Saturday, April 30, 2011

Daily Times Editorial May 1, 2011

New coalition

In the second round of talks in as many days, President Asif Ali Zardari and Chaudhry Shujaat have finalised the terms of the agreement for the PML-Q to join the ruling coalition. The terms more or less follow the expected contours. Chaudhry Pervez Elahi will be offered the post of deputy prime minister, for which some legal luminaries argue, there is no need for a constitutional amendment. A mere change in the Rules of Business by the prime minister will suffice. Of course the prime minister is still missing from these deliberations, although he has publicly endorsed the decisions of his party’s co-chairperson in advance even of being briefed. Some observers feel the creation of the deputy prime minister’s post implies a dilution of the powers of the prime minister. That remains to be seen. But the significant fact that Chaudhry Pervez Elahi will enjoy two seats for his office, one in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in Islamabad and one camp office in the State Guest House in Lahore may offer a clue as to the real purpose behind the induction of Chaudhry Pervez to the high office. Clearly, if he will be ‘operating’ from Lahore, that constitutes a threat to the ruling PML-N in Punjab. The latter is rumoured to be considering the resurrection of the IJI (second) to counter the move perceived by it as a direct assault on its grip on Punjab. There is also some loud thinking in the PML-N circles to press for snap polls before the March 2012 Senate elections, in which the PML-N stands to lose out, having no representation in Sindh or Balochistan provinces.
In addition to the prized new slot of deputy prime minister, the PML-Q seems set to acquire six ministries – health, trade and commerce, petroleum, industries, agriculture and information technology – all important economic and social subjects. Also, they have been offered six slots of ministers of state, three advisors to the prime minister, and the UN ambassadorship. This last position was speculated to have been reserved for the PML-Q secretary general Mushahid Hussain. However, some reports in the media cast suspicion on whether Mushahid will accept the new coalition per se, let alone the UN ambassadorship. Since the gentleman is on an extended tour abroad, we will not know his response until the ink is already dry on the agreement expected to be signed next week.
There are said to be other dissenters within the PML-Q who remain unreconciled to joining the PPP-led coalition. Whether they will take the time-honoured route of all dissenters of PMLs and form their own faction or leave the party altogether remains open to question. One prominent PML-Q leader who has been estranged from his former party the PPP and the president has now been reconciled with both when he accompanied Chaudhry Shujaat for the meeting with the president. Faisal Saleh Hayat is expected to get an important ministry and the support of the PPP in his Jhang constituency in the next elections. The PPP will reportedly dump its own candidate, Syeda Abida Hussain, Hayat’s long-time rival.
The new emerging coalition has also agreed, on the PML-Q’s insistence, to retain the Higher Education Commission (HEC) at the Centre along with the National Curriculum and National Drug Council. The retreat by the PPP on the devolution of the HEC will surely not sit well with the architect of the 18th Amendment, Senator Raza Rabbani. These are the costs of forging the new alignment, most of which appear to be to the detriment of the PPP. However, we must not lose sight of what the PPP gains from the new arrangement. It wills secure a comfortable majority in parliament, get the budget passed (to be presented on May 28 we now learn from Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh’s announcement), and insert its PML-Q Trojan horse into the PML-N’s jealously guarded Punjab ‘fort’. And this despite the soothing noises by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that the PPP will not destabilise Punjab. A period of rough and tumble politics seems imminent.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Daily Times editorial April 30, 2011

Shifting political landscape

The agreement between the PML-Q and the PPP for the former to join the ruling coalition is all but signed, sealed and delivered. That final step too may not be long in coming, perhaps within the week. The terms of endearment appear to have been settled in a meeting at the presidency between the president and the Chaudrys. Media speculation as to the terms range from the deputy prime minister’s slot for Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, five federal ministries, seven ministers of state, one advisorship with the status of a federal minister, one provincial advisorship each in Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, and Mushahid Hussain to replace Hussain Haroon as the permanent representative at the UN. This seems quite a hefty price the PML-Q has extracted, even if one does not take into account moves and rumours that Chaudhry Pervez’s son Moonis Elahi will be let off in the corruption case against him. Also included are seat adjustments between the new ‘friends’ in the next general elections and the Punjab provincial elections (the last meant to hit the PML-N), and the Senate elections in 2012. What does the PML-Q bring to the table? High sounding rhetoric about being not so much interested in ministries as concerned about the state of affairs of the country, which require all parties to pull together in a “national reconciliation government”. The PML-Q is said to have prepared a plan to revive the crippled economy, improve law and order, address the energy crisis, and bring prices of essential goods under control. In addition, President Asif Ali Zardari is said to have asked Chaudhry Shujaat to persuade the JUI-F and the MQM to return to the coalition.
What does the PPP gain from this devil’s bargain between the erstwhile ‘Qatil (Murderer) League (so characterised by the PPP after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination) and the leading party in the coalition? First and foremost, a comprehensive majority in parliament, which safeguards it against any no-confidence move against it, and will be very useful come time to have the budget passed in June. Notable in all this toing and froing is the studied absence of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, said to be estranged from the Chaudrys and keeping himself well away from the whole deal. It may be that once the agreement is finalised, the president and co-chairperson of the PPP will be able to persuade his prime minister of the need for a pragmatic realignment if the PPP-led government is to complete its tenure. That is not to say that there has not been considerable heartburn over this turn in the ranks of both the new coalition partners. Nevertheless, real politik and the exigencies of coalition politics, which promises to be the state of affairs for the foreseeable future, seem to have won the day over the naysayers on both sides.
This turn of events may help to explain the extraordinarily acerbic exchanges over the past few days between the ‘revived, real opposition’, the PML-N, and the PPP in the National Assembly. Could it be that the PML-N feels genuinely threatened by the new alignment, especially in its home turf of Punjab? It may be too early to speculate along this line of thought, but there is no denying that the shifting political landscape proves once again the old adage: there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. Whether this realignment will help the country’s plight or go down in history as ‘failure piled on top of failure’ can only be settled once the new coalition actually comes into existence and starts functioning. The challenges are indeed immense. The capacity to address them remains to be proved.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Daily Times Editorial April 29, 2011

ISI in the crossfire

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has felt compelled to bat repeatedly in defence of the ISI in recent days. On Wednesday, he had to mount his third defence of the premier intelligence agency in the National Assembly in response to Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali’s continued hammering of the issue. The redoubtable Chaudhry has kept up his tirade over the last few days against the government for its alleged apathy on several issues, in particular the ISI, drone attacks and the Raymond Davis affair. Chaudhry Nisar demanded answers why the ISI chief’s recent visit to Washington was cut short to one day instead of the scheduled three, and whether this had contributed to the recent low ebb in ISI-CIA relations and the refusal by the CIA to halt drone attacks. The opposition leader claimed he had substantial evidence regarding the Davis case and who had facilitated his release. Stating that he was ready to share the evidence, he qualified it by saying he would not share it with the government but with the house, either in open session or in-camera. He ended by asking the government to summon officials of the country’s intelligence agencies in a session of parliament and ask them to clear their position in the Davis issue.
The prime minister, for the third time in as many days, reiterated his by now well known tune. He asserted that the ISI was under the control of the government, reports to the government, does nothing without the government’s knowledge or against the national interest, and has never ventured into any ‘project’ without proper governmental authorisation. In other words, and in short, the ISI was under the government’s instructions. The prime minister repeated these arguments in a public rally near Islamabad the same day. On the Davis affair, the prime minister stated in the house the usual argument about the case having been decided by an independent court, with no role played by the federal or provincial government.
After this ringing endorsement, lest we are lulled into a soporific confidence in everything being under the government’s total control, including the ISI, it may be useful to contemplate that in our history, rightly or wrongly, the ISI has acquired an unenviable reputation for straying beyond its mandate. Not only does this charge hinge on what critics allege is the ISI’s manipulation of national politics in the interests of the military establishment’s (permanent) agenda, the ISI has also figured centre-stage whenever the question of Afghanistan or domestic terrorism comes up. It may be argued that not all this notoriety is deserved, but the fact remains that inside the country, the region, and the world at large, the ISI has become too prominent for an intelligence agency expected to operate ‘quietly’. A parallel example may be culled from US history in the last gasps of the twentieth century, when the infamous CIA lost its sheen and was finally shackled by new oversight procedures to avoid illegal activities. We in Pakistan may not be at the stage of the kind of ‘glasnost and perestroika’ that struck the CIA in the post-Vietnam war period, but it would arguably be in the best interests of all state stakeholders to put their heads together and refigure, if not curtail, the ISI’s political role (acquired incrementally since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto set up the first political cell in the ISI in the 1970s) and return it to its original mandate: an internal services intelligence arm organised on highly professional lines and freed of the burden and accompanying calumny of being accused of interference in politics, internal and international.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Daily Times editorial April 27, 2011

