Aug 19

True to form

Posted on Friday, August 19, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

True to form

The game is on! True to form, the politicians are trying to undo each other while the military establishment smacks its lips in anticipation. We have been here so many times before it’s not even amusing any more.

The PPP is feeling the heat in Sindh from the military establishment. It wants to end the writ of the Rangers to “clean-up” Sindh but is politically and morally much too weak to exercise its constitutional powers and cut the umbilical chord with the federal government. At the very least, it wants a reprieve for Dr Asim Hussain (bail) and Ayyan Ali (exit).

But the military establishment has succeeded in creating so much goodwill about its clean-up operation in Karachi that it is difficult for PM Nawaz Sharif to rein it in. Therefore the PPP is blowing hot and cold in anger and frustration. It has allied itself with Imran Khan in challenging Mr Sharif’s right to be prime minister but confined its protest to parliament and the election commission so that the military establishment doesn’t get any excuse to wrap up the system. In its books, a bad and uncooperative Nawaz Sharif is a million times better than a good and zealous Raheel Sharif. Therefore, while it may launch half hearted protests on the streets here and there just to show that its heart is in the right place, it will not join forces with Imran Khan to overthrow Mr Sharif via street agitation and violence that can only end when the third umpire gives Mr Sharif out. To this end, the PPP’s Farooq Naek is talking to the PMLN’s Ishaq Dar about the contours of a new anti-corruption law that encompasses Panamaleaks while the PPP’s Khurshid Shah is talking to the PMLN Speaker of the NA, Ayaz Sadiq, about the TORs for any proposed judicial inquiry. Neither side, it appears, is too interested in genuinely resolving the matter and both are going through the motions of intense negotiations, partly to demonstrate seriousness of purpose for the benefit of an outraged public and partly to keep Imran Khan in the loop so that he doesn’t break away and embark on a dangerous solo game to provoke the military establishment.

Imran Khan’s strategy is equally clear. He senses that if Mr Sharif survives this crisis he is set to win the next general elections in 2018 and put paid to Imran’s ambitions. So he is trying to whip up a storm in the country and get rid of the prime minister one way or another. His tactics are clear enough. He is mounting pressure on the SC and EC to disqualify Mr Sharif. It doesn’t much matter to him that the evidence he has collected and presented doesn’t amount to anything in the eyes of due process of law just as long as it keeps the anti-corruption drive in high gear in the eyes of the public and brings these institutions under pressure. The real focus is on the street protests that are meant to supplement the pressure on the SC and EC and provoke the government into blundering into another crisis such as the Model Town one two years ago which has become a millstone around the neck of the PMLN.

In his desperation, Imran Khan has now publicly dragged General Raheel Sharif, the army chief, into the fray. He has accused Mr Sharif of trying to “bribe” General Sharif into acquiescence by offering to make him Field Marshal. This is patently ridiculous. If Mr Sharif isn’t ready to extend General Sharif’s tenure as army chief, why on earth should he make him a Field Marshal, and that too in this day and age?

To be sure, General Sharif is an honourable man. Many months ago, in order to quell idle talk about wanting an extension in service, he authorized a statement on his behalf clearly denying any such ambitions and going so far as to say that even if an extension were offered to him he wouldn’t take it in the institutional interests of the army. Unfortunately, his current silence on the subject, when such talk has drowned out all other chatter, is giving grist to Imran Khan’s mills and adding to the uncertainty and instability that we see all around us.

Mr Sharif has played his cards well so far by not allowing Panamaleaks to overwhelm his government. Next month he is due to announce a change in high command at GHQ. Once that happens, the threatening sting in the tail of Imran Khan will be taken out and the notion of any third umpire triggering upheaval will dissipate.

But, as they say, there’s many a slip between the cup and lip. And a month is a long time in politics, especially if the military establishment has taken a collective decision to step in rather than step back. But if it hasn’t, then Imran Khan’s histrionics are fated to end with a whimper instead of a bang.

Aug 16

Aapas Ki Baat – 16 August 2016

Posted on Tuesday, August 16, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


Aug 12

Fundamental questions & answers

Posted on Friday, August 12, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Fundamental  questions & answers

Will the terrorist attack in Quetta last week have profound consequences for state and society in Pakistan?

