May 22

The utility of Ishratul Ibad

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad in Karachi has run into heavy weather with his erstwhile patron Altaf Hussain in London. Altaf Bhai says enough is enough, the governor is useless, he doesn’t defend and protect the MQM, and he should resign and join the ranks of the protestors or he will be excommunicated from the MQM. This isn’t the first time Dr Ibad has incurred the displeasure of Altaf Bhai for not living up to his expectations. But he’s been canny and survived every such crisis to date and lived to fight another day.

In the earlier crises, Altaf Bhai’s grouse against his handpicked Governor was that Dr Ibad wasn’t doing enough to help extract maximum political concessions and benefits from the MQM’s on-off alliance with Mr Zardari’s PPP in Sindh. But the rocky alliance never completely derailed and Dr Ibad was able to salvage his leverage by some deft maneuvering. His strongest and most resilient card was his calm and cool demeanour in handling Altaf Bhai’s periodic outbursts and appearing as a fair adjudicator and strong bridge in its running disputes with the PPP. But the problem is qualitatively different now.

The MQM is at the receiving end from the military establishment and not the PPP. This is quite unprecedented. In the 1980s and 2000s the MQM was the darling of the military establishment because it was first needed under General Zia ul Haq to counter the PPP in Sindh and then under General Pervez Musharraf to counter the PPP and PMLN in the rest of the country. Even during General Ashfaq Kayani’s time, the military establishment used the MQM to leverage power-relations with the PPP and PMLN – there isn’t one occasion when Altaf Bhai did not side with the military during any of its running spats with the federal government in Islamabad, evidence of which is available in countless statements extolling the generals and threatening martial law. Under General Raheel Sharif, however, the estrangement is complete because the army has no political favourites and seems determined to clean up Karachi in which the MQM’s criminal packs are no less terrorizing than the TTP, RAW, and assorted sectarian and extremist groups. The fact that General Rizvan Akhtar, who earlier served as DG Rangers Sindh, is now the DGISI means that the quality of information about who’s who available to General Sharif is top notch and no political blackmailing or thundering will cow down the new DG Rangers and the Corps Commander Karachi who are in charge of the operation.

It is this singular fact that has eroded whatever influence Governor Dr Ibad used to have in protecting the interests of the MQM in the past. And he isn’t the only one who’s feeling the heat from the military. The Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari are also at their wits’ end. If they don’t cooperate, General Raheel Sharif is likely to lean on the prime minister to impose Governor’s Rule on Sindh with the Governor handpicked by the brass. Surely, that is something that the MQM, PPP and PMLN should all avoid because it would signal the beginning of the end of civilian rule in the country altogether.

Altaf Bhai should also consider that it is very difficult for Governor Ibad to defend proven criminals and terrorists without compromising his position completely and becoming a target of the military himself. As Saulat Mirza’s testimony shows, Dr Ibad was responsible for securing the release from prison of many MQM activists in the past and it would be foolish to try and continue to play the same role when the uncompromising military rather than the deal-making civilians are in charge.

Altaf Bhai’s outburst against Governor Ibad, which was preceded by a tirade against the generals, suggests an acute frustration and rage at his inability to keep the situation from spinning out of control. The noose is tightening around him in London after a statement by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, that the government and military establishment intends to cooperate with British police in providing significant evidence related to the murder of Dr Imran Farooq. There is also talk of establishing a new chain of command from London in the event of Altaf Bhai’s indisposition. The hapless Rabita Committee in Karachi is already reeling from the dismissive commands of the Great Leader and several stalwarts have gone into exile in Dubai in order to escape his wrath. The goal of Altaf Bhai’s lieutenants in London is to oust Dr Ibad so that he cannot provide a platform for moderate alternative MQM leadership in Pakistan.

This is misplaced concreteness. Altaf Bhai should think through this situation politically and not emotionally. Dr Ishratul Ibad as Sindh Governor is better than General XYZ in his place. The MQM needs a calm and collected man in the Governor’s House just as much as it needs some fiery hotheads outside.

May 15

The In-Between Truth

Posted on Friday, May 15, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Seymour Hersh is “l’enfant terrible” of the American establishment. He has now stunned the world by an extraordinary conspiracy theory about the US military operation to kill Osama bin Laden in a compound near Pakistan’s top military academy in Abbotabad in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.

