Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Afghan transition In a historic first, Afghanistan witnessed a democratic handover of power on September 29, swearing in former technocrat Ashraf Ghani as its new president after a decade of outgoing president Hamid Karzai’s rule. However, the peculiarity in this transition has been the problems flowing out of a disputed presidential election, particularly its second runoff round, which reversed the outcome of the first round in which Ashraf Ghani’s rival Abdullah Abdullah got more votes. Since no candidate got the required more than 50 percent of the votes in the first round, the runoff became necessary. The announced results of the runoff round declared Ashraf Ghani the winner, leading Abdullah Abdullah to cry fraud and throwing the whole transition into doubt. US Secretary of State John Kerry then, in a deft display of trouble shooting diplomacy, mediated a power sharing agreement between the two rivals whereby Ashraf Ghani has been sworn in as president and Abdullah Abdullah in a newly created post of chief executive, equivalent to a prime minister. The arrangement is of necessity a compromise to ensure the experiment in a peaceful transition through the ballot box is not derailed. However, there are still questions about how the power sharing arrangement will work in practice. Given the enormous challenges faced by the country, not the least of which is the impending withdrawal of foreign troops, the hope is that the two rivals can now put aside their acrimonious past through the last six months of the election process and come together to give Afghanistan a stable, functioning government. The biggest challenge of course remains the resurgent Taliban, underlining the threat from them by carrying on attacks against the Afghan army and security forces, keeping things on the boil and raising old and new concerns about the ability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to hold the line if the Taliban decide to go for a big push after the overwhelming majority of foreign forces leave by December this year. The relative leap in the dark that the transition and the ensuing power sharing arrangement reflect will at least put at rest the vexed issue of the agreement to be signed today that will allow about 25,000 US troops to remain in Afghanistan in a training mission. Outgoing president Hamid Karzai had refused to sign the agreement, but one of Ashraf Ghani’s first acts after being sworn in was to announce the agreement would be signed. In his inaugural address, President Ashraf Ghani appealed to the Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups to join peace talks for a political settlement of the 13 year old current phase of the Afghan war that by now has exhausted the Afghan people after more than four decades of warfare and worn thin the political will and ability of foreign backers and donors to keep the Afghan enterprise afloat. What, if any, the Taliban’s response will be is uncertain, although judging by Afghan history and the ground situation, it is unlikely to be very positive. On the other hand, if the Taliban do decide to go for a big push after the foreign forces leave, the critical question will be if the ANA will be the bulwark it was meant to be to hold the line. Western military and economic aid will be critical to the outcome of the post-withdrawal possible conflict. As it is, the compromise between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah may never have come to fruition but for the threat of an aid cutoff from Afghanistan’s western backers. Already, the US has invested some $ 109 billion in aiding and helping Afghanistan since its invasion and occupation of the country in 2001 following 9/11, more than the post-Second World War Marshall Plan that reconstructed a Europe devastated by the war and laid the foundations of the post-war world. While Pakistan was represented at the inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani by President Mamnoon Hussain and prominent Pakistani Pashtun political leaders, Pakistan still has a critical role to play in translating its oft repeated formula of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process into reality. For the sake of the long suffering Afghan people, their neighbouring Pakistanis also threatened by terrorism, the region and the world, we hope the political transition in Kabul marks the beginning of Afghanistan’s turning the page from devastating decades of war and destruction to peace, development and friendship with its neighbours.
