Category Archives: Blog

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

Rethinking the War in Pakistan’s Borderlands

It took the United States government over six years after 9/11 to concentrate on designing a strategy for the war against the militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan. It was not alone. Pakistan too managed to ignore the deeper issues at stake and pursued a half-hearted strategy that allowed the Taliban to make inroads into Pakistani territory and challenge the writ of the state and the Pakistan army itself. Now, as the militants have brought the war into the Pakistani hinterland, things seem to be moving in the direction of a new war strategy. But the remarkable lack of public discourse of the emerging approaches in both countries is symptomatic of the secretive and top-down thinking on this critical issue. For years the US pushed a Pro-Musharraf policy and relied on one man to help it fight its "war on terror" in the region. Now, rushing to put it into effect a new war strategy, even before a new popularly elected government takes over in Pakistan may compound the difficulty in shifting to a Pro-Pakistan policy.

First some background: the US made a serious mistake in Afghanistan by shifting its focus and resources from that country to Iraq before it had consolidated its position against the Taliban. A nominal force was left in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions and all attempts to reinforce its numbers were resisted, for instance by the offer of the Marine Corps to send a special expeditionary force. In effect, the US military command and its diffident NATO allies conceded the countryside to the Taliban, content to policing the cities and their immediate environs. Even the Special Forces, who had gained some rural traction, were largely withdrawn for duty in Iraq. The allies also failed to provide good governance and security for the population of Afghanistan, allowing its Pashtun majority to coalesce with the Taliban and against the regime in Kabul.

On its part, Pakistan recognized the cross-border influence of the Pashtun tribes that sit astride the border with Afghanistan but chose to ignore the Taliban that sought sanctuary inside FATA. In return for the injection of US payments for the army’s expenses in entering FATA, Pakistan concentrated only on trying to curb the "foreign" elements in FATA, the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, and sundry other nationalities under the umbrella of Al Qaeda that had made their homes in the tribal badlands, some even marrying into local tribes.

Nothing was done to control the Afghan Taliban, who then spawned a Pakistani offshoot. More important, nothing was done to integrate FATA into Pakistan proper and give it the economic, legal, and political benefits potentially available to other Pakistani regions. Ignoring the Taliban only emboldened them, as they fought for space against an under-equipped and weak Frontier Corps and other local para-military outfits. And lack of training and individual command failures contributed to poor morale, defections galore, and ignominious surrenders. Meanwhile the FC and army suffered heavy casualties, showing their lack of preparation for counter insurgency warfare.

In November 2006, the Pakistan army came to the US with a 5 million plan for building up the capacity of the Frontier Corps. Discussions since then have led to a heightened US interest in FATA, with CENTCOM actively entering the picture. The result was a billion Government of Pakistan plan over a nine-year period to help improve governance, economic development and security in the FATA and enhance the Pakistan army’s capabilities in the region. The U.S. contribution will be a little over billion, the most well known part of that effort being a 750 million contribution for development in FATA for the next five years. Another part of the U.S. contribution is the Security Development Plan (SDP) to improve security by enhancing the capability of the paramilitary Frontier Corps.

In the face of a deteriorating security situation, the first phase of the SDP, approved for FY 2007, concentrated on improving the policing and antinarcotics capabilities of the FC and assisting the Pakistan army’s commandos, the Special Services Group’s operational capacity in the region with helicopter support. Much more is (pardon the pun)en train:

• 2 training centers for the FC
• 2 intelligences bases
• 4 sector headquarters for increased Command and Control, and
• A series of Border Coordination Centers to share intelligence, develop a common operational picture on both sides of the Durand Line, and help coordinate the activities of the US, Afghan, and Pakistan army in the area; the first one opening in Torkham on the Afghan side shortly, the second one being built.

