The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘Pakistan’ Category

How American Drone Strikes are Devastating Yemen

Posted by vmsalama on April 14, 2014

Anyone who knows me, knows Yemen holds a special place in my heart. Its diverse landscape is breathtaking and its rich history is virtually untouched after centuries. But what I love most about Yemen is, hands down, its people (its food comes in a distant second!) They smile from inside, even though they face a great deal of adversity, militants roam freely by land and foreign drones hover above them. This report, from my latest visit to Yemen, explores that latter phenomenon — U.S. drones — and argues that the their existence alone is causing profound psychological detriment to a nation. (photos in the piece are also by me)

How American Drone Strikes are Devastating Yemen

On the ground in a country where unmanned missile attacks are a terrifyingly regular occurrence

By Vivian Salama
April 14, 2014


….As the sun began to set on that fateful winter day, the line of SUVs and pick-ups, decorated with simple ribbons and bows for the [wedding], set off for its 22-mile trip. But as the procession came to a standstill to wait on some lagging vehicles, some of the tribesmen claim the faint humming sound they typically heard from planes overhead fell silent.The emptiness was soon filled with the unthinkable. “Missiles showered on our heads,” Abdullah says, moving his hands frenetically. “I started to scream and shout for my cousins. Anyone who was still alive jumped out of their cars.”

Four hellfires, striking seconds apart, pierced the sky, tearing through the fourth vehicle in the procession. When it was over, 12 men were dead, Saleh among them. At least 15 others were wounded according to survivors and activists, including Warda, whose eye was grazed by shrapnel and whose wedding dress was torn to shreds.

The blast was so intense that it reverberated all the way to al-Abusereema, where the groom’s brother Aziz waited for the guests. “I called some people to ask what was that explosion and somebody told me it was the drone,” Aziz recalls. “It was the most awful feeling.”

“As we were driving to the site,” he continues, “I felt myself going deeper and deeper into darkness. That is the feeling of a person who sees his brothers, cousins, relatives and friends dead by one strike, without reason.”

“We are just poor Bedouins,” says Abdullah, now pounding his hands against his chest. “We know nothing about Al Qaeda. But the people are so scared now. Whenever they hear a car or truck, they think of the drones and the strike. They feel awful whenever they see a plane.”…. (Click here to read more)

The wedding of Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amri to Warda last December made headlines around the world after it ended in tragedy./By Vivian Salama

The wedding of Abdullah Mabkhut al-Amri to Warda last December made headlines around the world after it ended in tragedy./By Vivian Salama

Oum Salim sits in her home majlis in Khawlan holding a photo of her late son Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil, her daughter Asmaa, 7, by her side. /By Vivian Salama

Oum Salim sits in her home majlis in Khawlan holding a photo of her late son Salim Hussein Ahmed Jamil, her daughter Asmaa, 7, by her side. /By Vivian Salama

Posted in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, American, Arab, Arab Spring, Awlaki, C.I.A., dictatorship, Drones, Economy, Education, Elections, Employment, Environment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Insurgency, Intervention, Islam, Jihad, Middle East, military, niqab, Obama, Pakistan, Politics, Poverty, PTSD, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Signature Strikes, Social Media, Somalia, South Yemen, Terrorism, Warda, Yemen | 8 Comments »

Lahore Nostalgia

Posted by vmsalama on March 14, 2012

I have days when I really, REALLY miss living in Lahore, Pakistan. The energy that city possessed was unlike any other (and having lived in Cairo, I KNOW energetic cities). People were always out, and there was always something happening in the city center. There were streets that smelled of spices and little outdoor shops that served a dozen different kinds of tea. (My recommendation: Kashmiri tea. It’s very unique and very delicious!) There was also the amazing Lahore fish market (near Taka Takk) which featured an endless strip of outdoor dining restaurants serving fresh fish just the way you like it! On winter nights when it rained, the air was so crisp. My housemate and I used to ride around town on his little motorcycle/scooter. I used to cover most of my body and tuck my hair under a hood – not because I was trying to be modest, but I was always trying to conceal the fact that I am a woman since, in Pakistan, women side-saddle motorcycles and bashfully hold on to the male driver. (I, on the other hand, would straddle the motorcycle and hold onto my male friend for dear life. But I digress….)

