Friday, November 30, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Nov 30, 2018

Peace beyond borders and within

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan paid his first visit after assuming office to North and South Waziristan on November 26, 2018. Addressing a Jirga of tribal elders, the PM said Pakistan believes in peace beyond borders and will play its role in the Afghan peace process as peace in the war-ravaged country is critical for achieving peace in Pakistan. Further, he reiterated his long held view that Pakistan had fought an imposed war inside the country at a very high cost and would never again go down that road. What the PM’s narrative misses in these statements is the context in which these developments and conflict played out. First and foremost, no one forced Pakistan to support the Afghan resistance to the Communist coup in Afghanistan in 1978 or the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation of that country in 1979. Arguably, General Ziaul Haq was motivated not only by the potential threat posed by the Soviet forces having arrived at Pakistan’s borders but also saw it as a windfall opportunity to garner western support for his illegitimate regime under the umbrella of supporting the so-called jihad by extremist religious militias against the Soviets. Through the subsequent twists and turns and final withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989 and the subsequent fall of the Communist regime to the mujahideen in 1992, the warring militias were finally winkled out by the rise of the Taliban by 1996. The fact that the Taliban hosted Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda led to their regime being overthrown by the invading US forces after 9/11. Pakistan was caught in the horns of a dilemma. The Americans had blood in their eye after the first devastating attack on the mainland US in its history, and Pakistan had few choices but to go along (at least ostensibly) with Bush’s so-called War on Terror. The fact that the retreating Afghan Taliban were sheltered (and arguably remained sheltered for long) on Pakistani soil since 2001 and Osama bin Laden was found and eliminated in Abbottabad arouses the US’s ire and provokes President Donald Trump to sound off against Pakistan every now and then. Our closeness to China, arguably has not and should not blind us to the still considerable clout and influence (not to mention military might) that the US enjoys internationally and which may be used against us in our dire economic circumstances unless the frictions with Washington are eased.

Speaking of our other border, the Kartarpur corridor initiative spells improved relations with India through the two Punjabs interacting with each other. While Kashmir remains the stumbling block to better relations with India, and the current repression let loose in the state by New Delhi is certainly a negative development, the irreducible fact remains that unless and until New Delhi comes to some internal political settlement with the people of Kashmir that prevents continued bloodletting, Pakistan and India may not be able to arrive at normalisation of relations either. And while the PM’s sentiments for peace are noteworthy and should be supported by all who hold Pakistan’s well being close to their heart, he should also recall his election pledge to restore peace in Balochistan and put some healing balm on the wounds of the people of that province, particularly regarding the abomination of enforced disappearances and interminably missing persons. Perhaps it is time once again to explore outreach to the exiled Baloch leaders to arrive at a political solution that stops the bloodshed. Peace beyond borders yes, Prime Minister, but spare a thought too for peace within. Both are equally critical.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Nov 27, 2018

Better late than never

The government moved swiftly in a pre-emptive move to prevent the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) occupying Faizabad interchange where Rawalpindi meets Islamabad and which had been occupied by these outfits protesting against alleged changes to the parliamentarians’ oath regarding finality of Hazrat Mohammad’s (PBUH) prophethood during the previous government’s tenure. Not only was the sit-in accompanied by violence in and around the area, it cost the PML-N government its law minister. It may be recalled that the sit-in at Faizabad had finally to be ‘dispersed’ through cash incentives distributed by a security agency chief in full view of the cameras. If that episode left a bad taste in the mouth, the abject surrender by the incumbent PTI government in the face of the even more violent protests by the TLP and its sister organisations against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi by the Supreme Court raised questions about the writ of the state and the ruling party’s possessing the requisite political will to impose it, rhetoric to this effect notwithstanding. The ‘agreement’ signed between the TLP and the government conceded that Aasia Bibi’s name may be put on the Exit Control List and the government would not stand in the way of a review petition being filed against the apex court’s verdict. Subsequently, the review petition appears to have been filed but not yet heard, while reports of Aasia Bibi having left the country have been vociferously denied by the government. Now it appears the TLP and others of its ilk had planned to hold another sit-in at Faizabad on the first anniversary of the earlier sit-in referred to above that lasted a full 21 days. It was anticipated that had the sit-in at Faizabad gone ahead, the TLP would have announced at their favourite venue their future course of action in the light of what they perceive is a violation of the agreement with the government vis-√†-vis the Aasia Bibi case.

