Saturday, January 26, 2013
By HUMA YUSUFPakistan is currently threatened by a measles epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, 103 children have died from pneumonia and other measles-related complications between Jan. 1 and 19. In Sindh, the worst-hit province, 66 deaths have been recorded this month; in Baluchistan, 33. In Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and politically influential province, the toll is only up to nine. Yet in addition to sparking fears of a health crisis, these deaths are already raising questions about the electoral prospects of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which forms the government of Punjab and, on the national level, is the leading opposition party to the Pakistan Peoples Party, or P.P.P. With a general election just months away, the leaders of Punjab don't want to be accused of failing to provide health care - again. And so even as the Punjabi government has played down the risks of a measles epidemic, Shahbaz Sharif, a PML-N leader who is both Punjab's chief minister and the head of the province's health ministry, has promptly taken action to prevent the spread of the disease. The provincial government has launched a public-awareness campaign, stocked up on vaccines, lowered the recommended age for inoculating children and tasked local officials with monitoring outbreaks. Sharif isn't taking any chances. In late November, the adviser to the prime minister on human rights called for Sharif's resignation on the grounds that, "No one in the Punjab government has taken responsibility of the utter failure and lack of governance, especially in the health sector." This criticism stems partly from political opportunism: The adviser is allied with the P.P.P., which is expecting fierce competition from the PML-N at election time. But it also is deserved. Late last year more than 40 people across Punjab died after consuming a toxic cough syrup produced locally. In early 2012, scores of patients died after being prescribed contaminated heart medication at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology, a provincial government facility in Lahore. The previous year an epidemic of dengue fever killed 247 people. Meanwhile, the Health Department of Punjab has been embroiled in a labor dispute with the Young Doctors' Association, resulting in major doctors' strikes. Not surprisingly, the PML-N's rivals regularly cite these failings as proof of the party's inability to govern. Also not surprisingly, Sharif doesn't want his handling of the current measles outbreak to become one more item on their list. And so he is trying to replicate his one big success of last year, when his department managed to curb a dengue fever epidemic: The number of reported cases fell from 21,000 in 2011 to approximately 250 in 2012. Of course, Sharif's swift action against the spread of measles doesn't amount to a serious effort to revamp Punjab's collapsing health sector. The patients are just lucky that what's good for the politicians happens to be good for them, too.
BY:Joel BrinkleyDistracted by the deadly violence in Mali and Algeria, no one seems to be paying adequate attention to the tragicomedy under way in Pakistan. This matters because events of the last several weeks demonstrate without equivocation that Pakistan is an utterly failed state - but one that possesses nuclear weapons. The country is tumbling down the abyss. Where else could a fundamentalist Muslim cleric who lives in Canada draw tens of thousands of fans to a rally calling for dissolution of the government - speaking from inside a shipping container with a bulletproof window? That's just one in a litany of absurdities going on there. At the same time comes the latest round of unresolvable acrimony between President Asif Ali Zardari and the country's Supreme Court, which has been trying to bring him down for years. Two years ago, the court ordered the prime minister of the time, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to open a corruption investigation against Zardari - as if Pakistanis didn't already know that Zardari, like most every government official, was thoroughly corrupt. After all, since the time his wife, the late Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister, Zardari has been known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for the money he purloined from every business deal he managed. The court ordered Gilani to ask Swiss officials for documentation of Zardari's in-absentia conviction on money-laundering charges 10 years ago. Gilani refused, noting that the president is supposed to be immune from prosecution. The court scoffed. One justice spat: "Obedience to the command of a court" is "not a game of chess or a game of hide-and-seek." And soon after, the court forced Gilani to resign. Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, the information technology minister, took his place. Right away, the court landed on him with the same request: Help us file corruption charges against Zardari; get those Swiss documents. The new prime minister also resisted, and wouldn't you know it: Right now the court is trying to force him out of office - charging him with corruption. It's almost comical. But all of this seems to have paralyzed an already ineffective, incompetent government. Just a few days ago, an officer in the state anticorruption agency who was investigating the allegations against Ashraf was found hanged in his barracks. Police called it a suicide. Awfully convenient timing. At the same time, in northwestern Pakistan, thousands of protesters shouting antigovernment slogans put the bodies of 15 villagers on display, charging that security forces had shot them dead in their homes. The chief security agency, the shadowy, mendacious Inter-Services Intelligence, did not comment but finally did respond to a court inquiry into the fate of seven men who were arrested in 2007. A court ordered them released. But then, all seven men simply disappeared. Finally, on Monday, an ISI lawyer acknowledged the "lack of incriminating evidence" against the seven men but went on to say that they were arrested "on moral grounds." Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry shot back that the ISI simply cannot detain suspects indefinitely and unlawfully - particularly on "moral grounds." "Morally, they can put anyone behind bars, even me," Chaudhry charged. "According to them, all the people are guilty." But despite years of heinous abuses, neither the court nor anyone else in government ever tries to rein in the renegade spy agency. Why should we care about any of this? After all, Pakistan is hardly the only failed state in the world. Think about Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, Zimbabwe. But have any of these other states received more than $12 billion in aid from Washington over the past decade - with another $688 million payment now before Congress awaiting almost certain approval? And do any of the other failed states - Afghanistan, Chad, Nigeria, Uganda - possess nuclear weapons? No. Pakistan is the only state that has bombs - and a vibrant Islamic insurgency intent on toppling the absurdly ineffectual government. And don't forget that senior leaders of al Qaeda live there, too, most of them resident in Pakistan's eastern borderlands. Of course, Osama bin Laden also resided there, undisturbed until U.S. forces killed him in 2011. If the Taliban do ever succeed in toppling the government, they would almost certainly seize the nukes - a terrifying prospect. Right now, though, Taliban militants, responsible for manifest mayhem and thousands of deaths in recent times, appear to be sitting back and watching, most probably with smiles on their faces. Their goal is to destabilize the state, but it's quite obvious now that the sitting government is much better at that than they are.