Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Pakistan ushers in new political era with caution

Posted by vmsalama on January 21, 2009

Vivian Salama

LAHORE – There is little fanfare amongst many Pakistanis this week as they watch America prepare to usher in a new era of professed hope and change. 

On Lahore’s main platform for political expression, known here as the Mall, dozens of banners were erected this week reading “America and Israel: dogs of hell.” Protestors marched through Pakistan’s cultural capital yesterday calling on Barack Obama to put an end to policies that stifle the Muslim world.

“Israelis are killing us in Gaza, and Americans killing us in Iraq and Afghanistan and Indians are killing us in Kashmir so we have the right to explain our part,” shouted Fayez Khuraz, an Islamic preacher who joined hundreds of others in protest.  “If Barack Obama is an human being, he will bring an end to these policies that make the Muslim people suffer.”

pak-protest2

Many in Pakistan say there is great cause for concern as the Washington transition period nears its end.  Since the early days of the US election campaign, the now-President Barack Obama said that he would not sit quietly and allow Pakistan to serve as a sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants fleeing US forces in Afghanistan. 

Since August 2008, the tribal border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been the target of repeated air strikes as US forces look to weed out radical Islamists from the lawless mountain region. Pakistani officials have insisted that the attacks are not only unwarranted, but can compromise its domestic security. 

“I think [the Americans] in Afghanistan have made the situation worse for Pakistan,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, head of the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management and Economic Research.

In recent weeks, one of Pakistan’s most scenic tourist cities, the Swat Valley in the Eastern region, has been the scene of a deadly Taliban take over.  Last week, Taliban insurgents forced the closure of all girls’ schools in Swat, forcing at least 50,000 young girls to stay home.  Pakistan’s military has staged an attack on the militants, causing many civilians casualties and a heightened state of alert across the country.

Many US officials maintain that Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) continues to aid Taliban forces in Afghanistan and the US must therefore have more direct involvement in the fight against extremism on both sides of the border.  However, analysts in Pakistan believe that no one can deal with Pakistan’s militancy problems better than Pakistan.

“We have that capability we can handle the situation on the borders but when you continue pushing these militants inland, it harms our country,” added Rais. “Pakistan’s future security is very much linked to the war in Afghanistan and the larger issue of peace and stability in the region, so we think Obama will be a better president if he rethinks the two wars and pulls troops out.”pak-protest

Pakistanis are equally concerned that lawmakers chosen to be part of Barack Obama’s administration have closer ties with India and may, as a result, fail at brokering any neutral diplomacy.  Relations between the formerly-united South Asian nations have been particularly icy in recent weeks after assailants in the deadly siege on Mumbai last November were suspected of having links to Pakistan.

Earlier this month, India’s foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, said that investigators had found evidence that ties the gunmen who carried out the attacks to “elements in Pakistan” and added that Islamabad was obliged to extradite those responsible.    Washington has urged Islamabad for full cooperation.

“There are two powers that run Pakistan – the army and America, so whatever happens in America affects Pakistan indirectly,” explained Danish Altaf Mufti, a student at the Lahore School of Economics.  “America would definitely want good relations with India but it should try to keep it in check if it wants balance of power in the region.”

Beyond tensions on the country’s Eastern and Western borders, many Pakistanis say they are eager to see a general upheaval of American foreign policy as it relates to the Muslim world.  From Karachi to Rawalpindi, Pakistanis have been voicing their distress over the violence unfolding in Gaza and calling upon the West to take drastic measures to bring an end to the fighting.

“A very important thing is how he handles the Palestine conflict because every Muslim has been hurt by this,” said Mufti. “I know it is transition phase and he has to be careful with his words, but if he is afraid of the Israel lobby then we will not see the real change that people are talking about.”

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