Nathiagali

We went to Nathiagali in the mountains (elevation: 7,900ft) to escape the heat in Islamabad. The weather was warm there but much nicer.

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We rode/hiked to Mushkpuri peak (elevation: 9,200ft) which was a lot of fun and had beautiful scenery.

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On our way back, we stopped in Bhurban.

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Daman e Koh & Pir Sohawa

The almost seven year old wanted to hike up Margalla Hills but it was too hot.

We drove up to Daman e Koh and then had dinner at Monal Restaurant in Pir Sohawa.

Both places have a nice view of Islamabad.

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Transpack Moving Scam

Last year when we visited Pakistan, we decided we wanted to move our furniture, books and other things that had been at my parents’ for so many years since we have a house now.

My Dad contacted Transpack and they estimated the total volume to be in the range of 5-6 cubic meters and their charges from Islamabad to Atlanta to be $225 per cubic meter.

On packing everything, it turned out to be about 7.2 cubic meters. Their packing was reasonable, though they did pack some heavy books inside the china cabinet which wasn’t a good idea and resulted in one leg of the china cabinet breaking during the move.

Transpack’s Tausif Alvi recommended that it would be expensive for them to ship it to our home and might be better if we arranged the local transport from the warehouse to our home.

Even though Transpack had said that our container would be shipped within a week or so, it took more than 6 weeks for it to reach Karachi and put on a ship. The time from Islamabad to Atlanta was more than 2 months.

Transpack assured us that their invoice covered all the charges and we won’t have to pay anything at the destination except for some minor customs clearance. However, when the container reached the port of New York, I got a bill of $318 covering IT charges, handling, AMS, CDF, port security, and shipping. I contacted Transpack and was told that these charges were my responsibility since these were destination charges. That was not correct since the destination was Atlanta. But Transpack assured us that there won’t be any charges at Atlanta and these were the only charges we would have to pay.

Since our things were now stuck in New York and the argument with Transpack wasn’t going anywhere, I paid the New York charges, even though I had my suspicions about further charges in Atlanta. Of course, in Atlanta, there was more money, $250, to pay to the warehouse.

Since Transpack had promised to pay or reimburse any more charges, we contacted them. They said they would “investigate.” Of course, their investigation showed that the consignee, i.e. me, needed to pay everything and they were not responsible.

In the end, I had to pay 33% more than the original invoice and had to go through a lot of hassle. I don’t know why such moving scams are so common.

Help the Displaced in Swat

Please consider helping the people displaced in Pakistan due to the fighting between the army and Taliban extremists.

Due to the recent fighting between the Taliban and Pakistan army, a lot of the local people in Swat and surrounding areas have been forced to flee their homes. According to the UN Refugee Agency,

The number of people who have fled the fighting in northwest Pakistan this month and been registered or recorded by authorities reached 670,906 on Wednesday, up from just over half a million the day before.

[…] Together with more than 550,000 registered displaced people in the North West Frontier Province and some 21,000 in the capital Islamabad and urban areas of the Punjab, the continuing exodus brings to 1,248,715 the total number of people displaced in Pakistan since August, 2008.

[…] UN High Commissioner António Guterres has called urgently on countries around the world to come to the aid of the growing number of displaced. “This is a huge and rapidly unfolding emergency, which is going to require considerable resources beyond those that currently exist in the region,” he said earlier this week.

I’ll try to collect links to different organizations collecting donations for helping these internally displaced persons (not refugees, since refugees are defined as moving across an international border). Please try to help.

I talked to the Edhi Foundation people in New York and they are also accepting checks and money orders for their Swat Fund. They don’t have an online donation page but here is their contact info:

UK:
316 Edgware Road
London W2 1DY
Phone :+44 (207) 723-2050
Fax: +44 (207) 224-9774
Email: edhiuk@yahoo.com

US:
4511 National St
Corona, NY 11368-2741
Phone :+1 (718) 639-0633
Fax: +1 (718) 505-8001

Canada:
Bilquis Edhi Charitable Shop
1801-1805 Danforth Ave
Toronto M4C-1J2 Canada
Phone/Fax: +1 (416) 699-1388

Thanks!