Navy bus bombings

In two horrendous bombings of Navy buses transporting personnel to work early morning in Karachi on Tuesday, four people were killed and 56 wounded of a total of 85 passengers on both buses. This is the first major attack on the armed forces since the 2004 attack on the Karachi corps commander in which he luckily escaped harm. The modus operandi was to use remote detonators imbedded in cell phones. It is also an eerie reminder of the attacks in Rawalpindi some time ago on an army surgeon and a bus transporting ISI personnel. The police say it seems that the terrorists were in sight of the two buses and detonated the bombs as the buses went by. Since the Navy buses carried commercial number plates rather than official Navy ones, it is obvious that the terrorists not only displayed extraordinary coordination in detonating the two devices within minutes of each other, they had probably been watching and casing out the route and timings of the buses before the incident.
The Taliban have claimed responsibility and vowed more attacks on the security forces on the argument that “…they are killing their own people in Waziristan and elsewhere at the behest of the US”. Taking this argument at face value, what are the Taliban themselves doing? Are they not also “killing their own people”? Whereas Imran Khan and the right wing parties are raising Cain over the drone attacks, one comparison of the lethal toll of bombings and drone attacks shows the former have swallowed up more than 35,000 lives since the terror campaign began in 2007, whereas drone strikes have accounted for less than 2,000. Not that any innocent life can be measured in this grisly game of numbers. But there needs to be some perspective brought to the debate. The greater threat, not only to the armed forces, but also ordinary citizens is from the terrorist bombers. The hullabaloo of the right about the innocent victims of the drones has yet to demonstrate how many of the 2,000 killed in such strikes were terrorists and how many ‘collateral damage’.
The Chief Minister of Sindh, Syed Qaim Ali Shah has revealed that the government had received intelligence reports about a potential terrorist attack. However, he defended the police and security forces on the argument that in a metropolis like Karachi, it is not possible to search every inch of the city. That is reasonable, but it points to the need for better real time intelligence if such attacks are to be pre-empted. That is only possible if timely information is available from within the ranks of the terrorist organisations, implying that pre-emption is not possible without the intelligence services infiltrating the bombers’ groups.
The Karachi bombings are a grim reminder of the caution that COAS General Kayani’s assertion the other day that the terrorists’ “back has been broken” should not make us complacent. Even if, as the COAS argued, terrorism in Pakistan is in its death throes, it still retains the capability of deadly asymmetrical strikes that involve heavy loss of life and property. The terrorists are a formidable foe, not to be taken lightly, even if their formerly safe base areas in FATA have been under military attack with considerable success. Nevertheless, both in FATA and in the rest of the country, the hydra of terrorism still has enough breath to wreak havoc from time to time. This protracted struggle against this Frankenstein’s monster requires many years yet of intense effort before peace can be restored to the country. And achieving that peace is unfortunately tied up with events in Afghanistan and their spillover effects, for which a revisit to the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban is necessary to reassess the internal nexus between the two sides of this artificial division between those who challenge the writ of the Pakistani state and those who serve its strategic purposes.

Daily Times Editorial Jan 5, 2010

Zardari’s revelation

President Asif Ali Zardari had set tongues wagging and the rumour mills grinding overtime when in a speech the other day, he said he would use his “political weapons” against his detractors and critics, whom he has accused numerous times in recent days of seeking his ouster through unconstitutional means. Some took this to imply a veiled threat. Now, the president has revealed his hand. The “political weapons” turn out to be the electoral college that voted him overwhelmingly into the presidency last September. Even as he mentioned that the weapons were none other than the assemblies in an interview with BBC Urdu Service, the Balochistan Assembly was passing a unanimous resolution of support for him. The resolution expressed full confidence in his leadership, appreciated his key role in evolving a new consensus formula on the 7th National Finance Commission Award, and called him the symbol of the unity of the federation. With the ringing endorsement of the Balochistan Assembly under his belt, the president can look forward, according to reports, to a similar resolution of support from the NWFP Assembly. It is even being reported that the Sindh Assembly, which had earlier passed a resolution to this effect, could be persuaded in the emerging circumstances to repeat that performance to send a clear message to all and sundry. Not only all this, the sessions of the National Assembly and Senate summoned by the president may see similar moves too.
Inevitably, when all the houses seem to be getting ready to speak with one voice on the issue, the focus will now shift to the Punjab Assembly, where the PPP is part of the coalition government led by the PML-N. Whether the Punjab Assembly will join in, and whether the president can command a unanimous resolution in that house remains to be seen. However, were Punjab to seem out of step with the rest of the assemblies, that will raise concerns about the impact of such an ‘absence’ on the unity and solidarity of the federation, Punjab having been in the dock in the past as the ‘big brother’ who always hogs the lion’s share of the cake and is responsible for the past domination of national life by its ruling elite at the expense, it is alleged, of the rest of the provinces. The good effects of the recently arrived at consensus formula for the National Finance Commission Award could be washed away if a negative perception about the most populous and developed province were once more to set in because of any such development.
The strategy of calling on the assemblies on an issue of political import has been used once before by the president. The occasion was the desired ouster of former president General Pervez Musharraf, who was left with little choice but to resign when all the assemblies passed unanimous resolutions asking him to go and it became clear that his own institution, the army, had also abandoned him. The strategy’s use the second time round is aimed at giving a resounding blow to the campaign being run by certain quarters to discredit the president and the PPP-led government to the point where their departure becomes almost an inevitability. If the elected representatives en masse endorse the president and thereby the government led by his party, it would blow a big hole in the adverse campaign mentioned above.
The president seems to have been finally stung out of his silence and bunker mentality. He has not only come out on tours to ensure he is seen in public, he has been using every such occasion to come out swinging against his opponents and sundry unnamed ‘conspirators’. While no exception can be taken to the president politically defending himself through perfectly legitimate moves, it would be best if he avoided the combative and sometimes derisory language being used against him by his opponents and thereby safeguarded the dignity of the high office he holds.

Daily Times editorial Nov 26, 2009

Zardari throws down the gauntlet

President Asif Ali Zardari delivered a hard-hitting speech at the PPP’s foundation day rally in Karachi, albeit from the presidency in Islamabad. Breaking his silence over what he termed were conspiracies being hatched to weaken his presidency and the PPP government, he vowed to fight all the “political actors” out to destabilise the democratic system. One media group in particular, which has for some time now has been waging what some have described as a concerted, motivated, vitriolic (at times bordering on the indecent) campaign against the incumbent in the presidency and the government led by the party of which he is the co-chairperson, came in for some harsh stick in the president’s address. Labelling them “pranksters masquerading as political actors”, he singled out the group’s editor and some TV anchorpersons for his harshest comments. He argued that neither the political parties nor the establishment were involved in trying to derail the system, only some “political jokers” were responsible for what he said was a vicious campaign to destabilise the government. He advised all such aspirants to a role in politics and those parties that had boycotted the last elections to wait their turn at the next elections, since the PPP and he had a mandate for five years and would see it through. Only the masses had the right to decide the fate of the PPP at the next elections, the president asserted.
It should not perhaps come as a surprise that the president has finally responded in like fashion to the heaps of calumny some media persons, and one group in particular, have been throwing at his person and the government for many months now. Pakistani politics is not known for civilised restraint, and the president may be forgiven for being all too human and succumbing to resentment after admirably holding his peace for all this time. Having said that, even if some concession is made to the fact that it was a political rally and the president was speaking in the avatar of the party co-chairperson, perhaps dignifying the visceral campaign against him and the government in mocking terms was not the right way to counter the one-sided tide. The PPP continues to suffer from a dearth of good media managers and spokespeople who can effectively counter criticism in an age of free media. Having vented his spleen, perhaps the co-chairperson should consider this weakness in the ranks of his party and government and take steps to bring forward people who do their homework diligently and are therefore well prepared against any onslaught, no matter from what quarter it emanates.
As to the media group in question, they too need to do some soul searching to establish whether their practices of recent days are in conformity with best practice in journalism. Personalised vitriol may vent anger, but does not meet the test of impartiality, accuracy and restraint in recognition of the respect due to the head of state and high government functionaries. After all, the exchange should not degenerate to the level of a street brawl. None of the parties would come out of such a fracas smelling like roses.
Restraint is advised to all sides in this controversy. The media group should revisit its policies and attitudes. The government and the presidency should also find better ways to counter what they regard as the spin against them in the media, fighting unacceptable arguments with better ones. On no account should the authorities indulge in heavy-handed tactics to try and intimidate the media or any part of it, as that will, in present-day Pakistan, have the opposite effect to that intended. Now that all is in the open, perhaps a truce or cooling off period on all sides should be the order of the day.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 13, 2009

Widening offensive

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani may be forgiven for what appeared to be a Freudian slip or wishful thinking when he said that the military offensive in South Waziristan was almost over. That may be the hidden desire of many people in Pakistan, but the facts on the ground belie that hope. Of course, the prime minister attempted to correct the inadvertent impression he created earlier by stating that a military operation was in the offing in Orakzai Agency. Read together, the two statements reflect the complexity of the fight against the Taliban. Earlier in Swat/Malakand and now in South Waziristan, while the military has succeeded by first ‘emptying the sea’, i.e. forcing people to flee the theatre of operations to save life and limb, and then being able to bring to bear its superior firepower against any one remaining, presumed to be a militant, the fact that the leadership in both Swat/Malakand and South Waziristan appears to have escaped to relative safety indicates the nature of the present struggle. Guerrillas will preserve themselves by moving away in the face of overwhelming force, in order to live to fight another day. Thereby they are simply following the guerrilla precept of using space, time and will against a superior enemy to grind down his capability and will to fight. The temptation to declare premature ‘victory’ therefore should be tinged with the caution that this is going to be a protracted war and it would benefit the effort if the people are made aware of this aspect of the matter so as not to be disillusioned by a seemingly endless conflict. The prime minister reflected that perception by pointing out that no timeline could be given for an end to any offensive.
The military’s operations have been steadily widening to other agencies from South Waziristan. Actions against militants are ongoing or being planned in the following agencies: Kurram, Khyber, Bajaur, Mohmand, and in the Lower Dir area. This is an indication that the militants, to escape the military’s onslaught, are dispersing to other agencies and carrying out attacks in those areas, partly to divert the main thrust of the military’s offensive by forcing a dispersal of troops, partly to keep the impression of a live and active movement intact. The pressures on the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan have been revealed by Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s statement that Hakeemullah Mehsud, the successor to slain Baitullah Mehsud and current leader of the Tehreek, has been suing for peace and sent four offers of talks, all of which have been rejected by the authorities. Wisdom has clearly dawned on the latter that this talk about talks is merely a diversionary tactic to gain time, regroup, and take the offensive again against the state’s forces. After Swat and the outcome of the previous ‘peace’ agreements between the militants and the authorities, little room is left for illusions about the militants’ aims or their intransigence in wanting to impose their deviant interpretation of Islam on Pakistan’s Muslims.
Despite the mounting toll of Taliban casualties and the increasing seizures of weapons, ammunition and equipment, it is best to shun illusions of an early or easy victory over a very determined foe driven by the blinkers of an ideology that brooks no opposition. If the ‘jannat’ (paradise) captured the other day is anything to go by, the modern day Hashashin are amongst us, brainwashing children to become suicide bombers in a dubious, barbaric cause. Pakistan must stay the course if we are to see the back of this malignancy.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 4, 2009

