Saturday, November 18, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Nov 18, 2017

Culturally acceptable phenomenon? There is much one can find distasteful about the US military’s presence in Afghanistan. But last year’s report in The New York Times on bacha bazi (child sexual abuse) in the country and the US military’s attitude to it appears to hit a new low. The story alleged that the Pentagon prevented US troops from reporting on Afghan police and militias’ sexual assaults on children and punished US troops when they reported the abuse. The Pentagon at the time rejected the story but US lawmakers were sufficiently incensed to instruct the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate and report to Congress on the issue. The findings of the Inspector General, far from reassuring anyone have exacerbated concerns about the attitude and conduct of the US military in Afghanistan. The Inspector General’s report says US troops were told to ignore child sexual abuse in Afghanistan as a “culturally acceptable phenomenon”. However, the report goes on to say that a review of “cultural-awareness training” did not lead to specific command or policy guidelines that expressly discouraged military personnel from reporting incidents of child sexual abuse. In some cases, US military personnel were told “nothing could be done about child sexual abuse because of Afghanistan’s status as a sovereign nation”. Further, military personnel were informed it was not a priority for the US command to discourage such practices and it was best “to ignore the situation and to let local police handle it”. The Inspector General’s report goes on to say the US army and air force training does not discuss paedophilia in Afghanistan but that of the navy and marines does. The navy training manual advises readers to control and overcome any frustration that they may experience during their deployments. The marines manual on the other hand advises to be mentally prepared to encounter this ‘attitude’ and to move on. Similarly, several current or former service personnel told investigators they were told to ignore such behaviour. If they witnessed child sexual abuse, they were to let local officials and police know and not interfere with the locals. An interviewee said the reason given was that this would ensure continued cooperation with the Afghans. Another said the chain of command didn’t care until the NYT report. A more damning indictment of the US military’s ‘policy’ would be hard to find. Many of those involved in this sordid business are powerful, well-armed warlords and police and militia commanders. For its expedient reasons, the occupying power either ignores the former or advises its personnel on the ground to report such incidents to the latter! Considerations of Afghanistan’s sovereignty did not stop the US invading and occupying (continuing since) Afghanistan in 2001 after 9/11. Nor did ‘culturally acceptable phenomena’ impede subsequent efforts to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan, with some success. In response to the NYT report and the controversy it sparked off, the Martland Act was mooted to not condone child sexual abuse on any US military base or abroad, whether the perpetrator was American or foreign. However, it appears that in practice that remains a dead letter. One tragic consequence of the US command’s preference for its soldiers to ‘look away’ when confronted with child sexual abuse was the suicide of a soldier subsequent to hearing the screams of a child being sexually abused in an adjacent room and his inability to intervene. Some military personnel have been punished for reporting such abuse in answer to their conscience. The US is very fond of lecturing the world on human rights and the highest values of its enlightened, democratic society. What the Pentagon Inspector General’s report lays bare however is the hypocritical dark underbelly of the purported carrier of these values. Shame.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Nov 15, 2017

Writ of the state For over a week now, some 2-3,000 protestors of the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) have blocked traffic between Islamabad and Rawalpindi through a sit-in protest at Faizabad Interchange. This has made the lives of the residents and commuters of the twin cities miserable since people cannot get to work, children and students cannot get to their educational institutions and even the sick and elderly are deprived of medical attention. The protestors are demanding Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s head for a mistake in the wording of the Elections Act 2017 regarding Khatm-e-Nabuwat, which was corrected soon after. But that did not satisfy the firebrands of the TLYRA, who have sworn to continue their lockdown of the capital until their demand is met. Not even the formation of a parliamentary committee under Senator Raja Zafarul Haq to probe the matter has cooled the anger of the TLYRA, which claims the mistake was a deliberate attempt to water down the clause regarding belief in the finality of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH). Actually this ‘anger’ and charges of deliberate attempts to water down the provisions of Article 260 of the Constitution appear to be motivated by anything but an adherence to the truth and facts. In fact they smack of another agenda altogether: using the sensitivities around the anti-Ahmedi constitutional provisions and the blasphemy law to browbeat the government and all those who do not subscribe to the TLYRA’s extremism. The government has been treating the disruption of life in the capital with kid gloves, perhaps fearing the fallout of the use of force to remove the recalcitrant blockers. Ministers from Ahsan Iqbal to Talal Chaudhry have been blowing hot and cold for days, trying in one breath to persuade the protestors to come to the table for talks and threatening the government has the means to clear the road within half an hour in the other. This flip-flop performance has done little except make the government look weak and ineffectual and embolden the extremists to continue their defiance of the writ of the state. The illogical and irrational stubbornness of the TLYRA defies all norms of conduct allowed by the constitution, law and civility. Citizens have a right to protest peacefully on issues that concern them. But such concerns must rest on the facts, not imagined conspiracies when the mistake has already been corrected. Second, one citizen’s right to protest ends where another citizen’s nose begins. By blocking access to Islamabad, the protestors have deprived thousands of citizens of the right to a normal life, freedom to travel about their business and not be accosted by stick-wielding, stone-throwing violent extremists who do not hesitate to beat up citizens attempting to gain passage through their blockade or policemen deployed to maintain law and order. Complaints of violent beating of citizens, attacks on and kidnapping of law enforcers and ratcheting up the nuisance factor are multiplying. If the TLYRA are not open to reason and civilised conduct, there appears little recourse except to establish the writ of the state by whatever means are necessary. A clear message needs to be delivered to the protestors: their rights stop where others’ begin. This might also have a salutary effect on their ravings elevating Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Salmaan Taseer, to the status of a ‘saint’ and attempting to make a mountain out of a molehill to fulfil their sinister agenda of browbeating all and sundry into submission to their warped vision.

Business Recorder Editorial Nov 14, 2017

Abandoning confrontation Two back to back meetings in Lahore of the PML-N high command in Lahore on November 12 and 13, 2017 reviewed the party’s strategy for the cases the Sharifs are facing in the courts and in the run up to the 2018 elections. The two issues are linked since the aggressive stance of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz since his disqualification has raised concerns about its effects. After deliberations, the meetings laid out a policy of non-confrontation with state institutions (the army and judiciary) and stepped up preparations for the coming elections by means of restarting Nawaz Sharif’s mass contact campaign to mobilise the party’s electoral support and its workers. It was left to former information minister Pervaiz Rashid to brief the media after the deliberations. He offered a mea culpa regarding the aggressive response to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification by arguing that criticism of the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) verdict/s in the Panamagate case was the inherent right of citizens, let alone the aggrieved, and did not constitute confrontation with the judiciary. He pointed out that even eminent jurists have raised serious questions over the judgement, particularly comments such as ‘Godfather’, ‘Sicilian mafia’, etc, which reflected emotion rather than legal points. In reply to a question about the seasonal birds amongst the PML-N ranks chafing to fly the coop (a phenomenon well known from the PML’s past whenever its leadership is in trouble), Rashid said they would not be able to be elected without Nawaz Sharif’s umbrella. He went on to reveal that it had been decided in principle that Nawaz Sharif would lead the election campaign since there was no other candidate for prime minister. On the surface this seems to have dealt a body blow to Shahbaz Sharif’s ambitions for the top slot. But Rashid left that door open a crack by adding that if the party won in 2018 (and Nawaz Sharif remained disqualified), it is Nawaz who will pick the prime minister (like he did Shahid Khaqan Abbasi after disqualification). About the fear of some unconstitutional or extra-constitutional actions aimed at winding up the present setup before the Senate elections in March 2018, Rashid was of the view that the PML-N’s opponents, particularly the PTI, were aiming for this. The stakes in this regard as much as in the coming general elections could not be higher for the PML-N. With regard to the Senate elections, the PML-N is poised to gain a majority in the upper house. The general elections, all other things being equal, is an even juicier