Essentially, Hersh tells the following story and sprinkles it with a lot of names and details based on un-named US intelligence sources. (1) OBL was in the ISI’s “protective” custody from the day he set foot in the custom-made Abbotabad hideout in 2005-06. (2) A Pakistani military officer walked into the US embassy in late 2010, spilled the beans, collected $25m in reward money and was whisked away along with his family and settled in America by US officials. (3) In the following months, the Americans used the services of a couple of Pakistani doctors, including Dr Shakil Afridi, to determine that the man in the compound was indeed OBL. (4) Then they confronted COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and DGISI Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha with the evidence and told them to secretly cooperate with their plan to extract OBL, or else they would tell the world that the two generals were consciously protecting the world’s most dangerous terrorist in their backyard, and impose severe hardships on them personally and on Pakistan generally. (5) Faced with Hobson’s choice—damned if they did and damned if they didn’t – Generals Kayani/Pasha bought into the US plan to secretly facilitate the Navy Seals’ helicopter raid so that the US could later claim that OBL had been found in some distant mountainous region and taken out by a drone. (6) But the plan went awry when one of the helicopters crashed and President Obama had to reveal details of the raid, leaving Generals Kayani/ Pasha red-faced before charges of complicity or incompetence at home.

This story is at variance with the official US-Pak version that claims that the Pakistanis were caught unawares by the US raid and had no direct hand in the hiding, capture and killing of OBL. Indeed, Pakistani officials have offered a bagful of explanations to clarify that they were not hiding OBL and they did not have the requisite electronic wherewithal to spot and track the US helicopters from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Abbotabad in Pakistan and back. The problem of disbelief in this version has been highlighted by their refusal to make public the findings of the Abbotabad Judicial Commission that investigated the matter.

The explanation by Generals Pervez Musharraf, Ashfaq Kayani and Ahmed Shuja Pasha that they were not hiding OBL has never washed at home and abroad. So they, along with General Pervez Musharraf and his DGISI Nadeem Taj during whose earlier time as commandant of the Kakul military academy OBL was relocated to Abbotabad, would have been in deep trouble with the world community if they had been found out. Equally, Hersh’s claim that the two sides agreed to the extraction method in advance with assistance by Pakistan makes no sense. Why, if the two sides were in cahoots, should they sanction the dangerous raid when, after being found out, Generals Kayanai/Pasha could have quietly handed him over to the Americans who could have taken him to some place in the north and claimed to have droned him on the basis of its own brilliant intelligence? This way, the Pakistanis would not have been embarrassed abroad by the accusation of hiding OBL, nor criticized at home for handing him over to the US. In fact, Generals Kayani/Pasha could not possibly have connived with the US in facilitating the raid as meticulously painted by Hersh because that would have required them to take into confidence not just the Chief of Air Staff, the CJCSC and several other high and low officers but also to seek their active support in the mission, a huge risk that could not have been taken if the target were in the backyard of the top military academy in an urban military town like Abbotabad. But no-mans land in the north where there are no eyes and ears was a different matter.

This logic is borne out both by the level of distrust between the two sides that existed before the raid and the hostility of the Pakistanis after it. Before the raid, tensions between the CIA and ISI had built up, most notably over the refusal of the Pak military to take action against the Haqqani network and LeT in North Waziristan, and the unpleasant, tense, long drawn out Raymond Davis affair. It was accentuated by the natural suspicion that OBL couldn’t be so brazenly living in Abbotabad without the ISI’s protection. These factors persuaded the Americans to go it alone – since 9/11, this was the first time that a joint operation against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s urban areas was ruled out, despite such joint-ops having netted over 20 top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the basis of standard operating procedures (SOP – CIA Intel to identify target + Pak ground forces to raid and capture). After the raid, the

Pakistanis retaliated by putting Dr Shakil Afridi in irons despite shrill and threatening calls for his release by US Congressmen and Senators, by outing the CIA station chief in Islamabad and later by cutting off NATO supplies following the Salala incident. The Americans hit back when, on the eve of his departure, CJCSC Admiral Mike Mullen publicly accused the ISI of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network”.

