Jul 14

Save the system!

Posted on Friday, July 14, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Save the system!

In the considered opinion of the JIT, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family have amassed wealth beyond their declared sources of income; their defense is full of holes and lies; they are not good Muslims; they must be punished. Who can disagree with this assessment? We have a “system”. Surely it should prevail over an errant Prime Minister.

Never mind that the JIT report is full of gaping holes and overt bias. Never mind that the honourable judges sitting in judgement are not accountable. Never mind that the deep state conducting the investigations is not accountable. Never mind that the men of “piety” with flowing beards and the shrill media baying for blood are not accountable. Never mind the number of times we have heard this argument before to get rid of every elected prime minister since independence (twenty so far and still counting) before he or she can complete a full term without the “system” ever being held accountable. Never mind that the amassed wealth of all these pillars of the state — including gifts and donations from foreign ruling families — is beyond their declared sources of income.

In this wonderful “system” that must prevail over all else, the judges who enshrined the “law of necessity” legitimizing three martial laws, or the judges who sent a popular prime minister to the gallows and many others home, are not accountable. In this wonderful system that must prevail over everything else, the generals who ruled the country directly for over half its life since independence and lost half of it in the bargain, or routinely rigged key political parties and elections, are not accountable. The most incredible thing is that this wonderful system is self-perpetuating and there is not an iota of evidence that corruption is decreasing even fractionally as a result of its oversight. Even more incredible is the fact that “corruption” is such a “big” issue in the imagination of this powerful system that the wretched people of Pakistan have doggedly elected corrupt politicians to represent them in parliament whenever elections are held.

But let’s ask more fundamental questions. Are such “corruption” trials about “regime change” conducted to protect the vested interests of the deep state? Is the principal contradiction in Pakistan between an unaccountable deep state and a harassed civil society or is it between the people and the financial corruption of their political leaders?

According to the JIT, the Sharifs’ wealth was accumulated and laundered in the 1980s and 1990s. This is the period when, thanks to the deep state, instead of being held accountable for corrupt practices, Mr Nawaz Sharif was made chief minister of Punjab and exiled when he stepped on the toes of the deep state. He is now again for the chop – charged with corruption three decades ago — because he will not kowtow to the deep state’s vested interests today. In the same vein, Ms Bhutto was sacked in 1990 and then again in 1996 for “corruption”, revived in 1993 and 2007 when she agreed to play ball and eventually got rid of soon thereafter when she threatened to renege on her “agreement” with the deep state. In the 1980s, Mohammad Khan Junejo was blatantly sacked by the deep state that brought him into power without even the pretext of a corruption trial. Before Mr Sharif, the PPP government of Asif Zardari was lucky to lose only one prime minister at the hands of the deep state, barely survived in office and has now been reduced to a regional party whose leader prefers the safety of foreign shores to his abode in his home province of Sindh. Meanwhile, Mr Sharif’s flanks have been whittled away by the denouement of stalwarts like Mushahidullah, Pervez Rashid, Nehal Hashmi, Tareq Fatemi, et al who have aroused the wrath of the deep state.

Let us be clear. There is no doubt that the Sharifs have accumulated a mountain of wealth beyond their known sources of income. Equally, however, there is no doubt that this trial is really about “regime change” and only apparently about “corruption” as so often in the past. It was preceded by two dharna attempts to get rid of him, failing which an alternate route has been sketched – thanks fortuitously to Panamagate – to achieve the same objective.

Mr Sharif’s options are limited. He can choose to resist and be ousted ignominiously. Or he can resign on the pretext of higher “moral ground” and live to fight his case another day. In both instances, he can paint himself as a victim. The tricky question will relate to how his voters, and by extension his party workers, react to the manner of his exit. In 1993 and 1999 his defiance of the deep state made him a popular leader who encashed his victimhood in 2013. But this time, the deep state is aiming to knock him out for good and “save the system” because the stakeholders arrayed against him are more numerous, more united and more powerful.

Jul 7

Path not taken

Posted on Friday, July 7, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo

Path not taken

Three recent developments are significant. They shed light on the path that Pakistan’s powerful Establishment is treading. This will determine how Pakistan will fare at home and abroad. But, as a poet remarked, the path not taken will make all the difference.

