Sunday, April 30, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 30, 2017

Knee-jerk over-reaction The PML-N government has taken for some time to feeling the need to react to any and every statement from Imran Khan. Perhaps this is the result of the ruling party’s revisiting its relatively restrained responses to Imran Khan’s barrage of accusations and allegations in 2013-14, a period that spans the 2013 general elections as well as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s months-long sit-in in Islamabad during 2014. But the change in the PML-N’s approach to the ‘perpetual accuser’, ‘great distractor’ and ‘agent provocateur’ Imran Khan does not seem an improvement on the previous stance. A whole panoply of PML-N government and party leaders is in the knee-jerk, instant, inescapable counter-barrage mode to Imran Khan’s constant shots over the bows of the PML-N’s admittedly listing ship. Feeling hemmed in by the Supreme Court’s verdict in the Panamagate case and the opposition’s seeking to twist the knife in the wound by calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to resign, the PML-N has felt compelled to respond to each and every one of Imran Khan’s statements on a daily basis. What this inadvertently does is elevate these provocations’ status to fare for the big appetite of the media, mushrooming more often than not into interminable debates on talk shows on these issues, arguably at the cost of weightier problems that confront the country. To illustrate the state of affairs, on April 28, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, Federal Minister of State for Information Marriyum Aurangzeb, Railways Minister Saad Rafique and Punjab government spokesman Malik Ahmed Khan all weighed in against the latest revelation from Imran Khan regarding the offer of a Rs 10 billion bribe for taking his foot off the accelerator of the get Nawaz drive. The only name missing in the ‘cast of usual suspects’ in this regard was Daniyal Aziz. Imran Khan had said that he was offered the amount through a businessman friend with ties to the Sharifs. He has consistently refused to name the go-between, citing fears the Sharifs would wreak vengeance on the person by ruining his business. In response to the threats from Shahbaz Sharif and the Punjab government spokesman to take him to court for defamation if he does not reveal the name, Imran Khan says if taken to court he will reveal all there, but first ask the court to protect the go-between and his business interests. This Rs 10 billion bribe allegation is the latest in Imran Khan’s armoury of accusations that he has regularly trotted out against the PML-N as well as the PPP for being corrupt. The brave words of Shahbaz Sharif (with the tired rhetoric of leaving politics if found guilty) and the PML-N to file a defamation suit seems more bluster than a realistic hope of beating back Imran Khan’s latest provocation. Who does not know the fate of civil suits in our judicial system in general, and defamation cases in particular? Seldom, if ever, have such cases provided a satisfactory conclusion, if they ever reach a conclusion at all. In the meantime, the battery of spokespersons flying to the defence of the PML-N at the drop of a hat on matters big and small is having the opposite effect to what is intended. Far from convincingly refuting such accusations (a difficult proposition at the best of times, given the rhetorical rather than factual basis of such accusations by and large), this chorus of ministers, leaders and spokespeople of the PML-N is simply serving to keep alive in the public mind and exaggerate the importance of such allegations. In the process, the PML-N is falling into the Imran Khan ‘great distraction’ trap, keeping it occupied with relatively trivial matters and distracting its focus from far more serious problems confronting the country. In other words, contrary to the ruling party’s rhetoric of focusing on development despite its detractors, this minuet is simply helping to take the government’s eye off the ball and entangle it in unnecessary slanging matches. The government may be better served by appointing and restricting its public statements against Imran Khan and on all other matters to one authoritative spokesperson who should respond to all and any provocations in a measured, mature, civil manner, not descend to the level of the language used by some of its opponents, and keep its focus on governance.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Revised Herald Op-ed April 26, 2017

The Uzair Baloch conundrum Rashed Rahman Uzair Baloch has been revealed as being in the custody of the army and is going to be tried by a military tribunal on charges of espionage, according to a tweet by Major General Asif Ghafoor, director general of the Inter-services Public Relations (ISPR), on April 11, 2017. This development is seen as connected with the death penalty awarded to Kulbushan Sudhir Jadhav by a Field General Court Martial a day earlier on charges of fomenting sabotage in Balochistan on the orders of the Indian intelligence agency, RAW. The Joint Interrogation Team comprising both military and civilian officials investigating Uzair Baloch’s case claims he was involved in providing information on sensitive military installations and officials to Iranian intelligence. Uzair Baloch is reported to have escaped to Iran after a crackdown on criminal gangs and the erstwhile Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-supported People’s Aman Committee in Lyari, Karachi, in 2012. He reportedly found refuge in Chahbahar where Jadhav is alleged to have set up an intelligence network. But the reports are not clear how and when the alleged Uzair Baloch nexus with Iranian Intelligence transmogrified into cooperation with Jadhav’s network. Sartaj Aziz in a press conference on April 17 laid out the charges against Jadhav. They centre on his sponsoring and directing attacks in Gwadar, Turbat, Jiwani, Sibi, Sui, Quetta, Panjgur and Pasni. In the process, radar stations, civilian boats, gas pipelines and electric pylons were attacked and in some cases destroyed. He is also charged with abetting attacks against the law enforcing agencies, Frontier Corps and the Frontier Works Organisation. However, Sartaj Aziz did not present any evidence regarding any of these charges. The matter of Jadhav and the death penalty awarded to him for espionage has raised the temperature of already fraught ties with India. On the other hand there is no dearth of sceptics who question the veracity of the story around Uzair Baloch and his claimed ‘confession’, not to mention the ‘convenient’ conflating of his past to link it with Jadhav’s alleged activities. This is not to say that Pakistan and India do not spy on each other as a matter of routine. But it is difficult, in the absence of transparency about the Jadhav-Baloch nexus to simply swallow the officially certified truth in this regard without question. Jadhav may be a RAW agent as claimed, but Uzair Baloch was a PPP-supported gang leader in Lyari till he fell out with his party. How he made the transition from that avatar to a Jadhav operative is neither known nor believable in the absence of any information/evidence. Sceptics see these developments as killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the conviction and death penalty awarded to Jadhav reinforces the narrative about India’s alleged involvement in the troubles in Balochistan, while on the other, linking Uzair Baloch with Jadhav could prove to be another convenient stick to beat the PPP and its leadership with. Given the cloak of secrecy and the possibility of ‘spin’ around the whole affair, the truth, as often happens in such grey areas, may well never be satisfactorily known.

