Monday, July 18, 2011

Daily Times Editorial July 19, 2011

The beginning or the end?

As 600 US troops prepare to leave Afghanistan as the first contingent of withdrawing troops and 3,000 Canadian troops end their combat mission in Kandahar, the province of Bamiyan witnessed one of the first transitions from foreign security forces to the Afghan army and police. Relatively secure and peaceful though it is, Bamiyan’s transition was handled secretively and even local media were not permitted to cover it. President Karzai was not there, nor were any government leaders or officials of note. This ‘discretion’ can only be a reflection of the fears surrounding the Afghan Taliban’s stated intent to target all transition ceremonies. Panjsher, the base of the redoubtable late Ahmed Shah Masoud and his Northern Alliance militia, has already moved considerably in its transition to Afghan control, but this was made easy by the fact that there has hardly been any fighting in that area for years. Bamiyan will be followed by seven districts up for a transition. It may be recalled that Bamiyan hit the headlines in 2001 when the then ruling Taliban blew up the ancient giant Buddha statues. Since the overthrow of the Taliban by the invading US forces, it has remained relatively quiet, but the transition has sparked off fears amongst local officials and people that their district could become the focus of the Taliban’s sabotage campaign against the indigenisation process.
The point to reflect on is if Bamiyan, despite being relatively peaceful, can generate such anxiety around the transition process, what about the restive south, southeast and east of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are still a formidable insurgent enemy? Kandahar has been left headless after the assassination of the president’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai. The vacuum his death has left behind is difficult to fill, and attempts to do so may engender rivalries and even conflict between aspirants to succeed him. And if anyone is under the illusion that the Taliban strongholds in the south and east are the only dangerous areas, the killing of the president’s ally Jan Mohammad Khan in Kabul the other day betrays the state of insecurity even in the capital and the reach of the Taliban. A former governor of Uruzgan province (Mulla Omar’s home), Jan Mohammad Khan’s death within days of Ahmad Wali Karzai’s assassination may be the beginning of a targeted campaign against the Karzai regime’s Pashtun members. Naturally it would suit the Taliban if they can decapitate the Pashtun element of the Karzai regime, leaving it a non-Pashtun entity. The Taliban could then reassert their claim to represent all Pashtuns.
Reservations about the withdrawal per se as well its pace are not confined to local Afghan officials. Voices are being heard even in the US that the withdrawal may be premature and poorly designed to ensure no vacuum is left behind that could be exploited by the insurgents. If this argument is taken on board, the planned phase-wise withdrawal to culminate in 2014 could very well presage a disaster if the Taliban, emboldened by the prospect of having to fight the weaker Afghan forces and arguably backed by ISI, decide to go for broke as far as capturing power in Afghanistan is concerned, unlike the hope not so long ago that they may agree to a compromise negotiated political settlement of post-withdrawal Afghanistan. This time round though, the Taliban may well be in for a surprise. The Karzai regime, with all its faults and warts, does enjoy the support of a considerable anti-Taliban Pashtun element that will fight shoulder to shoulder with the non-Pashtun groups to the bitter end to prevent a return of Taliban rule. Were the Taliban to push the envelope too far, the benighted country may well see the beginning of another civil war that could easily last 20-30 years, with a devastating spillover into Pakistan, given the Tehreek-i-Taliban’s newfound safe havens across the border on Afghan soil, as confirmed by ISPR the other day. Afghanistan and Pakistan, let alone the region as a whole, is unlikely to see peace unless the policy of gaining control in Kabul through extremist proxies is abandoned. And in the quest for the elusive Holy Grail of ‘strategic depth’, Pakistan itself may suffer incalculable damage. It is still not too late to realign Pakistan’s policies in Afghanistan with the interests of peace in the region by letting the Afghan people decide their own fate, without outside interference, of which there has been all too much for decades.

