Jan 22

Pathankot fallout

Posted on Friday, January 22, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Pathankot attack by Jaish-e-Muhammad jihadis based in Punjab, Pakistan, has pushed Indian and Pakistani leaders to try and salvage a dialogue to normalise relations. This followed a meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries recently in Lahore. Both sides say that the foreign secretary talks on the full range of issues confronting them, especially on terrorism, originally scheduled for 15 January, 2016, have been postponed pending a report by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by Pakistan. The soft “postponement” is a significant departure from past practice when an incident like this would have led to outright cancellation.

This time, too, both sides have been careful to send out the right signals to each other about their sincerity in trying to normalise. The Pakistanis have told the Indians that JM’s leader Masud Azhar and some of his lieutenants have been detained and the Punjab home minister, Rana Sanaullah, says the inquiry report of the SIT will be made public. The Indians say they have handed over details of the terrorists to the Pakistanis, including voice samples and transcripts of their conversations with their handlers in Pakistan, and will allow the SIT to visit the Pathankot air base in connection with the inquiry.

For both countries, these decisions weren’t easy to make. The Pakistani military establishment has rarely ticked off the jihadi organisations, let alone detain their leaders, because they see them as strategic assets in the asymmetric military equation with India pending a long term settlement of the core dispute of Kashmir. Even during the regime of General Pervez Musharraf, the likes of Masud Azhar weren’t detained, despite evidence that JM activists had a role to play in the two assassination attempts on Musharraf’s life. The Indians, too, have bent over backwards not to fling the usual accusations at the Pakistani military for sabotaging the peace process. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unusually remarked that he will not allow vested interests in Pakistan and nay sayers in India to dissuade him from continuing on the track of normalisation. In side-lining the Indian defense and home ministers, Manohar Parrikar and Ragnath Singh respectively, from making Pakistan policy – both had publicly opposed the proposed visit by the Pakistani SIT to Pathankot — Modi has sent out a powerful message. He has signalled his determination to move forward in the company of the Indian “establishment” led by NSA Ajit Doval, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar.

Nonetheless, the Pathankot incident cannot be brushed away easily by Pakistan. If the Pakistanis don’t quickly deliver concrete results to show their seriousness of purpose against the jihadis who perpetrated the attack, the Indians will revert to their traditional angry stance of distrust and hostility and the international community will side with them. The Mumbai inquiry and prosecution of Lashkar-e-Taiba activist Zaki ur Rahman Lakhvi is still pending in Pakistan with both sides accusing the other of lack of cooperation. Pakistan cannot now afford to take the same positions on the Pathankot attack without alienating world opinion and exposing its hypocrisy.

This is going to be a tough act for Pakistan to follow. While the jihadi tap has been officially closed for infiltration across the border into Kashmir since 2004 — when the military establishment under General Pervez Musharraf began to toy with out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir — the jihadi organisations in Punjab and Azad Kashmir are very much alive, with hardliners splintering away to join the Taliban or launch attacks on their own against India as in Mumbai in 2008 and recently Gurdaspur and Pathankot. The establishment policy has been to keep a lid on these organisations under their existing leaders in order to maintain leverage. Any attempt to forcibly disband them or making sweeping arrests would have led to an armed revolt within these organisations against their pro-establishment leaders, with dangerous consequences for a military that already has its hands full containing terrorists from the TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and IS, separatist insurgents in Balochistan, and criminal mafias in Karachi. The recent attack on Peshawar’s Bacha Khan University is a tragic and grim reminder of the enormity of the task at hand.

Under the circumstances, India needs to understand and appreciate the difficulties that beset the Pakistani military as it tries to steer Pakistan out of the clutches of its self-created Frankensteins in order to cope with their unintended consequences. But the Pakistani military cannot expect to get the benefit of the doubt from India and the international community without taking some tough measures. Regardless of its avowed inability to frontally “take on” the jihadi organisations, some concrete action must be taken against their hardliners who continue to create serious problems for state and society, along the lines of the calibrated action taken against the LJ. Indeed, any attempt to soft pedal or obfuscate the Pathankot incident like the Mumbai incident is only going to increase distrust and hostility in India and the international community and rebound on Pakistan.

