Tuesday, January 24, 2012

: Obama: State of the Union Is Getting Stronger

The State of the Union Address: And So It Begins

If anyone had any lingering doubts about whether President Obama is ready to fight for his job, the State of the Union Address tonight should have dispelled them. I’m not the biggest fan of the president’s speeches. They can be awfully long, his delivery rather low-key, and his talking points often follow a slow-windup-then-slower-let-down pattern. If he had treated us to that drill tonight, a lot of voters would have switched to a screening of “The Shawshank Redemption” or maybe reruns of “The Big Bang Theory.”

But Mr. Obama was in full-throated campaign mode by the second page of his prepared text. “Let’s remember how we got here,” Mr. Obama said of the struggling economy, talking about how jobs were going overseas before the recession, how working people saw their paychecks stuck while costs rose, along with the salaries of bankers and hedge fund operators.

“In 2008,” he said, “the house of cards collapsed. We learned that mortgages had been sold to people who couldn’t afford or understand them. Banks made huge bets and bonuses with other people’s money. Regulators had looked the other way, or didn’t have the authority to stop the bad behavior.”

“It was wrong,” the president said. “It was irresponsible. And it plunged our economy into a crisis that put millions out of work, saddled us with more debt and left innocent, hard-working Americans holding the bag.”

It was startling, frankly. I haven’t seen the president this combative since before his inauguration.

Mr. Obama has had his share of missteps and setbacks. Maybe more than his share, since the Republicans in Congress have devoted themselves entirely to making sure that he gets as few victories as possible – even if that means slowing the economic recovery, or perhaps specifically in order to slow the recovery. Faced with a hypothetical choice between four more years of a Democratic president, or four more years of recession, they seem to prefer the latter.

He even ended his speech by reminding everyone that he – not President George W. Bush – killed Osama bin Laden. “One of my proudest possessions is the flag that the SEAL Team took with them on the mission to get bin Laden,” he said. “On it are each of their names. Some may be Democrats. Some may be Republicans. But that doesn’t matter. Just like it didn’t matter that day in the situation room, when I sat next to Bob Gates – a man who was George Bush’s defense secretary and Hillary Clinton, a woman who ran against me for president.”

Subtle? No.

And I don’t know if it will work. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are low – higher only than those of Congress. But at least he is making it clear that he will fight, hard.

We’ll soon see how serious he is. Mr. Obama outlined a lot of important and ambitious policy goals tonight. Many of them will take Congressional approval. He may not get it. In fact he probably won’t. But he said he was prepared to fight obstructionism. We will either see that happen, or we will not. That will be the real test.

In State of the Union, Obama warns economic disparity threatens middle class

President Obama warned the nation Tuesday that the decades-old promise of a secure and rising middle class is under threat because of growing disparities between the rich and everyone else in America.

In an election-year State of the Union message that will likely serve as the template for the months of campaigning ahead, Obama outlined a series of steps that he believes will reinforce the tentative economic recovery, including proposals to eliminate tax incentives for companies to move jobs overseas, to make college more affordable and to expand help for credit-worthy homeowners looking to refinance mortgages at historically low interest rates.

None of the proposals constitutes a single bold stroke to revive the economy, but the heart of Obama’s message — one he has underscored in appearances around the country in recent months — was that America’s wealthiest citizens must do more to cement the economic recovery and pull the country from its dire fiscal condition.

The approach was typified by his call for those who make more than $1 million a year to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent and to forgo a host of deductions he said they do not need.

In detailing what he called a “blueprint for an economy built to last,” Obama struck the populist chords that his Republican presidential rivals have criticized as “class warfare.” But he has seen his approval ratings rise on the strength of that message, particularly among the independent voters who helped elect him in 2008 but had grown disappointed by his leadership in office.

“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama told a boisterous House chamber and a prime-time television audience, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

“What’s at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values,” he continued. “We have to reclaim them.”

Obama spoke from a stronger position politically than he has been in for months. His approval rating, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, stands at about 50 percent, and a majority of independent voters now look favorably on his performance in office.

But his advisers are well aware that his pursuit of a second term is imperiled by a still-staggering economy and a perception, even among those in his own party, that he has not effectively challenged Republicans to pass his economic plans.

Nearly all of the roughly hour-long speech Tuesday was devoted to the economy. Obama spent only a brief time on foreign policy.

He underscored that in the past year he has overseen the killing of Osama bin Laden and the end of the Iraq war, an unpopular conflict that he had pledged to end as a candidate. Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the May raid that killed bin Laden, was invited to sit with first lady Michelle Obama for the address.

In his speech, Obama proposed using half of the “peace dividend” as he ends America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — about $200 billion over the next six years — to pay for the construction of new roads, bridges, rail lines and other infrastructure that he said is critical to the country’s ability to compete in a global economy.

