Thursday, April 19, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial April 19, 2018

Ban on anti-judiciary speeches

The Supreme Court (SC) taking prompt notice of media reports that a Lahore High Court (LHC) bench has banned the airing of alleged anti-judiciary speeches on television channels has categorically refuted such reportage terming it as ‘Fake News’. It had been reported in almost all the media that the LHC bench was hearing petitions challenging the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA’s) failure to stop broadcasting of alleged anti-judiciary speeches by PML-N leaders, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz. The court directed PEMRA to decide within 15 days all pending complaints regarding the matter. It also told PEMRA to strictly monitor the TV channels to ensure no material likely to incite hatred or contempt against the judiciary is broadcast.
The hearing in the LHC produced some interesting comments from the bench. Justice Syed Mazahar Ali Akbar Naqvi objected to ‘every Tom, Dick and Harry’ without knowledge of the law commenting on judicial verdicts on TV. He wanted such discussions limited to persons with knowledge of judicial matters. What the honourable Justice perhaps failed to realize is that his preference would inadvertently restrict the right of freedom of expression of citizens, who have every right to have views and comment on what the courts hand down. Of course all such comments, whether by specialists in the field or ordinary citizens (including anchors and analysts) have to remain within the parameters of legitimate discourse. While discussion and even criticism of judicial verdicts is kosher in any democratic society, the conduct of judges or bringing into disrepute the judiciary as a whole is unacceptable. However, and with the greatest of respect for His Lordships, the terrain on which this controversy is playing out has many facets. The general perception is that the judiciary is indulging in overreach, intervention in areas outside its remit, and peppering all such steps with fairly free remarks from the bench and in public. It is not for nothing that the time proved concept of judicial restraint is preferred. It allows judges to speak, but only through their judgements. In a free-for-all kind of proliferation of media, a characteristic not only of Pakistan but the whole world today, even the most innocuous remark from the bench acquires a life of its own on TV tickers and banner headlines. Even if the remarks are to the point, they unnecessarily drag the judiciary into the public (political) space where its respect and dignity goes abegging. As far as the alleged anti-judiciary speeches on display since the ousting of Nawaz Sharif is concerned, the courts have powers of contempt of court. But as Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar remarked in the SC, the judiciary is exercising utmost restraint in this matter. Judicial restraint and spare use of contempt powers serve the judiciary well. They help avoid controversy, sustain and even enhance the respect and dignity of the bench, and thereby create an atmosphere where everyone feels obliged to accept the judiciary’s verdicts, even if they do not agree with them.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in its annual report has lamented the shrinking space for freedom of expression and rights, as has a civil society moot. In such an atmosphere, it becomes even more important to draw and adhere to the line between legitimate criticism of verdicts and attempting to besmirch the respect and dignity of the judiciary, without which no democratic system can function healthily. PEMRA remains a toothless wonder, not the least because its attempts to regulate the electronic media have often fallen foul of stay orders by the courts. At present, it is also a headless wonder, since the previous chairman was removed for not fulfilling the criteria for his appointment and no new chief has been appointed since. Now the government has revealed before the SC that a seven-member committee has been formed to seek an appropriate appointee afresh. On the court’s directive, Minister of State for Information Marryum Aurangzeb’s name has been replaced by the Information Secretary as the court felt she may not be able to spare time for the committee’s deliberations. Her removal may also, as the court hinted, have something to do with her defence of the Sharifs in their toil and trouble in the cases they face. The judiciary should be careful while defending its respect and dignity that it does not stray into the area of judicial or any other form of censorship. As Justice Azmat Saeed of the SC remarked, an independent media (and therefore public opinion) is a sine qua non for the independence of the judiciary. At the same time all other players, particularly those aggrieved by the courts’ verdicts, must also exercise restraint within the parameters of fair comment and not stray into disrespecting judges or the judiciary per se.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Business Recorder Column April 17, 2018

