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  #1211  
Old Wednesday, November 30, 2016
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Default November 30, 2016

Commitment to dialogue


The upcoming Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar puts Pakistan in something of a bind. Ever since India’s renewed aggression in Kashmir and its decision to blame Pakistan for it, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a policy to isolate us internationally. India pulled out of the Saarc conference in Islamabad and even got Afghanistan to boycott it so there is an obvious temptation to follow suit by not showing up in Amritsar next week. Instead, we have decided to take the higher road and even expressed a willingness to hold talks with India on the sidelines of the conference should it make the offer. By sending foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz to Amritsar, Pakistan is making yet another effort to restart a dialogue despite Indian obstinacy. It would help if we had a permanent foreign minister so that we weren’t relying on ad-hoc officials but that still doesn’t excuse India’s intransigence. The international community should take note that there is only one country that is open to diplomacy right now, be it bilateral or multilateral. The ball is now in India’s court and with 40 nations expected to show up at the Heart of Asia conference, any response will show the entire region if the Modi government is prepared to deviate even slightly from its course of maximum confrontation.

We should not hold our breath for a positive reply. The centrepiece of the talks is expected to be regional connectivity and how Pakistan is supposedly a stumbling block to increased trade. India wants Pakistan to allow trucks carrying goods from Afghanistan through Pakistan to be allowed to enter India. But it does not plan on mentioning how the Afghan government has introduced a 50 percent increase in tax levied on cargo transporters from Pakistan crossing the Durand Line. Trade in the region is being affected by politics and the solution is not to blame anyone country but to discuss the underlying issue. India is not prepared to do that and prefers scapegoating Pakistan. The Indian media has even speculated that Amritsar was chosen as the venue of the Heart of Asia conference because of its proximity to the Wagah border so that India could use it to point out how Pakistan is stymieing trade. Afghan will obviously back up its Indian ally. Sartaj Aziz plans on reaching Amritsar by crossing the Wagah border which should provide a potent counter-image of how peace can only be achieved if political leaders on both sides are willing to take the first step. Pakistan should use its presence in Amritsar to make a larger case for peace and how that is a necessary precondition for every country to enjoy the spoils of trade. India should now follow Sartaj Aziz’s lead and demonstrate the same commitment to dialogue.

Justice delayed


Twenty-four years ago, Mazhar Farooq was arrested on the charge of murder.Last week, after spending 24 years in jail, Farooq was declared innocent by the honourable Supreme Court. Two days later, he was released. Farooq was amongst the lucky ones. He lost 24 years of his life, but was given justice before his life was taken. Others have not been so lucky. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers of a murder charge. Tragically, they had been executed a year ago. Over the past two years, questions have continued to be raised over the ability of Pakistan’s justice system to deliver justice. While the acquittals seem to suggest that the justice system is still working, long delays continue to clog the system. Farooq’s case only reinforces this point. An innocent man lost 24 years of his life languishing in the Kot Lakhpat Jail. The case ended up consuming all of the farmland he had owned before he was falsely convicted. Farooq was not poor, but by the time he left the confines of prison, he was a man changed – both materially and emotionally, no doubt.

The truly remarkable thing is that cases like Farooq’s do not shock us. Calls for judicial reform have barely come from outside official circles or international donors. In Farooq’s case, the SC noted that the pistol presented as evidence was not his. For 24 years, no one else in the system noted this simple detail. There is no doubt that there are hundreds of other cases like Farooq’s. In October this year, another man – Mazhar Hussain – was found innocent of a murder committed in jail. He had died in jail two years ago. One can probably compile a long list of such cases. Judicial reform in the country has been too slow – if at all. After NAP was formulated, focus returned to reforming the judicial system, but restarting executions has produced a more trigger-happy system. It seems that there is a belief that the higher the number of death penalties awarded, the more effective the judicial system will be perceived to be. It is only at the level of the SC where cases lingering in the system for decades have been struck down. Judicial reform, in the true sense of dispensing speedy but fair justice to people, is still a pipedream. Farooq has gotten justice but 24 years too late. The case should force both the government and the judiciary to jointly undertake a serious assessment of how to sort both delays and false convictions in the system. Only this can restore trust in Pakistan’s justice system.
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  #1212  
Old Friday, December 02, 2016
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Default December 01, 2016