We are all threatened now

A suicide bomber in the guise of a veiled woman succeeded in sneaking into a graduation ceremony in a Mogadishu hotel and killed at least 19 people, including three Somali ministers. Though not the first attack of its kind in the troubled Horn of Africa country, it was the worst atrocity since June this year, when the Al Shabaab extremist group killed the security minister and at least 30 others in a suicide bombing at a hotel in Baladwayne. In September the same group struck at the heart of the main African Union peacekeeping force’s military base in Mogadishu with twin suicide car bombs in September, killing 17 peacekeepers, including the deputy force commander. Considering these earlier incidents and similar attacks that show the extremists’ ability to strike the government at will, it is surprising the ease with which the latest human bomb was able to penetrate into a high profile gathering. Part of the reason in Muslim countries at least would appear to be the disarming effect of traditional dress such as the veil, which offers enormous leeway to determined extremists to carry out their missions even in high security areas. As though this camouflage technique was not bad enough, not so long ago we heard of a suicide bomber in Saudi Arabia who had inserted explosives inside his body to escape detection. The bombers are getting more and more creative, while their targets are yet to catch up in terms of new security methods.
For us in Pakistan this incident will have great resonance on two accounts. First, we and the Somalis share the experience of being on the receiving end of the suicide bombers’ unwanted attention. Pakistan in particular, ever since the Laal Masjid incident in 2007 and the subsequent military offensives in Swat and South Waziristan, has been bloodied by the extremists who are not afraid to die because they think they are going straight to heaven. In the case of Somalia and Yemen, it has been reported that al Qaeda and allied extremist groups are active there, having suffered reverses in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. A regional strategy of spreading out into as many troubled countries as possible makes eminent sense from Osama bin Laden’s point of view, since it helps take pressure off the hub wherever he is located. It also causes attention to be diverted whenever necessary to countries in the region away from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where al Qaeda is thought to be headquartered. All this could be described as a diversionary guerrilla strategy.
A suicide bomber is virtually impossible to stop once he or she embarks on the mission in hand. The only way such tactics can be scotched is if good intelligence and police work succeeds in pre-empting the mission. Reactive beefing up of security after every such incident, something we in Pakistan (and arguably elsewhere) are wedded to, and which soon falls prey to normal inertia, cannot be the answer. Good intelligence and police work implies infiltration of the extremist groups to head off plans before they mature and using an aware citizenry as the eyes and ears of the security forces. Without the involvement of the citizen of every threatened country, the security forces will remain on the back foot, hampered by the forbidding task of seeking out the potential bombers before they are launched. To slay the by now many-headed hydra of terrorism, merely military force will not do.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 24, 2009

US view of NRO crisis

US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke seems fascinated by the “major political drama” unfolding in Pakistan in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to scrap the National Reconciliation Ordinance. Mr Holbrooke in an interview with an American TV channel said this “drama” had not so far affected US national security interests but has caused Washington to watch it “very carefully”. According to him, this “tremendous political drama involves the PPP, PML-N, Punjab province, the military, the Supreme Court and public opinion. Holbrooke’s explanation of the National Reconciliation Ordinance dispute was that former president Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto cut a deal and Musharraf promulgated the decree that gave amnesty to all members of Ms Bhutto’s party, including her husband and herself. The deal, he said, enabled Benazir to return to the country from self-imposed exile but she met a tragic end and her husband became the president. Mr Holbrooke, however, did not mention the role the US played in arranging the deal.
The US State Department, on the other hand, said it is working closely with the legitimate, democratically elected president and government and called the National Reconciliation Ordinance furore an “internal matter for Pakistan”. State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told a daily briefing that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani came to office through a parliamentary process and the “ongoing process between two branches of the Pakistani government is a judgement for the Pakistani people to make”. What is important, Crowley said, is that the Pakistani government and its leadership are seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people of Pakistan.
While some may see this diplomatic statement as a distancing of Washington from the present imbroglio gripping Pakistan, there is no denying the weight of the State Department’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and president, elected through a constitutional parliamentary process in one of the fairest elections the country has seen. While the PPP failed to garner a simple majority in the National Assembly, it went on to form a coalition government at the Centre led by it. The president on the other hand, received an overwhelming mandate from the electoral college comprising all the assemblies. Those who dislike the government or the president should in all fairness refrain from advocating any extra-constitutional path for the removal of either. Parliamentary democracy requires the opposition, no matter how strongly it feels about the incumbents, to wait its turn at the ballot box, where the electorate should decide the fate of the incumbents.
It is a strange phenomenon in Pakistan’s history that we are either helpless before, or parts of the political class actively collaborate with, military dictators, lending them an average shelf life of 10 years. However, when it comes to democratically elected civilian governments and presidents, what may be called the ‘two and a half years itch’ seems to kick in and we lose patience with such elected incumbents mid-way through their term. This is a reflection of our unfortunate history of authoritarianism and praetorianism that has damaged the country beyond imagination. The advice to all players of the political game therefore, is to refrain from adventurism, confrontation and intrigues, and wait for their turn at the hustings.

Daily Times editorial Dec 16, 2009

Unresolved inconsistencies

The New York Times has carried a story that claims Pakistan has rebuffed repeated US requests for a crackdown on the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Washington dislikes Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj because they are accused of harbouring al Qaeda, control large swathes of territory in eastern Afghanistan, and are arguably one of the most effective insurgent groups battling the US and Nato forces inside Afghanistan. The Pakistani establishment on the other hand, views the Haqqani network as an asset that is critical to the regional realignments and repositioning in a post-US withdrawal Afghanistan, a withdrawal scheduled to begin from mid-2011. While juggling for turf and influence in Afghanistan after the foreign forces have departed might draw in Iran, China and Russia, it is the increasing influence of India in Afghanistan that has our military establishment really worried. India has managed its comfortable position in Afghanistan partly at least because of the $ 1.2 billion aid it is pumping into the country. The Pakistani military strategists’ worst nightmare is being squeezed in the ‘nutcracker’ of an Indian presence on its eastern as well as western border.
US Vice President Joe Biden, in a television interview, has reiterated the view widely held in the west that much of the terrorist threat emanates in Pakistan. Washington is redoubling its efforts to get increased Pakistani cooperation (mainly from the military), but in his words: “There is still a long way to go.” In answer to a question why, if the main threat emanates in Pakistan, the US is spending more resources on Afghanistan, Biden said the troops surge in Afghanistan is part of efforts to prevent a Karzai government failure, which the US cannot afford.
The Times characterises the Pakistani military’s temper at the repeated suggestions to ‘do more’ as “public silence, private anger”. COAS General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani has told the US that the Pakistani military ha s its hands full with the offensive in South Waziristan and elsewhere, and cannot open another front against the Afghan Taliban. Clearly, even when its hands were relatively ‘free’, the Pakistani military establishment, because of its concerns about the shape of the future in Afghanistan, remained unwilling to deny the Afghan Taliban the safe havens they enjoy in Pakistan.
Whereas the US has exercised restraint so far and tried to cajole the Pakistani military to take on the Afghan Taliban on its soil, it now appears that Washington’s patience may be running out. The Afghan Taliban are giving the US and Nato forces in Afghanistan a tough time, allegedly, in US eyes, because of the safe rear base areas they can launch from, retreat to, regroup, etc, inside Pakistan. Reports in the American media are reflecting this increasing impatience. One manifestation or indication of this is the not-so-veiled threat that if Pakistan refuses to move against the Haqqani network and Mullah Omar’s shura in Quetta, the US will widen its drone attacks to hit the Afghan insurgents inside Pakistan. Such a development would naturally give rise to new frictions between the US and Pakistan in an already uneasy alliance, and may even harden resentment against perceived US ‘bullying’. The US and Pakistan are both impaled on the horns of their respective dilemmas. The US cannot hope for progress in the struggle in Afghanistan, let alone ‘victory’, without taking out the rear base areas of the insurgents inside Pakistan. To do so risks alienating its uneasy ally, not to act risks defeat in Afghanistan in the long run. Pakistan, on the other hand, seems wedded so far to militarily wiping out any threat from local Taliban while preserving its covert alliance with the Afghan Taliban to be able, at a minimum, to have its slice of the cake in a post-US withdrawal Afghanistan. The two positions are so far irreconcilable, and if they remain unresolved, could cause a breakdown in the two allies’ relations and cooperation in the war on terror.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 26, 2009

