Aug 28

Turbulence ahead

Posted on Friday, August 28, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

If Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif thought he had weathered the storm kicked up by Imran Khan’s dharna-demand for fresh elections, he has another thought coming. If he thought that his unspoken understanding with the PPP to jointly withstand attempts to dislodge the federal government before it completes its five year term was as good as gold, he must now wonder at the speed with which that alliance is unravelling. Indeed, if he thought he had restored the civil-military imbalance in his favour by abandoning the treason case against General Pervez Musharraf and consenting to General Raheel Sharif’s demand to wage war against terrorism “on all fronts”, he must now be worried by the political consequences for his federal government of the dangerous political direction that “popular” war is taking by targeting and alienating the MQM and PPP, which together represent the electoral mandate of Sindh.

The verdict of the Judicial Commission was a great setback for the PTI. But much the same may be said of the PMLN’s current position following judicial verdicts against it in three of the four hotly contested constituencies in Punjab that form the core of Imran Khan’s demand for fresh elections. Indeed, if the JC took the wind out of Khan’s sails, the fall of three wickets, including those of two key stalwarts of the PMLN, heralds an anxious time for Mr Sharif. Imran Khan has now been joined by Khurshid Shah, the leader of the opposition from the PPP, in demanding the resignations of the four provincial election commissioners for failing to conduct the 2013 elections with due diligence. The PTI has filed a reference against the four in the Supreme Judicial Council, which means that the matter is going to remain in agitation mode and on the front pages for the near future.

The PMLN had originally decided to contest the electoral verdicts in the Supreme Court. That was a defensive tactic. But it has now decided to contest the by-elections and confront the PTI head-on in the court of the people. This is fraught with the great risk that if the PTI wins these seats, it is bound to become more aggressive in reasserting its demand for fresh general elections. Meanwhile, the first phase of local bodies elections for Punjab is scheduled for October 31. That will be a true test of the popularity of both the PTI and PMLN and will have a decisive say in the fate of the three NA constituencies in contention. Either way, the next three months could be make or break for one of them.

The war against terrorism in Sindh is now moving into second phase by targeting corruption. This means, principally, the PPP government in the province. When second-tier PPP “administrators” were arrested by the Sindh Rangers some months ago, Mr Asif Zardari was frothing at the mouth. That led the Sindh government to consider terminating the Rangers’ legal cover for operating in the province and only some last minute “negotiations” between the military, federal government and Sindh government stayed such a decision. Now the NAB-FIA Joint Investigation Team effectively under military command has arrested Dr Asim Hussain, a long time Zardari confidante and “business” associate, and compelled the Sindh Chief Secretary to seek bail before arrest from the Sindh High Court. This has set off alarm bells not just in Karachi but also in Islamabad. If the PPP Sindh government retaliates by withdrawing the writ of the Rangers, the military is bound to demand Governor’s Rule in the province. Since that is easier said than done under the provisions of the 18th constitutional amendment, the military’s ire may express itself in other provocative and destabilising ways. Meanwhile, the PPP is likely to explore ways and means of pressuring Mr Sharif to rein in the military or face the political prospect of losing its support against the PTI.

As if all this isn’t sufficient cause for concern, Mr Sharif must also contend with the domestic and international fallout of the aggressive Indian posture against Pakistan. He was hoping that a dialogue could be initiated via agreed proposals at Ufa. But the military has compelled him not just to oppose the Indian viewpoint on cross-border terrorism but also to demand talks on the Kashmir issue, which has effectively put paid to that hope.

Mr Nawaz Sharif’s relations with General Raheel Sharif have barely withstood the test of conspirators and agitators so far. But they are about to enter turbulent waters as the war against terrorism led by the military ruffles political feathers. Inevitably, this “war” will come closer to home in Punjab and Islamabad if it is to retain its “neutral” stance. That thought alone must give Mr Sharif sleepless nights no less than that of losing electoral ground to the PTI in the forthcoming local and by-elections, or politically alienating the PPP in Sindh.