The memory that came to me today was that of Coco’s Den, a brothel-turned-restaurant in the historic old city, overlooking Lahore Fort. The restaurant, which serves traditional Pakistani food, is run by Iqbal Hussain, whose mother was a madame at the brothel. Iqbal, also a artist, painted many controversial images of women in the brothel, often looking out over Lahore Fort at the adjacent mosque. The paintings are displayed throughout the restaurant. It was one of my favorite places in Lahore, and one of the country’s many pleasant surprises. It’s amazing that for all the country’s problems with extremism, places like that (and others) are acknowledged and untouched. People accept that it’s part of their history. I hope to visit again very soon.

Coco's Den Lahore

Kashmiri Tea... mmmmm!!!

Posted in Pakistan | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Pakistan’s Biggest Threat Isn’t Foreign

Posted by vmsalama on May 7, 2009

PostGlobal – WashingtonPost.com

by Vivian Salama

Ask 10 Pakistanis what the cause of their country’s security breakdown is, and you are likely to hear at least 10 answers. One of the most widespread beliefs is that Pakistan’s problems, much like those of neighboring Afghanistan, were caused by foreign entities – or, more specifically, foreign meddling in domestic affairs.

Regardless of how bad the situation may appear, many I’ve spoken with here in Pakistan are skeptical that any foreign players know how to solve Pakistan’s domestic problems. But after what I’ve seen here, I disagree.

Pakistan is in dire need of the proper financing to get it back on its feet and help it address the economic and social problems that might be causing its downfall. However, if the United States has a genuine desire to see a stable Pakistan, then President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must distance themselves from the shortsighted policies of the Bush administration, whether that be military assistance or occasional drone attacks. Recovery can only come in the form of hefty economic development and an overhaul of Pakistan’s outdated infrastructure. We saw one positive step in this direction this week: the trade and transit agreement signed by Pakistan and Afghan leaders in Washington on Wednesday aimed at increasing commerce and foreign investment.


President Obama met with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday

President Obama met with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday


In recent months, a financial boost from governments including the U.S., Japan and Saudi Arabia has further emphasized the idea that the key to curbing violence in Pakistan is economic and social development. Pakistan, which recently signed a loan package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $7.6 billion, has experienced a significant economic decline in recent years as its inflation rate climbed to 25 percent and its stocks plummeted, falling an average 35 percent last year. All major rating agencies have downgraded Pakistan and the recent surge in terrorist-related attacks has caused most new investments to dry up. What’s worse, economists in Pakistan are predicting significant job losses over the next two years of anywhere from 3 to 4 million people, further exacerbating the crisis faced by Pakistan’s poor and struggling middle class.

Further exacerbating Pakistan’s instability is the growing number of displaced persons in the country. Currently more than 1.7 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan. 45 percent of those reside in refugee villages and the rest are scattered among host communities, according to UNHCR. However, recent violence in the Swat Valley and neighboring Buner and Dir has forced hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to flee, leaving the overburdened Pakistani government scrambling for solutions.

Many of the citizens here are scared. Even in Lahore, which is considered relatively safe, a series of recent attacks have left many on edge. Many dual passport holders are now opting to leave for lack of a better option. Many here have little confidence in their government’s ability to cap this growing threat.

Those countries willing to support Pakistan through financial assistance have a responsibility to ensure that the money is properly allocated. Better roads and bridges, more job opportunities through business development, and further development of the country’s energy sector could provide hope to an increasingly disenfranchised population and move this country forward.

Cooperation is a two-way street. In return, Pakistan must be more transparent with donors as the security situation worsens. Pakistani forces have been spread thin by military operations in the Swat Valley and neighboring districts. The Taliban will continue to advance across the country’s North West Frontier Province. The Pakistani government must not allow pride to get the best of it. The country has long been fearful that any foreign intervention could compromise its nuclear program – but domestic entities pose a threat that is far more grim. The time to act is now.

Posted in Economy, Pakistan, Refugees, Taliban, United States | Leave a Comment »

Pakistan’s Rocky Peace Deal Hits Bump

Posted by vmsalama on April 10, 2009

Pro-Taliban Cleric Pulls Out of Cease-Fire, Citing Sharia Law Dispute



ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 10, 2009

A pro-Taliban cleric has pulled out of a fragile peace accord between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in western Pakistan.

Sufi Mohammad expressed his frustration with the peace process, stating that the government’s promise to implement Islamic law, or sharia, in the Swat Valley had not been fulfilled.

The deal, brokered in February, had prompted a cease-fire, halting more than a year of bloodshed in the embattled Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven, dubbed the Switzerland of the East by various travel guides.

Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari has agreed to allow the practice of sharia law in Swat on the condition that law and order is first restored in the region. Muhammad, who had been camped out in the valley’s main town of Mingora with hundreds of black-turbaned supporters, uprooted Thursday in protest of Zardari’s “negative attitude.”

taliban2“From now on, President Zardari will be responsible for any situation in Swat,” the white-bearded cleric told reporters. “The provincial government is sincere, and our agreement with the provincial government is intact, but we are ending our peace camp.”

Militants rearmed and pushed into a neighboring area this week 60 miles northwest of Islamabad, where they clashed with villagers and police.

One Swat-based reporter, speaking today on the condition of anonymity, said, “There is a lot of uncertainty and fear among residents since this announcement happened,” adding, “things were much better for the past few weeks since this deal took place, so it is terrible to think that fighting may return to this area.”

The heat is now on Pakistan’s government to find a solution to its militant problem before it threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed state.

Suspected militants ambushed a convoy in the northwest’s Kurram tribal agency this week, killing a security guard and wounding six other people, including the area’s top government official. Militants also planted a bomb in Khyber Agency that destroyed six tankers supplying fuel to NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Calls for Sharia Law in Swat

“Right now, there are so many terrorists, al Qaeda based people, there are so many bombs and mortar holes in Swat,” said Rayat Allah Khan, the director of the Female Human Rights Organization for Swat. “There is so much ammunition in the valley that threatens to destroy the entire area.”

Until its unification with Pakistan in 1969, the Swat Valley had observed its own tribal system of governance.

Longtime calls for a return to a sharia-based system as an alternative to Pakistan’s drawn-out federal legal proceedings may have contributed to the rise of jihadist preacher Maulana Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Sufi Mohammed, and the valley’s subsequent Talibanization, mirroring that of nearby Afghanistan.

Once a hot spot for tourists from around the world, women have been banned from walking the streets of much of the region in recent years. Hundreds of girls’ schools have been blown up by militants who regard female education as un-Islamic.

Hinna Khan, 14, was among the girls forced to stay home after Taliban militants banned on female education. She claims that militants would patrol the streets of her town, threatening to throw acid in the faces of young girls who tried to attend classes. Her family fled to Islamabad last year so that she and her three younger sisters could live in safety.

“They are not scared of blood,” she said. “They kill people in open, like you would sacrifice an animal. They are not warmhearted; they fire openly and detonate bombs.”

But many say the crossfire between militants and armed forces is to blame for more than 1,500 deaths in recent years. Thousands more people have fled for their lives since fighting began in late 2007.

“Things in Swat are so bad that these people don’t have money for food or fare. Its like living life in jail,” Khan of the Female Human Rights Organization said. “The government of Pakistan has provided no help to the people of Swat.”

U.S. Worried About Pakistani Concessions to Taliban

U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern that the Pakistani military, spread thin by the year-long offensive, is now making concessions to the Taliban.

While military operations have been widely unpopular among Pakistanis, previous efforts to broker a deal with militants diplomatically have fallen short. In 2006, a ceasefire under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf with militants in South Waziristan was blamed for giving Taliban and al Qaeda forces a stronger foothold in the region.


After a meeting with President Zardari in Islamabad Tuesday, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said that the situation in Swat had helped persuade more of Pakistan’s political elite to team up with American in its battle against extremism.

A number of attacks in recent weeks have raised concerns that the threat of extremism is now spreading beyond the beleaguered border region with Afghanistan. A deadly ambush on a police training facility outside the relatively safe city of Lahore last week sparked fears that extremists have penetrated Pakistan’s largest cities.

Pakistan’s chief justice expressed outrage last week about an online video that shows suspected Swat-based Taliban militants flogging a 17-year old girl for an alleged affair. Now under investigation for authenticity, the video sparked fresh concerns that the implementation of sharia law will embolden hardliners to carry out merciless punishments, particularly where women are concerned.

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former information minister and prominent member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party, said that while she holds reservations about the implementation of sharia law in Swat, it may be the only option for peace.

“I worry about sharia law because it often manifests in the extreme ways, in ways we don’t read in the Koran,” she said. “If the only way to achieve peace is through a partnership with the Taliban, then so be it. But if they are going to do anything in partnership, then there needs to be absolute clarity as to what form of law you have because it is important to have uniform laws.”

