Sunday, December 27, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 28, 2015

BB remembered Another December 27 has come and gone but the serious introspection the occasion should have persuaded the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to conduct remains conspicuous by its absence even on Benazir Bhutto's eighth death anniversary. To recall, that was the day in 2007, mere months after BB returned from an eight year self-imposed exile to escape the extreme harassment of the PML-N government at that time, that Pakistan's premier political leader was cut down by the hand of assassins who have still to be brought to justice. Suspicions still linger regarding the manner in which forensic evidence was destroyed soon after the assassination by hosing down the site. Since her widower Asif Zardari did not allow a postmortem, even the cause of death was put into doubt, with General Musharraf's regime making absurd claims of her death being an accident when she hit her head against her car's roof handle, etc. Even today, when recalling the horrible tragic details of that day, it beggars imagination that despite the PPP being in power for a full term from 2008 to 2013, the investigation (including an inconclusive one by Scotland Yard) and prosecution of the case leaves much to be desired, particularly since justice is still awaited. On the present run of the way the case has meandered along without a satisfactory and credible conclusion, the apprehension cannot be easily dismissed that it may end up like all the high profile political assassinations in our history: lost in time and translation. The PPP's commemoration of her death anniversary has spiralled downwards over the years to ritualised and predictable respect, with little thought despite the rhetoric, of whether the party still upholds her legacy. Survival in office or even in opposition seems to have emerged as the leit motif of the party under Asif Ali Zardari's stewardship. What is perhaps not realised by the party leadership despite the transition in progress to the next generation of Bhuttos/Zardaris is that this 'minimalist' approach has hollowed out the once widespread appeal of the party (an incremental process over the years). The turn, from the time BB returned from her first exile in 1986, towards an explicit and implicit acceptance of the neo-liberal paradigm that had overtaken the world alienated the traditional mass base of the PPP. This base included the working class, peasantry, students, intelligentsia and women. Today, this list cannot be taken for granted. The collapse therefore of the major left of centre party on Pakistan's political firmament has left progressive democratic politics in limbo. The worst reflection of this loss is the PPP's virtual marginalisation in Punjab, once the main bastion of the once radical PPP. This year, reports speak of the failure of the Punjab PPP to even organise a delegation to attend BB's death anniversary commemoration in Garhi Khuda Bux. How the mighty have fallen. The hopes of the PPP's rank and file now reside in the person of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The young leader though still has a long way to go before he can turn the tide for the party. His speech at BB's remembrance rally had little new or inspiring, even though he wittily dubbed the National Action Plan that has become a bone of contention over the Rangers issue between the federal and Sindh governments as the 'Noon' Action Plan. If Bilawal is to succeed in once again forging the PPP, a pale shadow of its former self, into an effective and inspiring party capable of once again mobilising the masses, he and the party's leadership will have to go back to the drawing board and reinvent themselves through a well thought through political programme. Going on tolling the bell just because one is a monk will no longer do. The PPP needs rethinking, introspection and a fresh visit to its aims and objectives to align them with the people's aspirations, otherwise we may still be here in future years ritually commemorating BB's martyrdom without much hope of the PPP's message finding resonance with the people. That would be a sad epitaph for her legacy.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 27, 2015

Blowing hot and cold As expected, after former chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch submitted his resignation, leader of the major party in the Balochistan coalition Nawab Sanaullah Zehri took oath of office as his successor under the Murree Accord and in line with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s nomination of the PML-N heavyweight. Also, the Balochistan Assembly unanimously elected Rahila Hameed Durrani as the first woman Speaker some months after former Speaker Jan Jamali resigned over differences with his PML-N party leadership. After taking oath and receiving a unanimous vote of confidence from all 54 members of the Balochistan Assembly, Zehri addressed some of the concerns and problems of his province. The nationalist insurgency still commanding, despite setbacks in recent months, centre-stage in the affairs of Balochistan, the new chief minister offered on the one hand a dialogue for political reconciliation in the province, of course within the bounds of the law and constitution. On the other, citing his elevation to be the result of the sacrifices of the martyrs belonging to the army, Frontier Corps, police, Levies and citizens, he vowed not to forgive those responsible for such deaths. This is a strange cocktail. How can a ‘dialogue for reconciliation’ proceed without a general amnesty for all those engaged in the fighting of the last almost 14 years? Mixed messages such as these will do little to persuade the rebels in the mountains or their leaders in self-imposed exile that the Balochistan government is a credible partner