Jan 5

Beware unintended consequences

Posted on Friday, January 5, 2018 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Beware unintended consequences

True to form, US President Donald Trump has welcomed the new year with a barrage of threatening tweets against his favourite targets in North Korea, Iran, Palestine and the US Media. Pakistan now has the dubious distinction of being added to this Quixotic list of “enemies”. It stands accused of “lies and deceit”, of playing “double games”, of gobbling up $33 billion in the last fifteen years, of “harbouring terrorists”, etc. “No more”, warns President Trump, unless Pakistan is ready to “do more” to help America.

Understandably, the public reaction in Pakistan has been shrill. The country has been awash with anti-Americanism for many years. Thankfully, the government’s tone is measured.  It is “disappointed” by President Trump’s damning allegations. Indeed, Islamabad claims it has paid a very high price in men and material fighting the war against terrorism but it will not compromise on its long-term national security interests when they conflict with short-term American goals.

Are US-Pakistan relations about to rupture with severe consequences for both, but especially for Pakistan?

In his autobiographical books “The Art of the Deal” and “Time to Get Tough”, published years ago, President Trump boasts about how he used bullying tactics to clinch his most successful business deals. Clearly, he thinks the same strategy will work in the White House. But the Iranians, North Koreans and Palestinians have not yet been cowed down and the US media is still baying for his blood. How will Pakistan fare?

Much depends on how President Trump intends “to sort out” Pakistan. Clearly, the carrot of $33b hasn’t worked. So the stick may be brandished. He has cut $255m from the military component of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package. Earlier, the US withheld an amount of $350 million from the Coalition Support Program reimbursements to Pakistan. But this is no big deal, says Miftah Ismail, the new finance minister, “it’s just a day’s expenditure for the Pakistan government”.

The US may conceivably take other steps to “punish” Pakistan. It could lean on international finance institutions to tighten the screws on Pakistan at a time when it is faced with a developing balance of payments crisis. It could sanction Pakistani exports to the US. It could deal a blow to Pakistani business transactions by restricting access to SWIFT, the global provider of critical and secure financial messaging services. It could put Pakistani military officials and institutions with alleged links to banned or terrorist organisations on its sanctions list and restrict their international movements and freeze their assets. It could expand the theatre of drone operations inside Pakistan. It might even be tempted to attack the “safe havens” of the Haqqani network on the Pak-Afghan border. But each action would be precipitous, with unintended adverse consequences for both Pakistan and America.

“Pakistan”, thunders army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, “is impregnable”. The air force chief says he will shoot down any drones venturing into Pakistan territory. The bluster is political necessity in the face of a bully. But the reality is harsh, whatever the worth of US allegations.

Pakistan has never been more divided and weak internally than it is now. The mainstream politicians are at each other’s throats, inviting constitutional deviation. The military is manipulating favourites. The judiciary is reeling from the backlash of its own judgments. The economy is tanking. Balochistan and FATA on the periphery are in turmoil. The “foreign hand” of India and Afghanistan continues to foment trouble. No one can say with any confidence that the general elections will be held on time and a smooth transfer of power will take place. Let us admit it: a nation at war with itself can hardly put up a decent defense against a certified global bully.

Ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is out of power not because he is inordinately more corrupt than everyone else in office but because he has chosen to call a spade a spade. He has challenged the political hegemony of the Miltablishment whose national security doctrines – including jumping in and out of bed with America – have brought Pakistan to a sorry pass where it is regionally alienated and internationally isolated. Clutching at Pakistan’s all-weather friend China will not erase or replace this reality. Mr Sharif has recently alluded to the price he is paying for attempting to question this “national security” paradigm. “It is time,” he says, “to put our house in order… there is a need to examine our character and actions with sincerity…we need to understand why our narrative is dismissed…if it is ignored and termed against the national interest, this is nothing but self-deception that has already led to the fragmentation of Pakistan once before”.

Foreign intervention in disunited and failing states can trigger mass upheavals, chaos and disintegration. The Arab “spring” has become a withering winter and Middle-Eastern nation states have been reduced to rubble amidst the specter of “militant Islam”. This unintended consequence of foreign intervention is now raising its ugly head over the Pakistani horizon. Ruling establishments in America and Pakistan should beware their proposed actions and reactions.

