Thursday, February 28, 2013
No country for journalists Pakistan continues to live up to its reputation for being the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Malik Mumtaz Khan, a tribal journalist and president of the Miranshah Press Club was ambushed and killed by unknown gunmen in North Waziristan (NW) on Wednesday. He is the latest in a long list of journalists killed in FATA and throughout Pakistan. Khan was the fourth journalist killed in just the first two months of this year, and the second in NW. Another tribal journalist, Hayatalluh Khan, was abducted in December 2005, kept in detention for six months, and his body discovered in June 2006. There has been no claim of responsibility for Mumtaz Khan’s assassination, although eyewitness accounts speak of his car being stopped by a vehicle with tinted glasses, a trademark signature of the terrorist groups operating in FATA, after which he was shot and killed on the spot. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan denied his group was responsible, cloaking his statement in praise for the slain journalist as one who had been serving the tribal people. However, the statement cannot be taken at face value since the circumstantial evidence points the finger of suspicion at the TTP or one of its affiliated groups. Thirteen tribal journalists have been lost since 2002, the year the influx of the Afghan Taliban fleeing the US forces in their country became a permanent presence in the area and later spurred the emergence of the TTP. Many tribal journalists have joined the exodus from FATA to the settled areas or Peshawar, fearing threats to life and limb. Tribal journalists have been squeezed since 2002 between the preferences of the army deployed in the region and the terrorists, neither of whom are respectful of media freedom or allow these journalists to do their job objectively and impartially. In case anyone has any illusions that only journalists in the tribal areas face threats to their safety, the case of the hit-and-run killing of a journalist in Karachi the other day in suspicious circumstances should disabuse them of any such complacent notion. One only has to recall the cases of Wali Babar and Salim Shahzad to realise that journalists in Pakistan work and live in a very dangerous place. The ritual condemnations of Mumtaz Khan’s assassination by federal minister for information Qamar Zaman Kaira and PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif are hardly sufficient balm on the smarting wounds of the journalist community. The perpetrators of these heinous crimes have been emboldened over the years by the fact that not a single killer of journalists has been arrested, much less tried and punished. It is as though the authorities have satisfied themselves that offering compensation to the families of slain journalists absolves them of all further responsibility. In an era of media freedom, into which Pakistan too has entered, albeit belatedly, it is the irreducible responsibility of the state to ensure the safety and security of all journalists. The pen may be mightier than the sword in the traditional formulation, but in Pakistan the sword hangs menacingly over journalists’ heads and is by now running with their blood.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
General Kayani’s dream The army definitely seems to be embarked on a charm offensive these days. First the DG ISPR engaged journalists to convey the message that the army had no interest in a delay in the elections. Now COAS General Kayani has also followed suit. The COAS told journalists the other day that a fair and free election was his dream, and that dream was about to be realised soon. General Kayani emphasised that since he had taken over as COAS in 2007, he had done his best to prevent interference in the electoral process (an affliction that has wrought much damage in the past). He said he had supported the democratic process according to the letter and spirit of the constitution ever since, including the 2008 elections and the government that has been in power as a result for the last five years. General Kayani strongly advocated a peaceful transition of power. He refuted the rumour mongering and suspicions being aired in some parts of the media that the army was either seeking a postponement of the elections or a long-term technocratic setup. The General underlined that his intentions should not be judged by his statements but by his actions and the ground realities (whether this implies that General Kayani feels there is some contradiction between his statements and actions, or that his statements are often misinterpreted, is not known). General Kayani wants simultaneous elections throughout the country, including Balochistan. His mission in 2008 was non-interference in the elections, and that remains his mission today, when the country is poised to go to the polls. The COAS says he has assured the Chief Election Commissioner of the complete help and cooperation of the army. As to the choice of the elected representatives, General Kayani said whether these representatives were competent or not, this was the privilege of the people and their choice would be accepted with an open heart. It was the constitutional duty of the army to be with the government, no matter who leads it, the COAS stated. He went on to refute all the speculations in the media that the army was supporting any particular party or wanted an indefinite technocratic caretaker government. The army, he said, wants democracy to flourish and was not supporting anyone from behind the scenes. These two interactions