Jan 20

Opportunity knocks

Posted on Friday, January 20, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Opportunity knocks

Pakistan COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani have exchanged messages following a spate of vicious Taliban attacks in Kabul, Kandahar and other Afghan cities. General Bajwa has condemned the attacks and assured President Ghani that Islamabad wants to work with Kabul to uproot the menace of the Taliban without indulging in the “blame game” going forward.

President Ghani has welcomed Gen Bajwa’s “concern” even if he has minced no words in pinpointing safe havens for the Haqqani network in Pakistan’s borderlands as the root cause of his troubles. But he has also reciprocated General Bajwa’s overture by expressing readiness to walk the talk with Pakistan once again. This is a significant gesture, considering that only recently President Ghani was castigating Pakistan for Afghanistan’s worsening fate and bending over backwards to “befriend”, and ally with, India like his predecessor Hamid Karzai.

The irony should not be missed. Much the same sort of mutual eagerness to come to grips with the problem of Taliban terrorism that has afflicted both countries for many years was in evidence when General Raheel Sharif became COAS three years ago and President Ashraf Ghani flew to Islamabad to parley with him while distancing himself from India as a measure of trusting and putting his faith in the Pakistani leadership. So what happened in the last three years to compel President Ghani to lose trust with Pakistan and put his faith in India? Indeed, why has he now decided to backtrack and have another shot at talking to Pakistan?

In December 2013 President Ghani concluded a state visit to Islamabad during which he had a heart-to-heart chat with General Raheel Sharif and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both Pakistani leaders assured him that they would use their leverage with the Afghan Taliban under Mullah Umar to facilitate a serious dialogue with Kabul aimed at negotiating a ceasefire followed by a power sharing agreement that would bring the bloody civil war to an end. The Pakistanis tried to do their bit but their efforts were thwarted by anti-Ghani elements in Afghanistan and India hostile to Pakistan who leaked news of the passing of Mullah Umar much earlier, thereby triggering an internal power struggle within the Afghan Taliban leadership with each faction decrying peace with Kabul by trying to prove its hardline ideological credentials. The proposed reconciliation talks collapsed and Kabul and Islamabad went back to square one by blaming each other for the derailment. Mullah Mansoor succeeded Mullah Umar with the support of Pakistan but soon charted his own anti-Kabul hardline posture in order to consolidate his leadership, thereby putting paid to any leverage Pakistan may have legitimately expected. A measure of Pakistan’s disappointment, possibly even anger, with Mullah Mansoor can be gauged from the fact that he was eliminated on Pakistan territory by an American drone while returning from a trip to Iran using a Pakistani a passport – a feat that could not have been accomplished without close sharing of critical information between the secret intelligence agencies of Pakistan and America.

In consequence, the Afghan Taliban went through an internal metamorphosis. The more the new leadership warmed to Pakistani overtures for reconciliation talks with Kabul, the greater the rate of desertion of hardline Taliban factions from the mainstream and their transformation into offshoots of Islamic State or Daish that began to pose an existential threat also to Pakistan. This compelled a rethink of tactical policy in Islamabad, with consequential frustration and estrangement in Kabul, eventually enabling India to lure President Ghani into its lap again.

Now President Ghani and Pakistan’s military leaders have come full circle. First, President Ghani has realized that, like America, India can’t help him negotiate peace with the Taliban or crush them, regardless of its economic and military clout. Second, the emergence of IS/Daish on both sides of the border puts Islamabad and Kabul in the same boat in which they will have to sink or swim together. General Raheel Sharif’s war on the Pakistani Taliban points the way forward. Third, they realize that providing safe havens to the enemies of the other is a negative sum game for both. Fourth, the Americans and NATO are not pulling out of Afghanistan any time soon, so Kabul is not at the mercy of the Taliban or a pushover for Pakistan. Fifth, US President Donald Trump means to renew serious engagement with Pakistan by “incentivizing” it (money and weapons) no less than the Kabul regime (money and weapons) to help build the framework for reconciliation not just between the Taliban and Kabul but also between Kabul and Islamabad and Islamabad and India.

