Friday, December 28, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 28, 2018

The year in retrospect

As 2018 draws to a close, it may be instructive to cast a glance back at the major events and trends that characterised a year full of surprises, unexpected developments and worrying outcomes. US President Donald Trump kicked off the new year with a castigation of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, a complaint that led to the suspension of all aid from Washington. However, towards the end of the year, both the tone and attitude of Washington changed from hostile to seeking Islamabad’s help in pushing a peaceful resolution of the US’s longest running foreign war. On the eve of 2019, Trump announced a total troop withdrawal from Syria and a partial one from Afghanistan. Whether the latter move will assist the regional and international stakeholders in the Afghan conflict to arrive at a negotiated end to the war or may lead to a Taliban victory is still wrapped in uncertainty. Trump, never keen on the US’s foreign military engagements, acted so precipitately in arriving at his withdrawal decisions that he left allies, aides and the world gasping. The sudden and inexplicable decisions exacerbated the disarray in his administration with more departures, most prominently Secretary of Defence James Mattis.
On the domestic front, Pakistan saw PML-N leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif continuing to suffer legal troubles. As if his lifelong disqualification in the Panama case in 2017 was not enough, he had to face imprisonment along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Safdar for 63 days earlier until the Islamabad High Court suspended the accountability court sentence pending the hearing of the Sharifs’ appeals. That however did not save him from a seven-year rigorous imprisonment sentence and fines of $ 25 million and Rs 1.5 billion in the Al-Azizia/Hill Metal Establishment reference, while being acquitted in the Flagship Investment case. Both decisions are likely to be appealed, the former by Nawaz, the latter by NAB. Meanwhile Nawaz will cool his heels in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore. Shahbaz Sharif too remains in NAB custody facing various references. The accountability process seems poised to target Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur next in the false bank accounts and other alleged corruption issues. If the Zardaris too go the way of the Sharifs, the vacuum of leadership at the helm of these two mainstream opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, may be filled by a collective leadership.
Perhaps even more significantly, the controversial 2018 general elections brought long standing aspirant Imran Khan to the prime minister’s chair. While the opposition demand for an examination of the fairness of the 2018 elections withers on the vine in a parliamentary committee yet to become functional, the PTI government faces formidable challenges, chief among which is the ailing economy. While Pakistan seems by now well placed regionally and internationally as having its image of a Taliban supporter in Afghanistan change to that of a peacemaker, it is the economy that in its first five months in office has proved a tougher nut to crack than the PTI imagined. The twin external and fiscal deficits still seem troublesome despite aid from friendly countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, China), with the unresolved IMF negotiations keeping the door to other international financial institutions closed. Even more worrying, if Adviser to Prime Minister on Commerce and Industry Razzak Dawood is to be believed, the government is only now beginning to get its head around the decades old creeping process of deindustrialisation that has put paid to the dream of a modern, prosperous economy. The government’s handling of the economy in these first five months revealed its team’s inexperience, a forgivable fact provided it put its head down and educated itself on the issues of and solutions to the economy’s travails.

While the jury is out on whether the PTI government has course corrected its handling of the economy, without which there would be profound implications for our society, the political landscape too suffers from uncertainty and polarisation because of the almost exclusively opposition-targeted accountability drive. The government’s spokesmen’s constant railing against the opposition on corruption allegations even before their cases have been decided has vitiated the atmosphere and cast doubts on the impartiality of the accountability regime. Last but not least, the legitimacy and credibility of the PTI government still carries the shadow of the military establishment-judiciary nexus perceived to be acting in its support against all other comers.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Business Recorder Column Dec 25, 2018

