Friday, January 31, 2014
PM’s Balochistan yatra On his first visit to the troubled province of Balochistan since taking office, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif called for a civil-military joint strategy to resolve the problems of the province and ensure a durable peace. After briefings from top officers, the PM praised the commendable role of the security forces in attempting to secure peace and tranquillity. On a parallel track, the PM talked about accelerating the development programme of the province to ensure jobs for disgruntled youth. In this context he mentioned the Gwadar-Rato Dero and Khuzdar-Naag highways, for which Rs 8 billion has been allocated by the federal government, and the Kalat-Chaman highway for which Rs 10 billion have been set aside. The provinces, the PM added, would be given 90 percent of the revenue earned from the highways. These projects would have a positive impact on the economic development of the province and also provide jobs for the youth. The government, the PM revealed, was planning to overcome the power shortage by providing solar-based energy in rural and far-flung areas. This makes eminent sense and is long overdue, especially in underdeveloped provinces like Balochistan, where the relatively small population tends to be scattered over a vast area. The per capita cost of extending the national grid to these scattered and sparsely populated communities is prohibitive. Solar energy could fill the gap at an affordable cost. Nawaz Sharif also referred to his Pakistan Youth Business Loan Programme, intended to encourage entrepreneurship amongst the youth. He reiterated that its funds allocated for one province would not be transferred to any other province. The PM underlined his government’s determination to deal with terrorism and sectarianism, which have had the province in their grip for years. Expressing the country’s solidarity with the unfortunate Shia Hazara community that has been under horrific attack the last two years in particular, Nawaz Sharif announced that Shia pilgrims travelling to or from Iran would be facilitated through special flights to be operated by PIA. That would obviously put an end to the spate of attacks on pilgrims on the route, of which the latest one was not long ago. COAS General Raheel Sharif, who was accompanying the PM, visited the Combat Training Area in Quetta Cantonment where the army’s training programme for Balochistan’s police and constabulary are in progress. Apart from training, the army had provided 5,000 weapons and 500,000 rounds of ammunition to the Balochistan police in 2013. The COAS emphasised the army’s continuing commitment to providing equipment and training to raise the capacity of the local law enforcement agencies. Perhaps fresh from his creation of a committee of mediators to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, the PM decided the effort needed to be replicated in Balochistan to talk to the nationalist insurgents. Although the committee has not yet been announced, a great deal will depend on its composition, given the complicated and long standing problems of Balochistan. The mediators would have to be first and foremost acceptable to and carry credibility with the insurgents if the process is to have any chance of taking off. The approach of the authorities to the insurgency so far has exclusively relied on force. This has created new sets of problems, amongst which the missing persons issue has of late resonated throughout the country and even in the Supreme Court. The Frontier Corps (FC) stands accused of being responsible for what is called the ‘kill and dump’ policy, reflected in the crop of dead bodies that appear to have been badly tortured and mutilated turning up all over the province. Rightly or wrongly, this is a cause of further alienation and anger in the province. To illustrate the grave nature of the problem, the discovery of mass graves recently in Khuzdar has once again brought the issue into the limelight. Part of the problem stems from the fact, as admitted by the Balochistan government before the Supreme Court the other day, that the provincial government has no control over the FC. This creates the anomaly or contradiction that while the elected government is charged with managing the political aspects of the province’s problems, their best intentioned efforts cannot bear fruit in the face of dead bodies continuing to turn up. One hope is that with the enhanced training and equipping of the police and constabulary, they may incrementally be in a position to take up law and order and security duties, thereby relieving the FC of this onerous task and allowing the paramilitary force to be re-deployed back where it originally belongs: guarding the border areas. Collaterally, the removal of the FC will be a major initiative to improve the political climate in Balochistan and give the government of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch a better chance to open up channels with the insurgents for a peace push. While terrorism and sectarianism afflict the province, it is the insurgency that should top the list of priorities of the government.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
‘Dispensable’ nation? In an annual ritual, US President Barack Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union Address to a joint session of Congress. While most of the address focused on domestic issues, including the president’s vow to redress some of the woes of ordinary citizens within the limits of unilateral executive authority in the face of an obstructionist Republican-dominated Congress, for the rest of the world it was the cryptic remarks on foreign policy that pricked up ears. The president agued that as the US’s Iraq war has ended (although the civil war has not) and the Afghan war, the longest in the US’s history, winds down, the US must move away from a permanent war footing to give diplomacy a chance to resolve some of the world’s toughest problems. As examples the president quoted Iran’s nuclear issue and the Syrian civil war. However, Obama also cautioned that danger remains and the US has to remain vigilant in the face of changing global threats. In this context he referred to the fact that although al Qaeda had been considerably weakened in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre, the terrorist organisation’s affiliates had spread their tentacles in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali. He should have added Libya (as a result of the US-led intervention to overthrow Gaddafi) and Syria (because of the US-led west’s support for anti-Assad forces that by now include the most fanatical of the al-Qaeda spawn). Obama’s logic was that US leadership of the world and its security can no longer depend on the military alone. All elements of power, including diplomacy, should be employed. He promised to actively, aggressively pursue terrorist networks through more targeted efforts and building the capacity of foreign partners, and added that he would not hesitate as commander-in-chief to use force to protect the American people, but only if truly necessary. As examples of diplomatic ‘success’ Obama quoted US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts that brought about the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and once again exploring Middle East talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. He announced that he had placed “prudent limits” on the use of drones since the US could not be safe if people abroad believed the US strikes within their countries without regard for the consequences. That will come as some solace to those in Pakistan fundamentally opposed to drone strikes against terrorists that they believe cause unacceptable civilian deaths. Obama called on Congress to further loosen the conditions attending release of Guantanamo’s detainees so that the prison could be closed. He also promised reform of the massive surveillance the US has been carrying out and that has aroused controversy amongst friendly countries as well as US citizens. With three years to go for his tenure, President Obama has an eye on his legacy, like most presidents before him. However, history may not remember that legacy kindly. Obama cane to office presenting himself as a transformative president, arousing high hopes all over the world that the US would turn a new page and leave behind the Bush era policies. From the Cairo address in which Obama promised to reach out to the Muslim world, through his interventions in Libya and Syria, to the present State of the Union address, the view of perceptive observers that Obama, whatever his intentions, would not be able to reverse the momentum of the US’s polity being held in thrall to the defence, security, foreign policy establishments, with the military-industrial complex lobby continuing to push for more wars to keep the armaments industry running. If it were not for the 2008 global economic meltdown, the unintended consequences of continuing US militarism and interventionism all over the world may never have assumed the importance they have. The US may be the predominant military power in the world by a long shot, but it is increasingly being revealed as a military colossus with (economic) feet of clay. Foreign wars that in the past fuelled the profits of the armaments industry and led economic growth and prosperity are increasingly becoming a chain around the US’s feet in the middle of arguably the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. That may mean the US’s declining ability to act as the world’s self-anointed policeman of the world, a role it assumed after WW II and during the cold war. Other US fallacies such as ‘manifest destiny’, ‘indispensable nation’, ‘the American (21st) century’ may well be finally laid to rest along with Obama’s disappointing presidency that has proved unable to resist foreign invasions, forcible regime change and even touting support to terrorists in Syria, not to mention its continuing support to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and repression against the hapless Palestinian people.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Would-be partners’ diplomatic minuet The Pakistan-US strategic dialogue got off to a start in Washington after a hiatus of three years marked by irritants and breakdowns. Credit for getting the stalled dialogue restarted must of course go to both sides, but it is undeniable that US Secretary of State John Kerry has had a big part to play in the process over the last year and a half. It is Kerry who announced the resumption of the dialogue on a visit to Islamabad last August. Kerry also has to his credit the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Act promising Pakistan aid of around $ 7.5 billion over five years. Kerry may therefore be considered a consistent friend of Pakistan. This perception was reinforced by the Secretary’s opening remarks, in which he struck a positive note about seeking stronger ties with the people of Pakistan, praised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s economic reforms and vision to turn the Pakistani market into a tiger economy for the 21st century. He also stressed the criticality of inclusion of women and minorities for a better future. The US, Kerry said, has added 1,000 MW to fill Pakistan’s energy gap and is looking forward to further cooperation in the fields of energy, education and infrastructure. The claim of Pakistan becoming a tiger economy has to be measured against the average growth rate of around three percent over the last five years, a sobering thought and reflective of the long road to prosperity yet to be travelled. While Kerry tried to project positivity in his opening remarks, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security, Sartaj Aziz, who is leading a high powered delegation to the talks, qualified his view of the Pakistan-US relationship with some persistent lacunae. While underlining the desire for a transition from a purely transactional relationship to one that could answer to the description of a deeper strategic one, Sartaj Aziz cautioned the US not to see Pakistan exclusively through the lenses of Afghanistan and terrorism. He dilated