at the highest level with journalists in recent days have at least brought the good news that the army has turned the corner on its past proclivity for interference and intervention in political affairs. What has led to this change? First and foremost, General Kayani was perhaps foremost amongst those who understood that the army had acquired a bad image through the nine years of Musharraf’s regime, not necessarily because of what it may or may not have done, but by association. Second, the emergence of the ‘internal threat’ from terrorism as the most critical, more so even than the traditional ‘external’, as exaggeratedly reported by the media reading too much into the ‘Green Book’ transformation of the military and its strategic doctrine, has seen the army with its hands full with the western border and internal terrorism situation. With such a full platter, and 5,000 security personnel (more than in all the wars against India) and 40,000 civilians killed by terrorists, the army has neither time nor inclination for interference in politics. Third, we know from our history that the person of the COAS and his take on things influence profoundly the military’s approach to national affairs. One only has to mention the contrasting roles of Generals Ziaul Haq, Musharraf and Kayani to drive the point home. This is because the discipline of the Pakistan army is still intact (minor blips and some major subversive efforts nipped in the bud in the past notwithstanding) and therefore the personality and outlook of the COAS makes all the difference. Pakistan and its democracy must therefore feel blessed that the present incumbent of the most powerful office in the land has in words and practice been a bulwark for the infant democracy we are all trying to consolidate. If the peaceful transition of power through the ballot box transpires as General Kayani desires, perhaps his dream will be fulfilled and, in the process, the nightmare of military intervention in politics in the past will finally be relegated to the dustbin of history, where it rightfully belongs.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Nawaz Sharif’s political moves PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif has embarked on a very different journey from the one he set out on many moons ago when he first entered politics. With the elections looming, he has made some intelligent moves to overcome his party’s gaps and weaknesses, and position his party to mount a serious challenge to the rival PPP. While President Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari have relocated themselves to Lahore in an attempt to revive the long time flagging fortunes of the party in Punjab, Nawaz has been meeting all possible parties that could potentially become his allies in the upcoming electoral contest. On Monday in Lahore, Mian sahib hosted JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman, and if the ensuing statements by both worthies are perused, it becomes clear that although concrete details are yet to be settled through a committee set up by both parties for the purpose, the decision has been taken in principle to cooperate with each other in the polls. On Tuesday, Mian Nawaz visited Sindh, en route to Karachi. He has managed to bring Pir Pagara’s PML-F, alienated from the PPP, and the National People’s Party on board. He also has goodwill amongst the Sindhi nationalists. Looking at these steps, it may be instructive to retrace Mian Nawaz Sharif’s trajectory through his political career. Accused initially of being a creature of the establishment when he was first picked up and mentored by General Jillani in the early 1980s, Nawaz Sharif incrementally evolved into a political leader in the 1990s who had outgrown his erstwhile mentors in the establishment. This brought him into conflict with powerful institutions, including the judiciary and the military. The latter conflict in fact finally ended in the military coup of 1999 and a decade of forced exile. It was towards the end of that barren period out in the cold that Mian sahib finally was engaged by Benazir Bhutto and convinced of the truth that the politicians had been played off against each other during the decade of the 1990s, to the detriment of democracy and the political process. Hence the Charter of Democracy enshrined the principle that ‘toppling’ the rival’s governments with the help of the establishment must cease. Though Ms Bhutto is tragically no longer amongst us, the spirit (unfortunately not always the letter) of the Charter of Democracy still influences our polity. That is the best explanation to date of Mian sahib’s restraint in the face of what he perceived as betrayal and provocation from his erstwhile coalition partner the PPP not to rock the boat of the democratic system, despite strident calls for more extreme positions and actions by the hawks within his party. Recalling this posture over the last five years on the part of one of our major political leaders heartens one and raises the very real possibility that our democratic culture is maturing before our very eyes, imperceptibly perhaps, but definitely. There is of course an impatience at the heart of the polity, informed in large measure by the travails of the people. Voices that seek ‘easy’ solutions through authoritarian or even military dispensations are harking back to a past we hope the country has left behind. Democracy is neither easy to establish, nor to consolidate. The process is messy, loud and discordant. Nevertheless, our and the world’s history indicates that societies that have struggled and muddled through the initial, contradictory phases of democracy, eventually discovered the blessings of a system with established rules of the political game, leading to stability and continuity. It would do all our doubting Thomases as well as the people at large a great deal of good in the long run if they were able to distinguish between democracy as a system per se, and the government of the day. The principle to be established is that governments come and go, the system must go on if Pakistan is to overcome its grievous problems and emerge into the light of a new and brighter day.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
