Jul 11
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Democracy and Islamic Morality

Posted on Friday, July 11, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Politics is taking another ugly turn in Pakistan. Unfortunately, politicians are at the centre of the gathering storm, notwithstanding the provocative role of the military’s intelligence agencies to exploit some of them to cut others down to size and tilt the civil-military balance in the military’s favour.

The root cause of the current buffeting of state and society is Imran Khan. Barely one year after he gamely accepted the verdict of the general elections of 2013, he has changed his mind and is accusing the judiciary of having helped Nawaz Sharif steal the elections from him. His ire is directed in particular against ex-chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the very same gentleman who was praised to high heaven by Imran Khan when he was in the saddle and targeting the PPP government of Asif Zardari. CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry has been the object of Imran Khan’s wrath since he turned down Imran Khan’s petition to “open up” four constituencies in the Punjab for detailed scrutiny on the perfectly legal ground that the route for redressing such grievances lay via the election tribunals and high court to the Supreme Court rather than directly to the SC.

Imran Khan is impatient to get into Islamabad and is threatening to overthrow an elected government next August by a “revolutionary tsunami”. Not so long ago, he had defined Pakistan’s major problem as its inability to enable and allow the democratic system to continue seamlessly without interruptions in governments before their term ends, a reference to the periodic military coups and civilian ousters that have laid Pakistan low. Today, he is preaching and practicing the exact opposite, aided and abetted by the perennial clutch of backdoor hopefuls like Tahirul Qadri and the remnants of the PMLQ rump.

Imran Khan has also turned on the Geo/Jang Group (GJG) that played a major role in catapulting him to the top not only by giving him the largest chunk of airtime but also by uncritically approving his candidature before the elections. Apparently GJG’s continued support for Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, coupled with its pro-civilian stance in the civil-military equation, has roused powerful quarters to nudge Imran Khan to take up cudgels against it.

However, Imran Khan’s personalized attacks on Nawaz Sharif and Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry have muddied the waters and provoked counter attacks that threaten to bring the question of “Islamic morality” center stage in politics. Imran has always tried to occupy the high moral ground in politics despite the many skeletons in his cupboard. Now the stage is set for reprisals.

Dr Arsalan Chaudhry, son of ex-CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, intends to petition the Election Commission of Pakistan and challenge Imran Khan’s credentials to become a member of parliament on the touchstone of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution that define “a good Muslim”. The charge against Imran Khan is that he is the father of a child out of wedlock, which is against the provisions of Islam and which disqualifies him from becoming a member of parliament. This is the not the first time that Imran Khan has been thus accused but he has never had to defend his credentials for parliament on account of this charge. It is also not the first time that recourse to Articles 62 and 63 has been taken by election commission officials to disqualify candidates from contesting elections. So there will be a case to defend this time round.

This is most unfortunate. The inclusion of these articles in the constitution is a reminder of the huge damage done to it by General Zia ul Haq. Who is to determine who is a good and pious Muslim and who is not? Until now, election commission officials have been asking candidates to recite various Quranic verses as if ritual and rote knowledge of the laws of Allah qualifies someone to be a good Muslim. Regrettably, however, various parliaments have come and gone since these articles were incorporated into the constitution and none has had the courage to excise them. Now we are faced with an extraordinary dilemma: if the courts disregard the concrete evidence against Imran Khan, then they will be discredited; if Imran Khan is disqualified, it will amount to disenfranchising tens of millions of Pakistanis who fervently believe in and follow Imran Khan. Political instability will follow, especially since Imran Khan has vowed to drag Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the altar of Articles 62 and 63 in retaliation. Indeed, if a halt is not put to Dr Arsalan Chaudhry’s endeavors, it is quite likely that the floodgates of litigation will be opened and scores of fresh petitions will choke the courts.

What goes round comes round. Since definitions of morality in the Islamic Republic are quite loose, it is best not to derail democracy by clutching at Articles 62 and 63 or by thundering into Islamabad at the head of a tsunami. Sane council should prevail in all contesting camps.

