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A Grand Opportunity for a Global President

Charles Dickens called Washington a “city of magnificent intentions.” When Barack Obama takes over on January 20th as the 44th President of the United States, he will need to translate his own lofty ideas into realities. What makes the challenge bigger for him is that he may also be carrying another title: the first globally-elected President of the United States. Unlike any other presidential election in US history, his nomination was favored by denizens of over 90 countries worldwide. All his supporters, here and abroad, expect him to transform the image and reality of the United States, in short order. While this is a daunting task, it also offers him a grand opportunity to make some bold decisions and set the United States and its partners on a fresh path, where an engaged and principled US foreign policy based on humanity and justice would be the rule.

Expectations are high and no where more than in the Muslim World that has seen the past decade marked by a threatened Clash of Civilizations between it and the West. That is also where the most dangerous shoals of foreign policy exist: Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Asia, particularly Pakistan, which may be his greatest nightmare.

President Obama will not have much time to tackle each and all of these regions of unrest before he runs out of the hope and goodwill that will support him in his early days in office. The economic detritus of the Bush Administration has made the transition complex and difficult. But certain principles that are already reflected in some of his public statements may help point to likely actions that will allow him to make some historic leaps and take his supporters and doubters both with him.

Here are some things he could in his first 100 days:

  • Restore faith in the U.S. justice system by shutting down secret jails in Bagram, Guantanamo, and all torture and rendition practices as well as sites in other countries;
  • Recognize that the Gaza conflict has two sides and that the U.S. needs to engage with both to stop the violence against innocent civilians and children; bring Arab support to bear on stopping Hamas’ attacks into Israel and use the U.S.’s own leverage aid and arms-supply over Israel to stop its invasion of Gaza so the search for a longer-term peace may resume;
  • Announce that the US will respect the results of overseas elections that are free and fair regardless of which party comes to power;
  • Open a dialog with Iran to resolve issues and thus help eliminate Iranian involvement in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, while opening up the path to Iranian help in rebuilding Afghanistan and expanding its gas pipeline into Pakistan and India; Iran is the key to many locked doors in the greater Middle East and to the peaceful US exit from Iraq;
  • Engage and help the people of Pakistan directly to wrest control back from the militants that threaten the stability of that key country in South Asia and thus restore peace and stability to Afghanistan as well; do not favor any single party or person for short-term US gains;
  • Help India and Pakistan back to the peace table by opening up their borders to trade and people; draw the Diaspora Pakistani and Indian community into this process for cross-border joint investments that would allow both rival nations to benefit from trade and cultural exchanges and remove Kashmir as a cause of conflict over time; and
  • Let the Muslim World understand loud and clear that the United States has no designs against it and that it will practice what it preaches by not supporting dictators and autocrats against the freedom-seeking people of the Muslim World.

President Obama can make this statement more effective by choosing to deliver his major foreign policy speech abroad, preferably in the Muslim World…then see the wave of support carry him over the obstacles to these Grand Objectives.

Where would be a good venue for this event? How about the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, so both Indian and Pakistani crowds can see and hear him? And let those metal gates that are shut by goose-stepping soldiers every evening remain open forever after that as a symbol of good neighborhood and out of respect for a brave new U.S. president who is unafraid to tackle the hardest tasks first.

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post and on the Atlantic Council website, where the author is now Director, South Asia Center.

Back to the future in Pakistan

As 2007 was lurching toward a messy end in Pakistan, a documentary film suddenly caught much attention inside the country and abroad, especially among the diaspora Pakistanis. Sabiha Sumar and Sachithanandam Sathananthan’s "Dinner with the President: A Nation’s Journey" tried to shine a light on Pakistan’s future by showing conflicting elements of Pakistani society. At the apex was President General Pervez Musharraf, who was wearing his uniform as Army Chief in addition to running the country from Army House in Rawalpindi. Enterprising Sumar managed to convince Musharraf’s handlers to allow her to film a dinner with him at Army House in Karachi (one of the many such homes that the Chief of Army Staff has at his disposal in major cities throughout the country.) Musharraf invited his mother and his wife to join him at the meal. (Surprisingly the wife’s contributions were almost entirely edited out.) This conversation was the thread that Sumar used to tie together the documentary. Today, as Pakistan, under a civilian government, continues to battle the vestiges of the Musharraf regime and new economic and political challenges, it may be worth taking a look back at that insightful film and what it teaches us about Pakistan.

Sadly, the dinner was the weakest link in an otherwise telling film about Pakistan. By focusing on Musharraf, Sumar and her Sri Lankan partner showed their leaning toward a professed “liberal” autocrat. The assumption that comes through is that Pakistan, with its vast gaps between the rich and the poor, and between the radical Muslims with little or no knowledge of Islam and the intellectual elite, with its confused ideologies and imprisoned in its comfortable drawings rooms, needs a strong central figure at the center to guide it into the future. Even a year later, Sathananthan was accusing Pakistani “liberals” of helping the “neo-colonialists” in removing Musharraf:

“Politically challenged Pakistani liberals — a motley crowd that includes members of human rights and civil liberties organisations, journalists, analysts, lawyers and assorted professionals — are utterly incapable of comprehending the geo-strategic context in which Musharraf manoeuvred to defend Pakistan’s interest. So they slandered him as an ‘American puppet’, alleging he caved in to US pressure and withdrew support to the Afghan Taliban regime in the wake of 9/11 although in fact he removed one excuse for the Bush Administration to ‘bomb Pakistan into stone age’, as a senior State Department official had threatened." ("The Great Game Game Continues", November 2008)

Notwithstanding that the story about bombing Pakistan into the “stone age” was a figment of Musharraf’s imagination and not based on his intelligence chief Lt. General Mahmud Ahmed’s actual report from Washington DC, the film portrays Musharraf as a sensitive liberal with good intentions. The questions lobbed at him were soft; his answers softer still. The dinner turns out to be a dud.

