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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PSL Image Link
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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

OPED: Cowboys & Indians and Pakistanis

Published Feb 2017. Global Affairs.


Ms.Barkha Dutt is absolutely right; and also very wrong.

She argues that “in the likely event of a Hillary Clinton win, her administration will no longer be able to count on New Delhi displaying what is known as strategic restraint; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dramatically altered the traditional Pakistan doctrine with several high-risk firsts. None of the old rules apply.”

No one can dispute this point. Modi has been testing the nuclear threshold; trading fire across the LOC and using the term surgical strikes loosely. An old flashpoint (Kashmir) has reignited tensions and the attack on an Indian base has pushed both nations to the brink of war. It has been a busy year.

But then the mention of Modi’s campaign promise of taking a hard line on Pakistan and his abrupt pivot prompted by an “audacious appetite for gambling on peace” is where the argument becomes reductive.
“Why India and Pakistan could be big headaches for the next U.S. president” published in the Washington Post (October 25) recaps Modi’s increasing disillusionment with its uppity neighbor by listing Indian PM’s diplomatic savvy to clarify India’s hawkish makeover while stomping over Pakistan’s share of misfortunes.

It begins with a politician with incredible restraint who invited his Pakistani counterpart to his oath taking ceremony in Delhi and later stopped by to do a happy birthday Mr. Prime Minister routine in Lahore. Soon one can see the slow but inevitable transformation of a steel nerved statesman whose resolve held when Pathankot Air Base was attacked and where Pakistan was blamed though no evidence implicating the Pakistani State has been forthcoming to date. He is also a man pushed to the limit after the Uri debacle on 18th September 2016 who has finally cracked.
And now that he has, all bets are off.

Pakistan’s misdemeanors take centre-stage. And before anyone can demand a context, and there is always a context, India has already pitched its flag on the moral high ground. By cracking down on cultural exchange programs, expelling randomly picked Pakistani embassy workers on charges of espionage and threatening to clamp down on the water supply, India has shown that it’s in no mood to play nice. Pakistan has done the same, in the spirit of full disclosure but it has been in retaliation to India’s economic / cultural offensive. She also booted Indian embassy officials on suspicion of espionage and imposed a blanket ban on their cinema, cable transmissions. Said ban has since been rescinded. Any moves made to deprive an entire nation of water however and potentially triggering the inevitable war is purely an Indian invention.

But what has the Pakistani nation been up to besides pushing Modi’s buttons? Could it be fighting an insurgency raging within its borders; mourning an entire crop of lawyers wiped out in Quetta (Baluchistan) or reeling from IED blasts that claim the life of its brave soldiers? Maybe it is desperately trying to preempt attacks on its citizens via ‘Operation Zarb-e-Azb, defusing bombs, dismantling what could well be RAW, NDS based networks; while failing to prevent high profile assassinations and suicide bombings targeting rookie police cadets, again in Baluchistan?

Or perhaps it has been dealing with a political crisis brewing on the streets of Islamabad next to simmering tensions along the LOC; or safeguarding Chinese investors here for CPEC projects while manning borders to curb a two-way infiltration between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The rest of its resources are spent on piling up containers as road blockers to stop opposition from staging protests to hold its Prime Minister accountable for Panama leaks and election rigging. And trying to determine who leaked details of a classified meeting, that according to government spokesmen are fabricated, and made the military look really, really bad. And this is just 2016.

Ms. Clinton’s casual remark “that she was struck by how “difficult” it must have been for India to show “restraint” after the attacks,” is meant to be the clincher. This was the year 2008, around the time when the Taliban unleashed its reign of terror on Pakistan, beheaded Pak soldiers, invaded Swat, strung up citizens in public squares and systemically bombed schools. A solitary attack on Indian soil led to this observation when the entire Pakistani nation was in the crosshairs of Taliban / Al Qaeda combined? And when the OBL raid hadn’t happened yet and the Pak-US alliance was on relatively solid footing.
Thus far Pakistan has been unable to project its case even after scores of military installations were attacked and civilians targeted over the years because its own demons believed to be proxies are served up to neutralize its arguments.