Business Recorder editorial April 26, 2017

Kurram bomb attack A roadside remote-controlled bomb has struck a crowded passenger van on its way from Godar to the Sadda area in Kurram Agency, killing 14 people, including five women, four children and four Khasadar Force personnel on their way to provide security for the census teams in the region. Thirteen people were injured. This was the third major terrorist incident in Kurram Agency this year. These three incidents ended up killing 60 people in all and injuring scores. On January 21, a blast in a vegetable market in Parachinar left 25 people dead and 80 injured. On March 31, a car bomb near the main imambargah in Parachinar killed 24 people and injured 70. The latest atrocity in Kurram Agency now has two claimants, one the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), the other Islamic State Khorasan. Not that it matters to the dead and injured and their loved ones which gang of fanatics has murdered these innocent people. JuA has in its claim of responsibility boasted that the target was Shias, with the census duty staff of the Khasadars thrown in for good measure. This spate of attacks in the new year in Kurram Agency comes at a time when the other FATA Agencies are relatively peaceful after Operation Zarb-e-Azb cleansed the region of the long entrenched local and foreign terrorists in the area. Kurram Agency, however, remains especially vulnerable to such attacks because of the volatile mix of a history of sectarian conflict and having been once the stronghold of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). When Operation Zarb-e-Azb ended, the universal acclaim at its success in cleansing FATA of the malign presence of terrorists drowned out the caution by perceptive observers that Pakistan needed in the aftermath of these developments to brace for the blowback in the form of terrorism throughout the country. That has been in evidence since. FATA is relatively secure, but that does not preclude the odd attack every now and then. Kurram, for the reasons adduced above, remains more vulnerable even now than the rest of FATA. In all the incidents of terrorist blowback, the fact that soft targets are the main thrust of the terrorists points to two facts. One, the terrorist networks have no doubt been pushed onto the back foot for having lost their safe havens and operating bases of long standing in FATA. Relying on secret and some sleeper cells has not proved easy for the terrorists. Two, while that is a plus for the counterterrorism campaign, it raises the risk of complacency and inertia creeping in when the terrorist riposte is not continuous but occasional. The longer the intervals between terrorist attacks, the more the risk of the security forces letting down their guard, even if momentarily. Those are moments terrorists look for, in fact bank upon. At present, the strategic goal of the terrorists appears to be to keep hitting soft targets to establish that they are still alive and kicking and demonstrate the inability of the state to protect citizens. This failure feeds into the strategic goal of asymmetrical warriors to demonstrate through their actions the erosion of the writ of the state. Asymmetrical warfare trades space for time, chipping away at the concept of the state having a monopoly over violence and being the protector of the ordinary citizen. If this analysis is correct, Pakistanis must brace for more such attacks on innocents, this being the easiest target for terrorists more than a little interested in dismantling the state’s structures of law, order, and security. Such a weakening of perceptions about the state is the biggest psychological warfare advance for the fanatics. The people and the state must be prepared for the protracted nature of the counterterrorism campaign and for the bloody markers along that path that Kurram has shown, and may well continue to exhibit.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 25, 2017

Kashmir struggle intensifies The protest movement in Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) shows no signs of abating, not the least because of the extreme repression unleashed by the authorities against unarmed protestors. The battle is being fought with unequal weapons. This was in evidence once again on April 24 when police, as has been their wont since the uprising began in the wake of the killing by security forces of the young militant leader Burhanuddin Wani last year, fired live rounds, tear gas and water cannon into a crowd of stone-throwing students in Srinagar. Hundreds of students had taken to the streets shouting slogans such as “We want freedom!” and “Go India, go back!” As shoppers fled, markets shut for the day. The clashes erupted as colleges and universities reopened following skirmishes last week between students and the government forces. Some students were detained while three photojournalists and eight policemen were injured by stones. This toll came in the wake of 100 students and almost the same number of policemen wounded in last week’s disturbances. After those battles, schools, colleges and universities were temporarily shut. The students had been angered by a raid earlier this month on a college in the southern district of Pulwama in which the police attempted to detain some alleged leaders of earlier protests during and after by-elections. Government forces are not supposed to enter college or university premises without special permission. In Pulwama town, a ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) official, Abdul Ghani, was shot and killed by unidentified attackers. IHK has been tense since April 9 when eight people were killed by the police and paramilitaries during by-election day violence. In the backdrop of the violent clashes continuing, PDP Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti flew to New Delhi on April 24 to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the situation. She called for dialogue and an end to violence while talking to reporters after the meeting, but insisted the first priority was to control the situation since talks were not possible amid bullets flying and stone pelting. Mufti’s PDP formed a coalition government with the BJP after the 2015 election in IHK, which has made her party hugely unpopular in the Valley, once its traditional support base. While blood continues to flow in IHK, many sober and concerned voices are being raised across the political divide in India warning of the consequences of the present course in IHK. Amongst them, former Chief Minister IHK and National Conference President Farooq Abdullah, who won a recent by-election to a Srinagar Lok Sabha seat, has urged the Indian government to begin talks with all stakeholders, including Pakistan, for peace in Kashmir. He advised against waiting for a “conducive atmosphere”, when the last stone has been thrown or the last bullet fired, implying intervention in the situation through a dialogue was in fact the only way to defuse an increasingly fraught situation whose consequences for the future were not in the interests of any stakeholder. Democratic India, Farooq Abdullah reminded, stood for the rights of the people. Denying those rights (as has been the case for the last 70 years) would create “further wounds and alienation”, he underlined. Absence of dialogue was an invitation to dig the grave of democracy, he warned. Regarding Mufti’s meeting with Modi, Farooq Abdullah reminded that the State and Union governments had been saying for long they would start a dialogue with all stakeholders, including the Hurriyet. Former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed also said similar things, including talks with Pakistan, but nothing happened. A delegation led by BJP leader and former minister Yashwant Sinha recommended similar measures after a visit to IHK but not a single item of those recommendations was taken up. After all this talk of a dialogue, stretching over many years, what the government of India and IHK need to realize is that they are incrementally losing the battle for hearts and minds, especially amongst the youth. The present path, if not abandoned, spells more trouble and bloodshed in IHK and the attendant danger of ratcheting up tensions between Pakistan and India. Like in many such long running conflicts, the language of weapons must, sooner rather than later, give way to the weapon of language.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Herald op-ed April 24, 2017

The Uzair Baloch conundrum Rashed Rahman Uzair Baloch has been revealed as being in the custody of the army and is going to be tried by a military tribunal on charges of espionage, according to a tweet by DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor on April 11, 2017. This development is seen as connected with the death penalty awarded to Kulbushan Sudhir Jadhav by a Field General Court Martial a day earlier on charges of fomenting sabotage in Balochistan on the orders of the Indian RAW. The Joint Interrogation Team comprising both military and civilian officials investigating Uzair Baloch’s case claims he was involved in providing information on sensitive military installations and officials to Iranian Intelligence. Uzair Baloch is reported to have escaped to Iran after the crackdown on criminal gangs and the erstwhile PPP-supported People’s Aman Committee in Lyari, Karachi in 2012. He reportedly found refuge in Chahbahar where Jadhav is alleged to have set up an intelligence network. But the reports are not clear how and when the alleged Uzair Baloch nexus with Iranian Intelligence transmogrified into cooperation with Jadhav’s network. Nor is it clear how Uzair Baloch was reportedly arrested and brought back to Pakistan from the UAE where he was picked up a year ago. The Rangers claim, however, that he was arrested by them outside Karachi. Uzair Baloch was once the blue-eyed boy of the PPP in Lyari. But differences with the PPP resulted in the rupture that saw the then PPP-led government turn on their former protégé as well as all rival gangs in Lyari. In the process the People’s Aman Committee disintegrated. From what has emerged from Uzair Baloch’s statements in the media, he has claimed that he did whatever he is charged with in the context of Karachi on the behest of PPP co-chairperson and former president Asif Zardari. Amongst such activities are counted murders and seizing properties in the city. Whether there is any truth in this assertion or not, Uzair Baloch’s statements have proved embarrassing for the PPP, which has furiously denied all such charges and distanced itself even further from Uzair Baloch (if that is possible). The matter of Jadhav and the death penalty awarded to him for espionage has raised the temperature of already fraught ties with India. On the other hand there is no dearth of sceptics who question the veracity of the story around Jadhav and his claimed ‘confession’, not to mention the ‘convenient’ conflating of Uzair Baloch’s past to link it with Jadhav’s alleged activities. This is not to say that Pakistan and India do not spy on each other as a matter of routine. But it is difficult, in the absence of transparency about the Jadhav-Baloch nexus to simply swallow the officially certified truth in this regard without question. Jadhav may be a RAW agent as claimed, but Uzair Baloch was a PPP-supported gang leader in Lyari till he fell out with his mother party. How he made the transition from that avatar to a Jadhav operative is neither known nor believable in the absence of any information/evidence. Sceptics see these developments as killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the conviction and death penalty awarded to Jadhav reinforces the narrative about India’s alleged involvement in the troubles in Balochistan, while on the other, linking Uzair Baloch with Jadhav could prove to be another convenient stick to beat the PPP and its leadership with. Given the cloak of lack of information and the possibility of ‘spin’ around the whole affair, the truth, as often happens in such grey areas, may well never be satisfactorily known.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial April 23, 2017

