Pakistan’s corona crisis puts Britain’s in perspective


index1Rupert Stone comments on the impact of Covid-19 in Pakistan

While much of Europe and the US remains in varying degrees of lockdown as fatalities from the novel coronavirus continue to rise, Pakistan could be on the verge of a far more devastating crisis.

With its huge population of around 220 million (the world’s fifth largest), massive slums,crowded mosques, broken public healthcare system and chronically dysfunctional government, Pakistan is a favourable environment for COVID-19.

But the statistics seem to tell a positive story. Over 14,000 cases have been recorded and more than 300 deaths: a relatively small number. However, Pakistan has only tested a tiny fraction of its population, so the real case-load is likely much higher. The World Health Organization recently warned that cases could increase to 200,000 by July. An internal government assessment suggests an eventual tally of 20 million infections.

So far, Pakistan has struggled to respond effectively to the virus, which has been like a magnifying glass held up to Pakistani politics and society, illuminating the country’s major weaknesses, while also highlighting some of its strengths.

The public healthcare system is woefully ill-equipped to handle this emergency. Spending on healthcare amounts to 2.9% of GDP, lower than India and less than half of the global average. According to a recent BBC report, there are less than 10 ventilators per 1 million people. In Karachi, a gigantic metropolis of 20 million, there were reportedly only 600 intensive care beds as of late March.

Moreover, there is a shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors. A group of irate medics in Balochistan province, long a hotbed of anti-government activism, demonstrated against the lack of resources, only to be arrested. It is grimly appropriate that the country’s first fatality from COVID was a doctor.  Since then, more than 150 medics have contracted the virus, and several have died.

Coronavirus seems to afflict the old disproportionately. And Pakistan’s population is quite young, with 64% under the age of 30, suggesting fewer people might die. But the prevalence of chronic medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, diabetes, typhoid, and tuberculosis makes young people more vulnerable. Even before the advent of corona, Pakistan was plagued by infectious disease. It is one of only three countries where polio is still a problem.

Added to that, high levels of pollution have led to widespread respiratory disease, the last thing Pakistanis need if they are battling COVID-19, which can cause pneumonia. In 2019, four Pakistani cities ranked among the twenty most polluted in the world. Lahore is regularly engulfed with heavy smog caused by traffic fumes and fires. There is also indoor pollution resulting from the use of biomass fuel in cooking.

The response of the prime minister, Imran Khan, to this crisis has been slow and indecisive.  At first, he refused to impose a lockdown, claiming that Pakistan’s people were too poor to cope with the economic losses. He had a point: almost 40% of the population lives below the poverty line, with many depending on daily wages, and Pakistan’s fragile economy was only just starting to emerge from a major balance of payments crisis in 2018-19.

Furthermore, locking down such a big country is no easy task. Karachi and Lahore are both megacities with vast, overcrowded slums. Social distancing is almost impossible in such places, where large families live huddled together, where facilities are often shared and streets are narrow. Worse still, conditions are filthy and there is a lack of clean water for hand-washing.

Despite all this, the provincial governments, empowered by a 2010 amendment to Pakistan’s constitution, ignored the prime minister and ordered their own lockdowns. They were supported by the military, which swatted Khan aside and took control of the crisis, deploying troops across the country. But images of traffic jams and large crowds in Lahore and Karachi have suggested widespread violations of the lockdown measures.

The military’s defiance of the civilian government should raise alarm bells. Pakistan’s mighty army has launched four coups since independence in 1947 and ruled the country for half of its history. Civil-military relations were initially harmonious after Khan took office in 2018, possibly because the generals supported his candidacy. But, with the economy stagnating under Khan’s stewardship, the military has started to lose patience.

Coronavirus could be another nail in his coffin.  The low point came in March, when pilgrims returning from Iran – one of the corona hotspots – were quarantined in makeshift tents. People were bunched together in squalid conditions, facilitating the spread of the infection and defeating the whole point of the exercise. When those quarantined were eventually released, hundreds tested positive for the virus.

But Pakistan is not the only country to respond sluggishly. The same could be said of Britain and the US. India, with its vast slums and population of 1.3 billion, has also struggled. And Khan has done some things right, providing cash handouts to Pakistan’s poor and needy through his ‘Ehsaas’ program, for example, despite the country’s bleak and worsening economic outlook.