The US hopes to begin training of the FC, starting in October 2008, especially its newly raised Wings, through a "Train the Trainers" program. Current FC officers will be trained in counter insurgency warfare. And intelligence training will be imparted to personnel of two new intelligence battalions of the FC. When all is said and done, the overall cost of these measures in the SDP may exceed 0M. But much time will have been lost by these plans become reality. Senator Joseph Biden has proposed an even larger aid plan for Pakistan to help it on its path toward democracy that would triple the non-security aid to .5 billion annually for a decade. He has also proposed a "democracy dividend" of billion to encourage the shift from autocracy to democracy.

But there are causes for concern on both sides. First, in the direct military-to-military discussions there have been no exchanges on the need to politically and economically integrate FATA into Pakistan proper. The Department of Defense has conceded that ground to the Department of State that has been demure in pushing this agenda forward, only recently waking up to the issue. As a result FATA remains an anachronistic appendage, and its population deprived of the full benefits of Pakistani citizenship. A disconnected population will not actively participate in any development plans and this may led to "carpetbaggers" from the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province or other provinces taking advantage of economic opportunities and tax breaks in FATA. Second, there has been no sharing of information by the previous government of Pakistan with its general population of what is planned for FATA with the United States and what conditions for the entry and operation of US forces in Pakistan are being agreed upon and by whom. As a result, the few bits of information that leak out into the pages of the newspapers tend to paint the cooperation in the darkest hues. The danger seen by critics of the US plan is that Pakistan’s leadership may be bartering away its sovereignty by allowing the US unbridled access to the borderlands. Third, a new civilian government is being formed in Pakistan these days. If it is not brought into the picture and allowed to make final decisions on the future plans for FATA and collaboration with the US in Pakistan’s own interests, this whole enterprise may collapse for lack of political support. It would behoove the US and the Pakistan army to bring the new political leadership on board and allow it to decide on future plans so it takes ownership of these ventures before signing any agreements. This would also strengthen the move toward civil supremacy.

Finally, the enhancement of the FC should be seen only as a short-term transitional measure, with a greater and longer-term shift towards improving the capacity of the regular Pakistan army in counter insurgency warfare. Most thinking officers in the Pakistan army probably know that they will not be fighting any large-scale conventional war in the near future, especially against India. The posture there is purely defensive and the presence of a well trained, mobile Pakistan army, backed by nuclear weapons, should be enough to deter any regional hegemon from exerting undue influence on Pakistan.

Pakistan’s wars within, against homegrown insurgencies, will demand a different type of force and a different mind-set. This will take time. Despite his desire to move towards this new objective, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has only three years to complete his tenure. The shift in the army’s posture and capacity for the new kind of warfare will likely extend even beyond the term of his successor.

But, the rush to get the US plans into action and to improve the FC’s capacity, without looking at the more important longer-term issues affecting the region and the Pakistan army itself may not yield the intended results. Rather, pitting a locally-recruited FC against its own tribal cousins may end up creating more problems and feed the very insurgency they are meant to quell. Both the US and the Pakistani public need to be part of this important discussion. Haste and secrecy can only undermine these efforts.

This appeared on Huffington Post.com

Who will be calling the shots in Pakistan?

As the newly-elected representatives of the opposition parties and their unelected leaders, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, position themselves to take over power in Pakistan’s National Assembly. They face the dwindling power of President Pervez Musharraf, weakened by the loss of his supporting party, the Pakistan Muslim League Q, and all his other camp followers, many of whom are seeking to hitch their wagons to the Pakistan Peoples’ Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto or Sharif’s PML-N. Meanwhile the most powerful man in Pakistan, the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, bides his time in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi. A major concern of his is the undue attention given to the army by the militant Islamists whom Musharraf had riled and then been unable to control. It was Kayani’s public separation from Musharraf in the days leading up to the February 18 elections that spelt doom for Musharraf and his party. By forbidding the army from contacts with all politicians, including Musharraf, and dissociating it from the running of the elections, Kayani made the army neutral. In other words, it would not participate in intimidation of the electorate nor condone blatant vote rigging. That allowed the opposition parties to win back their rightful quota of power in the elections. Now, Sharif is calling for Musharraf to resign and the Western powers are trying to find ways of keeping him on, with Zardari and the PPP hedging their bets for fear of “rocking the boat”. That was the telling phrase used by PPP Prime Minister-in-waiting, Amin Fahim, yesterday. Attention shifts to the role of the army chief. Kayani’s actions and inaction both will mean a lot in the days ahead, especially in signaling a shift in relative power between the President and the army chief.