Copyright © 2009 ABC News Internet Ventures

Posted in Pakistan, Swat Valley, Taliban | 1 Comment »

A Viral Video Raises Fears of Taliban Power in Pakistan

Posted by vmsalama on April 7, 2009

Vivian Salama / Islamabad


WARNING: Some of the images in this video may be disturbing for some

A viral video is raising an outcry in Pakistan — and highlighting the fact that in some parts of western Pakistan, the government is no longer in charge and the Taliban is. Filmed in the Swat Valley, where the government recently signed a controversial peace deal with the Taliban, the video apparently shows a 17-year old girl pinned down by as many as three men — among them her brother — while a fourth flogs her repeatedly, chastising her for having an alleged affair. She lets out a shriek with every lash, pleading for mercy. Dozens of men watch on but nobody speaks out to stop the lashing. (See the video that has raised alarms in Pakistan.)

The government’s agreement with the Taliban in Swat included the imposition of religious law in the area, a move many legal experts and women’s rights groups had cautioned against. The valley, once a prime destination for Pakistan’s honeymooners and hippies, was transformed in recent years into the frontline for Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism. More than 1,500 people have been killed there and at least 100,000 have fled. A cease-fire is now in place in exchange for the imposition of Shari’a law. But reports of the curtailment of women’s rights and activities are now rampant; women have been banned from leaving their homes and simply walking in the streets of many towns. (See pictures from Pakistan’s tense border with Afghanistan.)

Human rights activists from the region insist that the 17-year old in the video and the countless other victims in Swat, are too helpless to speak out. “Who can stop the Taliban when they claim to be working in the name of Islam?” asked Yasmine Khan, Program Coordinator for the Female Human Rights Organization (Fehro) for Swat, who recently fled to Islamabad after allegedly receiving death threats by Taliban militants. “Things are out of hand and the government cannot control things.” (See pictures of the frontline in the war against the Taliban.)

However, the Swat-based Taliban organization denies that the incident took place in the valley. Several officials and commentators have expressed skepticism that the men in the video were Taliban militants performing the punishment. One local news organization noted that were it up to the Taliban, the victim “would have been shot.” The 17-year old girl allegedly in the video now denies that she was the burqa-clad woman beaten in the footage. She failed to appear at Pakistan’s Supreme Court for a hearing on Monday. Journalists in Swat speak of an atmosphere of fear in the valley; reporters say they are fearful of speaking out as well, afraid that they will be targeted by Taliban angry at the leaking of the video. One journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said “we are the prime suspects.” (Check out a story about Talibanistan.)

The Supreme Court and its Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry are not keeping silent, however. While Chaudhry says that the authenticity of the video must be established (noting that it could be part of a scheme against those in Swat “demanding the application of Shari’a law”), he voiced outrage at what the footage appeared to portray. “[This] certainly constitutes a serious violation of law and fundamental rights of the citizens of the country,” he declared on Monday during a hearing into the incident. Chaudhry reprimanded several senior officials, including Pakistan’s Attorney General Sardar Latif Khosa, for failing to take immediate action: “Before the video became public, what were you doing?” Chaudhry has asked the court to reconvene following a 15-day investigation.

Pakistanis see Chaudry’s comments as his first act of political muscle flexing since his dramatic restoration to power. The Chief Justice had been dismissed two years ago by then-president Pervez Musharraf because he would not support Musharraf’s assumption of dictatorial power. When Musharraf’s successor Asif Ali Zardari reneged on an agreement to restore Chaudry to the Supreme Court, widespread demonstrations a few weeks ago led to his reinstatement. Chaudry probably has the highest reserve of moral authority in the country.

But is it enough to safeguard rights guaranteed by the country’s secular constitution? Hours after the Chief Justice’s calls for an inquiry, federal investigators were reported to have taken testimony from the alleged victim. However, she once again denied being the woman in the video. Sherry Rehman, the former information minister and member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party beleives in Chaudhry’s commitment to pursuing the case. “If anything like this surfaces again,” she says “It will not be tolerated.” But Reddy notes that the government will proceed with caution for fear of disrupting the fragile cease-fire.

Khan, the women’s rights activist, however, is pessimistic that even Chaudhry can get anything done. She says the Supreme Court inquiry is merely smoke and mirrors, and that it will take a “miracle” to bring justice to Swat. “Until now nobody knows who murdered Benazir Bhutto,” she says. “Where is that committee? Where are those results? Do you think anyone will investigate or help the poor people of Swat?”

