Sep 19

Assets and liabilities again

Posted on Friday, September 19, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Amidst the continuing din of the Dharnas in clinical Islamabad, an important announcement in the badlands of Waziristan has largely escaped strategic scrutiny. This is a statement by the so-called leader of the Punjabi Taliban, Azmatullah Muaviya, renouncing armed struggle against the Pakistani state and determining to focus instead on the fight against the government in Kabul in alliance with the Haqqani Network under the leadership of Mulla Omar.

The Punjabi Taliban are an assortment of former Punjab and AJK based jihadi groups who splintered and migrated to Waziristan and took up arms against the Pakistani military after General Pervez Musharraf closed the jihad tap against India in Kashmir in 2003-04. If Muaviya is genuinely their leader and if he truly means what he says and can effectively make this switch stick with the other Punjabi Taliban groups, then this is clearly a major strategic move by the Pakistani military establishment. Unlike the Pashtun Pakistani Taliban who have concentrated their attacks against the Pakistani state in Swat, FATA and KPK, the Punjabi Taliban are the ones who have infiltrated the three Pakistani military services (especially the army and navy); they are the ones who have organized audacious attacks on Pakistani military installations and assets; and it is their deadly alliance with militant Punjabi sectarian organisations that has raised the spectre of an Islamic State (IS) movement as in Syria and Iraq. If their guns have been turned eastwards to Kabul, the Pakistani military can concentrate on degrading and eliminating other non-conformist elements of the Pakistani Taliban in the Zarb-i-Azb operations in the tribal areas.

This development – persuading the Pakistani Taliban to fight alongside the Afghan Taliban against the US-sponsored state in Kabul instead of Pakistan — has been on the Pakistani military’s drawing boards for several years now. Indeed, it was a major reason why the US drones didn’t initially target the Punjabi Taliban for such a long time because they didn’t want them to train their guns in retaliation on the Americans in Afghanistan. But when the Pakistani military designated all Taliban as enemies of Pakistan with a view to launching a full-fledged operation against them, the US agreed to lend a helping hand in degrading their leadership via the drones. The irony is that the very success of this joint Pak-US operation may, after Muaviya’s statement, renew the elements of distrust and hostility between Pakistan and the Afghanistan.

Under the circumstances, it comes as no surprise that Kabul has renewed allegations that Pakistan’s intelligence services are involved in nurturing the Taliban against Kabul and Muaviya’s statement was a “clear and dangerous interference by Pakistani intelligence agencies in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan”.

The swift response from Pakistan’s foreign ministry foretells the significance of this development by showing the quid-pro-quo way forward: “The threat of terrorism can best be addressed through mutual cooperation”, in particular though “complimentary operations” by the Afghan government in Zarb-i-Azb.  The Pakistani reference is to the new Pakistan Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan following Zarb-i-Azb operations in Waziristan that are potentially troublesome for Pakistan in the same manner that Afghan Taliban sanctuaries of the Haqqani Network in Waziristan have proven for Kabul in the last decade. Not only is the TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah headquartered in and operating from Afghanistan, to all intents and purposes he is being nurtured by Kabul. Last week TTP fighters based in Afghanistan attacked the Pakistani army border post on Dandi Kuch in North Waziristan and killed three FC soldiers.

Thus the new dialectic is clear. For years the Pakistani military has provided sanctuaries to Afghan Taliban and nurtured them as “assets” that were shifted to Kurram Agency instead of being degraded along with the TTP in the wake of Zarb-i-Azb. Kabul responded by providing sanctuaries in Afghanistan for elements of the TTP on the run from Zarb-i-Azb. The significance of Muaviya’s statement, which is doubtless at the behest of the Pakistani military, is two-fold: it warns Kabul to stop hosting TTP fugitives if it doesn’t want Pakistan to up the ante across the Durand line; and it holds out the prospect of mutual cooperation against each other’s Taliban liabilities in safe havens across the Durand Line.

But several questions remain. Will Kabul be chastened to cooperate with Islamabad or will it react adversely? How does the Pakistan military intend to use and influence its more substantial Afghan assets in Kurram in settling long-term issues with Kabul? What role has the Pakistan military earmarked for the Punjabi Taliban once a Pak-Afghan settlement is reached? How will this development affect Pak-US relations? What will be the impact of this development on sectarian strife in Pakistan, given Muaviya’s affiliation with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in the past?