Aug 21

The general in his labyrinth

Posted on Friday, August 21, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Generals Zia ul Haq and Hameed Gul were birds of a feather. Together, they drummed up an “Islamist-Jihadist” national security doctrine that entrapped Pakistan in a violent existential legacy that has stunted its economic growth, destabilized its polity, antagonized its neighbours and alienated the international community. No one, singly or jointly, could have done greater disservice to Pakistan. Consider.

The ISI was upgraded by General Zia when billions of dollars in arms and funds were funnelled through it to wage the US-Saudi sponsored jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the ISI, Gen Gul became the leading architect of the Mujahideen’s war in Afghanistan and dreamed of becoming the “conqueror of Jalalabad”. After Zia’s death in 1988, Gul tried to thwart Benazir Bhutto’s return to power by gearing up the ISI’s internal political wing to cobble the IJI and rig elections. When he failed, he unleashed the “Midnight Jackals” plan to vote her out. When that failed too, he joined forces with the army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, to nudge President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to oust her from office in 1990. After General Beg’s retirement in 1991, Gul lobbied desperately to become army chief. But when President Ishaq chose General Asif Nawaz Janjua, he openly sulked and defied his chief by choosing to resign rather than accept orders.

Astonishingly, after he retired, General Gul publicly mocked the constitution and the courts by boasting of his role in the unconstitutional interventions of the past.

General Gul was a self-styled “Islamist”. He ardently supported favourites in the Mujahideen’s civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. In 1991, during the first Iraq war, he articulated the theory that US forces would be defeated by Saddam Hussein’s army and the war would be long drawn out and leave a trail of body bags as in Vietnam. But the war ended in 15 days when Saddam Hussein’s air force was grounded by superior US technology and air power, compelling him to pull out of Kuwait and lick his wounds.

General Gul was also a great supporter of the Taliban. He lauded Mullah Umar when the latter refused to expel Osama bin Laden and triggered the American intervention in Afghanistan. But he openly scorned General Pervez Musharraf when the latter called off the jihad against India in 2003 and proposed an “out of the box” political solution to India on Kashmir that seemed to put the UN Resolution for a Plebiscite into cold storage for decades.

In the early 1990s, Gul tried to build up Imran Khan as the great Islamist saviour of the nation. But when Imran tied the knot with Jemima Goldsmith, he was bitterly disappointed.

General Gul was blinded by a visceral hatred of India. He never missed an opportunity to stand on the platforms of assorted jihadi organisations to thunder against “Akhund Bharat”. He was delighted when a clutch of ten jihadis from Pakistan sneaked into Mumbai on 26/11 and held the mighty Indian security forces at bay for 60 hours.

To his dying day, he remained contemptuous of Benazir Bhutto and all politicians, including Nawaz Sharif whom he had once tried to groom as a potential prime minister in opposition to her. When she survived a suicide bombing in Karachi upon her return to Pakistan in 2007, she accused him of being part of a conspiracy along with a few others to kill her.

General Hameed Gul nurtured a notion of “patriotism” built upon adherence to radical “political Islam” and “hatred of Hindu India”. Thus Pakistanis reared on these notions in textbooks and the media for over two decades came to view him as an arch “patriot” and “Islamic hero”, oblivious of the devastating consequences for state and society.

In fact, the philosophy of a state built on such notions has spawned a vast network of terrorists which now poses truly “existential” problems for Pakistan. It was General Musharraf who instinctively questioned this paradigm for the first time but he stopped short of taking his initiative to its logical conclusion. His successor, General Ashfaq Kayani recognized the crippling impact of the Zia-Gul legacy but lacked the courage to tackle it effectively. Now General Raheel Sharif has helped formulate a National Action Plan against this narrative and the first concrete steps are being taken on some fronts to try and turn the tide.

General Hameed Gul’s passing was not an occasion of mass mourning in any way, even though he fancied himself as a national hero of sorts. Apart from some die-hard ideologues among jihadist non-state actors, no one will miss Gul’s emotional outbursts and wild conspiracy theories. In his last years, he had become largely irrelevant and inconsequential as his world view collapsed around him.

One would like to believe that with General Hameed Gul’s passing an era of death and destruction and isolation and division has come to an end. But the jury is still out on that.