Posted in Judiciary, Pakistan, Taliban, Viral Video | Leave a Comment »

Suicide Bombing and Baitullah Mehsud makes his mark in New York

Posted by vmsalama on April 4, 2009

I’ve been a bit tunnel visioned this weekend on a project I’m working on and so I only heard in passing that Pakistani Taliban militant commander Baitullah Mehsud has claimed responsibility for the siege on the immigration office in Binghamton, New York. Accused of having masterminded the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Mehsud also claimed responsibility for last week’s attack on the police academy outside Lahore.  He attributed this violence on incessant drone attacks in Western Pakistan, which just today claimed another 13 lives.  President Barack Obama vows to continue these drone attacks — even without the blessing of the Pakistani government — so long as Taliban and Al Qaeda militants continue using the semi-autonomous border region with Afghanistan as a sanctuary.  

A report today from Bloomberg:

By Khalid Qayum

April 4 (Bloomberg) — An explosion killed six security personnel in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, about 4.5 kilometers (3 miles) from the office of President Asif Zardari.

The blast was a suicide bomb attack, Islamabad Deputy Police Chief Bin Yamin said by telephone from the city. Eleven other troopers were injured, he said.

The explosion, at the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary in northern Islamabad, was followed by gunfire, according to eyewitnesses. Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack.

“We could hear the bullets smacking into the houses around us,” Sohail Iqbal, the chief editor of Pakistan’s Online news agency, said in a telephone interview from the city. “The shooting lasted for eight to 10 minutes.”

The top commander of Pakistan’s Taliban movement, Baitullah Mehsud, vowed in a telephone interview with reporters four days ago to carry out an attack in Islamabad, as well as in the U.S., in retaliation for American missile strikes by Predator drone aircraft in the Pashtun ethnic belt of western Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

Posted in Pakistan, Taliban | Leave a Comment »

Back in Pakistan

Posted by vmsalama on April 3, 2009

Hey everyone. I’m back in Lahore after several weeks of trotting in the Gulf. For as good as it was to get back to my stompin’ ground in the Arab world, it is equally great to be back in Pakistan with all that is going on. I have a radio report coming out in the next day on the escalating violence in the country. In the meantime, this report was released yesterday by Reuters. I found it very interesting because i am a firm believer that at the core of Pakistan’s militant problem is a growing economic crisis.  So many are pushed into lives of extremism based on a lack of opportunity in the country. While I was in Doha I attended a talk at the Brookings Doha Center where one of the speakers actually described the militants as predominantly mercenaries — hired killers involved in the so-called Jihad NOT for religious motivations, but rather, because their families financially benefit from their participation.  It is a fascinating topic.  While in the Gulf, I met Lahore native Saleem Ali, a Brookings visiting fellow. He recently wrote a book called Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas.  In it he argued that the problematic madrassas that tend to foster a climate of militancy are not the hardline religious schools, but rather some of the more secular madrassas where economic hardship and social disenfranchisement are an everyday reality. This report, detailed below, discusses how Pakistan biggest security threat is its economic deterioration.  I wholeheartedly agree. 

By Claudia Parsons
NEW YORK, April 2 (Reuters) – Pakistan must be central to U.S. policy on Afghanistan and needs up to $50 billion over the next five years to avoid an economic meltdown that risks turning the country over to Islamic extremists, said a report released on Thursday.

The report by a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration said Washington must also act to strengthen civilian government in Pakistan and persuade Islamabad to stop using militant groups as an instrument of foreign policy.

The Asia Society, whose chairman was Richard Holbrooke until he was appointed U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in January, convened a task force to compile the report: “Back from the Brink? A Strategy for Stabilizing Afghanistan-Pakistan.”

The report, made public on Thursday, was provided to President Barack Obama’s administration before he unveiled his strategy on Afghanistan last week. It closely mirrors Obama’s policy, while focusing more on politics than military issues.

The report said the global economic crisis risked further weakening Pakistan’s civilian government, which has little control over tribal areas that have become safe havens for al Qaeda, and which struggles to match the sway of the military.

“Perhaps the most urgent priority is to prevent economic collapse which could undermine state authority even in major urban areas in the next few months,” the report said.

It cited estimates that halting the economic decline in Pakistan might require a five-year package of $40 billion to $50 billion, a sum that dwarfs Pakistan’s existing $7.6 billion International Monetary Fund bailout.

It said 1 million workers joined the ranks of the urban unemployed in the past six months — a volatile source of tension in a country where 40 percent of the population live on an income of under $1.25 a day.