Jul 4
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The General in the Dock

Posted on Friday, July 4, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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In an extraordinary interview to the BBC, ex-DG-ISPR, Maj-Gen (r) Athar Abbas has shed light on an issue that has long perplexed many analysts. Why, when friends and foes at home and abroad were all expecting the army to launch a military operation in North Waziristan in 2010-11 to stop it from becoming a base area for all manner of terrorists, did the then army chief, General Kayani, not take the plunge?

The question is critical especially because, according to Gen Abbas, the army’s formation commanders were generally agreed upon the necessity of such a course of urgent action in order to control the spread of militancy and terrorism, an assessment that has turned out to be correct because of the terrible loss of army and civilian lives at the hands of the terrorists based in NWA since then.

Gen Abbas has also explained the factors that led General Kayani to stay his hand. First, the army chief believed that in the face of such an operation the militant groups and tribes allied to the military in one way or another would turn against the army and join the militant groups. Second, he worried about how to expel the foreign militant-assets belonging to the Haqqani network and how to deal with the flood of IDPs that would inevitably follow a military operation. Third, he was concerned about the inability of the government’s other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to cope with the expected terrorist backlash in the settled urban areas. Fourth, in the absence of a national consensus, he was afraid about a militant reaction from the religious right wing. Fifth, he could not shrug away the probability that he would personally become a target for the terrorists like General Pervez Musharaf before him.

There is absolutely no doubt that General Abbas is speaking the truth. Two other facts support his statement. First, in March 2011, Maj-Gen Ghayur Mehmood of the army’s Seventh Division in North Waziristan told a group of specially assembled reporters that the “myths and rumours about U.S. Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it’s a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizable number of them foreigners.” This statement blatantly conflicted with the popular perception that the drones were the root cause of terrorism because of the collateral damage they inflicted. It led perceptive analysts to argue that Gen Ghayur‘s statement was deliberately given in order to pave the way for a military operation in NWA in cooperation with the Americans. Instead, it ended up sowing confusion when no such thing happened and Gen Ghayur conveniently “disappeared” from the scene without any censure, suggesting a change of mind at the last minute. Second, statements emanating from Washington DC, in particular from Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, who boasted of his friendship with Gen Kayani, confirmed that an operation was on the cards. Later, on the eve of his retirement, Admiral Mullen spoke bitterly of being misled by General Kayani and breaching his “trust” by going back on his word to launch the operation.

Gen Abbas’s statement is an indictment of General Kayani’s misplaced tactical concreteness. Three years later, with the death toll from terrorism exacting an existential price, the problem has become bigger because the state’s vulnerabilities have become more pronounced after the terrorists have used the time and space to become more organised and efficient. A more apt epitaph could not have been uttered: “For six years General Kayani kept vacillating over the issue and in six months, this leader (General Raheel Sharif) decided this is the crux of the problem. It’s a matter of how decisive you are, how much you have the ability to sift essentials from non-essentials”.

Why has General Abbas thought fit to shed light on this issue at this time and that too in an interview to the BBC? His answer – “the issue came up in the interview and I had to face the truth squarely” – doesn’t wash.

A productive line of reasoning would suggest that, like General Ghayur in 2011, Gen Abbas has obtained “clearance” for his interview from the “top”. General Raheel Sharif is saddled with General Kayani’s legacy in more ways than one, not least in a section of corps commanders and intelligence chiefs that might be a drag on the new army chief’s political, strategic and tactical vision. So it helps in exposing the failings of the past not just in order to achieve unity and success in the current mission but also to establish his own authority amongst his predecessor’s appointees. It is also important to send a strong signal abroad to the international community that this time the army leadership is not playing a “double game” and can be trusted to keep its word. What better forum to send this message at this time than the BBC.

Jun 27
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Who’s calling the shots?

Posted on Friday, June 27, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Dr Tahirul Qadri has revived the imagination of the media with talk of a “revolution”. He has triggered panic in the ruling party and government and provoked it to take desperate measures to deal with him. As a consequence, the perennial anti-democracy conspirators have crept out of the woodwork to predict that the end is nigh for the Nawaz Sharif regime. Is this assessment correct?

