Jul 1

Offensive India

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

Offensive India

Statements from India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj have triggered a debate on the contours of Pakistan’s foreign policy and who is responsible for the stalemate in Indo-Pak relations.

Sushma Swaraj says “some powers are opposing cordial relations between Modi and Nawaz Sharif”. Mr Modi claims that there are “multiple power centers in Pakistan” which make it difficult for New Delhi to “draw a Lakhsman Rekha (red line) for talks with Pakistan.” He asks: “who should India talk to in Pakistan? The elected government or with other actors.” He goes on to explain that “there are different types of forces operating in Pakistan but we only engage with a democratically elected system”.

Both Indian leaders are referring to the powerful role of the military establishment in Pakistan in fashioning and implementing national security policy in which India figures centrally. They are thus implying that (1) the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif is severely handicapped in its ability to chalk out foreign policy, much less to deliver on it; (2) India is handicapped too because it will only talk to an elected government in Pakistan. The thrust of both statements is to inform the world that “democratic India” is willing and able to conduct a dialogue with Pakistan but Pakistan’s civil-military divide is an obstacle to it.

This has prompted Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, our interior minister, to ask Ms Swaraj “which powers in Pakistan don’t want India-Pak ties” and to admonish her for “personalizing the nature of the cordial relations between PM Modi and PM Sharif”. Sartaj Aziz, our de facto foreign minister, has retaliated by portraying Pakistan as the evergreen peace player and India as the perennially intransigent one. If both sides are being economical with the truth, what do the facts reveal?

It is true that the military establishment has fashioned the “national security state” of Pakistan and considers itself its “sole” guardian and arbiter. It is true that Pakistan’s foreign policy is shaped directly and indirectly by it. It is true that when elected civilian leaders like Benazir Bhutto in 1988-90 and Nawaz Sharif in 1997-1999 tried to steer India policy out of the hands of the military establishment in significant departures from their stated goals, they were “dismissed” for their audacity. But it is also true that India has been willing to talk to the generals when they have been in power in Pakistan, so long as it served its strategic goals. It was ready to talk to General Zia via cricket diplomacy in 1987 and it talked with General Musharraf at length in the 2000s via a back channel over the future of Kashmir.

Therefore the problem with India is not who to talk to in Pakistan but what to talk about. Pakistan has always wanted to talk about Kashmir first and foremost but India has always put other issues like trade and people-to-people contacts on the agenda and Kashmir last of all. This led to deadlock. But the situation has changed significantly in the last decade without breaking the deadlock. Pakistan is ready to relegate Kashmir to the status of a fig leaf and discuss all other issues, including terrorism, but India now insists on talking about terrorism only without any commitment to discuss other issues like trade, let alone Kashmir. In fact, India is only interested in focusing on one dimension of terrorism – that which emanates from Pakistani soil – but refuses to acknowledge, let alone discuss, RAW’s new doctrine of “offensive-defense” in sponsoring terrorism against Pakistan. In fact, it can be argued that since the activation of RAW in Pakistan by India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, India has been avoiding talks on terrorism and focusing on “enlightening” the world about Pakistan’s “sponsorship” of terrorism across its eastern and western borders. This, regardless of the fact that Pakistan has signaled its readiness and goodwill by concretely alerting India to the threat from non-state actors in Pakistan, a gesture that India has grudgingly acknowledged by saying that “the government or agencies in Pakistan have no hand in the terrorist attack on Pathankot airport.”

It is therefore disingenuous of Mr Modi and Ms Swaraj to refer to multiple centres of power in Pakistan as the sole reason for not talking to the civilian government in Pakistan. Even the Pakistani military’s worst critics at home and abroad now admit that its focus is on grappling with terrorism inside Pakistan as an existential threat to state and society and not in consciously exporting terrorism to India or Afghanistan as state policy.

Pakistan’s civil-military leadership is ready to talk strategic peace with India even if there are tactical differences of opinion within it on how to proceed sequentially. But it is Narendra Modi’s India that has fashioned a new strategic doctrine to isolate and destabilize Pakistan in which talks of any sort, even on trade in which the balance of gain is heavily tilted in India’s favour, are thought to be counterproductive.