to engage with for peace and reconciliation. As it is, the rebels see the Balochistan government, whether the previous one of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch or the incoming one, as powerless in matters affecting the province’s insurgency. With his opening salvo, Zehri may effectively have closed the door on any hope of a dialogue. As positions harden consequently, the relatively low intensity insurgency could find a new and more deadly lease of life. Wisdom demanded that the new chief minister open his innings with words that transcended his image as being tough on the insurgents and could soothe and act as a balm on the wounds of the people of Balochistan as well as the nationalist insurgents. However, that was not to be, and we must wait with bated breath what the effect on the troubled province may be. One positive in the chief minister’s early message was the commitment to ensuring protection for the life and property of the Hazaras, a community hard done by at the hands of the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in recent years. As to his other pronouncements on the province’s problems such as water scarcity, education, health and unemployment, Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri had sweet things to say regarding better days to come under his stewardship in all these areas. He also mooted solving the problems of poverty and deprivation of the people of the province though development in industry, etc, to accompany the implementation of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), particularly major industrial zones to be set up on the CPEC route in Zhob and Khuzdar, and smaller zones in other areas. Judgement on these matters must necessarily await their practical implementation. The political class of Balochistan, as represented in the Assembly, congratulated itself on the election of a woman for the first time as the Speaker by arguing this showed the respect women were held in in Balochistan’s society. Tokenism or not, such steps do send a strong message, but neither in Balochistan’s still predominantly tribal culture, nor the much touted election of women Speakers in the National Assembly during the last government, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh in the present dispensation, should such advances in women’s status blind us to the very real and widespread violations of women's rights and their status as second class citizens throughout our society. Before congratulations are due, these women Speakers and their sisters should know that there is still a long way to go and their election should only act as a spur to pursue their goals with greater vigour. Nawab Sanaullah Zehri has his work cut out for him in terms of giving his province peace, development and prosperity. While wishing him success, we can only advise that he revisit his rhetoric on the insurgency and find appropriate messages that advance reconciliation and peace, not continued conflict.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 25, 2015

Deeper trenches The Centre-Sindh government row over the Rangers’ powers for the Karachi operation stubbornly refuses to go away. If anything, the trenches being dug on either side seem to get deeper every day. On December 24, former president and co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari weighed into the controversy by describing what the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) considers as an encroachment on Sindh province’s autonomy as an ‘attack’. Federal Information Minister Pervez Rashid felt compelled to reply by turning the remark against the former president, arguing if this was an ‘attack’, Asif Zardari was also part of it. How such a response helps matters escapes us. It is attitudes and statements such as these, especially those since the controversy arose by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar, that have muddied the waters further. The Sindh government is digging its heels in and after the provincial cabinet met to consider the federal interior ministry’s straightaway rejection of the Sindh Assembly’s resolution and the summary forwarded by the Sindh government, has written to the interior ministry once again on the subject, setting out its case. All the indications so far point to a desire on the part of the Sindh government to enter into a dialogue with the Centre to sort out the issue, and not to go to court for now, while reserving its right to do so should the Centre not be forthcoming to discuss the matter. The interior minister argues that the Rangers derive their powers from Section 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Act, which transcends Article 147 of the Constitution under which the Rangers were deployed at the request of the Sindh government in the first place. This is strange logic. How can an ‘ordinary’ law transcend or nullify an Article of the Constitution? This kind of argumentation has reduced the whole issue to one of provincial autonomy versus an overbearing Centre. The Sindh cabinet after its session has cited the actions of the Federal Investigation Agency and National Accountability Bureau against provincial institutions without the prior permission of the provincial authorities interference in the province’s remit. The provincial cabinet took notice of the statements of federal ministers on the Rangers issue, especially the interior minister’s ‘wisdom’. The Sindh cabinet spokesman later clarified that the Rangers’ powers have not been curtailed, but before taking important actions, the ‘captain’ of the operation, the chief minister of the province, should be informed and his consent taken. In other words, the Rangers derive their powers from the tasks delegated to them by the provincial government (and now Assembly) and cannot therefore function in a manner that does not