Pakistan's plight the focus of Ottawa conference

Pakistan's plight the focus of Ottawa conference
Mike Blanchfield, Canwest News Service
Thursday, October 16, 2008

OTTAWA - The young man was a fully trained suicide bomber, but his future plans included something perhaps more devious - spying on the terrorists who recruited him.

His job application stood out from the hundreds the Pakistani government received recently after running a series of newspaper advertisements seeking "human intelligence" from their lawless tribal regions along the Afghanistan border - the new home of the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency that threatens the Canadian Forces and their allies across that border.

He wanted the government to pay his admission and board to a college near the capital, Islamabad. In return he would go back to his home village on weekends, keep his ears peeled and report back to the government.

Hassan Abbas, a Harvard University scholar, author and former Pakistani government official under both Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf, said the young man's attitude showed that terrorism's recruitment cycle could be breached, that some ensnared by it "see there is a way out."

"Their demand, of course, is opportunity - education, economic opportunity," said Abbas, noting that Pakistani authorities were still mulling the young man's offer.

Abbas and other Pakistani analysts say bringing economic opportunity as well as strengthening traditionally weak democratic institutions are the key to wrestling back control of their country from the terrorists that have set up shop there. Islamist terrorists now use the country's lawless west as a launch pad for attacks in Afghanistan, as well as for brazen acts of violence on their own soil such as the recent Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad that left more than 50 dead.

Abbas joined several dozen experts from his country, foreign embassies, and the Canadian government at a recent symposium in Ottawa sponsored by the Canadian International Council.

"The least understood driver of instability in Pakistan at the moment is the marginalization of large number of people, socially and economically. That is behind most of the manifestations of instability we see today spreading in Pakistan," said Ahmed Mehboob, who heads the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.

Pakistan may have an elected parliament and opposition parties, it may aspire to an independent judiciary, said Mehboob, but all of this has taken a back seat to the "logic of brute force" that has trumped the rule of law since Pakistan's creation in 1947.

Mehboob painted a grim picture of his country's continuing decline over six decades: access to education, health care and clean drinking water has steadily decreased.

On paper, Pakistan's elected parliament is supposed to hold sway, but it has been undermined by the series of coups and military dictatorships that have run in the country, he said.

Mehboob said it was telling that in the last five years under Musharraf- the top army general who took over in a bloodless coup in 1999 until his ouster earlier this year - Pakistan's parliament passed 50 laws, about 10 a year, but it enacted 150 "ordinances" - decrees unilaterally sent down by the president.

Mehboob said Pakistan's judiciary still hasn't recovered from the firing of senior judges last November by Musharraf, which led to his imposition of martial law, and the eventual deterioration of his rule.

But there is hope, he said. The September election of Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated three months earlier, was widely viewed as free and fair, by both the parties that as well as the international community, a first in Pakistan's history.

For the first time, parliament was told "some details" of Pakistan's defence budget. The chairmanship of its public accounts committee - not unlike the Canadian Parliament's key oversight body - was given to an opposition party member.

But Pakistan democratic ambitions require international help, said Bob Miller, president of the Parliamentary Centre, the non-profit Canadian organization that works to strengthen legislatures and democracy abroad.

Miller said that the international community has been too focused on providing military aid to Pakistan. Of the $10 billion the U.S. has pumped into Pakistan between 2002 and 2007, Miller said a recent report by the U.S. Congress found 96 per cent went to military aid, while one per cent went to development.

Doing business directly with dictators, "convenient vehicles" such as Musharraf, creates "enormous skepticism - cynicism - about the motivation of the international community when it comes to supporting democratic values," a view Miller said was reinforced by his trip to Pakistan this past spring.

Miller suggested that Canada might want to re-think its aid strategy in the region. In Afghanistan, for instance, Canada refocused in the last year on signature development projects in the Kandahar region, such as the rehabilitation of the Dhala Dam, because that is where Canadian troops are stationed.

"It's far more than a challenge of putting certain development programs in place, it's a matter of aligning policy, of ensuring that all the instruments that we use in our foreign policy reflect what we claim to be our fundamental values," said Miller. "Pakistan is extremely important to Canada, to the objectives we have. As a country, as a government, we have to pay more attention to Pakistan itself, not as a sideshow to something else."

© Canwest News Service 2008

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