Despite government efforts to dissuade them, the TLP insisted on marching to Faizabad. Eventually this left the government little choice. Khadim Hussain Rizvi, chief of TLP, and other leaders of all the factions of the Labbaik movement and hundreds of their workers throughout the country, have been arrested under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) for a period of 30 days. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry wrapped up the move in the expected rhetoric of ensuring law and order, protecting people’s lives and properties (unlike, let it be said, the last time Labbaik mobs went berserk), etc. But he added a slightly droll touch to the proceedings by adding that Khadim Hussain Rizvi had been placed in “protective custody”. A less fertile imagination is compelled to ask, ‘protective custody’ for whom, against whom? Politicians’ compulsions aside, the fact is that Khadim Hussain Rizvi and the Labbaik brigades terrorized citizens, damaged their vehicles and other property, and held the country hostage in their protest against Aasia Bibi’s acquittal in a false blasphemy case. The ‘compromise’ the government made ostensibly to defuse the situation left the state looking pathetically weak and without any writ against the purveyors of violence who called for mutiny in the military against the present command and the murder of the Supreme Court judges who delivered the Aasia Bibi verdict. Could such blood-curdling, treasonous calls be ignored? Had they emanated from any other source without quite the nuisance value of the newly emerged obsurantist militancy, the authors of such utterings would have felt the heavy hand of the law and state before they even knew what hit them. However, the government decided in its wisdom at the time that defusing the situation (by whatever means) was the best course. Now that it has decided not to allow Khadim Hussain Rizvi and company to repeat their holding the country hostage through violence and the threat of violence, it could be argued with hindsight that the earlier compromise was a tactical manoeuvre to take the steam out of the situation, while the current pouncing on the troublemakers before they can once again create mayhem and anarchy is what the government actually wanted to do all along. The test of this proposition lies in what the government does next, when the immediate danger of another crippling sit-in at Faizabad has been avoided, residual protest and perhaps violence by TLP supporters here and there throughout the country notwithstanding. Where do we go from here?

Friday, November 23, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Nov 23, 2018

Twitter wars

Social media has transgressed into the political and diplomatic field. In the case of US President Donald Trump, this is hardly new. From the election campaign trail to the White House, he is by now infamous for firing off messages on Twitter that have more often than not embarrassed his own administration, annoyed allies and a host of countries around the world, and arguably made the task of keeping the US centre-stage in global politics that much harder. In Pakistan’s case, Trump’s views are hardly breaking news. In January 2018, soon after taking office, he cut off payments due as well as aid to Pakistan, citing a series of complaints of Pakistan not helping Washington in its longest running foreign war in Afghanistan. Undiplomatically irrepressible as he has proved, Trump set off a new controversy in an interview with Fox News the other day in which he castigated Pakistan in not so polite language as not doing anything to help the US despite receiving billions of dollars in aid. Of course we in Pakistan by now have our own tribe of twitterati, headed by no less an eminence than Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan. It was inherent in the nature of things then that the PM should choose Twitter to round on the US president, in the process reminding Trump that Pakistan had sacrificed 75,000 lives and billions od dollars because of disruption of peace, terrorism and the fallout of joining the War on Terror, a war the PM characterised as “America’s war”. This hardly came as a surprise either, since the PM’s views on our joining in a war not of our making are pretty well known. In this war of words against the US president, not only ministers of the government but even leading lights of the opposition chimed in. In response to Imran Khan and others’ stinging replies, Trump, never one to take such responses lying down, also followed up his remarks in the interview with even more laden diatribes on Twitter. The whole exchange has brought the already fraught relations between Pakistan and the US to a new low.

