Friday, February 28, 2014
The shape of things to come Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali has embarked it seems on what is being touted as an effort to weave the provinces into the security structure proposed by the federal government in its long-gestated National Security Policy (NSP). Within the parameters of the NSP, it is being reported, there is an ‘internal security policy’, which presumably means everything except aspects that impinge on the foreign policy of the country. As a start to this weaving process, the interior minister visited and addressed a press conference in Peshawar on Thursday, accompanied by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Shaukatullah Khan and Chief Minister Pervez Khattak. Of course it is undeniable that without bringing the federal and provincial, civilian and military intelligence, law enforcement and security forces under one roof, the struggle against terrorism will always be like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. The task is formidable however, not the least because of the plethora of intelligence- and security-related agencies (Chaudhry Nisar quoted a figure of 26 agencies the other day, while some observers count 33) as well as the history of mutual suspicion between civilian and military outfits. At the centre of the new security architecture, the government wants to place the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), although massive scepticism lingers whether an organisation that has failed to take off since its setting up and which is without even the minimum number of top officers is in a position to play this pivotal role. Unless the government revamps and strengthens NACTA as its first priority, it is likely to come a cropper at the very first stage. Unfortunately Chaudhry Nisar’s remarks in the Peshawar press conference once again exposed the contradiction at the heart of the NSP, as well as the continuing fond hopes and illusions on which the government’s approach seems to be based. The contradiction is the repeated desire of the government that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) return to talks, even while Chaudhry Nisar denies that there is any military operation going on and the notion that the government has demanded a unilateral ceasefire by the TTP, while perambulating around the steps it says it will take to put the anti-terrorism strategy on a sound organisational and coordinational footing. If the government genuinely believes the TTP will eventually see the light and return to the negotiating table, as reflected in virtually every government statement, why bother to spend Rs 32 billion to beef up and streamline the anti-terrorist structure? And if the latter is pursued, what signal will it send to the TTP and what will be its response? This contradiction may only be resolved in practice, especially if the so far awaited response of the TTP to the aerial bombardments it is undergoing in FATA turns out to be ‘an eye for an eye’. Since both sides then would be in retaliatory mode, giving tit-for-tat, the situation could conceivably and quite easily spiral beyond ‘retaliation’ and ‘containment’ and into all-out war. Chaudhry Nisar’s brave words about ‘other options’ if the talks fail notwithstanding, his guarded reference to groups that have never attacked Pakistan and with which his government is in touch has once again turned the spotlight on a possible return to the ‘good’ Taliban, ‘bad’ Taliban binary, which experience has shown exists only in the minds of its peddlers. Meanwhile terrorism stalks the land in all its multifarious avatars, the sectarian flare-up (again) in Karachi in recent days pointing to just how difficult and complex a task awaits the authorities. Whatever the TTP’s reply, whether war or peace, the government would be advised to keep its powder dry, pursue its plans through efficient and quick implementation, and iron out the anomalies that confront the proposed security architecture under the NSP before, not after, the TTP awakes from its temporary pause.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
National Security Policy The National Security Policy (NSP) has been born after a ‘full term’ of nine months. On Wednesday, the NSP was presented in the National Assembly by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali. The 100-page document, according to the minister, comprises three parts, one of which is secret since it deals with operational functions, the second deals with strategies to combat terrorism and the third is of a ‘strategic’ nature. Of course we have to take the minister’s word on this since the document has not been released to either the parliamentarians or the public. Again according to Chaudhry Nisar, the only shift discernible in the government’s relying on dialogue alone (at least until recently) is the statement that the government had decided to pay the terrorists back in their own coin by retaliating militarily against any attack from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants from now on. This was hardly news since it has been obvious in recent days that the military has retaliated against terrorist attacks and in particular the gruesome beheading of 23 FC soldiers, by aerial bombing and attacks on terrorist strongholds in FATA, killing, according to the military’s estimates, more than 100 terrorists. Chaudhry Nisar further defined the nature of such retaliatory attacks as resting on the prescription that no matter where a terrorist attack took place anywhere in the country, the terrorists’ headquarters in FATA would be the target, as in recent days. The virtually moribund National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) would be activated as the lead platform for anti-terrorism, the minister told the house, the intelligence network would not only be improved, a joint intelligence directorate would pool data and share intelligence and analysis to provide actionable steps, and a rapid response force laced with helicopters would be raised at the Centre, with similar steps incrementally in the provinces. In addition, an Internal Security Division will be established to strengthen coordination amongst all the civil armed forces of the country. Chaudhry Nisar pleaded for a political consensus to curb the evil of terrorism and objected to the high profile media coverage of the terrorists and their ‘fifth column’ in the media. In reply, Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah of the PPP said the minister’s ‘explanations’ of the NSP had only deepened the confusion and failed to clarify whether the government had given up on the dialogue option in favour of an all-out military operation. He reminded the house that all the political parties in the All Parties Conference in September 2013 had backed the government’s dialogue efforts but the government in turn had not taken the house into confidence on the stalling of the talks and the way ahead. He pleaded for an in-camera briefing of the leaders of the political parties. This suggestion was welcomed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was on one of his rare visits to parliament, by saying an in-camera briefing would be arranged, any lacunae left by Chaudhry Nisar’s briefing to the house would be clarified, and the government would welcome any suggestions from the parties that helped fine-tune the NSP. The prime minister commented on democracy as the panacea for all Pakistan’s ills and the guarantee of a brighter future, praising the maturity acquired by the democratic system as compared to about two decades ago. Meanwhile COAS General Raheel Sharif reiterated the military’s ability and commitment to meeting all challenges, internal and external, to the country. He also met the prime minister and briefed him on the recent strikes against the terrorists’ bases. Speculation is now rife in the local media and even in the Washington Post that the decision to take the fight to the terrorists in North Waziristan has been taken and the military given the go-ahead. The corollary to that, if it proves true, will be arrangements to look after the populace that will likely be displaced as a result to ensure they are facilitated and do not succumb to anger against the authorities, which might aid the terrorist recruiting cause. All that can be said at this juncture is that the government so far is only talking ‘containment’ through the declared policy of retaliation against the Taliban’s headquarters for any and every act of terror anywhere in the country. Whether this proves the thin edge of the wedge of an all-out operation remains to be seen. So far, the TTP has rejected the demand for a ‘unilateral’ ceasefire and they or their affiliates are carrying on terrorist attacks here and there. The country therefore seems poised on the cusp of weighty decisions that could make or break the future of Pakistan.