Wednesday, June 14, 2017

OPED: Why the World needs to see Pakistan’s Dark Side


Published by Global Affairs / June 2017


Because the dark side does not get enough exposure. Though this is where all the good Samaritans, the creative giants, crusading angels and intellectual powerhouses reside. It is where genius flourishes hoping to break free of type casting. It is where Oscar winners and Nobel laureates go once they have scaled the summit and conquered cultural biases and social disparity.

A vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans?

But their victories are somehow viewed in isolation. They are seen as outliers - their great accomplishments relegated to the shadows in favor of unflattering headlines beamed across the globe that slyly remove the context and reduce the country to one giant misogynistic, intolerant, vat of vice and wickedness amid a sea of green turbans. While the worst of humanity hogs the limelight – our most prized assets go unheralded. And tragedies like Mashal Khan and mafias in religious guise along with shady men with offshore accounts are allowed to drag the national trajectory off course.

While it is true that Pakistan gets shortchanged when it comes to depicting its strengths but the blame needs to be divided equally between those who wish to isolate and demonize to serve some sinister agenda and look better in contrast - and the State that fails to appreciate its treasured icons - their vibrant civil society and media watchdogs that ultimately give it legitimacy - and a formidably talented and driven population that give it a unique advantage.

The Revised Peking Order

There’s a new imaginatively titled piece on the Wire - ‘How do you solve a problem like Pakistan’ by Seema Sirohi. It pokes fun at the country’s choice of ambassadors, refers to anti-Pakistan voices for validation and presents a rising chorus demanding Pakistan’s expulsion from the ally corner. There are also suggestions to tighten the noose, to isolate and put the country in its place. It has been penned by a Washington based analyst who comments on US-India relations.

If the attempts at isolation didn’t take, it is not just because Pakistan is rapidly moving up in the pecking order but also its sincere efforts in confronting its pesky demons. And while the famed Pak-US alliance that once overthrew communism is on increasingly shaky ground, as long as their interests align, the partnership should endure. But the road is likely to get rockier unless Pakistan’s image can line up with its heavily advertised road to prosperity.

The nation is in remission but its lobby is nowhere as effective as the behemoth propaganda machine that answers to the call of their Indian masters. Neither does it have the visibility to rebut the smear campaigns piled on with alarming regularity. Meanwhile any think piece that comes from within is scrutinized for bias; millions of success stories taken with a grain of salt. Any human right violation from the Indian side however will barely create a ripple because of heavy investments made to keep the spotlight on its shining face.

Should Musharraf hang up his Pom Poms?

Perhaps it is time to align Pakistan’s new, improved image to the strands of its policies and attain a wider audience for its growing stature. Pervez Musharraf made for an easy mark and the article shredded his credibility as a speaker in Washington and deemed him to be the weakest link. The commentary may seem harsh to the proponents of the good General but it can serve as a useful indicator of Pakistan’s perception problem.

With so many inspiring voices why limit oneself to politicians or dictators. The former president with his enlightened agenda may have liberated the media and earned the gratitude of many, but he can no longer carry the burden of projecting Pakistan’s benign face alone.

Leaders make handy cheerleaders but there are those who are respected and admired across the board already projecting a positive image. Oscar winners, athletes, philanthropists and trailblazers, the best and brightest from the arts – independent voices from academia who take bold stances; the pillars of society who fight for social justice; everyday Pakistanis who beat the odds and make history.

The West may not buy India’s surgical strikes story or put stock in their portrayal of an Indian spy as a simple naval man, when he has actually been guilty of espionage and sabotage but India is the new ally and Pakistan is dubbed as the troubled neighbor creating mischief along the western front – the alleged aggressor in every disagreement.

Outliers Respond to the Casting call

Being on the back-foot forced to profess ones innocence at every turn is not an ideal position. Pakistan’s response cannot be reactionary. It should instead focus on building its brand and credibility is the most important currency in this game. And their counter-narrative drive does not have to look far for inspiration for there are heroes aplenty to lend credence to their progressive agenda.

There’s even a superhero in the mix. Singer Haroon Rashid’s creation ‘Burka Avenger’ about a crime fighting female school teacher was ranked amongst 11 most influential fictional characters by TIME in 2013. A local production company (SOC films owned by Sharmeen Obaid) bagged the prestigious Robert. F. Kennedy, Journalism award recently. A man devoted his entire life to serving humanity. Edhi’s legacy is a powerful reminder of the nation’s incredible capacity for generosity and their commitment to charitable endeavors. It is the same kind of support seen behind worthy causes like cancer hospitals / research centers set up by a popular cricketer turned politician that offer free treatment to the masses while keeping their international standards intact.

With all the limitations Pakistanis prevail. Their overseas brethren flourish in their new surroundings that encourage innovation and development unshackled by fear of being victimized by self stylized or State sponsored blasphemy brigades and bring accolades at film festivals, in scientific arenas, medicine, law, education etc.

Speaking Truth to Power & Other Great Tales

Back home girl power rises despite the cultural handicaps defying the visuals of oppressed women while crushing third world gender biases. They can be found in the armed forces, on Everest, at the Academy Awards, in bomb disposal squads around conservative areas of KPK, at the UN, heading media empires, setting the fashion world ablaze and travelling solo across the countryside on a bike. While chaos rages around them, Pakistanis keep the art and cultural scene thriving - toil hard in the pursuit of scientific advancements and speak truth to power. These unconventional entrants in narrative wars are not the exception but the norm and should be lauded for adding an optimistic hue to the conversation.

Make them the centerpiece of the hearts and minds campaign. And use them to bolster the nation’s flagging morale because Pakistanis also need reassurances that their path will not be obstructed by draconian laws. Or by thoughtless decisions threatening to impede progress by redefining the parameters of free speech via medieval mindsets that surfaced in Mardan.

Discard those outdated Homeland Stylized Blinders

One day once the nation puts its house in order - the mediocre minds that command the vote banks can be relegated to the sidelines and the deserving can inherit the earth. Maybe then they can open the doors and develop tourism so the world can see its true colors without the Homeland stylized blinders. And how Pakistan is unlike other nations – women are free to drive, are in charge of how they dress and pursue their dreams. Granted, that independence recedes a bit as one leaves urban centers behind but it’s a long way from KSA or Iran. While it may be struggling to reassert its identity it’s a far cry from the illustrations of mud hut dwelling, camel riding savages that parks its nukes under a tarp in a war torn landscape. Nor is it a nation of mindless drones lined up to cheer for emperor supreme or a regime swarming with warlords and drug kingpins.

180 Million Taliban in Funny Trousers?

A realignment of priorities becomes a crucial element of the messaging when one hears stories by travelers from the Far East about Japanese youth eager to learn Urdu to understand the Taliban because all they see are bearded men in funny trousers with no interest in learning about other cultures and no real depth of understanding of theological matters. From their standpoint it is a nation of 180 million Taliban since they study Pakistan through the prism of Western media or the very helpful Research & Analysis Wing as someone pointed out. Using respected icons as cultural ambassadors – the representatives of our values and the custodians of the faith may help banish such biases.

Nations with a Get out of Jail Free Card

Though the eastern neighbor appears to be headed down the slippery slope of religious fundamentalism, Pakistan is now making the correct moves. But India, thanks to its spin-masters working overtime can brush violations under the mat for now - Saudi Arabia, with its oil and Russia with its clout can absorb all the accusations regarding dismal human rights records or wars in Yemen, Syria. They may not be on the right side of history but command the biggest platforms unaffected by labels of repressive regimes or oppressors of minority groups.

Horror & Heartbreak - our sole claim to fame

And while Pakistan is on the right path, it must now watch its step. It cannot afford to let its guard down for a second. Every transgression will be amplified – each misstep captured on celluloid. The lynch mobs, faith based murders, honor killings and sectarian tensions destroying the social fabric will be the only side of Pakistan the world will remember. It will be the only time they get to hear its name in between breaking news cycles and morning coffee breaks. Horror and heartbreak cannot be the sole footnote to the nation’s 70 year old history. Yes, a little girl got shot on her way to school – but she also rose like a phoenix to become a global icon. Malala is the embodiment of Pakistan’s spirit. Because a nation battered and bruised pushed beyond breaking point continues to defy expectations.

Mumbai however keeps milking one terror attack. As the maker of a soon to be released Pakistani film ‘Yalghaar’ pointed out - there are 80,000 dead in Pakistan. There are also countless injured, families displaced, lives ruined. Their names are all but forgotten.

True Grit vs. Manufactured Idols

The stories of survival – of courage and compassion need to be amplified to allow their fellow citizens and the world to acknowledge Pakistan’s sacrifices and get a sense of the challenges they confront every day. Rehabilitation projects for the brave victims of terror need to be highlighted. Here are real heroes’ not manufactured idol’s that deserve better. Like the 15 year old Aitzaz Husain – recipient of SJ who saved countless lives by throwing himself on a suicide bomber. A recent report comments on the plight of a martyrs’ family – still living under the shadow of TTP – waiting for compensation – for their sons sacrifice to be acknowledged, living off platitudes - unfulfilled promises of monuments and sports arenas, universities dedicated to a hero’s memory and for his name to be immortalized in the curriculum.

