Who’ll bell the cat? Hussain H Zaidi - Monday, April 25, 2011

Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif hit the nail on the head when he observed the other day that the drone strikes into Pakistan’s territory constituted a most serious menace to the country’s sovereignty, and therefore the federal government must put a stop to them. The million-dollar question, however, is who’ll bell the cat, and how?

Mr Sharif’s own prescription is that the predatory raids can be brought to a halt if those in the saddle in Islamabad take a firm stance against them, instead of coming up with hollow condemnatory statements, and shun American aid altogether. But that’s easier said than done. Isn’t it?

In its April 16 issue, this newspaper quoted a comment carried by The Wall Street Journal that the present Pakistani government has allowed the Americans to raise the number of drone strikes while at the same time condemning them publicly. A similar disclosure was made by Wikileaks.

The spin doctors of the government conveniently brush aside such charges as part of an attempt to give a bad name, at home and abroad, to the democratically elected leadership. In all fairness, one can’t rule out that the foreign media are cooking up stories of our government having acceded to the predatory attacks. That said, two facts are indisputable: one, there’s no letup in the drone attacks; two, in the wake of every strike the government protests with the US authorities and seeks assurance that there wouldn’t be another such incident. What else can one make of it? If our leadership hasn’t consented to the drone attacks, why doesn’t it tell its American counterparts in so many words that enough is enough and, come what may, it wouldn’t countenance them?

Washington has also been requested to transfer drone technology to Islamabad. But given the trust deficit that characterises the bilateral relations, particularly the suspicion that the security establishment of Pakistan is harbouring militants, such a demand is no more than a fool’s errand.

The question whether the predatory strikes are being carried out with the consent of the Pakistani government is important. But a more important question is whether and how the attacks can be brought to an end. Surely, the strikes have given rise to strong resentment across the country, especially in their theatre – the northwestern Pakistan. At the same time, they have watered down public support for the war on terror not merely because they’re a violation of national sovereignty but also for the reason that they claim innocent lives. Without public support the war can hardly be won. But the Americans think otherwise and look upon the drone raids as an essential component of their counterterrorism strategy. So they have to be prevailed upon to eschew this tactic.

This brings us back to square one. Who’ll rein in the Americans and how? Granted that the ruling establishment is not in cahoots with Washington on the predatory raids, and rather it’s keen to have them halted, their efforts in the form of diplomacy, including third-party intervention, haven’t borne fruit. What other options do we have up our sleeve? Our nuclear-power status, coupled with massive military might, have constituted a strong deterrence against the drone strikes. The fact that it hasn’t means that we’re deficient in some other respects, which has constrained our capability to check American intrusion. Undoubtedly, the economy is the Achilles’ heel. Regardless of the tall claims of the people at the helm, of safeguarding national sovereignty and having put the economy back on track, the fact is that we’re a country of addicts and are in dire need of foreign capital inflows to keep the wheels of the economy moving. There’s no dearth of people – rich politicians, big landlords, business tycoons, professionals, entertainers and sportspersons – who brag about their patriotic credentials while at the same time conveniently evading contributing to the national exchequer.

In a population of 180 million, only 1.7 million pay income tax. The overwhelming majority of the taxpayers come from the salaried class, whose tax is deducted at source. We’ve one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world and the public revenue lags behind even day-to-day expenditure. All talks of widening the tax net seem merely a political gimmick, and if the finance minister is to be taken at his word, it’s the popularly elected parliament that’s hindering revenue reforms. Little wonder, then, that the begging bowl has become a national symbol making a mockery of the hollow claims of our being a sovereign nation. At the moment, the government is lining up for another IMF credit line – the current one having saved us from an imminent default. A country whose economy is too weak to operate without the crutches of foreign assistance can be called sovereign only by courtesy.

Of course, one may argue that the government should break the begging bowl and take bold decisions, notwithstanding the state of the economy. There are nations whose economic health is as fragile as ours, or even more. But this economic fragility doesn’t mean that they’ll let another country break into their territory at will. So, the argument goes, Pakistan ought to stand up against drone attacks even if it means saying goodbye to American economic assistance.

Yes, national independence needs to be safeguarded at all cost. But are we willing to pay the cost? Do we have the leadership which can spearhead the struggle for national independence? A leadership, on either side of the political divide, which is addicted to a luxurious and pompous lifestyle and looks to external powers for staying in or entering the corridors of power, can hardly put up a bold stance before the Americans, or for that matter any other powerful state. They can’t, so to speak, bell the cat.

In a word, whether we like it or not, we’re condemned to face the drone raids into our territory until the US itself realises that persisting with this tactic in the war on terror is uncalled-for, if not damaging, to its own cause.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad. Email: hussainhzaidi@gmail. com

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=43519&Cat=9

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