Saturday, January 30, 2016
Terror-free Pakistan Presiding over a high powered meeting of the top leadership of the ruling PML-N, Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif underlined his government’s top priority as being a terror-free Pakistan. The killers of innocent children in educational institutions would be brought to justice and the Karachi operation would continue until its logical end, the PM emphasised. The war against terrorism, he vowed, would continue until the elimination of the last terrorist on Pakistani soil. He went on to claim that economic stability and the successes against the militants had created hope and optimism among the people. He repeated the assertion that Operation Zarb-e-Azb had broken the back of the terrorists and now they were focusing on soft targets in their frustration. While there is no denying that the military and security forces have made strides against the terrorist affliction, such resounding statements of success may have the inadvertent effect of lulling us into complacency, which has proved fatal, as the attack on the Bacha Khan University (BKU) after the Army Public School (APS) massacre shows. Other than that, the assertions and claims of the PM need to be assessed critically to get an accurate picture of the struggle against terrorism. The PM’s desire for a terror-free Pakistan is shared by all. However, the assertion that the war would continue until the elimination of the last terrorist implies physical elimination, which is not only difficult to assess but also ignores the equally if not more important task of the ideological elimination of the malign influence of the terrorist narrative, particularly on young and impressionable minds. Otherwise, with the narrative unscotched and no alternative to replace it in the minds of the people, it could remain a reproducible disease. This still remains the weakest, if not wholly absent, aspect of the drive against terrorism. The PM’s claim of economic stability can also be questioned on the touchstone of the unremitting energy crisis, unemployment running at 8.5 percent according to an independent think tank, capital flight and lack of investment, domestic and foreign. The economy’s inability to offer the young employment leaves them desperate and vulnerable to the message of criminals and terrorists. As to the ‘broken back’ of the terrorists, is it the case or is it that we have simply pushed the problem across the Afghan border beyond our reach? If the latter, we had better gird up our loins for a long struggle. As to attacking soft targets in desperation, with due respect to the PM, this has always been on the radar of the terrorist asymmetrical warriors. A report on the first year of the National Action Plan (NAP) reveals some telling facts. Seminaries numbering 182 have been sealed for fanning extremism. While this is long overdue and therefore welcome, the thousands of seminaries still untouched present the potential of a conveyor belt of extremism and terrorism. The sooner this task is completed, the better. Bank accounts and cash of proscribed militant groups amounting to some Rs 1.5 billion have been seized. The names of 8,159 people have been put in the Fourth Schedule, 188 hardcore militants’ names have been put on the Exit Control List and the movements of 2,052 terrorists have been restricted. Cases against terrorists registered so far total 1,026 while 230 terror suspects have been arrested. Pakistan has banned 64 organisations while the UN has a black list of 74. Why this discrepancy? Literature and publications spewing out hatred, intolerance, extremism, sectarianism and advocating decapitation of those who do not agree with them have been confiscated and 73 shops purveying such stuff sealed. Books and other such material seized number 1,500. While these are impressive statistics, they merely serve to remind us of the mountain of effort that still awaits before a ‘terror-free Pakistan’ can be envisaged. The attacks on the APS and BKU have created a security headache for educational institutions’ administrators and parents. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down in NAP include raising the height of boundary walls, installing CCTV, ensuring one entry and one exit point manned by security guards, barriers before entrances, etc. Many public sector educational institutions are complaining their headmasters are being harassed and humiliated, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but also elsewhere, for not following the SOPs to the letter, after which FIRs are being lodged against them. They complain the education authorities have not released funds to allow them to carry out the instructions. The result of this confusion is that many institutions have had to be closed. This is hardly desirable since this is presumably the exact outcome the terrorists want. The abiding and overarching problem remains the lack of a coordinated strategy against terrorism that brings together all civilian and military intelligence, security and other forces to combat the terrorists with centralised intelligence-led operations and the development of the missing counter-terrorism narrative.
Friday, January 29, 2016
Pak-India talks If ever the aphorism “the more things change, the more they remain the same” were applicable, it certainly fits the bill as far as Pak-India relations are concerned. If the latest statements of the Pakistani foreign office and the Indian foreign ministry are perused, what one finds is an all too familiar ring to these utterings. Pakistan, in the shape of the foreign office spokesman and Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister's Adviser on Foreign Affairs, have thrown the ball back into India’s court as far as settling mutually convenient dates for the foreign secretaries talks originally scheduled for January 15 but postponed due to the Pathankot attack. At the time, both sides had been careful to underline that the talks had only been postponed, not cancelled. Yet here we are more than a month down the road since then, and all we are hearing from the Pakistani side as well as the Indian foreign ministry spokesman is that “mutually convenient” dates are not yet in hand. As though it would help matters move along, our foreign office spokesman felt it necessary to respond to references to Pakistan in the joint France-India communiqué after President Hollande’s visit by urging India to refrain from hurling unsubstantiated allegations of supporting terrorism against Pakistan. The usual corollary to this followed, positing Pakistan as the (biggest?) victim of terrorism itself, having lost thousands of lives, property and economic progress to the phenomenon. Despite Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s reiterations of resolve to counter terrorism and the detention of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, accused of masterminding the Pathankot attack, immense uncertainty looms over the (preliminary) meeting of the foreign secretaries in order to pave the way for the Bilateral Comprehensive Dialogue to follow. Both sides seem firmly bogged down in the old and worn ruts, particularly since Islamabad insists the ‘evidence’ regarding the Pathankot attack provided by India is “insufficient” (shades of Mumbai). Because of the present hiatus, it has not even been possible to finalise the visit of an investigation team Pakistan wanted to send to Pathankot. If there is a chink of light in this once again darkening curtain of dancing around the issue, one is the statement of the Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi Abdul Basit, who is confident the foreign secretary talks will begin in February and the other the report that the Pakistani and Indian foreign secretaries could meet this week on the sidelines of a conference in San Francisco, where they will take advantage of the opportunity to discuss dates for their formal interaction. The ‘ball’ referred to in the Pakistani foreign office’s statement, it seems, is being tossed around from one side to the other. Lingering secondary irritants such as the recent reported dropping of a bomb by the Indian Air Force in Rajasthan do not of course help matters. The apprehension is that this bilateral dialogue may suffer the same fate as the proposed dialogue after the Mumbai attacks. Governments in Islamabad and New Delhi changed while both sides were still dancing their minuet around the investigations of that terror attack and even the replacement governments have made little if any progress in that direction. Now comes Pathankot just as the two sides had groped their way back to the negotiating table after initial aggressive intent was on display from the Modi government. On present trends at least, the post-Pathankot scenario has a chilling resemblance to post-Mumbai. There are sceptics on both sides, not to mention the spoilers in the middle, who seldom pass up any opportunity to return the protagonists to their knee-jerk traditional hostility, mistrust and suspicion. Over the years, all means have been tried, confidence building measures, trade, economic cooperation, etc, but none have worked in the face of the underlying mistrust rooted in history. The people of the subcontinent await with a mixture of hope and resignation the reversal of this familiar Pak-India impasse. The world too understands and is concerned about the continuing tensions between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours. The eminently logical recourse to the weapon of language rather than the time-worn language of weapons remains to be established as the dominant and irreversible currency of the relationship. Hope for the best, but don’t hold your breath where these two countries are concerned.