on Pakistan’s concerns by pointing out that Pakistan’s security considerations were neither taken account of by the US when it washed its hands of Afghanistan during the 1990s nor when it invaded and occupied that country in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. Sartaj Aziz’s cautious tone, in contrast to Kerry’s ebullience, indicates the level of mistrust and perceptions of betrayal that dog the footsteps of the often troubled relationship. The contrast could be likened to Kerry seeing the glass of the relationship as half-full, while Sartaj Aziz saw it as half-empty. Of course the unstated elephant in the room was the issue of dialogue with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, which found no mention in the two sides’ opening remarks, but was reported as due to be taken up in detail in closed door discussions. Apart from the ‘conditionalities’ mentioned above to make the relationship a truly meaningful one going forward from this year’s US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Sartaj Aziz complained that Washington seemed to have a ‘tilt’ towards India, reflected in the fact that India’s concerns were forcefully conveyed to Pakistan (an unspecified reference to the Mumbai attacks of 2008) but Pakistan’s concerns did not enjoy the same emphasis when the US conveyed them to India. Sartaj Aziz wanted all these ‘conditionalities’ to be met if the US was serious about a relationship that could transcend the suspicions and complaints of the past and move forward on an even keel. We are not yet privy to what may have transpired behind closed doors after the initial opening remarks of both sides were shared with the media. However, it would not be out of place to point to the potential bottlenecks and problem areas in the relationship in future. There is no denying (idealism aside) the fact that Pakistan, far from being or marching towards becoming an economic tiger, is struggling to stay afloat. The model of development followed by Pakistan over the years has rendered it dependent on foreign aid, the US first and foremost, and therefore also opened it up to the vulnerabilities associated with dependence. The US’s clout extends beyond bilateral ties and Washington is able to influence, both positively and negatively, its western allies and the international donor/lending agencies. Pakistan therefore needs to tread carefully when engaging with Washington, whose goodwill we are not in a position to do without for the foreseeable future. Whether it is the economy or general betterment of state and society, Pakistan will remain mired in unsolvable problems and a quagmire so long as it does not tackle the issue of terrorism. Perhaps on this single task hinge all the other best laid plans of mice and men.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Pak-US strategic dialogue Pakistan and the US are due to restart their stalled strategic dialogue in Washington today. Pakistan will be represented by Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister’s National Security Adviser. The talks take up where they left off because although the interaction began in 2010, it was interrupted again and again by crises in relations between the two sides, including the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. US Secretary of State John Kerry had announced the resumption of the dialogue during a visit to Islamabad in August last year. On the agenda are security, economic cooperation and seeking to build a blueprint for future ties. The resumption has only been made possible by concerted efforts by both sides during the last year and a half. While ostensibly on the surface things between the two countries appear to be better, there are serious questions regarding the way relations will play out around issues of mutual concern in the short, medium and long term. Afghanistan of course looms large on the horizon for both countries. Washington seeks Pakistan’s assistance to ensure its withdrawal process proceeds smoothly and leaves behind a negotiated political settlement between the Taliban and Kabul to stabilise Afghanistan and avoid a descent once again after the foreign troops leave into full-scale civil war in that country. It also hopes the PML-N government can address the serious domestic terrorism issues to stabilize Pakistan. The US may feel the Nawaz Sharif government would make a potentially stronger partner than the previous government since its political position is stronger. However, the Nawaz Sharif government’s performance so far has exposed its limitations in both matters. Domestically, the government has wasted many months in plugging its preferred option of talks with the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate peace. That effort has foundered on the Taliban’s refusal of talks and their escalating campaign of terrorist attacks throughout the country. Pakistan therefore is still wrestling with the hiatus and paralysis in its anti-terrorism policy. On Afghanistan, the PML-N government has stated repeatedly that Pakistan has no favourites in that country and supported an Afghan-owned and -led peace process. However, despite reports the government has made efforts to facilitate talks between the Karzai government and the Afghan Taliban, not much result can be seen. The more important issue is the presence of the Afghan Taliban in safe havens on Pakistani soil, permitting them to fight the US-NATO-Afghan army with relative success. Since these safe havens are the product of the military’s policy after 9/11, it is doubtful whether the Nawaz Sharif government, even if it were willing to try, could change that. So if the US is pinning its hopes for elusive stability in Pakistan and even more elusive stability in Afghanistan on the Nawaz Sharif government, this could turn out once again to be a difficult enterprise. Washington insists its relationship with Pakistan is about more than just Afghanistan. That may be true, although the past decades have inserted the Afghan issue between them with a vengeance. Taking Washington at its word, it needs to be asked whether the US realises how much mutual trust and confidence between the two sides has been eroded over the years by the gulf between them on perceived interests and a relationship that has not transcended the ups and downs of being confined to a transactional approach. The atmospherics are not helped by the hostility towards Pakistan in the US Congress, which has recently withheld $ 33 million from Pakistan over the Dr Shakil Afridi issue and threatens further aid cuts if the US Secretary of State is unable to certify annually that Pakistan is cooperating against terrorism. Perceptive observers are advising the US to include Pakistan in its Asia ‘pivot’ so as to allay the feelings of abandonment creeping into Islamabad’s feelings, a process of shrinkage that may otherwise increase once the US is out of Afghanistan. While hoping for the best outcomes in their strategic dialogue, one may be excused for reservations about the ability of the two countries to put the past and its attendant suspicions about each other behind them, cooperate on Afghanistan, and develop a blueprint that seeks permanent friendship, not an expedient one.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
And now Sindh As though the country does not have its plate full with terrorism, political and criminal turf wars, and the Balochistan insurgency and sectarian attacks in the province, low intensity blasts occurred throughout Sindh on Friday. Cracker explosions and hand grenade lobbing was witnessed in Hyderabad, Larkana, Kotri, Naushehro Feroze, Bhit Shah, Matiari, Hala, Dadu, Ranipur and Karachi. Fortunately there were no deaths. Two people were reported injured. The intent of the attackers does not therefore appear to have been to maim life and limb, rather the campaign appears to have been aimed at making the strike called for Saturday successful. That thought, based on the pattern of such attacks on the eve of strike calls in the past, and the arrest of 14 suspects from various parts of the province, during which some minor weapons and cracker seizures along with recovery of pamphlets regarding the strike were reported, led the police to lay the blame at the door of the Jeeay Sindh Muttahida Mahaz (JSMM), a Sindhi nationalist group. The JSMM’s strike call was issued to protest the provocative remarks of MQM chief Altaf Hussain recently in which he had advocated the carving out of a separate province in Sindh or even a separate country on the basis that the Urdu-speaking citizens of the province were not receiving their due. The nature of the actions suggest the JSMM, if indeed it was behind the attacks, wanted to send a political message rather than follow in the footsteps of the terrorists and inflict death and injuries on the maximum number of victims. The message and its means of transmission appear relatively mild in the context of all the other campaigns of attacks on the state and citizens by terrorists and other interest groups. But it should serve as a warning that provocations of the sort Altaf Hussain keeps authoring from time to time could lead to deepening the ethnic divide and even stoking ethnic conflict in the province. The issue of the ethnic divide in Sindh is highly sensitive, and therefore not to be trifled with in cavalier fashion. The Sindhi nationalists’ long standing case (stemming from the creation of the country) is that the massive influx of refugees from India (mostly Urdu-speaking) during partition and their concentration in the cities of Sindh, particularly Karachi, created a demographic catastrophe for the original inhabitants of the province. What followed subsequently proved the worst nightmare Sindhis could have imagined for themselves in the new country. Not only was the Sindhi educated and skilled middle class (overwhelmingly Hindu) that existed before partition displaced to our neighbouring country, the vacuum left behind was filled by an Urdu-speaking salariat with the requisite education and skills. That marginalised and ghettoised Sindhis to a largely rural existence, in which the structures of large landholding and feudalism remained intact (even after Ayub and Bhutto's attempts at land reform in the 1960s and 70s respectively). But in case anyone thinks that the rural areas remained free of the malign vested interests that the new state encouraged, barrage lands in Sindh were freely and generously allocated to retired military and bureaucratic officers (mostly Punjabi). Whole villages emerged in the Sindhi rural areas as a result that were known as ‘Punjabi chaks (villages)’, in which not only the landowners, but even the cultivating peasantry had been ‘imported' from the largest province to the north. The resentments of the emerging urban Sindhi middle class and the feudals and peasants of the Sindhi rural areas against this ‘invasion’, which they felt had deprived the sons of the soil of their rights, was sought to be redressed in the 1970s during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure. But the resistance of the non-Sindhi privilegentsia proved the old adage that a vested interest seldom yields easily. For example, when the Sindh government under Mumtaz Ali Bhutto attempted to restore Sindhi as the medium of instruction in 1972, a position it had enjoyed in the province before partitition, the move was met by language riots in Karachi. This development set the tone for a newly assertive Sindhi community attempting to wrest back the rights it felt had been denied after Pakistan came into being, up against an equally if not even more assertive Urdu-speaking community that wanted to cling on to the privileges in education, employment and business opportunities it had been gifted over the years. The rise of the MQM in the 1980s was part of this counter-assertion. If Altaf Hussain’s remarks are placed in this context, it becomes easier to understand why Sindhi nationalist resentment runs so deep. MQM and its leader should refrain from provocation and follow their own oft repeated assertion that they too are Sindhis. Difficult as it is to imagine, the province needs a return to its tolerant Sufi ways, not an ethnic conflict cauldron.