One explanation can be offered that combines elements of the three versions – Pakistani, American and Hersh’s – into a highly plausible scenario. The night raid was expected to be a very high-risk affair if the Pakistanis were not in the loop. It risked becoming Obama’s “botch-up” on the eve of his re-election just as the Iran hostage rescue crisis became for President Jimmy Carter in 1979-80. Perhaps, therefore, the Americans actually took Generals Kayani/Pasha into confidence to the extent of telling them the fib that they had located a “very high value target” (maybe Ayman al Zawahiri but definitely not OBL) somewhere in the mountains in the north of Pakistan and were going to dispatch an extract-and-kill Seal team from Afghanistan to nail him and requested their cooperation in not disrupting the operation. This would explain the relative ease with which the US raid was conducted. It would also explain why the Pakistanis gave their permission because they thought it would be a failed mission since they knew that there was no high value target like OBL in the target area. It would, finally, explain their rage and frustration when the low-flying helicopters veered off course at the last minute and went to Abbotabad instead of further north.

The two sides had connived with and lied to each other, but one had double-crossed the other successfully, so their secret would remain buried between them.

Seymour Hersh is on the right track. But there are errors of omission and commission in his story that erode its authenticity, like that of the cover stories of both Pakistan and America. The truth lies somewhere in-between.

May 8

Whodunit

Posted on Friday, May 8, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The premeditated assassination of Sabeen Mahmud in Karachi on April 24 is an indescribable human tragedy with political costs for both civil society and the “deep” state of Pakistan. Consider.

Sabeen was a gentle, caring and concerned citizen-representative of Pakistan’s civil society. Her NGO T2F was a home for struggling artists, musicians, political outcasts, rights activists, feminists, liberals, minorities and other disadvantaged, marginalized or voiceless sections of society. She had received threats from extremists for providing a platform against hate speech, sectarianism and religious fundamentalism. When she offered a speaking venue to Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed, who have long been agitating for the rights of the “missing persons of Balochistan”, she knew she would incur the displeasure of the deep state that is accused of “disappearing” insurgent-separatists and their sympathizers in Balochistan. But, as she wrote in an email to a friend before the event, she didn’t expect “them” to come out “all guns blazing” against her.  After all, Iftikhar Chaudhry, ex-Chief Justice of Pakistan, and fellow judges had already blazed a trail investigating the “disappeared” and no physical harm had befallen them. Similarly, the organisers of the LUMs seminar in Lahore on “Unsilencing Balochistan” had only suffered a cancellation of the event and some inspired bad-mouthing on TV later, while the Balochistan event at Kuch Khaas in Islamabad with the same participants had gone off without a hitch. More significantly, the most outspoken voices of Mama Qadeer, Farzana Majeed, Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur, and their supporters, had not been silenced by brute force. So whodunit and why?

Obviously, the finger is straightaway pointed at elements of the deep state that don’t want anyone to rake up the issue of the “missing persons” of Balochistan. In the attempted assassination of journalist Hamid Mir last year in Karachi, the deep state’s hostility was established as a fact after Mir charged it formally of trying to eliminate him for supporting the cause of Mama Qadeer and his colleagues. Earlier, the killing of journalist Saleem Shehzad (while he was also “disappeared”) for exposing Taliban-Al Qaeda cells within the deep state itself had also warranted such suspicions and allegations.

But disquieting questions arise. Sabeen was the least “offensive” agitator of all such “trouble-makers” in the book of the deep state. Furthermore, her murder has made headlines in the international and social media like never before when Shehzad was killed or Mir was attacked or the LUMs seminar was cancelled. This consequence was not too difficult to anticipate or predict. But it is a cause of great anger in the deep state not just because it highlights the issue of Baloch separatism but also because it holds the deep state responsible for the “disappeared”. It follows, therefore, that if the deep state ever harboured any motive to silence civil-society activists from raising the issue of Balochistan, surely it would have been strongly dissuaded from murdering Sabeen because of the adverse consequences of its fallout and blowback. Who else might have “benefitted” from killing Sabeen?

The religious extremists, especially those from the Red Mosque brigade who had been challenged by Sabeen and fellow-activist Jibran Nasir, certainly had a motive. They had also threatened her. The MQM, too, had cause to be angry at the deep state. It has been at the receiving end of the stick from the military, with Altaf Bhai publicly thundering against the “targeting” of Mohajirs in the continuing Karachi operation, and benefits from discrediting the military for the alleged murder of a female rights activist. So did India’s intelligence agencies. No less than the corps commanders of the army chief’s cabinet have collectively accused India of fomenting insurgency in Balochistan and terrorism in Karachi and FATA in pursuit of its declared intent to implement a policy of “offensive defense” by proxies against Pakistan. It is also no secret that India is smarting from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s attempt to cozy up to Pakistan and will try to expose the Pakistani military in bad light.