Going forward, this is a good moment to redress the problems of the region. If it is missed, both Pakistan and Afghanistan will come to suffer even more from terrorism than before. But Pakistan and India will also have to start talking seriously and sincerely so that their proxy wars across the eastern border don’t prick this balloon of opportunity along the western border.

Jan 13

Army matters

Posted on Friday, January 13, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Army matters

The appointment of Gen Qamar Bajwa as COAS seems to have stabilized polity, for the time being at least. He has swiftly moved to stamp his authority on the army by a string of promotions, transfers and postings in the high command. Three decisions, in particular, are noteworthy because they suggest a recalibration of certain policies.

The Karachi Corps commander, Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar, has been nominated DGISI and the Sindh DG Rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar, has been promoted to Lt Gen and installed in GHQ as Chief of General Staff. The ISPR will henceforth be managed by a Maj Gen, Asif Ghafoor, unlike in the immediate past when a Lt Gen, Asim Bajwa, was running the show.

The nomination of DGISI, like that of the army chief himself, is in the domain of the prime minister. So we can assume a degree of concurrence in this appointment. But it is significant that the outgoing ISI chief, Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, has been shunted to the National Defence University instead of being given command of a corps which would have entitled him to sit in the corps commanders meeting and weigh in with his opinion and experience, first as DG Rangers Sindh and then as DGISI. It may be recalled that Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar, like his predecessor Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam, presided over a turbulent period in civil-military relations, even though no intrusive charges were ever laid at his door by the civilians like they were at that of his predecessor. Clearly, General Qamar Bajwa means to give a freer hand to the new appointees in both these positions to recalibrate respective policies in light of his own perspective.

The promotion and appointment of Lt Gen Bilal Akbar is equally significant. Normally this position of CGS is reserved for the senior most general after the army chief and almost as a stepping-stone for the slot of army chief itself. But in this case a relatively junior general has been put in charge. This means that Gen Qamar Bajwa intends to keep a direct and firm grip on internal army matters, especially promotions and postings. He will also draw comfort from the fact that an expert on the situation in volatile Karachi is always at hand for sensitive input.

The most significant change is in the status of the ISPR. Under COAS General Raheel Sharif, the post was first upgraded from Maj Gen to Lt Gen and then DGISPR Lt Gen Asim Bajwa was given a free hand to manipulate public opinion, often at the expense of the elected government and prime minister, especially when elevating the army chief to rather heroic proportions. This became a source of great tension in civil-military relations. But in the new dispensation, the ISPR will likely revert to a lower profile role under Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, which is the need of the hour. The shunting of Lt Gen Asim Bajwa to the relatively obscure post of Inspector-General Arms at GHQ implies Lt Gen Asim Bajwa won’t be stirring up any further misunderstandings with the government.

All this is for the good. Unfortunately, however, the same cannot be said for the controversy that has arisen following reports that Gen Raheel Sharif has accepted a high profile, highly remunerative position as Commander-in-Chief of the 39-country coalition force against Syria, Iran and Iraq cobbled by Saudi Arabia. If true, this is an ill-advised move. Pakistan’s parliament and government have clearly shown their intent to stay clear of any such organization. It also does not behove a newly retiring Pakistan army chief to parachute into such an organization that could create a fierce conflict of national interest. But the government’s handling of this affair hasn’t been too comforting either. At first, Khwaja Asif, the Defense Minister, indicated that the prime minister was in the loop. Then he told the Senate that General Raheel had not obtained an NOC from GHQ or the PMO. Gen Raheel also seemed to backtrack in the face of a public backlash: he has let it be known that he won’t accept the position unless three preconditions are met, one of which is to include Iran into the organization (verily a no no for the Saudis) so that it doesn’t smack of sectarianism. Significantly, this episode has unwittingly drawn attention to the unsavoury practise among retiring generals to clutch at remunerative and sensitive posts with foreign governments. An ex-CJCSC, who also served as DGISI, and another ex-DGISI have been guilty of lining their pecuniary and mundane interests in this manner without any accountability. Two ex-army chiefs, General Pervez Musharraf and General Aslam Beg, have also admitted being beneficiaries of Saudi largesse.