Trust deficit

The trust deficit between the two largest mainstream political parties, PPP and PML-N, was very much on display when Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called Nawaz Sharif on his birthday. The courtesy of birthday greetings aside, there was not much else to cheer about. The prime minister reiterated for the umpteenth time that the nation would ‘soon’ hear good news about the undoing of amendments introduced in the constitution by military dictators. While on the face of it the prime minister made the right noises, the scepticism of the PML-N chief was later reflected in Nawaz Sharif’s statement on a private TV channel that the PPP-led coalition government “is not showing seriousness” in resolving the country’s problems. Statements by the ruling party leaders have “disappointed everyone”, complained Nawaz. In a meeting with the Federal Railways Minister Ghulam Bilour of the ANP who called on him, some sources speculating the minister carried a message from President Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz reminded his guest that the system was still working under a “mutilated” constitution and hoped the prime minister would implement the Supreme Court verdict on the NRO. Meanwhile speculation about an impending Zardari-Nawaz Meeting is tempered by the PML-N’s insistence on a meaningful and result-oriented agenda for any such interaction.
Let us try to fathom what it is that is reinforcing the trust deficit with the PPP-led government and the president in Nawaz Sharif’s mind. First and foremost, the PML-N chief is getting impatient with what he sees as foot-dragging by the PPP on the constitutional amendments package being deliberated by the Senator Raza Rabbani-led parliamentary committee. Reports state that the committee’s composition has given smaller parties, amongst whom are included those whose base of support is in the smaller provinces, a weightage in the committee’s proceedings that is far in excess of their parliamentary or even political strength. Obviously this was conceded in order to carry such parties and public opinion in the smaller provinces with whatever consensus emerges from the committee. But one result of this composition ha s been that while the PML-N is more interested in the repeal of those provisions of the 17th amendment that they associate with the narrow personal interests of former president Pervez Musharraf, including lifting of the ban on becoming prime minister for a third time, the smaller parties are holding out for a comprehensive package that addresses their concerns about long-denied provincial autonomy. These parties representing nationalist opinion in the smaller provinces do not want a piece-meal constitutional change, as they fear once the bigger parties have got what they want, they will lose interest, as in the past, in the agenda of the smaller parties. While one can sympathise with the smaller parties based on the track record of broken promises on the issue of provincial autonomy in our history, this insistence implies that the clause-by-clause review of the entire constitution is bound to take time. Some reports estimate the process may not be complete until March 2010. That of course, opens up the process to unforeseen developments or even growing impatience between now and the end of this three month timeframe. After all, three months is an eternity in politics, especially our politics.
The PML-N is also complaining that the PPP government is implementing the Supreme Court’s short order on the NRO only partially, while the prime minister and others have sought to hide behind the claim that they are waiting for the detailed judgement. The partial implementation is in asking those PPP ministers whose cases have reopened to present themselves sin the courts. However, the action suggested by the court against former Attorney General Malik Qayyum has yet to see the light of day, as the directive to reopen the Swiss cases against the president. Even the court’s structures against the NAB hierarchy await appropriate steps.
The trust deficit set in early in this government’s life on the judiciary issue, and has if anything widened over time. It would be a pity if the otherwise cooperative attitude of the two mainstream parties made shipwreck not on intent, but on delayed implementation of promises made repeatedly.

Daily Times Editorial April 3, 2011

The wages of provocation

On the second day of protests against the provocative act by American Pastor Terry Jones of deliberately burning the Quran on March 20 in the US, 10 people were killed and 83 injured in Kandahar, Afghanistan. A NATO military base in Kabul was hit by a suicide attack, reportedly led by burqa-clad bombers. These events followed on the heels of the horrible attack on a UN compound in Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday, in which seven or eight foreign staff were amongst the 20 killed. Two of the UN staff were reportedly beheaded in the frenzy. The attack on the UN has of course been roundly condemned by its secretary general as well as many governments. The UN has nevertheless courageously reiterated its determination to stay put in Afghanistan to help its long suffering people.
The provocateur Terry Jones has shrugged off any responsibility for these deaths and instead insisted that Islam and Muslim countries must be held accountable through immediate action by the US and UN. In other words, he refuses stubbornly to admit any wrongdoing or that the blood of innocents is now on his hands. US Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith leaders have appealed for calm while condemning the Pastor and his antics. The Muslim leaders have also condemned the killings in Mazar-i-Sharif. They are reaching out across the faith divide to keep inter-faith harmony from being damaged by the fanatical and insane Terry Jones.
Although the Pastor Terry Jones’ is no ordinary provocation, it must be viewed in the context of similar provocations that have hurt the belief sensibilities of Muslims all over the world in recent years. To quote just the immediate instances that come to mind, Terry Jones’ abortive earlier bid to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11 last year, the cartoons of the Prophet (PBUH) published in a number of European newspapers some years earlier, etc. When the cartoons controversy erupted (and led to some violent reactions in the Muslim world), western liberals argued that no constraint could be put on the cartoonists’ or newspapers’ right of free speech and expression. This was at best an irresponsible argument since it failed to take into account the need for exercising freedom with responsibility, especially when an action was guaranteed to evoke the rage of religious insult. Let us not forget the old aphorism: “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.”
This series of provocative and misguided acts also cannot be divorced from the context of the convulsions the world, and especially the Muslim world, is passing through. If the provocateurs on one side and their fanatical counterparts on the other are allowed to have their way, the dire predictions of a clash of civilisations could take on a dangerously religious hue. This would obviously be many steps backwards in time and history and hardly an outcome any sensible person would desire. Europe and the US’s freedoms are admirable of course. And they are jealously guarded by those societies because they have been achieved after hundreds of years of religious and sectarian wars, pogroms and bloodshed, the only way out of which quagmire were the ideas of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which resulted in the separation of Church and state and allowed secular, and incrementally liberal democracies to emerge. While the Muslim world may currently be going through its own version of the 500 years of religious wars and conflict that Europe suffered before it saw the light, it would be in the fitness of things if all sides calmed down in the face of obvious and deliberate provocation, took a deep breath and realised that the West needs to revisit the abuse of its freedoms by the Terry Pastors of our world and sought ways to restrain this madman before he does even more damage. On the other hand, the Muslim world has to take a leaf out of the teachings of the Quran itself as well as the practice of the Prophet (PBUH) on how to deal with those who provoke and even blaspheme: by a calm, mature, tolerant approach that relies on persuasion, not violence, and failing that, turns away from the misguided, leaving them to their own eventual fate.

Daily Times Editorial Nov 11, 2009

The Maoist threat in India

The Maoist revolutionary movement is increasingly posing the most serious internal threat to India’s present order since independence. Resurrected from the unlikely soil of the defeated Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 70s, the Maoists have not only regrouped, in the words of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, they represent a critical challenge to India’s much vaunted democracy. In a ‘red’ arc stretching from West Bengal down to Andhra Pradesh, enfolding en route such states as Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand and infesting in all nine states, the Maoists, albeit divided into at least four factions, have found a modicum of unity and cooperation for the task of waging a guerrilla struggle for the rights of the downtrodden and marginalized and for the creation of a socialist state.
The threat is by now acute enough to prompt calls for transferring some Indian troops deployed since long in Indian Held Kashmir to the Maoist-hit states. The call came from Home Minister P Chidambaram, but unfortunately for him and the police and paramilitary forces battling the Maoist guerrillas, has been turned down by the Defence Ministry. The ministry and army headquarters are reluctant to accede to the demand that Rashtriya Rifles battalions be involved in direct action against the Maoists entrenched in the forests of the ‘red’ arc. The home minister’s view, in the light of the mixed record of the police and paramilitary forces in combating the insurgency, is that the army will have to get involve d sooner or later, such is the growing alarm over the spread and consolidation of the Maoist revolutionary wave. The military has so far held firmly to its position that the army should only be used as a last resort for internal security matters. However, an army commanders’ conference last month has responded to the home ministry’s request by suggesting deployment of the newly raised 120 paramilitary battalions before seeking a role for the army. Further, the army has suggested the establishment of a national anti-Naxal operations training centre under the supervision of the army and the appointment of military advisers of the rank of brigadiers and major generals for the affected states.
Although talk of a gradual withdrawal of some troops from Indian Held Kashmir has been in the air for some time given the decline in the level of militancy in the area, to be replaced by police and paramilitaries, the military seems to be going slow on this policy, partly perhaps because of tensions with Pakistan since the Mumbai attacks, partly because the record of neither the military nor the police and paramilitary forces in quelling the insurgency in Indian Held Kashmir smells of roses as far as human rights are concerned. It is unlikely the Indian high command would seriously contemplate pulling some of its forces out of Indian Held Kashmir so long as relations do not improve with Pakistan and, even more significantly, the recent dialogue offer to the dissident parties in IHK, which has received a mixed response, does not show signs of promise of a political settlement with those demanding the right of self-determination.

Daily Times Editorial April 9, 2010

The ‘impossible’ comes to pass

In a rare show of unanimity, the National Assembly passed the 18th Amendment Bill with 292 votes, more than the two-thirds majority required. The Bill will now go to the Senate for ratification, and if passed in the Upper House by a two-thirds majority too, will become part of the amended constitution. The Bill seeks to scrub the constitution clean of all the distortions introduced by military dictators and return the basic law to conformity with parliamentary norms. Out of the 272 Articles of the constitution, 102 have been amended by the mammoth exercise conducted by the Constitutional Reforms Committee (CRC) under Senator Raza Rabbani.
Some of the notable changes made in the basic law of the land are: the aberration of General Ziaul Haq’s name being part of the constitution has been done away with; Article 58(2)(b) has been repealed, taking away the president’s power to dissolve the assemblies; NWFP province has been renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; Musharraf’s 17th Amendment and the Legal Framework Order have been repealed and declared unlawful; the concurrent list stands abolished; the ban on a third term for prime ministers and chief ministers has been lifted; suspension or holding of the constitution in abeyance has been declared high treason; the Council of Common Interests has been reconstituted with the prime minister as its chairman and the stipulation that it must meet at least once in 90 days; the superior judges’ appointments procedure has been amended through the setting up of a judicial commission that will recommend and a parliamentary commission that will finalise the names of judges; the chief election commissioner’s appointment procedure will now entail a consensus between the treasury and the opposition; services chiefs will henceforth be appointed by the chief executive, the prime minister, although the president will remain supreme commander of the armed forces; an Islamabad High Court and benches of the Peshawar High Court in Mingora and the Balochistan High Court in Turbat respectively have been proposed; the provinces will have joint control with the federal government over their natural resources.
A mere listing of these provisions indicates how wide ranging and thorough have been the labours of the CRC. It virtually reads like a capsule history of the country viewed through the prism of its problems, the damage done by military dictators, and giving voice to the aspirations of federating units as well as the citizen.
The Bill was passed unanimously, but not before dissent was heard in the house, as well as outside it after its passage. On the floor of the house, the loudest dissent came from the PML-Q. Although all its proposed amendments to the amendment were rejected, it decided to go along with the consensus of the house and did not carry out its earlier threat to vote against the Bill. However, it is keeping its powder dry for proposing the same amendments relating to the renaming of NWFP, internal party elections, retention of the concurrent list and women’s seats when the Senate debates the Bill. On the street, the Seraiki, Sindhi and Baloch nationalists expressed reservations and even rejection of the 18th Amendment for not giving sufficient provincial autonomy, although in Balochistan at least, this was not a unanimous view in the nationalist camp.
Nevertheless, the passing of the 18th Amendment has been widely welcomed across the board by political forces as well as the people. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, immeasurably and rightly empowered by the Amendment’s provisions, put its success down to the politics of reconciliation his party has been adhering to in line with the philosophy and thoughts of their slain leader, Benazir Bhutto.
We must await the fate of the Amendment in the Senate, although the chances are it will sail through, if not unanimously, at least with sufficient votes. History is being made before our eyes. We must all now rise to the challenges of carrying democracy and service to the people to their logical ends.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 30, 2009