Monday, September 29, 2014
PTI’s Lahore rally While the original Islamabad sit-in may be seeing dwindling numbers after one and a half months, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) decision to take the agitation to other cities all over the country seems to be paying off. Compared to the Islamabad rally even at its peak, the Karachi rally a few days ago was bigger, and the Lahore rally on Sunday bigger still. Does this mean the lost momentum in Islamabad is being regained through the new strategy of spreading the agitation all over the country? That question may be answered in the days to come since the PTI has announced its intention to hold rallies in Mianwali, Peshawar, etc, in the next phase of its campaign. While the PTI can take comfort and even satisfaction away from Minto Park in Lahore, it is still possible to question the politics and end result of the agitation. First, to give credit where it is due, many issues of concern to the common man that were not being highlighted by our democracy have been raised by the PTI in its rallies and otherwise. This has sparked off a response from a people fed up of being ignored and their problems not addressed. However, the jury is still out whether this is a critical mass. The trend generally amongst the public appears to be that having pointed out some failings of the system and sparked off a debate about these and other issues in the public space, the PTI would be better served, and would have the opportunity to play its role better in national life if it revisits its strategy and some of its demands. Amongst the latter, the insistence by Imran Khan that Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif must resign is one of those unattainable demands that have arguably painted the PTI into a corner from which there is no retreat and seemingly no way out. Making a virtue of necessity, Imran Khan continues stubbornly to stick to this demand, to the extent of saying his party’s agitation will not end unless the PM goes home. “Go Nawaz go” may be an attractive slogan for the PTI’s enthusiasts, but apart from its diehard supporters, the PTI has not managed to grip the imagination of the vast majority of people through it. The reason is that most people, even if they agree with the PTI’s complaints about the election process in 2013 and Nawaz Sharif’s style of governance, do not find the demand for his resignation reasonable. Election complaints can and should be dealt with through the judicial commission the government has offered and which the PTI in principle has accepted. The audit of the 2013 elections, unlike the one in Afghanistan’s presidential polls, need not be a total one nor consume as much time. It should focus on the seats about which there are complaints of alleged rigging and/or anomalies in the polling process. Ideally, the PTI wants this audit completed within 45 days, a tough but not unattainable target. At the same time, the conundrum about the resignations of PTI’s parliamentarians has travelled in similar style from the National Assembly to now the Punjab Assembly too. The Punjab PTI MPAs insist they want to be called by the Speaker of the Punjab Assembly collectively to ascertain their resignations are voluntarily offered and not due to any pressure, in similar fashion to the standoff with the National Assembly Speaker. Analysts see this as a sign the PTI is not confident of the individual elected members’ commitment to the resignations strategy. Travelling out of the system after winning seats makes little sense, while leaving the question of the PTI-led ruling coalition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa dangling in the air. The enthusiasm of the PTI’s members and supporters in their rallies aside, the politics of the PTI, stripped of verbiage and hype boils down to defining ‘change’ as the claimed ability of the PTI team to manage the existing political, economic and social system better than anyone else through reforms and better governance. It in no way implies any revolutionary reframing of property relations (land, wealth, etc) or offer much in the way of sops to the poor. The transmogrification therefore of the “Go Nawaz go” slogan into “Go system go” as Imran has recently stated in his speeches is nothing but empty and misleading rhetoric. The PTI’s movement is no revolution, at least in the accepted meaning and definition of the term.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
Change of command Promotions and changes in the command of the armed forces have sometimes in the past engendered controversies, either at the time of such appointments or later during the tenure of the incumbents. It goes without saying that the closer such decisions are to the rules, procedures and normal processes, the more they enjoy legitimacy as they are seen as being based on merit and professionalism. To the extent therefore that the promotion of six Major-Generals of the army to Lieutenant-General and their posting to field and other professional tasks has proceeded smoothly and without hitch, the greater the anticipation that merit and professionalism have held sway, as they should. Five serving Lieutenant-Generals are retiring on October 1, and their successors have been named in advance as is the norm to allow a smooth transition. The change at the ISI is always the subject of much interest and the present one is no exception. The ISI’s past is littered with controversies on its role in politics. The elevation of (now) Lieutenant-General Rizwan Akhtar to the prized post of DG ISI merits the comment that he brings to the job impressive credentials in the counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism field. Since the country is confronting these twin menaces, his appointment certainly meets with approval generally. However, having said that, it would be salutary for the new DG to cast a glance over his shoulder at his predecessors and how and why they became controversial. General Pasha got embroiled in questions about his extension in service of one year, the bin Laden raid, and Memogate. His successor General Zaheer was controversially accused by a media group of being responsible for an attack on a TV anchorperson and has been hinted at (or at least his outfit has) by some circles as having played a role in the current political crisis. Such speculations seem to be a legacy of the past, in which the ISI’s role in the politics of the country and its elevated importance during the Afghan wars convinced some that it had become a state within a state. Whatever the truth about those years, it is difficult to argue today that the ISI is not