But Sumar comes into her element when she visits with a group of Pashtuns near the Afghan border and bravely challenges their antedilluvian views on Islam and the status of women in society. When confronted by a tough woman armed with potent arguments in favor of equality for women, their best option is to retreat. The most telling commentary on Musharraf’s Pakistan comes in a vignette in the film that shows a poor Sindhi family eating its spare supper on the dirt floor outside its make-shift home. All they have is a piece of flat bread, perhaps some onions and water. They invite the filmmaker to join them. Juxtaposed against the scenes from a comfortable dining room where Pakistani intellectuals rant against the regime or the beach party where obviously drunk young men and women cavort out of control and one plastered young man expresses admiration for Musharraf, the film manages to show the stark choices facing Pakistan, as its heads into an uncertain future.

Critics like Sathananthan may regret that Musharraf was shown the door by the people of Pakistan , and some even bemoan the new civilian government and how it came into power. But they fail to recognize that the only way out of Pakistan’s political morass is to allow the people’s voice to be heard, whether it is through the ballot or through film and other mass media. Musharraf may have facilitated the political return of the Pakistan Peoples Party by removing some of the legal obstructions in its path. But he did not favor the return of the Pakistan Muslim League. The Saudis facilitated that. Both parties won their votes against all odds in a referendum against Musharraf’s rule and on the failing economy.

Showing Pakistan a mirror through discussion and debate so it can see itself may help start a critical debate inside the country. Without such a debate, Pakistanis will lurch from one crisis to another. The chattering classes will be silenced by the cackle of AK-47s and the arguments carried by suicide bombers into the heart of the country.

“Dinner with the President” began that debate in 2008. We hope the team will return to Pakistan in 2009 to show where we are now headed. Next time around, one hopes that Sumar will concentrate on the underlying issues that she uncovered during her “Dinner with the President” and stay away from the drawing rooms and dining tables of the elite. On second thought, perhaps a useful starting point may well be another “Dinner with the President” this time in Islamabad, which was once described as lying (no pun intended) “18 miles outside Pakistan”. Then she should head into the real Pakistan of the poor and dispossessed, where Sumar is at her best. Changing the lives of those people is critical to the future of Pakistan.

This piece aso appeared on The Huffington Post.

Bhutto’s Pakistan, a Year On

Earlier this month, as I drove past the spot where Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Murree Road near Liaquat Garden in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, I thought of how much had happened since that tragic evening. She had returned, against the advice of many friends, to a violent and fractious Pakistan because she felt that her presence was key to the restoration of democracy in her homeland. I knew that road well. Decades earlier I used to turn there on to College Road, on my way to the neighboring Gordon College. Many of Gordon College student demonstrations for democracy in 1968 crashed into the police barricades at that spot.

Those were Halcyon Days compared to what Pakistan is now going through. A year after her much-foretold death, Ms. Bhutto’s Pakistan is wracked by political turmoil and economic uncertainty. It is relying on the world to bail it out again. Yet the answers to its problems lie inside Pakistan. Unless Pakistan settles the wars within and coalesces around its political center, it faces a bleak future and risk of foreign intervention. This is the challenge facing its fledgling civilian government. The world must help it succeed.

Today, Pakistan is run by civilians. But the parliamentary system that had been hijacked by the military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, and converted into a presidential one remains unchanged. Power continues to flow not from the Prime Minister but from the President. Ms Bhutto’s signed compact (Charter of Democracy) with the other leading party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that called, among other things, for the complete restoration of the judiciary has been shredded. The coalition of her center-left Pakistan Peoples’ Party with Sharif’s center-right Pakistan Muslim League (N) is no more, partly as a result of the time bombs that General Musharraf planted when he brought the PPP into power under political deals that wiped clean all charges against its leadership and by removing the top layer of the judiciary in November 2007 for the second time in one year. The PPP fears that a restored judiciary under the former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary would overturn many of those deals creating chaos. Mr. Sharif refuses to compromise on this issue. The PML (N) controls the Punjab, Pakistan’s economically powerful province. The PPP has the center. This standoff threatens the political stability of the country.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who inherited the political mantle of his wife, Ms. Bhutto, has continued the Musharrafian alliance with the United States against the terrorists and militants that threaten Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan and increasingly are operating in the hinterland. He also continued the Musharraf policy of making peace overtures to neighboring India and offered even to forego a first nuclear strike in case of a conflict between the two rivals. But, despite his attempt at producing a consensus among the political parties in parliament against terrorism, most parties on the right wing of the political spectrum have started backing away from that stance. And the recent Mumbai terror attacks that are being linked to Pakistani militant groups have brought India and Pakistan to the edge of another conflict.

The economy is still in tatters. Distracted by political wrangling soon after the February 2008 elections, the new government failed to concentrate on the rapidly deteriorating economic situation until late in the year. The spike in global fuel and food prices added to its woes. Foreign exchange reserves have plummeted from a height of $16 billion to close to $4 billion. Food prices are up nearly 50 percent. Energy and water shortages persist. A program with the International Monetary Fund, once pronounced anathema by Mr. Zardari, is now in force. And Pakistan is holding its collective breath for the countries that it calls "Friends of Pakistan" to actually come forward with vast amounts of financial aid. Absent a robust and growth-oriented economic program and an improved security situation, such aid may not be forthcoming. These countries will likely wait for the IMF program to take root. Donors are also wary of dealing with a sprawling government of some 60 cabinet members, most of whom are eminently unqualified for their respective tasks, and represent parochial interests rather than a cohesive central policy.

