Syed Hamad Ali is a freelance journalist. His areas of interest include the ever deteriorating US-Pakistan relations, Central Asia, politics and the media.

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Syed Hamad Ali is a freelance journalist. His areas of interest include the ever deteriorating US-Pakistan relations, Central Asia, politics and the media.

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Step back from a dangerous path

Pakistan airforce jets

Pakistan Air Force jets. DVIDSHUB under a Creative Commons Licence

The news that Saudi Arabia has requested Pakistan join the military assault against Houthi rebels in Yemen has led to a lot of contradictory reports in the media recently.

With heavyweight regional powers like Turkey and Egypt participating, there is pressure on Pakistan to join the coalition. According to some reports Pakistan will be sending troops to Saudi Arabia to give its military support. Other government sources insist no decision has yet been made. At the same time, the Saudi Press Agency has quoted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as assuring the Saudi King that ‘all potentials of the Pakistani Army are offered to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’.  

It would be rather strange (and tragic) if Pakistan were to get involved in the fighting in Yemen. After all, we are talking about a country which has its hands more than full fighting terrorists within its own borders. The country’s military has already been carrying out an operation against militants in North Waziristan. The Taliban and other banned outfits pose a serious threat to the state. Only recently, a church was attacked in Lahore, which killed at least 17 people, with over 70 injured. Targeted killings and attacks on Shi’a Muslim places of worship are also a growing and are a very serious phenomenon.

So why would the country want to get involved in a new conflict? Pakistan has historically very close and deep ties with Saudi Arabia. Current Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spent many years in exile in Saudi Arabia during the period Pakistan was under the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf. Saudi Arabia is also home to the largest number of overseas Pakistanis in the world. On a trip to the Middle East country last year, I saw for myself the many Pakistani expat workers who have found gainful employment there as taxi drivers, shopkeepers, in restaurants and in hotels.

But despite how close the relationship is Pakistan simply cannot afford to get involved in a new conflict. The day after the recent church attack in Lahore, protesters blocked the prime minister from inaugurating a new motorway. Terrorism has become so routine that it no longer shocks many citizens, including the head of government, it would appear.

Sharif came to power in 2013. His victory was a controversial one, with all major political parties making allegations of vote-rigging. Yet Sharif has held on to power in the name of ‘democracy’. One bizarre aspect of his government is that, to date, no foreign minister has been appointed. There is a feeling that government decisions are not always made in a consultative or democratic manner.

If Nawaz Sharif were a forward-thinking statesman (for the record, he isn’t) he would use his close ties with the Saudis to try and bring Iran and Saudi Arabia closer. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has spoken of his desire to improve relations with the Saudis. Instead, with the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen escalating, the rivalry between the Iranians and Saudis keeps getting worse, with the resulting sectarian spillover in neighbouring countries. The rise of Daesh (Isis) is a threat that both Saudis and Iranians face and an area where the two countries could co-operate.

It is worth remembering that in the 1980s Pakistan partnered with Saudi Arabia and the United States to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan by backing the Mujahedin. Today, many Pakistanis feel their country faces the brunt of the  blowback from that conflict.  

Pakistan would do well to advise its close friend Saudi Arabia that it cannot afford to get involved in this dangerous new adventure. The priority instead should be tackling terrorism within Pakistan’s own borders.

Angry Pakistanis take to the streets amid vote-rigging claims

2014-08-27 - Pakistan protests - blog.jpg

FSCEM45212 under a Creative Commons Licence

The protests rocking Islamabad recently have given expression to the frustration of many ordinary Pakistanis tired of years of government corruption, economic malaise and terrorism.

Allegations of vote-rigging in last year’s national elections, won by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, have drawn tens of thousands of people out on the streets, with protesters calling on Sharif to resign with chants of ‘Go, Nawaz, go!'

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who lost the 2013 elections, made the allegations regarding widespread fraud and has been demanding a recount in four constituencies using fingerprint verification, a measure which the government has been resisting.

To date, the protests have been peaceful, and with young people dancing in the streets to popular music and a large female participation, they are also sending out a progressive message in a society where the forces of conservatism and patriarchy are strong.

