Dec 19

Déjà vu?

Posted on Friday, December 19, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The most gruesome and dastardly terrorist attack in the history of Pakistan earlier this week in Peshawar has had four significant consequences.

First, it has compelled Imran Khan to end his 126-day “dharna” to topple the government of Nawaz Sharif and instead join hands with it to combat terrorism.

Second, it has compelled PM Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif to review the old “strategic” distinction between the “good Afghan Taliban” and the “bad Pakistani Taliban” and announce that all Taliban are bad and the fight has to be carried to all of them.

Third, it has compelled the national security establishment to review its foreign policy options with Afghanistan, India and America in line with the Taliban’s internal security threat instead of the old formulation of the external threat from India.

Fourth, it has swung public opinion radically against the Taliban and there are calls for ending this menace of criminals masquerading as Islamists once and for all.

Realistically speaking, though, what can we expect from our policy makers on all four issues in the near future?

Imran Khan’s angry dharna was gearing up for the final heave-ho, or Plan D, to lock down Pakistan and force an army intervention to oust Nawaz Sharif when it was abruptly overtaken by the mass grief over the terrorist attack. But Khan says the dharna will be revived if Nawaz Sharif reneges on his commitment to set up a proper judicial commission to ascertain the truth about electoral rigging in 2013. Two important considerations lie behind Khan’s decision: first, the realisation that the army leadership has got its hands full dealing with the threat of terrorism in the context of two unstable borders and is in no mood to engineer a change of government in the current circumstances; second, that the grief-stricken people of Pakistan are in no mood to fuel Imran’s dharna in the midst of the tragedy in Peshawar and want to see national resolve and unity in the face of this challenge. This would suggest that Imran’s retreat is tactical rather than strategic and that he will be back on the streets next year when Nawaz Sharif’s judicial commission fails to deliver as demanded by him and when the military leadership is over the terrorist hump and back to “no-business as usual” with an uncooperative government.

PM Nawaz Sharif’s statement that there are no good Taliban is a matter of fact. But not so long ago he was unwilling to permit the army to fight the bad Taliban. In actuality, this is a matter of anti-terrorism policy that has been weak and ambivalent in the past. The distinction between good (Afghan) and bad (Pakistani) Taliban was made a matter of policy by the Musharraf regime and continued under General Kayani’s stewardship with both army chiefs playing a strategic “double game” of tactically hunting with the American hound and running with the Taliban hare. The Zardari-led parliament was also confused – it first resolved to talk to Sufi Muhammad in Swat and then swiftly ordered troops into combat. The Nawaz parliament did the same. It leaned on an APC to start talks with the TTP and then backed out when the army did a fait accompli and marched into Waziristan. Meanwhile, the much-flaunted “comprehensive anti-terrorism policy” is languishing in the interior ministry and there is not an iota of evidence to prove that the stakeholders are interested or on board. Therefore there is no assurance at all that the terrorism menace is going to be challenged institutionally by the government in the near future.

General Raheel Sharif’s trip to Kabul with evidence of Afghanistan-based TTP’s culpability in the Peshawar attack and request for assistance against the Fazlullah Group is in line with the new understanding being forged between the two countries in order to bring the Afghan civil war to an end and stabilize the Ghani regime. But the Pakistani security establishment will have to deliver the Haqqani or Mullah Omar network for sincere power-sharing peace talks with the Afghan regime if it expects Kabul to deliver Fazlullah to Pakistan. This quid pro quo has acquired a degree of urgency now. But there is no assurance that either side can quickly disinvest itself of its “Taliban assets” to the satisfaction of the other. Certainly, a truly radical shift in policy is needed in Pakistan to take advantage of the current situation.

The public’s anger against the Taliban may also not be sufficiently long-lived to provide a stable platform for policy overhaul. Already, a counter narrative about the “Indian hand” and “US responsibility” in the Peshawar massacre is beginning to take shape in the media and among radical Islamist groups. Indeed, in the backdrop of pervasive anti-West sentiment and politico-religious ideology, it will not be possible to exploit the current situation for long.

This is a historic opportunity to mount a concerted counter-terrorism strategy. Unfortunately, however, the civilian leadership is confused and incompetent while the military leadership is unwilling to break the ice unilaterally.