The 2014 attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School finally us woke up to the existential threat from the Pakistani Taliban. The distinction between “good and bad Taliban” was abandoned. Imran Khan admitted the error of his ways in defending the Taliban as good but “misguided Muslims”. Subsequently both the civil and military leadership of the country vowed to hunt them down without any ifs and buts via a National Action Plan against terrorism. In much the same manner, the Quetta attack has provoked Pakistanis high and low, khaki and mufti, to ask whether the same NAP is sufficient to uproot terrorism even if it is comprehensively applied and enforced by the civil-military leadership.

The army chief, General Raheel Sharif, has pointed the finger at “those who want to hurt CPEC ”. But the terrorist attacks in Balochistan originated long before CPEC was even conceived on the drawing boards of the Pakistan Planning Commission. So this explanation is just not convincing. Chaudhry Nisar, the interior minister, hasn’t minced his words in targeting the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies RAW and NDS respectively for the attack. But he hasn’t stopped to ask or explain how and why such attacks are being planned and executed by India and Afghanistan. An ISPR statement is even more confusing. It claims that the terrorists have shifted their focus from Karachi and FATA to Balochistan because the army has been successful in uprooting them there. If this is indeed the case, we may well ask how the Taliban and the MQM who were accused of terrorizing these regions have suddenly started strategizing about CPEC when such issues never entered their political equations earlier.

No, it is not as simple as this. As Raza Rabbani, chairman of the Senate, remarked in the wake of the Quetta attack, “we need to ask and answer basic and fundamental questions about the way the civil-military bureaucratic state” has ruled Pakistan. Whatever does he mean by that? Why didn’t he go on to ask the fundamental questions and answer them? Why was he so annoyingly oblique?

Pakistan’s “national security state” is embroiled in antagonistic relations and proxy wars with neighbours India and Afghanistan whose blowback is spawning terrorism inside Pakistan. No National Action Plan based on internal factors can sufficiently cope with this blowback because it is sponsored by state and non-state actors outside Pakistan.

Pakistan’s national security establishment first tried to wage war with India in 1948 and 1965 in order to resolve the unfinished business of partition that revolved around the fate of Kashmir. Failing that, it manufactured non-state Islamic-jihadi actors inside Pakistan and then launched them against India in Kashmir in the 1990s and 2000s. It is payback time for India now. Its proxies are disgruntled Mohajir and Baloch leaders in exile.

Pakistan’s national security establishment also developed the doctrine of “strategic depth” against India by trying to make Afghanistan a client state. It manufactured Islamic Jihadis against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s and launched them with the help of the CIA. But after these jihadis ousted the USSR from Afghanistan and fell into internecine warfare, the Pakistani national security establishment launched the Pakhtun Taliban from the border areas to seize Kabul in 1997 with nary a thought about the historic ethnic balance of power between Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pakhtuns in the nascent Afghan state. Following 9/11 and the US attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the same national security establishment provided safe havens in FATA and Balochistan for the fleeing Taliban. In time this became a sore point in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the United States because the Afghan Taliban were able to regroup and launch attacks on the US backed Kabul regime and allied NATO forces from their sanctuaries in Pakistan. In retaliation, the US-Afghan forces have allowed the Pakistani Taliban and Baloch on the run from Operation Zarb-e-Azb to hide in Afghanistan and launch terrorist attacks across the border in Pakistan.

The “fundamental” questions that Raza Rabbani and others are alluding to are these: (1) Why is Pakistan in conflict with India, Afghanistan and the US? (2) How are the consequences of such policies hurting Pakistan? (3) Who is fundamentally responsible for such disastrous policies?

Pakistan’s relations with India will not improve until the domestic jihadi groups are dismembered so that Mumbai and Pathankot never happen again. Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan will not improve until the Afghan Taliban are disrupted and defeated or compelled to sue for peace. And until Pakistan is at peace with its neighbours, it will not be at peace with itself. It is also clear that the power to take such fundamental decisions vests exclusively with the military establishment. It’s time for the military to consult the civilian stakeholders of the country and change the national security paradigm that has brought so much strife and conflict to Pakistan.

