Friday, 30 November 2018

Imran Khan - The first 100 days

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Prime Minister Imran Khan is being hauled over the coals for failing to match words with deeds in his first 100 days in office. Indeed, he has made a laughing stock of himself by justifying 19 controversial decisions and 35 U-Turns so far as tactical policy befitting “great leaders” like Hitler and Napoleon. Since he wittingly proposed the 100-day yardstick to measure his government’s performance, he has only himself to blame for this media onslaught.

The most urgent item on PM Imran Khan’s agenda is related to the crisis in the economy manifested by a yawning gap in the balance of payments, falling forex reserves and a plummeting rupee. As opposition leader, he had thundered endlessly against crawling to the IMF or foreign countries for financial bailouts. Instead, he had pinned his hopes on billions in donations from overseas Pakistanis and tens of billions from unearthing black money stashed abroad. The problem arose when, after assuming office, he persisted in his delusionary approach, and the situation went from bad to worse. When his finance minister, Asad Umar, dared to baulk, he was forced to eat his words. It was only when the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, “launched” himself purposefully that Imran Khan reluctantly packed his achkan, dragged himself off to Saudi Arabia and China with bowl in hand, and Asad Umar sat down to engage the IMF, both making a bald-faced virtue out of necessity.

But even this belated dawning of “wisdom” has failed to yield the desired results. China is not even ready to reveal the nature of its help. The Saudis have made an insignificant deposit that doesn’t tally with the tall expectations of government. And the IMF delegation has returned to Washington without any commitment, leaving the PM and his FM wringing their hands in despair.

The second item related to the efficient and honest functioning of government. On that score, there is even more confusion and contradiction. Parliament cannot function properly without consensual committees to steer legal reforms and oversee public accounts. But the hounding of the opposition parties at the behest of the interior ministry and civil-military “agencies” directed by Imran Khan himself has log-jammed the core committees. Worse, the PM’s intent to run Punjab from Bani Gala via a weak chief minister in a sea of cunning contenders for power like the Punjab Governor and the Speaker of the Provincial Assembly, has deadlocked the bureaucracy and administration. The rapid postings and transfers of high and low officials at one power broker’s behest or another’s has led to lack of direction and motivation.

The third agenda item is foreign policy. Here, too, the government’s stumbling is embarrassing. When the need of the hour is to keep the American beast at bay so that it doesn’t waylay the IMF on its way to Pakistan or lean on the Saudis to put pressure on us, Imran Khan has tried to win cheap brownie points at home by counter-tweeting President Trump. On the Afghanistan front, the war of words and proxy terrorism continues unabated even as Islamabad vows to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Now Pakistan’s reopening of the Kartarpur corridor to the Sikh shrine of Baba Guru Nanak is being billed as some sort of “peace breakthrough” in Indo-Pak relations. It is nothing of the sort. Like the IMF, China and Saudi Arabia “openings”, this initiative comes courtesy General Bajwa whose bear hug of Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu at Imran Khan’s oath taking ceremony in Islamabad put Indian PM Narendra Modi and Punjab state CM Amarinder Singh in a tight corner. Neither politician’s prospects are too bright in the forthcoming elections in Punjab state next year. Therefore, they have reluctantly yielded to the Pakistani proposal only to curry favour with tens of millions of devout Sikhs. It is a tactical and short term concession as the hard, anti-Pakistan statements from Amarinder Singh and the Indian FM Sushma Swaraj, coupled with PM Modi’s refusal to attend the SAARC summit for the third year running, prove. Indeed, even as the Kartarpur protocol was being signed, proxy terrorists were taking a toll at the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, SP Tahir Dawar’s murdered body was being handed over to the Pak authorities at the Afghan border, suicide bombers were striking in the lower Orakzai Agency and India’s brutal repression in Held Kashmir showed no sign of abating.

On the Pakistan side, too, General Bajwa’s initiative is tactical, aimed only at reducing current Indian hostility – in the form of armed conflict along the LoC and proxy terrorism across the country – that destabilizes Pakistan and makes Imran Khan’s job of focusing on government difficult. This is the same Miltablishment that winked at the Labaiq Ya Rasul Allah during Nawaz Sharif’s time and crushed it in Imran Khan’s, the same that kicked Nawaz out for wanting to promote peace with India and is propping up Imran now at Kartarpur.