Pakistan needs to do right by its people before expecting the world to do the same. Putting its fiercest champions at the forefront does not serve as a veneer for a flawed base - it is not a ruse to score brownie points on the global front or mere strategy to whitewash history, like its bordering regions often do. Pakistan needs to be better than its neighbors.

It is time to rally around the brightest stars of the constellation. It is time to honor the dark side.



OPED: Radd-ul-Fassad – An Urgent Revision in the Wake of Mashal Khan's Lynching


Published Global Affairs / June 2017

Written in the immediate aftermath of Mashal Khan's lynching

On December 2014, 148 people, mostly school kids were murdered by terrorists in the APS (Army Public School) school massacre. In April 2017, a university student was lynched in Mardan. One tragedy marked a turning point. Another opens a Pandora’s Box.

APS happened while Operation Zarb-e-Azb was underway. It shook the nation to its very core; and pushed the armed forces to expand the scope of its offensives. Military courts were set up in the aftermath. A death row inmate (Qadri), once lauded by clergy and lawyers for killing a Governor, was finally executed along with scores of militants.

And soon another operation would come into effect after shrines, rallies and public places were targeted in a resurgence of terror in 2017. If the first was driven by vengeance, the second came from desperation. Pakistan’s survival was at stake – unless it tackled the darkness head on. But the darkness was deeply rooted in controversial laws and religious sentiments and shining a light towards the unholy nexus remains fraught with danger.

This is why Operation Radd-ul-Fassad needs to sharpen its intensity. It has a promising design and an ambitious scale, prompting the Army COAS to declare there are no more ‘no go’ areas. But the fault lines run deep, so much so that the PM once came under fire for daring to advocate religious harmony. His office keeps him safe for now. But as was witnessed in Salman Taseer’s case, rank and privilege are powerless in front of a possessed man with a weapon and an idea.

Such is the level of toxicity in the region. Such is the depth of depravity of its denizens. And on 13th April, it hit critical mass when Mashal Khan – a university student of journalism in Mardan was lynched by a frenzied mob made up of his fellow students. Blasphemy was cited as the reason though no evidence exists. What did exist was a young man, outspoken and open minded. His name means ‘torch’ and he talks of books and rain and Peshawar Zalmi on his social media timeline. He champions the cause of the downtrodden. He referred to himself as a ghost on more than one occasion. He was clearly a misfit in the environment. His father, a poor man, a dignified soul, beseeched the media for justice – to save other Mashals from being snuffed out. But clearly he didn’t expect any. Neither did the horrified onlookers.

One sickening act dealt a severe blow to the spirit of Radd-ul-Fassad and attempted to shred the precious National Action Plan before it could gain traction. Though no mullah was directly involved in its execution – the lynch mob carries the seal of approval of the homegrown hardliners. Later, the local clergymen reportedly incited people against Mashal’s family, refused to read his last rites, and tried to degrade his memory.

There’s a common thread running through these incidents – fanaticism, patronage by powerful men, mixed messages from the State and an absence of accountability. Pakistan may need protection from the spies, saboteurs, warlords, and radicals, but it needs saving from its own demons just as much. Without embarking upon a lengthy discourse, it cannot hope to implement the most crucial parts of its grand plan or sell its vision of a progressive nation with any conviction. Without securing its future generations, it cannot fortify its CPEC laced investments and enter the prestigious club of civilized nations.

A line must be drawn, because winning these battles will determine the outcome of a larger war. As reforms are imminent for seminaries – the radicals are now flexing their muscles. If a moderate voice is fearful of reading a poem on air because someone can whip up a blasphemy charge then things are bad. When every Pakistani hastens to add a disclaimer on his / her social media profile that they don’t own any other account because they are afraid of becoming the next statistic in a falsified blasphemy case, it is time to change. When a grieving father is compelled to testify for his martyred child’s good character and religious beliefs then that time is now.

That the counter terrorism department stepped in makes sense, for Mashal’s lynching is the very definition of terrorism. It took days for the State to issue a condemnation. A lone mufti has stood up to the cabal and declared Mashal a martyr. Society will take the apathy as tacit approval. The next lynch mob will take its cues from the official position.

There are no scapegoats in this case – no insidious networks with ties to Afghanistan or India. The Governor’s killer was a trusted guard sworn to protect him. Mashal Khans’ tormentors were his peers. These are not isolated incidents when a Fulbright scholar rots in jail – and an enlightened soul is lost forever. There is malware in the code. And these recurring patterns have somehow failed to register on a State level.

This vulnerability will be exploited not just by the ISIS, Taliban, JUA or any number of sectarian outfits Pakistan is trying to expunge but also the enemy agents they have been rounding up by the dozens. Now that the line between a Talib and the Taliban has been breached, it is just a matter of time when someone comes along to set them on hapless Pakistanis. The enemies who wish to isolate Pakistan must be rejoicing – for they have been handed the blueprints to a fatal flaw in the social fabric on a blood soaked platter. Such incidents cast long shadows and leave a permanent mark.

Initial investigations point to the university administration in instigating the attack; blasphemy, is and always has been a mere pretext. The next Kulbhushan Jadhav or Uzair Baloch will find a network of young men in universities already programmed to seek and destroy any one who doesn’t conform. The Taliban’s narrative of anti Malala, pro Aafia, minority hating spiel already aligns with an average Pakistani’s lopsided worldview. Where narratives align so can agendas.

No armies will be needed to invade cities. No propaganda machine will be wheeled out to tarnish Pakistan’s image. One word will set off a horde of mad men baying for blood. They will not require IED’s and suicide vests. They will be ticking time bombs waiting for the signal and will dictate who gets to live or die. Society will crumble. The nation will fragment. Because Pakistanis may be able to put aside their differences and unite against terrorism and even become soldiers in this war but they will not be able to survive the culling. This is no longer a hypothetical. Mardan was just the tip of the iceberg and one cannot unite a nation and fight a war with everyone looking over their shoulders all the time.

But Qadri’s execution also shows that the law can prevail provided the State can defend itself against reprisals and stand by their bold verdict. It proves that Pakistan still has a conscience. Even if the judiciary gets browbeaten into submission, there are some institutions left standing, able to ward off the powerful lobbies that dictate the theological parameters and rewrite scripture on a whim.

And there’s an opportunity here to wrench the narrative back provided the State can withstand the backlash and ensure that once they dispense justice, no shrines can be set up in a killer’s name, libraries dedicated to their memories or processions held to commemorate their despicable lives. Their names must be erased from history books. Because if they don’t enact the law, that message of ‘zero tolerance’ will carry no weight; the soft image of Pakistan will find no takers – its dreams of economic prosperity will yield no harvest. Make this the highest priority though the path is littered with minefields of rigid sentiments and unholy alliances.

A day after Mashal’s tragic death, the army foiled an attack on Easter celebrations and while that is a significant victory – the sacrifices and conquests have gone unremarked because of the looming crisis. The State now aims to reform security services, seminaries and educational departments. And Radd-ul-Fassad has to set the flawed premise right, peddled by self righteous mullahs and self serving politicians in order to proceed with its reformist agenda. That the murderers came from educated backgrounds makes this all the more critical because the next soldier, statesman and scholar will come from these cadres. Seminary students have limited reach. Radicalization has already begun to rear its ugly head in places once considered centers of secular thought.

It will have to be a collective effort to correct the national trajectory and ensure that core values of a civilized society become the baseline. They can engage with movements like ‘Badal do’ with its slogans of empathy, and calls for inclusivity – that welcomes diversity and advocates for change. By acknowledging activists like M. Jibran Nasir who champion human rights and represent the face of a compassionate Islam. And by drilling the concept that nothing is more sacred than protecting the sanctity of a life regardless of sect, religion and class differences.

Cultural exchanges to broaden horizons are the need of the hour especially in conservative, backwater parts of town likely to fall prey to a puritanical brand of religion that has no room for mercy – and no tolerance for debate. Academic discourses will ensure that they develop a capacity to appreciate alternate view points and understand other cultures. Such age old traditions that have protected the armed forces and empowered them to withstand the tempest make for a useful guide. Equip our ‘at risk’ generation with the same tools of common decency and kindness to guard against coming storm. Unless there are barriers already in place – the tide of extremism will lay waste to everyone including the cream of the crop being groomed for leadership.

In APS, a faculty member Ms. Afshan Ahmed gave her life to save the students. She and others like her represent the true face of Pakistan. And there are many ways to broadcast messages that demonstrate how there is honor in saving lives – none in destroying it. That even on the battlefield, heroism and chivalry are never far from reach; and fallen enemies are never mocked, or degraded, especially soldiers who die for their country. These forgotten ideals must be instilled in the youth and genuine role models presented for reference.