Challenges


The challenges Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa faces are formidable. A few years ago, the militant threat seemed to be dangerously on the rise and the state appeared powerless to stop them. The situation with India, while far from perfect, was not the danger it has now become. Things are a bit different for the now. Militant groups are still able to launch devastating attacks but they control only a fraction of the territory they were occupying in 2013 while India looms larger on the threat radar. Bajwa’s job is going to be to consolidate the gains made during Raheel Sharif’s tenure. He will have to ensure that the TTP and its offshoots – as well as new entrants like the Islamic State – are not able to regroup and re-establish safe havens in the tribal areas. That will also mean greater focus on providing security at possible militant targets. Bajwa will also have to oversee the rehabilitation of IDPs who have not been given the promised funds to rebuild their destroyed home. This is something that both the civilian rulers and the military leadership of the state must address. Even if the results of such work may not be immediately visible – as they are with spectacular military operations – the task is equally crucial. A modern army is not just about fighting and the state has to show it can do the job of rebuilding along with the necessary task of fighting terror.

Over on the eastern front, Bajwa will have an equally tricky challenge. In his brief comments to the media after the change of command ceremony at the Army Hockey Stadium in Rawalpindi, Bajwa said that he expected the situation on the Line of Control to settle down soon. While he did not explain in detail the source of his optimism, we share it in the form of hope. As much as Pakistan may hope for peace along the boundary with India, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not at the moment seem to share a vision for peace. The new army chief can expect to have his mettle tested by more Indian provocations. He will also have to protect the border with Afghanistan, both to prevent infiltration of militants from the Afghan side and to guard against the routine Afghan allegations that Taliban attacks on their territory have been carried out from Pakistan. Even though Pakistan seems more stable now than it has in recent times, there is always a new problem lurking around the corner. There are many unknowns Bajwa may have to deal with. We cannot know if the CPEC will proceed without any security incidents nor do we know if President Donald Trump will carry on providing military aid. Pakistan needs intelligent and mature leadership both from the military and the civilian setup to ensure it does not lose ground internationally. We hope General Bajwa will be able to ignore media hysterics calculated for effect and live up to his reputation as a professional soldier by staying out of politics and focusing on ensuring Pakistan’s internal and external security.

Test collapse


It seems like déjà vu all over again. Just when even the more ardent of Pakistan cricket’s critics were getting convinced that the national team has been transformed into a winning unit in the Test format under the leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, we had a major debacle in New Zealand this week. Pakistan, who have not lost a Test series against the Black Caps in three decades, crumbled against the home team’s potent pace attacks to lose both the Tests by convincing margins. It was a major disappointment considering that hopes were high after Pakistan’s highly credible 2-2 draw against England in England in the summer. But it has happened before. Time and time, Pakistan have exhibited their potential by beginning a winning spree only to return to their old ways where the team messes up things to lose matches. There were signs of a slump when Pakistan surprisingly fell to a below-par West Indian team in Sharjah early November. Though it was a dead rubber as Pakistan had already sealed the three-match series by winning the first two Tests convincingly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the loss against the Caribbean side did raise a few eyebrows. But even then few had expected Pakistan to get assailed the way they did on greentops in Christchurch and Hamilton. Most of Pakistan’s batsmen including the seasoned Younis Khan seemed completely at sea facing the likes of Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and debutant Colin de Grandhomme during the two-Test series. Even Pakistan’s pace attack, regarded among the best in the world, failed to impress much especially in the second and final Test.

