Saturday, August 31, 2013
The Empire prepares to strike The US is ratcheting up its propaganda campaign to justify unilateral military action against Syria for the Bashar al-Assad regime’s alleged gas attack in Damascus. US Secretary of State John Kerry has made a strident case for the guilt of the regime even before the UN team in Damascus has reported back (latest reports say the team has left Syria on its way back to New York). Kerry bases himself on a four-page unclassified intelligence report produced by the US that in Washington’s eyes at least, clinches the case for military action against the “indiscriminate, inconceivable horror” perpetrated by the “thug and murderer” Bashar al-Assad. The report states that the Damascus attack, unlike earlier lesser estimates, killed 1,429 people, of whom 426 were children. This act cannot be allowed to go unpunished, according to Kerry, especially since it is only the latest in a series of such attacks over the past year. The US’s problem however is that it wants to avoid an open-ended commitment to a new war, while ensuring that such a gas attack is not repeated. How Washington intends to guarantee that it will not be dragged into what is likely to be an explosive fallout in the Middle East and further abroad of a unilateral military attack on Syria is known only to Kerry and the US administration. The rest of the world can only hold its breath at the audacity of the Empire. What beggars logic is that when the Damascus regime had UN investigators in Damascus (to look into reports of earlier gas attacks), why would it commit hara kiri by carrying out such an attack just a stone’s throw from where the UN team was staying? President Barack Obama has proved to be a worthy successor to George Bush (of the infamous ‘sexed up’ dossier purporting to show Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had weapons of mass destruction to justify the 2003 invasion and overthrow of Saddam). More accurately, as insightful observers of the Washington scene predicted in 2008 amidst the euphoria over a black man being elected president of the US for the first time in its slavery and racialism riddled history (no doubt a welcome development), Barack Obama would not be able to escape the clutches of the Washington defence, security and foreign policy establishment that considers itself the permanent guardian of US ‘interests’ worldwide. Everything since has gone according to the script. The Libyan intervention was facilitated by recourse to the Right to Protect (R2P) resolution of the UN Security Council and, much to Russia and China’s chagrin, later resulted in regime change and the murder of Gaddafi. This time round, Moscow and Beijing are far more sceptical, if not downright hostile, perhaps having concluded that R2P is merely a Trojan horse for the Right to Attack (R2A) and regime change. Washington therefore faces problems in persuading not only its war weary public (only 10 percent of the American people support another foreign war), but also sceptical US Congress members who advocate caution, unconvinced as they are by the administration’s briefings, and reluctant allies (the British parliament has voted against military action; only France is gung ho). If this translates into unilateral US military action without even the fig leaf of a UN mandate (as in Iraq in 2003), the world could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Empire is putting into motion a plan to degrade if not destroy the Syrian army through strikes. That would achieve a number of Washington’s goals in the region. One, it would pave the way for the Syrian rebels to make a comeback after disastrous recent setbacks on the battlefield. Two, it would remove the most consistent Arab regime to oppose Israel. Three, it would deprive Iran and Russia of one of their closest allies in the Arab world, thereby bringing satisfaction to Israel at the weakening of the front for resistance against its expansionist designs. What Washington is forgetting though is that such a blatant aggression against a sovereign country would evoke even more hatred and resistance to US interests in the Middle East, the Muslim world, and the globe at large. The Israeli tail may be wagging the US dog towards war once again, but saner voices in Washington need to restrain Obama from another adventure that could tip the scales further against the US worldwide in terms of credibility. Even more seriously, the prospect of US interests being hit all over the world should give pause to the warmongers in Washington.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
‘Targeted’ operation in Karachi Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali gave us a glimpse of the government’s thinking about a ‘targeted’ operation in Karachi during a press conference in Islamabad on Wednesday. The minister underlined the need for carrying out this operation under the supervision of the Sindh government with the chief minister as the ‘captain’ of the team (a reassertion of the fact that law and order is a provincial subject and the federal government could not intervene, except to facilitate the provincial government). Chaudhry Nisar mercifully ruled out any prospect of a handover of Karachi to the army as demanded by the MQM, although he conceded that he shared with the MQM the opinion that something had to be done about the state of affairs in the city. He went on to make the optimistic claim that criminals and their hideouts in the city have already been identified and all that was needed was a consensus on the operation, political will, clarity of thought and transparency. Chaudhry Nisar warned that the large number of target killers who had political affiliations would be eliminated without taking any such factor into consideration. He went on to announce that the next meeting of the federal cabinet would be held in Karachi and all stakeholders, including the Sindh chief minister and MQM leader Farooq Sattar would be invited for consultations. He pointed to the proposal to set up a committee comprising political representatives, members of the media and businessmen from Karachi to oversee the operation. Meanwhile a larger bench of the Supreme Court hearing the case pertaining to implementation of its 2011 order in a suo motu notice over the security situation of Karachi was told on Wednesday by the Sindh Rangers DG Rizwan Akhtar that the militant wings of political parties were active in the city and had gone on a killing spree of late. The court held the law enforcement agencies responsible for the deterioration of the city’s law and order. However, the DG expressed his helplessness as the Rangers had limited powers and while they could arrest criminals, they were not in a position to investigate crimes properly. He also impliedly criticised the fact that those arrested were soon granted bail and set free by the courts. Whether in the remarks of Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali or the Supreme Court hearing, what comes through is the complex and complicated ground realities in the metropolis. The descent of Karachi into chaos owes its origins to the emergence of the MQM in the city in the mid-1980s. Since then, the city has hardly seen a day without violence of one sort or another. The only difference between then and now is that whereas the MQM soon acquired a ‘monopoly’ of political support and power in the city (and the extortion business), today it stands challenged on the political front by other forces, some of older presence in the city, some of more recent origin. First and foremost this has led to turf wars amongst the parties and their armed wings. In addition, the extortion monopoly of the MQM has been broken over the years by criminal gangs, some with political affiliations, which has exacerbated the turf wars on the soil of Karachi. The malign presence of the Taliban in the city has added a further dreadful factor into Karachi’s bubbling cauldron. As we have said repeatedly in this space, the way forward is clearly to persuade the political parties to close down and disarm their armed wings, allow the police and Rangers a free hand to implement the law without fear, favour, or having to glance over their shoulders at the influential and powerful patrons of the criminals, and ensure the prosecution and judicial process puts law breakers away for as long as they deserve. Needless to say, unless Karachi is ‘cleaned’ up, the economy cannot get out of the doldrums it is in, nor can the hapless citizens of the largest city of Pakistan breathe freely and without fear. The federal and provincial government need to come together on this urgent national task.
Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Altaf Hussain’s incredible demand MQM and its self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain have invited the wrath of most political parties for demanding Karachi be handed over to the army to deal with the deteriorating law and order situation of the city. Ostensibly, the demand, which was voiced by Dr Farooq Sattar in the National Assembly, has been triggered by continuing target killings and clashes between, it is assumed, the returning Kachhi community IDPs who have recently returned to their homes in Lyari and elements of the now banned People’s Amn (Peace) Committee. Although Dr Sattar based his demand on the provisions of Article 245 of the constitution, which envisages calling the army in aid of civil power (by the government of the day), his startling statement has evoked bitter resentment and criticism by the PPP and PML-N, muted criticism and the question being raised of how the situation has come to this pass by the PTI, condemnation by the Jamaat-i-Islami and most sensible people in the entire country. Surprisingly, the ANP, which was approached by the MQM to persuade the ruling party in Sindh, the PPP, supported the demand, at least if its Sindh leadership’s response is to be taken as the party’s policy. Interestingly, the MQM wants an ‘indiscriminate’ operation against criminal and other elements disturbing the peace of the city. Interesting because the MQM stands charged with being the originator of what has now become commonplace in Karachi: political parties all have armed wings, some of those parties (including the MQM) are accused of being behind extortion activities, criminal gangs have for some time been emulating extortion, leading to turf wars, and the general disturbed conditions in the city have encouraged mugging and kidnapping on an unprecedented scale. Dead bodies strew the streets of Karachi on a daily basis and hardly a day goes by without the news of fresh bloodshed. While it may be conceded for the sake of argument that it is these conditions that have resurrected the time-worn formula of relying on the army as the ultimate solution for all problems, wisdom gleaned from the track record and history would seem to suggest that this is nothing if not illusion. It is doubly surprising that a party (MQM) that never tires of reminding us of its ‘victimisation’ during the 1992 army operation in Karachi (Altaf Hussain having fled into exile in anticipation six months earlier) should now contemplate going back to inviting the army in for an ‘indiscriminate’ operation (that could, if allowed, envelope the MQM in its fold too). The ‘desperation’ inherent in the MQM’s call deserves thought. It is ironic that the MQM should only have woken up to the horrible conditions in Karachi after it is no longer in the government. For the past five years, it was a coalition partner of the PPP in the Sindh government. Did that period see an improvement or deterioration in the law and order situation in the city? First and foremost, the MQM should carry out some self-accountability and explain to the suffering people of Karachi what, if anything, it did to improve law and order while in power. The fact of the matter is that the previous government’s tenure saw Karachi slide further and further into chaos, with the police and Rangers unable to make a dent (despite their spirited defence now by Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon). The police and Rangers, whatever their limitations and weaknesses (and they are legion), are also hampered by the fact that political patronage of criminal law breakers sees arrested miscreants released through political intervention from on high. As if this was not bad enough, the myriad law breakers arrested by the law enforcers usually get bail or even acquittal from the courts because of the flawed prosecution and judicial system. Unless law enforcement is freed of political interference and the judicial system is vamped up to be able to put law breakers away irrespective of their clout, etc, there can be little hope of improvement. In the absence of the political parties refraining from going down the path of armed wings and turf wars and the law enforcement system seemingly ineffective, demands such as the MQM’s may arise from time to time (the ‘strong hand is needed’ syndrome). Those making such demands have obviously forgotten how army intervention on a limited scale has often led to wider, unforeseen outcomes that the country hardly wants or needs to revisit. Democracy may have its flaws, and ours is still embryonic, but military interventions, invited or uninvited, are surely things we can do without.
Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Karzai’s hopes President Hamid Karzai’s first visit after the PML-N government took office predictably yielded a mixed bag. On the one hand, Pakistan and Afghanistan signed a number of trade and economic cooperation agreements. Apart from being the priority for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as he emphasized his government’s desire to promote friendly and cooperative relations with all of Pakistan’s neighbours during the joint press conference with President Karzai, this extension of ‘soft’ power towards our western neighbour may have the collateral benefit of helping match India’s similar effort towards Afghanistan since 2001. Since India-phobia dominates the military establishment’s approach to the Afghan quagmire, this should bring satisfaction to GHQ too. However, economic agreements signed and the promise of cultural exchange aside, our guest did not shrink during the joint press conference to shift focus back on the real issue: security and peace in Afghanistan (and by extension Pakistan). On the eve of and during the visit, comment in the media concentrated on Karzai’s hopes of persuading Pakistan to release more Afghan Taliban prisoners, including crucially Mulla Baradar, the erstwhile second-in-command of Mulla Omar and around whom controversy swirled regarding a ‘unilateral’ initiative to open peace talks. As it turned out, and despite the extension of the Afghan President’s stay by one day to hold further talks with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the cool air of Murree over lunch, there is no news about any further releases of prisoners. President Karzai emphasized Afghanistan’s desire for Pakistan to help out in finding a way for the Afghan High Peace Council to hold talks with the Taliban. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised every possible facilitation for this and the international community’s efforts for peace, there are no details so far of how and when Islamabad may proceed on this score. The Doha Taliban office fiasco is still in limbo amidst efforts to find another acceptable country location for that office. The question, however, that remains unanswered in the midst of the public bonhomie on display between the two sides that rested on proclamations of common interest in combating terrorism and restoring peace to the region, was the elephant in the room: the Pakistan military. As is well known, the military establishment’s role in ‘managing’ Afghanistan has been central in the past, and arguably critical now and in the future. On the face of it, the civilian and military sides of the Pakistani coin appear to be in harmony on their approach to the Afghan imbroglio, but the track record of the military establishment’s support to the Afghan Taliban while ostensibly being allied with the US suggests there may still be some way to go before Pakistan speaks with one voice and acts with consistency. The US/NATO looming withdrawal in 2014 poses teasing questions to all the stakeholders in the Afghan problem. Without talks and a political solution before the foreign occupation forces leave, the risk of a descent into a fresh civil war post-2014 grows. Pakistan, the region and the world cannot remain sanguine at the prospect of that civil war spilling over the porous border and exacerbating Pakistan’s own problems with jihadi terrorism. The mutuality of interests of Pakistan and Afghanistan in a turn towards peace within and without is without question the best outcome for all. Whether it can be achieved however, is a prickly and difficult question to answer. Wisdom demands that each country, in its own interests as well as in the interests of regional and world peace work together to overcome terrorism, open the door to peaceful political solutions in Afghanistan, and reap the peace dividend in terms of progress and development rather than repeat endlessly the war and ruin that has visited Afghanistan for over four decades and had its collateral fallout in Pakistan in the shape finally of an indigenous terrorist movement.
Monday, August 26, 2013
Karachi’s endless bloodletting Karachi’s tragic bloodletting shows no signs of abating. On Sunday, the death toll was about a dozen people, amongst them Maulana Akbar Saeed Farooqi, spokesman for the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. The Maulana was reportedly returning from a rally of his party to protest against the sectarian violence in Bakkhar when motorcycle riding gunmen target killed him. The murder immediately sparked off tension in various parts of the city, with fears the incident could lead to further trouble on the sectarian front. The grisly count of discovered bodies for the day came to five more, of which two were identified as MQM workers. Two ANP workers were luckier when they survived a grenade hurled at an ANP leader’s house. If there was any good news on the day, but that too mixed, it was the return of Kucchi community families to their homes in Lyari after being forced to spend 75 days in tents near Badin for fear of their lives. Joy and trepidation lined the faces of the returning internally displaced persons, joy at being home and amongst relatives and friends, trepidation regarding what the future may hold. Lyari is far from peaceful, in line with the city as a whole. What, after al, afflicts the metropolis? In Karachi, Hobbes’ Leviathan appears to have found a home, in a war of each against all. The deadly protagonists, armed to the teeth and by now adept at using the urban jungle for targeted killings, include rival political parties, those in power and in the opposition, the terrorist Taliban, and criminal gangs. The erstwhile coalition allies in the previous PPP-led government, the MQM and ANP, were at daggers drawn throughout the five-year tenure of that government. Although a new, solely PPP government has been returned after the May 11 general elections, it does not seem anything has changed. The malign presence of the Taliban in Karachi is by now a foregone conclusion. In addition, the extortionist mafia has expanded beyond its original authors to include ‘freelance’ criminal gangs that have launched onto this turf in anticipation of easy pickings. Many of the targeted killings of ordinary citizens bearing no affiliation with any political party, may well be victims of ‘revenge’ for non-cooperation (refusal to pay bhatta or extortion money) by these gangs. The people of Karachi deserve better. If the new PPP government is going to show the same ‘benign’ neglect of the terrorist, political and criminal violence that has the city in its grip that was on display over the last five years, neither history nor the people of Karachi will forgive it. It is unfortunate that democracy has not been able to persuade rival political parties to sort out their differences in peaceful fashion, as behoves responsible political players. The Taliban threat has to be met head on. The criminal gangs, particularly extortionists, muggers and kidnappers have to be crushed ruthlessly under the law. All this is impossible without freeing the police of political interference, coordinating the civilian and military agencies for a common direction, and ensuring law breakers are brought to justice without fear or favour. Bleeding Karachi still awaits its ‘messiah’.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan split In an interesting development, fissures, if not a split, have opened up within the ranks of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Ismatullah Muaviya, head of the TTP Punjab, has been removed for welcoming Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s offer of dialogue with the militants in his address to the country the other day. The TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid (the replacement for dismissed spokesman Ihsanullah Ehsan) said Hakeemullah Mehsud, the overall chief of the TTP, had chaired a meeting of the TTP’s decision making top body where it was agreed to not only remove Muaviya but also declare he had nothing further to do with the TTP, notwithstanding the respect he was held in. The TTP spokesman went into a detailed response to the prime minister’s offer, saying Nawaz Sharif was talking about talks and the use of force in the same breath. Therefore the TTP had rejected the talks offer and Muaviya had made the statement of support without a mandate from the TTP leadership. In response, Muaviya hit back by saying the TTP under Hakeemullah had no authority to dismiss him as the Punjabi Taliban (Muaviya’s faction) were independent and had their own decision making shura. An unnamed security official weighed into the controversy by arguing that at a tactical and ground level, the ‘split’ would not make any difference since the two groups operate autonomously. Others are categorizing the split as giving birth to two factions: the TTP Tribals (Hakeemullah and the TTP largely based in FATA, especially North Waziristan) and the TTP Punjab. This is apparently the latest in a series of differences between Hakeemullah and Muaviya, the latter being castigated by the former’s faction with not carrying out instructions to mount attacks in his home base Punjab. Muaviya is described as a pragmatist, inclined to use both force and dialogue to attain his aims. He comes from a background of being part of Jaish-e-Mohammad, which he quit and formed his own group Janude Hafsa, suspected of being behind the killing of foreign mountain climbers at the foot of Nanga Parbat in June this year. He spent time in North Waziristan, where he shifted along with his group after the Jamia Hafsa episode in Islamabad in July 2007. The same unnamed security official quoted above says the two groups only share North Waziristan as an operating base, otherwise they have always been independent of each other. While it is tempting to celebrate any sign of dissidence or a falling out amongst the plethora of terrorist groups assailing state and society, perhaps too much should not be read into it as the TTP has never been more than an umbrella group to which various factions owe only nominal allegiance. This certainly seems to be the case in the Punjabi Taliban’s falling out with Hakeemullah’s faction. While the security official may be right that this will make little difference at the operational level, it is nevertheless a welcome political development since any such splits are to the advantage of the state. The Hakeemullah TTP has not only underlined the ‘expulsion’ of Muaviya, it has even gone so far as to assert that it had lost trust in the Jamaat-e-Islami’s Munawar Hassan and the JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman since it now regards both as part of the government. So if the hardcore body of the TTP is splitting along ‘regional’ lines, and the hardliners are losing faith in the ‘moderate’ mainstream religious parties that are seen as the ‘soft’ face of the jihadi ‘family’, surely this is all to the good. Nevertheless, there is little room for complacency while concern continues on the seeming confusion within the ranks of the government on its approach to the terrorists. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was subtler in offering both talks and the threat of force against the terrorists, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali, still fresh from wounds suffered during the Islamabad ‘siege’, says only dialogue is being contemplated by the government. Whether this is a tactical position to give dialogue a chance or actual strategic belief, only time will tell. In the meantime, such mixed signals from the top leadership of the government suggest there is still some way to go before the politicians in power speak with the same voice, let alone laying to rest (as Chaudhry Nisar tried to do) concerns over the military being in agreement with the government on the strategy against the terrorists. The government and the military need to clear the air and operationalise their plans before the confusion becomes worse confounded. Much precious time has already been lost. The country cannot afford more procrastination. The national security policy and its implementation on the gr be the government and the military’s top priority.