Waving the Indian held list of grievances, the article then tries to beat Pakistan to the punch. “This is now India’s new normal,” it asserts proudly — “an attempt to increase the cost of terrorism for Pakistan and call out…the “nuclear bogey.” It even explains the damning Baluchistan comment where India gleefully admits to its role in what has been interpreted by many as state sponsored terror. Here it has been shown to be in reaction to Pakistan’s depiction of a Kashmiri freedom fighter as a ‘victim hero’.
Pakistan and India have never been close; once India helped break the latter in half (1971) – once Pakistani Air Force bested them in an aerial encounter (1965). But they had appeared to make some headway in the peace arena. The current Kashmir uprising has reset that relationship.

The security situation has deteriorated rapidly in the wake of the human rights violations in the Indian Occupied part of the Valley. The sight of India’s closest ally (Russia) in Pakistan for joint military exercise must have also rankled. And the recent blocking of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) bid by Pakistan’s long time friend / confidant China didn’t help matters.

The passage concludes with a warning. “That restraint can no longer be taken for granted — that’s India’s messaging to Washington.” Before November 9th, India relied on Clinton bringing her “famed hawkishness to her administration’s Pakistan policy.” It also hoped that there will be “no blank checks on military aid; stringent economic pressure to shut down terror groups…” and that she could give Pakistan a stern talking to.
But now that both nations need to be talked off the ledge, shopping for mediators and bridge builders may be a better option than crude intimidation tactics and suggestions of global embargos. Especially since climate change has suddenly become a bigger threat with alarming levels of toxicity courtesy of that nasty smog blanketing Lahore and Delhi in November. The hope that the two can clear the air long enough to talk clean air initiatives seem like a long shot at this stage.

A decade of terror has tested the mettle of the Pakistani nation - battered and bruised yet still standing - and its battle hardened army. In this backdrop it seems a tad fantastic that the beleaguered state of Pakistan or its war weary establishment believes opening another front is in its national interest when it can barely cope with the ones already in play. But as long as banned groups run amok it cannot really say so with a straight face.

It is also unlikely that beautiful takedowns that skirt the fringes of propaganda, however elegantly worded they may be, could ever sway Washington, or convince it to throw its former partner to the wolves; though lobbying some say did deprive Pakistan of its F-16’s recently. However, in the absence of a powerful counter-narrative or a Haqqani free tribal belt, cries to reign in a deranged, nuke wielding third world nation will always find a receptive audience. Whoever had won the Oval Office, a wild card like Donald Trump, or a political veteran like Hillary Clinton, having a region toying with the idea of Armageddon was bound to remain a priority in the coming years. But the only ones who can truly decide its fate appear to be blinded by hate – and maybe some smog.

Indian American businessmen have begun prepping for a Trump White House hoping that their candidate will ‘hold Pakistan’s feet to the fire.’ American experts envision his ‘madman diplomacy’ to be wielded to deliver ‘a credible ultimatum to Pakistan.’ And these seem to be fairly reasonable speculations in light of his post win performance. In the days leading up to his inauguration, President elect, Trump was rewriting the Presidential script by spurning intelligence briefings, fencing with the press corps and launching twitter wars with businesses, random TV shows, high profile celebrities and difficult nations. It would be na├»ve to expect that the blast radius of his hardliner policies will remain confined to a single nation. Already his close ties with Modi have been referred to as a ‘double edged sword’ while the proposed sanctions on Iran could reportedly jeopardize the Indian oil supply. The new leader of the free world is unencumbered by fear of bad publicity, indifferent to traditions and prone to stepping over red lines. And that should concern everyone regardless of which side of the LOC they occupy.