The allegations that rigging took place in the May 2013 elections are supported not just by Khan, but by all major parties in Pakistan. To highlight one glaring example, consider this: at one of the polling stations in Sargodha, Punjab, where Nawaz Sharif was running, he received close to 8,000 votes, although only some 1,500 voters were registered there.

An inquiry by the election commission later blamed a clerical error for the extra digit. Yet many would find it hard to believe that such a big mistake could happen in a constituency where such a prominent and leading candidate was running.

This is not an isolated incident. According to the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), in at least 49 polling stations the number of votes polled far exceeded the number of registered voters. Even former President Asif Ali Zardari has backed Khan’s demand for a recount in the four constituencies which have been named.

On Sunday 24 August, with protests ongoing, Muhammad Afzal Khan, former additional secretary of Pakistan’s election commission, created a buzz by claiming in a much reported television interview that last year’s election had been ‘massively rigged’ and blamed the country’s former Chief Justice for fraud involvement.

However, electoral fraud is not the only grievance of the protesters. Supporters of an Islamic cleric, Mohammad Tahirul Qadri, have joined the demonstrations, calling for justice over the killing of 14 members of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) party and the injuring of over 90 people in June 2014, when police clashed with workers in Model Town, a residential suburb in Lahore.

A court in Lahore has ordered the police to file a First Information Report (FIR) against the prime minister and other top officials, blaming them for the June events. Although Tahirul Qadri, who is also a Canadian national, did not participate in the 2013 elections, he has been calling for dramatic political changes in the country and many analysts see him as an opportunist player.

However, that doesn’t justify the heavy-handed tactics used against Qadri and his followers by the government, which have unwittingly served to raise his profile. On 25 August, he gave a 48-hour ultimatum to the government, threatening to start a ‘revolution’.

Critics say Khan and Qadri’s protests will harm democracy and play into the hands of elements within the military who would like to see the government weakened. They point to the fact that last year was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a democratic government completed its term in office and transferred power to another.

Still, it’s also worth keeping in mind that Sharif was first brought into the political limelight under the patronage of one of Pakistan’s worst military dictators, General Zia-ul Haq, during the 1980s. In the 1990s, he had two spells in office, which were marred by allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement. In 1996 a mob of his supporters attacked the country’s Supreme Court. Sharif’s record on press freedom was also very poor.

Regardless of the eventual outcome of these protests, they have created a new movement in the country for cleaner, fairer and more inclusive politics.

Malala Yousafzai is another innocent target

‘Probably, a hero like Afghan heroine Malalai [of Maiwand] or Malalai Joya. I want to be a social activist and an honest politician like her.’

These were the words of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl recently shot by the Taliban, when she was asked about the significance of her name by a journalist a couple of years ago. Of the two names she mentioned, the first one refers to a famous Afghan woman who is a national heroine in her home country for rallying her people to fight in a battle against the British in 1880. The identity of the other namesake, Malalai Joya, is a well-known human rights activist, who has been called ‘the bravest woman in Afghanistan’.

Malalai Joya addresses Afghan schoolgirlsJoya (right, addressing Afghan schoolgirls) became prominent in 2005 when, as a young member of parliament, she famously spoke out against the warlords in the Afghan parliament. She has survived a number of assassination attempts. In March this year, her office in Farah province was attacked and two of her bodyguards injured. She is known for her biting criticism against all three major forces in Afghanistan— the Taliban, the Karzai regime and the NATO presence.

Following the attack on Malala Yousafzai, Joya wrote on her Facebook page: ‘I strongly condemn this disgraceful act of targeting an innocent 14-year-old girl. This is the real nature of Afghan and Pakistani fundamentalist Taliban. These dirty rascals pose as “manly” but this heinous crime shows how unmanly and disgusting they are to [shoot] a defenceless young girl. Malala was targeted because, in her limited capacity, she wanted to inform the world about the brutalities going on against women by extremists. She wanted to wake up the women of the rural areas of Pakistan to stand up and defend their due rights.’

