Pakistan under Asif Zardari, 2009-2013

(February 22-28, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 01)

Beginning, not end, of transition to democracy

This has been a great election. It vindicates those who, like Benazir Bhutto, argued for a peaceful transition to democracy instead of a confrontation aimed at transformation. It supports the pollsters who said the country was awash with anti-Musharraf sentiment and the PPP was the most popular party in the country followed by the PMLN. The best part of the election is that the forces of religious extremism have been routed and the true worth of moderate, mainstream and even secular parties has been duly upheld. To give the devil his due, President Musharraf has shed his uniform and held credible elections like he promised. But it is not lost on anyone that he was shoved and pushed in that direction by a persistent civil society and a concerned international community. What more could Pakistanis ask for?

Plenty. With the tail-wind behind them, Mr Asif Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif are demanding President Pervez Musharraf should quit. They say that the people have cast a vote of no-confidence in him and he should respect their verdict. But Pakistan is not an established democracy and he is not a legitimately elected president. So he has refused to oblige. Where do we go from here?

One option is to get back into confrontation mode, unite the anti-Musharraf forces in parliament and try to impeach him or strip him of his extraordinary powers. But that is easier said than done. Even a two-thirds majority in the national assembly for a constitutional amendment won’t do the job since the Senate is still controlled by the PMLQ. The other option is to boycott parliament and take to the streets, provoking the army to step in at some ugly stage and “save democracy”, a contradiction in terms that is fraught with problems.

The other option is for the pro-democracy forces to forget about overthrowing President Musharraf for the time being and unite to make the system functional and more democratic step by step. This means coalition building everywhere. The PPP can form a provincial government in Sindh but may be advised to get the MQM on board in the interests of stability. In the NWFP, too, the ANP and PPP can form a coalition that is secular and moderate. In Balochistan, thanks to the boycott by the nationalists, the PMLQ is in the driving seat. The real issue is what to do in Islamabad and Punjab.

In Islamabad, the PPP is the largest party and should be asked by President Musharraf to form a government. It can do so with the PMLQ, ANP, MQM and everyone else except the PMLN. This PPP-PMLQ formula would work in the Punjab too because the provincial independents would naturally gravitate towards a dispensation that supplements the one in Islamabad. But the problem with this approach is that Mr Zardari would have to establish a working relationship with the unpopular President Musharraf and risk the ire of many idealistic PPP voters and supporters, including the angry civil society protestors who want Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry restored as CJP, which is not possible with President Musharraf around.

The other option is for Mr Zardari to try and include Mr Sharif’s PMLN in coalitions in Islamabad and Punjab and exclude the PMLQ. This would mean two things. First it would be an anti-Musharraf dispensation that is likely to end up in confrontation mode sooner than later and jeopardize the transition to greater democracy. At any rate, any strategy that leads to the overthrow of President Musharraf will automatically lead to the re-unification of the PML under Mr Sharif and swell its ranks to overwhelm the PPP once again. Second, Mr Zardari would have to fork over Punjab to Mr Sharif if he wants to keep Islamabad to himself. But after Mr Sharif gets Punjab with Mr Zardari’s support, he will be able to corral the independents into his camp. Then Mr Zardari would be at his mercy in Punjab and therefore in Islamabad. In the event, Mr Sharif could chose the moment of confrontation with President Musharraf and precipitate a crisis leading to a fresh election in which he would be the biggest beneficiary. Given the longer term divergence of party political interests of the two competitor parties, Mr Zardari must therefore scrutinize this option before succumbing to its emotional “national reconciliation” rhetoric and pull.

At the end of the day, the unpopular but pragmatic dialectic which propelled the PPP to choose the electoral route of transiting to democracy in the presence of President Musharraf instead of a boycott and confrontation preferred by Mr Sharif will have to be realistically weighed by Mr Zardari. There will be a time when President Musharraf will definitely be hoist by his own petard but whether the time has come is not certain from the point of view of party political interests. He would certainly hasten it if he continues to throw his weight about, if he manipulates politics via the agencies, and if he doesn’t zip up about people and personalities. Indeed, if the transition to democracy is to succeed in the longer term, Mr Musharraf will have to retreat to the shadows and eventually bow out to redeem himself and the nation.

 

(February 29 – March 06, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 02)

Politics is the art of the possible

Well meaning and concerned Pakistanis are sincerely excited about the prospects of principled alliances between and among the newly elected democratic forces of the country which lead to the creation of national reconciliation governments in Islamabad and the provinces. The major consequences of such democratic unity would presumably be the ouster of the unpopular President Pervez Musharraf, the disappearance of the rump PMLQ, the restoration of the independent pre-PCO judges, including the brave former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, the granting of full provincial rights to the NWFP and Balochistan, the rupture of the Mush-Bush partnership that has spawned Talibanism and terrorism in the tribal areas, and various other good initiatives in the popular imagination.

Certainly, all the principal actors are making the right noises and moves publicly. They have demonstrated their ability to rustle up 171 MNAs in Islamabad, which is a signal to the man on the hill that time is running out for him. We also learn that Ms Nilofar Bakhtiar and five disgruntled members of the PMLQ in the Senate have created a “forward bloc” to lend credibility to this move. Then there are the 22 independent MPAs-elect in the Punjab assembly who dutifully lined up for photographs at the Model Town Lahore residence of Mr Sharif the other day.

But to the cynics, this rosy scenario should raise a few hard-nosed questions. Why has Mr Sharif been in such a hurry to capture the provincial independents and stake an exclusive claim to a solely PMLN government in Lahore when Mr Zardari is still insisting on a national unity government which includes the PMLN in Islamabad? Indeed, why is Chaudhry Nisar of the PMLN saying that his party will support Mr Zardari’s government in Islamabad “from the outside” but not accept any cabinet posts in it? Why is Mr Zardari reluctant to commit his party to the restoration of the former chief justice and the impeachment of President Musharraf when Mr Sharif is pressing him to do exactly that? Why has Mr Mushahid Hussain suddenly extolled the cause of the prime ministerial system by announcing that the PMLQ would happily work with the new parliament to get rid of the president’s 58 2B power to sack prime ministers and parliaments? Indeed, what has prompted Ms Nilofer Bakhtiar and others among the PMLQ to create a forward bloc in the Senate to support the anti-establishment struggle for democracy? Why is the Bush administration still insisting on a role for President Musharraf and why has Democrat Senator Joe Biden, who heads the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington, sought to explain the meaning of his original remark that “President Musharraf will go quietly in to the night” as suggesting that he may take a back seat rather than exit from the scene in a hurry? And finally, what is the meaning and significance of the four or five meetings in the last few days between the Chaudhries and President Musharraf?

Let us accept some solid party political realities. First, while Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari may share some short term tactical objectives like wanting to weaken the military’s domination of the political system and the removal of 58-2B, their longer term strategic goals differ completely. Mr Sharif would like to see another election soon so that he try to capture Islamabad and become prime minister again. But Mr Zardari would like to rule uninterruptedly in Islamabad and elsewhere in the provinces for a full five years. Second, while Mr Sharif wants to recapture the Q rump of the PML and restore the League as a truly national party, Mr Zardari would like to keep the PML vote-bank divided and hog the status of the only significant national party in the country. This means that the two will play ball as long as their party political interests converge but part ways when these interests differ. So what is going on?

One scenario mooted behind the scenes goes like this. In exchange for allowing Mr Musharraf to remain president as per the US agenda, while enabling Mr Zardari to strike a blow for democracy, a constitutional amendment may be floated to get rid of those provisions of 58 2 B which relate to the sacking of prime ministers and parliaments and enable most pre-PCO judges, minus the ex-CJP and a couple of others, to be restored. Mr Sharif would be asked to join this initiative with the prospect of sharing power in Islamabad and Punjab as part of a national reconciliation effort. If he doesn’t come on board, the PPP and PMLQ would go ahead without him and deprive him of Punjab (the independents MPAs would flock to a PMLQ-PPP government). As a sop to public opinion, the PMLQ would designate a new leadership which seemingly shunts the Chaudhries asides and removes red rags like Farooq Leghari and Ejaz ul Haq from the PPP’s sight. This would explain Nilofer Bakhtiar’s forward bloc in the Senate and Mushahid Hussain’s offer to get rid of 58-2B.

Politics is the art of the possible. We should know soon enough which way the wind will finally blow.

 

(March 7-13, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 3)

Zardari is right on Kashmir

A coterie of vested interests is up in arms against Asif Zardari for his policy statement on Pakistan-India relations and Kashmir given to an Indian channel. The chorus of protest springs from diminishing militant groups in Kashmir and Pakistan who have tried to resolve the Kashmir dispute by force and failed to do so for sixty years, in the process militarising Pakistan as a failing National Security State, losing half the country, and suing embarrassingly for peace in Tashkent in 1965 and Kargil in 1999. Even some high profile Jihadi-Taliban supporters in the media, like the provocative host of a talk-show in the capitol who once edited a fiercely pro-jihad newspaper, have jumped the gun and tried to haul Mr Zardari over the coals. So what did Mr Zardari say that has provoked them to accuse him of “a great betrayal”?

Mr Zardari said that if his party came to power good relations with India would not be held hostage to the Kashmir issue and the two countries would wait for future generations to resolve the issue in an atmosphere of trust. He did not agree with the notion that the Kashmir issue could best be sorted out while the army was in power in Pakistan. He insisted that people-to-people contacts and inter-dependence in trade could help negate the “fear factor” in both countries and lead them on the path of conflict resolution.

Actually, this is a realistic summing up of the situation. It reflects the spirit of accumulated wisdom in the wake of a failed foreign policy via a vis India for sixty years. Significantly, however, it is not a unique or unprecedented position taken by a national political leader in Pakistan.

Ms Benazir Bhutto came to this conclusion in 1989 when she parleyed with the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in Islamabad. But remnants of the Zia-ist military establishment accused her of being a “national security risk” and she was ousted from power by the “midnight jackals”, some of whom are among the great spokesmen of the democracy movement today. Later, the jihad in Kashmir was intensified by the military establishment.

The force of the argument and the failure of the jihadi policy to wrest Kashmir from India by force, however, compelled Nawaz Sharif to adopt the same pragmatic position in 1999 when he invited the Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, to a prime ministerial summit in Lahore. Three formal communiqués were issued. However, not one mentioned Kashmir as the “core dispute” or the UN Resolutions. But Mr Sharif’s peace initiative with India was sabotaged by General Pervez Musharraf’s military misadventure in Kargil in May. Following the debacle, differences cropped up between the two and Mr Sharif was ousted in a coup in October 1999. In interviews shortly after he became chief executive, General Musharraf castigated Mr Sharif for “abandoning the cause of Kashmir” and pledged to maintain hostilities with India until the “core dispute of Kashmir” was resolved to the satisfaction of Pakistan as per the UN Resolutions. So in 2001 General Musharraf went to Agra to discuss the core dispute of Kashmir with India. But when India countered with its version of the core dispute with Pakistan – export of terrorism from Pakistan to Indian-held Kashmir – he left in a huff, with a coterie of hawkish Pakistani journalists in tow.

However, power brings responsibility with it. In 2002, after the militants attacked the parliament in Srinagar and then the one in New Delhi, compelling India to move its army to the border with Pakistan and threaten hot pursuit and even war, General Musharraf formally pledged not to allow Pakistani territory to be used for the export of terrorism. By 2003, he was ready to extend the olive branch to Mr Vajpayee in pursuit of “building trust”; by 2004 he was ready to put the lid on the militants in Pakistan; by 2005 he had closed down their training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by 2006 he was reiterating the most flexible and creative “out-of-the-box-solutions” to a resolution of the Kashmir dispute which had nothing to do with the “outdated” UN Resolutions. Indeed, the more popular he became among ordinary people in Indian-held Kashmir for his realistic peace policies enabling them to rebuild their shattered lives, the more unpopular he became with the militant organizations and their sympathizers and supporters in the Pakistani media. The terrorist attacks on General Musharraf from 2003 onwards, as well as the ones on Benazir Bhutto and her PPP, all have the footprints of the military’s erstwhile friends and allies.

Like Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and General Musharraf on the issue of relations with India, the wisdom of the age has fortunately dawned on Mr Zardari as he prepares to don the mantle of power. More than anything else, we Pakistanis need to quickly heal the wounds within and without and rebuild our lives and our polity. Creating relations of peaceful co-existence, trust and trade unconditionally with our neighbours is no less critical than cobbling coalition governments with former foes at home in the national interest. Mr Asif Zardari should be applauded for his pragmatism instead of being castigated for it.

 

(March 14-20, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 4)

Transiting to democracy and stability

The Murree Accord is a remarkable development. Despite the assassinations and suicide bombings, and despite the daily protests of lawyers and civil society activists, the accord seeks to sustain the transition to a democratic tomorrow that was sparked by the tumultuous return of Benazir Bhutto and the holding of relatively free and fair general elections. It tries to defy cynics like us who argued that a meeting of minds between the PPP and PMLN, given their past history, future prospects and competing interests, was difficult to imagine, let alone coalition governments and ministry sharing in Islamabad and Punjab where neither party needs the other to reinvent itself. And it spurns the sincere but misplaced advice of those who have been exhorting the two parties to jointly confront and oust President Pervez Musharraf and forcibly restore the pre-3rd November judiciary to its pristine glory.

In some ways, the greater maturity has been shown by Mr Nawaz Sharif while the greater courage has been shown by Mr Asif Zardari. Mr Sharif did not succumb to the confrontationist demand to boycott the elections and was vindicated when his party trumped the PMLQ and seized Punjab. Now he has forsaken similar exhortations to propel parliament into a head-on clash with the presidency and the post-3rd November judiciary by accepting the need for a parliamentary resolution as a statement of sincere intent aimed at devising a medium term strategy to obtain an independent judiciary. Meanwhile, Mr Zardari has demonstrated courage by persevering with the political strategy of transiting to democracy articulated by Ms Bhutto, despite the life-price that she paid for it eventually. In short, a good start after months of uncertainty and instability.

We wish, though, that we could be as sanguine about President Musharraf’s intentions. True, he shed his uniform as he’d promised. But it wasn’t without shedding buckets of tears. True, too, that he held relatively free and fair elections. But it wasn’t without bipartisan Americans and the EU breathing down his neck and the political parties brandishing credible threats of a boycott and strikes. One might have imagined that after his PMLQ was trounced at the polls largely because of the sentiment against him personally, he might have announced a relatively decent exit – as we had advised him in an earlier editorial – and let democracy find its own level of gravity. But he is given to posturing and lecturing and strutting about as though he is still commando-in-chief. This reckless and arrogant attitude has to change. He must learn to zip up and take a back seat, otherwise he is bound to step on the people’s mandate and bruise the egos of the new parliamentarians, thereby precipitating another confrontation. At any rate, the PMLN and PPP will obtain a two thirds majority in the senate elections next year and parliament will become strong enough to uncontroversially strip him of his extraordinary powers or send him packing if he remains obstreperous. The time will be right too because a Democratic administration in Washington may not be as enamoured of him as the Bush regime is today.

For the moment, however, everyone must focus on the myriad problems of nation and state. The economy is crying out for better management of food and power shortages in the short and medium terms. The trade deficit is soaring and putting pressure on the rupee, which is fueling inflation. The hefty subsidies to wheat and oil are enlarging the fiscal deficit. Forex reserves are depleting, interest rates are rising and development budgets are facing cuts. Poverty and unemployment are increasing again. It is hardship time.

Then there is the war against Taliban-Al Qaeda terrorism. It has to be tackled as our war and not as America’s war. It is the Pakistani flag and not the American that is trashed when the Taliban banner is hoisted in Swat and Waziristan. Simplistic notions that all such terrorism will come to an end after Mr Musharraf is gone are foolish and dangerous. The Taliban-Al Qaeda network is in search of a base area to inspire a world uprising. It had hoped Afghanistan would be one but the Americans put paid to that. We should not have allowed this network to find shelter in Pakistan and extend its tentacles. But we did and are paying the price for our opportunism. Now the Americans are poised to shift focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan is squarely in the eye of the approaching storm. A coordinated joint effort of the international community, the Pakistan military and the Pakistan mainstream political parties is needed to uproot terrorism and win hearts and minds in the disaffected areas and populations. This is a most opportune moment for such a move. The terrorists have alienated Pakistanis by their indiscriminate bombings, one consequence of which is the rout of the religious parties in the elections for protecting and nourishing them.

We owe it to Benazir Bhutto for sacrificing her life for the sake of a transition to democracy via the electoral process. She made it possible for Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari to occupy centre stage today. Now these two leaders have to keep the faith and steer the ship of state into calmer waters. And we, the people, have to give them the political space to do just that.

 

(March 21-27, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 5)

“Honesty, truthfulness and humility”

President Pervez Musharraf said on Wednesday that the new government should meet the challenges of terrorism, energy shortage, and rising fuel and food prices through good governance and by keeping “Pakistan first”. “Politicking has to give way to good governance,” he advised. The president said the country had been through “turmoil” in the past few months and the new government must sustain economic growth to meet the difficulties it faced. He said Pakistan’s macro-economic indicators were strong and the recent shortage of energy was caused by rapid industrial growth. He said growth in the energy sector should match the growth in economy.

Well, well, well. It didn’t occur to the president that his advice might have been better received if he had admitted his regime’s failings and offered a mea culpa.

We are faced with terrorism because the state under his military predecessors nurtured the very groups which are committed to terrorism today. Indeed, he was in the saddle for eight long years and made a hash of anti-terrorism policy, often running with the hare and hunting with the hound. A string of corps commanders and governors of the NWFP couldn’t deliver. In fact, the MMA government which his anti-PPP/PMLN policies had foisted upon the hapless province actually facilitated the militant groups.

We are faced with energy shortages, he says, because of rapid industrial growth under his regime. So whose responsibility was it to ensure that energy supply should have risen in step with growth? For eight years the president has been talking about a gas pipeline from Iran to India. And nothing has come of it. At first, he insisted that Pakistan was only in it for the transit fees because it had a surplus of energy while India was faced with a growing deficit. So he linked the pipeline deal with India to a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. But when that failed to impress India and Pakistan’s energy shortages begun to weigh on him, he de-linked it from Kashmir but not from opening up trade with India. So India continued to balk. Now we have a situation in which India is stitching up a nuclear deal with the US which will preclude any gas deal with Iran. A great opportunity has thus been lost by lack of vision on how the region is shaping up and Pakistan’s place in it. Much the same sort of muddle headed thinking was in evidence on the private power policy. For the first few years, NAB was ordered to tighten the screws on the private power producers and sovereign guarantees given to them by the PPP regime from 1993-96 were flouted with impunity. All new projects were banned. Now we are told that a “fast track” policy to set up new power plants in the next two years has been launched. As for the big dams that could provide the most efficient way out of the energy crunch, the less said the better. President Musharraf spent the first few years of his tenure insisting that Kalabagh would be built and the last few denying it was on the cards.

To be sure, the crisis generated by the steep climb in food and fuel prices is exogenous. But his government can be faulted for mismanaging it. About a million tonnes of wheat was exported in the last twelve months to prop up exports so that ex-PM Shaukat Aziz could meet his targets. A similar amount was blithely allowed to be smuggled to Afghanistan for political reasons. Fuel prices should have been raised progressively, in tune with the rising international price of oil, in order to reduce sudden shocks, but this was not done for political reasons too because 2007 was election year. So now the new government has been burdened with the sins of Shaukat Aziz and has to contend with the self-righteous lectures of the president.

The last chapter of President Musharraf’s bestselling autobiography, now remaindered at throw away prices, is titled “Reflections”. “God has always been kind to me”, writes Mr Musharraf. “I wonder why”, he asks innocently, while “reinforcing his belief in his destiny” and his sense of “honesty, truthfulness, contentment and humility” (“being humble in greatness raises one’s stature”). A splendid lecture on leadership follows. It is all about character, decisiveness, boldness and cool temperament. But these are the very qualities that have been in short supply for the last year or so.  Significantly, the most revealing aspect of the book, and one which many Pakistanis found most depressing, was the list of things-to-do on his 7-point agenda for the next decade. “We have to consolidate our democracy and ensure the supremacy of the constitution” is way down the line at number 6 in terms of priority.

Significantly, the new parliament and the new coalition government have put this item on the top of their agenda. Therefore President Musharraf would be advised to change his priorities quickly. This is the moment to display “honesty, truthfulness, contentment and humility”. He should bow before the will of the people and let their representatives find a sensible way out of the economic and political crisis that we face today.

 

(March 28 – April 03, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 6)

Hard times

Mr Asif Zardari has played his cards well so far. A coalition alliance with Mr Nawaz Sharif has taken the sting out of a potentially formidable opposition. It has also spread the burden of all difficult decisions to be taken in the weeks to come on everyone’s shoulders instead of just the PPP.

His decisions to nominate Dr Fahmida Mirza and Yousaf Raza Gilani as Speaker of the National Assembly and Prime Minister respectively are no less significant. Dr Mirza’s appointment sends a strong signal of the PPP’s liberal credentials. She won her NA seat fairly and squarely through the heat and dust of electoral battle. But she also paved the way for the nomination of a prime minister from Punjab rather than from Sindh. If too many of the top slots had gone to Sindh at the outset there might have been an adverse reaction from the rank and file in the Punjab.

Mr Zardari did not want a prime minister from Sindh for obvious reasons. It would have created a rival source of power in his home province and served to undermine the Bhutto constituency that he means to nurture and monopolize. His fears were confirmed after Mr Amin Fahim sulked and even assumed a threatening posture in public at the prospect of being bypassed. If he had been made prime minister there is no knowing how long he would have played second fiddle to Mr Zardari, nor whether he would have stepped down lamely when Mr Zardari was ready to don the mantle himself. Mr Fahim’s “friendliness” with the Musharraf establishment would have also remained a source of continuing disquiet not just for Mr Zardari but also for the other coalition partners, in particular the PMLN. This was demonstrated by the PMLN’s Khawaja Asif when he publicly chided Mr Fahim for being too close to the establishment for comfort.

By contrast, Mr Gilani played a low key role when several names were being bandied about for the prestigious slot. Certainly, if Mr Zardari was watching to see which candidate would trip himself up by hogging the media even before he had been crowned PM, he must have been reassured by Mr Gilani’s modest behaviour. At any rate, a landlord from southern Punjab where the PPP won most of its Punjab seats suits Mr Zardari well. Why it wasn’t the more educated and articulate Mr Clean, Shah Mahmood Qureshi instead, is unclear – he has been loyal and steadfast no less than Mr Gilani –  unless there is a more appropriate slot reserved for him in the cabinet which couldn’t have been handed to anyone else with equanimity.

But Mr Zardari’s coup de grace was reserved for the last. The inclusion of the MQM into the coalition is very significant. By bringing it into the tent even though he had the numbers to form his own government in Sindh, Mr Zardari has achieved two significant objectives. First, he has neutralized the threat of instability in Sindh which the MQM is equipped to create at any given time; second, he has reduced his dependence on the PMLN and created more political space for himself in the coalition. The fact that the MQM is a supporter of President Pervez Musharraf cuts both ways. It keeps lines of communication open to the presidency without becoming subservient to it as might have happened if the PMLQ had been brought into the tent instead of the PMLN. And it prepares for the day when the PPP will need all partners on deck when the PMLN chooses to part ways and sit on the opposite side of the fence because its longer term party political interests have begun to diverge. Mr Sharif’s annoyance is therefore perfectly explicable.

Two swift developments will challenge Mr Zardari’s mettle immediately. The first is the challenge by the lawyers movement to restore Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and all his colleagues immediately by means of an executive order that pits the new government into a head on confrontation with the presidency and sitting supreme court. The second is the embarrassing American pressure to play ball with the Musharraf establishment and “own” the war on terror. Both will put the fledgling coalition under strain, as evidenced by anti-American statements from Mr Sharif and Mr Aitzaz Ahsan against continuing American support for Mr Musharraf. Mr Gilani’s first executive order freeing the detained judges may not dampen the enthusiasm of the lawyers movement for an immediate and full restoration of the judges. Indeed, with the deposed judges in their midst, it might actually spur them to take on the new government and put parliament on the mat.

In the midst of this, the question of who and how many will sit in the cabinet will not be resolved without rancour. Pakistanis will want a lean and efficient government. But the nature of the grand coalition suggests that we are going to see one of the most bloated cabinets in history, even it is accomplished in stages. So we may expect the media’s romance with democracy to be over pretty soon. There are hard times ahead that will make the game so far look like child’s play.

 

(April 4-10, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 7)

Economic outlook not bad

The economic challenge faced by the new PPP-PMLN coalition government is admittedly daunting. It faces an economic and political backlash from a steep rise in the oil and food bill – Pakistan used to pay US$ one billion per year in oil imports in the 1990s and this has soared to US$ 6 billion a year currently – and acute shortages of power that entail hours of load shedding across the country. A strategy to offset these is bound to strain government expenditures on development, increase the fiscal deficit from the projected 4 percent to 6 percent, fuel inflation and entail economic hardships for ordinary people. But is all the doom and gloom associated with this challenge fully justified?

The State Bank of Pakistan says that economic growth will fall from the projected 7.2 per cent to about 6 percent this year. But that’s not bad at all, considering the political turbulence of the last eighteen months. Certainly, it is a far cry from the 3 per cent average rate of growth in the economy during the decade of civilian democracy in the 1990s and in the first few years of the Musharraf regime from 1999 to 2002. But how many people remember those belt tightening years? All is surely not lost.

In 2007, the most turbulent year since 1999, the Karachi Stock Exchange grew by over 40 %, the average yield on its stock being about 6 %. One leading international financial group (BMA Capital) is still projecting earnings growth in Pakistan’s publicly listed companies at about 12.2 % this year and 18.9 % next year. In 2007, too, the Pakistan Opportunity Fund generated 28.5 % in the midst of PCOs, emergencies, bomb blasts and assassinations. There are other good indicators too. The telecom sector is not exhausted by any means. The mobile population is only 43 %. So prospects are bright. Huge opportunities still exist in broadband and the internet. The banking sector is also looking up. The country witnessed an extraordinary growth of financial sector assets to US$180 billion or 125% of GDP in 2007, as noted by the State Bank of Pakistan. The fact that this is fueled by the dynamic private sector which holds about 90 % of all banking assets now compared to under a quarter not so long ago suggests continuing dynamism ahead. To clinch the argument, take a look at the World Bank Report on Doing Business rankings of 178 countries. Pakistan is projected in 2008 at No: 76, better than emerging markets like China at No: 83 and India at No: 120. With investment opportunities opening up in the energy and power sector, refinery, gas distribution, fertilizer, autos, banks, cement, telecoms and textiles, the “horizon for prosperity and growth seems lustrous for Pakistan”, claims BMA Capital. For investors, then, the fundamentals of the economy are still sound, despite the headlines in the Pakistani media.

To be sure, the coming wheat crop will be adversely affected by lack of water. So the government has to plan for potential flour shortages. We will also have to keep the price of flour lower than the international price. This means that we must make sure that flour is not smuggled into neighbouring countries like last year. Now the wheat price has been fixed at Rs 620 per 40 kg, which is better for the farmer and not so bad for the consumer because its price in India is higher. The same sort of scenario will present itself in rice and edible oil. But all these are manageable issues if one plans ahead on how to tackle them effectively.

The real challenge is to build on these rather than succumbing to economic opportunism by postponing the short term belt tightening that is in order. Indeed, the earlier the hardship measures are imposed the better. Good politics suggests that all hard decisions should be taken immediately after a general election and belt loosening decisions just before a general election. So the government must resist the temptation to court cheap popularity by dishing out huge subsidies and depleting the exchequer. Of course, this is not to say that the poor should be targeted unjustly. In fact, wherever possible the impact of direct or indirect taxation should be distributed much more on the rich and very rich.

This is also the time to redress the civil-military equation that impinges on economic development and income redistribution. The peace process with India should be speeded up so that there is a peace dividend in the form of a reduced growth of defense expenditures and increasing benefits from trade. The civilian government should also take ownership of the war against terror and channel all US funds meant for it directly into its coffers. God knows how much over-billing was done by the military and where that money went in the past. According to one reliable estimate, the total amount of US money to Pakistan on one count or another since 9/11 is about US$17 billion if all un-audited and secret funds transfers are also taken into account. Surely, there are many billions of dollars of savings for the common good to be made here when all this is transferred to the control of the civilians in the future.

 

(April 11-17, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 8)

Good news about Pakistan

Despite some transitional hiccups like the roughing up of Arbab Rahim, Sher Afghan Niazi and the violent mayhem in Karachi, good things are happening in Pakistan.

All the coalition governments at the centre and in the provinces are in place without any indecent squabbling among the coalition partners for the prized slots. Indeed, the elections of the Leaders of the House, the Speakers of the House and the Leaders of the Opposition in the House all went smoothly. There is a sense of propriety in the air, a realization among politicians that the public is watching and the media will brook no wrong doing that could bring the transition to democracy into disrepute or, worse still, derail it after all the soul searching and hand wringing of recent months.

It is also commendable that President Pervez Musharraf has stopped throwing his weight about. After the elections, he could have been a red rag to the bulls if he had insisted on hogging the show as in the past. But he has wisely dipped on the radar screens and let the politicians get on with it. Theoretically he is still armed with many powers but practically he can only play a ceremonial role in the future. Any attempt at reassertion would lead to a confrontation with the people and parliament which he could not hope to survive. So it is just as well that he has been invited to China and Indonesia to lecture the untutored Muslims of those countries about enlightened moderation and good governance. Clearly he still enjoys goodwill abroad and can be an extraordinary ambassador of the country. The happiest surprise has been the maturity shown by Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. Both are concentrating on issues of governance and cooperation. They have shared the ministries in Islamabad and Punjab amicably. Mr Sharif has nominated the deserving Shahbaz Sharif as the CM-designate of Punjab even as he has succumbed to pressure from party stalwart Zulfikar Khosa to slot his son as interim-CM. Much the same strategy has been followed by Mr Zardari vis a vis Yousaf Raza Gilani as PM who will keep the seat warm for him until he is ready to occupy it. There are some hurdles in the path of both Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari but these will surely be surmounted in time to come. The former has to persuade the election commission to let him contest a provincial by-election just as the latter has to persuade it to accept the validity of his degree from a UK based institute.

Fortunately, too, there are not many unacceptable surprises in the federal cabinet. The key slots are in the hands of reputable people. Shah Mahmood Qureshi will make a good foreign minister, Ishaq Dar a non-nonsense finance minister. Sherry Rehman’s experience as an independent-minded editor in an earlier life should comfort the media now that she is on the other side of the fence in her welcome reincarnation as Information Minister. Dr Fehmida Mirza, the NA Speaker, who looks like her dear departed leader in a trademark white dopatta, should chasten all unruly elements in parliament. The choice of Hussain Haqqani as ambassador to the USA and Gen (r) Mahmud Durrani as National Security Advisor to the PM are merited too. Mr Haqqani has made good contacts in the US political system and knows how to milk them in Pakistan’s national interest, while General Durrani has established credentials as a mutually trustworthy go-between the PPP and military high command, including President Musharraf. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Ahmad Mukhtar, Khawaja Asif and Naveed Qamar are all heavyweights who are known to deliver.

The new government is faced with three issues that require immediate attention. The first relates to the matter of the deposed judges. Mr Zardari’s political acumen will be tested because this is a highly charged and emotional matter. The second concerns the war on terror. The government has to own the new tactics and strategy of this war and satisfy both the international community as well its domestic constituency and will require wisdom and diplomacy of the highest order. The third is how to fix the economy without unleashing a popular backlash or alienating the foreign investor who is eyeing the Pakistani market.

The good news on the first issue is that the lawyers movement, by roughing up Sher Afghan Niazi, has demonstrated unwarranted aggression that has discredited its confrontationist posture and strengthened Mr Zardari’s hands in formulating a democratic and parliamentary solution to the problem. The good news on the war on terror is that the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has briefed the government about its options and asked for orders on which option to execute. The good news on the economy is that the wisdom of taking hard decisions now rather than deferring them seems to have dawned on the government.

To be sure, the latest bout of violence in Karachi is a signal from the MQM that it should not be taken for granted by Mr Zardari nor provoked by Mr Sharif and the confrontationists. Good politics requires this message should be heeded in the national interest.

 

(April 18-24, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 9)

Restore judges, bring MQM into loop

Two issues are threatening to destabilize the transition to democracy in Pakistan. The first is a lack of agreement among the coalition partners not on whether or not to restore the deposed judges but how to do so and in what time period without enabling anyone to make political capital out of it and rock the boat. The second is lack of progress in negotiations between the PPP and MQM in cobbling a coalition government in Sindh even though the PPP has the numbers to go it alone.

Unfortunately, the judges issue has become controversial. It began as an issue of the independence of the judiciary from the executive but swiftly descended into politics. No small role was played in this by the machinations of the executive to protect the presidency at all costs. But certain leaders of the lawyers’ movement are also responsible. They were either affiliated with certain political parties with an axe to grind or estranged from them and were seeking to further their personal political ambitions.

No matter. The problem is not insurmountable. But a solution depends on the ability of the coalition partners to sift the wheat from the chaff. In this case, a deserved restoration of all the judges, including the former chief justice, must be de-linked from the fate of President Pervez Musharraf which is a political issue that is best left to be tackled by the political parties acting through parliament. Indeed, it was this very politicization of the issue by the deposed judges and the lawyers’ movement that created the original deadlock between the executive and the judiciary. The judges and lawyers were perceived to be jointly seeking the ouster of President Musharraf via a confrontationist election boycott despite the desire of the people of Pakistan and the mainstream parties to continue the transition to democracy step by step. So where do we go from here?

The Murree or Bhurban Declaration closed with a statement of intent that a parliamentary resolution would be tabled within 30 days to resolve the issue. It did not specify whether the parliamentary resolution would restore the judges before the 30 days were over or whether it would start the process of restoring them before the 30 days were over, which is an altogether different thing and can push the actual restoration well past the 30 day “deadline”. Certainly, the latter has always been the interpretation of the ruling PPP. But the issue is hanging fire and cannot be swept under the rug by anyone. So if the objective of the restoration is clear enough – those political matters that belong in the domain of parliament like the fate and powers of President Musharraf must not be linked to the judges issue – then we will need suitable legislation before or simultaneously with the restoration of the judges that precludes any possibility of exploiting the restoration for party or individual political interests. This will require an irrevocable parliamentary validation of certain, if not all, judgments of the post November 3 PCO-judges and an agreement that parliament will have the right to vet all the restored and current judges subsequently to ensure an independent rather than a politicized and partisan judiciary. The best way of going about this is via a constitutional amendment. Fortunately, there are indications that the president’s constituents in parliament will support this reform package in order to preclude any unpleasant confrontation with the popular parties in parliament and on the street.

The question of the MQM’s prospects in Sindh with or without the PPP is also not too difficult to resolve. The PPP has won hands down in the province. It has also polled a significant number of votes in Karachi even if that hasn’t all translated into seats. If the MQM insists on a maximum agenda and backs it up with the threat of violence, it won’t get too far. Both the PPP and PMLN have taken it on successfully in the past, the PMLN from 1992-93 and PPP from 1994-96 with the help of the Rangers and police. This time they will both be on the same side, aided and abetted by the Jamaat i Islami and ANP which have been bloodied by the MQM. Since it is in everyone’s interest to avoid confrontation – above all the Americans and British who are supportive of a peaceful transition to democracy and power sharing and seem to have the ear of Mr Altaf Hussain – it is probable that the MQM will climb down in due course. Certainly, Mr Asif Zardari may be expected to make the right moves and noises so that an honourable and face saving compromise is engineered sooner than later. One of the elements of this compromise would be a change of face in the Governor’s House. In exchange the MQM would be accommodated in a couple of ministries in Islamabad and some in Sindh, though not necessarily all of its choosing.

Mr Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif have so far shown considerable wisdom and restraint. It is time President Musharraf and Mr Altaf Hussain reciprocated in the larger national interest. If they don’t they may be swept away by the force of popular circumstance.

 

(April 25-May 1, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 10)

Historic achievement of lawyers’ movement

One major issue continues to dog the public imagination: how to resolve the “judges’ issue”. Unfortunately, the general debate on it is plagued by passion, prejudice and pure political opportunism while rationality and bipartisanship are in short supply.

The “lawyers’ movement” was launched to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan. This was a good and great thing. But after Mr Chaudhry was reinstated, a new political goal was articulated at the behest of some political parties and politicians-cum-lawyers, whereby the judges and lawyers jointly embarked on judicial action along with political agitation to oust President Musharraf. But there were two problems with this development.

First, it had everything to do with the political fate of one person (President Pervez Musharraf) and little to do with the institutional requirement of an “independent” or competent judiciary – no judicial reforms were articulated to separate the judiciary from the executive or improve the efficiency and conduct of the judges and lawyers in delivering justice. Indeed, the leading PMLN party which was fueling the movement had a bad track record in its treatment of the judiciary. And many of the leading judges who had suddenly become icons of virtue were the very ones who had not so long ago brazenly sworn oath on another PCO by the same military dictator. In fact, it was this political goal that provoked the November 3 PCO and exacerbated the political crisis.

Second, whatever the goals of its constituent elements, it was objectively inclined to undermine the electoral aims and interests of the PPP, the largest political party in the country, while promoting those of the PMLN, JI, TI etc. The call for an election boycott and violent confrontation with President Musharraf were part and parcel of this political strategy. Inevitably, the media was dragged into this confrontation by the necessity of circumstance and got the stick from the executive when it sided with the popular sentiment. This provoked it to become a party to the conflict.

The problem now is that despite the verdict and mandate of the masses in favour of a peaceful and stable transition to democracy following the general elections, a dangerous hangover exists in the overtly politicized “lawyers’ movement” and a section of the media. These elements seek to compel a resolution on their own unaccountable terms which have more to do with the political objectives of some lawyers and political leaders and the anger of some media owners than with the establishment of a truly institutionally “independent” judiciary. The political overthrow of any dictator cannot simply be equated with the automatic arrival of an independent judiciary. If that had been the case, justice would have arrived at our doorstep after the 1970 elections and the judges of today would have earned our unequivocal respect.

So if we want an independent judiciary and a just solution to the crisis of the judges, the right way to go about it is via parliament. A constitutional amendment that incorporates a full package of incentives and disincentives in pursuit of the goal of an independent judiciary is the need of the hour. If the restoration of all the judges has now become a political issue that must be conceded in order to break a political deadlock, so too is the need for the cause of an independent judiciary to swiftly weed out all those judges who have become overtly political or controversial or partisan in any way. Indeed, the restoration of all the judges should be a cause for strengthening the transition to democracy and political stability rather than plunging headlong into confrontation again.

So if truth be told, the approach of Mr Asif Zardari to let parliament do the talking and negotiating is right and that of the “lawyers’ movement” and its political appendages in the form of some political parties, some media and some politicians-cum-lawyers is plainly wrong. In the interest of political stability and judicial propriety, the “All Plus” political solution of restoration of all judges must dialectically go hand in hand with “Some Minus” judicial clauses leading to the ouster of some old and some new judges even if it takes longer to negotiate and implement.

The issue of whether President Musharraf stays or goes, and when and how, or what powers he may retain, should also be left to parliament. Professional elements like lawyers and the media can and must weigh in with their opinions but they cannot dictate the political agenda of political parties and parliament mandated by an election whose results are universally accepted. Certainly, judges don’t have such political rights.

The “lawyers’ movement” and its leaders have done yeoman’s service to the cause of civilian rule and supremacy in Pakistan. No military dictator will ever again be able to seize power in the expectation that the judges and lawyers of the day will line up to be sworn in under his PCO. Indeed, every budding civilian autocrat or fascist will have to tread carefully lest he provoke the lawyers and media and judges of this country. That is the true and historic achievement of the “lawyers’ movement”. By overstretching its case and threatening the prerogatives of parliament, it can only damage its hard won credibility.

 

(May 09-15, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 12)

Law, power and politics

The PPP-PMLN coalition government promised that in the first hundred days it would solve the pressing problem of food and power shortages, crank up the economy and take a firm grip on the war on terror. But that hasn’t even begun to happen. Meanwhile, the country is toasting in the heat and tempers are frayed at rising prices and looming unemployment. The rupee is sliding because of capital flight resulting from political uncertainty. This is happening because the issue of the 2000 PCO judges is still hanging fire.

The Charter of Democracy that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed in 2006 applied to the 2000 PCO judges and rejected them out of hand. Now, we are told, these same 2000 PCO judges are good and their judgments are valid while the 2007 PCO judges are bad and their judgments are illegal. But the logic of this revealed truth is not clear at all. We are also told that the fight is all about an “independent judiciary” through a restoration of the 2000 PCO judges and a sacking of the 2007 PCO judges. But no one has bothered to explain how these 2000 PCO judges, who are eternally beholden to the PMLN and a clutch of lawyers and ambitious politicians at the expense of the PPP, will be bi-partisan in the party-political transition to democracy. Should judges take political positions for and against political parties? Surely, a more principled and transparent way to formulate the issue might be to ask for all or none of the PCO judges to be fired.

But this is not acceptable to some champions of democracy. They want to confront the president, the 2007 PCO judges and the perennial military, a route similar to the one when they advocated a boycott of the general elections. But Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif chose the electoral route to transit to democracy and were vindicated by the people. Now the same forces are trying to throw a spanner in the works of the PPP-PMLN coalition by advocating a disastrous confrontationist path.

To be sure, President Musharraf is probably the most unpopular man in the country and the root cause of some of the transitional problems besetting our polity. He should have called it quits but he didn’t. One way of getting rid of him is to follow the logic of confrontation and oust him via the 2000 PCO judges who have a personal grudge against him. The other way is to regroup in parliament and legislate against him.

It is a bad idea to use a partisan and controversial judiciary to oust a president however bad he may be. This is a political objective and judges, good or bad, must not be encouraged to become political opponents or supporters. In fact, if the 2000 PCO judges are allowed to trample all over the president they are likely to do much the same to the PPP government in time to come because of its current opposition to their cause. That is a far bigger cause of potential instability than has been appreciated so far. A better option is to take the way prescribed in the constitution. For that the numbers will add up by next year when the senate elections are held and the PPP and PMLN and their allies turn the tables on the PMLQ. If President Musharraf hasn’t seen the writing on the wall before then, he could be trounced in a jiffy by parliament.

Mr Asif Zardari considers President Musharraf to be an illegitimate entity. He also holds him responsible in many ways for his wife’s assassination. But he has chosen to remain silent over his personal pain and to argue instead that the retention of Mr Musharraf as president for the time being may be a “necessary evil” in the national interest. Implicit is the realization that President Musharraf is needed to mediate the war on terror between the Pakistan military and America, Pakistan’s biggest benefactor, and thereby to help stabilize Pakistan and encourage foreign investment and economic assistance. This is a perfectly sane, well-intentioned and rational argument.

But let us be clear too about the power relationship between Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari. Today they are coalition partners against the odds. Tomorrow they are fated to cross bloody swords as leaders of the two mainstream parties vying for political supremacy and longevity. Mr Sharif is keen on another election sooner than later. But Mr Zardari wants to complete his full five year term and chance a second. The ouster of President Musharraf now – who offers a sort of balancing factor of the last resort in the form of the PMLQ – before Mr Zardari has entrenched himself in power as is his constitutional right would play into Mr Sharif’s hand, especially if the 2000 PCO judges are in the saddle and inclined to side with him. How can Mr Zardari sanguinely accept this?

For all these reason, we need a comprehensive constitutional package that paves the way for an independent and bi-partisan judiciary and enables parliament to chip away at President Musharraf until he is ready to quit. Then we can grapple with the real issues of bread and butter.

 

(May 16-22, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 13)

Forked tongues & secret deals

Mr Nawaz Sharif insists he will not leave the coalition with Mr Asif Zardari and defend it against all conspiracies by the “undemocratic and conspiratorial forces” led by President Pervez Musharraf’s PMLQ-MQM team. Yet he has pulled out his ministers from the federal cabinet, including finance minister Mr Ishaq Dar on the eve of the budget, and seemingly left Mr Zardari in the lurch. Indeed, he is now calling upon the people to “take to the streets” along with the defiant lawyers and protest delays in the restoration of the judges. Amazingly, he says that the PMLN-PPP coalition government in Punjab will help rather than hinder them in their protests. Yet these are precisely the conditions under which Mr Zardari would be tempted to grasp the outstretched hand of the PMLQ “conspirators” to broaden the base of his government and stabilize himself. What is going on?

On the other side, Mr Zardari claims that all is not yet lost, that he will continue to woo Mr Sharif to his camp despite his intransigence, that he will not initiate a retaliatory vote of no-confidence against the coalition in Punjab and that he will restore the judges. Yet there are disquieting signals that suggest otherwise. The first came when Mr Zardari’s right hand man and chief negotiator with the “conspirators camp”, Mr Rehman Malik, nudged the chief secretary of the NWFP to ask the Election Commission to postpone the by-elections to 30 provincial and 8 NA seats by two months The net effect of this move, if it hadn’t been reversed, would have been to delay giving about 17 PA and 4 NA seats to the PMLN, including the critical seat of Shahbaz Sharif who is tipped to be the real Punjab chief minister. The “delay” factor was a tactical move aimed at stalling Mr Sharif’s enthronement and consolidation in the Punjab until the PMLN had accepted a compromise “deal” on the judges’ issue and diffused the political crisis. Now Mr Sharif’s nomination papers have been accepted by the EC against the odds, a clear signal that Mr Zardari wants to play ball with him and expects him to reciprocate his part of the “deal”.

This is classic politics. Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari are all sugar and honey on the top and competitive and cunning below. Neither wants to say an irrevocable bye-bye until he knows he can go it alone without the other. So we may expect to see more double-dealing in the weeks to come as the judges’ issue hangs fire and the by-elections draw near. In the meanwhile, the “conspirators” camp is marshalling its men and materials so that it can be ready to fly to Mr Zardari’s defense at the drop of a hat. The appointment of business tycoon Salmaan Taseer as Punjab Governor is significant. Mr Taseer is an old Piplia who enjoys Mr Zardari’s trust and President Musharraf’s confidence. He has also vigourously defended President Musharraf’s economic policies and was rewarded with a ministry in the last caretaker government. Critically, Mr Taseer won his spurs in the heat of battle with the Sharifs in the 1980s and 1990s when the PPP was protesting on the streets of the Punjab. Should push come to shove, Mr Taseer will no doubt rise to the demands of the occasion.

This maneuvering and manipulating and brinkmanship doesn’t bode well for political stability. If it continues, the coalition would be at risk. In the event, we would go back to the times of long marches, votes of no-confidence, notices of provincial dissolution and even arrests, detentions and gags on the press. That would be a no-win situation for the protagonists as well as for the country. It would grievously hurt the economy and provoke adverse foreign reaction and even intervention.

A compromise and reconciliation solution that satisfies the minimum rather than maximum claims of the protagonists and stakeholders and enables the transition to democracy to continue is the need of the hour. The lawyers’ movement must accept the validity of the argument that the 2000 PCO and 2007 PCO judges should be treated equally. The PMLN must accept the argument that a constitutional package is the right way to solve this issue so that proper safeguards can be built into the process of judicial restoration and independence in order to avoid concentration of judicial power in one hand or political bias in the scales of either the old or new PCO judges and chances of confrontation are eliminated. President Musharraf must accept a dilution in his powers as president and voluntarily consider an exit before long. Mr Zardari must help the Sharifs by removing any constitutional or other restrictions that stand in their way of getting elected and becoming chief minister or prime minister for the third time when the time is ripe. And governments in the provinces and at the centre must function for their full term so that Pakistanis can adequately judge their performance.

But we still smell a “deal” between Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari in the offing. This means that all the judges, old and new, will stand restored sooner or later according to a constitutional package approved by the key stakeholders.

 

(May 2-8, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 11)

Owning the war on terror

A simplistic view holds that the “war on terror is America’s war” and not Pakistan’s war. In support of this contention, it is argued that there was no terrorism in Pakistan before the US invaded Afghanistan in December 2001 and compelled the Musharraf regime to abandon the Taliban regime in Kabul. This, the argument goes, provoked the Afghan Taliban to perceive Pakistan as an enemy instead of an ally and retaliate in the tribal areas and cities of Pakistan. Corollary: Pakistan should not support American forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban and it should withdraw its army from the tribal areas if it wants an end to terrorism in the country. An indignant footnote is usually appended to this: “We should not be killing our own people at America’s behest”.

This analysis is wrong on every factual count.

The Taliban in Afghanistan were allies of Pakistan without being enemies of America from 1995 to September 2001. Indeed, Islamabad had helped them capture Kabul and drive out the Northern Alliance while the US had invited them to build and operate a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and beyond. All was fine until Mullah Umar invited Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network to make a base area in Afghanistan and approved the latter’s unprovoked attack on America on 9/11, 2001. This unholy alliance of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda compelled America to target Afghanistan after the Taliban refused its demand to oust Al-Qaeda from their country. Conclusion: America invaded Afghanistan after it was attacked by Afghanistan’s Al-Qaeda/Taliban on 9/11.

At that point Pakistan had two options. It could have sided with the Taliban/Al-Qaeda and taken on America, the UN and the rest of the West, which would have been both immoral and suicidal. Or it could have withdrawn support to the Taliban and let the Kabul regime and its Al-Qaeda friends fend for themselves against America, which is what it did. However, Pakistan was dragged into the quagmire after the Taliban/Al-Qaeda abandoned resistance to America inside Afghanistan, took refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan and made them a base area from where to regroup and launch attacks on American and allied forces in Afghanistan.

At that point, Pakistan again had two options: it could have sealed its borders and forced the fleeing Taliban/Al-Qaeda to remain inside Afghanistan and not embroil Pakistan in their war with America. Or it could have allowed them to settle in its tribal areas but stopped them from launching attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. In the event, it didn’t take the first option because it didn’t have the manpower and resources to seal its borders and it couldn’t make the second option stick because the Afghan Taliban were not only bent on attacking across the border but also successful in galvanizing local Pakistani Taliban support for their mission statement.

That is the dilemma in which Pakistan finds itself. America is constantly pressurizing Islamabad to “do more” to put down the Taliban/Al-Qaeda network inside Pakistan so that the network cannot sustain its resistance to American forces in Afghanistan. But the more the Pakistan government acts against this network, the more it opens itself to counter attack by them, including terrorism in its cities. If Pakistan were to stop doing this, it would objectively enable this network to become stronger and inflict greater wounds on the Americans in Afghanistan, thereby provoking them to take direct action against the Taliban/Al-Qaeda network in the tribal areas of Pakistan and violate its sovereignty. And why shouldn’t it do so? If someone constantly attacks you and then takes refuge in your neighbour’s compound, you are within your rights to ask your neighbour to expel your enemy or risk your wrath for protecting him. Conclusion: American strikes on Taliban/Al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas are justified if Pakistan’s armed forces cannot expel them from there. By the same token, the Pakistani army’s action against local/foreign/Talibanised elements who  defy the writ of the Pakistani state inside Pakistan are justified.

 

The argument that the Pakistani army should not kill its own people under any circumstance is nonsensical in this particular context. The Pakistani/Afghan Taliban are hurting the Pakistani state by their provocative alliance with Al-Qaeda foreigners. No state has ever had any qualms in killing its “own people” when its own people have risen up in revolt against it, whether it is Naxalism in India or Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka or Kurd nationalism in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and so on.

The Pakistani “peace deals” with the Taliban must be seen in this context. They are doomed to fail if the Taliban/Al-Qaeda network refuses to heed the writ of the Pakistani state inside Pakistan and continues to use its territory to wage war against America in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. The demands for “Shariatisation” of Swat etc are all red herrings. Conceding these will mean increasing loss of Pakistani sovereignty and territory to the Taliban/Al-Qaeda. This will enable them to launch more sustained attacks on Afghanistan, which will provoke greater retaliation by America in Pakistan’s borderlands.

That is why the people of Pakistan and their civil-military leaders must own the war on terror for the sake of their own state’s sovereignty, stability and well-being.

 

(May 23-29, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 14)

No man’s land

Two months ago, as Mr Asif Zardari went about mending fences, healing wounds, reconciling with foes and building coalition governments everywhere, he was perceived as a surprisingly mature politician in search of politically desirable solutions. But today, as he desperately tries to grapple with the competing interests and antagonistic positions of President Pervez Musharraf, the lawyers movement, the old and new judges, the PMLN, America and the Taliban, he cuts a rather forlorn figure in no man’s land.

Mr Nawaz Sharif insists he will defend his partnership with the PPP. Yet he has pulled out of the coalition in Islamabad, sidelined the PPP in the Punjab, exhorted the people to join the lawyers movement, rejected the federal government’s appointment of Governor Punjab, afforded official protocol to the deposed chief justice and publicly disagreed with the PPP’s official stance on how to conduct the war against terrorism in step with America. Alongside, the lawyers have called a convention and long march to show their resolve to restore the old judges and get rid of the new ones. And Mr Aitzaz Ahsan has finally stopped running with the PPP and decided to hunt it full time with the lawyers. On the other side, President Musharraf is beefing up the PMLQ and using the Attorney General and ISI to protect his interests. And America is leaning on Mr Zardari not to destabilize him in the larger international interest. If President Musharraf or Mr Sharif delays or rejects the PPP’s proposed constitutional package, the minimum consensus underlying it could be rattled and the other stakeholders might dig their heels in for a decisive round of destabilizing confrontation.

Meanwhile, the two “peace processes” between Pakistan and India on the one hand and the federal government and the Taliban on the other are going nowhere. For three years the cease fire along the LoC was maintained under the Musharraf regime and there was some flexibility on resolving the Kashmir issue. But now that the civilians are in office in Pakistan, the Indians are complaining of jihadi infiltration and Pakistani firing along the LoC, and the Pakistanis are finding it difficult to sustain the momentum of negotiations on the core issues. The situation in Swat and FATA is actually precipitous. The army has handed “ownership” of the war on terrorism to the government but the government is too busy fending off challenges to its authority from fellow political travelers to fashion its own strategy in dealing with terrorism. Left to fend for itself, the ANP has clutched at the lifeline thrown by the army to facilitate its exit, impose shariah and hand over Swat to the Taliban. This is the most abject surrender of state sovereignty in Pakistan’s history. An immediate consequence of this opportunism is likely to be a worsening of US-Pak relations. The Americans have denounced the “peace accord” because they think it will facilitate the Taliban’s attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Therefore the probability is that they will resort to direct action in FATA in the future, thereby provoking a popular backlash against the federal government in Islamabad and rupturing the fragile peace deals.

Mr Zardari has staked his all on a proposed constitutional package to balance the interests of the stakeholders who are breathing down his neck. The package is wrapped in layers of secrecy, which suggests that none of the stakeholders wants the public to know the degree of compromise built into it. But it is still a long haul to float it in parliament and get the numbers to approve it. And the longer it takes, the greater the uncertainty and instability in Pakistan.

But budget time is upon us. There is a part time finance minister and a committee of experts and advisors from all walks of life to shape it. This isn’t exactly the right formula for a visionary exercise stamped with the pledges of the PPP. So there may be more unhappy people in Pakistan after its passing than before it. The market has sensed the situation, the rupee has plunged by over 10% in one month, Moody’s has downgraded Pakistan and the Karachi stock exchange is bracing for greater losses.

Is Mr Zardari trying to juggle too many interests at the same time? There remain those who say he should join hands with the lawyers and Nawaz Sharif and overthrow President Musharraf. The only problem with this advice is that his erstwhile allies of today would quickly turn their guns on him after they have removed President Musharraf from the scene, gridlock his government with one crisis after another and hound it out of office. Then there are those who say he should couple with President Musharraf, knock out the lawyers and Mr Sharif and rule as a senior partner in a coalition with the establishment. The problem with this is that it would go against the grain of the PPP’s populist rhetoric and image, especially in the Punjab, and possibly consign it to the backwaters of ethnic Sindh when the next election rolls round.

Whatever route Mr Zardari takes, the sooner he makes a strategic shift, the better. In these treacherous times, no man’s land can turn into quicksand overnight.

 

(May 30 – June 05, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 15)

Love and hate in Islamabad

The 62 point constitutional package announced by the PPP is now in the hands of its coalition partners. More significantly, it is being perused by President Pervez Musharraf’s men and leaders of the lawyers’ movement. Everyone will want to see what there is in it for them.

The lawyers have several demands. (1) The package should restore the pre- November 3 judges (2) It should do so with all their old powers, seniorities, etc., intact. (3) It should oust the post-November 3 judges. (4) It should punish the post-November 3 judges for taking oath from a military dictator.

Mr Nawaz Sharif has many demands too. (1) It should satisfy the lawyers’ requirements. (2) It should remove the constitutional restrictions on being prime minister for a third time. (3) It should enable him to contest elections by reprieving him of the conviction for kidnapping and terrorism that hangs around his neck. (4) It should pave the way to getting rid of President Musharraf, his nemesis, whose very presence in office is a bitter reminder of his trials and tribulations since the coup in 1999. (5) It should restore the prime ministerial system to its powerful glory as in the pre-coup 1999 days.

(6) It should lead to the establishment of a judiciary that is “autonomous” but not obstructive – memories of the 1998 clash between the Supreme Court of Sajjad Ali Shah and the Sharif executive are still fresh in his mind.

Mr Asif Zardari also has certain definite requirements from such a constitutional package. (1) He needs concrete guarantees that the criminal cases drummed up against him in the past by the Sharif and Musharraf governments, which have now been eliminated via the National Reconciliation Ordinance, can never be revived. (2) He also wants to ensure, like Mr Sharif, that an elected government can never be sacked again by a president acting at his dictatorial or whimsical discretion. (3) He too wants an independent but non-obstructive judiciary so that the executive is not gridlocked. (4) He wants to avoid a confrontation with any of the stakeholders that would destabilize his fledgling government and cut it short.

Finally, the package has to get President Musharraf on board because the numbers game in parliament cannot succeed without the support of the King’s Party. And the president’s maximum demands are that (1) his powers shouldn’t be touched (2) the pre-November 3 judges shouldn’t be restored so that his presidential election of November 15 is not challenged and overthrown.

How does the package fare on all these counts?

Clearly, the document has been crafted in order to balance the interests of one stakeholder against the other by extracting a minimum compromise from each in their larger longer term common interest. So we can deduce the final form of the bill if and when it is finally passed. (1) The old judges, including Iftikhar Chaudhry, will be restored. The lawyers and Mr Sharif will thus be pleased. (2) Some restrictions will be placed on the chief justice’s tenure and powers so that he cannot act like a maverick by using suo motu provisions or discretionary powers to gridlock the executive. Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari will thus be relieved that they won’t have to contend with another prickly chief justice like Sajjad Ali Shah or an ambitious and politicized judge like Iftikhar Chaudhry when they are in power. (3) The post-November 3 judges who have bailed out Mr Zardari (NRO) and President Musharraf (Presidential election) will be retained to maintain the balance of power between the old and new. This will comfort Mr Zardari and President Musharraf. (4) President Musharraf will be stripped of his discretionary powers to hire and fire governments, prime ministers, provincial governors and service chiefs. This is what everyone wants. But some of these powers may be transferred to the National Security Council to be chaired by the president in which a majority of the members will be civilians nominated by the prime minister. This will please the armed forces which will be represented at the NSC and also enable Mr Musharraf to make a non-confrontational exit in time to come.

If President Musharraf doesn’t agree to this face-saving device, the political coalition arraigned against him will have two options. (1) It can choose to pass an executive order based on a parliamentary resolution restoring the old judges and dare the president to call the armed forces to his rescue – an order that the current army high command may not follow as in 1998. (2) It can launch impeachment proceedings and bring continuous pressure to bear on the president until the Senate elections are held next year and the numbers are available to throw him out.

With a little give and take, everyone can emerge a winner in this exercise. But we shouldn’t expect anyone to throw in the towel without a fight. So there will be resistance from all the players who will blow hot and cold. This means that the constitutional package may be presented in parliament quickly as a show of Mr Zardari’s intention to resolve the issues but only passed in due course after various compromises are incorporated into it. This is the stuff of politics that we Pakistanis have so come to love and hate.

 

(June 6-12, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 16)

When will the crisis end?

Two major developments of last week are noteworthy. The country was suddenly swamped by rumours about President Pervez Musharraf’s impending exit in days rather than weeks. And the PPP issued a draft constitutional amendment package for solving the issue of the judges and reducing the powers of the president. Both are linked and have a bearing on the political situation.

The “news” about President Musharraf’s exit was based on three factors: Mr Asif Zardari’s unexpected broadside at Mr Musharraf as a “relic of the past” who could be impeached, suggesting that the working relationship between the two had finally foundered; a late night, three hour meeting, between President Musharraf and COAS General Pervez Kayani, suggesting several prickly issues were discussed and sorted out on an “emergent” footing; and an abrupt change in command of the coup-making 111 Brigade in Pindi headed by a Musharraf loyalist, suggesting that the COAS was entrenching himself at the cost of his former boss and benefactor.

Mr Zardari’s anti-Musharraf comments came immediately after all the cases against him were formally dropped on the basis of the NRO and before he unveiled his constitutional package. This means Mr Zardari waited for irrevocable immunity before he leaned on President Musharraf via the constitutional package to relinquish his powers upon pain of impeachment. Critically, the weakening and eventual ouster of President Musharraf is an integral part of Mr Zardari’s “secret deal” with Mr Nawaz Sharif in exchange for restoring Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan and then weakening and easing him from power too.

This must have unhinged President Musharraf. As per the original pre-election “understanding” between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto mediated by the Americans, President Musharraf’s power-status was to remain broadly unchanged after cobbling power-sharing governments in the centre and provinces between the PPP and PMLQ. But in Mr Zardari’s new formulation based on an outright PPP victory and rout of the President’s PMLQ in the last elections, the president was now being asked to sign away all his powers and become a lame duck prior to being kicked out by the PPP-PMLN coalition. If he refused to play ball with Mr Zardari, President Musharraf knew he had only two options. He could face either impeachment proceedings (an embarrassment but not a credible threat since the parliamentary numbers are missing for it) and contend with the restoration of the old judges via an executive order, which would have amounted to a veritable death sentence on his presidential election last November. Or resign in a huff and fly off to safety. In the event, however, neither of the two options might have suited the COAS. In the first, General Kayani might have had to intervene if the current Chief Justice of Pakistan or President Musharraf had ordered the army to defend the SC against a physical takeover by the old judges backed by an executive order. That would have meant defying the writ of the government of the day which is backed by parliament and opposition, a very precipitous course of action. But not doing so would have meant condoning the disgraceful ouster of a former army chief and boss, an unpalatable proposition. So the meeting between General Kayani and President Musharraf must have concentrated on weighing the options and finding a workable solution. What might that be?

Three developments since that fateful Thursday suggest a possible “compromise” among the key players in time to come. First, Mr Zardari has seemingly backtracked for the time being. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has said his government will continue to work with President Musharraf; information minister Sherry Rehman has said the PPP has not discussed impeachment of the president with the PMLN; and Mr Zardari has said he is still opposed to any restoration of the judges via an executive order. Second, President Bush has weighed in with support for President Musharraf. Third, the army has sent a firm message to the media to stop flying kites. This means that getting rid of President Musharraf through an executive order restoring the judges or even attempting to impeach him is not an option for Mr Zardari. Apart from putting Gen Kayani in a difficult position, it would lead to a stampede of PMLQ into the arms of the PMLN, upset the numbers game in Punjab and Islamabad and threaten Mr Zardari’s primacy in power. Equally, it means that retaining all his current powers and serving out his full term is not an option for President Musharraf. He has to go sooner rather than later.

This is where the constitutional amendment package impinges on the situation. In the final analysis, Mr Sharif will have to give in to Mr Zardari on the judges’ issue and Mr Musharraf will have to give in to Mr Zardari on the scope of his powers and timing of his exit. Indeed, the constitutional package (and therefore the judges’ restoration) can only be clinched if President Musharraf’s Kings Party supports it. How soon an “honourable” way out for President Musharraf can be found on the basis of an “understanding” between the PMLQ and PPP remains to be seen.

 

(June 13-19, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 17)

Long march to where?

The Finance Bill unveiling the federal budget for 2008-09 springs only one surprise, and that, too, is political rather than economic. An amendment in the law relating to the strength of the Supreme Court is tagged to it, increasing the proposed number of judges from 17 to 29, thereby paving the way for the restoration of the PCO-2000 judges while retaining the PCO-2007 judges. More significantly, the message is that all the decisions of the Musharraf era indemnified by the old and new judges, but especially by the new ones after November 3, 2007, will be protected, including his mini-martial law of November 3, his election as president, the withdrawal of all the cases against Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Zardari via the NRO, and the February 18 general elections. The protection will be cemented by a constitutional amendment whose draft has already been floated by the PPP.

But the lawyers’ movement has been demanding exactly the opposite. It wants the old judges restored and the new ones sacked. And it wants the old judges to de-legitimise President Musharraf’s election and reverse the indemnification of his actions and decrees by the new judges.

Unfortunately, however, there are several problems with the lawyers’ approach. One, it tends to lean heavily in favour of the PMLN against the PPP. Indeed, Mr Aitzaz Ahsan, the main leader of the movement, has thundered that the “long march” is aimed at besieging the federal parliament in Islamabad and pressuring the PPP government to concede its demands.

Two, Mr Zardari would be a big loser if the NRO were to be scrapped and Mr Sharif a big winner if the 1999 coup and its subsequent decrees and constitutional amendments, especially the law stopping him from being prime minister for a third time, are outlawed.

Three, if the process of re-instating the old judges at the expense of the new ones is carried to its logical conclusion by withdrawing indemnity to President Musharraf’s actions, it would also end up de-legitimising the February elections on the basis of which the PPP has formed governments across the country. As potential grounds for a fresh election sooner than later, this would suit the PMLN and hurt the PPP.

Fourth, it is abundantly clear, given the PMLN’s support to the lawyers’ movement for party political reasons aimed at overthrowing President Musharraf, that the sacked judges are decidedly pro-PMLN and anti-PPP. In normal circumstances, any political bias would tend to disqualify judicial contenders for such exalted positions. But in the volatile circumstances of today, the restoration of the old, pro-PMLN judges, if it is at the expense of the sitting judges (who can equally be presumed to be pro-PPP), would make any PPP political dispensation in the country vulnerable to the point of gridlock at the hands of a hostile judiciary.

Fifth, the lawyers’ movement for an independent judiciary has unwittingly become the vehicle for the transmission of certain extremely reactionary political ideas and demands. Among legitimate slogans of “Go Musharraf Go” in the marching crowds are shrill voices from the defunct ideologues of the past demanding a rollback of Musharraf’s “flexible” Kashmir policy (that has rightly advanced the peace process with India), an end to his support to the war against Al-Qaeda and Talibanisation (which is in the national interest of Pakistan and is based on international law, notwithstanding policy shortcomings), and a “rehabilitation” of Dr A Q Khan (the rogue nuclear-proliferationist who has brought Pakistan to the brink of international censure, sanctions and inspections).

Under the circumstances, the success or failure of the “long march” epitomizing the lawyers’ movement and its various demands should not be measured in terms of its ability to achieve its singular goals – which are ridden with contradictions and are hugely problematic and politically biased – but in terms of its ability to help mould a productive transition to functional democracy instead of a convulsive confrontation that plunges the country into anarchy and economic meltdown. This would be a process that leads to (1) the restoration of the old judges and the retention of the new ones – a tactical political necessity – leading eventually to a pruning of the judiciary and cleansing of all politically biased, controversial and incompetent judges, old or new, chiefs and followers – a strategic pre-condition for an independent judiciary (2) the exit of “Red-Rag Musharraf” to facilitate the movement for civilian supremacy and rule of law and constitution (3) an acceptance of the right of existing federal and provincial governments to complete their full term and for political parties to contest the next elections under a neutral election commission.

As the lawyers battle with the government, the rest of the country is thinking of inflation, food, wages, taxes, unemployment, education, health, terrorism, law and order. Meanwhile, the government is struggling to beg and borrow oil to keep the country running (literally) while desperately trying to maintain some sovereign dignity in the face of American bombardments and Taliban encroachments in its tribal borderlands. Therefore we should welcome a financial budget that tries to facilitate the transition to political democracy and economic sustainability in a hostile domestic and global environment.

 

(June 20-26, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 18)

Worsening US-Pak relations

US-Pak relations may deteriorate because of serious differences on how to conduct the “war on terror”. This could have an adverse impact on democracy and development in Pakistan.

Despite various distortions, Pakistan’s economy has grown more during years of military rule backed by America than under civilian rule without a US umbrella. The average growth rate under civilian rule was about 4% and over 6.5% under the military. Since 9/11, the US has pumped in US$10 billion and the international community has written off or rescheduled most loans. Therefore, if the new civilian government picks a quarrel with the Bush administration on core issues in the run-up to the presidential elections – the war against Al Qaeda and Taliban – the aid pipeline could dry up and compound the development problem posed by surging oil and food prices in Pakistan. In turn, rising mass poverty could fuel popular passion, undermine the credibility of the new government and destabilize the transition to democracy. So how can the contentious issue of the war on terror be solved to the mutual benefit of both parties?

The US did not have a problem with the Taliban per se in Afghanistan before the arrival of Al-Qaeda in the region and its attack on 9/11. But after the Taliban joined the global jihad against America at the behest of Al-Qaeda, the US was compelled to land “boots on ground” in Afghanistan. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda regrouped on Pakistan territory and began to launch attacks across the border on American and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. The Americans asked the Pakistan army to put a stop to such cross border raids. If the Pakistan military leadership had refused, it would have incurred America’s wrath for harbouring militant forces inimical to America’s national security. But siding with America was no less problematic. In the popular imagination the war on terror on Pakistani soil was seen as “America’s war” and not Pakistan’s war, despite the fact that America’s war had rapidly became “Pakistan’s war” after the Al-Qaeda-Taliban “Network” seized large tracts of Pakistan’s territory for the purposes of its campaign of “coercive Islamisation”, thereby undermining the writ of the Pakistani state. The Pakistan military responded by offering “peace deals” and money and rehabilitation if the Network abandoned its coercive methods and stopped making war on American forces in Afghanistan. But the Network took the money and exploited the political breather provided by the peace deals to regroup and carry out renewed attacks across the border. Rising American casualties led to the demand for more troops on the ground, coupled with acute frustration and anger. As after 9/11, the message to Pakistan was clear: do more to “sort out” the Network in your tribal areas or we will “sort it out” for you.

The situation now is precarious. The Pakistani military has washed its hands of decision-making and responsibility on this issue by transferring the “ownership” of the unpopular war on terror to the new civilian central and provincial governments. The civilians have clutched at new peace deals with the Network in response to anti-American public opinion, in the bargain incurring the ire of America because the Network is attacking across the border with renewed and increased ferocity. So the US has upped cross border surveillance and attacks to stem the tide of militancy. In the cross-fire, the Network has tried to shield behind Pakistani border guards, exposing them directly to attacks by American jets and drones. The civilian backlash has now been strengthened by a military backlash against the Americans.

More negative “engagement” is likely to follow. President Bush desperately needs some quick successes in Afghanistan. But these cannot be achieved without the help of the Pakistani military. If the civilian regimes cannot authorize an unpopular initiative, or if the military won’t follow civilian orders, then the sitting civilian governments will be blamed for the political and economic debacle that is bound to follow increased direct American military intervention in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has warned of “hot pursuit” by Afghan and NATO forces into Pakistani territory. The Network has threatened to scrap the peace deals with Pakistan and press on with cross border raids. Meanwhile, the international media is raking up the A Q Khan proliferation issue in response to A Q Khan’s recent rehabilitation by the anti-American Pakistani media.

Pakistan’s fledgling civilian democracy is under attack from internal and external forces of globalisation. The country has become the site of a confrontation between globalizing radical Islam and globalizing capitalist imperialism. The resultant uncertainty and crisis is hurting our economy especially when it needs all the assistance it can get to cope with exogenous pressures and provide relief to the people. This is not a time for political prevarication. This is not a time for succumbing to popular passions. This is also not a time for squabbling politicians and generals to pass the buck on to the other. If America is to be stopped from prosecuting this global war on Pakistani soil, then we must prosecute it ourselves to save our state from succumbing to anarchy.

 

(June 27-July 3, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 19)

All or nothing

The Lahore High Court’s disqualification of  Nawaz Sharif from contesting by-polls has provoked a predictable backlash. More significantly, it has imperiled the strained coalition between his PMLN and Mr Asif Zardari’s PPP because his stalwarts suspect that Mr Zardari, rather than President Pervez Musharraf, might have winked at the judges. But there is more to this than meets the eye.

Mr Sharif’s supporters are outraged that their leader, who has been prime minister twice and is easily the most popular man in the Punjab today, should be so kept out of parliament. It is a conspiracy, they insist, and the LHC judgment is rigged. But the fact of the matter is that the judgment is quite impeccable in law. In 2000 Mr Sharif was convicted of terrorism and hijacking and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. He did not challenge his conviction and have it overturned. Since then, he has bad mouthed the judiciary and contemned openly, attracting all the provisions of law banning him from contesting elections.

But Mr Sharif’s uncompromising politics and contradictory constitutional position is also to blame for his predicament. He did not contest the petition in the LHC challenging his nomination papers because he doesn’t accept the legitimacy of the LHC judges who took oath under the PCO of 3 November, 2007, nor is he going to challenge the judgment in the Supreme Court. Why, then, is he not objecting to the federal government’s attempt to get it reversed in the SC?

There are more holes in Mr Sharif’s stance. The PMLN has just voted a PPP bill in parliament increasing the number of SC judges from 17 to 29 so that the old deposed judges can be restored without sacking the sitting judges. Yet Mr Sharif still insists that the sitting judges should be sacked and also punished for taking oath on the PCO. Under the circumstances, why should he expect anything less than the disqualification that the sitting judges have handed him?

Mr Sharif wants the deposed judges to be restored by an executive order (forget about its constitutionality) and the sitting judges sacked so that the deposed judges can return and throw out President Musharraf by adjudging his presidential election to be illegal. The next step would be for them to hold everything done under the ambit of the PCO of 2000 illegal – including the 17th constitutional amendment that stops him from becoming prime minister for a third time, the reprieve given to Mr Zardari by the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and the general elections of last February that returned the PPP to power – so that Mr Sharif’s path to power is cleared. But this is not about the independence of the judiciary or rule of law. It is hard ball politics, not principle and Mr Sharif should not expect his opponents to sit back and enjoy a losing game.

To be sure, Mr Sharif’s confrontationist and aggrieved stance is making him popular in Punjab. But what good is this popularity only three months after an election that he lost rather than three months before an election that he hopes to win? Mr Zardari may be losing brownie points by seeming to be soft on President Musharraf and prolonging the anguish of Pakistanis by not resolving the judges’ issue quickly, but he is not losing any sleep over it. Indeed, there is absolutely no chance of the federal government being kicked out by President Musharraf or being overthrown by a street movement. What happens when the next elections roll round is anybody’s guess.

Mr Sharif’s provincial politics also leaves much to be desired. There is an uneasy coalition in Punjab. If he refuses to compromise with Mr Zardari on the judges issue, he could jeopardize Shahbaz Sharif’s chief ministership of Punjab. His electoral win is still pending clearance with the Election Commission and will be challenged all the way up to the SC before judges unacceptable, and therefore predictably hostile, to Mr Sharif.

Mr Sharif’s political confrontationist approach smacks of “all or nothing”. But given the cards in the hands of Mr Zardari, President Musharraf and the sitting judges – which spell real politik – Mr Sharif could lose even the Punjab government if he doesn’t change tack. Indeed, people are wondering whether his “principled” politics will result in his losing power or winning it.

Nawaz Sharif has made a great comeback to politics. He has been prudent in making a coalition with the PPP and government in the Punjab from which citizens have high expectations. He should know that Pakistan is faced with challenges to its sovereignty and to the economy and that the population is restive. A transition to democracy is the need of the hour. But Mr Sharif’s “all or nothing” approach is making the other stakeholders in Pakistan nervous. If this approach was untenable in the 1990s, it is completely unsustainable today because the country is more divided and precarious. Pakistan’s rulers must focus on the principle contradictions in the body politic, on the do or die choices facing the country, not on political brinkmanship and power-grab. Mr Sharif must not overplay his hand, lest the politicians once again end up having no hand to play.

 

(July 4-10, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 20)

Drift in Islamabad

Many Pakistanis are worried about a perceptible sense of drift in Islamabad. The judges’ issue is hanging fire. Acute power shortages of up to 12 hours a day persist. Inflation is up to 30 per cent. And the war on terror is going nowhere, despite the fact that its “ownership” has formally passed from the military to the civilians.

More alarmingly, the Pakistani economy which grew by 6.8 per cent a year from 2003-07, is sputtering in the face of post-election economic uncertainty and political instability. This is, potentially, an explosive situation. Without continued high growth and poverty alleviation, significant sections of the politically volatile urban middle classes will slip through the net, creating a vast pool of angry unemployed or under-employed. With the government becoming increasingly immobilized in the face of rising Islamic and anti-American nationalism (the irony is that America remains Pakistan’s largest military and economic donor) and economic discontent, the country could slip into political anarchy and state-failure.

The budget deficit for 2007-08 was targeted at 4% of GDP but has actually turned out to be about 8%. The balance of payments deficit is also about 8% of GDP, the highest ever in our history. Forex reserves have fallen from a high of US$16.5 billion in October 2007 to about US$11 billion today, despite being recently bolstered by a combination of US support ($500 m), ADB ($200 m), and sale of private sector company shares to foreigners ($850 m). Inflation is soaring at 30%, the highest ever, following a gradual removal of subsidies on oil and gas. International credit rating agencies have downgraded Pakistan (it now ranks 87th in the list of countries with business prospects), citing both microeconomic imbalances and political instability. Pakistan’s Eurobonds are trading at 7% above the bench-market rate (six months US treasury bills) compared to when they were issued and were only 2% above the bench-market. The World Bank has cancelled project aid of US$500 million and postponed disbursal of a similar amount. About US$1.25 billion in privatization deals is also on hold. A planned bond issue, for which an investment bank was actually mandated, has been inexplicably cancelled. Experts say that if targeted foreign resources fall by about US$4-5 billion this year as a result of all this, the rupee would have to be significantly devalued (it has already devalued by about 10 % in the last one month) and interest rates would have to rise further, a painful and politically explosive development.

In the face of these gradual slippages, the Karachi stock exchange has not been able to retain its resilience. The KSE index stood at 15,700 points in the third week of April. But by June 20, it had fallen by nearly 4600 points or about 30%, implying a decline of Rs 1.3 trillion or US$20 billion in market capitalization, equivalent to 13% of GDP, reflecting the increasingly visible malaise in the economy. There was a temporary revival in late June following the imposition of some technical circuit-breakers on share business by the Securities and Exchange Commission, but the fundamental weaknesses remain and will keep market sentiment depressed. So what will it take to get back on track urgently?

First, we need a full fledged working government in Islamabad led by a permanent prime minister and finance minister. The ad-hoc arrangement which followed the PML N’s pull-out from the federal coalition two months ago in protest at the refusal of the PPP to restore the judges is not conducive to confidence-building. Either Mr Zardari should put his coalition back on track and get down to business with all the ministers working overtime – implying a swift resolution of the judges’ issue and the fate of President Pervez Musharraf that meets with the approval of the PML N. Or he must have the courage to say goodbye to the PML N, fill the slots with full time ministers from his own party, and manage. This no-man’s-land brand of economics and politics is ad-hocism of the worst kind.

Second, the government should stop dragging its feet on all the unpopular economic decisions that need to be taken to straighten out the fundamentals of the economy. This means abolishing general subsidies on fuel and food while creating specific ones for the poorest sections of society. It also means re-creating an economic environment that is friendly towards both domestic and international investors.

Third, the government must tackle the war on terror seriously without worrying about any popular backlash. The fact is that this war is now Pakistan’s war as much as it is America’s war and Pakistan cannot afford to post failure. Indeed, without the economic assistance of the international community and its financial institutions, especially the US whose Congress is already debating the political virtues of billions of dollars in assistance to Islamabad, Pakistan cannot expect to get back into economic shape and improve the lot of its people.

Mr Asif Zardari’s laid-back approach is creating public disquiet. Problems have mounted because difficult decisions were postponed and controversial solutions swept under the carpet. If he wants to be a leader, he must take bold initiatives and demonstrate long term wisdom rather than worry about his popularity in these trying times.

 

(July 11-17, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 21)

Desperately seeking leaders

A suicide bomber has destroyed the Indian consulate in Kandahar and killed dozens. Another suicide bomber has killed 20 policemen in Islamabad during a conference of Islamists at the Lal Masjid. And a string of smaller bombs have shaken Karachi. Amidst this, the Taliban are rampaging in the Frontier and FATA and Dr AQ Khan is protesting his dubious innocence at the cost Pakistan’s national interest.

Clearly, the Taliban attacked the Indian consulate. But at whose behest? India has a big financial and political stake in Afghanistan, thanks to the Karzai government and NATO/ISAF forces. It has four consulates and has pledged US$750 million to rebuild the country’s shattered infrastructure with several thousand Indian workers. So it is a natural target of the Taliban, who have attacked the Indian consulates in Herat and Jalalabad in the past and also abducted and killed several Indian workers on construction sites.

But the Pakistani national security establishment is also concerned about India’s rising influence in Kabul. Pakistan has also accused the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad of fomenting strife in Balochistan by giving funds and training to the separatist Balochistan Liberation Army. Therefore, if the Pakistani charge against the Indians is true, it is conceivable that there is a joint Pakistan-Taliban message to New Delhi in the Kandahar attack. But this simmering conflict between the “agencies” via Taliban and Baloch proxies could derail the peace process between the two civilian governments.

The suicide bomber in Islamabad on the anniversary of the Lal Masjid operation last year is a stark reminder that the Lal Masjid mindset is alive and kicking in Pakistan. What is inexplicable is why the federal government meekly permitted thousands of radical clerics from across the country to congregate in Islamabad, hold a memorial conference at the very site of the bloody Lal Masjid operation, extol the virtues of the “martyrs” of radical Islamism and denounce the Pakistan government and army as the enemies of the people of Pakistan. If the government was looking for trouble it couldn’t have chalked out a better move.

The bombs in Karachi have been attributed by the Pakistani “agencies” to the Indian and Afghan “agencies”. But no one buys this explanation. The MQM sees a Pakhtun-Taliban hand in cahoots with local seminaries and Taliban who have publicly threatened to disrupt the NATO goods traffic from Karachi to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass. The PPP concurs, refusing to be provoked into an ethnic conflict with the MQM over differences with President Pervez Musharraf, an MQM ally. But the religious parties say this is a warning shot from the MQM across the PPP’s bow, signaling its ability to plunge the city and province into bloody strife if the PPP joins hands with the PMLN to remove President Musharraf from office. Whoever is behind it, one thing is clear: Karachi will face more bloodshed if the war on terror doesn’t get underway and the politicians and military, along with their domestic and international allies, don’t establish the rules of the game and play fairly

Meanwhile, Dr AQ Khan’s new found freedom is creating ripples at home and abroad. The PPP’s attitude is that he is the national security establishment’s man and the same establishment should “look after him” now that he has become a rogue and is bent upon embarrassing his former bosses. But the military establishment says the civilians are now in command and they should take “ownership” of the mess and clean it up. Unfortunately, all the Pakistani players, especially Dr Khan, are playing directly into the hands of the hostile anti-proliferation lobby abroad which wants to re-open the issue of Pakistan’s culpability in spreading nuclear technology abroad. The sympathies of the Islamist-nationalist section of the media for Dr Khan, added to the abiding hostility of civil society and the political parties towards President Musharraf and the military, are complicating the issues and making matters worse.

In the midst of all this confusion, uncertainty and worry, the more inexplicable fact is that Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are holding court in Dubai and London instead of in Islamabad and Lahore. Are they afraid the terrorists will assassinate them like they did Benazir Bhutto? Do they think the military establishment is tapping their every word at home so that they have to find safe houses abroad?

The tragedy is that the more this perception of civilian ineptitude, drift and fear seeps into the popular imagination, the more it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy at the merciless hands of the media. Certainly, President Musharraf’s daring re-entry into the political arena recently – “I’m not going anywhere”, he says stridently, “the army is with me” – has shaken everyone. The refrain that the civilians are failing to provide solutions to Pakistan’s myriad problems is becoming common enough, even though it is barely four months since the last elections. More dangerous is the supplementary comment that is trembling on many lips: “someone will have to step in soon to save the country”.

The army has tried to “save” the country three times in the past.  Each time it has left behind a bigger mess than the one it inheritedfrom the civilians on assuming power.

 

(July 18-24, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 22)

Urgent: national consensus against terrorism

The Israeli Air Force has just carried out furious exercises 1500 km from the shores of Israel. Simultaneously, a flood of reports and “leaks” from the American intelligence community talk of the Pentagon’s war plans against Iran. But this exercise may just amount to “psywar” rather than any preparation for real war. In the event of war, Iran would seal the Persian Gulf through which one-third of the world’s oil passes, driving the price of oil beyond US$200 a barrel and plunging western economies into stagflation, unemployment and political turmoil.

Much the same sort of “psywar” may be unfurling on Pakistan’s borderlands with Afghanistan. There is a rising chorus of warnings and threats from senior American administration, intelligence and defense officials, including influential Senators and Congressmen, urging President Bush to sanction “hot pursuit” of NATO-ISAF forces into Pakistan’s FATA to knock out Taliban bases which are supplying a stream of warriors across the Durand Line to attack the coalition. NATO troops, backed by helicopter gunships, tanks and armoured carriers, have trundled to the border with Waziristan, suggesting a “boots on ground” scenario in Waziristan. The US justifies hot-pursuit because American casualties have climbed steeply during the Taliban’s summer offensive from hideouts in Waziristan; and America fears that this region is now so heavily infested with Al-Qaeda warriors and planners that another attack on American soil like the one on 9/11 originating from this area is imminent.

But there are three good reasons why there will be no significant American “invasion” of Pakistan in pursuit of the Afghan Taliban. One, it would provoke a bitter and violent backlash of anti-Americanism across the political divide in Pakistan and make it impossible for the PPP government and the Pakistan army to justify their part-ownership on the war on terror. Second, it would lead to desperate suicidal attacks by Pakistani Taliban on fuel and material supply lines for NATO forces from Karachi to Jalalabad via Peshawar and Torkham, a critical traffic of hundreds of containers every day. Third, the American national security establishment admits that the problem of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not going to be solved by quick-fire military means alone and that the next American president will have to contend with serious problems not so much in Iraq as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful, is already subscribing to this view publicly when he says he will target Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in FATA and send more troops to Afghanistan as well as fortify Pakistan economically to deal with the problem of Talibanisation in its body politic. A bill by Senators Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar has been moved in the US Congress to sanction a whopping US$7.5 billion per year for five years for Pakistan to bolster it economically and make it strong enough to cope with the menace of terrorism.

Therefore, instead of any full fledged invasion, it is more likely that the Americans will carry out carefully selected air strikes by drones and predators at potentially high-value targets in FATA, sometimes with the knowledge of the Pakistani military and sometimes without, depending on the circumstances and urgency of each case. This is a short term requirement of the dying Bush administration, a desperate shot in the arm to revive the flagging fortunes of the Republicans and give President Bush a last-ditch chance to redeem his pathetic image. How should Pakistanis react to this limited American “threat”?

The army wants the civilian political leadership to assume “ownership” of the war on terror. But that is easier said than done. There are serious differences in the ruling coalition over how to deal with this issue. Mr Asif Zardari’s PPP government is reluctant to tell Washington off because it needs its financial support to bail out its economy and fulfill its anti-poverty pledge to the electorate. So it has to tread carefully, neither alienating the public further, nor irrevocably antagonizing the Americans, nor indeed enabling the Taliban to carve out more territory at the expense of the Pakistani state. But Mr Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN coalition-partner is bent on lapping up popularity by taking a strong nationalist position and reducing the government’s space for diplomatic maneuver. Meanwhile, the Awami National Party in the NWFP is wary of alienating its Pashtun vote bank by openly siding with the Pakistan army and the PPP on the war on terror and is advocating dubious “peace deals” with the extremists in FATA.

Some people argue that this issue should be thrashed out in parliament. But this could be misplaced concreteness. Given the mood, parliament is bound to resound with anti-Americanism, which would only serve to undermine the government without dissuading the Americans from their short term agenda. It would also embolden the Pakistani Taliban to soak up public sympathy and knock out our already weak resolve against extremism and terrorism.

The PPP government needs to devote its energies into cobbling a national consensus against extremism and Talibanisation of Pakistan. At the same time, it needs to work closely with the ANP and the Pakistan army to develop a national security strategy to keep America at bay while thwarting the threat to the writ of the state in its tribal areas.

