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.

Apr 8

Panamagate?

Posted on Friday, April 8, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

An international watchdog has pried open eleven million documents from the database of law firm Mossack Fonseca in Panama that provides off-shore financial facilities to the global rich for various purposes. The lay presumption of holding “off-shore companies” is to avoid transparency in some sense, hence the common suspicion that their activities are illegal in some significant sense, regardless of the fact that these companies are legal where they are incorporated and their business activities comply with the laws of the land where they do business.

Among the beneficial owners of these companies, or linked to them in some way, are twelve current or former heads of state and over sixty people linked to current or former world leaders. These include the Presidents of Russia, China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Argentina and the Prime Ministers of Iceland and Pakistan. Curiously enough, there is no significant mention of Latin American or African generals or American and Western leaders and businessmen. This has provoked the Russians and Chinese leaders to allege a CIA conspiracy to defame them.

Panamaleaks has compelled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to appear on TV and disclaim any act of illegitimacy on the part of his two sons and daughter whose names figure in the list of beneficial owners of some companies. In his defense he claims that (1) he and his wife are personally not listed as owners of any such company (2) his two sons, who are listed, are residents in the UK and Saudi Arabia respectively and have complied with the laws of their resident countries, including those related to taxes and investment incomes in off-shore companies. As such, he argues, he and his family are immune from charges of wrong doing in any sense. But the critics, who are aplenty and include all the opposition parties and a large swathe of the media, raise two fundamental questions. The first relates to the law: what is the original source of the Sharifs’ wealth that is lodged in these off-shore companies? The second is moral: should the prime minister’s children do business via non transparent off-shore companies if they have nothing to hide?

In their defense, the Sharifs say that the purpose of their off shore companies is not to be opaque because they have done something illegal, but to be simply more efficient or profitable in the maze of tax laws in the countries in which they have invested their funds. On the face of it their argument is credible for two reasons: this is indeed one significant legitimate reason why many businessmen set up such companies. The Panamaleaks story does not accuse them of wrong doing. But the common presumption of wrong doing attached to off shore companies is difficult to dodge. Hence the demand for the PM’s resignation followed by his decision to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate whether any or all of those Pakistanis listed in Panamaleaks, including his family, have done wrong.

As the critics reject the inquiry commission on one count or another, it is worth asking whether or not Panamaleaks is fated to be Mr Sharif’s Panamagate.

The logic of analysis on that count is weak for several reasons. (1) It will be difficult to prove in Pakistan that the source of the Sharifs’ funds in Saudi Arabia and UK is illegal since the authorities in both countries have already deemed them to be legitimate. (2) It will be difficult to build a mass movement to overthrow the government because all the political parties, except for the PTI, are loath to pave the way for a military intervention to get rid of a democratically elected government. Since Mr Sharif has vowed not to be cowed down – as demonstrated by his resolve during the four-month dharna last year – nothing less than a naked coup will send him packing. But the domestic and international situation is not conducive for a coup despite continuing disagreements, even tensions, between the government and military on several counts. At home, a military coup will not be acceptable to the political parties and judiciary. Abroad, the US Congress will slap economic and military sanctions on aid to Pakistan. Given the hostility of Afghanistan and India and prickly borders, war with insurgents and terrorists, and a weak economy, no general in his right mind should want to seize power. Far better, it may be argued, to keep the civilian government weak and destabilized and amenable to the demands of the military than to take control directly and be responsible for the attendant sins of omission and commission.

At the end of the day, the only good argument is the moral one. Should the PM’s sons even do legal business under cover of off shore companies? The sad fact is that if charges of corruption against the Sharifs and Bhuttos, and immorality against Imran Khan, have never amounted to much in the eyes of the common people of Pakistan in the past, they are unlikely to do so now.

