Sunday, February 14, 2016
Nisar in denial Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has once again denied the presence of Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan. He says some terror outfits in Pakistan are using the name of IS to pursue their agendas. IS, the minister asserts, is a Middle Eastern organisation without the same level of presence here. It seems the minister is once again indulging in his favourite pastime: tilting at windmills. No one of sound mind has suggested IS is present in Pakistan in the same shape and form as in the Middle East. General opinion runs precisely along the lines that local terrorist groups have either pledged (at least four) or are in the process of pledging allegiance to IS. The minister flies in the face of the facts revealed by two sources. First and foremost, Intelligence Bureau (IB) Director General (DG) Aftab Sultan has confirmed to a parliamentary panel that IS poses a serious growing threat in Pakistan. Following this, the other day DG ISPR Lt-General Asim Bajwa revealed that a nexus amongst IS, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) has been broken up in Karachi and Hyderabad. After these facts were revealed, and given that Chaudhry Nisar admits local terrorist groups are ‘using’ IS’s name or pledging allegiance to it, where does the minister conclude that there is no presence of IS here? We have repeatedly pointed out in this space that it is not necessary for IS to physically travel here from its bases in Syria and Iraq. On the contrary, some Pakistanis, including women and children, have been reported to have travelled from here to Syria to fight on IS’s side. The only thing that needs to travel the other way is IS’s message and appeal, not to mention the temptation for local groups to dip into IS’s considerable coffers. While admitting this does not take a genius, it is inexplicable why, every time he opens his mouth, Chaudhry Nisar seems to see his ‘enemies’ everywhere. This includes commentators warning against the growth of an IS presence in Pakistan through local terror groups, as well as the political opposition. So incensed is Chaudhry Nisar at being contradicted on an IS presence here or the manifest gaps and failures in the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) that he has lashed out rudely at the opposition, particularly the PPP, whom he accuses of having slept through its tenure as far as terrorism is concerned. In language unbecoming of a holder of high office and a parliamentarian, the minister says such people criticise him when he “steps on their tail”. Can Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not rein in his Don Quixote, or at the very least teach him some manners? Now from the ridiculous to the sublime (serious examination of the IS phenomenon). Since January 2015, reports have said at least four local terrorist groups have pledged allegiance to IS. The DG ISPR revealed the nexus amongst IS, TTP and LeJ. This trend is not confined to Pakistan. Some 43 terrorist groups in many countries across the Middle East and Africa have similarly pledged allegiance to IS. IS has laid claim to our region by dubbing it “Khurasan” in a reference to its ancient description, and clearly has aims to conquer it in the name of its so-called caliphate. Two additional facts should be kept in view. While we are trying to stop the TTP carrying out cross-border attacks from Afghan soil, IS has infiltrated eastern Afghanistan, is poised close to our border, and could easily aid and abet TTP in its terror operations inside Pakistan. Second, Chaudhry Nisar sees the madrassas as a bulwark against terrorism. Received wisdom so far held that it is these madrassas, or at least many of them, that are the terrorist-producing factories. Now they have, in the interior minister’s view, become their dialectical opposite, a ‘bulwark’. The government’s efforts to monitor and regulate the madrassas is at best described as an incomplete, difficult if not impossible task given the long leeway they have enjoyed over the decades, but to describe these holdouts for being allowed to preach the jihadi message to young minds as a ‘bulwark’ against terrorism is to beggar the imagination. Chaudhry Nisar’s credentials as the security czar are suspect, given that in the past he has exposed his soft corner for extremists. Peddling furiously and wildly in the water to perhaps overcome this perception, the interior minister seems to have jumped into the deep end.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Lessons of PIA strike After eight days of an initial total and later partial strike by the PIA employees protesting against the government’s plans to privatise the airline, a call to return to work was announced by the employees’ Joint Action Committee (JAC) chairman Sohail Baloch in a press conference on February 9. According to Baloch, a “kind friend” had so advised. Speculation centres on the identity of this “friend”, with some reports naming him as perhaps Hamza Sharif, who flew to Islamabad to hold talks with the employees. This surmise is strengthened by the announcement by Sohail Baloch that he and a delegation of JAC would be travelling to Lahore to meet Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, one of two PML-N leaders the JAC chief had named the other day as possible negotiators from the government side. Although Baloch mentioned that they had received assurances regarding the PIA privatisation issue, he did not divulge any details, fending off the question by saying this would be revealed only after they had met Shahbaz Sharif. He also went on to say PIA could be turned around by its workers within a year if given a chance. And he had the grace to apologise to PIA passengers for the inconvenience caused. Whatever the back channel that engaged with JAC and held out whatever assurances, reports say the government maintained its tough stance on the strike by insisting it must end before any negotiations. Of course if the