Sep 8

House in Order

Posted on Friday, September 8, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

House in Order

Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif has grabbed headlines with his statement that “we need to bring our house in order, to prevent facing embarrassment on the international level”. He went on to admit Pakistan’s “mistake” in participating as a “proxy” in America’s war in Afghanistan against the USSR in the 1980s. “We have baggage. We need to accept that history and correct ourselves.”

Khwaja Asif wants a “new foreign policy” to cope with a regional situation in which Pakistan faces isolation and censure. Following US President Donald Trump’s blunt criticism of Pakistan as “part of the problem” of Afghanistan, the recent Brics Summit has now, for the first time, listed Pakistan based non-state actors like the TTP, Haqqani Network, LeT, JM, etc, as terrorist groups. This means that key regional stakeholders China, Russia, America, India and Afghanistan have jointly put Pakistan on notice. Until now, China had gone the extra mile to protect Pakistan at international forums from being targeted as such.

Pakistan’s formal reaction to these twin developments has been two-fold. First, the civil-military leadership has united to reject the allegation that Pakistan is sponsoring terrorism and needs to do more to stop it from hurting neighbours India and Afghanistan. In defense, it is reiterating evidence of a huge loss of soldiers and civilians in fighting terrorism on its soil sponsored from across its eastern and western borders. Second, it has hastily-convened a Conference of Foreign Envoys to formulate an appropriate policy response arising out of recent regional developments. Khwaja Asif’s statement deliberately reflects the thinking of the core elements in the Foreign Policy establishment.

But the equanimity with which Khwaja Asif has articulated a public “mea-culpa” and the consequent need for a new foreign policy is striking. Not so long ago, much the same sentiment was echoed by a couple of civilians in a meeting of the National Security Council that provoked the ire of the military establishment whence it came to be named “Dawnleaks” and destabilized the administration of Nawaz Sharif. Now the same military establishment had nodded approval to the same civilian leadership to publicly announce a review of the same “national security” doctrine in order to assuage the concerns and fears of the international community.

Pakistan’s defense of its contribution to the war on terrorism is accepted on one count and rejected on another by the regional stakeholders, including China. The world acknowledges that Pakistan’s military has waged a relentless war against the TTP, IS and assorted religious extremist groups terrorizing the people and state of Pakistan from bases inside and outside Pakistan. But it rejects its assertion that groups based inside Pakistan such as the Haqqani Network, LeT, JM etc that are attacking both Afghanistan and India but not Pakistan have its implicit and explicit support. Therefore when Khwaja Asif demands a change of foreign and national security policy, it is obvious that he is referring to policy regarding the Haqqani network, Let, JM etc with whom Pakistan’s regional neighbours and the international community are concerned and not the TTP, IS etc. The “do more” international mantra is directed at the former and not the latter. The significant new development is that this is now acknowledged by the foreign policy community of Pakistan.

The problem, however, is how to “do more”. The Haqqani network, like the rest of the Afghan Taliban, was provided safe havens and nurtured originally for leveraging the Afghan civil war to Pakistan’s advantage. Now it is clear that far from being to Pakistan’s advantage it has become a liability for Pakistan. The problem is how to oust it from Pakistan without pushing it into the arms of the TTP inside Afghanistan or IS inside Pakistan and reinforcing terrorism inside Pakistan.

Much the same sort of problem bedevils action against LeT and JM. Both were nurtured to leverage an advantageous solution to the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Now even the Kashmiris are not prepared to accept help from such Pakistan-based jihadis because it means tarring their struggle for Azaadi from both India and Pakistan. The problem for Pakistan is how to disband them without pushing them into the arms of the TTP as happened when the Musharraf regime decided to merely close the tap on jihad in 2005.

Pakistan’s resolve to neutralise the LeT, JM and Haqqani network would doubtless be strengthened if Afghanistan were to commit itself to eliminating the TTP based in Afghanistan and end support to Indian proxies terrorizing Balochistan. Likewise, if India were to demonstrate a sincere readiness to resolve the Kashmir issue to the satisfaction of the Kashmiris at least, the need for Pakistan to retain jihadi leverage would vanish. But neither India nor Afghanistan are prepared to take such steps.