fruit, low hanging so far since the PML-N’s vote bank in Punjab seems intact. Disqualification, Rashid argued, had made Nawaz Sharif even more popular. Therefore if there was no interference with the electoral process, the PML-N will win. Last but not least, Rashid dealt with the perception of rifts within the Sharif family. In a carefully worded response, he said Shahbaz, Maryam and Hamza Shahbaz gave their opinions in the meetings but once Nawaz Sharif takes a decision, all will follow his directions. It seems cooler and wiser heads in the PML-N have finally prevailed to avoid any untoward development vis-à-vis the party’s stakes in the democratic system. It now appears that the party has internalised the argument that it must not provide any excuse or justification to inimical forces to abort or otherwise subvert the path to parliamentary success, perhaps the best option under the prevailing circumstances. Now that the issue of delimitations for the 2018 elections appears to have been resolved to the PPP’s satisfaction in the Council of Common Interests, the path to elections on time seems to be in hand. Meantime the ‘engineering’ on display via the short-lived MQM-P and PSP alliance/merger, the efforts to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and mainstreaming some of the newly formed religious extremist parties all seem to have hit various roadblocks. With the Karachi Rangers chief denying his organisation’s role in the MQM-P and PSP fiasco, the idea seems to have died a natural death. It is in the PML-N’s interest to stay the course to parliamentary success in as cool and measured a manner as possible since this is the best way to overcome its present difficulties. However, given the paralysis of governance because of its travails, particularly in the Finance Ministry because of Ishaq Dar’s absence, the government should seriously and post-haste appoint at least an acting finance minister to tackle the economy’s urgent issues.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Business Recorder Column Nov 13, 2017

Games some people play Rashed Rahman Although electioneering season has not been officially or formally declared open, the political landscape increasingly resembles a period leading up to next year’s scheduled general elections. Political rallies, engineered hastily and as rapidly collapsing alliances, efforts to resurrect some other lapsed alliances and mainstreaming the religious extremist parties sums up the menu on offer. First the abortive Muhajir Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) merger/alliance. The latter party’s head Mustafa Kamal has spilt the beans after the euphoric announcement of an alliance possibly leading to a merger collapsed within 24 hours. Kamal accused the MQM-P and its leader Farooq Sattar of playing the establishment’s game. In actual fact, as he half admitted later, both parties are creatures of the same establishment. Why was there an interest in and efforts to bring the two surviving Muhajir parties together? Probably the calculation was that it would consolidate the Muhajir vote bank in Karachi and the other cities of Sindh and thereby create room for the establishment to weaken the PPP in its home province and last bastion of electoral strength. The spectacular collapse owed itself to disquiet within the ranks of the MQM-P about its leader’s post-haste decision to join hands with the PSP, particularly over the latter’s rejection of the name ‘MQM’ on the grounds that it was tainted by founder Altaf Hussain’s imprimatur. The next (simultaneous) alliance to see the light of day and then prove stillborn at birth was the 23-group platform announced by former dictator Pervez Musharraf. The man has to be given a medal for cheek. An absconder from justice (he faces murder charges in the killings of Benazir Bhutto and Akbar Bugti and a treason case), he continues to live in the fantasy never never land of his ‘popularity’. Having tested the waters last time he returned to the country, one would have thought he would have learnt the lesson that his so-called Facebook popularity had no reality on the ground and for good measure was hauled up on serious charges (this may have been one factor in the souring of civil-military relations). The fact that the institution he belonged to reportedly got him off the hook and arranged for his departure from the country would be enough for most mortals. But the commando general has always been long on chutzpah and short on wisdom. As to mainstreaming the religious extremists, two moves can be discerned in recent days. First, the street agitation by the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) on the omission of the anti-Ahmedi clause in the Election Reforms Act 2017, calling for Law Minister Zahid Hamid’s head, threatening ministers’ families if their demand is not met and threatening to close down the entire country has been treated with kid gloves by the government, fearing a crackdown might provide an excuse for its downfall. Apart from its ongoing Khatm-e-Nabuwat campaign (assisted by the Sunni Tehreek), the TLYRA has spread a climate of fear throughout the country by declaring