Author Archives: Admin

Magic in the Saudi-US Marriage?

Najma Minhas | The Nation | May 01, 2016

The visit of President Obama to Saudi Arabia last week came at a time when it is becoming clear that this continental relationship is in a realignment mode. For decades Saudi Arabia has been an inimitable Arab ally for United States in the Middle East. It has been a marriage of convenience that has given both partners many things to share over the years. The liaison deepened significantly after the 1973 OPEC oil crisis when the Americans in return for its own oil security offered safety for the House of Saud. In time other geo-political events reinforced the Saudi role as an important bulwark in the region; both against the rising tide of radical Islam -in the form of Iranian Shiite Islam- and communism. The fight against Russia had both countries providing joint financial support to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. The relationship has also conveniently involved Saudi’s buying large quantities of weapons from the US from $312m in 1972 to over $60bn in 2010 and overall around $95bn during President Obama’s administration.

As part of the devil’s pact the US accepted and turned a blind eye to Saudi export of Wahhabism to the region and beyond as far out as Malaysia and Indonesia. Qurans were printed with Saudi money that had the ‘acceptable’ translation. Madrassas were supported all over the world to produce individuals with the ‘right’ understanding of Islam. Saudi support to extremist groups continues despite the disastrous results that have long been highlighted; most recently they have been shown to have ties to the Al Nusra militants fighting Bashar Al Assad in Syria, who are calling for an Islamic Caliphate to be set up in the region.

The swan song of President Obama with Jeffery Goldberg published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 2016, mirrored the view of many in the US. He expressed dissatisfaction with the country’s ‘high maintenance allies’ and called them ‘free riders’ for accepting US provided security in the region; whilst engaging in proxy wars of their own. The Saudis in particular were asked to accept a ‘cold peace’ and ‘share the neighbourhood’ with Iran and to focus on dispelling ISIS from the region. Furthermore, a growing and strident bipartisan criticism has started targeting Saudi Arabia, particularly on its human rights record, its reckless foreign policy in Yemen and Syria as well as its role in creating extremism. In a recent Arab youth survey conducted, 82 percent of Yemenis aged between 18-24 years old viewed the US as an enemy, this is not surprising as Saudis use US bought technology to bomb them and have wantonly killed over 6,000 Yemenis since the war started. This has led to questions in the US as to why it is supporting the Saudis to create a humanitarian crisis; especially, when they have no interests involved.

In line with this, the legislative branch has seen the introduction of two bipartisan bills: the Arms Control Act and the 9/11 Bill. Both want accountability to play a bigger role in the U.S relationship with Saudi Arabia. Senator Chris Murphy speaking at the Brookings Institution said it was ‘difficult to ignore the holes in the US/Saudi Arabia relationship any longer’; he along with Senator Rand Paul (R) is introducing the Arms Control Act which will set conditions on U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia by demonstrating they are minimising harm to civilians in Yemen as well as facilitating humanitarian assistance. The 9/11 bill will allow the relatives of the victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government, in the US courts, if any links by its officials to the terrorists are proven. Although the administration has stated that President Obama will veto this legislation, since it weakens and puts into jeopardy US troops and civilians abroad.

For the US the pull factors keeping the relationship together have weakened over time. The large production of Shale gas by 2009, has helped to reduce the country’s dependence on Saudi oil, communism died over twenty years ago and even the earlier Iranian ogre of Shiite Islam has come to look like a babe in the woods compared to the monster of ISIS emanating from radical Sunni Islam. President Obama has decided that the best way to keep a check on Iran’s nuclear capabilities is through engagement and not isolation. In addition, he has also tried to move away from the middle-eastern focus of US foreign policy, which he believes is driven by self-interested lobbies in the US. He is on record stating that the US needs to concentrate on China and Southeast Asia; addressing the rise and challenge of China being the key to the future for the US To that extent, the threat of terrorism and squabbling countries engaged in proxy wars, which are keeping the US bogged down in the morass of the Middle East is seen as a needless distraction.

This desire of the US to pivot towards Southeast Asia has come at a time when the Saudi monarchy itself has seen a change of guard after the death of King Abdullah in Jan 2015. This has further accelerated the divergence of interests between the two countries. Saudis already disillusioned with the US for not attacking Syria in 2013, after it crossed the ‘red lines’ drawn by President Obama, saw the Iran-US deal as a direct affront to their ‘constant and strategic’ relationship with the U.S. This disaffection coupled with their decision to curtail the influence of Iran themselves, armed with American weapons and training under the direction of the new deputy Crown Prince and Defense minister, Mohammad bin Salman, they started an aggressive foreign policy in the neighbourhood. Moreover, Saudi dismay over the 9/11 bill, which is seen to put further salt into their wounds, left them threatening to withdrew $750bn in assets from the U.S. if passed. It is no wonder then that in Riyadh President Obama did not get the red carpet welcome by King Salman bin Abd al Aziz himself.

However, tectonic plates we know move slowly and the strategic impetus in the short term to control ISIS and radicalism has to remain a focus for US policy. It seems unlikely that the 9/11 bill will be formulated in its current form, but as a palliative the US executive branch will be forced to finally make public the 28 pages that were redacted. Saudi Arabia may no longer be at the acme of its importance; but it will remain a stalwart and necessary partner for US Middle Eastern policy. In the context of an Islamic marriage it will become one of the many wives that the US has in the region.