Post-Cold War imperialism

Rashed Rahman

The certainties of the Cold War era gave way after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the complexities of our present world. These complexities have been exacerbated by the blatant attempts by the US-led western powers to reshape the geopolitical map of the world in their favour. Amidst talk in the 1990s of the emergence of a unipolar world dominated by the US with its western allies in tow, the simplistic notion fashionable in western capitals that the world lay supine beneath their feet (a ‘new world order’) and no other power could possibly challenge the drive for global hegemony by the west has proved to be an illusion.
Nothing encapsulates these illusions and the reality of resistance to these hegemonic designs better than the western attempts to redraw the geopolitical map of the long simmering cauldron called the Middle East. Starting with Iraq, which under Saddam Hussein was first inveigled into an eight-year war against Iran, later deceived into thinking the west would turn a blind eye to his invasion of Kuwait, through the regime change in Libya to the proxy intervention in Syria, the US-led west has weighed in to remove the three regimes that were the last anti-Israel countries in the Arab world (the rest had either signed peace treaties with Israel or given up the ghost of even lip service to resistance to the expansionist Zionist state, abandoning in the process the Palestinian people to their tragic fate). The defeat of Saddam in Kuwait laid the foundations for the 2003 invasion on the fraudulent charge of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and his eventual overthrow and hanging. The successor regime in Baghdad can be considered a western satrap.
The ‘success’ in Iraq (which destroyed one of the most advanced and developed countries of the Arab world) emboldened our latter-day imperialists to take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, using the pretext of a UN Security Council Right to Protect resolution. Russia and China went along, not realising the trap the west had set to camouflage their intervention in Libya as protection of the Libyan people (i.e. those opposed to Gaddafi). Based on that sobering experience, both Russia and China refused to be deceived over the proxy intervention in Syria.
Russia in particular drew a line in the sand of the Syrian desert. This was in the wake of Russia’s experience since 1991 of a west engaged in NATO creep in Eastern Europe and the former territories of the Soviet Union in that region and attempts to subvert and replace pro-Moscow regimes in Georgia and Ukraine. In both these latter cases, Moscow’s resistance to these designs has produced a de facto partition between pro- and anti-Moscow zones/regimes. This NATO creep and attempts to ‘recruit’ countries to the western alliance in the ‘near abroad’ was in direct contradiction to the false assurances of US President Ronald Reagan to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he asked the latter to tear down the Berlin Wall (this happened in 1989 and proved the beginning of the break up of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states, the collapse of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe and the emergence of the so-called new world order).
Russia’s last remaining steadfast ally in the Middle East, Syria, is still technically at war with Israel, particularly given that Israel has blatantly in violation of international law (for which Tel Aviv has hardly ever given a fig) annexed the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 war. The last remaining anti-Israel redoubt in the Arab world was sought to be subjected to regime change through proxy fundamentalist and terrorist organisations, including ironically the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front. The entry of Islamic State (IS) in the Iraq-Syria theatre complicated the conflict in Syria into a many-sided war. On the one side were Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, on the other the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The third corner in this triangular conflict was IS.
A strange situation emerged as the Syrian conflict played out over the last eight years. Ostensibly the US and the west were supporting their proxies in the SDF against both the Damascus regime as well as IS. The Syrian Kurds became late allies of the US as they gained fighting capacity and territory. Ostensibly, the US mission was to defeat IS and then withdraw its 2,000 troops in the country, a goal US President Donald Trump reiterated just days before he, in collaboration with Britain and France, launched missile strikes on Syria for alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime.
The SDF has by now virtually collapsed as a fighting force despite millions of dollars and weapons supplied by the US and the west. The Assad regime and its allies are on the verge of victory. The alleged chemical attack has failed to establish its credibility and been lambasted by many sources as a false flag operation to justify the strikes. What Washington, London and Paris hope to gain by such blatant aggression and violation of international law (no self-defence plea or UN Security Council approval available) seems unclear to even themselves at this juncture. The strikes were carefully limited and calibrated to avoid Russian targets in Syria after Moscow warned of retaliation if any of its personnel or installations came under threat. The strikes have had little or no tactical or strategic impact. Assad and his allies seem set on the path of victory, a big blow to the west and its regional satraps such as Saudi Arabia.
Does the defeat of the western backed proxy war for regime change in Syria signal a new turn in regional and global politics? It would appear so. Russia has been under ‘attack’ since President Vladimir Putin succeeded in turning round the fortunes of his country. Russia is now poised to reassert itself on the world stage, defend its friends and allies abroad, and protect its interests in its near abroad. Along with the rise of China as a capitalist powerhouse, the west’s hegemony plans appear, if not in disarray, at least facing a very different scenario from what was sketched in the 1990s.
Imperialism is not just a strategic or geopolitical desire of the developed countries. It is the logical outcome of the dynamic of capitalist development which, not content with the limitations of domestic markets, is impelled by the logic of capitalist development to seek new markets, sources of raw materials and, increasingly since the spread of the capitalist order in the 21st century (globalisation), location of industry and trade in the developing world. In the wake of this historically observed compulsion of the capitalist system comes war, conquest and regime change to the benefit of the developed capitalist countries.
It is ominous and salutary therefore to reflect on the fact that historically capitalism may have given birth to colonialism and imperialism with their concomitant exploitation, cruelties and repression, but even when it seemingly had triumphed after the Cold War ended, the capitalist system, because of its inherent internal dynamic, remains the single greatest and most dangerous source of war and conflict in the world. It is therefore incumbent on the peoples of both the developing and developed world to combat this source of grief and usher in a system that speaks for and to the needs and aspirations of the 99 percent, not the fat cat one percent that rules the global roost today.

