Oct 27

America’s role

Posted on Friday, October 27, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

America’s role

From Day One, Pakistan has always had problems with India in the east and Afghanistan in the west. Kabul doesn’t accept the Durand Line as a legitimate border with Islamabad and Islamabad doesn’t accept the LoC as a permanent border with New Delhi. If Pakistan were to yield to Kabul’s position it would mean relinquishing parts of FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. If India were to yield to Pakistan’s position it would mean letting go of Jammu and Kashmir. But modern states do not yield territory easily. So each regional player has been trying to change the status quo in its favour by launching terrorist proxies to inflict pain on the other.

Enter the United States. Throughout the Cold War period, it was allied to Pakistan and propped it up with economic and military aid. But tensions erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Pakistan lost its utility for the US. The US reneged on its commitments and turned the screws on Pakistan’s nuclear program, sowing the seeds of virulent anti-Americanism in state and society. Islamabad responded to the impending state of regional isolation by installing a “friendly” Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

But 9/11 created a new ball game. The US went after the Taliban and installed a pro-India, anti-Pakistan regime in Kabul, warning Pakistan: If you’re not with us you’re against us. Faced with Hobson’s Choice, Pakistan fashioned a “double-game” to protect its short and long term interests. It allied with the US against Al-Qaeda’s terrorism but provided sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban in FATA in order to retain “friendly” leverage on Kabul in the future. In consequence, the US spent tens of billions of dollars in trying to “stabilize” Afghanistan with anti-Pakistan regimes but failed because of a slow and steady resurgence of the Taliban who now control nearly half of Afghanistan and carry out attacks at will against the government of President Ashraf Ghani.

US Afghan policy has meandered confusingly from one President to another. Under George W Bush, the US poured in men and materials into the Afghan game, exhorting Pakistan to “do more” to help. Under Obama, it all but pulled out, allowing the Taliban to dig in for the long haul and consolidate their gains. Under Trump, the US is in a “holding” frame but once again leaning on Pakistan to “do more”. Pakistan is not opposed to a “grand reconciliation” in Afghanistan that brings the bloody civil war to an end but wants to make sure that the end result is not unfavourable to its interests and security. But Kabul, New Delhi and Washington are not in any mood to concede Pakistan’s concerns.

Meanwhile, the regional situation is getting worse. Kabul is under attack from the Taliban. The Taliban are under attack from Islamic State in Afghanistan. The IS is anti-Kabul, anti-Islamabad and anti-US. Pakistan and India are warring through proxies. Islamabad and Kabul are hosting terrorist sanctuaries against each other – the Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan. And the US is railing against Pakistan and supporting India in a bigger game to challenge China and disrupt CPEC.

Pakistan is in a bind. It has the most to lose in this situation. The state has already collapsed in Afghanistan and a continuation of the civil war won’t much hurt Kabul as long as the US continues to prop it up. But if the US were to actively gang up with New Delhi and Kabul to hurt Pakistan for not “doing more”, the consequences of weakening the Pakistani state would only benefit the IS and Taliban.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the latest emissary from Washington in search of a “solution” to the regional mess. But he has no fresh ideas or initiatives to offer Pakistan or Afghanistan except a repetition of the “do more” mantra that Pakistan has rejected time and again. What’s the way out?

America must acknowledge that it has played a majorly critical role in creating and sustaining this mess. It has two options now. It can empower and support Pakistan to be the lead player in finding a “solution” in Afghanistan that both Kabul and Islamabad can live with without destabilizing the other. In this case, its pressure tactics must be directed at Kabul and New Delhi to work with Pakistan and assuage its security concerns. Or it can turn its guns on Pakistan for not “doing more” against its own interests. In this case, it will merely pave the way for extremist anti-American populism to overwhelm state and society and plunge the region into an existential crisis as in the Middle East, creating even more problems for everyone in and beyond the region.

Kabul and Islamabad must establish mutual trust by progressively uprooting Pakistani Taliban sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Afghan Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. Simultaneously Pakistan and India must normalize relations by ending their proxy wars. America must play a leading role in bringing this about instead of exacerbating problems by playing anti-Pakistan favourites.