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Altaf’s inappropriate suggestion Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain has come up with yet another startling statement. In an interview with a television channel, Altaf said if the government does not support the elimination of terrorism, the army should take over to deal with this menace on its own steam. He went on to pose the continued existence of Pakistan and democracy as a mutually exclusive binary, plumping for the country ‘against’ democracy on the ground that the latter can only flourish if the country survives. Altaf appealed to the prime minister and army chief to come onto the same page for tackling the terrorists. Dialogue, he said, could only be held with those who are ready to lay down their arms, accept the state and the constitution. If the Taliban were unwilling to accept these conditions, Altaf added, a war should be launched against them instead of the (currently stalled) talks. Referring to the Quaid’s vision, Altaf argued that he had stated clearly that every citizen of Pakistan would be free to worship according to his faith and beliefs, that there was no compulsion in religion and no one could impose his own view on others through the bullet. He went on to say that people were unable to speak up against the Taliban because of fear. Altaf boasted that he had changed this atmosphere of fear by organising a rally of solidarity with the army and security forces in Karachi. The Taliban, he emphasized, were terrorists who have killed and slaughtered our army, law enforcement agencies personnel and policemen. They lash girls, kill them when they express joy in weddings, attack people in mosques and imambargahs and want to impose their version of sharia on these lines on us, which we reject on the basis of the constitution and Islam. While it is possible to agree with Altaf Hussain’s railing against the Taliban, it remains a mystery how he has come to the conclusion that the government and the army are not on the same page or that the government is not willing to take the fight to the terrorists. At best the government’s approach to terrorism could be criticised on the basis of putting too much faith in the possibility of peace through talks. But does that justify asking for a military takeover? As it is, events have increasingly convinced the government that it has to take a tougher line with the terrorists even if the door to negotiations is kept open, which it should. The government and military seem to be of one mind in the limited targeted aerial strikes that are ongoing against the terrorists. If push comes to shove and the state has to go all-out against the Taliban, no one in their right mind thinks that would have to be carried out through the agency of another military coup. Even the suggestion of such a course could be likened to treason against the constitution, for which the MQM’s erstwhile mentor and military dictator Musharraf is on trial currently. Nor does the history and results of military takeovers and interventions in our past lead in the direction of advocating such a step. On the contrary, the consensus after the first democratic transition in the country’s history last year is that the military has its job to do (currently a very difficult one as it is) and must remain out of the political quagmire. The present command seems inclined to respect the civilian democratic government and refrain from any sign that it is even remotely interested in politics. If anything, the military wants the political government, the polity and society generally to support its efforts against terrorism. Therefore Altaf’s inappropriate suggestion of a military takeover flies in the face of the constitution, political consensus, history and logic. The MQM leadership at home was at pains to limit the damage done by Altaf’s indiscretion. But nothing short of a clear and firm rejection of military takeovers from Altaf himself can undo the havoc his statement has wrought on the image, status and profile of the MQM.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
National Security Policy at last The federal cabinet approved the long awaited National Security Policy on Tuesday. Today (Wednesday), Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to announce the policy in the lower house, while Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali will give a detailed policy statement on the floor of the house. The cabinet also decided to facilitate internally displaced persons from North Waziristan, which prompted some observers to conclude that the government may be preparing an all-out offensive in the Agency. Imran Khan, in a u-turn on his ‘soft’ attitude to the Taliban, has argued for surgical strikes of the kind that have been taking place in the past few days against recalcitrant terrorists unwilling to talk. He has also urged the evacuation of the 600,000 people of North Waziristan to avoid collateral damage feeding into the recruitment drive of the Taliban. The prime minister demanded that the Taliban announce an unconditional ceasefire if they wanted the dialogue to be restarted. He underlined that the targeted strikes underway would be continued after the slaughter of 23 FC personnel. Meanwhile Chaudhry Nisar’s cricket ‘diplomacy’ earned him a rejection by the Taliban who said cricket and such sports were talking young people away from Islam, and derision on the social media for an idea that seemed absurd ab initio and proved infructuous at birth. Two significant events occurred on Monday: the killing of Asmatullah Shaheen and his companions, and the suicide attack on the Iranian consulate in Peshawar. The first indicates the long running festering fissures in the Taliban ranks have now assumed a bloody, possibly tit-for-tat killings character. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at his bitter rival Said Khan Sajna, both men having vied for the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) after the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud, and which finally brought Mulla Fazlullah to head the outfit. The days ahead are likely to see retaliatory attacks by the two factions on each other. Whether however, such internal rifts in the TTP will help the government’s cause is uncertain at present, given the impasse in the negotiations. The attack on the Iranian consulate was foiled by the security guards, after which the suicide bomber blew himself up, killing two FC soldiers and injuring 10 others. This is not the first time the consulate has been attacked. The target suggests it was the handiwork of the TTP or one of the sectarian terror groups operating in the country. The area where the consulate is located also houses other diplomatic missions and is heavily guarded. The suicide bomber was prevented from getting close enough to the consulate to damage it but at the cost of the security guards’ deaths and injuries. The incident once again highlights the risky work of the security forces guarding important buildings and installations when confronted by determined suicide bombers. In the National Assembly the Opposition was increasingly restless at the government’s failure to take the house into confidence regarding the status of the talks with the TTP and the government’s thinking on the way forward. The cry went up in the house that the government must take political ownership of any operation if being planned and that the prime minister must ‘lead’ in this regard. Hopefully the treasury benches will be able to allay the opposition’s angst in the briefings to the house today. Events are fairly rapidly moving in the direction of an all-out confrontation with the TTP. A full scale ground operation would probably require preparations and a wait for better weather. However, if the TTP or one of its sub-groups ventures to carry out another provocation of the type visited on the FC soldiers in their captivity, all bets are off. Pious and well intentioned as the government’s effort for a peaceful solution was, the sceptics are increasingly being proved right that we are dealing with a category of enemy that does not recognize any known rules of warfare or humane conduct and therefore deserves little if any mercy.
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Containment or elimination? The security scenario is getting so muddied and complicated that ordinary citizens may be forgiven for scratching their heads in mounting confusion. Perhaps what is needed is to sift what is clear from what is uncertain or obfuscated. It is clear, for example, that the government and military agreed to launch targeted precision strikes by the air force the other day in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency, and with helicopter gunships in Hangu on Saturday. The latter action killed nine terrorists, including a local Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander. The hits seem to have had a salutary effect on the TTP and its sympathisers in the committee negotiating on their behalf. Now increasingly the TTP seems to be emphasising and asking for a ceasefire and resumption of the peace talks by the government. The government on the other hand is demanding a ceasefire by the TTP before talks can resume. The deadlock has also produced ‘desperate’ appeals by Maulana Samiul Haq and Professor Ibrahim for sparing the terrorists the unwanted attentions of the military, even going to the extent of conceding that the constitution is not anti-Islam, implying there could be talks within its confines. This is however in sharp contrast with the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid’s reiteration of the TTP view that the constitution has nothing Islamic in it. This ‘discordance’ between the TTP and its negotiating committee spells more trouble in pinning down exactly what parameters the negotiations will be conducted within, if and when they restart. Although the government and the military have refrained from spelling out whether they intend to follow up the aerial bombardments with a full scale military offensive, fear has induced an exodus by people from North Waziristan in anticipation of an operation. In the past few days after the aerial bombardments, apart from minor terrorist incidents in remote areas of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there has been nothing on the scale of the 13 policemen killed in Karachi or the slaughter of the 23 FC personnel, both of which fed into the decision to ‘teach the terrorists a lesson’. Nevertheless, there is clearly no room for complacency as the TTP can return to its mayhem and murder any time, anywhere. Interestingly, most political parties, especially those that previously were seen as pro-Taliban, are shifting their positions in the light of the unfolding events. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf has guardedly supported the air strikes. The PPP, ANP and MQM were in the lead of condemning the terrorists and even calling the talks futile. The MQM held a rally in Karachi on Sunday against the Taliban. The JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rehman too has ‘distanced’ itself from the Taliban. Only the recalcitrant Jamaat-e-Islami continues to insist on no military operations and a continuation of the talks even if they fail a hundred times! The Jamaat lives in its own cloud cuckooland for which there is so far no known cure. Tomorrow, February 25, the federal cabinet will assemble to discuss the draft of the National Security Policy that has been in gestation for nine months. Media reports have leaked parts of the policy paper. The leaked reports speak of an analysis in the report of how much Pakistan has suffered at the hands of terrorism, outstripping such well known trouble spots as Iraq and Afghanistan. It also discusses the law enforcement and intelligence forces at the government’s command in relation to the challenges posed by the current situation. While we wish the cabinet Godspeed in its long delayed appraisal of the proposed policy’s analysis and recommendations, there remains a worrying question about the approach of the government. The retaliatory strikes by the military were just that: retaliatory. They were also limited in scope and intensity so as to avoid not only collateral damage but perhaps also a widening of the military action beyond the immediate area struck. Limited retaliation by the military smacks of a ‘containment’ strategy rather than ‘elimination’. That is another added factor in the confusion that has the country in its grip. What after all, does the government hope to achieve through ‘containment’ of the terrorist threat, described in the media reports on the policy paper as an existential threat? Coexistence with the terrorists? The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. In this case though, the government may willy nilly be ‘rescued’ from its illusions about minimum damage to be inflicted on the terrorists in the vain hope that their retaliation too would be limited. More likely than not, it is the terrorists who will soon force the government’s hand and nudge it towards the logic of hitting the terrorists hard.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Tit-for-tat is not a strategy The government is being described as having run out of patience with the continuing terrorist attacks even as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is ‘engaged’ in talks with the government. What is said to have tipped matters over the edge is the killing of 23 FC soldiers who had been held by the Taliban since 2010. They were mercilessly butchered and their bodies thrown on a roadside, according to the video released by their murderers. Earlier, an attack on a police bus that killed 13 policemen in Karachi had started the process of a rethink on the government’s part. The response to the FC men’s butchery saw the government and its committee refusing to continue the dialogue unless and until the TTP stops all terrorist activities, i.e. a ceasefire. Meanwhile the aerial bombardment of training camps and other bases in North Waziristan and Khyber Agencies has yielded a crop of foreign fighters, mostly Uzbeks, killed, arms and ammunition dumps and a bomb-making factory in Khyber destroyed. The armed forces empasised that these were precision strikes to keep collateral damage down and have proved effective enough, along with the government’s firmer stance, in persuading the TTP and their apologists to now plead for a resumption and continuation of the dialogue. Tactically, at the moment then, the initiative lies with the government and the military, and the ball is in the TTP’s court to provide an acceptable response or the talks are off. The only caveat with the government’s newfound ‘spine’ is that it remains tactical, not strategic. Talk of a ‘befitting response’, ‘teaching lessons’ and demanding those interested in a dialogue isolate themselves from the recalcitrants and abandon violence smack more of a ‘tit-for-tat’ approach rather than any well thought through strategic posture. In such a scenario, the strategic initiative still resides with the Taliban, since they can choose when and where to attack next. Retaliation, even with overwhelming force as in the North Waziristan and Khyber bombardments, will remain limited in its effect. Clearly, if the government spokespersons’ statements are read with care, what comes through is that the government still hopes the Taliban will see sense and return to the negotiating table sobered and willing to meet the government side halfway. Whether this pious hope will come through or not, only time will tell. Judging by the Taliban’s track record and ideology, it will remain a fond hope unless by some miracle the Taliban suddenly change overnight, an unlikely prospect, to put it mildly. Arguably, what the government is insisting on now, after the bloody events following the start of the talks, i.e. a ceasefire, should have been the first and irreducible demand for even starting the talks. Surprisingly, the government has protested to and asked for the help of the Afghanistan government in tracing out and punishing the killers of the 23 FC men since there are unconfirmed reports, according to the foreign office, that the incident took place on Afghan soil. The Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs, Mr Sartaj Aziz, has reportedly taken up the issue with his Afghan counterpart at the SAARC meeting in Male, reminding him of the agreement at the trilateral summit in Turkey recently that enjoined both Pakistan and Afghanistan to prevent their respective nationals from attacking across the border either way. This demand appears fruitless and ironic. Fruitless because if the incident did take place on Afghan soil, it was probably located in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan near the border, an area controlled by the Haqqani network and where Maulana Fazlullah and some of the TTP have reportedly found a safe haven. The Afghan government’s writ in that area is tenuous at best. Therefore relying on the Afghan authorities to deliver the murderers is wishful thinking, even if it is assumed Kabul is serious about helping the Pakistan side. Ironic because Pakistan conveniently turns a blind eye to its own role over four decades in providing safe havens and means of attacking Afghanistan from Pakistani soil. This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one. The tragic death of the 23 FC soldiers is a case of Pakistan’s chickens coming home to roost for all the interventions and misery it has caused to its western neighbour and its people. The government and the military authorities need to understand that what we are facing is a protracted war, in which not one but a series of military operations will be required over years to combat an enemy that is organized in small groups, is elusive in that terrain, and prepared to fight until it is convinced of the fruitlessness of its cause. This will require strong political will, and a strategic, not tactical or retaliatory approach to the terrorists’ activities.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Peace talks deadlock The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Mohmand Agency spokesman Omar Khurasani made the horrible claim on Sunday night that his organisation had slaughtered 23 FC personnel that they had kidnapped in 2010. Khurasani tried to justify the barbarity by arguing this was done in retaliation for the Taliban’s prisoners being killed in custody. This later claim was roundly rejected by the security authorities. Naturally the horror, recoil and condemnation of this barbaric act flowed thick and fast, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah all condemning the heinous act and making clear that the Taliban could not expect to get away with such killings while pretending to be engaged in peace talks. Reportedly, the Mohmand TTP was not in favour of dialogue with the government. But nothing can justify their murder of prisoners in their custody. The incident shows that the TTP are cowardly terrorists who do not even have any notion of honour where helpless prisoners in their custody are concerned. Talking to such people seems an exercise in futility and only self-delusion. Professor Ibrahim held a press conference after the government’s negotiating team did not turn up for a meeting with his Taliban appointed committee on Monday. While hard pressed not to justify the FC personnel’s massacre, he still tried to advocate the Taliban’s case, trying to shift the onus back onto the government. However the shadow of the massacre was too dark even for the most eloquent defender of the Taliban murderers. The denouement was that Professor Ibrahim signed off by asserting that the government was preparing a military offensive against the TTP. Certainly the talks deadlock in the wake of the massacre of FC personnel would seem to suggest that the option of military operations has become inescapable, as we have argued in this space it always was. The TTP has been harping on since the talks started on its core demands, which include the release of some 4,000 of their prisoners, withdrawal of the army from Waziristan and stopping all actions against them before a ceasefire could be contemplated. The prisoners demand has been modified by restricting it to the release of women, children and the elderly. But this too has been refuted by former interior minister Rehman Malik, who said no women or children were in the custody of the authorities. Meanwhile attacks against anti-polio vaccinators and their security detail continue in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as attacks on the security forces in FATA and the province. Clearly then, the facts speak of a TTP, fractious and divided as an umbrella group as it is, wedded to keeping up pressure on the government through terrorist attacks even while it ‘talks’ through unempowered intermediaries. Although the government seems in its public pronouncements to be taking a harder stance on the terrorists’ continuing attacks while the pretence of talks continues, it is still far from clear whether it has seen the light and understood the logic of those who have been advocating action against the terrorists as a necessary condition for meaningful talks. So far, the government has appeared on the back foot and the TTP enjoying all the initiative, both on the battlefield as well as in the political sphere. That may have changed and be changing daily with the unrelenting series of attacks the TTP has been carrying out since the talks began. We have believe d from the very outset of the talks effort that whether the government likes it or not, the TTP will eventually force it out of any illusions about the possibility of peace through talks alone, and force its hand vis-à-vis tough action against the TTP. The next few days will tell if that moment has arrived or not. In any case, whatever the timing of the almost inevitable military action against the TTP, the government and the military should put their heads together to prepare for the military operations and the anticipated retaliation by way of terrorist actions in the rest of the country.
