Thursday, April 30, 2015
Saudi reshuffle In an unprecedented major move, Saudi King Salman has reshuffled the deck at the apex of the Kingdom’s power structure. The reshuffle has replaced Prince Muqrin, chosen as Crown Prince by the late King Abdullah before his death in January, with Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, and appointed his young son, Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman as the Deputy Crown Prince, or second in line of succession. Both men are relatively younger than the past octogenarian successors to the Kingdom’s founder King Abdulaziz al-Saud, comprising the generation of his (many) sons. That tradition gave Saudi Arabia five kings from amongst al-Saud’s sons. This reshuffle represents the transition to a new generation. Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the new Crown Prince, is the first grandson of founder King al-Saud. Given that Nayef is 55 and Mohammed bin Salman is just 30, the announcement appears to have settled the succession issue for decades to come. Not only that, power at the apex of the Saudi hierarchy now appears to be concentrated in the hands of the two Princes under King Salman. Their rise to power is seen to signal a tougher stance on foreign policy and continuing to keep the lid on domestic dissent. Prince Nayef has been Interior Minister since 2012, succeeding his father in that position. Al Qaeda paid him the ultimate compliment as a formidable enemy when they tried to assassinate him in 2009 when he was security chief. He escaped that attack and is seen as tough on internal dissent or attempts to subvert Saudi rule. Saudi Arabia clearly has an eye on the unprecedented turmoil roiling the region, with external challenges such as the intervention in Yemen and internal issues emanating from religious extremists’ attempts to overthrow Saudi rule in the past. The latest avatar of such extremists, Islamic State (IS), is said to be operating on Saudi soil. Recently, Riyadh announced it arrested 93 people suspected of being IS operatives. The tougher foreign policy of course is centred on the perceived growing Iranian influence in the region. In the Yemen context, the refusal of Pakistan to get involved militarily in the Saudi campaign, which has caused so much heartburn in Riyadh as well as other Gulf Cooperation Council allies, has now been translated into Pakistan offering humanitarian assistance for Yemen. Whether this will get Islamabad off the hook with Riyadh, only time will tell. Apart from these two changes at the top, veteran Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal has been sidelined in favour of Saudi ambassador to Washington Adel al-Jubeir, the first non-royal to hold the post. Even the head of the state oil firm Aramco has been shifted to Health Minister. His successor is awaited with bated breath by the oil markets, given Saudi Arabia’s pre-eminent position as the world’s largest oil exporter. All these changes presage a more confrontational foreign policy, with Yemen as the testing ground of the new direction. Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led the aerial foray into Yemen against the Houthis but seems to have come up against the fact that mere air power cannot defeat the rebels. After Pakistan excusing itself, Saudi Arabia is now training tribesmen to fight the Houthis in a new proxy ground war that could escalate the conflict, possibly even over the border into Saudi Arabia itself. The new Saudi assertiveness may also be a ploy to divert attention from domestic tensions emanating not only from the extremist threat, but also the inherent contradiction between conservatives and modern young people who are dying for change. Unemployment amongst even the educated young is high and could become a destabilising factor in future. The transition may have settled the Saudi succession for the foreseeable future in an effort to ensure stability and smooth changes, but the concentration of power in the apex triumvirate and the more aggressive policeman’s role being assumed by Riyadh in the region is a risky enterprise fraught with many imponderables that will only reveal themselves in the fullness of time.
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Questions to parties The Judicial Commission (JC) hearing political parties’ complaints and petitions regarding alleged rigging in the 2013 elections has appeared dissatisfied with the material it has received so far from the latter. Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Nasirul Mulk, the JC says it has received 101 applications, but all the matter placed before it so far is of a generalised or generic nature and does not conform to the terms of reference (TORs) under which the JC was set up. Therefore it has given the parties a questionnaire to fill, with a set of specific questions framed according to the TORs. Basically, the questionnaire sets out three main questions, with a sub-question attached to each one of them. Given the deadline of 45 days in which the JC is supposed to come to a conclusion and present its report, the parties have been asked to fill in the questionnaire and submit supporting documents by April 29 (today). The first question is, were the 2013 elections carried out in an honest, impartial manner in accordance with law? If the answer is no, the parties are asked to submit supporting material to prove their assertion and present eyewitnesses for the same purpose. The second question asks whether the elections were manipulated in a “systematic” manner and to indicate the identity of those who designed, planned and implemented this enterprise. The third question focuses on whether the alleged rigging took place only in the National Assembly seats or both the National and provincial Assembly seats. If the former, did this alleged rigging take place in all provinces or only some? These questions are so specific and focused that the parties, in the opinion of some of the best legal brains in the country, will be hard put to it to reply convincingly to them to the satisfaction of the JC. Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, for example, representing the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), wants more time to put together the party’s submissions along with proper documentation. Now this is exceedingly strange since the PTI has been going on and on about rigging since the elections, including during the months-long sit-ins in Islamabad. While PTI’s Ishaq Khakwani tried to gloss over this matter by saying the information the PTI has gathered needs to be translated into legally sound documents for presentation before the JC, his leader, Imran Khan, insists the proof of rigging is in the ballot bags. He wants these reopened in at least seven constituencies to prove his contention. Federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid has questioned this assertion by posing a ticklish question: if the proofs are all in the bags, what has Imran Khan been collecting all this while? Certainly the confused, incoherent and unpersuasive series of (sometimes contradictory) statements on the issue emanating from PTI has, if anything, eroded the credibility of the PTI case and may yet turn the party’s pleading before the JC into a nightmare from which the party may never recover. Admittedly, it is good news to hear that Imran Khan has pledged not to restart his street agitation even if the JC’s verdict goes against him, but so far, both because of the time constraint and the ‘evidence’ presented by the PTI so far, things look bleak for the party’s much hyped case. The PML-N’s counsel, Mr Shahid Hamid, argued some interesting points before the JC. He criticised the manner in which the PTI and other parties had castigated the superior judiciary, including a former CJP, as responsible for the rigging. He suggested that contempt may be attracted by such assertions without any evidence or proof. He also pointed out that the accusation of a systematic rigging plan meant the will of the electorate had been deliberately distorted, a charge so serious as to attract Article six (treason). His thrust was that such serious accusations in the absence of proof or evidence did not deserve serious contemplation. Meanwhile the JC directed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which has already deposed before the JC that all the allegations of rigging hold no water, to reply to the Balochistan National Party-Awami’s petition that the former chief secretary Balochistan, Babar Yaqoob Fateh Muhammad, was involved in the alleged rigging of the elections. Ironically, the officer is now serving as the Secretary ECP. The convoluted saga of the 2013 elections may be drawing to an end. If the JC is not persuaded by the nature and veracity of the matter, documents, etc, placed before it by the parties, its finding seems a foregone conclusion. Were that to transpire, the country will then be left to lick its wounds of the last two years and contemplate what has been gained and what lost in this period of relative paralysis.