Dr Qadri is a religio-political maverick with a significant and dedicated following in Pakistan and abroad, thanks to his Grand Fatwa against “radical Islam” that is waging war with the West and its allies. Since his Minhaj ul Quran (MuQ) project took off in the 1990s, he has been trying to carve out a political career for himself in Pakistan by all manner of gimmicks and antics. But his scattered supporters have never been able to harness their excellent organisational skills for electoral purposes in Pakistan’s first-past-the-post system. Consequently, Dr Qadri has made several forays into Pakistan from self-imposed exile in Canada in the last decade and tried to whip up public and institutional support for his unbridled ambitions. Unfortunately, the established parties — religious, ethnic and liberal-centralist — will have no truck with a demagogue like him. Indeed, when his attempt to woo the Supreme Court in 2013 to remove the corrupt PPP government and postpone the elections backfired, he blasted the courts and high-tailed it back to Canada. Now, egged on by pro-military political orphans like the Chaudhries of Gujrat and Sheikh Rashid, he has returned to Pakistan in the expectation that perhaps the military, that is at odds with the Sharif regime for various reasons, will adopt him as its front-man to “save Pakistan” by dethroning the Sharifs.

Dr Qadri’s political histrionics have catapulted him to the top of media headlines. The Sharif government’s panicky response in Lahore, where police reaction led to the deaths of a dozen MuQ activists, and Islamabad, where an international flight bringing Dr Qadri to Pakistan was stupidly diverted to Lahore, have helped to make him temporarily as “the most dangerous threat” to the Sharif regime and added grist to the rumour mills predicting doom for it.

There is no doubt that the military leadership is unhappy, even angry, with Nawaz Sharif for not letting General Musharraf off the hook, siding with GEO instead of the ISI and dragging his feet on launching military operations against the Taliban in North Waziristan — in short, for challenging its historical monopoly on defining and exercising power on critical “national security” issues. But it would be misplaced concreteness to read this as a sign that the military is conspiring to seize power directly or even to install a long-term handpicked caretaker government. The military’s doctrine of “soft power” is aimed at cutting elected civilian regimes down to size and pulling strings behind the scenes, as it did during the Zardari years, rather than ruling directly in the face of the myriad problems that beset Pakistan.

This doctrine is based on a realistic assessment of the ground realities. First, the long-term existential war against terrorism and a separatist insurgency requires a national political consensus comprising political parties, state institutions and the media, which only an elected dispensation can deliver, however imperfectly. This objective neither Dr Qadri nor Imran Khan can deliver alone or collectively so long as the PMLN, PPP, judiciary and independent media remain outside the tent. Second, the economy requires tough and unpopular decisions that the military is loath to take. Third, Imran Khan’s reluctance to join forces with Dr Qadri is born of his refusal to play second fiddle. While Imran is certainly interested in hastening the demise of the Sharif regime followed by fresh elections, he is unlikely to support any extra-constitutional back-door entry along with the likes of Dr Qadri on the back of the military. Fourth, General Raheel Sharif’s soldierly temperament suggests that he is not about to let the ISI run GHQ as in the recent past. He would much rather use the ISI to get a freer hand to deal with national security issues vis a vis the elected government than conspire to seize power directly or enable unpredictable power-hungry people like Dr Qadri or Imran Khan to wield it on the military’s behalf. Indeed, he is also likely to be more focused on easing out the Kayani team in GHQ and ISI that he has inherited and replace it with his handpicked new one in consolidating his power base within the military and between the military and civilians.

However, the situation will remain precipitous for some time to come, with Dr Qadri and Imran Khan hogging the headlines and shaking up the government through demonstrations and marches. In the final analysis, however, it is General Raheel Sharif who will call the shots. And he is not about to wrap up the Sharifs despite the ongoing tension in civil-military relations.