On the security front, 2008 may prove to be as violent as 2007, when nearly 60 suicide bombings took place inside Pakistan, most against the armed forces. Adding to the volatile mix is the re-emergence in force of the Punjabi Sunni militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Lashkar-e-Tyaba that even threaten the state that once sponsored their help for the Kashmiri Mujahideen. The army, overstretched in the region bordering Afghanistan, cannot be deployed in a major operation inside Punjab. Without army action, these groups will continue to flourish. There is no police force worth the name that could be used in controlling these elements and de-weaponizing Pakistani society. More important, there is no public debate on what sort of society Pakistanis want to create over 61 years after becoming an independent state. Nor is there any sign of such a debate taking place in the near future.

Now, with India increasing the pressure on Pakistan to act against the militants that India alleges were behind the Mumbai attacks, and garnering international support for that cause, Pakistan faces the possibility of military action on its eastern frontier. If that happens, the Pakistan army will be thrust once more into the political vortex. Then, if the political center does not hold, history may well repeat itself and the army may be "asked" by the people to take charge once again. If that happens, Ms. Bhutto will have died in vain.

This piece appeared in The Washington Post Post Global on 26 December 2008

Brinksmanship in South Asia: A Dangerous Scenario

Reports of military movement to the India-Pakistan border must raise alarums in Washington DC. The last thing that the incoming Obama administration wants is a firestorm in South Asia. There cannot be a limited war in the subcontinent, given the imbalance of forces between India and Pakistan. Any Indian attack across the border into Pakistan will likely be met with a full scale response from Pakistan. Yet, the rhetoric that seemed to have cooled down after the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks is rising again. It was exactly this kind of aggressive posturing and public statements that led to the 1971 conflict between these two neighbors. Pakistan has relied in the past on international intervention to prevent war. It worked, except in 1971 when the US and other powers let India invade East Pakistan and lead to the birth of Bangladesh. What makes the current situation especially dangerous is that both are now nuclear weapon states with anywhere up to150 nuclear bombs in their arsenal. If India and Pakistan go to war, the world will lose. Big time. By putting conventional military pressure on Pakistan, is India calling what it perceives to be Pakistan’s bluff under the belief that the United Sates will force nuclear restraint on Pakistan?

The early evidence after the Mumbai terrorist attack pointed to the absence of the Pakistan government’s involvement in the attack. Indeed, the government of Pakistan seemed to bend over backwards to accommodate and understand Indian anger at the tragedy. But, in the weeks since then, as domestic political pressure mounted on the Indian government to do more, talk has turned to the use of surgical strikes or other means to teach Pakistan a lesson. It was in India’s own interest to strengthen the ability of the fledgling civilian government of Pakistan to move against the militancy within the country. But it seems to have opted for threats to attack Pakistan, threats that, if followed up by actions, may well derail the process of civilianization and democratization in that country. India must recognize the constraints under which Pakistan operates. It cannot fight on two fronts. And it lacks the geographic depth to take the risk of leaving its eastern borders undefended at a time when India has been practicing its emerging Cold Start strategy in the border opposite Kasur. Under this strategy, up to four Integrated Battle Groups could move rapidly across the border and occupy a strategic chunk of Pakistani territory up to the outskirts of Lahore in a “limited war”.

For Pakistan, there is no concept of “limited war”. Any war with India is seen as a total war, for survival. It risks losing everything the moment India crosses its border, and will likely react by attacking India in force at a point of its own choosing under its own Offensive-Defensive strategy. (That is probably why it is moving some of its Strike Force infantry divisions back from the Afghan border to the Indian one.) As the battles escalate, Indian’s numerical and weapon superiority will become critical. If no external intervention takes place quickly, Pakistan will then be left with the “poison pill” defence of its nuclear weapons.

The consequences of such action are unimaginable for both countries and the world…

The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) conducted an analysis of the consequences of nuclear war in South Asia a year before the last stand-off in 2002. Under two scenarios, one (with a Princeton University team) studied the results of five air bursts over each country’s major cities and the other (done by the NRDC alone) with 24 ground explosions. The results were horrifying to say the least: 2.8 million dead, 1.5 million seriously injured, and 3.4 million slightly injured in the first case. Under the second scenario involving an Indian nuclear attack on eight major Pakistani cities and Pakistan’s attack on seven major Indian cities:

NRDC calculated that 22.1 million people in India and Pakistan would be exposed to lethal radiation doses of 600 rem or more in the first two days after the attack. Another 8 million people would receive a radiation dose of 100 to 600 rem, causing severe radiation sickness and potentially death, especially for the very young, old or infirm. NRDC calculates that as many as 30 million people would be threatened by the fallout from the attack, roughly divided between the two countries.

Besides fallout, blast and fire would cause substantial destruction within roughly a mile-and-a-half of the bomb craters. NRDC estimates that 8.1 million people live within this radius of destruction.

Studies by Richard Turco, Alan Robock, and Brian Toon in 2006 and 2008 on the climate change impact of a regional nuclear war between these two South Asian rivals, were based on the use of 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices of 15 kiloton each. The ensuing nuclear explosions would set 15 major cities in the subcontinent on fire and hurl five million tonnes of soot 80 kilometers into the air. This would deplete ozone levels in the atmosphere up to 40 per cent in the mid-latitudes that “could have huge effects on human health and on terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems.” More important, the smoke and sot would cool the northern hemisphere by several degrees, disrupting the climate (shortening growing seasons, etc.) and creating massive agricultural failure for several years. The whole world would suffer the consequences.

