Feb 27

General Sharif and Mr Sharif

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

Not so long ago, India was accusing Pakistan of sponsoring cross-border terrorism and refusing to talk to it; the US was accusing the ISI of being “a veritable arm of the Haqqani network” and cutting off aid; Kabul was accusing Pakistan of hosting the Afghan Taliban in FATA and supporting tit-for-tat TTP terrorists from Kunar; even China was quietly admonishing Pakistan for not stamping out Chinese Islamists training in FATA and fomenting trouble in Xinjiang. Now the Indian foreign secretary is scheduled to visit Islamabad; Pakistan’s DG-ISI has gone to Washington; China’s President has confirmed he will visit Pakistan soon. The Army Chief, DG-ISI and Foreign Minister have all made trips to Kabul. The Afghan President has parleyed in Islamabad. Top American officials come and go routinely. All the regional players are busy talking to one another instead of squabbling. What is going on? Has Pakistan’s military establishment finally woken up to hard new realities that have isolated Pakistan and eroded its state, civil society and economy?

The arrival on the scene of General Raheel Sharif as the new army chief certainly points in some such direction. His predecessor General Kayani ruled the roost for over a decade, as DG-MO, DG-ISI, VCOAS and Army Chief, and presided over deteriorating relations with Kabul, Delhi and Washington. During his time, the TTP was born and became an “existential threat” to Pakistan. By the time General Kayani left, Pakistan’s external and internal position was precarious. Therefore let us make no mistake about the significance of General Raheel Sharif’s entry.

It is General Sharif and not Mr Sharif who has abandoned the false notion of talks with the TTP and taken the war to them. It is General Sharif who has repaired relations with Kabul and Washington. It is General Sharif who is supporting Mr Sharif’s bid to “normalize” relations with India and forcefully backing his efforts to compel the PPP and MQM to set Karachi and Sindh in order. It is General Sharif who has presented the National Action Plan against terrorism to Mr Sharif and it is General Sharif’s corps commanders who are working with provincial governments to lend muscle to their anti-terrorism efforts. It is General Sharif who has ordered the military to shoulder the burden of trying terrorists in military courts after the civilian set-up of ATCs and HCs failed to tackle the problem. And now it is General Sharif who is arm-twisting the Afghan Taliban to open talks with Kabul with a view to bringing the civil war to an end so that the horrible chapter of American intervention can be closed.

Does this amount to a “paradigm change” in the military establishment’s old view of Pakistan’s national security based on certain notions of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan and asymmetric warfare with “perennial enemy” India through the use of religious groups and parties like the Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam, etc, and non-state actors like the Afghan Taliban and jehadis of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-i-Mohammad, etc? In short, is this a repudiation of the exploitation of religion to legitimize and empower a particular national security doctrine of the Pakistani state that has long been the bedrock of the military establishment?

The ISPR says there are no “good” or “bad” Taliban now and that the war is against all Taliban terrorists. In other words, the “good” Afghan Taliban in FATA and Karachi are now as unacceptable as the “bad” Pakistani Taliban of the TTP. This is in line with the military’s policy of routing the TTP and pressurizing the Mullah Omar-Haqqani network to talk peace with Kabul and stop waging war. But there is no clarification about the status of the jihadis, of the LeT, JM etc, and their leaders. Indeed, there is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate this issue.

There is an obvious explanation for this. Unlike the TTP, these jehadis pose no threat to the Pakistani military because they are oriented to undermining India. Therefore the question of disbanding them will not seriously arise until the core issues that bedevil relations with India are settled meaningfully in the long run. That is why Hafiz Saeed’s mouth will not be zipped and Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi will not be convicted quickly and cross-border infiltration into Kashmir will only be tightly “controlled”.

India remains the Pakistan military’s bête-noire. It is the reason for its powerful role in politics. It is the cause of its quest for “strategic depth” and its manufacture of non-state religious actors. It is why the military has made common cause with the mullahs. It also why Pakistan has become a failing state that is at war with its neighbours and with itself. It is only when General Raheel Sharif helps Mr Sharif lay the blocks of enduring peace with India and together both agree to take religion out of the politics of the state that we will be able to say that a paradigm change is underway in Pakistan to make it a modern nation-state.