give a toss for the concerns of the provincial authorities. Unfortunately, the ‘war of words’ between the Centre and Sindh too shows no signs of abating. The Opposition in the Senate walked out on December 23 on the Sindh issue as a protest, with the notable exception of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and other smaller parties, the former being the original complainant regarding the Rangers’ actions in Karachi. PPP Senators roundly castigated the Centre for its ‘dictatorial’ attitude to Sindh’s affairs. Senator Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman for Asif Zardari, criticised the interior minister for releasing the expenditures on the Rangers the federal government had borne as though because of paying their salaries, the Centre had also acquired the right to dictate their mandate. He pointed to Sindh's contribution to the Rangers’ expenditures, while asking rhetorically whether the Centre had reimbursed any of the province’s expenditures. While this exchange of barbs continues without letup, it is inexplicable why the prime minister has not spoken up or intervened. Surely it is the country’s chief executive who should be the lead point man on this controversy and attempt to find a rational and mutually acceptable solution. Leaving Chaudhry Nisar and Pervez Rashid free to dominate the Centre’s part in the controversy has not, and is unlikely to, defuse or heal the growing rift. It is in the interests of all parties and the federation to nip the growing fissures in the bud before a really serious crisis overtakes everyone. The prime minister must, in this as in other matters of import, lead.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 21, 2015

Crisis deepening? Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah has warned of the long term and serious consequences of imposing Governor's rule in the province. Speaking to reporters at the Sindh University convocation in Jamshoro on Saturday, the chief minister claimed that the Rangers were satisfied at the restricted powers they have been mandated with in the wake of the Sindh Assembly's resolution on the issue the other day, and would continue the operation as mandated. In the presence of a democratic dispensation, he argued, there was no need for Governor's rule, nor did the federal government have any authority to impose it in Sindh or any other province. He dismissed suggestions that the Rangers' powers had been clipped, despite the fact that the term "sectarian killings" has been substituted for "terrorism" and the Rangers' ability to put people in preventive detention, as happened in Dr Asim Hussain's case, has been made contingent on the chief minister's prior approval while raids on the Sindh government's offices has been made subject to the chief secretary's prior approval. In a lighter vein, he pointed out that the chief minister was intended to be the operation's captain, whereas it appeared that the head was still there but the cap had been knocked off. On a more sober note, he claimed that the prime minister and chief of army staff's attitude to Sindh was "better" towards Sindh and they would not resort to any precipitate action like Governor's rule. It is pertinent to point out that in recent months, the Sindh government has been accusing the Rangers of overstepping their authority, particularly in the case of the raid on the office of the Sindh Building Control Authority and the arrest of Dr Asim Hussain. The provincial government had brought up its concerns with the federal government and the prime minister repeatedly, but without any satisfactory response. It is also necessary to recall, as former PPP prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has done, that it was the PPP-led government that called in the Rangers in 1989 to control lawlessness in many parts of Sindh. The province was at that time afflicted with ethnic strife and dacoits. The Rangers subsequently got special powers after amendments in the Anti-Terrorism Act that authorised them to probe cases of suspected terrorist financing. The issue of their powers became fraught in recent days because of the perception of the Sindh government that the Rangers had gone beyond their mandate. It appears that the chief minister on the one hand is warning of the fallout of dismissing the elected Sindh government in favour of (federal) Governor's rule for the democratic dispensation as a whole, resting as it does on the consensus of the political parties, particularly the PPP and the PML-N, on defending the system against any authoritarian moves to destabilise it, as has so often happened in the past. At the same time,t chief minister seems to be putting his eggs in the basket of hoped for wisdom in this regard on the part of the prime minister and chief of army staff. However, despite his claim the Rangers are satisfied with their restricted mandate ('discipline', i.e. following the Sindh government's instructions), it appears all is still not smoothed out. One indicator is the Rangers' approaching the Sindh High Court against the provincial government's changing the special public prosecutor in Dr Asim Hussain's case, albeit an unsuccessful bid. The second is the rash of protests against the restriction of the Rangers' powers by various trade and other groups in Karachi, ascribed by some circles to being orchestrated by the Rangers. The Sindh opposition too has become active to forge a grand alliance against the provincial government. The bottom line appears to be that the federal government and the establishment should refrain from any precipitate moves that may destabilise not only the Sindh government but the democratic dispensation per se. Precisely in such a dispensation, differences can and should be sorted out through dialogue, not finger wagging, threats, or a return to practices from an authoritarian past.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 20, 2015

