May 13

Turbulence or Crash?

Posted on Friday, May 13, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief General Raheel Sharif have met after a month of sulking in their respective corners. This calls for comment because it was routine for them to be pictured together every week on one assignment or the other at home or abroad to demonstrate civil-military unity on important national security issues. Therefore tongues are now wagging about acute tensions between them that could shake up the political superstructure.

The first source of tension between them was Mr Sharif’s decision to prosecute General (retd) Pervez Musharraf for treason. The army as an institution cannot countenance a former chief in the dock under any circumstances. On top of that, General Sharif owes General Musharraf for advancing his career. The twists and turns in the case have frustrated both sides and led to misunderstandings.

The second source of tension was Mr Sharif’s decision in Spring 2014 to opt for endless rounds of futile talks with the Pakistani Taliban when General Sharif was primed to go into Waziristan all guns blazing. That gave the Taliban an opportunity to slip away and regroup, making General Sharif’s task more difficult when the green light for Zarb-e-Azb finally came in June 2014 following a string of Taliban attacks on security installations and personnel across the country.

The third source of tension sprang from the ISI’s role, two years ago, in directing Imran Khan’s dharna at D Chowk in Islamabad aimed at overthrowing Mr Sharif. Although General Sharif was not fully on board the agency’s covert operation and refrained from taking any precipitous step, Mr Sharif’s trust and confidence in his army chief was definitely eroded.

The fourth source of tension arose from Mr Sharif’s desire to mend fences with India so that he can extract a political and economic “peace dividend”. But the military is institutionally opposed to any such strategic move. Therefore it was irked when Mr Sharif attended Narendra Modi’s swearing in ceremony in 2014 and later agreed to hold secretary-level talks with India on the subject of terrorism without any quid pro quo on Kashmir. Recently, the military was annoyed when Mr Sharif ordered the registration of an FIR against the perpetrators of the Pathankot attack and when the PMLN government failed to adequately propagate, internationally, the capture of an Indian spy.

The fifth source of tension arose from the military’s intent to conduct a “clean-up operation” against terrorism in Punjab similar to the one in Karachi. But Mr Sharif is opposed to this because he doesn’t want the military to stand down his showcase “good-governance” in Punjab like it did the PPP government in Sindh.

The sixth source of tension is the military’s bid to link terrorism with corruption and run down civilian administrations. Mr Sharif is particularly annoyed by General Sharif’s statement for “across the board” accountability following Panamaleaks and the ISPR’s attempt to demonstrate that the military has initiated such accountability from “home” by sacking some generals accused of graft. The timing of this “leak” lends credibility to Mr Sharif’s suspicions that General Sharif means to show him up and do him in.

There are other issues too. The military wants a slice of the cake of building CPEC but the government is keeping it at arms length. It doesn’t like the beefing up of the Intelligence Bureau as a political counterweight to the ISI. The brass wants more funds for IDP rehabilitation in Waziristan to consolidate law and order. It is frustrated that the Foreign Office couldn’t clinch the F-16 deal in Washington. Last but not least, the prime minister isn’t happy at the ISPR’s attempt to propagate General Raheel Sharif as some sort of “messiah-in-waiting” in counter distinction to the perception of Mr Sharif as a “corrupt and incompetent” prime minister.

In view of this situation, the hot topic of the day is whether the meeting last Monday will serve to stabilise civil-military relations and enable Mr Sharif to weather the Panamaleaks storm by “neutralizing” the military’s political ambitions.

To be sure, one meeting isn’t going to melt the glacier of institutional distrust on both sides. But there are three factors in favour of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. First, the opposition is divided and no one, except for the PTI, wants a military intervention. Second, General Sharif’s “window of opportunity” will end in three months when a new army chief is announced and he becomes a lame duck. Third, any coup-making general will have to contend with seriously adverse consequences of his action. Except for the PTI, all major political parties, civil society, judiciary and the powerful media will unite against a military dictatorship that inevitably curtails their freedom. The international community will sanction Pakistan and India and Afghanistan will destabilize the country. Soon thereafter, the coup-maker will realize he is riding a tiger that will maul him like his adventurous predecessors.