Mumtaz Qadri, Salmaan Taseer’s assassin, a ‘saint’ of some sort and brandishing blasphemy accusations left and right to browbeat liberal, secular and progressive forces in the country. TLYRA managed to garner a surprising number of votes in the NA-120 and NA-4 by-elections. Representing the Barelvi persuasion, the TLYRA and Sunni Tehreek may have been launched at this juncture to weaken the PML-N’s Punjab vote bank. It is not yet clear whether the TLYRA and the Jamaat ud Dawa floated party, Milli Muslim League are now registered as legitimate political parties with the election commission or not. In a law abiding society, no group associated with extremism, fanaticism and terrorism should be accorded such legitimation. Religious parties such as the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (Fazl) have come together to revive their political fortunes and resurrect the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance that brought them to power in two provinces during Musharraf’s reign. This platform, dubbed early in its life a Military-Mullah Alliance, hopes to dent the PTI’s vote bank in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the meantime, the seeming plan to decapitate the two mainstream largest parties and keep leverage over the third appears to be unfolding. Decapitation in the case of the PML-N means turning the PML-N into just a PML by removing from the political firmament the Sharifs (and Ishaq Dar). In the case of the PPP, the targets may be Asif Ali Zardari and Faryal Talpur. For Imran Khan, a different tack may be in store. The powers that be have used him in the past and will likely use him again in future. However, knowing what a loose cannon he is, these same powers may accumulate cases against him to be used in any ‘emergency’. If the pattern of such political manipulation and manoeuvring in our history is any guide, there appears to be a recurring cycle of the establishment creating parties and leaderships to suit its purpose (e.g. MQM, PML-N), empowering them so long as they toe the establishment’s line, and then targeting them when their utility is over or they acquire wings because of the inherent dynamic of power. Since the political class is disunited in the face of the establishment’s manoeuvrings, this unequal fight has usually gone in favour of the latter. The present scenario promises little different.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Nov 11, 2017

Hudaibya case reopening A three-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) will begin hearing a petition by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for reopening the Hudaibya Paper Mills case on November 13, 2017. The petition follows the Panama case in which former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified. In the judgement in that case, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, who is also heading the bench in this case, had directed NAB to proceed against Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who was not an accused in the original reference filed in 2000 as he had been pardoned after signing a confessional statement. Justice Khosa had also argued there was a flaw in the Lahore High Court’s (LHC’s) decision in 2014 to quash the reference and disallow reinvestigation by NAB while apparently accepting Dar’s plea that his confessional statement was extracted under duress. However, he had refrained from issuing directions to NAB to file a fresh case because that could be construed as compromising the impartiality of the appellate court. During the Panama case, the SC had given the NAB chairman a dressing down for refusal to file an appeal against the LHC verdict in the Hudaibya case. Now, with a new chairman in place, NAB has followed through on the commitment by its prosecutor general before the SC on September 15, 2017 to file an appeal within seven days, moving a separate application for the delay to be condoned. In its petition, NAB has argued that fresh material unearthed by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) set up by the SC to investigate the Panama case necessitated reopening the Hudaibya reference before the relevant accountability court. The original reference in the Hudaibya case in 2000 had relied on Ishaq Dar’s confession to accuse the Sharif family of setting up Hudaibya Paper Mills to launder money under cover of the Economic Reforms Act 1992. Money was allegedly laundered by converting it into Foreign Exchange Bearer Certificates to be deposited in foreign currency accounts opened in the name of benamidars and friends by forging the signatures of the ostensible account holders. These foreign currency accounts were then used as collateral for credit lines in rupees for Hudaibya Mills. The laundered money, shown as share deposit equity of Hudaibya Mills, was used to retire the liabilities of the mill and other allied companies of the group amounting to Rs 642.7 million. Another sum of Rs 600 million was transferred from abroad for settling borrowings from Al Tawfeeq Bank, which was actually owned by the Sharifs. Thus a total sum of Rs 1.2 billion was allegedly amassed by the Sharif family. If