Religious gatherings pose a particularly hard challenge for the government. It is normal for Pakistanis to flock to Friday prayers in large numbers. While Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other Muslim-majority countries decided to shutter mosques due to the pandemic, Pakistan allowed them to remain open under certain limitations. But clerics and worshippers violated those rules.

The health risks of allowing large religious gatherings became apparent in March, when 150,000 members of a pan-Islamic group, Tablighi Jamaat, assembled outside Lahore for an annual meeting. The government eventually persuaded them to leave, but not before the virus had infected large numbers of people, including some from abroad who later returned home.

Now, with Ramadan upon us, the government has capitulated to clerical pressure and agreed to loosen restrictions on mosque attendance, a reminder – if any were needed – of the ulema’s extraordinary influence in Pakistani politics. A group of concerned doctors wrote to the government protesting its decision to open up mosques during Ramadan, but to no avail. In Pakistan, clerics come before medics.

To be fair, this is a difficult situation. If mosques were closed, there would likely be strong resistance. After all, they receive most of their donations during Ramadan. Big protests could erupt, as they have before, leading to standoffs with the authorities. The prospect of widespread social unrest and further economic dislocation, on top of the public health emergency, has made the government understandably reluctant to flex its muscles.

The coming months will be difficult for Pakistan. But it has endured numerous disasters before, whether they be floods, earthquakes, or wars. While the country’s institutions might be ineffectual, its people are generous and will support each another. As Anatol Lieven writes in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, “The state, whoever claims to lead it, is weak, and society in its various forms is immensely strong.”


Pakistan’s Global Image: Perception and Causes

Nadir Cheema is an academic at the School of Oriental and African Studies and UCL, University of London. He specializes in economics and studies Pakistani socio-political issues. He is also a senior fellow at Bloomsbury Pakistan.

The perception that Pakistan lacks credibility within the international community is a common one among analysts and academics working on the region.[i]

A survey, conducted exclusively for this article, set out to examine the nature and origins of such negative views about Pakistan. Members of the Foreign Service Programme class of 2016 at the University of Oxford, mainly comprised of diplomats from all over the world,[ii] were asked ‘what three things come to mind when you hear about Pakistan?’ The majority of respondents cited nuclear weapons, terrorism, security, Islam, and the Taliban, lending support to the general view of Pakistan as a militarised state involved with Islamic extremism. Continue reading

India, Pakistan

Climate Change: Co-operation in South Asia

Prateek Joshi, a post-graduate international relations student at the South Asian University in New Delhi, reports on the recent visit of a retired Pakistani Defence Secretary to India, and his call for South Asian co-operation against the threat of climate change. 

South Asian politics, whose dominant narrative is India-Pakistan relations, witnessed a unique idea of possibility of cooperation among the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) States. It was a retired senior Pakistani Army officer speaking in New Delhi on the crucial role governments and even militaries could play to address the challenges presented by Climate Change. On 8th March, 2016, The South Asian University (a SAARC nations’ project), New Delhi, organized a lecture “Climate Change and Security Implications: A Global Perspective” by Lieutenant General Tariq Waseem Ghazi, the former defence secretary to the Government of Pakistan.

Continue reading


Pakistan: What lies ahead?

Dr Amit Ranjan is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council for World Affairs in New Delhi. Here, he submits a point of view on the tensions inherent in contemporary Pakistan, and what they might mean for the future.

One of the most challenging questions that haunt Pakistanis and others too is: Where is the country heading towards? The presence of a strong infrastructure of terror makes some portray it as a ‘terrorist’ state; a few call it a ‘weak state’; and another few define it as a ‘deep state’. Conceptually, it cannot be put into either of those categories. But it indeed has a strong presence of terror within its infrastructure, which affects the socio-political system of the country. The killing on 16 December 2014 of about 140 students and staff members from the Army Public School, Peshawar, by the militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a recent act of brutality committed by them. Not only the militants, but even the Pakistani state has carried out brutal attacks in the name of fighting against militancy. Since, 2001 many innocents have already lost their lives as a part of ‘collateral damage’. Continue reading

Afghanistan, Balochistan, Guest blogger, Iran, Pakistan

Balochistan through the Afghan back door

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance reporter who contributes to a number of media channels including Al-Jazeera. Here, he writes on the complexities of covering one of the most off-the-radar conflicts worldwide: Balochistan.

