Apr 17

For whom the bell tolls

Posted on Friday, April 17, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

After much hand wringing and soul searching, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided to abandon “neutrality” in the civil war in Yemen as originally resolved by a consensus in Parliament. The PM’s new formulation clearly says that the government of Manzur Hadi in Yemen was legitimate and the Houthis’ attempt to seize power is illegitimate.

This brings Pakistan one step nearer to sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty” in the event of any Houthi incursions across the Yemeni border. Indeed, the PM’s reference to the defense of Saudi Arabia, “despite the ongoing commitment of our armed forces to Zarb-e-Azb”, is a direct allusion to the probability of sending troops to Saudi Arabia at some stage.

Accordingly, a delegation led by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Sartaj Aziz has landed in Riyadh to reassure the Saudi leaders that Pakistan is not a fair weather friend and will stand by KSA in its hour of need. Doubtless, they will also explain some political obstacles in the way of immediately dispatching troops – public opinion is vehemently against shedding any Pakistani blood in Yemen on behalf of the Saudis because no one believes this is a Shia-Sunni conflict or that KSA is seriously threatened, and everyone believes that the negative blow-back from previous Pakistani adventures in Afghanistan has laid Pakistan so low that another such intervention would plunge the country into fratricidal sectarian strife. Also, the fact that GHQ hasn’t been tripping over itself to dispatch troops, despite the obvious lucre attached to this demand, suggests that it has its hands full dealing with the current anti-Taliban operation and the perennial Indian threat.

In effect, Mr Sharif is buying time to cobble a group comprising Pakistan, Turkey, Qatar and Iran to negotiate a ceasefire in Yemen even as he is making all the right sounding moves and noises to appease the Saudis and Gulf Sheikhs. This strategy is in line with the latest UN Security Council resolutions pushed by the Saudis to apply sanctions on the Houthi leaders and their allies, as a prelude to negotiations over a power sharing formula (as in 2012) to end the conflict. Iran has also floated a four-point plan starting with a ceasefire and ending with a power-sharing agreement between northern and southern contenders.

This is a tricky situation for Pakistan. Mr Sharif cannot afford to be either too emotional or overly cold blooded. The first would imply siding unthinkingly with public opinion and telling the Saudis to go fly a kite because of their racist arrogance. The second would start counting oil and dollars and rush troops to defend bonanza-lands in the Gulf and ME. Certainly, a prime minister who has barely survived a grand conspiracy to unseat his government should not be doing anything to precipitate a new political and economic crisis that would most definitely follow a backlash from the Saudis and Gulfdoms if their desperate cries for help are blithely ignored. Over 3 million Pakistanis work in these countries and remit over $11 billion a year to sustain nearly 30 million Pakistanis across the country. If these workers and their hard earned monies were to be sanctioned by their hosts, angry Pakistanis would spill over into the streets against both the Arabs and their Pakistani ruling class brothers. The economy would face a balance of payments crisis and the rupee would slide in parallel with forex reserves. Inflation would rise, hardship would follow and there would be fresh calls and agitation from the political parties for the ouster of the Sharif regime. Indeed, the very political parties that are insisting that Mr Sharif should refuse troops to the Saudis and maintain “neutrality” would be the first ones to demand his resignation when such a policy leads to an angry and hurtful response from the Saudis and Gulf Sheikhs.

When formulating policy, Mr Sharif should also be mindful of the internal politics behind Saudi Arabia’s aggressive external posture. This has to do with two factors. First, the historical Faustian bargain between the rigid and ultra-conservative religious establishment of the country and the House of Saud (that favours a modicum of reform in response to the challenge of modernity) is fraying at the edges. A conflict such as this one tends to put this power struggle on the back burner. Second, there is an attempt by King Salman to elevate his son, Defense Minister Prince Mohammad, over the legitimate aspirations and expectations of two half brothers in line to succeed him, especially Crown Prince Muqrin. If this Saudi intervention in Yemen should succeed, it would be a crowning glory for the young pretender to the throne who has fashioned it in order to launch Saudi Arabia as the new policeman of the region after disillusionment with the US following its nuclear deal with Iran. If it fails, the bell will not just toll for him.