The ‘hidden’ hand

The sudden eruption of violence after the suicide bomb attack on the Ashura procession in Karachi was ascribed by some quarters to a spontaneous outburst of anger and frustration at the security agencies for their failure to safeguard the thousands of mourners in the procession. However, as more details are filtering out, the entire episode is acquiring some quite different and worrying dimensions. Masked miscreants were spotted in the immediate aftermath of the blast torching shops and buildings in the vicinity. The fires lit by them spread quickly and were enhanced by attacks over a wider area, especially markets in the neighbourhood. Clearly, the initial target indicated a sectarian atrocity, but the later developments point in the direction of a pre-planned strategy to inflict the maximum damage to life and property in the country’s main commercial centre. The losses have indeed been horrendous, with 43 killed and 83 injured, and the death toll expected to rise. Property losses in the arson that followed are estimated at Rs 30 billion, with 10,000 or more people having lost their jobs. Karachi’s misery is by no means over as reports while these lines are being written indicate another outbreak of firing in the city’s commercial heart, which quickly led to the closure of markets once again. The ‘hidden’ hand behind these events needs probing, with the Taliban and sectarian groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi topping the cast of usual suspects.
If the first and foremost aim of the attack on the Ashura procession was to ignite sectarian riots, that at least has been prevented by the highly responsible restraint shown by both Sunni and Shia leaders. While the latter announced three days of mourning, they also appealed for peace and vigilance and a high-powered enquiry. However, the authorities could not escape being blamed for the security failure. On the other hand, a day of mourning was declared throughout Sindh, solidarity demonstrations were held in Lahore, and the Sunni Rehbar Council announced a strike on January 1 in solidarity with the victims of the terrorist outrage. Mercifully, the sectarian aims of the perpetrators appear to have been defused, but the wider objective of causing mayhem and chaos has certainly been achieved.
The handling of the widespread violence and arson that followed the initial suicide blast left much to be desired. The law enforcement agencies mobilised in the thousands for security cover remained silent spectators while the arsonists had a field day. The fire-fighting regime too once again proved unequal to the task. Compensation is once again being trotted out by the authorities to assuage the anguish of those who had near and dear ones killed or injured or their entire livelihoods wiped out. Scepticism abounds about the compensation regime, since past such announcements proved either infructuous or highly unsatisfactory. The government has to ensure that compensation is distributed fairly, transparently and quickly, if the powder keg called Karachi is to settle down.
It would be tempting, and perhaps in accord with past practice, to blame the ubiquitous ‘foreign’ hand. But cooler reflection would indicate that the ‘hidden’ hand is very much indigenous and the injury suffered the result of self-inflicted wounds stemming from the past myopic policies of nurturing extremist militants for the export of jihad in the neighbourhood. Wisdom may have dawned late regarding the fallout of such past misadventures, but painful as the present is, better later than never. An inherently difficult task of crushing these enemies of the people and the state can only be successfully conducted by mobilising the citizenry and beefing up intelligence work to disrupt the terrorists’ plans from within. No amount of security deployment can ensure foolproof guarantees against the recurrence of such incidents. But an aroused citizenry and more effective intelligence could arguably make the difference in pre-empting the terrorists before they unleash their deadly trade.

Daily Times Editorial April 9, 2011

The HEC controversy

Much noise and fury has been expended regarding the perceived ‘dissolution’ of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Vice Chancellors, academics and students have all given voice (and in some cases rallies) to the apprehension that the HEC’s ‘demise’ would sound the death knell for higher education and in the process undo all the good work the HEC has achieved since it was set up under the Musharraf regime in 2002. The whole hullaballoo was punctured by the chairman of the Implementation Commission on the 18th Amendment, Mian Raza Rabbani, when he informed the Senate that a new commission is being evolved at the federal level to maintain higher education standards. Some of the erstwhile functions of the HEC, especially curriculum, syllabus, policy and planning are being devolved to the provinces. Perhaps some of the fears of the move’s critics are rooted in the fact that it is not yet clear how the provinces will handle these new responsibilities, through what administrative means, etc. The undeniable fact is that after the 18th Amendment, education has been devolved to the provinces. If the provinces at present lack the capacity to manage the new arrangements, this is not an argument for not proceeding along the perfectly desirable path of provincial autonomy, but cause for caution, thought and a systematic approach to the creation of the new structures and means to be put in place at the provincial level.
The HEC replaced its predecessor, the University Grants Commission, and because its first chairman, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman was the blue-eyed boy of Musharraf, the HEC incrementally expanded its role in the growth of universities and funding for postgraduate studies and research. But it also began to invite criticism from academics for micro-managing the universities, arguably going beyond its mandate and in the process eroding the autonomy of the universities. The pell-mell rush towards mushrooming quantitative growth of new universities (including in the private sector) and increased postgraduate studies (PhDs, etc) and research took no account of how the academic requirements of these new institutions and programmes would be met in the absence of a pool of qualified academic manpower and whether the sudden spurt could come up to the desired standard. In other words, the HEC concentrated more on quantity than quality, to the detriment, arguably, of higher education standards in the country. As to the doomsday scenarios being painted of the collapse of all the postgraduate programmes of the HEC because of funding cut-offs, Raza Rabbani has pointed out that all ongoing programmes will continue, funding from federal sources (the Finance Ministry has just released the Rs 7.7 billion allegedly ‘held back’ from the HEC) and foreign donors would be available (confirmed by USAID), and the new Commission for Standard Higher Education would oversee standards and act as a coordinating centre for the functions devolved to the provincial level.
While the caution to proceed step by step down the devolution path to ensure as little disruption as possible is well taken, the devolution thrust of the 18th Amendment must be seen as a historic turn for the country. Those predicting the death of ‘national unity’ because of the perceived threat from the provinces ‘going their own way’ in curriculum, etc, seems premature and exaggerated. In any case, this bemoaned ‘national unity’ has been a false, imposed one in our short history, one that attempted to steamroller over the historically evolved ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities in a multi-national state. No, Dr Atta-ur-Rahman, national integrity will not be “crushed” by devolution; what has been crushed so far has been precisely the identities highlighted above. National integration from above, in the name of a spurious national oneness has not worked. Arguably, it is time to allow the evolution of a real national integrity through the voluntary efforts of the federating units, an effort helped by the recognition of their ancient identities that predate the emergence of Pakistan. Does that mean each unit will become a ‘universe unto itself’? Not if the experience of democratic federations (and their opposite) is taken into account. A Pakistan of federating units confident in their (finally) established identities that binds the peoples of the disparate provinces through free and voluntary association, shared history, culture and interests will be a far more stable state than anything we have so far seen in the last 64 years.

Daily Times Editorial Nov 16, 2009

The CIA-ISI connection

A report in The Los Angeles Times says the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan since 9/11, accounting for as much as one-third of the latter’s annual budget. In addition, the ISI collected tens of millions of dollars through a classified CIA programme that pays for the capture or killing of wanted militants. This stream of payments is a clandestine counterpart to the rewards publicly offered by the US State Department.
These payments have triggered an intense debate within the US government because of long-standing suspicions that the ISI continues to help the Taliban who undermine US efforts in Afghanistan and provide sanctuary to al Qaeda in Pakistan. It seems the White House National Security Council goes through this debate every year. Despite deep misgivings about the ISI, the funding continues because the ISI’s assistance is considered crucial. The ISI informant networks in Pakistan’s tribal belt remain a primary source of intelligence. As a US intelligence official put it colourfully to the Times, “there was no other game in town”.
The covert payments programme was initially approved by former US President George Bush and continues under President Barack Obama. The CIA payments are a hidden stream in the much broader financial flow of some $ 15 billion over the last eight years in military and civilian aid to Pakistan. While controversy dogs the broader financial assistance because of concerns in the US Congress and Administration about where the money may have been spent, concerns that are reflected in the wording of the Kerry-Lugar bill for example, the covert CIA money has been more tightly monitored. While these covert payments have been used by the ISI for a variety of purposes, including the construction of the new ISI headquarters in Islamabad, US officials seem relaxed about where the money has gone.
Despite being plagued by distrust (arguably on both sides), the covert funds have fuelled an espionage alliance that has to its credit damage inflicted on al Qaeda. CIA officials contrast the returns from their relatively small payments when compared with the enormous overt military and civilian aid to Pakistan as “a bargain”. Some 600-700 militants, mostly belonging to al Qaeda, were killed or captured and handed over to the US. Some, if not all those handed over ended up in the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison. While the CIA considers the cost-benefit of the covert funding programme positive in big savings for the American taxpayer, we are by now familiar with at least the payments-for-captured-militants deal, courtesy ex-President Pervez Musharraf’s book, In the Line of Fire. Knowledgeable US intelligence officials concede that Pakistan had made “decisive contributions to counter-terrorism” and made enormous sacrifices reflected in the fact that Pakistanis are dying almost every day in this life-and-death struggle for the soul of Pakistan. The mutual suspicions and distrust notwithstanding, the American intelligence community recognizes that although Pakistani and American interests do not always coincide, “things would be one hell of a lot worse if the government there (Pakistan) was hostile to us.” Perhaps the even more controversial assertion in the paper’s report says the CIA depends on Pakistan’s cooperation to carry out drone attacks that have killed dozens of suspected extremists in the border areas, but also caused collateral civilian casualties that have become an extremely emotive issue in Pakistan.
The report seems to have enough truth in it to make the entire edifice of the story credible. The ISI is routinely blamed for supporting the Taliban, even after 9/11, but things appear somewhat different now. The security agencies are under attack by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a comparatively recently emerged group that takes its inspiration from the Afghan Taliban. However, while the latter have of late begun to distance themselves from the indiscriminate suicide and other bombings that are targeting ordinary citizens and the security agencies all over Pakistan, the ISI too has not escaped unscathed. The new conjuncture therefore suggests that at least as far as the Pakistani militants are concerned, the ISI is in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism. Whether, for strategic reasons stretching back to the abandonment of Afghanistan in 1989 by the US and the West, the ISI nevertheless continues to support the Afghan Taliban remains a moot point.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 21, 2009