Bilawal’s courage Pakistan speaks with many, disparate voices on the issue of terrorism. But one voice amongst the political class’ confused and contradictory babble stands out for its clarity of vision and principle. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young and emerging patron-in-chief of the PPP has shaken up the somnolent polity by launching and satisfactorily seeing through the Sindh Festival to raise awareness and love for Sindh and Pakistan’s ancient culture and Sufi bent, quibbling about the Festival’s credibility vis-à-vis that culture notwithstanding. It needs to be understood that culture and the country’s Sufi traditions are the direct antithesis of what the Taliban stand for. Through the two weeks the Festival lasted, people cutting across class, ethnicity, even political affiliation crowded its venues, thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and sent an unequivocal message to the Taliban that their dream of turning the country into a theological nightmare would not be allowed to succeed. That message was further driven home by Bilawal’s speech at the closing ceremony of the Festival in Thatta. The speech threw down the gauntlet to the Taliban, the threat to Bilawal and his family notwithstanding. No one can deny, whatever their other differences with the PPP, that the party, and in particular the Bhutto family, have played a big role in the resistance to the reactionary forces in our society. In that endeavour, the party’s cadres, and first and foremost the Bhutto family, have rendered tremendous sacrifices of life and security for the sacred cause of preventing the forces of darkness sweeping all that is good and healthy in our society into a cesspool of extremism, narrowness, theological dictatorship of the Taliban, and, as Bilawal put it, drag the country back into the Stone Age by misusing the name of Islam. Bilawal made a passionate appeal to the country to rise against the Taliban plan to impose their narrow ideology by force. Bilawal ‘advised’ the Taliban not to cross the limits, try to teach Islam to the sons and daughters of Babul (gateway of) Islam and understand that they would have to follow the constitution. Dialogue, he said, was always an option, but from a position of strength, not weakness. Since the Taliban are fighting us, we will have to beat them on the battlefield, he argued. Their attacks, he pointed out, were not confined to North Waziristan, they were attacking us as far afield as Karachi. Bilawal pledged that he would like to eliminate the Taliban from Pakistan. Everybody in the country should just admit that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is an enemy driven by the lust for blood and they have no interest in peace, despite the show of participating indirectly in the peace talks. Despite this obvious truth, Bilawal expressed surprise at some parties’ continuing insistence on holding talks with such deadly enemies. “Every drop of blood being sacrificed by the public and the nation’s brave armed forces is creating unity and consensus that beasts can never be lured through roses and they need to be responded to in the same language,” he added. Showing sympathy for and solidarity with the bereaved families of terrorism’s victims, he said he shared their pain since he too had lost his mother in the nation’s war for survival. Rounding off his address, Bilawal once again reiterated that the solution lay not in a dialogue with the terrorists but military operations to root them out. Since the start of 2014, 130 people have been killed. This has brought pressure to bear on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his government for the lack of a strong response to rising acts of terrorism. The government, despite paying lip service to the ‘other’ option, so far has put all its eggs in the basket of negotiations. In its own interest, it must tread carefully that this so far one-sided approach does not end up leaving all that egg on its face if the talks do not succeed in restoring peace and the government is found wanting for not having a strategy to fall back on. En route home from Turkey, the prime minister said the government was sincere, but violence must stop to allow the peace talks a chance. He also dispelled the speculation that the military was not one with the government on its talks strategy. While Bilawal clearly spelt out his view and that of the enlightened amongst us in Thatta, the maulvis (clerics) were at their obfuscatory best once again in the ulema convention in Islamabad. The path ahead has been lit by Bilawal. It is for us to take up that banner and march forward.
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Peace talks impasse? It was perhaps inevitable that the wave of intensified attacks by terrorists since the talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) began should sooner or later become a serious threat to the very continuation of the dialogue. That point appeared to have been reached on Friday when the two committees appointed by the government and the TTP met, later producing a joint statement. The statement reveals more in what it does not say rather than what it explicitly spells out. The committees want the TTP to suspend all terrorist attacks while the talks are ongoing. In a bit of face saving, the TTP-appointed committee put in its two cents worth by asking the government too not to take any actions that may impact negatively on the talks. As though the government has actually lifted even a finger to assault the terrorists! One positive in the statement was the call for the TTP to release kidnapees Shahbaz Taseer and Haider Gilani, the sons of slain Governor Salmaan Taseer and former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. One hopes that the talks process will at least yield this humanitarian outcome. The TTP-appointed committee’s head, Maulana Samiul Haq, called an ulema conference on Saturday to garner support for the peace talks. He also voiced his hope (as did fellow committee member Professor Ibrahim of the Jamaat-e-Islami) that a ceasefire would be achieved within 48 hours. We shall see. The TTP are being consulted by Samiul Haq and company regarding the government’s strict message that a continuation of the attacks and the talks cannot run side by side. In the first 45 days of 2014, 46 attacks have occurred all over the country, in which 361 people have been killed (277 civilians, 84 personnel of the security forces) and 487 injured. And all this was going on while not a single drone strike was in evidence since December 2013. That should take the wind out of the sails of those like Imran Khan who had pegged the terrorist attacks to retaliation against drones. And Imran Khan’s statement the other day that the former COAS said there were only 40 percent chances of a military operation succeeding was a case of the PTI leader either deliberately or because he failed to properly understand what General Kayani said, turning facts in their head. PML-N’s Raja Zafarul Haq told the Senate that in fact General Kayani had said a military operation would bring down terrorist attacks by 40 percent straight away. Of the 46 attacks since January 1, the TTP has only taken responsibility for one, the bombing that killed policemen in their bus in Karachi. All the other attacks have either been denied by them or a pregnant silence maintained. Conspiracy theories of a ‘third force’ operating to sabotage the peace talks have proved to be so much hot air. Attacks in Karachi and elsewhere in the country are continuing. A Rangers sector commander in Korangi, Karachi, escaped a suicide bombing on Friday but four people, including a Rangers officer, were injured. This is the same area in which three polio workers were gunned down last month. Peshawar’s cinemas have closed indefinitely after two recent blasts. Eight people were wounded on Friday in the same city in a blast targeting a police car. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Taliban control one-third of Karachi. Sobering facts indeed. The prospects for the peace talks were always dim. First and foremost, what the growing frustration of the committees shows is that the composition of these committees, in which the government or elected members of parliament on the one hand, and the TTP on the other are not directly represented, have no powers to take decisions, but can only act as conduits passing messages back and forth between the government and the TTP. This could turn out to be a long and cumbersome process which, if the terrorist incidents continue, could come a cropper soon. The sixty four thousand dollar question then remains, what Plan B, if any, does the government have? Is the military preparing to take action in case the talks fail? Will the civilian and military sides agree on what is to be done and how to go about it? The next few days bear watching.