Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 28, 2017

High risk PSL final in Lahore After extensive deliberations with input from the security services and consultation with the prime minister, the Punjab government has given the go ahead for the Pakistan Super League (PSL) T20 cricket final to be held in Lahore on March 5, 2017. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has justified the difficult decision as being “in the national interest”. Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Shahryar Khan and PSL chief Najam Sethi have welcomed the decision. However, while the announcement has been met by the cricket-mad public with unalloyed joy and enthusiasm, the development also has its fair share of critics. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) chief and former cricket World Cup winning captain Imran Khan characterised the decision as “madness” and “a terrible idea”, given the security risks involved. A number of famous ex-cricketers too have chimed in to criticise the high risk decision. Imran Khan fears that if, God forbid, something happens on the day, we may have to say goodbye to the already suspended visits of foreign cricket teams since the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan team for the foreseeable future. Government ministers have rounded on Imran Khan, invoking patriotism to castigate him. It may be recalled that COAS General Qamar Bajwa had put his weight behind holding the PSL final in Lahore despite the February 13 blast in front of the Punjab Assembly. Convergence between the military and the civilian government to send out a message that Pakistan will not be cowed by the terrorists led to the decision to hold the final in Lahore. While this objective is laudable, the high degree of risk involved cannot simply be wished away. One of the attractions of the PSL is the presence of internationally renowned foreign players. At the moment, literally on the eve of the event, terrible uncertainty surrounds their willingness to travel to and play in Lahore from the UAE where the preliminary rounds of the tournament have been played like last year. Although Najam Sethi has asserted that depending on which two teams qualify for the final, and whether some foreign players agree to come to Lahore or not, the PCB has chalked out a list of replacement players who are willing, the list released to the media of these replacement players suggests that their presence, with due respect, is hardly likely to set the Gaddafi Stadium on fire. A depreciated final in Lahore, whatever its political import, may not serve the objective of inducing enough confidence in the state of affairs and security for cricket in Pakistan to encourage foreign teams to consider playing here. And, God forbid, if any incident occurs during the match, that prospect will simply disappear over the visible horizon. The terrorists seek to deny the public space for cultural and sporting events so that normal life is shown to be disrupted. They have carried out actions such as the 2009 attacks on the Sufi Musical Festival in the Gaddafi Cultural Complex and on the Sri Lankan cricket team precisely to bring about such an outcome. And given the seriousness of the demonstrated threat, they succeeded. The Sufi Musical Festival was resurrected this year after eight years at the same venue, but was fortunate to have been staged just before the rash of terrorist attacks experienced throughout the country in recent days. The Lahore Eat Festival in Jilani Park had to be postponed from February to March for security considerations. The Lahore Literary Festival had to be moved from the Alhamra Cultural Complex on The Mall to a private hotel and truncated to just one day from three for similar reasons. While the authorities are pulling out all the stops to ensure security for the PSL final, there is no such thing as ‘foolproof’ security. Let us hope, for the sake of Pakistan cricket as much as the country, that all goes well on March 5 in Lahore. But the high risk concerns will continue to give us sleepless nights till then.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Business Recorder Column Feb 27, 2017

Operation Raddul Fasaad Rashed Rahman Operation Raddul Fasaad has been launched countrywide to counter the resurgence of terrorism in recent days. The Punjab government having been forced to abandon its resistance to the deployment of the paramilitary Rangers in the province by orders from the federal government (literally big brother to little one), the Apex Committee that groups the provincial civilian leadership with the Rangers and military has decided on February 26 to expand the scope of the operation. This decision came after a review of the operations conducted jointly and separately by different security agencies last week. It may be recalled that the Rangers were initially meant to be deployed in south Punjab only, given the spectacular failure of the police to deal effectively with criminal gangs operating in the kutcha areas along the rivers in the south, but the operational review has now found their presence all over the province a necessity. While Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif wants the provincial boundaries secured against terrorist infiltration from the other three provinces, raids on February 26 alone have reportedly netted another 100 suspects from the four corners of Punjab to add to the 350 arrested from all over the country. In addition to these, over 100 ‘terrorists’ are said to have been killed so far. There is a worrying lack of detail about the suspects killed or arrested. This includes, with only a few exceptions, details regarding names, affiliations, charges and circumstances in which the dead were killed. Critics ascribe this high toll of deaths and arrests in just a few days after the operations started to the desire to show results. This smacks of a ‘putschist’ tendency and may be informed by scepticism about the possibility of convicting arrested terrorists through the creaking judicial system that still awaits the reforms promised two years ago when the National Action Plan (NAP) was agreed and military courts set up for two years. To understand the problem, one only has to take note of reports that few, if any, of those convicted by the mercifully short lived military courts have had their verdicts endorsed by the normal civilian courts on appeal. Whether death sentences or imprisonment, the military courts’ verdicts have almost universally been struck down on the grounds of failings in providing fair trials and due process. This makes the talk about a revival of military courts once again poignant, if not downright ridiculous. To add to the country’s woes, of the 1,500 terrorist suspects arrested over the last two years in Sindh alone, not one has so far been convicted by the anti-terrorism courts. This judicial black hole has subverted the efforts of the government/s and security forces, at great risk to officials’ life and limb. Impatience therefore may be behind the demand for a revival of the military courts, but it is questionable whether impatience or short cuts are the answer to the inability of our judicial system to cope with the demands of the counterterrorism campaign. The notable difference between the structure and functioning of the Apex Committee in Punjab and those elsewhere is the apparent harmony between civilian and military or paramilitary authorities, with decisions being taken with consensus and targets and operational plans chalked out with unanimity. Arguably, without similar arrangements in the other provinces and an overarching structure at the Centre, the counterterrorism drive may prove a long, hard slog. The fate of the scheduled Pakistan Super League cricket final in Lahore remains uncertain. The final decision has been left to the prime minister. Foreign players seem reluctant to take the risk, and security clearance is still awaited. Meanwhile the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), otherwise not known for being publicly active, has issued a caution to the government to prevent the broadcasting or reporting of threat alerts issued by it as this can cause panic and disruption of normal life. No doubt the experience of the Lahore shutdown in the wake of an actual (still not definitively settled whether an accident or terrorism) and a false bomb alarm recently. The issue of profiling and harassing, arresting and repatriating Afghans and Pashtuns has become a bone of contention between the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and opposition on the one hand and the governments in the Centre and other provinces on the other. The temptation to cast the net wide to rope in Afghans and Pashtuns on the basis of ethnicity is already producing resentment and could sour the pitch of cooperation required amongst all the stakeholders to combat terrorism. A more nuanced and pointed operation may avoid such ruction. As it is the coordination gaps between the civilians and military, Centre and provinces, and amongst the provinces is already a major obstacle. It should not be added to by tarring any ethnicity with the broad brush of terrorism. And our political leaders must refrain from souring this necessary cooperation by targeting other rival governments merely for point scoring. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar must curb his natural instincts in this regard, a point in case being his criticism of the PPP Sindh government over security at Sehwan, while ignoring the PML-N government in Punjab over the Lahore blast. All this does is evoke the Chandio retaliation in the midst of the country’s serious terrorism problem. Pakistan’s neighbourhood is rife with tension. On February 26, we achieved the unprecedented spectacle of shelling and firing across both borders, the Line of Control on the east and the Afghan border on the west. The nightmare of a two front ‘war’ is closer than ever. Our foreign policy needs recalibrating to reduce these tensions so as to be able to focus on combating internal terrorism. The closure of the Afghan border crossing points in the aftermath of the rash of terrorist incidents has only created difficulties for trade, legitimate movement of people and repatriation of Afghans stuck in Pakistan although travelling on valid visas. What it may fail to do is stop cross-border infiltration from Afghanistan since the terrorists can exploit, and probably do as a matter of course, the forbidding terrain on the western border. While Operation Raddul Fasaad must be pursued with vigour, it may prove counterproductive without transparency, restraint, and checks and balances to ensure it does not turn into a credibility nightmare later when the details of deaths and arrests do eventually become available. rashed.rahman1@gmail.com rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 25, 2017

Terrorism and psy-war The blast in Z Block Defence Housing Authority (DHA) Lahore that killed 10 people and injured 35 has now officially been characterised as a gas cylinder blast and not a terrorism attack. However, there are still sceptics questioning the official version. Be that as it may, the event and the following bomb scare in Gulberg, Lahore and their effect deserve reflection. If the first blast in DHA caused its share of consternation, fear, panic and terror in the locality, the subsequent scare in Gulberg added a dimension never before seen in the city, or arguably anywhere in the country in all the years that terrorism has been a fact of life. Consider. Reports of a bomb planted in a restaurant on the Main Boulevard Gulberg triggered a massive response by the police, Rangers and army. Amidst the wailing of ambulance sirens, the scene resembled a ‘war zone’. While the bomb disposal squad and law enforcement agencies were scouring the restaurant and an adjoining commercial tower, both of which they eventually declared clear of any explosives, rumours flew thick and fast, exaggerated and exacerbated by the electronic and social media. These rumours had explosions occurring in two other restaurants, one close by the first rumoured threatened one, the other located in the Main Market Gulberg. Though both mercifully turned out to be false, all these goings on after the morning’s DHA blast compounded the fear and terror. While the security forces asked all shops, banks and markets to shut down, people milled about the scene, intermingling with TV vans and media personnel covering the scene. By the time the threatened buildings were cleared and the rumours turned out to be just that, the scare had also closed schools and educational institutions and frightened parents ferried their children to the safety of their homes while other citizens too took the route to safety. The result: the city entire came to a grinding halt, with little or no traffic on the normally bustling roads. Terrorists can and do rely not only on actual bombs and other attacks, they also use psychological warfare to cow down a populace. Something along these lines transpired in Lahore on February 23. Whether this will become a recurring pattern in the deadly trade of the terrorists remains to be seen. Nevertheless there are lessons here to be learnt. The rush to broadcast unverified news on the electronic media for the sake of being the first to break the news and garner top ratings has eroded any semblance of editorial responsibility on TV. To add to the problem, social media practitioners are all too ready to post rumours and these then get swiftly disseminated to a wide audience. This ‘trigger-happy’ media landscape inadvertently serves the purposes of the terrorist psychological warriors. Let us not forget that one of the weapons in the arsenal of the terrorists is the oxygen of publicity, which they crave and in contemporary times have no problem tapping. The timing of the false bomb scare is significant. It followed barely two hours after the blast in DHA. Whether that blast was an accident or a terrorist attack, it laid the groundwork for the Gulberg bomb scare to be successful beyond perhaps even its authors’ imagination. Shutting down a metropolis like Lahore through such inexpensive means must count as a first and significant psychological victory by the purveyors of mayhem and bloodshed. The authorities too did not help by putting out contradictory statements all afternoon about the DHA incident and failing to definitively inform about the later false alarm. In the battle against asymmetrical warfare, the media, particularly electronic, must exercise more responsibility, failing which the regulator should take notice. Apart from the scourge of unverified ‘breaking’ news, the electronic, and to some extent print media must exercise restraint and responsibility before broadcasting footage or printing images of terrorist incidents and their aftermath, which often involve blood and gore. The authorities for their part must refrain from adding to the confusion and uncertainty by foregoing unconsidered statements before the facts are well and truly established. Not to do so invites a loss of credibility and merely fuels the rumour machine. The Lahore incident highlights our handling of terrorist or potentially terrorist events in a haphazard, knee-jerk and precipitate manner. Hardly a course to be recommended for a state and society in the middle of a determined fight against the merchants of death and destruction in our midst.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 22, 2017

NAB, FBR chiefs’ grilling While the Panama case in the Supreme Court (SC) may well be winding down to a close, the proceedings on February 22 brought discomfort and embarrassment to the heads of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and Federal Bureau of Revenue (FBR). When asked a direct question by the court, NAB Chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry replied that he stood by his decision not to file an appeal against the Lahore High Court (LHC) March 11, 2014 verdict quashing the reference against the Sharif family in the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case. Any such appeal, he argued, would amount to a witch-hunt. The court then warned the NAB Chairman of the possible consequences flowing from his refusal, which the court found based on weak legal foundations. It may be recalled that the Hudaibiya Paper Mills reference was initiated on the basis of the April 25, 2000 ‘confession’ of current Federal Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, in which he admitted his role in laundering Rs 1.2 billion through allegedly fake accounts abroad on behalf of the Sharifs. When the issue arose during the Panama case proceedings, the defence counsel rejected the ‘confession’ as having been obtained under duress during the tenure of the Musharraf regime. During the case proceedings in the SC though, the NAB chief did his cause no good by foolishly attempting to justify his dogged adherence to the refusal to pursue an appeal to the SC from the LHC verdict quoted above by saying NAB was cognizant of its responsibilities and was answerable only to “the regulators”. This strange reference triggered a volley of questions and remarks from the bench, puzzled by who was meant by the ‘regulator’ and whether in fact any such creature actually existed. FBR Chairman Dr Mohammad Irshad did not fare much better before the court. He argued that FBR only looked after tax matters and in reference to the Panama case, had no bilateral treaty with that Latin American tax haven to be able to investigate the matter. However, he stressed, FBR had issued notices to 344 individuals named in the