Whoever killed Sabeen, one thing is clear. If the intent of the assassins was to silence dissent by evoking fear, the opposite may well happen in the emotionally charged atmosphere. Social media is up in arms. Rights activists have announced plans to hold a seminar in Karachi University on the missing persons of Balochistan where the speakers will be Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed. They are also refusing to cow down to pressure from university authorities forbidding them from holding the seminar. Doubtless, others will be emboldened to follow suit and the wounded deep state may be compelled to step back from hurling its customary threats. In fact, if the deep state is not guilty as charged, it should swiftly hunt down Sabeen’s killers and exonerate itself. Anything less than that will not be palatable.

Rest in peace, Sabeen. Your great cause will continue to inspire many others to raise the voice of the oppressed and repressed.

May 1

Don Quixote

Posted on Friday, May 1, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

The Judicial Commission investigating Imran Khan’s charge of “a systematic and designed conspiracy” by a group of persons and institutions to rig the 2013 has heard nothing significant in this regard from the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf and its lawyers in the last two weeks. Indeed, the PTI has inexplicably refrained from naming ex-Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and his colleague ex-Justice Khalil Ramday, in the charge sheet, although the two gentlemen figured prominently in Imran Khan’s repeated accusations earlier. Much the same omission is conspicuous in the case of Geo TV which was earlier much maligned by Mr Khan. In the former case, it appears that Imran Khan’s legal eagles have advised against naming the two ex-judges before their honourable colleagues, not least because the ex-CJP has also sued Imran Khan for libel and would have relished an opportunity to thunder against him in the SC. In the latter case, Mr Khan has kissed and made up with Geo and is now receiving excessive coverage.

The other alleged “conspirators” in Imran Khan’s charge-sheet include the Chief Election Commissioner and his four provincial colleagues, the corpus of Returning Officers, and Najam Sethi, the Caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab. Thus far, the PTI has merely presented all the petitions and data submitted to various election tribunals earlier and not recorded a pertinent slip of evidence of any planned conspiracy. Evidence of any secretly recorded conversation between Mr Sethi and Nawaz Sharif discussing “35 punctures” is also missing even though Mr Khan has never tired of hurling the accusation time and again against the ex-CM (he refuses to appear in court to defend the libel charge against him brought by Mr Sethi). Interestingly, Mr Sethi was the first to write to the JC requesting the Chairman to ask Mr Khan to bring whatever evidence he has against him so that he can defend himself against the charges and get his name cleared in the SC.

The JC has time and again asked the PTI lawyers to address the central question of a systematic and designed conspiracy to rig the elections as per the TORs of the Ordinance setting up the JC. But the PTI is assiduously sidestepping the issue because there was no such conspiracy and there is therefore no evidence of it. In fact it is now clear that Imran Khan had conjured up the “rigging conspiracy” in pursuit of his own conspiracy to topple the elected government of Nawaz Sharif in cahoots with a section of the military Intel-establishment that wanted to perpetuate its own rule and thwart the efforts of the new army chief, General Raheel Sharif, from starting accountability from home. (A number of ex-Generals, including ex-army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, are now being investigated by the new military leadership for corrupt practices).

Imran Khan has now said that he will accept the judgment of the JC even if it throws his allegations into the trash bin. This is yet another implicit admission of failure. He had also said he would never return to the National Assembly because it was polluted and disgusting. Yet he is now comfortably ensconced in its midst. He said he would not abandon the “dharna” until Nawaz Sharif quit government. Now the “dharna” seems like an illusion of the past and Mr Sharif is firmly in the saddle. He said the Taliban were “misguided Muslims” who should be walked the talk. Now he admits they are terrorists who should be eliminated. He said intra-party elections in the PTI were unprecedentedly free and fair. Now the very Election Tribunal headed by ex-Justice Wajihuddin that Imran Khan set up to investigate petitions of irregularities has handed down a damning verdict against these elections and top nominees of the PTI. Piqued, Imran Khan has dismissed Justice Wajihuddin and his own Tribunal out of hand. The man who claims to herald a new dawn in a new Pakistan has packed his party with corrupt, incompetent and juvenile politicians and is acting like an unaccountable and mendacious dictator even before he has ascended the throne in Islamabad.