The report urged Washington to work with a “Friends of Pakistan” group at the United Nations to mobilize donors to provide an urgent rescue package that could involve direct budget support and or a World Bank-administered trust fund.


Task force co-chair Barnett Rubin said the United States and its allies had for too long focused on Afghanistan while allowing problems to fester in Pakistan.

“The regional center of gravity of the problem is not in Afghanistan,” Rubin said. The report argues that there are no al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, but many in Pakistan, where a variety of other militant groups have long thrived on covert backing from the military and intelligence apparatus.

“Because it faces India, which it sees as an enemy … Pakistan has adopted formally the use of Jihadi groups as instruments of their foreign policy,” Rubin said at a panel discussion in New York on the report.

“One of the aims of our regional diplomacy should be to use all the resources we can to encourage, cajole, force, persuade Pakistan to change its policy away from using those Jihadis.”

Essential to that would be meeting Pakistan’s legitimate security concerns, the report said, and easing tensions with India. Relations between the nuclear-armed rivals were strained further by November’s attacks in Mumbai, which India says were conducted with the involvement of Pakistani state agencies. (The full report can be seen here ) (Editing by Peter Cooney)

Posted in Economy, Jihad, madrassas, Pakistan | 1 Comment »

Pakistan Needs a Coalition Government

Posted by vmsalama on March 20, 2009

Vivian Salama


In less than one month, Pakistan’s government has conceded not once, but three times, to challengers both political and militant in nature. Those concessions have raised concerns about Pakistan’s vulnerability and its inability to suppress its growing militant problem or prevent violent disputes with the opposition.

The first concession came last month when, after more than a year-long offensive in the embattled Swat Valley, the military signed a cease fire with the Taliban, folding to the longtime demands of Islamic militants to implement Shari’a law in the region. Some of the region’s residents remain hopeful that the region will return to a Shari’a that was at one time a moderate, locally-based alternative to the country’s drawn-out federal legal proceedings. But the concession blatantly exposes the Pakistani military’s inability to prevent extremism from seeping into the heart of the country. Located a mere 160 kilometers from Islamabad, Taliban militants now stand at Pakistan’s front door. It is only a matter of time before they move in. 

The second concession was on March 3rd, when at least 12 heavily armed militants staged a commando-style attack on a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team, coaches and referees to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. I will not explore the various conspiracy theories now floating around Pakistan about who is to blame for these atrocious attacks, which claimed the lives of six police officers and a driver. But I will point out that at the time this post was published, all the assailants remained at large. The scene of the crime, Liberty Square, is a heavily congested roundabout in the heart of Pakistan’s cultural capital. The attacks happened not in the evening like the Mumbai attacks, but during the morning rush hour. There is surveillance video shot by camera crews at television studios based in Liberty Square. The gunmen are reported to have been carrying large bags. British cricket referee Chris Broad has lashed out at the Pakistani government, saying that there was no sign of security at the time of the attacks. The fact that the gunmen got away and have thus far managed to avoid arrest is alarming.

In an interview with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif days after the attacks, Sharif claimed that the government’s failure to ensure the security of the cricketers is the direct result of its preoccupation with politics and stifling the opposition. 

Finally, after the February 25th decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to ban Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office, President Asif Zardari’s decision to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the country’s Chief Justice, came as a surprise to many. 

The past few days have been particularly turbulent in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the PML-N stronghold. The highly anticipated cross country “long march” never made it to Islamabad as protesters had initially planned, but it found victory in Lahore. Many pundits pointing to “Punjab Power” as the source of the shake-up. 

President Zardari has never been popular. He was not popular even as the husband of Benazir Bhutto, when she was Prime Minister. As the leader of a civilian government, he is far more vulnerable to the will of the people than his military predecessor, the equally unpopular General Pervez Musharraf, who had the backing of the army.

His decision to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry was indeed a positive step, but it is not the solution to Pakistan’s problems. A coalition government, similar to that agreed upon between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif just before Bhutto’s assassination, is now needed if Pakistan is to take a serious step against its increasingly dangerous militant problem. Pakistan’s current leadership must show that it is above petty politics by genuinely reaching out to the opposition, rather than making occasional concessions that ultimately expose its inner weaknesses. 

Posted in Pakistan, Politics | Leave a Comment »

Pakistan arrests lawyers ahead of cross-country march

Posted by vmsalama on March 12, 2009

Vivian Salama

The National

March 12, 2009

LAHORE // Hundreds of political activists and lawyers were arrested yesterday in an effort to thwart a cross-country march scheduled to begin today.