Panama leaks on September 2, 2016, of whom 39 turned out to be non-resident Pakistanis, 55 denied the allegations, 12 had passed away while 72 admitted owning offshore companies. Since Dr Irshad was unable to throw any light on the results of these exertions, he too came in for censure on not fulfilling his responsibility in this regard. The grilling of these officials by the SC evoked demands from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and other opposition figures for the resignation of the NAB chief. Government ministers however, defended Mr Chaudhry against accusations of pro-Sharif bias by pointing out that he was appointed through a consensus between the government and the opposition. Be that as it may, the SC faces an uphill task in delivering a verdict in the case. First and foremost, unlike Imran Khan’s assertion to cover up the lack of clinching evidence his party has been able to produce before the court, the latter is not an investigating agency. Nor indeed is the SC a trial court. In the Panama case, as in any judicial proceedings, the court could only go by the evidence presented before it. If that proves insufficient to come to any definite conclusions, the court may have little option but to return the matter to square one by reiterating the need for a commission of inquiry to probe the complex matter and audit the money trail in question. At the very least, any such commission of inquiry must seek details of the accounts abroad mentioned in the Dar ‘confession’ to ascertain whether they genuinely exist, who are the account holders, and whether they operated these accounts. The judicial course may or may not point the way forward, but the case has raised troubling questions about the manner in which the Sharif business empire has conducted itself in the past and whether any questionable means for this persist.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 21, 2017

Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions Since the recent rash of terrorist attacks all over Pakistan, a worrying escalation of tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been in evidence. Since Pakistan found the trail of the terrorism perpetrators led to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan near the common border, the government and security establishment ordered a countrywide crackdown at home and shelled training camps and bases of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and its affiliated Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan inside Afghanistan. Pakistan also dispatched a list of 76 terrorists belonging to these and other terrorist groups, asking Kabul to take action against them or hand them over to us. Not unexpectedly, this evoked a reaction (albeit relatively mild) from Kabul, which came back with a ‘tit-for-tat’ list of its own of 32 terror camps and 85 leaders of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network on Pakistani soil, while threatening under its breath that the shelling on its territory from Pakistan must stop or it would be pushed to retaliate in kind. The threat may have been just counter-pressure, but it did reflect the state of relations since the terrorist outbreak inside Pakistan. However, COAS General Qamar Bajwa reiterated his desire for the two neighbouring countries to work together and fight terrorism jointly, as they had done many times in the past. On the other side, despite Kabul’s reaction and President Ashraf Ghani’s characterisation of the situation in his country as less a civil war and more a war between states (thereby pointing the finger at Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban without naming anyone), diplomatic moves and consultations seem to have brought the situation back from the brink of potential hostilities. The fact of the terrorist sanctuaries across the border is not new. It has been known, if not acknowledged, since the terrorists fled across the border in the wake of military operations in the tribal areas. Islamabad’s contention is that since Kabul is known not to be in control of its eastern provinces near the border, there was little choice but to hit the terrorist camps itself. Be that as it may, after wielding the big stick, Pakistan now needs to get Kabul on board, as well as the US forces in Afghanistan (since the latter cannot just shrug off responsibility for the Afghan mess), to restart engagement, discussions on how to manage the border jointly to prevent terrorist infiltration, and even reinvigorate the Quadrilateral Group process to seek ways and means to bring the Afghan Taliban to Kabul’s negotiating table. It is obvious that tensions and misunderstandings between Pakistan and Afghanistan please no one more than the terrorists. Cross-border infiltration and attacks, as well as the mindset behind them, afflict both countries. If Pakistan cannot take the risk of confronting the Afghan Taliban on its soil because of the potential widespread conflict that may ensue, at least it must follow up on its commitment to nudge them towards peace talks. On the other side, the Afghan Ambassador Dr Omar Zakhiwal has indicated Kabul’s desire to de-escalate tensions after he visited Kabul over the weekend. This should be treated as an opening, an opportunity to energise once again the quest for peace in Afghanistan, which has long been recognised as a sine qua non for peace in Pakistan and the wider region. Pakistan’s crackdown in the wake of the terrorist wave seems especially to be targeting Afghan refugees all over the country. Of course the old mistake of not confining the refugees to their camps and giving them a free run throughout the country over the years may have compounded the terrorist problem, if the claims that some terrorist facilitators can be found in their ranks is believed. While catching Afghans all over the country who are accused of being where they are ‘illegally’, extra zeal for the current anti-terrorist drive must not blind us to the fact that not all refugees can be tarred with the same brush. The least offensive and most humane approach would be to charge terrorists and their facilitators wherever they are found, including amongst any such Afghan refugees, but to treat the other ‘erring’ refugees (living in various parts of the country without permission) more gently and arrange for their transfer to the refugee camps pending their return to their homeland.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Business Recorder Column Feb 20, 2017

Return of the terrorist Rashed Rahman The rash of terrorist attacks in recent days throughout the country, shocking and tragic as it is, should not have come as a surprise. Informed observers (including this writer) had been warning that the counterinsurgency successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb should not lull us into complacency or illusions of having eliminated terrorism root and branch. Operation Zarb-e-Azb hit the terrorists of all hues, descriptions and origins in FATA hard, as they deserved, in the aftermath of the Army Public School Peshawar massacre in December 2014. Unable to withstand the overwhelmingly superior firepower of the army and air force, the terrorists retreated across the border into Afghanistan, to live to fight another day. Reports over the last two years have indicated that ‘our boys’, the Haqqani network, are hosting Mulla Fazlullah, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and sundry other of its offshoots and affiliated groups across the border on Afghan soil. It was inevitable, and forecast, that the ‘exported’ terrorists would regroup out of the reach of Pakistan in Afghanistan, whose border provinces are tenuously, if at all, in the control of Kabul. From there, they would launch both infiltration and activation of sleeper cells for terrorism throughout Pakistan to mount the only feasible riposte to the military’s undoubted success in winkling them out of FATA. The ‘blowback’ has clearly arrived. What has been the response of the civilian elected governments, federal and provincial, as well as the military and security services? A sudden crackdown countrywide that has netted dozens of alleged terrorists killed and hundreds arrested. Barring a few, not even the names or affiliations of those killed or arrested are available. This lack of transparency has cast doubts on the knee-jerk response that has suddenly discovered the presence of actual or alleged terrorists through the length and breadth of the land. Arguably, this information could not have been collected in the short time span between the attacks and the crackdown. Logically, that implies these names and networks’ existence was already known, or at least some if not all were on lists of suspects. Why were they not acted against before this flurry of attacks? That is a question that goes to the heart of the flaw in the counterterrorism effort: there is little of any proactive strategy, and everything falls largely into the category of reactive. If this conclusion is correct despite the statistics regarding counterterrorism operations and their results suddenly being spewed out in greater quantities than ever to justify past performance, it returns us to the flaws in our counterterrorism response. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are two different kettles of fish, although sometimes their boundaries blur. The former is largely a military operation (albeit reliant on intelligence) against ‘visible’ armed insurgents, while the latter is essentially an intelligence-led policing operation against ‘invisible’ underground networks organised as cells. The methods therefore, that serve counterinsurgency cannot be transferred wholesale to the different requirements of counterterrorism. The unfortunate failure to fully and effectively implement the consensus 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) has given the terrorists rocked back on their heels by Operation Zarb-e-Azb but not entirely eliminated, the space and time to regroup and come back with a bang (pun unintended) in the form of countrywide terrorism. While the countrywide crackdown is necessary and welcome, there are reservations and questions about its seemingly hasty and precipitate nature. Either time will reveal that some of the targets of the crackdown did not deserve the summary treatment from the barrel of a gun or that they did, thereby exposing the dereliction of counterterrorism duty brought on by triumphalism, complacency, inertia and lack of focus on the follow up to Operation Zarb-e-Azb. There is talk about the problems not only of securing the country’s western border against infiltration and attacks by the terrorists, but also securing inter-provincial boundaries against similar internal infiltration. The Sindh government, having obtained some cooperation in the past from the Balochistan government in this regard, now wants that cooperation beefed up in the light of reports that the Sehwan bomber/s arrived from Balochistan. Punjab, by now infamous for the sanctuaries of terrorists of all hues in the south of its domain, is also reflecting on measures to check such infiltration from the other provinces. It has a bigger problem since Punjab has provincial boundaries with all three of the other provinces (and even Azad Kashmir and by extrapolation Gilgit-Baltistan, both of which are also seeing signs of the emergence of terrorist activity). This inter-provincial and Centre-provinces coordination can only be effective under one roof, one centralised counterterrorism organisation with a centralised database that brings together intelligence from all sources, civilian and military, and coordinates actions by, and amongst, the Centre and the provinces. The above logic is clear, but the necessary political clarity and will so far seem conspicuous by their absence. If Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar has successfully killed this role envisaged for the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) by subordinating it to his ministry, so be it. That still does not absolve the state of the responsibility of replacing the toothless NACTA by an overarching, effective counterterrorism centre. Once again, in the wake of the recent spate of terrorist attacks, the government is bending its back to get agreement across the political class on a revival of military courts. Last time this precipitate expedient, despite reservations about its efficacy, constitutionality and due process concerns, was rushed through. Mercifully it was tempered by retaining judicial review of the military courts’ verdicts and a sunset clause of two years, which has now expired. The results of the two years of military courts should serve as a cautionary tale. Very few, if any, of the military courts’ verdicts have passed muster on appeal to the courts. Of course what ‘sold’ the idea of the military courts last time round was the glaring inadequacies and ineffectiveness of our judicial system to tackle ordinary cases, let alone the extraordinary burdens of terrorism ones. The hope that the two years tenure of the military courts would give room for judicial reforms by the government proved a mirage. Even if the military courts are revived, although consensus this time round may be more difficult, the necessary judicial reforms remain uncertain. At the very least then, the existing civilian courts and the honourable judges who preside over them should exercise their minds and use their discretion before releasing on bail terrorism accused who may pose a danger to state and society. Knee-jerk responses, non-transparent, trigger-happy crackdowns after every round of terrorist attacks will no longer be enough. The state, civilian and military authorities, federal and provincial governments need to forge a common strategy, pool their resources, knowledge and expertise in a commonly devised central counterterrorism structure, and then pull out all the stops to root out the terrorist problem of long gestation. As to shifting the blame on Afghanistan for not ‘acting’ against the terrorists on its soil, be careful what you wish for since this is a demand that could come back to bite us in the context of the Afghan Taliban ‘terrorists’ we have been harbouring on our soil since 2001. rashed.rahman1@gmail.com rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 18, 2017

Head in the sand If critics previously have had reservations about Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar’s steering the fight against terrorism, they now have another target. Minister of State for Interior Baleeghur Rehman has made two forays into the Senate to brief the house regarding the flurry of terrorist attacks recently (seven incidents in five days) that have taken a horrendous toll of life and limb. The first occasion was an open session, in which the worthy minister came in for some stick from the Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani for relying almost exclusively on media reports. In the second on February 17, an in-camera session in view of possible sensitive information to be shared with the senators, the minister reportedly fared no better. Especially on the question of the presence of Daesh or Islamic State (IS) in Pakistan, the minister failed to either confirm or deny the fact. This waffling may or may not be considered an improvement on his senior minister’s outright rejection of any such presence, but it defies logic, sense and the known facts. Media reportage and information gleaned from US sources engaged in Afghanistan has long established the presence of IS on Pakistani soil, not in the form of its cadres and fighters journeying from their bases in Iraq and Syria, but by the convenient expedient of local terrorist groups declaring their affiliation to IS. In Afghanistan, the US commander has testified to Congress that the bulk of the IS fighters in the country are drawn from the ranks of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which fled to Afghanistan after Operation Zarb-e-Azb denied them their bases in FATA. The minister of state so failed to satisfy the senators that the chairman was forced to ask him to come better prepared for another in-camera briefing to the house. In the meantime, in a parallel development to what happened after the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar massacre in December 2014, a ‘swift’ response has been seen to the spate of terrorist attacks all over the country, netting some 100 ‘terrorists’ killed in ‘encounters’ based on intelligence tip-offs. While this is being welcomed across the board in the light of the horrendous casualties in the recent terrorism incidents, more perceptive observers have concerns regarding the precipitate nature of the operations as well as their transparency and credibility. How is it, for example, that all these terrorists all over the country have ‘suddenly’ been identified and ‘dealt with’ by the military, Rangers and civilian law enforcement agencies? Why were they not pointed out and acted against earlier? Surely the time lapse between the terrorist attacks and the launch of the countrywide crackdown is too short to simply swallow the ‘intelligence tip-offs’ explanation. And if they were known before all this carnage, why were the security forces ‘asleep’ in this regard? Second, with the exception of a few identified as killed in Karachi and Quetta, scant details are available about the rest of those killed in different parts of the country or their affiliations. This raises troubling questions about the transparency, and therefore credibility, of this sudden rash of killings. In principle one cannot quibble with COAS