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors. Email: np@gapa.com.pk
Twitter: @GapaAdvisors.

Pakistani Panama Papers

Najma Minhas | The Nation | April 12, 2016

One head has rolled and many more are spinning as those in the limelight try to deal with the implications of the Panama leaks. An Alice in Wonderland world has opened before us. Every day we learn more about the crafty world of lawyers and accountants, used by the ultra-rich who siphon out their money – legit or otherwise- into shell companies hidden away from the tax authorities of the world. They have no fealty to the country of their birth and neither show loyalty to the country where they make their money. We mere mortals are finding out about the complexities of this world thanks to the arduous and laudatory work being done by the Munich Newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung working with the International Consortium of Investigative journalists; who in the short to medium term may have done more for the cause of democracy and accountability of leaders than anyone else.

While we ‘epsilons’ are chained to our desks trying to make a decent living and paying the taxes that sustain the prosperity and stability the rich need to prosper; defense of countries through armies and help the poor and needy through social benefits.Over 200 people from Pakistan have been named as having offshore companies this includes media organisations, businessmen, a sitting and a retired judge and most controversially politicians and those related to them. In the case of the latter, the three children of the sitting prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, relatives of the sitting chief minister’s two wives, ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto name has cropped up as well as that of her nephew, Hasan Ali Jaffery as well as the former interior minister, Rehman Malik. Usman Saifullah, Senator for the PPP, whose family has come up as having over 34 offshore companies registered, is currently a serving member on the Tax reform commission and of course these companies may all be legit but the thought that comes to mind is that it’s like asking the cat to take care of the canary!

Pakistan is a poor country its GDP in 2015 was $270bn, it has a foreign debt over $62bn, and it has a perennial problem collecting taxes. Currently, its tax to GDP ratio stands at 7.5 percent, amongst the lowest in the world. In order to increase taxes collected, it has moved disproportionately towards a system of indirect taxes that hits the poor where it hurts them hardest; food, drink and transport to work. Pakistan has received massive amounts of aid in the past 10 years from developed countries; USAID alone gave close to $2billion in the last 3 years. During the same period due to the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, in the USA, states cut back on social services they provided to the poor, workers saw pay declines and overall the economy until recently stayed in recession mode.For a poor country like Pakistan where the world comes to give it aid, two important questions arise from the Panama leaks; what is the original source of this money and was tax been paid on it before it left the country to invest in bigger and better things.

The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, gave a recorded speech to the nation where he came on the offensive and claimed the family was being politically maligned and announced that he would set up a judicial commission – seen as the graveyard of enquiries- to clear the family’s reputation. He also mentioned during the same interview that in 1972, his father’s business was nationalised and they as a family lost everything. Nationalisation effectively ended by 1977-78, so the logical question is then how did the family make enough money, to set up large offshore companies by 1993 and 1994 and buy multi-million flats in London. It should be pointed out that Nawaz Sharif was the finance minister of Pakistan’s largest province Punjab from 1981-85, was Punjab’s chief minister between 1985-90 and then prime minister of Pakistan between 1990-93.Estimates of amount lost to the Pakistani Exchequer because of corruption vary between $50billion to $75 billion lost annually. The last one year has had people glued to their TV screen as the beautiful model Ayyan Ali was caught with $500,000 cash in her bag as she was taking a flight to Dubai, she purportedly made around 42 trips abroad the past few years. She is believed to be one of many carriers of cash.

The former State bank Governor Anwar Yasin, stirred up a hornets nest when he told a parliamentary committee that up to $25m daily is taken out of Pakistan in briefcases.On the question of how much tax has been paid on this wealth it is interesting that some of these individuals pay negligible amount of tax- the prime minister himself when in the opposition was scandalised because he only paid $50 in personal income tax. In addition, some of the 200 names that have offshore companies do not even appear in the published lists of FBR of top taxpayers of Pakistan. Furthermore, a lot have made their wealth in sectors where they for years have lobbied governments for protection and subsidies to run businesses in that sector. In the case of politicians, many registered companies have been set up during a period in which they have also been in power. Rampant rumours have been firing up Islamabad for years now about the interest that respective Pakistani governments have shown in doing business with Turkey and China; terms such as laxity with regard to bribery and money laundering regulations have been bantered around. Furthermore, speculation has abounded that some of the companies that appear in the guise of Chinese or Turkish companies are actually front companies in offshore locations with actual ownership being local and political.

It is thought-provoking for all of is that Mossack Fonseca, is one law firm in one country, there are probably many more names out there and some of these 200 people will no doubt be on many other lists as well. The leaks of the panama papers will certainly strengthen democracy if some accountability is shown. But if it leaves many more unanswered questions then at some point people will retaliate and who knows what form it will take and ‘off with their heads’ may be a rallying call.

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors. Email: np@gapa.com.pk

Twitter:@GapaAdvisors.

The Panama Papers and Pakistan: Beyond Nawaz Sharif

Najma Minhas | The Diplomat | April 11, 2016

The Panama Papers highlight Pakistan’s national problem with tax evasion and corruption.

