Thursday, March 30, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 30, 2017

Sane advice In contrast with the hype against the Afghan government in the Pakistani media, National Security Adviser Lt-General (retd) Nasser Janjua has proffered some sane advice vis-à-vis the approach to relations with Kabul. He counsels a cool-headed approach as necessary for a number of reasons. First and foremost, he thinks such a stance is necessary since it is beneficial for peace in Afghanistan with its concomitant advantages for Pakistan and the region. It would also help reduce India’s influence in Kabul, which could help prevent a two-front situation (west and east) from developing any further. Janjua advises against thinking about Afghanistan with anger and working to fix the relationship. It may be recalled that Pakistan angrily shut Pakistan’s border crossings with Afghanistan after a series of terrorist attacks in the country that were blamed on elements operating from Afghan soil near the border. This was done both in a fit of pique as well as to exert pressure on Kabul to act against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists’ sanctuaries in that area. The action was not well thought through as it was doubtful the closure of the formal border crossing points would prevent the terrorists from finding alternative crossing points along the long and difficult terrain border. The closure may only have succeeded in inflicting huge economic losses to both countries because of the suspension of trade and movement of goods, suffering on people stranded on both sides of the border, arguably put Pakistan in violation of international law on the rights of landlocked countries, and further tarnished the already negative Afghan opinion about Pakistan. Fortunately better sense eventually prevailed and the crossings were finally reopened last week after mediation by the UK, which resulted in an agreement on counterterrorism cooperation whose details are yet to be made public. The reversal of the border closure only underlined the wisdom of Janjua’s advice that there was no option but to mend ties with Afghanistan. The future, especially the vision of enhanced connectivity between the countries of the region and beyond, depended on it. Islamabad had to face the embarrassment of being guilty of border closure to the west at the Economic Cooperation Organisation summit when the meeting gave a call for improving regional connectivity and enhancing trade at the very moment when the western border lay shut. Janjua went on to argue that if Pakistan was facing a developing two-front situation, India too might confront a similar situation given Pakistan-China cooperation. He also underlined the threats to peace from the US-India logistics exchange agreement in the India Ocean region. The US’s 360,000 troops presence in the region, combined with the might of the Indian army, was straining regional stability and the security architecture, Janjua argued. The essence of Janjua’s sane advice is not to reinforce failure through a punitive stance towards Kabul but to engage with the Afghans. Of late the former policy has produced negative reactions from Afghanistan. In December 2016 at the Heart of Asia Conference in Amritsar, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected Islamabad’s offer of $ 500 million assistance for reconstruction purposes, adding the advice that the money would be better spent dealing with the Afghan Taliban’s safe havens inside Pakistan. Kabul also refused (along with India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other South Asian states) to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad in September 2016, which eventually had to be cancelled. While Pakistan’s call for better border management in cooperation with Afghanistan makes eminent sense to Islamabad given the Tehreek-e-Taliban presence inside Afghanistan, Kabul could and does reiterate in response its demand for Islamabad to deal with the Afghan Taliban safe havens inside Pakistan. This tit-for-tat could turn out to be endless without both countries sitting down in a spirit of understanding each other’s difficulties vis-à-vis terrorism and finding ways and means to cooperate with each other. One hopeful development is that in the midst of the deadlock, Pakistan is attending the Moscow moot in mid-April where India, Iran, the Afghan Taliban and Kabul would also be present. A notable absence will be that of the US. Bilateral and multilateral efforts to regain the confidence of Afghanistan are in the best interests of Pakistan itself, as Janjua has rightly reminded us.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Business Recorder Column March 27, 2017

Red herrings and all that Rashed Rahman Once again we have demonstrated our inexhaustible penchant for kicking up the dust of unnecessary and time wasting controversies. An article by former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, in The Washington Post roused our sleeping defenders of the faith and ‘national interest’ to tilt against some more windmills. The offence to these self-appointed gatekeepers was caused by Haqqani’s mentioning in the article the fact that under instructions from the leadership of the then PPP-led government, the Pakistan embassy in Washington had been empowered to expedite visas for US officials requested by the State Department. A letter containing these instructions by then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is being bandied about to ‘prove’ that the previous PPP government allowed Haqqani to issue visas wholesale while bypassing the necessary procedures, especially security checks. These wild accusations are not new. In the past too, particularly around the time of the memogate controversy, Haqqani came in for stick on that issue as well as the alleged visas breach. The accusers and their tribe seem oblivious of, or deliberately choose to ignore, the procedures and protocols in place in every embassy regarding issuing visas. Amongst the staff of every