OPED: The Great Exodus


Published, Global Affairs Feb 2017

The MIG 21 parked in the Pakistan Air Force Museum Karachi is not exactly a war trophy – it belongs to an Afghan defector who flew by one day and landed at Peshawar air base sometime in 1989 / 1990. He was seeking refuge in Pakistan. There had been others before him. Three decades later, young Afghans are still seeking greener pastures – and making headlines because among them is a trailblazing female pilot who had made her nation proud but preferred to stay behind in the United States while on a training tour.

Pakistan has been doubling as Afghan nationals’ second home for over three and a half decades – hosting some 1.5 registered and 1 million unregistered. It ranks amongst the top three largest refugee communities in the world. The stream of defectors, asylum seekers, migrants and refugees kept flowing while the Reds retreated, Taliban invaded and all through the American occupation.

That surge has been unexpectedly quelled.

There’s a migrant crisis brewing in Europe while parts of South Asia prepare for a mass exodus. And Pakistan has been getting a lot of flak over its decision to curtail its hosting duties. By the end of November 2016, the number of undocumented refugees sent back had already hit 230,000. An estimated one million have been repatriated so far.

According to Newsweek, human rights activists wonder if doing so violates international laws since Afghanistan is a nation at war. Pakistan has also been under the local Taliban, (TTP’s) crosshairs since 2006. Though recent operations against insurgents have yielded results – security is still a prime concern. Refugee repatriation is part of a larger movement that includes securing the Western borders, setting up check-posts and clearing the badlands.

Incoming Afghans will be required to carry papers to cross over. Returning Pakistani tribesmen will be screened. And valid travel documents and visas will be mandatory. These measures are meant to enhance regional security and cooperation – not widen the breach. But, while Pakistan and Afghanistan’s interests in securing peace in the region may align – the shifting nature of their allegiances complicate matters. Out of this arose disagreements over trade routes, accusations of fermenting strife in their respective countries and talks of establishing air corridors with India over Pakistani airspace. These led to meetings in Moscow by China, Russia and Pakistan regarding Afghanistan’s security woes in which Kabul was pointedly left out. Demonstrations outside the Pakistan embassy in Kabul decrying the ISI came on its heels blaming the agency for facilitating the Afghan Taliban who had claimed responsibility for the string of attacks on Afghan soil.

Afghanistan is a nation struggling to emerge from the shadows of war, infighting and occupation yet spurns Pakistan’s offer of providing developmental aid ($500M). A temperamental Kabul that has aligned itself with Delhi isn’t afraid of pushing back. And Islamabad has failed to deploy its diplomatic savvy to extinguish the flames of resentment.

The mishandling of Sharbat Gula’s case by Pakistan is a case in point. The green eyed Afghan girl who made the cover of Nat Geo 30 years ago had been charged with carrying forged papers in 2016, which is a crime regardless of her iconic stature. But the subsequent incarceration of a reportedly sickly widow and deportation gave India an opening to swoop in as a savior and milk it for publicity purposes with offers of free medical treatments and hospitality.

Given that Afghanistan upgraded her status to celebrity, there’s hope that her sorry tale has a happy ending. The rest of Afghans must brace themselves for a bittersweet homecoming since there will be no red carpets rolled out for them. But that episode turned into a PR disaster for the Pakistani authorities, one that was avoidable. Such headlines dilute efforts launched to counter the anti-Pakistan propaganda.

Giving the hordes of migrants a free run of the place during the initial exodus of Afghan refugees into Pakistan in 1980 has had serious ramifications for the country. And the State must take some of the blame for the spread of drugs and the gun culture; for not restricting their movements like Iran had done by keeping them confined to camps. Since the migrants were ethnic Pashtuns, they reportedly melted among the local Pashtun community easily and settled in KPK and Balochistan. 33% registered stayed in camps – 67% roamed free.