Rangers’ powers The controversy over the Rangers’ powers in the Karachi operation continues, with various stakeholders delivering their views, which may lead to even more controversy. For example, Corps Commander Karachi Lt-General Naveed Mukhtar during a visit to the Rangers’ headquarters, praised the paramilitary force as the ‘backbone’ of the anti-terrorist operation and ascribed the relative peace in Karachi to the special powers previously assigned to the Rangers. Those powers have recently been curtailed by the Sindh government through a resolution passed by the Sindh Assembly amidst protests from the opposition. The resolution has substituted “sectarian killings” for “terrorism”, restricted the Rangers’ power to put terrorism suspects in preventive detention without the prior approval of the chief minister, prevented any raid on the Sindh government’s offices without prior written approval of the chief secretary, and confined the Rangers to assisting the Sindh police to the exclusion of any federal institution (the context being the FIA and NAB). While the Sindh government’s thrust is to reassert its control of the operation that falls within the purview of the province and resist what it views as encroachment on its turf by federal institutions such as the Rangers, FIA and NAB that have overstepped their remit (in the case of the Rangers mandated by the Sindh government under Article 147 of the Constitution), the message by the Karachi Corps Commander seems to be that the Rangers will continue the operation (as before?). This conflict between the Centre and Sindh found an echo in unnecessarily provocative remarks against the Sindh government by Senator Mushahidullah Khan of the PML-N, for which he had later to apologise and were expunged after a vociferous protest and walkout by the opposition. The worthy senator lost his ministry for indiscreet remarks and Friday’s performance in the upper house indicates that he has yet to overcome the affliction of foot-in-mouth disease from which he and others of his party’s leadership suffer. Despite the criticism by some quarters that the PPP Sindh government is only trying to protect its incarcerated leader Dr Asim Hussain and others against corruption allegations, this cannot become a justification for riding roughshod over provincial autonomy, which has been achieved after prolonged struggle, culminating in the 18th Amendment. Corruption can and should be tackled by the institutions charged with this responsibility. It should not become the basis for an expanding sphere of operations by the Rangers. In fact it could be argued that the ham-handed manner in which the Rangers have handled such matters has led to the conflict between the Centre and Sindh and culminated in restricting the powers of the paramilitary force to what the Sindh government mandates. There are many in the country who a priori have no patience with such arguments, focused as they are almost obsessively on the PPP’s alleged corrupt culture. For example, long time critic of both the major political parties, the PPP and PML-N, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s Imran Khan, has once again contributed to the controversy by warning that withdrawal of the Rangers from Karachi will inevitably result in a resumption of the killings that have characterised Karachi for years. To prove his point, he refers to the post-1992 operation situation that led to the sustained killing of policemen who had conducted that operation. In the latest version of the pot calling the kettle black, former Sindh home minister Zulfiqar Mirza has leaned on the Centre, army and Rangers to score points against his erstwhile party of which he was not only a longtime member, but widely considered close to former president and PPP co-Chairperson Asif Ali Zardari. For all the high faluting ‘principles’ being cited in the critique of the Rangers’ powers being restricted, perhaps the most important trend of increasing establishment crowding into civilian space and the Centre into provincial purview is being ignored. Irrespective, wisdom demands that the powers that be revisit their approach and sit down with the Sindh government to sort out the parameters of the Karachi operation lest it fall victim to these turf wars.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 19, 2015

Cart before the horse Saudi Arabia has ‘surprised’ quite a few by the manner in which it has proceeded to announce a 34-country alliance against terrorism, but none more than Pakistanis. For a start, when the announcement was first made and Pakistan’s name was found to be in the list of members, the response of Foreign Secretary Aizaz Chaudhry was one of ‘surprise’. Subsequently, after a reported rap across the knuckles by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the indiscretion regarding our friend Saudi Arabia, the foreign office spokesman denied the whole thing, ascribing it as usual to ‘inaccurate’ media reporting. Despite the denial, reservations aplenty are to be found amongst political parties and the citizenry at thus being ‘ambushed’ or railroaded into an alliance that no one seems to have known about ahead of the announcement. Conspiracy theorists are wondering out loud whether the establishment has said yes to the alliance without taking the foreign office (and perhaps the government?) into confidence. Whatever the case, even the foreign office spokesman’s admitting that Pakistan would be part of the alliance was tinged with ifs and buts. Pakistan, according to the spokesman, still awaits details of what is expected of it. This is a rather strange way to put together an alliance, and that too for the lofty aim of combating terrorism, no doubt an objective shared by many countries but not necessarily with consensus