embassy, defence and security personnel are posted. Without their explicit clearance, no visa can be issued. Yousaf Raza Gilani has clarified this in a press conference. PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar has also weighed in, echoing Gilani’s question whether this is not a red herring or a storm in a teacup when the real conundrum is how Osama ben Laden lived in Abbottabad for so many years under the nose of the military academy and cantonment a stone’s throw away. These, however, have been the relatively rational and measured PPP responses to the furore. Disappointingly, the rest of the PPP leadership seems only interested in peddling furiously in the water to distance themselves from the ‘taint’ of Haqqani and even declare him a ‘traitor’ (PPP’s Leader of the Opposition Syed Khursheed Shah) or someone whose utility has expired (Asif Zardari). What these grey eminences of the PPP seem unaware of is the possibility that their very ‘denials’ would create further embarrassment for them without any outcome. Getting drawn into useless controversies is an occupational hazard of politicians in today’s world because of media hype. For that very reason, politicians should be more careful with their words and think things through before opening their mouths. Having said that, what exactly is the real subtext of the whole controversy? Some background is required. After 9/11, then military dictator Pervez Musharraf succumbed to Washington’s threats to bomb Pakistan into the Stone Age if it did not cooperate in the war on terror. However, while ostensibly saying ‘Yes sir!’ to the demand, Musharraf wreaked his revenge by allowing the Afghan Taliban fleeing their country in the face of the overwhelming military might of the US invasion of Afghanistan safe havens on Pakistani soil. They were thus preserved to fight another day, which they continue to do till date. In the melee to get out of Afghanistan and escape the wrath of the US, Osama ben Laden too made the precarious journey across the Tora Bora Mountains on the Pak-Afghan border and then ‘disappeared’ inside Pakistan. The US-led hunt for Osama ben Laden occupied Presidents George Bush and his successor Barack Obama. The latter administration was only able to crack Osama ben Laden’s location after their intelligence operatives were facilitated by expediting their visas through all the proper checks being carried out in the Washington embassy, rather than referring each individual visa application to Islamabad, a process that took months, sometimes a year. Every such visa was issued with advice to the Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad. So what is the problem? The visa issue is a complete red herring. The real problem with the PPP’s (and Haqqani’s) detractors is the discovery and elimination in a raid in Abbottabad of the al Qaeda terrorist chief responsible for 9/11. In the process, the raid laid bare the manifest failure of our defence and security regime. That failure was glossed over in a subsequent joint session of parliament that let the military leadership of the time off the hook. No one was held accountable for the debacle. The PPP should be shouting from the rooftops that it helped eliminate the biggest terrorist of modern times inside Pakistan. Instead, we are witness to mealy-mouthed, apologetic efforts to save the PPP leadership’s hide while being quite prepared to throw Haqqani to the wolves (who have already been snapping at his heels for years) despite the fact that he was acting according to the PPP government’s instructions, as he was bound to do. What then explains the PPP’s desperate attempts to dump all the dirt on Haqqani if they can while preening as ‘innocent’ themselves? This cowardice reeks of fear of the establishment, the PPP’s bête noir of long standing. A similar smell of fear emanates from the second approval of military courts. The PPP of course is not alone in this (second) betrayal of democracy, the constitution, and an acceptable judicial system. The entire political class has unashamedly sold its soul (twice) to the devil. Raking up the diversion of visas serves the purpose of distracting attention from the real, serious issues facing the country. Terrorism is being countered largely by military means. The weakest component of the counterterrorism campaign is the intelligence-led police operations to weed out underground cells of terrorists throughout the length and breadth of the country. The so-called combing operations in the big cities being conducted largely by the military may net a large number of suspects, including those allegedly picked up under the umbrella of ethnic profiling, but whether this will get to the entrails of the terrorist network to eliminate it root and branch appears uncertain so far.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial March 25, 2017

Visa furore A veritable storm has been set off by former ambassador to the US Husain Haqqani’s article in The Washington Post in which he revealed that he had facilitated visas for American officials requested by the US State Department with the approval and authorisation of the previous PPP government’s leadership. The detractors and critics of the ambassador (and the PPP) have latched onto the revelation to paint a picture as though the ambassador had acted off his own bat and while bypassing the procedures and security clearance required for the issuance of such visas. Two letters are being bandied about by the critics, one from the Foreign Office listing 36 American official visa applicants who should either be refused or given only limited time visas, and another from former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani empowering the ambassador to expedite such visa requests without having to refer every individual case to Islamabad to avoid delays running into months. What has set the house on fire regarding this seemingly routine matter is the further assertion by Husain Haqqani that this facilitation helped the US nail Osama bin Laden (OBL) inside