Given the pros and cons, therefore, we should expect turbulence but no crash in the hot summer months ahead.

May 6

Panamaleaks Unlimited

Posted on Friday, May 6, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Panamaleaks remains the top story of the week for two reasons. The opposition is not willing to let go without extracting its pound of flesh – which happens to be the head of the prime minister, no less. And the government wants to drag it on and reverse focus on the dregs in the opposition so that the case against it is diluted.

The opposition has tried to cobble a broad unity and consensus on how to exploit the subject to maximum effect. It has also tried valiantly to coral the government. But it has failed on both counts. A consensus has eluded the opposition because each party has different vested interests in approaching a solution. The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf wants to oust the government by hook or by crook. But the other parties, like the PPP and MQM, are wary of creating conditions for third umpire intervention that would put them on the rack too. Others, like the JUI and the small nationalist groups, have cozied up to the PMLN in the expectation of extracting some patronage-dividends.

Meanwhile, the government has been both wily and slippery. At every stage, it has taken two steps forward to tackle the opposition, then readily backtracked one step to appear confident and flexible. When the opposition demanded a judicial commission, the government swiftly proposed one with retired judges. When the opposition objected, it conceded one with serving Supreme Court judges. When the opposition objected to the Terms of Reference (TORs) it readily agreed to discuss these with them. When Imran Khan threatened to spill over into the streets of Punjab, the prime minister seized the initiative and whipped up supportive crowds in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. When the opposition demanded his immediate resignation on moral grounds, he clenched his fist and advised the “small fry” to wait until the 2018 elections and beyond.

In the latest instance, the opposition has admitted lack of unity and purpose but managed to unveil the draft of a proposed law and TORs to investigate Panamaleaks. A cursory glance reveals it to be a quixotic project. It seeks inquisitorial justice (the accused is presumed to be guilty and must prove his innocence) in a political system and jurisprudence culture that exists in a completely contrary adversarial world (the accused is presumed to be innocent and the accuser must prove his guilt).

It also focuses on the prime minister and his family whereas the government is determined to spread the net far and wide so that the accusers also become the accused (no PMLN parliamentarian has been named in the Panamaleaks as being the beneficial owner of an off-shore company but at least two members of the PTI and PPP are in the list). This has undermined the credibility of the opposition. More critically, the opposition doesn’t even have a fraction of the numbers in parliament needed to pass such a law.

The PTI, in particular, has been shown to be hypocritical and indecisive. Imran Khan tweeted that anyone who had set up an offshore company should be presumed to be a crook and dealt with accordingly. But when it transpired that two PTI stalwarts, Jehangir Tareen and Aleem Khan, were more or less guilty of owning offshore accounts, assets and companies, he was swift to exonerate them on the pretext that they had not broken any law! He has also been vacillating over strategy. Should he launch street agitation in the midst of summer with Ramadan approaching and without support from the PPP or should be stick inside a broad opposition united front that painstakingly negotiates TORs with the government and ponders over battling it out with the government inside parliament or in the supreme court?

One month down the line, the government and opposition are still miles apart on finding a way out of the fog of Panamaleaks. Meanwhile, the chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, is sitting on the government’s request to set up a commission of inquiry in accordance with the TORs of the government and has refrained from commenting on the developing situation. Given the uncomfortable experience of his predecessor CJP who headed the Judicial Commission on Election Rigging in which all the parties had agreed on the TORs, he is not likely to wade into a political potboiler and remain sanguine about delivering justice. Imran Khan, in particular, has been scathing of the judiciary when it hasn’t served his naked ambitions. The post-Iftikhar Chaudhry Supreme Court is also disinclined to play any activist or populist role in charting the way forward, especially since the term of the current chief justice is ending later this year.

The Third Umpire, too, is not exactly itching to jump into the fray. The military’s hands are full dealing with internal and external security challenges. The army chief has also publicly disavowed political ambitions. If the government remains calm, cool and collected, it will shrug off this latest crisis too.