on who is the main enemy and who a friend in this endeavour. This anomaly is sharply brought into focus by the fact that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah are left out, whereas they are arguably the most effective three forces fighting Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The fact that all three are Shia lends credence to the accusation that the ‘Sunni alliance’ Saudi Arabia wants to cobble together has a sectarian tinge. Not only is it inexplicable how even a close friend like Saudi Arabia could announce Pakistan’s membership without proper consultations beforehand, this tendency to put the cart before the horse is repeated in Saudi Arabia reaching out to the opposition PPP regarding the alliance. One may be forgiven for wondering why Riyadh is not bothering to first talk to the government. Surely without such consultation, Islamabad will at best be a reluctant partner, at worst wary of being part of any sectarian conglomerate that would cause difficulties in its relationship with Iran, which has of late enjoyed firmer footing. The whole thing smacks of taking Pakistan for granted. Perhaps that is what explains the bitter and surprised response of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states when Pakistan earlier refused to join a Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, considered by Riyadh to be surrogates of Iran. If Pakistanis appreciated Islamabad’s rare wisdom in not going along blindly with Saudi wishes on that occasion, many are troubled by the implications of even a nod in the direction of this new construct. The fact of the matter is that the Saudis and some of their Arab and Muslim allies are still not able to make up their minds who is the real enemy, Bashar al-Assad or IS. This confusion is also tinged with sectarian hues. When the Saudi defence minister argues that they aim at all shades of terrorists, what remains unexplained in its wake is why then is Riyadh supporting jihadi groups, including al Qaeda affiliate the Al Nusra Front, in Syria? By any definition, such groups too fall under the rubric ‘terrorist’, since they are imbued with an extremist, fanatical version of jihad, which they justify in the name of religion. And what is to stop Riyadh from twisting Islamabad’s arm in a new way by asking for Pakistan to join the fight in Yemen in the name of combating terrorism (i.e. the Houthis). The quagmire is not only in Saudi minds. It finds reflection also on the ground in the manner in which Riyadh has pursued its sectarian Wahabi agenda in Syria and the broader Middle East. For Pakistan to insert itself, for whatever reason, into such a bog is unquestionably unwise and unacceptable. Obsequiousness in our approach to relations with Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states must give way by now to a self-respecting independent policy in Pakistan’s, and no one else’s, interest.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 14, 2015

Centre-Sindh rift Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has whaled into the Sindh government for procrastinating over extending the Rangers' mandate to continue the Karachi operation. The Sindh government has refrained from extending the mandate that expired on December 4 through an executive decision and has instead referred the matter for broad consultation to the Sindh Assembly. Since the matter has yet to be discussed in the Assembly, a gap of 10 days and counting has opened up in the Rangers' campaign. Chaudhry Nisar warns the Sindh government against playing politics with the Rangers issue. He says other legal and constitutional options would be considered and presented to the prime minister if the Rangers' mandate is not extended. Some would interpret this as a thinly veiled threat. Chaudhry Nisar interprets the 'foot dragging' on the issue by the Sindh government as an effort to make the Karachi operation controversial just to save one person. No doubt the reference is to Dr Asim Hussain, currently in detention and being investigated on a raft of terrorism and corruption charges. Chaudhry Nisar reminds us that the Karachi operation was launched against criminals and terrorists by taking all political parties and stakeholders on board. He also reminds us that Farooq Sattar of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) himself called for the operation on August 13, 2013. Chaudhry Nisar mounted a stout defence of the Rangers as a well trained, professional force and said any criticism of the force would not be tolerated (he neglects to inform us what he plans to do if such criticism continues). He then went on to assert that only terrorists and criminals would benefit if the Rangers' powers were made controversial. The Rangers were making sacrifices to purge Karachi of these evils, he said, and the people and business community of the city were satisfied with the operation and wanted it to continue to its logical conclusion (as though on cue, the Karachi Association of Trade and Industry issued a statement of support for the operation on the same day). Last but not least, what seemed to be worrying Chaudhry Nisar was that the delay by the Sindh government would demoralise the Rangers and embolden the criminals and terrorists operating in the city. On the Pakistan People's Party's (PPP's) part, two responses appeared. One was by Adviser to Sindh Chief Minister on Information Maula Bux Chandio, who expressed the hope that the provincial government would grant an extension to the Rangers' policing powers in Karachi on Monday (today). He argued though that a constitutional requirement needed to be met, that is why the issue had been referred to the Sindh Assembly. Probably what Mr Chandio was alluding to were the reservations in the Sindh government regarding a federal force, the Rangers, invited to assist the provincial