Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Business Recorder Column Aug 28, 2018

Opposition disarray, government’s challenges

Rashed Rahman

One month after the July 25, 2018 elections, the process of governments’ formation, cabinet postings, etc, is still playing out. Above this fray, the election for president looms, having exposed the rifts within the opposition Alliance for Free and Fair Elections (AFFE), formed just weeks ago after the controversy surrounding the July 25 polls. That controversy appears to be petering out as a result of a fractured AFFE unable to mount a serious challenge to the outcome of the elections, either inside parliament or on the street. Even the Senate committee headed by Rehman Malik has been left bleating for an independent inquiry into the collapse of the much vaunted Results Transmission System (RTS) on the evening of the polls while the results were being collated.
Unable to agree on a joint candidate for president, the opposition has decided to field two against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) Dr Arif Alvi. The PPP insists on naming Aitzaz Ahsan despite efforts to persuade the party to pick someone more acceptable to the PML-N. Reports speak of PPP Co-chairperson Asif Zardari throwing a spanner in the works by refusing to withdraw Aitzaz’s name or replace him with someone else. Unkind reports even suggest Asif Zardari is taking a hostile posture towards the PML-N because of ‘pressure’ on him from the powers-that-be who have dangled the sword of accountability over his and sister Faryal Talpur’s heads. Despairing of persuading the PPP despite their best efforts, the rest of the AFFE parties have put up Maulana Fazlur Rehman, perhaps in a belated effort to compensate him for being ousted from his home National Assembly constituency in Dera Ismail Khan. On the basis of the strengths of the two (or three) sides in the president’s electoral college consisting of the houses of parliament and  the provincial Assemblies, the Maulana may face ignominy once again (in company with Aitzaz).
The confusion, u-turns and  contradictory statements  and  stances flowing from the PTI regarding cabinet and  gubernatorial posts (the latest being the on-again-off-again nomination of Dr Ameer Mohammad Khan Jogezai as Balochistan Governor) indicate the absence of, and the critical need for, parties while in opposition to form shadow cabinets as is done in most mature democracies. The members of such shadow cabinets become or already are experts in the field assigned to them. This obviates  delays  after elections in forming governments, assigning cabinet portfolios, and  getting on with the business of governance, which brooks no delay.
The cabinets  formed so far by the PTI at the Centre, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab (the last in process while these lines are being written) seem heavily loaded in favour of members of the Pervez Musharraf regime or its King’s Party, the PML-Q. This indicates a continuity from the time in the early 2000s when Imran Khan was seeking the beneficence of the military dictator to become prime minister with just one seat in the 2002 elections. The more things ‘change’, the more they remain the same (French proverb).
The PTI’s austerity drive and abolishing VIP privileges (such as the latest decision to do away with such privileges at airports) are populist, popular measures that will take the government so far and no further. Then the weight of expectations from a government promising change will kick in. To satisfy these aspirations will require more substance than merely superficial but popular moves.
The PTI government’s gaffes during the first few days in office are piling up. First and foremost came the foreign policy instances of a comedy of errors. Indian Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s congratulatory phone call to PM Imran Khan was read by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi as an invitation to talks, an interpretation roundly scotched by New Delhi. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s similar purpose call to our PM generated a spat on what was and was not said (vis-à-vis terrorists operating on Pakistan’s soil). There is confusion whether PM Imran Khan will take the opportunity to interact with world leaders by attending (and addressing) the UN General Assembly session in September, given that the PM has vowed not to undertake any foreign tours for at least three months. Austerity is good, but the business of advocating the state’s interests on a global stage must take priority, rationally.
The government will have to take note of the sudden incremental rise in street crime in Karachi, Lahore and other cities in the wake of the elections. This phenomenon could be hardened criminals taking advantage of the ‘gap’ between the caretaker governments’ departure and the new administrations kicking in. Or it could be desperate unemployed youth resorting to such means to overcome hunger and deprivation. Of course it could also be a combination of both. While unemployment, hunger and deprivation can only be improved over time, hardened criminals do have to be brought to book. Unfortunately, the increasing ‘militarisation’ of our police forces has rendered them trigger-happy to the point almost of posing an existential threat to innocent citizens caught in the crossfire between the police and criminals in crowded venues. And of course the long standing problem of deaths in police ‘encounters’ (read extra-legal executions) remains unresolved in the absence of any meaningful checks on a police freed from control by Musharraf’s Plato (General Naqvi) since 2002.
Shireen Mazari’s choice as federal Human Rights Minister has surprised most people, not just the human rights advocacy community. One could search far and long for any statement or action by her during her (by now) long career in politics on issues of this nature. It is good however, that one of her first acts after assuming office was to take notice of the mistreatment of a young woman by the staff of a Darul Aman. But don’t hold your breath that the honourable minister will also address the latest attack on a place of worship of our Ahmedi citizens in the Ghaseet Pura area of Faisalabad. No doubt she would prefer to steer clear of this hot potato, based on what the previous PML-N government had to suffer at the hands of the Tehreek-e-Labaiq Pakistan. Human rights are indivisible however. The sooner Ms Mazari learns this prickly but essential truth the better. Or the option of some other portfolio awaits.
The diverse constituents of any political party mask the core interests it represents. These core interests can only be understood if a class analysis of the political party in question is conducted. In the case of the three political parties that now constitute what is being dubbed our three-party system, they represent discrete class interests. The PPP has been reduced to the party of the feudal landowners (called Waderas in Sindh, where it now stands virtually confined). The PML-N has never hidden the constituency of traders, businessmen and industrial capitalists whose interests it promotes over all else. The new kid on the block, the PTI, has given voice, agency and power to the rising urban middle class in our society. All three can now be rightly described as right wing. This three-cornered class struggle is likely to determine our foreseeable future in the absence so far of a credible and effective Left alternative that can pitch the interests of the working masses to a wider audience.