US retreat from Syria, Afghanistan

Rashed Rahman

In typical Trumpian style, the US President has suddenly decided to withdraw the 2,000 US troops from Syria and 7,000 of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan. These decisions were announced without any consultation with allies. They flew in the face of senior White House aides’ advice, two of whom, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Special Envoy to the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett Mcgurk, have resigned. As a result, US allies in Europe and Asia were left stunned. Some described it as a watershed moment for the US’s relations with the world. Others thought the alliance with Washington was crumbling or just no longer there.
The Kurdish YPG forces in Syria felt they had been thrown to the Turkish wolf. President Erdogan has already started massing troops on the Syrian border with the declared intent to wipe out the YPG that he considers an offshoot or ally of the Kurdish PKK that has been waging a struggle in southeast Turkey since the 1980s. The government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani tried to put a brave face on the withdrawal announcement but privately officials felt shocked, betrayed and fearful of what the future may hold.
Not everyone was displeased with Donald Trump’s precipitate decisions though. Russia, Turkey, China praised it. The Afghan Taliban welcomed it as the partial conceding of their demand for all foreign forces to leave. Russia was pleased because its intervention on Syria alongside Iran and Hezbollah had turned the tide in favour of President Bashar al Assad. Turkey saw the withdrawal of US troops from Syria as removing the only obstacle in its path to an extermination campaign against the YPG. China felt the US retreat from these conflict-ridden regions signalled a better position for it over the recent aggressive US naval presence in the Taiwan Straits. The Afghan Taliban were chuffed because Trump had eroded if not hollowed out Zalmay Khalilzad’s ongoing negotiations with them for a peace deal.
Naturally state and non-state players affected positively or negatively by Trump’s decisions weighed them through the prism of their own interests. Pakistan’s establishment can barely hide its glee that its covert ‘resistance’ to US aims in Afghanistan through the Taliban proxies seems finally to be succeeding. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is on a four-country tour to Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia, ostensibly as part of the agenda for peace but in the light of the new developments more focused on how regional powers will now position themselves vis-à-vis the Afghan endgame. But before we start popping the champagne corks, perhaps a sober assessment in the event of a Taliban victory in Afghanistan may be in order. Such an assessment might make the oft-repeated claim by Pakistan that it has limited influence over the Afghan Taliban come true with a vengeance. Reflect on how the Taliban government in 2001 resisted Pakistani advice after 9/11 to find ways to mollify an enraged Washington in their own interest. The Taliban government’s refusal to entertain any notion of surrendering their ‘guest’ Osama bin Laden to the US to face charges of being responsible for 9/11 led to the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban government and the fleeing of the Taliban to safe havens across the border in Pakistan, from where they have mounted a guerrilla campaign ever since. The strategic stalemate between superior US and its allies’ forces and the Taliban guerrillas shifted in favour of the latter when former US President Barack Obama pulled out the bulk of US troops. In the intervening years, the battlefield situation has increasingly played out in favour of the insurgents through territorial gains and inflicting a casualty rate on the Afghan government forces that is described as ‘unsustainable’. Now halving the US troops in Afghanistan, even if they are only in an advisory and training role, and the possible pull back of US air power that has helped slow down what might otherwise have by now become a runaway victory juggernaut for the Taliban, can only work in the insurgents’ favour. To them it must seem that they are tantalisingly close to their strategic goal of waiting out an increasingly exhausted US commitment.
Now in the event of a seemingly inevitable Taliban takeover sooner or later in Afghanistan, some consequences could follow. If the second Taliban regime to come were to return to its first government’s strict imposition of its version of sharia, it could once again trigger a fresh round of refugees fleeing into Pakistan, already still carrying the decades-long burden of the remaining millions of Afghan refugees. If Pakistan were to attempt to advise the Taliban future regime to moderate this policy, would the Taliban be inclined to listen? Would continued insistence on Pakistan’s part persuade them to consider ‘flirting’ with the Pakistani Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ensconced in the poorly controlled Afghan border areas adjacent to Pakistan? Could that lead to a resurgence of the TTP and its attacks inside Pakistan? Imponderables, imponderables.
As far as Syria is concerned, it will likely see more bloodshed but with a changed cast of characters. The Kurdish YPG must be ruing the day it trusted Washington’s word. France and Britain are now scratching their heads on their forces’ role in Syria after the US withdrawal. Similar thoughts may be racing through their minds vis-à-vis their involvement in Afghanistan. The implications of these strains amongst western allies go far beyond the two theatres of conflict mentioned.
Serious questions have arisen whether the post-WWII global order painstakingly created under US leadership is crumbling. That order consisted of an anti-communist western military alliance NATO and similar military alliances in Asia (CENTO and SEATO). To prevent economic crises triggering wars (consider the outcome of WWI, the Great Depression of the late 1920s and their contribution to the outbreak of WWII), the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and IMF were created to mitigate the worst effects of such past global crises and prevent conflict. Voicing his slogan ‘America First!’, US President Donald Trump is impatiently chipping away at this 70-year old global structure. What may follow is an unpredictable multi-polar world that may or may not be able to reconstruct the old or a new structure to ‘manage’ the world’s problems. One need not have been an unreserved fan of the post-WWII power divisions and their mechanisms for mitigating the worst outcomes to argue in the emerging circumstances and trends that an era of instability and frightening conflict looms. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning of the danger of nuclear conflict drawing closer because of Washington’s cancellation of the medium range nuclear missile restraint treaty may not be too far off the mark in this context.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 24, 2018