It reminds me of the events surrounding Pakistan’s first national Martial Law in 1958 when President Iskander Mirza imposed Martial Law but appointed the army chief General Ayub Khan to run it. Mirza’s plan was to ease out Ayub and replace him with another chief. Within days, it was becoming evident to observers in the media and the diplomatic corps that the duumvirate would not last. Elie Abel of The New York Times recounted how he detected a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room when Ayub entered the room for a joint interview with Mirza conducted by Abel and Watson Sims of the Associated Press on 9 October in Karachi. ‘It was immediately clear who was in charge,’ said Sims. Within days Ayub was to overthrow Mirza and take over as President. (I cover these events in detail in my forthcoming book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within; April 2008, Oxford University Press.)

The same sort of shadow play is being conducted between the Army House where Musharraf lives (instead of the Presidency in Islamabad) and its rightful occupant, the new army chief, Kayani. While technically Musharraf can still replace the army chief, he may have run out of time. The extent of Kayani’s unilateral declaration of independence from his former boss will become evident in the next few weeks as he shifts some of his principal aides at army headquarters. The first to go may be his Director General Military Intelligence, Major General Nadeem Ijaz Ahmed, reportedly a relative of Musharraf. Next will likely be the Director General, Inter Services Intelligence, Lt. General Nadeem Taj, a former Military Secretary to Musharraf. The DG ISI normally reports to the Prime Minister and the new Prime Minister will want his own person in that slot and most likely will accept Kayani’s choice. Another key position that Kayani will need to fill with a new person who owes his loyalty to him and not to Musharraf is the Corps Commander X Corps in Rawalpindi that controls the key 111 Brigade. This brigade is the one that guards all the key residences of the President, Prime Minister, and other sensitive installations in the capital area and Rawalpindi. It is also the one that undertakes all the operational aspects of a coup d’etat. At GHQ, he will be looking to the Chief of General Staff’s slot also for someone of his own choice, replacing Lt. General Salahuddin Satti, who once commanded X Corps under Musharraf. Satti commanded 111 Brigade when Sharif was overthrown in October 1999. How quickly Kayani makes his new appointments and consolidates his own position in command of the army will indicate the shift of power from Musharraf to the army chief. His window of opportunity is narrow: he can do it now, while Musharraf is still reeling from the shock of the elections and before the new Prime Minister has had a chance to establish his control over government.

A thoughtful man, not given to impetuous behavior, Kayani will be weighing these matters before taking action in the weeks ahead. Watch those posting orders from GHQ!

Democratic Pakistan: an American Conundrum

The euphoria over the successful democratic elections in Pakistan on February 18 has unleashed a torrent of commentary on what next for the US “War on Terror”? The biggest question that seems to be leading to sleepless nights in Foggy Bottom and parts of even academia it seems is whether a democratically elected government might now decide it is not in Pakistan’s interest to prosecute the US’s war in Afghanistan. President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to allow limited US operations from Pakistani soil but did not level with his own countrymen it seems. The story now breaking from the US is that the Predator drones that often attack targets inside Pakistan fly from a base in Pakistan.

Will a democratic government continue this practice of deception? In other words, was the US better off having an autocrat at the helm in Pakistan?

The latest hand-wringing statement on this conundrum comes from Graham Allison of Harvard, an expert on nuclear issues, who now has become an expert on foreign policy and Pakistan in particular. In his Op Ed, marked by some inaccuracies, in The Boston Globe he states:

A Pakistani government whose actions align with its citizen’s views on these issues would be at loggerheads with the United States.