Apr 1

Moment of reckoning

Posted on Friday, April 1, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The bomb that killed over 70 innocent men, women and children last week in Lahore’s Gulshan Park, especially Christians celebrating Easter, was the handiwork of a TTP offshoot, Jamaatul Ahrar, that had also earlier targeted the Christian community. It wasn’t unexpected, even if there wasn’t sufficient information about which terrorist organisation would strike, where and when. The Taliban had announced that henceforth they would target civilians instead of security installations in order to instill fear, demoralise the public and undermine the national consensus against terrorism. Therefore we can conclude that this is not the first or last attack on civilians by the TTP, despite the fact that the anti-terrorist operations under the National Action Plan have met with a great deal of success in FATA and Karachi.

But the fact also is that anti-terrorist operations in Punjab have not been as aggressively oriented and successful as in FATA and Karachi, despite the claims by the Punjab government that the police has carried out over 50 such operations in the last year or so and killed over 20 terrorists and arrested scores of suspects. These figures seem insignificant considering that the head offices and base areas of all the sectarian and jihadi organisations, whose more extremist cadres have split away to join the ranks of the TTP or IS, are based in one part of Punjab or the other. There are two reasons for this. First, the PMLN is largely Punjab based and has a deeply conservative and religious ethos. So, party leaders are loath to alienate or provoke these religious parties or groups by targeting them. Second, the Sharifs are focusing on winning elections and co-opting as many conservative and religious groups as possible under the PMLN umbrella and the last thing they want is to stir a hornets nest against them, regardless of the national interest. Indeed, the PML is extremely sensitive to averting any popular backlash that recalls the attack on the Lal Masjid during the Musharraf tenure that alienated and angered a significant section of its constituency.

But this is about to change. Just as the attack on the Army Public School provoked the military to take matters into its own hands and win popularity among the public by going after the Taliban, this massacre in Gulshan Park has given the army a popular legitimacy to open a direct front against the terrorists in Punjab by brushing aside the political sensitivities of the provincial government. The Apex Committee in Punjab comprising the chief minister and his civilian aides faces the military across the table comprising several corps commanders and the head of the Rangers. Until now anti-terrorist operations were ordered by the Chief Minister and conducted by the police and intelligence agencies. After Gulshan, however, the corps commanders and Rangers are taking some initiatives on their own following orders from the army chief without regard to the political sensitivities of the Punjab government. It is noteworthy that the Punjab government has consistently rejected the proposal to invite the military to carry out anti-terrorist operations in Punjab under Constitution Article 147 as in Sindh. But de facto the military has now moved into Punjab and we can expect it to carry out a full-fledged operation against all manner of religious extremists. The refrain of the Punjab government that there are no “no-go” areas (political as well as geographical) in the Punjab will be sorely tested by the military by the self-extension of its writ. This is bound to create tensions in the civil-military equation, with adverse consequences as in Sindh.

The rise of the Barelvi sect as a political force on the back of the execution of Mumtaz Qadri is another significant development. The Barelvis were discriminated against by the extraordinary patronage to the Deobandis by the military establishment and Saudis since the time of Gen Zia ul Haq in pursuit of aggressive militant policies in the neighbourhood. Now, led by local firebrands with connections to the Middle East, various Barelvi groups have banded together to revive their collective sectarian fortunes. The dharnas in Islamabad and Karachi are signs of the times, another grim reminder of the deadly consequences of politicizing religion for strategic purposes that have proved to be hollow and ill conceived. The initial “mishandling” by the PMLN governments in Punjab and Islamabad that allowed the protestors to reach and occupy D Chowk in Islamabad testifies to the overly cautious approach of the Sharifs regarding religious sentiment. But it also compares unfavourably with the approach of the new military leadership under army chief General Raheel Sharif which approved the Supreme Court decision to uphold the death penalty to Mumtaz Qadri and then nudged the government to carry out the execution.

Truly, Pakistan is facing its final moment of reckoning. If the tide of religious militancy, intolerance and terrorism is not pushed back now, it will engulf the country in anarchy and implode it from within.