 

(July 25-31, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 23)

Defending the media

First it was The Friday Times. Then it was Daily Times. Now it is Daily Aajkal. All three papers are at the receiving end of credible threats from radical religious extremists to change their editorial policies which espouse liberal, democratic, progressive and humanist values. The Taliban have forcibly stopped the sale of Daily Aajkal in FATA and hurled menacing warnings at the paper in Peshawar. The latest threats and incitement to violence come from the mullahs of the Lal Masjid and their network in Islamabad and Punjab.

The pretext is a cartoon in Aajkal of Umme Hassaan, the fiery wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Lal Masjid. It shows her teaching the virtues of jihad and kidnapping to her students, a reference to her statements on the need to wage violent jihad and the kidnapping of five Chinese carried out by her Lal Masjid activists last year. Mrs Hassaan claims the cartoon is blasphemous like the Danish cartoons. But by so insisting, she is putting herself on the same pedestal as the Prophet of Islam (pbuh), which is truly blasphemous. Actually, she cannot stand the thought of being the object of satirical comment even though her brand of radical politics is much more objectionable than that of most double-dealing politicians who are daily lampooned by the media. The only difference is that while politicians take cartoons in their stride, as they should according to the rules of the democratic game, the self-righteous radical clerics are prone to use violent means to stifle dissent or adverse comment. This is what they did in Algeria and in Egypt where hundreds of journalists were assassinated in the 1990s because they dared to oppose their brand of extremist politics.

In the world of today where information is delivered on the second into every house via cable or satellite, everyone needs to be on the right side of the media. Two issues constantly arise – the extent of media freedom and its relationship with media responsibility. There are no hard and fast rules except one: media freedom ends only where someone else’s freedom is violated.  This media “freedom” is defined by well known laws like the law of defamation and the law of contempt, and an independent judiciary is the final arbiter of who is right and who is wrong. But violence cannot be allowed to stifle debate or dissent.

In recent times, two major repressions stand out in particular. Nawaz Sharif lashed out at the Jang Group and The Friday Times in 1999. And General Pervez Musharraf pulled the plug on a number of TV channels in 2007, wounding the Geo/Jang group the most. But both strategies were doomed to fail as Mr Sharif and General Musharraf can testify.

Significantly, non-state actors armed with weapons and/or passionate ideologues are increasingly “using” the Pakistani media or “exploiting” it for the propagation of their ideas and interests. But serious problems arise when any section of the media doesn’t agree with their policies or seeks to expose their narrow interests or anti-state positions. In democratic societies, the law takes its course for the resolution of such disputes or differences of opinion. But in non-democratic societal cultures, like that of Pakistan, such non-state actors are often inclined to use threat of violence or actual violence to silence media critics or affect editorial policy changes to suit their goals.

The classic example that used to be given in Pakistan about non-state actors using violent means and direct threats to bring the media in line was that of the MQM in Karachi. The MQM is a cadre based ethnic party that has a criminal and fascist record even though it is avowedly secular. But the media has managed to survive despite its violent threats and practices. However, the latest menace to the media emanates from radical extremist fundamentalist religious belief that goes under the name of “political Islamism”. It is self-righteous, self-obsessed and intolerant. Various armed groups professing jihad and Talibanism are now trying to capture the imagination of the free media and mould it according to their view and version of world events. They are doing this largely by invoking fear and retribution. How should the media react to this latest threat to its integrity?

The primary responsibility of protecting the media lies with the armed state. But where the state abdicates such responsibility, either because it has a dubious relationship with such non-state religious groups or because it cannot defend and enforce its writ against them because of internal weaknesses, both of which are relevant in the case of the Pakistani state, the media has no choice but to band together and close ranks despite internal strains and stresses of personalities, egos and commercial interests. Indeed, when some of us are attacked thus, it is time not only to boycott the propagandistic activities of such non-state actors but to openly criticize them at every opportunity. When journalists can routinely threaten to boycott politicians and proceedings in parliament, and agitate against government for not accepting their demands, why can’t they unite and react similarly when these religious vigilantes threaten any of us?

 

(August 1-7, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 24)

How to tame the ISI

The PPP government’s recent attempt to club the ISI with the IB and make both “accountable” to the unelected advisor to the interior ministry, Mr Rehman Malik, was very clumsy. But it is neither surprising nor insignificant.

Mr Malik was chosen for the responsibility because he was Benazir Bhutto’s chief political advisor in negotiations with President Pervez Musharraf and the Bush administration during 2005-07 in Dubai, London and Washington. Mr Zardari was out of the political loop because he was based in New York at that time. Accordingly, after Ms Bhutto’s demise, Mr Malik became indispensable to Mr Zardari for the sake of maintaining continuity with the key players. This explains why he is currently not just the Mr Zardari’s chief of internal security and core interlocutor with the same set of players with whom he interacted during Ms Bhutto’s time – President Pervez Musharraf, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani (then DG-ISI) and current DG-ISI General Nadeem Taj (who assumed charge of political negotiations with Ms Bhutto after General Kayani became army chief) – but also his point man for the “war on terror” in which he is constantly liaising with key US military and civilian officials, many of whom were also players during Ms Bhutto’s time.

Mr Zardari’s ostensible reason for clubbing the IB and ISI under Mr Rehman’s control is “better coordination” of internal law and order and the war on terror. But this is really a cover for making the IB more efficient and “taming” the ISI. In the PPP’s earlier stints in power, despite hand-picked men to lead it, the IB had failed to warn Ms Bhutto of her impending sacking at the hands of two successive presidents. The ISI’s role on both occasions was actually anti-Bhutto. In 1988-90, the ISI took orders from army chief General Aslam Beg and President Ishaq Khan, and destabilized her government, overthrew it and then helped rig the elections to promote Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. And in 1996, in association with army chief General Jehangir Karamat and President Farooq Leghari, it connived in the sacking of her government. Therefore, Mr Zardari’s obsession with, and fear of, the ISI is not unjustified. Indeed, even before her assassination, Ms Bhutto had pointed the finger at “rogue elements” in the ISI and said they were out to get her.

Three factors have now reinforced Mr Zardari’s desire to rein in the ISI. First, the PPP’s strategic foreign policy perceptions are different from the national security imperatives of the military and ISI. The PPP wants liberal and secular policies at home, a strategic relationship with America and peace with India. But the ISI takes its ideological inspiration from the military, continues to retain and even promote “assets” in religious parties and groups for “containing” India and “securing” Afghanistan, and plays tactical games with the US to secure strategic advantage. This issue dates to 1989 when the ISI labeled Ms Bhutto a “national security risk” for attempting to make peace with India. Today, it isn’t happy with the PPP government’s policy of visa and trade liberalization with India without acceptable trade-offs on Kashmir, Siachin and other outstanding disputes.

The second factor is Musharraf-related. The current DG-ISI, General Nadeem Taj, is perceived as the president’s man. Mr Zardari is afraid that when it comes to shoving President Musharraf out, the ISI may thwart the government instead of lending a hand to it as required by law.

The third factor relates to the US intervention in Afghanistan. The ISI insists on a significant role for the Afghan Pashtun Taliban in any political dispensation in Afghanistan as an integral element of the military’s national security strategy. The Indian “factor” in President Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan assumes strategic significance in this context, no less than the American intervention which is aimed at eliminating the Taliban. The PPP, however, is less unsympathetic to the American goal because the blowback of “assetising the Taliban” is hugely destabilizing for Pakistan’s internal stability which is of direct relevance to the longevity of the government. Without controlling the ISI, how can the PPP government articulate and implement an independent foreign policy?

But it is doubtful whether even a change of ISI command can radically alter the fundamental outlook of the ISI in the short term. Mr Nawaz Sharif handpicked serving generals to head the ISI in 1991 and 1999, but neither could save him from being ousted on both occasions. Reason: the ISI is a military institution wedded to the military’s institutional outlook and concerns about power and security. Also, all its military personnel (70% of its staff) look to the army chief and not the prime minister or defense minister for their promotions and careers. This is very different from the position of reputed spook agencies in established and functional democracies like the USA, UK, Israel and India where the military and all agencies are under effective civilian control.

The real issue is the 60 year old civil-military imbalance in Pakistan. The civilians must establish their credentials for responsible democracy and functional governance before they can safely and effectively tame the military. Meanwhile, dim-witted administrative moves only serve to discredit them instead of strengthening them in the eyes of the people.

 

(August 8-14, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 25)

Endgame for whom?

Last week, after months of prevaricating, Asif Zardari agreed with Nawaz Sharif to oust President Pervez Musharraf through an impeachment motion in parliament. This is the most significant development since the February general elections led to a coalition between the two erstwhile foes and pitted them against the head of the ancien regime.

Notwithstanding many political and constitutional twists and turns, the final “deal” now reflects three points of agreement: First, that the judges will eventually be restored through an executive order. But no cut-off date is given for this. So we are no closer to a solution than before. Second, that Mr Sharif’s PMLN will rejoin the federal government and strengthen the coalition. But this is qualified by the disclaimer that Mr Sharif will only do so after the judges have been restored as per his formula for restoration. So we are back to Square One. Third, that the impeachment will go ahead after it has been determined how to go about doing so in order to be successful. So there is no deadline here either. In short, the deal doesn’t seem to represent any significant breakthrough.

Of course, it denotes a compromise by Mr Sharif who had sought the ouster of President Musharraf via a restoration of the deposed judges through an executive order instead of through any act of, or action in, parliament. But now the judges’ issue has been demoted to second priority. It also signals a compromise by Mr Zardari who had earlier only sought a constitutional amendment to reduce the president’s power under Article 58-2B of the constitution to sack governments rather than put him to the sword. But now Mr Zardari says he wants a PPP man or woman in the presidency as soon as possible. Is this a done deal? And is this the end of the game for President Musharraf?

The “deal” is already frayed by reports that Mr Zardari, in association with President Musharraf and the approval of the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr Hameed Dogar, has enabled eight deposed judges of the Sindh High Court to re-join the court on the basis of the PCO of November 3, 2007. Constitutionally speaking, the eight judges are now deemed to be judges of the High Court since President Musharraf has signed the enabling order. But they cannot start work until they have been sworn in by the Governor of Sindh. On Mr Sharif’s insistence, however, Mr Zardari has agreed to postpone their swearing in so that the “deal” doesn’t founder. For how long is anybody’s guess.

Nor is the end in sight as yet for President Musharraf. At least 295 votes out of 442 in the National Assembly and Senate are needed in a joint sitting of parliament to achieve this objective. The PPP and PMLN tally in the NA amounts to 215 votes. The ANP has 13 and the JUI has 7, making a grand total of 235. They insist they can cobble together 46 in the Senate, which leads to a total of 281. But this is still short of the magic figure of 295 for a successful impeachment. The “rest” are expected to come through a bit of horse-trading with independents and FATA members numbering 25. But this may be easier said than done.

For starters, FATA members are more likely to stick close to the ISI and Army (read President Musharraf) for a host of historical and current reasons. The compulsions of the war on terror in which the Army and ISI play a critical role and which have pitted the ANP against the Taliban in the NWFP may also evoke a similar response from it. This reluctance by the key players in the NWFP and tribal areas to ditch their Army and ISI partners may finally negate any PPP-PMLN move to impeach President Musharraf.

The matter will be debated in both houses of parliament. The Senate will create problems because it is controlled by the opposition. Finally, after a successful vote is clinched, the result will be challenged in the Supreme Court which is choked with Musharaff supporters and appointees. The court has already determined that President Musharraf is not guilty on two counts – unfitness to hold office due to incapacity and violation of the constitution. In the third condition of “gross misconduct”, the stress of proof will have to be on “gross” rather than mere “misconduct”, no easy task. It is also difficult to imagine how a Supreme Court can be expected to hold against President Musharraf when it knows that his ouster may be a prelude to the flushing of the Court itself soon thereafter.

The resultant political instability is irrevocably damaging the economy. The people are hurting because of high inflation, power shortages and now devastating rains and floods. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are relishing their prospects in the current state of political anarchy and economic dysfunction. Waiting in the wings and watching the deteriorating situation is the Pakistan army. The fate of President Musharraf, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and everyone else of any consequence in Pakistan will eventually depend on whose side it takes overtly or covertly when the hour of reckoning arrives.

 

(August 15-21, 2008, Vol. XX, No. 26)

Farewell to arms

The Army and America have abandoned President Pervez Musharraf in the face of popular pressure. Although a fighting man, Mr Musharraf is expected to quit any day rather than face impeachment.

The writing on the wall after the PMLQ was routed in the February elections should have been clear to him. Both Mr Asif Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif hate him for political and personal reasons. The rank and file of the PPP, which has been historically anti-army and anti-America, fervently believes he was complicit in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Mr Sharif’s rising popularity on the basis of his anti-Musharraf and anti-America stance was also making Mr Zardari nervous. Certainly, Mr Musharraf didn’t help matters when he tried to oppose Mr Zardari’s selection of Mr Yousaf Raza Gillani as prime minister instead of Mr Amin Fahim whose links to the brass have always made him suspect in the eyes of the PPP. Indeed, Mr Zardari got really worried when Mr Musharraf started to criticize the new government’s “dysfunctonality” in the face of an “impending economic meltdown”. This fed into rumors that perhaps Mr Musharraf was setting the stage to oust the government in a couple of months.

The proverbial straw that broke Mr Zardari’s back relates to a significant incident on July 26. On the eve of Prime Minister Gillani’s state visit to Washington, the government decreed that the ISI, that had been responsible for the fall of two PPP governments in the past and is led by a hand-picked Musharraf loyalist, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, would henceforth be answerable to the home ministry instead of to the army chief or president. Since Washington’s provocative public accusations of ISI complicity in the Taliban attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last month and lack of cooperation with NATO-ISAF forces in the war on terror in the tribal areas of Pakistan were still echoing in military headquarters, President Musharraf hit back swiftly. The government was accused of trying to “politicise the ISI and undermine national security” at America’s prodding, forcing it to backtrack clumsily and lose face. To reclaim both credibility and popularity, and possibly to stave off an impending sacking at President Musharraf’s hands, Mr Zardari decided to join hands with Mr Sharif and knock out President Musharraf.

Washington, which had not so long ago advocated “a working relationship” between Mr Zardari and President Musharraf and later shifted its stance to a “dignified exit” for President Musharraf, now says that the proposed impeachment is “an internal matter” for Pakistan. In other words, “go Musharraf go” because he is no longer “useful” and a working relationship with the new civilian order is a better bet.

The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has wisely remained out of the fray. The army is hugely unpopular at home for fighting “America’s war on terror”. It is dispirited because it is being criticized by its American ally not just for not doing enough but for complicity in harboring and protecting the Afghan Taliban. It is demoralized because it has lost over 2000 men combating the terrorists in FATA without sufficient training or motivation for such an internal security situation. It remains the prime target of suicide bombers in the urban areas of the country, so much so that its officers no longer go about town in uniform. General Kayani successfully salvaged some public respect by refusing to play politics and tilt the election results in favor of President Musharraf’s PMLQ. Therefore, while the officers abhor the “corrupt and bungling civilians”, the grudging view is that any overt or covert military backing for President Musharraf would be hugely unpopular and any formal intervention untenable in the difficult economic and political environment facing the country. Indeed, that was the main reason why, within a week of the new government assuming office, General Kayani rushed to brief the new leadership about the internal and external security situation facing the country and insisted on handing over “ownership” of the unpopular war on terror to the civilians.

The political paralysis in the country will come to an end after President Musharraf’s exit. But instability will remain. Mr Sharif is playing to the gallery and pressing Mr Zardari to punish Mr Musharraf for treason. But Mr Zardari is heeding advice from the Army and America to facilitate a safe exit for him. Mr Sharif wants the judges restored with full powers. But Mr Zardari fears they would hold every Musharraf action to date as illegal, including the amnesty from corruption charges granted to Mr Zardari. Finally, if the PMLQ flocks to Mr Sharif after President Musharraf’s exit, the stage could be set for a new political struggle, starting with the issue of who should be the next president.

Pakistan’s neighbours India and Afghanistan, and its strategic ally America, cannot be sanguine about continuing political instability in Pakistan. Their core interests also require Pakistan’s civilian leadership to lean on the Pakistan army to rein in and retool the ISI, support the war on terror in Afghanistan, and refrain from refueling Islamist jihad in India-administered Kashmir. But with the army sulking politically and licking its wounds militarily, it is a moot question whether the Zardari government will be able to deliver on these fronts.

(August 8-14, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 25 – Editorial)

Endgame for whom?

Last week, after months of prevaricating, Asif Zardari agreed with Nawaz Sharif to oust President Pervez Musharraf through an impeachment motion in parliament. This is the most significant development since the February general elections led to a coalition between the two erstwhile foes and pitted them against the head of the ancien regime.

Notwithstanding many political and constitutional twists and turns, the final “deal” now reflects three points of agreement: First, that the judges will eventually be restored through an executive order. But no cut-off date is given for this. So we are no closer to a solution than before. Second, that Mr Sharif’s PMLN will rejoin the federal government and strengthen the coalition. But this is qualified by the disclaimer that Mr Sharif will only do so after the judges have been restored as per his formula for restoration. So we are back to Square One. Third, that the impeachment will go ahead after it has been determined how to go about doing so in order to be successful. So there is no deadline here either. In short, the deal doesn’t seem to represent any significant breakthrough.

Of course, it denotes a compromise by Mr Sharif who had sought the ouster of President Musharraf via a restoration of the deposed judges through an executive order instead of through any act of, or action in, parliament. But now the judges’ issue has been demoted to second priority. It also signals a compromise by Mr Zardari who had earlier only sought a constitutional amendment to reduce the president’s power under Article 58-2B of the constitution to sack governments rather than put him to the sword. But now Mr Zardari says he wants a PPP man or woman in the presidency as soon as possible. Is this a done deal? And is this the end of the game for President Musharraf?

The “deal” is already frayed by reports that Mr Zardari, in association with President Musharraf and the approval of the current chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mr Hameed Dogar, has enabled eight deposed judges of the Sindh High Court to re-join the court on the basis of the PCO of November 3, 2007. Constitutionally speaking, the eight judges are now deemed to be judges of the High Court since President Musharraf has signed the enabling order. But they cannot start work until they have been sworn in by the Governor of Sindh. On Mr Sharif’s insistence, however, Mr Zardari has agreed to postpone their swearing in so that the “deal” doesn’t founder. For how long is anybody’s guess.

Nor is the end in sight as yet for President Musharraf. At least 295 votes out of 442 in the National Assembly and Senate are needed in a joint sitting of parliament to achieve this objective. The PPP and PMLN tally in the NA amounts to 215 votes. The ANP has 13 and the JUI has 7, making a grand total of 235. They insist they can cobble together 46 in the Senate, which leads to a total of 281. But this is still short of the magic figure of 295 for a successful impeachment. The “rest” are expected to come through a bit of horse-trading with independents and FATA members numbering 25. But this may be easier said than done.

For starters, FATA members are more likely to stick close to the ISI and Army (read President Musharraf) for a host of historical and current reasons. The compulsions of the war on terror in which the Army and ISI play a critical role and which have pitted the ANP against the Taliban in the NWFP may also evoke a similar response from it. This reluctance by the key players in the NWFP and tribal areas to ditch their Army and ISI partners may finally negate any PPP-PMLN move to impeach President Musharraf.

The matter will be debated in both houses of parliament. The Senate will create problems because it is controlled by the opposition. Finally, after a successful vote is clinched, the result will be challenged in the Supreme Court which is choked with Musharaff supporters and appointees. The court has already determined that President Musharraf is not guilty on two counts – unfitness to hold office due to incapacity and violation of the constitution. In the third condition of “gross misconduct”, the stress of proof will have to be on “gross” rather than mere “misconduct”, no easy task. It is also difficult to imagine how a Supreme Court can be expected to hold against President Musharraf when it knows that his ouster may be a prelude to the flushing of the Court itself soon thereafter.

The resultant political instability is irrevocably damaging the economy. The people are hurting because of high inflation, power shortages and now devastating rains and floods. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are relishing their prospects in the current state of political anarchy and economic dysfunction. Waiting in the wings and watching the deteriorating situation is the Pakistan army. The fate of President Musharraf, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and everyone else of any consequence in Pakistan will eventually depend on whose side it takes overtly or covertly when the hour of reckoning arrives.

(August 15-21, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 26 – Editorial)

Farewell to arms

The Army and America have abandoned President Pervez Musharraf in the face of popular pressure. Although a fighting man, Mr Musharraf is expected to quit any day rather than face impeachment.

The writing on the wall after the PMLQ was routed in the February elections should have been clear to him. Both Mr Asif Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif hate him for political and personal reasons. The rank and file of the PPP, which has been historically anti-army and anti-America, fervently believes he was complicit in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Mr Sharif’s rising popularity on the basis of his anti-Musharraf and anti-America stance was also making Mr Zardari nervous. Certainly, Mr Musharraf didn’t help matters when he tried to oppose Mr Zardari’s selection of Mr Yousaf Raza Gillani as prime minister instead of Mr Amin Fahim whose links to the brass have always made him suspect in the eyes of the PPP. Indeed, Mr Zardari got really worried when Mr Musharraf started to criticize the new government’s “dysfunctonality” in the face of an “impending economic meltdown”. This fed into rumors that perhaps Mr Musharraf was setting the stage to oust the government in a couple of months.

The proverbial straw that broke Mr Zardari’s back relates to a significant incident on July 26. On the eve of Prime Minister Gillani’s state visit to Washington, the government decreed that the ISI, that had been responsible for the fall of two PPP governments in the past and is led by a hand-picked Musharraf loyalist, Lt Gen Nadeem Taj, would henceforth be answerable to the home ministry instead of to the army chief or president. Since Washington’s provocative public accusations of ISI complicity in the Taliban attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last month and lack of cooperation with NATO-ISAF forces in the war on terror in the tribal areas of Pakistan were still echoing in military headquarters, President Musharraf hit back swiftly. The government was accused of trying to “politicise the ISI and undermine national security” at America’s prodding, forcing it to backtrack clumsily and lose face. To reclaim both credibility and popularity, and possibly to stave off an impending sacking at President Musharraf’s hands, Mr Zardari decided to join hands with Mr Sharif and knock out President Musharraf.

Washington, which had not so long ago advocated “a working relationship” between Mr Zardari and President Musharraf and later shifted its stance to a “dignified exit” for President Musharraf, now says that the proposed impeachment is “an internal matter” for Pakistan. In other words, “go Musharraf go” because he is no longer “useful” and a working relationship with the new civilian order is a better bet.

The army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has wisely remained out of the fray. The army is hugely unpopular at home for fighting “America’s war on terror”. It is dispirited because it is being criticized by its American ally not just for not doing enough but for complicity in harboring and protecting the Afghan Taliban. It is demoralized because it has lost over 2000 men combating the terrorists in FATA without sufficient training or motivation for such an internal security situation. It remains the prime target of suicide bombers in the urban areas of the country, so much so that its officers no longer go about town in uniform. General Kayani successfully salvaged some public respect by refusing to play politics and tilt the election results in favor of President Musharraf’s PMLQ. Therefore, while the officers abhor the “corrupt and bungling civilians”, the grudging view is that any overt or covert military backing for President Musharraf would be hugely unpopular and any formal intervention untenable in the difficult economic and political environment facing the country. Indeed, that was the main reason why, within a week of the new government assuming office, General Kayani rushed to brief the new leadership about the internal and external security situation facing the country and insisted on handing over “ownership” of the unpopular war on terror to the civilians.

The political paralysis in the country will come to an end after President Musharraf’s exit. But instability will remain. Mr Sharif is playing to the gallery and pressing Mr Zardari to punish Mr Musharraf for treason. But Mr Zardari is heeding advice from the Army and America to facilitate a safe exit for him. Mr Sharif wants the judges restored with full powers. But Mr Zardari fears they would hold every Musharraf action to date as illegal, including the amnesty from corruption charges granted to Mr Zardari. Finally, if the PMLQ flocks to Mr Sharif after President Musharraf’s exit, the stage could be set for a new political struggle, starting with the issue of who should be the next president.

Pakistan’s neighbours India and Afghanistan, and its strategic ally America, cannot be sanguine about continuing political instability in Pakistan. Their core interests also require Pakistan’s civilian leadership to lean on the Pakistan army to rein in and retool the ISI, support the war on terror in Afghanistan, and refrain from refueling Islamist jihad in India-administered Kashmir. But with the army sulking politically and licking its wounds militarily, it is a moot question whether the Zardari government will be able to deliver on these fronts.

(August 21-27, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 27 – Editorial)

Musharraf’s legacy and Pakistan’s future

Notwithstanding stout denials of resignation and thundering demands for impeachment, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf’s departure last Monday was scripted to the bitter end in order to get him safe passage, protect his policies and erstwhile army, political and judicial colleagues and provide the PPP government with a swift transition to the next stage. Two obvious questions arise. What is General (retd) Musharraf’s legacy? How will Pakistan fare under the civilian dispensation?

We are too emotionally charged right now to objectively award General (retd) Mushharaf a good or bad place in history. Eventually, a fair assessment will flow partly from what he did or didn’t do and partly from what the civilians do or don’t do in the months ahead. But if Pakistan gets more dysfunctional, people will hark back to the days under him with more than a wishful sigh.

Of course, some non-controversial plusses and negatives can be chalked up to him even now. There was remarkable economic growth for at least five years. But the growth strategy was seriously challenged in the end by hyperinflation and energy and food shortages. There was an explosion of the consumptive middle class. But the very poor are probably worse off now than ever. Women and the minorities certainly benefited from positive political discrimination for a change and the social and cultural environment was less suffocating than before. But much more could have been done. The media was unshackled from the bureaucracy and enabled to soar. But the honeymoon ended when he lashed out at it following a series of political blunders in the last year or so of his term. When he left, the country was so bitterly and violently divided along sectarian, ethnic, tribal and regional fault-lines that many Pakistanis are fearful whether it will survive at all as a nation-state.

The Musharraf era can be divided into three distinct periods. The first from 1999-2002 was marked by misplaced political engineering – a rigged local body system to prop him up, bull-headed and sham-populist accountability leading to capital and managerial flight from the country, consolidation of Military-Mullah Alliance to exclude mainstream political parties and fuel jihads in India and Afghanistan, economic bankruptcy exemplified by a begging-bowl approach to the IMF and World Bank, and international isolation highlighted by US President Bill Clinton’s five hour grudging and hectoring detour to Islamabad in 2000 when he refused to shake hands in public with General Musharraf after frolicking for five glorious days in new-found strategic ally India.

The second period dates roughly from 9/11, 2001, to March 2007. This was marked by a slow but definite about-turn on major strategic issues. The Military-Mullah Alliance was broken after the abandonment of the Taliban in Kabul, followed by a closing of the jihadi tap against India and a halt to nuclear proliferation; the economy was flushed with foreign aid and debt write-offs and rescheduling, businessmen became kosher again and there was visibly better financial management; pro-women political reforms and pro-middle-class economic initiatives were taken; and In the Line of Fire, his international best-selling memoir, catapultedMusharraf to the frontline of world leaders. Even better, his popularity at home touched 70% in opinion polls.

The third period dates from March, 2007, to his exit in August, 2008. This period was characterized by a series of remarkable blunders that can only belaid at the door ofhubris and the arrogance of power. These include the brutal sacking of the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, followed by a stubborn refusal to concede to popular opinion and reinstate him. The killings fields of May 12 in Karachi became a millstone around his neck. After that, it was downhill all the way. The mishandling of the Lal Masjid affair led to a terrible indictment. The mini-coup of November 3, 2007, the sacking of the troublesome judges and his presidential election all came to haunt Musharrafin the end. Finally, Benazir Bhutto’s tragic assassination last December eroded his shelf life dramatically because she had accused him of complicity in advance. And the rest, as they say, is history.

To be sure, the civilian regime can still salvage the economy, enlarge pro-women and minority reforms and start the process of alleviating poverty seriously if it can stabilize itself. But a holistic approach to consolidating the economy and defending civil society requires the new political leadership to retain focus on two critical elements of General Musharraf’s attempted strategic paradigm shift: the peace process with India exemplified by his out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir; and the dismantling of the Military-Mullah Alliance, whose blowback included two assassination attempts on him, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, the death of Benazir Bhutto, and the visible glee at his ouster of Al Qaeda and the sectarian outfits. Without establishing the framework for enduring peace with India and reclaiming the writ of the state from local and foreign terrorists, the new political leadership in Pakistan will fail to build a newcountry in which the military is subservient to the democratic impulse.

Everything depends on Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari. If, as seems probable, there is a bitter power-struggle soon, the net loser will be Pakistan.

(August 29-September 4, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 28 – Editorial)

Irrevocable parting of ways?

Political leaders are always synonymous with political parties in Pakistan but their political interests are rarely synonymous with the national interest. It is also a matter of fact that while politicians constantly preach “principles” they are often inclined to practice the opposite. Vested media interests also tend to muddy the waters and confuse people. Consider the trajectory of events in the last six months.

A common misperception is that the PMLN and the lawyers’ movement stand on “principles” and the “national interest” but the PPP and its other coalition partners are “self-serving” and “opportunistic”. The peg on which this argument is based and which links these two “principled” actors together is the “unequivocal restoration of the judges” for the cause of an “independent judiciary”. While no one can belittle the paramount need of an independent judiciary, nor indeed quibble with the pristine cause of the lawyers at the outset of their movement in March last year, it is no longer even a moot point that the movement and most of the deposed judges have become unacceptably politically biased and controversial. Their splits are out in the open. Eight “deposed” judges of the Sindh High Court have agreed to be rejoin the court on the basis of a new oath and others in Lahore and elsewhere are likely to follow suit.

The “principled” role of the PMLN also merits comment. This is the same PMLN that instigated a coup in the Supreme Court in 1998 backed by its storm troopers; this is the same PMLN which first nominated one of the coup-making judges, Justice Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui, as the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and has now made him its presidential candidate. Indeed, this is the same PMLN whose spokesmen, Khawaja Asif, recently admitted on TV that a better way to get rid of President Musharraf would have been via a [politicized] judiciary rather than by parliamentary impeachment!

The PMLN’s demand for the restoration of the judges, especially Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, by an executive order springs from its core political interests rather than from any principled desire to uphold an independent judiciary. True, such a step would have delegitimised President Musharraf. But it would have also knocked out the February 18 general elections and presidential indemnity to Mr Zardari that facilitated the PPP’s rise to power. The restored judges would have gone on to gridlock the system and plunge Mr Zardari’s government into a destabilizing confrontation with the armed forces that are seeking indemnity for their former chief, as well as derailed the war on terror and alienated a key strategic partner in the national interest.

Significantly, Mr Sharif has consistently spurned the idea of a constitutional amendment to resolve all outstanding issues in a politically feasible and neutral manner. After the elections Mr Zardari suggested such a route to restore the non-controversial judges, strip General (retd) Musharraf of his extraordinary presidential powers, and indemnify the military leadership in the interests of a stable transition to democracy. But Mr Sharif insisted on it even after General Musharraf’s exit under threat of impeachment, clearly implying interest in destabilizing the PPP regime via the judges.

Mr Sharif has now self-righteously “quit” the coalition after accusing Mr Zardari of reneging on a signed agreement to restore the judges. This has rightly prompted Qazi Hussain Ahmad to bitterly remind Mr Sharif of his many broken commitments to the APDM. Indeed, Mr Sharif’s intransigence has emboldened Mr Zardari to reach for the powerful presidency himself in view of his party’s bitter experience at the hands of President Farooq Leghari in 1996. Nor is the concentration of all power in Mr Zardari’s hands likely to be any more problematic than it was in the hands of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister from 1997-99 and General (retd) Musharraf from 1999 to 2008, or when it was divided between the prime minister and the president (from 1988-1997). Having condoned the misgovernance of all prime ministers and presidents to date, one might as well give the “devil” his due now and judge him after the event rather than before it.

Mr Sharif is still ruling with the help of the PPP in the Punjab. Therefore, unless he dissolves the provincial assembly and risks fresh elections under a federally nominated caretaker government, all this talk of an irrevocable parting of ways is premature. Alternatively, he can do a spot of horse-trading with the PMLQ’s dissenting “forward block” and ditch the PPP in the assembly. But that could risk a pre-emptive sacking by the PPP Governor or horse-trading by the PPP in return, both unsavoury prospects. Neither option should be seriously considered.

Mr Zardari has offered to support Mr Sharif’s Punjab government and let him “oppose” the PPP government in Islamabad for the sake of form. This is a fair offer and the right way to move forward in the national interest. The country cannot afford another bout of instability at the hands of these two big parties so soon after it has closed the chapter on General (retd) Musharraf. Mr Zardari has outplayed Mr Sharif for the time being only because Mr Sharif hasn’t played his cards well.

(September 5-11, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 29 – Editorial)

No consensus on war against terrorism

Three recent developments are noteworthy in the war against extremism and terrorism in the NWFP and FATA.

First, the Pakistan army has finally taken the battle to Bajaur in South Waziristan where terrorists of all shade are said to be holed out. Over 500 Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorists are reported to have been killed in recent days while others are said to have left the area. A ceasefire announced by the terrorists has been rejected by the military authorities who are encouraging thousands of refugees who fled the fighting earlier to return to their homes now.

Second, Mr Rehman Malik, the advisor to the interior ministry, who is the chief anti-terrorism coordinator between the army and the civilian governments in Islamabad and Peshawar, has articulated a new way of looking at the issue. He says that that the old policy distinction made by the Musharraf regime between the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistan Taliban, and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters, is largely misplaced. His argument is that there is an unholy nexus between all three elements and both strategic and tactical policy against them should reflect an understanding of this network. He explained that “Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is an extension of Al Qaeda” and argued that Al Qaeda couldn’t move in the tribal areas without the facilitation of the TTP, and that “the TTP is a host to Al Qaeda and is its mouthpiece”.

Third, there are reports of increasing American aerial attacks in FATA against suspected terrorist hideouts without the prior approval of, or coordination with, the Pakistan army as in the past. The Governor of the NWFP, Mr Owais Ghani, claims twenty people, mostly non-combatants, died in the latest NATO attack at Angur Adda in South Waziristan. Mr Ghani has accused NATO of violating Pakistani sovereignty and demanded that the Pakistan army “give a befitting reply in defense of the homeland”.

On the face of it, there seems to be a contradiction in these developments.

If Mr Malik is right about the Three-in-One network, then he seems to be flying against the grain of the policy pursued by the Pakistan army so far. Indeed, army spokesmen have been at pains to point to the different politico-military approaches that need to be taken to tackle each of the three elements – military action against foreign Al-Qaeda terrorists, containment of the Afghan Taliban because they may prove to serve as Pakistani pawns in a greater long term game in the region, and peace overtures towards the Tehreek i Taliban Pakistan. But Mr Malik’s formulation also rubbishes the common perception and media assertion that “we are fighting our own people in America’s war” and proves those of us right who have long insisted that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the attempts on the life of Pervez Musharraf and the spate of suicide attacks on the Pakistani military and police in the settled areas and cities are all the handiwork of Al-Qaeda inspired and managed terrorists.

The Pakistani army’s recent attack on terrorist hideouts in Bajaur is also significant. It preceded a meeting between the Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, Admiral Mike Mullen, on an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. Although Admiral Mullen has praised General Kayani, cynics point out similarities between the Bajaur operation and others in the past on the eve of summit meetings between the top brass of both sides on foreign soil. Indeed, General Musharraf used to make it convenient to launch counter-terrorism attacks in FATA just before embarking on a trip to Washington. The even more curious thing about the Bajaur operation is that it was mostly an air operation with no follow-up by Pakistani troops in hot pursuit of the fleeing terrorists, many of whom managed to escape. One is also intrigued by a TTP statement that there was “25% greater resolve and purpose” in the Pakistani attack this time round, as though the enemy is giving a certificate of war-worthiness to the Pakistan army.

Finally, the latest NATO attack in Waziristan has provoked an unprecedented response from Governor Ghani. It is as if he is going out of his way to pinpoint the “civilian casualties” from the NATO helicopter attack instead of trying to cover NATO tracks by focusing on terrorist casualties, which is quite the opposite of his position in the Bajaur operation by the Pakistan army.

There are other disquieting reports about what is going on in the tribal areas. The Pakistani intelligence agencies say that the Pakistani Taliban comprise criminal elements which are funded by the Indians and Russians to create anarchy in the region and undermine the Pakistani state. Whether this is meant to motivate our demoralized paramilitary forces into a spirited response against traditional enemies or a disinformation campaign aimed at de-linking these elements from the larger Al-Qaeda inspired and managed network named by Mr Rehman Malik, is not clear.

The three key players – America, the Pakistan Army and the democratically elected civilian coalition – are still not on the same page. This doesn’t augur well for the transition to a stable and functional democracy in Pakistan.

(September 12-18, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 30 – Editorial)

Reinventing Asif Zardari

Grant the devil his due. Mr Asif Zardari has brought the PPP from the brink of despair to the summit of hope. He didn’t even start with a simple majority in the National Assembly. Yet he has carefully stitched working coalition governments in at least three provinces and also in Islamabad. The PPP was estranged from the MQM, ANP and Baloch nationalists. Now it is breaking bread with them and the Balochistan Liberation Army has called a ceasefire. General Pervez Musharraf used to say that the army would never reconcile with the PPP under a Bhutto or Zardari. Yet Mr Zardari has ousted him from office without a tremor in their ranks. He has neutralized the highly politicized and destabilizing lawyers’ movement by reinstating most of the judges. He is talking about repairing relations with India and finding bi-partisan solutions to Kashmir. He wants to get to grips with the war against extremism and has broken the ice with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He has managed to persuade Saudi Arabia to provide a significant oil facility. Now he is on his way to China to win new concessions for Pakistan. After that, he will visit New York to attend the UN General Assembly, powwow with American leaders, talk to India’s Dr Manmohan Singh, and try to extract economic benefits and political openings for Pakistan. In any reckoning, that’s a fairly good start.

But there’s still no end to the cribbing. Having obsessed about General Musharraf’s non-democratic credentials, the foreign media is now obsessing about Mr 10%’s corruption ten years down the line, never mind that the former was wonderfully kosher until he was no longer useful for America and the latter has already paid with eight years of his life in prison for his alleged sins and been elevated to the Presidency fairly and squarely by 70 per cent of the electoral college. A section of the domestic media is equally churlish. Why didn’t Mr Zardari lay out his grand vision in a solo press conference after the oath taking? Because, if he had started to articulate policy as president, the same media would have turned around and accused him of acting like a chief executive and undermining the prime minister and the prime ministerial system. Why didn’t he say when Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry would be restored? Why didn’t he proclaim when the 17th amendment would be undone? Because he has said it all a hundred times before. Why did he have a joint press conference when the moment should have belonged exclusively to him? Because he chose to exploit the occasion by focusing on Pak-Afghan relations, which have a critical bearing on Pak-US relations, which in turn have a critical bearing on the war against terrorism and religious extremism, which in turn has a critical bearing on the health of the economy, which in turn has a critical bearing on the well being of the people who elected the PPP to power.

The economy is facing meltdown and the populace is simmering with rage at its rapid impoverishment. US financial assistance is the key to recovery. Since 9/11, Washington has deferred over US$12 billion in Pakistani debt and also dished out over US $12 billion in aid. Now the US Congress is debating whether to give Pakistan another US$1.5 billion a year for ten years for economic and social development. So it is important to keep relations with America on an even keel on the subject of the war on terror. Therefore it was a wise move to invite Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, to Islamabad and try to win his confidence for a fresh start.

But Mr Zardari faces a formidable challenge in waging the war against religious extremism. He needs the support of the people of Pakistan. But that is proving difficult because most Pakistanis think this is not their war and that no more should be done on America’s behalf. The Pakistan army’s position is equally problematic. Its strategic doctrine is focused on “containing” its Afghan Taliban assets for countering Indian influence in Afghanistan in the future rather than on lumping Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban together and fighting them indiscriminately as the Americans would like. Much the same sort of problem relates to the mindset of the anti-American media. Anti-Americanism justifiably exists all over the world because of arrogant American unilateralism. But in Pakistan it has become a passion that is eroding the state’s cold-blooded self-interest.

Differences over how to deal with India are also likely to crop up. Mr Zardari wants to normalize relations and start trading with the old enemy. But the military brass is still reluctant to let go of its old jihadi “assets” which were used to stir up trouble in Kashmir in the 1990s. If the current indigenously inspired unrest in Kashmir should become an excuse to bring these old players back into action, the pitch for Mr Zardari would be irrevocably queered.

Mr Asif Zardari is the most powerful civilian president in Pakistani history. He can hire and fire everyone from army chief to prime minister. He has won the first few battles but how he fares in the war for the soul of Pakistan is anybody’s guess.

(September 19-25, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 31 – Editorial)

Won or lost in GHQ

For the first time since 9/11, American troops put “boots on ground” in Angoor Adda in South Waziristan on September 3, 2008, provoking a stern response from the army and outrage from the media and public. But this American raid was not unexpected. Senior American officials had earlier warned it was coming, in view of the intensity of cross border Al-Qaeda/Taliban attacks on American forces in Afghanistan from “safe havens” in Waziristan and increasing loss of American lives. In fact, the Americans had accused the ISI of not only being an “unreliable intelligence partner” but also of planning the Taliban attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul on July 7. The message was emphasised that the Pakistan army was not doing enough against Al-Qaeda/Taliban.

Senior Pakistani military officials knew as much two months ago. A Daily Times front page report on June 2 headlined “Pentagon planning ‘boots on ground’ in Waziristan” explained that “the mood in Washington is increasingly warlike and grim as the beleaguered Bush administration enters its final days.” Apparently President Bush also conveyed this message to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on July 28 in Washington.

Given the explosive consequences of this superpower intervention, Pakistan’s civil-military policy makers in Islamabad must explain why the American threat was not deflected by a suitable combination of political diplomacy and military policy in FATA, especially following a “constructive and focused” meeting between the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and the Pakistani COAS, General Ashfaq Kayani, aboard USS Abraham Lincoln on August 28, barely a week before the Angoor Adda incident. Unfortunately, the Pakistani civil-military authorities are now huffing and puffing to salvage wounded pride and self-respect instead of coming to grips with the problem. What is the issue?

It is the presence in Pakistan’s tribal areas of Al-Qaeda foreigners and Afghan Taliban who have dedicated their lives to waging jihad against America and its allies, including Pakistan, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the shores of America. Together, these two forces have spawned the Pakistani Taliban and facilitated group linkages with the various jihadi and sectarian organizations of Pakistan who also share the same anti-America anti-Pakistan worldview. There is only solution: crush it.

But this hasn’t happened for various reasons. One difficulty is the political, religious and physical “integration” of this terrorist network among the tribesmen of FATA which leads to unacceptably high levels of “collateral damage” during military attacks, which further alienates the tribesmen and compels them to shore up the network. Another difficulty flows from the erroneous policy of taking direct military action against some elements of the terrorist network alternating with direct but dysfunctional “peace deals” between the military authorities and other elements of the “network”. This knocked out the traditional political order of the tribal area revolving around the tribal jirga and political agent without replacing it with any alternative source of permanent functioning state power. The “network” has usurped this vacuum. Third, a “stop-go” military strategy based on two highly questionable strategic considerations: first, that the Americans will not stay and nation-build in Afghanistan, so Pakistan should only commit itself to a holding operation; second, that Pakistan’s traditional proxies in the Afghan Taliban must be helped to survive and fight so that they can be projected later to ring side seats in any future dispensation in Kabul. This has led to the tactical policy view that the Afghan Taliban (assets) must be separated from Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban (liabilities), which is counter-productive because it denies any autonomous belief and practice to the “network” and its various elements.

These errors have been compounded by the handing over of the formal “ownership” and responsibility of the war on terror by the Pakistani military to the civilian government without relinquishing the military’s effective control over national security policy. For instance, the military still sees India in the context of historical confrontation doctrines, while the mainstream civilian PPP and PMLN are talking of an irrevocable peace process based on common cultures, increased trade and interlinking economic dependencies between the two neighbours. In fact, it is the military’s strategic obsession with India as the “enemy” that is partly responsible for its Afghanistan policy.

It is, however, the paradigm shift in America’s approach to the Pakistan army that is likely to have the greatest impact on domestic and regional politics. Until now, every American administration in the last sixty years has regarded the Pakistan army as part of America’s solution rather than part of its problem. But that may be changing. Washington is currently targeting the ISI, the right arm of the army, and is leaning on the civilian government to “reform” this agency, which is another way of delinking the agency from the military and bringing the military under effective civilian control and authority.

Will Pakistan’s military leadership make a paradigm shift in strategic thinking in conformity with the demands of a new era? Or will it clutch at anti-American populism to undermine the civilian order, retain its primacy and bide its time for another intervention? The war against terrorism and religious extremism – in other words, the battle for Pakistan – will be won or lost in GHQ.

(September 26-Oct 2, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 32 – Editorial)

9/20 vs 9/11

The devastating suicide attack on the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad last week is a stark reminder that the Islamist terrorists are not just operating in FATA but are present in the very heart of Pakistan. It is of a kind with the earlier suicide attacks on the Danish embassy in Islamabad and the Navy War College and FIA centre in Lahore. Indeed, the tactic of ramming an explosives-laden truck or van into a target, and detonating oneself, as in these three cases, was used in an assassination attempt on General Pervez Musharraf’s motorcade in Rawalpindi near Army House in 2003, and a parked van or car packed with explosives was involved in the attack on Benazir Bhutto in Karachi on October 18, 2007.

Clearly all these urban terrorists come from the same crop. They are mostly Punjabis from impoverished and sect-inflamed Southern Punjab and once belonged to state-trained and sponsored jihadi organizations which became rogue elements when General Musharraf put a lid on the jihad in Kashmir, thereby angering, alienating and pushing them into the lap of Al-Qaeda foreigners and Afghan Taliban in safe havens in FATA. The terrorist network now stretches from Bajaur in the north to Karachi in the south. It comprises at least 17 known foreign nationalities and includes Punjabis and Pathans from Pakistan and Afghans from across our western border.

After the Taliban seized Kabul in 1997 with Pakistani help, all these elements set up common training camps in Afghanistan. But after the American military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, they escaped across the Tora Bora mountains and re-established base areas in Waziristan. The Lal Masjid in Islamabad became the single most important symbol and transit facility of this Network. It was a powerful expression of their audacity, power and single-minded goal of eventually seizing the nuclear state of Pakistan. Indeed, the roots of their activity can be traced to an attempted military coup in 1995 when a group of Islamist officers, backed by civilian ideologues and handlers with links to jihadi groups, plotted to seize GHQ but was nabbed in the nick of time by Military Intelligence. We now know that over 100 Islamists who were captured from the Lal Masjid but then released by the Musharraf regime last year because of media pressure have since gone underground in Islamabad or Punjab or FATA and have been plotting to avenge the state’s attack on Lal Masjid. The suicide attacks on an army mess, on the Wah Ordinance factory compound and on the Islamabad police on the occasion of the “anniversary” of the Lal Masjid affair in July are proof enough of this.

The Marriot attack is comparable in two ways to the Al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 9/11. One, it has the same symbolic value – the terrorists’ ability to strike in the heart of the civil-military establishment and inspire wannabe terrorists across the world. Two, the target is to be repeatedly attacked until it is destroyed, evidence of planning, audacity and determination. But one critical point of the analogy may be even more significant: if 9/11 stiffened America’s resolve to go after the terrorists (even if it has made a hash of it) will the same spirit but with better results be demonstrated by Pakistan’s civil-military establishment? For that to happen, however, the government, military, media and opposition in Pakistan have to be on the same page.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case today. The military spawned the original problem of Political Islamism in quest of certain domestic and foreign policy agendas in the region from 1979 to 2003. Yet four months ago, it blithely handed over “ownership” of the war against its terrorist manifestation at home to the Zardari government, committing itself only to “containing it” rather than eliminating it. Worse, the political opposition led by the PML-Nawaz refuses to acknowledge the war against terrorism in order to curry anti-American populism, much less support the Zardari government on the issue. Worst of all, leading sections of the media are still asking whether this is America’s war or Pakistan’s war – despite the fact that it was Al-Qaeda/Taliban that attacked America and pulled it into Afghanistan – and thundering about a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty by American troops – despite the fact of a longer and more sustained violation of the same sovereignty by Al-Qaeda foreigners and Afghan Taliban who have “captured” Waziristan and knocked out the writ of the Pakistani state in FATA.

The terrorists will most definitely strike in the urban areas of Pakistan with greater ferocity and regularity in the coming months. Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar are core targets. This is because they know that the economy is facing meltdown, the people are restless and alienated from the government, the civil-military establishment is divided over national security goals, and sections of the media are readily putting their anti-American passion above their pro-Pakistan rationality. They will hope to sow greater confusion and anarchy so that the Pakistani state is further weakened and conditions are created for an Islamist-nationalist takeover through a mixture of popular revolt and military coup d’etat, inviting more direct foreign intervention.

United we can salvage Pakistan’s destiny. Divided we will only succeed in plunging it into the fate of a failed state.

(October 3-9, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 33 – Editorial)

Some home truths

Notwithstanding the “gorgeous” Palin gaffe, by all accounts President Asif Zardari had a good trip to the US. He met anyone who’s anyone and generated a great deal of goodwill for Pakistan. How this translates into practice remains to be seen.

The American media realizes the difficult job ahead for Mr Zardari in balancing the rampant anti-Americanism of the Pakistani media and people, and the reluctance of the Pakistan army to own the “war against terror”, with the demands of America to “do more”. That is why it was not overly harsh about his past and present shortcomings. But one American journalist was particularly impressed with him. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, Mr Roger Cohen “saluted” Mr Zardari “without reserve” for being “smart, street-smart, secular, pro-America, committed to democracy and brave”, for wanting “genuine reconciliation with India and Afghanistan, essential to the region’s stability”. Mr Cohen’s conclusion is significant because it throws up the central contradiction of the situation in which most people find themselves when they try to assess Mr Zardari: “I care much less right now about his chequered past than about getting behind him for civilisation’s sake”.

Of course, one does not have to gush so desperately about Mr Zardari’s qualities of head and heart to stress the obvious need for Pakistan to get its act in order and fast. But it is one thing to be street smart and brave and grin one’s way out of passing difficulties with alliance partners at home and quite another to have the intellectual vision to think ahead and persuade powerful others to come aboard against their normal political instincts. Consider.

Mr Zardari made all the right sounding noises in the UN and in his meetings with President Bush. “I will fight the Taliban because they are a cancer to my society”, he insisted, “I will suck the oxygen out of their system so that there will be no Talibs”, he thundered. But he also warned the US against military incursions inside Pakistan. The burden of his message was that the war against terrorism was not just America’s war but also Pakistan’s war, but Pakistan would not fight it alone or be pressurized to make policy against its own interests. “We must all fight this epic battle together as allies and partners. But just as we will not allow Pakistan’s territory to be used by terrorists for attacks against our people and our neighbours, we cannot allow our territory and our sovereignty to be violated by our friends”. Significantly, subsequent statements from senior American officials, including Chairman JCOSC, Admiral Mike Mullen, and US Secretary of State, Condi Rice, suggest a better understanding of the Pakistani sensitivities involved in hot pursuit operations by US forces inside Pakistan.

Mr Zardari’s meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, on the sidelines of the UN was important, just as his reference to India in his UN speech. “We will continue the composite dialogue with India so that our outstanding disputes are resolved. Whether it is the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir, or cooperation on water resources, India and Pakistan must accommodate each other’s concerns and interests; we must respect and work with each other to peacefully resolve our problems and build South Asia into a common market of trade and technology”. Considering that powerful interests in the Pakistani establishment are still opposed to any normalization of relations with India, especially enhanced trade ties, and that the peace process was frozen during the time of General Pervez Musharraf’s troubles last year and threatened with derailment following the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul some months ago, this is a hugely reassuring statement. The body language of both leaders during their meeting showed that the trust deficit inherited by Mr Zardari had been considerably reduced.

Similarly, Mr Zardari’s economic initiative based on “Friends of Pakistan” promises much money in aid and investment. But we shall have to wait and see whether these “friends” will put their money where their mouth is. Saudi participation was conspicuous by its absence. We also recall how many such “friends of Pakistan” committed billions of dollars in foreign investment in MOUs during the second Benazir Bhutto term but only a fraction actually materialized in the end.

The buck will stop at Mr Zardari at home. If he doesn’t put his house in order, all the foreign commitments will disappear. So he needs to line up the army, opposition and media behind him if he is wants to succeed. Unfortunately, however, he seems to be lacking on all three fronts with all three protagonists being picky and choosy. If he spends too much time trying to woo them round to his line of thinking, the international goodwill will be replaced by desperate aggression again. If he is hasty and tries to force his way with them, he is bound to be gridlocked and derailed. So if he is really smart and not just street smart he should get the best professional advice on every aspect of government and let them show him the way. The twin pitfalls of cronyism and over-confidence must be avoided at all cost.

(October 10-16, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 34 – Editorial)

Steps in the right direction in Afghanistan

A string of significant statements from key political and military policy makers in Afghanistan, followed by secret talks between representatives of the Afghan Taliban and Mujahideen with the Saudi authorities in Mecca, presages an important change in the region after seven years of policy status quo. A top British general in Afghanistan, Brig-Gen Mark Carleton-Smith, and Britain’s ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, say “the mission is doomed”, that the war in Afghanistan against the Al-Qaeda-Taliban cannot be won purely by military means. This was followed by the top American military man overseeing Afghanistan, Admiral David Petraeus, who admitted that the war against terrorism in the region was “not going well”. To clinch the argument for opening a political front, Robert Gates, US defense secretary, Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, and the UN special representative to Afghanistan, Mr Kai Elde, have lent their support for the move because: “The war can only be won through political means including dialogue between all relevant parties”.

Obviously the national security establishment of Pakistan has helped cobble the Taliban-Mujahideen delegation and sent it to Mecca. The selection of Mecca as the secret venue of talks is equally obvious. Saudi Arabia was among the three countries, including Pakistan, that recognized the Taliban regime of Mullah Umar in 1997 and has good relations with all the interlocutors, having also hosted at least two earlier “peace accords” in the 1990s between the warring factions of the Afghan Mujahideen. Mecca also has great symbolic value: it is the house of Allah where trust and goodwill among Muslims is at a premium.

This political initiative is paralleled by another change of course in British and American think tanks. Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda “experts” who have long thundered against Pakistan for not “doing more” militarily in the war against the Taliban and accused the ISI of “double-dealing”, but been dismally short of critiquing the US, NATO and the administration of President Hamid Karzai for their strategic and tactical errors, opportunisms and corruptions, are now flogging a “regional” approach under a new American administration. This is another, though belated, way of admitting that Pakistan should also have a say in what happens in Afghanistan in the future. Until now, India’s economic, political and military role in Afghanistan since 9/11 in support of the Northern Alliance faction in Kabul to the detriment of Pakistan’s strategic Pakhtun interests was barely recognized. It is also a recognition that Iran must be brought into the loop, not just because of its Shia interests in western and central Afghanistan but also because of its fears that the US could use Afghanistan to stir up trouble in Iran in the event of a conflict with it over its nuclear weapons program. A “regional” approach would presumably rely on the military clout of NATO-ISAF and Pakistan to hold the fort against Al-Qaeda and unrepentant elements of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban while representatives of the Karzai administration, moderate Taliban, Mujahideen, Northern Alliance, India, Pakistan, and Iran, hammer away at a power-sharing formula for a federal or even con-federal Afghanistan that would progressively be shorn of all foreign troops and left to mend itself in its own traditional ways.

Of course, there is a long way to go before a power-sharing accord becomes a reality. Two simultaneously bold moves will have to be made to ensure its success. One, Pakistan and India will have to make a paradigm shift in their traditional strategic view and distrust of the other. In this context, Pakistan will have to apply the principles of the status quo vis a vis national boundaries equitably. If it wants Kabul to accept the Durand line in its West, it will have to accept the LoC as the boundary with India in the East. Each will therefore have to stop stirring up trouble in the other’s backyard. Indeed, a paradigm shift will necessitate economic dependencies on the basis of regional trade corridors and pipelines of the future so that mutual trust is consolidated in formal contractual terms and international guarantees as in the historic Indus Waters Accord.

The other critical move will have to be to split the unholy nexus between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This is where the problem originally began when Mullah Umar refused to abandon Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and provoked an American attack on his regime. So politics will have to come full circle after the seven year stalemate. By successfully driving a wedge between the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters, the allies can focus on isolating and crushing the foreigners, in turn facilitating the neutralization of the Pakistani Taliban (and sectarian jihadis who have joined them) by a combination of military and political moves.

The good news is that the government of President Asif Zardari, which has facilitated the Taliban talks in Saudi Arabia, is also determined to normalize relations with India because “it is not a threat to Pakistan”. It wants to open up trade and de-link the peace process from an immediate solution of the Kashmir issue.

Of course, all this is a tall order. Reversing acrimonious history is not easy. But these are finally steps in the right direction and should be supported by all.

(October 17-23, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 35 – Editorial)

Pakistan’s make or break challenge

The war against terror is stuck in no-man’s land. US-Pakistan relations are floundering in a sea of distrust. The Al-Qaeda/Taliban network has become more audacious and bloody in mounting a fresh wave of suicide attacks across the country. And the politicians and media are bitterly divided about the legitimacy and necessity of this war for the survival of Pakistan as a nation-state. Where do we go from here?

Last March the Pakistan army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, briefed members of the coalition government and the opposition PMLN on the “war on terror” and formally handed over its “ownership” to them in order to give it political legitimacy. Unfortunately, however, some PPP coalition partners like the ANP and JUI, and the opposition PMLN, did not see eye to eye with the PPP. They were inclined to take the populist route of appeasement through dubious and unsustainable “peace deals” after withdrawing the army from the tribal areas.

However, while the domestic stakeholders were still squabbling over what to do and how to do it, the United States and the Al-Qaeda/Taliban network were already embarked upon their own respective strategies. Frustrated with lack of decision-making in Islamabad and confronted by a wave of increasingly ferocious terrorist attacks on NATO-ISAF forces in Afghanistan, the US ratcheted up missile strikes from drones against suspected terrorist safe havens and hideouts deep into Pakistan’s tribal areas. The terrorist network responded by propagating this American intervention as an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty. It also fed stories to the gullible media of rising civilian casualties from the missile strikes, provoking a popular backlash against America and the coalition government for siding with it. The terrorist network followed up its political strategy by launching suicides attacks on critical organs and individuals of the Pakistani state and society in the settled and urban areas of the country with a view to undermining their resolve, terrorizing the media and sowing confusion in the minds of the people that this was America’s war and not Pakistan’s war.

In order to cobble a united front against the terrorist network, the PPP government has organized an in-camera briefing on the problem by the DG-ISI, General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, to members of parliament. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence of terrorism that he has presented and the rising danger to the state of Pakistan from loss of territory and sovereignty that he has highlighted, we are still short of a consensus. Indeed, the preposterous demand by Maulana Fazal ul Rehman of the JUI that representatives of the terrorists should be entitled and invited to counter-brief parliament, and that of the PMLN that the “extremists” should be included in the political process, is indicative of how far down the road we have come in losing trust and faith in our state and its organs. In essence, both Maulana Fazal and Mr Nawaz Sharif are putting the terrorists at par with the Pakistan army.

The matter has now acquired another dangerous dimension. The MQM chief, Altaf Hussian, has warned that over 400,000 “Taliban terrorists” are holed out in Karachi. Reports say the MQM has stacked up stores and weapons for a three month “ethnic cleansing” in the city at an appropriate time. But the alleged hundreds of thousands of terrorists are all ethnic Pakhtuns. Therefore the warning is ominous for two reasons. One, all American and NATO supplies from Karachi port to Peshawar and Quetta and Afghanistan would be disrupted in the event of any civil strife. Two, the Pakhtuns control all transport and water supplies to the city and all private security services are almost exclusively manned by them. Any ethnic urban warfare in Karachi involving the Pakhtuns would therefore lay Pakistan low economically, frustrate NATO, provoke foreign intervention and separatism, and incite mass violent ethnic and regional reprisals across the country, playing into the hands of the terrorists beyond their wildest imagination.

President Asif Zardari faces an unenviable task. He has to revive the flagging economy and he has to crush terrorism if Pakistan is not to slide into state-failure. Both are interlinked. The economy can only be bailed out by large infusions of foreign aid and investment. But that requires an end to terrorist violence and return to political stability. However, if the war against terrorism is not going to be owned by all sections of state and society in Pakistan, the economy will melt down and political anarchy will descend over the country, making state failure and dismemberment a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A great responsibility therefore devolves on the army, opposition and media to back the government unequivocally in the war on terror. This is no time for Maulana Fazal ul Rehman and Mr Nawaz Sharif to sidetrack issues by blackmailing “ifs” and “buts”. This is no time for the army to point fingers at hidden “foreign hands” in the tribal areas and undermine regional peace initiatives. This is no time for Altaf Hussian to start threatening the Pakhtuns of Karachi. This is no time for the media to wring its hands in despair, fear or confusion and erode the national will to confront the biggest challenge facing Pakistan since 1947.

(October 24-30, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 36 – Editorial)

No choice but IMF

President Asif Zardari has made trips to Saudi Arabia, USA and China in search of money to bridge the yawning balance of payments gap of US$10 billion in the next two years and beef up Pakistan’s dwindling forex reserves of only US$ 8 billion (equivalent to six weeks import bill) so that the slide of the Pakistani rupee by 27 % in the last few months from around Rs 63 to Rs 84 to the US dollar is halted, inflation of around 25% is brought under control and the fiscal deficit of about 10 per cent of GDP is reduced. A sovereign default is staring Pakistan in the face when its US$500 million Euro-bond matures for payment next February. The government needs to deposit a couple of billion dollars into the state bank quickly to restore confidence in the economy. Unfortunately, nothing concrete seems to have materialized so far.

The Saudis are dragging their feet on a Pakistani request for UDS$5.9 billion deferred-payment oil facility. The Chinese are disinclined to give us a huge loan – it is not normal Chinese economic practice to loan money to any state, even if the state is a “strategic” ally like Pakistan. The last time such a loan was granted to us was in 1996 when Pakistan’s forex reserves were about US$300 million only and we asked for US$500 million but got a measly $150 million for a few months. And the US has linked injections of up to US$1.5 billion a year in economic assistance for ten years (the aid bill is yet to be passed by Congress) to progress on the war against terror in FATA and Afghanistan. Indeed Mr Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, has made it clear that there is no prospect of cash in advance from the US. Consequently, Mr Zardari is now scheduled to make another trip to Saudi Arabia to try and persuade the Saudis that this is a make or break moment for Pakistan and the Kingdom must bail out its old friend.

An umbrella organization by the name of “Friends of Pakistan” has been mooted. This includes members of the international community – many of whom previously used to rub shoulders in the Aid to Pakistan Consortium – as well as potential private foreign investors. The first meeting in the US last month during President Zardari’s trip to New York laid the agenda and another is scheduled in Dubai soon. But the prospects are not bright. The international community is in no mood to give handouts to Islamabad. And foreign investors are not sanguine that their money will be both safe and productive in Pakistan, given its unstable and violent political environment and the meltdown in the international economy. Of course, the flight of Pakistani capital to safe havens abroad – which is leading to a depreciation of the rupee – is hardly conducive to building and demonstrating confidence in the economy.

President Zardari and his new finance advisor, Shaukat Tarin, say they are ready to move to Plan B and ask the IMF and World Bank and Asian Development Bank to step in and save the situation. Mr Mohsin Khan, an IMF director, says the IMF is happy to consider a request from Pakistan for up to US$10 billion in bailout funds but warns that Pakistan is running out of time. What’s the problem? Why doesn’t Islamabad grab an IMF program to stabilize the economy and get it back on track? Mr Nawaz Sharif, Ms Benazir Bhutto and General Pervez Musharraf all had to clutch at an IMF program when they stepped into office, the only difference between them being that Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto didn’t abide by the programs and therefore brought the economy to the brink of default twice each while General Musharraf tightened belts all round in the first few years of his regime and then ditched the IMF when the money inflows began to gush and the economy started to soar at over 6.5 per cent. What does it take to set things right?

Pakistan must fight the war on terror for its own sake to protect and strengthen its state and economy. But this policy will fetch billions from Washington and various financial institutions. It must also get the IMF to provide breathing space to avoid default. That will persuade the Chinese and Saudis that their money won’t go down the tube. The dropping price of oil – from a height of US$150 a barrel some months ago to US$ 70 a barrel now – should facilitate the economy and the budget, especially since the subsidy has already been withdrawn and the people have learnt to cope with the pain of transition.

Yet it all seems so distant. There is talk of meltdown, capital flight, galloping inflation, imminent default. Meetings with the IMF are being held in Dubai and not Islamabad because of security concerns. This is the crux of the issue. If Pakistan confronts and puts down terrorism, the international community will back it financially to the hilt. But if it dithers, then economic meltdown will hasten the process of anarchy and invite a different sort of foreign intervention.

(October 31 – November 06, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 37 – Editorial)

Media crisis in Pakistan

The media in Pakistan is facing its moment of reckoning. The crisis is three-fold.

First: truth, reason, rationality, fairness and national interest have increasingly been sacrificed by large sections of the media at the altar of ignorance, passion, prejudice, egotism and self-interest. Second: the economic slump is forcing existing print and electronic projects to downsize and new ones on the drawing board to be postponed or cancelled. Third: sections of the independent, bi-partisan and concerned media are under attack both from armed non-state actors and from those of their colleagues who are, wittingly or unwittingly, tied to new or old vested interests.

Ironically enough, leading media owners and journalists are largely to blame for this predicament. And the Musharraf regime looms dramatically in the backdropof the current media crisis. First, it facilitated the growth of a free media by opening up the airwaves to cross-media ownership and generously granting licenses without discrimination. Second, it jump-started the economy by flushing it with consumer liquidity and attracting foreign investment. This led to an advertising spree by banks and telecoms that sustained the rapid growth of the media. Such great optimism was generated that media owners threw caution to the wind and launched copycat projects, ignoring the limited size of the market and long gestation periods for profitability. This encouraged ill-trained and mediocre journalists to scale the heights because the resource pool was limited in the short term. Third, press freedom was not always tempered with responsibility or political neutrality. The media became a powerful political player in the transition to democracy in 2007, but with adverse consequences for state and economy when it mistook the budding “transition to democracy” for a “revolutionary transformation” of state and society. This destabilised the polity and undermined the economy. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the media’s overt political interventionism has been the aggressive politicisation of the lawyers’ movement which tried to usurp the role of political parties in mediating conflict and effecting political transitions. More significantly, the media’s rampant anti-Americanism, coupled with its hatred of the ancien regime, led it to express covert sympathy for violent non-state armed actors who have resorted to anti-state terrorism in the guise of religion. This has objectively promoted political intolerance, sustained debilitating religious nationalism, eroded the writ of the state, destabilized the transition to civilian democracy and hurt the economy.

In the end, all these factors have come to haunt the media and damaged its prospects and credibility. The economic slump has plunged all channels into deep financial straits. Downsizing is the norm across the media. The infuriating aspect of this desperate situation is that, despite these economic and political omens, many influential journalists are still hankering for an “honour” and “passion” based political and economic discourse that is alien to functioning and economically prosperous nation-states. Worse, they are still ready to attack those of their colleagues who disagree with them, often to the extent of calling them “American spies or agents” and inciting violence against them at the hands of aggressive anti-American non-state actors.

One example of this misplaced concreteness is the media’s response to the rise of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and the erosion of the writ of the Pakistani state. The second is the economic meltdown of the country and the arrival of the IMF once again to bail it out.

The predominant media view is that the war against Al-Qaeda/Taliban terrorists is solely America’s war and not Pakistan’s war, therefore the Pakistan army must unilaterally stop military operations against the terrorists. It is also argued that Pakistan should confront America militarily if necessarily in the tribal areas. There are two problems with this view: first, it forgets the fact that it was the Al-Qaeda/Taliban network that provoked an American military response in Afghanistan after 9/11; second, that it is the same network that has violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by occupying vast swathes of its territory. Therefore, objectively speaking, the media’s anti-Americanism, however well-placed, is playing into the hands of the Al-Qaeda/Taliban network and eroding the writ of the Pakistani state.

Similarly, the predominant media view is that Pakistan should reject the IMF out of hand, whatever the consequences of international default that is staring it in the face. This is the same unrealistic and emotional attitude that actually led to eating grass and inviting in the IMF following Pakistan’s tit-for-tat nuclear explosions in 1998 which precipitated an economic crash and undermined national security. We face much the same sort of situation today. Instead of putting our house in order by strengthening the democratic state, honouring its international contracts and tightening belts all round, powerful sections of the media seem bent on nurturing political anarchy and economic meltdown at home and isolation abroad.

The Pakistani media needs to take a close look at itself. It has won much freedom but demonstrated an insufficient sense of responsibility, especially in relation to the economy, to the nation-state and to the democratic transition underway. Now its histrionics are coming home to roost and it is hurting itself. Therefore it is time for Pakistani media owners no less than journalists to take stock and set the balance right.

(November 7-13, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 38 – Editorial)

Triumph of will

The dream of a great black American, Martin Luther King Jr, 45 years ago will come true when Barack Hussein Obama, another great black American, is sworn is as the 44th President of the United States of America in two months. But this week America demonstrated why it is still the greatest country in the world when Americans of all colours and creeds reaffirmed the vision of Abraham Lincoln, their greatest-ever President, of America as a land of greater equality, opportunity, tolerance and democracy than any other nation in the world.

President George W Bush will probably go down in history as the worst American president ever at home or abroad. He presided over the most divisive and bloody era in post second world war history, his imperial hubris and sheer incompetence plunging America into needless wars, bleeding its economy to finance them and provoking an unprecedented wave of anti-Americanism across the globe. The spectre of a clash of civilizations was raised during his tenure by his neo-con crusaders. No wonder, when Barack Obama thundered a demand for “change”, it reverberated in the hearts and minds of people at home and abroad. For the first time ever, Americans have wisely elected not just their own leader but a new leader of the world. Barack Obama represents the hopes and aspirations of all minorities, have-nots and dispossessed everywhere – people and nations – who together constitute a majority of the world.

Will national self-interest be wholly sacrificed at the altar of popular hope generated by Mr Obama’s accession to the American presidency? It won’t be easy. The most pressing issues of our time require a judicious and practical dose of optimistic will over pessimistic intellect.

The original source of much of the anti-American rage in the world is the Israel-Palestine conflict. As Uri Avnery, the respected Israeli journalist, noted: “This is what has poisoned all the wells. This is the trump card in the hands of the Sunni Osama bin Laden and the Shiite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” How will Mr Obama find a fair and enduring solution here? Didn’t he grovel before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, it is asked. Hasn’t he surrounded himself with Bill Clinton’s Jewish-Zionist aides? Isn’t the American Congress dominated by official Israel’s supporters? Change in the Middle-East must spawn “an Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Syrian, Israeli-all-Arab and perhaps even Israeli-Iranian peace”. But that’s a tall order.

Closer to home, Pakistanis are full of expectation. They have warmed to his statement that he will help resolve outstanding disputes with India, especially Kashmir. They like his vice-presidential mate, Senator Joe Biden, because he has piloted a bill in Congress to give Pakistan up to US$15 billion for economic development and poverty alleviation in the next ten years. Many approve of Obama’s “Muslim” connection through his father even though he is Christian. Others think that being black must have sensitized him to the travails of have-nots, which can only be for the good. They also approve of his proclaimed policy of promoting strategic “engagements” instead of unilateral and pre-emptive strikes, especially in relation to Iran, which can hugely destablise the region.

But there are some misgivings too. Mr Obama has said that he will directly strike inside Pakistan if he can locate Osama bin Laden. Nothing would diminish Pakistanis’ enthusiasm for himmore thana continuation of President Bush’s pre-emptive military strikes that violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and play into the hands of Al-Qaeda. He has also advocated shifting thousands of American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, which could be taken as a sign of aggressive intent. Pakistanis also know that traditionally Democratic US presidents and administrations have been tilted towards India, so dispute-resolution intermediation by the US might actually favour the status quo required by India. Therefore we will have to wait and see how he handles the situation.

Barack Obama faces many formidable challenges. Significantly, he represents the fears and hopes of a new American generation faced with the end of an era of economic prosperity in which there was much private enterprise along with great public disenchantment, and the rise of an era of political liberalism in the wake of arrogant conservatism that has isolated America as never before. Young Americans were already groping for a suitable transition when Mr Obama arrived on the scene and captured their imagination by promising “change”. Change in foreign policy that has antagonized the world. Change in economic policy that has bankrupted the domestic economy. Change in public policy that has bypassed deserving claims for health-care, education, energy, etc. Will he be equal to the task?

Barack Obama has run the most efficient and indefatigable election campaign in American history, defeating both the establishment Democrats led by the Clintons and the Republicans led by McCain. He is disciplined and charismatic. He has been unruffled by slurs and lies. If, as the next president of the USA for four years, he demonstrates the same maturity and vision and sensibility that he has displayed in the last two years, he can make a bid to win a second term and turn America and the world around. That would be the crowning victory of the optimistic human spirit over its pessimistic intellect.

(November 14-20, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 39 – Editorial)

Lending shoulders or pulling legs

General (retd) Pervez Musharraf is recently reported to have remarked that “future circumstances” would decide whether or not he should make a re-entry into the political arena. Since even disgraced politicians and generals “never say die” in Pakistan, and often build their stock over the rot of their opponents rather than on any intrinsic merit or deserved acclaim of their own, both the mainstream PPP and PMLN have been put on notice. But more significantly, General Musharraf was also quick to dispel the wishful thinking of some media-mujahiddin (who don’t approve of the PPP government’s anti-Al Qaeda and Taliban policy on the war on terror) that the current set-up might be “wrapped up” in a few months. General (retd) Musharraf has flatly ruled out a military coup. He should know. He carried out two coups in one innings, a truly rare feat, and handpicked COAS General Ashfaq Kayani because he was not a potential coup-maker.

But the disquiet and anguish on the street, in the drawing room, and in the mess, about the PPP government’s performance so far is not misplaced. It promised to restore Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan. But no such redemption is on the cards. It pledged to undo the dictatorial powers of the president under Article 58-2B of the constitution. But President Asif Zardari is so comfortably ensconced in the presidency and running government 24/7 that this is unlikely to happen any time soon. It vowed to protect Pakistan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty against American incursions in the tribal areas. But even the government’s weak protests for public consumption have been disowned by its defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, who undiplomatically asks: “How can we possibly take on the Americans”? It pledged to revive the economy on the basis of a policy of self-reliance. But now it is making a virtue of turning to the IMF for a bail-out. It insisted that cabinets and government expenditures would be lean and mean in crunch times. But new records are being set of bloated cabinets and sub-divided ministries, and plane loads of political hangers-on and parasites are being carted off on presidential and prime ministerial junkets abroad. It assured us that nepotism and cronyism had been buried for ever. But they are in full bloom as never before.

To be fair, however, the PPP glass is as half-full as it is half-empty. Some of the bad news – bloated cabinets and foreign junkets – has more to do with the nature of the persistent demands of avaricious coalition partners in a fledgling democracy than with any deep rooted designs of the PPP. Indeed, every democratically elected “people’s” government has been guilty on this count. But that is partly the price we pay for the luxury of “representative” democracy – the elected representatives of the Baloch people, for example, insist that Senator Israrullah Zehri should be a federal minister, despite widespread protests elsewhere in the country against his outrageous views on honour killings that justified the live burial of five women in a remote corner of Balochistan not so long ago.

One should also expect realpolitik when a government’s very political survival is at stake. Thus, when the PMLN embarks upon the path of enticing the PMLQ into its ranks, or when it insists that the highly politicized Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry should be restored as chief justice, one cannot expect President Zardari to gamely throw in the towel at the cost of his party and government’s political longevity. Certainly, the pointed remark by Mr Javed Hashmi, a noted PMLN stalwart, that “the PMLN has the numbers to throw out the PPP government” is a sure giveaway of the threat that looms over Mr Zardari’s head.

It is true that the PPP government has wasted much time trying to get its act together. But it is also true that the PMLN and the media-mujahiddin didn’t make life easier for it but putting the unconditional restoration of a politicised chief justice ahead of any agenda to revive the economy and fight the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, it is only after the ouster of General (retd) Musharraf and the elevation of Mr Zardari to the presidency, however unworthy many think it to be, that most of the judges have been restored, steps taken to try and halt the sliding economy and firm up policy guidelines to restore the writ of the Pakistani state in FATA.

In fact, we should be grateful that, despite de-coalescing, the PPP and PMLN have shown political maturity and not fallen on each other’s throats. They should be patted on the back and encouraged to remain cordial and cooperative. Pakistanis need a breather from the negative politics of the past so that they can rebuild their lives and reform the country’s negative image on all counts.

Of course, the Pakistani media should continuously hold up the mirror of accountability to both regimes in Islamabad and Lahore. But this should be done with a view to prodding all stakeholders to perform better rather than improving media ratings at the lowest denominator. The country is facing the mother of all crises and everyone must lend a shoulder instead of pulling a leg.

(November 21-27, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 40 – Editorial)

Media on trial

Last week a couple of TV news channels abruptly went off the air for some hours in certain parts of Karachi and Hyderabad. This immediately provoked an outrage in the media after technical factors were ruled out and cable operators let it be known at whose behest the dastardly deed had been done. Words like “freedom” and “democracy” were bandied about, the government was pilloried, and viewers were indignantly regaled. And so it should be. Media freedom has been hard won and we will not be easily silenced.

But if everyone knew who pulled the plug and why, curiously enough not a single journalist or fearless anchor in search of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth could pluck up the courage to say whodunit. Self-censorship? Self-preservation? Or what?

On the heels of this incident comes another interesting case. A former highly paid and “rated” anchor with a private channel who joined the government in search of better prospects was interviewed on his old alma by a former colleague who prides himself on his “devilish” reputation. Since the program flaunts a “Hardtalk” approach, the current anchor expectedly asked the former anchor some rather pointed personal questions. The program was recorded but pulled (not aired) after the former anchor complained to the owners. Self-censorship? Friendship? Blackmail? Or what?

The aggrieved anchor whose program was not aired resigned in protest and leaked his plight to colleagues on other channels. But curiously enough, this was not news, so it was swept under the rug. So he sulked and waited. Doubtless, however, future victims will not get away so easily by invoking friends in high places and press freedom will be protected.

Closer to home, another “rated” anchor and columnist launched a vicious personal attack last month on the editor of this paper by name. Our sin is a continuing and critical focus on the political shortcomings of elements of the mainstream media who lack objectivity and neutrality because of their readiness to substitute raw emotions like passion and anger and personal affront for a cool, rational, knowledge-based discourse of ideas and events. This failing is common enough in tabloid media anywhere in the world – indeed it is the defining characteristic of “yellow” journalism, which is a euphemism for lies, lies and more damned lies. But when it creeps into the mainstream media and begins to dominate it, it is cause for alarm.

However, we have always discussed ideas, opinions, views, and never attributed them to any one in particular, nor named names or alleged motives (Indian or American agent, government stooge, establishment hack etc) because that would debase the debate and render it counter-productive. But this particular champion of truth vented his spleen onthe editor of this paper by accusing him in a newspaper column of “nurturing dogs, being an alcoholic, taking money from India and America, poking fun at Believers and exhorting General (retired) Pervez Musharraf to launch a military assault on the Red Mosque last July” in which hundreds of the Faithful were killed, provoking suicide attacks by their fellow Believers in Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and Jihadis on the agencies of the state and their ‘collaborators’ everywhere. The charges are all lies.

One should not mind those who don’t like dogs in the house. But unfortunately his reference is not to dogs as dirty dogs but to colleagues and fellow journalists as dogs. Allegations of drunken driving can also be forgiven even though one’s record may be quite immaculate. But taking money from India (Indian agent? Treason? Court-martial? Death penalty?) and America (Envy? Class-complex?) is problematic, not because it is halal to have one’s palm greased by politicians via PR and ad agencies for writing servile columns in their favour and poisonous ones against their opponents and haram to even shake hands with the “enemy”, but because it is an outright incitement to violence when you link this up with the implied exhortation to the Red Mosque suicide-bombers who proudly claim to have already beheaded over 200 such American “spies”.

Incitement to violence is not journalism. It is a crime for which punishment has been prescribed. Those journalists who incite violence cannot by any stretch of the imagination be protected under the rubric of “press freedom”. Yet not a single editorial writer, or columnist, or TV anchor, or union leader, or civil-society campaigner, or editors’ council, or press-freedom body, or government law enforcing agency in this country has condemned this overt crime against an internationally acclaimed editor and asked for the law to take its course. Where is the code of ethics of this great media? Where is this great media’s self-accountability mechanism? Is this great media pure as driven snow? Why do our journalists and editors and owners consistently sabotage efforts for self-correcting, internal, peer-oriented, mechanisms for regulation and accountability? Surely, the absence of a regulatory body should not have precluded critical comment on this criminal abuse of power and privilege in our case.

The Pakistani media should not be afraid of debating its role in a developing democracy without getting personal or acrimonious or vindictive or self-righteous. There is nothing that debases journalism and journalists more.

(November 28 – December 04, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 41 – Editorial)

Zardari’s unenviable presidency

The government of President Asif Zardari (we don’t say Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani advisedly) is dogged by a number of issues. The lawyers’ movement seems to have got a new lease of life after the election of the fiery Ali Ahmed Kurd as the new president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. In fact, Mr Kurd’s sweeping election testifies as much to the continuing wellspring of support in the lawyers’ community for the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, as to the sheer incompetence and mismanagement of the PPP’s attorney general, Latif Khosa, and law minister, Farooq Naiq. Both gentlemen did not realize the critical significance of the SCBA elections and did not throw everything into the battle. Meanwhile Mr Chaudhry is winning hearts and minds abroad and is returning home after having recharged his batteries. This is not a prospect that Mr Zardari can relish. Indeed, after the recent revelations of unsavoury string pulling attached to the case of the daughter of the current chief justice, Mr Hameed Dogar, being upgraded so that she can qualify to enter a medical college, we may expect the moral authority of the Supreme Court to be further diminished in the eyes of the public. This will make it difficult for the executive to bend the judiciary’s will to the political need of the times – in particular the disqualification cases that are hanging over the heads of the two Sharif brothers in the supreme court which are meant to deter them from gobbling up the PMLQ and destablising the federal government. Therefore, if President Zardari was toying with the idea of extending Justice Dogar’s term via a constitutional amendment with the help of his current coalition partners as well as the PMLQ, he has another thought coming.

A second problem is related to the return of the IMF to Pakistan. The Zardari government has done exactly what previous civilian and military governments have done since 1988 – clutch at an IMF lifeline to try and pull itself out of bankruptcy. But no IMF programme has worked effectively in Pakistan because no government has stuck to the conditions imposed on it by the IMF. The Musharraf regime was luckier; it was bailed out by official foreign financial inflows and debt write-offs after 9/11. This time round, however, the government has inherited a failing economy and hasn’t been able to fix it quickly because it got embroiled in political squabbles with its coalition partners and was stranded without a full time finance minister for months. The soaring price of oil depleted its reserves but lack of commitment to the war on terror compelled the international community to drag its feet on offering financial assistance. To add to its woes, with no small thanks to a strident media, public opinion remains doggedly opposed to both the war on terror and a bailout by the IMF.

The third issue is the matter of the continuing CIA drone attacks on targets in Pakistani territory. Given a lack of consensus on fighting the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, these attacks are the object of much public outrage and government hand-wringing. The suspicion is that Islamabad has secretly given a green light to the Americans, partly because this deflects criticism against the government for not doing more itself and partly because the government cannot enforce a physical ban on the flights without getting into a scrap with the sole superpower which could isolate Islamabad internationally and crush it economically. To add to the government’s woes, both the army and the air force have successfully curried public favour by implying that they have the ability to knock out the drones provided the civilian government is willing to give them the go-ahead. This attempt by the military to win popularity at the expense of the elected government is most unfortunate, even if it is as a reaction to misplaced taunts of senior ex-servicemen to uphold the “honour and dignity” of the armed forces.

Many of these factors will come to a head in the next few months. A new Obama administration in America is committed to throwing thousands more American troops into Afghanistan and heating up the war in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Then there is the question of the judiciary. Even if Mr Iftikhar Chaufhry is still in the cold, Mr Dogar will have gone and a new chief justice of the supreme court will be ensconced in office, who will probably be more sensitive to public opinion than to the executive because his elevation will be based on the enshrined principle of seniority rather than on the government’s goodwill. And PPP-PMLN contradictions will be ready to boil over into conflict on the eve of the Senate elections next March, with threats of parliamentary “forward blocks” actually materializing into hostile positioning for votes of no-confidence in provincial and federal governments.

Even as an all-powerful president, Mr Asif Zardari’s situation is not enviable. He will need more than just political cunning to survive. Mending the economy, putting down the Taliban and stabilizing politics will take some doing. The only way to achieve these goals is to give every political stakeholder his due, a sorely lacking tradition in the murky world of Pakistani politics.

(December 05-11, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 42 – Editorial)

Lessons of Mumbai

The significance of last week’s Mumbai carnage does not lie in the number of innocent people killed or in the audacity of its planning and execution. The region is flush with modern weapons, suicide-bombers, terrorists, insurgents, separatists, communalists and militants of all shades and creeds.

Nor is this “India’s 9/11”. Such violence is not unprecedented in India which has witnessed ethnic insurgency in Punjab, separatism in Kashmir, communalist Hindu rage against Muslims and Christians, and a running Naxalite class war in the north and south west. The Mumbai attackers might have come from foreign, even Pakistani, shores, but it is inconceivable that they didn’t have local supporters, abettors and sympathizers. Certainly, India cannot retaliate militarily against Pakistan after Mumbai like America did after 9/11 against Afghanistan. First, Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan gleefully accepted responsibility for 9/11 but Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan has flatly denied it. Second, America could go after the Taliban regime because it ha publicly refused to abandon Al-Qaeda; in contrast, the Pakistan government has publicly condemned the outrage and offered to cooperate with India in tracking down the terrorists. Third, and most significantly, any pre-emptive or retaliatory military strike by India against any state or non-state target in Pakistan would provoke a reaction in kind, triggering a larger conflict between two nuclear armed powers. This factor was missing in the aftermath of 9/11.

Fortunately, the both governments realize the complexity and sensitivity of the situation, despite the initial hysteria of nationalism displayed by the two media. An Indo-Pak conflict would play into the hands of religious extremists on both sides. In Pakistan it would isolate and destabilize the Zardari government for being “soft” on India. This would also be a recipe for domestic political anarchy from which only the exponents of extreme religious nationalism would benefit. Inevitably it would invite foreign intervention in the east, trigger ethnic conflict in Karachi and give succor to the Baloch insurgency, thereby creating conditions for the dismemberment of Pakistan. In India, it would spell the end of the Congress regime for not winning an un-winnable war. More significantly, it would weaken the Indian state by provoking a violent Hindu backlash against Muslims (thereby alienating them further), damage the economy, and drag India to the UN for multilateral mediation against its interests. At the very least, it would destroy the ongoing peace process in which the Indian state is the major beneficiary of Pakistan’s “out-of-the-box thinking” on Kashmir and enhancement of trade facilities.

In such critical situations, national politics should override party politics. So while India’s Congress-led government is right to worry about its electoral prospects five months hence by not suitably retaliating, it should not lose sight of the larger interests of the Indian state. Far better to start focusing on the root causes of Mumbai (the unresolved Kashmir issue and the 150 million Muslims’ increasing alienation from, and hostility to, mainstream India) while revamping internal security and intelligence as deterrents to terrorism. Much the same advice may be given to the PPP-led government in Pakistan. If it cannot hand over any of the “terrorists” wanted by India regardless of any “evidence” because that would provoke a religious-nationalist backlash and play into the hands of the India-baiters in the army and intelligence services, it should make a bigger and more sustained effort to bring all stakeholders – army, opposition and media – on board a credible and functional strategy to win the longer-term war against religious extremism within, whether it is of the Taliban variety or of the Jihadi type, and strengthen the peace process with New Delhi.

The international community in general and the US in particular also have a more urgent and sensitive role to play in this region. It is not enough to send Condoleezza Rice and Admiral Mike Mullen to the region and urge restraint, while pressurizing Pakistan to do “more” militarily in the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. President-elect Barrack Obama is right when he thinks that the road to peace in West Asia is via peace in South Asia through a resolution of the “original sin” of Kashmir. India and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have been fighting proxy wars in Punjab, Kashmir and Karachi for decades. These have now spilled over into proxy wars in Baluchistan and Afghanistan and embroiled the USA. Mr Obama’s regional approach would encourage stakeholders India, Pakistan and the Afghans (Uzbeks and Tajiks represented by the Northern Alliance and Pasthuns represented by moderate elements of the Taliban who have broken links with Al-Qaeda) to help clean up the mess and make Afghanistan a truly neutral and federal moderate Muslim state.