For these reasons, a mutually advantageous and trusting regional approach to terrorism is the need of the hour. India and Pakistan must normalize relations, Pakistan and Afghanistan must act against anti-each other’s terrorists. And the US, Russia and China must assist them all to resolve their mutual problems instead of ganging up against Pakistan.

Sep 1

From Panama to Iqama

Posted on Friday, September 1, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

From Panama to Iqama

Nawaz Sharif is facing two unprecedented and simultaneous challenges. The first is from a ubiquitous “Establishment” comprising the military-judicial organs of the state. The second is from within his own House of Sharif. How he deals with them in the next year or so will determine both his own longevity and that of the Muslim League in the political system of Pakistan.

?Nawaz Sharif faced a “semi-establishment” challenge in 1993 and rebounded to win the 1997 elections. The challenge in 1999 was greater because it came directly and forcefully from the military. But he lived to fight another day after ten years in exile, thanks partly to a popular revolt against General Pervez Musharraf led by the judiciary that was partial towards the PMLN and partly due to an alliance with Benazir Bhutto over a “Charter of Democracy”. The challenge this time, however, is formidable because it comes from both a rigidly hostile military and a superior judiciary under popular pressure.

?The second challenge is from within the House of Sharif. It is over two critical issues. The first is that of political succession or heir apparent. If Nawaz cannot be prime minister again, will he be succeeded by brother Shahbaz Sharif or daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif? The second issue is over policy. Should the PMLN take on the “Establishment” under Nawaz and Maryam or should it live and let live with it under Shahbaz Sharif. These are existential choices, both personal and political. Clashing with the new “Establishment” has brought the Sharifs to this pass.

The Shahbaz camp argues that a continuation of this “disastrous” policy will spell disaster for Nawaz, Maryam and the PMLN. Better for Nawaz and Maryam to step aside and let Shahbaz, along with Chaudhry Nisar, repair the damage by winning back the trust of the “Establishment” and keeping the PMLN united and strong. But the Nawaz camp disagrees. It hopes to counter the power of the “Establishment” with the force of the people. The GT Road show was a demonstration of popular will. NA-120 will be a real test. This is to be translated both into counter pressure on the judiciary as well as a win in the next elections that enables a reversal of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification or enthronement of Maryam as his successor. All current indications are that Nawaz Sharif has embarked upon this latter route. The chances of his success are dependent on certain critical factors.

Foremost among these is his ability to rouse the popular imagination in his support. From “Panana to Iqama” is a powerful “mountain to molehill” metaphor for the “injustice” meted out to him by the Supreme Court. This can be successfully exploited at the hustings. NAB, which is going to prosecute him, is progressively losing credibility. After Asif Zardari’s “easy” acquittal in a NAB court last week, and an imminent change of Chairman NAB soon, the watchdog is likely to suffer from instability, uncertainty and skepticism. If Nawaz can stave off NAB until the next elections, and if he can win them, he can revive his fortunes again. The critical necessary factor, though not sufficient, is winning the elections.

Until now, anyone who has opposed the “Establishment” by clutching at populism has been “martyred”. Nawaz’s chances of surviving and winning are therefore slim. Still, there are choices to be made.

The most important of these relates to the timing of the elections. One argument is to delay these until next year after capturing the Senate in March for development schemes and mega projects to materialize and impress voters. The other is to hold these straightaway while the “Panama to Iqama” metaphor is still alive in the popular imagination so that the sympathy vote can be tapped before the “Establishment” delivers some lethal blows in the NAB trial to erode that narrative.

There are powerful arguments for holding general elections immediately. It would be foolish to start wooing the crowds many months before the elections. Voter fatigue is bound to set in after the first few rallies. The PMLN voter is different from PTI supporters who have fueled Imran Khan’s unending dharnas and continuing jalsas. The PMLN voter is older and statically wedded to the status quo. The PTI supporter is youthful and dynamically fired up with notions of “revolutionary change”. Nawaz must not expect his historically pro-establishment supporters to remain enthusiastic for long, let alone stand up and fight for him in a situation when the “Establishment” will be moving heaven and earth to split his party and cut him down to size.