In a tacit response to criticism from his Republican rivals, he also announced that he would create a “trade enforcement unit” that will allow the government to more aggressively pursue unfair trade practices in countries around the world.

He specifically mentioned China, long accused of keeping its currency unfairly low against the dollar to boost exports and make U.S. imports more expensive. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has criticized Obama for failing to challenge China over its trade practices.

As he has in the past, the president spoke optimistically about the trajectory of the economy, which, he has repeatedly reminded Americans, was in the depths of a recession when he took office and is now adding jobs. The unemployment rate still stands at 8.5 percent, dangerously high for an incumbent seeking a second term.

But his focus Tuesday was on economic unfairness, a theme he has emphasized in recent weeks, most most notably in a speech last month in Osawatomie, Kan.

There he declared the trickle-down economics of his Republican predecessors a failure that the country should not return to in November, and Tuesday he echoed that message.

“As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum,” Obama said. “But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place.”

In the Republican response to his address, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana said that “no feature of the Obama presidency has been sadder than its constant efforts to divide us, to curry favor with some Americans by castigating others.”

“As in previous moments of national danger, we Americans are all in the same boat,” Daniels said. “If we drift, quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt, we will all suffer, regardless of income, race, gender or other category. If we fail to shift to a pro-jobs, pro-growth economic policy, there will never be enough public revenue to pay for our safety net, national security or whatever size government we decide to have.”

Many of the proposals Obama outlined Tuesday were ones he has raised before, including some left over from last year’s State of the Union address.

But all of them appeared tailored to appeal to middle-class interests and anxieties, especially those concerning the direction of the economy and where the next generation of jobs will come from.

“We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt and phony financial profits,” he said, adding that he wants “an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers and a renewal of American values.”

Obama said he would open up new federal land to develop wind farms and solar energy plants to reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign oil.

He warned colleges and universities that they risk losing federal funding if they do not keep tuition costs down. He reiterated his call for Congress to extend the payroll tax cut through the end of the year, a benefit to working-class families.

And he called on Congress to help homeowners who are current on their payments but unable, for whatever reason, to refinance at lower mortgage rates. He proposed using revenue from the administration’s proposed fee on banks to help finance the initiative.

“Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people,” he said. “An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs. A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world. An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded. . . .

“The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive,” he added. “No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important.”

Obama spoke as the top Republican candidates for the presidency are debating economic fairness on their own terms, with Romney, a former venture-capital chief executive, defending his large income and relatively low tax rate.

Romney released tax returns Tuesday that show he paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent on his 2010 income of $21.6 million. He estimates payment of an effective rate of 15.4 percent on income of $20.9 million in 2011 — below the rate that the White House says many middle-class families pay.

To make the case for a host of economic proposals he is likely to unveil in the speech, Obama invited the billionaire investor Warren Buffett’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek, to sit with the first lady in the House chamber for the speech.

Bosanek is the inspiration for the president’s call for wealthier Americans to pay a higher tax rate, known as the “Buffett rule,” which Obama first announced in September but described Tuesday in the most detail to date.

The Buffett rule — which the president said was developed after the billionaire investor said he paid a lower effective tax rate than his secretary — forms a key component of Obama’s plan to boost short-term spending to help create jobs for the middle class.

But Obama’s advisers said he will not include the tax rate or the deductions he believes should be eliminated for the wealthiest Americans in his budget, which he is scheduled to present next month. As a result, it serves more as a political marker than a firm proposal.

“Let’s never forget: Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that does the same,” Obama said. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.”

Congressional Republicans have vowed to oppose any new revenue — including a higher tax rates for millionaires — at a time when the national deficit continues to soar and Congress is trying to identify $1.5 trillion in budget cuts agreed to last summer.

At the Capitol, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday that Obama’s policies “are just going to double down on what hasn’t worked.” He said “the politics of envy, the politics of dividing our country is not what our country is all about.”

Congressional Republicans have expressed deep concern over the size and expense of the federal government, favoring a reduction in spending and tax cuts to spur economic growth rather than spending.

In a statement, U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Thomas J. Donohue said “too many of the solutions he proposed rest on higher taxes, more spending, and an avalanche of new regulations. “

“The way to create the jobs Americans need is to grow our free enterprise economy, not to further expand the federal government.,” he said.

School blown up in Khyber Agency

Another school has been blown up by militants in the Khyber Agency.
As per details, miscreants blew up a primary school in Shaikh Mand Khail area of Khyber Agency on Tuesday morning. The building of the school has completely demolished due to the blast.No causality has been reported due to closure of school.
With the incident, the number of targeted schools by militants has reached to 78. The militants are targeting infrastructure, particular educational institutions in both the tribal and settled areas of Fata

Sharmeen first Pak filmmaker nominated for Oscars

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy has becomes first Pakistani filmmaker to be nominated for Oscars.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s film Saving face has been nominated in the documentary/short film category.
Ms Chonoy, who has directed several documentary films, won an Emmy award in 2010 for her documentary on the Taliban.
The Karachi-based filmmaker has co-directed ‘Saving face’ with Daniel Junge. The documentary portrays a British Pakistani plastic surgeon who dedicates his time to surgery on faces of acid attack victims in Pakistan.
The film will be released in March, and Oscars are due to be held on Feb 26.