Daily Times editorial July 17, 2011

Pasha’s fence-mending visit

After a flying visit to Washington, where he met the acting head of the CIA and other intelligence officials, ISI chief Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha seems to have been successful in mending fences with the US. From the sparse reports emanating from Washington and elsewhere, it is being claimed that the intelligence relationship is back on track, while other contentious issues have been discussed in a good atmosphere and are heading for resolution. It is necessary to remind ourselves of the low relations had hit over the last few months through a series of events causing extreme tensions and ending with the unilateral raid on Abbottabad on May 2 to take out Osama bin Laden without so much as informing the Pakistani authorities.
The agenda for the talks included repairing the ruptured intelligence sharing arrangements between the ISI and CIA, which had nosedived during outgoing CIA chief Leon Panetta’s tenure. Incoming incumbent at the CIA General Petraeus is on the verge of taking over, Panetta having moved to Defence. Also, General Pasha sought assurances of no repetition of the unilateral action of May 2, which proved highly embarrassing to the military top brass and the ISI, prompting a rare appearance by the ISI chief before parliament where he proffered an even more unprecedented apology for the lapses exposed by the May 2 raid and even went so far as to offer to resign. Our parliamentarians, perhaps motivated by a sense of the beleaguered state of Pakistan’s sovereignty and not willing to put the boot in when the military and ISI were down, bailed Pasha and his own and parent organisation out. Nevertheless, public and parliamentary opinion veered towards an assertion of Pakistan’s independence and sovereignty, prompting the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs to assert on Friday that while good relations with the US were important, these could not be at the cost of infringements of the country’s sovereignty, particularly singling out drone strikes in this regard.
General Pasha was also reassured in Washington on another bone of contention that has arisen of late in the Pak-US relationship: the perceived bypassing of Pakistan (read the ISI) in the reported US efforts to talk to the Taliban. Since the ISI had been manoeuvring to remain centre-stage in these delicate negotiations on the eve of the US troops withdrawal, the reported ‘independent’ contacts between Washington and the Taliban caused a great deal of angst in Rawalpindi. General Pasha was administered the palliative of an assurance that the US understood and underlined Pakistan’s interests and concerns in Afghanistan and saw it as very important in the negotiating process with the Taliban. Whether these are just soothing words or genuinely meant will only be revealed over time.
The suspended $ 800 million in military aid was apparently not discussed in Washington since, it is said, it is already on the discussion table in Islamabad. However, an explanatory note sought to put the issue in perspective by pointing out that $ 500 million of the withheld aid was for the US trainers who have been withdrawn on Pakistan’s behest. The balance $ 300 million is Coalition Support Fund reimbursements that are touted to be released ‘soon’. Again, the proof of the pudding…
The issue of visas for American personnel was also reportedly dealt with, but no details are so far available of just how this problem was sorted out.
The visit may or may not have sorted out all the contentious issues bedevilling relations between the US and Pakistan, but on the face of it, the two intelligence services have managed to smooth each other’s ruffled feathers and promised ‘good behaviour’ with each other and all round. Even this much forward movement is a reflection, despite recent tensions in the relationship, of the huge stakes for both sides in the run up to endgame in Afghanistan. What the visit also highlights is the advantage of quiet conversations away from the glare of publicity and in which the two sides have talked to, rather than at, each other. How far this obvious exercise in pulling back from the brink of a complete breakdown and mending fences has removed the cankers in the relationship and how smooth the running will be from now on are all matters to be revealed in the fullness of time. However, the question, in the midst of the convergence in Washington, remains what the two allies intend or can do about the divergences on Afghanistan and the war against terrorism.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Daily Times Editorial July 10, 2011

Karachi’s mini-civil war

For the fourth day running, Karachi remained in the grip of large scale ethnic bloodletting on Thursday. Although at the time of writing these lines the city by and large appeared deserted since markets did not open and transport was off the roads on MQM’s declared day of mourning on Friday, in the troubled areas coinciding with the well known ethnic fault lines that run through the metropolis, the sound of gunfire was almost a constant. The toll of this virtual mini-civil war is rising, with widespread dissatisfaction being voiced by Karachi’s affected citizens that the government and law enforcement agencies are conspicuous by their absence. The gunmen have abandoned individual targeted killings that had been the bane of the city even before the parting of the ways of the MQM and the PPP-led coalition and instead taken to ‘positional’ warfare and indiscriminate killings of innocent citizens on buses and even within their houses. In the absence of any meaningful response by the law enforcement agencies to halt this unfettered massacre, Karachi too is witnessing its own version of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the shape of desperate citizens being forced to abandon their homes and flee to safer areas with the minimum wherewithal to survive. For all intents and purposes, in the areas of intense fighting by means of their menacing presence, and in the rest of the city because of spreading fear, the gunmen rule the roost. It would come as no surprise if within their ranks could be counted land and drug mafias trying to take advantage of the unrest.
MQM’s day of mourning on Friday remained just that, mourning for the city of lights and the dire straits to which it has been condemned. Mercifully, the MQM postponed its planned march, which could have invited more trouble. Nevertheless, as we have said before in this space, the MQM, since leaving the government, has resorted to its time-tested usual terrorist-political tactics. It is difficult to believe that its hand is not detectable in the worst violence to wrack the city for years. That does not mean that there are not other actors who are equally to blame for the descent into open warfare along ethnic lines. The Urdu-speaking and Pashtun people of Karachi are the worst affected communities. The apprehension now is that the concentration of the violence in north-western Karachi may spill over into the rest of the city with a vengeance.
The government claims 235 perpetrators of violence arrested in the last four days. This is the result of a conscious decision not to launch a generalised operation a la the military offensive in 1992, which failed to leave any indelible mark on the circumstances of the city, but instead to gather intelligence and information and then conduct targeted operations against the miscreants. According to Federal Law Minister Maula Bux Chandio, an army action in Karachi would mean the collective failure of the political forces to manage the affairs of the country satisfactorily. He could also have added that it could pose a threat to the continuation of civilian rule once again. While Interior Minister Rehman Malik has once more dashed to Karachi to help out, promising the induction of 1,000 personnel of the Frontier Constabulary to bolster the police and Rangers in the city, the Sindh government has issued shoot on sight orders to quell the violence.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has appealed for calm and peace in Karachi, but his voice sounds more like a plaint than that of an authoritative chief executive, punctuated as the appeal is by the crackle of almost constant gunfire in the streets and alleyways of many areas of the city. In essence, the PPP’s strategy after the 2008 elections to “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer” seems to have now run its course. It is MQM’s well known and demonstrated track record that it always resorts to the gun when it wants to dictate its own terms to rivals or the power structure. If it is unable to win the day through its habitual tactics of intimidation and at the same time anointing itself as the victim, Karachi is in for bad times, and with it, the country as a whole.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Daily Times Editorial July 4, 2011