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Cricket shambles Pakistan cricket has been facing many serious challenges for some years now, including first and foremost the refusal of teams to play on Pakistani soil because of security concerns stemming from the attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2007. Since then, Pakistan has been reduced to playing its ‘home’ series offshore in the UAE. Inevitably, this has had an effect on our cricket team’s performance, deprived as it is of the oxygen of home audiences’ support. As if this was not enough, the musical chairs farce that has afflicted the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) since last year has reduced Pakistan’s cricket and general standing to a laughing stock internationally. It may be recalled that the International Cricket Council (ICC), the global governing body of the game, had adopted rules that envisaged elected officials for the boards of member countries and non-interference by governments in the affairs of the sport. The effort to adopt a constitution and hold elections to the PCB, which elected Zaka Ashraf as chairman, ran into trouble with the courts when petitions challenging the process of the elections, and therefore Zaka Ashraf’s incumbency, bore fruit in his removal by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) on the grounds that the elections were flawed. Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif, himself a keen cricketer, after assuming office last year, took some far-reaching decisions. First and foremost, he shifted the office of patron-in-chief of the PCB from the president to the PM. Wise or not, given that the president is supposed to be above party affiliations and the PM clearly is not, the move could be considered in violation of the spirit and letter of the ICC’s decisions. Not only this, the PM then appointed Najam Sethi to replace Zaka Ashraf, amidst a great deal of finger pointing that this was done to ‘reward’ Sethi for ‘services rendered’ while he was caretaker chief minister Punjab. True or not, the allegations have resurfaced (in Imran Khan’s going public with his accusations against Sethi of being complicit in election rigging in last year’s general elections) after Zaka Ashraf, having won his legal battle and been restored as chairman by the IHC in January, was summarily removed by the PM on February 10 through a notification considered in violation of the PCB constitution. Further, the PM dissolved the Board of Governors of the PCB and created a ‘new’ eight-member management committee of the PCB (three of its members were part of the dissolved PCB Board). This committee, in its first meeting, restored Sethi as chairman. The restored chairman and management committee then got down to wielding the axe and sacking Zaka’s appointees to various posts, replacing them with their preferred candidates. Whether each and every one of these decisions passes the test of ‘due process and transparency’ the new management committee says it is wedded to, and on the basis of which it struck down many of Zaka’s appointments, remains a moot point. Inevitably, this constant chopping and changing in the PCB has had, and is likely to have, deleterious effects on the already parlous state of Pakistan cricket. The ICC may also get into the act if it takes adverse notice of the latest measures. The alarmist view is that the changes could attract Pakistan’s suspension from international cricket. Even if that prognosis proves overblown, there is little doubt that the lack of constancy and continuity in Pakistan cricket is bound to take its toll in the run up to the two major tournaments we are scheduled to play: the Asia Cup and the World T20, and after. However, the saga of political factionalism and matters being decided on the basis of likes and dislikes rather than merit is unlikely to end any time soon. For a start, it will be back to the courts, since two petitions challenging Zaka’s removal have been moved in the IHC. Suspiciously, a petition has also been moved against Zaka Ashraf alleging corruption and mismanagement while heading the Agricultural Development Bank and the PCB. The timing leaves a bad taste and suspicions of ‘harassment’ cannot be lightly dismissed. Individuals come and go; the game and the country’s prestige should be the primary concern of all. Given our national penchant for destroying institutions and flouting all rules, conventions and principles, Pakistan cricket seems set for a rough ride ahead.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Headway in peace talks? The news from all sides involved in the peace negotiations is that optimism is rife about headway being made. The two negotiators who flew to North Waziristan for talks with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) shura, Professor Mohammad Ibrahim of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Maulana Samiul Haq’s coordinator Maulana Yousaf Shah are hopeful that a ceasefire may soon come into effect. The shura, which received the government team’s set of demands, is reported to have given a positive response to the proposals and in turn sent their demands through these intermediaries. The second set of demands have not yet been revealed. The burning issue remains whether the TTP has accepted talks within the framework of the constitution or, as Maulana Abdul Aziz keeps insisting, is bent upon rejecting the constitution and relying on the Quran and Sunnah as ‘their’ constitution. According to the above two intermediaries, during their talks with the shura, both sides agreed to work for a better environment, pledged to exercise extreme restraint, and rounded off this bit of information with the priceless piece that the Taliban are ‘in no hurry’. In addition, they insist that the government should not make any ‘unnecessary’ demands so as not to complicate the talks, without specifying what they consider ‘unnecessary’. Although the shura’s latest demands are not known, we do know that they have put forward 15 tough demands the other day. These include the release of all 4,000 Taliban prisoners, including those awaiting execution, and the withdrawal of the army from the tribal areas. It does not take a genius to understand that these demands are aimed at strengthening the hand of the TTP by restoring its imprisoned fighters to its ranks and leaving the tribal areas at their mercy. A TTP commander is quoted as saying these two demands are a 'test case’ for the government. Indeed they are, but not in the sense the commander means. If the government were to accede to these two demands, it would strengthen the widely held perception that the dialogue process leads to a surrender by the state before the terrorists. While Maulana Samiul Haq, Professor Ibrahim and Mufti Kifayatullah are painting the talks process as positive and optimistically proclaiming it will lead to peace, critics are apprehensive that this may turn out to be the peace of the graveyard as far as state and society are concerned. The voices of opposition to these developments are plenty, but they seem incapable of creating a critical mass of opinion to overcome the steady march of the terrorists to centre-stage and further, thanks to the prevaricating approach of the government and its blind (some say cowardly) adherence to a process that promises possible disaster. Opposition senators the other day expressed their apprehensions and criticism of the path taken by the government. For one, a very valid point was raised in the house by Senator Raza Rabbani of the PPP when he questioned why only right wing interlocutors are represented in the negotiating teams and no liberal, democratic and progressive voice is part of the process. As critics have previously noted, both sets of committees are pro-Taliban. Where then is the alternative presence? Meanwhile the optimism of the pro-Taliban clerics involved in the talks process contrasts sharply with the situation on the ground. On Monday, four women were killed by a suicide attack in Peshawar, three school teachers were killed in Hangu district and seven troops injured by a bomb blast in North Waziristan. Eleven people were injured on Tuesday in another grenade attack on a cinema in Peshawar. Does this sound like peace is about to break out? Meanwhile, despite a Corps Commanders’ conference on Monday, ostensibly to discuss ‘professional matters’, the silence of the army on the peace process or the security situation in the country has been dubbed ‘deafening’ by some commentators. Hopes (and illusions) of peace aside, the situation is at a delicately poised conjuncture, with worrying divisions emerging in the polity and society, in conjunction with a possible civil-military disconnect.
