A threatened transition

Following article by Raza Rumi  is a cross post from Express Tribune

The democratic transition has finally met its gravest challenge. As Pakistan moves to the general elections in 10 days, it is not clear how fair and free would these elections be. In the 1990s, the establishment manipulated the results and electoral outcomes. The decision of the Asghar Khan case is on record now that shows how the establishment engineered the results in favour of a right-wing coalition of their choice. Such direct interference in political affairs culminated in the coup d etat of 1999.

The return of democratic rule had kindled the hope that Pakistan’s civilian institutions would be stronger and perhaps, a more rational civil-military engagement will ensue. The political parties achieved much in the shape of constitutional restructuring and ensuring that they did not compromise on an extraconstitutional solution for alleged misgovernance. A few months ago, it was hoped that neutral caretakers and a vigilant Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) would steer the country through the elections process.

However, the Pakistani state and its wilful outsourcing of jihad to militant organsiations are now haunting the democratic and electoral process. The so-called Pakistani faction of the Taliban has drawn the line between the acceptable and unacceptable electoral solution. Ironically, they are mirroring the approach of their erstwhile masters by indulging in pre-poll manipulation. The instruments are violence, coercion of public opinion backed with somewhat aggressive media campaigns. The ANP, the MQM and the PPP are facing the music for being liberal and secular and for backing military operations against the Taliban.

Not that the performance of these three parties was exemplary, especially with respect to law enforcement, but the truth is that they did not control the security policy of the country. The security policy intertwined with our foreign policy — a friendly Afghanistan and containment of India at all costs — drives our foreign policy agenda. The provincial governments could have done much more in terms of policing and strengthening the legal framework, which remains in shambles since the defacto abolition of the Police Order of 2002. It should be remembered that the civilian law-enforcement agencies suffered heavy casualties in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Fata and continue to remain under attack.

In the last month, scores of political workers from the moderate political parties are dead and dozens of attacks have been carried out. The frequency, speed and planning of these attacks demonstrate that the intelligence apparatus is lagging and little coordination exists. The most worrying aspect is how Karachi or at least parts of it have turned into little havens for militants where they are holding courts.

The caretaker interior minister, immediately after his appointment, became controversial, as he could not resist praising one particular leader and making predictions on who might win the election. The interim administration obviously did not do anything to assure the public that it might have been a case of misplaced enthusiasm. Who is in charge of security? Paramilitary forces are stationed in Fata, Balochistan and parts of K-P. They are under the control of civilian institutions but headed by the military. Similarly, the chief of the ISI is a senior military official. What is unclear is if someone is making these agencies talk to one another and coordinate to prevent the attacks on political workers.

How come the state does not know where the leaders and operatives of the TTP are located? Their spokesperson is quoted in Urdu columns and appears on TV as well. This kind of retreat by the state and media is mind-boggling. The paradox is that the TTP find democracy and elections un-Islamic and yet want to influence their course. More worrying is the silence and sometimes cajoling by the parties on the right of the centre. Some have even thanked the TTP for not attacking them and others have appealed them not to attack. The entire campaign has turned into a farce. In Punjab, the major contestants are promising the moon to the public without even mentioning the issue of terrorism. Is it naiveté or just short-termism that they are not focusing on these critical issues?

The net result could be that the voter turnout will be lower in the smaller provinces and higher in Punjab. This is neither good for the federation nor for our fragile democracy. By capitulating to the Taliban, are some political parties not ceding space to militias that impose their ideology through terror?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 2nd, 2013.

Friday Book Club: What Makes a Pakistani?

While politicians, diplomats and business leaders are negotiating trade deals that would grant open access to American markets, a lucrative new industry of writing books about Pakistan for Western audiences is starting to take hold. Two of these recent books were the subject of reviews this week, and provide an interesting starting point for a discussion of Pakistan ideology both for what each book said…or didn’t say…about the subject.

In today’s Friday Times, Raza Rumi reviews a new book, ‘Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: Escaping India’ that explores the way the reliance on religion to define Pakistani identity has wreaked havoc with the nation’s foreign policy decisions.
Explaining Pakistan's Foreign Policy

The overall emphasis of the book is to highlight how Pakistan’s exclusive ‘ideological’ identity as opposed to a multi-ethnic nation-state cognisant of its past inhibits the formulation of a realistic foreign policy. This is a view, which many in Pakistan would empathise with especially the political parties. The book also documents the nuances and shades of policy options articulated by various political and religious groups.

