Oct 21

Now or Never

Posted on Friday, October 21, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Now or Never

Is some sort of radical “change” in the air?

Imran Khan is touring the Punjab, whipping up anti-Nawaz sentiment and exhorting his supporters to descend on Islamabad on November 2 and “shut it down”. Indeed, he has decided that this is a “now or never” moment for his political career that may be consigned to the wilderness if Nawaz Sharif survives to win the next election in 2018.

The strategy Imran Khan has adopted — ousting an elected government by street power that clashes with the administrative writ of the government and provokes the army to intervene – is neither novel nor new. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto led a mass movement in 1967-68 against General Ayub Khan and provoked Gen Yahya Khan to intervene. In 1977, the boot was on the other foot when the opposition parties ganged up against Bhutto and provoked General Zia ul Haq to throw him out. In 1993, Benazir Bhutto used the same tactics to effect regime change when the army stepped in to oust Nawaz Sharif. Indeed, Nawaz Sharif did much the same with his “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad in 2009 when he nudged the army to compel President Asif Zardari to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry and his fellow judges so that they could pay back the compliment by hounding the PPP, ousting its prime minister and rendering it impotent at the next elections in 2013, paving the way for Nawaz Sharif’s return to power.

During each such “do-or-die” moment in Pakistan’s history, certain ingredients of success may be identified. First, street protests have to be significantly mass oriented and prolonged to generate a wave of discontent that can engulf the government. Second, the situation has to be primed for violence and bloodshed so that each round of clashes enrages the protestors, evokes public sympathy and spurs them on. Third, for one reason or another, the army leadership must be sufficiently interested or “involved” in wanting to see the back of the regime.

In the current scenario, it seems all these elements are falling into place. Imran has demonstrated his ability to whip up street passions. The four-month long dharna in 2014 and his relentless “road shows” in the last month are evidence of his staying power. Violence, too, has seemingly been injected into the developing situation. The PMLN has alleged that the KPK government has bought the services of disgruntled jihadi elements – Rs 30 crores was earlier dished out to the mother-father of all jihadi and Taliban groups and institutions led by Maulana Sami ul Haq — to inject blood into the movement. And there is no denying a significant breach in civil-military relations of late that shows no sign of being bridged. Does that mean that the end is nigh for Nawaz Sharif?

Not necessarily. Much also depends on how certain countervailing factors can weigh in to the advantage of Nawaz Sharif.

If the government can pre-empt or thwart Imran Khan’s movement to shut down Islamabad by a selective application of controlled force, dispersal and arrests, the “wave” may not materialize. That would give Nawaz time to retire the current army chief who has become a symbol of defiance and appoint someone who may be inclined in his early term to be less aggressive or intrusive. That would take the sting out of the scorpion’s tail. Certainly, we may expect some such announcement to be made sooner rather than later, even as the administration gears up to resist the coming onslaught.

There are two other critical factors. When there is an army intervention in politics to effect regime change, the first assumption is that it is prepared to go the whole hog and impose martial law if its will is thwarted. In other words, it is able and willing to take the “ultimate” step. The second assumption is that the target has been sufficiently softened to compel him to make an appropriate exit without recourse to the “ultimate” step. But in the current situation, there is some doubt about both these assumptions.

Will the current military leadership risk a division in its command when it is on the eve of a major institutional transition to a new leadership? Is the current army chief in an ambitious mood to seize power? Does the current military leadership think it can manage the ship of Pakistan in a sea of regional turbulence, internal divisions and economic distress? Can it cope with the fallout of mass alienation from all parties save one? Equally significantly, will Nawaz Sharif wilt at the first sign of a military intervention rather than stand his ground and dare the military to impose martial law?

The news analysis of the impending political “demise” of Nawaz Sharif in November may or may not be exaggerated. Equally, if it comes to pass, we may or may not shed tears for him. But we will collectively have to share the burden of national tragedy, loss and pain that is inflicted whenever there is martial law in the country.

Oct 14

Too clever by half

Posted on Friday, October 14, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Too clever by half

The PMLN has shot itself in the foot.