Oct 20

Accountability

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

Accountability

The split in the House of Sharif is in the open. Nawaz and Maryam Sharif stand apart from Shahbaz and Hamza Sharif. The former want to resist the forceful encroachments of the “Miltablishment” into the affairs of both state and government. The latter see this as a politically suicidal “confrontation” and are resigned to working within the parameters defined by Miltablishment.

The first public manifestation of this split came during the recent bye-elections in NA-120. Hamza exited the scene, leaving Maryam to campaign in a constituency nurtured by him in his capacity as manager of the PMLN electoral machine in the Punjab. The margin of victory – which was deemed critical to the political strategy of father and daughter who were hoping to build a narrative of martyrdom on it — seemed to prove Shahbaz’s point about the power of the Miltablishment. The PMLN vote was significantly eroded by three late developments: the birth of two pro-Miltablishment right wing religious parties that sliced off nearly 10% of the PMLN vote; the “disappearance” of a few core PMLN party workers tasked with galvanizing the voters on election day; and the eruption of over two dozen contenders with a few thousand votes among them that would have gone to the PMLN in normal circumstances.

Now Hamza has gone on TV to acknowledge the political differences in the House of Sharif. But both he and Maryam are now engaged in damage control. Hamza says that these political “differences” do not amount to an unbridgeable rift and he and his father are hoping to persuade Nawaz and Maryam to abandon the path of “confrontation” in the larger national interest. Maryam says she spent a delightful afternoon sipping tea with uncle Shahbaz and cousin Hamza and talk of a family rift is wishful thinking by detractors.

Meanwhile, the Miltablishment remains in an aggressive mood. Having come so far to knock out Nawaz Sharif, it is now silencing the voices of prominent television anchors and channels who are deemed “soft” on Sharif or don’t agree with its “state narrative”. Tactics range from pressurizing cable operators to take troublesome channels off air, calling up channel owners and ordering them to sack critical anchors and attacking dissidents on social media as unpatriotic agents of foreign powers.

Now, in an unprecedented intervention, the army chief has publicly dilated on the “ill-health” of the economy and expressed concern that this is hurting “national security”. Although doomsday scenarios of the economy have been floating around for decades and the situation today is not as bad as on several occasions in the past, this is another damning indictment of the Sharif regime and finance minister Ishaq Dar (he is also in the Miltablishment’s gunsights like his boss Nawaz Sharif). The PMLN prides itself with restoring growth and foreign investment. Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister in charge of CPEC, has aggressively rebutted the charges, while Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister, has hurriedly called a meeting to brief the army chief of the “true” situation and allay his fears. But it may be noted that this Miltablishment “intervention” is no less significant than its intervention some years ago in which unfounded allegations of multi-billion dollar “corruption” of the political elite in Sindh were linked to the growth of “terrorism”, paving the way for the arrest of key aides and confidantes of PPP leader Asif Zardari, the removal of a chief minister and the consolidation of unequivocal Miltablishment sway in the province.

But if the political outlook for Nawaz Sharif is not good, the fact remains that the Miltablishment is in no position to impose martial law or even install a hand-picked “technocratic” regime in Islamabad. The Miltablishment has alienated both mainstream parties PPP and PMLN without ensuring that the PTI will win the next elections or indeed play ball even if it does. In fact, it cannot even depend on the support of the two mainstream religious parties Jamaat I Islami and Jamiat I Ulema Islam. Its efforts to build an anti-Nawaz Forward Bloc in the PMLN are also floundering. Nor can it count on the judiciary to approve any such intervention. Indeed, the prospect of sitting in the hot seat with a bristling international community breathing down its neck must be very unsettling. Under the circumstances, martial law can be ruled out.

A technocratic government is also a non-starter. There is no constitutional way to bring it about or sanction it. The only situation in which it may be theoretically possible with the support of the judiciary is one in which elections have been called, parliament has been dissolved and a neutral federal interim government is in place which can be leaned upon to extend its existence and “clean up” the mess. But this would lead to a breakdown of federal-provincial relations and put unbearable strain on state, economy and society.

