Jan 30

Musharraf’s candour

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is endearingly candid. In a series of interviews since he relinquished office, he has revealed many nuggets of information and analysis. For instance, at the height of the anti-drone sentiment in the public in 2013 when the government was pretending to be opposed to the drones and the Foreign Office was churning out protests, he calmly admitted that he had secretly given permission to the CIA to use drones in the war against terrorism. He has also rued the NRO deal with Benazir Bhutto because it became a bone of contention with the judiciary and destabilized Pakistan. He laid part responsibility on the Chaudhrys of Gujrat who advised him to concede the NRO but retain the constitutional restriction on anyone becoming prime minister for a third time (doubtless because it suited their political careers).

Now, in a refreshing analysis, he criticizes his handpicked successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, for not going after the Taliban in Waziristan and contrasts General Kayani’s reticence, which has damaged Pakistan, with the bold and decisive manner in which his successor, General Raheel Sharif, has acted. “You see, the main issue is that when a government is inactive, it requires an army chief to go and coax it into action. That’s what [Gen] Raheel has done. So either Gen Kayani was scared or too reticent or too reserved. He didn’t want to go and discuss this matter.”

He contrasted General Kayani’s attitude with his own while he was still giving the orders: “We acted against Fazlullah and defeated him. Peaceful elections were held in 2008. The turnout was good. The Awami National Party — and not religious parties — came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And then Fazlullah was allowed to return and set on fire 13 girls schools. He had the tourist resort in Malam Jabba torched. No action was taken till he crossed the Shangla Hills and almost blocked the Karakoram Highway. When there was international hue and cry that the militants were only 100 miles away from Islamabad, then they woke up… The army was clear in its views as a whole. They wanted action, even in Kayani’s days. Kayani has to be asked why he did not act [against the terrorists].”

That, of course, is the central question. It becomes all the more necessary to get an answer because General Kayani clearly recognized the danger from the Taliban whom he described in a significant speech to passing out cadets as “an existential threat” to the country. In fact, Gen Kayani went so far as to argue that the internal threat of “Islamic” terrorism was far more potent than the external threat (of India), a statement that some viewed as signalling a “paradigm change” in the central strategic vision of the military. Indeed, there was a time when he was on the verge of launching operations against the TTP but pulled back at the last minute after senior American officials let it be known publicly that they had met him and urged him to take military action. It was speculated that he began to drag his feet because he didn’t want to be seen as doing “America’s bidding” in an extremely anti-American environment in Pakistan. In consequence, General Kayani’s inaction for six years enabled the TTP to grow strong and exact thousands of civilian and military casualties, a terrible harvest we are reaping today. This “inaction” also alienated General Kayani from Pakistanis and Americans alike.

General Musharraf has insightful advice to give those who, like the MQM, are clamouring for martial law as the solution to Pakistan’s problems of terrorism. “I don’t think there should be martial law… Pakistan is facing the worst situation in its history. The economy is not doing well. Terrorism is in all the provinces. It has never been this bad. The army is a fall back force in the country. We, in the military, call it a ‘force in being’. Its potential consists in being. If you use it or consume it, it’s gone. If you were to use the military, and suppose in the present situation of turmoil, they are unable to rectify the socio-economic ills of Pakistan, you’d have consumed this fall back force.”

Of course, Gen Musharraf didn’t take his own advice in 1999 when there was no national crisis in the country and he and his colleagues seized power only because their own military careers were on the line following their disastrous adventure in Kargil.

Meanwhile, the government of Nawaz Sharif would do well to heed Musharraf’s words regarding General Raheel Shareef’s decisive moves and action-oriented globe trotting. “It’s not he who’s doing that, it’s those countries who are giving him that stature. The army is the only stabilising institution in Pakistan. That is why they give importance to the military chief. Especially when they also see the degree of bad governance going on [by the civilians)… Look, international relations largely depend on personalities. Agar aap nay ja kay kookro ban kay baith jana hai, to aap ko kya importance milay gi.”