It seems that the government wanted the world to know that it was nudging its military leaders to stop propping up the jihadi network because it is the cause of Pakistan’s international isolation as a country that minimally condones or maximally, supports terrorism in the region. So someone apparently leaked the content of a high-level national security meeting to Cyril Almeida, a respected assistant editor at Dawn, in which the problem and its solution was squarely laid by the civilian leadership at the military’s door.

The trouble began when the military protested the leak which made it look like the villain of the piece in the eyes of the world. So the government issued strong denials and accused the journalist of fabricating the story and undermining “national security”. But the newspaper stood its ground while the military demanded to know the source of the leak. So, in order to prove its innocence and also placate the military, the government announced an inquiry into the matter. But it shot itself in the foot when it placed Cyril Almeida on the Exit Control List, which meant that it intended to focus on the messenger rather than the source of the leak, an unacceptable course of action both to the media and the military. When the military quickly distanced itself from the ECL, the media opened its guns on the ruling party.

Now the prime minister is squirming in his seat: damned if he throws a PMLN loyalist (who leaked the story) under the bus, and damned if he goes after the messenger by interrogating him and restricting his freedom. The government’s dilemma is that it doesn’t want to be seen as being anti-military at home at a time when the military is seriously “engaged” with the “enemy” on its borders; it doesn’t want to degrade its democratic credentials as a great defender of media freedom and rights; but it also doesn’t want to own up to a clever-by-half move that has rebounded on it.

The interesting thing is that the facts of the leaked conversations are no secret. Everyone and his aunt knows that the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, wants to snatch back foreign and national security policy from the military and direct it himself because he thinks these policies have outlived their cold-war relevance and are now dangerously misplaced. It is also believed that these policies are a leading cause of Pakistan’s regional conflicts, international isolation and domestic instability. Indeed, the PM’s argument that Pakistan is doomed without a significant regional “peace dividend” cannot be denied. In fact, few serious and independent analysts would quarrel with this re-assessment of the meaning of national security as a dimension of national power that encompasses a strong and self-reliant economy built on the certainty of regional peace and political stability. And even in the top echelons of the military, there is an increasing realisation that it is time to amend long cherished notions of India as the “eternal or existential enemy”, Afghanistan as a dependent base area for “strategic depth”, and America as a long term “strategic ally”.

But the problem is threefold. First, the military doesn’t think Nawaz Sharif is intellectually qualified to command change of strategic course that entails rigorous tactical maneuvers; second, the military is unwilling or unable to offer a credible alternative because it is hamstrung by decades of self-indoctrinated notions of national security, civilian corruption/incompetence and Indian perfidy; third, it is afraid of taking on and degrading the jihadi and Haqqani networks unilaterally without assured regional and international guarantees of reciprocity from India and Afghanistan viz non-state actor proxy wars that have laid all three countries low. So when the military’s sense of propriety or self-righteousness is challenged it tends to react like a wounded tiger.

In this particular case, the government did the right thing by asking the military leadership to put a lid on jihadi or Afghan Taliban non-state actors in order to assuage world opinion and give Pakistan’s diplomats a better chance to counter India’s campaign to isolate Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism. The leak was meant to signal the ruling party’s resolve in this matter and win international and regional friends. But the manner in which the leak was manipulated by the government or communicated by the source ended up embarrassing and alienating the military leadership, which duly registered its anger by protesting to the prime minister. At that stage, the government should have tried to cool tempers by issuing a strong denial and burying the matter by ordering an internal inquiry into the source of the leak, no more. But by dithering on the first count and then targeting the messenger, the government incurred the wrath of both the military and the media.

Cyril Almeida is a sensible and brave reporter. His name should be removed forthwith from the ECL and he should not be hounded.

Oct 7

Winter of discontent

Posted on Friday, October 7, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Winter of discontent

Imran Khan is a desperate man given to dangerous ways and means.