Such misguided analysis miss the point that the reason why the Pakistani citizenry opposes the US is because the US supported a military regime for the past eight years in Pakistan against the people of Pakistan. Musharraf was seen by increasingly large numbers of Pakistanis as doing the US’ bidding and ignoring the wishes of his own people. Gradually, he lost the support of all major social groups that initially supported him: the intellectuals, the media, the lawyers.

Today Musharraf is isolated. No one in Pakistan speaks for him, except his own ex-military spokesman, who is paid to do so. Not even his King’s Party, the now discredited and defeated Pakistan Muslim League Q that has gone eerily silent. The only voices of support now seem to emerge from his few American well-wishers, like Allison, who are looking to maintain the comfortable old patron-client relationship between the US and Pakistan.

This confuses the ordinary Pakistani: Isn’t America supposed to welcome democracy? If so, why does it distrust it in Pakistan?

While the past history of Pakistan’s politicians is not one to inspire confidence, they have lived through difficult times in the past eight years and if they learned any lessons, it will be critical for them to put “Pakistan first” in everything that they do. Musharraf used that slogan too but never translated it into action. He put himself first. Indeed, it will be in Pakistan’s interest that the war on terror now becomes Pakistan’s own war, since the battles will be fought within Pakistan and not just militarily but also with economic and political weapons. For once, the Pakistan army will need to work in tandem with the political system to address the underlying issues that fostered the spread of Talibanization in Pakistan, as Musharraf’s regime dithered. If they cannot work together, the country faces dire prospects. And time is not on its side.

The challenge now facing the US is to accept this fledgling democracy and allow it to find its feet. And for Pakistan’s new government to be bold in attacking the insurgency with all the weapons at its command, not just military might. The deal making with the militants that failed Musharraf will fail the new government too. It’s a huge responsibility. But the new government should not sacrifice Pakistan’s sovereignty to the US’s short-term interest as the ancien regime did.

Musharraf loses a “referendum”; Pakistan wins big

Early results from the Pakistan elections indicate a routing of the leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q Group) that supported President Pervez Musharraf for the past five years and allowed him free reign effectively to convert Pakistan from a parliamantary to a presidential system. It appears that the Pakistani voter saw this election as a referendum on Musharraf. If so, he lost big.

Now what?

There is a possibility of a grand alliance at the center, involving former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N), the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the mainstream Awami National Party of the North West Frontier Province, with even the urban Muttahida Qaumi Mahaz of Sindh joining in. This kind of government would provide a useful counterweight to the power that resided in the presidency for the past eight years plus. Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto must be smiling in heaven: democracy indeed is the best revenge!

If Musharraf learns to co-habit with this new dispensation at the center, then he may be able to salvage his place in history. One hopes he resists the temptation to resort to political engineering which brought a previous president to his fall at the hands of an army chief who felt the impending chaos was not in Pakistan’s interest. Indeed, the new army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, must be credited with having helped prepare the ground for the people to exercise their franchise with confidence that the army would not be party to rigging. He and the army can now move back to the military part of the war on terrorists inside Pakistan.

The new government in Pakistan should now see the insurgency inside Pakistan and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as Pakistan’s own war and not that of the US alone. And it needs to employ military tactics as part of an overall strategy that envelopes economic, social, and political approaches. The US should not have to push Pakistan into doing what is in its own interest on that front. Senator Joseph Biden must be pleased that the US can now have an alliance with the people of Pakistan and not with an autocrat, no matter how personally liberal he might be. And one hopes and prays that the new leadership in parliament will not wish to pander to the religious right, as the PML-Q did. Cutting deals with the Pakistani Taliban falls in that category. It never worked and never will.

An important part of the political puzzle now will be control of the critically huge province of the Punjab. If it is in concert with the government in Islambad then Pakistan have a chance of stability that will allow it to regain its political footing and restore the teetering economy.