Monday, August 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Aug 28, 2018

Inauspicious beginning

An unseemly spat has broken out between Pakistan and the US to add to the already existing strains in the two countries’ relationship. A congratulatory phone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan ended up with both sides portraying what was said during the conversation from divergent viewpoints. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and his ministry seemed to go into overdrive to contest the readout of the conversation as reported by the US State Department. According to the latter, Secretary Pompeo raised the importance of Pakistan taking decisive action against all terrorists operating in (or from?) Pakistan. Our Foreign Office contested this version, flatly denying that any such conversation took place during a positive first contact between the top US diplomat and the new Pakistani PM. With the State Department sticking to its guns and its earlier readout, this latest mini-quarrel only underlines the current distance between the two sides. US President Donald Trump is not known for subtle diplomacy. True to his style, in January 2018 he accused Pakistan of deceit and lies vis-à-vis its support to the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network, including safe havens on Pakistani soil, while pretending to be an ostensible ally of Washington in the War on Terror (WoT). Subsequently, and incrementally, Washington cut off security aid to Pakistan (including reimbursement of expenditures incurred in providing the US a route through Pakistan for supplying its forces in Afghanistan), stopped Pakistani military officers from attending a long standing training arrangement in the US, and broadly rejected any IMF bailout for Pakistan’s struggling economy that might end up paying back Chinese CPEC loans. The Trump administration having revealed its hand and, enjoying as it does a Republican majority in the US Congress, is unlikely to change its approach to dealing with Pakistan. This it will adhere to despite positive noises about working to improve understanding and bilateral ties between the two erstwhile allies with the advent of a new government. Nor should much hope of a turnaround be placed in the mid-term US Congress elections that may whittle down or even reverse the Republicans’ majority, since policy towards Pakistan appears to enjoy bipartisan support in the US currently. President Donald Trump’s legal problems and even talk of impeachment too does not therefore provide Pakistan with much leverage. The recent siege of Ghazni by the Taliban (in which foreign and Pakistani fighters are alleged to have participated) and other attacks throughout Afghanistan did nothing to assuage Washington’s belligerent mood. Although Pompeo’s stopover in Islamabad on September 5, 2018 on his way to India appears to be still on, how the face-to-face conversation will go is a ticklish question.

There was some initial hope that since Imran Khan has long argued that talks with the Taliban are the only solution and the US, after years of resisting the idea, is finally (if fitfully) itself talking to the Taliban, this might provide some convergence in the positions of the two sides. The US in the past, when it was heavily (in terms of troops) invested in the Afghan war, saw Imran Khan as having a soft spot for the insurgents, a perception that earned him the sobriquet ‘Taliban Khan’. His strident condemnation of US drone strikes inside Pakistan and shrill anti-US rhetoric in the context of the Afghanistan conflict and the WoT too did little to endear him to Washington. How far these past perceptions linger in the halls of power in Washington will be tested when Pompeo arrives. Our Foreign Office’s pains to deny the version of Pompeo’s talk with PM Imran Khan may also be motivated by the newly installed PTI-led coalition government not wishing to be seen as bending before US diktat. Be that as it may, Pakistan’s interests do not lie in a continuing confrontation with the US. It remains one of our major trading partners and one of the few countries with which Pakistan enjoys a trade surplus. The US is still the most powerful country in the world with multilateral (IMF, etc) and bilateral clout that Pakistan would not wish to be on the adverse receiving end of. Our sorry past of being a client state of Washington on and off may have run its course but the Pakistan-US relationship now needs to be redefined in terms of each side’s concerns in Afghanistan and how to bring these together, as well as the long term, post-Afghanistan conflict relationship that carries benefits for both sides, but now hopefully as an equal partnership.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Aug 22, 2018