Friday, January 24, 2014
‘Tough action’ at last? After seemingly dithering for months on its approach to tackling terrorism, it appears the government has had its mind made up for it by the terrorists themselves. The spate of terrorist attacks through the length and breadth of the country in recent days has put paid to the notion that talks with the extremists are the only way forward. The binary amongst political opinion on the issue that it is a zero-sum game of either/or, i.e. either talks or war, has been resolved in the government’s thinking at least as talks with those willing, force against those not. Some in the media have dubbed this the third option, although objectively it was always the only option. No counterinsurgency or counterterrorism campaign ever relies exclusively on one or the other. The strategy always revolves around the use of force where necessary, negotiations where possible. If the government has arrived at this conclusion after reeling from the blows struck by the terrorists, it can be considered an advance on its previous stance, which seemed to rely almost exclusively, or at least predominantly, on negotiations. The only problem with this ‘advance’ is that actions are still being planned and implemented in retaliatory mode rather than as part of an overall strategy. After the aerial bombing in North Waziristan the other day in retaliation for the wave of attacks on the army, reports speak of an operation in Mastung against the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) that has once again claimed responsibility for the Shia pilgrims’ bus bombing in that area the other day. The question arises, who does not know that the centre of gravity and presence of the LeJ lies in southern Punjab, where its network of madrassas, etc, gives it a ‘safe’ operating base. No one can possibly object to the operation in Mastung in pursuit of the terrorists who killed so many innocent Shias (again), but the snake will not be scotched if its head is not crushed, a head that lies in southern Punjab. The LeJ’s leader Malik Ishaq, who cannot be pinned down no matter how many charges of murder are placed against him because he is able to intimidate judges, prosecutors and witnesses, roams a free man. If the government is serious about an operation against the LeJ, it cannot ignore its leaders or its safe haven in southern Punjab. The perils of our times are nowhere better illustrated than in the incident of a vehicle blowing up in a motor workshop in Peshawar on Thursday. Ostensibly brought in for repairs, the vehicle had a bomb planted in it, whether before it arrived at the workshop or after is not clear. Reports say it was a jeep that was reported lost or stolen and had spent a couple of days in a police station before its owner transferred it to the workshop. Six people were killed, nine wounded, five other cars damaged in this latest atrocity. Presiding over a high level security meeting on Thursday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for making the intelligence mechanism more effective and boosting security on the Afghan border, including through aerial surveillance. The meeting decided on surgical strikes against terrorist targets (a la the bombardment in North Waziristan) rather than a generalised ground offensive. The partial move against the LeJ in Mastung and the decision to rely more on aerial strikes rather than boots on the ground indicates the continuing hesitation of the government to commit fully to taking on the terrorists with the full might of the state. The thinking seems to be that limited and targeted action may prevent things escalating due to the retaliatory attacks of the terrorists. If so, the latter are probably going to assist in furthering the clarification of the mindset of the government by not only retaliatory attacks but new and bolder provocations on their own. Since nothing else seems to work in nudging the government in the right if not inevitable direction, i.e. not sparing the bloodthirsty murderers of our people and security forces, we owe a vote of ironic thanks to the terrorists for ‘helping’ the government clarify its clouded thinking.
Thursday, January 23, 2014
The terrorist onslaught The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has embarked upon a concerted campaign of actions to weaken the state. Apart from attacks on the army, security forces and citizens, it has particularly focused on the anti-polio drive. One day after three anti-polio workers were killed in Karachi, the terrorists switched their attention to the security detail on its way to be deployed on protection of the polio vaccinators in Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. The toll of the bomb attack on their police van was six policemen and a child killed, 11 others injured. In Bhakkar district, Punjab, a polio vaccination team was attacked by militants. Fortunately no one was killed, although a lady health supervisor and her driver were injured. To understand why the anti-polio drive is attracting the unwanted attention of the terrorists of late, it is not enough to refer to the earlier explanations of the terrorists regarding the vaccination campaign as a cover for spying (the Dr Shakil Afridi affair should be kept in mind) or a western conspiracy to make Muslims infertile. As a tactical manoeuvre, it make sense to the terrorists to target the polio campaign since it helps highlight Pakistan’s dubious status as one of only three countries still polio-endemic (along with Nigeria and Afghanistan). The World Health Organisation has come out with a devastating report that describes Peshawar as the world’s largest reservoir of the poliovirus. The perception globally that militancy and terrorism are causing the Pakistani polio campaign to falter, if not fail, encourages the terrorists to redouble their efforts so that Pakistan is cast into a pariah status, implying travel bans and perhaps worse. The bad press Pakistan is accumulating on this score could vitally damage Pakistan’s image and bring on sanctions on health grounds that could have a crippling effect on Pakistan’s ability to function internationally. While Karachi bleeds and burns because of its plethora of terrorist, political and criminal militias engaged in targeted killings, the police raid in Qayumabad area of Karachi seeking the killers of the polio workers killed the other day evoked an outcry from residents since the sweep netted over a hundred people, most probably on suspicion rather than evidence. The police justify the action by arguing that the killers may have come from the area or definitely had local help in targeting the polio workers. However, the indiscriminate and wide scope of the dragnet suggests the police are shooting in the dark. Despite the announcement by the polio workers after the deaths of their colleagues that they would not work unless provided adequate security, the Sindh government has reiterated its commitment to continuing the anti-polio drive. Commendable as the statement is, the government must soberly examine the risks to polio workers and make proper arrangements to keep them safe. After all, the polio ‘front’ is now part of the anti-terrorist struggle. While knowledgeable observers have been arguing since this government took office that the terrorists must be taken on without hesitation or delay while keeping the door for negotiations open, the opposite has been in evidence. The government still seems to be hoping against hope that its talks strategy will bear dividends, despite the lack of a partner to talk to or any sign of one emerging. Maulana Samiul Haq, charged with persuading the Taliban to come to the negotiation table, has used the excuse of the bombing in North Waziristan the other day that killed 40 terrorists including foreign fighters to announce his withdrawal from a mediatory role. The Maulana’s heart clearly bleeds for the terrorists killed in the bombing, but not for the victims of the terrorists. So much for such ‘mediators’. Even Imran Khan seems to have been compelled by developments and the criticism mounting against his party and KP government for its almost exclusive focus on talks as the only panacea to declare that the PTI will be with the army when the time comes to mount a military operation. Someone needs to inform Imran that that time has not just arrived, it is past due. In the same breath, Imran has scored points against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for not taking his party on board whether the talks strategy has failed and a military operation is impending. Again, someone needs to inform the PTI chief that the talks strategy never got off the ground and if a military operation is being contemplated, it needs to be kept secret, particularly from a party that has made no bones about its sympathies for the Taliban. Slowly, gradually, inexorably, circumstances are forcing all the ‘talkers’ to a recognititon that the terrorists only understand the language of force. Without employing it, the state will continue to appear supine and at the mercy of the butchers.
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Absence of strategy The targeted operation in North Waziristan and adjoining Kurram Agency on Tuesday, including the use of air power, smacks more of a retaliatory action rather than part of any strategy. This in spite of the army’s clarificatory statement that the operation was the result of intelligence pointing to the presence of high profile targets in the area. Although the aerial bombardment yielded conflicting numbers of terrorists killed (about 40-60, including foreign fighters), there were also reports of non-combatant civilians suffering as collateral victims. There are contradictory reports too about Adnan Rashid of the Bannu jailbreak fame being amongst the dead since his house is said to have been hit. It may be recalled that earlier the military had retaliated against the attack on its check post and taken out the attackers after a firefight. Some may consider these retaliatory actions as welcome relief from the seeming paralysis of the government and security forces in the face of the by now daily attacks by the terrorists in different parts of the country. To illustrate, on the same day, a bus bombing in Mastung, some 45 kilometres from Quetta, killed 24 and wounded 40 Shia pilgrims returning from Iran. This route has become a death trap for Shias travelling to or from Iran. All the efforts of the authorities to provide security escorts for buses plying the route have failed to halt the blood and gore. Since the target was sectarian, it bears keeping in mind that this type of violence has escalated in the country since the Ashura incident in Rawalpindi. And of course no one can forget the huge bomb attacks in Quetta in January and February 2013 that killed nearly 200 people from the Hazara Shia community. The usual suspect, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has readily accepted responsibility, reflecting its confidence that it is ‘untouchable’, both in Balochistan and its main base in southern Punjab. As if this were not tragedy enough, three anti-polio workers in Karachi and one in Mansehra were killed on the same day. The result: the anti-polio vaccination campaign in Sindh, that was in only its second day, has had to be called off since the vaccinators have refused to work without adequate security. In case anyone had turned sanguine that the worst was behind us, on Wednesday a cleric was shot dead in Karachi while a police vehicle was attacked in Charsadda, leading to the death of six policemen. Unfortunately, the country has been allowed to drift into receiving these blows from one direction or another, in one or the other part of the country because the government is unable to overcome its paralysis and the sense of drift that commentators are focusing on. These phenomena in the face of the exponential growth in terror attacks is because of the self-inflicted virtually exclusive and strangely fixated notion of talks with the Taliban being the only way out. Since virtually nothing is being done to the perpetrators of terrorist violence, they have been emboldened to up the ante. Clearly, the man responsible for the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) and other terrorist groups’ increasing violence is none other than the new chief of the TTP, the bloodthirsty Mulla Fazlullah. While the terrorists have been allowed a free and unfettered run, notwithstanding the retaliatory actions of the military mentioned above, the government appears to be spending its days in cloud cuckoo land. There are some feeble signs that it may be waking up to the necessity of taking firm action, but until and unless these green shoots find expression in some telling blows against the terrorists as part of a sustained campaign, confidence in the ability of the government to handle the situation, already eroded, could suffer a catastrophic meltdown. The government should consult its security structure on the way forward to conduct pre-emptive actions, tactics, strategy, rather than simply retaliating against particular attacks, and those too exclusively against the armed forces. With due respect to the sacrifices of the soldiers and others of the military and security forces who have laid down their lives in the struggle against the terrorists, we cannot allow the perception that the citizens (civilian) of the country are expendable. Increased capacity for the law enforcement and security forces may have to wait for resources, but at least the existing capacity must be brought into play if the country is not to be virtually surrendered to the bombers and gunmen.