While Gen Qamar Bajwa mulls this backlash, he should also take stock of the social media activists who have “disappeared” on his watch. It doesn’t require rocket science to figure who “disappeared” them. The sooner they are released, unharmed, the better. This is not the way for the new chief to open an innings.

Jan 6

Political pressure and law

Posted on Friday, January 6, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Political pressure and law

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s New Year message extols the virtues of normalizing relations with India and Afghanistan and benefitting nationally from a significant “peace dividend”. It is also self-evident that without political stability at home, no worthwhile foreign policy or national economic initiative (like CPEC) can succeed. Under the circumstances, Imran Khan’s desperate attempts to derail the elected PMLN government and fledgling democratic system by conspiratorial alliances with rogue elements in the military or by pressurizing the judiciary and election commission of Pakistan to do his bidding are condemnable.

Javed Hashmi’s latest revelations confirm a potent conspiracy between Imran Khan, Tahir ul Qadri, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and rogue elements among serving and retired military leaders to oust Nawaz Sharif in 2014 by a combination of street agitation and military pressure. The conspiracy failed because Imran Khan wasn’t able to muster sufficient numbers to seize Islamabad and storm parliament. Much the same tactics were tried on the eve of General Raheel Sharif’s retirement last November. But again Imran Khan wasn’t able to mount sufficient force to invade Islamabad and provoke a bloodbath in order to nudge the military into intervening.

The interesting fact is that on both occasions the expected military intervention was aimed not at imposing martial law but at pushing Nawaz Sharif out and calling for early elections, or, failing that, nudging the Supreme Court into a judicial coup to much the same effect, as in Bangladesh many years ago.

The game continues, with one important adjustment. Since the change of high command in the army last month along with significant postings and transfers, the prospects of conspiratorial assistance from those quarters for such nasty objectives has been rendered nil in the short term. Instead, Imran Khan and his fellow conspirators are now focusing almost exclusively on pressurizing the Supreme Court to oust Nawaz Sharif. The arena is Panamaleaks and the target is the new chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, and the bench headed by Justice Asif Khosa.

The outgoing Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Anwar Jamali, was threatened with a PTI boycott if he set up a commission of inquiry into Panamaleaks. So he decided to pass the buck to the new chief justice-designate, Justice Saqib Nisar, instead of incurring Imran Khan’s wrath. This put Justice Nisar in front of the firing line. Imran Khan accused him of being Nawaz Sharif’s man, compelling the good judge to clench his fist and thunder in public that he was his own man. But this was a most un-judge-like act because judges are expected to speak through their judgments and not through press releases or public statements. In fact, it actually suggested that the new CJP had come under pressure from Imran Khan and not Nawaz Sharif when he loudly proclaimed his independence. Therefore it was natural that the new CJP would make a new bench without leading it himself.

For one full month, the judges on the old bench asked all manner of questions from the petitioners and respondents but failed to decide certain core issues. Should a commission of inquiry with its own TORs be set up? Should they adopt an adversarial approach (the respondent is innocent until the petitioner proves his allegations) or an inquisitorial one (the petitioner is guilty until he proves himself innocent)? Should they opt for a summary trial or follow due process? In short, should they strictly uphold the law, constitution and due process based on an adversarial trial method or succumb to the popular opposition led by Imran Khan and start an inquisitorial investigation into Nawaz Sharif’s wealth abroad?

Pakistan’s political instability is derived from periodic dismissals of civilian governments and rigged elections. In this evolving polity, army generals have been keen and decisive players, having imposed martial law three times and directly ruled the country for over thirty years with the help of the judiciary to legitimize their rule. In between, the military has indirectly ruled through Presidential allies, proxy politicians and rigged elections. But the Charter of Democracy between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006 put paid to these games. The popular movement for the restoration of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as CJP SC, followed by PPP-PMLN supported constitutional amendments to make the President a lame duck and strengthen the electoral process, has buttressed the civilian order and diluted the military threat. But it has also shifted the focus of the political opposition to the “independent” judiciary in the last resort.

This does not make for system stability. Political issues must be settled in parliament through free debate and fair general elections at local, provincial and federal levels. Burdening the judiciary thus with explosive political issues subject to popular pressure is doing great disservice to it. Indeed, we can be sure that the Pananaleaks bench of honourable judges will be held to account by history if it succumbs to popular political pressure no less than military force at the altar of law and constitution.