Stay tuned!

Memories of a "Free and Fair" Election in Pakistan

Looking forward to next Monday’s elections in Pakistan, my thoughts go back to the 1970 elections, when I helped PTV cover the elections in “real time” and reported them directly to the population without any intermediaries. Neither the Election Commission nor the Inter Services Intelligence at that time had the nous to manage the results. In fact, the ISI had predicted that the populist Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto would get a bare minimum of seats, as would the Bengali nationalist Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in East Pakistan. They predicted a hung parliament that would allow the military dictator General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan free rein to manipulate the system, to his liking. (Shades of what we are hearing these days!) Little did they know what the people of Pakistan would do. Hungry to exercise their right to vote for the first time in a free manner since the 1956 elections (that were overturned by a military coup in 1958 and followed by direct or indirect military rule for 12 years), Pakistanis overturned all expectations and predictions.

Some 63 per cent of Pakistan cast their votes on December 7, 1970. The eastern wing chose Mujib, the west chose Bhutto. The East Pakistanis by rights could have ruled the country. But the west, the army, and Bhutto, would have none of that. Civil strife erupted. The military was caught in a bind. And to “save” Pakistan, Yahya let loose a reign of military terror in East Pakistan, in the end losing that province to an Indian invasion. Thus was born Bangladesh. Pakistan has never been the same since.

But those elections in 1970 were a huge shot of adrenalin for the electorate and for us in Pakistan Television news. I recall how we set up a system to gather results from each district and reported them to our central office. As they came in, we announced them from a special election studio in Chaklala, Rawalpindi, with a wall-sized chart that listed progressive results for each party by province. We stayed on the air for 29 hours non-stop, sleeping in shifts and then getting on the air again. Shoaib Hashmi, an intellectual from Lahore,  and Ubaidullah Beg, the brilliant mind who was co-host of a popular twenty questions-type of program called Kasauti, anchored the Urdu reportage. I cut in with the English updates. We were on an emotional high, seeing the peoples’ right to select their leaders being exercised in a bold manner. And for the first time, the people of Pakistan believed what we told them from official PTV. They responded warmly.

To help pass the time, I had brought in a book of elephant jokes. We began filling the gaps on air with those jokes. Even translated into Urdu they struck a chord with our audience. We had started getting letters, cards, and parcels with mini-elephants from or viewers while we were still in the midst of our marathon broadcast. They stayed up with us. We were in reporting heaven! I recall coming out of the studio in the middle of the night to see my friend Gareth Gwenlan, standing on the lawn of the TV station waiting for me. Gareth, later famous as the producer of Fawlty Towers and other top BBC shows, had been sent with another colleague to help train us in TV production by the BBC. He said he was watching the reporting of results from his home in distant Islamabad and could not stay away. “I had to be where the excitement was!” he said.

That night’s excitement was repeated with the provincial elections ten days later when we were on the air for another 17 hours non-stop. But it did not last too long after that, as the country slipped into chaos and confusion and street protests led to open rebellion in East Pakistan and then an unnecessary war with India that Pakistan lost. The country wept as our once proud but badly led and misused army surrendered in the Race Course Ground in Dacca on 16 December 1971. Pakistan was never going to be the same again.

Subsequent elections never produced the same vitality and huge turnouts. Even the election after the death of another military dictator General Ziaul Haq in 1988 that brought Benazir Bhutto to power had a turnout of only 40 percent. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won his so-called landslide in 1997, only 35 per cent of Pakistanis went to the polls. The heavily circumscribed election of 2002 under President Pervez Musharraf was said to have brought out 41 per cent but that figure may be open to doubt.

On Monday, February 18, 2008 when Pakistan goes to the polls again, the turnout may well be below 30 per cent, as threats of terrorism scare the population from coming out in large numbers. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto took the excitement out of this election for many Pakistanis. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and his brother from the races also detracts from the validity of the process. Musharraf’s falling popularity among Pakistanis at large will be reflected in the turnout and the results this time around. He may well lose in the long run. He has promised a “free, fair, and safe” elections. But the real losers on Election Day will be the people of Pakistan, deprived of participating in a truly unfettered election.

