Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

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Nawaz Sharif in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes — II , Daily Times, December 28, 2013



The Kabul ruler wanted the British government to use its influence in getting Peshawar province restored from Ranjit Singh while the British government desired that the Afghan ruler should establish friendly relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh


History is a continuum linking the present to the past and its study is only beneficial when the analysis is free of personal prejudices. Instead of fictionalising history, it is therefore better that the characters of the past tell us their histories themselves. We gathered in Part I of this article that the Governor General (GG) deputed a special envoy, Captain Burnes of the Political Department, to Afghanistan to encourage trade and commerce in the region. Captain Burnes was warmly received by the Afghan ruler: “After the interview we were conducted by the ameer’s son to a spacious garden in the Bala Hissar, which had been prepared for us, and where we are now residing.” In a follow up letter, Burnes presents a detailed analysis of the origin of Persian influence and the role of the Shia Kizilbash community in the power structure in Afghanistan in order to assess the Persian threat. 
In the wake of expansionist moves by the Persian Empire and later the Russian involvement in Persian and Afghan affairs, the East India Company government became apprehensive of the vulnerability of Afghan kingdoms to external influences owing to their internal feuds. Dost Muhammad, in a letter to his brother, the ruler of Kandahar, narrating the loss of Peshawar and threats to Kandahar, states: “These difficulties obliged us all to have recourse to the English, Persian and Tartar governments. It brought, at last, from the East the English Elchee, and from the West the Elchees of Persia and Tartary.” The political agent at Ludhiana, Captain Wade, also emphasises the internal fractured structure of Afghanistan and, referring to Dost Muhammad, states: “…had it not been for the arrival of the British mission, nothing could have saved him from the combination, which his brothers had formed to overthrow his authority. His sense of danger from internal enemies has made him anxious for the alliance of a foreign power, as his fear of the Sikhs.”
It appears that various Afghan rulers or warlords were mostly motivated by their own survival instincts, thus making the evolution of the modern Afghan state very difficult due to deep rooted ethnic and tribal divisions. In parleys with Burnes, the Kabul ruler and his counsellors went to the extent of suggesting that Ranjit Singh kept Peshawar rather than restoring it to its former governor Mahomed Khan. “…in seeking to keep the chiefs from being dependant on one another; you are certainly neutralising the power of the Afghan nation, and sowing the seeds of future dissension. Your object is to prevent harm; you will also prevent good. You will secure to yourselves the gratitude of Peshawer, of the Eusefzyes, the Khuttucks, and the tribes near the Indus; but as for myself, you open a new door of intrigue…I see injury to myself in Sultan Mahomed Khan, when restored to his chiefship of Peshawar.”
A discourse analysis of the correspondence brings forth the wide gulf that existed in expectations between the ameer and British government despite extensive use of sugarcoated lines in the letters. The Kabul ruler wanted the British government to use its influence in getting Peshawar province restored from Ranjit Singh while the British government desired that the Afghan ruler should establish friendly relations with Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Burnes mentions Dost Mohammad’s frank admission of his weak position against Ranjit Singh. The Kabul ruler woefully narrates the grand history of the Durrani kingdom and then “pointing to the house in which he sat, said, that this is the whole share of that vast empire that has fallen to me, and I cannot therefore be indifferent to the honour of having communication with an agent of the British government.” The wide gap between expectations finally resulted in the inevitable failure of Burnes’ mission. Auckland, the GG, without mincing words, made the British Indian government’s position very clear by addressing the Kabul ruler: “Should you be dissatisfied with the aid I have mentioned from this government, which is all that I think can in justice be granted; or should you seek connection with other powers without my approbation; Captain Burnes, and the gentlemen accompanying him, will retire from Cabool, where his further stay cannot be advantageous; and I shall have to regret my inability to continue my influence in your favour with the Maharajah.”
The presence of Russian agent M Vickovitch in Kabul, carrying his emperor’s letter of support, further fuelled British apprehensions about Afghanistan falling into the hands of the colluding Persian and Russian empires with the intent of entering India. Burnes summarised the demands of the British Indian government: “…just that it was now my duty to tell him clearly what we expected of him, and what we could do in return, You must never receive agents from other powers, or have aught to do with them, without our sanction; you must dismiss Captain Vickovitch with courtesy; you must surrender all claim to Peshawar on your own account, as that chiefship belongs to Maharajah Runjeet.” Dost Muhammad also responded candidly: “Mankind has no patience without obtaining their objects, and as my hopes on your government are gone, I will be forced to have recourse to other governments. It will be for the protection of Afghanistan, to save our honour, and, God forbid, not from any ill design towards the British.”
The failed mission paved the way for the first Afghan war, which will be discussed next and conclusions drawn by linking the present with the past.