the SC accepts NAB’s plea to reopen the case, it would put Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, their mother Shamim Akhtar, Maryam Safdar, Hussain Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz in the dock when other corruption references against most of them are already in motion in the accountability courts. The significance of the Hudaibya reference, however, lies in the inclusion in the list of accused of Chief Minster Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, who is considered most likely to replace Nawaz as prime minister if the PML-N wins the 2018 elections. That succession plan now has acquired a spanner in the works because of the possible resurrection of the Hudaibya reference. Given the set of circumstances the Sharifs find themselves in with the legal noose tightening around them, Nawaz and Maryam’s strategy of playing on the front foot and aggressively taking on all comers, including powerful state institutions, albeit indirectly, needs revisiting. Whether the Sharifs can ride out or emerge unscathed from their legal travails or not, their troubles may find reflection in further uncertainty and instability, rocking the boat of democracy once again.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Nov 8, 2017

Elections deadlock A new political crisis looms as a result of the deadlock over the delimitation issue, which could make the holding of the general elections on time in 2018 difficult if not impossible. This was the outcome of the latest meeting of parliamentary parties on November 8, 2017. The main obstacle appears to be the PPP and MQM-P’s reservations about the census in Sindh. Both parties consider the province’s population has been undercounted, resulting in no change in the province’s seat allocation for the next elections. This contrasts with Punjab’s loss of nine seats, which have been reallocated to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (five), Balochistan (three) and the Islamabad Capital Territory (one). FATA retains its 12 seats, although there are rumblings from FATA representatives about this too. First, the areas on which the parties do agree. There is consensus on maintaining the same number of seats overall. There is also agreement that the elections should be held on time. However, in order to achieve this, the constitutional amendment bill allowing the provisional results of Census 2017 to be used as the basis for delimitation of constituencies, preparation of fresh electoral rolls, etc, needs to be passed by November 10, 2017, according to the Election Commission of Pakistan’s deadline. The Election Commission has said time and again that without the constitutional amendment being passed by this (latest) deadline, it will not be possible for it to prepare to hold the elections by August 2018, the constitutionally laid down schedule after the present Assemblies complete their tenure in June next year. The PPP wants the constitutional amendment bill sent to, and approved by, the Council of Common Interests. It says this was its understanding, but now the government seems reluctant to do so. The government, on the other hand, argues there is no need to send the bill to the Council of Common Interests. The PPP has also suggested that since the Census 2017 results have become controversial, perhaps next year’s elections should be held on the basis of the 1998 census. Since this is likely to be challenged legally, it appears that whether the parties agree to use the provisional results of Census 2017 or the 1998 census, a constitutional amendment will be required in either case. That implies that without a meeting of minds across the board amongst the parliamentary parties, the November 10 deadline set by the Election Commission of Pakistan may be missed. Needless to say, this would engender a great deal of fresh uncertainty, speculation and rumour about the future, the democratic system per se, and the threat waiting in the wings once again of an extra-constitutional intervention to cut through the Gordian knot. It may appear obvious that it is in the interests of the political class as a whole that this government, like the previous PPP one, completes its tenure and elections are held on time. But for the parliamentary parties to rise above partisan considerations in the interests of continuity of the democratic setup seems at present a virtually insurmountable obstacle. Perhaps they need to reflect on the demonstration effect of another elected government completing its tenure and the ballot box determining the government for the next term. Coming on top of the peaceful transfer of power from the PPP government that completed its five-year tenure to the present incumbents through the ballot, another such demonstration of continuity would go far in consolidating the democratic system, which remains vulnerable to shocks. If, God forbid, some parties remain adamant about their ‘principled’ stance and block the timely passing of the constitutional amendment bill, history and the electorate may judge them harshly if the country is plunged once again into a maelstrom of instability and all that could follow in its wake.

