Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 21, 2018

Russia’s IS alarm

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed each other’s positions in a joint press conference in Moscow on February 20, 2018. They announced the setting up of a commission for promoting military cooperation while expressing alarm over the growing footprint of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Even more alarming to both sides was the seeming indifference of the US-led NATO forces to this development in Afghanistan. The alarm was prompted by the possibility of IS deploying near the Pakistan border in the case of Asif, and in the north of Afghanistan for Lavrov. Asif feared IS could try to destabilise neighbouring Pakistan while Lavrov was concerned that the IS presence could spill over into Central Asia and eventually Russia itself. The former was voicing concerns at a new element of terrorism finding its way into Pakistan while the latter, whose country has overcome a Chechnyan insurgency after years of bloodshed, sees the resource base and ability of IS to recruit locals on a franchise basis as a new and real threat to the region as a whole. Both had complaints about the US failure in Afghanistan. Asif resented Pakistan being scapegoated for Washington’s failure, Lavrov reiterated the received wisdom that only a negotiated settlement through talks offered any hope of a solution to the Afghanistan quagmire. Lavrov went on to describe US President Donald Trump’s ‘new’ strategy for Afghanistan as lacking potential. That strategy is playing out as cutting off civil and security assistance to Pakistan and forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table through hoped for victory on the battlefield. There is little doubt that the US embarked upon mission impossible when it invaded and occupied Afghanistan after 9/11. The inherently difficult enterprise of subjugating Afghanistan, which has historically fought invaders to a standstill and retreat through irregular warfare, proved even more perilous because the Afghan Taliban enjoyed refuge inside Pakistan.

The internal situation for the unity government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is not bright either. One northern governor has gone after initially defying the president, another is sticking to his guns and refusing to go. The internal fissures of the government add to the angst over loss of about 40 percent territory to Taliban control. If Bush invaded Afghanistan without knowing what he was getting into, that initial mistake was compounded by Obama’s announcing a major troop withdrawal prematurely. Neither event deterred the Afghan Taliban from pursuing their protracted guerrilla war strategy. Despite IS being viewed by the Taliban as an interloper in Afghanistan, there has been little effort by the Americans or Kabul to try and take advantage of this rivalry in the insurgent camp. Nothing describes the US approach better than Einstein’s famous saying: doing the same thing over and over again (even more intensely) and expecting different results. Overthrowing the Taliban government through shock and awe has proved easier than winkling out the insurgency or even being able to point towards significant progress, militarily or politically. In the latter sphere falls the consensus that only a negotiated settlement can end the Afghan conflict, thereby denying IS the fertile soil into which it is inserting itself. How to bring that about however, is a thorny conundrum. Pakistan has been simultaneously criticised for allegedly supporting the Afghan Taliban while being pressured to bring them to the negotiating table. Given the developments on the Afghan front in recent days with the Taliban and IS claiming deadly attacks in Kabul and the US retaliating by cutting off aid to Pakistan and threatening a more muscular battlefield approach, Washington lacks negotiating peace partners, certainly the Taliban, arguably even Islamabad now. If the conflict does not yield to peace negotiations because of the tangled web of competing interests, the Afghan war, already the longest in the US’s history, seems destined to continue, a situation precisely that has let IS in the door in the first place, and whose continuance is the best IS can hope for after its defeat and retreat from Iraq and Syria.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 20, 2018

Clash of state institutions

In a belated move, Prime Minister (PM) Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has taken the PML-N’s conflict with the judiciary to parliament. Addressing the National Assembly after presiding over a meeting of the PML-N parliamentary group, the PM called for a conclusive debate in parliament to determine who has the final say in legislation. Criticising the current trend of judicial activism, the PM said it was badly affecting the functioning of his government. Amongst the charges laid at the door of the judiciary, MNAs from both sides of the aisle supported the proposal, albeit the opposition expressed some reservations. In particular what came under fire was the increasing tendency of the judiciary to take suo motu notice of all manner of things, some of which have arguably led the judiciary to encroach on matters that normally are the purview of the executive. This free use of suo motu powers, particularly by the Supreme Court of late, runs against the grain of our past jurisprudence, in which suo motu powers were only used in exceptional circumstances where fundamental rights under Article 184(3) were affected. This is leading to the judicialisation of politics, and runs the risk of politicising the judiciary. Judicial restraint seems to have been abandoned since the tenure of restored former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, with his successors seemingly unable to resist the temptation to intervene in matters where it is felt the executive is not delivering and even, as PM Abbasi put it, insulting and turfing out government appointed officials. Delving into such spheres erodes the division of powers enshrined in the Constitution, which is the foundation of a democratic system. Unfashionable as it may sound, the scheme of democracy leaves the accountability of non-performing or unsatisfactorily performing elected governments in the hands of the electorate through the ballot box. PM Abbasi also lamented the use of derogatory remarks by some judges against elected representatives. The old wisdom was that judges speak through their judgements. Not only has that time-honoured principle been forgotten, even some judgements have resorted to the use of derogatory terms for elected representatives. Armed with what appears to be the mandate of the PML-N parliamentary group’s meeting, the PM spoke in an idiom closer to ousted PM Nawaz Sharif than ever before. He criticised the threats from some judges that they would strike down legislation passed by parliament (of course on the touchstone of the Constitution). In principle parliament is supreme in a democracy, possessing not only the power to legislate within the four corners of the Constitution, but even amending the Constitution itself. PM Abbasi asked the rhetorical question in the house whether parliament would henceforth have to seek prior approval for legislation to be passed by it. He also mooted the proposal to discuss judges’ behaviour in parliament, a suggestion met by hostility from one section of lawyers, who pointed to Article 68 that expressly blocks any such discussion. This may however turn out to be nothing but a storm in a teacup or simply posturing since such a move requires a constitutional amendment, which the PML-N is not in a position to bring about since it does not enjoy a two-thirds majority and is unlikely, on the eve of the general elections, to persuade the opposition to support it.