This is a tall order. But the US cannot afford to get stuck in another Vietnam in Afghanistan. Pakistan cannot afford to succumb to political and economic anarchy followed by dismemberment or “Islamic” revolution. India cannot expect to escape the havoc that would be unleashed on its secular and democratic state if its neighbourhood is raging with fire and 150 million estranged Indian Muslims are being constantly provoked by extremist elements within and without to revolt against their motherland. Sane voices in both countries must stand up and be counted.

(December 12-18, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 43 – Editorial)

Descent into chaos?

US Senator John McCain is the fourth top American official to descend on Islamabad in one week on the heels of Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, Miss Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, and Mr Richard Boucher, US assistant secretary of state for South Asia. Their joint message is that there is “incontrovertible” evidence of the “definite involvement” of Pakistan-based jihadi groups in general and the Lashkar-e-Tayba in particular in the terrorist attack on Mumbai. If the government of Pakistan does not take “credible action” against the actors involved, says Senator McCain, India will be constrained to lash out with the implicit “understanding” of the international community. Apparently, the Indians and Americans will not be satisfied by the sort of “sham action” taken by General Pervez Musharraf after the jihadi attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 when scores of workers and activists of hard-line religious parties and groups were hauled up in a great public show of “will” by the state and then quietly released over a period of months. “The cat and mouse game played by Pakistan and America during the Musharraf-Bush years won’t work any more”, said Senator McCain.

This statement puts paid to the position adopted by President Zardari that no such credible evidence has been shown to Pakistan so far. What he means is that the government of Pakistan is not willing or able to act against the non-state actors identified by New Delhi and Washington. Unfortunately, however, Pakistan’s position is weak for several reasons. First, many local jihadi and sectarian groups make no secret of their continuing hostility towards “Hindu India”. Indeed, some flaunt it openly in their magazines, pamphlets and public sermons and declarations. For example, Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, actually took credit publicly for the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001 until he was told by his agency handlers to shut up and disappear. Second, President Zardari’s recent statement that “non-state actors want a war between Pakistan and India” is an admission of culpability since most non-state actors of repute in the region are based in Pakistan in pursuit of the Pakistani military’s national security objectives in the region. Third, the contradictory position adopted by Pakistanis on the issue of “Islamist terrorism” is evidence of guilt in the eyes of the world. For instance, we cannot say that neo-con America carried out the 9/11 attacks in order to create a pretext to attack Iraq and Afghanistan, and also claim in the same breath that “America had it coming” because of its imperialist and unjust policies in the Muslim world. In the case of 9/11, the remarkable thing is that both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri have proudly and publicly “owned” the attack not once but several times even as most Pakistanis fervently insist that they didn’t do it! In the case of India, the incompetence of its police and security services is excuse enough for most Pakistanis to make the contradictory claim that no Pakistani non-state actor was involved because such sophistication and audacity could only have been manufactured internally by the Indian intelligence services in their devious agenda to break up Pakistan. Of course, the Indian media’s outraged rush to judgment had many holes in it but this is not reason enough for its Pakistani counterpart to build self-righteous edifices of innocence.

What are the options for Pakistan, India and the US-led international community in the wake of the Mumbai attacks? The options for all except Pakistan are laid down by their democratically elected respective governments. There are two reasons for this. (1) There are no armed non-state actors there (2) The military there has no autonomy and obeys the democratically elected civilian government of the day. But in Pakistan’s case, this is not so. Our military IS the state and not just an organ of the state; our military fashions national security policy; and our civilian leaders and regimes can challenge its supremacy only at their own peril, as we saw in the 1990s, and again recently when the Zardari government tried to wrest control of the political wing of the ISI from the military. In the current situation, Pakistan’s military doesn’t want to hold any non-state actors accountable for the Mumbai attacks and the Zardari government cannot do anything about it, whatever the evidence.

A glimpse into the military’s position was recently afforded when un-named military officials told the media that in the event of a war with India the Pakistani army would be withdrawn from the tribal areas and rushed to the eastern front while the “patriotic Taliban” would be welcomed to assist the national effort. This amounts to saying that the “war against terror” in the tribal areas is not Pakistan’s war, despite the civilian government’s ownership of it as “Pakistan’s war”.

Therefore concerned Pakistanis should have no illusions about Pakistan’s ominous descent into chaos. This is reckless thinking on the part of Pakistan’s civil-military leadership. It should be concerned about getting the state to function properly and Pakistanis to prosper instead of showing wounded pride and misplaced self-righteousness. International censure, sanctions and isolation are the first steps on the way to being declared a rogue state and dealt with accordingly.

(December 19-25, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 44 – Editorial)

Fast forward Indo-Pak peace process

There is a consensus among Indians, their state, government and media that Jihadi elements in Pakistan carried out the Mumbai carnage, with the involvement of serving or retired elements of Pakistan’s intelligence services but without the complicity of Pakistan’s civilian government. Fortunately, however, there is no more talk of retaliatory strikes against either state or non-state actors and sites in Pakistan; two provocative incursions by Indian jets last week have been shrugged away as an “oversight”; and extradition demands for the wanted terrorists in Pakistan have been diluted.

Unfortunately, however, the peace process is on “pause”. India is insisting that Pakistan should “do more” to demonstrate its commitment against terrorism. It is exhorting the international community, in particular the USA and UK, to lean on Islamabad. It is also trying to embarrass Pakistan by various devices relating to the nine dead and one surviving terrorists.

The agonizing fallout of Mumbai persists in Pakistan. The original state of mass denial about any Pakistani “hand” in the Mumbai carnage has not even been dented by the evidence of an independent section of the Pakistani media which has tracked Ajmal Kasab to Faridkot near Depalpur in Punjab. Every day incredible new explanations of an “Indian conspiracy” to malign Pakistan are manufactured by hidden hands. The refrain everywhere is: “where is the evidence”, as though irrefutable evidence can ever be collected and presented in such cases.

President Asif Zardari’s government, too, seems to be backtracking from its earlier readiness to clamp down on Jihadi organizations and their affiliates. It is even unsure about how to handle the charities linked to these banned organizations. President Zardari had earlier admitted that “non-state actors in Pakistan might have been involved”; now he is saying that there is no “conclusive proof” of that. Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar has explained that LeT leader Hafiz Saeed cannot be detained beyond 90 days under the Maintenance of Public Order law in the absence of any solid incriminating evidence. And Ambassador Hussain Haqqani says Jaish e Mohamed leader Masood Azhar is probably not even in Pakistan. The Pakistan government is also under pressure to hype the war rhetoric. Recently Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani thundered in Parliament amidst much desk thumping that Pakistan doesn’t want war but will embrace it honourably if it is imposed on it. What’s going on?

Determined attempts have been made in the last seven years, first by President Pervez Musharraf and now by President Asif Zardari, to cobble a national consensus in favour of the war on terror. But most Pakistanis still insist it is America’s war and not Pakistan’s war, despite the loss of territory and thousands of soldiers. On the other hand, the peace process with India by both these governments has run for five years since 2003 and covered considerable ground in back-channel diplomacy with the support of the people, yet it took less than 24 hours after the Mumbai attack and the Indian media’s jingoistic outburst for anti-India nationalism to seize all of Pakistan and plunge it in a state of self-denial. This should tell us something of the hold of national security institutions like the army and ISI and their outlook on the mindset of Pakistanis across the board. The Zardari government is now squarely facing this same religious-nationalist backlash. There is media criticism that it didn’t fiercely oppose the UN Security Council directives, indeed that it may have tripped over itself to implement them; and there is apprehension that it may succumb too readily to the US-UK axis on the war on terror, this time on India’s behalf, in view of the steady stream of Western big-wigs into Islamabad, urging it to crack down on the Jihadi organisations. In fact, the fiery Jamaat i Islami is demanding a maximalist defiance of UN resolutions on terrorism, including the new ones on the Jihadi organizations that favour India, and demanding a withdrawal of the army from FATA and lifting of the ban on LeT and Jamaat ud Dawa. Meanwhile, the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid is harking back to the UN resolutions on Kashmir and insisting that “India hasn’t accepted the reality of Pakistan”, quite forgetting that under President Musharraf it went the furthest in normalising relations with India and replacing the UN resolutions with “out-of- the-box” thinking on Kashmir.

Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has asked the Indian government to send a delegation to Pakistan to map out the next steps. This is a good and constructive idea. Given the growing mood of defiance in Pakistan, it is not advisable to keep this critical process on “hold” or “pause”. What is needed is immediate re-engagement, not gradual distancing or even “halt’. India must think in terms of self-interest and not honour or pride. The Indian government acted maturely by not reacting militarily to the Mumbai provocation and precipitating an un-winnable war. Now it must go the extra mile to kick-start and fast-forward the peace process that had stalled during the last year of President Musharraf’s rule. Neither Pakistan nor India can afford to fall prey to the designs of state and non-state actors in both countries who want to plunge the region into anarchy and chaos.

(December 26-January 1, 2008 – Vol. XX, No. 45 – Editorial)

Regional approach to terrorism

India, Afghanistan and America must recognize the three main issues in the region, at the heart of which is the Pakistani state’s relentless quest for “national security”. The first is Pakistan’s refusal to accept the LoC as the border with India because of the simmering dispute over Kashmir. The second, which derives from the first, is Afghanistan’s refusal to accept the Durand Line as the border with Pakistan. And the third, which derives from the second, is the conflict between the US-led international community and Al-Qaeda-led Islamic radical resistance based in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. All three are inter-related and have spawned non-state actors to tilt the balance of power in the great game in the region.

Pakistan’s unresolved dispute with India over Kashmir has had ten disastrous consequences. One, it has provoked war between the two states (as in 1965 and 1971). Two, it has spawned non-state warring actors as state proxies in time of peace (by Pakistan in Indian Punjab in the 1980s and Kashmir in the 1990s and by India in Balochistan in the 1970s and 2000s). Three, the bitterness over Kashmir has led to a proliferation of other disputes over Siachin, Sir Creek, and now Baghliar. Four, by virtue of being a Soviet ally through much of the cold war, India was encouraged to outflank Pakistan in Afghanistan, stop Kabul from settling the Durand Line with Islamabad and provoke Pakhtun nationalism and separatism in the NWFP. Five, when an opportunity arose to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pakistan readily joined hands with the US to create non-state actors for the purpose of staking its own claim in the 1980s. Six, after the Soviets and Americans departed from Kabul, Pakistan and India continued to slug it out in Afghanistan out via proxies – Pakistan through sections of the Pakhtun Mujahidin and later the Pakhtun Taliban, and India via the Uzbek-Tajik Northern Alliance (NA). Seven, the scales in Afghanistan tilted in favour of Pakistan when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1997 and sent the NA packing to the north, and against Pakistan after the Taliban cobbled an alliance with Al-Qaeda and provoked America to react in 2001, emboldening India to consolidate its stake with the NA dominated and US backed Karzai regime. Nine, Pakistan was now compelled to turn a blind eye to Taliban safe havens in its tribal areas in the expectation that its old “assets” could be retained to capture Kabul and thwart India after the exit of the Americans from the region. Ten, this “protection” to the Taliban has outraged America which has openly breached Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty in order to put the Al-Qaeda-Taliban down and precipitated a wave of anti-American and anti-Indian religious nationalism in Pakistan.

The most significant consequence of Pakistan’s unresolved disputes with India is the rise of the Pakistani military as the pre-eminent force in Pakistan’s body politic based on the notion of a national security state. The military has created and sustained non-state religious actors both as a means of undermining the mainstream political parties to ensure its predominant role in politics and as a tactical tool to keep India under pressure to resolve Kashmir.

This implies that without a resolution of the various conflicts that bedevil India-Pakistan relations in Kashmir, Quetta and Kabul, the non-state actors that have assumed critical mass because of the intelligence agencies’ proxy wars in the region cannot be tracked and shut down, either in Pakistan or India or Afghanistan. Conflict resolution would also be a starting point for redressing the civil-military imbalance within Pakistan.

India has had an aversion to multilateral diplomacy to resolve its bilateral disputes in the region. But bilateralism hasn’t worked and disputes have become bleeding wounds. Yet when there has been conflict, both countries have clutched at multilateralism to stop the downslide into nuclear war, as during Kargil in 1999, LoC in 2002 and now via the UNSCs directives to Pakistan to ban some non-state actors.

Therefore a regional conflict-resolution approach is the need of the hour to diffuse the Kashmir-Kabul-Quetta time bomb. This should include America, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, along with their proxies like the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. A high profile American regional envoy would facilitate the process since both India and Pakistan are on the right side of Washington for the first time in history. India should be nudged to start talking seriously to the Kashmiris in Srinagar and resolve Siachin and Sir Creek expeditiously. Pakistan must be persuaded to disband its non-state actors. America must fashion a medium term exit strategy from Kabul that facilitates all ethnic stakeholders so that the Afghan Pakhtuns look towards Kabul and Pakistani Pakhtuns towards Islamabad for their respective political salvation. A holistic regional approach to conflict resolution is the only route to ending the scourge of terrorism by non-state actors and ensuring the survival and growth of representative democracy in the region. A war between India and Pakistan would hurt India more than Pakistan simply because “shining” India has more to lose than “failing” Pakistan, just as America has lost more than the Taliban and al-Qaeda by its reckless adventure in Afghanistan.

(January 2-8, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 46 – Editorial)

2009: grim outlook for Pakistan

It’s been an unexpectedly tumultuous year for Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. The general elections were controversially postponed. General Pervez Musharraf was ousted after nine years. Asif Zardari became a powerful president. Mr Zardari and Nawaz Sharif didn’t come to blows. Despite a long drawn out and powerful lawyers’ movement, the former Chief Justice Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry is still whistling in the dark.

Good news: Democracy has been restored. The media is alive and kicking. Most of the judges are back in the saddle. There are coalition governments at the centre and in the provinces. The federal government has taken ownership of the war on terror from the Pakistan army. It has not galloped headlong into a political confrontation with the PMLN in Punjab. Trade with India has opened up. The ISI’s political wing has been disbanded and some unduly hawkish and controversial generals sent packing. The economy’s bleeding has been plugged. The IMF is back in business with relatively soft conditionalities. Relations between the US administration and the Zardari government are excellent. The US has pledged to give up to US$1.5 billion a year as financial assistance to Pakistan for ten years for help in the war against terror.

Bad news: Most Pakistanis are still reluctant to accept the war against terror as their war and not just America’s war. The writ of the state has seriously eroded in FATA and the tribal areas where the Taliban are rampant. The marriage between the PPP and PMLN has still not been consummated. Relations with India have plummeted to dangerous levels following the Mumbai attack. The ISI is back in the news as the allegedly hidden hand behind Mumbai. The economy is still in the doldrums because foreign investment hasn’t picked up and the rupee has been devalued by about 30 per cent. There are strains between the PPP and PMLN, between the PPP and army, between the PPP and media, between the PPP and lawyers’ movement, and between Washington and the Pak army over doing “more” or less against the Taliban in FATA.

Forecast: Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry will not be restored because he would be Nawaz Sharif’s ally against Mr Zardari in the political battle ahead. The PPP and PMLN will clash in Punjab soon, probably before the Senate elections in March. A fight between the media and the PPP government is also on the cards. The media doesn’t support the government’s war against terror. It disapproves of its relationship with the US and the IMF. It hyped up anti-India war hysteria while the government was trying to cool things down. Worse, the government perceives some powerful media elements as being personally hard on Mr Zardari and soft on Mr Sharif.

The PPP government’s relations with the Pakistan army could be further strained. The khakis think Mr Zardari is suspiciously “soft” on Washington and New Delhi. They too deny any link with the Mumbai carnage through non-state actors. But the PPP government is not so sanguine, especially since the arrest and interrogation of two Lashkar-e-Tayba activists who are reported to be “singing”. Indeed, some PPP-ites actually believe that rogue agency elements have done a Kargil on Mr Zardari after his unilateral opening of trade with India and blithe reversal of Pakistan’s long standing First-Strike position. Certainly, the Mumbai attack has served to refocus attention on the simmering disputes between India and Pakistan, especially Kashmir, and established their link with the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and FATA. First, there is the Pakistan army’s threat to withdraw troops from FATA in the west and shift them to the border with India in the east at a time when the incoming Obama administration in Washington is committed to moving 20,000 extra troops to Afghanistan and is exhorting the Pakistan army to “do more”. Second, the Obama administration’s loud thinking about the need for a high powered regional envoy to resolve the inter-Afghanistan, Pakistan and India disputes has been given a fillip (much to the anger and discomfort of status-quo India) by the post-Mumbai war rhetoric between the two nuclear armed neighbours who are fighting intelligence-agency non-state actor proxy wars in Quetta, Kashmir and Kabul which have thrown a spanner in the American works in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Therefore Pakistan’s political outlook for 2009 is not good. The regional cauldron is going to bubble with deadly great game politics involving a superpower and a regional hegemon. If relations with India deteriorate because of another big terrorist attack, or if American drone attacks increase significantly, the PPP government will be destabilized. Domestically, there will be little or no national consensus among the key stakeholders – media, opposition, army and government – on how to handle the situation. Meanwhile, the Al-Qaeda-Taliban-Jihadi network may be expected to join hands with rogue elements from the agencies to create anarchy and chaos. Political assassinations are on the cards. The economy will hunker down in cowardice. Rising urban middle-class unemployment and falling income-alienation will aggravate an environment of outraged religious nationalism. If Pakistan’s army and PPP government cannot or will not jointly contain and mediate these pressures properly, more than just their corporate or political interests will suffer immeasurably.

(January 9-15, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 47 – Editorial)

Truth will out

The Pakistan government finally admitted on Wednesday 7 January that Ajmal Qasab, the Mumbai terrorist, hails from Pakistan. Unfortunately, however, the admission is marred with fumbling at the highest level which has detracted from its significance and credibility. This is what happened.

A decision was taken by the Pakistani establishment some days ago to admit Ajmal Qasab’s culpability as a Pakistani citizen. But the timing of a statement to that effect was left open for constant review. Several solid reasons were considered in support of this decision.

First, the truth about Ajmal Qasab could not be denied any longer without loss of the government’s credibility and sincerity in cracking down on home spun terrorists. In fact, elements of the independent Pakistani media had already cast the first stone against the official state of denial by unearthing Faridkot and establishing the fact that Qasab belonged to it. Second, India’s decision to up the ante – by alleging that the Pakistani “non-state” actors involved in the Mumbai carnage were actually “state” actors, followed by a return to the rhetoric of “all options are on the table”, the notching up of its international diplomacy after handing over a “dossier of evidence” to Islamabad and the international community – persuaded the Pakistani establishment to concede the connection and diffuse the pressure. Third, the imminent arrival in Islamabad of US vice president-elect Joseph Biden just days before the swearing in of the new administration in Washington was a factor in hastening the Pakistan government’s decision. Mr Biden, a straight talking man who is expected to wield diplomatic clout in the Obama administration, is the architect of the proposed US$15 billion in US financial assistance over ten years to Pakistan that is linked to Pakistan’s support in the war against terrorism. At a time when the Pakistan economy is in dire need of foreign financial injections to prop it up, international donors cannot be trifled with.

Unfortunately, a lack of communication and consultation within the establishment on January 7 has led to a sacking of the national security advisor, Gen (retd) Mahmood Ali Durrani, by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and muddied the waters. Gen Durrani was approached for an interview by an American and Indian channel. He thought the moment ripe to admit the Qasab connection, obtained a nod from the ISI and the presidency, and went ahead with the statement. He failed to take the PM into the loop for two reasons: first, he was one of four persons duly authorized by the PM in writing to speak on the subject; second, he assumed that touching base with the two real centres of power was sufficient. In the event, both the PM and the Foreign Office were caught off guard, and the information minister, Sherry Rehman, had to check with the presidency and signal the Foreign Office to back Gen Durrani. The PM, who had probably hoped to make the important statement himself, was so irked by lack of consultation, approval and information on the appointed day, protested to the president and sacked General Durrani to save face. Thus the national security advisor has been sacrificed at the altar of domestic politics and prestige and not for making an incorrect statement.

Of course, this reflects rather badly on the state of affairs in Islamabad. Even when a good decision is made, as in this case, the government does not know how to extract maximum advantage from it. The PM should have kept his cool and backed the national security advisor instead of making a spectacle of it. Worse, the PM’s egotistic decision has sparked speculation that perhaps the military brass is not on board. But this is not true. A recent interview by the ISI chief, General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, to a German magazine is revealing. General Pasha made five major points: first, he ruled out war between India and Pakistan as a means of resolving any dispute, now or in the future; second, he argued that terrorism and not India was the real enemy of Pakistan; third, he explained that he reported to the president and took his orders from him, as required by the amended constitution; fourth, he said that it was completely clear to the army chief and to his agency that the civilian government must succeed for the sake of Pakistan; fifth, he believed firmly in the West’s coalition with Pakistan, and was convinced that by working together, everyone would be able to defeat terror. This amounts to major vote of confidence in the government at least on one critical count.

But this does not mean that everything will be hunky-dory henceforth in Islamabad. Tensions between the president and prime minister may cross the red line. The Supreme Court could disqualify Nawaz Sharif from contesting elections and Shahbaz Sharif from holding the CM office for the third time, paving the way for a takeover by the PPP-PMLQ and provoking a PMLN-Lawyers movement on the streets. Some aggrieved non-state actors may hit back. In the final analysis, any new attack by them on India or America from Pakistani soil would unleash domestic, regional and international forces that could spin Pakistan out of control.

(January 16-22, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 48 – Editorial)

Byzantium revisited

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire was known as the Byzantine Empire. It was centered on its capital of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. A 19th century British historian, writing about the nature of the empire, called it “a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisons, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude”. The phrase “Byzantine” thus came to mean a penchant for intrigue, plots and assassinations, and a chronically unstable political state of affairs.

By such reckoning, Pakistan is a true legatee of Byzantium. Since independence in 1947 it has been struck by dozens of political assassinations. Governments, prime ministers and presidents have come and gone with alarming regularity, their rise and fall premised on some treacherous conspiracy, devious intrigue or secret plot. Not a single civilian government has ever completed more than half its full five year term. The fate of the present one hangs in balance, as usual. One widely read Urdu columnist has written glowingly of his recent two-on-one meeting with the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and predicted that, come March, Asif Zardari’s days as president are numbered. So we are condemned to speculate about signals from Zero Point to energize both enemies and friends to heave him out.

Conspiracy Theory # 1: Apparently, the khakis cannot stomach the idea of Mr Zardari ensconced in the presidency as the supreme commander of the armed forces. So they have nudged the MQM, PMLN and PMLQ to float bills for the repeal of the 17th amendment which bestows extraordinary powers on the president. They have also apparently roped in Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who has started to assert himself – he first sacked his principal secretary because he was a Zardari man and has now chucked out his national security advisor, General (retd) Mahmood Durrani, (another Zardari appointee) upon the urging of the khakis (never mind that the wretched NSA is publicly insisting that he got the green light from the khakis for his controversial statement on Ajmal Qasab and no senior khaki has denied his claim). The PM is also ominously harping about the need for decision making by a “supreme parliament” rather than by individuals. Consequently, the loudest whisper in parliament is about “imminent change” in the fortunes of the ruling coalition and its leaders. A conspiracy within the conspiracy is also said to be hatched by the Americans who are in the process of switching support from Mr Zardari to Mr Sharif because the former has got very unpopular and the latter very popular, a necessary condition for owning up and prosecuting the war on terror, notwithstanding the track record of the Americans who are known to back unpopular forces and regimes everywhere in pursuit of their imperialist goals.

Conspiracy Theory # 2: Mr Zardari is trying to beat the clock by allying with the PMLQ against the PMLN before the Senate elections in March so that he can divide the gathering grand alliance against him, seize the Punjab government, and thereby deflect the parliamentary threat to his presidency. Watch out for the Supreme Court’s decision disqualifying the Sharif brothers from sitting in parliament, thereby setting the stage for the ouster of the Sharif government from Lahore. Not-so-secret meetings between the Chaudhries of Gujrat and the Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, are a pointer in this direction, no less than counter moves following “secret meetings” between Nawaz Sharif and the Gujrat Chaudries at home and abroad. In this theory, the first stone has been cast against the Sharifs by the Punjab nazims who are banding together to resist the writ of the provincial government. Mr Zardari is also playing footsie, we are reminded, with the Americans to reduce the role and significance of the ISI, the bane of all anti-Pakistan forces, which is why the khakis want him out. Of course, no one has explained why the Americans should want to switch to Nawaz Sharif who has been less than helpful.

There are foreign conspiracies galore too. The big international conspirator is, of course, the US which allegedly wants to undo Pakistan because it is an Islamic nuclear power. But this is a sure-shot recipe for the same weapons falling into the wrong Pakistani hands! Then there’s oil and gas in Balochistan which the Americans covet. But we have either always had it – in which case, why didn’t the US seize Balochistan earlier instead of being the sole power propping up Pakistan until now – or we don’t have it – in which case why should the US be interested in seizing another chunk of tribal territory when it has its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan already?

The big regional conspirator is, of course, India. It wants to undo Pakistan in its quest for Akhund Bharat. But no one can explain why India, which has 280 million troublesome Muslims and Dalits in its midst, would want to add another 160 Muslim terrorist Pakistanis to its bag of troubles.

Needless to say, if any or all of these conspiracies succeed, there will be great political instability, which will undermine the economy of Pakistan. That would amount to the greatest political conspiracy of all against the people of Pakistan. Welcome to the new Byzantium!

(January 23-29, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 49 – Editorial)

Obama’s recipe for peace

US President Barack Hussein Obama is the great white hope of the world. But he makes America’s friend India “nervous”, its ally Pakistan “anxious” and its partner Afghanistan “uneasy”. In fact, they should all be happy if he offers renewed hope for change for the better. Here’s why.

India’s nervousness stems from its fear that its established “status quo” regime in the region may be subjected to the winds of “change” blowing from the Obama presidency. After decades of studiously bowing to India’s insistence that the Kashmir problem is an internal matter, or, at worst, a bilateral issue with Pakistan, the US under Obama thinks the Kashmir problem with Pakistan is linked to Pakistan’s problem with Kabul, which is linked to the problem of Al-Qaeda-Taliban, which impacts American interests in the region. An imminent change in American policy was indicated some months ago when Mr Obama warmed to the idea of a “special envoy on Kashmir”, later amended to a special envoy to the “region”. India was alarmed when Susan Rice, President Obama’s ambassador-designate to the UN, included Kashmir among the “conflict hotspots” of the world like the Golan Heights, Cyprus and the Balkans in which the UN should play a conflict-resolution role. More recently, New Delhi was miffed that both the US and the UK did not entirely buy into its line that the Pakistan state was directly involved in the Mumbai attacks and warranted censure. Certainly, the alarm bells in South Block must have gone off when renowned Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid, who recently mooted the idea of a regional approach to Afghanistan in an important article in Foreign Affairs which South Block didn’t like, met President-elect Obama last week at a cosy dinner for a handful of people in Washington DC.

Pakistan’s anxiety, meanwhile, has not been relieved by India’s discomfort over mention of Kashmir or the good news emanating from President Obama of a tripling of economic assistance to Pakistan to about US$1.5 billion a year for the next five years. This was evident from meetings between General David Petraeus, the head of US Centcom, and the Pakistani troika of president, prime minister and army chief, at the very moment that Mr Obama was being sworn in as president of America. General Petraeus did not accept Pakistan’s plea to stop drone attacks on select terrorist targets in the tribal areas because they provoke a violent backlash. He also signaled the Obama administration’s refusal to remain critically dependent on Pakistan for supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass when he announced agreements with Russia and the Central Asian states for an alternative supply route in the north. With an anticipated surge of 30,000 additional American troops into Afghanistan from Iraq, and US drones striking deeper into Pakistani territory, Pakistan will therefore be faced with greater pressure to cooperate in the unpopular war against terror.

Afghanistan’s government, too, cannot expect it will be business as usual. During her senate hearings a month ago, Hilary Clinton, now secretary of state, accused the Afghan government of running a narco-regime. Indeed, corruption charges have so piled up on President Hamid Karzai and family that President Obama is under pressure from his own constituency to explain why the Karzai regime should be propped up much longer. The same question is being asked by America’s NATO allies – most of the heroin produced in Afghanistan goes to Europe – from whom America is requisitioning more troops for Afghanistan. Consequently, the Americans are asking Mr Karzai to shape up or be shipped out in the next presidential elections in October. Mr Karzai has tried to hit back by mooting the idea of “a status of forces agreement” for NATO and American troops in Afghanistan along the lines of a similar agreement in Iraq. But this is likely to irk Washington and provoke it to consider other stake-holder options in Kabul.

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama told the Muslim world: “We seek a new way forward, based on mutual respect and mutual interest”. To those “who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent”, he said that they should “know they were on the wrong side of history”; but that he was “willing to extend a hand” if they were “willing to unclench” their fist. And to those poor nations, he “pledged to work alongside to make their farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.”

Finer words could not have been spoken. Peace between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghans and Americans, and within Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, requires everyone to cooperate with President Obama if America is ready to change for the better itself. India and Pakistan must resolve outstanding issues, especially Kashmir; Pakistan must clamp down on home grown terrorists against India and Afghanistan; Afghanistan and India must stop fomenting unrest in Balochistan. The region from central Asia in the north to the western and southern tips of India constitutes one big natural economic zone with enormous market potential. It is time its political linkages were also admitted in the larger interest of its constituents.

(January 30- Feb 5, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 50 – Editorial)

People for peace

A peace delegation comprising human and women’s rights activists, media peaceniks and party political representatives from Pakistan recently visited New Delhi. They went with a threefold objective: to “condole” the Mumbai attacks and express solidarity with Indians in their hour of grief; to explain how and why Pakistan too is a victim of the same sort of terrorism that is threatening to afflict India; and to try and put the peace process and people-to-people channel back on track. In view of the adverse travel advisories put out by both countries and the war paint put on by both media, the delegation risked being branded “unpatriotic” in Pakistan. But the two leaders of the delegation, Asma Jehangir, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and Imtiaz Alam, Secretary-General of the South Asia Free Media Association, are known as fearless crusaders for peace in South Asia. Given the goodwill they personally enjoy in India, they threw caution to the wind at home and embarked on their journey with great expectations.

In the event, however, even they were surprised by the consistently frosty, sometimes hostile, reception that they received at private, official and media forums in Delhi. It seemed as if all of India, public and private, had consciously united to send out one harsh message to Pakistan: that India is deeply wounded, it will not listen to explanations and it will not take another such attack lying down. This is perfectly understandable. The terrorist attack was on the Taj Mahal Hotel, the pride and symbol of resurgent modern India; it humiliated India’s “powerful” security establishment by exposing its gaping weaknesses; and the terrorists targeted innocent civilians rather than any specific military or intelligence organ of the state or government, thereby signaling their intent to wage war on India, Indians, and on the very idea of secular India. Therefore credit must be given to the Indian establishment for showing restraint and maturity, unlike the reckless way in which America reacted after 9/11.

The post-Mumbai composite view in India has three salient elements. First, they say that elements of the Pakistani state were allegedly complicit in the planning, organization and implementation of the attack, evidence of which is proffered in the recorded chatter of the terrorists with their Pakistani handlers which suggest that this message was deliberately meant to be given. The implication of this, as India’s foreign minister has expressly stated, is that non-state actors and state actors in Pakistan were jointly responsible for it. Second, it is argued that the government of President Asif Zardari is innocent but weak and Pakistan’s military establishment is guilty and strong. The implication of this is that there is no point in India talking to a weak civilian government or strong military establishment – because both are part of the problem – about redressing terrorism and advancing the peace agenda. Third, they insist that Pakistan should not mistake India’s overt outrage and anger as merely election-related histrionics and that it will be business as usual after the elections are over in April. On the contrary, they argue, there is a consensus in India’s state and society that India must align with the international community and fashion a strategic resolve to compel Pakistan’s state and society to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure on pain of international encirclement, blockade and sanctions.

Unfortunately, however, India and Indians seemed blind to an equally harsh reality about their state and themselves – that terrorism is not just Pakistan’s problem but increasingly India’s too. This is because India has had a role in creating conditions conducive to the growth of terrorism by refusing to resolve the regional conflicts that spawn terrorists. Indeed, the truth is that the whole business of armed non-state actors in Pakistan and the rise of Military Inc in Pakistan are directly linked to the unresolved Kashmir conflict. Equally, it is profoundly unrealistic for India’s government to claim that because the Zardari government in Pakistan is weak there is no one to talk to in Pakistan about conflict resolution. New Delhi had five years of unfruitful dialogue with a strong military-led government from 2003-08 that was ready to think-outside-the-box and make unbelievable concessions, especially on Kashmir, but was constantly thwarted by the status-quo and lumbering Indian bureaucracy.

Indians worry and warn about a second terrorist attack on their soil. But just as it is inevitable in one way or another in the future, so too is India’s likely response. “Surgical strikes” and “limited war” may be “honourable” and self-satisfying responses, but they are not realistic options between nuclear armed states. Nor should India think of responding by manufacturing its own version of state-non-state-actors to foment trouble in Pakistan. It will only hurtle the two peoples and states into confrontation, make India’s problem more intractable and hurt it disproportionately because it has more economic and political sheen to lose than Pakistan.

A peace delegation from India needs to visit Pakistan now, not to explain why India is angry – that message lies in the domain of the Pakistani delegation that has just returned from Delhi – but to understand why the cause of its established democratic state and civil society is the same as that of Pakistan’s fledgling counterparts.

(February 6-12, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 51 – Editorial)

The problem in Swat

Pakistanis recall the valley of Swat as a beautiful, idyllic tourist resort and the Swatis as a mild, peaceful, welcoming and generally non-tribal people in harmony with nature. So what has happened in recent times to transform Swat into a bloody war zone captured by terrorist warlords and militias operating under the banner of “Islam”? Why are tens of thousands of people desperately fleeing their ancestral homes daily and seeking refuge outside the area? And what is the government doing to establish the writ of the state and restore normalcy there?

The “problem” of Swat, like that of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), was created during the reign of General Pervez Musharraf when Taliban-Al Qaeda hoards fleeing from Afghanistan after the post 9/11 American intervention put down roots in safe havens in FATA in 2002. This “policy” was a natural consequence of two factors: General Musharraf’s budding alliance with the MMA; and the Pakistan army’s national security doctrine which viewed the Pakhtun Taliban as strategic “assets” against India’s Uzbek-Tajik “assets” in the Northern Alliance in Kabul. Throughout 2003-07, this military-mullah alliance protected and nurtured these military-religious “assets” with compromising “peace deals” that allowed local wannabe Taliban to set down roots and enlist recruits, nurture their will for resistance over time, and use the new resolve to capture space in the area – a classic guerilla war framework of trading time for will and using will to enlarge space. In due course, the Taliban naturally spilled over into Swat where resistance from the settled and unarmed population was low against their tactics of fear. Swat is also connected with Shangla in the north, so it is a natural transit for Jihadis and Mujahidin in Azad Kashmir who want to join the fighting in the Kunar province of Afghanistan.

The ANP swept the 2008 elections in Swat because of the Swatis’ fear, loathing and repudiation of the MMA and warlord-militias. More significantly, after the elections the Pakistan Army formally handed over “ownership” of the unpopular “war on terror” to the elected governments of Pakistan in Islamabad and NWFP and retreated from Swat. Unfortunately, however, the ANP then made an opportunistic “peace deal” with the local Taliban in May 2008. Consequently, the Taliban exploited this opportunity to regroup, consolidate and launch fresh attacks to seize the military and political initiative and enforce “Islamic shariah”. The greater tragedy was that the media once again wrongly portrayed the “demand for shariah” articulated by the Taliban as a popular explanation and justification for their reign of terror. Regrettably, the ANP was hoist by its own petard – it was damned if it sought military help and damned if it didn’t oppose the loss of political space to the Taliban.

The marauding Taliban have blundered in enforcing their version of “Islamic shariah” by blasting away schools, denying education to girls, banning women from market places, bombing music, video and barber shops, and destroying all vestiges of civil administration and society. This has provoked a wave of anger and alienation among ordinary Swatis and Pakistanis. Their brutal kidnappings, beheadings and decapitations of innocent citizens and security personnel has provoked further disgust and revulsion and discredited their enforced “shariah”. Questions are now being asked by the confused media about the vanishing writ of the state and the army’s role in enabling the menace of Talibanisation to lay Swat low.

The current situation is characterized by several factors. First, there is an underlying and lingering suspicion among ANP stalwarts that “the Pakistan Army and the Taliban remain two sides of the same coin”. But the ANP is also worried that an army operation would lead to high civilian casualties and mass refugees, which would reflect badly on its ability to protect its citizens.

The second factor is the Pakistan Army’s state of being. One the one hand it is under pressure from the international community and the federal government to fight the war on terror in FATA. On the other hand, popular opinion echoed in the media and parliament is against military action against “fellow Muslims” and “Pathans” because the popular consensus is that this war is not Pakistan’s war. Similarly, on the one hand the army is under fire from the media for not doing enough to save Swat, on the other hand the ANP is suspicious of it and worries that civilian casualties could mount as a consequence of it. This state of confusion and inaction by the organs of the state and its elected representatives only benefits the Taliban. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has muddied the waters further by pointing to a hidden “foreign hand” in Swat and alluding to a “secret strategy” to sort out the problem.

US President Barrack Obama is sending his tough new regional envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to Pakistan in the midst of this confusion and misplaced concreteness on the part of the Pakistan Army, media and political parties. Since Mr Holbrooke’s reputation for not brooking prevarication and double dealing precedes him, and economic aid to desperately seeking Pakistan depends on solutions to the menace of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the sooner Pakistan gets its act together, the better.

(February 13-19, 2009 – Vol. XX, No. 52 – Editorial)

Challenges facing Pakistan

America’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is in Pakistan to ascertain the many internal and external challenges facing Pakistan and determine how the US can help itself by helping Pakistan face up to them. Indeed, for the first time an unmistakable link has been established between domestic politics and economics and external relations which will shape the quest for national survival and well-being.

  1. The Pakistani army has developed a national security paradigm over time in which India and America are key factors. This enables it to maintain a firm, indeed, decisive hold over foreign policy and to establish a core stake in political power. No foreign policy initiative, in the region or beyond, by any Pakistani government can be successful without the full backing of the military. The implication of this is that, despite formally handing over “ownership” of the war against terror to the civilian government, the military remains its de facto determinant. Therefore it is important that Mr Holbrooke should talk not just to the civilian government but also directly to Pakistan’s military establishment about common goals and methods. The proposal by Shah Mahmud Qureshi to establish a joint policy and intelligence mechanism comprising civilian and military officials from Pakistan and America for this purpose is a good start.
  2. Pakistan’s economy has slumped to 3 per cent growth. This is a recipe for social unrest and political upheaval whose radical-Islamist backlash will be felt beyond the borders of Pakistan, into Afghanistan and Central Asia to the west and India in the east. But given the structural weaknesses in the economy, it is unable to lift itself up by its own bootstraps. Large doses of foreign assistance are required, which cannot materialize without the active sympathy and support of the United States in principal and the international community in general. Consequently, the tension in Islamabad and Rawalpindi on this account is palpable. The IMF’s tough conditions are not easy to swallow or digest. The Biden-Lugar bill for US$1.5 billion per year for ten years in economic assistance to Pakistan that was proposed in the US Congress during the Bush administration has been delayed inordinately. The “Friends of Pakistan” – a euphemism for the international community with Saudi Arabia thrown in for good measurewhowere expected to provide quick financial relief have begun to drag their feet pending a nod from the new Obama administration. Worse, the Pakistan military is strapped for cash and special equipment because Washington has been amiss in the last few months of the transition process in disbursing payments to it amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars in bills for conducting the war on terror. Therefore the sooner Pakistani and American inter-agency, defense and government stakeholders sit down to hammer out a mutually acceptable policy approach and mechanism for conducting the war on terror and clearing the economic assistance in the pipeline, the better.
  3. The third challenge is to create political stability and good governance in Pakistan. But tensions between President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani based on personality quirks, social backgrounds and political inexperience of government, are not conducive for public confidence, good governance or stability. Mr Gilani’s hasty sacking of Gen (retd) Mahmood Durrani without consulting Mr Zardari was inadvisable, as was his blithe shunting of the finance secretary, Dr Waqar Masood, without consulting his boos, the finance advisor, Shaukat Tarin. Unfortunately, Mr Tarin has expressed his displeasure in public, which he shouldn’t have done, thereby giving another scoop to the suspicious media. Dr Masood is unpopular with the cash strapped ministries and departments because he is managing the IMF belt tightening program. This is a classic situation of a government caught between the rock of the IMF conditions and the hard place of public demands for funds. Then there is the continuing tension between the PPP government and the PMLN opposition. This is troubling. If Mr Nawaz Sharif is knocked out by thesupreme courtand the Punjab government supports the lawyers movement, everyone will be a loser. A government that is besieged on the domestic front can hardly put up a good show on the external front. Finally, a national consensus on fighting the war on terror is sorely lacking. Indeed, most Pakistanis have been brainwashed by an emotionally charged and reckless media that this is exclusively America’s war. This is making the job of the Zardari government immeasurably more difficult in negotiating with Washington for economic assistance, with the Pakistani military for a greater effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and with the media and opposition for political support.
  4. The fourth challenge is in the realm of foreign relations with India and the US. Both are acutely focused on Pakistan as never before because they perceive their core security interests to be threatened by Pakistan. India is wounded, angry and aggressive; America is impatient, frustrated and prickly. Both have joined hands to secure these interests. Under the circumstances, Pakistan cannot afford to remain politically divided and economically weak.

The Pakistan government, army, opposition and media all have to be on the same page to accept and overcome the challenges faced by the country. It is a tall order, to be sure, but there is no choice.

(February 20-26, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 1 – Editorial)

Politics of Swat peace accord

The Nizam-e-Adl Regulation 2009 (NAR) (Justice System) for Malakand Division, NWFP, which includes the state of Swat, is a hugely controversial system of so-called Islamic laws of justice that is based on a highly dubious “peace accord” between the NWFP government of the Awami National Party and a small religious outfit (Tehreek-e-Nifaze-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) led by an aging warrior, Sufi Mohammad.

There is bitter controversy over what is Islamic and what is not, what is vice and what is virtue, what punishments can be legitimately prescribed, the speed at which this “justice” can be delivered without abandoning the whole notion of due process, and the process of appeal to constitutional higher authorities outside Malakand. Indeed, it is unclear whether the regulation is even constitutional or not.

The “peace accord” which underlies it is even more problematic. It is between the toothless TNSM and the nervous NWFP government, not between the federal government backed by the Pakistan Army and the Tehreeke-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by the regional warlord Baitullah Mehsud. In other words, the two main protagonists in the war against terror are missing from the equation. A direct “peace accord” between the NWFP government and the TTP in May 2008 fell apart quickly because the Swati warlord Fazlullah used the breather to intensify his terrorist campaign, capture space and further erode the writ of the state.

The situation of the NWFP government is equally precarious. The secular nationalist ANP swept aside the religious-conservative Muttahida Majlise-e-Amal in the 2008 elections in Swat. It sought to establish its administrative writ via the May 2008 peace accord with the TTP and hastened the exit of the Pakistan Army from Swat after its successful military operations in the winter of 2007-08. Since then, it has progressively lost control of territory and power to the TTP whose mission statement is to seize all of Pakistan and establish an anti-American Islamic Emirate along the lines of the Taliban government in Kabul from 1997-2001. Faced with the prospect of calling the army back to launch full scale operations – which would have inevitably led to thousands of innocent civilian casualties because of the deployment and use of tanks and artillery as the conventional tools of war in an unconventional guerilla-war zone, and alienated the ANP’s vote bank – it chose the more opportunist route of parleying with the TTP through the aegis of the TNSM which has been demanding the enforcement of sharia in the region since 1995 when Sufi Mohammad first raised the banner of Islam under his lashkar. The ANP’s strategy is to concede a popular version of Sharia to Sufi Mohammad and either drive a wedge between him and his son-in law Fazlullah, thereby weakening Fazlullah, or to win over and neutralize Fazlullah to Sufi’s side and drive a wedge between him and his leader Baitullah Mehsud, thereby weakening the latter. In the event of the peace accord failing because of the TTP’s intransigence and aggression, the ANP will say to the people of Swat that it tried to enforce shariah and provide swift justice to them but was thwarted by the TTP – consequently, the unleashing of the full military might of the Pakistani state will be justified and nay sayers in the media and among the TNSM will be silenced.

This means that hard-nosed politics is in command of the situation in Swat and not controversial notions of Islam or swift justice which are merely the peg on which to restore the writ of the state. This conclusion is reinforced by various statements of different political and religious parties and groups. The PPP information minister, Sherry Rehman, says that President Asif Zardari will not endorse the pact until peace has actually been restored in Swat. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, says the use of force should not be the first or only option. The ANP chief minister of the NWFP, Amir Haider Hoti, insists the army will remain in “reactive” mode rather than be withdrawn or put in to “proactive” mode to cater for any eventuality. The religious parties, in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI, have duly criticized the accord because they can see through its “Islamic” smokescreen.

Is this a tactical “surrender” by the PPP-ANP before the encroaching Taliban because they suspect that the Pakistan Army cannot bring itself to root out the menace? Hard-nosed realists know, first, that the Taliban are linked to Al-Qaeda and their mission statement is war for global Islam and not peace for local justice. Second, this is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s. Third, to win this war, the government has to win back the hearts and minds of the people and recruit them in the battle against the Taliban. Therefore a failed peace accord based on the popular demand for shariah justice in which the blame for not allowing it to take root and flourish can be duly put on the Taliban followed by a relentless military campaign is not a bad strategy. Politics is, after all, the continuation of war by other means. Expect the blame-game to begin before the ink has dried.

(February 20-26, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 1 – Editorial)

Politics of Swat peace accord

The Nizam-e-Adl Regulation 2009 (NAR) (Justice System) for Malakand Division, NWFP, which includes the state of Swat, is a hugely controversial system of so-called Islamic laws of justice that is based on a highly dubious “peace accord” between the NWFP government of the Awami National Party and a small religious outfit (Tehreek-e-Nifaze-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) led by an aging warrior, Sufi Mohammad.

There is bitter controversy over what is Islamic and what is not, what is vice and what is virtue, what punishments can be legitimately prescribed, the speed at which this “justice” can be delivered without abandoning the whole notion of due process, and the process of appeal to constitutional higher authorities outside Malakand. Indeed, it is unclear whether the regulation is even constitutional or not.

The “peace accord” which underlies it is even more problematic. It is between the toothless TNSM and the nervous NWFP government, not between the federal government backed by the Pakistan Army and the Tehreeke-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by the regional warlord Baitullah Mehsud. In other words, the two main protagonists in the war against terror are missing from the equation. A direct “peace accord” between the NWFP government and the TTP in May 2008 fell apart quickly because the Swati warlord Fazlullah used the breather to intensify his terrorist campaign, capture space and further erode the writ of the state.

The situation of the NWFP government is equally precarious. The secular nationalist ANP swept aside the religious-conservative Muttahida Majlise-e-Amal in the 2008 elections in Swat. It sought to establish its administrative writ via the May 2008 peace accord with the TTP and hastened the exit of the Pakistan Army from Swat after its successful military operations in the winter of 2007-08. Since then, it has progressively lost control of territory and power to the TTP whose mission statement is to seize all of Pakistan and establish an anti-American Islamic Emirate along the lines of the Taliban government in Kabul from 1997-2001. Faced with the prospect of calling the army back to launch full scale operations – which would have inevitably led to thousands of innocent civilian casualties because of the deployment and use of tanks and artillery as the conventional tools of war in an unconventional guerilla-war zone, and alienated the ANP’s vote bank – it chose the more opportunist route of parleying with the TTP through the aegis of the TNSM which has been demanding the enforcement of sharia in the region since 1995 when Sufi Mohammad first raised the banner of Islam under his lashkar. The ANP’s strategy is to concede a popular version of Sharia to Sufi Mohammad and either drive a wedge between him and his son-in law Fazlullah, thereby weakening Fazlullah, or to win over and neutralize Fazlullah to Sufi’s side and drive a wedge between him and his leader Baitullah Mehsud, thereby weakening the latter. In the event of the peace accord failing because of the TTP’s intransigence and aggression, the ANP will say to the people of Swat that it tried to enforce shariah and provide swift justice to them but was thwarted by the TTP – consequently, the unleashing of the full military might of the Pakistani state will be justified and nay sayers in the media and among the TNSM will be silenced.

This means that hard-nosed politics is in command of the situation in Swat and not controversial notions of Islam or swift justice which are merely the peg on which to restore the writ of the state. This conclusion is reinforced by various statements of different political and religious parties and groups. The PPP information minister, Sherry Rehman, says that President Asif Zardari will not endorse the pact until peace has actually been restored in Swat. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, says the use of force should not be the first or only option. The ANP chief minister of the NWFP, Amir Haider Hoti, insists the army will remain in “reactive” mode rather than be withdrawn or put in to “proactive” mode to cater for any eventuality. The religious parties, in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUI, have duly criticized the accord because they can see through its “Islamic” smokescreen.

Is this a tactical “surrender” by the PPP-ANP before the encroaching Taliban because they suspect that the Pakistan Army cannot bring itself to root out the menace? Hard-nosed realists know, first, that the Taliban are linked to Al-Qaeda and their mission statement is war for global Islam and not peace for local justice. Second, this is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s. Third, to win this war, the government has to win back the hearts and minds of the people and recruit them in the battle against the Taliban. Therefore a failed peace accord based on the popular demand for shariah justice in which the blame for not allowing it to take root and flourish can be duly put on the Taliban followed by a relentless military campaign is not a bad strategy. Politics is, after all, the continuation of war by other means. Expect the blame-game to begin before the ink has dried.

(February 27 – March 05, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 2 – Editorial)

Back to square one?

Not unexpectedly, the Sharif brothers have been knocked out by the Supreme Court, plunging Pakistan into turmoil all over again. The decision is extremely unpopular because it is perceived to be politically biased and provocative. But the painful and ironical truth is that it is lawful and would have been politically tainted but popular if it had been the other way round. Consider.

Both Sharifs were convicted in 2000 by the courts under General Pervez Musharraf’s martial law regime – Nawaz for ordering “plane hijacking” and Shahbaz for ordering “extra-judicial killings”. They struck a political deal with General Musharraf and preferred exile to prison. They also refused to challenge their convictions later because they refused to accept the legitimacy of the post-Musharraf judiciary. Instead, they agitated for and banked on the restoration of the deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, in the expectation that he would strike down everything unpalatable that happened during the Musharraf years, including the coup that led to their ouster from power and their subsequent convictions. One might therefore say that, given the logic of their situation, they have been hoist by their own petard. If the court had absolved them, that would have been a welcome political judgment giving them a stake in the political system even as they reject its post-Musharraf legal foundation.

The villain of the piece is widely held to be Mr Asif Zardari. One month ago, says Mr Nawaz Sharif, Mr Zardari allegedly offered the brothers a “business deal”: acquittal in the Supreme Court if they abandoned the quest for restoring Mr Chaudhry and agreed to live with Mr Hameed Dogar, the current chief justice, a Zardari favourite. Mr Zardari has refused to restore Mr Chaudhry because of his view that the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which reprieves Mr Zardari and Co, is illegal. In other words, if Mr Chaudhry were to be reinstalled, he would oust Mr Zardari from the presidency in the blinking of an eye, as well as possibly holding the 2008 general elections under General Musharraf illegal, thereby ensuring Mr Sharif’s return to power via a new legal shortcut. Why should the PPP and Mr Zardari commit political hara-kiri after winning a general election?

There are other facts to consider too. Shortly after winning the elections, Mr Zardari offered a coalition government to Mr Sharif in Islamabad and Punjab instead of rushing to form a PPP-PMLQ alliance. He also offered to discuss a constitutional amendment whereby several objectives could be met: get rid of General Musharraf but enable a safe exit for him in order not to alienate the army and destabilize the system; get rid of the extraordinary powers of the presidency; and restore all the judges, including Mr Chaudhry, while ensuring that they would not upset the apple cart. This was an eminently sensible and practical way to resolve the issues. But Mr Sharif spurned the offer, insisting on the unconditional prior restoration of Mr Chaudhry before any constitutional amendment. This was billed as the “politics of principles”, a contradiction in terms because politics is the art of the possible and not principles. It was also precious, since Mr Sharif’s record as a defender of the judiciary is blemished. Mr Zardari’s grave error lay in first agreeing to restore all the judges and then backtracking on his pledge, for which he has been rightly condemned. But Mr Sharif’s later decision to participate, with the full backing of the Punjab government, in the lawyers’ movement and destabilize the federal government, sealed his fate.

“Rise and revolt for the cause of democracy”, Mr Sharif now exhorts the people of Pakistan. “Zardari is the culprit, not the PPP” he thunders. This distinction, too, is transparently opportunistic. He is hoping to provoke a revolt in the PPP that puts the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, and the President, Asif Zardari, at odds. So where does Pakistan go from here?

Unless a constitutional compromise is quickly hammered out, we are in for a bout of instability. Punjab has been placed under Governor’s Raj pending a new coalition government by the PPP and PMLQ. Mr Sharif will now band together with other disgruntled elements like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf and the lawyers’ movement. This will lead to arrests and detentions. If the protests are prolonged and violent, and some people are killed, there is no knowing where it will all end. Certainly, the last thing both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif should want is for the khakis to smile in grim satisfaction at the civilians making a spectacle of themselves all over again, thereby giving the army yet another pretext to step in and “save Pakistan”.

There is a way out via a constitutional amendment that gives the lawyers’ movement, the Sharifs, and the ruling PPP, a credible stake in a stable and fair system in which federal and provincial governments can complete their full term under the watchful eye of a less subservient judiciary. Otherwise, Pakistan will enter another period of instability and uncertainty, worrying everyone in the region and beyond at a time when it is already billed as “one of the most dangerous spots in the world”.

(March 6-12, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 3 – Editorial)

Lahore 3/3: Whodunnit?

On January 22, 2009, the Punjab CID officially warned the IGP that “RAW (Indian Intelligence Agency) has assigned its agents the task to target (the) Sri Lankan Cricket Team … especially while traveling between the hotel and stadium  to show Pakistan as a security risk state for sports events…Extreme vigilance and high security arrangements are indicated.” As if on cue, minutes after the attack, a clutch of the usual suspect Pakistani analysts, TV anchors, politicians and one former DG-ISI pointed the finger at a “foreign hand” from across the border. This was a tit-for-tat replay of Mumbai, they argued, because the terrorists escaped intact and didn’t commit suicide, a hallmark of the local Islamic jihadi groups. The RAW conspiracy theory was completed after statements from the Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, and the Home Minister, P Chidambaram, noting the depth of the terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan. “Unless infrastructure and facilities available to the terrorist organizations within Pakistan or territory under its control are completely dismantled, repetition of these incidents will take place”, said Mr Mukherjee. Both were quick to crow about India’s decision not to send its cricket team to Pakistan, followed by a chorus of professional voices from sports-playing countries across the globe seeking a long term ban on playing in Pakistan.

But there are some snags in this scenario. A former high ranking intelligence official who relinquished charge of a senior police post in the Punjab government three days ago told TFT confidentially that this was “the handiwork of a former jihadi group now linked to Al Qaeda”. He said that last year the security agencies had nabbed a terrorist from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian organization once involved in the Kashmir jihad but now working closely with the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network led by Baitullah Masud in South Waziristan, FATA. This terrorist, he explained, was still in police custody. He had confessed that he was trained to carry out a suicide mission last year during the proposed Champions Cricket Trophy, whose venue was later shifted out of Pakistan.

The Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, and the IGP, Khalid Farooq, say that the attack was carried out “by the same people who did Mumbai”. Significantly, however, on the day of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, most newspapers carried news that Al Qaeda had owned up to the Marriott Hotel Islamabad blast of September 2008 in a message sent to the Saudi embassy in Islamabad. On December 22, 2008, it may be recalled, the Interior Adviser, Mr Rehman Malik, had told the National Assembly that the Marriott blast was carried out by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Al Qaeda has already claimed responsibility for the attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad.

Before her death, Ms Benazir Bhutto had revealed that the attack on her procession in Karachi in October 2007 was carried out by the gang of “Abdul Rehman Sindhi, an Al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant from the Dadu district of Sindh”. After her assassination in December 2008, an Al Qaeda spokesman claimed responsibility for killing “an American asset”. The LeJ was created in 1996 and trained by Al Qaeda in its camps in Afghanistan. In the late 1990s, the Taliban government, backed by Al Qaeda, steadily refused Pakistan’s demand to hand over LeJ terrorists. There are other signs that the LeJ is an ally of Al Qaeda. In May 2002, a New Zealand cricket team abandoned its tour of Pakistan after a LeJ suicide bomber attacked them in front of their hotel in Karachi. There is also evidence of the LeJ’s involvement in the attack on the Karachi Corps commander in 2002 and on General Pervez Musharraf in 2003.

The LeJ was closely aligned with Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the master-planner of the 9/11 attacks in the United States who was later nabbed and handed over to the US by the Musharraf regime. When the British national Omar Sheikh, sprung from an Indian jail by Jaish-e-Muhammad after the hijack of an Indian airliner in 1999, led the American journalist Daniel Pearl into a trap in Karachi in January 2002, the trap was actually set by a group of terrorists of LeJ which finally facilitated Khalid Sheikh Muhammad in personally slaughtering Pearl in a safe house belonging to a charity trust linked to a madrassah in Karachi and active in Afghanistan, and banned as a terrorist organisation.

But there is a serious problem in Pakistan about such terrorist attacks. Despite many occasions when Al Qaeda has owned up to its attacks in Pakistan few Pakistanis believe that Al Qaeda actually exists, let alone that it is dangerous for Pakistan. This state of mass denial owes to the religious-nationalist ideological leanings of many “youthful” TV anchors who were blighted by the Zia ul Haq years in which the national education system was explicitly religious-nationalist. It lies behind the lack of consensus in Pakistan about the origins of “Islamic” terrorism and how to tackle it. It is strengthened by “fearful” reporting from places where journalists like Musa Khankhel have been killed in Swat for expressing views that arouse the wrath of the Taliban. And it is strengthened by the regular acquittal of LeJ terrorists from courts where judges are not protected by the state.

(March 13-19, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 4 – Editorial)

On the brink again

Astring of controversial political decisions by Mr Asif Zardari has brought Pakistan to a dangerous impasse. At the outset, after the PPP won the elections and was invited by President Pervez Musharraf to form a government, the logic of the two parties system demanded a strategic coalition alliance between the PPP and PMLQ as originally envisaged by Benazir Bhutto. But Ms Bhutto’s assassination was an emotionally unhinging experience. Having referred to the Q League as “Qatil” League, Mr Zardari determined to avenge her death by getting rid of President Musharraf (and seizing the Presidency for himself). For this he had to ally with the PMLN instead of the PMLQ.

The second decision, which flowed from the logic of an alliance with the PMLN to get rid of President Musharraf, was to publicly concede its demand to restore Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice, despite being acutely aware of the judge’s anti-PPP views. When Mr Zardari didn’t fulfill his commitment (how could he undermine his own regime?), he lost public credibility as well as his alliance with the PLMN.

Mr Nawaz Sharif’s agenda is clear. He has been out in the cold since 1999 and can’t stomach the prospect of eclipse for another four years. He desperately wants Iftikhar Chaudhry restored so that he can hold all Musharraf acts illegal, including the reprieve from corruption granted to Mr Zardari and the ban on Mr Sharif, thereby compelling an election soon. He is capitalizing on his rising nation-wide popularity in the wake of the plunging fortunes of the PPP.

Mr Zardari’s pre- emptive strike to oust the Punjab government on February 25 (how could he allow it to put its weight behind the Long March and destabilize his federal government?) has precipitated a bigger crisis. Wounded, the Sharifs have declared war. They are exhorting people to rise as a revolutionary force and overthrow the system. This is a recipe for radical change which can only come with blood on the street.

Mr Zardari has offered a constitutional formula to Mr Sharif in which his grievances are addressed satisfactorily – including a restoration of Mr Chaudhry – without endangering his regime’s longevity. But Mr Sharif refuses to bend. He wants Mr Chaudhry restored before any deal with Mr Zardari, partly because he doesn’t trust him to keep his word and partly because he thinks Mr Chaudhry will obviate the need for any constitutional amendment.

Understandably, Washington is worried. It had hoped Mr Zardari would create a political consensus against the war on terror and get the military’s backing for it. Instead, he has only succeeded in alienating large sections of public opinion. One consequence of this has been an opportunistic “peace deal” with the Taliban in Swat which has been denounced as an abject surrender of state sovereignty to terrorists. As if on cue, Mullah Umar, leader of the Taliban, has called on all Taliban groups, Pakistani and Afghan, to unite to face the American “surge” in Afghanistan instead of expending energy fighting the Pakistan army.

Will the army intervene? It has already been pricked by media criticism of the war on terror. If it seized power, it would have to face the combined opposition – Mr Sharif has warned that if the army takes over instead of easing Mr Zardari out and making way for him, he will join hands with Mr Zardari to oppose military rule. It would also have to deal directly with Washington and “do more” against the Taliban, an unpopular move. So it would prefer to operate behind the scenes to effect change rather than be upfront.

Some American analysts argue that, in the event of a coup, Washington should do business with the military. This is misplaced thinking. If the previous regime of General Musharraf, which was stable and popular until its last year, was compelled to play a double game – supporting the war on terror in exchange for US aid while providing safe havens to the Taliban and not committing the full might of the military to the war – any new junta would be doubly indisposed to do America’s bidding in the face of public hostility. It would be politically isolated, battling the terrorists, civil society and pro-democracy activists at the same time. Nor, in the presence of an aggressive anti-American and pro-democracy free media, would it be able to persuade Pakistanis of the righteousness of its cause. Finally, if urban jihadi organizations were to join hands with the pro-democracy movement, there would be mayhem on such a scale that the army would not be able to control it.

In the best case scenario, the Zardari government will be able to thwart the Long March without too many cracked bones. This could be followed by a PPP government in the Punjab in alliance with the PMLQ. Mr Zardari would then muddle along until another Long March wave threatens him. Meanwhile, he would struggle to work with Washington and deliver its agenda on the unpopular war on terror. In the worst case scenario, the army would step in and find itself in political quicksand. The only recipe is more democracy and consensus building, not less. Both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif must pull back from the brink.

(March 20-26, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 5 – Editorial)

Mother of all deals

Last week we wrote that “both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif must pull back from the brink”. We also noted that the army “would prefer to operate behind the scenes to effect change rather than be upfront.” The reproach to the two leaders was warranted. And the prediction about the army’s role has been borne out by events

There was a perceptible build-up to high noon all week. At the behest of President Asif Zardari, Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, Asfandyar Wali and Nawab Aslam Raisani offered a constitutional package to Mr Nawaz Sharif to resolve all outstanding issues, including the restoration of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and repeal of the 17th amendment, on the condition that he abandon the Long March. But Mr Sharif insisted on the restoration of Mr Chaudhry as a pre-condition to any deal and wanted to flex muscle via the Long March. This set the stage for a discreet “intervention” by the ubiquitous Double A – Army and America. Both assessed the developing political conflict as inimical to their interests because it was diverting the attention of the state and government from the core issues facing Pakistan on the economic front and on its eastern and western borders.

Double A’s covert “deal” involved many urgent meetings between General Ashfaq Kayani, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and President Zardari. It involved significant to-ing and fro-ing by the US Ambassador, Anne Patterson, and the UK High Commissioner, Robert Brinkley, and many timely phone calls to the two protagonists by the US Special Envoy to Pakistan-Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. Secret contact was established by Double A with Iftikhar Chaudhry via Aitzaz Ahsan to clinch solid guarantees of “good conduct” in the event of Mr Chaudhry’s restoration. Imran Khan and Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the two erstwhile revolutionaries, were conspicuously kept out of the loop by all concerned.

The “deal” was set-off by a confidence-building measure before the Long March. President Zardari announced a “review” petition in the Supreme Court (SC) against its judgment disqualifying the Sharif brothers from holding public office. Double A also ensured that the door to the restoration of the PMLN government in Punjab wasn’t closed by leaning on the Chaudhries of the PMLQ to hold off from cementing an alliance with the PPP. In fact, the Chaudhries were advised to float a proposal for a PPP-PMLN-PMLQ “reconciliation government” in Punjab if and when Governor’s Rule was withdrawn.

Everything now hinged on the Long March. If Mr Sharif could put up a forceful show, the pendulum of power would swing to him. But if it failed, President Zardari could renege on his commitments and provoke another round of confrontation. In the event, the Army pulled all the right strings in the federal and provincial administrations and ensured that Mr Sharif was allowed to lead the Long March and galvanise the crowds. This enabled PM Gilani to COAS Kayani to lean on President Zardari to announce the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, thereby calling off the Long March.

The army under General Kayani has reaped three dividends. It has reestablished its credibility as a national institution standing above the political fray and defending “democracy” rather than undermining it. It has whittled away at the absolute powers of President Zardari and tried to redistribute them among the prime minister, opposition, Supreme Court and media. By dispersing civilian power amongst countervailing and contending forces it has tilted the historic civil-military imbalance once again in its own favour. And its last minute intervention has removed the slight of its link to the other A for America. This was a smart move in view of rampant anti-Americanism in the country.

But there is many a slip between the cup and lip. Mr Chaudhry has been “restored”, not “reappointed” as a judge. This means that the coup of November 3, 2007, and the PCO, signed by President Pervez Mushaffaf in his capacity as army chief, has to be indemnified by parliament, failing which everything since then would be construed as illegal and plunge the country into a constitutional gridlock.

But the CJ’s de facto “spokesman”, Aitzaz Ahsan, has announced that under the doctrine of “Past and Closed Transactions”, the file will not be reopened on post November 3 decisions “in order to avoid chaos”. This is the “soft” restoration that protects President Zardari from destabilization, enables the army chief to be indemnified and paves the way for Mr Sharif to negotiate an equitable repeal of the 17th amendment.

The next few weeks will be critical. We need a constitutional amendment and a cleansing of the judiciary based on the Charter of Democracy. But this won’t be easy. Mr Sharif will demand everything under the sun while President Zardari will want to retain all his powers and recoup his losses. Meanwhile, there may be a split in the lawyers’ movement between the “idealists” and the pragmatists. No one quite knows how the CJ and the rest of the SC judges will behave in the ultimate analysis. But one thing is for sure. If Mr Sharif and President Zardari start squabbling again, Double A might have to intervene rather more forcefully, this time with more serious consequences for President Asif Zardari.

(March 27-April 2, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 6 – Editorial)

Will the Empire Strike Back?

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s visit to Nawaz Sharif’s Raiwind Palace in Lahore on March 23 has set hopes soaring of a “grand reconciliation” in the offing. The refusal of the Sharifs to entertain a request from the Chaudhries of Gujrat for a luncheon meeting to discuss their formula for a “three-way PPP-PMLN-PMLQ government”, coupled with Mr Sharif’s attempt to curb the anti-PPP sentiments of some perennially hawkish members of the PMLN, were duly noted by enthusiastic scribes. A “one-on-one” longish meeting between the PM (and his son, for some strange reason) and the Sharif brothers, without aides or colleagues, became the talk of the town, implying some sort of “secret understanding” from which, perhaps, even President Asif Zardari might be excluded.

The icing on the cake, as it were, was provided by news that President Zardari is going to address the National Assembly on 28th March, with appropriate leaks in the media that he is going to “voluntarily” announce his intention of doing away with the 17th amendment. But if this is an unusually tall order, it is certainly not the end of the story.

The same section of the media is also pinning great hopes on the newly restored Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, to cut President Zardari down to size by reviving the NRO, packing off the 38 pro-Zardari judges appointed since November 3, 2007, and hauling up former President and Army Chief, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, for treason. “Proof” of such impending developments comes in the form of several writ petitions filed in the last few days before the High Courts and Supreme Court. There is one against Governor’s Rule in Punjab, one against the judgment barring the Sharifs from holding public office, one against the November 3rd, 2007, action by General Musharraf, and one against those judges who subsequently took oath on a new PCO.

Finally, to drive the nail into the coffin of the post-Musharraf order, an article in The New York Times is being cited as evidence of changing wind direction. It discusses a possible change of heart in Washington regarding Mr Sharif’s credentials for replacing Mr Zardari as a “preferred” American ally.

Are these, then, portents of a grand conspiracy hatched by Double-A (America and Army) for “regime change” in Pakistan? Is Mr Zardari going to be undermined and weakened by pushing and propping up Mr Gilani? Is Mr Zardari going to be replaced later by Mr Nawaz Sharif?

We don’t think so. This “wishful thinking” is a sure shot recipe for destablisation and distraction. Neither the Army, nor America, is on board such a scenario. Furthermore, Mr Zardari is not going to be a pushover.

General Ashfaq Kayani did not broker any deal with Mr Sharif or anyone else that could end up in a challenge to, and indictment of, General Pervez Musharraf, who installed General Kayani as army chief after November 3rd 2007 and who still enjoys the security of Army House in Rawalpindi. Nor is General Kayani intending to raise his own comfort level by paving the way for Nawaz Sharif, whose record shows that he fought with a benefactor-president, sacked an army chief and tried to stage a coup against another. Equally, Mr Zardari did not agree to the restoration of Mr Iftikhar Chaudhry without solid assurances that he would not undermine or overthrow him. Nor is Mr Zardari going to allow Mr Gilani to become a strong prime minister who sings to the tune of Mr Sharif or the Army or America. Sooner or later, he will move decisively to clip Mr Gilani’s wings if he tries to spread them any wider. And, let’s face it, America did not act to ease out the devil it knows and is doing good business with, so that it can swim in the dark blue sea it hasn’t fathomed (the US state department has reiterated its support of the Zardari government and money and weapons are about to pour in). What, then, is more likely to happen?

The Supreme Court will probably go along with the spirit of the doctrine of “Past and Closed Transactions” as advocated by Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan, especially as regards the fate of General Musharraf and the PCO judges. Not for nothing is the CJ’s first public statement focused on combating corruption in the judiciary than on the various constitutional issues agitating the media. So the various petitions will be heard and ways will be found among the corpus of old and new judges to resolve issues without too much destablisation. If a Stay Order is granted to restore the PMLN government in the Punjab (as a confidence-building measure), the review petition seeking a reversal of the original decision barring the Sharifs may not prove too helpful to their personal cause. Similarly, President Zardari may again proclaim his noble intention from the parliamentary pulpit to implement the Charter of Democracy and undo the 17th amendment and weaken the powers of the presidency but do not expect any concrete results in a hurry. Not for nothing did Mr Sharif say some days ago that if the CoD can be implemented by next March 2010 he would consider it a great victory for democracy!

(April 3-9, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 7 – Editorial)

Taliban threat to Pakistan

Baitullah Mehsud has finally broken his silence and told the BBC personally from his hideout in FATA: “By the grace of Allah Almighty, I am claiming responsibility for the attack on the police training school in Lahore with eagerness, honour and love and will continue similar strikes across the country”. In 2005, Mr Mehsud’s militia killed over 100 policemen and soldiers; in 2007, the toll was nearly 2000. In 2008, he cobbled the Taliban Tehreek of Pakistan (TTP) comprising various warlords. This has since all but captured Swat under the aegis of his deputy Fazlullah.

The police academy at Munawan was a “soft” unguarded target, like the FIA building and the Navy War College in Lahore which were targeted last year. The blasts at the Norwegian embassy and the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad can also be laid at Mr Mehsud’s door. Indeed, the government has already accused him of engineering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in November 2007. There are thousands of such soft targets across the country. The police is insufficient and ill-equipped to defend them. Mr Mehsud is targeting the police and security agencies because he wants to demoralize them from fighting his forces. Indeed, since the police and khassadars are so thinly stretched across the tribal areas and much of the NWFP and Swat, this is the best way to seize territory and establish alternative state structures in the captured spaces. For example, a mosque in Jamrud in Khybar was attacked last week because many local “khassadars” were praying in it. Only a week earlier a local khassadar force had attacked and scattered a local Taliban warlord allied to the TTP. The suicide bombing was a retaliatory strike by the Taliban, who later went on to capture a dozen khassadars and kill others.

If all this cannot be refuted, why do most Pakistanis have so much difficulty in accepting Mr Mehsud’s culpability? Certainly, he and his followers make no bones about their contempt for democracy, elections and constitutionalism. They say their aim is to seize Afghanistan and all of Pakistan and establish an Islamic Emirate of the Taliban. Their writ runs in much of FATA. It is now sweeping across Swat and beginning to encroach into Dir and Chitral. Many areas of the NWFP are threatened by them because they can kidnap and attack people with impunity. They are much better armed and certainly more mobile than the police of the region. Their network includes the disgruntled elements of the old military-sponsored jihadist network in southern Punjab and Karachi spawned by various hard-line Sunni outfits like the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. The MQM now says that Karachi, which has a significant Pashtun population that has migrated from the NWFP and Afghanistan over the years and is concentrated in certain key sectors of the economy, is threatened by the Taliban.

Naïve Pakistanis say that if the Americans were to leave Afghanistan and the Pakistan government were to abandon its support for them, the Taliban would either melt away or stop warring with the Pakistan state, even though the Taliban’s excesses in Afghanistan are well known and their intention to replicate their experience in Pakistan are routinely broadcast from mobile FM radio stations in FATA. They support “peace deals” with the Taliban even though these peace deals lead to a loss of Pakistani territory to the Taliban and erode the writ of the Pakistani state markedly. They say there is no such thing as Al-Qaeda and there are no foreign fighters in FATA, even though many foreigners have been hunted down and killed in these areas and Al-Qaeda spokesmen appear from time to time on TV channels to make claims of victories and hurl threats of more attacks to come. When the Taliban kill Pakistani policemen, soldiers, or local politicians and tribal elders, they say “Muslims cannot conceivably kill Muslims” and that some “foreign hand” must be involved, even though Muslims have been killing each other in Sudan, Egypt, Iraq and in sectarian conflict across the Muslim world for decades, and evidence of any foreign hand is never presented. The Pakistan media, by and large, supports and propagates this unfortunate view.

The underlying factor is the rampant anti-Americanism sweeping Pakistan. Because the Taliban are fighting the Ugly American, popular sympathy is with them, even when most people oppose any Talibanisation of their own region or locality. The lack of credibility and loss of faith in the Pakistani state and government, which are generally unable to protect or inspire their citizens, is another reason for disowning their cause against the Taliban and succumbing to the psychology of frustration, alienation, anger and fear.

The popular opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, has finally agreed that “the concerns of the West about extremism and terrorism in Pakistan are justified”. This is great news. If the mainstream PPP and PMLN parties can stop fighting each other, they may be able to forge a mutual agenda to ward off this evil. Perhaps then the media will also come on board and the people of Pakistan can be apprised of the facts and galvanized to support their state and government. Until then, however, we must hunker down to survive the Taliban offensive that is gathering storm in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(April 10-16, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 08 – Editorial)

US-Pak relations in trough

Mr Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, received a mixed reception in both countries recently. In Kabul the government of President Hamid Karzai has been bristling with resentment at official leaks by Washington about the corruption in the presidency and mis-governance in the Kabul administration. Indeed, there has been “informed” speculation in Washington about Mr Karzai’s fate, with several unabashedly pro-US candidates in the forthcoming elections in Afghanistan vying for Washington’s support against Mr Karzai.

In Islamabad, the situation was, if anything, more complex. The government of President Asif Zardari is squirming between an irresistible force (US) and an immovable object (Pak army). Mr Zardari wants something like a Marshall Plan from the West, led by the US, worth US$30 billion to bail out Pakistan over the next five years or so. He also recognizes the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network as the core threat to the stability of his government and the security of his country. So he is suitably “soft” towards the Americans. But the Pak army, which is autonomous if not independent from the government, isn’t on the same page. It retains a stranglehold over the tactics and strategy of national security, into which is woven the powerful fabric of its own institutional interests. Its outlook is long-term while that of the civilian government is short-term. And it is readily able to tap into the vast reservoir of anti-American and anti-Zardari sentiment in the country, media and establishment to flog its interests and point of view quite effectively.

Washington has accused the ISI of playing a “double game”. It alleges that while cooperating with NATO to take out Al-Qaeda operatives in the urban and tribal areas of the country, the ISI has been protecting the leaders and forces of the Afghan Taliban and facilitating their movement and attacks across the border into Afghanistan. Consequently, Washington’s attempts to undermine and weaken the ISI have not amused General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief. The current ISI bears his unmistakable stamp and he is unequivocally still in charge of it. Gen Kayani was its DG before becoming COAS, an unprecedented development in Pakistani military history. More significantly, he has handpicked and promoted the current ISI chief, General Shuja Pasha, which is also unprecedented because this prerogative is a prime ministerial one, normally giving the ISI chief a degree of autonomy as a go-between GHQ and the PM’s secretariat. But not this time round. Gen Pasha is as apolitical as they come. He was DG-Military Operations and personally supervised the military intervention in the tribal areas and Swat. He was originally fated to retire as a Major General and take up a UN assignment. But by promoting and shunting him to the ISI, Gen Kayani has established a firm and direct control over both military operations and intelligence. Therefore the more Washington attacks the ISI, the more GHQ is angered, alienated and estranged, which is proving counter-productive as far as US-GHQ cooperation is concerned. This is one reason why Washington’s proposal for joint US-Pak military operations in the tribal areas has not been embraced by Pakistan. It is also another reason why Washington’s attempts to establish joint intelligence sharing between the ISI, Afghan Intelligence and CIA is not likely to get too far.

Washington’s tactics of wooing General Kayani publicly are also misplaced. Given the rampant anti-Americanism in the country and national security establishment, the last thing General Kayani wants is to be seen as being too “friendly” (read “servile”) with the “untrustworthy” Americans. Therefore Admiral Mullen’s continuingly gushing remarks about General Kayani (which amount to saying “he’s my buddy”) are making the Pakistani army chief squirm in his lair. Worse, they are compelling him to take an unnecessarily adversarial position behind the scenes by leaning on the civilian government and manipulating the media to counter American “bullying” on Af-Pak affairs. Hence the quite unprecedented statement by Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, at the conclusion of Mr Holbrooke’s visit about the existence of significant “gaps” between the American and Pakistani positions on how to go about prosecuting the “war on terror”. Indeed, the brevity of the remarks, the body language of the two sides, and the insistence by both that no blank cheque will be given to the other, were not terribly encouraging signs.

The Pakistani national security establishment also finds Washington’s pressure for short term gains in time for Congressional elections back home next year unacceptable. It is not going to squander its longer term Afghan-India strategy and assets at any such American altar. Therefore its message to the Pakistani government is: dig your heels in and don’t give in to Washington’s political bullying, military cajolements or financial enticements. Given the intrinsic nature of civil-military relations, the weak Zardari government and exclusive operational hold of the army and ISI on military ops, the conclusion is foregone.

If Washington isn’t more careful and discerning, US-Pak relations will head into a short-term trough. Anti-Americanism is rising. The Zardari government is already on the defensive for various domestic reasons. And the Taliban-Al Qaeda network has brought terrorism to the urban areas of the country, demoralizing the thinly stretched civilian security forces and confusing the people.

(April 17-23, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 9 – Editorial)

Tumultuous Times

A clutch of important Pakistani leaders visited Saudi Arabia last week. These included General Tariq Majeed, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, and General Ashfaq Kayani, COAS. There is speculation that maybe Mr Nawaz Sharif too paid a secret visit there recently. Mr Sharif’s trips to Riyadh always set tongues wagging, given his close links to the Saudi monarchy which is singularly responsible for his rising political fortune. Mr Sharif, interestingly, was in Dubai for a day last Tuesday, probably to meet President Asif Zardari who made a detour before turning around and flying off to Japan for the critical moot of the “Friends of Pakistan” consortium. The FOP is deliberating how much economic assistance to give Pakistan over the next few years and Saudi Arabia may turn out to be the biggest single donor in it.

Are these meetings, therefore, all about propping up Mr Zardari’s government and Pakistan’s economy? Is Mr Sharif hoisting the national interest above his party political interest by putting in a good word with the Saudis on behalf of Mr Zardar? Is General Kayani also backing up Mr Zardari for the grand sake of democracy?

Not at all. None of the political players is doing anything without a core vested interest. Indeed, there is a seamlessness about political developments in Pakistan since that fateful day of March 16 when Mr Zardari was out maneuvered by a combination of Army and America, and Mr Sharif was raised as a smart alternative to Mr Zardari in Washington. The fact that visiting American, British and EU bigwigs have probably met Mr Sharif as many times as they have President Zardari, says it all.

In consequence, we have seen their joint handwork in unmistakable terms. First, Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was restored as chief justice of Pakistan. Second, and as a consequence of Mr Chaudhry’s intervention, Mr Shahbaz Sharif was restored as chief minister of Punjab by a specially constituted bench of the Supreme Court. Third, Mr Zardari decided to constitute a bipartisan parliamentary committee to determine how to implement the Charter of Democracy and get rid of the 17th constitutional amendment, which empowers the office of the President and stops Mr Sharif from becoming a prime minister for the third time. Surely, this was not done happily and voluntarily. Fourth, the decision by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to invite Mr Sharif’s PMLN to join the federal cabinet and claim a stake in government is not gratuitous. It suggests there is pressure from certain quarters to get Mr Sharif to take greater responsibility for certain unpalatable decisions regarding the “war against terror” and belt-tightening the economy. Fifth, Mr Zardari’s decision to place the matter of the Nizam i Adl Regulation in Swat, which cements a dubious peace deal between the local government and the Taliban, before parliament and get its stamp of approval unanimously, implies that Mr Zardari has finally succumbed to pressure and didn’t want to take sole responsibility in the event of its failure. Sixth, the release of Maulana Aziz, the firebrand Lal Masjid religious leader, from prison on the orders of the Chaudhry-led Supreme Court, on April 15, against the inclination of the Zardari administration, signals an army/ISI interest because he might prove an intelligence asset in the three-way tussle for leverage between the Army, Taliban and America. Similarly, Mr Sharif’s cooperation suggests a movement towards a “national government” as a prelude to a mid-term election, which remains the PMLN’s most outstanding demand.

Still, there are wheels within wheels. Washington first put all its eggs in Benazir Bhutto’s basket and then in Mr Zardari’s. But President Musharraf didn’t survive the political fallout of the elections. So Washington quickly transferred its affection to General Kayani. However, this didn’t pay off because General Kayani was angered by the Obama administration’s allegations of “double dealing” by the ISI and crude attempts to nudge Mr Zardari to cut the secret agency down to size. So Mr Sharif was brought on board, to give the civilian government greater muscle and popular backing. That is where the Saudis come in, right behind Mr Sharif.

Mr Zardari has been considerably weakened in the last month or so by a string of bad political decisions which have alienated him from the army and most Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the US is frustrated because it is unable to have its way fully with Islamabad. The recent assertion of “gaps” between Washington and Islamabad, at the behest of the hardline army, including a refusal to give a blank cheque to Mr Holbrooke, is a measure of the bumps that lie ahead.

Mr Zardari wants nothing less than a Marshall Plan to bail out Pakistan and stabilize his PPP government. But the US is tying money and weapons to a proper quid pro quo from the army and ISI. However, both are not ready to accept Mr Zardari’s pro-US prescriptions because of long-held views on regional security. So the US is compelling him to bring Mr Sharif into the loop because of his popular backing. But Mr Sharif has his own agenda. He is using Saudi money and clout to guarantee a passage back to power sooner than later. Which power or actor will ultimately prevail and what will be the fate of Pakistan in these tumultuous times remains to be seen.

(April 24-30, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 10 – Editorial)

Jinnah: turning in his grave

A new anthology of writings on, and sayings of, the Qauid-e-Azam, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was launched in Karachi last week before a distinguished gathering of intellectual and media elites. In its preface, the authors, Liaquat Merchant (President of the Jinnah Society) and Professor Sharif al Mujahid, wrote that the book “includes thematic essays on some critical aspects of Jinnah’s politics and leadership – such as the sort of constitutional set-up visualized by him…, his role in institutionalizing civil liberties, and in emancipating and empowering women…”. Mr Merchant dwelt at length, amidst clapping, on the sort of democratic, constitutional, just and secular Pakistan envisioned by Mr Jinnah in which all sects and minorities, regardless of colour, caste or creed, would be equal citizens of the new state of Pakistan.

The same day, every newspaper carried headlines from Sufi Mohammad, the leader of the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), and Muslim Khan, the spokesmen of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the conqueror of Swat, that the constitution of Pakistan, approved by every political party of the country, was un-Islamic and unacceptable; that the Supreme Court, for whose supremacy and independence the country has recently witnessed nothing less than a revolutionary upsurge, was un-Islamic and unacceptable; that democracy, for which tens of millions of Pakistanis have fought and voted over the last sixty years, was un-Islamic and unacceptable; that women, whose heroic struggle for emancipation and representation which has been backed by all mainstream political leaders across the spectrum, are mere chattel who deserve no education and have no human rights. Both gentlemen proclaimed their determination to extend their “Islamic system and views” to the rest of Pakistan by force. The same day, Buner, a neighbouring district of Swat in the NWFP, fell to the TTP.

As on the fateful day in 1971 when General A. K. Niazi signed the surrender document in Dacca dismembering Pakistan, Mr Jinnah must have turned in his grave the day Pakistan’s supine parliament approved the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation giving legitimacy to an unholy peace deal signed between TSNM and the NWFP government on the point of a TTP gun. The tragic irony is that President Asif Zardari did not want to sign that document into law, and dragged his feet over it for months, because he believed it was inimical to Pakistan’s national interest. But a chorus of aggressive voices, from the Awami National Party that succumbed to the fear of the Taliban, to a hoard of “media-mujahideen” sympathetic to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, coupled with the stunning refusal of the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan Muslim League-N to condemn and resist the Taliban onslaught, compelled Mr Zardari to turn to Parliament for cover. Only the MQM that rules Karachi, and a clutch of liberal journalists and papers (including this one, of course) has had the consistent courage and imagination to stand up and resist the Swat deal.

Thankfully, however, the tide is beginning to turn. It began after the TV channels plucked up the courage to show the outrageous flogging of a young Swati girl in public by the Taliban. Subsequently, the TNSM and the TTP have alienated all of Pakistan by their recent outbursts against the constitution, Supreme Court, women, democracy and rule of law. Worse, they have repudiated the core elements of the “Swat deal” (to lay down their arms and not to use force to seize other territories) and the Nizam-e-Adl (to accept the Qazis appointed by the NWFP government, to allow the right to appeal by the yardstick of the constitution, etc) even before the ink on it was dry. The TTP’s armed seizure of Buner district and encroachments into Dir, coupled with continuing attacks on security forces in Hangu and elsewhere, have exposed its aims.

Meanwhile, three disquieting questions arise. First, why haven’t the articulate spokesmen and cheerleaders of the lawyers movement protested the sidelining of the lawyers of Swat and the trampling of the law and constitution by the TTP? Indeed, where is the chief justice, Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, whose suo motu actions in defense of law and liberty have given him a legendry status but who is now silent in the face of the Taliban threat to the very law and constitution that he has vowed to defend and uphold?

Second, why does the Pakistan Army support the Swat deal? Indeed, why did it stand by while the Taliban liquidated civilian officials and landlords allied to the ANP during their peaceful conquest of Swat and then Buner but swung into action unilaterally with helicopter gunships and jets when its own soldiers were attacked by the Taliban in violation of the same deal?

Third, why is Mr Nawaz Sharif’s attitude to the TTP and TNSM so equivocal? He supported the Swat deal and urged the Zardari government to desist from military action “against its own people”. Now he has the gall to tell a foreign newspaper that the Taliban are a menace and must be resisted “if they try to export their brand of Shariah to other parts of the country”. He has not once said the same thing on Pakistani television. In fact, he thrives on ambiguity, wooing the international community while pandering to the anti-American sympathy for the Taliban at home.

(May 1-7, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 11 – Editorial)

Battle for soul of Pakistan

As predicted, the Swat Peace Accord is rapidly unraveling after the signing of the Nizam-e-Adl regulation (NAR). Sufi Muhammad’s TNSM has not delivered its side of the bargain. The Taliban remain fully armed and are seizing new areas and spaces in the NWFP. Warlord Fazlullah is holding to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-Al Qaeda’s declared objective of forcibly establishing a Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under the circumstances, with domestic and international concern and pressure mounting, the Zardari government had to order the Pakistan army into Buner and Dir to stop the Taliban in their tracks. Both sides are now claiming violations of the Accord. The army says the Taliban staged a “drama” and “deceived” everybody. The TNSM accuses the government of delaying the appointment of Qazis to man the courts.

A handful of liberals and all of the international community opposed NAR as a potential “surrender” document while the majority-rightists insisted on it as the only way to make peace with “fellow Muslims”. The secular ANP’s position was most interesting. It argued that the NAR was meant for implementation of speedy justice rather than for establishing Shariah. It therefore implied a win-win situation if the document was signed – if peace resulted, followed by the laying down of arms by the Taliban, that should be welcome by all; but if the opposite happened, the TNSM and TTP would be discredited in the eyes of the majority-rightists and trigger popular domestic appeals for military reprisals, as also demanded by the liberals and the international community.