Dec 29

Good, Bad & Ugly

Posted on Friday, December 29, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Good, Bad & Ugly

The outlook for 2018 is smoggy. There are lots of ifs and buts. The challenge is to find effective and speedy solutions of running conflicts in state and society in the larger national interest without any major upheaval.

GOOD: Despite the political upheaval related to the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister and the attendant conspiracies to force an early election or delay it, the political parties have made common cause by passing the Delimitation Bill in the Senate and paving the way for the Election Commission to start preparations for general elections in 2018. Equally, attempts to trigger defections in the PMLN to dislodge it from office have been forestalled by Nawaz Sharif’s ability and resolve to fight back in the public arena which is the ultimate arbiter in a democracy.

The slide of the economy, as manifested by a sudden and significant depreciation of the rupee, occasioned by the shoddy exit of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, has been halted with the appointment of Miftah Ismail, a clean-cut technocrat, as de facto finance minister. This increases the likelihood of FY2017-18 targets not being missed by much. The efforts of the Punjab and Federal government to continue apace with development and CPEC projects are also forecast to stay on line barring any major political upheaval.

No less significant in stabilizing polity is the announcement from the House of Sharifs that Shehbaz Sharif, a Miltablishment favourite, will be the PMLN’s candidate for PMship if it wins the next elections.

There is good news too from military quarters. The army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has made a strong plea for moderation and tolerance in our religious faith, especially towards minorities. He has also vowed not to derail democracy, however flawed it may be, and shown his readiness for a candid dialogue with his civilian counterparts over all pertinent matters of national interest, including civil-military relations, to allay mutual fears and suspicions. His word counts and he seems sincere.

BAD: The troubles of a besieged “democracy” are far from over. Maulana Tahir ur Qadri is preparing, with support from the PPP and PTI, to mount a long march in January to precipitate military or judicial intervention to dislodge both PMLN governments before the Senate elections which the PMLN is expected win. Considering the PMLN’s abject inability to handle a small dharna, like the one launched by a sectarian group last month, without help from the military, this dharna will be the litmus test of whether or not the next elections will be held on time in a free and fair manner.

Under the circumstances, if the Qadri dharna succeeds, the ensuing uncertainty will take a deep toll of the economy, with consequential hardship across all sections of state and society. Certainly, foreign investment and development projects will come to a grinding halt and flight of capital will lead to a further devaluation of the rupee, with resultant inflationary pressures.

The outlook for foreign relations is worse. The developing axis of US-India-Afghanistan is expected to adopt a tougher stance against Pakistan. Relations with neignbours India and Afghanistan are already bad. But relations with the US are forecast to deteriorate, creating difficulties for Pakistan. Top US officials, including the President, Vice President and Secretaries of Defense and State, have all publicly condemned Islamabad as being part of the problem rather than the solution for Afghanistan. Now the prominent New York Times has editorially held Pakistan’s military leadership responsible for the country’s travails. It seems as if the ground is being prepared for some sort of US intervention in the region that will put Pakistan on the spot. Should that happen, all hell will break loose inside Pakistan, with various groups and parties, especially militant religious ones, erupting on the streets and creating anarchy and mayhem. A weakening of the writ of the state would invite hostile neighbours to foment more trouble by encouraging separatism and extremism.

As if all this isn’t bad enough, Pakistanis will have to contend with the rising power of religious extremists to curtail the various freedoms they currently enjoy. The banding together of five religious parties to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal is a sign of the times. The emergence of sectarian and jihadi organisations as electoral forces with street muscle is ominous – one has already succeeded in obtaining the resignation of a federal minister, while a second is demanding the resignation of another PMLN stalwart. The trend of “disappearances” of social media critics of the Miltablishment, no less than the practice of slapping charges of blasphemy against other liberal dissenters, is likely to increase rather than abate. The political and cultural space for “democracy” is fated to diminish regardless of whether or not the “electoral democracy” project is derailed altogether.

UGLY: Pakistan has never been as divided internally and isolated externally in the past as it is now. If its civil-military leadership jointly fails to fashion a credible way forward, 2018 could become an ugly year in the history of Pakistan.