Monday, January 25, 2016
Attack investigations Director General Inter-Services Public Relations Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa updated the media on January 23rd on the ongoing investigations into the attack on the Bacha Khan University. He revealed that the attackers had entered Pakistan through Torkham. The four facilitators of the attack arrested so far and the main facilitator (code named Target A) helped the terrorists clear the Torkham check post and then transported them to Mardan, where they stayed at the house of one of the facilitators called Adil. This gentleman, a mason, made a map of the university while he was doing some work there. He then briefed the attackers on the layout of the campus. His son was also one of the facilitators. The other two facilitators, Riaz and Noorullah from Mardan hired the rickshaw they used to take the attackers from Mardan to the Bacha Khan University, Charsadda. While all this has been gathered from the four facilitators in custody, the main facilitator, Target A, is still being sought. Interestingly, Target A's wife and niece purchased the weapons the attackers used from Darra Adam Khel and surreptitiously transported them to Mardan. Target A and his wife and niece are now on the run and being pursued through intelligence-based operations. The Director General also informed that 'Khalifa' Umar Mansoor and his deputy Qari Zakir of the Geedar group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan made 10 calls to the attackers on the day of the assault. Lieutenant-General Bajwa took pains to clarify that the Afghanistan government was not being blamed. All the investigations show only that the operation was planned and controlled from Afghan soil. As to the identity of the killed attackers, the ISPR Director General said one of them had been identified as Amir Rehman from South Waziristan, while the identities of the other three were still being investigated. Bajwa also revealed that the results of the investigation had been conveyed by Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif to President Ashraf Ghani. Meanwhile Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif presided over a high level meeting of the military top brass in Peshawar to review progress in the investigations and ponder over the management of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to prevent cross-border terrorism. Getting to grips with the Bacha Khan University attack, its similarities to the December 2014 Army Public School Peshawar massacre, and the emerging threat to all educational institutions all over the country points to the new challenges and transformed dynamic of the counter-terrorism campaign. While some midnight oil may have to be burnt to get our head around this conundrum, it is instructive to look back at events and developments since the Army Public School incident. Even more than the Bacha Khan University atrocity, the Peshawar massacre was much more shocking for being the first of its kind and given the scale of the bloodshed. Some sought comfort in the fact that the death toll in Charsadda was only 21 killed, whereas the Peshawar butchery had slaughtered 150 people, most of them students in both cases of course. What bears reflection though is whether the 'successes' of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in clearing North Waziristan in particular and FATA in general of the terrorist presence and the relatively long lag (six months) before the terrorists struck in Peshawar had not induced some complacency. Claims of having broken the back of the terrorists and General Raheel Sharif's (overoptimistic?) prediction that terrorism would be eliminated by the end of the current year point to a failure to realistically assess the situation. We have consistently warned in this space against being lulled into complacency and letting our guard down because of the relative length of time taken by the terrorists to regroup and mount ripostes. So long as they can call upon their cadre ensconced in safe havens across the border and their underground cells within the country, it was always going to be a protracted war. In fact the authorities, civil and military, need to prepare the public for the protracted nature of the fight against terrorism, appeal for the people to become the eyes and ears of the anti-terrorist drive, and fashion the missing counter-narrative to the fanatics' wild and woolly ideas that still find some resonance in certain circles.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
Children threatened Kabul has denied any role in the Bacha Khan University atrocity that killed 21 people, most of them students and one teacher who resisted the attackers. The president’s office issued a statement that Afghanistan had never supported or provided sanctuaries to any terrorist group. It went on to assert that Afghan soil was not used in the attack, a claim backed up by a press briefing in Islamabad by DGPR DG Lt-General Asim Bajwa, who clarified that the operation was controlled from Afghanistan but the Afghan government was not involved. The Afghan president’s office, while condemning the incident, argued that terrorism was the common enemy of both countries and joint, sincere efforts were required to combat it. Both statements quoted above should lay to rest the wild speculations in parts of our media that were quick to ascribe blame to Kabul. The fact is that Mullah Fazlullah’s Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has found refuge across the border after Operation Zarb-e-Azb, reportedly with the help of the Haqqani network that has influence in those areas. While the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa apex committee met in Peshawar and set up a probe committee under the Peshawar Division Commissioner to examine the security arrangements at Bacha Khan University on the day of the attack and identify elements responsible for any lapses or negligence, amongst 15 suspects picked up after the attack, five facilitators of the attack were presented before the media in the ISPR briefing. The Bacha Khan University incident once again points to the existential nightmare that terrorism has morphed into for Pakistan. While some prognoses that Pakistan is poised on the crossroads between prosperity and failure may be exaggerated, there is no denying the challenge. If proof were needed, the Geedar group of the TTP that claimed the Charsaddda attack has released a video showing its ‘Khalifa’ Umar Mansoor threatening more such attacks against schools. Coincidentally or otherwise, two incidents occurred on January 22 that served to underline the verity of the threat to our children. Two firing incidents near government girls’ schools in Tandlianwala and Faisalabad produced panic amongst students and anxious parents. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the incidents except for 10 students in Tandlianwala who were injured in the panic-driven stampede when the firing broke out. Such is the state of nervousness amongst students and parents in all schools all over the country in the wake of the Charsadda attack, which has reopened the wounds of the December 2014 Army Public School massacre in Peshawar. Mansoor’s video clearly states that the justification for targeting schools is that these institutions produce professionals and people of an anti-terrorist orientation. They are in fact the nurseries of rationality and resistance to the narrative of the terrorists. The threat does raise serious concerns about how to handle this new challenge, given that there are thousands of such institutions all over the country that should now be considered targets of the terrorists. Inevitably, it is not possible for the security authorities to guard each and every one of these institutions. Lessons can be learnt from the Charsadda attack and how it was contained. The security guards of the university, followed by the local police and later the army, prevented a bigger massacre by eliminating all four attackers after a fierce fight. This suggests that the way forward is to strengthen the internal security of educational institutions through recruitment and training and lay down standard operating procedures for any such contingency, including dedicated hot lines to the local police and military. If the educational institutions ask for enhanced funding for security, as a group of Vice Chancellors of public universities meeting in Charsadda has done, the government/s should bend their backs to ensure this demand is satisfied. Nothing less will suffice when the flower of our youth and our hope for the future of the country, its young people, are so directly and explicitly threatened. Appeals should also go out to the affluent amongst us to contribute to a fund for the purpose. Help can be acquired for ensuring the security of our nurseries of learning from the specialised units of the military and elite forces of the police. The threat must be met as a national duty by all sections of the state and society on a war footing before more young lives are snuffed out by these beasts.
Friday, January 22, 2016
Post-Charsadda Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Davos (where the latter had met Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif), Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and General John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, the latter two in Kabul, to pass on information gleaned from the investigations into the attack on the Bacha Khan University (BKU) in Charsadda. The COAS shared with them the finding that the attack was controlled from a location in Afghanistan through an Afghan cell phone by a Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) operative. The attack has been claimed by Umar Mansoor of the banned TTP Geedar group, also responsible for the December 2014 Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar in which 150 students and teachers were massacred. A spokesman of the TTP, Mohammad Khorasani, had however issued a conflicting statement condemning the attack as being against sharia and warning that those misusing TTP’s name would be brought to justice. Whether this is a genuine disclaimer by the TTP or motivated by the backlash the attack on BKU is likely to evoke is not clear at this point. There is no word yet what President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah or General Campbell had to say in response to the COAS’s calls. The only word, and it is not encouraging, came from the Afghan interior ministry’s spokesman Sediq Seddiqi, who dismissed the claim that the attack emanated from a TTP ‘terror base’ inside Afghanistan, denied that there were any TTP sanctuaries within his country and in turn accused Pakistan of sheltering the Afghan Taliban. It is not clear whether the interior ministry’s spokesman was conveying the official position of the Afghan government. Even if he was not, the response is not surprising or unexpected. It merely reflects the mistrust and suspicion between the two neighbours accumulated over the decades the Afghan wars have raged. While Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has labelled the attack as inspired by India’s RAW intelligence agency, unnamed security officials have spoken to the media about the identities of two of the four attackers. One is from the Sararogha area of South Waziristan and another from Swat. The other two are under age and there is no record for them. This suggests that they either came from across the border or were underground within the country after their home bases in Swat and South Waziristan were cleared of terrorists in military offensives during the previous government’s tenure. While dozens of suspects are reported to have been picked up as the result of a combing operation in and around Charsadda mounted after the attack, four men have been detained from Shabqadar who hosted the four attackers one night before the assault. This revelation shines the spotlight on the modus operandi of the terrorists. It stands to reason that attackers need this kind of local support infrastructure in order to operate. This should be the focus of our intelligence agencies: find the support network and it may lead you to the actual perpetrators of such attacks, and may even help to pre-empt them. As has been in evidence numerous times after such terrorist atrocities, we are very quick to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. Suddenly government authorities have woken up to the need to bolster the security of educational institutions according to standard operating procedures (SOPs) worked out by the security authorities. A painful question remains: why was this not seen to after the APS attack? Why are educational institutions now being told their security arrangements must meet the SOPs or they would not be allowed to operate? What were these same authorities doing till now? Was this not part of the National Action Plan (NAP), which by now is so discredited that wags have dubbed it the National Inaction Plan? Given the complexity and inherent difficulty of safeguarding soft targets like educational institutions, it will not do to wait for the terrorists to hit before waking up to the imperatives of the situation. At the risk of repetition, we would once again argue for dedicated ownership of NAP under one umbrella with a shared data base if the critical pre-emptive side of NAP is to become a reality, the only path that feasibly can get to the terrorists before they get to us.