Dec 5

The Teflon Man

Posted on Friday, December 5, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Imran Khan’s “dharna” to oust Nawaz Sharif has taken so many twists and turns that it is difficult to predict his next moves. Is it all pre-planned? Or is he desperately trying to keep his political prospects alive by hook or by crook?

Once upon a time, Imran Khan lauded CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to the skies when the Supreme Court was going hammer and tongs against the NRO, when it sacked a sitting prime minister, and when it drummed up Memogate. But when the same CJP refused to entertain Khan’s petition against “electoral rigging”, he accused him of being the “chief culprit who rigged the 2013 elections”.

Once upon a time, Imran showered GEO with unstinting praise as the most outstanding TV channel in the country because GEO was giving him nearly 20% of all air-talk time, helping him raise funds for flood-affected people, and generally building him up as the great white hope of Pakistan. However, when GEO felt obliged to balance its coverage and critique, he accused it of kowtowing to Nawaz Sharif and committing treason.

Once upon a time, Imran Khan went to London to file criminal charges against the MQM’s Altaf Hussain. Then he accused Altaf of rigging the 2013 elections in Karachi. But recently he has been sugar and honey because he doesn’t want the MQM to disrupt or deny his dharnas in Karachi.

Once upon a time Imran praised the caretaker chief minister of Punjab for conducting the most neutral administration in the country. Now he is accusing him of applying “35 punctures” to PMLN’s losing seats.

Once upon a time, Khan profusely welcomed Fakhruddin G. Ibrahim as the fairest and most independent CEC in the history of Pakistan. Now he says Fakhru Bhai was complicit in the rigging by the provincial election commissioners.

Once upon a time, lying in his hospital bed the day after the election results were announced, Khan gamely accepted his defeat and vowed not to allow anyone to derail or destabilize democracy. (Asad Umar publicly appreciated the verdict and congratulated Nawaz Sharif.) Now he says the PTI was decisively robbed of victory not just in a clutch of Punjab constituencies but in all of Pakistan.

In all his thunderous and self-righteous allegations Imran Khan has never bothered to produce a shred of evidence or proof. Nor has he had the moral courage to defend his wild accusations in court.

Khan’s “dharnas” take the cake. Plan A was August 14 when the end was supposedly nigh for Nawaz Sharif. But it fizzled out in Islamabad’s D Chowk when the “third umpire” didn’t raise his finger and Tahir ul Qadri abandoned him. Plan B was another dharna on November 30. When it also failed to impress the government, Plan C was hastily announced to bring Lahore (December 4), Faisalabad (8th), Karachi (12th) and then Pakistan to a grinding halt on December 16 (quite forgetting that the Fall of Dhaka and dismemberment of Pakistan took place on that fateful day in 1971). The very next day, these dates were pushed forward and it was announced that instead of a general shutdown strike the PTI’s youthful activists would protest on the main arteries of the cities and allow business as usual to be conducted elsewhere.

Now the Mother of All Plans, Plan D, is being threatened if Plan C fails. God alone knows what is in store for Pakistanis. If Khan intends to run through the alphabet from A to Z, no one should be surprised. But he is losing steam.

Not so long ago, Khan was adamant that he would not stop before the ouster of Nawaz Sharif in August, then in November, then in December. Now he is predicting the end for Nawaz before Eid next year.

Unfortunately, pride and prejudice continue to stand in the way of sense and sensibility. Imran Khan says he will call off his dharnas if the government accepts his TORs for a judicial commission, assisted by the third umpire’s ISI and MI, that completes its findings in six weeks, and is assured of Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, followed by fresh elections if the commission finds widespread electoral malpractices. This is an impossible and unrealistic demand: the SC cannot be told how to conduct an inquiry; the government cannot be expected to refrain from laying down strictly verifiable TORs; and such an inquiry cannot be completed in six months, let alone six weeks. The talks wont get anywhere if Khan refuses to budge.

Agreed that Imran Khan is a dogged and timely campaigner against corruption and bad governance. Agreed, too, that he has galvanized the youth of Pakistan to rise and agitate for “change” like no one else before him. But he is tarring all and sundry who stand in his way while he is the Teflon Man against whom no charge will stick. The tragedy is he is doing his great cause a disservice by tilting at the windmills and spreading disorder and confusion across the land.

