Thursday, January 31, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 31, 2019

Parliament’s functioning

Ever since the 2018 elections and the coming into office of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government, parliament, particularly the National Assembly (NA), has resembled more a fish market than the apex elected house of the people’s representatives. The daily fare on the floor of the NA has consisted more than anything else of personal attacks and objectionable and unparliamentary language being traded across the aisles. This has led to innumerable walkouts by the opposition in protest, rendering the NA dysfunctional if not paralysed as far as its assigned role of legislation is concerned. The greater fault in this state of affairs has to be assigned to the treasury benches, with the opposition retaliating in kind. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) was wont to resort to such tactics in the last NA when it was in the opposition and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was in power. Taking a leaf out of their street language used to assail that government during their protests on containers or otherwise, the PTI unfortunately carried that barrage of bad language into the hallowed halls of parliament too, thus setting a poor example of civilian democracy and parliamentary conventions. Had this practice remained confined to when the PTI was in the opposition, there may have been room for forgiveness on the grounds that it was their inexperience and parliamentary immaturity that had been at work. But when they have chosen to not only adhere to this bad practice after coming to power (in controversial circumstances, it must be said) but arguably redoubled their characteristic hurling of invectives at the opposition, particularly its leadership, it should surprise no one that the other side has unfortunately also chosen to reply measure for measure. The outcome of this brawling in the NA can be discerned in its paralysis of normal day to day functioning, let alone taking up its real responsibility of legislation. Running parliament is of course a joint responsibility of both sides of the house, but a greater responsibility lies on the shoulders of the treasury. After all it is their legislative agenda the house has to deal with overwhelmingly. Six months down the road from the 2018 elections, the conspicuous absence of common civility let alone the heights to which parliamentary proceedings are expected to soar has reduced the house to a farce and legislative business to a nullity. It should be recalled how in our history the dysfunctionality of parliament more often than not has paved the way for military coups and dictatorship. A heavy responsibility therefore rests on the shoulders of all members of parliament to check these unfortunate tendencies and set an acceptable if not inspiring example for the people and future generations so that Pakistan sees at last the consolidation and continuation of a democratic order.

Given the bruising experience of the last six months in the NA, it is a matter of some relief that the realisation has set in that things cannot continue in this vein. Speaker of the NA Asad Qaiser has constituted a 13-member Committee of the Parliamentary Leaders to oversee and manage the conduct of MNAs in the house. The Speaker will chair the Committee that will have all the heavyweights of our political dispensation such as Leader of the House/Prime Minister Imran Khan, Leader of the Opposition Shahbaz Sharif, former president and co-Chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party Asif Ali Zardari, Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid and other parliamentary party leaders. Its main function will be to oversee, take note of and examine matters related to conduct of the MNAs as per rules, practices and parliamentary conventions, while addressing complaints about breaches of the code of conduct. While this development is positive, there still exist reservations, especially in the minds of the PML-N, regarding the cast of characters in the Committee, some of whom have been at loggerheads in the past. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the MNAs as a whole, and the treasury benches in particular, to render parliamentary proceedings civilised and functional, particularly since the government enjoys only a razor thin majority in the NA and lacks a majority in the Senate. The basic function of parliament to enact legislation cannot be implemented without a minimum modicum of cooperation between the two sides.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 30, 2019

The notorious ‘black list’

The Senate Standing Committee on Law and Justice has struck a blow for the rule of law and fundamental rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution. The Committee recommended abolishing the ‘black list’ of citizens who could be prevented from travelling out of the country without even being placed on the Exit Control List (ECL). The issue came to the fore when the chairman of the committee, Senator Javed Abbasi, raised in the Senate a point of order in December 2018 regarding the procedure for putting names in the black list and the practice’s legal standing. The Senate Chairman had referred the issue to the Standing Committee for consideration. The committee discussed the matter in late December 2018 and then again this month. It invited the ministries of Interior and Human Rights for their input. After these hearings and briefings, the Senate has now been informed that the Director General (DG) Immigration and Passports told the committee that the ‘black list’ was being maintained in pursuance of the Passport Manual 2006. The provision has remained part of the manual since 1957. Some parts of the provision were incorporated in the Passport Act 1974 while the remaining continue to be part of the passport manuals. The DG Immigration and Passports does not initiate these lists; names are added on the recommendations of judicial and quasi-judicial forums (the reports do not clarify what or who is meant by ‘judicial and quasi-judicial forums’). The DG Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is quoted as saying that the agency only implemented the ‘black list’ through an automated system that did not process the cases of persons on the list. Interestingly, both the Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari and the ‘authorities concerned’ recognize that the ‘black list’ and all such lists have no legal sanction. The minister states that such lists are not acceptable in a democracy because they violate citizens’ fundamental rights. The ‘concerned authorities’ concede that the ECL is the only valid list in this regard (it is another matter that the ECL too is not free of controversy in our history). The Standing Committee deplored what appears to be a long-standing practice that is ultra vires of the Constitution and violates fundamental rights. It also noted that while the Passport Act was enacted by parliament, no power of maintaining black or any other ‘colour’ lists had been bestowed upon the executive. The absence of any such power obviously cast the whole dubious practice in the shade of illegality. Now the committee having made up its mind that this heinous regime of restricting citizens’ fundamental right of freedom of movement should be abolished forthwith has asked the Ministry of Interior to submit a compliance report within 10 days.