General Bajwa’s ordering the crackdown, but there is a need to ensure that officials down the line do not become trigger-happy simply to please their superiors with body counts, even if the Sehwan meeting between top civilian and military leaders ordered ‘shoot on sight’ for terrorists. No state can afford to retaliate in a spirit of primitive revenge instead of retaining the moral high ground by adhering to its norms of lawful actions even against enemies of the state. In the climate obtaining after the APS incident, counterinsurgency took a big leap forward, but the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) agreed with consensus between the political parties (government and opposition) and the military, has faltered. To some extent, the difficulties in its implementation and effectiveness are understandable. In contrast to the operation in FATA, which yielded definite targets for the military’s indubitable superior firepower, counterterrorism all over the country is a relatively slow, painstaking, intelligence-led, essentially police operation (even if the military or paramilitary carries it out). Unfortunately, the NAP continues to suffer from defects in structure, coordination, and therefore effectiveness. There is still no central umbrella coordinating centre with which all intelligence agencies, civilian and military, can confidently share information to be fed into a centralised data base, all this being a sine qua non for effective counterterrorism. In the absence of these necessary arrangements, the effort remains ad hoc, scattered, and liable to be more reactive (as is in evidence now) than proactive. The last is critical if the initiative is to be wrested from asymmetrical warriors who can rely on patience and the fact that not every potential target in the country can be protected. Only if they are hit consistently and persistently will the terrorists be pushed onto the back foot, a necessary condition for their eventual elimination through a protracted campaign. And for that, denial, a head in the sand stance, and unwillingness to grasp the nettle firmly with the necessary structure and other steps in place will have to go.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 15, 2017

Lahore attack fallout Much of the reaction to the deadly terrorist bombing in Lahore on February 14 is familiar and predictable. There are the ritual condemnations by important personalities, condolence messages from around the world, and vows to crush the hydra of terrorism. Into that category have so far fallen the responses of the civilian elected leadership. Although a new resolve is being expressed to see the struggle against terrorism to its ‘logical conclusion’, many are questioning why this resolve was not seen earlier. Police sources in Lahore speak of a Punjab-wide crackdown against all manner of banned groups, without discrimination. We have been here before many times. What remains is to see whether this time the implementation of the crackdown will be thorough and effective. The investigating teams claim suspects have been picked up, the body parts of the suicide bomber who blew himself up in the thick of the drug trade’s rally at Charing Cross in front of the Punjab Assembly have been sent for DNA testing, and a combing operation, especially in the Afghan and Pashtun communities, is being launched (which raises concerns about ethnic profiling). Meanwhile the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), an offshoot of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for the atrocity and released a photo of the suicide bomber. It may be recalled that JuA had carried out the Easter attack last year in the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park in Lahore, amongst other similar attacks in the past. Intelligence sources’ warning of possible further attacks in other locations proved prescient as on February 15, there were blasts in Mohmand Agency and Peshawar. It seems a full scale revival of terrorist atrocities is upon us. The Punjab police believes the senior police officers killed in Lahore were the real targets. In Peshawar’s Hayatabad area, a van carrying magistrates and judicial staff was bombed. Unfortunately, the police response appears more of the reactive same, with no signs of a proactive, critically necessary strategy. For example, amongst the steps proposed in the latest directive to all law enforcement agencies in Punjab, security is to be ‘beefed up’ (the ritual response after every terrorist incident) by snap checking at police posts (which has seldom yielded anything significant), abandoned or unidentified vehicles are not to be allowed parking in public places, and traffic jams are to be avoided (how?). All of this produces a profound sense of deja vu. While the Punjab government seems finally to be awakening from its Rip Van Winkle sleep to tackle the terrorist threat, COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa appears to be seriously considering stepping in where the civilian side in Punjab seems reluctant to go. Chairing a Corps Commanders meeting on February 14, General Bajwa ordered a combing operation in southern Punjab, long known to be awash with terrorist and sectarian groups operating freely. The pusillanimity so far on show from the PML-N government in Punjab towards firmly grasping the nettle of this malign presence in southern Punjab may be overtaken by the military or paramilitary taking action. Despite the fact that General Bajwa directed that the Punjab government be taken into confidence before launching the operation, the track record in Sindh in the context of the Rangers’ operation/s in Karachi is a cautionary tale of how such an intervention leads to the incremental erosion of the authority of an elected civilian government. But if such an outcome becomes inevitable, the Punjab government will have no one to blame but itself for its long neglect of a critical task that has been staring it in the face for years. Perceptive analysts had predicted that the euphoria following the undoubted successes of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in FATA should not blind us to the likely consequences of the terrorists cleared out of the area fleeing to Afghanistan. That warning is now it seems coming to pass with a vengeance. Wisdom demands that the civilian and military authorities put their heads together to come up with steps to overcome the lacunae and weaknesses so far in the implementation of the counter-terrorism campaign, amongst which an overarching organisation for counterterrorism, centralised database and effective pre-emptive intelligence-based actions must take pride of place.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 14, 2017

Drugs regulation issue The Punjab government’s well meant effort to tackle the issue of spurious and substandard drugs through amendments in the Drug Regulatory Authority Act 1976 has set off a chain of events that have an underpinning of tragedy. For one, the protest rally by the Pakistan Pharmaceuticals Manufacturers Association (PPMA) and 12 other organisations of pharmacists, distributors, wholesalers and retailers of drugs and medicines that started from the Lahore Press Club was subjected to a terrible terrorist attack in front of the Punjab Assembly on February 13. The day had seen a strike by a majority of pharmacies and medical stores in all major cities of Punjab and large parts of the rest of the country. The notable exceptions were pharmaceuticals and medical stores inside government hospitals and a few outside these hospitals. The few outlets open had a field day overcharging desperate customers for their products, while patients and their attendants ran from pillar to post to find scarce medicines, including life saving drugs. The PPMA North Zone Chairman, Dr Tahir Azam, said all pharmaceutical factories and medical stores would remain shut till the withdrawal of the ‘cruel’ amendments by the Punjab government in the 1976 Act. But there were dissident voices from the retail community too. Pakistan Chemists and Druggists Association Chairman Ishaq Meo said there was no justification for the strike when a high level committee had been constituted for resolving the issues. The complaint of the striking protestors is that all the stakeholders were not consulted before the amendments were promulgated and that the provincial government of Punjab is not empowered to make amendments to the provisions of the federal drug regulatory Act. Punjab Minister for Primary and Secondary Healthcare Khwaja Imran Nazeer on the other hand defended his government’s steps by pointing out that Punjab had discussed the issue with the other provinces without result and in the meantime had taken a decision not to allow itself to be blackmailed by those manufacturing or selling spurious and