Inevitably, there is a price to be paid for such bull headedness and misplaced concreteness. Two recent developments, a by-election in Karachi and local elections in Cantonments across the country under army supervision, suggest that the PTI’s popularity graph is highly exaggerated and may be waning. The MQM trounced the PTI by an embarrassing margin of over 60,000 votes in Karachi despite vigourous canvassing by Khan himself. And in the Cantonment Elections, the PMLN whipped the PTI in Punjab by raking in twice as many seats. The PTI’s embarrassment was all the more acute because it was outstripped in cities like Lahore, Sialkot, Rawalpindi, etc., where it claimed “massive rigging” by the PMLN in the 2013 general elections.

Imran Khan’s greatest asset is the idealistic and disgruntled youth of Pakistan that is looking up to him for principled and clean politics. Unfortunately, he is eroding their trust and confidence with his quixotic adventurism.

Apr 24

Review cybercrime bill

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

The government intends to bring a law to tackle cyber crimes in the ever expanding but largely unregulated universe of the Internet. This exercise started in 2010 under the PPP government and has culminated under the PMLN government in the approval of a bill by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly for passing as law.

No one can argue against the necessity of a robust law against cyber crimes.  Most countries have already woken up to this need and acted accordingly. The Internet is now the preferred vehicle of business and finance globally. It has also become the principle source of knowledge, propaganda, facts and fiction. It invades every aspect of private and public life. It forcefully impacts religious, moral and secular values. Crooks, fraudsters, freaks, terrorists and insurgents all inhabit its nooks and corners, armed with intelligence to penetrate our homes, violate our privacy, rob us and defame us.

The problem arises when laws to prevent cyber crimes are liable to be misused by autocratic, ignorant, over-zealous, self-righteous and/or unaccountable institutions and leaders of the state. In particular, there is serious cause for concern when fundamental rights of liberty and humanity enshrined in the constitution are liable to be trampled upon in blind or excessive haste in implementing the law. The current bill, unfortunately, falls far short of assurances on this count. That is why civil society groups are up in arms against the proposed bill.

For starters, it seems there is no interparty consensus on the bill. Only PMLN members of the standing committee of the National Assembly have signed on the draft bill. Then there is no satisfactory explanation why an earlier draft approved by an interparty coalition plus representatives of civil society in accordance with best global practices was junked at the last minute. Now we have a proposed bill that the government is reluctant to air because it doesn’t want any further discussions and delays.

The cause of concern arises from certain clauses, terms and definitions. For instance, “glorification” (defined as “any form of praise”) of persons who are simply accused of committing a crime no less than convicts is a crime under this law. This stands the legal dictum– innocent until proven guilty – on its head. The sections under spamming, spoofing and cyber stalking need to be tightened by precise definitions and exceptions. In particular, powers and criteria to block websites and content should be carefully articulated so that morons, holy-than-thou officials and dictatorial politicians are restrained from trampling on our fundamental rights of freedom of speech and access to information. Intellectually creative people, especially artists, satirists, designers and illustrators and such like, must not fall by the wayside because of certain provisions of this proposed law. Terms such as “glory of Islam”, “national security”, “integrity of Pakistan”, “ideology of Pakistan” are controversial. Most worrying is a clause that would make it a crime to criticize “friendly countries” – there are no permanent friends and enemies in foreign relations.

The government claims that where there is any doubt about the meaning and scope of terms, definitions and scope of the law, the courts will do what they have always done – recourse to the constitution, case law and precedents. This is all very well. But we know why justice is hard to come by once the authorities have arrested someone and locked him up. Therefore it is better to do one’s homework in the first place and make a good law that is not open to abuse than to push a bill through and let the dice fall where they may.  There are many examples of bad laws that either remain on the books and are the bane of people’s lives or have been successfully challenged in the courts and revised later on.

There are at least 130 million cell phone subscribers and 15 million broadband users in Pakistan. In the next five years, every Pakistani, literate or not, child or adult, male or female, will be using an android device that puts him in touch, via text or images, with every corner of the globe. The speed of the Internet will rise and the costs of using it will fall. It will be as ubiquitous as the very air we breathe. Under the circumstances, how can any government play fast and loose with a law that touches the lives of every Pakistani in so many unconceivable ways? Indeed, instead of crowing about how the government has succeeded in reducing a 44 page draft to 13 pages, efforts should me made to flesh out every provision of the law so that both objectives of combatting cybercrime and protecting, nay enhancing, fundamental rights of freedom of speech and access to information, are met in a consensual way.

The PMLN government should immediately invite concerned representatives of civil society to peruse this draft and make appropriate additions and deletions and clarifications and exceptions. If ever a truly national consensus were needed on any bill, it is now.