The tragedy of the nation is that those who would hold the Sharifs and Zardaris accountable are themselves unaccountable and don’t inspire confidence.

Oct 13

Constellation of forces

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

Constellation of forces

Captain (retd) Mohammad Safdar, the son-in-law of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has exploded in the National Assembly on a curious note. Suddenly, seemingly without any personal provocation, he has conjured up a rising “threat to national security” from the banned Ahmadi community. “These people [Ahmadis] are a threat to this country, its constitution and ideology. This situation is heading towards a dangerous point,” he shrieked. He said he wanted to move a resolution in parliament calling for a ban on the recruitment of Ahmadis in the armed forces because they could not be “trusted with guarding the country’s frontiers”.

Whilst on the subject, he took a shot at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad for naming its Physics Centre after Dr Abdus Salam, a Pakistani Ahmadi who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, an honour that was acknowledged by (Prime Minister) Nawaz Sharif in a financial grant of five annual PhD Fellowships for the renamed department.

Captain Safdar is known to be a political maverick. But this time, there seems to be a method in his madness. Several issues may impinge on the content and timing of his parliamentary thunder.

First, consider some facts related to the execution of Mumtaz Qadri. It may be recalled that when the Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer’s self-confessed assassin was sent to the gallows after being on death row for a long time, there was a question mark over who finally prevailed upon the Sharif government to reject his mercy petition and execute him. Some people insist that it was the army chief who finally rolled up his sleeves and went after terrorists and extremists of all shades, including Qadri. Others suggest that Nawaz Sharif did the needful in his bid to appease liberal opinion at home and abroad, even though throughout his political career he had handled such religious extremists with kid gloves, often doing deals with them so that they wouldn’t get in his way. Even at that time, however, Captain Safdar had publicly expressed sympathy with Qadri and his Barelvi ilk, leading to speculation that perhaps he was signalling his father-in-law’s helplessness in the face of the army chief’s demand. Indeed, when Qadri’s first death anniversary rolled around, the Sharif government bent over backwards to appease and channel the surging crowd in Rawalpindi instead of pre-empting a potentially dangerous law and order situation. Under the circumstances – when the Barelvis have banded together under a new political party, chopping off a significant slice of the PMLN’s votes in NA-120 and one particularly incensed ex-army Qadri supporter is openly threatening to assassinate Nawaz Sharif – it would make political and personal sense for someone close to Mr Sharif to express solidarity with the Barelvi sentiment.

Second, consider the fact that Nawaz Sharif’s political experience with hand-picked army chiefs continues to rankle with him. Gen Pervez Musharraf overthrew and exiled him. So he instituted a case of treason against Musharraf when he returned to power. General Raheel Sharif backed Imran Khan’s dharnas to the bitter end. So he shunted the good general off to Saudi Arabia and embarrassed him by leaking information about his “land grabs”. And now it may seem to him that General Qamar Bajwa has not only connived in his disqualification from parliament but is also leaning on other state institutions to finish him off politically. Was it Captain Safdar’s intent, one may wonder, to allude to General Bajwa’s alleged Ahmadi connections in order to put him on the defensive? Certainly, the idea of moving a resolution in Parliament to ban Ahmadis and weed them out from wherever they serve, smacks of some such threat.

If that be the case — and we desperately hope it is not — Captain Safdar may be advised not to play with fire. By putting Pervez Musharraf on trial, Nawaz Sharif created a schism with the army as an institution. That became an unbridgeable gulf when he humiliated Raheel Sharif by exposing his official “greed”. Now Captain Safdar may have sown the seed of personal revenge in the heart of Gen Bajwa by trying to isolate him from his institution. It seems that the good captain has forgotten the fate of two Lt Generals at least who conspired to whip up the “Ahmadi connection” in a bid to stop Gen Bajwa from becoming army chief.

Politics is taking an unprecedentedly dangerous turn. On the one hand, the army is progressively coming out into the open to articulate its policies, extend its ambitions and brandish threats, often at the expense of the elected dispensation and civil society. On the other hand, the civilian order is disintegrating from within because of political rifts, power grabs, economic crises, corruption and mismanagement. In the midst of this developing chaos, the judiciary has spread its wings and unfurled its claws like an avenging bird of prey.

