Nov 27

Liberal Pakistan?

Posted on Friday, November 27, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told an international conference in Islamabad recently that “the nation’s future lay in a democratic and liberal Pakistan” which is “educated, progressive, forward-looking and enterprising”. Truer words could not have been spoken.

But his statement has stirred a hornets’ nest of self-appointed “guardians” of the “ideology of Pakistan” comprising mullahs, revisionist state historians and reactionary intellectuals. The same howls of protest were heard fifteen years ago when a self-avowed “liberal” like General Pervez Musharraf made a tentative bid to promote his philosophy of “enlightened moderation” in the face of rising extremism.

Over the decades, these people have painted liberalism as anathema for state and society by propagating it to mean secularism, which in turn has been deliberately misinterpreted to denote atheist or impious or irreligious conduct. Misguided or opportunist politicians have gone a step further by condemning “liberal fascists” – a contradiction in terms because liberalism abhors fascism – for demanding resolute action against religious extremists like the Taliban, jihadis and sectarian terrorists who don’t recognize, let alone protect, the nation state because they stand for Khilafat or global political “Islam”.

In actual fact, liberalism is a 19th century philosophy of enlightened political economy that defends universal human rights like freedom of speech, artistic expression, religious worship, private property and the welfare and liberty of the individual in a representative system of democratic government. Its economic tenets are based on notions of relatively free markets and income redistribution through a progressive system of taxes and welfare payments for poverty alleviation.

Secularism, in turn, denotes a separation of religion from the politics of the modern democratic nation-state. In the mind of the Quaid-e-Azam, it implied a country in which all Pakistanis were equal in the eyes of the state, regardless of their caste, creed, religion or class: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

The tragedy is that the opportunistic civil-military-mullah alliance has made religion the bedrock of the ideological state of Pakistan. This misplaced concreteness has cost us dearly in our quest for nationhood.

This realization first dawned on General Musharraf in 2000 and compelled him to clutch at the notion of “enlightened moderation”. Then General Ashfaq Kayani woke up to the “existential threat” from religious extremism in 2011. Finally, in 2014, General Raheel Sharif rolled up his sleeves and went into action against the Taliban. Indeed, that is exactly what the civil-military framers of the National Action Plan against terrorism had in mind when they criminalized sectarian hate speech and terrorism and demanded madrassah reform. In fact, Mr Sharif was flogging the same idea when he attended a Diwali function two weeks ago in Karachi and said the government would defend and promote the “human rights of each and every citizen of the state, regardless of their religion and beliefs”. He said: “you are residents of Pakistan. Every resident of Pakistan, no matter who it is, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or Parsi, no matter who it is, belongs to me, and I belong to them”.

It is remarkable that the very civil-military institutions that are responsible for making political Islam the business of the state over the last six decades are now implicitly acknowledging the dangerous consequences of institutionalizing such a falsehood, and desperately searching for ways and means to reverse it. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Jamali, recently talked of the failure of Pakistan as a “qaum” or nation. The truth is that Pakistan’s quest for nationhood has been thwarted by sectarian, tribal and ethnic impulses in the face of an unduly centralized, authoritarian and heavily ideologised state apparatus.

The Pakistan Peoples Party was always critical of this state of affairs. But it was constantly thwarted from correcting course by the military and its civilian adjunct, the Pakistan Muslim League. Now, thankfully, positive change is in the air. Nawaz Sharif was handpicked and nurtured by the military three decades ago to do its bidding. He duly became the nemesis of the PPP, in the bargain getting into bed with the religious parties, passing Islamic laws and promoting jihad against India. Now he is all for peace with India, wants to stop all jihad across borders, is waking up to action against sectarian parties and religious terrorists and is embarrassed and hampered by the Islamic laws passed on his watch. The military, no less, sees the primary and immediate national security threat as emanating from internal religious extremism and not externally from archenemy India. Unfortunately, however, Imran Khan’s PTI is still muddying the waters by continuing to resist the development of a new national narrative of state and society based on modern notions of liberal and secular democracy.

Such an awakening, however partial and belated, should be welcomed. The rise of Al-Qaeda, followed by the Taliban and now ISIS, is a dangerous reminder of how nation-states can be undone by religious fanaticism and violent extremism.