Panamagate verdict fallout What was promised as the ‘mother of all judicial verdicts’ that would be remembered for 20 years has spawned the mother of all political controversies. Both the government and its critics have chosen to cherry-pick from the reports about the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) judgement in the Panama Papers case to justify their respective stances in its wake. While the government insists the verdict has endorsed its position on the need for an investigation and fallen far short of disqualifying Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif as the petitioners wanted, the opposition has sensed the damage on a moral and political plane inflicted upon the Sharif family and is trying to press home the advantage through strident calls for the resignation of the PM. However, despite rallies in Sindh on this basis led by the PPP and Imran Khan’s announcement of a protest rally in Islamabad on April 28, the opposition appears as divided as ever, with the PTI chief reverting to his favoured ‘solo flight’ mode. The absence of a critical mass of the united opposition, within and outside parliament, can only bring relief to the government. However, every day brings news of fresh sections of society coming out against the PM. The latest in this category is the Lahore High Court Bar Association, which has demanded the PM’s resignation within a week or it would launch a ‘long march’ that would dwarf even the lawyers’ movement of 2007. Critics of the SC verdict have been relying on the two dissenting notes to the judgment, according to which the PM can no longer be considered sadiq or ameen (honest or truthful) in the spirit of Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. The dissenting judges’ reliance on these two controversial insertions, along with so many other distortions introduced in the Constitution by Ziaul Haq that not even the 18th Amendment was able to repeal or reform, stands on weak moral and jurisprudential foundations. Admittedly, the honourable judges are technically correct in asserting that these Articles are part and parcel of the Constitution as it stands, but the terrain of morality implied in these Articles is a grey thicket of uncertain verity. Nevertheless, the strictures on the PM in the dissenting notes would have been sufficient in a genuinely democratic order underlined by ethical principles to persuade the incumbent to resign. In Pakistan, however, our flawed democratic and ethical landscape does not inspire confidence that the high and mighty in our land feel obliged to abide by such considerations. Hence the spirited defence by the government ministers of the PM and his decision to tough it out, the investigation ordered under a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) by the SC notwithstanding, and accompanied by lip service to cooperating with the JIT. Much comment and counter-comment on the SC’s verdict has come without their authors having taken the trouble to go through the over 500-page judgement, a formidable task at best. Nevertheless, even before a detailed reading of the judgement, certain preliminary conclusions seem inescapable. The PM and his family (and therefore by extrapolation the PML-N government) stand mauled and on the back foot, even if the evidence presented by the petitioners against the respondents proved insufficient for the court to come to a definitive conclusion. But the post-verdict process the SC has set in motion has more than its share of inherent difficulties and obstacles. The civilian agencies named as part of the JIT lack the expertise for such a complex, multi-layered investigation with both domestic and international parameters. The egregious inclusion of the military intelligence agencies in the JIT is of a piece with the growing tendency generally to drag the military into each and every national issue, with precious little likely to be available from them either in terms of expertise in such technically complicated matters. Some critics have latched onto the reservations about the civilian agencies in the JIT being unable to properly investigate their ‘boss’, while others are fishing for the replacement of the JIT by a judicial commission, a desire unlikely to be fulfilled at this stage. While the JIT’s complicated attempts at a satisfactory investigation of the allegations against the PM and his family of money laundering and acquiring foreign assets without a satisfactory explanation regarding the source of funds, much water is likely to flow down the Indus. In the process, with protests and opposition mounting and spilling out onto the streets, the prospect of a paralysis of governance looms. The PM, his family, the ruling party and the country may be better served by the PM himself calling an early election to seek a fresh mandate from the electorate, one that will not free him of the investigation, but at least provide him a more solid foundation morally and politically to remain in office and govern.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 20, 2017

Ehsanullah Ehsan’s surrender DG ISPR Major General Asif Ghafoor revealed during a media briefing regarding Operation Raddul Fassad on April 17 that Ehsanullah Ehsan, the erstwhile spokesman of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and one of the top founding leaders of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a breakaway, brutal group that at one point aligned itself with Islamic State (IS) but then returned to TTP’s fold while retaining its independent identity, had surrendered to the security forces. He did not however, say when and in what circumstances Ehsan had turned himself in, confining himself to the statement that more would be revealed once investigations were complete. One set of speculations suggests Ehsan has been in military custody since February this year when the army responded to a string of terrorist attacks claimed by JuA by shelling militant hideouts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where Ehsan was believed to have been hiding. COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa had hinted recently while visiting troops in FATA that a high value target was in custody. The other set of speculations centre around the reported surrender of eight JuA commanders in April. This was revealed by ISPR on April 3 but only three names were revealed, none of which was Ehsan. Whether he was amongst that eight, believed to have surrendered after differences with the JuA leadership, or came in from the cold later is not known. Whatever the circumstances of Ehsan’s surrender, there is little doubt that it is indeed a high profile success. The JuA has proved to be one of the most brutal terrorist groups. Since its formation three years ago, it has carried out 120 terrorist attacks. The fact that eight commanders of the outfit, plus arguably their spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan, have surrendered is encouraging. However, this success cannot hide the uneven results in efforts to capture or eliminate senior terrorist leaders. Obviously the porous nature of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has not helped. The TTP and its leader Mullah Fazlullah are ensconced in safe havens on the other side of the border, out of reach of the Afghan forces and under the protection of the Haqqani network. Mullah Fazlullah has managed so far to escape the fate of his predecessors, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakeemullah Mehsud, both of whom were killed in drone strikes. Now, given the reality of Operation Zarb-e-Azb having forced the terrorists to retreat from their longstanding safe havens and bases in FATA into Afghan territory, there is no escape from Pakistan and Afghanistan eschewing their perennial blame game regarding their separate hostile groups being based in the other’s territory and learning to cooperate if terrorism in both countries is to be eliminated. Historically, Pakistan has more to answer for, starting from the Mujahideen enterprise, through the early Taliban to the present Taliban reportedly based on Pakistani soil. Although this and the use of such forces as proxies has been denied by COAS General Bajwa in a meeting with the visiting US National Security Adviser McMaster, this denial has few takers in the region or beyond. Since the TTP relocated to Afghanistan, Pakistan has been crying itself hoarse about the threat from these elements based just across the border and been blaming Kabul for not doing something against them that it may not be in a position to do. This zero-sum blame game is not helping either country. Instead, it would be far wiser to continue efforts to nudge the Afghan Taliban based on our soil to the negotiating table with Kabul while coordinating ‘hammer and anvil’ operations with the Afghan forces to take on all terrorist groups on both sides of the border.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 19, 2017