‘Grand’ opposition alliance

PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif has come out swinging against the government, advocating the formation of a grand opposition alliance to unseat the incumbents. And what is it that has persuaded the leader of the hitherto ‘friendly’ opposition to part ways irredeemably with the ruling PPP? Basically, Nawaz Sharif feels betrayed by the PPP leadership, in particular President Asif Ali Zardari, for a series of failures: not living up to its promises to him over the last three years of incumbency, no hope or relief to offer the suffering people of the country, no solution to the sufferings of Balochistan and, last but not least, and arguably the straw that broke the camel’s back, the alleged rigging in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) recent elections.
Talking to journalists in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif recalled how he had signed the Charter of Democracy with the PPP, only to be disappointed at every step. After repeatedly experiencing the PPP’s broken promises, playing of tricks and failure to resolve any problems, the conclusion had become inescapable that there was now a need to forge a grand opposition alliance to get rid of the PPP-led government. This time round, Nawaz asserted, he would no longer be taken in by the oft-repeated PPP mantra of a policy of ‘reconciliation’.
The government’s ill-conceived policies, Nawaz argued, were responsible for widespread poverty and unemployment, with some 70 percent of the people below the poverty line. He criticised the government for violating the spirit of the 18th Amendment by transferring the responsibilities of the devolved ministries to the provinces but holding on to their resources. He said it was a priority of the PML-N to provide relief and succour to Balochistan, whose people were being subjected to extreme repression, including extra-judicial killings and the government’s failure to provide justice for the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti and hundreds of ‘missing’ Baloch nationalists.
On the AJK elections, Nawaz asserted that brigades of rigging had been unleashed and government funds for people’s relief or flood rehabilitation had been diverted to winning the election by the PPP through fraud and manipulation. It may be recalled that the AJK elections have got bogged down in controversy, with the MQM parting ways with the ruling coalition over the issue and Sardar Attique’s defeated Muslim Conference (MC) demanding a fresh election under the supervision of the army. Although it is part of our political history that every election is inevitably followed by charges of rigging by the defeated parties, this time, whatever the weight of the accusations, it has produced a mini-crisis for the ruling coalition by losing the MQM, raising fears of a repeat of the MQM making trouble in the cities of Sindh while in the opposition. One manifestation of the ‘reconciliation’ mantra is the rumoured offer of the AJK presidency to Sardar Attique to keep him sweet and away from the emerging opposition alliance, while another is the efforts by President Zardari to woo the MQM chief Altaf Hussain on his current visit to London. While the first gambit’s fate is so far unknown, the second appears not to be succeeding in the face of what appears to be an irrevocable parting of the ways by the MQM finally.
The cast of usual suspects for any opposition alliance seem therefore to include the PML-N, MQM, Jamaat-i-Islami, JUI-F (still in negotiation) and the splinter groups from mainstream parties such as the PML-Q’s breakaway Likeminded caucus. Of course there is still many a slip between the cup and the lip and it remains to be seen how far Nawaz Sharif’s desire to have a ‘grand’ opposition alliance with the rest of the parties estranged from or in fundamental conflict with the PPP can be realised. It must be remembered that the tendency of the PML-N since the 2008 elections to ‘go it alone’ and spare none of the now being wooed parties from strident criticism makes the task now harder. However, in politics generally, and in Pakistani politics in particular, there are no permanent friends or enemies; it all boils down to interests. If the opposition alliance becomes a reality, whatever its final composition, it can potentially give the government a tough time inside and outside parliament and make life difficult for it in the run up to the Senate elections next year and the general elections whenever they are held, but no later than 2013. Clearly, in the middle of grave challenges facing the country such as terrorism and the tanking economy, the political cleavage opening up promises a rough time ahead for all and sundry.