Pak-Afghan fresh war of words

The five-day siege of Ghazni by Taliban attackers was one of the bloodiest battles of the long running Afghan conflict. After declaring the siege broken, government forces have been counting the cost. The toll on the government side is at least 150 soldiers and 95 civilians killed, with an unknown number wounded. The attack underlined the weakness in Kabul’s armour in trying to quell an increasingly effective and bold Taliban guerrilla war. President Ashraf Ghani has visited the city after the fighting ended, although the continuing risk of attacks by Taliban fighters in the vicinity of, or even hiding in the city, was underlined by two rockets fired while the president was visiting, fortunately without any casualties. Ghani congratulated his forces on their victory but his calls for peace talks, reiterated recently while suggesting another ceasefire during the upcoming Eid holidays like the previous Eid ceasefire, now appear less likely to happen any time soon. The siege of Ghazni and the toll of human life and property extracted by the attackers was bad enough. But what has made matters worse in its aftermath is the resurrection of Kabul’s charge that the attack was carried out by the Taliban with the help of foreign elements, amongst whom Pakistanis were also involved. This has naturally raised the temperature between Kabul and Islamabad once again and led to mutual recriminations and a fresh war of words. This exchange was preceded by Awami National Party leader Afrasyab Khattak’s revelation that the bodies of dead Pakistanis killed in the Ghazni fighting have been arriving for burial in Pakistan. Other reports speak of Pakistanis wounded in the Ghazni fighting being treated in our hospitals. COAS General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, to whom President Ashraf Ghani appealed for a response to these reports amidst a reminder of the agreement with General Bajwa on security cooperation, refuted any suggestion of Pakistani involvement and advised Kabul to look within for the source of the trouble. An ISPR statement did say, however, that there are scores of Pakistanis working in Afghanistan who periodically fall prey to terrorist acts and labelling such victims as terrorists is unfortunate. Moreover, the ISPR statement continued, different factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) hiding in Afghanistan, on being killed or injured, are transported to Pakistan for burial or medical help.

Pakistan has been insisting since the military operations in erstwhile FATA that its soil has been cleansed of the presence of all Taliban, Afghan or Pakistani, and the Haqqani Network. This neither Kabul nor the world have bought into. Their counter-narrative makes the distinction between the TTP, which has been expelled across the border, and the Afghan Taliban Shura and Haqqani Network, both of which they say still enjoy safe havens in Pakistan. Be that as it may, a report reveals that an Islamic State (IS) cell was discovered in Dhabeji, Sindh, one of whose members was the suicide bomber in the Mastung atrocity just before the elections that killed 149 people and wounded 300 others. What this shows is that the contagion of terrorism is not confined to the older players in the field, i.e. the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network or the TTP, but has been added to by the emergence of new players. IS has carved out a niche for itself in Afghanistan and Pakistan since being forced to retreat in the face of military defeat in Syria and Iraq. Notably, it is no longer confined to the poorly policed border badlands, but has entrenched itself in various parts of Pakistan, as the Dhabeji report reveals. Counterterrorism officials admit in the context of the Dhabeji cell that IS’s organisational structure is unknown and its ability to reinvent itself through the emergence of new cells when older ones are smashed is worrying. Terrorism has so embedded itself in Pakistan and the broader region that it is sophistry to deny that it poses a common threat to all states. Instead, therefore, of Kabul and Islamabad (and GHQ) falling once again into a futile war of words, blame and accusations, the agreed anti-terrorist framework should be followed to prevent cross-border terrorism (both ways). Only such cooperation can scotch the hydra-headed common terrorist threat.