In fact that is exactly what has happened. A wave of public revulsion has followed the TV airing of a video showing the cruel whipping of a young woman by the Taliban in Swat. The Taliban’s self-righteous rejection of democracy, constitution, High Courts, Supreme Court, parliament, elections, political parties, etc, as “un-Islamic” has alienated Pakistanis across the board. Their seizure of Buner and entry into Dir is a clear violation of the Peace Deal. The liberals have been vindicated and the majority-rightists compelled to change their pro-Taliban tune.

The US didn’t want President Zardari and the Pak army to make any peace deal with the Taliban in Pakistan that would have enabled the Taliban to turn and focus their attention toward NATO forces in Afghanistan. But widespread anti-Americanism and pro-Talibanism compelled Mr Zardari to turn to parliament for approving NAR. This way, he reasoned, he could fend off the Americans, and if the Accord turned sour later he would not be to blame singly. His shrewdness has paid off. The Taliban have shown their true colours and the public has approved a military operation to stop them in their tracks. The Pak army has swung into action finally, mopped up the Taliban in Dir and is ready to sweep into Buner and then Swat.

Is this a defining moment for Pakistan which is faced by an unprecedented existential threat from the Taliban? The TNSM and TTP have threatened to unleash a storm in the rest of Pakistan if the military action is not stopped forthwith. This could mean a series of suicide bomb attacks on security personnel or other soft or sectarian targets in Islamabad, Lahore, Southern Punjab, and even in Karachi where there is a significantly militant Pakhtun population, some of which is sympathetic to fellow Pakhtun Taliban. The will of the people of Pakistan, the Pak army, the Zardari government and even the opposition is going to be tested soon.

Mr Nawaz Sharif is the key to what happens next. He is the most popular leader in the country. So far, he has been a vocal defender of the notion that a Muslim army must not open fire on fellow Muslims, however wayward. One reason for this was the anti-Zardari, anti-American mood in the country, which also viewed the Taliban as some sort of heroic fighters against the “Ugly American”. But relentless American pressure on Mr Sharif, who is being built up by them as an alternative to Mr Zardari, plus a recent change in public sentiment against the Taliban, has compelled him to change his stance. He has now advocated an All Parties Conference to cobble a joint strategy against the various ills that befall Pakistan, including the threat from the Taliban.

But this APC is not a good idea. With so many issues on the table, and so many parties in attendance (with one vote each), it is a recipe for squabbles and disagreement rather than a quick consensus against the Taliban. Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz should join the Peoples Party coalition government in Islamabad and the PPP should join the PMLN government in Punjab. That way we will have something akin to a national government to solve the outstanding national issues since independence. Meanwhile, the Americans must pour a lot of money into Pakistan, and quickly, to shore up its economy, to establish Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in the NWFP and FATA for its impoverished population, to equip its army for unconventional war, and cater to the swelling needs of hundreds of thousands of refuges in the trail of military action in various areas.

The battle for the soul of Pakistan is on.

(May 8-14, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 12 – Editorial)

Pakistan: going forward?

This week US President Barack Obama spent twenty minutes alone each with Pakistan President Asif Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai and then twenty minutes with the two of them together in Washington. He was trying to tell them something straight. First, the rules of business with America have changed. There will be no weekly video-conferences between President Karzai and the White House, or regular hello-hi long distance chats between the US President and the Pakistan President, a common practice during the Bush years which relied on personal relations to try and sort out problems and failed miserably. Second, there will be formal accountability “going forward” in their relationships in which common objectives will be listed and progress monitored.

Mr Obama also tried to hammer some common sense into both leaders who have acquired a reputation for maladministration: get your act together at home, deliver governance to your people; above all, join hands and squarely face the common Taliban-Al Qaeda enemy that threatens to plunge the region into madness, anarchy and war. What began as Al Qaeda-Taliban’s war against America on 9/11 has since become Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s domestic war as well.

Certainly, in Pakistan, this realization has been dangerously slow in materializing. The Pakistani “free media”, with its religious-nationalist mindset, is singularly responsible for misleading the people and creating a huge wave of sympathy for the Taliban and hostility for the government and army that want to fight them. This “free media” created a wave of sympathy and support for the Lal Masjid terrorists (portrayed as some sort of medieval heroes for defying America and the army) in the heart of Islamabad and put the army and government on the back foot. This media also made this war America’s war exclusively by propagating the false notion that if America were to walk away from this region the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would melt away into thin air and all would be peaceful again. Ultimately, this “free media” drummed up support for all the dangerous peace deals between the Taliban and the army or government, especially the last one in Swat on February 28, and enabled the Taliban to exploit the political space and public support to seize large areas of the Frontier.

Fortunately, however, three recent developments have helped to turn the tide. First, the public flogging of a young girl in Swat and its vicious defense by the Taliban in the face of resistance from the public and even ulema in the rest of the country has created a wave of revulsion against them. Second, the spokesmen of the Taliban have rubbished everything sacred to the media, like the constitution, law, civil society, democracy, elections and personal and institutional freedoms. Indeed, the Taliban’s threat to gag the media and punish it according to its version of Shariah has sent journalists reeling with rage and fear. Third, the people who are now fleeing Taliban-held areas in FATA and NWFP and pouring into refugee camps are also full of fear and loathing which the media cannot deny. Rage against the government and army for abandoning them instead of protecting them and fear of the Taliban’s wrath if they dare to stand against them and oppose their brand of shariah.

If this, then, is Pakistan’s moment of reckoning on the home and foreign front, its existential time-out, what are the two or three most critical items on the agenda? First, clearly, the opposition, government, army and media must be on the same page. Since the last three are as close to one another as they can possibly get on the issue of the Taliban now, this objective will be broadly accomplished if Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN joins the federal government and agrees to share responsibility “going forward”. Second, America has to lean on Hamid Karzai to stop tilting against Pakistan in particular and pro-Pakistan Pakhtuns in general so that Pakistan can feel secure on its western border. Third, India has to settle outstanding disputes with Pakistan large-heartedly so that the latter’s fear and distrust of India can be dissipated and a resultant peace dividend exploited for the welfare of Pakistanis. The peace process must be revived unconditionally and as soon as possible.

In the midst of political strategy for military and financial assistance for Pakistan and Afghanistan, three important initiatives in Washington last week didn’t get the attention they deserve. But they show the process of “going forward” most subtly and significantly. The first is an MOU between Pakistan and Afghanistan to open, protect and consolidate the transit trade route from Central Asia to South Asia, which essentially means opening up Afghanistan and Central Asia not just to Pakistan but also, importantly, to India and its aggressive quest to expand the home market. The second is an American pledge to help Pakistan and India resolve their pending water disputes so their agricultural backbones are strengthened and secured. Both initiatives are core elements of the theory of regional economic interest and dependency. The third is, perhaps, the most important. This is the advice to the Pakistani national security establishment that it must change its anti-India mindset with its attendant identity-culture crisis and state-posture problems that are the root cause of the region’s continuing descent into chaos.

(May 15-21, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 13 – Editorial)

New battle for hearts and minds

Finally, Pakistan’s parliament has echoed with resolve to eliminate the Taliban-Al Qaeda network that has laid the state low. But we shouldn’t forget that this is the same parliament which last month thundered with support for an opportunist “peace deal” with the Taliban. Apparently, the PPP, PMLN, PLMQ, ANP and MQM now fully support the military action launched last week in Swat and adjoining areas. More significantly, stalwarts from all of them warned that if the military operation was halted before it reached its logical end, it could prove ‘disastrous’. Equally, the parliamentarians demanded the elimination of ‘sleeper cells’ in other parts of the country, a reference to the former jihadi and current sectarian organizations in Punjab and Sindh provinces which have become an integral part of the terrorist network.

This is belated music to our ears. But misgivings remain. The order of decision-making suggests a continuing degree of opportunism instead of principle. The military action started first. Then, two days later, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani “addressed the nation” with his newfound “enough is enough” philosophy, carefully repeating the operative parts of his Urdu speech in English for the benefit of the Americans. A week later, as an afterthought, parliament was called into session after the big political leaders were “requested” to come to Islamabad by Mr Gilani personally. Surely, in all seriousness, the order of procedure should have been the other way – a debate in parliament, followed by a prime ministerial intervention and then military action in pursuit of parliamentary directions. Cynics say President Asif Zardari found the going rough in Washington last week and sent an SOS to Mr Gilani and General Ashfaq Kayani to “do something” to assuage the angry Americans in order to get an economic and military package to “save Pakistan”. This reminds us of the times when General Pervez Musharraf used to offer the crumbs of a half-hearted military operation or the head of some second ranking Al-Qaeda leader to the Americans on the eve of his meeting with US President George Bush in Washington.

Clearly, the sort of national consensus needed to end the scourge of the Taliban and embrace the US-Af-Pak strategy for the region is still lacking. The PMLN chief, Nawaz Sharif, and the JUI chief, Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, still insist that they haven’t been taken into confidence by the Zardari regime. Indeed, both are flogging the idea of an All Parties Conference (APC) even though parliament, which is the most effective all–parties forum of all, has already rung with support for the military action in Swat. To add to the confusion, the Jamaat-i-Islami and Tehreek-i-Insaf are openly touting a pro-Taliban line because of their virulently anti-American stance. In other words, the recipe of an APC is set to produce a deadlock instead of the consensus required in the current situation. That is why Prime Minister Gilani’s readiness to embrace the idea of the APC sold by the ruling PPP’s main opposition rivals is so intriguing.

The ad hoc nature of decision-making is reflected in the mass exodus of refugees from the war-torn areas in the last week or so and the lack of an adequate organizational and financial framework to deal with them. Mr Gilani announced a federal grant of half a billion rupees when there were 500,000 of them, mostly from Bajaur and FATA following an earlier army operation there. He upped this to Rs 1 billion as their numbers swelled to 1 million, which is about Rs 1000 per refugee, a pitiful amount. Equally pathetic noises have come from the political parties so far – the MQM has “weighed in” with a whopping Rs 1 million! Of course, civil society has scrambled into action, but its efforts are more heroic than anything else, now that the refugee wave is estimated to be about 1.5 million strong. International commitments are equally lumbering and insignificant.

Experts are talking of an urgent S&R – Stabilization and Reconstruction – strategy to deal with the growing problem. This involves a 5-8 year military-cum-civilian plan to uproot the terrorists through sustained politico-military action that also provides an economic and administrative infrastructure to cater to the local population’s rehabilitation and loss of alienation from mainstream Pakistan. This is a proposal that should have been hammered out on the basis of a national consensus last year when the Taliban Tehreek of Pakistan (TTP) was launched by Al-Qaeda. Instead, we are only now beginning to talk about it, much less than agree upon what needs to be done.

Meanwhile, the media is already turning its attention to the dismal plight of the refugees and it is only a matter of time before talk of new peace deals with the Taliban crops up to end the steady stream of refuges pouring out of the war-hit zones without any substantial or quick relief measures in sight. This possibility could become a probability if the Taliban’s squad of suicide bombers strikes back as it has threatened and exacts a heavy toll of security personnel and civilians, including top politicians. The battle for the soul of Pakistan is therefore dovetailing into the battle for the hearts and minds of the refugees trailing out of Swat and pouring into Mardan and other areas close to Peshawar for safety.

(May 22-28, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 14 – Editorial)

Hope for South Asia

The people of India have reasserted faith in their democracy. Over 60 per cent of the 714 million registered voters cast their vote last week, which must be some sort of world record, and there were no significant cries of foul play. They have also confounded the pundits. Caste, religion and political ideologies have been diminished. Incumbency was not a negative factor unreasonably. Businessmen are happy that the 9 per cent growth rate will be maintained despite the global recession. India has moved to the centre, which is a vote for performance, moderation and global-interdependence.

From the region’s point of view, there is one significant development. Fear or the psychosis of fear didn’t play a major part in voter behaviour. After the Mumbai episode, the BJP certainly tried to whip up anti-Pakistan outrage and blame the UPA government both for a security lapse and for its inability to strike back in retaliation. But the voter didn’t fall prey to prejudice and passion. Realism and pragmatism was the order of the day. Indeed, the politics of hope seems to have triumphed – hope of a better economic future for Indians regardless of caste, colour or creed; hope of peace in the neighbourhood, especially with Pakistan. Indians seem to understand that if Pakistan has been painted by their nationalist establishment as “a historic culprit”, it is currently a victim too of the most vicious form of terrorism that can easily spill over the border if it is not contained within. In other words, India cannot be sanguine if its neighbour’s house is on fire and the wind can change direction and start to blow India’s way. This is a sort of Obama factor. President Bush used fear to win two elections while President Obama talked of hopeful change. In much the same way, the BJP’s national security paradigm didn’t impress the voters and the UPI’s middle path with 9 per cent annual growth, strategic partnership with America, responsible regional behaviour and trickle down economics seemed a better bet.

This is good news from South Asia’s point of view. Pakistan and India desperately need to get back on the peace track immediately. The terrorists attacked Mumbai precisely in order to derail the peace process. If Dr Singh had ordered retaliatory strikes on any part of Pakistan as demanded by the BJP hardliners, the terrorists would have succeeded beyond their dreams because the region would have been plunged into war and anarchy. Before the elections, Dr Singh was obliged to take the position that Pakistan must crack down on terrorism unequivocally before talks about conflict resolution could restart with India. If he hadn’t done that, the BJP might have succeeded in whipping up nationalism and accusing the Congress of a weak-kneed response. But there is no such compulsion now. The UPA doesn’t need to appease anyone left or right. Indeed, it is heartening to recall that mid-way through the general elections Dr Singh risked a statement acknowledging the fact that back-channel diplomacy between his government and that of General Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan had traveled a significant distance in trying to find solutions to old disputes, including Kashmir, until political instability in Pakistan froze the process in 2007.

In the last few days, a couple of significant developments seem to point the way forward. First, there is the MOU signed in Washington with the Pakistan government which talks of a transit trade corridor from Central Asia to South Asia through Afghanistan. Clearly, the idea is to make Afghanistan, Pakistan and India inter-dependent in a meaningful and positive sense as opposed to the sum-zero game that has been played until now in the region. There is bi-partisan support in Pakistan for building enduring peace with India and for opening up the region to one another and becoming interdependent. The proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline is also a step in the same direction.

Second, Washington appears to be seized of the necessity of helping resolve outstanding conflicts between India and Pakistan so that Pakistan can concentrate on confronting the terrorist enemy within Pakistan – which is also the enemy facing America in Afghanistan – instead of being obsessed with India. Indeed, the insistent message from Washington to Pakistan in the last few weeks has been to change its anti-India mindset and replace it with an anti-Taliban-Al Qaeda mindset. To India, America is saying that it must solve outstanding disputes with Pakistan and build trust. Interestingly, the New York Times has, rather unprecedentedly, editorialized that India must take the initiative to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and, failing that, quickly move to settle water and other territorial issues with Pakistan. So the hope is that Dr Singh will move swiftly to reduce India’s troop deployment on the border, thereby facilitating the reduction of Pakistani troops on the other side and their redeployment in FATA.

Dr Manmohan Singh should not stick to the pre-election tactic of insisting firmer action by the Pakistani authorities against its homespun terrorists before reopening the peace dialogue. Indeed, he must do the very opposite so that Pakistan can concentrate on the task at hand. That would be a blow for hope not just in India but also in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

(May 29-4 June, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 15 – Editorial)

Peace, security and nuclear weapons

Has Pakistan’s quest for nuclear weapons brought it security, prosperity and stability as envisioned by its military and political leaders? Or has it served to reinforce the civil-military imbalance without enhancing security or building prosperity or strengthening democracy? These questions are as relevant today as they were in 1974 when India tested a nuclear device and Pakistan responded by embarking on a secret plan to build a similar bomb for Pakistan. Or in 1998 when India tested five nuclear devices and Pakistan tit-for-tatted, despite the huge economic and military costs which followed in its wake.

India has since consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Pakistan has hid behind India’s skirts and spurned it too. But there has been one big difference. India didn’t have to pay any price for defying the West because it hadn’t entered into any strategic alliances with it. But when the cold war ended, the US walked out of Af-Pak in 1989 after accusing it of having crossed the nuclear “red light” and subjecting it to a range of economic and military sanctions in the 1990s for its nuclear defiance.

On May 11, 1998, India upped the ante by testing five nuclear devices. In dismal straits already, Pakistan could test and be damned, or abstain and hope to reap rewards from the West. For over two weeks, Pakistan’s civilian leadership dithered. But, apart from some phone calls from President Bill Clinton to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with vague promises of a financial reward, there was nothing concrete on the table.

Meanwhile the rhetoric from India was becoming more threatening and taunting by the day. The gist of it was: if you have the bomb, show it now; if you haven’t got it, get ready to be thrown into the Arabian Sea for meddling in Kashmir. In the event, all doubts and confusions in the mind of Pakistan’s people, media, military and civilian leadership were swept aside and all were shoved on to the same page of national anger and honour, propelling Pakistan to test six devices and going “one up”. The day after, as expected, the sky fell on Pakistan’s head. Faced with a suffocating economic embargo by the West, the Sharif government devalued the rupee by 50 per cent and froze over US$10 billion in private forex reserves. The sanctions were replaced by huge doses of economic and military assistance after the US “returned” to Af-Pak following 9/11 and Pakistan’s military leadership agreed to another “partnership” with it, as in the 1960s and 1980s, in pursuit of American goals in the region. That partnership has now been reinforced in the wake of the Taliban’s threat to the state of Pakistan, mainly because of the West’s fear that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons could fall into the “wrong hands”.

If Pakistan’s nuclear program has been the bane of its life by provoking instead of resolving conflict, it has also been a boon by “renting in America”. But has the bomb served its original purpose of bringing security to Pakistan and obviating the need for a prohibitively expensive conventional arms race in the region with India? The record shows an interesting relationship between provocation, lack of conflict resolution and deterrence.

In the 1980s India seized Siachin and provoked Pakistan to support the Khalistan insurgency in Punjab. The two countries edged towards war after India launched “Operation Brasstacks” in 1987. Pakistan’s dictator General Zia ul Haq announced that Pakistan was a screw driver’s turn away from the bomb and reinforced the signal by nudging Dr A Q Khan to confide to Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar in early 1988 that Pakistan had the bomb. Did this stop India from teaching Pakistan a lesson? In the 1990s, Pakistan bled India in Kashmir. But India didn’t launch a war against Pakistan across the international border, not even after the Kargil provocation by Pakistan in 1999. Was the invisible deterrence working overtime? Again, in 2001 December, India was provoked by the Pakistani-backed jihadis, who attacked the Indian parliament in New Delhi, to move its army to the border with Pakistan and think of retaliatory strikes. Did Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent halt India in its tracks? Much the same thing happened in 2008 after Mumbai. India was outraged but didn’t retaliate militarily. Did Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent play a role?

The short answer is: Yes. But the nagging question remains: if the cause of war – a serious provocation by one or the other in the presence of passionate unresolved disputes – is removed through conflict-resolution, there is no need for expanding the nuclear deterrence in Pakistan. Certainly, in view of a continuing expansion of Pakistan’s conventional military might, a de-emphasis on nuclear weapons coupled with better safety procedures is just the sort of restraint that is needed to reassure the world and bury conspiracy theories of Pakistan’ impending dismemberment. A starting point in this direction could be to revitalize the process of conflict resolution entered into by India and Pakistan in 2004 as soon as possible. India should now realize that the oblique threat of terrorism which haunts it is already an existential issue for Pakistan and nothing can be gained by putting pre-conditions on the peace process.

(June 5-11, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 16 – Editorial)

Supreme Court steps in?

The Supreme Court of Pakistan under CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has been slowly but surely making some significant, one might even say ominous, moves. The CJP has taken a keen interest in the selection of fellow judges to head key benches hearing politically “sensitive” cases. It is also interesting that the principal SC seat in Islamabad, where all politically explosive cases end up, is packed with restored judges loyal to the CJP while many judges appointed or retained by General Pervez Musharraf or President Asif Zardari have been shunted to faraway benches in Quetta, Peshawar and Sindh.

The fact that these “legal” decisionsseem to bepotentially tilted in favour of the political ambitions of Mian Nawaz Sharif compels fair comment because Mr Sharif had a decisive role to play in the restoration of Mr Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice and his other colleagues last March.

The first step in this direction was taken last month when a specially appointed five member bench of the Supreme Court overturned an earlier decision by a Division bench of the Lahore High Court and a three member bench of the Supreme Court which had banned Mr Nawaz Sharif and Mr Shahbaz Sharif from contesting elections on various counts.

There were three interesting dimensions to this review petition judgment. First, one of the judges from the original three member bench that had sustained the ban on the Sharif brothers was shunted out and three new judges were added to make it a five member review petition bench. Generally, the rule is that barring some exceptional circumstances that make it impossible to retain the old bench, a review petition is heard by the same bench which passed the original judgment. No reasons were given for breaking with the rule.Second, it was also noteworthy that the three judges added to the new bench were judges who had been sacked on November 3, 2007 along with the CJ and subsequently restored – all are considered close to him. Third, the judgment was remarkable because it broke new ground by holding that the presidential “pardon” granted to the Sharifs when they agreed to be exiled to Saudi Arabia in 2000 also entitled them to have theirconvictions quashed automatically.

This judgment has restored Mr Shahbaz Sharif as chief minister of Punjab and handed the province to the PMLN. It has signaled PMLQ dissidents to join the PMLN, swell its ranks and marginalize the PPP and PMLQ. It has also paved the way for Mr Nawaz Sharif to contest and win a national by-election hands down. Soon Mr Sharif will be ensconced as leader of the opposition in the national assembly. Then another significant chunkof PMLQ dissidents will flock to the PMLN, giving Mr Sharif the muscle to drive a wedge in the PPP-led coalition and try to overthrow it.

The CJP has also made some revealing remarks. He has said that the SC may consider the legality of the November 3, 2007, mini-coup and Emergency by General Pervez Musharraf. He has said that the decision by a seven member bench led by him outlawing General Musharraf’s mini-coup minutes after it was announced remained valid, despite the fact that it was subsequently overturned by a larger SC bench after the event. Ifthe SC now officially makes this decision in response to any petition, a veritable Pandora’s box of political possibilities could be opened up. Everything that happened subsequent to November 3, 2007, including the general elections that brought the PPP to power and the presidential elections that elevated Mr Asif Zardari to the presidency, could then be deemed “unlawful”, with tumultuous consequences for political stability and continuity. Indeed, the SC could well argue in favour of a mid-term election that would objectively return Mr Nawaz Sharif to power and cut Mr Zardari and the PPP out of the loop.

A bench of the SC has now made another remarkable decision. It says that since the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) is under legal challenge, any relief from criminal conviction or cases pending under it received by anyone is not valid until the NRO is upheld by the SC. This is a perplexing judgment in the absence of any formal “stay” order against the NRO in any court. It is ominous because many of the criminal and corruption cases against Mr Zardari and other PPP leaders in parliament and government were earlier quashed under the ambit of the NRO. The CJP has also made noises about the right of the SC to review the 17th constitutional amendment and strike it down if necessary. The fact that President Zardari derives all his powers from this amendment, coupled with the other fact that Mr Sharif is barred from becoming prime minister for a third time under it, should not be lost on anyone.

If the SC under CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry knocks out the NRO and the 17th amendment in the coming months, it would be only a matter of another six months or so before Mr Sharif is able to brush aside Mr Zardari and the PPP and seize office as a powerful prime minister, with or without a new general election.

(June 12-18, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 17 – Editorial)

Rise and fall of Pervez Musharraf

General (retired) Pervez Musharraf is making the most of his forced retirement. He is ensconced comfortably in his own flat in London, hobnobbing with friends, playing bridge, giving interviews, lecturing at conferences and offering to serve Pakistan as an everlasting patriot. He has said that he wouldn’t mind becoming an official ambassador of goodwill and peace between Pakistan and India so that he can help conclude the back channel diplomacy launched in 2004 for settling the thorny issue of Kashmir. He has also expressed a desire to re-enter politics as soon as the mandatory two-year hiatus after relinquishing public office is over by the end of this year.

Back home, however, his foes are baying for his blood. Mr Nawaz Sharif wants him tried for treason for overthrowing his democratically elected government in 1999. The family of Nawab Akbar Bugti insists he should be tried for the murder of the Baloch patriarch. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, is keen on declaring illegal and unconstitutional everything General Musharraf did in his capacity as army chief after November 3, 2007. President Asif Zardari and the PPP still hold him responsible, if not culpable, for the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. And his erstwhile, now orphaned, PMLQ allies of the past, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, have finally shrugged their shoulders and ruefully admitted that he had long ago become a political liability for them.

For all these reasons, General Musharraf was quietly advised by his handpicked army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, to get off his high horse and slip out of the country in April. Ever the blustering but pragmatic man, General ® Musharraf took the advice and followed the well-trodden path of exile fated for many Pakistani leaders in the past, including Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain, all with no small thanks to him.

General Musharraf recently remarked that he regretted not asking Parliament in 2004 to let him be President for five years instead of three. This wasn’t a blindly self-righteous or arrogant statement. It underscores the significance of the core issue in 2007 which derailed him irrevocably. This was the sacking of CJP Chaudhry at the prodding of key vested interests – including the DGMI, CM Punjab, the federal law secretary, and the PM – so that the “maverick”, potentially “troublesome” judge could be got out of the way before bidding for a second presidential term in November.

The sacking of the CJP was followed by a series of events and decisions that rebounded on General Musharraf and hastened his exit: the restoration of the CJP by rebellious peers in July; the November 3 mini-coup to protect himself against a resurgent SC; the shedding of his uniform as a compromise gesture; the notorious NRO and murky deal with Benazir Bhutto to buy political longevity; the return of Nawaz Sharif at the insistence of Saudi Arabia; the assassination of Benazir which came to be laid at his door; the routing of the King’s PMLQ party in the 2008 elections; and the subsequent rise to power of Asif Zardari and the consequent political isolation and alienation of the man on the hill from his erstwhile political partner and former military institution.

General Musharraf’s eight years in power were marked by many ups and downs, twists and turns. But he didn’t ever see anything as a reverse or setback, making rank political opportunism a fine art of “tactics” and “strategy” (his favourite two words). He was the adventurer who went all guns blazing into Kargil, then retreated in abject shame. He was the strutting cock in Agra in 2001 who refused to close the jihadi tap into Kashmir, then faced the full Indian army on his border and hurriedly pledged to stop exporting terrorism. He was the strategic American ally after 9/11 who refused to acknowledge the links of the jihadi organizations with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, then became their target of assassination when he was compelled to close down their camps. He was the “enlightened moderate” who pledged to reform the blasphemy law, then backpedaled furiously on the advice of the ISI when threatened by the mullahs. He was the most radical “out-of-the-box” thinker on Kashmir who couldn’t complete his agenda. He was the most popular man in Pakistan at the end of 2006 and the most reviled one a year later. Is there a political role for him in the future?

Pakistani politicians and generals never retire. Unimaginable and strange things have also been known to happen, like the elevation of Mr Asif Zardari to the presidency! But General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s star is not likely to rise and shine again until his everlasting nemesis Nawaz Sharif remains the most popular contender for power in the country. Personal security is also an issue. Every Islamic radical, extremist and suicide bomber desperately wants to avenge Lal Masjid. Since neither can be wished away for the next ten years or so, unless Allah so wills it, we are not likely to see the general in Islamabad for some years to come.

(June 19-25, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 18 – Editorial)

New Indo-Pak dialogue needed

India and Pakistan have agreed for the nth time to start talking again. The “understanding” followed a meeting between Dr Manmohan Singh and President Asif Zardari on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation moot in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Before the two meet again during the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt in July, the foreign secretaries will do some homework. To understand the new initiative, some background is necessary.

(1) The Indo-Pak deadlock was broken in 1997 when India under PM IK Gujral accepted that Kashmir was a “dispute” and Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif agreed to a “composite” dialogue on all issues. Despite nuclear rattling in 1998, Mr Sharif and Mr Atal Vajpayee reiterated the composite dialogue in Lahore in 1999.

(2) General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure in 1999 brought the two countries to the brink of war. After he seized power, he repudiated the composite dialogue as a “sell-out” by Mr Sharif. In 2001 the Agra talks collapsed because India insisted on posing “terrorist infiltration” from Pakistan as a core issue like Kashmir.

(3) In the event, the “terrorist factor” – attacks on the Srinagar and Delhi parliaments by Pakistan-based or supported jihadi groups later in 2001 – brought the two nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war in 2002.

(4) As a strategic American ally after 9/11, 2001, focusing on the border with Afghanistan, General Musharraf avoided conflict with India by announcing in 2002 that Pakistan would not allow any “terrorist infiltration” across the LoC or border into India. But when the jihadis tried to assassinate him and the military establishment realized that the Kashmiris wanted Azaadi from both India and Pakistan, he banned the jihadi organizations and closed their training camps. In 2004 he opted for the composite dialogue and backed it by robust back channel diplomacy.

(5) This process produced out-of-the-box-thinking on Kashmir but political instability in Pakistan led to a freeze on it in 2007.

(6) Before the Zardari government could get going on the same track, Mumbai happened in 2009. The clock was therefore turned back owing to the re-emergence of the “terrorist factor”. India has since put pre-conditions on restarting the composite dialogue. It says: “first crack down on the Lashkar-e-Tayba and Jamaatud Dawa and guarantee that there will not be another Mumbai”.

But two new factors are nudging both countries in the direction of peace again. First, Pakistan’s government, opposition, army, and media now admit that the fight against the Taliban is Pakistan’s war for survival. This is a medium to long term war compelling the army to focus on the “enemy within” rather than on the “threat from India without”. Second, the Indian establishment accepts the American argument that Pakistan’s military needs space to fight the Taliban. If they are not eliminated in Pakistan there could be serious overspill implications for India and the region. This objective can be helped if India reduces troops from the LoC and reopens the peace dialogue.

Therefore the message from Yekaterinburg is that India will do both things if, and this is the big if, Pakistan takes concrete steps to eliminate the threat of another Mumbai.

Pakistan’s spin is positive: President Zardari has “reiterated Islamabad’s desire to punish the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage”.

The tables have been turned. Pakistan once wanted “movement” on Kashmir and India on terrorism. But now the priority for both is to get rid of terrorism, the one that is bombing Pakistani cities and the one that is aiming to bomb India’s cities. Clearly, a new relationship-model has to be fashioned.

President Zardari in Russia has pointed the way forward. “Pakistan needed help to evolve a security mechanism to meet the threats of terrorism, narcotics and organised crime, and a mechanism on energy that would help it utilise the energy surplus of other countries in the region.” He offered a security mechanism not only to India but to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China, that would stop the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) from attacking Central Asia from its stronghold in South Waziristan. More significantly, he offered a vision for the region that would include “economic cooperation that would help Pakistan build trade and communication corridors within the region”. One starting point for the trade corridors is, of course, Gwadar; the other is India.

The SCO is fast becoming an organisation that would link the security concerns of South Asia to those of Central Asia. The big agenda in the region is “terrorism”. South Asia is embroiled in it; Central Asia feels it is next in line. China and Russia, the prime movers of the SCO, are worried.

Pakistan says it is also a victim of terrorism. But the problem is that the world sees Pakistan also as an exporter of terrorism. This perception has reduced the importance of the old Indo-Pak dialogue.

The war against terrorism should not just be an India-Pakistan war. But so far it is. That is why a new kind of dialogue is essential. The way forward is: ensure non-interference; remove mutual fear of military attack; share intelligence against terrorism; combat terrorism. Then move to resolve non-core issues. Once the region is stable, focus on transit trade and Kashmir peacefully.

(June 26-July 2, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 19 – Editorial)

Hunt for Baitullah Mehsud

The Pakistani military has launched operations in Waziristan. Some analysts say this is misplaced concreteness. They argue that the military should not extend itself to the rugged vastness of the base area of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda without fully mopping up the forces of warlord Baitullah Mehsud. But certain developments suggest that the military has a definite plan of action based on sound intelligence aimed at eliminating Mehsud, demoralizing the Taliban leadership and scattering the terrorists.

The decision to go after Mehsud in Waziristan was announced by the NWFP governor, Owais Ghani, a week ago. Then the DG-ISPR, Major General Athar Abbas, confirmed it. Soon thereafter President Asif Zardari addressed the nation, put the Taliban threat to Pakistan as number one item on the government’s agenda, re-stated the national consensus against the Taliban, praised and motivated the armed forces for fighting the “real enemy within”, and accused Baitullah Mehsud of assassinating Benazir Bhutto. A day later, two former allies of Mehsud – Turkistani Bitani and Qari Zainuddin – were encouraged to tell the media they had split from Mehsud and taken up arms against him because he was an “Indian and American agent whose actions and beliefs were anti-Islamic”.

Clearly, all this would not have happened or been manipulated if the national security establishment wasn’t sure it could definitely eliminate Mehsud in days to come. And sure enough, soon there were reports that his Swat commander Fazlullah and his spokesman Muslim Khan had either been captured or killed and the mountain stronghold in which Mehsud was holed up in Waziristan along with 500-plus core warriors had been surrounded by security forces. The icing on the cake was presented a couple of days ago by three American drone attacks on the site in which over 50 Taliban are reported to have been killed. Obviously, with President Zardari reiterating that “India is not the enemy” any more, a joint US-Pak military operation is underway to get the “American-Indian” agent.

But Baitullah Mehsud isn’t a sitting duck. He has hit back by having Qari Zainuddin assassinated in Dera Ismail Khan by one of his “trusted” guards and Turkistan Bitani has barely managed to avoid the same fate. So there may be more surprises in store before Mehsud is eliminated.

The curious thing is that Baitullah Mehsud was not so long ago some sort of a hero for sections of the Pakistani media because he was reported to be fighting the Americans in Afghanistan. One well known TV anchor, who once edited a pro-jihad paper and was notorious for supporting the Al-Qaeda-Taliban holed out in the Lal Masjid, took umbrage on TV when the Daily Times accused Baitullah Mehsud of ordering the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The DT charge was based on an interview given by Mehsud to the paper before Benazir returned to Pakistan in which he had threatened to kill her if she came back because she was an “American agent”. After her death, the government released the transcript of a tapped phone conversation in which Mehsud was delighted at her elimination. But pro-Mehsud media types continued to heap scorn on these charges against their hero. Indeed, they began to crow when, following Mumbai and Indian threats to attack Pakistan, Mehsud announced he would fight alongside the Pakistan army in the event of war with India. It is a measure of the hypocrisy of this media that it has no qualms now calling Baitullah Mehsud “an American and Indian agent”.

The obsession in the Pakistani media against the drone attacks is a similar hangover from the past when the Taliban were heroes instead of villains. Clearly, the Pakistani military and government have sanctioned the drone attacks in private even as they condemn them in public in deference to anti-American sentiment. That is why we have the spectacle of the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, telling the media after a recent meeting with Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, that he has bitterly objected to the drone attacks, even as Mr Holbrooke had the audacity to say with a straight face that the issue of the drones never came up for discussion in his meetings with the Pakistani leadership! It is surely no coincidence that the recent drone attack on Mehsud’s positions follows the Pakistani army’s attack on the same bunkers.

Much the same sort of confusion still fogs the media mind on the question of India. For sixty years the military has been drumming up the idea of India as “the enemy” in the Pakistani mind. Now there is a bipartisan political understanding on the issue. President Zardari has alluded to this “Indian threat” as being based on its military capability but also pointed out that India’s intentions are benign and not threatening. That is why he has moved swiftly to start the peace dialogue that stalled during the last two years owing to political instability in Pakistan.

The Pakistani media has been part of the problem so far. It is time it became part of the solution by admitting the facts on the ground and telling the people of Pakistan the truth. The Indian media must also play its role in pushing the peace process forward.

(July 3-9, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 20 – Editorial)

No paradigm shift so far

Several interesting points have emerged from three recent interviews in London given by General Pervez Musharraf, Mr Shaukat Aziz and Altaf “Bhai” Hussain.

General Musharraf is not scared of returning to Pakistan, despite the fact that the knives are out for him. He admitted that the sacking of the CJP in March 2007 was a mistake, but only because it destabilized his government and paved the way for his exit – when he had so much good still left in him to do for the sake of Pakistan! There was not much mea culpa on any other front either. Nor did he rule out the possibility of returning to the political fray “in the national interest” in the future.

Mr Aziz was less uptight but more self-righteous. He denied that his ambitions to retain the prime ministership after the 2008 elections were thwarted by the Chaudhries of Gujrat. He denied that he had propped up the economy in such way that it collapsed soon after he pulled the plug and departed. He delighted in telling us of his great relations with General Musharraf and Nawaz Sharif, despite the fact they were sworn enemies, and notwithstanding the obvious inference from this conviviality – in his original incarnation as a consumer banker par excellence, Mr Aziz was said to have looked after the rich and famous, including the Bhuttos and Sharifs.

Altaf Bhai, in comparison, was both daring and realistic. Yes, the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 was a mistake because it split the Muslims of India; yes, the MQM had been both a beneficiary and victim of the Pakistan army’s convoluted politics; yes, he had more problems with Nawaz Sharif than he had with Benazir Bhutto because Sharif wanted to be nothing less than Amir ul Momineen while Bhutto was ready for power sharing; yes, the violence of May 12th 2007 in Karachi on the occasion of the arrival of the CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry was instigated by the “agencies” because they were loyal to General Musharraf and wanted to teach the lawyers movement a lesson; yes, the MQM wanted to stop the Talibanisation of Karachi following the wave of predominantly Pathan IDPs.

But the truly significant point in the views of all three related to India. While General Musharraf and Mr Aziz insisted that India remained a “threat” to Pakistan as long as it retained the military capability to attack and seriously hurt Pakistan (because intentions, however good at any time, can change), Altaf Bhai was clear in his thinking that talk of threats and enemies was a thing of the past and that the region should follow the example of Europe which had fought wars for over a thousand years but buried the hatchet forever in the interests of globalization. But even the former agreed that India was not the “enemy” of yore and that Pakistan was now faced with a serious existential threat from the Taliban and Al Qaeda enemy.

This is a major departure by these two top state representatives. Does it mean that the Pakistan army is ready for a paradigm change in its mindset about India?

No. There are significant pointers that no paradigm shift is in the offing. First, a major chunk of the shopping list of military equipment demanded from the Americans still includes weapons for use against India in a conventional war. Second, Pakistan has spent billions of dollars on its nuclear program and is setting up new reprocessing plants and stockpiling nuclear weapons in proportion to India’s. Third, there is no attempt by the state to put down some well known jihadi orgainsations which have vowed to bleed India. Indeed, one such organization is reported to be recruiting fighters in Azad Kashmir even as its front charity organization is winning hearts and minds in the IDP affected areas of the military operation in the NWFP and FATA.

Nor should one expect anything different in the short term. Paradigm change never comes quickly or painlessly. Meanwhile, India should be quick to bridge the trust deficit gap and win the support of the people of Pakistan and their civilian political leaders if it wants to help redress the civil-military imbalance that determines Pakistan’s anti-India policy. This means strengthening the hands of the civilian leadership (that is already committed to peace with India) by resolving the key disputes of the past, especially Kashmir and water-related issues.

What’s in it for India? Mr LK Advani once famously said that India should be worried if its neighbour’s house is on fire. That is exactly the situation today. If the Taliban overrun the state of Pakistan by provoking an anti-American military response favourable to them, India would be the biggest and most immediate loser – don’t forget that when India threatened to hit back at Pakistan after Mumbai, the Taliban were quick to announce their support for the Pakistan army against India! Similarly, if India were to be provoked by another Mumbai-like act of terrorism whose footprints lead back to Pakistan, it would play into the hands of the very people like the Jihadis and Taliban and rebel military officers who want to create anarchy and derail the pro-peace-with-India and pro-business-with-the-west civilian transition to democracy underway in the country.

(July 10-16, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 21 – Editorial)

Pakistan’s assets and liabilities

President Asif Zardari has a lot of guts. He has publicly admitted past facts that are a source of much current anguish, pain and embarrassment for the state and government of Pakistan. He recently told a foreign newspaper that Pakistan’s former “assets” – the Jihadis and Mujahideen and Taliban – had now become “liabilities” who were posing an existential threat to the state and country. He delivered much the same message the other day to a gathering of retired bureaucrats in Islamabad: “the terrorists of today are the heroes of yesteryear…militancy and extremism emerged on the national scene and challenged the state not because the civil bureaucracy was weakened and demoralised, but because they were deliberately created and nurtured as a policy to achieve some short-term tactical objectives.”

This is an articulation of “change” through a “redefinition” of an old policy. It was necessary after the “new policy” of confronting the Taliban was actually executed on the ground by the military last month when it went into Malakand and then into Waziristan. It is, of course, a good sign that the troika of prime minister, president and army chief have met twice in the last few days to send the right signals to all the internal and external players.

Events support Mr Zardari’s bold assertion. Qari Ilyas Zain, a Guantanamo Bay veteran and an Al Qaeda commander who was behind the bombing of a restaurant in Islamabad in 2008, has been arrested by the police, like all the terrorists behind the attack on Rescue 15 and ISI office in Lahore, the terrorists involved in the attack on the Manawan police training centre and those who tried to kidnap the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. The army is killing the Taliban in the Malakand region and the drones are doing their bit too – on Tuesday a drone strike in South Waziristan destroyed a stronghold of the Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, killing 12 including two commanders and some “foreign” terrorists. More significantly, the Taliban “emirate” of Baitullah Mehsud is fraying at the seams. His commanders are now becoming rebellious because the military operation is having the desired psychological effect of convincing them that Baitullah’s enterprise is doomed. It is even more significant that there is now a counterforce in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan – headed by “Abdullah” and “Turkistan” groups – willing to fight the Taliban.

President Zardari has also had the courage to speak up in favour of unconditional peace and normalization with India. In a sense, he is carrying the torch forward from where General Musharraf himself left it in 2007 after a radical about-turn in strategic thinking in 2004 about the nature of the threat from India and the future prospects of Kashmir. But there is one difference. Even as both say that the Taliban is the real threat rather than India, Mr Zardari makes no bones about the need for an unequivocal about-turn in India policy while General Musharraf hums and haws tactically in deference to decades of carefully nurtured “anti-India sensitivities” in the military.

Three factors are also compelling a rethink in the military establishment about the demerits of the Taliban as future assets in Afghanistan. First, America seems to have dug in for the long haul. It has strengthened its agreement with Kyrghistan which provides it an airbase for operations in Afghanistan. The summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev at the Kremlin last Monday also produced an agreement that will let the NATO-US forces fly their troops and weapons in 4500 military flights per year across Russian territory, enabling the US to further diversify the crucial transportation routes used to move troops and critical equipment to re-supply international forces in Afghanistan. The joint statement issued after the summit was significant: “The two countries (Russia and US) will work together to help stabilise Afghanistan, including increasing assistance to the Afghan army and police, and training counter-narcotics personnel. They will work together with the international community for the upcoming Afghan elections and they will help Afghanistan and Pakistan work together against the common threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.”

Second, the recent troop surge in Helmand and the intensification of the drone attacks on Pakistani-Taliban positions in Waziristan suggest that both Pakistan and America now see a common enemy.

Third, President Zardari has openly said that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a “friend” with whom the government of Pakistan is prepared to work in the long run. This means that Pakistan will not try to destabilize the forthcoming Afghan elections which are sure to return Mr Karzai as president for another term. This is a far cry from the military establishment’s earlier point of view of Mr Karzai as a long-tern Indian asset.

All this is for the good of the region. The best part of the news is that India is no longer prickly at the mention of a solution to Kashmir by the Pakistanis or even the Americans. Indeed, a string of American and British diplomats have gone to India to say as much. This is because India knows that the solution that everyone, including Pakistan, has in mind for Kashmir is one which India can live with – maximum autonomy minus secession.

(July 17-23, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 22  – Editorial)

Zardari’s scorecard

Asif Zardari is coming in for a lot of stick. There is the usual chatter about “unprecedented corruption” and “hands in the till”. But there isn’t much evidence on offer which is significantly different from that which plagues every government. Instead, there are more substantial charges to confront.

President Zardari is dogged by allegations of “distrust” because he hasn’t kept his word. A string of broken public pledges trails behind him. He said he would restore the judges but didn’t, until America and the Army twisted his hand and compelled him to do the needful. He said he would implement the Charter of Democracy but he is still dragging his feet on it. His handling of Punjab politics also did him no credit. He avowed an alliance with the PMLN even as he was playing footsie with the PMLQ until the restored Supreme Court put paid to that federal misadventure.

The latest allegation is that Pakistan is “dysfunctional” because it is “leaderless” and Mr Zardari is not up to the job. An obvious corollary of this is that “regime change” is not only desirable, it is necessary to get Pakistan out of its multi-faceted existential crises. As proof, polls are cited that show Mr Sharif standing at 70 per cent popularity and Mr Zardari trailing at 19 per cent, even behind the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who is at 33 per cent. If leadership is about crafting and implementing a visionary strategy, choosing the right people for the right job, and inspiring and motivating them to achieve given goals, then Mr Zardari falls flat on his face because his responses are fitful and ad hoc, often driven by compulsion instead of conviction. But the other side of this coin must not be disregarded, especially if the options are a midterm election or another army take-over.

First, the unpopularity of any government should never be reason enough for a fresh election before a government’s term is up. As a rule of thumb, most governments take unpopular steps in their first years in power in order to clean up the mess left by their predecessors in their last years in office. And there is no doubt that President Pervez Musharraf left Pakistan in a most unhappy state of affairs on every front. Certainly, the political instability of 2007-08 cast a dark shadow on the country’s economic prospects, a fact that Mr Sharif, for instance, never tires of laying at General Musharraf’s door. For example, today’s power shortages are owed to the mismanagement of the energy sector in 2007-08 when oil prices went through the roof internationally but the Shaukat Aziz government and the caretaker regime that followed created a huge circular debt with the independent power producers by refusing to pass on the price increase to consumers or raising additional revenues to offset the budgetary squeeze that followed. Similarly, the Taliban who have laid Pakistan low in the last year or so are an offshoot of the foreign and domestic policies of the military establishment which has hurriedly passed on “ownership” to the Zardari government without enabling it with the administrative, political or financial wherewithal and space to change course quickly or efficiently.

Second, the track record of the opposition, that hopes to benefit from a mid-term election, or the military, that seeks to belittle every civilian regime, is worst of all. Getting rid of Mr Zardari and the PPP is hardly a panacea for good governance or renewed democracy. In fact, it is a recipe for uncertainty and even political anarchy. Far better to pressurize Mr Zardari to deliver on his various pledges for good governance.

Indeed, Mr Zardari can claim credit for a couple of visionary initiatives that Pakistan desperately needs. The first is his unqualified hostility towards the Taliban, like Benazir Bhutto who paid for it with her life. Only Mr Zardari has had the courage and vision to speak out fearlessly against this modern scourge with which, not so long ago, everyone in Pakistan, especially the media, was so enamoured. He was always opposed to the Swat Peace Accord with the Tehreek-e-Taliban but waited for public opinion to change suitably before approving military action against the terrorists. Similarly, he has had the guts to say that “yesterday’s heroes are today’s terrorists” and demand a change in public policy that reflects new regional realities. Mr Zardari’s out-of-the-box “peace-with-India” statements have often riled the military establishment as being premature or naïve but he has stuck to his guns, insisting that the modern enemy is internal and not external like India, a sentiment shared by the international community that is trying to bail Pakistan out of its difficulties and by more and more Pakistanis now. Mr Zardari has also successfully persuaded the US to legislate a long term economic and military assistance program to Pakistan without attaching any pro-India conditions to it.

If Mr Zardari is paying the price for political inexperience and lack of administrative ambition in the form of fitful and ad hoc governance, we should be patient. He is headed in the right direction. And that’s saying a lot, considering we’ve been led astray for sixty years by every political and military leader we have had the misfortune to be lumped with.

(July 24-30, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 23  – Editorial)

Will Israel attack Iran?

A recent statement by the outgoing chief of MOSSAD, Israel’s intelligence agency, claimed that Saudi Arabia had winked at potential over-flights by Israeli jets en route to bombing nuclear and missile sites in Iran. Although rubbished by the Saudis, the speculation about a possible Israeli strike on Iran increased a pitch when the former US Ambassador to UN, John Bolton, said that Israel had a right to take any action to protect its national security or existence. Much the same sentiment was expressed by US Vice-President Joseph Biden. If Israel attacked Iran, what would be its consequences for regional and global security?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed during the 2009 elections that, if elected, he would destroy Iran’s nuclear program. On the other side, Iran’s President Ahmedinijad says that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Middle-East. Israel has since held two major air exercises mocking an operation against Iran. The object of any Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations, especially at Arak, Bushehr and Natanz where uranium enrichment and plutonium production are underway, would be to cripple and delay Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons grade material.

According to expert studies, an armada of at least 80 F-16s/F-15s equipped with high capacity bunker breaking bombs would be needed for the job. They would have to fly a very long distance and refuel on the way, either in the air over foreign airspace or at some land base in Iraq or Turkey en route. There are three potential routes that could be taken. The northern one would entail flying over Syria, Iraq and Turkey; the central one over Jordan and Iraq and the southern one over the tip of Jordan, then Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Israel could also supplement its capacity by launching Jerico-111 missiles against Iranian targets.

The option of using aircraft is dicey. For one, the element of surprise might be lost if any of the countries en route raises the alarm on detecting over-flights. Refueling the fighter jets in the air would be a big problem too, requiring at least 12 tankers coming and going, over foreign airspace. The only way all this can be done is with the full cooperation of the Iraq government (that is to say, the US). If reliance is put on the missiles, accuracy would be an issue. Iran’s fleet of 200 fighter jets would blunt the edge of any Israeli air strikes too. In short, the military option is potentially high risk, low success rate.

The international community has embarked on a two pronged strategy to deter Iran. The US and EU are promising rewards and incentives while Israel is making military threats. Iran remains a member of the Non Proliferation Treaty but refuses to allow full inspections to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA and the US National Intelligence admit there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is enriching uranium to 90 per cent weapons grade. Indeed, officially the US admits that Iran is as many as 6 years away from making nuclear devices.

The consequences of war between Iran and Israel would be catastrophic. The environmental damage of leaked radioactivity from the damaged Iranian plants would be significant on the countries in the Gulf. Iran would also consider an implicit US role in any such attack. It would therefore target Qatar and Bahrain where there are significant US military interests and where the majority Shia population could rise up against pro-US governments. It would disrupt Gulf shipping, pushing up oil prices in a global recession. It would provoke Hamas and Hizbollah in Palestine to open fronts against Israel, drawing Lebanon and Syria into the conflict. It would lead to political unrest in all the pro-US regimes in the Muslim world, especially Egypt where it could lead to regime change via massive street protests against Hosni Mobarak. In short, it would provoke anger and outrage everywhere in the Muslim world, and lead to a resurgence of Al-Qaeda sentiment and terrorism against the West in general and the US and pro-US Muslim regimes in particular.

Its backlash in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan would be particularly severe. Iran would likely provide havens and assistance to the Taliban to attack American interests in both countries. Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, already besieged by protests over power shortages, lost jobs and inflation, would be hard pressed to contain massive and violent anti-US agitation. The newly inspired consensus against the Taliban would be reversed, enabling the Taliban to sweep back into contention. Indeed, the Zardari regime’s very survival could be endangered, raising the prospects of another emergency or military intervention.

In short, an Israeli attack on Iran would be a global disaster. It would be much better for the West to hold out for talks and negotiations with Iran. The recent upsurge of anti-Ahmedinijad protests in Iran suggests that more and more Iranians want Iran to talk to the West rather than confront it. President Obama is also committed to finding a solution to the Palestine problem that lies at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He should restrain Israel from any adventure in Iran and pressurize it to accept an independent and secure Palestinian state acceptable to the Palestinian people.

(July 31 – Aug 06, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 24  – Editorial)

Sharm-el-Sheikh shows way forward

The Indo-Pak Joint Statement from Sharm-el-Sheikh has stirred a hornets’ nest in India for seemingly being “pro-Pakistan”. But the irony is that it has largely gone unsung in the anti-India lobby in Pakistan. What is the reality behind the text?

Indian critics say Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had no business de-linking terrorism from the composite dialogue and allowing mention of terrorism in Balochistan in the joint statement. They say that by so doing, India has (a) relieved pressure on Pakistan from bringing the culprits, particularly the Lashkar-e-Tayba, responsible for Mumbai, to task, and (b) tacitly admitted that India may have a hand in stirring up insurgency and terrorism in Balochistan and thereby provided Pakistan with a tit-for-tat excuse for continuing to dangle the sword of state-supported terrorist actors over India’s head.

But the real yardstick of any agreement or understanding is not just the text but the spirit or intention of the parties behind it. Indeed, sometimes a particular text may be used to facilitate a difficult path to progress in conflict resolution. Consider.

The de-linking of terrorism from the composite dialogue makes it easier for the Pakistan government – if it really wants – to proceed against the Lashkar-e-Tayba – whose front Jamaat-ad-Dawa enjoys considerable popularity as a social welfare organization – without being accused by its internal detractors of doing so “under Indian pressure and conditions”. At the same time, it enables the Indian government to go-slow on any meaningful element of the composite dialogue until the Pakistan government actually delivers on the anti-terrorist front. The facts support this interpretation.

Fact # 1: Pakistan has handed over a dossier to India that acknowledges not just the Pakistani origins of the perpetrators of Mumbai but their Lashkar-e-Tayba links, where they trained in Sindh, and how they carried out the land and sea operation. The dossier contains handwritten diaries, training manuals, Indian maps, operational instructions for sea and navigational training, etc, seized from LeT hideouts. This is unprecedented, considering that at one time Islamabad was not even ready to admit that Ajmal Kasab was Pakistani. It demonstrates Pakistan’s pledge to crack down on such elements in the LeT that did Mumbai or may be planning to repeat the outrage.

Fact # 2: Pakistan has arrested five LeT activists and charged them with the crime of Mumbai. Twelve others are listed as absconders. A couple of them have confessed. They are being tried in an anti-terrorist court inside a prison stronghold. This is also unprecedented. No Pakistani has ever been tried in Pakistan for carrying out or abetting an act of terrorism outside the country.

Fact # 3: Pakistan has since arrested over 500 alleged terrorists linked with the LeT and Jaish Mahammad and is planning a careful crackdown in Southern Punjab where these militant organizations are based. Its tentative approach towards Hafiz Saeed is aimed at avoiding a violent and powerful backlash that could derail a calibrated anti-terror policy.

Fact # 4: Pakistan’s ISI has directly briefed the military attachés at the Indian Embassy in Islamabad. It has expressed a willingness to talk directly about terrorism and security with India’s intelligence and defense agencies so that any cloak of ambiguity or lack of transparency arising out of any civilian intermediaries is removed from the reckoning. Certainly, in view of the perceived autonomy of the ISI from the civilian government in Pakistan and its central role in the past in nurturing the LeT, this development should raise the credibility quotient of any commitments on terrorism made by the Pakistani side. There is some evidence, too, of renewed contacts between the two original and successful back channels in the persons of Satish Lamba of India and Tariq Aziz of Pakistan.

Fact # 5: Pakistan has also provided evidence of the Indian role in stirring up a tribal insurgency in Balochistan and fueling the Pakistani Taliban via its consulates in Afghanistan. Therefore the mention of Balochistan in the joint statement is an Indian quid pro quo for Pakistani action against the LeT. It suggests that Delhi is ready to take its hand out of Balochistan. The fact that the Pakistani interior minister, Rehman Malik met Afghan President Hamid Karzai recently and said that Bramdagh Bugti, the leader of the Baloch insurgents in Kabul under the protection of Afghan intelligence, would be neutralized, should not be missed. Indeed, the news is that Mr Bugti has since left Kabul for the UAE and efforts are being made by Islamabad to woo the Baloch dissidents back into mainstream politics.

There is one additional development after Sharm-el-Sheikh that may be critical. This is the surprising confession of Ajmal Kasab in court that links his actions to his terrorist friends in Pakistan. Has Kasab entered into a secret plea-bargain with the Indian authorities at the prompting of the Pakistanis? Certainly, a willful admission of guilt by Kasab is going to strengthen the Pakistani prosecution’s case against the LeT terrorists who are being tried in a Pakistani court.

We are sanguine. The joint-statement shows the way forward. Both Pakistan and India are likely to emerge as winners. The media in India should do its homework instead of succumbing to vapid nationalism.

(August 7-13, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 25 – Editorial)

Discretion and not deterrence

The decision by the Supreme Court of Pakistan led by Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to outlaw the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) of November 3, 2007, by General Pervez Musharraf has been hailed as “historic”, “principled” and even “revolutionary”. Indeed, some people have gone so far in their praise and expectation to pronounce it as an “end to martial law forever”. But we are inclined to be less sanguine in our judgment. While the decision is certainly primed to set the stage for a more independent judiciary – which is a great and welcome development – the fact is that it is neither historic, nor terribly principled, and far from being revolutionary.

Certainly, the resistance of Mr Chaudhry and the lawyers movement to a military dictator’s errant and arrogant ways was unprecedented and even revolutionary. No judge had ever dared to say no to a general, much less lead a popular and sustained movement against him. So a fulsome salute to Justice Chaudhry is in order. And no movement had lasted so long in support of principles. So the young lawyers are to be commended. But the support of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) to the cause of the judges and lawyers was politically opportunistic, given its track record against the judiciary. Certainly, the PMLN has been the biggest beneficiary and the PPP the greatest loser in this game of judico-political see-saw. The restored judiciary, as expected, has leaned heavily in favour of the PMLN, first restoring the PMLN to power in Punjab, then enabling the Sharifs to contest elections and finally overthrowing the conviction for hijacking of Mr Nawaz Sharif in 1999. In all these cases, pragmatic politics and not principled law was at stake.

Nor was this particular judgment unexpected or terribly principled. Everything the judges had said and done in court during the hearings pointed the way forward. But Mr Chaudhry’s ruling stops short of asking the government to initiate a case of High Treason against General Musharraf, who is safely ensconced in a flat in London these days. If it had done that, we might have hailed it as a revolutionary step with far reaching deterrence-consequences.

We might also caution against the view that the SC’s decision is a “principled” blow for an independent judiciary. Most people don’t care to remember that Justice Chaudhry and his triumphant colleagues all took oath under General Musharraf’s first PCO in 1999 after the coup and owe their promotions to the dictator. Indeed, Mr Chaudhry was a member of the SC bench which upheld General Musharraf’s bid to be both army chief and president in 2004, a position that Mr Chaudhry as chief justice sought to overturn in 2007 when General Musharraf wanted to contest a second presidential term in uniform, provoking the mini-coup of 2007. It is also circular to argue that the 1999 PCO was endorsed by a parliament based on it, absolving the then SC and Justice Chaudhry of any responsibility. Indeed, if that is the case, then the SC should relinquish its power of judicial review and never challenge any parliamentary law, let alone any constitutional amendment.

Then there is the issue of judicial accountability and the likely political consequences of this judgment. For starters, 106 judges of the High Courts and Supreme Court who were appointed by General Musharraf or by President Asif Zardari before or after the PCO have been, or will be, sacked. This means that Justice Chaudhry will now handpick the entire senior judiciary, warts and all. This is hardly a recipe for judicial balance or accountability. The pendulum will now swing to the other extreme, with Justice Chaudhry hiring and firing judges and even throwing out laws and constitutional amendments made by parliament. Second, if he helps overthrow the 17th constitutional amendment, he will be tilting in favour of Mr Sharif and hurting Mr Zardari. He has also left General Musharraf’s fate in the hands of parliament. This is the height of pragmatism, not principles. By refusing to contend with the army’s high command, including the current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and many corps commanders, in whose name and authority the November 3 PCO was also promulgated by General Musharraf, Justice Chaudhry has proved that discretion, and not deterrence, is the better part of valour. This is just as well, perhaps.

Justice Chaudhry has another four years to go as chief justice. If the judiciary gridlocks the executive or helps the PMLN in hounding Mr Zardari or the PPP out of office, Pakistan will be politically derailed again. Therefore wisdom and restraint and not bravado or self-aggrandizement is the need of the hour.

(August 14-20, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 26 – Editorial)

Get Musharraf!

Mr Nawaz Sharif has recently upped his campaign to hold General (retd) Pervez Musharraf “accountable” for staging a coup d’etat in 1999, thereby committing High Treason as defined by Article 6 of the Constitution. The PMLN’s leader of the opposition in the national assembly, Chaudhry Nisar, has been making fiery speeches exhorting the PPP government to initiate a case of treason against General Musharraf. So the PPP faces a political dilemma. It cannot afford to be seen as protecting an unpopular former dictator. But it also cannot afford to go back on its word to the Pakistani military leadership and the international community of providing safe passage to General Musharraf. What happens now?

Mr Asif Zardari was happy to edge General Musharraf out of power when the popular tide turned against him last year, and occupy the presidential palace himself. This, despite the deal brokered by the Americans and British in 2007 between General Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to open up space for the PPP to return to power. But Mr Zardari was also obliged by the international intermediaries to guarantee safe passage to General Musharraf – after all, they had been staunch supporters and persuaded him to accommodate the PPP.

General Ashfaq Kayani also didn’t want anything less than that for his former chief. He owed General Musharraf for handpicking him and he didn’t relish the prospect of the army being dragged through the mud by association with its former chief. Indeed, he had signaled his position by allowing General Musharraf to stay on in Army House in Rawalpindi long after he left the presidency.

In due course, General Musharraf agreed to play by the rules of the game, lecturing all over the world from an uncontroversial and patriotic “national interest” point of view and stopping short of ruffling any feathers back home.

Now certain developments have changed the situation and encouraged Nawaz Sharif to lash out at General Musharraf. First, the restoration of the judges has given a fillip to Mr Sharif to advance his political and personal agendas. He has benefited enormously from a string of judgments handed down by the supreme court under CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. In fact, the SC’s declaration of the second PCO as unconstitutional, followed by a wholesale sacking of over 100 judges appointed by General Musharraf and President Zardari, has paved the way for a reconstruction of the higher judiciary from among lawyers and judges who are allied to the CJP or inclined to be pro-PMLN and anti-PPP. Therefore Mr Sharif knows he has a powerful ally in the institution of the judiciary, emboldening him to seek political advantage.

Second, Mr Sharif’s attempts to decimate the PML-Q have not yielded too much fruit. A rump PMLQ still poses a long-term threat to his ambitions because it can ally with the PPP and thwart him at any stage. Although the PMLQ’s leadership is discredited and is internally squabbling, the faction could conceivably benefit at some stage in the future from political input from General Musharraf as long as he remains a credible figure in powerful sections of the public, especially among the pro-West business and urban upper middle classes who find “the din and corruption of democracy” tiresome and like the country to be ruled with an iron hand. Even if revenge is an issue, Mr Sharif is only protecting his self-interest by ensuring that General Musharraf doesn’t become a political player and take a slice out of his popularity.

Third, Mr Sharif reckons that if he can put pressure on Mr Zardari to prosecute General Musharraf he might drive a wedge between the army and the PPP, destabilising the Zardari regime and opening the route for his own re-entry into power.

Mr Zardari’s response is predictable. His prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, says he will move only if parliament were to pass a “unanimous” resolution seeking General Musharraf’s trial for High Treason. Since this is well nigh impossible – given the opposition of the PMLQ and MQM to any such move because it would drag his “aiders and abettors” in the army high command and among the ruling politicians of the ancien regime into the net as required by the law – the PPP is sitting pretty.

Indeed, in order to forestall any attempt by General Musharraf to return to Pakistan and provoke a bigger storm, the PPP government may well have nudged a nondescript lawyer to file a case in Islamabad against General Musharraf for ordering the home-detention of the SC judges in 2007. An obliging lower court judge has ordered General Musharraf’s arrest for an offense with a maximum punishment of three years. This cunning step is probably meant to keep General Musharraf out of the country.

Will it fly? Mr Sharif is in a Bonapartist mode because of his popularity, much as he was after his heavily mandated stint in power from 1997 to 1999 when he sacked one army chief that he had inherited and then tried to sack another that he had handpicked. The media is with him, baying for Musharraf’s blood. But the judiciary has passed the buck to parliament and the PPP is not going to risk angering the army. So Article 6 will have to remain in cold storage.

(August 21-27, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 27 – Editorial)

Operation minus one?

The PPP thinks that conspiracies are afoot to drag President Asif Zardari out of the Presidency. Apparently, the purpose of this exercise is to strengthen the hand of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, drive a wedge between him and Mr Zardari, divide the Peoples Party, weaken it and then hound it out of office.

Last week, the PPP’s information minister, Qamar Zaman Kaira, population welfare minister Firdaus Awan and Sindh chief minister Qaim Ali Shah, all publicly thundered about a “Minus-One plot” being hatched by “anti-democratic” “establishment” forces to achieve this objective. Some old and new facts suggest cause for disquiet in Islamabad.

First, President Zardari lost the support of the mainstream media last year when he backtracked on his public pledge to restore Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan. So the media backed Nawaz Sharif’s Long March to the hilt. More ominously, after a dramatic midnight announcement by the government conceding the restoration of the judges, the media actually saluted Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani and DG-ISI Shuja Pasha for “playing a great role” in forcing President Zardari to backtrack and resolve the conflict. The same media has now launched a full throated campaign alleging high corruption and unmitigated cronyism in the PPP government. The PM has responded by sacking the chairman of the Pakistan Steel Mills, a prime media target.

Second, it is commonly believed that General Kayani isn’t too happy with President Zardari. Several issues cloud the relationship. The army didn’t want Mr Zardari to be President because he would then become “supreme commander of the armed forces”. Gen Kayani also wasn’t amused last year when the government announced it was dispatching the DG-ISI to Delhi shortly after the Mumbai incident to diffuse the situation. In the event, he effectively countered otherwise. The government then tried to put the ISI’s internal wing under the interior ministry. But Gen Kayani said “nothing doing”. President Zardari’s assertion on Indian TV that Pakistan was ready to disavow first strike nuclear rights alarmed the establishment. So he was forced to eat his words. Mr Zardari is also seen in GHQ as being “soft” on the Americans in pursuance of their Af-Pak interests. The military leadership insists on a calibrated and autonomous approach in the matter. Gen Kayani’s intervention in the judges’ affair on the side of Prime Minister Gilani finally persuaded PPP stalwarts that Mr Gilani’s new found confidence was owed to discreet backing by General Kayani.

Third, Mr Nawaz Sharif’s strategy of weakening and isolating Mr Zardari and discrediting the PPP government is bearing fruit. He is the most popular politician in the country. The media is gunning for Mr Zardari. Gen Kayani is keeping a poker face but his minions aren’t. And the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) is flexing his new found muscle. The Supreme Court (SC) has enabled Mr Sharif to contest elections and sit in parliament. It has restored Mr Sharif’s PMLN government in Punjab. It has sacked all the judges appointed by Mr Zardari. It has even questioned budgetary provisions passed by parliament. It is on the verge of outlawing the National Reconciliation Ordinance. Now it is trying to pack its benches without reference to the President as ordained in the constitution. This could gridlock the system.

The Lahore High Court Chief Justice wants 35 judges elevated or appointed to the High Court. He has sent the list to the Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, a Presidential appointee and constitutional consultee on such matters, who will send his views to the President who will make the final appointments. But the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, has taken issue, advising Mr Taseer to consult with the CM before advising the President. Significantly, Mr Sharif has also broken the rules of business and established practice by copying his correspondence with the Governor to the Chief Justice. He has also used provocative language. But the Governor has obtained the backing of the federal law ministry that the CM does not have to be consulted in the matter. The issue could explode if the CM petitions the courts for a judgment. Or if the President rejects some of the nominees of the Lahore Chief Justice and the matter is raised as a constitutional petition before the CJP. This would be a recipe for potential constitutional gridlock. With the opposition and media backing the judiciary, pressure would likely build up on Gen Kayani to intervene as he did during the Long March.

Formula “Minus One” (PPP minus Zardari) should not be discounted. It stops short of regime change but will still destabilise the country. Much will depend on how Mr Zardari plays his cards. He can pre-empt it by sitting down with Mr Nawaz Sharif and carrying out a constitutional amendment that enforces the Charter of Democracy (COD) signed by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in 2006. The COD envisaged a ceremonial president, no bar on anyone becoming prime minister any number of times, and a parliamentary vetting of all judicial appointments to ensure a neutral and independent judiciary. Or Mr Zardari can continue to hang on to his presidential powers until everyone gangs up against him and he is isolated, weakened and then defeated. Forewarned is forearmed.

(August 28 – September 3, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 17 – Editorial)

Nawaz Sharif’s statesmanship

Mr Nawaz Sharif has recently given a robust and welcome statement to an Indian paper on the urgent need for building peace between Pakistan and India. It is worth quoting: “The political consensus within Pakistan is for a joint fight against terrorism and for rebuilding relations derailed by the Mumbai terror attack”. More significantly, he stated: “I know India is hurt, I admit that. Pakistan has a duty to do and it should do that duty as quickly as possible to get the peace process going by establishing the back-channel once again”. Mr Sharif would like “all parties, including the BJP, to be on board [this peace process]” and he wants to “cooperate fully with the ruling PPP in its peace efforts with New Delhi”. He appreciated the cooperative spirit of the Indian prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt last month and thought the meeting with the Pakistan prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, was a “positive step” to take the dialogue forward. He went further by welcoming the publication of Mr Jaswant Singh’s new book on Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Partition, wherein the author says that Mr Jinnah was a great and admirable man who was pushed into seeking a separate homeland for the Muslims of India by the intransigent and uncompromising attitude of the leadership of the Congress, in particular Jawaharlal Nehru. Mr Sharif also commended the efforts made by the former prime minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, when he visited Lahore in 1999 and went to the Minar-e-Pakistan to accept the reality of Pakistan and commit himself to bettering India-Pakistan relations.

Mr Sharif’s consistently pro-India-Pakistan peace position goes back to 1997 when he persuaded India to open secretary level talks and agreed to the old Indian demand for a “composite dialogue” to address all outstanding issues, including but not exclusively Kashmir. He was disappointed when the then Indian prime minister, Mr I K Gujral, backtracked on the Kashmir basket of the dialogue in 1998 because of impending elections, and then again when India under the BJP tested a nuclear device in May of the same year and compelled Pakistan to follow suit. But he wasn’t disheartened. Instead, he opened a back channel with India through Mr Niaz Naek, a former Pakistani foreign secretary, and the two sides took the discussion of a “Chenab Formula” for Kashmir quite far, before General Pervez Musharraf derailed everything by launching the Kargil misadventure and then seizing power in a coup in October 1999. Finally, in 2006, Mr Sharif and Ms Benazir Bhutto negotiated a Charter of Democracy in which one significant pledge related to building peace with India.

Mr Sharif’s fundamental calculation behind a policy of normalization with India is correct. He realizes that the so-called National Security State built in Pakistan by the Pakistan Army on the basis of the threat from the Indian “enemy”, whatever its original merit, has basically served to empower and legitimize the military in Pakistan to the detriment of civilians and undermined democracy. Having ruled Pakistan twice and suffered at the hands of the same military dominated establishment, he is now more than ever determined to snatch foreign policy back from the military, dismantle the ideological projection of India as Pakistan’s enemy #1 that necessitates a build up of the military through large chunks of the national budget and cripples the peoples’ quest for social welfare. So, in a significant way, Mr Sharif has arrived full circle to 1988 when democracy was ushered in half-heartedly by the military establishment and Benazir Bhutto tried unsuccessfully to build the blocks of peace with India under Rajiv Gandhi.

The best part of this concurrence of views between the PMLN – originally the military’s party – and the Pakistan Peoples Party is that it will serve to strengthen the hands of the current PPP government that is trying to secure the country’s eastern border with India while it confronts the Taliban challenge internally and on its western border with Afghanistan. No elected government in Pakistan is safe as long as strategies are formed, not predominantly on the basis of the country’s economic interests, but on how it is going to fight the next war against a more powerful neighbour. Mr Sharif gave Pakistan its nuclear weapon. But his intention was not to drop it on India. It was to enable Pakistan to move confidently forward to normalizing relations with it, as he demonstrated in 1999. The irony is that it was his nemesis, General Pervez Musharraf, who both derailed him over India policy in 1999 and then adopted the same pro-peace-with India strategy from 2003-07.

India should not ignore the historic significance of this convergence of views in the two leading parties of the country. It should stop putting conditions on the composite dialogue and get on with it. The Congress is now flushed with a great election win and doesn’t have to watch over its shoulder. Another Mumbai should not be allowed to derail the peace process. That can only be ensured by sticking to the peace process forcefully despite new threats and attempts by vested interest-terrorists rather than by succumbing to a sum zero nationalist game by enshrining cold-start doctrines.

(September 11-17, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 30 – Editorial)

Grading President Zardari

President Asif Zardari has “proved his mettle” in the last twelve months, claims his spokesperson Farahnaz Ispahani. Notwithstanding her loyalty, the fact is that Mr Zardari’s successes and failures, past and present, are both noteworthy, and have a critical bearing on the future.

Mr Zardari’s failures remain grist for the media mills. These include his broken pledges to restore the judiciary properly and implement the Charter of Democracy. But responsibility for the failing economy and the “safe passage” deal with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf are also laid at his door even though he has inherited the worldwide economic slump and domestic terrorism that have laid the country low, while General Musharraf’s safe exit is actually owed to the demands of the Pakistan army and the international community – key political and economic players in Pakistan whose writ runs large and cannot be safely violated. Of course, he hasn’t managed to deliver “good governance”, but that is partly a result of pre-occupation with fending off early political challenges by the opposition and partly a consequence of the dismal party-material thrown up by the elections in which he has had to fish for a finance minister from outside his political cabal. To be sure, however, he has hurt his cause by succumbing to the lure of cronyism and packing the public sector with men of dubious repute, which is one reason why the mud continues to stick to him.

Unfortunately, however, he hasn’t even been granted some personal successes. For example, when he married Benazir Bhutto, he was painted as a grabbing, two bit landlord-aristocrat-playboy who didn’t “deserve” the daughter of the East. His reputation plunged during Ms Bhutto’s first stint in office when he duly earned the sobriquet of Mr Ten Percent. His grouse, not unjustified, is that he suffered eight years in prison under two regimes without a conviction for his sins of commission but hasn’t still been able to shake the percentages off while greater political mortals than him with vast unaccounted wealth and properties at home and abroad roam Scot free and remain the darlings of the media.

Nonetheless, Mr Zardari’s successes are significant. A major one is helping to nudge the media-manufactured public perception of the Taliban as anti-American heroes into bloodthirsty and ignorant villains. A second is in persuading the Pakistan army to go after them as the “enemy within” rather then continue to obsess about India as the “enemy without”. A third is in explaining to America that the route to Kabul goes through Islamabad and persuading it to rearm the military to put down the Taliban, inject funds into the economy to provide jobs and education and health, help stabilize the polity for the sake of continuity and restrain India from adventuring across the border into Pakistan whatever the provocation. These are no mean achievements. If some of his political decisions have been naïve or hasty or negative or personally motivated, and if some of his appointments and postings have been less than credible, his instinct for pragmatism and realism in foreign policy and survival in domestic politics has saved the day for his party and government. Where does he go from here?

There are four main contenders for leverage. The first is the opposition led by Nawaz Sharif. It is strident and popular. Mr Zardari has to keep it at bay without provoking another “long-march” crisis. This can best be done by acceding to its legitimate demands to amend the constitution and make it more democratic and representative. The art of timely compromise is needed. The second is the Pakistan army. It would be foolish to ruffle its feathers by trying to cut it down to size quickly. But it would be problematic to fully give into some of its misplaced national security obsessions. It has to be gently but firmly coaxed into cooperating. The third is the USA which provides bread for the government’s budget and butter for the military. If Pakistan has to agree to “do more”, then the US has to follow suit too. Given a history of mistrust by one side and vapid anti-Americanism in the other, a dispassionate and pragmatic approach is needed on all sides which Mr Zardari has to facilitate. The fourth is the challenge from radical political Islam. It has a thirty year history as a protégé of the state. Turning the tide back will require building a consensus in state and society that requires much vision, courage and patience. Is Mr Zardari up to the job?

One report says he spent nearly a third of his time abroad in his first year in office. If he had achieved spectacular success in any manifold subject no one would grudge him his travels. But that’s not the case. So he should stay at home more and focus on the challenges facing his party, government and country. A leader is judged by the team he moulds and leads. At the end of the day, it is not pious intention but solid performance that matters. On that front his score is barely satisfactory. Next year it has to prove significantly better if he wants to savour his full five year term and live to fight successfully another day.

(September 4-10, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 29 – Editorial)

Conspiracy theories & squabbling politicians

The Peoples Party (PPP) has been on the defensive since Asif Zardari took over its reins. He has had to contend with all manner of personal and political attacks from elements in the media and the opposition. These are based on a lingering perception of corruption, a string of broken pledges and for being “pro-America”.

Meanwhile, Mr Nawaz Sharif’s popularity has soared because of his “principled” politics in support of an “independent” judiciary. He is also getting unqualified political benefits from judgments passed by the “independent” but grateful judges. Emboldened by the opinion polls, the PMLN has become aggressive in recent times. Mr Sharif has been demanding a “High Treason” trial for General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, notwithstanding a “safe passage” agreement between President Zardari, COAS General Ashfaq Kayani, and the governments of USA, UK and Saudi Arabia. Mr Sharif’s immediate motive is to extract public mileage by embarrassing Mr Zardari for doing an NRO deal with a detestable dictator whom he is now protecting from prosecution. The PMLN is not interested in seeking a conviction against General (retd) Musharraf because that would envelope the entire army leadership, including the current army chief, pit the civilians against the internal and external establishment and hurt his own civilian cause no less than that of Mr Zardari.

Mr Sharif is also the inspiration behind a vigorous campaign in a section of the media to discredit the Zardari regime. Indeed, the embattled Presidency has had to confront a “Minus-One” conspiracy hatched by the opposition to drive a wedge between Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Zardari, weaken the PPP and then get rid of Mr Zardari from the Presidency, as a prelude to a mid term election next year enabling Mr Sharif to romp back to power.

But the tables have now been turned. Suddenly, the focus is on the PMLN and Mr Sharif, whose past misdeeds have been dusted off the shelves and weighted in the scales. One man – Brig (retd) Imtiaz Ahmed aka Billa – is singularly responsible for putting the boot on the other foot. He was a key player in the ISI from 1988-90 when he was tasked by General Aslam Beg and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan to stop the PPP under Benazir Bhutto from sweeping the 1988 elections and then from returning to power in 1990. Brig Billa was rewarded and appointed DG-IB by Mr Sharif for his machinations. But Brig Billa was arrested during the Musharraf regime and successfully prosecuted for corruption. Like a jack-in-the-box, he has suddenly erupted on all TV channels with a profound mea culpa which is making all political players, including Mr Sharif and the ISI, squirm and look distinctly soiled. That is, all except the PPP and its leaders.

Brig Imtiaz says the ISI used money received from dubious sources at home and abroad to pay a clutch of opposition politicians, including Mr Sharif, so that they prop up their election campaigns and enable the Muslim League to win the 1990 elections. Much of this is already part of the record of the supreme court of Pakistan where a case against the ISI is pending. But he also makes credible accusations against PPP turncoats like Mustafa Khar. Significantly, he claims that the army operation against the MQM in Karachi in 1992 was ordered by President Ishaq on the basis of a trumped up charge of an MQM conspiracy to carve out a separate province of Jinnahpur from Sindh, a claim that lets the MQM off the hook for provoking a bloody crackdown by the state at that time. The net result of these revelations is that the PMLN is angry because it is being shown in a bad light. The PPP is smirking smugly because the Minus-One Formula has dissolved. The MQM has become self-righteous and aggrieved. And General (retd) Musharraf is strutting about confidently instead of being cowed down by threats of trial for High Treason.

The PMLN has accused the Presidency of harbouring a secret media cell to manufacture and launch this anti-PMLN guided missile named Brig Billa. Naturally, the PPP’s denial has been equally fast and furious. Brig Billa’s multiple motives may include personal bitterness at Mr Sharif for sidelining him in the 1990s, abandoning him when he was in prison during the Musharraf regime and finally refusing him re-entry into the higher echelons of the PLMN upon Mr Sharif’s return to Pakistan in 2008. He could also have been suitably induced by supporters and loyalists of Asif Zardari, Altaf Hussain and Pervez Musharraf to sting Mr Sharif and the PMLN good and proper.

To Mr Sharif’s added dismay, his nemesis-in-exile, Pervez Musharraf, has been suddenly accorded a royal welcome in Saudi Arabia by King Abdullah. Now his old benefactor is signaling Mr Sharif – he has been summoned to Riyadh – to stop baying for Mr Musharraf’s blood and refrain from destablising the Zardari regime. What next?

Will PM Gilani step into the fray and calm everyone down? Or will Mr Sharif turn to the judiciary once again rather than the media to undermine the Zardari regime and improve his political prospects?

(September 18-24, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 31 – Editorial)

Ghosts of 9/11

This year’s anniversary of 9/11 is particularly significant from the point of view of Pakistan, America, Afghanistan and India for many reasons.

First, for the first time since that fateful day eight years ago, Pakistan’s military has undertaken large scale operations against the Taliban in Swat, killed or captured important terrorists and is readying for action in Waziristan against Al-Qaeda. This major development underscores the reality of the internal threat to Pakistan from the fallout of America’s action in Afghanistan.

Second, there is, finally, a national consensus comprising the government, opposition, military and media that this war is not just America’s war but also Pakistan’s war and that this military step was necessary, though not sufficient, to resolve the existential threat facing the country.

Third, the Pakistani military has finally come round to the view of the civilians that while India continues to pose a threat to Pakistan’s security it is no longer “the enemy”. Hence it is important to press ahead with the peace process launched by Nawaz Sharif in 1999 and carried forward by General Pervez Musharraf later on.

Fourth, the Americans under the Obama administration have realized the necessity of a regional approach to Afghanistan that involves conflict resolution not just within the key domestic players in Afghanistan but also between Pakistan and India and Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is a vindication of Pakistan’s point of view that a necessary condition for peace and stability in Afghanistan is that it must, minimally, be politically friendly toward Pakistan if it cannot, maximally, be pro-Pakistan.

Fifth, the Americans have also concluded that while a surge in troops was necessary to halt the slide in Afghanistan, a political initiative will also have to be taken to broaden the base of power sharing in Kabul. The strategy of using the presidential elections this year to acquire legitimacy for this quest has not taken off, with allegations of significant rigging by President Hamid Karzai. This will make their job of stabilising Afghanistan more difficult and increase America’s dependence on Pakistan for nudging elements of the Taliban to chalk out a workable formula for conflict resolution. This is a far more realistic way to go about in Afghanistan than the earlier gung-ho military approach that relied only on Mr Karzai.

Sixth, the tide of public opinion in favour of the war in Afghanistan has finally turned in America. Like the Europeans, a majority of Americans now want their boys back. With Congressional elections due next year, the Obama administration has to find ways of demonstrating a degree of success in Afghanistan. This cannot be achieved without a full-fledged stabilizing of Pakistan and backing of its strategic interests in its backyard. Just as Pakistan could not delink its jihadi assets for use against India from the Taliban and al-Qaeda and had to pay a huge price for its folly which led to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, in the same way the Americans cannot insist on maintaining the position that the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda are one and the same enemy for all time to come, while the Pakistani Taliban and Pakistani jihadis are Pakistan’s headache and not also that of America. The fact is that Pakistan and America have to work closely together to end the scourge of the Pakistani Taliban and Jihadis just as much as they have to work hand in hand in driving a wedge between the Afghan Taliban and Al-Qaeda, accommodating the former in a power sharing arrangement in the future and knocking out the latter so that the cause of the original sin is uprooted.

Seventh, India is now called upon to play a critical role in obtaining security for this region. Its proxy intelligence wars with Pakistan in Afghanistan and Balochistan, originally devised to counter Pakistan’s interference in Kashmir, are yielding diminishing returns. Therefore the sooner India reopens unconditional dialogue with Pakistan the better. This shouldn’t be too difficult for the new Congress government provided it is able to see the long term wisdom of consolidating peace with the new political dispensation in Pakistan and strengthening its hands against the extremists within and without.

The next twelve months are critical if 9/11 is not to remain a millstone around everyone’s neck. All players must compromise. America has to create conditions to bring back Taliban representation in Kabul. Pakistan has to accept that some of its former assets have become liabilities that have to be taken out. India must accept that the old tit-for-tat and sum-zero paradigm is no longer valid and it must resolve its disputes with Pakistan in a spirit of brotherly give and take. Otherwise, far from being laid to rest, the ghosts of 9/11 will succeed in creating anarchy in this region.

In principle, General Musharraf’s decision to stay on the right side of President Bush in the post 9/11 period was right. But both allies played hidden games and didn’t fully trust each other. The end result has been disastrous. That is why the new regimes in Pakistan and America must realign and readjust to new ground realities. The sooner Mr Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan and Dr Manmohan Singh’s India are co-opted into this arrangement, the better.

(September 25-October 1, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 32 – Editorial)

Finally, some good news

The good news is that US President Barack Obama has co-chaired a meeting of “Friends of Pakistan” (FOP) in New York along with the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and President Asif Zaradri. Pledges of billions of dollars in economic assistance to Pakistan have been made by many countries to shore up its defenses and enable it to effectively tackle the twin-existential threats facing it – terrorism and a failing economy. Earlier, President Zardari met with Richard Holbrooke, the special US Af-Pak envoy, who assured him that the international community in general and the US in particular had a long term stake in Pakistan’s stability and growth and would put their money where their mouth is. The stage was set by two policy statements by President Zardari, the first that the term “Af-Pak” was misleading because Pakistan could not be lumped with civil-war torn Afghanistan, and the second that a “Marshall Plan of $100 billion” was needed to set Pakistan right.

Mr Zardari is, of course, only partly right on both counts. To be sure, a regional approach rather than just an Af-Pak strategy is needed to wage the war against terrorism because it is not just Afghanistan that is in its grip but also Pakistan and potentially India. Worse, the intelligence agencies of all three countries are still warring in the region through their proxies. So if India doesn’t want to be lumped with Pakistan and Afghanistan, why should Pakistan, especially since it is the continuing lack of trust and conflict resolution between India and Pakistan that accounts for some of the terrorism and insurgencies faced by both.

But the fact remains that Pakistan’s territory is being used to wage war against the government in Kabul and the spillover of the conflict in Afghanistan in Pakistan’s tribal areas necessitates a joint Af-Pak strategy to establish the writ of both states. Equally, Mr Zardari’s demand for tens of billions of dollars to rebuild Pakistan is not likely to materialize. Western economies are in serious medium term decline and money is scarce. On top of that, the record shows that nearly US$10 billion have already been lavished on Pakistan in the last five years or so without due diligence or desired results. So there is no free lunch anymore. Indeed, that is the main reason for a degree of skepticism regarding the gap between earlier pledges of assistance from FOP and actual capital inflows.

The other good news comes from the foreign minister, Shah Mahmud Qureshi. Back channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan is being re-activated. This shows that India recognizes the need for talks even if it is unable, for domestic political reasons, to be up-front about it unconditionally despite commitments made at Sharm al Sheikh two months ago. The supplementary good news is that the back channel proposed is none other than Riaz Mohammad Khan, the soft-spoken diplomat who was in the back-channel loop as foreign secretary of Pakistan during General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s time, and much out-of-the-box thinking led to definite progress in finding an acceptable solution to the Kashmir problem. With Mr Satish Lamba and Mr M K Narayanan continuing to play their old roles in India, we can be sanguine that the thread of the dialogue will be picked up and the back channel will move swiftly ahead.

The third piece of good news comes from the finance minister Shaukat Tarin. He says that the US and Pakistan have now resolved the issue of how the money that will go to Pakistan – courtesy the Kerry-Lugar bill – amounting to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years will be channeled into social sector projects after consultation with the government of Pakistan and not independently by either the US or Pakistan government. In other words, it will go into Pakistan’s development budget and be monitored, instead of merely plugging the fiscal deficit or bloating non-development or military expenditures under political pressure. With a robust IMF program already underway to stress financial discipline, confidence in the revival of the economy will be restored and things will start ticking over in the next year or two.

The fourth good news is the prospect of some sort of a political settlement between Mr Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif before the year is out. Mr Zardari has reiterated his pledge to undo aspects of the 17th constitutional amendment that are obstacles in the path of democracy. It is also noteworthy that talk of any anti-Zardari “minus-one” formula has died down and Mr Sharif has been suitably chastened by the Saudis regarding his insistence on a trial of General Musharraf for treason. Both were potentially destabilizing demands that could have undermined the entire regional agenda.