One head has rolled and many more are spinning as those in the limelight try to deal with the implications of the Panama Paper leaks.  An Alice in Wonderland world has opened before us. Every day we learn more about the crafty world of lawyers and accountants, used by the ultra-rich who siphon their money — legitimate or otherwise — into shell companies hidden away from the tax authorities of the world. We mere mortals are finding out about the complexities of this world thanks to the arduous and laudatory work being done by the Munich Newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung working with the International Consortium of Investigative journalists, who in the short to medium term may have done more for the cause of democracy and accountability of leaders than anyone else.

In the Panama Papers, over 200 people from Pakistan have been named as having offshore companies; this includes media organizations, businessmen, a sitting and a retired judge, and — most controversially — politicians and their relatives. So far the list includes the three children of the sitting prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; relatives of the two wives of Shahbaz Sharif (the chief minister of Punjab and Nawaz Sharif’s brother). The name of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto name has cropped up as well; she, her nephew Hasan Ali Jaffery and former interior minister Rehman Malik are said to have co-owned Petrofine FZC. The family of Osman Saifullah, a senator for the PPP, holds the record, having registered 34 offshore companies. Ironically, Osman Saifullah is currently a serving member on the tax reform commission ; though of course these companies may all be legitimate, it’s no wonder people may get the impression that the cat is being asked to take care of the canary.

Pakistan is a poor country. Its GDP in 2015 was $270 billion, and it has a foreign debt over $62bn. It also has a perennial problem collecting taxes. In 2013, its tax-to-GDP ratio stood at 11.2 percent, among the lowest in the world. In order to increase taxes collected, Pakistan has moved disproportionately toward a system of indirect taxes that hits the poor where it hurts them hardest: food, drink, and transport to work. At the same time, Pakistan has received massive amounts of aid in the past 10 years from developed countries. USAID alone gave close to $2 billion in the last three years.

For a poor country like Pakistan, a recipient of foreign aid, two important questions arise from the Panama leaks; what is the original source of this money and was tax paid on it before it left the country to invest in bigger and better things? The Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, gave a recorded speech to the nation where he went on the offensive and claimed the family was being politically maligned over the leaks. He announced that he would set up a judicial commission — seen as the graveyard of inquiries — to clear the family’s reputation, explaining that the funds were legitimate profits from industrial successes. Critics, however, question how the family made enough money for Sharif’s children to set up large offshore companies in 1993 and 1994 and buy multi-million flats in London. It should be pointed out that Sharif’s political career was booming at that time; he was the finance minister of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab, from 1981-85, was Punjab’s chief minister between 1985-90 and then prime minister of Pakistan between 1990-93.

The opposition is refusing the idea of an investigating commission headed by a retired judge. They have said that the commission does not have the qualifications to analyze where the money has come from. Instead, the opposition is demanding a forensic audit of the money through a qualified international company.

The problem is far bigger than one family, however. Estimates of amount lost annually to the Pakistani Exchequer because of corruption vary between $50 billion to  $75 billion. Last year, people were glued to their TV screens as model Ayyan Ali was tried and convicted of money smuggling after caught with $500,000 cash in her bag as she was taking a flight to Dubai. Ayyan purportedly made around 42 trips abroad the past few years.  She is believed to be one of many carriers of cash. The former state bank governor Anwar Yasin stirred up a hornets’ nest in 2013 when he told a parliamentary committee that up to $25m daily is taken out of Pakistan in briefcases.

Despite their wealth, some of these individuals pay negligible amount of tax. Some of the 200 names linked to offshore companies by the Panama Papers do not even appear in the Federal Board of Revenue’s published lists of Pakistan’s top taxpayers. Many made their wealth in sectors where they for years have lobbied governments for protection and subsidies to run businesses. In the case of politicians, many registered companies were set up during their times in power.

For years, there have been rampant rumors in Islamabad about the interest that respective Pakistani governments have shown in doing business with Turkey and China, countries with lax attitudes toward bribery and money laundering regulations. Furthermore, speculation has abounded that some of the companies that appear in the guise of Chinese or Turkish companies are actually front companies in offshore locations with actual ownership being local political leaders.

The Panama Papers leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca, one law firm in one country. There are probably many more names out there. Pakistan’s problem with tax dodging and corruption is not news, but the scale revealed by the leaks is certainly jarring.

Najma Minhas is the Director of Governance & Policy Advisors, a consulting company which works on governance and policy issues.

International Conference on Promoting Global Peace by Global Affairs & Pakistan House, April 06, 2016 Islamabad.

IMG_3134Najma Minhas Presented a Paper on “Drivers of Conflict in Afghanistan” in a International Conference: Promoting Global Peace organised by Global Affairs & Pakistan House. The conference was organised by the Global Affairs, an international magazine, and Pakistan House, an independent think-tank based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

National Security Adviser retired Lt Gen Nasir Khan Janjua Speaking at the opening session of an international conference titled “Promoting Global Peace: Drivers for Transnational Cooperation”, Gen Janjua said the people of Pakistan and personnel of its armed forces had rendered “unmatched” sacrifices in the war against terrorism and for the cause of peace. He said the nation was making progress and playing a key role for seeking, preserving and promoting global peace despite all the challenges faced by it.

In his speech, Masood Khan, the director-general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad, stressed the need for introducing reforms in the agenda of the United Nations Security Council for achieving durable peace in the world.