UPDATE: After thinking a lot, we have contributed to Oxfam’s Pakistan Crisis Fund.

Khudkushistan

While late, here’s the account of our trip to Pakistan in October last year.

Khudkushistan, Land of Suicide Bombings, formerly known as Pakistan, Land of the Pure, is where our parents live. Thus we have to visit once in a while despite these statistics from September 2008.

Suicide attacks have killed almost 1,200 Pakistanis since July last year, most of them civilians, according to military statistics released Monday that highlight the ferocity of the militant threat facing the country.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting between Pakistani troops and insurgents on the Afghan border has sent some 20,000 Pakistanis fleeing into Afghanistan, the United Nations reported.

Figures released at a military briefing in Islamabad showed 88 suicide attacks have taken place across Pakistan since the Red Mosque siege, killing 1,188 people.

Of that figure, 847 were civilians, while the rest were troops and police. More than 3,000 were listed as injured.

So we bought tickets in mid-August for a trip in October. A week later, more than 70 people were killed in twin suicide bombings in Wah Cantt, the city where my in-laws live and thus was one of our destinations.

And just two weeks before our visit, there was a suicide bombing in our other destination, Islamabad, when Marriott Hotel was destroyed and more than 40 people killed.

So we were a bit apprehensive about our visit. I mentioned this to a few people who live in Pakistan. They seemed nonchalant and argued that they lived there and the risk was in any case minimal. I agreed that the risk was low but while they lived there, I did not and thus I was worried about visiting a war zone.

On October 3, we flew to Islamabad via Kuwait. At the Atlanta airport, it was difficult to get the ticket agent to understand that Kuwait was a city and a country and was not Iraq. She kept saying Iraq and I got so angry that Amber had to intervene. Our flight was uneventful except that Kuwait Airways food sucked and no one cares about No Smoking signs at Kuwait Airport. Also, Michelle grabbed my usual window seat and had a lot of fun watching the plane take off, fly and land.

When we reached Islamabad, we realized that my bag was lost. So we had to wait until all baggage had arrived at baggage claim and then file a missing baggage complaint. So the first order of business was to buy a toothbrush and some clothes for me. Fortunately, we got the bag the next day.

While we were in Islamabad, there was a suicide bombing at the Islamabad Police HQ, which just goes to show how appropriate the name I have coined, Khudkushistan, is.

There was a lot of road construction going on in Islamabad and Wah area. Some roads have also been widened since the last time we were there. Also, this was the first time I drove on the limited-access toll highway. After I saw the condition of the GT Road, I decided to use the M-1 motorway(Pakistan) to drive between Islamabad and Wah Cantt. Interestingly, most of the vehicles on the motorway drove nowhere near the 120km/hr (75mph) speed limit and I had a lot of fun.

One new thing on the roads of Islamabad and Wah Cantt were the blockades by the police. There are usually two or three fences or other barriers right after each other so that the vehicles have to slow down completely and zig zag through them. Some of these blockades were quite dangerous with sharp metal pointing towards you probably to dissuade anyone from running through the blockade.

We also noticed that signs of any military related buildings that used to there were nowhere to be seen now. For example, the Pakistan Military Academy near Abbottabad has no signs on the main road pointing to its location. Similarly, the Naval Sailing Club at Rawal Lake in Islamabad is difficult to find without any signs.

Unlike our last visit, I didn’t have huge allergy issues and stayed mostly healthy during our trip. Michelle had a lot of fun with her grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins.

Here are some random photographs from our trip.

Ayub Market, Islamabad
Ayub Market, Islamabad
Karachi Company, Islamabad
View of Islamabad
From Pir Sohawa
From Daman e Koh
A mosque
Faisal Mosque
Sunset at Rawal Lake
Gun in Wah Cantt
Weapon worship in Wah Cantt
GT Road, Taxila
Vase shops, Taxila
Intersection closed, Islamabad
 

On our way back, it took me a long time to go through immigration in New York City and we barely made the flight to Atlanta. Thus we waited at baggage claim at the Atlanta airport for a long time without any bags. All our bags were delivered to our home the next day.