Friday, August 23, 2013
By-polls results The by-elections held on Thursday, which media hype had billed as a ‘mini-general election’, produced some upsets amidst a low turnout in comparison with the general elections of May 11. The low turnout comes as no surprise since this is the normal pattern for by-elections. In Lahore for example, the turnout was 40 percent as compared with 60 percent in the general elections. The day started desultorily for vote casting almost all over the country and did not pick up until the late afternoon. One unfortunate aspect of our political culture, barring women from voting at the behest of backward political parties and hidebound reactionary forces in society, was once again in evidence in Lakki Marwat, Nowshera and Mardan. The Chief Justice of the Peshawar High Court took suo motu notice of reports to this effect and ordered the results of NA-5 Nowshera and NA-27 Lakki Marwat withheld until women voters were allowed their right in these two constituencies. Repolling should be held in all those polling stations where women’s votes cast were thin, the Chief Justice ordered, and asked the provincial government to move against people who took the decision of barring women from voting. In these by-polls, 41 constituencies for the NA and provincial Assemblies were at stake. Some of these seats had been surrendered by the winning candidates because they had won more than one seat and after the general elections had to choose which seat to retain. Of the 15 NA seats in the contest, the PML-N won five, PPP three, PTI two, and the ANP, PkMAP and MQM one each. Two results were withheld, as noted above, because of the bar on women’s voting in these constituencies. Amongst the biggest upsets was Haji Ghulam Ahmad Bilour winning back by a big margin NA-1 Peshawar, his traditional seat, which he had lost to Imran Khan in the general elections amidst a wipe out of the ANP, but which the PTI’s Gul Badshah Khan could not hold on to. The PTI suffered a second setback in Mianwali, considered Imran Khan’s hometown, another seat he had vacated after the general elections. These two setbacks point to the problem of charisma versus ‘electable’ candidates. The PML-N, in line with its profile, maintained its hold on Punjab, winning five NA seats in Lahore, Mianwali, Hafizabad, Faisalabad, Sargodha, and most of the provincial seats in the province being contested. However, it too suffered setbacks on two prized provincial seats in D G Khan and Rajanpur, vacated by Shahbaz Sharif and Zulfikar Khosa respectively, losing them to the PTI. The PPP’s poor performance in Punjab in the general elections was reversed to some extent by a win on a key NA seat in Muzaffargarh, where Noor Rabbani Khar defeated Javed Dasti, MNA Jamshed Dasti’s brother. Another heartening result for the PPP was the win on a provincial seat by Jahangir Wattoo, son of PPP Punjab president Manzoor Wattoo, in the family’s traditional stronghold of Okara, a constituency won by the PML-N in the general elections. The PPP also managed two NA seats in its stronghold Sindh. MQM retained its hold on Karachi and urban Mirpurkhas. The PkMAP did not seem to have too much trouble holding on to the NA seat in Balochistan vacated by its leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai. A feather in the PTI’s cap is the win in NA-48 Islamabad, a seat vacated by Javed Hashmi and on which new entrant into politics Asad Umar romped home. Is there a discernible pattern in the results of the by-polls? Does it reflect any trends emerging in politics since the May 11 general elections? What, if any, conclusions can be drawn from the hurly burly of the by-elections? Although it is always dangerous to extrapolate the partial trends of by-elections onto the general electoral picture and try to extract likely trends from their results, nevertheless what can tentatively be said is that traditional strongholds were either held on to, or where they had been ‘disturbed’ in the general elections, seem to have reverted to the ‘devil they know’. The PPP and ANP, after their rough ride in the general elections, can find solace and lick their wounds as a result of their relatively better showing in the by-polls. However, there appears to be little room for complacency on this score. These previous incumbent parties received a royal drubbing in the general elections. Having shed the burden of incumbency (perforce), they may make gains at the expense of the new incumbents, given the grave situation of the country, but this should be regarded as the normal ebb and flow of politics and should certainly not lull anyone to sleep. Much introspection and correction still awaits. So far, at least, the by-polls results notwithstanding, these seem conspicuous by their absence.