This book suggests that the establishment’s attempt to use Islam as a “substitute for nationalism” has resulted in not only external wars such as Kargil, but internal wars to define who qualifies as “Muslim enough” to be Pakistani. In his review, Raza Rumi mentions the 1949 Objectives Resolution, but we can easily connect the dots between this and the way Yahya Khan characterised Bengalis as crypto-Hindus, 1974 law declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims and present day attacks by anti-Shia groups like SSP and LeJ.

A similar observation was made by Ayesha Siddiqa in her review of a new book edited by Maleha Lodhi, ‘Pakistan: Beyond the “Crisis State”‘. According to Siddiqa, “The basic thesis of the volume is that there are many things which are not right about the country but that in itself does not qualify it as a failed or failing state”. This is true, of course, and it is important to recognise the progress that Pakistan is making as well as the challenges that remain. But Ms Siddiqa in her review worries that Lodhi’s volume serves as something of an unproductive whitewash, and in ignoring underlying issues surrounding ideology, Lodhi’s book fails to address the critical issue of ideology.

Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis StatePakistan’s fundamental problem is that the state defines citizenship on the basis of a citizen’s putative relationship with religion and the central establishment. This leaves out millions of non-Muslims or members of minority ethnic communities from a sense of representation. Those that choose to protest their rights like the East Pakistanis or Baluch are then brutally butchered in the name of national security. This volume chooses to focus on religion related violence. This category of violence cannot be stopped because the problem of the religiosity of the state becomes compounded with another issue of a powerful military bureaucracy, an institution which tends to use all measures including religion and violence to gain its military-strategic objectives. According to Zahid Hussain, some of the militant groups were connected with the military due to the role they played in the possible resolution of the Kashmir issue or in helping GHQ Rawalpindi deal with India.

Could it be that the bizarre handling of questions military, ideology and national identity were by design? After all, Maleeha Lodhi was appointed Ambassador to the USA following Gen Musharraf’s 1999 coup, and was awarded Hilal-e-Imtiaz by Gen Musharraf in 2002. According to Siddiqa, “Maleeha Lodhi’s edited volume is one of the few books that Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations’ head Maj. General Athar Abbas recommends to his visitors”.

Have you read any of these books? If so, what are your thoughts? Are there other new books on Pakistan that you like? Please share in the comments!

Taiwan, not North Korea is the right example

Pakistan and India trade

Presently, many seem to believe that we should only do business with nations like China that are less prone than their American counterparts to adding contingencies to deals, and that we should makes side deals with militant groups and belligerently refuse to improve relations with India. This is a recipe for failure. And not just economic failure, utter and complete national failure.

First, this idea that American conditionalities are somehow unique to American policy is simply not true. Consider the argument over the Kerry-Lugar bill. The actual requirements were related to not funding terrorist groups and securing our nuclear weapons. Do we honestly believe that China has no problem with militancy and nuclear proliferation?

Let’s be realistic here, please. China is not going to let us do whatever we want and simply look the other way. India is positioning itself like South Korea. They are creating strong economic ties that are the glue that holds together the world community by reducing incentives for connected nations to act against each others interests. Also please remember that they did not react to 26/11 with retaliation, but urged the world community to take notice. This is similar to the way that South Korea is not threatening unilateral action after a North Korean torpedo sank one of the South’s navy ships. Rather they are building the trust of the world community so that when the line is finally crossed, no one will come to the aid of the North Koreans. We learned from the Wikileaks cables that China is even ready to abandon North Korea and accept reunification of the Korean peninsula under Seoul.

This actually makes sense for China. Even if China is not trying to export their ideology, it wants to export something else. Chinese trade with South Korea has been growing at a record pace, with South Korea importing $323.1 billion in goods from China, and China importing $365.3 billion from South Korea. Why would China be willing to sacrifice such economic progress for the North Koreans? Answer: They won’t.

So what does that have to do with us? Let me tell you.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is not on a three-day visit to India to sample the panipoori. Actually, he is there to oversee the signing of billions of dollars in business deals. According to The Wall Street Journal, Wen expects companies from China and India to sign $16 billion worth of agreements during his trip – that’s more than double the total amount of trade between Pakistan and China, and eight times the amount of trade between India and Pakistan. He said he expects bilateral merchandise trade to surpass $60 billion for this year. India and China are moving beyond the Cold War mentality of East/West blocs and working within the 21st century framework that involves nations connected by shared economic and security interests. Nations that are not part of this framework include North Korea, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. I don’t want to be part of the second group.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. Raza Rumi made the point perfectly on his blog a few weeks ago that we can increase our own influence and improve our own country by taking the path not of North Korea, but Taiwan.