Regional Tourism Workshop: Enhancing Tourism and Economic Cooperation in the Region March 28-29, 2016 – Lahore

The objective of holding the 2 day workshop in Lahore, was to have a meeting with a small groupof participants to see which specific themes emerged, that could be discussed with a larger group in the October conference. The overall aim was to understand how regional countries have ramped up tourism, both in terms of numbers of people and revenues. Clarification was also wanted about the role of government and the private sector; specifically, to understand whether a concerted strategy to develop tourism was used by government and the extent of private sector involvement. In addition, through the workshop the aim was to discover complementarities in tourism that could be explored between Pakistan and the other regional countries, through which Pakistan could leverage itself.

Specific Objectives:

  • Understand the strategic tourism visions of the countries;
  • Discuss prospects and barriers to regional cultural and heritage tourism;
  • Identify opportunities for trade and regional linkages; and
  • Agree upon the way forward for building mutual framework for enhancing regional tourism.

The focus on tourism for Pakistan has two underlying drivers; the first is the possibility to increase revenues (both from tourism and through associated industries) and the second is to promote peace between the regional countries through people to people interaction. The long term purpose of increasing tourism revenues is to create diverse centers of growth within the country. It is also expected to enhance revenue from associated industries such as the craft and souvenir industries as well as hospitality and logistics.

Major themes that emerged from the discussions are briefly outlined below.

  1. Visa/Border restrictions
  2. Communications Strategies
  3. Private sector involvement
  4. Capacity Building
  5. Strategy & Tourism Circuits
  6. Connectivity

Small chance of peace

Najma Minhas | The Nation | February 06, 2016

The Quadilateral Coordination Group (QCG) was set up during the Heart of Asia summit held in Islamabad, Pakistan in December 2015 to kick-start talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The talks collapsed in July 2015 after it was discovered that Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, had actually died two years earlier and this fact had been concealed. The goal of the QCG is to set up a framework within which to bring in the Taliban into the peace process while simultaneously setting progress measures for these talks. In the last month they have met three times and so far we have heard the usual platitudes of “Afghan led” and “Afghan ownership” of the peace process and how all countries will work towards the “security, stability and prosperity” of Afghanistan.

On the eve of the fourth meeting to be held on the 6th November, no names have been provided of the Taliban groups who have agreed to sit down for these talks, neither have we been told how progress of the talks will be measured and has a timeline been set.While President Obama’s State of Union address, mentioning the continuing future instability in Afghanistan-Pakistan, had many analysts and parliamentarians in the region blowing gaskets, his assessment is correct.  In the case of Afghanistan, there is no easy route to peace and certainly not immediately through the QCG talks. Though, Ashraf Ghani recently called the Taliban “political opponents,” disunity remains within the Afghan government with regard to the peace initiative with the Taliban and what to concede to them. Unfortunately, the discord is split along ethnic lines with the Pashtun leadership wanting to take them into the political system and compromise with them. Yet, it is not clear what they can offer to the Taliban to induce them to negotiate and it seems they are exclusively relying on Pakistan’s ability to twist their arms and bring them to the table.

The Afghan government needs a quick resolution with the Taliban, the longer they stay outside the political fray and gain strength the more the unity government seems weak and not in control of the country.  Between 2009 and mid 2015 over 30,000 Afghan police and soldiers died in attacks from the Taliban. Last year the attrition rate from the army was around one-third, due to desertions, casualties or with soldiers not re-enlisting, despite being lured with monthly salaries of $300 or at the promise of warm clothes and good food. Currently, the Taliban control over 40 Afghan districts with another 39 closely contested where the district center is under government control but the Taliban has large swathes of district territory under its own control. According to UN data around 40 percent of Afghanistan’s provinces are under “extreme threat” from Taliban takeover.This is the reason why the Taliban currently have little need to sit down in the peace talks and have set tough preconditions for doing so including the removal of all foreign forces from the country and implementation of Shariah. Furthermore, spring is just around the corner and this is the period in which the Taliban has traditionally created the greatest havoc in the country.

The more chaos and violence they create the stronger their negotiation power. What’s more, the factions created within the Taliban, after the death of Mullah Omar, has meant there is a group supporting the leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour and a splinter group supporting Mullah Rasool. This has put pressure on both groups of the Taliban to show to their followers that they will not submit to ‘outside pressure’ to stand down from their position. On 29th January 2016, a group of 20 top clerics in Afghanistan, Ittehad-e-Ulema-e-Afghanistan , issued a fatwa saying that negotiations should not be entered into so long as a foreign army is in the country. Additionally, the slowly emerging presence of ISIS in Afghanistan is also forcing the existing Taliban leaders to adopt a more extreme stance to ensure they do not lose loyalists to them. A UN report issued in September 2015 quoted the Afghan Security forces as claiming that 10 percent of ISIS sympathizers belonged to the Taliban.There is disagreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan over what the latter can and should do in ensuring peace in Afghanistan. While Pakistan has assured Afghanistan of its full support in bringing the Taliban to the table for peace talks, it believes that the onus is on the Afghan government to persuade the Taliban to give up its armed struggle.