Aug 7

Apas Ki Baat-07 Aug 2015

Posted on Friday, August 7, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Jul 31

Eventful times

Posted on Friday, July 31, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

This has been an eventful week, to put it mildly. The good news is on three fronts: the Judicial Commission has wiped the self-righteous expression from Imran Khan’s face; the security agencies have eliminated Malik Ishaq, the self-confessed sectarian killer, and several of his fellow murderers; and the second round of serious talks between the stakeholders in Afghanistan has been announced. The bad news is that India is trying to ratchet up tensions with Pakistan again following a terrorist strike at a police station in Gurdaspur, close to the border in Punjab, allegedly at the behest of jihadi groups based in Pakistan.

Except for Imran Khan and his blind cohorts, the judgment of the JC was foretold: far from there being any systematic or designed conspiracy to steal the elections, the 2013 election results were a fair reflection of the mandate of voters, despite some lapses on the part of the Election Commission. Following on the heels of his own public admission and sworn statement in a civil court (in which he faces a libel suit for defamation) that the “35 puncture” allegation was just a political ploy and “not an assertion of facts”, this judgment has further dented Khan’s credibility and his fire-breathing advisors. After a string of U-Turns on core policy positions, Khan must now contend with the popular disillusionment arising from the rout of his conspiratorial year-long quest for mid-term elections. The setback has provoked rifts within the PTI and weakened it – originally only Justice (retd) Wajiuddin Ahmed had publicly pointed an accusing finger at Jahangir Tareen, Khan’s right hand advisor and financier, but now Hamid Khan, the veteran leader of the lawyers movement and a close confidante of Khan’s, has blasted Tareen for various omissions and commissions. Coupled with ferocious disagreements within the PTI leadership and government in KPK amidst mutual allegations of corruption, this presages rough times for the party on the eve of local bodies elections in Punjab. This will set the tone of public opinion in the next three years leading to general elections. As if all this wasn’t headache enough, the MQM and JUI are aiming to disqualify PTI members from sitting in Parliament and these have been joined by the treasury benches demanding an inquiry into the source of billions in funding for the PTI’s dharna, and contacts with treacherous retired military officials to overthrow the legally elected government of the day.

The elimination of the top sectarian killers based in Punjab points to the onset of a full-fledged operation against this scourge of terrorism that has laid Pakistan low. It confirms the fact that the COAS Raheel Sharif has persuaded PM Nawaz Sharif and CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif to support this action as an unavoidable logical extension in Punjab of the anti-terrorist operations in FATA and Karachi. Earlier, there were reports that the Punjab police had started action against sectarian hate mongers, publishers and printers. This is in line with the pressure of the Rangers on the Sindh government to act against madrassahs and seminaries spawning terrorists and terrorism. One by one, the military is breaking the links in the chain of terrorism and targeting each segment separately and sequentially and the politicians are being compelled to abandon opportunistic party political interests at the altar of the national interest.

News of the second round of talks between the Taliban and the other stakeholders relating to Afghanistan is even better. If this leads to a ceasefire, that would set the stage for confidence building measures to take up thornier issues of power-sharing, foreign troops in Afghanistan and the nature of the final Afghan constitution. To be sure, this is going to be a long haul. But the fact that Pakistan is able to deliver on its promise to bring the Taliban to the table for serious negotiations is a great beginning.

Unfortunately, however, the developing positive atmosphere regarding the anti-terrorist operations has been soured by the news of a terrorist attack in India whose footprints, like the one in Mumbai many years ago, allegedly point to Pakistan. While the Indian media and politicians have been quick to condemn Pakistan without a full investigation, it is good that the Pakistan Foreign Office has swiftly denied any Pakistani hand in it, condemned the incident and expressed sympathy with the people of India. But the Indians are now fashioning a new theory that posits an alleged tripartite alliance between angry Kashmiris, disgruntled Khalistanis and mischief mongering Pakistanis to destabilize their country. If there is any concrete evidence of this that the international community is ready to buy, it will definitely enable India to put a leg-up and despoil Pakistan’s hard won recent victories in the war against terror. Indeed, any renewed and heightened India-Pakistan tensions can disrupt anti-terrorism operations inside Pakistan and plunge the region into conflict and uncertainty again.