talks fail, JAC says it reserves the right to resume its protest. Around 600 domestic and international flights of the national carrier were said to have been cancelled during the strike, incurring a loss of Rs three billion to the financially strapped airline. However, it must not be forgotten who is to blame for these losses and the loss of three employees’ lives during the protest in Karachi. Had the government not been so hasty in its handling of the issue, the loss of those precious lives and the cancelled flights would not have transpired. A PIA spokesman on the night of February 9 announced that full flight operations had been resumed but pointed out that the accumulated backlog could cause some readjustment of flight timings. The government, having precipitated the crisis by its hardline stance, resorted to various strike breaking tactics. In this purpose they were helped by fissures within the alliance of unions that is JAC. Those employees willing to ‘play ball’ were privileged over those holding out. The former included one union faction and the pilots’ association. At the same time, intimidation of employees, especially airhostesses, was resorted to, as well as continuing (despite the end of the strike) arrests and notices to employees. This is nothing less than rubbing the noses of the striking employees in the dirt and cannot be considered a wise course, given that the impending negotiations need a calmer climate. While the responsibility for the deaths of the three employees remains undetermined, it is perhaps time for the government to now desist from further actions against the strikers. The whole episode has echoed in parliament, with the Senate opposition girding up to give the government a tough time for its mishandling of the crisis. The upper house’s Standing Committee on Finance is looking into the exploitation of the strike by two private airlines accused of jacking up fares many times while PIA was grounded. The initial protest by the JAC was perfectly legitimate, peaceful and within the ambit of the law and constitution in a democracy. What transformed such a protest into a strike was the killing of three protestors and the ‘kidnapping’ of four leaders (they have since returned safe and sound). Protest can transform into the ultimate weapon of a strike (withdrawal of labour) if the authorities refuse to engage with the protest in a civilised manner. However, for a strike to succeed, it needs more than just the unions of a national organisation like PIA to come out. What was lacking was effective solidarity by other unions, particularly state owned enterprises threatened themselves with the same privatisation prescription. That lack and the mere lip service so far paid by the political opposition meant the PIA workers were left to wage a lonely struggle, dooming it from the start. What the government must not stoop to now is victimisation of the protestors or their leaders. It has muscled its way past the strike. It must now show magnanimity in victory in the interests of getting PIA fully back on its feet and then inform what it intends to do now in terms of its plans for PIA in the future.
Monday, February 8, 2016
Quetta blast Quetta experienced another suicide bombing on February 6 in which a Frontier Corps (FC) patrol was targeted. According to the details, a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up near one of the vehicles in an FC security envoy, killing at least 10 people, including four security personnel, a woman and a child, while 23 others were wounded. The security convoy consisting of a truck and two other vehicles was on routine patrol on Adalat Road near the premises of the heavily guarded Quetta district courts. DIG Imtiaz Shah stated that around 12-15 kilograms of explosives were used in the blast. Eight of the injured are said to be in critical condition in hospital. The blast was so powerful it destroyed five vehicles, four motorcycles, three rickshaws and shattered the windows of buildings in the area. Inspector General FC General Sher Afgan, while talking to the media, employed strange logic to argue the terrorists were attacking soft targets as the anti-terrorist operations have destroyed their capabilities. While there is no doubting that successes have been achieved, and though the logic may fit attacks such as those on the Army Public School Peshawar and the Bacha Khan University Charsadda, it hardly applies to a deliberate targeting of the FC, as in this instance. The fact that the authorities have to get their head around is that the terrorists' tactics are flexible, ever changing, and intended to create fear, insecurity and destabilisation. Balochistan government spokesman Anwar ul Haq Kakar underlined that 250 intelligence-based operations had been carried out in the province and the suicide bombing is a reaction aimed at demoralising the security forces, which they will not succeed in. Balochistan Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durrani ascribed the bombing to attempts to sabotage the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). While these 'explanations' may all have a grain of truth to them, what needs to be understood and reiterated is that by its very nature, asymmetrical warfare, of which terrorism is a part, relies heavily on the impossibility of preventing each and every attack. The terrorists wait and watch, create new ways to deliver their deadly loads, and inevitably try to inflict the heaviest losses of life and property possible. If proof of the changing, shifting nature of the terrorists' tactics is sought, consider that on the very day of the suicide bombing, a police van was fired on by motorcyclists, killing the driver and wounding four others, including a civilian in the Sariab area of the city. The Khorasan group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the attack. The anti-terrorist campaign is hampered to some extent by the mushroom growth of factions and groupings within the TTP, each operating