Nov 28

Breaking the deadlock

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


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)


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)


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.

Nov 7

No scope for IS in Pakistan

Posted on Friday, November 7, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, has warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS or “Daesh”) is germinating in the bowels of Pakistan and poses a dangerous threat to state and society. Some analysts concur. They point to the “inspirational” role of the IS in Iraq and Syria in recruiting thousands of Islamists globally to wage jihad against “infidel” regimes in the Middle East. It is claimed that over a thousand volunteers have been trained in terrorist camps along the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and exported to Iraq and Syria and more are in the pipeline. A couple of splinter Taliban groups have publicly shifted their allegiance and loyalty from Mullah Umar’s Caliphate of Afghanistan to Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi’s Caliphate of IS. And wall chalkings, posters and pamphlets at random places in Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have announced the arrival of the IS in Pakistan. How serious is this threat to Pakistan?

There are significant differences between the situation in contemporary Pakistan and the evolving situation in Iraq, Syria and Yemen that gave rise to the IS.  This suggests that, despite tall claims, IS offshoots may not be able to make any dangerous inroads and attacks on Pakistani state and society over and above those already attributed to Al-Qaeda and other Taliban groups that are being hunted down by the military. Consider.

First, IS was born amidst the anarchist and violent resistance of Al Qaeda that followed American intervention to overthrow the secular Saddam Hussein regime, dismantle and disband the Iraqi army and install the Shiite Nouri-Al Maliki puppet regime in 2006. This explains the rabidly anti-Shia, anti-West nature of IS. Much the same sort of thing happened in Syria under Bashar al Assad. The western imperialist powers openly encouraged Islamic resistance to the secular Baathist regime that had proved to be a thorn in the side of Israel, both as a conduit for Iranian weapons to the Palestinians and as an effective countervailing state to American-sponsored regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. No such situation prevails in Pakistan that could become a fertile environment for IS – there is no American intervention, there is no Shiite minority rule or secular government that could antagonize the Sunni majority and the Pakistan army remains the most organized and effective counter-terrorism fighting machine in the region.

Second, Pakistan’s Sunni majority is rooted in Sufi-saint traditions and folk practices among the moderate Barelvi sect that accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the population and opposes the hard line extremist version of Islam espoused by the Deobandi and Al-Qaeda factions. This ground is not fertile for extremist versions of Islam.

Third, both Iraq and Syria were secular and centralized dictatorships with repressed factions, groups and regions agitating for greater democracy and freedom. Not so in Pakistan, which is a consensual, constitutional, pluralistic, multi-party, decentralized electoral democracy with a history of popular support for the system. The MQM, ANP and PPP are secular, left of centre parties; the PMLN is a moderate Islamic-democratic centrist party; the PTI is Islamic-democratic right of centre, while the JI and JUI are rightist religious parties with political agendas rooted in electoral politics. They are all opposed to the extremist Islam of the Taliban and IS.

Fourth, the Pakistan army and bureaucracy are trained in the post-colonial tradition that values modernity, “enlightened moderation” and alliance with the West. In fact, even the “external infidel enemy” doctrine of the Pakistan military-bureaucratic oligarchy is slowly being replaced by the doctrine of “existential” threat posed by the internal extremist Islam of the Taliban. This pro-West steel framework of the state will not allow Pakistan to be overtaken by extremist violent Islam.

Fifth, direct foreign military intervention has played a major role in provoking and creating the forces of nationalist-religious resistance in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it can be argued that foreign intervention made matters worse by disbanding or weakening the military-bureaucratic framework of the secular regimes in these countries and thereby tilted the balance in favour of extremist insurgents. The opposite has happened in Pakistan where the military has fiercely resisted encroachments on state sovereignty even by the CIA in pursuit of Al-Qaeda.

Sixth, first Al-Qaeda and then IS were greatly facilitated by funding and weapons from public and private sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and the West. Later, revenues from captured oil wells financed the resistance. In contract, extremist Islamic forces have no such major funding resources in Pakistan. Even the drug-related funds pipeline of the Taliban is now threatened with the consolidation of a democratic Pakhtun-led Afghan regime defended by a 350,000 strong Afghan army.