Monday, January 20, 2014
War and peace The 20 soldiers killed and 30 injured in the bomb blast in Bannu in a private vehicle hired to transport the men’s convoy are victims of carelessness. If a private vehicle had to be hired for the purpose, should it not have been subjected to a thorough scrutiny? This is inexplicable, perhaps criminal negligence. The military is supposed to investigate the incident, according to Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar. We hope the authorities will fix responsibility and not shrink from punishing those whose lapse caused the loss of life and limb. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility, saying the attack was in revenge for the deaths of Hakeemullah Mehsud and Waliur Rehman, both killed in drone strikes. At the same time, ironically, the TTP says it is ready for ‘purposeful, meaningful’ talks. And what does that mean? The TTP demands the drone strikes be halted and the troops withdrawn from the tribal areas. If conceded, the first would free them of the dread of what has become the most lethal weapon against high profile terrorist targets, and the second would give them a free run of the tribal areas to wreak further hell on the people of Pakistan. In the same breath, the TTP also threatens more attacks, which would obviously continue to be aimed at citizens, the armed and security forces, and now even the media. There are reports in the media of frustration within the army at the government’s almost exclusive emphasis on peace talks, which has left it ineffective and paralysed while the army’s hands are tied and it is being unable to take action despite being under attack. To avoid the negative fallout of absence from the country at the present time, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has cancelled his visit to Davos to attend the World Economic Forum. At the time of writing these lines, the federal cabinet was poised to receive and discuss the national security policy that Chaudhry Nisar has laboured over since the government took office. He says the decision to conduct a military operation, dialogue, or both, will be taken by ‘consensus’ and in the best national interest. What puzzles one is why the word ‘consensus’ pops up here when the federal cabinet is fully empowered to take such decisions and does not need the approval of any other forum or party. The clinging to the desire for that elusive ‘consensus’ can only be described as a hangover from the All Parties Conference confusion. The Chaudhry insists in the face of a widespread perception that the government is not sitting idle but is taking the peace process forward under a strategy. If so, we are still in the dark who the peace partner of the government is and what the ‘strategy’ is. Consensus or not, the minister wants the political parties to stop ‘point scoring’ and unite at this critical juncture to help the government bring peace. A hint of the probable ‘strategy’ or at least way forward can be gleaned from the minister’s elucidation that a Joint Intelligence Directorate will be set up for coordination and intelligence sharing amongst the 26 intelligence agencies in the country. The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) will be the focal point of the strategy. A Rapid Response Force with an air wing will be set up at federal level and be replicated at the level of the provinces. The new apparatus will work round the clock to translate the tons of chatter collected into actionable intelligence. Mapping will be carried out in the cities to create identity databases of people. All this is neither new nor entirely objectionable. But the question remains why it is taking the government so long to get on with all this when the situation demands a rapid response to halt the growing number of terrorist attacks throughout the country. War and peace are dialectically connected. Sometimes, and especially when confronted with a fanatical, battle hardened, elusive enemy such as the Taliban, peace cannot be separated from war fighting. Only if the government gets its act together to govern, which in the present circumstances means grasping the terrorist nettle firmly, can the country hope to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon of better times.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
Pakistan-India trade agreement On the sidelines of a SAARC business conclave in New Delhi, the Commerce Ministers of Pakistan and India, Khurram Dastgir Khan and Anand Sharma respectively, arrived at an agreement to allow round-the-clock movement of trucks and containers through the Wagah-Attari border crossing, with trucks allowed to offload their cargo in Amritsar and Lahore rather than at the border. The agreement represents a thaw or turnaround in the tense relations between the two countries since trouble flared up on the Line of Control (LoC) since the beginning of 2013. That tension has recently abated because of meetings between the Directors General Military Operations of both sides as well as brigadier level exchanges. The agreement also recognizes the need to implement a more liberal visa regime for businessmen if trade is to be enhanced. In financial year 2012-13, that trade was barely $ 2.5 billion, against the estimated potential of $ 10 billion. Islamabad missed the December 31, 2012 deadline for abolition of the negative list, comprising 1,209 items that cannot be imported from India. Nor has it so far reciprocated India’s extension of Most Favoured Nation status to its neighbour. Instead, Pakistan has decided to offer India non-discriminatory access to its market, provided this is reciprocated by the other side. In addition, both countries have agreed to push forward on granting three banks of either side permission to open branches in the other country. They have further agreed to convene meetings of technical working groups of customs, railways, banking, standards organisations and energy. The Joint Business Forum Chief Executive Officers of companies of both countries will be convening meetings of its sub-groups on diverse sectors such as textiles, tourism, energy, engineering, pharmaceuticals and others. Mid-February promises a great deal of interaction. First and foremost, the third meeting of the Joint Business Forum will take place in Lahore at that time. The Indian Commerce Minister, Anand Sharma, is expected to lead a business delegation to Lahore at the same time. The Federal Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan are planning an “India show” in Lahore on or around those dates to build on the success of a similar India show in Lahore in February 2012. As part of the show this year, artists from both countries will jointly create paintings expressing the common heritage of the people of both countries. So Lahore next month offers much in regard to promoting trade and business between the neighbours, an effort that has once again acquired momentum after a hiatus of more than a year. While these developments are welcome since the economic advantages of freer trade and investment in each other’s countries by the business houses of Pakistan and India are obvious, unfortunately anything related to the two countries cannot and should not be taken for granted. To illustrate, the barter trade across the LoC between the two sides of Kashmir has been suspended after Indian authorities accused a Pakistani truck arriving from Azad Kashmir of carrying heroin. The truck has been seized by the Indian authorities and the driver arrested. Meetings between the officials of both sides to resolve the matter according to the Standard Operating Procedures for the trade have failed despite the arrest in Azad Kashmir of the owners of the truck in question. The Pakistani authorities want the truck and its driver returned to be tried in Pakistan, while the Indian authorities are insisting that since the offence took place on the Indian side, they would deal with the matter according to their own laws. Until the matter is resolved, trade remains suspended and 49 trucks from Azad Kashmir and 27 from the Indian side remain blocked, along with their drivers, etc. The need is for the higher authorities to intervene and sort out the matter in the interests of restoring the trade and freeing the involuntary ‘guests’ detained by either side. This latest incident, if added to stories of Indian traders being harassed on spurious grounds for importing goods from Pakistan and the incessant penchant for both countries to tumble into confrontation at the drop of a hat, indicates the shoals and reefs ahead. Both countries should take a leaf out of China’s book and understand that where countries, particularly neighbours, face intractable long standing problems, the ‘doable’ should be prioritised, amongst which trade and business relations pave the way for progress on other issues.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
Land of the gun and bomb If anyone thinks that the title of this piece is overly dramatic or exaggerated, they only have to look around at events on Friday and their backdrop to sober up and understand that far from overhyped, the thought may well be an understatement. Three passengers were killed and 18 injured in a train bombing near Rajanpur. No claim of responsibility has come forward so far, but there is speculation in some parts of the media that it may be the work of the insurgents of the Baloch Republican Army. If so, the tragedy is the price the country is paying for shortsighted policies in Balochistan that need urgent review for the sake of peace. In that cesspit of bloody mayhem called Karachi on the same day, the Sindh leader of the JUI-S was killed along with two of his companions and three journalists of Express TV were gunned down in a sinister ‘gangland’ type killing with silenced pistols. Mufti Muhammad Usman Yar Khan’s murder is being linked by his JUI-S with the mandate given to the party’s leader, Maulana Samiul Haq, to facilitate talks with the Taliban. The JUI-S thinks responsibility for this targeted killing rests with elements that want to sabotage the negotiations process. If that logic is accepted, topping the list of suspects may well be the Taliban themselves, since they are the only ones consistently rejecting talks. By now, even the credentials of Maulana Samiul Haq as the ‘father of the Taliban’ may not be relevant in the current phase of the strife that has the country in its grip. The attack on the Express TV van was the third attack on the media house in Karachi, including attacks on its headquarters. Interaction with Taliban spokespeople yielded a claim of responsibility from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a threat that media that does not toe the TTP’s line will be targeted. With this announcement, two things come to the fore. One, the TTP, which by and large has had a free run on our media, especially electronic, for years, may be feeling the tide of opinion slowly turning against it. This is not necessarily because the sections of the media that seemed ‘sympathetic’ to them before have had a burst of sudden enlightenment, rather it is the indiscriminate terrorism of the TTP that has alienated even those sections of the media and the public that might hitherto have had a soft spot for the fanatics. Two, the TTP may be showing a modicum of desperation if it has now declared open and universal war on all who oppose it, be it the public, political parties or the media. Is that not a sign of progress against them? This progress cannot be claimed by anyone except the self-defeating indiscriminate policies of murder and mayhem associated firmly in the public mind by now with these extremists impervious to reason. Nevertheless, there is no one more blind than those who refuse to see. Imran Khan now wants another All Parties Conference (APC) to review the outcome of the ‘mandate' of the precious APC to talk to the Taliban. Frankly, we were neither enamoured of the ‘wisdom’ that flowed out of the first APC, which reflected more the blinkered vision of the right wing parties than a sensible and effective antiterrorism strategy, nor do we believe another such exercise in futility will add anything except more noise to the tsunami of confusion wrought by the right wing parties. Imran Khan’s extraordinary logic on examination boils down to rhetorical questions whose answers are obvious to all but the purblind. For example, he asks why the dialogue with the Taliban has not been initiated so far. Obviously, Mr Khan, because it takes two to tango! He then asks how can the peace process fail before even starting. Obviously if it fails to start at all, a more than likely outcome on present trends! He then interrogates the federal government whether it has asked the US to stop drone strikes (his pet bête noir) and why the issue has not been taken to the UN as ‘mandated’ by the APC. The US has been asked (in the Obama-Nawaz meeting in Washington for instance) but it is not listening and will not listen so long as the Afghan Taliban have safe havens on our soil. As to the UN, clearly our professional diplomats in New York have indicated to the government that there are few takers for our proposal as Pakistan’s credentials on terrorism are suspect for the reason already stated in the previous sentence. Last but not least, Imran Khan wants to know how the PTI can be criticized for asking for talks when they have not even started yet. Obviously because the whole thing is a non-starter and a distraction/diversion from the task at hand! He then laments his party’s and its Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s inability to hold talks on its own as it is not in power at the Centre and therefore lacks the authority per se, as well as authority over the armed forces. Right, so why not rest content for the moment with what you have and run that better? From north to south, the country is under siege. If FATA in the north is a hotbed of terrorism, the southernmost port city of Karachi is arguably in even worse straits. A plethora of armed elements, terrorist, political, criminal, hold the city and its denizens hostage to their evil designs. Facing them, one policeman to 1,340 citizens as compared with the normal ratio in modern cities of one policeman to every hundred people. Sanctioned police strength in Karachi is 32,000 but a shortfall of 5,000 has still to be filled. Killings of policemen, including the assassination of SP Aslam Chaudhry, has climbed to an average of one a day since 2014 dawned, incrementally increasing over the years from 1992 to date. Of the 27,000 policemen on call in the city, 14,000 are posted at the 143 police stations, 8,000 are on VIP duty, and 3,000 in the intelligence agencies. Given this picture of the country, where is the government, where is the state, where is the response?