Malala has been a well-known campaigner since she was 11 years old and wrote an online diary, under a pseudonym, about the Taliban preventing girls in the Swat Valley from going to school.

She was shot in the head on 9 October 2012 in her hometown of Mingora. Malala was on the school bus. Two other girls were injured. She has since been flown by special air ambulance to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham (England) which has a unit specializing in military casualties. The government in London offered the specialist care and Pakistan are paying the costs.

Here in Pakistan, ministers in the government have been lining up to condemn the targeting of Malala and promising to bring the culprits justice. These are all fine words. However, the best homage these politicians could pay to this young girl is by improving the educational system.

Pakistan suffers from an abysmal state of education, with millions of children growing up to be illiterate. A report by a government commission last year revealed some truly shocking statistics. Since 2005, funding for schools in Pakistan has been cut from 2.5 per cent to 1.5 per cent – less than what the national airlines get in subsidies. Some 25 million children do not get any education, although it is guaranteed by the constitution. The report also says the country has no chance of reaching the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for Education by 2015.

Unfortunately, a lot of analysts are only able to see as far as military operations and ‘shock and awe’ to wipe out the menace of fundamentalism – they never get to the core. Joya, on the other hand, is a three dimensional thinker: she has the ability to look beyond the binary debates of a lot of media pundits. As long as such a narrow discourse continues, innocents civilians caught in the crossfire will continue to suffer – including school children, whether they are targeted by misogynist Taliban fighters or CIA drones. A recent report, Living under Drones, jointly produced by Standford and New York Universities, claimed only one in 50 people killed in such strikes is a known militant. Among the many victims is 15-year-old Sadaullah Khan, who lost both legs in a drone strike. He is quoted as saying: ‘I used to go to school… I thought I would become a doctor. After the drone strikes, I stopped going to school.’

Some intellectuals will only express their outrage if the crime has been perpetrated by NATO; others will only offer condemnation if the culprits are the Taliban. This is a form of moral bankruptcy. It shouldn’t be a mere battle for ideological supremacy – what is wrong is wrong. The targeting of innocent children – no matter by whom – should be condemned. US drones have killed over 170 children in Pakistan. The Taliban in Swat Valley have blown up literally hundreds of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In this context, Joya understands the need to expose the violation of human rights – whether perpetrated by the Taliban or the Karzai regime or anyone else. She rightly sees US soldiers themselves as the victims of the wrongful policy of the US government. In her message over the targeting of Malala Yousafzai she urges the world to recognize ‘that still in our unfortunate Afghanistan, the US and NATO rely on brothers-in-creed of the Taliban – the Northern Alliance warlords such as Qanooni, Fahim, Ismael Khan, Atta Mohammad, Abdullah, Sayyaf, Mohaqiq, Khalili and others – who have made life a torture for Afghan women. They should know that Karzai’s puppet regime is calling the murderer Taliban “brothers” and trying to share power with this anti-humanity band of killers. I send my salutations to Malala Yousafzai and am sure that her great sacrifice will not be in vain. She marks the shining pages of history, while her enemies will soon go into the dustbin of history.’

Photo: Afghan Kabul under a CC Licence

Further reading:

'It's not who's voting, it's who's counting' - an interview with Malalai Joya


To nuke or not to nuke: fictional US attack on Pakistan

Photo: President Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani of Pakistan during the Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea, 27 March 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

What happens when the crew of a US submarine receives an order from Washington to nuke Pakistan?

It might sound like a ridiculous scenario, but this is just the question US TV audiences are going to be presented with in an upcoming series called The Last Resort. When the leaders of the submarine question the order, which if carried out would result in the deaths of 4.3 million Pakistanis, they end up being declared enemies of the state and having to flee to a fictional island.

While the controversial plot which occurs at the beginning of the show hasn’t garnered any kind of significant media discussion in the US, in Pakistan news of this (fictional) possibility of nuclear annihilation is being taken more seriously. Respected newspapers like Dawn and The Nation have given it coverage, and the trailer is being posted on Pakistani discussion forums under alarming headlines – with many readers reacting with fury.