Taseer’s take

Governor Punjab Salmaan Taseer has questioned what he views as the discriminatory and partisan demand for the resignation of PPP ministers whose cases have been reopened after the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) when so many others on the political firmament who have similar allegations of corruption against them continue to hold office. He said no case against the PPP ministers or leaders had been proved so far, and the allegations would be defended in court. He also raised the issue of pending cases in the courts that had been hanging fire for years and needed attention. There can be no quibble with the principle that every accused is innocent until proved guilty. Every citizen, from the highest to the lowest, has the right of defence and must be given his or her day in court. The demand for resignations should not become part of partisan political warfare. What is sauce for the goose must also be sauce for the gander.
A controversy has broken out about the monitoring cells for NRO cases set up in the SC and High Courts, which some legal minds see as setting up a ‘special class’ of cases to be expedited while the rest of the backlog of cases have been left in the judicial limbo of delay and procrastination that continues to characterize our justice system despite the recent efforts of the superior judiciary to speed up the process of judicial decision. Others put a positive spin on the monitoring cells as providing relief to the NRO beneficiaries from the previous practice of a decade and more being spent on these cases without closure. The power of the SC or High Courts to set up such monitoring cells is not in doubt, only its use in ‘select’ cases alone.
To put matters in perspective, Interior Minister Rehman Malik has revealed that out of 8,442 cases withdrawn under the NRO, only 10 are against PPP leaders, albeit it must be admitted that these 10 are prominent leaders of the party. The resignation demand, and perhaps its authors’ not so secret desire for mid-term polls has failed to find takers in any of the mainstream parties’ leadership, including the PML-N and PML-Q. The former in fact is engaged it seems in a fence-mending exercise through the meeting expected between Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif even while these lines are being written.
The partisanship of politically motivated accountability in the past has tainted the process’ credibility. The need of the hour is to revisit all the cases, NRO or non-NRO, to see whether any of them are beyond doubt purely politically motivated or have substance. The review should include cases of bank loan write-offs, bureaucratic and military personnel or institutions’ alleged corruption, and all such malfeasance if the Augean stables of corruption’s stink is to be washed away for good. This review, however, can only be carried out by a non-partisan, credible, acceptable across the board accountability commission composed of persons of impeccable credentials. The government and the country would be well served if the former were to seriously start homework on the setting up of such a commission to put the hydra of corruption to rest once and for all.

Daily Times Editorial Jan 26, 2010

Summitry on Afghanistan

In a concentrated burst of diplomatic activity, a series of summits has taken place, is taking place as these lines are being written, and will take place after they appear in print. On Monday, a trilateral summit amongst Pakistan, Turkey and Afghanistan transpired in Istanbul, hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul and attended by the Pakistani and Afghan presidents. On Tuesday, Pakistan’s six plus two formula would be applied for a summit of Afghanistan’s neighbours, also in Istanbul. On Wednesday, the much hyped and anticipated conference on Afghanistan in London would get underway. In the second summit in Istanbul, Pakistan, Iran, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, all immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, would be represented. In addition, the US will be in attendance, and in a substitution for the original invitee Russia, the UK. At the London conference, around 50 countries will be participating. All this shows the increasing focus on, and increased activity to find ways of resolution of, the Afghan conflict.
The thrust of most opinion on the issue centres on the possibility of opening a dialogue with, and welcoming in from the cold, mid-level Taliban fighters, considered to be less ideologically motivated and perhaps fighting for money or to avenge grievances against the Karzai government, the foreign forces supporting that government, or the warlords who form the warp and woof of the incumbent Kabul regime. The terms on which such fighters may be welcomed back and rehabilitated in Afghan society include a renunciation of their past proclivities and views, an acceptance of the Afghan constitution and political setup, and an avowed farewell to arms. A great deal of the hopes residing in this initiative spring from the fact that resources will now be made available to Kabul to sweeten the return of such fighters with jobs, homes, security against former enemies, etc. The Obama ‘surge’ of some 30,000 fresh troops is intended to weaken the hold of the Taliban insurgency, secure the cities, population centres and main highways, and thereby persuade even the leadership of the Taliban that their struggle does not have any hope of succeeding in its objectives by force of arms. That development, it is hoped, will open the door to negotiations with the Taliban leadership on seeking a political solution to the Afghan quagmire. There are unprecedented hints of late that Mullah Omar may be shifting ground slightly to envisage accepting the demand that the Taliban distance themselves from al Qaeda, but he remains adamant that the other side must commit to a withdrawal of all foreign forces, without necessarily being forthcoming on the issue of accepting the Afghan constitution or political order.
These diplomatic, political shifts have been made possible in recent days because of Saudi Arabia’s mediation between the Taliban and the Karzai regime, through discreet contacts hosted by the Kingdom since the last two years. Whereas Pakistan’s ISI has been left out of this loop at the insistence of the hosts and the two sides of this coin, the redoubtable intelligence arm of the Pakistani military now feels even more confident of calling the shots in any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan because of its closeness to the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership and fighters are hosted on Pakistani soil. The ISI’s insistence, according to reports, that it alone will mediate between the Taliban and the US and Afghan authorities, without permitting direct contacts between the warring sides, may be read as an attempt to ensure that Pakistan’s oft-touted but little explained ‘national security interests’ in Afghanistan are safeguarded. Reading between the lines reveals that the Pakistani military establishment still harbours apprehensions and a horror of the possibility of growing Indian influence in Kabul squeezing Pakistan in a ‘nutcracker’ between a hostile India to the east and a less than friendly Afghanistan under Indian influence to the west. This paranoia may put a spanner in the works of the London conference, where the US and UK are pressing for an increased role for India in any eventual settlement of the Afghan imbroglio, a notion rejected in toto by the Pakistani military establishment and which is arguably being worked against by the two summits in Istanbul, where India is not represented.
The notion of a regional solution to Afghanistan’s woes sounds fine in theory, and as far as its immediate neighbours and the chief architects of a political settlement allowing the US and Nato forces to withdraw at some future date, i.e. the US and UK are concerned, poses better prospects of success. The fly in the ointment is Pakistan’s opposition to opening the door further to an Indian role, the rock on which the London conference and all similar initiatives beloved of the west may make shipwreck.

Daily Times Editorial Aug 7, 2010

“Storms will come…”

Pakistan is in the grip of many storms. Some are nature-driven, others man-made. And the two are not without a nexus. The amount of vitriol that has been expended on President Asif Ali Zardari’s visits to France and Britain beggars belief. Everything in the heavy artillery of that section of the media and public opinion who cannot believe that the president can ever do anything right has been thrown at him. The criticism may be motivated by prejudice and bias that rests on the president’s controversial past, but a pause for breath and reflection may yield some dividends of balance in our riven polity.
First and foremost, the president is accused of not being in tune with the ‘outrage’ felt by this inimical section of opinion about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s remarks while in India regarding Pakistan “looking both ways on terrorism”. The howls of indignation reached such a pitch that a cancellation of at least the British part of his itinerary occupied much airtime, columns of print, and dominated the chatter in myriads of drawing rooms. Now Cameron may at best be accused of being undiplomatic and insensitive regarding the nuanced policy of the west towards Pakistan since 9/11. But did his “plain speaking” contain at least a grain of truth? Is it not common knowledge (although spoken of elliptically and in hushed tones) that our security establishment not only created and nurtured the jihadis who have by now turned on their mentors, but that they continue to support the Afghan Taliban even while taking the field against our own home-grown variety? If this is not ‘looking two ways’, what is? Cameron may also be accused of currying favour with New Delhi while drooling over potential lucrative weapons deals with the west’s newfound ‘strategic partner’ (with a malign eye on China’s rise), but this too falls in the category of the known. President Zardari and the government must have weighed the balance between an emotional response based on false national pride and the critical needs of the country when deciding to go ahead with the visit despite all the criticism. Good statesmanship this, albeit some may consider it bad populist politics.
The second reason for all the angst about the visit was the tragic situation of floods and destruction at home. It seems the critics may be harbouring some secret inadvertent hope that the president could turn back the waters like King Canute or offer a Noah’s Ark for the needy. His presence may have given satisfaction to this lobby, but how much of a difference it would have made to the situation on the ground is a moot question. Nevertheless, to labour a point, good statesmanship, but perhaps bad populist politics.
Of course the president may be accused of poor decisions to visit his father’s chateau in France or allow the speculations about the launch of Bilawal Bhutto at a party rally in Birmingham. Questions are in the air about the château as well as the charge that the British leg was about Bilawal more than Cameron. However, Bilawal has unsportingly pricked that balloon by revealing that he will not be addressing the Birmingham rally and intends to take a law degree next before contemplating an active entry into our bed of thorns called politics.
The French leg has sunk without a trace amidst the ‘storm’ about the British part of the visit. The French were at their diplomatic best in making placating noises that mean little concretely, while the British, despite Cameron and his spokespeople’s public bluster, seem to have attempted a mending of fences with Mr Zardari and Pakistan. Whether the Pakistan-UK relationship is “unbreakable” or not, it is certainly important in the context of the present conjuncture. Both sides need each other vis-à-vis the struggle against terrorism, and Pakistan needs Britain for trade and aid. Pragmatic, but perhaps not good populist politics.
We need a balanced and mature conduct of statecraft, not a buffeting by buffoons who cannot see beyond their emotion-wrought noses. No doubt, now that this ‘storm’ appears to be abating, ‘friends’ will find something else to castigate their favourite punching bag with, as the prime minister woefully put it the other day.