Thursday, January 21, 2016
Lessons not learnt The tragic attack on Bacha Khan University (BKU), Charsadda, on January 20 has resurrected memories of the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar, attack in December 2014, not only because another educational institution was hit in similar style, but also because the perpetrators are the same group of terrorists. Conflicting reports spoke of sometimes four, sometimes 8-10 attackers involved. After a military operation lasting several hours, the premises were declared cleared of any malign presence. Twenty one people were killed in the attack, most of them students, and one notable death of an assistant professor who fought back against the attackers with his own firearm. Dozens were injured. The similarities with the APS attack extend to the claim of responsibility by Umar Mansoor, the leader of the Geedar group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a former activist of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Although a spokesman of the TTP disclaimed the attack, calling it a violation of Sharia, the confusion may be tactically deliberate or reflect the factionalised nature of the umbrella TTP. The timing too was significant. The BKU was commemorating the death anniversary of Bacha Khan, after whom the university is named, when it was struck. The message is clear. Bacha Khan’s non-violent inclusive politics is anathema to the fanatics, as is education per se. Two facts stand out. The distance of BKU from any big town (it is located outside Charsadda amidst a rural setting) delayed the response by the military and security forces, with special forces units travelling all the way from Peshawar. Had the security guards of BKU not initially resisted the attackers, the toll may have been even more horrendous. But even the deployment of 54 security guards in the university (a sprawling campus) proved insufficient to ward off or eliminate hardened terrorists armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons and suicide vests. Fortunately, the attackers were eliminated before they could set off their vests. ISPR DG Lt-General Asim Bajwa weighed in at a press conference with revelations that the attackers had been identified, their phone calls traced to Afghanistan and two cell phones seized from them. That serves to highlight what we have been arguing in this space for long. The terrorism problem has been displaced to safe havens across the Afghan border or driven underground, from where the terrorists can strike at will with a surfeit of riches as far as targets are concerned. Afghanistan has asked for reciprocal cooperation in reply to Pakistan’s repeated requests for action against the TTP elements ensconced in the wild and poorly policed border area on the Afghan-Pakistan boundary. While Pakistan is pushing the Afghan Taliban towards the negotiation table with Kabul, a process fraught with difficulties and uncertainty, the safe havens on Afghan soil and ‘sleeper’ cells throughout Pakistan allow our home grown terrorists to strike at a time and place of their choosing. This brings into focus the National Action Plan (NAP), agreed with consensus by all political parties. Much criticism has now come the government’s way for not implementing the NAP properly. These sentiments echoed in parliament too. NAP remains in the twilight zone of not having an organisational structure suited to its challenges. Under the circumstances of seeming drift in its efficacious implementation, it answers to the description that success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Since the federal interior minister seems a reluctant point man for NAP, the architecture of counter-terrorism, NAP’s main thrust after Operation Zarb-e-Azb, remains to be constructed. The National Counter Terrorism Authority remains hamstrung. In its absence, there is no central coordinating centre and shared data base to go after the terrorists throughout the country in a systematic way. Terrorists, particularly those prepared to die in their endeavours, are almost impossible to stop once they have embarked on their mission. The damage they inflict can at best be minimised (although even this minimum is painful). The only way to stop the terrorists is to pre-empt their plans by intelligence-led police operations that nip the evil in the bud. For that, the present NAP setup is wholly inadequate and therefore the government must inevitably bear the brunt of the criticism on its failures. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must himself now step forward and reorganise the counter-terrorism campaign if he does not want his government snowed under the weight of expectation and the tragic failures so far of NAP.
Monday, January 18, 2016
Mediatory role Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and COAS General Raheel Sharif embark on an attempted mediatory mission to Saudi Arabia (today) and Iran (Tuesday) to help defuse tensions between the two countries that have escalated to virtual breaking point in recent days. To recap, Saudi Arabia's execution of Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi regime Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr earlier this month infuriated Iran and Shias throughout the region. The execution was seen as a deliberate and cruel provocation as al-Nimr was considered a critic advocating peaceful struggle within Saudi Arabia for the rights of the Shia minority. It was also interpreted widely as Riyadh's riposte for the incremental rehabilitation of Iran from international pariah status to a full member of the global community. This turnaround has been made possible by the agreement between Iran and the world powers to halt its nuclear programme and restrict future nuclear activities to peaceful purposes under international supervision and monitoring. First and foremost, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is going to issue a clean chit to Tehran's adherence to the terms of the nuclear agreement. This will be followed by international sanctions imposed on Iran because of its alleged development of nuclear weapons being lifted, freeing Iran to return to international economic engagement. Although the sanctions have taken a toll of the 80 million populace of Iran and western multinational companies are gearing up to exploit the pent up demand of the deprived Iranian market, the most dramatic impact is likely to be felt in the international oil market. Tehran is naturally anxious to re-enter the global oil market as soon as possible and ship as much oil as possible, despite the supply glut that has driven the price of oil below 30 dollars a barrel. Surplus oil being pumped is around 1.5 million barrels a day. If Tehran's intent to increase its exports by 500,000 barrels a day within weeks and another 500,000 barrels a day within a year is realised, the fate of international oil prices is clear. Already, the lowest price of oil in decades points to the market's anticipation of the glut increasing due to Tehran's return to the market. The present level of oversupply has exhausted global storage space. Despite this, OPEC's inability to arrive at a consensus cut back of production has left the market a victim of the anarchy accompanying every producer's unwillingness to take the long view and agree production cuts that would help stabilise falling oil prices. For countries like Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies, a cut back would threaten their ability to maintain the lifestyle of their peoples, based on the riches derived from a single product economy. However, the present course too could arrive at the same destination because of the downward spiral of oil prices. Instability and chaos therefore loom over the horizon for these monarchies whose dependence on largesse for their people to retain their grip on power could unravel. The mission the prime minister and COAS have embarked upon seems difficult (some would say impossible) but necessary. Pakistan has of late (the Yemen intervention request) and particularly in this instance of Saudi Arabia's concerted drive to get Pakistan and its military capabilities aligned against Iran, adopted exemplary neutrality. This is in the broader interests of the protagonists, the region and the world. More particularly, it is in Pakistan's own interest to steer clear of a manifestly sectarian regional quagmire that would have blowback effects at home. Pakistan cannot allow the opening provided by Iranian international rehabilitation and the lifting of sanctions to go abegging. The gas pipeline from Iran stands completed up to the border on the Iranian side. The lifting of sanctions will allow its completion on our side and the flow of critically needed gas to begin. In addition, given Pakistan's long contiguous border with Iran, the potential for trade enhancement, road and rail linkages and mutual investment remains to be explored. Pakistan has rightly kept its nose out of the sectarian stink in the region fuelled by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ambitions. Now if it can offer the olive branch to both Riyadh and Tehran and persuade them to pull back from the brink of a very dangerous and potentially inflammatory confrontation, it will earn plaudits near and far and make a signal contribution to peace and stability in the region. We can only wish our leadership the best of luck in a plucky but difficult endeavour.