While it should be kept in mind that the (fictional) orders to launch the nuclear missile are not obeyed by the crew, and The Last Resort doesn’t exactly appear to paint the US government in a positive light, yet the question remains: what made the scriptwriters choose Pakistan, of all countries, as the target for this fictional attack? In a way, it is a measure of the degree of negativity which has come to be associated with the South Asian country in the US media.

The US-Pakistan relationship is one of the most complicated entanglements in the world today. With countries like Cuba and Iran the US has a very straightforward relationship – they may be openly hostile but the parameters are also clearer. In the case of Pakistan, the governments in Islamabad and Washington continue to call each other allies despite deep mistrust and frequent fallouts.

Yet a recent poll found 74 per cent of Pakistanis consider the US to be an enemy. As a result of continuing CIA drone attacks, the resentment has grown in a country where conspiracy theories about the US are fodder for TV talk shows.

Often when political analysts talks about Pakistan and the US, the reference is to the governments or the military. Yet it is at a people-to-people level that relations between the two countries have failed. This is where the role of literature and cinema could play a part. Fiction can be a powerful medium to look at international affairs, allowing us to remove the restraints of high-level diplomacy and analyse relations on a more human level.

In this respect I suspect The Last Resort is not the kind of series which offers a deep analysis of bilateral relations between the two countries – its focus appears to be elsewhere. A better bet would be the upcoming film version of Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed book The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the story of a Pakistani working in Wall Street who becomes radicalized by the US response to 9/11.

One of the distinctive features of the novel is the silence of the American character who sits in a café in Lahore as he listens to Changez, the book’s Pakistani protagonist, talking about his former life, job and girlfriend in New York. The silence of the American is partly a play on the notion of how the media today can often portray one side of a conversation and much less of the other. The film, which opened the Venice Film Festival last week, is directed by Mira Nair (of Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding fame), who has described it as her ‘most difficult project’.

Yet long before these ‘reluctant fundamentalists’ made difficult the love affair between Washington and Islamabad, a famous Hollywood film came out which presented religious fundamentalists in a very different light. Consider this short piece of dialogue: ‘What you see here are the Mujahedin soldiers, holy warriors. To us this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for the Mujahedin because we have taken our last rites. And we consider ourselves dead already. To us death for our land and God is an honour.’

These words were not spoken in some grainy video produced by the Taliban for recruitment purposes. Rather, they were uttered by an actor playing an Afghan rebel in the famous 1988 film Rambo III. In the movie, our hero Sylvester Stallone travels to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, and from there makes his way to Afghanistan to team up with rebels fighting a jihad against the Soviet occupiers.

People often mistakenly think about Islamists as having arrived from another planet, and of being some kind of creatures completely un-associated with Western civilization. Yet one interesting piece of trivia about Rambo III is that it wasn’t actually shot in Pakistan or Afghanistan – but in the Israeli desert. There is a strange kind of irony there, given the film could be interpreted as a romantic flick between a favourite US film icon and jihadist militants.

Drone killings: a result of our animal instincts?

A US drone, armed and ready to fire.

Photo by an Honourable German under a CC Licence.

Recently the United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay called for a probe into US drone strikes in Pakistan arguing they ‘raise serious questions about compliance with international law’ and cause ‘indiscriminate killings and injuries of civilians.’

The Obama administration’s response displays a strange kind of psychology at work. The US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta lashed out that the US is ‘reaching the limits of patience’ with Pakistan. It’s almost as if the US government are the real victims of the drone strikes, that are reportedly being stepped up.

When we talk ‘jungle law’ this is as close as it gets. When the strong prey on the weak and when laws are increasingly dismissed, then animalistic behaviour starts to emerge. So to get a better insight into drone warfare perhaps we should approach this topic not merely as political analysts, but from the viewpoint of a zoologist.

Of all jungle animals the chimpanzee is often considered the closest to humans. The world’s foremost primatologist Jane Goodall was once criticized by some colleagues for publishing findings on inter-community aggression among chimpanzees that drew parallels with warfare. She was accused of giving a foothold to people who wanted to maintain that war and violence are part of our genetic make up and therefore inevitable.