'Hugo,' 'The Artist' lead Oscar race

Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," with 11 Academy Award nominations, and Golden Globe winner "The Artist," with 10, lead the list of best picture Oscar contenders announced today.

North Korea, New Land of Opportunity?


As chairman of Wanxiang Group, a Chinese auto parts and mining conglomerate, Lu Guanqiu knows the headaches of doing business in diverse environments. He controls dozens of factories in the U.S. that serve the troubled auto industry and mines in Indonesia, remote western China, and North Korea. “North Korea is like China was 30-plus years ago,” the onetime farmer says in a chilly reception room at Wanxiang’s headquarters in Hangzhou, 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. “Through our contact, we are certain they will become more open and more liberated.”

Despite its guiding doctrine of Juche, or self-reliance, and its reputation as a rogue nuclear state and the last bastion of personality-cult totalitarianism, North Korea is attracting foreign companies with an appetite for risk and a tolerance for government meddling. Chinese, South Korean, and about 30 European companies have invested in copper and gold mines, factories producing medications and blue jeans, and even Internet service. (Americans and Canadians are largely barred from doing business there.)

In Pyongyang, Egypt’s Orascom Telecom (OTLD:TQ) is building a 3G mobile-phone network and DHL (DPW:GR) delivers packages. Two Hong Kong-listed companies operate casinos for tourists (locals aren’t allowed in). France’s Lafarge (LG:FP) owns 30 percent of a cement plant that employs 3,000 workers. German-backed outsourcer Nosotek offers North Korean programming help to Western companies developing cell-phone games. A Swedish group markets Noko Jeans, made in the North.

Total accumulated foreign investment in North Korea reached $1.475 billion in 2010, up from $1.437 billion the previous year, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Some $6.5 billion more is in the works as Chinese infrastructure companies plan new ports, highways, and power plants, according to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, a think tank in Seoul.

With mineral reserves valued at more than $6 trillion, according to South Korean state-owned mining company Korea Resources, the North has become a magnet for Chinese enterprises. Of the 138 Chinese companies registered as doing business in North Korea in 2010, 41 percent extract coal, iron, zinc, nickel, gold, and other minerals, according to the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. China’s investment in the North’s mineral sector since 2004 has reached $500 million, the Samsung Institute estimates. China accounted for 57 percent, or $3.5 billion, of the North’s foreign trade in 2010, up from 53 percent the previous year, according to South Korea’s statistical office. “The Chinese are storming in there and taking all the opportunities,” says Roger Barrett, managing director of Korea Business Consultants, a Beijing company that advises foreign investors in North Korea.

With the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il in December and the elevation of his son, Kim Jong-Un, things could open up further. “One way or another, it is crucial for North Korea to renew its economy,” says Lee Jong-Woon, a researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. “We expect the new government to carry on attracting foreign capital.”

Those who invest will face countless hassles. North Korea’s roads are narrow and potholed. The country’s railroads and ports are a shambles, and its power grid struggles to keep the lights on. “Leadership decisions can supersede legal agreements,” says Scott Snyder, a Korea fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, in an e-mail. A 2009 investment guide from China’s Commerce Ministry warned that “recent Chinese enterprises investing in North Korea have major problems” and have been forced into an “unfavorable situation.”

In 2007, Wanxiang acquired a Chinese company that owned 51 percent of North Korea’s Hyesan Youth Copper Mine, an inactive facility two miles from the border with China. Two years later, after Wanxiang had revived the mine, the North Korean partner suddenly said it planned to take back full ownership with no compensation. Lu, who has close ties to Beijing’s central government and last year accompanied Chinese President Hu Jintao on a visit to the White House, contacted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. After Wen raised the issue with Kim Jong-Il, Wanxiang was allowed to stay. “Our cultural backgrounds and mindsets are very different,” Lu says.

For some small South Korean companies, location trumps the political and infrastructure concerns. More than 100 enterprises from the South now run light manufacturing plants in the Gaeseong Industrial Park, a special economic zone just north of the border, where production started during a thaw in North-South relations in 2005. “I save time and logistics costs compared with running a business in Vietnam or Indonesia,” says Ok Sung Seok, president of Nine Mode, which has a men’s shirt factory at Gaeseong.

