Mar 27

Welcome Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 20

Terrorism of all hue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 13

Welcome week

Posted on Friday, March 13, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

This has been a welcome week. The Senate has unanimously elected its new chairman. The Islamabad High Court has confirmed an anti-terrorist court’s death sentence on Mumtaz Qadri who wilfully assassinated ex-Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. The Rangers have raided the MQM headquarters at 90 Azizabad in Karachi, arrested wanted terrorists and criminals and unearthed a cache of illegal weapons. Each action is significant and will have interesting consequences.

The election of the PPP’s nominee as Senate chairman was foretold on the basis of the numbers game and steadfast allies like the MQM, ANP, JUI, BNP-A etc. The MQM’s vote was the deciding factor. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a last ditch effort to woo the MQM when CM Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, called up Altaf Hussain in London and tried unsuccessfully to bridge the bitter gap of fifteen years in fifteen honeyed minutes. It is a measure of the desperation of the Sharifs that they even tried to sway the MQM, considering that the MQM had already announced its decision to rejoin the PPP’s Sindh government and was simply waiting for the Senate elections to roll round in Islamabad in order to extract the best deal for themselves in Karachi. The MQM has no option but to clutch at the PPP for survival in the face of a determined operation by the Rangers, backed to the hilt by GHQ and the federal government, to decimate Karachi’s terrorizing militias in general and the MQM’s militants in particular.

However, it is the nomination of Raza Rabbani that caught the PMLN off guard. Mr Rabbani is known to be a bit of a democratic rebel in the ranks of the PPP—he was twice overlooked for the Senate’s top slot when Mr Zardari put his faith first in Farooq Naek, his personal lawyer, and then in Nayyar Bukhari, the PPP’s stalwart from Islamabad. But Mr Rabbani’s credentials were good with the PMLN with which he had worked amicably cobbling various constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling party. So Mr Zardari has skillfully killed two birds with one stone. He has pushed a party irritant out of the way and also compelled Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to eat humble pie.

Mr Rabbani will not be a pushover for either the PPP or PMLN. This augurs well for democracy. He is expected to steer a neutral ship, neither allowing the government to steamroll controversial legislation nor tilting in favour of any undue negative or delaying tactics by the opposition.

The Islamabad High Court’s decision to uphold the death sentence on Qadri, though belated by four years, is welcome. But it is inexplicable why the court has absolved the murderer of the charge of terrorism on the dubious ground that the act did not create any fear or harassment in society even though the self-confessed murderer publicly claimed he did so in order to intimidate and warn society not to follow in the footsteps of Mr Taseer. In the case of the man who tried to kill Raza Rumi, the brave journalist, for sectarian reasons, the case has been sent to a military anti-terrorist court. The man who tried to kill the ex-CJ of the LHC, Khawaja Sharif, who is now, ironically enough, Qadri’s lawyer, was earlier tried in an anti-terrorist court, sentenced to death and executed. The men who tried to kill ex-President Pervez Musharraf were all tried under anti-terrorist laws and executed. And so on. Now it is learnt that various religious parties are banding together to challenge the judgment in the Supreme Court and offering “blood money” to Taseer’s family. The family has rightly refused the offer and the government should rightly appeal the part of the judgment that removes the tag of terrorism from Qadri because this precedent could seriously erode the very basis of the anti-terrorism laws of the country when it is involved in an existential struggle against various manifestations of terrorism.

The Rangers raid on the MQM’s HQ in Karachi sends a strong signal in the same direction. It also confirms the fact that Altaf Hussain’s political strategy to control Karachi by an armed militia is now being seriously challenged by the military establishment under COAS General Raheel Sharif. This is a radical departure from the Musharraf and Kayani eras when he was some sort of holy cow for the military establishment. Combined with the British government’s pressure on him in London in money laundering and Imran Farooq murder cases, this new situation signals the beginning of the end of Altaf Hussain’s supremacy as the unchallenged leader of the MQM. To add to his woes, the MQM’s vote bank is being seriously eroded by Imran Khan’s PTI and it won’t be easy for the MQM to rig the next elections as in the past.

Slowly, haltingly, Pakistan seems to be on the verge of fashioning a new order that promises to diminish violent religious and ethnic strife, terrorism, civil-military conflict and economic stagnation. We hope this isn’t another false start.

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)

tft-55-p-1-a

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.