Pakistan. The latter assertion has brought anonymous former military establishment sources into play to assert that despite the presence of the security agencies in every embassy charged with giving clearance to such cases, visas to US intelligence operatives had been issued by our Washington embassy during Haqqani’s ambassadorship without going through the proper procedure, especially sending such cases to the ISI for clearance. These assertions are refuted by Gilani in his press conference on March 24 and in a statement by PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar. The former argues that the letter in question was issued according to the rules of business and expediting visas certainly did not, and indeed could not, bypass the clearance regime. Babar has refuted any suggestion of wrongdoing in this regard and has, along with Gilani, instead thrown the ball into the court of the PPP’s detractors by asking the pointed question whether this non-issue should be the focus of so much attention or the presence of OBL on Pakistani soil next to a major military cantonment for so many years? Both have demanded that the Abbottabad Commission report be made public to clear the air. They have also demanded that if the issuance of visas to US officials is the issue, the issuance regime since 2002 should be investigated to lay bare the truth. They have asked how many US military and other personnel came to Pakistan during the Musharraf years through the Shamsi air base in Balochistan, which the former military ruler had handed over to the US for drone operations. Husain Haqqani has echoed these statements and underlined the proper procedures were followed and the prime minister’s office in Islamabad duly informed of all such cases. He too repeats what he calls the real question: what was OBL doing living in Abbottabad for years (under the nose of the military, literally)? The whole affair seems a red herring or distraction from more important matters requiring the attention of the authorities and citizens. However, if some quarters see Husain Haqqani’s revelations in his article as ammunition to castigate the PPP with, they should perhaps be careful what they wish for. Inadvertently, they risk opening a whole Pandora’s box of awkward questions that have remained unanswered since the US SEALS raid in 2011 that took out OBL and in the process breached Pakistan’s defenses, security, and territorial and airspace integrity. The military leadership of the time owes a vote of thanks to the joint session of parliament convened after the raid to get to grips with what happened in Abbottabad on that fateful day. To the relief of the military leadership, they were let off the hook by parliament and no one was held accountable for this blatant failure of our defence and security regime. It may be for similar reasons, to spare the military leadership of that time further blushes, that the Abbottabad Commission report has yet to see the light of day, a fate reserved for most commissions of inquiry in our history. The murky relationship of Pakistan with extremist warriors imported from all over the world for the so-called Afghan jihad has never been fully clarified. In the context of the above controversy, it is worth asking how many of them came to Pakistan on proper visas. Most found safe havens for decades in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan and when that was eventually (and relatively quite recently) denied to them, arguably it set off a chain reaction of terrorism throughout the region and indeed the world when these fighters moved out. For those still not satisfied with the PPP and Haqqani’s clarifications, an inquiry may settle the issue, provided its report is not hidden away from public view too. As to the Abbottabad Commission report, no matter how painful, its publication would allow state and society to learn the appropriate lessons, a wise policy we have practiced in the breach throughout our history.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 22, 2017

Discriminatory profiling Discriminatory attitudes towards religious minorities do not only emanate from extremists and terrorists. An even more invidious, almost subconscious discriminatory profiling seems to be second nature in our society. To expect then that the authorities would be exempt from such hateful stances would be wishing for the moon. One recent example to illustrate the issue is an advertisement put out by the tehsil administration of Bannu district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for the post of 14 sweepers. The advertisement ran that the posts were open to Christians, Hindus and Shias. It added the pearl of wisdom that these posts were open to “all genders” in a specific age group. This howler of an advertisement was rightly taken up and roundly criticised on the social media. In response to the furore, the administration in question quickly offered a retraction, calling the inclusion of Shias “a mistake”. Nowhere did the retraction mention or apologise for the discriminatory profiling of Christians and Hindus as ‘fit’ only for such menial, low paid jobs. The reason for this is that in the case of the Shias being mentioned, this was a first even for our benighted authorities. The likelihood of Shias being less than pleased at such categorisation no doubt fed into the retraction and half-apology. However, in the case of the Christians and Hindus, no such compunctions were felt since this was considered the ‘norm’. This attitude stems from hateful, discriminatory attitudes and practices rooted in our unstated and officially unrecognized caste prejudices, inherited from tradition and the past, and internalised subliminally so completely as not to even raise an eyebrow. Pakistanis are very fond of reminding the world that they are Muslims and that their country is an Islamic state. But they never pause to consider that this majoritarian identity ignores, marginalises, and condemns to the periphery all members of other religions (and even non-majority sects