Nov 20

Our man in DC

Posted on Friday, November 20, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Gen Raheel Sharif is in DC, talking to the top civil-military leaders of America about Pakistan’s national security in the context of this region’s stability. The Americans have vital stakes in Afghanistan and have a vested interest in speaking to him directly rather than through the civilian government in Pakistan because they know the military calls the shots on such issues and the COAS calls the shots in the military.

This isn’t a new development because the US-Pak relationship has always had a compelling military dimension. In the 1950s and 60s, this was reflected in various defense pacts like CENTO and SEATO (Gen Ayub Khan and President Eisenhower were best friends). In recent decades the jihad against the Soviets (Gen Zia ul Haq and President Reagan) and Al-Qaeda/Taliban terrorism (Gen Pervez Musharraf and President Bush followed by Gen Ashfaq Kayani and CJCSC Admiral Mike Mullen) in Afghanistan have figured prominently. The difference between then and now, however, is that Pakistan’s national interests currently do not exactly coincide with those of America in the region. And this is the source of distrust and tension.

The issues for discussion in DC are three fold: Pak-US relations, Pak-India relations and Pak-Afghan relations. All are interlinked in critical ways. The US and Pakistan both want a stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Both want the Ghani government and the Taliban to smoke the peace pipe. But Pakistan’s efforts to initiate an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation process have foundered on the rock of two hostile elements: the non-Pakhtun Afghans in the Ghani government and India. Both were singly and jointly responsible for sabotaging the second round of inter-Afghan talks some months ago by announcing the death of Mullah Umar and compelling the Taliban faction leading the talks to pull out, acquire a hard line posture and deal with the struggle for succession that ensued. The Afghan Army and Intel are also sheltering Pak Taliban in the North-East of Afghanistan while the Indians have been sponsoring terrorism in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. Talk of any quid pro-quo with either Kabul (we’ll rein in the Haqqani network and you coral the Mullah Fazlullah Taliban) or New Delhi (we won’t sponsor jihad in Kashmir and you stop RAW from destabilizing us) has not progressed because of mutual distrust and hostility. Surely, the Americans can play a significant role in addressing such concerns by acting as interlocutors and facilitators between Pakistan and India and Pakistan and Afghanistan. Surely, it is time for the Americans to “do more” instead of spending over $ 10 billion a year in Afghanistan without achieving any worthwhile results. Surely, they can shore up Pakistan’s anti-Taliban operations by coughing up at least a billion a year!

General Sharif will also try and convince the Americans that it is India and not Pakistan that is keeping the border hot and forestalling confidence building talks. The Pakistani army has its hands full dealing with internal terrorism. It has put a lid on the lashkars and jihadis and stopped them from fomenting trouble in Kashmir. It doesn’t serve their interests to keep a significant chunk of the army on border duty. It is India under PM Modi that wants to sow distrust between Islamabad and President Ghani in Afghanistan so that Kabul is once again nudged in the direction of New Delhi and becomes dependent on it as it was in the time of President Karzai who remains a staunch Indian ally.

The Americans will also be keenly interested to determine if General Sharif has any domestic political ambitions that could destabilize Pakistan and derail their common objectives in the region. Surely they are updated on civil-military tensions and the national media’s elevation of General Sharif as a national hero of sorts as a counter-weight to the lumbering prime minister. Of late, there has been much idle speculation on this count, especially since the fateful ISPR statement that provoked the government to issue a counter statement of its own. Washington will also be interested to know if General Sharif is interested in an extension in tenure and whether the US can play any role in stressing continuity of strategic policy.

Is the PMLN government wary of General Sharif’s attempts to chart a direct hot line with both America and Saudi Arabia? Admittedly, there are some voices in the PM’s secretariat that are raising concerns. But they shouldn’t. The PM and COAS have a fairly good working relationship. The COAS could have fished in troubled waters last year during Imran Khan’s “dharna” but he didn’t. The PM could have stopped him from cleaning up Karachi because of political compulsions, but he didn’t. The COAS took the load off the PM when he went into FATA all guns blazing and gave a shut-up call to Doubting-Thomases like Imran Khan and the Islamists. This helped the PM forge a national consensus behind the war against the Taliban.