There is, however, one thing that can singly overwhelm the good news on the horizon. That is a major terrorist attack on India along the lines of Mumbai whose footprints lead back to non-state actors based in Pakistan. It would create an irreparable rift with India, raise the spectre of a dangerous conflict, divert attention from the war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, frustrate and alienate the international community, create tensions between the Zardari government and the military leadership, and spell gloom for the economy.

(October 2-8, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 33 – Editorial)

Resume composite dialogue unconditionally

The US and India are pushing Pakistan to take action against the Quetta Taliban Shura and Lashkar-i-Taiba respectively. Both are old demands that have acquired urgency in view of new ground realities.

The Obama administration is facing Congressional elections next year and wants to notch up some concrete successes in Afghanistan so that public opinion at home can be deflected from insisting on “pulling the boys out and bringing them home”. But this is not possible until Pakistan’s national security establishment stops viewing and protecting the leaders of the Afghan Taliban as potential national assets for precisely such an eventuality in which the Americans tire of fighting in Afghanistan and leave Pakistan to clean up the mess, just as they did in 1988 when the USSR vacated the region and a bloody civil war followed for nearly a decade. Pakistan is also concerned that the US-NATO high command in Afghanistan is not sufficiently inclined to consider Pakistan’s legitimate concerns regarding the influence of anti-Pakistan elements in the US-supported state and government structure in Kabul, including the developing influence and impact of India in Afghanistan.

In much the same manner, India is not relenting on its position that the composite dialogue for conflict resolution with Pakistan cannot begin formally or via any back channel until Pakistan’s national security establishment visibly cracks down on the Lashkar and disbands it for all time to come so that another Mumbai cannot happen again. But this is not possible until Pakistan’s national security establishment stops viewing the Lashkar as a potential asset to be used to pressure India into settling its disputes with Pakistan. The notion of “composite dialogue” was first mooted by India in 1997 but not a single dispute has been resolved on its basis either because India remains intransigent and is given to dragging its feet or because Pakistan tends to get frustrated and ends up provoking conflict in India.

The US-NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has now formulated a slightly different approach to the question at hand. He has stuck to his guns about the pressing need for Pakistan to ditch the Taliban Shura and go into Waziristan in pursuit of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists who are making life hell for US-NATO troops. But he has also taken note of some Pakistani concerns about India’s rising influence in Afghanistan and advised New Delhi to close down some consulates in southern Afghanistan where there is no development activity by India. Pakistan has long accused these consulates of fueling the Baloch insurgents as well as the Pakistani Taliban.

But this is not sufficient to get Pakistan on board. Discernable progress needs to be made on the India-Pakistan conflict-resolution front and much trust needs to be built before Pakistan’s national security establishment will forego its “assets”. Indeed, even General McChrystal’s advice to India to shut down a couple of consulates in Afghanistan is not likely to be heeded until and unless it becomes a part of a step-by-step mechanism in the composite dialogue to resolve issues between India and Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the US-NATO military command has held out the threat of targeting the Afghan shuru in Quetta by means of its drones. The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, has backed this assessment. Together, they have built up suitable international media flap to facilitate this action if the need arises. India has done much the same thing. It has leaked the Indo-Pak dossiers on the involvement of the Lashkar and built up considerable international opinion demanding a unilateral Pakistani crackdown on the group. But Pakistan has not succumbed to such pressure. Indeed, General Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, has stated rather forcefully that drone attacks on targets in Balochistan will “not be allowed”. This statement is quite different from the usual protests by the Pakistani government and military establishment regarding the use of drones in Waziristan. The implication here is that Pakistan’s military would dare to knock out the drones over Balochistan!

Therefore the situation is precipitous on both Pakistan’s eastern and western borders. What is the way out?

First, the Obama administration must stop sending conflicting signals about its Af-Pak strategy. General McChrystal cannot be seen asking for a troop surge in Afghanistan even as other American officials in Washington wring their hands in despair about the rising public pressure to “bring the boys home”. This strengthens the spine of the Taliban in the region and also confirms Pakistan’s fear that it will have to retain its Pashtun “assets” in order to protect its long term interests of seeking a “friendly” Afghanistan on its western border. Second, General McChrystal must lean on the Karzai regime – which is struggling for legitimacy after the botched up presidential elections – to democratize Afghanistan by compromising and sharing power with elements of the Taliban and Pashtun commanders so that Al-Qaeda can be isolated and crushed. Third, the US must nudge India into unconditional conflict-resolution mode so that Pakistan’s eastern border can be stabilized and secured peacefully.

At the end of the day, the Indo-Pak paradigm impacts on the Af-Pak paradigm rather than the other way round. That is why it is important to resume the composite dialogue unconditionally.

(October 9-15, 2009 – Vol. XXI, No. 34 – Editorial)
Naysayers of Kerry-Lugar Bill

The Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) commits US$1.5 billion a year for five years to Pakistan. But many Pakistanis are outraged by the conditions attached to it. Critics say these are an “insult” to Pakistan, a veritable “surrender” because they violate its “sovereignty”. But anti-American passion and rage aside – which is justified on other counts – the KLB is no more intrusive than similar bills in the past.

The “objectionable” conditions are as follows: (1) The Government of Pakistan must cooperate with the US to dismantle nuclear supplier networks and provide relevant information from or direct access to Pakistani nationals associated with such networks. This means that if Washington wants to question Dr A Q Khan, the GoP must give access to him. But the GoP under General Musharraf and President Asif Zardari has already said this will not be allowed. So what’s the problem? (2) The GoP must demonstrate a sustained commitment to combating terrorist groups, and elements within the Pakistan military or its intelligence agency must be restrained from covertly supporting those who are conducting attacks against the US or coalition forces in Afghanistan, or those fomenting trouble in neighbouring countries. (3) The GoP must stop al-Qaeda, the Taliban and groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, from operating inside Pakistan or carrying out cross-border attacks into neighbouring countries. (4) The GoP must close terrorist camps in FATA, dismantle terrorist bases elsewhere, including Quetta and Muridke, and take action when provided with intelligence about high-level terrorist targets. (5) The GoP must strengthen counterterrorism and anti-money laundering laws. (6) The security forces of Pakistan must not materially and substantially subvert the political or judicial processes of Pakistan.

But the Obama administration has already praised the GoP’s commitments in this regard. Indeed, the security forces of Pakistan (the army and ISI) helped to restore the independent judiciary and avert a political crisis last March. They are also going after the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and have lost hundreds of soldiers in the military operations . So what’s the problem?

A historical perspective on conditional aid might help. The Symington Amendment in 1976 prohibited Pakistan from enriching nuclear equipment. But that didn’t stop Pakistan from going ahead at Kahuta in its own national interest. So the US was compelled to “waive” the condition and gave aid to Pakistan from 1982-90 in its own national interest. Similarly, the Glenn Amendment in 1977 prohibited nuclear testing. But Pakistan still went ahead in 1998. And the condition was “waived” by the Bush administration after 9/11 in the US national interest. Much the same applied to the Pressler Amendment in 1985. This prohibited aid to countries outside the NPT (like Pakistan) possessing nuclear devices or trying to acquire one. Again, it was “waived” for Pakistan from 1982-90 in the US national interest. The waivers for restoration of “economic assistance” were granted under the Brownback amendments in 1998 and 1999. The most interesting US Bill was the 9/11 Commission Recommendation Act and Consolidated Appropriation Act which stipulated US aid to Pakistan from 2005-2008. The conditions in it required Islamabad to (i) close all known terrorist camps in Pakistan and Azad Kashmir (ii) prevent infiltration across the LoC into India (iii) stop transfer of weapons of mass destruction to third countries or actors (iv) implement democratic reforms. When Islamabad said it was complying with these conditions, the US took it at its word and allowed the aid to continue.

If all those US conditionalities did not “violate Pakistan’s sovereignty” under the military regimes of General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf and were embraced by the national security establishment in Pakistan, why aren’t the same sort of restraints acceptable under a democratic civilian government in Islamabad? Indeed, the Kerry-Lugar Bill is better for Pakistan in two significant ways: first, it provides US 7.5 billion in five years to the Zardari government compared to US$5 billion to General Musharraf and US$6 billion to General Zia; second, the aid is non-military and aimed at improving the Pakistan economy, alleviating poverty, promoting education, providing for social infrastructure and popular welfare rather than bombs and jets and missiles and tanks. Isn’t that the popular demand in this country, that we want bread and not guns, that we want economic development and not an arms race? Indeed, the US condition warning the military from “ materially and substantially subverting the political or judicial processes of Pakistan” should be the most welcome of all. Isn’t that what the heroic struggle for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and his colleagues and the striking down of the military-imposed PCO of November 3, 2007, was all about?

The opposition to the Kerry-Lugar Bill comes from sections of the religio-nationalist media who were until recently pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda. It also comes from the military establishment that is angry because the aid is exclusively for bread and not guns. The two sources have links dating back to the Zia and Musharraf eras. It is most significant that the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, which is scrambling for a mid-term election and drummed up the “Minus-Zardari” formula recently, thought fit to criticize the Kerry-Lugar Bill only after its stalwarts Shahbaz Sharif and Nisar Ali Khan met with COAS Gen Ashfaq Kayani recently!

(October 16-22, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 35  – Editorial)
Options for war or peace

Two inter-related and significant developments in Pakistan in the last seven days have hit world headlines. But there is an underlying third dimension that has not been explicitly debated. Consider.

Pakistan’s military leadership has whipped up the religio-nationalist media and opportunist political opposition to attack the Kerry-Lugar Bill as an unacceptable American attempt to undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty. But a close look at the Bill’s conditions doesn’t reveal any extraordinary trespass that is significantly different from the past under military regimes. So, why has GHQ rapped the US administration and the Zardari regime?

But the Pakistan army is also on the receiving end. The Al-Qaeda-Taliban network has smacked it squarely where it hurts. Four major terrorist attacks in seven days, including the audacious daylong siege of GHQ, and 114 killed, including a Brigadier and a Colonel. What is the message of the terrorists to the army’s leadership?

Is there a link between these two developments that explains what is going on?

A debate is raging in Washington DC. The US national security establishment led by the Pentagon in DC and General Stanley McChrystal in Kabul wants a 40,000-troop surge in Afghanistan. But the liberals in the Obama administration, media and think tanks want to bring the boys home and let Afghanistan boil in its own sordid juices. There is now a third option on the table from Joe Biden, the US vice-president. He wants the status quo on troop levels to be maintained. But he also wants US war-strategy to focus on the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network in Waziristan and Balochistan rather than in Afghanistan. In other words, he is advising a defensive and holding posture in Afghanistan and an offensive and forward position in Pakistan. Hence the recent debate about the pros and cons of targeting Mulla Umar’s “Quetta Shura” in Balochistan. This is also another way of pressuring the Pakistan army to go into Waziristan all guns blazing, stop protecting the Quetta Shura and finish the job itself.

Here’s the rub. The Pakistan army doesn’t like General McChrystal’s idea of an American troop surge or Mr Biden’s notion of an aggressive posture inside Pakistan’s tribal areas. Emotional issues of “occupation” and “sovereignty” aside, both options would amount to the same thing for GHQ: if successful, they would strengthen the current Washington-Kabul-New Delhi axis now calling the shots in Afghanistan and deprive Pakistan’s military of political leverage based on select pro-Pakistan and anti-India Taliban or Pakhtun “assets” in any future political dispensation in its backyard. The Pakistan military is also uneasy at the prospect of launching full–scale operations in Waziristan without first having fully mopped up Swat and motivated its soldiers for the tougher task ahead. The onset of winter and the regrouping of the Pakistan Taliban under Baitullah Mehsud’s successor Hakeemullah make the task even more daunting.

Obviously, the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network doesn’t like these options either. So the Afghan Taliban launched a well-planned and ferocious attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the Pakistani Taliban a desperate and audacious one on GHQ in Rawalpindi last week. This is meant to signal that, far from digging in to withstand the proposed US-Pakistan offensive in Waziristan, the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network is determined to carry the battle to the heartland of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan are pointing to an ISI hand in the attack on India’s Kabul embassy and RAW’s behind the attack on GHQ respectively. Therefore the two America-sponsored options can be scuttled by a terrorist attack inside India that unleashes the demons of Mumbai and brings the two countries to the brink of war, diverting and diminishing attention from America’s “war against terror” and leading to political convulsion and possibly regime change in Pakistan.

The Pakistani military leadership cannot concede the proposed American strategy to confront the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network because it will risk losing its long-term “assets” for political adjustment in Afghanistan. It also cannot balk over a bold new operation in Waziristan alongside the Americans because that will lead to a blow to its wounded pride over the attack on GHQ. The media that backed it to the hilt over the red herring of the Kerry-Lugar Bill to deflect American pressure to up the ante against the Afghan Taliban in Waziristan is now demanding a similar “honour-saving” exercise from the army against the Pakistan Taliban. The problem, of course, is that, while we may talk of different categories and targets of Taliban, we are in fact dealing with a dangerous nexus between Al-Qaeda, Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and Pakistan Jihadi and sectarian parties and groups that has become one network aiming to seize Kabul and then Islamabad.

Clearly and realistically speaking, the powerful Pakistani military and national security establishment must be part of any regional solution. It must be accorded a greater role in America’s roadmap for determining Afghanistan’s future as a peaceful and stable state that is friendly and not hostile to Pakistan. If that doesn’t happen, the odds are that the Pakistani military will strike back. The Kerry-Lugar bill is the first casualty. If renewed tension with India and regime change in Pakistan follow, there will be no winners and losers in the region.

(October 23-29, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 36  – Editorial)
State of siege

Pakistan is in a state of siege. But the veritable enemy is not India or Russia or Iran or America. The enemy is within Pakistan. It is attacking our policemen, soldiers, politicians and religious leaders. Now it is on the warpath against our students. Nothing is sacred. Who will be next? When will it end?

India’s prime minister has warned that “the regional situation has worsened” and another Mumbai-like attack by state and non-state actors on India is imminent. He is pointing to a “Pakistani hand” behind the Taliban attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul recently. When Mumbai was attacked last November, India seriously thought of military retaliation against allegedly complicit targets and groups in Pakistan. But it wisely stayed its hand. Any military conflict with Pakistan could mushroom into a nuclear holocaust. However, the pressure on India next time would be greater and its consequences unimaginably horrendous for the region. This is exactly the state of anarchy and bloodshed which the enemy within Pakistan would like to achieve because it is in such an atmosphere that it flourishes and grows.

Iran’s president has warned of non-state actors in Pakistan’s Balochistan province who are suicide-bombing the Revolutionary Guards in Iran’s Siestan-Baloch province. Two such attacks were carried out last week, resulting in the death of 47 Iranians. The chief of the Revolutionary Guards wants to cross the Pakistan border in hot pursuit of the Jundullah terrorists which has tied up with the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network to destabilize Pakistan’s border with Iran. The same network has joined hands with various groups in the Punjab to foment trouble with India.

Meanwhile, the Americans are digging themselves in and around the main towns of Afghanistan and thinning their pickets on the border with Pakistan. This is CENTCOM General Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy of relocating and protecting his boots-on-the-ground until the Obama administration approves his request for 40,000 more troops. He is increasingly using drones to home into high-value targets in Pakistan’s Waziristan belt, and threatening to extend their area of operation into Balochistan. He seeks a greater operational role for the Pakistani army in Waziristan. The implied threat is that if the Pakistani military doesn’t do the job, then the CIA and CENTCOM may be compelled to put boots-on-ground in hot pursuit of the marauding Taliban in Waziristan.

If Pakistan’s border with Iran, Afghanistan and India should heat up and compel the Pakistan army to dilute attention on the Al-Qaeda-Taliban front, the siege within the country would definitely intensify. Already, Rehman Malik, the interior minister, says the nation is “at war”. As during war time, all schools and colleges are closed. The stock market, which had raised its head cautiously when the Kerry-Lugar Bill’s US$7.5 billion (Rs 62,250 crores) aid was announced, is back in the bunker, cowering at the misplaced passions aroused by mindless TV anchors and poison-pushing columnists fulminating against America even as the enemy within has killed over 170 Pakistanis in the last ten days and lunged at the very heart of the military establishment in Rawalpindi. Ironically, in the latest Taliban attack on a women’s hostel at the Islamic University in Islamabad – a throwback to the bombing of over 400 girls’ schools in Swat last year – the misguided students vented their anger at the university administration and federal government instead of the terrorists.

There is greater irony in deconstructing the enemy within. Why doesn’t the Pakistani media highlight the false security compulsions that led to the creation of the Taliban, Lashkars and Jihadi organizations that bedevil Pakistan’s very existence as a nation-state? Why don’t the students of the Islamic University who protested the suicide attack by pumping clenched fists in the air against the government instead of the Taliban care to remember that their university was a hotbed of radical “Islamist” thought in the 1980s and 1990s and nurtured leaders like Abdullah Azzam, who set up the first Al-Qaeda office in Peshawar? The double irony in this case is that the Taliban group which took responsibility for the suicide attack on the Khassadars or local police levies in Khurram Agency during Ramzan last year was called the Abdullah Azzam Brigade.

But the enemy within Pakistan is not just the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network. It is a national mindset that refuses to see and fight the enemy within. This is a mindset that harbours conspiracy theories of an “external hand” in every disaster that befalls Pakistan; it is a mindset that hankers for an imagined rather than real “Islamic” past; it is a mindset that is constantly trying to anchor Pakistan’s ideological moorings in the autocratic Islamic Middle East rather than democratic secular South Asia; it is a “national” mindset that is based on “tribal” and pre-Islamic notions of honour and justice; it is a campus mindset that is riven with inferiority complexes, insecurities and false bravado. This mindset is reflected in a shallow national culture of angry exclusivism rather than natural integration in the global economy.

Pakistan’s national security apparatus might one day succeed in weeding out the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network. But until Pakistanis can purge their mindset of the ideological demons that reside therein, they shall not be able to lift the siege within.

(October 30-November 5, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 37  – Editorial)
Lessons for Hillary Clinton

The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is visiting Pakistan at a critical time. The Obama administration is once again reviewing Af-Pak policy to determine whether to send more US troops to Afghanistan or risk relying upon Pakistan to “do more” in Waziristan against the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network that is threatening to overrun the country. But Pakistan has its hands full as it is. It is reeling from a murderous bombing offensive by the Taliban that has claimed over 250 lives in the last two weeks. Indeed, Mrs Clinton’s arrival in Islamabad was greeted by a suicide bombing in a crowded street in Peshawar, barely 100 km away that left over 100 dead.

But rising political tensions within Pakistan’s body politic aren’t making America’s job any easier. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari is largely viewed in Pakistan as incompetent and untrustworthy. Worse, in the midst of unprecedented anti-Americanism, it is portrayed by a religio-nationalist media as being “servile” in its dealings with the US. The latest example of this is the near-universal rejection of the Kerry-Lugar Bill which aims to cough up US$1.5 billion a year over the next five years for bankrupt Pakistan from America’s ailing exchequer because some of the conditions attached to it, which the government has shrugged away as being inconsequential, are seen as “humiliatingly intrusive”. The Pakistan army, which doesn’t see eye to eye with America about its Af-Pak strategy and wanted to send an indirect signal of its unhappiness, exploited the situation recently by egging on the media and opposition to “reject” the aid and put the Zardari government on the defensive. The army and opposition are also trying to drive a wedge between President Zardari and his hand-picked prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, in order to weaken the government and have their way. The army still doesn’t sufficiently see America’s war on terror as being its own war – some of the Afghan Taliban groups in safe havens in Waziristan who are creating the greatest trouble for NATO forces in Afghanistan are allegedly protected by Pakistan’s security services because of their anti-India stance – while the opposition is in a hurry to trigger mid-term elections and change its fortunes dramatically.

But if Mrs Clinton had her job cut out for her, she shouldn’t expect to see quick results after her visit. She tried to assure Pakistanis that the US aid bill was a strong gesture of support in the war against terrorism that has laid their country low. But the heated controversy over the bill has left the lasting impression that the aid is contaminated in some sense. Her pledge to route it transparently for economic development and poverty alleviation is being taken with more than a pinch of salt: the government through which the funds must pass lacks credibility; and a significant chunk of it is likely to go to a hoard of expensive American officials, consultants and auditors who are descending upon Islamabad in droves. The worst aspect of this development is the bad taste left in the mouth of US legislators who drafted the bill and sanctioned the money in the interests of both Pakistan and the US. Therefore they are not likely to be as forthcoming or generous when President Obama’s administration asks Congress for supplementary grants for the Pakistan military, or when the US administration has to quickly disburse money by relaxing the auditing criteria, thereby reinforcing the suspicions already in the mind of Pakistanis today.

Mrs Clinton spent all her time explaining things to, and fending off hard questions from the media, civil society and students. She also met with the leaders of the opposition PMLN who need to be taken on board the proposed US-Pak partnership. But it is equally important to note the message she was given wherever she went. First, Pakistan today is acutely in the grip of religious-nationalist passion and rhetoric. So US policymakers must be sensitized to this development. Second, a regional approach involves bringing India on board, however difficult that may prove to be, and nudging the two neighbours to restart the composite dialogue unconditionally so that conflict resolution leads to building trust and the terrorists are unable to derail the war on terror by driving a wedge between them. Indeed, an end to the proxy wars between them in Afghanistan is a pre-requisite to winning the war on terror. Third, the next big issue after the Kerry Lugar Bill is likely to be the role of private security companies in protecting American diplomats and officials in Pakistan. The US needs to sit down with Pakistani security officials and chart out a suitable modus operandi regarding the conduct of these private security companies so that no untoward incident happens.

President Obama’s Democratic administration has to clean up the mess left in this region by the neo-cons of the Bush era. This is not going to be easy. But the responsibility cannot be shirked. The US must not cut its losses and run away from the region as proposed by some liberals in America. The sooner Mr Obama announces his decision about the US presence in Afghanistan, and takes Pakistan’s security concerns into consideration, the better.

(November 6-12, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 38  – Editorial)
Operation “Get Zardari”

In a remarkable short-term achievement, Asif Zardari has managed to irrevocably alienate the army, judiciary, media and civil society. The angry public is already groaning under the weight of unprecedented inflation and shortages of energy, sugar and wheat. Nawaz Sharif, needless to say, smells blood and is moving in for the kill.

Mr Zardari sounds clever and cunning but has proved to be politically naïve. After the 2008 elections, real politik demanded an “unholy alliance” between the PPP and PMLQ as originally envisaged by Benazir Bhutto. But Mr Zardari’s personal ambitions came in the way. He allied with Mr Sharif to oust President Musharraf and then reneged on his public promise not to pocket the Presidency himself. This didn’t go down well with any section of state or society. The army and media, in particular, didn’t want the “supreme commander” of the armed forces with a sullied past. Like them, the opposition was wounded by the “betrayal”.

Mr Zardari now decided to seize Punjab province from the PMLN. He proposed an alliance with the PMLQ. But this was too little, too late. Crippled by the ouster of General Musharraf, and distrustful of Mr Zardari, the PMLQ fumbled the job, despite the protective umbrella of Governor’s Rule imposed by Mr Zardari. Subsequently, the PMLN romped back to provincial power on the shoulders of the anti-Zardari judiciary, splattering mud on the Presidency.

Mr Zardari’s third mistake was to renege on his public pledge to restore Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry as chief justice of Pakistan. This propelled the PMLN-led opposition to mobilize the media, lawyers and civil society and launch a long march on Islamabad in early 2009. This, in turn, enabled General Ashfaq Kayani to step into the fray to “persuade” the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to get Mr Zardari to back off and restore the judges. The anti-Zardari judges then proceeded to weed out pro-Zardari judges from their ranks and have now ganged up with the anti-Zardari forces outside for the final push.

Mr Zardari did not expect such a destabilizing, negative and public response to the Kerry-Lugar Bill. But the prickly army publicly raised the banner of revolt, enfolding the PMLN and media in its ranks. Meanwhile, oblivious of the gathering storm, Mr Zardari unfurled the NRO in Parliament. But a wink from the same quarters has put paid to that. Mr Zardari’s alliance partners, in particular the MQM, have blithely left him in the lurch and pushed him into another ignominious retreat. He is truly besieged. What next?

Each of the four “players” in the game to “Get Zardari” has common as well as separate aims. As opposed to Mr Zardari’s “soft” approach, the army wants a President who will back the military’s hard-nosed strategy and tactics to deal “appropriately” with India, Afghanistan and America. Indeed, his clumsy efforts to bring the ISI under civilian control and urge the army to blindly back the US agenda in Afghanistan have aroused deep suspicion and hostility. The fact that he has his trigger on the gun to fire the army chief is an added affront. So the military would like to replace him with a pliant pro-military President.

But the military also has an institutional memory. It doesn’t want to shift the balance of political power in the direction of Mr Sharif who makes no bones about wanting to put the army and ISI under civilian control. So the military would like to see PM Gilani and a pliant new President do its bidding without opening the route for Mr Sharif.

Mr Sharif, of course, has other ideas. He is ready to ally with the military to weaken Mr Zardari, but only to the point where Mr Zardari is amenable to undoing the 17th amendment that bars Mr Sharif from becoming prime minister again. He certainly doesn’t want to face another election until that objective is achieved. Nor does he want to push the system into the army’s lap again.

The media and judiciary have their own separate joint-agenda. They support the army’s “Get Zardari” agenda but they do not want an army resurrection. They also don’t want to see an unfettered Mr Sharif back in the saddle because of his track record regarding them. They see themselves now as key players in any state-power games in the future and have independent claims and clout.

Everyone wants Mr Zardari to quit. But not everyone wants a quick new election. And there is no transparently constitutional way to get rid of him. So everyone is ganging up against him in order to hound him into quitting of his own accord. The next big push is expected to come from the direction of the judiciary and media which will focus on past cases of alleged corruption against him.

Mr Zardari’s foibles and miscalculations have weakened him significantly. If he wants to survive, he will need to compromise with Mr Sharif. The elements of the “new deal” should enable the PPP and President Zardari to complete their terms more or less in exchange for relinquishing controversial presidential powers and removing the constitutional road blocks to Mr Sharif and the PMLN as the logical and eventual successors to the PPP in government.

(November 13-19, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 39  – Editorial)
Save the system

President Asif Zardari’s bid to bury the NRO in parliament has come a cropper. The MQM has stabbed him in the back. He should have known better. The MQM has a record of ditching friends. Indeed, this debacle has a familiar ring to it. The same half-baked approach was taken by the PPP when Governor’s Rule was imposed in Punjab last March without stitching up an alliance with the PMLQ. What next?

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has confirmed that the NRO bill will be withdrawn from the roster of Parliament. That means that after November 28, the cut off date given by the Supreme Court (SC), the NRO will be null and void. Two possibilities will then open up. First, according to Aitzaz Ahsan, the beneficiaries of the NRO should apply for pre-arrest bail because their cases would stand revived. But since the government is the prosecutor, and elements in the government or allied to it are affected by the NRO, this may be unnecessary because the government certainly has no intention of acting against its own. But the fly in the ointment here is the resurgent judiciary. As we have seen, the Supreme Court is in activist mode. It could order the police to arrest the alleged criminals and go so far as to deny them bail. So even if the government is not interested in arresting or prosecuting anyone it could be thwarted by the judiciary. This would be the height of political activism. But, given the bitter political mood of the country, it could be sold to the people as a “revolutionary” and “moral” step. Under the circumstances, President Zardari and the PPP cannot afford to sit back in the hope that the judges will not fashion the law according to the dictates of their conscience or political tilt instead of due process and the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers. The only safe person in this scenario is President Zardari himself because of his constitutional immunity from prosecution while he is President. But if he is stripped of his companions and supporters by the courts, he will be a wounded man given to desperate measures and it would be foolish to predict the turn that events may take.

Second, the SC may readily agree to hear petitions against Mr Zardari’s eligibility to be President of Pakistan. But, since there is no conviction against him, it would require a desperate leap of vindictiveness to unseat him legally. But anything is possible in these trying times. The new judges have taken some hugely controversial decisions already – to put it mildly – which smack more of politics than law. But who’s to challenge the SC?

So, whatever happens, and regardless of merit, Mr Zardari must work out his strategy on the basis of the assumption that “they” are out to get him, come hell or high water. What are his options?

Mr Zardari can dig his heels in and get ready to fight a legal war with the SC. He can justifiably argue that, under Section 33A, the NRO knocked out all the political cases against holders of public office on the very day it was promulgated (5th October 2007). The language is very clear on this count: “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Ordinance or any other law for the time being in force, proceedings under investigation or pending in any court including a High Court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan initiated by or on a reference by the National Accountability Bureau inside or outside Pakistan including proceedings continued under section 33, requests for mutual assistance and civil party to proceedings initiated by the Federal Government before the 12th day of October, 1999 against holders of public office stand withdrawn and terminated with immediate effect and such holders of public office shall also not be liable to any action in future as well under this Ordinance for acts having been done in good faith before the said date”. In other words, he can argue that the debate over the validity of the NRO after February 5, 2008 for public office holders is largely irrelevant. But if “they” are out to get him, which is the premise from where we started, all such legal niceties are inconsequential. The SC can conceivably uproot the NRO of October 5, 2007, as unconstitutional.

Mr Zardari can take a more productive route. He can ally with Nawaz Sharif and together they can thwart “them” via parliament. There is a small window of opportunity here. Next month, the courts will go into overdrive. Democracy will be well served if a constitutional amendment can be quickly passed to enshrine the COD in all its dimensions, Mr Zardari and the PPP government can get guarantees of completing their term, Mr Sharif can get the roadblocks to third term prime ministership removed and the office of the PM strengthened, and all PCO judges, high or low, and regardless of which PCO oath they took, can be replaced by a truly merited, independent, non-controversial and apolitical judiciary. In this way, the democratic system can be protected from the certain derailment that is bound to happen sooner than later to the joint detriment of both Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif.

(November 20-26, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 40  – Editorial)
All is not lost

Three interesting developments took place in Pakistan’s murky political environment this week. President Asif Zardari presided over a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the ruling PPP which blasted the government for its bad governance but also rallied behind its besieged leader and authorised a cabinet reshuffle; Mian Nawaz Sharif gave a TV interview in which he made significant comments on how to move forward and save democracy from conspirators; and Transparency International published its annual report which indicts Pakistan as the 42nd most corrupt country in the world, up from 47th position last year, but holds out the promise of improvement next year.

Clearly, Mr Zardari is making a last-ditch effort to close ranks. That is why he allowed his party stalwarts to air their grievances. The CEC meeting is also a signal that he is the leader of the party and it is he who calls the shots and not the prime minister who is there on sufferance. At the same time, he has authorised the PM to reshuffle the cabinet to improve performance and defray criticism. This is meant to silence dissenters and bring them into the cabinet loop, whilst serving another discreet purpose: corrupt cronies may lose their jobs, allaying some of the establishment’s disquiet.

Coupled with this retreat, Mr Zardari has also indicated a hardening of the government’s position on dealing with India and the United States. This is in line with the thinking of the military that has been annoyed by the PPP government’s “soft line” vis a vis both foreign powers and undue haste in conceding their demands. India’s refusal to open unconditional talks for conflict resolution with Pakistan has now been met with a reassertion of Pakistan’s maximalist position on the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The same approach is now manifest in the government’s position on Af-Pak: Islamabad says it is one of the main “principals” in the great game and the US should take its interests into consideration while reviewing options on Afghanistan. This is a far cry from the Musharraf regime’s position that it supported the US war on terror but was not an active player in its resolution. Indeed, the military has leaned on the PPP government to argue forcefully for bringing India into the Af-Pak equation because India’s footprint looms large in Afghanistan and is inimical to Pakistan’s geo-strategic interests.

Mr Sharif’s meeting with the PM last week, followed by a revealing interview to the country’s largest TV channel for maximum effect, is in the same vein. It seeks to bury the minus-one, minus-two or minus-three formulas without abandoning the PMLN’s goal to get rid of the 17th amendment and pave the way for Mr Sharif’s return as a third term prime minister. Mr Sharif says he doesn’t want a mid-term election, which is meant to reassure Mr Zardari. Mr Sharif’s foray into legal waters – Mr Zardari is protected by the constitution from being targeted by any NRO or criminal proceeding – is aimed at assuring his longevity as president; and his criticism of the army’s public displeasure with the Kerry-Lugar Bill is meant to signal his firm opposition to any military intervention at the expense of democracy.

Mr Sharif’s clarity of mind over how the military mishandled the Kerry-Lugar Bill is heartening. It was after the ISPR released GHQ’s view of it that the media storm broke, regaling the nation with the endless advantages of “ghairat” over the core interests of the state, to clinch an argument no one in their right minds could understand. Mr Sharif’s decision to save democracy rather than the mystique of “ghairat” now sets the stage for a normal unfolding of the democratic process in Pakistan.

In fact, Mr Sharif’s constant refrain that all will be well if the Charter of Democracy is enforced by parliament signals his unease with the current activist judiciary because the COD envisages the ouster of all PCO judges regardless of which PCO oath they took. This is one point on which both Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari should agree.

The third development relates to the Transparency International report. While some interpret its opinion as an indictment of Mr Zardari, the report is sufficiently “balanced” to deflect the damnation. It attributes the rise in corruption to the increase in terrorism and poverty which is attributed to malgovernance during military rule. It also holds out a promise of improvement by next year because the judiciary and media are free to pursue corrupt individuals and practices. The undoing of the NRO is a measure of the good direction in which the country is headed, according to TI. Mr Zardari has claimed that the political obituaries being written about him by a coterie of media persons may be premature. But to ensure that all is not lost, Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif will have to cross the Rubicon together. Singly they will fail. Together they may be able to thwart the conspirators against democracy.

(November 27-December 3, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 41  – Editorial)
Sobering statistics

The “government” has released a list of the top 248 out of 8000+ accused by NAB who are alleged to be hiding behind the skirts of the NRO. But from the outrage of the notorious and infamous protesting their wide-eyed innocence, it seems the right hand of the government doesn’t quite know what its left hand is doing. Even those who, like our dandy prime minister with a stiff neck, had done “muk mukaa” deals with NAB by paying off their defaulted loans and getting mountains of interest waived before the NRO was promulgated, are seemingly caught in the NRO’s damning web of perception. Our High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to the USA are also quite right to protest their innocence because “inquiries” have been substituted for “cases” and everyone has been tarred with the same brush. The state minister for law, Afzal Sindhu, is now talking of revising the list, a clear admission that he didn’t do his homework and allowed indifferent bureaucrats at NAB to have the last laugh. The irony is that the current head of NAB is not a fire-breathing or self-righteous general with an anti-politician agenda up his sleeve before retirement but a civilian appointed or approved by the Zardari regime which has been worst hit by NAB. This is yet another indictment of bad governance in Islamabad.

Understandably, the moral media brigade is aghast that none of the accused, barring the odd secretary who is now with the PMLN, has bothered to resign forthwith and scurry into oblivion. Nor, despite the media pressure, should we expect this to happen. Indeed, the fate of the NRO is still hanging in the balance, and it is difficult to imagine how any of the accused is liable to prosecution at the hands of the very government to which he or she belongs even if the NRO is struck down as unconstitutional!

This farce must end. The NAB list, out of which 97 per cent are Sindhis, reflecting an obvious anti-PPP bias, was originally composed by the anti-PPP witch-hunter Saif ur Rehman of the PMLN who bequeathed it to General Pervez Musharraf’s crusaders led by General Mohammad Amjad, who added and subtracted at will in view of their Boss’ political compulsions. This can hardly form the basis of any morally consistent and transparent policy of justice. Indeed, for that to happen, we would have to wipe the slate clean of everyone (politicians, bureaucrats and generals) who has strayed into politics since Independence in 1947, except Mr Jinnah. But that is the sort of revolutionary anarchy that exists in the minds of the violently disgruntled, hypocritical or self-righteous. It is a sure shot recipe for inviting the military to seize the reins of power once again.

Unfortunately, the mood of the country seems to be swinging in that very direction. This is significant because it comes so soon after a revolutionary upsurge to reinstall an independent judiciary and usher in a new era of civilian democracy. A recent report commissioned by the British Council and conducted by the Nielsen Research Company claims that the young urban middle classes of Pakistan are deeply disenchanted by corruption in a democracy (only 33 per cent thought democracy was the best system of government, equal to those who preferred an Islamic state). They feel abandoned by their government and are despondent about their country’s future. More than 70 percent said they were worse off financially now than they were last year. An overwhelming majority said their country is headed in the “wrong direction”, and 90 per cent have no faith or trust in their government. They are faced with unemployment in a failing economy only 20 per cent of those interviewed had permanent full-time jobs, 50 per cent said they did not have sufficient skills to get a job and 25 per cent could not read or write. Ominously, they are overwhelmed by their sense of Muslim rather than Pakistani identity – 75 per cent identified themselves primarily as Muslim and only 15 per cent as Pakistani – which can lead to a volatile religious-nationalist upsurge if their issues aren’t solved quickly. But this is an impossible task that would require Pakistan’s economy to grow by 36 million jobs in the next decade compared to the maximum 10 million jobs forecast if all goes well. And here’s the rub. The highest-ranking institution in the “most trusted” bracket was Pakistan’s military. 60 percent said that they trusted it and 50 per cent said they trusted religious educational institutions next in order. The national government came last at 10 percent.

These are sobering statistics. The Zardari government must get its act together and start delivering on the economic promise of democracy. The opposition must not destabilize the government to such an extent that the political system itself is irrevocably discredited. The media must not succumb to the pressure of yellow commercialism or subscribe to vindictive personal agendas. The judiciary must not think it can provide a compelling substitute for the executive. And the military must shun the idea that it can become the long awaited savior once again.

(December 4-10, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 42  – Editorial)
Obama’s Af-Pak gamble

President Obama’s Afghan Package aims to please all the major “home” constituency “principals” in the game. The 30,000 troop surge costing US$10 billion a year should satisfy the Pentagon. The 18-month deadline for the process of troop withdrawals should appease American and European liberals opposed to the war. It should nudge dithering NATO governments in Europe to pitch in with troops when public opinion is against any long term involvement in Afghanistan. It might help also dilute the anti-war backlash in America when Congressional elections are held next year. Finally, it would give President Obama another eighteen months to firm up or change course for more effective results before the next presidential election in 2012.

But some regional “principals” will remain disgruntled. President Hamid Karzai is tasked to deliver the agenda of building the state (army and police) and nation (reconstruction and reconciliation). However, he is not going to be able to deliver in eighteen months what he has not been able to deliver in eight years. Indeed, the very idea of a quick “exit strategy” is dangerous from his point of view. All guerilla warfare manuals revolve around the idea of time, space and will. Time is to be traded to create the will of the people to resist occupation forces and thus capture space and oust them. This is exactly what the Taliban-Al Qaeda network has done so effectively until now. Waiting out the Americans for another few years will be no problem. They will dig in, protect, preserve and strengthen themselves. Since no Afghan wants to be on the eventual “losing” side, the idea of a given timeframe for exit based on American domestic compulsions should spur the Taliban to resist even more fiercely.

Pakistan’s security establishment, too, is not likely to be pleased. President Asif Zardari and PM Yousaf Raza Gilani have said that Pakistan hasn’t seriously been involved in the strategic review. This is significant since Pakistan’s stand on the war against terror has shifted critically. Originally, during General Pervez Musharraf’s time, Pakistan’s stated position was that of a “supporter” or “facilitator” of the US war effort in Afghanistan. However, now, under General Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan views itself as one of the “principals” in the great game because the Afghan backlash has engulfed Pakistan and sucked its army into military operations in its own areas. Therefore it is not good enough for President Obama to inform the Pakistani security establishment of US goals and seek its backing with offers of economic and military assistance. What is needed is a definite Pakistani input and component of the strategy that protects and enhances Pakistan’s security environment and secures American anti-terror interests in the long term while enabling it to “get out” asap.

Several Pakistani security interests are at stake. Islamabad would like any future political dispensation in Kabul to be “favourably” disposed or “friendly” towards it. The reason is obvious: the Pakhtuns of Afghanistan constitute a majority there and the Pakhtuns of Pakistan occupy a significant chunk of Pakistan’s state and society, therefore Islamabad would like the Pakhtuns of Pakistan to look toward it, and the Pakhtuns of Afghanistan to look to Kabul, for sustenance. Indeed, the last thing Pakistan would want is a government in Kabul that covets Pakistan territory in the NWFP and tribal areas. The fact that the US-backed Karzai government has not been interested in diffusing Pakistani fears of irredentism by recognizing the Durand Line in the last eight years as the international border between the two countries is one good reason for distrusting it. The other is President Karzai’s inability or unwillingness to build a domestic Pakhtun consensus based on national reconciliation policies that reflect the ethnic balance in Afghanistan and also build trust and confidence with Pakistan based on its “fear” of Indian hegemony in the region. Indeed, the fact that India occupies significant space in the Kabul-Washington alliance aimed at building the Afghan state and nation is cause for Pakistani concern. It is no secret that India is being encouraged to carve out a stake in reconstruction activity – roads, schools and hospitals – even as its security establishment is increasingly involved in the training and schooling of the nascent Afghan police and army. Kabul and Delhi’s alleged involvement in the Baloch issue, which figured in the joint statement at Sharm al Shaikh recently, remains a destablising factor. Certainly, the joint Obama-Manmohan recent statement from Washington emphasizing a joint strategy to uproot “terrorist safe havens” in the neighbourhood (read Pakistan) without even alluding to the resolution of outstanding disputes that have provoked intel-proxy wars in the region and created de-stabilising non-state actors, has peeved security experts in Pakistan. In fact, the US threat to extend Drone attacks on the Al-Qaeda-Taliban networks in Balochistan or unleash boots-on-ground operations without the approval of the Pakistani military, could trigger serious strains in the US-Pakistan relationship. Worse, it could destabilize the Zardari government by provoking a severe anti-American popular backlash.

President Obama’s Af-Pak strategy is full of misgivings. It is a case of too-little, too late. Worse, it doesn’t give Pakistan due weight. Without critical adjustments on the ground quickly, it is not likely to succeed in its ambitious objectives.

(December 11-17, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 43  – Editorial)
Crunch time for Af-Pak

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week: “In the long run, resolution of the border in the east in Kashmir is a very important outcome…I think this is a key part of what needs to happen in the future.” The following day, the New York Times editorialized: “Mr. Obama also must keep nudging India and Pakistan to improve relations. That may be the best hope for freeing up resources and mind-sets in Pakistan for the fight against the extremists.” The NYT also endorsed President Obama’s view “that reducing tensions between the two nuclear rivals, though enormously difficult, is ‘as important as anything to the long-term stability of the region.’” These statements support an earlier observation by General Stanley McCrystal, head of NATO-ISAF in Afghanistan, that India should consider winding down its Consulates in Southern Afghanistan because of Pakistani worries about their role in fomenting unrest in Balochistan and Waziristan.

Is the US persuaded that Kashmir must be resolved and trust built between the nuclear enemies, without which Pakistan’s security establishment cannot be co-opted into supporting US Af-Pak strategy because of the “India factor” in Afghanistan?

The cold reality is that no solution on Kashmir is likely in the short term. One, India is currently focused on demanding that Pakistan take action against the Lashkar-e-Tayba before reopening the composite dialogue. However, this action is not likely to be forthcoming. Indeed, if there is another Mumbai-type incident in India – which is what the terrorists want – the two could arrive at the brink of war. Two, whenever the Kashmir issue is taken up, it will have to start from the flexible point at which it was abandoned by General Pervez Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh in 2007 rather than the original maximalist positions of both countries. But this is not possible during the besieged PPP regime of President Asif Zardari which is accused by the military establishment of being “soft” on India and America. New Delhi’s recognition of this fact is reflected in two ways: first, it wants to know who it should talk to in Pakistan, General Ashfaq Kayani or President Zardari; second, it has, with the backing of the other Kashmiri parties, started the process of thawing with the Hurriyet Conference directly by bringing it into the trilateral negotiation loop – the announcement of a troop reduction in Kashmir is meant as a domestic confidence building measure in this regard. Therefore all this American talk about helping resolve Kashmir is a non-starter.

There is a second issue that merits a response. The NYT also reports that Washington has warned Pakistan that its forces will chase the Taliban into Pakistan if Islamabad does not get tough with the insurgents. This “blunt message” was delivered to Pakistan’s military and political leadership in November when the US National Security Advisor, Gen James Jones, and White House Counter-Terrorism Chief, John Brennan, visited Islamabad. This is interpreted as meaning that the US would expand its Drone attacks beyond the Tribal Areas and its Special Forces could put boots on ground and conduct raids in Pakistani territory against Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. “We’ve offered them a strategic choice”, a high level source told the NYT, to do the job or let the Americans do it. “Our patience is wearing thin”, “the Taliban sanctuaries (in Pakistan) are a cancer in the region”. If this threat materializes, its consequences could have negative implications for all the players in the region.

Washington admits that Pakistan’s position is ambiguous on this count. Certain Afghan Taliban groups led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar are viewed as long term Pakistani “assets” in the region because they are disposed to be friendly towards Islamabad and hostile to India. It is unlikely that the military establishment will help the Americans in eliminating them. Indeed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has now said that he is ready to negotiate with Mullah Omar, and the Pakistanis and Saudis are part of a British sponsored back channel move to bring “moderate” elements (Pakistani assets) of the Afghan Taliban into the loop and drive a wedge between them and Al-Qaeda. The US will either have to go along with this strategy and establish a joint mechanism with Pakistan to focus on and eliminate Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban who are attacking Pakistan’s security establishment, or go after the pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban with a vengeance and risk alienating Islamabad. Certainly, if the Pakistani military is not on board any special operations aimed at these groups, we may see a military sponsored, media-fed anti-US protest movement in Pakistan that would seriously destabilize the Zardari government and sour US-Pak relations to breaking point. This would compel the US to back down or plunge ahead. In the former instance, it would undermine President Obama’s 18 month deadline for starting troop withdrawals; in the latter case, India’s help in “sorting out” Pakistan would be taken for granted, setting the stage for violent civil strife, war, anarchy and even dismemberment.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is a key “principal” in the region. Its views, concerns and interests regarding the future of Afghanistan can only be ignored at great peril to all the “principals” in the region.

(December 18-24, 2009 | Vol. XXI, No. 44  – Editorial)
End game for Mr Zardari?

The Supreme Court has ousted the NRO and restored the criminal and corruption cases against 8041 accused of various crimes. The list includes a galaxy of the rich and notorious in Pakistan, including President Asif Zardari. The twists and turns in the drama are worth noting for an unprecedented mix of law and politics.

President Pervez Musharraf sacked Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2007 because he thought Mr Chaudhry would oust the NRO and stop him from re-election. But Mr Zardari restored Mr Chaudhry in 2009 despite the same sort of judicial conviction against him. Who was the bigger fool among the two Presidents only history will tell.

Forget the law. Mr Chaudhry’s political practice has been superior to that of his adversaries. He rallied the media and opposition and roped in the army to scale the SC again. Then he set about cleansing the stables by sacking all the pro-government judges and handpicking their replacements. Finally, he ordered parliament to enact the NRO in one month, or else. With the media and opposition baying for blood, the PPP backed off when the MQM left it in the lurch. Worse, Mr Zardari decided not to contest the NRO case in the misplaced hope that this might chasten the SC. If he had put up a stout defense, at the very least the government could have argued that by asking parliament to enact the NRO ordinance by a simple majority vote, the SC had implied that it wasn’t inherently unconstitutional. That would have entangled the various constitutional writ petitions before the court and enabled President Zaradri to evolve an exit strategy in the swamp of “past and closed transactions” during the 120 days validity of the NRO from October 5, 2007. In the event, however, the spirit of law was overtaken by the momentum of populism and a fatal blow was delivered to the cowering President and government.

The SC’s NRO judgment is a decisive measure of confrontation with the Zardari government. The judgment has ordered the government to prosecute Malik Qayyum, the former Attorney General, who got Mr Zardari off the hook in Switzerland. The SC argues that Mr Qayyum failed to produce a written order from any concerned authority authorizing him to do the deed. This is an unprecedented argument. If it were to be applied to the statements and actions of past Attorneys General in the law courts, none would stand up to the SC’s latest yardstick because all such positions and directions are invariably based on verbal discussions between government and state functionaries. No government has ever disowned any statement or position of its Attorney General in the past. So it is inconceivable that the Zardari government will respond with the seriousness of purpose demanded by the SC in this case. Similarly, the SC has directed the government to replace all the top dogs of NAB with independent and aggressive officials so that they can “sort out” the government and its luminaries, a contradiction in terms. Special “monitoring cells” in the top courts headed by senior judges are to be set up to ensure fast track proceedings against the 8041 accused. What will these do in the face of non-cooperation by the various provincial governments? The SC’s next step is therefore obvious: it will handpick and appoint public prosecutors everywhere, thus becoming prosecutor and judge at the same time.

And after that, the predictable will happen. The Supreme Court says the NRO is also unconstitutional because it violates Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution which hold, among other things, that only those who are “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and ameen … and not of unsound mind” can be members of parliament (the President is part of parliament in the constitution’s scheme of things). Since it is up to a “competent court to determine this” as per the constitution, and there is no court more competent than the SC in these populist times, it is obvious which way the SC will bend when petitions are filed in a day or two challenging Mr Zardari’s presidency on this basis. Certainly, if the Swiss government reopens the money laundering case against Mr Zardari in which he was convicted, it would become easy to rely on Articles 62 and 63 to knock out Mr Zardari, notwithstanding the presidential immunity that he may enjoy under Article 248 of the Constitution.

The stage is therefore set for political instability, further erosion of the economy and diminishing focus on the war on terror. Without some quick “backroom deal” between with the Army and Judiciary that leaves him as a toothless President, Mr Zardari has as much hope of surviving as a snowball in hell. Therefore he can either throw in the towel (flee to Dubai or the US?) and let Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani run the government as a stooge of the Army and Judiciary; or he can join hands with Mr Nawaz Sharif, implement the Charter Of Democracy, call fresh elections, set up an interim caretaker government, and play the Sindh card to maximum effect. Should the Army and Judiciary have “other ideas”, Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif can jointly thwart any such anti-politician conspiracies. With the corps commanders having met, we should soon know which way the wind is blowing.

(December 25-31, 2009  | Vol. XXI, No. 44  – Editorial)

Order or anarchy?

The Supreme Court’s anti-NRO judgment was hailed across the country. But it has now attracted a crop of bipartisan critics. The controversy rages around constitutional Articles 62(f), 63(i), 63(p), 89 and 227 on which the judgment is mainly pegged.

Article 62(f) requires members of parliament to be “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and ameen”. Article 63(i) and 63(p) relate to grounds of “misconduct and moral turpitude” and “conviction in absentia for being an absconder” for disqualification from parliament. Article 227 is about bringing laws “in conformity with the Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah”. It says that “no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such Injunctions”. Article 89 is about the powers of the President to promulgate Ordinances.

Is the SC under CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry about to overthrow landmark judgments of the SC under CJP Justice Mohammad Afzal Zullah (Hakim Khan case in 1992) and CJP Justice Nasim Hasan Shah (Kaneez Fatima case in 1993)? These judgments declared that no constitutional or statutory provision may be struck down by any court on the ground that it may violate an injunction of Islam. They held that the status of the Objectives Resolution had undergone no change and it remained a historic statement of purpose for the first constituent assembly in 1949 despite its inclusion as a substantive part of the Constitution later under General Zia ul Haq. They also held that judicial review of any legislation on the ground of repugnance to the injunctions of Islam could only be carried out by the Federal Shariat Court and that the FSC could only make pronouncements with prospective effect and could not declare any law void ab initio. Further, that Article 227 should be read as an instruction to parliament (on the recommendations of the Islamic Ideology Council) and not as a basis for judicial review by the courts.

A lengthy articulation of the “immoral politics” of the NRO took place in the SC last week during the hearings, some of it based on a reading by petitioner Hafeez Pirzada of extracts from recent books by Benazir Bhutto and the American journalist Ron Suskind. This was bewildering since there was no discussion in the court of any possible role of Article 227 in the case at hand.

More significantly, the SC under CJP Chaudhry seems to going much further by relying on the Basic or Salient Features Doctrine (that says that Parliament cannot amend the constitution in any manner that changes the Basic Features of the Constitution) to declare the NRO as unconstitutional because it ostensibly alters the Basic Features of the 1973 Constitution. This is remarkable considering that the SC in 1997 (Mahmood Khan Achakzai case) had declared that even General Zia ul Haq’s 8th Amendment had not altered the Basic Features of the Constitution! In the NRO case, the SC seems to additionally imply that Islam is a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution and the NRO is repugnant to the injunctions of Islam! The anarchy that may result from this judgment would flow from the stated provision of article 227 that the Islamic provisions are to be applied in accordance with the teachings of each and every Islamic sect. So two questions arise: will the courts henceforth strike down legislation on the ground that it fails to accommodate the teachings of any sect? Will the courts henceforth determine which sect is legitimate for its purpose of interpretation of the legislation and which is not?

The SC will now be faced with other relevant questions: if the NRO is discriminatory and immoral, what is the status of bank loan write-offs and defaults of businessmen and politicians since independence? Indeed, what is the status of the immoral and discriminatory grant of perks, privileges and plots by various governments to its supporters? What is the status of Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan’s 17 year old petition in the SC indicting the ISI and various PML politicians of illegal gratification and acquisition of funds? And so on. Questions may also be raised about the constitutional validity of the various reprieves and general amnesties ordered by different governments for political reasons.

The SC has ordered the State Bank of Pakistan to furnish lists of all loan defaults and write-offs since 1971 amounting to hundreds of billions of rupees from all banks in the private and public sector. But how will the SC proceed in this matter? Does it have the expertise to determine in each and every case which was an immoral and crooked write-off and which was a legitimate default? What about obtaining lists of all the plots of land allotted by various governments to thousands of bureaucrats, judges, soldiers, journalists and politicians and inquiring into their legitimacy and Islamic morality?

We await the SC’s detailed judgment with bated breath and humility. If the SC buries the NRO without creating legal or administrative anarchy and gridlock, thereby destabilizing the system, the court will justly deserve the kudos lavished upon it. But if it doesn’t, then these 17 judges will go down in history as the fundamental cause of Pakistan’s meltdown.

(January 1-7, 2010)

Lasting solutions

Twice in recent times President Asif Zardari has thundered against the “conspirators” and “non-state” actors who are trying to hound him out of office. On both occasions he wore the Sindhi cap and addressed loyal party-political audiences as head of the Pakistan Peoples Party rather than as President of Pakistan. There is an inherent contradiction here. His critics judge his behaviour as unbecoming a Head of State and President of Pakistan even as his political supporters thump his dogged efforts to keep his party, allies and government intact.

If Mr Zardari is rattled, there is cause enough for it. For a variety of reasons, the army doesn’t like him. The opposition doesn’t trust him. The judiciary is hounding him. One section of the media has got the knife out for him. And the fickle Americans are frowning at the diminishing returns from him. This is a result of Mr Zardari’s failed strategy to keep the judges out, the army at arm’s length and the opposition at bay, while bending over backwards to appease the Americans and placate the media. In short, Mr Zardari’s strategy to keep on the right side of his peripheral and foreign allies at the cost of antagonizing the country’s core constituents has left him nowhere.

So a change of tack has been ordered. The army is now being placated at the cost of the Americans viz foreign and domestic security policy. The peripheral allies are being massaged via the NFC award and Balochistan Package. The opposition is being wooed by renewed pledges of appropriate amendments to the constitution. And the media and judiciary (the loudest whisper is that they are the conspirators and non-state actors), which are already wading in muddy waters, are being told where to get off. As one measure of deterrence, Mr Zardari is playing the Sindh card to full effect even as he talks of “Pakistan khappay” by strengthening the federation. Will this work?

Much depends on two critical factors. The first is the Supreme Court. Until now, its activism has been spurred by the wind in its tail generated by the media. But the NRO judgment has divided the media, with a significant section criticizing the application of certain Islamic provisions of the constitution to strike it down. Much the same division is manifest in the appreciation of the SC’s thrusting activism, especially in the established domains of the executive. Should the court now seem as tilted in the specifically anti-Zardari petitions based on morality before it as the NRO earlier, the divisions in the media will become more marked and harm the credibility and cause of the SC. If such considerations weigh in with their Lordships, Mr Zardari may hope to benefit from it. The second factor is the attitude of the opposition led by the PML-Nawaz. Until now, it has played hot and cold in order to nudge Mr Zardari to get rid of the 17th amendment. But the ganging up of the media and judiciary against the executive, with the army looming large in the background, has compelled it to think again. Certainly, the last thing the PMLN wants is the prospect of being confronted by this troika one day in the same manner in which it is hounding the PPP today. That is why the PMLN may still be more amenable to a deal with Mr Zardari (that lets him cling to office while relinquishing power) rather than ganging up with the new troika to get rid of him and set an unholy precedent for itself.

Mr Zardari and Mr Nawaz Sharif should jointly consider a simple and elegant way out of this political, judicial and constitutional quagmire. They should join hands to pass a one line, unanimous, and “principled” constitutional amendment that restores the constitution as it stood before General Zia ul Haq’s coup of 1977. All the mangling of the constitution by two military dictators happened after that date. Such action will please Mr Sharif because it will restore the full powers of the prime minister, including the right to appoint service chiefs and be PM any number of times. It will give a sense of relief to Mr Zardari because it will cut the Chief Justice’s term to three years as originally laid down in the 1973 constitution, at par with the service chiefs and the chief election commissioner. And it will empower the provinces because it will spell the end of the Concurrent List. Above all, it will warm the cockles of every moderate Pakistani’s heart – the overwhelming majority – by ousting the bitterly controversial “Islamic” provisions inserted into the constitution by an opportunist and illegitimate ruler and approved by a battery of LFO and PCO judges. Indeed, there can be no better and more effective way of implementing the Charter of Democracy than by reverting to the pre-martial era between the signing of the constitution in 1973 and its overthrow in 1977. Later, once the current crisis has dissipated, all the players can get together and pass another amendment to incorporate their other concerns.

Mr Zardari has bought breathing space for himself. He should now exploit it to find lasting solutions for the shaky political system no less than for his own discredited party.

(January 8-14, 2010)

PPP must get its act together

Contrary to popular perception, the PPP government has notched up some significant and unprecedented successes. The National Finance Commission Award is a great blow for provincial rights just like the Balochistan package. The unequivocal ownership of the war against terrorism, though unpopular initially, has also served a critical purpose.

But credit for these achievements has not been sufficiently accorded to the PPP leadership and government. One reason for this is the media’s obsession with the doings, rather undoings, of the Supreme Court. Such developments could have been treated ordinarily if it hadn’t been for the wholesale perception that the court is somehow “out to get” President Asif Zardari and therefore the media has to hang on to every word uttered by the judges and treat it as “breaking news”. The second is owed to President Zardari’s decision to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. This has had the opposite effect by creating the impression that he was scared, nervous and unsure of what to do, therefore on his way out. The third factor remains the inability of the PPP leadership to sell or market its success in transforming some key problems into core opportunities. The fourth reason is the constant economic hangover from the past – rising joblessness and poverty, falling real incomes and running shortages of everyday necessities like power and essentials like sugar – which has soured the political environment.

But all this is beginning to change. Following the NRO judgment the independent media is inclined to ask reasonable questions about the decision and criticize some of the arguments pegged to it. This has provided some respite to the PPP. President Zardari has also come out of his bunker rather dramatically and demonstrated a fighting spirit that has galvanized the PPP rank and file and set hostile minds on the defensive. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s firm but cool response demonstrating that he is on the same page with President Zardari has also thwarted those who would like to throw a spanner in the works.

But President Zardari is not yet out of the woods. In fact, all eyes are still on the SC which is in a hyper-active and self-righteous mode and ready to hear petitions challenging his right to be president on grounds of “morality”. The ride is also going to remain bumpy because of the conditions ordered by the IMF – a reduction in government expenditures and an increase in taxes. The unrelenting power shortages and inflationary pressures are also going to keep public tempers short. Therefore the PPP government must act to change the public’s negative perception of it.

For starters, it should rubbish the perception that the President and Prime Minister do not rise and fall together. Indeed, it may be time for the President to become the good cop and the Prime Minister the bad cop, a reversal of the role each has seemingly played in the mind of the public, because it is the president who is in the eye of the storm and it is the prime minister who has strengthened the party whenever he has spoken up. So the PM should take on the government’s detractors and the President should apply the balm for a change and build up the trust deficit.

The second thing that the PPP might consider strategising is its approach to the three by-elections in the next two months. A setback for the PMLN will do wonders for the PPP. It won’t change the arithmetic in parliament but it will be a huge psychological blow in its favour. At the very least it will dent the media perception that the PPP is the most unpopular party at the moment on account of its dismal performance in government and “immoral” leadership, and revive the legitimacy of the argument that in a democracy the final accountability of rulers is gauged during an election and not at the hands of a visibly tilted media.

The third thing the PPP leadership should do is to try and persuade the public that it is not dragging its feet on the issue of the constitutional amendments demanded by the opposition. Apparently, the constitutional parliamentary committee, which is headed by Senator Raza Rabbani and includes all the stakeholders, has waded through the constitution, clause by disputed clause, and is about to present a unified draft of the proposed amendment. The problem is that if and when a consensus is announced, the opposition is bound to claim successful ownership by reiterating that the government only did it under pressure as in the case of the restoration of the supreme court judges last March.

Finally, it is advisable that the government and army should remain on the same page as far as Pak-US and Pak-India relations are concerned. Indeed, it is imperative that some advance thinking be done on how to respond to two probable challenges in 2010: another Mumbai-type attack by non-state actors whose footprints lead to Pakistan, and an extension of American drone strikes to Balochistan or special US operations in North Waziristan that are inimical to Pakistan’s interests in one way or another.

The PPP must improve its act and sell it in 2010. Otherwise there will be no reprieve for it.

(January 15-21, 2010)

Ides of March

The besieged Peoples Party government is convinced that an unholy alliance between the media, judiciary and the military establishment is out to get President Asif Zardari.

They say that a powerful section of the media, in particular, has an axe to grind against the government for various mundane reasons like the government’s refusal to grant it DTH licensing, tax exemptions and preferential trade practices. They claim the judges are being vindictive because Mr Zardari was first reluctant to restore them and is now thwarting their attempt to encroach into the domain of the executive. And they believe the military is hostile to him because he didn’t see eye to eye with the generals on how to conduct the war against the Taliban, how to build peace with India and how to develop and extend Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.

Indeed, the conspiracy theory in Islamabad is that the military, in cahoots with the media and the judges, is secretly destabilizing the PPP government with a view to replacing Mr Zardari (and his government, if possible) with a more compliant and subservient executive. As proof, a number of developments are cited: the seemingly inexplicable, last minute, pull-out by the MQM (a long term military ally) from supporting the government’s bid to get parliament to pass the NRO; the supreme court’s rather sweeping (some say discriminatory) judgment on the unconstitutionality of the NRO which is now threatening to engulf President Zardari himself; and the military’s public display of hostility to the Kerry-Lugar legislation on the ground that Mr Zardari’s minions connived with Washington to draft the legislation which conditions US aid on evidence of civilian supremacy over the military in Pakistan.

While judges may claim to speak through their judgments and the media has the power to hit back, the military is irked by allegations of any complicity on its part. Senior military spokesmen insist in off-the-record briefings that the military has its hands full dealing with renewed threats from India (as articulated by its new army chief) and the extension of the war against the Pakistani Taliban into Waziristan, therefore the idea of destabilizing the government and system, at a time when consensus and unity of command is critical, is preposterous. This makes sense.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain why the military thought fit to go public against the government over the Kerry-Lugar Bill when there is no paucity of government forums to discreetly lodge its complaint and seek redress. Indeed, military spokesmen are still reluctant to admit any wrong doing on their part. Worse, while they admit that they ended up destabilizing the government, they refuse to own up to the option of reversing the slight by appropriately stabilizing the government through a similar but opposite show of public support. Why, the very thought of somehow supporting the Zardari government is anathema to them, even though there is no better constitutional option at hand in these critical times than exactly such an intervention!

Therefore the conspiracy theory holds weight and Mr Zardari is not yet out of the woods. In fact, two significant issues are on the presidential anvil regarding the judiciary and military. First, let us take matters related to the judiciary. The chief justice of Pakistan has “requested” the president to appoint his right-hand judge, Justice Khalil Ramday, as an ad hoc judge of the Supreme Court after his retirement on January 12. Justice Ramday, it may be noted, was the “writing light” behind the NRO judgment that so threatens President Zardari and his party. President Zardari is also under pressure from the Lahore High Court chief justice to appoint 28 judges to fill outstanding vacancies. The problem is that the PPP government thinks many of these handpicked judges smack of favouritism or lack of merit or impartiality. Worse, the list has the full backing of the opposition PMLN chief minister in Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, a sure shot red rag to the PPP bull. Worst, the CM wants the Lahore CJ not to go to the Supreme Court as required by legal precedence and is instead nudging his number two to go instead. The problem is that the number two has rightful expectation of being CJ Lahore and doesn’t want to be shoved upstairs. Media reports of a secret meeting between the CJP and Mr Sharif, stoutly denied by all sides, have muddied the waters. Therefore President Zardari’s decisions will be critical. Will appeasement of the judges or non-compliance get him off the hook or land him in greater trouble?

Second, the DG-ISI is scheduled to retire in February. Given the war-like situation prevailing in the country on both its eastern and western fronts, the military establishment believes it has rightful expectation to seek the current DG’s extension in service for purposes of policy continuity and coherence. But there are two problems here. As in the case of the judges seeking extensions or transfers, what is being demanded is unprecedented; it is also debatable whether the government should give succour to the very individuals or institutions who are suspected of having connived in undermining its writ and weakening it.

Will appeasement help or non-compliance hurt Mr Zardari? The Ides of March are not too far away.

(January 22-28, 2010)

Zardari’s diminishing options

The Supreme Court has predictably paved the way for ousting President Asif Zardari from the Presidency. Its 280 plus page judgment against the NRO emphasizes several points.

First, it argues that the notion of “trichotomy of power” is enshrined in the constitution and cannot be violated. This means that the parliament, executive and judiciary must not encroach on the domain of the others. The reference is to the ongoing conflict between the executive and the judiciary on the appointment of judges and the government’s negative attitude regarding the court’s orders with reference to the Exit Control List and the reopening of the Swiss case in Geneva. A conviction in Geneva would knock Mr Zardari out of the Presidency.

Second, the court has cited the history of the successful legal battles by the Philippine and Nigerian governments to get the Swiss government to return the billions looted by dictators Ferdinand Marcos and Sani Abacha respectively and stashed away in Swiss banks. The message to the government is loud and clear: activate the Swiss money laundering case in Geneva against Mr Zardari and bring back the plundered money.

Third, most critically, the court has relied on vague “Islamic injunctions” and notions of “morality” in the constitution, in particular to Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution inserted by that great Islamist fraudster-gangster, General Zia ul Haq. These relate to conditions of qualification and disqualification from being a member of parliament (like the president of Pakistan). Article 62 (d): he is of good character and is not commonly known as one who violates Islamic injunctions. Article 62 (f): he is sagacious, righteous and non-profligate and honest and amin. Article 63 (a): he is of unsound mind and has been so declared by a competent court. Article 63 (g): he is propagating any opinion, or acting in any manner, prejudicial to …morality… or the integrity or independence of the judiciary of Pakistan, or which defames or brings into ridicule the judiciary or the Armed Forces of Pakistan.

The case for the prosecution is likely to proceed thus: (1) Article 62(d) applies because Mr Zardari is commonly known to be corrupt, hence his universal nickname as Mr 10 per cent. (2) Article 62(f) applies because he not amin or sagacious or non-profligate because he broke his pledge to restore the judges and repeal the 17th amendment. (3) Article 63(a) applies because he submitted a medical certificate to the Swiss Court some years ago saying his mind was disturbed and he couldn’t attend the proceedings. (4) Article 63(g) applies because he has been alluding to the judiciary and army as “conspirators” – hence defaming and ridiculing them – and undermining the integrity and independence of the judiciary by refusing to accede to the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan viz appointment and elevation of judges etc.

It may be noted that none of these provisions has ever been used to knock out any member of any parliament, high or low, in Pakistan. Indeed, in 1985 the Lahore High Court threw out a petition against a member of the provincial parliament pegged to these provisions because of difficulties inherent in interpreting the moral provisions of these “Islamist” articles. Therefore the Supreme Court will have to risk its credibility for all times to come if it wants to get rid of Mr Zardari on the basis of any of these provisions.

Mr Zardari’s strategy can be predicted. First, he will put up a spirited legal defence by marshalling strong political and Islamic arguments against the use of Articles 62 and 63. Second, he will build public opinion and woo sections of the media (which are still bipartisan) as a “persecuted leader” who is being targeted by “vindictive and partisan” judges. Third, he will marshal his allies in Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan by holding out their common bleak prospects in a mid-term election. Should worse come to worst, however, he can opt to hand over to the PPP’s Senate Chairman, get another PPP loyalist or political ally elected as President, and wield power from behind the scenes as head of the PPP. The problem with this scenario is that the Supreme Court is bound to hound and jail him on the basis of the cases against him which will stand revived. Or he can try and find a compromise solution behind the scenes with the judiciary, army and opposition which allows him to survive as a toothless president. The problem with this is the great difficulty of stitching a workable compromise in view of the level of all-round distrust. Third, he can call for fresh elections. The problem with this scenario is that the army and judiciary could join hands to postpone the elections for several years and use the time and space to decimate all politicians regardless of party affiliation.

There is a new and powerful troika of the army, judiciary and media jostling for political supremacy in Pakistan. If the organs of the state succeed in expelling the organs of the people who are supposed to direct them, the political system of electoral, popular and most importantly federal democracy, however incompetent and inefficient, will be derailed in Pakistan with adverse domestic and regional consequences.

(Jan 29 – Feb 4, 2010)

Is the tide turning?

The conflict between the Supreme Court and the Zardari government is gathering momentum. Skirmishes have broken out on several fronts. And a make or break showdown is round the corner. Either the SC will have to step back – which may be desirable – or Mr Zardari will be ousted – which could complicate matters enormously.

A new petition before the Chief Election Commissioner asks him to investigate whether Mr Zardari was ever convicted under any circumstances at home or abroad or fulfils the constitutional requirement of being of sound mind or a good Muslim. Should Mr Zardari be guilty of either sin, he can be knocked out of the presidency.

The facts are murky. The NAB says he was never convicted, in absentia or otherwise. The President’s spokesman insists likewise. But a section of the media and the bar reports otherwise. So we shall have to wait for the CEC to determine the facts of a trumped-up case – avoiding 5% import duty on an imported BMW car – that goes back to 2005. If he wasn’t convicted, he will be off the hook on this front. But the question of being a good Muslim will have to be settled, one way or another, before the SC. There is a precedent. In 1985 a petitioner challenged the Islamic credentials of a competitor in an election. The CEC held in his favour. But the judges of the supreme court threw out the petition with the contempt it deserved, arguing that it was well nigh impossible to determine who was a good Muslim or not. Therefore, given the charged political environment, this SC would have to risk its credibility enormously if it went against the grain of an earlier SC decision on such a contentious issue. Of course, if it turns out that Mr Zardari was once convicted in absentia, however absurd or trumped-up the charges, then we shall have a problem on our hands. Under the NRO judgment, he can be technically knocked out. But once again the SC’s credibility will be seriously eroded in light of earlier SC judgments that insist on the unfairness and injustice of any trial and conviction in absentia. Either way, notwithstanding the anti-Zardari mood of the establishment, opposition and a section of the media, the SC will be widely perceived, especially in the provinces, to be on a witch-hunt against one popular party and its leadership. So nothing good can come of any judicial attempt to throw out Mr Zardari and risk plunging the country into a political quagmire.

Unfortunately, however, this line of reasoning hasn’t sunk into the establishment so far. Indeed, the courts seem bent on giving the PPP government and its ministers a hard time. But the crunch will come when the SC directly targets the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, for not carrying out its order to direct the Swiss government to reopen the money laundering case against Mr Zardari. In this context, an attempt was made on January 28 to whip up a section of the anti-PPP lawyers against the government for dragging its feet on implementing this SC order. But it was thwarted by a bigger section of the lawyers which feels that this accountability is pretty one sided and the SC is overstepping its domain and creating unacceptable political ripples that could undermine the political system.

Understandably, the army’s leadership is coming in for a bit of flak. Everyone agrees that the khakis destabilized the Zardari government on the issue of the Kerry-Lugar Bill some months ago and everyone suspects that they are winking at other anti-Zardari elements to go for his jugular. Now Maulana Fazal ur Rehman of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam has openly accused GHQ of political meddling and warned that the democratic system is in danger. This is no mean allegation. Maulana Fazal is normally a very circumspect man who never strays too far from GHQ. Something must be terribly amiss for him to be thundering against GHQ.

The fact is that the popular mood in the country is changing. True, few people like Mr Zardari. But more and more are becoming convinced that he is being singled out for some sinister motives by the Punjabi establishment and that getting rid of him will not necessarily usher in the long-awaited salvation promised by his opponents. Indeed, the increasing fear is that by targeting him to the exclusion of the other political, military, media and khaki rascals, the establishment may end up alienating the smaller provinces and open a Pandora’s Box of national contradictions that invite hostile foreign powers to intervene and dismember Pakistan. That is why Nawaz Sharif is no longer sure that he will be a beneficiary of the “Get-Zardari” campaign and is inclined to side with that section of his party leadership that is cautioning restraint lest the powerful army and the resurgent judges and media make common cause against all politicians and devise a new caretaker system antithetical to them all.

In the next few weeks, the army will have to show its hand. Does it stand with the legitimately elected government, as ordered by the constitution, or with the SC that is increasingly perceived to be “going after Zardari” with unconcealed vengeance?

(February 5-11, 2010)
Pakistan’s Afghanistan paradigm

General David Petraeus, head of US Centcom, recently made a remarkable statement signaling a new dose of “realism” in Af-Pak policy that augurs well for the future of the region. There are two dynamic elements of this view. First, it repudiates the earlier American view that the only good Talib is a dead Talib by making the distinction between good and moderate Taliban (those who want to negotiate) and bad and extremist Taliban (those who are bent upon fighting). Second, General Petraeus admitted that the prospects for reconciliation among senior Afghan leaders were slight because NATO and ISAF were, despite the 30,000 troop surge, still thin on the ground to guarantee security for those Taliban leaders who wanted to come in from the cold.

Under the circumstances, General Petraeus acknowledged Pakistan’s “constructive involvement in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban to encourage reconciliation on the basis of its past ties to the militants”. Therefore, he played down the possibility of any new, large scale Pakistani military offensive against these insurgents because the Pakistan army was already stretched trying to consolidate gains from fighting the Pakistani Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan in the last five months. He chided critics for not appreciating the Pakistani military’s efforts and advised against “poking more short sticks into hornets’ nests”. This is a new language compared to the earlier US position that insisted on Pakistan “doing more” to help eliminate all Taliban while also accusing it of providing “safe havens” for many of them.

The dramatic change in the Pentagon’s position is owed in no small measure to two factors: first (necessary condition), the palpable failure of NATO/ISAF to achieve short or long term goals in Afghanistan in eight years; second (sufficient condition), the precise articulation of a “do-able” strategic policy at this critical stage from the Pakistani army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. This was spelt out in the recent NATO moot in Brussels following detailed briefings earlier to the top American civil-military leadership.

General Kayani’s timely input can be summarized briefly. (1) The strategic framework defining the “space” for Pakistan’s political and military instruments is evidenced by successful anti-Taliban operations in South Waziristan and other tribal areas with minimal collateral damage. (2) Pakistan’s strategic direction, understanding and scope of the threat are in sync with global efforts. This is demonstrated by the “silent troop surge” in the war from 60,000 in 2001-3 to 140,000 in 2009, significantly more than the 100,000 troops committed by 43 countries in Afghanistan. Over 2300 soldiers have laid down their lives, nearly 80 per cent in the last two years. One out of every ten killed was an officer, an unprecedented ratio. (3) The domestic blowback has been huge, especially in terms of 2m IDPs. But despite lack of sufficient funding, all have returned to their homes in less than five months. The total estimated cost of the Swat operation alone exceeds $2bn, half of it coming from Pakistan’s own budgetary resources. (4) There is no plan to extend the operation into North Waziristan without consolidating the re-captured areas. But the Pakistan army has one Division stationed there already and is discreetly conducting search and softening-up operations there. (5) Pakistan’s military operations have helped the Af-Pak paradigm by decreasing cross border incursions, decreasing the spaces in the control of the Taliban and increasing the logistical flows between Pak and NATO forces. (6) NATO’s goal of raising an Afghan army of 140,000 cannot be achieved in less than 4 years. Nor can militias be raised without changing the deep-rooted perception that the Taliban are winning the long-term war. Indeed, unless the Afghan security apparatus posts a ratio of 75 per cent Afghans and 25 per cent NATO soldiers, this perception cannot be changed. (7) The centre of gravity in Afghanistan must be a national government which is both effective and credible. There must be a reconciliation of the short and long term interests of Pakistan and the international community in the region. Afghanistan is Pakistan’s past, present and future. Pakistan must be part of its solution. (8) The strategic paradigm for Pakistan is located in several factors: it is the second largest Muslim nation in the world; it is situated at competing crossroads; there is a nuclear overhang; there are more Pakhtuns in Pakistan than in Afghanistan and neither must covet the other’s territory; (9) The strategic paradigm for Afghanistan is anchored in factors like: inadequate counter-insurgency capacity; fragile public opinion; shallow political consensus; hostility to Pakistan; potential emergence of military capacity hostile to Pakistan because of ethnic imbalance and Indian influence. (10) India’s cold start doctrine is critical to Pakistan’s security because of unresolved disputes, its Pakistan-specific military capability, and history of conflict, all of which adversely impact Pakistan’s defense and development framework.

In short, the international community must work with Pakistan as partners to ensure that the Afghanistan of the future is stable, peaceful and friendly to Pakistan. A Talibanised Afghanistan is not in the region’s interest. But soft strategic depth is critical to Pakistan’s survival and growth in view of the unresolved Pak-India paradigm.

This is a formidable corpus of facts, logic and history. Regional and international players must pay heed to it.

(February 12-18, 2010)

Time to talk

India has finally agreed to talk to Pakistan unconditionally. This is good news. The turnaround in New Delhi is due to several factors. First, as in 2002 when India’s armed forces were posted to the border to intimidate Pakistan but had to be pulled back when the policy yielded only costs and no benefits, it is a measure of India’s inability to browbeat Pakistan to do its bidding unconditionally after the Mumbai terrorist attack. Islamabad has palpably refused to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Second, it is a measure of American pressure on India to assuage Pakistani insecurity on its eastern border and allow Islamabad to focus on the western border with Afghanistan as required by the international community. Third, it is an acknowledgement of the adverse consequences of trying to browbeat Pakistan’s military establishment without settling outstanding disputes, building trust and reducing security concerns.

In recent times, the Zardari government has been compelled by its military establishment to change its soft sell to India and adopt a hard line. Instead of constantly scraping the floor in an effort to restart the unconditional composite dialogue, the Pakistani foreign office has reversed its stance on one critical issue important to India: it has “gone back” on the achievements of back channel diplomacy during the Musharraf regime (a joint mechanism for administering both parts of Kashmir which would remain parts of India and Pakistan respectively) and reverted to the UN Resolution position on Kashmir (a plebiscite to determine whether it will be a part of India or Pakistan). Indeed, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, recently said that there was no record in his Foreign Office of any out-of-the-box progress made in this direction, a complete repudiation of what the former Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, has been saying about the “positive results” of back channel diplomacy regarding the resolution of the Kashmir conflict.

This is anathema to New Delhi. Worse, from India’s point, the recent incline in Pakistan-sponsored militancy in Kashmir aimed at fueling the fire in the Valley sparked by the unaccountable high-handedness of India’s security forces, has served to undermine New Delhi’s policy of trying to appease and stabilize Kashmir by wooing and neutralizing secessionist forces. This the Indians tried to do through offerings of greater democracy and autonomy, including a thinning of security forces and planned offers of general amnesty to militants across the border. On the Pakistani side, fiery street outpourings by militant brigades of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadi forces on Kashmir Day (February 5) in Azad Kashmir and elsewhere are a signal from the military establishment that if the Pakistan-based jihadi tap was turned off during the Musharraf era in response to conflict resolution progress with India, it can be turned on again in retaliation against Indian intransigence, inflexibility and threats during the Kayani era.

One consequence of India’s hard-line Pakistan policy is a new articulation of Pakistan’s military stance vis a vis India. General Kayani says that it is India’s soaring military capability rather than avowed peace intent that poses a security threat to Pakistan. Indeed, India’s Cold Start Doctrine is Pakistan-specific, not least after aggressive statements by the Indian army chief. Consequently, General Kayani has made three significant strategic articulations. First, that Pakistan has fashioned an appropriate military response under a “nuclear overhang” to India’s Cold Start Doctrine, firmly negating President Asif Zardari’s off-the-cuff remarks last year to an Indian TV channel that Pakistan had no first-use nuclear weapons doctrine. Second, that Pakistan seeks “soft strategic depth” in Afghanistan (a friendly Afghanistan with a pro-Pakistan security apparatus) and a transparent non-military Indian role in Afghanistan. Third, Pakistan has a right to be a core “player” in America’s “surge and exit strategy” in Afghanistan since it is a direct neighbour of Kabul (unlike India) and is willing and able to muster critical Taliban support for any future political dispensation in Kabul (without Al-Qaeda) sponsored by America.

India’s leadership knows its hard line posture has not yielded dividends. The first signal came during India’s general elections last year when Dr Manmohan Singh publicly claimed responsibility for successful back-channel diplomacy to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. The second came after his meeting with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt when both sides agreed to get back to the table unconditionally. The initiative has now come to fruition following the appointment of India’s sophisticated former foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon, as National Security Advisor in place of the former hard line intelligence official, MK Narayanan. Mr Menon, who served as India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, is the architect of a calibrated and flexible conflict resolution approach in the region and has Dr Singh’s ear.

Realism, it seems, is finally dawning all round. The Americans recognize Pakistan’s pivotal role in any Afghanistan strategy and have conveyed as much to New Delhi. India realizes that without US support, its hard line Pakistan policy could play into terrorist hands and lead to adverse consequences in Kashmir and elsewhere. Pakistan realizes that cooperation rather than provocation should be the name of the game in the region. This opportunity should be grasped by all players to solve problems rather than accentuate them out of cussedness or illusions of power.

(February 19-25, 2010)
Troubling times for democracy

The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, has all but knocked out the Prime Minister and President of Pakistan and routed the Government of Pakistan. His Will is Law and will be upheld. The issue at stake is the packing of the higher judiciary with handpicked nominees of the CJP regardless of the opinion of the Executive, regardless of the merits of each case, and regardless of the principles of seniority and expectancy regarding promotions and appointments of High Court and Supreme Court judges as enunciated in the famous Al-Jihad or Judges Case of 1996.

As opposed to the CJP, the government argued in favour of “seniority” and “rightful expectancy” for promotion purposes, and against ad hoc appointments to the SC, as enunciated in the Al-Jihad case. There was no overt political jobbery at stake here from the government’s point of view. None of the judges in contention has ever avowed any pro-PPP feelings or views. If anything, they are stout members of the conservative Punjabi establishment.

The CJP has triumphed and the government has lost for a host of important reasons, not least the inept and stupid handling of the issue by the Presidency. In essence, however, the CJP has shrugged off important rulings of the Al-Jihad case by relying on another ruling of the same case that grants “primacy” in the final analysis to the decision of the CJP as a consultee over that of the President as the appointing authority. It does so by conferring power on the CJP to establish a bench of his fellow judges to decide whose view should prevail. In other words, the SC has become the judge and jury in all such cases and the President has as much chance of standing as a snowball in hell. The culprit is a clause in an article of the constitution that says “consultation” between the President and Prime Minister (as head of the Executive) on various matters is not binding on the President except in matters related to appointments of judges (where the CJP’s advice is binding). This was inserted into the constitution in 2002 by President General Pervez Musharraf who wanted unequivocal powers to appoint the service chiefs, provincial governors and election commissioner, by way of exclusion of the same power in the specific case of judges. Apparently, he never envisaged a situation in which his handpicked CJP would ever defy him or his successor.

This is an unacceptably weird situation. Every organ of government is accountable to some other organ or can be checked by it. But the SC is now only accountable to itself. The PM, service chiefs and Parliament can be sacked by the President. But the President can be impeached by Parliament and the SC can overrule any presidential sacking of Parliament. Indeed, Parliament, which is supposed to be supreme, can be knocked about by the SC. But the SC is immune even from a constitutional amendment in Parliament that seeks to cut it down to size because its power of judicial review entitles it to determine the “spirit” of the constitution even when the words of the constitution as legislated by the people’s representatives clearly say otherwise.

The CJP and his political and legal supporters have clutched at one element of the constitution and Al-Jihad case to override other aspects of the same legal framework. But there are other disquieting elements of this tussle between the judiciary and the PPP government. One is the fact that all the major judicial decisions since the restoration of the CJP and his fellow judges seem to be going in favour of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz opposition and/or against the PPP government. These relate to the overthrow of Governor’s Rule and the right of Mian Shahbaz Sharif to remain chief minister of Punjab, the overthrow of the judgment convicting Mian Nawaz Sharif as a plane hijacker, the reopening of corruption cases against PPP stalwarts led by no less than President Zardari, and so on. Now it is speculated that the SC might even declare unconstitutional a clause in the constitution that bars third term prime ministership and chief ministership, which is a roadblock for both Sharifs.

The government’s abject retreat before the CJP on Wednesday is a harbinger of things to come. Some temporary respite aside, pundits forecast more and not less trouble ahead for the besieged PPP government. Slowly but surely the SC is throttling the Executive and rendering it ineffective. The government is in no position to amend the constitution because it lacks the numbers. The opposition wants an early election. But there are a couple of flies in the ointment.

The CJP and the army chief are all too aware of Mr Sharif’s track record in his two previous stints as PM as far as subjugating the judiciary and lording it over the army is concerned. So if ever push comes to shove for Mr Zardari at the behest of these two powerful but unaccountable organs of the state, it is inconceivable that they will acquiesce in favour of Mr Sharif after ousting Mr Zardari. Mr Sharif would be well advised to remember this in these troubling times for democracy.

(February 26-4 March, 2010)
War between SC and GoP

The NAB Chairman, Naved Ahsan, has resigned. He was caught in the crossfire between the Supreme Court (SC) and the Government of Pakistan (GoP). The SC wanted the NAB Chairman, Prosecutor General and Deputy Prosecutor General sacked for not implementing its orders to reopen corruption cases against President Asif Zardari, in particular a money laundering case before a magistrate in Switzerland, after the ouster of the NRO by the court some months ago. After some foot dragging, Mr Ahsan duly sacked his subordinates as allowed by the rules. But he held on personally because the process for the Chairman’s ouster is cumbersome, controversial and difficult, like that of a senior judge or the chief election commissioner whose terms are fixed by law. But he threw in the towel after the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, threatened “coercive” measures, including a freeze on his salary, if he didn’t comply with the SC’s orders. Does this mean that the path has been cleared of all obstacles to proceed against President Zardari?

No. Mr Ahsan will remain in charge of NAB, as per the SC’s initial “suggestion”, until the government appoints a new Chairman. But that is easier said than done. Under the law, the NAB chairman is to be appointed by the PM with the approval of the CJP and the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly. But such a unanimous choice is not likely to be forthcoming quickly, with each player using his veto power self-interestedly. At any rate, in view of the serious intended and unintended consequences that can prove injurious to the proposed new Chairman’s health, as evidenced by the discomfort of Mr Ahsan in the last three months, there are not likely to be too many candidates tripping over themselves for the job. So we may expect the stand-off between the SC and the GoP to get arbitrary and nasty.

In fact, there is a new twist in the drama. Mr Ahsan has submitted before the SC a file of correspondence between NAB and the federal law ministry regarding the legal position and standing of NAB in the matter of the Swiss case against President Zardari. This case was closed (on the basis of the NRO) on the orders of the Zardari GoP via the office of the then Attorney General of Pakistan in early 2008. The law ministry claims Presidential immunity from any criminal proceedings as clearly enunciated under article 248 of the constitution. Mr Ahsan’s plea is that he cannot directly write to the Swiss government or courts to reopen the case for two reasons: the President’s immunity; and the rules of business between states which preclude any actionable correspondence between any organs of two states without the explicit approval and cover of the governments of the two states. In other words, he wants the SC to first adjudge on the matter of the President’s immunity; and then, in the event of finding the President not immune from prosecution, order the GoP to take action against its own President.

This is a tall order. The SC will have to make some incredible legal somersaults in order to strike down the President’s immunity. Indeed, given its eroding credibility because of its perceived targeting of the government and kid-glove handling of the opposition, the SC could split on this issue. But even if it defied the logic of events and public perceptions, there is no way the SC can get its decision implemented effectively by the current GoP. Hundreds of delaying and obfuscating tactics can be employed by the GoP on the basis of national and international rules and norms to thwart the court’s bid to knock out Mr Zardari. Certainly, NAB’s attempt to revive corruption cases against the leaders of the opposition – in particular the Sharif brothers from Punjab – are being stonewalled by the courts in Punjab province on one pretext or another following the wholesale appointments of judges in the Lahore High Court with the approval of the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab, Mr Shahbaz Sharif.