Radd-ul-Fassad will be required to anticipate and adapt to changing threats. It can do that by throwing its weight behind the victims of persecution; the Aasia bibis, Junaid Hafeez’s, Mashals - the noble fathers and grieving families. It can do that by saving the shrinking spaces. Without arts, culture and music, murder becomes the only form of entertainment. It can do that by acknowledging the services of minorities and promoting the rich diversity. The Interior Minister busy enabling the clergy via social media witch hunts continues to muddy the waters at a time when clarity is needed. The mixed messages need to be sorted out. And it can do that by allowing media watch dogs room to breathe and be vigilant against the appearance of extremist ideology instead of hunting down imaginary blasphemers.

Has Pakistan crossed the Rubicon? Can it salvage its liberal heart from the ashes of Mardan and the dying embers of its moderate spirit? Will it have the courage to purge the poison from within its ranks and realize that the very existence of such laws is an invitation to reenact Mardan?

By attacking a defenseless young man in the name of Islam, the killers challenged the writ of the sorry State, such as it is much the same way the Taliban did in Swat when they strung up citizens, demolished schools or shot Malala. The Taliban may have been unseated but their ideology clearly remains. The perpetrators of the Mardan debacle belong to the same school of thought and have thrown down the gauntlet. This is a turf war and they will not cede territory without a fight. Till the judicial system is strengthened, military tribunals become the only option otherwise judges are strong-armed and lawyers gunned down in broad daylight where even a whiff of blasphemy is suspected.

They can ensure the sou moto notices issued against suspects is not mere formality – that there are real consequences to subverting the tenets of a peaceful religion. By not delivering speedy justice to previous victims allowed radicals to make a mockery of the law. Taseers’ guard violated his oath. The Mardan mob broke the covenant. And there are many like them ready and willing to cross red lines set by humanity to reach the Promised Land.

Somewhere along the way Pakistanis became hostages to the radical ideology that commands street power and has no shortage of funding. Since no prominent leader had the moral courage to confront the clergy who refused to lead the prayers of a slain governor. None had the integrity to protect the one who did and who was later forced to go into hiding.

This was January 2011. Had a stand been taken then, things could have been different now. Recent images posted showing the small turn-out at Mashals funeral vs. Qadri’s procession; the contrast was jarring.

A monument to Mashal will be needed to mark this moment – to remember his humanity and to commemorate his short life. And to ensure Pakistan never forgets. And if the State waits for the outrage to die down and does not address this on war footing then all the operations and intelligence coups in the world cannot stop their world from imploding. The momentum cannot be allowed to fizzle away. Mashal must be a turning point. The future where the best and brightest will either be dead or exiled is round the bend since the nation is precariously close to losing its moral high ground. It will come to pass, unless they seize the controls and rein in its rogue sons of the soil. Till then all the leading lights in Pakistan are in danger; all the pillars of its strategic vision on notice. Till then all of us are ghosts.


OPED: Keeping the Truth & Reconciliation Train on Track in Pakistan & Bangladesh


Published by Global Affairs / June 2017

It is no secret that Pakistan’s Eastern Wing broke away or that India helped carve Bangladesh in 1971. There were weaknesses to be exploited and deep seated resentments that left sizeable fissures in between Pakistan’s East and West wing. The Indian PM Modi can now tip his hat to 1,661 Indian soldiers allied with an armed resistance – the dreaded Mukti Bahini without fear of reprisal. Of late, there have been whispers about a KGB element in the mix. But the past is over and done with. Or is it?

There was madness and mayhem and civil unrest. Both sides suffered. The figure of three million offered by Bangladesh however has been widely disputed. While there has been a lot of water under the bridge since 1971- there has not been any serious attempt at breaching the divide. But most Pakistanis have not whitewashed their history and acknowledge their errors in judgment and lack of political foresight that led to the debacle.

‘The wall between Bangladesh and Pakistan needs breaching’ by Syed Badrul Ahsan, an associate editor at the Daily Observer (Bangladesh), points at outstanding issues including apologies and misperceptions and his impression that the truth about 1971 had somehow failed to register amongst a majority of Pakistanis. He suggests the deployment of smart diplomacy asserting that “Pakistan and Bangladesh are significant players in South Asia, which is why they cannot at the end of the day ignore each other.” Easing visa restrictions for Pakistani diplomats and accommodating Bengali writers’ viewpoints in Pakistani publications was part of his proposal. A round of dialogue was another.

But what would be the terms of engagement now that the Bangladeshi Parliament has passed a resolution to mark 25 March as ‘Genocide Day’ and seeks an international stamp of approval for their new project. Since 2015, December 9 has been marked as the ‘International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime’ by the UN General Assembly. The demand for it to be moved to March 25th, two days after the Pakistani nation observes Pakistan Day signifies that phantoms of war wield enormous power and are ready to be summoned to scuttle diplomatic missions and rollback goodwill and progress. That it is perhaps a political ploy and not a memoriam to the victims of war. The term itself has troubling implications.

Nations mark days for many reasons - to commemorate their fallen – to admit their failings so they never make the same mistakes again and can move forward. Exorcising the past should ideally be for closure. It should be a liberating call so people are able to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation. It should provide some degree of catharsis. A day that instead condemns the coming generations to forever stay imprisoned in the darkest chapters of history misses the point. To continually tend to the seeds of bitterness instead of crafting a future and rebuilding relations is a poor framework for any modern state. History traces the evolution of nations who figured a way out of conflict zones. The French and British, sworn enemies in the 100 years war put aside their differences to become allies in WWI and WWII.

President Pervez Musharraf, on an official visit to Bangladesh expressed regret for the excesses of war. 1971 remains an emotionally charged topic and apologies do not always come on cue. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe became the first to visit the memorial site for Pearl Harbor victims at an American naval base. There may have been regret but no apology. They said the purpose was to pay respect to the dead. The US has yet to apologize for dropping those atom bombs. Japan went on to build a prosperous economy despite the lack of contrition on their opponent’s part and both nations mended fences for the sake of the greater good. An observer noted that the Japanese people may have sacrificed a bit of their humanity in their bid for perfection but their resilience and discipline cannot be doubted.
Pakistan still marks 16 Dec 1971 with forensic examination of events on an annual basis. After 2014, that date has become synonymous with another tragedy – the APS massacre of Peshawar.

Both nations have shared history and common bonds. They also have unresolved issues and baggage left over from 1971 to deal with. Bangladesh pulled out of the SAARC event to be hosted in Islamabad in 2016 after Modi refused to attend and Pakistan backed out of a cricket match recently. This year Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani TV anchor returned the ‘Friends of Bangladesh award’ conferred to his father for opposing army action in 1971. He doubted the Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina’s sincerity and commitment to build not burn bridges. It is not a stretch to imagine why, when headlines refer to the five billion dollar Indian aid to Dhaka, and tributes to fallen Indian soldiers who ‘liberated’ Bangladesh. And Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal set up in 2009 that doles out death sentences to Pak Army collaborators, and that reportedly has no UN oversight though it uses the term international to lend it an air of respectability. How far does this special relationship between Delhi and Dhaka inform Bangladesh’s policies towards Islamabad? Because the past continues to hold Pak-Bangladesh relations hostage, how easy is it to drive wedges?

Nations need the ability to map a future that can cater to the emergent threats and should be able to lay the ghost of to 1971to rest without creating permanent rifts. And leaders who can broker a compromise between the urge to consolidate their power base by stoking flames of resentment and the need to temper the rhetoric can open avenues of cooperation mutually beneficial to both parties. 1971 is a part of history, and that is where it should remain. 2017 is where Pakistan and Bangladesh need to be to launch the next phase of their cooperative agenda.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

OPED: The Missing Talking Points at the Arab Summit


Published by Global Village Space Under the Title "Pakistan must outline and work to achieve its own future for the region", with some adjustments / 31 May 2017

The media picked up on two things at the Arab-American Islamic summit held in May 2017. One that Pakistan was not mentioned even once. And the other was of course that Iran was - many times, in the most unflattering of terms. While the first has been seen a source of concern, the second should not really concern us. Yet it does.

The new American President on his first visit to the holy land arrived with a speech that was on point and diabolically clever, rolling back all the vitriol and hate filled rhetoric that are ratings gold for his Presidency. He hit all the right notes and named all the nations either allied with the U.S. in the fight against terror or have been in the terrorists cross hairs at some point; all except one.