Still, it would help if the ISPR could learn a bit about the theory of diminishing returns and act accordingly.

Nov 13

Sharif vs Sharif

Posted on Friday, November 13, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

General Raheel Sharif remains the focus of attention. He has had an important meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s top team members, where various dimensions and failings of the civilian input into NAP were discussed. He followed up by chairing a Corps Commanders meeting after which ISPR issued a statement highlighting civilian “governance” problems relating to proper NAP implementation. Gen Sharif is now going to Washington to discuss crucial issues regarding Afghanistan and India in the context of US-Pak national security concerns in the region.

Apparently six broad areas were identified in the meeting in which NAP’s implementation by civilian counterpart agencies and administrations is “sluggish”. These are: action against terror financing (primarily obstacles created by the Sindh government in the way of the military), foreign funding of seminaries (lack of will and expertise in the federal Ministries of Interior and Finance), banned non-state actor-groups and sectarian organizations (provincial police reluctance in eliminating these threats), hate speeches (police and judicial lethargy in Punjab and Sindh), madrassah reforms (federal government foot dragging) and a provincial mechanism for civil-military cooperation and coordination (especially in Sindh). Significantly, at least three additional agenda items were highlighted by an ISPR press statement subsequently: FATA reforms (no political will to pursue administratively, the PMLN government having just withdrawn a bill for FATA reforms submitted by FATA parliamentarians because the PM has formed yet another commission to examine the issue again), completion of Joint Investigation Reports (dubious civilian input in Sindh), IDP rehabilitation issues (insufficient funds and poor administrative effort). The ISPR pointedly “acknowledged the full support of the nation” in the army’s pursuit of terrorists but “underlined the need for matching/complimentary governance initiatives for long term gains of the National Action Plan”.

The ISPR statement has triggered a controversy in the media about the significance and legitimacy of the army’s comments. Some people think it to be an ill-advised and unnecessary irritant in the developing civil-military equation. They argue that such issues should be discussed behind “closed doors” rather than in public where they end up embarrassing the elected government of the day. Others say that there is nothing new or novel about the army’s preferred method of sending direct public signals to the government on its issues of concern. Every army chief has used the ISPR to publicly signal his displeasure with the government of the day on various issues. In the current case, however, the ISPR statement has been followed by a PMLN government statement that seemingly objects to the implicit criticism of government in it and points to the “shared responsibility” for success of the government (in cobbling a national consensus for NAP), the army (for its sacrifices in men and materials), the coordinated effort of provincial governments and their organs of administration, the judiciary (for accepting military courts and reduction of their writ jurisdictions in case of terrorism), and above all the people for standing behind the government and state.

But there are sources of tension in both official statements that have disturbed the civil-military balance. The ISPR should not have talked of “governance” issues or tried to take exclusive credit for the success of NAP, regardless of internal pressures to put the government on the spot for failing to do its bit. The opposition parties have exploited the ISPR statement to open their guns on the government for not providing “good governance”. However, despite this misplaced provocation, the government should not have reminded the military of “remaining within the ambit of the constitution” because the military under Gen Sharif has not demonstrated any political ambitions. Both sides should not tread over each other’s sensitivities.

General Sharif’s trip to Washington is critical in many ways. The US and its allies want to do business with him because they perceive him to be the man in charge of Pakistan. At stake are Pakistan’s relations with Kabul, New Delhi and Washington. Terrorism is the one factor that links all together. All three countries accuse Pakistan of sheltering various shades of terrorists who are creating massive problems for them. Pakistan, in turn, accuses India of actively proxy-warring in FATA, Karachi and Balochistan. It accuses Afghanistan of unfairly blaming Pakistan for all its troubles despite mounting evidence of its own failings. And it wants the US to “do more” to shore up the Ghani regime in Kabul, help Pakistan’s anti-terrorism drive with money and materials, as well as restrain the RAW hand in Pakistan.