‘Sultan’ triumphant Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has triumphed by the narrowest of margins in the referendum to change the country’s political system to a presidential one, granting him sweeping powers to consolidate his rule and, in the eyes of his critics, alter the basic secular principles of the country’s founding father, Kemal Ataturk. Erdogan’s margin of victory was 51.41 percent for and 48.59 percent against, an outcome that has elicited cries of foul from the opposition, which charges the election commission with changing the rules in the middle of the game. They are demanding a recount of at least 37 percent of the votes cast. European Union (EU) monitors have also expressed reservations about the conduct of the referendum, characterizing it as having been held in an “unfair environment”. The EU is for an investigation into alleged irregularities, including the acceptance of ballot papers without an official stamp at the last moment. Two and a half million irregular votes were cast/counted as a result, a critical number since the margin of Erdogan’s victory was only about 1.3 million votes. Turkey presents the picture of a divided country and society, support for Erdogan coming mostly from the rural areas. The big cities, including Istanbul, the birthplace of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), voted by a majority against the 18-point package of constitutional and other changes to the existing hybrid of a presidential and parliamentary system. The prime minister’s office is to be abolished. The ‘No’ vote was in front in 33 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, especially in the cities. Those observers who may have hoped that Erdogan in victory would change course from the aggressive campaign line he has been taking against foreign ‘enemies’ and internal ‘traitors’ towards a more reconciliatory and inclusive approach are likely to be disappointed. Erdogan shows no signs of toning down his rhetoric. This aggressive approach has been in evidence since the failed military coup of July 2016, a foolhardy attempt crushed by citizens irrespective of which side of the political divide they belong. This citizens’ broad resistance has to be seen in the context of Turkey’s history of military coups and regimes in the past, a track record weakened by Erdogan’s AKP being in power since 2002, during which period he is credited with catapulting Turkey through rapid economic development into the front ranks of emerging markets today. Yet even Erdogan’s ardent admirers were stunned by the widespread crackdown against real and imagined authors of the coup, with centre-stage being accorded to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen and his actual or suspected supporters. The frenzied purge saw almost 100,000 people jailed, including generals, teachers, journalists, et al, with thousands more sacked from their jobs. Erdogan and the AKP still need to win the 2019 elections at a time when the closeness of the referendum vote and the allegations and accusations of it being an unfair process are in the air and creating uncertainty about the future. Two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) have decided to challenge the result, despite Erdogan’s warning to the opposition as a whole not to question the veracity of his victory. Meanwhile, betraying his frustration and ire at the stillborn bid even after many years of efforts by Turkey to join the EU, Erdogan has threatened to reintroduce the death penalty, one of the original conditions for EU membership. If Erdogan carries through on this threat, that would effectively doom any chance Turkey may still have had to enter the hallowed portals of the EU. In all likelihood, Erdogan, whether he implements his death penalty threat or not, is likely to adopt a ‘look east’ policy after turning his back on a Europe that has been dragging its feet over Turkish membership for years. Not only is the parliamentary opposition, bureaucracy, judiciary, military and media on the receiving end of Erdogan’s post-coup ire, the lingering problem of the Kurds still awaits a decision whether to try and resolve the conflict through talks or go all out to destroy the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), struggling for Kurdish autonomy. Unless Erdogan softens his tone and actions against all comers, Turkey seems headed for more internal discord and even conflict. Given the sensitive situation in the region and on its southern borders, Turkey may find itself squeezed by all these factors in the days ahead.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Business Recorder Column April 17, 2017

Trumpism in our times Rashed Rahman The initial alarm about what a Trump presidency may turn out to mean for the US and the world turns out to have been premature in some respects, while indirectly spot on in others. Fears had been voiced after Donald Trump took office that he would, under advice from some of his extremist right wing advisers who helped him win the election, often on outrageous positions, alter the political system of the US along the lines of a neofascist order. By this was meant attempts to erode the constitutional separation of powers that is the historical legacy of the US and reordering the executive, legislature and judiciary to conform to his most extreme positions. This alarm has certainly turned out to be premature and perhaps overblown. The inherent strength of constitutional provisions and conventions in the US’s democratic system now appear to be reasserting themselves, with Trump increasingly being described as a president reversing or moderating many of his outlandish positions and campaign promises to veer more towards a centrist course. This of course applies more to domestic policy. On the foreign policy front, Trump the candidate who promised no new wars abroad, launched attacks against Yemen and Syria and used for the first time the biggest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal, the MOAB, in Afghanistan. In this, Trump’s trajectory mirrors his predecessor Barack Obama’s, who came to office as a ‘peace’ candidate wanting to end the US involvement in the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq begun by his predecessor George Bush, but left office last year having failed to stop the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan despite the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops while starting two new wars in Libya and Syria. In both Obama and Trump’s case, both incumbents soon after taking office learnt the power of the ‘permanent’ government, the defence, security and foreign office establishment. They both had, therefore, to modify their campaign rhetoric and promises in the light of the advice from this ‘permanent’ government. Of course, Obama’s is a story past, while Trump’s is still a work in progress. Nevertheless, the pattern is unmistakable. The alarm amongst the worse targets of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, i.e. immigrants, women, blacks, etc, manifested itself simultaneously with his taking office this year when protests against his presidency simmered all over the US, led initially by the women’s mobilisation on the day of his inauguration. Currently protests continue throughout the country on the issue of Donald Trump steadfastly refusing to make his tax returns public, a demand for transparency that is not a legal obligation but has evolved as the norm for incoming presidents in recent years. Trump has reversed himself or adopted a modified course on domestic and international economic policies by taking, for example, a softer line on reappointing Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen after trashing her last year. He has embraced the Export-Import Bank that he mocked last year. The Bank is despised by conservatives as an example of crony capitalism that mainly helps a few large companies. Now the ‘re-educated’ Trump praises it as “a very good thing” that helps lots of small companies too. Obama’s Affordable Care Act has proved difficult to abolish, as Trump had threatened. After meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump says he will no longer characterize China as a ‘currency manipulator’ and welcomed Beijing’s help to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula. Abandoning his rhetoric on being a president of the US and not of the entire world (i.e. a global policeman), he has intervened directly militarily in the Yemen and Syrian civil wars and sent a shot across North Korea and all other enemies’ bow by unleashing the MOAB in Afghanistan. This more muscular foreign military policy is in sharp contrast to his pledge to retreat into solation in the interests of reviving the fortunes of the US. Trump today presides over the declining economic power and influence of the US in the world. This economic decline is not reflected in the military field, where the US’s military might is greater than the rest of the world combined. This gives the US the character of a military colossus with (economic) feet of clay. A very dangerous combination, since it throws up the temptation to try and resolve all problems through overwhelming military force, even when some situations do not lend themselves to such a course. One has only to recall the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, all owed to direct or indirect US military intervention, to see the truth of this argument. If then, declining US power is sought to be reversed through military, economic and financial muscle, the tendency to seek to overcome domestic roadblocks to the will of the incumbent can produce not just the anarchy and chaos on display in the executive appointments field, but the almost inevitable sobering up of Trump the candidate and his transformation into Trump the president, a costly but necessary learning curve. On the foreign front, the temptation to rely on the language of weapons rather than the weapon of language constantly runs up against the complexities of the post-Cold War world, in which Trump is only just recognizing, and reversing himself on for example, relations with Russia (for the worse), China (mutual economic advantage asserting itself), NATO (“no longer obsolete”, he says), and a whole raft of simplistic notions being turned on their head by reality. But the possibility of Trump either failing to fully comprehend the complexities of a dangerous situation such as that with North Korea or attempting to reduce it to the gung-hop simplicity of a global militarist view, and the uncertainty it engenders at the hands of the most powerful man in the world with his finger on the nuclear button and by now well established erraticism, reversals and flip-flops in policy is a frightening prospect for a world already poised on the edge of tipping over into madness.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 15, 2017