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Politics of CPEC PPP co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari says he will not allow anyone to play politics over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This is easier said than done. People may not be inclined to ‘play’ politics over the CPEC since its importance for the development of the country is not hidden from anyone. However, this should not be taken to mean that people who have reservations or questions about the project should not have the right to voice their opinions. Serious reservations are found amongst the ANP leadership as well as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government led by the PTI regarding the route of the CPEC and the consequential benefits and their allocation. ANP’s Asfandyar Wali has declared that the route of the CPEC is designed to benefit Punjab 70 percent and the other three provinces 30 percent. Neat as this division sounds, it has either to be established or refuted only by the facts. That is entirely the responsibility of the government. Despite reassuring statements from time to time regarding this issue by Minister of Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal, the disquiet refuses to go away. In this space we have time and again advised the government to meet these reservations and suspicions head on through the forum of parliament to allay any doubts and get the whole country behind this game-changing project. And while we are on the subject, it is important to reiterate that the critics and dissidents who differ from the officially certified truth should not be castigated in knee-jerk fashion as unpatriotic. On the one hand, as general experience and particularly ours indicates, patriotism is more often than not the last refuge of the scoundrel. We should not get carried away with ‘patriotic’ fervour to the point where we start labelling everyone who happens to disagree with us as ant-national. No national enterprise is without complexity and differing perceptions of those complexities. The objections should be taken and addressed at face value without ascribing unjustified ulterior motives to their authors. Similar remarks apply to sensitive issues like the situation in Balochistan. Whereas the troubled province has a host of issues that need addressing, there is nothing wrong in a democratic system, which we claim to be day and night, in listening to dissenting or critical views. In our history, the record shows that hindsight revealed the dissenters may have had more than a grain of truth on their side. Nobody can claim ultimate wisdom; that is why mature democratic societies lay such importance at the door of free debate. Unfortunately, it seems we have still to imbibe such wisdom. A startling and convoluted tale is unfolding before our eyes for the last few weeks. It all began with an academic discussion planned in LUMS on April 9, which got cancelled because of pressure from the powers-that-be. Since then, the not so shadowy outlines of a concerted campaign on the internet, social media and even mainstream media (electronic) has attempted to paint dissidents who raise the issue of human rights in Balochistan or other concerns about the security situation in the context of the nationalist insurgency going on there for more than a decade, as agents of foreign powers that have no place here. Although the tactic is time worn and disconcertingly familiar, it is doubly disturbing in the context of what well meaning people in this country have regarded as a slow but steady march towards an open, democratic society. Sadly, the events of the last few weeks have brutally exposed the distance between the dream and the reality. Following the encroachment on academic freedom at LUMS, Sabeen Mahmud of T2F in Karachi was assassinated as she left a discussion on human rights in Balochistan. While powerful institutions have promised support to the investigation of who is responsible, the shock waves engendered by the murder of a young woman who clearly had no political agenda or affiliation and was only attempting to create space for open debate and discussion about the arts and intellect has instilled unusual fear amongst the liberal, progressive elements in our society. Unfortunately, some elements in our ‘free’ electronic media have chosen to crawl out of the woodwork to defame, slander and commit libel against individuals they paint in the darkest hues imaginable, thereby not only violating every known journalistic precept, but arguably, in the light of what happened to Sabeen Mahmud, placing such individuals’ life in danger from unknown quarters. On the evidence therefore, it seems such elements translate ‘free’ media to mean free of all constraints, ethics, principles and the law. The spreading irresponsibility of such ‘journalism’ needs to be nipped in the bud before it destroys not only the credibility of present day Pakistani journalism, but takes a whole lot of other positive things down with it.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Pak reassurance After a high level meeting to discuss Pakistan’s policy on the Yemen crisis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Riyadh with COAS General Raheel Sharif and top ministers and officials on Thursday. Most observers ascribe this frequent ‘traffic’ to Saudi Arabia to the need Islamabad continues to feel to reassure Riyadh that it will stand by it in times of need. That, it seems, is proving a little more difficult than may have at first been envisaged. Saudi (and Gulf Arab) anger at Pakistan’s stance of neutrality in the Yemen conflict, flowing from the resolution of the joint sitting of parliament, does not seem to be abating. Hence the special visit of the younger Sharif recently has now been followed up by the top civil and military brass attempting to smooth Riyadh’s ruffled feathers. For the overly optimistic, it seemed as though the announcement of a halt to its air strikes and renaming its operations as ‘restoring hope’ signalled that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies had come round to seeing the wisdom of Pakistan’s (and some other Muslim countries’) position. However, the fine print in Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a halt to the air campaign came into play just a day after the announcement of the halt when the Houthis captured an army base loyal to deposed president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the city of Taiz. Saudi and allied aircraft then struck the base, causing an indeterminate number of casualties. On the ground too, fighting between the Houthis and their allies and Hadi’s forces continues fiercely. Despite all the talk of a pause (if not ceasefire) making room for political negotiations between the warring factions, the ground situation is fraught and not easily amenable to a turn away from the language of weapons to the weapon of language. Desirable as it may, as often happens in such wars, a political solution remains a tough ask. Peace plans abound ad are proliferating. Oman has a seven-point one that seeks the restoration of Hadi and the retreat of the Houthi forces from the cities they have captured. That sounds like a non-starter. The ground situation has moved way beyond any such solution or even the contemplation of it. The UN and Iran want a ceasefire, followed by negotiations. This at least has some element of practicability since it recognizes the near impossibility of imposing a retreat on any side from the positions it currently holds. Again, as is the inevitable fallout of civil wars because of the collapse of anything resembling central authority or a state, the humanitarian crisis is, according to the UN, “catastrophic”. The dead number nearly a thousand already since the Saudi air offensive began last month, the internally displaced (officially) are at least 150,000, those whose lives are threatened by war as well as starvation, lack of healthcare, etc, may well be more than a million and a half. For a comparatively small and poor country like Yemen, this is not far short of Armageddon. The muscularity of the Saudi and Arab coalition response to the rapid advance of the Houthis is being ascribed to the apprehensions of Iran’s spreading influence in the region, especially into Arab countries (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon are quoted as examples). This lends itself to sectarian interpretations despite the fact that in Yemen at least, the play of contending forces is far more complex than this simple binary may suggest. However, there is talk in Arab capitals of shedding at last the security blanket of the US and assuming responsibility for their own defence and security. A joint Arab military force for just such contingencies has been mooted. Of course such ideas may take time to assume practical form. What is indisputable however, is the growing self-confidence and ambition of Saudi Arabia to translate its oil clout into military means that will allow it to lead a coalition of Arab countries to scotch any dissent or rebellion in the countries of the allies in the coalition and even perhaps further abroad. To assume, in other words, the role of the policeman not only of the Gulf but the wider region. This ambition goes far beyond the relatively simple sectarian divide and is a manifesto of pure power play. It may also be informed by the exposure of the US as the greatest military power on earth but a colossus with feet of clay stemming from eroding political will to physically (militarily) police the world, a role it took on after the Second World War and which some quote as the reason for its decline, eventual or sudden, the jury is out on. In such a volatile region as ours, let alone the world at large, countries like ours need to cut their cloth according to their capabilities and not surrender to expedient considerations that may later come back to haunt us.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
War by another name A military spokesman has announced the end of the Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign inside Yemen, purportedly on the request of ousted president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whom Riyadh supports. The spokesman claimed that the objectives of the air campaign had been achieved, which he defined as removing the threat to Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries, including from heavy weapons in the hands of the rebel Houthis. Whether the rebels or their weapons actually posed any threat to the Kingdom or other neighbours remains an open question. A more realistic appreciation of the campaign might see it as necessary to turn the tide against the advancing rebels, who at one point threatened the takeover of Aden, signalling the collapse of Hadi and his resistance. To the extent that the air strikes have left the Houthis and their allies on the back foot and prevented the collapse of the Hadi forces, the claim of ‘mission accomplished’ may be accepted. However, as the spokesman’s statement goes on to make clear, such operations can be resumed if the situation requires it. The war therefore, is far from over. To replace Operation Decisive Storm, as the air campaign was dubbed, Operation Restore Hope promises better things. The ‘pause’ in bombing may be related to the efforts to get aid into Yemen to relieve the humanitarian crisis one month of bombing has created, apart from the civilian death toll of 900. Operation Restore Hope’s mission statement includes protecting civilians (which Decisive Storm failed to do), fight terrorism (al Qaeda has taken advantage of the turmoil unleashed by the bombing to capture for the first time large swathes of territory in Hadramaut province in the southeast, including its capital Mukalla), facilitate the evacuation of the remaining foreign nationals, and intensify relief and medical assistance (the UN has been pointing to a humanitarian crisis). Unstated, however, are Saudi Arabia’s plans to intervene in Yemen with ground forces, a speculation set off by King Salman’s ordering the mobilisation of the National Guard. The strengthening of domestic security measures also points in the same direction since they signal apprehensions