Mar 25

Real politik

Posted on Friday, March 25, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

General (retired) Pervez Musharraf is a free man in Dubai despite the fact that he is being concurrently tried in several cases of high treason and murder. No civilian can ever hope to get such extraordinarily lenient treatment from the government, opposition and courts of Pakistan.

General Musharraf was a successful coup-maker. As such, he had clearly committed high treason against the constitution. Yet the Supreme Court, which included Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, legitimized him by some dexterous judicial acrobatics in 2002. Then all the parties, including the PML, participated in elections under him and formed governments loyal to him. When elections rolled round again in 2007, the PPP did a deal with him – in exchange for an unsavoury NRO, it agreed to let him remain an all-powerful president. After the elections, all the parties allowed their ministers to be sworn in by him. After he agreed to relinquish office in 2008, the PPP gave him a guard of honour and no party, not even the PMLN, demurred. For five years, he roamed Pakistan and the world, lecturing and posturing, but no party charged him with high treason and no court took notice.

Then, in a grand display of high opportunism on the eve of the 2013 elections, the Senate – not the National Assembly — passed a unanimous resolution against him, demanding a trial for high treason. The Supreme Court now stepped in, contributing to the façade, and added all the legal reasons why he should be tried for treason and ordered a caretaker government to put him on ECL. When the PMLN formed government, the SC duly ordered it to lodge a treason case against Gen Musharraf. Suddenly, the SC under Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the PMLN under Nawaz Sharif, and PPP under Asif Zardari, had all woken up to take cognisance of the general’s treason.

From Day One, the treason and other trials have been a farce. The judges have been too scared to even order the government to produce Musharraf in court. The hospitals have been too scared to deny him medical certificates of ill-health. And the government has been too scared to treat him as decreed under law. Even as a prisoner, he has led a charmed life, never once tasting the inside of an ordinary jail. Now he has been allowed to leave the country for “medical treatment” even though everyone and his aunt, knows there is nothing seriously wrong with the cigar chomping, bridge playing, spirited general who likes to party.

The Sindh High Court ordered the government to take him off the exit control list but cunningly “stayed” its own order for fifteen days so that the government would have no excuse not to challenge it in the SC and take responsibility for letting him off the hook. The SC sat on it for a year and then passed the buck back to the government on the excuse that its orders of 2013 to put Musharraf on ECL were “interim orders” conditional to approval and sanction by the federal government.

The wretched PMLN government, which didn’t want to be caught with a hot potato in its hands, kept muttering that it had done so only because the SC had ordered it to do so, and begged the SC to order it to hold on or let Musharraf go. But the judges would not be caught with a hot potato in their hands either, so they ordered the government to take an independent decision without regard to the courts.

In June 2013, CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry and PM Nawaz Sharif jointly determined to teach Musharraf a lesson for their personal trials and tribulations and also send a message of deterrence to budding coup-makers. But after judge Chaudhry’s exit, Mr Sharif got a fresh dose of real politik in Pakistan.

First, regardless of who is army chief, the military as an institution will simply not allow civilians to put any general, let alone an army chief, in the dock for whatever reason, let alone for making a coup. Second, both army chiefs Ashfaq Kayani and Raheel Sharif personally owed General Musharraf and were bound to protect him, the former for paving the way to his succession and the latter for long standing “family” relations which allowed him to be promoted to three stars.

When this message was lost on Mr Sharif, the army destabilized him to the point of almost kicking him out, then humiliated the government and judiciary by stopping them from dragging Musharraf to the courts. Eventually, Mr Sharif learnt his lesson and stopped resisting the military for his own political survival.

It was a foregone conclusion that Musharraf would eventually be a free man and the cases against him would die a slow “natural” death owing to neglect and lack of interest. It can also be safely predicted that Musharraf will return to Pakistan and leave Pakistan at will in the future.