within the famed discipline of the armed forces. Of course it is another matter that theoretically the ISI chief is supposed to report to the prime minister, but in practice more often than not this chain of command is redirected towards the COAS. The four new Corps Commanders appointed reflect the assertion by COAS General Raheel Sharif of his stamp on the top brass going forward, as every new COAS is wont to do. After all if the army’s overall commander is to have unity of command and control, it is natural that he should want people in place in crucial posts in whom he has trust and confidence. So although the media is speculating that a younger, newer top brass as reflected in these appointments is a sign of the ‘taking charge’ of the top echelons of the army by General Sharif and moving on from the legacy of his predecessor General Kayani, this is in the nature of things and hardly something of note. There are also speculations in the air that the ongoing crisis brought about by the sit-ins of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek that are credited with putting the government on the back foot and weakening its position has borne its first fruit in the shape of all these appointments that bear the imprimatur of the COAS, with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif merely acting as a rubber stamp in according them approval. It is pointless indulging in such speculation, particularly since these sensitive matters can then generate even more controversy, raise the political temperature and perceptions about civil-military relations to an intensity the country cannot at this point afford. The new appointments reflect in their generality the importance being given to the fight against terrorism and it is hoped the new incumbents will live up to their reputation in rescuing the country from the grip of the extremists who have damaged the state and society so grievously.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
The people have spoken Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has used the occasion of the inaugural ceremony of a new gas find in Attock District on Wednesday to deliver a firm and unequivocal message to the protestors in Islamabad and the people as a whole. He has posed the rhetorical question whether the mandate of the 180 million people of the country can be nullified on the demand of 5,000 protestors and the PM and Chief Minister Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, forced to resign. Obviously the answer to this lies in the solid support of all but one party in parliament to the incumbent PM and government, dwindling numbers at the sit-ins that are now more than a month old, and the failure of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri to set off sympathetic protests elsewhere in the country. The increasing desperation of the protest leaders at no way forward or back may have persuaded Imran to stage a rally in Karachi today, but such moves are unlikely to reverse the tide of opinion running increasingly against the protest. Had they calculated that politics is the art of the possible, they may not have landed themselves in the cul de sac they have. Qadri’s insistence on a ‘revolution’ that he has failed to explain, and which comes across as utopian reformist whenever he tries to explain it, and his companion-in-arms Imran Khan’s stubborn insistence in the face of all the odds that the PM must resign or he will remain in his ‘containerised’ vigil indefinitely, have both come across as unreasonable, opinionated and out of touch with reality. While Imran’s complaint of a ‘stolen mandate’ of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) is still to be proved, and appears increasingly like a flight of fantasy rather than factual, the pressure exerted by this extended protest has at least persuaded the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) that it may have a (partial) case to answer. Although the ECP has given itself and former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry a clean chit by refuting election rigging or influencing the Returning Officers respectively, it has conceded at least the prima facie complaint of the PTI that the election result in NA-22, a Lahore constituency where Imran lost to National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq, needs to be opened up to scrutiny by the complainant. Irrespective of the outcome of such a scrutiny, at least justice is being done and being seen to be done. Imran and the PTI’s impatience with the slow, creaking procedures laid down for challenges to the elections through Election Tribunals (procedures even the Supreme Court cannot supersede, a finding that contributed to Imran turning on his hero of yesteryear, the former Chief Justice) seems increasingly immature and hasty. Unfortunately justice grinds all too slowly in Pakistan, but if persisted with (a patience-taxing task no doubt), it grinds exceedingly fine. One reason for shifting ground from pursuing the election petitions to the protest in Islamabad may have been the mixed results of the petitions decided by the election tribunals so far. These results certainly do not point in the direction of a ‘tsunami’ in favour of the PTI (let alone the fact that the number of such petitions, even if all go in favour of the PTI, an unlikely prospect, would not overturn the government’s majority). Of course the damage to national life and the economy (including the aborted trip of the Chinese president) are chickens that will come home to roost all too soon and cause a great many people to rue the day when they perceived Imran as a bright white hope. The PM also made clear that clearing Islamabad of a few thousand protestors was very much in the government’s grasp, but it was acting with exemplary restraint. This may, in addition to the Model Town Lahore incident hangover, be to deny the protestors the ‘ammunition’ of dead bodies. The government is coming in for criticism from many quarters, including the continuing joint session of parliament, for not establishing the writ of the state. Intriguingly, although the PM stated to a delegation of parliamentarians that the government was prepared to offer Imran and Qadri a face saving exit, it is not clear that the two ‘revolutionaries’ have the freedom now to retreat, given the hyped up expectations of their remaining supporters in D-Chowk. If this be the case, the best solution may well be to put these two irrational leaders under house arrest, clear the decks of all protestors with minimum force and within the letter of the law, and allow the state and society to return to normality.