Feb 20

New Architecture for Dialogue

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


Subrahmanyam Jaishanker has been handpicked by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to be India’s new Foreign Secretary. Mr Jaishankar is scheduled to make a round of all SAARC countries upon assuming office. His visit is being billed by India as a routine assignment to “get-to-know-the-neighbours”. But no one is buying this line in India or Pakistan. Indeed, it is an open secret that the real purpose of this assignment is to restart the dialogue with Pakistan that was disrupted last August when the BJP government abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting of the foreign secretaries that had followed on the heels of a good meeting of the two prime ministers at Mr Modi’s inauguration. India’s reason for cancelling the Foreign Secretaries’ moot – a scheduled meeting between the leaders of the Hurriyet Conference with the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi on the eve of the talks – was so patently thin that many analysts wondered whether Mr Modi had had a change of heart signalling a continuing freeze in diplomatic relations between the two countries. Indeed, when both sides subsequently hardened their positions and tensions flared up along the border, many pundits were convinced that the cold war was back with a vengeance. That is why, now that the Modi government has given another flimsy reason for the new foreign secretary to visit Pakistan, the same analysts are arguing that Mr Modi had “boxed” himself into an untenable position by cancelling the talks last August and is now trying to undo his mistake without losing face at home and in Pakistan.

But there may be a simpler and more realistic reason for both the cancellation of the talks last August and their resumption possibly next month. The J&K elections were round the corner. The BJP had determined to make a strong showing based on the hardline Hindu vote. By seemingly condoning Pakistan-Hurriyet talks and also entering into a dialogue with Pakistan at such a time the BJP would have likely diluted its efforts to whip up hardline Hindu support. So a political decision was quickly taken to cancel the talks, followed by Mr Modi’s whirlwind tours of J&K. Now that the elections are over, the BJP has done well enough to negotiate a coalition government with the PDP. It is time to start the dialogue with Pakistan again, not least because one of the conditions put forward by the PDF for establishing a coalition government with the BJP is settling terms both with Pakistan and the Hurriyet Conference. This is apart from phasing out the Indian Army from J&K and putting a stop to threats to undo the Kashmir-specific Article 370 of the Indian constitution. By this reasoning, Mr Modi simply sought to postpone the dialogue with Pakistan to a more opportune time and was always in control of his ability to restart it later on some pretext or the other. In this context, we may expect both sides to agree that in future Pakistan’s High Commissioner in Delhi will certainly have the right to meet Kashmiri leaders at any time as in the past except on the eve of any high level talks between Pakistan and India, a face-saver for both countries.

This analysis would therefore lead to the conclusion that, despite the uncompromising rhetoric on both sides, Mr Modi, no less than his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh, is interested in talking to Pakistan and diffusing tensions in the region. But what, realistically speaking, can we expect from such talks?

The old “composite dialogue” approach in which all contentious issues are to be discussed simultaneously seems difficult. For one, India doesn’t accept that, after the Kargil misadventure by Pakistan, the Siachin dispute is a “low hanging fruit” ripe for the plucking. Two, trade liberalization has already been conceded by Pakistan and the Non-Discriminatory Access regime, another way of defining Most Favoured Nation status, is ready for signature. Similarly, India has effectively counterpoised Pakistan’s “core” issue of Kashmir by its “core” issue of terrorism, both being amenable only to back-channel diplomacy rather than secretary-level talks in the glare of the media. Three, rivalry in Afghanistan has entered the equation as a new and formidable factor that must be accounted for. Therefore a “new architecture” for dialogue that is neither composite nor exclusively “core” issue oriented may be better expected to yield dividends.

Mr Sartaj Aziz, the foreign minister, has already hinted at some such re-adjustment. Certainly, Mr Modi would welcome a new architecture for dialogue that demonstrates tactical “discontinuity” with the approach of the Congress for political reasons while rapprochement with Pakistan moves ahead for strategic reasons. Mr Modi knows that without stability in the region India cannot exploit the potential economic goodwill that is earmarked for it. A “transactional” prime minister in India like Mr Modi rather than a “visionary” one like Mr Vajpayee may be just the recipe BJP needs to build peace and stability in South Asia.