Jan 23

Humpty Dumpty

Posted on Friday, January 23, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The TTP and LeJ aren’t the only ones bombing and terrorizing the people of Pakistan. The PMLN government, it seems, is quite adept at tormenting the people too, the recent “petrol bomb” being a case in point.

Since the government wields monopolistic control over the import, regulation and supply of fuel through the Ministry of Petroleum (MoP), Oil and Gas Development Authority (OGRA) and Pakistan State Oil (PSO), the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has pinned responsibility for the criminal mismanagement of petrol supplies in the country on senior officials and bureaucrats in the three departments. But the petroleum and finance ministers have gone scot free despite evidence of negligence and culpability.  Consider.

PSO, which imports the fuel and sells it to private and public sector entities that refine and sell it as petrol or produce electricity from it, is cash strapped because it is owed over Rs 200 billion by various government entities like WAPDA, PIA, KAPCO, etc. Therefore it couldn’t import adequate supplies in December and January. It begged the MoP to request the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to clear its debt. But the two ministers, Khaqan Abbasi and Ishaq Dar, were either squabbling (Dar has nominated an advisor to the MoP without Abbasi’s approval) or too busy doing their own thing (Dar is jetting around the world negotiating loans and aid and launching bonds while Abbasi is upgrading his privately owned Air Blue airline). Both gentlemen were summoned by the prime minister to explain their conduct. Abbasi argues that a spike in consumer demand in January owing to a reduction in petrol prices created the problem. He also claims he was helpless because Dar controls the purse strings and hasn’t responded to several SOS messages sent by PSO and MoP to clear dues of about Rs 50 billion. Dar claims he coughed up Rs 17.5 billion in January but cannot continuously be expected to bail out all the public sector enterprises that are caught in the vicious circle of circular debt caused by their inefficiency and corruption and also abide by the terms and conditions of the aid donors to cut expenditures and reduce the fiscal deficit.

Whatever the merit of their explanations, the public is mad as hell. At the very least, it wants ministerial heads to roll. But that’s not the way the prime minister and Punjab chief minister work. When something goes wrong, the fall guys are always bureaucrats, never ministers. One reason is the overt reliance of the Sharifs on the bureaucracy, rather than the ministers, to run government. Another is the abysmal level of incompetence of most ministers in the cabinet. This is a direct consequence of the prime ministerial system of government that compels the prime minister to appoint parliamentarians (whose “expertise” is limited to buying votes and excelling at corrupt practices) to the cabinet rather than the best subject-experts and technocrats available in the market as under a directly elected presidential system.

In essence, the PMLN government has inherited the problem of circular debt in the energy sector from the Zardari government that didn’t address it in time. But it is also true to say that the Zardari government was caught unawares by the spike in oil prices and the shortsightedness of the previous Shaukat Aziz/Musharraf regime that didn’t enhance the capacity of the energy sector despite a growing economy. The people chucked out Asif Zardari’s PPP at the last elections because of mismanaging the economy in general and electricity shortages in particular. Now they are not likely to forget or forgive Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN in a hurry for the continuing “load-shedding” and petrol shortages.

Many months have passed since Mr Sharif promised to “audit” the performance of the ministers. But the government is still stumbling from crisis to crisis, in the process discrediting one minister after another. Khwaja Asif and Nisar Ali Khan are already on the mat for the deterioration of civil military relations and internal security respectively. Rana Shahnawaz and Shabaz Sharif cannot shake off the Model Town massacre. Ishaq Dar and Khaqan Abbasi have now been tarred by the energy crisis. But, at the end of the day, the buck stops at the prime minister. This is his “dream team” and it has become a “nightmare”. Come election time, and he will have to pay for the sins of omission and commission of his ministers, just like Asif Zardari did for those of his two prime ministers. Incompetence and inefficiency, no less than corruption, is now in the gun sights of the public.

To be sure, Mr Sharif has survived Imran Khan’s destabilizing “dharna”. And he has finally pulled out all the stops to try and deal with the menace of terrorism. But it is the health of the economy that impinges on the suffering and welfare of the people. If Mr Sharif doesn’t pull up his ministers quickly, all the MOUs and IMFs won’t be able to stop Humpty Dumpty on the wall from having a great fall!