Sunday, February 9, 2014
Triumph of the ‘Big Three’ The controversial revamp of international cricket sought by the ‘Big Three’, India, England, Australia, finally came to pass at a hastily called International Cricket Council (ICC) board meeting in Singapore on Saturday. The three movers of the restructuring plan managed to garner eight out of the 10 member countries’ votes when South Africa changed its stance at the last minute. This greatly disappointed Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Zaka Ashraf because the opposition to the restructuring plan had been led by Pakistan, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Pakistan and Sri Lanka decided to abstain rather than vote against the proposal at the end, perhaps with an eye to not missing out completely on whatever crumbs may be thrown their way in future. The opposing cricket boards have been supported throughout the cricket community by former players, officials, and even Lord Harry Woolf, author of a report that urged greater distribution of power at the ICC. The gist of the criticism centres on the alarming trend of letting commerce and money dictate matters rather than the spirit and overall interests of the sport. This trend of course is not confined to cricket. Sports’ once much lauded values of sportsmanship, healthy competition and respect for opponents have almost fallen by the wayside. This is not only a crisis of values, it is also the result of the dominant consideration of money. The real bones of contention in the ICC’s restructuring plan centre around the distribution of revenues and the future of the tours programme. The ICC hitherto had a revenue distribution system that shared global revenues equitably amongst the 10 member countries so as not to disadvantage boards that could not pull in the same kind of revenues as cricket giant India (80 percent of global revenues because of a huge domestic market) and England and Australia. The vaguely worded formulation to replace this distribution system says revenues will be distributed according to countries’ ‘financial, sporting and historical contributions’ to the sport. The ‘financial’ part is easier to understand, since it is tangible and calculable, and may even be the real reason for the big three to have insisted on and lobbied for their proposals. It is not clear who will and on what criteria decide the ‘sporting’ and ‘historical’ contributions of all teams. These terms appear more as a sop to camouflage the money-driven plan rather than a serious attempt to lay down acceptable criteria for revenue distribution. Even more alarming, the ICC’s Future Tours Programme, designed to guarantee series for all Test teams, will be replaced by what has been called ‘a series of binding, bilateral agreements to be struck between members’. This may translate into the big three preferring to play each other more with an eye on the sponsorship possibilities and ticket gate rather than in the overall interests of the world game. If this triangular monopoly comes to pass, India could easily take away 80 percent of global revenues from cricket, leaving England and Australia too with a relatively smaller share, and the rest with any crumbs left over. Series planning too may disadvantage the other seven Test countries since the big three may not be amenable to series that their boards feel would not bring the same returns as series amongst themselves. This implies that a two-tier structure may be looming, with the big three in a privileged category and the rest left to fend for themselves. Pakistan in particular could be amongst the worst sufferers since teams have been unwilling to play on Pakistani soil because of security concerns stemming from the attack on the Sri Lankan team some years ago. ‘Home’ series offshore in the UAE cannot substitute, and India’s recent refusal to play Pakistan there highlights the dilemma. Without adequate exposure to competitive international cricket, Pakistan’s sport may face a bleak future. The sop the ICC has thrown to assuage the sting is the creation of a Test Cricket Fund to boost the other seven countries, but it is unclear where the money for this will come from, how much will be in this kitty, and how it will be distributed on what criteria. It may appear premature to declare the death of cricket as we have come to know it in recent times. But certainly the reservations and criticisms of knowledgeable stakeholders of the game have weight and their alarmist prognoses may not be too far off the mark.
Saturday, February 8, 2014
Peace talks convolutions Early in the talks process between the government appointed committee and the Taliban appointed one, hitches and glitches galore have surfaced. Maulana Abdul Aziz of Lal Masjid in a press conference stringently objected to the agreement between the two sides in their first meeting to keep the discussion within the confines of the constitution. He said he was not withdrawing from the committee but would take no further part in the talks unless and until sharia was imposed. This crack in the Taliban appointed committee was sought to be papered over by other members of the committee, including Maulana Samiul Haq and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). However, later it seems Maulana Abdul Aziz had softened his hard line stance. However, the TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid endorsed the stand of Maulana Abdul Aziz in a statement to media by reiterating that the dialogue could only be for the imposition of sharia. Latest reports say another member of the Taliban committee, Senator Ibrahim and one other person had been flown by helicopter to an undisclosed location in North Waziristan to convey to the TTP nine member council overseeing the talks process the discussions in the first meeting and the demands of the government side. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has praised the work of the government committee while Information Minister Pervez Rashid has promised every help and facilitation to the talks process. Imran Khan is his usual contradictory self. On the one hand he says the constitution guarantees sharia, although he does not agree with the interpretation of Islam by the Taliban. He claims those who insisted the Taliban wanted sharia had been exposed by the TTP's acceptance of the framework of talking within the confines of the constitution (perhaps he should have paid attention to what Maulana Abdul Aziz and TTP’s Shahidullah Shahid were saying). On the other hand he says in an interview that the talks will likely fail and the following military operation will increase bloodshed in the country. He then reverts to his old argument about the US-led war on terror in the region and the drones issue. According to him, the only way to secure peace is for Pakistan to withdraw from the war and for the US to stop drone attacks. If only life were truly so simple. Meanwhile Rehman Malik in the Senate has questioned the constitutional and legal validity of the government talking to a banned outfit. At a minimum, he argued, terror attacks should stop during the talks and the Taliban should themselves join the process. If there are cracks in the Taliban negotiating committee, there are an equal if not greater number of cracks in political opinion across the board. Every party, except the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, is questioning the process of negotiations for one reason or another. Most are sceptical of their success. Not all however are willing to come out clearly and unambiguously for dealing with the terrorists as they deserve rather than making them stakeholders in the state and elevating them to the ironic status of peace partners. A close reading of the TTP’s statements and those of their apologists and supporters shows that their insistence on sharia (as interpreted by them) as the basis of the state negates the constitution and is aimed at imposing the nightmare system seen in the 1990s in Afghanistan, in which women, minorities and those of liberal, democratic, progressive persuasion would be, literally, put to the sword. Since the government and most political parties, including those harbouring reservations about the negotiations process are ambiguous about their attitude to the TTP, it falls upon the (admittedly weak) shoulders of people of the above persuasion to come together and ensure that Pakistan is not sold down the river to fanatics, terrorists and the enemies of progressive humanity.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
And so the games begin The stuttering start to the talks between the government appointed negotiating team and the Taliban appointed team finally came to pass on Thursday when the two sides gathered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa House in Islamabad. It has been reported that the talks proceeded in a cordial atmosphere, something that prompted some cynics to dub the affair a dialogue of the Taliban with itself. That may be an extreme view, but there is room for examination of the first round and the possible parameters of the negotiations in the days ahead. A joint statement followed the talks, with the points of agreement highlighted. First and foremost, both sides agreed to conduct the negotiations within the framework of the constitution. This is a significant statement since on the eve of the talks, the Taliban committee had taken a hard line that there could be no talks, let alone peace, unless sharia was imposed and the US-led forces withdrew completely from Afghanistan. However, they seem to have softened their opposition to meeting on the ground that since sharia was already part of the constitution, it could and should be implemented and there was no need to reject or change the constitution. What the Taliban and their nominees mean by sharia however is a narrow literalist Wahabi interpretation that does not find acceptance by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Pakistan, let alone its non-Muslim citizens. The second point of the joint statement says the scope of the negotiations will be limited to the ‘troubled areas’. By this formulation what the negotiators mean is FATA and its environs only, which leaves open the question of who or what will prevent the spate of attacks all over the rest of the country. The two sides