Feb 6

Trading with the “enemy”?

Posted on Friday, February 6, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


A recent conference in Delhi deliberated on the issues bedeviling trade relations between India and Pakistan. Currently, Pakistan’s yearly exports to India are a mere $0.6bn and India’s to Pakistan are about $2bn. Guesstimates of illegal trade via third countries like the UAE are in the range of about $2bn. Everyone agreed that a target of $10bn is easily achievable if Pakistan gives MFN status to India – a win-win situation for both countries that have long been prisoners of the zero-sum philosophy in which the gain of one is the loss of the other and therefore unacceptable to the “loser”. Why hasn’t this happened so far?

For a long time, Pakistan’s position was that the “core” Kashmir issue should be resolved and trust built mutually before normal trade relations could be restored. But the 1999 Lahore summit between Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee resolved to stop putting “core” preconditions to conflict resolution and start a composite dialogue to address all outstanding issues simultaneously.

Unfortunately, Kargil derailed Lahore, and in Agra 2001 India listed terrorism as its “core” issue in opposition to Pakistan’s “core” issue of Kashmir. Consequently, the composite dialogue in general, and trade in particular, was again taken off the table. The brave efforts of General Pervez Musharraf, first with Mr Vajpayee and then with Dr Manmohan Singh, to make amends via back-channel diplomacy and out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir were overtaken by General Musharraf’s ouster in Pakistan and the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

Matters were frozen until Nawaz Sharif returned to power in 2013 and decided to de-link trade from politics and propose a wide ranging Non-Discriminatory Access (MFN) regime which India has long demanded as the starting point of conflict resolution (it’s win-win for both countries but India wins more than Pakistan because it is expected to run up a significant trade surplus with liberalisation). An agreement was painstakingly hammered and Dr Manmohan Singh was expected to crown his term by signing it in Islamabad before India went into elections in 2014. At the last minute, however, Pakistan decided to wait for a new government to be elected in India and sign the trade accord with it as a grand first step toward “normalisation”. It was in that spirit that Nawaz Sharif attended Narendra Modi’s inauguration in Delhi after the BJP won the elections, even though he was cautioned at home to tone down his expectations of peace with an avowed anti-Muslim hardliner like Mr Modi.

In the event, despite the bonhomie displayed by both leaders at the inauguration ceremony, Mr Modi has pulled back and jeopardised the entire exercise, thereby embarrassing Nawaz Sharif hugely. Both sides are back to trading accusations instead of goods and services. Whether or not they get back on track soon depends solely on Mr Modi.

Meanwhile, the subject of the role of the media on both sides as a warmonger or peacemaker is again up for discussion. Questions abound about the media acting as a “force-multiplier” for the negatively attuned “security establishments” of both countries, and electronic ratings driving passions with pride and prejudice. Is the media part of the problem or part of the solution?

It has been more negative than positive in the past. The Pakistani media stopped Benazir Bhutto from signing a cultural accord with Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 and the Indian media stopped Mr Gandhi from signing an agreement on Siachin in 1991. The Indian media again stopped IK Gujral from starting a composite dialogue in 1997 and both hyped the nuclear explosions in 1998. But in 1999, both hyped “bus diplomacy” and welcomed the composite dialogue accord between Nawaz Sharif and AB Vajpayee. Both again derailed the Agra talks in 2001 between General Musharraf and Mr Vajpayee, compelling significant back-channel diplomacy until the terrorist attack in Mumbai put paid to any thought of peace. The last attempt at putting the composite dialogue back on track, at Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt between PM Yousaf Raza Gilani and Dr Manmohan Singh, was waylaid by the Indian media which accused Dr Singh of “conceding” to Pakistan without any significant action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. What conclusions can we draw from this potted recap of history?

First, if Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi decide to trade with each other, the media in both countries will likely be a force-multiplier (as in 1999) aiding their initiatives because there can be no better people-to-people trust building exercise than one which creates powerful business vested interests for normalization in both countries at the behest of traditionally hardline political parties. It should not be forgotten that the media in India is largely corporate owned and the same trend is now visible in Pakistan. Second, if this opportunity is missed, both sides will inevitably slide into hostile public posturing and no leader will be able to muster the courage to start talking, let alone trading, with the “enemy” for a long time to come.

