Aug 25

Pakistan: Afghan Problem or Solution?

Posted on Friday, August 25, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan: Afghan Problem or Solution?

President Donald Trump’s belated announcement of his administration’s Afghan Policy is ominous. Never mind that it is an unabashed reversal of his passionate pre-election position to pull out of Afghanistan because it’s not America’s war. Now it’s very much America’s war and there is no option but to win it. This winning is to be done on the basis of a three-pronged strategy.

About 4000-5000 additional US troops will be pumped in to bring the total up to 12,000 or so. With over 60% of Afghan territory in Taliban control, this is peanuts. It won’t even suffice to make Kabul and a couple of other cities immune from Taliban attacks.

India will be asked to help with investments in infrastructure. How does that help in winning a war with an implacable enemy for whom fighting is the natural order of life?

Pakistan will be arm-twisted to abandon an entrenched national security policy that is unacceptable to India and pro-India Afghan regimes. This is to be done by leveraging economic and military aid to Pakistan along with military reprisals against the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Again, there is not much to write home about unless international donor agencies and financial institutions are also pressured to pull out and trade barriers are specifically erected against Pakistani exports to the US. But that risks devaluing social sector development and precipitating an economic crisis that will create a wave of angry, alienated, jobless youngsters ready to pick up arms and join IS or the Taliban against the Great Satan, not just defeating the very purpose of the exercise but creating the preconditions of anti-American state breakdown as in the Middle East. Instead of winning in Afghanistan, this policy risks losing nuclear-armed Pakistan.

There is no recognition of the inherent failures of the Afghan regime to stand up on its own feet and defend itself, let alone concerted efforts to put that house in order. There is no understanding of the developing regional interests of Iran, Russia and China in Afghanistan, let alone efforts to rope them into a collective regional strategy for building peace and stability in Afghanistan.

In fact, the most shocking dimension of the new US Afghan policy is the focus on Pakistan as being part of the main problem rather than part of the solution. If Pakistan were to become part of the solution, the US would need to address its core security concerns regarding India (that have unfortunately been strengthened by the belligerence of the Modi regime) so that peace and stability along our Eastern border can become a platform upon which to stabilize and cement our Western border. How can any country feel secure when one pro-American neighbour disputes its established border with it and another will not let it establish its rightful claims at the time of independence? But Pakistan is part of the problem for the US because India is part of its solution against China while China is part of the solution for Pakistan because India is part of the problem for it.

In short, there isn’t sufficient Bushism in Trumpism to make it a solid military strategy in terms of a troop surge to subdue the Taliban and compel them to start talking peace. But there’s not much Obamaism too in terms of deadlines for troop withdrawal that the Taliban can sit out. But it is Trump’s threatening attitude toward Pakistan that is worrying.

Pakistan can deal with US economic leveraging within limits. It is in neither’s interest to cross certain red lines. Indiscriminate drone strikes in Pakistan’s settled areas will rebound to US disadvantage because Taliban leaders have already dispersed, even to Iran and beyond, to bide their time much as they did after the Tora Bora bombing campaign in 2001. Any border transgressions or hot pursuit will be fiercely resisted by the Pakistan army without distinguishing between American, NATO or Afghan forces. If Salala is repeated by the Americans, the Pakistanis are bound to retaliate. And so on. A tense stalemate would not benefit the Americans but it would provoke angry Pakistanis into terrorist reprisals globally. How will that help America’s war against terrorism?

The stage is being set for exacerbating distrustful and tense relations in the region when all stakeholders should be reaching out for the opposite. Trump’s Afghan policy is likely to worsen Washington’s relations with Pakistan. But Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan will also worsen because both will become more self-righteous and more belligerent on the back of Trump’s assurances and leanings. India and China are already sparring in the high north while Russia and Iran will do their bit to enmesh the Americans further in this quagmire.

Pakistan’s response should be measured and responsible. We are in a hostile situation. Bravado would be counter-productive. Engagement should be the name of the game. A dynamic review of our own national Security policy is urgently required in these circumstances. Above all, the civilian and military leadership should fashion a united front to face this challenge.