It had been four years since I last met Mr Purdely. The chain of uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East that started in 2011 had kept me away from Central Asia, but I was finally back in Kabul last September, sitting down over a cup of green tea with Afghanistan´s best known Baloch intellectual.

A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely is a professor and a writer. Among his several books one can also find those being used by the Afghan Baloch schoolchildren in Nimroz Province.

That far-flung spot in the country´s southwest had been the main goal of my trip to Afghanistan in 2010. It´s not just the only the area where Afghanistan´s little known Baloch minority constitute the majority. Nimroz is also the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran collide. If there is a “black hole” in Central Asia, that is certainly Nimroz.

“There are three schools in Nimroz where Balochi – their language – is being taught, which you may want to visit,” said Purdely, after proudly producing the whole set of school books he had released over the last four years. The normalisation of a long neglected language, however, was just one of the stories I wanted to cover during my trip.

Back in 2009 I had travelled to the Baloch populated areas bordering Nimroz in Iran and Pakistan. In retrospect, I have to admit that during the first trip to West and East Balochistan, as Baloch nationalists put it, I was barely familiar with the Marris, the Mengals, the Bugtis and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric. But I did have a unique chance to detect the fear among regular Iranian Baloch of being hanged by the Iranian regime, or the appalling poverty in Pakistan-controlled Balochistan. Thanks to the help of local activists, I met victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security service, relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch –around 20,000 according to local sources. I also spoke to senior tribal leaders such as Khair Bux Marri or Attaullah Mengal, as well as to a few among those fighting in the rugged mountains of Pakistan´s southernmost province.

The outcome of that first visit to the troubled land of the Baloch would be a set of stories for several media wires which would eventually shed some light on this obscure conflict. The collateral effect for me would be a travel ban for Iran and Pakistan. To make a long story short, foreign journalists are prevented from entering the region, deported if they´re caught inside, and eventually beaten. Needless to say it´s far worse for the local reporters, forced to choose between “self-censorship”, according to Ahmed Rashid, or finding their names in the list of “killed and dumped”.

Paradoxically, Afghanistan had turned into my “safest” option to keep reporting on the Baloch and their conflict.

The Wild Southwest

The Taliban insurgency has made it impossible to travel overland across Afghanistan, except for a few spots like the legendary Panjshir valley, which works for a nice day-trip from Kabul. Flying is mandatory when it comes to moving around the country, and air connections between Kabul and Nimroz had slightly improved since my last visit in 2010. Back then, flights to Zaranj -the provincial capital – only departed from Herat, but last September there was a weekly flight from Kabul operated by a newly-established airline.

So I travelled there, met the Baloch teachers, the journalists who run a radio programme in Balochi and many other local activists struggling to revive their long-neglected language and culture. But there was obviously much more Afghanistan´s remotest province could offer to a freelance journalist. Nimroz is literally overrun by migrant Afghans bound for Iran, and it´s also a main hub for all sorts of smuggling: heroine coming from neighbouring Helmand province goes out, weapons come in…

In the country´s southwest I also came across dozens of Pakistani Baloch, either political dissidents or ordinary civilians, fleeing the war at home and seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Another striking story was that of the local Baloch who have found themselves living under the shadow of a border wall erected by the Iranians almost overnight. Many cross-border family ties were cut, and survival based on smuggling goods or growing crops was on the brink of collapse. Local villagers have left in their hundreds, leaving their mud houses behind. Among those who had not yet followed suit, it was not difficult to run into people who have been shot by the Iranian guards.

Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told me that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand River and also responsible for Nimroz´s endemic drought. But accusations went beyond interference in the water supply. The Iranian presence is overwhelming, something which is visibly evident in Zaranj´s massive bazaar area, with hundreds of stalls loaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran. Moreover, locals are highly suspicious of Iranian NGOs.

“This is a nest of spies,” could be read in graffiti on the walls of The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation´s headquarters.

Somewhere in the Mountains

My next stop on my Baloch tour across Afghanistan was Kandahar, so I was forced to fly back to Kabul. A first attempt to leave Zaranj ended up with the aircraft swerving violently across the runway after one of the engines collapsed during take-off. I had experienced something similar during my 2010 trip, so although it was pretty scary, it came as no surprise.