The ways of states and particularly their executives are exceedingly strange. But even in this dark thicket, Pakistan’s restricting citizens’ freedom to travel outside the country without informing them or providing cogent reasons for their inclusion in the black list for the last 62 years since 1957 smacks of arrogance, the abrogation of powers to the executive over and above the law and Constitution, and a woeful lack of transparency. Not only does this black list ‘automatically’ deny citizens’ rights, it also lends itself to the abuse of citizens being stopped from boarding their flights at airports on the dubious basis of being on the ‘black list’, only to be allowed after extorting bribes. Pakistan’s working people who find employment abroad and help keep the country afloat through their home remittances are reportedly the most affected. While the unconscionable practice has continued through the tenures of successive governments, civilian and military, over 62 years, it is supreme irony that the FIA officials have sprung late pangs of conscience in asking the committee to abolish a practice that has made the country the laughing stock of the world when they have been involved over many years in stopping people from travelling abroad for purportedly being on the ‘black list’ on the mere whims and wishes of the government of the day. In fact the committee has revealed that the black lists have mostly been used by incumbent governments against their political rivals. While it is heartening that the committee has asked for the abolition of the ‘black list’, perhaps it is also time to interrogate the procedure of putting names on the ECL without giving those targeted an opportunity to defend themselves before a proper forum against the arbitrariness of such practices.