(To be continued)

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Nawaz Sharif in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes — I , December 21, 2013, Daily Times

Nawaz Sharif in the footsteps of Alexander Burnes — I          Dr Haider Shah             December 21, 2013


The striking resemblance of Burnes’s account with Nawaz Sharif’s discourse is the prominence of trade and economic progress by advocating peace in the region



Ever since Nawaz Sharif assumed the office of Prime Minister (PM), he has been emphasising the need for redefining our regional policy. The PM’s recent goodwill gesture visit to Kabul reminded me of the visit of Alexander Burnes in 1837 to Afghanistan as a special envoy of the then British East India government. Reading history through archival records such as intelligence reports and official letters is an interesting and unbiased way of revisiting the past. I am sharing here the official correspondence that took place in the 1830s between Alexander Burnes, Afghan King Dost Muhammad Khan and the British government in India. Even though claims were made later that some notes might have been altered by the British bureaucrats, the letters, by and large, present a good insight into the state of affairs and anarchic situation that have usually characterised Afghan society. Burnes’s book Travels to Bokhara, detailing his exploratory visits from Lahore to the Khanates of Central Asia, was an instant hit, establishing his reputation as a respected explorer. The striking resemblance of Burnes’s account with Nawaz Sharif’s discourse is the prominence of trade and economic progress by advocating peace in the region. Those were the days when the so-called ‘great game’ had just begun due to the perceived expansionist moves by the then Russian, British and Persian empires. 
The official letters are instructive in many ways besides helping us peep into the distant past. In the 1830s, Amir Dost Muhammad Khan was the ruler in Kabul. The exiled monarch, Shah Shuja, made an unsuccessful attempt in 1833 to reclaim his throne and was living as a British pensioner in Ludhiana. Ranjeet Singh, the ruler of Punjab, wrested Peshawar from the Afghan kingdom in 1835 and Dost Muhammad Khan was restless to regain it. Declaring himself a Ghazi and leading a jihadi lashkar (militia) against the Sikhs, he made an unsuccessful attempt at regaining Peshawar. When the Afghan Amir became aware of the arrival of Lord Auckland as Governor General (GG) in 1836, he wrote him a letter soliciting support for regaining Peshawar: “The late transactions in this quarter, the conduct of reckless and misguided Sikhs and their breach of treaty, are well known to your Lordship. Communicate to me whatever may now suggest itself to your wisdom, for the settlement of the affairs of this country that it may serve as a rule for my guidance. I hope your Lordship will consider me and my country as your own; and favour me often by the receipt of your friendly letters. Whatever directions your Lordship may be pleased to issue for the administration of this country, I will act accordingly.”
Auckland, in his reply, first exchanged pleasantries and then expressed a wish that every stakeholder, from invaders to internal reformers, has been expressing himself but to little effect: “It is my wish that the Afghans should be a flourishing and united nation, and that, being at peace with all their neighbours, they should enjoy, by means of a more extended commerce, all the benefits and comforts possessed by other nations, which, through such means, have attained a high and advanced state of prosperity and wealth.” Downplaying the tense relations with the Sikh kingdom, the GG advised the resolution of the issue through diplomatic means. The GG took the opportunity to invite the Afghan ruler’s attention to the commercial use of the River Indus. He informed the Afghan ruler that a special envoy would visit Kabul to discuss commercial relations further. 
Burnes was therefore appointed for the expedition: “On proceeding to Peshawur and Cabol you will make inquiry into the present state of the commerce of those countries; inform the merchants of that quarter of the measures concerted, and officers employed, for the purpose of affording security on the Indus (river); encourage them, by all means in your power to conduct their trade by the new route…You will hereafter be furnished with a letter to Dost Mahomed Khan, stating generally the objects for which you are deputed, and soliciting for you friendly protection. From Cabol you will proceed to Candahar, where you will undertake the same inquiries, and invite the same cooperation in the plans in progress for the revival of trade. A flourishing commerce is supposed to have been formerly carried on between the Indus and Candahar, by several mountain routes, which are now shut; and it is requested that you will make inquiry regarding these routes, and the practicability of re-opening them.”
The East India Company had established an empire with many former kings, nawabs and rajas on its payroll. However, in matters of official spending the letter gives a good indication of importance of monetary discipline: “Your salary has been fixed at 1,500 rupees per mensem besides which, you are authorised to charge all the expenses which it may be necessary to incur on account of the Mission. It will perhaps be desirable that you should immediately procure from Bombay such articles as will be required to be given in presents to the different chiefs on your route. They ought not to be of a costly nature; but should be chosen particularly with a view to exhibit the superiority of British manufactures. It is requested that you will have a strict regard to economy in all your arrangements, which you will easily be able to do, as parade would be unsuitable to the character of a commercial mission.”