The Afghan government is desperate for a quick breakthrough in peace talks and this is reflected in the two month deadline that was mentioned by Hekmat Karzai, the deputy foreign minister. After which he suggested a joint military action against the “irreconcilable” Taliban should be undertaken by both countries. On the other hand, Pakistan has stated that talk of tight deadlines and military attack on the Taliban is currently counter-productive, when they are in process of persuading the different Taliban groups to sit down for negotiations. It is expected that Akhtar Mansour’s group and the Haqqani network may agree for talks but Mullah Rasool has already rejected the offer. However, what is clear is that Ashraf Ghani has put his neck on the line, in extending support to Pakistan once again under the QCG talks, and Pakistan needs to do what is necessary to ensure movement on this issue.While the role of the US special representative, Ambassador Richard Olson and his team in the talks is divisive there is no such division over the involvement of the Chinese in the QCG. China is the new kid on the block when it comes to taking a role in such talks in the region.

However, it is a natural participant as it enjoys a trusted relationship with all of the parties involved from the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Taliban. The Afghan government has long desired the Chinese to participate; Hamid Karzai’s administration tried to pressure them to use their influence on the Pakistanis. China has an interest to ensure peace given that it shares a long border with Afghanistan. But even more so, because in Xinjiang, on its western edge, it is increasingly facing a problem of insurgency and violence from the Uighurs; many of whom have spent time in Afghanistan. China has long remained aloof from any political engagement in regions that are outside it’s natural turf. But with the Chinese-Pakistan Economic corridor and its policy of ‘One Belt One Road’, having a peaceful and stable Afghanistan is a necessary prerequisite to its goods and services reaching Central Asia and Europe.Despite all its weaknesses, the current arrangement of the Quadrilateral Group is probably the best format with which it may achieve some progress.

With, the USA acting as guarantor for the Afghan Government and the Chinese playing the same role for the Pakistanis. However, to do so the Afghan government needs to offer the Taliban something to make them participate in the talks. In the Pugwash conference, the Taliban put forward several demands to sit in the talks, including the acceptance of their Doha office, asking the Afghan government to stop the ‘propaganda’ against them, release of their prisoners and to be taken off the UN list of travel bans and unfreezing their assets. The first two could be done easily with clarification that the office was to be a political office for the Taliban alone.  Other demands could be met over time depending on how much progress is made. However, what should be clear to all parties is that they need to act fast to ensure that Afghanistan’s power vacuum doesn’t suck in another player in the region in the form of ISIS.

 The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.

Back to the Drawing Board on Child Marriages

Najma Minhas | The Nation | January 22, 2016

My blood boiled when I heard the Council of Islamic Ideology’s denunciation of increasing the age that girls were married to 18 as being ‘unislamic’ and ‘blasphemous’. Why I had expected any rationality from them is beyond me. We all know that Ijtihad has ended in the Muslim world and we no longer try to understand our religion in the context of the times we live in. It matters not to them, that a girl’s puberty comes much earlier now than in the first century, due to a number of factors including the chemicals now used in the production of food. It certainly does not matter to them, that the life cycle of a woman is much longer now with average age of death now around 70, so she can marry later and still have children during her reproductive life before her death. And above all, it really does not matter to these insensitive men, that early child marriages are being done not on the basis of religion but in fact religion is being used to perpetuate social class differences.

With rich old men marrying young poor girls, to settle feuds, debts and often obligations the father may have. They are allowing Islam to be used to keep the poor downtrodden while the wealthy have no such compulsions to destroy their daughters’ lives.It is a reality that the poorer the family, the less educated the family and if it is living in a rural area it is more likely to marry its girls much earlier. In fact the poor family is likely to marry its daughter 5 years earlier as compared to a rich family in Pakistan. The earlier the girl gets married the more likely her life as described by Hobbes is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Young women, especially below the age of 18 are much more likely to suffer health complications and deaths during childbirth. One of the major reasons why women in earlier centuries had a much shorter life was death during childbirth. A recent report by Unicef, shows that 7 % of Pakistani children were married before the age of 15 and 24 percent married by 18. Islam gives both partners when entering marriage the right to say No—how many girls who are 7, 8, 9, even 15 understand what marriage means, never mind can say no!Nonetheless, we need to go back to the drawing board again and find other ways of ensuring that young girls are empowered and able to lead healthy and full lives. We don’t need to get bogged down with the age 18.

First of all conservatives and the religious right need to understand this is about the health and wealth of the Pakistani child, it is our agenda and not dismiss it by calling it a Western agenda. In the West there are many instances of countries that still have very low legal ages of marriages; Spain, in 2015, finally brought a law to increase the age of marriage from 14 to 16 and in the USA, the state of Massachusetts still legally allows girls as young as 12 to get married in ‘exceptional circumstances’ with a judge’s consent. Of course in general, these are the legal ages written in their laws and mostly a remnant of the past, very few children are actually getting married at these ages. Furthermore, to the extent these laws still exist it does not affect the people living in those societies the way it does in Pakistan; where a feudal man or father can treat his daughter or girls in the area as chattels. The industrialization process in the west alongside growing civic movements helped to get greater rights for the labour class, women and children. One essential part of this evolution of rights was the introduction of comprehensive educational systems. Education with the passage of time created awareness and increased economic opportunities for women, leading them to marry later through choice and not because it was mandated by governments.