substandard drugs. He went on to say that negotiations were underway with the stakeholders. He argued that the amendments had nothing in them regarding pharmaceutical dealers and medical stores but because of their dependence on and close relations with the manufacturers, the former were protesting at the behest of the latter. The minister’s remarks and the visible split in the ranks of the pharmaceutical community indicate that part of that community sees wisdom in engaging with the government while what the government regards as a vested interest is bent on pressurising the government to give in to their demands, whether reasonable or not. It may be that the vested interests have precipitated this confrontation at the cost of patients and their worried families. But it may also be the case that the Punjab government failed to engage all the stakeholders (including, of necessity, the manufacturers) before amending the law. The amendments provide punishments for producing or selling fake, spurious or substandard drugs and medicines ranging from six months to 10 years imprisonment and fines ranging from Rs one to 50 million. They also enhance the importance of the Punjab Quality Control Board, Chief Drugs Controller and drug testing laboratories. This is reasonable, necessary and critical for the safety and health of the citizens. Reportedly, a majority of medical stores throughout the country do not have pharmacists on their staff. The amendments prescribe such qualified experts to ensure the proper dispensing of medicines. There is also reportedly a dearth of registered medicines at drug stores, as well as unregistered (herbal) medicines easily available. Most drug stores lack refrigerated storages for medicines requiring refrigeration, thereby compromising their quality. Complaints regarding such lacunae have been around for years, without the real authority, the federal government, moving to address these shortcomings. While the initiative of the Punjab government is correct in principle, the issue of its locus standi can be resolved by the protestors moving the courts instead of causing pain and difficulty to the public. For the governments, provincial and federal, perhaps the time has come to put their heads together, promulgate appropriate legislation, set in place proper monitoring of drugs and medicines through the supply chain, and ensure the best possible healthcare is thereby made available to long suffering citizens.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 8, 2017

FATA’s fate A group of FATA and other MNAs got really angry and agitated in the National Assembly’s session on February 7 when it became known that the federal cabinet had dropped the FATA reforms package item from its agenda in its last meeting the other day. They insisted in response to the news that their deadline for adopting the package by March 12 must be met, otherwise they would stage a protest sit-in in Islamabad that would make Imran Khan’s similar forays seem pale in comparison. In their impassioned appeals from the floor of the house, parliamentarians from both the treasury and opposition heavily criticized the move, with FATA MNAs warning the government not to turn the tribal regions into ‘another Kashmir’. Khyber Agency MNA Shah Jee Gul Afridi probably voiced the sentiment of a lot of members when he said we are not concerned about the problems of our own country but have all the time in the world to talk about Kashmir. He went on to assert that if he was in power, February 5 would be observed as ‘FATA Day’ rather than ‘Kashmir Day’. Afridi said FATA did not have a single university or medical college, gas supply, a CT scan machine or potable water for around 20 million people. Despite these conditions, he underlined, the people of the tribal areas had never veered from their commitment to Pakistan. He revealed that the Jirga that met in Islamabad on February 6 to demand FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) had all the political parties attending. This, he added, was a clear message that should have been heeded. Similar sentiments were voiced by Qaumi Watan Party’s chief Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, who added that mainstreaming FATA would curtail terrorism as there would be no shelter for terrorists when the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was repealed. Awami National Party chief echoed the Islamabad sit-in threat if the March 12 deadline was not met in a rally in Charsadda. The FATA MNAs and political parties are pressing for the reform package to be adopted by March 12 while the government has reportedly set a five year time frame for the gradual merger of FATA into KP. However, despite the fact that the idea enjoys wide support in the polity, there are a few voices arguing for making FATA a separate province instead. Fast or slow, mainstreaming FATA poses some serious challenges. The colonial legacy of long standing in FATA included collective punishment of a whole tribe under the FCR for the crimes or misdemeanours of an individual. The British instituted a system of rule by Political Agents in all the seven tribal agencies in FATA, while allowing the tribes to continue their way of life according to custom (riwaj). The whole construct was part of the forward policy of managing the Afghan border and preventing Czarist Russia’s advance into the subcontinent. This long unnatural hiatus means the people of FATA and KP have lived under different systems for a long time. Extending the political, law enforcement and judicial system prevalent in the rest of the country, including KP, is a costly and intricate exercise with the attendant risk of all the flaws of the system in the country being imported into FATA too. How the people there would cope with and adjust to an unfamiliar and, in many respects, humiliating treatment by the state of the citizen remains an unanswered question. The merger is also likely to upset the ethnic balance in the merged province, with the entry of the Pashtuns of FATA tipping the balance and perhaps persuading the non-Pashtun communities such as the Hindko and Seraiki speakers and other ethnic groups to resurrect the demand for a separate non-Pashtun province in Hazara Division. All the more reason therefore to proceed carefully and with extensive consultations with all the stakeholders. Last but not least, to lend the outcome the necessary legitimacy, a referendum on the question of merging FATA with KP or making it a separate province should be conducted to ascertain the will of the tribal people in the interests of the permanence of the eventual momentous decision.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 7, 2017

Hekmatyar rehabilitated The UN Security Council has lifted its sanctions against Gulbedin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-e-Islami party on the request of the Afghan government. The request followed a peace deal between the Afghan warlord and the government in September 2016. The deal offered legal immunity to Hekmatyar for past offences that had earned him the UN sobriquet ‘global terrorist’ and which was accompanied by accusations against him of war crimes. The let off sparked outrage from human rights groups arguing Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation and return would compound the culture of impunity in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar was accused of killing thousands through indiscriminate rocketing of Kabul during his siege of the capital in the 1992-96 intra-Mujahideen civil war. The only condition for Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation and re-entry into mainstream politics was that his group stop fighting. The US and other governments have praised the accord between the Hizb-e-Islami and President Ashraf Ghani’s government as a step towards peace and reconciliation in the long suffering war torn country. The UN Security Council has stated that as a result of Hekmatyar and the Hizb-e-Islami’s names being taken off the black list, the sanctions imposed years ago such as an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo would no longer apply. Amongst the members of the UN Security Council, only Russia opposed the lifting of the sanctions, with France overcoming its initial hesitation because of Hizb-e-Islami’s role in an ambush northeast of Kabul in August 2008 that cost the lives of 10 French soldiers. The decision opens the door to Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul (possibly via Jalalabad) after two decades of exile in Iran and Pakistan. His party is already gearing up, with the Afghan government’s help and facilitation, to rebrand itself as a mainstream political party wedded to a peaceful entry and presence in the Afghan political landscape. The hope that the process of the protracted