Nov 28

Breaking the deadlock

Posted on Friday, November 28, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu has ended with a whimper. All the leaders spoke passionately about the necessity of regional cooperation to alleviate the misery of 1.6 billion South Asians below the poverty line. This region accounts for a mere 3% of global output and 2% of world exports — in which intra-regional trade is only 5% of total trade compared to 66% in the EU, 53% in NAFTA, 32% in the Pan Pacific region and 25% in ASEAN. Yet they couldn’t agree to sign a single multi-lateral agreement on trade, commerce, energy or transport. Indeed, the leaders of India and Pakistan, whose attitude underlines the recurring failure of SAARC since it was founded 29 years ago, couldn’t even exploit this opportunity to talk about talks, even as each highlighted a critical dimension of the issues confronting them. Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif exhorted his regional colleagues to resolve simmering political disputes (an indirect reference to Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir) in order to pave the way for economic cooperation while India’s PM, Narendra Modi, talked about the need to tackle the menace of terrorism (an indirect reference to the 26/11 Mumbai attack originating in Pakistan) as a prelude to normalization of relations.

In essence, Pakistan’s position is that composite talks on all issues should begin simultaneously without any pre-conditions. But India’s position is that Pakistan must first unilaterally act against India-oriented Pakistan-based terrorist groups in general and the 26/11 accused facing trial in particular before any talks can begin. The irony is that until 1999 (when India’s proposal for a composite dialogue was accepted by Pakistan at the Lahore summit), it was Pakistan that had consistently pre-conditioned a dialogue with India on the core issue of Kashmir and spurned the composite dialogue approach.

Interestingly, from 2004-2007, a back channel between India and Pakistan made significant headway in trying to find a working “out-of-the-box solution” to Kashmir. But 26/11 terrorism derailed it. Equally, another back channel between the two countries after the election of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister of Pakistan in 2013 would have delivered MFN trade status to India if PM Modi had not abruptly cancelled the foreign secretary level review talks scheduled in August this year. Why did India cancel the talks?

India says it asked Pakistan’s High Commissioner in New Delhi not to meet with the Kashmiri Hurriyet leaders in the Pakistan embassy prior to the talks. But the fact is that India’s Foreign Secretary called up the Pakistan High Commissioner when one of the Hurriyet leaders, Shabbir Shah, was already in the embassy and another was scheduled to arrive the following day. Therefore the advice was not heeded on the grounds that it would have publicly embarrassed the Hurriyet leaders and soured relations with Pakistan. If the message had been delivered well in advance, before the Hurriyet leaders were invited, Pakistani sources say it might well have acceded to it in order to keep the secretary talks on track, as when Nawaz Sharif met with Narendra Modi during the latter’s inauguration ceremonies and didn’t meet with Hurriyet leaders. Why did India make this an issue at the last minute and is still refusing to reschedule the talks?

Clearly, the state elections in held-Kashmir have influenced Mr Modi’s decision to hold off on talks with Pakistan. Since becoming PM, he has visited the state five times in a bid to whip up the Hindu vote in Jammu and the Muslim vote in parts of the Valley at the expense of the Congress, enabling the BJP to cobble a majority of the 87 seats in the state assembly with the help of Muslim independents or anti-Hurriyet groups and parties. Under the circumstances, his policy may be to deny importance to the Hurriyet by cutting off its contacts with Pakistan.

But this line of reasoning would also suggest that once the elections in held-Kashmir are over in January, whatever their outcome, Mr Modi might be ready to restore the foreign secretary talks and get back on track for obtaining MFN trade status from Pakistan. The fact is that India benefits much more than Pakistan from an opening of trade and the pro-Modi business lobby in India is smacking its lips in anticipation of MFN status (whatever its formal denomination). Such an opening would, apart from giving India a slice of the 200 million Pakistan market, also automatically pave the way for Indian manufactured goods to reach the 300 million Central Asian markets via Pakistan even if Pakistan doesn’t allow India direct overland road access to Afghanistan.

This deadlock must be broken. India needs foreign markets. Pakistan needs stable borders. Both are hurting from terrorism in the region. Pakistan’s war against terrorism is now a reality in FATA. But the trial of the Mumbai accused also needs to be speeded up as a signal of our credibility vis a vis India.