Dec 22

Of trials and tribulations

Posted on Friday, December 22, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Of trials and tribulations

There were two extraordinary interventions last week. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Saquib Nisar, publicly spoke up in defense of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions that have devalued notions of justice and raised questions about the integrity of the judges. Then the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, landed up at the Senate to reassure parliamentarians that the military was pro-democracy and not conspiring against civil society or certain politicians and parties. Clearly, both honourable gentlemen realize that the credibility of their institutions has suffered on one count or another and that some form of reassurance or redress is in order.

This wasn’t the first time that Justice Nisar protested in public. Shortly after he became CJP, Imran Khan accused him of being pro-Sharif. Justice Nisar responded by publicly swearing that he would be his own man and no one else’s, a gesture that was perceived as a sign of frailty, not strength. In the same vein, his latest lecture about the sanctity of the Supreme Court has provoked a loud whisper: “the good judge doth protest too much”. Across the board, the common refrain is that judges should only speak through their judgments and their judgments must not only be just but also be seen to be just, a far cry from current reality. Forget about the scathing remarks of Nawaz Sharif who has been at the receiving end of the SC’s stick. Taking issue with the CJP, the PPP’s Aitzaz Ahsan, who is as neutral as anyone can be in the current politically charged environment, said that “trust is established through verdicts, not clarifications”. The PTI’s Chaudhry Fawad, whose leader Imran Khan miraculously got away scot free, was more charitable but no less realistic: “By knocking out Jehangir Tareen, the judges have ‘balanced’ their decision to knock out Nawaz Sharif”, a euphemism for rigging the scales of justice. The bigger truth is that – from the law of necessity that paved the way for swearing oaths of loyalty to military dictators to the cavalier sackings of elected prime ministers and governments – the history of the judiciary is littered with bad politics rather than good justice in the service of the Miltablishment. No number of “clarifications” or indignant protestations will rub out this truth. Indeed, a magnum can be written on the Messianic nature of remarks and capricious judgments during the recent trials of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.

Gen Bajwa’s intervention is no less significant. It comes in the wake of a widespread belief that from Day-One (the trial of ex-army chief General Pervez Musharraf during the time of #ThankYouRaheelShareef) ) the Miltablishment has been gunning for Nawaz Sharif for daring to challenge its political hegemony and egging on Imran Khan to do its bidding. Notwithstanding the evidentiary truth of this perception, as in the case of the judiciary, General Bajwa’s briefing to the Senate has elicited a positive response, unlike in the case of the CJP. Indeed, General Bajwa’s advice to politicians not to tempt the army to intervene in party political causes is welcome because it is truthful and seems well-intentioned. Similarly, his ‘explanations’ rather than ‘justifications’ of certain recent actions on the part of the military are quite believable. Above all, his attempt to distance himself from the controversial actions or policies of some of his predecessor army chiefs suggests his inclination to chart a stable, non-interventionist, non-conflictual course with the civilian order of the day despite the pressures of his institution. In fact, a day after his frank interaction with Senators, he played a positive role in mediating conflict between the PMLN and JUI on the issue of the FATA Reform Bill.

At the end of the day, however, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Nawaz Sharif is in no mood to spare the judiciary for its inconsistent standards of justice. Nor is he likely to keep his mouth shut if there are further provocations by the Miltablishment. Indeed, the fact is that he is able to stay politically relevant and be heard sympathetically only because both institutions have suffered a drop in their credibility and neutrality in recent times. Both need to step back and take stock.

The next challenge will come soon enough if Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, an evergreen Miltablishment proxy, mounts his dharna against the government in Lahore and Islamabad, or if Imran Khan is prodded to launch a militant anti-Nawaz campaign on the streets. Both fires can be doused by the government if the judiciary and military uphold its lawful writ to maintain law and order. But if they don’t for whatever reason, both institutions will suffer another dent to their credibility in the popular imagination and the crisis of state and society will deepen.

The trial of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan is over. The trial of generals and judges has begun.