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Nawaz Sharif in Swat In a first since Swat was cleared of the Taliban led by Mulla Fazlullah (since elevated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif visited the valley for what turned out to be a dual purpose. First and foremost, he was briefed by the military on the situation in the area. The PM approved the setting up of a brigade-level cantonment (3-4 infantry battalions, 3,000 troops plus support personnel from the supplies and medical corps departments) spread over three stations, Malakand, Khwaza Khela and Kanju. The decision seems to indicate the desire of the military to wind up operations and reduce the number of troops, which currently boast a division (40,000 troops) in Khwaza Khela and smaller deployments in Kanju. It also reflects the confidence of the military that their clearance of the area of the malign presence of Mulla Fazlullah and his Taliban fanatics, once headquartered in the area, is by now an established fact of life, requiring a smaller permanent presence only to ensure they do not stage a comeback. The idea of the cantonment was floated about five years ago, but the implementation was delayed because of continuing operations in the area. The words of praise by the PM for the army on the occasion were not only genuine appreciation for its role in defeating the terrorists who had made life hell for the people of the picturesque valley, coming from the first head of government to visit the frontline, it must have boosted the morale of the troops. Arguably, it may be time for the military to take a back seat five years after their campaign ousted the Taliban from the area and allow civilian structures to kick in and assume their proper responsibilities. Talking about the conundrum regarding talks with the Taliban, the PM has argued in a television interview that it was not only the responsibility of the government to reach out to the Taliban, but other political leaders too had to play their part. Specifically referring to Imran Khan, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Maulana Samiul Haq and Syed Munawar Hassan, the PM said he would contact these leaders to help carry forward the dialogue process with the Taliban. If they make any breakthrough, the PM stressed, it would be a great pleasure for him. It should be noted that all those named are considered pro- or at the very least sympathetic to the Taliban. Maulana Samiul Haq has already been charged with the task of persuading the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The PM also pointed to the participation of, and acquiescence in, the decisions of the All Parties Conference by the former COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the ISI chief. From that the PM drew the conclusion that the military had left the issue of talks with the Taliban to the national leadership and that stance continues to date. It remains to be seen, however, whether Maulana Samiul Haq or any of the other political worthies on the PM’s list are able to overcome the so far stated antipathy of the Taliban to any talks. What might follow if all these efforts fail was hinted at on Thursday by the PM when receiving a briefing from Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar regarding the security and law and order situation in the country. The PM reiterated that although talks were the preferred option, the lives and properties of the people must be protected and any damage to either should be dealt with in appropriate fashion. While the other purpose of the PM’s visit to Swat was to sell his pet Youth Loans programme, he underlined it by assurances that the effort would not be politically partisan, would be entirely based on merit, equitably distributed amongst all the provinces according to their population ratio with less applications from one province not meaning that its quota would be transferred to any other province but carried forward to the next month, and emphasized that he was the head of government of the whole country and would do justice to everyone even if it meant the loss of his premiership. Good, brave words indeed. Of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, for which we must wait for the programme to be implemented. It goes without saying though that the security situation in Swat having improved to satisfactory levels, the next logical step is precisely to give its people, particularly the youth, employment opportunities to prevent them being ‘seduced’ by extremist ideas.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Bowing to the inevitable The Supreme Court (SC) has sensibly accepted the plea of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that it is not possible to conduct the local bodies elections in Punjab and Sindh on the previous announced dates of January 30 and January 18 respectively. What has persuaded the SC is the further complications that have arisen in the path of holding these elections. Previously, the ECP had argued before the SC during former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s tenure that delimitation controversies and the impossibility of printing the required number of ballot papers within the required time necessitated a postponement. At that time, the SC would have none of it, and insisted the elections be held on the above dates. Perhaps the SC then was suspicious of the intentions of the provincial governments, given the track record of political governments being reluctant to hold local bodies elections since they imply the devolution of power from the provincial legislatures to local elected councillors. Whether such suspicion was justified or not, the SC was impervious to the practical difficulties enunciated repeatedly by the ECP. To add to that conundrum, the Lahore High Court (LHC) and Sindh High Court (SHC) have struck down the delimitations carried out by the provincial governments. While the Sindh government has announced its intention to challenge the SHC’s verdict in the SC, the Punjab government is silent on the issue. What we are now facing is an inevitable and perhaps relatively long drawn out process of the matter of delimitations being settled through a judicial process, including the issue of who should conduct the delimitations, given that the SHC wants a neutral commission to be created for the purpose while the LHC ordered the ECP to carry out the task. These anomalies need to be sorted out in the interests of consistency. We have argued in this space that the ECP should be charged with this task as the institution with the responsibility for conducting credible, fair and free elections at all tiers of the democratic edifice. The question of printing the ballot papers too ran into the obstacle of the Security Printing Corporation and Printing Corporation of Pakistan expressing their inability to print the millions of ballot papers required within the given previous timeframe. Now another question could arise if any of the candidates who submitted their nominations decide to withdraw. That would mean drawing up a fresh list of candidates, implying further possible delays in the ballot papers printing process. To allay the disappointment of the candidates who have submitted their nomination papers according to the previous schedule, the ECP has said they should keep their fees receipts safe since they would still be valid once the new dates are announced. Those dates remain open after the SC allowed the ECP to reconsider the dates after assessing the time required making the necessary arrangements. The legal challenges and required changes in the Sindh and Punjab local bodies laws too will have to be seen through before any final date can be announced. The good news is that Balochistan having conducted its local bodies elections last month despite scepticism regarding the credibility of those polls, the local bodies elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Islamabad and 43 cantonment areas will be held, probably on the previously announced date of February 28. We had previously argued in this space that the haste around holding local bodies elections because of the pressure of the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry SC did not make sense in the face of the practical difficulties. Further, that suspicions about the politicians’ anti-devolution predilections notwithstanding, the heavens would not fall if the polls were delayed by a few months in order to make proper preparations for a credible polls process. Time and circumstances have conspired to bring about a sensible recognition of the ground realities, and the legal and legislative challenges in the offing. The post-Iftikhar Chaudhry SC having wisely done the sensible thing by bowing to the inevitable and allowing the ECP time to make the necessary preparations, it would not be sensible, wise, or politic for the Punjab and Sindh governments to drag their feet on the issue beyond what is absolutely essential and unavoidable, from practical steps to the legal and legislative processes. That would only bring them, and the ECP, further down in the eyes of the people, confirming the perception that the provincial governments in Punjab and Sindh wish to cling to their powers, not allow the bottom rung of the democratic system to come into existence, and are anti-devolution, a change that promises more responsive governance to the common citizen at his doorstep.