Business Recorder Editorial April 17, 2018

The end or a new beginning?

In the latest blow to be suffered by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif since the Panama case verdict, the Supreme Court (SC) has held that disqualification from being a member of parliament under Article 62(1)(f) is for life or at least for as long as the judgement holds the field. The five-member bench handed down a unanimous decision, but Justice Azmat Saeed in a supplementary note disagreed with the reasoning employed in the judgement although he agreed in the end with the final conclusion. While the verdict was not entirely unexpected, it has set off a debate, with the legal fraternity divided between those who feel the verdict is too harsh and others defending it to the hilt. This divide reflects the broader divide in society as a whole on the issue. The PTI’s reaction of joy at the knocking out of Nawaz Sharif from the electoral field is echoed in slightly softer tones by the PPP, which holds Nawaz Sharif himself responsible for bringing this upon himself. Does the verdict mean, as some reporting has it, the end of Nawaz Sharif’s career in politics? Or, as others have argued, is it the end of the beginning of the ‘minus one’ campaign and the start of a new phase of resistance on his and his party’s part? Certainly, irrespective of the merits of the SC’s interpretation of the silence in Article 62(1)(f) regarding the length of disqualification on being found wanting on the touchstone of being sadiq and ameen (honest and truthful), the verdict and Nawaz Sharif’s response are likely to feed into his ongoing rhetoric of victimhood. The real challenges for Nawaz Sharif now are to ensure his legacy endures for the benefit of heir-apparent daughter Maryam Nawaz, protecting the Sharif assets abroad that set off the whole chain of events up to and including the latest SC verdict, and heading off the trend nibbling at the margins of the PML-N so far of defections from its ranks so it can go into the coming general elections with its strength relatively intact. On present trends, the SC verdict is likely if anything to inadvertently strengthen his barnstorming campaign up and down the country, but particularly in the PML-N stronghold of Punjab. Of course, victory in the general elections for the PML-N is crucially dependent on the polls being held in a transparently fair and free mode. Judging by the shenanigans that accompanied the overthrow of the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan, its subsequent impact on the Senate elections and the rolling series of adverse verdicts against Nawaz Sharif by the SC, the dice seem loaded against such an outcome. This conundrum has added to the uncertainty looming over our heads in the run up to the general elections.