While production slowed after Kim’s death, Ok says things are back to normal and that the hassles are outweighed by the low cost of labor. He estimates that his workers are about 60 percent as productive as South Koreans, but he pays them just $160 per month. That’s one-fifth the minimum wage in the South and a quarter the salaries in a factory he operated in Qingdao, China. “The poorer productivity comes from politics, not from laziness or a lack of skill,” Ok says. Government officials “put a priority on political events rather than spending more time for production.”

The bottom line: Despite hassles and bureaucratic meddling, cumulative foreign investment in North Korea jumped to nearly $1.5 billion in 2010.

Parliament not helpless: Babar Awan

Former Law Minister and Vice President PPP Dr. Babar Awan Monday stated that Parliament is not helpless and trial can be done on contempt of parliament.

Former Law Minister Dr. Babar Awan, in a statement, said the matter of contempt of parliament would be raised in the Parliamentary Committee of National Security. Every man entering into Pakistan has to abide by article 5(2).

The suspect who levels baseless charges against anyone would be dealt with under Criminal Law as per section 182 of Pakistan Panel Code(PPC). And the one who becomes the reason of someone�s humiliation would also be charged with Criminal Law under article 500 of PPC, he added.

Opposition assails Punjab govt over PIC deaths

Opposition in Punjab Assembly on Tuesday showed their resentment over the deaths allegedly caused by the reaction of drugs prescribed by Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC).
Speaking during the Punjab Assembly session, Pakistan Peoples Party’s deputy parliamentary leader Shaukat Basra questioned responsibility of the deaths.
The PPP leader wondered why Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who also holds the portfolio of health ministry, was not present in the assembly to address the issue.
PML-Q’s member of provincial assembly Samina Khawar Hayat demanded resignation of the chief minister. She, in addition, also demanded to register a criminal case against him.
Members of opposition and treasury benches started chanting slogans against each other after Hayat’s demands.

Zardari in Myanmar to meet Suu Kyi

President Asif Ali Zardari arrived in Myanmar on Tuesday for two days of talks and a meeting with veteran democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi.
He will hold talks with Myanmar President Thein Sein on upgrading relations, and promoting economic and trade cooperation, and make a special visit to Yangoon to meet Nobel Peace laureate Suu Kyi, his office said.
Suu Kyi is playing an increasingly important role in Myanmar since her release from house arrest just days after elections in 2010 following half a century of military domination.

Malnutrition undermining battle against polio


A sense of despondency, perhaps even desperation, has been encountered in official Pakistan health circles as 192 cases of polio were reported in 2011, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, despite the launch of a National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication at the start of the year.

The plan was launched after 144 cases were recorded in 2010 - the highest in any nation in the world. The president announced at the time that the purpose was to make the nation "polio free".

The initiative, however, has not been successful, with more incidents of polio reported, and a complete failure to match the success of neighboring countries such as India, which this month completed its first 12-month period without a single case of polio, says a report by IRIN, the UN information unit.

The national coordinator of the prime minister's Polio Eradication and Monitoring Cell, Altaf Bosan, told from Islamabad that while the program was an "extensive and elaborate one", the poor figures showing up were a result of "refusals by households" to have children vaccinated, mainly due to a lack of awareness.

Chairing a meeting in November on polio eradication, as it became clear that the figures for 2011 would be higher than for 2010, the prime minister said officials failing to deliver should be "sacked rather than transferred".

But there has been emerging evidence that the problem of eradicating polio may be more complex than simply a matter of "refusals" or administrative laxity.

Chairperson and Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) in Karachi Anita Zaidi told: "Malnutrition among children in our country is a significant factor in the problems with the anti-polio campaign."

She said data from India and some data "that had not yet been published but had been shared with the WHO [World Health Organization]" from Pakistan showed that the immune response to polio vaccinations was about four percent lower in malnourished children than in nourished ones.

"With some 40 percent of our children undernourished, this means a large number may not be responding adequately," she said.

According to official figures, Pakistan has 25 million children under five.

Zaidi, who is an expert in infectious diseases, also said the problem was aggravated due to poorly run campaigns which meant all children did not get all doses of the polio vaccine. "When only four or five doses are received rather than the full seven, there is a greater chance of a lack of response, especially among poorly nourished children."

She said there was a need to improve campaign quality and also focus on routine vaccination campaigns as a whole, protecting children against various preventable diseases, rather than focusing exclusively on offering vaccination against polio.

"Because of the concentration on polio, the routine vaccination levels have really slipped and this affects children very badly," she said. "The polio drops must be administered as part of the full immunization plan," she said.

Jehanzeb Khan, health secretary in Punjab Province, where eight cases of the virus were detected this year, told IRIN: "Experts are looking at the possibility that a poor immune response caused by malnutrition may be a factor in the cases." He said polio had occurred among children who had received multiple vaccine doses.