Apr 10

Return of the Prodigal

Posted on Friday, April 10, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf has signed on the dotted line of the Ordinance by the PMLN government to set up a judicial commission (JC) of three Supreme Court (SC) judges to investigate whether or not the last election in 2013 was “systematically” and conspiratorially “stolen” from it by “design”. It has also returned to the National Assembly after resigning from it five months ago. Now it is ready to make up with GEO television, one of the alleged conspirators. As a consequence, several comments can be made about what lies ahead.

First, Imran Khan lost a lot of credibility when his strategy to overthrow an elected government was exposed by PTI’s president, Javed Hashmi. Subsequently, the dharnas and resignations have amounted to nought and the conspirators masquerading as the “third umpire” are out of jobs. Therefore Mr Khan has had to eat humble pie by compromising on the nature and scope of the JC and taking back PTI resignations.

Second, it is highly unlikely that the proposed JC will vindicate Mr Khan’s position. (a) It is impossible in 45 days to prove a systematically designed conspiracy by an ex-CJP, an ex-CM Punjab, an ex-CEC, GEO and PMLN to “steal” the 2013 elections. (b) The JC Ordinance will be strongly contested as being unconstitutional. The courts have previously ruled that there is no constitutional way to circumvent Election Tribunals and approach the HC or SC directly in election-related matters. Apart from a host of thorny legal issues, the SC judges are also likely to be mindful of the far-reaching consequences of any decision by the JC. If the JC holds that the election wasn’t stolen, the judges will risk hostility from a section of the public that blindly believes in Imran Khan. If they agree, they will throw a huge spanner in the political works by indirectly setting a precedent to oust not just a government and prime minister but also the National Assembly (an indirect power far greater than the one granted to Presidents under 58-2[B] earlier) and thereby alienate all the other political parties of the country. Political chaos will follow if the NA and federal government are ousted while the provincial governments and parliaments stay on legally or if the PM reneges on his word and refuses to dissolve parliament (the JC finding will not be binding). Therefore the court battles will either lead to the declaration of the Ordinance as being unconstitutional or, if the Ordinance stands its ground, the JC will likely conclude that, while the election was certainly unsatisfactory in several ways, it was not stolen by design or conspiracy and that the results generally reflect the mandate of the people. In either case, the PMLN will emerge as the winner in its political strategy vis a vis the PTI.

But all is not lost for Imran Khan. His decision to return to the National Assembly may have opened him up to the mocking jibes of the MQM, JUI, ANP and even a section of the PMLN in parliament but it has been welcomed by the media and public as a sensible, though belated, adjustment of political strategy that strengthens the democratic system. If the Prodigal Son has seen the error of his ways, it is a good development, despite some unpleasant remarks about parliament by Imran Khan outside parliament and by Khawaja Asif about Mr Khan inside parliament. Indeed, this move enables Mr Khan to re-focus his energies on winning a core by-election in the heart of the MQM’s stronghold in Karachi while organising fresh intra-party elections to face by-elections in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh before the year is out. Both contests will be a valuable run-up to the general elections in 2018.

The PMLN is also now free to concentrate on a critical national issue that has cropped up: how to deal with the Saudi demand for air and land forces and munitions from Pakistan to fight the Houthi rebels in the Yemeni civil war. In fact, the end of the destabilising PTI-PMLN confrontation has enabled the PMLN to forge a political consensus in the country that favours all manner of assistance to the Saudis for the defence of their country but disavows any direct Pakistani intervention in the civil war in Yemen. The PMLN is also free to focus on delivering on its election promises to the public in the next three years.

Therefore the political forecast is not bad. The civil-military relationship has stabilised, thank God, in a realistic acknowledgment of the ground realities by both sides. The military knows it can’t or should not take over, and the civilians know they can be hugely destabilised and crippled by the military if its views on core issues are blithely ignored or rejected. The anti-terrorist operations in Karachi and FATA are yielding dividends with public support. Pakistan’s foreign relations with Afghanistan, India and the US are looking up. And the IMF has given Finance Minister Ishaq Dar a comforting thumbs-up for his efforts to realign the economy.