Monday, January 13, 2014
Confusion worse confounded It is simply amazing how Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar continues to insist on his ‘wisdom’ vis-à-vis the struggle against terrorism in the face of the ground realities and recent developments. In a press interaction on Sunday, Mr Nisar again wound up his by now tired arguments about the need to engage in talks with the Taliban. The only ‘advance’ in Chaudhry Nisar’s perception appears to be the grudging acceptance of the possibility that not all the small and scattered Taliban groups may jump enthusiastically to the talks table the minister has laid out with invitations, but which is a ‘party’ to which no one appears to have come so far. In Chaudhry Nisar’s mind, the old and by now discredited notion of ‘good' and ‘bad’ Taliban is still alive and kicking when the entire country has moved on from this myth on the basis of irrefutable evidence that no such distinction exists or can be drawn to distinguish various Taliban groups. Chaudhry Nisar trots out the old and by now limp argument that those who respond positively to the government’s talks offer will be welcomed, while those who resort to arms will be dealt with with force. The government’s commitment to talks, the minister asserts, should not be taken as weakness. With due respect, that is exactly how it is being taken by a whole swathe of public opinion, and certainly by the Taliban themselves, who seem to be having a good chuckle up their sleeve at the government’s naïveté. The minister even says the dialogue process cannot proceed if the Taliban continue to attack civilians and government officials. He should have added politicians after the deadly attacks on Amir Muqam of the PML-N and the prime minister’s adviser, in which he fortunately escaped unscathed but members of his security detail were killed, and Mian Mushtaq Ahmed of the ANP, who proved less lucky and was killed along with his companions. The country is still reeling from and commemorating the assassination of Karachi SP CID Chaudhry Aslam by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the sacrifice of schoolboy Aitzaz Hussain while stopping a suicide bomber. What it does not need is the usual pusillanimous statements from government ministers charged with stopping the mayhem and murder that has the country in its grip. What people want to hear is a clear exposition of a strategy to take out the Taliban, but unfortunately, that desire still goes abegging. The TTP meantime is revelling in its chief, Maulana Fazlullah, and its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, being named in the murder of Chaudhry Aslam. A clearer stance has emerged from Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon, who says the All Parties Conference mandate (which the federal ministers never tire of reminding us of) envisaged no talks until and unless the Taliban lay down their arms. Far from this eminently sensible demand being fulfilled, the Taliban have responded to every peace overture, and especially since hardliner Maulana Fazlullah took over as TTP chief, with bullet and bomb. Chaudhry Nisar may just therefore be missing a partner for peace talks. It is advisable that the interior minister stop embarrassing himself and his government by spurious claims about progress in talks with ‘some’ groups (unnamed and unknown so far), and wake up to reality. Even if, by some stretch of the imagination, some peripheral groups agree to accept the government’s terms for talks (which include, according to Chaudhry Nisar, the non-acceptance of any demands that go against the constitution), as long as the main umbrella group, the TTP, seems to be wedded to its programme of taking over the state by force of arms and turning it into some local version of the hell the Afghan Taliban visited on their country while in power, where is the space or credibility of the talks process? Unless the government, the armed forces and the intelligence community come together to formulate a stringent policy against the Taliban that helps deliver a few telling blows, even the possibility of some elements being persuaded to come to the table (and lay down their arms) is as remote as the furthest stars in the sky.
Sunday, January 12, 2014
TTP’s culpability Responsibility for the much lauded SP CID Chaudhry Aslam’s assassination has been claimed by the terrorists. Despite the fact that from Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar down to Karachi senior police officers, the assertion has been made that the suicide bomber who crashed an explosives-laden vehicle into Chaudhry Aslam’s convoy has been identified, the charge of culpability has been laid at the door of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) by booking their new chief, Maulana Fazlullah and their spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid for the murderous attack on the SP, in which two other policemen were killed and 11 others wounded. In one sense, this makes for eminent logic, since it is likely that the suicide attack was planned and carried out with the TTP leadership’s blessing. But in another sense, since it is unlikely either Maulana Fazlullah or Shahidullah Shahid will fall into the law enforcers’ hands any time soon, the identified suicide bomber, Naeemullah, is the real lead to get to his accomplices and the network that launched him on his bloody mission. Naeemullah is said to have disappeared seven days before the attack and his cell phone was off for three days before he struck. Police have raided his residence in Banaras Colony, Karachi and arrested five of his family members, including his father Rafiullah, who runs a madrassa in the area, and two brothers Ghulamullah and Qari Siddique. The identification of Naeemullah became possible after some of his remains were found at the site of the blast and were matched with NADRA’s record. Naeemullah is said to have been associated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi before but then became part of the TTP later. He trained in Afghanistan and Waziristan in preparation for his final appointment with death and destruction. Another brother of Naeemullah is said to have been killed by the Taliban after he failed to carry out a suicide mission in Peshawar in 2011. The family therefore seems steeped in the culture of terrorism in the name of jihad. These details also reflect the nexus of terrorists all over the country, with Afghanistan and the hotbed of terrorism, Waziristan. Since the investigation seems to be progressing well and establishing the facts of the perpetrator and his connections, it make little sense for the MQM to demand a judicial commission to investigate the assassination of SP Chaudhry Aslam. However, it is heartening once again to read the bold message of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, vowing to unite the country against terrorism and extremism. Shrugging aside the concerns about his safety and security, the young leader of the PPP has once again taken up the cudgels against the monsters of mayhem and shamed all the other political leaders who fail to speak out clearly against the terrorists or are hiding behind the elusive farce of talks to bring peace. If anyone has any lingering doubts about the intentions of the terrorists, the news while writing these lines that Amir Muqam has escaped in an attack should put all dissembling to rest. Pakistan is under siege from the terrorists. They are still several steps ahead of the security forces. Unfortunately, the needed urgency in bringing the civilian and security sides of the state together in a well thought through strategy to combat this existential threat to the state and society is still conspicuous by its absence. The governments, federal and provincial, the armed forces and intelligence agencies, civilian and military, have to be brought together under one umbrella with only one aim in mind: combating the growth and increasing deadly capacity of the terrorists. No one is suggesting the door to negotiations should be shut, but to succeed in that endeavour too the state has to show some spine and teeth, otherwise the terrorists will be justified in thinking that the authorities have gone soft and the state and society lie supine, waiting to be ‘taken’. Time to wake up and move fast, otherwise the security situation all over the country threatens to spin out of control.
Saturday, January 11, 2014
The Musharraf saga The special court trying Pervez Musharraf in the treason trial has ruled that the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) applies in the case and the court can issue arrest warrants of the accused for non-appearance before it. The court also rejected the defence counsel’s plea to suspend its earlier order of January 9 ordering Musharraf to appear personally on January 16. It may be recalled that Musharraf was rushed to the Armed Forces Institute hospital while on his way for a court appearance the other day. He has remained in the hospital since. The court ruled on his medical reports that it did not appear the former COAS and president had suffered a heart attack or his illnesses were so serious as to prevent him appearing as ordered. The defence, media reports speculate, will probably rely on another medical report to avoid Musharraf’s appearance on January 16, when he is expected to be indicted. In court, the defence has reiterated that it has challenged the formation of the special court and the procedure adopted for the purpose as not in conformity with the constitution, especially Article 90. The defence team would, as is the judicial norm, want the court to rule on this issue before proceeding with the case in order to lay to rest the fundamental question of whether the special court is constitutionally created and therefore has jurisdiction to try the case. The defence also has an application pending before the court for transfer of the case to a military court as the only judicial forum authorised the try a former COAS whose imposition of emergency on November 3, 2007, the charge on which he is sought to be charged with treason, was imposed while Musharraf was still in uniform. The prosecution on the other hand has rejected the arguments of defence counsel by stating that Article 90 (2) permits the prime minister to act independently or with and through the federal cabinet, hence the objection of the defence to the procedure adopted for formation of the special court does not hold water. On the defence plea that the June 9 order of the special court for Musharraf’s appearance on January 16 be reviewed, the prosecution argues the court does not have the power to review or suspend any of its earlier orders and that the only remedy against the court’s order lies in an appeal to the Supreme Court. Media coverage of the trial was also raised in the court, with the three-member bench expressing annoyance at some reporting that ran against the grain of the court’s orders in this regard. Both defence and prosecution counsel eventually agreed before the court not to approach or speak to the media as the trial was sub judice. The treason trial, about which there is no shortage of critics ranging from those who think it should never have been proceeded with in the first place to those who see it as ‘partial’ (the 1999 coup having been ignored), is rapidly descending into a drama or even a circus. Substantial scepticism existed from the very beginning of the judicial process that it was inconceivable a former COAS could be found guilty of treason and punished, given the clout the armed forces traditionally enjoy. Now, as the days go by and the trial process unfolds, the sceptics and critics, far from being satisfied and silenced, seem to be becoming more vociferous than ever. On balance, perhaps it would not be too far from the truth to state that the judiciary seems determined to proceed with the case, the government, seemingly embarrassed at the possible risks to itself, has been sheltering behind the shield of the judiciary, the military, largely silent on the issue, is thought by some to be working quietly behind the scenes to get Musharraf off the hook, and rumours abound (including in the US media) that Musharraf will leave the country by the end of the month. That may prove a relief to a great many, disappointment to some, but to most the end of a distraction that is keeping the country from focusing on more urgent business.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