(To be continued)

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Iftikhar Chaudhry — an appraisal of his legacy, Daily Times, 14/12/13

OVER A COFFEE : Iftikhar Chaudhry — an appraisal of his legacy — Dr Haider Shah

The SC did its part by issuing the right orders. If any group does not comply with those directives it is the failure of our political and civil society in getting the orders of the judiciary enforced

December this time is not only the harbinger of a new year but also marks the departure of two important players in the power play of Pakistan. The admirers of the former Chief Justice (CJ), Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry, extol his virtues while his critics only see mischief in his era. Perhaps there is a need for dispassionate analysis of such an important phase of our chequered national history. First, we have to realise that public figures, unlike Bollywood heroes or villains, are neither embodiments of spotless virtue nor a personification of fathomless villainy. Like Shakespearean and Homeric heroes they also retain human weaknesses.

No social transformation can ever take place unless enabling discourse has first been generated and popularised. When custodians of the existing power structure are challenged, it is natural that they will not be pleased. Like emperors of the bygone period, our political elite likes to be seen as benevolent distributors of livelihood to the needy. While ordinary voters sacrifice their time, energy, money and lives for the cause of democratic ideals, the fruit of hard labour is gleefully taken away by the personal buddies of top leaders. If the chief executives of the country do not abide by the law, we cannot expect the security establishment and militants to show respect for constitutionalism in the country either. To establish the rule of law, first of all executive heads have to bow before the supremacy of the law. If an order of the Supreme Court (SC) is not to the liking of the government it can use its position in parliament to render the order null and void by amending the constitution. Yousaf Raza Gillani blatantly ignored this and thus deserved to be sent home in order to firmly establish the first and foremost principle of constitutionalism in the country. Many political leaders are still frozen in the 1970s and 1990s. For the current decade of 21st century Pakistan they need a new model that is not based on feudal loyalties and massive patronage but on clean governance and sensible economic policies.

If political leaders believe themselves to be above the law, wealthy individuals also behave not much differently. Cases like that of Shahzeb Khan are important as they not only empower the ordinary people but also shake the foundations of status based social order. We must realise that the SC should not be mistaken for a team of Hollywood superheroes who can singlehandedly change everything for us while we comfortably sit on our couches playing Candy Crush types of games on social media. A social change can only happen if all stakeholders make honest contributions required of them. In human rights cases, the former CJ helped in the generation of enabling discourse. From the rights of eunuchs to the alleged killing of girls in a remote village of Kohistan, the judiciary, with the media’s support, flagged up the rights of ordinary people as an important part of our national discourse. Now it is the responsibility of civil society, opinion makers and political parties to take it further and hasten the process of social evolution.

In our country, the army and its intelligence agencies have customarily been treated as the holiest of holy cows. Men like gods, they can do anything anywhere against anyone. When Senator Farhatullah Babar, during Pervez Musharraf’s era, asked about the laws under which the working of intelligence agencies is regulated, his question was nipped in the bud by the then senate chairman. Contrary to the past, we saw for the first time the conduct of generals questioned under the full glare of the media spotlight by the former CJ. Critics point out that while the Prime Minister (PM) was sent home, no similar action was taken against men in khakis. Again, it must be remembered that the aging members of the judiciary are not Rambos or Spidermen who will go and arrest powerful criminals. Their power is wholly moral and is dependent on active compliance and subordination of all law enforcement agencies.

The SC did its part by issuing the right orders. If any group does not comply with those directives it is the failure of our political and civil society in getting the orders of the judiciary enforced. Men in uniform tend to behave as though are above the law all over the world. When the Abu Ghraib prison story leaked out, US society did not turn its eyes away. Similarly, when the story of killing a Talib captive broke out some time ago, the accused British soldiers were arrested and recently found guilty of murder charges. Courts can only dispense justice when the whole of society stands by them with its full might.