An Indo-Pakistan war will not cure the cancer of religious militancy that afflicts both countries today. Rather, India and Pakistan risk jeopardizing not only their own economic futures but also that of the world by talking themselves into a conflict. The world cannot afford to let that happen. The Indian and Pakistani governments can step back from the brink by withdrawing their forces from their common border and going back to quiet diplomacy to resolve their differences. The United States and other friends of both countries can act as honest brokers by publicly urging both to do just that before this simmering feud starts to boil over.

This piece appeared in The Huffington Post, 26 December 2008

Maximum Terror in Mumbai: Confusion Reigns

24 hours after they began, the coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai have produced scores of deaths and wounded and, potentially could end with even more deaths of innocent hostages. What is scarier though is the possibility that this incident may spell danger for India-Pakistan relations at a time when a much-needed thaw seems to be emerging. Confusion reigns in Mumbai, as the authorities try to understand the nature and the reason for these attacks.

Earlier unconfirmed reports on CNN that identified the MV Alpha as a Karachi-registered ship that allegedly carried the attackers proved to be incorrect. The Indian navy boarded the MV Alpha and confirmed that it was, in fact, Vietnamese-registered and had no connection with the attacks. The possibility remains that the ubiquitous “foreign hand” will be blamed for the terrorist actions. Unless there is strong evidence linking Pakistan to the attacks, India would be well advised not to fall back on that option.

Similar to the earlier attacks in New Delhi, chances are that this is a homegrown outfit. It may well be operating under a false flag of the “Deccan Mujahideen”, a hitherto unknown group. But what adds to the confusion this time is that there was no statement from the attackers against the Indian political and social system and no demands were made. Rather, there was a focus on selecting British and American hostages. This may well point to the participation of an Islamist group with ties to militants operating in Kashmir or against the state inside Pakistan. Why?

Just one day before the attack, at a meeting in Islamabad of the Home Secretaries of India and Pakistan, an agreement was reached on a wide range of measures aimed at combating terrorism. According to Dawn of 25 November 2008:

“The two sides agreed for the first time to stop blaming each other for any untoward incident without evidence. Under the joint anti-terrorism mechanism, a two-member committee has been formed, comprising additional foreign secretaries of the two sides. The committee will exchange information about terrorists. The agreement on an anti-terrorism mechanism is being considered a big step for improvement of relations.

The resolve to enhance cooperation between their civilian investigation and security agencies — Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) — is another significant achievement made during the talks.”

The Islamist militants fear that the increasing cooperation between India and Pakistan against terrorism and President Asif Ali Zardari’s effusive words on warmer relations with India will leave them without a recruiting base in Pakistan. They would rather derail the nascent peace process between Pakistan and India, using, among other things, the rising unhappiness among Muslim youth in India about their lack of economic and social development.

To its credit, the Indian government set up a high-level committee two years ago to investigate the plight of the Muslims of India, who despite being close to 150 million strong have a disproportionately tiny share of India’s burgeoning wealth. The Sachar Commission report of November 2006 confirmed what Indian Muslims had long known: they were well below national averages for education, skills development, employment, and economic opportunities. Some 38 per cent of Muslims in urban areas and 27 per cent in rural areas lived below the poverty line. But today, nearly two years after the release of that report, there is still talk about “targeted intervention” and many of the actions being discussed are still in the future tense. Even when these plans are implemented, at the notoriously slow pace of Indian bureaucracy, it will take years to make up for the ill-effects of previous discrimination. Meanwhile the “youth bulge” in the Indian Muslim population will become increasingly susceptible to the lure of the militants.

One ray of hope came recently at the recent annual conclave of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Hind of India, where leading religious scholars spoke against terrorism. As one Mullah stated: “There is a world of a difference between terrorism and Jihad”. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, all countries with huge Muslim populations, and all susceptible to Islamist militancy, would do well to publicize that stance in their battle against terrorism at home and abroad. Whether the terrorism is home grown or imported, the world does not need a repeat of the Mumbai mayhem.

This piece is available on Huffington Post at

Focusing the Spy Glass on Pakistan

Only in Pakistan does the appointment of a new spy chief elicit more commentary than say a Prime Minister under today’s political system, where the presidency holds the power strings. The appointment of Lieutenant General Ahmed Shuja Pasha as the new head of the Inter Services Intelligence earlier this week has raised expectations about a change in the direction of the ISI and Pakistan in the war against terror and militancy in the borderlands with Afghanistan and inside Pakistan proper. While the changes in leadership of the army in general and at ISI by the new army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani hold much promise, military actions alone do not guarantee a change in direction of the fractured economy and polity of Pakistan. Without a clear sense of understanding and control by the civilian government of all aspects of governance, Pakistan risks muddling through a crisis that may worsen in the days ahead. On the Afghan border, the risk of confrontation with the United States remains. Inside Pakistan, the militants are on the prowl and challenging the writ of the state.

What does the appointment of General Pasha portend?

First, this is the formal assertion of power of the new army chief, who will complete his first tumultuous year in office this November, a year marked by the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the holding of relatively free and fair elections, largely because the army provided security and refused to be drawn into the political process, and the formation of a short-lived coalition between the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and its erstwhile arch rival the Pakistan Muslim League of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Finally the past year saw the abrupt departure of President Pervez Musharraf, who once he had shed his uniform, lost his grip on power. He was succeeded by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Ms. Bhutto, who has taken firm ownership of her party. Throughout all this, General Kayani maintained a quiet but firm posture, stating repeatedly but not too often to provoke disbelief that he wished the army to return to its professional roots and leave governance of the country to the elected civilians. In a country that has seen too many army chiefs change their minds about this relationship with the civilians, many still believe that he may either change his stance or be forced to do so by deteriorating circumstances in the country.