Jun 20
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Momentous week

Posted on Friday, June 20, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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It has been a momentous week. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan launched one of its most audacious attacks to date on Karachi airport and exposed the state’s brittle security framework. This compelled the civil-military leadership to stop prevaricating and finally launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. This persuaded Imran Khan to patriotically line up behind the military and cancel his “disruptionist” rally in Bahalwalpur. This nudged Maulana Tahirul Qadri to postpone his “revolutionary long march” to Islamabad to overthrow the Sharif regime. This emboldened Shahbaz Sharif to signal a show of force against Tahirul Qadri’s base in Model Town Lahore. This ignited Tahir ul Qadri’s supporters against the police. This provoked the police to charge into them. This outraged Tahirul Qadri to exhort his supporters to embrace martyrdom. This triggered bloody violence in which nine TUC activists were shot dead by the police. This enraged Imran Khan and Qadri to revert to their plans to hold rallies and long marches to besiege Islamabad.  In the melee, two issues – a military operation against the TTP and General Pervez Musharraf’s freedom — that have bedevilled civil-military relations and nurtured conspiracy theories of the impending demise of the Sharif regime have been overtaken by new and more compelling ones. What next?

After the Sindh High Court predictably let General Musharraf off the hook, and the government predictably challenged its decision, the case is finally in the Supreme Court. If the SC orders the government to let him go, the issue will no longer hang fire and civil-military tensions will be diffused. But if the SC sides with the government, then civil-military relations will dive and conspiracy theorists will add fuel to the fire.  However, if he court throws the ball back into the government’s court, then all this tense rigmarole to assign responsibility for dealing with Musharraf will explode in the government’s face and it will be damned if it lets Musharraf go and damned if it doesn’t. The Troika of Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri and the Chaudries of Gujrat will then hone its tactics to suit the occasion later this month.

Meanwhile, the government will be formulating a strategy to deal with four issues later this month. First, it has to deal with Musharraf’s ECL problem following a decision by the SC. Second, it has to cope with the expected backlash – renewed terrorist attacks in the urban areas and a flood of refugees from Waziristan — from the military operation against the TTP. Third, it has to disrupt and degrade the plans of the Troika to besiege Islamabad.  Fourth, it has to help restore GEO TV without further alienating the military. It’s a tall order.

One quick fix option may be to let Musharraf exit without further ado and let GEO fend for itself against the military and focus on the other two issues. Coupled with full civilian backing for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the military may be sufficiently assuaged to rein in the Troika. But if the Troika is not amenable, then the government may be compelled to exercise subtle force to stop it in his tracks. It isn’t just the government that wants to be rid of Tahir ul Qadri. The TTP has also got him in its gun sights for relentlessly opposing “Islamic” terrorism. The problem is that if anything untoward should happen to him in Pakistan at the hands of the government or the TTP, the government alone will have to accept responsibility for the sins of commission or omission that could precipitate a full blown crisis of governance.

The option of allowing the Troika to march on to Islamabad is a non-starter. The government cannot rely on the police and Rangers to block the surging river of militants. Indeed, it would be foolish to even try, given the propensity of the police to create problems instead of diffusing them, and the loyalty of the Rangers to GHQ rather than to the Interior Ministry during crunch time. Nor can it expect a talking parliamentary majority to protect it from the surging masses laying siege to parliament itself.

The PMLN leadership has badly miscalculated the power and wrath of the military.  Barely one year in the saddle, it is facing a crisis of survival for which responsibility rests squarely on its own shoulders. The military has co-opted the media or silenced it, frightened the judiciary and roped in the opposition to thwart Nawaz Sharif.

Mr Asif Zardari’s PPP regime, like those previously of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif himself, was also confronted with the same dilemma. When it tried to clip the military’s wings, the Umpire hit back. But Mr Zardari learnt to avoid stepping on the military’s toes and leaned on Nawaz Sharif in opposition to hobble along. The same option is now on the table for Nawaz Sharif.  Will he live with Mr Zardari and let live with the military to fight another day? Or will he be true to form as in 1993 and 1999 and face the same consequences?