regarding the repercussions of a ground intervention. It should be kept in mind that Pakistan so far is following its parliament’s resolution arguing for neutrality and a diplomatic rather than military role in the conflict. Whatever anger resides in Saudi hearts over Pakistan’s unwillingness to do Riyadh’s bidding, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is paying yet another visit to Saudi Arabia today to mollify the King. While scepticism still reigns about Saudi Arabia’s ground intervention, the southern sea approaches are being patrolled by Arab naval ships backed by the US naval fleet in the area (further proof that the reports that Washington has been supporting the air campaign are true). The purpose ostensibly is to deny weapons to the Houthis through this route. While Iran has welcomed the end of the air campaign since it accords with its call for a ceasefire and negotiations as a way out of the crisis, the UN too is emphasising a ceasefire on humanitarian grounds. Riyadh should take pause and think again about any boots on the ground in Yemen, since the Houthis enjoy a formidable reputation as tough guerrilla fighters, particularly in their traditional mountain strongholds in the north. Any Saudi ground foray into Yemen, with or without Egyptian and other Arab reinforcements, risks bogging down Riyadh and other Arab capitals in a protracted war that could spill over the border into Saudi Arabia itself, apart from inflaming regional tensions. Saudi Arabia may be better served by going with the diplomatic regional and international consensus to find a political solution through negotiations amongst the rival factions of Yemen. That path would also help to understand and appreciate Pakistan’s stance, which clearly is not only in the interests of Islamabad, but Saudi Arabia and the other regional players too.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
IS arrives A suicide bombing followed by a planted bomb outside a bank in Jalalabad on Saturday that killed 33 people and injured over 100 announced the 'arrival' of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. The bank is where government workers collect their salaries. Obviously a queue of people waiting to collect their dues presented a tempting target for the terrorists. It is not known what if any security arrangements existed at the bank for just such an eventuality. That is not to say that the presence of security is any guarantee of safety against determined fanatical suicide bombers. But the realities of life in Afghanistan (and Pakistan for that matter) mean that any gathering in the public space offers opportunity and temptation to the terrorists. This particular atrocity stands out for the claim of responsibility by IS. Until now, claims of IS actions in Afghanistan were widely considered to emanate from former Taliban members disillusioned with their leadership. Younger Taliban are reportedly more and more inspired by IS because of its spectacular victories and capture of large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. Accompanying the IS claim of responsibility for the bombing came the condemnatory statement of President Ashraf Ghani, who only last month on a visit to Washington had warned that IS presented a "terrible threat" to his country. Never were truer words spoken. Pakistan too needs to wake up from complacency to the new deadlier threat posed by IS. Ominously, the IS claim of responsibility was made in the name of IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan, signalling the expansion of the group into South Asia. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar in particular needs to shed the complacent blinkers that informed his comment not long ago that there was no IS presence in Pakistan. If the old style religious extremists like the Taliban had only tenuous cross-border links, IS has demonstrated in practice in Iraq and Syria that it is no respecter of borders. Al Qaeda in the past relied on 'franchising' it's brand throughout the Muslim world but IS, having declared a millenarian caliphate, has conceptually obliterated the nation state and its boundaries. That was the thrust of Afghan military chief General Sher Mohammad Karimi's remarks while addressing the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul on Saturday, ironically the very day the terrorists struck in Jalalabad. General Karimi called for sincere counterterrorism cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan to counter and ultimately defeat the menace and threat of terrorism. He cautioned against missing the historic opportunity of defeating the terrorists through joint efforts. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border situation in particular presents both threats and opportunities vis-a-vis the terrorists. The threat emanates from the bases enjoyed since 2001 by the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil. On the other side of the border, Pakistani Taliban have received hospitality and safe havens from the Afghan Taliban. Jamaat ul Ahrar and Lashkar-e-Islam have shown surprising alacrity in condemning the Jalalabad atrocity, perhaps for fear of the backlash threatening their continued presence on Afghan soil. The Afghan Taliban too have been quick to distance themselves from the attack, calling it "evil". For the Afghan Taliban this is standard operating procedure. They seldom if ever claim attacks in which large numbers of innocent non-combatants are killed, arguing they only attack foreigners or Afghan military and government targets. An atrocity like Jalabad is therefore an 'orphan' except in the eyes of the ruthless IS. Terrorism in the shape of IS has morphed and gone beyond the parameters of the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Whereas the IS terrorists have a headstart in transcending the confines of national state boundaries, governments in the states under attack have yet to catch up and tackle the increasingly cross-border threat jointly. Pakistan and Afghanistan, in a changed milieu of unprecedented cooperation, defined by Pakistan trying to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table (admittedly a difficult enterprise given the reported divisions within the Afghan Taliban ranks on the issue) and Afghanistan coordinating actions to counter the Pakistani Taliban on its side of the border, could show the region and the world the way forward by close collaboration and coordinated joint action against their common terrorist enemy, particularly rising IS.
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Economic corridor Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to visit Pakistan on April 20-21 in his first trip abroad this year and one that was postponed last year thanks to Imran Khan’s sit-in. There is some excitement in the air about the expectations from the trip. Federal Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal spelt out why in a media interaction in Islamabad on Friday when he revealed the contours of what has been dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This is a comprehensive plan that includes energy, road and rail infrastructure and other projects. The overall size of the investment package is around $ 50 billion, of which $ 35-37 billion will be for energy, and $ 8-9 billion concessional loans for infrastructure such as roads, ports and railways. The energy projects will be in the hands of local Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and the total output once these projects are completed will be 16,500 MW. Coal power projects (including Thar) will be completed in three years, green energy projects from solar and wind in 6-12 months. These would be commercial transactions, with Chinese firms extending loans to Pakistani partners, and the government inking power purchase agreements with the latter. Ahsan Iqbal pointed out that with the completion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Pakistan-China economic ties would come at par with the two countries’ geo-political ties. The Chinese lead and example in investing in Pakistan, the minister hoped, would be emulated by investors across the globe. He revealed that the government had wisely decided to upgrade the transmission and distribution lines in order to take the enhanced load. The provinces, he said, would benefit from early harvest projects of 10,400 MW. At least 10 coal-fired projects are planned. Chinese firms would offer concessional loans for infrastructure projects, spread over 15-20 years at low markup, the difference with international interest rates to be made up by the Chinese government to the lenders. Ahsan Iqbal warned that Pakistan must keep pace with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor plan or it could lose Chinese support and even the planned route. To ensure this, the Khunjerab-Gwadar route must be completed at the earliest. Since the road passes through troubled areas, especially in Balochistan, a special force will be set up by the army to look after the security and safety of the Chinese and local workers on all such projects. This issue should perhaps be viewed in the context of the killing of 20 labourers the other day by insurgents in Turbat. Not only could the Chinese and even local workers come under threat, infrastructure such as roads and railways could fall prey to sabotage activities. The conundrum of Balochistan needs to be tackled politically if such dangers are to be warded off. Such reservations aside, it is beyond question that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will be a game changer for Pakistan, the region, and the world. The old Silk Road will be resurrected in the form of a new Silk Road and even a Maritime Silk Road, which will link this region to the world, east and west. In the old Silk Road times, it not only served trade, the route brought disparate civlisations, east and west, closer. In today’s interconnected world, it is expected that these trade and economic cooperation routes will prove transformatory in terms of modernisation. China is our time-tested friend and its rise to eminence has provided us with a golden opportunity to transform our crisis-ridden energy sector, and creaking, old and decrepit infrastructure such as roads, railways, power transmission networks, etc. While the rest of the world has to chase Chinese investment, Pakistan is in the enviable position of the Chinese generously opening their coffers to us and ensuring Pakistan partakes of China’s economic success. For all these reasons, the long awaited and historic visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping is more than welcome.