What happened in New Zealand should serve as a wake-up call for Pakistan, who will be facing a resurging Australian team in a three-Test series which will get underway with a much-anticipated day-nighter in Brisbane from December 15. Head coach Mickey Arthur will have to quickly find ways and means to help his charges regain their confidence otherwise Pakistan will find it tough to counter Australia, a team that will be looking to compensate for its recent series loss against South Africa by taming Pakistan. A positive development for Pakistan will be the return of Misbah, who missed the final Test in New Zealand. The captain should succeed in raising the team’s morale which must be running low following the thrashing that the tourists received in New Zealand. Pakistan have slumped from number two to four in the ICC Test rankings and need to bounce back. Whether they can do it in Australia, which has seldom been a happy hunting ground for Pakistan in the past, remains to be seen.
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  #1213  
Old Friday, December 02, 2016
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Default December 02, 2016

If calls were horses…


US President-elect Donald Trump, like any other incoming leader, has been busy receiving calls of congratulation from friends and foes alike, but he has brought his own unique Trumpian touch to the conversations. After telling British Prime Minister Theresa May to drop by any time she happens to be visiting the US and letting his daughter participate in a phone call with the Argentinean president, we now have his first communication with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The details of the phone call, initiated by PM Nawaz Sharif, seem to have been released almost verbatim by our government and there might be a temptation to take Trump’s liberal use of superlatives at face value. In his typical fashion, he called Pakistanis some of the most intelligent people around and personally told Nawaz that he is a “terrific guy”. Pakistan was, strangely, quick to release a press statement detailing the exchange – almost verbatim. Was it hoped that Trump’s lavish praise would suggest a changed global picture to the world? Trump’s own transition team turned down requests for comment on this exchange between the two leaders. But it would be silly to read too much into this praise. It is standard operating procedure for any world leader to be diplomatic in conversations with foreign governments, even if they are less colourful in their choice of words. For the Pakistani PM to call Trump to congratulate him and be equally gracious is also in keeping with protocol.

Not long ago, Trump had said that Pakistan had the potential to be a rogue country and that India would then act as a check on it. That, unfortunately, might be a better guide to Trump’s thinking than what he said to Nawaz Sharif. After all, all US presidents, no matter what their policies towards Pakistan, have paid lip service to good relations and been circumspect enough not to be antagonistic in their interactions with Pakistani leaders. US foreign policy is based on need and an assessment of their own interests. Pakistan has so far been perceived useful to the US for its fight against militancy and that use will change depending on circumstance, not the whim of a US president. Right now we have very little specific detail on Trump’s foreign policy views – perhaps because he doesn’t seem to have many steady convictions himself – but he has had less than favourable things to say about Muslims and one of the first proposals that has been leaked from his incoming administration is a plan to introduce “extreme vetting” for visitors from specific Muslim countries. Pakistan is on that list. The US has been moving closer to India for years now out of self-interest since India offers more trading opportunities and parrots the US line on terrorism. There is no reason to believe that will change under Trump, especially since he enjoyed a lot of support from the Indian community in the US. Ultimately, we will have to wait and see if there is any change in American policy towards Pakistan; and it would be premature to think one phone call will have any discernible impact.


Cashless India


The decision by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to withdraw 86 percent of Indian currency notes in a single stroke has badly backfired. The move has left India’s economy crippled and the poorest running from pillar to post in search of cash to feed themselves and their families. There have been protests, of course, most notably West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee leading 25,000 protesters against the demonetisation drive. The queues outside banks have remained hours long and dozens have been reported to have died of starvation across the country. It is no wonder that protests have broken out against a decision that was more anti-poor than anti-corruption. The logic that demonetisation in India would end black money and corruption has pretty much been seen for what it is. The rich have always been quick to park any illegally gained cash in gold, real estate, shares and other more stable assets. It is the poor – operating outside the banking system, unable to afford any stable assets – who run their lives on cash.

Even if we forget the suffering of the poor for a minute and focus on the economic side of the move, the cash crisis is set to shrink the $2 trillion Indian economy. The best-case scenario predicted is that India’s economic growth will tumble to five percent this year, as against seven percent last year. Even this is a scenario that seems like an unlikely possibility. For the last three weeks, India’s informal economy has been virtually brought to its knees. The simplest of transactions at a neighbourhood grocer have become impossible due to the cash crisis. Instead of eliminating corruption, Modi could well have ended up putting India on the brink of currency collapse. If nothing else, the Modi government faces its severest test yet. It is no surprise that Modi has used the Pakistan card once again amidst questions on his capacity to actually govern India. Pak-India border tensions have been brought back into the headlines. Pakistan has always been a diversionary tactic for Indian governments but under Modi this strategy has been taken to a level not seen before. Modi has shown how empty his promises of bringing miracle economic growth to India were. The lesson is that desperation cannot be a substitute for coherent policymaking. India would have been better served by fixing its archaic tax apparatus, instead of attempting demonetisation. The impact of India’s self-imposed cash crunch is likely to cast major questions over Modi’s ability to survive in government in the coming days. His popularity has already begun to wane. This might force Modi to chart out a saner course of action.
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  #1214  
Old Wednesday, December 14, 2016
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Default December 14, 2016