No good can come from this constellation of forces.

Oct 6

Floating world

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

Floating world

We are informed that the army chief has held a seven-hour long corps commanders meeting. The generals discussed foreign policy issues following the Chief’s strategic discussions in Kabul with the Afghan President. There is no mention of any briefing to the Defense Minister, Foreign Minister or, indeed, the Prime Minister of the democratically elected government of Pakistan.

What’s the point, one might justifiably ask, since the brass is not inclined to brook any civilian interference in running foreign policy.  Indeed, it seems that Nawaz Sharif is still paying the price for running afoul of the brass by trying to run India policy, and, despite the ministers’ occasional bravado for the sake of form, no one is inclined to follow suit vis a vis Afghanistan or America.

The second part of the meeting is more ominous. The generals vowed to play their role in making sure that the Constitution is implemented in the country, or words to that effect. This is rich. Parliament is supposed to be the repository of the Constitution and the elected government of the day along with the Supreme Court are jointly supposed to protect it from usurpers and states within states. Yet one usurper is visibly protected by the brass which will not let the law and constitution take their course under Article 6, while the DG Rangers has blithely flouted the writ of the very civilian ministry from which he is supposed to take orders under the Constitution.

By way of explanation – which subtly parades as justification – we are constantly reminded that the blundering civilians have only themselves to blame for this loss of constitutional authority. One argument points to “egg on the face of the interior minister” after his authority was flouted outside a NAB court by an officer of the Rangers and the wretched minister was provoked to fume about “resigning” his office if his constitutional authority was not upheld. (NB: the minister did not have the courage to even think for a minute about sacking the errant General). By this logic, all elected civilians go around doing their daily chores with permanent egg on their face because there is nothing they can do to effectively challenge the writ of the brass on any issue in everyday life. Isn’t it better, at least for the sake of the constitutional record, to protest even if there is nothing concrete one can do about it instead of hunkering down and meekly accepting the “reality”?

Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif are proponents of the “accept-the-harsh-reality” theory of politics. Mian Nawaz Sharif is not. What’s the point of elections and parliament, he argues, if elected representatives have to constantly kowtow to the brass on all matters big and small? The counter argument is that if the elected representatives did a better and cleaner job of government as envisaged in the Constitution, they would have greater political and moral legitimacy in exercising authority vis a vis the brass. In other words, there are usurpers and usurpers rather than usurpers and usurped, depending on who is judging.

Here’s the rub. Whichever way one looks at it, this is not good for the health of both the Constitution and the country. At some point, matters are bound to reach breaking point. When that happens in a hostile neighbourhood with bristling borders east and west, foreign players will be inclined to fish in troubled waters. Political uncertainty is also bad for the business of the economy. Harken the doomsday scenarios of a terrible balance of payments crisis (economic default) sketched by those who have never been in love with “Darnomics”. Now they’re even more worried about what would happen in a vacuum without Ishaq Dar.

Nawaz Sharif is refusing to throw in the towel. He has now become President of his Party by amending the law. If this is in-your-face-defiance of both the brass and the Supreme Court, he is poised to amend the Constitution in March to nullify his disqualification. How will both institutions of the state react to Nawaz Sharif’s capture of office?

It may be recalled that he reacted to his ouster in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf by lodging a treason case against the general in 2013. This time he may be tempted to clip the wings of the Supreme Court so that it doesn’t usurp the power of an elected parliament.

But whatever one may think of Nawaz Sharif and his corruption, inefficiency and dynastic tendencies, one cannot absolve the brass and the court of their major role in the  continuing crisis of state and society in Pakistan. What is more worrying is that neither institution is intellectually or legitimately equipped, singly or jointly, to rule Pakistan better. Indeed, righteous talk of stepping in “to save” Pakistan is misplaced concreteness, as the historical record shows.

There is no option but to let the water find its own level in the floating world of good and bad democracies.