Private TV channels will do their best to cover the voting. But the threat of controls and sanctions weighs heavily on their operations. PTV will do what is expected of it, toe the official line. Word of mouth, what Franz Fanon called “the native telephone”, will prevail in the end. No amount of government controls or threats can silence that. No matter what the announced party results are on February 19th, in the end the people of Pakistan will win. I hope it is not too long in coming.

Benazir Bhutto’s Voice from Beyond

With the current election campaign coming to an end in Pakistan, the leading light of the opposition to President Pervez Musharraf has joined the discourse from beyond the grave and raised it to a higher level. Benazir Bhutto’s posthumously-released extended essay-cum-memoir Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West was released this week and likely will get a good reception in the West at which it is aimed. It bemoans the intellectual stasis in the Islamic world and calls for self-criticism among Muslims at large as the basis for a better understanding with the West. However, if past trends hold, it will be less read and understood in her native Pakistan and even less so in the Muslim World. Unfortunately, the oral tradition still prevails in Pakistan and in the heart of the Muslim world. And open discussion of profound issues in religion and politics has been displaced by drawing-room banter about conspiracy theories, the latest overseas trips, and acquisitions of the ostentatious trappings of wealth.

I visited Pakistan right after President Musharraf’s autobiography In the Line of Fire was released in 2006 and found over a period of two weeks that the book was being discussed at every lunch and dinner party I attended. But when asked, only four persons in those two weeks had actually read the entire book. The rest relied simply on excerpts or newspaper reports or what they had heard from others about it!

Bhutto’s book, like Musharraf’s, is an important addition to the paltry literature from Third World leaders on the issues facing their countries. Musharraf’s book, self-centered and slight, was in his own voice, probably because he dictated large segments of it after getting input from others. The Bhutto volume has relatively more heft but reeks of many hands.  It truly comes to life with her own words, dealing with the memories of Pakistan and of her arrival in Pakistan after her recent exile. And then there are the surprisingly candid pen portraits of many of the countries and leaders of the Muslim world, who do not come up to her exacting standards of democracy. Other parts remind us of plodding research assistance that yields a potted history of Pakistan and the emergence of the modern Islamic World, with copious quotations from other authors that drown out her own powerful views and voice. What could have become a major call for change in the Muslim World thus is reduced to an undergraduate essay in those parts. Those who follow Pakistan’s history will note the skipping over or rationalization of thorny issues such as the rise of the Taliban during her tenure as Prime Minister or charges of corruption or maladministration, with the practiced ease of a politician.

What makes the book important and interesting is the conflict that Bhutto’s own background and actions created for her as leader of a progressive and populist political party, while remaining at once a western-educated member of the feudal class, assigned to power by birthright. Yet, a strong nationalism and sense of destiny pervaded her thinking and led her to devote all her energies to returning to Pakistan and its benighted politics. I could see that steely determination when we last met in Washington just before she took off for Dubai en route to Pakistan. She lived and breathed Pakistan. And in the end she died for Pakistan. She understood full well that her return was fraught with danger. But she persisted and even after the first attack on her arrival procession on October 27, 2008 in Karachi, she was not fearful and continued with her public campaigning. That was the only way of ensuring that her people, her so-called vote bank, would be galvanized into action. Unlike Musharraf, who has sought safety behind multiple layers of security, she connected with the masses. And she paid the price for it.

Of all the current Pakistani leaders she recognized clearly, as she states in her book, that “extremism thrives under dictatorship and is fueled by poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness”. She was prepared to speak publicly about these issues. Whether she would have been able to change the situation in Pakistan or not, we will never know. The confluence of the forces of extremism and dictatorship, which she heavily criticizes in this book, may well have led to her horrific death.