also agreed to stop statements against each other so as not to disturb progress in the talks. The Taliban committee demanded that Taliban prisoners be revealed and released. The government committee however postponed consideration of the sharia and prisoners’ release demands to later rounds. The Taliban negotiating committee wants meetings with the president, prime minister, COAS and the DG ISI. They also want the lifting of the ban on extremist organisations, first and foremost the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The government is reported to be consulting legal experts regarding the possibilities on this score. The government’s team demanded an end to suicide bombings and terrorist acts, while the Taliban committee demanded the military announce a ceasefire, which it would respond to in kind. After the first round of talks, the Taliban committee said it would convey the contents of the meeting to the Taliban. The preliminary exploration by the two sides of each other’s positions and room for convergence has not, nor perhaps could it be expected to, yielded any surprises. The Taliban committee reiterated many of the demands the Taliban have been making from time to time. The government team however could face dilemmas about the interpretation of the sharia being part of the constitution and therefore to be implemented without let or hindrance. Some observers are relieved the first meeting took place at last, which looked difficult in the past few days. What it is likely to yield however, still attracts a great deal of scepticism. In other words, the distance between the two sides, open or implied, still appears to the sceptics to be unbridgeable. A more fundamental question is whether the Taliban nominated committee has the mandate to take any decisions, and whether the nine-member council announced by the TTP to oversee the negotiations has the authority to arrive at a settlement. It should not be forgotten that the TTP is merely an umbrella group under which some 40-50 autonomous extremist organisations operate. The fractured nature of the TTP therefore raises the question whether, even if some agreement is reached, the Taliban as a whole will accept it. This fractured nature of the Taliban was in evidence when the Peshawar chief of the TTP accepted responsibility for the Peshawar sectarian bombing the other day that killed eight people. This local chief argued that since there was no ceasefire, the attack was justified. Suppose a ceasefire is agreed, if it remains limited to ‘troubled areas’, attacks could continue in the rest of the country, casting shadows of doubt on the efficacy of the negotiations process. It would perhaps be wise to watch the next rounds (assuming they take place) of the talks before coming to firm conclusions, but on past and present evidence at least, the room for scepticism is growing, if anything.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Optimism and reality Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif continues to express optimism regarding the talks with the Taliban even while events are raising ever new questions and leading to more and more scepticism about the talks getting started, let alone reaching any acceptable conclusion. Although the prime minister has staked his own reputation and standing on the outcome by saying he will personally oversee the whole process, assisted by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, the portents are not good. After the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan and the JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced on Monday that they were pulling out of the committee nominated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the former shielding its leader behind the argument that Rustam Shah Mohmand of the PTI was already part of the government’s team and the latter objecting to Mufti Kifayatullah being nominated without the JUI-F being consulted, the TTP expressed its disappointment at the development. No surprise, their replacements the TTP is said to be contemplating are none other than Orya Maqbool Jan and Ansar Abbasi. So the parade of the TTP’s Trojan horses continues. So far all the TTP’s nominees, original and contemplated new, are people well known for their leanings towards the Taliban. Imran Khan may have found it too embarrassing to be seen as a Taliban representative at the talks, but Maulana Samiul Haq, Professor Ibrahim Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz do not have any such compulsions. If the committee is not added to, these three worthies will be the Taliban’s negotiators. As if all these early hitches were not enough, the Maulana Samiul Haq committee objected on Tuesday to being kept waiting for the government committee to meet it all day Monday. The prime minister’s point man on the government’s committee, Irfan Siddiqui responded that his committee was ready to meet the Taliban-nominated committee immediately. His explanation for the glitch was that the Maulana Samiul Haq committee having been shorn of two out of five members, the expectation was that the Maulana would now consult the TTP before proceeding further. For all practical purposes therefore, the talks stand suspended even before they have begun. Meanwhile the debate about the talks continues to swirl in and outside parliament. Senators on Monday came down hard on the government for its inability to protect the lives and properties of citizens, with no clear path in sight of how it intends to tackle the law and order and terrorism problems. In fact, they described the government as a mere spectator while people were dying every day. The Senators were also alarmed by the lack of coordination between the federal government and the provincial governments, all of whom seemed to be going in different directions. The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah of the PPP wants a timeline for the talks (i.e. not an open-ended and possibly interminable process). However, he fell for the conspiracy theory that the grenade attack in a Peshawar cinema on Monday was carried out by some mysterious ‘third force’ since the TTP had denied responsibility (a view startlingly close to that of Maulana Samiul Haq). If Shah sahib had not jumped the gun he would have discovered that the Jundollah group, a terrorist organisation operating under the umbrella of the TTP, did claim responsibility. That ‘claim’ may well be a tactic the TTP has worked out to deny all responsibility for any attacks during the (for the moment halted) talks process so as to keep its image squeaky clean. However, anyone who falls for this trickery would be very naïve. While the MQM Rabita Committee presses Imran Khan to take up the task of being part of the TTP’s negotiating team, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is clear about who we are; not the Taliban certainly. His thoughts on terrorism, despite the security threats to him and his family and party, are refreshingly honest and straight. More politicians should emulate his example. Only then can Pakistan have any hope of turning the corner against the terrorists. The prime minister met COAS General Raheel Sharif on Monday amidst speculations the army is unhappy about the fact that the government has put all its eggs in the basket of the talks while the troops are being threatened and attacked by the terrorists. It may be a knee-jerk response rooted in our past to think that therefore the army and the government are at loggerheads. A more prosaic but perhaps more accurate view may well be that the army is itching to strike back at the terrorists but is prepared to wait until the government’s peace initiative runs its course and political support for military action is assured.
Monday, February 3, 2014
Imran Khan’s embarrassment The inclusion of Imran Khan’s name in the committee announced by the Taliban to negotiate on its behalf with the government has proved deeply embarrassing to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and its leader. Imran’s critics had already characterised his emphasis on peace talks and his campaign to stop NATO supply routes out of Afghanistan as betraying his pro-Taliban leanings, with some going so far as to dub him ‘Taliban Khan’. The inclusion of Imran’s name in the five-member committee nominated by the Taliban certainly shows that he is among the ‘trusted’ as far as the terrorists are concerned. The PTI’s core committee has decided to reject Imran Khan’s inclusion in the committee, ostensibly, the party says, because it is beneath his stature. Others are of the view however that this decision was dictated more by the potentially even more embarrassing ‘labelling’ of Imran Khan and his politics had he chosen to go along with the Taliban’s suggestion. Imran Khan has thus put some distance, but perhaps not sufficient, between himself and the Taliban. The refusal came despite fellow committee nominee Maulana Samiul Haq’s pleas to Imran Khan to accept the offer. The damage to Imran Khan’s image, despite the refusal, will not go away easily. As far as the actual process of the peace talks is concerned, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar sees the announcement of the Taliban negotiating team after the government had created it own negotiating team as positive, but he still had questions about the mandate and powers of the Taliban’s committee and whether the Taliban would accept and follow its decisions. That may be jumping the gun since the refusal of Imran Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz for different reasons has left the committee short of two members. Whether they will be replaced by the Taliban with new names is not yet known. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman, despite his party member being nominated on the Taliban’s committee, is not satisfied and is raising the question why the jirga process is being ignored for the purpose of restoring peace. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has in the meantime assured full security to the government negotiating team wherever the talks are held. Given the Taliban’s obvious reluctance to hold the talks where the government has complete sway, the likelihood is that the venue will be one of the Taliban’s choosing. On balance, the announcement of the two negotiating teams has thrown interesting light on their composition and possible effectiveness. As far as the TTP is concerned, they have announced what many believe to be the ideal team from their point of view: all pro-Taliban or at the very least sympathetic to them. There is also the added tactical shifting of onus onto those who believed peace was possible. They are now being asked to put their money where their mouth is. However, the question remains: will any decision arrived at by the team be acceptable to the Taliban without demur? Unlikely, and therefore the talks process promises to be long and complicated. The government’s committee is composed of right-leaning personalities who are essentially ‘technocrats’ without experience or skills in negotiating conflict. The absence of any weighty political figure in the government’s team suggests that its ‘suggestions’ will not amount to more than that and it is the government that will take the final decisions, should any be arrived at in the first place. The entire process appears on the face of it to be mired in so much uncertainty that the euphoria over the very fact it may start may prove premature.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