We are once again in a sorry state witnessing the growing clash between two of the institutions of state, the executive and judiciary. Such conflicts have never been good for the country or democracy. Where the judiciary would be well advised to shun overreach and exercise traditional judicial restraint, the government too should not escalate the war of words to levels from which retreat proves difficult and leads to unforeseen consequences.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Business Recorder Column Feb 19, 2018

Pakistan’s increasing isolation

Rashed Rahman

Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa is bending his back these days to convince a sceptical world that Pakistan does not harbour the Afghan Taliban or Haqqani Network in safe havens on Pakistani soil. That was again the gist of his message on February 17, 2018 at the Munich Security Conference. He said Pakistan had defeated al Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other militant groups, and therefore no organised military camps exist on Pakistani soil today. General Bajwa also claimed that Pakistan has denied Islamic State (IS) any foothold in the country.
Now while the claims about ‘defeating’ al Qaeda and the TTP have considerable weight, realistically speaking, claiming ‘victory’ against shadowy terrorist groups is always fraught with risk. In the nature of things, insurgents faced with overwhelming military odds normally choose to move away to avoid a frontal collision that is likely to go badly for them. This is the inherent nature of guerrilla warfare, where the overwhelming superiority of the enemy is blunted by trading space for time, living to fight on another day. It is not certain how much of the post-bin Laden al Qaeda still survives in the badlands on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. We do know for sure that the al Qaeda ideological franchise has spread to many parts of the world. Ayman al-Zawahari, the successor of Osama bin Laden as leader of al Qaeda, was believed until some time ago to be still holed up in the border lands. But since he has not issued any of his ritual video messages since September 2017, it is not known how he is and where located, speculation notwithstanding.
As far as TTP is concerned, there is no denying that the Pakistan army has by and large driven them from their bases in FATA through Operation Zarb-e-Azb. However, their ‘defeat’ consists so far only in losing their base areas. They have relocated to Afghanistan just across the border and, taking advantage of the poorly policed area, are utilising Afghan soil to mount terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. Such attacks would be difficult to mount though without secret sleeper cells inside Pakistan to fulfil the functions of logistics, safe houses, etc, for such forays. On the evidence therefore, it would be more accurate to describe the present state of the TTP as severely wounded, but not dead.
What is intriguing about General Bajwa’s formulation is not so much what he mentions, but what he leaves out. There is no mention of the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani Network, the bone of contention with Washington and Kabul. A bit of historical context may not be out of place here.
After 9/11, the Taliban proved uncooperative in delivering Osama bin Laden to justice. They then suffered the ‘shock and awe’ invasion and occupation of their country by the US led at the time by George Bush. The Taliban at that juncture made the mistake of trying positional warfare against the invaders, whose advance phalanx struck with the awesome weight of modern air power. The rain of bombs forced the Afghan Taliban to break ranks and run to preserve whatever they could of their forces, albeit not without losing a great many fighters in the process. Their government in Kabul fell, and those that survived the US air onslaught sought refuge in Pakistan in FATA and the border areas of Balochistan. There they have remained to this day. General Bajwa may be right when he disclaims any ‘safe havens’, but perceptive observers have long argued that the US pressure on this issue would probably be met by converting the Afghan Taliban’s ‘safe havens’ (i.e. organised military camps) into ‘safe houses’ (i.e. locations not visible to any ‘eye in the sky’). If that is indeed what has transpired, General Bajwa has his work cut out for him in trying to persuade the world of Pakistan’s stance.
That stance includes new, incremental elements of late. One, Pakistan is a victim of terrorism (true) and has made enormous sacrifices in the struggle against terrorism (also true when measured in human lives, disruption, economic losses, etc). Two, the terrorists operating inside Afghanistan do not need Pakistani soil to operate from since they control at least 40 percent of Afghan territory. Three, the terrorists carrying out attacks in Kabul and other cities probably meld into the residual 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan (this argument’s logic contradicts the second argument above).
Are these arguments winning the day for Pakistan internationally, let alone with sceptical Washington and Kabul? The weight of evidence is to the contrary. The US, Afghanistan, the west and large parts of the rest of the world regard the discriminatory actions of the Pakistan military as the latest manifestation of the ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ binary. In other words, Pakistan picks and chooses to attack Taliban who challenge the Pakistan state, while turning a blind eye to, if not collaborating with, Taliban who attack neighbouring Afghanistan.
And lest we be misled into thinking that we only have problems with the US over Afghanistan, the recent flurry of actions against Jamaat ud Dawa on the eve of the review of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism financing regime by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an indicator that the Pakistani authorities are aware of the severe financial and economic consequences of that review going against them. Whether the takeover of Jamaat ud Dawa’s assets, including its Muridke complex, will prove sufficient in the absence of similar actions against other UN-proscribed (and banned by Pakistan) terrorist groups operating from and within Pakistan remains to be seen.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s by now well known belligerent demeanour, the US administration appears constrained by the Pentagon’s advice. This US institution remains the best friend the Pakistan army has in Washington. There are a number of reasons for this. One, frictions over Afghanistan notwithstanding, the Pentagon sees Pakistan’s battle hardened army as its best ally in the region and beyond. Two, the logistical considerations of the ongoing Afghan war restrict Washington’s room for manoeuvre against Pakistan. That is what explains the ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine being practiced by Washington vis-à-vis Pakistan.
These considerations do not apply in the realm of bilateral aid (cut off recently) or turning the financial and economic screws on Islamabad. The FATF gambit may well be followed to deny or make prohibitively expensive multilateral lending to a foreign exchange-strapped Pakistan. Neither China, despite its heavy investments in Pakistan under CPEC, nor any other country can or will step in to plug this impending hole in our finances. This turning of the financial screws on Pakistan is likely to remain the preferred option for Washington, since it can ostensibly be presented as unrelated to the latter’s concerns vis-à-vis Afghanistan or even, arguably, groups in Pakistan targeting Indian Held Kashmir. Watch this space.