He lost the general elections in 2013 and admitted they were free and fair. A year later, however, he accused a clutch of people and institutions of rigging the elections and dragged them to a Supreme Court judicial commission for electoral accountability. When the judges rejected his allegations, he blasted them and took to the streets. For over four months, he stood atop a container in Islamabad and abused the prime minister, ruling party, parliament and political system, constantly baiting the military to step in, wrap up the system and bring him to power through the back door. When that didn’t happen, he changed tack and began to tour the towns of Punjab, sparking PTI jialas to provoke the government to react violently and trigger mass protests. Confronted by failure once again, he has now clutched at Panamaleaks to start agitation on a new footing. This time he has declared parliament “illegitimate” and threatened to “shut down” Islamabad if the prime minister doesn’t step down, despite the fact that the Election Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court of Pakistan, Lahore High Court and Federal Bureau of Revenue are all simultaneously pursuing investigations and inquiries into Panamaleaks.

This is a dangerous move. It encourages conspiracy theories that tout civil-military tensions over a host of issues and undermine stability. It also comes in the midst of a national security crisis with India that requires us to show national unity and resolve instead of internal divisions that sap our collective energies and throw us into disarray.

Imran Khan intends to “shut down” Islamabad after Moharram by a combination of street tactics and civil disobedience. He can call upon his youthful activists to block thoroughfares and arteries in the capital, threaten shopkeepers to down shutters and stop bus and metro services so that attendance thins out in government offices. This will inevitably draw the police and city administration into the fray, raising the probability of mischief or blunder leading to violence and bloodshed as in the Model Town case that remains a millstone around the neck of the Punjab chief minister. Eventually, he can build up his forces to gherao the “illegitimate” parliament and provoke the government to use force to establish its writ, confirming a serious “law and order” crisis and compelling the courts and military to come to the “rescue” of the people.

The government’s options are clear. It can sit back and let him have his way, as it did during the four month long dharna crisis earlier, neither provoking his supporters nor being provoked by them, and hope their aggressive intent will wither away through fatigue. Or it can take pre-emptive action to arrest PTI leaders and disperse the crowds by mild use of force before they become too big, thereby trying to neutralise Khan’s attempt to incite violence.

The first option is tricky because Imran Khan’s tactics this time are different from those during the earlier confrontation. The dharna was declared “peaceful”. It was static. No attempt was made to precipitate violence by the protestors. Consequently Islamabad did not “shut down” even though business and citizens were “inconvenienced”. But the “shut down” this time suggests a continuous and dynamic game of street scuffles and even battles between police and protestors. The government cannot afford to hand over the capital to the PTI without seeming to lose its legitimate writ to rule. Inevitably, sparks will fly and fires will be ignited, which is Imran Khan’s very objective.

The second option is also problematic. To be sure, past governments have used preventive arrests to stall and break the back of budding protest movements, as during the MRD movement in the mid 1980s and Benazir Bhutto’s “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad in the early 1990s. But these tactics were successful because the military establishment of the time was either pro-government or not proactively for the opposition. This time round, however, there is a powerful sense of disaffection in the military with the prime minister, suggesting that the establishment is egging on Imran Khan and wouldn’t mind weakening the prime minister if not seeing his back even if there is no covert conspiracy to seize direct power. Under the circumstances, if pre-emptive arrests spur the protestors instead of quelling them, the government will be on the mat for mishandling the situation and face the wrath of the media and courts. In fact, political parties that have so far refused to clasp hands with Imran, like the PPP and MQM, will then come under pressure to boycott parliament and show solidarity with him, thereby exacerbating the political crisis and precipitating a do-or-die situation in Islamabad.

Clearly, the dye is cast. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif needs to chalk out a fast and decisive strategy to attend to the diverse dimensions of this crisis. These cover Panamaleaks, civil-military relations and national security east and west of Pakistan’s borders.

A winter of discontent is upon us.

Oct 2

Geo-Strategic Shift

Posted on Sunday, October 2, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Geo-Strategic Shift

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to dispatch a group of parliamentarians to Western capitals to highlight a brutal surge of human rights abuses by India in Kashmir. What is the urgent need for such an initiative? Why have Indo-Pak relations plunged in recent months? Is some sort of geostrategic shift taking place in the region for which Pakistan is flaying about for an appropriate response?