Dec 30

Give PPP a break!

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Give PPP a break!

Asif Zardari has returned to Pakistan after 18 months in self-imposed exile following a military crackdown on the PPP in Karachi last year. But the military establishment has welcomed him back by raiding the offices of his business buddy Anwar Majeed. Is this ominous for Mr Zardari?

Mr Zardari has announced his intention to get his son Bilawal and himself elected to parliament from traditional PPP Sindh constituencies. Father and son aim to jointly mount opposition to PM Nawaz Sharif in alliance with like-minded parties. Is this ominous for Mr Sharif?

Imran Khan has welcomed Mr Zardari’s political initiative. But he is in no mood to relinquish his role of the real opposition leader in and out of parliament. Is this ominous for both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif?

The big deal for Mr Zardari is a parliamentary umbrella for staying in Pakistan and playing politics in the run up to the next elections in 2018. If the military establishment was signalling its intention to target him and make him flee again, it will have to think again. Mr Zardari is staying put on the basis of two astute calculations.

One, regardless of any contrary moves signalling continuity with the military’s past policies in Sindh, the new army chief handpicked by Mr Sharif will most likely desist from linking Mr Zardari to terrorism as his predecessor did in the case of Dr Asim Hussain. Any such move would outrage the PPP, alienate it from parliamentary politics and push it into the lap of Imran Khan’s agitation politics. This would hurt Nawaz Sharif by destabilising the political system all over again. Therefore, regardless of what the Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan says or thinks, Mr Sharif has most probably indicated his mind on this subject to the new army and ISI chiefs. If it is also much too early in the game for the two of them to blithely override the prime minister’s advice, it will also not be lost on both Khakis that the policy of linking terrorism with politics has come a cropper for two main reasons: the military does not have the legal wherewithal to successfully prosecute the likes of Dr Asim and his ilk, let alone Mr Zardari; and its inability to extend the same operation into the other provinces has smacked of discrimination and victimisation, thereby discrediting it in the popular imagination.

Therefore it is no coincidence that, following Mr Zardari’s expression of interests, Mr Sharif was quick to meet with the new ISI chief and Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. Surely, it doesn’t require rocket science to figure out what his advice was to both gentlemen: give the PPP a break! His meeting with Maulana Fazal ur Rahman shortly afterwards exhorting him to play a role in establishing a modus vivendi with Mr Zardari is clear evidence of his way forward.

The PPP has listed four demands: reconstitution of a parliamentary committee on national security, appointment of a full-fledged foreign minister, implementation of the resolution on CPEC adopted at an earlier All-Parties Conference hosted by Mr Zardari and passage of the PPP’s draft Panama Inquiry Bill approved by the Senate. Out of these, Mr Sharif should not have any serious problems conceding the first two and compromising on the third. Three out of four is good enough to convince Mr Zardari to stay clear of the fiery Imran Khan.

Until now, Imran Khan has hogged the anti-Nawaz show. The PPP’s Khurshid Shah and Aitzaz Ahsan have been playing good and bad cop respectively but not too successfully. Now Mr Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto will shoulder that responsibility and most likely do a better job. The former is a deal maker par excellence and will use the latter’s indiscreet charm to whip up media support.

While Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari jostle amiably in parliament, attention is likely to remain focused on what happens next in the Supreme Court. Imran Khan has succeeded in pressurising the new chief justice of Pakistan, Justice Saqib Nisar, to publicly state that he will dispense justice without fear or favour – an allusion to Khan’s allegations that Justice Nisar is “close” to Mr Sharif and his threat to boycott the proceedings if the SCJ decides to set up a judicial commission to probe Panamagate. The very fact that Justice Nisar felt compelled to speak his mind through such a statement rather than a judgment as behoves the judiciary speaks volumes about the relationship of law and popular politics.

The PMLN is notorious for being a bully when it is riding high and for scraping the floor when it is down. The installation of a new army chief who is not given to political meddling should give the ruling party significant space to settle down and deliver its promises to the electorate. But if it squanders this space by unnecessarily squabbling with the brass, as it did with the last army chief, then all will be lost.