If the Nawaz strategy is to peg political survival on popular support, his best bet would be to hold an immediate general election pegged to the “Panana to Iqama” metaphor before it becomes stale or is rejected by subsequent developments. Winning it now will provide the muscle to thwart NAB and find space for a compromise with the “Establishment” jointly fashioned with Shahbaz Sharif.

Aug 25

Pakistan: Afghan Problem or Solution?

Posted on Friday, August 25, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan: Afghan Problem or Solution?

President Donald Trump’s belated announcement of his administration’s Afghan Policy is ominous. Never mind that it is an unabashed reversal of his passionate pre-election position to pull out of Afghanistan because it’s not America’s war. Now it’s very much America’s war and there is no option but to win it. This winning is to be done on the basis of a three-pronged strategy.

About 4000-5000 additional US troops will be pumped in to bring the total up to 12,000 or so. With over 60% of Afghan territory in Taliban control, this is peanuts. It won’t even suffice to make Kabul and a couple of other cities immune from Taliban attacks.

India will be asked to help with investments in infrastructure. How does that help in winning a war with an implacable enemy for whom fighting is the natural order of life?

Pakistan will be arm-twisted to abandon an entrenched national security policy that is unacceptable to India and pro-India Afghan regimes. This is to be done by leveraging economic and military aid to Pakistan along with military reprisals against the Haqqani network in Pakistan. Again, there is not much to write home about unless international donor agencies and financial institutions are also pressured to pull out and trade barriers are specifically erected against Pakistani exports to the US. But that risks devaluing social sector development and precipitating an economic crisis that will create a wave of angry, alienated, jobless youngsters ready to pick up arms and join IS or the Taliban against the Great Satan, not just defeating the very purpose of the exercise but creating the preconditions of anti-American state breakdown as in the Middle East. Instead of winning in Afghanistan, this policy risks losing nuclear-armed Pakistan.

There is no recognition of the inherent failures of the Afghan regime to stand up on its own feet and defend itself, let alone concerted efforts to put that house in order. There is no understanding of the developing regional interests of Iran, Russia and China in Afghanistan, let alone efforts to rope them into a collective regional strategy for building peace and stability in Afghanistan.

In fact, the most shocking dimension of the new US Afghan policy is the focus on Pakistan as being part of the main problem rather than part of the solution. If Pakistan were to become part of the solution, the US would need to address its core security concerns regarding India (that have unfortunately been strengthened by the belligerence of the Modi regime) so that peace and stability along our Eastern border can become a platform upon which to stabilize and cement our Western border. How can any country feel secure when one pro-American neighbour disputes its established border with it and another will not let it establish its rightful claims at the time of independence? But Pakistan is part of the problem for the US because India is part of its solution against China while China is part of the solution for Pakistan because India is part of the problem for it.

In short, there isn’t sufficient Bushism in Trumpism to make it a solid military strategy in terms of a troop surge to subdue the Taliban and compel them to start talking peace. But there’s not much Obamaism too in terms of deadlines for troop withdrawal that the Taliban can sit out. But it is Trump’s threatening attitude toward Pakistan that is worrying.

Pakistan can deal with US economic leveraging within limits. It is in neither’s interest to cross certain red lines. Indiscriminate drone strikes in Pakistan’s settled areas will rebound to US disadvantage because Taliban leaders have already dispersed, even to Iran and beyond, to bide their time much as they did after the Tora Bora bombing campaign in 2001. Any border transgressions or hot pursuit will be fiercely resisted by the Pakistan army without distinguishing between American, NATO or Afghan forces. If Salala is repeated by the Americans, the Pakistanis are bound to retaliate. And so on. A tense stalemate would not benefit the Americans but it would provoke angry Pakistanis into terrorist reprisals globally. How will that help America’s war against terrorism?

The stage is being set for exacerbating distrustful and tense relations in the region when all stakeholders should be reaching out for the opposite. Trump’s Afghan policy is likely to worsen Washington’s relations with Pakistan. But Pakistan’s relations with India and Afghanistan will also worsen because both will become more self-righteous and more belligerent on the back of Trump’s assurances and leanings. India and China are already sparring in the high north while Russia and Iran will do their bit to enmesh the Americans further in this quagmire.