‘Of course we do have aggressive tendencies,’ Goodall argued. ‘But I believe that we have more capability than any other creature to control our biological inheritance – and we do so most of the time. Chimps act the way they feel, unless they are afraid of reprisal if they do so. But that doesn’t apply to humans.’

Bypassing natural revulsion

But could US drone strikes actually be a way of overriding our natural instincts? The answer may lie in a 1996 book by Dave Grossman On Killing: The psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society which contains fascinating data on how – contrary to the idea that we are aggressive – the human brain is hard-wired against killing other humans. In World War 2 only 15-25 per cent of infantry combatants were willing to fire their rifles. The number shot up to 50 per cent during Korean War and later to 90 per cent in Vietnam. This increase was arguably due to operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, a form of learning whereby an individual will modify behaviour based on consequences.

Humans have much in common with chimpanzees.

Photo by Bradypus under a CC Licence.

So by creating distance between killer and target, drones can bypass this natural revulsion towards killing other humans. Today drone operators zap targets from distances of thousands of miles like a video game. By removing our naturally-installed barriers to killing other humans these drones make eliminating human life dangerously easy.

Yet another way to create distance between killer and target is de-humanizing the ‘other.’ A moral distance can be further achieved by painting the target as some kind of threat. Media outlets have made a habit of unquestioningly reporting drone strike victims as ‘suspected militants.’ But a recent New York Times article revealed drone operators see ‘all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.’

By openly flouting international laws and conventions, the War on Terror has become a macrocosm of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

In its wake American columnist Glenn Greenwald issued a scathing critique: ‘For now, consider what this means for American media outlets. Any of them which use the term “militants” to describe those killed by US strikes are knowingly disseminating a false and misleading term of propaganda. By “militant,” the Obama administration literally means nothing more than: any military-age male whom we kill, even when we know nothing else about them... Any media outlet that continues using it while knowing this is explicitly choosing to be an instrument for state propaganda – not that that’s anything new, but this makes this clearer than it’s ever been.’

‘Us’ and ‘Them’

For drone operators lives of innocent tribesman in Pakistan or Yemen are apparently expendable in order to get at potential Al-Qaeda targets. Here again we find a commonality between humans and chimpanzees since both form ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group.’ Indeed US government, by having ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality, shares rather dubious company with likes of Al-Qaeda since both justify killing innocent civilians to attain particular goals.

By openly flouting international laws and conventions, the War on Terror has become a macrocosm of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies where a group of children become marooned on an island and their morals and perspectives begin to degenerate. The children’s distancing from civilized behaviour is a result of their hunting for meat which they come to prioritize over building shelter and being rescued.

Paradoxically the more people killed in these wars the more paranoid American leadership becomes about matters of security – a natural outcome of following irrational policies. A few years ago a psychologist at the University of Virginia found that emphasizing how violence is an instinct we share with animals could reduce support for war against ‘outsiders.’ Another study found chimps follow their leader even if it’s a ‘stupid’ thing to do (which gives all the more reason not to blindly lap up government rhetoric).

No matter how technologically advanced humankind may become, it’s entirely possible on the inside we may be unable to shake off our more primitive instincts. Conducting an unending War on Terror using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is one manifestation of such atavistic thinking.

US tries to halt Iran-Pakistan pipeline

When Pakistani labourer Imran Haider became trapped inside a lift in a market in Lahore, during one of the frequent power shortages in the city, futile attempts were made to rescue him. But there was just not enough time, he wilted and died.

In a country where temperatures can reach between 30-50 degrees centigrade, frequent power shortages that can last up to 12 hours have been the cause of widespread protests and anger against a government seen as too inept to deal with the situation. From emergency patients in hospitals to schools and businesses – their social and economic impact has been crippling.

This aspect of Pakistan’s troubled ‘power politics’ has placed the government in a difficult position – not just internally but also in regards to the country’s foreign relations.

Last month Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said Pakistan would be buying 1100 megawatts of electricity from Iran, as well as oil and gas. The two countries have been working for years towards building an Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.