The problem of vaccines not working due to widespread malnutrition has been taken up by medical professionals studying the polio epidemic in Pakistan. At a seminar at AKUH in Karachi, widely reported in the media pediatric specialists discussed the problem in depth, with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutta, chief of the Division of Women and Child Health at AKUH, stating that the finding that 24 percent of polio cases reported in the country till November 2011 occurred among vaccinated children needed to be investigated further.

"Malnutrition, Vitamin A deficiency, and diarrhea in children, could be the reasons why the vaccines were ineffective. It is twice as likely that the polio vaccine does not convert in malnourished children," Bhutta said.

Malnutrition has been identified as a major problem among children, notably in Sindh Province, but also exists elsewhere in the country.

Baseer Achakzai, the national nutrition focal person at the National Institute Health in Islamabad, told IRIN a recent survey conducted by the Ministry for Health in collaboration with AKUH had found 60 percent of the population was food insecure. "Yes, food insecurity and malnutrition are growing. Poverty is certainly a factor but there has also been a failure to put adequate policies in place," Achakzai said.

The impact of widespread malnutrition on the problems Pakistan is facing with its polio campaign are only now beginning to be discussed.

Girls’ education in a shambles at govt schools in Charsadda


More than 20 girl schools in Charsadda district are closed due to shortage of teachers, but there are 13 lady teachers for 30 girl students at the Government Primary School in Chamrangabad, sources said.

The sources said that due to negligence of the Education Department, thousands of girls were deprived of their basic right of education in the far away schools of Charsadda that were closed as teachers did not want to go there.

The sources in the District Education Department said more than 124 surplus woman teachers who preferred duty at the schools located near their homes using political clout, were not ready to join duties in the remote schools in the district. They added that officials were unable to transfer them to the schools where their services were required.

The sources disclosed that 12 teachers were surplus in the Government Primary School Chamrangabad, five in the Government Primary School in Station Koroona, 11 in Babara village, 12 in Sher Payan, nine in the Papara village school which also had five extra watchmen, seven in Government Primary School in Yachkhel, five in Tariqabad, six in Utmankhel, nine in Khat Killay, seven in Islamabad village, seven in Qazikhel and four in Government Primary School in Turangzai.

Besides, at several other schools the employees were more than the required number, the sources said. The sources said Government Primary School, Dheray Palosa No 1, Government Primary School, Dheray Palosa No 2, and government girls primary schools in Sparlay Dheray, Burj Killay, Sarki Maroofkhel, Khanmahi, Tambolak, Saadabad, Dalazak, Aranda No 1 and 2, Rashakai No1 and 2, Shahid Gul Koroona, Gharmbak, Haryana Bakayana, Meto Killay and Malangi Koroona and Government Primary School, Hashim Khan Killay were closed as teachers were not available to teach the students there.

The sources said that there were 17 girls’ primary schools in the district where one teacher was deputed to teach children which was against the rules and regulations. The one-teacher schools include Government Girls Primary School in Ghandal Khan, Ahmad Khan Killay, Risaldar Killay, Nazo Killay, Dheri Zardad, Shahpasand Killay, Londha Nisata, Sheikhabad, Agra Bala and Shabara villages.

Owing to political interference, the sources said that government schools in Charsadda district were in trouble as no system of monitoring and evaluation existed to supervise the standard of education in such institutions.

When contacted, Executive District Officer (Education) Attaullah Khan said that 41 schools in the district were non-functional due to various reasons. He said most of the schools could not be made functional because those persons who had donated land for the construction of schools had been demanding jobs for their family members.

“We have registered first information reports against such persons,” he said, adding that 24 of the 41 schools had been opened and the remaining 17 schools would be made functional soon. To a question, he said the district education department had surplus teaching staff and these teachers wanted to remain and serve in the district. However, he said the department would start transfers through rationalisation policy and had informed the secretary education of the decision.

The EDO said that transfers of the surplus teachers would start after the school examination in March as any such move before the examination would affect the studies of the students. He suggested that appointments of teachers should be done at the union council level instead of open merit. He argued that it would help address the staff deficiency problem in the remote areas and improve literacy rate.

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: Behind the barbed wire

The Express Tribune

Every time one thinks about the war torn region of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), one can’t help but compare it to a beautiful red apple that is being gnawed away from the inside by a worm. The area which was once known to be the home of exquisite mirror work and sublime beauty, now brings a completely different image in mind.

K-P and its adjoining areas were once tourist spots and used to host thousands of people visiting Jamrud in the Khyber Agency by train. But with the passage of time and with increasing anti-state activities in the area, the situation went out of the administration’s hands and violence prevailed over the residential areas of the province.

K-P wounded by pieces of shrapnel and blasts

Fear paralysed the routine life of the residents of K-P and people would leave home at morning with flickering hope that they would return. Schools were being destroyed and all activities depicting Pakhtoon culture came to a halt after public gatherings started receiving bomb threats.