Apr 29

Panamaleaks Continued

Posted on Friday, April 29, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Panamaleaks story is not about to die down. Several new developments are in the offing that will keep the subject alive and kicking.

The PMLN government has succumbed to public pressure and written to the Chief Justice of Pakistan to set up a Commission of Inquiry comprising sitting Supreme Court judges instead of retired ones as originally proposed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But the opposition has rejected the Terms of Reference (TORs) unilaterally proposed by the government. However, indications are that if the opposition mounts pressure via the streets the government may relent and open negotiations for consensual TORs. In the event, it may take a couple of months to approve the consensual TORs.

But the delay is not likely to bail the prime minister out. In the next week or so, another long list of Pakistanis with off-shore companies is expected to hit headlines and there is no knowing whether he or his immediate family members will escape the net.

Much the same may be said of Mr Asif Zardari and the Bhuttos, or indeed Imran Khan and leading members of the PTI. This is bound to impact the budding alliance of opposition parties. If the other party leaders are clean, the opposition will get stronger. If they are not, the wind will be taken out of their sails. As it is, the PPP is wary of allying with the PTI because it fears the skeletons in its own cupboard may spill out or, worse, the agitation may provoke the “third umpire” to step in and wrap up the game. That is why Khurshid Shah, the PPP leader of the opposition, has advised Imran Khan to stay put in Punjab instead of touring Sindh and whipping up anti-corruption fever there in exchange for joining hands with him in Islamabad against the PMLN.

Matters have escalated to the level of GHQ too. The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, first gave a statement linking corruption directly to terrorism, implying that since the military was leading the fight against terrorism it had every right to target and uproot corruption too. Shortly thereafter, following criticism that the army shouldn’t stray from its constitutional writ, and his reference to “across the board accountability”, the chief won public favour by announcing some spring-cleaning of his own. A story was leaked about the dismissal or removal from service of two generals and five other officers for corrupt practices while serving in the Frontier Corps Balochistan in 2013-14. Initially, this was “breaking news” that seemed to suggest that the military was definitely interested in pushing the anti-corruption agenda apolitically. But soon questions began to be asked about the timing of the leak when the dismissals had routinely been carried out almost a year ago and the punishments seemed unduly soft compared to the nature of the allegations and the high rank of the main accused. The fact that the ISPR has still not come clean suggests that the motive of the leak was to try and cash in on public sentiment against the civilian politicians and elevate the army chief to heroic proportions once again, in contrast to the pygmy civilians in the firing line.

Several PMLN leaders like Khawaja Asif and Rana Sanaullah are going out of their way to appear sanguine. The former says the PM and his family are squeaky clean and the “third umpire” on whom Imran Khan is constantly banking has melted away. The latter claims that if Imran Khan ventures to make trouble in Punjab, he will be dealt with appropriately. Meanwhile, the prime minister has embarked on a tour of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab during which he will address public rallies, proclaim his innocence and highlight the achievements of his regime. All this is to create the public perception that Panamaleaks is water off the duck’s back and Imran Khan’s desperate histrionics are in vain.

A word of caution, however, is in order. There are some gaping holes in the account of Mr Sharif’s sons which could come back to haunt the family in the commission’s findings regardless of the TORs. The government may also be advised to negotiate a peaceful way out of this crisis instead of precipitating another one by unleashing the police against peaceful protestors marching on to besiege the prime minister’s estate in Raiwind. The last thing the government should risk is a repeat of what happened in Model Town, Lahore, two years ago. Certainly, if there are conspirators afoot to destabilize the government to downfall-point, a few dead bodies on the streets will definitely yield dividends.

We need a powerful judicial commission to sift the wheat from the chaff. Tax evasion and money laundering are crimes of corruption and must be exposed. But owning offshore companies, like offshore bank balances, is not illegal, if assets and funds are sourced to legitimate tax-paid earnings. Tarring every offshore company beneficiary with the brush of corruption is neither fair nor just.