But the United States government has expressed its disapproval, warning the project could be in violation of the Iran Sanctions Act. Previously India was also a part of the pipeline project but pulled out in 2009 after the US made a nuclear deal with the country. The pressure on Pakistan, however, continues.

‘As we are ratcheting up pressure on Iran, it seems somewhat inexplicable that Pakistan would be trying to negotiate a pipeline,’ said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. ‘And there is an alternative that we do strongly support — the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India [TAPI] pipeline.’

The trouble with the latter is the unstable situation in Afghanistan and the fact it would take much longer to build since Pakistan’s power crisis is urgent. Despite this the Pakistani government is keen to go ahead with the TAPI project in addition to its commitments to Iran.


Hillary Clinton welcomed by Prime Minister of Pakistan Yousaf Raza Gillani at his house in 2009. Photo by America.gov under a CC Licence.

Recently the Indian cabinet gave its approval to sign a gas purchase agreement with Turkmenistan’s national oil firm. To add to the complexity of the situation, unnamed diplomatic sources in Islamabad claimed US ally Saudi Arabia also has made an offer to Pakistan to drop the gas pipeline deal with Iran in return for cheaper fuel.

But Iran has already built its side of the 2775 km pipeline, with construction still needing to be done in Pakistan. The estimated cost for this is placed at $1.5 billion. China’s largest bank and the world’s most valuable lender, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), pulled out of financing the project in March after reportedly fearing sanctions from the US.

There are, however, other sources. Russian energy giant Gazprom has expressed interest in providing technical and financial assistance for the project. In this respect, Pakistan’s quest to build a gas pipeline from Iran holds the potential to turn into a bigger geopolitical showdown between the United States, China and Russia. Moscow in recent years has been silently moving closer to Islamabad.

For those familiar with politics in the region, this is a major policy shift following decades of hostility with the Soviets when the US and Pakistan were close allies. Later this year President Vladimir Putin is expected to travel to Pakistan, which would make him the first Russian President to visit the South Asian country.

Even more alarming for Washington has been Beijing’s interest in importing Iranian gas by potentially extending the pipeline project northwards to China.

US policy makers should realize that pushing Pakistan’s already weak government to reject energy dealings with Iran is not a diplomatically astute move. This is because coercion only leads to more resentment. Diplomacy, as the name suggests, should be about building relationships – not dictating to weaker countries. Just imagine the reaction if the Pakistani government were to lecture the US on its trade relations with Mexico or Canada?

Yet Secretary of State Clinton has warned the pipeline could violate sanctions against Iran.

‘It would be particularly damaging to Pakistan because their economy is already quite shaky,’ she said. ‘This additional pressure that the United States would be compelled to apply would further undermine their economic status.’

At the same time Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar insists her country will not give in to US pressure, and will finish the pipeline ‘at any cost.’ But some analysts believe it unlikely Islamabad will carry through with the project due to fear of incurring Washington’s ire.

The Pakistani state’s bombastic language may indeed just be a bargaining chip to use with the Americans for future foreign aid, and to appease local voters by pretending to make independent decisions.

Whatever the case, it’s clear that day by day this project is becoming bigger than just a trade venture. The complex challenges in building the gas pipeline between Pakistan and Iran demonstrate the sort of pressures countries in the Global South face in their daily struggle to be able to make their own decisions with dignity.

Death by spider: deforestation in Pakistan

Trees cocooned in spiders' webs. This photo was taken in December 2010, at the same time as the image entered into the National Geographic competition.

Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development under a CC Licence.

Every year, National Geographic holds a photo competition in which participants are invited to send in images for a chance to win $10,000 and a trip to Washington.

When the winners for 2011 were announced, one photo which had attracted a lot of media attention failed to make it. It was an image entered into the competition by photographer Russell Watkins. The scene he captured is of a little girl holding a bucket in her hand, with her figure dwarfed by the presence of a large tree behind her. What is strange about the image are the branches and leaves of this tree, all of which are cocooned under a whitish layer of webs woven by spiders. In the background, more such ‘spider trees’ are to be found, surrounded by a sea of flood water.