In this case, Pakistan’s special brand of hospitality backfired. It was a misstep; as was the deplorable social media campaign painting Sharbat as a spy. Yet, regardless of their differences, a weakened Afghanistan does not serve Pakistan’s interests. Afghanistan’s resistance to enforcing border management controls and refusal to recognize the Durand Line, however, does serve the Taliban / ISIS / Daesh backed agenda. And notwithstanding the Sharbat Gula faux pas, Pakistan’s rationale for deporting undocumented Afghan nationals however has merit because the free passage makes it harder to curb cross border terrorism.

The State has reportedly poured a hundred billion dollars on Afghan visitors’ well-being including education, health-care, food and shelter. It has also extended the repartition date till March 2017. At this point the new years’ greetings sent by Pak Army Chief and an invitation to visit Afghanistan extended by the Afghan leadership may be the only signs that the tide may be shifting. President Ashraf Ghani, their firebrand leader once penned a manifesto - ‘Fixing Failed States – A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World’. He should appreciate more than anybody else the urgency of resolving the Afghan refugee crisis; and bringing them home safely could be a major step in fulfilling his vision.

Yet Another Disclaimer


I did not write The Cyril Gate Article. Another Misprint? Why do they keep doing this? is the question.

PS: WE Stand with Cyril.


Published Nov 2016 Global Affairs


Saturday, January 14, 2017

OP-ED: Siachen - The Other Cold War


Published Global Affairs / Jan 2017


A Pakistani theatre play offered some gallows humor where it peered into the future and foresaw the end of the Siachen conflict that will only be brought on by global warming when the glaciers melt and the currents take them all the way to Delhi & Islamabad respectively. And in that post apocalyptical scenario, the Capital’s famed Metro bus would be swapped for a Metro boat.

Siachen is yet another arena of disagreement between India and Pakistan. Both nations are currently engaged in what started as a low intensity conflict at the LOC (Line of Control) amid accusations of cross border terrorism and attacks on military installations. And they have many others to fall back upon when things cool down at the border.

This particular argument stems from the manner in which the demarcation of the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan took place post Partition that had indicated the area beyond NJ 9842 (coordinates) as ‘thence north to the glaciers’. The North in question was no man’s land that no man wanted; till India heard Pakistan had been taking expeditions to the Siachen glacier in the 1970’s, and decided it wanted it after all. Prior to this discovery, the terrain had been un-demarcated and uncontested, though some foreign maps of the time had been showing Siachen as part of Pakistan.

In April 1984, India, in what it described as a preemptive strike, occupied the heights in Operation Meghdoot. Pakistan followed suit and parked its soldiers west of the Saltoro ridge.
And the two have been there ever since. They came close to an agreement twice. A ceasefire was declared in 2003. But there is no end in sight.

Siachen Glacier is no trophy; far from it. This ‘75 km stretch of land’, that lies between the two nuclear armed nations is around 5400m to 6600m above sea level. It is supposed to be the ‘highest, costliest, coldest, deadliest battleground on earth.' It’s also valued at zero, strategically speaking. The advantage is reportedly ‘symbolic and not strategic’

This worthless strip of ice demands constant blood sacrifices from brave men from both sides of the divide. Where they face each other and battle with a common foe in the shape of Mother Nature and now Global Warming.

It costs India 4 Corer Indian Rupees / day. Pakistan reportedly loses 30 soldiers / year. It spends 15 Million Pakistani Rupees / day. Overall the loss of life has been estimated at 4,000 on both sides mostly to elements. The deadliest year was 2012, when 130 Pakistani soldiers perished in an avalanche. And in 2016 when 10 Indian soldiers suffered a similar fate, Pakistani military commanders reportedly extended help in the rescue efforts. They may be at war but on lonely mountain tops, they are comrades in arms.

Demilitarization should be on the cards now more than ever. Yet it remains unresolved to this day. The prerequisite for the demilitarization process, according to Indian Army officials includes recognition, demarcation and authentication of the Indian positions before they wrap up. They also see the unlikelihood of Pakistan legitimizing Indian occupation by agreeing to these terms.