Back home the deliberate oversight has been termed as a failure of Pakistan’s foreign policy. The Pakistani PM was critiqued for being a silent spectator to this display of indifference and mocked for being publicly sidelined at the summit. Did Trump’s speech really damage Pakistan’s efforts to convince the world we are seriously fighting terrorists as one media outlet appeared to suggest. Does it strengthen the narrative of Pakistan’s regional isolation gleefully peddled by India?
Regardless of the optics, Pakistan’s role in eradicating extremism and its efforts in stabilizing the region cannot be undermined by one speech and a single snub. But such incidents can serve as an indicator of where it stands on the geostrategic totem pole. And that should allow policy makers an opportunity to re-examine the parameters of their diplomatic outreach.

While a Pakistani General may lead IMAFT – the Islamic coalition against terror styled on NATO and Pakistan tops the list of terror hit nations – clearly this alone is not a guarantee of a seat at the head table. The actions of the Saudis and Americans viewed in a broader context reflect an array of considerations that drive their exclusionary agenda. It puts India ahead in every aspect – they are a pawn to checkmate China’s growing designs, an investment magnet for US entrepreneurs, and perhaps a constant thorn in Pakistan’s side to keep it occupied on the border and in line to prevent it from getting too big for its well polished boots.

India’s growing bluster proves it has a sympathetic ear for its Kashmiri misadventures and border provocations. Its willingness to take Pakistan to task and to the ICJ for capturing an Indian spy/saboteur shows its confidence in the system is not misplaced. Its boasts of meddling in Balochistan and ownership of its role in once breaking apart Pakistan should prove it does not care for the effects on the tide of global opinion.

It would be wise to heed the writing on the wall and take note of the evolving power play. Yet, Pakistan cannot be seen through the prism of KSA’s perceived inhospitality or have its worth gauged by a Trumpesque handshake.

That said, the nation needs is to take stock of the changing landscape now that it aims to play in the big leagues via CPEC. Expecting a PM under investigation for possible voter fraud and financial irregularities to be heralded at the international forum is naive. Though if the pendulum ever swings back in Pakistan’s favor even dictators become respectable. Because, politics is never personal; it is business. It makes sense for the world leaders to encourage the neighborhood bully and pretend to buy its propaganda. There are new playbooks unfolding and sensible nations must keep up.
Pakistan, China, Russia. India, US, Russia Iran, Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia, US & 41 loyal Gulf States in tow in the guise of an Islamic anti terror coalition. It does not serve Trump’s power base to suddenly elevate Pakistan to a valued ally and victim when hundreds of Pakistanis who perished in a Shrine bombing in February 2017 did not even merit a mention by the White House. Imaginary terror attacks however do garner considerable attention.

As for standing up against the Iran bashing at the Arab-American Summit held for the very purpose of putting Tehran in its place and cementing US- Saudi business deals, Pakistan and Iran share a border and an increasingly fraught relationship. The Indian spy reportedly used Iran as a launch pad for his subversive activities. Iranian agents have been caught wandering the streets and Iran just fired a mortar within western Balochistan killing a civilian. Also, Iranians recently hinted at carrying out strikes within Pakistani territory.

While it is in their collective interest to keep the Pak-Iran relationship on track which is why the Pak COAS intends to visit Tehran soon, picking sides on the basis of emotions is hardly good statecraft. Delhi appears closer to Tehran at this stage with its oil imports, economic stakes bilateral agreements on developing the Chabahar Port and talks of counterterrorism cooperation. Articles like “How India, Iran and Afghanistan can take on common terror villain Pakistan,” imagine a scenario where Iran and Afghanistan consider joint covert ops with India to checkmate Pakistan. Suffice it to say, that would be bad.

But this is the new normal and Pakistan must move beyond the Arab summit, King Salman’s half hearted apology for spurning the Pak PM and Trumps selective amnesia. It must secure its interests and its borders and restore its prestige on the world stage. It should capitalize on its strengths – successes in COIN, resilience of its poor battered populace and potential as an economic boom town in the not so distant future. It must muzzle the rabid mullah and religious interest groups hogging the limelight reserved for heroes. Prepare airtight cases against hidden hands that can stand up in international courts. Enroll in more UN Peacekeeping missions. And expand its security cooperation footprint given its years of experiences amassed under the counter-terrorism umbrella.

If India had half the battlefield experiences or made one tenth of the sacrifices that Pakistan has made, it wouldn’t have needed to carry out any lobbying. Pakistan’s vision for the future cannot allow silly snubs to get in the way. In this environment waving the nuclear power flag on the mast head is no longer a badge of honor. If anything, it is unnerving to consider nukes lying around within an arms length of an angry radical. Having powerful allies does not offer parity. Alliances shift. Interests change. And diplomatic efforts will be undercut by rivals.

The nation already wears the mantle of a frontline state. But being cast as a stabilizing influence in the region could alter the dynamics much like when Pakistan was hailed as a bulwark against communism.. And developing stable partnerships based on economic, security or technological grounds may help repair the breach. The PM may not have gotten a chance to say his piece that day. But Pakistan can still make its point.

Image Link.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

OPED: Pakistan at the Frontlines of Educational Reforms



Originally Published by Global Affairs / May 2017. Written before the Mashal Khan tragedy in Mardan




A terrifying document surfaced the other day on the social media that suggested a possibly extremist agenda in the education department in KPK - Pakistan. The letter dated 2015, ostensibly from Pervez Khattak directed DCTE Abbottabad to seek input from proscribed groups - the ASWJ for devising the curriculum. It was an alarming discovery and the comments that followed on the twitter timeline of the social activist who shared the story were even more alarming for they appeared to support making terror outfits stakeholders in the academia.

In a different part of town a few good Samaritans put forward a timely proposal that promised salvation for young Pakistani’s at the mercy of the hardliner’s pen.

Representatives from 7 organizations presented a pilot project launched to defuse the ticking time bomb of bigotry and hate. They dubbed it - ‘Badal Do’ – ‘Ignite the Change Within’ - a compelling vision that brought out a message of inclusivity, empathy, compassion - a commitment to embrace all the colors of Pakistan, a revival of its original values based on social justice and equal rights. In a word - humanity. These were attributes the society desperately needs at the moment; a belief system that can alter the fabric of life.

The scale was ambitious. Their overarching plan however had earmarked the perfect place to start - with the children. The audience that day was made up of educators and the idea was to ignite the spark where it could have the most impact and gradually filter down to society.

It was a well articulated design that offered hope to the masses; a way forward for its ‘at risk generation’ in an increasingly polarized world. It appeared to be the perfect antidote to the poison peddled by the media and mullahs and mullahs on the media.

It was ironic that they had identified a key element needed for the success of Operation Radd-ul-Fassad though the term counterterrorism did not figure in any of their conversations. Instead they delved into training for teachers – for field trips to promote a deeper understanding of the cultural bonds they share and historical contours of the cities they lived in. They suggested the need for children to identify heroes from within communities, seek out role models in imaginative ways to tackle gender biases and nullify class differences. They offered a quaint little skit performed by school kids that dealt with changing mindsets – that countered mean attitudes, deep seated prejudices and petty differences with humor and grace.
It was not an alien concept at the heart of their dream - ideals that forged this nation had been dusted off and presented for consideration.

By taking a stand, they did the unthinkable. Generate optimism about the future darkened by conflict, distrust and melancholy. It was telling that the luminaries featured in their ‘In Memoriam’ section reflected the very diversity they were hoping to safeguard. These were the pillars of society like Sister Mary Emily, Dina Mistry, Bishop Lobo, Fatima Surriya Bajia, Gool Minwala etc who had contributed to Pakistan’s greatness. Their names served as reminders of their country’s tolerant roots and deep potential.

The people at the helm of this project represented a cross section of corporate society. It was clear that they meant business for they unveiled their striking vision early in the day, without much fanfare, customary red carpets, mandatory celebrity appearances or vacuous displays of wealth and privilege. No long drawn out speeches or political heavyweights sapped the energy. And there was surprisingly little coverage in the mainstream media, perhaps because of the missing glitz and glamour that has become the staple of most events. Even the piteous condition of the chosen venue (Arts council, Karachi) reflected the misplaced priorities of the authorities and the resolve of these pioneers.

The pitch itself was brief yet powerful in its simplicity. It was a revealing moment that proved that society is not ready to surrender, and that they intended to fight till the last.

These were architects on the frontlines of educational reforms who insisted that their concept was fluid – they had allowed it room to grow, adjust, and expand over time. Since a battle for the soul of a nation was already being waged in different theatres, the theme went well with the message of the COAS Qamar Bajwa who deemed every citizen of Pakistan as a soldier in this war. Some are already in the trenches.

Such initiatives show the next generation a way out. There was no shortage of motivation on that sunny day in March. This was not a pipedream to be left at the mercy of self serving politicians, though the local government had reportedly thrown their weight behind the project. It would be a people’s movement that aspired to reach every citizen and make them stakeholders in their children’s future.