Dec 15

Greater tragedy

Posted on Friday, December 15, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Greater tragedy

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Ayaz Sadiq, says he has never been more disheartened than now by the “unnatural” and “uncertain” situation in the country in which a “greater plan” is unfolding to boot out the elected government before it completes its tenure. He fears that the political parties will not be able to pass timely legislation to ensure the legitimacy of the next elections, thereby creating a vacuum in which an unelected caretaker government could step in to preside over Pakistan’s fate for an extended period. The process could kick-off by a powerful all-parties dharna led by Dr Tahir ul Qadri next month that would trigger mass resignations of PMLN members and allies from parliament. A constitutional crisis would ensue in which the provincial governments would also flounder in a sea of uncertainty, compelling the Supreme Court to step in (as Chief Justice Saqib Nisar said recently) to “plug the gap”.

Mr Sadiq’s utterances are, however, no less significant than those of General Qamar Bajwa, the Army Chief. He recently stressed that it is not the job of the army to run the government. He says he believes in democracy and all state institutions should work in their respective sphere of responsibility. But his statement was preceded by that of the Air Chief, Sohail Aman, who said that “democracy was not a solution” to every country’s problems.

As if such contradictory statements are not sufficient to confound the confusion, the army chief says he is all for the proposed merger of FATA with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But the PMLN government has been dragging its feet because of the opposition of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, a key parliamentary ally, and Mehmood Khan Achakzai of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. Maulana Fazal has now resurrected the Muttahida Majlis Amal or MMA, an alliance of five religious parties, to muddy Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s electoral waters. More ominously, he is all set to ditch the PMLN.

Meanwhile, Mr Asif Zardari is all over the place. He says his party is opposed to any change in the schedule of the general elections that leads to the creation of a prolonged caretaker set-up. But he is not cooperating with the PMLN on the issue of the Delimitation Bill pending in the Senate, without which the Election Commission of Pakistan cannot start preparing for elections. He is also hobnobbing with a coterie of pro-Miltablishment, anti-democracy, stalwarts led by Dr Tahir ul Qadri who are planning yet another long march to prematurely kick out the PMLN government, a sure shot recipe for some murky political engineering via a caretaker government. It may be recalled that this very group of non-electable politicians led exactly such a long march against Mr Zardari’s PPP government in 2012, only this time Mr Nawaz Sharif is the target.

The regional situation is also heating up for Pakistan. There is a new wave of terrorist attacks in the border provinces of Balochistan and KP. These originate from terrorist havens in Afghanistan backed by the hostile Intel agencies of Kabul and New Delhi. Pakistan is also at precipitous odds with the United States. A recent visit by the US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis to Islamabad yielded more problems than solutions. Each side wants the other to “do more” to assuage their concerns regarding safe terrorist havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US is threatening drone strikes in the settled areas of Pakistan. The Pakistan Air Chief has responded by warning that the Pakistan Air Force will shoot down any US drones over Pakistani skies. Finally, on the eastern border, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is beating anti-Pakistan drums to whip up pro-BJP support against the Congress. Beyond the region, global Muslim opinion is aflame with anti-US passion against a decision by US President Donald Trump to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel. This could provoke a militant backlash in Pakistan – there is talk of a march on the US Embassy – that could further destabilize the PMLN government.

These political rumblings are naturally taking a toll of the economy. Instead of rising remittances beefing up forex reserves and strengthening the Pak Rupee, the opposite is happening. Remittances and Exports are falling and capital outflows are increasing. In consequence, the Rupee is devaluing steadily (it is up 110 plus in the open market) and threatening to fuel inflation, which can ignite popular wrath at any time.

The tragedy is not so much that the elected government of the day is besieged and dysfunctional. It is the general state of the nation that is in unprecedented disarray and disunity. The Muhajirs are fighting among themselves and fighting the PPP government. The PPP government is fighting the PMLN and PTI. The PTI is fighting both plus the JUI. The mullahs are fighting among themselves and everyone else who is not a mullah. State institutions are conflicted. And Pakistan is at loggerheads with India, Afghanistan and the US.

The greater tragedy would be if Mr Ayaz Sadiq is proven right.