The only possibilities for Nawaz Sharif to be able to re-enter electoral politics is if either the superior judiciary reverses the disqualification period judgment or parliament brings in a constitutional amendment to repeal or alter Article 62(1)(f) and thereby overcome the fate ordained by the SC for Nawaz Sharif. Both possibilities are fraught with uncertainty, haziness, difficulties and roadblocks. The first envisages a reversal of the verdict under a future superior judicial set up, but going by the track record of our jurisprudence, seems unlikely. The second option too suffers from the difficulty of obtaining a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament (the PML-N has already lost the widely expected majority in the Senate as a result of the events since the Balochistan government debacle and the upper house elections that followed). The received wisdom is that there is no such thing as ‘never’ in politics. Some media reporting has referred back to the coverage accompanying Nawaz Sharif’s conviction in the hijacking case in 2000, his sentence of 21 years and the subsequent exile that hatched his return after many years. So far, the PML-N is fighting the good fight through legal means. But if push comes to shove and the general elections fail to meet the minimum standards of transparency, fairness and free exercise of the universal franchise, the country could witness a great deal of trouble. The difference with the past in this respect is that this is the first time a leader from Punjab finds himself locking horns with the ubiquitous establishment. In the classic Chinese idiom, we seem to be in for interesting times.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial April 14, 2018

Constitution Day reflections

April 10 is marked for some years now as Constitution Day in commemoration of the adoption of the 1973 Constitution on that day 45 years ago. The Senate held a discussion on the issue on the day. The Senators voiced the opinion that unity amongst the political parties was the need of the hour to preserve the Constitution and democracy and ensure the supremacy of parliament. On all three counts, Pakistan can best be described as having a chequered record. Former Senate chairman Raza Rabbani raised some probing questions. First and foremost, he delivered a warning to the PML-N government nearing the end of its tenure not be in such a hurry to pass the budget for a whole year since this would become a Damocles sword over the party’s head since the caretaker government, which otherwise can only pass a budget for its four month tenure, would be financially empowered to stay in office longer. Rabbani pointed to the fractionalisation of the political parties to pave the way for engineered elections through ‘test-tube babies’, the encouragement of regional parties and the talk about rolling back the 18th Amendment as factors that may weaken the federation. He wondered why accountability was only reserved for the political class. He noted that the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement was being dubbed anti-Pakistan in line with past practices of labelling those who spoke against the governance of the state or demanded their rights as traitors and ‘disappearing’ them. He also underlined that the near-consensus 1973 Constitution’s sanctity could not be maintained from day one. Thirteen different forms of government had been tried since, including dictatorships, abolition or suspension of the Constitution, presidential systems, technocratic governments, centralisation of government, non-party elections and the devolution plan of Musharraf. In this sorry history, Rabbani reminded us, the judiciary gave military dictators permission to amend the Constitution, elections were manipulated and hung parliaments produced. Currently he was fearful of the impending clash of institutions. Senator Mushahid Hussain pointed to the tragic consequences of losing half the country because the mandate of the 1970 elections was not respected. Senator Hasil Bizenjo complained that political parties were not allowed to work for decades in the country’s history. Zia held non-party polls while Musharraf introduced the graduation clause to be elected to parliament. Parliament’s powers were frequently restricted by dictators. He called on the parties to sign a charter of democracy that forbade them from conspiring against each other in collusion with some state institution, otherwise parliament and democracy were both threatened.
The wisdom of the Senators is confirmed by our history. It took the Constituent Assembly nine years after independence to produce the first Constitution in 1956, flawed as it was in denial of the democratic principle of one man one vote and parity between the two wings with the west wing’s provinces absorbed into One Unit. This construct was overtaken by Ayub’s 1962 Constitution, which retained parity and One Unit but introduced the Basic Democracies system. That presidential construct too did not outlive the Ayub regime and his successor Yahya undid One Unit and introduced one man one vote. As Mushahid pointed out, the failure to respect the mandate of the 1970 elections tore the country asunder and left us holding only half the country. The 1973 Constitution can be dubbed a ‘near-consensus’ one since the four MNAs from Balochistan did not endorse it for lacking satisfactory provisions for provincial autonomy and one other MNA for reasons of political differences with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The opting out by the Balochistan MNAs proved to have profound effects, with fundamental rights suspended the day after the 1973 Constitution was promulgated on August 14, 1973 and a military crackdown launched in Balochistan that later spread to NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Bhutto himself introduced amendments in the Constitution that eroded its democratic character, while Zia, despite disrespecting the basic law of the land, changed its character radically in the direction of so-called Islamisation. This Constitution thus cried out for cleansing of the distortions and anomalies introduced into it over the years. That provided the foundation and raison d’etre for the 18th Amendment, although it too failed to purge the Constitution of the Zia-introduced Articles 62 and 63, which have found a new notoriety of late. It goes without saying that the Constitution is the basic law that lays down the rules of the political game, without which a democratic parliamentary system cannot function, let alone acquire firm roots. Whereas dictators and others have ridden roughshod over the Constitution for their own vested interests, the politicians too bear their share of responsibility for not prioritising, whenever the opportunity presents itself, strengthening parliament and a democratic culture to keep the shadows of authoritarianism that has wreaked such havoc in our history at bay. Now that a period of uncertainty confronts us in the run up to the coming general elections, the political class needs to refresh its memory of our travails of the past and commit to struggling for the letter and spirit of a democratic order with a supreme parliament at its head.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial April 12, 2018