Like a Shakespearean or Homeric hero, the former CJ was not devoid of human weaknesses. It was pretty obvious that he had a strong urge to remain in the headlines. As often happens with many self-made persons, he also seemed to have an insatiable demand for protocol. No wonder his critics pounce heavily on these issues to vent their grievances. As an independent analyst, I find ‘Memogate’ and the Arsalan episode the low points of the former CJ’s era. His interference in purely administrative matters like the taxation policy or pricing of electricity was also unwarranted. However, seen in its totality, the former CJ has made a lasting contribution to institutional development in Pakistan. Exercising sensible self-restraint, one hopes that both the media and judiciary will continue playing constructive roles in helping civil society become more assertive in matters of public policy and human rights.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be ?reached at hashah9@yahoo.com

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Perils of sloppy use of IT,

OVER A COFFEE : Perils of sloppy use of IT — Dr Haider Shah

Just as in posh restaurants where we often remain unaware of the substandard hygienic conditions of the kitchens where food is cooked, our senior managers take nicely printed reports with colourful graphs on them at face value

If manmade energy is the distinguishing line between modern and old eras, it is information technology (IT) that separates the knowledge economy of today from the industrial economy of yesterday. There is, however, also a need for appreciating the limitations and risks of IT-based decisions, especially when there exists a wide disconnect between policymakers and IT professionals. While there is a wide body of literature on this issue, I am making this suggestion on the basis of some personal experiences in the field. Today, when the National Database and Registration Authority’s((NADRA) database-based voting verification debate is making headlines, I thought it appropriate to share my concerns.

In 2009, I was entrusted with the job of looking after preferential trade agreements in the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), Islamabad. One morning, I was asked by the then member customs to prepare a summarised report of Afghan transit figures for the last five years within an hour. It transpired that a senior official in the commerce ministry needed the report as a part of strategic dialogue related discussions, including the new Afghan Transit Treaty. I hurriedly went to the office where such data was maintained. I asked the concerned clerk to give me the required report but he did not seem very enthusiastic as he was already up to his eyeballs in getting printouts from an aging computer on directives received from all imaginable quarters. Faced with the ‘baarbaarteredar per jaatahoon’ (I keep coming at your door) situation, I finally prevailed upon him to print out annual figures and an overall summary report. When I examined the figures and the summary report I noticed that the column format had been changed in one particular year and hence the summary report was based on wrong figures added together. I mentioned this to the clerk who, after some unsuccessful defence, agreed that the annual figures were not comparable and hence the summary report was misleading. I reported my concerns to the member who told me that there was no time for such Sherlock Holmes queries and to fax the report to silence the guns that were constantly firing for receipt of information.

In the more distant past, when I was a young officer in the customs department in Peshawar, I shared my proposal of generating a database of imported vehicles so that the verification of genuinely imported vehicles could be made easier. I visited the Karachi customs house and discussed the idea with the chief executive of the automation project. Later, when I was posted in Karachi I took up the initiative again with the new and energetic head of the automation project. After a few months,I was given a CD of the database of all vehicles imported through Karachi along with an assurance that the database was very authenticas no single entry had been left out. I was very happy to see a dream coming true and thought that now it would be very easy to single out smuggled vehicles with the help of the database contained in the CD. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I entered the chassis number of my official vehicle and a few more that were known to me as legitimately imported vehicles. Surprisingly, they didnot show up in the database that had been prepared by the IT experts of one of the most modern organisations of Pakistan. I went into Sherlock Holmes mode and finally found the reason: the import documents from which data had been copied were not uniform in making declarations about imported vehicles,resulting in chassis numbersappearing at different places in the documents. This was not picked up by the data entry clerks. I shared my observation with the young executive who quickly understood the blunder. As was required, he promised redoing the whole project from scratch to make the database reliable.

There are countless examples that demonstrate how poor and untrustworthy our data collection and reporting standards in public sector organisations are. There is no culture of maintaining data integrity with the help of regular internal and external audits of IT systems, data collection and reporting methods. Just as in posh restaurants where we often remain unaware of the substandard hygienic conditions of the kitchens where food is cooked, our senior managers take nicely printed reports with colourful graphs on them at face value. It is therefore important that use of IT-based verification systems should be subjected to strict adequacy tests before they are used for important public policy matters.

In this backdrop, the present euphoria about fingerprints verification is potentially disastrous. Even in a small-scale research survey, it is always advised that some pilot testing should be done before launching the survey questionnaire fully. Using IT-enabled techniques for verification of votes is a good idea and must be keenly pursued. However, this should not be applied unless it has been found working satisfactorily at a pilot testing stage by independent auditors. The election commission should have used the system in a carefully chosen test case. It should have been applied in one constituency as a pilot study. Once all teething problems were removed and the system had proved its authenticity, only then it should have been allowed to rollout as a trustworthy verification system. Without this homework, using a fingerprint database amounts to opening a Pandora’s box. With multifarious challenges of internal and external security, we can hardly afford new controversies.

The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at hashah9@yahoo.com