• Published at Dunya News on Nov 29, 2011

Obama says NATO airstrike tragic, ISAF and CENTCOM launch inquiry

President Obama has termed the loss of 24 Pakistani lives because of NATO airstrike as ‘tragic’.

The White House termed the death of 24 Pakistan soldiers in a NATO airstrike alongside the Pak-Afghan border in Mohmand agency as “tragic” while two separate inquiries have also been launched immediately.

The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, briefing the reporters Monday, said President Barack Obama s reaction is that the event was a “tragedy”. “We mourn those brave Pakistani service members who lost their lives and our sympathies go out to their families and go out to Pakistan. We take this matter very seriously.”

Carney said International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as well as the US Central Command (CENTCOM) will launch a full-scale inquiry into the incident separately. “We are keen to find out exactly what happened,” he stated.

On the relationship with Pakistan, he said: “it is an important cooperative relationship but also very complicated”.

“It s very much in America s national security interest to maintain a cooperative relationship with Pakistan because we have shared interest in the fight against terrorism. So we will continue to work on that relationship,” he stressed.

“Don t forget that Pakistan and Pakistani people have been primary victims of terrorism and terrorists. So we work with them and that cooperative relationship has borne fruit for the United States, for our national security interest,” the White House spokesman recalled.

The State Department s deputy spokesman, Mark Toner, on the other hand, said “it is not the first time that this kind of miscommunication has taken place, although we have tried to address that previously.”

“We will see during investigation what happened in this case and will try to fix that in future,” he assured.

He conceded that the US is concerned about impact of this incident on relations with Pakistan because such set-backs create serious challenges. Both countries have weathered such challenges previously and this cooperation has yielded tangible results in the ongoing war against terrorism, in which we share vital security interests, he argued.

Toner declined to comment on the specifics of the tragic incident before completion of inquiry. “We understand that NATO supply routes have been immediately cut-off besides other steps that have been taken in the aftermath of the airstrike,” he said. He informed that Secretary Clinton and NATO secretary-general Andre Rasmussen had already talked to Pakistani officials and offered condolences. He, however, did not respond to a question as to why the US had not publicly condemned the incident as yet.

On Pakistan s reluctance to attend the forthcoming Bonn conference to discuss the future of Afghanistan, he said “Pakistan has conveyed to us that its plans for attending Bonn conference are not definitive.”

“It is important that Pakistan attends this conferences for the future and stability in Afghanistan”, he urged, adding that, “there was no suggestion of postponing the Bonn conference at this stage.”

Meanwhile, Pentagon s press secretary George Little said that ISAF commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen had requested for a thorough investigation led by CENTCOM, but no timeline could be given for its completion. “It is important to collect all the facts and investigation will look at all the factors in this case,” he pointed out.

He was reluctant to comment on the specifics of the incident and whether any disciplinary action had been taken against anybody after the airstrike. “Joint investigation with Pakistan could be a possibility, but we have not heard such talk yet,” he said while responding to a query.

On reports regarding Pakistan s demands to vacate Shamsi Airbase, he claimed that there were no US military personnel at Shamsi at this point. “I can t tell the exact number of US military personnel in Pakistan or whether there is any demand to further reduce it,” he said when probed further.

He said that Pentagon was aware of blockade of NATO supply routes, and was working to develop a way ahead and move beyond this incident with Pakistan. “We are looking at other supply routes too, because war efforts in Afghanistan against the enemy continues,” he opined adding that “it is an important relation with Pakistan and vital for peace and stability in the region,”

Offering no comments on reports that US airplanes crossed into Pakistani territory in the incident, he said that coordination does take place in border areas where ISAF operates but can t comment on what happened in this case.

“We remain committed to military relations with Pakistan despite the complicated past year,” he vowed.

Published at Dunya News on Nov 29, 2011.