Jun 24

Carnival of Fools

Posted on Friday, June 24, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

There’s never a dull moment in Pakistan. But even by our political standards, last week was a veritable carnival of fools.

Khawaja Asif, the defense minister, called Shirin Mazari, the PTI’s information secretary, a “tractor trolley” in parliament for constantly heckling him. He had to eat humble pie in public but remained unrepentant in private.

Marvi Sirmed, a rights activist, and Senator Hafiz Hamdullah of the JUI, had a verbal spat on TV that provoked the mullah to abuse and threaten her physically. Marvi protested before the Senate chairman and filed an FIR with the police. But the senator is unrepentant in public even if he has been chastised in private.

Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, had heart bypass surgery in London at the Harley Street Clinic. But a couple of TV anchors wondered how heart surgery could be performed at a “clinic” instead of a “hospital”. A few actually said that all this was a sham just to earn sympathy from a public disgusted with Pananaleaks. Some advised him to call it a day. Others speculated whether Shahbaz Sharif or Mariam Sharif would inherit the PMLN.

Ayyan Ali, the supermodel charged with currency smuggling, has accused Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, of contemning the Supreme Court (SC) by refusing to let her leave the country. Both the Sindh High Court (SHC) and the SC have ordered the government to remove her name from the Exit Control List but the gent who determines the ECL just wont let go. This has provoked the Chief Justice of the SHC to threaten the interior secretary with prison and SC Justice Azmat Saeed to ask why, when smugglers and tax cheats and assorted criminals can come and go freely, a fashion model who has obtained bail from the Lahore High Court has aroused the ire of the interior ministry.

But Chaudhry Nisar has other fish to fry. He is busy scolding Sushma Swaraj, the Indian foreign minister, for trying to put a spoke in civil-military relations in Pakistan by alleging a rift between the government and military establishment on making peace with India. This is rich, considering that civil-military estrangement is the talk of Pakistan, and the world, not just India. Chaudhry Sahab has also ordered the Sindh Chief Minister, Qaim Ali Shah, to ascertain the source of the leaked video confessions of Dr Asim Hussain, a PPP stalwart and confidante of the PPP chairman Asif Zardari. This is richer still, considering that Dr Hussain was in the Rangers’ custody before being remanded to NAB, both of which are operating in Sindh with the backing of the federal government, and the videos were taken during interrogation by these very agencies. It is also adding insult to injury, not so long ago, when Mr Shah had protested the innocence of the good doctor, Chaudhry Nisar had publicly boasted of being in receipt of such confessional videos.

Meanwhile, Mr Sartaj Aziz, the foreign advisor, is nursing his wounds. It seems nobody is treating him like a real foreign minister while blaming him and the Foreign Office for Pakistan’s mounting foreign policy failures. Mr Aziz has, perforce, to take responsibility for strained relations with neighbours Iran, Afghanistan, India and superpower America. But he can’t very well explain why Iran is mad at Pakistan (an ISPR tweet upset the Iranian President when he last visited Islamabad) because that would further strain civil-military relations. For much the same reason, he cannot explain why Pakistan hasn’t been able to deliver the Taliban leadership to the quadrilateral table with China, Afghanistan, America and Pakistan (Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says General Raheel Sharif promised to do so by the summer of 2015).

What takes the cakes, however, is Mr Aziz’s explanation for the dismal state of relations with America. Mr Aziz holds Pakistan’s ex-Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, responsible for single-handedly thwarting the heroic and untiring efforts of Prime Minister Sharif, COAS Sharif, Pakistan’s Foreign Office, Mr Tariq Fatemi, and our Ambassador to Washington to mend relations with America. Lest anyone forget, Mr Haqqani was charged with treason in Memogate in 2011 and banished from Pakistan by the same national security establishment (in cahoots with the PMLN) that later conspired with Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri to try and oust fellow Memogate petitioner Nawaz Sharif via dharnas in 2014. If Mr Haqqani is such a super lobbyist, why can’t Mr Aziz bring himself to admit the error of making a traitor of him, and put him to good use working for Pakistan instead of against the establishment that outcast him earlier and is now scapegoating him for its abject failure to strategize an effective foreign policy?