US President Donald Trump can be maddeningly rude, obtuse and downright stupid. Nevertheless it is up to us to cogitate appropriate responses to his provocations (this may well not be the last). It may have been more appropriate not to sink to Trump’s level and attempt to conduct ‘diplomacy’ through Twitter. The US ambassador having been summoned to have a protest demarche at Trump’s remarks issued was and still is the more dignified course. Resorting to Twitter or social media means playing on Trump’s wicket, on which he revels in being as outrageous as possible. A mature, considered, well argued response would have served us better, in the process avoiding the ‘personalisation’ of exchanges that should have been conducted through traditional (GHQ-Pentagon) and diplomatic Foreign Office-State Dept.) channels. Had that course been tried, it may have strengthened the hands of those Trump administration officials who have been trying through most of this year to smooth the frictions in the relationship with Pakistan and solicit its help in finding a political solution to the unending Afghan conflict, apart from bringing to the world’s attention the rudeness of Donald Trump and Pakistan’s dignified response. It should be taken note of that perhaps Trump’s renewed ire at Pakistan stems from frustration at not only not making progress in Afghanistan against a resurgent Taliban, but putting the blame entirely on Pakistan for harbouring the Afghan Taliban on our soil since 2001 and Osama bin Laden till he was killed by US Seals in Abbottabad. Pakistan’s sticking to some level of support to the Afghan Taliban, whether in the form of safe havens on Pakistani soil or more, stems at least partially from strategic calculations surrounding who holds power in Kabul and who is that regime friendly/friendlier with. This is where Islamabad’s concern about the Indian influence in Afghanistan comes into the picture. The gap between the current perceptions and future solutions to the conundrum of the Afghan war on both sides cannot be narrowed by Twitter wars. It can only overcome the complexities and roadblocks to peace through bilateral and multilateral efforts for a civilised dialogue amongst all the stakeholders.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Business Recorder Column Nov 20, 2018

Dark times

Rashed Rahman

I am feeling quite chuffed while writing these lines. I want to express my thanks to the powers that be for forcing the organisers of the Faiz Festival held in Alhamra Arts Council Lahore on November 16-18, 2018 to ban my and two others’ participation in discussion panels. The two others are my son, Dr Taimur Rahman, and Dr Ammar Ali Jan. The organisers could not defy the dark hint that the festival as a whole may be at risk unless these instructions were complied with. I have no beef with the festival organisers. The Faiz family are old friends, almost family. The irony in this whole episode is that all three banned participants belong to the Left. There is no explanation as to their ‘sin’, which earned them the flattery of a ban from the public space at a festival celebrating the great poet and lifelong icon and doyen of the Left, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The mind fairly boggles what catastrophe would have ensued if all three individuals were allowed to participate.
But why complain of this instance of strangling freedom of expression alone? The issue is not of one or two individuals. It is far broader and encompasses by now both the mainstream and social media.
The former has been emasculated by heavy leaning on acceptable and unacceptable content, shrinking of government advertising by 70 percent and private by 50 percent. This has led to one TV channel closing down and many others, big and small, teetering on the brink of collapse. Managements have embarked on ‘right-sizing’ (which actually means downsizing), with hundreds of journalists across the country being thrown out of their jobs and many more on their way out or threatened with redundancy. Mainstream media outlets are also complaining of the heavy but invisible hand of the censor. Working journalists are out in protest at Press Clubs throughout the country against limits on freedom of the media and the financial crunch that is losing, and is likely to lose more, jobs in the industry.
Clearly, the mainstream media bubble in operation for the last 16 years (since Musharraf allowed private 24-hour satellite TV channels) has finally burst. As it is, the opening to private TV channels produced too many for the size of a media market like Pakistan’s. The wisdom earlier was that competition between these proliferating TV channels would eliminate some on the principle of survival of the fittest in a market with marked limitations. However, it is not competition but the twin menace of censorship and financial difficulties that may produce the culling expected.
Newspapers were hit with a double whammy when private TV channels proliferated. Their advertisement revenues suffered from diversion to the arguably larger (captive) audience for TV. Some of the best print journalists migrated to the greener pastures of TV, where they were joined by new recruits, especially anchors with no previous experience in the field but who nevertheless commanded huge salaries and perks. Not all of them are likely to survive the purge. Many old media friends are being readied for the chopping block.
Government and private advertising revenue having shrunk, the mountain of arrears owed by the government to media houses dating back to the tenure of previous governments also awaits clearance, with little but government assurances of redress to show so far. In the print media, the effects of the crisis have started showing in the form of reduction of pages, closure and possible closure of smaller newspapers and even iconic magazines. No good news is on the horizon so far.
If this indigenous crisis had not hit the media industry, it may have continued in its complacent state without taking account of the worldwide trends changing or threatening to change the media landscape. Print and electronic media, magazines and newspapers are threatened by the rise of the internet and social media. Young people today hardly get their news, information and entertainment from TV or newspapers and magazines. They prefer to remain glued to their computer or smart phone screens. In Pakistan, that means roughly 65 percent of the population may no longer be customers of the mainstream media. If the mainstream media is unable to reinvent itself in the brave new digital world we live in, it is likely to become history eventually. Debate on this problem has been inadequate the world over. Solutions, digital and other, have yet to offer a convincing business model in consonance with the new realities.
Mainstream media is not the only victim of the new age. Books for most youth are passé. What these generations of tech-savvy young people have failed to realize is that the internet and social media has a downside too. Notwithstanding the revolution in communications wrought by these new forms, they suffer from lack of gatekeepers, vetting of news and information, and the anomaly of putting out both correct and incorrect, true and false news without let or hindrance. This barrage of mixed up information can only cause mental indigestion, i.e. confusion. The clarity that books supply, repositories as they are of systematic knowledge, is in increasingly short supply.
In our case, the education system having been virtually reduced to degree-awarding factories without heed to the intellectual development of the system’s charges, i.e. young minds, leaves them vulnerable to the saturated news and information cycle of the internet and social media without the intellectual tools or capacity to sift right from wrong, true from false. There are by now many instances of how social media lends itself to hate speech, instigation to violence and other such anti-social trends. The answer to this conundrum is lost in the din and pace of our times, which may rightly be dubbed ‘The Age of Distraction’.
Revisiting the lines with which this column began, bans and severe limitations on freedom of the media and expression lead to the conclusion that we now live under a controlled democracy that the deep state wishes to micro-manage in order to dominate the national narrative by means subtle where possible, worse where necessary.
Dark times indeed.