autonomously while claiming allegiance to the umbrella TTP. That makes the task of the security forces' intelligence-led operations harder because of the fluidity of these groups and their amorphous, constantly changing nature. For this very reason, whether in Balochistan or the country as a whole, the authorities need a centralised coordinating organisation that can collect and collate a database for all the groups and factions operating under the umbrella of the TTP and monitor and trace their shifting alliances thereby. This is the biggest gap in the anti-terrorism architecture. The National CounterTerrorism Authority (NACTA) remains for all practical purposes a dead letter, despite recently boasting of 'resurrecting' its website. It should be remembered that NACTA was supposed to be the overarching centre of the National Action Plan (NAP), which too appears so far to be an 'orphan'. It is for the prime minister and the federal government to put their own anti-terrorist house in order and bring the provincial governments on board for a coordinated and efficacious anti-terrorist campaign against an elusive, intelligent, flexible and creative menace.
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Anti-IS struggle A recently released US intelligence report says there has been a 20 percent decrease in Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria and Iraq, currently running at 25,000 fighters compared to a previous estimate of up to 30,000. The contributory factors in this decrease include battlefield casualties, desertions, successes of the military campaign against IS and international efforts to stem the flow of foreigners seeking to join IS. Despite this heartening trend, the report is realistic enough to underline that IS continues to pose a substantial threat. In Syria, the Russian intervention has turned the military tide against IS, with heavy fighting in and around Aleppo currently symptomatic of the advances of Bashar al-Assad’s government, helped by its allies Iran and Hezbollah. While Iran, Hezbollah and now Russia have tipped the war al-Assad’s way, there is confusion and discord amongst the western allies attempting to come to grips with the IS threat. For example, Canada’s newly elected government headed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reiterated its campaign promise to withdraw Canadian jets helping the bombing campaign against IS in Syria and Iraq. Although Trudeau promised to stay engaged, including boosting the presence of Canadian soldiers in Iraq on a training mission and keeping reconnaissance and refuelling planes in the region, the development has Canada’s western allies worried. Meanwhile opposition is growing within and outside Congress in the US to the CIA aiding al Qaeda proxies in Syria. These so-called ‘moderate’ groups have been exposed by a report by the House Armed Services Committee that reveals they are essentially extremist jihadi groups that have been largely taken over and now controlled by al Qaeda or IS. US funding, weapons, other help is being funnelled through the so-called moderate groups to their ‘controllers’. The report records as ironic the fact that Al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is being supported while the US is still engaged in fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter in the transmogrified shape of IS). The report points to the unintended consequences in the past of backing jihadi proxies in Afghanistan, a venture that eventually created the Taliban who hosted al Qaeda. The rest, as they say, is history. IS is spreading like the plague from South East Asia to Libya. In the last named country, western intervention to support rebels in the overthrow of Gaddafi has produced a virtually failed state, with two parliaments, two governments, militia rule, and IS growing in between. If IS links up with terrorist groups in Niger and Chad, this cross-Sahara front will be very difficult to roll back. The US-led west’s ‘romance’ with jihadi militants starting from Afghanistan in the 1980s and continuing in North Africa and the Middle East since the Arab Spring of 2011 promises the same disaster as visited the first ‘experiment’. An entire arc of countries stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific is now threatened by the growing power of IS. Perceptive analysts insist military means alone are insufficient to defeat groups like al Qaeda and IS. Killing foot soldiers of the terrorist international does little to damage the ability of their leaders to recruit fresh replacements, brought to them by the conveyor belt of Muslim extremist preachers and madrassas preparing new generations of terrorist fighters. Pakistan, particularly in the avatar of Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali, is as usual ‘dealing’ with the problem through denial. This ostrich-like head-in-the-sand posture is neither convincing nor confidence inspiring. The modus operandi of IS is different from al Qaeda (from whose womb it evolved in Iraq initially) in that it has proved adept at using existing terrorist groups to widen its reach, control and capability of wreaking mischief. Is there not readymade fertile soil for just such a strategy in Pakistan (and Afghanistan)? How then can the Pakistani authorities be so derelict in their duty and oblivious to the looming threat? Just as the world tended to wake up late to the IS threat, and that too only when it exploded onto the scene, capturing large swathes of territory in Iraq (where the US-trained army disintegrated) and Syria (taking advantage of and manoeuvring in the fractured political and battle landscape), Pakistan may one day wake up to rue the day it failed to respond in timely fashion to pre-empt the reported efforts of IS to win over the Pakistani terrorist groups and carve out a niche for itself here. The world needs to find the will and unity to defeat IS on a ‘global’ scale while Pakistan needs the same to pre-empt the threatened growth of IS on our soil.
