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Express Tribune Editorials – 17th December 2015

A new alliance

It is difficult to know exactly what to make of the 34-nation military alliance against terrorism that has been announced by Saudi Arabia. At least in Pakistan, there was some surprise in bureaucratic and diplomatic circles to find that we were included in the alliance and government officials said that they only found out about it from media reports. The alliance was announced at an unusual news conference in Riyadh, where Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman revealed a military alliance of Muslim countries, which included Pakistan. The purpose was to coordinate efforts against terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. Not included in the alliance are Iran, Syria and Iraq. For such a large enterprise, there was remarkably little detail, both as to how it came into being and how it would operate, though the minister said that there is to be a joint operations centre in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations. The minister said the alliance would operate against all terrorist groups no matter what their sectarian adherence, and that the Islamic State (IS) was not the only target.

Historically, Pakistan has only contributed militarily to operations under a UN mandate, and our forces have served long and honourably as UN peacekeepers the world over. This will have informed the decision — we believe the right decision — not to become militarily engaged in the conflict in Yemen, which with hindsight is ever-clearer to have been correct. Terrorism is constantly evolving, and the threat presented by the IS is both imminent in Pakistan and starkly evident elsewhere across the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent and the Maghrib.

A collective response from the Muslim world to that threat is to be welcomed, though the difficulties of putting such an alliance together, given the fractured nature of relations between those states, both included and excluded in alliance-building are very considerable. Pakistan is in the process of re-swinging its foreign policy compass and cannot afford a difficulty with Iran with which a reformed relationship is under construction. We reserve our unequivocal support for this development pending greater detail as to protocols and modalities.

Where are the vaccines?

Reports of swine flu surfacing again this year in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) have been doing the rounds, but disturbingly, there are no vaccines available for treatment or prevention of the disease in the province. So far, nearly 30 suspected cases of the virus have been reported in K-P, while in Swabi alone, two people have died and six people have tested positive for the H1N1 virus. The respiratory disease usually begins to spread around December and lasts until February and March. Its spread is now a predictable and preventable occurrence, but we seem to be ill-prepared years after it first surfaced.

According to the provincial health department of K-P, vaccines for the disease dried up a long time ago and patients and other people at risk have been told to find the antiviral medication through their own efforts. The health department says the Word Heath Organisation (WHO) is responsible for providing the vaccines, while the WHO says it has not been asked to supply the vaccine. Amidst this bureaucratic tussle and confusion, it is the patients who are suffering. Once again, it will be the poor who will be affected the most, as they mainly rely on government hospitals for medication. It is clear that the provincial government should have been better prepared. Every life lost because of a preventable virus is essentially the health department’s responsibility. Since 2009, swine flu has been reported in this region with regularity. Earlier this year, 1,500 people died of the virus in India. In Iran, nearly 33 people have died of swine flu this month as the epidemic spread in the provinces of Kerman and Sistan-Baluchestan, and there are concerns that it can spread to Tehran. While Iran has blamed Pakistan for the spread of the disease, at this stage it is difficult to ascertain where it originated. Be that as it may, we need to realise that the virus is a contagious one and its spread in neighbouring countries should be a concern for authorities here as well. The general callousness and neglect that health facilities in Pakistan suffer through will not help in controlling the virus.

Iran — a chapter closes

The isolation of Iran is diminishing almost by the day and ultimately the world is going to be a better place for that, notwithstanding the many apprehensions that still surround it. Iran is an ancient country, one that cradled modern civilisation. It predates Islam by millennia and has seen a range of regimes come and go. Currently a theocracy which is in an evolutionary phase, it is moving back on to the world stage courtesy the agreement on July 14, 2015 that seeks to limit Iranian nuclear activities for the coming decade. As a part of that agreement, the UN nuclear oversight group, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has ended a decade-long probe into allegations that Iran had sought to develop nuclear weapons.

The verdict on whether it did or did not is equivocal to say the very least. The details of Iranian activity in that direction are impossible to reconstruct historically, doubtless because of track-covering by Iran that was engaged in activities relating to such development between 2003 and 2009. They tapered off after that and are now at a point where the rest of the world is going to have to learn to live with an Iran that has nuclear capacity but not nuclear weaponry. For decades, Iran has been subject to crippling sanctions that have hindered its development. The Vienna agreement had the lifting of those sanctions at its core, and the drawing of a line by the IAEA will trigger an easing that will be of benefit to those that wish to trade with Iran. The country can now come out from under the covers and re-engage with the international community. This does not mean that Iran has won the trust of the rest of the world because it has not. The history of concealment is too long for unquestioning trust to be established quickly or easily, and a set of confidence-building measures have to be worked through if a wider trust is to be established. That said, this is a development we warmly welcome.

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