Aug 18

Who rules Pakistan?

Posted on Friday, August 18, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Who rules Pakistan?

As Pakistan turns 70, political scientists are trying to fathom the dimensions and implications of a new twist in an old paradigm: who rules Pakistan. Until now the prevailing view was that the civil service and military have jointly exercised power directly or indirectly, with the judiciary serving as a handmaiden, while civilian politicians have intermittently been in office. The distinction between “being in power” and “being in office” was central to the paradigm. Now there seems to be a change in the equation, with the judicial-military bureaucracy co-opting power, and the civil service playing the role of the handmaiden (prominently NAB), while civil politicians vainly struggle to remain in a greatly diminished office.

The Movement for the Restoration of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and his fellow judges of the Supreme Court, culminating in restoration in 2009, had two important consequences. It greatly strengthened the judiciary. But it also politicized it immeasurably. Under Justice Chaudhry, the SC lashed out at a PPP president and two PPP prime ministers. It put the military on the mat for “disappeared” persons in Balochistan and ordered investigations into the financial affairs of the National Logistics Cell run by the military. It pressurized two NAB Chairmen to quit for neglecting to act impartially against ruling politicians. Finally, it broke free from the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy by establishing the doctrine of judicial self-accountability and constitutional supremacy.

After Justice Chaudhry’s departure, the SC has moved to consolidate its political power by two flanking movements. It has signaled its readiness to cooperate rather than conflict with the military establishment. The most obvious case in point is the composition of the Joint Investigation Team led by two powerful military intel agencies. It has decided to target the PMLN prime minister in order to establish its “neutrality” vis a vis both mainstream political parties. It has also decided to take effective control of NAB jointly with the military whose retired officers run it.

The modus operandi of the SC has, however, raised troubling and unprecedented questions in the popular imagination. How did it suddenly come to accept a writ petition by Imran Khan against the Sharifs after the failure of his dharna to overthrow the regime when it had earlier scoffed at it as “rubbish”? Why did it deem it necessary to order the formation of a JIT led by two senior military intel officers when the investigation pertained to money laundering rather than terrorism? Why did it appoint one of the three judges who kicked out the PM to oversee the same premier’s NAB trial in a lower accountability court? Why did it set short time limits for the investigation of the Sharifs in the SC itself and their accountability trial subsequently?

A host of powerful legal questions have also been raised in the five Review Petitions lodged by the ousted prime minister and his family. How the court deals with these will shed further light on its political and legal behavior.

The theory of an imminent “judicial coup” has been doing the rounds for some time. Its proponents have argued that sooner or later the military will nudge the judiciary to center stage because it cannot directly challenge the civil order without openly running afoul of the Constitution. The tipping point probably came when the military was compelled by the force of public opinion and constitutionalism to withdraw its tweet “rejecting” the PM’s notification regarding Dawnleaks. Henceforth, it was decided, a constitutional stick whose legitimacy cannot be questioned should be used to whip the civilians into obeying its “orders”.

If all this is reasonably true, then we can safely predict the turbulence ahead.

Regardless of whether the ousted prime minister’s review petitions are granted relief or not, it is certain that summary NAB proceedings in a lower accountability court will humiliate and then convict the Sharifs and other accused before the scheduled Senate elections next March. The idea is to weaken the ruling Sharif family, and by association, the PMLN so that they cannot threaten the new judicial-military paradigm by winning the Senate elections and making a bid to clip the powers of the SC. Simultaneously, efforts will doubtless be made to try and effect defections from the PMLN so that its ability to mount popular resistance to this “operation” is significantly reduced.

The judiciary’s new role is manifest not just vis a vis PMLN but also PPP. The Sindh High Court has put paid to the Sindh Assembly’s bid to counter NAB with its own accountability mechanism. Ominously enough, a NAB accountability court in Rawalpindi has suddenly woken up to speed up the trail of Asif Ali Zardari in a case of assets without known sources of income.

The Sharifs have realized this impending fate much too late in the day for their own good. But the Zardaris are still posturing with their heads in the sand. The greater tragedy for Pakistan at 70 is that the new “powers-that-be” are as morally and politically bankrupt as the old ones.