Peshawar, the provincial capital, rich with cultural heritage and once known as the city of flowers, turned into a war-ridden territory being promoted by the media as the breeding ground of militants. The law and order situation got worse and soon spread a message of intolerance, because of which the international media started projecting K-P as a “no-go” area, devoid of any form of creative relief.

Blessing in political disguise

It was in 2007, when things finally changed for the stereotyped area of K-P. Awami National Party (ANP) won the majority of the seats in general elections held in 2007 and announced the re-opening of Nishtar Hall, a centre for arts and entertainment in K-P. Before ANP, the centre was under the control of Mutahidda Majlise-Amal, a conservative group that had closed Nishtar Hall to halt merrymaking and entertainment in a conservative city like Peshawar.

The provincial government put all its efforts to counter negative propaganda against Pakhtuns, and to tell the world that they are a peace-loving community held several culture and heritage promoting events from Swat’s Aman Maila (Peace Festival) to a tour of Himalayas to the International Mountain Bike race and cultural exhibitions like Hunar-e-Hawa.

Now, the government has planned to present a theatre play that will depict the life of legendary Pashto Sufi poet Rehman Baba, who was born in the 16th century.

An ode to sufism

To convey Baba’s messages of peace, harmony and brotherhood, famous Pashto poet Abasin Yusufzai was asked to write the script and the region’s well known film actor Ajab Gul was given the job to direct the play titled “Hagha Khkuli Khkuli Khalak” (Those Beautiful People), while television actor Iftikhar Qaiser was selected to portray the role of Baba.

Since the play had an open invitation, hundreds of people, along with their families, flocked to the arts and entertainment centre. Public figures like the Chief Minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Amir Haider Khan Hoti, Senator Afrasyab Khattak, Minister for Information Mian Iftikhar Hussain and members of the provincial assembly also visited Nishtar Hall to watch the stage drama, which celebrated the life of an iconic poet.

According to a local journalist Noor Wali, “Nishtar Hall has been hosting stage dramas for quite some time but families hardly visit the hall to watch those dramas due to strict cultural norms. But the turnout of ‘Hagha Khkuli Khkuli Khalak’ shows that change is just around the corner.”

While talking about the taboos attached to entertainment and art-related events, Wali said, “People in this region are interested in knowing more about theatre and that could be one of the reasons why so many of them showed their interest in this venture. The play itself was fascinating and left the audience spellbound.”

Change is coming

Senator Afrasyab Khattak also thought the play was “fruitful” and important for the revival of theatre in the province and said that these signs will help refurbish the image of Pakhtuns in the eyes of the world and especially the international media. “Previously there were fewer platforms for such activities and the people of K-P were lagging behind in art, but now I think we can compete with other provinces in arts as well,” explained Khattak.

While talking about the success of the play, one must not forgot the playwright who delved into history and recreated Rehman Baba’s magic. When asked to comment on how he managed to collect data of the 300-year-old Sufi poet, Yusufzai said, “Let me tell you honestly, it was the most difficult task I have ever come across. That is why the script took three months to complete.”

The team’s efforts paid off as the cultural side of K-P got recognised on local as well international level. Gul stated that the feedback they received is fit for professionals and makes them feel like they have been associated with theatre since a very long time. “We have been receiving messages of encouragement from Dubai, Kabul and Europe and that is what we wanted. We have done our job.”

Pakistan: Devil’s perfectionism

BY:Kahar ZalmayDaily Times

The media would never present reports of the army chief’s convoys and expenses of the GHQ and corps commanders or any story on how the military spends its budget or why its budget is not presented for public scrutiny

“The perfect is the enemy of the good” — Voltaire.

Pakistan is suffering from a self-destruction trend and refuses to listen to any advice that could help arrest this trend before things get out of hand. Why is it on the self-destruction path? Is there something wrong with the very structure of the state or the way it is governed? To understand the fuzzy subject of the Pakistani state, its society and governance structure, a philosophical operationalisation is required that I intend to carry out in the space below. On the basis of this philosophic account, I shall divide Pakistani society in four sections to make it easy for readers’ comprehension.

The first section is of ‘Pessimists’, or people who believe in philosophical pessimism. Their pessimistic position is that since Pakistan is engulfed by numerous problems ranging from poverty, joblessness, absence of the rule of law to religious-ethnic tensions and finally terrorism, it is impossible for anything to get better in Pakistan. That the common people will keep suffering and the rulers will keep ruling. Thus no change is in sight.

The second group is that of the ‘Optimists’, who believe that Pakistani society would eventually reach the state where calm reason would replace all violence and force and Pakistan would become one of the leading states in the world where the rule of law and democratic norms take root. We could see such indulgent emotional optimists writing in the newspapers and appearing on talk shows.