Jan 30

Musharraf’s candour

Posted on Friday, January 30, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)



General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is endearingly candid. In a series of interviews since he relinquished office, he has revealed many nuggets of information and analysis. For instance, at the height of the anti-drone sentiment in the public in 2013 when the government was pretending to be opposed to the drones and the Foreign Office was churning out protests, he calmly admitted that he had secretly given permission to the CIA to use drones in the war against terrorism. He has also rued the NRO deal with Benazir Bhutto because it became a bone of contention with the judiciary and destabilized Pakistan. He laid part responsibility on the Chaudhrys of Gujrat who advised him to concede the NRO but retain the constitutional restriction on anyone becoming prime minister for a third time (doubtless because it suited their political careers).

Now, in a refreshing analysis, he criticizes his handpicked successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, for not going after the Taliban in Waziristan and contrasts General Kayani’s reticence, which has damaged Pakistan, with the bold and decisive manner in which his successor, General Raheel Sharif, has acted. “You see, the main issue is that when a government is inactive, it requires an army chief to go and coax it into action. That’s what [Gen] Raheel has done. So either Gen Kayani was scared or too reticent or too reserved. He didn’t want to go and discuss this matter.”

He contrasted General Kayani’s attitude with his own while he was still giving the orders: “We acted against Fazlullah and defeated him. Peaceful elections were held in 2008. The turnout was good. The Awami National Party — and not religious parties — came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And then Fazlullah was allowed to return and set on fire 13 girls schools. He had the tourist resort in Malam Jabba torched. No action was taken till he crossed the Shangla Hills and almost blocked the Karakoram Highway. When there was international hue and cry that the militants were only 100 miles away from Islamabad, then they woke up… The army was clear in its views as a whole. They wanted action, even in Kayani’s days. Kayani has to be asked why he did not act [against the terrorists].”

That, of course, is the central question. It becomes all the more necessary to get an answer because General Kayani clearly recognized the danger from the Taliban whom he described in a significant speech to passing out cadets as “an existential threat” to the country. In fact, Gen Kayani went so far as to argue that the internal threat of “Islamic” terrorism was far more potent than the external threat (of India), a statement that some viewed as signalling a “paradigm change” in the central strategic vision of the military. Indeed, there was a time when he was on the verge of launching operations against the TTP but pulled back at the last minute after senior American officials let it be known publicly that they had met him and urged him to take military action. It was speculated that he began to drag his feet because he didn’t want to be seen as doing “America’s bidding” in an extremely anti-American environment in Pakistan. In consequence, General Kayani’s inaction for six years enabled the TTP to grow strong and exact thousands of civilian and military casualties, a terrible harvest we are reaping today. This “inaction” also alienated General Kayani from Pakistanis and Americans alike.

General Musharraf has insightful advice to give those who, like the MQM, are clamouring for martial law as the solution to Pakistan’s problems of terrorism. “I don’t think there should be martial law… Pakistan is facing the worst situation in its history. The economy is not doing well. Terrorism is in all the provinces. It has never been this bad. The army is a fall back force in the country. We, in the military, call it a ‘force in being’. Its potential consists in being. If you use it or consume it, it’s gone. If you were to use the military, and suppose in the present situation of turmoil, they are unable to rectify the socio-economic ills of Pakistan, you’d have consumed this fall back force.”

Of course, Gen Musharraf didn’t take his own advice in 1999 when there was no national crisis in the country and he and his colleagues seized power only because their own military careers were on the line following their disastrous adventure in Kargil.

Meanwhile, the government of Nawaz Sharif would do well to heed Musharraf’s words regarding General Raheel Shareef’s decisive moves and action-oriented globe trotting. “It’s not he who’s doing that, it’s those countries who are giving him that stature. The army is the only stabilising institution in Pakistan. That is why they give importance to the military chief. Especially when they also see the degree of bad governance going on [by the civilians)… Look, international relations largely depend on personalities. Agar aap nay ja kay kookro ban kay baith jana hai, to aap ko kya importance milay gi.”