Indian Express July 17,2010

Silencing the moderate voice
Rashed Rahman

His death is a grievous blow to the moderate nationalist cause, apart from being a tragedy of great proportions.

Jalib’s assassination is likely to strengthen the appeal of the insurgents and the armed struggle school amongst the Baloch nationalists. If the pattern of disappearances (reports of torture camps and worse have been filtering into the Pakistani media sporadically) and now, assassinations, of prominent Baloch nationalists becomes a fact, even moderate nationalists will be compelled to revisit their faith in parliamentary politics to wrest their rights within the state of Pakistan. Militant trends, including armed struggle, will probably achieve greater resonance amongst the Baloch youth, and separatist sentiment, which was not universally the anthem of the nationalists, may overtake all other political tendencies in the province.

The logic of repression and the inability of the state to address the essentially political problems in Balochistan in a political manner rather than through heavy-handed military means will ensure the destruction of the bonds that still tenuously bind Balochistan to the rest of the country, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and all in the name of saving Pakistan. A classic short-sighted case of cutting off the nose to spite the face, this.

The writer is editor-in-chief of ‘Daily Times’, Pakistan

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Indian Express March 19, 2011

The demand for a Seraiki province

Rashed Rahman

The long standing incipient, sputtering movement for a Seraiki province encompassing the southern areas of Punjab has received a fillip from an unexpected quarter of late. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told a rally in Multan the other day that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) would include in its manifesto for the next elections the demand for a separate Seraiki province.
The prime minister’s announcement took everyone by surprise, since the ruling PPP had never before paid heed to the agitation for a Seraiki province that had been gathering force in recent years. Analysts saw this unexpected turnaround as the PPP’s attempt to kill three birds with one stone. One, it would add something ‘new’ to what the PPP could offer the electorate in its traditional stronghold of southern Punjab (resting on a large landowners’ political base), since its basket of ‘achievements’ during its ongoing tenure was pretty empty. Two, it steals the thunder of the Seraiki nationalists when the largest mainstream party adopts the demand. Three, the reduction of Punjab in area and population as a consequence would weaken the ‘fiefdom’ of its on-again-off again ‘ally’, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N).
Centred on the ancient city of Multan (whose geneology is even older than Lahore), such a province, were it to be carved out of Punjab, would include all the Seraiki-speaking areas, virtually the whole of southern Punjab, including the State of Bahawalpur, which was incorporated into the erstwhile West Pakistan province when One Unit was imposed in 1956. Linguistically, culturally and in terms of political, economic and social deprivation, the proposed Seraiki province would enjoy homogeneity. It would also allow the assertion of these rights in contrast to the perceived discrimination over long years at the hands of Takht Lahore (rule from Lahore). Historically, this contradiction between Takht Lahore and Multan dates back to pre-Mughal times.
The defunct princely Bahawalpur State has never, until recently, been able to garner enough critical mass for the demand of restoration of the state. Since the February 2008 general elections that ushered in the present democratic dispensation, Mr Mohammad Ali Durrani, the former Information Minister under General Pervez Musharraf, has spearheaded this restoration demand. Cynics attribute his departure from the King’s party of the general, the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid), and his embrace of the Bahawalpur State cause to thwarted ambition within the folds of his erstwhile party, rather than a sudden ‘awakening’ to the rights of his mother area vis-à-vis restoration of the dissolved state.
Unlike India, which since independence has seen many new states carved out of larger provinces, this would, if it were to come to pass, be a first for Pakistan. The demand for linguistic, cultural and political redemarcation has come in the past from almost all the provinces of what is now Pakistan, without finding favour with successive rulers, both military and civilian.
For example, the Pashtuns in northern Balochistan (including the provincial capital Quetta) have hankered since independence for merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province) province to their north, or a Pashtun province separated from the Baloch areas of Balochistan. This demand forms the centre-piece of the manifesto of a regional party based in this area called the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party. However, this demand has remained confined to the party’s circles and failed to find traction within the power structures of Pakistan.
The Hazara division within Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Hindko speaking area, last year saw a major agitation for a separate province when the North West Frontier Province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the latter also a name achieved after a long and twisted history of agitation against the colonially-imposed former title. However, the main political party in the Hazara area, the PML-N, after leading the agitation for a separate Hazara province through its local leadership, had second thoughts at the central leadership level (Nawaz Sharif) and did not press the issue to a successful conclusion.
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (formerly Muhajir Qaumi Movement) of self-exiled leader Altaf Hussain was accused at one time of seeking to carve out a separate province from the cities/urban areas of Sindh province, including Karachi, a corridor linking Karachi to Hyderabad, and possibly other cities of Sindh where Urdu-speaking migrants from India at the time of partition were in a majority. This new province was dubbed ‘Jinnahpur’. That fancy proposal too sank without a trace and is now history.
Lacking democracy throughout most of its existence since independence, Pakistan has been ruled overwhelmingly by military and civilian dictatorial or authoritarian regimes. In such dispensations, the question of autonomy and rights for the provinces subsumed within One Unit since 1956 and only restored in 1970 (not to mention East Pakistan that is today Bangladesh), assumed the position of a central plank in the struggle for democracy. East Pakistan achieved independence as Bangladesh after much bloodshed and military suppression, Balochistan is currently going through the fifth insurgency since independence, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have a history of struggles for their rights. It was not until the 18th Constitutional Amendment brought in by the current democratic government led by the PPP that the issue of provincial autonomy has been recognised and enshrined in the constitution. The process of devolution of powers to the provinces is ongoing even as these lines are being written.
But in the process of the final success of the provinces on the autonomy issue, the space for further devolution/separation/carving out new provinces does not at present seem promising. Partisan political considerations such as reducing Punjab’s size through the creation of a Seraiki province in its southern reaches to weaken the rival PML-N may inform the PPP’s sudden conversion to that cause, but there is little doubt such a move would bring immense satisfaction to the Seraiki-speaking people of southern Punjab and also correct the present imbalance in the federal structure of the state, in which Punjab alone has more population than all the other three provinces combined (around 60 percent). Whether the Seraiki dream will come true is not certain just yet. It would require an extraordinary altruism above and beyond the call of duty on the part of the entire Pakistani political class to converge on the constitutional amendment required to create a new province, an altruism that has remained conspicuous by its absence in Pakistan’s chequered history.

Daily Times editorial June 3, 2010

SBP third quarter report

The State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP’s) report for the third quarter of FY10 paints a rather gloomy picture of the economy despite bright spots here and there. GDP growth is expected at 4.1 percent, up from the niggardly 1.2 percent last year, mainly owed to above-target growth of livestock, large scale manufacturing (LSM) and the services sector, and despite the below-target performance of agriculture because of water shortages and unfavourable weather conditions. Even the expectation that the switchover to minor crops over a large area would return strong growth figures was belied, most of the minor crops too suffering from a rainfall deficit during the winter. Although agricultural produce contributed significantly to exports, the domestic prices of even surplus harvest crops suffered a steep incline. After a modest recovery in the first half of FY10, LSM growth accelerated in the year’s third quarter. With consumer financing by commercial banks making a reappearance from the trough it had fallen into when the recession hit, demand for consumer durables, particularly automobiles, strengthened despite rising costs.
The overall external account picture would remain vulnerable according to the SBP, despite the sharp decline in the current account deficit from the earlier forecast of 3.2-3.8 percent of GDP and last year’s 5.7 percent to 2.2-2.8 in FY10. This is because external financing receipts plummeted despite improved exports and workers’ remittances.
The fiscal deficit seems poised to exceed earlier estimates and may come in at 5.1-5.6 percent of GDP, adding further impetus to the anticipated inflationary pressures from the second half of FY10. Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation would exceed the estimates, arriving in the range of 11.5-12.5 percent. Needless to say, the core inflationary contribution of food items leads the list of factors producing such pressures. Despite the ballooning fiscal deficit, contributed to in no small measure by the diversion of funds to Pakistan’s own war on terror, the SBP reports that government borrowings from it have been less than in previous years. It is not clear whether the same applies to government borrowings from the commercial banks. And even if it does, that would suggest that the fiscal deficit has been financed by monetary means despite the continuing attempts by the SBP to keep monetary policy tight through the base rate and other measures. The SBP has identified the main factors behind pressures on fiscal accounts as increasing current expenditure and a low tax-to-GDP ratio. Whereas the war on terror expenditures, and their delayed reimbursement by the US because of audit concerns may be a heavy contributor to such increasing current expenditures (the defence budget for next fiscal is expected to go up by 31 percent), there is little doubt that the people in power show no signs of belt tightening to reflect the country’s economic and financial woes, flouting even the SBP’s advice in this regard. The princely style of the political class in power has by now become a permanent fact of life in the Islamic Republic, and one in deep dissonance with our straitened economic circumstances.
As far as our abysmal tax-to-GDP ratio is concerned, as long as large parts of the economy remain outside the tax net (e.g. the agricultural and informal sectors), squeezing more taxes out of the narrow base of direct taxpayers may turn out in the end to be a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Apart from widening the tax net to include all incomes irrespective of source, a tax paying culture, conspicuous by its absence at present, needs to be encouraged and developed. But to be effective, this effort would have to be accompanied by a real adherence by the political class in power to austerity in public and private life and an honest taxpayers’ profile in order to set an example for society at large. Asking for the moon?