Jan 16

Sharifs’ Troika

Posted on Friday, January 16, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister in charge of anti-terrorism policy and operations, recently told the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, that the number of terrorist organizations in Punjab alone had risen from 60 to nearly 100 in recent years because the government had been lax in monitoring and putting them down. This has nudged the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, to shift the Punjab National Action Plan Committee against sectarianism and terrorism into high gear by meeting the Lahore Corps Commander and other high military officials in order to coordinate civil-military action. This shows a seriousness of purpose that we have not seen before in Punjab.

Much the same attitude is now evident in Islamabad. The prime minister is reported to hold a daily meeting of core officials tasked with implementing the National Action Plan. The newspapers confirm a degree of action on the ground already – the police is trying, however haphazardly, to crack down on the illegal use of loudspeakers in mosques, on printing presses and distributors involved in spreading hate material, and even in arresting or detaining religiously-motivated groups or persons who are disrupting the local peace on one pretext or another. The howls of protest from vested religio-politico interests are testimony of this new found will in the Punjab administration. In the meanwhile, there is no let-up in the drive to execute convicted terrorists – along with a few other sectarian terrorists, Akram Lahori, who was convicted of killing an Iranian diplomat in Multan many years ago, was sent to the gallows. The Punjab government had dragged its feet on his execution because it had succumbed to the threat of a violent backlash from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

If it looks like the Sharif brothers have finally decided to bite the bullet, the new army chief, General Raheel Sharif, also seems determined to attack and degrade the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Apart from launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA, he has persuaded the Afghan and American governments to lend a helping hand in targeting and degrading TTP activists in safe havens along the Pak-Afghan border areas. This is no small achievement. The Afghans and the Americans had accused the Pakistani military of running with the hare and hunting with the hound in a “double game” and were not inclined to trust and help the ISI. Indeed, in a parting kick before retirement two years ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, had accused the ISI of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network”. His allegation acquired much import because he was billed as a great supporter of the then Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, and his remarks came barely a day following a meeting of the two chiefs at a security conference in Spain after which General Kayani had told the media that the US and Pakistan were on the same page regarding ant-Taliban policy. US-Pak military relations were in a trough until General Sharif arrived on the scene and started to set them right. His approach to the new Afghan dispensation under President Ashraf Ghani is also praiseworthy. The net result is a degree of cooperation among all three parties that is unprecedented. In a recent burst of activity, the three are coordinating tactics to take out Maulana Fazlullah who is hiding in North-Eastern Afghanistan and directing TTP operations in Pakistan. General Sharif’s recent dash to London, where he met the British prime minister and top civil-military officials, is also indicative of his determination to try and plug all sources of terrorism, ideological and physical, in Pakistan no less than to reciprocate in equal measure where the security interests of Kabul, Washington and London are concerned.

Cynics will doubtless say that all this is too little too late. Or that once the outrage of the Peshawar massacre has faded, the state will revert to its business as usual hands-off terrorism policy. Or that core military non-state assets, like the Lashkar-e-Tayba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and other such anti-India jihadi outfits, no less than the Haqaani Network and Mullah Umar Shura (that are globally banned as terrorist groups), are still alive and kicking. Going by past record, there is weight in these assertions. But two developments suggest that General Sharif means to address these issues too.

The first is US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement that Pakistan has asked him to play a role in nudging India to cease hostilities along the border and come back to the negotiating table. Clearly, this request could not have been made without holding out the assurance that Pakistan would rein in the jihadi outfits from stirring up trouble in Kashmir and elsewhere. The second is Senator Kerry’s understanding that the Pakistani military will facilitate negotiations between the Haqqani/Mulla Umar Taliban network and the Afghan government with a view to de-escalating the civil war.

The will and ability of the Sharif troika to cobble an effective counter-terrorism narrative and foreign policy change will be tested in the weeks and months ahead.

Jan 9

Political Forecast 2015

Posted on Friday, January 9, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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If 2014 was a bad year for Pakistan because of terrorism, political instability and civil-military tensions, the outlook for 2015 is cautiously positive on some targets and negative on others.