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Light at the end of the tunnel Amidst questioning about what exactly would be on offer in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s maiden address to the country after assuming office, there was also a muted interest, such being the worries amongst the public regarding the affairs of the republic. As it turned out however, the speech was little more than a damp squib. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif touched on a whole range of important subjects, the thrust centred on a recounting of the past glories of Nawaz Sharif’s previous stints in power and how, when that process was interrupted by the military coup of 1999, Pakistan’s march towards a bright future had been tragically halted. According to the prime minister’s version of the history of the last 14 years, everything had gone to the dogs because he and his government were toppled and he had to spend years in exile and then in the opposition. Inevitably, the three major issues facing the country, i.e. the economy (with the energy crisis at its heart), terrorism, and foreign policy were the centrepiece of the prime minister’s address. While his descriptive analysis of these problems was correct, it hardly set the television screen alight since these were well known and oft repeated by the prime minister and many others over the years. However, what was glaringly absent from the address was the prescriptive or corrective policy formulation that could have lightened heavy hearts and brought a smile to the lips of the depressed citizenry, the relatively long timeline for turning things around notwithstanding. On energy, it is interesting to note how the PML-N has been steadily backsliding on a date for ending load shedding. After tall claims of ‘instant’ or at least short order ‘fixes’ during the election campaign, we soon learnt from the lips of none other than the Energy Minister Khwaja Asif that at least three years were required to bridge the supply-demand gap of energy. Now the prime minister has extended that deadline to five years, i.e. towards the end of the present government’s tenure, and that too qualified by the loaded word ‘hope’. The prime minister is right when he says that the energy crisis cannot be eliminated without additional resources being poured into enhanced power generation. Now that reality has bit, the prime minister acknowledges that the timeframe for improvement/addition is 3-4 years for coal-fired plants (6,600 MW being planned in Gadani and more in Thar based on indigenous coal) and 8-10 years for hydel (970 MW from the long delayed Neelum-Jhelum project, 425 MW from Nandipur, over 4,000 MW from Diamer-Bhasha, whenever it finds the requisite funding). The prime minister referred to the government’s retirement of Rs 480 billion circular debt soon after assuming office, which had led to an increase of 1,700 MW thermal generation. He also mentioned the ongoing campaign against electricity and gas pilferers, responsible for Rs 150-250 billion annual losses. In sum, the prime minister was nothing if not honest and upfront in delivering the truth to the public that they would have to live with load shedding until at least 2018, and that too with huge increases in energy tariffs aimed at reducing the government subsidy to the sector. On terrorism, the prime minister proffered both an olive branch and a mailed fist. He argued that the offer of dialogue to the extremists was intended to ensure minimum loss of innocent lives, of whom the toll is already 40,000 civilians and 5,000 security forces’ personnel. But dialogue, the prime minister warned, was not the only option and if it failed to produce the desired results, the full might of the state would be deployed. This last is what those informed observers who have been studying the phenomenon of terrorism over many years say is critical. Grave doubts and a great deal of criticism swirls around the military and other security forces’ strategy, or lack thereof, in trying to tackle the problem in a piece-meal and seemingly desultory manner. The worst interpretation of this is that at some level, and for reasons rooted in the past high hopes of projection of power through proxies in the region, there is some level of turning a blind eye or even complicity between the deep state and the terrorists. The most optimistic interpretation is that our military and security forces lack the skill and wherewithal to combat a tough and elusive enemy. So long as the terrorists feel they have the initiative and the upper hand, the compulsion to come to the negotiating table remains weak. Only when the terrorist tide is rolled back does dialogue have even a snowball’s chance in hell of yielding positive results. The political forces are hopelessly divided in their approach to the problem, negating the usefulness of an all parties conference, which the government too seems now to be going slow on. In his speech the prime minister said he was expanding on his original offer after the elections of inviting all parties to discuss how best to resolve Pakistan’s security and economic woes. This is a vaguer formulation than the all parties conference, and perhaps reflective of reduced hopes of a consensus on these issues. The government has to get the military on board if there is to be any chance of success. In the light of a change of top command in the military, this juncture holds promise as well as uncertainty. On foreign policy, the prime minister reiterated his desire for peace, amity and normalization of relations with all neighbours, particularly India, a sentiment whose difficulties of achievement are hardly news to anyone, particularly given the present state of tensions on the Line of Control and the Afghanistan conundrum, the latter unlikely to yield a solution despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s impending visit. Nevertheless, for the sake of this and succeeding generations of South Asia and the broader region, it is an aspiration worth pursuing and intimately tied up with the fight against jihadi terrorism. Disappointing though the prime minister’s maiden address may have been for most viewers and listeners, it at least had the merit of no tall claims, a sober reiteration of the grave problems the country faces, and the expression of hope for a better future. Time will tell whether this hope can and will be translated into reality.
Saturday, August 17, 2013
Islamabad incident fallout The incident the other day of a gunman holding the heart of Islamabad hostage for about five hours has generated a great deal of controversy as its fallout, a lot of it merely sound and fury, not necessarily signifying anything. To begin with, the man in the hot seat as a result of the incident, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in a press conference in Lahore on Friday tried to defend the performance of his ministry and the police forces under its command in Islamabad in handling the delicate situation presented by the gunman, Sikandar, accompanied by his wife and two children. To the surprise and chagrin of the media people at the interaction, the minister was unable to give satisfactory answers regarding the security concerns aroused as a result of the incident. The minister did accept responsibility for prolonging the operation and restraining the police from opening fire on the gunman. As far as endangering senior policemen is concerned (including the SSP who negotiated while unarmed with Sikandar, unfortunately without success), the minister justified it by saying that was the nature of their job and responsibilities. In answer to a question why the prolonged standoff was allowed to damage Pakistan’s security image abroad, the minister gave a vague response and blamed the long live coverage by television channels for contributing to making the country look ridiculous. On Zamurad Khan’s act of courage in attempting to tackle the gunman, the minister considered it well intentioned but said he should not have interfered in the operation. Further, he said those police officers responsible for allowing him to break the security cordon and approach the gunman would be suspended. In answer to another question he dismissed the suggestion of an FIR against Zamarud khan as inappropriate. Chaudhry Nisar said he did not want to act like a ‘Sultan Rahi’ (a popular Punjabi films hero of yore) while handling the situation. The operation itself would not have taken more than 30 minutes, the minister said, but since he did not assess the gunman as a threat to anybody, he gave instructions to try and capture him alive and not attack him in front of his wife and children. He said PEMRA (the electronic media regulator) was approached to stop the live broadcast of the incident for 15-30 minutes to allow the police to conduct its operational plan, but this was not ensured. The gunman, the minister went on to explain, had two demands: freedom for his son jailed in Abu Dhabi, and to be allowed to go to the UAE embassy with his weapons. So far, so good. But then Chaudhry Nisar surprised his audience by asserting that the first demand was impossible but the second did not pose any problem! Perhaps the UAE embassy may not welcome any suggestion that it would have hosted an armed man on its premises. The minister underlined the many lessons that had been gleaned from the whole episode, such as the weaknesses of the security regime, the inability of the police to conduct operations in the dark because of the unavailability of infrared guns, stun guns and bullets, and procedures to isolate the crime scene (the public onlookers could not be kept away from the scene of the action, a possible threat to the crowd’s lives). While the incident does necessitate a review of security procedures in the capital, especially the sensitive Red Zone adjacent to the scene of the crime, the issue has raised hackles and arguments in the National Assembly, with the Opposition, particularly the PPP and PTI coming down hard on the government for its failure to act against the gunman, bringing Islamabad to a virtual standstill for hours. In the absence of Chaudhry Nisar, it was left to the backbenchers of the ruling PML-N to attempt to defend their government against the opposition onslaught. The house praised Zamurad Khan for his bravery, while dubbing the episode as “dangerous and shameful”. On the persistent demand of the opposition, the government assured the house that it would respond in detail on Monday. PPP’s Naveed Qamar came down hard on Chaudhry Nisar for his absence from the house. He described the incident not simply as a security failure but a reflection of poor decision making to act against such elements as the lone gunman. Monday promises to be an interesting session of the lower house. Meanwhile Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry ordered PEMRA to take action against the irresponsible private television channels for their extended coverage that engendered panic amongst the public. A petition has also been filed before the apex court for a judicial probe of the incident. The temptation to pillory the government is expected from the opposition. However, if ever there was a time for acting in statesmanlike fashion, this perhaps is one such moment. A responsible opposition, while taking the government to task for its perceived and actual failures in handling the ‘siege’ situation, should also reflect a little more deeply (as indeed must the government) about the state of our preparedness against such incidents and worse, actual terrorist attacks. Logically, Sikandar could have been taken out by a marksman from the police within minutes of the incident starting since he made no attempt to shield himself from view. The constraint was not the ability of the police and security forces to shoot dead a lone gunman strutting about on Jinnah Avenue in broad daylight (at least to begin with). Since the police were under instructions not to take out the gunman before the glare of the television cameras and in full view of his wife and children on the basis of perhaps a correct assessment that whatever his demands and strange behaviour, the gunman did not seem interested in hurting anyone. A coldblooded sniper assassination of Sikandar before his wife and children could have had other, even more adverse consequences, painting the country’s security forces as heartless. They were in a catch-22 situation, damned if they do, damned if they don’t. That said, the behaviour of the police once the gunman was wounded and had fallen give pause for thought. Some of the policemen who rushed to pounce on him when he fell wounded let out their frustration through their fists and kicks, others fired in the air as though this was a wedding party (such firing even at weddings is illegal of course). They certainly did not portray a force trained and disciplined in handling such delicate situations. If anything further was needed to damage the security profile of the country, the police provide the finishing touches. This has implications beyond the incident itself, since it is frightening to contemplate such a police force confronting hardened terrorists. Since the government is still mulling its security policy, perhaps the incident provides a timely reminder that the traditional police and security forces are just not trained or equipped to deal with this kind of incident or a more serious one involving a terrorist attack. Evidence for this conclusion is provided by the rash of terrorist attacks over the years and which have intensified since this government took over. Time for introspection and deep thought.