Jan 15

The Man on Horseback

Posted on Friday, January 15, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Chief Of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif continues to hog the headlines. He is the point man in all the significant policy decisions taken by the Nawaz Sharif government on domestic and international issues. What General Sharif says and does is critical. Without the military’s practical input, many core issues cannot be resolved satisfactorily.

There are two pressing domestic issues: the war against terrorism and the war against corruption. If it hadn’t been for General Sharif, we would still have been pussy footing with the Taliban in FATA and the urban terrorist-criminal mafias in Karachi. On both counts he has led from the front and the PMLN government has followed. Indeed, the military under his leadership has acted in an unprecedentedly mature manner to stabilize polity. His predecessor, General Ashfaq Kayani, had either been too pusillanimous in not taking on the Taliban or too aggressive in destabilizing the PPP regime. The fact of the matter also is that if it hadn’t been for General Sharif, the hawkish remnants of the ancient military regime would have succeeded in toppling the PMLN government via Imran Khan’s dharnas in 2014. Now the general has moved forward on cleaning up his own stables. NAB has been advised to investigate land scams in DHA, some of which allegedly involve the brothers of General Kayani. This too is unprecedented. Charity for the “sacred cow” is seemingly beginning at home.

There are three pressing international issues: Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan and attempts to bring the civil war there to an end before its blowback irrevocably drowns Pakistan in a tidal wave of extremist Islam; Pakistan’s relations with India and attempts to smoke the peace pipe before proxy warring derails the main domestic agendas at hand; and Pakistan’s relations with the “Muslim” world and attempts to remain neutral before sectarian wars drag it into an orgy of bloodshed and disintegration. On each, General Sharif has acted with wisdom and courage and advised the PMLN government accordingly.

It is largely through General Sharif’s efforts that a quadrilateral commission comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US has been established to facilitate the process of an Afghan-led Afghan-owned solution to the civil war. This will serve to reduce the bickering between the Pakistani and Afghan intelligence services and governments about the responsibility and ability of each to deliver its part of the bargain. It will also facilitate a regional approach to the problem of terrorism, replacing the failed bilateral dialogues.

General Sharif’s input is also critical to the Indo-Pak dialogue. Everyone knows, and the Indians have long argued, that all the commitments of civilian governments in Pakistan amount to naught without full military backing. But with the appointment of General (retd) Naseer Janjua as Pakistan’s national security advisor on the advice of General Sharif, the Indians will get what they see and hear. That is why the NSAs of both countries are clearing the strategic decks for the formal bureaucracies in the ministries to get cracking on the tactical details. Indeed, one reason why the recent terrorist attack on India’s Pathankot air base by allegedly Pakistan-based terrorists hasn’t derailed the proposed talks agenda is because the NSAs are in contact to anticipate and act to remove the bumps in the road. Indeed, it is as unprecedented for the Indians to say they will not allow vested interests in Pakistan to succeed by such divisive tactics as it is for the Pakistanis to say that they will take immediate action against Pakistani non-state claimants of responsibility for the attack in order to reassure the other side that they mean to pursue conflict-resolution seriously and sincerely. The arrests of Jaish-e-Mohammad activists in southern Punjab, again an unprecedented act, are aimed at signaling the resolve of the military establishment to push the peace process vigorously with India.

General Sharif has also played a pivotal role in making sure that Pakistan stays clear of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East provoked by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni state allies. Left to his own devices, for both personal and economic reasons, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would have found it impossible to resist inducements and pressure to join the Saudi quest for forcible regime change in Syria and Iran and direct military intervention in Yemen. No military ruler in the past has had the courage to stand up to the Saudis or resist the lure of their lucre. But we have managed to retain their goodwill while extracting billions worth of export orders for munitions and internal security contingents.

General Sharif’s success lies in establishing a good working relationship with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. This civil-military balance is the key to national security. On all these issues, however, it is the military establishment that has altered some of its core assumptions and paradigms. The credit must go to General Raheel Sharif for nudging his institution to become part of the solution instead of being wedded to the past when it has frequently been part of the problem.