Mr Sharif was disabused of his desire for peace with India by the arrival of Mr Narendra Modi as prime minister and Mr Ajit Doval as his National Security Advisor of India in 2014. Far from clasping Mr Sharif’s hand of goodwill on the day of his inauguration by reviving the back channel on Kashmir initiated by his BJP predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee a decade ago, Mr Modi intervened brutally in Indian-occupied Kashmir and aggressively against Pakistan (Mr Doval’s “offensive defense” doctrine). The first is manifest in the bloody crackdown against peaceful protestors in Indian-occupied Kashmir; the second is evident from the notching up of proxy terrorisms in various parts of Pakistan, equating Pakistan’s human rights violations in Balochistan (an internal matter) with human rights abuse in Kashmir (disputed territory) and claiming Pakistan’s Azad Jammu Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan territories as “integral parts of India”. All this has been pegged to the issue of “terrorism by Pakistan” — on allegations that ex-Mumbai Don Dawood Ibrahim is sheltered by Pakistan (never mind that he has been put out of “business” for twenty five years), and that Pakistan isn’t doing enough to convict the Mumbai or Pathankot accused or crack down on the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayba (never mind that Pakistan has put a firm lid on all such groups and has gone so far as to cooperate with India on giving advance warning of suspicious border crossings by maverick jihadi groups out of the control of Pakistan). This has apparently led Mr Sharif to redress matters by trying to internationalize the Kashmir issue and put the spotlight on state sponsored terrorism by India in Kashmir and Pakistan by dispatching parliamentary delegations to the West in advance of the United Nations Security Council moot later in September.

India’s new “offensive-defense” strategy looks both East (towards China and SE Asia) and West (towards Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and West and Central Asia). Its pivot is a budding economic and military alliance with the United States in which India is building itself up as a counterweight to China in Greater Asia. Towards this end, India and the US have stitched up unprecedented defense and nuclear agreements (American use of Indian military installations, American state-of-art air weaponry technology for jet engines and UAVs, US support for India’s inclusion in the nuclear suppliers group, joint war-games and naval exercises in the Indian Ocean), mutually reinforcing anti-China policies relating to South East Asian sea lane rights, and increasing US foreign investment in India, etc. Most alarming for Pakistan and China has been Indian opposition and hostility to the CPEC which aims to both boost Pakistan’s economy and open up strategic alternative trade and energy corridors linking China to the Middle East and Central Asia. Needless to add, both the US and India have the same vested interest in stabilizing the Afghan state as a dependent and pro-US-India country that fits in with their strategic plans to contain China and downgrade Pakistan. Indeed, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s ongoing visit to New Delhi is aimed at beefing up the US-India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.

Unfortunately, however, while China seems to be acutely aware of the New Great Game, the ruling establishment in Pakistan is still floundering in a sea of internal political conflicts and is unable to fashion an appropriate and swift strategic response to the historic challenge facing it. For starters, the political parties are at each another’s throats over a range of issues that simply don’t allow them to sit down, fathom the nature of the challenge and fashion a consensual and fitting response. Then there is the civil-military turf war between the Nawaz Sharif and Raheel Sharif camps that has created uncertainty, ill will and instability in the system. The worst aspect of all this is the bickering over CPEC among the provincial civilian stakeholders on the one hand and the civil-military administrations of the two Sharifs on the other. The Chinese are deeply worried by the inability of Pakistan to get its act together and guarantee the viability of CPEC.

Tectonic geo-strategic shifts are happening in the region. Yet all that Pakistan’s civil-military leaders can do is pack off a delegation of mostly inept and incompetent ruling party parliamentarians (instead of one representing all major parties to demonstrate a national consensus) to the West to highlight India’s human rights abuses in Kashmir. The paramount need of the hour is for the two Sharifs to shrug off their personal or institutional issues and help forge a national political consensus on a stable, dynamic and creative way forward for Pakistan.

