Nov 10

Full circle

Posted on Friday, November 10, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Full circle

The Miltablishment’s agenda for “democracy” is now clear – divide and rule. Why should it work now when it hasn’t in the past?

Asif Zardari has been baited to stop him from joining hands with Nawaz Sharif. In consequence, Farhatullah Babar and Raza Rabbani, who represent the righteous ideological face of the PPP, have been neutered by Mr Zardari’s volte face on the issue of accountability. Mr Babar has protested his party’s position to exclude judges and generals from the purview of the proposed new law. “I am embarrassed and humiliated. This is akin to the surrender of East Pakistan”, he lamented.

Mr Zardari’s “surrender” comes after 18 months in fearful exile following his diatribe against the generals in 2015 for linking his government’s corruption to terrorism in Sindh. Chastened, he is aghast at Nawaz Sharif’s “anti-state” statements.

Mr Zardari has also spurned Nawaz Sharif’s offerings to make a united cause against the generals and judges. He has had to forget how both conspired to hound him in the Presidency and oust his prime minister for defending him.

The Miltablishment’s sudden decision in the dead of night to cobble an electoral alliance between the MQM-P and PSP came in the wake of reports that Mr Zardari was on a fishing expedition to hook some disgruntled or unsteady MQM-P parliamentarians to the PPP’s side. All that remains is to install General (retd) Pervez Musharraf as the “rehbar” of the new muhajir alliance to recapture urban Sindh and keep Mr Zardari on a tight leash.

The Miltablishment is also urging six religious parties to band together once again under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (dissolved in 2007) so that the religious vote is united in chipping away at the mainstream parties. This is quite apart from the recent launching of two militant religious groups as political parties in the NA-120 by-election aimed at eroding the margin of the PMLN’s victory.

The rejection of the “delimitation” proposals based on provisional results of the 2017 census by the MQM-P, PSP, JI, PTI and PPP is part of this strategy. If this isn’t done in time, the Election Commission will be forced to postpone elections until the final census results are available. This could provide the justification for longer term “interim caretaker governments” based on apolitical technocrats ready to do the bidding of the Miltablishment against the PMLN.

The SC’s insistence on wrapping up the conviction of Nawaz Sharif quickly is also, objectively speaking, a move in the same direction. If Nawaz Sharif is knocked out for good, the chances are the PMLN will be whittled down by desertions and unable to win a majority in the next elections. A perusal of the SC’s full judgment in the “Iqama” case against Mr Sharif highlights the depth of political animosity built into this confrontation. The judgment, according to one respected editorial, “questions the ex-PM’s character, intentions and competence.” Its “tone and tenor will likely leave legal purists uncomfortable, with the harsh language and condemnation often veering away from strictly legal interpretations”. This was seemingly provoked by Mr Sharif’s GT-Road utterances against the judges and has now served to strengthen his resolve and sharpen his language against them. A NAB accountability court overseen by one of the angry five judges who convicted Mr Sharif has now rejected his petition to club all three references against him, a decision that will harass him from court to court and create obstacles in his mass-contact campaign to plead his case before the court of the people.

The hostility of the Miltablishment against Nawaz Sharif is also aimed at creating a rift between him and Shahbaz Shahbaz. This will objectively weaken the PMLN, just as support for Imran Khan is aimed at propping him up as a strong counterweight to Mr Sharif.

In some critical ways we seem to have come full circle to the military interventions of 1977 and 1999. The first led to the creation of the MQM as a knife in the heart of the PPP in Sindh and the rise of Nawaz Sharif as a bulwark against Benazir Bhutto in Punjab. The second led to the ouster of both Bhutto and Nawaz, creating the PMLQ and MMA, and strengthening the MQM. The third intervention now underway brings forth the spectre of an anti-mainstream party front of old Miltablishment allies, aided and abetted by a new pro-Miltablishment player in the shape of the PTI. On all three occasions, the judiciary has been an integral part of the engineered political framework.

To be sure, the public acknowledges the corruption of both Zardari and Nawaz. Nevertheless, it still prefers to vote for them over the stooges and props of the Miltablishment who are also tainted in one way or another. This compels the search for “democratic solutions” within an old circle and leads nowhere. That is why it is best to follow the world model and let the system evolve freely from political rags to institutional riches in the imperfect ways of constitutionalism and electoral democracy.

