Jan 20

Opportunity knocks

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

Opportunity knocks

Pakistan COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani have exchanged messages following a spate of vicious Taliban attacks in Kabul, Kandahar and other Afghan cities. General Bajwa has condemned the attacks and assured President Ghani that Islamabad wants to work with Kabul to uproot the menace of the Taliban without indulging in the “blame game” going forward.

President Ghani has welcomed Gen Bajwa’s “concern” even if he has minced no words in pinpointing safe havens for the Haqqani network in Pakistan’s borderlands as the root cause of his troubles. But he has also reciprocated General Bajwa’s overture by expressing readiness to walk the talk with Pakistan once again. This is a significant gesture, considering that only recently President Ghani was castigating Pakistan for Afghanistan’s worsening fate and bending over backwards to “befriend”, and ally with, India like his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

The irony should not be missed. Much the same sort of mutual eagerness to come to grips with the problem of Taliban terrorism that has afflicted both countries for many years was in evidence when General Raheel Sharif became COAS three years ago and President Ashraf Ghani flew to Islamabad to parley with him while distancing himself from India as a measure of trusting and putting his faith in the Pakistani leadership. So what happened in the last three years to compel President Ghani to lose trust with Pakistan and put his faith in India? Indeed, why has he now decided to backtrack and have another shot at talking to Pakistan?

In December 2013 President Ghani concluded a state visit to Islamabad during which he had a heart-to-heart chat with General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both Pakistani leaders assured him that they would use their leverage with the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Umar to facilitate a serious dialogue with Kabul aimed at negotiating a ceasefire followed by a power sharing agreement that would bring the bloody civil war to an end. The Pakistanis tried to do their bit but their efforts were thwarted by anti-Ghani elements in Afghanistan and India hostile to Pakistan who leaked news of the passing of Mullah Umar much earlier, thereby triggering an internal power struggle within the Afghan Taliban leadership with each faction decrying peace with Kabul by trying to prove its hardline ideological credentials. The proposed reconciliation talks collapsed and Kabul and Islamabad went back to square one by blaming each other for the derailment. Mullah Mansoor succeeded Mullah Umar with the support of Pakistan but soon charted his own anti-Kabul hardline posture in order to consolidate his leadership, thereby putting paid to any leverage Pakistan may have legitimately expected. A measure of Pakistan’s disappointment, possibly even anger, with Mullah Mansoor can be gauged from the fact that he was eliminated on Pakistan territory by an American drone while returning from a trip to Iran using a Pakistani a passport – a feat that could not have been accomplished without close sharing of critical information between the secret intelligence agencies of Pakistan and America.

In consequence, the Afghan Taliban went through an internal metamorphosis. The more the new leadership warmed to Pakistani overtures for reconciliation talks with Kabul, the greater the rate of desertion of hardline Taliban factions from the mainstream and their transformation into offshoots of Islamic State or Daish that began to pose an existential threat also to Pakistan. This compelled a rethink of tactical policy in Islamabad, with consequential frustration and estrangement in Kabul, eventually enabling India to lure President Ghani into its lap again.

Now President Ghani and Pakistan’s military leaders have come full circle. First, President Ghani has realized that, like America, India can’t help him negotiate peace with the Taliban or crush them, regardless of its economic and military clout. Second, the emergence of IS/Daish on both sides of the border puts Islamabad and Kabul in the same boat in which they will have to sink or swim together. General Raheel Sharif’s war on the Pakistani Taliban points the way forward. Third, they realize that providing safe havens to the enemies of the other is a negative sum game for both. Fourth, the Americans and NATO are not pulling out of Afghanistan any time soon, so Kabul is not at the mercy of the Taliban or a pushover for Pakistan. Fifth, US President Donald Trump means to renew serious engagement with Pakistan by “incentivizing” it (money and weapons) no less than the Kabul regime (money and weapons) to help build the framework for reconciliation not just between the Taliban and Kabul but also between Kabul and Islamabad and Islamabad and India.

Going forward, this is a good moment to redress the problems of the region. If it is missed, both Pakistan and Afghanistan will come to suffer even more from terrorism than before. But Pakistan and India will also have to start talking seriously and sincerely so that their proxy wars across the eastern border don’t prick this balloon of opportunity along the western border.