The government outlawed anti-government demonstrations by lawyers and opposition parties in Islamabad, as well as in the provinces of Punjab and Sindh, through which the rally is to proceed. Tens of thousands are expected to take to the streets in a move to persuade Asif Ali Zardari, the president, to reinstate several judges dismissed under the authority of Pervez Musharraf, the former president. 

The convoy of cars and buses, due to begin this morning in Baluchistan and Sindh provinces, are scheduled to reach Punjab, the stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, by tomorrow. The protest will conclude with a sit-in on Monday in Islamabad, where demonstrators have vowed to stay until their demands are met. However, with the clampdown on protests across the country, turnout may be significantly tapered, causing the movement to lose steam. 

Even evening street fairs celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed were scaled down markedly in an effort to prevent them from becoming political rally points.
This struggle is now two years in the making. In March 2007, Mr Musharraf dismissed Iftikhar Chaudhry, the chief justice at the time, and several judges, accusing them of misconduct after passing several rulings that cited government corruption. The disbandment of the judiciary sparked several months of uprisings, leading Mr Musharraf to declare a state of emergency and to suspend the country’s constitution and parliament in Nov 2007.
“Musharraf was already extremely unpopular with the masses and this topped it off,” said Umbreen Javed, the chairman of the department of political science at the University of Punjab. “But President Zardari has not been a very popular president either since he took over, and this issue is a major point of contention for the people.”

Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N leader, is expected to join the crowd of protesters. 

Speaking before hundreds of supporters at a rally yesterday, he implored people not to allow efforts by the government to impede the long march hinder their hopes of “saving Pakistan”.

On Feb 25, a three-judge Supreme Court panel barred Mr Sharif, and his brother, Shahbaz, the former chief minister of Punjab, from elected office. The brothers have accused Mr Zardari of trying to clamp down on the opposition, reigniting tensions between the country’s largest political parties.

Nawaz Sharif said the Supreme Court is dominated by judges appointed by Mr Musharraf during the 2007 state of emergency, and it is Mr Zardari’s obligation now to restore the original, and ultimately independent, judiciary.

“These are the doings of General Musharraf,” Mr Sharif said. “He is the one actually who dismissed all those judges, who refused to qualify them to contest the election of a president in uniform, who didn’t permit anyone to contest the elections of the president or even the parliament.”

In an interview with the official Associated Press of Pakistan, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, warned Mr Sharif not to use the march as an opportunity to incite a rebellion, threatening criminal charges should the gathering turn to chaos. “We will proceed against those who are inciting the masses to revolt at public gatherings in case of any damage to human life or property,” Mr Malik told a news conference.

The lawyers and a league of opposition parties, pose a significant challenge to the civilian government of Mr Zardari, which has refused to reinstate Mr Chaudhry. 

A spokeswoman for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by Mr Zardari, said Mr Chaudhry’s only motive in this march is to destabilise the country. “The restoration of judges issue is a non-issue now because most have been reinstated and others retired,” said Farzana Raja, the spokeswoman. The opposition “are talking about an individual. Iftikhar Chaudhry had the chance [to rejoin the judiciary], but he did not do it because he was playing into somebody else’s hands.”

Government officials claimed that the recent ban on public gatherings in Punjab is not in an effort to stifle the opposition, but rather, to maintain law and order following last week’s deadly attack on a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. At least 12 heavily armed assailants are believed to have been responsible for the attacks – all of whom remain at large.

“The government of Mr Zardari has been too busy rearranging the government of Punjab that they forgot about the security of the people of Pakistan,” Mr Sharif said.

However, the PPP has made a similar allegation against Mr Sharif, accusing him of putting his own political motives ahead of national stability and the fight against terrorism.

Mr Sharif “always promotes and raises his voice for Iftikhar Chaudhry –for an individual”, Ms Raja said.

“The whole world is under the threat of extremism and terrorism and rather than concentrating on that, he is talking about politics – for whom? One individual.”