Apr 3

The Saudi Predicament

Posted on Friday, April 3, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The people, opposition parties and media of Pakistan are solidly and openly against any direct Pakistani military involvement in the Middle-Eastern crisis. But the government and military establishment are prevaricating and double-speaking.

In the past Pakistan’s government and military establishment have readily agreed to help fight someone else’s wars. In 1967 Field-Marshal Ayub Khan sent Brig Zia ul Haq’s brigade to Jordan to help King Hussein kick out the Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat, who dubbed the occasion as “Black September”. The Jordanians paid handsomely for renting out the Pakistan army. But the Palestinians have not forgotten that stab in the back and have always sided with India on the dispute over Kashmir.

The government and military establishment tripped over themselves when they agreed to fight America’s war against the Soviet Union in the 80s and the US’ “war on terror” in Afghanistan after 9/11. The Americans coughed up $20 billion for their “help”. But those decisions have spawned all manner of ills, terrorists, Taliban and sectarian militants who have senselessly killed over 50,000 Pakistanis and provoked the nomination of Pakistan as “one of the ten most dangerous failing states in the world”.

On all three occasions the government and military establishment were one and the same, led by Generals. The billions of dollars in rent seemed to evaporate into thin air because they did nothing to alleviate the poverty and plight of the people of Pakistan. Instead, when the tail wagged the dog (domestic policy was subservient to foreign policy), the national and foreign debt increased manifold.

But in 1991, when the US-Saudi alliance sparked the first Gulf war against Iraq, Nawaz Sharif was prime minister and General Mirza Aslam Beg was COAS. Mr Sharif ordered military contingents into Saudi Arabia and went around the Muslim World canvassing support for the Allies even though Gen Beg was playing to an anti-American gallery for potential coup-making reasons.

Unfortunately, though, we have forgotten that Pakistani soldiers were among the dead in the first great battle against Iraq. Subsequently, up to 50,000 Pakistani soldiers were rotated and stationed in Saudi Arabia for the defense of the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s single largest export to Pakistan since the 1980s has been an extremist version of Wahhabi and Salafi Islam that has eroded the foundations of a benign Sufi version of Islam in the land and undermined the development of a pluralistic and peaceful civil society.

Now Mr Sharif is PM again and the Saudis are urging Pakistan to join the military coalition against Yemen. Mr Sharif’s personal commitment to the House of Saud is solid: they extracted him from the jaws of General Musharraf, hosted him in exile like a prince for ten years and restored him to Pakistan when the time was nigh. They nurtured his family and businesses in their country. Six months ago, they gave him advance payment of $1.5 billion when finance Minister Ishaq Dar was trying desperately to stave off the circular debt crisis and shore up forex reserves to stop the slide of the rupee. Now they are ready to shower more blessings upon Mr Sharif’s government in exchange for Pakistani troops and munitions to defend the Kingdom.

Mr Sharif is in a difficult position. For personal reasons, he can’t outright say no to the Saudis. But for political reasons he can’t afford to send Pakistani soldiers to the front lines in Yemen and receive Pakistani body bags in the glare of a hostile media, public and opposition in an unstable political situation at home. He is reluctant to call an All Parties Conference that will tie his hands. Instead he has chosen to take some quick steps behind the scenes to appease the Saudis – a Pakistani military contingent has been dispatched to train Saudis for mountain warfare along the border with Yemen and a civil-military delegation has just returned with a wish list from Riyadh. Meanwhile, Mr Sharif has decided to nudge Turkey and like-minded states to push for a ceasefire and negotiations to end the conflict in Yemen as soon as possible.

In 1989 the Saudis brokered a peace deal in Taif between warring politico-religious factions in Syria and Lebanon that assured a fair distribution of power. Much the same issue is at stake in Yemen. Despite the Saudi attempt to paint the conflict as Shia-Sunni, the Houthis and their allies are fighting to claim their share of regional power in Yemen as promised to them in a National Dialogue in 2012 that installed Mansur Hadi as prime minister. The Coalition air attacks and show of a grand Muslim unity are meant to soften them up for a ceasefire and talks. But if push comes to shove in Yemen, Mr Sharif and General Sharif will likely commit both men and materials to Saudi Arabia. It is, however, unlikely that Pakistani soldiers will be sent to the trenches. Equally, it is highly likely that Pakistani soldiers will stay in Saudi Arabia for the defense of the Kingdom for as long as the House of Saud needs them.