Something to celebrate at last In the cultural desert that Pakistan has been reduced to, the first few drops of rain are starting to fall (literally and metaphorically). First we had the 2013 recast of the Karachi Literature Festival, the fourth so far. The enriching wares and discussions available in the city by the sea enthused Karachiites, but not only local denizens. Literature festivals, as they have evolved, have increasingly become international in composition and flavour. It is as though the revolution in communications has affected literary output and outreach as well, crashing through barriers of country, culture, distance. A virtually connected world is now able to actually connect at these fests. Karachi was followed by the Lahore Literary Festival, set in the magnificent setting of the Alhamra Cultural Centre on the Mall. It was the first such effort for the Punjab capital, a breach of the darkness into which we have incrementally been falling. Lahore’s heart has always been about art, culture, literature. In recent years, that ethos has been under siege from narrow mindedness, bigotry, intolerance, extremism and terrorism. The public space has thereby shrunk and been denied citizens. In Lahore on February 23rd and 24th, that space was reconquered by the thronging crowds that seemed to have an insatiable appetite for enlightened, fresh, interesting ideas expressed through the written word. Neither the rain on the first day, nor traffic and parking problems deterred the enthusiastic crowds of Lahoris, guests from all over the country and further abroad from thronging the festival and giving it the air of a mela (festive fair). The commonplace for long in Pakistan has been that the reading habit is a threatened or even extinct species, younger people no longer read, at least not books, and we are therefore doomed to be trapped in the inadequacies and pitfalls of our flawed education system, which critics argue is producing generation after generation of educated illiterates. Well, if the young teeming crowd at Alhamra is any guide, all these ‘self-evident’ truths are about to be challenged, if not overthrown. There was such a hunger and thirst amongst the young attendees for ideas, a commodity considered scarce in Pakistan, that even hardened old cynics felt the lift of joy that a promised new dawn harbingers. It was wonderful to see the interaction, exchange and sharing between young and old, local and guest, Pakistani and foreigner that animated the halls and gardens of Alhamra. The organizers of this initiative are to be congratulated on a brave venture that has turned out to deliver more returns than could be imagined in their wildest dreams. Reclaiming the lost public space is of course the site of the current struggle between the forces of enlightenment and darkness, but the roaring success of the first Lahore Literary Festival has vanquished all doubts if there were any, that the city (and Pakistani society at large, not to mention the global community of writers and literature lovers) is more than ready to make this event part of its annual cultural calendar. While kudos are due to the organizers, the Punjab government’s support to the event is deserving of mention, particularly the personal interest taken by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. The sign of a vibrant and alive society and culture is its literary output and the audience it attracts. History indicates that societies in crisis are at the same time offered the possibility of producing great literature. On the first condition, we more than qualify. On the second outcome, some very interesting trends are in evidence. Traditional literature in our indigenous languages is arguably going through a lean patch, with the exceptions standing out like shining beacons against the tide of decline that threatens all that has been good and rich in our past. On the other hand the phenomenon of an emerging crop of Pakistani writers writing in English is an area deserving of attention. It was perhaps inevitable that our elite and middle class, with access to education in English at both basic and higher levels would sooner or later give rise to a wave of writing in the language they are most comfortable in expressing themselves in. That is an exciting development not only because they bring to the table a new way of looking at our society, its flaws, warts and shining qualities, but also because English offers a wider, international audience. Taking a cue from this fact, perhaps one of the ways to revive the rich traditional heritage of our indigenous literature is to encourage translations of works in the indigenous languages into English to provide the same advantage of a wider, global audience. Since we live in times where the received d wisdom is that the market determines everything, it may be worth exploring ways and means to use market forces to strengthen intellectual and cultural depth even in our struggling traditional literature.
Friday, February 22, 2013
Army on board Director General Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asim Saleem Bajwa briefed journalists on Thursday regarding the army’s posture on the coming elections, terrorism, with special emphasis on the Quetta carnage, and the Balochistan situation. General Bajwa unequivocally committed the army to timely elections, arguing that the army had been supporting the democratic setup for the last five years and had nothing to gain from any delay in the polls. Further, he said the army was not in touch with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (which has openly accepted responsibility for the Quetta bombings targeting the Hazaras) or any other banned organisation. He emphasized that Pakistan was engaged in a war against terror, which required all institutions to mount a united and comprehensive response. On the Balochistan situation in the wake of the Quetta bombings, General Bajwa was at pains to underline that the decision to impose Governor’s rule was a consensus political one (implying a purely civilian move that the army had nothing to do with). The army had been and is ready to come to the aid of the civilian administration if called upon to do so under Article 245 of the constitution, General Bajwa revealed, and went on to explain that the decision not to invite the army in was also a political decision taken by the civilian government. If the decision to restore the government in Balochistan were to be taken, that too would be a political move (again implying the army would have nothing to do with it). Turning to the law and order situation in Balochistan, the General said after the Hazara Town incident, 19 additional posts had been set up in Kalat and Quetta divisions and a targeted operation by the Frontier Corps (FC), with support from the police and intelligence agencies, was in progress. In answer to a question, General Bajwa said the recent incidents on the Line of Control in Kashmir had been handled maturely by the government and the military. On the repatriation of Pakistani Taliban leader Maulvi Faqir Mohammad from Afghanistan after his recent arrest by the Afghan authorities, the General gave an indication of the improved level of cooperation against terrorism by revealing that the Foreign Office was in touch with Kabul regarding the issue. This kind of briefing by the ISPR to the media, although not unique, has come at a particularly sensitive time. Some may be inclined to see it as purely a charm offensive by the military, but some very important statements, issues and clarifications have been in evidence that go to the heart of the crises Pakistan faces currently. Perhaps the most strategic statement is the one in which the army appears to be on board as far as holding the elections in time is concerned. This unequivocal reiteration of the army’s position may well be meant to lay to rest all the speculations and conspiracy theories regarding moves and attempts to delay the elections and impose a medium to long term caretaker setup composed of technocrats (the Bangladesh model as it has come to be known). The ground realities certainly point in the direction of the military’s own difficulties in the war against terrorism that it is waging and in which around 5,000 personnel of the security forces have been martyred. With its hands full with a difficult counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism campaign, the military really does not have the time or the appetite for intervention in politics. That appetite has been further reduced by what appears to be a summing up by GHQ of the experience of military interventions of the past, which inevitably left behind more problems than they ostensibly set out to solve. This conjuncture of past lessons and present tasks presents the best hope for the continuity and consolidation of democracy, something lacking for 65 years, and for which we have had to pay a very heavy price. So this is really good news to hear in such explicit and clear terms. On terrorism, while there may be no reason to doubt General Bajwa’s reassuring words, a history of the involvement of the military with terrorist groups causes suspicions to linger that not all ties (surreptitious) have been cut. This may sound unfair to the men in uniform, but they do have the task of demonstrating that they mean what they say by helping the civilian authorities through intelligence sharing, cooperation and whatever else it takes to take out any and all terrorists on our soil. The LeJ may be the immediate focus of our attention because of the horrendous carnage in Quetta, but the whole panoply of terrorist groups raised in the (by now clearly) mistaken notion that they could be used as jihadi proxies in the region without costs, needs to be dealt with without doubt or hesitation. Unfortunately these groups have been able to take advantage of the lack of consensus that bedevils our polity on the correct approach to the extremists. To take an example that cuts across the grain of the army’s desire for a united response to terror, reports in the media assert that the Punjab government would be reluctant to act against LeJ despite their main bases being in Punjab because they are in seat adjustment negotiations with the LeJ’s erstwhile mother party, the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (previously the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan). This disunity needs to be overcome if the hydra of terrorism is to be slain. On Balochistan, it must be said with due respect that the briefing failed to distinguish between the nationalist insurgency and terrorism. If the response to the Quetta carnage were to be simply to increase the military’s presence in and around the city (through the army-commanded FC of course), that would make sense. But what has Kalat to do with the LeJ’s anti-Hazara, anti-Shia genocide? The call for unity in the face of the terrorist threat is indeed welcome and needed. But without reconciliation with the alienated Baloch, such ‘unity’, even if it could be achieved, would be hollow. While there is talk in the air about restoration of the Balochistan government, this too would prove a temporary and inadequate palliative as far as the nationalists are concerned. A political initiative to negotiate an honourable political settlement with the Baloch people is as critical as the forging of a national consensus against terrorism, and they are indeed the two sides of the same coin.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Qadri stumped Allama Tahirul Qadri’s song and dance seems all but over. The Supreme Court (SC) dismissed his petition calling for the dissolution and reconstitution of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). In a short order, the SC delineated briefly the grounds for the dismissal. The order stated that Qadri had failed to establish the case for the exercise of the discretionary jurisdiction of the court under Article 184(3) of the constitution. Nor was the petitioner able to satisfy the court which, if any, of his fundamental rights had been violated by the setting up of the ECP last year, rights that were neither listed in the petition nor established by the arguments during the hearings, despite the insistence of the three-member bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry to do so. Mercifully for the polity anticipating a historic democratic transition through the ballot for the first time, Qadri came a cropper before the SC. Qadri’s complaint that the court had not even allowed him to read one word of his petition misses the point. First and foremost, the court wanted to be satisfied whether the petition should be heard per se. On the touchstone of violation of his fundamental rights and locus standi, Qadri failed to persuade the court. Qadri’s complaint about being grilled vis-à-vis his dual nationality was not, as he railed at the bench as well as afterwards to the media, any insult to the millions of dual nationals of Pakistani origin. The grilling was aimed at establishing the locus standi and intent of the petitioner exclusively, and did not touch upon the undeniable rights dual nationals enjoy, barring running for elective office. Qadri’s brazen arrogance in the face of the dismissal of his petition was grossly on display when he could not have his way. Like a petulant child denied a lollipop, he railed against the CJP, trying to bring his respect and dignity into ridicule by displaying in court in the face of the bench as well as before the media (where his supporters had already been spreading literature, etc, against the CJP) a picture dating from 2005 when the CJP took oath from General Musharraf. Qadri may be deluded into thinking that the Pakistani public’s memory is short, but no one in their right mind in this country is unaware of how much water has flowed down the rivers since that time. While it is permissible and possible to disagree with some or even all of the verdicts of the SC, nowhere is it permissible to malign and attempt to drag through the mud the person and conduct of the members of the superior judiciary. Were that to be permitted, what would remain of the standing of the SC? Would that not be an invitation to anarchy in an already troubled society? Qadri’s mala fide intent has been proved beyond doubt but his behaviour after the verdict, where, instead of accepting defeat with good grace, he has chosen to malign the judiciary, is unacceptable in any civilised society. The only surprise is the ‘restraint’ exercised by the court when it has stated in unequivocal terms in the short order that Qadri’s actions are tantamount to contempt of court. Such a blatant display of contempt has been spared whereas lesser misdemeanours have attracted the strict and harsh penalties laid down in the law. This inconsistency is incomprehensible. Qadri should have been hauled over the coals. When the bench’s order says it is exercising restraint since the contempt powers should be used sparingly and on a case by case basis, one cannot but feel a tinge of sympathy for a former prime minister convicted of contempt and debarred from politics for five years as a result, and some others over whose heads the sword of contempt is dangling (e.g. the NAB Chairman). While the dismissal of Qadri’s petition is to be welcomed and indeed has been welcomed by the main political parties and the Chief Election Commissioner, the court is advised to exercise similar restraint in other cases of contempt charges. The respect and dignity of the judiciary would be enhanced thereby, not diminished.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
North Korea’s nuclear test The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known in common parlance as North Korea, has just carried out its third nuclear test. The development has raised a storm of protest across the world. The UN Security Council (UNSC) has convened to discuss the issue. Condemnations of the test have flown thick and fast, including from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the five permanent members of the UNSC -- the US, UK, France, Russia and China – India, and a host of others. Pakistan has diplomatically expressed its regret at the test without going so far as to join the chorus of condemnation. The UNSC is attempting to widen and deepen the sanctions already in place on North Korea because of its previous two tests in 2006 and 2009, as well as its launch of a satellite into space in December last year. The international chorus characterises North Korea as a rogue state that flies in the face of the world’s opinion and concerns. But this may be partly a self-serving argument. The Korean Peninsula is one of the last frontlines left over from the Cold War. The 1950-53 Korean War ended not in peace but in an armistice that has frozen the divide between South and North Korea. While the latter has lost its erstwhile supporter the Soviet Union (post-Soviet Russia is hardly a substitute) and has an increasingly uneasy relationship with its sole remaining ally China, South Korea not only enjoys the support of the west and Japan, with US troops still stationed on its soil 60 years after the Korean conflict ended in a cold peace, it can boast a security cordon in which the US-led west would fly to its rescue were there to be a resurgence of conflict with North Korea. Pyongyang, on the other hand, isolated internationally (with the exception of Beijing), feeling itself constantly under threat and insecure, feels it has no alternative except to take a belligerent and defiant stance, especially when from time to time it feels threatened by the alliance of the US, South Korea and Japan, and knows that it has only itself to rely on in the event of hostilities. If the pattern of behaviour of North Korea in the face of international isolation, sanctions and threats is taken into account, some home truths become evident. North Korea needs not threats, but balm on its wounds from the past and its threat perception about the present and future. That is why there is much weight in the argument that the Framework Agreement of 1994 should be revisited for a fresh approach to what is increasingly becoming a dead end of confrontation alone. To remind our readers, the Framework Agreement of 1994 was former US president Bill Clinton’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea to find a way out of the confrontational mode in which North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world appeared frozen, and which arguably led an insecure Pyongyang down the path of increasingly sophisticated missile and rocket development (for a lethal delivery system) and nuclear weapons, which this third test indicates are now at the stage of miniaturisation with added potency, an achievement that may allow North Korea to mount nuclear warheads on its rockets and missiles. The 1994 agreement offered North Korea peaceful nuclear technology in exchange for abandoning the quest for nuclear weapons, and held the promise of diplomatic engagement to provide aid to the struggling North Korean economy. It further held out the promise of a peaceful resolution through political engagement of the long standing confrontation on the Korean Peninsula. Sanctions against North Korea have not worked, and arguably have helped harden Pyongyang’s defiant stance. Perhaps a new, or rather return to an old, diplomatic initiative may serve better. Admittedly, given the mutual distrust and suspicion between North Korea and the west and its allies, this is no easy task, as the interlocutors of the group of six countries attempting a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Korean question have found over many futile years. But that should not be an argument for refraining from a return to diplomatic and political engagement that reassures Pyongyang about its security, gently nudges it in the direction of becoming a member of the world community, and helps it overcome its difficulties through trade and aid. The bottom line is, difficult as it is, this is the only reasonable way forward for peace and tranquillity to return to the Korean theatre.
Monday, February 11, 2013
Making peace with the TTP? The chorus of voices demanding the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) offer of talks be taken up seems to be growing louder. Whereas Imran Khan is feeling vindicated by Nawaz Sharif’s endorsement of talking to the TTP, politicians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) are pushing for a peace deal with the militants, partly or wholly because they fear violence during the election campaign. The induction of Shaukatullah Khan as the new Governor of KP has encouraged these politicians as they think his tribal background will assist in the effort to restore peace in the strife-torn province as well as FATA. The new Governor has himself pronounced immediately after taking oath that this would be his main mission. But he also emphasised that his efforts to reach out to the militants would only follow the all parties conference on the issue, an idea the ANP has put forward. There is also speculation that Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s proposal of setting up a jirga to hold such talks could offer a traditional mode of conflict resolution that may be more efficacious. Some are saying the Maulana’s journey to Qatar to talk to the Afghan Taliban is part of this strategy. The reasoning behind this is that developments in the fight against the TTP and affiliated militant groups have revealed the nexus between the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani counterparts, evidence for which is the safe havens militants expelled from Swat have found just across the Afghan border in areas controlled by the Haqqani network. The TTP is relying on the lack of unity and consensus in Pakistan’s polity on how to approach the problem of the TTP. The latter may be offering an olive branch, but that has not stopped it continuing to fight while dangling the carrot of talks; witness the recent attacks against Shias in Hangu and on a military check post in Lakki Marwat. Talking while fighting is a time tested tactic for insurgents. The questions to be asked revolve around whether the TTP offer should be taken seriously, how would the TTP’s past approach of using peace agreements to regroup and strengthen themselves be prevented, and how the agenda of the TTP would be dealt with during the negotiations, if they take place. The ‘enthusiasm’ of the ANP and other KP political parties for such talks may partly be owed to the experience of talking to the militants in Swat, which arguably exposed their malign intent and paved the way for an operation that uprooted them from the valley, as well as considerations of the threat to election campaigning activity from suicide bombers and other forms of attack. The federal PPP-led government has so far been ambivalent about the TTP offer, while the military is maintaining an enigmatic silence. Reports say the military’s view remains that the peace offensive of the TTP should not deceive or disarm us and that the likelihood of continuing military confrontation is still the most convincing scenario. On the other hand the US is said to be hostile to the idea of Pakistan negotiating with the TTP, which some observers have contrasted with their approach to talks with the Afghan Taliban. Washington’s view appears to be that the two situations are dissimilar, with 12 years of fighting and the impending withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan providing the opportunity and momentum for exploring a power sharing arrangement in Kabul that would ensure a smooth exit for the western forces and prevent a new civil war after. The TTP, in the US’s analysis, represents hardline extremists who used peace agreements with Pakistan in 2011 to join hands with the Afghan Taliban and ratchet up sensational attacks against the western forces, penetrating into the heart of the security establishment in Kabul itself. Washington recognises the TTP’s objective as overthrowing the Pakistani state and imposing its rigid interpretation of Islam on Pakistani society. This is a nightmare scenario for the Americans, since it threatens to undo their plans in Afghanistan. Given all these contradictory views on the TTP offer, it does not appear as though the peace offer will take off any time soon, and perhaps too late to ensure the elections, at least in KP, are not affected by the TTP’s attacks.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
A refusal foretold As predicted in this space innumerable times since the issue of writing a letter to the Swiss authorities blew up, the latter have responded to the Pakistan government’s missive by saying categorically that the case against President Asif Ali Zardari cannot be reopened because he enjoys immunity while in office under Pakistani and international law, and that the case has in any case been closed under the statute of limitations under Swiss law since 15 years have elapsed since the case was instituted. It may be instructive to do a brief recap of the whole affair in order to understand the diversionary journey the country has been subjected to over many years. In 2007, when General Musharraf began to lose his grip on events unfolding in the country, he reached out to Benazir Bhutto’s PPP for a political bailout. The deal struck between the two sides after protracted negotiations resulted in the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), which withdrew corruption, etc, cases against Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari and many others, cases the PPP always held were politically motivated. The Cotecna case involving Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari led to a presumption of guilt in the Swiss magistracy’s investigation, which was overturned on appeal in 2003. Since then, the issue lay relatively dormant, until in 2008, then Attorney General Justice (retd) Malik Mohammad Qayyum wrote to the Swiss authorities withdrawing the request for assistance in the case, i.e. closing it. In 2009, the Supreme Court (SC) struck down the NRO as discriminatory, and ordered the reopening of all closed cases benefiting from it. This led to a three plus years standoff between the PPP government and the SC on the latter’s insistence that the government write to the Swiss authorities to reopen the Cotecna case. The government dragged its feet, arguing that such a step would be tantamount to an insult to the country’s sitting head of state, as well as fruitless since the president