Posted in Judiciary, Pakistan, Politics | 1 Comment »

Schools open in Swat, but girls prefer to stay home

Posted by vmsalama on March 8, 2009

I have been really intrigued (and saddened) by the situation in Pakistan’s Swat Valley where Taliban militants have virtually taken over and implemented their unforgiving rule of law.  A friend of mine is a native of Swat and a journalist for a network I will not name.  He rang me yesterday to tell me that violence continues in this embattled region and he is not optimistic that peace will come anytime soon. It is truly heartbreaking (if you refer to an article I wrote just over a week ago, Swat was once a tourism paradise and a haven for everyone from hippies to honeymooners.  Now, unfortunately, even natives are fleeing for their lives. – vms


Vivian Salama

The National

ISLAMABAD // Hinna Khan will never forget the day last year when Taliban militants threatened to throw acid on her face for an act they declared to be un-Islamic. Her crime: attending school

The then-13-year-old native of Pakistan’s embattled Swat valley was just one of tens of thousands of young girls barred from attending school following an extremist order that deemed female education to be a violation of Islamic teachings.

“The girls were scared,” she said. “They saw girls being killed; they saw girls being skinned; and they were scared of this happening to them.”

Now safe in Islamabad after her parents opted to flee their hometown with their five children, Hinna is far more fortunate than the majority of her friends in Swat.

Left to Right: Siblings Irfan Ullah, 10, Sara, 12, Hinna, 14 and Lalina, 8 work on their homework together in their new Islamabad home one year after escaping from the embattled Swat Valley (by Vivian Salama)

Left to Right: Siblings Irfan Ullah, 10, Sara, 12, Hinna, 14 and Lalina, 8 work on their homework together in their new Islamabad home one year after escaping from the embattled Swat Valley (by Vivian Salama)

After more than a year of fighting between insurgents and the Pakistani army, a ceasefire signed last month has brought an eerie calm to Swat. The agreement, regarded by many as a victory for the Taliban, granted their longtime demand of imposing a form of Sharia in Swat.

In return, the Taliban has agreed to allow girls to return to classes. Officials estimate that attendance at schools in Swat was at a mere 40 per cent last week, citing security fears as a deterrent for many.

The government has thus far re-opened all boys’ schools, but only the primary section – up to age 10 – in girls’ schools.

Nearly 200 schools have been bombed by the militants since they launched their campaign against girls’ education over a year ago. Government officials estimate that as much as 800 million rupees (Dh36.7 million) is needed to rebuild the damaged schools.

Militants said they would allow girls to return to school provided they wore a veil and observed purdah – the practice of total separation from men and boys. However, some remain sceptical about the Taliban’s sincerity.

Yasmine Khan, a women’s rights activist and Swat native, said promises to reopen the schools this week were merely a facade. “Many of the schools’ doors have opened but the girls are not going – they won’t go. They are very, very scared,” said Ms Khan, the programme co-ordinator for the Female Human Rights Organisation (Fehro) for Swat.

While many in the region welcomed the ceasefire and enforcement of Islamic law, Hinna and many other Pakistanis fear that peace in Swat remains far too fragile.

“The girls are scared that if they go back to school, the Taliban will once again come out on to the streets, so they will not go back to school” said Hinna. “Just because the government and the militants say that peace has been established in the region, it doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Over the past two years, the Swat valley, a one-time honeymooners’ haven and Pakistan’s only skiing destination, has transformed into the front line for Pakistan’s domestic war on terrorism. More than 1,500 people have been killed and at least 100,000 have fled. Women have been banned from walking in the streets in many towns and kidnappings and beheadings of those citizens, as well as journalists, deemed to have violated the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia are common.

Until its unification with Pakistan in 1969, the Swat valley had observed its own tribal system of governance. Longtime calls for a return to a Sharia-based 

system as an alternative to Pakistan’s drawn-out federal legal proceedings may have contributed to the rise of the jihadist preacher, Maulana Fazlullah, and 

the valley’s subsequent “Talibanisation”, mirroring that of nearby Afghanistan.

 The subsequent year-long operations by the Pakistani military led to a bloody clash, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

“The whole thing is very disgusting and we the people of Swat are so helpless,” Ms Khan said.It remains to be seen whether the ceasefire will stay in place. It was signed with Taliban leaders in the Malakand region, which includes Swat, as well as in Bajaur, one of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the Afghan border. Many here doubt whether the government will be able to heal the recent wounds of Swat and restore law and order to the valley.

“I don’t think the deal will hold, I don’t think the Taliban will disarm and I don’t think students and teachers will return to Swat in a big hurry,” said Ahmed Rashid, a journalist and the author of a best-selling book, Taliban. “But because of the terror campaign in Swat, nobody has the courage to speak out against it.”


Posted in Pakistan, Swat Valley, Taliban | 1 Comment »