This is unprecedented, even unconstitutional. The constitution says provincial high court judges shall be appointed after due “consultation” between the Chief Justice, Governor (appointed by the President), CJP and PM. As in India, the CM was denied this role by the constitution in order to avoid any resultant pressure of political “jobbery” which would erode the independence of the judiciary. But the SC allowed the CM – via the penultimate para in the NRO judgment – to intervene decisively, a clear case of “Per Incuriam”, meaning “lack of care”, because the issue was not petitioned or discussed in the NRO case.

The skirmishes between the SC and the GoP have thus far been won by the SC. But the war is far from being lost by the GoP. That will only happen if and when the SC is able to drag the powerful Pakistan Army into the fray and order it to complete the court’s mission at the expense of the GoP. The problem with that scenario is that the opposition led by Nawaz Sharif might oppose the move because it could also sound its own political death knell.

(March 5-11, 2010)
Talking the talk

The Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries have seemingly turned their backs on each other. The Indians tried to drag the Pakistanis into a serious discussion on terrorism sponsored by non-state actors based in Pakistan. They handed over a list of 33 wanted terrorists, including Daud Ibrahim, and named two serving Pakistani army officers as the alleged “handlers” of the terrorist group that launched the Mumbai attacks. They pointed to the incendiary statements of Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the Lashkar-e-Tayba, on Kashmir day (February 5th) when he warned of more Mumbai-type attacks to come. The Pakistanis spent most of the time exhorting India to talk about solving Kashmir, negotiate water-related issues, stop supporting the Baloch insurgents and restart the composite dialogue instead of just focusing on one “terrorism” issue. Neither side wanted to listen to the other. Can we therefore conclude that both sides are doomed to sulk for the sake of their nationalistic audiences at home?

No. To be sure, the Indian invitation for talks came out of the blue after fourteen months of blowing hot and cold and a failure of coercive diplomacy by both sides. But underlying this belated initiative is one heartwarming reality: Dr Manmohan Singh sincerely wants to make some sort of “breakthrough” in Indo-Pak relations no less than Nawaz Sharif, General Pervez Musharraf and Asif Zardari. The evidence of that is crystal clear. During the Indian elections last year, Dr Singh sought kudos from the public for his efforts to promote back channel diplomacy during the Musharraf period; then he went the extra mile at Sharm al Sheikh in Egypt. But the joint problem of both leaderships is how to do it, given strong state and non-state vested interests in both against this sentiment. India doesn’t want to seem like it has succumbed to “terrorist blackmail” without extracting some concrete results from Pakistan as a measure of its commitment and trust. Pakistan doesn’t want to seem like it is begging India from a position of weakness to change the status quo. In India’s case, it definitely doesn’t want to admit any American pressure to change its policy. This explains why US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement in Washington on the eve of the talks in New Delhi confirming a US role in nudging both sides to the table guaranteed a deadlock in Delhi.

The ball has been set rolling. The Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao, will visit Islamabad shortly. The Indian home minister, P. Chidambaram, will follow for talks with his Pakistani counterpart. Then the two prime ministers will meet at the SAARC summit in Bhutan end April. These occasions will provide adequate opportunity to pave the way for a formal resumption of talks on most issues. This element was missing in all earlier attempts. Sharm al Sheikh was not preceded in India by any proper media briefings for a change in course. That is why a sudden change of policy seemed like a retreat before Pakistan. Certainly, Dr Manmohan Singh’s eagerness to get on with it was like a red rag to the bulls in India, not least to the PM’s national security advisor and former head of IB, MK Narayanan, and the hawkish prime ministerial advisor Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary. Both are out and Shiv Shankar Menon, the sophisticated rising star on the India horizon, is in. As the new National Security Advisor, Mr Menon brings first hand expertise on Pakistan and China to the table, India’s critically important neighbours. He shares Dr Manmohan Singh’s enlightened vision for the region and is expected to work in strategic tandem.

In Pakistan, too, there seems to be a significant shift in foreign policy as formulated by GHQ. Certainly, for the first time since 9/11, the American and Pakistani military establishments and intelligence agencies seem to be working closely together to stem the tide of Al-Qaeda sponsored terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Far from casting doubt on the Pakistani military’s motives and abilities and exhorting Islamabad to “do more”, the Americans are tripping over themselves praising the Pakistan army to the high heavens for successfully subduing the Al-Qaeda Taliban network in FATA. The Pakistani ISI is also cooperating with the CIA in nabbing members of the so-called Afghan Shura and handing them over to the Afghan authorities in Kabul. That is also where India, with strategic stakes and billions in investments in Afghanistan, comes into the loop and is compelled to build fences with Pakistan.

There are obvious exchanges to be made between India and Pakistan. India must stop aiding Baloch insurgents based in Afghanistan and Pakistan must cease infiltrating jihadis against India. Both must pre-empt any major tensions over water rights, if necessary with third party mediation as allowed under the Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan must relax the trade regime for India’s exports. India must resume support for the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Both must demilitarize Siachin and Sir Creek and liberalise visa regimes. The back channel on Kashmir must be reopened to extend the joint mechanism formula for self rule of both Kashmirs. If that seems like a tall order, consider how much more difficult it will be if there is a second Mumbai.

(March 12-18, 2010)
Anti-status quo reform needed

President Asif Zardari has announced his intention to “gift” us a constitutional amendment package before Pakistan Day, March 23, which will ostensibly remove all “unwanted” elements of the much mangled 1973 constitution of Pakistan, in particular the 17th constitutional amendment engineered by General Pervez Musharraf in 2004. This 17th amendment includes a ban on third term prime ministership and empowers the President to sack governments and appoint service chiefs and provincial governors. Since the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, we shall have to wait and see what sort of package is actually unfurled before commenting on it. Meanwhile, some comment is necessary on the proposal relating to appointments of judges in the future.

The Parliamentary Committee on the proposed reforms package has recommended that a judicial commission comprising the Chief Justice of Pakistan, two senior most Supreme Court fellow judges, the federal law minister, attorney general and a leader of the Pakistan Bar Council should nominate judges for the SC. For the High Courts, this committee will comprise the Chief Justice, the senior-most fellow judge, the provincial law minister and a nominee of the provincial Bar Council. Majority vote decisions will be made for each individual vacancy. These will be sent to an eight member parliamentary committee comprising four members each from the upper and lower house of parliament in which the government, opposition and other parties will be sufficiently represented. This will be able to block any nomination by the judicial committee only by ¾ majority. The President or Prime Minister shall have no discretion in the matter.

The good news is that this is a more representative and accountable system than the one which exists today by virtue of the aggressive politics of the bar and bench in the last two years in which the judges have imposed a mechanism for self-appointment and selection which is unaccountable to parliament or the executive. The bad news is that this mechanism doesn’t touch the current judiciary that is packed with judges of the same political hue, who are acting like members of a trade union rather than individual judges in their own right and conscience. Indeed, the very omission of any reference in these recommendations to the ineligibility of judges who have taken oath on any Provisional Constitutional Order by a military dictator in the past – a critical element of the Charter of Democracy signed by the mainstream parties in 2006 – makes a mockery of the proposed process by legitimizing a vested-interest status quo.

There are other problems too. As presently constituted – the bar and bench are one politically – the six member judicial commission is tilted 4:2 against the executive. Similarly, given the fractured politics of the country, the requirement of a ¾ majority in the parliamentary commission to overturn the judicial commission’s nominations is a non-starter. Indeed, it is ridiculous, since even a constitutional amendment does not require more than a 2/3 majority. It would have been better to establish a seven member judicial commission for the SC with the CJP, two senior-most sitting judges, the attorney general, law minister and two high-standing and bipartisan members of civil society vetted by the PM and Leader of the Opposition and the media to break the ice if and when needed. In the same spirit, a simple majority vote by a nine member parliamentary commission should have sufficed to reject the judicial commission’s nomination. The same sort of formula should apply to appointments in the HC.

The worst part of this “deal” is that the current sitting CJP and CJs of the four HCs will dominate the judicial system for a decade to come, directly until they retire and indirectly by virtue of already having chosen their successors for many years to come in view of the new seniority lists! In this way, the lop-sided political imprint of the current self-absorbed and self-appointed judiciary will be felt even when parliamentary oversight is supposedly in place after the proposed constitutional amendment. The most worrying aspect of this whole debate is the one-sided view of the leaders of the lawyers’ movement and the Bar Associations, in particular the Supreme Court and Lahore High Court Bar Associations. They say that there should be no parliamentary oversight at all and the judiciary should remain a self-appointing and unaccountable body. This is a materially motivated approach by lawyers who present themselves before the courts for huge sums of money from their clients. It is meant to please the current crop of judges, regardless of the fact that the notion of parliamentary supremacy is undermined by it.

The “expert” bias in favour of the current “independent” judiciary is, of course, understandable. An unaccountable executive has long lorded it over the judiciary, often with disastrous results for democracy. But this doesn’t mean that we should push the pendulum to the other extreme. The most important requirement of the day is to hold the current judicial set-up accountable and nudge it to become neutral and unbiased so that it is a force for political stabilization and genuine accountability rather than destabilization. A self-appointed judicial dictatorship is much worse than an elected parliamentary dictatorship.

 Issue: (March 19-25, 2010)

Long hot summer

Next week President Asif Zardari will move the 18th amendment bill to the constitution. If passed by end March, it will have far reaching consequences for state and society in Pakistan. The President will shed his powers to sack prime ministers and governments, to appoint the service chiefs and provincial governors, and to enforce the ban on Nawaz Sharif becoming prime minister again. More significantly, the “concurrent” list of subjects in the domain of the federal and provincial government will be abolished and 46 new areas will be given in the care of provincial governments – an unprecedented leap in the direction of greater provincial autonomy. Equally, parliamentary oversight and approval in the appointment of judges to the superior courts via a six member judicial-executive commission and a bipartisan eight member parliamentary commission will largely negate the impact of undue judicial intervention by unaccountable judges in the affairs of the executive that characterizes the current scene.

But such developments could redound on state and society if three pressing issues are not simultaneously addressed in a satisfactory manner. The first is civil-military relations. When power was distributed in a troika of army chief, president and prime minister – as from 1988-1997 – the presidency could theoretically play the role of a broker, balancer or valve of sorts. Unfortunately, in practice, the troika always ended up tilting against the prime minister – the army chief and president ganged up to sack two Benazir Bhutto governments and two Nawaz Sharif regimes in the 1990s. Equally, though, when the prime minister was all powerful – as in 1977 and 1999 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mr Sharif were respectively ruling the country – the army chief carried out a coup to resolve a political crisis. So henceforth all prime ministers and army chiefs will have to learn how to get along constitutionally without endangering national security or democracy. This requires the prime minister to govern wisely and democratically and the army chief to restrain personal ambition or institutional arrogance, no mean tasks.

The second is federal-provincial relations. The extension of the provincial writ will lead to devolution of economic power and consolidation of regional cultures and politics. If this strengthens the federation – as in the USA and India where unity in diversity is enshrined in the mental makeup of the nationalist state and society – it will be good for both national security and democracy. But if it leads to financial anarchy and corruption in the provinces or undermines the federation by stoking violent ethnicity in Sindh, sectarianism in Punjab, Islamic extremism in the NWFP or separatism in Balochistan, then civil-military relations will plunge and the powerful national security paradigm will overwhelm the democratic urge, with disastrous consequences.

The third is the state of political economy. Bad politics will always end up undermining the best economic prospects – as from 1988-1999 when reckless politics under elected prime ministers led to sporadic economic growth of less than 3 per cent yearly and blundering politics under quasi-military rule from 2006-2008 knocked the annual growth rate from 7 per cent to 2 per cent. Unfortunately, the last two years under a democratically elected civilian government have not inspired much optimism, despite a favourable international environment for receipt of grants, soft loans, debt write-offs and swaps. The Zardari regime, true to form, is leaking like a sieve and stumbling from pillar to post. Two finance ministers have come and gone, and the finance ministry was hankering for a clean and firm hand which hopefully it has got with the appointment of Dr Hafeez Sheikh. The intervention of an ill-equipped and populist judiciary in economic and financial matters – as in stopping the privatization of the huge loss-making Steel Mill and attempting to fix the price of sugar in a free market – has made matters worse. Lack of a national consensus on how to deal with the Taliban unequivocally and negotiate a strategic partnership with America has also adversely impacted the economy. On the one hand, it has frightened away potential foreign investors and led to capital flight from the country, and on the other alienated the American Congress that has legislated US$1.5 billion in annual grants to Pakistan when the American economy has slipped into its worst recession since World War II.

In short, Pakistan desperately needs a visionary political and military leadership to rebuild its state and society in tandem. The military must abandon its India-centric obsession that stops Pakistan from becoming the transit hub linking trade, oil, gas and electricity between South and West-Central Asia; indeed the military has to trim its sails to suit a different national security paradigm that emphasizes economic autarky and well being rather than military preparedness alone. The politicians must propose and execute good governance and continuity. And the media and judiciary should facilitate rather than derail such a process. If this is a tall order, the alternative is war with our neighbours, civil and sectarian strife at home, and economic meltdown leading to financial default. That is a terrifying prospect. If this turns out to be a long hot summer of cruel food crises, galloping inflation, unending power outages, rising unemployment, popular angst and continuing political bickering that leads to the ouster of another civilian set-up, we should not expect miracles to resuscitate Pakistan again.

(March 26 – April 01, 2010 )

General Kayani’s strategic dialogues

The Pakistan army under General Ashfaq Kayani is holding a strategic dialogue with the Obama administration externally and the Zardari government internally. The failing Pakistan economy and the fierce war with the Taliban are on top of the list with all protagonists. Everything flows from, or is related to, these two pressure points on Pakistan’s stability and security. If the economy fails, increasing impoverishment, angst and alienation from democracy and mainstream politics will swell the ranks of extremists and put pressure on the military to devote greater resources of men and materials to putting them down. And if the Taliban aren’t vanquished swiftly, their violence will scare away all prospective investment to revive the economy, thereby adversely impacting defense budgets and military needs for national security.

Pakistan’s economy is caught in a vortex. Political instability since 2007 has knocked the annual growth rate to about 3 per cent – which is barely above the population growth rate. Stagflation – unemployment is over 30 per cent and inflation about 25% – shows no sign of abating. Energy is short – about 1/3 of demand is unfulfilled and power outages of 6-14 hours every day are the norm across the country, hurting industry (about 35 per cent is shut down) – and pricey – power rates have soared by 80% in the last two years and are forecast to rise by another 40% this year! Indeed, Pakistan Electric Supply Company (PEPCO) that buys and sells all the power in the country has dented the federal budget by over Rs 60 billion annually for some years running. The IMF objects strongly because it wants its US$9 Billion Standby Facility to reduce Pakistan’s fiscal deficit from about 8% to 4%. The power sector’s circular debt has risen to over Rs 450 billion, an impossibly huge sum that defies easy solutions.

The cost of the war on terror – variously estimated to be about US$4 billion in the last two years – has also blown a big hole in the federal budget, despite regular military and financial handouts to the Pakistani army by Washington. In consequence, the government’s poverty alleviation and Public Sector Development budgets have been slashed by half this year.

The strategic dialogue in Washington led by General Ashfaq Kayani is focused on all these issues. Included are talks on how to use American assistance to upgrade the hydroelectric network and finance new run-of-the-river electricity projects and dams. Pakistan is also keen to get the Americans to abolish or reduce quota restrictions on its textile exports which account for over 60% of all Pakistani exports. Finally, Pakistan is nudging Washington on two important counts: persuade India to reopen dialogue on water-sharing issues that are threatening relations between the two even more than cross-border terrorism; and abandon opposition to Pakistan’s nuclear program so that it can extend and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as envisaged and outlined in the Indo-US nuclear deal.

While Washington is acutely aware of the regional and global consequences of Pakistan’s “failing state” syndrome, no free lunch is on offer. Indeed, the quid pro quo is concrete Pakistani help to America’s besieged armies in Afghanistan so that a respectable exit strategy can be implemented according to President Obama’s political timetable. This is where there is a historical “trust deficit” between the two sides that urgently needs to be bridged. The Americans want effective Pakistani military action in North Waziristan where the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda are entrenched. But the Pakistani army has held off military operations pending a firm recognition of Pakistan’s geo-strategic stakes in the region. Roughly translated, this amounts to a ring side seat for Pakistan’s ISI in any proposed dialogue between the Kabul regime and the Afghan Taliban, followed by a core role for Pakistan’s “moderate” Taliban assets (after they renounce all Al-Qaeda links) in any future political dispensation in Kabul. By way of corollary, India’s role in Afghanistan, including its links with Afghan intelligence to abet insurgency in Balochistan, is the subject of discussion in the talks.

General Ashfaq Kayani practically took charge of the country’s foreign policy some months ago. That accounts for his straight talk with the Americans and NATO on Afghan policy and by the Foreign Office with the Indians on the unconditional composite dialogue. It signals an end to the clever-by-half approach of General Musharraf and the whingeing attitude of the Zardari government. Now General Kayani has made an imprint on Pakistan’s economy by pressurizing the Zardari government to induct General Pervez Musharraf’s privatization minister, Hafeez Sheikh, a great US-IMF favourite, into the driving seat of the finance ministry. Pundits predict that an increasing number of “technocrats” approved by General Kayani are likely to fill important slots in government soon, in pursuit of the military’s national security paradigm of Two Ds – defense and development – supported by a resurgent judiciary and nationalist media.

The irony in the situation should not be missed. It heralds a new model of military supremacy over the civilians in forcefully but indirectly formulating and executing Pakistan policy in a “democratic” framework. Whether it will succeed or fail depends on how the two mainstream parties led by President Asif Zardari and Mian Nawaz Sharif play their cards.

(April 2-8, 2010)

Stay tuned for more action

Two sudden developments have raised the political temperature in the country and created further uncertainty. First, Nawaz Sharif’s last minute U-turn on the proposed 18th constitutional amendment bill has stunned friends and foes alike, jeopardized an all-party, all province, consensus on key issues, and fueled conspiracy theories of regime change. Second, the Supreme Court’s (SC) aggressive revival of the NRO cases against President Asif Zardari and his cronies has led pundits to conclude that the two developments are linked to his impending fate.

Mr Sharif cited two reasons for pulling out: a lack of agreement between his PMLN and ANP on a new name for the NWFP; and absence of “proper consultation” between the Zardari government and the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, on the proposed method for selection and appointment of judges in the future. Neither explanation is valid. The consensus parliamentary committee that gave the green light for the proposed changes included Mr Sharif’s right-hand man, Ishaq Dar, and both PMLN and ANP had separately confirmed that the matter of renaming the NWFP had also been settled. Any formal “consultation” between the parliamentary committee and the CJP is a non-starter because it would tie the hands of the judiciary from fulfilling its constitutional right to review the law after it had been passed.

On March 30, as if to deflect media attention from the beleaguered Sharif for allegedly doing its bidding and to make its intentions clear, the SC dealt a blow to the Zardari regime. It ordered the chief of NAB to ask the Swiss government to reopen a money laundering case against President Zardari closed on the basis of the NRO two years ago, or face imprisonment for disobeying its orders. It summarily ordered the imprisonment of Sheikh Riaz, a senior FIA official and Zardari crony, on corruption charges. And it ordered NAB to produce a former Attorney General of Pakistan, Malik Qayyum, to explain why and under what law he had ordered the closure of the Swiss case against Mr Zardari, scaring him into fleeing from the country on March 31. Most ominous of all, the SC has refused to accept NAB’s plea that President Zardari has constitutional immunity from prosecution. The question of constitutional immunity for the President hinges on the distinction between cases lodged before his election as President and cases lodged during his Presidential term. The Lahore High Court is already seized with a petition that challenges Mr Zardari’s right to be both President and head of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Faced with loss of support from the main opposition party and a visible direct assault by the SC, President Zardari has three options. He can either wring his hands in despair and allow the SC to target and knock out his leading political cronies and supporters one by one, thereby isolating him and setting him up for the final heave-ho. The list includes various ministers and advisors and ambassadors. Or he can read the tea leaves and retire from the presidency in exchange for some personal guarantees from the Pakistan army which underpins national security and the USA which funds and props up Pakistan’s military and economy, enabling his PPP prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani to continue leading the coalition government with key changes in the cabinet proposed by the army chief and judiciary. Or he can dig his heels in and fight back.

Chances are he will mix and match tactics for strategic survival. He will not directly oppose the SC’s orders but he may indirectly thwart them at every turn because the executive is in his hands. He could also whip up sentiment against the SC and the PMLN in the other provinces – after all, the PMLN is predominantly a Punjab based party (unlike the PPP which is represented in all four provinces) and the SC doesn’t have a single ethnic Sindhi or Baloch judge on its benches even as it is widely perceived to be hounding the PPP and its Sindhi leaders for corruption to the exclusion of the PMLN and PMLQ whose track record is only marginally less provocative.

As the scene unfurls, two other factors will weigh into the equation in the next few months. The first is the public mood in soaring temperatures. This is turning ugly because of double digit inflation, acute power shortages and industrial closures. The second is the rising status and credibility of the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, whose ability and willingness to pull strings in private and public is increasing by the day. Having won kudos from the public, media, lawyers, judges and opposition last year for pressurizing President Zardari to restore the rebellious judges to office, he is now savouring the sweet smell of success following military operations against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan and a strategic dialogue with the USA in which he played a leading role.

Mr Zardari is expected to make quick concessions to Mr Sharif and the SC. But that won’t appease them. Both want him to quit by hook or by crook. In the end, as always, the army chief will make his move and have his say. The Americans will offer a studied (approving) silence. Stay tuned for more action.

No Man’s

April 9-15, 2010

Despite some last minute hiccups, the 18th constitutional amendment, with no less than 105 amended clauses, additions and deletions, is poised for approval by a 2/3 majority in both houses of parliament. This is no mean achievement. It carries the imprint of a historical consensus across the political divide not witnessed since the constitution was subscribed in 1973.

However grudgingly, credit must go to President Asif Zardari’s PPP which launched the process of political reconciliation of competing interests. Certainly, it couldn’t have been easy for Mr Zardari not just to relinquish all his presidential powers but also, and more importantly, to open the route for Mr Nawaz Sharif to become prime minister for a third or fourth time while enhancing the powers for the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP) in the selection and appointment of judges. The widespread perception is that Mr Sharif will now push for a mid-term election while the judges are spurred to “get Mr Zardari”. If that happens, the constitutional consensus will give way to battles on the streets, media and in the courts.

The hiccups in the run-up to the agreement on the constitutional amendment are worth noting for what lies ahead. Mr Sharif pulled out at the nth minute in order to strengthen the hand of the CJP. Then, after his objections had been incorporated, he was conspicuous by his absence, along with his brother Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, from the grand session of parliament addressed by Mr Zardari before the introduction of the amendment in parliament. But he wasn’t the only one signaling mal-intent. The MQM Governor of Sindh, Dr Ishrat ul Ibad, feigned illness and cried off too. It may be recalled that the MQM, a strategic ally of the military establishment and a tactical coalition partner of the PPP in the federal and Sindh governments, stabbed Mr Zardari in the back last year by refusing to support his bid to get parliament to ratify the NRO, whence all his trials and tribulations have erupted. And only last week, the Attorney General, Anwar Mansoor, an erstwhile MQM supporter who was earlier Advocate General Sindh on the recommendations of the MQM, left Mr Zardari in the lurch and switched over to the side of the CJP.

Clearly, the judiciary and government are heading for a fatal crash. The Supreme Court (SC) has ordered the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), under the seal of the federal law ministry, to ask the Swiss authorities to re-open the money laundering case against Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari. But the federal law minister, Babar Awan, has said this can only be done “over my dead body!” The SC wants the former Musharraf- appointed Attorney General, Malik Qayyum, to present himself in court and explain under what law or authority he wrote to the Swiss authorities in 2008 asking them to close the file on the case. But Malik Qayyum has fled the country. Now the federal law secretary has retired to hospital after informing the SC that there is no record of the authority or law relied upon by Chaudhry Farooq, the Attorney General under the Nawaz Sharif regime, to write to the Swiss authorities in 1997 asking them to investigate the royal couple in the first instance. The PPP has also publicly vowed to oppose any attempt to “dig up the grave of its martyred leader Benazir Bhutto” in pursuit of any cases and is openly accusing the SC of victimization in the name of accountability. Sooner rather than later, key PPP functionaries will simply refuse to obey the SC. If they are hauled up for contempt and sentenced, the government will likely reprieve them, a power that the President still enjoys, or reward them for their loyalty. In any case, conventional wisdom claims that the president enjoys constitutional immunity from prosecution. Therefore the SC will have to execute some truly embarrassing somersaults to bypass that barrier and lose more credibility.

Mr Sharif, meanwhile, is likely to focus on the economic woes of the people – like inflation, energy shortages, industrial stoppages and increasing impoverishment – to knock out the government. Petitions are also likely to fly challenging Mr Zardari’s right to be both PPP Co-Chair and President of Pakistan. If upheld by the SC, Mr Zardari will lose his presidency and presidential immunity or his hold over the party which is his real source of power. The belt-tightening IMF imposed budget due in June could trigger mass agitation for regime change.

At that stage Mr Sharif’s options will become clear. He could bid for an alliance with Mr Zardari’s erstwhile partners, MQM and ANP, and try to form a coalition government. Or he could push for a midterm election. But the army and judiciary, whose institutional experience of the autocratic Mr Sharif is bitter, could thwart his plans by conniving to cobble a “national government” with the help of the PMLQ, MQM, ANP and PPP without Mr Zardari.

Therefore, if the space is narrowing for Mr Zardari, it is by no means certain that it will open up for Mr Sharif. This is the ongoing tragedy of a nonfunctional political system in Pakistan besieged by multiple crises of governance and civil-military relations

 

Learning from India?

April 16-22, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 9

The Senate is expected to pass the 18th amendment bill despite the furore triggered by the violent agitation in Hazara division for separate provincial status. The PMLQ, the old pro-Musharraf rump that is desperately trying to remain relevant in the anti-Musharraf environment but still prides itself as the “establishment’s party”, is to be principally blamed for fingering the anti-Pakhtoonkhwa sentiment in this region. But if the ANP government’s brutal response is a measure of its new identity, there will be big trouble ahead.

The demand for a new Seraiki and a new Bahawalpur province has also been fueled by the arrival of Pakhtoonkhwa. Indeed, talk of a clutch of new provinces via another constitutional amendment – administrative, ethnic, linguistic or some combination of all such factors – is the hot topic of debate already. Analysts are peering over the border to determine how India has managed to increase the number of its states since independence without too much social upheaval undermining its sense of nationhood. Much the same exercise is being carried out to understand how India is dealing with three subject lists for federal governance – provincial, concurrent and federal – since the 18th amendment transferred the concurrent list in Pakistan’s constitution into the domain of the provinces.

But all this is potentially troublesome. It has taken 18 months to hammer out a consensus on the 18th amendment on issues that were previously settled informally, more or less. Consensus on more provinces is going to be much more difficult to cobble. Equally, how the provinces are going to manage 47 new subjects of the concurrent list without the administrative experience or money that goes with the job is anybody’s guess. As it is, the provinces have jeopardized the IMF programme by refusing to levy a VAT on services, citing popular pressure and lack of tax-collecting machinery. At least 200,000 jobs are on the line in Islamabad as these ministries are wound up and handed over to the provinces, another potential source of social unrest in the heart of the country.

The lessons of India are also in hot demand on another front. Pakistan’s self-appointing Supreme Court favours the self-appointing 3 member “collegiate system” in India and frowns on the 18th amendment that establishes judicial and parliamentary oversight into the judges appointment method. Pro-SC vested interests among the bar associations are thundering against the new provisions on the ground that they violate the “basic structure of the constitution” by diluting the independence of the judiciary. Of course, this is nonsense. The basic structure of the constitution was not seemingly altered when two military dictators played fast and loose with it in the past and the judiciary was hand-in-glove with the executive. But law and politics have got so terribly mixed up in Pakistan following the emergence of the bar and bench as a major new political force – almost a political party – in the last three years, that anything is possible. Certainly, if the SC strikes down these clauses in the 18th amendment, we could witness an unprecedented clash between Parliament that is supreme and the supreme court which is super-supreme, whatever that may be.

Unfortunately, that is not the only imminent clash on the horizon. A clutch of petitions lies before the SC against the person and government of Asif Zardari. In one, Mr Zardari’s presidential immunity from prosecution in criminal cases will be adjudged. In another, his right to be both President of Pakistan and co-chairman of the PPP is at stake. In the third, the prime minister, law minister and others in government are facing contempt of court charges for not writing to the Swiss government, as ordered by the SC, to reopen the money laundering case against Mr Zardari. Unfortunately, the SC is increasingly viewed as being one-sided and even “vindictive” in its pursuit of accountability against Mr Zardari and the PPP government. Certainly, neither the president’s immunity nor his right to be both head of a party and president of Pakistan has ever been challenged before because it is received law. Equally, the response of the Attorney General in Geneva – that Mr Zardari’s immunity must first be withdrawn in Pakistan before he can reopen the cases against him – has not been lost on most Pakistanis. That is why, the argument goes, the SC is keen to get the PM to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen the cases against Mr Zardari so that it can then be argued that the PM’s letter proves that the government believes President Zardari doesn’t enjoy immunity. In the same vein, the law minister’s refrain is understandable that such a letter will only be written “over his dead body”.

Therefore, notwithstanding the national consensus over the 102 clauses of the 18th constitutional amendment, Pakistan’s consolidation as a cohesive and functioning nation-state is still very much “work in progress”. From two units of East and West Pakistan to four units in the new Pakistan to five again (the new province of Gilgit-Baltistan has been carved out of the old “Azad” Kashmir without regard to its disputed status under international law) has been a convulsive journey. How much more will it take to resolve the new issues that are passionately cropping up?

 

US-Pak relations: tactical or strategic?

April 23-29, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 10

The ruling establishments of America and Pakistan have rediscovered a long lost “strategic relationship”. The core of this strategic relationship is supposedly represented by a mutuality of interests relating to the war against the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the reality is more complex.

From the American establishment’s point of view, two factors are important: Afghanistan must not ever become a base area for the export of Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism against America; and Pakistan must not become a breeding ground for radical Islam that feeds into Al-Qaeda.

The first requires the physical elimination of Al-Qaeda and its local Taliban allies from the region and the installation and consolidation of an Afghan regime in Kabul that is able to sustain a pro-US and anti-Al-Qaeda stance without the presence of American troops on the ground. The second requires pumping a lot of money into Pakistan’s economy and new weapons into Pakistan’s military – the first to make sure that mass poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and alienation do not breed desperate “Islamic” warriors who hate America and want to redress “root causes of global injustice”, as in Palestine and Kashmir; and the second to equip and spur the Pakistan’s army to go after the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network.

From the Pakistani establishment’s point of view, two factors are also important: America must install a regime in Kabul that is not just able to look after America’s interests but is also “friendly” or pro-Pakistan; and America must not do anything to disturb the civil-military imbalance in Pakistan that accounts for the preponderant role for the military in domestic, foreign and economic policy.

The first requires two elements: the proposed Afghan regime must be dominated by Pakhtuns who are friendly towards Pakistan; and the role of India in any future political dispensation in Afghanistan must be strictly limited to the social sector, leaving the administrative structure and apparatus of law, order and defense in the hands of Pakistan-friendly actors and players. The second entails a clear commitment by Washington not to try and pull civilian strings in Pakistan’s fledgling party-political system to influence, much less to dominate, Pakistan’s military establishment.

The record thus far shows that Pakistan’s military establishment has had the upper hand. After a decade of struggling against the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network and denying or even trying to negate the “Pakistan factor” in Afghanistan, the US seems to have finally conceded a “strategic” partnership role to Pakistan. Instead of talk of “do more” – as under COAS General Pervez Musharraf there is a sustained chorus of “well done” under COAS General Ashfaq Kayani. Indeed, recognition of this fact has pushed President Hamid Karzai to start negotiations with the Taliban, including sections close to the Pakistani establishment. The US also seems to have conceded Pakistan’s view that India must be nudged to make up with Pakistan rather than threaten it as it has done since Mumbai if American interests in Afghanistan are not to be jeopardized by a flare-up in India-Pakistan relations on any one of several simmering counts. Finally, and despite the pro-democracy rhetoric, the Obama administration is talking and dealing directly with the Pakistani brass, as the Americans did in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s under three military rulers. The fact that General Kayani oversaw the “strategic dialogue” in Washington should not be lost on anyone.

This analysis has several short-term implications. First, as the deadline for Congressional elections draws nearer, the Obama administration may become desperately dependent on the Pakistani military establishment to give it a half-face saving exit strategy. This means that if, in the short term, politics in Pakistan takes a topsy-turvy spin that provokes the army, the Americans are going to tilt in favour of the military establishment. Second, much the same sort of sentiment is likely to prevail in Washington if there is a short and sharp conflict between India and Pakistan. Third, US military aid (money and weapons) is going to get pumped into the Pakistani system faster than economic assistance because the first is for quick fixes while the second is part of longer term stabilization policies.

This suggests that the US-Pakistan relationship today is actually “tactical” from America’s point of view and “strategic” from Pakistan’s. During the Cold War until 1989, it was “strategic” for both countries. The US “needed” Pakistan as a “front line” state against communism and Pakistan “needed” the US as a “back-up” state against India. Today, Pakistan’s need of America is unchanged – General Kayani has said that Pakistan will remain “India-centric” and require “soft strategic depth in Afghanistan” as long as India’s military capacity outreaches Pakistan’s, which is going to be forever. But America’s need of Pakistan, after abandoning “nation-building” in Afghanistan, may not last beyond the Obama administration’s electoral strategy. Indeed, the “war against Al-Qaeda terror” seems to be already shifting from the tribal areas of Pakistan to the badlands of Yemen.

Pakistan’s politicians dream of milking the US-Pakistan “strategic relationship” for tens of billions of dollars under another Marshall Plan. They also want nuclear parity with India. Under the circumstances, however, with the global capitalist economy in recession and fears of a nuclear threat from terrorists, Pakistan has as much chance of getting either as a snowball in hell.

Courage, clarity and futility of UN Report

Courage, clarity and futility of UN Report

April 30-May 6, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 11

The Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a significant indictment of the way Pakistan is ruled by the “establishment”. Its conclusions are worth noting and require comment.

The Report shows a realistic understanding of how politics was played in Pakistan in the run-up to Ms Bhutto’s assassination. The nature of the “deal” between Ms Bhutto and President General Pervez Musharraf brokered by the UK and US, how and why it soured closer to the general elections and the highly dubious role of the ubiquitous “establishment” are explained matter-of-factly. In fact, it is extraordinary that the Report concluded that the federal government, Punjab provincial government and Rawalpindi police and administration “deliberately” did not provide adequate security to Ms Bhutto and prevent the assassination. Indeed, the dubious role of the “establishment” – whose “permanent core” is defined by the Report as comprising the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies – in subverting the original political “deal”, then endangering Ms Bhutto’s life, and finally pulling strings and obfuscating and obstructing the investigations are underscored with great clarity and courage. This is due in no small part to the credentials of the leader of the three-man commission, Chile’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Heraldo Munoz, whose recent book on the US-backed conspiracy to oust the democratically elected regime of President Salvador Allende in 1973 documents the atrocities and murders of the coup-making regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

The Report also sheds indirect light on why the PPP government took a year after coming to power before asking the UN to lend a hand in investigating Ms Bhutto’s murder. Mr Zardari shared Ms Bhutto’s aversion to, and apprehension of, the “establishment” which had twice earlier in 1990 and 1996 sent PPP governments packing. Initially, therefore, he targeted the PMLQ (“Qatil” League) instead of General Musharraf directly because he didn’t want to give the latter any excuse to delay the elections further and because the PMLQ was the PPP’s “established” competitor. Later, Mr Zardari got rid of General Musharraf but failed abysmally to clip the wings of the ISI. Therefore, having licked his wounds, he turned to the UN for help.

The UN Commission laments denial of access to intelligence officials by the US government, including to Mr Michael Hayden, a director of the CIA who had alleged an Al-Qaeda-Baitullah Mahsud hand in Ms Bhutto’s assassination. This is inexplicable, unless Washington’s motive was simply not to embarrass the Pakistani “establishment”, with which Washington is currently working closely in the “war on terror”, by commenting on its not-so-invisible links with the Jihadis and Taliban who carried out Ms Bhutto’s assassination!

The Commission makes several major recommendations. (1) “The Pakistani authorities should consider conducting an independent review to determine responsibilities and hold accountable those individuals who seriously failed in their duties”. How this can be done, with the powerful establishment very much in command, is not spelt out. In fact, the best that the Zardari government has been able to do to the guilty policemen named in the report, is to make them OSDs! Equally, the DG-MI, Major-General Nadeem Taj, whose role is questioned in the report for authorizing the hosing down of the scene of crime, has submitted a defiant four page denial to the Inquiry Commission constituted by the government after the UN Report. As far as the establishment is concerned, that is the final word on the subject and an end to the matter.

(2) The UN Report wants the government “to undertake police reform consistent with the principles of democratic policing and operating in a structure of accountability.” Reams have been written on this subject and they are collecting dust. The police in Pakistan is deeply politicized and linked to the “establishment”. Without redressing the original sin – the civil-military imbalance – it is futile to try to radically reform the police.

(3) “The autonomy, pervasive reach and clandestine role of the intelligence agencies in Pakistani life underlie many problems, omissions and commissions set out in the Report… the actions of politicized intelligence agencies undermine democratic governance… [therefore] a thorough review of intelligence agencies based on international best practices” is required. This is easier said than done. All politicians, including the current crop of independent leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, have concluded that discretion is the better part of valour in this matter of the “establishment”. Indeed, even the newly independent media is in thrall to the “establishment” for “national security” reasons!

(4) “The assassination of Benazir Bhutto occurred against the backdrop of a history of political violence that was carried out with impunity. To address this issue, Pakistan should consider establishing a transitory, fully independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate political killings, disappearances and terrorism in recent years.” Hah! That is like asking the “establishment” to investigate itself, indict itself, punish itself and disband itself in pursuit of some lofty UN principles of human rights when its life-purpose is to continue to do exactly the opposite with ruthless impunity in the “supreme national interest”! Therefore it is no surprise that the “strategic dialogue” between Pakistan and the US is currently being conducted by the Pakistani Establishment rather than the democratically elected Government of Pakistan.

 

Indo-Pak burdens and options

May 7-13, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 12

The prime ministers of India and Pakistan agreed at Thimphu, Bhutan, last week to “walk the talk” about resolving outstanding disputes. While the Indians remained circumspect, the Pakistanis were greatly pleased at the “unexpected” windfall because of India’s stubborn refusal since Mumbai 2008 to start an unconditional dialogue with Pakistan.

Clearly, there is US pressure on India to restart a dialogue with Pakistan. That is why Mr Robert Blake Jr, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, maintained a discreet presence in Bhutan during the SAARC Summit. As a quid pro quo, the US has given India access to David Headley, one of the masterminds of Mumbai, who is in prison in America. The US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, came to Pakistan on May 4 and met President Asif Zardari, to urge him to prosecute the alleged handlers and backers of Headley and the Mumbai terrorists. Certainly, we may expect greater Indian pressure on this front after Headley has been interrogated by New Delhi and new evidence to incriminate targeted jihadi groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayba is presented.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s civilian government and military establishment seem determined to reverse one critical position of the last decade regarding Kashmir. In the 1999 Lahore Summit between prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pakistan stopped insisting on resolving the Kashmir dispute strictly in accordance with the UN Plebiscite Resolutions. Mr Sharif also accepted India’s notion of a “composite dialogue” in which Kashmir was relegated to being one of eight outstanding disputes for resolution instead of being the “core” issue that had to be discussed and resolved first. In exchange, India’s BJP leadership unequivocally accepted the reality of Pakistan and stopped insisting on “Akhund Bharat”. A diplomatic back channel was also opened to explore unorthodox ways of resolving Kashmir based on adjustments to the Line of Control (Chenab Formula) and management of the two Kashmirs under the joint supervision of both India and Pakistan, which Mr Sharif later insisted had all but sealed a realistic and equitable way out of the Kashmir stalemate. There was a brief reversal of this position under General Pervez Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, from 2000-2003, especially at the Summit in Agra in 2001, but General Musharraf too later adopted Mr Sharif’s flexibility, stopped funding and fueling the Kashmir jihad in 2004 and offered similarly radical out-of-the-box solutions to the Kashmir dispute based on extensive back channel diplomacy. Indeed, General Musharraf went so far as to deny “India-centricity” in Pakistan’s foreign policy, including any need or desire for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan as a result of it.

The Pakistan government now reiterates the UN position on Kashmir and repudiates any back channel progress in the last ten years. Indeed, the foreign secretary in 1999, Mr Shamshad Ahmed, blithely denies his government’s policy under prime minister Nawaz Sharif; and Mr Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the PPP foreign minister who was personally briefed by General Musharraf on the back channel’s progress, says there is no record of it in the FO. The denials are bizarre. Former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri, and no less than General Musharraf himself, publicly insist that the back channel had produced outstanding results. In fact, an article by Steve Coll in The New Yorker last year documents the results of the back channel on the basis of interviews with the chief negotiators of that period, including Mr Satish Lambah from India and Khurshid Kasuri and Tariq Aziz of Pakistan. It should be noted that India’s prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, also claimed during the last Indian elections that the back channel was on the verge of finding a solution to Kashmir before General Musharraf was dissuaded from pursuing it further following acute political instability in 2007-08.

More significantly, the Pakistani military establishment under the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has reclaimed “India-centricity” and “soft strategic depth” in Afghanistan as the core of Pakistan’s foreign policy.

One reason for Pakistan’s recent backtracking has to do with India’s refusal to dialogue unconditionally after Mumbai. Another has to do with India’s alleged role in Afghanistan in funding and fueling a separatist insurgency in Baluchistan. The third is America’s failure to defeat the Al-Qaeda-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan that has increasingly burdened Pakistan with its own Taliban enemy in its tribal areas and led it to bid for a defensive strategic stake in any future political dispensation in Kabul to the exclusion of India.

Therefore, given the complexity of such regional issues impinging on India-Pakistan relations, no quick fixes should be expected in the dialogue. Walking the talk may take longer than desired. In fact, instead of talking about the eight disputes of the past, Pakistan and India may be better off focusing on the two great threats of the future: Pakistan’s developing water and energy scarcity and India’s vulnerability to foreign-inspired Islamic terrorism in terms of its impact on Indian Muslims and on its business and foreign investment environment. Under the circumstances, perversely enough, this is the moment to grasp the future on life and death issues for the subcontinent rather than quibble over the political burdens of partition.

 

Faisal, Pakistan and Islamist rage

May 14-20, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 13

Faisal Shehzad’s botched bombing attempt in New York on May 2 has triggered a new debate on several issues. What motivated him to abandon a comfortable and happily married life as a recently naturalized American citizen? Was he a “lone wolf”? What was the nature of his contacts with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan? Is the US about to change Af-Pak policy? Why are young Muslims of Pakistani origin caught in the eye of the “terrorist” storm more often than other Muslims of diverse nationalities?

Faislal was outraged and radicalised, like Umar Sheikh (who entrapped Danny Pearl), Rashid Rauf, Junaid Babar and the seven Pak-British wannabe bombers of Britain in 2004, and many others of their ilk before him, by American sins of commission and omission around the globe, especially in Palestine and Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. All these young men of Pakistani origin did not come from poor or deprived backgrounds, nor were they alienated from America and the West by lack of jobs or social welfare. Indeed, Umar Sheikh studied at the London School of Economics and Aitchison College, Lahore. Faisal’s father is a retired AVM of the Pakistan Air Force, his sister is a doctor and his brother a professional in Canada; and he personally had a financial analyst’s job at $80,000 a year, an American nationality and a happy married life. In fact, poverty or material deprivation are significant factors driving people like Ajmal Kasab and others into the promise of radical Islam and jihad only in the backward, semi-feudal areas of Southern Punjab or the dry riverbeds and barren mountains of Waziristan. It may be noted that Osama bin Laden, their ideologue and political leader, is a scion of a multi-billionaire family in Saudi Arabia, no less than the 2009 “Christmas bomber” from Nigeria, Abdul Muttalib, who was trained in Yemen, and whose father, a former head of a leading Nigerian bank, is counted among the richest businessmen of Africa!

Faisal botched it up. One reason may be lack of adequate training in a brief trip to Waziristan; or, because he was a “lone wolf” in America, he simply couldn’t lay his hands on scarce and regulated elements like mercury that are mixed with fertilizer to make bomb material; or he couldn’t make a suitable detonator for the job (hence cylinders of inflammable gas in the SUV). He was also sloppy. He emailed the lady who sold him the SUV and he didn’t think of the clues he was leaving behind in the van if it didn’t explode! Of course, he’s not the first such terrorist who didn’t succeed – Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American trained in Waziristan, was arrested last September and charged with plotting to bomb New York’s subway system on the anniversary of 9/11.

The TTP’s Qari Hussain Mehsud, the chief organizer of the Taliban’s suicide squads in Waziristan, was quick to claim “credit” for Faisal’s attempted bombing. His statement should have been credible for one main reason: he had made a similarly truthful claim on video alongside the Jordanian triple-agent suicide bomber, Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who infiltrated the CIA’s command bunker in Khost and decimated 7 leading American agents last year. Avenging the “Drone” strikes is a key Taliban theme for local and foreign consumption simply because the Drones have proven as deadly against the Taliban as the Stingers did against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Indeed, the TTP turned its guns against American targets only after the Drones started to hit them, starting with key figures like Baitullah Mehsud, Fazlullah, Hakeemullah Mehsud, and increasing their frequency to target all hostile groups fighting the Pakistan army.

Besieged by the Taliban in the face of success-milestones (Congressional elections in November 2010) and exit-strategy deadlines (2011), the Americans have obviously sought to capitalize. After 9/11, they had unleashed their “daisy cutters” on Kabul for shock and awe. After Times Square, their Drones will swarm the skies over Waziristan like locusts and the Pakistan army will be pressurized to extend the war theatre into Al-QaidaTaliban strongholds in North Waziristan as a quid pro quo for the Americans attacking the TTP in South Waziristan.

All this signals the seamlessness of the Al-Qaida-Taliban network from Afghanistan to Pakistan. It is a critical phase in the Battle for Pakistan as part of the Battle for Afghanistan.

The Pakistani state and its ruling elites are unfortunately anchored in “political” and “ideological” Islam from the day the Objectives Resolution was constitutionalised in the 1980s. This state has been characterized by a civil-military imbalance that has fed upon the country by spawning non-state Islamic “warriors”. These monsters have now turned upon their creators. But the state is confused about its identity. Is it a Pakistani state (a national concept) or an Islamic state (a global concept)? What to do with its Islamist warriors? This identity confusion and global rage has bottled up in the minds and breasts of at least three generations of young brainwashed Pakistanis regardless of class. That is why, all other things being equal, a young Pakistani at home or abroad is more likely to be seduced by “global Islamist” outrage against imperialist and “state-terrorist” America than a young Muslim originating from India or Africa or South East Asia.

 

Watch out for the General!

May 21-27, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 14

The clash between the irresistible judiciary led by CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry and the immovable PPP government led by President Asif Zardari is nearing critical mass. When the big bang happens in the next few weeks, the omnipotent army chief, General Pervez Kayani, will have to step into the fray. The problem is that his intervention is likely to plunge the country into a bigger political crisis than the one it seeks to resolve.

The judges are seemingly bent on “getting Zardari”, come hell or high water. Consider. (1) There are two petitions in the Lahore High Court challenging President Zardari’s right to be President of Pakistan and the Co-Chair of the Peoples Party. By law, since the President is supposed to enjoy constitutional immunity, the court should not have entertained these petitions in the first place. But, it not merely accepted them for hearing in unprecedented haste but also dispatched an immediate notice to Mr Zardari to present his case, notwithstanding the constitutional provision of 60 days notice in such matters. More significantly, the constitution nowhere says the President cannot hold any party political office. Nor does Pakistani boast any tradition of apolitical or neutral Presidents, as in India. Indeed, every Pakistani President to date has been a forceful and interventionist personality. President Iskandar Mirza literally invited General Ayub Khan to seize power in 1958; Presidents General Ayub Khan, General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf were coup-makers; President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a bureaucrat hand-picked by General Zia, sacked two democratically elected governments and prime ministers in the early 1990s; President Farooq Leghari was a deputy leader of the PPP but ended up sacking the PPP government in 1996; and President Rafiq Tarar was appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 1998, went on to serve under General Musharraf, signed Mr Sharif’s pardon in 2000 as ordered by General Musharraf (before being sacked), and today sits in the assembly of Muslim Leaguers close to his political benefactor.

(2) The judges insist the PPP government must write to the Swiss authorities and reopen the money-laundering cases against President Zardari. But three Attorney-Generals, the Chairman and the Prosecutor-General of the National Accountability Bureau, and two federal law secretaries have come and gone without scratching the back of the judges or the government. The constitution grants immunity to the President against any criminal charges. The Law Minister, Babar Awan, has said that the letter to the Swiss authorities as demanded by the SC will only be written “over his dead body”! He has been ordered to appear before the SC on May 25, when fireworks are expected to fly. Meanwhile, the PPP has closed ranks around President Zardari. The SC may hold the law minister in contempt and imprison him. But President Zardari is constitutionally empowered to pardon any sentence or conviction, and he has already shown his resolve to take this route in the future by “pardoning” a senior official of the Intelligence Bureau as well as the federal interior minister after they were arbitrarily sentenced for misdemeanours. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, is next in the judges’ firing line.

Sooner or later, the buck will stop at General Kayani. When the SC’s orders are defied by the government on the grounds that they are arbitrary, unfair, one sided and smack of victimization rather than justice, the court is bound to call upon the army chief to come to its aid. The last time this happened was in 1998 when the SC headed by Justice Sajjad Ali Shah ordered the army chief, General Jehangir Karamat, to provide protection to the court against mischief-making hooligans of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League. But the army chief stepped aside and deferred the request to the defense ministry, compelling Justice Shah and then President Leghari to quit their posts. This time the CJP will have to ask General Kayani to put a gun (no less) to the head of President Zardari and drag him to the court and then to jail. So we may expect the government to try and pre-empt this by a measure of last resort. It had issued an executive notification last year restoring CJP Chaudhry and his colleagues to the SC. If that particular notification is “withdrawn’ by an equally swift prime ministerial executive order at any time – and there are precedents for withdrawal of notifications – the judges will have to take to the streets again with the powerful opposition and media behind their back amidst ironical demands that “the army should intervene to save democracy and rule of law”!

Consequently, General Kayani is fated to play a key role in Pakistani politics. This is all the more interesting since the issue of granting him a two year extension in service as army chief is hanging fire (he retires in November this year). The defense minister says the army chief has neither asked for an extension, nor does the government intend to give him one. But the defense ministry is simultaneously considering an internal proposal to extend the tenure of the post of the three service chiefs from three to five years. Watch out for the General in the eye of the storm!

 

Pakistan’s immoderation

May 27-June 2, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 15

Pakistani state and society is Pakistan’s own worst enemy. Consider.

Fauzia Wahab, a PPP spokesperson, is in the dock because she says President Asif Zardari enjoys constitutional immunity and cannot be dragged before the courts. But sections of the media and mullahs argue that if Hazrat Umar (raa) could present himself before a Qazi court in the seventh century and be held accountable, why should a mere mortal like Mr Zardari enjoy immunity from prosecution today? Ms Wahab’s rejoinder was that modern democratic societies are governed by constitutions or social contracts between the state and people (Pakistan’s constitution confers immunity to its President) and that no such set of rules or laws defined state relations during the time of Hazrat Umar (raa)! But this, say her detractors, is “blasphemy” because society was governed in accordance with the provisions of the Holy Quran at that time and there is no more comprehensive or sufficient “constitution” for governing Muslims than the Holy Quran. Accordingly, mullahs have issued fatwas against Ms Wahab and one offended citizen has moved the courts to order the police to register a case of “blasphemy” against her.

There are obvious ironies here. Pakistan is an “Islamic state”, says Pakistan’s constitution as amended by General Zia ul Haq in the 1980s, and anything “repugnant to Islam” in it must be weeded out. The quest for “Islamising” Pakistan’s constitution, which also introduced the blasphemy offense, has continued off and on since the dictator’s time, not just via the provincial high courts and supreme court but also via special institutions created for this purpose by the dictator, namely the Federal Shariat Court and the Council of Islamic Ideology and the Islamic Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court. Therefore it is strange then that the immunity clause still remains, despite ten additional amendments to the constitution spread over half a dozen governments in the last thirty years. Indeed, the most pervasive 18th constitutional amendment impacting over 100 clauses enacted only a month ago by an unprecedented all-parties consensus studiously ignores this.

Interestingly, Ms Wahab’s critics are among those who are in the forefront of the political struggle to empower the judiciary to become “more supreme” than parliament which is supposed to be supreme. No less significantly, they are also leading the political movement to “get Zardari” by hook or by crook. The irony here is that they want modern judges in Pakistan to appoint themselves and be totally independent of parliament or the executive, a sentiment that is outrageously at odds with “Islamic” practice during the time of the Caliphs when Qazis were appointed and removed by the “Islamic” executive authority! (Even today, the executive appoints judges in all Islamic states, eg Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc) Indeed, these are the very groups that are agitating against the 18th amendment’s clause introducing a judicial-parliamentary commission to oversee the appointment of superior judges.

The second issue which is agitating “Islamic” minds in Pakistan is a Facebook competition to draw images of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). The Lahore High Court has ordered the government to block a page on Facebook that has outraged Muslims. But officials are inclined to be more loyal-than-the-king. Therefore, in the guise of protecting the diverse sentiments of Muslims globally, they have blocked over 1000 sites, including Youtube, Flickr and Wikipedia, etc., which seemingly offend for one reason or another. Ironically, though, the global Muslim response to Facebook does not reflect the same religious intensity as in Pakistan. Where Pakistani Muslims are agitating on the streets, in parliament and on the internet, for religious reasons, certain Islamic states that claim to be custodians or guardians of Islam like Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran have been more inclined to censor political comment on the internet. Iran, in fact, blocked Facebook in the run-up to the country’s presidential elections last year to stop supporters of the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi from using the site for his political campaign. Libya, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Egypt have also banned internet sites mostly to block political dissent. Turkey doesn’t like Youtube because there are anti-secular Mustafa Kamal Ataturk videos hosted on it! In short, politics and religion continue to be combined in various ways in the Muslim world to quell political dissent at home and religious opinion abroad.

Unfortunately, Pakistan seems more prone to hurt itself than other Muslim states by constantly veering between democracy and dictatorship, religious extremism and moderation, global partnership and international isolation. “Jihad” is the norm in one decade, “Enlightened moderation” is up for grabs in another. One day, the Taliban are fellow Muslims with whom peace deals must be signed; another day, they are terrorists against whom a bloody war has to be waged. One day, American aid is self-righteously rejected; another day Pakistan is demanding a US-backed Marshal Plan. Today, the Holy Quran is being cited to deny President Zardari immunity from prosecution but the “basic structure of the Constitution” is being cited to stop modern day Qazis (judges) from being appointed or sacked by the Executive as in the days of Islamic yore.

Such hypocrisy and double standards in politics in the name of religion cannot sustain, let alone nourish, modern nations.

 

Battle for Pakistan

June 4-10, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 16

The Pakistani Taliban’s attack last week on two Ahmedi ‘mosques’ and a hospital in Lahore which left over 100 dead is significant.

(1) It comes after a hiatus of three months in the TTP campaign to hit targets in the urban areas of Pakistan. This suggests that its capacity to organize acts of terrorism outside FATA is diminishing.

(2) Mosques are very soft targets. This reflects a progressive TTP strategy to shift away from attacking hard military targets in FATA to military and police targets in the urban areas and then to softer civilian targets like commercial urban markets and now mosques. This suggests that the TTP is getting weaker and desperate because of the army’s successful operations in FATA.

(3) The shift from military/security agency targets to civilian ones was made after the TTP failed to secure “peace deals” with the army last year. Later, public opinion moved decisively against the TTP after the public flogging of a girl in Swat and the anti-democracy, anti-judiciary, anti-media statements of the TTP. But the attempt to scare and divide the public by targeting civilians did not succeed either. Indeed, the public resolve to put down the TTP seemed to stiffen after these wanton attacks. Consequently, the TTP has now tried to exploit religious sentiments against a minority community instead of fear in order to sow division and confusion in the ranks of the public.

(4) The TTP’s losses at the hands of the Pakistani army and American drones are mounting in FATA. The next offensive will be in North Waziristan where the TTP’s Al-Qaeda-Afghan Taliban hosts and supporters are based. Therefore, as the terrorists suffer fresh losses, we should expect some more desperate and dramatic acts of terrorism in urban areas at home or abroad.

While the federal government is standing like a rock behind the Pakistan army’s military operations, the Punjab government’s response is unsatisfactory. It refuses to see the organizational and ideological links between the sectarian organisations based in southern Punjab – which boast 45 per cent of all the madrassas of Pakistan, most of which impart hate-based instruction against religious sects and national minorities – and the TTP based in FATA. Indeed, Punjab government spokesman continue to deny any Punjab-specific TTP origins and links, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that locates the “Punjabi Taliban” and their Punjabi “handlers” in Punjab’s Jhang and Bahawalpur regions and Islamabad’s Red Mosque square.

One reason for the Punjab government’s state of denial has to do with the conservative nature of the ruling Muslim League (Nawaz)’s vote bank. It is predominantly middle class, urban and religious-ideological. Punjab remains the main breeding ground of anti-Shia, anti-Christian and anti-Ahmedi sentiment in Pakistan. This is where the anti-Ahmedi riots led by the Jamaat i Islami first erupted in Lahore in 1953; this is where Iranian diplomats were assassinated in Multan in the 1990s; this where the anti-Christian arson in Shantinagar in the 1990s and then Gojra took place in 2009. This is where the Shias and Christians and Ahmedis are concentrated. The most violent and virulent sectarian organisations are all based and nourished here even if they have spread their bloody tentacles across the country. And this is where the police and political parties and politicians are either afraid of the religious militants or complicit in their hate propaganda and preaching. The PPP’s Benazir Bhutto did not think twice of releasing a leader of a sectarian organization from prison in exchange for his vote in parliament a decade ago just as the Muslim League (N)’s Shahbaz Sharif was only too happy to woo leaders of the same banned organization in the last round of by-elections in Jhang some months ago.

The blame game between the federal and Punjab governments of security lapses and responsibilities must stop. It begs the real issue. These monsters were created by military dictators to protect and extend their personal and institutional interests in the guise of “national security”. But Pakistan is more divided and weak as a result of these misguided policies than ever before. The so-called “ideology of Pakistan” which was supposed to protect the unity of Islam and the nation-state has done exactly the opposite. By mixing religion with politics we have splintered into sects, castes, ethnicities, regions and sub-nationalisms. More ominously, we have seriously hurt the democratic enterprise by legitimizing the predominant role of the military in establishing and prosecuting misplaced national priorities. And worst of all, we have hamstrung the economy and stopped it from generating jobs, health and education to the vast majority of our people.

The debate in parliament should not only be about the IMF or Kerry-Lugar Bill or Facebook. All that is very well. But from an existential point of view, it should be about who we are, where we are headed, what is the positive and negative role of religious conviction and motivation in our society, what is our true national interest, what image should we present to the world at large and how should we deal with our trading and aiding partners. Devising a plan to defeat the Taliban and religious extremists in our midst amounts to no less than debating and devising a strategy to salvage the battered soul of Pakistan.

 

Budget 2010: no courage, no vision

June 11-17, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 17

Budget 2010 has been received with the usual cacophony of complaints. Everyone wants a bigger slice of the cake without contributing sufficiently to it. Workers want higher wages and low prices for food. But farmers want high prices for food and low prices for fertilizer, electricity and seeds. Neither sector is able or willing to give higher productivity or raise yields, increase output or change the social relations of production that lead to inequities and inefficiencies in their sector. Similarly, businessmen want a range of incentives, including low interest rates, high political stability, a cost-efficient infrastructure of communication and energy, and zero government regulation, but refuse to pay their share of taxes that go into the provision of such services. The army wants “more” money for defense every year but the level of national security – internal and external – that it is supposed to provide in exchange has been progressively falling and scaring away foreign investment. At the heart of the issue lies the “social contract” between the state and the people that is expected to make a nation vibrant and secure. The Pakistani state is corrupt and inefficient, Pakistanis are not paying their taxes and everyone is disgruntled.

There are several core issues over which a national consensus is missing. On the size of the cake, taxes are a core issue. Pakistan’s Tax:GDP ratio at 9.8 % is among the lowest in the world. We need to raise this to over 20%, at par with world standards. This can be done by getting rid of tax exemptions on agriculture and services, opting for progressive taxation as in Europe and compelling accurate documentation of the economy. The Federal Board of Revenue must be more efficient and ruthless than even the National Accountability Bureau, as are the CBR and INR in India and US respectively. If 100 of the wealthiest persons in each sector of the economy – manufacturing, trade or services – were to be made tax-accountable, half the problem would be solved overnight because the lesser fry will fall in line out of fear. A first step in this direction would be imposition of VAT across the economy, regardless of opposition from vested or ignorant quarters. Therefore the PPP government’s decision to postpone this step is a condemnable sign of political opportunism.

The second factor is foreign aid, foreign investment and foreign loans. We must neither beg for these nor spurn them out of hand. Foreign investors should be welcomed. That is the way of the world. We must create a suitable environment of national arbitration and sovereign guarantees instead of cheering ill-considered and “populist” interventions by the courts. Foreign investors should, in particular, be encouraged to buy public sector enterprises that are draining the economy with their losses and inefficiencies. If corruption is an issue, it should be tackled through transparent auctions in which credible media representatives and trained judges are brought into the overseer loop. Similarly, making a clenched fist with one hand about “sovereignty” regarding IMF and World Bank conditions and a begging bowl in the other hand is misplaced nationalism. If we want to use their cheap money, then we must get ready to rationalise our economic and financial system so that it is capable of generating growth and repaying its debts. In fact, all this criticism over the rising Debt:GDP ratio is relevant only if the economy is progressively unable to service its debts. Pakistan’s ratio is less than the 80% + in G-20 countries, (100% + in advanced G-20 countries and nearly 90% in India). Therefore it is not how much one borrows but how one spends the borrowed money (on consumption or production) that matters. If borrowing is for an infrastructure of ports, roads, dams, education and health which buttress the economy, then that is good. But if it is for weapons, wars, corruption and wasteful government expenditures, then that is bad.

The other side of the equation is government expenditures. The Pakistani state is subsidizing a clutch of inefficient and corrupt public sector corporations to the tune of Rs 250 billion every year. These must be privatized. Defense related matters take up over Rs 500 billion or about 30% of our current tax revenues. This ratio must be brought down by half at least, yielding another Rs 250 billion. But this will require a public reassessment of national security, including the requirement for a strong economy. Pakistan’s “India-centric paradigm” military is based on an internally weak economy while India’s runaway military capability is based on high economic growth. The arms race hurts Pakistan enormously.

Let us not lose sight of the wood for the trees. Of course, salary increments of government servants, retention of Benazir Income Support Program, a rise in the ceiling of income tax exemption on salaries, etc., and an increase in the revenue share of provinces under the new National Finance Commission Award are all welcome. But we must focus on the big existential issues like tax collection, energy theft, corporate subsidies, foreign assistance, privatization, national security and political stability to get out of the long term economic crisis. Unfortunately, the PPP government, like its predecessors, has demonstrated neither the courage nor vision to address these issues.

 

Corruption, development and democracy

June 18-24, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 18

 

Transparency International’s yearly reports on corruption are anathema for governments because these are viewed as an indictment of them rather than of the state, civil society or political system. Thus the domestic focus is not so much on the country’s standing in TI’s global corruption index but on how the government has fared in comparison with its predecessor or its proposed successor-in-waiting. In Pakistan, however, a rather different sort of comparison is also made, albeit implicitly: whether there is more or less corruption in a quasi-legitimate military-dominated government compared to an elected civilian government. From this follow prescriptions for a change in government and, sometimes, even in the political system. Is this fair?

Corruption first became a major political issue in Pakistan after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister in 1988. Indeed, it was the main plank used by the conspiratorial remnants of the Zia regime to oust her from office barely two years later. Much the same reason was given when three democratically elected regimes – one led by Ms Bhutto again and two by Nawaz Sharif – were prematurely ousted by the ubiquitous military-bureaucratic “establishment”. It was significant, too, that whenever an elected civilian regime was ousted, “democracy” and “parliament” were conspicuously discredited, finally paving the way for the military takeover in 1999 when no public tears were shed for the demise of “another corrupt democracy”.

Ominously, the latest TI report on Pakistan arrives at a time when, once again, an elected civilian regime is besieged by corruption charges, and angry voices in the media, civil society and opposition are demanding its ouster. Here is a checklist of TI’s findings. (1) 70% of Pakistanis say that the present federal government is more corrupt than previous governments. (2) The police force retains its unenviable record as being the most corrupt institution in the country. Surprisingly, though, certain other findings are more significant. (1) The Federal Board of Revenue’s Customs and Taxation Departments and the Tendering and Contracting Departments of public sector corporations and local administrations are ranked as the least corrupt sectors of the economy. (2) In the US and UK, among other democracies, parliament and political parties are perceived by Americans to be the single most corrupt sectors of society while in Pakistan that dubious honour goes to civil servants and unelected officials. This means that institutions of the state like the unaccountable bureaucracy, army and judiciary are relatively more corrupt in Pakistan than in robust democracies where there is institutional accountability.

Therefore the solution to the problem of corruption in Pakistan doesn’t lie in periodically kicking out parliaments and governments and thereby discrediting electoral democracy but in firmly establishing a political system of checks and balances and accountability of state institutions so that unelected officials of the state are selected on merit, paid well and legally protected against the discretionary ravages of inept and corrupt politicians. Under the circumstances, a vibrant media armed with a strong freedom of information act and an independent judiciary at its back is a necessary condition for anti-corruption crusading.

Unfortunately, however, the free media and higher judiciary are not playing this role properly in Pakistan. Powerful elements in the media have become partisan political players, thereby losing credibility and unwittingly serving anti-democratic forces. Similarly, the higher judiciary is focusing its energies on abstract constitutional matters and partisan power games rather than on improving the system of lay justice and administration, thereby sustaining the pro-corruption status quo of state institutions. No wonder the latest TI report claims that corruption in the judiciary, education sector and local government has also increased in Pakistan in the last year or so.

There is an organic link between corruption, dictatorship and democracy. TI’s global corruption index shows that robust democracies are relatively less corrupt than dictatorships. Democratic India, for example, which is made of the same post-colonial politico-cultural mould as Pakistan, has climbed the ladder from being the 9th most corrupt country in the world in 1996 to the 95th most corrupt in 2009. In the same period, Pakistan’s checkered history of dictatorship and democracy places it at 42nd position today compared to 2nd in 1996. One reason why India’s democracy took so long to make anti-corruption progress has to do with the weight of the corrupt and inefficient “bureaucratic” public sector model adopted by its founding fathers (which is now being dismantled slowly) just as Pakistan’s dismal situation today is attributed to the unaccountability of the same state institutions and civil-military bureaucracy that dominate its politico-economic landscape.

The Auditor General’s latest report claims over Rs 300 billion were lost to malpractices and discretionary rules and procedures in the civil institutions of the federal government. There is not even a guesstimate for leakages in the budgets of the armed forces which account for nearly one-third of all tax revenues. TI Pakistan estimates corruption to cost over Rs 1000 billion a year. That is about one-third of the federal budget and over half the total tax revenue. If this percentage could be halved by the interventions of a free media and newly independent judiciary, and channeled into education and health every year, there would be no impoverishment of the masses and the lingering threat to democracy would dissipate.

Preventing failure
June 25-July 1, 2010 | Vol. XXII, No. 19

Three recent global surveys are harbingers of bad news for Pakistan. They should compel us to think of what the future holds for us if we don’t set our “qibla” in the right direction.

Foreign Policy magazine’s survey ranks Pakistan as the 10th most failed state among the 177 countries of the world, just behind the likes of Afghanistan, Sudan, Chad and Zimbabwe, but worse than Burma and Nepal. By contrast, India (87th) is happily placed in the midway house of “second world” states gearing up to challenge the “first world” in many ways.

The report notes Pakistan’s description as the “most dangerous place in the world” and adds that “President Asif Ali Zardari’s democratically elected government looks hapless”. More ominously, the report concludes that “the indicator for external intervention has worsened since 2008” when America became the largest donor of economic and military aid to the country and its drones began to attack Taliban-Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

A BBC survey in April lends support to these conclusions. Twenty-three out of 27 countries surveyed gave Pakistan a negative ranking – the anti-Pakistan average is 51% in all the 27 countries. Interestingly, Iran and Israel are in the same negative category as Pakistan. But, significantly, only one third of the countries surveyed have a negative opinion about India!

A third survey of 22 countries by Pew Research also arrives at disturbing conclusions. Despite being a major recipient of US aid, only 17 per cent Pakistanis had a favourable view of America. Indeed, 65 per cent think the US is a potential military threat to Pakistan! In sharp contrast, over 66 per cent of Indians, whose country trades with the US but receives no aid, had a favourable opinion of America.

If the world is generally unhappy about Pakistan, it is also noticeable that Pakistanis are increasingly unhappy about their own state of affairs. In 2003, 67 per cent were dissatisfied by the direction their country was taking under President General Pervez Musharraf. But after the economy picked up and prospects of peace with India brightened, only 39 per cent were still unhappy in 2005. However, the subsequent economic and political crisis has put paid to that feel good factor. In 2010, nearly 84 per cent of Pakistanis were unhappy about the state of their country and nearly 90 per cent of these attributed its ill-fortune to the government of President Asif Zardari. Worse, only a minority of 19 per cent think their economic situation will improve in the future. This is a depressing sign. By contrast, over 64 per cent of all Indians have a rosy picture of their future and 85 per cent think their elected government is handling the economy fairly well.

Pakistan is also out of step with the world as far as perceptions of Iran are concerned. Most countries, including Muslim-majority ones, disapprove of Iran’s president, its regime and nuclear weapons program and support sanctions to bring it into line. But 72 per cent of Pakistanis give a thumbs-up to Iran on all counts!

The only good news to emerge from these surveys is that 80 per cent of Pakistanis disapprove of suicide bombings. Support for Osama Bin Laden has, thankfully, dropped from 46 per cent in 2003 to only 18 per cent in 2010. But there is still not sufficient realization of how extremism is hurting the country – only 37 per cent are “very concerned” about extremism at home and a similar number is only “somewhat concerned”! The biggest delusion is that as many as 40 per cent still think that their country is “generally liked” abroad whereas the truth is quite the opposite as all the surveys demonstrate.

What lessons should Pakistan draw from these facts if it is to avoid being pushed over the edge as a failed state?

First, religious extremism at home or in the neighbourhood must be resisted with the might of the state instead of being nurtured by it for whatever goals. We have seen the bloody consequences of believing that America’s Taliban enemy is our friend – our armed forces are now enmeshed in a guerilla war in the north-west and our mosques and bazaars and police stations and schools are routinely bombed.

Second, we must build peace in the neighbourhood instead of fomenting trouble in it through religious non-state actors. We have seen the consequences of it in the dismemberment of our country and the progressive impoverishment of Pakistanis at the altar of an arms race in the subcontinent.

Third, we must put our house in order on the basis of good governance – law and order, accountability, economic policy continuity and quick justice for all – whose dismal indices make us a failed state. Politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and judges must work in tandem for the public good instead of tearing one another apart for personal or even institutional gain.

Finally, civil society must tame the military and redefine “national interest” as being much more than the military’s narrow institutional interest. The military should belong to Pakistan instead of Pakistan belonging to the military.

This is the only assured way of a safe, successful and viable state in the modern world.

Road to Kabul
July 2-8, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 20

It’s official: the road to Kabul will likely run via Islamabad. But it will still be a rough ride. Welcoming Pakistan’s latest efforts to promote a political settlement in Afghanistan as “useful” and “open”, President Obama has wisely added a dose of skepticism.

Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, and head of Interservices Intelligence Directorate (ISI), General Shuja Pasha, have been flitting in and out of Kabul recently, desperately trying to broker a deal between Hamid Karzai and the Haqqani-Hekmatyar Taliban network that continues to take a heavy toll of NATO.

General Kayani’s road map has three inter-related elements.

First, despite the need for peace between India and Pakistan, Pakistan’s national security doctrine requires it to weigh New Delhi’s expanding military capability and regional influence in Afghanistan rather than its professed peaceable intentions because “intentions could change at any time”. Therefore India remains a constant threat.

Second, Pakistan needs a “stable, peaceful and friendly” Afghanistan, not “neutral” but “friendly” because of the India factor. New Delhi is destablising Pakistan’s Balochistan province; it cannot be allowed to establish a hegemonic foothold in Kabul. In the past, secular-communist or pro-India regimes in Kabul like Karzai’s have refused to accept the Durand Line as the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and coveted Pakistan’s Pakhtun areas. Under the circumstances, Islamabad seeks to establish guarantees that the Pakhtuns of Afghanistan will look to Kabul for nationhood and the Pakhtuns of Pakistan, who number more than those of Afghanistan, will not be distracted from looking to Islamabad for theirs. Therefore Pakistan requires “soft strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

Third, under President Obama, public opinion in America has swung against the war in Afghanistan and is compelling a rethink. This is the right time to flog Pakistan’s case: in exchange for a friendly Kabul, Mr Karzai can share power with the Haqqani-Hekmatyar network and enable an honourable exit for America in time to come.

This analysis has been given a fillip by two critical developments: President Obama’s mid-term review signaled a deadline for troop withdrawal at the end of 2011 without committing a commensurate number of troops for its success; and the Pakistan Taliban’s relentless attacks on the Pakistan army in Swat and adjoining tribal areas of the north west compelled it to wage war against them instead of offering placatory “peace deals” as in the past. It is now a matter of life and death for Pakistan to break the nexus between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban by decimating the Pakistani Taliban inside Pakistan while encouraging the Afghan Taliban to inch towards a settlement with Karzai by ditching Al-Qaeda.

Last February, General David Petraeus, the man now in charge of Afghanistan, signaled a new dose of “realism” in Af-Pak policy when he acknowledged Pakistan’s “constructive involvement in reaching out to the Afghan Taliban to encourage reconciliation on the basis of its past ties to the militants”. There were two dynamic elements of this view. First, by making a distinction between good and moderate Taliban who want to negotiate and bad and extremist Taliban who are bent upon fighting, it repudiated the earlier American view that the only good Talib was a dead Talib. Second, General Petraeus admitted that the prospects for reconciliation among senior Afghan leaders were slight because NATO and ISAF were, despite the troop surge, still thin on the ground to guarantee security for those Taliban leaders who wanted to come in from the cold.

More critically, General Petraeus played down the possibility of any new, large scale Pakistani military offensive against these insurgents (like the Haqqani group) because the Pakistan army was already stretched trying to consolidate gains from fighting the Pakistani Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan. He chided critics for not appreciating the Pakistani military’s efforts – 140,000 troops on the ground in the tribal areas (significantly more than the 100,000 troops committed by 43 countries in Afghanistan), over 2300 soldiers killed and swift rehabilitation of two million internally displaced persons. This was a new language compared to the “do-more-against-the-Taliban” advice dished out to Pakistan earlier.

The dramatic change in the Pentagon’s position is owed to two main factors: first, the palpable failure of NATO/ISAF to achieve short or long term nation-building goals in Afghanistan in eight years; second, the failure of NATO to raise an Afghan army of 140,000 troops in the given time frame and an open admission of a rapidly failing war effort on the ground this year.

In short, if a Talibanised-Al Qaeda Afghanistan is not in the US or Pakistan’s interest, nothing less than a “friendly” Afghanistan will assure Islamabad. This raises the formidable question of how then to resolve the interests of the other big regional players like Russia, Iran, China and India. If Pakistan wants a slice of the cake in Kabul, how can it refuse to accept the claims of the other regional players? If the Haqqani-Hekmatyar network wants to share power in Kabul, it will have to kick out Al-Qaeda from the equation.

Can Pakistan deliver? The clock is ticking for both Generals Kayani and Petraeus. The former is scheduled to retire in October. The latter has to urgently contend with President Obama’s skepticism and the American public’s rising disquiet with the war in Afghanistan.

Civil-Military relations and Indo-Pak peace

July 9-15, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 21

 

In a recent TV interview, Mr Nawaz Sharif, has made some extraordinary statements which show that he has come a long way in understanding the nature of the Pakistani state and the core issues that confront it. More significantly, some of his current views are out of sync with the articulated positions of the post-Musharraf “national security establishment” or “state within the state”. This has implications not only for the development of a democratic culture and viable political system in Pakistan but also for Mr Sharif’s political career. Consider.

Mr Sharif wants enduring peace with India. He realizes that the conflict with India provides the military with its pre-eminent political raison d-etre (custodian of national security and national power) as well as the largest slice of the fiscal cake (at the expense of poverty alleviation and development) which gives it muscle. He is ready to solve Kashmir (“set it aside”) so that it doesn’t adversely impinge on India-Pak relations in the future. His proposed solution to Kashmir would primarily focus on what the Kashmiris in Srinagar want rather than the pro-Pakistan plebiscite that ideological and military quarters in Pakistan have always demanded. He says he set out to do this in 1999 when he invited India’s prime minister to Lahore. But this initiative was sabotaged by General Pervez Musharraf’s misadventure in Kargil, the subsequent coup against his government and the military’s belligerent approach to India. Mr Sharif was vindicated when General Musharraf did a U-turn in 2004 and embraced his peace formula with candid out-of-the-box thinking on Kashmir.

This view is now at odds with the post-Musharraf military establishment once again. Despite its avowed peaceable intentions, India is back on Pakistan’s national security agenda as a “core threat” because of its “military capability and cold-start doctrine”. Indeed, under instructions from GHQ, the Pakistani Foreign Office has formally repudiated the Musharraf doctrine while the Zardari government has meekly consented to a reversal of its old position under Benazir Bhutto, which was actually a precursor to Mr Sharif’s position in 1999. Thus, by an irony of history, Mr Sharif is now considered a “national security” liability much as Ms Bhutto was in 1988 when she first came to office.

The similarity doesn’t end there. Ms Bhutto tried to establish control over the military and build peace with India. But she was ousted in 1990 for being a “security risk”. Mr Sharif followed suit in 1999 and met the same fate. Mr Zardari made a move in early 2008 to rein in the ISI and talk peace with India. Today he is hopelessly besieged as a result of it. Under the circumstances, Mr Sharif has staked his political career by making such a bold statement. He should be commended for his vision.

In the same context, Mr Sharif criticized the army’s public displeasure last year of the text of the Kerry-Lugar bill which sought to help the civilian government establish control over the military. This hugely embarrassed the Zardari government and destabilized it. He says that if the army high command has strong views about anything, these should be aired at the proper civil-military forum, like the Defense Committee of the Cabinet, or even privately in meetings between the army chief and the prime minister or president, but never in public in opposition to government policy. He referred to a public statement by General Jehangir Karamat, the army chief in 1998, stressing the need of a national security council, which provoked Mr Sharif to sack him for speaking out of turn. Mr Sharif also reiterated his position that army chiefs should be generally appointed on the basis of seniority and institutional rules should be followed in matters of promotions and extensions rather than the whims of civilians or demands of generals. This is a significant intervention since in comes amidst public speculation regarding the issue of an extension in the service of the current army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, in view of the on-going war on terror that he has successfully prosecuted.

The brass cannot be too pleased with Nawaz Sharif’s views. At the very least, if any khaki-black robed intervention is conspiring to oust Mr Zardari it cannot think of Mr Sharif as a viable alternative. That is why Mr Zardari should build fences with Mr Sharif so that the fledgling parliamentary system is not derailed by new adventurers and civilian control over the military is established as a primary condition for Pakistan’s salvation from the ranks of the failing states of the world.

Finally, Mr Sharif admitted that, for the military to obey the civilians, the civilians must be worthy of the military’s confidence. Truer words were not spoken. Unfortunately, this remains as true today as it was in the time of Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif as prime ministers. Indeed, regardless of party affiliations, the civilians are constantly tripping over themselves to be more corrupt, incompetent and disreputable than their predecessors. Until this reform movement begins at home, there is no way in which Mr Sharif or Mr Zardari or any other civilian politician can earn the military’s trust and persuade it to take a back seat in ruling Pakistan.

Confusion, confrontation and instability

July 16-22, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 22

 

Last week two extraordinary events happened in Lahore that don’t seem to be related but in fact are critically linked. First, the Punjabi Taliban bombed the revered 11th century shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri and provoked a public outrage against the PMLN Punjab government for being “soft” on sectarian terrorists. Shahbaz Sharif’s government has long been in denial about this fact of life. So it refused to accept media criticism and instead accused the federal government and military agencies of not sharing terrorist-related intelligence with it. This led to a war of words all round without any significant action by anyone against the proclaimed banned organizations. Thus the problem of terrorism remains unaddressed even as the terrorists are mounting greater pressure on state and society to succumb to their sectarian demands.

Second, an all-party consensus in the Punjab assembly led to an unprecedented resolution against the media for “witch-hunting politicians and endangering the democratic order”. The cause of the parliamentarians’ complaint is a relentless media drive to expose politicians who have ascended the halls of parliament on the basis of false declarations about their educational status. Since the Supreme Court ordered formal verification of the degrees of the 1180 or so federal and provincial members of the various assemblies, nearly fifty culprits have been identified, half of whom have resigned their seats while others are facing imprisonment of up to three years for misrepresentation before the election commission of Pakistan. Half the parliamentary miscreants belong to the PMLN and are mostly from Punjab, while the PPP and PMLQ share the balance, in addition to a clutch of independent tribal leaders from Baluchistan and NWFP provinces. It is estimated that more than 100 parliamentarians could face the axe in the next few weeks after the process of vetting their degrees is complete. So their personal frustration and anger is understandable.

But there is a more compelling reason at work behind this show of personal and group unity. The delicately balanced coalition provincial and federal governments could be seriously destabilized by any change in the arithmetic of alliances. Any significant loss of party loyalists could embolden the alliance partners to blackmail the ruling PPP for more ministries, handouts and patronage, leading to more mis-governance and further alienation of the masses from the party and the political system. The same is true in Punjab province where the PMLN government is dependent on a Forward Block of renegades from the rump PMLQ faction to protect the government from the pressures of the PPP to discredit and even topple it when the time is ripe. In Sindh too, the MQM is constantly breathing fire even though the PPP has a bare majority to run the government on its own. If that were to be lost because of the unseating of a dozen or so Sindh MPAs, the MQM would raise the stakes of its alliance and bring the government to its knees. In Baluchistan, the government is in dire threat of collapsing even if a handful of its members is disqualified for lacking proper BA degrees. But no one can predict how the outcome of by-elections to over 100 constituencies is likely to affect the fate of the parties and governments. Indeed, the call for a mid-term election that has so far been muted because it comes from disgruntled and marginalized sections of state and society like Imran Khan and the Jamaat i Islami would then resound with the media as well and derail the fragile political balances that keep parliamentary democracy afloat in Pakistan against the encroachments of the military and the demands of the higher judiciary for a “cleansing of the system”.

The parliamentarians say that the media is only focusing on them and not on generals and judges who are conspiring to discredit and derail “democracy”. It is also pointed out that the “graduation condition” for contesting elections in the future has been abolished by the 18th constitutional amendment passed two months ago by an all-parties consensus, so there is no need to make a big deal of what happened earlier. Since the retort comes amidst persistent rumours and conspiracy theories of an “unholy alliance of the new power troika” in Pakistan – generals, judges and the media – to undo the current malfunctioning system and establish a “national government of technocrats” to steer the country through the next few years, their angst is justified.

The two developments in Lahore should be seen in this context. The Punjab government has sidestepped the longer term core issue of terrorism by shifting the debate to the threat to democracy from within. This is in line with the PPP’s view in Islamabad that the judges and generals are a bigger threat to its government than terrorism.

In the next two months or so, we can be reasonably sure that there will be more acts of terrorism as well as more disqualifications from parliament. Meanwhile, the judges of the Supreme Court, who are in a very aggressive mode, may undo elements of the 18th amendment that enable a degree of parliamentary oversight of judicial appointments and also try to unseat President Zardari on one count or another. The stage is therefore set for more confusion, confrontation and instability.

Revive India-Pak Back Channel

July 23-29, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 23

 

The bad news is that the “core” issue versus “composite dialogue” debate continues to haunt Pakistan and India, the latest manifestation being in the failed round of talks between the foreign ministers of both countries in Islamabad last week. The good news is that Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has been embarrassed by his own outburst, and India’s home secretary, GK Pillai, has been silenced by the Indian prime minister for embarrassing his own foreign minister in Islamabad.

From 1947 to 1997, Pakistan routinely parroted “Kashmir is the core issue” line and insisted that “without first resolving it, no dialogue can take place on the other outstanding issues”. During this time, three wars took place, Pakistan was dismembered by Indian intervention and new disputes were added to the roster (like Siachin in 1984) even as Kashmir remained on the boiler.

The deadlock was finally broken at the NAM Summit in Male in 1997 when India’s Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, persuaded Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, to accept the notion of a “composite dialogue” between them simultaneously on “all outstanding issues, including Kashmir”. Unfortunately, however, this significant step didn’t translate into progress because the general elections in India in 1998 brought the BJP to power and the nuclear testing and rattling derailed everything.

But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee jointly made a historic breakthrough in Lahore in 1999. The framework of the “composite dialogue” was restored, the notion of any “core” Kashmir dispute-resolution based on UN resolutions disappeared from the texts of the agreements/joint statements and “back channel” diplomacy was undertaken to tackle the thorny issue. Unfortunately, however, this significant step was derailed by General Pervez Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure, followed by a military coup.

In 2001, General Musharraf went to Agra to locate the lost track of the dialogue. He offered out-of-the-box solutions to Kashmir that endeared him to the Indian media. Unfortunately, however, hawkish home ministry elements in the BJP led by Mr LK Advani pulled a new “core” issue of “terrorist infiltration across the LoC” out of the hat at the nth minute and scuttled an agreement on the revamped composite dialogue.

The composite dialogue plus back channel on Kashmir was courageously restored with true vitality in 2004 by General Musharraf and Mr Vajpayee. Unfortunately, it was blocked by political instability in Pakistan in 2007 and by the Indian elections and terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008. It hasn’t moved forward since then simply because India insists on the all or nothing “core” issue approach that has failed to secure results for any side. So the boot is on the other foot now, with Pakistan seeking a composite dialogue and India refusing it stubbornly.

Two great opportunities have since been lost. The first one was at Sharmal Sheikh in Egypt earlier this year when the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Pakistan Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, agreed to start secretary level talks and discuss Kashmir, terrorism, water and all other outstanding issues. But Dr Singh got cold feet when Indian hawks chastised him for “conceding” to Pakistan. This put Pakistan’s back up and provoked it to stake the “core issue of Kashmir” at the heart of their demands again. In the latest round between Mr Krishna and Mr Qureshi, the hawks in India have again put paid to Dr Singh’s efforts to bridge the gap.

History proves that the “core” issue approach will not work because it is a sum-zero game of exclusivity. The only way forward is to borrow a leaf from the Musharraf-Vajpayee approach and add the core issue of “terrorism” to the back channel along with the core issue of “Kashmir” because they incense the hawks on both sides when they are discussed in public and derail progress on other issues.

This approach may be fruitful. Kashmir is, in reality, no more a core issue for Pakistanis simply because 98 percent of the Kashmiris in the Valley have opted for Azaadi rather than a for-or-against plebiscite under UN resolutions. Indeed, if anything, Kashmir is rapidly becoming an “internal core issue” for India, given the anti-India sentiment in the Valley without any significant Pakistani provocation. This means that Pakistan will show greater flexibility in the back channel on this issue if India makes headway internally in Srinagar. In the same way, terrorism is much more an “internal core issue” for Pakistan, in reality, than it is for India because it springs from Pakistani soil and is hurting Pakistan the most. So neither country should say or do anything in public about their core issues that provokes a backlash in the other.

Dr Manmohan Singh shouldn’t fall prey to the “core-condition” hawks in India. This will only strengthen the “core-condition” hawks in Pakistan and lead both countries to mutual sum-zero destabilization. The tables have been turned. India’s core issue of terrorism is now Pakistan’s core issue and Pakistan’s core issue of Kashmir is now India’s core issue. So it is time to open the back channel on two issues and revive the public dialogue on six others before we are swamped by the hawks or collapse under the weight of history.