Sep 29

Howler!

Posted on Friday, September 29, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Howler!

As Mariam Nawaz Sharif had earlier predicted in a TV interview, her father Nawaz Sharif has returned to Pakistan and presented himself before a NAB accountability court. He says he does not expect the court to give him justice because the Supreme Court has seized control of the court after rigging the Iqama case against him.

This is a charge Mr Sharif has made many times before. But by reiterating it now, he has signaled his determination to resist advice by some family members, party loyalists and friends to step aside in exile and save the party. Indeed, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar, the most openly disgruntled leader in the PMLN, in the press conference suggests that the PMLN has closed ranks and lined up solidly behind Mr Sharif.

In fact, the surreptitious passing of a bill in the Senate by the PMLN some days ago (when PPP and PTI members were largely absent) to enable a “disqualified” member of parliament to remain or become the leader of the party (General Pervez Musharraf made the anti-law to keep Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto out) indicates that Mr Sharif means business. This would imply that the bill will pass in the National Assembly shortly. It also means that after the senate elections next March, when the PMLN will assemble a majority, we can expect a constitutional amendment in the disqualification-for-life prescription of the SC.

It may also be recalled that Mr Sharif had earlier clearly accused the military establishment of “disappearing” some PMLN party workers during the NA-120 by-election. Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif went further: they attributed the reduced margin of PMLN’s victory to such “invisible” hands. Now it should be noted that Mr Sharif has singled out the judiciary for attack in his press conference but steered clear of mentioning the role of the military establishment in the same context. Again, the presence of Chaudhry Nisar suggests he may have had something to do with a change of tactics: attack the court but try not to antagonize the military establishment any more.

The SC hasn’t been sitting idle either. It has summarily dismissed the Sharifs’ review petitions. It has also rejected the demand to cease overseeing the NAB trial court and prejudicing its judgment. Now it means to consolidate Mr Sharif’s disqualification (given on the basis of Constitution Article 62 and 63 read together with the Peoples Representation Act of 1976) via the NAB court in which an adverse judgment against an accused also automatically leads to his disqualification from contesting elections. This will make the task of reversing the disqualification more difficult for Mr Sharif even with a majority in both houses of parliament after March next year.

The “Establishment”, meanwhile, is sanguine with the outcome of its machinations so far. It has made sure that come elections next year Mr Sharif stands to lose a significant chunk of his right wing conservative vote bank to a combination of extreme right wing religious parties (the PMLN lost 13,000 votes or 13% of votes cast to two newly formed parties), thereby giving the PTI a fighting chance in the two-way race for the Punjab heartland. The Establishment felt the need to cobble the Milli Muslim League (ex-jihadis who are estranged from Mr Sharif’s pro-peace-with-India policy) and the Tehreek e Labbaik Pakistan of Barelvis (angry at the execution of Mumtaz Qadri by the Sharif regime) for two reasons: to provide an umbrella of legitimacy to internationally banned jihadi organisations and their leaders in order to retain leverage in the Establishment’s anti-India strategic policies; and to stop the slide of the PMLN under a “reformed” Nawaz Sharif towards a pro-liberal centrist agenda that threatens to mop up disenchanted liberal elements of the PPP in decline and revitalize itself as a national party.

But there may be a snag in this scenario. That relates to the fate of Imran Khan before the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court. The Establishment wants Imran Khan to compete vigourously with Nawaz Sharif and whittle down his vote bank so that he doesn’t win a majority to form the next governments in the Punjab and Islamabad and rise anew to challenge its hegemony. But the SC must worry about the factual evidence against Imran Khan which is greater than in the case of Nawaz Sharif who had to be hooked on the basis of a flimsy Iqama instead of a dubious money trail. If it disqualifies Imran Khan, it will end up screwing the PTI royally – unlike the PMLN which has three decades of roots in the Punjab and can put up a fight even without voting for Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. The PTI is nothing without Imran Khan’s charismatic presence at the helm. If this happens, the Establishment’s political plans will come a cropper.

We should know soon enough which way the wind is going to blow. But whichever way it blows, it’s going to be a howler.