negotiations between the Afghan government and Gulbedin Hekmatyar that led to the peace deal last year may serve as an example to other rebel groups, particularly the Taliban, to bid farewell to arms and come in from the cold, however, remains a tall ask. Hekmatyar’s rehabilitation needs to be seen in context. Having earned a fearful reputation as one of the most ruthless warlords of the Mujahideen struggle against Soviet occupation, he was well known in those years not only as the blue-eyed boy of the Pakistani military establishment and the ISI but also as a cruel killer of more rival Mujahideen than the enemy. When the Dr Najibullah regime fell to the Mujahideen in 1992 after the Soviets had withdrawn in 1989, the situation soon degenerated into an intense power struggle and civil war amongst the Mujahideen groups. In an abortive effort at peace, a Mujahideen coalition was announced with Hekmatyar as prime minister. However, the appointee never took office, opting instead to lay siege to Kabul, which was under the control of Ahmed Shah Mahsoud’s Northern Alliance. During the siege, Hekmatyar ruthlessly reduced the capital to rubble by incessant rocketing, in the process killing thousands of its residents. The carnage only ended when the Taliban loomed at the gates of Kabul, forcing Hekmatyar to beat a hasty retreat. The subsequent years in exile in Iran and Pakistan saw the Hizb-e-Islami weakened to the point where it virtually ceased to be a factor on the battlefield. Arguably, it was the closure of his military option that persuaded Hekmatyar, finally, to accept the peace deal last year. Can a similar outcome be expected in the case of a resurgent Taliban advancing on various fronts after the withdrawal of the bulk of US and foreign troops? Not, the logic of Hekmatyar’s ‘conversion’ suggests, as long as the Taliban feel they are on a roll on the battlefield. To alter that dynamic requires Pakistan to use its influence to nudge the Taliban towards the negotiating table. Despite lip service to the idea, Islamabad so far has failed to deliver on this score. Afghanistan’s war, one of the longest in modern history, seems destined to continue for the foreseeable future therefore, with its concomitant bloodletting and misery for the Afghan people and its destabilising fallout in the region.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Business Recorder Column Feb 6, 2017

What Trumpism means Rashed Rahman Two weeks into the Donald Trump presidency, alarm over his unconsidered, combative, self-delusional approach to the most powerful job in the world continues to grow. Focus currently centres on his row with the judiciary in the shape of Judge James Robart of Seattle for suspending the ban on travellers from seven Muslim majority countries. The Justice Department’s appeal against the suspension was not granted by a court of appeals in Phoenix, Arizona. The court instead ordered the original petitioners and the government to file their respective arguments. Donald Trump meanwhile continues to attack Judge Robart as a “so-called” judge whose order he castigated through his favoured means, Twitter, as “ridiculous”. He has tried to paint the suspension as the judge being blind to the US’s considerations of national security. Comment in the US press indicates that this means both the liberal and conservative judiciary oppose the ban. The Washington Post implies this executive-judiciary clash reflects the fact that the new president is guilty of eroding the very division of powers he decried while condemning the judge who suspended the ban. Meanwhile some of the visa holders from the seven countries in question, out of the 60,000 visas ‘provisionally revoked’ by the ban, have taken advantage of the window of opportunity presented by the suspension to travel post-haste to the US. The rest still face an uncertain, mixed picture, with some airlines insisting would-be travellers produce a specific email from the US Customs and Border Protection agency clearing their entry into the US. Protests against the ban continue in many cities across the US, with lawyers putting in voluntary appearances at airports to help any traveller running into difficulties because of the (suspended) ban. After some initial confusion in the wake of the ban and its suspension, the US administration has clarified that green card holders are not included in the restrictions. Donald Trump has admitted he never had the time to read a book. That indicates that he is unfamiliar with the lay of the world. All his business empire has taught him is the art of the deal. Leading the world’s most powerful country, and dealing with the world, however, is a completely different ball game. Already, Australia, Mexico, Iran and the European Union are in Donald Trump’s crosshairs. He has upset long standing allies, set the world’s nerves on edge, and risks his brinkmanship becoming the prelude to a war in one or the other part of the globe. Iran and China seem top contenders at present for this unwanted attention and belligerence, the former over its recent ballistic missile test (which triggered new unilateral sanctions by Washington and a warning by Vice President Mike Spence), the latter over perceived economic bleeding of the US and claims over the East and South China Seas. Despite his softer stance on Russia and Putin, the conflict in Ukraine could derail the US-Russia relationship further if the incautious and impetuous Trump makes the wrong move. Strong support from his domestic voters, and equally strong opposition from his detractors, may persuade Trump to repeat the dubious practice of launching a foreign intervention to distract attention from internal political, economic and social problems. This, some analysts argue, could help silence the opposition at home under the catch-all umbrella of ‘patriotism’. The world has entered a new period of uncertainty and worry since Trump assumed charge of the US. Alliances, multilateralism, all are under threat or potentially threatened by the Trump sledgehammer. NATO, the UN, the European Union, all could feel the chilling breath of the Trumpian worldview. So what is that worldview? Stripped of unnecessary rhetoric, Donald Trump sees the contemporary world through the prism of nationalism, political and economic. This not only flies in the face of the general trajectory of Washington since the end of the Second World War, it risks triggering retaliatory nationalism, first and foremost by the victims of Trump’s initial recklessness, later by large parts of the world that could find themselves holding the short end of the stick if Trump’s ideas of the return of investment and jobs to the US are attempted by pressurising businesses and using intimidation to have his way. This new found nationalism implies a return to US isolationism, thereby unravelling the present world order. The chaos, destabilisation and conflict that could follow can only be imagined. Pakistan does not appear cognizant in policy terms of the new global disorder about to be unleashed. Islamabad would be well served by putting civil and military heads together to revisit the duality of policy that still lingers vis-a-vis Afghanistan and supporting the Kashmiri people’s struggle through forays across the Line of Control by fundamentalist jihadi proxies. The recent house arrest of Hafiz Saeed may not go far enough in the latter context, given the track record of using such temporary and expedient measures to relieve outside pressure and then returning to ‘business as usual’ once the storm has passed. This may not be as easy to get away with with a belligerent Trump administration in power. Continuing to host the Taliban while paying lip service to peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan too may be a gambit that has already, or likely to soon, run its course. In a new, unfamiliar, different environment that Donald Trump seems embarked upon through step-by-step destruction of the comfortable assumptions of the past, Islamabad needs to wake up to the policy implications of what Trumpism really means. rashed.rahman1@gmail.com rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 4, 2017