within Islam). Such marginalisation and relegation of religious minorities to an ‘unclean’ status fit only for ‘unclean’ jobs goes to the heart of our subliminally received and unconsciously practiced caste prejudices. The ‘unclean’ status of Christians is what led to the quarrel between Aasia bibi and some Muslim women over drinking water from the same utensil. Aasia was then accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death on that score. This is not an isolated example. In our everyday lives, in our homes and workplaces, caste prejudices are at work, but few of us have the courage to call a spade a spade or resist such discriminatory practices. Caste hangovers from the past, combined with religious extremism and narrowness, not to mention the factor of class, come together as a conjuncture of deep-rooted hatreds and discrimination. The victims are treated not only as second class citizens, but even more alarmingly, as second rate human beings. Islam does not recognize caste, let alone allow behaviour motivated by deep rooted caste prejudices subliminally internalised from the past. And on the touchstone of humanity and citizenship, the latter having enshrined in the Constitution the golden principle of no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, gender, etc, this is indeed a shameful hangover that must be opposed wherever and whenever it manifests itself, as well as educate and make aware the public of the wrong they consciously or inadvertently are committing. Nine chances out of ten, if the Bannu advertisement had not been taken up on the social media (kudos to our enlightened citizens who felt compelled to do so), it would have probably passed without a murmur. After all, it was not the first such advertisement. And given the lingering prevalence of caste prejudice within our very being, it is unlikely to be the last unless we wake up and eradicate this malignancy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 21, 2017

Sense at last After a hiatus of almost a year, during which period relations have been tense, Pakistan and India have at last returned to the negotiating table to discuss water issues. Two days of talks between the visiting 10-member Indian delegation led by India’s Indus Water Commissioner P K Saxena and Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner’s team have reportedly already yielded some progress. Of the three proposed Indian hydropower projects at Pakul Dal, Miyar and Lower Kalnai that Pakistan has disputed as violative of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), the Indian side has reportedly agreed to halt work on the Miyar project, revisit its design and share the new design with Pakistan, as required by the IWT. It has also agreed to review the Lower Kalnai project. This positive development is in sharp contrast to the virtual impasse attending the disputed projects over the last two years, which yielded last year’s IWT annual meeting’s cancellation because of the intransigence of the Indian side. On top of the agenda at secretary-level talks in New Delhi on July 14-15, 2016, were two other disputed hydropower projects, namely Kishanganga and Ratle. The failure of bilateral engagement on these two projects persuaded Pakistan to take its case to international arbitration through the guarantor of the IWT 1960: the World Bank. However, India’s demand that the issue be referred to neutral experts stymied that process too. Now with the intervention and facilitation of the US and the World Bank, secretary-level talks have been scheduled to discuss Kishanganga and Ratle in Washington on April 11-13, 2017. Water and Power Minister Khawaja Asif welcomed the return to the negotiating table, while vowing to resist any encroachment of Pakistan’s rights under the IWT at the appropriate forum. It may be recalled that the tensions between Pakistan and India after the Uri attack and perhaps the domestic political and (State) electoral considerations of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had resulted in a ratcheting up of aggressive rhetoric on the part of India. So much so that at one point Mr Modi threatened to tear up the IWT. Saner counsel, and perhaps the passing of the States elections may have tempered New Delhi’s bellicose attitude, lubricated by the quiet efforts of the US and the World Bank. Whatever the factors that brought about this change of heart and openness to engage in bilateral discussions in Islamabad as well as agreement to meet in Washington in April, it can only be welcomed. The 1960 IWT is one of those rare agreements between Pakistan and India to have stood the test of time, war, tensions, etc, between the two South Asian neighbours. If the reports about progress in the Islamabad talks regarding reviewing the Miyar and Lower Kalnai projects to meet Pakistan’s objections are correct, this represents the first fruit of renewed engagement. And if the Washington talks point the way forward to a meeting of minds on Kishanganga and Ratle, this will only provide further proof of the same. It is always preferable for the two states to jaw-jaw rather than war-war, which in any case is unthinkable after both have become nuclear-armed powers. With the help of the US, and under the aegis of the World Bank, the scheduled Washington talks may provide a solution to the vexed issues of Kishanganga and Ratle. Both the Islamabad and impending Washington talks also hold another profound lesson. It is when Pakistan and India sit across the table that excessively aggressive rhetoric meant for political consumption in both countries gives way to rational discussion and positive outcomes. How much more important is it then for both Islamabad and New Delhi to move forward towards resumption of the long stalled composite dialogue. The Islamabad and scheduled Washington talks on water issues are hopeful signs. Both countries need to build on that momentum to re-engage on all issues that bedevil relations.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 8, 2017