Sartaj Aziz on the war on terror The Prime Minister’s Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz delivered his and his government’s views on the subject of the War on Terror (WoT) on the occasion of the launch of Professor Akbar S Ahmed’s book, The Thistle and the Drone at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad the other day. First and fomeost, Sartaj Aziz thinks Pakistan had achieved less and lost more as a consequence of the WoT. The US, he said, was “fighting the wrong war with the wrong methods against the wrong people” (he did not elucidate who or what the ‘right’ war, methods and enemy should be). He then went on to reierate the government’s position on drone attacks as counterproductive, violative of Pakistan’s sovereignty, inviting the international community’s condemnation through, for example, the UN General Assembly’s resolution, and should stop since the US claims it has taken out most high-profile targets through them. The government, he said, would approach the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next to drum up more international support for Pakistan’s objections to the drone attacks. Mounting international pressure on the US on the issue would soon convince the US, according to Sartaj, that killing people without trial was inappropriate (in a war?). Sartaj Aziz also dilated on the issue of combating our Taliban by claiming that some contacts have been initiated with them for talks, while underlining that force was being used against those elements challenging the writ of the state (the contradiction here seems to have escaped him). Taking Professor Ahmed's argument in his book further, Sartaj Aziz was critical of Musharraf for sending the army into FATA in 2004, which he said had ruined the tribal culture and administrative arrangements (inherited, it must be said, from the British colonialists). He then made the startling claim that the writ of the state had been established in seven out of eight tribal agencies and the eighth too would soon be in the control of the government. While laying the blame solely on the US for creating the Mujahideen and then pushing them into our tribal areas, the Adviser blithely turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s own role in this enterprise, as well as on Pakistan’s share of responsibility for the present state of affairs. One may be forgiven for thinking that Sartaj Aziz is charged with obfuscation and distortion of history and the ground realities in order to justify his government’s policy on the Taliban and terrorism. That stance was reflected soon after the PML-N government came to office in the farce of the All Parties Conference toeing the right wing parties’ line of negotiating with our ‘brothers’, the Taliban (if these are ‘brothers’, God help us). While it is impossible to disagree with Sartaj that Pakistan has lost more than it has gained because of the so-called WoT, these must surely be counted as the costs, financial, economic, human, of our duality of policy after 9/11 and the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Trying to assuage the US anger by handing over al Qaeda (with the notable exception of Osama bin Laden) while offering the fleeing overthrown Afghan Taliban sanctuary and safe havens as operational bases on Pakistani soil was inevitably sooner or later going to invite US retaliation. We dragged our feet on taking action against the militants and terrorists holed up in FATA and other border areas until 2004, by which time the Afghan and local Taliban had welded unbreakable bonds and decimated the tribal leadership. They then stepped into the vacuum and have held the tribal areas hostage to their designs ever since. The duality in our policy so muddied the waters that the distinction between friend and foe was blurred to the extent of causing maximum confusion and policy paralysis. That paralysis by now has revealed itself as a policy of waiting out the US/NATO forces in Afghanistan. We are poised on that cusp now. Pakistan’s culpability in the ruin of Afghanistan and foisting on it the most retrograde and reactionary forces cannot be denied. The blowback from decades of interference and intervention in Afghanistan has taken a heavy toll of Pakistan itself. Blaming the US solely and pretending we are innocent as driven white snow can only be described as self-delusional, not an intelligent policy or appreciation of the situation.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Bangladesh in crisis Despite the violence before and on polling day and the controversial outcome of the elections in Bangladesh, Prime Minister (PM) Sheikh Hasina seems defiantly to be digging her heels in. She insists her win in an election boycotted by the opposition is legitimate and lays the blame for the unprecedented bloodshed entirely at the door of the opposition. Nor, she says, is she in any mood to offer an olive branch to her archrival, Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The opposition meanwhile insists on a fresh election under a neutral caretaker government. The heart of the crisis is the overturning through a constitutional amendment by the Awami League (AL) government in June 2010 of the previous practice since 1991 of holding elections under neutral caretaker governments. That practice owed itself to the controversies that dogged every election in Bangladesh’s history of rigging by incumbent governments. Polarised as Bangladesh’s polity has been since its independence in 1971, the wisdom of all political forces arrived at the conclusion that the only way to establish the legitimacy of any party’s mandate and have the election results accepted by all was to have a neutral caretaker government conduct elections. That system seemed to work and blessed the country with relative stability. In fact we in Pakistan also adopted the practice of neutral caretaker governments conducting elections to avoid precisely the same sort of rigging charges that form part of our history too. The usefulness of that arrangement has once again been thrown up sharply as a result of the controversial 2014 elections. Polling day yielded 26 deaths and attacks on 600 polling stations by the opposition. Turnout too was low, with election officials informally revealing that only one in four people voted in the capital Dhaka. The credibility of the election had been undermined even before the polling day when 153 AL members or allies were declared elected unopposed to the 300-seat parliament. Meanwhile Begum Khaleda Zia was held under de facto house arrest. BNP’s ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), has been under attack for the past year or so, with the courts finding its religious politics at odds with the secular character of Bangladesh’s constitution and many of its senior leaders being tried for charges relating to the 1971 liberation war for the independence of Bangladesh (Abdul Quader Molla was executed last month after being found guilty of massacres, rapes, etc, during the 1971 war in a flawed trial). PM Sheikh Hasina seems to have been guilty of misreading the situation and acting out of hubris rather than a correct appreciation of the ground realities in her country. A volatile polity such as Bangladesh’s needed a healing touch, not an exacerbation of the divide that has characterised politics in the country for many years. Had Sheikh Hasina handled the opposition BNP and the JI with greater wisdom and circumspection, perhaps things might not have come to the present pass, described by Bangladeshi newspapers the Daily Star and New Age as a hollow victory that does not bestow a mandate nor ethical standing to govern effectively, and as the prime minister leading the country towards disaster, respectively. Recent history and experience have highlighted the different and wiser approach to managing extreme divisions in societies emerging from violent pasts. Nelson Mandela defied the opinion of his own party’s leadership, the African National Congress, the militant mood amongst his people in the streets and the intransigence of the dominant white apartheid practitioners to guide his country through a difficult democratic transition that avoided the widely anticipated bloodbath and peacefully brought about change. Subsequent complaints about economic apartheid persisting notwithstanding, Mr Mandela saw the moment clearer than any of his contemporaries and enemies. That is the essence of great leadership. Sheikh Hasina has not served her own or her country’s interest by a partisan and self-righteous pursuit of her party’s interests at the expense of the credibility and legitimacy of the election process. Defiance notwithstanding, it is difficult to envisage how she will be able to avoid the growing demand for a fresh election under a neutral caretaker government. We hope the people of Bangladesh will in their undoubted political wisdom find a solution acceptable to the polity as a whole and reset the rules of the game to allow Bangladesh to turn the corner from the current extreme polarisation and violence to the stability that has stood the country and its people in such good stead for so long.
Monday, January 6, 2014
Game of thrones Altaf Hussain is simply not letting go. After his provocative speech the other day regarding the division of Sindh into two provinces or even separating from Pakistan, and frantic ‘explanations’ by the MQM leadership in a damage control exercise, the MQM supremo now ‘clarifies’ what he says was reported out of context (the oldest excuse in the book) by proposing the division of Sindh into area number I (for Sindhis) and area number II (for the rest, comprising Urdu-speakers, Punjabis, Pashtuns, Baloch, etc). He throws in provocative statements about the PPP workers having abandoned Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s dead body and fled to safety as well as those responsible for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination having benefited from her death. While railing against the quota system (which is a measure of positive discrimination in favour of the less developed rural areas), the MQM chief contradicts himself in every other breath, now advocating the division of Sindh on one or the other basis, now waxing eloquent about the province being his “mother” and therefore sacrosanct (indivisible). All this contradictory ranting and raving is laced with threats, including the threat of MQM supporting the Kalabagh Dam, which then would be unstoppable according to Altaf. He claims it is better to talk things out rather than resorting to bloodshed, yet all he has been saying these last few days could easily engender ethnic conflict in Sindh that would inevitably entail such horrific killing as to make one forget what is happening on a daily basis in Karachi these days. Once again, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the Patron-in-chief, and Sharjeel Memon, Sindh Information Minister of the PPP have taken on the foaming at the mouth Altaf Hussain. Bilawal categorically rules out any numbers I or II and will only accept ‘Mother Sindh’. Memon refutes Altaf Hussain’s argument that the rural 60 percent quota introduced by the PPP in the 1970s was only meant for 10 years but still continues by pointing out that the PPP has never discriminated between the urban and rural areas. In fact, Altaf Hussain needs to be reminded that his party was in government in coalition with the PPP for the last five years. It must be noted though that former president and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari’s policy of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer did not make the leopard change its spots as far as the MQM is concerned. MQM’s politics can be understood only as an exclusivist ethnic approach that seeks advantage by being included in power whenever possible, and browbeating all other political forces in the event of being excluded from the corridors that matter. Mollycoddling over many years has certainly not changed that, if anything it has arguably emboldened the MQM to pursue this path because of its past successes. The quota system in Sindh is intended to bring on a par with the urban areas the people of the rural areas, historically disadvantaged in education and opportunities. This is a situation not peculiar to Sindh but applies equally and sometimes in some areas with greater force to all the country. Continuing provocation along the lines of dividing Sindh on the basis of ethnicity in Altaf Hussain’s repeated statements overt the last few days is an invitation to retaliation by incensed Sindhi opinion. Perhaps that is what Altaf Hussain is aiming for: a reaction that can be exploited to create an emergency situation in Sindh that will undermine the incumbent PPP government and allow the MQM the chance to slip through the power doors once again. It is hoped that the Sindhi nationalist forces, and particularly the PPP, will see through this game of provocation, which may not in the end be anything but a ‘game of thrones’.