The Establishment’s “strategic deterrence against India” was successfully tested last Wednesday. The Nasr short range ballistic missile is equipped to carry “tactical” nuclear bombs. The army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, said that “Nasr has put cold water on cold start”. The Indian “cold start doctrine” – readiness to aggress against Pakistan at hours’ notice – was earlier confirmed by the Indian army chief Gen Bipin Rawat. Regional peace is now dependent upon an expensive arms race that has escalated from conventional to nuclear weapons at the cost of people’s social welfare in both countries. Pakistan’s strategic capability, said Gen Bajwa, was a guarantee against a highly militarized and increasingly belligerent neighbor. India is the leading buyer of weapons in the world and the Modi government is vigorously pursuing the Doval “doctrine of aggressive-defense”.

The Establishment’s policy towards Afghanistan is also shaped by its India policy. Originally, it was packaged as a quest for “strategic depth”. This meant support for jihad by Pakhtun Islamic Mujahideen in the 1990s. When that project didn’t succeed, the Taliban were muscled into Kabul. But when that project also failed, they were provided safe havens in Pakistan’s borderlands to bide their time. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of that reprieve led to the creation of the Pakistan Taliban and their transfiguration into the Islamic State in recent times that threatens both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The strategic doctrine also changed marginally. Instead of “strategic depth” in a client state, the Establishment now furthered the cause of a “friendly state” in an independent Afghanistan. When this too didn’t happen, the doctrine was further adjusted to accept a “neutral” Afghanistan with power sharing among the various Afghan protagonists, especially Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. But the inability of the Establishment to nudge the Afghan Taliban into such an agreement, coupled with the inability of the US backed Kabul regime to coerce them into submission, has put paid to such efforts too. This failure in Afghanistan is now impinging critically on the Establishment’s relations with America. That leads into the second development.

US Senator John McCain’s warning – Pakistan should stop supporting or sheltering the Haqqani network or face US sanctions – comes after his visit to Pakistan last week. Earlier, Nato Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, found it “absolutely unacceptable that a country provides sanctuary to terrorist groups responsible for terrorist attacks inside another country”. Much the same sentiment was expressed in a recent Pentagon report to Senator McCain that blames Pakistan for the failure of US policy in Afghanistan. The pro-India Trump administration is now seriously reviewing its relationship with Pakistan in the light of its dwindling options in Afghanistan.

The third development that is casting a shadow on the Establishment’s national security paradigm is internal. It is reflected in the increasingly shrill accusation by the ruling PMLN party and government that the Establishment is “conspiring” to get rid of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On Wednesday, as the army chief glowed with satisfaction over Nasr, the prime minister’s daughter, Maryam, was slamming the “hidden hands” behind the PanamaLeaks probe who were “hatching conspiracies against her father”.

The Establishment is institutionally hostile to popular civilian leaders who don’t fully buy into its India-fixated national security paradigm. Nawaz Sharif has seriously challenged this in his last two incarnations as prime minister. But the problem of getting rid of Mr Sharif is akin to the problem of getting rid of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Mr Bhutto spawned Benazir who spawned Bilawal Bhutto. Last Wednesday, Maryam Nawaz Sharif emerged from the wraps of the Sharif household to successfully mark her political debut as a credible political successor to her besieged father. This would suggest that, in or out of office, Nawaz Sharif, and if necessary Maryam, will be the leader of the PMLN. And, like the PPP in Sindh, the PMLN is in Punjab to stay. This “regionalization” of politics reflects a failure of the Establishment to hold the center.

The Establishment’s refusal to talk “realistically” with India undermines its credentials and ability to negotiate “realistically” with Washington and Kabul. Much the same attitude underscores the debilitating tension in its relations with popularly elected civilian leaders at home. Significantly, attempts to review external policy and establish internal political neutrality after every change of high command at GHQ have invariably been wrecked at the altar of an unbending institutional view on both fronts.

This suggests that Pakistan is on a “collision course” at home and abroad. Fighting with India, US, Afghanistan, Taliban and Islamic State amidst shrill tensions in civil-military relations at a time when the comforting breeze of CPEC is just beginning to stir the economy, is bad for Pakistan. The sudden plunge of the rupee against the dollar is an ominous sign of the times. The path not taken will make all the difference.