Military courts again The debate over dealing with terrorism cases seems far from over, despite the government’s claims that its proposal for the revival of military courts enjoys consensus in parliament. The PPP on the one hand, whose support for the 23rd Constitutional Amendment Bill to revive the defunct military courts is critical because of its majority in the Senate, and a PML-Q-led alliance with three minor parties on the other, have both come up with nine-point proposals on the matter. But whereas the latter alliance supports a tenure of two years for the military courts, the PPP wants them restricted to one year, with several other caveats. The PPP’s co-chairperson, former president Asif Zardari, has re-emerged on the national political scene after a long absence abroad by spelling out the PPP’s nine-point proposal. The PPP wants the military courts to be presided over by a sessions judge or additional sessions judge along with a military official. The appointment of the sessions judge should be made by the chief justice of the relevant high court. Zardari quotes past precedent for this semi-civilianisation of the military courts. The PPP also proposes that the accused should be given the right to have a defence counsel of choice, he should be produced before a court within 24 hours and the evidence against him be presented within the same timeframe. Further, the Qanoon-e-Shahadat 1984 (law of evidence) be enforced. The right of judicial review of military courts’ verdicts by the high courts under Article 199 should be ensured and such appeals decided within 60 days. These proposals are obviously aimed at safeguarding bare minimum standards of constitutionally guaranteed fair trial and due process, two aspects on which the military courts’ track record over the last two years leaves a lot to be desired. Hardly any military courts’ verdicts delivered during this period have been upheld on appeal on precisely these grounds. The PPP is also concerned about the general description of terrorism employed in the new amendment, in contrast with the language of the previous 21st amendment that first set up the military courts. Whereas the latter confined the military courts’ mandate to terrorism carried out on a religious or sectarian basis, the current amendment does not make this distinction. The PPP’s worry is that such a general description could open the doors to victimisation of political opponents and a witch-hunt. While the PPP’s proposals are a clever gambit to defang the summary and non-transparent nature of the military courts’ proceedings, there is no guarantee that another incident like the Army Public School massacre in December 2014, whose aftermath saw the military courts being brought into existence despite the reservations of the PPP and others, would not trigger another railroading of the 23rd amendment through parliament. The intention behind the two year sunset clause in the 21st amendment was not only to limit the tenure of essentially the extension of the Army Act over civilians, it was also meant to provide time to the government to usher in the reforms in the judicial system, particularly the anti-terrorism courts, which would make military courts redundant in future. Since the government did nothing in this regard, the end of the two year tenure revived the demand for the military courts, in a circular motion that shows no signs of ending. One year or two years, what would be the situation at the end of this period if the necessary judicial reforms have still not been carried out? Terrorism is not a phenomenon that is likely to go away soon, particularly since its roots in our society have struck deep over decades of the encouragement and support to jihadi proxies. Without the government and the judiciary taking on the responsibility for judicial reform, the military courts will never end, but rather demands for their revival will follow every ending of their limited tenure. Surely this is no solution. The government and the judiciary must grasp firmly the nettle of judicial reforms as a necessary condition for the reluctant resurrection of the military courts for as limited a tenure as possible.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 7, 2017

Accountability regime The Parliamentary Committee on National Accountability Law on March 6 arrived at a consensus that any person or office holder convicted for corruption would have a lifetime ban imposed on holding any public or government office. The committee unanimously approved three sections, 19, 20 and 21, related to punishment for corruption, disqualification, voluntary return and cognizance of offences under the provisions of the proposed accountability bill. The bill was originally framed by the previous PPP-led government. It is a reflection of the importance given the issue by the present government as well as the pace of functioning of parliament and its committees that it has taken the present incumbents more than three years to bring the matter to this pass. And interestingly, in answer to a request from Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani, Federal Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid sought more time to withdraw the bill for proposed amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 so that the report of the parliamentary panel could be presented in the house. While the government makes haste slowly, the committee also agreed by consensus that the minimum punishment for any person convicted of corrupt practices would be seven years imprisonment and the maximum 14 years. The lifetime ban on such persons would apply irrespective of whether they had returned the embezzled amount through the voluntary return process or plea bargain. The committee is still waiting for the Law Minister to brief it on the proposed structure of the National Accountability Commission (NAC), which would replace the existing National Accountability Bureau. Whether the mere change of nomenclature would bring about the desired change in the manner of functioning