The reshuffle


The new army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, is quickly moving to stamp his own identity on the Pakistan Army by carrying out a major reshuffle days after taking over from Gen Raheel Sharif. The most significant change was the replacement of ISI chief Lt-Gen Rizwan Akhtar by Lt-Gen Naveed Mukhtar. ISI heads usually serve for three years but Akhtar has been replaced only two years into his tenure and will now be the president of the National Defence University. Mukhtar was previously heading the counterterrorism wing of the spy agency and his appointment signals that India and Afghanistan will be a priority of the new army chief. While studying at the US Army War College five years ago, Mukhtar wrote a paper on Pakistan’s policy in Afghanistan and recommended reconciliation with ‘moderate’ Taliban. At least on paper, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the US are all committed to peace talks with the Taliban through the Quadrilateral Crisis Group but Afghan President Ashraf Ghani always tries to scapegoat Pakistan whenever there is a militant attack. Mukhtar’s warning in his paper that Pakistan would need to guard against India using Afghanistan as a proxy also seems to be coming to pass. Most recently, at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, it was clear that Afghanistan has joined India in trying to blame Pakistan for all its problems and to isolate it internationally.

Among the other important transfers is that of Lt-Gen Asim Bajwa, who has been moved from ISPR and will now be the Arms IG. As ISPR DG, Bajwa had a significant public profile and was credited with the use of social media to get the army’s message across. There are also new corps commanders in Bahawalpur and Peshawar and the DG Rangers, Lt-Gen Bilal Akbar, has been appointed chief of general staff. The ISI DG and the chief of general staff may be the two most important positions in the army after the army chief himself and it is interesting that both positions have been filled by men who were serving in Karachi. Mukhtar was the corps commander in the city while Akbar was serving with the Rangers. Both have worked together in Karachi and so should find it easier to cooperate with each other in Rawalpindi. All these transfers show that Gen Qamar Bajwa is keen to mould the army in his own image. The army chief himself is considered to be easygoing and quick with a one-liner but the speed with which he has moved shows that he will be a man of action.

Hope and fear


The government may have taken one step towards solving the troubled Nandipur thermal power plant by handing the operations over to a Chinese firm. The original plan for the Nandipur power plant was that it would be built by the Chinese firm, Dongfang Electric, and handed over to a Pakistani management team. However, the plant shut down days after the inauguration. Pakistani engineers could not revive the powerful plant despite numerous trainings in China. The embarrassment created a national scandal before the heat died down. An inquiry into the 425MW power plant had been announced but any findings have yet to be shared with the public. There have been allegations that key records with respect to the fuel purchasing for the power plant were destroyed in a mysterious fire. Now, the government seems to have agreed to a 10-year agreement with a Chinese firm in the hope that it would be able to make the power plant operational. It is expected to take over the plant in January 2017 after completing inspections of the current state of the project.

The Nandipur power plant has become a bit of an embarrassment for the sitting government. Billed as one of its pet projects, its cost escalated to over Rs60 billion before the power plant was launched in a big ceremony in May 2014. The need for transparency in how the project goes forward is obvious. This is why both the inquiry report into what went wrong with the project and details of how it plans to revive the project need to be shared with the public. It is expected that a clause will be built into the new agreement which would put the burden on the operating company in case it is unable to get the plant operational, but all such details must be shared. Questions are being asked about the project by both NAB and Nepra. The Nandipur project has become another symbol of how not to solve the power crisis in Pakistan. Caught in the quagmire between three different governments, it has already caused a loss of billions to the national exchequer. There is some hope, though, that the government has not rushed into another questionable agreement.
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