Sep 29

Sense and sensibility

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

Sense and sensibility

While in opposition, Narendra Modi built himself as a hawk on Pakistan. But as prime minister of India, he is finding it difficult to practice what he preaches. The burden of government, it seems, exacts a profound sense of sensibility from leaders who have built political careers out of pride and prejudice. Consider.

Mr Modi’s response to the terrorist attack in Gurdaspur was measured.  In Pathankot it was restrained. Uri is slightly different. It is the third in a row of increasingly provocative incidents. 18 Indian soldiers are dead. The Indian army is simmering to redeem its “honour” by “surgical” strikes against jihadi camps in Azad Kashmir. The Indian media is baying for blood. New Delhi is desperate to divert attention from the root cause of such incidents, which is the struggle of the Kashmiri people for self-determination in the face of a cruel and repressive Indian state apparatus. But war, even limited war, with Pakistan has never been an option since it acquired nuclear weapons. It wasn’t an option even after Mumbai in 2008. And it isn’t on the cards after Uri. So what can Mr Modi do?

For starters, he can’t afford to be adventurous in the west and lose sight of his two-point core agenda in the east: build on domestic economic growth and focus on becoming part of the US “pivot” to SE Asia against China. But he also can’t risk the wrath of the public by not punishing Pakistan in some way or the other. His recent speech at Kozhikode in Kerala indicates his thinking. He says India will defeat Pakistan in the war against poverty by concentrating on rapid economic development. As a consequence, the argument goes, India will become strong and Pakistan relatively weak. At the same time, India will exacerbate the various regional, ethnic and religious tensions inside Pakistan and isolate it externally so that its collapse is hastened. This will be achieved by a combination of overt and covert means by further extending the Doval doctrine of offensive-defense.

The cancellation of the SAARC summit is a first step in the direction of rupture. It is largely symbolic because SAARC has never amounted to anything more than a catalogue of pious hopes and lost opportunities. It has been inconsequentially cancelled on four occasions in the past. The discussion on how to manipulate trade to Pakistan’s disadvantage is equally insignificant: Pakistan’s exports to India are only about $500m. Only Indian businessmen will suffer because their exports to Pakistan are over $3 b. The discussion on how to twist the Indus Waters Treaty to hurt Pakistan is more ominous. India cannot abrogate the treaty unilaterally without incurring worldwide censure: water is life, and an attack on the life of the people of Pakistan will be rightly construed as an act of barbarous war. But India can tweak it upstream without accountability and make life difficult for Pakistan: by storing, diverting or releasing water at critical times to precipitate limited flooding or famine downstream in Pakistan. Any howls of international protest by the government of Pakistan are likely to be drowned in a wave of public protests against the incompetence and corruption of the domestic regime.

A range of covert operations by proxy will most likely be preferred. These will range from covert financial and military assistance to sub-nationalist, ethnic or religious dissidents in various regions of Pakistan to targeted assassinations of top jihadi anti-India leaders and attacks on the offices of military intelligence agencies and security forces. CPEC and Gwador will be likely targets of disruption too. Urban sprawls like Karachi and Lahore may be most vulnerable to the tactics of terror.

The problem with this covert punitive approach is that it will not be without costs for India too. The Pakistani establishment is certainly not going to sit back and wring its hands in despair. It will open the tap of proxy jihad in Kashmir as in the 1990s and exact a heavy toll where it hurts India the most. It may also consider provoking Muslim sentiment inside India by various overt and covert means.

In the end, both sides will get hurt. But India’s hurt will be relatively more because it has relatively more to win from becoming a world power than Pakistan that is relatively isolated and weak already.

Hopefully, all may not be lost. In principle, mainstream parties in both countries have avowed peace with neighbours, in both theory and practice. The cause of the latest rupture between the two is related to the rise of an intifada in Kashmir triggered by the overly repressive policies of the BJP under Mr Modi. If India’s prime minister is both able and willing to apply balm to the wounds of Kashmiris by taking significant political steps to alleviate their most obvious local grievances, he would also succeed in reopening the door to reconciliation with Pakistan. But this will require a degree of sense and sensibility from India’s ruling establishment that has been woefully lacking so far.