Jun 30

“Double, double toil and trouble”

Posted on Friday, June 30, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

“Double, double toil and trouble”

If ever Pakistan needed political stability, economic certainty and visionary leadership, it is now. The internal and external environment is deteriorating and unaffordable political and economic turmoil is on the cards.

The internal environment stinks of conflict between the elected civil and institutional military leaderships, between the civil and judicial organs of the state, between the political parties and judiciary and among the political parties themselves. The conflict is bewilderingly comprehensive.

Despite a change of high command in the military from an overtly aggressive leadership to a neutral one, the institution is still bristling with hostility towards Nawaz Sharif, the elected prime minister, and his heir-apparent daughter, Maryam, and seems bent on getting rid of them.

But the battleground has shifted from the inspired dharnas on the streets of Islamabad to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Joint Investigation Team set up by it. The JIT has become hugely controversial, partly because of its own indiscreet bias and over-zealous behavior and partly because of a conscious strategy by the ruling party to undermine its credibility. Hardly a day goes by when the parties to the investigation – the three judges of the SC, the JIT and the ruling party and prime minister, do not trade bitter complaints against each other. Since the PMLN is already in the dock for a variety of sins of omissions and commissions, only the JIT and judges need fear a serious dent in their credibility at the outcome of the investigation and trial.

The JIT/judiciary are also at daggers drawn with various institutions of the state that are accused of obstructing their investigation. The judges have served notice to the chairmen of SECP, NAB and FBR while the IB has been warned to stop harassing the investigators. This confrontation between the judiciary and core civilian institutions of the state is no less inflammatory and destabilizing than the continuing civil-military conflict.

The political parties are also at serious odds with the judiciary. If Nawaz Sharif is obstructing the judicial investigation into the money trail of his personal wealth, Imran Khan is obstructing the Election Commission of Pakistan from inquiring into the money trail of his personal and party funds.

In this background, the deteriorating external environment is cause for concern. The porous border with Afghanistan is a continuing cause of terrorism in both countries. Anti-Pakistan Taliban holed out in Afghanistan and anti-Afghan Taliban holed out in Pakistan are shedding blood in both countries – the recent terrorist attacks that devastated Parachinar and Quetta no less than the one earlier in Kabul can all be attributed to state policies pursued by the intelligence agencies of both countries. American facilitation to resolve Pak-Afghan issues has failed, prompting the Chinese to step into the fray because of their huge investments planned in the region. But the political leaderships of both countries are paralysed by their internal problems and the chances of any quick successful outcome are slim.

Pakistan’s relations with India are hostage to the usual actors and factors. But PM Narendra Modi and his national security adviser A K Doval are in a belligerent anti-Pakistan mood while the Pakistan military establishment is not inclined to give the government any leeway in conducting any unconditional dialogue with New Delhi. So we may expect the border to remain hot, with attendant proxy warring by both sides.

Pakistan’s relations with the US could worsen. President Donald Trump is rolling out the red carpet for Narendra Modi even as the US Congress has introduced a bi-partisan bill to cut or reduce military assistance to Pakistan by withdrawing its status as a Major Non-Nato Ally because it has “failed to fight terrorism that has claimed American blood”. Apart from significant Coalition Support funds, this status enables Pakistan to receive priority delivery of defense equipment and a loan guarantee program for private banks that finance American arms sales to Pakistan. There are reports that the Trump administration is contemplating a tougher stance towards Pakistan while cozying up to India. The World Bank has sniffed the mood in Washington and accordingly issued a warning to the finance minister, Ishaq Dar, that he has missed important fiscal targets and must not expect leniency from donors.

Meanwhile, as general elections draw near, the political parties are at each other’s throats with renewed vengeance. The PTI has poached at least seven stalwarts from the PPP, including Babar Awan, while the PPP has nudged its former interior minister, Rehman Malik (who once investigated the money laundering trail of the Sharifs), to depose before the JIT against Nawaz Sharif.