Friday, April 17, 2015
SC intervenes Most people in Pakistan thought that with the passage of the 21st Amendment, under which the Pakistan Army Act 1952 was also amended to allow the military courts being set up to try terrorists, this was a done deal. Perceptive observers however still had one eye on the possible legal challenges to the Amendment and the military courts that flowed from it. These legal challenges emanated from a number of Bar Associations, including the apex Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA). Now these critical eyes have been vindicated by a full 17-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) headed by the Chief Justice having stayed the execution of six ‘hard core terrorists’ and life imprisonment to a seventh as well as any further death sentences the military courts may impose. The SC further ruled that the convicted persons had the right of appeal against their convictions. The SCBA had pleaded for an interim stay of the executions on the ground that if carried out, the death sentences would be irreversible whereas the SC had yet to decide the challenges to the 21st (and some aspects of the 18th) Amendment. The bench accepted the argument of irreversibility and the pending constitutional challenge to the scheme of the 21st Amendment. It may be recalled that on April 2, COAS General Raheel Sharif had ratified these sentences. However, no further information was available about who these persons were, where and when they were picked up, what specifically they were accused and convicted of and where they were tried. The SCBA had argued these points before the bench and expressed its ignorance whether the hangings had already been carried out or not. The Attorney General was unable to convince the bench that a stay would mean suspending the 21st Amendment. He tried to dispel the impression that the trials were held in secret, arguing that legal procedures had been followed, including the right of appeal under Section 133(b) of the Pakistan Army Act 1952 (which had been amended by the 21st Amendment to allow civilians to be tried in the newly created military courts). The SC however, was concerned that capital punishment had been awarded in secret since the information only came to light from newspaper reports. Since the death sentences if carried out would be irreversible, the court held, executions should be halted until it had had the opportunity to dispose of the challenges to the 21st Amendment itself. This decision goes to the heart of the matter, since the Amendment is the mother of all else, even the setting up of these military courts. The legal fraternity has hailed the interim order of the SC as fully in consonance with the demands of justice. The fact that the 21st Amendment (passed, it must be said, in haste by parliament in the wake of the Peshawar school massacre when emotions throughout the country were running high and calls for stringent action against the terrorists rent the air) was always open to challenge on the touchstone of due process, transparency and the right of appeal, not to mention the considerations of human rights defenders, was not in doubt. It is a reflection of the maturity of Pakistan’s democratic order that the superior judiciary is sensitive to and cognizant of its role and responsibilities in safeguarding the hallowed demands of justice and due process to prevent even one innocent person being sent to the gallows without ensuring a fair and free trial. The legal fraternity too has played its due role in this regard. Considerations of strict and unremitting actions against terrorists notwithstanding, the consensus has long existed in political and civil society and the legal fraternity that military justice does not fulfil the principles of justice. This consensus has now found expression in the challenge mounted in the SC, where it has found resonance in the remarks and the interim order of the full bench. Parliament’s wisdom is not to be lightly questioned since it is the repository of the people’s will through their elected representatives. However, this should not be elevated to blind faith in which it is perceived that parliament can do no wrong. Ours may be a Westminster-type democracy, but there is a profound difference between what the British parliament is empowered to do in the absence of a written constitution and how far our parliament can go, given that its decisions and actions can be challenged on the touchstone of the constitution itself. It is not for us to declare finally on these intricate constitutional and legal matters. The case is safely in the hands of the collective wisdom of their honourable lordships where it belongs. The rest of us must await their final verdict.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
COAS on Balochistan In the wake of the tragic incident in Turbat in which 20 labourers from Punjab and Sindh were killed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, COAS General Raheel Sharif paid Quetta a visit to assess the security situation. After interactions with the top civil and military officials of the province, he delivered a strong message about wiping out all insurgents in Balochistan. He also warned foreign powers and their intelligence agencies to refrain from supporting the insurgency in the province (an accusation being repeated more and more of late but for which not a shred of evidence is available to date). Further, he underlined that the Frontier Works Organisation and other military-affiliated outfits would continue their development projects to bring prosperity and peace to Balochistan. On his return to Islamabad, General Raheel Sharif met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to brief him about the security situation in Pakistan’s largest in area but poorest province. According to reports, the two top officials took a decision in principle to extend Operation Zarb-e-Azb against terrorists in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to Balochistan. While General Raheel Sharif deserves praise for taking on the terrorists in FATA and KP by launching Operation Zarb-e-Azb last year, a task long delayed by his predecessor and now accelerated by the massacre of school children in Peshawar this year, it must be asked whether the situation in Balochistan resembles what the government and military face in FATA and KP. In the latter, long years of mollycoddling religious extremist militias in the mistaken belief that they could be indefinitely deployed in the Afghanistan context without suffering any domestic fallout, has now finally culminated in the wisdom that these Pakistani Taliban groups affiliated ideologically if not organisationally with the Afghan Taliban pose a serious challenge to Pakistan and must be eliminated. In the case of Balochistan however, the current troubles are the fifth insurgency in the province since independence. Each time nationalist dissidence and armed resistance has reared its head through this long period, the approach has been to rely on military force to crush the nationalist insurgents without addressing the underlying grievances that give rise to these repeated insurgencies. Every insurgency before the current one has ended inconclusively, the blood shed on either side notwithstanding, in relative quiet, compromise, and expedient forgetting about the causes of the trouble in the first place. The risk is that what appears to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to Balochistan’s complexities may not end very differently, even if the present insurgents are rendered incapacitated by concentrated military means. That implies that even of this insurgency is quelled, there is no guarantee a new insurgency does not lie in wait for us down the road. One of the problems bedevilling the issue of Balochistan is the state of blissful ignorance by and large throughout the country regarding the issue. The security establishment is nervous about allowing any free debate on the issue. Hence the stoppage of an academic discussion on Balochistan and human rights in the context of forced disappearances that have afflicted the province for years in LUMS, Lahore the other day. The consistent failure to address Balochistan’s grievances over the years has led to such alienation amongst its people that separatist sentiment has gripped large sections of youth. The security establishment hopes to win hearts and minds by offering military-led development that can offer economic opportunities to the youth. However, such top-down, externally driven development has failed in the past and is likely to fail again to convince a critical mass of Baloch youth to abandon passive if not active sympathy and support for the nationalist insurgents. The silence imposed on events regarding Balochistan (a policy harking back to the very beginning of Balochistan’s dissonance in 1948) implies the inability of the media to report honestly on what is taking place in the province, particularly from the interior where most of the action takes place. Reliance therefore has perforce to be placed on handouts by the security forces. The credibility of this officially certified truth has often been questioned, the latest being the post-labourers’ killings operation that claimed to have killed 13 of the perpetrators. Nationalist sources contest this version by pointing out that the brother of the alleged commander of the group held responsible was a wheelchair-bound person for many years and the others were persons already in the custody of the security agencies. We are in no position to verify either version. And that goes to the heart of the conundrum: can the state succeed by suppressing information about one of Pakistan’s most troubled provinces? At the very least, the intent avowed by General Raheel Sharif should extend to the religious sectarian groups that have been wreaking havoc in the province for years. While there is little progress seen against such groups, the approach to the political conundrum of Balochistan remains mired in strategies tried in the past without the end results promised every time.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