Yet in 1992, both sides had agreed to a compromise and were willing to honor an amended version that advocated vacating posts and a withdrawal of troops. The plan fizzled out and while there is plenty of blame to go around, Wikileaks trusty cache of confidential diplomatic cables has attributed its failure to the Indian army.

It narrows down the brief window of opportunity that had opened in 1989 and 1993. "Each time the prime minister of the day was forced to back out by India's defense establishment, the Congress Party hardline, and opposition leaders. The Indian army is resistant to giving up this territory under any condition for a variety of reasons - strategic advantage over China, internal army corruption, distrust of Pakistan, and a desire to keep hold of advantageous territory that thousands of Indian soldiers have died protecting."

A piece ‘Siachen: an icy wasteland’ (2016) makes a case for the importance of holding on to a relic by India’s first chief of defense intelligence agency. He finds the idea of a retreat sacrilegious and deems calls for demilitarization from Pakistani side as ‘subterfuge’. He also adds something about CPEC (Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor under development in Gawadar), and the Chinese factor that make it imperative to keep Indian forces forever stationed on a melting block of ice. He is not alone in his assessment.

Other voices argue for an indefinite occupation because of Siachen’s purported military depth for India. The thought of withdrawal is seen as being tantamount to a betrayal of the countless sacrifices. The Indian side appears adamant on keeping the status quo, while Pakistan seeks for a way out of this impasse.

Experts fret about the combined carbon footprint left by 2 armies responsible for the early onset of climate change and find the immense scale of Indian military activity particularly worrisome for the rapid rate of deterioration. That climate change is now considered a national security threat should give one pause. The smog that enveloped Delhi and Lahore in November 2016 was a reminder of its debilitating side effects and indiscriminate nature.

In the midst of a bitter custody battle, Siachen’s potential for tourism is frequently offered up for consideration. Before 1984, mountaineering treks to the as yet undisputed glacier were a la mode only under the protection of the Pakistani Government. And monitored expeditions under the guidance of Indian army have been ongoing since 2007.

Though India now occupies the higher ground, access to the worlds’ second highest peak - K2 (Karakoram Range) and surrounding areas reportedly is through Pakistani controlled territory. Analysts can envision the glacier as a hub of activity in the capacity of a neutral zone, a bio reserve, a peace mountain open to the trekkers, eco-tourists, and thrill seekers on their way to the top.

Some also suggest a Science Centre home to engineers and scientists from both nations cozily ensconced in a high altitude research station. Or a ‘World Heritage Site’ home to endangered species; like the legendary ghost cat (snow leopards) for instance or brown bears. They propose a fresh start where a war weary glacier can finally hang up its combat gear and become a sanctuary.

They are also careful to point out that rethinking Siachen is not a recapitulation on Kashmir. On paper it sounds like a win-win. But all this would still be a hard-sell when battle lines have been drawn and old ceasefires violated.

The incoming Pak Army Chief (Qamar Javed Bajwa) who is reportedly experienced in all things related to Kashmir & the Northern Areas, & Indians (he once served with a former Indian Army Chief while on a UN Mission in Congo) may know a thing or two about breaking the ice. It would be in keeping with the new trajectory Pak military seems to be on, course correcting at every stage to avoid being labeled as aggressors in border conflicts.

Thus far it has kept pace with the changing times and shown remarkable restraint in dealing with an endless stream of Indian provocation, promotion of agent provocateurs, proxy wars and propaganda. Once the guns fall silent, and threats of hastening the Armageddon fade, perhaps Pakistan and India can then consider formulating a response for coping with the 21st century national security challenges and step away from the vicinity of a growing conflagration. This won’t be easy, and will include a review of Siachen, smog & Climate Change, and it will have to be on a collaborative scale. Preferably before hell freezes over and the glaciers melt.


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