This is a tall order even for General Sharif. It means getting the PMLN government to shake a leg and shore up NAP, getting the US government to persuade Modi’s India to smoke the peace pipe with Pakistan and stop it from pressurizing Kabul to take an anti-Pakistan stance. More critically, it means bringing the various factions of the Taliban to the negotiating table with Kabul and hammering out an enduring peace process that allows American troops to go back home in 2018 on the basis of constitutional rule in Afghanistan.

Nov 6

Political Realities

Posted on Friday, November 6, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Definite conclusions about the nature and direction of politics in Pakistan can be drawn from the results of the first phase of local elections in Sindh and Punjab that concluded last week. These lessons will determine the fate of the general elections in 2018, particularly for the PPP and PTI that have done badly in Punjab which determines who will eventually rule in Islamabad.

In Punjab, the PMLN has won nearly 45% of the seats, the PTI took about 11% and the PPP less than 2%. Critically, Independents swept through nearly 40% of the constituencies. This signals many important conclusions for all stakeholders.

First, the PMLN has broadly maintained its vote bank despite the destabilization and criticism of the PTI. This suggests deep roots in the province that it has ruled one way or another since the 1980s. Second, the PTI’s rigging allegations in the general elections against the PMLN have been conclusively disproved and it can breathe a sigh of relief and try to build on this success for the next general elections. Third, the rise of so many independents should be a wake up call for the PMLN because it is the party in power with the ability to bestow largesse on the winning candidates. It shows that the PMLN’s selection of candidates did not often meet with the approval of voters. In other words, the PMLN must be sensitive to an awakening amongst the masses for accountability and reflect this in awarding party tickets not only on the basis of established groups and caste loyalties but also on the character and credibility of candidates.

The PTI has to take radical stock of its tactics and strategy too. Its threat of developing a significant platform of local grassroots politicians to pose a challenge to the PMLN in the next general elections has not materialized. This means the PTI must start thinking positively in terms of developing a dynamic party structure that yields dividends in the electoral process instead of banking on negative tactics of conspiring to destabilize the polity by short-cutting to power on the back of “third umpires”. In short, the PTI movement led by Imran Khan has to be transformed into a PTI party led by hundreds of little Imran Khans across the local landscape. Shafqat Mahmood’s resignation as PTI’s Punjab Election Organizer for failing to deliver results is a pointer in the right direction. He must write a report detailing the problems and the PTI should act on it with sincerity.

Finally, Imran Khan must get off his high horse and put his house in order no less than his party. His political policy U-turns have disturbed PTI loyalists. Now his personal life is in a shambles. There is as much unsavoury controversy over his decision to divorce Reham Khan as his decision to marry her in the first place less than a year ago. This single decision has divided party, family and friends like no other issue and disillusioned his voters. It reflects badly on his judgment of people no less than his judgments on political issues. No leader can afford to be a moral maverick and expect a wide berth from supporters for long, especially in a conservative country like Pakistan. If Reham Khan were to hit back with a tell-tale book of her time with Imran Khan, it would be a runaway bestseller and damage him enormously.

If the results of the last general elections were not sufficient proof of the fact that the PPP has been reduced to becoming a regional Sindh party, these local elections have confirmed it conclusively. The PPP is nowhere in Punjab. But it has won 65% of local seats in eight districts in rural Sindh in the first phase. This has prompted Mr Zardari to claim that the naysayers predicting doom and gloom have been proven wrong. In fact, however, the reality is to the contrary. Mr Zardari’s Sindh vote bank is based on Sindhi nationalism as much as the politics of feudal patronage that stands atop the graves of three Bhutto martyrs rather than any sign of good governance or accountability. This is the very basis of sub-nationalism that defines regionalism rather than national integration.

The PPP in Sindh, PML in Punjab and PTI in KP have all benefited from the advantage of distributing power and patronage by virtue of being in provincial office. But the rising phenomenon of independents everywhere suggests that the voter is becoming more demanding and delivery and accountability will progressively triumph over biradari and caste in future elections. This is a good omen for democracy. FAFEN, the election watchdog, has also certified that these elections were cleaner than the last ones. So we are on the right track on this score. But we need a national two party system for political stability. The sooner the PPP or PTI gets its act together, the better.

Nov 4

Aapas Ki Baat -04 Nov 2015

Posted on Wednesday, November 4, 2015 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo