Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 31, 2013

Hamlet sans the Prince of Denmark In London for the World Islamic Forum, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif said in an interview with a TV channel that he wants the Taliban to join the peace talks his government has offered as a solution to the terrorism afflicting Pakistan. The PM claimed that whenever there is progress in this endeavour, an unfortunate incident takes place, setting back the process. He went on to reiterate that his government is serious about a negotiated settlement with the militants, and desires peace not only in Pakistan but also in the region. The PM said Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has been tasked with pursuit of the talks. Nawaz Sharif would like to include all stakeholders in the talks process, amongst whom he also counts the Taliban. The latter, he argued, should become part of the political process. Back home Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said during an address to the 99th National Management Course for senior officers in Islamabad that talks with the Taliban would begin soon as all the homework has been completed in consultation with all the stakeholders. It may be recalled that before his departure for London, Nawaz Sharif had asked Chaudhry Nisar to take all the political parties into the loop regarding progress in the effort to start the talks process with the Taliban. Since there is no word on whether the speculations in the media regarding some tentative contacts with the Taliban are true and bearing fruit, one can only assume for the moment that the interior minister was talking about only the political parties. Scepticism is rife in Pakistan about the lack of visible progress in the talks initiative. Until and unless the government feels confident of revealing some details that may be sensitive and run the risk of aborting whatever ‘contacts’ may or may not be in the works, there is no telling how much worth there is in the claim of ‘homework’. Chaudhry Nisar also took advantage of the occasion to reiterate his pet project of a joint intelligence directorate that would bring under one roof all the intelligence agencies. Here too, not much visible ‘homework is to be had. Chaudhry Nisar dropped the bombshell that the stillborn National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) would be revived (from its present moribund state) as a major counterterrorism authority in the country. One can only wait and hope. Last but not least, the interior minister trotted out the rapid response force his government plans, complete with an air wing to meet any terrorist emergency. There are a number of problems with the formulations of the PM. First and foremost, his inclusion of the Taliban amongst the ‘stakeholders’ beggars the imagination. How terrorists who threaten the very existence of the state or at the least the democratic political system Pakistan has achieved after much struggle and sacrifice can be described thus is beyond understanding. Second, the government has so far failed to clarify who it will be talking to amongst the plethora of groups describing themselves as ‘Taliban’. It is not clear that there is any one major group amongst them, e.g. the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), with whom negotiations could be held with the hope that whatever agreements are arrived at would be accepted by the other groups under the umbrella of the TTP or whether the TTP could persuade them to go along with those agreements. Not only is there confusion on the government’s side about who would be at the other end of the negotiations table, the government appears divided between its desire to achieve a peaceful solution through talks and its guarded posture that if the talks fail, force may become inescapable. The other ‘stakeholders’, i.e. the political parties, are divided too about the best way forward and what should be the outcome. Last but not least, the Taliban have so far given no indication that they would abandon what they see as a win-win situation for them on the ground and don their negotiation hats. Given all these questions and uncertainties, and the absence of a negotiating partner so far at the other end of the table, the government’s talks initiative seems more and more like playing Hamlet sans the Prince of Denmark.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 29, 2013

Missing persons long march It is difficult not to feel stirrings of sympathy for Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, the Chief Minister (CM) of Balochistan. In his foray the other day to the Karachi Press Club, he was nothing if not candid. First and foremost, he admitted up front that he and his government had failed to resolve the issue of missing persons that has bedevilled the province for years. Although he asserted in one breath that the law and order and security situation in Balochistan had improved since he took over, the next moment he confessed the difficulties in the way of bringing peace and reconciliation to the troubled province. When questioned about contacts or talks with the Baloch nationalist insurgents, Dr Malik tried to put the best possible face on it by stating that his government was trying to find a ‘constitutional’ solution to the conundrum. Presumably what he meant was a negotiated settlement of the conflict without conceding the demand for separation. To create what he called the mechanism for contacts with the Baloch nationalist insurgents in the mountains and those in exile, his government has proposed a provincial All Parties Conference in December to deliberate upon the ways and means to achieve at least an opening to the aggrieved and angry dissidents in the separatist camp. Dr Malik’s small space for manoeuvre however, was exposed in his statement that until such time that the police and Levies in Balochistan were strengthened to take over security and law and order duties, reliance on the Frontier Corps (FC) would have to continue. Given how controversial the FC has become over the years in Balochistan, particularly with reference to the notorious alleged ‘kill and dump’ policy, there is a logical flaw in the CM’s argument. So long as the FC is deployed, and given that the government elected this year seems so far helpless to control the incidence of such incidents, one fails to see how the FC could be taken out of the equation. Rather, its posture and actions suggest the FC will be difficult to remove or replace for the foreseeable future. That cuts the ground from under the ground of the well-meaning CM. High hopes were attached after the May 2013 elections that the coming to power of a middle class Baloch moderate nationalist like Dr Malik offered the best hope in years of promoting a negotiated settlement and peace in Balochistan. Four months down the road, that appears a virtually lost cause, not the least because in practice the CM seems unable to rein in even the more objectionable parts of the FC’s campaign against nationalist dissidents. The CM has proved equally helpless when it comes to meeting the challenges of the earthquake-hit victims in Awaran. Whatever the provincial government, the military/FC and the National and Provincial Disaster Management Authorities have managed, and it could be conceded that their efforts are not inconsiderable, nevertheless they fall far short of the requirement, as Dr Malik himself has repeatedly said. Nevertheless, his appeals to the federal government to either do what is required itself or allow international aid agencies to come in and help have fallen on deaf ears. Meanwhile persistent reports from the remote earthquake zones speak of immense deprivation and a humanitarian crisis, the claims of the authorities to have adequately met the emergency notwithstanding. To add poignancy to Dr Malik’s confession that he has been unable to do much about the missing persons conundrum, a brave group of men, women and children of the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons has undertaken an arduous long march from Quetta to Karachi to highlight the lack of progress on recovery of missing persons in Balochistan, despite the efforts, amongst others, of no less than the Supreme Court. Of course, the difference between the journey of the CM to Karachi and that of the relatives of the missing persons agitating for the return of their loved ones since 2009 is that the latter are making the trek on foot, for 12 hours a day, resting wherever they find themselves at nightfall. Even the most hardened heart must feel for these unfortunate people, whose misery and grief knows no bounds and has seen no relief despite their best efforts. Neither Pakistani nor international human rights organizations have taken up this cause with the persistence it demands, occasional nods in its direction notwithstanding. Without a cessation of tortured dead bodies of nationalists turning up all over Balochistan and increasingly in Karachi, whatever hopes resided in a political reconciliation in Balochistan through Dr Malik and company seem ordained to end in failure. That implies a continuation, and perhaps worsening, of what Dr Malik described as troubles confined to a few districts. How long such complacency can hold the field is a moot point.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Daily Times editorial Oct 28, 2013

Saving Pakistan Soon after returning from Washington, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has written a letter to all the political parties setting out the rationale for the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance 2013 and asking for their support in getting it passed by parliament. Making reference to the “spirit and determination” displayed by all the political parties during the All Parties Conference (APC), the PM appealed to them to read the Ordinance carefully and support its passage. The PM’s letter argues that decades of dictatorship and misgovernance by successive governments are the factors responsible for the complete erosion of the writ and authority of the state. Apart from remote areas, the PM points to the safe havens for terrorists in urban areas that have emerged over the years and are a matter of serious concern. At the same time, he has taken the Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) to task for their failure to maintain internal security and effectively prosecute criminals. Ineffective legislation has fed into this conundrum, while constant tampering with different laws over an extended period of time has led to a legal vacuum. This has produced a situation where the lives and properties of the people are in grave danger. On the other hand organized mafias are running free. As a result of all these negative developments, the socioeconomic fabric and age-old value system that bind society are in danger of disintegration. The Ordinance, the PM asserts, sends a strong message to organized crime and anti-state elements regarding the will and determination of the state and people to face and eliminate all challenges to the country’s sovereignty and integrity. The PM goes on to remind the political parties that they have been elected by the people to rid the country of the menace of terrorism that has inflicted such enormous losses since the adoption of the post-9/11 policies. He also reminded them of the potential unfolding events in post-2014 Afghanistan. Last but not least, the PM argued that expert opinion had been consulted to ensure the Ordinance was within the parameters of the constitution. Whatever the merits of the PM’s iteration of the scenario bedevilling the country, its reasons and the solution his government thinks offers the best shot for overcoming the present afflictions, and there is weight in his analysis, it is obvious that the PM is reaching out to the parties to ensure the passage of the Ordinance in parliament since the ruling PML-N does not enjoy a majority in the Senate. Without the support of the parties in the upper house, and particularly the opposition, therefore, no legislation can pass. That may be the obvious procedural compulsion for the PML-N to take all the parties with it on legislation that seeks in extraordinary times to put in place powers for the LEAs and judiciary to deal in extraordinary fashion if need be with the existential threat to the country posed by terrorism and the deleterious effects of the breakdown of law and order at the hands of criminal mafias determined to take advantage of the disturbed conditions. The PPP has rejected the Ordinance on the touchstone of fundamental and human rights and it also faces a legal challenge in the Islamabad High Court. This underlines the need for cooperation from all the parties or at least enough of them to allow passage of the Ordinance. As to the PM’s argument that the Ordinance remains within the four corners of the constitution, there is little doubt that the supreme law of the land does envisage extraordinary measures to meet unusual emergencies and contingencies. The moment the civil armed forces are called in by the government, as the Ordinance envisages, and empowered to deal with terrorism on a ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ basis, not to mention searching premises on the basis of suspicion even without a search warrant and disallowing bail to suspects under interrogation, fundamental rights stand suspended. This can be tolerated in situations that threaten the very existence of the state, as arguably the present scenario does, and the hope is that this dispensation will not be misused or extended beyond the exigencies defined above. The PM has also attempted to meet the criticism by Leader of the Opposition, the PPP’s Khursheed Shah, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government regarding the seeming lack of progress on the talks with the Taliban by tasking Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar with keeping all parties in the loop on this issue, in line with the mandate the government received from the APC. Both the letter on the Ordinance and the directive to Chaudhry Nisar reflect the PM’s correct approach of taking the political forces along in tackling the grave crisis facing the country.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 26, 2013

Droning unlikely to stop The atmospherics of the meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and US President Barack Obama in Washington appeared very positive. According to the prime minister, while talking to reporters in London on his way back to the country, the Pakistan side had talked to the Americans on all issues. He said it was time to come out of the duplicity and hypocrisy of the past. This remark has significance given the revelations in a Washington Post story that successive Pakistani governments had privately been in the know about the US drones programme and even approved it, while publicly condemning the strikes to pander to domestic opinion. The assertion is neither new nor devoid of substance. Ex-president Musharraf admitted in a television interview in April this year that he had given verbal approval to the drone strikes. Ex-US ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson's diplomatic cable in August 2008, later leaked by Wikileaks, too confirmed this. Ex-premier Yousaf Raza Gilani and other top officials have attempted to deny this, but there is too much weight of evidence to simply wish it away. It should not be forgotten that at one point, Shamsi airbase in Balochistan had been used for drone flights. The foreign office spokesman has tried to put the best possible face on the issue by saying whatever past implicit agreements may have existed on the issue, the present government neither subscribes to them nor is willing to retreat from its stand that the drone strikes violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and are counterproductive. The prime minister has sounded optimistic that the drone strikes issue will be settled soon, although there is the opposite sense emanating from Washington. Nawaz Sharif may be playing to the domestic gallery on this matter as well as on his hopes for the US’s intercession with India on Kashmir and improving relations. Washington has made reassuring noises on both, but is unlikely to do more. The positives of the visit are the fact that it took place at all, both sides committed to understanding each other’s concerns and addressing them, and on the energy and economic front, the news seems positive. Nawaz Sharif may also be able to draw some comfort from the US State Department's statement that Washington supports his policy of talking to the Pakistani Taliban to resolve the terrorism issue. The State Department has expressed its good wishes for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ascension to power as presenting a “renewed” opportunity to discuss the continued key bilateral relationship between the two countries and went on to assert that his visit was marked by “warmth, breadth and honesty in fulsome discussions”. The State Department reiterated the US’s commitment to substantial economic and security assistance as Pakistan continues to pursue the objectives of curbing militancy and terrorism and peace and stability for the region. So far so good. The areas of convergence between Washington and Islamabad are clear, as are the actual or potential areas of divergence. In the former, despite the prime minister’s assertions in Washington that he came looking not for aid but trade, aid still forms the critical matrix for the relationship, as in the past. US investment in energy and the economy would seal ties on the foundation of shared economic interests while lifting Pakistan out of its crippling energy shortage and struggling economy. On the rest, though, there are too many variables at play to conclude much except to point to the problem areas. Afghanistan still looms large between the allies, the withdrawal and subsequent situation causing everyone to burn the midnight oil or even perhaps gaze into their crystal balls. On it depends not only the future of Afghanistan, but also the chances of Pakistan overcoming terrorism and taking advantage of the subsequent peace dividend and its concomitant economic benefits. At the risk, therefore, of sounding too didactic, all eyes are still fixed on Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 25, 2013

How ‘fresh’ a start? Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has completed his visit to Washington where he met US President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and other top officials. These interactions ran true to an already familiar script. Both sides essentially restated their known positions. To that extent, there were no surprises and certainly hopes of any breakthrough were almost non-existent. In their joint news conference and the joint statement issued at the end of the meeting with the US President, it became clearer what the dialogue covered. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as anticipated, raised the issues of a cessation of drone strikes, improvement of relations with India, including a request to the US to help resolve Kashmir, Pakistan’s energy crisis, US investment in Pakistan and the Dr Aafia Siddiqui release conundrum. Obama on the other hand concentrated on punishment of the Mumbai attackers, restricting the activities of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the release of Dr Shakil Afridi. Although these sets of demands seem to suggest both sides were talking ‘past’ each other, and even implicitly if not explicitly agreeing to disagree, what must not be lost sight of is the emerging context of the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan next year and the need therefore to reframe the long term relationship between Washington and Islamabad. In that respect, the interaction proved long on rhetoric and short, at least in terms of detail, on concrete outcomes. Both sides iterated their commitment to a long term mutually beneficial relationship, an aim that includes a solution for Afghanistan post-2014 that would not only be good for Afghanistan, according to Obama, but also ensure Pakistan would not suffer any adverse fallout in the long run. In other words, any lingering apprehensions in Islamabad regarding a repeat of the post-1989 ‘abandonment’ of Pakistan and the region may have been laid to rest. That may bring some modicum of comfort to Pakistan, but on the immediate issues, the results were mixed. On drones, for example, the US President made no commitment. It is another matter that Washington is far more sensitive now than in the past to the rising concern in Pakistan (and internationally) regarding the drone attacks and that in itself, combined with the impending withdrawal, may result in a dwindling incrementally of such attacks and their possible cessation after 2014. But even that is still far from a certainty, and no bets can be laid at this juncture. Ritual references by the US side to “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Pakistan will remain just that, diplomatese, until this becomes a reality on the ground. No ‘exchange’ of Aafia Siddiqui for Shakil Afridi appears imminent, nor is the US about to tread uninvited (in fact resisted) by India into the long-standing Kashmir quagmire. While the positive words expressing mutual bonhomie should not have too much read into them, it is also undeniable that Washington has released, and is striving to further release, long stalled military and civilian aid for Pakistan. There are also bright chances that US investment and help in overcoming Pakistan's energy crisis are on the cards. The stalled Strategic Dialogue between the two sides is scheduled to restart in March 2014, led on the US side by John Kerry, widely perceived as a friend of Pakistan. It may seem a cliché to argue that states have their own interests and no one should have any illusions that a free lunch is available. However, the nitty gritty of the present interaction and those to follow should not blind us to the long term implications and requirements, for both sides, of a continuing and hopefully more meaningful than in just the Afghanistan perspective, mutually beneficial relationship that helps Pakistan to determine and take strides towards the kind of state and society it wishes to emerge as in the 21st century. The US sees the benefit in a stable, prosperous, democratic, modern Pakistan that takes its due place in the sun. How far it is prepared, and will continue to be prepared, to advance that goal is and will be the space to keep an eye on.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 22, 2013

Protection of Pakistan Ordinance The federal government has promulgated the second of two Ordinances in the last two weeks to strengthen the legal and practical framework to fight the terrorists and criminal elements torturing the country. The first Ordinance, promulgated on October 11, provided, inter alia, law enforcement agencies (LEAs) protection against prosecution while taking extreme but necessary steps against elements actually or suspected of planning to cause bodily or other harm. This protection was extended to firing at or ordering firing at such elements as a pre-emptive measure. Although this Ordinance, which amended the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, was widely viewed as pertinent to the Karachi operation underway, the second Ordinance seems to envisage a wider horizon than the southern metropolis. The thrust of the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance centres on establishing the writ of the state at any cost. This involves raising the minimum punishment under Part V of the constitution for terrorist or criminal acts to 10 years imprisonment. Incidents of terrorism would be jointly investigated by security organisations and the LEAs. Terrorists will be treated as enemies of the state. The Ordinance narrates the ordeal the people have been subjected to over decades. It says the people of Pakistan have been exposed to undeclared and thankless wars since 1979, causing enormous loss of lives (40,000 citizens, 4,000 soldiers since 2001), many people injured/disabled and uprooted, economic loss, downturn and crisis, and the complexities stemming from the presence on Pakistani soil of foreigners who, with local collaboration, have become arguably the greatest existential threat to state and society in Pakistan’s history. The Ordinance argues that extraordinary times require extraordinary dispensations. Hence it proposes protection within the ambit of the law and constitution to all civilian and paramilitary LEAs and includes a provision for the provincial governments to request federal help for law enforcement and anti-terrorist efforts. Special federal courts are envisaged for quicker disposal of cases as enjoined by Article 37 of the constitution, designated jails for hardened and dangerous criminals (and terrorists?), preventive detention for 90 days, searches of premises without search warrants and denial of bail to arrested suspects. In short, both Ordinances aim at a ‘get tough’ with terrorists and criminal mafias stance. This makes sense in the context of the widely held perception that the state’s writ and ability to recover it from terrorists and criminals have palpably declined and deteriorated over time because of neglect, lack of political will, and contradictory narratives and explanations for the growing lawlessness that effectively has rendered the state and its institutions responsible for security and law and order at least partially paralysed, seemingly helpless in the face of the assault from the ‘enemies of the state’, an assault showing signs of growing fiercer and more intense since the elections four months ago, not the least because the ‘negotiations’ stance of the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments has served to encourage and embolden the terrorists. The sooner the governments at the federal and provincial levels understand the nature of the threat Pakistan faces, the better for the country and its citizens. If the two Ordinances following each other in quick succession are a sign of at least the federal government having drawn the right conclusions from the ‘message’ the terrorists have delivered in response to the talks offer, i.e. pressing home a perceived advantage against a state and government riven by confusion and lack of will, it cannot be said to have arrived too early. The conundrum that presents itself is why the government is relying on Ordinances instead of getting legislation passed by parliament. One defence of the issue of Ordinances could be that the legislative process takes too long and the situation requires immediate steps, as the Ordinance too argues. The puzzling aspect is that the general perception of the government has been of its dragging its feet on the urgent steps required to meet the situation. Yet on these two Ordinances, it has moved with unusual dispatch. There is also the question of the shelf life of Ordinances, which normally require endorsement by parliament within 90 days. Does the government envisage an automatic smooth sailing for these Ordinances if and when they have to be produced and passed by parliament? If that happens, it would represent an all too rare consensus across the political class on the way forward, something that did not appear to be the case in the recent All Parties Conference, despite the appearance of unanimity. Pakistan’s terrorism and crime crisis requires the greatest attention with the greatest urgency, otherwise these and all the other problems afflicting us will drown our hopes for an escape from the mess we are in and progress towards a brighter future.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 21, 2013

Nawaz Sharif’s US visit Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s first formal interaction with the Obama administration is about to take place, starting with a meeting with the US President on October 23, along with meetings with top administration officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry. The two ostensible allies come together in a climate of improved relations after the horrible downturn in 2010 and 2011 over a host of issues that included the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the bombing that killed Pakistani troops on the Afghan border. The latter incident led to the closure of the US/NATO Ground Lines of Communication for seven months. Those logistics lines are once again open and Pakistan is being praised in Washington for efforts to control the manufacture of improvised explosive devices and the recent offensive in its tribal areas near the Afghan border against terrorists. The likely agenda, from the PM’s remarks in London before boarding his flight for Washington and reports in the media, will probably focus on four major areas: drone attacks, Afghanistan, the Pakistan economy/energy, and India Pakistan relations. On drone strikes, the PM has banged the sovereignty drum again, but it is not clear that Washington will be listening without earmuffs on. There are statements from US administration officials claiming drone strikes have already petered off, but this is such a grey and unverifiable area that it is difficult to assess the claims. Meanwhile Pakistan has confirmed to a UN human rights investigator that of the 2,200 people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 400 were civilians and another 200 may have been “non-combatants”. Most knowledgeable observers contend that this is probably an underestimation since the whole drone programme suffers from opaqueness and the areas hit are inaccessible to independent investigators. Pakistan argues that such collateral damage from drone strikes fuel militancy and terrorism, are therefore counter-productive, apart from the sovereignty and international law violation contention. Even if Washington takes the earmuffs off, it will likely counter by asking Pakistan how it intends to deal with its militant hotbeds on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. To that question, Nawaz Sharif may not be able to supply a convincing answer, even if the widespread perception that his government is drifting aimlessly on the issue four months after coming to power were untrue. A reduction, let alone a cessation of drone attacks will therefore remain contingent on Pakistan coming up with a credible plan or strategy for tackling its terrorist safe havens in the tribal areas on its western borders. Afghanistan post-2014 has the potential to pose new headaches as the US/NATO forces withdraw without the strategic pact between Washington and Kabul settled so far that would encompass residual US force levels and immunity from prosecution under Afghan law. Fears widely held by informed opinion centres on the possibility of a fresh civil war once the foreign forces depart, either in toto or all but a small residual presence. This scenario has the potential for repercussions for Pakistan too, given the notoriously porous western border. The Afghan imbroglio is further complicated by the rivalry between India and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. Their mutual relations, on the verge of a resurrection of the stalled composite dialogue, are once again fraught because of tensions on the Line of Control. Whether the US can play any role in easing these tensions and helping India and Pakistan to normalise their relations is an open question, since for many years New Delhi has been prickly about third party mediation, let alone intervention. The India-Pakistan-Afghanistan conundrum defies easy solution. PM Nawaz Sharif’s strong card may well be a call on Washington to help revive Pakistan’s economy and overcome its chronic energy crisis. One sign of better relations between Islamabad and Washington is the ‘quiet’ release of $ 1.6 billion in stalled military and economic aid. After Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s recent interactions in Washington with the IMF, World Bank and American business leaders, Nawaz Sharif will be hoping to attract US investment and other aid. The two countries are also expected to restart their stalled strategic dialogue to define (or redefine) their long-term bilateral relationship independent of Afghanistan. Since that conflict may not figure as prominently in the US’s calculus any more, Pakistan will lose the leverage of having the US over a barrel because of logistics. It remains to be seen how that redefinition will play out and how far it will go. On that outcome may hinge all the other areas discussed above.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 19, 2013

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s political launching In an emotion-laden speech at the sixth anniversary commemoration of the Karsaz, Karachi bomb attacks on late Benazir Bhutto’s procession, her son and political heir, Chairman of her PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari struck a combative note out of synch with the implicit political culture and code of behaviour that has characterised politics over the last five years. That culture of tolerance and by and large moderate expression when speaking of political rivals took root because the PPP under co-Chairperson former president Asif Ali Zardari followed the philosophy of Benazir Bhutto of reconciliation. This was reciprocated by the main opposition party, the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif, as well as other political parties. However, this reconciliatory approach, apart from other factors such as cronyism trumping merit under Zardari’s leadership and the attack on the previous government from various directions including state institutions such as the superior judiciary, could not prevent a debacle for the PPP in the 2013 elections. Arguably, it may even have contributed to it since the PPP government was perceived as taking ‘lying down’ all that was said and done against it. Now if the young Bilawal thinks it time to move away from the ‘softly, softly’ approach of his father and take the fight to his opponents, this speech may mark that turn away from his late mother’s conclusions towards the end of her life. Bilawal lashed out at three parties he obviously considers his main rivals: the PML-N, PTI and MQM. He issued a war call for ‘hunting the tiger (the PML-N election symbol) that slakes its hunger with the blood of the poor’. He trashed PTI’s Imran Khan as being “cowardly” in his approach to the terrorists, citing the apologia offered by him while standing outside the Christian church in Peshawar where worshippers were massacred by the fanatics. Regarding the MQM, he stated tongue in cheek that Karachi was still ruled from London (a swipe at Altaf Hussain). In contrast, he referred to the courage and sprit of sacrifice of the PPP leadership and its workers. The PML-N and MQM’s terse and brief response to Bilawal has been somewhat dismissive, alluding to the political ‘immaturity’ of what appears to be the formal launch of the latest Bhutto to enter the political fray. Bilawal has expressed his intention to run in the next (2018) elections, having attained legal age, or perhaps sooner through a by-election to get him into parliament. Bilawal’s vow to conduct a jihad against the extremists only serves as a reminder of the failure of the PPP government to effectively counter the terrorists while in power. Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon and others of the PPP have asserted that the Karsaz bomb attack site was ‘washed clean’ of evidence, much as the Liaquat Bagh site where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated was hosed down before any forensic investigation. While the claim about Karsaz is new, if true it would point to a pattern the Musharraf government adopted to cover up the crimes against Benazir and the PPP after her return, a cover up that reinforces suspicions about Musharraf’s role in these events. However, while the PPP complaints of a cover up have weight, its own efforts to uncover the conspiracy that took Benazir’s life while in power over the last five years were, to put it politely, inadequate. Bilawal’s targeted parties, the PML-N and MQM, in their riposte to him have taunted him and his party for their inability to bring the murderers of his mother to justice despite being in power for five years. The PPP’s crisis and dilemma rests on its efforts since the 1990s to reinvent itself, no longer as the party wedded to a radical change in favour of the poor and the people in general, but as a centrist ‘garden variety’ party acceptable to the establishment. While Benazir Bhutto had the charisma and political savvy to pull off this trick to some extent, her husband and successor lacked in these departments. The party ended up falling between two stools, its past and its present, with disastrous consequences. One reflection of that fate is how the 2013 elections have seen the only remaining all-country party being reduced to a provincial rump, much in line with how all other parties in the political spectrum now appear. Bilawal spoke with pride about the PPP’s jiyalas (committed workers), but these poor souls never even got a look in at the leadership of the party under Mr Zardari. It is a great challenge for the young leader of the party to resurrect the spirit of the PPP’s workers to reset the party on the path of revival and a better future.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Kayani’s legacy Outgoing COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, in what could be his last appearance in uniform in the public space, delivered what some consider a delineation of his legacy in a speech to the passing out parade at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. General Kayani’s remarks revolve around three main themes. First, General Kayani underlined the need for civilian-military relations to overcome the trust deficit. Second, in a parallel thesis, General Kayani spoke of the need for state institutions to continue the process of confidence building that has been started on his watch. Third, General Kayani weighed in on the issue of talks with the Taliban by reiterating that the army would be more than happy to see peace restored through dialogue. However, he went on to underline that this should not be interpreted, as some are wont to do, that the option of dialogue was being resorted to because of the failure of military operations against the terrorists. The COAS reminded his audience of the successes the military had achieved against the militants in Swat, South Waziristan and other FATA Agencies. The army, he said, was more than prepared to take on the task of combating the terrorists should the dialogue option fail. While the use of force was described by him as the last resort, he felt the talks must proceed within the ambit of the constitution and help to unite, not divide the country. Last but not least, the COAS asserted that the “painful history” of military interventions had been left behind. On this last point, on the same day, while addressing the Daska Bar Association, the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry expressed his optimism that an awake lawyers community, civil and political society would ensure that no dictator in future would be able to abrogate the constitution and derail democracy. Interestingly, in this context it is worth noting that amidst the to and fro developments in the cases against former president Musharraf, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has stated categorically in a press conference that the probe into the treason case against the former military strongman under Article 6 regarding the imposition of emergency on November 3, 2007 would be completed within six weeks, implying that he would then be proceeded against, having been placed on the exit control list, where his name remains. On the one hand, it is a matter worth celebrating that a consensus now reigns supreme over the opposition to military adventurism, the “painful history” the COAS referred to. General Kayani, having served for six years as the COAS, is lauded for his support to the civilian elected governments of the past five years and the new government that is barely four months old. Based on this track record, General Kayani has advised his successor/s to continue on the path of supporting democracy, which he described as the foundational principle and zeitgeist of the creation of Pakistan, and the guarantee of its healthy development in the future. That having been said, experience suggests Pakistanis should not rest sanguine about the imbalance in power and influence between the civilian and military sides of state structures. The challenges before any government, the present one or future ones, are huge, and may be boiled down to three intertwined issues: terrorism, energy, and the economy. The body language of the new elected leadership presents a startling contrast with their confident demeanour and tall claims of a quick fix to these three areas of governance. After coming into office, the PML-N leadership appears to have been considerably sobered by the real gravity and seriousness of the crisis facing the country. While they still seem to be floundering between talks or the use of force against the terrorists, their tall claims during the election campaign of overcoming load shedding and the energy crisis within months have sunk without a trace and their economic management so far seems predicated on passing the burden of the crisis onto the already stooping shoulders of the masses, without any attempt to balance the painful medicine required to be administered to get the economy going with softening the blow for the people. On the other hand, true to public perception, it seems the new government is treading the familiar path of concessions to and reliance on the business community to pull Pakistan’s chestnuts out of the fire. The worrying thought is that if the PPP arguably stands relegated to a provincial party and Imran Khan is still considered a tyro in governance, if the present dispensation also fails over its tenure of the next five years to rescue Pakistan’s state and society from the morass of problems, once again a vacuum of leadership at the heart of Pakistani politics may open up, with serious repercussions for democracy and the political advances associated with its restoration.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Naeem Tahir in his new avatar - Preface to Vol II of his forthcoming collection of columns for Daily Times

Preface Naeem Tahir in his new avatar Rashed Rahman Editor Daily Times To my and previous generations of Pakistanis, Naeem Tahir needs no introduction, although I am not equally confident of succeeding generations’ ‘memory’. So just in case, let me summarise. Naeem Tahir has been a central figure in the cultural life of Pakistan, stretching back to the 1950s, a period from which I too can trace his association with my family. When a pioneering group of intellectuals comprising Imtiaz Ali Taj, Mumtaz Daultana, Abdur Rehman Chughtai and my late father, Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice S. A. Rahman decided to set up Alhamra in Lahore in 1949 as an arts centre (currently called the Lahore Arts Council but popularly still remembered as Alhamra), they paved the way for succeeding generations of arts practitioners to enrich the cultural life of the city and the country, amongst whom Naeem Tahir’s contributions over the decades to stage, radio, television and film as an actor, producer, director and trainer deserve pride of place. Little did I know that I was destined to play a small part in helping Naeem Tahir, who was a familiar figure to me and my siblings when we were growing up, to emerge in yet another avatar – a newspaper columnist. Given his rich record in the cultural field (and subsequently his success as a businessman), it seemed to my ever curious mind given to new and interesting departures that the readers of Daily Times may have a lot to learn from Naeem Tahir’s rich and varied life experience. I therefore took opportunistic advantage of Naeem Tahir’s visit to me not long after I took over as Editor, Daily Times, to invite him to write for us. Normally I would have been expected to suggest that he focus on cultural themes given his background, but I am always reluctant to confine writers to one or a few fields. I therefore gave him carte blanche to range over a universal array of subjects, following wherever the muse may take him. The book in your hand is the second volume of a collection of Naeem Tahir’s columns published in Daily Times. The first volume, published in 2011, covered his contributions from the beginning, March 2010, till May 2011. The present volume takes up from where the previous one left off, and brings the collection up to date by covering the period June 2011 to September 2013. There is little cause for alarm on the part of his readers though. Naeem Tahir’s association with Daily Times remains an ongoing enterprise. As to the content of his writings, it is difficult always to find an overarching or underlying thread in a collection of weekly columns, inherently an exercise focused on the ‘here and now’, or what is conventionally referred to as current issues. Only writers with an ‘institutional memory’ of the country’s history, trajectory, and therefore problems can be expected to do justice to inherently complex issues that defy easy and superficial attempts at a solution. To this task, Naeem Tahir brings a richly varied palette capable of painting in vivid colours the lay of the land and the horizon beyond the obvious. The spread of his columns encompasses the most pertinent and serious problems confronting Pakistan as well as nooks and crannies obscured from the general public’s view. He plunges into the crises confronting the country, amongst which must be counted, first and foremost, terrorism and the extremist mindset that is the sworn enemy of an enlightened, educated, cultured and civilised society. Our past claims to such a description can only be characterised today as at best a distant memory. Traversing this intellectual and cultural desert, Naeem Tahir’s pieces are evocative of and testimony to all that we have lost as a society. Amidst this painful journey, he takes on all that is wrong with our governance, growing intolerance, cultural withering and a descent into an abyss of chaos. None of this will be unfamiliar to readers, but what marks Naeem Tahir out from the doom and gloom tribe (whose numbers grow exponentially by the day) is his optimism, belief in the future of the country, and determination to play his role as a tribune of the people and their rights. And as noted above, this project is far from finished. I can only wish Naeem Tahir more power to his elbow, a continuing relationship with Daily Times and its readers, and good health and long life to persevere on the path taken.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A legend passes on Vietnam appropriately announced on Saturday that a national funeral, which is the highest honour, higher even than a state funeral, would be held for the legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap, who died aged 102 on Friday. The independence hero’s body would lie in state at the national funeral house in Hanoi on October 12 before being buried the next day. The Central Committee of the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party has decided to declare two days of national mourning for the revolutionary icon, during which the national flag will fly at half-mast from October 11-13. The news of the General’s death on Friday evoked an outpouring of grief and tributes online. General Giap will be interred in his native Quang Binh province. He is survived by his wife and four children. Anyone old enough to remember the Vietnam war cannot have escaped the reverence and awe the General was held in by his supporters and enemies respectively. Starting life as a history teacher, Giap was soon imbued with nationalist sentiment sweeping his country and the world at the turn of the twentieth century. He soon gravitated towards Marxism, and forged one of the most remarkable partnerships in revolutionary struggle with the great Ho Chi Minh, the leader and ultimate hero of Vietnam’s long road to freedom. Giap was self-taught in military matters, but was later to prove how much more brilliant that self-education was than anything any military academy anywhere could offer. Nationalist ferment in French-ruled Indochina (comprising Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) combined with the Marxist revolutionary doctrine Ho Chi Minh imbibed in his time in Europe and later the Soviet Union. Upon his return, he and other Marxists who later attained leadership positions and fame during Vietnam’s struggle for independence secretly founded the Indochinese Communist Party in Hong Kong1930, the forerunner of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The Party decided to prepare for and launch a guerrilla struggle against French colonial rule, an Enterprise that had barely got going by the time WW II broke out in 1939. The French having been badly defeated on home soil by Hitler’s invasion in 1940, partially retreated from former colonial possessions. The ‘vacuum’ thus created allowed the Japanese to conquer most of South East Asia, including Indochina. The struggle now became transformed into guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers. By the time the Axis powers were finally defeated in 1945, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrilla army set up by Giap were in a position to declare the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi. The French colonialists, now revived and backed by the US, attempted to reconquer Indochina. Giap’s brilliant strategy and tactics, culminating in the historic defeat of the French in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 proved the death knell of French rule. The following conference in Geneva decided the two warring sides would disengage by the Viet Minh retreating north and the French leaving through the south. A ‘temporary’ demilitarized zone was drawn midway up the country to allow this disengagement, with elections to follow countrywide by 1956 to reunify the country. However, Washington’s holy crusade against communism persuaded it to tear up the Geneva Accords and sucked it incrementally into a fresh war in Vietnam, which only ended with the ignominious defeat of the superpower on April 30, 1975, when Saigon, the South’s capital, finally fell to the advancing forces of General Giap. Thus ended one of the most extraordinary struggles for independence in world history, a feat that took no less than 45 years and provided inspiration to generations of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist fighters worldwide. There are few figures in the twentieth century to compare with the extraordinary achievements of General Giap. The defeat of two of the mightiest western powers of their time is an unprecedented and unmatched feat. Unfortunately, despite his iconic status and popularity, General Giap and his generation of revolutionaries did not fit into the new zeitgeist of the country’s increasingly pragmatic leadership which, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the socialist bloc, trimmed its sails to the exigencies of cohabiting with an overwhelmingly capitalist world in which only three countries survived as socialist countries: Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. By 1991 (the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse), Giap had officially retired from politics, having been eased out by powerful enemies (possibly jealous of his success and popularity) from the Politburo of the Party a decade earlier. Nevertheless, only Ho Chi Minh enjoys a stature above the independence struggle hero that was General Vo Nguyen Giap in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes of Vietnam, a status nothing, not even his later life political marginalization, can ever change. Rest in peace, General, a salute to your memory.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Daily Times Editorial Oct 6, 2013

Ignominious retreat Under pressure from the Supreme Court (SC), the government had little option but to withdraw its September 30 notification regarding the massive increase in the electricity tariff. While withdrawing the notification that had been declared by the SC as illegal, beyond the purview of the government, and which should rightfully have been left to the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) to issue, the government has now requested NEPRA to review the tariff of the distribution companies and KESC. During the proceedings, the three-member bench headed by Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry took not just the government, but also its Minister for Water and Power Khwaja Mohammad Asif and NEPRA Chairman Khwaja Naeem to task. The minister was embarrassed by being reminded by the CJ that he had argued during the rental power case before the SC that the federal government has no authority to influence the decisions of NEPRA. The CJ then went on to ask him why he was giving up his earlier stance. Khwaja Asif was only let off the hook once Attorney General Muneer Malik confirmed that the September 30 notification was indeed being withdrawn. NEPRA's Khwaja invited the wrath of the court when he tried to plead the case of the government, arguing that since it had already determined the tariff and bills according to the raised rates had been sent out to consumers, the decision should be allowed to stand. The CJ was severe on Khwaja Naeeem, questioning whether he was holding a government brief. During the proceedings, Justice Jawwad Khwaja once again raised the issue of the failure of the government to collect outstanding bills of Rs 441 billion, choosing instead to further burden honest bill payers through increased tariffs. Justice Khwaja termed this nothing less than exploitation under Articles 3, 14 and 24 of the constitution. Now while the wound is self-inflicted because of a surprising ‘memory lapse’ on the part of Khwaja Asif regarding the proper method, body, procedure for notifying tariffs, and the government has retreated before the correct focusing of the SC on the illegality involved, this should not be read as meaning that the government has abandoned its plan to increase tariffs. Khwaja Asif is trying to frighten the public by warning that the NEPRA review will mean even higher tariffs, while some analysts think this is a smokescreen for the government’s real intent to get NEPRA to do its ‘dirty’ work for it by re-notifying the same increases. Meantime the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) has, in the name of filling the gap of General Sales Tax (GST) not being collected on over 40 items at the dealers, distributors and wholesalers’ stage of the supply chain, decided (reportedly in collaboration with the manufacturers) to raise the rate of GST at the manufacturing stage by 2 percent to 19 percent. This, according to reports, is because the manufacturers expressed their inability to print the retail price on all products, which would then have formed the basis for GST at the retail and intermediate stages of the supply chain. The manufacturers further argue that they cannot print a retail price that applies to the whole country since retail prices vary from market to market due to a variety of reasons. So now, as a result of the new move, the manufacturers will pay 19 percent GST; the intermediate and retail stages will pay nothing; documentation of the economy that could have been helped by the printing of retail prices on all products will suffer one more big setback; and the consumer will no doubt be subjected to higher prices on the excuse that GST has ‘gone up’ by 2 percent. This end result is foreseeable, judging by how the markets usually respond to such steps. All the ‘sophisticated’ arguments of the FBR regarding the measure not amounting to any new taxation cannot hide the ugly reality that price rises can be expected for all the listed items and a sympathetic rise in all products across the board. This will be one more ‘gift’ of the government to the masses groaning under backbreaking inflation, not to mention unemployment, law and order and terrorism. The government’s economic policy thrust seems focused on passing the burden of the economic crisis onto the shoulders of the already suffering masses. This may help the government and its business friends in the short term, but it has serious implications for the former in political terms.