Friday, September 12, 2014
9/11 and today The thirteenth anniversary of 9/11 passed with the annual ritual of commemorating the victims of that tragedy in the US. President Barack Obama led the remembrance by observing moments of silence for the thousands killed that day at New York’s World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field where one of the three hijacked planes came down. The US president rallied his people by declaring that America stands tall today, despite the attacks on the homeland by “small, hateful minds”. However, there was scarcely a mention of the millions of people all over the world struck by equal, if not greater tragedies as a result of the war on terror initiated by his predecessor to avenge the 9/11 attacks. Starting from the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, former president George Bush pushed his neo-con agenda to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003, reducing both countries to the chaos and anarchy from which they have yet to recover. Yet it is insufficient to dwell merely on what Bush wrought when his ‘liberal’ successor militarily helped overthrow and brutally murder Gaddafi in Libya, which reduced that country to a dog-eat-dog militia civil war, and then went on to stoke the Syrian civil war through support for Bashar al-Assad’s Islamic fundamentalist opponents. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto may have initiated the embryonic Afghan Mujahideen in 1973, but since then, the genie of fanatical religious extremism and terrorism has incrementally transmogrified into the Taliban, al Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS). The US-led west therefore cannot evade responsibility for pushing large parts of the world into the maelstrom of religious fanaticism, an unintended consequence of its desire to first beat Soviet communism in Afghanistan and later anti-imperialist Arab nationalist regimes in Iraq, Libya and (unsuccessfully so far) Syria. The latest avatar of religious fanaticism, IS, is only the logical incremental development of religious extremism and terrorism towards more and more barbaric forms. IS is today’s most extreme form of the Frankenstein’s monster created, nurtured, armed and funded by the myopic policies of the west. IS may be inviting the most attention today because of its recent lightning capture of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, but many countries are still reeling from the impact of similar movements all the way from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, amongst others. IS has raised most alarm of late because of the presence of hundreds of western young men and women flocking to its banner and anticipated to return battle hardened to their home countries to wreak terrorist havoc there at some point. But unfortunately, Washington seems to have learnt nothing from the experiences of the last decade or so and seems bent upon repeating the mistakes that have landed it and the rest of the world in the present day terrorist-induced state of chaos. Obama now seems to be preparing for a bombing campaign against IS in Iraq and, precariously, Syria. Aerial bombing avoids putting boots on the ground, for which there appears little appetite in the US or the west generally after the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were, or are in the process of, being wound up. Obama’s ‘cut-and-run’ policy in those two countries while opening up new fronts in the arc from Libya to Syria is beset with myriad contradictions. The US is perforce being dragged back into conflict in Iraq and as a consequence into Syria. Any unilateral strikes inside Syria will constitute aggression and a blatant violation of international law (not that that has bothered Washington in the past). The US president believes he does not need his Congress’ approval for conducting action against IS, particularly after the beheading of two American journalists by IS. However, he still feels the political need to drum up support in Congress, especially to get an additional $ 500 million in aid for the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition groups in Syria, who have already received ramped up US aid and will now be bestowed the ‘gift’ of training facilities in Saudi Arabia. The latter country has joined hands with other Arab countries to support the US campaign against IS after Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to put together another ‘coalition of the willing’. The internal contradictions between the Arab monarchies in that coalition with other Arab countries and amongst themselves have been papered over for the moment but could easily burst forth again to weaken the coalition as the war drags on, something most analysts believe is inevitable, particularly since air power alone cannot turn the tide easily against IS in the absence of troops on the ground. Finding partners to do the ground fighting for them, as Obama and Kerry are trying to do, is fraught with the problem that the so-called moderate Syrian opposition is hardly an effective fighting force, Washington refuses to countenance the logic of a tactical alliance with Assad and Iran to counter IS, and scepticism and anti-war sentiment informs Congress and the American people respectively. A more unlikely beginning for a major war effort that could drag on and become another quagmire for Washington could not be imagined.