Daunting task for Sherry, but enough to suggest hope

Pakistani politics and media is still trying to dig deep into the memo-gate scandal that led to the resignation of the country’s envoy to United States, Husain Haqqani. Whether we will ever know the complete truth in this case in anybody’s guess, if the murky track record of Pakistan in inquiring controversies is any indication. But that’s a topic of discussion for another day.

As Pakistan and US gear-up for life in the post-Husain Haqqani era, the former has nominated Ms. Sherry Rehman to take-up the reigns of the most difficult yet coveted diplomatic job. The government has surprised almost everybody by taking this decision, but has received an overwhelmingly positive response.

Husain Haqqani’s ouster was dubbed as another low point in the troubled history of Pakistan’s civil-military relations by many and it was agreed that the military leadership, given their unhappiness with Husain Haqqani from the word go, would have the major say this time.

All eyes were subsequently on the potential replacement with considerable interest. There were several names being dropped, but Sherry was not even a wildcard. It must be said that whosoever suggested her name has done a markedly good job.

It was widely expected that all three stakeholders – Pakistan civilian and military leadership as well as the United States – would have to be comfortable with the new envoy. The choices thus were too few and too delicate. Given this background, the fact that even the fierce critics of the civilian government have hailed the decision is a welcome first.

If anybody is assuming that Ms. Rehman will be an easy pushover and will toe the line of military establishment, her record says that she will be anything but. She has the knack of being her own person, showing defiance as per her conviction.

Starting out her career as a journalist, she showed enough promise to become editor of a prestigious magazine, Herald, at the young age of 26 and was known for her liberal and independent views. Her colleagues during the decade-long stint still admire her guts. She stepped down in 1998, but was hardly finished.

She wrote a book on Kashmiri shawls before joining Benazir Bhutto, a longtime friend, for active politics. She spent five years in opposition during the tenure of former president General Pervez Mushrraf, and was considered quite close to Benazir Bhutto, advising her on policy issues.

She was at the forefront of the lawyers’ movement for restoration of judiciary from the platform of Pakistan Peoples Party and was appointed Federal Minister for Information when the party assumed power after the 2008 general elections in Pakistan.

Barely a year into the job, she tendered resignation after developing differences with the party leadership on their handling of media and the effort to gag some news channels. Many considered her down and out, but it was hardly the case.

Sherry Rehman set-up a think-tank and produced reports on Indo-Pak peace process and Afghanistan. Simultaneously, she also started lobbying for women and minority rights; championing the cause for abolishing blasphemy law with slain Governor Salman Tasseer and minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti.

After the assassination of the latter two high-ranking officials, Sherry also received death threats from right-wing hardliners, at a time when even her own party did not take a stand on this issue, but she hardly blinked in the face of adversity.

Despite this bold stance, the party continued to value her and her views for a progressive and liberal Pakistan, pretty much like her predecessor, must have played a role in making her the preferred choice for this daunting task.

She is well-educated, politically shrewd, media savvy and has a good understanding of the global situation and the complexities of Pak-US relationship. On top of it, she does not come to Washington with any previous baggage. Agreed that it is a crucial juncture, but it is likely to be a smooth transition, only because she will carry many personal attributes similar to her immediate predecessor.

Husain Haqqani himself welcomed the appointment in a tweet and also revealed having met Sherry to brief her on the challenges lying ahead. Short of speculating on the do’s and don’ts of the high-profile job, it is a known fact that it is not a bed of roses at a time when the bilateral relationship is at an all time low.

Sherry can make the welcoming remarks her strength because these are likely to be echoed in the administrative circle of Washington, DC as well. Her stint, in the immediate future, is only a year or so of the remaining duration of this regime, but knowing her, she will try to make the most of it and meet every challenge head-on. She may not be able to fix everything, but there are enough indicators to remain hopeful.

Republican candidates vow aggression against Pakistan

The Republican presidential candidates have vowed to deal with Pakistan more forcefully, if elected.

Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, from Minnesota, who is known for her hawkish views, said that “Pakistan is one of the more violent and unstable states”. “Pakistan is the epicenter of global terrorism and does everything wrong”, she grumbled while asserting that “Pakistan is too nuclear to fail”.