Trump’s unending follies

Donald Trump has proved to be the most erratic President in the US’s history. A string of whimsical, knee-jerk decisions have roiled the domestic scene as well as the world’s strategic landscape. His latest gaffe may prove the most asinine of all. In a surprise announcement, Trump announced the US would be withdrawing all 2,000 US troops from Syria. This was followed by the news that about half the remaining US troops in Afghanistan, around 7,000, would also be withdrawn. These decisions came despite the disagreement of senior aides. Following a last ditch effort by Defence Secretary James Mattis to persuade Trump to reverse these ill thought through decisions, he resigned. Mattis thus becomes the latest in the continuous parade of senior administration officials to fall out with their erratic boss and leave. Such is the state of morale in the administration that replacements are proving difficult to find. Mattis, a four-star retired Marine general with 40 years of combat experience was widely respected at home and abroad for being the ‘only adult’ in the Oval Office. His departure and the decisions that prompted it have worried US allies from Europe to the Asia-Pacific. The Syrian withdrawal without so much as an effort at some quid pro quo sends exactly the wrong signal to allies and enemies. The Kurdish militia YPG, as part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces has been at the forefront of the struggle against Islamic State (IS). It now stands abandoned and facing a possible two-front war if Turkey’s Erdogan follows through on his pledge to mount a military campaign against the YPG that Turkey considers aligned with the Turkish PKK in southeast Turkey. YPG’s response says it all. They say they may have to abandon frontline positions along the Euphrates River (where IS has been pushed into a sliver of territory) to defend themselves against any Turkish offensive. The Kurds must be ruing having trusted the US. They find themselves abandoned in the middle of an existential struggle like so many allies the US has used and then thrown away like toilet paper in its adventures abroad. The gainers from Trump’s decision will be Russia (Putin is delighted), Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the remaining IS that is far from completely eliminated. The fallout of the Afghan decision may prove even more severe. Despite brave words from the Kabul government, its consternation is floating on the surface. If the Syrian decision can be questioned as to its timing and logic, the Afghan withdrawal decision beggars belief. The US has of late been engaged in intensive negotiations with the Afghan Taliban to seek a peaceful end to US involvement in that country. With battlefield realities increasingly showing Taliban territorial gains and the casualty rate of the Afghan forces being described as unsustainable, Trump has handed the prospect of victory on a silver platter to the Taliban, a prospect that sends shivers down the spine of Afghan citizens. Although European allies and NATO have respectively vowed to continue their engagement in Syria and Afghanistan, their capitals have been rocked by Trump’s inexplicable decisions that owe more to appeasing his domestic political base by following through on his campaign promises with nary a thought for the consequences.

Donald Trump is the greatest anomaly to have graced the White House. Part of the ‘populist’ right wing surge in the US and many parts of Europe, it is a phenomenon that can only be described as operating on pre-conceived notions and if the awkward facts do not fit into that scenario, so much the worse for the facts. The Syrian withdrawal promises trouble at Turkey’s hands for the Kurds as reward for their sacrifices in the war against IS, and a bounty for Russia, Iran and Assad. The Afghan withdrawal offers the frightening prospect of the Taliban’s return to power, with little assurance (a minimum demand the US seems to have accepted in its negotiations with the Taliban) that another 9/11 will never recur. Trump’s decisions are neither in the US’s own interests nor those of its allies that he is signalling are now more or less on their own. The only sound amidst the deafening silence in the wake of this foolishness is the chuckling in the Kremlin, Tehran, and in the Afghan Taliban ranks.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 22, 2018

China’s warning

In a speech to mark 40 years of China’s reform and opening up policy, President Xi Jinping delivered a warning that no one could dictate to his country, a reassertion of China’s confidence in its strength founded on its miraculous economic development. Observers interpret the warning as aimed principally at the US that increasingly under President Donald Trump is attempting to mount a stern challenge to the second largest economy after its own and a rising world power. Reinforcing staying the course on the economic reforms launched by China under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership in 1978, Xi Jinping disappointed those hoping for a peaceful evolution of China after embracing capitalism towards a bourgeois democracy by vowing to retain its one-party system under Communist Party rule. He went on to reiterate that China posed no threat to any country but would not be pushed around. It must be conceded that China’s patient peaceful recovery of Hong Kong and Macao from colonial rule and absence of serious conflict (except perhaps with neighbouring countries in the South China Sea) with any major world power is part of China’s approach to developing itself peacefully and without any aggressive intent abroad. Historically China saw itself as the Middle Kingdom or centre of the world and the Communist Party is committed to restoring it to pre-eminent status, which Xi Jinping underlined by saying his country is increasingly approaching the centre of the world stage. China’s reforms have pulled some 700 million of its people out of poverty in a relatively brief period, reducing poverty among the rural population from 97.5 percent 40 years ago to 3.1 percent today. While the western countries’ opening up their economies to China may have been predicated on thereby binding China politically to their vision of bourgeois democracy, this has failed to transpire. China quashed the Tiananmen Square protests demanding greater political liberalisation in 1989 but opened the ruling Communist Party’s doors to some of the highest number of billionaires in the world. It is China’s rapid economic development that has allowed it to acquire sufficient military muscle to deter any aggressor, a painful memory in Chinese history’s period of humiliation from the 19th century on till liberation in 1949. However, just as China has repeatedly stressed it has no aggressive intentions abroad, Xi Jinping once again asserted that China in turn opposes hegemonism and power politics.