They also intended to reclaim the shrinking spaces – art, culture, literature - leaving room for free thinkers to rebuild the foundations of a kinder, more accepting Pakistan. There were cafes that would introduce the cuisine of different cities and allow conversations to promote an appreciation of their diversity. A platform along the lines of Ted Talks where educators could speak about their experiences and the lives they changed; where all employees regardless of their social standing would be welcome provided they had something worthwhile to share. The power of theatre, radio, film would be harnessed to take their message further.

Present day Pakistan has a very high threshold for corruption, fanaticism and violence. Introducing these values in such a toxic environment is bound to be a challenge. There will be resistance from those whom the broken system benefits. Who misuse its flawed principles to rally street power, contaminate impressionable minds and silence liberal avenues of expression. Their voices are loud enough to drown out any debate on rationality, ride rough shod over human rights and chase mirages of blasphemy for political expedience. The nation’s voice must be louder.

Which is why it is imperative that movements such as these be protected, and the authors of this new script encouraged. Whoever wins this battle controls the future of Pakistan. Wresting that power away from the keepers of the hardliner interpretation of an ideology and giving it back to its rightful owners will be a test of the citizen’s commitment to their children’s future and their own.

Their strategy, even in its simplified form was viewed as a lifeline. Should ‘Badal Do’ succeed in implanting seeds of tolerance; it could be the ideal narrative needed to counter the hate peddled by some that has been exploited by extremists in our midst and is increasingly gaining traction. That leads to shocking outbreaks of violence like massacres at a shrine in Sargodah at the hand of faith healers, or unleashing mob justice on minorities. That makes it ok for Nobel laureates to be disowned and their families targeted because of their religious beliefs while murderers of sitting Governors are honored with monuments by radicalized factions. Terrorism may be a global threat but conditions that allow it to take root and thrive have been ripe for sometime.

Rolling back these trends begins with awareness, introspection and education.

It is worth a shot. And if this experiment succeeds, a version of it can perhaps be transplanted on the seminaries in need of reformation which is one of the primary tenets of the famed National Action Plan - NAP.

Follow BadalDo @BadalDoPk

Image Source: BadalDo Twitter

OPED: The Impact of Raheel Sharif as Commander NATO-lite


First Published in Global Affairs / May 2017

Former COAS Raheel Sharif (R.S.) is a rare bird. He did not ask for an extension - make a play for the throne, get embroiled in scandals, financial or otherwise, or walk away with the coveted title of a Field Marshal. It was a dignified exit; and a first in Pakistan. As COAS he was the cat’s pajamas. Then he got a job offer. And everything changed.
Since then, laudatory reports regarding his achievements in counter-terrorism had given way to critical debates concerning his forthcoming appointment. One in particular devises a fear-mongering narrative from the General’s future prospects and needs some clarification.

The post entails commanding a NATO styled, Saudi backed coalition of Muslim nations, Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terror - IMAFT. And should he don the mantle of commander in chief - NATO - lite, it will be another first.

Is there anything keeping the General from assuming charge of a coalition sponsored by the House of Saud besides the obvious?

IMAFT is unchartered territory and the military commander’s foray into the unknown is fraught with risks – it also threatens to tilt the balance of power in the Kingdom’s favor. Pakistan resisted Saudi Arabia’s calls to join the fight in Yemen a few years ago and that decision was hailed given the sectarian colors of the banner under which it would be waged. Now that a Pakistani General (R) may end up as the face of the resistance – so to speak, those concerns have made their way back to the forefront. And some new ones have been added from across the border adding a sinister tone to the takeover.

A former Army Chief / President expressed his reservations over this deal because of the aforementioned sectarian elements in play. Politicians worry it impinges upon national security. Neighbors fret about losing their place in the changing world order.
In many ways R.S. is a logical choice for the task. The freshly retired General is battle hardened – as is his army he had commanded. He remains a prominent figure and is more than qualified to lead a coalition of 40 something nations in the good fight.

But there’s a catch. Because they are predominately Sunni, such an alliance has been viewed with suspicion. Because he is a Pakistani, the pact has spooked the neighbor. And since he is a private citizen – these objections could become secondary.

Indian based media sources speak of the “most warmongering General to lead a global anti terror force.” Speculations are rife about the political fallout of this relationship on the Eastern front. They allege that this promotion somehow threatens the integrity of India. That access to terror syndicates can be harnessed and weaponised and deployed against its arch nemesis. Sharif could influence member nations to work against an outflanked Delhi in some future war between nuclear armed nations. And they suggest bolstering ties with Israel to balance out the scales.

It is understandable why being outflanked could give them sleepless nights. NATO – the original one is meant to promote democratic values, engage on trust building, foster security cooperation, encourage conflict resolution. NATO – the Middle Eastern Chapter for now adds an unofficial layer of support to the Saudi-Pak partnership as it determines Raheel Sharif’s place in the big leagues. Reports had already been circulating of increased defense and security cooperation offered by Pakistan that included training, intelligence sharing, narrative building etc to the Saudi’s. Recently rumor mill had been rife with stories about the deployment of a brigade within Saudi borders. And a contingent of Special Services Group of Saudi Royal Forces took part in Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March 2017.

A Pakistani will headline an Arab coalition. It could be a game changer. Granted, such partnerships are bound to have implications for the region. But as Pakistan sets out to raise its profile and confront its demons, its decision making process regarding its Gulf brethren would ideally be motivated by its core strategic interests and not familial ties. Also, Raheel’s allegiance is unlikely to suddenly shift towards a petro-dollar vending machine and make him lose his neutrality. And his designation should not influence Pakistan’s position on matters of statecraft adversely. Getting embroiled in conflicts while its own house is burning would be a mistake.

The rest of the tirade however is absurd and farfetched; and a tad insulting to a General who has spent the better part of his tenure eradicating terror and stabilizing the region; who kept the army in the barracks, threw terrorists to the justice mill albeit via controversial military courts and cleaned up Karachi.

Little is known about this coalition except that Iran isn’t part of it, yet. Sharif’s immediate challenge as the architect on call will be navigating a terrain scarred by ancient rivalries, escalating threats and hostile agendas. Taking the poor man’s NATO from concept to a reality will be a test of his skills as a soldier and statesman and may demand the patience of a saint.

Does a Pakistani General’s stint as a strategic consultant create a conflict of interest with the Indian agenda?

It is unprecedented. True. It does not fit in with the stereotypical vision of retired Generals with their days filled with golfing, gardening, playing analyst on TV, cutting deals, in exile or hitting the international lecture circuit.

Some might say his day job is merely an extension of what the General was doing before. And with the experience accumulated over the years it gives him an edge. Sharif brings an objective viewpoint and a professional edge to the table. And since he is respected across the board, being an emissary brings prestige to the brand he represents – namely Pakistan. His star is rising. This is his moment.

Raheel Sharif was reportedly the belle of the DAVOS ball earlier this year where the Pakistani PM - Nawaz Sharif (no relation), who also happens to be R.S.’s last namesake was barred from addressing any forum on account of the corruption investigation underway. Headlines stating that he brought swagger back to the army demonstrate the level of esteem for R.S. in the Gulf region. That perception helps elevate Pakistan on the global stage and debunks the narrative of isolationism propagated by her Eastern rivals.

India, on the other hand, given their taste in elected officials chosen to safeguard their shining status need to take some time off from their (smear) campaign trail and observe the post election landscape. They should question how a bigoted priest turned politician facing criminal charges can ever be representative of their sacred tenants or be compatible with their progressive ideals. And they must divert their outrage at the waves of fanaticism sweeping through their territory and focus on containing the threat of extremism now knocking at their doorstep.

Will the sight of a Pakistani General alienate Iran remains a nagging concern. Though Sharif reportedly demanded Iran’s inclusion, the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran makes a truce unlikely. Relations between Pakistan and Iran, however, seem to be on the mend at the moment given the commencement of joint naval drills in Iranian waters alongside Pak - Iran trade deals in the backdrop. They showcase the security and economic cooperation underway regardless of Iran’s exclusion from the club.

Pakistan appears to have only two places reserved for their heroes – the pedestal or the dock. There is no middle ground. Raheel Sharif becomes a ‘man of the year’ by their standards one day – and a sell out the next. While the jury sits debating about the wisdom of his life choices, he is busy carving out a place for himself in history. Time will tell whether this gamble pays off or backfires on a spectacular scale.

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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

OPED: The Greater Game



Published Global Affairs / March 2017. Written in August 2016.


They say that ‘the Taliban are coming to Islamabad’ was a common refrain among some diplomatic circles. They cannot be faulted for having such a stark worldview. From 2007 onwards the region registered a dramatic spike in terror and the world feared for the integrity of a nuclear armed nation in the face of a rapidly deteriorating law and order situation.

Some might argue that now that Pakistan has finally taken the war to the enemy within, a modicum of peace seems to have descended. Zarb-e-Azb, classified as a full scale operation against terrorists of all shades and denominations enters its third year. And a prominent name linked to JuD is finally under arrest.