Tightening noose There is an unmistakable odour in the air that the MQM has fallen on hard times of late. Since the party of a particular ethnic/linguistic hue first appeared on the political horizon circa 1984, it has seen more than its share of twists, turns and swings in its political fortunes. Perceived as the brainchild of General Ziaul Haq as a counterweight to Sindhi nationalism that asserted itself under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s and played a major role in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1983, the MQM soon established itself as the dominant force in Sindh’s cities, particularly Karachi. Unfortunately, the underlying philosophy of the MQM had more than a whiff of ethnic/linguistic exclusivism and chauvinism as its most visible overlay. But there was also a hidden underlay. That was the penchant of the party, and particularly its leader, Altaf Hussain, not to shrink from the use of strong-arm methods against not only its real or perceived enemies but even dissidents within its ranks. Hence we were regaled in the 1990s after crackdowns and operations against the MQM of its torture cells where the most horrible treatment was meted out to any and all who had dared to cross the MQM and its leader. It should not come as a surprise therefore that one of the MQM’s erstwhile top leaders, Imran Farooq, was assassinated in London years after he had broken with Altaf Hussain. Now, after all these years, it appears that these particular chickens are coming home to roost. The convoluted story of the two suspected assassins remains unclear and obscure. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s ‘clarification’ in a press conference on Wednesday that his meeting with the British High Commissioner the day previous was pre-scheduled and had nothing to do with Altaf Hussain’s appearance before the London police, which was pure coincidence, did not ‘clarify’ the confusion much. These two suspects have variously been described as in custody or, alternatively, with some security agency from whose grasp they have yet to be extracted or produced. The assassins were helped and facilitated to make their journey to London for the dastardly deed by another collaborator who too has now been arrested and handed over on a 90-day remand to the Rangers in Karachi. Altaf Hussain’s marathon five-hour interrogation by the London police produced only the barest tit bits of information as to the outcome, which included his police bail being extended till July 15, his passport being confiscated until further notice, and restrictions being placed on his travels outside London. While Altaf Hussain and another MQM leader in London who is reportedly under arrest are being investigated on money laundering charges, the intriguing matter of where the trail of the Imran Farooq murder will eventually lead remains a ticklish thought. For too long, the MQM managed to get away with, literally, murder, largely because it had ‘friends in high places’. However, the first turn in its fortunes began in 1992 when an operation was launched against it. Altaf Hussain, perhaps after a tip-off, fled into self-imposed exile in London six months before the operation began. Over the years he has run the MQM from that perch while having acquired British citizenship and all the legal rights and protections that implies. However, there appears to be a minuet being played out between the Pakistani and British intelligence and law enforcement communities regarding cooperation on the MQM’s matters amongst others, in the absence, it must be noted, of an extradition treaty between the two countries. That renders any idea of extraditing the two (now three) suspects in the Imran Farooq murder investigation to Britain an affair beyond the ordinary business of law enforcement. Chaudhry Nisar hinted as much in the press conference referred to above by asserting that in the absence of any extradition treaty between the two countries, any request/s for extradition would have to be on a reciprocal basis, i.e. if Britain asked for the extradition of any person from here, it would have to extradite to Pakistan any person Islamabad may want. Who that might be was left unsaid by the minister, which has only served to fuel the fire of speculation as to the meaning and import of his words. If any proof were needed of the downward trajectory of the MQM in terms of comeuppance for many things in its past, no better evidence exists than the raid on Nine Zero (unthinkable once), which yielded persons wanted by the law as well as unlicenced weapons. Although the MQM tried to reinvent itself as a mainstream democratic party after the setbacks of the 1990s, the lingering suspicion about its armed wing and extortion activities never quite went away. Now, it seems, it is payback time, and the MQM and its exiled leader are well and truly in the dock.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Unacceptable threat UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammad Gargash needs to go back to school to relearn the appropriate manner of conducting foreign relations, particularly with friendly countries. The worthy minister of a country Pakistan regards as a friend has attempted a ‘diplomatic’ intervention against the Pakistani parliament’s unanimous resolution to stay out of the Yemen conflict while being ready to come to Saudi Arabia’s assistance should its sovereignty or territorial integrity be threatened (so far it is not, despite the latest reports of ground clashes on the Saudi-Yemeni border because of Yemeni retaliation against the Kingdom’s air strikes). In what can only be termed unprecedented undiplomatic language, the UAE minister has seen fit to criticise the Pakistani parliament’s resolution as unacceptable neutrality in a conflict in which the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Arab countries are, according to their narrative, combating the spread of Iran’s influence (a charge that Tehran denies, despite the latest report that a couple of Iranian officers have been captured by the militias fighting against the Houthis and their allies). It is in fact so unacceptable to Dr Gargash that he issues a not even thinly veiled threat to Pakistan that it must either do what Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies want (send fighter aircraft, naval ships and ground troops to Yemen alongside the Arab coalition) or be ready to “pay the price”. Dr Gargash goes on to interpret Pakistan and Turkey’s calls for seeking a political solution to the Yemen conflict as reflecting that Iran is more important to Islamabad and Ankara than the Arabs. Interestingly, the UAE’s ‘senior’ partner, Saudi Arabia, has dispatched its foreign minister to Islamabad for discussions. On arrival, he said the parliamentary resolution is Pakistan’s internal matter and although he hopes for a better response from Pakistan, he is here to conduct an exchange of views. What a difference! Saudi Arabia is leading the 10-member Arab coalition and is in the forefront of the air strikes on Yemen but the junior foreign minister of the UAE seems to have diplomatic niceties lost on him. While the Pakistan foreign office has maintained a ‘diplomatic’ silence, pleading no such official message has been received from the UAE so far, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has weighed in by calling the threat unacceptable. Certainly no self-respecting country can accept such diktat or language, even from a friend. Dr Gargash’s undiplomatic outburst aside, which may well reflect partially the GCC’s frustration at not being able to turn the tide of battle in Yemen despite continuous air strikes, the ground situation in Yemen both reveals the limitations of air power alone in any war as well as the risks of entering the war on the side of deposed president Hadi and against the Houthis and their allies. Informed analysts who know Yemen well are warning that any such intervention, far from defeating the Houthis and their allies, promises to turn into a protracted war that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy of the war spilling over the border into Saudi Arabia itself. Interestingly, what has largely gone unnoticed is the US’s support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Not only are there now reports of Washington opening its intelligence sharing a crack wider to assist the Saudi bombing campaign, it has now admitted mid-air refuelling of Saudi jets to strengthen the bombing campaign. Thank God for the collective wisdom of our parliament that scotched any notion of Pakistan getting entangled in another proxy war in the region (the ones in Afghanistan and Indian Held Kashmir, in case anyone needs reminding, have yet to end). Not only would any Pakistani acceptance of the Saudi request for a military intervention have drawn armed forces personnel and resources away from our own struggle against terrorism (though some may drool at the possibility of being richly rewarded by our Arab friends), it had the potential of alienating neighbour Iran and pitching Pakistan directly into the maelstrom of a regional proxy war that is being painted in sectarian colours despite the complexity of the situation and forces fighting in Yemen. Additionally, it is worth reflecting on the US backing to the Saudi campaign opening the door in Yemen to al Qaeda and Islamic State, just as its ill thought through intervention in Iraq and Syria did. The law of unintended consequences is fully at work in the region. Lessons must be learnt from past such mistakes and Pakistan should first and foremost look to its own house on fire, then play a wise and reconciliatory role in its own interests.