Therefore the fear remains: if the notion of “Taliban assets”— an alliance between the new Punjabi Taliban and the old Haqqani network – is the hallmark of the Pakistani military’s grand geo-strategic strategy, how then will terrorism be uprooted from both sides of the Durand Line?

Sep 12

Floods, dharnas and censors

Posted on Friday, September 12, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Regarding floods: one solitary photograph on the inside page of a newspaper tells the story better than reams of newsprint. It shows the Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, standing in immaculate gumboots in flood water, waving a finger at a clutch of forlorn officials next to him in their daily attire soaked up to their knees. This is at par with a video of Shahbaz Sharif in a Mao jacket that shows him nudging bags of flour out of a helicopter to a cluster of hapless flood victims below during the floods some years ago. Both are excellent photo-ops crafted to convey the message of a caring “son of the soil”.

But one question arises time and again. Why, when the wellbeing of Punjab depends critically on the hydrological economy of the five rivers, hasn’t any government since independence taken concrete long-term measures to stop the periodic ravages of the rivers in flood during monsoon? If water is a life and death issue, why haven’t we built and strengthened embankments, why haven’t we built dams and reservoirs so that water can be stored when the rivers are in flood and released when the canals are running dry?  Pakistan has about 140 medium and large dams for a population of about 200 million, or one dam for every 1.5 million people. India has over 3200 dams for a population of 1.2 billion, or one dam for about 500,000 people. The United States has over 75000 dams to cater for 300 million people, or one dam for every 4000 Americans.

The answer is obvious. Yellow cabs and tractors, sasti rotis, laptops and Youth Loan Schemes are visibly sexy. But dams and reservoirs are dull and opaque, they don’t provide political optics like expansive motorways, gleaming bullet trains and bright red buses on stilts. Every politician is a wannabe Shahjahan but not one can recall the names of the Commissioners of the Indian Civil Service who founded and sustained the great canal colonies network that nourishes the province. Everyone bemoans how India has grabbed the “jugular” vein of Kashmir and is building dams upstream on “Pakistan’s rivers” but no one cares to ask why Pakistan is not exercising its “first-right” to build dams and reservoirs on its own rivers in “Azad” Kashmir. Indeed, there hasn’t been a single political leader, civilian-populist or military-dictator, in the last forty years who has made any concerted effort to bridge the political-ethnic distrust that blights the Kalabagh Dam project.

Regarding dharnas: There may be a silver lining in this floods disaster. Even Imran Khan has been compelled to leave his beloved dharna in Islamabad so that he can compete with the Sharifs for photo-ops in flood-affected areas. The All Parties “Jirga” is negotiating terms and conditions with the PTI over ending the dharna. By all accounts, it seems to be inching closer to a solution that provides real gains for the electoral system while giving Imran a reasonable face saving exit from the Red Zone. But the dharna seems more like a colourful mela than a robust protest, and the crowds are thinning, so Imran Khan might be advised to call it a day. Dr Tahirul Qadri’s dharna, on the other hand, has been exposed by the BBC, which quotes students and families as saying that they were paid up to Rs 10,000 for joining the long march and were threatened with dire consequences if they deserted the dharna. This evidence shows up the Minhajul Quran in bad light and erodes Dr Qadri’s credentials as a bona fide populist.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is seized with questions regarding the legitimacy of dharnas and their relationship with fundamental rights versus the executive’s constitutional right to exercise force to maintain law and order. It is about time such issues were settled efficiently and expeditiously.

Regarding censorship: The courts are finally endorsing the broadcasting rights of GEO by censuring cable operators and security agents who are blocking them. The judges are also inclined to restrain TV “anchors” who are openly flouting the regulatory laws of PEMRA and defaming politicians and fellow TV anchors. The free-for-all media environment is a reflection of the swing of the pendulum from one extreme position of censorship during the dark days of dictatorship to the other extreme position of anarchy in a “moth eaten” democracy. If a deal with Imran Khan can be struck over the modus operandi of transparent appointments in public sector corporations and regulatory bodies like PEMRA, we will be in good shape.

Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have done yeomen’s service to the cause of democracy by highlighting much that is wrong with it. But the whole exercise is in danger of becoming a farce with everyday revelations of unsavoury links to secret “third umpires” and murky conspirators. Therefore the dharnas should be called off now so that the two can live to fight a clean fight another day.

Sep 5

Operation “Get Nawaz Sharif”

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The “conspiracy” to get rid of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been exposed. Although the circumstantial evidence was compelling, no one, not even the government and parliament, had hard-core facts to prove who was doing what and why. That’s why the government’s political and administrative response to the unfolding crisis was confused, weak and vacillating. Then the Heavens parted and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf President Javed Hashmi descended like an angel to “save” the government by making a clean breast of things. The story can now be stitched up safely.

The old guard in the military left behind by General Ashfaq Kayani – a master spy who occupied both high offices in ISI and GHQ by turns and fashioned the military’s strategic policies for over a decade – was unhappy with the proposed foreign policy initiatives of Nawaz Sharif towards India, Afghanistan, USA, and his stance on non-state actor “assets” and the war against the Pakistani Taliban. Mr Sharif’s choice of General Raheel Sharif as COAS, number three in the lineup and totally apolitical to boot, also queried their pitch. The dye was cast when Mr Sharif hauled up ex-army chief General Pervez Musharraf for treason because this move threatened to drag in General Kayani and many other senior military officers who had backed the coup maker. It was also feared that, come October 2014, when several key generals from the “Kayani guard” would face retirement, Mr Sharif would appoint another relatively apolitical general to the powerful DG-ISI post, thereby seizing the “national security” initiative from the military. It may be recalled that the fear was not unjustified: on two previous occasions as prime minister, Mr Sharif had taken exactly such steps when he sacked Lt Gen Asad Durrani in 1991 and appointed Lt Gen Javed Nasir as DG-ISI and when he appointed Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt as DG-ISI in his second stint as prime minister and later tried to make him COAS and triggered a coup by General Musharraf.

According to the Kayani doctrine, a serious “threat” of a coup is a better instrument of military policy than a coup itself because coups can be messy business in this day and age with a weak economy, an independent judiciary, ubiquitous media, obstreperous civil society institutions and bullying international state and non-state actors. Far better, they say, to pull strings via the military’s intelligence agencies from behind the political scenes and achieve the required objectives by pitting one actor against another and bringing things to such a pass that a coup seems like a real possibility. This is exactly how Gen Kayani brought the Zardari regime to heel on foreign policy and the war against terrorism on matters such as relations with India, USA and Afghanistan, Kerry-Lugar Bill, Memogate, etc. And this is exactly how his remnants wanted to deal with Nawaz Sharif when he threatened to disrupt or disown their doctrines.

Accordingly, a plan was hatched to oust Nawaz Sharif, with the threat of a coup, and before October when some of the key conspirators were due to retire. On the one hand, Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri, two desperadoes dying to become prime minister by hook or by crook, were roped in with the assistance of evergreen military “assets” like Sheikh Rashid, the Chaudhries of Gujrat and notorious elements in the media. On the other hand, potential oppositionists in the media like the Geo-Jang group were attacked and put down, while Supreme Court judges were scared off from interventionism by an attack from Imran Khan on ex-CJPs Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and Tassaduq Hussain Jilani and ex-CEC Fakhruddin G Ibrahim. The pretext of a “rigged and polluted” election was perfect because in one fell swoop all potential oppositionists were routed at the hands of the country’s leading “populist” forces in the shape of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri. Unfortunately, both Geo and PMLN played into the hands of the conspirators by outraging the nation, the first by directly targeting the DG of an “esteemed national security institution” like the ISI and the second by precipitating a bloody crisis in Model Town, Lahore.

Fortunately, three things went wrong for the conspirators. First, the million-strong crowds didn’t materialize. Second, the scared government didn’t resort to further violent measures to stop the marchers, thereby denying a pretext for Mr Sharif’s head as in the case of Shahbaz Sharif. Third, just when things seemed to be slipping out of the government’s hand, Javed Hashmi came along to spill the beans, expose the mala fides of the conspirators and galvanise parliament and civil society to unite behind the prime minister.