Portent of things to come?

The defection from the ruling PML-N of six MNAs and two MPAs in the run up to the general elections is being considered a major setback to the party and perhaps a portent of things to come. All eight parliamentarians belong to south Punjab. They have announced that they are resigning from the Assemblies and will contest the elections either as independents or in alliance/seat adjustments with some other party. In a press conference to make this announcement, the group’s spokesman, MNA Khusro Bakhtiar revealed that they have set up a South Punjab Province Front (SPPF) for the purpose of carving out a province in south Punjab. The SPPF will be led by former caretaker prime minister Balakh Sher Mazari and MPA Nasrullah Dareshak. Bakhtiar justified this move by pointing to the high incidence of poverty and the neglect at the hands of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz’s government of the area. It is another matter that none of these worthies uttered a word on south Punjab over the last five years, either inside or outside the Assemblies. This kind of shift in allegiance is not unknown on the eve of general elections. The SPPF quitters have a long and inglorious track record of shifting loyalties. Most of them were elected in 2013 as independents, joining the PML-N later. Bakhtiar predicted more defections to follow as, he claimed, his group was in touch with some 20 PML-N parliamentarians on the issue. As it is, two more PML-N parliamentarians from Sheikhupura also defected on the same day. If this becomes a growing trend, serious consequences could follow. For one, the impending budget being passed before the PML-N government leaves office to make way for a caretaker government may prove difficult. It goes without saying that if the budget is not passed, the government would fall even before its tenure ends. In the absence so far of consensus between Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah on the caretaker setup, more uncertainty looms. All this could impact the election schedule. The game plan that is murkily revealing itself seems to revolve around exploiting any fissures or differences within the PML-N ranks and utilising the opportunistic tendencies of some PML-N parliamentarians to whittle away the strength of the party, make its victory in the elections difficult if not impossible, and pave the way for a hung parliament. Such an outcome could further lend itself to manipulation from behind the scenes to install a government amenable to ‘directions’ from powerful state institutions.

If this analysis is correct, party president Shahbaz Sharif’s instructions to the PML-N to refrain from commenting on the issue of defections is understandable on the touchstone of not turning the trickle of defections so far into an unstoppable flood. It seems the instruction followed Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb’s castigation of these ‘turncoats’. It comes as no surprise that Information Secretary of the PTI, Fawad Chaudhry, gloated over the development as signalling the start of the disintegration of the PML-N. Whether that proves correct only time will tell, but these developments have already elicited a statement from Nawaz Sharif that ‘pre-poll rigging’ is in motion and without a level playing field for all parties, the results of the elections will prove unacceptable. The game plan can be discerned to have set the ball rolling with the change of government in Balochistan, its consequent impact on the Senate elections (where the PML-N was deprived of a generally anticipated majority) and now declaring open season on waverers in the PML-N ranks. If the game plan does, by some sleight of hand, does succeed, it is not difficult to imagine that what will follow is likely to be unstable, provide the scenario for further confrontation, and threaten the very foundations and premises on which a democratic order sits. Troubling thoughts indeed.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Business Recorder Column April 10, 2018