The question now is whether the Pakistani electorate will listen to her voice from beyond this world and take back its country from the cancerous inroads of predatory politics that have debilitated Pakistan’s quest for democracy. This is at once her legacy and her dream for Pakistan. Who will fulfill it?

Will Musharraf “lose” these elections?

As the days wind down to the national and provincial assemblies elections in Pakistan on February 18, the one man on the political scene who is not in fact running faces the serious prospect that he may end up in the losing column. President Pervez Musharraf, sans his general’s uniform and the rank and power of Chief of Army Staff, appears increasingly to be the single most important issue on which Pakistanis citizens at large and the political parties that are hoping to make a comeback are focused. Having transformed Pakistan from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system in which he controls the levers of political power, he resorted late last year to extra-constitutional measures to have himself re-elected president and then shed his uniform. Later, he got his own compliant supreme court to ratify all his extra-legal measures. But, if current public opinion trends hold up, he may well lose his hold on the country.

The rising unhappiness with Musharraf has allowed the opposition Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Peoples Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to coalesce against him. Meanwhile numerous polls conducted by local and foreign agencies appear to signal a rising wave of disappointment with Musharraf’s regime, with more than two-thirds of Pakistanis calling for his immediate resignation.

Of the issues that have helped focus the negative sentiments against him are inflation, which is rampant and rising, and lack of security. An unseemly public spat between the Finance Minister and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan that acts as the guardian of the monetary policy on measures to control inflation has added to the public’s confusion. On the security front, the government has lost ground continuously since last year, ceding territory not only in the badlands of the North West Frontier Province to the homegrown neo-Taliban but also in the heartland of that province and elsewhere.

Even the Interior Ministry acknowledges that of the 64,175 polling stations are being set up for Monday’s elections almost one-third 19,380 have been declared ‘sensitive’, that is dangerous and demanding the presence of police, paramilitary rangers, and even the army to provide security. Of these, the number of ‘most sensitive polling stations’ stands at 8,928 — 3,787 in Punjab, 1,575 in Sindh, 1,094 in the NWFP, 1,350 in Balochistan and 1,122 in FATA (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that abut Afghanistan).

The Interior Ministry spokesman, according to a report in DAWN newspaper, deemed some areas in the NWFP, Balochistan, FATA, and Sindh as ‘high-risk’. They are Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir, Malakand Agency, Hangu and Tank and Bannu in the NWFP; South Waziristan Agency, North Waziristan Agency, Mohmand Agency, Bajaur Agency, FR Kohat, Darra Adam Khel and Bannu in FATA; parts of the riverine belt known as Kacha Area in Sindh; and Kohlu, Dera Bugti and Killa Abdullah in Balochistan. These are probably the areas where the regular army will be deployed, to provide security but not to help conduct the polling, a point that the new army chief has underlined repeatedly.

To add to the public deep concern about safety, there has been a rise in terrorist actions against the Pakistan army at its very heart, in Rawalpindi, the garrison city next to Islamabad where the army headquarters re located. There is broad agreement that these attacks have been prompted by Islamist militants angered by Musharraf’s take-over of the Red Mosque in a bitter shoot-out last year in the heart of Islamabad. So, he has now become the lightning rod for attack on the armed forces. Further, elections rallies of the mainstream Awami National Party have been hit with suicide bombings in the NWFP.

Musharraf must have been unhappy to read about the meetings held by his erstwhile political ally Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and head of the Pakistan Muslim League Q group (known widely as the King’s Party because it supported Musharraf) with the religious leader of the Red Mosque militants, who is in prison. Hussain is reported to have suggested that he would try to get him released but failed to make a deal with the incarcerated Mullah. Meanwhile, the Secretary General of the PML Q, Mushahid Hussain (not related to his party chief), appeared to distance himself from Musharraf’s policies by suggesting that the leaders of the lawyers’ movement, including the Pakistan Peoples’ Party leader Aitzaz Ahsan, be freed.