Saturday, January 16, 2016
CPEC discontents In response to the demands made in the All Parties Conference (APC) organized by the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) in Islamabad on January 10, amongst which was one for Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif to take charge, the latter chaired his own APC on January 15. All the parties represented in the first APC were present in the second one. This allowed a frank and free exchange of reservations, questions and criticisms on the part particularly of the parties representing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan to be aired and for the PM to address these discontents. Also in response to the allegations of ‘change of route’ of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the PM held out the assurance that the western route would be constructed first, a four lane highway would be built in the first phase, which could be expanded later to six lanes. The railway, fibre optic cable and other infrastructure would all be completed by July 2018 (around the time the present government’s tenure expires). Economic zones would be set up along the route in consultation with the provinces. A high powered steering committee headed by the PM and including the chief ministers of the provinces has been set up to meet every three months (or earlier if needed) to review progress. These decisions seem to have satisfied the KP chief minister, who was very voluble in his criticisms of the intended plans for the CPEC, including the charge that Punjab was trampling over the rights of the other three provinces by ‘hogging’ all the benefits of the project through the eastern route. Actually this was based on a false perception that the two routes were mutually exclusive. Both have to be built. The question that so agitated the KP and Balochistan representatives was partly rooted in the fact that the project partners may have preferred phasing the CPEC in such a manner that the relatively developed infrastructure along the eastern route be utilised on priority basis to take advantage of the quicker implementation and returns promised by that ground reality. When the furore broke, China was troubled and the federal government put on the mat by KP and Balochistan. After the necessary clarifications and pledges by no less than the PM have been delivered, it appears all reservations and misperceptions have been laid to rest. The only question unaddressed (at least as far as media reports reveal) is the apprehension of Balochistan that the development of Gwadar Port (and the city that will grow around it inevitably) would disturb the demographic balance in the province. Nor were their concerns about preventing people coming to work in Gwadar being barred from acquiring residential status or voting rights in Balochistan part of the final decisions as far as one can tell. This oversight is not without importance or implications. One of the concerns regarding the CPEC traversing Balochistan is the possibility of the nationalist insurgency impacting the project. If Gwadar’s conundrum is not addressed, these concerns could harden into reality. The PM should now place this question too before the steering committee to come to a consensus that allays the fears of Balochistan. It is an interesting post facto thought to wonder why such a ‘mountain’ has been made out of ‘a molehill’ as subsequent clarifications and decisions have shown. To understand the huge trust deficit on show between the three ‘smaller’ provinces on the one hand and Punjab and the Centre (virtually synonymous under the present dispensation) on the other, we have to traverse time and history to understand the knee-jerk reaction from KP and Balochistan. Unfortunately the explanation for the psychology that permeates the ‘smaller’ provinces is rooted in our history. Old style colonialism may have beaten a retreat from the subcontinent in 1947, and without going into the argument just how ‘independent’ ex-colonies like Pakistan became as a result, it is undeniable that a system of internal colonialism took root in Pakistan almost from day one. Punjab achieved the unenviable appellation of ‘big brother’ benefiting from the post-colonial state structures because of the institutional makeup of powerful state institutions such as the military and bureaucracy. After the death of the Quaid, the political class proved weak and ineffective, if not opportunistic, and steadily gave ground before the encroachments of these state institutions until Pakistan entered the realm of military regimes and the concomitant constructed national security state. Without delving into the case of East Pakistan (ironically housing the majority of the country’s population), that black chapter and subsequent events in what remains of Pakistan point in the direction of the internal colonialism thesis. Given this reality inherited from the past, only an open, sincere, democratic dispensation can deal with these historically received grievances and discontents, as the PM’s APC initiative on the CPEC shows.