Dec 23

Commission of Omission

Posted on Friday, December 23, 2016 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Commission of Omission

Justice Qazi Faez Isa of the Supreme Court (SC) has damned the “law enforcement agencies” in general and the federal interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in particular for the dismal state of counter terrorism operations in the country. The one-judge Inquiry Commission was set up by CJP Anwar Jamali following lawyers’ outrage at the terrorist attack on a hospital in Quetta last August that wiped out the top lawyers of the province. Chaudhry Nisar has hit back, claiming the judge is unfairly targeting him for the failings of other departments and agencies. Inevitably, some uneasy questions have arisen.

After the tragic incident, angry, grief-stricken lawyers across the country demanded that negligent agencies and governments ought to be held accountable for not preventing such terrorist attacks by beefing up security and apprehending terrorists. When pressure from peer groups mounted on the CJP to do something about it, he wrote to the Inspector General Police and Chief Secretary of Balochistan seeking answers. When they didn’t respond in any satisfactory manner, the SC Registrar was nudged to write to the CJP noting the ‘dismal state of governance in the country and miserable failure of the government and LEAs in countering terrorism’, upon which the CJP duly took suo motu notice to set up a commission of inquiry under Justice Qazi Faez Isa. It may be noted that Justice Isa was thought to be suitable for the job at hand for two reasons. First, he had served as Chief Justice of the Balochistan High Court and was therefore knowledgeable about the state of affairs in the province; second, he was also directly affected by the death of several close friends from the legal community and had poured out his rage and grief in a personal letter to the stricken families of the deceased.

It did not occur to the CJP that perhaps, precisely because of Justice Isa’s personal anger and anguish, a more dispassionate judge might have delivered a more relevant report touching on all aspects of the civil-military structures created to combat terrorism without seeming to focus on one civilian minister alone and provoking an unseemly controversy. Certainly, the abject failure to interrogate military agencies that are primarily tasked to combat terrorism and to instead tilt like Don Quixote at NACTA, which is a non-functioning body under the Interior Minister, points to a gaping hole in the Commission Report.

Justice Isa charges Chaudhry Nisar for a “monumental failure” in not providing “clear leadership and direction” to implement internal security policies. It castigates him for not acting against banned terror outfits and for molly-coddling their leaders. It berates him for not energizing NACTA. And so on. But the Report might have made more sense if it had instead been directed at the military leadership that makes and implements core national security and counter-terrorism policy. Indeed, the Report might have proved more useful if the good judge had interrogated Chaudhry Nisar and asked him to explain the civil-military pressures on the PMLN government not to crack down on certain specified non-state outfits and their leaders that are considered strategic or tactical “assets” of the national security establishment. Equally, it is moot whether the scope of the report was restricted to one tragic incident in Quetta or whether Justice Isa’s writ covered an examination of the National Action Plan against terrorism on which the army chief, the prime minister, the ISPR and others have regularly dilated and whose successes and failures are constantly commented upon by the media.

Other disquieting issues come to mind. When a terrorist attack on the legal community takes place, an inquiry commission is promptly set up by the SC to rap the interior ministry. When the Army Public School is attacked, the army is quick to attack the Taliban in Waziristan. But when the media is attacked – Pakistan is the most dangerous place in the world for journalists – no such thing happens. In the case of the killing of Saleem Shezad, the Commission steered clear of incriminating evidence; in the case of the attack on Hamid Mir, the ‘sensitive’ complaint was quietly buried in the SC. In the case of the Abbottabad Commission, there was visible reluctance to indict the national security establishment for incompetence or complicity, with the result that there are three versions of the Report and it has not been made public. It may also be recalled that the Hamood ur Rahman Commission report was only made public after Indian media published an abridged version of it. And so on.

To be sure, Justice Qazi Faez Isa has asked many relevant questions. His outrage at the failure of certain dimensions of our national counter terrorism policy is also justified. But a blanket condemnation of civilian stewardship of NAP by picking on Chaudhry Nisar alone is not fair. Nor is it factual to deny that significant progress has been made in putting terrorism down and making our lives safer.