Parliament's wisdom After five days of debate, the joint session of parliament called by the government to discuss Pakistan's policy response to Saudi Arabia's request to join the Arab coalition against the Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen's civil war proved the efficacy of its collective wisdom. A unanimous resolution reflecting the sense of the joint session, while appreciating the government for consulting parliament on such an important issue, recommended that the government refrain from acceding to the Saudi request for air and naval craft and soldiers to join the fighting in Yemen on the Saudi side. It further recommended that Pakistan should stay neutral in the Yemen conflict while being prepared to stand by Saudi Arabia if its sovereignty or territorial integrity was threatened. Pakistan, parliament further underlined, should play a proactive diplomatic role to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen, followed up by efforts to get a dialogue going between the contending parties and searching for a peaceful political solution thereby. The war in Yemen, the resolution emphasised, was not a sectarian war yet, although it could transmogrify into one. This would have unforeseen consequences for the already existing sectarian conflict across the region, the Muslim world, and most critically, Pakistan. This is not an unjustified apprehension for a number of reasons. Pakistan has been suffering from the outbreak of sectarian conflict for many years. In our case, the tragic fact is that what has been described as a slow genocide of Shias continues at the hands of openly sectarian Sunni extremist groups that consider Shias fair game to be put to the sword because of their beliefs. The region and the wider Muslim world is in the throes of sectarian tinged wars that owe more than a bit to the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Yemen is one of them. For a country like Pakistan to get embroiled in regional or inter-Muslim wars generally, let alone a war that has a sectarian fallout potential would be the height of folly. Pakistan currently has its plate full with problems. Wisdom demands we deal with these, including terrorism (without excluding sectarian terrorism), the energy crisis and the economy. That is quite enough to keep us fully engaged for the foreseeable future. Parliament's resolution also pointed to the need for moving the UN Security Council and the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) to strive for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen. Parliament expressed serious concern at the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Yemen and the implications of this for regional stability and peace. This concern has also been expressed by the army's top brass in the shape of the statement emanating from the Corps Commanders' conference. Last but not least, the resolution appreciated the government's evacuation of Pakistani nationals (and other countries' citizens) from war-torn Yemen, mentioning in the process the contribution of China in this humanitarian rescue mission. The unanimity on display in the joint session of parliament proved the culmination of what was apparent was an already emerging consensus during the debate. Speaker after speaker from both sides of the house spoke along exactly the lines of the eventual resolution. This then was proof positive of the wisdom of collective consultation with the elected representatives of the people. But the show of unanimity would not have come to pass had the government not accepted the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf's (PTI) objection to defence minister Khwaja Asif moving the resolution on the grounds that his badmouthing the PTI on the very first day of the session ruled out the PTI's voting for any resolution moved by Khwaja Asif. The 'resolution' of the resolution moving conundrum took the form of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar moving the resolution, an implicit admission by the government that Khwaja Asif had been out of line. That ensured frayed nerves and seething tempers were cooled and the resolution then had smooth sailing.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Deafening silence Strange are the ways of the Islamic Republic. Since at least 2008, the public has been regaled day and night by the mantra that Pakistan has now turned its back on military coups and dictatorships and embarked on its journey towards democracy. It goes without saying that no democracy worth the name can be acceptable in which freedom of expression, speech, opinion, information is not available. Although Pakistan has taken seven league strides down that path compared with its unenviable past of draconian censorship, it appears that the ‘censorship’ demon has not yet been fully exorcised. Its ghost continues to haunt our lives. Take for example the inexplicable ‘cancellation’ by the establishment of an academic discussion in Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) scheduled for April 9. A day before the event, the establishment sent two operatives of an intelligence agency to see the Chancellor of the university. Since the Chancellor was abroad, they saw the head of department of the Social Sciences Department under whose auspices the event was to be held and told him in unequivocal terms that the discussion (called a Roundtable) could not be held. When the head of department tried to reason and negotiate with them, offering them a choice of speakers acceptable to them, the agency people made it very clear that there was no room for negotiation and that either the event should be cancelled or its organisers and participants would be arrested since there was a grave danger that Pakistan would be maligned in any such discussion. Wonders will never cease. Now it appears that an intellectual exchange in a prestigious university well known for its high standards of probity and objectivity poses a threat to Pakistan. This is paranoia gone berserk. If the establishment was really so petrified of any such discussion ‘getting out of hand’, there were subtler and more polite means available to achieve the objective, provided the objective was to ‘correct’ any wrong or misconceived ideas about the topic at hand: Balochistan. Why such sensitivity regarding a problem that has existed on Pakistan’s political radar for years on end? Does the official view hold that by silencing the intelligentsia, the problem will simply go away? As it is, the situation in Balochistan is extremely difficult to report on. Access to the media is limited to a few cities. The interior of the province is virtually out of bounds, confining the ongoing nationalist insurgency in the mountains and countryside to oblivion. The media in Pakistan has gained unprecedented freedom in our history and is playing an important role in educating and informing the public about all matters national and international. Yet it cannot penetrate the black hole that Balochistan has been relegated to. The LUMS faculty and students sought to be educated and informed on what exactly the problem was. Would that have ‘subverted’ the purposes of the state? If that was indeed the fear, why did not the establishment accept the offer of speakers chosen by them to provide ‘balance’? Surely there are many bright sparks ready and willing to rise to the defence of the powers that be in our society. Had a healthy debate on the issue been allowed, as the LUMS alumni wished, the heavens would not have fallen. What our heavy handed agents failed to realise was that healthy and open debate, even on the most vexed issues, is often more useful for the formulation of a wise and efficacious policy than the silence of the graveyard. The LUMS faculty and students are up in arms at this gross violation of academic freedom, freedom of thought, opinion and expression in what is billed as a democratic Pakistan. On the evidence of this episode, it appears that these freedoms are ‘allowed’ only in some areas. Shedding light on what is one of the oldest and most vexed political issues in Pakistan’s history it appears is not amongst them.