administration in tackling Karachi's situation, overwhelming the province's purview in law and order issues. The second, more considered response from the PPP came in a press conference by the party's leaders, in which the PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar set out the party's response to Chaudhry Nisar's statements. Senator Farhatullah Babar focused attention on the Karachi operation having been launched on the recommendation of and with the support of the Sindh government. It was decided, he added, that the Rangers' mandate would be decided by the Sindh government (in line with the constitutional position). Referring to the statement of the chief minister Sindh a day earlier, he pinned down the mandate to curbing four distinct crimes: terrorism, targeted killings, kidnapping for ransom and extortion. In several ways, he conceded, the Rangers had performed this assigned role in a commendable manner. However, he took issue with Chaudhry Nisar's seeking to equate the criticism of a federal force overstepping its mandate with undermining the operation. He categorically rejected the notion that the PPP's reservations were because of one or more individuals and said the real issue was of the Rangers going beyond their remit to include actions against alleged corruption, a problem that should be tackled by the institutions whose task this is. The Rangers have been deployed in Karachi for more than 15 years. During this considerable period and through the tenure of successive governments, the wisdom finally dawned (spurred on by egging from the military) that the police had been rendered ineffective over time because of political interference and therefore the paramilitary force should tackle crime and terrorism. Discomfort followed when the MQM and PPP began to be targeted, the firmer on terrorism suspicions, the latter on an ill-defined alleged nexus between crime and terrorism (with some spice added by allegations of corruption). Chaudhry Nisar's aggressive approach may prove the wrong tack. The federal and provincial governments need to put their heads together, define the Rangers' mandate afresh and winkle out any creases regarding where their remit ends. Karachi needs the Centre and Sindh to work together, not at loggerheads.

Daily Times Editorial Dec 12, 2015

Talks about talks The Heart of Asia Conference in Islamabad produced a litany of positive noises about regional and international cooperation to bring about peace in Afghanistan, while on its sidelines the bilateral interaction between Pakistan and India yielded an agreement in principle to restart the stalled talks between the two countries under the rubric of a Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. However, the euphoria over these two developments amongst the participants and stakeholders the world over must be tempered by caution about being swept away by the triumph of hope over reality. The Conference concluded with the desirable but fraught intent to restart the abortive peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The first round of these talks were hosted by Pakistan in Murree with the US and China in attendance. The planned second round never got off the ground as it was overtaken by the controversy that broke out with the revelation of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's death two years earlier. What followed, and apparently continues, was a fracturing of the Taliban ranks over Mullah Omar's successor, with the claimant, Mullah Omar's longtime deputy, Mullah Mansour finding his hands full with challenges to his elevation. That fracture continues with new and alarming developments of late. First, a meeting of top Taliban leaders in Quetta ended in a fratricidal shootout in which Mullah Mansour has variously been reported to have either been killed or at least seriously wounded. This has produced another spanner in the works because given the uncertainty of whether Mullah Mansour has survived and if so, whether he is in a position to lead the movement underlines the existing quandary over who speaks for the Taliban. To further add fuel to the fire, reports regarding an ongoing battle between Mullah Mansour's faction and a rival challenger in Herat that has so far yielded around a hundred casualties on both sides renders the question of who will represent the Taliban at any peace talks that may emerge even more vexed. Further complexity stems from the Taliban attack on Kandahar on the very day the Heart of Asia Conference started, in which 50 people have been killed, pointing to two possibilities: either Pakistan has lost control and influence over the Taliban, or it is continuing a policy of duality by talking peace while waging a not so secret proxy war. The attack further clouded Pakistan's credentials as a peace partner in Afghanistan, the apparent bonhomie and spirit of cooperation reflected in the Conference's final communiques notwithstanding. In fact reservations within the Afghan government regarding President Ashraf Ghani's attempted pragmatic rapprochement with Pakistan burst forth with a vengeance just one day after the Conference when the Afghan intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned. That may have driven the last nail in the coffin of the Conference's hope for 'increased' cooperation between the Afghan National Directorate of Security and the Pakistani ISI. A fractured Afghan government facing a fractured Taliban does not credible peace partners make. Afghanistan therefore may be expected to continue to be conflicted, with the schisms on both Afghan sides further complicating an already complex conundrum. As far as Pakistan and India's bilateral interaction on the sidelines of the Conference is concerned, the positives are that the brief meeting between the two countries' prime ministers in Paris, followed by the delayed