enjoyed immunity under our constitution as well as international law. The reluctance and refusal of the government to write the letter seems to have provoked more fury than judicial sense from the SC, which insisted on the implementation of its judgement by writing the letter. Many legal luminaries and analysts were also of the view that the president enjoyed immunity, but the SC insisted immunity was not automatic (despite the fact it is in the constitution) and would have to be applied for. The government was reluctant, given the state of virtual confrontation between it and the SC, fearing the immunity clause may be struck down. This prolonged standoff cost the PPP government a prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, convicted of contempt of court for refusing to write the letter and thereby losing office and being debarred from elected office for five years. His replacement, Raja Pervez Ashraf, after fresh government deliberations, agreed to write the letter. The result is now before us. The valid question to be asked is why the country was subjected to three plus years of time, resources, judiciary-executive confrontational tension and its destabilising effect on the democratic system when the outcome was staring everyone in the face. The only conclusion is that the superior judiciary failed to exercise its mind judiciously on the issue. If the country has lessons to learn from the whole affair, so, it must be said, has the judiciary. Some legal luminaries believe the Swiss response does not preclude the reopening of the case against President Zardari once he leaves office. They are of course entitled to their views and may even have legal precedent on their side, but Pakistan needs to lay the issue to rest for the moment and get back on track to more urgent and weightier questions, chief among them currently being to ensure the elections are held, on time, and in a free, fair and transparent manner. We need no more red herrings to distract us from this supreme national task.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Afghan peace timeline The trilateral summit hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron and boasting the presence of Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai has come out with a joint statement at the end of their deliberations that appears to represent the triumph of hope over reality. The three countries have pledged to work for peace in Afghanistan within six months, a timeline that appears to most observers to be overly optimistic, given the ground realities in war-torn Afghanistan. The best that can be said for the outcome is that it represents a convergence of three of the most important players in Afghanistan on the urgency of making efforts towards the desirable end of peace through a political settlement in the light of the looming withdrawal of western forces by 2014. The trilateral summit has put its weight behind the opening of a Doha office by the Taliban to give a boost to efforts for talks. It may be recalled that the US and the Taliban had bilaterally agreed on the Doha office, but the initiative floundered on the rock of Washington’s reluctance to fulfil its commitment to release five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to be housed in Doha. Both Pakistan and Afghanistan had reservations about the US’s unilateral attempts to negotiate with the Taliban, both feeling they would thereby be bypassed in the endgame. The Taliban have consistently refused to talk to the Kabul government, conditionally being prepared to contemplate direct talks with the US. Recent prisoner releases by Pakistan have raised hopes of an Afghan-led and owned process of negotiations between these prisoners and the High peace Council of Afghanistan. The most prominent prisoner in Pakistani custody, Mullah Biradar, has yet to be released, reportedly because of the US’s reservations. The summit urged the Taliban to join the peace process, but so far there has been no response from them. The other positive from the summit is that Kabul and Islamabad are both reiterating their commitment to mutual cooperation and coordination for management of the transition in Afghanistan that it is hoped will prevent the eruption of a civil war once the US/ISAF forces depart. These fears are not unrealistic, founded on apprehensions the Taliban may go for a final push to capture power once the western forces are gone, in the anticipation that the Afghan army and police will not be able to hold them off. However, given Pakistan’s support to the Taliban since their overthrow in 2001, the fact that this third summit has seen the presence of the Pakistani and Afghan army and intelligence chiefs speaks of a sea change in the attitude of the Pakistani military establishment that sees its main problem now as the homegrown Taliban threat, which they may be calculating can best be met by ensuring peace returns to Afghanistan under a power sharing arrangement between the incumbent Kabul government and the Taliban. President Zardari clearly underlined the impossibility of dividing peace in Afghanistan from peace at home, pointing to the dictates of geography and history between the two neighbours. All the positive noises emanating from London notwithstanding, it would take an incorrigible optimist to think that bringing peace to Afghanistan would be an easy enterprise, not to mention the highly ambitious timeline of six months. Nevertheless, all sides, including the Taliban, whose leader Mulla Omar has recently stated he would be agreeable to a power sharing arrangement in Kabul, are slowly inching towards the urgent need to put in place political arrangements through negotiations to prevent the slide into another civil war that may last decades, suck in neighbouring powers again in support of their respective proxies, and cause spillover instability in the region as a whole, particularly Pakistan. It should not be forgotten either that the peace dividend in Afghanistan would benefit the region entire, with Pakistan perhaps best placed geographically and geostrategically to take advantage of its unique position as the energy and trade corridor between the hinterland of Asia and the rest of the world. Of course there still appears many a slip between the cup and the lip, which indicates how far and high above their past policies all players and stakeholders will have to soar before the dream of peace and prosperity can be realised.