Fortunately, there was one case of ascending from the ridiculous to the sublime. Asma Jehangir told the SC that the ISPR should be “monitored and regulated” because it was “allegedly maligning politicians and civilians”. But the chances of this happening are as slim as those of a snowball in hell.

Jun 17

Input-output analysis

Posted on Friday, June 17, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan’s relations with India, Afghanistan and the US remain prickly. Since the core of our national security strategy is focused on all three countries, it is worth asking who in our civil-military establishment is responsible for this failure of strategic policy.

Let us admit some hard facts. Since independence, Pakistan has been fashioned by the powerful military establishment as a “national security state” in which law, constitution, economy, democracy and foreign relations are all subservient to a strategic doctrine of “national security” defined by the military in which India has figured as the perennial arch-enemy. This doctrine and the consequent national narrative that flows from it is embedded in the national consciousness by virtue of the military’s direct political over-lordship of state and society during three decades of rule by Generals Ayub Khan, Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf and indirect stewardship when corrupt, inefficient and weak civilian rulers have been in office. Indeed, whenever the military has seized power from the civilians it has cited “overwhelming national security concerns” as a key motive. In fact, all the key foreign policy decisions since independence have been taken by the powerful military establishment while the weak and divided civilians have meekly acquiesced. These include the anti-USSR Cold War alliance with the US, pushing East Pakistan into secessionist mode, sponsoring jihad against USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s, triggering war and conflict with India on four occasions, playing favourites in Afghanistan by installing the Taliban in Kabul in 1997 and giving them safe havens in Waziristan after 9/11 in pursuit of another national security offshoot doctrine of “strategic depth”. As a consequence, the military has also nourished non-state jihadi and sectarian actors for “liberating” Kashmir from India and opposed trade and peaceful co-existence with India. As a result any potential economic dividend from peace with neighbours has eluded Pakistan.

To be fair, however, the fact also is that since General Musharraf’s time the military establishment has been critically reviewing its national security doctrine and making significant adjustments in view of changing geo-political realities. After 9/11, it abandoned the doctrine of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. In 2005, it realized the futility and negative consequences of sponsoring jihad in Kashmir and slowly turned off the tap. In particular, it abandoned the “core” idea of “Kashmir banay ga Pakistan”. By the time General Ashfaque Kayani retired in 2013, the military’s national security doctrine had also abandoned the cherished notion of a “pro-Pakistan” Afghanistan and settled on sponsoring a neutral Afghanistan that would not be hostile. Most significantly, the national security doctrine now postulated the “enemy within” (religious terrorism) as an “existential” threat to state and society and not the external enemy India. Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a natural and powerful exposition of this doctrine by General Raheel Sharif. These developments amount to an evolving paradigm change in the outlook of the military in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, however, the historical burden of distrust and double-dealing among the key players in this region – Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and the US – is creating stubborn obstacles in the way of this process of stabilising Pakistan and the region. The key players in Afghanistan are all agreed on a joint multi-lateral approach to establishing peace in Afghanistan but each wants to put the onus of core responsibility (“do more”) on the others. This is a major source of tension between the Pakistani military establishment and the other regional players, especially America and Afghanistan. Internally, the civilians and military in Pakistan are also, finally, on the same strategic page. But much the same burden of historical civil-military distrust has muddied the waters and lead to tensions and frustrations.

This is the context in which we should address the question of “who makes foreign policy” and who is responsible for its success or failure in Pakistan. The military says it simply gives its “input” into the making of foreign policy for which the civilians are ultimately responsible. But the civilians say with greater justification that the military is the key determinant of policy because the instruments of its implementation are squarely in its hands. If the civilians wanted the military to attack the Haqqani network and push it out of Pakistani border lands or if the civilians ordered it to drag the Afghan Taliban to peace negotiations (as demanded by the regional players), of if they wanted it to disband the jihadis and help the government confront the radical religious outfits, would it be able or willing to do so? If the civilians wanted to make unilateral trade and overland concessions to India in a non-sum zero game, would the military agree or would it sabotage any such initiative?