Thursday, February 4, 2016
Class struggle The mishandling of the protest by PIA employees that led to the deaths of three protestors has evoked a veritable storm of protest from the political opposition, Bar Associations and civil society. The incident has echoed in the Punjab and Sindh Assemblies, including walkouts by the opposition and resolutions of condemnation being moved. Meanwhile the protest continues at all airports in the country and PIA offices. Flights and the operations of the airline continue to be shut down. Referring to the further losses the airline is suffering does not let the government off the hook for its dire, ill thought through and precipitate approach. For those puzzled by the government’s sudden haste in attempting to accelerate PIA’s privatisation by ramming through a bill in the National Assembly to transform PIA into a public limited company, arguing only 26 percent shares of PIA would be sold to a strategic investor (who would then be given management control?) and then adopting a harsh attitude towards protesting PIA employees, the answer was provided by Privatisation Minister Muhammad Zubair on February 3, when he revealed that in the given circumstances, it would not be possible to privatise PIA by June 30 this year as committed to the IMF. Now one may be forgiven for asking when this commitment was made and why it was not brought into the clear light of day earlier? Forget the public, even parliament remains uninformed. Such is the contempt this government displays for democratic norms. But that is only the tip of the iceberg of the government’s wrong approach to national affairs. The harsh imposition of the Essential Services Act 1952 on PIA and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s extremely threatening tone in warning protesting PIA employees they would be fired and may even face a year in jail, not to mention Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid’s leading the government charge against all comers on the issue, have only served to expose the right wing, IMF-driven, neo-liberal, anti-working class inclinations of this government. As for Pervaiz Rashid’s trying to pin the whole affair down to a ‘conspiracy’ by mischievous elements in the PIA unions and opposition political parties anxious to take advantage of the conflict, not to mention trying to justify PIA’s privatisation by reference to previous regimes (e.g. the PPP) and the manifestos of some other parties, one can only explain this as the ravings of a fevered imagination. No previous government shed workers’ blood in the name of privatisation. The irony seems to be lost on the worthy information minister that at one point in his life he described himself as a Leftist and supported the rights and interests of the working class. While PIA’s operations remain suspended and the government frantically bends its back to make alternative arrangements with private and foreign airlines to accommodate PIA’s stranded passengers, some of the private airlines (including one owned by a federal minister – conflict of interest anyone?) have reportedly been fleecing desperate travellers. What the government’s ham-handedness in dealing with the real and genuine concerns of the PIA employees regarding their future under a privatised airline has achieved, unintentionally, is to unite the entire opposition against itself, harden the resistance of the PIA Joint Action Committee unions to privatisation, potentially mobilise other state owned enterprises’ unions like WAPDA and the Railways in solidarity with the PIA workers, and given civil society a renewed voice against oppression and cruelty against the working class. In other words, the government has succeeded in sparking off a revival of the classic class struggle that had lain dormant for decades. Pakistan therefore presents a sorry picture before the world when its national flag carrier turns out to be not the best people to fly with. Since the end of the Cold War, the Left and class struggle were written off as passé. This was a serious underestimation of the staying power of the Red Mole that burrows silently long years before finally bursting forth into the light of day, much to the chagrin and surprise of regimes like the present incumbents in Pakistan. Historians may well look back on this period as one where the government itself initiated and revived the class struggle through its oppressive actions. How the incumbents will look as the process plays itself out is a space worth watching in the days ahead.