Friday, January 15, 2016
Spoilers galore The received wisdom in India (and perhaps the world) in recent years has it that spoilers of the peace process with Pakistan emanate from the latter’s soil. Indeed if the 2001 attack on India’s parliament, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Gurdaspur and the recent Pathankot incidents are any guide, it seems an open and shut case. What has been a grey area is the involvement of the state or its security establishment in such adventures. Whatever the past truth, today it seems the security establishment too has been persuaded of the current wisdom of engaging with India for peace and normalisation, no matter how difficult or intractable the roadblocks. However, there are spoilers and spoilers, and there appears no dearth of such Johnnies on either side of the divide. The vandalisation of the PIA office in New Delhi by Hindu Sena hardliners on January 14 points in the direction of the enemies of the peace and normalisation process within India. While the damage was to the office and fittings and mercifully the staff remained unharmed, it was a clear message that the recent attempts at rapprochement after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘drop in’ on our prime minister would not be allowed to go on if the Hindutva brigade has its way. Unfortunately for the obscurantists, both Pakistan and India have swung round to the view of late (after an inauspicious start by the Modi government) that there is no alternative to a dialogue. Despite the fact that the Hindutva brigade is closely aligned to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government, it appears there is a rift between the newfound pragmatism of Modi and his more extreme supporters. It has long been argued that Pakistan and India need to escape the syndrome of being prisoners of history and realise that as in any peace process, there will be vested interests on both sides that will attempt to sabotage progress. Fortunately, the logic of engagement has sunk in on both sides and the nefarious attempts by non-state actors on one or the other side are being resisted in both Islamabad and New Delhi. This can only be viewed as the triumph (hopefully permanent) of statesmanship and vision over the remnants of a more hostile past. The PIA office vandalisation is being investigated by the Indian authorities, one perpetrator is under arrest, and the others are being sought. Compare this responsible response with the Pakistan government’s serious efforts to clamp down on Jaish-e-Mohammad, blamed by India for the Pathankot attack, and one can discern the new pattern emerging. Hopefully the spoilers have had their day and if they have not yet received the news of the new turn in relations, they would soon be disabused of the notion that they can carry on business as usual as in the past. Neither the Pathankot attack nor the efforts of the Hindu Sena have deterred either government from staying the course. The foreign secretaries’ talks have been rescheduled by mutual consent, not cancelled, and the crackdown on Jaish-e-Mohammad has been extended to southern Punjab (its stronghold) and even Sialkot, where a seminary being run by the group has been sealed and some arrests made. So far, so good. But the uncertainty surrounding the Punjab government’s failure to tackle all manner of jihadi groups in the province, particularly in its southern reaches, is fast acquiring the character of a real concern. Maulana Masood Azhar and his gang of fanatics have obviously not been on the radar of Lahore. On the evidence so far, neither have any of the other terrorist and sectarian groups proliferating in their safe havens in the province. The dichotomy between the federal government’s response to Pathankot on the basis of actionable intelligence provided by India contrasts all the more sharply with Punjab’s seemingly indifferent and irresponsible dereliction of its duty to watch and if found indulging in unlawful activities, wipe out the malcontents damaging Pakistan’s interests and image. It is strange that elder brother is bending his back to keep the peace process intact while the younger brother seems still to live in the illusions of the past, including his infamous appeal at one point to the home grown Taliban to leave Punjab alone and they would be left alone in return. Need we remind everyone that Punjab is part of Pakistan, and a very important part at that. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has a lot of explaining and catching up with Islamabad to do.
Thursday, January 14, 2016
It ain’t over yet The suicide blast at a polio centre in Quetta and the attack on the Pakistan consulate in Jalalabad in Afghanistan on January 13 point to the fact that the struggle against terrorism is far from over. The incident in Quetta has evoked at least three claims of responsibility, i.e. from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jaish-e-Islam and Jundullah. All three are jihadi terrorist groups that oppose the polio eradication programme on spurious grounds such as a conspiracy to make children infertile through the drops administered to prevent the crippling disease. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries left in the world where polio is endemic. Progress in eradicating the menace in Pakistan has been thwarted by the deaths of 80 immunisers, their guards and others since December 2012 in such attacks. The immunisers, mostly women, are therefore heroes on the front line of the polio campaign, at considerable risk to life and limb. In Quetta, the bulk of the casualties were from the police contingent deployed outside the polio centre, waiting to escort the polio teams on their day’s immunisation drive. Twelve policemen, one FC soldier and two civilians were among the dead, while 25 people were injured, some critically. In Jalalabad, three attackers and seven Afghan troops were killed in the gun battle. Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility, with its rival the Afghan Taliban distancing themselves from the incident. One consulate staffer, three children and seven police personnel were among the injured according to reports, but this was denied by the Pakistani foreign office spokesman, who contended all consulate staff were safe and unharmed. President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif to condemn the attack and express solidarity, and the PM in turn stressed his sorrow for the loss of Afghan troops’ lives. Ghani assured the PM Afghanistan would provide enhanced security for Pakistani diplomatic staff in the country. The attack has drawn comparisons with the ‘siege’ of the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif a week ago. The two incidents in the two neighbouring countries offer insights and lessons. In Pakistan, Operation Zarb-e-Azb’s successes notwithstanding, we have been warning in this space that the problem has not gone away. The TTP terrorists have been pushed across the border from their safe havens in FATA or driven underground in the rest of the country. The counter-terrorism drive under the National Action Plan has unfortunately yet to commend itself, largely because it is an orphan, with the federal interior minister a reluctant point man and the lack of a centralised coordinating centre for the task. It is heartening nevertheless to hear statements of intent from the Balochistan government to pursue the polio campaign despite the atrocity and to continue the struggle against terrorism to the bitter end. Intent notwithstanding, the two attacks on the same day point to the residual terrorist capabilities of jihadi groups under the hammer here, and the possible collaboration of TTP and other Pakistani groups who have fled to Afghanistan with IS on Afghan soil. The Afghan authorities are claiming that the bulk of the IS fighters in their country are from Pakistan’s FATA, and therefore quite possibly from the groups that have sought safety in Afghanistan. If this surmise is correct, it suggests the critical need for Pak-Afghan coordinated strategies for overcoming the common challenge of terrorism and the construction of the counter-terrorist architecture required in Pakistan, which has so far been conspicuous by its absence. In the latter case, fighting the plethora of terrorist groups at home without a coordinating centre is to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back. There are the issues of bringing the military and civilian intelligence and security agencies under one umbrella, constructing a centralised database for all terrorist groups, and mounting intelligence-led operations to eradicate the elusive presence of the terrorists in our midst. The FATA operation’s success has reduced the counter-insurgency task more or less to guarding against cross-border incursions by the TTP and others. The lack of satisfactory success in the counter-terrorism area is the lag that needs to be addressed along the lines suggested above. The government’s failure to lead on this front, conceptually, organisationally and in practice on the ground is the major cause of the less than satisfactory rendering of accounts with the fanatics. The government must urgently address this lapse.