Pakistan’s response should be measured and responsible. We are in a hostile situation. Bravado would be counter-productive. Engagement should be the name of the game. A dynamic review of our own national Security policy is urgently required in these circumstances. Above all, the civilian and military leadership should fashion a united front to face this challenge.

Aug 18

Who rules Pakistan?

Posted on Friday, August 18, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Who rules Pakistan?

As Pakistan turns 70, political scientists are trying to fathom the dimensions and implications of a new twist in an old paradigm: who rules Pakistan. Until now the prevailing view was that the civil service and military have jointly exercised power directly or indirectly, with the judiciary serving as a handmaiden, while civilian politicians have intermittently been in office. The distinction between “being in power” and “being in office” was central to the paradigm. Now there seems to be a change in the equation, with the judicial-military bureaucracy co-opting power, and the civil service playing the role of the handmaiden (prominently NAB), while civil politicians vainly struggle to remain in a greatly diminished office.

The Movement for the Restoration of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and his fellow judges of the Supreme Court, culminating in restoration in 2009, had two important consequences. It greatly strengthened the judiciary. But it also politicized it immeasurably. Under Justice Chaudhry, the SC lashed out at a PPP president and two PPP prime ministers. It put the military on the mat for “disappeared” persons in Balochistan and ordered investigations into the financial affairs of the National Logistics Cell run by the military. It pressurized two NAB Chairmen to quit for neglecting to act impartially against ruling politicians. Finally, it broke free from the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy by establishing the doctrine of judicial self-accountability and constitutional supremacy.

After Justice Chaudhry’s departure, the SC has moved to consolidate its political power by two flanking movements. It has signaled its readiness to cooperate rather than conflict with the military establishment. The most obvious case in point is the composition of the Joint Investigation Team led by two powerful military intel agencies. It has decided to target the PMLN prime minister in order to establish its “neutrality” vis a vis both mainstream political parties. It has also decided to take effective control of NAB jointly with the military whose retired officers run it.

The modus operandi of the SC has, however, raised troubling and unprecedented questions in the popular imagination. How did it suddenly come to accept a writ petition by Imran Khan against the Sharifs after the failure of his dharna to overthrow the regime when it had earlier scoffed at it as “rubbish”? Why did it deem it necessary to order the formation of a JIT led by two senior military intel officers when the investigation pertained to money laundering rather than terrorism? Why did it appoint one of the three judges who kicked out the PM to oversee the same premier’s NAB trial in a lower accountability court? Why did it set short time limits for the investigation of the Sharifs in the SC itself and their accountability trial subsequently?

A host of powerful legal questions have also been raised in the five Review Petitions lodged by the ousted prime minister and his family. How the court deals with these will shed further light on its political and legal behavior.

The theory of an imminent “judicial coup” has been doing the rounds for some time. Its proponents have argued that sooner or later the military will nudge the judiciary to center stage because it cannot directly challenge the civil order without openly running afoul of the Constitution. The tipping point probably came when the military was compelled by the force of public opinion and constitutionalism to withdraw its tweet “rejecting” the PM’s notification regarding Dawnleaks. Henceforth, it was decided, a constitutional stick whose legitimacy cannot be questioned should be used to whip the civilians into obeying its “orders”.

If all this is reasonably true, then we can safely predict the turbulence ahead.

Regardless of whether the ousted prime minister’s review petitions are granted relief or not, it is certain that summary NAB proceedings in a lower accountability court will humiliate and then convict the Sharifs and other accused before the scheduled Senate elections next March. The idea is to weaken the ruling Sharif family, and by association, the PMLN so that they cannot threaten the new judicial-military paradigm by winning the Senate elections and making a bid to clip the powers of the SC. Simultaneously, efforts will doubtless be made to try and effect defections from the PMLN so that its ability to mount popular resistance to this “operation” is significantly reduced.

The judiciary’s new role is manifest not just vis a vis PMLN but also PPP. The Sindh High Court has put paid to the Sindh Assembly’s bid to counter NAB with its own accountability mechanism. Ominously enough, a NAB accountability court in Rawalpindi has suddenly woken up to speed up the trail of Asif Ali Zardari in a case of assets without known sources of income.

The Sharifs have realized this impending fate much too late in the day for their own good. But the Zardaris are still posturing with their heads in the sand. The greater tragedy for Pakistan at 70 is that the new “powers-that-be” are as morally and politically bankrupt as the old ones.

