Oct 7

Winter of discontent

Posted on Friday, October 7, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Winter of discontent

Imran Khan is a desperate man given to dangerous ways and means.

He lost the general elections in 2013 and admitted they were free and fair. A year later, however, he accused a clutch of people and institutions of rigging the elections and dragged them to a Supreme Court judicial commission for electoral accountability. When the judges rejected his allegations, he blasted them and took to the streets. For over four months, he stood atop a container in Islamabad and abused the prime minister, ruling party, parliament and political system, constantly baiting the military to step in, wrap up the system and bring him to power through the back door. When that didn’t happen, he changed tack and began to tour the towns of Punjab, sparking PTI jialas to provoke the government to react violently and trigger mass protests. Confronted by failure once again, he has now clutched at Panamaleaks to start agitation on a new footing. This time he has declared parliament “illegitimate” and threatened to “shut down” Islamabad if the prime minister doesn’t step down, despite the fact that the Election Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court of Pakistan, Lahore High Court and Federal Bureau of Revenue are all simultaneously pursuing investigations and inquiries into Panamaleaks.

This is a dangerous move. It encourages conspiracy theories that tout civil-military tensions over a host of issues and undermine stability. It also comes in the midst of a national security crisis with India that requires us to show national unity and resolve instead of internal divisions that sap our collective energies and throw us into disarray.

Imran Khan intends to “shut down” Islamabad after Moharram by a combination of street tactics and civil disobedience. He can call upon his youthful activists to block thoroughfares and arteries in the capital, threaten shopkeepers to down shutters and stop bus and metro services so that attendance thins out in government offices. This will inevitably draw the police and city administration into the fray, raising the probability of mischief or blunder leading to violence and bloodshed as in the Model Town case that remains a millstone around the neck of the Punjab chief minister. Eventually, he can build up his forces to gherao the “illegitimate” parliament and provoke the government to use force to establish its writ, confirming a serious “law and order” crisis and compelling the courts and military to come to the “rescue” of the people.

The government’s options are clear. It can sit back and let him have his way, as it did during the four month long dharna crisis earlier, neither provoking his supporters nor being provoked by them, and hope their aggressive intent will wither away through fatigue. Or it can take pre-emptive action to arrest PTI leaders and disperse the crowds by mild use of force before they become too big, thereby trying to neutralise Khan’s attempt to incite violence.

The first option is tricky because Imran Khan’s tactics this time are different from those during the earlier confrontation. The dharna was declared “peaceful”. It was static. No attempt was made to precipitate violence by the protestors. Consequently Islamabad did not “shut down” even though business and citizens were “inconvenienced”. But the “shut down” this time suggests a continuous and dynamic game of street scuffles and even battles between police and protestors. The government cannot afford to hand over the capital to the PTI without seeming to lose its legitimate writ to rule. Inevitably, sparks will fly and fires will be ignited, which is Imran Khan’s very objective.

The second option is also problematic. To be sure, past governments have used preventive arrests to stall and break the back of budding protest movements, as during the MRD movement in the mid 1980s and Benazir Bhutto’s “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad in the early 1990s. But these tactics were successful because the military establishment of the time was either pro-government or not proactively for the opposition. This time round, however, there is a powerful sense of disaffection in the military with the prime minister, suggesting that the establishment is egging on Imran Khan and wouldn’t mind weakening the prime minister if not seeing his back even if there is no covert conspiracy to seize direct power. Under the circumstances, if pre-emptive arrests spur the protestors instead of quelling them, the government will be on the mat for mishandling the situation and face the wrath of the media and courts. In fact, political parties that have so far refused to clasp hands with Imran, like the PPP and MQM, will then come under pressure to boycott parliament and show solidarity with him, thereby exacerbating the political crisis and precipitating a do-or-die situation in Islamabad.

Clearly, the dye is cast. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif needs to chalk out a fast and decisive strategy to attend to the diverse dimensions of this crisis. These cover Panamaleaks, civil-military relations and national security east and west of Pakistan’s borders.

A winter of discontent is upon us.