Friday, January 8, 2016
Saudi FM’s visit Saudi Foreign Minister Dr Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir finally made good his postponed visit. The visit has been billed by the Pakistani authorities as ‘successful’. But if we go behind the seemingly consensual joint statement at the end of the visit, much light can be thrown on the dilemmas of Islamabad vis-à-vis the current rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran and its consequent fallout on the region and the world. At the outset, it should be recalled that the incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is considered very close, if not beholden, to Riyadh. Despite that, Islamabad has found the courage to say ‘no’ to the Saudi attempt to drag Pakistan into a sectarian war in Yemen on its side. For once, the government deserves credit for placing Pakistan’s interests above any momentary or expedient considerations of keeping our ‘close’ friend happy. Similarly, in the middle of the growing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the former’s execution of prominent Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi regime Nimr al-Nimr, Islamabad is trying to remain as ‘neutral’ as possible for fear it too may get dragged into this sectarian conflict. So what was on offer for the Saudi foreign minister were soothing phrases about Pakistan standing shoulder to shoulder with Saudi Arabia against any threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty and little else. These were the same formulations used to placate Riyadh and its allies over Pakistan’s refusal to commit troops to the Yemen civil war on the side of Saudi Arabia and against the Houthi rebels considered by the Saudis to be Iranian surrogates. As far as the 34-country alliance against ‘terrorism’ announced by Saudi Arabia without it seems even consulting Islamabad as to its inclusion, Pakistan’s reservations regarding the sectarian character of the alliance from which Iran, Syria and Iraq are excluded, have persuaded Dr Al-Jubeir to offer Pakistan (and other members) involvement in the alliance to the extent they wanted. Pakistan so far has only committed to providing training, capacity building and counter-insurgency help. The significant omission here (again) is deployment of troops in what Nawaz Sharif papered over as an anti-terrorist alliance to whose purposes Islamabad stands committed but which in fact is a continuation of Riyadh’s current thrust to roll back Iran’s growing influence and clout in the region and rehabilitation in the international community since the nuclear deal. After the Saudi foreign minister’s return, at the time of writing these lines it has been announced that Mohammad bin Salman, the King’s son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister is coming to Pakistan (on a follow up?). Mohammad bin Salman is credited, along with his father King Salman, with Saudi Arabia’s current aggressive posture vis-à-vis Iran and Shias in general. Their comfort with brinkmanship on this front would have been unthinkable under King Salman’s late brother King Abdullah, who adhered to Riyadh’s typically cautious approach to such matters. Prince Mohammad has attempted to reassure a jittery world through an interview to the Economist that the crisis will not lead to an all-out war. Clearly this is a message to the oil markets as well as allies and friends across the globe that despite the ransacking of Riyadh’s embassy in retaliation for al-Nimr’s execution, which led to Saudi Arabia breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran, the conflict would be contained. Pressure from ‘big’ friends like Washington and even the UN may also be playing a role in dampening Riyadh’s ambitions to nudge Tehran off its perch and establish its own credentials as the pre-eminent power in the region. These ambitions have negative connotations for the efforts to secure peace in Syria and forge an international coalition against Islamic State, arguably the main threat to all regimes in the region and beyond. Meantime back home, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has seen fit, in the light of the sensitivity of the issue and the delicate balancing act Islamabad is essaying to keep its relations with Riyadh and Tehran on an even keel and leave open the option of playing a mediatory role between the two, to ‘advise’ the electronic media to exercise ‘restraint’ while discussing the Saudi-Iranian quarrel. The opposition is unnecessarily weighing in against the government for this balancing act, not caring for such sensitivity and demanding ‘leadership’ from Islamabad. Leadership of what, for what, is unexplained. Better for Pakistan to keep its powder dry and stay out of sectarian quagmires. In that lies the real interest of the country.
Saturday, January 2, 2016
Tax amnesty again Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has reached out to his business constituency to bolster tax revenues. In a meeting with business leaders on Friday at the PM’s secretariat, Nawaz Sharif appealed to the traders’ sense of patriotism to help the country’s development needs by cooperating with the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) in paying taxes under a concessional amnesty scheme. The scheme envisages amnesty for non-filers and a voluntary tax filing procedure over the next four years. One of the bones of contention of late between the traders and the government was the tax on banking transactions, but the reports fail to clarify whether and when the offending measure will be reversed. In the meantime, while the PM argued that tax rates should be brought down to encourage people to file their income tax returns, he also instructed the FBR chairman not to pressurise any person unjustifiably and treat taxpayers with respect. To give legislative teeth to the proposed tax amnesty, the government has tabled the Income Tax (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the National Assembly (NA) and suddenly extended the session of the NA in order to get the Bill passed immediately. The hasty manner in which the NA session has been extended has surprised many parliamentarians. Perhaps the government’s anxiety and hurry is traceable to International Monetary Fund (IMF) pressure to take steps to widen the tax base, a conditionality of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility programme. The Bill envisages allowing businessmen to whiten their undeclared profits by paying a nominal amount of tax. This four-year tax amnesty scheme will apply to both filers and non-filers (defined as those who have not filed a return for the last 10 years). It will not apply to parliamentarians, persons convicted on narcotics, terrorism and money laundering charges. The measures proposed are expected to add about two million new taxpayers to the exceedingly narrow existing tax base of some one million taxpayers out of a population of around 200 million. Up to Rs 50 million undeclared working capital can be whitened by paying one percent tax on the declared working capital in tax year 2015. For tax year 2016, traders would have to declare turnover showing at least three times the working capital declared for tax year 2015. For tax years 2017 and 2018, they would have to declare turnover on which the tax paid is at least 25 percent more than the preceding year. Another option offered is for traders to pay turnover tax for the next three years. Different tax slabs have been proposed for tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017. All businessmen taking advantage of the amnesty scheme will be exempt from audit and any questions about the source of their income for four years. However, the Bill excludes whitening real estate, vehicles, shops and non-business assets. The conditionalities of the IMF programme aside, the government desperately needs to boost its revenues. One of its traditional milk cows, i.e. taxes on POL, has suffered a reduction because of low international prices. To make up the shortfall, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar had recently imposed additional customs duties on what he called luxury imports, but contrary to his assertions, this fresh indirect taxation or mini-budget as it has been dubbed, has fuelled a spike in inflation. The amnesty scheme therefore represents the midnight oil the finance ministry gnomes have been burning ever since to find ways and means to increase tax revenue and keep the IMF happy. This is not the first time such a tax amnesty has been offered to businessmen, especially traders. However, if the past is any guide, these schemes failed to live up to expectations. Whether this one will fare better only time will tell. There is however one factor that may make the current amnesty scheme’s prospects better than its predecessors. A pro-business government is in power that has seemingly persuaded the business community to bail it out of its revenue collection difficulties by whitening its undeclared income through concessional tax rates. Appeals to patriotism notwithstanding, the bazaar has not been known for a responsible taxpaying culture in the past, if anything quite the contrary. Whether it and the wider business community will step up to the plate in these dire times is the sixty four thousand dollar question that may make or break the government’s ambitions and aspirations regarding a kevel of revenues that can keep the IMF quiet and cooperative while helping finance the revenue and development budgets of the country.