China and Taiwan are sworn enemies. In 2009, the total volume of their trade was 110 billion dollars. India’s trade is expanding with China, and the current volume is nearly 60 billion dollars per annum. On the other hand, the total volume of formal trade between India and Pakistan is around a billion dollars. What does this say about keeping rational economic interest over emotional narratives of nationalism and politics? The politics and troubled past has ruined South Asia’s present and potentially its future. It is time to review the situation and reverse this trend.

This makes sense for reasons related to both economics and security. The economic benefits are obvious. Again quoting Raza Rumi:

For centuries trade has taken place in the region. Today the routes between the two Punjab[s], between Karachi and Mumbai and from Rajasthan and Gujarat into rural Sindh are still valid. Asad Sayeed, a reputed economist based in Karachi states that if normal trade resumes, “regional economic benefits that can accrue on either side will have a multiplier effect.” In fact informal trade that takes place is unknown but quite significant. Yasir Khan writing for The News (July 10, 2010) also highlighted the World Bank estimates of 2002 whereby Indo-Pak trade could expand Pakistan’s Gross National Product by 1.8%. Khan also quoted a study by Peterson Institute of International Economics which estimated informal trade between two countries in the range of $3 billion per annum. The potential therefore is immense.

India will also gain as Pakistan will provide a viable land route for its trade with Central Asia. Most importantly, given India’s energy deficits, normal trade will meet its energy demands and Pakistan can make impressive gains in foreign revenues through rents. It has already been estimated some years ago by the State Bank of Pakistan that the proposed gas pipeline to India could make us earn upto 700 millions dollars per annum.

Now consider the security benefits. While some elements in India may retain outdated resentments and harbor designs on Pakistani sovereignty, belligerent behaviour only feeds them. North Korea may have nuclear weapons, but it has demonstrated that this is not enough to ensure that anyone treats you with respect. Look at what it has bought them – a starving population, crumbling infrastructure, political and diplomatic isolation…and even their so-called ‘friend’ China is ready to cut them loose.

Taiwan, on the other hand, has played its cards differently. Like Pakistan, Taiwan has a long history of colonial rule followed by nationalist martial law. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Taiwan shifted to a more stable democratic government. But once they did, things have looked up. By joining the world community of democratic nations, Taiwan earned protection from the Americans. But more importantly, they have developed trade agreements that benefit both countries economically, while also greatly reducing the chance of any aggression between the two states.

Trade between Pakistan and India is a mere $2 billion. That’s about the same as the amount of trade between China and North Korea. Though they have had a rough history filled with mutual suspicion and disrespect, trade between China and Taiwan today totals more than $110 billion each year and continues to grow.

When you do the math, the direction Pakistan should take is obvious.

Raza Rumi: Strategic Grandeur

Raza RumiThe following column is by Raza Rumi.

As if Pakistan’s domestic woes were not troubling, the unravelling of the US strategy and its implications are eluding even the best of strategists. Mind you, Pakistan is a place every third person is a ‘strategy’ expert and the term ‘strategic’, thanks to the militarisation of the Pakistani mind, is an ever-popular reference. The ideological domination of Pakistan’s discourse is a palpable reality. This is why, across the political spectrum one finds a sense of victory over the failure of US strategy in Afghanistan. This failure is interpreted as the validation of Pakistan’s ‘genuine’ and ‘legitimate’ interest in Afghanistan.

What has worried me most in recent weeks is the capitulation of the liberal-secular chatterati to this pop-discourse of military war games. One is not surprised when former generals and the hawkish hordes of former Foreign Office mandarins express their jubilation. But when supposedly rational and progressive experts pontificate about how ‘we’ have made ‘them’ fail, it is simply shocking.

This identification of Pakistani nationalism and patriotism with the invasion of Kabul through proxies is a strange phenomenon. If I am not being too cynical, national pride, even in the jingoistic confines of nation-state narratives, has several other dimensions which are simply ignored. Those who are celebrating the US/Nato withdrawal (full or partial) are prima facie ignorant of the grave consequences of a Taliban regime in southern Afghanistan. Three questions are of import. First, whether the delinking of Afghani Taliban will take place in actual terms or not. Second, where would the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan be within the cooperation matrix; and third, what will happen to the larger issue of extremism and sectarianism in Pakistan?