Business Recorder editorial Nov 7, 2017

Non-accountability Reportedly, the General Musharraf-created National Accountability Bureau (NAB) had initially been charged with tracking down the offshore assets of more than 200 retired Generals, bureaucrats, business people, politicians and their families, and the recovery of such assets compiled through corruption. NAB engaged a foreign detective agency, Broadsheet LLC, registered in the Isle of Man (notorious as one of the safe havens for the wealthy of the world to park their money), to track down the offshore assets of those on the list and recover them. Unfortunately, this engagement ended in litigation in the Council of International Arbitration, with Broadsheet claiming breach of agreement and non-payment of its fees (20 percent of all recoveries, irrespective of whether these occurred because of Broadsheet’s or NAB’s efforts). Broadsheet claims the information it shared with NAB was used as leverage for brokering plea bargain deals with the targets. In 2014 NAB hired an international law firm, Appleby, to get expert advice on how to handle the international arbitration case. Later, another company, International Assets Recovery (IAR) was hired by NAB to do what Broadsheet had initially been hired for. Whereas Broadsheet was handed a list of over 200 prominent names from the top echelons of Pakistan’s elite, it is not known how many targets were assigned to IAR. As for Broadsheet’s claims, it says NAB entered into plea bargain agreements with several of the targets, using information supplied by Broadsheet, without informing the latter or paying its agreed fees. Broadsheet quotes some examples to substantiate its claims that it suffered losses because of expenditures incurred on tracking down the targets’ offshore assets. In one instance, Broadsheet managed to have $ five million frozen in the Isle of Jersey (another notorious offshore safe haven) belonging to an identified target but NAB stopped pursuing the case. In another instance, NAB reached a settlement directly with a target valued at $ 25 million but refused to pay Broadsheet’s commission. For all its efforts over several years, Broadsheet says it was paid only one small fee in connection with a recovery from Admiral (retd) Mansour-ul-Haq (a former Chief of Naval Staff), and the amount paid was less than the terms of the agreement. Even a casual perusal of the list of luminaries amongst the 200 plus targets indicates that this was the crème de la crème of Pakistani society. With hindsight, it may be more properly described as our top Rogues Gallery. Although NAB argues that the information shared by Broadsheet was not actionable, the real reason appears to have been that General Musharraf had first and foremost targeted his political and other enemies and left out his political collaborators (indicating the partisan purposes of the endeavour) but soon succumbed to the political expediency of retaining his hold on power by ‘forgiving’ or allowing plea bargains by those who came over to his camp. Amongst those who benefited from this partisanship, top of the list are the Chaudhries of Gujrat who, having helped Musharraf get a political base of support by forming the King’s Party (PML-Q), were left off the list entirely. Those provided relief later included Rao Sikandar, Faisal Saleh Hayat and Aftab Sherpao (defectors from the PPP) and brothers Humayun and Haroon Akhtar (by joining the PML-Q). What is not clear from the reports is what transpired in the cases of former COAS General (retd) Mirza Aslam Beg, Chiefs of Air Staff Anwar Shamim and Abbas Khattak, and apart from Chief of Naval Staff Admiral (retd) Mansoor-ul-Haq, another naval chief Saeed Muhammad Khan. Below them in rank but not insignificant were Lt-Generals (retd) Zahid Ali Akbar and Fazl-e-Haq. Amongst the politicians on the list, prominent amongst whom were the Sharifs, Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari, the issue of accountability still hovers on the horizon today. Musharraf’s turn from a so-called desire to improve financial integrity at the top of the heap to political expediency pure and simple doomed accountability almost at birth. The founding chairman NAB, Lt-General (retd) Syed Amjad and its first prosecutor general Farouk Adam Khan both resigned when NAB’s mission was shifted by Musharraf from recovery of assets to the rehabilitation of corrupt targets who then re-emerged as powerful figures in politics. Two conclusions can be drawn from this sorry saga. First, no accountability regime has a snowball’s chance in hell if political expediency trumps it. Two, the list of targets is a timely reminder of the scope and breadth of corruption at the top of our state institutions, political and business elite. Partial, partisan or politically motivated accountability therefore will never bring about the desired purge of state and society from this affliction.