The flight was delayed until 5:00 a.m. the following day but I´d still be in time to fly to Kandahar at 1:00 p.m. Unlike Nimroz, Kandahar is not Baloch land as such but it hosts a significant Baloch community, which includes both Afghan and Pakistani Baloch. The Baloch Language Department at Kandahar´s university and the large number of families that have settled there after fleeing Pakistan´s south would definitely help me complete my stories on culture and refugees. However, there was another powerful reason behind my visit.

Contacts in Kabul had arranged a rare interview with Baloch insurgents from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The meeting point would be “somewhere in the Sarlat mountains”, a rocky massif on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was a long drive, after which came a long hike. BLA commander Baloch Khan was waiting for me at an undisclosed location, escorted by three fellow fighters. They had walked for 12 hours from the other side of the border.

“Taliban presence in this border area is at its peak but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” commander Khan told me. I found his words reassuring, kind of.

The 41-year-old guerrilla told me he felt very close to the Kurds, “as their land is also stolen by their neighbours”. He even admitted ideological parallels between his group and the Kurdistan Workers Party-PKK. Their enemies were seemingly sticking to similar tactics, yet in different degrees. While Ankara has been sending Islamic extremists into areas under the control of the Syrian Kurds over the last three years, Khan insisted that Islamabad was following a similar strategy to tackle the Baloch issue:

“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan to crush the Baloch liberation movement,” stressed the commander.

Apparently, there are around half a dozen Baloch armed groups operating in Pakistani Balochistan. One of them is the Baloch Liberation Front, a group led by Allah Nazar, a former physician, who today leads his fighters in the southern coastal region of Makran. Obviously I couldn´t travel that far without a visa but I did chat over the phone with Nazar to get his assessment of Pakistan´s alleged support for Islamic extremists. He spoke about the Taliban, and even gave me the coordinates of “at least four training camps”, where members of the Islamic State are reportedly receiving instruction with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services.

“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” the former gynaecologist told me, visibly disturbed.


Back in Kabul I met Purdely again to compare notes on “Afghan Baloch language and culture”. We both hoped we didn´t have to wait for another four years to see one other again. I also had to say goodbye to the rest of the Baloch who had backed me with info and logistics during my trip. One of them was Guljam, an exile from Pakistan who had been calling me on a daily basis to make sure I was always sticking to the right people.

During my first days in Kabul I had been meeting Guljam at the same coffee shop in a shopping mall to make the necessary arrangements before my departure to the country´s south. Dressed in his shalwar kamiz, the 38-year-old could walk completely unnoticed across the city. He could pass for an Afghan and, like them, he was also familiar with war. Yet his is another war, unfortunately one we barely ever hear of.




Afghanistan, Pakistan, RSAA member

The Peshawar School Attack

Dr Robin Edward Poulton, an RSAA member who has lived amongst Afghan villagers, offers a heartfelt response to the recent Taliban attack on the Peshawar Army Public School in Pakistan:

Taliban butchers are Pashtun cowards

by Robin Edward Poulton[i]

If you sit of an evening beside a fire in the Pashtun heartlands, you will hear tales of bravery, honour and generosity. You will hear stories about how the Pashtuns were never defeated: not by Alexander the Great, nor by Genghis Khan the Mongol, nor by the British Empire, nor even recently by the Soviet and American imperial armies despite their fighter bombers and their helicopter gunships. All these great military conquerors passed through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but they never ruled the mountain passes where the Durrani and the Ghilzai Pashtuns herd their goats and fight their blood feuds. Just as NATO forces are pulling out in 2014, so too the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and the British pulled out in 1842, and in 1880 and in 1919: the 1st and 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Afghan wars all ended with retreat by the exhausted invading army, like the Anglo-American invasion we have been watching since 2001.

In the Pashtun evening light, you will drink your tea flavoured with cardamom and suck sugared almonds, while lounging on your tushak thick mattresses or lying on your charpoy wooden bed on the veranda of the guest house: for the first rule of Pashtun life is hospitality, melmastia. If you listen under the silence of the stars, you may hear young girls singling inside their qala, the fortified house inside which no stranger can ever venture. They will sing ballads about the bravery of their young warriors, recite poems calling their heroes home for a wedding with their sweet and loving bride, or to see their first-born son who will one day take the place of his valiant father to defend his family’s honour, nang. Like their ancestors before them, young boys take their turn in the watchtower built above the qala, watching for enemies and strangers: in these wild mountain passes that have seen so many aggressors, the assumption is always that a stranger may be an enemy. Hindus came in the 1700s and decapitated Pashtun warriors; conquering Persian armies came from the West; and countless Turco-Mongol hordes swept down from the Steppes of Central Asia.