Column in Business Recorder Aug 21, 2018

Imran Khan’s inaugural address

Rashed Rahman

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan delivered his inaugural address to the nation on August 19, 2018, one day after taking oath of office. Given the occasion, this is perhaps not a day for regurgitating the whole saga surrounding these controversial elections that paved the way for his long held ambition to ascend to power. Instead, in the long cherished tradition of responsible journalism, let us examine what the new PM said, the obstacles in his path, and the difficult task of managing the runaway expectations from him and his government, fuelled and fed as they are by his lofty (acerbic against political rivals) rhetoric.
First and foremost, a toast to the return to good sense and a demeanour that becomes the PM. Unlike his first address immediately after the elections when he sounded positively statesmanlike, Imran Khan lost his cool in reaction to the protest in the first session of the National Assembly by the PML-N and other opposition parties (not the PPP, let it be noted) regarding alleged rigging in the elections. Imran Khan the statesman gave way to Imran Khan the agitator-on-top-of-a-container. If he has cooled down and good sense has returned, as evidenced by his eschewing his trademark attacks on political opponents in his inaugural address, the result is the best proof of the best course for him: sounding positively prime ministerial.
As to the content of his inaugural address, it tries to be all things to all men, but the constraints on well intentioned reforms in various fields and therefore the need to prioritise tasks in order to allocate scarce resources optimally, i.e. a plan, appears conspicuous by its absence. To be fair though, some challenges automatically promote themselves to the top of the new government’s to-do list.
Amongst these frontline contenders, the economy and foreign relations (and the relationship between the two) assumes pride of place. Foreign debt has soared, according to the new PM, from Rs 6,000 billion in 2008 to Rs 28,000 billion in 2018. So much so that according to the PM, the interest on this debt cannot be paid without more borrowing. This is a classic debt trap, in which the borrowing country is unable to service its debt liabilities without further loans. Debt in this situation therefore is more likely to go up exponentially rather than be incrementally retired. While PM Imran Khan and his government go searching for short term solutions, whether through bilateral loans from China and Saudi Arabia or Eurobonds to attract expatriate Pakistanis or (horror of horrors!) returning to the IMF for another bailout, they also need to revisit the structural constraints that condemn the economy because of the model of development being followed to a perpetual and ever increasing debt mountain. Pakistan’s economy at a glance betrays a mixed and somewhat stagnant picture. Agriculture chugs along, with or without incentives. The services sector is the new attraction for some years now, but its contribution to GDP or employment is limited at best. The real crisis is in the industrial sector.
Existing industry, with its leading light textiles leading the debacle, is on the verge of collapse. Apart from lack of incentives (export-oriented amongst them), energy shortages, terrorism and related security issues, and lack of ease in doing business have ensured that both foreign and domestic investors turn away from Pakistan as a destination of choice. In today’s world, the received mantra is private capital providing the engine of the economy. But in Pakistan (and similar developing countries), what do you do when private capital is shy as a whole or in particular, critical, but relatively lower-return-on-capital sectors?
To illustrate the conundrum, with all the reservations and critique of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy in the 1970s and its debacle at the hands of the bureaucrats in whose hands Bhutto erroneously transferred the responsibility of running these commanding heights instead of competent professionals, the fact remains that that the steel mill came on line then, investment in heavy engineering as the base of an economy no longer dependent on plant and machinery imports was initiated. This thrust was correct but the bureaucrats ran the industries and commercial entities entrusted in their care into the ground. The fault lay not with them, untrained as they were for the task, but with the authors of nationalisation who made little or no effort to replace dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats with competent and efficient professionals.
Learning from that experience and global developments, there are few if any economies where the private and state sector both do not have a role. Where private capital is shy, the state steps in with investment in critical sectors. This argument has to be placed in the context of the solution to Pakistan’s underdevelopment. No successful economic transformation since WWII has taken place in any underdeveloped country without industrialisation. The nationalisation-privatisation debate and the other constraints referred to above have virtually brought a halt to green shoots (fresh) industrial investment in Pakistan. This should be the long term priority of the new government after getting over the immediate hiccups of external account deficits and foreign debt servicing if the PTI government’s ambitious agenda of (10 million) jobs creation is to have any chance.
Foreign policy presents tricky ground. The US has finally taken off its soft mask since 9/11 to turn off the financial tap. Without visible progress in restraining if not exporting the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network fighters on Pakistani soil, don’t hold your breath for any respite from Washington. This cannot be accomplished without bringing the military on board. This represents one of the most difficult of foreign policy challenges for the PM and Foreign Minister (for the second time) Shah Mahmood Qureshi. The PM’s expressed desire for normalisation of relations with India has received a fillip from Indian PM Narendra Modi’s invitation to a dialogue conveyed to PM Imran Khan on August 20, 2018. The track record shows however, that elected governments in the past ran into trouble if they deviated from, or attempted to leap ahead of, the military’s policy in these two areas. PM Imran Khan and his team therefore have their task cut out for them in this regard. Settling the Afghan war and opening at least a dialogue with India would reap dividends in reducing US hostility and reopening the financial taps.
The rest of PM Imran Khan’s agenda is focused on the social sector (health, education) and the ruthless eradication of corruption. While there are few quibbles with the former, the latter actually needs to be across the board (including the military and judiciary sacred cows), politically non-partisan, and imbued with the understanding that corruption at the top is the tip of a very large iceberg that afflicts the system from top to bottom. It may take a considerable period of time and effort informed by a holistic reform of the governmental system to dent this endemic affliction.
Pakistan and the world is watching. Time for PM Imran Khan to put his money where his mouth is and perform to meet at least partially the high expectations from his government.