Business Recorder Column Jan 29, 2019

Premature euphoria

Rashed Rahman

January 27, 2019 media reports gave the impression that six days of talks in Doha, Qatar between the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban had all but delivered a peace deal for Afghanistan. The reports outlined the agreement as consisting of the US agreeing to withdraw its troops over 18 months after the draft agreement was signed and delivered in exchange for ‘guarantees’ by the Taliban that Afghan soil would never again be allowed by al Qaeda, Daesh or any other terrorist group to attack the US a la 9/11 or indeed any other foreign country. The reported draft also spoke of the Taliban agreeing to hold talks with the Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani after the withdrawal of foreign troops and a ceasefire.
It now turns out that the euphoria over the ‘done deal’ may have been premature. The Taliban, sensing they have the US over a barrel because of battlefield successes and the signals from Washington that it would dearly love to get out of Afghanistan, adopted their trademark strategy of negotiating through shifting the goalposts every time peace seemed to be at hand or at least looked promising. They have poured cold water over the highly optimistic twist given to the result of the Doha talks by refuting the reports that a ceasefire and talks with the Afghan government had been conceded. They did contend that further talks were scheduled in Qatar on February 25, 2019, but this announcement merely served to underline that there remained many a slip yet between the cup and the lip before the champagne could start flowing in celebration.
Zalmay Khalilzad is in Kabul as these lines are being written. He is briefing President Ashraf Ghani and the Afghan government on the substance of the talks in Qatar and their outcome. The Taliban meanwhile have indicated they too are consulting their top leadership regarding the talks. In addition, they have delivered the troubling message that until and unless there is a firm agreement on the foreign troops withdrawal, there can be no progress on any other issues. The Taliban negotiating strategy therefore boils down to getting the US to commit to a definite withdrawal date/process before they will take up any other issue seriously.
They say success has many fathers, failure is an orphan. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, along with other Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government ministers have already started crowing about a huge diplomatic success for Pakistan in facilitating the talks that have vindicated the PTI’s long standing stance that there is no solution to the Afghan conflict except dialogue between the contending parties. On the one hand, Qaumi Watan Party chief Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao has cautioned all stakeholders to refrain from unnecessary statements taking credit for the ‘breakthrough’ since it could jeopardise the delicately poised negotiations. On the other, it could be argued that it is the situation on the battlefield, where the Taliban are inflicting unsustainable losses on the Afghan security forces and Washington having conceded its foreseeable failure to raise, train and support the Afghan security forces to be in a position to defeat the Taliban rather than the PTI’s talks mantra that has won the day. And perhaps we should not overlook the role played by Pakistan in providing sanctuary and safe havens to the Taliban in bringing about this result. The talks arranged between Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban in Islamabad before the Qatar parleys failed to achieve any results because the Taliban adamantly refused Pakistan’s blandishments and pressure through the arrests of some Taliban leaders in Peshawar, etc, a tactic unlikely to succeed given the character of Afghans and particularly the Taliban.
If US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement dubbing the developments post-Qatar talks as “encouraging” is taken on board and stripped of its diplomatic veneer, it becomes obvious that the US is now desperately clutching at face-saving straws to justify what will be seen as a predictable and resounding defeat in one more foreign war that is part of many the US has fought abroad since the Second World War to expand its control of the globe but in which it has sometimes faced ignominious defeat. No such debacle was bigger than the Vietnam War that ended with the US retreating with its tail between its legs after massacring millions of the Vietnamese people in the name of combating communism.
The US defeat in Afghanistan leaves Washington little choice but to accept the Taliban’s assurances regarding never again allowing Afghan soil to be used against it by terrorists as well as their soothing noises about engaging in a peace process and possible power sharing arrangement with the Afghan government. How cast iron any such guarantees or soothing noises will prove only time can tell. But if the sentiment of the Afghan people is taken on board, it shows the degree of panic setting in at the prospect of the Taliban ascending, partially or later fully after overthrowing the Afghan government, into power and resorting once again to imposing their narrow, misguided and draconian interpretation of sharia on the long suffering people of Afghanistan.
Pakistan seems to find itself caught in a cleft stick. Since 2001 it has had to shoulder the blame for harbouring the Taliban, now it seems unable to persuade its proxies fully to engage in the negotiations process and arrive at a peaceful resolution to the Afghan conflict. This is a risk inherent in the process of backing proxies, which only works so long as the mentor and proxy are in agreement on the goals and how to achieve them. The moment, however, divergence, strategic or tactical, emerges between the two, the going gets sticky. This is an even bigger risk if the proxies happen to be religious extremists and fanatics, such as the Taliban. The whole project of pursuing foreign policy and strategic objectives through proxy wars against neighbouring countries in the region has long passed its sell-by date. Unfortunately, partly because there is always a lag in trying to change direction in such a long standing and imbedded venture, partly because the Pakistani military establishment does not want to make fresh enemies in the shape of erstwhile proxies, the turn is throwing up greater difficulties than were perhaps envisaged.
However, thorny as this nestle is, it needs to be grasped firmly if Pakistan is to be rescued from relative international isolation in the interests of reviving the struggling economy. In today's world, interconnected and inter-dependent on goodwill, flow of investment to a capital accumulation deficit economy like ours, poking our fingers into proxy wars in the region no longer seems viable. In fact, its cost-benefit ratio may well have turned negative.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial January 26, 2019

The Qatar angle

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s two-day visit to Qatar produced all the pomp and show associated with the arrival of a friendly state’s government head. The activities between the two sides included a one-to-one meeting between the prime minister and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani and delegation-level talks on a whole range of issues pertinent to mutual ties and the situation in the region. However, the final communiqué promised more than it revealed as rhetoric about trade facilitation and Qatari investment in Pakistan was plentiful but lacking in any detail. What has come through the thicket of diplomatese is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf government’s swallowing the Liquefied Natural Gas supply agreement by its predecessor government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz despite having been bitterly critical of it in opposition. The only request to the Qatari authorities from the Pakistan contingent in this respect was for a reduction in the Liquefied Natural Gas price of 13.39 percent of the international benchmark crude oil price and deferred payments for gas under the 15-year supply contract. Qatar is a Gulf state with enormous reserves of gas that it has turned into a lucrative export item in the form of Liquefied Natural Gas. Pakistan’s imports of Liquefied Natural Gas total $ four billion per annum. To handle the imports of Liquefied Natural Gas from Qatar, two private sector terminals for regasifying the Liquefied Natural Gas have been constructed as part of the deal. Whereas Pakistan has received $ six billion from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for balance of payments support and deferred payment terms for oil imports from these two countries, it remains to be seen what if any concessions Qatar makes to an already signed and delivered deal. The real, tangible, immediate benefit Pakistan can hope for in the immediate future is the offer by Qatar to employ 100,000 skilled workers from Pakistan. The FIFA World Cup is scheduled to be held in Doha in 2022. The huge construction and infrastructure work entailed in this project requires a large contingent of foreign workers as Qatar’s total population of 2.6 million includes 2.3 million expatriates already. Indigenous labour, quantitatively and qualitatively, is insufficient. Hence the offer to Pakistan, with its concomitant advantage of boosting workers’ remittances home that now occupy an important position in easing the country’s external deficit difficulties to some extent. The only reservation about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s otherwise seemingly smooth, seamless, positive welcome in Doha is his habit of dragging domestic controversies into foreign visits. In particular, his penchant for lambasting the opposition as corrupt, money launderers, etc, and putting the entire blame for Pakistan’s structural economic problems on this factor, does not behove the head of a government representing his country abroad. This mantra was repeated in the visit to Malaysia, and now Qatar has heard it. Arguably, this airing of domestic issues of a contentious nature on foreign visits does the country’s image precious little good and may even discourage prospective investors.