In Pakistan, under the Child Marriage Restraint Bill 1929, the current legal age of marriage for girls is 16. The most effective way to ensure that girls marry later is to ensure free education for all children as per their constitutional right up to age of 16. Government needs to enforce mandatory schooling for all children. Pursuing education is part of a positive cycle, which will also help to improve health and population goals. Initially targeting education in those districts, where many problematic socio-economic indicators exist, such as in Jacobabad and Matiari, where not only the prevalence of young marriages is very high, but they also rank very low on health and population indicators. All research shows that education delays the age of marriage for children. Even an illiterate family will marry their daughter one year later if she is given primary school education and this increases with the number of years spent in school. Alongside this national and regional media campaigns need to be run to create awareness of the relationship between early marriages and perpetuating poverty as well as creating health complications and mother and child deaths.

The rural populace in particular needs to be targeted.In Sindh, the provincial government passed an enlightening law in April 2014, but we need to evaluate it in light of this. Have we seen any improvement? Have the existing percentages gone down? How many criminal prosecutions have taken place? Or given the nature of the policing system has this only led to more greasing of hands. Laws are the means to an end and in this case the end is that these children can lead safe and happy lives.

Pakistan’s balancing act

Najma Minhas | The Nation | January 12, 2016

The past week has seen both the Saudi Arabian foreign minister and defense ministers visiting Pakistan. As the second largest Muslim country in the world, and one that has a sizeable Shia population, with a large professionally trained army, Pakistan has to manage its relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and not allow itself to be used by either one against the other.

The Saudis and Iranians are engaged in a dangerous tit for tat game which is being escalated in each round as they test to see ‘who says chicken first.’ The current events started with the Saudis decapitating the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqar al Nimr, ostensibly on charges of inciting terrorism. But most believe that the real reason was that hehad been calling for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and emerged as a powerful force during the Arab spring. The situation was further ignited when Iranian leadership condemning the execution using strong and disparaging comments about the incited the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran.

As matters currently stand Iran has told its citizens they cannot go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah. And Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties, halted air traffic and commercial links with Iran. The GCC countries have expressed their support for Saudi Arabia; Bahrain has cut ties, Kuwait recalled its Ambassador and UAE downgraded its ties with Iran. Emiratis have been reluctant to do more given that half a million Iranians live in the country and have an estimated $300bn invested in their economy. It already feared the movement of some of this money out of their country given the improving international situation for Iran.

For the Muslim world which is suffering, internally and externally, from the consequences of radicalization of some of its adherents. The last thing needed is two of its important countries to start sparring amongst themselves and detract from the real issue of exterminating radicalism. In addition, it raises the divisive issue of sectarianism in many countries not least Pakistan. However, it is clear for Saudi Arabia and Iran what is taking place is explained less by religion and more by Machiavellian rules of power and politics.

During the past tumultuous forty years, while the Saudis bathed in the reflection of the World’s Hyperpower, the Iranians remained in the doghouse and Pakistan and Afghanistan were gutted as societies. Saudi Arabia had de facto claimed the mantle of leadership of the Muslim countries; through its political involvement in Asia by subsidizing jihadists against the Soviet Union and a strong petrodollar economy. It was further bolstered by its close relationship with the USA, who with the collapse of the Soviet Union remained the sole Superpower for almost 3 decades.

However, 2015 saw a confluence of events which has resulted in Saudi Arabia throwing caution to the wind. The first was the death of King Abdullah and the crowning of King Salman with his dependence on his young and ambitious twenty-nine year old son, Prince Mohammad Salman, who has been made defense minister. The latter decided to engage in a more assertive foreign policy and made the decision to go into Yemen to boost his credentials as a strong military commander and potential aspirant for the throne. The air campaign started with a bang as Saudis expecting their latest military equipment to overawe the Iranian backed Shiite Houthis, unfortunately the campaign has been more of one long whimper. Interestingly, under King Salman the cautiousness and predictability of the Saudis that the West always appreciated seems to have been thrown to the wind and so far it is being hit by a strong headwind detrimental to the kingdoms interests.

The second has been the potential re-emergence of Iran, sanctified through its nuclear deal with the US. This has created a specter for Saudi Arabia, of a losing importance with the US in the Middle East, critics have accused it of naivete and reacting like ‘a woman scorned’.

The proxy war in Syria had already been underway with the Iranian’s supporting President Bashar al Assad against the Saudi backed Sunni rebels in the country. However, the recent state of affairs in which it seems efforts for peace between the players in Syria may involve accepting President Assad retaining his position is something the Saudis viscerally hate and do not want to accept even for a temporary period. For the Saudis, happily, the current antagonistic atmosphere between them and the Iranians has ensured the whole idea is a dead duck for the time being.

For Pakistan, Iran is an important neighboring country with whom it has cordial relations. Iran was the first country in 1947 to recognize the state of Pakistan, both countries see a further uptick in economic relations once sanctions are removed, as well as having a stronger energy relationship through the proposed Iran gas pipeline.

Pakistan-Saudi brotherly relations were strongly consolidated during the 1980’s jihad on Soviet Union and thereafter remained resilient with the Saudi’s often bankrolling Pakistan during troubled periods. During the last decade of financial crisis and Pakistan’s balance of payment crisis the Saudis helped Pakistan in many ways including giving them petroleum on deferred payments. However this apparent rentier situation, unsurprisingly, left the Saudi’s believing that the state of Pakistan is at their beck and call and they were not too pleased when their request went unattended. Witness the frostiness of relations that developed, when Pakistanis publicly deliberated and decided against the sending of troops to Yemen at Saudi request. Recently, the Saudis announced the participation of Pakistan as part of the 34 Muslim countries counter-terrorism coalition about which Pakistanis had no clue.

Given the sensitivities of the Saudi-Pakistan relationship currently Pakistan has said it will join the coalition so long as its sole aim is counter terrorism and is not against any specific country. Under the current scenario when Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads, the coalition as it stands only has Sunni countries excluding Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, we cannot afford the coalition to be ‘sectarianized’.

Pakistan should have gone further and made the argument that if such a Muslim Coalition to exist it should be under the auspices of the OIC and consist of all its members – given that radicalization is a phenomena affecting all Muslim countries from Africa to East Asia.

Meetings with the Saudi Ministers in Pakistan assured them full support for them in any case of territorial breakup but at the same time urged them to reconcile with the Iranians pointing out this is not the time for disputes between Muslim countries.

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors.Email: np@gapa.com.pk

@GapaAdvisors

It’s about the guns!

Najma Minhas | The Nation | December 13, 2015

The sad deaths from the two events that happened last week in the USA and differing responses shown by the officials, media and policymakers indicate how above all else Americans are not willing to accept that whatever may be the underlying motive for the killers, it is clear that the majority of deaths in their country occur from the easy access and availability to guns; over 30,000 people die each year from shooting related incidents. Data compiled by the crowd sourced website, shooting.com, revealed in the last 1,066 days in the USA, there were over 1,052 mass shootings, defined as four or more people shot in one incident.

It is significant that there is an inability of society to stand up to the NRA and in addition, question the campaign funding right wing machines. What was even more disappointing was the clear racial and Muslim phobic slant in the immediate response given to the San Bernardino shootings; especially from the officials making statements and the easy categorization of it as a terror attack by majority of the American media. It highlighted once again the paranoid approach reserved for Muslims living within the USA as well as those living externally outside its borders. It is fed by the neo-con fascist belief system layering societal attitudes pertaining towards Muslims since 9/11. In simple words, it is miles easier to explain the crime and police response to it if it was given a terrorist slant rather than having to explain to Americans why big government is not able to actually tackle the root cause of the majority of gun deaths in the USA. This is why President Obama’s speech to the nation on Sunday addressing these events was so derisory giving the usual standard line about good versus evil on terror and battlegrounds in the Middle East!

Over a week ago, in Colorado, a lone and apparently a ‘gentle’ man lost it and killed over 3 people at an anti-abortion clinic and injured nine people. Afterwards, it was pointed out that Robert Lewis Dear, Jr, had a systematic record of supporting a group of anti-abortion extremists the ‘army of God’ who have bombed and killed and injured people all over the country and who he hailed as ‘heroes’. Abortion groups and clinics spent several days clamoring for this act to be called an act of domestic terror but their cries were little heard in the Washington corridors of power. Yet a couple of days later, a Muslim couple went into a holiday party in San Bernardino and killed over 14 people and many more were injured. From the very beginning all racial and religious stereo typing of these criminals went overboard from police and FBI statements to newspapers and Presidential candidates crying over the Judas’ living in their society. Instead of decrying why this couple was able to collect 4500 bullets, 12 pipe bombs and several sub machine guns it became a simple matter of international terror, done against the freedom and liberty loving America.

Furthermore, to make the agenda setting of terror even easier, information was released that the girl was a Pakistani national, who had alleged support to ISIS on a facebook page created under an alias name. To corroborate the stereotype even further an old picture – taken during the time she lived in Saudi Arabia – was shown on TV and in newspapers; fully covered head and body. It was also irrelevant that the 29 year old girl had left Pakistan when she was a toddler and subsequently spent only a couple of years of her life later in Pakistan.

Reporters were sent to her village in Pakistan, which her father left over 25 years ago, to ask how they felt about the crime and to find any kind of evidence that would connect it to international terror, unfortunately not much was found. At every point of the investigation and news relayed has been beset with creating a perfect stereotype of the person they imagine to be evil incarnated, underlined with misogyny; such a person coming from Pakistan perfectly fitted into that picture as did her alleged ‘support’ for ISIS.

An interesting illustration circulating on the social media after the planned parenthood murders showed the bifurcation of responses after every mass shooting in the USA, if the person was a non-Muslim then the event was described as a massacre in which the shooter is mentally ill and required no change in government policy or any security measures or gun laws. However, as the San Bernardino event shows if they are Muslims then it is a terrorist event which is linked to a larger Islamist groups which leads to tighter security and invariably depending on the numbers who die may lead to bombings in Muslim countries.

However, as the saying goes ‘you may fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but not all the people all of the time’, the NYT has written some commendable editorials on this event including on the 5th December, the NYT for the first time since 1920, had a front page editorial which called for an ‘end to the gun epidemic in America’. Lamentably, on the same day the amendment that would have closed the loophole that allowed individuals on the US terror watch list to buy guns legally in the USA was voted out by Senate, including all four of the Republican Presidential nominees who sit in the Senate who especially came to vote for it. USA needs a Presidential Candidate who is able to stand up in his campaign and say, “It’s About the Guns, Stupid!”