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Hard landing The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) elected representatives’ re-entry into the Assemblies after a boycott of over eight months did not exactly prove a smooth affair. In the joint session of both houses of parliament, their entry was marked by slogans, shouted remarks and taunts, not only by parties from whom this was expected, but also by some from whom it was not. While opposition parties MQM, JUI-F and ANP fell in the former category and acted out according to script, the ruling PML-N strangely initially saw backbenchers creating a storm, and later, the chief speaker from the treasury benches, Defence Minister Khwaja Asif, losing his cool at the returnees. The rival opposition parties of the PTI (MQM in Karachi, JUI-F and ANP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) opened the attack with a few bouncers such as slogans of ‘Go Imran, Go’ in an ironic echo of the PTI’s ‘Go Nawaz, Go’ slogan during its agitation. But it was inexplicable why PML-N backbenchers found it necessary or useful to shout at and heckle the PTI returning members when their government has been at such pains to defuse the crisis that arose over the PTI’s sit-in in Islamabad. Even Speaker Ayaz Sadiq’s plea to Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid to calm down his party’s backbenchers and get them to adhere to parliamentary decorum failed to cut much ice. That behaviour could have been forgiven as the raging resentment of PML-N backbenchers against a party that had been abusing and castigating its leaders for over eight months from on top of the famous container. But what was entirely incomprehensible was Khwaja Asif’s charged attack on the integrity and character of the returning PTI members. What had provoked Khwaja Asif to so lose his cool? It appears from reports that it was PTI chairman Imran Khan’s remarks to media during the break between the morning and afternoon sessions, in which he continued his stubborn insistence on the Assemblies being fake as a result of rigging in the 2013 elections that may have provoked the Khwaja Asif assault. Speculation whether this was an individual getting angry or a plan by the treasury benches (including the earlier backbencher heckling) to give as good as they got from Imran Khan and the PTI are doing the rounds. Imran Khan tried to nail the ‘plan’ by pointing out to media later that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sitting next to Khwaja Asif when he lashed out at the PTI, but made no effort to restrain him. True or not, one can only scratch one’s head what the PML-N was up to and what it hoped to gain thereby. After all, once the momentum of the PTI agitation slackened, not the least because the opposition parties, led by the PPP, came to the government’s aid and support against Imran Khan’s ill conceived effort to subvert the system, the PML-N had expended considerable time and energy on defusing the confrontation through giving the PTI a face-saving exit through setting up a judicial commission and inviting it to return to parliament as a consequence, an invitation the PTI eventually accepted. So was the PML-N now trying to sabotage the chosen course? If so, there could be a considerable fallout. The only sensible people in the joint session appeared to be the PPP, whose Leaders of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah, and Senate, Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, tried to save the day by the former welcoming the return of the PTI members as a victory for parliament and democracy and the latter questioning Khwaja Asif’s rampage’s motives and intent. Unfortunately, the quite unnecessary fracas, with MQM and JUI-F walking out after registering their protest at what they believed were illegitimate PTI members sitting in the session and the PML-N and PTI ending up with daggers drawn and bad blood, distracted focus from the real purpose of the joint session: Pakistan’s policy vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia’s request for military help in the context of the Yemen war. All that main purpose of calling the joint session received was a prepared statement read out by Khwaja Asif in the morning session. After that, all hell broke loose and sabotaged in the process the crucial debate on a matter that goes to the heart of Pakistan’s foreign policy and national interests. The joint session tragically came out looking less than responsible and serious, preferring as it did partisan politics over critical national policy formulation. Interestingly, a minor fracas in the Sindh Assembly aside, the PTI members were welcomed back with open arms in both that Assembly as well as the Punjab one. If only our ‘senior’ elected members of the National Assembly and Senate could take a leaf or two out of the book of their ‘junior’ provincial colleagues, Pakistan may have been better served.
Sunday, April 5, 2015
Zardari’s game plan Bad weather in Garhi Khuda Buksh is said to have forced the cancellation of the traditional main function on April 4 every year before the mausoleum of the martyrs of the Bhutto family. Instead, the commemorative rally on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s death anniversary was held in Naudero. Former president and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari arrived to a tumultuous welcome by the workers at the venue, accompanied by his daughter Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari. Conspicuous by his absence was Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairperson of the party, whose prolonged staying away in London has set off a storm of speculation regarding differences with his father, all of which has of course been studiously denied by the PPP. Addressing the rally, Zardari did not add anything new to the collective fund of what the PPP represents now in its alarmingly weaker position as a mere provincial party in Sindh rather than the all-Pakistan party it was once famous for. He played the perpetual theme of the PPP’s martyrs and the party’s struggles against dictators and for democracy. In the same vein, he vowed to stand by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in his hour of need if democracy was threatened. Interestingly, Zardari also let slip what he expects in return. He argued that just as the PPP had stood by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in hard times, he expected the government of the PML-N to stand by the PPP, and particularly him (Zardari). He reminded Nawaz Sharif not to make the kind of compromises he did last time he was in power, which left Zardari languishing in jail for long years. Unfortunately, the PPP co-chairperson still carries the stigma of Mr Ten Percent in public perception despite nothing ever having been proved against him in any case. Given the current penchant of the military establishment to go after all elements responsible for bad law and order, corruption and misgovernance in the past, Asif Ali Zardari may be betraying some level of anxiety by appealing to Nawaz Sharif to stand by him and come to his aid and succour in case… Addressing Imran Khan, Zardari congratulated him over the formation of the judicial commission the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader had been wanting since the 2013 elections but invited him to return to parliament and join hands with the opposition to make the Election Commission of Pakistan financially independent too after its achieving formal empowerment. (The PTI core committee has decided yesterday to return to parliament and its elected members will participate in the joint session of parliament today). He cautioned the PTI leader that the mere setting up of a judicial commission to probe alleged rigging in the 2013 elections was inadequate to prevent in future the negative role of the returning officers. He also felt the terms of reference of the judicial commission may not be up to the mark to achieve its desired objectives. Turning to his own party ranks, Asif Ali Zardari warned his ministers and members of the party to improve their performance and connectedness with the people or be prepared to forfeit their tickets in the next elections. Admitting the PPP in power in the last government had not delivered, Zardari could have done himself and his party a favour by reflecting on his own political style since assuming the office of co-Chairperson in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. The enduring image of the PPP-led previous government’s tenure is the sight of the jialas (committed PPP workers) desperately trying at various venues to gain access to then president Zardari and being rebuffed and even set upon by the police to prevent them disturbing the repose of the president. Going by his remarks, it appears that the example set by Zardari himself has by now percolated down to his followers, members and ministers (now confined only to Sindh). If so, a glance backwards in the mirror may do the co-Chairperson and the party some good and make his appeal to his party members and ministers more credible.
