. On May 10, it caught fire allegedly due to a short circuit. No close-circuit cameras were functional to rule out arson as a possibility but mice have been implicated for chewing away at wires and causing the fire. Several rooms housing the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Press Association of the Supreme Court were burnt to ashes. There was no operational fire alarm system in the building; the current one was installed 20 years ago while the installation of a new alarm system has been pending for several years owing apparently to the lack of will to spend on this necessary installation.

Pakistan does not possess a healthy culture of safety. Fire safety, especially, has never been given much importance. New edifices continue to be erected without safety infrastructures, reflecting negligence. Buildings, new and old, lack the means to terminate fires, primarily because people often do not want to spend money on preventive measures that could potentially save lives. Schools and workplaces hardly ever provide any fire safety training and there is little attention paid to fire escape plans. Many buildings in our urban centres lack fire alarms or fire extinguishers — or none that are regularly serviced anyway — nor is there any consequence for neglecting to establish basic fire safety measures in public places and homes. Human safety is the one area where the government should not be stingy. It is important that an important establishment like the Supreme Court is made safe for those who work there by ensuring the basics and installing an up-to-date fire alarm system. In fact, maybe the courts will take cue from this event and direct the relevant authorities to ensure adequate fire safety measures everywhere in the country.

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