Suicide Bombings in Wah Cantt

Twin suicide bombings in the city of my birth have affected me a lot more than I thought possible. 63 dead according to latest reports.

The city of my birth, Wah Cantt, has seen twin suicide bombings today:

At least 63 people have been killed in twin suicide bombings outside a munitions factory in the Pakistani town of Wah, hospital sources say.

The attack is the deadliest on a military site in Pakistan’s history.

The bombs hit the city, 30km (18 miles) north of Islamabad, as workers left. Many people were injured.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taleban said they had carried out the attacks, which he said were a response to army violence in the country’s north-west.

Correspondents say Wah, in the province of Punjab, is a strategically important town normally under heavy security as it is home to a large industrial complex producing conventional arms and ammunition.

Local police chief Nasir Khan Durrani told the BBC: “Many others have been injured and we expect casualties to rise in the coming hours.

“At least 25 people have been critically injured.”

Mr Durrani said none of the dead was military personnel.

The first blast took place outside the gate of the factory as workers were leaving work during a shift change.

Minutes later, another blast took place at another gate of the same factory.

The two bombings were just outside Main Gate and Aslam Market gate. According to my information, the Main Gate was mostly for workers on bicycles and motorcycles and that’s where most of the casualties were. The other gate is for cars and officers. So the Taliban murdered poor workers.

Wah Cantt is home to Pakistan Ordnance Factories which has a huge campus and is the biggest employer there, employing 25,000 to 30,000 people. The suicide bombings happened at their gates.

Wah Cantt is a somewhat restricted area as any private vehicle going there has to stop at a security checkpost and identify themselves. However, public transport is not stopped.

I am still in shock at these bombings. I lived in Wah Cantt for a total of 15 years. My inlaws still live there. All I can say in response to these killings is: Fuck the Taliban! Fuck Jihad!

POSTSCRIPT: I forgot to mention the suicide bombing of a hospital two days ago.

Thirty-two people, seven policemen and two health officials among them, were killed and 55 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up near the emergency ward of the District Headquarters Hospital [in Dera Ismail Khan] on Tuesday.

[…] The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Inhuman scum!

Charlie Wilson’s War

The movie is fun to watch, but it’s the book that’s a must read.

We watched Charlie Wilson’s War in the theater. It is a movie about the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion and how Congressman Charlie Wilson and how he and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos helped the Afghan Mujahideen.

It is a good movie, but it does focus more on the flamboyant and scandalous than the nitty gritty details of congressional funding. Also, Om Puri did the worst impression of Pakistani dictator General Zia ul Haq that I have ever seen.

While I liked the movie, these deficiencies mean I can rate it only 7/10.

Watching the movie reminded me that I still hadn’t read the book Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times by George Crile that the movie is based on. So I got it from the library.

It’s a great book and I finished it as fast as I could. It reminded me more of fiction than of reality. And it scared me. The book includes a lot of details about how the Afghan war was funded and details the way Congress and its committees work behind the scenes. As someone very interested in politics, it was a bit scary to realize how something of the scale of the US funding of the Afghan war could happen with just the personal connections and chit-calling and no open debate in Congress.

My conflicted feelings towards the Afghan war don’t help matters. I was and am a fervent anticommunist and hence did support the fight against the Soviets. At the same time, those Mujahideen groups, including Ahmad Shah Massoud, were not exactly good for Afghanistan. And the Afghan war (and Zia) is a major reason for why Pakistan is in such bad shape today.

If you are interested in the Cold War, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the war on terror, CIA, or US foreign policy, Charlie Wilson’s War is a must read.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani

Yusuf Raza Gillani has been elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Here is some news and analysis on his election.

Syed Yusuf Raza Gillani of Pakistan Peoples Party has been elected Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Mr Gillani won the parliamentary vote by 264 votes to the 42 of Musharraf ally Chaudhry Pervez Elahi.