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 17, 2018

A lack of transparency

Both the Senate and National Assembly have raised pertinent questions over the decision to send almost a division of Pakistan army troops to Saudi Arabia without taking parliament into confidence. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani has summoned Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir to appear before the upper house and deliver a policy statement on the issue on February 19. The National Assembly in parallel has asked the foreign ministry to provide a detailed reply to the question why Pakistani troops were being deployed in Saudi Arabia and under which bilateral agreement. It is pertinent to note that the army announced the decision on February 16, citing a bilateral security pact. This announcement came in the wake of the meeting between COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Saudi Ambassador Commodore Nawaf Saeed Al-Maliki, which reportedly discussed the regional security situation. This interaction itself came after General Bajwa’s recent three-day visit to Saudi Arabia where he met Crown Prince Salman and Saudi military commanders. The Senate expressed alarm that such unilateral decisions were being taken while bypassing parliament and arguably to the detriment of the country’s interests, without delving into the grave consequences that could flow from them. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani argued that the complex Yemeni civil war had been further complicated by Saudi Arabia’s allies in Yemen falling out and at each other’s throats and Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in that conflict provoking a backlash against the kingdom itself from the Houthis. The army’s announcement was vague on the number of troops being dispatched, but it appears the contingent will comprise almost a division. The recent deliberately nuanced foreign ministry statement condemning Houthi missile attacks against Saudi Arabia was read as providing justification for the deployment. Both in the Senate and National Assembly, parliamentarians reminded the houses that a joint sitting of parliament had passed a unanimous resolution on April 10, 2015 that Pakistan will remain neutral in the wars in the Middle East or within any Arab state. Questions therefore rang in the air seeking answers to why that resolution was being ostensibly violated.