Jan 8

The Saudi Conundrum

Posted on Friday, January 8, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The House of Saud is flexing its muscle in the Middle East and beyond. After the installation of a pro-US Shi’ite regime in Iraq in 2003, it extended support to the Sunni opposition led by Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Following the Arab spring in 2011-12, it intervened aggressively in Syria by supporting extremist Sunni forces against the Baathist regime. Last year, it went into Yemen all guns blazing against the Shi’ite Houthis. Last week it executed Nimr-al-Nimr, a Shi’ite cleric in its eastern oil rich Shi’ite province for demanding greater rights. Now it has severed diplomatic relations with Iran for protesting Nimr’s execution.

Saudi Arabia has cobbled a 34 nation Sunni alliance against Shi’ite “terrorism” and is pressurising Islamabad for material support. How should Pakistan respond?

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran were once, like Pakistan, US-partners in the cold war against Soviet communism. But after the Iranian revolution in 1979, they became sworn enemies when the Saudis backed Saddam Hussain’s war with Iran for a decade in the 1980s. Pakistan wisely stayed out of the conflict, but Iran was cool, suspecting Islamabad of being a Trojan horse for the Saudi-American conspiracy to overthrow the Iranian regime. In 1987, there were riots during Hajj in which over 400 Shi’ite Iranians were killed, provoking Iranian mobs to attack the Saudi embassy in Teheran and compelling the Saudis to cut diplomatic relations with Iran after it began to threaten the oil lanes in the Gulf. Relations improved for a while under the moderate Iranian regime of President Hashmi Rafsanjani in the 2000s but nosedived again following reports of Iranian attempts to build a nuclear bomb. The Saudis then went so far as to encourage the US and Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear installations even as the international community was desperately trying to avoid inflaming the Middle East by negotiating a nuclear freeze with Teheran. Hajj riots in 2015 in which over 2000 people were killed, including over 400 Iranians, strained relations once again. Why is Saudi Arabia so anti-Shia?

The problem lies at home. The oil rich eastern seaboard provinces of Saudi Arabia are overwhelmingly Shi’ite. Since the Iranian revolution they have been emboldened to demand greater freedom and economic rights from the House of Saud. Instead of pacifying them, the House of Saud has chosen to opt for repression at home and military dominance and intervention in the region against Shi’ites. It has also unleashed its extremist Wahhabi clergy and ideology against Shi’ism all over the world. In short, the House of Saud has irrevocably embarked on a strategy to fuel a sectarian war in the region and beyond.

Until now, the Saudi influence in Pakistan has been limited to funneling money to extremist Sunni mullahs, mosques and non-state actors/groups. The jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan was exclusively led by Sunni groups and parties. The Saudis were active partners with Pakistan in recognizing the Sunni Taliban regime in 1997 and only backed off when the Taliban openly lent support to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda that was hostile to the Faustian bargain between the House of Saud and the USA – oil for Sunni-Wahhabi ideology. The backlash of these policies manifested itself in the rise of anti-Shia militias and Lashkars in Pakistan which eventually extended their tentacles and alliances into the domain of Al Qaeda, Taliban and now ISIS.

This has created a potentially volatile situation in Pakistan. The government of Nawaz Sharif has been prodded by the military under General Raheel Sharif to unfurl a National Action Plan to combat all forms of terrorism, including sectarianism, that pose an existential threat to state and society. According to General Sharif, sectarian-IS poses the greatest danger to Pakistan and the military will not allow it to take root. Therefore the military is encouraging the PMLN government to resort to extra judicial measures to degrade and eliminate the sectarian Lashkars. It is in this context of its geo-strategic sectarian agenda that any Pakistani alliance or cooperation with the House of Saud must be seen.

The Sharif government has wisely stayed out of the conflict in Yemen despite Saudi pressure because it was able to hold a debate in parliament that demonstrated a national consensus against any such interventionism that could lead to terrible sectarian backlash at home. Now it is on the horns of another dilemma when faced with the challenge of reconciling its long-term friendship and economic interests in Saudi Arabia with the grim prospects of dealing with the sectarian challenge at home that is bound to get a fillip if Pakistan enters the anti-Shia alliance brokered by the Saudis.