Jan 18

Aapas Ki Baat – 18 January 2017

Posted on Wednesday, January 18, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Jan 17

Aapas Ki Baat – 17 January 2017

Posted on Tuesday, January 17, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Jan 16

Aapas Ki Baat – 16 January 2017

Posted on Monday, January 16, 2017 in Aapas ki baat with Najam Sethi on Geo


Jan 13

Army matters

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

Army matters

The appointment of Gen Qamar Bajwa as COAS seems to have stabilized polity, for the time being at least. He has swiftly moved to stamp his authority on the army by a string of promotions, transfers and postings in the high command. Three decisions, in particular, are noteworthy because they suggest a recalibration of certain policies.

The Karachi Corps commander, Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, has been nominated DGISI and the Sindh DG Rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, has been promoted to Lt Gen and installed in GHQ as Chief of General Staff. The ISPR will henceforth be managed by a Maj Gen, Asif Ghafoor, unlike in the immediate past when a Lt Gen, Asim Bajwa, was running the show.

The nomination of DGISI, like that of the army chief himself, is in the domain of the prime minister. So we can assume a degree of concurrence in this appointment. But it is significant that the outgoing ISI chief, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, has been shunted to the National Defence University instead of being given command of a corps which would have entitled him to sit in the corps commanders meeting and weigh in with his opinion and experience, first as DG Rangers Sindh and then as DGISI. It may be recalled that Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, like his predecessor Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, presided over a turbulent period in civil-military relations, even though no intrusive charges were ever laid at his door by the civilians like they were at that of his predecessor. Clearly, General Qamar Bajwa means to give a freer hand to the new appointees in both these positions to recalibrate respective policies in light of his own perspective.

The promotion and appointment of Lt Gen Bilal Akbar is equally significant. Normally this position of CGS is reserved for the senior most general after the army chief and almost as a stepping-stone for the slot of army chief itself. But in this case a relatively junior general has been put in charge. This means that Gen Qamar Bajwa intends to keep a direct and firm grip on internal army matters, especially promotions and postings. He will also draw comfort from the fact that an expert on the situation in volatile Karachi is always at hand for sensitive input.

The most significant change is in the status of the ISPR. Under COAS General Raheel Sharif, the post was first upgraded from Maj Gen to Lt Gen and then DGISPR Lt Gen Asim Bajwa was given a free hand to manipulate public opinion, often at the expense of the elected government and prime minister, especially when elevating the army chief to rather heroic proportions. This became a source of great tension in civil-military relations. But in the new dispensation, the ISPR will likely revert to a lower profile role under Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, which is the need of the hour. The shunting of Lt Gen Asim Bajwa to the relatively obscure post of Inspector-General Arms at GHQ implies Lt Gen Asim Bajwa won’t be stirring up any further misunderstandings with the government.

All this is for the good. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the controversy that has arisen following reports that Gen Raheel Sharif has accepted a high profile, highly remunerative position as Commander-in-Chief of the 39-country coalition force against Syria, Iran and Iraq cobbled by Saudi Arabia. If true, this is an ill-advised move. Pakistan’s parliament and government have clearly shown their intent to stay clear of any such organization. It also does not behove a newly retiring Pakistan army chief to parachute into such an organization that could create a fierce conflict of national interest. But the government’s handling of this affair hasn’t been too comforting either. At first, Khwaja Asif, the Defense Minister, indicated that the prime minister was in the loop. Then he told the Senate that General Raheel had not obtained an NOC from GHQ or the PMO. Gen Raheel also seemed to backtrack in the face of a public backlash: he has let it be known that he won’t accept the position unless three preconditions are met, one of which is to include Iran into the organization (verily a no no for the Saudis) so that it doesn’t smack of sectarianism. Significantly, this episode has unwittingly drawn attention to the unsavoury practise among retiring generals to clutch at remunerative and sensitive posts with foreign governments. An ex-CJCSC, who also served as DGISI, and another ex-DGISI have been guilty of lining their pecuniary and mundane interests in this manner without any accountability. Two ex-army chiefs, General Pervez Musharraf and General Aslam Beg, have also admitted being beneficiaries of Saudi largesse.

While Gen Qamar Bajwa mulls this backlash, he should also take stock of the social media activists who have “disappeared” on his watch. It doesn’t require rocket science to figure who “disappeared” them. The sooner they are released, unharmed, the better. This is not the way for the new chief to open an innings.