By removing Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj, a former close associate of General Musharraf from the ISI, Kayani has put in place his own close associate, someone who has been at the heart of decision making at army headquarters as Director General Military Operations. This is the office that prepares all military plans and coordinates thinking on strategies. Pasha, a bright, confident officer with twinkly eyes and an analytical mind, has had deep experience at this job and has been involved in crafting policy in the fight against militants inside Pakistan as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that border Afghanistan. FATA is home to the Afghan Taliban, the home-grown Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP), and the Punjabi Sunni militant groups that were once favored by the ISI in the Kashmiri operations against India but now have broken out of control and tied up with Al Qaeda and TTP elements in the frontier region.

Pasha will be appointing three new deputies: major generals responsible for Evaluation, Operations, and Internal wings of the ISI. The previous incumbent in charge of evaluation, Major General Muhammad Mustafa has been promoted to Lt. General and made the Chief of General Staff at army headquarters. He had been a Kayani associate when Kayani was heading the ISI. The head of operations ( handling relations with Mujahidden groups in Kashmir and other similar groups), Major General Asif Akhtar, and the head of the internal wing dealing with counter terrorism and political issues inside Pakistan, Major General Nusrat Naeem, are reported to have been superseded for promotion by junior officers and moved to other jobs in the army itself. With his own appointees in these key positions, Pasha will have an opportunity to exercise control over the ISI from the get go. But the key will be his ability to control operations in the field, especially ISI contractors and field operatives who deal with the Afghan Taliban and whose performance will the basis of either close cooperation with or confrontation with the United States.

The issue that will continue to bedevil decision making at the ISI and in the civilian government in Islamabad is whether Pakistan will finally take a firm position against the Afghan Taliban, who, unlike the TTP, have till now not been seen as taking a hostile position against the army or the government of Pakistan. They rely on tribal affiliations to enter and exit from FATA surreptitiously; avoiding any battles with Pakistani army or Frontier Corps (FC) elements. Will Pakistan now take a firm position on dealing with them, telling them in effect; “You can come into FATA but cannot leave then to fight in Afghanistan”. If they refuse, Pakistan’s army risks opening yet another front in the counterinsurgency in its frontier region. Is it capable of doing that?

Pasha understands very well the shortcomings of the army, the FC, the local civil administration in FATA, and provincial and central governments in the war against the militants. In a long interview with me this summer, he explained the weaknesses of the system in place now and what the army is trying to do to shore up its end of the fight. But he described the need for a three-pronged strategy involving “development, political, and military” and analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of each part of this troika. His frustration with the lack of will of previous governments at the center and the provinces was palpable, as was his criticism of military actions that were not coordinated with and supported by development efforts. The absence of promised development assistance from the United States figured in his narrative as did the inefficiency of civilian bureaucracies that failed, in his words, to assess the situation with on-site visits in the FATA and application of funds to meet the urgent and basic needs of the people. Pasha’s own previous experience as head of the UN peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone informs his sensibilities about dealing with conflict and post-conflict situations. Like other generals and officers in the field in FATA and Swat, Malakand, and Dir inside the North West Frontier Province itself, he echoed the view that the army needs to avoid civilian casualties “since we are fighting inside Pakistan, against our own people”. The US needs to understand this reality too.

The Pakistan army is not equipped for the counterinsurgency. Its training is for conventional war. So is its equipment. It lacks adequate night vision goggles and attack helicopters and heli-lift capabilities, for example. The United States has promised to replace its outmoded goggles with newer more effective models and has offered some Cobra helicopters but not all of them have been delivered. Some are still being refurbished. The militants attack isolated posts in small numbers. The army cannot reach those spots in a hurry with enough troops to catch and destroy them when they are visible. The US needs to find ways of providing Sikorsky Blackhawks or even third party sales of MI-8 or MI-16 troop-lifting helicopters to meet Pakistan’s needs. It is replacing its own Blackhawk fleet with newer models. Even refurbished Blackhawks are better than none for Pakistan.

While Pasha will no longer be involved in the operational planning and preparedness of the army, he will be at the frontline of the dealings with the militants groups in the field. How he handles the relationship with the Afghan Taliban will be key to his success. He foresees the need for a tripartite relationship between the Political Agents, who represent the government in FATA, some Maliks, and the Mullahs or moderate elements of the Taliban. By bringing in the moderates he sees the chance to isolate the radicals. At the same time be recognizes that the age-old system of PAs and Maliks running the affairs of FATA cannot be resurrected. Things have changed on the ground and the people of the region are much more politically aware and active. Pasha also does not see a potential convergence between the Afghan and the local Taliban. The civilian head of the Ministry of Interior, Rehman Malik, has been reported as seeing a lack of difference between those two groups. In July, Malik was at the center of a controversial move to bring the entire ISI under the control of his ministry. How will this relationship now develop between Pasha and Malik? Pasha has been closely involved in Kayani’s frequent exchanges with the US commanders in the region and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. He was the one that Kayani took with him to the meeting on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea.

Now Pasha will report to both Kayani and the Prime Minister. And he will be a critical interlocutor in dealings with the United States. He brings to the job not only long experience in the military but also his UN experience and a sharp political sensibility, bolstered by the confidence of his army chief. Will he be able to win the confidence of the Prime Minister and President of Pakistan and that of the principal ally, the United States by changing the direction of the ISI? That is the question that only his actions can answer.