Aug 11

Pakistan at 70

Posted on Friday, August 11, 2017 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan at 70

As Pakistan turns 70, the cry for “change” becomes ever more shrill and violent. On the surface, it is an angry rally for an end to “corruption” because everyone – young and old, male or female, rich or poor, Sindhi or Punjabi, Shia or Sunni, religious or secular, urban or rural – is morally and politically outraged by it. But the underlying reality of the country is more unsettling. Far from the prospect of a “Pakistani spring” on the wings of the latest troika of judiciary, military and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the “awakening” portends a deepening of the crisis with fearful longer term consequences. Consider.

A British Council survey three years ago indicated the direction of “change” in Pakistan. The country is increasingly “young” and “urban”. Half its citizens are under 20 and over 65 percent are under 30. The population has trebled in fifty years. Another 14 million youth will be eligible to vote in 2018.

Over 94 percent of the youth think the country is headed in the “wrong” direction. Over 80 per cent think their economic position will not improve. Across all divides, pessimism is the defining trait of this next generation “youth bulge”. Violence stalks everyday life. Over 70 percent think life is not safer for Pakistanis compared to the past – Pakistan ranks 149th of 158 countries in the Global Peace Index.

The survey reveals that the greatest source of anxiety for the youth is not terrorism but insecurity of jobs and justice and economic inflation. Only 10 per cent have full time contracted employment.

The report notes that approval rates are lowest for political parties and parliaments. Other institutions – religious, media, military and judiciary – have high approval rates. Less than 30 percent think “democracy” can deliver development and employment whereas nearly 70 percent think military rule and shariah can be better solutions. Nearly 70 percent are conservative/religious. A majority of those with mobile phone access to social media are politicised and want to vote because they think they can “change” the system. Significantly, over 8o percent of countries in which over 60 percent of the population is under 30 years of age like Pakistan are prone to violence and civil conflict because the “system” isn’t delivering expectations of social and economic well-being.

This raises the question of whether forced “regime change” for reasons of selective party-political “corruption” can stem the tide of insecurity, violence and pessimism in the body politic of Pakistan.  The empirical evidence suggests that corruption has not declined despite recurring “regime change” of “corrupt governments” in the last seventy years of independent Pakistan. In fact, corruption has not abated despite alternating civil-democratic and military-dictatorship rule in the country. Indeed, regime change in the current circumstances based on the aspirations and reactions of the religious-conservative youth bulge that favours military-judiciary rule will sound the death knell of Pakistan.

The “Arab Spring” in the Middle East is a good yardstick by which to measure the nature of “change” prompted by the youth bulge. Instead of delivering a dividend in the form of a democratic system that spurred economic growth, security and stability, one after the other the countries of the ME succumbed to dictatorship, anarchy, religious civil war, foreign intervention and state breakdown, transforming the anticipated “Spring” into a “Winter of discontent”. Given the social and political propensities of the youth bulge in Pakistan, this route for change will destroy Pakistan too.

Nearly 15 million youngsters, most of whom are conservative, unemployed and angry, will be added to the voting list in 2018. If they veer to the religio-fascist right at the instigation of unelected state institutions whose own record of delivering jobs or justice is abysmal, the country will inch closer to renewed violence, instability and separatism. But if they are accommodated within the “corrupt” democratic system, Pakistan still has a chance of reinventing a new democracy that is better able to cope with the demands for state security and economic welfare.

It is, of course, true that political parties and their dynastic leaders are no less culpable for the dysfunctional state of Pakistan’s economy and democracy than military coup-makers and their judicial legitmizers. However, what is interesting in the current quagmire is the political contest between an old party of the conservative-right that was midwifed by the military and judiciary but is now shifting to the centre and trying to become autonomous of both state institutions and a new party of the same leanings and origins that is swinging further right on the basis of the youth bulge and dependence on the same state institutions.

Under the circumstances, the current political crisis that is pegged to “corruption” and regime change is actually about the direction in which Pakistan is headed in a contest between imperfectly democratic, centrist but corrupt political regimes and equally corrupt but violent, religio-fascist autocracies that are a recipe for anarchy and state breakdown as in the Middle East.