Aug 11

Pakistan at 70

Posted on Friday, August 11, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan at 70

As Pakistan turns 70, the cry for “change” becomes ever more shrill and violent. On the surface, it is an angry rally for an end to “corruption” because everyone – young and old, male or female, rich or poor, Sindhi or Punjabi, Shia or Sunni, religious or secular, urban or rural – is morally and politically outraged by it. But the underlying reality of the country is more unsettling. Far from the prospect of a “Pakistani spring” on the wings of the latest troika of judiciary, military and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the “awakening” portends a deepening of the crisis with fearful longer term consequences. Consider.

A British Council survey three years ago indicated the direction of “change” in Pakistan. The country is increasingly “young” and “urban”. Half its citizens are under 20 and over 65 percent are under 30. The population has trebled in fifty years. Another 14 million youth will be eligible to vote in 2018.

Over 94 percent of the youth think the country is headed in the “wrong” direction. Over 80 per cent think their economic position will not improve. Across all divides, pessimism is the defining trait of this next generation “youth bulge”. Violence stalks everyday life. Over 70 percent think life is not safer for Pakistanis compared to the past – Pakistan ranks 149th of 158 countries in the Global Peace Index.

The survey reveals that the greatest source of anxiety for the youth is not terrorism but insecurity of jobs and justice and economic inflation. Only 10 per cent have full time contracted employment.

The report notes that approval rates are lowest for political parties and parliaments. Other institutions – religious, media, military and judiciary – have high approval rates. Less than 30 percent think “democracy” can deliver development and employment whereas nearly 70 percent think military rule and shariah can be better solutions. Nearly 70 percent are conservative/religious. A majority of those with mobile phone access to social media are politicised and want to vote because they think they can “change” the system. Significantly, over 8o percent of countries in which over 60 percent of the population is under 30 years of age like Pakistan are prone to violence and civil conflict because the “system” isn’t delivering expectations of social and economic well-being.

This raises the question of whether forced “regime change” for reasons of selective party-political “corruption” can stem the tide of insecurity, violence and pessimism in the body politic of Pakistan.  The empirical evidence suggests that corruption has not declined despite recurring “regime change” of “corrupt governments” in the last seventy years of independent Pakistan. In fact, corruption has not abated despite alternating civil-democratic and military-dictatorship rule in the country. Indeed, regime change in the current circumstances based on the aspirations and reactions of the religious-conservative youth bulge that favours military-judiciary rule will sound the death knell of Pakistan.

The “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is a good yardstick by which to measure the nature of “change” prompted by the youth bulge. Instead of delivering a dividend in the form of a democratic system that spurred economic growth, security and stability, one after the other the countries of the ME succumbed to dictatorship, anarchy, religious civil war, foreign intervention and state breakdown, transforming the anticipated “Spring” into a “Winter of discontent”. Given the social and political propensities of the youth bulge in Pakistan, this route for change will destroy Pakistan too.

Nearly 15 million youngsters, most of whom are conservative, unemployed and angry, will be added to the voting list in 2018. If they veer to the religio-fascist right at the instigation of unelected state institutions whose own record of delivering jobs or justice is abysmal, the country will inch closer to renewed violence, instability and separatism. But if they are accommodated within the “corrupt” democratic system, Pakistan still has a chance of reinventing a new democracy that is better able to cope with the demands for state security and economic welfare.

It is, of course, true that political parties and their dynastic leaders are no less culpable for the dysfunctional state of Pakistan’s economy and democracy than military coup-makers and their judicial legitmizers. However, what is interesting in the current quagmire is the political contest between an old party of the conservative-right that was midwifed by the military and judiciary but is now shifting to the centre and trying to become autonomous of both state institutions and a new party of the same leanings and origins that is swinging further right on the basis of the youth bulge and dependence on the same state institutions.

Under the circumstances, the current political crisis that is pegged to “corruption” and regime change is actually about the direction in which Pakistan is headed in a contest between imperfectly democratic, centrist but corrupt political regimes and equally corrupt but violent, religio-fascist autocracies that are a recipe for anarchy and state breakdown as in the Middle East.