Therefore this is not a matter for a full time civilian foreign minister to redress as opposed to a coterie of foreign policy advisors. This is really about elected civilians demonstrating greater know-how, ability and vision to steer the country out of troubled waters as much as it is about the military relinquishing its grip over national security tactics and strategy.

Jun 10

Budget 2016-17: who’s unhappy?

Posted on Friday, June 10, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s job is not enviable. He is a prisoner of several political, economic and national security constraints that severely circumscribe his ability to implement the deep structural reforms needed to put the economy on track for sustained long-term growth. Consider.

There is one fundamental issue that overhangs all others. That is each government’s inability or unwillingness to levy direct taxes on millions of income earning and rent seeking Pakistanis. Consequently, our Tax to GDP ratio at barely 13 per cent is insufficient – the global standard for emerging markets is above 20% — to meet our minimum necessary expenditures to uplift the economy, create jobs and alleviate poverty. Indeed, even when the FBR is able to meet its tax revenue targets – as it did this year – it does so by juggling with indirect taxes (direct tax target was short by nearly Rs 240 billion) whose burden is disproportionately felt by the poorer and lower income sections of the populace, thereby increasing real inequality. Unfortunately, there is no plan in Mr Dar’s budgetary proposals to effectively tax the income of millions of Pakistanis who operate in the black economy. Every government talks about it but doesn’t have the political will to crack down on tax evaders. Instead, existing taxpayers are pressurized to cough up more and more.

There is an allied structural issue. Nearly 60% of Pakistan’s GDP comes from the Services (entertainment, professional fees, etc) sector. But this barely accounts for 30% of total tax revenue. Similarly, the agriculture sector contributes above 20% of GDP but pays next to nothing in taxes because it remains in a perennially “depressed” condition with low productivity, low output, high input costs and pre-capitalist social and economic relations of production. Without radical land reform, biotech applications and realistic support policies for inputs and output, there is no scope for higher incomes and resultant taxes in this sector. But reform is precluded by a host of political and economic vested interests that are milking the status quo.

These revenue “constraints” inevitably put a brake on expenditures and therefore growth. As matters stand, all the tax revenue is gobbled up by two poachers: defense and debt servicing. In other words, all development expenditures must come out from more local and foreign debt or foreign investment and aid. The latter sources have been progressively drying up – foreign investment was barely US $1 billion last year because of our “national security” policies that have led to regional alienation, international isolation and domestic political instability. Corruption and bad governance in every ruling party has exacerbated the problem. So every government has to plug the gap between actual revenues and projected expenditures by deficit financing, ie, borrowing from the banks that are happy to lend, thereby crowding out the private sector. But this is a vicious circle and national debt as a proportion of GDP (over 60%) has been progressively rising over the decades. But such deficit financing is limited by two factors: the political necessity of keeping inflation low and donor programs (like those of the IMF that are needed for international balance of payment and currency stabilization reasons) that require it to come down to manageable proportions.

Therefore a degree of “fudging” to show an unduly healthy picture of the economy is to be expected. It begins even before the ink on the budget speech has dried in the form of supplementary budgetary grants for expenditure overruns and continues throughout the year. Defense expenditures and subsidies for loss making public sector enterprises or vested private sector entities like the sugar and fertilizer industry are the main beneficiaries (nearly Rs 240 billion this year). The government is also ever ready to manipulate GDP growth figures. Whenever there is a change of guard, the incoming regime deflates the growth figures of the outgoing government so that its own subsequent performance looks good in comparison. Independent think tanks claim GDP growth is about 3.1% over 2015-16 whereas the government is boasting 4.7%. The agriculture sector – whose cotton and rice output is the mainstay of our export regime — has actually declined by 2% but the government is putting a lid on its dismal performance for political reasons by claiming only stagnancy at minus 0.2 per cent! Is anyone unhappy with the budget?

The top export earners are relieved because their inputs and outputs remain out of the purview of duties and taxes. So too are government employees and pensioners because they have got a raise in emoluments above the rate of inflation. The military has got its usual pound of flesh. The bureaucracy’s perks and privileges are untouched. The subsidies of loss making public enterprises are intact, as are the profits of the fertilizer industry, automobile lobby and sugar barons. The retail trade sector that is a PMLN vote bank remains largely tax-immune. Only tens of millions of the poor, relatively powerless, impoverished and unemployed have been left to desperately fend for themselves on the margins of society.