What is unprecedented in this developing scenario is the central role of the judiciary in confronting and challenging state institutions and the country’s popular civilian actors. In the current situation, however, with elections due next year, it is a moot point whether the judiciary is right to get so deeply involved in criminal investigations which only promise more controversy and turmoil ahead.

Jun 23

Wings to fly

Posted on Friday, June 23, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Wings to fly

From the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009 to the wondrous win at the Oval in 2017, it has been a long and often painful journey for cricket in Pakistan. Shunned by big-item foreign cricketers fearful of safety, domestic cricket became a drab affair, stadiums fell into disrepair, training academies were starved of funds, game development and talent hunt projects were abandoned and the wellspring of talent began to dry up. The most exciting and lucrative cricket contest of all – India-Pakistan series – also fell prey to politics when India refused to play Pakistan even in a neutral country. In the event, Pakistan’s “home away from home” – Dubai and Sharjah – was like an arid wasteland, with empty stadiums, dead pitches and high costs. Worse, the world had discovered an exciting new 20/20 cricket format and set up domestic leagues to excel in it but the Pakistan Cricket Board was woefully inadequate to meet the challenge. Indeed, unlike other Cricketing Boards run by professional managers and accountants, the PCB was mismanaged by grubby politicians and sifarshi bureaucrats. In 2013, the PCB was laid low by undue court cases and vested-interest conspiracies by elements of the ancien regime.

Thankfully, a new beginning was made in 2014 when a new constitution was unfurled, elections to the BoG and chairman were transparently held, efforts were made to induct professionals in management and imbue the organization with best international practices. The result is palpable. Against the odds, Pakistan achieved Number One Test Team ranking in the World earlier this year and last week became the OD Champions of the World without a single super star in its lineup.

This journey began with the onset of the Pakistan Super League in 2016. For many years, the PCB had toyed with the idea of forming its own Super League in line with that of England, Australia, the Caribbean and, above all, India. But a combination of incompetence, bureaucratic lethargy and corruption had stayed the project. The PCB could not outsource it because of lack of marketing expertise and didn’t know how to run such a League itself. It was also confused about how such a League would fare if it had to be held in the UAE instead of at home. Indeed, when the new PCB BoG finally gave the green light for the project, there were many Doubting Thomases who secretly hoped it would be a Waterloo for the new management. But the PSL has grown to provide a competitive and challenging environment for Pakistan’s budding talent. The youngsters who clinched the Champions Trophy are all PSL products. Along with the rest of the team, they came of age rubbing shoulders with mentors like Viv Richards, Brendon McCallum, Wasim Akram, Kevin Peterson, Chris Jordan, Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakhara, and learning to cope with pressure to excel in a fiercely competitive environment.

But the journey isn’t over yet. The next step is to bring PSL home and fill Pakistan’s stadiums. Holding the Final in Lahore this year was a magnificent achievement. Selling a sixth franchise at double the value of the most expensive franchise in 2016 is a sign of remarkable financial success. That also means more top foreign players, more matches in the tournament (eight or nine are planned in Karachi and Lahore in 2018) and greater opportunities for youngsters to showcase their talent and gain valuable experience. The icing on the cake is a planned trip to Lahore in September by an ICC World Team comprising top international players.

Slowly but surely, step by step, the stage is being set for the full-fledged revival of cricket in Pakistan. The PCB is readying centers of excellence for training in Multan and Karachi. Budgets for renovating and upgrading stadiums in Karachi and Lahore have been sanctioned. Programs for the development of club and school cricket have kicked off. Regional cricket associations are being nudged to find sponsors to invest in the game with matching grants from PCB. Domestic cricket tournaments are being restructured with fewer teams for quality competition. The PSL draft model is being replicated in the domestic T20 and One Day formats to achieve better results. Foreign curators are being contracted to supervise the laying of international-level wickets. In short, more money, more professionalism, more energy is being put into game development so that cricketers can live up to the expectations of a cricket-hungry nation.

Of course, there will be ups and downs in this journey. Pakistan is still way down the pecking order in the shorter formats of the game. The great stars of test cricket like Misbahul Haq and Younas Khan have faded away and there aren’t many ready to step into their shoes. But no matter. A new crop of street smart cricketers with a ferocious appetite to excel in the game is waiting. The PCB must give them wings to fly.