Nov 21

Revisiting Nehru’s India

Posted on Friday, November 21, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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India’s Congress Party is in soul-searching mode after its unprecedented loss to the BJP in the last elections. Its favoured option is to try and revive the memory and legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru as the great freedom fighter and founder of modern India. A recent conference in New Delhi presided over by Mrs Sonia Gandhi attracted VIP delegates from all over the world to commemorate Nehru’s fiftieth death anniversary, extol his virtues and stress how he had laid the foundations of a great democracy on the basis of an independent economy, a non-aligned foreign policy and an assimilative secular ideology of the state. It is significant that Narendra Modi, the BJP superhero who has taken India’s rich and poor alike by storm, is opening up the Indian economy to foreign investment, aligning with the West and is publicly hostile to the notion of secularism.

Most Pakistanis see Nehru through the angry prism of Kashmir. He is the villain who annexed it forcibly and then reneged on his pledge in the UN to hold a plebiscite to determine its future. It is the “unfinished business of Partition” that remains the root cause of conflict between the two countries. But we also grudgingly acknowledge that without Nehru India would not be the enviable democracy it is today, while we are still struggling to anchor ourselves firmly in it. After all, in 1947 both India and Pakistan were “fraternal twins”, in the sense of an overlapping genetic and linguistic heritage, a common struggle against colonialism, a post-colonial state-bureaucratic system and a common Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. Both started off in quest of democracy. But India is a democracy today because it was a democracy yesterday, and the day before, and the day before. Each year of uninterrupted democracy has strengthened it. And it is Nehru who laid the foundations of freedom and democracy in India. But we in Pakistan have, from Day One, floundered on the rock of military-bureaucratic rule and autocracy. And that has made all the difference.

Broadly speaking, the choices made by Nehru in the first critical months and years sowed the seeds of democratic India. As prime minister he governed with a cabinet of elected civilians. In Pakistan, we opted for a non-elected, military-bureaucratic oligarchy. Nehru laid the foundations of an independent India on the basis of an independent economy (the Mahanalobis model). In Pakistan we opted for a free-market economy (the Harvard model) and became dependent on US aid. Nehru built a politically independent India without becoming part of the Cold War. Pakistan joined various defense pacts with the US and gave it military bases against the USSR.

Nehru scripted the story of India as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-regional, multi-linguistic state comprising many “nations” and peoples. The bedrock of the state was secularism. The bedrock of the nation was assimilation – internal unity in diversity. The bedrock of democracy was a consensual constitution, free and fair elections, regional state autonomy and economic and political independence externally.

But we were unlucky. The Quaid, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, didn’t live long enough to practice his vision for a secular Pakistan in which Hindus and Muslims and Christians would cease to be Hindus and Muslims and Christians, not in the religious sense but in the sense that all citizens of the new state would be equal. The bedrock of the new state became centralization under a military-bureaucratic oligarchy. The bedrock of the new nation became a form of non-assimilative and exclusivist Islam in which Muslims were more equal than non-Muslims. The bedrock of the new political system became a “guided constitutional democracy” with rigged elections and a dependent and indebted economy.

Modern Indian generations take India’s democracy and economic and political independence for granted. Therefore the Congress is not likely to cut much ice with them by harping on Nehru’s achievements fifty years after his death. Nor will he serve their purpose if they deliberately choose to block out the core element of his democratic vision – empowerment of the masses through alleviation of poverty, disease and illiteracy. This is precisely the “development agenda” that has caught the imagination of half a billion Indians on the margins of society no less than its middle classes and catapulted Modi to center-stage.

Another Nehru legacy has also fallen by the wayside. That is an enduring settlement on Kashmir. In 1962, Nehru sent Sheikh Abdullah to Pakistan but nothing came of it. In 1973, his daughter Indira Gandhi signed the Shimla Pact with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto but bilateralism didn’t get anywhere. The BJP tried to smoke the peace pipe with Nawaz Sharif and then General Musharraf (1999-2004) but Nehru’s Congress blocked progress despite the promise of an out-of-the-box solution that tilts in India’s favour. Now Modi’s BJP has frozen the process all over again.