Watch out for the General-2

July 30 – August 05, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 24

 

Two months ago, we analyzed the developing political situation in Pakistan and editorialized (“Watch out for the General!”) on the role of COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in months to come. Last week, as predicted, General Kayani got an unprecedented three year extension in service until November 2013 from the Zardari government. The terms of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, President Zardari and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry end in February, September and December 2013 respectively. This has prompted Mr Gilani to claim, rather optimistically, that all of them will go home three years hence.

If General Kayani’s extension was a fact foretold for many political reasons – he had done a great job fighting the war against the Taliban, continuity in the midst of strategic success was absolutely necessary, the Pentagon was comfortable with him, etc etc – the controversial chronicling of the run-up to the announcement has cast a shadow on his achievement.

On May 23, a story was put out that the Corps Commanders had reposed their faith in General Kayani and endorsed an extension for him. On July 16, the military leaked a story that the extension announcement was expected within 72 hours, which meant <I>before</I> the arrival of the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, to Islamabad on July 18. However, when quizzed, Mr Gilani parried and Mrs Clinton sidestepped the question, setting tongues wagging. Then three eminent columns appeared in a row to question the wisdom of such a move, followed by a spate of letters for and against, with some wondering whether there might be an “American hand” behind the initiative.

That is when GHQ panicked. It had tried to get a favourable announcement before Mrs Clinton’s arrival on July 18 precisely to thwart any such speculation. But now, with the controversy threatening to get out of hand, it decided to lean on Mr Gilani and obtain a hurried three minute announcement on July 22.

Unfortunately, the tactic backfired. Mr Gilani’s nervous readout at an hour’s notice clearly implied either unbearable pressure from GHQ or the US or, worse still, both. Under the circumstances, the media and public opinion have tilted against the decision. The mainstream opposition PMLN remains opposed to it, while the other parties are only lukewarmly supporting it because it is a fait accompli. Some prominent columnists, whose opinion General Kayani is said to admire, have criticized the decision on one count or another.

But the worst is still to come. One section of the media is already saying that if General Kayani doesn’t back up the SC in its running battle with the government it will mean that he has done an unsavoury deal to ignore Mr Zardari’s shenanigans. Another is espousing exactly the opposite view – that the General will be tempted to prove his independence by secretly supporting the Supreme Court in destabilizing the presidency and government, which would be bad for democracy. Either way he loses. What next?

General Kayani is a thoughtful soldier. This situation cannot be to his liking. He has two options: to ride out the controversy, continue with his good soldiering and stay clear of politics regardless of any provocations or exhortations by any other state institution or media that would stir the embers again. Or he can stand above the fray, refuse this dubious honour and allow the succession principle to prevail in the army, thereby showing his confidence in his alma mater and colleagues to shoulder the task of guiding it in the future. Certainly, the last thing he should countenance is the suggestion by some reckless journalists that he should bid to reform the structure of the defense forces and become the Commander in Chief of all the three services in a unified command. That would unleash another unhealthy controversy involving disgruntled supporters of the autonomy of the air force and navy, which would erode the morale of the armed forces as a whole.

General Kayani has had an eventful nine year career as DG-MO, DG-ISI, VCOAS and COAS. He was part and parcel of some hugely controversial decisions taken by General Pervez Musharraf, including in 2007-08 the ouster of CJP Chaudhry, the commando action on the Red Mosque, the imposition of the Emergency, and the NRO deal with Benazir Bhutto. But it is equally true that, as Army Chief, he ensured a fair election in 2008, nudged the reluctant Zardari government to restore the Chief Justice to office and fought the war against the terrorists brilliantly when the occasion demanded it. Now, if he decides to stick around for another three years, he will find the going tougher than in the last nine years not just because of the baggage he is carrying but also because of the conflicting expectations of him by fiercely contending domestic and international political players.

Our own view remains consistent. In order to protect institutional integrity, the terms of service of army chiefs, judges and bureaucrats, however good or indispensable they may be, should not be extended. Similarly, in order to protect the process of democratization, the terms of elected governments, however bad they may be, must not be cut short by vested interest conspiracies and witch hunts under the garb of sham constitutionalism.

Water, water everywhere

August 5-11, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 25

 

Pakistan has been swamped by the worst floods in living memory. So far over 20,000 villages have been swept away or drowned, 2000 people have lost their lives and over Rs 10 billion worth of assets have been wiped out. Over 2 million people are displaced or stranded across the country, many more than during the earthquake in Kashmir some years ago or the army action against the Taliban in Swat and South Waziristan last year. By the time the worst comes to pass in the next week or two, the human and material losses are expected to multiply. The last big floods were in 1992 when over 13000 villages were destroyed and over 1000 people were killed.

A Federal Flood Commission was set up in 1976. It has spent about Rs 90 billion so far on various projects, though it is hard to see its “good work” on the ground. Is this a freak flooding season or should we brace ourselves for more devastating natural disasters in the future and plan accordingly?

Environmentalists have consistently warned that climate change, especially global warming, is increasingly going to grab disaster headlines across the world. Action Plans are needed to cope with this new phenomenon. In our own region, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka all have concrete Action Plans that are being implemented more or less. But Pakistan has barely mustered a preliminary report on climate change which has not been imbibed by planners or policy makers. An Action Plan is nowhere on the horizon.

Meanwhile, future doomsday reports predict “water wars” between upper and lower riparian states and countries. Pakistan is now sparring with India over clauses of the Indus Waters Treaty that relate to the building of reservoirs and dams upstream of the rivers that flow into Pakistan even before these clauses have been broken by India. The reason is simple: It is India’s “capacity or ability” to break the Treaty by storing or diverting water – much like India’s “Cold-Start war doctrine – that now counts with Pakistan’s national security establishment and not India’s “intentions” because these can change at any time.

Worse, there is passionate disagreement among the provinces of Pakistan over the need and location of big dams and reservoirs and the distribution of financial, irrigation and power rights that go with them, with the proposed Kalabagh Dam overflowing with provincial hostility and distrust.

The worst, however, is that successive governments have been too mired in their own incompetence and corruption to go ahead even with non-controversial public works. Reservoirs and dams may not eliminate floods forever but they would be a core element of water management – the other climate change elements being depleting forests, eroding top soils, sea level rises, lack of hurricane shelters, rising black carbon emissions – in a country that depends critically on water for survival and growth. When we have water scarcity we risk food shortages; when we have too much water we are swept away by it. In the current situation, if we had built the Munda and Bhasha Dams, Swat and KP would have been largely spared; and if we had built Kalabagh (with consensual design and management procedures), Punjab and Sindh would have been lush with prosperity.

There are three dimensions of the current situation that cry out for comment. First, the lessons of the earthquake tragedy of some years ago seem largely unlearnt. Despite a high profile Disaster Management Force lorded over by a military general, there is no visible public strategy to prevent the loss of lives or even to salvage them with timely intervention in the event of massive flooding.

Second, civilian governments can be let off the hook for not launching long-gestation public sector works because the governments have rarely lasted more than a couple of years, and that too in a state of siege. But two military regimes have lasted two decades in Pakistan’s turbulent history and must bear the brunt of condemnation. Generals Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf did not add a single kilowatt of power or a single major canal or reservoir or dam to the national grid. The tragedy is that US aid was non-existent during civilian regimes and overflowing during military regimes but was wasted on military hardware and disastrous foreign adventures.

Third, two-thirds of Pakistan’s strapped budgets are reserved for the growth and welfare of the military and for foreign debt payments for military hardware bought previously. The tragedy is that Pakistan’s national security doctrine, while paying lip service to the notion of a robust national economy as an integral element of National Power, is unwilling to spare resources for infrastructure in the public interest. That is why Pakistan is woefully inadequate in public health, education and welfare services.

The greatest irony is that in the midst of the worst floods in memory, Pakistanis are racked by the greatest existential threat to their country by religious terrorists borne of the same national security doctrines that have laid civil society, economy and political development low. The hapless government of KP had begged a ceasefire or truce with the Taliban during its hour of natural calamity. In response, the Taliban are bombing and assassinating with impunity.

This Independence Day

August 13-19, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 26

 

What is there to celebrate on August 14, 2010, Independence Day? Over 20 million poor people have been violently displaced by the worst floods in history, their homes and hearths swept away by the raging rivers that are lionized as the very lifeblood of this country. If this is a measure of Allah’s wrath for a nation, its people and state institutions gone astray, the sin is compounded by the dismal response of the rich and powerful to the plight of the poor. Only a fraction of the hundreds of billions needed for recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction has been received in charitable donations even as the media is flooded with stories of stinking corruption, greasy kickbacks, opulent palaces, sprawling mansions and secret off shore companies for money laundering. The tragedy is the despairing sense of deja vu, of having been here before many times and done nothing about it.

On Pakistan’s fiftieth birthday, we wrote that the country was a dysfunctional state which needed urgent reform. Pakistan’s economy had limped along at barely 3 per cent for thirty years

Regime change?

August 20-26, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 27

 

If lost wars have been harbingers of political change in Pakistan, unprecedented and neglected natural disasters have also provoked social unrest and regime change.

Pakistan provoked the 1965 war with India over Kashmir. When General Ayub Khan sued for peace in Tashkent, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto exploited the public’s simmering displeasure, created the PPP, vowed to wage a thousand year war with India to reclaim national honour and launched a movement to overthrow his mentor. Regime change duly followed a couple of years later.

General Yahya Khan was riding the crest of popularity in 1970 when Cyclone Bhola hit East Pakistan. The apathy, neglect and incompetence of the “West Pakistani-Punjabi” administration in the wake of death and destruction – over 3 million people were displaced and hundreds of thousands died – provoked such bitter and large scale resentment that the Bengalis swept away all West-Pakistan allied parties and gave a thumping vote to the nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujeeb ur Rehman in the general elections that followed. That laid the stage for civil war, dismemberment and regime change in Pakistan in 1971.

In May 1999, Pakistan’s civil-military establishment embarked on an ill-fated adventure against India at Kargil. After the US bailed Pakistan out, distrust and acrimony followed between prime minister Nawaz Sharif and General Pervez Musharraf, over who was responsible for the debacle. In the event, General Musharraf hijacked the political system and exiled its top leaders for nearly ten years.

By this historical yardstick, are the worst floods in living memory, which have wrought death and destruction on an unprecedented scale, also fated to sweep away the Zardari regime whose lack of credibility and feeble relief efforts have exacerbated the peoples’ distress?

Certainly, there is no dearth of pundits predicting, even exhorting, regime change. The problem is that it is not just the Zardari regime that is being flogged. Politicians, as a generic category, including the Sharif government in the Punjab and the ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, are at the receiving end for being corrupt, incompetent, uncaring and selfish. The only institution to come out smelling of roses is the Pakistan army, whose chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is all over the place in immaculate khaki, supervising high-profile relief efforts. Some people are therefore hankering for a return to military rule, security and stability over “unaffordable niceties” like elections, democracy and representation.

 But Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, despite their fumbling and stumbling, are no fools. They know where their party political interests diverge and where their political system interests converge. So their blame game has wisely subsided in the face of media hostility and General Kayani’s tally of Brownie points. But the road ahead is murky.

The enterprise of efficient and transparent rehabilitation and reconstruction on such a large scale is going to prove impossibly taxing for the besieged Zardari regime. The hawk-eyed media is constantly going to paint a dismal picture of negligence, corruption and leakages. Worse, if neutral experts should find that much of the death and destruction in the Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan could have been avoided by timely administrative intervention in the Punjab upstream at Taunsa Barrage, as alleged by some, all hell may break loose for the Sharifs as well.

If the necessary conditions for regime change are therefore present, more or less, in the developing situation, what might create the sufficient conditions to tilt the project over?

A contraction of the economy by 5-10 per cent this year, coupled with food shortages, inflation and epidemics, is predicted. In the face of inept political governments, this could compel General Kayani to initiate a more functional and stable political dispensation than the one at hand. The army wants to focus on winning the long term war against the Taliban. For this it needs a robust economy and efficient government shorn of politicking and squabbling. To achieve this end, it can either seize power via a coup or replace the current power wielders in government with a more honest, efficient and neutral lot.

But a coup can be ruled out. However much the free media may dislike and criticize the politicians, its fierce independence is predicated on a democratic system. Any honeymoon with a new lot of generals in bed with the Pentagon will not last long. Similarly, after their heroic struggle to restore the supremacy of the law, the bar and bench will not countenance any violation of the constitution.

The other option is that of contriving a “national government” made up of nominees of the army and judiciary apart from credible representatives of the mainstream political parties in parliament. This would entail ousting President Zardari by means of some Supreme Court judgment, nudging his ANP and MQM coalition partners to ditch him, and convincing Nawaz Sharif – the big hurdle – to give a vote of confidence to a neutral parliamentarian nominated by the army to head a national government of all stakeholders until elections in 2013.

Mr Zardari has survived a running political crisis for two years. Will his luck hold in the next two months? The natural disaster has stacked the cards in the hands of General Kayani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. The game they play will have meaningful consequences for Pakistan.

Work in progress

August 27- Sep 02, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 28

 

Altaf Husain, the volatile leader of the MQM in self-imposed security exile in London, has set conspiracy theories aflame. He says that martial law should be imposed by “patriotic generals” to sweep away the “corrupt feudals” of Pakistan. His public statement, delivered with classic sound and fury to the faithful in Karachi, has understandably been flayed by the “corrupt feudals” targeted and embraced by the urban middle-class moralists fulminating on the sidelines of politics.

The PMLN wants Parliament to censure Altaf Bhai for committing treason punishable by death under Article 6 of the constitution. The JUI is more pointed. Maulana Fazal ur Rahman insists that Altaf Bhai has been nudged by the generals to gauge the mood of the public and media in the midst of a developing political backlash against all politicians for abandoning the people in their hour of plight during the worst floods in living memory. The only two persons who have warmed to Altaf Bhai’s dangerous theme are Imran Khan, the successful cricketer-turned failed politician, and Pir Pagara, the maverick Sindhi wadera who prides himself on being “GHQ’s man” even as GHQ maintains a studied distance from him.

Mr Imran Khan has long wanted to be the army’s punter. Alas, he has never quite made it to the ranks because he’s a veritable Pandora’s box of contradictions and pet peeves. He kicked off his political career in the 1990s by espousing a curious brand of religio-tribal-nationalist morality in the middle of a westernized liberal personal life, including a marriage to a Jewish heiress even as he was assuring his adoring supporters at home that he would submit to arranged wedlock with a middle-class Hijaban in Pakistan! He supported Nawaz Sharif against Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf against both Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto and lately Mr Sharif against General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto. Now he is anti Musharraf, anti-Sharif and anti-Zardari-Bhutto while angling to become an opening batsman and bowler for a truly “patriotic” team led by the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani! Curiously enough, when Imran Khan was put on the mat by discerning hacks for supporting the demand for an unconstitutional coup, he said the generals should step in to clear the decks, hold an election and exit. This, notwithstanding the fact that Imran Khan boycotted the last elections in 2008 that were supervised by the military under the watchful eye of the same army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who is the last great white hope of the country!

Altaf Bhai’s statement abounds with contradictions. He says that generals in the past – an allusion to General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf — have ruled in violation of electoral or constitutional mandates. Yet he is exhorting the same breed to intervene and save the country again. It may also be noted that both Zia and Musharraf were terribly partial to the MQM at the expense of all other parties. Altaf Bhai wants to know why, when the generals can topple constitutional governments, they cannot weed out the corrupt and criminal among them? In other words, it is all right to topple elected governments and violate the constitution if the object is to “cleanse” the system. But it is a moot point how Altaf Bhai would react if the same “patriotic generals” were to turn their guns on the MQM and cleanse Karachi of it like Generals Asif Nawaz and Naseerullah Babar in the 1990s. The MQM chief also takes issue with the current military establishment for running a “failed foreign policy”, especially with regard to India, even as he pins his hope on the same army for rejecting “dictation” by the West whose hospitality and citizenship he enjoys at the British tax paying public’s expense.

The popular conspiracy theory is that Altaf Bhai has been nudged to test the waters for some sort of military intervention to get rid of the Zardari regime. Past evidence makes this proposition credible. The MQM was winked at by the ISI to destablise the Bhutto regime in 1989 prior to toppling it in 1990. And the current numbers game in parliament suggests that if the MQM and JUI (another perennially pro-army player) were to pull out, the PPP government would collapse immediately.

The PPP’s response to Altaf Bhai’s latest outburst has been characteristically low key because it can’t afford otherwise. The cards are dangerously decked out.

If, and this is not such a big if in the present circumstances, General Kayani were to fancy a change in government, he would need the MQM in front and the SC solidly behind him. That isn’t a difficult job at all. For various reasons, the SC is already itching to raise a finger while the MQM is vigorously scratching the seam of the ball in broad daylight.

But the problem is not only how to get rid of Mr Zardari. The problem is also how to keep Nawaz Sharif out. If the army has contempt for Mr Zardari, it is fearful of Mr Sharif whose track-record as a generals-baiting populist politician precedes him. In the event, it will require more than “patriotic” generals, the MQM and the SC to accomplish this dual-edged task and put Pakistan on the rails again.

Stinking scandal

September 3-9, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 29

 

A stinking international cricket scandal is all that Pakistan needs as it grapples with a negative image problem abroad that is dampening efforts to raise funds for the rehabilitation of over 20 million people displaced by the worst floods in living memory.

A sting operation by a popular British rag has laid Pakistan low by exposing the extent of greed and anarchy on and off the cricket ground at home and abroad. The bitter irony is that the anti-Pakistan sting was conducted by a Pak-Brit reporter whose journalist father immigrated to the UK from Lahore many years ago.

The unmitigated tragedy is that a rising new star on the firmament of international cricket – Mohammad Amer, 18 – is both an unwitting victim and witting perpetrator. The premeditated no-ball that he bowled, along with Mohammad Asif, cannot be described as a match-fixing incident because it had no bearing on the fate of the match. But it is at the centre of a multi-million dollar storm of spot-fixing in sport that is a gambling crime in the UK.

The incident has rocked the Pakistan Cricket Team which is spilling over with talent, its new captain Salman Butt on whom many hopes were pinned, and the Pakistan Cricket Board whose bumbling chairman Ijaz Butt should have stepped aside a long time ago. Worse, it has put a serious question mark not only on the integrity of the 82 first class international matches played by Pakistan in the last 30 months but also, critically, on the credibility of two 20/20 and five ODIs – which are worth tens of millions of pounds in gate receipts and TV rights – that are scheduled to be played in the UK over the next two weeks.

This is not the first time that cricket has been soured by match or spot fixing. Since the 1990s, it has become a mega-bucks industry. The ICC’s Lord Condon claims that gambling bets of over $1 billion may normally be placed on a single day of a key One Day World Cup match! Among Test class cricketers tarred by match-fixing, ball tampering and assorted charges in the last fifteen years are nine from Pakistan, seven from India, three from South Africa and two from Australia. Unproven charges have been leveled against many others. Britain is the only country that has not been infected.

Pakistan’s cricket has been in dire straits for many years. Generals, bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians and cricketers have, in turns, lorded over the Pakistan Cricket Board. Barring a couple of notables, all have been more or less corrupt, nepotistic or incompetent. Domestically, cricket is not structured on fierce competing provincial or regional rivalries that are conducive to the combative spirit of the high stakes game as in England or Australia and now in India. Street smart amateurs with unbounded talent streak across the cricket firmament from time to time while professionally trained and groomed youngsters are rare. Anarchy rather than discipline prevails on and off the field. A captain is not even a first among equals, let alone being a class and cut above the rest. Retired players push and shove for the top slots as coaches, managers and consultants, bringing their pet peeves and personality clashes to the dressing room and selection committees and throwing about their “seniority” status as a badge of authority. Everyone is tainted to a greater or lesser extent by that immoral get-rich-quick disease so prevalent amongst the half-baked urban salariat in poor countries.

No quick-fix solutions are available to stem the rot at the top and bottom. But there is a stream of talent and profusion of passion for cricket in Pakistan. A start can therefore be made by appointing a new PCB chairman who is not a crony of the high and mighty. He must have high moral standing established over a lifetime of acclaimed public service. He should demonstrate sufficient administrative experience to enforce a just system of rewards and punishments. And he must have a love and passion for the game no less than display a vast knowledge of its professional requirements in a cool, calculated but diplomatic manner.

More immediately, Amer and Asif must be persuaded to voluntarily withdraw from the game until they are cleared or punished appropriately on the basis of a credible inquiry. The current tour should continue on the basis of redemption and credibility. Win or lose, cricket fans must be given the treat they deserve without fear or favour. And Ijaz Butt must hand in his papers without waiting to be kicked out.

A word of advice is in order for the Pakistani public too. We shouldn’t clutch at conspiracy theories to prove our innocence. Yes, Indian bookies have a run of the gaming trade, but they didn’t trap the dynamic duo. Yes, the News of the World is a scandalous mass market rag, but its stings have exposed corruption and administrative failings in Britain too. Yes, match-fixing and spot-fixing are rampant in other sports too across the world, but that’s no excuse to dump the game and shame Pakistan for personal greed. And no, the kafir world is not out to deliberately crush our budding Muslim talent and bring us to heel.

Possibilities and probabilities

September 10-16, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 30

 

The conflict between the PPP government and the Supreme Court (SC) seems to be heating up again and displacing headlines of death and destruction wrought by the floods in August. This confrontation has three unprecedented dimensions.

First, the government is dragging its feet over the execution of the orders of the SC in certain cases. This is unprecedented. The SC knocked out the NRO and ordered NAB to reopen all the criminal cases against President Asif Zardari at home and abroad. This has not been done. It directed the government to appoint a new head of the NAB with the approval of the SC but this has not yet been done. In the latest instance, it has ousted the NAB Prosecutor General and given the government 30 days to appoint a new PG. But the ousted PG is attending office and aggressively insisting on his rights until the appointing and sacking authority – President Zardari formally notifies his sacking. The PG’s bravado is doubtless at the behest of the government that has decided not to concede any space to the SC until and unless it is absolutely necessary.

Second, the SC has accepted a number of petitions challenging various aspects of the 18th constitutional amendment passed by an all-parties consensus in both houses of parliament. Indeed, by the looks of it, the SC is gearing up to strike down some clauses as being unconstitutional. Both the all-parties consensus behind the constitutional amendment – which took over nine months to mature in parliamentary committees that earmarked over 100 clauses for change – and the challenge to it in the SC are unprecedented. The SC has never, since the constitution was signed in 1973, overthrown any constitutional amendment by parliament on the ground that parliament is supreme and is empowered to change the constitution lawfully without having to look over its shoulder at the courts whose powers of judicial review are confined to interpreting the laws rather than changing the constitution. The fact that this 18th amendment reflects an unprecedented parliamentary consensus makes the SC’s line of thinking controversial.

Third, the SC’s majority view against parliamentary oversight of appointments to the high courts and supreme court, as laid down in the 18th amendment, is unprecedented in the annuls of democratic constitutions of the nations of the world. Nowhere in the world do judges appoint themselves without any reference at all to a democratically elected executive and also remain unaccountable to parliament. Even in India, whose example is always quoted in support of the prevailing mood among the judges of Pakistan, where a so-called self-accountable collegiate system exists to sanction all judicial appointments, the judges are, in the final analysis, open to impeachment and sacking by parliament. But in Pakistan, it appears that the new judiciary is inclined to believe that it, rather than parliament, is supreme!

Therefore, if the “necessary conditions” for confrontation and gridlock exist, what will it take to create the “sufficient conditions” for a military intervention?

Mr Altaf Hussain, the MQM chief, has indicated one route. He says that “patriotic generals” should carry out a martial law “type” of “revolution”. What is this new beast that is and is not martial law at the same time? To be sure, past SCs in Pakistan have argued that a “successful coup” is akin to a “revolution” that creates its own sources of legitimacy. But the current SC led by CJ Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry buried the notorious “law of necessity” on which past coups and constitutional deviations and violations were pegged, in the famous judgment of July 31st 2009. So how is the same SC likely to respond to any military general who puts a gun to the head of the current parliament or government and shows it the door because of some state necessity or the other?

Here’s something to think about. In the past the army seized power on the grounds that the system had broken down or been irrevocably derailed. It made no bones about the fact that it had carried out a coup d’etat. Therefore it sought the help of a newly sworn-in judiciary under a Provisional Constitutional Order to clutch at the “law of necessity” to make its coup lawful. But in the future, why can’t the army intervene on the orders of the SC and send the government packing on the grounds that the army is acting in aid of the SC to protect and preserve the constitution rather than to overthrow it and seize power? Under such circumstances, there would be no constitutional deviation or violation, nor any need of a PCO or any “law of necessity” to legitimize any unlawful act because none such would have been committed in the eyes of the SC.

Thus, given the current scenario, anything is possible in Pakistan. But is it probable? And will it work? Notwithstanding personal ambitions or institutional imperatives, any unholy alliance between the organs of the state like the army and judiciary against the mainstream political parties that reflect the imperfect will of the people, is likely to come a cropper sooner than later, with dire consequences for state and society in Pakistan.

Reform democracy or else

September 17-23, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 31

 

President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani have both recently said that they are sanguine democracy will not be derailed in Pakistan. Mian Nawaz Sharif, the opposition leader, has also confirmed his support for the democratic system at hand. The US Af-Pak envoy visiting Pakistan these days, Richard Holbrooke, has pitched in with continuing US backing for “civilian democracy”. Why is everyone suddenly so concerned about “democracy”? Is it under some sort of threat from non-democratic forces in the country?

Conspiracy theories are choking the airwaves. It is darkly rumoured that the military is weighing its options to “save the nation” once again from the “clutches” of “political vultures” operating under the guise of popular democrats. Credibility is attached to the judgments, no less than the courtroom remarks, of the judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which are increasingly eroding the legitimacy of the Zardari government. The scathing anti-democracy remarks of Altaf Hussain, the leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, exhorting “patriotic generals” to save the country through a “bloody revolution” are grist for the rumour mills.

“Political Game Theory” has overnight become a national pastime. One hotly debated option pits the Supreme Court and army against the government and parliament. Some people argue that, under Article 190 of the constitution, the SC can ask the army for “assistance” in compelling the government to implement its decisions, failing which it may approve its overthrow for “violating” the constitution! But this seems like a bizarre way of legitimizing a coup in advance. Others are now putting forward a novel “in-house” solution to the problem of a “dysfunctional democracy”. This is how it goes.

There are 342 members of the National Assembly. A majority of 172 is required to form and retain a government. The PPP has 127 MNAs, PMLN has 90, PMLQ has 51, MQM has 25, ANP has 13, JUIF has 8, FATA has 18 and there are 8 assorted ones. Two by-elections are pending. The current PPP led coalition government comprises the PPP, MQM, ANP, JUI and FATA. If the MQM, JUI and FATA were to pull out on a signal from the “coupsters” and launch a vote of no-confidence – for which 20 per cent or 68 votes are required -, the PPP government would fall unless the PMLN or PMLQ were to rush to its defense. Since the PMLQ is “the army’s party’ and is likely to fall in line with the anti-PPP move, everything would then depend on Nawaz Sharif. If he is ready to make a coalition government with the PPP, parliament can be saved. If he isn’t, fresh elections will have to be called. But here’s the rub. The SC can conceivably be petitioned to step in and postpone the elections on one pretext or another – as happened in 1988 after the death of General Zia ul Haq – and facilitate an interim government of technocrats, generals and judges to sort out “dysfunctional democracy” and “corrupt politicians” – especially in the PPP and PMLN – before enabling a better lot of politicians to enter the electoral stream.

The problem with this scenario is its critical dependence on Mr Sharif. Why should he opt for regime change and fresh elections if his own fate may hang in the balance? Equally, why should the “coupsters” launch a vote of no-confidence against the PPP if it ends up compelling the PPP and PMLN to embrace each other for the sake of their own long-term survival?

Whatever the holes in these theories, one thing is clear. Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif, notwithstanding their strategically antagonistic positions and competing claims, desperately need each other tactically in the short term. That is why they are both clutching at the coattails of the “moth-eaten democratic system” that is portrayed by the resurgent media as the bane of everyone’s life for failing to deliver on any count. The US, too, is lamely going along with the system because it cannot afford any disruption or instability that undermines the focus of the ruling party and army on the war against the Taliban in the run-up to next year’s deadline for some troop withdrawal from Afghanistan as pledged by President Obama. It is significant that Mr Holbrooke has indicated, in the midst of offering flood relief and reiterating support for democracy, the implicit approval of the Pakistan army and government for the increased number of drone strikes in North Waziristan (17 so far this month).

Meanwhile, the economy, which is supposed to be the mainstay of democracy no less than that of national security, remains shipwrecked. The one option that can lay at rest all conspiratorial options is not being sufficiently explored. Why can’t the government and opposition agree to jointly field a team of competent and honest politicians – and there are some who fit the bill admirably – to man the critical ministries that are bleeding? The appointments of the new finance minister, Hafeez Sheikh, governor of the state bank, Shahid Kardar, and deputy chairman Planning Commission, Nadeem ul Haq, are steps in the right direction. Next in line should be Commerce, Energy, Production and Privatisation. If a true reform agenda is undertaken, there will be no need of, or demand for, regime or system change.

Weighing options

September 24-30, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No.32

 

There is no denying it. Some sort of political change is now inevitable in Pakistan. But what and when are moot. Consider the omens.

Nawaz Sharif has finally declared that some sort of constitutional political change is needed sooner than later in order to thwart the increasing possibility of unconstitutional intervention to set governance right. He is also hinting that his PMLN is not interested in forming a coalition government in Islamabad right now with the help of discredited fair weather friends.

That suggests two possibilities: either lend support to a vote of no-confidence against the Zardari government and compel new elections immediately or lean on the Zardari regime to pull up its socks, straighten out the economy by taking some hard decisions, remove some contentious or corrupt ministers and promise an election in 2012 instead of the one scheduled in 2013.

The first option is a non-starter for two reasons: this is not the right season for elections because the prevailing public sentiment is decidedly anti-politician and anti-sham-democracy. In the event, a low voter turnout is likely to hurt the PMLN rather than the PPP because its conservative vote bank is split into four factions representing the PMLN, PMLQ, APML and TI. Also, no politician in his right mind would want to be in the driving seat when hard belt-tightening economic decisions are bound to provoke an anti-government backlash from most sections of society.

Therefore the second option is more attractive from Mr Sharif’s point of view. It will set some of the parameters of the economy right for the long term but make the Zardari regime even more unpopular in the short term, thereby ensuring smooth sailing for the PMLN in the next elections and government.

The other signs of change are more ominous. The Supreme Court is not pulling its punches any more. After lying dormant for three months, the cases against President Asif Zardari have been urgently revived. The petition in the Lahore High Court challenging his right to hold two offices – that of the head of the PPP and President of Pakistan – has been supplemented by another petition claiming that he was not qualified to be President of Pakistan from the outset because of his political position as the chairman of the PPP. The other case, in which the SC had earlier ordered the government to write to the Swiss authorities and revive the money laundering case against Mr Zardari, has also been put on fast track by two aggressive moves: the original 5-member bench headed by Justice Nasir ul Mulk has been whittled down to a three member bench headed by the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry himself, and an ad-hoc judge, Justice Rabbani, has been opted into it – the implication is obvious enough; the federal law secretary has been given short shrift and ordered to advise the prime minister to write the letter or face charges of contempt of court. He has now advised the PM that Pakistan cannot surrender its sovereignty by asking a foreign country to prosecute its president, supreme commander of the armed forces, head of state and indivisible part of a sovereign parliament.

The courts are also putting on the pressure by other means: two suo moto notices have been given, one to examine charges of political manipulation of flood water breaches by Sindh politicians allied to the Zardari government; and the other to investigate corruption charges against the federal water and power ministry in sanctioning dubious rental power projects with unduly high power-selling rates.

A dangerous gridlock is clearly developing between the SC and the Zardari regime. In consequence, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister thundered in parliament the other day that the cabinet would not accept any “unconstitutional” decision or order by the SC that violates the sacred “sovereignty” of parliament and constitution. He wants an accountability law that targets generals, judges and bureaucrats no less than the vilified politicians in the dock today. President Zardari has also held meetings with his party’s hawks and told them to shore up their defenses for resistance, saying “I will not go quietly into the night!”

But the footnotes in the thunder of the president and prime minister must not be missed. They say they are ready to take a fresh look at their economic and political mismanagement and even change some of their most controversial ministerial captains to appease their critics. In order words, put their house in order, cut wasteful expenditures, plug corruption and take the hard economic decisions needed to save Pakistan from going down the tube.

Will they reform themselves or will they have to be pushed and shoved out of business? A vote of no-confidence is certainly possible if a couple of Mr Zardari’s coalition parties like the MQM and FATA switch sides. But it won’t beget a new coalition government if Mr Sharif, who fields the second largest chunk of parliamentary votes, is not on board. The critical factor here is that Mr Sharif and Mr Zardari are obliged to weigh their options in a dynamic setting because the military and SC are also simultaneously weighing theirs against all politicians.

Political brinkmanship

October 1-7, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 33

 

Some hacks had predicted a “thrilling” clash between the Supreme Court and the Zardari government on Monday, September 27, that was supposed to result in the ouster of the government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani soon thereafter. This was based on Mr Gillani’s repeated avowal in and out of parliament that he would not write to the Swiss government, as demanded by the SC, to reopen the money laundering case against President Asif Zardari on the grounds that he enjoyed presidential immunity while in office. The PM had buttressed his arguments by asking how the president, who is the head of state, supreme commander of the armed forces and an integral part of parliament, could be proceeded against in a foreign country without surrendering the “sovereignty” of Pakistan which is parliament’s foremost duty to protect and defend as laid out in the constitution.

In the event, however, Mr Gilani’s law secretary did not appear in the SC on Monday to present the PM’s aggressive point of view. Instead, the Attorney General politely requested the SC to postpone the matter until the fate of the government’s NRO review petition is settled. Significantly, the SC accepted the AG’s argument, thereby reprieving the PM until the next date of hearing, 13th October, while simultaneously ordering the NAB to investigate and present details of all pending cases relating to Mr Zardari and other PPP stalwarts in other countries like the UK and Spain etc, thereby stressing its determination to unearth and recover all illegal funds stashed away abroad. On the other side, the PM has lamely gone silent on his “Presidential Immunity” viewpoint in order not to provoke the SC but he has also reneged from a commitment to compel all NRO-beneficiaries to resign from their posts in government, in order to close party ranks and protect the pillars of the regime.

Clearly, then, we have some breathing space but no solution to the crisis. Each side seems bent on defending and enlarging its position. Equally clearly, the space for a cool rethink by both sides seems to been have brought about through the courtesy of the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, whose discreet council was broadcast on Monday via a picture of him sitting at ease in the presidency with the President and Prime Minister. Conventional wisdom says that the army wants a much better performance from the sitting government rather than any regime change that brings in old and equally discredited faces and makes matters worse.

The government is using guerilla tactics to delay decisions on hurtful matters. So it is blowing hot and cold. It accuses the establishment of witch-hunting the PPP government and making it impotent – the army has already claimed control over foreign policy and wants to dictate economic policy, including defense budgets. And it accuses the judiciary of encroaching on space reserved for the executive and parliament. At the same time, however, the government has placated General Kayani by giving him an unprecedented three year extension as army chief and sanctioned an immediate 25% increase in a supplementary defense allocation for 2010-11 to fight the war on terror. It has also backed down and refrained from resisting several of the SC’s controversial judgments and orders that affect it adversely.

Therefore we may expect the government to try and fortify itself in the run-up to the next D-Day, October 13th, with better legal advice and some deft moves to thwart the SC. It may either appoint a new NAB chairman who is favourably disposed towards it or delay the appointment by putting the burden on the opposition with which consultation is mandatory. The government may also request the SC to defer the matter of the NRO to parliament for review and obtain a majority resolution in its favour, a course of action that would make its current NRO review appeal that much stronger and delay matters further. If and when this fails, the government could plead Presidential Immunity and Presidential Sovereignty, additional delaying tactics. In the final analysis, it might even agree to write a letter to the Swiss authorities that is worded in such a way as to avoid any bartering of parliamentary or presidential sovereignty and immunity and without enabling any quick reopening of the case in Geneva. We know that the Swiss judge who investigated the money laundering case from 2003-2006 and the Swiss Attorney General who closed the file in 2008 are not on the same page regarding Mr Zardari’s culpability and the constitutionality of closing the file.

Therefore the game for the PPP regime is far from over. At the heart of the matter are the core contradictions among the key players: the army doesn’t want the PPP regime to be replaced by a PMLN regime headed by Nawaz Sharif; the SC doesn’t want any elected regime to lord over it while it is making a revolutionary quest for popular legitimacy beyond the scope defined by the constitution and parliament; and the army is shy of a direct intervention in which the mainstream parties and the popular SC are arrayed against it. This dynamic complexity is creating space for the PPP’s slippery maneuverings on the brink of the cliff.

What you sow

October 8-14, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 34

 

Lawyers are striking across the Punjab. A district and sessions judge, Zawwar Hussain, refused to accommodate their demand that appointments to clerical staff of the district courts be shared with the executive of the Lahore Bar Association, an outrageous but settled modus operandi between bar and bench. Judge Hussain’s refusal to concede climaxed last week when a group of protesting lawyers at the premises of the Lahore High Court clashed with police summoned to the premises by the controversial and politicised Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Khawaja Sharif. Scuffles outside the CJ’s office led to the arrest of lawyers who were charged with terrorism but set free when their supporters went on a rampage. In due course, the demand for disciplinary action against senior police officers who had ordered the attack was added to the demand for Judge Hussain’s transfer, finally ending up with a demand for the CJ’s head.

In counter protest, over 1300 district and sessions judges submitted their resignations. But this only provoked the lawyers whose numbers have swelled to include supporters from bar associations across the province. The judges have been persuaded to withdraw their resignations and the CJ has nominated a three member commission to probe the incident. Judge Hussain has also been persuaded by the CJ to take a four month “leave” of absence. But this has not dimmed the lawyers’ outrage and the “movement” is threatening to acquire ominous proportions because all manner of vested interests have jumped into the fray. These include officials of the PPP government, which is locked in a battle for survival with the Supreme Court, along with their respective bodies of lawyers and independents who are in the midst of an electoral battle to capture the commanding heights of the Supreme Court Bar Association.

Three criticisms have been leveled against the lawyers. First, that their original demand for a sharing of the administrative quota of employments was unreasonable. Second, that they provoked a violent backlash from the court and police when they became unruly and threatened to storm the CJ’s chambers. Both criticisms are justified.

But they are neither unprecedented nor extraordinary. The young lawyers have been angry since they launched the lawyers’ movement three years ago for the restoration of the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, and succeeded. Their alienation from, and resentment of, their leaders like Aitzaz Ahsan, Hamid Khan and Akram Sheikh follows a division of the spoils of victory in which they feel they haven’t even got the crumbs while their leaders have been selected to either pack the benches or grab the most lucrative cases before the restored judges. It is also a measure of their much vaunted and aggressive political tactics during the lawyers’ movement that they were allowed to get away with browbeating lower court judges without any disciplinary action taken against them.

A third criticism alleges that the lawyers are acting at the behest of the PPP in general and Babar Awan, the federal law minister, in particular. Evidence is cited of Dr Awan’s distribution of funds to district bar associations in an effort to buy their support. The belated support by a pro-PPP lawyers’ group for Ms Asma Jehangir’s bid for the presidency of the SCBA is also noted in the charge sheet.

But this charge is baseless. The lawyers are also led by two past presidents of the Lahore Bar Association – Muhammad Shah and Manzur Qadir – who won their spurs from the platform of the anti-PPP Hamid Khan group, with the former being bloodied at the hands of police. Indeed, their leader is none other than Ali Ahmed Kurd, the fiery lawyer from Balochistan who rose to prominence during the 2007-09 lawyers’ movement. Mr Kurd had thundered two years ago that he would not rest until Khawaja Sharif was made CJ of the LHC and today he is demanding the same CJ’s head. The supplementary charge that Dr Awan’s cash-laden briefcases have helped Ms Jehangir’s cause is also ridiculous because the district bars are only marginally involved in the SCBA elections.

The biggest beneficiary of this new development is the beleaguered PPP government which is gloating over the divide between bar and bench at a time when the SC is gearing up to deliver a <I>  coup de grace </I>  against President Asif Zardari. If the new lawyers’ movement is not quelled, the SC could find itself in a soup when the government tries to marshal the same hot-headed lawyers to defend its cause against a resurgent and unaccountable judiciary from which the lawyers are increasingly alienated.

What you sow, so shall you reap. The 2007-09 lawyers’ movement let the genie out of the bottle by condoning undemocratic protest methods. The subsequent opportunism and corruption of most of its leaders and the blatant political bias of the restored judiciary served not only to alienate the more honest ones from the ranks but also taught others to emulate their seniors and grab a piece of the action. Now the wheel has come full circle. Old leaders of the bar have been compelled to support young lawyers against the very bench from which they draw their benefits. This is yet another demonstration of the extraordinary twists and turns of Pakistan’s fissured state institutions and civil society organizations.

So there we have it

October 15-21, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 35

 

Bob Woodward’s new book, “<I>  Obama’s wars</I>  ” has created a stir in Pakistan. Its message is loud and clear: the US-Pak “strategic relationship” could get unstuck or even unravel dangerously if the American mission in Afghanistan is thwarted, or if there is a terrorist strike in the US whose footsteps can be traced to Pakistan. General Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor who resigned recently, is quoted as telling President Asif Zardari: “<I>  The president [Obama] would be forced to do things that Pakistan would not like… No one will be able to stop the response and consequences. This is not a threat, just a statement of political fact</I>  .” Apparently, in such an event, the US has drawn up plans to bomb 150 “terrorist centers” in Pakistan. Considering the Pakistani response to the recent cross border incident when US choppers strayed into Waziristan and accidentally mowed down three Pakistani paratroopers – nearly 100 NATO container-trucks were burnt down and the supply line from Karachi to Afghanistan (which indispensably accounts for 75 per cent of all American supplies to its troops in Afghanistan) was shut down for ten days in Pakistan – the blowback of an American attack on Pakistan would be cataclysmic for the region.

President Obama says: “<I>  Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan. We’re in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading through that country. But this same cancer has also taken root in the border region of Pakistan.</I>  ” This is supplemented by the prevailing view in the American intelligence community noted by Woodward: “<I>  Afghanistan would not get straightened out until there was a stable relationship between Pakistan and India. A more mature and less combustible relationship between the two long time adversaries was more important than building Afghanistan</I>  “. Apparently, General Jones thought that <I>  “[General Ashfaq ]Kayani had the power to deliver, but he refused to do much… The bottom line was depressing: This had been a charade</I>  .” Indeed, when he told General Kayani the clock was ticking, “<I>  Kayani would not budge…he had other concerns</I>  . <I>  ‘I’ll be the first to admit, I’m India-centric</I>  ,'” said General Kayani.

It may be noted that General Kayani has reversed former President General Pervez Musharraf’s normalization process with India. Indeed, far from searching for out-of-the box solutions to Kashmir like his predecessor, General Kayani has ordered the foreign office to revert to Pakistan’s old UN position of a plebiscite on Kashmir. More critically, he has committed Pakistan to an arms race with India by announcing that “it is India’s military capability and not its intentions at any time that matter in the final analysis”.

Finally, according to Woodward, “<I>  General Jones and his staff debated … the chief problem was Pakistan – Zardari’s political vulnerability, the continuing dominance of the country’s military-intelligence complex, its nuclear weapons, the persistent presence of al-Qaeda training camps in the ungoverned regions, and the possibility of a misstep with the CIA drone attacks that could dramatically shift the political calculus</I>  .”

So there we have it. The US thinks that the Pakistan army’s obsession with India, its dysfunctional civilian government and its anti-American society are standing in the way of conflict resolution. The irony is that all three elements of state and society in Pakistan are desperately hooked on US aid and hardware. Any major disruption in this “strategic relationship” by witting or unwitting state or non-state actors on either side could unleash havoc in Pakistan by triggering civil unrest, separatism and foreign intervention.

The former US ambassador to Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, made a perceptive analysis recently of President Obama’s view that the “cancer is in Pakistan”.  Mr Crocker suggests that the U.S. should not carry out cross-border military actions and any talks between the U.S. or Afghanistan and the Taliban must be transparent to the Pakistanis.<I>   “Given its rivalry with India and its organic disunity, which dates back to its founding, Pakistan fears for its basic survival… The country has always had a difficult relationship with Afghanistan, not least because in the 19th century the British deliberately drew the Pakistani-Afghan border, the so-called Durand Line, in order to divide the Pashtun people.</I>  “

The two critical words here for Pakistan’s consideration are “organic disunity” and “fear for its basic survival”. The first is palpable enough: Pakistan’s nation, state and society are more fissured today than ever before. But the second factor is a consequence of the first factor rather than a cause of it. The irony is that if fear of India was a real and relevant factor in the early years of Pakistan, since the 1960s it has been religiously “manufactured” and “consciously imagined” and propagated by the Pakistan army as a dominant element of the national security narrative in Pakistan. Herein lies the basic fallacy at the heart of the Af-Pak debate in which it is claimed that “Pakistan’s insecurity viz India compels it to stake a major role in Afghanistan”. In fact, it is the Pakistan army’s corporate and political ambitions that propagate India as a “security threat” rather than the other way round. That is why an assertion of civilian supremacy over the military – through good governance, accountability and democracy rather than whimsical autocracy – would set Pakistan right in more ways than one.

What an  extraordinary week!

October 22-28, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 36

 

Last week was extraordinary, even by Pakistani standards.

The Supreme Court reacted dramatically to a rumour, denied swiftly and vigourously by the government, on October 15, and issued a statement at midnight warning the Zardari government from any unconstitutional sacking of the judges of the apex court. The next morning, it adjudged that Article 6 of the constitution (High Treason) would be applicable if the government did not heed its advice. The following day, after the prime minister went on air to deny that he had ever hatched any such conspiracy, the SC indefinitely adjourned its suo motu proceedings in the matter while ordering all state institutions, especially the army, to be ready to obey its command under articles 189 and 190 of the constitution, the latter requiring them to come to its aid if so required.

As the midnight drama unfolded in Islamabad, Karachi was engulfed by wave upon wave of target killings. At last count, over 70 people had lost their lives in gang warfare, ethnic strife and political vendettas. Tempers were hot and nerves frayed everywhere. The Governor of Sindh, Ishratul Abad, was pressurized by hotheads in the MQM to resign. Fortunately, however, Mr Altaf Hussain stayed his hand and has given the government a “last chance” to salvage the situation.

To add fuel to the fire, Mr Nawaz Sharif took up cudgels against Mr Asif Zardari, blaming him for everything under the sun and demanding regime change “sooner than later”. This added grist to the rumour mills that all three developments were somehow interlinked with a countdown on the regime.

Before that happens, though, it is worth deliberating on the behaviour of the SC and the solution to Karachi’s continuing woes.

The judges drove to the SC building at night on October 15 in a convoy to protest and also show unity. This is unprecedented. They huddled in the dead of night and acted on the basis of a rumour that was constantly denied by the government. This is unprecedented. They ordered the government to investigate the matter rather then calling the media that aired the rumour to explain its conduct. This is unprecedented. They chose to ignore the fact that even if the government had withdrawn the executive order restoring the pre November 3, 2007, SC judges, only three judges from the current bench would have been adversely affected. The remaining 14 judges could have denounced the move on the basis of the very legal arguments advanced by the court subsequently and restored their colleagues in the blinking of an eye. This has led to conspiracy theories that the judges’ dramatic behaviour and desperate actions have critically served to bind the judges and lawyers together on the eve of two significant events: a judgment on the fate of the 18th amendment on October 21 in which demonstration of unanimity rather than dissent will be important, and an election to the Supreme Court Bar Association next week in which pro-SC versus independent lawyers groups are pitted.

The Karachi killings have severely split the stakeholders in this churning cauldron. PPP leaders are asking for the army or Rangers to clean up the mess in an efficient and bipartisan manner. The MQM doesn’t like this because of memories of the army and paramilitary actions against its activists in the 1990s. Instead, the MQM is asking for nothing less than the sacking of the home minister, Zulfikar Mirza, and the handing over of the city, including its law and order apparatus, to it. This is a continuation of its persistent demand that local elections should be held – which it is sure to sweep – and police and budgetary resources put at its disposal. Given the fact of gerrymandering of townships in the past when the MQM was in bed with General Pervez Musharraf, the MQM has an edge over every other community, especially the Pakhtuns who comprise nearly 30 per cent of the population. So, fresh local elections without resolving the issue of fair representation and demarcation will only exacerbate the sense of inequality and injustice that lies at the root of the ethnic conflict in the city. Alternatively, an army operation is sure to provoke the MQM into quitting the coalition and destablising the government in Islamabad.

This brings us full circle to the beginning. There seems to be no “solution” to deadlock between the government and judiciary on the question of President Zardari’s immunity from prosecution. The crunch will come if and when the SC orders the army to drag the PM to court or compel him to obey the court’s orders. If the army obeys the court instead of the legally elected government as enjoined by the constitution, it will be nothing short of an unprecedented “judicial coup”. If it defers to the government, the SC will have egg on its face and be stripped of all legitimacy.

The only sane course is for both the SC and Zardari government to step back from the brink, take a deep breath each, and survey their declining credibility graphs. The masses are alienated from the courts for denying them quick justice and from the government for pushing them over the poverty line.

Sword of Damocles

October 29-November 4, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 37

 

The Supreme Court’s latest judgment on the 18th constitutional amendment is a veritable Sword of Damocles over the head of President Asif Zardari’s government. The irony is that Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has welcomed it as a “reprieve” of sorts from the clash between the judiciary and executive that has been developing apace since the judges struck down the notorious NRO earlier this year and accepted petitions challenging parliament’s unequivocal and unfettered right to amend the constitution. Consider.

The SC took nearly five months to hear arguments for and against the 18th amendment, focusing in particular over the clauses relating to the mechanism for appointment of judges to the superior courts. After closure, a short or full order was expected. Instead, the court has delivered an “interim” order and postponed a hearing of the case to the end of January 2011. This is unprecedented and extraordinary. Interim orders are normally issued at the start of a case, before the arguments have concluded, and never after the case has been “closed” for judgment. The SC’s intent is thus clear: if its “recommendations” and “directions” in the “interim” order are unheeded by the government and parliament in the next three months, it will strike down elements of the 18th constitutional amendment in its final order next January which will be binding on both!

The interim order has therefore avoided tackling the issue of whether or not the court can, or should, strike down constitutional amendments. If the government backtracks and parliament amends the amendment as directed by the court, the court will have no need to strike down the 18th amendment and make history.

The directions of the court in the interim order can be summarized easily. The judicial commission (JC) for approving judicial appointments currently comprises seven persons – the chief justice of Pakistan (CJP), his two senior-most serving colleagues and a fourth retired judge to be appointed by the CJP; a nominee of the Pakistan Bar Council, the Attorney-General and the Law Minister. In other words, only two out of seven will represent the executive or government. This gives the CJP four out of seven votes at least, and up to five, in the event of a disagreement with the government, which means he can have his say over all appointments. But no, the CJP wants “more”. He wants a fifth colleague judge to be added to the JC so that, in case one of his colleagues becomes a dissenter for one reason or another, he can still rule the roost with a minimum of four judges on his side and at worst face a deadlock if the nominee of the Bar Council decides to also side with the executive.

The court also wants the proposed parliamentary commission (PC) of eight – four each from the opposition and government – to be able to override the decision of the JC (or any deadlock) only on the basis of six out of eight votes, or 3/4th of the membership, which, in any case, would be almost impossible to obtain in view of the historically hostile government-opposition relationship. But that’s not all. The court says the PC should deliberate in secrecy and convey its dissenting view, if any, in writing, giving detailed reasons and evidence for rejecting the decision of the JC in the first place. The nail in the coffin is the court’s final caveat: the PC’s decision is “justiciable”, which means the SC can strike it down if it disagrees with it. In order words, the ability of parliament to hold any judge to account or consider a judge’s suitability for appointment is no more than a snowball’s chance of surviving in the burning fire of hell.

The government has three months in which to amend the amendment to the satisfaction of the SC or brace itself for the far reaching and adverse consequences of any striking-down of the amendment by the SC.

Meanwhile, the SC intends to test the waters with the appointment of nearly 80 judges to the superior judiciary comprising new appointments and confirmations of additional judges on the basis of the current law (Article 175-A) in the 18th amendment. If it has its way, with the newly appointed JC and PC meekly acquiescing in each and every case, it might be lenient when the 18th amendment case is renewed. But if there are some hiccups or gridlocks in the process, then we should expect it to wield the Sword of Damocles without any qualms.

In all likelihood, the SC will also not relent in its obsessive quest to undo Mr Zardari’s immunity as president or stop pushing Mr Gilani to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen the money laundering case against him, on pain of contempt of court. In the event, we should brace ourselves for fireworks much before the end-January deadline on reopening the 18th amendment case. One ominous sign is the SC’s intention to embarrass the government for sanctioning a few Rental Power Projects which appear to be riddled with kickbacks and commissions. The other is the government’s desperate move to cosy up to the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) in anticipation of tremors in parliament preceding an in-house regime change triggered by a clash with the judges.

Collision and Collusion

November 5-11, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 38

 

For the first time in Pakistani history, two critical institutions of the state are raising their voice for a truly autonomous role in the body politic of the nation. These are the judiciary and the media. The judiciary has been a witting agent of the executive for six decades and sanctioned the worst transgressions of parliament and constitution alike by civilian autocrats and military dictators. The media has been an unwitting player, subjected to castration and inducement alike, at the bidding of the same military-bureaucratic establishment. But now things are changing dramatically for both.

First, the military-bureaucratic establishment is undergoing a significant “revolution” from above. The mainstream political players and parties – who at one time or another were “created” or “nurtured” by the military to play roles defined by GHQ and then junked when they resisted – are no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the old establishment led by the military. The PPP under Benazir Bhutto was the first to take up cudgels in 1989-90 and paid the price for resisting the generals, first in 1990 and then irrevocably in 2007. In much the same way, Nawaz Sharif was derailed in 1999. So now, in principle, both the PPP and the PMLN are “anti-establishment” parties, regardless of any limited and tactical compromises each may be compelled to make with the “establishment” to cling to power – the PPP has handed over foreign policy to the military and given a second term to the army chief – or spring to power – the PMLN did not challenge the army chief’s extension and has not disagreed with his execution of foreign policy.

Second, both the judiciary and the media have carefully assessed the true significance of the weakening of the military-bureaucratic establishment because of the concurrence of the two mainstream parties and made a forceful play to secure and establish their own independence. The media-judiciary alliance was a key factor in the long struggle for the restoration of the ‘independent’ judges, and the judiciary has returned the compliment by vowing to protect the media’s independence from the ravages of the state and government. Thus, on the one hand, the media and judiciary are with the mainstream politicians and political parties as these seek to claim autonomy from the military; but, on the other hand, they are determined to extend their own space vis a vis government and parliament on the basis of their past suffocating experience of an unbearable and unaccountable executive regardless of the fact that it may or may not be democratically elected.

This raises two key questions in the political transition underway. First, to what extent and by what methods or devices should the media and judiciary, singly or jointly, secure their independence or autonomy from an elected government and legislature? Second, should each be free and autonomous from the other, or should they make a holy alliance against the common protagonist, ie, the government and parliament of the day, even to the extent of pushing for “regime change”?

Some people would argue that the media should always play the role of a watchdog over all institutions of the state, which include the judiciary, and the judiciary should always address the rights and wrongs of any situation, as enjoined by law and constitution, regardless of which institution is involved, including the media. In other words, neither the media nor the judiciary should be blind to the excesses of the other, and just as each holds the balance for the state, government and opposition, each must hold a mirror to the other. Others disagree. They say that the media and judiciary must make common cause against the politicians at all times because the latter are corrupt, unaccountable and despotic and likely to mow the former down individually because of the latter’s hold over the levers of power like the police and bureaucracy.

In recent times, Pakistan’s media and judiciary have consciously chosen to take the latter view – that, regardless of which among them is right or wrong individually in any situation, they have to stand together against the government and parliament of the day. Therefore the judiciary’s controversial – some would say “adventurous” – forays in the realm of the executive and parliament are to be blindly supported by the media while the media’s often unsubstantiated allegations and accusations against the party in power are to be blindly protected by the judiciary.

But there are two serious, possibly unintended, consequences of this approach. First, the blind collusion of the media and judiciary is seriously destabilising the PPP government to such an extent that it is unable to get on with the job of governance, even if its ability to provide that is limited in the first place. In other words, it is a recipe for regime change rather than regime improvement. But this is not the business of the media or judiciary. Second, the blind collusion of the two is discrediting all politicians and elected parliamentarians, in opposition or government alike, thereby indirectly serving to sustain the myth of the military as the ultimate saviour of the country. In other words, the blind collusion of the media and judiciary is serving also to provide a platform for a collision of the military with the civilian stakeholders of power, to the advantage of the former. Once again, this is most undesirable, even from the point of view and interests of the media and judiciary.

Therefore the conclusion is inescapable. While an alliance of the media and judiciary against the autocrats and dictators is desirable, it should not play into the hands of those who are waiting in the wings to sabotage the historical and democratic transition in civil-military relations that we are now witnessing in Pakistan. There are collective and individual red lines for the media and judiciary, like those for the military, government, opposition and parliament, which must not be crossed, regardless of the provocations.

A tale of two narratives

November 12-18, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 39

 

There are two narratives that define Pakistan’s national security. One is the anti-India paradigm that underpins the powerful anti-civilian corporatization of the Pakistani military. The other is the Af-Pak paradigm. This is a consequence of an-ethno-Islamist civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s that culminated in the establishment of a Pakistan-backed Taliban-Al Qaeda regime in Kabul in 1997. The overlapping of these two narratives since 9/11 has created a politico-military crisis in the region that is taking a heavy toll of Afghan, Pakistani and American lives and threatening to spill over into India and China.

Significantly, though, both narratives are riddled with holes and propaganda. That is why we have so many problems and so few solutions. Consider.

India does not pose a security threat to Pakistan. All Indo-Pak military conflicts were triggered or provoked by Pakistan. And each was used by the military to manufacture layers of domestic consent about a perpetual and heightened “security threat” from India in order to confirm the military as the pre-eminent political player and corporate entity of Pakistan.

The second narrative led to the theory of “strategic depth”. It enabled Pakistan to set up training bases in Afghanistan for Pakistani jihadis for the liberation of Kashmir. Inevitably, the two narratives merged seamlessly in Kargil in 1999.

But 9/11 put paid to this grand anti-India, strategic depth narrative. The ISI miscalculated when it ignored the developing regional and international threat from Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, despite the American Cruise Missile attacks in 1998. The ISI miscalculated again when it actually encouraged Mullah Umar to defy the USA and provoked an American invasion of Afghanistan and the installation of an anti-Pakistan, secular regime in Kabul dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. It miscalculated a third time when it decided to allow “safe havens” in North Waziristan for its fleeing Taliban “assets” and Al-Qaeda in the expectation of re-launching them after the US left Afghanistan sooner than later. But the US has dug its heels in Afghanistan and spent a trillion dollars in the process. All these mistakes have added up to the creation of the Tehreek I Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that is aggressively waging war with Pakistan and threatening to overrun the NWFP.

It is the introduction of this new factor of the Pakistani Taliban that has made for a desperate and dramatic paradigm change in Af-Pak from Pakistan’s point of view.  From the soft notion of an anti-India “strategic depth” based on a limited and dependent Talibanisation of Afghanistan, the paradigm has been transformed into a desperate, existential struggle to save Pakistan itself from the powerful virus of Al-Qaeda infected Talibanisation in the area.

At this juncture, the Pakistani military had two options. It could have unequivocally joined forces with America to crush all Taliban-Al-Qaeda networks, especially in FATA. But it hasn’t done this for several reasons. It fears that such a course of action would eventually lead to the strengthening and consolidation of the pro-India Karzai regime.  This could renew Afghan encroachments upon Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. It could also become a launching pad for Indian proxies seeking to destabilize Balochistan.  It could translate into hard strategic gains for India, given the budding strategic relationship between India and America in South Asia and the increasing Indian footprint in Afghanistan, by stressing economic markets, trade, gateways and pipelines, thereby integrating Pakistan’s economy into that of India and reducing the military’s corporate stranglehold over civil society and politics in Pakistan.

Therefore the military has chosen a two-track policy. This is aimed at eliminating the TTP while protecting the Afghan Taliban from NATO/ISAF so that the conflict in Afghanistan is extended and America is pressurized to devise an exit strategy that takes into account Pakistan’s true fears about an Al-Qaeda infected Taliban leftover in Pakistan without making it subservient to, or dependent upon, India. The composite idea is to compel America to give a ringside seat to the pro-Pakistan Afghan Taliban in any future dispensation in Kabul that fulfils a number of conditions: first, it should encourage the Afghan Taliban to disconnect from Al-Qaeda and redeem their original sin of 2001 when Mulla Umar refused to abandon Osama Bin Laden; second, it “balances” the ethnic factor in Afghanistan without endangering Pakistan by claiming its Pashtun areas across the Durand Line; third, it promises an Afghanistan that is not hostile to Pakistan;  fifth, it cuts off the ideological, physical and financial lifeline to the TTP and Al Qaeda; and sixth, it enables Pakistan to fashion a “live and let live” policy with India which helps to build trust and resolve outstanding disputes.

America’s “exit strategy” from Afghanistan therefore assumes critical importance.  If America insists on looking at the Taliban and Al Qaeda as the joint problem, then the war in Afghanistan will drag on, exhaust and demoralize America and even conceivably spill over at any time into an Indo-Pakistan conflict.  But if America and Pakistan were to join hands in prying apart the Afghan Taliban from al-Qaeda by giving the Afghan Taliban a hot seat in Kabul and then going after Al-Qaeda and the TTP, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for everyone.

Reform or else

November 19-25, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 40

 

Economic mismanagement has plumbed the depths. Tax collection is woefully inadequate, so bank borrowings and the fiscal deficit are way off. Inflation is unbridled but growth is abysmal. The circular debt that has crippled the energy sector is unrelenting but defense expenditures are soaring. Therefore the IMF is back in business and getting tough. The writing on the wall is clear: reform or else.

Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio is 10 per cent. This ranks among the lowest in the world. On the expenditure side, however, debt servicing and defense gobble up over half our tax resources, compelling huge bank borrowings and running up inflationary fiscal deficits. This vicious cycle makes Pakistan increasingly dependent on foreign handouts by governments or financial institutions. Since this always comes with strings, it provokes a popular loss-of-sovereignty backlash. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a well-trodden path of economic reform and discipline which, if implemented, would enable us to live respectably within our means.  For starters, we must double our tax revenues, halve our unproductive expenditures and plug the holes in the system through which scarce resources are lost. In this way, we can control inflation, stabilize our currency, create a social net for the poor and spur economic growth.

We can double our tax resources by imposing a progressive income tax on agricultural incomes (that is related to land ownership) and a uniform value added tax on goods and services except on necessities like food, etc. These two simple measures will also plug the holes of corruption and tax evasion in the system by enforcing its documentation and regulation. But we don’t do this because our avaricious ruling elites sit in parliament and refuse to part with their ill-gotten wealth.

We can reduce government expenditures by focusing on the big items, especially on the defense budget. We don’t need so many F-16s and so many atomic bombs to counter India. There is no security threat from it. Pakistan has provoked all the wars with India since partition. Therefore the argument that “it is not India’s intentions but its military capacity which matters” is a recipe for a crippling arms race which is breaking our back. But we don’t do this because Military Inc. is threatened, especially the army’s political lordship over civilians. The latter can start at home by reducing federal ministries and ministers, abolishing the practice of political patronage and cutting down on foreign junkets and an army of hangers-on.

We can plug corruption and inefficiency by privatizing the big black holes in the public sector. When we do this, our priority should not be to scratch the backs of Arab Sheikhs as in the case of some major privatizations in the past but the big corporations of the West that bring expertise and international credit worthiness for Pakistan with them. We can start with the bleeding corporations and move on to the corrupt tax collection bureaucracy, at the ports of entry and then inside the bowels of the Federal Board of Revenue. If the native bureaucracy won’t deliver, then we need to privatize key positions to credible foreign entities to do the job, after ensuring there is no repetition of the SGS-Cotecna kickback cases that are hanging over the head of President Asif Zardari and the PPP.

Much more can be done if the will is there. Provincial governments can computerize the land revenue system so that big and small properties can be mortgaged swiftly for productive loans and the courts can be unclogged from premeditated property litigation that thwarts the ends of justice and the demands of the economy. In particular, the “patwari system” that underpins the corrupt and unaccountable power structure in the rural areas will have to be defanged. Valuable urban properties in unproductive or wasteful use of government functionaries and departments can be sold off to replenish the provincial coffers; town planning laws can be amended to allow high rise buildings to keep land prices stable and traffic problems minimal; and property sale and transfer taxes can be brought in line with world benchmarks.

By providing more resources for development, a suitable reform agenda will enable the provision of a social net for the poor and a more equitable distribution of wealth. This will stablise the political system and minimize outbreaks of disorder, anarchy or insurgency. The doctrine of internal security should eventually replace the fear of external insecurity. Politicians should learn to become public servants, dominating the discourse over civil-military relations.

This is do-able if the military understands that its long term interests are tied to a growing and free economy rather than a failing and dependent one, to a state that is at peace with itself and its neighbours rather than one which is racked internally and distrusted externally. It is do-able if the politicians realize that reform must begin at home before they can ask other institutions and social groups to make sacrifices. Will it happen? The record is depressing. But in view of the disparate, rising threats of the future, we have run out of options.

Ironies of  Aasia Bibi

November 26-December 2, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 41

 

The Aasia Bibi blasphemy case has caught the world’s headlines because it is full of desperate and nasty ironies. She is a Christian mother of two children, sentenced to death in a Muslim country that is notorious for making and practicing laws that persecute its minorities even as its official state religion of Islam proclaims special protection for them; whose citizens “hate” the West even as they line up outside Western embassies for work, education and tourist visas; whose governments shamelessly clamour for financial handouts from Western aid agencies even as they roundly condemn the “begging-bowl syndrome”; whose military establishment provides “safe havens” for Al-Qaeda-Taliban terrorists in North Waziristan even as it fights them in South Waziristan and Swat; whose security posture compels its strategic US ally to look upon it as both the problem and the solution for the war in Afghanistan.

Aasia’s crime: an allegedly blasphemous and angry retort to some Muslim village women who taunted her faith and her low caste by refusing to drink water from a utensil tainted by her “unclean” infidel hands. She was imprisoned for a year during trial and sentenced to death by a magistrate quaking in fear of the mullahs. The Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, says that Aasia’s conviction is a miscarriage of justice. But there is deep irony here. Mr Sanaullah’s PMLN party rules in Punjab province. He has close links with hard line religious groups. In 1992, his PMLN was in power in Islamabad and mandated the death sentence for blasphemy.

At least two judges have been assassinated in the past for acquitting victims of the blasphemy laws and thirty two persons have been “extra-judicially killed” by mobs on the spot, inside prisons or outside courtrooms. According to the National Commission for Law and Justice, from the mid 1980s, when the blasphemy laws were enlarged under the regime of General Zia ul Haq, to 2009, over 960 people have been thus charged, among them 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmedis (who are prosecuted for insisting they are Muslims), 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and various others. An overwhelming 70% of such cases are situated in the “settled” areas of Punjab province. Of the nearly 2 million Christians in Pakistan, nearly half live in seven settled districts of Punjab, namely Lahore, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Qasur, Gujranwala, Sheikhupura  and Toba Tek Singh.

The Penal Code was established by the British Raj in 1860. In 1927, the law for offenses against religion was beefed up to include <I>  all</I>   <I>  deliberate</I>   and <I>  malicious</I>   acts, by words or visible representations, aimed at outraging anyone’s religious feelings and the maximum punishment was extended from two to ten years and/or a fine. The aim was to clamp down on rising communal passions amidst Hindu demands for independence from the British and Muslim demands for separate electorates. The real mischief came in 1982, 1984 and 1986 in Pakistan when General Zia ul Haq increasingly relied upon the religious parties for political legitimacy and decreed so-called Islamic edicts which enveloped “desecration” of the Holy Quran and use of derogatory remarks in respect of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). The critical “willful intent” conditionality behind any such outrage, even by “innuendo or imputation or insinuation”, was removed and the sweeping punishment of death or life imprisonment was made a weapon in the hands of mullahs against their secular or mundane opponents. In time, these laws were exploited to settle property or personal disputes not just between Muslims and non-Muslims but also amongst Muslims themselves.

In 2000, another military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, professed “enlightened moderation” to woo the West and promised to end the embarrassing exploitation of these laws. But, like Gen Zia earlier, he too reneged on his pledge when he cemented an electoral alliance with the mullahs in 2002. In the last few years, feeble anti-blasphemy law voices in parliament and civil society have been drowned out by the self-righteous and cowardly rhetoric of the majority.

To his credit, the PPP’s President Asif Zardari is considering a mercy petition from Aasia Bibi to commute her death <I>  sentence</I>  , which he is entitled to do by law, even as a High Court is about to review her <I>  conviction</I>  . As the mullahs gather to protest any dilution of the law or punishment – which has nothing to do with Islamic theory or practice because the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) forgave all blasphemers in his time – there are two points of view in civil society: one insists that pressure should be brought to bear on the courts to acquit Aasia on the basis of due process of law and evidence, thereby institutionalizing the judiciary’s freedom from fear of the mullahs; the other wants to lean on President Zardari to send a strong signal to all and sundry at home and abroad by pardoning Aasia and pre-empting the courts.

The best course of action would be to officially protect Aasia from harm in prison, help her mount a stout legal defence in the High Court and get her acquitted, failing which the President could set her free. He could do much better by instructing his coalition partners to suitably amend an atrociously unjust and exploitative law that defames Pakistan and harms its citizens.

The weak and the wicked

December 3-9, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 42

 

The Wikileaks are sprinkled with some well worn wicked portraitures and political insights about Pakistan’s weak and dependent ruling elites. But there are some surprises.

  1. <I>  President Asif Zardari thinks he may be assassinated or “taken out” by the military</I>.  We know this already because Mr Zardari has often talked publicly about being taken out of the Presidency “on a stretcher”. But we didn’t know that, in the event, <I>  he would like Bilawal Bhutto to make Mr Zardari’s sister Feryal, President of Pakistan, and has requested the UAE government to allow his family to settle in Dubai</I>  .
  1. COAS <I>  General Ashfaq Kayani thought of seizing power last year when Nawaz Sharif launched the Long March to restore the judges but didn’t because he “distrusted” Nawaz more than he “disliked”</I>   <I>  Zardari and couldn’t work out how to get rid of Zardari without bringing Nawaz into power.</I>   We have always known how this unresolved dilemma for the military establishment has helped to keep Mr Zardari in power as the lesser of the two evils. What we didn’t know was that General Kayani had “hinted” to US Ambassador Anne Patterson that <I>  “he might, however reluctantly, have to persuade President Zardari to resign if the situation sharply deteriorates”</I>   during the Long March. This explains why Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani had to spend six hours in the Presidency on the night of March 15-16, 2009, persuading President Zardari to back down in the face of a threat from the army chief and agree to a restoration of the judges. We also didn’t know that General Kayani had “selected” Asfandyar Wali Khan to replace Mr Zardari while leaving Mr Gilani as prime minister in an intervention that stopped short of being a “formal coup”.
  1. <I>  Nawaz Sharif’s government in Punjab province “tipped” off the militant Lashkar e Tayba about impending UN sanctions following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, thus allowing the LeT to empty its bank accounts before they could be raided by the federal government. </I>  We already know of Mr Sharif’s kid gloves policy towards extremist religious groups based in Punjab – indeed there have been media reports of secret “deals” between some of them and the Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif that neither would try to “take out” the other. That is one reason why the Punjab courts, which are closely in tune with the Sharifs, have not dared alienate these groups, in particular Mr Hafiz Saeed, leader of the LeT, who is constantly being detained by the security forces and released by the courts in an elaborate charade aimed at frustrating India and the international community.
  1. <I>  Aafia Siddiqui, the MIT neuroscientist convicted in the US of terrorism recently, was never detained at the Bagram NATO military base in Afghanistan</I>  . This information is contrary to the widespread public perception in Pakistan. US embassy cables suggest that American officials felt genuinely that they had nothing to hide about Siddiqui and her three missing children
  1. <I>  Following the Mumbai attack, General Kayani vetoed a decision by PM Gilani to dispatch DG ISI General Shuja Pasha to New Delhi to allay Indian fears and suspicions. </I>  This is a matter of public record. But we didn’t know that the British<I>   “over-reacted” by believing that India might target alleged terrorist bases and headquarters inside Pakistan. US officials took a cooler view</I>  , according to the cables, <I>  even</I>   <I>  though the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the UK High Commissioner in Pakistan, Robert Brinkley, continued to lean on General Pasha to visit Delhi and placate the Indians, advice that he spurned. British intelligence also strongly believes that New Delhi is covertly supporting the Baloch insurgency as a tit-for-tat for Pakistani support to LeT. </I>  This is also well known.
  1. <I>  In talks with Afghanistan,</I>   <I>  Pakistan mulled swapping the Taliban leader Mullah Berader, in Pakistani custody, for Baloch nationalist Bramdagh Bugti, in Afghan care, but the two sides couldn’t work out a mutually acceptable extradition treaty</I>  . We didn’t know that a swap had been mooted in talks between Rehman Malik, the Pakistani interior minister, and Atmar Hanif, his Afghan counterpart. The cables also reveal that the <I>  Americans thought of getting UNHCR to facilitate Bugti’s asylum outside the region, possibly in Ireland, but DG ISI Pasha opposed the idea of formally granting Bugti refugee status.

</I>  And so the cables go on, overwhelming readers with details about the troubled relationship and distrust between Pakistani civilians and the Pakistan army, between the Americans and the Pakistan army, between the Indians and the Pakistan army, and so on. Some disquieting conclusions are confirmed: that the military establishment dislikes and distrusts Mr Zardari; that it considers India its principal enemy; that it is not ready to buy America’s mission statement in the region at any cost; that it is not ready to disband the LeT or abandon its Taliban assets in North Waziristan.

The conclusion is therefore inescapable: Pakistan is headed for political upheaval within and without. Asked about the possibility of conflict between Pakistan and the US and Pakistan and India in the next twelve months, a senior military official admitted recently in a deep briefing to Pakistani journalists that it is going to be “a tense balancing act”.

Damned if Zardari does

December 10-16, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 43

 

The Zardari government is in a fix. The IMF won’t give any more money to Pakistan until the government imposes a flat 15 per cent Revised General Sales Tax on most hitherto exempted goods and services. But the government’s coalition allies are balking at the prospect of a public backlash against rising prices. Worse, the opposition is gearing up to block any such move in parliament, and is even threatening to force it out of power. Damned if the government does and damned if it doesn’t.

The IMF’s reasoning is simple and forceful. If Pakistan wants the IMF to continue funneling its US$11.7 billion bailout package, it’s past time to streamline the country’s tax system. Pakistan’s Tax:GDP ratio has fallen from over 12 per cent in 2001 to about 9 per cent today (the target is 20 per cent), compelling the government to borrow big time from domestic and international finance institutions, quite apart from printing more notes. There simply isn’t enough money in the kitty to pay minimally for defense, debt servicing and infrastructure development without fueling inflation by running up unacceptably large fiscal deficits of over 8 per cent of GDP. Over 40 per cent of the population is now reckoned to be below the poverty line compared to about 25 per cent only four years ago.

The problem is accentuated by one fact: the US$1.5 billion per year earmarked for Pakistan by the Kerry-Lugar legislation for the next five years is also pegged to approval by the IMF, World Bank etc of various economic initiatives promised by Pakistan to plug the gaps. That explains why Hilary Clinton has been publicly urging Pakistan to tax the rich at home when it proffers the begging bowl to the American tax payer in Washington during hard times. Indeed, the new US ambassador in Pakistan, Cameron Munter, recently stressed much the same urgent sentiment before an august gathering of capitalist big-wigs in Karachi. For the record, there are less than 1.6 million income tax payers (population 180 million) and less than 150,000 registered sales tax payers in the country. There has never been any tax on agricultural incomes – which constitute about 40 per cent of GDP – and a range of taxes on wealth and property and gifts were abolished during the Musharraf years – parliament is dominated by big landowners, industrialists and contractors who refuse to tax themselves.

The opposition’s claims the RGST will lead to a big price hike and add to the burden of the poor and middle classes who are already groaning under a 25% inflation rate on account of an increase of over 100 per cent in the rates of fuel and power in the last year or so. The government’s admission that the RGST will add no more than Rs 60 billion to the exchequer – less than 5 percent of total tax revenues – is grist to the mills: the social hardship is disproportionate to the meager return to government. Under the circumstances, the government’s silence on galloping corruption in expenditures, subsidies, tax exemptions, power theft etc is deafening.

Unfortunately, however, the counter argument by the finance minister, Hafeez Sheikh, is falling on deaf ears. First, it is not the amount of additional tax revenues that is at stake because of the RGST but the principle of it and commitments to the IMF time and again. Second, it will facilitate documentation of the economy and reassure donors that Pakistan’s ruling classes are making amends for their laxity in the past, quite apart from making some sacrifices themselves too. Third, the expected price hike is exaggerated since small shopkeepers and businesses with annual turnovers of under Rs 7.5 million – who constitute an overwhelming majority of traders – will be exempted from the tax. Fourth, and most critically, many food items like wheat, rice, pulses, meat, poultry and vegetables etc which form a bulk of the poor man’s everyday basket will also be exempt.

The IMF has postponed its next handout until the government concedes its demand. The federal budget is leaking like a sieve. If the government risks a vote and fails, it could be booted out of office, plunging the country into a bigger crisis than the one envisaged by the passing of the bill. Meanwhile, the vultures are gathering: every coalition partner is posturing like a long lost public saviour by opposing the proposed Bill even as it is lining up for more ministries and perks and privileges as a quid pro quo. The joke in Islamabad is that there are many more ministers than ministries now because many ministries have been recently relegated to the domain of the provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment but the federal ministers are refusing to relinquish their perks and go home.

The stranglehold of the army and Supreme Court over the Zardari government is unrelenting. Now the wailing economy is kicking the shins of the government even as the IMF continues to wield its handcuffs. If President Asif Zardari can survive until the next election rolls round in two years, it will be a tribute to his acrobatic genius no less than to the political restraint imposed on the key principals – Army and America – by the strategic circumstances of the region.

Supreme Court: now or never

December 17-23, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 44

 

As TS Eliot might say, the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) has come full circle to the beginning and discovered it for the first time. It has the writ jurisdiction to inquire into the actions of the ubiquitous military and its intelligence agencies. But will it exercise its non-discriminatory power in the public interest or appear to cower in fear of the military?

When a political activist goes “missing” or “disappears”, he is presumed to be in the dungeons of military “agencies”. A Habeas Corpus (literally “produce the body”) writ in a High Court routinely crashes into a dead-end: the provincial governments say they don’t have the person and the Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) comes along to admit that the person is detained by a military agency over which the court has no writ jurisdiction. This, despite the fact that Article 199 of the Pakistan constitution clearly enables the higher courts to order any authority, civil or military, to produce the “missing” person so that the court can “satisfy itself” that he is being validly held by the authorities. An appeal may then be lodged before the SC.

But here’s the rub: not a single person held by the military without conviction has ever received the benefit of the doubt from a high court or the SC and ordered to be set free or tried under civilian law. Worse, under the prevailing law, no court martial decision of any military or civilian person may be successfully challenged even in the SC, making Pakistan a dubious rarity among the comity of democratic nations in which military law is actually subservient to the highest organ of civilian law!

Four cases before the SC of Pakistan explain the mounting legal predicaments at hand. Over a decade ago, Air Marshal (retd) Asghar Khan petitioned the SC to enquire into an open and shut case of election rigging by the ISI in 1990 when the then DG Lt Gen Asad Durrani doled out huge sums of money to politicians allied to the military establishment. The case remains in the freezer of CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. At its heart lies one critical question: whether the ISI is a civilian agency accountable under civilian law or a military agency outside civilian purview – one third of ISI employees are civilians and its head is appointed by the prime minister and may, in theory, be a civilian or military man, serving or retired, but, in practice, has always ranged from a one to three star officer.

The second case pertains to eleven alleged terrorists who were ordered to be set free by the high court for lack of evidence but disappeared from Adaila jail in Rawalpindi thereafter. When confronted by the SC, the military authorities blithely retorted that the missing persons were not in their custody. To add insult to injury, they advised the SC that it lacked jurisdiction over them. But when the SC threatened to get tough on the basis of the sworn statement of the jail superintendent that the “agencies” had whisked away the 11 men, the military came up with a cock and bull story about how some terrorists impersonating as “agency” personnel had extracted their comrades from jail and escaped to the tribal areas where a war against terrorism was raging, only to yield them to the military once again after a fierce encounter in which only the 11 men had survived and been recaptured! The military then advised the SC that the 11 would be tried by a court martial, thereby seeking closure of the case.

The third case pertains to the hundreds of alleged “insurgents” and their sympathizers who have gone “missing” in the troubled province of Balochistan. The SC has gingerly tried to extract them from the clutches of the agencies, but to not much avail, generally speaking.

The fourth case is the most interesting of all. Eleven former judges are charged with contempt of court for violating the November 3, 2007, judgment of a seven member bench of the SC headed by Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry against President Pervez Musharraf’s proclamation of a new Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) ordering a fresh oath-taking by the higher judiciary swearing loyalty to the PCO. Now the SC is confronted with a most significant objection: why is it trying the 11 judges for disobeying its order but not trying all the corps commanders and vice chief of the army (now army chief General Ashfaq Kayani) of the time to whom the restraining order of November 3 was also explicitly addressed. One judge on the bench says that these people may also be summoned. But the others are silent. Will the SC drag the generals into the dock and punish them along with the 11 judges in an unprecedented and historic act? Until now, the military has never allowed any serving soldier, let alone a general, to be punished by civilians.

It is time to bell the cat. The SC should take a principled and non-discriminatory position in all cases involving the military and civilians whilst avoiding unmanageable conflict or gridlock. It should also make sure that justice is not only done but also seen to be done.

Pak-China relations: fact and fiction

December 24-30, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 45

 

The three day visit of China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao to Pakistan last week has elicited the usual trumpets and mutual accolades about the everlasting “friendship” between the two countries that is “deeper than the ocean and warmer than the sun”. But it is important to sift propaganda from fact and friendship from interest. More critically, China’s political advice to Pakistan regarding “neighbourhood diplomacy” must be seriously considered if regional strategic balances are to be maintained.

The propaganda is that China’s premier brought along a 200-strong business delegation to sign MOUs worth US$35 billion with the public and private sector of Pakistan, creating the impression that a “paradigm change” is underway whereby China is about to replace the West as the biggest “foreign investor”, donor and trading partner of Pakistan. But the fact is that most of the MOUs are not worth the paper they are written on. Pakistani businessmen were hastily assembled at the last minute and mingled with their Chinese counterparts without having done any homework about mutually profitable projects. The fact is that China is neither making any significant foreign investments in Pakistan, nor handing out free money to Pakistan. Only US$400 million was pledged as a “soft loan” tied to a couple of projects like the Karakoram Highway that are of strategic importance to China itself and all the money will go to line the pockets of Chinese contractors and labour working on these projects. Only US$10 million has been coughed up for flood rehabilitation and reconstruction (the US has contributed US$300 million). Noteworthy joint-venture projects inside Pakistan are conspicuous by their absence. The fact also is that China’s premier and businessmen were focused on India, their first stop-over, where they clinched agreements to raise the volume of their trade from US$60 billion currently to US$100 billion per year in the next few years.

Most critically, the Pakistan government, political pundits and media know-alls have failed to highlight the sane advice consistently given by China to Pakistan on how to conduct diplomacy in the neighbourhood. The Chinese proverb quoted by Mr Wen Jiabao that “a ‘distant neighbour’ is more important than a ‘close relative’ has been interpreted to signify Pakistan’s “closeness” to China, conveniently omitting the priceless value that China attaches to ‘close neighbours’ (like India) in relation to ‘close relatives’! Therefore it bears pointing out that China resolved a long time ago to compromise, settle or cold-storage its territorial border disputes with its ‘close neighbours’, including the USSR, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Korea and normalize its relations with them so that mutually beneficial highways of trade and commerce could be built to create interdependencies, paving the way for reduction of trust deficits and settlement of thornier disputes. In the same spirit, China has constantly advised Pakistani governments and policy makers to put the dispute of Kashmir with India on the back burner and forge ahead with trade and commerce on the basis of interests and interdependencies, advice that Pakistan’s military establishment has constantly spurned in favour of a sum-zero conflict strategy mantra: India must solve Kashmir to Pakistan’s satisfaction before relations can be normalized. No wonder, then, that when Dr Fehmida Mirza, the Speaker of the National Assembly, profusely thanked China for its unstinting support for Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir dispute, Mr Wen Jiabao consciously snubbed her by omitting any reference in his speech to Pakistan’s “core” Kashmir dispute with India!

Of course, China’s “friendship” with Pakistan is gratefully acknowledged, even if it serves China’s strategic interests more than ours. China has loaned Pakistan the money and manpower to build the Karakoram Highway and Gwadar Port, both aimed at penetrating commercial markets in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. China has transferred technology to build second level tanks and fighter aircraft in Pakistan but these have hardly offset our demand for higher tech weapons from the West like F-16s, Cobra helicopters, Agosta submarines, etc, and front-line tanks from the Ukraine. China is helping Pakistan build nuclear reactors with Chinese loans and technical know-how even though there is some doubt about their true value to us both as suppliers of energy and plutonium for nuclear weapons (our nuclear weapons program is based on enriched uranium). Significantly, China’s avowed pro-Pakistan tilt did not stop India from helping to dismember Pakistan in 1971, nor did it stop India from retaliating against Pakistani-provoked wars in 1965 and 1999. Pakistan’s real “gain” from friendship with China is Beijing’s opposition to a permanent veto-empowered seat for India in the UN Security Council and its assistance in encouraging North Korea to part with missile technology for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, both policies being firmly grounded in China’s own national security regional interests.

China claims a “strategic relationship” with both Pakistan and India. But Pakistan and India have no such claims on each other. Far from it, they are constantly hovering on the brink of conflict. This should serve as an eye-opener to Pakistan, especially in view of China’s burgeoning US$100 billion surplus trade relationship with India along with its stunning silence on the Kashmir dispute. The old adage is truer now than ever before: when push comes to shove, interests and not friendships matter in international relations.

Dismal outlook for 2011

December 31-January 6, 2010 – Vol. XXII, No. 46

 

Pakistan’s woes never seem to end, despite the fact of a free media, an independent judiciary, periodic elections, functioning parliaments and a renewed democracy. In fact, some people might argue that the media is so outrageously unaccountable, the judiciary so fiercely independent, the elections so deeply flawed, parliament so divided and democracy so dysfunctional that they are together part of the problem rather than the solution. So the little good news on offer is mixed with a lot of bad news in store for 2011.

<B>  Good news:</B>    The PPP government of President Asif Zardari can rightly claim some significant successes. It has unflinchingly prosecuted the war on terror in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It has cobbled the National Finance Commission Award (which determines the percentage of federal resources to each province) to the satisfaction of all provinces. It has earmarked special development grants for underdeveloped regions in Balochistan and war-torn areas in FATA. It has passed the 18th and 19th constitutional amendments to empower the prime minister and the judiciary at the expense of the presidency, to fulfill a long outstanding demand to rename the NWFP as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and to abolish the concurrent list of subjects, as envisaged in the 1973 constitution. It has created a special “province” of Gilgit-Baltistan to address the problems of the people of the northern areas. It has legislated against harassment of women in the work place. It has finally appointed three eminently qualified professionals to run the Ministry of Finance, Planning Commission and State Bank of Pakistan. Finally, the Benazir Income Support Program has successfully helped to ameliorate the wretched condition of a chunk of rural Pakistani women. One should not begrudge the PPP government these achievements.

<B>  Bad news:  </B>  Pakistan has climbed up a notch in the ladder of the corrupt countries of the world, from 48th to 44th position. Poverty has grown from 30% of the population to 35%. Food inflation is running at 15% and energy inflation at 25%. The rupee has been devalued by over 10%. Economic growth is still less than 3%. The worst floods in living memory have devastated over 2 million rural homesteads and wrecked large swathes of infrastructure. Terrorism and civil strife are rampant, especially in FATA and the urban areas of the country, notably Karachi. Relations with India remain desultory while the strategic relationship with America is fraught with transactional and tactical tensions. Government-opposition relations are in the deep freezer while coalition government relations are heating up to fracture-point. Government-Judiciary relations are strained to breaking point and the PPP is continuing to boycott the most powerful media house in the country. Governments at the centre and in the provinces have never seemed so dysfunctional and politicians as a generic category never so discredited. Indeed, the sense of popular alienation, national despair, political drift and economic frustration is unprecedented.