Pakistan must not get embroiled in the sectarian wars of the Middle-East. We are already facing problems on both borders with India and Afghanistan. Extreme Sunni ideologies are undermining our state and society. It is time to look inward and consolidate our gains in the war against extremism instead of renting ourselves out again to foreign powers for short term material gains.

Jan 1

Outlook for 2016

Posted on Friday, January 1, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has survived three critical crises this year. If the Judicial Commission had held adversely against him, he would have had to leave office and order fresh elections. If the PTI had swept the local body elections in Punjab he would have had to face another round of allegations that the 2013 elections were stolen from the PTI, thereby giving Imran Khan a popular impetus to start a fresh round of dharnas in Punjab with the help of his newly elected grass roots supporters. If he hadn’t managed to keep the civil-military relationship on an even keel despite signs of turbulence in Sindh and on the borders with India and Afghanistan, he would have been seriously destabilized. Can he reckon on better prospects in 2016?

There is no doubt about it. He will have to contend with a fresh round of challenges that will test his political skills.

The civil-military relationship remains problematic. There are three major dimensions in this. First, the military wants a free hand to deal with Afghanistan, India and America. It wants Mr Sharif to keep signing on the dotted line on each item. So far, he hasn’t objected. But he is keener than the military to smoke the peace pipe with India. He believes that his agenda for economic growth and peoples’ welfare cannot be obtained without a peace dividend from India. On several occasions he has tripped over in his rush to offer the hand of “friendship” to Narendra Modi, only to be rebuked discreetly by the brass. Now his “friendship” with Indian steel magnate Sajjan Jindal is raising eyebrows in Rawalpindi and provoking the generals to grumble about “personal business interests” interfering with the “national interest”. Mr Sharif must make sure that in courting Mr Modi he is not too far out of step with GHQ unless he can demonstrate diplomatic success.

Second, the military also wants a free hand in dealing with terrorism. It is openly critical of the PMLN government’s inability or unwillingness to deliver on the political and economic dimensions of the National Action Plan. These include madrassah reforms and regulation; identifying and freezing sources of terrorist funding; beefing up investigation, prosecution, and judge/witness protection programs; FATA reforms; IDP rehabilitation; and so on. In Sindh, the military wants to include “criminal mafias” in its definition of terrorists, meaning politicians who aid, abet, harbour, protect or fund terrorists. This has seriously unnerved the PPP Sindh government and pitted it against the military and the federal government that is siding with it. In consequence, Mr Asif Zardari is cooling his heels in self-exile while his buddy Dr Asim Hussain is in the clink. If this issue is not resolved to the satisfaction of both the military and the PPP, the major loser will be Nawaz Sharif. He can’t afford to antagonise the military and he can’t afford to alienate the PPP and push it in the corner of the MQM and PTI. That would block legislation in the Senate and create an unmanageable and continuous ruckus in the National Assembly. It could even lead to a boycott of parliament by all three at some stage and make the PMLN vulnerable to the infection of conspiracy theories all over again.

Third, the military also wants to deal directly with the Afghan and American governments on how to help stabilise Afghanistan without enabling India to gain a firmer foothold in Kabul. It has finally come round to the idea of a “regional approach” to Afghanistan. This includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and America but not India. Presumably, Washington and Kabul will try and look after Indian interests. But this will not appease India and it may continue to muddy the waters. With the Taliban and Al-Qaeda resurging in Afghanistan, ISIS hovering in the wings and the Afghan government riven by squabbling over power sharing that is undermining its ability to fight the Taliban, the outlook for the “quadrilateral conference” is not bright. Without stabilising Afghanistan by degrading the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan will remain a target of terrorism, eroding prospects for stability and economic growth.

Mr Sharif thinks his major civilian challenge is to provide electricity to the people and energy to industry. True, but the critical factor here is the cost of this power. As things stand, even with zero power cuts by 2017, industry won’t be able to afford the high cost of power; it will lose its competitiveness in international markets and will have to cut down on production and jobs. But Mr Sharif needs to create jobs for 3 million youngsters every year. Without a radical reform of the tax structure and reprioritizing economic policy, which Mr Sharif is loath to undertake, there are no solutions.