But after the Taliban attack of December 16th 2014 on a school in Peshawar, what will the Ghilzai ladies be singing this New Year inside their fortified qala? Will they be singing glorious bravery of the men who slaughtered 7 and 8 and 9-year-olds in their classrooms – or will they keep silent in face of this cowardly butchery of innocent infants?  Will they compose ballads to praise the honour of the Taliban Ghilzai who shot unarmed and elderly teachers in front of their students – or will the Ghilzai women feel shame?  Pashtun women remember those brave warriors who defeated the British armies of the 19th century, but how can they compare battles in the mountains to the butchery of 100 children in a school in Peshawar?

Ah! How are the Ghilzai fallen!  Most Taliban are Pashtuns – and many, like Mullah Omar, are Ghilzai jealous of the Durrani presidents Hamid Karzai and Abdul Ghani. How did Pashtun warriors shrink to become the butchers of small children? What Pashtun maiden will compose poems for the coward who shot an unarmed, 15-year old called Malala Youssoufzai, and her friends in a school bus? Aiyee! Alas! The noble Pashtun have crumbled into a state of dishonour! While Malala (now 17) has been elevated to the status of Nobel Peace Laureate.

The Pashtun tribes have been Muslims for twelve centuries. The Arab expansion reached Afghanistan within 50 years of the death of Mohamed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him and upon all the Prophets). Afghanistan and Pakistan are 99% Muslim. If you sit for hours – or indeed for months, as I have done – in an Afghan village, talking through the evenings with your village neighbours, you can pretty well know that 40% of the conversation will concern the economy (the price of wheat, the value of sheep, the quality of karakul Persian lamb skins); 10% will be gossip about the village or about stuff that someone heard in the weekly market; and 50% of the conversation will be related to religion. Village life is dominated by Islam. Not that Afghan villagers are very knowledgeable about their religion: most of the rules that govern Pashtun life come from the ancient Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali, and have nothing whatever to do with Islam: but villagers will assure you that these are the rules that the Prophet (PbuH) followed.

And where, you may well ask, did the Prophet recommend that Muslims should kill school children? Indeed, He did not. One of the Prophet’s most famous – and most profound – sayings was this: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  The Prophet was in favour of education, including education for women. Most Taliban do not know this, because they are profoundly ignorant of the meaning of Islam, Very few of them can read or write, and most of them have no idea of the meaning of the Arabic sentences they recite in their prayers.

If you remind the Taliban about surats from the Holy Koran that tell Muslims never to kill another Muslim, how will your brave Pashtun slaughterer-of-children reply? He will get angry, because he has no answer. He will tell you that the people he killed were infidels. But he is wrong: it is the Taliban who are infidels, for they no longer respect the religion they profess to practice.

And if you remind them that a brave Pashtun warrior is committed to defend children and not to slaughter them? Then your Taliban will become angry again, because they know that they have violated the sacred Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali.

They will try to justify their attack on a military school in Peshawar, by calling on the rules of blood feud and vengeance: for badal is a sacred Pashtun duty, to avenge any insult to your family’s honour. But their speech will be weak, for they know that there is no badal in the slaughter of school children – they will speak lies, and they will know it.

The Taliban have sunk so low on the scale of humanity, that they are no longer Pashtuns: for a Pashtun respects the the Pashtunwali and will die for the honour it implies. The Taliban have no honour.

Worse, the Taliban are no longer Muslims. Everything they do is so alien to the religion of the Prophet Mohamed (PbuH), that these are men without religion. The Taliban have brought the Pashtun lands back in time to the jahiliya, the pagan days when tribal elders worshipped idols and there was no One God in their lives. The Taliban have no God. They worship only idols: their Kalashnikovs and their RPG rocket launchers, and the religion of Violence. Never in the history of this great warrior people, have Pashtun men sunk so low. They and their Arab and Chechen fellow-jihadis have become ignorant  butchers who know neither honour, nor God.

[i] Dr Poulton is President of V-Peace, the Virginia Institute for Peace and Islamic Studies, and an Affiliate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He co-Chaired a peace conference at VCU in September 2013

Dr Poulton wrote his PhD thesis on village economic systems in Afghanistan.