Friday, August 16, 2013
An exercise in futility Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali has acceded to the request contained in a letter to him by Imran Khan that a probe be conducted into rigging allegations in the May 11 general elections. Chaudhry sahib has proposed a committee to be formed by the National Assembly comprising treasury and opposition members to conduct investigations into not just the four constituencies Imran Khan has been highlighting but in 40 constituencies to be proposed half and half by the government and opposition. This 20-20 match will be started by the government and opposition proposing the names of their nominated members for the committee and the finalisation of its terms of reference within three days. To avoid the impression that the issue would be brushed under the carpet through an inconclusive committee procedure, Chaudhry Nisar suggested a timeline of one month for the committee to conclude its findings. The committee, according to him, would be empowered to summon the former caretaker prime minister, ministers, returning officers and officials of the Election Commission of Pakistan. Through this generous concession, Chaudhry Nisar has given all the parties in parliament a chance to prove their allegations of rigging beyond any shadow of doubt. However, if they fail to do so conclusively, the issue will likely end up buried under the pile of similar such committees and their outcome. Meanwhile the white paper on rigging in the elections that the PTI was expected to reveal yesterday stands postponed until August 21, ostensibly because of the rains (!). The white paper promises to produce investigations and ‘proof’ of rigging in 300 constituencies throughout the country. It is premature to comment on the white paper until it sees the light of day, except to say that it is interesting the PTI’s original focus on four constituencies was broadened to 300 in the white paper, while the party has accepted the investigations into 40 constituencies offered by Chaudhry Nisar Ali. The whole brouhaha about election rigging, with the PTI leading the charge, is misplaced concreteness. Four, 40, or even 300 constituencies’ investigation is unlikely to overturn the mandate delivered by the electorate on May 11. Even if in some constituencies rigging is proved beyond doubt, pointing to the possible unseating of the member elected, there is no guarantee the change will benefit one party at the expense of all the others. A ‘divided’ correction of the election results will benefit many parties perhaps, and leave things as they are, most likely. In any case, no parliamentary committee is empowered under the law and constitution to unseat any member, no matter how solid the proof it finds against the legitimacy of his election. The proper forum for such review are the election tribunals, whose legendary delays in procedure and verdicts are anathema to Imran Khan (and indirectly earned him the wrath of the Supreme Court for ‘indiscreet’ language). The tribunals are now expected to hear all petitions on a day-to-day basis and deliver their verdict within four months. That should, in all reasonableness, satisfy all comers. The committee being proposed is at best an exercise in futility, at worst either a ploy by the Interior Minister to throw the issue into the welter of inconclusive confusion so familiar where parliamentary committees are concerned, or distract the attention of parliament from more important problems awaiting the attention and focus of parliament: terrorism (no sign so far of a counter-terrorism policy), energy (a solution seemingly still pie in the sky), and the economy (subject to the first two and building business confidence in the country’s future). The precious time of parliament would be better spent on these areas rather than chasing the will o’ the wisp of ‘rigging’ that may not be more than the product of the fevered imagination of parties disappointed by the results.
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Egypt’s conundrum The stand-off since July 3 between thousands of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s supporters and the military has been ‘resolved' by a sudden and violent crackdown on the two protest camps set up in Cairo, leaving at least 149 dead (Thursday’s reports say the toll has reached more than 500), of whom 43 are reported to be security forces personnel, and about 1,500 injured. Amongst the dead was the 17-year-old daughter of wanted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagui and two journalists, while many other media people were injured in the melee. Hundreds of protestors were given safe passage out of the main protest camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya while diehards stayed behind to continue fighting. The not entirely unexpected assault nevertheless came as a surprise to many since the security forces had hitherto been talking about a gradual dispersal of the protestors over many days. The violence in Cairo sparked off clashes in Alexandria and other cities and provinces. The Egyptian authorities imposed an emergency for one month and an 11-hour curfew in Cairo and other regions. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei resigned, saying he was troubled over the loss of life that he considered avoidable. World powers, including the US, the Egyptian military’s main backer, Iran, Qatar, Turkey and the EU condemned the crackdown and the imposition of emergency and urged restraint. The US has refrained from characterizing the ouster of Morsi by the powerful military as a coup as that would trigger sanctions blocking annual aid of $ 1.2 billion. Meanwhile four churches were attacked by Morsi’s supporters, prompting Egypt’s Christian Copts to claim the Muslim Brotherhood was waging a war of retaliation against them, a reflection of the sectarian complaints against the Muslim Brotherhood during its one year in power. The Muslim Brotherhood has called on Egyptians to take to the streets in the thousands to denounce the “massacre”. Clashes also occurred between Morsi supporters and residents of several neighbourhoods in Cairo, underlining the deep fissures in Egyptian society. The Arab Spring has not played out uniformly through the Middle East, nor according to its protagonists’ expectations. If it produced relatively bloodless ousters of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, it showed its ugly side in the manner in which Libya’s longtime ruler Moammar Gaddafi was deposed with the help of western intervention and killed brutally. In Syria, it is currently reaping the deadly crop of one more indirect western intervention, ironically, as in Libya, through the very al Qaeda affiliated forces the US-led west is ostensibly fighting globally. Such expediency, as in the Afghan wars of the last four decades, has led to the unforeseen consequences of global terrorism as a fact of everyday life. When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in the face of protests from below and the eventual abandonment by the powerful military from above, one fact was undeniable. The Egyptian military, which had been in power for six decades and was deeply entrenched through its military-industrial complex (commanding 40 percent of the country’s GDP), would remain the ‘power behind the (civilian) throne’. So it proved when, having allowed the free play of the political forces in Egyptian society through elections that brought the best organized Muslim Brotherhood party to power, the military grew increasingly restive at Morsi’s exclusivist Islamist agenda. The fruits of the Egyptian Arab Spring were meant to be shared by all the forces that had contributed to Hosni’s departure. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Morsi in particular, alienated large sections of the liberal, democratic and progressive sections of the Egyptian people, forcing millions out into the streets and Tahrir Square once again in a replay of the movement against Mubarak. This time however, when the moment had ripened, the military intervened and overthrew Morsi, ostensibly in the name of recovering and continuing the onward march of the aborted revolution. The bloody repression now unleashed against Morsi’s determined supporters promises to plunge Egypt into further turmoil and violence, and may even reproduce the long civil war Algeria went through after its military refused to allow Islamists to take power after an election. It took Algeria the better part of three decades to get the better of the Islamists through bloody suppression. Is Egypt at this point in time ready to go through such an extended trauma? Or will the outcome be different in a context in which the Muslim Brotherhood has friends amongst Islamist governments and forces throughout the Middle East and further abroad? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain. The ill-advised violent suppression of peaceful Morsi supporters is bound to propel Egypt down the dark and narrow alley of increased violence and perhaps civil war, a prospect both frightening and troublesome.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
The terrorism challenge and response In Independence Day messages, outgoing COAS General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani and Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali delineated their views on countering the terrorist threat. General Kayani, while addressing the Azadi (Independence) parade on Tuesday night, made some telling points, some familiar already. First and foremost, he was at pains to underline the need for a national consensus against terrorism so that there is no confusion in the minds of the security forces or the terrorists. Second, he emphasised the criticality of a swift implementation of the strategy made to counter the menace. Further, he said there could be two views about the best strategy for tackling terrorism, but bowing before this curse was no solution. He reminded his audience of the sacrifices made by the military in this fight (at last estimate about 5,000 casualties for the security forces) and reiterated the resolve of the armed forces to face the challenge. He also praised the spirit of the Pakistani people and their resolve to see through the crisis, which they had been doing bravely over the last 10 years (civilian casualties are estimated so far at 50,000). The outgoing COAS has been on record as saying that the internal threat to Pakistan is now greater than any external one. One hopes that his successor will continue General Kayani’s legacy of not shrinking from calling a spade a spade and seeing things from a broad perspective, cooperating all the while with the civilian elected authorities. The import of General Kayani’s message is that the war against terrorism can only be won if it has political ownership. Chaudhry Nisar on the other hand, while talking to the media on Tuesday, said the government was ready for peace or war. He then presented a timeline for the measures the government is contemplating to deal with the terrorist threat. First and foremost, the much anticipated National Security Policy (NSP), which has been in the works since the new government took over, will be presented to the prime minister within two weeks. Chaudhry Nisar said a Joint Intelligence Secretariat would be set up within eight months, on which forum all intelligence agencies, military and civilian, would coordinate. In the interim, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), which remained moribund during the previous government’s tenure, would be strengthened through appointments to fill the gaps in its structure. This process would consume two months. A Rapid Response Force would be created with the necessary latest wherewithal at the federal level to begin with, later to be extended to the provinces. The force would consist of 500 men initially and be bolstered later to a strength of 2,000 highly trained and well equipped professionals. While another long delayed measure, the All Parties Conference (APC) is promised within August in order to forge the political consensus and ownership of the war that General Kayani wants, legislation to enable the National Security Policy (NSP) to become effective was also in preparation. If anyone has any lingering doubts about the necessity of coming together against the existential threat terrorism now poses to the country, they received a timely reminder through an attack on two Ismaili community Jamaatkhanas in Karachi on Tuesday night. One woman and a child were killed in an improvised explosive device blast in Karimabaad while 26 people suffered injuries. Three people were injured in another attack on a Jamaatkhana in Metroville, SITE. No minority, and arguably even the majority, is now safe from the unwanted attentions of the terrorists. As if this were not enough on the eve of Independence Day, the Taliban sent a warning to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to execute three terrorists after the government rescinded the five-year halt to executions by the previous government through a presidential order. The order expired on June 30 and the new government says it is reviewing case by case the fate of about 8,000 condemned prisoners on death row, starting with those condemned to death by anti-terrorist courts. Hunan rights defenders at home and abroad have been dismayed by the decision to once again implement the death penalty, but their protests do not seem to have dissuaded the government from proceeding with its plans. The decision may also be viewed in the context of the Bannu (during the previous government’s tenure) and D I Khan jailbreaks, which freed hundreds of terrorist prisoners, who it is feared will now join their colleagues in renewed terrorist activities. The military wants political ownership of the war, while the political forces are divided over the right approach. Any APC therefore may find it hard to arrive at a consensus. Imran Khan's advice to the government to frame and present its NSP to the APC may therefore have weight.