Saturday, April 4, 2015
A pledge too far Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s quick trip to Turkey yielded a joint statement at a press conference in Ankara with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu pledging both countries’ intent to stand by Saudi Arabia in defence of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This mantra echoes what Pakistan has been saying publicly since the news broke of Saudi Arabia asking Pakistan for military help in the context of the Yemen crisis. Repeating a mantra interminably, even in consort with close friend Turkey, does not necessarily establish its verity. From day one, it has been obvious to all but the purblind that it is not Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty or territorial integrity that is threatened but that of the target of its aerial bombardment on the side of deposed president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, neighbouring Yemen. It would take incredible mental gymnastics to convince any reasonable person that the Houthi and allies’ rebellion represents, in a massive oversimplification of a complex crisis, the advance of Iran’s alleged ambitions to expand its influence in the region in what only paranoid minds can describe as the resurrection of the ancient Persian Empire. Further, informed observers may have been tickled by the fine irony of Turkey joining Pakistan in condemning the overthrow of the Yemeni government by non-state actors. Is that not what Turkey has been backing in Syria since that civil war broke out? Is what’s sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander? Hadi of Yemen must not be overthrown by non-state actors like the Houthi and supporters of former president Saleh, even if they are less threatening to mankind as a whole than the Islamist opposition to Bashar al-Assad of Syria, which by now includes the rampant Islamic State (IS). Turkey has taken the hardest line of most states in the region in its opposition to Assad, preferring even to turn a blind eye reportedly to IS fighters traversing Turkish territory to attack the Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. Surely it is not an inappropriate question to ask whether only expediency and partisan interests are to dictate high sounding ‘principles’ of international politics or are there actually some principles such as ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity’ at work? Turkey cannot have its cake and eat it too, supporting the overthrow of Assad by non-state actors, including arguably the greatest threat to all states in the region, IS, and in the next breath oppose the overthrow of Hadi of Yemen by non-state actors. We will labour the obvious contradiction no further. Let us instead turn our attention to Pakistan’s anomalous stance on the Yemen crisis. Reservations about the contradictory policies of Turkey in the region notwithstanding, it is a matter of some satisfaction that Islamabad’s penchant for a political solution to Yemen’s civil war is shared by Ankara. Pakistan has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian conflict. That is entirely in line with Pakistan’s interests. The same advice would serve Islamabad well in the Yemen context. Keep out of regional conflicts, particularly the growing trend of wars taking on sectarian hues. Both prime ministers were right on the button when they said the Yemen crisis could endanger the unity of the Muslim Ummah and had implications of great turmoil for the whole region. Arguably such a divide is already in existence and the fissures can only widen unless better sense prevails, diplomacy and negotiations replace gung ho military interventions, and all parties in the Yemen conflict are persuaded, difficult as this seems at the moment, to approach the negotiations table for a political solution. The reason for stating that diplomacy and negotiations will struggle to assert themselves is the rapidly developing situation on the ground in Yemen, particularly in the south around Aden. The Houthi advance on the city has received a setback after the defenders were resupplied with weapons and medical aid through Saudi airdrops. Whether this is only a temporary and tactical retreat by the Houthis will become clear in the next few days. But the intensity of the fighting leaves those advocating a turn from the weapons of war to the weapons of diplomacy wondering if they are not talking pie-in-the-sky.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Death penalty dance The first batch of six Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists have been sentenced to death and a seventh to life imprisonment by the newly founded military courts. The army chief has confirmed the death sentences according to ISPR DG Major General Asim Bajwa. He has revealed that these seven were involved in terrorism, slaughtering people, suicide bombing, abduction for ransom, colossal damage to life and property. The charges appear to justify the sentences, but what is missing is more specific detail about what cases they were tried in, when and where. Although these convicted terrorists have the right of appeal to a military court of appeal, observers are sceptical of such an appeals court’s ability to overturn a sentence endorsed by the COAS. It may be recalled that nine military courts were set up under the 21st constitutional amendment after the massacre at the Army Public School, Peshawar in January this year, which resulted in the deaths of 134 students and 19 teachers and others. As part of this legislation under the National Action Plan, the Pakistan Army (Amendment) Act 2015 was also promulgated to empower these military courts to try civilians. Critics of the move thought it ceded too much power to the military. And as far as the track record of the old military courts is concerned, reports abound of allegations of torture and the accused being deprived of lawyers and access to evidence, i.e. due process. Further, military officials could dissolve a military court if they did not agree with its verdict and retry the defendants. Whether the new military courts have taken cognizance of these criticisms of past practice is not known. Only time and the working of these courts can reveal that, but no objective judgement would be possible without transparency and detail, both of which are missing in the announcement under discussion. Despite all these caveats and reservations, shared by rights groups here and abroad, many Pakistanis supported the setting up of the military courts earlier this year because of the virtually moribund civil justice system, including the anti-terrorism courts that were supposed to cut through the delays of the normal system and deliver verdicts in quick time. Unfortunately, the anti-terrorism courts too succumbed to the universal inertia of the justice system as a whole and the superior judiciary did not do much to overcome this anomaly. The judicial system delivers few and far between convictions, and is snowed under by a backlog of over one million cases. Police are often accused of torture, investigation and prosecution skills are conspicuous by their absence and not much has been done to reform this creaking edifice. Lawyers and judges, especially in the lower courts, are unfortunately perceived as open to bribery or intimidation. But having said all this, the facts on the other side are not such as to inspire confidence either. Reports speak of the military holding thousands of alleged terrorists in internment camps, especially in the tribal areas. There is little or no information on when or if these internees will be tried. The structure created alongside the military courts comprises provincial apex committees of civilian and military officials that recommend cases to the federal government for transfer to the military courts. Little is known about the process nationwide, although one report says the Punjab government has transferred six cases to the military courts and one is following, out of 46 cases assessed for the purpose. In turn the federal interior ministry reveals that around 50 cases have been transferred to the military courts, but this little tit bit only whets the appetite for more information. Human rights groups in Pakistan and internationally respected groups such as Amnesty International have been criticising the setting up of these military courts and the incremental lifting of the moratorium on executions that threatens 8,000 convicts on death row whose appeals process has been exhausted. The critics argue many of these convictions are ‘unsafe’ (not credible). Amongst the critics of the lifting of the moratorium can also be counted the EU, the implications for our recently acquired GSP Plus status having nevertheless been brushed aside by our authorities. For all these reasons, as well as most importantly the demands of justice, any and all trials in the military courts of alleged terrorists should be conducted as far as possible in the public eye, and where this is not possible for security reasons, adequate disclosure should follow any verdicts. Such transparency and information can only work towards the credibility of trials in the military courts and help to allay the critics’ apprehensions regarding miscarriages of justice.
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Parties’ call A meeting of leaders of the PPP, ANP, MQM, JUI-F and BNP-Awami held in Karachi on April 1st to discuss the Yemen crisis has called for an all parties conference and a joint session of parliament before the government takes a decision on what role Pakistan should play on the issue. The meeting expressed grave concern over the situation in Yemen and its implications for Pakistan and the region. They called for resolving the crisis through dialogue and negotiations and rejected the notion that one person, as often happened in the past under military dictators, should take a decision of such far reaching import. The concerns of the parties are genuine, and it is comforting to note that the government does not seem oblivious of this or the apprehensions amongst commentators and the general public about Pakistan jumping into a foreign adventure of untold risks. These risks include Pakistani forces, if at all they are sent to Yemen as the Saudis seem implicitly to want, getting bogged down in a multi-faceted, complex war without clear lines or end. An intervention also runs the risk of alienating Iran and impacting negatively the already fraught sectarian situation in Pakistan itself. After the high powered Pakistani delegation has returned from discussions in Riyadh and briefed the top civil and military leadership, it appears that the wisdom of the political parties’ call has sunk in. That is why after reviewing the brief the delegation came back with, the government announced a joint session of parliament on Monday, April 6. This is both wise and timely. All indications point to the government not wanting to offend either Saudi Arabia or Iran or being seen as partisan in the Yemen context. That is why the option of sending a limited number of troops to secure the soil of Saudi Arabia from any attack seems the best choice. This way the commitment to close friend Saudi Arabia to reciprocate its help through the years can be satisfied without getting embroiled in a conflict that is complex and uncertain. Iran too, whose foreign minister is arriving in Pakistan on April 8 for discussions on the Yemen issue amongst others, will feel Pakistan has not strayed into territory it may consider hostile to it. While King Salman has briefed the Kingdom’s ministers on his interactions with foreign heads of state and government, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is about to embark on lightning tours to Turkey and other Muslim countries in the region for consultations on the crisis. Pakistan is desirous of bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table under the aegis of the OIC, although the move has invited a great deal of scepticism at home because of the perception that the OIC is a toothless and ineffective tiger. Similarly, the call by King Salman for all parties in Yemen to agree to talks on resolving the crisis under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council seems a non-starter since the Council groups the very Arab countries that are either actively militarily involved in the Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthis and other rebels or at the very least sympathetic to or even part of the Arab coalition in support of deposed president Hadi. Absent from the emerging scene is the UN, with nary a statement of concern let alone diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting to an end or addressing the humanitarian crisis that stems from this latest major war. On the ground in Yemen, despite the air strikes by the Saudi-led Arab coalition, the Houthis and their allies are driving relentlessly on Aden, the major southern city and port from where Hadi fled into exile in the face of his rivals’ offensive. A Houthi column with tanks is said already to be in the centre of Aden and it seems only a matter of time before the city falls to the Houthis. Calls for a ground invasion by Saudi and other Arab troops are growing in response, but uncertainty surrounds the former’s capacity and the latter’s willingness. The Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war may yet prove to be its biggest blunder if the paranoia about Iranian influence in its backyard translates into deep hatred by the so far advancing rebels for ‘Big Brother’ in Riyadh.