and efficacy of the NAC only time will tell. According to the proposed draft of the bill, the chairman NAC, deputy chairman and members would be appointed by the prime minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition and such appointments would have to be confirmed by a parliamentary committee having equal representation of the treasury and opposition benches. Under the proposed law, a functionally and financially independent Accountability and Investigation Agency would be established. The tenure of the NAC chairman and deputy chairman would be three years, with no extension. The chairman and deputy chairman would only be removable during their tenures by a reference to the Supreme Judicial Council. The present parliamentary committee seized of the proposed changes in the accountability regime comprises 13 MNAs and seven Senators and is charged with revisiting the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 and submitting its report within three months. Accountability entered the political domain years ago with the public expectation that the perceived endemic corruption afflicting government and national life needed addressing. Unfortunately though, successive governments reduced this national endeavour to purely partisan political purposes. Opponents of incumbent governments were targeted, sometimes on spurious and unsustainable charges that could not withstand the light of scrutiny or time. The most notorious of these efforts were the cases brought by Nawaz Sharif’s second government against his PPP leadership rivals, cases that Ehtesab Commission head Saifur Rehman tearfully renounced after that government had been overthrown by the military coup of 1999. Musharraf’s Ordinance and the Bureau brought into existence under it did not escape similar criticism, this time ironically the target being the overthrown PML-N. Justified or not, the public perception is that National Accountability Bureau chairmen, including the present holder of that office, have tended to be favoured appointees of the party in power and therefore unable to act against perceived or actual corruption allegations against the incumbents. All these shenanigans over the years have by now eroded the credibility of the accountability regime, which arguably has never stood lower than at present. In the light of this, the proposals for consensual appointments to the new NAC appear positive, although it is not clear what would happen if such consensus is unattainable. Parliament’s role generally, and in this case in particular, should be further strengthened to become the ultimate confirmatory institution for appointments to the NAC, and its committee should be permanently charged with oversight of the accountability regime to overcome the lacunae and partisan failings of the past.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Business Recorder Column March 6, 2017

After cricket final, no room for complacency Rashed Rahman Pakistan, the Cricket Board (PCB), the government and the security forces are to be congratulated on managing to stage the Pakistan Super League (PSL) cricket final successfully and without incident in Lahore on March 5. Pakistani cricket-starved fans showed courage, joy and unremitting enthusiasm in attending and making the match successful. Now that the excitement has worn off, it is time to reflect on what was achieved, how, and its implications for the future. First and foremost, the terrorist threat that had rocked the country last month by bomb blasts and the ensuing fear and panic in Lahore and elsewhere in the country was nullified by locking down the whole area around the venue of the match in Gaddafi Stadium and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Cricket fans had to park their vehicles far from the stadium in designated parking blots and were shuttled through a free bus service to Gaddafi. The arrangements at the parking lots and the shuttle service were excellently organised, helped in no small measure by the enthusiastic but unusually disciplined and well behaved crowds of fans who patiently and without a murmur of complaint put up with these inconveniences for the sake of safety and security. It was as though there existed an unwritten compact between the fans and the authorities to partner in ensuring the best outcome. The public and the authorities deserve a pat on the back for exemplary organisation and behaviour. The successful event proved that if sufficient force and resources were concentrated in a relatively small area, this would discourage the terrorists from attempting any adventurism. The overwhelming show of force, in which 10-20,000 security personnel were deployed and helicopters provided aerial surveillance all day, persuaded the terrorists, if at all they contemplated disrupting the festivities, that it would prove a fool’s errand. Terrorism and asymmetrical warfare rely on surprise and attacking weak links in the security architecture, preferably where large numbers of people are concentrated in the public space. Although the approach to and crowd in the 25,000-seat Gaddafi Stadium may have seemed a mouth-watering prospect for the terrorists, the five-tier security cordon put in place proved a dampener for them. However, the successful and incident-free staging of the cricket final through the concentration of overwhelming force in a relatively small area is obviously not a template or model that can sustainably be used all over the country continuously. The statements of deserved self-congratulation by the government should not blind us to the dangers of slipping into complacency once again. One swallow does not a spring make. Nor does one successful public event. Without wishing it, one can reasonably expect a riposte sooner or later by the terrorism brigade. As to the match itself, it proved a disappointingly one-sided, low scoring victory for Peshawar Zalmi over the Quetta Gladiators, depleted by the staying away of their star foreign players, especially match-winning batsman Kevin Pietersen. Not that