Disrespect to parliament Things have reached a pretty pass when an upright Chairman of the Senate, known to be a strict adherent of the rules, becomes so angry and frustrated with a government seemingly bent upon ignoring the upper house of parliament. The issue is the regular absence of ministers from the Senate’s proceedings and the concomitant difficulty in conducting the business of the house, particularly in obtaining answers to questions raised by the members of the Senate. Chairman Senate Raza Rabbani has been raising the issue of the absence of ministers and the problem of either not being able to obtain answers to questions raised in the house or at best receiving partial, unsatisfactory answers. But all his pleas and strictures have fallen on the deaf ears of the PML-N government. Actually, since the Leader of the House, the prime minister, rarely graces parliament with his presence, is it any surprise his ministers follow suit? A fish, they say, rots from the head. And there is plenty rotten in the attitude of the government towards parliament generally, but particularly towards the Senate. The reason is not far to seek. In the National Assembly, the ruling PML-N has its own party man as Speaker, who has not only tolerated but covered up the government and its ministers’ behaviour. The Senate presents a different picture. The combined opposition in the Senate has a majority and Chairman Raza Rabbani is from the PPP, although he has proved a non-partisan chair. For such a person to be driven, as Raza Rabbani was on April 14, to invoke his special powers under Rule 23 (2) of the Senate rules to adjourn the house sine die and threaten to resign speaks volumes about the indifference and apathy of the treasury benches towards the Senate, the house of the federation with equal representation of all the provinces. The long brewing crisis that has come to a head now has emerged at a particularly sensitive time. Pakistan’s political landscape has evolved along the lines of a fractured mandate, with different parties holding power in at least two provinces (Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), a coalition headed by the PML-N in Balochistan, and the PML-N in power at the Centre through its hold on Punjab. Conflict is inherent in such a scenario and has emerged between the provinces and the Centre on issues such as water, electricity, gas (the six year old moratorium on new gas connections has just been lifted by the government in what is being seen as a motivated move with the forthcoming elections in mind). The government’s cavalier attitude to Question Hour, one of the most important parliamentary avenues for holding the government to account, betrays a philistine attitude to democracy and parliament beyond description. Belated attempts by Justice and Law Minister Zahid Hamid in the Senate and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar outside the house to persuade Raza Rabbani to change his declared intent to stop working and resign failed. With the Senate adjourned sine die, we confront nothing less than a constitutional crisis brought on by the sheer neglect of the treasury benches towards the respect and dignity parliament deserves. Ignoring parliament weakens our still young democracy, arguably making civilian supremacy that much harder. The government, particularly the prime minister, need to wake up to their responsibilities vis-a-vis making parliament’s functioning efficacious, thereby strengthening elected institutions and consolidating democracy. The short sightedness of the government in undermining the very institution that confers legitimacy on their rule can only be described as myopic and a reflection of the PML-N leadership having learnt no lessons from the past.

Business Recorder Editorial April 12, 2017

PTI’s electoral reform proposals The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) members of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms have submitted their proposals to its sub-committee tasked with finalising changes in the laws to ensure free, fair and transparent elections in future. The last elections in 2013 produced in their wake a raft of allegations and accusations by PTI regarding ‘rigging’ in the polls, but it was a case they were unable to present convincingly. Objective observers were inclined to see the PTI’s complaints of being ‘robbed’ of victory more as hype or self-deluded unrealistic expectations based on the party having convinced itself of its victory even before the polls, based on the undoubted momentum the party had acquired since 2011. Nevertheless, any election is only credible beyond doubt when all stakeholders accept its overall results. That then constitutes the starting point of a stable democratic system. The proposals of the PTI centre on procedural changes as well as basic alterations requiring a constitutional amendment. According to Law Minister Zahid Hamid, the former would be discussed in the sub-committee and the latter referred to the main parliamentary committee. One of the fundamental proposals requiring a constitutional amendment seeks the transfer of the process regarding the appointment of a caretaker government from the consensus between the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly to a parliamentary committee having representation of all the political parties in parliament, with 50 percent representation of the treasury benches and 50 percent of the opposition, proportional to their strength in parliament. And the same should be the case in the provinces. Apart from the increase in breadth and depth of representation in this proposal, it has to be viewed in the context of the controversy raised by the PTI in 2013 regarding in particular the Punjab caretaker government. In that light, the proposal makes eminent sense as a move towards a caretaker setup that enjoys the support of all parties. The PTI took particular umbrage at the role of the Returning Officers (ROs) in the 2013 polls, accusing them of ‘rigging’. These ROs in 2013 were selected from the lower judiciary, but failed to satisfy everyone of their objectivity and fair conduct of the elections. The PTI therefore proposes that ROs in future be drawn from all the services, enjoy a good repute, and comprise officers of not less than grade-19. There is no quibble with this suggestion, except perhaps for the suggestion that ROs also be taken from the military, which should be deployed inside and outside all polling stations, accompany presiding officers transporting polling bags from the polling stations to the ROs’ offices and be present inside the ROs’ offices till the completion of the results. This proposal unnecessarily wishes to drag the military once again into a political role, an idea that is neither good for democracy nor for the military itself. On the other hand the PTI’s proposal to use electronic voting machines to avoid stuffing of ballot papers and other malpractices sounds attractive so long as the technical side is satisfactorily handled. The PTI also wants biometric verification of all voters before the issue of ballot papers. Electronic voting could also help the eight million Pakistani expatriates qualified to vote to exercise their right. Political gatherings, car rallies and loudspeakers constitute an integral part of election campaigns and should therefore, in the PTI’s view, be allowed. Only the prime minister, chief ministers, ministers, mayors and other holders of public office should be barred from campaigning, but this bar should not be extended to MNAs/MPAs as they do not hold public office in the PTI’s perception. Surprisingly, the PTI wants the secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to be a retired person not more than 65 years old. This sounds anomalous since many posts allow retirement at 65. He should, the PTI suggests, be appointed by the ECP itself and not the government. ECP members should be appointed by a parliamentary committee on the same lines as suggested above regarding caretaker governments. No fresh projects/schemes should be initiated by the local governments after the announcement of the date of general elections till the polls are completed. The thrust of the PTI’s proposals point to the need for an autonomous, strong, financially and administratively independent, transparently appointed ECP, which the party considers key to holding free, fair elections whose results would be accepted across the board. The autonomy sought for the ECP includes its internal rules being framed by the ECP itself rather than the executive. The general thrust is positive, even when it reflects the PTI’s grievances, real or imagined, regarding the 2013 elections. Pakistan could take a leaf out of neighbouring countries’ experience in this regard, particularly the incremental empowerment of the election commission in India, which has for long years now obviated charges of rigging or unfairness.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 11, 2017