However, she appreciated the intelligence sharing of Pakistan, which according to her “cooperates with US in intelligence gathering about al-Qaeda but we need to ask for more”. “I ll continue to give assistance to Pakistan but will keep pressure as well”, she observed.

Texas Governor Rick Perry said “Pakistan has shown us again and again that they can t be trusted”, and advocated for cutting-off aid to Pakistan. “If Pakistan does not show us that they are cooperating, I ll not give them a penny”, he stressed.

Perry said that the south Asian region, including India and Afghanistan, on either side of Pakistan could be managed better to gain leverage from Pakistan. “We need to be engaged in that part of the world, and create a trade zone with all parties working together”, he suggested.

Former speaker of US Congress, Newt Gingrich said that Osama bin Laden s killing was a new low in Pak-US relationship. “It had to b e like this and nobody should be surprised about it”, he said. “Pakistan should not object if we take action when they are keeping terrorists in their backyard”, Gingrich said.

Former Governor of Massachusetts. Mitt Romney was the only presidential candidate, who raged restraint in dealing with Pakistan. “Pakistan is the sixth largest country in the world and we need to bring them towards modernism into 20th and in fact 21st century”, he said.

“Approval ratings for US in Pakistan are very low (12 percent) and we need to do something about it” Romney regretted while cautioning against a hurried troops draw-down from Afghanistan. “If we pull out now, Afghanistan and Pakistan could again become launching points of terrorism”, Romney said.

Pakistan assures IMF to cut budget deficit, introduce reforms

An IMF mission, led by chief of mission Adnan Mazarei, met with the Pakistani authorities, led by Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, in Dubai and Islamabad from November 9-19 to conduct the 2011 Article-IV consultations and an IMF spokesman issued the following statement about the consultations on return to the US.  “The Pakistani authorities and an IMF staff team held constructive discussions on Pakistan’s recent economic performance and the challenges ahead, in light of uncertainties in the global economic environment. The Pakistani authorities expressed their resolve to strengthen macroeconomic policies and continue to pursue reforms to enhance  Pakistan’s medium-term growth prospects”, the IMF spokesman said.

While issuing a warning that the economic outlook for Pakistan’s financial year 2011-12 is challenging, the mission concluded that “although real GDP growth is projected at about 3½ percent and inflation is projected to decline, the external current account balance is projected to return to a deficit, and global risk aversion and security concerns may limit capital inflows”.

Against this background, discussions centered on short-term steps to address vulnerabilities. Specifically, the Pakistani authorities and the mission agreed that containing the budget deficit in 2011/12, a cautious monetary policy, and a responsive exchange rate would reduce vulnerabilities, contain inflation and protect Pakistan’s international reserves, the spokesman stated.

The Pakistani authorities and the mission also discussed a set of reforms for the medium term that would lift economic growth to reduce poverty, and raise living standards and employment, while assuring continued macroeconomic and financial sector stability.

These reforms include structural reforms to remove constraints to growth, especially in the energy sector, and strengthen public finances, including tax reform, improving the quality of expenditure by raising the share of spending in priority areas such as health, education, and infrastructure, manage fiscal decentralization, and improving debt management.

Additionally, reforms to improve the effectiveness of financial sector intermediation, broaden access to finance, and reinforce financial sector stability should also continue.  “The IMF remains committed to continued close engagement with Pakistan. The IMF mission staff will prepare a report for the IMF Executive Board on the 2011 Article IV consultation that is scheduled for consideration in late January 2012”, the spokesman said.

Under Article-IV of the IMF s Articles of Agreement, the IMF holds bilateral discussions with members, usually every year. A staff team visits the country, collects economic and financial information, and discusses with officials the country s economic developments and policies. On return to headquarters, the staff prepares a report, which forms the basis for discussion by the Executive Board. At the conclusion of the discussion, the Managing Director, as Chairman of the Board, summarizes the views of Executive Directors, and this summary is transmitted to the country s authorities.