The third segment is that of the ‘Revolutionaries’, who believe that the current system of governance in Pakistan has lost its vitality and become redundant, thus destined to be replaced by a new social contract. The leading representative of this section is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan who does not miss an opportunity to harp on about bringing a revolution in Pakistan.

The fourth section is philosophically ‘Devil’s Perfectionists’, who believe that the people should accept the existing social contract in the country and there is no need for any new order. Any improvement that is deemed required should be brought about by staying within the system, but the tricky part of this assertion is that if you accept this notion that we all have to work within the given system and strive for its perfection, we essentially accept the right of the military to rule this country and regard it as the guardian of the physical and ideological frontiers of Pakistan. The best example that would help to understand this group’s claim is that of General Zia’s referendum, which stated that if the people of Pakistan felt that the government was doing a good job of Islamising state and society, then the government would remain in power for an additional five years.

The current political structure in Pakistan is occupied by the devil’s perfectionists who all gathered to give legitimacy and power to the unlikely rulers, the military. The judiciary has been permissive and stood behind it whenever its services were required to sanction martial laws. The media is another instrument of the military and anybody who challenges the military’s right to rule this country or its dominance over the civilian setup, the argument or justification the media uses is that since all politicians are corrupt and incompetent, the military is forced to govern the country as a last resort. But the most lethal force that the military possesses is the terrorist groups who openly operate in Pakistan and can terrorise and silence any voice the military judges dangerous for its interests.

This section of society is so dominant that it easily silences the saner voices in Pakistan simply by labelling them anti-state. The two recent examples are the NRO case and the memo scandal. The swiftness and enthusiasm of the judiciary and the media is astounding to somehow find our former ambassador, Mr Husain Haqqani, guilty in the memo case and wrap up the current political dispensation through the NRO judgement, but when someone asks what happened to the Osama Commission report or investigation into the attack on Mehran base, an ominous silence prevails.

When Prime Minister Gilani on the floor of the House was forced to question the motives of the OBL Commission and asked who issued Osama bin Laden a visa, he was snubbed by the media and right-wing parties, labelling him irresponsible, and when he said that the military and the ISI chief did not comply with the rules of business in submitting their replies to the Supreme Court, one right-wing political party went to the extent of asking the prime minister to apologise to the army chief. Our superior judiciary swiftly takes notice of the recovery of a few bottles of alcohol from Atiqa Odho’s possession but turns blind when it is requested to take up the missing persons case or Asghar Khan’s petition lying with the court for around two decades.

Pakistani-born Canadian intellectual Tarek Fatah is right when he says: “What does it say about Pakistan where the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court and the military chief has dedicated the country’s million-man army to provide security to a douche-bag? What does it say about a people who want to hang their former ambassador at the word of a man who does commentary on wrestling strippers?”

The media that has turned out to be a mouthpiece of the military does not tire of maligning politicians as corrupt and unsuited for the job. It publishes and broadcasts reports of the expenses of the Prime Minister House, the Presidency, expenses on parliament and parliamentarians and VIP protocols but would never present reports of the army chief’s convoys and expenses of the GHQ and corps commanders or any story on how the military spends its budget or why its budget is not presented for public scrutiny. Even people like Edhi say the politicians should be lashed in public for their incompetence. It illustrates how effective the propaganda of the devil’s perfectionists has been.

The religious parties, a crucial card in the military bag, are now gathered under the umbrella of Difa-i-Pakistan Council (Pakistan Defence Council) to expand the support base of the military. The leading member of the council and chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed recently said: “We will not let Pakistan slide into the hands of secular forces in Pakistan as they have no attachment or relation with Pakistan” and that “Pakistan is unmatched in terms of the freedom it allows for the pursuit of jihad and for spreading of Islam.”

Now what is the alternative to this negative or devil’s perfectionism? Author Tal Ben-Shahar suggests the adoption of optimalism. He says that optimalism allows for failure in pursuit of a goal, and expects that while the trend of activity will tend towards the positive it is not necessary to always succeed while striving to attain goals. This basis in reality prevents the optimalist from being overwhelmed in the face of failure. The optimalists accept failures and also learn from them, which encourages further pursuit of achievement.

There is no force to arrest this trend and that is the real tragedy of this country. This tragedy seems inbuilt in the structure of Pakistan but we should not be overwhelmed if some mistakes were made by the political class as democratic norms take time to get firmly established in any society. The more civil society strives to get our social institutions to democratise, the more we will be able to squeeze the role of the military and its support base, thus ceasing the decline of the Pakistani state.

In Pakistan, coup looms but does not strike

Just days ago, the rumblings of a familiar process seemed underway in Pakistan: The squeezed civilian government berated the looming military. The army darkly warned of consequences. A new general assumed control of a brigade known for helping to oust past governments. The president flew overseas.