This piece also appeared on The Huffington Post

A perfect storm brewing in Pakistan

Within a matter of days, events on the Afghan border seem to be creating a perfect storm of mistrust and conflict between the United States and Pakistan: The recent US heliborne attack with troops inside Pakistan’s tribal area; the report that President George W. Bush had signed off on such attacks in July, allowing US forces to conduct these raids without clearance from Pakistan; the short-term shutting down of the US supply route to Afghanistan by Pakistan, ostensibly for “security reasons”; and finally an unequivocal riposte from Pakistan’s army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani that “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border.” Unless good sense prevails, the US-Pakistan alliance may be heading for the rocks in a storm that could rent the tenuous alliance between these two “allies”.

There may be good grounds for the US to feel that it has been let down by Pakistan in the past. Pakistan’s ambivalent approach to the Afghan Taliban and continuing hidden links to former Afghan Mujahideen commanders, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, came to be at odds with its partnership with the US against militants in the border region. Coming clean on that score may not have satisfied the US. Hence the Bush signature on unilateral attacks even perhaps as he entertained the new Pakistani prime minister in Washington this July.

Suddenly the old policy of “a wink and a nod” that worked for President Pervez Musharraf and that appeared to be continuing under the new democratically elected Peoples’ Party government seems to have been set aside. Kayani’s tough statement appears to have widespread public support in Pakistan. The Prime Minister echoed his words. But President Asif Ali Zardari uncharacteristically has been silent. If this portends fissures in the ruling hierarchy then the signs are not good for the balance of power inside Pakistan.

Other dangerous possibilities appear likely in the US-Pakistan relationship. The next time the US physically invades Pakistani territory to take out suspected militants, it may meet the Pakistan army head on. Or it may face a complete a cut-off of war supplies and fuel in Afghanistan via Pakistan. With only two weeks supply of fuel available to its forces inside Afghanistan and no alternative route currently available, the war in Afghanistan may come to a screeching halt. The Bush approach may prove to be yet another example of short-term thinking that damages the longer term objective. The Taliban meanwhile will be applauding from the sidelines.

A major consequence of the US invasion of Pakistan’s territory will be the further alienation of the Pakistani public and a serious internal problem for the fledgling civil government that took over from Musharraf’s autocracy. The US may think it has considerable leverage over the Pakistani government because of the latter’s economic ills and financial straits and its overwhelming reliance on US aid. But it is failing to measure the power of the Pakistani street. Already, a vast majority of people in Pakistan, including inside the army, see the United States with hostile eyes. Anyone in Pakistan seen as aligning with the Americans would lose public favor. And the nationalists and religious extremists will then get a chance to say “we told you so!” and gain the upper hand.

All this is happening as the lame duck Bush presidency is getting ready to pack its bags. But the campaign to succeed Bush is heating up. Cross border US attacks inside Pakistan will distract from the war on terror in the region. They will also divert the campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama from finding solutions to hurling new rhetorical bombs at each other to prove that each is tougher in the use of military force than the other.

Both Pakistan and the United States need to rethink their actions. Pakistan must prove with actions not just words that it is willing to shed its ties to all militants. The United States must ratchet down the rhetoric and the use of force, especially against an “ally” in this war on terror, a war that will last well into the next president’s term and may be beyond. And it must fully equip the Pakistan army to fight a mobile counter insurgency in its borderlands. Otherwise, the US will not only lose an ally in Pakistan but ignite a conflagration inside that huge and nuclear-armed country that will make the war in Afghanistan seem like a Sunday hike in the Hindu Kush.

Author’s Note: This article has also appeared on The Huffington Post. I have been traveling in Pakistan, specifically in the border region, and doing more detailed analyses of the situation in the Federally Administered Tribal Area. Please wait for more articles in due course.

The Possibility of Peace in South Asia

New Delhi

Even as two civilian governments struggle to maintain their political hold in both India and Pakistan, recent developments indicate that both recognize that the Possibility of Peace trumps confrontation. This change of mood between two formerly hostile neighbors is a reflection of economic necessity in both countries and the need for civilian rather than military-dominated rule in Pakistan. A couple of weeks ago, while I was in India, the Foreign Ministers and Foreign Secretaries of both met in Islamabad and the focus appeared to be on opening up economic ties, even as conflict resolution proceeded on a somewhat slower track. The head of the leading Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, called for the removal of visas for travel between the two countries.

If the reactions in New Delhi of Indian officials, journalists, and senior and retired military officials is representative of the general Indian population, there is deep support for this kind of Great Leap towards normalcy. The key is economic necessity. As a leading Indian economist explained to me, India desperately needs Pakistani cement for its rapidly growing economy, enough to install a conveyer belt system at the border to speedily clear shipments from Pakistan. The foreign ministers spoke of their continuing efforts to consummate a gas pipeline deal that would allow Iranian gas to flow through Pakistan to India; this despite US opposition to such trade with Iran. Pakistani businesses have already begun investing in warehouses and infrastructure along the border with India near Lahore, waiting for trade to open up.

Basic economic laws dictate that a country’s major trading partners are its immediate neighbors. Today, Pakistan’s major trading partner is it major military partner: the United States, some ten thousand miles away! It could learn from the Indian example of expanding its trade with neighboring China that is expected to rise from billion today to billion by 2010. In New Delhi, Indians speak wistfully of their trips to Pakistan to stock up, among other things with consumer goods likes ladies shoes. A strong Indian rupee goes far in Pakistan. For the huge Sikh population in the provinces that border Pakistan, there is tremendous potential for both trade and religious tourism: their major religious shrines are located inside Pakistan. If visa-free travel were allowed, Lahore that now has barely two major hotels might find that even 50 such hotels might be inadequate.