Jul 24

Water, water, everywhere …

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan is devastated by floods every year. The Economic Survey calculated that the country lost over 3,000 lives and more than $16 billion to floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The National Disaster Management Authority estimated the negative impact of floods on the economy of over $2 billion in 2013 and damages to over 1 million acres of standing crops. But how many Pakistanis know that their country has been classified by international environment agencies as the third most “water-scarce” country in the world, more “stressed” than the likes of Ethiopia and some other semi-desert African countries where famine, drought and disease are common?

Water availability per capita in Pakistan in 1947 was 5600m3. By 2020, experts claim it will be down to 855m3, a shortfall in minimal needs of over 30%. By contrast, it is 6000m3 in the USA, 5500m3 in Australia and 2200m3 in China. A new IMF report has sounded the alarm bell. It claims that Pakistan’s water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic metres or m3, used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest, suggesting that its economy is more water dependent than any other country’s in the world. Such levels of rising water consumption and depletion have dangerous consequences: the underground aquifers of the Indus Basin are the second most stressed in the world and groundwater levels, for example, are plunging by several metres every year in rapidly urbanizing parts of the country.

The situation is aggravated by inexorable climate change. Pakistan emits less than 1% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but is most vulnerable to climate change – rising temperatures and glacier-melt in the Himalayas threaten the life-blood flows of the country’s rivers – with very low technical and financial capacity to adapt to its adverse impacts. This trend is forecast to continue, with serious adverse consequences.

So if these dire warnings are routinely sounded, why hasn’t anything been done to avert the looming crises? Why haven’t we built more dams and reservoirs for better water usage? Why haven’t we resolved our political problems with upper riparian India so that India stops obstructing downstream river flows? Why haven’t we improved water administration and governance, why haven’t we reformed water-pricing formulas to reflect true costs and benefits to consumers? Instead of heavily subsidizing it from our annual budget, why haven’t we taxed the agriculture sector that consumes 90% of the country’s water resources? Why can’t we repair and maintain our canal systems so that we can free about 75 million acre feet of water and close the gap between supply and demand? Why can’t we restore the significant loss of storage capacity of the Mangla and Tarbela Dams? (Pakistan’s total dam storage constitutes only 30 days of average demand as compared to 220 days in India). In short, why can’t we fund new water infrastructure projects and water-conserving technologies?

Part of the problem lies in the lack of political will in cutting subsidies and reforming tax policies, especially in the rural sector that controls parliament and makes laws. Land ownership is a proxy for water rights no less than political clout. No political party wants land reform. No party wants to cut subsidies to the fertilizer and sugar sectors and lose elections. Part of the problem lies in the failure of the ruling classes to construct a national interest narrative that transcends provincial, regional and ethnic rivalries and demands – that is why the Kalabagh Dam hasn’t been built, that is why extraction and distribution of energy resources is now becoming problematic, that is why even the Chinese Belt project has now become enmeshed in sub-nationalist passion. Part of the problem is related to an unstable political system that is periodically derailed by a powerful military that controls the national security narrative. When civilians can’t be sure they will rule for their full five-year terms, why should they waste time pouring over long-term blueprints to salvage the national economy when quick fixes and “yellow” handouts will stitch up the next election? Except during the first bout of military rule under General Ayub Khan from 1958-68 when the Planning Commission ruled the roost with Five Year Plans and water infrastructure projects were undertaken, military dictators Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf had to make too many political and economic compromises for survival to think of long term projects in the national interest. Even do-gooding international donors are getting tired of revising funding requirements for such infrastructure projects because our sovereign guarantees are based on highly dubious budget forecasts and economic targets.

It took 25 years for the military establishment to realize that creating religious non-state actors for sum-zero foreign policy objectives could pose an existential threat to the country. How much longer will it take the elected civilians to realize that the country faces another existential threat? This one from lack of adequate provisioning for rationalized taxes to provide funds for long-term water infrastructure projects in the national interest.