Mar 27

Welcome Transitions

Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The PTI Election Tribunal (ET) headed by Justice (r) Wajihuddin Ahmed has reported that the PTI intra-party elections held in 2013 were “fraudulent”.

The 60-page report points out core problems in the whole exercise. Tickets were badly distributed to poor candidates because of corrupt practices by central party leaders; millions of voters registered through the given phone numbers were not included in voter lists because of incompetence and inefficiency in the PTI’s Central Office; the central command of the party did not obey the guidelines for regional, provincial and central parliamentary boards to be set up to process and decide the names of party’s nominees for tickets for the general elections, preferring instead to direct party ticket aspirants to file their nominations with the Central Office directly; the UC-level election was manipulated by aspirants of district and provincial posts, assisted by aspirants of party tickets for general elections; the process of candidates’ assessment and allocation of tickets was carried out by a couple of groups in a ‘hush hush’ manner; people who became party members through telephone help lines were disenfranchised during intra-party polls; the top posts of the party in the provinces and center are all nominated; that Jehangir Tareen’s role was highly objectionable; and so on. The ET has ordered Imran Khan to dissolve all posts and hold new elections.

This is in sharp contrast to Mr Khan’s earlier claim that these party elections were “unprecedented and historical”. He is furious that the Report was leaked and shows the squabbling party leadership in bad light. He has reacted by replacing Justice ® Wajihudidn’s tribunal with a new one led by Tasneem Noorani.

The error of his self-righteous ways is dawning on Mr Khan.  After the failure of the longest “dharna” in history last year to try and dislodge the government, with a wink and nod from sections of the military establishment, Imran Khan has finally agreed to an unprecedented compromise with the PMLN on the matter of the judicial commission to determine the fairness of the last general elections. He has desperately backpedalled from his position that the elections were deliberately and premeditatedly stolen from the PTI by a gang of powerful conspirators. That has prompted the PMLN to put a clause into the TORs to exactly that effect: if this specially “designed and systematic” conspiracy is not proved, then, despite any irregularities, the election wasn’t stolen, and there is no compulsion to dissolve the assemblies and hold mid-term polls.

Imran’s about-turns are getting to be predictable. Earlier, he insisted that the Pakistani Taliban were simply “misguided Muslims” provoked by US drones who should be talked to; now he admits they are brutal terrorists who should be stamped out militarily. Before long the PTI will doubtless take back its resignations and return to the National Assembly.

But this is not necessarily a sign of weakness or opportunism. Recognition of ground realities and necessary adjustment can also be a sign of political maturity. Consider.

Indeed, Imran’s attempt to focus on the elections in AJK, provincial local bodies and the developing political vacuum in Karachi instead of trying to compel regime change are steps in the right direction. Hopefully, he will also acknowledge the harm done to his party by “lotas” and “electables” and oversee a new and transparent intra-party election that brings genuinely new and untainted PTI supporters from grass roots to positions of responsibility so that they can help the party positively impact the next general elections in 2018. He also needs to get cracking in running a good government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa so that he has an enviable track record to flaunt before cynical voters.

Imran Khan is not the only one having second thoughts. Nawaz Sharif is also working hand in hand on core national security issues with the very military establishment with whom he has expressed bitter grievances in the past. His obsession with the trial of General Pervez Musharraf has also ended. All this augurs well for the stability of the country.

The most important development, however, is a radical change in the strategic perspective of the military establishment regarding both internal and external affairs. This is entirely due to the new army chief Gen Raheel Sharif and a crop of new corps commanders who are in the process of re-evaluating security doctrines and responding to new realities.

The MQM is the only political player that is still resisting the broad based transitions in the country. It is crying foul against the clean-up operation in Karachi when this military-led operation has the support of all of Pakistan much like that against the Taliban. The sooner the MQM comes to accept the fact that its fearful blackmailing hegemony in Karachi is untenable from a national security viewpoint and won’t be tolerated, the better.

These multi-faceted military and political transitions in Pakistan are most welcome and should be supported. We need to put our house in order rather than constantly blaming others for our woes.