It may be recalled that the April 10, 2015 resolution upset Saudi Arabia and the UAE and evoked some rude remarks about Pakistan from the latter. The sense of the resolution then was that Pakistan should not insert itself into the sectarian conflict in Yemen, given that Pakistan has some 20 percent Shias and wishes to strike a balance between its relations with the Gulf states and Iran. To those original misgivings could now be added the disintegration and mutual infighting in the pro-Saudi camp in the Yemen civil war, a development that promises the conflict could get messier. While the military may be pandering to our Gulf neighbours given their financial help to Pakistan in dire moments, the reservations voiced in parliament deserve thought. For one, ignoring parliament blatantly on a matter of such importance and in the face of the resolution referred to above highlights the long road yet to parliament’s empowerment as the supreme fount of authority in the state. Admittedly, our politicians have not always acquitted themselves in a manner that could advance this cause. For example, when General Bajwa, in an unprecedented first, addressed the Senate acting as the Committee of the Whole about security issues, the briefing and deliberations being leaked to the media by parliamentarians provoked the ire of Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani. Be that as it may, surely there is no impediment in the military and foreign ministry briefing a select committee of parliament in-camera on sensitive issues that do not allow public exposure. Two, the move smacks of the military ‘surreptitiously’ succumbing to the unremitting pressure from the Saudis for the deployment. Three, and perhaps of greatest concern, despite the reassuring noises that the troops would be restricted to Saudi soil, engage largely in training activities and not be sucked into the regional conflict/s, the increasing spillover of the Saudi-Houthi conflict onto Saudi soil by means of missile attacks suggests the Pakistani military contingent may be inadvertently put in harm’s way and be forced to at the very least defend itself. This presents a slippery slope of escalation without anyone being able to predict the end. For all the reasons enumerated above, it behoves the defence and foreign ministries to brief and if possible satisfy both houses of parliament about this ‘bolt from the blue’.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Feb 14, 2018

Pak-Afghan-US minuet

COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa while addressing the Chiefs of Defence Conference in Kabul attempted to reassure Kabul and Washington that Pakistan’s counterterrorism operations are targeting elements carrying out attacks in Afghanistan. In turn he called for reciprocal cooperation against elements carrying out attacks inside Pakistan while holed up on Afghan soil. The conference was attended by the top military brass of the US, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, i.e. the occupying power and almost all of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Not surprisingly, given the state of relations between Tehran and Washington, Iran was the notable exception. General Bajwa went on to claim that all terrorist sanctuaries had been eliminated from Pakistan’s soil and residual terrorists who meld into the 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan combined with border security coordination inadequacies are being targeted through the ongoing Operation Radd-ul-Fasad. The conference is part of efforts to develop a regional counterterrorism strategy, check the growing presence of Islamic State (IS) retreating from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan and attempt to eliminate narco-trafficking believed to be the main source of funding for the Afghan Taliban. Whether, however, General Bajwa’s reiteration of Pakistan’s mantra will persuade the conference or the wider world remains a moot point. Pakistan currently suffers from a credibility deficit when it makes the claims General Bajwa did. The Afghan Taliban and the deadly Haqqani network have been hosted on Pakistani soil since the Taliban government was ousted by the US invasion in 2001. It has been axiomatic since then that the Quetta Shura and Haqqani network’s presence in FATA would be impossible without the support of our military and security establishment. The actions General Bajwa musters as arguments in his narrative ‘exported’ Pakistan’s Taliban problem to Afghan soil through Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA, but no independent observer or analyst is convinced that this or subsequent military operations eliminated the safe havens inside Pakistan that the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network have enjoyed for the last 17 years. Pakistan’s demand to the US to provide it ‘actionable intelligence’ is derided on the grounds that no one knows better than the Pakistani military establishment where the Afghan insurgents are holed up inside Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan’s narrative tends to run aground on lingering suspicions of Islamabad continuing its proxy war inside Afghanistan, whether for reasons of the discredited strategic depth concept or to hedge its bets in the Afghan endgame.

Pakistan may have been able to get away with its duality of policy so far, but wiser counsel points in the direction of these long nurtured chickens coming home to roost now. US President Donald Trump has proved less tolerant of Pakistan’s prevarication than his predecessors Bush or Obama. He has proved less amenable to the argument that the US cannot push Pakistan too much given Washington’s logistical considerations in Afghanistan. While Trump has been blunt in his views and cut off some $ two billion of military aid, the US State Department and the Pentagon have been playing the ‘good cop’ by delivering a softer message that Pakistan must play ball or forego civilian and military aid. Trump has asked the US Congress to approve a reduced $ 336 million civil and military aid for Pakistan on the grounds that this will help defeat IS and al Qaeda, aims the Pakistani military is comfortable with, but Congress has added the condition that the military component of this aid will only be given if Pakistan moves against the terrorist safe havens on its soil. Equally of concern, the US has moved to restore Pakistan’s name on the terror-financing watchlist if it does not crack down on terrorist groups of all shades and hues, including those targeting India over Kashmir or internal sectarian groups. To stave off such an outcome, Pakistan has taken some actions against groups ostensibly banned but able to operate freely through a ‘mini-crackdown’ targeting certain welfare facilities run by groups such as Jamaat ud Dawa. This represents less a change of heart regarding such groups and more an expedient effort to avoid the watchlist that could impact our economy negatively. The three-cornered minuet being played out between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US for many years now appears to be approaching its last movements. But unfortunately, our policy makers have yet to wake up to the implications of this endgame and grasp firmly the nettle of elimination of terrorist groups from our soil without discrimination or exceptions.