The Pashtun rising

Rashed Rahman

The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) is fast becoming something of a phenomenon. The platform emerged in response to the extrajudicial killing of a young Pashtun aspiring model in Karachi, Naqeebullah Mehsud, allegedly at the hands of the Karachi police led by disgraced and under arrest SP Rao Anwar, the alleged ‘encounter specialist’ of the metropolis. On Sunday, April 8, 2018, the PTM put on an impressive show at a rally in Peshawar. Police estimates of the crowd put it at 30,000 but the pictures of the rally on the social media suggest this may be an underestimate. The electronic media shamefully failed to cover the rally, whether because it was exercising the self-censorship that has overtaken the mainstream media in recent years or under ‘instructions’ is not known. However, when all the TV channels decide to overlook a significant development like this one, it cannot be put down to coincidence. Print media coverage too was sketchy the next day, albeit there was at least some coverage and even editorial comment.
People had flocked to the Peshawar rally from FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Students from all over the country participated. Women and children too were in attendance, despite the regression in women’s presence in the public space in KP and FATA in recent years.
The PTM Peshawar rally was accompanied by similar rallies on the day in Karachi (a major Pashtun community now resides in the city) and outside the White House in Washington. PTM’s leader Manzoor Pashteen called for the release of all missing people. He said the Pashtuns have now burnt their boats and the movement would continue till the last missing person was either released or produced before a court of law. He underlined the fact that the campaign would remain peaceful but reiterated the demands mutedly circulating amongst the Pashtun community for many years now of protecting the Pashtuns’ fundamental rights, which had been badly and with impunity violated since the so-called war on terror began by the terrorists and the military operations against them. In other words, the Pashtuns have become grist in the mill grinding them into dust from both sides.
Manzoor Pashteen announced at the rally that the PTM intended to hold such rallies all over the country, starting with one in Lahore on April 22, 2018 (supported by the newly formed Lahore Left Front) and Swat on April 29, 2018. Pashteen demanded the trial of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, who has been treated with kid gloves since his ‘surrender’ to the authorities. He also demanded the arrest and trial of absconding Pervez Musharraf and the setting up of a judicial commission of inquiry into the Army Public School massacre. He went on to claim that the ‘good’ Taliban in South Waziristan had threatened the PTM supporters not to attend the Peshawar rally. He did not, however, give any details regarding the identity of these ‘good’ Taliban. He rejected the canard that the PTM was dancing to the tune of foreign agencies (this has become the normal response of the agencies to any even peaceful movement for fundamental rights). Pashteen emphasised that militancy and the military operations against it had adversely affected the economic condition of the Pashtun people, with businesses closing and industries moving out of their areas because of lawlessness and extortion. He demanded punishment for Rao Anwar, an end to abuses by the police and troops, enforced disappearances and harassment by the authorities. Ethnic profiling of Pashtuns all over the country lies at the heart of such abuse. While underlining that the PTM was not against anyone in particular but against the cruelty being visited on their people, Pashteen revealed that 2,000 new cases of forced disappearances had been registered during the rally to add to the thousands already missing, some of whose families and friends held posters and photographs of the missing at the rally. He called on the Pashtuns to fight to secure their legitimate rights enshrined in the Constitution.
While the Peshawar rally of the PTM proved a huge success, some disquiet had emerged on the eve of the rally at Manzoor Pashteen and another prominent leader of the PTM, Ali Wazir’s visit to the Haqqania madrassa. Progressive and liberal supporters of the PTM and its aims were deeply troubled by the PTM leaders’ failure to comprehend that the visit would prove controversial, given the Haqqania madrassa’s unsavoury reputation for being the mother of the Taliban. Maulana Samiul Haq’s continuing role in this matter is hardly a secret. Nevertheless, and despite the not very satisfactory response of the PTM leaders to the questioning of the visit, their support amongst Pashtuns and all progressive forces throughout the country emerged relatively unscathed from this development.
Whereas the missing persons phenomenon first became known years ago in the context of the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, by now the practice has spread to Sindh, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan and all four corners of the country. In the case of KP and FATA, after all the main battlegrounds in our war against terrorism, thousands are said to be missing for years. Occasional and sketchy information about a few of the disappeared revealed that they were being held incommunicado without being charged in secret detention centres dotted all over KP and FATA. Even when this information was revealed, neither the courts nor the Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances succeeded in piercing the veil of impunity that shrouds such operations by the deep state or do justice by ordering either their release or being arraigned before a court of law according to due process.
The Commission on missing persons has proved a toothless and abject failure in the face of the cocoon of impunity around the actions of the deep state. While the rising of the Pashtuns for their fundamental rights in the shape of the PTM can only be welcomed, we should also spare a thought for all the other missing persons from all over the country. It would be a great contribution to the democratic and law-abiding ethos of our polity if the Pashtun example spreads and joins up with all the other ethnic groups of the country in a broad platform against the malign affliction euphemistically called ‘missing persons’.