Jun 3

New lease of life?

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

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s emergency heart surgery in a London hospital has created unforeseen political consequences. His absence from Pakistan has stalled talks between the opposition and government on mutually acceptable Terms of Reference for Panamaleaks. It has sown confusion in Pakistan’s foreign policy because Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, has stepped into the vacuum with undue enthusiasm. It has also taken the sting out of the combined opposition’s plans to overthrow him. Everybody, blind loyalist as well as passionate detractor, is praying for his wellbeing and speedy recovery. Even archenemy Imran Khan has sent a bouquet of flowers to cheer him up in hospital. Under the circumstances, Mr Sharif has veritably got a new lease of life!

At the outset, there is deadlock in negotiations over the proposed TORs for investigating corruption and money laundering. The opposition wants to focus exclusively on targeting Mr Sharif even though he is not named personally in Panamaleaks. Naturally enough, the government wants to investigate everyone of any disrepute except Mr Sharif. The opposition wants quick results. The government wants to delay matters as much as possible. With Ishaq Dar, the government’s chief negotiator on Panamaleaks preoccupied with budget issues and Mr Sharif also out of action all of June, the government can validly claim delays and frustrate the opposition’s desire to raise the political temperature. Therefore June is likely to be inconsequential. Indeed, if Imran Khan tries to cut short the negotiations in July and revert to street agitation, he may not find too many takers in the opposition.

The confusion in foreign policy is indicative of the PMLN’s personalized approach to decision making. Despite the presence of Sartaj Aziz as advisor on foreign affairs and Tariq Fatemi as special assistant on foreign affairs and Khawaja Asif as defense minister, it fell to Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, to comment on the US drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansoor two weeks ago. Unfortunately, the good Chaudhry has only served to muddy the waters. First he thundered against the US for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. Then he said he wasn’t sure the man killed was Mullah Mansoor. A week later, after the US had reconfirmed the identity of their target and the Taliban had elected a new Amir, he admitted this fact of life. He also woke up to claim that Pakistan’s air space was not violated by American drones because they were operating over Afghan airspace! While all this was going on, the Foreign Office called in the US ambassador and duly ticked him off for crossing red lines, and His Excellency called on the army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to apologise and make amends. Chaudhry Nisar also saw fit to slip into the robes of the defense minister and thunder against GHQ’s decision to hand over the management of a border post to the Afghan army. Can a “full time” foreign minister better manage foreign policy as advocated by many analysts (“too many cooks are spoiling the broth”) when a full time defense minister cannot better manage military matters and a full time National Security Advisor cannot better manage national security? The problem is not the absence of a full time foreign minister for formulating foreign policy but the ubiquitous dominance of the military establishment in implementing foreign and national security policy. In fact it can be argued that the military establishment prefers to exploit multiple centers of influence in the ruling part’s hierarchy because it gives GHQ greater leverage to pull strings and have its way on the ground. Of course, Mr Sharif’s style of personalized decision making and reliance on family and personal loyalists rather than professionally competent managers and advisors exacerbates the problem.

When Mr Sharif returns to Pakistan after the end of Ramazan, he will be thinking primarily of how to survive in office the next couple of months. He knows that if the “third umpire” remains neutral, Imran Khan’s street movement will not amount to much. But if he senses some undesirable stirrings amongst the generals in their labyrinth, he may take steps to thwart such ambitions. General Raheel Sharif’s replacement can be announced by end August, thereby making him a lame duck. Or the government may float new legislation aimed at giving the post of army chief a four-year tenure, thereby extricating General Sharif from his public commitment not to seek an extension whilst placating him at the same time.

All this will pass, surely. What will remain debatable is the primacy or relevance of notions of corruption and morality in the body politic of Pakistan. Both issues are important in the mind of the urban middle classes even though they don’t muster many votes in elections that are still dominated by considerations of caste, biradari, dharra, creed or party loyalty instead of concrete issues. Even more suspect is the frustrated notion that a military intervention is the true cure of corruption.