OIC on Kashmir Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Dr Yusuf Ahmad Al-Othaimeen on his maiden visit to Pakistan has had discussions with Pakistan’s Prime Minister’s Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz on the issues confronting the Muslim world. In a joint press conference in Islamabad with the Adviser, the visiting dignitary revealed that India was declining the OIC’s request for a visit to Indian Held Kashmir (IHK) to assess the human rights situation. However, he went on, we should keep up the pressure on India’s human rights violations in IHK and for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The Kashmir issue was at the top of the OIC’s agenda, he assured. The OIC, he underlined, had the same position as Pakistan, an important member, on Kashmir, Palestine, Islamophobia and the plight of Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries. He thanked Pakistan for supporting the programmes and causes espoused by the OIC. The two sides discussed the holding of the upcoming summit of the OIC on Science and Technology. The Secretary General said the OIC condemns all terrorist acts in Pakistan or any other country. Terrorism is terrorism, he emphasised, it has no race or religion. Islam on the other hand is a religion of peace and co-existence. The two sides vowed to work closely on all issues facing the Muslim Ummah. On the conflict in Syria, Dr Al-Othaimeen was of the view that there were two dimensions -- political and humanitarian. OIC would like a political solution and the mobilisation of support for refugees. He hoped the OIC contact group on refugees would be formed at the next meeting of OIC foreign ministers. The OIC also wants to initiate a dialogue with European countries on the issues faced by Muslims in those countries, since the OIC is in a unique position to play the role of a bridge between those Muslim communities and the host governments. Sartaj Aziz in turn thanked the OIC and Muslim countries for their consistent support on Kashmir. He said he had briefed the Secretary General on the human rights violations in IHK. They agreed to work together to combat Islamophobia and hatred against Muslims and formulate a joint Islamic action against blasphemous material, including on social media. The visit came at a time when four more people were killed during a strike on April 10 in IHK to protest the eight civilians killed and at least a hundred wounded during a weekend by-election. About 100 police and paramilitary personnel were also injured. The Indian army claimed the four killed on April 10 were infiltrators. On Sunday, April 9, protests and clashes had marred a by-election as thousands attacked polling stations. Only seven percent of the nearly 1.3 million voters turned out on polling day. This was the lowest in any election in IHK in five decades. These declining numbers reflect the differing perceptions of pro-freedom parties in the State and India. The former reject elections under Indian occupation. The latter points to polls as proof it is in control in the region. The uprising currently ongoing broke out after the killing of militant commander Burhanuddin Wani by the Indian security forces last year. Since then, violence in IHK has led to 84 civilian deaths and 12,000 civilian and security personnel wounded. Given these grim figures, and despite the bonhomie on display at the joint press conference, the track record of the OIC does not inspire confidence. Despite ritual lip service, the OIC has proved toothless in the face of most if not all the issues confronting the Muslim world, especially Kashmir and Palestine. The reasons are obvious. The OIC merely reflects the divided state of the Muslim world, with differing and sometimes opposed interests paralysing the body’s ability to act effectively. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate anything in this regard has changed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Business Recorder Column April 10, 2017

Constitution Day Rashed Rahman A Constitution both sets out the rules governing the affairs of a state as well as encompasses the compact or social contract between the state and its citizens. The 1973 Constitution is being celebrated under the rubric of Constitution Day in Pakistan these days. Forty-four years after the promulgation of the 1973 Constitution, a look back at the project of agreeing a Constitution in our history presents a cautionary tale. For nine long years after Pakistan came into existence in 1947, the political class represented in the Constituent Assembly manufactured out of the pre-independence elected representatives of the areas that came to constitute the new state (including some whose constituencies were left behind in India after Partition) wrestled with the task of framing the basic law of the new state. The debate and arguments used as their foundation the British colonial Government of India Act 1935’s structure, but from that point on, there were as many points of view as protagonists. The religious parties that had opposed the idea of a separate state of Pakistan to be carved out of pre-Partition India now insisted that the new state should be fashioned on the lines of an Islamic state, and that too according to their interpretations, in contradiction with Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947 to the Constituent Assembly in which he declared that religion had nothing to do with the business of the state. After the death of Mr Jinnah, his successor and Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan succumbed to the pressure of the religious parties to include the Objectives Resolution in the preamble of the draft Constitution in 1949, thereby opening the door to the location of religion at the heart of Pakistan’s state philosophy. Despite later changes, for example military dictator Ziaul Haq’s making the Objectives Resolution a substantive part of the Constitution, the debate refuses to die down, especially since the state’s narrative today is heavily loaded in the direction of religion as the legitimizing principle of the state. The movement for Pakistan in pre-Partition India revolved around the rights of the large Muslim community, provincial autonomy and an independent India that would safeguard the interests of undivided India’s religious and ethnic diversity. When the Congress Party failed to show the large heartedness and generosity required to resolve these contentious issues to the satisfaction of the minorities, especially Muslims, all formulae to prevent Partition withered on the vine, including the Cabinet Mission proposals of 1946. Although Partition became inevitable then, the haste suddenly acquired by the British colonialists to quit India led to the chaos, communal massacres and exodus both ways of the greatest migration in human history, leaving a trail of blood and bitterness in its wake that has ever since roiled Pakistan-India relations. Apart from the religious lobby’s considerations, the political class debating the new Constitution between 1947 and 1956 was seized of the issue of the structure of the new state. Federalism was a central plank of the Pakistan movement but after independence, this principle was held hostage by undemocratic stances. Admittedly, the new state presented some knotty problems. For one, the western and eastern wings of the country were physically separated by about 1,000 miles of hostile Indian territory. East Pakistan had a majority of the population of Pakistan and on the basis of the democratic principle of one man one vote, should have been accorded a concomitant majority of seats in parliament. However, the post-colonial state and its dominant institutions the military and bureaucracy, with support from vested interest politicians from West Pakistan, wished to deny East Pakistan a ‘permanent’ majority that would militate against their grip on power. Thus the 1956 Constitution abolished the historically received provinces of West Pakistan by merging them into One Unit, and depreciated East Pakistan’s representation through the device of ‘parity’, i.e. according the two wings, with unequal populations, an equal number of seats in parliament. Naturally this construct worked in favour of the western wing and the powerful state institutions backing this scheme. However, it had two profound consequences. One, it alienated the people of the smaller provinces of the west wing, provoking rebellions in Balochistan (armed), Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (political). Apart from parity, East Pakistan was incrementally alienated by the extraction of economic surpluses from it to favour West Pakistan’s development as well as the perception after the 1965 war with India that the eastern wing could not be sanguine about its defence. In the two years the 1956 Constitution remained in existence, governments (about 11) fell every other day like nine pins until the 1958 military coup by General Ayub Khan abrogated the Constitution. Ayub’s coup further aggravated the political divide and grievances of the smaller provinces subsumed in One Unit in the west wing and the alienation of the eastern wing. Ayub’s 1962 Constitution was a radically different kettle of fish. It brought in an executive presidency elected by a new electoral college called Basic Democrats, who proved to be a malleable lot. That edifice collapsed in the face of the 1968-69 movement against the Ayub dictatorship, ushering in a seemingly more conciliatory Yahya military regime that undid One Unit and restored one man one vote for the forthcoming 1970 elections. Those decisions brought to the fore all the pent-up grievances in both wings, leading to the divide being reflected in the electoral results that gave Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League a majority culled entirely from East Pakistan. The Yahya regime went back on its own commitments, refused to call a session of the National Assembly that would have anointed Sheikh Mujib as the prime minister, and launched a bloody military repression in East Pakistan. The rest, as they say, is history. It is in this backdrop that the Bhutto regime first tried to pick up the pieces of a broken, defeated country by winning over the opposition regarding the state’s constitutional construct. However, as soon as he had consolidated his power, Bhutto turned on the opposition as well as the Left inside his own party and government. The ‘consensus’ 1973 Constitution did not carry the imprimatur of one federating unit. Balochistan’s elected leadership refused to endorse the Constitution over dissatisfaction with its provincial autonomy provisions. They were rewarded with dismissal of the Sardar Ataullah government in Balochistan in February 1973, and with the wholesale arrest of the Baloch leadership the day after the promulgation of the constitution on August 14, 1973 by suspending fundamental rights. These rights remained suspended throughout the Bhutto regime and its successor Zia dictatorship. Since 1988, there has been a steady and incremental expansion of the democratic space in a country afflicted with military regimes for almost half its existence. Although the Musharraf military coup of 1999 was an aberration, he had to maintain the façade of democracy to maintain his hold on power. After democracy was restored in 2008, amendments to the Constitution present a mixed picture. Whereas the 18th amendment made major strides in the direction of enhanced provincial autonomy, it failed to undo some of the most controversial amendments of the past. Throughout its existence, the provisions of the 1973 Constitution related to political, economic and social rights of the people continue to be practiced more in the breach. This reflects the truth that democracy by itself does not deliver anything. It is the enabling construct that facilitates moving state and society in the direction of according the people their rights. For that, strong and effective political movements are required to ring in the required changes. At present, this seems like a far fetched dream. However, the dialectic of history is quietly at work. Sooner or later, the present order and its certainties can be, in fact will be, challenged.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 8, 2017