I raised the issue of visa-travel travel with President Pervez Musharraf, the architect of the diplomatic opening to India in recent years, and the then Director General Inter Services Intelligence and now army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in conversations over the past two years. Both recognized the potential benefits of such a move but expressed the fear that there would be opposition from the vocal but tiny religious groups that consider India the perennial “enemy”. Now that he is army chief, General Kayani is in a better position to lead from the front on this issue.

Now, as a new civilian leadership has emerged in Pakistan, led by peace makers Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and the Indian government is laying the grounds for fresh elections while facing tests in provincial polls, it may be time for leaders in India and Pakistan to create a South Asian Compact that would create prosperity for both. If they do this, both countries could reduce their crippling defence expenditures and better meets the vast unmet basic needs of their poorest populations.

Shuja Nawaz is the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within released in Pakistan and India in May and in the United States and United Kingdom in June. He can be reached at

Pakistan: Navigating the Perilous Path to Democracy

Pakistan today is taking baby steps back to becoming a democracy again, after nearly eight years of the rule by fiat of General Pervez Musharraf, the “liberal autocrat”. The Nigerian author Chinua Achebe put it very well: “Democracy is not something you put away for ten years, and then in the 11th year you wake up and start practicing again”. Pakistan has been through that cycle twice before, after military rulers and keen US allies, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and then General Zia ul Haq stayed in power for over a decade each. The announced agreement between former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Mr. Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party about the restoration of the judiciary represents a major attempt by the newly elected government to respond to the democratic needs of Pakistan and its people.

If the US alliance with Pakistan is to remain but this time with the people of Pakistan, not with any individual, then the US needs to show greater patience and allow Pakistan to reconstruct its political system and make decisions based on the norms of democracy not autocracy. This means, among other things, involving the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bordering Afghanistan, in discussions that will allow them to be consulted in their governance, giving them greater autonomy of action and providing them security through the presence of a well trained military on the one hand and well targeted economic opportunities on the other. Simply upping the military ante will not do the trick.

The US made no attempt to take these wider needs into consideration after it invaded Afghanistan. It was only in late 2006 that the Pakistanis came to the US to seek help in developing the area and building the capacity of the ill-equipped Frontier Corps and other military and para-military forces in the region. Now, the US, Pakistan, and importantly Afghanistan have agreed on a tripartite plan to improve collaboration and operations in the border region on both sides of the frontier. But the earliest training will not begin till this fall. And none of the economic work has begun in earnest. Even when it does it will be a paltry 750 million over 7 years. Of the 150 million a year that was promised, a sizable chunk will flow back to the United States through contracts for consultants. And crippling legislative restrictions on the flexible use of the funds (e.g. to help “convince” local tribes and leaders to collaborate) will mean that only a small amount will find its way to the ground. Unless Pakistan and its overseas partners can show change occurring rapidly in FATA, the Taliban will have the upper hand. After all they are already reported to be paying some Rs. 15,000 a month to their fighters. We have to outbid them in real terms.

In the meantime, Pakistan must bring back some semblance of normalcy to that region by allowing the local tribes to police themselves and work with the government in maintaining law and order. This will help isolate the militants who thrive on the chaos and confusion of constant and sweeping military actions. But, the Pakistan army and paramilitary forces must not cede the space to the Taliban to establish their writ, as happened in the hasty deal of 2006. And the government needs to re-establish for now, and only as a transitional measure, the role of the tribal Maliks and local political administrators who know how to manage the affairs of their tribal society. For the longer term, it needs to find effective ways of integrating FATA into NWFP and Pakistan proper and to raise the quality of life and services available to its inhabitants.

The impatience being shown by elements in the United States government with the attempts of Pakistan’s new democratically elected government to fight the war against terror inside its borders reflects a deeper divide in the way both countries view their past and future relationships. Under Secretary John Negroponte’s forceful pronouncement and body language at the conference that he addressed in Washington DC on May 5 indicated a lack of understanding about the ground realities in FATA and Pakistan. Over the horizon attacks are no substitute for action on the ground and human interaction and intelligence gathering. Moreover, each side needs to understand how the other operates. The US has a shorter time horizon and seeks a quick and simple solution to its difficulties in Afghanistan, a country where, because of the diversion of forces to Iraq, it invested less than necessary military resources and where economic development since the US invasion of 2001 has been spotty at best. Pakistan has a longer memory and time horizon. It recalls how the US decamped from the region and left it in the lurch after the Soviets departed Afghanistan in 1989. It fears that the US will do the same again. It may not take much for that to happen: some well directed and continuous Taliban attacks on the British and Canadian forces would push the politicians in those two countries, who are teetering in their support of the coalition, into pulling out of Afghanistan. That would make it difficult for the US to go it alone, since the rest of the “Coalition of the Almost Willing”, including aspirants to membership of the Western European Club are largely what my fellow analyst Michael Scheuer calls “ditch diggers” not fighting forces.

The fledgling and rather tenuous coalition government in Pakistan has a huge task before it: restoring democracy, the judiciary, and the economy (buffeted by waves of global price increases in food and energy). It will need to reach clear and unambiguous agreements amongst itself, without footnotes or reservations that could be exploited by opponents of democracy and the proponents of the status quo ante. And it will need to gradually restore civilian supremacy over the huge and dominant military. Fighting the wars within Pakistan, against foreign and home-grown terrorists and Islamists, will demand patient planning and careful navigation through the constitutional and bureaucratic minefields sown by the ancien regime. The leaders of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Mr. Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League (N), former Prime Minister Sharif, have till now shown a desire to talk their way through difficult situations. The political glue holding them together seems to be opposition to General Musharraf. If they fail to work together, their coalition will fracture, giving Musharraf the upper hand again. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, wisely has given space to the new government to make its own decisions and by maintaining a low profile allowed it to operate fairly autonomously. So must the United States. Otherwise, we risk seeing Pakistan’s latest experiment in democracy fail like many others before it. We do not have the time to re-learn the lessons of democracy every decade or so.