Business Recorder Editorial April 9, 2018

Terms of endearment

Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s one day visit to Kabul for talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and other top officials has yielded a positive sounding agreement of cooperation, if the press release of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and media reporting is any guide. This positive note is doubly welcome since the day before the visit transpired, Afghan allegations that the PAF had bombed Afghan territory and our Foreign Office’s vociferous denial exercised minds on either side of the Pak-Afghan border. This brief flurry of the usual ‘repartee’ between Islamabad and Kabul did not deter either side from proceeding to make mutual matters better. Both sides agreed to finalise their bilateral dialogue framework. Pakistan reaffirmed its support for the Afghan government’s peace dialogue offer and reiterated its appeal to the Afghan Taliban to join the reconciliation process without delay. President Ghani and Prime Minister Abbasi discussed the entire gamut of Pak-Afghan relations, including peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, counterterrorism, the return of the Afghan refugees, bilateral trade and regional connectivity. The bilateral dialogue framework – the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS) – is seen by both sides as a useful framework for a broad-based and structured engagement on all issues of mutual interest. But this consensus has only been arrived at now after many months and at least three rounds of negotiations on the new engagement framework at the foreign secretaries’ level. The APAPPS will have five groups working on the aspects of the two countries’ relationship and mutual cooperation outlined above. Whatever fine tuning or detailed tailoring is required before APAPPS becomes formally operational will be sorted out in talks between the foreign ministers and national security advisers of both sides. Meanwhile the two sides reaffirmed their commitment (at least in principle) to not allowing their soil to be used against the other. High sounding pious words these, but unconvincing if viewed in the light of the charges the two countries have been trading for years (longer on the Afghan side) of ‘their’ terrorists enjoying safe havens on the other’s territory that allow these malignant forces to attack ‘their’ respective adversary. But perhaps the positives from this rare interaction of the top leaderships of both neighbouring countries first. A softer visa policy for each other’s nationals; a goodwill gesture by Prime Minister Abbasi of a gift of 40,000 tons wheat for Afghanistan; waiver of additional regulatory duty on Afghan exports to Pakistan; rail, road, gas pipeline and energy projects with a regional scope and perspective; these are some of the takeaways from these parleys. Prime Minister Abbasi has invited President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to visit Islamabad to continue these discussions.
All this is to the good. Even the smallest step that enhances mutual trust and confidence, given the fraught history of the relationship between the two countries, can only be welcomed. That history stretches back over the last 70 years to Pakistan’s independence, Afghan irredentist claims to ‘Pashtunistan’, mutual distrust and suspicion playing out over the last 50 years in supporting each other’s militant rebel groups, leading in the case of Afghanistan to the creation of the mujahideen on Pakistani soil to resist the 1978 communist revolution in Afghanistan, the Soviet invasion and occupation of the country, civil war and the latest virulent avatar of extremism and terrorism in the shape of the Taliban (by now an affliction for both countries). When the US invaded and occupied Afghanistan after 9/11, overthrowing in the process the Taliban government recognized by just three countries – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – a new and more complex phase arose. Pakistan attempted to, and arguably stull does, hedge its bets by acting against al Qaeda and allowing safe havens here for the Taliban. Meanwhile a copycat group of Pakistani Taliban emerged in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid episode in 2007. Now both sides face the dilemma of having to cooperate if their respective terrorist threats are to be contained and blunted. Long gone are the days when the US military in Afghanistan dreamt of ‘hammer and anvil’ operations against the Afghan Taliban with the cooperation of the Pakistani military. What has not gone away though is the inescapable logic of cooperation with each other even today to eliminate the threat to each state from ‘their’ Taliban.