Nov 3

Nawaz Sharif’s options

Posted on Friday, November 3, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Nawaz Sharif’s options

Despite his wife’s serious illness and confinement in London, Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan to face a NAB court. This is the correct position to take. The public approves of leaders who confront and overcome adversity instead of running away or cowering in fear. General Pervez Musharraf, on the other hand, has fled the country to avoid accountability and there is nothing anyone can do to drag him into court.

This reflects the prevailing political philosophy of accountability for elected politicians and immunity for generals and judges. The draft of a new bill on accountability approved by the PMLN government and PPP opposition in parliament specifically excludes these two categories from its purview.

Much the same sort of advice is being given to Mr Sharif by well-wishers and detractors alike: don’t rock the boat of the generals and judges, one has a gun and the other brandishes the law. But Mr Sharif is not inclined to lie down and enjoy the ride to disgrace and obscurity. He continues to proclaim his innocence and insists that the generals and judges have ganged up against him unfairly.

Mr Sharif should have thought through the consequences of his actions and policies when the same generals and judges were going after Asif Zardari’s PPP in Sindh and his interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, was egging them on rather self-righteously. Now that “they” have come after him (Chaudhry Nisar was not among those loyalists who received him at the airport) Mr Sharif cannot expect the PPP to sympathize with his cause. In fact, the PPP is saying that Mr Sharif should have been meted out the same brutal and menacing treatment by NAB that was reserved for the PPP’s Sharjeel Memon upon his return to Pakistan when he was handcuffed and led off the plane straight to prison.

The bell is now tolling for Mr Sharif. Every time he has handpicked an army chief or ISI chief, both have wilted under pressure from their institution to stand up to him and establish their independence. Every time he has succumbed to pressure from both to abandon a party loyalist in his own cause – Senators Mushaidullah, Pervez Rashid, Nihal Hashmi and Advisor Tariq Fatimi come to mind – he has made himself more and not less vulnerable to them. Unfortunately, however, when he has stood up to “them”, he has chosen the wrong issues. The institution of the Pak Army will not allow a coup-making Chief to stand trial. And if a serving Chief is compelled to publicly “regret” a policy or action by a serving Prime Minister, he is bound to more than make amends by compelling the same Prime Minister to “regret’ his decision.

Much the same approach is manifest in dealings with the judiciary. Every time Mr Sharif has joined hands with the judiciary to unfairly undermine his political opponents – as when he actively pursued the Memogate case and the sacking of a PPP prime minister – the judiciary and opposition have paid him back in the same coin. Elementary. What goes around comes around.

Mr Sharif was also wrong-footed on Panamagate from the start. His “address to the nation” was ill-advised because it brought the issue center-stage. His “explanation in parliament” about the source of his family’s wealth became a millstone around his neck when it didn’t tally with the revealed facts later. His readiness to enjoin the Supreme Court to pursue the matter and his willing acceptance of a role for the ISI and MI in the investigation are now extracting their price.

The debate over a political successor was also counterproductive. It signaled a weak, ill-fated hand. The family row related to it – Nawaz versus Shahbaz and Mariam versus Hamza – spilled into the open and made matters worse. A simple announcement immediately after the Supreme Court rejected his disqualification appeals to the effect that Nawaz Sharif would become President of the PMLN and Shahbaz Sharif would be the party’s prime minister-in-waiting after the next elections would have done the trick.

What next? In a sense, there is no alternative. Nawaz Sharif has built his populist credentials on not “taking dictation” from anyone and “never saying die”. His current “martyrdom” dividend is dependent on the perception of unfairness at the hands of the Iqama-baiting Miltablishment. To meekly succumb to the Miltablishment by adopting a policy of silence rather than vigourous disputation would be construed as a sign of abject defeat which will neither get him off the accountability hook nor assure a win for the PMLN in the next elections. The real challenge is to stand firm, fend off the corruption charges, put a lid on family disputes and keep the PMLN united until the Senate elections are won and the next elections announced at an opportune time.