National Security Advisers' meeting in Bangkok, has brought about a marked improvement not only in the atmospherics, but also in the substance of the Dialogue henceforth. All issues, unlike the falling out over the agenda of the aborted National Security Advisers' meeting scheduled in Delhi, have been included. Peace and security, confidence building measures, Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counterterrorism, narcotics control, humanitarian issues, people to people exchanges and religious tourism: this menu seems to cover all bases and issues bedevilling relations between the two countries. However, the cautionary aspect, regardless of welcoming the resumption of the dialogue, is precisely the long standing and so far intractable nature of some, if not all, of these issues. Nevertheless, people of good sense on either side of the border live in hope that wisdom prevails in this resumed dialogue, whose dates and schedule are yet to be fixed for the first step, i.e. the foreign secretaries' meeting. Hope in these fraught times and prospects for the region, for Pakistan looking both east and west, may have been boosted by the Heart of Asia Conference and the bilateral Pakistan-India interaction, but if the past and the few sentences above indicate, there remains many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Daily Times Editorial Dec 7, 2015

LG conclusion With the third phase of the local government (LG) elections in Punjab and Sindh completed, these elections for the lowest tier of the democratic edifice have concluded, with the exception of nine districts housing 81 constituencies in Sindh, whose delimitation was ordered afresh by the courts. This too has now been done and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has announced that the schedule for these remaining local bodies will be announced in three days. In the third phase of the LG elections, 12 districts in Punjab and six in Sindh were in contestation, the latter all in Karachi. The completion of the overwhelming bulk of the LG elections in all the provinces seems the appropriate moment to sum up the whole exercise. This can be done by looking at the process, i.e. the actual practice of these elections, their results and the implications of the final outcome, and last but not least, drawing conclusions for the future suggested by the results. It can be stated without fear of contradiction at the very outset that the pattern in this as in previous phases as well as the earlier LG elections in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems similar. Thus, for example, in each province and each phase, the LG elections have passed muster as by and large reflecting the genuine mandate of the electorate. However, this clean bill of health cannot obscure complaints of mismanagement, electoral fraud, violence and clashes between rivals in some constituencies that yielded some deaths, injuries and arrest and punishment for some individuals committing electoral fraud of one kind or another. These failings and misdemeanours do not lend themselves to the tired rhetoric of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) alleging rigging in every electoral exercise since 2013. These LG elections, as much as the general elections of 2013 and subsequent by-elections on some seats have emerged as credible, albeit not without blemishes that the ECP, political parties and the government should take steps to overcome. As to the outcome, none of the LG elections in all the provinces, including the current third phase, sprang any surprises. In this round, as expected, the PML-N won in Punjab, the MQM in Karachi. The interesting evolution of the Pakistani polity now betrays an unprecedented diversity. Each province has a different party in power or leading a coalition. Given the 18th Amendment and now the near completion of the local bodies rung, this implies the near and far future may see the polity traversing the terra incognita of different parties leading the provincial governments and commanding significant support at the local bodies level adjusting to coexistence with each other and with the Centre. In the case of Punjab, the same PML-N rules at the Centre, with the two Sharif brothers in tandem in Islamabad and Lahore. Therefore Punjab and the Centre are likely to have the smoothest relationship of all, as the recent past has already indicated in practice. The interesting and somewhat more complicated relationships are likely to be amongst the other three provinces and Punjab and the Centre, given that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a PTI-led coalition government in which the Jamaat-i-Islami is a junior partner, Balochistan has a National Party-led multi-party coalition government, and Sindh is ruled by the PPP. Our neighbour India went through a similar transition after the dominant Congress Party's hold weakened, giving rise to a much more diverse political landscape with the rise of state (provincial) based parties. Pakistan now seems poised to undertake a similar journey. What allowed India to adjust to the new political realities was the continuity of its democratic system. Pakistan should learn from that experience and understand that without democratic continuity, the new and complex problems that could arise from diversity may not be manageable. As to the by now almost fully installed local bodies and the LGs that will be constructed on this basis, the real test will be whether the newly elected local representatives will be able to wrest power from the entrenched bureaucracy that has been running affairs at the local level for a long time, for the benefit of their constituents. Democracy by itself cannot do this, it only allows the possibility of struggling for real devolution of power. More power therefore to the elbows of our new local representatives.