Jun 13
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State Response to Terrorism

Posted on Friday, June 13, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The audacious terrorist attack on Karachi airport by Central Asian terrorists has finally brought home one naked truth. The terrorists have cunningly utilised the space for “talks ” and “ceasefire” to entrench their fierce resistance to the state. The application of force only can now degrade and disrupt their plans. Accordingly, the military has announced its decision to go after terrorist hideouts in the tribal areas and solicited the help of American drones to take out targets. Does this signify a resolve by the Pakistani state to uproot the scourge of terrorism by all means possible?

Some questions are bound to linger and cast doubt about the state’s will and ability to go after the terrorists. Why didn’t the state come to this conclusion years earlier when high state functionaries like General Musharraf, Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, Benazir Bhutto, and several ANP leaders were attacked or killed by terrorists? Or when soldiers like Lt Gen Mushtaq Baig, Maj Gen Ameer Faisal Alvi, Maj General Sanaullah Niazi, Commandant Safwat Ghayur and scores of army and police officers were target assassinated? Why didn’t we respond when state institutions like Bacha Khan Airport Peshawar, Minhas Airbase Kamra, Mehran Naval Base Karachi, GHQ Rawalpindi, Manawan Police Training School Lahore, Askari Mosque Rawalpindi Cantt, Pakistan Ordinance Factory Wah Cantt, were targeted? Why has it taken the lives of over 50,000 people, including 5000 LEA personnel, to persuade us that we need to act firmly and finally against the terrorists who have laid us low?

The fact remains that there is still no consensus in state and society about a suitable response to terrorism. Should we still consider talking to the terrorists or should we fight them to the bloody end? Are there good terrorists and bad terrorists? Are these terrorists homegrown or foreign inspired? Is this a case of Intel failure or policy failure? Who is responsible for this crisis, soldiers or civilians, or both?  How should we deal with it? So many unanswered questions!

The irony is that since independence we have doggedly built a “national security state” against external threat and aggression and now find ourselves under relentless attack from an internal enemy. No one put it better than ex-army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who led the ISI and GHQ by turns, when he publicly confessed before retirement that the existential threat to Pakistan is internal and not external. The irony is that there are 33 police, army, paramilitary, security and intelligence organisations employing over 800,000 people and spending over Rs 1000 billion every year (half our tax resources) and they cannot protect us against this terrorism. A bigger irony is that – according to the National Internal Security Policy document drawn up recently by Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan – 56,000 vacancies exist in these 33 security organisations, absurdly implying that if these vacancies were to be injected into the ocean of over 800,000 security personnel, the internal terrorist threat would be effectively tackled.

There are two dimensions to the problem. The first relates to the State’s perception and assessment of various aspects of terrorism. The second relates to the State’s response to them on various fronts. If the perception is skewed, or distorted, or false, and therefore removed from reality for one reason or another, then the response is bound to be inadequate or misplaced.

It is correct that Hindus and Muslims couldn’t live together in one state because of economic and political discrimination. This led to the creation of Pakistan. But the narrative of post independence Pakistan that its survival is based on assessing and reacting to India in a sum-zero game as the permanent enemy is the fatal flaw that haunts this country.

There are two adverse consequences of this fatally flawed “national security” narrative. One, it has accorded primacy to the military over the civilian order. This has had adverse consequences for the rule of law, political stability and democracy. Two, it has justified the military’s doctrine of “asymmetric warfare” based on first-strike nuclear weapons and armed non-state actors for external meddling in the region to redress conventional military imbalances. This in turn has led to the growth of cancerous sectarian, jihadi and Taliban groups. Three, it has sanctioned a disastrous love-hate relationship with the United States which has stunted economic and political development.

Therefore it is not enough to launch “targeted” military operations against terrorists in the tribal areas. A new and comprehensive socio-political narrative is needed to educate the civil-military bureaucracy, media and judiciary about the primacy of the internal enemy and the need to build peace with, and diffuse, the external threat. This narrative has to be woven around notions of a civil-military balance, democracy, regional amity, global integration and universal human rights, and embedded in revised curricula and textbooks. The sooner the first steps are taken to signal a dynamic reassessment of the new realities, the better.