Monday, August 12, 2013
The terrorist landscape Eid has come and gone. There were moments of joy on the occasion in the company of family, friends and acquaintances, visits to recreational sites (mercifully spared the malign attention of terrorists), picnics and merriment. However, this was the bright side of the country’s picture. The dark side was never far from the surface though, as events proved. This Eid, celebrated amid blood and fear, saw attempted terrorist attacks in Bara Kahu near Islamabad in which a suicide bomber was shot dead before he could explode his vest, but not before he had killed a security guard and injured a few prayer attendees at an imambargah. This foiled attack came in the aftermath of the bombing in Quetta Police Lines on the funeral of an officer killed that morning. While the country held its breath in trepidation at what might yet be in store, the security forces in select parts of the country were active over the holidays. Two attackers were killed in an assault on a Mastung, Balochistan, Frontier Corps (FC) check post. On the other hand, two FC men were injured in a blast on their convoy on the Quetta bypass. A landmine blast in Dera Murad Jamali killed one and injured three persons when their vehicle hit the landmine. A terrorist was gunned down in Matni, Peshawar. The security forces claimed having killed eight persons linked to the Machh area attacks in Bolan the other day in which FC personnel and bus passengers travelling home to Punjab were killed. Other than the fact that all this went on over the Eid holidays, it was business as usual on the terrorist front in the Islamic Republic. Since the PML-N government came to power two months or so ago, the intensity and frequency of terrorist attacks has incrementally increased. This despite the fact that the PML-N, like the PTI, fought the elections on a platform of initiating talks with the Taliban, an offer reciprocated by the TTP until the killing by a drone of their second-in-command Waliur Rehman. Subsequent attacks all the over the country have been justified by the TTP as revenge for Waliur Rehman's killing. On the other hand, the governments, whether at the Centre or in the provinces, have appeared frozen in the glare of headlights like frightened rabbits. The much-touted “comprehensive” (Chaudhry Nisar’s term) national counter-terrorism strategy continues to elude the light of day. The redoubtable Chaudhry Nisar says the government does not want to launch the strategy in a hurry. That it is certainly not guilty of. But his (and others’) confusion is underlined by the usual mantra he trotted out in Quetta about all our troubles stemming from our involvement in a war that was not ours and into which we were forcibly thrust. Imran Khan echoes him in reiterating that ‘withdrawal’ from the US-led war on terror would deny the terrorists the space to project jihad as revenge for drone attacks and other sundry things. In case Chaudhry Nisar and Imran Khan have not noticed, or forgotten, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan and the region by the end of next year. We should be worrying about the aftermath of that withdrawal instead of sitting complacently in our comfort zone of ‘not our war’. The Taliban have brought that ‘not our war’ home to us, so the whole chicken and egg conundrum of which came first, terrorism or the drone attacks, seems academic and futile, certainly in terms of policy prescriptions. Ambiguity on the approach to terrorism does not stop our leaders from making statements of intent and will. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reiterates his ‘determination’ to eliminate terrorism. Welcome. But now that ‘determination’ must find shape in the form of a policy, strategy, and implementation, all conspicuous so far by their absence. Vacuums are inherently subject to being filled. If the political forces seem paralysed so far in the face of the terrorist onslaught, the Supreme Court once again has stepped in with a suo motu on the recent violence in Balochistan. Having failed to achieve much in the case of the missing persons, let us hope the apex court has something more positive to contribute in this latest endeavour. Every drop that irrigates the killing fields of the terrorist landscape against them can only be welcomed. But we need more than drops of rain. We urgently need a national effort to tackle the terrorists and return this fertile land to its true self: a tolerant, progressive, modern, forward looking culture and society. Big challenge, so far inadequate response.
Thursday, August 8, 2013
A sickening crime A stolen motorcycle packed with 5-6 kgs of explosives and heavy ball bearings was exploded by remote control towards the end of a football match in Lyari, Karachi on Wednesday. Eleven people were killed, most of them teenagers, and over two dozen injured. The police are not sure who the target was, provincial minister Javed Nagori or ‘known characters’ of the People’s Amn (Peace) Committee (PAC). Bomb disposal experts revealed that the device was what is called a uni-directional one, meaning the ball bearings, etc, were flung in one direction, aiming at a specific target. To his good fortune, Mr Nagori had just left the venue when the bomb exploded. Despite their theories, the police remain clueless as to the identity of the perpetrators. The cast of usual suspects is headed by terrorists (the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi occupying pride of place since it is said the PAC had been helping the law enforcement agencies against the banned sectarian outfit), gang wars (criminal turf in Lyari’s drug and human trafficking trades is contested fiercely and violently), or, as the police is suggesting, rivals of the PAC. This last possibility may be strengthened by the fact that one activist of the PAC, Yasir Pathan, was amongst the dead. There is so far no claim of responsibility. Pakistan has become a daily tragedy. Almost every day, death and destruction rain down on citizens from unexpected quarters. Many die simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the case of the Lyari blast, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that most of the dead were young football-crazy boys of Lyari, seeking relief from the tedium of daily life in Karachi threatened with violence from all (and unexpected) directions. Lyari is well known as the nursery for many football players who have gone on to represent the country with distinction. For many of them, and for the aspirants who look up to and seek to emulate them, football offers an escape from the daily survival grind and the hope of a better future. How much more sickening is it therefore that the merchants of blood and mayhem chose these young people to kill, whether directly or as collateral damage for a strike at some specific target hardly matters in the final analysis. The bombers would have been well aware that their deadly cargo would take with it many of the young players and spectators enjoying the match. The temptation to hold one’s head, cry and fall into black despair is not the answer, compelling as the circumstances have become. It is disappointing that the PML-N government has not exactly lit a fire under itself to tackle the terrorism issue. The much-vaunted national counter-terrorism policy, reportedly being cogitated amongst government circles, has yet to see the light of day, even two months after the government took office. It was obvious to everyone but the purblind or the totally indifferent that the new government would not be able to avail of the traditional honeymoon period of 100 days for incoming governments. Pakistan’s crisis is far beyond such luxuries of more normal times. Any number of terrorist organizations, criminal and vested interest groups, political interests and others are vying for turf and influence over the increasing toll of the dead bodies of citizens the state is enjoined to protect. The problem of course is of long standing. Over four decades, the state has nurtured and unleashed extremist forces that have by now slipped off the leash of their erstwhile mentors in the military establishment and their intelligence arms. If proof were needed of the impact on what by now appears to be the crumbling writ and capacity of the state to meet the challenge, the Bannu and D I Khan jailbreaks provide salutary examples. It is almost as though each component of the state, civilian and military, political and bureaucratic, federal and provincial, is more interested in protecting its own turf exclusively. This is a recipe for disaster. The terrorists, elusive, dispersed, well organized and armed, are able to exploit the dysfunctionality of the state as a result of these divides and worm their way through the cracks in the edifice to ply their deadly trade. Is there anyone amongst the rulers who can see the writing on the wall and take the tough institutional, organizational and practical measures necessary to salvage the country from the slippery slope it is on?