Mar 20

Terrorism of all hue

Posted on Friday, March 20, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah has been turning in his grave for decades. All his life Mr Jinnah fought for the rights and protection of the Muslim minority community in India, eventually succeeding in creating a separate homeland for them called Pakistan. Indeed, in his famous speech to the Constituent Assembly of the new state of Pakistan, he pledged to protect the rights of non-Muslim minorities unequivocally as “equal citizens of the state”.

Unfortunately, however, the history of Pakistan shows that the principles of humanitarian Islam that were expected to guide the new state in safeguarding minorities have been distorted by the practitioners of Islam in Pakistan to erode the writ of the state in general and target the minorities in particular.

The suicide attack on two Christian churches in Youhanabad, a working class suburb of Lahore last week in which fifteen people lost their lives is part of an orchestrated campaign of attacks on sects and minorities like the Shias, Hindus, Christians, Hazaras, Ahmedis, etc, by “Islamists” with avowedly sectarian agendas. During 2012-14, there were 108 attacks on Shias (736 killed), 14 attacks on Hindus (2 killed), 54 attacks on Christians (135 killed), 50 attacks on Ahmedis (27 killed). From 1989 to 2015, there were 2979 sectarian attacks in which 5059 persons were killed and 9713 injured. These attacks have been carried out by various “Islamist” groups of the Taliban or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The remarkable thing is the ruling classes and state institutions of Pakistan have turned a blind eye to such acts and remain completely unsympathetic to the plight of the victim communities. It is rare for the state and government to crack down on such Islamists or to successfully capture and prosecute the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against humanity, almost as if there is an unspoken conspiracy between the organs of the state like the police, bureaucracy, judiciary and civil society to “cleanse” the Islamist state of such deviants.

This is quite extraordinary since the definition of a “terrorist” in the Anti-Terrorist Act is focused squarely on “religious” cause and effect: “Terrorism means the use or threat of action where the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a religious, sectarian or ethnic case …involves serious violence against … a public servant”.

A prime example of the unspoken conspiracy in the bowels of the state to condone or dissemble “religious” motives regardless of their criminal nature and content was provided recently by a judgment of the Islamabad High Court that has dumbfounded all. The court has declared that Mumtaz Qadri, the self-confessed assassin of ex-Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer, is not a terrorist. The court has completely ignored or denied the definition of a terrorist in the ATA as given above. It is also quite extraordinary how the judges came to the conclusion that the act of mowing down Mr Taseer in broad daylight in a public place did not create a sense of harassment and fear in society at large despite the public statement of the murderer that he meant to send exactly such a message to people like Mr Taseer and those who sympathized with his point of view. Mr Taseer was murdered for arguing that a Christian woman accused of blasphemy had been wrongly judged and sentenced to death by courts fearful of violent mullahs.

Until now, the conservative PMLN governments of Nawaz Sharif have been as lax in defending the rights of minorities as the pseudo-secular governments of the PPP. Indeed, the military establishment is actually guilty of protecting such Islamist groups because of their readiness to fight the military’s jihadist causes in Kashmir and Afghanistan. But the new military leadership under General Raheel Sharif has vowed to confront and undo all manner of terrorists who have laid Pakistan low, whether of the “Islamist” kind in FATA or the ethnic kind in Karachi. In the latter case, we have witnessed a ferocious crackdown on criminal elements in the MQM, raids on that holy of holies Nine Zero and confessional outpourings of MQM terrorists on death row. We’ve seen a new resolve to try and unravel the 2012 barbarous burning of Karachi’s Baldia factory in which 289 people lost their lives, and bring the perpetrators to book.

Why then, it needs to be asked, has General Sharif not used his righteous clout to degrade the sectarian terrorists who have besieged our minorities and are ruthlessly targeting them? When will the clean-up operation start against the killers of Shias, Christians, Hindus, Ahmedis, Hazaras etc? When will the special laws designed to combat terrorism like the ATA, PPA and military courts spring into action and deliver on the promise and dream of the Quaid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah? If the current military leadership’s policies are truly a departure from the dissembling, compromises, conciliations and criminal neglect of its predecessors, surely the time has come to tackle terrorists of all hue.