Dawn Editorial 29th July 2023

Six-month window

The goal is tantalisingly close. This year has so far seen only one case of wild poliovirus, with a three-year-old boy in KP’s Bannu district falling prey to the crippling disease in March.

By contrast, there were 20 last year, all concentrated in southern KP, where Bannu is also located. Moreover, the lone case of 2023 was reported after a gap of five months.

Pakistan is clearly on the right trajectory, even though it takes three consecutive years of zero cases for a country to be declared polio-free.

However, the national anti-polio campaign must remain proactive against a virus constantly knocking on our doors.

It was reported this week that an environmental sample collected from Peshawar has tested positive for wild poliovirus, the fifth such sample collected from the city this year since January.

The finding is worrisome, for it is an indication of lowered immunity against the disease among children in the area.

According to the authorities, the poliovirus in the sample is genetically linked to that which is in circulation in Afghanistan, the only other polio-endemic country in the world aside from Pakistan.

There is, understandably, considerable international commitment in the drive to eradicate this terrible disease. For, unless its transmission is interrupted in Pakistan and Afghanistan, all nations remain at risk, particularly those with weak public health systems.

At the conclusion of a four-day visit to Pakistan, a high-level delegation from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative said that the next six months were critical to interrupting the transmission of wild poliovirus here.

Cautious optimism was expressed that the goal is achievable. In the vaccination drive next month, health authorities must ensure that every child under five is covered.

Hearteningly, it was recently reported by authorities in KP — where all seven polio-endemic districts in Pakistan are located — that the number of families refusing to have polio drops administered to their children has come down by 35pc.

Involving the local clergy in the effort to promote vaccination — an important measure given the objections stem from faith-based misconceptions — appears to, at last, be bearing fruit.

The legitimate grievances of Lady Health Workers, a vital aspect of polio vaccination campaigns, must also be addressed on a priority basis so that every eligible child is a timely recipient of the precious drops.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2023

Series win

It had been a while since Pakistan last won a Test series. However, on Thursday, Pakistan thrashed Sri Lanka by an innings and 222 runs inside four days in the second Test in Colombo, handing the hosts their heaviest defeat at home and clinching the series 2-0; their first series triumph since December 2021 when they downed Bangladesh.

Winning both matches of the series, the first of Pakistan’s World Test Championship cycle for 2023-24 sent them to the top of the nascent table, with the team’s approach raising hopes that Babar Azam’s charges will do better in the longest format of the game this time round.

Pakistan struggled in the last two cycles of the WTC but its performance in Sri Lanka was much better, with the team management introducing the “Pakistan Way”; an ideology similar to England’s “Bazball”.

Upping the scoring rate while batting was a key aspect that helped Pakistan dominate. There were standout innings too with Saud Shakeel and Abdullah Shafique notching double centuries in the first and second Test respectively.

Player of the series Salman Ali Agha scored a century and a half-century across the two Tests, while Imam-ul-Haq’s unbeaten 50 anchored Pakistan’s chase in the opening Test in Galle, which they won by four wickets.

Spinners Abrar Ahmed and Nauman Ali picked up 10 wickets apiece in the series; the latter’s 7-70 in the second Test fuelling Pakistan’s romp.

After the series, Babar highlighted that his charges had raised their game. It is a bright start for Pakistan, which finished seventh in the last WTC cycle, but sterner challenges lie ahead.

Pakistan’s newfound approach will face its acid test when they travel down under in December for their next Test series against recently crowned WTC winners Australia.

Pakistan have lost their last 14 Tests in Australia but if they play as well as they did in Sri Lanka, they may have a chance to end that dismal record.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2023

Fluid & resilient

THE militant landscape is nothing if not resilient, adapting to the changes in its environment and the pressures exerted upon it by counterterrorism forces. Law-enforcement agencies must therefore constantly stay one step ahead if they are to even reduce its lethality, let alone eliminate it.

The 32nd report of the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team offers insight into how militant outfits readjust their strategies; where Pakistan is concerned, political developments in Afghanistan are having an impact whose long-term consequences could be devastating.

For instance, the document notes that in Africa’s Sahel region, Al Qaeda and the militant Islamic State group “compete for resources, territory, and hearts and minds” which leads to violent conflict between them.

However, there is “greater fluidity in Afghanistan where relationships and affiliations have a longer history and are more complex. The distinctions between members of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups, including TTP, and [IS-Khorasan] are at times blurred at the edges”.

Thus, in this region, militants may identify with more than one group, with a tendency to align themselves with the “dominant or ascending power”.

The Afghan Taliban’s assumption of power is giving increased operational space to the TTP in Afghanistan, and the spike in cross-border attacks by the banned outfit against Pakistan is compelling evidence of this.

Although pressure by the government here did compel Kabul to relocate certain TTP elements away from the border area, the Taliban’s refusal to take coercive measures against the group could add another layer of complexity to the situation.

According to the report, evidence suggests that “other sanctioned terrorist groups are using support to TTP as a means to evade control by the Afghan Taliban”.

It adds, this could even lead to a range of foreign outfits coalescing under the TTP’s umbrella; already, there are indications that Al Qaeda is providing “guidance” to the TTP for carrying out attacks inside Pakistan, and that TTP fighters have access to training camps of foreign terror groups in Kunar province.

Al Qaeda and IS have also given considerable autonomy to groups affiliated with them; decentralising terror networks enhances their operational effectiveness and ability to tackle CT measures.

Perhaps that is why in Pakistan, one has of late been witnessing attacks by little-known outfits claiming to have links with one or the other of these major terrorist entities.

There is also the Jamaatul Ahrar, with its on-again, off-again relationship with the TTP, whose members are suspected of involvement in several recent acts of terrorism.

The Punjab CTD yesterday claimed to have arrested in several intelligence-based organisations 17 suspected militants belonging to various banned groups. We cannot afford to let up. On no account must violent extremist groups get the opportunity to hold Pakistan hostage again.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2023

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