The other sensitive aspect of relations with Qatar is its ongoing dispute with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the Yemen war and Qatar’s support to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. While Pakistan has acted wisely in refraining from being dragged into taking sides in sectarian (the Saudi-UAE conflict with Iran) or inter-Arab ( the Saudi-UAE-Gulf Cooperation Council differences with Qatar) quarrels, and even offered mediation to help resolve these conflicts, it is open to question whether Pakistan is in any position to act as a neutral arbiter acceptable to all sides in these conflicts. The only saving grace in such offers may be that it helps Pakistan keep a healthy distance from awkward commitments to any side, despite our involvement with the Saudi-led military alliance aimed, Iran thinks, against it.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Business Recorder Editorial January 24, 2019

The Afghan conundrum

After US Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s failure to clinch a meeting with the Afghan Taliban in Islamabad, the two sides have resumed their talks in Doha. The Islamabad meeting did not come about because, according to the Taliban, the US resiled from the agreed agenda for the talks that revolved around foreign forces’ withdrawal, release of Taliban prisoners and preventing Afghanistan from being used against other countries in future (an obvious reference to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda using Afghanistan as a base to attack the US mainland on 9/11). But the real reason the Islamabad venue proved unfruitful is because Pakistan was reportedly pressuring the Taliban to meet Afghan government representatives, which they rejected once again. The arrest of Taliban leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was views as a ploy towards that end. From the Taliban point of view, Doha offered a far more salubrious climate free of pressure. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid revealed a further demand added by the US: an unconditional ceasefire and the release of US professor Kevin King, captured after an attack on the American University in Kabul in August 2016 and in Taliban captivity ever since. While there was a pregnant silence from the US on these issues, it should be noted that Zalmay Khalilzad extended his stay in Islamabad in the hope the Taliban would come round. Both sides jockey for positions on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, in a classic talking-while-fighting strategy. And talking of fighting, a devastating attack on an Afghan National Directorate of Security training facility in Maidan Shahr in central Afghanistan killed and wounded dozens of the security forces. Although casualty figures trotted out by different sources varied widely (12-126 killed, 20-35 wounded), the complex attack on a highly secured base underlines the heavy pressure on the security forces as an increasingly confident Taliban press home their incremental advantage and initiative in the battlefield. The attackers used captured US Humvees laden with explosives to ram the gate of the facility, followed by three gunmen who sprayed the area with gunfire before being killed. The casualty toll was the highest since the Taliban overran Ghazni province in August 2018, an episode that resulted in 150 security forces, 95 civilians and hundreds of Taliban fighters being killed.

The run of play on the battlefield and at the negotiating table points in the direction of the Taliban being increasingly convinced that although they cannot defeat the US-backed Afghan security forces outright at present, nibbling away at their credibility feeds into the frustration and impatience that informs Washington’s approach to the US’s longest running foreign war. They therefore feel they have time on their side and only have to stand steadfast to achieve their first goal: the withdrawal of foreign (mostly US) forces. Most informed analysts are convinced that if and when the US withdraws, the Afghan government and security forces will not be able to withstand the Taliban’s expected redoubled efforts for an outright military victory. Starting with former US president Barack Obama’s surge and then major withdrawal of troops, the US has been twisting and turning to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire, especially under President Trump. Presently, the intriguing thought presents itself that since the initial aim of the US was to target al Qaeda in Afghanistan and not the Taliban, something they were ‘forced’ to do after the latter refused to give up Osama bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, could Washington consider some ‘guarantee’ by the Taliban that Afghan soil would never again be allowed to be used to attack the US sufficient face-saving to rid itself of the Afghan swamp it is bogged down in? Of the options on the table, this may be the best the US can presently hope for. Of course the implications for Afghanistan and the region of any such agreement are frightening. The US may have blundered into Afghanistan with its usual hubris, but its retreat with its tail between its legs 18 years later will spell the death knell for the Afghan government, a fresh wave of refugees fleeing the fighting (which may nevertheless continue even if the Taliban capture power) into Pakistan and other neighbouring countries, and the unforeseen impact on Pakistan’s security if the Afghan Taliban pay back our hospitality with covert support to the Pakistani Taliban ensconced on their soil. The Afghan mess looks like it is about to get messier.