This will not be easy. Nawaz Sharif could do much worse by not apologizing to Asif Zardari and joining hands to build a united political front with other political parties to thwart unaccountable power-wielders.

Oct 27

America’s role

Posted on Friday, October 27, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

America’s role

From Day One, Pakistan has always had problems with India in the east and Afghanistan in the west. Kabul doesn’t accept the Durand Line as a legitimate border with Islamabad and Islamabad doesn’t accept the LoC as a permanent border with New Delhi. If Pakistan were to yield to Kabul’s position it would mean relinquishing parts of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. If India were to yield to Pakistan’s position it would mean letting go of Jammu and Kashmir. But modern states do not yield territory easily. So each regional player has been trying to change the status quo in its favour by launching terrorist proxies to inflict pain on the other.

Enter the United States. Throughout the Cold War period, it was allied to Pakistan and propped it up with economic and military aid. But tensions erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Pakistan lost its utility for the US. The US reneged on its commitments and turned the screws on Pakistan’s nuclear program, sowing the seeds of virulent anti-Americanism in state and society. Islamabad responded to the impending state of regional isolation by installing a “friendly” Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

But 9/11 created a new ball game. The US went after the Taliban and installed a pro-India, anti-Pakistan regime in Kabul, warning Pakistan: If you’re not with us you’re against us. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, Pakistan fashioned a “double-game” to protect its short and long term interests. It allied with the US against Al-Qaeda’s terrorism but provided sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban in FATA in order to retain “friendly” leverage on Kabul in the future. In consequence, the US spent tens of billions of dollars in trying to “stabilize” Afghanistan with anti-Pakistan regimes but failed because of a slow and steady resurgence of the Taliban who now control nearly half of Afghanistan and carry out attacks at will against the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

US Afghan policy has meandered confusingly from one President to another. Under George W Bush, the US poured in men and materials into the Afghan game, exhorting Pakistan to “do more” to help. Under Obama, it all but pulled out, allowing the Taliban to dig in for the long haul and consolidate their gains. Under Trump, the US is in a “holding” frame but once again leaning on Pakistan to “do more”. Pakistan is not opposed to a “grand reconciliation” in Afghanistan that brings the bloody civil war to an end but wants to make sure that the end result is not unfavourable to its interests and security. But Kabul, New Delhi and Washington are not in any mood to concede Pakistan’s concerns.

Meanwhile, the regional situation is getting worse. Kabul is under attack from the Taliban. The Taliban are under attack from Islamic State in Afghanistan. The IS is anti-Kabul, anti-Islamabad and anti-US. Pakistan and India are warring through proxies. Islamabad and Kabul are hosting terrorist sanctuaries against each other – the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. And the US is railing against Pakistan and supporting India in a bigger game to challenge China and disrupt CPEC.

Pakistan is in a bind. It has the most to lose in this situation. The state has already collapsed in Afghanistan and a continuation of the civil war won’t much hurt Kabul as long as the US continues to prop it up. But if the US were to actively gang up with New Delhi and Kabul to hurt Pakistan for not “doing more”, the consequences of weakening the Pakistani state would only benefit the IS and Taliban.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest emissary from Washington in search of a “solution” to the regional mess. But he has no fresh ideas or initiatives to offer Pakistan or Afghanistan except a repetition of the “do more” mantra that Pakistan has rejected time and again. What’s the way out?

America must acknowledge that it has played a majorly critical role in creating and sustaining this mess. It has two options now. It can empower and support Pakistan to be the lead player in finding a “solution” in Afghanistan that both Kabul and Islamabad can live with without destabilizing the other. In this case, its pressure tactics must be directed at Kabul and New Delhi to work with Pakistan and assuage its security concerns. Or it can turn its guns on Pakistan for not “doing more” against its own interests. In this case, it will merely pave the way for extremist anti-American populism to overwhelm state and society and plunge the region into an existential crisis as in the Middle East, creating even more problems for everyone in and beyond the region.

Kabul and Islamabad must establish mutual trust by progressively uprooting Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Simultaneously Pakistan and India must normalize relations by ending their proxy wars. America must play a leading role in bringing this about instead of exacerbating problems by playing anti-Pakistan favourites.