Oct 5

Aapas Ki Baat – 5 October 2016

Posted on Wednesday, October 5, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Oct 4

Aapas Ki Baat – 4 October 2016

Posted on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Oct 3

Aapas Ki Baat – 3 October 2016

Posted on Monday, October 3, 2016 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Oct 2

Geo-Strategic Shift

Posted on Sunday, October 2, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Geo-Strategic Shift

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to dispatch a group of parliamentarians to Western capitals to highlight a brutal surge of human rights abuses by India in Kashmir. What is the urgent need for such an initiative? Why have Indo-Pak relations plunged in recent months? Is some sort of geostrategic shift taking place in the region for which Pakistan is flaying about for an appropriate response?

Mr Sharif was disabused of his desire for peace with India by the arrival of Mr Narendra Modi as prime minister and Mr Ajit Doval as his National Security Advisor of India in 2014. Far from clasping Mr Sharif’s hand of goodwill on the day of his inauguration by reviving the back channel on Kashmir initiated by his BJP predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee a decade ago, Mr Modi intervened brutally in Indian-occupied Kashmir and aggressively against Pakistan (Mr Doval’s “offensive defense” doctrine). The first is manifest in the bloody crackdown against peaceful protestors in Indian-occupied Kashmir; the second is evident from the notching up of proxy terrorisms in various parts of Pakistan, equating Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan (an internal matter) with human rights abuse in Kashmir (disputed territory) and claiming Pakistan’s Azad Jammu Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan territories as “integral parts of India”. All this has been pegged to the issue of “terrorism by Pakistan” — on allegations that ex-Mumbai Don Dawood Ibrahim is sheltered by Pakistan (never mind that he has been put out of “business” for twenty five years), and that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to convict the Mumbai or Pathankot accused or crack down on the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayba (never mind that Pakistan has put a firm lid on all such groups and has gone so far as to cooperate with India on giving advance warning of suspicious border crossings by maverick jihadi groups out of the control of Pakistan). This has apparently led Mr Sharif to redress matters by trying to internationalize the Kashmir issue and put the spotlight on state sponsored terrorism by India in Kashmir and Pakistan by dispatching parliamentary delegations to the West in advance of the United Nations Security Council moot later in September.

India’s new “offensive-defense” strategy looks both East (towards China and SE Asia) and West (towards Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and West and Central Asia). Its pivot is a budding economic and military alliance with the United States in which India is building itself up as a counterweight to China in Greater Asia. Towards this end, India and the US have stitched up unprecedented defense and nuclear agreements (American use of Indian military installations, American state-of-art air weaponry technology for jet engines and UAVs, US support for India’s inclusion in the nuclear suppliers group, joint war-games and naval exercises in the Indian Ocean), mutually reinforcing anti-China policies relating to South East Asian sea lane rights, and increasing US foreign investment in India, etc. Most alarming for Pakistan and China has been Indian opposition and hostility to the CPEC which aims to both boost Pakistan’s economy and open up strategic alternative trade and energy corridors linking China to the Middle East and Central Asia. Needless to add, both the US and India have the same vested interest in stabilizing the Afghan state as a dependent and pro-US-India country that fits in with their strategic plans to contain China and downgrade Pakistan. Indeed, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s ongoing visit to New Delhi is aimed at beefing up the US-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.

Unfortunately, however, while China seems to be acutely aware of the New Great Game, the ruling establishment in Pakistan is still floundering in a sea of internal political conflicts and is unable to fashion an appropriate and swift strategic response to the historic challenge facing it. For starters, the political parties are at each another’s throats over a range of issues that simply don’t allow them to sit down, fathom the nature of the challenge and fashion a consensual and fitting response. Then there is the civil-military turf war between the Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif camps that has created uncertainty, ill will and instability in the system. The worst aspect of all this is the bickering over CPEC among the provincial civilian stakeholders on the one hand and the civil-military administrations of the two Sharifs on the other. The Chinese are deeply worried by the inability of Pakistan to get its act together and guarantee the viability of CPEC.

Tectonic geo-strategic shifts are happening in the region. Yet all that Pakistan’s civil-military leaders can do is pack off a delegation of mostly inept and incompetent ruling party parliamentarians (instead of one representing all major parties to demonstrate a national consensus) to the West to highlight India’s human rights abuses in Kashmir. The paramount need of the hour is for the two Sharifs to shrug off their personal or institutional issues and help forge a national political consensus on a stable, dynamic and creative way forward for Pakistan.