Nawaz on Musharraf’s trial In what appears to be an attempt to distance himself and his government from any impression that the treason trial of Musharraf is some form of vendetta, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif in an interview with a television channel has said that the state and the constitution are the real plaintiffs in the matter. Further, that it is up to the special court conducting the trial to determine whether the state was humiliated before the world because of the imposition of emergency by Musharraf on November 3, 2007 and falls within the purview of Article 6. The case, the PM stated, was not against any individual. Further comment, he went on, was not appropriate since the case was sub judice. Perhaps it is just as well that the PM chose not to go beyond a statement of the principles involved in the case since Musharraf’s lawyers have already moved contempt petitions before the trial court regarding the PM and members of the cabinet’s continuing comments regarding the case. That however has not stopped Information Minister Pervez Rashid from reiterating that the matter rests with the court or Defence Minister Khwaja Asif from delivering himself on issues surrounding the matter, including a categorical rejection of the application moved by Mrs Sehba Musharraf before the interior ministry to take Musharraf’s name off the exit control list to allow her to take her husband abroad for medical treatment. The diversion of Musharraf’s convoy to the Armed Forces Institute the other day when he was on his way for an appearance before the special court has given rise to a number of speculations. Political leaders have expressed unflattering opinions on the development, including former president Asif Ali Zardari who contrasted what he saw as the excuse of ill health to avoid the court appearance by Musharraf with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s courage in facing death by judicial decree. PTI’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi wants the government to answer the charge doing the rounds that some ‘deal’ has been worked out to allow Musharraf to leave the country and bring the case to a premature, but probably convenient close. Even Musharraf’s defence lawyers were surprised and puzzled by his sudden illness and diversion to hospital when they were waiting for his appearance in court. Sharifuddin Pirzada, the senior defence lawyer, speculated out loud whether Musharraf was listening more to Rawalpindi still rather than his legal team, which had advised that he appear before the court. Meanwhile special prosecutor Akram Sheikh has complained that he and his family are receiving threats from the intelligence agencies. The confusion surrounding Musharraf’s case does not owe its origins to these latest developments. Astute observers have been questioning the basis of a selective focus on the November 3, 2007 emergency rather than the 1999 coup, arguably the more serious violation of the constitution. These sceptics reject the argument that the King’s Party-dominated parliament’s endorsement of the coup has legal and constitutional validity. They go on to point out that the 1999 coup case would open a Pandora’s box and potentially involve a great many more people and institutions, including arguably the actions of then PM Nawaz Sharif, the support to the coup by the army, judiciary (including the recently retired chief justice), collaboration by many politicians, the bureaucracy and even parts of the media. For these reasons, perhaps no one wants to go down that road. These original objections to the manner in which Musharraf was being put in the dock have been added to by the latest developments. Although Pervez Rashid has reiterated the government’s position that there has been no international pressure for Musharraf’s being let off, the ‘routine’ (according to the foreign office) visit today by the Saudi foreign minister is being accorded great importance, given that country’s deep and abiding interest in the whole episode of the 1999 coup and all that followed, including mediation on Nawaz Sharif's behalf. Rumours are rife that the military is behind the moves to get Musharraf off the hook and send him abroad on the grounds of medical treatment. One can be forgiven in the circumstances for questioning once again whether the requisite political will exists to see a treason trial against a former COAS proceed, whether wholly or partially, with all its attendant risks to the sitting government.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
Altaf’s mischief again MQM chief Altaf Hussain is in the habit of staging ‘dramas’ and provocations at the drop of a hat if he or his party’s wishes are not conceded by all and sundry. Of late, the MQM supremo is suffering from a great deal of heartburn over the overturning of the gerrymandered delimitations in Sindh that helped the MQM dominate the province during Musharraf’s tenure. No wonder Altaf has felt compelled to rise to Musharraf’s defence in his treason trial, accusing the powers that be of persecuting him and him alone because he is a Mohajir (Urdu-speaking immigrant when Pakistan came into being). The PPP Sindh government carried out fresh delimitations for the purpose of holding local bodies elections, which did not sit well with MQM for the reason stated above. Although the local bodies act and delimitations have been struck down by the Sindh High Court, the provincial government has announced its intention to go in appeal against the decision to the Supreme Court. Altaf’s latest pronouncement of his followers ‘announcing’ a separate province carved out of Sindh or even a separate country must be seen as the latest provocation in this context. The tone and tenor of Altaf’s remarks amount to a thinly veiled threat to the province and indeed to the country. Such ‘threats’ from Altaf are neither new nor unexpected. Again, as expected, they have aroused a firestorm of protest from Sindhis, the PPP, nationalists and even the PTI. Maulana Fazlur Rehman in a press conference in Peshawar on Saturday underlined what he said was the real agenda of the MQM as reflected in Altaf’s latest diatribe. As seems to have become the pattern after Altaf Hussain’s pronouncements from the safety of London, it is left to the local MQM leadership, i.e. Dr Farooq Sattar, to ‘explain’ what the supremo ‘actually’ meant. Damage limitation may be the MQM’s need after every such speech of Altaf Hussain, but the damage has been done once again and cannot be denied. Awami Tehreek’s Ayaz Latif Palijo demanded an apology from Altaf Hussain otherwise the nationalist party will call for a shutter down strike and come out in the streets of Sindh on Monday, January 6. Since Pakistan came into being and a flood of refugees, mostly Urdu-speaking, arrived on our soil, the demographic balance of Sindh was highly disturbed since the vast majority of the refugees filtered down to Karachi, then the federal capital, and secondarily into the cities of Sindh. The province had lost most of its middle class, many of whom were Hindus, to India at partition. That vacuum was filled by the educated Urdu-speaking immigrants, creating a ‘privilegentsia’. When that status was challenged by the PPP in the 1970s, the loss of privilege gave birth to a militant MQM, with some help from Ziaul Haq. By now, the MQM claims exclusive sway over urban Sindh, going so far as to claim they are in a majority in the province but prepared to settle for a 50-50 share in everything in the province. Settler colonialism is a well established phenomenon in many parts of the third world, but Sindh’s demographic and political change is a unique case of the immigrants being initially welcomed but later resented on the basis of the inequality of opportunities that soon followed. The current Sindhi-Mohajir divide owes a great deal to the exclusivist politics of the MQM, disrupting in the process the friendly relations between the two communities in earlier days. PPP Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah asked a very pertinent question when he wanted to know what had happened to the MQM’s claims of being ‘sons of the soil’ of Sindh now that they were no longer in government. Unfortunately, stripped of its niceties, the MQM’s politics revolves around intimidation, threats, even violence if its whims and wishes to dominate urban Sindh and thereby the levers of power in the province are not met without demur. Had Altaf Hussain been on Pakistani soil, there would have been a case for trying him for a statement that could at the very least stoke the fires of ethnic conflict in the province and at worst amounts to a violation of the constitution by advocating separation.
Friday, January 3, 2014
PIA’s privatisation In Pakistan there is seldom something that is completely controversy-free. To illustrate, take the example of the meeting of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Finance, Revenue, Privatisation and Statistics the other day. The secretaries of two divisions of the finance ministry, privatisation and finance, came up with divergent views on the issue of the privatisation of the national flag carrier, PIA. The committee, chaired by Senator Nasreen Jalil of the MQM was informed by Finance Secretary Waqar Masood Khan that the government was required to appoint a financial adviser by end-March and privatise 26 percent shares of PIA by December this year as part of the $ 6.64 billion package signed with the IMF. He also revealed that the accumulated losses of PIA had reached Rs 180 billion and the airline was losing Rs 3 billion per month. Privatisation Secretary Amjad Ali Khan however, told the same meeting that the IMF benchmarks regarding dates and the number of shares to be sold were not sacrosanct, depended on the report of the financial adviser, and would only be firmed up after he submitted his report. Further, the same report would determine whether privatisation could be carried out in 2014 or may be delayed 2-3 years after a restructuring process to make the entity viable for sale at the best possible price. When questioned by the senators about the sale of strategic assets such as PIA, Amjad Ali Khan defended the proposal by arguing that 65 state-owned units had been approved for privatisation by the Council of Common Interests. If the Secretary Finance is correct, and there is no reason to believe he is not, it would come as a surprise to most folks. There are also reports in the media that the current PIA management is equally in the dark as the public regarding the commitment the Finance Secretary claims was made to the IMF as part of the conditionalities of the loan. Additionally, reports speak of the Finance Ministry under Mr Ishaq Dar embarking on a solo flight on PIA’s privatisation without taking stakeholders such as the privatisation wing of the same ministry and the PIA management on board. Some of the Senate committee members were critical of the idea of privatisation per se, others of the specific privatisation of PIA. The former held that once the received wisdom of privatisation was accepted, all state-owned units would suffer the same fate. Instead, they argued, profitable units should be taken off the privatisation list and the loss making ones restructured to turn them around. On PIA, some senators pointed to the strategic importance of communications and particularly the state-owned airline in the event of war or a national emergency. They too argued for restructuring PIA to make it a profitable operation instead of throwing away the family silver. The revelation by the secretary finance of this conditionality of the IMF loan points to an often suspected and usually hidden set of conditions the multilateral finance institutions impose on borrowers. By no stretch of the imagination could it be argued that the fate of PIA had anything to do with the IMF loan. However, international multilateral financial institutions such as the IMF are irretrievably wedded to the free market paradigm and see the private sector as the only engine of all economies. Hence the shibboleth that all state-owned entities should be privatised. When ab initio questions have come to the fore about transparency regarding the Finance Ministry’s ‘discreet’ agreement with the IMF to privatise PIA, what hope is there that transparency would be maintained during privatisation and would not go the way of most if not all privatisation deals in the past, which were, to put it mildly, opaque and did not always result in the desired outcomes? Concern about PIA’s employees in case of privatisation presents a mixed picture since the airline has been used by successive governments to provide sinecures for its supporters. As a result the 19,000 employees of PIA are said to represent the highest seat-employee ratio of any airline in the world. The Senators’ suggestion that only incompetent employees should be removed has weight. Nevertheless, staffing levels will have to be looked at no matter what the eventual fate of the airline. PIA’s captive market of Pakistanis is arguably strong enough to sustain it, provided that the mismanagement of the past is rectified at the level of fleet renewal, paring staffing in as humane a manner as possible, and reopening some of the lucrative routes closed down as misplaced austerity measures. For strategic and economic philosophy reasons, PIA should be turned around without handing over to yet another ‘strategic investor’, as part of the recognition of the need for a mixed economy for countries like Pakistan.