Dangerous escalation US President Donald Trump’s decision to unleash 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles on the Shayrat Syrian air base in retaliation for the alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian air force in Khan Sheikhun village near the city of Homs is a dangerous escalation in US intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is also the first direct assault by the US on Bashar al Assad’s government. For the last six years, the US has been waging a proxy war against that government through jihadi extremist groups. When the Syrian chemical weapons crisis came to a head in 2013, Russia helped broker and then oversee an agreement to eliminate the country’s chemical weapons. Since then, Bashar al Assad’s fortunes have definitely taken a turn for the better. The Russian intervention to bolster the government has turned the tide of battle in favour of Bashar al Assad and until this missile strike, had even persuaded the Trump administration to announce that the objective of overthrowing Bashar al Assad was no longer on Washington’s agenda. Three things are troubling about the US’s unilateral assault on Syria. First, the responsibility for what happened in Khan Sheikhun is not clear. Washington and its western allies have jumped the gun by accusing the Syrian government, which has denied it. Damascus’s ally Russia has claimed the chemicals were stored by the rebels hit in the air strikes. Even before this issue was settled and evidence obtained, Trump decided to strike, prompting the Bolivian Ambassador Sacha Lorenti, whose country had called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the wake of Trump’s attack, to state that the US behaved like “investigator, attorney, judge and executioner”. The world however proved divided over the Trump action. The US’s western allies sided with Washington. Equally predictably, Russia and Iran condemned the attack as a flagrant violation of international law and naked aggression against a sovereign country. The Muslim world too paralleled the general picture by its divide for and against the US’s unilateralism. Perhaps most dangerously, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev revealed that the US strikes brought Washington and Moscow one step away from a military clash. The Shayrat airbase houses Russian special forces and military helicopters in support of Damascus’ campaign against the opposition groups trying to overthrown al Assad’s government. The revelation is doubly significant in that the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, while defending her government’s actions, threatened the possibility of more such actions if found necessary. Washington’s efforts to overthrow al Assad through extremist proxies having been reversed by Russian intervention on Damascus’s side, Trump’s assault signals the possibility of the US assuming a direct military role in the Syrian war. This course carries within it the seeds od a possible clash with Russia. As it is Moscow decided after President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with his security council to scrap the October 2015 agreement with Washington on avoidance of conflict in Syrian airspace between the two powers. The communication line with the Pentagon has been shut down by Moscow. The world is thus poised once again with bated breath at the prospect of tensions and even conflict between the two great powers. In the light of these developments, our involvement with the Saudi-led Muslim military alliance against terrorism, with the command in the hands of former COAS General Raheel Sharif threatens to insert us into the uncomfortable space in the middle of the Middle Eastern sectarian wars, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If the words of the Imaam-i-Kaaba are heeded not to fan sectarianism and divisiveness amongst Muslims, Pakistan, the region and the Muslim world could possibly save themselves from being torn apart on sectarian lines.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 4, 2017

Haste makes waste A five-member Supreme Court (SC) bench headed by Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan has decided to hold day-to-day hearings into the five identical appeals filed by the Punjab government, Lahore Development Authority, Punjab Mass Transit Authority and National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) against the Lahore High Court (LHC) August 19, 2016 suspension of construction work within 200 feet of 11 heritage sites along the route of the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project in Lahore. These sites are: Shalimar Gardens, Gulabi Bagh Gateway, Buddhu ka Awa, Chauburji, Zebunnisa’s tomb, Lakshmi Building, General Post Office, Aiwan-i-Auqaf, the SC’s Lahore registry, Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church and Baba Mauj Darya Bukhari’s shrine. On April 3, 2017, the SC observed that it was not averse to infrastructure development, but there can be no contravention of the law. Heritage sites are protected under the Antiquities Act 1975 and Punjab Special Premises Preservation Ordinance 1985. The government side pulled out all the stops, including a video documentary on the project, to convince the court that no damage to the sites had occurred during construction and constant monitoring would be carried out for damage due to vibrations during the operation of the OLMT. Their counsel even went so far as to assure the court that if any damage did occur despite all these precautions, the sites would be “reconstructed”! Nothing betrays the government’s philistine attitude to cultural heritage better than this statement. As it is, Empress Noor Jahan’s tomb in Lahore has been ‘reconstructed’ again and again! Not to mention the cavalier manner in which remodeling and paving of GT Road had destroyed the water fountain system of the Shalimar Gardens during Shahbaz Sharif’s first tenure as chief minister in the 1990s. It was left to Justice Azmat Saeed to point out to the government philistines that “Nations that preserve their past have a future.” Architect and civil society activist Kamil Khan Mumtaz had filed the original petition in the LHC that resulted in the stay order now being appealed in the SC. The government’s counsel marshalled the technical and environment assessment reports produced by the government’s institutions (including some of the petitioners in the SC) to try and convince the court that all aspects had been looked at and revisited to ensure the heritage sites would be safe, including no visual impairment. Justice Azmat Saeed had to remind the government’s counsel that these assertions were contradicted by independent experts. On October 14, 2016, the SC had appointed a commission comprising independent technical experts to re-verify NESPAK’s report on the vibrations issue, which had given the project a clean chit regarding these concerns. Professor Robin Coningham, one of the international experts on the commission, raised several objections to the NESPAK report, amongst which he had pointed out that the OLMT route contravened clause 22 of the Antiquities Act 1975 that prohibited construction within 200 feet of a protected immovable antiquity. He had also underlined that the route flouted clause 23 of the same Act, which barred placing of neon signs, advertisements, signage, poles, etc, near such sites. The counsel for civil society brought to the notice of the court that the federal government was dragging its feet over providing visas to UNESCO experts who wanted to visit the project. If the government is so confident it has nothing to hide, why this reluctance? The government reverts again and again to the increased cost of any changes to the OLMT design and route. But surely this is a self-inflicted wound brought on by a hasty, ill-planned, driven by political and electoral considerations, oblivious of the value of heritage approach. The Punjab government is not known to brook dissent with any grace. It is also guilty of either ignoring public sentiment or views about Lahore’s treatment, in which public hearings on major projects such as the OLMT are either conspicuous by their absence or perfunctory going through the motions for public consumption, after which the concerns of citizens are thrown into the dustbin. Lahore has already been raped by massive infrastructure projects such as road widening (no panacea for looming traffic gridlock), Metro Bus, road engineering that has not eased congestion, and now the OLMT that not only threatens our heritage, it has ridden roughshod over poor communities residing or having businesses in Lahore’s localities along the route with no adequate compensation. Haste, as the old aphorism goes, makes waste. But the irresponsible manner in which the Punjab government uses public funds without caring a fig for citizens’ concerns is hardly a model of good, democratic governance.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Business Recorder Column April 3, 2017