If the pre-rigging that is being widely alleged does not take hold and derail the electoral process on February 18, and instead people cast their ballots freely on the basis of the deteriorating economic situation and inflation on the one hand and the lack of security on the other, Musharraf may end up being the biggest loser when the results are announced. Under that scenario, the opposition parties may garner enough seats to overturn many of his fiats of dubious legal validity of the recent past. This time around, he may not have the coercive power of the army behind him, an army whose new chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been signaling a shift in its internal priorities from political involvement to professionalism. Musharraf may thus find himself isolated and abandoned by his supporters. If the PML Q manages to eke out a win then street protests may erupt across the country, adding to the violence from terrorism

The prospects for change loom large on the Pakistani political scene in the weeks ahead.

Posted on The Huffington Post, 14 February 2008

Questions that need an answer in Pakistan

In an election campaign marred by charges of pre-rigging and legal irregularities by President Pervez Musharraf in the dismissal of the Chief Justice and other judges and his own re-election, and the horrific death of a resurgent and popular former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as a result of terrorist action, the people of Pakistan have not had an opportunity to hear much about the real issues confronting the country today. The campaign has been marked by rhetoric, bombastic promises, or calls for revenge.

Most politicians are running against each other or against Musharraf and not on platforms that differentiate them from the rest. The  vague party manifestoes that are crafted in back rooms somewhere end up being filed and forgotten. And the fear of terrorist actions, such as the bombing over this weekend of a non-religious party’s meeting in Charsadda in the North West Frontier Province, has reduced the number of large meetings and processions that have traditionally helped muster support for individual parties in this vast country.

Before Pakistanis go to the vote on February 18, they deserve answers to some questions from their political leaders, the high command of the army, and the United States government.

Politicians

• What specific policies would you adopt to reduce and remove terrorism from the North West Frontier and the rest of Pakistan?
• How would you ensure that Pakistan’s economy continues to grow and inflation is kept under control?
• Do you support a free market economy or greater governmental regulations and controls?
• Do you support the imposition of Shariah Law in place of the current legal system or parallel to it? If the latter, where would you draw the line separating the two systems?
• Do you believe the Kashmir dispute with India should be settled peacefully or with force? Would you set a deadline for reaching an accord on Kashmir?
• Do you, like Bangladesh, support reverting to the Warrant of Precedence circa 1947 that established relative civil-military rankings and civilian supremacy?
• Would you reinstate the judiciary and remove control over the private mass media by restricting the regulatory power of PEMRA, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority?

The Army High Command

• Will you re-enter the political arena if the elections do not produce a clear winner or produce a stable political outcome?
• Should the army have a constitutional role in the country’s governance? Why?
• Would you accept a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute with India?
• Do you support the integration of the Federally Administered Tribal Area with Pakistan proper and the merger of the Frontier Corps with the Pakistan Army? If not, why?
• Do you accept the political supremacy of the elected representatives of the people over the armed forces, even if you disagree with particular policies of a civilian government?
• Would you accept a reduction of the perks and privileges of senior army officers (e.g. land at reduced costs) in return for market-oriented salaries?
• Do we need a conventional army at its current size to fight external enemies or do you see more of a need for fighting internal insurgencies in the future? Is this a false choice?

The United States

• Is the United States a friend of the people of Pakistan or of its rulers? Why does it even make this choice?
• Is the US committed to staying in Afghanistan with adequate troops till the insurgency is wiped out or will it leave in a hurry again?
• Why does the US accept India’s nuclear program and not accept Pakistan as a nuclear power that has adequately protected its nuclear assets?
• Why doesn’t the US trust Pakistan’s leaders?

Clear and concise answers to these questions will help the people of Pakistan make the right choices for the long term. Otherwise, the issues facing the country will not be discussed openly, and power politics, internally and internationally, will continue to dominate decision making  thus producing more tumult and uncertainty.

Posted on The Huffington Post, 13 February 2008