Tracking battlefront gains can be tricky since the operations are still ongoing. There have been rough patches along the way. And the nation suffered tragic setbacks with devastating attacks on police academies, shrines and hospitals.

Back home the military’s track record came into question every time a suicide bomber got through, while the world continued to gauge its performance from a special set of parameters.

The Afghan Taliban’s misuse of Pak territory had been cited as the reason for withholding $300 million reimbursements. The sight of radical groups (ASWJ) etc pottering about did not exactly inspire confidence and a selective targeting approach (alleged) naturally tipped the scale of global opinion adversely. The spotlight refused to shift from the strange categorization of terror syndicates that often led to a blurring of lines between good & bad Taliban.

Foreign media remained dismissive of any claims regarding Kabul’s role in stoking the fire within Pak borders even in its most balanced pieces like ‘Pakistani Militants and the State: Friends, Foes, and Frenemies’ (Jul 5, 2016) by Stephen Tankel, senior editor War on Rocks. Consequently, it failed to factor in imprints of RAW, NDS, or MOIS occasionally spotted in the mix.

Admittedly, the fear of blowback that prevented military strategists from confronting certain threats may have been real. Pakistanis in the crosshairs of terrorists however would have preferred that no such distinctions are made. Blind-spots regarding jihadist outfits and Haqqanis only served to muddy the waters, provide belligerent nations ammo to scapegoat Pakistan, forcing allies to question their loyalties. Besides, such gambits tend to misfire. But the other side of the picture that stays buried under the debris of distrust and accusations of duplicity leaves gaps in the narrative.

Like when the Swat operation Rah-e-Rast dislodged HVT’s (High Value Target) like Fazlullah, many who fled to Afghanistan, sought sanctuary later directing attacks against the Pakistani state. Two observations have been offered by Mr. Tankel to explain this phenomenon. One of them declares that “…after years in which Afghanistan was on the receiving end of attacks by Pakistan-supported militants, elements in the Afghan intelligence service (the National Directorate of Security or NDS) reportedly began enabling these cross-border attacks.”

The other insists that that the NDS involvement is unclear in this scenario. Again, both Iranian and NDS connections with possible ties to RAW (Indian spy agency) unearthed in a recent intelligence coup are left out. Instead, the new Afghan President appears making overtures to Pakistani people in the next passage. The casual remark that capacity strapped Afghan security forces would be more focused on fighting insurgency within its borders than facilitating terrorists using its soil to target Pakistan lets them off easy. Also, an NDS hand in destabilizing its neighbor seems to be mere payback for all that supposed meddling Pakistan did post Soviet withdrawal.

Since Pakistan’s Indian centric approach remains a key policy driver, it becomes an important point of reference. Stephen conceded that New Delhi aided abetted separatist movements in the past adding that there is no open source evidence of Indian support. The article written after the arrest of a high level Indian spy in Baluchistan probably means it discounts Pakistan’s case against Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav and his coteries of spies.

Finally, the military’s alleged fondness for harboring proxies generally attributed to the Indian bogie forever hovering in the background came up for review. And when the dreaded anti-Shia LeJ were shown enjoying political patronage, Pakistan’s crackdown on their lieutenants linked to ISIL was also considered thereby maintaining a fairly even tone. But there’s a sudden shift implying that “…..resurrecting JeM also had potential utility against India. In January 2016, a team of JeM militants attacked the Pathankot Air Force Station...” A key update where a joint team went to probe the incident and Indian investigators cleared Pakistan of involvement was not a part of this analysis.

Notwithstanding the fact that some of these elements may have been wielded as anti-Qaeda propaganda machines in the past, their presence jeopardized the ally’s position in leading the good fight and gave way to dangerous speculations. They also widened sectarian rifts, endangering the vision of a progressive nuclear state. No one cared about Taliban’s top leadership vacationing in Iran when his motorcade was targeted the second he entered Pakistani territory. Or that the road blocks to the peace were centered in Kabul and reportedly funded by New Delhi.

The Pak-Afghan border fencing initiatives proposed by Pakistan that sparked a fresh feud and led to casualties on both side was a case in point. At its core lies the hope that such a structure can curtail the insurgent’s ability to launch the cross border attacks. The cooperation and joint patrol squads probably needed for this to succeed have yet to see the light of day. The sight of banned organization members roaming the streets only added to the trust deficit.

At this stage taking control of the runaway narrative may look difficult. The implication that non-state actors have been used with state connivance inevitably shaped perceptions about Pak military and stoked suspicions about their motivations.

Consequently those hard won victories went unnoticed; as did the fallen soldiers and citizens in line of fire. The cloud that hung over the establishment followed them when they raised the plight of Kashmiri’s on international forums, attempted to resolve trivial border disputes or tried to get clearance for military hardware from the US Congress for fighting insurgency. And though the visiting dignitaries no longer envisage a Taliban invasion in the Capital, it continued to be seen as a dangerous destination – its leadership beset with scandals, setbacks and, possibly surrounded by saboteurs. Islamabad’s counter-narrative may take time to gain traction along with its efforts at elevating Pakistan’s global stature.


OP-ED: Business as Usual

Published in Global Affairs / March 2017. Written / Sep 2016.

Third world nations that remain daggers drawn have yet to ascend to that stage of nirvana marked by regional cooperation and economic reforms; the kind that defines Sino - US relations for instance. Former US ambassador to China described their emerging relationship as “controlled enmity.” It had remained on course despite Washington’s concerns over the militarization of South China Sea, or indictment of Chinese hackers by a US court. The world’s biggest economy and the largest US foreign creditor and the superpower had learnt to prioritize and steer their relations towards a semblance of normality.

No one really knows which direction they will take under a Donald Trump Presidency. But economic considerations trumped personal differences at the time. And now judging from the list of banned nations devised by the White House where some obvious names have been pointedly left out – at least for the time being, it still appears to take precedence over security concerns.

South Asian nations operate differently. Common grounds they have aplenty - common foes too. Yet, Kabul bickers over trade routes and refugee repatriation while India threatens to renege on water treaties (which would be an open declaration of war) amid dubious declarations of ‘surgical strikes’ in Pakistani territory. And Islamabad’s misgivings about the ever expanding Indian footprint remain in place especially after India ratcheted up the propaganda against Pakistan and war hysteria in the region. They have spent seven decades stoking the flames of resentment while keeping old flashpoints in place. Here fronts multiply on a dizzying scale, followed by attempts to reach for the nearest nuclear arsenal to resolve differences. It has never been a healthy relationship.

Such conflicts color their policies and keep them in a negative holding pattern. While Pakistan and Afghanistan were embroiled in yet another feud over the transportation of consumer goods, India went on the warpath after the 18 September 2016 attack on its army base. No evidence had been provided that tied Pakistan to the terrorists before their relations went south. The subsequent war of words between Pakistan and India over the Uri attack quickly escalated, leading to an exchange of fire across the line of control. Trade talk took backseat. Nuclear war became the lead headline.

The ties binding Islamabad, Kabul and Delhi are flimsy, and break easily. The Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement – APTTA was signed in 2010 and meant to regulate bilateral trade between a landlocked Afghanistan and its Pakistani neighbor. It gave Kabul access to Pakistan based seaports and dry ports including the Wagah border to import duty free goods. The wordings that allow one-sided trade from Afghanistan to India via Pakistan and prevent Indian goods from reaching Afghanistan created a fresh unpleasantness.

Afghan President Muhammad Ashraf Ghani threatened to return the favor by blocking trade routes to Central Asian nations for Pakistan. Afghanistan does not have much leverage at the moment so the loss of these Central Asian transit routes may not register on an economic level. But the loss of goodwill manifests itself in Kabul’s pivot towards India through the establishment of an air corridor proposed by Afghanistan and India – the acrimonious language by its President and the general air of suspicion that clouds the Af-Pak relationship.

The eastern front is no better. The retaliatory firing across the LOC (Line of Control) and failed attempts to breach the parameter from Indian side had been presented as surgical strike on Pakistani militant camps by Modi to mirror the OBL raid, which is a stretch, even for India. The collateral damage as a result of a firefight was the only sign that something was afoot.

Their respective stock market plummeted in the wake of the stand-off. They then attempted to stifle the few avenues left standing by banning each other’s cinema and actors. Cable TV’s came under pressure to follow suit. And celebrities were shamed for not taking sides.

Pakistan - India trade accounts for less than half percent of India’s global trade. Their economies will not be crippled given that trade stands at $ 2.61 billion dollars as of (2015-2016). But the commotion at the border that allows India to sweep its human rights record under the mat distracts from more pressing matters – that includes regional economic uplift and counter terrorism efforts.

There is no easy fix for the endless provocations emanating from the neighborhood. Economic and security cooperation between Pakistan - Afghanistan appears to be a pipedream under the circumstances. India wants a slice of the APTTA/ PTTTA pie and there had been suggestions of a trilateral transit trade.