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors. Email: np@gapa.com.pk

@GapaAdvisors.

Afghan refugees: Brothers or foes

Najma Minhas | The Nation | December 05, 2015

One side effect of the recent barbaric attack in Paris has been that EU countries that were already feeling deluged with refugees, arriving on their doorsteps, have garnered strong support to tighten their borders. Austria and Slovenia are talking about setting up border fences and Hungary has already set up a razor wire fence several weeks ago. Angela Merkel’s hitherto brave stance on accepting refugees is under pressure both from other European countries as well as from her conservative alliance, her party, CDU’s popularity has dropped to 36 percent, its lowest level in the past 3 years. Furthermore, the municipalities taking refugees are protesting that they are unable to cope with the numbers.

In the last few days, the otherwise bankrupt Europe has coughed up over $3bn to give to Turkey to stem the flow of refugees to Europe; the only point of contention being whether Turkey will get this every year or if this amount is for the next 2 years. The Europeans have also bribed Turkey with talk of fresh negotiations on its ever-illusory dream to join the EU. These are the very countries after killing millions of Jews in concentration camps signed up to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, created initially for the European refugees; witness the famous photo circulating on social media of a ship full of swarming European refugees.

Other side of the continent, the ‘Super Power’ that has created this chaos and mess in Iraq and Syria is taking a measly 10,000 Syrian refugees; even more disgraceful, is the legislation that has been passed by the House and approved by 289 legislators versus 137 opposing, to get every single refugee asylum application from Syria & Iraq, certified that they pose no threat. Every application – including that of a child – has to be endorsed; by the director of FBI, Secretary of the Department of Homeland and the Director of National Intelligence before approval to come to the USA can be granted.

Pakistan, which is not a signatory to the 1951 UN convention, has hosted the largest number of refugees in the world for the longest period, for over 35 years – these are currently estimated at around 3m people; of which around 1.7m are registered and another 1.3m plus are unregistered Afghans. At the peak of the crisis, we had over 4m registered Afghans living in Pakistan. If we add up the numbers that UNHCR has been releasing to Pakistan to take care of the refugees over the last 3 decades they would not even touch the $3bn level now.

Pakistan has provided them with free abode, health and education facilities, which Iran by 2004, said it could no longer afford over such protracted period and started to charge a service fee from refugees for these facilities. Abdul Qadir Baloch, Minister for States & Frontier has put the total cost to Pakistan at over $200bn; no doubt, hosting these refugees has exacted a huge toll on Pakistani society especially on the two provinces, KPK and Baluchistan, where over 85 percent of the refugees reside.

Sadly, there has been very little discussion in Pakistan about the target date, 31 December 2015, when all registered Afghan refugees were supposed to be voluntarily repatriated back, for which the Afghan government has asked for its fourth extension by another two years. It is a particularly important topic, in light of the persistent icy relations that exist between the two countries and the lack of tangible appreciation by the Afghan government and people of Afghanistan of the turmoil that has been created in Pakistan, by hosting so many refugees for such a long period. On a side note, when it is acknowledged, it is attributed to the individual ‘Pashtun or Pakistani brother’s warmth and hospitality’ and not to Pakistan, yet no one attributes such curtsey to the ‘German brother’ in that case it is Germany extending its goodwill. Afghanis need to acknowledge to themselves that it is ‘Pakistan’ that has taken care of their people- the refugees.

Pakistanis should have the right to have a full discourse on the pros and cons of hosting the refugees – not that unbeknownst to us the government extends the deadline with no clear idea on the issue except to delay addressing it once again. It is the people of Pakistan that have seen changes in their society as a result of these huge numbers of refugees, that brought with them their conservative social and religious culture along with Kalashnikovs’; opium smuggling from across the border that created over 1m opiate drug abusers since 1979.

And of late intelligence agencies claims that foreign agencies are using Afghans for creating havoc in Pakistan; citing that 90 percent of all terrorist incidents in Pakistan are from Afghans coming from refugee camps. It is then no surprise that recently the Chief Minister of Baluchistan has been reported as saying that they need to go home.

Having said this, we should extend the deadline, both on humanitarian and political grounds, and at the same time recognize that for many Afghanis, Afghanistan is no longer home. The majority of Afghan refugees are now second and third generation immigrants, born in Pakistan – they have little or no ties back in Afghanistan. Like all human beings they want a secure life where they can work to improve their economic welfare and live safely. They are an asset for us both economically and politically to improve ties with Afghanistan. We need to ensure that all refugees are not punished for the sake of the few criminal elements in their community. The government needs to conduct another registration drive so that the unregistered refugees are also assured that they will not be persecuted or harassed; once they have the proper documents, they be allowed to work legally and be incorporated officially into the tax and business cycles. We need to consider granting nationality to those that are born in Pakistan and those that have lived here over a predetermined number of years. At this point any policy the government makes should not waste all the goodwill it generated having hosted the refugees for decades.

The writer is a Director at Governance & Policy Advisors. Email: np@gapa.com.pk

Twitter: @GapaAdvisors.