Jun 16

Mood and Madness

Posted on Friday, June 16, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Mood and Madness

The good news is that Pakistan’s cricket team has survived a drought of 18 years to finally storm into the Final of the Champions Trophy. The bad news is that the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the Supreme Court (SC) to investigate the money trail of the ruling Sharif family has become much too controversial for its own good.

When Team Pakistan set out to redeem its honour – it was languishing at the bottom of the ODI rankings – not many expected it to even reach the semi-finals. Group A was bristling with top-guns India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Certainly, the team’s cowering performance in the opening match against India seemed to confirm the perennial naysayers on social and electronic media who have made it a business to bitch about the Pakistan Cricket Board and its administrators, coaches and selectors. Chastened, the team then seemed to pick itself up by its bootstraps in the second match against South Africa and was spared potential blushes by rain that washed out play. In the third match against Sri Lanka, the team was true to form – it restricted the enemy from posting a demoralizing target, then the star spangled “middle order” slumped ignominiously (“line lag gayi”) and stamped out any lingering hope of redeeming national honour. But Allah be Praised! A “sitter” enabled Captain Sarfaraz and pacer Amir to steer Pakistan to a nail biting win. But the stumbling recovery did nothing to boost confidence in the ability of the team to outrun hosts England who had been firing on all cylinders. However, Pakistan stunned everyone, not least itself, by whipping England on a glorious sun-drenched day in Cardiff and now seems invincible. The “wretched” PCB is now scrambling to buy tickets for complimentary distribution to ravenous VIPs and blackmailing media who were screaming blue murder only a few days earlier. The joy all round is palpable and infectious. It is as if Pakistan has been reborn, prompting the great British cricket commentator Rob Smyth to write these memorable words about Team Pakistan.

“I used to think that Pakistan were the most interesting team in the history of sport. I now realise that they’re the most interesting team in the history of mankind. Their ability to teleport between farce and genius is unparalleled, and at their best they are like watching sport directed by David Lynch. Nothing makes a blind bit of sense, key characters appear out from nowhere, supernatural forces are at work and inanimate objects can talk. All you can do is run with the mood and the madness.” The great Kevin Peterson (KP) attributed the success of Team Pakistan’s “key characters” to the “super successful” PSL with its “excellent standard” and “brilliant” management.

Alas. The JIT is not in any mood to celebrate. In fact, it is decidedly sour at the way in which its conduct is being portrayed in the media. In a sensational complaint to the Supreme Court, it has noted a litany of criticism by state and non-state actors that is unwarranted and aimed at obstructing its investigations. However, if there is an element of truth in these allegations, the JIT has only itself to blame. The seeds of controversy were sown by the less than transparent selection and biased conduct of some of its members. Indeed, the JIT demonstrated its political bias against the Sharifs by leaking a video-grab of Hussein Nawaz Sharif slumped in anticipation of being grilled by the JIT. Then, overnight, it assembled a dossier of alleged “attacks” on its credibility by pro-Sharif elements, a feat that could only have been achieved by the combined efforts of the agencies that monitor such things as a matter of routine, raising questions about its links and motives.

As the “JIT lurches from one self-made crisis to another”, the Sharifs’ indefatigable critic, Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, has been provoked to smell some sort of conspiracy. He says the JIT is behaving like “an election cell” of the PMLN, implying that its desperate actions are creating a wave of public sympathy for the Sharifs. Now that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has appeared before the JIT in an unprecedented but dignified manner, it is a foregone conclusion that the JIT’s controversial deliberations will not amount to any conclusive arraignment or indictment of the Sharifs. The SC now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to contend with the JIT’s complaint as well as a fresh petition from Imran Khan on the same subject in support of the JIT. Meanwhile, arguments and documents continue to be traded in petitions against Imran Khan in the SC and ECP pertaining to the money trail of his personal wealth as well as that of funds for the PTI.

If Pakistanis are praying for a memorable win in the Final of the Champions Trophy on Sunday, they are not terribly sanguine about the outcome of the JIT’s Final Report next month. Perhaps we should just run with the mood and madness.