Aug 5

Place your bets

Posted on Friday, August 5, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Will the Panamaleaks amount to anything? Will the opposition band together to heave out Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the next few months? Will General Raheel Sharif get an extension in service?

Lay folk think the Panamaleaks storm has passed. The PMLN has successfully defused the crisis by dragging it over the last three months. But Mr Sharif is still not out of the woods. One petition before the Election Commission, in particular, could pose problems. Public statements by Mr Sharif’s sons allude to shares in offshore properties in the name of Mariam Nawaz Sharif that were not declared by Mr Sharif in his statement of assets and wealth before the EC in 2013 in which she was listed as a “dependent” with no assets. This minor technical point about “concealment” could “disqualify” him from remaining a member of parliament. But much the same sort of considerations by the EC could knock out Imran Khan – he didn’t declare his offshore company to the EC in 2013 – and create an unprecedented political crisis that the EC may wish to avoid.

The opposition, meanwhile, is still trying to get its act together. The PTI is flapping about in safe Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa organizing peaceful protests instead of threatening dharnas in Islamabad or long marches to Raiwind in Lahore. The party is riven with internal splits and its public following has dwindled. Its strategy is to try to keep the pot of discontent boiling in the hope that Mr Sharif blunders into it or is pushed into it by the notorious “third umpire’. The PPP is embroiled in a delicate balancing act in Sindh, trying to clutch at the federal government while holding the military establishment at bay. Any further encroachment by the Rangers on its political turf will seriously undermine its feudally constructed support base. Therefore it will resist the same fate in interior Sindh that the MQM faced in urban Karachi when the Rangers went in all guns blazing under Constitutional Article 147. In exchange for the federal government’s support in weaning the Rangers away from interior Sindh, the PPP is mulling the idea of softening its position on the Pananaleaks TORs or law proposed by the PMLN. The dilemma for Mr Asif Zardari is how to save his own skin while dispatching Mr Sharif with the help of Imran Khan and the military establishment. The dilemma for Mr Sharif is how to save his own skin by not antagonising the military establishment by favouring Mr Zardari in Sindh. Rational choice theory would advise both to stick close to each other instead of the military establishment that wants to be rid of both of them asap.

Meanwhile, Dr Tahir ul Qadri is gearing up to whip up a small storm in Lahore focused on the Model Town “martyrs” of 2014. The good doctor can expect the pro-establishment media to publicise the contents of the judicial report and JIT pertaining to the incident that squarely pin responsibility on the Punjab chief minister, Shahbaz Sharif, and his minions in the administration. But if the Sharifs handle the situation delicately and succeed in precluding violence, Dr Qadri will huff and puff without bringing the house down.

It is the ubiquitous military establishment that has some aces up its sleeve. The civilian pro-military suspects on television are sanguine in their belief that if the generals have decided its time for “tabdeeli”, “they” will find ways and means to “wrap” up the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris. Indeed, it can be argued that the “attack” on the “pro-democracy” Geo-Jang Group last week by invisible forces was meant to sideline it on the eve of the conspiracy to strangulate “democracy” in Pakistan (Geo’s shrill pro-democracy transmission when the military coup was hiccupping in Turkey is memorable if only for the oblique but unmistakable message it sent to the military establishment at home).

All this while, the debate remains fixated on whether or not an extension in the tenure of General Sharif as COAS will solve Mr Sharif’s own tenure problem. But the logic of the situation suggests that there is no link between the two. First, Mr Sharif is not inclined to change the rules of military succession. But if he were, General Sharif would find himself in a bit of a spot for having earlier publicly declined to accept any such extension. By accepting it now and not overthrowing his benefactor would lead to the unpalatable charge of the general sacrificing the “national” interest at the altar of his own personal interest. Second, it is inconceivable that an honourable and upright soldier like General Sharif would like to wade into such treacherous political waters in such controversial circumstances in which all the political parties (save one), civil society groups, lawyers, judges and most media are resolutely opposed to any military takeover regardless of the extent of corruption and incompetence among their elected representatives.

Bookies are giving even odds for and against “tabdeeli” this year. Ladies and Gentlemen, place your bets.

Aug 3

Aapas Ki Baat – 3 August 2016

Posted on Wednesday, August 3, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)