Mr Sharif has made errors of judgment and policy that have weakened him considerably. Imran Khan has been exposed as a “match-fixer”. The conspiratorial rogues have been identified. Only General Raheel Sharif has come out looking reasonably good. Along with PM Sharif, he needs to help restore Geo and the credibility of all those unfairly targeted by the conspirators and build a trust-worthy civil-military relationship.

Aug 29

Woe is Pakistan

Posted on Friday, August 29, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The political crisis has come to a head. Someone or something must give quickly and diffuse the situation. Or there will be violence, followed by an army “intervention” in one form or another.

The problem is that any sort of army intervention, soft or hard, will generate another matrix of legal and political problems if it is aimed at removing or undermining the legally elected prime minister and parliament of the day. Parliament and the prime minister have both spoken out in defense of their constitutional rights to uphold their respective status quos while the Supreme Court has reiterated its orders to the government to clear the area of the protestors. But the government is reluctant to order the “law enforcement agencies” – police, rangers and army – to enforce the SC’s order.

Indeed, a statement issued by the government following a meeting between the prime minister and the army chief has expressly focused on two core issues: the urgent need to “resolve” the crisis quickly; and the government’s resolve not to use force. However, any government that publicly disavows the use of force to protect its constitutional rights is already admitting it has lost its mandate to govern. Moreover, by admitting the urgency of a “quick” solution in the face of agitators who have threatened to resort to unconstitutional violence, the government has all but succumbed to their core demands.

This is a reflection of the government’s weakness. It stems from a critical mishandling of the Model Town incident in which the government’s position has been weakened by two new developments: the order of the Lahore High Court to register an FIR against the PM, CM and many others; and the leaked report of the Judicial Commission that casts a shadow on the conduct of the chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, thereby fueling demands for his resignation. Another such incident in Islamabad would be a nail in the political coffin of Nawaz Sharif himself.

Both Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have been quick to exploit the government’s vulnerabilities and up the ante. They have now thumbed their nose at the Supreme Court. Dr Qadri is actually digging his grave to prove his resolve to shed blood. If they order their followers to storm parliament or the prime minister’s office or house, the soldiers who are stationed there will have to stop them. If they don’t, it would be in defiance of the orders of the SC and government. In either event, the army’s action or inaction would amount to a military “intervention” for or against the legally constituted regime. Since the military leadership has already signaled its aversion to the use of force against the demonstrators – regardless of the fact that their leaders are openly exhorting them to be ready to storm the barricades by force – it is clear what it will and will not do and what its decision will signify.

In view of these factors, the government’s erstwhile allies in and out of parliament have recommended a human “sacrifice” in an attempt to appease the protestors. This is the resignation of Shahbaz Sharif for the Model Town tragedy demanded by Tahirul Qadri. The potential resignation of Nawaz Sharif, followed by the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, for Imran Khan’s satisfaction is also on the anvil, if the Supreme Court’s commission of inquiry eventually finds that the elections of 2013 were inextricably corrupted as alleged by Imran Khan.

Nawaz Sharif can take this advice in the expectation of living to fight another day. But sacrificing Shahbaz Sharif under pressure might amount to misplaced concreteness if it so weakens his party and government in his base Punjab province that another onslaught by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri some weeks or months down the line on some pretext or the other would knock him down with a feather. On the other hand, holding the line forcefully behind a parliament-cum-Supreme Court “shield” might risk a military intervention that could have seriously adverse consequences not just for the PMLN and the Sharif dynasty but more critically for law, constitution and national security, thereby endangering state and society.

Nawaz Sharif has accepted all the demands of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri except the demand to quit before the judicial commission gives its verdict on the fairness of the elections. Unfortunately, he has done so from a position of weakness in the face of threatening mobs instead of strength based on a swift and just redress of the demands of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri to investigate rigging charges in certain constituencies and transparently, neutrally and swiftly fix responsibility for the wanton carnage in Model Town.

The conclusion is inescapable: If Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are resorting to unconstitutional means to force out a prime minister, the same prime minister hasn’t mounted a true constitutional defense against their charges. The tragedy is compounded by the reluctance of the “miltablishment” to uphold the same constitutional imperative in such murky circumstances. Woe is Pakistan.