Jan 23

Humpty Dumpty

Posted on Friday, January 23, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)


The TTP and LeJ aren’t the only ones bombing and terrorizing the people of Pakistan. The PMLN government, it seems, is quite adept at tormenting the people too, the recent “petrol bomb” being a case in point.

Since the government wields monopolistic control over the import, regulation and supply of fuel through the Ministry of Petroleum (MoP), Oil and Gas Development Authority (OGRA) and Pakistan State Oil (PSO), the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has pinned responsibility for the criminal mismanagement of petrol supplies in the country on senior officials and bureaucrats in the three departments. But the petroleum and finance ministers have gone scot free despite evidence of negligence and culpability.  Consider.

PSO, which imports the fuel and sells it to private and public sector entities that refine and sell it as petrol or produce electricity from it, is cash strapped because it is owed over Rs 200 billion by various government entities like WAPDA, PIA, KAPCO, etc. Therefore it couldn’t import adequate supplies in December and January. It begged the MoP to request the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to clear its debt. But the two ministers, Khaqan Abbasi and Ishaq Dar, were either squabbling (Dar has nominated an advisor to the MoP without Abbasi’s approval) or too busy doing their own thing (Dar is jetting around the world negotiating loans and aid and launching bonds while Abbasi is upgrading his privately owned Air Blue airline). Both gentlemen were summoned by the prime minister to explain their conduct. Abbasi argues that a spike in consumer demand in January owing to a reduction in petrol prices created the problem. He also claims he was helpless because Dar controls the purse strings and hasn’t responded to several SOS messages sent by PSO and MoP to clear dues of about Rs 50 billion. Dar claims he coughed up Rs 17.5 billion in January but cannot continuously be expected to bail out all the public sector enterprises that are caught in the vicious circle of circular debt caused by their inefficiency and corruption and also abide by the terms and conditions of the aid donors to cut expenditures and reduce the fiscal deficit.

Whatever the merit of their explanations, the public is mad as hell. At the very least, it wants ministerial heads to roll. But that’s not the way the prime minister and Punjab chief minister work. When something goes wrong, the fall guys are always bureaucrats, never ministers. One reason is the overt reliance of the Sharifs on the bureaucracy, rather than the ministers, to run government. Another is the abysmal level of incompetence of most ministers in the cabinet. This is a direct consequence of the prime ministerial system of government that compels the prime minister to appoint parliamentarians (whose “expertise” is limited to buying votes and excelling at corrupt practices) to the cabinet rather than the best subject-experts and technocrats available in the market as under a directly elected presidential system.

In essence, the PMLN government has inherited the problem of circular debt in the energy sector from the Zardari government that didn’t address it in time. But it is also true to say that the Zardari government was caught unawares by the spike in oil prices and the shortsightedness of the previous Shaukat Aziz/Musharraf regime that didn’t enhance the capacity of the energy sector despite a growing economy. The people chucked out Asif Zardari’s PPP at the last elections because of mismanaging the economy in general and electricity shortages in particular. Now they are not likely to forget or forgive Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN in a hurry for the continuing “load-shedding” and petrol shortages.

Many months have passed since Mr Sharif promised to “audit” the performance of the ministers. But the government is still stumbling from crisis to crisis, in the process discrediting one minister after another. Khwaja Asif and Nisar Ali Khan are already on the mat for the deterioration of civil military relations and internal security respectively. Rana Shahnawaz and Shabaz Sharif cannot shake off the Model Town massacre. Ishaq Dar and Khaqan Abbasi have now been tarred by the energy crisis. But, at the end of the day, the buck stops at the prime minister. This is his “dream team” and it has become a “nightmare”. Come election time, and he will have to pay for the sins of omission and commission of his ministers, just like Asif Zardari did for those of his two prime ministers. Incompetence and inefficiency, no less than corruption, is now in the gun sights of the public.

To be sure, Mr Sharif has survived Imran Khan’s destabilizing “dharna”. And he has finally pulled out all the stops to try and deal with the menace of terrorism. But it is the health of the economy that impinges on the suffering and welfare of the people. If Mr Sharif doesn’t pull up his ministers quickly, all the MOUs and IMFs won’t be able to stop Humpty Dumpty on the wall from having a great fall!