Business Recorder Editorial Nov 20, 2018

Civil service reform

The task force headed by Dr Ishrat Husain on civil service reform has come out with the first item in its daunting task. This first item pertains to the procedure for federal secretaries’ appointment and tenure. The task force recommends that a committee comprising the cabinet secretary, establishment secretary and the principal secretary to the prime minister forward a panel of three suitable officers for appointment as federal secretaries. It would be up to the prime minister to choose one of the suggested panel. In case the prime minister does not consider any of the panel members fit for the post, the committee will be asked to recommend a new panel. Effectively, this reform does not leave any room or authority with the prime minister to appoint any officer as the secretary of any ministry or division on his own, i.e. it institutionalises the process and is intended to avoid or eliminate arbitrariness and bias. Once the prime minister chooses an officer from amongst those recommended by the committee for appointment as the secretary of a ministry or division, the officer will be on probation for six months, during which he/she could be removed or changed if his/her performance is unsatisfactory or on disciplinary grounds. After the completion of this six month probation period, and if the officer’s performance is found satisfactory, he/she will be confirmed for a protected three-year tenure. During his/her tenure, the incumbent cannot be transferred except if disciplinary action is initiated against the officer for corruption, negligence of duties, insubordination, misconduct or failure to meet the performance targets set for him/her. If evidence establishes the officer is at fault on any of the above counts, the prime minister can decide that the officer should be transferred during his tenure, provided the reasons for the shifting are recorded in writing. Dr Ishrat Husain has long argued that one of the most important problems facing the bureaucracy is the frequent transfer of civil servants (read insecurity of tenure). The importance therefore of security of tenure is underlined in this first reform. This security can help re-establish the objectivity and integrity of civil servants’ advice and functioning rather than the present affliction of serving their political bosses’ whims and will. This was the case with the civil service in the 1950s and 1960s, until Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ill thought through changes to the security of tenure and other civil service reforms arguably led to the present disorder and malfunctioning of the bureaucracy. Besides, security of tenure promises the training and experience of the officer in question will benefit the ministry or division he heads, thereby contributing to the efficacious functioning of the state. Also, empirical evidence shows lack of continuity of the person in charge impacts negatively on government’s policies, programmes and projects, which cannot be completed on time or within the projected cost.

Reform must always be thoroughly thought through as to its implications and impact on existing state structures, especially the civil service. Like it or not, we inherited the ‘steel frame’ of the British Empire in the shape of the bureaucracy. The in-service training, further education and hands-on experience of the job is what gave top bureaucrats their once formidable standing and reputation. For narrow expedient political reasons, the populist government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decided the powerful bureaucracy needed to be cut down to size. Inadvertently, and without being conscious of this implication, the move resulted in throwing the baby of civil service integrity and efficiency out with the bath water of the intent to weaken the all-powerful civil service. The results since then have been a merry-go-round or revolving door of appointments and transfers of civil servants by successive governments, civil and military, leading to an erosion of the once sterling qualities of these servants of the state. Time therefore to roll back the manipulable arbitrary regime of civil servants’ appointment and transfers in favour of an institutionalised, multi-centred procedure whose transparency and integrity must be demonstrated in practice to overcome the present parlous state of the bureaucracy.