Aug 22

What next?

Posted on Friday, August 22, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Three new developments suggest that, despite the aggressive and uncompromising rhetoric, the political crisis provoked by the long marches of Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri is dissipating. Neither a military coup nor the resignation of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, or dissolution of parliament followed by fresh general elections, is imminent.

The first is a statement from the military leadership indicating its mindset. It has called upon all parties to resolve their disputes through negotiations while signaling the army’s decision to physically protect “institutions of the state”, like Parliament, the Presidency, PM House, the Secretariat, the Supreme Court, etc – in effect to stop the demonstrators from storming or besieging the constitutional abodes of government. Following this “advice”, the siege of parliament ordered by Tahir ul Qadri has been lifted and both he and Imran Khan have entered into talks with government delegations. Although both are sticking to their maximalist demands – which are at odds over core issues – this is a good first step in the direction of conflict resolution.

The second is a demonstrated consensus in civil society that, however inadequate, Pakistan’s democratic dispensation should not be rolled back by unconstitutional or violent means, in effect disavowing any direct military intervention or regime change through violent long marches and street protests. All political parties, ulema groups, civil society organisations, lawyers associations and media are on the same page on this account. Now parliament is demonstrating its resolve to resist any encroachment on its sovereignty. This has isolated both PTI and PAT and compelled them to disavow violence. Indeed, this explains how the current protest movement is sharply different from earlier movements in Pakistani history for regime change – and why D-Square is not Tahrir Square – in which the opposition parties and civil society were all ganged up against a solitary government that responded with fierce repression.

The third is a consensus in civil society that Imran Khan’s charges of institutional election rigging are unmerited because all domestic and independent pollsters and monitors have declared these elections to be the fairest and freest since 1970. Equally, all are also agreed that an independent investigation needs to be commissioned in order to pinpoint serious flaws in the electoral system that give rise to such allegations so that suitable and timely reformist measures can be undertaken by the government in consultation with the opposition in parliament.

These developments may be considered a measure of the way forward in resolving the current impasse by giving each protagonist a face-saving exit while enforcing the national consensus.

Since the attempt to dislodge the prime minister by a long march of protestors representing 35 MNAs out of over 400 parliamentarians is unpopular, unconstitutional and untenable, PAT/PTI must climb down from their maximalist position. Equally, since the demand for an investigation into charges of electoral fraud has popular and political backing, the PMLN must concede a commission of inquiry – even if it means changing the election laws by Presidential Ordinance or parliamentary legislation to facilitate it – whose constitution and terms of reference meet with the unequivocal approval of the PAT/PTI. Both sides must also agree to unreservedly accept the findings of such a commission. If the commission finds that Imran Khan’s charges are institutionally unfounded, then he must resign from the leadership of the PTI. But if it finds the PMLN culpable such a charge, then Nawaz Sharif must resign as prime minister, dissolve the assemblies and quit the leadership of the PMLN. If it finds evidence of particular rather than general rigging, then re-elections must be held in the tainted constituencies under a mutually approved arrangement and the existing political dispensation should be allowed to continue until the decreed next general elections in 2018. In the meanwhile, the 33 member parliamentary committee, which includes 3 PTI representatives, established to recommend suitable changes in the election framework must do its job quickly so that the second core demand of PAT/PTI is satisfied.

The issue of the 18 PAT activists killed by police firing in Model Town last month also needs to be resolved quickly. Dr Qadri is within his rights to demand an independent commission that has his stamp of approval. The PMLN must concede this demand immediately. If such a commission finds the chief minister directly responsible, he must resign from parliament. If it doesn’t, PAT must back off. If it finds other functionaries guilty, they must be sacked from service.

In short, the findings and recommendations of both commissions of inquiry must be given the sanctity of law and complied with fully by all parties.

This long march can pave the way for another disastrous military intervention or it can have an enduring positive impact on Pakistan’s political landscape by compelling the PMLN to rule with greater accountability and parliament with greater responsibility. Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri can then either be jointly condemned for undermining and derailing democracy or jointly credited for cleansing and strengthening it.