The IMF mission also attended a seminar titled “Revival of Economic Growth in Pakistan” that was organized jointly with the Ministry of Finance in Islamabad. The spokesman said that “the seminar provided an opportunity for stakeholders in Pakistan from academia, civil society, the private sector, and development partners to discuss components of a pro-growth reform strategy”.

US administration backs Pak government in memogate controversy

In the days following the controversy regarding a secret memo sent to former US chiefs of joint staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, which is being dubbed in the US media as another battle in the troubled history of civil-military relationship in the country, the US administration is clearly throwing its weight behind the civilian government of Pakistan, Dunya News has learnt.

The secret memo was allegedly sent through a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, who used an inter-mediatory to hand over this memo to Admiral Mullen, who has already denied taking any notice of it, on behalf of the Pakistani government. It has now been confirmed that former National Security Adviser of the White House, Gen. (retd) James Jones played the inter-mediatory role.

The White House spokesperson, talking exclusively to Dunya News here Monday, said that they had seen the press reports that General Jones has confirmed his involvement and that he was not in government at the time. He, however, declined to comment on the memogate controversy, terming it “an internal Pakistani matter”.

However, on another question, the spokesman said “we support the democratically elected government of Pakistan, and it has been our longstanding policy. We expect that Pakistan’s elected and military leaders will act in accordance with Pakistan’s constitution,” he added.

“Our focus remains on working together with our Pakistani partners to fight the terrorism that threatens the United States, Pakistan and endangers the stability of Afghanistan and the region,” the spokesman said indicating that any destabilization in Pakistan could be detrimental for such objectives.

Meanwhile, the spokesperson of the state department, where Husain Haqqani had some meetings including one with Ambassador Marc Grossman, on Monday also refused to comment “on the specific issue of secret memo.” However, Victoria Nuland, the spokesperson, took the opportunity to back the civilian government by saying that “we always expect that Pakistan s leaders will act in accordance with Pakistan s constitution and will act in a manner respectful of its democratic institutions.”

She, however, declined answering a question on Husain Haqqani s meetings in the state department before departure or whether the US was concerned about his safety. “Our understanding is that Ambassador Husain Haqqani has gone back for consultations. We will refer you to the Pakistani government on these consultations and what he is specifically up to,” she opined.   Earlier on Friday, the current National Security Adviser of White House, Tom Donilon, while declining to comment on memogate, had also described the relationship with Pakistan as “critically important”. We have a critically important counterterrorism relationship with the Pakistanis that we work on every single day,” he stated.

Tom Donilon said that “we work with both the civilian government and with the military, depending on the issue. But I don t have a way, from this distance, to comment on the question (memogate) that you raise. We have, obviously, the support that we need for our efforts in Afghanistan that we work on each day with the Pakistanis,” he argued.

Nothing in memo indicated Zardari sent it: Mullen spokesman

Pentagon spokesman has said Admiral Mullen knew intermediary who brought secret memo to him.

“The letter had no imprimatur of the Pakistani government and Admiral Mullen did not find its contents credible,” he stressed. “There was nothing in the letter that indicated that it was from President Zardari,” Kirby pointed out.

“Admiral Mullen simply received the memo from a third party, read it and decided not to do anything about it because he did not find the memo at all credible,” he recalled.

To a question why Admiral Mullen did not take it seriously when somebody like former National Security advisor to the White House, Gen James Jones was handing over the memo to him, Kirby said: “If he is speaking about it, that it certainly his account and you should ask him why he decided to play this intermediary role.”

Kirby, on the occasion, also reiterated that Admiral Mike Mullen had never met Mansoor Ijaz and neither did he ever communicate with him about the memo. It may be mentioned here that Admiral Mullen confirmed receiving the letter last week after initially denying it when the memo-gate scandal first broke out. Admiral Mullen, through his spokesman Captain Kirby, had said that he used to receive several such letters on a daily basis and did not remember the contents or paying attention to this very memo.