Who is Yusuf Raza Gillani? He belongs to a prominent feudal-spiritual family in the south Punjab city of Multan. His family has been active in politics in the area since the early 20th century. Mr Gilani was first elected chairman of the Union Council, Multan in the 1983 local bodies elections during Zia rule. Then he joined Junejo’s government as a minister of housing and railways. He parted ways with the Junejo Muslim League and joined Benazir Bhutto’s PPP around the time Junejo’s government was dismissed in 1988 by Zia.

In 1993, during the second Benazir Bhutto government, he was elected Speaker of the National Assembly. In 1995, Mr Gillani, as Speaker, issued instructions for the release of parliamentarians detained by his own PPP government. When the interior ministry refused to oblige, he had the matter brought on record.

He, like most PPP candidates in Punjab, lost the 1997 election when Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N(Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz Group) swept the province. Then, during Musharraf’s martial law in 2001, Gillani was convicted over illegal government appointments when he was Speaker. He spent the next five years in jail, being released in late 2006 on a court order.

After being elected Prime Minister, Gillani made a speech in Parliament (video here).

In a maiden speech on the floor of National Assembly after he was elected as Prime Minister, he said, “I request the national assembly as my first job to pass a resolution for UN probe into the assassination of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto.”

Elaborating the top priorities of the new government, the newly elected Prime Minister of Pakistan Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani vowed to take all out efforts for the supremacy of parliament.

He also said the National Assembly should pass another resolution to apologize to the nation for hanging of Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto.

Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani also said that he would issue the immediate directives for release of the held judges.

Gillani also vowed to take efforts for the resolution of multiple problems of people, saying, “ We realize that the people of the country confront several problems including shortage of electrify.”

“Today, democracy has been restored thanks to the great sacrifice of Benazir Bhutto,” the 55-year-old Gilani, wearing a dark suit and tie, said in his first speech to parliament.

“I invite all political forces to join us because the country is facing such a crisis that a single man cannot save it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Chief Justice deposed by Musharraf’s “emergency” last year and under house arrest since then came out of his house and was greeted by supporters.

Deposed chief justice, Chaudhry Iftikhar Muhammad Chuadhry along with his family members came out of his house Monday evening, marking an end to his and his family’s more than five month long detention.

People who gathered outside Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s residence warmly welcomed him when he came out with his family members.

He acknowledged the welcoming slogans of the people by waving his hands.

President Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitezaz Ahsan and Justice (Retd.) Tariq Mehmood and others accompanied Chaudhry Iftikhar Chaudhry.

The lawyers movement’s demands, including the restoration of the large number of superior court judges, would probably be the first important task for this government. President Musharraf has claimed that it is not constitutionally possible to bring the judges back, but then Musharraf’s action itself wasn’t constitutional.

There has been lots of speculation about why Yusuf Raza Gilani was chosen for the Prime Ministerial slot. In my opinion, there are a number of factors. First, Zardari wanted someone who did not have power on his own and was dependent on Zardari. The election of Fehmida Mirza as Speaker was also part of the same process, as she and her husband MPA Zulfiqar Mirza are close to Asif Zardari.

Second, both Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif probably wanted someone who had remained completely loyal and had not had any kind of relationship with Musharraf.

Third, Zardari would like to be able to have the option to remove the current Prime Minister for another or even for himself later as well as keep his kingmaker role now with a lot of behind the scenes power. A somewhat weak Prime Minister would fit right in for that strategy. Yusuf Raza Gillani’s statement after being nominated about staying as PM only as long as the party wants him to is suggestive in this regard.

Fourth, once the idea of a Prime Minister from Punjab was floated, it was in Nawaz Sharif’s interest for the PPP to select someone from the southern feudal families since such a choice wouldn’t encroach on the PML-N’s stronghold in the more urban central and northern Punjab.

I, on the other hand, would have preferred Zardari himself as Prime Minister because that would be a much more transparent system with fewer power centers.