But India by its own admission is also playing the long game. It seeks a higher power differential outgunning Pakistan in military, economic and diplomacy by 2025. All its energies are therefore directed at isolating Pakistan. But a few interesting developments have happened since then that put Islamabad on surer ground. Namely, the BRICS summit where China and Russia refused to denounce Pakistan; Pak-Russian rapprochement and joint military exercises by former Cold War adversaries on Pakistani soil.

Meanwhile, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan remain deadlocked. What would the landscape be like should these three nations ever decide to partner up for commerce instead of finding themselves engaged in a zero sum game? Perhaps they are then less likely to think sabotage, with major investments on the line. Or burn cultural bridges that took years to build and devise strategies to undercut the opposing players in the bid for the brass ring. China, despite the relationship woes with its neighbor happens to be India’s ‘largest trading partner.’ The Indo-China trade is reportedly $100 billion dollars (2015).

The region that had been reverberating with the drumbeats of war has no safeguards in place to check neighbors with hegemonic designs or encourage conflict resolution. An economic stake may assure that both nuclear nations would perhaps think twice before dusting off war slogans to appease national honor and push each other to the brink of an Armageddon to assuage wounded pride or imagined slights.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

OPED: NAP - the Second Coming



Published by National Herald Tribune March 2017



A 20 point National Action Plan devised in January 2015 identified key issues that needed to be resolved on an urgent basis. It looked perfect on paper and ceded space to military courts; kick-started the process of refugee reparation; proposed actions against banned organizations and recommended the registration of seminaries. The proposal though ambitious appeared to be well crafted and would ultimately become the cornerstone of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. Its implementation however left a lot to be desired.

NAP was supposed to bring sweeping reforms in the realm of education, criminal justice, religious seminaries, FATA; have zero tolerance for militancy in Punjab, strengthen NACTA - National Counter Terrorism Authority and fortify the security parameters.

It led to a marked improvement in Karachi’s security. Fencing was considered along the Western front despite resistance by the neighbors. And the moratorium was lifted on death penalties for terror suspects. An uneasy calm had descended, only to be shattered soon since all the elements of the NAP couldn’t be put in motion. It had failed to factor in the political will or lack thereof and the limitations of its reach.

There were too many working parts to the plan and not enough qualified handlers to supervise its seamless coordination. There were Machiavellian politics at play while the fate of the nation hung in balance.

Though 2300 Seminaries were reportedly shuttered in Sindh, the rest of the provinces lagged behind in the geo-tagging and registration department. Havens in Punjab were left untouched; the floundering justice system that enables a corrupt mindset kept festering. And a civil military divide appeared instead of the unity everyone expected. Corruption would be the leading headline and the as yet unreformed justice system was expected to deliver a fair verdict for cases against the ruling elite.

After a month of violence, NAP is back on the table; as are the military tribunals. Now that the conversation has circled back to the unrealized vision, the path has to be cleared for its speedy implementation. And though the army wants to fast track the process, how realistic is their wish-list given the fundamental flaws in the basic premise?

It would need tweaking to compensate for the flailing system. It may require the leaders to reinforce the message and fix misplaced priorities. It will need an intervention when the debate turns to regressive policies that hearken to the Talibanization era in the academic circles by enforcing mandatory head gear for female students instead of initiating educational reforms. And when crucial time is wasted playing to the mullah gallery by chasing blasphemous content across the cyber-world, threatening bans on social media, and issuing threats against liberal voices on behalf of extremist agendas. Or, when complacency sets in and petty politics and power-plays take precedence over more pressing matters like life, liberty and the integrity of a nation.

The first NAP misread the commitment. It was a glossy piece of paper that assumed the existence of well oiled cogs in the state machinery ready to spring into action when called to battle. In reality the civilian infrastructure has deteriorated to a point that bringing it back to life will require serious negotiations along with investments in time, resources, and trusty watch-dogs to oversee and deliver results via progress reports.

It would need to assess the difficulties encountered in the first round and devise practical solutions that make room for stakeholders concerns without compromising its core agenda. The Action Plan is basically ‘terraforming’ – in that it is now attempting to alter the very fabric of national disunity to encourage the return of its founding fathers original design that proposed the highest standards of excellence. It will have resistance not just from the ideology it is trying to expunge – but also the powers that be who benefit from the politicized security forces at their beck and call and a blanket immunity to permit the blatant misuse of the taxpayers’ money. The blowback that comes from pulling the plug on their power source should have an appropriate response handy.

Is the new improved vision ready to fix those oversights? Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad launched in February in response to the bloody wave of terror that swept through the region is supposedly an extension of NAP I. There is a deweaponization drive, awareness campaigns to mobilize the nation and broad spectrum security CT (counter terrorism) operations authorized in previously no go areas like Punjab. And yes, FATA is set to join KPK.

Despite these optimistic indicators – expectations are low. Unless the bold vision can clear through the rubble in time to convince stakeholders that the show of unity and strength across the board may turn the tide in Pakistan’s favor. That the impenetrable wall of resistance they aim to build can only be fortified with intuitive policies designed to adapt to a changing threat matrix on a priority basis. And that this will be a mission critical component to the overarching goal of nation-building. NAP II cannot become a hatchet job and must succeed because if it falls short in any department – the entire scheme will start to unravel. Will Pakistan be able to survive another betrayal?

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

OPED: Mending Fences – along the Af-Pak Border


Published in Lead Pakistan / Feb 2017


Pakistan and Afghanistan find themselves at crossroads. Pakistanis can rattle off all the reasons they think they have qualified for Afghanistan’s gratitude starting from their help in liberating them from the Soviet occupation to hosting millions of displaced Afghans and training their security forces to name but a few. Their Afghan neighbors on the other hand keep a list of grievances nearby to trump any grand gestures made in the past 4 decades.

Their relations may have soured over time but there are avenues of cooperation left open that can be explored. Overtures made by Pakistani State lately testify to their attempts at mending fences and the reciprocal moves by their Afghan counterparts may signal that peace and reconciliation may still be on the table. Pak COAS Qamar Javed Bajwa’s New Year phone call to Afghan leadership and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s invitation to visit make these important milestones. That momentum must not be lost in the fog of war. The stakes are too high and time is short.

The revival of the ISI – NDS agreement that promised intelligence sharing and security cooperation formulated in May 2015 comes at a crucial moment. At the time the deal was termed as against Afghan national interest. Now it may just be the lifeline needed to keep their joint national interest afloat. Earlier in February 2017, Pakistan is said to have captured and handed over suspected IS terrorists to Afghanistan that had entered its territory. After the Sehwan attack, Pak military reportedly provided the names of 76 terrorists to their Afghan counterparts in the hopes that Afghan security forces will take action. They have not done so. Pakistan in turn, targeted militant sanctuaries in Afghanistan, a first.

While fears that this could potentially wreck the fragile bonds of trust and deepen the divide remain – the incident highlights the urgency of solidifying a cohesive strategy to eliminate sanctuaries on either side of the divide. To that end, Pakistan has launched multiple operations to clear and secure its badlands and needs Afghanistan’s help in ensuring its success. That cannot happen if militants like JuA (splinter group TTP), that claimed the recent wave of attacks on Pakistani citizens continue to find safe havens beyond the wall. The rationale that a stick will not eliminate the threat may have some merit but not acting at all also has consequences. If those areas are beyond Afghanistan’s control and ISAF is unwilling or unable to strike the enemy camps, would Afghans prefer a joint military action (Af-Pak) against a common foe? At the same time, Afghanistan’s concerns about similar havens on Pak turf will also need to be allayed.

In an Al Jazeera segment, Davood Moradian - Director-General of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies decried the parallel approach towards Afghan Taliban and Afghanistan’s elected representatives implying that Pak State treated Afghan consulates spread across the country on par with the Taliban leadership mission in Quetta.

Not pushing the Taliban as stakeholders was laid out as a benchmark for CBM’s in future dialogues. The Pakistani State has been encouraged to take on the role of mediators between them on more than one occasion – and its sole interest has been to facilitate peace talks at the behest of Afghans. They no longer envision a 1990’s stylized Taliban led powerbase. And they withdrew support post 9/11 and paid the price in the form of blowback. Such characterizations, unfair though they may be, need to countered, especially since they can be used to fuel old fears and create fresh paranoia’s.

Both sides must find ways around the breach exacerbated by the Indian footprint, cross-border terrorism, Afghan leaderships' belligerent outlook and border disputes. Past the exodus of refugees which continues to generate negative publicity; and the rejection of monetary aid for said refugees from Pakistan that evokes widespread dismay. And recent attacks on Pakistani soil that elicited strong worded responses regarding Afghan based sanctuaries and led to a closure of Spin Boldak and Torkham gate. That threatens what little trade is left between these two neighbors and requires a diplomatic offensive to salvage relations.