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Time to move on Imran Khan’s stubbornness in insisting on Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif’s resignation as the precondition for his giving up the sit-in in Islamabad makes little if any sense. On the one hand, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) negotiating team has time and again been undermined by Imran Khan’s reiterating the resignation demand after they return with some convergence or agreement on the other demands he had begun his campaign with. For example, the demand for setting up a mechanism to audit the elections that Imran Khan says were rigged wholesale (an escalation from his original finger pointing at just four seats) has been conceded by the government in the shape of the commission it has asked the Supreme Court (SC) to set up. But even before the commission comes into existence and gets down to work on the basis of terms of reference to be agreed with consensus amongst all the political parties in parliament, Imran Khan rejects it on the basis that no such commission can work independently in the presence of the incumbent PM. This is an a priori indictment of the PM as well as a vote of no confidence in the superior judiciary, which has acquired a great deal of independence since its restoration in 2009, and whom Imran Khan used to praise to the heavens not so long ago. Imran Khan has been pressed again and again by various quarters to provide the proof of wholesale rigging he alleges. The anomalies and false votes found in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) report to an election tribunal regarding the NA-128 seat, it must be admitted, does raise serious concerns about the conduct of the 2013 elections. However, one seat does not a wholesale plan to rig the elections make. Nevertheless, and despite the sitting PML-N MNA Malik Afzal Khokar’s disputing the report and expressing no confidence in the election tribunal, the rigging/anomalies discovery does strengthen the demand for a thorough audit of as many seats as are disputed or are considered suspect from a credible election point of view. It would appear in the fitness of things therefore for the government to pursue the idea of the election audit/investigation commission under the aegis of the SC. If the PTI does not join the process of setting the terms of reference of the commission, the other 11 parties in parliament should do the same and bind themselves to accepting its findings, even to the extent of calling fresh elections if the audit/investigations show widespread rigging/anomalies. The terms of reference should also be mandated to investigate whether there are any signs of a pattern/plan of wholesale rigging or whether such flaws were local and random. All those responsible for rigging and/or dereliction of duty in conducting transparent and fair polls must be brought to book, no matter how high and mighty they may be. Only such a cleaning up of the Augean stables of our flawed election processes can restore the confidence of the people in the democratic project. Since Imran Khan has given enough reason by now to despair of getting him to see any sense or be reasonable, it may be best to just let him wither on the vine and get on with the job. In a similar vein, the government should stop being distracted by the irascible attitudes of Imran Khan and refocus on the critical tasks at hand. First and foremost, the current catastrophe of heavy late monsoon rains and the first appearance of floods, which may be followed by bigger, heavier deluges, should be the government’s (and all right minded people’s) top priority. The past few years’ floods created many problems, not the least of which is the continuing lack of succour and rehabilitation for millions of flood displaced people. More numbers threaten to be added to then if the dire predictions of the coming floods prove accurate. Second, but by no means less critical, focus must shift back to the struggle against terrorism, particularly Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan. We must not be lulled into false complacency by the falling off of terrorist attacks since the operation began. The terrorists, although damaged, are by no means a threat that has receded. They are simply biding their time to resurge once they have regrouped. In these as well as matters of running the country generally, the government should now get on with its responsibilities and simply move on, ignoring if he continues not to be forthcoming, the Don Quixote of D-Chowk.