Therefore, no “breakthroughs” are forecast on the economic and foreign policy fronts. More “muddling along” is the recipe for 2016. But another Model Town incident or breakdown in Sindh or repeat of Mumbai across the LoC could shake up the PMLN regime.

Dec 24

Politics of sub-nationalisms

Posted on Thursday, December 24, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The military establishment is in no mood to give any quarter to the MQM and PPP in Sindh. It kicked off its anti-terrorist operations earlier in the year by targeting MQM activists, provoking howls of protest from Altaf Hussain and his lieutenants. Then it lodged a case against all top MQM leaders in an anti-terrorist court. The PMLN federal government weighed in by including the name of Altaf Hussain in the Imran Farooq murder case. The PPP was next in line for allegedly harbouring, aiding and abetting terrorist funding, provoking Asif Zardari to explode against the generals. But the military remained undeterred. When the federal government refused to stop NAB from reopening graft cases against him, Mr Zardari thought discretion to be the better part of valour and fled the country. Matters came to a head four months ago when the military arrested Dr Asim Hussain, the minister-right hand man of both Asif Zardari and Altaf Hussain, and leaned on him to implicate both leaders in terrorism related activities.

The military is operating in the province through the Sindh Rangers on the basis of Constitutional Article 147 that requires the federal government to seek the permission of the Sindh government before enabling such anti-terror military operations under the Anti-Terrorism federal law. Owing to such tensions, the PPP government has become increasingly reluctant to sanction carte blanche rights to the Rangers, especially when such powers may be used against the government’s top dog administrators, politicians and allies in the province. A way out was seemingly found in the establishment of an “Apex Committee” to vet all actions by the Rangers. But this hasn’t worked because the military is not prepared to dilute its operations on the basis of any “political” considerations. Unfortunately, however, its foray into the domain of “corruption” has not earned it any laurels because it doesn’t have the legal expertise to prosecute such crimes and prove its charges. A tug of war has ensued: the military wants to keep Dr Asim Hussain in custody and proceed against him in an anti-terror court but the PPP government wants to set him free. Inevitably, the political battle has spilled over into the courts. When the provincial government refuses to act on the advice of the Rangers, the military establishment takes recourse to the judges of the anti-terror court and high court of Sindh. Now the stage is set for high noon.

Piqued, the Sindh government has extended the application of Constitutional Provision 147 to the Rangers writ in the province on two conditions: it is only for two months, and it bars the Rangers specifically from targeting the government’s political assets and allies. But the military establishment has refused to accept any restrictions on the Rangers’ course of action and the federal government has rejected the conditional summary while notifying the two months extension. Its argument is that the provincial government cannot interfere into the application and provisions of the federal anti-terror law.

So the ball is back in the PPP’s court. It can either petition the judges to strike down the federal government’s action in rejecting its conditional summary; or it can altogether revoke its permission under Article 147 that is enabling the Rangers to act; or it can huff and puff and threaten to pull the House down by joining hands with the MQM and PTI to destabilize the PMLN government in Islamabad.

The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, is seemingly unbending. He claims that if the Sindh government doesn’t play ball he will recourse to other options. One such is to invoke Article 149 of the constitution that doesn’t require provincial approval for any federal action or order in the national interest. A more naked federal intervention is allowed by Article 245 that expressly protects all actions of the military in any area from the normal application of the writ jurisdiction of the high courts, a sort of martial law under a civilian umbrella. Governor’s Rule is a third option. But all these are beset with serious political problems and constitutional hurdles. All also imply a rupture in the current difficult political equilibrium among the political parties and between the civilians and the military. None of the stakeholders can afford this. So what is the way forward?

The Rangers should focus on purely anti-terrorist operations and refrain from attacking the core interests and assets of mainstream political parties which have been reinforced by the recent local body election results. The Sindh government should not get into a tangle with the military and federal government, nor unreasonably obstruct the anti-terrorist operation. The federal government must step in and restrain both sides from digging their heels in and massaging their egos.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has a very important role to play in charting the way forward. If he doesn’t engineer a compromise between the military and Sindh parties, he will be the biggest loser of all in the constitutional and political crisis that will inevitably follow.