the determined to enjoy themselves to the full fans let you know this. Their enthusiasm and joy to be witnessing a cricket match in Gaddafi after a hiatus of eight years overrode all other considerations. While the PCB and cricket fans must be appreciated for pulling off what many feared may prove a mistake if any terrorist incident took place, the intended and oft repeated message of the PCB that staging a safe and successful final in Lahore would pave the way for international cricket to return to Pakistani soil may have inadvertently ended up sending the exact opposite message. If a cricket match can only be staged by enormous mobilisation of the security forces, this will merely reinforce the perception that Pakistan is still not safe for foreign teams to visit and play. The Zimbabwe team’s visit last year, while appreciable, did not dent this perception. And the security steps employed to ensure the March 5 match went off peacefully are likely to deepen concerns amongst foreign teams and the International Cricket Council (ICC) that Pakistan does not as yet offer a conducive environment for international cricket. The terrorists achieved Pakistan’s international cricket (and other sports) isolation by audaciously attacking the Sri Lankan team near Liberty roundabout in 2009 as it was on its way to Gaddafi. That put paid to international cricket in Pakistan ever since, with the PCB forced to conduct all its ‘home’ series offshore in the UAE. Terrorism seeks to bring normal life to a grinding halt and ensuring the state’s credibility is eroded over time if it is unable to wrest the public space back for citizens and society. That means the public space remains a ‘battleground’ between the sowers of the seeds of mayhem on the one hand and state and society on the other. The battle for the public space and ‘normalcy’ therefore is an ongoing one. This contention needs addressing by the authorities. One way would be the encouragement of festivals and public events while ensuring their security needs. The more this can be achieved, the more the objective of the terrorists to paralyse normal functioning and deny the public space to society will be incrementally defeated. The risks, of course, cannot be minimised or ignored. But in one sense this is as important as the military/police operations against the terrorists. It is a battle for hearts and minds, in which the indiscriminate violence of the terrorists will eventually erode their standing and appeal, and the continuing activism of citizens and society (with the help of the state authorities) will eventually pave the way for the victory over the bloodthirsty fanatics. Last bit not least, the template or model of the successful cricket final in Lahore implies the critical necessity for coordination in the counterterrorism drive. This coordination is required between the civil and military sides (as demonstrated in Lahore), the Centre and the provinces (Punjab of course is in the happy position of ‘brother’ to the Centre), and all intelligence agencies, preferably under a centralised umbrella organisation. Cricket won, Pakistan and its people won on March 5 in Lahore. But the victory over the terrorists would be wasted if we lapse into complacency instead of pressing home the psychological edge provided by the success in Lahore to eliminate the terrorists physically, ideologically, and from the hearts and minds of our citizens and society.

Business Recorder editorial March 4, 2017

Trump’s address to Congress US President Donald Trump fleshed out his ‘America first’ agenda in his address to the US Congress on March 1, but in a more measured, presidential tone than his statements hitherto. His landmark speech attempted to transpose his hardline campaign promises into a presidential key. However, the themes he touched upon were very much of the old Trump hue, but in a much more restrained and detailed explanation of his worldview. While pledging a renewal of the American spirit, Trump criticised the recent threats against Jewish community centres and condemned the seemingly racially-motivated killing of an Indian immigrant in the US. These were politically correct statements that his audience and the public wanted to hear. However, there was no mention of his previous statements regarding Muslims, blacks and Latinos, which arguably reeked of racial and religious profiling. Even this brief foray into political correctness did not stop Trump from reiterating his hard line on illegal immigration. He outlined his economic policies in less inflammatory terms, earning sustained applause from the Republicans but a deathly silence from the Democrats, still sceptical about how the contradictory aspects of these policies would be reconciled fiscally. Trump proposed introducing an Australian-style merit based system to reduce the flow of unskilled workers into the US, without engaging with the weighty argument that in fact such labour was a requirement of the US economy. Far from taking away American jobs, as Trump has consistently argued, such immigrants fill the void by taking up relatively low paid jobs that US citizens are not interested in. This is a well known phenomenon in most developed economies, but admitting that would knock a big hole in Trump’s rhetoric about bringing jobs back to US citizens. He did offer an olive branch to his critics by holding out a possible bipartisan compromise with the Democrats on immigration reform. But until the details of this offer are available, it is difficult to believe he has abandoned his misplaced campaign rhetoric about immigrants taking away American jobs. In the context of Trump’s ban on travellers from seven Muslim majority countries, which has been stayed by the courts, a new executive order was expected to be issued on immigration, but is yet to see the light of day. In what is emerging as the typical Trump style, the first order was issued without being properly thought through or after due consultation. Nevertheless, Trump promised extreme vetting of travellers from