To be sure, Pakistan still doesn’t have an effective, institutionalized anti-terrorist state structure. Nor is there sufficient spine or vision in its ruling civil-military classes, media and judiciary to compel a systematic and comprehensive policy response to the creeping “religiosity” in state and society. But this is a recipe for dysfunction and instability rather than a takeover by IS or the Taliban.

Oct 31

Strategic failure of MQM and PTI

Posted on Friday, October 31, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The MQM and PTI are facing a strategic identity crisis. The MQM has concluded that the politics of “national mutahidaism” has not yielded any significant dividends in Sindh or any other province, therefore it is time to beat the drums of “provincial muhajarism” to stave off political threats to its traditional “muhajir” vote bank in the urban areas of Sindh. The PTI has concluded that the democratic route to elections is long and uncertain, therefore it is time to explore shortcuts to power via conspiracies with disgruntled elements in the military and judiciary. Both strategies are full of contradiction and confusion.

The MQM has quit the PPP government in Sindh for the umpteenth time.  In the past, a parting of ways with the PPP was always part of the game of leveraging power and patronage. This time, however, the pretext is unprecedentedly “ideological”.  The MQM has taken umbrage over a statement by the PPP Leader of the House in the Senate, Khurshid Shah, that it is an “insult” today to refer to the migrants from India into Pakistan at the time of partition as “mujahirs”. His argument is that the term “muhajir” connotes a temporary or transitional arrangement for foreigners whereas the “muhajirs” of 1947 have been fully and permanently integrated into the organs of the Pakistani state and society, to the extent that their Urdu language is the national language of the country.

Khurshid Shah has stated a fact. But it is tinged with the power politics of Sindhi ethnic nationalism and PPP provincialism. In the past such PPP provocations were par for the course for the MQM. But the MQM faces multiple threats within and without today that have required it to take such a shrill hardline position, going so far as to charge Mr Shah for “blasphemy” against “muhajirs” since the Prophet of Islam (pbuh) was also a “muhajir” from Mecca to Medina. Several factors are at stake here.

First, the MQM hasn’t been able to extract any significant mileage from changing its name from Muhajir Qaumi Movement (denoting a political-ethnic base) to Muttahida Qaumi Movement denoting a national platform. It has made no headway in the other provinces. Instead, the ANP and PTI are making inroads into its traditional vote bank in the urban areas of Sindh, especially Karachi, the former on the basis of Pasthtu-speaking “refugees” from KPK, FATA and even Afghanistan, and the latter on the basis of a demographic shift in population favouring the young between the ages of 18-29 who want “change” from the traditional pattern of political parties. Second, the MQM’s militant wing which used to call the shots in Karachi as a powerful tool for leveraging power, has suffered a setback following an effective Rangers-led federal operation to cleanse the city of criminal elements, many from the MQM. Third, the PPP is in the process of formulating a law for local body elections that will tilt power and patronage toward PPP appointed provincial administrators instead of local politicians, thereby depriving the MQM of its traditional right to administer Karachi on the basis of winning the local elections. Fourth, the MQM is facing some significant splits and desertions following pressure from the British government on Altaf Hussain in London regarding the murder of Imran Farooq and money laundering. Several stalwarts have left the party and are in hiding. Under the circumstances, it seems that its leadership has decided to hunker down and defend its core interests by raising the spectre of an erosion of Sindhi “muhajir” rights that always evokes a militant response from its traditional seats of support.

The PTI is facing a serious dilemma too. Its dharnas and jalsas have failed to overthrow Nawaz Sharif because the “third umpire” – disgruntled elements in the military who have been egging Imran Khan on —has not raised his finger. Tahirul Qadri has packed his bags and quit. A degree of fatigue has set in among his supporters. This is reflected in internal party dissent over the logic of resigning from the National Assembly while staying put in KPK as a device to hasten the end of the Nawaz regime. The Supreme Court, too, has refused to entertain PTI petitions to declare the 2013 elections as rigged. If Imran insists on continuing on his current path without success, his supporters will drift away and think twice before returning to his fold the next time. If he retreats like Qadri, he would erode his image of infallibility. In a last ditch effort he has summoned his supporters to Islamabad on November 30 to hurl a final threat to Nawaz Sharif. Whether the crowds become violent or disperse peacefully, the outcome is not likely to be favourable.

Both Altaf Hussain and Imran Khan need a reality check. Their current tactics and strategies are flying against the grain of popular mood. They should disavow shortcuts to power and dig in for the long democratic haul.