Friday, January 1, 2016
Brave new world? As the world rang in the New Year and tolled out the old one, the global landscape betrayed the mixed bag of anxieties and hopes that characterise today’s situation. In many western and Asian cities, the celebrations were dampened by fear or actual threats of terrorism, leading many capitals to cancel the traditional fireworks and large gatherings. In other, less stressed countries, the celebrations and pyrotechnics went ahead undeterred. In the backdrop lurked the realisation of Islamic State’s (IS’s) open and declared intent to bring the ‘war’ to its enemies’ homelands (witness the Paris massacre). At home, Pakistanis, particularly youth frustrated with the lack of options for entertainment, once again took over the roads in cities and ‘celebrated’ in their usual ‘yahoo’ style. The authorities tried to cope but were unable to do much to dent one-wheelies, loud music and massive traffic jams. If only we could find some healthier ways for our young to enjoy themselves on such occasions without making a nuisance of themselves. Meanwhile the IS presence in Pakistan has reasserted itself in debate after families in Lahore (including women and children) were discovered after the event of having travelled surreptitiously to Syria to join the IS campaign of setting up a ‘caliphate’ enjoying a hold over vast territory. Recent developments on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria however offer hope that their governments, with the support, open and honest or tacit and hesitant, of the world powers, may be on the verge of turning the tide on IS and other terrorist outfits. The problem, whether on the battle fronts or on the planned negotiations for a political settlement in Syria, is the definition of who can be described as a terrorist. Lack of agreement on this fundamental definition is the biggest roadblock in the creation of a critically required global anti-terrorist architecture to bring to bear the will and resources of the world against the threat. Back home, the authorities have finally to get their head out of the sand in denying any presence of IS in Pakistan and get down to the more important task of ensuring IS does not get traction here through the agency of older existing terrorist groups on our soil. No doubt the interior ministry can point to quite impressive statistics of its actions against terrorism during 2015, including killing 637 terrorists in 1,113 incidents and arresting another 710. To some, these may appear relatively puny numbers, but they reflect the nature of the enemy and the fight against him. Inherently, as far as both counterinsurgency (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) and counterterrorism (the National Action Plan or NAP) are concerned, it is less likely that we will see spectacular numbers in one go of the enemy eliminated but rather a slow, steady accumulation of the blows struck and the results obtained. An enemy operating in small groups, whether as guerrillas in FATA and elsewhere or as cells in the cities, requires patient intelligence-driven operations to degrade, disassemble and eliminate the threat. An interesting aspect of the fight and the difficulties that attend it is the report that a perusal by the authorities of around 200 seminaries’ bank accounts has yielded so little as to be described as a molehill rather than a mountain. After this fruitless exercise (which some informed observers could have pointed to long before it even started), attention is now being diverted to non-banking, informal channels of financing the seminaries such as hundi and hawala or other means to finance the activities of these madrassas. In the first place, identifying and then cutting off funds being employed to facilitate terrorism is a complex, multi-layered task. In the second place, any madrassa involved in suspicious activities is hardly likely to ‘advertise’ the source of its funding through the banks. Back to the drawing board on this one then. There is little doubt that casting an eye on the trajectory of the struggle against terrorism from say 2008 to 2015 indicates the distance travelled along the road of progress. Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched in June 2014 in response to the terrorist attack on Karachi airport at the very moment the government, with the all parties consensus behind it, was attempting to negotiate with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It is the TTP that disabused everyone of the notion of talking them out of their dastardly course and woke up the hitherto sleeping giant of the military to take the terrorists head on in North Waziristan (the reference is to the procrastination of past military top brass in grasping this nettle firmly). The expected terrorist retaliation by the TTP and other terrorist groups for their loss of long standing safe havens and bases in FATA did not arrive immediately, which may have induced some complacency. However, the terrorists sent a rude reminder by massacring children and teachers in the APS incident in December 2014, finally stirring the authorities to formulate the NAP. Discontents with the long delays in implementing all the 20 points of NAP notwithstanding, there can be no gainsaying the fact that 2015 proved a turning point in mobilising opinion across the board against the terrorists and silencing their vocal and hidden sympathisers. Looking back, that will stand out as the greatest gain of the year past.