The dangers of oversimplifying the situation in Pakistan

Many of those who are quick to condemn the country have a limited understanding of its structures an

In the aftermath of the killing of Osama Bin Laden, big questions have emerged over Pakistan's role and its relations with the US.

John Brennan, a counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that it was "inconceivable" that Bin Laden did not enjoy a "support system" in Pakistan. While both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have emphasised Pakistan's importance in fighting al-Qaeda, the circumstances of his discovery are damaging.

Carl Levin, a Democrat who heads the Senate armed services committee, summed up these concerns at a press conference:

I think the Pakistani army and intelligence have a lot of questions to answer given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this facility was actually built for Bin Laden and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.

From the Pakistani side, there are questions, too – the US reportedly did not trust the ISI with news of Bin Laden's whereabouts, which will not go down well, given existing tension over increased numbers of CIA agents in the country and public anger at ongoing incursions on Pakistani soil in the form of drone attacks.

The former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf told CNN:

America coming to our territory and taking action is a violation of our sovereignty. Handling and execution of the operation [by US forces] is not correct. The Pakistani government should have been kept in the loop.

Clearly, there are murky waters here – and many questions that might not be answered publicly. Logging on to Twitter yesterday, I was disturbed to see many tweets of the "Get them!" variety, calling for action against Pakistan. But many of those passing comment clearly have very little knowledge of the country's state systems and the atmosphere there.

I've just returned from a trip to Karachi, where I was struck by quite how prevalent anti-American sentiment is. What might look to westerners like public sympathy for extremists is more often based on support for those holding their ground against the west, rather than agreement with extremist ideas. In an excellent article in today's Financial Times, Ahmed Rashid suggests that now might be the time to challenge this narrative:

He was a hero to some Pakistanis because he defied the west and because the country is desperately short of heroes. Perhaps Pakistan's leaders can now have the courage to turn around the mythology and show what Bin Laden really was – a political leech who introduced suicide bombing, helped to create the Pakistani Taliban and promoted intolerance in a country that was at relative peace with itself until he appeared on the scene.

Even the heavy death toll inflicted on Pakistan by terrorists is put at America's door – with some justification, given that the Taliban were all but absent from the country until the US invaded Afghanistan. The country has been ravaged by the war on terror. Since 2001, terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 people there – a number that doubles to more than 30,000 when counterterror violence is taken into account.

However, effectively challenging the perception of Bin Laden as a martyr is difficult, given that there is essentially no cohesive state in Pakistan. The state itself – as in central government – is remarkably weak, because Pakistan is and remains a tribal society, more dependent on local feudal powers than central systems. This goes some way towards explaining why it took so long to capture Bin Laden.

The separation of powers, held by varied forces in Pakistani society – the military, the ISI, the government and local tribes – certainly helps to explain the country's sometimes contradictory actions. This is why the government can co-operate with the US and sanction drone attacks even as the ISI fails to track extremists.

The intelligence service has a long history of alliance with extremist groups and, like the military, is reluctant to fight its own people. In the Times today, Anatol Lieven (£) draws a distinction between the ISI's "hard" treatment of international terrorists and its more tolerant attitude to home-grown insurgents.

What is beyond question is that the relationship between Islamabad and Washington is vital to both sides. Oversimplifying the situation on the ground in Pakistan with a reductive "us and them" narrative serves no one – least of all the people of Pakistan, who are the most likely targets for retaliation attacks.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Women's bodies should not be bargaining chips for the Tories and the DUP

Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights

When Members of Parliament are asked to pass laws relating to when and whether women can terminate their pregnancies, women’s rights are rarely the focus of that decision-making process. You need only look at the way in which these votes are traditionally presented by party leaders and chief whips as “a matter of conscience” - the ultimate get-out for any MP who thinks their own value or belief system should get priority over women’s ability to have control over their bodies.

Today’s vote is no different. The excellent amendment that Labour MP Stella Creasy has put before the house reveals not just the inequalities experienced by women in different parts of the UK when it comes to being able to make decisions about their health, but also the latest layers of subterfuge and politicking around abortion. 

Creasy’s amendment seeks access to the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales from Northern Ireland seeking abortion. Right now women in Northern Ireland are pretty much denied abortion by legislative criteria that limits it to cases that will "preserve the life of the mother" - (that’s preserving, not prioritising) - and pregnancies under nine weeks and four days. Rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality are not included as grounds for termination. The thousands of women who thus travel to England are refused free abortions on the NHS - confirmed by a recent Supreme Court ruling - on the grounds that this is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland. 

The idea behind devolution is that power should be more evenly and fairly distributed. It is not intended to deprive people of rights but to ensure rights. In refusing to exercise the powers available to him, Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is rightly acknowledging a difficult history of power imbalance between Westminster and Stormont, but he is also ignoring a wider imbalance of power, between men and women.  

There is so very much wrong with this arrangement. But a further wrong could be done if, as reports suggest, the Conservative Party whips its MPs to vote the amendment down in order to protect the regressive alliance with the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that is keeping their fragile minority government in power.

Instead of taking this opportunity to respond to the demands of women of Northern Ireland, this government is setting out the parameters of its complicity in refusing to listen to them. 

It is not the first time. In 2008 it was reported that the Labour party struck a deal with the DUP to leave Northern Ireland’s abortion laws intact, in exchange for their support over detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days. Labour said at the time that it was concerned about the impact on existing UK abortion laws if the debate was opened.

But not one woman has equality until all women have equality. Women’s bodies are not chips to be bargained and we should not be bargaining for one group of women’s rights by surrendering the rights of another group. The UK parliament has responsibility for ensuring human rights in every part of the UK. Those include the rights of Northern Irish women.

It’s time to wake up. It’s time to stop playing politics with women’s lives. Women in Northern Ireland have been told for too long that the Good Friday Agreement is too fragile to withstand debates about their reproductive rights – a fragility that was dismissed by the Conservatives as they drew up a deal with one side of the power-sharing arrangement.

It’s time to confront the fact that nowhere in the United Kingdom – taking Northern Ireland as a starting point rather than an end in itself – do women enjoy free and legal access to abortion. Even the UK’s 1967 act is only a loophole that allows women to seek the approval of two doctors to circumvent an older law criminalising any woman who goes ahead with an abortion.

As long as our rights are subject to the approval of doctors, to technological developments, to decisions made in a parliament where men outnumber women by two to one, to public opinion polls, to peace agreements that prioritise one set of human rights over another – well, then they are not rights at all.

The Women’s Equality Party considers any attempt to curtail women’s reproductive rights an act of violence against them. This week in Northern Ireland we are meeting and listening to women’s organisations, led by our Belfast branch, to agree strategy for the first part of a much wider battle. It is time to write reproductive rights into the laws of every country. We have to be uncompromising in our demands for full rights and access to abortion in every part of the UK; for the choice of every woman to be realised.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.

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