The Miltablishment has put all its eggs in Imran Khan’s basket. It will take more than 100 days of incompetence to shake its faith in their chosen man.


Bombs or Bread?

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times 16 Nov 2018

As we all know, the civil-military relationship in Nawaz Sharif’s time was severely strained. Among the factors often cited are Mr Sharif’s dogged pursuit of ex-army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, for the treasonable coup of 1999; his rush to “befriend” the hawkish Indian PM, Narendra Modi, without clearing the tactics and strategy with the Miltablishment; the “misuse” of the Pakistan-based jihadis in the proxy war with India, that led to the altercation reported in “Dawnleaks”; and Mr Sharif’s refusal to give the Miltablishment a seat at the roundtable determining CPEC projects and contracts.

But in a recent TV interview, Ishaq Dar, the ex-PMLN Finance Minister, has made a startling admission. He alluded to the issue of increasing defense budgets as the most significant area of conflict between the PMLN government and the Miltablishment. It appears that the Miltablishment wanted “more” money for new weapons systems because of the rising security threat from India but the PMLN government was strapped for funds and declined to do the needful.

The “Defense Budget” remains a sore point with every elected civilian government. At one time, it hovered around 30% of all budgetary expenditures and became grist for critics’ mills. So the Musharraf government cunningly took out military pensions from the Defense Budget and clubbed them with government expenditures, thereby reducing its weight as a percentage of budget expenditures and making it more palatable. When Coalition Fund Support from the US kicked in during the war against terrorism in FATA, it was also toted up outside the ambit of the Defense Budget. It has now become normal practice to post an increase of approximately 10 percent every year over actual expenditures for defense in the preceding year whilst beefing up the defense spending in supplementary budgets during the rest of the year, in effect giving the military much more than a 10% increase. The low levels of budgetary revenue collection and consequent government expenditures have also made defense budgets look overly inflated in percentage terms, especially in relation to India.

The security concerns of the Pak military have increased manifold for three main reasons. First, the aggressive nature of the Modi regime with its constant threat of “strategic strikes” across the LoC and its support of proxy war against Pakistan from non-state actors based in Afghanistan. Second, the perennial threat from its Cold Start Doctrine, now baptized afresh as Pro-Active Operations. Third, India is shopping for advanced weapons systems, the foremost being its proposed purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf long-range, anti-missile system for over US$5.5 billion which is viewed in Islamabad as a major new threat. Now India has commissioned its first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, armed with a 750km range submarine launched missile fitted with a nuclear warhead. Both these acquisitions are going to compel Pakistan to seek expensive equivalent systems to redress the security imbalance.

In other words, the Pakistan military will want lots more money going forward. The problem is that Pakistan’s economy has been failing and increasingly unable to bear this burden. Therefore, the choice of “bombs or bread” is bound to echo ever more furiously in the corridors of power, leading to renewed strains in civil-military relations and political instability that will in turn hamstring economic development and further strain the budget. When will this vicious circle end to create space for poverty alleviation, education, health, human resource development, etc.?

By definition, a “national security state” like Pakistan with a “permanent” and powerful enemy on its border like India requires a high level of defense preparedness. This is testified by the four wars, countless border skirmishes, and reciprocal proxy-terrorisms between the two in the last 70 years. Ostensibly, the root cause is the unresolved dispute over Kashmir. But we need to ask and answer some pertinent questions here.

How have many countries resolved similar border and territorial disputes in modern times without resorting to wars and proxy-terrorism? Which of the two is the originator of the wars in the subcontinent, regardless of the political provocation by the other? Why has the nuclearisation of the subcontinent spurred the conventional arms race instead of freezing it as originally argued? Who is hurting the most from this arms race, not just in financial terms but also in the cost to representative democracy of an overbearing political-military industrial complex that has created violent non-state actors at home to retain its political hegemony? Why is such a national security state unable to fully exploit Pakistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of three civilisations and markets – South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle-East – instead of replacing the yoke of one declining super power by that of another rising one? Why do we subscribe to the notion of a permanent enemy instead of a permanent peace in the national interest?

The USSR put a man in space and built over 10,000 nuclear bombs but couldn’t put enough bread on its shelves to feed its people. The arms race destroyed it. There are lessons in this for Pakistan.

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