China’s rapid economic rise over the last 40 years through opening its doors to capitalism under Communist Party rule reinforces the potential slumbering in the lap of capitalist development for pre-capitalist societies such as China’s. Of course from double-digit growth in the early years of the opening up to 6.9 percent last year and an expected 6.5 percent this year does pose some problems. Such rapid development almost inevitably was accompanied by class and regional inequality. While the US-led west may have watched for such differences to weaken if not overthrow the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, the Chinese rulers have planned for and tackled such issues in an incremental manner that has prevented unrest. The implied (and sometimes stated) social contract between the one-party state and its citizens rests on an ‘exchange’ of material prosperity in return for acquiescence in the Communist Party’s hegemony. China has some time ago reached the point of its export-led, state-of-the-art technological revolution where the export of capital becomes not just possible but a necessary component of maintaining high rates of growth. Hence the Belt and Road Initiative of which CPEC is a part, which promises not just connectivity to boost mutual trade but also is aimed at addressing its internal regional variations in economic development (CPEC will serve relatively backward Xinjiang in this respect). Whether China’s unique hybrid experiment of capitalist engagement with a globalised economic system under Communist Party rule will manage to avoid the historical path of confrontation between older world powers and a new rising one remains to be seen, as does the end result of a unique experiment with contradictions at the heart of the goals of unfettered capitalist wealth creation and the social equality that is the leit motif of communist ideology.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Dec 20, 2018

Bar on dual nationals

In a suo motu case regarding dual nationals in government employment and among members of the judiciary, the Supreme Court (SC) had sought reports from the registrars of the SC and high courts and the federal and provincial government departments about persons in BPS-17 and above who answered to this description. It had also constituted a committee comprising the heads of the relevant investigative and administrative departments to look into the matter. According to the findings, there are currently 1,116 persons with dual and foreign nationality in government service while 1,249 government officials have foreign spouses. An SC bench headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar has spelt out in detail the proper course. The SC has declared that dual nationals cannot retain important government positions and would have to choose between the job and foreign citizenship. It has ordered the federal and provincial governments to develop criteria and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) requiring disclosure of intent to seek foreign nationality and permanent residence (which is often the first step towards acquiring foreign citizenship) and adopt methods to check such cases while enforcing penalties for non-disclosure. Such criteria and SOPs could either be incorporated into the existing efficiency and discipline rules or adopted independently. The SC wants parliament to consider formulating negative lists of posts within government service from which citizens holding dual nationality or whose spouses are dual nationals should be barred for reasons of safeguarding national security or national interest, except with the express permission of the respective federal or provincial cabinets. Similar rules should apply to top decision making posts within autonomous/semi-autonomous statutory bodies, organisations and companies owned, controlled or governed by the federal or provincial governments. The list of persons with dual nationality should be placed before parliament and the provincial Assemblies at the end of each financial year. As far as the employment of non-citizens in government service is concerned, the federal and provincial governments should similarly develop criteria and SOPs where relaxation of the general prohibition is deemed necessary in the public interest, and this too should be subject to the approval of the respective cabinets. Turning to the employment of ex-government servants with foreign governments or agencies, which is blocked by the Ex-Government Servants (Employment with Foreign Governments) (Prohibition) Act 1966, the SC said the federal government should be required to submit annual reports to parliament regarding its enforcement. In this regard the court took notice of the lack of a proper cabinet nod to retired General Raheel Sharif’s taking command of the Saudi-led military alliance and ordered that unless such an NOC was obtained within one month, his employment would cease forthwith. The court accepted a certificate by retired Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha that he had not obtained any employment abroad. The court’s verdict said some government officials acquire foreign nationality during service in order to securely dispatch ill-gotten gains and relocate their families. They deserve no leniency and should be asked to rescind their foreign nationality or resign. The armed forces, the SC said, barred dual nationals from being recruited but the defence secretary was asked to ascertain nevertheless whether any such individuals had been inducted on the basis of mis-declaration, concealment or non-disclosure and requisite action be taken.

The concept underlying the SC’s judgement is concern regarding sensitive information or national security being compromised because of divided loyalties. Needless to say, there are numerous instances in our past where top government servants (including some infamous armed forces top commanders) have taken the route described by the SC for the reasons outlined in the judgement. It goes without saying that where national security and sensitive information is concerned, there cannot be any compromise. The court did go out if its way to say that the verdict should not be construed as putting dual nationals or foreigners of Pakistani origin in a bad light. Many of them have shown exemplary loyalty to their original country. It is just that the SC has tendered sound advice on safeguarding the state’s secrets and ensuring transparency and that a rules-regulated regime be put in place through legislation by parliament. It is now for the federal and provincial governments to put their heads together and find the best way forward to implement the SC’s verdict.