Apr 22

Rule of Law

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

General Raheel Sharif has grabbed the headlines yet again. He says that: (1) “the war against terrorism and extremism being fought with the backing of the entire nation cannot bring enduring peace and stability unless the menace of corruption is also uprooted; (2) Therefore, across the board accountability is necessary for the solidarity, integrity and prosperity of Pakistan; (3) Pakistan’s Armed Forces will fully support every meaningful effort in that direction.”

The statement is doubly significant. First, it plays to the popular gallery whilst Panama Leaks rages as the hottest subject of the day. With every party and institution demanding accountability, how could our beloved armed forces be silent? Second, it seems to trump the return of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from a controversial trip to London for “medical reasons” during which it was wildly speculated that he might have run away to hide his stolen cache. Third, it puts the government and prime minister on the spot by demanding “across the board accountability”, which implies that the prime minister, his family and ruling party should particularly be subjected to it. Fourth, it puts the military’s weight behind efforts for “meaningful” steps in that direction, which means a credible, transparent and effective enquiry commission in line with the universal demand of the time, and lending the services of its intelligence agencies to it.

That said, one important question arises: Is this statement some sort of “show-cause” notice to Mr Nawaz Sharif to “shape up or ship out”? We think not. If General Sharif had harboured Bonapartist tendencies, he would have struck during Imran Khan’s dharna last year when conditions were ripe. Indeed, if he had had a change of heart subsequently, he would have recently nudged Imran Khan to announce a date for the long march on Raiwind and winked at Tahir ul Qadri of Canada and the Chaudhries of Gujrat to line up behind the march. But he hasn’t done anything of the sort.

For once, Khwaja Asif, the defense minister, has been wrong-footed. He thinks this statement is perfectly in order because “the army, like the judiciary, is an important organ of the state and constitution and its views are legitimate.” But Pervez Rashid, the official spokesman of the prime minister, has been more forthcoming. He has tried to finesse the army chief’s statement by actually owning the fight against corruption and pointing to its declining trend during the tenure of his government. But he has also tagged the point that an army regime (General Pervez Musharraf’s) included many corrupt people. More significantly, he has tried to steer the accountability debate in the direction of parliament as opposed to those demanding an army-cum-judicial intervention to target the corrupt.

General Sharif’s statement links corruption directly to terrorism rather than indirectly through governance and criminality as argued in a speech last May by Lt Gen Nadeem Mukhtar, Corps Commander Karachi.

The empirical evidence does not support any causal relationship between corruption and terrorism or religious extremism, ie, corruption, ipso facto, does not lead to terrorism. Some of the most corrupt countries in the world, like India, Argentina, China, Russia, etc., are not victims of terrorism. Indeed, most countries racked by civil war and anarchy or dictatorship – like Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Angola, Afghanistan, North Korea, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria — are amongst the most corrupt, but corruption is a consequence of war, anarchy and dictatorship, not a cause of it. It is also pertinent that none of the Pakistanis named in Panama Leaks is alleged to be a terrorist or has links with any terrorist organization.

General Sharif’s reference to “across the board accountability” is also problematic if it is not to be taken as a cliché. Accountability, like charity, must begin at home. Unfortunately, the military, like the judiciary, has hardly ever been accountable even as both institutions have periodically carried out the accountability of all others “suo motu”. In effect, the phrase “across the board accountability” is bandied about in relation to politicians only. But the truth is that in the lexicon of the modern nation state it refers to the “rule of law’ which is applicable to all, high or low, civil or military. By that criterion, a financial crime is no less culpable – and therefore open to accountability — than a political or constitutional one like a coup d’etat. So when General Sharif links accountability with stability and prosperity, he should know that the civil-military bureaucracy is no less culpable – and therefore accountable – than the politicians for laying Pakistan low on both counts. The rule of law and constitution – hence stability and prosperity as in all law abiding nation-states — has been more damaged by the military than any other institution in the history of Pakistan but it has never been held accountable.

It is also worth reflecting on why Pakistanis keep voting for the same corrupt political parties time and again and why the unaccountable military remains the most trusted and loved institution of all in the country.