Black Flag Week

Aitzaz Ahsan has declared this week to be Black Flag Week to protest for the restoration of the Pakistani judiciary. Let’s all take part in this week.

Black Flag Week

Aitzaz Ahsan, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, has called for a black flag week for this week, March 9-16, to protest the suspension of the Chief Justice last year on March 9 and then the dismissal of the superior judiciary in Musharraf’s November 2007 martial law.

The rule of law is a very important thing in any country and an independent judiciary is an essential part of that. This is what Musharraf has tried to destroy and the lawyers have been protesting. We should support the lawyers movement and this Black Flag Week is part of that support. So I urge you to attend Black Flag Week events or at least wear black armband or put a black flag or ribbon etc on your website/blog.

BTW, Teeth Maestro has good coverage of this week.

Here’s Aitzaz Ahsan’s call for Black Flag Week.

Pakistan Election Aftermath

Musharraf’s allies lose big in Pakistan but the Bush administration is still pro-Musharraf. A coalition government of PPP and PML-N is in the offing.

The elections are done and the results are out. Since I love maps, here is a map of the results by constituency, courtesy of Dawn. You can click on it for a larger version.

Map of Pakistan election results

And here are the results by party:

Party National Assembly Punjab Assembly Sindh Assembly NWFP Assembly Balochistan Assembly
PPP 89 76 64 17 7
PML-N 66 102 4 5 0
PML-Q 42 61 9 6 17
MQM 19 0 38 0 0
ANP 10 0 2 29 1
MMA 6 2 0 8 6
PML-F 4 2 5 0 0
PPP-S 1 0 0 5 0
BNP-A 1 0 0 0 5
Independents 28 33 6 6 11

The previous government in the center and in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan was by PML-Q which supports Pervez Musharraf and they lost badly. In fact, most of their prominent leaders, like Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, Sheikh Rashid, etc., lost.

Also, the religio-political alliance MMA lost to the secular Pashtun Nationalist ANP in NWFP. Both ANP and JUI, the component of MMA strong in NWFP, have traditionally been powerful in the NWFP. In the last elections in 2002, ANP was defeated roundly by the MMA and this time the reverse happened.

In my opinion, the unpopularity of President Musharraf was one reason for the dismal performance of PML-Q. According to the IRI survey in January,

  • 57% say that Musharraf’s performance has lowered their opinion of the army.
  • 72% are dissatisfied with Musharraf’s job performance.
  • 75% want Musharraf to resign from the office of President immediately.
  • Only 8% think Musharraf is the best leader to solve Pakistan’s problems.
  • Musharraf’s favorability rating is 16%.
  • 62% will feel much better and 17% somewhat better about the future of Pakistan if Musharraf were to resign.

Let’s also look at the Terror Free Tomorrow survey also conducted in January.

  • Only 10% strongly approve Musharraf’s job performance and 20% somewhat approve while 18% somewhat disapprove and 50% strongly disapprove.
  • Musharraf’s favorability rating is 30%.
  • 47% strongly agree that Musharraf should resign immediately while 23% somewhat agree.
  • Only 16.5% think Musharraf is the best leader for Pakistan. When poll respondents were asked for a second choice of leader, only 3% chose Musharraf.

PPP and PML-N have agreed to form a government together. This should make for a stable government in that it won’t be hostage to small parties and independents. On the other hand, the two largest parties would naturally be each other’s competitors and have quite different priorities which might result in the coalition breaking down.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) brokered an agreement on Thursday to form governments at the Centre and the provincial levels and to sort out the modalities for the reinstatement of judiciary in parliament.

“We have decided to work together and move together for the future of the democracy in the country and to strengthen parliament,” said Co-Chairman PPP Asif Ali Zardari and PML-N Quaid Nawaz Sharif while addressing a joint press conference here on Thursday evening at the Zardari House after holding two-hour-long talks.

[…] The breakthrough reached by the two major political forces of the country, who jointly share 70 per cent mandate of the people of Pakistan gained through the elections, was also important in the sense that Asif Ali Zardari showed flexibility, demonstrating his willingness to join hands with the PML-N for the reinstatement of the deposed judges.