Wednesday, August 7, 2013
An ill-advised tactic Tuesday’s incident in the Machh area of Bolan, 80 kilometres from Quetta, in which two security personnel and 11 Punjabi civilians were killed in cold blood has unsettling ramifications. It is being reported that about 200 guerrillas first attacked and destroyed a PAF oil tanker in the area, then intercepted a Frontier Corps (FC) patrol, trussed up the five FC personnel, snatched their weapons and walkie-talkies and put up a check post on the road that started stopping buses plying on the route. Normally, according to the local administration, buses going from Quetta to other provinces along this route are accompanied by security forces but the attack on the tanker and FC “kept the security forces busy”. That still does not explain why, after the preliminary incidents, the authorities and the bus operators were not alerted to the risks ahead. Be that as it may, the singling out of Punjabi travellers on the basis of their ethnicity and then shooting them dead signals a new and frightening escalation of the hatreds in troubled Balochistan province. Although Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) spokesman Meerak Baloch telephoned media later to claim responsibility for the incident, he argued that the 13 people killed all belonged to the military or security forces and the others kidnapped were set free. Even if that argument is conceded, does it justify the murder in cold blood of people on the basis of their ethnicity? Two or three years ago, there was a rash of attacks on Punjabi ordinary citizens all over Balochistan, which even the well wishers of the Baloch people found abhorrent and criticized. The practice seemed to have mercifully died out, but its ‘revival’ now poses fraught ethical, moral, political and philosophic questions. The narrower Baloch nationalism that inspires the insurgents in the current phase of their struggle for their rights and against genuine grievances lumps the whole of Punjab as responsible for its oppression. But the fact is that ordinary Punjabi citizens have nothing to do with the policy of suppression in Balochistan. The head to be crowned for that policy, with its ‘kill and dump’ aspect being the most extreme and inhuman face, belongs exclusively to the military establishment and its ‘implementing’ tool, the FC. Hatred against the oppressors is understandable, but to conflate the blame to include uninvolved citizens from Punjab who are in the province in search of livelihood is not just, efficacious, or wise. The loss of innocent lives anywhere and in any circumstances is tragic. How much satisfaction flows from the mourning of the families of these victims in Punjab on this occasion of Eid for those thousands of Baloch families who have lost, and continue to lose, their near and dear ones every day for years is debatable. Such are the wages, though, of the policies pursued by the military establishment in Balochistan. These policies are beyond the purview and out of the control of the province’s civilian rulers, including the recently elected government in Quetta. Until and unless the military establishment surrenders, or is forced to surrender running things in Balochistan in parallel manner into the hands of the civilian elected government, such tragedies cannot be ruled out. It may be instructive to compare the struggle in Balochistan in the 1970s to the current one. Then, not a single settler was harmed. Security forces personnel captured by the guerrillas were looked after, re-educated as to the causes why the Baloch were fighting for their rights, and freed. Even just causes must be fought for with just means. The end has never justified any and all means, and arguably the wrong means end up eroding the righteousness of the most just of causes. Unfortunately, because of the monopoly of the military establishment over Balochistan’s affairs, scepticism after the elections that the new civilian dispensation would be able to bring about a rapprochement will now only be reinforced. The military establishment’s present course runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by stoking separatist sentiment to the point of hardened conviction, thereby shrinking the space for a political solution and threatening a debacle for the country in the future. Do the governments in Islamabad and Quetta have the will and courage to challenge this disastrous course and turn things around in Balochistan for the sake of the country? A healthy dose of scepticism notwithstanding, unless the politicians in Islamabad and Quetta take things in their own hands, the province and the country could be entering a dark and forbidding cul de sac.
Monday, August 5, 2013
Imran Khan on the warpath Fresh from his bruising encounter with the Supreme Court, Imran Khan in a press conference on Sunday tilted against two new targets. First, he questioned the reasons for the one division of the army stationed in D I Khan not being deployed to prevent the jailbreak the other day, or in pursuit of the attackers. Imran Khan was in good company when he said it was beyond comprehension why the law enforcement agencies did not counter the terrorists. Everyone wants an answer to this conundrum. Logically the only two reasons for this debacle that suggest themselves are 1) either the jail staff was complicit; 2) they were not complicit but got cold feet and ran when the heavily armed terrorists arrived at the gates of the prison. Neither of these two propositions is contradicted by the fact that the prior intelligence warning of an imminent attack was discussed, but all to no avail when the calamity actually struck. The performance of the jail staff is one mystery, the other, the lack of help from the army, goes to the heart of the confusion surrounding our counter-terrorism operations. Under peacetime rules of engagement, the army cannot simply decide to intervene in a situation like that of the D I Khan jailbreak. The local administration and jail authorities should have called upon the army authorities if they feared they would not be able to stave off a determined attack, or informed the military of what was happening inside once the terrorists arrived (and stayed to enjoy iftar delicacies). The lack of communication underlines the lack of coordination for antiterrorist operations between the civilian and military authorities. This lack of coordination is replicated in the lack of coordination between the Centre and the provinces. Into this ‘Swiss cheese’ of our counter-terrorism edifice, the terrorist ‘mice’ can burrow through the holes with the greatest of ease. Once again, without the civilian and military, federal and provincial authorities being together under one counter-terrorist umbrella, it will remain an ‘unequal’ contest. Imran Khan’s other target was the redoubtable Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Imran Khan has threatened to take the Maulana to court over his allegation that Imran Khan is a Jewish agent. Now this kind of slander has been around ever since Imran Khan married his now divorced wife Jemima Khan. Although she is a Christian, her family is said to have Jewish ancestry. Does that suffice to label Imran Khan a ‘Jewish agent’? Apparently, in the ‘low’ narrative of the Maulana, yes. Imran Khan questioned the Maulana who after all was an agent when WikiLeaks had revealed the Maulana's efforts to persuade the US ambassador to support Maulana for prime minister. True or not, we would advise Imran Khan not to stoop to Maulana’s level of vituperation, but indeed take him to court (and if possible to the cleaners) if he cannot substantiate his wild allegation.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Cry havoc once again From north to south, almost the entire country has been inundated by the heavy monsoon rains. The rivers are rising, nullahs (drainage channels) are overflowing, many cities are flooded. Dozens of people have been killed or injured, and the count is mounting. In many areas, including some cities, people have been forced to abandon their homes and seek shelter wherever they can. The ravages of nature, and the monsoon is a regular visitor of such misery on people and places, cannot be prevented. However, preparation for the annual deluge, including ensuring drainage on a national level and in the cities is a responsibility of government. How much of such preparation is in evidence is shown by the countrywide reports of drainage channels blocked by refuse and other impediments, banks unprotected and lacking pre-emptive reinforcement against the force of rushing waters, cities turning rapidly into ‘waterworlds’ and nary a sign of any meaningful and effective relief for the victims. This is not an unfamiliar scenario. It has become a recurring tragedy in recent years. No lessons appear to have been learnt even from the ravages of the floods in two consecutive years, 2010 and 2011, whose affectees are still to be properly and comprehensively rehabilitated to date. To their ranks we must now expect the addition of many more citizens in misery. What, you may ask, have the authorities been doing? At the provincial level first, none of the governments of the worst affected provinces, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan appear to have a clue what to do. Local administrations in the affected areas have struggled to cope, but clearly lack the resources and expertise to deal with an ongoing, and likely to become worse, situation. In Punjab, villages and cities have also ‘drowned’, and the authorities have yet to gear up to match the exigencies of an emerging emergency. At the federal level, yesterday Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took notice of the impending crisis and ordered three federal ministers to tour the affected areas and report. In all this belated flurry, where, one may ask, are the National and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities? Clearly, because of their incompetence, lack of planning or preparation, in the shadow world of ‘disasters’ themselves. Hardly a squeak has been heard out of them, and even fewer steps on the ground are in evidence. What price such white elephants? The traditional recourse to the army to provide the manpower and resources for relief has yet to be mobilized, apart from some small scale deployment in select areas at the request of the local authorities. Since the Meteorological Office is predicting more rains, the crisis is bound to take on the character of a national emergency. Some train traffic has been disrupted in the Jacobabad-Kachhi salient. If the predicted rains arrive, it could cause major disruptions to both rail and road traffic throughout the country. The authorities must wake up and work on the war footing required to meet the challenge. Over the years, there has been much talk of a national drainage programme. The efficacy of whatever has been done in this regard is now on display (and repeated nauseatingly every year). The Indus Basin at the heart of the country’s geography boasts some of the biggest rivers and most extensive canal network in the world. The natural slope of the land from north to south offers immense possibilities of mitigating, if not eliminating, the yearly damage from the monsoons and overflowing water sources. In the cities, the time-honoured recourse to pumping water out from low lying urban areas is now beset with the constraint imposed by the energy crisis. This is a good example of how a crisis in one field can impact on, and add to, crises in other areas. Governments at the Centre and in the provinces, with help from the military, have to gear up quickly to provide relief and succour to the present and potential victims of this annual affliction. But beyond that, the national and urban drainage issues have to be taken up seriously to improve the infrastructure, mitigate the sufferings to the extent possible, and ensure the victims do not once again disappear through the cracks in the edifice of our wholly inadequate disaster management.