Daily Times editorial Nov 26, 2009

Reactions to Balochistan package

Some Baloch nationalists had delivered themselves of a rejectionist message even before the Balochistan package was presented in a joint session of parliament the other day. The rest have now joined the chorus. In case anyone is jumping to any conclusions, it needs to be stressed that negative or indifferent reactions to the package are not confined to those from the province. The main opposition party, the PML-N, sat stoically throughout the presentation, clarifying later that it considered the package only a set of proposals and would respond when debate gets under way at another joint session after Eid. Other parties too have reacted rather less than enthusiastically. The only positive sounds have come, unsurprisingly, from the government, from President Asif Ali Zardari downwards. But is this divide unexpected? If not, why not?
While there should be little quarrel with the government’s intent, the package either leaves out or misconstrues some vital issues that go to the heart of the conundrum in Balochistan. All the fine sentiments in the package of seeking reconciliation with our “Baloch brothers” and offering them at least some relief on many of their long-standing demands cannot hide one glaring fact. The government has behaved like in the parable about not seeing the elephant in the room. That ‘elephant’ is none other than the military and paramilitary operations being conducted in the province since at least 2002, which accelerated in quantity and intensity after 2006. Interior Minister Rehman Malik can go blue in the face denying that any military operation is in progress, but that does not change things a jot. If the military operation is a nationalist fiction, why has the package conceded the withdrawal of the army and a halt to cantonment construction? It is another matter that the idea of replacing the army with the FC is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, such is the universal hatred for the FC in Balochistan. The bitter truth is that both the federal and the provincial government in Balochistan are helpless before the military’s view of the situation and what needs to be done. So far, the military has not given any indication that it agrees with the reconciliation thrust. The ‘elephant’ therefore, continues to rampage unchecked.
The package’s strange and unclear wording on who would benefit from the ‘amnesty’, i.e. all those who do not have terrorism or other serious charges against them, would be humorous if the situation were not so dire. This formulation effectively excludes just about anyone who matters in the estranged Baloch nationalist milieu, including not only moderate parties within the province, but most definitely those who have chosen exile to lead the armed struggle from abroad. The government has slipped up in not accepting the sane advice to take the “real leaders” of Balochistan into confidence before announcing the package. If the nationalists at home and abroad do, by some stretch of the imagination, decide to engage the government despite their reservations, they are likely to adopt a hard stance for two reasons. One, the Baloch nationalist sentiment is weary of broken promises stretching back more than sixty years. There is a perception amongst the most radical elements in their ranks (whose number is growing) that further ‘talk’ is useless. They are therefore holding out for the maximalist position of independence. Two, there is a bottomless pit called a credibility and trust deficit on implementation of high sounding proposals between the nationalists and the authorities. Precisely for that reason, without an intelligent engagement of the extreme sentiment as well as the more moderate nationalists, any hope of bringing our estranged “brothers” back into the mainstream is only so much pie in the sky.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 20, 2009

PPP prepares to fight back

The PPP-led government appears to have been rocked back by the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) verdict. For those baying for the NRO beneficiaries’ blood, it must come as a surprise, nay even shock, that far from rolling over and playing dead, the PPP seems to have decided to take on its detractors and come out of its corner fighting. The prime minister is well known for a soft and gentle disposition. Yet Yousaf Raza Gilani too seems to have decided it is time the gloves came off. Part of the fallout of the NRO verdict may have nothing to do with the letter and spirit of the court’s judgement. Whatever unintended consequences are flowing from that verdict, reflect the over-zealousness of some members of the bureaucracy and other officials. A case in point is the stopping of Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar from proceeding on an official visit to China. The circumstances surrounding the incident persuaded even mild-mannered Gilani to suspend the interior secretary and three FIA officials for misleading the minister and acting beyond their own authority and even the mandate of the verdict. It turns out that Mukhtar’s name was not on the exit control list now or on October 4, 2007, the date to which all things have reverted after the striking down of the NRO.
The proper thing that has followed the verdict is the notices and summons issued by the accountability courts to those whose cases stand revived. Draconian actions such as arrests were not justified when the accused were prepared to face the courts. The rumour mills ground overtime, but in the process some sections of the media did not even hesitate to issue unsubstantiated stories, for example of the interior minister’s arrest. Journalism requires responsibility, not subjective wish fulfillment. The judicial process of accountability has begun, and the ‘militant’ media must wait for judicial verdicts, not jump the gun. That process includes the possibility of bail, which in one high profile case of Salman Farooqui, has been granted. Meanwhile the monitoring cells suggested in the SC’s verdict have been set up at SC and High Court levels.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani mounted a vigorous defence of President Asif Ali Zardari during an interaction with the media. His thrust was that all the cases against the president were politically motivated and, despite spending 12 years in jail, nothing had been proved against him. As far as the Swiss case is concerned, the prime minister clarified that the Swiss government has conveyed that it cannot proceed in a case that the Pakistan government itself has not revived because of the immunity enjoyed by the office of president. The prime minister questioned why the authors of the NRO, Musharraf, Shauqat Aziz and his cabinet were not being mentioned whereas his government was neither responsible for promulgating the NRO nor had it defended it. Contrary to the expressed wishes of the SC that former FIA director Tariq Khosa be restored to office, Mr Gilani seems bent on protecting executive privilege where such appointments are concerned.
Party consultations in the presidency and with allies, as well as the PPP’s executive committee meeting in progress while these lines are being written seem to convey the impression that the PPP has decided there will be no resignations because such a course night open a Pandora’s box whose ultimate victim could well be the president. Those opposed to Mr Zardari or the PPP may want to go beyond the remit of the SC verdict, but they are on thin constitutional and legal ground here. Now that the PPP seems to have girded up its loins, the danger of political confrontation (with the PML-N first and foremost) and between the executive and judiciary cannot be ruled out. The best advice to all players would be to exercise restraint in the straitened circumstances in which the country finds itself, let politics be conducted in a civilised and democratic spirit and let each institution of state function within its own orbit, not on others’ turf.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 21, 2009

PPP CEC’s fighting stance

The ruling PPP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) has come out with a fighting stance, but in moderate terms and language that does the party credit in a situation where it could easily have been provoked into retaliating in like manner to some of the accusations and demands thrown at it since the Supreme Court’s verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). The CEC announced its decisions in interaction with the media at the end of the daylong CEC meeting in Islamabad. The main points of the CEC’s deliberations and decisions include a resolution of solidarity and complete confidence in President Asif Ali Zardari, who is also the co-chairperson of the party; facing the cases against the party’s leaders in the courts and defending these leaders to the fullest extent in what are described by the CEC as politically motivated cases of victimisation; no resignations by ministers under pressure of blackmail from any quarter; and using “democracy and constitutionalism” as the weapons of choice to face their adversaries and foil all conspiracies against the mandate of the PPP to rule for its full term.
The PPP’s secretary general Jahangir Badar and information secretary Fauzia Wahab said the PPP believes in the rule of law, supremacy of the constitution, respects the institutions of state and hopes that all institutions will remain within their ambit. Badar stated that the PPP could have given a befitting response to its opponents and detractors but it refrained because it wanted to maintain the policy of reconciliation. He said the party had faced accountability in the past (the only party to be so victimised, he asserted) and was not afraid to face it in the future. He went on to stress that democracy was the only system that could be successful in Pakistan in the prevailing geo-political environment. Solidarity could only be strengthened and progress ensured through democracy, he reiterated.
Badar pointed to the scandal of billions of rupees worth of written off loans that have not been brought into the net of accountability. This loot and plunder must be reversed and such written off loans repaid, was his demand. He said the wealth looted in the name of privatisation during the previous regime should also be recovered. In answer to a question, Badar reminded his audience that the late Benazir Bhutto had rejected the NRO and asked for all the false cases against the PPP leaders to be wound up. He said the NRO was the brainchild of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Shaukat Aziz and the party or its government neither promulgated it nor defended it in court.
The reference to using “democracy and constitutionalism” to wage a political struggle against its opponents and detractors places the PPP in the category of extraordinary restraint. It has not retaliated in the language or tone of its critics. So much so, when the angry Khursheed Shah openly advocated using the Sindh card to defend the PPP, others, including the president, rejected the notion and stressed the politics of the federation and democracy as the consistently preferred path of the PPP throughout its history. The president went so far as to say that he did not want to become another Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman (implying secessionism), although to be historically fair, Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman was no secessionist but a victim of a military dictatorship that refused to transfer power to an Awami League led by him and which had won the 1970 elections fair and square. Nevertheless, the thrust of the president’s remarks were in line with the role he played just after Benazir’s assassination, when he helped put out the fire of violent protest in Sindh with his slogan of “Pakistan Khappay”.
One need not hold any brief for the besieged president or the PPP-led government under attack by its opponents to see that the country cannot afford any destabilisation at this critical juncture. Within the ambit of the constitution and law, there is no threat to either the presidency or the government should they choose to continue in office. And one hopes that thought does not trigger any extra-constitutional ideas in any quarter.