(1) The trial of General Pervez Musharraf for treason is likely to drone on without any significant hiccups in civil-military relations. The special trial court has allowed General Musharraf to rope in ex-prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, ex-law minister Zahid Hamid and ex-CJP AH Dogar as co-conspirators, in effect diluting the focus on General Musharraf and ensuring unending delays in processing appeals and counter-appeals by the various accused and the government. This suits the government and the military — the former can claim to be pursuing the case vigorously while the latter can remain sanguine that no harm shall befall its ex-chief and “humiliate” the institution. During 2015, General Musharraf’s efforts will be twofold: to maintain a high public profile as “a national leader” by creating waves via media interviews while striving to retain the military’s protection, and strengthening his case for permission to leave the country on medical or family reasons. His efforts to form a potent political party will fail.

(2) Finance Minister Ishaq Dar will not be able to be reduce the fiscal deficit to 4.5% of GNP for FY 2014-15 because of tax revenue shortfalls mainly from reduced import duties from the reduced oil import bill, despite the recent imposition of an extra 5% GST on petroleum sales. In turn, the IMF will quibble about missed targets and delay releasing new instalments in the second half of the year, which will bring the rupee under pressure again. The government’s ability to privatise top state enterprises and inject additional funds into the next budget will depend on the graph of both terrorism and political stability in the country. The multi-billion investment MOUs signed with Chinese companies will not begin to flow for many months. Inflation will remain below double digits. But the energy situation will not improve significantly until 2016-17 when the various furnace oil, hydel, coal, wind, solar and gas projects and pipelines are functional.

(3) The National Action Plan to combat terrorism will be fleshed out in 2015 by the 15 sub-committees set up by the prime minister. But the government’s ability to practice what it preaches will be tested at the altar of good relations with the military and a political settlement with Imran Khan over the issue of electoral rigging so that the PTI doesn’t return to the politics of destabilising dharnas all over again with a wink from the military. Likewise, swift military justice in the form of military courts and executions and a rapid deployment anti-terrorist force will not be a sufficiently strong deterrence to terrorism, let alone uproot it, because the government will not make much headway in curbing the underground activities of non-state radical Islamic actors like Lashkar-e-Tayba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi or their various front organisations, or plug their sources of funding. The fate of these groups rests in the hands of the ISI which manages them in line with the military’s regional security policy vis a vis India and Afghanistan and this is not likely to change significantly in the short term.

(4) An agreement between the PTI and PMLN on a judicial commission to probe charges of rigging in the 2013 elections seems unlikely to get much mileage. Imran Khan now wants the judiciary to investigate general allegations of rigging while the PMLN insists the commission should focus on Khan’s original charge that there was a conspiracy involving ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry, Nawaz Sharif, the Election Commission of Pakistan and the caretaker governments to hand-pick Returning Officers from the lower judiciary in order to change the election results after balloting. Since such a conspiracy is impossible to determine in the short period of six weeks demanded by Imran Khan, the talks are likely to be abandoned and Khan will again announce a PTI strategy to whip up the public against the Sharif government, thereby creating another wave of instability. However, in view of the national commitment to wage war against terrorism, the military is not likely to back Imran Khan’s bid to oust Nawaz Sharif and compel another round of general elections in 2015.

(5) India-Pakistan relations will remain difficult because of the hardline “defensive-offence” strategy adopted by the Narendra Modi government. Therefore no concrete normalisation process is forecast. Meanwhile, US-Pak relations will depend on Pak-Afghanistan relations, which in turn will depend on the ability and willingness of the Afghan-ISAF forces to help eliminate Pak Taliban groups operating against Pakistan from bases in north-east Afghanistan and reciprocal action by Pakistan to bring the rebel Afghan Taliban safe-havened in Pakistan’s borderlands to the negotiating table with the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani. If any party is unable to deliver on its pledge, relations will deteriorate and proxy wars will intensify.

Jan 2

Apas Ki Baat 02 Jan 2015

Posted on Friday, January 2, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)