Friday, February 1, 2013
Israeli aggression on Syria Israel’s attack on Syria has ratcheted up tensions in the Levant and threatens the outbreak of war. The Israelis claim their jets struck a convoy of weapons, particularly SAM-7 missiles, for Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could erode Israel’s vaunted air superiority. Syria on the other hand has said the attack was on a military research centre that was destroyed. Reports speak of possibly both events having taken place, with the Syrian opposition claiming it attacked the Jamraya military site. Whatever the truth of these claims and counter-claims, the fact remains that whichever target the Israelis struck, they are guilty of a blatant act of aggression, something Israel’s track record proves they have never shrunk from. Clearly, the Israelis are not only trying to take advantage of Syria’s current difficulties, their actions and statements, as those of the Syrian opposition, have clearly established the truth of Bashar al-Assad’s claim that the agenda of the opposition and Israel are the same. Assad has been saying since the uprising against the Ba’ath Party regime began that the opposition to his rule is a foreign-backed, Islamist terrorist movement. Objective observers will be persuaded now perhaps that there is weight in Assad’s observation. While condemnations of the Israeli raid have come from Hezbollah, Russia and Iran, Pakistan has maintained a ‘diplomatic’ silence. This is despite the fact that Pakistan currently chairs the UN Security Council, which has received a formal complaint from Syria regarding the Israeli aggression. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei has reiterated his solidarity with Syria by saying any attack on that country is an attack on Iran. Our silence is therefore all the more shameful. Israel remains a rogue state unrestrained by international law because of its blind support, right or wrong, from the US-led western countries. Once again, Israel is provoking tension and war in the Middle East. It is pertinent to remind ourselves that this kind of action in Syria is by no means the first by Israel. In 2007 it struck a suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and in 1981 destroyed Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Syria is being attacked from within by the Islamist-oriented opposition (including elements allied with al Qaeda, ironically) and without by Israel backed by the west. The reasons for this unwanted attention are not hard to understand. Syria has been the most consistent member of the resistance front against Israel in the Arab world. Even when the Palestinians attempted to make peace with Israel, a project that is virtually dead in the water by now, Syria led a Rejectionist Front of Arab countries that had not sold out to Israel and the west, along with Palestinian groups that dissented from the ‘peace’ thrust. If Syria therefore has proved a canker in the side of western capitals and Tel Aviv, recall the fate of Gaddafi who in his later years attempted to normalise relations with the west, with which he had been at loggerheads for decades. That initiative did not spare him or his regime. The only difference between him and Assad is that the latter has been more consistent, even it meant being deprived of Syrian territory in the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Once the west had ‘conquered’ Libya, they turned their grubby paws towards Syria, relying on what was by now established practice of backing armed opposition groups, irrespective of their credentials or leanings, which, to repeat, include al Qaeda affiliated groups in both Libya and Syria. If anyone is under the illusion that the Israeli raid is a one-off affair, they need to think again. The orchestrated campaign on the issue of alleged chemical weapons Syria is developing and may deploy against its opposition may well be a prelude to, and preparing the ground for, more attacks on Syria, which would not only establish the nexus between the opposition and Israel and the west, it may also threaten the outbreak of war once again in the Middle East. The Syrian warning that it may spring a “surprise” response to the Israeli blatant aggression should not be taken lightly. Will Pakistan use its current rotating presidentship of the UN Security Council to come to the aid and succour of Syria, or will it remain shamefully supine and kow towing to the west?