The surreal photograph was taken during the disastrous floods in December 2010 near the town of Dadu in Sindh, Pakistan. Watkins was taking images of the flood for the Department for International Development (DFID). Many of the spiders, so the narrative goes, were forced to climb the trees to escape the intensity of waters which swept through the region.

‘No-one had seen anything like it before, and almost everyone was pleased about it. Everyone believed that the mosquitoes were being trapped in the webs’

While those who suffer from arachnophobia might find the images disturbing, many of the locals who faced untold hardship due to the floods saw the spiders as something to cheer about. They believed it reduced the risk of malaria. ‘No-one had seen anything like it before,’ Watkins wrote in his blog afterwards. ‘And almost everyone was pleased about it. Time after time people said that it was a good thing, because they weren’t being bitten by mosquitoes. Everyone believed that the mosquitoes were being trapped in the webs.’

A dubious honour

The image could be seen as a powerful representation of how elements of nature can come together and offer their own form of refuge in times of disaster. Unfortunately, many of the trees later became asphyxiated due to the suffocation caused by the spider cocoons.

In 2011, the southern half of Pakistan again suffered intense floods, with 300 killed, more than five million people affected and 1.58 million homes destroyed in Sindh. Their plight remains urgent. Prince Charles, who is founder of The Pakistan Recovery Fund, made a public appeal for the flood victims: ‘Despite the scale of devastation, the level of suffering and the level of need,’ he said, ‘the story seems to vanish all too quickly from the headlines as the world’s attention turns to disaster and destruction elsewhere. Yet the suffering in Pakistan goes on.’

According to some estimates, Pakistan holds the dubious honour of suffering from the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia – thanks in no small part to the relentless efforts of the local timber mafia

Many experts believe the devastation caused by the rising frequency of floods in places like Pakistan is more than just a ‘natural’ disaster. According to some estimates, the country holds the dubious honour of suffering from the fastest rate of deforestation in Asia – thanks in no small part to the relentless efforts of the local timber mafia. While some 30 per cent of the world’s land area is forested, in Pakistan the figure stands closer to an estimated two per cent. It is believed deforestation has played a significant role in the destruction created by the floods.

Buffalo and eco-warriors

There was a time when the Indus River had forests on both sides, offering a shield against flooding. In the past few decades, a lot of the forests in Sindh have been cleared away by influential feudal lords – some with connections in the government – to make space for crop cultivation. Even law-enforcement authorities have inadvertently contributed to the deforestation. In operations conducted against criminals, who often seek refuge in the wooded areas, security personnel have been known to set forests on fire in order to flush them out.

Security personnel have been known to set forests on fire in order to flush out criminals

With the state preoccupied with more pressing issues like the never-ending ‘war on terror’, the people have taken it upon themselves to try and save the forests. In one part of Sindh, where the local forest has been facing illegal encroachment, villagers have for the past few years been organizing protests to draw attention to their plight. They have even carried out a ‘cattle rally’, in which hundreds of goats and buffalo were brought in to block the national highway as the people shouted slogans to save the forest.

Then there are eco-warriors like Tahir Qureishi, a man who is known as ‘father of the mangrove’. He has helped rehabilitate 30,000 hectares of mangrove along the southern coast of Pakistan and is a senior advisor with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The story of how he became involved in conservation work is an interesting one. Back in 1984, while working in Dadu (the same area where years later the photographer Watkins discovered the trees covered in spider-web) he was kidnapped by a criminal gang who were after a ransom. ‘They kept me for a couple of days in captivity,’ Qureishi said in an interview. ‘But when they knew I was a forest officer they released me without further argument. That inspired me to dedicate my whole life to the rehabilitation of our ecosystem. The robbers released me as they respect those who respect forests. Trees provide them best hideouts.’

While even criminals express some respect for trees, Pakistan’s rapid deforestation can only be halted once the state begins to take a serious interest in the problem. Sadly, with all eyes on the ‘war on terror’, trees remain a low priority for those who run the country.

Syed Hamad Ali is a freelance journalist.

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