Oct 20

Accountability

Posted on Friday, October 20, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Accountability

The split in the House of Sharif is in the open. Nawaz and Maryam Sharif stand apart from Shahbaz and Hamza Sharif. The former want to resist the forceful encroachments of the “Miltablishment” into the affairs of both state and government. The latter see this as a politically suicidal “confrontation” and are resigned to working within the parameters defined by Miltablishment.

The first public manifestation of this split came during the recent bye-elections in NA-120. Hamza exited the scene, leaving Maryam to campaign in a constituency nurtured by him in his capacity as manager of the PMLN electoral machine in the Punjab. The margin of victory – which was deemed critical to the political strategy of father and daughter who were hoping to build a narrative of martyrdom on it — seemed to prove Shahbaz’s point about the power of the Miltablishment. The PMLN vote was significantly eroded by three late developments: the birth of two pro-Miltablishment right wing religious parties that sliced off nearly 10% of the PMLN vote; the “disappearance” of a few core PMLN party workers tasked with galvanizing the voters on election day; and the eruption of over two dozen contenders with a few thousand votes among them that would have gone to the PMLN in normal circumstances.

Now Hamza has gone on TV to acknowledge the political differences in the House of Sharif. But both he and Maryam are now engaged in damage control. Hamza says that these political “differences” do not amount to an unbridgeable rift and he and his father are hoping to persuade Nawaz and Maryam to abandon the path of “confrontation” in the larger national interest. Maryam says she spent a delightful afternoon sipping tea with uncle Shahbaz and cousin Hamza and talk of a family rift is wishful thinking by detractors.

Meanwhile, the Miltablishment remains in an aggressive mood. Having come so far to knock out Nawaz Sharif, it is now silencing the voices of prominent television anchors and channels who are deemed “soft” on Sharif or don’t agree with its “state narrative”. Tactics range from pressurizing cable operators to take troublesome channels off air, calling up channel owners and ordering them to sack critical anchors and attacking dissidents on social media as unpatriotic agents of foreign powers.

Now, in an unprecedented intervention, the army chief has publicly dilated on the “ill-health” of the economy and expressed concern that this is hurting “national security”. Although doomsday scenarios of the economy have been floating around for decades and the situation today is not as bad as on several occasions in the past, this is another damning indictment of the Sharif regime and finance minister Ishaq Dar (he is also in the Miltablishment’s gunsights like his boss Nawaz Sharif). The PMLN prides itself with restoring growth and foreign investment. Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister in charge of CPEC, has aggressively rebutted the charges, while Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister, has hurriedly called a meeting to brief the army chief of the “true” situation and allay his fears. But it may be noted that this Miltablishment “intervention” is no less significant than its intervention some years ago in which unfounded allegations of multi-billion dollar “corruption” of the political elite in Sindh were linked to the growth of “terrorism”, paving the way for the arrest of key aides and confidantes of PPP leader Asif Zardari, the removal of a chief minister and the consolidation of unequivocal Miltablishment sway in the province.

But if the political outlook for Nawaz Sharif is not good, the fact remains that the Miltablishment is in no position to impose martial law or even install a hand-picked “technocratic” regime in Islamabad. The Miltablishment has alienated both mainstream parties PPP and PMLN without ensuring that the PTI will win the next elections or indeed play ball even if it does. In fact, it cannot even depend on the support of the two mainstream religious parties Jamaat I Islami and Jamiat I Ulema Islam. Its efforts to build an anti-Nawaz Forward Bloc in the PMLN are also floundering. Nor can it count on the judiciary to approve any such intervention. Indeed, the prospect of sitting in the hot seat with a bristling international community breathing down its neck must be very unsettling. Under the circumstances, martial law can be ruled out.

A technocratic government is also a non-starter. There is no constitutional way to bring it about or sanction it. The only situation in which it may be theoretically possible with the support of the judiciary is one in which elections have been called, parliament has been dissolved and a neutral federal interim government is in place which can be leaned upon to extend its existence and “clean up” the mess. But this would lead to a breakdown of federal-provincial relations and put unbearable strain on state, economy and society.