For years Pakistan’s dry ports and sea ports have been used for bilateral trade with its landlocked neighbor. Afghanistan remains in search of greener pastures and Iran is their newest trading partner. They have also entered into a strategic partnership with India. Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan has suffered of late. Cementing economic ties in times of war will be challenging given the stringent checks enforced at border crossings and outbreak of firefights across the LOC. It is inevitably the common man at the receiving end of these actions so keeping the supply lines running would make sense to safeguard the people’s trust.

For decades, Pakistan was considered to be second home to the displaced Afghan population. Of the 1.3 million registered and 1 million undocumented, 600,000 have already left. The State has extended their stay till December 2017. Refugee Repartition is a difficult decision and needs to be handled with compassion.

President Ghani recently alluded to a world ‘where order has been redefined’. “Now it is up to us to make it beneficial, damaging or disastrous.” It is good advice. They can also take a page out of the Chinese playbook. Afghans, do not air grievances in public. And Pakistan must keep the lines of communications open no matter what.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

OP-ED: New Roadmaps


Published by Global Village Space 13 March 2017

With the Armed Forces to protect the borders - agencies to safeguard its national interests and weaponry to deter military invasions, Pakistan can honestly say that its security is in good hands. Generally this would be enough for conventional warfare. It now needs its citizen’s support to tackle the new age phenomena of terrorism. For that there must be a narrative in place and it should have no ambiguity this time around.

The decade long war efforts have been marred by confusion, dissent, resistance and doubts. Whether it is foreign agencies or home-grown networks in the payroll pulling the strings – their support system lay within. And that is where the fight also lies. And though the ‘hidden hands’ remained the go to theory, the spotlight never could stay for long on the sympathizers, financers, facilitators that walk among us. A vicious and unrelenting terror campaign failed to bring the political leadership on the same page.

The time to have the conversation was perhaps a decade ago when militants first declared war on Pakistan. But the floor is still open and citizens must be brought in on the loop. And while there are awareness campaigns regularly beamed across the airwaves; emergency hotlines set up; while movie theaters air promos warning about suspicious people, acts, and packages - beseeching the public to do its part, more needs to be done.
There is the morale for starters.

1. First restore the public’s confidence in the States ability to safeguard their life and property. While the sight of Rangers patrolling the streets may set a few minds at ease, and rewards for exemplary performance for departments (CTD) that saved Karachi make residents breathe easier, pouring in resources in upgrading and streamlining the system will go a long way in getting the people’s attention.

The citizens must not feel their security is secondary to a privileged few. They will need reassurances. Standing in the midst of a crumbling infrastructure and hearing about the blatant misuse of funds when nothing around them functions is asking too much. In the case of the Sehwan bombing in February 2017, medical facilities were lacking. In any crisis, rescue efforts generally leave much to be desired. Navy helicopters and PAF C-130s had to be called in to airlift the injured from the shrine. Rangers and Army assisted in the efforts. Against that bleak backdrop, the decision to upgrade Sindh’s bomb disposal squad needs to be highlighted and mirrored across the provinces. And community uplift projects and investments in public safety should be visible to boost confidence.

Pakistan has seen war before. The nation owes a debt of gratitude to MM Alam, Younus, Aziz Bhatti and Rafiqui etc. Their exceptional courage and powerful legacy motivated citizens to pull their weight, survive trenches, endure blackouts; enroll for military training in schoolyards and line up for blood drives. People had faith in the system and it was repaid. The theme of patriotism remains the mainstay and sacrifices of their men are never far from mind. Also, the sight of containers, security gates; check-posts and sniffer dogs is the new norm. And HUMNIT can only do so much.

But sub-conventional warfare cannot be fought by sophisticated flying machines, unmanned drones or covert ops alone. It will need the public’s cooperation and support and round the clock vigilance from LEAs. Operations launched to rid the land of terror once limited to badlands have now gone nationwide. ‘Radd-ul-Fasaad’ plans to take the fight to the enemy within. It includes, among other things, a deweaponisation drive that could alter the dynamics particularly of the tribal belt that serves as a veritable arms bazar.

2. The first order of business will be to reinforce the message put out in the aftermath of APS massacre – Dec 2014. That it is either us or them; that the ‘they’ in question walk among us and this is a fight to the end. That message keeps getting lost in the din. And once the enemy has been identified, take care that accusations of profiling do not mar the process. Mistakes that can sow division will have to be instantly rectified. Reports of profiling Pashtuns and Afghan refugees recently surfaced that could have potentially damaging consequences for provincial harmony- such as it is. If the stories are false, they need to be rebutted immediately. If it’s a case of miscommunication, retract and amend the statement. For if an entire community believes it is being persecuted or feels ostracized, any efforts made to rally support will ultimately fail should it lose the core audience.

3. The role of LEA’s at the front line may have undergone a dramatic shift. Yet the wall of suspicion between people and those entrusted to serve and protect them remains intact. And fixing that breach may help make their jobs a little easier. Laudatory comments regarding security forces at the PSL Super League held in Lahore recently are a refreshing sight. That good will must not be squandered. As the first line of defense, security agencies need to be outfitted, trained and prepared for the tempest and their sacrifices acknowledged, and PAF’s newly minted Uqaab force ready to fight alongside law enforcement comes at an opportune time.
Counter terrorism has a steep learning curve and since terrorists adapt and evolve accordingly, so must the security plans. It can never be truly foolproof. But the State should be able to truthfully say that they did their very best. Terror took time to manifest. And will take time to die out. Patience will be expected.

4. The stakeholders concerns must have a place in this new world order. Where there are mistakes and lapses do not cover up. Own up and allow for an open discourse. Use them as a sounding board. A short on France 24 regarding the Swat makeover also added a less than flattering portrait of the saviors in the post Taliban valley. It was based on interviews with disgruntled elders afraid their land was being usurped by the military stationed there to protect them.

Grievances can be exploited. Trivializing them would be a mistake. A sympathetic approach will ensure that residents who have endured so much and form the heart of resistance are not disheartened or disillusioned. Strong arming opposition and media blackouts are never the solution.

Such missteps aside, the resilience of the nation has never been doubted. And it must be clarified that the people are in it for the long haul; that they will not be left to fend for themselves - the defenders will be there with them every step of the way. They must also know that a constant state of red alert is unrealistic. And it is not a deterrent. Every soft target cannot be manned; every single person / vehicle cannot be searched. Getting the nation on board is key, and citizens need to be engaged on all fronts.
It may not look it but Pakistan is on war footing, which means that smallest mistakes can be extremely costly and any dereliction of duty can lead to mass casualties.

5. If there are CCTV cameras they must be functional; ditto for the handheld scanners and walk through metal detectors. Sindh Chief Ministers’ statements about how load shedding reportedly affected the video quality of cameras along with claims that Sehwan’s security had been compromised due to some unnamed VVIP’s need to be investigated. And at the same time ensure that there is zero tolerance for a breach of security protocols – for any misuse of power that could jeopardize public safety. Checks and balances should be enforced on an equal basis for the Minister, the Major and the common man. It is the only way to ensure compliance. A political party head being subjected to snap checking in Karachi just like any other mortal is a good precedent.

Perhaps a dose of accountability might help remove doubts about the States sincerity in reforming the system. That accountability extends to the citizens as well. Once they stop searching for scapegoats and start looking inwards – the support system that permits values incompatible with their founding fathers vision will start losing its patrons.

With mass surveillance and draconian laws - privacy is no longer an inalienable right. Citizens agree to forego freedom and face inconveniences (mobile jammers, random searches, excruciating delays) for the sake of their collective safety. With ten Security breaches in the span of 2 weeks – confidence in the system has been understandably shaken. And the outpouring of sympathy and support is conspicuously absent from the global scene.

The world does not see Pakistan as the victim of terror perhaps because the specter of hardliner mullah, corrupt politicians, urban legends of proxies and loyalty issues always rise unbidden. The return of Cricket at such a juncture has overturned that narrative if for a little while. It has also rejuvenated the flagging spirit and sent a powerful message to the world. That Pakistan’s head may be bloody – but it is unbowed.

Unprecedented security measures came into play to make the PSL dream a reality. Such a costly template may not be recommended for every event because of the extraordinary drain on resources. It may not have been the wisest move to hold sporting events in the midst of suicide bombings – but in hindsight it becomes a significant game-changer in the way Pakistan is perceived and how its citizens respond to the clarion calls for unity.

This could be an opportunity to build a better Pakistan based on equality and justice for all since its CPEC inspired dreams of economic prosperity are dependent on assuring its integrity.
And said integrity can only be guaranteed by clearing the debris of sectarian violence, social disparity, and religious bigotry. Defeating such a complex threat with global outreach will require joint operations across the board– but at least the State can make it easier to identify toxic elements and choke the supply-lines. There is still time. The threat of terrorism has already pushed Karachi to clean up its act. Ideally a visionary leadership should be on hand to guide their flock to safety. In this case, a series of CBM’s and proof of an iron resolve would have to do.

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