Thus far, these three issues remain unaddressed. The Jekyll-Hyde nature of state engagement with the issue of militancy is not sustainable. Above all, Pakistan’s tottering democracy is going to be further strained if the tide of Talibanisation gets out of control. This is where we find the policy debate unimaginative and regurgitating the national security fables, removed from the long-term interests of Pakistan. We need to reassess state priorities. Our economy is in doldrums due to the refusal of Pakistan’s elites to pay taxes and their perennial squandering of public resources. Our youth is directionless, trapped in outdated collapsing education systems that do not provide skills. And jobs are not keeping pace with the demand. Sectarianism is now embedded in the social fabric and extremism has acquired legitimacy under the dominant ideology of global political Islam. In these circumstances, ruling Kabul to contain the enemy — India — is hardly something to celebrate. If anything, Pakistan’s economy will get a boost through regional economic cooperation. But these concerns are marginal to mainstream strategic thinking. In fact, strategy is now a reflection of an adhoc, short-term view of military might and dominance.

Pakistan is under attack from within. Its geostrategic location, admittedly, makes it difficult to focus exclusively on domestic imperatives. How can the good Taliban in the neighbourhood be good for the country? We are in an intractable situation, victims of our history and geography. Most importantly, we are victims of our own delusions of grandeur. Any change will have to re-engineer the Pakistani mind and disarm it of martial narratives. A tall order, but without achieving this our downward slide will continue and is likely to accelerate once the Americans start pulling out and our strategic assets march on to reclaim the depth we had gained in the 1990s.

Are we condemned to repeat history? Only time will tell.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2010.



Raza Rumi: A step towards a progressive Pakistan

Raza RumiAsma Jahangir’s victory in the Supreme Court Bar Association elections is a momentous event in the country’s political and legal landscape. Even the worst of her critics grudgingly admit that her principled stance has remained consistent in a country where intellectual honesty and integrity are in short supply. More importantly, her reasoned approach to recent bouts of judicial activism has been a source of strength for stakeholders in the democratic process. Almost every progressive Pakistani has been overjoyed with her election as head of a professional body which was on the verge of losing its credibility due to indulgence in partisan politics.

Since the lawyers’ movement created a stir in 2007, the bars had started to assume the role of a political party with an exaggerated notion of their power. Instead of focusing on what ailed legal education and the maligned profession, the regulators had turned into rowdy mobs, televangelists and spokespersons of the free and restored judges. Encouraged, a Supreme Court judge reportedly remarked how ‘popular will’ was above the Constitution. The pinnacle of this approach was the judgment in the NRO case. Asma Jahangir and a few other sensible lawyers highlighted the problematic aspects of the verdict. This was a game-changer and Jahangir was at the centre of this rational discourse.

Her detractors, which are many in a radicalised, post-jihad Pakistan, construed her independent view as affiliation with the government. This limited understanding of her persona and principles, ignoring nearly four decades of activism, was disingenuous at best. The tirade against her by a few zealots in the media even on the day of the election will go down in history as a shameful episode. Positioning her as an opponent of the judiciary was simply untenable as she has always been at the forefront of movements calling for an independent judiciary and democratic governance. Of course, the majority of senior lawyers have proved the media non-gurus wrong by discarding their biased rants.

Pakistan’s fragile democracy is compromised and corrupt; it can only evolve if adequate space is provided by the power players. Asma’s success comes at a time when a courageous voice, free of corporate interests, is required. Above all, her election is also significant for she is the first woman to hold this office, having defeated a wide coalition of right-wing lawyers who even used the Khatam-e Nabuwwat card to demolish her image and credentials.

Asma Jahangir has faced threats to her life and remains undaunted. She is the conscience of Pakistan and her international acclaim is based on her steadfastness, which our bigots wish to ignore. An Urdu columnist called her a danger to Islam and now the usual black-coated suspects are levelling charges that the government injected resources into her campaign. Obviously they have lost their control over the apex bar body and know that Asma will be a fearless and independent leader. They can worry for their agendas but liberal, democratic Pakistanis are rejoicing this much needed respite in the gloomy times that we live in.

This column by Raza Rumi was originally published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2010.