MQM and the BBC The MQM has taken hysterical umbrage at a BBC Newsnight report by veteran journalist Owen Bennett-Jones regarding its chief Altaf Hussain’s current problems with the law. Owen Bennett-Jones is no stranger to Pakistan or its political landscape. He has served many years in the country as the BBC’s correspondent. His track record of reportage has always met the highest standards of the BBC for impartiality, objectivity and adherence to the facts, not to mention the strict editorial control of content for which the BBC is justly famous. To ascribe, therefore, to Owen Bennett-Jones or the BBC claims of playing to some ‘foreign and local’ conspiracy tune is to stretch credibility almost to breaking point. The Newsnight report dealt with the Imran Farooq murder case and charges of money laundering that cropped up after the London Metropolitan Police raided Altaf Hussain’s residence and recovered large amounts of unexplained cash. The raid was reportedly conducted as part of the investigation into the Imran Farooq murder. The MQM has castigated the BBC report as “maliciously slanderous” and its Rabita Committee delegation has delivered a protest memorandum to the British Deputy High Commissioner in Islamabad. On Sunday the MQM held a rally in Karachi to protest what it characterizes as a conspiracy to defame and frame Altaf Hussain and to show the party’s solidarity with its increasingly embattled leader, having postponed the event by a day so as to avoid disrupting life in the city on a working day. Solicitous as the thought is, the MQM has not been known in the past to care much about Karachi’s citizens’ convenience. If the party has turned over a new leaf in this respect, this is a positive sign. MQM’s legal eagle Farogh Nasim has written to Owen Bennett-Jones to refute the charges laid at Altaf Hussain’s door and to demand that the interview he gave the BBC for the Newsnight programme be aired in its entirety. It may be recalled that estranged former MQM Secretary General Imran Farooq, who had been living in London in self-imposed exile for many years and had in recent years distanced himself from the party and its leader reportedly over differences, was attacked and murdered near his home by unknown assailants. The plot thickens with the revelation, repeated in the BBC report, that two men are in Pakistan’s custody on suspicion of being the murderers. The two were picked up in Karachi as soon as they landed there from London via Sri Lanka. Since their arrest, not much is known about their fate, with contradictory reports saying the Pakistani authorities have not officially acknowledged having them in their custody, despite a British police request for information and possible extradition of the two men. The MQM denies it has any links with the two men, who fled Britain within hours of Imran Farooq’s murder and whose associate believed to have assisted their flight is reportedly in London police custody. The murkiness of the internal affairs of the MQM is well known. There have been unproved allegations against the party over many years regarding its ‘treatment’ of dissidents. Logically, Imran Farooq had no personal enemies. His murder cannot be distanced from its political context. The finger of suspicion therefore naturally pointed first and foremost at the MQM and its leader. Britain, however, is not a third world country. It has well established and respected judicial institutions. If the MQM feels aggrieved by the BBC report, which by the way did not reveal anything new but framed in context what has already appeared in the media (at least in Pakistan) for some time. Mr Nasim’s complaint may have weight that his views were edited out in refutation of the charges against his leader, but that is for the BBC to take a decision on. As far as the British government is concerned, it is unlikely to be moved by the MQM’s protest. If anything the British authorities need to answer the question why Altaf Hussain has been allowed initially asylum and later citizenship while he continues to hold Karachi and the country hostage through his politics of agitation whenever the MQM is no longer in power and unable to enjoy the perks and benefits of office. Britain and the BBC may or may not respond to the MQM’s protests, but it would do the party no good to think that it can apply the kind of pressures there that they are accustomed to resorting to back home, and which include browbeating governments and the media. Irrespective of the merits of their case, the MQM may be better served, if they think they have a grievance to be addressed, by approaching the British courts rather than resorting to their usual show of strength on the streets of Karachi.
Saturday, February 1, 2014
Musharraf’s legal quagmire The special court hearing General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s treason case has rejected his plea to be allowed to go abroad on the grounds that it does not have jurisdiction to take his name off the Exit Control List (ECL). In addition, the court, after examining the medical report submitted by the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology (AFIC), ruled that there appeared nothing in the report to justify Musharraf’s request to be allowed to travel, preferably to the US where his doctor resides, for treatment. Prima facie, the court held, the AFIC report does not indicate that the doctors who examined him had suggested that there was any restriction on his movement, therefore his non-appearance in court despite several summons for nearly a month was not justified. The court issued bailable warrants of arrest, bail available if he deposits a bond for Rs 2.5 million. The court fixed February 7 for the next date of hearing, ordering Musharraf’s appearance once again. The bailable warrants of arrest will be served on Musharraf by the IG police. Musharraf has avoided appearance before the court so far, the reasons cited for his absence being security and later his health. Reports say his legal team is of the view that he should avoid appearance before the special court so long as its challenge to the formation, legality and jurisdiction of the court, which is sub judice, is decided. From one angle this is not an unreasonable argument. If the fundamental question of the special court’s setting up and power to conduct Musharraf’s trial has been challenged and until it is decided, the court cannot reasonably proceed with the trial. Despite this view of Musharraf’s defence team, legal experts are of the view that at the next date of hearing, February 7, all justifications for non-appearance other than that fundamental challenge having been rejected, Musharraf will not be able to avoid appearance. If he still does, non-bailable warrants could be issued and he could be arrested, even from hospital. The legal noose has been tightening around the General’s neck slowly but surely. His defence team has had a tough time getting the courts to give relief of any kind. For example, a Supreme Court larger bench has rejected Musharraf’s two review petitions asking for revisiting the apex court’s July 31, 2009 verdict that laid the foundations for the NRO case and Musharraf’s treason charge. The petitions were rejected on the ground that they were time barred and lacked merit. So that fundamental challenge was beaten back, and now the tactic of non-appearance too appears to have run its logical course. It makes sense for Musharraf to appear before the court as soon as possible. Musharraf would do his cause much good by allaying the impression that he is deliberately avoiding appearance. Considering that in the past Musharraf has rejected all advice to stay away from the country, and after returning, to leave, he should now translate into practice his oft-repeated claim to want to stay and fight out the cases against him. Appearance before the court would not in any way weaken his challenge to the formation and jurisdiction of the special court. Unfortunately reports say his legal team is still relying on challenging the special court’s order for appearance before February 7 in the superior courts. Whether such an appeal would be upheld is a moot point however. It is unlikely any superior court would see fit to interfere with a perfectly legal order for appearance by the accused. The case has aroused great interest amongst some sections, particularly legal circles, since it is the first time in Pakistan’s history that a military dictator is being tried for treason. On the other hand some observers see the whole exercise as a massive distraction from the urgent task of taking on the Taliban. The historic nature of the conjuncture is undeniable, notwithstanding reservations about the partial and arguably partisan nature of the charge being restricted to Musharraf’s November 7, 2007 imposition of emergency while ignoring the larger issue of the coup of October 12, 1999. These and other anomalies and unanswered questions still cast a long shadow over the proceedings, and it seems unlikely, even if Musharraf is indicted on his first appearance on February 7, that the whole affair will end any time soon.