Dec 8

Zardari’s Jig

Posted on Friday, December 8, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Zardari’s Jig

Asif Zardari has been dancing on stage to the tunes of Arif Lohar. He was recently celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Peoples Party of Pakistan. Normally not given to merrily swinging like this, his enthusiasm has provoked the usual suspects to wonder why he is so happy when his party is at its lowest ebb and all around the edifice of electoral democracy is crumbling under attack from accountability hounds sniffing for corruption among big shots like him.

Mr Zardari has been through some tough times. He lost his wife and the leader of the PPP in 2007 at the hands of terrorists. His 2008-13 government was buffeted by the Miltablishment and never allowed a moment’s respite to rule. His prime minister was ousted by the judiciary mid-way though PPP rule. The PMLN didn’t relent on its hostility even after the PPP had been reduced to a regional Sindhi party after the 2013 elections. He had to run away into a long exile after his political lieutenants were rounded up or harassed by the Miltablishment with the backing of the PMLN government. Now he is faced with a new round of elections in which he must fight not just one mainstream partly like the PMLN with roots all over Pakistan but also a raucous upstart like the PTI which is threatening to overwhelm and seize the citadels of power with a wink and a nod from the Miltablishment.

Under the circumstances, one might have thought that he would seek to build some sort of workable “understanding” or “common cause” with the PMLN to jointly confront their nemesis in the form of the Miltab-PTI. More specifically, since any enforced change in the schedule of the next elections, or any amendment in the manner in which neutral caretaker governments at the centre and in the provinces are formed, may conceivably be directed against the interests of both PMLN and PPP, it would be natural to expect some sort of pre-emptive move by the two party leaders jointly to stave it off. But nothing of the sort has happened. Indeed, Mr Zardari has publicly spurned the olive branch proffered by Nawaz Sharif — who is in rather desperate straits and flapping about for some such agreement — and seems sadistically pleased at his overt distress.

It cannot simply be a case of Mr Zardari’s wounded pride at the cold and calculated manner in which Nawaz Sharif seemed in opposition and government to forget the letter and spirit of the Charter of Democracy that he signed with Benazir Bhutto in 2006. Politics may seem to be vindictive at times but it is never without cold self-interest and compromise. So what is the political logic of Mr Zardari’s refusal to join hands with Nawaz Sharif against the PTI-Miltab?

Clearly, Mr Zardari has determined that his long-term opponent is Nawaz Sharif and not Imran Khan. It is the PMLN that has wiped out the PPP from the Punjab heartland of Pakistan and not the PTI. The PMLN is also maneuvering to occupy the centre-stage of political ideology – anti-Miltablishment, anti-radical Islamist sectarianism, and pro-provincial autonomy, pro-constitutionalism, pro-West, pro-minorities, pro-women, etc – that has long been a bastion of the PPP. More ominously, the PMLN is trying to set roots as a dynastic party, which makes it a more formidable longer-term opponent than the PTI which revolves around the sole figure of Imran Khan without any alternate leadership in the wings.

In fact, it is the dynastic element that seems uppermost in Mr Zardari’s calculations. He has already made Bilawal Bhutto chairman of the PPP and is busy tutoring him in the art of politics. But the bigger challenge is to stop Nawaz Sharif from successfully implanting his daughter Mariam Nawaz as leader of the PMLN in his place. A good way to do that is to enjoin the public to desert the PMLN while pressurizing the courts and NAB to disqualify both father and daughter and convict them for wrong-doing. That would be killing two birds with one stone: with both father and daughter knocked out, the PMLN would lose its electoral base in the Punjab and open the way for a revival of the PPP as a credible alternative-party. Disgruntled or dislocated PMLN “electables” are being contacted so that when Mitab-push comes to judicial-shove of the PMLN, the PPP is ready and able to hook up to the electoral train in a meaningful way.

Therefore, Mr Zardari will do everything in his power to nail the Sharifs and bury their dynastic challenge forever so that Bilawal Bhutto remains the sole dynastic candidate in the party-political field. But he will ally with the PMLN government to ensure that the general elections are not postponed by the Election Commission and/or Supreme Court on the fig-leaf of the Census, nor allow any prolonged caretaker government to be installed with a mission to sort-out both the PPP and PMLN.

Mr Zardari’s jig is well planned. Look out for some fancy footwork to come.