Saturday, August 3, 2013
Terminological inexactitude Imran Khan’s two explanations (with a break in between for consultations) in the Supreme Court (SC) regarding the alleged contempt by him of the judiciary, failed to cut much ice with the three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry when the PTI leader appeared before it. In the first explanation by his counsel Hamid Khan, it was submitted that Imran Khan had not committed contempt of court nor could even think of doing so since he held the judiciary in high esteem. It went on to elaborate the PTI leader and his party’s struggle in the movement for the restoration of the judiciary. His remarks, considered contemptuous by the SC, were placed in the context of the PTI leader’s pleas to the SC to adjudicate his party’s complaints regarding rigging in the elections of May 11 in at least four National Assembly constituencies. In other words, the counsel argued that it was the high expectations from the SC that had disappointed Imran Khan to an extent that he lapsed into the ‘immoderate’ language that has offended the court. The bench however, advised the counsel to retire and submit a more ‘considered’ statement. This second explanation argued that Imran Khan’s statements were made in good faith and against the lower judiciary returning officers in the election. However, the court would have none of it and ordered the counsel to file a comprehensive written reply on August 28. Both before his appearance before the SC and after, Imran Khan appeared unrepentant and unapologetic, arguing he had said nothing wrong or contemptuous and therefore did not see the need to apologise to the court. The bone of contention appeared to be ‘terminological inexactitude' over the meaning (and translation in parts of the media) of the word used by Imran Khan regarding the conduct of the elections and the ‘judiciary’s’ role during and after the polls. The offending word is ‘sharamnaak’, which some of the media have translated as ‘shameless’ and most as ‘shameful’. ‘Shameless’ is a much stronger word and arguably falls into the category of contempt. However, ‘shameful’ could refer to the conduct of their duties by the judiciary rather than the person of judges or the institution per se. While arguably ‘shameful’ may or may not be contemptuous, it is certainly derogatory. Nevertheless, even this subtle distinction did not help Imran Khan’s cause before the bench. Imran Khan has been sounding off since the elections on the following lines: the election saw the worst (?) rigging in any election in Pakistan’s history, and the lack of redress by the Election Commission of Pakistan or the SC was ‘shameful’. The SC bench patiently explained to the alleged contemnor that such electoral rigging complaints, under the law and judicial procedure, were referred in the case of 31 pleas by the PTI members to the election tribunals as the proper forum for dealing with such complaints. Imran Khan, on the other hand, is impatient with that route since he believes the election tribunals take far too long to deliver any verdict and arguably by the time they do, the next elections may well be round the corner. Hence his insistence that the SC, which otherwise has been known in recent years to utilise its suo motu powers liberally, should intervene to cut short the long winded process. In other words, Imran Khan, in the view of the court, demands special treatment. While it is understandable that Imran Khan and his party were frustrated by their inability to sweep the polls as they had convinced themselves before the voting they were poised to do (the ‘tsunami’ effect), it is not wise to vent that frustration at the judiciary or the undeniably slow processes that characterise our electoral and justice systems. In Imran Khan’s defence, the best that can be said is that despite being in politics for 19 years, he has yet to learn the difference between captaining a cricket team and participating in democratic politics. It has been apparent on a number of occasions that when Imran Khan’s wishes are not complied with, a streak of impatience, even arrogance, comes out on display. There are hard lessons to be learnt about the need for patience and fortitude in politics, even in the face of adversity, which our former cricket hero and admirable philanthropist would be wise to imbibe even at this stage. The contempt case in question has inadvertently framed a new reality: both the judiciary (in this case in the shape of the bench) and Imran Khan seem ‘disillusioned’ with each other. This may be a case of unrealistic expectations on both sides, but it would perhaps serve little purpose to drag the matter on indefinitely when the country is confronted with so many more serious problems. It is not for us to advise the court on a sub judice matter how to proceed. However, it may not be out of place to ask for restraint and an amicable solution, either through an apology (with Imran Khan swallowing his pride in the interests of the country’s delicately poised juncture in a gesture of statesmanship) or a milder treatment by the court (a rebuke perhaps?) to avoid convicting Imran Khan and sending him to jail, which would have the collateral effect of debarring him from politics for at least five years. The election commission and its tribunals too should revisit and speed up the matter of irregularity complaints in the general elections. This would help the election commission to restore some of its battered prestige after the resignation of Chief Election Commissioner Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim soon after the presidential election debacle. The respect and dignity of the judiciary as an institution must be upheld by all and sundry if Pakistan is to institutionalize after long years of struggle a democratic dispensation with a clear separation of powers and defined (as far as possible) areas of purview. We can only hope that wisdom will prevail, no ego should dictate matters, and that the issue can be settled without too much damage.
Friday, August 2, 2013
A fresh beginning? US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit has yielded some hope of better Pak-US relations while leaving some questions unanswered or only dealt with ‘diplomatically’. Mr Kerry is the senior most official to visit Pakistan after the new US administration and the new elected government in Pakistan took office. Naturally, given the turmoil-filled state of relations over the last two years, the two sides had a full agenda for discussion and some vexed issues to sort out. Mr Kerry brings a great deal of goodwill for him personally as a friend of Pakistan and a man steeped in international affairs during a long career in the Senate. He is also remembered as the mover and shaker of the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act to come to Pakistan’s aid. Given all these credentials, his task was nevertheless never going to be easy, given the history (especially recently) of mutual mistrust and suspicion between the two countries, rooted in ‘irritants’ such as cross-border militancy, the Raymond Davis affair, Salala check post tragedy, Osama bin Laden raid, etc. Nevertheless, what seemed to have transpired during Mr Kerry’s meetings with the foreign office, prime minister and COAS (including the ISI chief) was a clearer expression of the intent to forge a ‘full partnership’ (not just a transactional relationship in the context of one issue or even Afghanistan), and restart the Strategic Dialogue stalled since October 2010. No one is pretending the going will be anything but tough. Pakistan has of late become more vocal in opposition to US drone strikes on its territory, a complaint Mr Kerry met by reminding his hosts that it was al Qaeda and others of their ilk who were violating Pakistani sovereignty by using Pakistani soil for their terrorist agendas. Kerry also linked the stoppage of drone attacks (which he tantalisingly promised may well be “very soon”) with the eradication of safe havens on Pakistani soil for the terrorists that were attacking the US and the world and whose offshoots were crippling Pakistan too with their unrelenting terrorist actions. In fact, in the joint press conference after the parleys, the prime minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security Sartaj Aziz revealed the change in thinking of the ruling party after taking office less than two months ago and being subjected to a spate of attacks since. Aziz said dialogue would no longer be the only option for dealing with the terrorists (as the PML-N iterated during its election campaign) but that talks would go hand in hand with military action. It may even be argued that without the latter, no talks have any chance of even starting, let alone being successful. The two sides agreed to promote the revival of negotiations with the Afghan Taliban in Doha in order to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the US/NATO forces next year and leave behind a peaceful Afghanistan, so critical for that country itself as well as for Pakistan and indeed the whole region and the world at large. Kerry graciously extended an invitation to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to visit Washington for talks with President Obama. This visit will probably be tied up with the prime minister’s trip to New York for the fall UN session. While the prime minister expressed his desire for Pakistan to be given greater access to the US market to boost its exports to that country to $ 11 billion, along with cooperation in the fields of energy (ongoing and committed to by Washington), the economy and the social sector, President Asif Ali Zardari has come out with the idea of the US leading an international effort to frame a 'Marshall Plan’ for the recovery, rehabilitation, consolidation and development of Pakistan’s state and society. The idea and its name appear visionary, although it is not certain that the same will exists amongst the potential donors for such a Plan as was in evidence regarding the reconstruction of Europe after WWII. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the proposal has hit the nail on the head if Pakistan and the region are to overcome the legacy of terrorism, energy deficits and a stuttering eco the path of a brighter, more prosperous future.