Aug 4

Collective wisdom

Posted on Friday, August 4, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Collective wisdom

If perceptions are more important than reality in the popular imagination, then the perception that Nawaz Sharif is corrupt is dogged by the perception that he has been targeted for punishment. The perception that the Sharifs did not come clean before the JIT is tarred by the perception that the JIT was rigged against them. The perception that there was no escape from a proper accountability trial in the proper criminal forum as ordered, is blotted by Mr Sharif’s disqualification for life on a questionable application of Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution based on contrary definitions of law and mistaken interpretations of statements made by members of the Sharif family. Consider.

The judges say that Mr Sharif is not “sadiq” and “ameen” because he made a false statement before the Election Commission when he didn’t declare his unreceived salary or income from a UAE company as an “asset”. The problem is that, under Pakistani law, as every tax practitioner will swear, individuals (unlike private and public limited companies or partnerships) are not required to list “receivable income” (other than contracted rent) as income subject to income tax in their personal tax returns. Nor is such unreceived income treated as an asset. But the judges made the unprecedented leap from “income” to “asset” on the basis of a definition in a dictionary rather than the established and practiced tax law in the country. Indeed, the perception of a populist bias has gained currency because there is no mandated or specific constitutional requirement to disqualify him for life.

It has also been pointed out that the statements of various members of the Sharif family, notably that of Mr Sharif in parliament, are open to interpretations and conclusions quite different from those made by the JIT and judges. This suggests that these do not necessarily contradict one another or any of the documents or subsequent arguments and statements made by them.

The appointment of a judge of the three-member tribunal to oversee the trial in a NAB court is unprecedented. It also raises serious concern about the ability and willingness of a judge of a lower court to exercise independence of judgement when he is constantly looking over his shoulder at the senior SC judge supervising the process.

The SC decision to set a time frame for the whole legal process in this case involving several accused to end in six months is also unprecedented. Unlike the JIT investigating the charges, which couldn’t complete the job satisfactorily in 60 days and left Vol 10 of its report hanging in mid-air, this is a trail court which is obliged to give sufficient time for all to collect and present evidence and for the evidence to be challenged and debated. This would suggest a decision before the general elections next year that would tilt the scales one way or another, an act that could be classified as controversially political rather than legal in nature and consequence.

It is significant that, in the process of setting new precedents of far reaching consequences for state and society, some of the honourable judges have overturned their own earlier legal opinions and judgements, notably in reference to Articles 62 and 63. This has strengthened the unfortunate perception that populism is influencing the judgments of the apex court.

Understandably, therefore, the debate is shifting to more substantial issues related to the role and powers of the SC.Why are the judges, like the military, unaccountable to parliament? Why is the SC increasingly offering its platform as a court of first appeal when there is no significant and due process of appeal against its judgments in such cases? Are these manifestations of a creeping “judicial coup” against the letter and spirit of the Constitution in which both due process of law and accountability of all, subject to checks and balances are deeply enshrined? Are the judges to a man all “sadiq” and “ameen” themselves so that they can fairly determine who is “sadiq” and “ameen” among the 240 million populace of Pakistan?

Given the logic of the situation and legal reservations, Imran Khan and Jehangir Tareen too cannot escape the same fate. There are similar holes in accounts of their money trails. Indeed, if Asif Zardari is investigated, he too will have a hard time surviving the wrath of this sort of law. We may further agree that if petitions are lodged against parliamentarians of all sides by all sides demanding investigations of money trails and assets and written-off loans to justify lifestyles and incomes, there won’t be a parliament to talk of in the country and the stage will be set for dictatorial unaccountable disorder.

There is still time to stop this slide into anarchy. Eminent neutral opinion holds that a full SC should consider an appeal against the judgement to disqualify Nawaz Sharif on the basis of powerful qualifications and considerations presented here. The righteous outrage of the five judges should be tempered with the collective legal wisdom of all the 17 judges of the Supreme Court.