The tragedy of the nation is that those who would hold the Sharifs and Zardaris accountable are themselves unaccountable and don’t inspire confidence.

Oct 13

Constellation of forces

Posted on Friday, October 13, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Constellation of forces

Captain (retd) Mohammad Safdar, the son-in-law of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has exploded in the National Assembly on a curious note. Suddenly, seemingly without any personal provocation, he has conjured up a rising “threat to national security” from the banned Ahmadi community. “These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. This situation is heading towards a dangerous point,” he shrieked. He said he wanted to move a resolution in parliament calling for a ban on the recruitment of Ahmadis in the armed forces because they could not be “trusted with guarding the country’s frontiers”.

Whilst on the subject, he took a shot at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for naming its Physics Centre after Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Ahmadi who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an honour that was acknowledged by (Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif in a financial grant of five annual PhD Fellowships for the renamed department.

Captain Safdar is known to be a political maverick. But this time, there seems to be a method in his madness. Several issues may impinge on the content and timing of his parliamentary thunder.

First, consider some facts related to the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. It may be recalled that when the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s self-confessed assassin was sent to the gallows after being on death row for a long time, there was a question mark over who finally prevailed upon the Sharif government to reject his mercy petition and execute him. Some people insist that it was the army chief who finally rolled up his sleeves and went after terrorists and extremists of all shades, including Qadri. Others suggest that Nawaz Sharif did the needful in his bid to appease liberal opinion at home and abroad, even though throughout his political career he had handled such religious extremists with kid gloves, often doing deals with them so that they wouldn’t get in his way. Even at that time, however, Captain Safdar had publicly expressed sympathy with Qadri and his Barelvi ilk, leading to speculation that perhaps he was signalling his father-in-law’s helplessness in the face of the army chief’s demand. Indeed, when Qadri’s first death anniversary rolled around, the Sharif government bent over backwards to appease and channel the surging crowd in Rawalpindi instead of pre-empting a potentially dangerous law and order situation. Under the circumstances – when the Barelvis have banded together under a new political party, chopping off a significant slice of the PMLN’s votes in NA-120 and one particularly incensed ex-army Qadri supporter is openly threatening to assassinate Nawaz Sharif – it would make political and personal sense for someone close to Mr Sharif to express solidarity with the Barelvi sentiment.

Second, consider the fact that Nawaz Sharif’s political experience with hand-picked army chiefs continues to rankle with him. Gen Pervez Musharraf overthrew and exiled him. So he instituted a case of treason against Musharraf when he returned to power. General Raheel Sharif backed Imran Khan’s dharnas to the bitter end. So he shunted the good general off to Saudi Arabia and embarrassed him by leaking information about his “land grabs”. And now it may seem to him that General Qamar Bajwa has not only connived in his disqualification from parliament but is also leaning on other state institutions to finish him off politically. Was it Captain Safdar’s intent, one may wonder, to allude to General Bajwa’s alleged Ahmadi connections in order to put him on the defensive? Certainly, the idea of moving a resolution in Parliament to ban Ahmadis and weed them out from wherever they serve, smacks of some such threat.

If that be the case — and we desperately hope it is not — Captain Safdar may be advised not to play with fire. By putting Pervez Musharraf on trial, Nawaz Sharif created a schism with the army as an institution. That became an unbridgeable gulf when he humiliated Raheel Sharif by exposing his official “greed”. Now Captain Safdar may have sown the seed of personal revenge in the heart of Gen Bajwa by trying to isolate him from his institution. It seems that the good captain has forgotten the fate of two Lt Generals at least who conspired to whip up the “Ahmadi connection” in a bid to stop Gen Bajwa from becoming army chief.

Politics is taking an unprecedentedly dangerous turn. On the one hand, the army is progressively coming out into the open to articulate its policies, extend its ambitions and brandish threats, often at the expense of the elected dispensation and civil society. On the other hand, the civilian order is disintegrating from within because of political rifts, power grabs, economic crises, corruption and mismanagement. In the midst of this developing chaos, the judiciary has spread its wings and unfurled its claws like an avenging bird of prey.

No good can come from this constellation of forces.