<B>  Flash points:  </B>  A major act of terrorism in India by any Pakistan-based jihadi or Taliban group could provoke military retaliation and plunge the region into conflict. A refusal to end the safe havens of Al-Qaeda-Taliban terrorists in North Waziristan could provoke American bombardment and boots-on-ground, lead to an anti-American backlash and defiance by the Pakistan military. This would disrupt the logistical chain of NATO supplies through Pakistan, undermine the US war effort and erode the ability of the Pakistan government to revive its economy on the basis of multilateral agency loans and US grants, bringing hardship to all. Political uncertainty is also expected to muddy the waters. The PPP is expected to remain in a stage of siege sponsored by friends and foes alike. Coalition partners like the MQM and JUI are not likely to be assuaged by handouts – the former is demanding local elections in Sindh (which it is bound to win at the expense of the PPP) and the latter control over the religious institutions in the ambit of the federal government (which are bound to sharpen sectarian tendencies), demands that the PPP is loath to concede. Both are also so close to the military that they will ditch the coalition government whenever GHQ so requires. The army dislikes President Zardari, distrusts the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, and has contempt for politicians and democracy. It would love to seize power but can’t because the two mainstream parties, media and judiciary would mount a stiff resistance. But it remains quite capable of, and interested in, allying indirectly with the judiciary and media to contrive a quasi-democratic transitional system without the two leaders of the mainstream parties, a definite recipe for instability. Finally, following a nine month postponement by the IMF of any further disbursements because of the government’s inability to trim its cloth (expenditures) according to its sails (revenues), the economy will remain in the dumps, bringing popular discontent and civil strife to the surface.

2011 could also be Election Year if the PPP government doesn’t get its act together or if the combined opposition’s frustration reaches a point of no return. A new Prime Minister could therefore emerge out of the shadows, either to forestall an early collapse of the coalition government or to preside over a new election.

The price of passion

January 7-13, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 47

 

The wanton assassination of Salmaan Taseer, Governor of Punjab, could be a tragic watershed in the history of Pakistan as it crumbles in the face of a severe onslaught by extremist religious ideology and passions. The tragedy is that some elements of the state are co-sponsors while others are hopeless accessories after the fact.

Mr Taseer opined that the blasphemy law should be amended to ensure that mischief mongers could not exploit it for mundane ends. He wasn’t alone in advocating this line of action. Indeed, quite apart from the moderate silent majority, even the most rigid mainstream defenders of the blasphemy law admit that procedural changes can improve its efficacy and fairness. But the media and mullahs distorted the picture and painted him as an apostate. The mullahs put head money on him, the media frenetically drummed up their demands, and the state condoned it all.

Mr Taseer was moved by the plight of Aasia Bibi, a poor Christian woman, who had been awarded the death sentence by a court for blaspheming against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The facts suggested there had been a miscarriage of justice, a fairly frequent occurrence in such passionately charged cases. So he moved the President of Pakistan to commute her death sentence. But, under pressure from religious extremists, the Lahore High Court put a spoke in the wheels of the government by signaling its displeasure. As the media whipped up the chorus of extremist voices arrayed against the Governor, the President balked and the Prime Minister retreated shamelessly: “This is the Governor’s personal point of view, I am a Syed, my government has no intention to dilute the blasphemy law”, declared Mr Yusuf Raza Gilani self-righteously. Isolated and condemned, Mr Taseer became a sitting duck for the extremists.

The killer, Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, an Elite Force commando, brazenly maneuvered with police officials to join Mr Taseer’s security detail on the ill-fated day. This, despite a forceful note on file by the Regional Police Officer in 2008 that Qadri should be removed from VIP security duty because of his extremist religious views. He took his commando colleagues into confidence and they stood by passively as he pumped 26 bullets into his target. There has not been a more outrageous lapse on the part of the police than this in Pakistan’s history.

The political parties showed their pathetic colours after the assassination. Not a single politician from the ruling party or opposition had the guts to unequivocally condemn the passion behind the killing. Indeed, the PPP turned the state tragedy into a political conspiracy against the party and democracy. The opposition that routinely thunders against real and imagined excesses barely managed to mutter a word or two about the “unfortunate” incident. It was left to a group of Islamabad lawyers – part of the famed “lawyers’ movement” – to shower rose petals on the assassin when he was brought to court to be remanded to the police. Civil society – that wonderfully elusive term denoting the conscience of society – could muster only a couple of hundred protestors the day after in contrast to the thousands of internet users who declared Qadri a hero on Facebook!

The police, political parties, parliaments, the bar and bench have singly and collectively succumbed to the wave of religious extremism threatening to engulf Pakistan. The terrorists are few but the extremists are many. This is a recipe for more terrorism, not less. The state is supposed to have an anti-terrorist policy practiced by the security agencies but there is no sign of any anti-extremism policy articulated by the government. Our textbooks and media are awash with extremist notions and violent ideas. Our public and parliaments are spilling over with primitive mindsets. Any person can now stand up and take the law into his own hands on the basis of his religious belief and passion, making a mockery of the state’s claim that, let alone an individual, even religious parties or groups cannot wage jihad without the state’s consent or sanction.

The most frightening part of this episode is the way in which the forces of religious extremism were whipped into frenzy by certain banned jihadi lashkars and organizations which retain strategic links with the ubiquitous “agencies” of the state. No less ominous is the banding together of the Barelvis, who represent the majority soft version of Islam, with the hardline Ahle-Hadith and Deobandi strains, to create a wave of religious resistance to moderation and integration. It is as though a sinister message is being signaled to all at home and abroad: democracy doesn’t work, mainstream parties are a curse we cannot afford, pure religious ideology is the fountain of Pakistani rejuvenation and all those who disagree will be eliminated.

We reap what we sow. The human tragedy that is in the offing for democrats and moderates will be nothing compared to the collapse of the economy and the misery of tens of millions of the silent majority if extremist ideology and religious passion seize control of Pakistan. Mark our words: the Pakistan army, which claims to be a saviour of the last resort, will be the first to bear the brunt of the coming onslaught and it will pay the highest price.

Biden

January 14-20, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 48

 

US Vice President, Joe Biden, is a tough, straight talking, incisive politician. What was his mission to Kabul and Islamabad all about? What might be its consequences for America, Afghanistan and Pakistan?

Mr Biden is the author of the strategic doctrine of “Counterterrorism Plus” (C+) which is at odds with the strategic doctrine of “Counterinsurgency” (COIN ) advocated by General David Petreaus, the head of US military forces in Afghanistan. COIN envisages a long drawn out US military campaign with maximum American boots on ground in Afghanistan until the Al-Qaeda-Taliban network has been defeated. C+ calls for a much smaller core troop and military resource deployment against specific Al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It lays emphasis on rapidly strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces to take over the security functions of the Afghan state. It also wants to work with the political and military leadership of Afghanistan and Pakistan to de-link the Pakhtun Taliban (who do not represent a global jihadist view that threatens the West) from Al-Qaeda (which does). General Petreaus wants to focus on all insurgents while Mr Biden wants to concentrate only on those insurgents who are also global terrorists, the implicit argument being that the Taliban can be brought in from the cold eventually as co-partners in a stable Afghan state that does not export terrorism while Al-Qaeda and its offshoots have to be uprooted and eliminated from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr Biden’s view, as quoted in Obama’s War by Bob Woordward, is that “the allocation of American resources between Afghanistan and Pakistan (30:1) is misplaced because the focus should be on Pakistan. If we don’t get Pakistan right, we can’t win”. President Obama has supplemented this view by remarking that “changing the Pakistan calculus is key to achieving our core goals”. Is that what Mr Biden came to do last week?

Mr Biden wants Pakistan to swiftly go after the Al-Qaeda-Haqqani network in North Waziristan. In Mr Biden’s assessment, the Haqqani network is irrevocably part of global Al-Qaeda (which has to be eliminated) rather than part of the provincial Afghan Taliban network (which has to be incorporated into a future political settlement). Pakistan’s military leaders disagree. They argue that their military resources are stretched thin and, given the rise of religious passion and anti-Americanism in Pakistan, there is no public support for any major operation in N. Waziristan.

In actual fact, however, Pakistan doesn’t buy the self-serving American argument that the Haqqani network is irrevocably part of global Al-Qaeda. Indeed, it supports the view that the anti-India Haqqani network is potentially Pakistan’s biggest asset in any future political configuration in Kabul. So, far from helping to eliminate it, Pakistan wants to protect it for re-launch at an appropriate political time in the future. The weakening of the pro-Pakistan Quetta Shura of Mullah Umar by the elimination or sidelining of the old guard and its replacement by amorphous and autonomous bands of younger Taliban leaders makes this singular potential Haqqani asset even more necessary. This is the bone of contention between the US and Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign office’s warning that Islamabad will resist any foreign-inspired “new great game in Afghanistan” (anti-Iran, pro-India, US-Afghanistan end-game plan for Kabul) is a shot in that direction.

Notwithstanding Mr Biden’s straight talk and reassurances of long-term engagement with Pakistan, therefore, one should not expect any major change of strategic direction by the Pakistani military high command. Certainly, there was no overt mention of any new carrots for Pakistan by Mr Biden.

This means that the US will have to amend its end-game tactics and strategy and link up with Pakistan or it will have to brandish the stick and offer carrots to Islamabad and make it fall in line. In actual practice, however, it is likely to be a complex process with all players pushing and shoving for more space without coming to blows, until one or the other has been sufficiently sidelined or softened to accept the other’s point of view.

In parting, Mr Biden urged Pakistanis to accept the fact of Al-Qaeda’s violation of their country’s sovereignty and reassured them there would be no American boots-on-ground in Waziristan. That is a good bottom line.

Therefore Pakistan is likely to allow or condone more US drone strikes in Waziristan and may even launch its own air strikes against Al-Qaeda hideouts and strongholds. It will also participate in the trilateral dialogue with Turkey and Afghanistan in an effort to find a solution in Kabul that doesn’t trap it in any US sponsored great game for the region in which India is also a major player. Finally, it will insist on a transparent ring-side seat for itself in any negotiations about the future of the Afghan state. At the same time, it will protect the Haqqani network, persuade it to de-link itself from the Pakistani Taliban and try and dislodge it from the clutches of Al-Qaeda so that it is accepted as a legitimate player for stakes in Kabul.

Mr Biden’s C+ doctrine was an advance over General Petreaus’s Counterinsurgency strategy. Now it is time to amend C+ to read C+P so that America can win Obama’s war by “getting Pakistan right”.

Is Balochistan another country?

January 21-27, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 49

 

Is Balochistan already another country? Are the Baloch nationalists fighting for secession or autonomy? Are they terrorists or freedom fighters? Where are all the “missing persons” of Balochistan? Who is carrying out ethnic cleansing of settler-Punjabis?  Who is target-killing the leaders of the nationalist movement? What is the role of the “agencies” of Pakistan and India? What are the grievances of the Baloch? Is there a “solution” in sight?

Cut the propaganda. Here’s a reality check.

Balochistan is a sort of “tribal confederation” with its attendant internal pulls and pushes, competition and conflict. Baloch nationalism draws its inspiration from a refusal of the Khan of Kalat at the time of Partition to accede to the new nation-state of Pakistan in more or less the same manner in which the “princely” states of India acceded to the new nation-state of India, but with one critical difference. In India, the Congress leaders in Delhi negotiated the terms of accession patiently with the Hindu rulers of the Princely States

The way forward

January 28 – February 03, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 50

 

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has urged the Supreme Court of Pakistan to take “suo motu” notice of the doubling of crime in Punjab province and recommended that the army should impose martial law in the province. Not so long ago, the MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, who is ensconced in the comfort and safety of London, had exhorted Pakistanis and “patriotic generals” to launch a “bloody revolution” to overthrow the feudal ruling classes.

For the record, it may be noted that Karachi, which the MQM claims as “its city”, is the most dangerous place in the world. More people are daily target-killed in Karachi than in any city of the world. So if any city “deserves” martial law by the proposed yardstick of the MQM itself, it is Karachi. But that is a nightmare from the MQM’s point of view. Fearful memories remain of the Army/Rangers “clean-up operations” in Karachi from 1992-1996 under the Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto governments. That is when Altaf Hussain and thousands of MQM activists fled the country in a trail of FIRs for murder, arson, kidnapping, terrorism, etc.

Clearly, the MQM’s outrageous demands are part of its tactics to keep its powder dry in a potential election year. It is desperate to extend its vote bank in rural Sindh and get a toehold in Punjab. That is why it is railing against GST on services (biggest impact in Karachi) and demanding tax on agricultural incomes of big landlords (in Sindh and Punjab). The other word for such populism is opportunism.

MQM apart, however, there are other voices calling for radical change. These appear to be inspired by “revolutionary” events in Tunisia, followed by copycat demonstrations in Egypt for “revolutionary regime change”. On the face of it, the spark that lit the fire in Tunisia – economic distress – could theoretically ignite widespread agitation in Pakistan too since there has never been such hardship before. But to what end?

The Tunisians have got rid of a ruthless autocrat who misruled for 21 years and the Egyptians are also demonstrating against Hosni Mubarak for much the same sort of Prague Spring. But Pakistan has a surfeit of “democracy” these days and its pro-democracy “revolutions” were wrought in the anti-Ayub, anti-Bhutto and anti-Musharraf movements of 1968, 1977 and 2007. Regime change in Pakistan today, with or without street power, would simply lead to martial law (a regression, surely) or a new election that would bring the same politicians and parties to power. Indeed, given the nature of increasing fissures in society, chances are that unscheduled regime change will bring about even more precarious and pernicious coalition governments everywhere in which there will be a mad scramble for the spoils.

It is therefore not surprising that some people are hankering for a Khomeini to appear and “set things right” a la Iran – which is neither a Western-type “democracy” like Pakistan, nor a praetorian regime like Egypt or an autocratic one like the one that has just perished in Tunisia. Is some sort of “Islamic revolution”, with a pious strong man at the top, the need of the hour in Pakistan?

Pakistan certainly needs much more law and order. It also needs better economic management, greater social equality and much less corruption. But a “Made in Pakistan” Islamic revolution is neither possible, nor desirable. For one, an Islamic revolution, as opposed to a putsch (like the one by Gen Zia ul Haq), requires a regional and religious homogeneity (as in Iran) and intellectual leadership (like the Ayatollahs) that is missing in Pakistan. Also, the performance of the religious parties in government – the PNA during Gen Zia’s time and the MMA during Gen Musharraf’s tenure – was worse than that of the mainstream parties in the 1990s. Therefore any such frustrated impulse is a recipe for anarchy, not good governance. Also, one should not overly glorify the Islamic Revolution in Iran in view of the marked and increasing yearning for greater “Western type-freedoms and democracy” among its urban middle classes.

Under the circumstances, and despite the appalling performance of the PPP regime, the system is moving in the right direction. The Supreme Court is banging on about accountability. It is trying to get a grip over corruption at the highest levels and tugging at the intelligence agencies to be more responsible. There is broad agreement between the government and opposition over the essential elements of an agenda for reform even if the will is still weak. Excluding a clutch of frustrated nutcases, no one is running to the army for salvation. Once we have a neutral Chief Election Commissioner and NAB chairman, we can have another go at trying to make parliamentary democracy work.

Meanwhile, two institutions, one old and one new, should undertake an internal reform to compliment rather than undermine the system. The army must revamp its national security doctrine and stop insisting on commandeering the heights of economy and society in an age of internal scarcity and regional distrust. And the media must act with greater responsibility to encourage a progressive, moderate and international outlook in the mindset of the nation. No modern democracy or economy can work in the stifling environment of religious orthodoxy, international isolation or military supremacy.

Raymond Davis:  fact & fiction

February 4-10, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 51

 

The case of Raymond Davis has outraged the imagination and sentiment of Pakistanis mainly because of a distortion of key facts by powerful sections of the Pakistani media. It has also become a vicious ping pong game between the PPP and PMLN governments, with both trying to score nationalist points regardless of the consequences for political stability and national security. Ominously, though, it has soured a troubled relationship between Pakistan and the US who claim to be “strategic partners” in the region. Let’s sift fact from fiction.

<B>  Fiction</B>  : Mr Davis “murdered” two Pakistanis. He shot them in the back, suggesting he was not threatened by them. They were not robbers. Their handguns were licensed. <B>  Fact</B>  : Two men on a motorbike, armed with unlicensed pistols, held up Mr Davis’ car. He expertly shot them through the windscreen, stepped out and took pictures of the gunmen with weapons as evidence of self-defense. Later, an autopsy report showed that four out of seven bullets had hit the gunmen in the front, confirming the threat to him. The criminals had earlier robbed two passersby of their cell phones and money.

<B>  Fiction</B>  : Mr Davis is not a diplomat because he doesn’t have a diplomatic visa or status registered with the Foreign Office. Hence he cannot claim diplomatic immunity under the Vienna Conventions. <B>  Fact:</B>   Mr Davis has a Diplomatic Passport. His visa application by the US State Department to the Pakistan Embassy in Washington DC of 11 September 2009 lists him as a Diplomat who is on “Official Business”. The US government has claimed diplomatic immunity for him. This is the norm. For example, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Spain in 1975, Haroon ur Rashid Abbasi, was granted immunity following discovery of heroin from his suitcase. Col Mohammad Hamid Pakistan’s military attach

Faiz Ahmed Faiz: poet of peace

February 11-17, 2011 – Vol. XXII, No. 52

 

This year, South Asia celebrates the centenary of Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Pakistan’s pre-eminent Urdu poet in the classical tradition of the subcontinent. Faiz was the last of the five greats – Mir Anis, Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Faiz.

Writing one hundred years before Faiz, Mirza Ghalib would have recognised the former’s classical style and would have loved the new metaphor and colloquial touch of introducing common speech into the ghazal. One can imagine the great Delhi poet, who witnessed the demise of the last Mughal court and the destruction of the city’s Indo-Persian ethos, marvelling at Faiz’s metaphors – <I>  Dard aye ga dabbay paon liye surkh chiragh</I>   (and pain will come tiptoe, carrying its crimson lamp).

Faiz, a native of Sialkot, was taught Urdu and Arabic by Shams-ul-Ulema Syed Mir Hassan. Hassan had also taught Muhammad Iqbal. At Government College in Lahore, where he did an MA in English literature, Faiz was taught by A S Bokhari, also known as Patras. For part of his life, Faiz was associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan, and even when he disagreed, he remained a lifelong Marxist. His poetry was informed by his politics and he frequently voiced the aspirations of the common man, the down trodden and exploited. When he first rejected autocracy and dictatorship, and suffered imprisonment as a result, many marginalised him politically as a “poet of the Left”. Today, his ideological adversaries find solace in his verse.

Faiz’s first collection of poems, “Naqsh-e-Faryadi” came out in 1941 when he was teaching at Hailey College in Lahore. He edited the progressive literary journal Adab-e-Latif till 1942, when he joined the British Indian Army for a few years and resigned as Lt Colonel. In February 1947, he joined Progressive Papers Ltd in Lahore as chief editor of <I>  The Pakistan Times</I>   and <I>  Imroze</I>  , under the inspiring leadership of Mian Iftikharuddin, whilst also taking part in labour politics. In 1951, Faiz was arrested along with communist leaders for conspiring to overthrow the government of Liaqat Ali Khan. He was in jail until 1955 and wrote some of his best poems in this period. He was also arrested and jailed in 1958 under the first martial law.

By then, Pakistan was firmly on the side of the United States of America in the Cold War. Its negative foreign policy yardstick was India, and it seemed to sacrifice all political values in pursuit of this revisionist obsession. The first casualty was democracy itself, barely a decade after Pakistan’s establishment. The military dictated foreign policy and twisted domestic politics to support it. Elections were not considered necessary under military rule until rigging became the norm and fair elections became the alarm bell of instability. The world, and voices of reason within like Faiz, could not persuade Pakistan to change tack and become normal, not even after the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, trashing the aphorism that nations learn from defeat.

Going with the US in the Cold War meant nourishing the germs of religious extremism that the founders of Pakistan had sought to sanitise. Since the opportunism of US policy dictated support to the clergy in the Islamic world, it legitimised the assertion of religious identities in Pakistan which was later to cause the virus of sectarianism domestically and isolation abroad. The Pakistan military, unmindful of the lessons it should have learnt, fell into the trap of US-inspired covert war in Afghanistan, spear-headed by jihadists that it also used in cross-border terrorism in Kashmir.

All this has finally brought Pakistan on collision course with a more pragmatic America in this post-Cold War age. Despite the consensus amongst all of Pakistan’s vote garnering political parties, its business people, economists, and students of political science, Pakistan’s military is unable to change its India-centric direction. The resulting global isolation and gradual implosion because of internal discord and terrorism inflicted by Al-Qaeda and the state’s jihadist proxies, have all brought Pakistan to its knees. Ironically, as the Middle East rises against its tyrants in favour of a representative system, the coming state-inspired “revolution” (anarchy) in Pakistan will be in the opposite direction, against its representative system.

Fittingly, Faiz’s centenary is being celebrated symbolically in Pakistan and India by those who want peace in the region. If you ask ordinary people who is the great living poet in Pakistan today, most people will be at a loss. But the truth is that Faiz still strides like a colossus over every word or deed that is rational, sincere and authentic in our short and tragic history. When finally the lands and peoples that compose Pakistan emerge from the dark ages that are upon us today, it is men like Faiz who will be the champions, their voice giving words to the anthems of a free people. When finally peace with our neighbours becomes an economic and social necessity, it is men like Faiz with their sympathetic vision who will be the bridge between erstwhile antagonists. And when finally Pakistan learns to live like a responsible state in the world, it is the universality of voices such as Faiz’s that will redeem us and be our link with other civilised societies.

Headless chicken

February 18-24, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 01

 

The PPP government in Islamabad is running around like a headless chicken. The interior minister, Rehman Malik, has progressively lost control over the Federal Investigation Agency, which is seemingly defying his orders in some critical cases. The Foreign Office (FO) continues to pursue policies on the basis of orders from GHQ rather than the prime minister’s secretariat or presidency. And with the exit of Shah Mahmood Qureshi as foreign minister, the cabinet shuffle has created more problems of credibility than it has resolved.  Consider.

The FIA is prosecuting the Rs 5.5 billion rupee National Insurance Corporation Limited corruption case at the behest of the Supreme Court.  In the latest twist, the FIA has nominated Moonis Elahi, the son of Pervez Elahi, leader of the PMLQ, as one of the recipients of the billions skimmed off from the company. This is politically inexplicable since the PPP has an unspoken soft corner for the PMLQ in the expectation of a showdown with the PMLN when every vote will count in Punjab and in Islamabad.  Moonis Elahi has fled the country and the SC wants the FIA to put out an Interpol red alert and extradite him. But Mr Malik is dragging his feet in much the same way as the law minister, Babar Awan, and the prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, are doing regarding the SC’s orders to revive the money laundering case against President Asif Zardari in Switzerland.

The FIA is also investigating the Benazir Bhutto assassination case at the behest of President Zardari. The surprising thing here is the inclusion of General Pervez Musharraf’s name among the accused without the approval of Mr Malik. Surprising, because the last thing GHQ wants is the public prosecution of a former army chief whose core aide was none other than the then DG-ISI, General Ashfaq Kayani, the current army chief. Since the last thing Mr Malik wants is to displease GHQ, we must conclude that someone else is pulling strings in the FIA to the detriment of the PPP.

The finger is pointing at Mian Nawaz Sharif. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi has said as much in the case of Moonis Elahi. There is nothing more that Mr Sharif wants than the elimination of the Chaudhrys from the political arena so that he can reclaim the runaway faction of the PMLQ. It is also Mr Sharif who personally hates General Musharraf the most and is threatened by his political prospects which will cut into the anti-PPP vote in Punjab that traditionally goes to the PMLN in an election. If this is the case, it shows that the opposition and the SC, rather than the government, are actually in control of some critical organs of the state and the PPP government doesn’t have a clue about how to counter them.

But it is the inept handling of the Raymond Davis case that has exposed the hollow leadership of the PPP, in the process losing a key stalwart like Shah Mahmood Qureshi. A smart government would have resolved the case in the first 48 hours. That is how long it takes to determine the key facts of diplomatic immunity and what is good in the national interest. A policy decision should then have followed. If Davis was to be handed over to the Americans, the Foreign Office should have said so unequivocally and the Sharifs in Punjab informed of it so that recourse to a court would not have been necessary. If immunity was not to be granted, then the PPP should have stood its ground and not let the PMLN score all the points with the media and public. In the event, however, the perception has gained currency that President Zardari was keen to let Davis off the hook but Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his runaway FO had dug their heels in and were leaking half-truths to foreclose the PPP government’s options.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s role is dubious too. Why did he allow the FO to leak like a sieve and embarrass the government? Why did he refuse to accept the Water and Power ministry, thereby publicly spurning the President and Prime Minister?  Why did he give an interview to a reporter and lay down the FO’s view before the FO had formally given it in court as required by law? The conclusion is inescapable: Mr Qureshi was simultaneously playing both to the galleries and to GHQ which didn’t want the government to capitulate before the Americans – the public hates America and GHQ wants a tougher negotiating position, not least because it is really pissed off with the Mumbai case against the DG-ISI in America. Mr Qureshi will now have a hard time disproving a powerful sentiment and suspicion in the rank and file of the PPP that he is another disloyal, nay treacherous, renegade like Mr Farooq Leghari in 1996. What next?

Senator John Kerry came to Pakistan to find a way out of this mess. The PPP doesn’t have a grip on the case and the PMLN is playing a double game, publicly showing the people that it is not bothered by American pressure but secretly co-operating with the Americans. A possible outcome may be that Davis is set free on the basis of acknowledgement of diplomatic status, and a self-defense plea coupled with diyat or compensation to the three affected families.

Winners and losers

February 25 – March 03, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 02

 

The 45-day deadline given to the Zardari government for carrying out major economic and political reforms by Nawaz Sharif has ended in deadlock. The PMLN’s chief negotiator, Ishaq Dar, says enigmatically that “some glasses are only half full, others are empty.”

Consequently, Mr Sharif has embarked on the campaign trial, relishing the rhetorical chants of “Damadam Mast Qalandar” from excited party supporters. The PMLN is also ready to chuck out the PPP from its coalition government in the Punjab and embrace the so-called Unification Block of 47 turncoats, or lotas, of the PMLQ to keep its Assembly majority intact. The Speaker has accordingly allotted separate seats to them as the “real” PMLQ.

But the PPP isn’t twiddling its thumbs. Mr Zulfikar Mirza, <I>  l’enfant terrible </I>  of the party, has lashed out at the PMLN.  He’s the bad cop, along with the likes of Babar Awan. The good cop is the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, who is trying to draw Mr Sharif away from street agitation for an early election. Chaudhry Zaheeruddin, leader of the PPP in the Punjab assembly, has also challenged the Unification Block’s right to split from the PMLQ without being disqualified from parliament as per law.

At stake are two critical issues that have a bearing on the prospects of the two mainstream parties contending for power. These are the PMLN’s demands for a truly independent or neutral Election Commission and National Accountability Bureau. But the PPP cannot concede these wittingly without playing itself out of the game – the NAB certainly stands in the way of implementing the National Reconciliation Ordinance corruption cases against President Zardari and other PPP stalwarts while the EC is a balancing factor of sorts vis a vis higher court judges who are inclined to tilt in favour of the PMLN that helped restore them to power nearly two years ago.

This factor should not be glossed over. The Punjab government is hanging on to power on the basis of a dubious “stay order” by the Supreme Court against a judgment of the Lahore High Court (LHC) supported by the EC disqualifying CM Shahbaz Sharif from being a member of parliament. The status of the PMLQ <I>  lotas</I>   – and therefore of the PMLN Punjab government – is also in contention. The LHC has asked the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly to approach the EC and resolve this issue. But the Speaker is refusing to budge. An appeal against the Speaker is “pending” in the LHC – another de facto “stay”, as it were, favouring the Punjab government. It may be recalled that in 2002, a PPP MNA, Chaudhry Zafar Iqbal Warriach, had to resign his seat and contest a by-election in order to be legally entitled to switch over to the PMLQ. But when Saba Sadiq, a PMLQ member of the Punjab Assembly, violated the law by voting against the party’s position, the Speaker refused to forward a complaint against her to the EC and the LHC declined to give any relief to the PMLQ. Since this is a harbinger of what to expect by way of justice from the Speaker or the LHC, the PPP obviously thinks it is within its reciprocal rights to give a hard time to the PMLN on the question of the EC and NAB.

If Mr Sharif insists on launching street agitation for regime change in Islamabad and throws out the PPP from the Punjab government by clutching at the Unification Block for survival, there will be trouble, especially if the courts continue to tilt against the PPP, destroying their credibility. Much more worrying, however, is the impact of such squabbling on the credibility and sustainability of “democracy” and the mainstream politicians who are constantly undermining it.

Mr Sharif should not overlook another critical factor. In a free and fair election, there is no certitude that the PMLN would win a majority in Islamabad, given the established vote banks of the PPP in Sindh, MQM in Karachi, ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the independent tribal leaders in Balochistan and FATA. Punjab itself could be divided between Southern, Central and Northern regions and the anti-PPP vote split among the Jamaat i Islami, Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf, PLMQ and PMLN.

If the PPP is compelled to order a fresh election, that would leave the issue of NAB and EC reform hanging in the air. President Zardari would form a pro-PPP caretaker government. The PMLN won’t accept it. The courts will then be petitioned to resolve such issues. What if, in the interests of their credibility and ambitions, they should decide to postpone the elections and support a medium term caretaker regime of technocrats that is hostile to both the PPP and PMLN in deference to the anti-politician wave developing in the country?

In the event, Mr Zardari’s loss may not turn out to be Mr Sharif’s gain. Therefore the latter would be advised to extend the deadline for reform while maintaining pressure that would help rather than derail the two-party system. An orderly and sustainable political transition for better governance is the need of the hour. Political instability will breed anarchy and violence, hurt the economy and country and give a heads-up to the invisible and visible soldiers of “political Islam”.

Revolution or anarchy?

March 4-10, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 03

 

The word “inqilab” or “revolution” is on every Pakistani’s lips despite the visible slide into anarchy as demonstrated by two top assassinations in two months – that of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and the Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. The poor are hoping for it and the rich are fearful of it. Mr Altaf Hussain has compelled Mr Nawaz Sharif to clutch at it and the two have jointly propelled Pir Sahib Pagaro, a self-proclaimed GHQ man, to announce the dire necessity of a 40 year military interregnum to set things right!  Is Pakistan ripe for it?

No, it isn’t. The collapsing autocratic kleptocracies in the Middle East are being rocked by populist forces for democracy and freedom, much like absolutist Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century and Communist Eastern Europe in the late 1980s at the fag end of the Cold War. Each revolutionary wave was secular and each changed the global balance of power in the world. But no such secular revolutionary movement for “liberty, equality and fraternity” is churning in the bowels of Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan’s history is littered with relatively successful, but non-secular, popular movements for democracy and liberation from dictatorships. The first student-led revolt in 1968 ousted the secular military government of General Ayub Khan. The second multi-party led agitation in 1977 chucked out the secular autocratic regime of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The third popular revolt was only three years ago when young lawyers and a free media swept the moderate government of General Pervez Musharraf from power.

That’s why, despite three decades of military rule and one decade of fascism under a civilian government, and unlike the states of the ME where non-Islamist (but not necessarily secular) democratic change is in the air, Pakistan has an established multi-party political system, regular and broadly acceptable general elections, a fairly consensual constitution, noisy federal and provincial parliaments and a fiercely free media and independent judiciary. So we have none of the political s suffocation and repression that has characterized much of the ME.

Does this mean that Pakistan is immune from the winds of change blowing in the rest of the Muslim world? No, it doesn’t mean that at all.

Some similarities with the ME are striking. Over 60 per cent of the population of Pakistan, like in most ME countries, is under 30 years. Most of it is unemployed, alienated and angry because the democratic system is not delivering. Like the ME, anti-Americanism is rife. And like the ME, there is outrage against the double standards of the West in supporting the decadent, exploitative and oppressive ruling elites in the Third World while simultaneously exporting ideas of democracy, freedom, human rights and liberalism.

This suggests that the idea of “revolution, people’s power and radical change” is in the air even in Pakistan. But the growing tragedy is that this sentiment is anti-democracy, anti-secularism, anti-liberalism and anti-pluralism because the system of political democracy a la Westminster has only served to sustain a game of musical chairs for corrupt politicians and grasping soldiers who have been living off economic rents and military handouts from the United States in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives in South and West Asia. Pakistani democracy is characterized by 3 Ds: dynastic, dysfunctional and discredited.

So is Pakistan headed for an “Islamic revolution” like Iran under Ayatollah Khomeni in 1979?  No, it isn’t. Iran lent itself to an Islamic revolution because it was uniquely different from other Muslim countries. It is ethnically united and religiously homogenous. Also, it had a class of religious scholars who were all united behind one leader. But Pakistan is not ripe for such an Islamist revolution. It is ethnically divided and intensely sectarian, with strong regional sub-nationalisms and ethnic loyalties that cut into religious unity, as demonstrated by the secession of East Pakistan in 1971 and the failure of the MMA to make a dent in politics

Under the circumstances, what sort of change is possible in Pakistan?

A fresh election is not a sufficient condition for radical change. Nor is a technocratic regime a long term option because the media and judiciary will tire of the arrangement and challenge it.

The flash points in Pakistan are deeply worrying. Foreign policy is based on passion rather than interest. The economy is wilting under the strain of corruption, debt servicing and defense spending. Increasing religiosity and anti-Americanism are keeping foreign investors at bay. The mad scramble to stockpile nuclear weapons is ringing alarm bells everywhere. The proliferation of armed jihadi and Taliban groups is posing severe problems for installing liberal democracy, building peace with India and doing business with the West. If a war with India is provoked or there is conflict with the US, then all bets will be off.

The elements of a failing state are assassination, anarchy, civil strife, war, economic meltdown and secession. The only realistic option is for our political leaders to keep religious passion out of law and politics, anti-American outrage out of economic and foreign policy, and unaccountable corruption and inefficiency out of government. We must make liberal secular democracy work so that Pakistan can survive and prosper as a nation-state.

No-Fly Zone

March 11-17, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 04

 

Shahbaz Sharif has put the cat (or rather three cats) among the pigeons by proposing a great and grand conference of  “all the political stake holders” of the country, including the judiciary, army and media, to take stock of the deteriorating situation and cobble a national consensus on how to set things right. This is rich, coming as it does from the leader of a party that, in 1998, stormed the supreme court of Pakistan for demanding judicial autonomy from an overbearing PMLN executive, sacked an army chief for advocating a national security council for consultation of all stake holders, and tried to silence the media for exposing corruption at the highest levels of the PMLN government. What has compelled him to make this extraordinary suggestion?

On the face of it, the idea seems eminently reasonable. Indeed, the country’s slide into political anarchy and economic meltdown warrants some desperate remedial steps. The situation is such that no single political party or leader can even pretend to speak for all the people of the country – so divided and factionalized has polity become in regional, ethnic, linguistic, religious and class terms – and everyone must give and take a little in order to ensure that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

But why has the idea been floated now? Until a week ago, the Sharifs were not even ready to concede a day longer than the 45 day deadline to the PPP government to fulfill a 10 point political economy agenda that would take any selfless, competent and honest government to complete in a full five year term? Which government can privatize the leaking public sector enterprises overnight without being accused of corruption, due process and lack of transparency by the judiciary and media? Which government can afford to sack hundreds of thousands of surplus employees, or give them golden handshakes, in an election year, and that too when the kitty is empty? Which government can afford to appoint a chairman of NAB whose first task, egged on by the Sharifs and the judges, would be to bring the government down and put its leaders in prison?

Are the Sharifs are now trying to achieve their political aims by some other means? Do they fear that the gathering storm may bury them along with the PPP and are therefore trying to co-opt or neutralize those forces (“stake-holders”) that might wish to exploit the situation?

Many anti-PPP and anti-PMLN views are gathering momentum in the country. People are saying that neither is capable of delivering the goods, that both are incompetent, dynastic and corrupt. There is growing talk of the need for a “bloody revolution” led by a General-saviour, backed by a populist judge, to sweep away all pests. In this milieu, the suo motu-wielding popular chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and the enigmatic, homespun, nationalist army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, are beginning to loom larger than life. The former may owe his service restoration to Nawaz Sharif and the latter his service extension to Asif Zardari but in the popular imagination and perception neither can claim to be a truly independent, fair and patriotic savior until he has shrugged off this restoration-service burden.

Therefore Shahbaz Sharif’s extraordinary proposal is not so inexplicable after all. It is aimed, first, at uniting all the anti-PPP and anti-Zardari stakeholders in order to compel the PPP government to take unpopular belt-tightening economic steps that would alienate it further from the masses and save the next government (Presumably PMLN) from having to implement them; second, and more ominously, it would force the PPP and its leaders, especially Mr Zardari, to sign their own political death warrants by conceding executive authority to the judges and political decision making to the generals. Third, and this is the critical factor uppermost in the minds of the Sharifs, it would compromise the judge and general, amidst the cacophony and din of democracy and democrats, into sanctioning a “democratic” transition to rule by the Sharifs after an appropriately sanctioned general election. How can the dynamic duo partake of cobbling a democratic consensus as two of its core stakeholders and then, in the same breath, seek to replace it with something more or less dubious?

This is a great rhetorical flourish by Shahbaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif is conveniently absent from the scene so that, if necessary, he can later disavow any invitation to the army to come to the rescue of the country, a position he has forcefully articulated before quite often. But the political stakeholders are no fools. They too know which side their bread is buttered on. Mr Zardari is not going to “invite” the judge and general to “gherao” him and dictate terms.  And the judge and general are not going to do the bidding of the Sharifs if it means shuttering down on their own independent options and personal ambitions.

This proposal is not going to fly.  But sincere, unsuspecting folks at large will doubtless see it as a great and patriotic gesture by the PMLN to jointly and selflessly tackle the myriad problems of the country, and another sign of the unbending and selfish attitude of the PPP in leading the country into an abyss.

Of Sacred Cows and other conspiracy theories

March 18-24, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 05

 

The DG-ISPR, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, has provoked a debate about the size and significance of the defense budget in the context of “national security”. His statement makes several points that cannot go unchallenged.

(1) He says: “The use of funds in civilian departments should be streamlined instead of criticising the defence budget”. He’s right, of course, about the accountability of the civilians and how they are given to overspending, misspending and stealing public money. But that doesn’t mean that civilians have no right to criticise the army’s spending habits. Armies all over the world are big gulpers and some of the biggest commission and kickback scams in history are related to arms purchases.

(2) He says: “The Army performs its duties as per government policy… the government determines the size of the Army”. Formally, of course, he is right since the army is an organ of the state that is represented by a duly elected parliament and government. But in practise, as everyone knows, the Pakistan army remains a state above a state and takes its orders from its army chief and not the prime minister or president or parliament or cabinet of Pakistan. GHQ determines its own financial needs and insists that its definition of national security along with its political and financial imperatives must prevail.

(3) He says: “The army has to prepare itself according to the defence capabilities of the enemy”. True. But two questions arise: Who is the “enemy”? What is the difference between an arms race and minimal optimal defense? Presumably, the “enemy” is still India. But this doesn’t wash any more like it did after partition. The PPP, PMLN, MQM, ANP, and even the JUI – in other words, all those who represent the people of Pakistan – don’t think it serves any purpose any longer to continue thinking of India as ‘the enemy”, especially if the economic welfare of the people has to be sacrificed at the altar of military confrontation with India when the Kashmiris have announced their opposition to join Pakistan or remain within India.

(4) He says: “No army in the world can disclose its development budget to the public”. But development budgets of all armies in democratic countries are subject to detailed scrutiny and overview by select committees of parliament, sometimes in-camera. The problem in Pakistan is that GHQ is so contemptuous of elected representatives that it is loth to allow them to examine their accounts and debate their options even in-camera.

(5) He says: “If civilian governments consider that they could diminish the perils to the country through negotiation with India, then reductions in the army could take place”. However, the record shows that whenever any PM has tried to smoke the peace pipe with India, he/she has been sacked by the army. This happened to Benazir Bhutto in 1990 and Nawaz Sharif in 1999.

(6) He says: “Several agencies from some enemy countries have been working to drive a wedge between the army and public… Anti-Pakistan elements are trying to establish that the army is a burden on national development”. Nonsense. There are no buyers for such vilification campaigns against well meaning and patriotic critics.

(7) He says: “An analysis of the budget would reveal that the defence budget has decreased ratio-wise. At present, the ratio of defence budget is 14 percent of the national budget”. But this is a misleading figure. The national budget comprises bank borrowing, foreign loans and grants etc and is always in deficit. Look at more revealing statistics. This year, the tax base is about Rs 1600 billion. Out of that the army will get about Rs 800 billion, or nearly half. Of course, if the tax base could be doubled, the army’s slice would diminish to 25%, which is manageable. But until that happens, the army cannot be exempted from some belt-tightening, regardless of the visible and invisible insurgencies it is fighting.

(8) He says: “Pakistan is allocating only $4 billion for defence whereas India’s defence budget is $36 billion. Before designing our preparedness we have to see how strong our enemy is and what is its capability.” The first part of the statement is correct but the second doesn’t logically follow from it. It is true that India’s defense budget has increased by 40 per cent in the last two years, making India the biggest importer of arms in the world. But India’s economy has been growing at about 6.5 per cent per annum over the last twenty years and its Tax:GDP ratio is about 17 per cent, enabling it to spend more on defense. In comparison, Pakistan’s average growth rate has been about 3 per cent in the last twenty years and its Tax:GDP ratio is 9 per cent.  By this yardstick – GDP growth and Tax;GDP ratio – Pakistan’s defense budget should be no more than $1 bn. The second part – about the “enemy’s capability” – is even less defensible, especially if its enemy status is in doubt. Indeed, that is a recipe for an unsustainable arms race that will cripple Pakistan in view of its political and economic dysfunctionality, – much like the Cold War did to the USSR. Without a prosperous and stable country, what use is a bloated army?

Confrontation or Reconciliation?

March 25-31, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 06

 

President Asif Zardari’s address March 22 to a joint session of parliament, an annual constitutional requirement, was a bit of a milestone in Pakistan’s political history. It was his fourth to the same parliament, a record of sorts since no elected parliament has lasted for longer than three years (barring the one under the military’s tutelage from 1999 to 2007) since democracy came to Pakistan in 1988. It was significant too because many pundits had predicted that President Zardari would be knocked down by the Supreme Court on one count or another before 2011. More critically, it was expected to be a stormy affair, with opposition and some coalition partners drowning out his speech with raucous protests.

In the event, nothing of the sort happened. The opposition merely walked out and President Zardari rapidly notched up his government’s achievements without interruption. The occasion was supposed to be a barometer of regime change because the opposition was expected to show its full strength before the final heave-ho. It has lived up to its promise, but only to prove the opposite – that the opposition is divided, the coalition partners are unsure and neither President Zardari nor the PPP government is about to be shown the door any time soon.

There are two main reasons for this. First, the politicians did not live up to their raucous reputations and bring parliament into disrepute because they have come to realize that their own credibility and longevity is linked to the sustainability of parliament. The man on the street is sick and tired of them. The leader of one coalition partner – Altaf Hussain of the MQM – is thundering about the urgent need for “patriotic generals” and “hanging judges” to bury all bickering, corrupt and incompetent politicians. And the sweeping winds of change in the Middle East have provoked a popular hankering for a “revolution” a la Khomeini in Pakistan! Second, there is growing unease in the main opposition PMLN that any enforced regime change via a quick general election might be an excuse for the “hanging judges and patriotic generals” to hijack the transition and put a full-stop not only to the political career of Mr Zardari but also to that of Mr Nawaz Sharif in the interest of “evenhanded accountability” and “political equity”.

Therefore President Zardari lives to fight another day. But there are battles yet to be fought and won. He vowed to uphold the supremacy of parliament and said he would not let anyone usurp its powers. As if to drive his point home, he insisted that “all institutions should work within their constitutional parameters” and went on the next day – Pakistan Day March 23 – to laud and award all the members of parliament from across the political spectrum who had consensually hammered out the 18thand 19thamendments to the constitution in the last few months. He was thus sending a strong message to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, that parliament would not be pushed by the judges in matters relating to the appointment of judges, heads of NAB, the Election Commission or in administrative and executive matters. This is as concrete as it can get to a state of confrontation between the judiciary and parliament.

The SC began by rejecting the 18thconstitutional amendment provisions relating to the appointment of judges by a Judicial Commission slightly tilted in favour of parliament and government. It has now held that the final authority in the same matter is not the Parliamentary Commission as laid down by the 19thamendment but the SC itself via a Judicial Commission in which a majority are nominees of the CJP. This judgment, in effect, means to roll back the 19thamendment that was universally acclaimed as a sensible compromise between the SC and parliament. But this isn’t all. The SC has also rejected Mr Zardari’s nominee for the post of NAB Chairman and Chief Election Commissioner, arguing that the consultation (read approval) of the CJP is also necessary for such appointments. Earlier, the SC had ordered the government to sack the FIA chief because he was deemed to be dragging his feet in implementing the SC’s orders – orders, it may be noted, that effectively undermined the person and politics of Mr Zardari and some of his associates.

But if confrontation with the judges is on the cards, reconciliation with the opposition is on Mr Zardari’s agenda too. He pointedly said “webelieve in reconciliation, not confrontation.” This is not mere rhetoric or opportunism. It cannot be lost on Mr Sharif that the “hanging judges” and “patriotic generals” could prove as damning to him as to Mr Zardari. And Mr Sharif has had his share of brushes with strident generals and judges in the past. ?

So the game is by no means over. If the judges and generals are hankering for a government of their own, the government and opposition in parliament are thinking of reconciling their mutual interests to thwart them. The chips are down for Mr Zardari, to be certain, but Mr Sharif has not yet decided to encash his own. There are two milestones ahead that will determine which way Pakistan will go: the budget in June and a fresh election before March 2012 – a year before the term of this parliament ends. If Mr Zardari and Mr Sharif can affix their thumbs to this sort of “reconciliation” in the next month or so, they may yet be able to save the system.

Win-win situation

April 1-7, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 07

 

The hand-wringing and soul-searching following Pakistan’s cricket semi-finals defeat at Mohali has begun in earnest. The electronic media created a nationalist do-or-die hype to rake in the ads and is now screaming and shouting at the post mortem to keep its ratings high.

Before the match, the weight of history was with the side batting first which has won in 72 per cent of all matches played at Mohali. The experts and bookies had also tilted in India’s favour. It had a better batting line-up, half a dozen players were firing on all cylinders, captain MS Dhoni was tried and tested for Tests, ODIs and 20/20s. The Indian cricketers were also playing before a highly charged and partisan home crowd. Pakistan, by contrast, was just beginning to shrug off the burden of shame and demoralization after the match-fixing scandal in England last year that laid three of its most talented players low, captain Shahid Afridi had a spotty record, and the youngsters were not fully groomed. Indeed, it was remarkable that they had beaten giant-killers like Australia and the West Indies to inch their way to the top.

After the match, however, all this has been forgotten. “Stunning defeat” screams one headline, as though victory was all but foretold. “Allah didn’t answer our prayers”, bemoans another, because we let the American spy Raymond Davis go scot-free and thereby besmirched our honour as Pakistanis and diluted our faith as Muslims. There is no shortage of cricketing explanations targeting Umar Gul for bad bowling, Misbahul Haq for slow batting and the team for dropping catches. Captain Afridi’s decision not to take the Power Play option at the right time has also figured as inexplicable and indefensible.

In the heat and dust of battle, however, two key facts have been overlooked in Pakistan. First, the better performing and more professional Indian “team” won by using its brains and not brawn. This is largely a consequence of a developing Indian (not Hindu) mindset based on the mundane but fierce aspirations of an upwardly mobile, educated, secular, middle-class that is billing itself not only as an organized, disciplined and reliable engine of economic and cultural growth but also as a most attractive emerging market with disposable money in an increasingly flat world. This is in stark contrast to Pakistan in which the state is riddled with problems of identity (Muslim or Pakistani) and notions of national interest (honour versus interests), and Pakistanis are consequently grappling with multiple crises of economy, culture, education, integration and cohesion. This is a recipe for pride and passion in all aspects of life and sport, not professionalism and principle. Interesting, the other cricket match finalist is another secular South Asian country, Sri Lanka, which has nearly 100 per cent literacy, a high economic growth rate and has just won a civil war to unite the country and make it strong and unified. Both ambitious-country examples prove that while individual talent is a necessary condition for sporting success, the sufficient condition is provided by strong nationalist motivation based on a realistic sense of economic destiny and political confidence that stresses the role of unity, discipline and professionalism rather than faith or the hand of Providence alone in determining fate or destiny.

Second, the cricketing encounter has opened up the possibility of serious discussions about “permanent peace” between India and Pakistan. There are five main reasons for this initiative. First, Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is dogged by charges of corruption and mismanagement and is weaker today than at any time before. Personally, too, he is at the fag end of his political career without having made any great mark of distinction. So now was a good time to take a more inspiring initiative and invite the leaders of Pakistan to smoke the “permanent peace” pipe at Mohali, especially since the odds were heavily tilted in favour of an Indian victory. Second, India’s investigations into the Samjhota Express bombing case in which 47 Pakistani were killed have revealed the hand of Hindu extremists in India rather than Islamic hardliners in Pakistan. This gives Pakistan a fillip in countering India’s charge of sponsoring terrorism against Pakistan. Third, the Indian courts have convicted Ajmal Kasab but acquitted two Indian Muslims of links with the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayba leader Hafiz Saeed, thereby debunking the claims of India’s National Security Advisor MK Narayanan that all three were taking orders from Mr Saeed. This too has weakened India’s charge-sheet against Pakistan’s ISI.  Fourth, India’s quest for a permanent Security Council seat at the UN requires it to be reasonable and responsible by at least mending fences with its neighbours, especially nuclear-armed Pakistan. Fifth, a continuation of India’s rapid economic growth is predicated on a permanent peace and trading relations with its neighbours rather than the specter of nuclear war and terrorist subversion.

Pakistan has invited Dr Singh to visit Pakistan and make a notable gesture of permanent peace. He should seize the day. At least Siachin and Sir Creek are amenable to quick resolution as all Indian and Pakistani diplomats and pundits know. So India’s win at Mohali needs to be cemented with an Indo-Pak “win” in Lahore during Dr Singh’s visit to Pakistan as soon as possible.

Political passion and legal prejudice

April 8-14, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 8

 

President Asif Zardari has filed a “Reference” before the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) asking it to “revisit” the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto murder case verdict (which sent him to the gallows in 1979) and give its opinion on whether or not justice was done to the founder of the PPP and former Prime Minister of Pakistan. All legal remedies, including a review appeal before the SC, were exhausted at the time. But the President is allowed at any time under Article 186 of the Constitution “to obtain the opinion of the Supreme Court on any question of law which he considers of public importance”.

By any reckoning, this is a shrewd, nay cunning, political move. Mr Zardari is besieged by the SC on many counts and desperately needs to shore up his political defenses. The SC has ordered his government to ask the Swiss authorities to reopen the money laundering and corruption cases against him. But the regime is dragging its feet on this issue. The SC has ordered the government to notify the appointment of six judges to the High Courts of Punjab and Sindh. But the government is not inclined to obey the order. The SC has ordered the removal of the DG-FIA. But the government is obfuscating the issue. The SC has ordered the appointment of a new chairman of the National Accountability Bureau after “consultation” with the Chief Justice of Pakistan. But the government is ignoring it. The SC is holding contempt proceedings against two PPP stalwarts for badmouthing the court and instigating a strike in Sindh province against its “anti-PPP decisions”. But the two are defiant, saying they will court arrest if necessary to reaffirm their views. Finally, the Lahore High Court may say that Mr Zardari cannot be both President and Chairman of PPP simultaneously. This will provoke another bitter battle in the SC.

Mr Bhutto’s murder trial, by all accounts, was a mockery of justice by a venal dictator and servile judiciary. The murder case was lodged in the Lahore High Court directly in the first instance instead of in a lower criminal court as required by legal practice. The chief justice of the LHC, Maulvi Mushtaq, was appointed by General Zia ul Haq and nursed a vicious grudge against Mr Bhutto for having denied him elevation earlier. The trial proceedings in the LHC were marred by unseemly and adverse remarks by Maulvi Mushtaq whose bias stood out like a sore thumb. The entire case hinged on the confessional testimony of one man who had turned state witness or approver. The nine member bench of the Supreme Court that heard the appeal was not reconstituted as required by law after two of its members exited on one count or another during the trial. The 4:3 split judgment demonstrated such deep divisions in the bench that the maximum death penalty awarded was totally unwarranted. The review appeal in the SC was rejected by all seven judges on the basis of a technical point, even though the judgment noted the President’s power in the mercy petition (that followed automatically) to reduce the sentence from death to life imprisonment, to no avail. Later, at least one of the judges who held against Mr Bhutto, and later became Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, publicly admitted to severe political pressure on the judges from General Zia ul Haq to send Mr Bhutto to the gallows. The judgment was considered so bad that it has never since been referred to or quoted in the case law of Pakistan.

If the SC admits to the popular and legal consensus that Mr Bhutto’s trail and conviction was a travesty of justice, the PPP will be vindicated in its claims that the judiciary, as an arm of the “establishment”, is biased against it and its leaders. If it doesn’t, it will provide grist to the sub-nationalist mills in Sindh that the “martyrdom” of the Sindhi Bhuttos is part and parcel of the scheme of the Punjabi-dominated military-bureaucratic (civil service and judiciary) state of Pakistan that is inimical to sharing power with the smaller provinces. Therefore it was not accidental that Mr Zardari also raised the emotive issue of the murder case of Benazir Bhutto in his April 4th speech (on the occasion of the anniversary of Mr Bhutto’s execution) at the Bhuttos’ mausoleum in Naudero where father, daughter and son Murtaza (another “martyr”) are buried. This is the so-called “Sindh card”, a cunning recourse to Sindhi passion to decry Punjabi prejudice and oppression – an oblique reference to the sense of deprivation and injustice that led the Bengalis of East Pakistan to secede from Pakistan in 1971. It is aimed at putting Mr Zardari’s legal and political foes on notice for the “consequences of their anti-PPP decisions”.

The battle of wits, law and politics between Mr Zardari and his political-military-judicial detractors and opponents is entering a dangerous phase. Contempt of court writs and notices against high and low in the PPP governments and parliaments in Islamabad and Sindh are bound fly thick and fast. If there is gridlock, the army will be the final arbiter, and Pakistan will be the big loser again.

Long hot summer

April 15-21, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 09

 

President Asif Zardari is cosy with COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and DG-ISI Lt General Shuja Pasha. The former has been given a full three year second term and the latter has got a second one-year extension. GHQ has seized full charge of foreign policy. Does this mean that the PPP, historically an “anti-establishment” party, has now become a “pro-establishment” party?

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the leader of the PMLN opposition in parliament, has lashed out at the ISI, accusing it of degrading democracy, playing puppets and polluting polity. He says the ISI is “meddling in the political affairs of the country and going beyond legal boundaries… it is making and breaking political parties… funding specific parties to create a new political alliance”.  He insists that the PMLN will not allow the army “to cross its limits”. Does this mean that the PMLN, historically a “pro-establishment” party, has now become an “anti-establishment” party?

The short answer to both questions is no, the PPP and PMLN are not unequivocally pro or anti-establishment parties; they are simply responding to the exigencies of political survival in a tilted civil-military paradigm in uncertain times.

In the beginning the PPP tried but failed to seize control of the ISI’s internal political wing. It then roped in Washington to insert some anti-military clauses in the Kerry-Lugar bill but had to retreat on that front too. Stung twice, President Zardari thought political opportunism the better part of political valour and meekly submitted to GHQ. Meanwhile, besieged by the newly independent judiciary – the second pillar of the establishment – he dug his heels in and vowed to resist its administrative encroachments with all his might.

Similarly, the PMLN, which is still smarting from the army’s misadventure in Kargil whose blame it had to shoulder, is now fuming at the ISI’s manipulation of the media and public opinion against the PMLN in the Raymond Davis case. It is also alarmed at the ISI’s attempt to prop up Imran Khan. Who else but the ISI could have arranged Imran Khan’s meetings with the two persons he is on record as hating the most, General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and the MQM’s Altaf Hussain? Who else but the ISI could be trying to mould the Tehreek-e-Insaf into an electoral party at the expense of the PMLN in Punjab? Who else but the ISI might be trying to cobble an electoral alliance of MQM, APML, TI, JI and JUI to field against the PMLN and PPP in time to come?  Who else but the PPP and PMLN should know how such strings are pulled from behind the scenes by the ISI, the former for having been its victim and the latter a beneficiary at one time?

The relationship of the two mainstream parties to the judiciary is also instructive. The PPP is at the receiving end of the judges while the PMLN basks in their glory.  But the truth is that if Nawaz Sharif had been in Asif Zardari’s shoes, given his track record, he would’ve been more belligerent and dogged in defying the Supreme Court.

Notwithstanding the exigencies of power politics, however, Mr Zardari’s PPP and Mr Sharif’s PMLN are inclined to shed some old identification tags. The new PPP is not a blend of hardline ideologues and opportunist pragmatists as it was in Benazir Bhutto’s time. It is choking with sub-nationalists and loyalists who think nothing of licking the boots of the military to cling to power. On the other side, Mr Sharif’s team has been shorn of perennial GHQ-evergreens like the Chaudhries of Gujrat, Mushahid Hussain, Pir Pagaro, while ISI-types like Brig Billa and Gen Hameed Gul have been banished, and outspoken advocates of civilian supremacy over the military like Pervez Rashid, Chaudhry Nisar, Saad Rafique, Tehmina Daulatana and Ahsan Iqbal unleashed to set the record straight. This has raised the alarm in GHQ and compelled the khakis to spread out their plans and begin their war games. One of their cards is Imran Khan.

Another significant factor is impinging on the developing scenario. This is the rise of an outspoken media and judiciary. Each seems determined to carve out a place for itself in the struggle for power. In the short term, both are covering each other’s flanks while jointly exhibiting anti-politician cynicism and pro-military tilts. In the longer term, however, both are likely to remain hostile to any direct military intervention.  This explains why GHQ is content to work with the PPP at arms length, stay close to the judiciary without succumbing to its anti-PPP pressure, retain the support of the media on national security issues and refrain from baiting the PMLN too directly or aggressively.

But this fragile equilibrium is not likely to last beyond the year. US-Pak relations are rapidly deteriorating, tugging Pakistan’s polity and economy into the eye of a gathering storm. The PPP’s governance is crumbling. The military is weighing its domestic and foreign policy options. The SC is circling its PPP prey. The PMLN is girding its loins for an electoral heave-ho. The media is itching to spring into action, all cameras homing in. And every manner of terrorist and extremist is working overtime to create anarchy, confrontation and civil strife. It is going to be a long, hot summer.

Jockeying for power

April 22-28, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 10

 

Political engineering is the name of the game. There is news of two parallel developments that will shape the nature of politics in the run-up to the next election and possibly after it. The first is a strategic decision by the PMLQ and PPP to join hands as coalition partners in Islamabad this month and electoral allies next year; the second is a strategic decision by the military to cobble an electoral alliance comprising Imran Khan’s PTI, the “Like-Minded” breakaway rump of the PML-Q, Gen Pervez Musharraf’s APML, JI, MQM and JUI. All this jockeying for power makes sense.

The PPP is sick to death of the constantly blackmailing tactics of the MQM and JUI. They’re in and out of the coalition every other day. With the budget two months away, President Asif Zardari can’t afford to take any chances in the numbers game. Failure would amount to a vote of no-confidence and curtains for his government. So he needs a stable partner who’s out in the cold and desperate to climb into bed with him. The PMLQ fits the bill nicely. It has as many MNAs to offer as the MQM and JUI combined. But not perfectly, because it was the “Qatil” League only three years ago after Mr Zardari accused it of murdering Benazir Bhutto. It is also a good electoral partner to have in the Punjab where it will eat into the anti-PPP vote bank targeted by Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN and the PTI-led alliance that is in the offing. In a three way fight, the PPP-PMLQ alliance with creative seat adjustments – on the basis of the new population census which will significantly change the constituency landscape – has a great chance of bumping off its rivals in many hotly contested constituencies.

The PMLQ’s leaders, Chaudhry Pervez Elahi and Chaudry Shujaat, have barely managed to hold their own in the face of raids on their uneasy MNAs by the PMLN in Punjab. Abandoned by the military after General Musharraf’s exit, they need to clutch at someone’s coattails for survival. The PPP under Mr Zardari is as pragmatic as it can get, which suits the Chaudhries and all those old and new Muslim Leaguers who can’t stomach Nawaz Sharif’s autocratic ways or fear his vindictive tendencies. Imran Khan’s anti-corruption, anti-establishment, revolutionary rhetoric is not palatable either. And since Mr Zardari has clarified that his reference to the “Qatil” League was aimed at General Musharraf and not the Chaudhries – which is why Gen Musharraf is in the dock for the murder of Benazir Bhutto and not the Chaudhries – the route is open for their alliance.

This PPP-PMLQ alliance will be based on a detailed MOU about key issues of policy and power-sharing during crunch times ahead. Among these are budgetary proposals, AF-Pak and Pak-US relations, local body elections, seat adjustments, allocation of funds for MNAs and MPAs, allotment of ministries and advisorships, etc. The inevitable disgruntlement in their respective ranks and files will have to be handled effectively.

The military is backing Imran Khan as a spoiler. He is popular with young people. His problem is a lack of organizational ability to pull the voter out. But the ISI is a past master at creating parties and cobbling alliances – PNA, IJI, MMA – with a view to ensuring that no party gets such a majority that its leaders run amuck and break loose from their masters in GHQ, as happened with Mohammad Khan Junejo in 1987-88 and Nawaz Sharif 1999. So if Imran Khan & Co can split the vote and stop the PMLN from galloping past the poll, or the PPP from getting out of hand, the military’s objectives will be well served. One way to keep the civil-military imbalance tilted in its favour is to keep the civilians divided and disorganized.

All this leaves Nawaz Sharif in the lurch. If he pre-empts these moves by trying to oust the Zardari regime by joining hands with the MQM and JUI, he risks being sidelined by a third force comprising the judges, media and military which is rooting for a quasi-constitutional technocratic regime instead of him. If he bides his time, the PPP-PMLQ budding alliance will blossom to his disadvantage when the elections roll around.

The hard budget in June will test everyone’s nerves. The PPP and PMLQ will have to shoulder the burden of public hostility. An election soon thereafter could prove to be their death-knell. So they will want to keep the government and alliance going the full hog until Feb 2014, enabling them to live to fight a better day.

By the same measure, however, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan & Co will find no better opportunity than budget time to gird their loins for a final Heave-Ho and early election.

The X factor remains the Supreme Court. It has the capacity to upset the Chaudhry’s cart by derailing the political career of Moonis Elahi. It also seems intent on knocking Mr Zardari and his government. This is ominous. If there is gridlock between the executive and judiciary, the anti-American media and anti-politician military will become the arbiters of Pakistan’s fate. In the event, Pakistan’s fledgling democracy and ailing economy will suffer an epileptic fit again.

Drones, dharnas and terrorism

April 29 – May 05, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 11

 

Imran Khan’s “dharna” to protest drone strikes in FATA has been hailed by his supporters as highly “successful”. Political rivals aren’t impressed. They claim that “FATA tribesmen corralled by the agencies” provided the numbers. More to the point, however, is Imran Khan’s vow to return to the venue after one month and block NATO until America pledges to stop drone strikes for good. If Imran Khan is as good as his word to stop NATO in its tracks – which we doubt very much – and if America is as good as its word to continue with the drone strikes – which we don’t doubt too much – then we will have a serious problem on our hands. Meanwhile, it may be pertinent to present some facts and ask some sober questions about the politics of drone strikes in FATA versus Taliban terrorism in Pakistan.

There were 10 drone strikes from 2004-2007 and 226 from 2008-2011. The total number of those killed is about 2000. Maj Gen Ghayur Mahmud, GOC 7Div, North Waziristan, insists only a “few civilians” were killed in these attacks. In 2010, there were 117 drone attacks, mostly in North Waziristan against Al-Qaeda and foreign elements, and only 26 against the Haqqani network which is allegedly a Pakistani “asset”. Of the 21 strikes this year, 17 were in North Waziristan, which is apparently “kosher” for the Pakistani security forces too since the targets were Al-Qaeda foreigners. But no one wants to hear Gen Ghayur debunking the populist “myth” of drone strikes killing “numerous civilians”. Apparently it is good media and politics to let pride and passion run amuck even at the cost of the national interest.

Meanwhile, no one is bothered about the extent and frequency of the Taliban’s terrorism in Pakistan. There were over 3000 bomb explosions and attacks in which over 35,000 people were killed in the last seven years. Yet no politician cares to remind the public about this fact. The Taliban attacked more than 50 Muslim shrines, mosques, tombs and places of worship, killing more than 1100 people and seriously injuring over 3000.But no journalist cares to remind the public about this fact. More than 250 schools in FATA and over 200 in Swat were razed to the ground by the Taliban, but who cares. Nearly 80 security installations were attacked by the Taliban last year but there is no requiem for the<I>  shaheeds</I>  . The innocent civilians who perished at the hands of the Taliban in over 130 bomb attacks last year have no names, no families, no marked graveyards. Since 2003, nearly 10,000 civilians and 3500 soldiers and policemen have been snuffed out by the Taliban, yet many misguided people still view them as innocent soldiers of Islam!

Last Monday, the Taliban attacked and killed some Navy personnel in Karachi and were quick to claim responsibility. Yet there was no Imran Khan to condemn them and no journalist to expose their designs.

Imran Khan says: “Make me prime minister and I will end this conflict in three months”. How will he do this? He can pull out of the strategic alliance with America, stop NATO supplies to Afghanistan, close down US bases in Pakistan, kick out all Americans from Pakistan, and tell the IMF, World Bank etc to pack their bags and quit. Then he will make peace deals with the Taliban. End of problem?

No. We know from past experience that the peace deals with the Taliban merely emboldened them to seize more territory from the Pakistani state for their own promised Emirate of Islam. They don’t recognize democracy, they will not allow a free media, they hate the Anglo-Saxon justice system and they will disallow any multiplicity of political parties. Meanwhile, America and the international community will embrace India and sanction Pakistan. There will be no money for the budget and no money to buy and upgrade the military’s toys. The rich will flee to foreign shores along with their capital, the rupee will slide and inflation will strangle the people. The Taliban will then walk in to finish the job.

Imran Khan says that if the drone strikes end, the Taliban will peacefully lay down their arms and evaporate. But the record shows that the over 4000 Pakistanis had died at their hands even before the drones made a splash in North Waziristan in 2008.

Pakistan’s military must come clean with the people of Pakistan. Is the so-called “strategic alliance” with America in our interest or not? How should we negotiate with America and multilateral institutions? What are the consequences of a populist rupture with America? What sort of national consensus should politicians and the military aim to achieve on this issue?

It is not a good idea to help create and nurture a rabid anti-American national mindset for purposes of short-term leverage with America and then find that it is detrimental to the longer-term interest of Pakistan. This is what happened in the Raymond Davis case when we had to eat humble pie and face the wrath of our own people at the same time. The policy of renting our state out to America is bankrupt. It is not winning friends at home or abroad.

Operation Get OBL

May 6-12, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 12

 

The blinding success of the GET-OBL OP by US Special Forces last Monday has raised many critical questions. Was the Pakistani military leadership in the loop? If not, was the national security establishment doodling when two American helicopters were in Pakistani airspace for over one hour? Was the ISI deliberately hiding Osama bin Laden? If not, is it so incompetent that it was unaware of the presence in its own backyard of the most wanted man in the world? What are the repercussions of this incident on US-Pak relations?

The US did not take Pakistan into confidence because it feared the operation could be thwarted by elements in the ISI. This was partly due to the manifest distrust and tensions between the CIA and ISI in recent times over several issues, most notably the refusal of the Pak military to take action against the Haqqani network and LeT in North Waziristan, and the unpleasant, long drawn out Raymond Davis affair. It was partly due to the natural suspicion that OBL couldn’t be so brazenly living in Abbotabad without the ISI’s protection. These factors persuaded the Americans to go it alone – since 9/11, this is the first time that a joint operation against Al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Pakistan’s urban areas was ruled out, despite such joint-ops having netted over 20 top Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders on the basis of standard operating procedures (SOP – CIA Intel to identify target + Pak ground forces to raid and capture).

Two American helicopters took off from Bagram airbase in Afghanistan in the dead of night, at about midnight. They were bristling with Navy Seals for combat and sophisticated electronics to evade radar. They weaved in and out of valleys, hugging rooftops as they arrived undetected at the targeted compound in Abbotabad. One helicopter hovered over the target while the other looped off briefly to check out a similar compound nearby that seemed to be some sort of security installation. Then two Stun bombs were chucked at the target, which went off like two big bangs, knocking out the occupants of the compound without crushing or destroying the building. Rope ladders were unfurled and Navy Seals with sophisticated body armour and night vision weapons were lowered down at critical points of attack and defense. One of the helicopters was hit with fire from the compound and forced to land. The Seals stormed the compound, killed three men and one woman, shot dead OBL, scooped up incriminating material, tied up the three remaining women, and scrambled aboard one functioning helicopter with OBL’s corpse and his son. The helicopter took off, stopped at some distance, turned around and fired a missile at the helicopter on the ground and destroyed it. Then it looped over and headed towards Bagram Air Base. During this time, a gathering of the US High Command in the Situation Room in the White House in Washington watched the operation live, thanks to cameras and mics on the helicopter in the air that were linked to the Seals on the ground. “Geronimo EKIA”, Enemy Killed In Action, went out an excited voice to the White House, where it was received with shouts of joy and relief.

Shortly after reports of a helicopter mishap in Abbotabad hit the media around 1.20 am, not so far away in Rawalpindi, the DG-ISI was woken up by a phone call about a crashed helicopter. He called his people to ask: “Is it ours?” After a brief check, he was told, “no sir, it’s not ours”. He called up DG-MO. “Is it yours?” After a brief check he was told, “no sir, it’s not ours”. He called up his boys and told them to rush to the scene of the incident. He also called up the COAS General Kayani to brief him. The COAS called up the top military man in Abbotabad who ordered forces to rush to the area. The COAS also called up the PAF Air Chief. The Air Chief checked, explained that radar hadn’t picked up any intruders, and ordered two F-16s to scramble. When the ISI team arrived at the compound, they reported the burning wreckage of the chopper and the markings on its fin. They reported three dead men and one woman. They reported a wounded woman who spoke Arabic and halting English, and two other women who were unharmed. They noted there were sixteen children aged six to eight years approximately. The woman said she was OBL’s wife, along with two other women, and confirmed that OBL and his family had been living in the compound for six years. She said the Americans had attacked them, killed OBL and taken his corpse. Soon thereafter, the army arrived to seal off the area and whisk away the occupants and dead bodies in the compound.

Around 3 am, Admiral Mullen called General Kayani, and CIA chief, Leon Panetta, called DG-ISI, General Pasha. They explained the nature of the operation and why it had been kept a secret from them. President Obama called President Zardari at 7 am to acquaint him with the facts. They thanked the Pakistanis for providing the initial clues that led the CIA to the compound. What was this piece of information?

Sovereignty and accountability

May 12-18, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 13

 

The bad news is that “Operation Geronimo” of May 2, 2011, is the worst debacle for the Pakistani military establishment since the misadventure at Kargil in 1999. It has seriously shaken the confidence and belief of the nation in and for itself. The good news is that it may yet help tilt the civil-military imbalance towards an elected civilian parliament that is conscious of the urgent need to review and amend the “national security paradigm” that has been monopolized by the military since partition and is responsible for many of our problems. Consider.

The nation is awash with untenable and absurd conspiracy theories, mostly anti-American. This is a reflection of our impotence in the face of facts and our rage at being confronted with an unpalatable truth. Both the truth and the facts humiliate us by showing up our national and institutional weaknesses and compel us to manufacture delusional fictions to comfort ourselves. If Abbottabad was a “drama” enacted by the Americans for various reasons, if there was no Osama bin Laden in the compound, then we must also accept that the Pakistani military establishment was fully involved in the “drama”. It is the ISI that has told us, on the basis of the evidence of the three widows of OBL in its care, that OBL had lived in the compound for six years and was killed by the US Navy seals who stormed the compound last Monday – in which case we should ask for explanations and accountability at home from the military instead of fuming against the Americans as co-conspirators.

Much the same mass delusion and intellectual hypocrisy is attached to arguments about how America has “violated our sovereignty” in the OBL case. Of course, they have. But the drones “violate” it every week on the basis of secret rules of engagement agreed upon with the Americans many years ago by the Pakistani military high command that are still in play. The media knows this but doesn’t want to ask the military to explain it. Further, our sovereignty has truly been violated by the Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda foreign intruders in safe havens in Waziristan. To add injury to insult, these terrorists have killed over 35,000 Pakistanis in the last five years. But no one is focused on the existential threat to Pakistan from them. Indeed, stupid arguments are given that once the Americans leave Afghanistan these terrorists will simply vanish, ignoring their proclaimed mission statement to overthrow the state and constitution of Pakistan. Note also that anti-American terrorists like Ramzi Yusuf, Aimal Kansi, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Umer Sheikh, and dozens of others conspired to harm America from the soil of Pakistan long before 9/11.

The fact also is that our “sovereignty” was sold to America when our civil-military bureaucracy entered into unequal military pacts with the US in the 1950s, when it offered Pakistan as a “front-line” state for America in its war against the USSR when the rest of the post-colonial world was cobbling an autonomous “non-aligned movement”, when it sold our sufi soul to various jihadi organisations sponsored (as the modern-day equivalents of “America’s founding fathers” as per President Ronald Reagan) and paid for by America in Afghanistan. The civil-military bureaucracy hoodwinked Pakistanis by flogging it as a sovereign sale to “friends, not masters”. In the latest post 9/11 era, the US has paid $18 billion to Pakistan for buying into its “sovereignty” under General Pervez Musharraf and it is no surprise that much of this money has gone to replenish the Pakistani military or to line the pockets of usurpers.

Meanwhile, the military has fashioned a national security doctrine to suit its manufacture of a national security state. This is based on a “palpable and continuing threat from India” to undo Pakistan. In its latest formulation, the threat is supposed to emanate from India’s “capacity” to harm Pakistan rather than its intentions to make peace, which is a recipe for an arms race and not an antidote to war. It is true that India’s Hindu ruling elites were initially averse to the idea of Pakistan and hostile to the new country. They were also unfair in denying Kashmir to Pakistan. But since the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Pakistan, the deterrent has worked to obliterate any existential threat to Pakistan from India. The 1999 Lahore summit between the civilian political leaders of both countries was a confirmation of this new reality. Unfortunately, however, the military has become so obsessed with the idea of itself as the sole protector and saviour of Pakistan, a corollary of which is its continuing demand for constantly rising “defense” budgets and monopoly in foreign policy making, that it is not ready to open up its national security doctrine for discussion, debate and re-evaluation in the light of new economic, political and regional realities. This, despite the fact of disastrous military policy making in 1965 (Operation Gibraltar, that provoked war with India), in 1971 (war with India that dismembered Pakistan), in 1984 (loss of Siachin), in the 1980s (warlike tensions with India over Pakistan’s support to the Khalistan movement), in the Afghan jihad (whose militant Islamism blowback has crippled

Pakistani culture and politics), in the 1990s Kashmir jihad (that has wiped out a generation of Kashmiris and created jihadi militias in Pakistan without yielding Kashmir), in the 1999 Kargil conflict (that led to a military defeat and the overthrow of a democratically elected government), and now gross incompetence or complicity in shielding OBL.

If 9/11 was a wake-up call for America, this may be a defining moment for Pakistan. At stake is not the uneasy US-Pak relationship which yields billions of dollars for renting a part of our sovereignty to America but the domestic civil-military imbalance that has deformed the nature of civil society and crippled the economy, and the war against the non-state actors and terrorists who have usurped our sovereignty and are threatening to propel us into a suicidal conflict with the US and India.

To be sure, Pakistan must retain robust military defense preparedness not only against an overarching and arrogant India but also against a potentially destablising Afghan state that is in the making (the US envisages a 250,000 strong Afghan army in a couple of years led by Tajik-Uzbek elements of the Northern Alliance that have traditionally been anti-Pakistan). But the way to protect ourselves is to build trust and peace and trade and interdependence with our neighbours like India and Afghanistan and Iran and allies like America and the EU instead of trying to weaken or leverage them by internal and external state and non-state provocations as we have done in the past. “Sovereignty” is not abstract or absolute. It is a realistic function of power. Power is also not absolute or abstract. It is relative to the demonstrated power of others, singly or in groups. Power is also related to economic autarky and prosperity. Finally power is related to the social contract between a people and its rulers via a consensus constitution in which elected civilian parliaments are supreme.

Some civilians in Pakistan are beginning to understand this logic and are demanding serious accountability of their elected and appointed leaders. Nawaz Sharif has taken a statesmanlike lead in this matter by asking for a judicial commission to probe the May 2 debacle and fix responsibility. He is right in saying that that there can be no confidence in the military holding itself accountable as proposed by the Prime Minister. But this accountability should not just be of some civil-military leaders who have been hoist by their own petard in current circumstances. Nor should it be a knee-jerk reaction to the bullying of the US. It should be a rigorous and sustained accountability of rigid self-serving institutional doctrines that have propelled Pakistan into an unsustainable arms race with India and are seeking to control Afghanistan, that want to leverage terrorist non-state actors against America. We must also right the delusional mass mindsets that ill-serve Pakistan’s economy and polity in this day and age.  n

End of Ambiguity

May 20-26, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 14

 

Until recently, the US-Pak “strategic” relationship had been “tactically” shrouded in many “engagement” ambiguities for each other’s sake. Air corridors for US planes; national customs exemptions and highway routes for NATA containers; Drone takeoffs, landings and targets; airbases; trainer boots on ground; CIA footprint, joint operations, diplomatic immunities, visas for various categories of US Aid and Intel personnel. Even the rules for reimbursement of expenses from Coalition War Funds were not subject to too much haggling. On the political side, both partners had only agreed that Al-Qaeda was the common enemy. But there was never any formal agreement on the exact status of the Haqqani Network or Mullah Umar’s Shura, with the US openly targeting them and Pakistan discreetly protecting them. Pakistan also obsessed about the Pakistani Taliban while the US remained indifferent to them. The Pakistanis visibly balked at the prospect of any significant future Indian role in Afghanistan while the Americans secretly approved of it.

But after OBL’s capture by the US from the Abbotabad armpit of the Pakistan Army, all that is in the past. Both America and the people/media/ opposition parties in Pakistan want the Pakistani military and civilian government to come clean about the their rules of engagement. Ambiguity is the problem, not the solution any more. Worse, the problem is accentuated by the fact that the US wants to enhance the relationship while Pakistanis seek to diminish it. Thus the Pakistani military’s chickens have come home to roost: damned if it comes clean for Pakistanis and damned if it doesn’t for America. So it has chosen to hide behind the skirts of a besieged and discredited civilian government and a parliament that is all sound and fury signifying nothing. Will this doublespeak and subterfuge succeed in avoiding the movement of reckoning at home and abroad? No, we don’t think so.

Nawaz Sharif and the independent media are making three unprecedented demands. First, they want an independent inquiry commission to quickly determine what happened on May 2 and fix responsibility for the fiasco. Second, they want to overturn the national security paradigm of India-centrism on which the military’s political supremacy over the civilians and economic stranglehold over the national budget is based. Third, they want to ban drone flights over Pakistani airspace, failing which they insist on blocking NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

The American position was articulated by Senator John Kerry after he visited Pakistan last week and stared his Pakistani interlocutors in the eye: “Pakistan must take concrete, precise and measureable steps to combat terrorism… in very, very short order… [wherein] the relationship will be measured exclusively by actions and not words”.  He reiterated that the US would remain at liberty to take whatever action it deemed fit to protect its national security concerns.

The only thing that Pakistanis and the US have in common is this message to the Pakistani military: come clean, lay your cards on the table, don’t dissimilate. Unfortunately, Pakistanis want an end to the transactional relationship between the Pakistani military and the US while the US wants an enhancement of its tactical partnership with it. The military is trying to leverage the Zardari government against the opposition and clutching at China in place of the USA. But this wont work.

What might work is something altogether different. That is a strategy to get the USA out of Afghanistan in the interests of the people of Afghanistan and the region instead of one designed to bog it down for the dubious rental purposes of the Pakistan military. Instead of protecting Pakistani assets like Haqqani and Mulla Umar, it is time to loosen up on them so that they are amenable to sitting at the table in Kabul and sharing power with the other Pashtun and Non-Pashtun stakeholders.  Instead of squabbling over the sovereignty issue vis a vis American Drones, it is time to take it head on vis a vis Alqaeda and the Afghan Taliban who have “occupied” Waziristan. Instead of worrying about American boots-on-ground in Baluchistan or Waziristan, it is time to put Pakistani boots-on-ground there. Instead of continuing to manufacture an anti-American mindset among the Pakistani public for leveraging with America, it is time to take the Pakistani people, media and opposition into confidence about the necessity to wage our war, not their war, against the terrorists. Instead of constantly asking a weak civilian government to take “ownership” of a deeply flawed national security policy, it is time to own up to it and share the burden of changing it with the civilian leadership of the country.

If this is a tall order, the alternative is worse. First, the military’s shine is wearing thin in the eyes of the people. Second, any confrontation with the USA would definitely precipitate dangerous consequences for the state and people of Pakistan. Nor is the slogan of spurning the US by becoming self-reliant overnight a sustainable substitute for urgent security-paradigm change. Forget about the “old enemy” India. Pakistan is more distrusted and disliked today by its friends and allies than at any time in its history. Can any nation be at peace with itself when it is at war with the rest of the world?

Rules of engagement

May 27 – June 02, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 15

 

The terrorist attack on the Pakistan Naval Base Mehran in Karachi on May 22 is the fourth this month, the death toll climbing to 113 security personnel, 15 civilians and six terrorists. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for all incidents after publicly vowing to exact revenge for Osama bin Laden’s killing.

The attack on PNS Mehran is being propagandized by the state and opposition as a “conspiracy by foreign enemies of Pakistan” because two “India-specific” P3C Orion surveillance aircraft were targeted and destroyed. The Navy Chief has also dramatized the attack as one by “highly trained terrorists using sophisticated weapons”. This is self-serving nonsense designed to cover up for one of the most outrageous security lapses in Pakistan’s history.

The Navy’s FIR on May 24 alleges 10 terrorists, despite the Navy Chief’s assertion on May 23 that only four terrorists were involved and all were killed. The terrorists were armed only with AK-47 rifles, hand grenades and a shoulder-fired rocket launcher with one rocket each, all items in the everyday use of Taliban tribals in Waziristan. And the conspiracy theory is true only to the extent that the operation could not have been conducted without precise assistance from insider Pakistan Navy personnel (not foreign spies) sympathetic to the TTP.

Indeed, the attack has the planning hallmark of similar high-optic operations (including the one against GHQ in Rawalpindi in 2009) planned by Saif al Adal, OBL’s Al Qaeda successor and the Al-Qaeda mastermind behind the bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Daras Salam in 1998 and the compound attack in 2003 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the operation was probably the handiwork of Ilyas Kashmiri, a Punjabi, who heads the Harkatul Jihadul Islam allied to Al-Qaeda and based in South Waziristan. Mr Kashmiri was once an ISI trained stalwart of the Lashkar-e-Tayba (LeT) who broke away from both organisations and tried with “insider” help to assassinate General Pervez Musharraf after the latter closed the jihad tap in 2003. The astonishing thing is that this is the fourth terrorist attack on the Pakistan Navy in Karachi. But no security lessons were learnt from the earlier ones or from the interrogation of three Navy personnel in custody with links to Waziristan. Small wonder then that angry Pakistanis are demanding to know how the Armed Forces are spending the nation’s scarce resources and questioning their lavish expenditures on BMW cars, Land Cruisers, golf courses, Defense Housing Societies, Bahria townships, marriage halls, school systems, petrol and CNG stations, various preferential industries and farmsteads for their own “welfare”.  Not since the 1971 debacle have the Armed Forces been scrutinized so critically.

Unfortunately, however, this is just the beginning of another damning story that is running parallel to the narrative on terrorism in Pakistan. This is the plummeting graph of US-Pak relations whose carefully contrived and mutually agreed ambiguity has now run aground without any new agreement on the rules of engagement. The Pakistanis are insisting that drone strikes in FATA must end and no unilateral US action along the lines of Operation Geronimo may be taken inside Pakistan. But the US has flatly rejected both demands and is determined to carry on regardless. Worse, the “nuclear-scare scenario” – a terrorist attack on, or seizure of, Pakistan’s nuclear assets by Al-Qaeda – has resurfaced internationally after the Mehran incident, provoking calls for preemptive operational planning by the US to protect, or take-out, Pakistan’s nuclear assets, depending on the situation. Inside Pakistan, this has only served to fuel the conspiracy theory that “foreign elements, especially the US, are destabilizing Pakistan with a view to knocking out its nuclear program. In other words, the more Al Qaeda-Taliban terrorists succeed in exposing and attacking the fatal weaknesses in Pakistan’s security apparatus, the more the populace is inclined to succumb to anti-Americanism and the more state institutions are riven by dissent, which serves the objectives of the terrorists. Certainly, the demands of the opposition to spurn US aid and hold America responsible for Pakistan’s Taliban travails feeds into and is sustained by this rising anti-American sentiment.

The worst is yet to come. Two high profile trials of LeT agents or sympathizers in the US are going to further strain the crumbling US-Pakistan relationship. The first is the trial in Chicago of a Pakistani-American businessman, Tahawar Rana, who is accused of abetting the terrorist attack in Mumbai by a state-approver witness, David Headley, a self-confessed Pak-American LeT/ISI agent. The second is in Florida where two Pak-American Imams are accused of funneling $50,000 to terrorist organisations in Pakistan. The first will demonise the ISI as a double-dealing anti-American, anti-Indian organisation and the second will fan anti-Pakistan sentiment in a scared but gullible American public. At home, a running series of Wikileaks exposing the hollow, lying, corrupt civil-military leadership will add to Pakistanis’ woes and fears. In this developing scenario, any major American unilateralism in Pakistan or Al-Qaeda-Taliban attack in India will lead to an explosive situation for all stakeholders. Therefore, if next week’s visit to Pakistan by Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is unsuccessful in finally defining and implementing the “rules of domestic and regional engagement”, all our fears will likely come true sooner than later.

Responsibility, Restraint & Accountability

June 3-9, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 16

 

According to news reports, journalist Saleem Shehzad was “lifted” in broad daylight in Islamabad on 29th May, tortured, killed and dumped in a canal two days later by “unknown” assailants. The only problem with this version of events is Shehzad’s last written testament to Human Rights Watch in Pakistan some months ago in which he communicated his fear that the ISI, rather than some unknown forces, had warned him off for wading into troubled waters and might exact punishment. Additionally, his wife has confirmed that a senior ISI officer was in touch with her husband and had even “interrogated” him some time ago.

Shehzad was a journalist of international repute. He was an expert on the chief state and non-state actors in the war on terrorAl-Qaeda, Taliban, ISI, Pakistan Army and various former jihadi-turned terrorist outfits operating in Punjab and FATA like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Islam and Lashkar-e-Tayba. As such, it was inevitable that his reports would incur someone’s displeasure and even hostility. Indeed, he was briefly detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2006 but later cultivated sufficiently good relations with them to interview their leading lights. His insightful book on the Taliban has just been published in London and will be required reading even for experts on the subject.

In recent times, his writings focused on areas of critical concern. He wrote about internal political developments in the armed forces of Pakistan, dilating on extensions, postings and transfers and as well as doctrinal, strategic and tactical maneuverings. More ominously, he warned of the existence and development of Al-Qaeda-Taliban “cells” launched by Ilyas Kashmiri, a former ISI asset and current Taliban commander, in the bowels of the security services, especially in the Navy. He also highlighted a complex nexus between the ISI and elements of the Afghan Taliban in which key “wanted” commanders like Mulla Omar, Mulla Baradar, Mulla Nazir and warlord Siraj Haqqani figured.  In his latest piece – whose promised second part will never see the light of print – he criticized the leaders of the Pakistan Navy for willfully ignoring the threat from Al-Qaeda “cells” inside its rank and file, thereby exposing PNS Mehran to the May 22nd attack, and pledged to expose the incompetent or fearful decision makers in all the three services responsible for the country’s security.  The dye was cast.