A coup d’etat was coming, the Pakistani media screamed. Except that it did not.

Instead, Pakistan again defaulted to what is also becoming a familiar ritual. Having survived the forecast collapse, the government lurched closer to becoming the first-ever elected regime to finish its term. And public debate ensued about whether Pakistan is witnessing a veiled military power grab — or whether this coup-prone nation’s nascent democracy might be growing real roots.

“There is an enlarged democratic space,” said Raza Rumi, a newspaper columnist who counts himself among the optimists. “So this is an interesting moment. The government may or may not survive . . . but the assertion of the civilians is inspiring.”

The current political crises, involving a memo scandal and graft allegations, feature elements that have helped bring down previous civilian governments: avaricious politicians, baying opposition parties, pliant judges and a failing economy that is said to worry the generals.

But many analysts say the tools of past coups, such as tanks and state media blackouts, could not work in today’s Pakistan, where the news media and the judiciary have emerged as new power centers. That has given Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari surprising confidence to publicly challenge the army in what feels like a heavily watched bluffing game. One senior official in the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, confidently said the party does not “see the chances of direct army intervention.”

The military, for starters, has its own problems. Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the Army, has strived to restore the armed forces’ public image since a decade of military rule ended in 2008, but it has faced unprecedented domestic criticism after the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden. A resilient Islamist insurgency leaves generals little down time to manage the economy, said one military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

“The military is so overstretched and preoccupied fighting the militants,” said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a prominent defense analyst. “It’s a full-time occupation.”

Influence today is spread more widely than in past eras, analysts say. In recent years, Pakistan has sprouted a slew of sensationalist and scrappy news outlets that, while generally rabidly anti-government, would be reluctant to endorse a uniformed regime that could corral their reach and profits. Parliament has become less deferential to the military, and the main opposition party, led by Nawaz Sharif, is no friend of the army, which overthrew him in 1999.

The main coup deterrent, some argue, is an emboldened Supreme Court, which has assumed an activist, almost messianic public role. Like the media and the army, it has displayed clear antipathy toward the government by keenly pursuing alleged corruption cases. Those include dated money laundering allegations against Zardari, over which the court has threatened to dismiss Gilani.

But the court was also restored after a struggle against Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the former dictator, and appears unlikely to give legal blessing to a military takeover.

“This was not the case before. The courts were very happy and eager to play along with dictators,” Rumi said.

There are far gloomier analyses about the new roles of the media and the Supreme Court. Pakistani intelligence is widely believed to plant anti-government stories in the news media and intimidate journalists to prevent coverage that is critical of the military.

The court’s laser focus on government misdeeds — driven, its backers say, by a desire to return looted funds to public coffers — has led to accusations that it is doing the bidding of the military and carrying out a “judicial coup.” It is cheered on by Sharif’s opposition party, whose leaders have largely escaped the court’s scrutiny, as has the military.

Against that backdrop, some say the absence of military intervention is irrelevant. The government, hounded by the news media and courts, has been stuck in survival mode since day one, said Ayesha Siddiqa, a military analyst.

“People ask me if I think this government will complete its term. I say it’s immaterial now if it does or it doesn’t, because it has been made absolutely redundant,” Siddiqa said.

That the debate swirling here centers on a “clash of institutions” underscores the dysfunction Pakistan’s democratic setup: The army is a branch of the government that, officially, answers to Zardari. In practice, it has long maintained a grip over foreign and security policies — including some, such as the sponsorship of anti-India jihadist fighters, that have come to haunt Pakistan.

In its bid to survive, the government has spent three years doing little to challenge this arrangement. But it has lashed out recently, with Gilani issuing statements that count here as perilously provocative: Last month, the prime minister warned of a “state within a state” and questioned what kind of visa allowed bin Laden to live in Pakistan for years — a clear dig at the failure of Pakistani intelligence to identify the whereabouts of the world’s most wanted man.

In the bizarre chess match that the duel has become, some analysts and Pakistan People’s Party members say an outright coup would be the party’s preference. That would allow the party to cast itself as a martyr, a role it has cultivated over many years of battle with the military.

But as the government continues to duke it out with the army and the courts, the civilian leadership risks losing the tolerance of the public. For ordinary Pakistanis, the main concerns are rising prices, power shortages, unemployment and violence, which get scant attention in the halls of power.

For now, Gilani and Zardari seem to be betting on the generosity of people such as Arif Hayat, a civil engineer who took a break on a recent morning from shopping at an Islamabad market to practically spit insults about the government.

That civilian government, Hayat said, remains “not democratic,” unconcerned about ordinary Pakistanis and “only here to plunder.” But, he said, military rule is an unsavory alternative.

“It is only democracy that can change this country,” Hayat, 41, said “All the previous military rulers badly failed and created more problems for us.”

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.