The two leaders, who appeared jubilant and confident during the press conference, also announced that there would be no cooperation with the pro-Musharraf parties. “There is no pro-Musharraf group or political force in the country,” said Asif Ali Zardari when asked whether he was ready to extend cooperation to the pro-Musharraf political parties.

It was also agreed that parliament would decide whether it was ready to work with the president or not.

[… Nawaz Sharif] said both the parties would work together to form the governments and implement the Charter of Democracy in letter and spirit. “We accept the mandate of the PPP with an open heart and wish that the PPP completes its five-year term. We will wage a joint struggle for the restoration of judiciary and the Charter of Democracy will also be followed,” Nawaz maintained.

When asked about the modalities for the formation of the government, Zardari said that everything could not be discussed in a two-hour meeting and they would continue to meet to sort out all the hiccups in this regard.

When asked if he would move away from the commitment if the United States exerted pressure on the formation of government, Zardari replied that he had not submitted to the pressure that was put on him during eight years of jail, then how he could yield to the pressure exerted upon him from any corner.

To a query, Zardari said that he was thankful to Mian Nawaz Sharif who agreed that the very first order the government would pass would be concerning a request to the United Nations to help the Pakistan government to uncover the hands behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. “It will be the top priority of the next government,” he added.

[…] When Asif Ali Zardari was asked if both the parties intended to take the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) into the fold of the government of national consensus, he said, “We are looking for a broader government and there are reservations on the MQM. But we want to move ahead for the better future of the democracy in the country and we even want to talk to all those political forces whether they are in parliament or outside the parliament.”

Meanwhile, the PML-N party has designated Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif as its parliamentary leaders in the center and Punjab respectively. Since both of them were barred from election earlier, they will have to get elected in the bye-elections.

PML-N does not have a majority in the Punjab assembly but it is now wooing PML-Q members who broke away in 2002 to come back.

Since ANP is the largest party in NWFP, they would also be part of the coalition.

And the Bush administration seems to be as stupid as ever.

The Bush administration is pressing the opposition leaders who defeated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to allow the former general to retain his position, a move that Western diplomats and U.S. officials say could trigger the very turmoil the United States seeks to avoid.

U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, said this week that they think Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, should continue to play a role, despite his party’s rout in parliamentary elections Monday and his unpopularity in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation.

The U.S. is urging the Pakistani political leaders who won the elections to form a new government quickly and not press to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf ousted last year, Western diplomats and U.S. officials said Wednesday. If reinstated, the jurists likely would try to remove Musharraf from office.

Bush’s policy of hanging on to Musharraf has caused friction between the White House and the State Department, with some career diplomats and other specialists arguing that the administration is trying to buck the political tides in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.

Zardari’s response can be seen here.

In the post-election government formation phase, Asif Ali Zardari’s first love continues to be the PML-N though both the presidential camp and Washington are pressurising him to go for an otherwise awkward coalition with the PML-Q and other pro-Musharraf forces.

Background interviews reveal that Asif Ali Zardari has been offered governments at the Centre and in at least three of the four provinces if he distances himself from the Nawaz League. However, he told those who approached him that he did not consider the Q-League a political entity. Despite reservations of some of the PPP leaders from the Punjab against the N-League in the central executive committee of the party that met here in Islamabad on Wednesday, Zardari endorsed the idea of making a coalition government with the political parties like the PML-N, ANP, etc. Asif Ali Zardari while talking to this correspondent on Wednesday night also expressed his confidence that the two top-most popular parties – PPP and PML-N – would sort out the issues to make a workable coalition, both at the Centre and in the provinces.

Although, Zardari did not talk of Washington’s pressures, sources in the party confirmed that the Americans had brought tremendous pressure on the PPP co-chairperson to make a coalition government with the likes of the PML-Q and MQM but not with the PML-N.

Alienating the major political parties in Pakistan is not something that the US should strive for right now.