certain countries in order to prevent what he called the establishment of a terrorism beachhead inside the US. President Trump’s maiden address to Congress attempted to grapple with the multiple crises and historically low approval ratings he has managed to engender after less than two months in office. Phrases such as “a renewal of the American spirit”, “new national pride”, etc, smacked of an attempt to reclaim the badly battered authority of his office and correct course on some of his more outlandish pronouncements. While past President Abraham Lincoln was quoted to justify protectionism, Trump did soften his criticism of NATO partners and vowed to work with allies in the Muslim world against terrorism, in particular Islamic State. But there were no apologies for emphasising a world order centred on the nation state. This harks back to an era of every country for itself, in sharp contrast to the relative stability and prosperity ushered in by a global multilateral architecture since the end of the Second World War. Making compassionate noises about cutting taxes for the middle class and ensuring paid parental leave did not move his opponents. The latter’s scepticism can be summed up in the attitude that the devil is in the detail and implementation of the attempted softer pitch of Trump’s well known tilting at all that the US, and arguably the world, have stood for over decades. After listening to Trump’s speech to Congress, one is little wiser exactly what he wants to do (contradictory stances being part of the problem) and how he intends to get there. The best advice for the American people and peoples all over the world therefore appears to be to batten the hatches, hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Business Recorder editorial March 1, 2017

CPEC discontents Sardar Akhtar Jan Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M), while addressing a meeting in Quetta on February 28, dwelt once again on his province’s discontents with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Mengal accused Islamabad of getting funds for the project from Beijing in the name of Gwadar but spending them all in one province. No prizes for guessing which province he was referring to. This is a recurring theme of the Baloch nationalists regarding CPEC. In this case of course, it is not one of the nationalist insurgent groups voicing such criticism but a mainstream party, whose president is an ex-chief minister of Balochistan, and which remains wedded to the parliamentary democratic process despite its grievances. Amongst other, historically rooted discontents, the grievances regarding the CPEC were summed up by Mengal arguing that the people of Balochistan, a province through which a major portion of the Corridor passes, and whose port of Gwadar is central to the rationale of the CPEC, have neither been consulted nor taken into confidence on CPEC projects. Of course this is a complaint shared by other provinces, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (on the western route of CPEC) and Gilgit-Baltistan (another province the Corridor will traverse). Even the Senate Standing Committee on Planning and Development has expressed fears regarding the safeguarding of Pakistan’s interests under the CPEC. This chorus of critical voices from disparate regions and parliament reflects the failure of the government to convincingly persuade the sceptics and dissenters of the benefits of the CPEC for the country as a whole as much as its constituent parts. In the context of Balochistan, a sparsely populated province already under the demographic pressures of large numbers of Afghan refugees that has raised concerns about the forthcoming census permanently changing the ethnic balance of the province if these refugees are registered as citizens of the country, the discontent regarding the CPEC feeds into, and is strengthened by, the old complaints and grievances of the province regarding the deprivation of its rights and the step motherly treatment to which its denizens have been subjected repeatedly over the years. After all, it cannot be a mere coincidence that every generation of the Baloch since Independence has been in rebellion on the basis of these grievances. CPEC, despite its obvious, and some yet to be revealed benefits, is regarded by the Baloch as equivalent to salt being rubbed into their wounds, which former president Asif Zardari too regards as unhealed. And how could they be when the ‘dialogue’ between the Centre and Balochistan resembles nothing more than a dialogue of the deaf. Recurring insurgencies over the last 70 years in the province are the consequence of this lack of exchange. The previous National Party chief minister of Balochistan, Dr Abdul Malik, tried to hold talks with the insurgents and their leaders in exile during his half-tenure, but ran up constantly against his interlocutors’ questions about whether he could deliver any commitments he may make to them. Now even that faltering effort has been abandoned, raising the bar of desperation and hardening of attitudes amongst the dissidents and rebels. The real authors of the hardline approach to the Baloch and their grievances seem impervious to the long term consequences of their policy on the grounds that the nationalist insurgency is nothing but mischief stoked and backed by India. This homily has by now been repeated so often as to have assumed the mantle of self-evident truth, despite the fact that clinching evidence of this has yet to be revealed in the public domain. But even if it is so, can India or any other power intervene in our internal affairs without fertile soil for doing so? Our internal strife in Balochistan may be tempting such powers to take advantage of unsettled conditions. Difficult as the process is, given the long history of mistrust between the nationalists and our establishment, the logic of engagement and dialogue to settle the troubles in Balochistan, for the province’s, country’s and CPEC’s sake, remains unassailable though conspicuous by its absence.