Apr 15

Sharif vs Sharif

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

Panama Leaks is still leaking and raising discomfort levels all round. The prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, is particularly vulnerable, even though his adult businessmen sons, and not he, are beneficial owners of off-shore companies that have invested in UK properties where they are both resident/domiciled. In the rough and tumble of Pakistan, this issue has been progressively transformed from a legal one to a moral one and now a political one in which the demand for the prime minister’s resignation is simply not going away.

With hindsight, it appears that the PM was badly advised to address the nation on a personal issue regarding the business practices of his children. Instead of dispelling doubts and pre-empting adverse fallout, the speech has only served to fan the flames and inflate it into a mega-issue. With hindsight too, it seems that the two media interviews given by Hassan and Hussain Nawaz Sharif a couple of weeks before the dirt hit the fan have rebounded on the Sharifs.

Mr Sharif’s pledge to establish a commission of inquiry of retired judges has also failed to fly. If he had quickly laid down non-controversial terms of reference and asked the chief justice of Pakistan to set up such a commission, his critics would not have had a field day lambasting him.

Imran Khan is leading the pack. He sees this as a God given opportunity to dislodge Mr Sharif. The PPP is making the right noises because there is no other popular choice, but Aitzaz Ahsan is playing the bad cop to Khurshid Shah’s good cop and Asif Zardari is wisely silent. Who knows how many offshore companies are stocked in the PPP’s larder and when that will be flung open?

Those who have stashed away illegal wealth in such companies are the real culprits who should be brought to book. But in the nasty current mood of the country, even those who have got an off-shore company for doing legal business with tax-paid earnings remitted abroad through normal banking channels are also morally culpable for investing abroad instead of in their own country. Of course, this position is wrong because it flies against the very notion of legal capital mobility in search of competitive returns that is the lynch pin of the modern global economy. But no one is listening. The bloodlust of the middle classes against the very rich won’t be quenched by legal niceties.

For Imran Khan, it is now or never. He has been prime minister in-waiting for 20 years, having missed the bus many times, and is now desperately looking for short cuts to get to the prime minister’s house in Islamabad. But he is beset with two problems. First, his party is in disarray and facing a crisis of credibility. The membership of the PTI has fallen from 8 million to 2 million. The crowds have thinned. The rage has gone. The central leaders are at each other’s throats and three definite political groupings are jockeying for top positions in the hierarchy. The election commissioners have resigned and intra-party polls have been indefinitely postponed. And Imran is sounding like a scratchy long-playing record of yesteryear. He has got to instill purpose and energy into the PTI so that it once again looks and feels like a credible challenger for power.

Second, Imran senses that if the Sharifs complete their term in 2017, and local election results are a sign of the times, they will most likely win the next elections and consolidate power for another five years. That will put paid to all his political ambitions by sowing the seeds of gradual despair and dissolution in the PTI. Therefore the best way to avoid this fate is to gird his loins and launch another movement to heave out Nawaz Sharif. Consequently, a rally in an Islamabad park is planned for April 24, followed by a long march on the Raiwind estate of the Sharifs.

The government has vowed to stop both protests in their tracks. So a degree of resistance and violence may be expected. But this can only benefit the PTI by providing it with a badge of martyrdom.

Pundits are eagerly looking out for tell tale signs of the end of the Sharif regime. Are the other parties banding together behind Imran? What are the plans of Maulana Tahir ul Qadri, that off-shore asset of the “establishment” who likes to be billed as the angel of death? Are the perennial opening batsmen of the military, the Chaudhries of Gujrat, getting overly frisky again? Is the civil-military balance stable or are the frustrations and tensions increasing?

The answers are pending two bigger questions. First, is Raheel Sharif getting ready for retirement or is he spreading his wings? Second, should push come to shove, will Nawaz Sharif throw in the towel rather than risk defiance of the other Sharif?

Right now, someone should tell Imran Khan that one Sharif is not ready to quit and the other Sharif is not ready to take over.