Nehru’s Congress Party remains wedded to the Nehru dynasty. The irony is that this core strength of yesterday has become its core weakness today.

Nov 14

Welcome President Ghani!

Posted on Friday, November 14, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to Islamabad is critically important for one reason: given the burden of geography and history, there can be no peace, security and stability in Afghanistan without the active support of neighbour Pakistan. Therefore the visit should be aimed at ending the mutual distrust and hostility that has marred their relationship and paving the way for truth and reconciliation in cobbling a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.

On Islamabad’s part, it is clear that without a stable and neutral, if not friendly, Afghanistan, there will be no end to the scourge of terrorism that overflows the Af-Pak border and poses an equal existential threat to Pakistan. The new civil-military leadership in Pakistan understands this imperative and is keen to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions to national security problems with President Ghani.

There are some positive signs. Both countries have newly elected leaders who do not uncritically subscribe to the policies of their predecessors that sustained an environment of distrust and hostility. Pakistan has a new military leadership that is more responsive than its predecessors to the terrorist threat to Pakistan originating in Afghanistan. That is why Pakistan’s foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, and army chief, General Raheel Sharif, were the first to visit Kabul and meet President Ghani. President Ghani has returned the compliment by visiting Pakistan before visiting India. President Ghani has also toured two of Pakistan’s closest friends and allies – China and Saudi Arabia – before going to India, clearly with a view to activating all the important variables in the equation. Most significantly, he has not tripped over himself in accepting the offer of Indian weapons for his army by India’s new national security advisor, Ajit Doval, who met him in Kabul last month.

Clearly, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have legitimate security concerns involving the policies of the other. So there has to be give and take, step by step.

President Ghani wants an end to the civil war and foreign intervention that has plagued his nation so that he can stabilize, unify and rebuild his country; he wants foreign investment to tap his country’s natural resources and fund his development budgets; and he wants a strong army to provide the framework for his country’s security. On the plus side, he has won an election to gain legitimacy, shared power with Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik (Chief Executive) and Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek (Vice President) and is on the lookout for a new head of Afghan Intelligence who can start on a new slate with his new Pakistani counterpart. He has succeeded in persuading China to launch massive development projects worth billions of dollars in the next ten years. He retains the support of the international community, especially the US, in terms of economic aid and military umbrella. What is critically missing is a plan to end the civil war and terrorism that has laid Afghanistan low.

This is where a solid relationship with Pakistan is critical to President Ghani’s mission. The Taliban want to fight, not talk. They control large swathes of Afghan territory. And they have sanctuaries in Pakistan’s borderlands with Afghanistan. The Pakistani national security establishment has protected them for political leverage in Afghanistan aimed at forestalling any significant Indian footprint in Afghanistan that would put the East-West border squeeze on Pakistan. Efforts by the Afghan government and US to erode and break-up the Afghan Taliban/Pakistan “alliance” have failed to yield fruit. In fact, Indian and Afghan support for Baloch insurgents/separatists with sanctuaries in Afghanistan have hardened Pakistan’s resolve to “use” the Taliban to hurt Indian interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s refusal to help Afghanistan’s broken economy by way of opening trade corridors between Central Asia and India is also a direct result of its “enemy-India” outlook.

The problem is that until now the US and Afghanistan have refused to heed Pakistan’s India-related security concerns, which has made Islamabad all the more desperate to hang on to the Taliban as a means of redressing them. This is accentuated by the fact that India refuses to move forward on conflict resolution with Pakistan even on less contentious issues than Kashmir.

However, the outcrop of Taliban terrorism inside Pakistan has compelled a rethink of national security strategy by the new civil-military leadership. This is based on establishing better relations with India as a prelude to better relations with Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the Modi government has dashed hopes of forward movement by heating up the Line of Control and calling off the foreign secretary talks scheduled last August. This has compelled Pakistan to hold off giving MFN status to India. Under the circumstances, any attempt by India to buttress its leverage with the new Afghan regime is bound to antagonize Pakistan further. President Ashraf Ghani knows that foreign relations are all about quid pro quos. If he wants to reset ties with Pakistan to his advantage, he has to start by making sure that Afghanistan’s ties with India will no longer be to Pakistan’s disadvantage.