As Democracy Dawns in Pakistan, Challenges Remain

"Democracy is the best revenge." These words of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must have reverberated in the minds of millions of Pakistanis today, as Pakistan took its first steps toward the true democracy that General Pervez Musharraf promised over eight years ago but could not deliver. The National Assembly elected Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party Prime Minister with an overwhelming 2/3rds majority of 264 votes. His opponent, Pervez Elahi of Musharraf’s supporting Pakistan Muslim League Q Group garnered only 42 votes. Significantly, the first executive order of the new Prime Minister was the release of the 60 judges, including the Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, from house arrest. A host of lawyers and members of civil society marked their new freedom this evening with an impromptu procession to the former Chief Justice’s home where they raised the Pakistan flag. Standing with him on the balcony as this scene unfolded were fellow Justice Tariq Mahmood and the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, Aitzaz Ahsan, who led the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf. This flag that had been removed when Musharraf dismissed and incarcerated the Chief Justice through an executive order as the Chief of Army Staff on November 3, 2007. He later had this extra-constitutional order validated by his self-appointed Supreme Court.

Today Prime Minister Gillani promised to restore supremacy to parliament, ending the ersatz presidential system that Musharraf had introduced in Pakistan in contravention of its constitution. Gillani also promised to restore the judiciary to its rightful place. Against this background, a report emerged that Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte will be visiting Pakistan tomorrow to meet with Musharraf. Might it not make sense for the United States administration to finally recognize that power is shifting in Pakistan to parliament and that the presidency will need to return to its titular role without the power to make decisions on behalf of the people of Pakistan? If so, Negroponte’s first call should be on the Prime Minister. And tempting though it may be, he should avoid trying to sweep the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, into the US’ stifling embrace. Kayani has promised to take the army back to its professional roots and away from politics. The US needs to stop trying to portray Kayani as a special friend of America. The US now should let the leaders of Pakistan act on behalf of Pakistan. This political change of today may also provide Kayani an opportunity to make his own changes in the army’s high command that Musharraf had stuffed with his favorites before handing over to Kayani last November.

The election of the Prime Minister marked some huge landmarks in Pakistani politics: first, this is the first time that the PPP has a Prime Minister who is not a Bhutto. Indeed, for the first time, the PPP has a Prime Minister from the Punjab, a key province in Pakistan’s polity. Significantly, Gillani is from Southern Punjab, an area that borders Bhutto’s native Sindh province. Second, for the first time, the leaders of the major two political parties in the coalition government, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League N Group are not sitting in parliament nor heading the government. Both Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chair of the PPP and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of the PML N will run their party’s affairs outside the national assembly. Meanwhile an isolated and seriously wounded Musharraf watched these developments from Army House, lacking direct command of the army, previously his sole "vote bank." Moreover, he has no meaningful political support in the national assembly, as today’s vote attested. His extra-legal steps of the past one year are now subject to challenge and risk being overturned by the new coalition government, with its two-thirds majority. Even the PML Q’s majority coalition in the upper house, the Senate, risks being depleted now in the wave of change that emerged from the lower house today and may be unable to block any constitutional changes passsed by the lower house.

In the flush of victory, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of Bhutto and its coalition partners should pause to take stock of the enormous challenges they face in trying to dismantle eight years of autocratic rule. They will need to hold the coalition together, as individual party objectives clash. Both Sharif and Zardari will have to strongly resist the temptation to call all shots and allow the new Prime Minister to manage the business of government. As a start, the new government could set the tone for its tenure by keeping to a small cabinet rather than the 70 member cabinet of the previous regime that allowed all coalition partners and party factions in parliament to be bought off with ministries.

The other major challenge will be to avoid repeating the past politics of spoils and cronyism that created disillusionment among the population and eventually allowed the army to reassert itself as the key political player on the scene. Restoring the political system should be the first priority. Another major issue will be the restoration of balance to the economy that has had imbalanced growth and recently saw a resurgence of inflation and shortages of key staples and energy. Though it may be tempting for the new government to destroy the local governments that Musharraf’s regime introduced, it may be in the longer term interest of the new government to strengthen these local institutions by giving them greater fiscal and financial autonomy, something that the previous regime resisted. Bringing government closer to the people can only be good for governance. If there are any failures, the independent media in Pakistan with their new-found freedoms will pose sharp challenges to any government n Pakistan today.

Finally, on the security front, the government will need to seriously study and take over the fight against militancy in Pakistan to attack its root causes. It will need to work with the military in this regard to ensure that there is a proper balance between politico-economic measures and military actions in the border region where Al Qaeda and the homegrown Taliban now threaten Pakistan’s stability. Short-term salves and deals will not do the trick. Indeed, the amalgamation of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into Pakistan proper may need to be put on the fast track. And, the new government will need to carry forward the initiatives that Musharraf launched to normalize relations with India, to reduce the defence burden on Pakistan’s economy, and to allow it to divert resources toward education and health. Some 50 million of Pakistan’s children have slipped through the education net, according to estimates by leading economist Parvez Hasan. The new government will have to turn back this dismal tide.

Pakistan has to play catch up economically and politically. Parliamentary democracy offers it a great chance. Will the politicians live up to these challenges? The time for celebration will be short. And, as the new government will no doubt discover, the time to get the country back on track may also be too short.

Published on The Huffington Post 24 March 2008