Disquiet over IMAFT Rashed Rahman The government, after humming and hawing for months, has finally admitted that it is part of the Saudi-led coalition dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), with former COAS General Raheel Sharif poised to take up the command of the alliance. This development has aroused considerable disquiet amongst informed observers about the implications of Pakistan setting foot in the ongoing Middle Eastern quagmire. It may be recalled that two years ago, Saudi Arabia and its ally the UAE requested Pakistan to commit troops in their bloody struggle against the Houthi militia in Yemen. The Houthis are supported by Iran, an alignment that mirrors the Saudi-Iranian conflict going on in other parts of the region, especially Syria. The Saudis in time-tested fashion are in the forefront of the west’s adventures in the region. They are on the frontlines in Yemen and backing pro-west fundamentalist militias in Syria, while claiming that they are fighting Islamic State (IS). The government has been guilty of dissembling on the issue of Pakistan being part of IMAFT and General Raheel Sharif heading it. Whatever information has been shared by the government has emerged in dribs and drabs, raising serious questions about the course Islamabad has embarked upon. Two years ago, the government took the Saudi-UAE request for troops to parliament, which rejected it on the grounds that Pakistan had no wish to get embroiled in the Yemen or any other Middle Eastern conflict in which it has no stakes and runs the risk of finding itself embroiled in the sectarian wars raging in the region. How has the situation changed since then, permitting the government to override parliament’s will? Neither has the ground situation in Yemen or elsewhere in the conflict zones of the Middle East altered since April 2015 when parliament adopted the resolution against committing troops to Yemen, nor is it clear that the army, General Raheel Sharif’s mother institution, has been taken on board regarding Pakistan’s commitment to IMAFT and giving General Sharif an NOC to assume command of the coalition. Although the government has now (half) admitted its commitment, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif informed us the other day that the IMAFT’s terms of reference and actual deployment of the troops of the 41 Muslim countries named as part of IMAFT have still to be finalised. At the same time the Foreign Office spokesman seeks to mollify our concerns by asserting that despite joining IMAFT, Pakistan is still neutral in the Middle East! This is jaw-dropping logic indeed. If the spirit of parliament’s April 2015 resolution rejecting troops to Yemen was informed by reluctance to get embroiled in a sectarian war with seemingly no end in sight, what was the compulsion to override it and commit to IMAFT now? Clearly the open umbrage shown by the UAE at Pakistan’s refusal and the quieter disappointment in Riyadh sat heavy on the minds of the government. The former went so far as to threaten retaliation against Pakistan. Given the number of expat Pakistanis who work in the Gulf, Islamabad was clearly looking for ways and means to mollify our Saudi and UAE ‘brothers’. Hence the halting ‘confession’ now of having committed to the IMAFT course, with General Raheel Sharif thrown in as the ultimate sweetener, given his successes against terrorism in Pakistan during his tenure. The IMAFT only exists on paper or in the imagination of the Saudis so far. Its ostensible purpose is to fight terrorism, but stripped of the verbiage, it is obvious that the exclusion of about two dozen Muslim countries, including Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan (all ‘neutral’ vis-à-vis the conflicts in the Middle East), Iran, Iraq, Syria (Shia or Shia-dominated Arab countries) and Algeria (a progressive Arab nationalist country aligned with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in support of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad) betrays the real aims, targets and purposes of IMAFT. These appear to include crushing the Houthis in Yemen (viewed by the Saudis as Iranian surrogates), supporting the pro-west fundamentalist militias fighting Assad’s regime (the so-called ‘moderate’ opposition) while paying lip service to fighting IS. A concomitant and complicating factor in the Syrian conflict is the Kurd factor. The US, the doyen of support to the anti-Assad (non-IS) militias, has shown a soft corner for the Kurdish YPG militia that has proved one of the more effective groups against IS. This tactical and transactional policy towards the Syrian Kurds is not replicated in the case of the Turkish Kurds (PKK), who are being pummelled by Erdogan’s government without let, hindrance or a squeak from Washington. Pakistan’s stepping into the Middle Eastern quagmire threatens not only to drag us into interminable wars at a time when we have our hands full at home with the struggle against terrorism, it also portends a possible escalation of the sectarian conflict already tearing our society apart. There are sectarian terrorist groups operating in Pakistan that openly declare they wish to ‘cleanse’ Pakistan of all Shias. These groups are also responsible for massacring the lawyers’ community in Quetta last year. For both external and internal reasons therefore, any involvement in the Middle East cauldron would be dangerous, risky, liable to trap us in a sectarian quagmire and exacerbate sectarian conflict at home. And to what advantage or benefit? At best simply keeping the Saudis and the UAE happy and their largesse flowing. Not much of a cost-benefit equation there. Iran is portrayed by the Saudis and their allies as the author of attempts to change the political landscape of the Middle East in its (i.e. Shia) favour. Propaganda aside, it is the Saudis and their Arab allies that laid the foundations of fundamentalist terrorism in the region by backing and funding armed warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan initially, and then further abroad. If we have learnt any lessons from our involvement in military alliances with the west in the past, i.e. that they failed to serve any conceivable Pakistani interest, should we not now be wary of being dragged into sectarian wars at home and in the region by hitching our horses to the Saudi bandwagon and shooting ourselves in the foot in the process?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Business Recorder editorial April 1, 2017

Brexit launched After 44 years of an often troubled relationship between the European Union (EU) and Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May launched her country’s bid on March 29, 2017 to be the first member of the 28-nation bloc to leave in its 60-year history by triggering Article 50 of the Rome Treaty. Whereas the European project was envisaged by its moving spirits France and Germany to prevent the conflicts that led to two world wars and give the Continent sufficient clout in world affairs, Britain’s late entry in 1973 and subsequent playing out of the relationship reflected the differing perspectives of London and Brussels. As it is, Britain’s entry was in any case no easy task. France’s then president Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed Britain’s entry in 1961 and 1967, seeing London’s bid as a ‘Trojan horse’ for US influence and doubting Britain’s European spirit. Until the 1960s, Britain appeared more committed to its special relationship with the US and the advantages it continued to enjoy from its remaining empire. However, economic difficulties and the further shrinking of colonial possessions persuaded Britain to apply to catch up with France and Germany’s higher economic growth. Whereas economic advantage remained Britain’s primary focus throughout its membership of the EU, the political integration project found few takers across the Channel. In fact, anti-EU membership campaigners and dissidents have often castigated the EU headquarters Brussels as a distant, unelected, bureaucratic ‘super state’ that erodes Britain’s independence. The Brexit campaign may have been focused on preventing free movement of people throughout the EU and Britain to check immigration, but what the pro-European campaign signally failed to do was point out the vast subsidies and grants provided by the EU, although such provision went straight into the public services. The immigration issue may have trumped the considerable considerations of the advantages derived by Britain from membership, such as becoming the dominant hub for the aviation, pharmaceuticals and finance industries amongst others, but even on the touchstone of the ‘transactional’ approach long adopted by London, the referendum to leave did not frame the issues clearly and objectively, leading Britain as a whole into sleepwalking into an own goal. While the two-year negotiation process promises to be a hard slog, given the wide range of issues to be settled, the EU and its leading members are adopting a tough stance to ensure that the pain of departure discourages other EU members from contemplating a similar course. The biggest losses to Britain will be free access to the EU market, Britain’s biggest export destination, and the concomitant shifting of banks and industries ton the Continent to retain their access to the common market. London’s position as the favoured financial, banking, and many industries’ hub will likely unravel if the noises coming out of these sectors are any indication. For a country like Britain, the world’s oldest democracy enjoying an educated and articulate public opinion to be so deluded about the pros and cons of leaving the EU simply shows that previous prime minister David Cameron seriously underestimated the Leave campaign’s appeal for the British traditional ‘island mentality’. But it would not be fair to blame all Britons for this faux pas. Scotland is demanding another independence referendum because it does not want its wagon hitched to a Britain leaving the EU. The border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to its south presents another headache, since if free movement across that border is not maintained, it could threaten the peace process and reinforce emerging calls for a Northern Ireland referendum to join the Irish Republic. Whether the break up of the UK will be one of the catastrophic consequences of an almost unthinking 52 percent vote for Brexit only time and the London-Brussels negotiations will reveal. But even if that does not happen, the cleavages will not be confined to the cross-Channel divide but will reveal themselves in the internal divisiveness in Britain that Brexit has triggered with a vengeance.