Chaudhry Nisar’s defence Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has, through his counsel Makhdoom Ali Khan, deposed before the Supreme Court his reply to the damning findings of the Quetta Inquiry Commission, which have been described as “unnecessary, uncalled for and violative of natural justice”, with a plea that all such adverse remarks and observations against the minister and his ministry be expunged. The legal argument placed before the apex court revolves around the commission’s coming to conclusions without the full facts at its disposal and not following due process by depriving the minister of the right of explanation. A long argument about the results achieved by the ministry under Chaudhry Nisar with the help and collaboration of other state institutions follows, and the decline in terrorism in the last two years is quoted as proof of the efficacy of the steps taken to overcome the malign affliction. On the minister’s meeting with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi on October 21, 2016, the minister has been at pains to explain that the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat leader was not scheduled to meet him but arrived unexpectedly as part of a delegation of the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (which incidentally includes, as part of 35 religious parties, the Jamaat-ud Dawa, whose chief Hafiz Saeed has just been put under house arrest). Although the subject of the commission, the suicide attacks on the lawyers’ community in Quetta, was a national tragedy, it was part of the wave of terrorism in the wake of 9/11, the minister asserted. The minister’s defence ends with the argument that the commission had accepted reports and claims from the social and mainstream media emanating from proscribed organisations, which had no evidentiary value, and arguably arrived at conclusions beyond the scope of its terms of reference. It may be recalled that the Justice Qazi Faez Isa one-man commission of inquiry into the attacks on the Quetta lawyers’ community that virtually wiped out a whole generation of the cream of the community had castigated in its report the interior minister and the ministry for a ‘monumental failure’ to combat terrorism, follow the protocols prescribed in the National Security Internal Policy, and move with alacrity to ban terrorist organisations. Chaudhry Nisar has his arguments in his defence, but the deposition in the Supreme Court gives rise to the question whether it is the ‘person’ of Chaudhry Nisar that is on ‘trial’ or the failure of the government to properly implement the National Action Plan. It is obvious by now that Pakistan’s long flirtation with armed extremist proxies for foreign policy objectives in the region has by now spawned a home grown terrorist movement. On the counterinsurgency front, success was possible and has been achieved in a relatively short time by the use of overwhelming military force to clean out FATA of the long standing presence of terrorists, foreign and local. However, it was obvious that when deprived of their operating bases in FATA, the terrorists would hit back in the rest of the country through terrorism. This was explicitly recognised when the civil and military leadership came together to frame the National Action Plan. However, Chaudhry Nisar cannot be absolved of at least some responsibility for what is by now perceived as the failure of the Plan. Despite a decline in terrorism, no one should be under the illusion that the problem has been overcome entirely. Asymmetrical warfare, with terrorism as one of the weapons in its arsenal, employs trading space for time. The terrorist will bide his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike. These strikes may be more or less intense, depending on the organisational health of the terrorist outfit/s, but to fall into complacency in periods of a lull is precisely what the enemy relies on and is prepared to wait for. Second, counter-terrorism is different from counterinsurgency. The weapons that proved so effective in actions such as Operation Zarb-e-Azb, air power, tanks, artillery and finally foot soldiers, are no good for counter-terrorism. Usually located in urban areas, terrorism cannot be quelled without reliance on intelligence-based and -led essentially ‘police’ operations. And to make that campaign effective, a central umbrella platform with a centralised data base and intelligence sharing by all intelligence organisations, civil and military, is a sine qua non for victory over the terroirists. The National Counter Terrorism Authority was envisaged as that platform but arguably for narrow partisan reasons, Chaudhry Nisar took it under his ministry’s wing (it was originally intended to report to the prime minister) and in the process reduced it to a toothless wonder. That may well prove the most telling indictment of the interior minister, the Quetta lawyers’ carnage simply being a manifestation of his inability to see the wood for the trees.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Business Recorder editorial Feb 1, 2017

Safeguards against false blasphemy accusations In the kind of twist that we have become accustomed to in such cases, an anti-terrorism court in Lahore has acquitted 115 people charged with looting and torching around 200 Christians’ houses in Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, Lahore in March 2013. A Christian resident of the Colony, Sawan Masih, was accused of blasphemy and an enraged 3,000-strong mob rampaged through the area, ransacking and torching the houses of residents who had already fled their homes, fearing just such an attack. This fortunately meant no loss of life. The case against the perpetrators as usual crawled through the courts over four years, during which all the accused were freed on bail. Now they have been let off altogether. In contrast, the blasphemy accused, Sawan Masih, was put on trial and sentenced to death within a year. The skewed nature of our judicial system is laid bare by these simple facts. But it is not only the courts where blasphemy accused are denied justice. Especially where minority communities are concerned, any such allegation tossed around against a member of that community (usually from the local pulpit), visits the wrath of God on the community as a whole, as the Joseph Colony incident and a long list of shame such as Gojra, Sangla Hill, Shanti Nagar and others bear witness. The role of the police in the Joseph Colony affair, given the background of motivated vested interests at work, bears reflection. Joseph Colony nestles amidst a steel market, whose owners wanted to buy out the long time residents of the Colony. When they refused, a conspiracy was hatched to blacken the community by accusing Sawan Masih of blasphemy, in order to rouse a violent mob to burn down the Colony. The motive transparently was to so frighten the inhabitants that they would not dare return. The acquittal of the 115 accused in the case will naturally demoralise and cause dismay not only in the Christian community, but also other minority communities threatened by similar hate crimes. To return to the role of the police, all they did was warn the residents to clear out for fear of an attack, without lifting a finger to prevent the looting and burning. The prosecution could not produce a convincing case, particularly since 63 prosecution witnesses refused to recognize the accused in court. It takes little imagination to guess what kind of intimidation was at work to produce such a collective ‘amnesia’. The blasphemy law has been raised to the status of a holy cow by the right wing religious extremist lobby. Attempts in the past to have the law reviewed as to its blemishes resulted in the murders of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer and federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, while the former’s assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, has been ‘deified’ by this same lobby. Parliament too has been unable to amend or provide safeguards for blasphemy accused against its abuse, usually for mundane material and worldly reasons. As a convenient tool to intimidate minorities and dissenters, the blasphemy law has no equal in our statute books. Unfortunately, even this government, quavering before the threatened violence of the extremist religious lobby, has been at pains in the person of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to deny it intends to touch the blasphemy law. In another example of the malign purposes to which the law lends itself, the missing bloggers who have returned (although the picture of whether all have or not is still murky) have had further agony piled onto their frightening experience of being disappeared by a case of blasphemy registered against them. It may be of interest to note that blasphemous material appeared on their (obviously hacked) blogs and websites after they disappeared! What a country, what a sorry society. Even if the politicians are too frightened of the religious extremists to contemplate changes in the blasphemy law itself, they owe it as a duty to the state and society, not to mention the minorities (although Muslims too run the risk of being on the receiving end of blasphemy accusations), to provide safeguards against the misuse and abuse of the blasphemy law for vested interests by providing punishments for false accusation. Can we hope for such a glimmer of even limited courage from our elected representatives?